Florida let Vanderbilt back into the game late on, but otherwise looked comfortable at Memorial Hall. (Mark Zaleski/AP)
No. 1 Florida 57, Vanderbilt 54:Gators coach Billy Donovan was adamant yesterday that his team's new ranking "meant nothing." Well, maybe not nothing. It wouldn't impact how they prepared or played, he said, but he did concede that it meant that the teams ahead of them had lost, and that the label "No. 1" would now precede his team's name in headlines and conversations and posts like this, infusing an added air of importance or urgency to the discussion of whatever they do. And he was right, because beating a .500 SEC team by three points isn't normally a big deal, except it is if you're the newly crowned No. 1 team in the country because then close games like this set off all those "No. 1 might lose!" alarms and instead of a close win it's a "scare" or somesuch. But ce'st la vie.
We suppose we are now guilty of that same charge, but really, the Gators clinched a share of the SEC regular-season championship in a game that wasn't as much doubt as the score suggested. The Commodores -- the same team (albeit with entirely different players) that upset Florida in the same Memorial Gym the last time they were No. 1 in the AP poll, back in 2007 -- put up a noble fight, especially considering they were down to seven healthy scholarship players, pressing sophomore walk-on Carter Josephs into 20 minutes of action. Normally-streaky Vandy shot the ball well for most of the game, finishing with the second-best field goal percentage (48.8%) of a Gators opponent this season. Their problem in the early going was simply getting shots off, as the hosts turned the ball over eight times in the first 10 minutes, four of them coming in the face of Florida's full-court pressure. With hulking forward Patric Young having his way in the paint, scoring 10 points in the game's first 13 minutes, the Gators took a healthy eight-point lead and seemed well on their way to extending their school-record win streak to 20 games.
But actually getting there would prove more difficult. As the Commodores began to handle the press and Florida eased off (Vanderbilt would turn it over just eight more times in the final 30 minutes), they continued to make shots, slowly eating into the Gators' advantage. The favorites' own scoring acumen abandoned them for stretches of the second half: Young scored just two points after halftime, while the Gators as a team endured a drought of more than five minutes without a field goal, during which a 7-1 Vanderbilt run made it a two-point game with a minute to play.
Florida would finally snap the drought on its long ensuing possession, when point guard Scottie Wilbekin drew a pair of defenders off a screen and reversed the ball up top to find Dorian Finney-Smith -- who scored a game-high 19 off the bench -- for a three that became the game's decisive basket. Kyle Fuller drove and scored on a clear-out to cut the Gators' lead to three, after which Wilbekin missed the front end of a one-and-one with 10 seconds left, but Fuller's missed three and Dai-Jon Parker's wayward put-back sealed the comeback as fruitless. When Casey Prather finally nabbed the defensive rebound, the game was over.
The Gators' last loss came in early December, when Wilbekin was still sidelined with a bad ankle and UConn's Shabazz Napier came up with one of the season's wildest finishes. But the subsequent winning streak has appeared in jeopardy in each of the last three games, as Florida beat Auburn and Ole Miss by a combined nine points last week. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before something gives and they are ushered through the same revolving door that Kentucky, Michigan State, Arizona, and Syracuse have already exited atop the polls. There's a school of thought that says a loss does a team good before the postseason, alerting them to faults they can smooth out; another says that learning to win these close games is a much-needed skill in March. Who knows which, if either, will be the case for the Gators. But heavy is the head that wears the crown, even if it swears it doesn't feel it.
No. 2 Wichita State 69, Bradley 49: Even the fans in Peoria applauded a bit as a visiting MVC juggernaut made history. For the first time since UNLV in 1990-91 -- and for the first time ever in the regular season -- a Division I men’s basketball team is 30-0. Only a Saturday home date with third-place Missouri State, current 9-9 in league play, stands between Wichita State and the first undefeated regular season since Saint Joseph’s a decade ago.
