College Basketball Nation: observations 022313

A few observations from another intriguing Saturday night of college basketball…

Kentucky stepped up in the most important game of its season. Prior to Saturday’s Missouri-Kentucky matchup, the SEC had already completed multiple exciting games earlier in the day. LSU beat Alabama in triple overtime. Georgia defeated South Carolina in overtime. And Tennessee outplayed Texas A&M in quadruple overtime. But Kentucky and Missouri delivered in the conference’s most significant matchup. After losing Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury, the Wildcats lost to Tennessee by 30 points. Season over, right? I mean, that team competed like a team that just wanted the season to end. Kentucky didn’t do anything that a squad should do when it’s trying to convince the selection committee that it’s worthy of an NCAA tournament bid. I had no faith in this group. The Wildcats, however, silenced some of their critics with their overtime win against Missouri at Rupp Arena on Saturday. The 90-83 victory might help UK get into the field of 68 -- and the Cats might have changed the trajectory of their entire season with the gutsy win. Julius Mays led the Wildcats (four reached double figures) with 24 points. By the end of the game, he could barely walk. Kentucky had earned that exhaustion. Missouri, meanwhile, earned criticism. More criticism. Once again, the Tigers collapsed on the road. They were up by 13 points in the first half, and then they unraveled. They always do outside Columbia, it seems. Phil Pressey's costly turnover with 48 seconds remaining in overtime summed up Mizzou’s entire season: talent marred by mistakes and chemistry issues. In the end, a Tigers team comprised of veterans lost to a group of raw youngsters which graduated from high school a year ago. Give Kentucky credit. Doubt the Tigers.

Health will be Florida’s top concern in March. The Gators proved that they’re still a high-powered team when they bullied Arkansas 71-54 on Saturday. Florida’s loss to Missouri -- and an earlier loss at Arkansas -- sparked questions about Billy Donovan’s program, but the Gators have been one of the nation’s most dominant teams all season. And their successes outweigh their stumbles. In March, they’re not going to run into many teams that can handle their backcourt and Patric Young (14 points, 7 rebounds and a block on Saturday). What about their health? Michael Frazier II suffered a concussion in the victory over the Razorbacks. Erik Murphy tweaked an ankle this week. Will Yeguete is out with a knee injury. Donovan’s program hasn’t been 100 percent in a long time. That’s a concern now and as March Madness approaches. A healthy Gators team can contend with any program in the country. There will be less certainty, however, if Florida enters the NCAA tournament at anything less than 100 percent.

[+] EnlargeMouphtaou Yarou
P Photo/H. Rumph JrMouphtaou Yarou throws down a pair of his 10 points in Nova's upset of Marquette.

I don’t understand Villanova, but I like its style. Check Villanova’s résumé. Confused? You should be. The Wildcats have been swept by Providence. They have a nonconference loss to Columbia. Alabama beat them by 22 points in the first half of the season. But the Wildcats also have recent victories over Louisville and Syracuse. They’re 7-9 against the RPI top 100 but 3-1 against its top 25. Still, the Wildcats had zero guarantees entering Saturday’s matchup with a Marquette team that was locked in a three-way tie for first place in the Big East, and they played like a team that recognized its predicament. And I dig that. I mean, don’t expect a bid. Take one. And that’s what Villanova may have done with Saturday’s victory. Mouphtaou Yarou finished with 10 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals and an assist in his final game at The Pavilion. Yarou and his teammates (Darrun Hilliard led all scorers with 22 points) fought. Marquette (19 turnovers) made a late push, but it couldn’t overcome the Wildcats’ lead. Villanova’s résumé is not perfect, but you can’t tell me that the Wildcats aren’t playing like a tourney team right now.

Saint Mary’s is doing what it can. The Gaels entered their home game against Creighton in a bubble situation. Their one problem all year? Gonzaga. The Zags are five steps beyond the rest of the league, and the West Coast Conference doesn’t offer any other true quality opponents (BYU is OK, I guess). So Saturday’s home game against a Creighton team that looked like a lock for the tourney was crucial for the Gaels. Saint Mary's toyed with the Bluejays in a 74-66 win. That’s what a team in SMC's situation should do. The Gaels can’t enhance the WCC in the coming weeks, but they can win convincingly in their toughest remaining matchups. Saturday was a good start. It also proves that the Missouri Valley Conference is not as good as many expected it to be. A few weeks ago, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall told me that the Valley was like a “mini-Big Ten,” and I agreed with him. At the time, Indiana State, Creighton, and Wichita State were all tourney teams. Not today. Creighton has struggled on the road in MVC play. The Bluejays could lose to Bradley next week and then stumble in the conference tourney. And now a mid-major conference that appeared to possess three bids could enter Selection Sunday with one lock (Wichita State) and a Creighton team sitting on the bubble.

