- Matt Cox
With winter storms barricading a good chunk of the country indoors this weekend, there was no better time to curl up on the cushiony seating arrangement of your choice and let the cable TV wash over you. The ESPN, CBS and FOX family of networks showcased a number of high profile matchups, which amounted to merely a ‘blip’ of the colossal 150-game slate on Saturday.
Chances you missed something meaningful? High to quite high…
Luckily for you, we’re here to package up the weekend headlines into a succinct synopsis for your consumption - enjoy!
The Big Boys
In the marquee matchup of the weekend, a damaged Duke team without its floor general and defensive disrupter, Tre Jones, rode the burly shoulders of Zion Williamson and his fellow freshman phenom, RJ Barrett, to spoil Virginia’s quest for perfection. As cited by SB Nation’s Duke Basketball Report, no team led by more than 3 points for nearly the entire 2nd half before the Blue Devils strung together a few key stops with under three minutes remaining to seal the victory.
Of all the Zion to Lebron James parallels tossed around, none is more appropriate than how their ‘Energizer Bunny’ stamina and unbreakable durability defy everything we know about the human body. Over the last two games, Zion has come off the floor for a grand total of two minutes, while Barrett has gone the distance in each of the last two games, including the 5-minute overtime against Syracuse. Perhaps the slow tempo dictated by the Cavaliers ended up being a blessing in disguise for the pair of iron men, but Coach K also aided his two superstars by mixing in some zone defense to help them stay rested. Saturday’s barn burner with UVA marked the lowest possession game of the year for Duke, which should serve as a critical teaching moment for a young team that will likely be forced to win more methodically-paced, half-court games when the stakes are raised in March.
Virginia Tech improved to 4-1 in the ACC with a 87-71 bounce back win over Wake Forest on Saturday, just a few days after the Hokies got slowly roasted by the Virginia pressure cooker on Tuesday. Buzz Williams’ bunch has looked far from dominant since the calendar turned to 2019, needing multiple late game runs to overcome slow starts against Notre Dame, Boston College and Georgia Tech.
The luck of the Irish has been MIA this season, as Notre Dame dropped another nail-biter on Saturday, this time at home to NC State. The shorthanded Irish gave back-to-back valiant efforts last week (including a close call with North Carolina on Tuesday), but it’s looking like injuries will doom Notre Dame’s season for the 2nd year in a row - the Irish in the Dance has been a near lock over the past two decades as Mike Brey hasn’t missed the tournament in back-to-back seasons since 2005.
Louisville handed out another ass-kicking Saturday when the Cardinals dismantled an ailing Georgia Tech team without its primary source of offense, Jose Alvarado. As much credit as Chris Mack deserves for pulling all the right strings this year, sophomore standout Jordan Nwora has paced the Cardinals’ scintillating 4-1 start. Nwora has taken his game to a new level since ACC play ramped up - when he’s not gobbling up every opponent miss on defense, he’s torching the nets from downtown as the much needed catalyst to Louisville’s offense. Nwora’s connected on 46% of his triples so far in ACC action and has posted a 120 O-Rating in 4 of his 5 conference games.
In typical Miami fashion, the Hurricanes ran out of gas in the 2nd half against North Carolina on Saturday after entering the halfway mark tied with the Heels. Miami fans have seen this movie before - the Canes trailed NC State and Florida State at the half by 2 points and 4 points, respectively, and led Louisville by a point at the break, but a severe lack of depth has cost Miami precious late game leads in all four of their ACC losses.
Staying in the panhandle, is it time for Leonard Hamilton to hit the panic button in Tallahassee? While the letdown at Pittsburgh after the Duke game was beyond predictable, the Noles’ followed it up with another dud at Boston College on Sunday. Granted, the Eagles were unconscious from behind the arc (13/21 from 3), but letting Ky Bowman go bananas is simply inexcusable with how flushed that roster is with athletic wings. Bowman’s 37-point outburst helped BC tally its first ACC win and snap a 4-game conference losing streak.