History aside, the Bradley faithful had some reason to cheer. Their Braves hung with the Shockers in the early going, trailing by just four after 12 minutes, and senior forward Tyson Pickett will get to tell his grandkids he put up 13 points (even if on 5-of-20 shooting) and 15 boards against the No. 2 team in the country. But Wichita State ultimately did what Wichita State does, getting threes from Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early to build some breathing room, clamping down on the hosts to hold them to 27.1% shooting from the floor, and leaving town with the 24th double-digit win of their season thus far. As the debate rages on regarding whether the Shockers deserve a No. 1 seed come NCAA tourney time, all they can do is keep winning – and winning decisively – to make their case.
Minnesota 95, No. 20 Iowa 89: Do not adjust your television sets computer/tablet/phone screens. The same Minnesota team that failed to break 50 in consecutive losses to Illinois and Ohio State last week nearly hung a hundred on the nation's 20th-ranked team. Some of that is a matter of tempo, as the usually plodding Gophers (206th in average offensive possession length, per KenPom.com) were brought up to the speed of the visiting Hawkeyes (third in the same stat). But a lot of it was also crazy offense and poor defense conspiring to create a rollickingly entertaining shootout that few could have seen coming.
One thing surely no one foresaw was the breakout of Charles Buggs (can we call him Chucky? Because Chucky Buggs is a name that needs to exist), a redshirt freshman forward who had five career points to his name before scoring 13 on 5-of-6 shooting and earning a standing ovation when he checked out near the end of the first half. Buggs was fourth on the team in scoring behind usual suspects Austin Hollins (a career-best 27 points on 8-of-10 shooting), Andre Hollins (14 points and no relation to Austin), and starting point guard DeAndre Mathieu (19 points, seven assists), who himself has been a revelation after transferring from Central Arizona College following a non-factor freshman year at Morehead State in 2011-12.
The win is a big boost for what had been a shriveling Minnesota tournament resume after the Gophers had dropped six of their previous eight games and grew short on time and opportunities to impress the committee; Saturday's trip to Michigan and the Big Ten tourney loom large. For Iowa, it was the least excusable loss in a season that's been marked by defeats against top-notch opponents (Villanova, Wisconsin twice, Michigan State) and the handling of business against lesser ones. As exemplified Tuesday night, Fran McCaffery's team is much more proficient on offense than defense -- the Hawkeyes entered the game ranked fourth and 45th in those respective efficiencies, per KenPom -- but it will need to prevent lapses (like Saturday's loss to Wisconsin) and outright collapses (like against Minnesota) on the defensive end to forge any kind of postseason run. After consecutive losses, the Hawkeyes next play Indiana and Purdue on relatively short rest as they try to get things back in order.
No. 14 Wisconsin 69, Indiana 58: For all the talk of Bo Ryan and co. having gotten their groove back, you’d have been hard pressed to make that case at halftime of Tuesday’s game. At that point, the Badgers had just 19 points on 7-of-24 shooting and were seemingly on the verge of losing to Indiana for the second time this season and at home for the first time in 16 years. But in the second half, Wisconsin awoke, raining down threes upon the Hoosiers with great vengeance while outscoring them 50-29 to win by double-digits going away.
Indiana’s two young guns -- sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell, who has averaged more than 20 points against ranked teams this year, and übertalented freshman forward Noah Vonleh -- combined for 42 points and 7-of-13 shooting from beyond the arc, but could only carry the struggling Hoosiers so far. Sam Dekker scored 14 points after halftime, all coming in a 13-minute span that saw the Badgers turn an eight-point deficit into a nine-point lead. His 17 total points led Wisconsin, which had all five starters score in double figures and nearly got a double-double from Frank Kaminsky, who had 10 points and nine rebounds. After a pair of mini losing streaks that began with their first meeting with Indiana on Jan.14, the Badgers have now won five in a row -- tied with Nebraska for best in the Big Ten -- and sit alone in third place.
No. 6 Duke 66, Virginia Tech 48: