College Basketball Nation: what-we-learned-120211

What we learned from Saturday night

February, 12, 2012
Saturday afternoon transitioned into Saturday night as smoothly as Kentucky transitions from an Anthony Davis block to the fast break. In the process, we saw Michigan State defend like crazy at Ohio State, Creighton take a beatdown by Wichita State and the aforementioned Wildcats again assert their dominance, this time at Vanderbilt. That and more in the evening edition of What We Learned.

[Editor's note: For recaps of all the afternoon games, click here.]

No. 12 Michigan State 58, No. 3 Ohio State 48: As far back as August, Tom Izzo -- in typical Izzonian fashion -- proclaimed far and wide how much he loved his team. Not necessarily because he knew the Spartans would be good or because he knew they would keep getting better (although he often seemed to assume as much), but because this Michigan State team, perhaps more than any other in recent years, does the two things Izzo seems to value most: It rebounds. It defends.

The Spartans began Saturday allowing the fourth-fewest points per possession in the country (adjusted, per Ken Pomeroy). They also ranked in the top 10 in both relevant rebounding categories, chasing down 39.9 percent of their misses on offense and yielding second chances on just 26.1 percent of opponents' possessions. Throw in the focused vocal leadership of forward Draymond Green, the back-from-the-dead reclamation of Derrick Nix, one of the toughest point guards in the country in Keith Appling and a batch of dedicated supporting pieces, and, well, no wonder Izzo loves this team. Compared to last season's incoherent, apathetic bunch, he must occasionally feel like he's coaching an entirely different game.

For as consistently as Michigan State has demonstrated those qualities throughout this season, never have they been more clear than Saturday night. Izzo's team held the third-ranked Buckeyes -- in Columbus, mind you -- to a mere .75 points per trip. How? How do you stop a team with so many weapons, with one of the best forwards in the country anchoring it all, in a building where it has won 39 in a row? The Spartans know how: You scrap. You claw. You fight. You make everything difficult for that team's best player. You frustrate him at every turn.

Jared Sullinger was, of course, the focal point of MSU's defensive strategy, and it worked. Sullinger still scored 17 points and grabbed 16 boards, but he needed a 5-of-15 performance to get there, and he committed 10 turnovers in the process. (The 17-16-10 is the first turnover-laden triple-double of the college basketball season, per ESPN Stats & Info. Former Buck Evan Turner had two of them in his final season. The Evan Turner Special lives!) Sullinger was noticeably frustrated throughout the game, arguing for fouls (sometimes rightly, oftentimes wrongly) and forcing shots into the teeth of State's interior defense, anchored brilliantly by forward Adreian Payne (who was also 6-of-6 from the field).

The performance reminded me of Ohio State's loss to Kentucky in last season's Sweet 16, when UK forward Josh Harrellson harassed and harangued Sullinger into a performance far below his usual standards. Harrellson was one of the few players in the country with the size and strength to hold his ground against Sully's girth. Nearly a year later, Payne and Nix demonstrated the same abilities. It's a testament to Sullinger's ability that he still grabbed 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive, but every putback was challenged, every touch contested, every dribble met with reaching slaps.

Sullinger didn't get much help from his teammates. William Buford and Deshaun Thomas combined to shoot 4-of-24 (!!), Aaron Craft was 3-of-7, and all told, the Buckeyes shot 2-of-15 from beyond the arc and 26 percent overall -- its third-worst shooting performance of the past 15 years. Yikes.

The Spartans weren't great on offense (.91 points per trip). Ohio State's defense is its best quality, and the Buckeyes were again good on that end of the floor. But Michigan State didn't have to light it up to get this victory. When you defend this well, when you execute your defensive game plan this perfectly, when you thoroughly dominate one of the nation's elite teams in its own building, you don't have to put up points in bunches to get the job done. No team in the country this season has posted 40 minutes of defense this strong against a team this good.

So, yeah, Tom Izzo loves this team. Can you blame him?

No. 1 Kentucky 69, Vanderbilt 63: You have to hand it to the Commodores: They didn't go away.

That's the biggest positive Kevin Stallings' team can draw from this loss. From the opening tip, UK's brilliant defense was again, well, brilliant. As late as the 4:42 mark in the first half, Vanderbilt had scored just 13 points. The Commodores finished the first half with a whopping 23 as Kentucky led by 13. Terrence Jones was engaged. Anthony Davis was dominant. As it has so often in the past three weeks, John Calipari's team appeared ready to roll to another very impressive SEC victory. Ho and hum.

