Wisconsin sinks Michigan State
When Wisconsin lost to Ohio State on February 1 to cap its first three-game home losing streak since 1997-98, it seemed reasonable to expect they would eventually turn things around. The Badgers won 16 games in a row to open the season and were frequently mentioned as a national championship contender. That they lost three straight at the Kohl Center and five of six overall, including once to Northwestern, was, well, weird.
If you view Wisconsin’s 60-58 win over No. 9 Michigan State Sunday through that lens – if you saw the Badgers’ January lull as an aberration and expected them to steady themselves sooner or later – it’s less of an upset than it is a restoration of order. The Badgers once looked like one of the Big Ten’s top teams, arguably the top team, so they should be able to beat some of the league’s other top teams at home.
Wisconsin took what seemed like a commanding six-point lead when senior guard Ben Brust drilled a three with 3 minutes, 37 seconds remaining. The Spartans cut the deficit in half less than two minutes later, on a trey from Michigan State junior guard Travis Trice, but Wisconsin junior big man Frank Kaminsky put the Badgers up five with another three at the 30-second mark.
A jumper from Michigan State freshman guard Gary Harris made it a one-possession game and the Spartans called a timeout after sophomore guard Denzel Valentine secured a rebound with under 20 seconds left. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo drew up a play that freed senior forward Adreian Payne for a clean three-point look. Payne canned it, only to watch Badgers sophomore Traevon Jackson, after a Wisconsin timeout, nail a pull-up jumper over Harris with 2.1 seconds to go for a two-point win.
Freshman forward Nigel Hayes led the Badgers with 14 points, but the best individual performance Sunday came from Payne, who finished with 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting. It was only Payne’s second game back after he missed seven because of a sprained foot.
If this game marks the moment when Wisconsin broke out of its midseason slump, no one will forget it. The Badgers will have a few more opportunities before the postseason to prove they have fixed the issues that plagued them last month. Minnesota visits Madison this week, then the Badgers will take on No. 10 Michigan and No. 17 Iowa on the road. Wisconsin pulled out a nice win Sunday, but how it plays over the next month is more important. It showed Sunday that it’s good enough to beat the beat one of the best teams in the country. Whether it will be able to beat teams of Michigan State’s caliber in March is an open question.
The Spartans have lost two of three, but that’s less of a concern right now than the health of their players. Keith Appling missed his second straight game Sunday with because of a wrist injury. After the game, Izzo said, “I’ve got a feeling Appling is out a couple of weeks.” Michigan State probably won’t be tested over its next couple of games – it plays Northwestern and Nebraska at home – but it will need Appling for the NCAA Tournament. Junior forward Branden Dawson has missed the last five games after breaking his hand, though he is expected to return before March
At full strength, Michigan State is a threat to win the national championship. But it’s been a while since the Spartans have had all of their players available.
Billikens stay unbeaten in conference play
With under 10 seconds remaining in No. 13 Saint Louis’s game Saturday at La Salle, Billikens point guard Jordair Jett was bent over at the waist as he dribbled near halfcourt and prepared to make his next move. Forward Dwayne Evans drew his defender away from the paint as he set a ball screen near the three-point line. Jett darted past two Explorers, cut toward the goal and laid the ball high off the glass for the deciding bucket in the Billikens’ 65-63 win. Three days earlier, Jett scored 10 points and dished out seven assists as Saint Louis won, 65-49, at Saint Joseph’s.
The two tough road wins pushed the Billikens’ Atlantic 10 conference record to 9-0 and their season mark to 22-2. They have won 16 games in a row for the first time in program history.
“It's what we expected,” Evans told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “We didn't expect to come in and get one. We expected to come in and get two quality wins over quality teams.”
The Billikens last lost on December 1 to then-No. 12 Wichita State. Were it not for the Shockers’ ongoing quest for an undefeated season, perhaps Saint Louis would be receiving more attention for the remarkable consistency it has displayed. The Billikens are a tough, defensive-minded club that has held A-10 opponents to 88.7 points per 100 possessions, a 41.2 percent two-point field goal percentage and a 42.8 effective field goal percentage (a metric that adjusts for the added value of the three-point shot) – all conference highs. Their defensive efficiency (87.5 points per 100 possessions) over the entire season to date ranks third in the country.
Jett, Evans and forward Rob Loe are the veteran core that leads one of only three teams this season that has started five seniors, according to the Saint Louis athletic department. Saint Louis ranks eighth in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s experience metric. It is impossible to quantify the effect that experience has had on the Billikens; maybe they will continue to dominate A-10 competition next season, after five seniors – including Jett, Evans and Loe – leave. But it has no doubt helped Saint Louis overcome the loss of two of its three top scorers (point guard Kwamain Mitchell and forward Cody Ellis) from last season and re-establish itself as the top team in its conference.
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The two wins Saint Louis picked up this week might have been its most impressive work yet in conference play. The Billikens limited Saint Joe’s to 0.74 points per possession and 1-of-15 shooting from three-point range. La Salle managed 0.98 PPP but shot 2-of-8 from deep. Jett’s game-winning layup and 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting keyed Saturday’s win but it was Loe (17 points on 4-of-7 shooting against Saint Joe’s) who provided the scoring Saint Louis needed to win the first game of its Philadelphia road swing.
