Florida, Creighton creep closer to conference championships
With all the talk of the NCAA Tournament, the bubble watch and which freshmen will be selected first in the NBA Draft, it’s too easy to forget that conference championships are important.
This weekend seemed to be a good time to reinforce that coaches and teams do put an emphasis on winning the league.
Florida moved a step closer to running the table in the SEC. Thanks to a signature win Sunday, the Big East may be won by a team in Omaha. And the Big Ten, by virtue of two home losses by conference leaders, is wide open again.
10 Things You Need to Know from the College Basketball Weekend
1. Florida looks title-worthy
Whether Kentucky or Tennessee is up or down, Florida doesn’t win at either on the road very often. Since 1999, the only Florida teams to win in Lexington ended up winning the national title. At the same time, the Gators have only won in Knoxville once since 2005. The trend changed this week. Florida hadn’t won in Lexington and Knoxville in the same season since 1988. The Gators this year did it within four days. The popular storyline Saturday night was that the Gators, who start four seniors, used their experience to wear down a freshman-laden Kentucky team. That much is true as Florida adjusted to Kentucky’s defense to shoot 60 percent in the second half of a 69-59 win. The Gators feasted on 13 Kentucky turnovers to outscore the Wildcats 14-7 on takeaways. But Florida is more than experience: Scottie Wilbekin picked apart Kentucky for 23 points, and Casey Prather owned the frontcourt, scoring 24 points on 8-of-9 shooting.
2. Creighton owns Villanova
Villanova is a good team. The Wildcats have defeated Kansas and Iowa in the non-conference. And they’re 10-0 against all but one team in the Big East. The outlier, though, is Creighton. The Bluejays have dominated Villanova this season, and the series sweep may lead to a team from Omaha winning the Big East. Creighton defeated Villanova 101-80 on Sunday to join a 96-68 win over the Wildcats in Philadelphia in Jan. 20. Doug McDermott has been outstanding in both games, scoring 39 on Sunday and 23 in the first meeting, but this isn’t a one-man show. Creighton averaged 1.42 points per possession against Villanova, a team that allows 0.925 otherwise this season. Creighton is 30 of 50 from 3-point range against Villanova. The Wildcats allow opponents to shoot 35.2 percent from 3 for the season.
3a. Syracuse has a pact with the devil ... or something
The Orange are 25-0, but the close calls of the last three weeks has to wear on Jim Boeheim. If anything, it’s provided for great drama. Saturday was the latest in the series of unlikely finishes for Syracuse. Freshman Tyler Ennis was uncharacteristically sloppy in the final seconds against NC State, but the Wolfpack was even more uneven in the 56-55 Syracuse win. NC State turned the ball over on its last two possessions, including a steal by the Orange’s Rakeem Christmas that set up C.J. Fair’s game-winning layup. This has been a trend for Syracuse: The month started with the 91-89 overtime win over Duke and continued with Ennis’ deep 3 to beat Pitt on Wednesday.
3b. Tyler Ennis is mortal
Though he’s only a freshman, Ennis has been the best player in the country with the ball in his hands in the final seconds. Though Syracuse won, Saturday night was the only time when Ennis showed any weakness late. The rookie fouled on a 3-pointer with 1:02 to go (NC State made all three free throws) and committed an offensive foul to turn the ball over as Syracuse attempted to take the lead with 15 seconds left. Ennis made up for it with the outlet pass to C.J. Fair off the Rakeem Christmas steal to seal the win.
4a. James Michael McAdoo is reaching his potential
While no one was looking, North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo became the player everyone thought he’d be. McAdoo led the way in a 75-71 win over Pittsburgh with 24 points and 12 rebounds — and remember, this is a Pitt team that twice gave Syracuse all kinds of trouble on the glass. North Carolina has found consistency, and McAdoo’s play is a major reason why. During North Carolina’s six-game winning streak, McAdoo is averaging 18.2 points and 8.8 rebounds.
4b. Pittsburgh is awfully ordinary
The Panthers really needed this week to prove themselves. After narrow losses to Syracuse and North Carolina, Pittsburgh will go to the ACC Tournament with a nice record and no great wins. The Panthers are 0-6 against the RPI top 40, and thanks to a lackluster non-conference schedule, Pitt’s best win might be Stanford or NC State. Pittsburgh doesn’t have any NCAA resume-killing losses, but the Panthers aren’t going to have great seed.
5. Wisconsin is back to its early season form
The Badgers continued a four-game winning streak Saturday with arguably its most impressive win of the Big Ten season with a 75-62 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor. Frank Kaminsky feasted on the Michigan frontcourt, scoring 25 points on 11 of 16 shooting while grabbing 11 rebounds. On Thursday, Ben Brust was the star of the show with outside shooting, hitting four 3-pointers and scoring 20 points in a win over Minnesota. More important, Wisconsin appears to have solved the defensive issues that contributed to the 1-5 slide from Jan. 14-Feb. 1.
6a. Michigan State dropped a dud
This was not a good weekend for the state of Michigan with the Wolverines and Spartans losing at home. It might not be fair to be too critical of a team in a first-place tie for the Big Ten lead, but Michigan State has reason to be in panic mode after a 60-51 loss at home to Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are improved, and Michigan State remains the walking wounded. Keith Appling played only 19 minutes. Brendan Dawson is still out. But these aren’t the kinds of games aspiring Big Ten champions lose at home in mid-February. Michigan State was a mess on offense, shooting 12 of 26 from 2-point range and 5 of 24 from 3. The Spartans also got outworked by the upstart Huskers, something that’s becoming a trend. Not a good look for Tom Izzo’s team.
