ATB: Northwestern’s Hard Knock Life, Bubble Bumps At USF & CSU, and Early Conference Tourney Action…Posted by rtmsf on March 1st, 2012
Tonight’s Lede. From this point forward until Selection Sunday, it’s busy season. Between all the conference tournaments and the wrangling of the power conference teams trying to peacock their way onto the right side of the bubble, there are no more quiet nights around the world of college basketball. And why should there be — after all, it’s March. Several teams across the landscape tonight helped their cases in this, the last week of the regular season, but it was one hard-luck squad that caught our eye as the most compelling storyline for what they were (once again) unable to do — win a ‘necessary’ game. Let’s jump in…
Your Watercooler Moment. Northwestern’s Tortured Souls.
There are tortured souls, and there are fans of teams that reside on the north side of Chicago. The Cubs are perhaps American sports’ longest running laugh-a-thon, but for Northwestern basketball fans, they’ve simply never even reached the status of relevance. At least the Cubs actually won the World Series in 1907 and 1908 and have made the MLB playoffs as recently as four years ago. The Wildcats? Oh-fer. In 73 years of NCAA Tournaments, Northwestern has never received an invitation to college basketball’s marquee event. Under Bill Carmody, they’ve been close — a seventh-place Big Ten finish in 2009, an eighth place finish in 2010 — but there always seemed to be a couple late season heart-breakers that sealed the Wildcats’ fate. This year has been particularly brutal, especially in winnable home games. A one-point loss to Illinois; a two-point defeat to Purdue; an overtime L to Michigan… and then tonight’s game against Ohio State. After a late 8-0 run punctuated by an Alex Marcotullio three-pointer tied the game at 73-all with 7.7 seconds left, Northwestern could taste the capstone victory it needed to finally solidify its spot on the sweet side of the bubble. Instead, OSU’s Aaron Craft immediately drove the ball upcourt to find his All-America big man, Jared Sullinger (22/18), on the right side of the lane for a relatively easy turn and punch off glass to give the Buckeyes a two-point lead. John Shurna’s half-court shot to win fell short, and Northwestern fans once again walked out of the arena with disappointment written on their faces. Of course, the season isn’t over yet, and the Wildcats will play at Iowa on Saturday to try to get to 8-10 in the Big Ten race, and there’s still the Big Ten Tournament next week. Still, beating a top 10 team like the Buckeyes would have really helped their resume, and if Carmody’s team is once again left to the NIT again on Selection Sunday, they’ll look back at this game as yet another golden opportunity missed. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- South Florida’s Massive Road Win. Stan Heath’s USF team is putting on a clinic of how to work your way into the NCAA Tournament. The Bulls notched a victory at Louisville on Wednesday to improve to 12-5 in the Big East. This team didn’t make a lot of noise in the non-conference, but it’s handled its business in Big East play to the point where nobody can reasonably deny it a spot in the field of 68. The Bulls have won six of their last seven and their only loss came at Syracuse by single digits in another game that passed the ‘eye’ test. A win versus West Virginia in the season finale will give them a chance for a double bye in the Big East Tournament. Can you believe it? USF is going dancing.
- A Rush for the Rams. Colorado State was down by 15 at halftime to UNLV, but the Rams stormed back in the second half to walk away with a huge win. The Rams now remain undefeated at home in the Mountain West and sport impressive RPI and SoS numbers. Wednesday’s win was the signature win that the team needs to state its case for an at-large, and it culminated with a well-orchestrated RTC in Fort Collins.
- Bearcats’ Fierce Attack. The ‘Cats scratched early and often against Marquette on their way to a double-digit home win on Senior Night. We won’t kill Marquette for this poor performance because the Golden Eagles have been so flawless in conference play that a slip-up was bound to occur. But Cincinnati was truly impressive in the way it kept coming up with aggressive defensive plays to walk away with a win that stamps the team into the NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats had 13 steals, nine blocks, and just seven turnovers in this game. The Golden Eagles? Two steals, one block, and 17 turnovers. There’s your ballgame.
