First Take: Bad Blood In Ohio
And Temple makes some noise in the Big 5…
I’d be lying if I said I had high expectations for this past weekend. So naturally when the horn sounded at the Cintas Center last night at the conclusion of Xavier’s thrilling double-overtime win over Cincinnati to wrap up the last 48 hours, I had a smile on my face.
Already one of the better rivalries in college basketball, the Crosstown Shootout – which dates back to 1928 – took it to another level last night, as the Bearcats and Musketeers did everything short of all out riot with each other on a night where tensions couldn’t have been any higher. Twice the two squads came within moments of having a bench clearing brawl in the wake of hard/intentional fouls and the Xavier faithful played their part by serenading the Cincinnati bench with the reminder that their head football coach Brian Kelly had just jumped ship to coach at Notre Dame.
Amidst all of that there was still a basketball game that took place and a damn good one at that. Lance Stephenson scored 22 and at this point has flat out established himself as the go-to presence on the team. In every close game for the Bearcats this season, Mick Cronin has put the ball in the youngster’s hands and said “go win me a game.” Born Ready has yet to deliver (missed potential game winners against Gonzaga and the end of the first OT last night) but clearly it shows that the coaching staff has confidence in Stephenson. This game, if nothing else, proved that both squads are tough enough to be dancing in March. For Xavier it is a win over a tough rival and a ranked team, definitely a resume building win in December – never a bad thing to have when playing in the always crowded Atlantic-10. For Cincinnati, yes a loss stings, but this isn’t a bad loss, it’s the kind of game that is used as a learning tool for later in the year.
Speaking of Atlantic-10 teams playing in great games, how about Temple knocking off #3 Villanova – just the second time in the last 23 games against Big 5 opponents that the Wildcats have been on the losing end. Sophomore Juan Fernandez took on the unsung hero role when he exploded for 33 points on 7-of-9 shooting from beyond the arc that almost certainly left more than a handful of viewers saying “Who is that guy?” somewhere around his fifth bomb. This win officially welcomes the Owls into the ever growing log jam at the top of the A-10 right now as this is the third win over a BCS team this season, having notched W’s against Virginia Tech and Penn State, not to mention a win over mid-major darling Siena. No one was calling Temple a subpar team after the graduation of scoring machine Dionte Christmas, but few would have penciled this in as a win over a top five team when the schedule was first announced. The A-10 race is looking more appealing by the day now with seven teams now standing at 7-3 or better.
On Saturday, Georgetown handled Washington in the most appealing match up of the weekend – on paper anyway. The Hoyas and Huskies followed their season patterns to a T in this one with G-town putting all five starters in double figures and UW getting 20-point games from Isaiah Thomas and Quincy Pondexter. The game certainly wasn’t as close as the 74-66 score would indicate and interestingly enough that is a credit to the imposing presence of the Hoyas on the defensive side of the ball – something we haven’t been able to say about a Georgetown team in quite some time. It doesn’t show in the box score, especially when Washington actually won the battle on the boards 33-32, but the Huskies were intimidated when going into the lane. The sheer size of the GU frontcourt and the tenacity with which they attacked shot attempts, altered quite a lot of looks around the rim. What’s more, Julian Vaughn had a breakout performance, netting 18 points and corralling seven rebounds in a game that might have announced his arrival as another legitimate option on offense.
This was just another painful reminder of how much the Pac-10 is underachieving right now. Not that Georgetown is a bad team, but given the preseason hype Washington was receiving as the unanimous choice to win a conference title, one would think they have what it takes to lock up a win over the Hoyas, a team that doesn’t exactly scream dominating. Instead it was just another example of why the Pac-10 is likely to earn fewer NCAA Tournament berths than smaller conferences like the Mountain West come March. Two of the conference’s marquee names (UCLA and Arizona) are floundering and half of the teams stand at .500 or below.
The fourth time proved to be the charm for Butler, as the Bulldogs defeated Ohio State and finally earned a win over a ranked opponent. Gordon Hayward was fantastic in scoring 24 points, but really showed off his full ability as a versatile offensive weapon. He still has a way to go in his development, particularly getting stronger, but at 6-8 with the ability to shoot from the outside and get to the basket as a consistent finisher, Hayward screams pro prospect down the road. The single biggest concern for Butler right now has to be the trouble that Matt Howard has had staying on the court. The big fella fouled out for the sixth time in ten games this season. As the team’s most reliable interior presence, if the senior cannot stay on the floor in crunch time, forget about being a dangerous team in the postseason. The Buckeyes showed some real grit, storming back late in the second half, but it is clear that Evan Turner’s injury is going to prevent them from being a major competitor in close games. The next three game should be wins for OSU (though Cleveland State won’t be easy) but then life gets difficult with a Big Ten opener against Wisconsin.
The two biggest statement games of the weekend go to Purdue and New Mexico. The Boilermakers found themselves in hot water, trailing Alabama on the road by 16 at one point and were dealing with extra rowdy fans after Crimson Tide running back Mark Ingram had won the school’s first ever Heisman Trophy on the same night. Thanks to some incredible defense and 23 points from Robbie Hummel, Purdue stormed back, outscoring ‘Bama 45-28 in the second half to remain the only undefeated team in the Big Ten. I was certainly one of the individuals who was questioning had good Purdue was, how tough, how they would fare when faced with a challenge – this game shut me up. In my mind, the Boilermakers are the team to beat in the Big Ten now, they’ve proven they know how to weather a storm and come out on top. New Mexico remained unbeaten as well (10-0) by taking down #18 Texas A&M on the road. Roman Martinez was huge with 22 and 7, but a scary thought here is that he is the only senior on the team right now. The Lobos could be looking at a very strong couple of seasons ahead, but before I get too ahead of myself, they will face tests in Creighton, Dayton and Texas Tech before the Mountain West schedule gets underway in a few weeks.
Best game of the weekend hands down though goes to VMI and Seton Hall. The Pirates “outlasted” the Keydets 134-107, establishing a new program scoring record against the highest scoring team in the nation. Jamel Jackson scored 40 and Jeremy Hazell added 33 of his own in the explosion that saw three other Hall players reach double figures. Just to give you an idea of how absurd this scoring exhibition really was though, consider that Jackson and Hazell’s 73 total points were enough to beat 113 of the teams that played on Saturday.
Tonight kicks off a bit of a slower week as student-athletes across the country will be forgoing their Nikes for No. 2 pencils for at least a little while with final exams rolling through. Georgia Tech is the only ranked team in action tonight with a road contest at Chattanooga, though for those of you who might get the game telecast regionally my money is on Troy at Houston for the game of the night simply because of the Cougars scoring machine, senior guard Aubrey Coleman and his 27 points per game.
Have a good start to the week everyone!