Spartans show resilience in Indiana win, Texas buzzer-beater sinks K-State; more Tuesday hoops
No. 3 Michigan State 71, Indiana 66: How often does a top-five, undefeated-through-seven-Big-Ten-games team look like it’s treading on such thin ice? This is not to say that the Spartans are overrated, or not one of the nation’s elite teams when healthy — they most certainly are. But with a roster riddled with injuries, six more weeks of a notoriously grueling conference grind still to come, and two of their most recent wins requiring overtime at home — first after blowing a 17-point lead to a now-free falling Ohio State, then against a not-quite-proven Minnesota team — it seems like something has to give in East Lansing sooner or later, even if just for a night.
But not yet. Even with power forward Adreian Payne out for his fourth straight game with a sprained foot and likely All-America point guard Keith Appling adding back and wrist ailments to his already aching shoulder, the Spartans withstood a (mostly) “on” effort from on-and-off Indiana, which in the past week had knocked off then-No. 3 Wisconsin and lost to Northwestern. The Hoosiers flirted with the upset for much of the game thanks to freshman Noah Vonleh, who thrived inside thanks to Payne’s absence, piling up nine points and six rebounds in the first half as the offense flowed through him in the post. So integral was he to Indiana’s offense that when Tom Crean pulled him for a quick breather early in the second half, some of the Hoosier Twitterverse grew deeply concerned.
But Vonleh was not quite as effective after the break — he had four points and five boards in the second half — and with Yogi Ferrell’s shooting struggles (he finished 4-of-13 from the floor, though he was 9-of-10 from the line) and Will Sheehey unavailable due to an ankle injury, the Hoosiers were unable to compensate. As they went exactly seven minutes without a field goal, their opponents got key play after key play from the healthy supporting cast of Denzel Valentine (who had six points, two rebounds, and a steal during that stretch), Branden Dawson (who had five points and four boards in that same time), and Gary Harris (who scored 20 of his game-high 24 points after halftime). Even after Indiana hit a three to end the drought, Michigan State had turned a two-point deficit into a seven-point lead with less than three minutes left.
That it took so long for the Spartans to stage such a rally is a bit concerning, as is how out-of-sync their offense looked for nearly all of the game before that. But considering how shorthanded they have been, and how they keep answering the bell regardless, the March ceiling of a fully-functioning Michigan State team is very, very high — even if, with games against Michigan and Iowa in the next week and those injuries refusing to go away, the ground beneath them is ripe to give way a bit in the meantime.
Texas 67, No. 22 Kansas State 64: A couple odd sequences brought things to a thrilling finish in Austin. The first came just moments before the opening tip, when the Longhorns’ Javan Felix and Jonathan Holmes were required by officials to change their undershirts – right there on the court, in front of a bunch of strangers. The second came in the final four seconds with the score tied, when Texas coach Rick Barnes called a timeout before Felix could launch a too-early 35-footer, then followed that with a second timeout just two seconds after the ball was inbounded from the first one. Then, with 1.9 seconds left, Isaiah Taylor found Holmes in the corner for the game’s final shot:
Whatever the greatest influence on that play — the comforting feel of Holmes’s regulation undergarments, an apt play call in the (second) huddle, a slight lapse from K-State big man Thomas Gipson giving Holmes the space for a clean look — the result means that in a season when many had him fired before the opening game, Rick Barnes has the Longhorns back in the NCAA tournament conversation. While Holmes, their second leading scorer on the season, had just five points before the game-winning trey, Felix (23 points) propped up the offense with solid mid-range shooting and sophomore big, big man Cameron Ridley had 18 points and three blocks. Beating offensively-challenged K-State at home does not a resume make, but it looks nice when paired with last week’s win over Iowa State, and in a strong Big 12 Texas will have plenty of opportunities for more quality wins. Next up is a trip to Baylor, whose lone conference win thus far is over lowly TCU.
No. 14 Kentucky 68, Texas A&M 51: With oddly named Winter Storm Janus passing through the Bluegrass State, Aggies coach Billy Kennedy tried to dissuade Kentucky fans from heading to Rupp Arena in the name of safety.
Snow in Lexington , ky. Probably a good night for Kentucky fans to stay off the roads.
— Billy Kennedy (@Coach_Kennedy) January 21, 2014
It didn’t seem to work, but even if it did, it’s unlikely it would have helped much. The Wildcats dominated the glass against Texas A&M’s four-guard lineup, grabbing 31 defensive rebounds compared to the Aggies’ six offensive boards. Leading the rebounding charge were a quartet of freshmen: Julius Randle, whose 13 points and 11 rebounds gave him his SEC-best 11th double-double; guards Andrew Harrison (eight) and James Young (seven); and reserve center Dakari Johnson (seven).
But it was a sophomore, forward Alex Poynthress, who came off the bench to lead all scorers with 16 points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field and 8-of-9 from the charity stripe. The total marked a season-high during a campaign where his dip in minutes (from 25.8 per game as a freshman last season to 19.3 this year) has coincided with drops in field goal percentage (58.1% to 50.6%), three-point shooting (42.4% to 28.6%) and free-throw rate (57.6% to 36.7%). Tuesday’s performance was a throwback to Poynthress’s much more effective rookie year. If he can provide that type of vintage performance more consistently, these Wildcats — already clearly Florida’s lone company in the SEC’s top tier — should find their way back into the top 10 soon.
No. 20 Pittsburgh 76, Clemson 43: This was a statement game for Clemson, and that statement was not good. After riding a top-10 defense to a 4-1 start in ACC play that included a double-digit win over Duke, the Tigers went to Pittsburgh looking to prove they belonged in ACC contention. A drubbing like this in which said defense gives up 76 points on 56.3% shooting makes such notions unlikely, though given how soft the ACC underbelly is, Clemson will have the opportunity to rack up enough wins to push for a tourney bid. How seriously the Panthers should be taken nationally is still unclear, given how they have dropped their only two real tests (to Cincinnati in an ugly December scrap at Madison Square Garden, and at Syracuse last week). Home dates against Duke and Virginia over the next two weeks should help give a better idea.
Florida Atlantic 68, Harvard 53: Here lies talk of the Ivy League’s first-ever at-large bid. Not that such a scenario was likely, relying as it does on Harvard building a tourney-quality resume while taking the in-league losses required to lose the conference’s regular-season (and only) championship. But any chance the Crimson had of doing the former is surely gone after losing decisively to a 7-12 Conference USA team that has dropped games to St. Francis (NY), Detroit, Stony Brook, DePaul, Stetson, Elon, and Old Dominion. The good news: If Harvard is going to come out this flat, better to do it in the last recess from conference play than during it.