ATB: Butler Does Its Thing, a Heated MVC Race and Oregon’s Pac-12 Title Hopes…

Posted by Chris Johnson on January 21st, 2013


Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The Weekend’s Lede. No Dominant Teams. The preseason talk about college basketball’s dearth of NBA talent was an easy crutch for “casual” sports fans. They took a quick glance at this year’s draft class, nodded in dismay, and decided the sport wasn’t worth their watch – that there wasn’t enough high-level lottery talent to make things interesting. That narrow thinking – and trust me, it’s out there – inverts what we value most about college hoops. Watching first-rounders dominate the sport is cool and all; Kentucky rolled through the SEC last season with three transcendent freshmen. You know what’s better? Unpredictability, parity, a diffuse top-tier. When there’s equality at the top of the sport, and number one rankings have one- or two-week expiration dates, strange and inexplicable things happen, leaving us with little recourse how or when to expect them. A new No. 1 was borne out of last week’s chaos, when Duke and Michigan fell in tough road spots. Louisville filled the void, a worthy presider over that prized distinction, built on an impenetrable defense and veteran savvy, one of the game’s most respected coaches, and an erratically effective lead guard. The Cardinals felt like they might have some staying power at the top of the polls. Many sang Louisville’s Final Four praises from the mountaintops. The Cardinals’ reign ended Saturday, at home to a familiar Big East contender, Syracuse. In this evolving college basketball season, enjoy your time at No. 1, because one week, maybe two, might be the natural limit.

Your Watercooler Moment. Hinkle Heroics.

When College Gameday released its schedule this summer, I remember looking at the Gonzaga-Butler opener with enormous anticipation. There were other games on the schedule that looked better on paper, but Gameday at Hinkle? That’s like college hoops euphoria, times 10. So on a wild day of games, with the nation’s no. 1 going down and a crop of other interesting developments happening at the same time, the nightcap needed to be something really special, something to put a bow on a super-loaded day of hoops. I should never have doubted the Bulldogs for a second, but I have to admit, Rotnei Clarke’s neck injury gave me pause. The Zags were too big, too deep, too talented. None of it mattered. This is what the Butler Bulldogs (not to be confused with the visitors from Spokane) do. They defy convention. They beat the Nation’s No. 1 team with three starters relegated to the bench in overtime, and with a little-used walk on hitting the game-winning layup. They play in a quaint little gym most famous for its place in a movie about high school basketball. They go to back-to-back National Championship games. They make Starbucks crowds collectively stare after jumping out of my seat to celebrate one of the craziest game-winning sequences in years. They are Butler. And man, do I wish they played on national television more often.

*We should have anticipated a spectacular finish after witnessing this in the pre-game festivities.

Your Second Watercooler Moment. MVC Shakeup.

By beating Creighton, Wichita State proved itself as the Bluejays' chief competition in the MVC (Photo credit: AP Photo).

By beating Creighton, Wichita State proved itself as the Bluejays’ chief competition in the MVC (Photo credit: AP Photo).

The biggest hurdle to Creighton’s undefeated MWC season came Saturday at Wichita State. The Bluejays are vastly improved last season, particularly on the defensive end, where they’ve allowed 0.93 points per trip compared to 1.01 in 2011-12. Not only did this team have the frightening offensive capability of Doug McDermott, Grant Gibbs, Ethan Wragge and Greg Echenique. It has a renewed commitment to stopping opponents on the opposite end of the floor. That’s where the Shockers thrive – per kenpom, their 89.5 defensive efficiency entering Saturday ranked 35th  in the country – and they proved it Saturday by making life difficult for McDermott and co. all afternoon long. Dougie got his points (25), but not without a constant harassment on every catch, dribble and shot attempt. Wichita State and coach Gregg Marshall have overcome three key injuries along with massive roster turnover to field one of the better teams in the MVC. On Saturday, the now-healthy Carl Hall announced his official return (he played in Wednesday’s game against Illinois State but scored just two points) with a monster 17-13 double double. Combine that with his constant annoyance of McDermott in the lane, and it’s fair to say that Hall – out since December 20 – was the deciding factor for the Shockers. Creighton and Wichita are all knotted up atop the league standings. If both can survive February unscathed, the Mar. 2 rematch in Omaha will decide the regular season champion.

