The Big Boys
After sucking the souls from Louisville last Tuesday, the Blue Devils avoided a hangover when they hosted NC State on Saturday. Duke led nearly wire-to-wire en route to a comfortable 16-point victory at Cameron. RJ Barrett stuffed the stat sheet with a triple-double (23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) while turning it over zero times. Oh, and that Zion guy chipped in with a casual 32 points on just 15 field goal attempts, missing fewer shots from the floor (12/15) than from the charity stripe (8/13).
‘Bubble Boy Brad’ must feel right back at home this season. After nearly extinguishing all hot-seat rumors with an outstanding season last year, Brad Brownell and the Tigers have been trapped in bubble wrap once again. Clemson traveled to Louisville on Saturday still searching for a signature ACC win, while the Cardinals just needed some emotional and spiritual healing to cure the trauma still lingering from last week’s devastating collapse against Duke.
Louisville took command late in the 2nd half to pull ahead of the visiting Tigers by 7 points with less than 20 seconds left in regulation. On back-to-back possessions, a Marcquise Reed triple was followed by a Louisville turnover, which erased that 7-point deficit in the blink of an eye and almost culminated in yet another late game catastrophe for the Cardinals…
Virginia Tech squeaked past Pitt 70-64 to improve its “Justin Robinson-less” record to 2-2. With a 4-game sample size in hand, it’s becoming abundantly clear how vital Robinson was to the Hokies’ prolific scoring attack. While fringe lottery pick Nickeil Alexander-Walker is oozing with talent, asking him to take on some of the ball handling and decision-making responsibilities once owned by Robinson is a hefty demand. Wabissa Bede has been serviceable in Robinson’s absence, but his offensive limitations puts an added strain on NAW and Kerry Blackshear down low to consistently create offense.
Not only did Marquette get to rest and recover while sitting idle at home this weekend, but the Golden Eagles got some help from St. John’s when the Red Storm downed Villanova in the Big Apple Sunday afternoon. Despite trailing by as many as 14 points midway through the 2nd half, the Johnnies rode the juice of a raucous home crowd at Madison Square Garden to fluster the visiting Wildcats. It felt like a milestone moment for Chris Mullins, whose decision to ramp up the defensive pressure late in the game sparked the comeback - this buzzer-beating half-court heave from Justin Simon right before halftime didn’t hurt either…
With the upper tier of the league continuing to distance themselves from the rest of the pack, only four teams are sporting a conference record above .500. The number of credible at-large resumes is dwindling by the day as Creighton and Providence each suffered their 9th conference loss on Saturday, dropping the Jays and Friars into a 2-way tie for last place. While Nova, Marquette and St. John’s are safe bets to punch their ticket, Butler and Seton Hall have some work left do before they can hear their names called on Selection Sunday.
In what is arguably the most brutal conference top-to-bottom, the Big Ten’s top dogs held their ground over the weekend. All five favorites prevailed on Saturday, while Michigan State took care of business against a surging Ohio State squad yesterday. Purdue and Michigan won handily on their home floors, Minnesota poked another hole in Indiana’s rapidly deflating bubble and Iowa silenced the rowdy Rutgers patrons with this improbable buzzer-beater bank shot to escape with a 2-point victory.
One of the biggest stories from the weekend came out of East Lansing, when it was reported that Nick Ward suffered a hairline fracture in his left hand. It was initially rumored that the injury could keep him out for the rest of the season but new reports have confirmed Ward should miss 3-5 weeks, which implies he could return in time for the Big Ten tournament (set to begin March 13th). Already down Josh Langford, the loss of Ward further exacerbates the Spartans’ depth concerns and strips offensive conductor Cassius Winston of yet another reliable scoring option. The improving health of fellow veteran forwards Kenny Goins and Kyle Ahrens should lessen the blow, but neither possesses Ward’s rare combination of size and mobility, the two traits that make Ward an irreplaceable weapon in Sparty’s half-court and transition attack.
