Michigan State and Connecticut entered tonight's Great Eight at United Center having suffered early-season losses that caused them to drop slightly in the polls. But both made strong statements of their national status tonight.
The No. 4 Spartans used 21 points from guard Charlie Bell to defeat No. 5 Kansas convincingly in the first game, 66-54, and Khalid El-Amin scored a game-high 23 points to lead No. 6 U-Conn. over No. 2 Arizona in the second game, 78-69.
U-Conn. (7-1) led for nearly the entire 40 minutes, but Arizona cut the lead to one with 3 minutes 26 seconds to play on a basket by Michael Wright, who finished with 14 points. After U-Conn. Coach Jim Calhoun took a timeout, Albert Mourning scored five of his nine points during an 11-0 run to put the game out of reach.
"This is the seventh of December, we still have a long way to go, and this doesn't make us much more than 7-1," Calhoun said. "But at least this gives us a jumping-off point to find out what we need to do to become a better basketball team."
Trying to shoulder the offensive burden, El-Amin shot only 37 percent from the field.
"I just tried to come out and establish myself," El-Amin said. "When I come out like that, my teammates really get behind me, and they play as hard as me. When I had a good shot, I tried to take it, but I forced a couple shots which I want to get better at."
Gilbert Arenas, half of Arizona's all-freshman starting back court, had 18 points; Loren Woods added 16 and Michael Wright 14. Wright had 10 rebounds and Woods had nine.
Jason Gardner, Arizona's other starting guard, finished with nine points on 2-of-9 shooting.
The Huskies dropped their season opener to Iowa, 70-68, in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York, but bounced back with impressive victories over Duke and Massachusetts.
"When we needed a basket tonight, we came through with it," El-Amin said. "That's what big-time teams do, and that's what championship-caliber teams do."
Arizona (6-1) is in the middle of a three-game stretch against top-10 teams. It beat then-No. 9 Texas last Saturday and plays host to Michigan State on Saturday.
Michigan State star point guard Mateen Cleaves watched the first game from the sideline, still recovering from foot surgery he underwent in late October. But Bell filled the void at point guard quite well, showing the same poise and leadership that Cleaves showed last season as the Big Ten MVP.
"We've got so many great players on this team, every game somebody different is going to step up," Bell said. "That's one of the strengths about our team."
The Spartans (7-1) never trailed and led by 23 early in the second half, but the young Jayhawks (6-1) made a serious run.
Kenny Gregory, who led the Jayhawks with 14 points, dunked to cap a 19-2 run that cut the Spartans' lead to 53-47 with less than seven minutes left. Michigan State responded with a 9-1 run in the next 2 1/2 minutes, and Kansas never threatened again.
Cleaves might not be able to return until the Spartans' Big Ten opener Jan. 5 against Penn State, but the coaching staff is hopeful he'll be ready for the Dec. 30 game against Wright State.
With Cleaves unavailable, the Spartans have been forced to rely on others, such as Bell and Morris Peterson. The Jayhawks held Peterson to 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting tonight, but the senior forward grabbed 10 rebounds. A.J. Granger added 13 points for the Spartans.
"They were by far the more aggressive team," Kansas Coach Roy Williams said. "We made a fantastic run. We just didn't have quite enough. We were like the little engine that could. We got to the top and then just couldn't finish it off."