College Basketball Nation: observations 020913

Don’t change the channel. Ever.

In this sport, one last-minute switch could cost you. You might miss something epic, monumental. A classic.

I nearly did. Notre Dame had lost after all. Or so I thought. We all thought.

[+] EnlargeJerian Grant
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsA 12-point flurry in the final minute by Jerian Grant, right, got Notre Dame into OT with Louisville.
Right as I grabbed the remote, though, Fighting Irish wing Jerian Grant grabbed his cape.

After going 0-for-6 from the field up to that point, he scored 12 points in the final 47 seconds of regulation. Beast mode.

So a first overtime. And then another. And another. And another. And another.

The first five-overtime game in college basketball in four years. Notre Dame was down by eight points with 50 seconds to play and yet the Irish won 104-101 in five overtimes.

My observation? Wow. That’s my observation. Should be yours, too.

Two teams battled and battled and battled. They fouled out. Eight of them in fact. Notre Dame lost Jack Cooley and Grant. Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng eventually fouled out for Louisville.

Reserves who hadn’t played had to play. Grab the media guide. “Who’s that guy?” Garrick Sherman isn't a complete unknown, but he had scored just six combined points in ND's last five games. He didn't play a second in regulation tonight, but still finished with 17 points and 6 rebounds. That's about all you need to know about this one.

But just in case you want some more fun facts:

  • Louisville and Notre Dame combined to shoot 97 free throws (48 for UL and 49 for ND).
  • The teams had the same amount of 3-point attempts (25) and offensive boards (19).
  • The two teams took a total of 158 shots and 10 players scored in double figures.
  • It was the longest game in Big East regular-season history.
  • Eight players fouled out, but six players played 50-plus minutes.

I’m excited, thrilled and exhausted. I can’t imagine how the combatants in both locker rooms feel right now.

Both groups deserve kudos because we all won.

Some other observations from Saturday night’s games:

  1. Bruce Weber deserves more buzz as a national coach of the year candidate. I remember Weber’s final news conference at Illinois. His former team had just lost in the Big Ten tournament. Weber stood among a fleet of reporters and tried to hold back tears. He was unsuccessful. It was certainly one of the most emotional postgame press events I’ve ever attended. He was terminated a few days later. But how do you like Bruce Weber now? In a matter of months, he’s gone from the guy who couldn’t elevate the Fighting Illini to a level that appeased administrators and supporters to a man who’s guided Kansas State to first place (8-2) in the Big 12. The No. 13 Wildcats’ 79-70 victory was a gritty win -- their fourth in a row -- against an Iowa State squad that’s played its way into the at-large conversation. The Cyclones looked like a tourney team (49 percent from the field, 44 percent from behind the 3-point line). But the Wildcats played like champs, hours after Kansas suffered its third consecutive loss. They forced 18 turnovers and went 9-for-18 from beyond the arc. Rodney McGruder and Angel Rodriguez combined to score 42 points in the perfect setup for Monday’s rivalry game at Kansas.
  2. Steven Adams’ development is the most important development in the Big East race. I’m not sure we solved anything within the Big East on Saturday. We know that the conference has a bunch of good teams. Notre Dame and Louisville settled things in five overtimes. Marquette beat DePaul. Georgetown defeated Rutgers. But there’s not much separation at the top. With weeks remaining in the regular season, I wouldn’t be surprised if three or four squads finished with the title. That’s why I think Adams’ offensive development could be a major factor in the title hunt. On Saturday, Pittsburgh's freshman 7-footer finished with 13 points and four blocks. He was an offensive and defensive presence for the No. 23 Panthers, who held No. 17 Cincy to a 30.8 percent clip in a 62-52 win. In a league with a group of teams that are so close to one another, Adams' offensive growth is a factor. Pitt is good enough to win the rest of its games, especially with its final three matchups against squads (Villanova, South Florida and DePaul) that have combined to win eight conference games.
  3. I don’t trust New Mexico. The Lobos are ranked 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. They’re second in the Mountain West in scoring defense (59.2 points per game). They have wins over Cincy, UNLV and Connecticut. But they’re also very unpredictable. They scored just 23 points in the first half of a 64-55 road loss to UNLV. The loss wasn’t that surprising given the Runnin’ Rebels’ diminished hopes of a MWC title. They were hungry. But every time I watch the Lobos, I see a different team. One night, I watch a program that justifies its first-place standing in the league. The next night, they seem disinterested. With seven or eight games left for the teams in the conference, I still don’t have a favorite. But I think the Lobos have the most complete squad, the team that should win it. But their inconsistent effort and execution makes it hard to latch onto that notion.
  4. Michigan State finally looks like a Tom Izzo team. Road wins are scarce, even among the top 25. So the Spartans’ 78-65 victory at Purdue wasn’t insignificant. But Michigan State was tough in a hostile venue. And it held on. When I saw MSU in Minneapolis on Dec. 31, the Spartans just didn’t display the toughness that I’d witnessed with past Izzo teams. They just weren’t feisty enough. I had my doubts. But they’ve matured. The veterans have stepped up. And they’re playing the physical style that’s fueled past success within the program. With that attitude, these Spartans can win the Big Ten championship.
  5. What’s happening in the Missouri Valley? Good question. Remember when No. 16 Creighton looked like the favorite for the conference title? Well on Saturday, the Bluejays lost 75-72 at home to Illinois State. The same Illinois State team that lost its first six MVC games. Indiana State beat Southern Illinois by one. Wichita State snapped a three-game losing streak with a 29-point win over Missouri State. Wichita State, Indiana State and Creighton are locked in a three-way tie for first place (each have 9-4 MVC records). Another wacky weekend for this league. Wow.

