This morning marks the end of a long holiday weekend. While the NBA went on a three-day bender in New Orleans, the college kids were studiously and vociferously hitting the hardwood. There was a more fundamental brand of hoops being played in collegiate gyms than the slam dunk improv inducing cavities for casual hoops fanatics inside Smoothie King Arena.
Coaches couldn’t allow their players to sit around taking in All-Star Weekend and let the matador defense on display all weekend rub off on their players impressionable young minds. The ominpotent schedule makers made sure they were kept busy.
Florida Rips Up Rupp
Florida and Kentucky are two vastly contrasting teams. John Calipari’s boys are spending a few nights in Lexington until they can enter the NBA Draft. Florida’s rotation consists of scrappy seniors who’ll be playing overseas or in the D-League next season. Their only freshman phenom, Chris Walker went scoreless.
However, Kentucky was the toughest challenge of the conference play thus far for Florida. Defense has been one of Kentucky’s primary sore spots all season, but they were able to take a seven-point lead into the final 11:13 minutes of regulation thanks to a solid showing on the defensive end. That's when the Gators offense decided to unleash its best performance of the season. Scottie Wilbekin set a career-high for points and Casey Prather’s 24 was four more than the 20 career points he scored against Kentucky in six prior meetings. In the second half though, Florida revved up the engines on the defensive end, scored 31 points in the final 10:39 minutes and held Julius Randle scoreless after intermission. Also, Prather did work in the paint.
Amile Jefferson Is Duke’s Inside Man
Shooting has been Duke’s strength for the entire season because of their deep reservoir of shooters. Those shots weren’t falling on Saturday and Maryland took advantage for 38 minutes. Interior defense has been Duke’s primary vulnerability, but against Maryland Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson’s post defense sent the Terps packing with another in their final trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium as a member of the ACC. Maryland forward Charles Mitchell had his first hook shot blocked by Parker and the second one bounced off the rim.
In the grand scheme, it means that Marylanders will have another bad taste in their mouth after letting Duke escape with another victory in a close matchup. If there was a more fitting way for one of the ACC's most contentious rivalries to end, this was it.
UNC Rises From ACC’s Pitt of Despair
UNC may be looking forward to their matchup against Duke on Thursday, but their ascent has been matched by Pittsburgh’s descent in the ACC. Today is February 18th. On the morning of January 18, the Pittsburgh Panthers were 18-1. Since then, Pitt has gone 4-5 and are one prick away from getting their bubble popped.
On the other end of the spectrum, UNC has recovered from P.J. Hairston getting booted off the team and reintegrating Leslie McDonald into the lineup. After the nadir of their three-game losing streak on January 11th, it appeared they’d miss the tournament all together. Seven straight wins later, UNC is one of the ACC’s top teams.
Saturday's victory elevated them past Pitt for fourth place in the ACC. They quickly brushed themselves off and dispatched of Florida State on Thursday. They could soon pass Duke on their race up the ACC standings escalator. A win over Duke would push them to third-place.
Behind The Ivy Wall
Harvard also clinched their 20th win of the season by brushing Cornell aside by 23 points. The most impressive part about the win was it came 24 hours after they went into double overtime to beat Colombia. Amaker, whom The Shadow League's Alejandro Danois chronicled for the first part of our series on black Ivy League coaches is now part of Ivy League history. The victory made Harvard the first Ivy League team to reach 20 wins in five consecutive seasons since Penn's league-record six straight 20 1in seasons from 1970 to 1975. Harvard took the lead with an opening three pointer on their first possession and never relinquished it as four players reached double figures.
The Ivy League does not play a conference tournament. The 14-game regular season round robin determines who receives the automatic NCAA Tournament bid, which means Harvard must keep winning if they hope to keep pace with Yale in the Ivy League standings. Ten days ago, Yale gathered on Harvard's home floor and beat the Crimson by 7. They also share a 7-1 conference record and meet again on March 7.
UConn Mopped Up Memphis
We can't keep sleeping on UConn and Shabazz Napier. He nearly jolted us awake with another game-winning jumper, but after his buzzer-beating three rimmed out, Napier saved his best for overtime. Six of Napier’s 34 points came in the five-minute extra period and the win resulted in the first sweep of Memphis by a conference foe in 13 years.
Under Josh Pastner, Memphis is just 3-15 against Top 25 teams and the new landscape of the new Big East doesn’t bode well for them. On the other side of that conundrum is the excellence of Napier, who is responsible for more of his team’s points via scoring or directly dishing than any point guard in the nation.
