This Weekend’s Big Games. This wasn’t an exceptional weekend of games, but there were three that, at least on paper, held significant hope. Two of the three turned out pretty well, but the third was a disappointment. Let’s see if you can figure out which.
- #22 Connecticut 88, #1 Texas 74. If you haven’t beaten a ranked team all year long, then what better place to start than to take out the team on top. True, Texas was a lame-duck #1, having lost to Kansas State earlier in the week, but let’s not quibble. For the Huskies, this wasn’t exactly a great time for a possible NCAA Tournament top seed to show up in town; so far this year, UConn had underachieved their way to an anemic 12-6, dropped three of their last four, fallen out of the AP Top 25, and their coach — a man known for his toughness as much as his two titles — was going to miss his second straight game because his doctors told him to get away from basketball for a while. It’s not a matter of talent on the team, that’s never been questioned. It just hasn’t been there for UConn; they’ve shown nothing close to the confidence and will to win that they’ve possessed for so long. Sure, Texas had lost on Monday and was probably going to lose the top spot in the polls, but they were still a potential #1 seed come March, and the K-State loss wasn’t exactly a shocker. After a half, this looked exactly like the game everyone expected. Connecticut was listless and turnover-prone. Texas looked like so many fine teams coming off a loss — angry, and wanting someone to pay. The Huskies were down 42-34 at the break and showed no signs of a likely second-half charge. And then — they found something. Hard to say what it could have been — did they suddenly realize how talented they were? Did they rally around a “Let’s do it for Coach Calhoun!” mentality? If you’re a Connecticut fan, do you even care? Because a different Connecticut team came out of the locker room. Suddenly, you saw UConn players getting down in defensive stances instead of standing straight up. They seemed three times as quick and hundred times as interested as their first half doppelgangers. Like it so often is, defense was the trigger. Runs of 13-0 and 9-0 paced the Huskies to a second half that saw them outscore the ‘Horns by 22, shut down Dexter Pittman, and frustrate Texas into a game total of 30 fouls. The offense flowed through Jerome Dyson, whose 32 points (on 12-32 shooting) often came courtesy of Kemba Walker’s 10 assists (not that his 19 points and six steals didn’t help) on possessions started by one of Stanley Robinson’s (17/12) 12 rebounds. For Texas, Damion James’ 23/7 and Avery Bradley’s 15 points simply couldn’t match whatever transfused into Connecticut at halftime. Lots of questions, now, mostly on the UConn side. We know Texas hasn’t peaked already, but what of Connecticut? Can they continue to summon whatever it was that visited them at halftime of this game? If they can, the Big East just got even more interesting than it was 48 hours ago.
- #6 Duke 60, #16 Clemson 47. This was what you call a defensive lockdown by the Devils. Taking a page from the way they played Gonzaga earlier this season, Duke allowed do-it-all Clemson forward Trevor Booker to go to work (22/6), but other than Demontez Stitt’s 10-point effort, the rest of the Clemson starters had a grand total of one field goal. The openings just weren’t there, and with no three-point shooters on the court to help instigate a prolonged run, the Tigers couldn’t get enough consecutive buckets to ever threaten Duke in the second half. Nolan Smith (22/3) continues to play impressive basketball, as he shot 8-13 yesterday and is showing an aura of confidence that well suits a player shooting lights-out this season (49% FG, 51% 3FG). It was his nine points during an 11-2 Duke run early in the second half that broke open the game and quieted the combustible Littlejohn faithful. If you want to know one reason of many that Duke is playing so well this year, look no further than how well the Duke backcourt holds onto the ball. The trio of Jon Scheyer, Andre Dawkins and Smith all rank among the top 315 players in the country in turnover percentage, with each turning it over less than 15% of the time. As an example of this, Duke had twelve TOs yesterday in a hostile road environment against a team in Clemson that ranks in the top in forcing them — the Duke backcourt only had three. We still have concerns about the Duke players wearing down over the course of the season, as both Kyle Singler and Scheyer played the full forty minutes and Smith logged thirty-seven. But for now, Duke has avoided the injury bug and Coach K is very good at providing his players spot rest during games when needed. As for Clemson, it’s back to the drawing board for Oliver Purnell’s team. The Tigers are going to have to figure out how to find more offense beyond the consistently good play of Trevor Booker and the occasional good night from Demontez Stitt and Tanner Smith.