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The Morning Dish – Thursday, January 5, 2017

January 5, 2017 Columns No Comments

There’s a whole lot of the 2016-17 college basketball season left, but there won’t be a lot more regular season dates more captivating than Wednesday night was across the national landscape.

The top-ranked team went down. Number two very nearly did, too. Five ranked teams lost, including both higher-ranked teams in matchups of ranked squads. One ranked team lost by 26 points.

And that was just inside the top 25, and doesn’t count that a number of other leagues-the Big West, Mountain West and SWAC among them-staged important games that likely will go a long way toward tournament seeding in March. And all of this was on a night that was busy, but still far from packed with games.

We’re only on the fifth day of 2017? There’s plenty more to come. Among the many things we absorbed from Wednesday:

Butler may have more Final Fours in its future. We won’t go so far as to predict it this year, but that’s the kind of program that has been built now with the Bulldogs. More than just a curiosity or a solid back-end top 25 squad, Butler is a national contender, good enough to beat absolutely anyone, as shown again last night when handing top-ranked and defending champion Villanova its first loss of the year by a 66-58 score. The Bulldogs finally did what so many other teams have been unable to do this year, making more plays down the stretch than the indomitable Wildcats. This doesn’t mean Butler isn’t susceptible to the occasional loss to Indiana State or St. John’s-it is-but the ceiling for this team, and this program, continues to be very, very high.

Baylor could be ranked No. 1 next week. The Bears stayed undefeated-barely-by edging Iowa State 65-63 as Manu Lecomte hit the game-winner with eight seconds left. This game was hardly a ringing endorsement of Baylor as a top-ranked squad, even as the Cyclones are obviously no pushover. Still, Scott Drew’s team is now 14-0 and has more than enough marquee wins to be worthy of every high ranking it gets. Now, if the Bears would just do something about the highlighter uniforms…the school has had a classy look for decades with the green and gold, yet too often of late just looks insecure and like its trying way too hard.

The ACC really may be as good as the hype. We don’t like to admit it, because the hype before the season sounded over-the-top, especially with much of it coming from a college hoops media stacked with ACC alums. So far, though, everything is breaking in ways that indicates this league is stacked from top to bottom. Pittsburgh knocked off Virginia in overtime 88-76 for a badly needed marquee win. North Carolina State drubbed newly ranked Virginia Tech 104-78, with Dennis Smith delivering a triple-double (27 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists). Smith may well be the best freshman yet in a talented group across the country. Notre Dame stopped Louisville 77-70, cementing the Fighting Irish as a top 25 team. Even Syracuse earned a much-needed victory with a 70-55 defeat of Miami (Fla.). In short: almost every one of the teams that was something of a question mark or worse before the season (Clemson, N.C. State, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, even Georgia Tech to an extent) is so far performing better than we would’ve suggested anyone reasonably expecting, while Syracuse may be the lone example of a team playing below expectations. Those 10-11 NCAA bids some are touting still will not be easy to achieve, because as we regularly mention, someone has to lose in all these conference games coming up. But it’s safe to say that, early in the season, just about everyone in the league, with only a few exceptions, looks good enough to finish in the top half of the conference if it can steal a road win or two. And that says a whole lot.

But that situation at Duke is some kind of sticky. Yesterday answered the question of just how long an ‘indefinite’ suspension lasts on the campus in Durham, N.C. The answer is one game, as in that’s how many games Grayson Allen missed during his indefinite hiatus before returning last night in Duke’s 110-57 destruction of Georgia Tech. (North Carolina just lost to the Yellow Jackets???) In some fairness, that number is misleading because the Dukies had only played one game since Dec. 22, the day he was suspended, so the time he was out was actually closer to two weeks. Also, can anyone blame Mike Krzyzewski if he made this move with now-interim coach Jeff Capel in mind, bringing Allen back so Capel didn’t have to deal with endless questions about when Allen would return? Still, this is another reminder that Duke isn’t the place to look for a moral compass in college basketball, which became readily apparent about the time the program chose to embrace one-and-done players with open arms, disregarding its pristine academic reputation to wholeheartedly chase players with little-to-no scholarly intentions.