Making it through the rest of the regular season without a loss will be tough. The Billikens’ schedule is back-loaded. They still have to play two games against VCU, one against George Washington and one at UMass before the postseason begins. Even if they suffer a couple of losses over the next few weeks, the Billikens should be able to earn a favorable seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Bracket Matrix (last updated Saturday morning), a compilation of more than 60 bracket projections, lists the Billikens as a No. 5 seed. If they keep winning, they can do better than that.
Do not let Saint Louis’s losses diminish your perception of what it has accomplished this season. The Billikens have not garnered as much national attention as Wichita State for obvious reasons. But their run of success deserves more recognition. If this week’s two wins didn’t open more people’s eyes to how good Saint Louis is, and how dangerous it could be in March, perhaps a resounding victory over the Rams next Saturday at Chaifetz Arena will.
Starks leads streaking Hoyas
The best player of the past week was covered in this space yesterday, so let’s turn the spotlight on someone else.
Georgetown had lost six of seven games heading into last Saturday’s meeting with then-No. 7 Michigan State. Starks scored 16 points to help his team beat the Spartans, then followed up this week by dropping 26 and 19 in wins over DePaul and Butler. In winning three consecutive games, the Hoyas have played their way into contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“ … He's been playing well all year, I think that Markel is playing at a very high level right now at both ends of the court,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said after Saturday’s win over the Bulldogs. “Most night's he's going to have to guard someone who can get buckets, who can score, and so just to have that responsibility to work at one end, to work at the other end, get everyone else involved, and just with our team right now he's going to be out there for most of the time.”
The Hoyas were picked second in the Big East preseason poll but currently sit in sixth place in the conference standings. They lost three consecutive games at home in January, including two to teams (Seton Hall and Marquette) with a combined conference record of 9-11. UCLA transfer center Josh Smith was ruled academically ineligible. The Hoyas at-large hopes were fading. There was so much negativity surrounding Georgetown’s season, it seemed reasonable for the Hoyas to write off 2013-14 and move on to the future. The only solace Georgetown had was that it wouldn’t have to worry about again being bounced out of the NCAAs by a double-digit seed.
The win over Michigan State seems to have re-energized the Hoyas. In 77 minutes over the past two games, Starks has dished out a nine assists and shot 16-for-20 from the free throw line. He posted a 145 offensive rating against the Bulldogs, his highest mark in 2014. When they’re playing this well, Starks and sophomore D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (17 points against DePaul, 18 against Butler) are extremely tough to match up with.
“I think that Georgetown has one of the best backcourts in the Big East and [Starks] leads the way,” Bulldogs coach Brandon Miller said. “He's a competitor. When you watch him you can tell he's a leader on their team vocally. He comes out and he competes every game. Sometimes he might shoot the ball better than others. But the amount of games you watch Georgetown on film, and how he takes over the game late in the game and how he makes big shots, you can tell he's a senior and he's a very good basketball player.”
Winning three straight games is an encouraging sign, but the Hoyas will need to finish the regular season strong to ensure they’re not left on the wrong side of the bubble on selection Sunday. This week Georgetown faces Providence at home. Then come consecutive road games against Saint John’s and Seton Hall. Any slip-ups would be costly. The good news is, the Hoyas will have a few opportunities for big wins near the end of the season. Three of their last four games are against the top three teams in the Big East standings (No. 6 Villanova, No. 12 Creighton and Xavier).
Georgetown has gone 3-6 against the RPI top 50 and 4-7 against the top 100. It has suffered two losses to teams ranked outside of the top 100: Seton Hall (119) and Northeastern (205). The Hoyas’ resumé is a work in progress, but they have some time to improve it.
“It's big, obviously the timing of it is the only timing it could be really,” Senior forward Nate Lubick said. “Three is great but we don't have any losses left in us; let's go on an eight-game winning streak.”
It will be up to Starks, the Hoyas’ senior leader, to make sure his team doesn’t revert to its poor January form. Over the last week he has made Georgetown’s NCAA Tournament chances a relevant talking point. Now Starks needs to help the Hoyas pick up the wins they need to make the field.
Jackson stuffs Karnowski
With under 14 minutes remaining in the second half of Saturday’s game between No. 23 Gonzaga and No. 24 Memphis, the Zags were leading 42-31 when 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski snatched the ball over Tigers forward Shaq Goodwin’s outstretched right arm and turned toward the rim. Karnowski set his feet and prepared to throw down a simple two-handed dunk.
That’s when 6-foot-1 Memphis senior guard Joe Jackson rotated over and leapt to meet Karnowski at the rim. His block triggered an 11-2 from the Tigers, who would go on to outscore Gonzaga 29-12 and win 60-54. Jackson finished with 10 points and five assists in 39 minutes.
“Joe Jackson’s block on the seven-footer gave us the spark that we needed to pull off the win,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said Saturday. “That block started the run that we needed. The crowd also had a huge influence on the way we finished the game. All of our guys that played were awesome, and it was a guts win overall.”unseats this