- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Now that's a Saturday of basketball. Take a deep breath, count to 10 and check out yours truly's observations from the evening's games, including the insane Kansas-Missouri finale.
For a recap of this afternoon's games, click here.
No. 4 Missouri 74, No. 8 Kansas 71: This game was easy to scout. Missouri is small and quick and offensively oriented, with four guards and one big man. Kansas is big and strong and built around forward Thomas Robinson, the national front-runner for player of the year. How would KU stop Mizzou's spread attack? How would Mizzou keep KU out of the lane? These countervailing dynamics seemed destined to determine the outcome of this game. And to some extent, they did.
But if we learned anything from this one, we learned this: Stylistic assessments tend to fly out the window when it's the final minute in a packed house and things are crazy and it's just a player, the ball, the game on the line and a single-possession deficit. It's hard to overthink this: You either execute or you don't. The Jayhawks didn't execute. That simple. And that's why they lost.
Of course, it's not quite that simple. Kansas was not helped by an iffy late charge call on Tyshawn Taylor that just as easily could have been a blocking foul on Michael Dixon. It resulted in two Missouri free throws and a three-point lead for KU to overcome. Even worse, that call wasn't nearly as egregious as the one against Robinson with 1:43 remaining; that easily could have been a block on Mizzou forward Steve Moore, an and-1 bucket for Robinson and a potential six-point swing, given Marcus Denmon's huge go-ahead 3 a few seconds later. Kansas fans are not at all happy about this turn of events, and they have every right to their anger.
That said, the Jayhawks would have been in better shape had Taylor made either of his two free throws with 42 seconds remaining. Despite all the late blunders and questionable calls, Kansas had a chance to take the game to overtime on the final possession. Had Elijah Johnson decided to shoot the ball when he got his first wide-open look as the clock ticked down, he might have gotten a clean shot. Instead, Johnson hesitated. He missed his chance. The clock expired. Game over.
As always, it's about execution, and in big-time rivalry games in heated buildings, the game is so often about execution in the final minutes. As Kansas was suffering shaky whistles, missed free throws, so-so shots and four turnovers in the final three minutes, Denmon was coolly canning two straight 3s, which turned a 71-65 Kansas lead into a 72-71 Mizzou lead in a matter of 30 seconds. Denmon was brilliant all game. He shot 10-of-16 from the field and was 6-of-9 from 3 en route to a 29-point outing. And that's the difference: Denmon was brilliant all 40 minutes. Taylor, Robinson and the Jayhawks were brilliant for about 37 minutes. When the game tightened and crunch time came around, one team consistently executed. The other did not.
For as much as we analyze (and overanalyze) these games, for as much as we talk about styles and matchups and X's and O's, for as much as we'll debate the Robinson charge calls for the next week, when you get to crunch time, that stuff fades away. The game shrinks. It simplifies. Be smart. Get good shots. Play defense. Take care of the ball. Rebound. Make your free throws.
Missouri scored the game's final 11 points. After leading 71-63, Kansas didn't score once.
In the end, the difference between those two sentences wasn't a matter of deep analysis. It wasn't stylistic or strategic. It was so much simpler than that.
Northern Iowa 65, No. 12 Creighton 62: It's not about what we learned in this game. We didn't learn all that much, save for the fact that Northern Iowa might be a bit better than its paltry Missouri Valley record (6-7) would indicate. But forget the new knowledge; this game was all about a reminder of the old.
That reminder: College hoops is an imperfect, frustrating enterprise. But when college hoops is good, it's better than anything else in the world.
Maybe that's hyperbole. Maybe I am the wrong person to levy such judgments, because I happen to love college basketball more than most. (I admit it.) Still, I defy you to find 60 more purely entertaining seconds than the final minute of Northern Iowa's win over 12th-ranked Creighton. College basketball seems to produce exchanges like this more frequently than other games; every week, it feels like something insane happens. But this ending -- which featured two 3s in the final 15 seconds, both of which came in open play, with no timeouts to stop the insanity -- registered an 11 on the 1-to-10 excitement scale.
