by Nick Rotunno
Well folks, after a short break last week, we’re back in action here at the Week in Review, ready to recap an awesome slate of regular season and tournament games. My apologies for the hiatus; I was busy working on some conference tournament previews for the SLAM Madness page, a nice addition to the usual topnotch SLAMonline content. I suggest you check out the page and browse all the features, if you haven’t already. Very interesting stuff. My compliments to all the contributors on SLAM Madness, especially my guys Ryne Nelson, Peter Walsh and Eldon Khorshidi, who did some fantastic work on the tournament previews.
Anyhow, back to this column. Some tough timing this week—the big conference tournaments are just getting warmed up in places like Chicago, Las Vegas, Greensboro and Madison Square Garden, so I’ll be recapping the opening rounds only. But next Friday, with college hoops on a short post-Selection Sunday furlough, I’ll have plenty of time to rehash the biggest games from this weekend’s tourneys.
Here’s what caught my eye over the past few days.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Illinois 51, Minnesota 49—Thursday, Big Ten Tournament
Lots of first-round tournament action on Thursday in the ACC, Big East, A-10 and elsewhere, but no game was closer than this one, a bruising battle between two talented Big Ten squads that came down to the last play. After a rough first half of poor shooting from both teams, Illinois led 25-16. The second 20 minutes were much better basketball, the offenses finding their range, big plays down the stretch.
Illinois maintained a 10-point lead in the early part of the second half, but Minnesota—spurred by a pair of three-pointers from Andre Hollins—climbed back into the game with a 19-4 run. With 47 seconds left in the game and the Gophers up by three, Illinois’ D.J. Richardson knocked down a three-pointer to knot the score at 49-49. As the clock wound down to 14 seconds or so, Minnesota inbounded the ball to Austin Hollins, who stepped on the sideline as he awkwardly turned up-court. Illinois ball.
Illini coach John Groce opted not to call a timeout, though he had one remaining. Instead, high-scoring guard Brandon Paul got the ball, made a series of crossover moves and launched a 15-foot jumper from near the left elbow. Nothin’ but nylon as the buzzer sounded.
“I didn’t want to lose. We worked to hard to get to this point,” Paul told the Associated Press. “My mindset was just to be aggressive. Coach told me to stay aggressive.”
His aggressiveness worked, sending Illinois to the second round of the Big Ten tourney for a date with top-seeded Indiana on Friday afternoon. Paul finished with a game-high 25 points, by far the most production from any Illinois player on Thursday—teammates Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu and Richardson chipped in six points apiece.
Minnesota played a good, hard game, but ultimately returned to the Land of 10,000 Lakes without a tournament victory and seated somewhat uncomfortably atop the bubble. Based on strength of schedule and their respectable record, though, the Gophers are probably going to get a berth in the NCAA Tournament. That’s what the experts are saying, anyway. (I do not consider myself to be in any way an expert.) Guard Austin Hollins led Minnesota Thursday with 16 points. Running mate Andre Hollins (unrelated) had 15.
A brief tangent: If you have a job that involves joyless physical labor and little intellectual stimulation, as I have, then I suggest you download the ESPN Radio app for your smart phone. I listened to the first round of the Big Ten tourney all day Thursday, and I was about 2,500 miles from Big Ten country. Clutch.
* So here’s the deal: Since the conference tourneys are where the action is, so to speak, I’m not going to spend much time on the games from early in the week. There were some good ones, I know, but I’m sure you’ve already seen the highlights or read the stories. A sentence or two will suffice. I will, however, list in passing most of the noteworthy contests. Just for you.
No. 3 Duke 69, North Carolina 53
For all the talk of a resurgent North Carolina club—and the Tar Heels are much improved, no doubt—this game was a step backward. Duke bested UNC inside, outside and all over the floor on Saturday in Chapel Hill, led by sharpshooting Seth Curry (20 points, 8-12 from the field) and dominant big man Mason Plumlee (23 points, 13 rebounds).
