DATE: Wednesday, Jan. 7
A+ — Illinois
When Illinois lost do-everything star Rayvonte Rice for up-to-six weeks on Tuesday because of a fractured left hand, I was one of many who questioned whether the Illini could weather that injury successfully enough to still remain in NCAA tournament contention by the time he returned. Rice, after all, was Illinois' leading scorer and rebounder and perhaps its best perimeter defender too.
Illinois may yet feel the impact of Rice's absence in the coming weeks, but on Wednesday the Illini served notice that dismissing them so quickly would not be wise. Emerging sophomore Malcolm Hill scored 28 points and Illinois unleashed a 20-3 second-half run to topple previously surging Maryland 64-57 in Champaign.
Beating the 11th-ranked Terrapins was critical for Illinois' confidence and for its resume. The Illini were 0-2 in the Big Ten prior to Wednesday and had dropped five of nine overall. Now they go back on the road against Nebraska and Northwestern before beginning a stretch of four home games in five games.
A — Wyoming
Larry Nance Jr. was favoring his surgically repaired right knee and not at his best. Three-year starter Riley Grabau endured a foul-plagued night in which he didn't make a field goal. Nonetheless, Wyoming received enough contributions from other players to survive a late Colorado State rally and notch a critical 60-54 road win in a battle of Mountain West contenders.
The biggest shot of the game came from Wyoming's Jason McManamen as the Cowboys were desperately trying to hold onto the remnants of a 13-point second-half lead. The Wyoming native buried a 3-pointer with less than 30 seconds remaining to extend his team's advantage back to five and to send Colorado State fans streaming for the exits.
Wyoming improves to 14-2 overall including a solid non-conference victory over Colorado and quality league wins over UNLV and Colorado State. Considering how challenging it is for opponents to get to Wyoming, let alone win there, the Cowboys clearly have to be taken seriously as threats to win the Mountain West and reach the NCAA tournament.
B- — Florida
Recovering from a nightmarish six-loss non-conference season is going to be challenging for Florida, but the Gators took a step in the right direction Wednesday night. They won 72-68 on the road against a South Carolina team that had reeled off seven straight victories entering the game including an upset of Iowa State four days earlier.
Dorian Finney-Smith delivered 20 points and seven rebounds to lead the Gators. Michael Frazier came off the bench for the first time this season because Billy Donovan wanted to take some pressure off of him, and the sharpshooter responded with 17 points including a pair of big first-half threes that helped Florida build a double-digit lead.
Of course not everything was promising for the Gators. Top big man Jon Horford was suspended before the game for a violation of team rules, forwards Chris Walker, Devin Robinson and Alex Murphy weren't very effective in Horford's absence and point guard Kasey Hill endured a six-turnover, one-assist game before fouling out.
F — Cal
What do Cal State Bakersfield, Washington State and USC each have in common? 1. They're each ranked 150th or below in KenPom. 2. They've now each beaten Cal in the past 10 days.
Cal's 71-57 loss at USC on Wednesday night was as baffling as either of the two home losses that preceded it considering the Trojans were without leading scorer Jordan McLaughlin yet dominated from start to finish anyway. A USC team with losses to Portland State, Army and Akron led by as many as 19 points in the second half en route to its first league win.
Quality wins against Syracuse, Wyoming and Washington still give Cal hope of making an NCAA tournament push, but the Bears' three bad losses will weigh down their RPI like anvils. Worse yet, Cal just doesn't look like an NCAA tournament-caliber team at the moment. The Bears have zero interior depth behind David Kravish and can't seem to find complementary scorers behind guards Tyrone Wallace and Jordan Mathews. Getting Jabari Bird back will help, but that still doesn't solve the interior depth issues.
• A late flurry from Wayne Selden propelled Kansas to a key road win at Baylor. Selden erupted for seven straight points on three consecutive possessions to give the Jayhawks the lead with just over one minute remaining and then he hustled back on defense to make a big blocked shot in the final seconds to help preserve a 56-55 victory.
• On the heels of two huge home wins over Villanova and St. John's, Seton Hall cooled off a bit when it got on the road. Xavier beat the Pirates 69-58 behind 14 points and six assists from point guard Dee Davis.
• Two hard-luck losses in a row for Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons pushed both Louisville and Duke into the final minutes before succumbing on their home floor. Matt Jones hit a big three and Tyus Jones converted a key three-point play to give the Blue Devils the cushion they needed Wednesday night.
• Temple continues to look like a dark horse threat to win the American Athletic Conference. Quenton DeCosey scored 15 points and four other teammates notched double figures as the Owls improved to 3-0 in league play with a 64-56 victory over an improved Tulane squad.
• Early prediction I feel good about: I don't think Utah will lose at home in Pac-12 play, and that includes a visit from Arizona on Feb. 28. The Utes clobbered Colorado 74-49 on Wednesday night to improve to 3-0 in league play.
• Syracuse's 46-45 victory at Georgia Tech fittingly ended on a missed shot by the Yellowjackets at the buzzer. The less that's said about that one the better.
• You'll never guess who's the only 3-0 team in the Big East. Yup, it's DePaul, which won 70-60 at Creighton on Wednesday night. The Blue Demons have been erratic so far this season but they're also clearly much improved too.
• VCU held off visiting Davidson 71-65 in a game that was impressive for both teams. The Rams forced 15 turnovers and held Davidson to 37.2 percent shooting, while the Wildcats hung with VCU into the second half on the road despite point guard Jack Gibbs enduring a 1-for-10 shooting night.
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