Michigan, Duke come up with statement wins
The weekend of college basketball delivered only one true marquee matchup, but the weekend didn't lack for news. Although Michigan and Michigan State delivered in every way we hoped it would, other teams made key strides on Saturday and Sunday.
Let’s start with Michigan, now the last remaining team undefeated in Big Ten play. Michigan State gave all it could, but the Spartans’ injuries in the end were too much to overcome.
Michigan, of course, has had its own players banged up, but the Wolverines have grown in the last few weeks to be a better team now without Mitch McGary than they were when he was healthy.
A scary thought for the rest of the league: Imagine a team with an improved Nik Stauskas and a matured Derrick Walton playing with the sophomore big man McGary. As it is, Michigan is already in charge of the league for the time being.
Elsewhere, Duke is starting to look more and more like the team we thought the Blue Devils would be this season. Where that places Duke in the ACC will be answered this week when the Blue Devils face Big East imports Pittsburgh and Syracuse.
10 Things You Need to Know from the College Basketball Weekend
1a. Michigan is a Final Four threat
In his absence from the court, Mitch McGary found at least one way to stay useful — writing “Win the Game” on a white board. It seems to be working as Michigan is undefeated without McGary, including three consecutive wins over top-10 teams. Two of those have come in Madison and East Lansing after Saturday's 80-75 win at Michigan State. The Spartans were shorthanded, but Michigan was able to erase a second-half eight-point deficit with key baskets in transition down the stretch to seal the win. Guards Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton combined for 55 points and 15 of 17 free throws as Michigan took over the Big Ten lead ... two months after a loss to Charlotte and and the injury to McGary appeared to set Michigan back to the middle of the Big Ten.
1b. Gary Harris should be on All-America lists
Stauskas may be the frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year, but Harris is the league MVP. With Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson out and Keith Appling barely able to shoot with a wrist injury, Harris is keeping Michigan State in Big Ten contention. Harris matched Michigan’s guards basket for basket for most of the game to finish with 27 points. As the Spartans have taken their hits with injuries, Harris has averaged 19.9 points per game in Big Ten play.
1c. Tom Izzo is having an emotional year
After the loss to Michigan, Izzo said he’d never been prouder of a team in 30 years at Michigan State — high praise, considering the track record. Michigan didn’t take a lead until the final 3:12. Afterward, Izzo praised Appling’s toughness to play through injuries, and players told reporters the coach was nearly moved to tears in the postgame meeting. Only weeks ago, Izzo was exasperated as his team coughed up a 17-point lead in regulation against Ohio State before winning in overtime. For certain, this has been a roller coaster season for the veteran coach.
2a. We’re about to find out of Duke is a national title contender
Back on Jan. 11, Duke looked nothing like a team ready to contend for the Final Four. At that point the Blue Devils couldn’t defend, lost their toughest games of the season to Kansas and Arizona and dropped two ACC games to Notre Dame and Clemson. Since then, Duke has started to look the part of a title contender, but the major test will be next week at Pittsburgh (Monday) and at Syracuse (Saturday). The Blue Devils have shut down the 3-point line in three consecutive games and dominated the offensive glass Saturday in a 78-56 win over Florida State. Duke grabbed 27 offensive rebounds — led by Jabari Parker’s 10 — for a team offensive rebound rate of 61.4 percent.
2b. You’re going to hear the number 900 a lot for the next week
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski joined Syracuse’s Jim Boehiem as the only major college coaches to win 900 games at a single school. Boeheim, Krzyzewski’s opponent next Saturday, has 938 wins all with the Orange.
2c. Duke’s defense has caught up
Parker was fantastic against Florida State, Rodney Hood contributed 18 points and Andre Dawkins and Rasheed Sulaimon continue to give Krzyzewski third and fourth scoring options. Meanwhile, the leaky Duke defense has finally started to catch up. Since Duke sputtered in a win over Virginia on Jan. 13, the Blue Devils moved from outside of the top 100 in defensive efficiency on KenPom.com to No. 62 to start the week.
3. Wisconsin and Iowa State can take a deep breath
Two three-game losing streaks by previously undefeated teams ended when Iowa State and Wisconsin both won Saturday. The Cyclones ended their three-game losing streak with an 81-75 win over a quality Kansas State team. With DeAndre Kane having an off game, Iowa State’s frontcourt was dominant as Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang combined for 38 points compared to 10 total points for Kansas State’s starting forwards. Wisconsin’s win wasn't as much of a statement with a 72-58 win at Purdue, but the Badgers responded in the defensive end. Wisconsin struggled to guard anyone during its three-game losing streak but held the Boilermakers to 35.4 percent shooting and 3 of 17 from 3-point range.
4. Rick Barnes may be saving his job
Texas’ week started with Jonathan Holmes’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat Kansas State and continued with a 74-66 road win over Baylor on Saturday. When the season started, Barnes’ program appeared to be heading in the wrong direction — no Sweet 16 appearances since 2008 and a losing season in 2013 that ended with a CBI loss to Houston. Now, Barnes is a Big 12 coach of the year contender. Barnes’ recruiting has been scrutinized, especially in the state of Texas, but his freshman point guard who graduated from a Houston high school, Isaiah Taylor, scored 27 against Baylor. With no seniors getting regular minutes, the core of the team should be around for another year. The Longhorns have put together three consecutive wins over ranked teams heading into a game against Kansas on Saturday, the biggest game in Austin since January 2011.