No. 4 Kansas 58, Baylor 81
By far the biggest surprise of the week. Playing on their home floor, the inspired Bears outscored the Jayhawks 44-30 in the second half and ran away with this one, snapping Kansas’s seven-game winning streak in the process. Pierre Jackson scored 28 points and dished out 10 assists for the Bears, while Cory Jefferson added 25 points of his own. With the loss, Kansas moved into a tie with Kansas State for regular-season Big 12 champ.
No. 12 New Mexico 88, Air Force 89
The never-say-die Falcons, at home in Colorado Springs, shocked the 12th-ranked Lobos when guard Todd Fletcher knocked down a long three-ball with about four seconds left in the game.
No. 15 Marquette 69, St. John’s 67 (OT)
The Golden Eagles needed overtime to best St. Johns, but they earned a share of the Big East regular-season title. The best name in the Big East, Marquette guard Vander Blue, scored 16 points and made several key plays down the stretch.
No. 11 Florida 57, Kentucky 61
Kentucky scored the last 11 points of the ballgame and took down a very good Florida team in Lexington. Wildcats senior Julius Mays sealed the win with two free throws and scored 13 points on the night. Kentucky, the defending national champs but now on the bubble, greatly needed this win as it strives for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Other Saturday notables
No. 17 Syracuse 39, Georgetown 61
No. 24 Notre Dame 57, No. 8 Louisville 73
No. 9 Kansas State 70, No. 13. Oklahoma State 76
No. 2 Indiana 72, No. 7 Michigan 71
The Wolverines missed a couple of tough, close-range layups in the final seconds of the game and Indiana held on to clinch the Big Ten regular-season title. Star 7-footer Cody Zeller was up to his usual tricks for the Hoosiers, scoring 25 points and corralling 10 rebounds. Odd moment at the end of this game—still on the court, Indiana coach Tom Crean lambasted Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer, who worked for Indiana during the now-infamous Kelvin Sampson years. Crean yelled (this was captured by TV camera), “You know what you did. You helped wreck the program. You helped wreck our program.” The AP reported that Crean later apologized to Meyer. Now that’s a bitter rivalry, right there.
No. 22 Wisconsin 63, Penn State 60
Traevon Jackson stroked a three-pointer at the buzzer to carry Wisconsin past a pesky Penn State outfit in Happy Valley. Jackson had 15 points, while Penn State’s Jermaine Marshall scored a game-high 23.
Creighton 68, Wichita State 65, MVC Tournament
The Missouri Valley tournament final came down to the wire on Sunday as Creighton and Valley POY Doug McDermott outlasted Wichita State. McDermott didn’t play his best game, but the Jays’ Jahenns Manigat compensated with 16 points. Creighton won the MVC tourney last season, too.
Other Sunday notables:
Illinois 55, No. 14 Ohio State 68
George Mason 67, Northeastern 69
Northwestern 61, No. 10 Michigan State 71
No. 21 VCU 76, Temple 84
No. 1 Gonzaga 65, St. Mary’s 51, WCC Tournament
Gonzaga solidified its No. 1 ranking and all-but-certain No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a resounding victory over archrival St. Mary’s in the WCC final on Monday. The Bulldogs traveled to Las Vegas as the league favorite by a wide margin, and they proved just how tough they can be. Gonzaga shot 52 percent from the field and harassed St. Mary’s throughout the contest. The Gaels’ dynamic scoring guard, Matthew Dellavedova, managed just two points in this game.
Forward Kelly Olynyk was all but unstoppable for the Zags, racking up 21 points and 12 rebounds as he continued his breakout season. He was down-to-Earth afterward, even as the Bulldogs were celebrating yet another WCC title.
“You have to be short-minded in the sense that it’s not the end of the year for us and we still want to come out and make some noise in the (NCAA) tournament,” Olynyk told the Associated Press. As the AP writer put it, gushingly, No. 1 Gonzaga is “big, deep, athletic, tough-minded, not to mention dominating and willing to play defense.” I couldn’t say it any better myself.