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The Hardcourt Shuffle: Villanova & La Salle Go Giant-Killing, NC State Survives the Rivalry

La Salle

One of the unfortunate realities of sportswriting is that you’re often compelled to make bold predictions, only to suffer all the indignities that follow. Only a true masochist makes predictions, because when you’re wrong — and you’re always going to be wrong — it becomes a feeding frenzy for the bottom-feeders of the homer ecosystem. Here’s what I wrote about the Villanova-Syracuse game on Friday:

As the box score shows, ’Nova shot lights out and got to the line at an incredible rate. These are not repeatable skills for a mediocre offensive team, so I fully expect Syracuse to come in and dominate.

Here’s what happened:

Bolstered by the heroics of freshman guard Ryan “Archie” Arcidiacono, ’Nova went on to win by four in overtime. Along the way, they repeated the unrepeatable skills of shooting very well and getting to the line, and threw in a lot of offensive rebounds for good measure. I knew retribution was coming. When I checked my Twitter feed a few hours after the game, it was full of “barbs” from the Wildcats partisans. And the tone — my God, the tone! Brotherly love, my ass. One gentleman from the “Nova Basketball Report” even went back to the article itself and left this gem: “You couldn’t be more wrong about nova… good call jackass.” Three others liked it.

There are a lot of things in life that make me a jackass, but picking the no. 3 team in the nation over an opponent who lost to Columbia and Providence earlier in the year is not foremost among them. And yet, I can’t escape my own words. So from this day forward, I vow to approach any and all game analysis by hedging my bets and leaving subtle hints that I think both teams could win. Except for Indiana, because I’m RIGHT about them and they will start losing and I won’t back down ever from this strong anti-Hoosier stance, even if they win a title.

The Philadelphia Story

I’m still pretty shocked by the two Villanova wins, and I’m still not sure if this is a team we should take seriously. Sorry, ’Nova-ites. But before the Louisville and Syracuse wins, it would have been very generous to call them a bubble team, and my gut tells me they’ve used up all their magic. To the Wildcats’ credit, they are the best team in the country at drawing fouls and getting to the line, but the rest of the numbers tell a different story. They turn the ball over way too often, they aren’t great shooters (especially inside the arc), they can’t defend the 3, and they can’t keep other teams off the line. I’m very curious to see what happens at Notre Dame on Wednesday, because the Irish have one of those incredibly efficient offenses matched with a super-slow tempo that seems designed to stymie Villanova. It worked for Pittsburgh, another agonizingly slow team, albeit with a slightly better defense, who held ’Nova to 43 points and won by 15 — and that was in Philly. So I’ll wait before adding the Wildcats to my list of contenders. But you can’t argue with results, and they have my respect for taking down two of the best teams in the country.

Oddly enough, the ’Cats weren’t the only giant-killers operating out of Philly in the past week. While Jay Wright and the Arcidiacono Five were slaying Louisville and Syracuse, the La Salle Explorers were pulling off a similar feat in the Atlantic-10, upsetting mid-major icons Butler (at home) and VCU (in Richmond). As with ’Nova, there are some iffy losses on the Explorers’ résumé, including Central Connecticut and Charlotte, but at 14-5 overall and 4-2 in the revamped Atlantic-10, they’re now safely back in the tournament discussion.

Against no. 19 VCU, the hero was sharpshooter Ramon Galloway, who poured in 31 points and iced the game from the line in the last two minutes. Against no. 9 Butler, it was Tyreek Duren carrying the heaviest load, with 16 points, five boards, and six assists in a grueling one-point win. Galloway and Duren are both guards, and La Salle’s top three scorers are all under 6-foot-3. In fact, they usually have just one player above 6-foot-3 on the court any given time, and that takes its toll on rebounding, the team’s weakest link. And now you know everything I know about LaSalle.

Strike that — there’s one more neat thing about the Explorers. Do you all know about The Big Five? It’s college basketball’s best intra-city rivalry, and the gist is that five Philadelphia schools — ’Nova, La Salle, St. Joe’s, Temple, and Pennsylvania — each play each other during the season (sometimes at the historic Palaestra), and the team with the best record from the round-robin is the city champion. It’s a tradition that goes back to 1955-56, and is a fun relic from a time when Philly and New York were the capitals of the basketball universe. Temple leads everyone with 26 titles, but Villanova (21) and St. Joe’s (20) aren’t far behind. Pennsylvania has 12 wins to its name, and sitting in dead last, with 10, is LaSalle. In fact, the last time the Explorers won an outright title came in 1990, and its a feat they’ve accomplished just four times in more than 50 years (the other six titles were shared). This year, the Explorers have already topped Villanova (in overtime) and Penn, and now they have a chance to go undefeated in Big Five play when they face St. Joe’s and Temple back-to-back in mid-February.

A Quick Aside for the Butler Bulldogs …

From Saturday’s game against Temple, another Big Five squad. This is how you break a press:

Terrific teamwork, unless Brad Stevens was controlling the whole thing with his mind.

The UNC-State Double Meltdown

All season long, NC State has been an amazingly talented offensive team hampered by poor defense and lapses in focus. All season long, UNC has been a young, inconsistent team that can score in bunches but can also be railroaded in big games. When the teams met in Raleigh on Saturday, it confirmed everything we knew about both.

