NCAA Weekend Recap
The upset edition!
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
No team goes into conference play seriously expecting to finish unscathed. As admirable as it is to aspire to run the table in league, the feat just doesn’t happen too often. So when there are a couple (if we’re lucky, a few) upsets during a weekend of play, we can safely chalk it up to off-days, tough road environments, suddenly motivated underdogs, or all of the above. This weekend, though, conference-play morphed from its normal unforgiving self into a whole different breed of mercilessness. There were 10 top-25 “upsets,” and plenty of other head-scratching results that didn’t feature a ranked team. It’s easy to get excited about this slew of games and become carried away with how shocking each and every outcome was. So, without intentionally killing your upset buzz, in this edition of the weekend recap I’m counting down the ten major upsets of the weekend, starting with the least surprising and finishing with the most surprising.
10. New Mexico 86–BYU 77: After the entire nation was Jimmered by BYU’s win over then-undefeated San Diego State in Provo Wednesday night, this was about as obvious a letdown game as there comes. The Pit isn’t the friendliest of places to visit under normal circumstances, so when the nation’s most talked about team and the “best scorer in the world” comes to Albuquerque to play a pretty good Lobos team desperate for a win, an upset would be about the least shocking thing that could happen. Even Fredette himself tried to warn everyone, repeatedly mentioning how tough the New Mexico game would be in his dozens of postgame interviews Wednesday. Not only is this upset not shocking, it isn’t alarming either. BYU needed a shot in the arm after their Final Four-like celebration against San Diego State. This was it.
9. Washington State 87–Washington 80: Washington was on a roll headed into this game, but for the “elite” Pac-10 team, the Huskies still are mediocre at times. Washington State is an easy place to lose a game: it’s in the twilight zone of Pullman, WA, the crowd is usually into it, plus this year the team is actually decent. Klay Thompson and the Cougs were going to be stoked for a game versus a conference leader regardless, but this was also a rivalry matchup. This result doesn’t mean Washington is falling back to the middling center of Pac-10 hoops, or that Washington State is ready to rise from that pile to become a tournament team, but I’m not all that surprised by it either.
8. Marquette 76–Syracuse 70: Syracuse went from an underrated top-5 team to an overrated top-25 team in less than two weeks. This one was also pretty easy to call: Syracuse limped into Milwaukee coming off three consecutive losses, including their recent nightmare blowout at home vs. Providence, and faced Marquette which played like a team that couldn’t afford to let a home game versus a struggling marquee opponent go to waste. Desperate Golden Eagles + reeling Orange = no brainer.
7. Penn State 56–Wisconsin 52: Penn State has proven to me (and hopefully the rest of the Big Ten) that, while they might have trouble finding a spot on the bubble, they are a pain to play, especially in the Bryce Jordan Center. Wisconsin is normally fundamentally sound, issue-free, and solid, so they are able to side-step major upsets. And you can be sure Bo Ryan reminded his team of Penn State’s impressive conference play. So why was this not the biggest surprise? Wisconsin came into this one after embarrassing an above-average Northwestern on the road. Penn State and Northwestern are pretty comparable this season … both are slightly below the top of the conference but are normally in every game. So maybe Wisconsin figured they’ve tamed the Wildcats, the Nittany Lions can’t be much different…wrong.
6. Louisville 79–Connecticut 78 2OT: UConn losing to a ranked Louisville team in double-overtime shouldn’t turn too many heads, especially when Kemba Walker needs 23 shots to get his 20 points. Losing at home, where the Huskies have been very good so far this season, is more surprising. Louisville should no longer sneak up on anyone, but the Cardinals continue to put together an incredible season considering Rick Pitino has no legitimate number one scoring option. Beating Connecticut on the road and shutting down a potential player of the year candidate for a game and a quarter registers a little bit on the shock-meter.