Observations from Saturday afternoon

February, 9, 2013

Kansas coach Bill Self was in the postgame handshake line after his team’s 72-66 loss to Oklahoma when he looked up and saw hundreds of students rushing the Lloyd Noble Center court.

His lips didn’t move, but as he tilted back his head and rolled his eyes, it was obvious what Self must’ve been thinking.

“Are you serious?”

A victory over Kansas hardly seems like a big deal these days -- or at least not monumental enough for a court-storming. Saturday’s setback against the Sooners marked the third consecutive loss for the Jayhawks. And it came just three days after a defeat against last-place TCU that some are calling one of the biggest upsets in decades.

KU certainly played better Saturday than it did against the Horned Frogs, but this is still a team that looks mentally frazzled and out of sorts, which is almost unthinkable for a Self-coached team. Point guard Elijah Johnson missed a pair of easy layups in the waning minutes, and small forward Travis Releford shot a 3-pointer that barely nicked the front of the rim.

Even worse was that a KU squad known for its defense allowed a good-but-not-great Oklahoma team to shoot 45 percent from the field. Because of it the Jayhawks -- who have won eight straight Big 12 titles -- are now toting three losses in a row for the first time since 2005.

[+] EnlargeGeron Johnson
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsGeron Johnson's 25 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists led Memphis to its 14th win in a row.
Things won’t get any easier for Kansas on Monday, when No. 13 Kansas State visits Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks defeated the Wildcats 59-55 in Manhattan on Jan. 22, but the two programs have gone in opposite directions since then.

Here are a few other observations from Saturday’s afternoon games:

1. It might be time to consider putting Memphis back in the top 25. Josh Pastner’s squad picked up a huge victory Saturday by defeating Southern Miss on the road 89-76. The Golden Eagles are considered the second-best team in Conference USA behind Memphis, which hasn’t lost since falling to Louisville on Dec. 15.

The Tigers are 20-3 overall and 9-0 in Conference USA. I realize Memphis doesn’t have a ton of quality wins. But Pastner can’t control what league his team is in -- and at least the Tigers haven’t lost games they’re not supposed to lose, like seemingly every other team in the country. There’s something to be said for avoiding upsets, especially when everyone is gunning for you as the top team in your conference. Memphis’ only three losses are to Minnesota, VCU and Louisville. The Tigers host the conference’s other top team (UCF) on Wednesday.