Also Worth Chatting About. Conference Milestones Abound.

Holding off Arizona for the entire Pac 12 season will be difficult, but Oregon has the right mix of toughness, experience and youth to keep their top spot in the standings (Photo credit: AP Photo).

Holding off Arizona for the entire Pac 12 season will be difficult, but Oregon has the right mix of toughness, experience and youth to keep their top spot in the standings (Photo credit: AP Photo).

In beating UCLA at Pauley Pavilion Saturday, Oregon reached a pretty cool new milestone. For the first time in 39 years, the Ducks are 5-0 in Pac-12 play. On it’s face, that doesn’t feel like a huge accomplishment; a soft early schedule and a minor upset or two could put any mediocre team in strong position to win its first five league games. Oregon did it the hard way. Not only did the Ducks take down streaking UCLA, they also handled title contender Arizona at home and a decent Arizona State team. There is nothing specious about their hot start. All five wins point to a legitimate conference frontrunner. Meanwhile, Ole Miss, the flavor of the week in the SEC (and the owner of one of the most emotionally charged players I’ve seen in years) turned in an even greater historical feat Saturday by beating Arkansas at home. It’s the first time the Rebels have moved to 4-0 in conference play since before World War II (1936-37), according to ESPN. It was hard to know how to measure these teams in the nonconference. Both took questionable losses – Ole miss to Middle Tennessee and Indiana State; Oregon at UTEP – and the precedent for recent success, in both cases, was mostly nonexistent. Now we know: Ole miss and Oregon  are serious about winning their respective leagues. College basketball needs a bit of novelty in its assortment of power league champs – the Rebs and Ducks are here to deliver.

Your Quick Hits…

  • SEC Looks Sealed. If the Big 12 is a foregone conclusion, the SEC is a lecture on 20th century European history. Everyone knows how this story ends. Florida is the best team in the league, no question. The second-best, Missouri, ran into a buzzsaw in Gainesville Saturday, where Billy Donovan picked up his 400th career victory. Would the Tigers have put up a better fight with Laurence Bowers in the lineup? Yes. And might this game go the other way when these two teams meet in Columbia February 19? Maybe. But if you look at Florida’s body of work, and sift through their tempo-free stuff (the Gators have been a constant atop kenpom’s rankings), you see a balanced, experienced, multifaceted team with real national championship potential. Missouri, on the other hand, is something a partial byproduct of transfer hype and a natural fascination with high-paced offense – at least to me. Conference play will sort out the distinction, but right now, Florida stands alone on the SEC peak, with no one in near sight.

