It may be finals weeks for schools across the country, but there were plenty of tests on the floor Wednesday night, even if an injury to Cole Anthony sucked a lot of the drama out of one of the games that should have been a marquee matchup.
Here’s what you need to know from Wednesday:
1. Cincinnati knocks off No. 21 Tennessee
It’s been a rough go of things for Cincinnati as of late. They lost the Crosstown Shootout to rival Xavier, and then, to make matters much, much worse, they lost by one at home to Colgate because of a bizarre ending in which AAC preseason player of the year Jarron Cumberland threw up a casual halfcourt shot in a tie game with 5 seconds to play and a Colgate player was fouled on the subsequent rebound, paving the way for a game-winning free throw.
So some good news would go a long way for the Bearcats, and they got a nice dose of it Wednesday with a 78-66 win over No. 21 Tennessee.
It was a balanced affair for the Bearcats, who had six players score in double figures and a seventh lodge nine points. They shot 56.4 percent from the floor while holding the Vols to 3 of 13 from distance.
Not only was it a big win for Cincinnati just to get some good vibes after a couple of tough Ls, it was a huge resume boost ahead of AAC play, which will provide some NCAA tournament-boosting opportunities, but no one is going to be mistaking it for the ACC, Big Ten or Big 12. Beating the Vols gives the Bearcats unquestionably their biggest win of the season, which sounds a lot better than that distinction belonging to Vermont. Cincinnati gets another crack at a Power 5 team this week against a resurgent Iowa on a neutral floor.
It’s worth keeping a close eye on Cincinnati not just to see how things unfold in John Brannen’s first season, but to see what happens to Cumberland. He was expected to be a dominant player this season, but instead has seen his numbers plummet. He’s shooting 33 percent from the floor (down from 40) and 26 percent from 3 (down from 38.8) while averaging 13.3 ppg (down from 18.8). Then there was the absolutely head-scratching finish to the Colgate game.
The win against Tennessee is great for Cincinnati, but it’s hard to see it ultimately mattering a whole lot unless Cumberland gets it going.
2. Ball State thumps Georgia Tech in Atlanta
Josh Pastner was 32 years old when he coached his first game at Memphis, a plum job with an impossible task – following John Calipari. The youthful Pastner did an admirable job in the early going, going 24-10 overall and 13-3 in the CUSA in his first season that ended in an NIT bid before then going to four-straight NCAA tournaments with the Tigers. He was young, mostly successful on the court and the recruiting trail, and looked like he might be able keep Memphis relevant.
When that didn’t happen, with back-to-back NCAA tournament misses and the failure to come close to reaching anything resembling the highs under Calipari, Memphis actually paid Pastner $1.25 million to fail upward, as he took a job in the ACC with Georgia Tech. Things started well(ish) there, too, as he got the Yellow Jackets to Madison Square Garden in the NIT semifinals in an innaugural season in which they finished 21-16.
The question now, though, is will that be as good as it gets for Pastner in Atlanta? It’s certainly a question worth asking a little louder Wednesday, as Georgia Tech fell at home by 18 points to Ball State, a team that has taken losses to Evansville, Northern Kentucky, Western Illinois and Loyola Chicago this season. The Yellow Jackets are now 4-5 with that season-opening win against NC State seeming very long ago while sitting in the shadow of the last two sub-.500 seasons.
There’s time left in the season for Pastner and Georgia Tech to figure things out, but getting walloped at home by a team picked to finish third not in the MAC, but in the western division of the MAC, that’s the kind of thing that erodes whatever amount of goodwill and benefit of the doubt fans – and university decision makers – are otherwise inclined to give you, which can’t be much when recruiting violations already have banned you from the 2020 postseason and put you on a multi-year probation.
Ten years ago, Pastner took a job with a bar of expectation that probably no one could clear. He got paid to go away because doing a pretty good job wasn’t good enough. Unless things change in a hurry at Georgia Tech, Pastner could be moving on for failing to meet much more modest expectations.
3. Gonzaga hands North Carolina fourth-straight loss
It’s not really losing to Gonzaga that has to have you frustrated if you’re a North Carolina fan. Dropping a game in Spokane is something every single team that visits this season is likely to do. Mark Few may have another No. 1 seed in this year’s Bulldogs. So, a loss isn’t much to be concerned about.
It’s what comes next, now that the Tar Heels have dropped four-straight and are looking at a few weeks without Cole Anthony. Really, the real test comes over the next week when UNC gets UCLA on a neutral and Yale at home. How the Tar Heels perform in those two games will likely tell us exactly what they are, at least without Anthony: either they survive those games and live to fight in the ACC until Anthony gets back from injury or drop them, proving that this is a team that just can’t compete without its star point guard.
The good news is if it’s the former, North Carolina’s ACC schedule is backloaded, giving them the opportunity to just fight, scratch and claw their way through until Anthony returns. There’s a path for North Carolina to get right, but it’s gonna get real narrow real quickly if things go sideways against the Bruins and Bulldogs.