While Duke / Virginia attracted the attention of late afternoon observers, Michigan’s visit to the Kohl Center was the premier matchup of Saturday’s early segment. It was a battle of the bigs in Madison, as Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ out dueled Jon Teske to the tune of 26 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists. However, it was the controversial flagrant foul call in final minute of the game which garnered most of the social media fodder. With 51 seconds remaining, Jon Beilein attempted to employ the ‘Hack-a-Happ’ strategy and send the preseason All-American on a dreaded trip to the charity stripe. Iggy Brazdeikis intentionally fouled Happ away from the ball, prompting the referee to blow the whistle shortly after.
The zebras quickly huddled up shortly after the call and declared the off-ball foul a flagrant 1, turning John Beilein, a typically cool customer, into a raging frenzy. Here’s what both coaches had to say on the matter in their respective postgame press conferences:
Gard: “It’s a rule. It’s in the video. Can’t do it. It made the video after last year’s season. So anything that’s not a play on the ball like that, it’s a rule. I thought it was the right call.”
Beilein: “We have never done that off the ball, but yeah, you can do that. I mean, I’ve done it before. But apparently they saw that — I think Iggy was probably telling them, I’m fouling him, I’m fouling him. But the way I interpreted it, you put two hands on him, you grab him and you’re fouling him, it’s not, you swipe at his arms.
So I’ve got to be schooled up on that. Apparently it’s something new to me that I have to educate myself in. Because I told him, foul (Happ) off the ball. No different than fouling him on the ball.”
The bottom-line is this: As the rule below stipulates, this was clearly the correct call by the official. An unfortunate one, yes, but one Beilein should’ve known no doubt.
Indiana fans are hoping the impending rematch with in-state rival Purdue is far more competitive than the one-sided beatdown the Boilers dished out on Saturday in West Lafayette. While Carsen Edwards’ 20 points led all scorers, Purdue won this war in the trenches. Trevion Williams and Matt Haarms combined for 20 points and 8 rebounds in 37 minutes of action, while Grady Eifert and Nojel Eastern did their fair share of the dirty work, racking up 17 points and hauling in a whopping 16 rebounds of their own. With 7 games now in the books, a highly regarded IU defense has shown cracks far too often and currently ranks 9th in the Big Ten in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, a major reason for the Hoosiers current 4-game slide. Also, it might help if anyone - literally anyone - could make a free throw. For those of us out there holding Indiana +9 tickets, the 7/18 performance from the foul line was downright maddening.
Illinois followed up an impressive blowout of Minnesota at home by getting run out of the gym by the neighboring Iowa Hawkeyes in Iowa City. Iowa raced out to a comfortable 15-point lead at halftime and never looked back, thanks to one of the most prolific 3-point shooting displays you’ll ever see - the Hawkeyes hit 15 of 21 from the land of plenty, demoralizing a desperate Illinois team in dire need of a notable conference win. Tyler Cook returned to lineup after missing two of the prior four games, but it was freshman Joe Wieskamp who drove the bus for the Hawkeyes on Sunday. The former top-100 recruit was impeccable, making all 6 of his 3-point attempts, to go along with two more field goals from inside the arc and two more free-throws, all of which summed up to a career high tying 24 points.
Penn State squandered a double-digit lead to the Gophers on Saturday, keeping the “0” in their Big Ten win column firmly in-tact. After a sizzling start to the year, freshman Rasir Bolton has come crashing back down to Earth while his upperclassmen teammates, specifically the terrific trio of Josh Reaves, Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins, have each been cursed with a untimely shooting slump that has persisted since Big Ten play began. Currently, Penn State is sporting the league’s lowest team 3-point percentage at 27%, a figure that has nowhere to go but up as the rest of the season continues.
After falling to West Virginia in four straight seasons leading up to last year, Bill Self finally got the Huggins monkey off his back last season. The perimeter-oriented Jayhawks swept the Mountaineers in both regular season meetings, before beating the ‘Neers for a third and final time in the Big-12 championship game. Kansas set out to extend that 3-game winning streak on Saturday when the Beakers took a trip to the unfriendly confines of Morgantown, West Virginia. KU held a 6-point lead with just over 2 minutes left, but the old ghosts of WVU Coliseum returned when Jermaine Haley smooched a running right-hander off the window to give Huggins and Co. their first conference win of the season.