  • Heels Dug In Against Maryland. After a Jan. 10 home loss to Miami, UNC’s tournament hopes were quickly dwindling. There just wasn’t all that much on their profile, and anytime the Tar Heels played someone good – Indiana, Butler – they lost convincingly. A home win over UNLV aside, this was not one of Roy Williams’ better teams. Saturday’s win over Maryland didn’t convince me otherwise. What it did do is give UNC some bubble breathing room. The Tar Heels, now 2-2 in the ACC, hold victories over Florida State and the Terrapins, with a manageable five-game stretch on the horizon. The Tournament warnings were not premature, but the Heels are on solid footing as of this writing.
  • Stingy Longhorns Test Kansas. Offensively, Texas isn’t much to look at. It’s a bunch of incoherent freshmen still trying to learn Rick Barnes’ system, rudderless while their capable point guard waits out an NCAA eligibility jail sentence. But there’s one thing this UT team does really, really well. They guard. Kansas ran into the Longhorns excellent defense Saturday, ranked 13th in terms of points-per-possession. But for a courageous second-half comeback, headed by Ben McLemore’s 16 points, the Jayhawks would have taken their first Big 12 loss. In the end, Kansas had better players, so the outcome was nothing special. But there’s a larger concern with the Jayhawks here. For all the talk about the Big 12 being a one-man race, the Jayhawks aren’t letting on like the Final Four juggernaut they’re being touted as. To wit: over its last five games, Kansas has either been tested or looked plainly sloppy (Texas Tech) in all but one contest (Baylor). The Jayhawks are the best the Big 12 has to offer, but if they aren’t fully engaged, no matter the opponent, someone’s going to get before league play wraps up. Tuesday’s trip to Kansas State could be their biggest challenge from here on out.
  • MAC Race Gets Serious. It is one of the most casually overlooked leagues in all of college hoops, but you’d be remiss not to pay attention to the Ohio showdown brewing in the MAC. Akron, Kent State and Ohio U entered Saturday with undefeated league records. The Zips won a tight one at Kent State while the Bobcats held off Toledo at home to draw even at the top of the league standings. At 4-0, Akron and Ohio have two games to settle this thing. Jim Christian’s team, a proven giant killer come tourney time, is the favorite, but Akron has the edge inside with seven-footer Zeke Marshall, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds in Saturday’s win. As for NCAA Tournament considerations, at-large bids have long since fallen out of contention, so we should get a thrilling conference tourney. That doesn’t mean the conference race won’t be interesting to follow.
  • Lyons Keys ‘Cats Win In Arizona State Showdown. The Pac-12 has produced its fair share of surprises this season. One of them is Arizona State, who has turned a woeful 10-21 campaign last season into 14 wins in 2012-13 behind Jahii Carson’s electrifying point guard play and the remarkable development of center Jordan Bachynski. But from the looks of it, the Sun Devils aren’t ready to break into league title contention. After losing at Oregon last Sunday, ASU welcomed stateside older brother Arizona for a huge chance at a season-defining upset. The game was decided by the two most important players from either team, Carson and ‘Zona point guard Mark Lyons. Though both struggled with foul trouble, Lyons’ veteran savvy won out and played a huge part in helping Arizona keep pace with Oregon in the league title race. And by the way, doesn’t that have a weird ring to it? Oregon, first place?
  • The Purple Wildcats Are Ready For Their Shot. Any and all Big 12 conversation is funneled through the basic assumption that Kansas will waltz to another conference championship. Given what Bill Self has accomplished in Lawrence, that’s far from misplaced foresight. It could be very accurate. But if Kansas is going to stumble in league, state basketball stepchild K-State will be right there to assume the Big 12 throne. The Jayhawks’ win over Texas was an intriguing style contrast. The Longhorns gave KU a real scare in Austin, and Kansas State is prepared to do the same when they meet in Manhattan Tuesday night. Winning at Bramlage is a tall order, and this team is prepared to mimic Texas’ defensive efforts, only with better offense and a bigger homecourt advantage. (no offense, Texas). On Saturday, the Wildcats beat what might be the third best team in the Big 12, Oklahoma, thanks in large part to 20 points from Rodney McGruder. That’s a nice prelude to the biggest Big 12 game of the season.
  • The Best Big Ten Team You’re Not Hearing About. Judging Tom Izzo’s teams in the nonconference season is to discount the customary improvement Michigan State undergoes over the course of the conference season. The Spartans are quickly working out the kinks – a muddle big man rotation, Keith Appling’s poor shooting – and they picked up their biggest win of the season Saturday against a familiar Big Ten title contender, Ohio State. This year, the Spartans and Buckeyes aren’t quite on the same plane as Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan (at least not yet), but make no mistake, both teams will have a say in the league title chase before March. Michigan State needed this win; it has a brutal four-game stretch coming up: road trips to Wisconsin and Indiana, followed by home dates with Illinois and Minnesota. I wouldn’t put it past the Spartans to pull an even split, which – given the competition – would be a huge bonus for the stretch run.

… and Misses. 