5. Portland 85–Saint Mary’s 70: Portland is without a doubt the best team in the state of Oregon. That’s not saying much, but the point is Eric Reveno’s team is tough. Still, Saint Mary’s, clearly the elite of the WCC now that Gonzaga has finally fallen towards the middle of the conference, should be expected to handle the Pilots. The game was in the great Northwest, but Portland already has conference losses to San Francisco and Santa Clara on its resume. The Saint Mary’s program is at the point where any conference loss by the Gaels to any team other than Gonzaga is fairly stunning.
4. Mississippi State 71–Florida 64: “The Hump” at Mississippi isn’t an easy place to play. But after all of the drama and bad losses Mississippi State has endured so far this season, one would expect Florida’s experience to pull through. The Gators have proven themselves to be very good at being inconsistent this season (near loss to Auburn followed by a resounding blowout of Arkansas, for example), and you could argue that the Bulldogs, one of the more talented teams in the SEC, was due for a team performance like this one. Florida should know it has much, much harder games awaiting it in the SEC East, so every loss to an SEC West team is magnified and, honestly pretty mystifying.
3. Arkansas 89–Vanderbilt 78: Here’s another SEC West team tripping up an SEC East favorite, but this time, it was on the better half’s home court. Before this game, I would have had no problem telling you Vanderbilt is (and is usually) one of the most underrated teams in the country. This result might not look as surprising as some of the others on the list, but a home loss to Arkansas isn’t a forgivable one. The Hogs aren’t terrible, but the ‘Dores let one get away here. Home games against clearly inferior opponents are few and far between in conference play. This one might end up being the critical difference in March between a 3 seed and a 4 or 5.
2. Georgetown 69–Villanova 66: On paper, this doesn’t seem like much of a shocker either. Georgetown is good … or at least they were at the start of the season. Villanova, another victim of Providence’s randomly outstanding week of play, was wounded and ripe for another loss. But try looking at it from another angle. After losing three games in a row early in Big East play, Georgetown fattened up and got those three games back against Rutgers, Seton Hall, and St. John’s … not exactly the best the Big East has to offer. ‘Nova, on the other hand, was busy ripping through the conference like a buzz saw until those old Friars showed up. One would think the Wildcats would be pretty stinking angry after losing to Providence by double-digits and would bring the focus that was obviously missing at the Dunkin Donuts Center (can’t let a chance to throw that awesome arena name out there go by) to their showdown with the Hoyas. It seems improbable that a Final Four caliber team like Villanova would get embarrassed on the road by punching bag-turned-world beater Providence and then return home to a Philly crowd to get beaten by rival Georgetown. But it happened. My #1 upset of the weekend.
1. St. John’s 93–Duke 78: As long as its most talented player is confined to a walking boot, Duke is not close to the same team it previously was. Still, the stage of Madison Square Garden usually brings out the best in the Blue Devils. Whether it’s the Preseason NIT, the Coaches v Cancer Classic, or a usually insignificant non-conference game against St. John’s, Duke is comfortable making the Garden floor it’s home for 40 minutes at a time. This year, they faced a talented St. John’s team fighting to stay in the NCAA Tournament picture. The Red Storm has faced a tough non-conference and brutal early Big East schedule that included eight consecutive games against ranked opponents, but the fact remains that the team had lost five of its last six Big East contests entering Sunday’s home game against Duke. In other words, this game didn’t strike me as a candidate for the one that would turn Lavin’s boys’ season around. February 2nd at home v. Rutgers or even next weekend’s intriguing showdown at UCLA have more of “stop the bleeding” feels to them then a date with the no. 3 team in the country. But it wasn’t just the fact that St. John’s beat Duke—the Johnnies are a pretty talented team, so that shouldn’t astound people. It’s how they beat the Dukies that registers a 10 on my hypothetical shock-meter. This game was over at halftime. 46-25 at the break, 93 points from a team that averages 69 on the season and has struggled to reach 60 in conference play, and the highest field goal percentage recorded by an unranked team vs. a ranked opponent since Cornell defeated Wisconsin in the tournament last March (can you blame me for throwing that little ditty in the there?). This win alone might get St. John’s in the tournament if it can manage to record a .500 conference record.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.