With there still being one day left in the weekend we've gout ourselves quite the question: who should be the nation's top-ranked team when the new polls are released on Monday? The top two teams, Kansas and Kentucky, went on the road Saturday and return to their respective campuses with losses. The Jayhawks fell to an Oklahoma State team likely one marquee win away from sewing up an NCAA bid 85-77 as they were unable to slow down James Anderson (27 points, eight rebounds) and three other Cowboys who finished in double figures. Despite an offense that struggled once Oklahoma State got their lead it was the defense that had head coach Bill Self the most concerned.
"[And] obviously our toughness level defensively today was very, very poor and that can happen in the tournament in a one-and-done deal again," said Self. "Hopefully we can learn from that and understand that we weren't ready to defend today (quote courtesy of the Associated Press)." Oklahoma State shot 60.4% from the field and 52.6% from behind the arc. Also, the taller Jayhawks were out-rebounded by the smallish Cowboys 34-26, something that frankly should never happen when comparing the two frontcourts.
As for the Wildcats, they fell behind big at Tennessee and while they were able to fight their way back into the game picking up the win was another matter. Led by J.P. Prince, who scored 20 points and made three key baskets late, the Volunteers held off Kentucky 74-65 to give Bruce Pearl's team wins over both Kansas and Kentucky. Scotty Hopson added fifteen as Tennessee made a solid first half stand in which they limited the Wildcats to 24.5% shooting (led 40-29). Was Kentucky's lack of a prolific three-point shooter highlighted in this loss? They went 2-for-22 from behind the arc and didn't make their charge until John Wall (19 points) began driving to the basket with regularity.
"There are lots of ways to score against a zone other than the 3-point shot, but the 3-point shot certainly does open things up more," said Pearl. "They were 2-for-22 from 3-point range, and that is a big factor (quote courtesy of University of Tennessee Athletics)." If Kentucky resorts to firing away from deep against zones then they will have difficulties, but they saw for themselves what attacking the gaps of a zone can do. So while the top two teams went down on Saturday (and for different reasons) the wins mean more for their opponents than the losses do for them right now. As for who should be number one on Monday we received a rather emphatic answer on that as well.
Three Key Happenings
1. Syracuse makes a loud statement to the rest of the Big East...and the nation. The Orange clinched at least a share of the Big East regular season title and the top seed at the Big East Tournament with their 95-77 win over Villanova, a game that unfolded in a similar fashion to their blowout of Georgetown last month. The Wildcats took the lead early by knocking down some deep three-pointers, as did the Hoyas. And just like Georgetown they continued to fire away instead of committing to working the ball into the gaps of the zone, and that's just what the Orange want their opponents to do. After making four of their first five three-pointers Villanova missed twelve of their next thirteen as the Orange took a 46-36 lead into the locker room. The catalysts for Syracuse's comeback: Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph.
Both came off the bench ready to go and while the Syracuse reserves may not have the "strength in numbers" quality of other teams they make up for that lack of quantity with quality that few can match. For the game these two outscored Villanova's reserves 32-21 to supplement four starters reaching double figures. "The first half I thought Kris and Scoop were huge. They got us back into the game," said Coach Boeheim. "I've said all year long that those two guys are just like starters and they played just like starters (quote courtesy of Syracuse Athletics)." Add in the performances of Andy Rautins, Wes Johnson and Rick Jackson (can't forget Arinze Onuaku either) and Saturday night was just one more piece of evidence as to why Syracuse will be a one-seed come Selection Sunday and likely the top-ranked team come Monday.
2. New Mexico clinches a share of the Mountain West title with their seventh conference road win. The Mountain West's best road team got the job done again on Saturday, making big plays late to leave Provo with an 83-81 win over BYU. Dairese Gary led the way with 23 points while Darington Hobson scored 20 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and came up with the blocked shot of the year as far as their run to the conference title is concerned. Jimmer Fredette, considered to be right there with Hobson in terms of Mountain West Player of the Year, played just fifty-nine seconds in the second half due to a stomach virus and wasn't particularly effective in the first half either (six points). But by no means was this the reason for the Cougars' loss.
Michael Loyd Jr. (19 pts off the bench) and Tyler Haws (18 points) sparked the 12-1 early-second half run that turned an ten-point New Mexico lead into a 47-46 lead with 15:22 remaining. But in addition to these two getting going the Lobos obliged by not getting the ball inside and playing inside-out offensively, settling for contested perimeter jumpers that missed the mark. On the road attack the rim in some way, shape or form, and once Steve Alford's team got back to that they became more effective. Hobson and the oft-overlooked Roman Martinez (at least nationally) hit three pointers on consecutive possessions to take an 80-76 lead with 2:58 to go, and after Loyd Jr. tied the game with four straight points A.J. Hardeman scored on a crucial putback to give the Lobos the lead for good. Round three in Las Vegas? Definitely a possibility.
