College Basketball Nation: what-we-learned-120121

As good as the afternoon was, with exciting upsets and huge road wins over top-five teams, the evening may have matched it in the vital FOPM statistical category. (FOPM stands for freak outs per minute. It's a tempo-adjusted metric, naturally.) Let's lead with what may be the result of the day -- Syracuse's very first loss of the season, at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame 67, No. 1 Syracuse 58

What we learned: Nobody's perfect. OK, yeah, Murray State is still perfect, but you get the drift: Everyone loses eventually. Sooner or later, the Orange were going to have a particularly bad shooting night. Sooner or later, they were going to struggle on the road. Sooner or later, they were going to do these things against a coach and a team that had designed the perfect gameplan to take advantage of this opportunity. As it happens, that coach was Mike Brey. That team was Notre Dame.

Of course, the Fighting Irish don't have a tenth of the talent available to Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. What do the Irish have? The Burn. That's what Brey calls his team's intentionally slow, clock-killing offense, and while it isn't always the preferred strategy in South Bend, it is something the Irish keep in their back pocket when they find themselves facing a bigger, stronger, faster, more skilled, pretty-much-all-around-better opponent.

Indeed, as ESPN's Doris Burke noted late in the game, the Irish played a sort of semi-burn Saturday night. They lulled the Cuse into seven fewer possessions (61) than its average adjusted tempo (68) on the season (including a handful of late heaves when the game was out of reach), but ND was also opportunistic: When it broke SU's press, it didn't always pull out and set up the halfcourt offense. It was a clinic in opportunistic decision-making. (At one point, it ended in a contested fast-break dunk by Jack Cooley. Jack Cooley? Jack Cooley!)

Syracuse, being Syracuse, still managed to force a mess of turnovers. At several points in the second half, as Notre Dame forward Scott Martin struggled time after time to inbound the ball on his own baseline, it appeared the Irish were just a few possessions away from a late collapse. But the Orange's poor shooting (they posted a 40.0 effective field goal percentage) and ND's solid free throw shooting sealed this game in the closing moments.

Burke called it a "masterful" gameplan from Brey and, as usual, she was dead on: Notre Dame knew exactly what it needed to do to take a walk through any door Syracuse left ajar. When the time came, it executed.

Going forward, this loss may knock Syracuse out of the top spot in the rankings, but it shouldn't change the perception of this team much. First of all, the absence of leading rebounder and shot-blocker Fab Melo (due to an unresolved academic issue from the fall semester) was a blow to this team's inherent interior advantage. Second, Syracuse didn't shoot the ball well. Frankly, it didn't play well. Overreact if you like, but it's the opinion of this writer that, well, hey, these games happen.

For Syracuse, it was bound to go this way eventually. When it did, the Irish were ready.

No. 15 Mississippi State 78, Vanderbilt 77 (OT)

What we learned: The Commodores will struggle with capable frontcourts. They struggle late in close games. They struggle on the defensive end. They are, in other words, the same Vanderbilt Commodores we've come to know and love in each of the past three seasons. Their recent improvements created the notion that this team had turned some vague corner, that it was finally ready to assume the top-10, Final Four-worthy preseason expectations foisted upon them.

Instead, on Saturday, we saw the team that led us to doubt that status in the first place. Vandy yielded a 12-point second-half lead, allowed Mississippi State to score 1.14 points per possession and got vastly outrebounded on both ends of the floor. In the end, even with very good chances to win the game -- particularly the final shot in regulation, which ended up being an uncontested four-foot shot for Festus Ezeli (which he missed) -- Vanderbilt just couldn't make the key defensive plays.

In the meantime, Mississippi State deserves credit for a major road win. Forward Arnett Moultrie was brilliant (21 points, 14 rebounds, three steals, one block) and guard Dee Bost was just as good (24 points, five rebounds, four assists and a handful of key second-half shots). Even Renardo Sidney, who struggled for much of the game and suffered an injury in overtime, got in on the act, hitting a monster 3 with 1:22 remaining in the second half.