I won't recap the entire closing exchange. You can see the highlights here, if you haven't seen them already. I've watched five or six times. The moment the shot goes in, well, it's almost perfect, you know? The rush up the floor, the crazy step-back, the swish, the crowd eruption -- this is the fabric of college basketball. Forget provincial rooting interests, alumni loyalty, wonky enthusiasm. The final 15 seconds of Creighton-UNI are why we love this damn game, imperfections and all.
No. 20 Indiana 78, Purdue 61: With 2:23 left and Indiana leading rival Purdue 65-61, IU point guard Jordan Hulls found himself trapped near half-court. Purdue was swarming -- it had been swarming and slapping and clawing at the Hoosiers all evening -- and, rather than risk a turnover, Hulls decided to play it safe. He and his teammates ran to the sideline, with their tenuous, shrinking lead still intact, and regrouped for what was sure to be an arduous finish in front of the Boilermakers' rabid crowd.
Then something strange happened: IU didn't fade away. It didn't suffer its typical frustrating late-game collapse on the road. It didn't bend under Purdue's relentless pressure. Instead, it blew the Mackey Arena doors right off.
Two minutes, 23 seconds later, the Hoosiers' 13-0 run had capped the first non-Penn State Big Ten road win of coach Tom Crean's 3 1/2-year tenure. In 143 seconds, the Hoosiers had gone from "well, here we go again" to their first win over the Boilermakers in their past six tries. For the first Big Ten road fixture this season, or in any of the Crean-era years that preceded it, Indiana looked self-assured and confident, not shaky and timid. The Hoosiers looked eager to go get the win, not anxious to avoid a loss. And so they did.
The game wasn't nearly as one-sided as that scoreline suggests, of course, and for most of the afternoon, even as Indiana built a 33-22 halftime lead, this thing was ugly on both sides. The Boilermakers were unusually scrappy, doing everything they could to make life difficult for Cody Zeller, Christian Watford and the rest, trapping and slapping and angling for jump ball calls from the official. (These attempts were often fouls, and when they were called as such, Purdue fans frequently flipped out. It was exactly what a home crowd should do. Even better, it often seemed to work.)
For most of the game, the Boilers' staunch defense held strong. The only problem: Purdue couldn't keep up with even a marginal offensive pace. The team committed just three turnovers all game, and its first didn't come until the 5:10 mark of the second half. With possession protection like that, you would have assumed the Boilermakers could have posted better than .90 points per trip. But Matt Painter's team couldn't break down Indiana's man or zone defenses with much regularity, and without a true post presence (an ongoing, irreconcilable issue for this team), Purdue was forced to hoist its typical diet of long 2s and 3s. Robbie Hummel & Co. made just five of their 21 3-point field goal attempts. They finished 21-of-71 -- or 29.6 percent -- from the field overall.
So what does it all mean -- that is, beyond the first batch of message-board/water-cooler bragging rights Indiana fans have had in years? It might mean this IU team is making progress in its understanding of how to win on the road. That's a difficult, indefinable quality, something even good teams struggle with each and every season. But if you're the Hoosiers, and you have your sights set on the heights reached in November and December, you have to beat inferior teams on the road in conference play. You have to hold on to those leads. Actually, forget holding on to your lead. Extend it. Sweep the leg. Finish.
The Hoosiers -- for the first time on the road in four Big Ten seasons (against a team not named Penn State, that is), for the first time in six tries against their hated rival -- unleashed their inner Cobra Kai. It wasn't a flawless victory, but it was a victory. For a team that lost so many of these games in 2010 and 2011 and even in 2012, that's a legitimate sign of progress.
One more IU-Purdue note: Guard Verdell Jones missed this game, but most of his minutes went to Victor Oladipo, and Oladipo responded with 23 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks. When Indiana needed buckets, Oladipo always seemed to step in, ready and willing to attack the rim. Impressive performance.
