Here are 10 observations I made while channel-surfing Saturday afternoon.
New Mexico’s 91-82, come-from-behind victory over Colorado State was the most entertaining game of the afternoon -- and it also featured the best performance not just of the day, but arguably of the entire season. New Mexico junior guard Kendall Williams made 10 of his 13 attempts from 3-point range en route to a career-high 46 points as the Lobos snapped CSU’s 27-game home winning streak. At 10-2 in the Mountain West, New Mexico now has a two-game lead over the Rams (8-4) in the conference standings. These teams are not who you want to play in the NCAA tournament. Even in the loss, Colorado State looked more than worthy of its No. 22 national ranking. But the No. 16 Lobos were more resilient Saturday, fighting back from a six-point deficit with six minutes remaining thanks to Williams, who entered the game averaging just 13.1 points. That New Mexico was able to rally in such a tough environment is a credit to Lobos coach Steve Alford, who is on pace to win his fourth MWC title in five seasons. Alford’s name will surely be mentioned during the offseason coaching carousel, but I think it’d take a phenomenal offer to get him to leave Albuquerque. He’s well compensated, adores that part of the country, will have both of his sons on the roster next season and is beloved by the fan base. Why leave?
Miami point guard Shane Larkin had a great quote after his Hurricanes lost 80-65 at Wake Forest on Saturday. “Who ever thought Miami beating Wake Forest at home would cause a court-rushing scene?” Larkin said. Given that history has more often seen Miami near the bottom of the ACC standings and Wake Forest near the top, the point was a valid one. The excitement Demon Deacons fans showed over beating the No. 2 Hurricanes was a testament to just how far Miami’s program has come under second-year coach Jim Larranaga. The question now is how far it will fall. Miami, which saw its 14-game winning streak snapped, lost for the first time in ACC play and is now 22-4 overall and 13-1 in conference. Miami might also have a difficult time holding on to its projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament; another loss could all but negate that possibility. Miami plays three of its final four games at home, but a March 2 tilt at Duke will be tough to win. In some ways, Saturday’s loss shouldn’t have been all that surprising, as the Hurricanes had been playing with fire in recent weeks. Their previous three victories had come by a combined 12 points. Included in that stretch was a four-point win over Virginia and a two-point victory over Clemson. It all caught up to the Hurricanes Saturday at Wake Forest. “We weren’t prepared to play the game, and they came out and punched us in the mouth,” Larkin said.
Speaking of Miami, if the Hurricanes put Saturday’s loss behind them and win the ACC as expected, I’ll have no problem if Larrranaga is named national coach of the year. But some folks are acting as if the race for that award is already over, that Larranaga is a shoo-in. I disagree. What if Marquette wins the Big East title a year after losing Darius-Johnson Odom and Jae Crowder (and replacing them with basically nothing)? I think that’d be a bigger accomplishment than Miami winning the ACC -- the Big East is a much tougher league -- so I’d vote for Buzz Williams. John Thompson III will have a case, too, if Georgetown wins the Big East crown. His team lost second-leading scorer and leading rebounder Greg Whittington in December and actually got better. And, oh yeah, the Hoyas lost their three leading scorers (Jason Clark, Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims) from last season. What if K-State snaps Kansas’ streak of eight consecutive Big 12 titles and wins its first conference championship since 1977? Wouldn’t Bruce Weber be a candidate -- especially considering this is his first season in Manhattan? I think so. Then there’s Jim Crews at Saint Louis and Gregg Marshall at Wichita State. This race is hardly over. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
Every time I post something on Twitter about how impressed I am with the Memphis Tigers, the responses are always the same. They play in a weak league. Who have they beaten? Just wait until the NCAA tournament. Something tells me the folks saying these things haven’t watched Memphis play in recent weeks. Saturday’s 89-73 victory over Southern Miss marked the 18th straight win for Josh Pastner’s squad. That’s impressive no matter what league you’re in. Yes, I realize Conference USA doesn’t offer up the best competition, but Southern Miss -- an NCAA tournament team a year ago -- is still darn good. So is Central Florida, which features one of the better forwards in the country in Keith Clanton. Neither of those teams has come close to beating Memphis, which is 24-3 overall and 13-0 in league play. Talent has never been an issue for the Tigers, but lately, they’ve also looked extremely well-coached. Great ball movement, good shot selection, selfless play, tons of energy. Tell me, what’s not to like? I’m not ready to peg Memphis as a Final Four team, but I’ll be disappointed if it doesn't make it to the Sweet 16.
