The march to March is officially over, which means the most wonderful time of the year is finally upon us. The meaning of this holiest of months was so eloquently put into perspective by my colleague Jim Root - do yourself a favor and read that NOW.
Once you’ve completed that prerequisite, only then will you be qualified to consume this week’s Weekend Wrap-up. Mr. Ky McKeon was kind enough to release an updated bracketology yesterday afternoon, which served as a helpful baseline (along with the all encompassing bracketmatrix.com) for all tournament projection takes below…
The Big Boys
Duke blitzed another inferior ACC opponent at home, Virginia strangled yet another ACC offense, Clemson’s ‘Close, but no Cigar’ headline remained applicable, and Wake Forest got bamboozled in front of an ever-shrinking home crowd…
The common ACC narratives regurgitated throughout the season held their weight in gold this weekend, with every favorite prevailing in rather predictable fashion. Yet, it was North Carolina’s narrow escape at Clemson that proved to be the most meaningful result from an otherwise uneventful weekend in the ACC. UNC’s 2-point victory in Little John Coliseum kept the Tar Heels knotted with Virginia at 14-2 atop the league standings, both of whom hold a one game edge over Duke (13-3) and three game edge on both Virginia Tech and Florida State (11-5). With just two games remaining, UVA, UNC and Duke have essentially locked up three of the top-4 seeds, a pivotal cutoff in the double-bye conference tournament format that gives seeds 1 through 4 an automatic pass to the quarterfinals. The winner of Virginia Tech / Florida State tomorrow night will guarantee at least a share of 4th place, while 10-6 Syracuse could crash the party with back-to-back wins over Virginia and Clemson this week.
With Boston College, Miami FL, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame (yes, shocking isn’t it?) no longer in the NCAA tournament at-large picture, all eyes will be on Clemson and NC State for the next two weeks. The Tigers are tip-toeing on the fence right now after falling short in yet another brutally close loss and missed opportunity at a Quadrant 1 win. Clemson currently is 1-9 in Q1 games this season but three of those losses were by a combined four points.
Brad Brownell’s bunch will be a fascinating case study in this revamped selection process that many are hoping – including myself – will place a greater emphasis on the record against quality opponents, as opposed to the number of wins against quality opponents. But even then, the Tigers best win as it stands today is probably Virginia Tech sans Justin Robinson, an asterisk the committee will almost certainly factor in during the evaluation process.
In fact, Clemson’s strongest argument for why it’s deserving of an at-large bid, ironically, lie in its losses, which indicate the Tigers are far more formidable than their lackluster Quadrant-segmented record indicates – just think how comfortable they’d be had they simply won two, or even one, of these heartbreaking defeats:
lost at Louisville by 1
lost at North Carolina by 2
lost at NC State by 2
lost at Miami FL by 1
Bring up Clemson in a room full of bracketologists and you might spark a moderately heated debate – mention Indiana in that same room and watch that civility turn into a flaming rage…
The Hoosiers have become the most polarizing at-large candidate in college basketball this season, never mind the program’s national prominence that’s rivaled by only a handful of blue bloods. On ESPN’s College Gameday Saturday morning, opinions on IU’s at-large prognosis ranged from “Big Ten tournament or bust” (Jay Bilas) to “win out, plus a game in the Big Ten tournament, and you’re in” (Seth Greenberg). No one seems to agree on how the committee will ultimately evaluate an excessively nuanced resume, which looks like an outcast next to other bubble competitors.
After completing the season sweep of an ailing Michigan State squad in Assembly Hall Saturday afternoon, IU is now rocking six Quadrant 1 wins and zero ‘bad’ losses (bad = Quadrant 3 & 4). As distracting as the 6-12 Big Ten record looks on paper, the Hoosiers pass the ‘who did you beat’ test with flying colors, which, for right or for wrong, historically holds a lot of clout within the Selection Committee. While that archaic notion is slowly becoming void with the introduction of the NET and Quadrant-based win system, times aren’t changing nearly fast enough to debunk the body of work Indiana has put together, no matter how long ago those wins over Louisville, Marquette and Butler.
Indiana’s late surge against Michigan State paved the way for its bitter enemy to the north to move into sole possession of first place in the Big Ten standings. Purdue beat the living crap out of Ohio State on Saturday, opening up a 28-point lead at half time, which ballooned into a 45-point margin by the final whistle. Kaleb Wesson’s suspension left a gaping hole in the middle of the Buckeye’s interior defense and also gutted them of their primary source of offense on the other end of the floor. The Boilers promptly took advantage and now find themselves in the Big Ten driver’s seat, with Minnesota and Northwestern as the final two obstacles standing between them and their second Big Ten championship in three seasons.