Congratulations America, you have officially jinxed the rest of the Big-12. A big fat thank you is order on behalf of all Kansas fans for once again counting out the Jayhawks too soon in their quest for a 15th straight conference title belt. Thanks to a little help from Iowa State, who took down Kansas State in Manhattan, the Beakers are right back in the thick of the Big-12 title race. Currently, just one game separates the top-4 contenders in the upper-tier of the conference standings:
Kansas State: 9-3
Texas Tech: 9-4
Iowa State: 8-4
Kenpom.com currently projects all four of these squads to finish in a 4-way tie for a split share of the Big-12 title belt at 12-6, which is all KU needs to keep the streak alive. Kansas now gets a week off to prepare for next Saturday’s showdown in Lubbock, where a win over Texas Tech would put the Jayhawks back in the driver’s seat. The extended break should also give Marcus Garrett some additional time to heal before the trip to Lubbock, which comes just two days before hosting K-State the following Monday.
The Jayhawks’ odds of repeating as league champs were tilted in their favor when Dean Wade re-injured his foot in the Wildcats’ 78-64 home loss to Iowa State on Saturday. K-State fans know better than anyone just how much Wade means, but the following graphic from hooplens.com says it all - when Wade is on the floor, the Wildcats are a 0.24 points per possession more efficient (.14 PPP on offense + .10PPP on defense) compared to when he sits:
Trust be told, the Putrid-12 no longer deserves its own section in this part of the Wrap-up. According to kenpom.com’s conference rankings, the AAC has officially passed the Pac-12 for the 6th best league in the country, which marks the lowest the league has been ranked since 2004. As we discussed on our most recent podcast, Arizona State is the Pac-12’s last hope to avoid the looming shame of being a one-bid league. Washington is the only team safely projected in the field at the moment while Arizona State is hovering right on the cut line, per bracketmatrix.com. There is a crater-sized gap between the Sun Devils and the Pac-12’s next best at-large resume, which at this point is probably Oregon.
Kentucky knows all too well what it’s like to navigate the unforgiving SEC schedule with a perpetual target on your back. Perhaps it was a refreshing change of perspective for the Wildcats, who got the rare opportunity to play the role as “hunter” when the top-ranked Volunteers came to Lexington. Having not lost in nearly three months, Tennessee finally handed the SEC bulls-eye back over Kentucky after the Cats dominated the Vols from start-to-finish. UK came out predictably hungry after a controversial call against LSU earlier in the week handed the Wildcats their first home loss of the season. The result? A complete and well-balanced effort, paced by PJ Washington’s efficient 23-point performance against a burly Tennessee frontline.
Don’t look now, but PJ Washington is closely creeping behind Grant Williams in the SEC Player of the Year race. Washington has emerged as the undisputed alpha and de-facto veteran leader among the laundry list of talented freshmen for John Calipari. After a choppy freshman campaign, Washington is now playing in his more natural position at the 4, alongside the beefy Reed Travis inside, and is feasting on any opposing forward who tries to check him.
Despite being adored by the advanced numbers, Florida badly needed a notable win in conference to bolster their NCAA tournament resume over the weekend. Who would’ve thought the Gators could score 1.18 points per possession and shoot 68% from inside the arc against the stingy Alabama defense in Tuscaloosa. Andrew Nembhard was perfect from the field and converted his only two free-throw attempts to lead all scorers with 21.
Just when it looks like Mississippi State is on the verge of cracking, the Bulldogs manage to respond with a timely bounce back effort. Such was the case on Saturday when MSU traveled to Fayetteville to take on Arkansas, overcoming a poor outside shooting performance to notch their 6th conference win of the year. Ben Howland was strapped for bodies with Nick Weatherspoon serving the first game of his indefinite suspension, leaving Mississippi State with a tight 7-man rotation.
