Thursday was relatively quiet in college hoops' Top 25, with just one ranked team in action: No. 24 San Diego State, which held off San Diego at the buzzer for a wild 65-64 win, its eighth straight over its intracity rivals. Here's a look at three other games with tourney hopefuls and what they might mean going forward.
Missouri 80, West Virginia 71
Perhaps it's unfair to say the score here is misleading -- a road team with noted chemistry issues a season ago staying hungry through a 35-minute drubbing deserves whatever credit a single-digit loss entails -- but really, the Mountaineers' run came so late it was more of a wake-up call than a threat. The Tigers' extension of their now-23-game home winning streak took shape early: the previously sharpshooting Mountaineers needed seven minutes to hit their first field goal and struggled to find offensive rhythm with 20.3-ppg scorer Eron Harris in foul trouble, and the Tigers piled up quick buckets off misses and turnovers, taking a 14-point lead into halftime that ballooned to 21 within first two minutes of the second period.
It was Mizzou's guard play, particularly that of junior Jordan Clarkson, that was most encouraging for the Tigers. Clarkson, a first-team all-conference USA selection at Tulsa in 2011-12, was in part lured to Columbia by his point-guard predecessor, Phil Pressey, against whom he distinguished himself as a possible successor while practicing with the scout team last season. But where Pressey was a 5-foot-11 dynamo reliant primarily on his quick handle to make plays, the 6-foot-5 Clarkson has a size advantage that allows him to create matchup problems, posting up on or shooting over smaller defenders. Which is not to say that he cannot penetrate in his own right (Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson likened him to a Ninja Blender last month for the way he continually sliced his way into the lane) and he made that clear against West Virginia, particularly on a crossover, and-one drive past Harris at the 9:06 mark that provided arguably the game's most impressive basket. All told, Clarkson finished with a game high in points (25) and steals (three), adding six boards and four assists to boot, keying an attack that saw his two fellow 6-foot-5 starting guards -- Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross -- finish with 18 and 16 points, respectively.
Clarkson's emergence -- he's now averaging 20.1 points per game, a figure he's topped in each of the Tigers' last four games -- will be key for a Missouri team looking to stand its ground in the SEC. Picked fifth in the league's preseason poll, the Tigers are now undefeated through eight games, though West Virginia was clearly their most formidable test thus far. (Hawaii is their only other opponent with a winning record.) That will change soon: On Saturday, UCLA comes to town, while late December brings trips to St. Louis for a Braggin' Rights date with Illinois, and North Carolina State. Both teams are in somewhat comparable situations, trying to position themselves to stand out among the mid-level power-conference pack. In an SEC where Tennessee's inconsistency and Florida's injuries may be boons to upward mobility, Clarkson and the Tigers' strong backcourt may help them do just that.
Kansas State 61, Mississippi 58
Did you honestly think anyone else was taking the last shot? Trailing by two with 15.1 seconds left, just about everyone who's ever heard of Marshall Henderson expected the ball to find his hands. But after a pair of screens failed to free up Henderson before point guard Derrick Millinghaus passed him the ball on the wing, all Henderson could manage was a 28-foot jumper with roughly four seconds on the clock. It missed everything, falling into the hands of Wesley Iwundu, who was fouled and hit one of two free throws to arrive at the game's final score.
It was not one of Henderson's better nights, as the mercurial guard shot just 4-for-18 from the field, including 2-for-13 from three. (One of his two such makes had come on Ole Miss's penultimate possession, cutting a four-point deficit to one.) Henderson had a pair of lightning bolts shaved into his hairline in preparation for the national TV appearance, but it was junior Jarvis Summers who seized the stage on the Rebels' offense, making six of nine shots and leading all scorers with 18 points. After seeing most of his numbers decline as a sophomore last season, Summers has seen a marked jump thus far in his shooting percentages on two-point (from 41.9% to 57.5%) and three-point shots (34.0% to 52.0%) while increasing his percentage of shots taken while on the floor from 17.8% to 25.1% entering tonight (per KenPom). The common line is that the Rebels can contend for an NCAA tournament bid if Henderson can carry them there again, but if Summers can continue to be an efficient scorer in a bigger role, his more famous teammate's burden may be eased a bit.
And how about the team that won the game? After early losses to Northern Colorado (at home) and Charlotte (in Puerto Rico), handing Ole Miss its first loss of the season is a nice way to get headed back in the right direction. Thomas Gipson, who missed the season's first two games after suffering a concussion, continued to be a difference-maker, scoring 15 points on seven shots and at one point pinning two straight Aaron Jones shots against the backboard in an eight-second span. With the Wildcats' offense anemic again - they made 19 of 52 field goals - that kind of defensive tenacity will be a must going forward.
VCU 71, Eastern Kentucky 68 (OT)
If VCU -- which was ranked 10th nationally by AP voters just two weeks ago -- is looking to get back in the polls, it will probably need to do better than eking past Eastern Kentucky at home. (Though it should be noted that the Colonels are legitimate Ohio Valley title contenders.) Yet given how close the Rams were to dropping their third game in two weeks, any win is likely welcome.
Like in its losses to Florida State and Georgetown and its win against Belmont (during which the Rams trailed by double-digits in the first half), VCU's offense was ineffective for stretches; after just over 10 minutes of play, Eastern Kentucky led 25-11, struggling to combat the Colonels' aggressiveness. But the Rams rallied to make it a blow-for-blow affair down the stretch, with the score being tied or a lead being taken on the final six scoring possessions of regulation. Melvin Johnson's jumper, which knotted it up at 66 with 1:04 left in the second half, was the final such bucket, but the final scoreless minute provided plenty of excitement, first when VCU's smothering defense prevented Glenn Cosey from getting off a three-point attempt (which he airballed) before the shot clock expired with 24 seconds left. On the other end, Treveon Graham was stripped by Corey Walden, who scored a game-high 19, with two seconds on the clock. Walden chucked up a prayer from halfcourt, but it went unanswered, rattling off and sending the game to overtime. Rob Brandenburg's three-pointer provided the only points of the overtime period's first four minutes, and after VCU missed two of four free-throw attempts sandwiched around an EKU layup, the Colonels trailed by three with six seconds left. But Cosey's falling attempt from the left corner missed everything, and the Rams got the rebound and held on. It was a narrow escape, but better than none at all, and VCU will have a month of fairly favorable matchups to prepare its offense for Atlantic 10 play.