Unlike the final episode of True Detective, which left the conspiracy theory enthusiast inside me wanting so much more, the Friday, Saturday and Sunday slates delivered a satisfying encore to yet another wild week in college hoops.
The Big Boys
Trying to predict what would happen at the Carrier Dome Saturday afternoon was seemingly impossible, given the extreme adversity both Duke and Syracuse were facing late last week. The Blue Devils were without their secret weapon Zion Williamson after he suffered a mild knee sprain against North Carolina on Wednesday, while the Orange were engulfed by the media tornado stemming from Jim Boeheim’s tragic car accident…
but the peculiarities didn’t end there…
Jack White was officially exiled to Coach K’s doghouse - likely a byproduct of another 0-fer shooting night from behind the arc against UNC - in favor of now former redshirt freshman Joey Baker. In K’s defense, it’s hard to make a case for why White should be playing when you consider he’s missed 23 straight 3s dating back to January 12th. Still, it was a head-scratching move to burn Baker’s redshirt this late in the season, especially since Zion could return later this week, but Coach K cited his rationale in the postgame presser. Baker clocked in a meaningless 5 minutes, but RJ Barrett (30 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds) and Alex O'Connell (20 points on 5/8 from 3PT) were all the Devils needed to outlast the offensively challenged Orange.
The Virginia / Louisville showdown at the KFC Yum! Center was a tale of two halves. The host Cardinals made everything under the sun in the first half, while UVA couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn:
Virginia 1H 3PT: 0/11
Louisville 1H 3PT: 10/16
Regression to the mean was inevitable. Those imbalanced shooting percentages converged in the second half and the Cavaliers engaged their patented slow-roast beatdown. UVA outscored Louisville 37 to 15 in the 2nd half en route to a comfortable 12-point victory.
North Carolina kept it rollin’ on Saturday with an 18-point victory over a white-hot Florida State squad in the Dean Dome. UNC kept pace with Duke and Virginia in the conference title race, all of whom are knotted in a 3-way tie atop the ACC leaderboard at 12-2. The encouraging sign for Tar Heel fans was Nassir Little shaking off the injury cobwebs, as he ignited the Tar Heels with 18 points and 8 boards in just 23 minutes off-the-bench.
Notre Dame, woof… The Irish dropped their third game in a row on Saturday when a shorthanded Virginia Tech dominated ND wire-to-wire, just four days after an embarrassing home loss to Wake Forest. Mike Brey has an enticing young core that should be far more competitive next year, but for the here and the now, the Irish have fallen completely off the NCAA tournament radar.
Matt Painter just keeps finding new ways to win games. Granted, Purdue’s last three victories over Indiana, Penn State and Nebraska are nothing to crow about, but every win is a good win in this Big Ten. With Carsen Edwards’ jump-shot vanishing over the last two games – Edwards is 1 for his last 20 from 3-point land – the Boilers still managed to stay within a half game of Michigan State for the top spot in the Big Ten standings with a pair of clutch wins in Bloomington and Lincoln last week.
We had to wait until late February, but we finally got a glimpse at the highly anticipated battle for the Mitten State between Michigan and Michigan State yesterday afternoon in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines’ developing bad habit of stagnating offensively finally caught up to them in this one, as a long scoring drought in the second half allowed the visiting Spartans to pull away late. After an Iggy Brazdeikis drunk ignited the home crowd with 15:51 remaining in the second half, the Wolverines offense mysteriously went AWOL – Michigan scored just 9 points over the next 15 minutes of regulation, while pick-n-roll wizard Cassius Winston surgically picked apart the Wolverines defense on the other end.
Carsen Edwards and Ethan Happ’s per game stats are hard to ignore, but Winston has won my vote for Big Ten Player of the Year. This game was a microcosm of how valuable he is to a rather one-dimensional offense that lacks complementary playmakers and creators off-the-ball. Unsurprisingly, John Beilein took notice of Winston’s brilliance:
"We've had a lot of point guards come into this building," Michigan head coach John Beilein said. "I've coached some great ones. That was as good a performance as you're going to see."
"He gets into nooks and crannies. He got to his midrange with those runners and floaters -- there's not a lot of defense for those things. If Jon (Teske) stays too long, (Winston) finds drop-off guys. He looked like Joe Montana throwing to the other side of the court today."