  • Neck Injury Overshadows Virginia Domination. One week after Butler guard Rotnei Clarke was sent flying head first into the basket stanchion after a hard foul on a fast break attempt, another serious neck injury occurred in Florida State’s game at Virginia. FSU forward Terrance Shannon was shuttled to nearby UVA medical center after colliding with Virginia’s Evan Nolte and laying motionless on the court for nearly 10 minutes. Team doctor Bill Hamilton diagnosed the injury as a neck sprain, but said Shannon regained full strength in his extremities, which is very good news. Whenever a neck or possible concussion is involved, any manner of deleterious consequences –brain trauma, paralysis – comes to mind. Fortunately, none of those things came about as a result of this particularly scary injury. Ryan appears to be ok. Unfortunately, the Seminoles managed just 36 points and had no one in double figures as the Cavaliers’ sturdy defense baffled Michael Snaer and co. into a 16-for-43 shooting night, including – get this – 1-for-15 from beyond the arc.
  • Temple Baffles. Again. Inexplicable variance is wired into the fabric of conference play. It makes every interleague clash interesting, whether because of familiarity of sluggishness or road trip fright or some combination therein. Temple is taking this theme to a new level this season. Consider the Owls’ last five games: near-upset of Kansas, loss at Xavier, easy win over Saint Louis, win at George Washington and – with 30 years of history stacked in its favor – a home loss to Saint Bonaventure (that’s without mentioning the weird Caniusius loss-Syracuse win sequence in December). And yes, the last note means exactly what you think it means. Before Saturday, Saint Bonaventure hadn’t won at Temple in three decades. The Owls are one of college basketball’s great mysteries. Right now, their inconsistency leaves them short of Butler and VCU, but we’ve seen this team knock off (Syracuse) and/or challenge (Kansas) some of the nation’s best outfits. They’re widely viewed as the best-chance league title threat behind the newcomers (Saint Louis, maybe?), but before Temple can even think about catching up to VCU and Butler, it needs to develop some level of consistency against middle or lower-echelon opponents.
  • Missing Key Guard, Broncos Stumble. There are no comfortable road trips in the Mountain West. Every game is a grind that demands your very best effort. It also demands a fully healthy roster, something Boise State wasn’t privileged to have for Saturday’s voyage to Air Force, where the Falcons dropped Boise to 1-2 in MW play. A concussion forced guard Jeff Elorriaga – who entered Saturday averaging 11.9 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, and who hit the game-winning buzzer-beater at Wyoming two weeks back – to miss the trip, and the Broncos labored without their dynamic perimeter scorer. Losing two in a row won’t knock you from this year’s league race, if only because the sheer breadth of quality – five NCAA bids is a conservative projection – will wear teams out over the next two months as they fight each other for standings positioning. Boise is in good shape; getting Elorriaga back on the court should do wonders.
  • More MWC Action: Rebs and San Diego State Go Down. Any casual assessment of the MW typically focuses on one of three teams: San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico. Only one of those teams made it through the weekend unscathed. This is nothing new in the MW – there’s so much equality, so many opportunities for “big wins”, it’s hard to pin down who the best two or three teams are. This week, UNLV and SDSU, long considered conference frontrunners, don’t look so good. But we could be singing a different tune next week. For me, the specifics don’t matter as much as the constant drama. In this league, there are no certainties, especially on the road. Arguably its two best teams took losses Saturday (UNLV at Colorado State and SDSU at Wyoming), and I’m not amazed or shocked in the slightest: you could have seen these road hiccups coming from a mile away. Besides, the Rams and Cowboys have proven themselves capable challengers in this deep conference.