Then, only a few moments into the second half, things just sort of ... opened up. The Dores not only started finding open shots, they started making them. Brad Tinsley, Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins came alive on the perimeter, while Festus Ezeli started finishing things down low. Soon -- almost before you knew it -- what "GameDay" host Rece Davis called Kentucky's "aura of invincibility" fell away. By the 8:26 mark in the second half, the Commodores led 55-51, the culmination of a 32-17 run.

They would score just eight more points the rest of the game. No one could have known it at the time, but Tinsley's jumper at the 4:09 mark would be Vanderbilt's last bucket of the day. Just as soon as VU had opened the game with solid man offense, crisp passing and accurate shooting, Kentucky shut it down. Davis recorded four blocks in the final seven minutes of the game; he finished with seven total. One of the major themes of the broadcast was Calipari's stated desire to see his team challenged, to see how it would respond. The Wildcats were. Vanderbilt kept swinging. Kentucky took Vandy's best punch. It absorbed a combo or two. And then, as all great fighters do, it emerged stronger and stronger as the game wore on. If Calipari wanted to see how his team would react to a challenge, he had to be thrilled with the result.

Kentucky played a solid, experienced team. It played said solid, experienced team in said team's unique building, with its weird sight lines and elevated court and baseline benches. It did so in front of a crowd that had spent all day goosed by "GameDay," hyped for the glorious chance at knocking off No. 1, something this school has done six times over the years. It didn't matter. Kentucky went 3-of-14 from 3. And it still emerged unscathed.

If Christian Watford's last-second shot doesn't fall in Assembly Hall on Dec. 10 -- back when Kentucky was still figuring things out -- the Cats are undefeated and we're talking less about this sudden surge of brilliance than whether UK could make it to the NCAA tournament with an unbeaten record. This team is one shot -- one 10-second defensive breakdown -- away from legendary comparisons.

Oh, well. As it is, Calipari's team is rounding into one of the most complete -- if not the most complete -- of his career. Davis is a transcendent force anchoring a team with zero defensive holes. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is one of the best two-way players in the country. Jones can dominate when he wants. Doron Lamb is a lights-out shooter. Darius Miller is an underrated offensive presence and an all-around glue guy extraordinaire.

There's a reason this team is awash in that so-called aura of invincibility. The Wildcats aren't actually invincible, of course. But right now, they're the closest thing going.

Wichita State 89, No. 15 Creighton 68: When you've got a national player of the year candidate ripping through each and every opposing defense he sees with a rare blend of volume and efficiency, it's easy to disguise your team's warts. After Wichita State's end-to-end dismantling of the Bluejays on Saturday, those warts are now fully exposed.

The score line tells the story here, but it's nothing new: Creighton is, at best, a fairly mediocre defensive team. The Bluejays entered this Valley showdown ranked No. 119 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. They force turnovers on just 16.3 percent of their defensive possessions, which ranks them No. 336 out of 345 Division I teams. This so-so defense has been hidden well all season because Creighton outscores everybody. Doug McDermott and company have the nation's highest effective field goal percentage and its sixth-most efficient offense overall. But in the past three games -- losses to Northern Iowa, Evansville and now Wichita State -- the Bluejays' offense has suddenly cooled off. Creighton's effective field goal percentage figures in its past three games are 46.5, 44.2 and 44.7 percent.

And therein lies Saturday's problem: Wichita State is not a one-way team. Rather, Gregg Marshall's squad combines excellent defense (KenPom rank: No. 26) with efficient offense (KenPom: No. 11), tops in MVC play in both metrics. Despite their hugely impressive per-possession stats, the Shockers have flown below the radar recently thanks in large part to that triple-overtime loss at Drake in late January. But in basically every other Valley affair, even the 68-61 loss at home to Creighton in this series' first game, the Shockers have been comprehensively good.

Does that mean Wichita is 21 points better than Creighton, home, away or neutral? No. Is its offense as good as the 1.4 points per trip it poured in Saturday night? Probably not. But this lopsided result in front of a huge crowd in Omaha does reveal some notable truths about both teams. For Creighton, it laid bare just how important the Jays' offense is to their chances of making a run in the NCAA tournament; it's no coincidence this three-game losing streak came in three mediocre shooting performances. Greg McDermott's team can't afford to miss shots, because it can't get the stops it needs to keep things close.

