Tuesday night threatened to go all kinds of college basketball crazy with favorites trailing late, but things mostly fell the way you would expect.
That’s not to say, however, there weren’t some meaningful and interesting results across the country.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Penn State knocks of Michigan State in East Lansing
Whatever concerns of a collapse there may have been about Penn State when the Nittany Lions dropped three-straight a couple weeks ago, well, those are proving to be unfounded.
No. 22 Penn State continued its resurgence under Pat Chambers on Tuesday with an impressive 75-70 win over No. 16 Michigan State at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, the Nittany Lions’ fifth-straight – and by far best – victory since that three-game January skid.
Not only is Penn State clearly on track to make its first NCAA tournament in Chambers’ ninth season in University Park, but the Nittany Lions are putting together a resume for a sterling seed line.
Chambers’ group is now a game behind in the Big Ten standings with wins at Michigan State and Michigan along with home wins against Maryland, Ohio State and Indiana during league play. The offense can be a little shaky at times – they shot 41 percent from the floor against the Spartans – but the defense is legit, especially inside with Mike Watkins’ rim protection anchoring things. Maybe the most impressive thing Tuesday was the way Penn State withstood big plays and moments from Michigan State. The Spartans, specifically Cassius Winston (who had 25 points), hit them with some big punches, but the Nittany Lions never hit the canvas like some of their previous squads likely would have.
Obviously, it’s not a crippling loss for Michigan State, for all the Penn State-related reasons above, but there are signs for concern. The loss in Madison on Saturday to a mediocre Wisconsin team that had one of its most important players suspended and another looking for a new school, well, that ain’t a great look. Following up with a home loss, even to a solid team, isn’t either, at least not for a team that only intermittently this season looked like the preseason No. 1 and national title contender many of us believed they’d be.
It just seems there’s not enough going on beyond Winston for Michigan State. The senior point guard put up 25, but went 8 of 21 from the floor and 3 of 11 from 3-point range. He had nine assists, yes, but didn’t have a go-to second option. No other Spartan scored more than nine points, and none took more than eight shots.
Watching Michigan State, it’s easy to see so many of the pieces with Winston at the helm and a bunch of types of guys that have thrived on Tom Izzo teams, but it’s hard not to think about Josh Langford, the 6-foot-5, 40-percent 3-point shooter and double-digit scorer who won’t play for the Spartans due to injury. Langford running the wing alongside Winston makes Michigan State a different team.
But they’re this team, and Langford won’t be suiting up. If Michigan State hasn’t been able to consistently get enough from the supporting cast around Winston, time is running out to think they ever will. This Spartan teams is really good, and sometimes great, but their fatal flaw isn’t one that is particularly difficult to exploit.
2. Duke was mostly bad, but good enough to beat Boston College
Duke shot 37.7 percent from the field, including 26.7 percent in the first half. The Blue Devils missed their first 14 3-pointers, finally making one – their lone make – with under 8 minutes to play. Vernon Carey played most of the second half in foul trouble.
It was ugly and ineffective against a Boston College team that has lost five of its last seven and doesn’t have a win against a KenPom top-50 team this season.
Still wasn’t enough for the Blue Devils to lose.
Duke got a lift offensively from Joey Baker and enough from Tre Jones and Carey while the defense turned things up enough late to give Coach K and Duke a 63-55 road ACC win.
It was far from a good performance from Duke, but when you’re on the road at BC for a mid-week, that falls directly into the Just Don’t Lose category when you’re angling for a No. 1 seed. An icky performance isn’t exactly surprising, and if it’s in a win, it’s not at all damaging, except for the eyeballs of anyone who spent two hours watching these two teams combine to go 3-33 from 3-point range. With North Carolina this weekend and Florida State on Monday, the Blue Devils being stuck in neutral isn’t exactly surprising. Nor is it discouraging.
Duke was pretty dreadful offensively. They were 1-15 from 3-point range overall. They were 8 of 18 (44.4 percent) on 2s in the first half. Jones finished with 18 points, but it was a lot of work to get there as he went 7 of 15 from the field. Carey tallied 17 points on 5 of 13 shooting. Cassius Stanley was 2 of 8. Matthew Hurt was 1 of 6 and didn’t even play in the second half. Baker was perhaps the best offensively, at least for a stretch, scoring eight second-half points on 3 of 3 shooting.
So all in all, a pretty terrible offensive performance, but give Duke has a top-five offense for the year, it’s hard to see anything but an outlier performance. We know Duke is really good offensively. Tonight’s work just wasn’t emblematic of the big picture. It happens.
It was interesting to see, however, that Duke was able to put the clamps down defensively in crunch time. Three-straight Boston College turnovers courtesy of Duke’s full-court defense helped them push the lead from one to seven after the 5-minute mark.
3. Jalen Smith continues to be awesome as Maryland gets by Rutgers
Jalen Smith has been great all season long, but the Maryland big man has been spectacular lately. The 6-foot-10 sophomore continued the trend against Rutgers, posting 14 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks in the Terrapins’ 56-51 win over a tough Scarlet Knights squad.
Fourteen points. Fifteen rebounds. Six blocks. Not to mention being 3 of 7 form 3-point range.
What an absolutely awesome performance. Not that it’s anything new for Smith.
The Baltimore native is averaging 21 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game over his last six contests. He’s playing himself up NBA draft boards every single time he’s on the floor. Maryland, by the way, is 5-1 while Smith has been on this especially splendid tear. If the Terps stay in the Big Ten race and Smith continues to cook, we’re going to be looking at him as a first-team All-American and national player of the year contender. He’s been that good.
The Terps’ immediate schedule includes two must-wins – home games against Nebraska and Northwestern – stacked between huge matchups at Illinois and Michigan State. Then it’s a sprint to the finish against some of the Big Ten’s best teams. It should be a wild league race, and Maryland will be in the thick of it.