  • Georgetown’s Ceiling. Scoring has been a huge stumbling block for the Hoyas all season. They’re converting just 0.99 points per possession, converting 66.2 percent from the line and shooting 33 percent from beyond the arc – all of those figures rank below the D-1 average. Georgetown can combat its offensive shortcomings with fantastic defense, and to date that’s how they Hoyas have won most of their games, but there comes a certain point when dragging along a woeful offense puts a major strain on your ability to win games. The Hoyas are hitting that wall. Now without suspended forward Greg Whittington, the offensive burden falls almost exclusively on Otto Porter. He scored 21 points against South Florida Saturday, well above his season average of 13.8, but it wasn’t enough to edge offensively-challenged South Florida. What’s alarming about this loss is that the Bulls, ranked 155th in adjusted offensive efficiency, are exactly the type of team, stylistically, Georgetown should have no trouble beating. Like the Hoyas, they can’t get much done on the offensive end. JTIII needs to invent new ways to manufacture offense. His team’s season depends on it.
  • Badgers Not To Be Fully Trusted Yet. The Indiana win was huge. It was a live testament to Bo Ryan’s timeless strategic brilliance. The Badgers throttled one of the nation’s best offenses in its deafening home arena and came away with one of the best wins the season to date. But as we often forget in the hectic landscape of conference play: one win does not a revolution make. In other words: Wisconsin is not to be anointed atop the Big Ten based off one major win. The Badgers remain, like the rest of the league, vulnerable to perilous road trips. Carver-Hawkeye Arena is no sanctuary for visiting teams, and the team that plays there – ranked 34th in Kenpom’s ratings entering Saturday – is no slouch, either. Bo Ryan’s team couldn’t lull the Hawkeyes into their slowdown game, and Iowa, after an 0-3 start in the Big Ten, has now won its last two. In the Big Ten, a winning streak of any length is an accomplishment.
  • Magic Wearing Off For Saint Louis. After the passing of coach Rick Majerus, Saint Louis quietly reeled off 10 consecutive wins, including games over Valparaiso and New Mexico. The Billikens looked as focused and locked-in as ever, and you started to get the sense their former coach’s tragic death was motivating them along the way. Then the Billikens lost at Temple, which is nothing to get upset about. But when you fall to Rhode Island at home, there’s reason for concern. Jim Crews had this team playing excellent basketball on both ends, but Saint Louis is at its best in grinding low-scoring affairs, where it can deflate the tempo and smother you on defense. The Rams shot 55 percent from the floor, 53 percent from three and hit 18-of-21 free throws. That’s not an SLU performance of recent vintage. The Billikens are still one of the A-10’s better teams, but if their swarming defense doesn’t produce its intended effect, they can’t keep up offensively.
  • Baylor Played Who? I’m all for scheduling good nonconference games in January and February. Saturday’s headliner at Hinkle FieldHouse is a prime example. But if you’re going to play someone out of league in the run of conference competition, play someone that classifies as a Division I athletic institution, or at least someone that’s somewhere within your competitive wherewithal. Don’t play someone like Hardin-Simmons, who – with all due respect its “Education Enlightened By Faith” – does not belong on a basketball court with Isaiah Austin and Pierre Jackson and Ricardo Gathers. College hoops should find new ways to curb these types of guarantee games. They don’t belong in November and December, and they definitely don’t belong in the middle of conference play.

