Wednesday night featured the very best of what college basketball has to offer, in so very many ways.
Passionate rivalries. Contrasts in styles. Outstanding players. Coaches with the freedom to coach teams the way they want to, and taking advantage of that in different ways. And, yes, very relevant regular season games.
The evening included what are, for our money, the two very best rivalries in the sport. Of course, the evening was mainly marked by Duke and North Carolina meeting again, but the night started with Xavier and Cincinnati squaring off once more in a series that as a whole is its equal, or awfully close to it.
Duke and North Carolina played for the 239th time on Wednesday, and once again the teams put on a classic. The Blue Devils pulled out a 92-90 win in overtime, rallying from a 10-point deficit late in regulation to get to the extra frame and then surviving a back-and-forth overtime.
The game was all one could ask for, as well as everything college basketball needs more of. Two athletic, skilled teams were allowed by their coaches and officials to play like athletic, skilled teams. The score proved once again that there is no problem whatsoever with the shot clock length in this sport, that teams can play at a faster pace and score plenty of points if they simply make it a priority and if officials reward offense instead of grabby defense.
Games between Duke and North Carolina, frankly, are set up to disappoint, because the hype for them has gotten so out of control. ESPN saturates us with coverage of the two teams around every corner. It has literally built a good share of its team of analysts with former players and coaches from these two teams, to make sure you’re reminded of them throughout the entire season and beyond. There were several days of tributes to Dean Smith on ESPN Classic last week, yet nothing for Jerry Tarkanian, another symbol of the year-round cross-promotion of this series.
And yet, these two teams just continue to deliver. It’s the closest thing we have to the NCAA Tournament in season, which is about the highest compliment one can give. Every time these two meet it is a real treat.
Another sensational rivalry game ended just as Duke and UNC started. Xavier defeated Cincinnati 59-57, as Trevon Blueitt hit two free throws with 12 seconds to play. That capped a Xavier rally after Cincy had fought back from a substantial deficit earlier. In a contest featuring two contrasting styles, the Bearcats won the battle by keeping the game in the 50s, but the Musketeers won the war for a critical non-conference win that just about locks up an NCAA Tournament berth.
The teams may not have as much future NBA talent, but there is no nastier rivalry in college basketball than the Crosstown Shootout in Cincinnati. Of course, that ferocity was taken too far a couple years ago, which resulted in the series temporarily being moved to a neutral site, but it was rightfully back on campus Tuesday night.
Two entirely different rivalries, two entirely different types of games Wednesday, yet both filled with excitement and great theater. This was college hoops at its best.
- Iowa State won at Oklahoma State 70-65 in a battle of ranked teams, a quality win on the road for the Cyclones. Among other ranked teams, Wisconsin held off Penn State 55-47 with Sam Dekker scoring 22 points, Northern Iowa won its 14th straight by defeating Loyola (Ill.) 58-39, and Arkansas ran past Missouri 84-69.
- Syracuse defeated Louisville 69-59 behind 29 from Rakeem Christmas. Good win for the Cuse, while the Cardinals seem to be in a little bit of trouble right now.
- Davidson came up with a crucial 65-63 win at George Washington. Good news for the Wildcats is Jack Gibbs returning from injury. Big road win for Davidson. GW can still make the NCAA Tournament, but it’s almost certain now that the Colonials will have to do it by winning the Atlantic 10 tourney.
- Also in the A-10, Rhode Island handled Massachusetts with ease, 75-59, to take a one-half game lead in the conference standings. It’s a badly unbalanced schedule, but if the Rams so much as tie for the title this year it will be a super achievement.
- UCLA suffered a damaging loss, falling at Arizona State 68-66. The Bruins got hammered on the glass 39-27. Better news for Oregon in the Pac-12, as the Ducks dumped Colorado 73-60.
- Colorado State and Boise State both earned tough road wins in the Mountain West. The Rams won 81-73 at Fresno State, while Boise moved to 19-7 with a 53-48 win at UNLV on the night Vegas honored the late Jerry Tarkanian. Leon Rice has done an outstanding job with the Broncos this year.
- Another wild night in the MAC. Toledo won at Akron 68-66, but Central Michigan kept pace with the Rockets in the West Division with a win by the same score over Northern Illinois, as Austin Stewart scored on a tip-in with 3.7 seconds left. In the East Division, Miami (Ohio) won at division leader Bowling Green 67-56. The Red Hawks are becoming an interesting team, capable of causing trouble with their full-court pressure defense.
- Northeastern defeated William & Mary 75-64 to tie the Tribe for second in the CAA, half a game behind UNC-Wilmington.
- Your Big South leaders are now High Point and Charleston Southern. The Panthers drilled Gardner-Webb 83-62, and bad news for Big South opponents-HPU did it with John Brown scoring just two points due to foul trouble. Five scored in double figures for High Point. Charleston Southern, meanwhile, hammered Presbyterian 75-49 behind 34 from Saah Nimley.
- Florida junior forward Dorian Finney-Smith has been suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. The team’s second-leading scorer (12.9 ppg) and leading rebounder (5.8 rpg), he missed the Gators’ 50-47 win over Vanderbilt and will have his status revisited this week by coach Billy Donovan.
Purdue at Indiana (7 p.m. EST, ESPN) Now we see what the Boilermakers can do when it gets tougher on the road. Three of the next four are away at IU, Ohio State and Michigan State. Like most teams against Indiana, Purdue should have a big advantage inside.
Temple at SMU (7 p.m. EST, ESPN2) For two teams closing in on NCAA bids, a win here may put them over the top. Expect a low score-it is the AAC, after all.
Utah at Oregon State The Beavers put their 14-0 home record on the line. If one has seen OSU this year, it is incredible just how much mileage Wayne Tinkle has gotten out of his team.
Mississippi at Mississippi State (9 p.m. EST, ESPN2) Ole Miss is another team close to an NCAA bid, but the Bulldogs have been playing spoiler a lot of late.
UNC-Wilmington at Delaware The Blue Hens are just 7-18, but 6-5 in their last 11 with a healthier team. Their last two wins were on the road at the CAA contenders Northeastern and William & Mary. Plus, UNCW won the first meeting by only a point.
Louisiana Tech at UNC-Charlotte (7 p.m. EST, CBSSN), Western Kentucky at UAB Tricky road game for the Conference USA-leading Bulldogs. The latter game features two teams that still have hopes of winning the regular season title.
UC Davis at Long Beach State The league-leading Aggies could run away with the Big West if they can win in The Pyramid. Should be quite entertaining.
Have a terrific Thursday.