While Kansas remains in the crosshairs of the other Big-12 hunters, Texas Tech slipped up for the 2nd straight game, this time in Waco at the hands of a Baylor team who’s been reborn and reinvigorated since the inception of conference play. The Bears are now 3-2 in the Big-12, just a half game back of a 4-way tie for first place with Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State and the surging Kansas State Wildcats dueling it out at the top.
Villanova held onto sole possession of first place in the Big East with a 10-point win over Xavier on Saturday, while Marquette took care of its business at home against a physical Providence team on Sunday. While the rest of the league plays hot potato in the fight for 3rd place in the standings, the Wildcats and Golden Eagles have separated themselves from the pack at 5-0 and 5-1, respectively.
Don’t look now, but DePaul sits two games above Creighton and the aforementioned Friars in the Big East leaderboard after the Demons completed the season sweep of Seton Hall in New Jersey this weekend. Most expected North Carolina A&T transfer Femi Olujobi to fill a critical need in the middle for DePaul this year, but no one could’ve imagined him blossoming into an interior force. The 6’9 senior dominated the Pirates’ frontline with an efficient 22 point, 11 rebound showing, including a flawless performance from the charity stripe (10/10). With a long and talented backcourt already in-place led by Eli Cain and Max Strus, Dave Leitao has found a consistent source of production inside for an offense that was far too reliant on jump shooting early in the season.
This is that time of year where Kentucky typically reminds people that they are, well, still Kentucky. Big Blue nation waltzed right into a hostile environment against an Auburn team that typically feasts in front of their home fans, and wasted no time putting the host Tigers into a sleeper hold. The Wildcats did let their foot off the gas in the 2nd half, allowing the high-octane Tiger offense to come storming back, but it was too little, too late as UK improved to 4-1 in the SEC.
If it wasn’t for Alabama’s free-throw shooting incompetence against Tennessee on Saturday, Kentucky would likely be tied with Volunteers atop the SEC standings. The Crimson Tide turned in a home run effort in Knoxville thanks to John Petty’s Steph Curry impersonation. The feast-or-famine sophomore was feeling himself on Saturday, as Petty poured in 30 points off the bench to help Bama erase a 12-point halftime deficit. The Vols would ultimately ‘eek out a 3-point victory, but flirted with danger after Grant Williams’ lowered his shoulder into Donta Hall’s chest, picking up his 5th foul and handing the ball back to Alabama with just 9 seconds left.
In other news, Texas A&M’s futility was on display for all to see this weekend. After my colleague Ky held TJ Starks accountable for his atrocious play this season, he responded by stinking up the gym again, this time for the benefit of the visiting Missouri Tigers, who notched a much needed conference road win in convincing fashion. The Aggies posted a horrendous 0.68 points per possession, which was all made possible by the following laughable shooting splits from the floor:
2pt FG: 9/28 (32%)
3pt FG: 4/22 (18%)
FT: 13/25 (52%)
Washington beat Cal to remain all alone atop the Pac-12 totem pole at 5-0, while the Arizonas (Arizona and Arizona State) fended off the resident Oregon schools (Oregon and Oregon State) to hang on to their 2nd and 3rd place slots in the standings…
Any other Pac-12 questions?
Great, let’s move on!
The Best of the Rest
Ja’s Jaw-dropping Statline
There were far more important headlines across the mid and low major college hoops landscape, but we need to make sure we’re appreciating the greatness of Ja Morant, Murray State’s newest guard sensation. From BJ Jenkins to Isaiah Canaan to Cam Payne to Jonathan Stark, the Racers’ lineage of gamebreaking guards has churned out a laundry list of bonafide bucket getters - but none hold a candle to the video-game stats Morant is posting this season…
His most recent outburst - a 40-point, 11 assist explosion, which included a perfect 21 of 21 from the foul line, helped Murray improve to 6-0 in the OVC in a two-way tie for first place with Jacksonville State.
The Valley Lows
Hey Southern Illinois and Bradley, I would like a refund of my time - my eyeballs are still bleeding from yesterday afternoon after watching the offensively challenged Salukis and Braves take turns chucking rocks at the rim for two hours. As of this morning, the Valley ranks 27th out of all 32 conferences in overall offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, which puts the league on pace to finish in the bottom-5 in America for the fourth straight season in total offensive points per possession. Combine this with the fact that most teams play at a sloth’s pace, the Valley is becoming increasingly painful to watch on a nightly basis.