Auburn tallied its 2nd road win of the season in Nashville on Saturday when the Tigers dished Vanderbilt its 12th loss in a row. The loss of Darius Garland continues to haunt Bryce Drew, who is now stuck watching a discombobulated offense throw up brick after brick. For a roster we once thought had a surplus of shooting, the Commodores now rank 2nd to last in the SEC in effective field goal percentage and dead last in both 2-point and FT shooting percentages.
The Best of the Rest
There was no shortage of drama this weekend in college basketball, thanks to some wild finishes found all across the mid-major landscape…
Of all the worthy nominees, the blue ribbon for wildest finish on Saturday goes to ‘the Dakota Duel’ between the Jackrabbits and the Bison. Despite trailing for nearly the entire game, South Dakota State rallied from 9 points down with just two minutes left to pull within one possession of rival North Dakota State. Faced with the infamous conundrum of “to foul or not to foul” up 3 points, head coach Dave Richman directed his players to foul and put David Jenkins to the free-throw line with 4 seconds left. Jenkins drained both, and a smart, immediate foul by Mike Daum on the subsequent inbounds pass sent Rocky Kreuser to the charity stripe with 3 seconds remaining.
In what felt like a Hollywood scripted ending, Kreuser missed the second freebie (after making the first), which opened the door for David Jenkins to shove a samurai sword into the hearts of Bison fans everywhere…
In a much anticipated bout between two of the A-10’s top contenders, Dayton head coach Anthony Grant welcomed his former employer to town when the Flyers hosted VCU on Saturday. A 7-minute scoreless drought in the first half helped the Rams pull ahead to a comfortable lead early, which they stretched to a 21-point margin with 15 minutes remaining in the 2nd half. The resilient Flyers clawed their way back against the suffocating VCU defense and actually regained the lead before the under 4-minute timeout.
Obi Toppin’s and-1 with 15 seconds left sent a charge through an already electric crowd, giving the Flyers a one point advantage with Toppin’s impending free-throw coming.
In the same vein as the aforementioned North Dakota State / South Dakota State ending, an untimely miss from the charity stripe paved the way for some late game heroics - this time, it was Marcus Evans who wore the cape:
There was no better way to cap off the weekend of college hoops than the encore Quinnipiac and Siena served up yesterday afternoon. All you need to know is that the following highlight reel led off SportsCenter…
Cameron Young’s 55-point explosion had not been matched in over a decade, while Jalen Pickett’s video game-esque stat line of 46 points, 13 assists and 4 steals with just 1 turnover may have actually been the better all-around performance. Perhaps even more mind-boggling is the fact that Siena committed just 4 turnovers TOTAL in 55 minutes of action, which computes to a minuscule turnover rate of 4.8%.
Two other players went off for 40 plus points over the weekend, the most notable of which being Austin Peay standout Terry Taylor. Taylor poured in 42 points and hauled in 18 rebounds to sneak past Morehead State on the road, keeping the Governors just one game back of Murray State and Belmont in the OVC title race. The other 40-point outburst came out of the MEAC from Hampton’s Jermaine Marrow, who nearly dragged the Pirates to a win over Tubby Smith and the High Point Panthers. Ultimately, the Pirates would fall short in overtime, but Harrow is household name worth knowing in the Big South.
It would be an egregious oversight if we didn’t pay tribute to Mr. Chris Clemons, the 9th and newest member of college basketball’s 3,000 point club. The Campbell Camels senior star eclipsed that milestone with a “modest” 29-point performance in a road loss to Presbyterian. South Dakota State’s Mike Daum will soon join Clemons as the 10th member of that prestigious fraternity, as ‘the Dauminator’ will have three consecutive home games to score 57 total points with his current point meter sitting at 2,943.
While no one player lit up the scoreboard in Southern Miss’ demolition of UTEP on Saturday, it’s worth calling out just how lopsided this game was. While the final score of 77-47 looks like just another blowout on the surface, this was after the Miners closed the game on a 26-6 run. Yes, you mathematicians likely reverse engineered what ESPN’s game flow graphic below will tell you - Southern Miss at one point led this game by 50!