The February chapter of Penn State’s season-long story should be dubbed “Pat’s Last Stand”. Despite rumors swirling about Pat Chambers’ job security, the Nittany Lions have now won 4 of their last 6 after knocking off Illinois 83-76 in Champaign on Saturday. Lamar Stevens is finally showing the masses why many prognosticators pegged him as an All-Conference caliber player this offseason, an accolade that’s held in high regard in a league overflowing with so many top-notch players. Despite coughing up the rock 7 times against the Illini’s pressure defense on Saturday, Stevens poured in 25 points and grabbed 8 boards to lead the Nittany Lions over the surging Illini.
For those who remain skeptic of this Maryland team, what else do they have to do to convince you? The Terps defended their home floor on Saturday with a 10-point victory over Ohio State, an appropriate encore after defeating Iowa 66-65 earlier in the week at Iowa City.
Speaking of Iowa, Jordan Bohannon’s body count is piling up faster than a serial killer. Indiana became the latest victim of the Hawkeye’s coldblooded assassin on Friday when Bohannon’s step-back jumper evened the score at 63-63, pushing the game into overtime.
In the bonus period, Bohannon canned three more triples to sink the Hoosiers’ at-large hopes further into the ground.
It was raining 3s in Lubbock on Saturday – the Red Raiders rained in a school record 16 treys, fueling a 29-point massacre of the visiting Jayhawks. Kansas welcomed back Marcus Garrett to the lineup, but it simply didn’t matter – Texas Tech raced out of the gates to a 28-12 lead and never looked back, leading by as many as 33 late in the second half. Now, Kansas returns home to host Kansas State tonight in Phog Allen, a must-win if the Jayhawks intend to remain in the Big-12 title race picture.
Speaking of the Purple Wildcats, K-State boat raced a depleted Oklahoma State squad in Manhattan on Saturday. With a 1-game lead over the Red Raiders in the current Big-12 standings, a win in Lawrence tonight would put the Wildcats in a commanding position with a 3-game lead over the Jayhawks.
TCU completed the season sweep of Iowa State on Saturday with a 75-72 home victory over the Cyclones, who went ice cold from deep (2/20). There’s no need to hit the panic button, but the loss in Fort Worth slams the door shut on the Clones’ Big-12 title hopes, barring some improbable collapse by K-State, Texas Tech and / or Kansas.
Thanks to Villanova’s recent skid, Marquette now has a stranglehold on the Big East title belt after dismantling Providence in the Dunkin Donuts Center 76-58 on Saturday. The Golden Eagles hold a 1.5 game lead over the defending national champs, who have now dropped 3 of 4. The Wildcats rolled out a red carpet to their own rim against Georgetown and Xavier last week, allowing the Hoyas and Musketeers to get anything they wanted in the lane.
Georgetown 2PT FG: 18/29
Xavier 2PT FG: 16/25
The absence of versatile big Omari Spellman and defensive stalwart Mikal Bridges is starting to take its toll. While Jay Wright continues to shuffle through a few different front court rotations, no combination of Eric Paschall, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Sadiq Bey has been able to stop the bleeding inside. Cosby-Roundtree is the best rim protector of the bunch but playing him limits Nova’s ability to terrorize opposing defenses with shooters at all 5 positions. I still maintain the Wildcats are the best team in the Big East by the slimmest of margins, but we’ll find out how stubborn I am when they host Marquette on Wednesday in the Big East’s biggest game of the year.
With DePaul, Providence and Creighton all fading into oblivion, Butler, Georgetown and Seton Hall are the three squads to track down the stretch. St. John’s is currently on the right side of the bubble and Xavier is beginning to show signs of life, but the Bulldogs, Hoyas and Pirates all reside right on the cutline as it currently stands.
In the marquee matchup of the weekend, Tennessee traveled to Baton Rouge on Saturday to try and cool off the red-hot LSU Tigers. Even with Tremont Waters out with the flu, Tennessee still fell short on the road thanks to a boneheaded foul by Grant Williams at the end of overtime, which sent Javonte Smart to the charity stripe for the eventual game winning free-throws:
Javonte Smart proceeded to knock down both freebies and LSU survived at home to move into a 3-way tie for first in the SEC standings. With Waters being a late scratch, the freshman Smart was served up a golden opportunity on a silver platter as Wade entrusted him with the keys to LSU’s offense. Smart responded with 29 points, 5 rebounds, 5 dimes and 3 steals to help the Tigers fend off the veteran Vols.