I like VCU’s team -- a lot -- but I’m not quite as high on the Rams as I was after watching them in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November. Back then, I was convinced that Shaka Smart’s squad was better than the unit that made the 2011 Final Four. I realize VCU made an incredible comeback against Xavier on Saturday, rallying from a 17-point deficit in the second half en route to a 75-71 victory. But why were the Rams down by 17 points in the first place? And if they are truly that good, why did they lose by 14 points at Saint Louis on Tuesday? It wasn’t the defeat that bothered me. It was the margin. Saint Louis is very, very good. But VCU got dominated in that game. Cuff me, officer. I’m guilty of over-hyping the Rams.
The worst team in a "power six" conference is easily Mississippi State. Seriously, would someone please give first-year coach Rick Ray a big hug? I can’t remember a time when a program was this decimated by injuries, suspensions, graduations and transfers. The Bulldogs only have eight active players on their roster. Saturday’s 72-31 loss to Vanderbilt marked Mississippi State’s 12th consecutive defeat. Its 31 points were the second-fewest in Humphrey Coliseum history. It was also the lowest scoring output for MSU in the shot-clock era.
I’m not ready to move him into the No. 1 slot, but I’ll definitely be elevating Georgetown forward Otto Porter into the top five of my weekly Wooden Award ballot, which is released each Wednesday. Porter scored a career-high 33 points on 12-of-19 shooting Saturday to help the Hoyas surge past Syracuse, 57-46. That’s right. Porter scored 33 of his team’s 57 points -- and he did it on the road. He also chipped in eight rebounds and five steals. There might not be a more versatile big man in college basketball.
Every time I turn on a Texas Tech game, I always hear television announcers talk about what “an excellent job” interim coach Chris Walker is doing in a “tough situation.” What am I missing here? The Red Raiders are 9-16 overall and 2-12 in conference play. All but two of their league setbacks have come by double digits. On Saturday, they lost to Iowa State by 20 points, 86-66. That’s what passes for doing a good job these days? Walker inherited a tough situation, to be sure. But so did USC’s Bob Cantu, who was named interim coach last month after the school fired Kevin O’Neill. USC has gone 5-4 under Cantu. Now that’s doing a good job.
One team that has quietly gotten better over the past few months is LSU, which defeated Alabama on Saturday, 97-94 in triple overtime. Johnny O’Bryant scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for the Tigers, who have won seven of their past 10 games. Sure, LSU beat some duds during that stretch, including Mississippi State (twice) and South Carolina. But there have also been victories over Missouri and Texas A&M and, of course, Saturday’s big win over Alabama. The most encouraging thing is that LSU will return virtually every key piece of this year’s team next season, including O’Bryant and guard Anthony Hickey, who leads the nation in steals with 3.2 per game.
Stick a fork in Baylor. The Bears are done. Scott Drew’s squad was embarrassed in a 90-76 loss at Oklahoma on Saturday. Or, heck, maybe they didn’t feel embarrassed at all. For the past few weeks, the Bears -- who trailed 47-21 at halftime Saturday -- have hardly seemed like they care. Baylor has now lost six of its past eight games. Drew’s team is 7-7 in league play but only 1-7 against teams in the top five of the Big 12 standings. The Bears aren’t going to make the NCAA tournament, which is inexcusable for a squad that features the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year in Pierre Jackson -- who leads the conference in scoring and assists -- along with future lottery pick Isaiah Austin and one of the nation’s premier 3-point shooters in Brady Heslip. Sure, the Bears lost three players from last year’s Elite Eight squad to the NBA draft. But there are still enough pieces on this roster to have significant success during a somewhat down year for the Big 12.