A few thoughts on Saturday's crop of college hoops:
Notre Dame 76, No. 15 Marquette 59: Back in the fall, you would have been incredulous had I told you that on Feb. 4th, Notre Dame would be just a half game out of second place in the Big East. After Tim Abromaitis tore his ACL and was lost for the season in late November, you would have flat out called me a liar. But after the Irish lit up Marquette in South Bend on Saturday afternoon, that is precisely where they stand.
Patrick Connaughton, a freshman wing, went for 23 points, 11 boards, three assists and two huge blocks on two important defensive stops to lead the way for the Irish. And while the score speaks for itself, this was a close game midway through the second half. Notre Dame used a late 18-2 run to break the game open. In other words, they won this game going away. That's a pretty impressive thing to do against a team as good as Marquette.
As they did when Luke Harangody was injured during the 2010 season, the Irish have gone to Mike Brey's patented Burn Offense. What's the Burn Offense? Well, exactly what it sounds like. Notre Dame burns 20 to 25 seconds off the clock before initiating its offense. The thinking is that by reducing the number of possessions, the Irish take the flow out of the game and get their opponents out of rhythm. With playmakers like Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant in the back court, a greatly improved Jack Cooley in the middle and veteran Scott Martin at the four, the Irish have a solid core. Their patience offensively and belief in Brey's game plan is the reason Notre Dame is once again relevant.
This was the fourth straight win for the Irish. It looks like that victory against Syracuse wasn't so much of a fluke after all. (RECAP/BOX)
No. 3 Ohio State 58, No. 19 Wisconsin 52: The question that we all had about Wisconsin in regards to a potential Big Ten regular season title was their ability to matchup with the talented front court of the Buckeyes. We got our first answer on Saturday, and it wasn't exactly what the Badger faithful wanted to see. Jared Sullinger went for 24 points and 10 boards while Deshaun Thomas added 16 points and six boards as the pair accounted for more than two-thirds of Ohio State's scoring, more than half of their rebounding and all nine of the offensive rebounds Thad Matta's team collected.
In fact, Ohio State's box score is one of the most interesting of the season. The three reserves that got playing time didn't attempt a single shot. Starters Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith combined to go just 2-5 from the floor with seven points. William Buford had 11 points, but it took 4-15 shooting to get there. This was a two-man show. The Buckeyes knew where their advantage was, and they capitalized on it.
It used to be that a win in the Kohl Center was nearly impossible to get. Prior to this season, Bo Ryan had lost just 11 home games in his 10-year tenure. His record during Big Ten play? 78-6. That's changed this year. After Saturday's loss, Wisconsin has now lost four games at home this year, three of them coming in Big Ten play. More importantly, Wisconsin dropped into fourth place in the Big Ten standings and 0-3 against the top three teams in the league -- OSU, Michigan and Michigan State -- with games remaining at Ohio State and Michigan State. It will be a tough task to make up a two-game deficit in the loss column.
Of note: Wisconsin has lost six games. In those six games, they have shot 22.9 percent (33-144) from the 3-point line. In their 18 wins, they are knocking down threes at a 40.7 percent clip. (RECAP/BOX)
Wyoming 68, No. 11 UNLV 66: The true mark of a good team is their ability to perform on the road, right? Well, maybe it's time we started to worry about the Runnin' Rebels. They got soundly beaten by both Wisconsin and Wichita State on the road in non-conference play before beating Illinois. They've lost at San Diego State and now Wyoming, and both of their road wins in league play came in overtime. Those opponents -- Air Force and Boise State -- are a combined 1-13 in MWC play. That's a worrisome trend.
That said, the credit needs to be given to Wyoming here. Larry Shyatt has sparked quite the turnaround. The Cowboys are now 4-3 in league play and just a game behind UNLV for second place. At 18-5 on the season, they are now back in the bubble conversation, although they probably need another big win or two to have a real shot at earning a bid. (RECAP/BOX)
No. 12 Florida 73, Vanderbilt 65: Coming into the day, this game held about as much intrigue as any this side of the Border War. Two teams with incredibly similar roster compositions -- talented back courts surrounding one legitimate low-post presence -- battling for the right to be termed the favorite to be Kentucky's runner-up in the SEC. And as of now, Florida can claim the right to that title.
The Gators shot 11-24 from three and used their press to force 17 Vanderbilt turnovers, which is how they were able to win despite getting just 14 foul-plagued minutes out of Patric Young. Florida plays at Kentucky on Tuesday. That should be fun.
