ATB: NPOY Race Dead Even, Border War Showcases College Hoops, and OSU/Michigan Blow Big Ten…Posted by rtmsf on February 27th, 2012
This Weekend’s Lede. It was a wild and wonderful college basketball weekend filled with bubble teams fighting for their lives and others maneuvering for seed position. In many of the smaller conferences, the regular season ended and schools are now preparing to begin conference tournament play this week (egads, the Big South begins Monday night!). For most of the power conference teams, though, each game carries more weight than those that came before it, and perhaps nowhere was that more true than in Lawrence, Kansas, on Saturday afternoon. Let’s jump into that game and everything else that went down this weekend…
Your Watercooler Moment. Anthony Davis or Thomas Robinson — Who Ya Got?
The National Player of the Year race got even more compelling on Saturday afternoon as the two leading candidates, Kansas’ Thomas Robinson and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, each made his case through dominant performances in key rivalry games in front of a CBS national television audience. Davis started the day with a near-perfect 10-11 shooting performance against Vanderbilt that included 28 points, 11 rebounds, and six blocks to highlight his candidacy as the most valuable player in America. Robinson finished it with a 28-point, 12-rebound masterpiece of his own that lacked in Davis’ near-perfection (T-Rob shot 10-21 from the field), but more than compensated for it with his timeliness. It was Robinson’s layup (and-one) with 16 seconds left that tied the game with arch-rival Missouri at 75-all, and it was his subsequent rejection of Phil Pressey’s driving shot attempt that sent the game into overtime, where KU outlasted the Tigers, 87-86. Because of Davis and Robinson, both Kentucky and Kansas clinched regular season conference championships, the incredible eighth Big 12 title in a row for the Jayhawks and the 45th SEC title in history for the Wildcats.
We did some crowd-sourcing on Twitter yesterday over this very question and it’s clear that there is no consensus on who the NPOY should be. A common refrain that we heard was that Davis is more valuable defensively than Robinson (probably true) and that should therefore make the difference; conversely, Kansas without Robinson in its lineup may look a lot worse than Kentucky would without Davis on its front line (also probably true). Each player is a certain First Team All-American, but the duo will each have two more games over the next seven days to make their final cases to America — UK vs. Georgia and at Florida, and KU at Oklahoma State and vs. Texas. In a too-close-to-call competition, one particularly good or bad game relative to each other could make all the difference.
Top Storyline. The Border War Showcases College Hoops At Its Best. Given everything that was at stake locally, regionally and nationally in Saturday’s Border War showdown between Missouri and Kansas, the basketball gods cast a fitting tribute to a series that does not deserve to end. The game had just about everything you could ask for except a buzzer-beating game-winner (and let the record reflect that Marcus Denmon’s shot just after the final horn fell into the hole), including All-America performances from players sure to soon be on those lists, a fan environment perhaps unparalleled anywhere else in the sport, and an epic comeback that will no doubt cause glee or consternation for years depending on which side of the Missour/Kansas border you live on. It was just a superb game for any college basketball fan to enjoy, and if Saturday’s masterpiece was indeed the end of the series for a while, it will have to live on through repeated showings of clips such as this one. (note: of course, these games don’t matter…)
Five More Weekend Storylines.
- Michigan and Ohio State Blow Their Big Ten Title Chances. Heading into this weekend, Michigan and Ohio State were both just one game back of Michigan State in the Big Ten standings with three to play, but the Wolverines and Buckeyes uncharacteristically dropped home games to essentially eliminate themselves from regular season title contention. Michigan lost to Purdue, its first loss this year at home, while Ohio State was beaten by Wisconsin for its second loss in three home contests. As a result, Michigan State has now clinched at least a share of the Big Ten regular season championship and just has to win one of its final two games to claim the outright title. The Spartans still have much to play for in shooting for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will relish the opportunity to take down Ohio State at home next Sunday even if they already have the conference locked up.
- Wild and Wacky Mountain West. If anyone can figure out the Mountain West pecking order, please let us know. After New Mexico defeated San Diego State and UNLV in back-to-back games to take a two-game lead in the MW, the Lobos proceeded to drop their next two games this week. Saturday’s blowout loss at TCU dropped UNM to 8-4 in the conference, and the three leading contenders are once again tied atop the standings. UNLV, SDSU, and New Mexico are all now 8-4 with two games remaining, none of which are against the other — all three teams have split against the others. The Lobos have the easiest remaining schedule with two home games against last-place Boise State and Air Force, but they’re clearly not playing well right now. Expect the unexpected in this conference race, as has been the case all season.
- Connecticut’s Dilemma. The Huskies put up a tough fight on Saturday night and came one possession away from defeating #2 Syracuse, but in the end, UConn dropped its eighth game in 11 tries, falling to 17-11 overall and 7-9 in the Big East. The Huskies boast the nation’s best strength of schedule according to the NCAA and clearly have the talent of an NCAA Tournament team, but they could easily be left out of the Big Dance given their poor conference play. It’s looking like UConn must win at Providence and versus Pittsburgh in its final two regular season games to ensure that it will stay on the right side of the bubble. Any more losses would leave them with a sub-.500 conference record, 12+ total losses and in a very dangerous place come Selection Sunday. The team will be without coach Jim Calhoun for at least the Providence game on Tuesday night, so it’ll be up to George Blaney and his players to finish strong in the midst of so much adversity.
