Kentucky and Syracuse notch major wins, while a star at Michigan is out for the season

The first big Saturday of college basketball after the Christmas break usually features some of the sport’s nastiest rivalries.

Case in point during the doubleheader televised Saturday afternoon by CBS:

Villanova raced out to a 23-7 lead during the first nine minutes.  But another freshmen sensation following in the footsteps of Rony Seikaly, Carmelo Anthony, and Gerry McNamara, Tyler Ennis stepped to the fore.  He scored 20 points, mostly on nifty moves driving to the basket to bring the Orange to within four at halftime 38-34.

The second half was all Syracuse (in the first matchup since leaving the Big East to be in the ACC), as Villanova committed some chippy fouls early and the likes of Trevor Cooney and Jerami Grant helped put the stamp on the Orange being only one of eight remaining undefeated schools.  James Bell was the game’s high scorer for Villanova, tallying 25 points and 5 rebounds.

Syracuse also made the most of their opportunities at the free-throw line, converting a whopping 29 for 35 at a 82.9 percent clip.  Villanova was not as fortunate, only toeing the line 22 times and making 14.  The Wildcats also shot poorly, hitting 19 of 50 for 38 percent.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth battle at Rupp Arena turned out to be a game of runs–as the schools marked their centennial of their first meeting back in 1913-1914 (albeit they refused to play for a period of 62 years way back when):

Louisville scored the first 8 points 2 minutes and 22 seconds in before Julius Randle made a free throw.  Randle scored 17 points, all in the first half before John Calipari decided to go with experience over sheer talent.

Both UL and UK managed to trade baskets for the last 10 minutes of the first half.  But the second half showed that the Harrison twins made quite a combo.  Andrew made some nifty, twisty layups and Aaron contributed some neat passes and buckets of his own.  However, Louisville got as close as four with 6:51 remaining on Luke Hancock’s three from the right wing.

Kentucky won this game on the boards–40 to 34, including grabbing the first 8 of 9 from the offensive glass.  The final score was 73-66, eerily similar to the 2012 National Semifinal down in New Orleans.

Other key games of note around the nation:

UIC, aka Illinois-Chicago (RPI of 264) stayed toe-to-toe with Illinois (RPI of 17) in the Orange Crush’s annual road trip up I-57 to the “House That Jordan Built” in Chicago’s United Center.  The Flames led by double digits, 44-34 at the half before John Groce turned up the defensive screws and clamped down on UIC’s possible upset bid–winning going away in the final 7 minutes of action, 74-60.

Out West, Brigham Young stayed close but fell at the hands of Loyola Marymount 87-76, led by Evan Payne scoring a career high 27 points.

Most of the other ranked teams won by double digits, led by Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Duke.

Speaking of those last two schools, they will be featured in next Saturday’s CBS doubleheader on the road as conference season begins:

First up, Tom Izzo and Gang Green head to Big Red Country to take on the 2013 Big Ten regular season champions of the Indiana Hoosiers at 2 p.m. Eastern.

Then, it is 175 miles up US 31 to the land of the Golden Dome in South Bend as the Fighting Irish get their first really difficult test in their inaugural season of ACC play hosting Duke at 4 p.m. Eastern time.

Finally, a serious blow to the tournament hopes of another Big Ten school hit rock bottom on Friday as 2013 NCAA Tournament breakout star Michigan forward Mitch McGary has been ruled out for the rest of the season with back spasms.  His statistics paled in comparison to his freshman year, but he still has two more years of eligibility at the most remaining (barring any setbacks with his rehab and/or conditioning efforts during the off-season).

Couple that with Tim Hardaway, Jr. trying to save the New York Knicks from hitting rock bottom in the NBA, this Wolverines outfit is struggling just to stay afloat.  They not only would have to win most of their road games, but if they earn at least 11 Big Ten wins and maybe earn their way to the final game of their conference post-season tournament in Indianapolis come Selection Sunday, they could be one of the last four schools into the Big Dance.  With their RPI current at #88 according to CBSSports.com, I wouldn’t bet on Michigan repeating their way back to the Final Four let alone the Big Dance.

But that is why they play the games.  Enter Part II:  Conference Play.

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