Saturday was a terrific day of college basketball, as it figured to be… but it was terrific in places that might not have expected to deliver the goods.
I’m not sure how many people thought Seton Hall-Kentucky would steal the show and become the game of the day. I’m uncertain about the number of observers who thought at halftime that an awful Georgetown-Syracuse game would turn into a thriller and produce a deliciously dramatic denouement an hour later.
I am also not sure that college basketball fans entered Saturday with the conscious thought that they would need to keep an eye on Furman versus South Carolina-Upstate, or that a Buffalo-Saint Bonaventure game would capture their attention for a moment.
Ain’t this sport grand?
Furman did make college basketball observers sit up and pay attention for a brief while on a crowded Saturday, chiefly because it fell behind USC-Upstate at halftime and seemed to be caught in the trap which often bites unexpected visitors to the spotlight. When you defeat two of the previous season’s Final Four teams in the first few weeks of a new college basketball campaign, you will get everyone’s attention and every team’s best shot. Furman labored under that burden in the first half against Upstate before reorganizing itself and taking care of business in the second half.
Just allow this to sink in: College basketball’s constant whirl of Saturday activity included a focus on Furman, for at least a few minutes. FURMAN! This is a program whose NCAA Tournament appearances (6) can be contained in one 10-season period, from 1971 through 1980. The Paladins — in the Southern Conference, where a man named Stephen Curry (ever heard of him?) once lifted Davidson into the national spotlight and up to the Atlantic 10 under the legendary Bob McKillop — are collecting road wins. They are building a portfolio which, if not sullied by an especially bad loss, will merit consideration three months from now.
You had Furman winning at Villanova? You saw this coming? While we wait for those receipts, let’s turn the page and note that in the weeks before Christmas Day, weeknight college basketball goes through its foremost lull of the season. Saturdays still pop and crackle, but with final exams and the reality of Christmas activity coursing through our cultural milieu, you don’t see ambitious scheduling from coaches and athletic directors on weeknights.
Furman — because of its unexpected rise — has insisted that it become relevant.
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t expect to be this interested in a Friday, Dec. 21 game between Furman and LSU in Baton Rouge. That contest is now enormous for Furman’s at-large chances in March. If the Paladins pull it off, they would put another quality road win in their stocking. Avoiding a horrible lump of coal and finishing their season with (let’s say) only two losses, neither one to a particularly bad team, would give them a path to Bracketville and the Big Dance.
Jordan Lyons — scoring 20 points per game — and 18-per-game sidekick Matt Rafferty will be playing a nationally significant game on a weeknight just before Christmas. Who expected to unwrap that kind of a gift?
The even more amazing aspect of that Furman-LSU game on Friday, Dec. 21? It is not the only example of its kind.
I give you the Buffalo Bulls.
A year ago, Buffalo torching Saint Bonaventure — as it did on Saturday, thanks to a 47-25 first-half blitz of the Bonnies — might not have elicited any commentary from national writers. However, after the Bulls smoked Arizona in the NCAA Tournament and gave Kentucky a run in the round of 32, these “MAC Daddies” are only increasing their national profile. They won at West Virginia and are winning so authoritatively that they are making themselves impossible to ignore.
C.J. Massinburg is an electric, must-see player, but he is also complemented by three other double-figure scorers and a supporting cast which knows its collection of roles. The Bulls started doing last March what Furman has done in the first month of this new season: Transform the way they are perceived.
Accordingly, games which wouldn’t have received much national scrutiny in these weeks before Christmas are now focal points of the college basketball schedule.
On that same Friday night — Dec. 21 — when Furman-LSU becomes a spotlight game, Buffalo will go to Milwaukee to play the Marquette team which outlasted Wisconsin in one of this past Saturday’s pulse-pounders. Steve Wojciechowski is building some serious Wojo Mojo at the program Al McGuire made famous. Marquette is slowly but steadily building a case that it is ready to topple Villanova in the Big East this season.
Buffalo-Marquette, must-see TV on a pre-Christmas Friday night? This year, that is absolutely the case.
A bonus: Buffalo-Syracuse on Dec. 18 will also be a very big deal. Yes, BUFFALO BASKETBALL might be the most interesting program during a full week of college basketball this season. Does any other team have two games as important as the Bulls do in the week before Christmas Day?
The two weeks before Christmas can become very slow in college basketball, as the Thanksgiving tournaments and the Big Ten-ACC Challenge give way to final exams and coaches’ desires to not overload their players with especially demanding on-court “coursework.”
Furman and Buffalo are here to give your office Christmas parties some genuinely fun and interesting gifts you will enjoy.
No fruitcake. No “how can I get rid of this?” gift which feels more like a passive-aggressive power move.
Just really good — and important — college basketball.
The Paladins and Bulls are Santa’s little helpers this season. If they can win their big upcoming tests against LSU (Furman), Syracuse and Marquette (Buffalo), they might be able to unwrap a March berth on Selection Sunday, even if they don’t win their conference tournaments.
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