Here are a few observations from a thrilling night of college basketball on Tuesday:
1. Nerlens Noel ... that’s all -- It didn’t make sense until the end of Kentucky's 87-74 victory at No. 16 Ole Miss. The Rebels had completely blown the first half after starting 3-for-20 against a UK team that was affected by early foul trouble. The quick whistles (22 fouls called in the first 15 minutes of the matchup) didn’t help the flow of a sloppy half. But the biggest factor in the Rebs’ offensive lapse was Nerlens Noel.
Yes, Marshall Henderson (5-for-19, 21 points) took a bunch of ridiculous shots against the Wildcats. But you could see the Rebels’ trepidation as they considered attacking the paint. Noel (12 blocks) was there. And he was altering shots. And he was making the Rebs think twice about approaching the rim. There was a stretch in the second half in which Kentucky kicked off a 17-0 run that made you think, “Wow, maybe the Wildcats will be OK.”
They followed that stretch by relaxing on D as Ole Miss scored 16 unanswered points of its own. And then, Noel put a lid on the rim. You could see Ole Miss’ fear again as the freshman swatted shots even though he had four fouls. There were very promising moments for Kentucky in this game, including Kyle Wiltjer (5-for-12 from the 3-point line, career-high 26 points) doing what we expected Henderson to do. But it was Noel who controlled the game. He had a monumental presence in a crucial win for the Wildcats.
2. Deshaun Thomas is special -- Wisconsin did a great job of containing the Buckeyes in the first half of No. 11 Ohio State’s 58-49 win over the Badgers. Wisconsin led by two at halftime after minimizing the OSU offense and controlling the pace of the game. But Thomas was the true difference-maker in the second half. If you want to know what happened in this game ... what changed ... what turned the matchup in Ohio State’s favor ... well, Thomas did what he does. There was a five-minute stretch in the second half in which he was unstoppable. He’s made to score. I don’t know what position he plays and please don’t ask me where he fits in at the next level. And yes, he has a bunch of weaknesses. But he’s kept an Ohio State team that doesn’t have an inside threat, possesses few offensive alternatives and manages a short bench in the Big Ten title conversation. His 25-point effort (10 during a 15-0 run in the second half that changed the night for both teams) was another example of his potential to carry the Buckeyes to places that few players in his position could.
3. NC State is not the same without Lorenzo Brown -- I have to give No. 19 NC State some credit in its 58-55 loss at Virginia. The Wolfpack lost starting point guard Lorenzo Brown to an ankle injury in the first half. And it was a road game at a place where they’d lost their previous two matchups. Without Brown, NCSU was not the same fluid team that scores in bunches, excels in transition and punishes teams inside. But they kept up with a Virginia team that possesses a defense that’s ranked 13th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. At the end of the game, however, it was easy to see how much NC State needs Brown. After Jontel Evans hit a pair of free throws, the Pack had 23 seconds to close the three-point gap. I have no idea what Mark Gottfried had in mind during that stretch. C.J. Leslie missed a few layups and then Scott Wood shot a 3-pointer that didn’t even hit the rim in the final seconds. The Wolfpack looked so uncomfortable without its floor leader. They’re 0-3 on the road in the ACC. Meanwhile, Virginia is 5-2 in the ACC. Amazing that the Cavs are ACC contenders even though they’ve lost three games to the mediocre this year, including one to 2-17 Old Dominion.
4. It’s a new day in the MVC -- The Indiana State-Wichita State matchup was off the radar. It was buried by the buildup to Kentucky-Ole Miss and Wisconsin-Ohio State. But it might have been the most important conference game of the night. And who gave the Sycamores a chance? They hadn’t won at the imposing Koch Arena in nearly a decade and the Shockers had won 19 in a row at home. Even Creighton couldn’t win in Wichita this year. But Indiana State scored a huge 68-55 upset that changed the Missouri Valley title race, as Manny Arop led all players with 17 points. The Sycamores attacked Carl Hall (four fouls, two points). And they overcome 15 turnovers with a 53.3 percent mark from the field and a strict defense (WSU shot 16-for-59 overall). The Valley is not a two-team race between Creighton and Wichita State anymore. Indiana State -- a team that has also defeated Ole Miss and Miami this season -- is a legit contender now.