Five NCAA teams that got my attention this past weekend for various reasons:
1. Michigan State (7-3)
Considering the Detroit Pistons’ fall from NBA grace and Michigan State’s rise to NCAA elite, I’m not sure if Saturday’s doubleheader at The Palace of Auburn Hills was meant to showcase Pistons/Raptors as the main event or the undercard. Before the Pistons blew a 25-point lead and lost their game, the Spartans barely hung on to beat unranked Oakland. Senior guard Kalin Lucas, still rounding into shape following last season’s Achilles injury, dropped 25 points and hit some clutch shots late in the second half. A win’s a win, but with the Spartans’ three losses all coming to powerhouse programs (UConn, Duke, Syracuse), a blowout against a mid-major would do a lot to build confidence. This one shouldn’t have been a cakewalk — Oakland is an NCAA Tournament regular with an NBA prospect in big man Keith Benson (17 pts, 12 rebs, 3 blks), and The Palace is actually closer to their campus than MSU’s — and Tom Izzo admitted the Spartans looked tired. Some missed free throws and turnovers in the final minute kept Oakland in it right until the end. Michigan State has a much-needed week off before their next game.
2. Louisville (8-0)
For a young squad that lost three starters from last season, the Cardinals are fortunate to have a schedule that’s nowhere near as tough as Michigan State’s; Saturday’s matchup against UNLV was just Louisville’s second game against a ranked opponent (Butler was the other). Rick Pitino‘s team presses and traps and tries to get a lot of shots up, relying on creating turnovers and hitting threes, a system where one star may not emerge but rather everybody can shine. Senior guard Preston Knowles led the way against UNLV, scoring all 20 of his points in the second half, while backups Chris Smith (J.R. Smith‘s brother) and Kyle Kuric scored 17 apiece.
3. Memphis (7-1)
The Tigers didn’t have a game over the weekend, but were in the news thanks to two significant losses. Junior wing Wesley Witherspoon, the team’s leading scorer at 13.0 points per game, will miss five weeks following knee surgery. And junior forward Angel Garcia, who is averaging 6.1 points and 3.0 rebounds but had fallen out of the rotation lately, announced he’ll be leaving school to sign with a pro team in Spain. That only puts more pressure on freshmen guards Joe Jackson (10.8 ppg, 4.0 apg) and Will Barton (12.4 ppg) to grow up quickly. However, Memphis only plays two ranked teams, Georgetown and Tennessee, before it begins the Conference-USA schedule.
4. Marquette (7-3)
You can see the talent, depth and defense is there to make the Golden Eagles a dangerous team in March. But late-game execution is hurting them against good teams. In a five-point loss to Wisconsin on Saturday, Marquette shot themselves in the foot too many times. In the second half they had a chance to build some momentum when Wisconsin star Jon Leuer was on the bench in foul trouble, but couldn’t capitalize. After staging a late comeback, Marquette was down by three in the final seconds when senior PG Dwight Buycks and junior combo guard Darius Johnson-Odom appeared to miscommunicate on a hand-off and Buycks dribbled off his leg out of bounds. If Marquette doesn’t establish some rhythm in upcoming games against Centenary and Mississippi Valley State, they’ll have to do it against Vanderbilt, then in the Big East opener against West Virginia.
5. N.C. State (5-3)
While Duke’s Kyrie Irving is out injured, Ryan Harrow will make a push to get his share of hype as the best freshman point guard in the ACC. In a Saturday blowout of USC-Upstate, Harrow had 20 points (10-13 FG), 5 assists and 3 steals with zero turnovers. Harrow had been off to a fast start for the young Wolfpack, but since running into Georgetown’s tough, experienced backcourt on Nov. 21, Harrow had been in a slump, shooting 23 percent from the field over a four-game stretch and finding himself on the bench in crunch time. Coming off the bench against USC-Upstate, Harrow played more minutes than start Javier Gonzalez. The Wolfpack get Youngstown State next, then Arizona, then Harrow will test his mettle against Delaware State point Jay Threatt, a defensive pest who led the nation in steals last season.
5 GAMES TO WATCH THIS WEEK
* Kansas State vs. Florida — Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
* Texas vs. North Carolina — Saturday, 4 p.m. (CBS)
* Baylor vs. Gonzaga — Saturday, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
* Detroit at Central Michigan — Saturday, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)
* Virginia Tech vs. Mississippi State — Saturday, 8 p.m.