  • I believe in Trae Golden and Jarnell Stokes. The duo has fueled Tennessee’s five-game winning streak. On Saturday, Golden (32 points) and Stokes (20 points, 16 rebounds) -- along with Jordan McRae (23 points) -- led the Vols to a 93-85 four-overtime road win over Texas A&M. The SEC is a very lukewarm league. Most teams have suffered surprising road losses. Few have compiled impressive runs. But Tennessee is playing its best basketball right now. There are no guarantees in the SEC tourney. The Vols aren’t in the dance right now, but they could be in a few weeks.
  • What a week for Cal. The Bears held off Oregon State for a 60-59 win on Saturday. On Thursday, Justin Cobbs hit a shot in the final seconds to seal his team's two-point victory over Oregon. Cal has won five in row. With three games left, the Bears still in the mix for the Pac-12 title.

Saturday afternoon observations

February, 23, 2013
Here are 10 observations I made while channel-surfing Saturday afternoon.

  1. [+] EnlargeKendall Williams
    Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsKendall Williams was locked in Saturday, hitting 12 of 16 shots en route to 46 points.
    New Mexico’s 91-82, come-from-behind victory over Colorado State was the most entertaining game of the afternoon -- and it also featured the best performance not just of the day, but arguably of the entire season. New Mexico junior guard Kendall Williams made 10 of his 13 attempts from 3-point range en route to a career-high 46 points as the Lobos snapped CSU’s 27-game home winning streak. At 10-2 in the Mountain West, New Mexico now has a two-game lead over the Rams (8-4) in the conference standings. These teams are not who you want to play in the NCAA tournament. Even in the loss, Colorado State looked more than worthy of its No. 22 national ranking. But the No. 16 Lobos were more resilient Saturday, fighting back from a six-point deficit with six minutes remaining thanks to Williams, who entered the game averaging just 13.1 points. That New Mexico was able to rally in such a tough environment is a credit to Lobos coach Steve Alford, who is on pace to win his fourth MWC title in five seasons. Alford’s name will surely be mentioned during the offseason coaching carousel, but I think it’d take a phenomenal offer to get him to leave Albuquerque. He’s well compensated, adores that part of the country, will have both of his sons on the roster next season and is beloved by the fan base. Why leave?
  2. Miami point guard Shane Larkin had a great quote after his Hurricanes lost 80-65 at Wake Forest on Saturday. “Who ever thought Miami beating Wake Forest at home would cause a court-rushing scene?” Larkin said. Given that history has more often seen Miami near the bottom of the ACC standings and Wake Forest near the top, the point was a valid one. The excitement Demon Deacons fans showed over beating the No. 2 Hurricanes was a testament to just how far Miami’s program has come under second-year coach Jim Larranaga. The question now is how far it will fall. Miami, which saw its 14-game winning streak snapped, lost for the first time in ACC play and is now 22-4 overall and 13-1 in conference. Miami might also have a difficult time holding on to its projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament; another loss could all but negate that possibility. Miami plays three of its final four games at home, but a March 2 tilt at Duke will be tough to win. In some ways, Saturday’s loss shouldn’t have been all that surprising, as the Hurricanes had been playing with fire in recent weeks. Their previous three victories had come by a combined 12 points. Included in that stretch was a four-point win over Virginia and a two-point victory over Clemson. It all caught up to the Hurricanes Saturday at Wake Forest. “We weren’t prepared to play the game, and they came out and punched us in the mouth,” Larkin said.
  3. Speaking of Miami, if the Hurricanes put Saturday’s loss behind them and win the ACC as expected, I’ll have no problem if Larrranaga is named national coach of the year. But some folks are acting as if the race for that award is already over, that Larranaga is a shoo-in. I disagree. What if Marquette wins the Big East title a year after losing Darius-Johnson Odom and Jae Crowder (and replacing them with basically nothing)? I think that’d be a bigger accomplishment than Miami winning the ACC -- the Big East is a much tougher league -- so I’d vote for Buzz Williams. John Thompson III will have a case, too, if Georgetown wins the Big East crown. His team lost second-leading scorer and leading rebounder Greg Whittington in December and actually got better. And, oh yeah, the Hoyas lost their three leading scorers (Jason Clark, Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims) from last season. What if K-State snaps Kansas’ streak of eight consecutive Big 12 titles and wins its first conference championship since 1977? Wouldn’t Bruce Weber be a candidate -- especially considering this is his first season in Manhattan? I think so. Then there’s Jim Crews at Saint Louis and Gregg Marshall at Wichita State. This race is hardly over. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
  4. Every time I post something on Twitter about how impressed I am with the Memphis Tigers, the responses are always the same. They play in a weak league. Who have they beaten? Just wait until the NCAA tournament. Something tells me the folks saying these things haven’t watched Memphis play in recent weeks. Saturday’s 89-73 victory over Southern Miss marked the 18th straight win for Josh Pastner’s squad. That’s impressive no matter what league you’re in. Yes, I realize Conference USA doesn’t offer up the best competition, but Southern Miss -- an NCAA tournament team a year ago -- is still darn good. So is Central Florida, which features one of the better forwards in the country in Keith Clanton. Neither of those teams has come close to beating Memphis, which is 24-3 overall and 13-0 in league play. Talent has never been an issue for the Tigers, but lately, they’ve also looked extremely well-coached. Great ball movement, good shot selection, selfless play, tons of energy. Tell me, what’s not to like? I’m not ready to peg Memphis as a Final Four team, but I’ll be disappointed if it doesn't make it to the Sweet 16.
  5. I like VCU’s team -- a lot -- but I’m not quite as high on the Rams as I was after watching them in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November. Back then, I was convinced that Shaka Smart’s squad was better than the unit that made the 2011 Final Four. I realize VCU made an incredible comeback against Xavier on Saturday, rallying from a 17-point deficit in the second half en route to a 75-71 victory. But why were the Rams down by 17 points in the first place? And if they are truly that good, why did they lose by 14 points at Saint Louis on Tuesday? It wasn’t the defeat that bothered me. It was the margin. Saint Louis is very, very good. But VCU got dominated in that game. Cuff me, officer. I’m guilty of over-hyping the Rams.
  6. The worst team in a "power six" conference is easily Mississippi State. Seriously, would someone please give first-year coach Rick Ray a big hug? I can’t remember a time when a program was this decimated by injuries, suspensions, graduations and transfers. The Bulldogs only have eight active players on their roster. Saturday’s 72-31 loss to Vanderbilt marked Mississippi State’s 12th consecutive defeat. Its 31 points were the second-fewest in Humphrey Coliseum history. It was also the lowest scoring output for MSU in the shot-clock era.
  7. I’m not ready to move him into the No. 1 slot, but I’ll definitely be elevating Georgetown forward Otto Porter into the top five of my weekly Wooden Award ballot, which is released each Wednesday. Porter scored a career-high 33 points on 12-of-19 shooting Saturday to help the Hoyas surge past Syracuse, 57-46. That’s right. Porter scored 33 of his team’s 57 points -- and he did it on the road. He also chipped in eight rebounds and five steals. There might not be a more versatile big man in college basketball.
  8. Every time I turn on a Texas Tech game, I always hear television announcers talk about what “an excellent job” interim coach Chris Walker is doing in a “tough situation.” What am I missing here? The Red Raiders are 9-16 overall and 2-12 in conference play. All but two of their league setbacks have come by double digits. On Saturday, they lost to Iowa State by 20 points, 86-66. That’s what passes for doing a good job these days? Walker inherited a tough situation, to be sure. But so did USC’s Bob Cantu, who was named interim coach last month after the school fired Kevin O’Neill. USC has gone 5-4 under Cantu. Now that’s doing a good job.
  9. One team that has quietly gotten better over the past few months is LSU, which defeated Alabama on Saturday, 97-94 in triple overtime. Johnny O’Bryant scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for the Tigers, who have won seven of their past 10 games. Sure, LSU beat some duds during that stretch, including Mississippi State (twice) and South Carolina. But there have also been victories over Missouri and Texas A&M and, of course, Saturday’s big win over Alabama. The most encouraging thing is that LSU will return virtually every key piece of this year’s team next season, including O’Bryant and guard Anthony Hickey, who leads the nation in steals with 3.2 per game.
  10. Stick a fork in Baylor. The Bears are done. Scott Drew’s squad was embarrassed in a 90-76 loss at Oklahoma on Saturday. Or, heck, maybe they didn’t feel embarrassed at all. For the past few weeks, the Bears -- who trailed 47-21 at halftime Saturday -- have hardly seemed like they care. Baylor has now lost six of its past eight games. Drew’s team is 7-7 in league play but only 1-7 against teams in the top five of the Big 12 standings. The Bears aren’t going to make the NCAA tournament, which is inexcusable for a squad that features the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year in Pierre Jackson -- who leads the conference in scoring and assists -- along with future lottery pick Isaiah Austin and one of the nation’s premier 3-point shooters in Brady Heslip. Sure, the Bears lost three players from last year’s Elite Eight squad to the NBA draft. But there are still enough pieces on this roster to have significant success during a somewhat down year for the Big 12.