- Battle for the #1 Seeds. With two big wins this weekend, Kentucky and Syracuse have effectively locked up their places as #1 seeds for the NCAA Tournament. But the other two spots on the top line are very much still available. Currently it looks like Kansas and Michigan State have the upper hand, but Duke beat both of those teams on neutral floors this season and has a better overall record. North Carolina is making a strong surge as well, and those two ACC foes will square off on Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium in a game that will likely decide the ACC regular season title and give the winner a great shot for the top line. Kansas narrowly escaped this weekend and Michigan State has two difficult games remaining; both teams must keep pace in order to stave off the hard-charging ACC teams. This battle will likely not be decided until we find out who can win their conference tournaments.
- MKG Says He’s Staying. One of the top players in the country and a surefire Top 10 NBA prospect, Kentucky freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist told reporters on Saturday that he’s going to return to school next season. “I’m graduating here. I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying at Kentucky. I’m dead serious. I don’t know why y’all laughing,” Gilchrist said. The first-year player is a funny guy and some of that is revealed in this short quote, which also makes us wonder how serious of a statement it was. Normally, this news wouldn’t be such a big deal but we are talking about one of the very best players in the nation in an era where most top prospects bolt to the league as soon as they can. By returning to Lexington for another year, MKG would be passing on millions of dollars and a chance to go in the top three to five picks of the upcoming NBA Draft. But by staying, he’d also once again prove how different he is as a guy that clearly loves learning the game and playing at Kentucky. But this season is far from over and the 18-year-old has plenty of time to make an official decision on his future in coming weeks.
This Other Interesting Thing. Gonzaga’s 11-Year WCC Reign Ends. It had been over 4,000 days and just over 11 years since there was a time when Mark Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs were not the reigning WCC regular season champions. How long ago was it? Consider that on February 24, 2001, there was a brand-new president from Texas in the White House and 9/11 was better known as an emergency hotline than a notable date in American history. With St. Mary’s hard-fought victory coming over San Francisco on Saturday night, though, the Gaels finally broke through and wrestled away the crown from their conference rival by one game. GU shared the title with Pepperdine in 2001-02 and St. Mary’s last season, but thanks to USF’s upset victory over Gonzaga a week ago, there would be no such tie at the top this season. Whether this represents a changing of the guard in the WCC or if this is a mere one-year blip remains to be seen, but it was worth noting that the longest active regular season title streak in college basketball came to an end this weekend, a mere two years shy of the all-time record that UCLA set under John Wooden.
- Anthony Davis, Kentucky (Co-NPOY) – As discussed above, Davis’ 28-point, 11-rebound, six-block effort against Vanderbilt was a phenomenal performance in Kentucky’s win on Saturday afternoon.
- Thomas Robinson, Kansas (Co-NPOY) – Again, see above. T-Rob continues to be as impressive a player and young man as there is in the country. His 28 points, 12 rebounds, and the game-tying bucket in regulation were huge for Kansas’ classic overtime victory on Saturday.
- Tyshawn Taylor, Kansas – Continuing with the KU theme, the Jayhawk senior point guard played perhaps the best game of his career against Missouri. He played 44 minutes, tallied 24 points, five assists, committed just one turnover, and made several enormous plays down the stretch to get Kansas back in the game.
- Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State – The sophomore forward was terrific in Saturday’s win over Colorado State, going for 31 points and 16 boards in a crucial victory to lead San Diego State into a three-way tie for first place in the Mountain West.
- Jae Crowder, Marquette – How impressive has he been for Marquette? While four of his best teammates were suspended for at least one half of Friday night’s game at West Virginia, Crowder had 26 points, four rebounds, two steals, and two blocks to lead the short-handed Golden Eagles to a big road win.
- Andre Drummond, Connecticut – His team lost but the freshman center had a massive game for UConn, tallying 17 points, 14 rebounds, and three blocks while making big plays down the stretch that nearly led to a victory over #2 Syracuse.
- Marcus Denmon, Missouri – Another player on the losing end of a game, Denmon was at no fault for Mizzou’s meltdown and overtime loss at Kansas. The senior scored 28 points with six threes, including one in overtime that gave his team a lead with under a minute to play. The Tigers just couldn’t hold on to win.
- Terone Johnson, Purdue – Out of nowhere, the sophomore guard scored a career-high 22 points and was the catalyst of Purdue’s stunning road win at Michigan to lock up a likely at-large bid for the Boilermakers.
- Moe Harkless, St. John’s – The freshman forward continues to impress, this time tallying 22 points, nine rebounds, two steals, and two blocks as St. John’s ended Notre Dame’s nine-game winning straight with a close win at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
- Zach Rosen, Pennsylvania – Time to show this Ivy League star some love, as the Penn guard had 20 points in a road win at Harvard on Saturday that leaves the Ivy League wide open for the taking.