5. Florida had the best defensive game of the weekend
The Gators had a couple of closer-than-they-should-have-been games against Auburn and Alabama in the last week. Their defensive effort against Tennessee made sure they had enough of a cushion to play walk-ons. Florida defeated the Volunteers 67-41, the eighth time in the last nine games the Gators held their opponent to 62 points of fewer. The Volunteers couldn’t manage to get good shots from the perimeter all game as Tennessee’s starting backcourt went 2 of 29 from the field and only got to the free throw line twice. Jordan McRae, who averages 19.2 points per game, scored only 5. Florida, who ranks ninth on KenPom.com in defensive efficiency, might not be seriously tested until they face Kentucky on Feb. 15.
6. North Carolina can make shots again
Time to check in on the North Carolina roller coaster. This time, the Tar Heels are on the upswing again with a 80-61 win over Clemson. No, the Heels don’t need to take a victory lap for beating Clemson at home, but this at least a positive sign for the time being. The Tar Heels scored 45 against Syracuse, 57 against Miami, 61 against Virginia and 67 against Wake Forest. The Heels were hitting their shots Sunday, converting 10 of 19 shots from 3-point range against a team ranked second nationally in defending the 3-point line. Carolina hit the 70-point mark with more than four minutes to go against Clemson, one of the top defensive teams in the country. North Carolina faces some of the weaker teams in the ACC between now and the Feb. 12 game against Duke, not that sustaining momentum has been a strong suit for this team.
7. Baylor is in a tailspin
Unless the Bears can turn things around in short order, Baylor is going to have trouble shedding its image of an underachieving team. With the 74-60 loss to Texas, Baylor fell to 1-4 in the Big 12 with its only win over TCU in Waco. Against the Longhorns, Baylor couldn’t find the basket. Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin were a combined 4 of 16 from the field, and sharp-shooter Brady Heslip was 0 for 4 from 3-point range. Baylor shot 32.1 percent from the field and 17.6 percent from beyond the arc against Texas, yet another game where Baylor couldn’t get anything done in the offensive end in a Big 12 game. The Bears have non-conference wins over Kentucky and a healthy Colorado, but they’re going to need to get hot in conference play in a hurry.
8. Marcus Smart, Phil Forte were both awful Saturday yet the Pokes still won
Oklahoma State lost a key cog in the frontcourt in Michael Cobbins earlier this season. Then, the Cowboys struggled with their composure for much of the game against Kansas. And now, Marcus Smart had the worst game of his career Saturday against West Virginia. At some point, maybe Oklahoma State’s recent games should raise some concerns, but not quite yet. The reason, at least this week, was that Le’Bryan Nash and others proved capable of carrying the Pokes in an 81-75 win over the Mountaineers. Smart went 1 of 7 from the field against West Virginia, and the normally sharp-shooting Phil Forte was 1 of 9 from 3-point range. Good thing Nash made up for it with 29 points on 10 of 13 shooting.
9. Providence has arrived on the bubble
Time to start taking Providence seriously as an NCAA Tournament contender. The Friars defeated Xavier 81-72 on Saturday for their fifth consecutive Big East win after starting 0-2 in the league. Bryce Cotton may be one of the nation’s most overlooked players, but he can score with anyone (22.4 points per game in Big East play). Besides the Musketeers, Providence has defeated Georgetown and Creighton, but all three wins have come at home. Still, the Friars are in the top 50 in the RPI and on KenPom.com. All that’s missing is a big road win. The Friars will have that opportunity with three of the next four on the road.
10. Creighton is a little more than Doug McDermott
Hold McDermott to 14 points and 5 of 15 from the field, and most teams would feel pretty good. Not Georgetown. McDermott was tied for the team lead in scoring, but five Bluejays scored in double figures, including Will Artino and Devin Brooks off the bench. Forward Ethan Wragge’s 3-point prowess is well established, but Jahenns Manigat added 10 points in the 76-63. Creighton probably doesn’t want to risk a 14-point night from McDermott in March, but it’s nice to know the Bluejays can absorb that kind of game every once in a while. Meanwhile, Georgetown is falling apart. The Hoyas have lost four in a row, and center Josh Smith was declared academically ineligible during the week.
• The season isn’t going quite as well for Sean Miller’s brother Archie at Dayton. The Flyers looked like a potential NCAA Tournament team with an early 10-point win at Georgia Tech, wins over Gonzaga and Cal in Maui and an overtime win over Ole Miss. Dayton has lost three in a row in the Atlantic 10 in a 1-4 start in league play.
• No Spencer Dinwiddie, no NCAA Tournament for Colorado. The Buffaloes lost 72-51 to Arizona State, giving Tad Boyle’s team three losses in four games since Dinwiddie was lost for the season. Bad break.
• Not sure if Minnesota’s 82-78 loss at Nebraska on Sunday is reason to get off the Gophers bandwagon after Richard Pitino’s team defeated Wisconsin earlier in the week. Minnesota is still without Andre Hollins, and Nebraska defeated Ohio State in Lincoln earlier this season.
• After a win over Notre Dame, Wake Forest is 4-3 in the ACC. The Demon Deacons have a shot at an NIT bid, major progress given the way Jeff Bzdelik’s tenure started.