Philadelphia, PA – The loud sentiment from Palo Alto to Providence, from one college "biscuits" diehard to another, is the lack of a dominant team will result in a March fitting of its multi-million-dollar moniker.
But before we get to the end, we have to figure out a way to fill out enough dance cards to warrant such anticipation. Saturday was just another reshuffle of the deck as patterns we thought we knew continued to reverse even the fleetest of trends.
There is no No. 1 team, and in fact, it would be tough to decipher the difference between any of about 15 teams at this point in late January. We sought out clarity on the biggest Saturday of the college basketball season. It never came.
Yet, From the End of the Bench is a dissection of results, and there were plenty of them on a 154-game day. These were the biggest five takeaways from Judgment Saturday.
1. Syracuse and Louisville are both in the collection of "very good," but neither has that extra level. There was an apparent lack of pizzazz in a matchup of Big East favorites, as the two teams seemed to hug each other throughout, making and missing just enough plays to keep the game competitive. This was a game the Cardinals should have won, and head coach Rick Pitino would gladly take that end-game scenario on every Saturday from here to the Final Four.
Louisville grasped a one-point lead with the ball in All-American candidate Peyton Siva's hands, but the veteran guard made an uncharacteristically poor decision by jumping into the air and throwing an ill-advised pass across his body in the direction of the opponent's basket. Michael Carter-Williams was the benefactor of Siva's miscue, stealing the ball and racing the length of the floor for the go-ahead dunk in Syracuse's 70-68 victory in front of a record-setting crowd at the KFC Yum! Center.
Carter-Williams scored nine of his team's final 11 points, providing another option to go along with veteran guard Brandon Triche, who scored 23 points to go along with six rebounds in the victory. The win was Syracuse's fourth-ever victory over a top-ranked team, all in the Big East, a fitting mark in the Orange's last season before jumping to the ACC.
In the grand season-long scheme, the win provides little more than a boost of confidence for Syracuse and a touch of devastation for Louisville, which has now lost both of its games this season due to poor end-of-game play. Remember, March is all about situational basketball and half-court success and, at times, the Cardinals rely too much on their transition offense and struggle in execution situations.
2. This space has been slobbering over Florida for weeks, and Saturday's 82-53 waxing of Missouri will likely bring a large continent over to the bandwagon. Yes, Laurence Bowers missed the contest, but Missouri finished with just 19 rebounds, was outrebounded by 11 on the game and let the Gators control the interior from the outset.
Florida dominated in waves, getting contributions from its mainstays (Erik Murphy - 15 points, Kenny Boynton - 14 points, Patric Young - nine points, eight rebounds, three blocks) and some new pieces (Scottie Wilbekin's first double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds and 13 points from Will Yeguete).
The Gators have now won six straight and all four SEC games by at least 20 points. While the outcome was settled at the half, the final horn made coach Billy Donovan's 400th victory official, and he may have one of his most complete teams. The Gators have the second-most efficient offense according to KenPom.com and the most-efficient defense, a complete combination that equates to eye-popping victories like the one handed down on Saturday.
Missouri needs Bowers back (he is expected to return soon) to help plug an interior sieve defensively and on the boards, but the Tigers also need to value the basketball better (21 turnovers resulted in 34 Florida points on Saturday). Missouri is too talented to rank 28th in offensive efficiency.
3. Butler coach Brad Stevens could write a book series on snatching improbable victory from the jaws of defeat. Playing without top scorer Rotnei Clark, the Bulldogs played as hard and smart as they always do and made the game-winning play when it presented itself.
It has been the Bulldogs' consistent recipe for success. As Stevens said after the game, "These kids make you believe."
Roosevelt Jones stole an errant inbounds pass (again, end-game situations anyone?), glanced quickly at the clock then took off down the floor and into the lane before lofting a running floater that fell through the net as time expired for the 64-63 victory.
Not to plagiarize Stevens, but these Bulldogs, outmanned on paper, really do make you believe. Gonzaga entered the contest with the bigger, more physical frontline, but was actually outrebounded by the Bulldogs (25-24) and lost many of the 50-50 hustle plays that have become a staple of Stevens' teams.
Jones scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half and Kellen Dunham made up in part for Clark's absence by connecting on 4-of-8 3-pointers in a 14-point showing. Sam Dower and Elias Harris both scored 20 points for the 'Zags, who didn't make enough long-range shots (4-of-14), and in theory, probably took a few too many considering the interior advantage.
Both teams now return to conference play where each is one of if not the clear favorite.
4. Road wins won't come easily in the Mountain West. San Diego State laid a second-half egg in Laramie. UNLV couldn't pull one out in Fort Collins. Air Force beat a Boise State team that nearly downed Michigan State and had its way with Creighton in Omaha.