The Big Blue machine kept on chuggin’ this weekend with a 27-point destruction of Auburn at Rupp Arena on Saturday. Even without the physical Reid Travis perusing the paint, Kentucky dominated the Tigers inside and caught fire from downtown. PJ Washington did damage in both areas, pacing the Wildcats with 24 points and knocked down 5 of UK’s 11 triples.
Life on the road has not been kind to Bruce Pearl this season. The Tigers only two victories away from Auburn Arena came at Vanderbilt and at Texas A&M who are a combined 5-23 in the SEC at the moment. Here’s what we know at this point: Auburn has a top gear that few other teams in the country can match, but the free-wheeling, trigger-happy style of play lends itself to large variances in game-to-game performances.
A late second half surge helped Florida escape from a pesky and ailing Mizzou squad in Gainesville on Saturday, capping off a successful week for Mike White and the Gators. After falling to the SEC triumvirate of Kentucky, LSU and Auburn in consecutive games, Florida has rattled off four straight victories, including two gargantuan roadies at Alabama and LSU. Our own Ky McKeon has Florida pegged as one of the ‘Last Four Byes’ in his latest bracket, but a loss to Vanderbilt on Wednesday or Georgia on Saturday would likely slide them down the S-Curve into ‘Play-In Game’ territory.
For the third time in a row, Mississippi State took care of business on Saturday without Nick Weatherspoon, who remains suspended indefinitely, and blitzed South Carolina in the second half to pull away with a comfortable 15-point victory. Facing an early 16-point deficit in the first half, the shorthanded Bulldogs came out firing after the break, opening the second half on a 29-12 run to regain the lead. The emergence of Reggie Perry inside has fueled the Bulldogs during Weatherspoon’s absence. The highly touted freshman has posted an O-Rating of 109 or higher in 9 straight contests and has blossomed into a reliable complementary scoring option inside to the 1-2 perimeter punch of Lamar Peters and the older Quinndary Weatherspoon.
Arizona State is the only team in the Pac-12 not named Washington with a competitive tournament resume, but the Sun Devils are from a lock to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. Bobby Hurley flirted with danger yet again yesterday when his Sun Devils went into a trance against Cal, the Pac-12’s punching bag, needing a late second half run to fend off the Bears. Currently, Ky projects ASU to narrowly avoid Dayton as one of the ‘Last Four Byes’ in his latest bracket, but the schedule does not set up favorably over the final two weeks. The Sun Devils will finish off the regular season on the road, starting with the impending trip to Oregon this weekend before ending in Tucson the following Saturday.
The Best of the Rest
After hyping up the at-large cases for Wofford and Lipscomb on the podcast last week, the Terriers managed to avoid yet another dangerous pitfall on the road Saturday at Furman. Wofford caught the Paladins at the worst possible time, who entered Saturday’s showdown riding a 6-game win streak that included a 30-point demolition of East Tennessee State and 10-point victory over UNC Greensboro. A late first half run helped the Terriers build a safe cushion, which came in handy early in the second half when the Paladins punched back with a run of their own. Furman cut the deficit to 3 just before the under-12 timeout, but Mike Young’s resilient group promptly pushed the margin back to double-digits and never looked back.
A victory for Furman would’ve qualified as a Q1 win and likely vaulted the Paladins up the S-Curve right into the thick of the at-large conversation. With no high profile games left on the schedule, the SoCon tournament is likely Furman’s only avenue to go dancing next month. The Terriers, on the other hand, further bolstered their SoCon tournament insurance policy with yet another marquee conference win. The Terriers finish the year with a trip to Chattanooga on Thursday before heading down south to Samford on Saturday. The Samford regular season finale will be a tricky test, but you can bet Wofford won’t take Scott Padgett’s Bulldogs lightly – just recall what transpired when these two took faced off a month ago in Spartanburg…
Samford is currently hovering in the mid 160s in the latest NET rankings, roughly 30 spots away from where Wofford would prefer them to be – if the Bulldogs could creep into the top-135, a road slip up in Birmingham this weekend would qualify as a much more excusable Q2 loss, as opposed to a damning Q3 loss. Still, the Terriers would have to lose to Samford and once more early in the SoCon championship to really put themselves in danger on Selection Sunday, a testament to how robust of a resume Mike Young’s squad has constructed this season.