3. Charlotte and Rhode Island just two of many to squander opportunities. But is their fall costlier? The reason for the question: conference affiliation. Despite the caliber of play in the Atlantic 10 the fact is teams in higher-profile (read: BCS) leagues get more leeway for losing games against teams in the bottom half of the standings. Is this fair? No, but another fact is that those teams tend to have higher strength of schedule numbers due to the affiliation. That's why the 49ers (George Washington) and Rams (St. Bonaventure) dropping games on the road Saturday hurts a bit more than Florida losing at Georgia. Now both teams find themselves in the position of possibly having to win out as well as make a run in Atlantic City in two weeks if they're to be in the field of 65.
It also doesn't help when a team like Notre Dame, without Luke Harangody, can go on the road and win at Georgetown by double digits. Mississippi State avoided what would have been a damaging loss and won at South Carolina. Even Minnesota, who is still far off the at-large radar, bounced back from their loss to Purdue and won at Illinois. Are the Golden Gophers a viable option right now? Highly unlikely but who really knows what the selection committee is thinking? This is the kind of result that can erase a mediocre or bad loss and vault a team into consideration. In other words late-February and early-March is more about not giving the committee a reason to leave you out for bubble teams, especially if you're not in a BCS conference. Charlotte and Rhode Island may learn that the hard way if they don't round back into form soon.
Top Three Games
1. Marshall 121, UCF 115 (3OT) Chris Lutz led the Thundering Herd with 25 points while freshman big man Hassan Whiteside put up another triple-double (14 pts, 11 reb and 13 blocks) in Marshall's home win. Taylor Young led the Knights with 23 points while Isaac Sosa and Keith Clanton scored 20 apiece.
2. Maryland 104, Virginia Tech 100 (2OT) Delayed for a few hours due to water main breaks sparked by a beer truck hitting a fire hydrant, the Terps and Hokies still treated fans to a classic. Greivis Vasquez led all scorers with 41 points (seven rebounds and six assists as well) while Malcolm Delaney led Virginia Tech with 27 and Jeff Allen added 25 and 15 rebounds.
3. Morgan State 88, Norfolk State 87 (2OT) Troy Smith's layup with four seconds remaining gave the MEAC champs the win in Baltimore despite the Spartans receiving 23 points apiece from Michael Deloach and Kyle O'Quinn. Reggie Holmes led all scorers with 25 for the victors.
Three Notable Performances
1. G J.B. Conley (Texas State) In the Bobcats' 89-75 win over Northwestern State the junior, who now averages 8.4 points per game, went off for 42 points on 14-22 FG. He also grabbed seven rebounds and picked up three steals.
2. G Greivis Vasquez (Maryland) The senior made a major statement in the way of being named ACC Player of the Year, scoring 41 points while grabbing seven boards and handing out six assists in the Terps' 104-100 double-overtime win at Virginia Tech.
3. F Hassan Whiteside (Marshall) and F Adnan Hodzic (Lipscomb) Had to find room for both on this list. Whiteside posted his third triple-double of the season with 14 points, 11 rebounds and 13 blocks in a win over UCF. As for Hodzic, he likely sealed up Atlantic Sun Player of the Year with his 37 points and 17 boards in a win over Mercer.
Sunday's Big Games
Marquette at Seton Hall (Noon) The Golden Eagles look to be in good shape but the same can't be said for the Pirates. A win here would vault Bobby Gonzalez's team squarely into the conversation and may drop Marquette a rung.
Richmond at Xavier (1 PM) The winner grabs control of the Atlantic 10 race, and along with Temple these are the conference's three likely "shoo-ins" for the NCAA Tournament. A road win for the Spiders would be huge for their possible seeding while the Musketeers look to extend their run of dominance within the league.
Louisville at Connecticut (2 PM) The Huskies need to avenge their loss at Freedom Hall on Senior Day while a road win would more than likely punch Louisville's ticket to the NCAA Tournament. UConn has played well in their last three games and with Kemba Walker playing the best basketball of his career this is a team that could be getting hot at just the right time.
Michigan State at Purdue (4 PM) The Boilermakers play their first game without junior Robbie Hummel (torn right ACL) but they're still right in the middle of the race for the Big Ten title. The Spartans sit a game behind Purdue for first place and their veterans, most notably Raymar Morgan, need to raise their level of consistency in West Lafayette.