The Big Ten’s other ‘Bubble Boy’, Minnesota, took the weekend off to gear up for the first of two critical games this week. The Gophers will host Purdue at the Barn Tuesday night before traveling to Maryland on Friday. According to most prognosticators, Minnesota is hanging by a thread but a win over either Purdue or Maryland would surely catapult them up the S-Curve into safer territory.
If you’re a Big Ten frontrunner, lock your doors and hide your children – Penn State and Rutgers are coming for you with torches and pitchforks. Iowa and Wisconsin were the latest of the league’s first-class citizens to experience the wrath of the Scarlet Knights and Nittany Lions. Penn State started off conference play with 10 straight swings and misses, while Rutgers stumbled to a 1-6 start of their own. Now, the Nittanies are 5-13 and haven’t played a bad game in over a month, while the Scarlet Knights have climbed into the meat of the Big Ten standings at 7-11 after that 14-point bruising of Iowa in Iowa City on Saturday.
Pat Chambers and Steve Pikiell are in vastly different points along the coaching lifecycle at their respective schools, but both have been masterful over the past month. Penn State’s disastrous start was never salvageable, but this recent resurgence will certainly bolster Chambers’ case to retain his job this offseason. Pikiell has barged into the Big Ten Coach of the Year conversation and those who cast a vote in his name are well within reason - after all, this might be the best team Rutgers has had in nearly two decades.
Don’t’ believe me? Feel free to pick a better team from the following list of options below (ok fine, the 2003-04 squad coached by Gary Waters – Quincy Douby’s freshman year – is a fair choice):
We start with the obligatory ‘Kansas Quest for 15’ update. The Jayhawks held off the pesky Pokes on Saturday, fueled by yet another Dedric Lawson triple-double and some good fortune on the final possession. Despite trailing by five at the break, Kansas was up a field goal with 10 seconds left as Oklahoma State’s Lindy Waters furiously raced the ball up the court. In a near-catastrophic defensive breakdown, Ochai Agbaji overplayed a potential ball screen to his right, causing him to lose sight of the trigger-man Waters for a split-second:
Luckily, Waters misfired and the Jayhawks survived, keeping them within one game of Kansas State and Texas Tech in the Big-12 standings, both of whom are 12-4 in league play. While Baylor, who sits a game back of Kansas at 10-6, could technically still make a push for the conference crown, this is shaping up to be a 3-horse race with two left to play. Here are the remaining schedules for the three contenders:
Kansas State: Monday at TCU; Saturday vs. Oklahoma
Texas Tech: Monday vs. Texas; Saturday at Iowa State
Kansas: Tuesday at Oklahoma; Saturday vs. Baylor
At a quick glance, K-State’s schedule shapes up to be the easiest with TCU now starting to feel the strain of a rail thin bench and the void of Jaylen Fisher. In contrast, the once hampered Wildcats are now pain free, most notably Dean Wade, who had this to say following the 66-60 home win over Baylor Saturday:
While Wade hasn’t missed a game since returning to the lineup against Iowa State on January 12th, it’s no secret that the Wildcat’s versatile forward is one awkward ankle tweak away from heading right back to the trainer’s table. But, the exuberant confidence displayed in that video, along with the vicious throw down he put on the Bears Saturday, are encouraging signs that Wade 100% healthy, or very close to it, for the first time in a long time.
It was just a month ago when Iowa State was on the short list of potential Big-12 title contenders. Armed with a 7-3 league record, including wins over both Kansas and Texas Tech, the Clones had convinced everyone they were in it for the long haul. Since narrowly escaping Oklahoma back on February 4th, ISU has dropped 4 of its last 6 after Texas’ 3-point barrage sunk the Clones once again on Saturday. There’s no need to sound the alarms, especially after Steve Prohm assured the media that interior enforcer Cam Lard’s suspension would likely be limited to one game. The Clones’ most feared interior defender was left home in Ames on Saturday, forcing George Conditt to clock in his highest minute total of Big-12 play. Lard has a world of potential and while occasional mental lapses remain a nagging bugaboo, he’s an integral part of Iowa State’s suffocating defense.