For Wichita State, well, if you didn't know, now you know: The Shockers are good. Not "dangerous." Not "plucky." Just flat-out good.

Temple 85, Xavier 72: If you're still waiting for a team to round into its full form on Feb. 11, there's a good chance you'll still be waiting on March 11. That appears to be the case with Xavier. The Musketeers haven't been bad in Atlantic 10 play -- they ranked fourth in A-10 efficiency margin as of this week -- but they haven't been particularly good, let alone their usual brand of good, the one that led them to a 15-1 league record last season. Instead, these Musketeers are just sort of, well, mediocre.

Which is to take nothing away from Temple, which blitzed Chris Mack's team early and never looked back. Guard Ramone Moore went off, scoring 30 points on 9-of-16 from the field, while Khalif Wyatt put up 18 points, four assists and three steals, and Micheal Eric contributed 11 points and 16 rebounds. The Owls' backcourt is the undisputed strength of the team, and Fran Dunphy's squad continues to look more and more like the A-10's clear favorite each time that backcourt makes life so difficult for opponents on both ends of the floor. Temple is alone atop the league at 8-2.

The contrast between these two teams is glaring. One is whole, complete, playing its best basketball at the right time. The other is scattershot, struggling, not bad but far worse than it has any right to be, given its talent. The temptation to connect X's continued struggles to the Dec. 10 brawl is worth resisting here. Does it play a part? Maybe. Has guard Mark Lyons (who didn't start) been unpredictable and frustrating since? Oh yeah. But at this point, it's also possible Xavier just wasn't all that good in the first place. Whatever the reasons, the Musketeers -- perennial NCAA tournament fixtures -- are running out of time to figure it out.

A few more observations from the night of hoops:
  • Harvard's preordained run to its first NCAA tournament in decades -- the Crimson are clearly the best team in the Ivy League and were the heaviest of favorites to win it outright -- got just a little shakier Saturday night. Tommy Amaker's team fell to the old-world perennial Ivy favorite, Princeton, 70-62. It's a sign of Harvard's changed status that Princeton students -- who are fans of a program that is the historical Ivy elite, and which just beat one of the league's longtime losers -- rushed the court after their team's 23rd consecutive home victory over the Crimson. Despite the loss, Harvard's chances of winning the league are still very good. Its schedule -- which features Yale, Princeton and Penn at home before a season-ending two-game road swing at Columbia and Cornell -- is a major advantage. Plus, the No. 21 Crimson still own a one-game lead in the standings. But they will be eager to avoid any further slip-ups. If they end up in another one-game tiebreak (the Ivy League awards its NCAA tournament bid to the regular-season winner), anything can happen. Amaker's bunch, which lost its trip to the tourney to Princeton on a tiebreak buzzer-beater last season, knows all too well what can happen when you leave the preordained to chance.
  • We let this one slip by in the afternoon frenzy, but Mississippi State's loss to Georgia probably deserves a mention. The Bulldogs were undone by freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's big-time step-back 3 in overtime (not to mention his other 17 points and eight rebounds), and hey, yeah, sometimes you take a tough OT loss. But Mississippi State's inconsistency is a bad sign for a team with major tournament aspirations. Not a good performance at all.
  • Southern Miss held on for a 78-74 home victory over UCF, yet another gritty, close win in a Golden Eagles season full of them. Don't look now, but Southern Miss is 21-4 on the season with a top-15 RPI. Wednesday night's loss at UAB is certainly a black mark -- especially considering the Blazers lost by 34 to Memphis on Saturday night -- but other than that, this team has a shockingly strong at-large case. Larry Eustachy is reborn!
  • Phil Martelli's team picked up another A-10 home win, as Saint Joseph's took down upstart UMass 73-62 and damaged the Minutemen's outside chances of an at-large bid. Massachusetts could have gone to 8-3 with a win. Instead, it moves backward, into the thick of the league's muddled middle, alongside the Hawks and many others.
  • If there is any justice in the world, tiny Wabash College will find its way to the "SportsCenter" top plays in the coming days. Why? Because of Aaron Zinnerman's shot, one of the more insane and unlikely you'll ever see. The YouTube clip is here. Enjoy. (Important correction! This post incorrectly cited Wabash as the alma mater of Butler coach Brad Stevens. Rather, as numerous alums have informed me, Stevens actually went to rival DePauw. I always mistake the two, but nonetheless regret the error. My bad, everyone.)
Louisville gets a big win on the road, Florida has the week from hell, UConn shows signs of life in a loss at Syracuse, Missouri has its way in yet another disappointing performance from Baylor and UNLV holds on for a thrilling win over San Diego State. As is tradition, here's what we learned from those games -- and more! -- Saturday afternoon.

