The Morning After is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It is a little late today, because, you know, Bubble Watch.
No. 2 Syracuse 52, No. 15 Louisville 51: First, the bad news: Syracuse shot 1-for-15 from 3 Monday night. That's the second-worst outside shooting effort any Syracuse team has posted in the past 15 years. Worse yet, according to the shot chart the network folks flashed in the postgame analysis, the Orange went 1-for-29 outside the paint all evening. Jim Boeheim said his two best players were struggling last night, but which two are his best? Dion Waiters was 3-of-10 off the bench. Scoop Jardine was 0-for-8. Brandon Triche was 4-for-11. Kris Joseph was hampered by foul trouble; he finished with 7 points on 2-of-5 from the field. This was ugly, ugly stuff.
And now the good news: Syracuse still managed to go 20-of-61 from two-point range. Oh, and there's this: Despite the horrid outside shooting and some characteristically shaky defensive rebounding, Syracuse still got this win -- on the road, in a tough building, against a hot team with an improved offense that had won its past six Big East games, including at West Virginia on Saturday. Brian Bennett, ESPN.com Big Ten football blogger and local Louisville man-about-town, summed it up perfectly in his report from the Yum! Center. This 52-51 victory was, in its own way, a gem.
The difference between these teams -- both shot poorly, both rebounded the ball well on offense (usually just before shooting poorly again) and both zone defenses were at their best -- was turnovers. This is always Syracuse's main advantage, but especially against the turnover-prone Cardinals' backcourt, and it's what separated these teams as the possessions shrank and the game tightened in the second half. Every time Syracuse needed a stop and a big bucket down the stretch, it seemed to get it, usually because one of the Orange got into a passing lane or swatted a dribble away; the resulting fast-break buckets, few and far between though they were, amounted to the only easy baskets either team scored all night.
In the long run, it would be tempting to look at Syracuse's past two close games -- this win and Wednesday's OT home win against Georgetown -- and begin to nitpick. And no, Syracuse doesn't rebound the ball well on the defensive end. This is true. But I'm going to fight that temptation for now, and here's why: Good teams don't always have to win pretty. They just have to win. Syracuse will face its fair share of close contests in the NCAA tournament, and the experience gained and skills presented in hard-fought victories like this might be just the preparation this typically overwhelming team needs. We'll see.
No. 5 Kansas 59, Kansas State 53: As ugly as the early game was, this one -- a hard-fought, physical matchup before a rowdy Bramlage Coliseum crowd -- was just as aesthetically displeasing. Just like in the early game, the top-five team won on the road, and just like the early game, it displayed some rather impressive traits in doing so. The Jayhawks held Kansas State to an effective field goal percentage of 33.8, the Wildcats' lowest figure of the season to date.
Perhaps most importantly, it did so without fouling. That's Kansas State's strength. The Wildcats don't shoot the ball well, and they turn it over on 21.9 percent of their possessions, but what they can do -- wear you down on the offensive boards to the tune of a 42.0 percent OR%; get fouled enough to go to the line at a top-15 rate nationally -- is usually effective enough. The Wildcats commit a lot of fouls, but that same physical interior style, the one that held Thomas Robinson to just 10 points on 3-of-7 from the field, typically earns K-State its own fair share of trips to the line. But Kansas defended K-State brilliantly, which is to say the Jayhawks knew to challenge shots without committing too much contact, and knew that if they did, K-State's chances of keeping the offensive pace would falter eventually.
Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor was brilliant down the stretch, hitting two key threes at the 11-minute mark, finishing backcuts and drives around the rim, and locating open teammates in scoring position. After that flurry, Kansas had opened a wide-enough margin to take the tough road win. And that's not just a throwaway word here, "tough." In this instance, it perfectly describes the style Kansas State forces you to play, and the one the Jayhawks willingly adopted to get the win. Ugly? Oh yeah. Impressive? You bet.
No. 10 Baylor 79, Iowa State 64: Perhaps we needn't jump off the Baylor bandwagon just yet. Sure, the Bears looked rather dismal in their back-to-back losses to Missouri and Kansas. Sure, this team is one of the more frustrating in the country. It's impossible to watch Baylor, to see the collection of talent on hand, and not wonder why the Bears don't dominate a bit more often. Even in the four-game winning streak that preceded last week's back-to-back losses, the Bears were never as commanding as you'd hope. Yet, for all the frustrations (each new wholly deferential Perry Jones III mid-range jumper is yet another reminder) the college hoops cognoscenti has about this team, for all of the complaints about shot selection and bad zone defense and bad rebounding and coach Scott Drew's style, consider its accomplishments thus far: It is 22-4 overall and 9-4 in the Big 12. Its only losses have come to either Kansas or Missouri. There's not much wrong with that.
On Monday's ESPNU College Basketball podcast, Doug Gottlieb, Andy Katz and Ryan Burr made the point that Baylor could still be a team capable of a deep tournament run, if only because the Bears aren't likely to face Kansas and Missouri -- or any other team that knows their attack and style of play intimately -- along the way. Maybe that's true. But even if other teams do figure this squad out (that's what Synergy scouting data is for, after all), it's worth remembering that, with the exception of two top-five teams, no one has yet been able to slay the Bears. They might not always wow us, but all things considered, they get the job done.