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Sully's Court: A sad trip to Houston

Posted by Joe Sullivan, Globe Staff  December 1, 2013 07:11 PM

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It was the site where some of the best and most entertaining teams played, but the Hofheinz Pavilion at the University of Houston has seen better days.

I was in Houston this weekend and attended the Houston-Texas A&M Corpus Christi game, and as I entered the building, I couldn’t help but notice the first H on the arena sign was partially worn away. Inside, an uninspired crowd of few hundred looked even smaller in the 8,479-seat arena.

The Cougars struggled but were able to pull out a victory. This was the place where Phi Slamma Jamma played, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler. Their numbers, along with Elvin Hayes’ and a tribute banner to Hall of Fame coach Guy Lewis, hang in the arena. The celebration of these great teams and players seemed strangely muted.

Unfortunately, players like that will never play for Houston again. The Cougars are mostly a victim of conference realignment, no longer a destination for highly skilled players. A sad fact, and I missed the excitement.

Five rising:
Fairleigh Dickinson: The Knights were one of the worst teams in the US two years ago. They may have lost to Arizona by 50; they may have lost to Division 2 power Metro State, but there is a celebration going on in Teaneck, N.J. because they pulled off a rare double, upsetting Rutgers and Seton Hall in consecutive games. That never happens. They can’t claim the state title, however, because they lost to St. Peter’s. Princeton is on the schedule in a few weeks.

Illinois: The Fighting Illini have only played one game outside of Champaign, but that was a victory at UNLV. They’ve won six home games and are 7-0.

Syracuse: Jim Boeheim rarely takes his team on the road in November, but he did this season and the Orange won the Maui Classic. OK, it was neutral-site games, but it’s still a nice accomplishment. And the Orange are 7-0.

Villanova: The Wildcats are 7-0 and pulled off a great upset of Kansas in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis. Then the ever-pragmatic Jay Wright used five guards at times to overcome an early deficit and beat Iowa in the final. Three Big Five games are dead ahead, and upsets can happen in those.

Wisconsin: The Badgers won the Cancun tournament, beating Saint Louis in the semifinal 63-57 including riding time, and West Virginia 70-6 (including three near falls) in the final. At 8-0, they’re off to the best start under Bo Ryan. The Badgers have not opened the season with eight consecutive wins since starting 11-0 in 1993-94.

Five falling:

Florida Gulf Coast: This week was a rude awakening for the school formerly known as Dunk City as the Eagles were pounded by NC State 82-62 and Iona 90-72.

Murray State: The Racers were almost a guarantee to come out of the OVC for the NCAA Tournament. Not this season, they’re 2-5 and got blasted 80-62 by Middle Tennessee. They followed that up by losing by 25 at Saint Mary’s. They also lost at Auburn last week.

Niagara: The Purple Eagles were always interesting under coach Joe Mahalich. Under first-year coach Chris Casey, not so much. They were non-competitive against a so-so Penn team, losing 85-66 and are now 1-6. Guard Antoine Mason is averaging 31.6 points per game, but he obviously needs more help.

Texas A&M: A stunning bad time in Corpus Christi, Texas, as the Aggies lost consecutive games to Missouri State and SMU on a neutral court.

Xavier: The Muskies should have beaten Iowa in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis; they had several chances to win before losing in overtime. They didn’t respond well to adversity, also losing to Southern Cal and Tennessee to finish last in the tournament.

This week’s George Mason (best mid-major): Wichita State. The Shockers showed some great toughness by outmuscling Saint Louis Sunday.

This week’s Final Four: Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Arizona, Louisville. Arizona’s victory over Duke in the Tip-off NIT final was one of the most impressive of the season.

This week’s national champion: Michigan State

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