Three days ago, the Bulldogs went to rival Ole Miss and lost and looked vulnerable -- even downright overrated -- throughout. Their ability to rebound from that loss with a win on the road against a streaking Vanderbilt team, one that had won its past eight games -- including on the road at Alabama -- is to be commended. Surprising stuff, to say the least.

No. 12 UNLV 80, New Mexico 63

What we learned: UNLV is still the Mountain West favorite. Yes, yes, San Diego State certainly has a claim to that distinction, too, especially since its first two conference results -- a two-point home win over the Rebels and an incredibly impressive road win at New Mexico -- were among the most impressive back-to-back performances we've seen from any team in any league this season. New Mexico is no slouch, either. Before Wednesday's loss to SDSU, the Lobos had won 13 in a row. There are three very good teams in the MWC, folks. That much we know.

Then again, I'd say we knew that already. The main takeaway from Saturday night's best late-night matchup -- and this is a good old-fashioned eye-test thing to say, but I'm doing it anyway -- is that UNLV just looks like the best team in this league. The Rebels have few, if any, holes in their attack. They have talented players at every position. Their guards push the pace; their forwards run to the rim; their wings hit 3s with ease. Anthony Marshall, Chace Stanback, Mike Moser, Oscar Bellfield and even reserves like Carlos Lopez and Justin Hawkins -- these players are perfectly suited to Dave Rice's new emphasis on uptempo basketball, and when you watch them play, it shows.

The Mountain West race is going to be fascinating, and we'll hear more from the Lobos -- and, of course, the league-leading Aztecs -- before the season is out. Sure, I'd take UNLV as the favorite. But whatever happens, if two of these three teams are playing, it promises to be very entertaining.

A few more observations from the Saturday evening that was:
    [+] EnlargeJamie Dixon
    AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPitt lost its ninth game Saturday, matching the highest season loss total of Jamie Dixon's tenure.

  • Bad times got worse for Pittsburgh on Saturday night, as the Panthers fell to No. 21 Louisville at home, 73-62. In case you're counting, that's Pitt's eighth straight loss and seventh in a row in Big East play ... for the first time in Pitt hoops history. Ouch. Even worse? According to ESPN Stats and Information, this is the first time Pitt has lost four straight home games since 1999-2000. The loss is also Pitt's ninth this season. Jamie Dixon-coached Pittsburgh teams have never recorded more than nine losses in a regular season. There are myriad issues afflicting the Panthers right now, chief among them defense, but it's hard to see any major improvements coming any time soon. If this wasn't a lost season already, it is now.
  • Neither VCU nor Old Dominion are likely to end up with a chance at an at-large bid come March, but their meeting tonight was still full of implications for the CAA title race. Before Saturday, ODU was 6-1 in conference and VCU 5-2, both right there hanging around with George Mason and Drexel in the Colonial standings. In other words, Virginia Commonwealth got a rather massive 61-48 win, handling the lackluster Monarchs rather easily at home. Shaka Smart's team is still rebuilding after last year's miracle NCAA tournament run, but they're not nearly as far down as most would have expected. Keep your eye on the Rams.
  • The C-USA race is going to be interesting. Marshall appeared to have the best odds to challenge Memphis' purported superiority, with Southern Miss a notch or two below -- a dark horse at best. After Saturday -- when Southern Miss topped Marshall and tied the Thundering Herd at 4-1 in league play -- it seems clear things aren't quite that simple. There are no remaining unbeaten teams in the league, with UCF at 5-1 and Memphis, Marshall and USM all now residing in second place at 4-1.
  • I don't know if we'll call the Pac-12 race "interesting." "Mystifying" feels more appropriate. Either way, consider what went down in the conference Saturday: Cal fell at Washington State (not an unforgiveable loss, given how well Wazzu has played at home, but still) just as the Bears appeared set, thanks to a blowout Stanford loss at Washington, to create some separation between themselves and the rest of the league. Meanwhile UCLA -- which keeps struggling, week after week, to sort things out -- fell on the road at Oregon, which is now 6-2 and tied atop the league standings. Elsewhere, lowly Utah not only didn't lose, but actually blew out Arizona State in Salt Lake City; and Colorado held on for a one-point home win over Arizona. Those Pac-12 power rankings are going to be a bear to write. I can't wait.
  • Two results from the West that shouldn't be dismissed. Long Beach State, a team that played perhaps the most grueling nonconference schedule in the country, continues to see the dividends from that gauntlet. On the road Saturday night, LBSU went into the Thunderdome and absolutely obliterated chief rival UC Santa Barbara, 71-48, the talented squad that's beaten the 49ers in the Big West final in each of the past two seasons. And in Laramie, Wyoming beat rival Colorado State -- which had won eight straight -- 70-51 to improve to 16-3. Yes, 16-3. What a job by first-year coach Larry Shyatt. And what a performance by USC transfer Leonard Washington, who set career highs in points (32) and rebounds (14).
  • As for the momentum Nebraska created with that dramatic victory over Indiana on Wednesday? Ohio State did not seem to care. Buckeyes 79, Huskers 45. So much for that.
This Saturday promised one of the best wall-to-wall slates of college hoops fixtures thus far this season, and the afternoon action didn't disappoint. In fact, it just about blew my mind. Let's take a comprehensive look at what we learned from said afternoon action, shall we? (Check back late tonight for a recap of the evening action.)

