All of a sudden, the Conference USA title game is loaded with intrigue.
Heading into the tournament, this league was looking very much like Memphis and everyone else. With Marshall’s return to mediocrity during conference play and Southern Miss taking a nosedive late in the season, the only real challenger that the Tigers appeared to have was Central Florida; they took care of the Knights by 30 on Friday evening.
On the other hand, Marshall not only played their way into the tournament’s title game, they all of a sudden look like a team that may be able to sneak into the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid even if they lose to the Tigers on Saturday morning. The triple-overtime win over Tulsa on Thursday was thrilling, but it was the win over Southern Miss on Friday that really left its mark. The Thundering Herd saw their RPI shoot up into the low-40’s which, when combined with their performance in the non-conference, has the bubble speculators giving credence to the idea that a competitive loss may end up being enough.
That said, Marshall would be wise to take some advice from the boxing world: never leave it in the judge’s hands. There is an easy way to avoid sweating out Selection Sunday, and that is to win the automatic bid. Its easier said than done, considering Memphis is not only playing their best basketball of the season, they will be hosting the title game, but in a one game scenario, anything can happen.
And it just so happens that Marshall may have the pieces to pull of the upset.
Early in the season, defensive rebounding was a major issue for the Tigers. They’ve shored that aspect of their game up quite a bit, but its still not exactly a strength for Memphis. Offensive rebounding, however, is a strength for Marshall. They are sixth in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and have a slew of bid, athletic bodies, headlined by one of the nation’s best rebounders in Dennis Tinnon. Tarik Black, Ferrakhon Hall and company are going to have to box out.
Marshall also has a pair of talent back court players. Damier Pitts has been terrific throughout his career at Marshall, while Deandre Kane has continued his ascent into CUSA stardom, making play after play as he went for 40 points in the win over Tulsa. Joe Jackson and Will Barton have been playing terrific basketball for the Tigers over the last month, but they certainly will have their hands full against Marshall.
The bottom-line is this: there may or may not be a bid on the line in this game, depending on how you view Marshall’s current bubble-standing. But a win for the Thundering Herd will undoubtedly make the teams currently on the cut-line sweat just that much more.
1. Jeff Capel’s gamble paid off: For the first time in more than a month, Duke looked like Duke again, and it all came from a roll-of-the-dice by interim head coach Jeff Capel.
With the Blue Devils down 36-25 at the half at home against Miami, he benched Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Harry Giles III to open the second half, and it worked. Matt Jones scored all 13 of his points to sparked a 31-4 run that turned what should have been Miami’s first marquee win into a moment in Duke’s season that we have to highlight.
The specific turning point came less than two minutes into the half. Duke was finally playing with energy defensively, but they couldn’t quite get things going on the offensive end of the floor. After another missed shot from the Blue Devils, Jones picked off an outlet pass and rattled home a three that sent Cameron Indoor Stadium into hysterics. The crowd went nuts. The bench went nuts. Capel went to go chest bump Jones at half court after Miami called a timeout and nearly truck-sticked his veteran leader.
And it was more than just Jones hitting shots. Frank Jackson looked the part of an all-american for the first time since his more-heralded freshmen counterparts returned from injury. Marques Bolden played what was by far his best game as a collegian, too. They were brimming with confidence, but perhaps more importantly, it was the first time that Duke looked to be having fun playing basketball since the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 10th.
I don’t know what the future holds for Duke’s season.
But I do know that if they make a run now, Matt Jones rattling home a three will have been the turning point in their season.
2. Creighton might be OK without Mo Watson Jr.: Creighton got smoked by Marquette at home on Saturday afternoon, losing 102-94 in a game that wasn’t really that close in the second half. That’s not exactly the most reassuring thing to have happen for a team trying to figure out how to survive without their all-american point guard, but there is something important to note about the result: Creighton lost because they decided not to defend.
Marquette has one of the most potent offensive attacks in the country. They currently rank 7th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. They have loads of guards to spread around Luke Fischer in the post, and head coach Steve Wojciechowski has them running and gunning like some of those old Duke teams he played on. They made 12 threes against Creighton, shot 60 percent from the floor and scored 1.275 points-per-possession.
That’s atrocious defense from the Bluejays.
But they also put up 94 points. Marcus Foster went for 30. They were 11-for-24 from the floor and shot 49.3 percent on the game despite missing 23 of their first 34 field goals. Davion Mintz, playing the point in Watson’s absence, finished with 17 points and eight assists. Their offense, overall, looked fine.
Part of that is because Marquette is a bad defensive team. Part of that was likely because they were chasing the game late, able to get a flurry of points down the stretch against a defense that was trying not to foul. And it’s not like we can ignore the 11-for-34 start to the game.
That said, when you combine this performance with the fact that the Bluejays were able to hold on and win at Xavier after Watson’s first half injury, there is reason to be optimistic that Greg McDermott will figure this thing out. Creighton no longer has the same upside without Watson – he was awesome, let’s not forget that – but this weekend showed us the Bluejays aren’t dead yet.