What was once shaping up to be a special season for the Red & Blue has quickly spiraled out of control over the last two weeks. Penn dropped its 6th conference loss of the season on Friday thanks to another second half meltdown, allowing Columbia to stun the Quakers at the Palestra 79-77 in overtime. For as sharp of a basketball mind as Steve Donahue is, this was not one of his brightest moments…
With the recently implemented Ivy tournament now in effect, Penn is in serious jeopardy of missing the 4-team postseason party with both Brown and Cornell each a game up on the 4-6 Quakers for 4th place in the standings.
The Ivy had plenty of drama over the weekend, but no moment was more captivating than Bryce Aiken’s heroic performance at rival Yale on Saturday. The former top-100 recruit poured in 28 points on just 11 shots, none bigger than this step-back dagger that promptly silenced sold-out crowd at Lee Amphitheater in New Haven.
Harvard’s 88-86 win at Yale pulled the Crimson to within one game of the Bulldogs in the standings in what will likely be a photo finish in the race for the Ivys’ top-seed. While Yale has looked like the best team thus far, that could change once Seth Towns is reinserted to the Crimson lineup. The reigning Ivy League Player of the Year warmed up before both games this weekend, but was never called into action – he could make his season debut this weekend, which would add yet another weapon to an already talent-laden roster for Tommy Amaker.
Does anybody want to win the MAAC or Missouri Valley this year? Anyone at all?
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the writing was on the wall when we witnessed teams across both leagues struggle in the non-conference portion of the season. Those blemishes have been further exposed since conference play began and the conference standings now look like a jumbled mess with no one stepping forward as the clear-cut favorite.
In the Valley, Missouri State has been the biggest surprise under first year head coach Dana Ford. The Bears have benefitted from key injuries to two of their top challengers in Drake (Nick Norton) and Loyola Chicago (Lucas Williamson), but have still been the MVC’s most stable team in a league plagued by inconsistency. Illinois State picked up an enormous win at home over Drake yesterday, which slots the Redbirds in a 3-way tie for 5th place, but with only Valparaiso, Indiana State and Evansville sitting below ISU in the MVC totem pole, Dan Muller must win at least one of the final two games left on the schedule to avoid the dreaded challenge of having to win 4 games in 4 days in the MVC tournament next month.
In the MAAC, the conference’s collective futility has all but guaranteed that the automatic bid will be playing in Dayton the Tuesday before the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend. While Rider, Iona, Quinnipiac and Canisius have all underachieved by various degrees this season, all four have high-major caliber players with the chops to potentially give a 1-seed a scare in the opening round. Don’t snooze on Jamion Christian and Siena either - the Saints are right in the thick of the MAAC title race and get the luxury of hosting the conference tournament on their home floor at Times Union in Albany. This could prove to be a meaningful advantage in a league where the margin of separation is razor thin.
After inducting Chris Clemons into the 3,000 point club last week, Mike Daum officially reached that illustrious milestone over the weekend with a 25-point performance over in-state rival South Dakota. South Dakota State fell behind early, but rallied from an 11-point halftime deficit to remain a half game up on Nebraska Omaha in the Summit standings – it was only fitting that the Dauminators’ record breaking bucket gave the Jackbunnies a 1-point lead with just over a minute remaining in regulation:
On a much sourer note, I’d like to personally hold the Denver Pioneers accountable for what has been a disastrous 2018-19 campaign. Despite bringing in two high major transfers in Ronnie Harrell and Tory Miller-Stewart to join an already established backcourt tandem of Joe Rosga and Ade Murkey, the Pioneers have tumbled all the way down to last place in the Summit standings after getting waxed by North Dakota on Saturday. While Denver has been the victim of bad 3-point shooting luck this season, Rodney Billups should know that the Summit has an abundance of long-range snipers, who have torched the Pioneers’ packed in defense all year.