Florida State 76, No. 4 Duke 73
What we learned: How cool is Leonard Hamilton? Bad charge call? He just smiles. Another bad, potentially crucial, game-deciding charge call? A smile and a wink. A buzzer-beating 3 to upset No. 4 Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium -- the same 3 that sent FSU's bench into a joyous on-court scrum? A quick nod. A walk to midcourt. A handshake. No big deal, right?

Hamilton isn't the celebratory type; he's as steady a presence as there is in college hoops. But what his team did Saturday -- just a week after it blew the doors off against North Carolina at home -- was worth much more than the cucumber-cool reaction Hamilton offered. This was a massive, season-changing win for the Florida State Seminoles.

There were plenty of opportunities to fade away. Midway through the second half, Ryan Kelly hit two 3s and a fast-break dunk to extend Duke's lead to 58-50, its widest margin of the afternoon. The crowd was rocking. FSU's shots weren't falling. It appeared Duke would do what Duke does: Gather itself, extend a lead, and ride out another ho-hum ACC home victory. Instead, the Seminoles kept battling. Within a minute, they had closed the eight-point lead to just five, and by the time the game reached its crucial moments -- the final minute -- FSU pulled just ahead at 71-70.

Things stayed tight all the way through. Kelly received the benefit of the doubt on a pretty clear charge with 20 seconds left and Duke guard Austin Rivers made a great move to the rim to tie the game at 73 with just 6 seconds remaining. But FSU guard Luke Loucks, calm as his head coach, advanced the ball to guard Michael Snaer in time for Snaer's buzzer-beating, game-winning 3 just a few feet in front of the visitors bench. That's when the ecstasy, apparently shared by all but Hamilton, commenced.

So what did we learn? We learned that the Noles are indeed very real. Are they as good as their 33-point blowout over UNC? Of course not. But they're good enough -- strong enough, defensive enough, big enough, tough enough -- to present matchup problems for some of the best teams in the country, even on those teams' home floors. Before the season, we thought Florida State was the third-best team in the ACC. After losses to Harvard and Princeton and a wipeout at Clemson, that projection looked wildly optimistic. Now, it almost feels cautious. If the Seminoles play like this the rest of the way, they're definitely better than that.