Shabazz is a bad azz PG pic.twitter.com/QHBhFukwGU— DJ RedHerring Dunson (@CerebralSportex) February 18, 2014
Orange is the New Black
At 24-0, the Orangemen are grim reapers for opposing loss columns. What’s more impressive has been how they put the clamps on opposing teams in the crunch time. Like I said last week after Ennis’ game-winning rainbow trey beat Pittsburgh, it’s not about being the best all the time, but being the best at the right time.
Ennis erred in crunchtime on Saturday. In the final minute, he fouled Ralston Turner behind the three-point arc, turned the ball over twice and missed a lay-up that would have knotted the score up at 55. Instead, senior CJ Fair helped pluck the ball with help from Anthony Barber. Rakeem Christmas, then went the length of the floor for a game-winning lay-in with 6.7 seconds remaining. If you’re going to beat Syracuse, you’d better stretch the lead out to last least four points and keep it there. NC State became the latest victim of Boeheim’s Emergency Orange Alert. They speed up their slow pace, but as you can tell from the numbers, they rarely play frantically in pressure situations.
How about an old-school Did you Know to show you how clutch No. 1 Syracuse has been this season? pic.twitter.com/q8CSfZC2sL— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 16, 2014
Syracuse sneezed all over the Carrier Dome floor and infected the nation with upset fever though. They didn’t lose, but it set the stage for Sunday.
SUNDAY – Day of Reckoning
By the time, this day was over, nobody would be spared. In a span of a few hours, SMU got rocked by Temple, Doug McDermott tracked muddy footprints all over No. 6 Villanova’s stingy defense and Michigan State was zapped by Nebraska.
One week after their best win in nearly 30 years, SMU suffered the worst loss of the season—arguably by any team. According to ESPN Stats & Information, SMU's loss to No. 176 Temple is the worst BPI loss by any team currently ranked in the BPI top 25. The 2 worst losses in terms of opponent BPI rank by using BPI top-25 rankings this season were both by SMU. The worst loss was to No. 184 South Florida.
SMU’s home crowd noise is with a natural PED or an opponent tranquilizer. At home, SMU is a top-25 team. On the road, they may be one of the worst in their conference. All six of the Mustangs losses this season occurred on the road.
Creighton continues to sully Villanova’s vaunted defense like Rick James’ putting his feet on Eddie and Charlie’s suede couch. Doug McDermott matched his season-high, scored Creighton’s first 11 points, passed Larry Bird on the all-time collegiate scoring list and has folks wondering if he may be competing in a few marquee All-Star games in the future.
He’s not just steamrolling mediocre defenses. Villanova was ranked No. 6 in the nation before their loss to Creighton, but has lost by a combined 49 points to the McDermott Bulldogs.
That’s unfair to McDermott’s teammates though. It’s not all about Doug. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Creighton averaged 146.7 points per 100 possessions Sunday and 145.5 in its previous blowout of Villanova on Jan. 20 when Ethan Wragge splashed Wragge Bombs through the net on ‘Nova’s home floor. On Sunday, Wragge didn’t make a field goal until there was 7:37 remaining, probably because Jay Wright didn’t swarm McDermott with double teams this time. It didn’t help.
To put the aforementioned PPP numbers into perspective, Villanova has not allowed more than 130 points per 100 possessions in any other game in the last three seasons.
While Creighton’s offense swallowed another Forty Minute Energy Drink (patent/FDA approval pending), Michigan State’s offense never got out of bed and the Spartans were only able to muster 51 points. Keith Appling’s injuries has debilitated the Spartans offense, but not nearly as much Marcus Smart’s suspension has hurt Oklahoma State.
Things have not been okay for OK State without Marcus Smart. In fact, it’s only gotten worse without their polarizing point guard. The Cowboys took it on the chin for their seventh straight matchup Monday and hope that Marcus Smart returns with the sutures. He clearly needs an outlet.
While his teammates faced Baylor tonight, Marcus Smart was chastising an Oklahoma State blog for being too negative. pic.twitter.com/vLTnNyN9tR— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) February 18, 2014
Head coach Travis Ford needs a savior. The Cowboys are up-tempo, but less efficient without Smart. In the loss to Texas, they shot a season-low 36 percent from the field. On Monday, they shot just 37 percent from the field.
The Cowboys are now closer to rock bottom than the NCAA Tournament. TCU has a firm grip on last place in the Big 12, but the loss to cellar dwelling Baylor also dropped Oklahoma State to the penultimate spot in the conference standings. Oklahoma State is sounding a different type of Orange Alert than Syracuse.
Smart had one of the highest usage rates in college hoops prior to his suspension and the Cowboys defense was the problem. Without Smart, they’re limping on both ends of the floor.