Finally at full strength, Michigan State sleepwalks through loss to Illinois

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For the first time since January 4th, Michigan State played a basketball game with everyone on their roster available as Branden Dawson made his triumphant return from a broken hand on Saturday afternoon.

It’s the moment that we’ve been waiting for since Gary Harris sat out his first game with a bum ankle way back in November. It was the first chance that the Spartans had to prove that the team that lost five of their last nine games wasn’t the real Michigan State. That was the tired, beat down, injury-ravaged Michigan State.

This new Michigan State, the healthy one, was going to host a disappointing Illinois team with little left to play for, a team that had lost eight straight and 10 of 11 earlier this season.

And what ended up happening?

The Illini went into the Breslin Center and smacked around the No. 18 Spartans, jumping out to a double-digit first half lead and hanging on to win 53-46.

Oh.

Gary Harris scored 19 of those 46 points. He played well. Adreian Payne? He finished with four points, seven boards, just five field goals attempted and no fouls or blocks. Denzel Valentine was 1-for-6 from the floor with five turnovers. Keith Appling was 2-for-5 with four turnovers.

OK, then.

The most disconcerting part had nothing to do with the loss itself, because those happen. Everyone has off nights, even teams that are supposedly getting to full-strength and back to being a national title contender. No one — not even a Tom Izzo-coached team — is immune to a stinker.

But this wasn’t just an off-night from the Spartans. They looked completely out of it. Their fight wasn’t there, and in the end, that’s supposed to be what the difference-maker is for this group. Michigan State has a reputation for playing harder and more physical than anyone, and it just so happens that these guys are as talented as anyone in the country. That’s why the nation was enamored with them even when they didn’t have all their pieces available.

The silver lining? I doubt that Michigan State will sleepwalk through a game again, because I don’t think that anyone on that roster is going to enjoy what happens in practice the next couple of days. Effort is the only thing that an individual can control in a basketball game. They can, and I expect that they will, play harder than this for the next month.

The bigger issue may actually be Keith Appling. Michigan State’s all-Big Ten point guard is simply a shell of himself. “Keith Appling is a major problem right now because he just can’t do what he could do,” Izzo told reporters after the game. He injured his right wrist in December, and he is clearly not right. He can’t shoot, I don’t know how well he can dribble with his right hand, he’s not attacking the basket. It’s bad.

Travis Trice is a decent-enough replacement for Appling, but he’s not an all-league caliber player.

Effort issues can be fixed, but if Appling isn’t healthy, Michigan State will never truly be at full-strength.

VIDEO: Xavier’s J.P. Macura throws down monster tip dunk on Seton Hall

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J.P. Macura threw down a ridiculous tip slam over Seton Hall as the Xavier senior guard is having one of his best games of the season. Even Bill Murray was left speechless.

Macura had 27 points and some great plays on both ends of the floor as the Musketeers pulled off a huge road comeback on the Pirates in the Big East.

Purdue, Virginia looking to join Villanova among the ranks of college basketball’s elite

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We’ve heard it time and again this year: That there are no elite teams in college basketball, not this season, anyway.

That’s what happens when the preseason top three teams all turn out to be flawed while the trendy teams that emerged during non-conference play have regressed to the mean.

Duke has enough question marks defensively that they can be beaten by just about anyone on a given night. Michigan State has found themselves stuck in a slump over the course of the last two or three weeks, one that has them losing to teams they shouldn’t lose to by numbers they shouldn’t lose by. Arizona doesn’t have the personnel to avoid playing a lineup that includes Dusan Ristic at the five. Kansas lacks depth and relies entirely on the three ball. Kentucky is one of the youngest teams that we have ever seen in college basketball. North Carolina is rebuilding. Wichita State is a mess. Arizona State came back to earth. Louisville has to start over from scratch.

So I get it.

Hell, I’ve said it. Over and over again, and I’m starting to think that idea is, frankly, wrong.

Villanova is currently the best team in college basketball. They’re No. 1 in the AP Poll. They’re No. 1 on KenPom. They’re No. 1 in my top 25 Power Rankings. They’ve taken a loss this year, yes, but that loss came on the road to a Butler program that should end up in the NCAA tournament where the Bulldogs shot 15-for-22 from three and 60 percent from the floor. NCAA tournament teams are not going to lose all that often on the nights where they shoot 15-for-22 from three.