No. 5 Missouri 89, No. 3 Baylor 88
What we learned: This one-point deficit was reached thanks to a meaningless last-second 3 from Baylor's Brady Heslip, and so the score line belies the real takeaway from this Tigers road win: Missouri is no illusion. No. This team is just flat good.

Can any other conclusion be reached? Consider the accomplishment here: The Tigers went on the road against the No. 3 team in the country, one with as much size and athletic interior talent as any of the nation's contenders -- a quality supposedly anathema to Mizzou's very essence -- and scored 1.24 points per possession in a win that required a first-half battle, a second-half push and a late survival of an inevitable Baylor run. The Tigers are simply relentless on the offensive end, attacking the tiniest of defensive gaps with more speed than any other backcourt in the country.

If you were wondering why Missouri forward Ricardo Ratliffe is so handily dominating competition this season -- leading the nation in field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage by a huge margin to date -- you received your answer today. Ratliffe cuts and spaces in the middle of the paint as well as any forward in the country. He's a tireless, opportunistic offensive rebounder with great hands and lightning-quick feet. And more often than not, Missouri's guards -- particularly Phil Pressey, who was brilliant in Waco -- break down the defense, ruin its rotation and find Ratliffe for easy finishes around the rim. His line Saturday, against all that long, NBA-worthy Baylor talent: 27 points on 11-of-14 from the field (see?), 8 rebounds (6 offensive) and 2 blocks. He was, per the usual, brilliant. Meanwhile, Pressey finished with 18 points and 7 assists, 6 steals and 5 rebounds. Can't understate his total impact on the game.

There are concerns for Baylor going forward. Perry Jones III continues to live up to the occasionally unfair "soft" label; when you're a 6-foot-11 lottery pick, and the opposing team had only two contributors bigger than 6-6, 8 points and 4 rebounds just doesn't cut it. The Bears, despite their clear size advantage, allowed the Tigers to rebound 48.3 percent of their misses on the offensive end; per Ken Pomeroy's rankings, Baylor is the 220th-best team in the nation on its defensive glass. When you can run a front line of Jones, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller (who turned in a stellar scoring performance today, it should be noted), why are you getting so consistently and comprehensively outworked on the boards?

Still, let's give the Tigers a huge amount of credit. When Missouri were blown out at Kansas State, the concerns about this team's size were seemingly validated. Sure, Mizzou played well in the nonconference. Sure, the shots were falling. Sure, Ratliffe was on a tear. But could Frank Haith's team really keep it up in conference play? Weren't the Tigers, among any team with an undefeated nonconference record, the most likely to fade into Big 12 mediocrity? The answer, as we now know, is a resounding no. Small? Sure. Guard-oriented? You bet. This team is what it is. What you see is what you get. And what you get is one of the best offensive -- check, that, one of the best, period -- teams in the nation, bar none. Great win.

West Virginia 77, Cincinnati 74 (OT)
What we learned: If you haven't seen Kevin Jones play lately, you're missing the Big East Player of the Year to date -- and a legitimate national POY contender, too. Frankly, you might not recognize him. Jones, who struggled to adapt to a star role last season, has emerged as all that and more in 2011-12. This form was again on display today, especially late in regulation, when Jones hit a massive go-ahead 3 to help WVU push Cincinnati to overtime, where the Mountaineers outlasted the Bearcats for a massive home win. Jones finished with 26 points on 11-of-15 from the field, hitting both of his 3-point attempts and grabbing 13 rebounds in the process. Like I said: If that's not the Big East Player of the Year thus far, I don't know who is.

In the meantime, despite the loss -- and a truly questionable layup attempt by Dion Dixon, when the Bearcats needed a 3 to tie -- Cincinnati can come away from this game looking pretty good. Just a few days after beating UConn on the road, it faced down a star-led squad on its brutal home court and very nearly, but for a few late errors and big plays by West Virginia, came away with a win. If you thought Cincinnati was the second-best team in the league after the win over the Huskies, you might still feel that way now.

