I don’t want to overreact. Even championship teams don’t dominate every game, or even most games for that matter. And in this case we aren’t even talking about a national championship, but an SEC one. Kentucky still showcased its balanced attack. Patrick Patterson gets the ink up front, but it was DeMarcus Cousins grabbing 11 rebounds. The ‘Cats still have the backcourt and they still have the coaching. And then there’s that minor little detail in that all 18 times they have knotted up their sneakers and stepped onto the hardwood to play a basketball game, they have registered more points than their opposition.
But the SEC has several contenders trying to gather some early steam. This isn’t a conference that distinguished itself in December, so it’s probably more a case of a league being top-heavy rather than really good. But several teams continued nice conference starts this weekend…
--Tennessee edged Ole Miss, thanks to 21 Rebel turnovers and a big outing from Wayne Chism underneath, who scored 26 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
--Mississippi State moved to 3-0 in SEC play, rallying from 11 down at the half to beat Georgia. Jarvis Varnado is turning into an under-the-radar inside player down in Starkville, with his glass-clearing effort of 14 boards. The Dawgs got the scoring production from forward Trey Thompkins, but he also had five turnovers, a fact that was key in the tight 72-69 final.
--Vanderbilt’s also 3-0, after beating South Carolina. The Commodores shot a sizzling 61 percent from the floor, a percentage that becomes easier to hit, when you’re doing your damage inside. Center A.J. Oglivy led the way with 22 points, and the three frontcourt starters were a combined 13-of-21 shooting. A tough loss for Gamecock guard Devan Downey, who poured in 35 points, yet looks destined to spend his season in obscurity.
All three of these teams are unbeaten in conference play and await their crack at Kentucky. The ‘Cats are still the favorite, but they’ll have to play much better than they did against Auburn.
Elsewhere around the country…
Texas is another power with a narrow escape, needing overtime to beat Texas A&M. It goes without saying that, like Kentucky, this won’t hack it if they are to win a conference championship. But there’s also positives to take out of this for the Longhorns. On a day where they got nothing from Avery Bradley and Dexter Pittman, they still got the win. Damion James 26/12 stat line, combined with strong outings from Gary Johnson and J’Covan Brown, who each had double-doubles off the bench, showed the depth Rick Barnes has in Austin. Kansas kept pace with a blowout win over Texas Tech. And in a key battle on the undercard, Baylor beat Oklahoma State 83-70. The Bears got a big game from LaceDarius Dunn, with 25 points and 9 rebounds. But point guard Tweety Carter was unproductive. Baylor was bailed out by strong games up front from post man Ekpe Udoh, with 13 points and 11 rebounds, and a combined 28 points from Anthony Jones and Quincy Acy. Big win for the Bears, not only in beating a key rival, but showing they can win even if one of their great guards has an off game.
The amazing story that is the Pitt Panthers continues. An overtime win over Louisville moved them to 5-0 in conference. Pitt beat the Louisville on the glass, 37-23 and the key contributor was Nasir Robinson, who racked up 26 points and 11 rebounds. It was one of three barnburners in the Big East this weekend. Syracuse nipped West Virginia 72-71, shooting 57 percent from the floor and winning the rebounding battle 35-25. Brandon Triche gave the Orange a good backcourt presence with 16 points on consistent shooting. Finally, Villanova edged Georgetown 82-77. The Wildcats stay right in the race, but alarm bells have to be going off in Philadelphia. ‘Nova got 27 points from Scottie Reynolds, continuing a pattern of the dynamic little guard needing to carry the team. Jay Wright has got to get more balance or this will be a squad no better than third in this conference and Sweet 16 nationally. Nothing wrong with that, but the good people of Philadelphia were wanting more.
North Carolina can’t stop the free-fall. Readers of the Notebook know that the shaky condition of their backcourt has been a subject of constant concern here, and it reared it ugly head again. While the Heels got 48 points from their frontline, their starting guards combined for only four points. And Georgia Tech? Guard Iman Shumpert hung 30 on the defending national champs.
Duke took advantage of their rivals’ failing, but beating Wake Forest in a game that just wrapped up tonight. And surprising Virginia is now 3-0 led by guard Sylven Landesberg, who hit 18 in an easy win over Miami. Other potential contenders include Maryland, who forced eighteen turnovers up in Chestnut Hill to overcome Boston College’s superior rebounding and win 73-57. Finally, Clemson has a big week ahead of them with games against Georgia Tech and Duke. They warmed up by edging N.C. State 73-70 behind 20 points from forward Trevor Booker.
On Friday in this space, I called Cal the early frontrunner in the Pac-10. Folks in Berkeley would have preferred I shut up. The Golden Bears were hammered in Washington, 84-69. Cal turned it over 21 times and lost the rebounding battle, nullifying their 32-20 advantage in free throw scoring. To continue throwing numbers out there, Washington attempted 74 shots from the floor, while Cal only had 48. I don’t track numbers like that, but just at a glance, I can’t imagine beating anyone with that kind of disparity in the most basic element of the game. Everyone in the Pac-10 now has two conference losses, and Arizona State is quietly surging. An efficient win Oregon State in which the Sun Devils only turned it over nine times moved them to 4-2 in conference.
What happened to Purdue? They lost their third straight game, this one to Northwestern by a 72-64 count. Eight days ago they were undefeated overall. Now they’re all but out of the conference race. The mystery question is what happened to JaJuan Johnson? The feared post player has disappeared, and had only seven points and two rebounds against the Wildcats. Purdue has become a two-man team, with E’Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel being the only players who are still showing up.
Michigan State is pulling away early in this race, taking out Illinois. The Illini need their big guys to play big in big games. But Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis combined for only six rebounds in East Lansing.
Finally we cap it off with a non-conference game. I normally don’t give these too much credence between December and March, but Michigan’s win over UConn stunned me. The Wolverines have started to play better of late, and they got real support for their tandem of Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims. Those two were balanced out by Zack Novak with 10 and Stu Douglass with 13. It was late starting but John Beilein’s club seems to have found its rhythm. UConn’s lost three in a row and needs to recover its own footing before the season slips away.