[Editor's note: Per usual, we encourage you to stay with the blog all day for on-site reports from our writers across the country and, later, our recaps of all the big-time Saturday night action, including Wichita State-Creighton, Michigan State-Ohio State and Kentucky-Vandy.]

UNLV 65, San Diego State 63: One team must win, and one team must lose. UNLV fans will be thrilled. San Diego State fans will agonize. The contours of this relatively new rivalry couldn't be more pronounced, and this season's series -- with both games decided by two points; SDSU won the first at home 69-67 -- will only add fuel to that fire. In a guttural, emotional sense, if you're an Aztecs fan, this loss hurts. If you're a UNLV fan, you're downright stoked. So it goes.

But once the reflexes give way to perspective, both fan bases might realize this was the rare instance in which both teams can legitimately claim victory -- if not on the scoreboard, in terms of perception.

For UNLV, the win represents a restoration of the Rebels' first-place claim to the top of the Mountain West standings; this victory moved both teams to 6-2 in league play. It showcased the rich vein of talent first-year coach Dave Rice has tapped. Forward Mike Moser was excellent on offense and a source of havoc on defense. He finished the game with 19 points, nine rebounds, six -- yes, six -- steals and four blocks. Chace Stanback struggled, but his teammates had his back. Brice Massamba scored 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting, Oscar Bellfield went for 15 points and six assists, and Anthony Marshall contributed eight assists (a few of them spectacular), six rebounds and two steals.

For SDSU, the two-point loss was proof of this team's enduring grit. That's a bit cliche, I know, but you have to cite it when you see it, and boy, do the Aztecs ever have it. It doesn't take much for UNLV's uptempo attack to bury opponents at the Thomas and Mack. Just ask New Mexico. Instead, every time the Rebels looked ready to finally break through and run away -- as they did at the 7:50 mark of the second half, when they led 60-50 -- SDSU just kept fighting back. Chase Tapley, the oft-forgotten fifth wheel in last year's dream season, has become a full-fledged star. He dropped 22 points and made four of his seven 3-point attempts, including a series of huge shots to close the lead -- and overtake it at 63-62 -- in the closing minutes.

For UNLV, its ability to hold on at home, swallow any jitters and make the big plays (particularly on the offensive glass in the final minute) is only good news for the future. For SDSU, its ability to hang tough and nearly escape an insane road environment with a win says much the same. UNLV won this game, and its record and eventual NCAA tournament seed will reflect as much. But anyone who watched all 40 minutes of this affair couldn't help but come away as impressed with the Aztecs as the Rebels. We don't know how this league will play out in the coming weeks, but we do know this much: The Mountain West has two very good teams at the top. Impressive stuff, all the way around.

No. 4 Missouri 72, No. 6 Baylor 57: I thought my colleague Myron Medcalf summed it up perfectly in the closing moments of Missouri's second win over Baylor this season. As Myron wrote, "Missouri continues to prove that the question isn't 'How will Missouri guard team X?' but 'How will team X match up with Tigers?'"

Spot on, isn't it? All season, the question about Mizzou has been whether its severe lack of size leaves it at a disadvantage against teams such as Baylor and Kansas (or any number of the national foes on the prospective road to the Final Four). As we've long since learned, that lack of size -- and the barrage of guards that replaces it -- is much more to MU's advantage than to its opponents'.

That was true against Kansas last Saturday, but it's especially true of Baylor. On paper, the size of Quincy Acy, Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller, and even Anthony Jones and Cory Jefferson should wreak havoc on a Missouri team that starts three diminutive guards and Kim English, a shooting guard, at power forward. Instead, as in the first contest (an 89-88 Mizzou win in Waco), it worked to the Tigers' advantage. Baylor simply couldn't keep tabs on Flip Pressey, Marcus Denmon and Michael Dixon; the trio combined for 51 points on 17-of-30 from the field and a downright blistering 12-of-22 mark from long range.