Tennessee 60, No. 11 Connecticut 57
What we learned: The Huskies can't stop the slide. Saturday's loss at Tennessee marks UConn's fourth loss in its past six games, and was again emblematic of the woes facing this team: disjointed offense, a willingness to take bad shots, lack of leadership in tough situations, interior play far below the sum of its insanely talented parts. We knew Cuonzo Martin's Tennessee squad would come out and play hard in Knoxville. Even when the Volunteers have been bad this season (which has been often: This win moves them to a mere 9-10 overall), they've played with a blue-collar, let's-work-hard spirit preached constantly by their first-year head coach. Today it paid off.

But Connecticut deserves much of the blame here, too. Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi should be dominating undermanned frontcourts like UT's. Instead, they combined for 11 points and were obviously outplayed by freshman Jarnell Stokes, who posted a double-double in his third career game. The same Stokes who was a 17-year-old kid in high school last month. Great win for the Vols, of course, but the postgame questions will be all about UConn. As of Jan. 21, this team -- so talented, so promising, so mystifyingly mediocre -- still has miles to go before it can be considered a Big East contender, let alone one with national title aspirations.

No. 2 Kentucky 77, Alabama 71
What we learned: There are no moral victories in college hoops. Alabama coach Anthony Grant will be eager to share that rather cliché bit of information with his team following Saturday's loss at Kentucky. And it's true -- a win is a win, a loss is a loss, and minimal nuance is allowed to color those stark W's and L's at the end of the season. Still, in the final moments of Bama's impressive Saturday road stand, against the No. 2 team in the country and a program that has won its past 47 road games, the longest active streak in Division I, the only thought that occurred to this viewer was: "Well, no matter whether they win or lose, this was a great game for Alabama."

It was. The Crimson Tide are in the midst of a three-games-in-eight-days scheduling bump, one that put them on the road at Mississippi State (loss), at home against Vanderbilt (loss, and an ugly one at that) and then, mercilessly, on the road at Kentucky. Yet Alabama never quit coming at the typically impressive Wildcats. Even when struggling forward Tony Mitchell fouled out with five minutes remaining, the Tide kept getting scores and free throws and good looks, pushing the game and preventing UK from ever finishing in comfort.

In the end, Anthony Davis' freakish interior defense saved Kentucky's day; the last of his four blocks came with 7 seconds left to preserve a four-point lead, and thus the expected result was achieved. But give Alabama credit: That was a gutsy, tough road performance. This team seemed easy to write off over much of the past two months, but if Saturday's performance was any indication, it will be a worthy competitor in the coming SEC stretch run.

Dayton 87, Xavier 72
What we learned: The Flyers have come a long way since Nov. 30. That's when this team lost 84-55 to Buffalo at home, three days after winning the Old Spice Classic title game over Minnesota. Four days later, Dayton was blown out at Murray State. At that point, first-year coach Archie Miller appeared to have a sincere rebuilding project on his hands. Nearly two months later, the Flyers are, well, flying. This 15-point home win over putative Atlantic 10 favorite Xavier puts them at 4-1 in A-10 play, another excellent addition to a résumé that includes victories over Alabama, Saint Louis and, most recently, a strong 10-point win at Temple. By now, Dayton isn't a rebuild. It isn't a neat little story. It's a legitimate A-10 contender with an easy case to make for an at-large spot in the NCAA tournament. Who saw that one coming?

In the meantime, Xavier's off-and-on struggles -- which appeared to abate with a four-game winning streak in A-10 play -- reared their ugly head again. The Musketeers were mediocre on offense and downright bad on defense, allowing 87 points in 65 possessions, or 1.33 points per trip. Sometimes it's ugly offense, sometimes it's lenient defense, but in either case, it's clear Chris Mack's team hasn't put its midseason slide entirely in the rearview.

