It may have been only December 17th, but believe it or not, yesterday was the final full Saturday of the season before conference play begins for many Division I leagues.
The last Saturday of games before Christmas (Christmas Eve is typically a blank slate for college basketball) was marked by a number of neutral and semi-neutral court ‘classics.’ There was the CBS Sports Classic, the Orange Bowl Basketball Classic, the Crossroads Classic and the Hy-Vee Big Four Classic. Lest one think ‘classic’ is a requirement for the title of such events, there also was the Lone Star Shootout and the State Farm Chicago Legends as well.
What these all had in common was that they were one-day doubleheaders, and while we would posit that any event calling itself a ‘Classic’ that isn’t a tournament format really isn’t a classic, the events did furnish a number of games that will be remembered for some time this year. Kentucky’s 103-100 shootout win over North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic was paced by Malik Monk’s 47-point outburst, while both games in the Crossroads Classic were superb, with Purdue rallying from way back to clip Notre Dame 86-81 and Butler held off Indiana 83-78. All three could make a list of the regular season’s 10 most memorable games at the end of the year.
Almost all of these games were fun (Florida’s 87-46 drubbing of UNC Charlotte in the Orange Bowl notwithstanding), and the matchups are good for the sport. Why on earth quite a few in the state of Indiana are ambivalent about the future of the yearly doubleheader among Butler, Indiana, Notre Dame and Purdue, or even want it discontinued, is incomprehensible from here. Every year it seems these four deliver two games as good as can be asked for.
Among the things we learned on Saturday…
We learned that Malik Monk is not just a terrific scorer, but can fill it up against anyone. We also learned that even Kentucky’s defense can be singed for 100 in the new era of NBA Lite college basketball, where hands off on defense, a 30-second shot clock and endless ball screens mandate higher scores and increasingly reduce defense to a rumor when the top teams play.
We learned that Purdue’s guards can deliver in a big game. Notre Dame was not an easy matchup for the frontcourt-dominated Boilermakers, and while Caleb Swanigan and Vince Edwards posted big numbers (a combined 46 points and 20 rebounds), it was a move to a smaller lineup after the Fighting Irish built a 14-point halftime lead that helped key a big second-half surge.
We really shouldn’t have learned anything from Butler. The Bulldogs have been beating teams like Indiana for years, and in fact defeated Arizona just a few weeks ago. Still, if anyone overreacted after Butler’s recent loss at Indiana State (note that word: at, where more of these games should’ve been played yesterday too, as opposed to on neutral courts), the Bulldogs’ superb performance against Indiana provided a reality check: Butler is a top 20 team.
In fact, Butler should lead us to what was maybe the biggest lesson from Saturday: that teams can rise to the occasion when they play big games. Perhaps the very best example of this came in one of the first games of the day, as Georgetown and Syracuse renewed their Big East nostalgia trip series. The Hoyas are a team that looked awful at times earlier this year in games against teams from Wisconsin to Oklahoma State to Arkansas State, yet playing their rival on the road, came up with a satisfying 78-71 win over the Cuse.
- West Virginia coach Bob Huggins got his 800th career win on Sunday as the Mountaineers drilled Missouri-Kansas City 112-67. One of the true originals in the sport right now, Huggins is the 10th coach who has been at the NCAA Division I level to reach that number and the 20th coach overall among all levels. He has earned those wins at Walsh (Ohio), Akron, Cincinnati, Kansas State and WVU.
- Belmont’s trip to Wisconsin-Green Bay on Saturday was postponed due to a snowstorm working its way through the Midwest, and it was a good decision with a solid 8-10 inches in the Green Bay area.
- Kansas State whupped Colorado State 89-70 on Saturday for a nice win in a game played in Denver. The Wildcats did it without big men Isaiah Maurice and Dante Williams, as Maurice has been suspended indefinitely while Williams has chosen to transfer.
- The ancient ECAC MSG Holiday Festival-in its 64th year, making it the longest-running in-season event in the sport-features a doubleheader, opening with Penn State against St. John’s (11 a.m. Eastern, FS1). Fordham and Rutgers meet in the second game.
- If not watching the NFL, take a look at Tacko Fall and Central Florida hosting Miami (Ohio), which features Michael Weathers, second in the country among freshmen entering the weekend with an average of 20 ppg (Noon, ESPNU).
- Holy Cross at Rhode Island is a solid matchup with a lot of Northeast flavor, as is New Hampshire at Boston University, a meeting of former America East foes.
- IPFW at Stetson features current Mastodons coach Jon Coffman going against the school where he used to be an assistant.
- Fairfield goes to North Carolina State, and the Stags are a solid MAAC team that hasn’t played a team at the Wolfpack’s level yet. If they can hang, though, N.C. State has had a host of close shaves against teams like Fairfield.
- Gonzaga faces Tennessee in Nashville (4 p.m., ESPN2), and the Volunteers certainly can’t be discounted after nearly topping North Carolina last weekend.
- Clemson is at Alabama (4 p.m., ESPNU), and this isn’t a college football postseason game but an opportunity for both teams to pick up a win that would help a ton if they were on the proverbial bubble in March.
- Western Michigan takes a road trip to the Northwest to face Washington and Markelle Fultz.
Have a wonderful Sunday.