Kansas, Kentucky, UConn bounce back while North Carolina falls
On Wednesday, a water main broke on Connecticut’s campus. A large portion of one of the main arteries that delivers fans to Gampel Pavilion, North Eagleville Road, was shut down and a laboratory building flooded. A contractor installing a utility pole caused the damage.
Fitting, then, that Connecticut had issues because of digging a hole.
Fitting, then, that the evening was about plugging a very sizeable leak.
So it went actually, in different ways and places, for Connecticut, Kansas and Kentucky. A series of bounce-back moments for a trio of marquee names somewhat hovering just below relevancy at the midpoint of the college basketball season , the first two redeeming themselves just in time for challenging stretches and the last one preventing a faceplant before it happened.
And then there was the most poignant recovery of all, nearly out of sight Wednesday: Georgia coach Mark Fox, head bowed and crying into his hands, attempting to process an overtime upset of Missouri after burying his father just one day earlier. The Bulldogs ended the Tigers’ nation-best 26-game home win streak, though the semantics hardly mattered.
“My Dad was a real tough son of a gun,” Fox said after the 70-64 win. “I got a little emotional in the first half and I caught myself. I thought, ‘I am going to get my butt chewed when I get home.’ I just tried to compose myself and keep our team on the right path.”
And then there is the matter of North Carolina, which veers this way and that and lost 63-57 to Miami and makes our head hurt, so more on that later.
Had it come to pass, Connecticut’s might have been the least forgiving flop, never mind the best Harvard start since World War II and the Crimson being more than formidable. They were also a little less capable on Wednesday, with leading scorer Wesley Saunders sitting out with a knee injury that will keep him idle indefinitely, per coach Tommy Amaker’s postgame media debriefing.
What was very serious was just how Harvard would limit Shabazz Napier without Saunders, as that was going to be his job. And then Connecticut and Napier did a fine job limiting themselves in the first half, committing 11 turnovers. Napier contributed three of those miscues, hit just two field goals, and the Huskies faced a five-point deficit at the break.
A team that had lost two straight on a swing through the Texas schools of the American Athletic Conference simply could not suffer a stumble against a team weakened at precisely the spot vulnerable to Napier and Ryan Boatright. And it didn’t, clamping down defensively to wrest control back midway through the second half and then getting back-to-back 3-pointers from Napier late once Harvard had cut it to two late. When the Crimson had a chance to tie with nine seconds left, a final, aggressive smothering of the perimeter ensured they would not. Siyani Chambers introduced himself to everyone with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting for Harvard. But the 61-56 win and a visit from Central Florida should get Connecticut feeling right for showdowns against Memphis and Louisville that follow.
“Our recovery is getting better,” Huskies coach Kevin Ollie said after the game. “Down in Houston, we couldn’t recover in a couple of instances, but we recovered tonight. Every run they had, every three-pointer they had, we challenged them and we played our type of basketball.”
Kansas, meanwhile, had its offensive problems solved by basically not playing San Diego State. The Jayhawks shot 54.7 percent and hit 8 of 16 3-pointers, which is what happens when you play the Aztecs one game and then face the defensive equivalent of tissue paper the next. (Oklahoma came in ranked No. 176 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com.)
Not all was peachy in a 90-83 win, starting with that 83 part for the Sooners and the 32 points from Oklahoma’s Cameron Clark, who has become very good at basketball all of the sudden. But a loss would have been two in a row spinning into a stretch of Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Baylor. The encouragement came from freshman Wayne Selden leading the way with a career-best 24 points, including five bombs from long range, and Perry Ellis contributing 22 points and 11 rebounds. Conspicuously absent in this discussion are Andrew Wiggins (2-of-9 shooting) and Joel Embiid (six points), but a road win with some other hands slashing the way through the weeds isn’t a bad thing at all.
Kentucky didn’t have any real problems except not playing an actual basketball game since Dec. 28. In between, coach John Calipari thoroughly exercised his crew in what was dubbed “Camp Cal.” After the first half against Mississippi State on Wednesday, one wondered if the next activity at Camp Cal involved bloodletting merit badges.
The Wildcats were down 10 early and down three at the break before razing the Bulldogs in the second half for an 85-63 win. Plenty to moan about with the 4-of-20 shooting from three-point range and the 12 missed free throws and seven turnovers combined for the Harrison twins. Kentucky now has three straight wins, including one over Louisville, so maybe the Wildcats are getting better as expected. The start Wednesday leaves just enough room to wonder.
“They hit some shots early and we were missing a lot of shots,” Wildcats swingman Alex Poythress said afterward. “We should have been more focused on defense. That’s how we gave up 40 points in the first half and that’s way too much. In the second half we started guarding, started defending. Offense will take care of itself.”
Speaking of wondering: North Carolina will either win the national title or shut down the program in the middle of a game this season. There can be no other result, not for a team that has beaten Louisville and Michigan State and Kentucky and has lost to Belmont and Alabama-Birmingham and now has lost two straight to start ACC play, first at Wake Forest and then at home on Wednesday to Miami, which was 8-6 coming in.
The Tar Heels were alternately valiantly explosive and inexplicably sloppy, a description just about comprising affairs for the entire 2013-14 season. Put entirely into one stat line: Miami’s Erik Swoope averaged 1.6 points per game entering Wednesday. He hadn’t scored in double figures once. He had 14 against North Carolina, including a critical three-point play that created a 10-point lead with less than three minutes to play.
North Carolina set a season-low for scoring. Now it visits No. 2 Syracuse on Saturday. Let the Boeheim beware.