Friday afternoon's meeting between #7 Duke and #13 Connecticut had all the pregame hype of a championship bout. With the all-time series tied at four wins apiece (Connecticut having won the last four meetings) this was seen as the latest chapter in the short yet captivating novel being written by these two national powers. But by the end of the game it felt as if this were a hardwood replay of Manny Pacquiao soundly whipping Miguel Cotto.
The Huskies made their run early, swapping blows with the Blue Devils to the delight of an energized crowd at Madison Square Garden. However, it was their rebounding and foul shooting that did in the Huskies, who fell to Duke 68-59 in the title game of the NIT Season Tip-Off. The game, which made history before the tip thanks to a combined 1,647 victories for the two head coaches, featured ninety missed shots and ninety-seven rebounds. Duke won the rebounding battle 56-43, grabbing twenty-five offensive rebounds to the Huskies twenty-nine defensive rebounds, an effort that UConn head coach Jim Calhoun noted hadn't happened to his program since Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo did it at Georgetown.
For Duke four players grabbed at least seven rebounds (Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas grabbed eleven apiece) while the Huskies had no player with more than five outside of freshman Alex Oriakhi (thirteen rebounds). Connecticut seemed to forget about the lengthy boxing out drills they went through in the days leading up to their 81-55 beating of LSU on Wednesday and Duke was able to attack the boards and limit the Huskies' run outs following the first television timeout. Jon Scheyer, who was named MVP of the tournament, led the victors with nineteen points while Jerome Dyson paced Connecticut with fifteen.
And with the play of guys such as Zoubek, Thomas, Scheyer, Nolan Smith and freshman Andre Dawkins the Blue Devils didn't look "alarmingly unathletic" as ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb pointed out in their win over Arizona State. This was a good litmus test for both teams, providing lessons that can be applied in both the short and long term.
Three Key Happenings
1. Another good day for the Big East. The league that many expected to take a step back following the loss of many headline talents just keeps on winning. The day started with Marquette knocking off #15 Michigan in the Old Spice Classic, moving on to Sunday's final where they will play Florida State. Senior Lazar Hayward paced the Golden Eagles with twenty-two points in the 79-65 victory. Things got better with #8 West Virginia hanging on to beat Texas A&M in the 76 Classic thanks to a pair of late defensive plays from Devin Ebanks.
They'll face Portland on Sunday night in the final in Anaheim. Also picking up wins in tournaments were Rutgers (UMass in the Legends Classic) and St. John's (Siena in the Philly Hoop Group Classic). The Big East may not have the star power of last year's edition but they've picked up some good results early in the season. It will be interesting to see if the league build upon this momentum as 2009 comes to a close.
2. Florida picks up a good win. The Gators now have the chance to close out their week with a trophy thanks to their 77-74 victory over #2 Michigan State at the Legends Classic in Atlantic City. A tight game throughout, Florida won despite losing the battle on the boards 38-20 and allowing the Spartans to shoot 52.5% from the field. Two numbers why: 22 turnovers forced and 20% shooting from behind the arc. Florida was also helped by the fact that they enjoyed a margin of +12 at the foul line. Five players reached double figures on the night, led by Chandler Parsons' 14 off the bench.
The Gators are now playing together due to their lack of star power, and Billy Donovan's team has looked committed to sharing the ball thus far. That could make all the difference between a return to the NCAA Tournament and going to the NIT this year.
3. Portland should be ranked come Monday. Regardless of what happens in their game with #8 West Virginia on Sunday night Eric Reveno's Pilots should be in the Top 25. The latest victim: Minnesota, who fell to Portland 61-56 in a 76 Classic semifinal in Anaheim. Guard T.J. Campbell scored twenty-three points off the bench in the win, and Portland made up for nineteen turnovers and a relatively cold night from the field (39.1%) by outrebounding the taller Golden Gophers 39-28.
Minnesota also didn't help themselves from the charity stripe, making just thirteen of twenty-two attempts. Portland beat UCLA with their offensive execution and turned around to beat Minnesota with rebounding and defense on a night in which their shots weren't falling. That's a good sign for the team picked to finish second in the WCC.
Top Three Games
1. Utah 60, #21 Illinois 58 The Utes came back from a 16-point deficit thanks to sixteen points from Luka Drca, and they'll face Oklahoma State in the title game of the Las Vegas Invitational.
2. Florida 77, #2 Michigan State 74 See above.
3. Richmond 63, Mississippi State 62 The Spiders took out the Bulldogs thanks to a Kevin Anderson basket with under thirty seconds remaining in the game. The Bulldogs are now 0-2 this season against schools whose name begins with the letter "R".
Three Notable Performances
1. G Brandon Wood (Valparaiso) Wood scored thirty-nine points and grabbed nine rebounds in the Crusaders' 97-89 win over Georgia Southern.
2. G James Florence (Mercer) Florence lit up Georgia Tech in a losing effort, scoring forty points in the 85-74 defeat.
3. G Tommy Hubbard (East Tennessee State) Hubbard posted a double-double with thirty-two points and ten rebounds in the Buccaneers' 94-85 win over Arkansas in the South Padre Island Invitational.