Few teams can stop this Missouri attack. That's why it ranks No. 2 in the nation (and No. 1 in the Big 12) in points per possession this season. But the Bears, particularly coach Scott Drew, didn't do themselves any favors, either. Drew stuck to his team's trademark zone defense long after Missouri had hit its 11th and 12th 3s on the day. When he finally switched, English almost immediately used a curl screen to free himself for a sweet open jumper, and the Tigers kept pulling away. In other words, it's not as if man defense was the great untapped panacea. (In fact, as our Stats & Info's Ryan Feldman wrote this morning, Missouri was much better against Baylor's man defense in the first meeting.) But Baylor needed to do something to cool off -- or at least pressure -- Missouri's scorching-hot shooters. It didn't, at least not until it was too late.

We've grown accustomed to seeing these sorts of performances from the Tigers. It's a testament to how impressive this team has been all season (and the job Frank Haith has done, of course) that most of us expected Mizzou to prevail over the No. 6 team in the nation with relative ease. Missouri is really good, especially on offense. What's more, if you like sharp, controlled, uptempo basketball, there are few teams in the country more worth your time. Missouri is must-see hoops TV.

What this result says about Baylor is a matter of similar certainty: This is a very talented team as capable of impressive wins as downright baffling losses. This wasn't one of them, but it revealed many of the same issues. There is no reason a team with the 10th-ranked effective height figure (per Ken Pomeroy) should be so bad on the defensive glass. (The Bears rank No. 9 in the Big 12 in opponents' offensive rebounding rate. Only Oklahoma State has been worse.) There is no reason a team with these sorts of offensive weapons should be held to 36.2 percent from the field against a team allowing the ninth-highest effective field goal percentage in its conference. There is no reason Perry Jones III should be so passive (he went 2-of-12 on Saturday), why powerful forward Quincy Acy should attempt just three field goals, why a group that could dominate in the post with ease if it wanted to should toss up 17 3s (and make only four).

All told, the Bears are as frustrating to watch as Missouri is enjoyable. This team should be better. It isn't. Unless something unlikely changes in the weeks to come, that will be the story of a 2011-12 season that once contained almost unlimited promise.

Tennessee 75, No. 7 Florida 70: Since he arrived at Florida in the mid-'90s, Billy Donovan has achieved nearly every kind of success a coach can have. He's won two national titles. He's won a score of conference trophies. His teams are near-annual fixtures in the NCAA tournament; he recruits some of the best players in the country on a yearly basis. This is the best Florida has ever been at this strange roundball sport. Where hoops is concerned, these are the Gators' glory years.

What, then, can explain Florida's weird relationship with Tennessee? After Saturday's loss -- the second to the rebuilding Vols this season -- UF is 6-12 against Tennessee since 2004. The Volunteers have won eight of the past 12 against the Gators. When Bruce Pearl was leading Tennessee in its own hoops glory years, this hardly felt unusual. Pearl's teams were frequently good, particularly at home, and it's hard to beat good teams on the road in SEC play. But now that Pearl is gone and Cuonzo Martin is leading a 13-12 restoration project, Tennessee's strange near-dominance has continued. You figure it out. I can't.

In any case, the reasons for this particular edition's outcome are not particularly difficult to identify. Florida's oft-lackluster defense let it down again, allowing the Vols to score 75 in 66 possessions. In the meantime, UF's offense -- which is usually good enough to mask defensive lapses -- was just plain off. The Gators hoisted 30 3s but made just 11. Other than that, they scored just nine 2-point field goals.

It's an old identifier, one hoops analysts are often far too quick to use, but it fits here: Florida (which shoots the most 3s in the country, and accurately, too) lives and dies by the long-range shot. If those shots don't fall, the Gators haven't proved they can seek out balance and get easy buckets from Patric Young in the paint. They were outscored 36-14 in the paint Saturday. There's nothing wrong with firing 3s. They're worth an extra point, after all. But when you're cold, you have to find easy ways to score. It's not rocket science. Florida appears to lack that ability.

No. 23 Louisville 77, West Virginia 74: With so many teams across the country -- not to mention in the Big East -- looking adrift in the second week of February, the Louisville Cardinals present a refreshing contrast.