Dunkdafied #1 In real time, it’s difficult to wrap your head around the enormity of the humiliation Nerlens Noel wrought upon Frankie Sullivan. Watch the video, but make sure to check out this photo, which freezes Noel as his midsection brushes Sullivan’s head.

More Notes From Around The Nation.

  • The CAA Stinks; Northeastern Doesn’t Care. In a league that saw its best team bolt to the brighter lights of the A-10 this offseason, the fighting JJ Bareas continue to dominate CAA opposition. Saturday’s win at Delaware pushed the Huskies’ conference record to 6-0. If not for Towson’s remarkable 10-win campaign – the Tigers won one game last season – Northeastern might go down as the biggest mid-major surprise in all of college hoops.
  • NEC Leader. Speaking of small New England schools riding 6-0 conference records, Bryant beat Wagner Saturday to extend its unbeaten streak. Keep in mind that the Bulldogs won just two games last season.
  • Pitt Scores First Home Conference Win. The Panthers have baffled tempo-free enthusiasts since the start of Big East play. Their efficiency profile depicts the ninth best team in the country, but a 2-3 start to conference play said otherwise. Saturday’s eight-point win over UConn is more in line with the Panthers’ projected capability.
  • Huskies Show Inconsistency. An impressive start to Pac-12 play came to a close Saturday when the Huskies, after sweeping through the Bay Area with wins over Cal and Stanford slipped at home against Utah. Whether this loss will be viewed as an errant data point or the start of something more sinister, I can’t really say. Not yet.
  • Mike Rice Needs To Chill. Earlier this season, Rutgers coach Mike Rice was suspended three games and docked 50 grand for reportedly throwing basketballs at his players during practices. There’s a fine line between having a stern hand and denigrating your players. Rice crossed that line, and he’d do well to bring his best behavior the rest of the season. On Saturday, in the heat of some questionable officiating during the closing moments of a three-point loss to Notre Dame, Rice lost his cool on the sidelines. You can’t blame the guy for lashing out in the heat of the moment, but this is an exceptional case. Rice can’t afford to risk further physical confrontation – with players, officials or anyone in between.
  • Summit League Opens Up For SDSU. The team everyone wants to see win the Summit League, South Dakota State, home to everyone’s favorite mid-major hero, Nate Wolters, can pull even with North Dakota State in the league standings after the Bison took a loss Saturday at Western Illinois. The Jackrabbits won at IUPUI.
  • Valpo Coasting Through Horizon. With UIC’s early hot start all but flamed out, Detroit and Wright State stood as Valpo’s chief competition in the Horizon league. The Crusaders toppled both over a three-day span. Butler may be gone, but Valpo is doing its best to keep the league’s reputation in good stead.
  • Harvard Challenges Memphis. At one point, Memphis’ at-large hopes were in real jeopardy. Harvard had erased a 20-point Tigers lead to go up by two inside the seven-minute mark in the second half. Josh Pastner’s team survived, but the shakiness doesn’t reflect well on their ability to avoid disaster in C-USA.
  • Can Anyone Catch Wichita or Creighton In The MWC? The answer to the bolded question: No. The Bluejays and Shockers are in a class of their own. Indiana State may be the best of the next group, and the Sycamores handled Evansville at home Saturday to stake their claim.
  • Maybe Charlotte’s Not That Good. I couldn’t make a definitive judgment on Charlotte before observing a decent sample size of conference competition. Saturday showed me all I needed to know: the nation’s 31st ranked defense, efficiency-wise, allowed Richmond to score 81 points while holding the 49ers to 61. Charlotte won’t contend in this version of the A-10.
  • More A-10 Miscellany. If Charlotte isn’t ready for the big boys at the top of the league, neither is UMass, who fell at home to George Washington Saturday. The way VCU and Butler look right now, you can’t lose these games to mid-to-low-level teams and expect to realistically vie for a top-three spot. Meanwhile, Xavier is forging on like a real A-10 competitor, beating La Salle at home Saturday to move to 4-0 in conference play, and providing yet another reminder of the fallacies of counting out Xavier early in the season.
  • Lemon Buzzer-Beater Lifts Bradley Over Missouri State. When you look back on the wild roller coast ride that was Saturday’s hoops slate, you’re going to find it hard to remember every game. More likely than not, any mention of the MVC will conjure up Wichita State’s upset over Creighton, just like the word “buzzer-beater” will immediately bring you to Roosevelt Jones’ last-second heave for Butler. But buzzer-beaters are buzzer-beaters, and this one – though not relevant in terms of conference championship races or College Gamedays – is awesome. Walt Lemon Jr. of Bradley beats Missouri State at the buzzer on an off-balanced runner, with the added bonus of a rare bank-swish.