On a brighter note, it’s great to see Loyola rounding into form as the Ramblers knocked off a sneaky talented Indiana State team in Terre Haute this weekend to remain tied atop the MVC standings with Valparaiso. The Crusaders have emerged from a jumbled pack of fringe contenders as the primary early threat to de-throne the Ramblers, but a home loss last Tuesday to Loyola on their home floor may come back to bite Valpo as the race tightens down the stretch. Still, Valpo’s 5-1 start in the league is even more impressive when you consider the last three games (and 7 minutes of the game prior vs. Bradley) the Crusaders played without former Providence transfer and deadly wing sniper Ryan Fazekas.
Cincy Stings the Shockers
The Valley misses Wichita State more than ever, but not this year’s rendition of the Shockers. Wichita gutted out a much needed victory over UCF last week, but couldn’t parlay that momentum into a second valiant effort in a row when Cincinnati came to town on Saturday. Gregg Marshall was up against it to start the conference season, as an unforgiving schedule paired the Shockers against the AAC’s top-5 squads in Memphis, Temple, Houston, UCF and Cincy in five consecutive games.
The Ivy got one last jab at the rest of the country before they start beating up on each other after Penn outpaced Temple 77-70 on the Owls’ home floor on Saturday. Penn took command of an early lead and never looked back, an impressive feat given one of their top weapons, forward Max Rothschild, mustered just 5 minutes against a formidable Owl frontline. While Penn and Harvard have been hampered with some key injuries, the Bulldogs of Yale may be slowly distinguishing themselves as the clear cut frontrunner in the Ivy. Princeton currently resides all alone at the top of the league standings, but an unexpected arrest of star guard Devin Cannady could leave the Tigers without their top scorer and long range marksmen for the foreseeable future.
In terms of mid-major conference races, few games had higher stakes than the clash of the SoCon’s top-2 contenders, East Tennessee State and UNC Greensboro. Fueled by an unlikely hero in Angelo Allegri, who drained 5 threes off the bench in just 16 minutes of action, the Wes Miller led Spartans played like the team 3MW slotted to finish first in our SoCon preseason preview. After an embarrassing 30-point blowout at home to Wofford back on January 10th left us doubting that initial prognosis, the Spartans have righted the ship and now find themselves just one game back of the Terriers, with the highly anticipated rematch circled on the calendar for February 16th.
The Patriot League’s top-2 squads took to the hardwood on Saturday, Bucknell and Lehigh, each jockeying for sole possession of first place atop the conference standings at 4-1 a piece. After a tight battle in which neither team led by more than 6 points, Bucknell took charge late in the game to secure an enormous road victory in Bethlehem, PA. This two-horse race is far from finished and should come as no surprise to those who follow the league closely - Lehigh brought back 7 of its top 8 guys from a year ago, and despite the fact that Bucknell had to replace three All-Conference players in Zach Thomas, Nana Foulland and Stephen Brown, the Bison are never to be counted out as long as Nathan Davis is patrolling the sidelines. Though, failing to mention Army as a viable title contender would be shortsighted, especially after watching the Black Knights compete with Duke for a whole half earlier in the season (an achievement no other mid or low majors have come close to replicating).
The WAC Ain’t Whack
well, except for Chicago State… The poor Cougars are in the midst of a WAC renaissance in which 8 of its 9 teams are exceeding expectations by various degrees. While New Mexico State is the crown jewell of the league, Grand Canyon, Utah Valley and Cal State Bakersfield all field deep and experienced rosters with have the chops to win a game in the NCAA tournament if the Aggies slip up in the WAC championship come March. The real head-scratcher, however, is the free falling Seattle Redhawks, who entered conference play surging at 12-3, only to swing and miss in their first 5 conference games. While Cal Baptist, UT Rio Grande Valley and UMKC have each exchanged haymakers with the aforementioned favorites, Seattle will need a miracle turnaround to claw back to .500 in conference play. As far as Chicago State goes, welp, perhaps we’ve learned our lesson after betting on them not once, not twice, but thrice in our daily consensus against-the-spread picks.