[+] EnlargeTyshawn Taylor
AP Photo/Eric GayTyshawn Taylor didn't have a single turnover, and 22 points, as Kansas held off Texas.
Some other observations from Saturday afternoon's selections:

  • I didn't get to see all of Kansas' tough 69-66 road win at Texas, but the portions I did see lent some solid eyeball observations to my current theory on Texas: The Longhorns have plenty of holes, particularly in their frontcourt, but they're much better than most people seem to think. To wit, the Longhorns entered Saturday ranked No. 24 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. They're solid on the offensive glass, good at getting to the free throw line, and while they don't play vintage Rick Barnes defense, they keep games close enough to give lights-out scorer J'Covan Brown chances to go win the game late. He had one such chance Saturday, and it missed, but the lesson was well-taken: Texas will give superior teams fits from here on out. Don't say you weren't warned. (And how 'bout Tyshawn Taylor's continued torrid pace with 22 points and ZERO turnovers? What a three-game stretch.)
  • Playing Kentucky's brutal Davis-led defense must have a way of making other defenses feel wide open. That appeared to be the case in Fayetteville today, where the Arkansas Razorbacks -- fresh off a loss to the Wildcats this week -- made their first 11 shots and went 80 percent from the field in the first half against Michigan. Early in the second half, the score was 49-33 Arkansas, and a blowout appeared to be in the works. But the shooting slowed down, Michigan made its comeback, and the Razorbacks narrowly avoided a late loss when Wolverines guard Trey Burke's last-second 3 missed. Bad second half, but a nonetheless solid win for freshman B.J. Young and the rest of Mike Anderson's young team. And what a day for the SEC, eh?
  • Purdue had the toughest task of any team in the country Saturday afternoon: The Boilermakers had to fight a Midwestern snowstorm that trapped them on their airport tarmac and prevented them from getting more than a few hours of sleep before the 12 p.m. ET tip. Predictably, Michigan State rolled. Purdue has serious issues on both ends of the floor, particularly with an offense that offers little but a barrage of outside shots. But it's hard to blame the Boilermakers too much for the lopsided 83-58 result.
  • Yes, it's hard to win on the road. Yes, it's hard to win on the road in the Big East with a team comprised almost entirely of freshmen. But it's even harder to lose when your opponent shoots 3-of-24 in the first half, 12-of-41 for the game -- which ties Harvard for the season record for fewest field goals in a win -- and makes just three of its 14 3-point field goal attempts on the afternoon. And yet, that's exactly what Rutgers did Saturday, as Georgetown overcame a legendarily poor shooting performance (effective field goal percentage: 33.8) to rally for a late win. Hoyas freshman Otto Porter continued his stellar freshman campaign, scoring Georgetown's final six points and nailing the winning free throws with just 8 seconds remaining. Georgetown fans won't necessarily be pleased with this one, but when you shoot this poorly and still get a win, and thanks to a steady freshman to boot, there's encouraging stuff in there somewhere.
  • Maryland will eagerly await to hear the status of freshman center Alex Len, who left the Terps' 73-60 loss to Temple at the Palestra with an ankle injury. Len has helped lead a quiet stretch of solid play from the Terps. With him, this team can compete in the ACC. Without him, well, it's not looking good.
  • Poor Boston College. The Eagles showed signs of improvement in two early ACC wins over Clemson and Virginia Tech, but Steve Donahue's team returned to early-season form Saturday, which is a way of saying it got beat soundly at home by another very marginal team -- in this case, a 71-56 home loss to Wake Forest. Yeesh.
  • What happened to Belmont? Everyone's favorite mid-major darling -- which returned the lion's share of personnel from last season's 30-5 campaign -- fell 79-78 at USC Upstate on Saturday, dropping to 13-7 overall and 6-2 in the Atlantic Sun to date. The other loss came at home to Lipscomb earlier this month, and all of a sudden the Bruins' expected A-Sun dominance looks entirely vulnerable. Strange times in the Volunteer State.

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