  • West Virginia Needs Work. One of the best and most well-respected coaches in college basketball, Bob Huggins, is praised for his consistency and timeless winning (710 wins over more than 30 years of coaching). You expect certain things from his teams: toughness, good defense and rebounding – you know, Hugginsian things. I’m starting to get the sense his team this season, who got shredded at Purdue Saturday (79-52) to fall under .500 (8-9), just isn’t very good.
  • So Much For Notre Dame’s Home Advantage. The Irish’s biggest strength under Mike Brey isn’t something tangible or calculable. It’s a structural entity, located in South Bend, IN. The Joyce Center is one of the tougher places to play in the country, only this season, it has lost some of its luster. UConn won there last week, and on Saturday, Rutgers fell three points short of handing the Irish their second home loss of the season.
  • Service Academies Engage In Battle. The football side of the Army-Navy rivalry is a habitual rite of Fall, one of those games folks will flip on for no other reason than the namesakes themselves. The basketball aspect is less historically contrived, but let us not overlook the Midshipmen’s nine-point win Sunday, which snapped a six-game losing streak. Sometimes, all it takes is a little patriotic motivation to snap a downward spiral.
  • Tough Loss For Villanova. Some people – slightly delusional, maybe – had started to believe Villanova could make a run at an at-large berth this season. A seven-game December win streak perpetuated this idea, but the Wildcats are starting to realize they aren’t tourney material. Get run at home against Pitt? Sure. Lose at Providence (Saturday), before games against Louisville and Syracuse? That’s not going to help your chances.
  • NC State Wobbles, But Survives. After upsetting Duke at home, some believed NC State was ready to springboard back to the top of the rankings, where many believed it belonged in the preseason. Others remained tentative. After Sunday’s escape at Clemson, which followed Wednesday’s one-point loss at Maryland, measured caution is the best mode of analysis for this hyper-talented but wildly erratic team.
  • Alabama Resurfacing In SEC. What once looked like a patented Anthony Grant team – physical defense, superb rim protection, steady offense – fell off the map in December. The Tide are finding themselves in SEC (considering the depth of competition in the league, that’s not a huge compliment), having won three of four to start the conference season (they beat Texas A&M at home Saturday). On Tuesday, Kentucky visits Tuscaloosa.
  • Bruins Taking OVC By Storm. One of the most underrated realignment moves of the offseason was Belmont’s decision to join the OVC. They’re wasting no time finding their bearings in a new league. Saturday’s win over Tennessee State, previously sitting in first place in the west division, gave Belmont its sixth win in conference play and bumped the Bruins to the top of the division standings.
  • UIC Embarrassed. The early success of UIC started to die out weeks ago. On Saturday, the Flames’ reached a new nadir. Facing Detroit in a big Horizon matchup, UIC lost by 51 points. This was a nice story early in the Fall, but it’s looking more and more like the Flames are little improved from last season’s eight-win squad.
  • Hoosiers Fight Off Northwestern. The Wisconsin loss primed all sorts of Monday-morning quarterback-type analysis on Tom Crean’s poor adjustments to Bo Ryan’s pace-averse gameplan. Crean ran into more problems Sunday in Evanston, when the Wildcats 1-3-1 took IU out of its offensive rhythm and forced the Hoosiers to make key free throws in the waning moments to seal the win and stay unbeaten on the road in conference play.
  • Buffaloes Snap Skid. Losing three of five following the infamous Sabatino Chen Arizona loss gave the impression the Buffaloes didn’t recover, whether emotionally or physically, from that crushing defeat. It was important they ended their losing ways at Washington State (never an easy place to get a win) Saturday night. Tad Boyle’s team made easy work of the Cougars. Next up: winnable home games against Stanford and Cal.
  • A Home Win For Cincy. The weird part about Cincinnati’s recent three-of-four losing skid wasn’t so much the level of competition – New Mexico is as tough and aggressive as they come; Saint Johns is green but talented; Notre Dame has hit the skids lately, but by no means a weak team – but the location. Cincinnati dropped all three games at home. It followed up with consecutive road wins at Rutgers and Depaul, and on Saturday reclaimed Fifth Third Arena by nipping Marquette in overtime. It’s good to be home….when you’re winning.
  • USU Doesn’t Look Like MW Material. If Utah State plans to compete in the Mountain West next season, it’s going to need to adopt a new attitude for conference play. After opening the season 14-1, the Aggies have dropped consecutive WAC games, including Saturday’s loss to Denver. USU now sits two games out of first place. Mountain West competition could bring a rude awakening.