With Villanova and Marquette close to lapping the rest of the Big East field, Nova enters the stretch run with a narrow one game lead over the Golden Eagles. Last Wednesday’s 67-61 nail-biting win in Philly brought the two-horse race to a dead heat but the Wildcats got some much-needed help from Creighton yesterday. The Blue Jays were close to flatlining this time last week but a road win over a projected top-4 seed in the field puts Creighton right back in the hunt with just a week remaining. Despite another superhuman effort from Markus Howard, he was abandoned by his teammates, none of whom scored more than 7 points against the visiting Jays. Credit to Creighton for capitalizing and the win puts Villanova back in command of the Big East title race.
According to our very own Ky McKeon’s latest bracketology, St. John’s is still safely above the cutline but the Johnnies didn’t fortify their spot on the S-curve with yesterday’s dud at DePaul. Somehow, opponents still haven’t figured out that Max Strus is a legitimate weapon and needs to be prioritized in the defensive scouting report. On senior day, Strus went off for 43 points, 36 of which came in the second half, to propel the host Demons past the Red Storm for their 6th conference win of the season – that marks the program’s highest win total during the Dave Leitao era, which began back in 2015.
Maybe we should’ve pumped the brakes on the ‘what’s wrong with Tennessee’ nonsense. Sure, the Vols had been leveling off a bit but they got their revenge of Kentucky on Saturday with a 19-point blowout over the Wildcats in Knoxville, an appropriate response after UK thrashed Tennessee in Rupp in the first meeting between these two. Despite Admiral Schofield and Lamonte Turner combining for an abysmal 5/23 from the floor, Schofield’s fellow bash brother Grant Williams and under-appreciated floor general Jordan Bone paced the Volunteers with 51 combined points, helping UT to pull a game ahead of Kentucky for a two-way tie atop the SEC standings with LSU. The Wildcats were in dire need of Reid Travis’ experience and physicality, as EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards could not stand up to the burly Tennessee frontline in Travis’ absence. Montgomery and Richards were both in foul trouble all game long, leaving PJ Washington alone on an island inside. Tyler Herro entered the weekend on a tear but struggled to get much of anything going on Saturday, as the freshman phenom finished with just 2 field goals on 11 shots, along with an uncharacteristic 5 turnovers.
It was yet another gutsy performance by the Bayou Bengals on Saturday, who welcomed back their mini-maestro, Tremont Waters, to the lineup. Waters missed the two prior games against Tennessee and Texas A&M with the flu, but LSU didn’t skip a beat, taking down the Vols in overtime last Saturday and comfortably dispatching the Aggies by double-digits three days later. The young Tigers carried themselves with a seasoned poise on Saturday when they held off Alabama 74-69 in front of a juiced-up home crowd in Tuscaloosa. Waters tallied 24 minutes off the bench, posting a meager 5 points and 3 assists but his freshman backcourt running mate Javonte Smart has grown up in a hurry over the last 3 games - since being inserted into the starting lineup against Tennessee last weekend, Smart has averaged 22 points and 4 assists a contest.
Sorry Florida, you brought this on yourself. As a staunch believer in the Gators all season, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, my stubbornness blew up in my face on Saturday when Florida fell to the SEC’s bottom-feeding Georgia Bulldogs in Gainesville. Even with Rayshaun Hammonds limited to just 5 minutes, the Gators’ anemic offense mustered just 55 points on 59 possession. The loss snapped a 5-game win streak and tosses the Gators back into the muddled bubble with just two games left on the schedule. Luckily, Florida gets two more shots at redemption when LSU comes to town Wednesday before the Gators travel to Lexington to close out the year against Kentucky. Remember, Florida handed LSU its first conference loss of the season two weeks ago in Baton Rouge but the Gators’ resume could use another eye-popping win to avoid being lost in the shuffle on Selection Sunday.
In a season when nothing seems to make any sense in the ‘Pathetic-12’, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Cal upended first place Washington to earn its first conference win of the year. Cal parlayed that momentum into its second Pac-12 victory just days later against Washington State, while Washington’s emotional hangover almost cost them a second straight loss at Stanford.
The Huskies are the league’s only team that is safely in the field at the moment, but, as we stated on Twitter before the weekend, a loss to Stanford would’ve made things dicey for Mike Hopkins and company.
Washington’s resume has been a house of cards ever since Pac-12 play began and a loss to Cal sent a tremor through an already shaky foundation. The Huskies need to hold serve at home against Oregon State and Oregon before the Pac-12 tournament kicks off next week.
