Syracuse and Duke deliver fireworks during a chaotic weekend
Jim Boeheim called the win over Duke one of the best games he’d coached at the Carrier Dome. ESPN’s Dick Vitale called it one of the best games he’d ever called.
The only question: Why did it take so long for such a game to occur?
Syracuse and Duke lived up to its promise of two national title-contending teams meeting for the first time in 16 years, but it was only a slice of a chaotic basketball weekend.
Seven ranked teams lost to unranked foes on Saturday and Sunday. Five top-10 teams lost, not least of which was one of three remaining undefeated teams (Arizona) and one of the flavors of the week (Michigan).
That leaves Syracuse and Wichita State as the only undefeated teams in the country as the calendar turns to March.
The next question is how long these winning streaks can last. Both Pittsburgh and Duke pushed Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. The Orange will play both on the road in February.
What appears to be the toughest road stretch for Wichita State begins this week with a trip to Indiana State on Wednesday and another to Northern Iowa on Saturday.
The 10 Most Important Things in College Basketball this Week
1a. We want more of what Syracuse and Duke delivered
Few regular season games can match what occurred at the Carrier Dome on Saturday. Syracuse’s 91-89 win in overtime over Duke will stand with any NCAA Tournament game in 2014 as the highlight of the year. Two 900-win coaches went back and forth strategically, the stars performed, and unsung heroes made their impacts. If this is what an expanded ACC — with Louisville joining next season, mind you — we’ll take it.
1b. C.J. Fair and the Syracuse frontcourt delivered
Perhaps an outsized amount of attention has been given to Syracuse’s fantastic freshman point guard. True, Tyler Ennis came up with a key basket at the end and nine assists in the win over Duke, but this was the C.J. Fair show for a good bit. The veteran forward showed off his ability to score from any spot inside the arc, finishing 12 of 20 for 28 points. Jerami Grant added 24, including a perfect 10 for 10 from the free throw line. And Rakeem Christmas defended Rodney Hood on a potential dunk to take a lead with 14.3 remaining. Christmas could have been called for a foul, but the call never came, keeping Syracuse ahead.
1c. Duke is national title worthy
The Blue Devils had their lapses in ACC play, but there was enough Saturday to show Duke has the pieces for a title run. Jabari Parker was in foul trouble, but the Blue Devils kept coming back against undefeated team on the road. Most encouraging was the play of role players like Amile Jefferson with six offensive rebounds, Tyler Thornton with three consecutive 3-pointers late in the second half and Rasheed Sulaimon and Andre Dawkins combining for 30 points.
2a. Arizona is about to get tested twice over
Arizona’s first loss of the season seemed imminent in retrospect. On Wednesday, the Wildcats needed all 40 minutes to pull away for a 10-point win over Utah before a defensive stand and a late 3 from Nick Johnson finally put away Stanford. Saturday's late-night loss to Cal wasn’t so much a shocking loss for Arizona as much as it was a culmination of three consecutive less-than-dominant games. The bigger news is the season-ending injury to starting forward Brandon Ashley, who averages 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. The Wildcats can insert freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (8 ppg, 5.4 rpg) or go with a three-guard lineup. Either way, this is will be a major adjustment for a team that has gotten this far without a major incident.
2b. This shot from Justin Cobbs:
3a. Rick Barnes has gone from hot seat to possible national coach of the year
After years of letdowns, Texas is basking in being one of the nation’s true surprise teams, a development that took one more giant step with a 81-69 win over Kansas in Austin. Rick Barnes may not win national coach of the year, but he should be in the discussion. Texas, the same team that lost to Houston in the CBI last season, has defeated four ranked teams in four games.
3b. Texas beat up Kansas up front
The most impressive part of Texas’ win? The way the Longhorns outworked Kansas around the basket. Forward Jonathan Holmes finished with 22 points and three blocks while center Cameron Ridley, a McDonald’s All-American who once appeared to be a bust, had 10 rebounds and four blocks. Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins entered the game on a two-game hot streak before finishing 2 of 12 from the field.
4a. Kentucky woke up, but there’s still reason to be worried.
Kentucky came back from a disconcerting loss to LSU to beat Missouri 84-79. That’s a good road win over one of the few NCAA contenders in the the SEC, but there’s still plenty here for John Calipari to nitpick. Kentucky still struggled to defend guards Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson as most SEC teams do. The Tigers duo combined for 21 of 34 shots and 61 points. Missouri got little outside of that pairing, however. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s four best freshmen combined for 73 points and showed a good spark after the LSU loss.