It started off as a massacre. State had lost 13 straight to Carolina, and 19 of 20, and it seemed like this would be the cathartic victory they’d craved for a decade. The lead got as high as 27 points when Lorenzo Brown’s layup made it 61-33 with 13 minutes left in the second half, and Carolina looked like the exact same team that had been steamrolled in Indiana during the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. The Wolfpack scoring came from everywhere, but the real star was Lorenzo Brown, who has played himself back into “elite point guard” status after being savaged by Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart in November. I’ve made more than a few highlight videos this year, but this one documenting Brown’s 11 assists against UNC is by far my favorite. Enjoy the greatest display of passing in college basketball this season:

UNC looked like a hopeless victim, but then everything changed. In the next 13:31, the Tar Heels scored an astounding 50 POINTS — again, 50 POINTS IN 13 MINUTES — to give State the scare of a lifetime. The staggering psychological blow this comeback would have levied on State can’t be underestimated. When James Michael McAdoo made his dunk to reduce the deficit to five points with 36 seconds remaining, I felt waves of nausea sweeping over my stomach. And I’m not even a State fan! But if Carolina had finished the comeback, it would have finally confirmed that the Wolfpack inferiority complex was not just a product of proximity and socio-economic-cultural resentment, but rather an emotion derived from a very real and eternal curse carried out by cruel gods whose only purpose was devising new and more devastating forms of torture for State fans.

But the ’Pack won. They gave up 57 points in the second half, just as they gave up 51 points to Wake Forest in the second half a few days earlier, but they won. Still, the late scare had to curb some of the emotional release Wolfpack Nation had hoped to feel. The victory could only be enjoyed with disclaimers — the most prominent of those is the plain fact that defense will doom the Wolfpack in the end.

“Mad” Marshall Henderson’s Crazy Spectacular Rolls On

If you didn’t read the story that wrote itself after Marshall Henderson loosed his wonderful insanity on Vanderbilt, please treat yourself and do so now. Or at least watch the video for context. Briefly, Mad Marshall is the Ole Miss guard (a transfer from Utah by way of a Texas JuCo) with the wild eyes who has a penchant for dramatic late-game escapades, and a predilection for infuriating opposing players, fans, and coaches. He might be the best thing about college basketball this season, and Ole Miss games are now un … Miss … able.

The season-long chaotic spectacle continued against Auburn on Saturday, when Henderson drew a cheap foul with six seconds left and hit two free throws to give Ole Miss a 63-61 win and a 6-0 record in SEC play. But was that it? Oh, no … that was not it. Henderson took it upon himself to run to the Auburn student section, lift his jersey, and scream at the students. It produced what has to be the greatest .gif of the season. Here’s the video of the whole thing, starting with a close-up of Henderson’s crazy eyes just before he draws the foul:

It’s been a terrific start for Henderson and the Rebels, but things are about to get real as they host Kentucky on Tuesday and travel to Florida on Saturday. I’m not sure what intrigue Mad Marshall will deliver, but I assure you all that I will not be absent.

Closing Thoughts…

• Florida is still my national title team after drubbing Mississippi State, and it should be noted that with the best adjusted defensive efficiency and second-best adjusted offensive efficiency (points allowed and scored per 100 possessions) in the country, they are currently one of the greatest KenPom teams ever.

• Michigan is a close second, and showed that they’re ready to become the Big Ten’s dominant force by shutting down Illinois in Champaign.

• Here’s an interesting Big Ten prop bet … Minnesota just suffered another agonizing loss, its fourth straight, 45-44, at Wisconsin. The Gophers are now 3-4 in the Big Ten. However, look at their schedule and you can see that it’s been a nightmare. The only “bad” loss of the bunch was a road setback to Northwestern. But things are about to get a lot easier, and the toughest remaining games are road contests against Michigan State and Ohio State. Meanwhile, Indiana has enjoyed a very easy start to the Big Ten schedule, racking up a 6-1 record with the toughest road game coming at Iowa. But nobody gets a free ride in the Big Ten, and just as Minnesota’s schedule becomes easier, the Hoosiers’ is about to get tough. Plus, I happen to believe that Minnesota has a lot more to offer than they’ve shown in the last four games, and I think Indiana will be in for a rude awakening when they take to the road. So if you’re into making weird bets, see what kind of odds you can get on Minnesota finishing with a Big Ten record equaling or exceeding Indiana’s. You might make some money. (Pending new news on Mbakwe’s wrist injury, of course … )

• In the “I don’t know what to believe” department, enter Louisville and Duke. The Cardinals have lost three straight, and Saturday’s 53-51 setback to Georgetown was the ugliest of the bunch. I still believe Pitino’s team has national championship potential, but it’s hard to rationalize losing three games in a row. Tonight’s showdown with Pittsburgh in Louisville will be fascinating, because the Panthers play exactly like Georgetown, except better. The Cardinals still need to prove they can crack a good defense.

As for Duke, there’s an eerie resemblance to 2010-11 in the narrative arc of the season. The team starts out gangbusters, looking like a national title favorite. Then a key foot injury (Kyrie Irving, Ryan Kelly) hits hard, and a couple of rough losses ensue. The 2011 team found its identity without Irving and went on to win an ACC championship under Nolan Smith’s leadership, before Irving returned and — in my opinion — screwed up the new chemistry while improving his draft stock, all of which led to an embarrassing loss to Arizona in the Sweet 16. On Saturday, Duke recovered from the Miami loss with a truly impressive home win against Maryland. Sure, the Terrapins are weak, but if you’re looking for parallels to 2011, this might be the start of the post-injury resurgence. As with Irving, we have no idea when or if Kelly will return, and Coach K has to make due with the roster at his disposal. The success of the season will probably come down to two freshmen — Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson — and both played their best games of the season against Maryland. Whether a true recovery is in the offing will become clear after upcoming games against Florida State and NC State, but Saturday was a promising start.