I know we’re all waiting for No. 1 Michigan at No. 3 Indiana tonight. But here are a few observations from Saturday afternoon’s matchups.
Kansas falls at Allen Fieldhouse and I’m not that surprised. First, the numbers. Oklahoma State’s 85-80 victory at No. 2 Kansas snapped the Jayhawks 33-game winning streak at the Phog. KU had won 101 out of 102 previous games there. There’s obviously a certain mystique within that venue. But this season's Jayhawks had struggled there multiple times. Temple gave them trouble at the Phog. They nearly lost to Iowa State at Allen Fieldhouse, too. Just seemed as though the Jayhawks were going to fall at some point. And on Saturday, it happened. Best moment of the loss? Travis Ford jumping up and down on the sideline as he grabbed his assistants and screamed “Oh my God!” Kudos to the Pokes. This win was surprising. But it was also an example of a talented team finally -- finally -- playing up to its potential. Too often, the Cowboys compete like an athletic playground squad with little rhyme or reason on either end of the floor. But they were seamless against the Jayhawks. Marcus Smart was brilliant (25 points, 9 rebounds and 5 steals). Markel Brown scored 28 points. And when Kansas turned a 77-69 deficit with 1 minute, 1 second to play into an 81-80 deficit with 19 seconds to go, Oklahoma State remained calm. Phil Forte made a pair of crucial free throws and Oklahoma State forced an Elijah Johnson turnover in the final seconds to seal the win. It was a thrilling finish. And the Jayhawks were simply outplayed. Ben McLemore (23 points) was a star but too much of KU’s late-game offense was limited to whatever the first-year standout pulled out of his hat. And to be honest, we’d witnessed this before. Happened against Iowa State a few weeks ago. Kansas had survived in the past. Not on Saturday.
Don’t call Pitt-Cuse an upset. After Pitt’s depth and relentlessness fueled the program’s 13th win in 14 matchups against a top-10 squad at the Petersen Events Center, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said this: “They're the best team we've played, without any question. It’s not even close.” Perhaps that’s true, although Cincinnati and Louisville played No. 4 Cuse tough, too. But I think it’s accurate to say that no team has baffled the 2-3 zone the way Pitt did on Saturday during its 65-55 victory. The Panthers were fluid and patient. They attacked the middle of the zone and relied of effective screens to get shots when the 3-ball wasn’t falling for them (Pitt missed its first six 3-pointers and finished 3-for-15 from the 3-point line). The Panthers also overcame 19 turnovers. After a rough start, however, they never looked rattled by anything that Cuse threw at them. Their bench outscored Cuse’s reserves 31-3. Freshman Steven Adams (8 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks) is growing. Tray Woodall (13 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals) is attacking. They’re key pieces of a Pitt team that’s one of America’s best (15th in ESPN.com’s BPI). And let’s remember that the Panthers were favored in this one. Then there’s the history at the Pete and the history against Syracuse (Pitt has won nine of 11 and five in a row at the Pete). This was a matchup between a pair of Big East contenders. The “upset” tag should not be attached to this game. Pitt earned it because it's a top-tier squad in this conference, too.
Duke buries Miami loss. Remember when Duke lost to Miami by a million points Jan. 23? Remember how easy it was to call the Blue Devils “pretenders” or “overrated” after that game? Well, since that loss against a Miami program that was clearly underrated at the time, the Blue Devils have defeated Maryland, Wake Forest and Florida State by an average scoring margin of 14.7 points. On Saturday, they pulled Florida State down the ACC standings with one of the most dominant in-conference road performances that any team in the country has achieved this season. With 14:21 to play in the first half, Duke had amassed an 18-2 lead. That’s exactly what the Blue Devils had failed to do in that lopsided loss at Miami. But they looked like a powerful team again when they bullied the Seminoles in a 79-60 win. Yes, the Seminoles have some major issues that are too numerous to discuss in detail here. I give Duke credit, however, for crushing that flawed team. I mean, a 50-24 lead a few minutes into the second half will always be impressive, regardless of the matchup. I’d say that Duke has proven that the Miami loss was just a really, really bad night. Perhaps nothing more than that. If they get this from Quinn Cook -- 18 points and six assists -- and this from Rasheed “Too Smooth” Sulaimon -- 14 points (6-for-11) -- Duke can continue to outplay the ACC’s best even without Ryan Kelly. Also, just 10 turnovers for a Duke team that turned the ball over on 15.8 percent of its possessions entering Saturday.