3. Indiana isn’t dead yet, either: We were all ready to bury the Hoosiers after they lost O.G. Anunoby to a knee injury that will require surgery and end his season, but someone forget to tell Indiana.
Four days after James Blackmon Jr. hit a buzzer-beating three to give Indiana a win at Penn State, the Hoosiers smacked around Michigan State at Assembly Hall on the strength of 33 points from Blackmon. All of a sudden, Tom Crean’s club is sitting at 4-3 in the Big Ten, two games out of first place, having won four of their last five, the only loss coming by three points at league leader Maryland.
That’s impressive, but it doesn’t get any easier for the Hoosiers. This week, they visit both Michigan and Northwestern, who is currently 5-2 in the Big Ten. Winning at home in front of a raucous crowd is one thing. Taking care of teams that they should be able to beat on the road is another.
4. Can we still take UCLA seriously as a title contender?: At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, UCLA’s defense has gotten to the point where it’s difficult to picture them winning six games in a row against quality competition. They rank 125th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric after giving up 1.315 points-per-possession. Arizona routinely obliterated UCLA off the dribble, getting into the paint at will and exposing Bryce Alford as a defensive liability. Arizona also pounded the offensive glass, getting 34 percent of their own misses, and the cumulative effect was that the Bruins were unable to get their transition game into high gear.
As the saying goes, the easiest way to keep a running team from running is to make them take the ball out of their own net.
The Bruins are still the most dangerous team in the country. When they play their best, when they are banging threes and getting out in transition and Lonzo Ball is doing Lonzo Ball things, they can beat anyone else’s best. Their ceiling is the highest ceiling in the sport.
But we’re just not going to see that ceiling for six straight games.
So while Arizona proved themselves a Pac-12 favorite and a threat in March on Saturday, the more telling issue was that UCLA may not be quite as good as we thought they were.
5. Is West Virginia’s press broken?: One of the knocks we had on Baylor entering Big 12 play was that once they began playing teams that knew how to attack that funky zone they run their defense would take a hit. For the most part, that hasn’t been the case for the Bears.
It has, however, for the Mountaineers.
The blowout win over Baylor aside, West Virginia has not been impressive in Big 12 play. They lost to Texas Tech in overtime. They barely beat Big 12 bottom-feeder Texas. They lost at home to Oklahoma in overtime. They lost at Kansas State by four. In all four of those games, the Mountaineers had more turnovers than they forced. West Virginia leads the nation by forcing turnovers on 31.1 percent of their defensive possessions. In those four games, they forced turnovers on 20.3 percent of their possessions.
How about this for a good week for the Seminoles: They beat No. 15 Notre Dame on a night where the Fighting Irish hit 15-for-21 from three, and then followed that up by jumping out to a 14-0 lead and taking a win off of No. 12 Louisville, who never led in the game.
Not bad, right?
Here’s the kicker: Florida State not only is sitting tied for first place in the ACC, they’ve put themselves in a position where getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament isn’t all that far-fetched.
The Seminoles ended a run of six straight games against ranked teams on Saturday. They went 5-1 in that stretch, winning at Virginia and beating Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Duke and Louisville in Tallahassee. The only loss came at North Carolina, who, along with the Irish, are the two teams that also have just one loss in league play.
It’s not going to be easy for Florida State to do. To get the No. 1 seed in the East they’re probably going to have to win the ACC regular season title – maybe the ACC tournament title, too – and hope that résumé looks better than Villanova’s, because I would be willing to bet Kentucky will coast into the No. 1 seed in the South, Kansas will lock up the No. 1 seed in the Midwest and Gonzaga will battle it out with UCLA and Arizona for the No. 1 seed out West.
And winning the ACC won’t be an easy thing to do, not with seven of Florida State’s last 11 games coming on the road.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
For now, we should really just appreciate what the Seminoles have done this season.
Kansas State: The Wildcats had twice been on the wrong end of some poor officiating in crunch time this season, costing them wins at Kansas and at Texas Tech that would have slotted them, for the time being, on the right side of the bubble. Bruce Weber’s club fixed some of those problems this week, winning at Oklahoma State and beating West Virginia at home.
Arizona: I’m not sure it’s possible for Sean Miller to have had a better week. First, Arizona won at USC. Then, the news about why Allonzo Trier stat out the first 19 games of the season broke. A day later, Trier passed a drug test and was cleared to play. And finally, he went for 12 points, seven boards and four assists as the Wildcats won at UCLA to remain undefeated in the Pac-12.
Indiana: Did the Hoosiers save their season this week? They might have, despite the fact that O.G. Anunoby suffered a season-ending knee injury. First, it was James Blackmon Jr. burying a game-winning three to avoid a collapse on the road against Penn State, and then it was Blackmon popping off for 33 points in a win over Michigan State in Assembly Hall.