Some other observations from Saturday night's games:
Kentucky absolutely rolled South Carolina on the road, and Basketball Prospectus writer Drew Cannon summed up my feelings on the Cats with his perfect postgame tweet: "Can you imagine how high people would be on Kentucky if Watford's three rimmed out?" He's dead on. If Christian Watford's shot misses (Kentucky lost to Indiana at the buzzer in December), Kentucky is undefeated, rolling through the SEC with remarkable ease, and we're all talking about whether the Wildcats can make it to the NCAA tournament without a loss. As it is, the Wildcats are still remarkable to watch. For much of their 86-52 victory, they appeared to be playing a different sport than the Gamecocks. UK had eight dunks in the first half, as Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones finished easy buckets at will. Darrin Horn's team never stood a chance. Even scarier: This team, in particular point guard Marquis Teague, is still developing into what it can be. Considering how good John Calipari's team already is -- 23-1, 9-0 in the SEC, No. 2 overall in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, etc. -- that's a frightening thought indeed.
Colorado got a major home win over Oregon on Saturday night, but in questionable late circumstances. I didn't see the game -- there was the small matter of Kansas-Mizzou, after all -- but here's how the AP recap describes the final play in question: "Nate Tomlinson was fouled with one second remaining by E.J. Singler and sank the first free throw before deliberately missing the second to give Colorado a 72-71 win over Oregon Saturday night." Naturally, the AP isn't going to say whether the foul call -- which came with almost no time left on the clock -- was right or wrong. According to the response on Twitter, it might or might not have been a foul, but the referees should never have made such a marginal call in the final second of a tie game. Oregon coach Dana Altman was furious. Ducks fans are furious. Colorado will feel lucky to escape with the victory and move to 8-3 -- an unlikely 8-3, given this team's early prospectus -- in its first year in Pac-12 play. It sounds like we'll be talking about this call for a while. Should be fun!
Middle Tennessee lost its lofty perch as the Sun Belt's only unbeaten team when it fell 75-60 at Denver on national TV. MTSU is a fringe bubble candidate, but the loss will make things much more difficult for the Blue Raiders to impress the committee. How much it will help Denver remains to be seen. Either way, the lesson here, as in Wyoming's win over UNLV on Saturday: Altitude kills. As does Denver forward Chris Udofia, who had 27 points, nine rebounds and four blocks in the win.
Really solid road win for Iowa State, which topped Oklahoma 77-70 and kept its NCAA tournament momentum moving. The Cyclones have had a week to remember, which began with last Saturday's last-second win over Kansas and included this week's two-point home win over Kansas State. Oklahoma has given Big 12 teams legitimate issues this season, particularly at home, and Fred Hoiberg's fighting transfers have to be thrilled to escape Norman with a win.
Speaking of solid road wins: Iona (19-5, 11-2 MAAC) invaded the turf of one of its fellow MAAC co-leaders, Manhattan, and left with an 85-73 victory. Gaels star point guard Scott Machado continued his hyper-efficient, ball-dominant ways, scoring 18 points on 5-of-7 from the field (and 6-of-8 from the line) to go along with nine assists and four rebounds. A few days after a major contract extension for coach Tim Cluess, his team got one of its biggest wins of the season.
Murray State's latest extension to its undefeated record -- the Racers are now 23-0 and 11-0 in Ohio Valley Conference play -- came in what is rapidly becoming classic Murray style: It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't definitive, being but a 65-58 win over a team with a 3-21 record before Saturday. But it was a win all the same, another notch on the belt and another potential step toward a remarkable regular-season accomplishment. Stay tuned.
Harvard didn't look great in its 57-52 home win over a bad Columbia team, but as in the above bullet point, a win is a win is a win. The victory moved the Crimson to 6-0 in the Ivy League and 20-2 overall. Still, if Harvard wants to ensure its first trip to the NCAA tournament in six decades, it will have to muster something more than the disjointed offense it displayed Saturday.
And in CAA play, George Mason asserted its superiority -- and its position atop the conference standings -- with a 54-50 win over Old Dominion. Neither team is vintage for either program this season, and GMU's at-large case is a major work in progress, but wins like this are always steps in the right direction.