Since that loss to Butler, this is what Villanova has done: They’ve put 100 points up on Marquette, they beat No. 11 Xavier by 24 points, they won at St. John’s and they beat Georgetown 32 points heading into today’s showdown at UConn. The game was never really interesting. UConn was down by 19 points at the half and trailed by 30 before they eventually fell, 81-61, in Hartford.

Villanova has the best offense in the country, according to KenPom, and have been very good on that end of the floor save for a three-game stretch that spanned Christmas. Jalen Brunson could end up winning National Player of the Year if Trae Young continues to play like Cliff Paul, and Miles Bridges could end up beating Brunson out for Big East Player of the Year if things play out a certain way. They’re old, they have better depth than most will realize and three of their five starters won a national title two seasons ago, while another starter and their sixth-man spent that season as a redshirt.

They’re also matchup-proof, given the kind of versatility that Jay Wright has on this roster.

There’s a very real chance that these Wildcats aren’t just the No. 1 team in the polls but a cut above the rest of the field.

The same can be said for Purdue.

The Boilermakers have now won 15 straight games after mollywhopping yet another Big Ten opponent on the road on Saturday, this time beating Iowa 87-64 in a game they led by 31 points at halftime. Purdue is now 8-0 in Big Ten play and they have won their last three games by an average of 28.3 points. They are the only team in the country to be ranked in the top five of both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and among their recent victims is No. 23 Michigan, who fell to Purdue at home.

But that win at Michigan is their first win over a tournament team since beating Butler on a neutral floor on Dec. 16th and only their second win over a tournament team since that 25-point win over Arizona two weeks into the season.

The numbers say Purdue is great, markedly better than the team that had Caleb Swanigan on it last season, but it’s not quite as easy to look at them and think they’re the best team in the country because it has been so long since they’ve beaten one of the best teams in the country. With how weak the middle of the Big Ten is this season, we probably won’t get that chance until a Feb. 10th trip to East Lansing.

Virginia deserves a mention here as well, but as our study last week showed, it is easier to win a national title with a great offense and a good defense than vice versa, and that is where Virginia lies; they’re playing some of the best defense we’ve ever seen in the KenPom era this season, but only one team in the last 16 years has won a national title with an offense that ranked lower nationally than Virginia’s does.

As of today, it’s hard for me to justify putting Virginia into that same tier.

And I think it is still fair to wonder if Purdue belongs there as well; we’ve seen Big Ten teams end up with inflated KenPom numbers as they overwhelm their league. (Hi Wisconsin!)

But they are right there.

Virginia is close, too.

And, as of today, I think Villanova has arrived: College basketball has an elite team after all.

No. 3 Purdue, behind Carsen Edwards, rips Iowa 87-64

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — Carsen Edwards scored 22 points and Vincent Edwards had 19 Saturday, leading No. 3 Purdue to its 15th straight victory with an 87-64 rout of Iowa.

P.J. Thompson added 14 points for the Boilermakers (19-2, 8-0 Big Ten). Purdue ended a four-game road losing streak against the Hawkeyes (10-11, 1-7) by making 20 of 33 3-pointers.

Purdue reeled off 18 straight points to lead 24-6. The Boilermakers extended their lead to 24 late in the first half after hitting 10 of 11 3s in one stretch and were up 51-20 at halftime.

Purdue shot 69 percent in the first half while holding the Hawkeyes to 25 percent.

Luka Gazra had 19 points for Iowa, which has dropped five of its last six games. The Hawkeyes went on a late 13-3 run to prevent the final margin from becoming even more lopsided.

THE BIG PICTURE

Purdue: The Boilermakers have Ohio State at their heels in what has become a two-team race for the Big Ten title. But after this performance against the Hawkeyes, it’s hard to call anyone but the Boilermakers the favorite.

Iowa: This was the first game the Hawkeyes played all year against a ranked opponent, and the Boilermakers exposed them. Iowa remains one of the nation’s most disappointing teams — but this was perhaps the worst the program has looked since the three-year stint of Todd Lickliter last decade.

POLL IMPLICATIONS: Purdue will likely by ranked third — its highest spot in the poll since being ranked No. 2 on March 7, 1988 — for the second straight week row unless top-ranked Villanova or No. 2 Virginia lose this weekend.

UP NEXT

Purdue hosts Michigan on Thursday.

Iowa hosts Wisconsin on Tuesday.

