#4 Louisville 95, Memphis 87
This game was played at a frenetic pace, with plenty of steals, layups and dunks. Both teams were poor at half court offense, but both were lethal in transition. It was the type of sloppy game that often makes your cringe, but still provides loads of entertainment value. This game had a mind-boggling 23 steals, 17 blocks and 83 free throw attempts. If there was a difference between these two teams it was the Louisville depth. The Cardinals had seven different players in double-digits. Memphis, instead, was reliant on Will Barton and Joe Jackson creating all of their offense. Will Barton was the best player on the floor, but he didn't get enough help. The Memphis front court is just an offensive black hole this season, and that could be trouble as Conference USA teams adapt to them throughout the season.
Louisville rolls to 10-0 now with wins over Vanderbilt, Memphis and Long Beach State. Their final difficult game before beginning Big East play will be Tuesday against Charleston. There's no question that they'll be a top contender in the Big East. Syracuse is still my pick, but Louisville is probably their top challenger. It's worth noting that Louisville also has a game against Kentucky on December 31st, after starting Big East play against Georgetown on the 28th.
Memphis falls to 5-4, though they have wins over Miami and Belmont, and no losses against teams likely to finish outside the RPI Top 100. Also, every loss other than the loss to Michigan was very close in the final minute, so they've been a little unlucky (balancing out the fact that they were quite lucky last season - the main reason they started this season overrated in the polls). They still have games against Georgetown, Xavier, Charlotte and Tennessee, so they'll have more chances for good wins. The Georgetown game is up first, on Thursday. They will open Conference USA play on January 7th at UAB.
UNLV 64, #19 Illinois 48
Despite this game being "at" Illinois (it was actually played in the United Center, rather than Assembly Hall), this wasn't much of an upset. UNLV has, honestly, played better than Illinois this season, even before this game. They were only 1.5 point underdogs in Vegas, despite the virtual home court advantage for Illinois.
UNLV came in with a good game plan. Illinois has had success this season with Sam Maniscalco at the point and Meyers Leonard in the paint. UNLV focused their defense on shutting those two down, and dared the other Illini to beat them. They did not, shooting a horrid 23.7% on two-pointers. UNLV had 9 blocks, and misdirected countless others.
UNLV moves to 11-2 with wins over North Carolina, Illinois and UCSB. Their only losses have been true road losses at Wisconsin and Wichita State. It's definitely a Tournament-quality resume, and they've been my pick since April to win the Mountain West. Their next game will be Monday against Louisiana-Monroe. Their final quality opponent before beginning Mountain West play will be California, on Friday.
Illinois came into this game 10-0, but with only one really nice win (Gonzaga). They got themselves ranked through the classic inertia - they beat up on cupcakes and moved up the rankings every time a team ahead of them lost. In my opinion, Illinois is not a contender atop the Big Ten. Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan are clearly a step ahead. They will get a chance to make a splash on Thursday, when they play Missouri. The Illini will open Big Ten play December 27th against Minnesota.
#1 Syracuse 88, North Carolina St 72
The one thing that really stands out about this Syracuse team is how aggressive and uptempo they are on offense. Their scoring has always been driven by transition offense off of Jim Boeheim's suffocating zone. But this year's team attacks with the same reckless abandon even after a made basket. And they've got the athletes and scorers to do it. The incredible 23-0 run they went on late in the first half (which only took about five minutes of game time) was like a blur. I'm not sure if I've seen any team this season go on a roll like that - it was incredible to watch.
While Syracuse hasn't earned that #1 ranking with their play on the floor, I would say that they're a Top Five team and the favorite in the Big East (as they were preseason). They have a couple of home games coming up next week against Bucknell and Tulane, but their main focus at this point will be on Big East play. Win the regular season and the conference tournament and they'll be a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament - it's that easy.
NC State played pretty well in this game, but they just had some inexplicable stretches where they couldn't do anything right. That's been kind of a signature for them this season after those disastrous losses in the final minutes against both Indiana and Stanford. They don't have any "bad" losses yet this season, but that fluke win over Texas is their only quality win and they've fallen to 6-4. This is also a down year for the ACC, so they won't have as large of a margin of error as they usually have. Their next game will be Tuesday against St. Bonaventure. They open ACC play on January 8th against Maryland.