NCAA BK

Good news for tumbling top-10 teams

Doom and gloom for Syracuse after suffering first loss of season? Not so fast . . .
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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KANSAS CITY, Mo.

Saturday was a tough day for four of the top-10 teams in college basketball.

Third-ranked Syracuse started the fall for the mighty in an afternoon game at Madison Square Garden, losing to Temple 83-79.

As Temple’s Khalif Wyatt dropped a career-high 33 points on Syracuse, the Orange’s up-until-now red-hot point guard Michael Carter-Williams had one of his worst shooting performances, going 3 for 17 from the field and an ugly 7 for 15 from the foul line. This was against a Temple team coming off a 10-point loss to Canisius. This was not a good look for Syracuse.

“When you miss 15 free throws,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, fresh off his 900th career win, “it's tough to win any game.”

Next to take a tumble was seventh-ranked Ohio State.

To be fair, this top-10 team was playing another top-10 team, the ninth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks, so it was inevitable one would lose. But the Buckeyes were dominated despite playing in their home arena.

KU redshirt freshman Ben McLemore scored 22 points, including a TV highlight on an alley-oop. With a decent amount of NBA-lottery-pick buzz, he simply played in a different league compared to everyone else. Now, the Buckeyes head into their holiday break with a 74-66 loss on their minds, as well as a headache of worries over a lost shooting touch, with the team shooting less than 31 percent (20 for 65) against Kansas.

The next top-10 team to trip?

No. 10 Illinois, which entered the day as one of eight remaining unbeatens.

In their annual Braggin’ Rights game, the Illini were beaten by No. 12 Missouri. Despite Tigers playmaker Phil Pressey’s awful shooting night (3 for 19), he was able to add 11 assists, and Mizzou had nearly double the amount of rebounds as their opponent in an 82-73 win.

After the way the day had gone so far, Billy Donovan and his eighth-ranked Florida Gators must have wondered, as they stepped onto the Sprint Center court in Kansas City to face the unranked, unhyped Kansas State Wildcats, if the Mayans had something right. Maybe all this end-of-the-world madness was merely referring to the fate of this month’s most-hyped college hoops teams.

Sure enough, the Gators — who lost to Arizona a week ago in a game where they outplayed the Wildcats for 39 minutes before blowing it at the end — came out flat and eventually dropped a 67-61 decision.

The Gators were down 7-3 four minutes in. They were down 10 at the half. They were outhustled, outrebounded and, most surprisingly of all, outplayed on defense despite having the top-ranked defense in college basketball.

Kansas State’s Jordan Henriquez, in a heroic 18 minutes, blocked five shots and disrupted several more. The Gators’ thick, powerful center, Patric Young — another in a long line of Donovan’s elite big men, from David Lee to Al Horford to Joakim Noah — played a fine game, with 19 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks.

But along with the rest of the Gators, he was simply outclassed by a Kansas State team that simply seemed to want it more.

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Afterward, Donovan was asked if a 15-3 Kansas State run toward the end of the first half made the difference. He bristled.

“When a team’s energy level is much, much better than our team’s energy level, it doesn’t even matter to me what happens at the end of the half,” Donovan said. “That’s an issue for me as a coach. ... The reason they got a lead like they did was because their energy was much, much better, whether that be on the offensive glass, whether that was us making poor decisions, or them challenging shots in the lane, or them getting out on the break, or them doing a better job screening. Our energy level wasn’t good enough.”

This is the point where we must ask: How much do December losses matter for a top-10 caliber team?

Two years ago, UConn lost its first game of the season in late December. It lost two more in January, four more in February and then two more the first week of March. Then the Huskies ripped off an 11-game winning streak, which earned them the Big East tournament title and the national championship.

The key point: Six of UConn’s nine losses were against ranked teams. Losing to a very good team does something more to a team’s character than losing to a mediocre team. It teaches you to play against the best. It shows you your biggest weaknesses. It’s a way you can win by losing.

Right now it’s too early to tell which of Saturday’s four top-10 setbacks will be character builders for the losers.

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Maybe, Temple will turn out to be one of this season’s surprise teams, and Syracuse’s December loss to the Owls won’t be a big nick to the Orange’s esteem. But that’s doubtful: Three days earlier Temple lost to Canisius by 10. More likely, Boeheim will tell his young men that you can’t beat anyone if your best player can’t make shots, especially free throws.

Ohio State’s and Illinois’ losses were to teams that will be in the top 10 when the newest rankings come out this week. They were good losses, if there is such thing.

The Illinois-Mizzou game was a back-and-forth dogfight, with the Tigers overmatching the Illini on the boards 58-35.

In Columbus, Ohio, the Buckeyes hit a shooting drought as the Jayhawks were lighting it up. Right now, Kansas looks like it could beat any team in the country, with Jeff Withey’s post presence and McLemore’s video-game, cheat-code skills.

But Donovan’s and the Gators’ explanation for their K-State loss seemed to indicate their Saturday defeat was the most concerning. It was as if they just didn’t want it enough. Desire can be a difficult thing to coach into players.

“They definitely wanted the game more than us,” Young said afterward.

Added guard Kenny Boynton, “We got a good team this year. We got two bad losses that could have been prevented.

“If we come to play a full 40 minutes, if we bring our intensity the whole game and play the full 40 minutes, I think nobody can beat us. We came to Arizona, played 38 . . . the last two we gave up the lead. We need to work on pushing through when we get tired. That’s the main thing.”

There’s no way of knowing what team’s success in December will convert to success in March. You can find hints here and there, but who could have predicted in December a year ago the amazing March run by Donovan’s mentor, Louisville coach Rick Pitino?

If there’s any coach who can bring more desire to this hugely talented Florida squad, it’s Donovan. He’s a guy who performed a minor miracle when he came to the basketball program in Gainesville at a football school which had only made its first NCAA tournament in 1987 and its first Final Four in 1994.


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In Donovan’s 16-plus years as Florida coach, his Gators have made the NCAA tournament 12 times. In 2005 and 2006 he became the first coach since Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski in 1991 and 1992 to win back-to-back national titles. Donovan is bringing in a top-10 recruiting class next year. But this year’s squad has no shortage of five-star talent with a swarming defense that was outclassed by Kansas State Saturday, but still is the class of the nation.

It speaks to Donovan’s singular focus as a coach that, after three fumbled inbounds passes in the final minute cost Florida the game a week ago against Arizona, he devoted the entire practice the following day to the inbounds pass.

That’s the sort of focus he’ll need to get this team back on track after its stumble into the holiday break. Focus, plus a little bit of context, and a little bit of patience.

It’s only December. What really matters is what happens in March.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Arizona, Illinois, Florida, Ohio, Temple, Syracuse, Kansas State, Kansas, Patric Young

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