The Best of the Rest
For the first 20 minutes of Saturday’s late night special, it looked as if Saint Mary’s was going to make Gonzaga sweat for WCC perfection. Jordan Ford was carving through and around the Bulldogs outer defensive layer, setting up dump-offs to a variety of bigs or kick-outs to open shooters (along with a few filthy step-back jumpers of his own). Though, even with the Gaels playing with house money offensively, they had no answer to Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke up front and the Zags entered the break with a 2-point advantage. Saint Mary’s held down the fort through the opening minutes of the second half and a crafty layup by Tanner Krebs with 12:07 left made it a one possession game.
The Gaels wouldn’t score again for another 8 minutes, as Gonzaga shifted the defensive gear into overdrive, reminiscent of the terrorizing defense that held the Gaels to just 0.71 points per possession in the 48-point demolition at the Kennel earlier this season. With Saint Mary’s offensive rhythm completely disrupted, the Zags began to assert their physical and athletic superiority at the other end of the floor with a steady diet of Rui and Clarke down low, and some Josh Perkins ball screen drives sprinkled in-between.
When the onslaught was over, the Zags had strung together a 17-0 run and the anxious crowd at McKeon Pavilion was lefty deafly silent, with the resounding hush applied by Brandon Clarke’s monstrous throw down:
It was yet another proof point that Gonzaga is stratospheres above the rest of the WCC, even in a year when the likes of Saint Mary’s, BYU, San Francisco, San Diego and even Pepperdine and LMU are all fielding strong teams. People keep citing that the Gonzaga wrecking ball is still without the services of Killian Tillie, but at this point, why mess with what you got Mark Few? I’m as big of a Tillie fan as you’ll find but trying to throw him into this well-oiled machine seems more likely to do harm than good. He’d obviously bolster the frontline depth in a reserve capacity, but I’d be wary of plugging him back into the equation in a featured role at this stage in the game.
In the other marquee west coast matchup of the evening, Utah State showcased the true power of Spectrum magic. Renowned as one of the strongest home courts in all of college basketball, the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum and its 10,000 plus screaming patrons shook the visiting Wolfpack Saturday night. There was no shortage of juice in the building for this one – Nevada was seeking its first Quadrant 1 win, Utah State needed a marquee wins to solidify its place in the at-large field and both were vying for outright possession of first place in the Mountain West standings.
With the stakes sky high, the intensity translated into physicality and both teams refused to back down from the other. Naturally, fouls piled up quickly and Utah State’s Portuguese paint patrolman, Neemias Queta, picked up his 4th early in the second half. Thanks to Sam Merrill’s first half takeover, the Aggies held a comfortable double-digit lead when Queta went to the bench, but that cushion slowly withered away as the Pack cut into the deficit with tough shot after tough shot. Though, each time Nevada threatened, Utah State always had an answer, showing no signs of mental weakness and refusing to deviate from their exceptionally unselfish brand of basketball. Thanks to some timely buckets, clutch free-throws and boneheaded Wolfpack fouls, the Aggies prevailed 81-76 to move into first place in the MWC standings.
As enormous as Utah State’s win over Nevada was, UCF’s jaw-dropping win at Houston takes the cake for biggest win of the weekend. Before Saturday, Johnny Dawkins was flirting with yet another looming trip to the NIT but now, after outlasting the Cougars 69-64 at the Feritta Center, the Knights have removed almost all of the bubble residue from their resume. UCF took advantage of some poor late game execution by the Cougs, a shocking sign from a traditionally cerebral basketball team, but tip your cap to the Knights’ stifling defense for holding Houston to a lackluster 1.02 points per possession. The Knights front court duo of Collin Smith and Tacko Fall won the battle of the bigs inside, combining for 34 points and 17 rebounds. The loss drops Houston back into a 2-way tie for first with Cincinnati in the AAC standings, setting up what should be a fierce rematch between the two next Sunday at Fifth Third Arena.
Cincy was the latest member of the AAC to enter the crosshairs of Jeremiah Martin’s flamethrower, which has set the conference ablaze for the past month. The Bearcats led nearly wire-to-wire but had to fend off a late push from the Tigers to hold on for a 1-point victory at home. As much ink as Penny Hardaway and his esteemed freshmen class generated this offseason, it’s been one of Tubby Smith’s leftovers that’s fueled Memphis’ recent charge. Since the calendar turned to February, Martin is averaging 30 points a game with a 133 O-Rating, which is astronomically efficient at such a high usage. Jaron Cumberland has been brilliant for UC this year, but Martin would earn my vote for AAC Player of the Year if the season ended today.