2. The teams that pulled the two biggest upsets in the country this week didn’t exactly capitalize on the momentum. Arkansas, which whipped No. 2 Florida 80-69 on Tuesday, got embarrassed at Vanderbilt, 67-49. Three days after toppling Kansas, TCU was back to its old ways in a 63-50 home loss to West Virginia.

3. Georgetown coach John Thompson III doesn’t get nearly enough credit. The Hoyas’ 69-63 victory over Rutgers marked their seventh win in their past eight games. Included in that stretch are wins against Notre Dame and Louisville and two victories over a red-hot St. John’s squad.

Each year, Georgetown seems to lose stars to the NBA draft or seasoned veterans to graduation. But Thompson always responds. He always has guys ready to step in. Heck, this Georgetown team lost its second-leading scorer and rebounder (Greg Whittington) to academics midway through the season -- and the Hoyas got better. The man is an excellent coach, plain and simple.

4. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan needs to send Ben Brust a thank-you card -- or, at the very least, he could ease up on him during the next round of conditioning drills.

Brust’s desperation 3-pointer from just past half court forced overtime against No. 3 Michigan on Saturday, and the Badgers capitalized with a 65-62 win. Brust also saved Ryan from what would’ve been a slew of criticism for not fouling on the previous possession with the score tied. Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. made the Badgers pay with a 3-pointer that made it 60-57 with less than three ticks remaining. Wisconsin had fouls to give. If the Badgers would’ve lost that game, Ryan would’ve been crucified.

But Brust saved his coach moments later with the heave that gave his team new life. Wisconsin has now won four of its past five games. Its past two victories have come in overtime. Another great stat: Wisconsin has won six of its past seven home games against top-five opponents. Amazing.

5. Texas point guard Myck Kabongo will take the court for the first time Wednesday after a 23-game suspension for illicit dealings with an agent. At this point I’m not sure Kabongo will make much of a difference for a Longhorns squad mired in its worst season in recent memory.

Rick Barnes’ team shot just 39 percent from the field in its 72-59 home loss to Oklahoma State and missed 17 of its 18 attempts from beyond the arc. Texas also went 12 of 21 from the foul stripe. Barnes has been questioning the Longhorns’ effort all season, and it will likely take more than the return of Kabongo -- who was mediocre as a freshman -- to get things right.

At 10-13 overall and 2-8 in the Big 12, Texas is almost certain to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in Barnes’ 15 seasons.

6. Less than 48 hours after losing at Texas A&M, Missouri turned in its best performance of the season in a 98-79 victory over Ole Miss.

My initial reaction is, so what?

The Tigers have been winning home games all season. But they’ve looked like a completely different team on the road, where their lack of toughness and poor decision-making (particularly by point guard Phil Pressey) have been alarming. Losses at LSU and Texas A&M are flat out inexcusable considering the talent gap between Missouri and those two teams.

Still, I saw things Saturday that made me think the Tigers’ victory over Ole Miss was more than just another home win. Three players (Pressey, Alex Oriakhi and Keion Bell) scored 20 or more points, and Oriakhi had 18 rebounds against a Rebels squad that spanked Missouri less than a month ago in Oxford. Missouri had only nine turnovers and shot 47 percent from the field.

If Bell becomes a bigger contributor and if Pressey (only one turnover Saturday) turns the corner, we may look back on Saturday’s Ole Miss win as a pivotal moment in Missouri’s season. Frank Haith’s squad should be high on confidence after this one.

7. During his time at Kansas and North Carolina, Roy Williams has rarely had teams that built their reputation on defense. But the 2012-13 Tar Heels have been particularly bad on that end of the floor.

Miami shot 54.4 percent from the field in Saturday’s 87-61 victory and went 15 of 26 from 3-point range.

North Carolina has allowed an average of 79.6 points per game in its seven losses. In five of those games, the opponent scored more than 80 points. The Tar Heels need to get tougher.