#7 Villanova 83, #3 Syracuse 72
Kris Joseph was back for this game (and actually led all scorers with 23 points), and Syracuse rarely ever loses at home, so Villanova shocked a lot of people by winning this one. The key, without question, was a hot shooting start (they hit 7 of their first 11 behind the arc) that got them up 29-17 early. "A key is getting out to a good start" is such an analyst cliche that I hate using it - at least until some coach decides that a slow start where his team is losing is the way he wants to begin a game - but my point is just that it is so hard to come back on Syracuse. The Orange have such a suffocating defense, and are so good at converting turnovers and long rebounds into easy transition baskets, that they tend to demoralize teams when playing from the lead. But when Syracuse is playing from behind and forced to create offense in the half court? They tend to be very stagnant. Villanova doesn't have a frontcourt that can handle Syracuse's bigs, but the Nova backcourt dominated. The Two Coreys and Maalik Wayns combined for 53 points on 15-for-31 shooting while all Syracuse guards combined for 22 points on 8-for-32 shooting. Syracuse could go to Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph for baskets, but those two weren't explosive enough to overcome that large deficit. For Villanova, this win validates them as a legitimate Big East title threat. The conference seems to be between Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Villanova and Louisville, with Pitt being the favorite. This win moves Villanova into second place at 5-1. They still will have to play Syracuse at home and also will have two games against Pittsburgh. Their next game will be Wednesday night at Providence, and then they'll be home next Saturday against Georgetown. For Syracuse, this loss is devastating to their hopes of a Big East title. They now have two losses with road games against Villanova, Louisville, Georgetown and UConn remaining. That said, this loss only drops them to 8-2 against the RPI Top 100, with their only two losses this season coming against RPI Top 10 teams. If the season ended now they'd be a 2 or 3 seed in the Tournament. They next play at home against Seton Hall on Tuesday night, and next Saturday they'll head to Marquette, another team that has little post presence but has excellent guard play and can get hot from behind the arc.
#1 Ohio State 73, #22 Illinois 68
Ohio State came into this game #1 in the nation, but with a ton of questions. They have played a soft schedule and had a number of very close finishes. Their last five games have been mostly against the basement of the Big Ten (Penn State, Michigan, Iowa [twice] and Minnesota) and four of those five games were decided by five points or less. Illinois came into this game 10-0 at home for the season, and was going to be by far Ohio State's biggest test so far. And by no means was this a dominating performance, but Jared Sullinger was a beast. He had 16 rebounds and earned 15 free throw attempts, hitting 13 of them. He is drawing 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes played and he managed to get both Mike Tisdale and Meyers Leonard in serious foul trouble in this game. Illinois did get a nice game from Jereme Richmond off the bench (18 points, 10 rebounds), and will have to feel good that they could get a terrible performance from Demetri McCamey (2-for-11 from the field, 4 turnovers) and hung this close with the #1 team in the country. But with McCamey struggling their offense really got stagnant, and this is a huge missed opportunity for them. Illinois is, for all intents and purposes, out of the Big Ten title race. Ohio State is the heavy favorite now, and if they do stumble down the stretch the top contenders are now Purdue and Wisconsin (Michigan State can join that discussion if they upset Purdue tonight). But Illinois is 7-5 against the RPI Top 100 with wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State, Gonzaga, North Carolina and Maryland. They have that one terrible loss to Illinois-Chicago, but the Selection Committee has shown repeatedly that they'll overlook one bad loss for a team with a bunch of big wins. Illinois would only have something like a 6-8 Tournament seed if the season ended now, but they could slide up easily with as many quality wins as there are to be had in the Big Ten. The Illini head on an easy stretch now, with a road game at Indiana followed by a home game against Penn State.
#8 Connecticut 72, Tennessee 61
Tennessee actually led this game for most of the first half, but their shooting really evaporated in the second half. UConn, as always, has a bunch of trees in the paint that block a lot of shots, and they're brutally tough to score against in there (they came into this game with the third best two-point shooting percentage against in the nation: 39.8%). The problem is, Tennessee doesn't have a lot of outside shooters, and they were particularly cold in this game. This was a one point game with 11:30 left in the second half, but from that point forward Tennessee shot 12 jumpers and hit 2 of them. That's just not the formula against UConn. For their part, UConn actually had a hot shooting night. They've only hit 33% behind the arc on the season but hit 9-for-19 here. So while one would normally say that UConn should be disappointed needing such a dramatic shooting disparity to overcome a team at home that has already lost to Oakland, Charlotte, Arkansas, Charleston and USC this season, the fact is that Tennessee is such a Jekyl and Hyde team that it's impossible to come to conclusions like that. Remember, the Vols have already beaten Pittsburgh and Villanova this season. UConn is now 4-2 in the Big East and they enter a key stretch. They will play at Marquette on Tuesday, and then have consecutive home games against Louisville and Syracuse. I don't see them seriously contending for a Big East title, but if they can somehow win all three of those games they will be right in the thick of things. Tennessee is now 12-7 with five losses against teams outside the RPI Top 60. But they do have those two big wins and their RPI is a ridiculous 18th because of their tough schedule. That said, the RPI is always skewed by tough schedules, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS coming into this game was a more realistic 41st. If the season ended now they would be in the 8-11 seed range. They have a soft schedule ahead against LSU, Ole Miss, Auburn and Alabama.