6b. Nebraska is inching toward the NCAA Tournament bubble
The Cornhuskers won’t make mock brackets this week, but they’re worth watching down the stretch. With a win at Michigan State, Nebraska has three RPI top 50 wins, the other two against Ohio State and Minnesota. The Huskers have three not-so-great losses (Penn State, Purdue and UAB) they need to overcome.
7. Indiana is doing something special and not in a good way
The Hoosiers lost 82-64 to Purdue on Saturday to move to 4-8 in the Big Ten, only a year after being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Barring a major turnaround, Indiana won’t return to the field in 2013. It’s not out of the ordinary for a former No. 1 seed, or even a defending national champion, to miss the Tournament the following year. Nine No. 1 seeds in the last 10 seasons missed the Tournament the next year, but Indiana is a non-factor in the Big Ten. Of the 16 No. 1 seeds since 1985 that missed Tournament the following year, Indiana will push 2012 Pittsburgh for the worst conference record. The Panthers went 5-13 in the Big East a year after after earning a No. 1 seed in 2011.
8. Arizona State’s not-so-secret weapon is Jordan Bachynski
No player out West is on a better hot streak that Arizona State’s 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski. Maybe we should have seen Friday night coming, when Bachynski had eight blocks in a 69-66 double overtime win over rival Arizona. Bachynski came a block and a rebound short of a triple-double with 26 points on Feb. 8 against Oregon. And before that, Bachynski had seven blocks in an overtime win over Oregon State. Bachynski has effectively overshadowed the high-scoring backcourt of Jahii Carson and Jermaine Marshall in the last two weeks as Arizona State has moved into strong NCAA Tournament contention.
9. Baylor has some fight left
Trailing by as much as 10 with nine minutes to go, Baylor fought back to beat Kansas State 87-73 in double overtime. The knock on the Bears has been losing games they should win, but they finally won a game they probably should have lost against the Wildcats. Kenny Chery led the way down the stretch in regulation and finished with a triple-double (20 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds), and Brady Heslip hit the game-winning 3 — his only make in eight tries — to send the game to overtime.
10a. The best team no one is talking about is Saint Louis
The Billikens continue to be one of the best stories in the country as they took a major step to a second Atlantic 10 regular season title with a 64-62 win over VCU. Saint Louis is 10-0 in the league and its only losses are by single digits to Wisconsin and Wichita State. The Billikens did what they’ve been doing all season by shutting down the 3-point line, holding VCU to 2 of 16 from long range. Opponents are converting 26.7 percent of 3-point attempts against Saint Louis this season.
10b. VCU may not be busting brackets this season
Keep this one in your back pocket for your office pools: This version’s of VCU may not stack up with previous Shaka Smart teams. Even though this is a strong A-10 team, the Rams might not be a threat to advance in the NCAA Tournament. The havoc defense is there (17 forced turnovers vs. Saint Louis), but they’re not capitalizing in the offensive end this season.
• Missouri can relax a bit. Two games and two close calls probably saved Missouri’s NCAA Tournament hopes at least for a week. The Tigers defeated Arkansas 86-85 on Thursday when Jabari Brown scored on a drive to the basket with 12.2 seconds left. Two days later, Missouri defeated Tennessee 75-70.
• UConn’s Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright combined for 55 points, 10 assists and six steals against Memphis. Although the Tigers shot nearly 55 percent from the floor, they had 18 turnovers and repeatedly sent UConn’s guards to the free throw line. Napier and Boatright each had more trips to the line (12) than Memphis did as a team (nine.)
• Maybe no player had a bigger swing than Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield last week: From 1 of 13 and 3 points in a loss to Texas Tech on Wednesday to 8 of 18 and 22 points in a win at Oklahoma State on Saturday.
• LSU continued to play its way into the NIT. With Saturday’s 81-70 loss at Arkansas, LSU has lost three of the last four, all to teams that aren’t going to the NCAA Tournament (Texas A&M and Georgia were the others).
• No bubble team wants a part of Georgia. The Bulldogs deal another blow to the SEC’s hopes of sending teams to the NCAA Tournament with a 61-60 win over Ole Miss. The Bulldogs have defeated Missouri, Arkansas, LSU and now the Rebels this season. Despite an 8-4 SEC record, Georgia lacks the non-conference resume to be an NCAA team itself.
• SMU’s stay in the polls will be short-lived. The Mustangs lost to a dreadful Temple team 71-64.
• UMass picked up a nice win by defeating George Washington 67-61 on Saturday. The Minutemen had lost four of their previous seven games.
• Middle Tennessee clobbered Southern Miss 81-64 to set up a three-team race atop Conference USA with MTSU, Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech. The win, though, may end C-USA’s hopes of being a multi-bid league. Southern Miss was the only team in the league that had a chance at an at-large bid.
• Green Bay may be worth watching in the postseason. The Phoenix defeated the No. 2 team in the Horizon, Cleveland State, on the road 68-52. Green Bay is 20-5 and hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1996.