For so much of the season, this team's offensive struggles looked likely to derail a once-promising campaign. On Jan. 7, the Cardinals scored .92 points per trip in a home loss to Notre Dame. A few days later, the Cards were drubbed at Providence 90-59, and the only thing more disconcerting than the strange defensive drop-off -- PC scored 1.34 ppp that day -- was Louisville's continued inability to counter on the offensive end. Those struggles continued the week after, at Marquette, where UL posted another bad offensive night (.89 ppp). The Cardinals' defense would be fine. But as the midseason Big East losses revealed, a good D wasn't good enough to make up for such thorough offensive woes. If Rick Pitino's team couldn't score consistently, its hopes of a deep NCAA tournament run could be only limited.

A few weeks later, after Saturday's 13-point rally in Morgantown's brutal atmosphere, there's no mistaking the Cardinals' forward progress. Louisville scored 77 points in 61 possessions, getting balanced double-digit scoring from five players. One of those players, freshman guard Wayne Blackshear, made his debut performance after early season injuries kept him out of the lineup, and he was immediately productive, posting 13 points and four rebounds on 5-of-9 from the field and 3-of-5 from 3 in his 20 minutes of run. Blackshear's productive entry into the rotation is a fantastic sign for this team, but the trend lines are moving upward anyway.

Louisville has now won six in a row (including road games at Pitt and Seton Hall). Those wins have been due in part to its defense, the fourth best in Big East play to date, but also to an impressive offensive burst. In its past six games, Pitino's team is averaging 1.12 points per trip. The Cardinals aren't setting the world ablaze, but the improvement can't be discounted. Outside of Syracuse, there aren't many teams in the Big East playing better.

No. 2 Syracuse 85, Connecticut 67: Speaking of Syracuse, there are few places in the country you'd rather not visit after a road loss like the one Connecticut took at Louisville this week. The Huskies were not only outplayed but outworked. Ryan Boatright said the Huskies "basically gave up." Alex Oriakhi called it "embarrassing." Both were right. Games like that can rupture already shaky teams. They can lead to season-destroying slumps. After the Louisville loss, UConn was 3-7 in its past 10. A team this talented should never be on the bubble. The Huskies most certainly were and are.

So on to Saturday. The final score in this one looked ugly, and maybe it was always going to. With Fab Melo fully restored in the middle of SU's brutal 2-3 zone, the Orange are almost impossible to beat in the Carrier Dome. But despite the ugly final score, UConn actually acquitted itself well. Syracuse controlled the game and its pace for much of the first half and early into the second, and appeared set to pull away early and often. But the Huskies kept coming, never quite able to overtake Cuse but never truly fading away, either. After 30 minutes of this back and forth, a C.J. Fair dunk gave SU a nine-point lead. But by the 6:28 mark in the second half, the Huskies had fought back again, closing the lead to just 63-61.

That was the closest the Huskies would get. Two Scoop Jardine 3s and a handful of Dion Waiters buckets unleashed an impressive 22-6 run in the final minutes. This just in: Syracuse is really, really good. But for a Huskies team that spent most of its time at Louisville walking back on defense (and watching the Cardinals dunk with ease) -- and spent the days after questioning its own emotional makeup -- this was a much more encouraging display, even in a loss.

No. 5 North Carolina 70, No. 20 Virginia 52: How would the Tar Heels bounce back? That was the eminent question surrounding North Carolina this week. Kendall Marshall, Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes all experienced the worst of what college basketball has to offer in Wednesday night's devastating come-from-ahead home loss to rival Duke. They no doubt spent the next two days hearing gleeful (or downright angry) Duke and UNC fans flood the Triangle's local airwaves with criticism -- of their bad decision-making, their defensive lapses, their turnovers and (perhaps most cuttingly, at least from what I heard on my day-after drive from Chapel Hill to Charlotte) their Tar Heels heart.

In the end, perhaps this was the perfect way to regroup. Virginia is a good, steady team, but one whose best and most important player -- Mike Scott -- does most of his work in the interior, where UNC's defense is at its strongest. Scott still scored 18 points Saturday, but he needed an uncharacteristic 17 shots to get there, while guards Jontel Evans and Joe Harris combined to shoot 6-of-20 from the field. Most of those shots felt difficult, challenged; Zeller and frontcourt mate John Henson forced the Cavaliers' perimeter players to finish most of their drives moving away from the rim, rather than toward it. Meanwhile, Zeller (25 points, nine boards, three assists, three steals, one block) rebounded from Wednesday's disaster brilliantly.

