After a day where a number of teams pulled off perceived upsets – oftentimes, that term is used far too loosely in sports, not just college basketball – Sunday was a very different story. Look across the scoreboard, and it’s hard to find cases where the underdog won, even in mid-major games. On this day, though, the real favorites would have to be the ones with the right names – Valentine and Balentine – and they delivered.
In both cases, though, it was far from a foregone conclusion at one point in the game, and they delivered in different ways.
Michigan State got off to a great start this season from the play of senior Denzel Valentine. He was arguably the national player of the month for November, leading them to a win over Kansas in the Champions Classic and a Wooden Legacy title. Then he got hurt, and when he returned he wasn’t the same at first. On Sunday, though, he channeled November all over again, going for 30 points and 13 assists in the Spartans’ 88-69 win over Indiana, one in which they trailed by ten points in the first half. Matt Costello (career-high 22 points and 11 rebounds) and Bryn Forbes (14 points) were the primary beneficiaries of Valentine’s passing as they won going away.
Then we have the case of D.J. Balentine and Evansville, and it’s turning into a very happy story. The Purple Aces were in control at Loyola (Ill.) in the first half and some of the second, but play slowed in the second half and the Ramblers got back in the game after the lead reached 19. Before you knew it, the Ramblers went on a 14-2 run to take a 73-72 lead with 31 seconds left. Losing a lead you’ve held the whole game is tough, and is often a big psychological blow. That’s when D.J. Balentine, the nation’s active career scoring leader and the sixth all-time leading scorer in the Missouri Valley, hit a tough shot just inside the paint with 18 seconds left, and they held on for a 74-73 win.
When Marty Simmons became the head coach at Evansville in 2007, it was already a happy story. One of the greatest players in program history, he scored 1,265 points in just two seasons at the school and led them to their first postseason win in Division I, a first-round win over Utah in the 1988 NIT. But those numbers only tell part of the story; during the year he sat out as a transfer from Indiana, he was so important to the team that he was designated the team’s captain.
Simmons later became a restricted earnings assistant at the school from 1990 to 1996, then returned as a full-time assistant from 1997 to 2002, helping them reach the NCAA Tournament three times and the NIT another time. As his bio in their media guide says, “Nobody personifies just what it means to be a Purple Ace more than head coach Marty Simmons.”
The Purple Aces have yet to return to the NCAA Tournament under his guidance, but Simmons has guided them to more success. At times, they have had to rebuild, such as 2009-10, when they won just nine games without a scholarship senior, but they have been to postseason play in five of the last seven seasons. This year, they are riding the senior duo of Balentine and big man Egidijus Mockevicius, the latter of who is about to lead the conference in rebounding for the third straight season and leads the nation in that category at 13.8 per game. He’s also a double-double machine, now with 22 in 27 games after a monster game of 24 points and 16 rebounds on Sunday.
At this point, no one in the Valley will catch Wichita State in the regular season, a team the Purple Aces lost by just three to on the road. But the Purple Aces can get to second place, and they are the first Valley team to 20 wins on the season. Postseason play for the sixth time in eight seasons is a virtual certainty with the question being which tournament. Simmons has nicely rebuilt the program at his alma mater, and this year is a fine example of that.
Also in the Big Ten, Jarrod Uthoff had another monster game with 24 points and 15 rebounds to lead Iowa to a 75-71 win over Minnesota.
Florida State rallied after trailing Miami by 11 at halftime, but the Hurricanes held off the Seminoles for a solid 67-65 road win, a big missed opportunity for the Seminoles and their NCAA Tournament at-large hopes. Also in the ACC, North Carolina took care of Pittsburgh 85-64, continuing to cast questions on just how good this Panther team really is, and Syracuse took care of Boston College 75-61.
Arizona pulled into a tie with Oregon atop the Pac-12 with an 86-78 win over USC. Also in the Pac-12, UCLA won at Arizona State 78-65 to improve to 5-7, and Utah blew out Washington State 88-47.
A couple of wild games took place in the Atlantic 10 and America East. UMass and Duquesne traded a number of runs, with the Dukes running out to a 15-3 lead for the first one and UMass responding with a 19-3 run of their own, and it was the visiting Minutemen who took home a 108-99 overtime win behind a career-high 37 points from Jabari Hinds. Stony Brook held off New Hampshire by virtue of a last-second blocked shot by Jameel Warney, his eighth of the game, for a 59-58 win and a 13-0 mark in America East play.
A couple of early games are on tap on this holiday in addition to the usual evening slate.
- In ACC play, Virginia looks to bounce back from a tough loss on Saturday as they host Cat Barber and NC State.
- Oklahoma State travels to Kansas in Big 12 action.
- Oakland visits Wright State in a battle of 10-4 teams chasing Valparaiso in the Horizon League.
- MAAC leader Monmouth faces a stiff test as Manhattan comes to town.
- In a non-conference tilt, Wichita State hosts New Mexico State.