Dunkdafied #2. In one of the most riveting individual turnarounds in any game this season, Orange guard Michael Carter-Williams more than made up for his early turnover and ballhandling woes to make some crucial plays in crunch time. This steal and dunk may have been the most important of them all.

The Weekend’s All Americans.

First Team

  • Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati (NPOY) – The Bearcats are going to struggle scoring the ball all season. Kilpatrick, who finished with 36 points in an OT win over Marquette, needs to carry the load.
  • Michael Lyons, Air Force – Beating Boise State was a huge step for the Falcons, but it would have never happened without Lyons’ 37-point performance.
  • Nerlens Noel, Kentucky – The natural comparisons to Anthony Davis were unfair, but Noel – who put up 10 points, nine rebounds, seven blocks and one huge dunk against Auburn – is starting to show why he was the most highly-rated prospect in the class of 2012.
  • Mike Muscala, Bucknell – With so many good games Saturday, it was easy to overlook Muscala’s 27-point, 15-rebound double double against Lafayette.
  • Isaiah Canaan, Murray State – The Racers may not be the best team in the OVC this season – Belmont holds that title, for now – but Canaan is still one of the best guards in the country. On Saturday, he scored 22 points, notched nine assists and seven steals in a win over SIU-Edwardsville.

Second Team

  • Shavon Shields, Nebraska – The future is brighter in Lincoln than the Huskers’ 1-5 Big Ten start would indicate, and Shields (29 points, 10-of-11 from the field) could be a big part of coach Tim Miles’ plans going forward.
  • Darien Brothers, Richmond – The 20-point smackdown of Charlotte, one of the nation’s better defenses, was nice. Brothers’ 39 points and eight rebounds was nicer.
  • Jack Cooley, Notre Dame – It took all of Cooley’s 19 points and 10 rebounds for Notre Dame to avoid a crushing home loss to Rutgers.
  • Cody Zeller, Indiana – When a 14-point halftime lead was cut to five, and Indiana couldn’t figure out Northwestern’s 1-3-1 defense, Zeller helped IU survive by not only excelling in a big way on the glass (13 rebounds) but pouring in 21 points.
  • Ray McCallum, Detroit – It’s going to take a few Valpo upsets, and errorless play the rest of the way, for Detroit to make a run at the Crusaders in the Horizon. McCallum might be the league’s best player. Here’s to hoping we get more performances of this ilk – 25 points, seven assists, five rebounds.

Tweet Of The Weekend. These storybook endings have become standard operating procedure for the Bulldogs. What gets lost in the celebration of the moment is the 40 minutes that preceded Roosevelt Jones’ miraculous game-winner. Again the Bulldogs were pitted against a more capable opponent on a national stage, and again Brad Stevens had his players in all the right spots, doing all the right things to nullify Gonzaga’s athletic and size advantages. I think it’s time we think about modifying the “cinderella” narrative and realize Butler’s true identity. There’s nothing fake or inherently magical about this team. The last-second heroics adds to the mystique and the improbability of it all, but in truth, this is an elite team led by one of the best coaches in the country.

The idea that Butler is some cuddly mid major dominated by the red and white-clad state school – the one it beat on a neutral floor earlier this season – is grounded less in truth and more in national media fabrication. The Bulldogs are one of the better teams in the country. The Gonzaga win finished with a flourish, but the actual game was a brilliantly-devised defensive slog – Stevens knew his team couldn’t match the Zags bucket for bucket in a high-paced shoot out. So he slowed it down, forced Gonzaga to play an ugly game and trusted his team’s mental and physical discipline down the stretch. The Jones buzzer-beater was great theater, but it is not the entire story.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site and a freelance contributor to

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