Miami is legit … just in case you didn’t know. In its last game, NC State lost point guard Lorenzo Brown in the first half of a defeat to Virginia. The No. 19 Wolfpack couldn’t gather itself against one of the top defensive units in America. Mark Gottfried’s crew faced an equally potent defense when they faced the Hurricanes. But it didn’t panic. In the second half, the Wolfpack amassed a double-digit lead over No. 14 Miami. Miami, however, pressured and restricted NC State’s offense to a pair of field goals in the final six minutes of a 79-78 road win. Yes, Reggie Johnson’s tip-in in the last second gave the Canes the win. But their defensive pressure turned this game. Plus, Durand Scott scored 18 points and Johnson added 15 points, 8 rebounds and a block. NC State shot 53 percent from the field but it didn’t finish hot. Now, Miami is 8-0 in the ACC. And it has defeated both North Carolina and NC State. If the Hurricanes defeat Duke on March 2, they would be the first team to defeat the three Research Triangle schools on the road since the 1995-96 Georgia Tech squad pulled off the feat.
Let’s make sure we include Saint Louis in the “best in the Atlantic 10” conversation. The Billikens followed their midweek victory over No. 9 Butler with an 81-52 win over a Dayton team that’s in the bottom tier of the league. But they took a 52-29 lead five minutes into the second half. Rob Loe (17 points) led four players in double figures. The Billikens, who have won four in a row, are ranked 36th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy, and they might be the best team in this conference right now.
It’s the weekend, so here’s your weekly “What on earth is happening in the Mountain West?” update. Well, Air Force defeated No. 17 San Diego State 70-67 to earn a slot as the No. 2 team in the league. The 5-2 Falcons have won five in a row. They have a veteran squad that just scored an upset against an Aztecs team that was coming off a 21-point win over New Mexico … just in case you’re trying to figure out the Mountain West. But that’s a huge win for a Falcons squad with an RPI of 72. San Diego State’s problems on the perimeter continue to create challenges for the Aztecs, who entered the game shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc in conference play. They were 2-for-19 against the Falcons. Ugh.
I had a conversation with Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall on Friday. We talked about the competition within the Missouri Valley Conference. He called the league “a mini-Big Ten” based on its parity. That take made more sense on Saturday when No. 15 Wichita State suffered a 57-52 road loss against Northern Iowa. It was Wichita State’s second consecutive loss. Anthony James had 16 points and the Panthers committed just nine turnovers. Now, Wichita State is a game behind a 9-2 Creighton squad and Indiana State, which defeated the Shockers earlier this week, is 1.5 games behind the Bluejays. No idea how the MVC race will ultimately end. But I’m certainly intrigued.
You could take a few things away from North Carolina’s 72-60 win overtime victory against Virginia Tech. … The Tar Heels were resilient after Virginia Tech took a 40-33 lead early in the second half. The new attitude for a Tar Heels squad that’s won five out of six has kept it alive in the ACC. … Marcus Paige showcased his leadership abilities when he scored eight of his 19 points in overtime. The best North Carolina teams thrived with elite point guards. And that’s the tag that was attached to Paige when he reached campus. But this was the first time this season that Paige seemed comfortable enough to elevate his game and meet those expectations.
In 2012-13, Colorado has lost five of its first nine Pac-12 games. The Buffaloes began the year as a “sleeper” but right now, they’re just an average team floating through an average league. Proof? A 58-55 loss at Utah on Saturday. The same Utah squad that lost to Cal State Northridge and Sacramento State. Colorado’s 10-for-18 mark from the charity stripe proved to be detrimental.
Cal defeated No. 10 Oregon 58-54 on Saturday. It was more evidence that the loss of guard Dominic Artis to a foot injury has clearly affected the Ducks (22 turnovers). Fans stormed the floor because Cal hadn’t defeated a top-10 squad in five-plus years. However, the Bears have defeated Oregon in 10 consecutive games. That’s an odd streak. The Ducks are slipping in a Pac-12 race that they controlled after victories over Arizona and UCLA. Now, Oregon, Arizona and Arizona State have two conference losses apiece and UCLA has three. Saturday’s loss changed the hunt for the Pac-12 title.