Northwestern: Northwestern did something on Sunday that they haven’t done in 40 years – win at Ohio State. The Wildcats are now 16-4 on the season and 5-2 in the Big Ten. Is this the year that they finally reach the NCAA tournament? With six of their final 11 games coming against Wisconsin, Purdue, Maryland and Indiana, Northwestern will have the chances to bolster their résumé.
This could have been the week where Indiana’s season collapsed.
On Wednesday night, O.G. Anunoby, who is arguably the most irreplaceable player on the Hoosier roster, injured his knee badly enough that he will need surgery and miss the rest of the season. The injury happened in the first half of a game against Penn State. Tom Crean said after the game that the team was crying in the locker room at half time.
The Hoosiers then proceeded to blow a big lead to the Nittany Lions, allowing Penn State to draw even in the final minute of regulation. That’s when Blackmon stepped up. The Hoosier star buried a three at the buzzer to give Indiana the win; a loss in that game could have been the kind of thing that sent Indiana’s season spiraling. The shot wasn’t a morale booster as much as it was a morale saver.
On Saturday, Indiana put together one of their best games of the season despite the fact that they were without Anunoby and Juwan Morgan, who was dealing with a foot injury that has now kept him out of back-to-back games. Blackmon, again, was the star, matching a career-high with 33 points.
Suddenly, Indiana has won four of their last five games and are sitting at 4-3 in the Big Ten standings, just two games out of first place.
In the long term, I don’t know if Indiana is going to be able to play at the level Hoosier fans expect without Anunoby. But in the short term, Saturday was an impressive win in a trying week, and it was Blackmon who stepped up to lead with the Hoosiers needed it the most.
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Markkanen, as he has all season long, starred for the Wildcats this weekend, helping No. 14 Arizona keep pace with Oregon at the top of the Pac-12 standings. The Wildcats swept the road leg against the LA schools, as Markkanen went for 23 points in a win over USC and followed that up with 18 points and seven boards in the big win over UCLA.
Jonathan Isaac, Florida State: The Seminoles had a massive week, and Isaac was the best player on the floor in both of their wins. Against Notre Dame, Isaac had 15 of his 23 points in the second half, adding 10 boards and a pair of game-saving blocks in the final second, and he followed that up with 16 points and 10 boards as Florida State knocked off Louisville.
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: Happ was pretty good in Wisconsin’s win over Michigan, but he was sensational as the Badgers went into Minneapolis and beat Minnesota in overtime, finishing with 28 points, 12 boards, six assists and five blocks. No one had put up a stat line like that since at least 2010.
Marcus Keene, Central Michigan: Keene became the first player since South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters in 2013 to go for 50 points in a game, scoring 39 of the 50 in the second half of a win over Miami (OH).
Shake Milton, SMU: SMU is quietly rolling along at 17-4, a two-point loss at Cincinnati away from being undefeated in the AAC. The Mustangs picked up a pair of wins this week as Milton averaged 25 points, 5.5 assists and 5.0 boards.
No. 22 Xavier pulls away to 86-75 win over Georgetown
CINCINNATI — Edmond Sumner overcame a painful left shoulder and led a second-half surge that swept No. 22 Xavier to an 86-75 victory over Georgetown on Sunday, ending the Musketeers’ longest losing streak in three years.
Xavier (14-5, 4-3) had dropped three straight — all against ranked Big East teams. The Musketeers allowed a 12-point lead to slip away in the second half on Sunday before their injured point guard frustrated the Hoyas (10-10, 1-6) again. Sumner had a career-high 28 points in an 81-76 win at Georgetown on Dec. 31.
Sumner wore a support on his injured left shoulder and sat on the bench grimacing late in the first half. He had a jumper, a three-point play and a pair of free throws during a 12-3 run that put Xavier in control 70-61. He finished with 14 points.
Trevon Bluiett led Xavier with 24 points. J.P. Macura added 20.
Rodney Pryor scored 23 for Georgetown, which lost for the sixth time in seven games.
Xavier dropped from 15th to 22nd last week after road losses to Villanova and Butler. A home loss to Creighton on Monday put Xavier in danger of dropping out of the Top 25.
GEORGETOWN: Junior guard L.J. Peak scored 21 points and had six rebounds in the loss to Xavier on Dec. 31, keeping the Hoyas in the game with clutch shots down the stretch. The Musketeers clamped down in the rematch — he was only 3 of 12 for 12 points.
XAVIER: Free throws again were an issue early. Missed free throws were a major factor in the Musketeers’ 72-67 loss to Creighton on Monday, when they went only 16 of 29 from the line. They drove to the basket and drew fouls on Sunday but were only 12 of 19 from the line in the first half, which ended with Xavier up 34-33. The Musketeers finished 36 of 49 from the line overall.
The Hoyas host No. 7 Creighton on Wednesday. They split their series last season, with each winning at home.
The Musketeers play at crosstown rival Cincinnati, which is ranked No. 20. Xavier has won three in a row and seven of the last nine in the annual game.
VIDEO: Watch Marcus Keene score all 50 of his points