The College Basketball Notebook

February 14, 2010 9:57 PM

Stunner In Syracuse

The crucial month of February is half in the books, with conference races and NCAA Tournament pushes in full frenzy. And nowhere did those two collide more directly than in the Carrier Dome this afternoon. Louisville was fighting for its bubble life, after a loss this week at St. John’s. Meanwhile, Syracuse was looking to keep running even with Villanova in the race for the Big East title. In an unlikely turn of events, Louisville pulled a big 66-60 upset turning all races on their heads. The Cardinals hit nine three-pointers, with four coming from obscure reserve guard Mike Marra who came off the bench firing away, launching twelve trey attempts total. Syracuse’s vaunted frontline was consistent, but not spectacular. Normally that would be enough to win at home, but the backcourt play was poor, especially that of Brandon Triche who was held scoreless.

Villanova had already put its win in the books by the time the events of today went down. The Wildcats played well at home in dispatching Providence 92-81. While they got 22 points apiece from Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher, the real key was the play of Antonio Pena whose 15 points and 12 rebounds led a decisive board advantage for ‘Nova. Next up for Jay Wright’s club is UConn on Monday night, The Huskies saw whatever hopes they had of a revival disappear with a loss to Cincinnati in Jim Calhoun’s first game back. The Bearcats beat them to the boards to a 41-28 count, with the frontline of Ibrahima Thomas, Steve Toyloy and Rashad Bishops beating up their Huskie counterparts. While Cincy is very much alive, the most likely outcome of this game is that neither one makes the Big Dance. A more consequential bubble battle was Marquette’s 63-52 win over South Florida. The Golden Eagles were well-balanced, but there was no doubt the big dog was Lazar Hayward, who scored 18 and grabbed 14 rebounds. South Florida’s Dominique Jones was solid with 16, but the track record suggests he needs to be spectacular if the Bulls are to beat good teams. And St. John’s did it again, nipping Notre Dame by a point as the Irish played without Luke Harangody.

Elsewhere around the country…

I picked Maryland to win Saturday’s big game at Duke, but with one caveat—that they might meltdown quickly and we’d know by halftime if an upset was in the mix. To the distress of my Terp-loving in-laws (with one exception, who pulls for Duke), the meltdown happened. Greivis Vazquez was the only Terrapin whose head seemed to make the trip. Duke’s big three of Scheyer, Smith and Singler didn’t go crazy, combining for 46 points. But Coach K got exactly what he needed if he is going to prevail in this race and make a big run nationally—significant contributions from someone else. That someone was center Brian Zoubek whose haul totaled 17 rebounds. Duke is now in sole possession of first, with Maryland still only one back in the loss column.

Also in hot pursuit of the Blue Devils are Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, a game back themselves. Wake beat Georgia Tech thanks 17 turnovers from the Yellow Jackets, which negated their ten three-pointers. A big game from Al-Farough Aminu, who controlled the inside to the tune of 19 points and 10 rebounds keyed the Demon Deacon attacks. Virgina Tech won a big rivalry game with Virginia because three heads were better than two. The Hokies relied in Dorenzo Hudson, Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen. None were spectacular, but all were steady. UVA got the production from Sylvan Landesberg and forward Mike Scott, but nothing else.

The logjam here has one less team after today. It was a four-way tie on Saturday morning, and Michigan State & Purdue both held serve. Then Ohio State beat Illinois in a battle guaranteed to drop one of them into a tie with Wisconsin a game back. The Buckeyes dominated the Illini in Champaign. No Illinois player reached double figures, while three Ohio State starters broke 15 points. The Bucks hit 11-of-22 from behind the arc, while the Illini tossed bricks to the tune of 4-for-24. They may have been at home, but it wasn’t Illinois’ day, and Thad Matta’s team is surging.

Michigan State beat Penn State in a nondescript 65-54 game in which they overcome 11 Lion treys, most of them by Talor Battle who hung 30 on the board. MSU used a rebounding advantage to get more shots, and they were more successful at converting the ones they had. Not a bad formula. Even more heartening for Tom Izzo is that Kalin Lucas scored 24, suggesting he’s back at full speed. Purdue took apart Iowa, who was a far cry from imitating its midweek upset of Northwestern. The Hawkeyes shot 14-of-47 from the floor, while JaJuan Johnson led Purdue with 21 points and 10 rebounds. This game doesn’t necessarily prove what I’m about to say, given that Iowa isn’t even NIT-worthy, but if Purdue isn’t the best team in the country, they aren’t far off that. I’m thinking seriously about picking them to go the distance when it’s bracket time.

John Wall was up to performing on the big stage, as he scored 24 points for ESPN’s Gameday crew in Kentucky’s 73-62 win over Tennessee on Saturday night, a game where the Wildcats pulled away in the second half. Wall’s running mate, Eric Bledsoe scored 16. They didn’t get much in the way of frontcourt offense, but the outstanding DeMarcus Couisins pulled down twelve rebounds. Vanderbilt stayed one game back in the SEC by beating LSU. The Commodores were greatly aided by a 31-14 free-throwing scoring edge, and they got unexpected help from reserve swingman Lance Goulbourne who scored 18 and grabbed nine boards. Vandy hosts Kentucky next Saturday, but at a game back they have to make sure to take care of business this coming week before looking ahead to a championship-type showdown in Nashville.

BIG 12
Kansas shows no signs of taking its foot off the gas, as they maintained their three-game lead with a win over Iowa State. But there’s big fights going in the middle, and Texas A&M & Oklahoma State both picked up big wins in the fight to impress the Selection Committee. The Aggies beat fellow bubble contender Texas Tech, in a game between teams whose RPIs are better than you’d expect based on their record. A&M won the rebounding battle thanks to Bryan Davis and his 16 boards, while Tech couldn’t get anything beyond John Roberson (22 pts) and Mike Singletary (17 pts). Texas A&M is unexpectedly, at least to me, moving into lock status for the Dance. Oklahoma State rolled over Oklahoma. In a game between backcourt-oriented teams who each had a guard go off for 30 or higher (James Anderson & Tommy Mason-Griffin) it figures that rebounding would be the difference. Okie State won that battle and got a badly needed win.

Cal is still a game ahead, as they’ve been for three sequences of games, but the number of teams on their heels is down to one. Arizona State is the only real challenger left after they beat Oregon 61-51. The Sun Devils won ugly again, getting 19 from Ty Abbot and 12 off the bench from Rihard Kuksiks. Cal kept them at bay in the standings by beating Washington State. It was a game where both teams shot the ball very well, but the Golden Bears maximized their shots by hitting more threes, while the Cougars committed 18 turnovers and cost themselves critical possessions. Klay Thompson exploded for 28, but he was no match for Cal’s complete attack led by Jerome Randle’s 24, including six from treyland.

See you tomorrow to look at the big games ahead for the first few days of the week.

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