Top-ranked Villanova routs former Big East rival UConn 81-61

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HARTFORD, Conn. — Jalen Brunson scored 23 points and top-ranked Villanova routed former Big East rival UConn 81-61 on Saturday.

Donte DiVincenzo added 17 points for the Wildcats (18-1), who complete their non-conference schedule at 13-0.

Jalen Adams scored 19 for UConn (10-9), which has now lost five games this season by at least 20 points.

The Wildcats hit just two of their first 13 shots, but still led 13-5 after a pair of 3-pointers by DiVencenzo. A jumper from Adams brought the Huskies within five points at 21-16.

But Villanova scored 18 of the final 20 points before intermission and the rout was on. A lob from Brunson to Eric Paschell gave the Wildcats their first double-digit lead at 26-16. They headed to halftime up 39-18 and the sellout crowd serenaded the Huskies with a chorus of boos.

Another 3-pointer from DiVincenzo gave Villanova a 70-39 lead midway through the second half, and sent many of those same fans to the exits.

Since the breakup of the old Big East, both teams have won national titles — UConn in 2014 and Villanova in 2016. But the programs seem to be headed in opposite directions. The Wildcats are 147-18 since joining the new Big East and 50-5 since the start of the 2016-17season. UConn is 103-60 in the same span, but just 26-26 the last two seasons.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: Villanova shot 41 percent, well below their season average of just under 52 percent. But they held the Huskies to 34 percent and dominated the glass, outrebounding UConn 48-32, including 16-8 on the offensive end. The Wildcats are 62-3 in regular-season non-conference games since 2013-14.

UConn: Terry Larrier (15.3 ppg) took an elbow to the face earlier this month against UCF and has been suffering headaches that caused him to miss Tuesday’s loss at Memphis. He was diagnosed with a fracture to his sinus wall and wore a mask on Saturday, scoring six points in 34 minutes. UConn says he may have to undergo a “procedure” to fix the problem.

UP NEXT

Villanova: The Wildcats return to Big East action on Tuesday, hosting Providence.

UConn. The Huskies return to campus on Thursday to host SMU.

Houston upsets No. 7 Wichita State

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Houston earned its biggest win of the season with a 73-59 home conference win over No. 7 Wichita State on Saturday afternoon. Coming on the 50th anniversary of the “Game of the Century” that saw a record 52,000-plus fans watch the Cougars snap UCLA and Lew Alcindor’s 47-game winning streak, the Cougars picked up its signature win of the season.

Led by guard Rob Gray’s 24 points, Houston played tough defense and out-hustled Wichita State to a lot of loose balls. The Cougars haven’t beaten a top-25 team this season, as this win will look very good in the eyes of the committee come March. With wins over Providence and Arkansas as well, this win might just help the American punch an additional bid into the NCAA tournament. Houston’s win is undoubtedly important, as the Cougars are still in the American conference race with Cincinnati and the Shockers.

But should we be worried about a Wichita State team that lost back-to-back games to unranked teams this week?

The Shockers just made the top ten then fell to SMU earlier in the week and also looked flat for most of the game against Houston. We knew that Wichita State was going to face a tougher conference schedule making the leap from the Missouri Valley from the American.

The losses themselves this week aren’t actually the concerning part. SMU deserved to win at Wichita State, but the Mustangs also needed to go a red-hot 11-for-22 from three-point range to earn the win. Houston is a solid team who could very well find themselves in the NCAA tournament with a few more wins.

But Wichita State has had a couple of slow starts the past few games and they haven’t been able to dig themselves out the holes they’ve created. The Shockers might have been able to get away with that sort of thing in the Valley but the teams in the American are proving to be more dangerous.

Wichita State is still a really solid top-25 caliber team — especially if they can play ahead and use its superior depth to wear down opponents. We’ve learned this week, however, that Wichita State is susceptible to getting beat in its new league if they have to play from behind.

This has been the norm for most of college basketball’s elite but Wichita State is finally feeling the effects of what it’s like to be in a better league. The competition has finally caught up and now Wichita State has to play an “A” game against even better competition on a nightly basis.

It would be silly to count out Wichita State though. Markis McDuffie is still figuring things out after recently returning from injury and the Shockers have a habit of going on long winning streaks. Slip-ups against quality opponents has been the norm for every team in college basketball this season.

But it’ll be interesting to see how Wichita State looks the next time they have to play from behind. The American clearly isn’t taking this team lightly and everyone wants a crack at the new guy who is also ranked in the top 25.