UNC's offense was hardly vintage, and the Tar Heels' struggles from beyond the arc (they were 1-for-10 today) are still a concern. But facing one of the nation's best defenses, with the horrors of this week still (no matter what they might say publicly) undoubtedly fresh in their minds, the Heels flashed the kind of defense that should be their bulwark against occasional struggles (or, you know, full-on crunch-time meltdowns) the rest of the way.

Other random observations from this afternoon's games:
  • North Carolina wasn't the only first-place ACC team in need of a rebound after a brutal loss Wednesday night. That condition applied to Florida State, too, which lost to one of the worst power-conference teams in the country (Boston College) earlier this week. ESPNU analyst (and former Wake Forest coach) Dino Gaudio was dead on in his studio analysis Saturday: When Florida State's guards are good -- when they're taking care of the ball and shooting well -- the Seminoles are an entirely different team. That backcourt play is what led them to the seven straight ACC wins, to their blowout of UNC, to their road win at Duke, and that backcourt play is what cost them questionable losses in the nonconference as well as the ACC opener to Clemson. Bernard James and Okaro White are predictable contributors in the paint. James (18 points, six rebounds, two steals, four blocks) was excellent Saturday, and FSU got past a streaking Miami team as a result. It's the FSU guards who are the wild card.
  • And how would Duke move on from its insane, emotionally draining win? Would Maryland take advantage of that still-questionable defense and shock the Blue Devils at home? Not so much. Coach K's team moved on from Wednesday's win-for-the-ages with a solid if unspectacular home-court defense. Austin Rivers was off from the field, but balanced scoring from Seth Curry and Miles Plumlee, as well as a defense that held Maryland to far less than a point per trip, were more than enough to get the Blue Devils a win. Hangover avoided.
  • Early candidate for Weirdest Game of the Day award goes to Texas 75, Kansas State 64. Why? Because the Wildcats scored 40 points in the first half, taking a 13-point lead and apparent command of the game into the break. And then things fell apart. K-State posted a 24-point second half as the Longhorns found their offense en route to a 48-point (!!) second-half outburst. What was the difference? Free throws. Texas shot 48 free throws Saturday. Kansas State shot 12. The Longhorns attempted seven more free throws than field goals; they posted a free throw rate of 117.1 percent. That should be impossible. Apparently, it is not.
  • How good was Marquette's offense in its 95-78 win over Cincinnati? Count the ways: The Golden Eagles scored 1.39 (!!) points per trip, shot 34-of-60 from the field and cashed 20 of their 24 free throw attempts. Cincinnati wasn't bad, per se. (Although the Bearcats might want to rediscover their mid-Big East form before their NCAA tournament chances fade from distance.) On the contrary, Marquette -- which has now won nine of its past 10 -- was just too good. Considering the Golden Eagles started from a 16-4 deficit in the first few minutes (something Buzz Williams' team does almost every game, it seems), this was an offensive burst for the ages.
  • Rick Majerus got another key conference win Saturday, moving to 8-3 in the A-10 after a 59-52 victory at La Salle. That defense was typical. SLU entered Saturday ranked No. 11 in adjusted defensive efficiency. In a wide-open A-10, one in which Temple appears the only sure thing, the Billikens' defensive brilliance could take them far.
  • If Virginia Commonwealth keeps stacking solid CAA road wins, we might just have to consider this Rams team -- which is now 22-5 and 13-2 in conference play -- in the at-large bubble picture. The Rams' schedule was a bit weak this season, but even so, considering the stars they lost after 2011's miraculous Final Four run, they've been better than anyone could have expected in 2012.
  • Larry Shyatt's storybook first season at Wyoming hit a snag Saturday afternoon. This team has never been much to look at on offense this season, but even so, it's hard to hold a team to 48 points and lose by 10, which is exactly what the Cowboys did in the Pit today against New Mexico. Then again, when you shoot 14-of-54 from the field and just 5-of-16 from 3, it's not hard to figure out how you put up just 38 points in 57 possessions. This loss might not knock Wyoming entirely out of the bubble race, but unless Shyatt's squad can find some offense on the road down the stretch, those long-shot hopes could fade rather quickly.
  • Saturday's Southern Illinois-Indiana State game didn't mean much in the grand scheme of things, but when an NCAA record is set, we take notice. That's exactly what happened when the Sycamores finished the game 12-for-12 from the 3-point line, the most 3s without a miss in NCAA history. The previous record for most 3s without a miss was nine, by Minnesota against Penn State on Jan. 11, 2009.