SMU continues to get a lot of mileage out of a thin rotation. The Mustangs dumped Temple 79-67 last night for their ninth straight win. This is a team that regularly strains to go seven deep-only one reserve played more than five minutes off the bench last night, and the two backups who played accounted for a combined three points. And that might well have been even less if Sterling Brown hadn’t been in foul trouble much of the second half and fouled out with more than five minutes left. Still, SMU’s starting five-Brown, Jarrey Foster, Shake Milton, Ben Moore and Semi Ojeleye-is holding down the fort. This is something of a throwback team, as in a throwback to the 1950s or 60s, controlling tempo and leaning very, very heavily on five players. It will be interesting to see how far the starting five can take this team.

The chase for second in the Missouri Valley will be more fun than many think. Illinois State held off Missouri State 74-71 in overtime to join Wichita State (a 90-65 winner over Drake last night) as the only two teams at 3-0 in the Valley. This one was a lot of fun, a barnburner that was a one-possession game for almost the entire second half. The Bears may have lost, but are increasingly proving to be a tough out, as witnessed here by their 14 three-pointers and battling the athletic Redbirds to a draw on the boards in this one. Coach Paul Lusk has raised the talent level for MSU, and both of these teams are good enough to at push Wichita State in their meetings later this year in the MVC.

Side Dishes:

  • Oregon continued to roll with an 83-61 win at Washington. The big story was Ducks guard Tyler Dorsey, who drilled eight three-pointers, leading the Quack Attack to a 14-for-26 performance from the half-moon line. That’s more like the offense many expected of Oregon this year.
  • Perhaps one of the most significant results of the night was South Carolina going on the road in the SEC and winning at Georgia 67-61. Sindarius Thornwell returned from his suspension and scored 19 points while adding 11 rebounds, six steals and three blocks, but P.J. Dozier also continued to emerge with 24 points.
  • Creighton won at St. John’s 85-72 behind 25 points and nine rebounds from freshman center Justin Patton. Also in the Big East, Providence topped Georgetown 76-70. The Hoyas are now 0-3 in league play and have slipped to 8-7 overall.
  • Nevada held off San Diego State 72-69 in the first battle between the two predicted top teams in the Mountain West. Jeremy Hemsley scored 30 for the Aztecs, but he received little help (other than Max Hoetzel’s 15, no one else scored more than six points). The Wolf Pack are currently the more balanced team, and the slightly better team.
  • UC Irvine defeated Long Beach State 82-67 in the latest installment of the underrated Black and Blue Rivalry. The big news for the Anteaters is Luke Nelson is finally back, and he scored 16 points in his second game after missing UCI’s first 15 games with a hamstring injury. With his return, Irvine looks to be a solid favorite in a rebuilding year in the Big West.
  • Texas Southern and Southern have staged some terrific battles in recent years in the SWAC, and the Mike Davis-led Tigers earned the road win in their latest edition with an 82-74 victory.

Tonight’s Menu:

  • The danger of Purdue’s losing at home to Minnesota last weekend is now the Boilermakers could wind up on a losing streak if they don’t win at Ohio State tonight (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN).
  • Just because we enjoy this matchup so much: St. Francis (N.Y.) is at St. Francis (Pa.). An even bigger game in the Northeast Conference has favorites Fairleigh Dickinson and Wagner playing on CBS Sports Network (9 p.m.).
  • Slow meets fast as Old Dominion goes to Marshall. Also in Conference USA, Rice has a chance to make a statement as a contender when it hosts Middle Tennessee State. This may be the biggest home game for the Owls in 15 years, maybe even since their Southwest Conference days.
  • Two unsung quality teams in the Southern Conference square off when Furman plays at Samford.
  • Solid game in the Summit League where gritty IUPUI is at North Dakota State.
  • Later TV games include Iowa at Nebraska (9 p.m., Big Ten Network), with the Cornhuskers possessing a golden opportunity to build more momentum. An even bigger game has Minnesota at Northwestern (9 p.m., ESPNU), and who ever would’ve thought a game between these two would be one of the best of a night?
  • In the Pac-12, California is at UCLA (9 p.m., ESPN), Utah plays at Arizona (10 p.m., FS1) and Stanford goes to USC.
  • Gonzaga takes to the road to face the San Francisco team that played so well in the Diamond Head Classic (9 p.m., ESPN2).
  • Finally, end the night with a good one out west as always-entertaining BYU goes to always-efficient Saint Mary’s in an important WCC game (11 p.m., ESPNU).

Wishing all an enjoyable 12th day of Christmas.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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