As far as Vanderbilt is concerned, there is reason to be optimistic about this performance. The 'Dores turned the ball over 17 times, they shot just 8-25 from three, they got just three rebounds from their center Festus Ezeli and they did it all on the road. But Vandy only lost by eight, holding the nation's most-efficient offense to just 1.09 PPP, .13 PPP below their season average. (RECAP/BOX)
Northern Iowa 65, No. 13 Creighton 62:We had a clear winner for best finish of the day. Down by three with just 9.6 seconds left, Antoine Young buried a three to tie the game at 62. But the Panthers pushed the ball the other way and Anthony James buried a tough, step-back three at the buzzer to win the game. The loss is big for Creighton, as it drops them into a first-place tie with Wichita State. The Bluejays own a win over the Shockers already this season, but they host the rematch next Saturday. (RECAP/BOX)
No. 21 Florida State 58, No. 16 Virginia 55: I think it's safe to say we got what we expected out of this game. When two teams who hang their hats on defense get together, you shouldn't be surprised when the total number of turnovers (39) is almost equal to the total number of field goals (43). And while the Cavs did happen to lose this game, they can still head back to Charlottesville feeling good about themselves after fighting back from 13 down midway through the second half to take the lead. Okaro White led FSU with 13 points off the bench. (RECAP/BOX)
Memphis 72, Xavier 68: With just over six minutes left in the game, Xavier held a 62-51 lead over the Tigers and looked poised to head back to Cincinnati with a much-needed, confidence-boosting win at Fed Ex Forum. But Wesley Witherspoon, Joe Jackson and Antonio Barton led the Tigers back, scoring all the points in a game-deciding 17-1 run. Jackson led the way with 14 points -- hitting all 12 of his free throws -- while adding eight assists.
The irony in this outcome is that Xavier, before their issues, was the team known for its improbable late-game comebacks. (RECAP/BOX)
UConn 69, Seton Hall 46: Having lost their fourth straight game Wednesday and their head coach to spinal stenosis Friday, the Huskies were in the middle of one of its worst stretches in recent memory. It was bad enough that the nation seemed poised to throw in the towel on UConn's season. Here's the thing: UConn's issues weren't talent- or injury-related. It was their focus, their effort and their leadership. The Huskies started caring more about minutes and points than wins.
Those issues disappeared pretty quickly once UConn was faced with the realistic possibility of missing the NCAA Tournament. Granted, the on-court issues are still there -- Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier shot 4-16 combined and UConn turned the ball over 16 times -- but those kinks will eventually work themselves out. The fact that UConn is playing together is a much bigger deal. (RECAP/BOX)
No. 1 Kentucky 86, South Carolina 52: For what may be the first time this season, we got a chance to see just what Kentucky is capable of doing when everything is going right. UK was up by 40 at one point. Anthony Davis finished with 22 points, eight boards and eight blocks.
No. 2 Syracuse 95, St. John's 70: Fab Melo is back, and it was evident. Melo finished with a career-high 14 points and the Orange went into Madison Square Garden and blew out a St. John's team that had been playing well of late. (Recap/Box)
No. 5 North Carolina 83, Maryland 74: The Terps gave UNC a fight. Terrell Stoglin had 20 points and Alex Len added 12 points, nine boards and four blocks off the bench, but in the end UNC was too much. Tyler Zeller and John Henson combined for 39 points and 19 boards, but more importantly, seemed to come up with every loose ball in the final five minutes.
No. 6 Baylor 64, Oklahoma State 60: The Cowboys made a run down the stretch, erasing a late nine-point lead to take a 57-56 lead with less than two minutes left. But Pierre Jackson immediately answered with a bucket to give Baylor the lead back for good. Believe it or not, Jackson is Baylor's best option on the last possession.
No. 10 Murray State 65, Tennessee-Martin 58: The Racers once again had a bit of trouble with an OVC opponent -- which isn't a good sign when that opponent has won just three games on the season and is 0-12 in league play -- but at this point, a win is a win. Instead of worrying about how good the Racers truly are, can we just sit back and enjoy the ride?
No. 14 Georgetown 75, South Florida 45: South Florida came into this game tied with Notre Dame for fourth in the Big East. Maybe, just maybe, their record was inflated. That or they were really thrown off by the 11 a.m. tip.
No. 20 Indiana 78, Purdue 61: For the first time in the Tom Crean era, Indiana has won a game on the road against an opponent not named Penn State. The final score may not indicate it, but the Boilermakers cut what was a 13-point lead down to four at one point. The Hoosiers hit a bunch of free throws in the final minute to make the final margin that big.
Arizona 56, Stanford 43: We were all ready to write off the Wildcats after they lost Kevin Parrom to a broken foot, right? Well, Sean Miller's team followed up their win at Cal with a win at Stanford. It's still too early to count them out of the Pac-12 race.
George Mason 54, Old Dominion 50: George Mason picked up a huge win over the Monarchs. Coming into the game, these two teams were among the four tied for first place in the CAA.
Iona 85, Manhattan 73: Iona's first loss in MAAC play came against Manhattan when the Jaspers came back from 17 down in the final eight minutes before winning on a buzzer-beating three. The Gaels got revenge on Saturday, taking control of first place in the league standings.