The league is insanely balanced from top to bottom. New Mexico is a sleeper Final Four team, UNLV has Final Four talent, and with the right route, Colorado State, San Diego State, Wyoming, Boise State or Air Force could cause March headaches.
It's tough to find the league's second-best team after the Lobos, but let's make a case in this space for the Rams, who quietly won at Washington, beat Virginia Tech by 36 and came oh so close at San Diego State before falling in overtime. The response could have been a letdown; instead it was a 39-point victory over Air Force and Saturday's five-point win over equally sound UNLV. The Rebels have more talent, but the Rams are more consistent, and in this league, consistency may prove valuable as a team navigates the meat grinder from the California coast to the mountains of the upper west.
5. How good is Kansas State? Bruce Weber's Wildcats have flown under the radar to date, but their 69-60 victory over Oklahoma improved them to 15-2 on the season and a perfect 4-0 in league play. The numbers bear what the eye test seems to indicate. Kansas State is a collection of hard-nosed kids who have quickly developed the tenacity of their coach, who has turned into a Manhattan charm after dodging insults from frustrated fans just a season ago at Illinois. The Illini were a team of undisciplined athletes last season, but Weber now is fortunate enough to lead a team that had already developed of culture of responsibility and toughness under previous coach Frank Martin.
Rodney McGruder is one of the few Wildcats who can create his own shot, and they struggle to score when he isn't involved early. Will Spradling, Shane Southwell and Angel Rodriguez are nice complementary pieces, but Kansas State's early success is rooted in their embrace of a team identity.
KenPom and other statistical metrics don't love the Wildcats (74th in offensive efficiency, 38th defensively), but it's hard to argue with the results. Kansas State has a "by-any-means-necessary" mentality and already has an impressive victory over Florida, before the Gators started their destruction of SEC competition. The competition steps up this week. We will have a better barometer of the Wildcats' staying power after Kansas comes to Manhattan on Tuesday.
1. Florida (14-2): Quite a leap, but not one of faith. Six straight wins by at least 17 points, including a win over a solid Air Force team and Saturday's thumping of Missouri. The Gators are second nationally in two-point field goal percentage and fourth in guarding inside the arc. That's winning basketball.
2. Kansas (16-1): Ben McLemore, Jeff Withey and company turned it on in the second half to rally past Texas, but it will need to exude more mental toughness on Tuesday's trip to the nation's toughest team, Kansas State.
3. Duke (16-1): When will Ryan Kelly return? Before a trip to Tallahassee (a place of horrors for Duke in recent seasons)? Before a revenge bout with North Carolina State? Either looks doubtful. His healthy insertion back into the Blue Devils' rotation is a necessity.
4. Michigan (17-1): The nation's most efficient offense resides in Ann Arbor. It didn't look like it in the first 10 or 15 minutes at Ohio State, but a solid rebound win against Minnesota points to that head-scratching stretch as an aberration.
5. Indiana (16-2): The Hoosiers' 64-59 loss to Wisconsin last week was a testament to Badgers head coach Bo Ryan and his system. That system has produced 268 wins at Wisconsin and a winning percentage hovering around 70 percent -- the third-best for a 600-plus-win head coach. Granted, the Badgers then dropped a game at Iowa, and Indiana downed Northwestern, but if you can't appreciate Ryan's greatness at all times, you aren't a true hoops fan.
6. Syracuse (17-1): The Orange will be higher in the public polling, but I didn't leave Saturday's victory impressed. Syracuse still forces the opposition to get comfortable on the perimeter (to the point where it is settling for long jumpers possession after possession), but it doesn't have a great outside scorer or interior force. This is a good team, but what is its ceiling?
7. Louisville (16-2): It's how you rebound from tough losses that define a champion. The Cardinals let one slip away Saturday, but two dangerous road games this week don't provide time to sulk (at Villanova and Georgetown).
8. Arizona (16-1): Big win over dangerous Arizona State team sets up Thursday showdown at UCLA, and the Bruins will be smarting after a weekend loss to Oregon. The Wildcats have always been able to score, but a top-25 defense may be what sets this team up as a conference favorite.
9. Butler (16-2): Can't say enough about this team's resolve. The Clark injury was seen as a big blow to a team on a roll, but the Bulldogs have turned up their defensive effort and made every extra pass, coming together to finish off Dayton, down Richmond and pull out the victory over Gonzaga. The injury could end up being a blessing in disguise. Jones, Andrew Smith and others have had to take on bigger roles in Clark's absence, which makes them more dangerous secondary options once Butler's sharpshooter returns.
10. Kansas State (15-2): There are flashier options (Ohio State, Gonzaga, possibly even Michigan State), but it's hard to argue with the results. The Wildcats take their eight-game winning streak into Tuesday's showdown with Kansas. The keys? McGruder needs to stay out of foul trouble so he can go all 35-plus minutes on McLemore and the Kansas State bigs need to attack the rim early and try to get Withey in foul trouble.