4b. Hello, Jabari Brown
5. Ohio State has stopped the bleeding while Wisconsin is still in a tailspin
The Buckeyes and Badgers started a combined 31-0 and went 1-9 thereafter. Someone had to win Saturday, and Ohio State waited until the final possession to seal the 59-58 win. The Buckeyes moved starter Shannon Scott to a more familiar role as the top guy of the bench. He and his replacement in the starting lineup, Sam Thompson, combined for only 11 points, but Ohio State was more aggressive in the offensive end. Wisconsin, though, struggled to find a shot for the second consecutive game, finishing 3 of 17 from 3-point range.
6. Yogi Ferrell is keeping things interesting for Indiana
Ferrell was one of the most impactful players of the weekend. He scored 27 points and guarded Nik Stauskas, who scored only six, in Indiana’s 63-52. It’s been tempting to write off the Hoosiers this season after losses to Nebraska on the road and Northwestern at home in recent weeks, but Indiana is still in the thick of the NCAA at-large conversation thanks to wins over Wisconsin and Michigan.
7. Michigan State needs Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson in the worst way
The Spartans perhaps stretched their roster as far as it could go without Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson. Michigan State lost 64-60 to Georgetown at Madison Square Garden on Saturday in what might be the Spartans’ last game without Payne. Dawson’s return is weeks away, but Payne could rejoin the team against Penn State on Thursday after missing seven games. The Hoyas had lost five in a row.
8a. Baylor ended its funk in unlikely fashion
Baylor’s collapse ended (Scott Drew hopes) at a time no one could have envisioned. Baylor visited Stillwater with altered travel plays due to weather and no Kenny Chery due to injury. Even without its point guard, Baylor defeated Oklahoma State 76-70 for the Bears’ second Big 12 win. Gary Franklin had 11 points and five assists subbing for Chery, but Brady Heslip’s long-range scoring was the story of the day as Heslip hit six 3s in a 20-point performance.
8b. What’s wrong with Phil Forte and Marcus Smart?
Smart got his seven assists, but he has not been the Big 12 player of the year contender in recent games. Smart has been brutal from 3-point range in recent games, shooting 3 of 28 from beyond the arc in the last four games. The real question is why a 29.7-percent 3-point shooter is taking seven 3s against Baylor. Sharpshooter Phil Forte also was in a funk, going 0 of 4 from the floor. Oklahoma State hasn’t really been the same since forward Michael Cobbins was lost for the season, and now Stevie Clark is in trouble again. The freshman point guard was arrested for the second time this season during the weekend.
9. Virginia is legitimately in the race for the ACC title
The Cavaliers defeated Pittsburgh 48-45 on the road Sunday to put the Cavaliers in second place in the ACC standings. The Cavaliers don’t have the national notoriety of some of the teams in their league, but they’re right in the ACC race. Virginia is 7-1, already had its meeting with Duke and catches Syracuse at home. The sub-50 point total isn’t appealing, but the Cavs deserve credit for winning on an off night for Joe Harris (4 of 12, 11 points). Malcolm Brogdon was the hero again.
10. Larry Brown is going to the NCAA Tournament
SMU responded from its setback against USF to beat a ranked Memphis team 87-72 on Saturday, a major statement win for a team seeking to beef up its NCAA Tournament resume. As long as the Mustangs don’t collapse down the stretch, SMU can use these two top-50 wins (Connecticut is the other) for an at-large bid. SMU hasn’t been to the Tournament since 1993, and coach Larry Brown hasn’t been since leading Kansas to the 1988 title.
• Give credit to North Carolina freshman Kennedy Meeks playing a role in the Tar Heels quest for consistency. He had 20 rebounds in 39 minutes in the last two games as North Carolina has won four of five.
• While you were getting ready for Super Bowl festivities, UCLA lost 71-67 to Oregon State. Arizona has its questions coming out of the Cal loss, but UCLA continues to be one of a handful of Pac-12 teams without the ability to consistently defeated the lower-tier teams in the league.
• Point guard DeAndre Kane was the early frontrunner for Big 12 player of the year, but Iowa State forwards Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim have played a lead role in pulling Iowa State out of its funk. Niang had 27 points and Ejim had 22 points and 16 boards in the 81-75 win over Oklahoma on Saturday
• Chris Collins should be in the Big Ten Coach of the Year discussion even if his team won’t play in the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern defeated Minnesota (minus Andre Hollins) 55-54 for back-to-back Big Ten road wins. The Wildcats are 5-5 in the league including wins over Wisconsin and Indiana on the road.
• Not a great look for Xavier: The Musketeers lost 68-60 at home to Seton Hall for its second consecutive loss. Xavier can’t afford many of those kinds of losses.
• Florida State’s stock has plummeted since starting 12-4. The Seminoles’ 53-49 home loss to Clemson was their fourth in five games.
• West Virginia is probably NIT-bound, but the Mountaineers had a nice week with a win at Baylor and a 10-point win over Kansas State. West Virginia needs all the momentum it can get. The schedule down the stretch is brutal.