Some scattered reflections on what turned out to be a rather tremendous afternoon of college hoops (Cory Joseph bobbleheads sold separately):
Gonzaga gets its much-needed win. Forget an NCAA tournament at-large bid. For now, Gonzaga just needed to see something positive happen on the basketball court. The Zags have been battered and bloodied by their brutal non-league schedule, going 5-5 in their first 10 games and losing to basically every competent opponent they have played. So this was a huge win, not only because it helps salvage Gonzaga's flagging at-large tourney hopes, but because sometimes you just need to see the ball go in the basket. With Steven Gray sidelined by back cramps, Gonzaga got a neutral-court win over an unbeaten and athletic top-10 team. Quality stuff, and just in time.
Illinois falls to ... wait, is that scoreboard right? You can be forgiven for not believing your eyes on this one, but there it is, plain as day: The 14th-ranked Fighting Illini did indeed fall to the 4-7 University of Illinois-Chicago Flames at the United Center on Saturday. It's rather remarkable, actually, because this UIC team is not a sleeper NCAA squad, or an undefeated-but-hard-to-gauge foe like Cleveland State. The Flames have a host of bad losses to their name, including one to Northern Illinois earlier this week. The Illini were, to this point, rolling right along. There were few causes for long-term concern regarding Bruce Weber's team before Saturday, though one involved the Illini's penchant for long two-point jumpers, statistically the least efficient shot on the court. Illinois needed to shoot more 3-pointers. The problem against UIC wasn't the attempts (18) but the makes (a mere four). I'm not sure you want to worry too much about Illinois going forward, because, hey, bad losses happen. But the Illini do have plenty of offensive improvements to make to ensure bad teams like UIC can't keep up with them on neutral floors this season.
Who's worried about the Kansas State Wildcats? No one likes Chicken Little, so I'll reserve the whole sky-is-falling routine for more dire circumstances. But it's probably time to be at least somewhat concerned with Kansas State's slow start. Against a Florida team that also had not proved much early in the season, the Wildcats stormed out to an early lead in Sunrise, Fla., only to follow it with one of the worst second-half performances you'll see all season. After halftime, the Gators shot 60 percent (15-for-25 from the field), which would have been nice enough on its own. But when you cause your opponent -- or your opponent causes itself, or some combination therein -- to shoot 6-for-28 and score a mere 21 points in 20 minutes, 60 percent shooting might as well be 100. Frank Martin's team led 23-8 at one point and then totally broke down in this one. At this point you have to wonder whether K-State isn't just playing poorly, but whether it's not nearly as good as we all assumed this offseason. There's still plenty of time to figure all this out, and plenty of time for the Wildcats to change their season's trajectory again. But for now, games like Saturday's are disconcerting.
Everyone wins in Greensboro. How does everyone win in a basketball game, exactly? When the better team wins, but both teams compete at a high level, show noticeable improvement and improve their standing in front of an eager college hoops public. Both Texas and North Carolina performed as such Saturday. The young and talented Longhorns got what was essentially a road win in a hostile environment. The young and talented -- but oftentimes confused -- Tar Heels played a quality opponent to the wire, got key contributions from Harrison Barnes (especially a pretty last-minute 3 to tie the game, just before Cory Joseph's jumper gave Texas the win) and Kendall Marshall. Marshall's big play is especially encouraging for a team that has lacked consistency at the point guard spot. At this point, though he may do so like a reluctant father buying his teenage son a car, Roy Williams needs to the keys over to Marshall and see whether he's ready to drive. That may or may not be a mixed metaphor. The important part is that it's true. When he does so, UNC appears to be the second-best team in the ACC, and we would not have said as much two weeks ago.
Other games and performances of note: Michigan handled that tough Oakland team in Ann Arbor. We might need to start giving the Wolverines a little more attention as a potential NCAA tournament team out of the Big Ten ... Jared Sullinger again went nuts, scoring 30 points and grabbing 19 rebounds in a performance that caused our own Doug Gottlieb to call Sullinger the best player in the country. At this point, who else has done more? ... BYU lost its unbeaten record, falling to UCLA at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, as the Bruins' thus far schizophrenic season took another strange (but encouraging) turn ... Georgetown shot 78 percent (!) in the first half against Loyola (Md.) ... Josh Selby's first game as a Jayhawk was a tempered success: Selby scored with ease and hit big shots down the stretch, but his style seemed to clash with KU's pass-heavy system in a tight home win over USC ... UCF stayed unbeaten with a win over Miami, and it's officially time to start calling the Knights a NCAA-tourney candidate ... and Cleveland State, playing in its first "Are they real or not?" game of the season, was dealt a loss at West Virginia, but the Vikings acquitted themselves well until the Mountaineers pulled away in the second half. Their games against Butler in the Horizon League will be fun to watch.