- Temple Clinches the A-10. One of the quietest risers in the country, the Temple Owls keep doing work and improving their postseason outlook. Wednesday night’s overtime road win against UMass improved the team to 12-3 in the Atlantic 10 and clinched the regular season title. Temple could still feasibly finish tied at the top with Saint Louis, but the Owls already beat the Billikens head-to-head for the tiebreaker. All four of the team’s star players scored in double figures in Wednesday’s win, led by Khalif Wyatt’s 26 points.
- The ‘U’ Falls Back. Over the weekend, Miami (FL) beat Florida State despite starting center Reggie Johnson being suspended for off-court issues. On Wednesday, the Hurricanes got their big man back but lost the game at NC State in a huge bubble matchup. It’s hard to make a case for this team now, as it continues to trade wins with losses and can’t sustain any kind of consistent effort in the ACC. The ‘U’ will need to win multiple games in the ACC Tournament to feel comfortable about its NCAA chances.
- UNLV’s Road Woes. We’ve touched on how great Colorado State’s victory was, but on the other end of the spectrum was another bad road performance from the Runnin’ Rebels. UNLV scored 26 points in the first 10 minutes of this game; they scored just 33 in the final 30 minutes. This team is now 2-5 on the road in Mountain West play, and its only victories came in overtime at Boise State and Air Force, the two last place teams. The Rebels quickly blew their 15-point halftime lead on Wednesday and are not showing the consistency to match their Top 15-20 ranking they’ve sported for a long time now.
- Hawks Got Clipped. Saint Joseph’s has been a quiet bubble team for some time now, and its win against Temple over the weekend was a major coup toward its postseason hopes. But in dropping their season finale at St. Bonaventure, the Hawks are now in a bad position that spells ‘N-I-T.’ Wednesday’s loss drops St. Joe’s to 9-7 in the Atlantic 10, behind both St. Bonaventure and Xavier, and the team can’t hang its hat on that kind of final positioning. An Atlantic 10 Tournament championship is likely needed to send this team dancing.
Survive & Advance. Four more conference tourneys tipped off last night — the Atlantic Sun, Patriot, OVC, and WCC — and there was quarterfinal action in the Big South as well. Let’s do a brief rundown, as there are now 296 eligible teams still alive for the 2012 national championship.
- Atlantic Sun – The top two seeds, Belmont and Mercer, advanced easily to the semifinal round with victories over #8 Jacksonville and #7 Lipscomb. The second set of quarterfinal games are Thursday night.
- Big South – The big story here was #2 seed Coastal Carolina getting crushed by #7 seed VMI, which with #6 Winthrop’s win over #3 Campbell has opened up one half of the bracket completely. Top seed UNC-Asheville and #4 Charleston Southern won easily, and the two will face each other Thursday night in the other half of the semis.
- OVC – In the opening round, #5 SE Missouri outlasted #8 Eastern Kentucky, while #7 Jacksonville State slid by #6 Austin Peay. The two winners will advance to play #4 Tennessee Tech and #3 Morehead State on Thursday, respectively.
- Patriot League – Not much excitement in the quarters of the PL, as the three top seeds — Bucknell, Lehigh, and American — advanced easily. The only minor upset was #5 Lafayette beating #4 Holy Cross (for the third year in a row) to join the others in the semifinal round on Saturday.
- WCC – The WCC’s play-in game went to #8 Portland over #9 Santa Clara, as Kerry Keating’s team laced their shoes up 17 times in the WCC this season and walked away with 17 losses. Brutal.
- Tyler Zeller, North Carolina (NPOY) – On Senior Night, ‘Z’ was just showing off. The center scored 30 points on an incredible 20-23 performance from the free throw line. He also added eight rebounds, three steals, and two blocks in UNC’s dominant home win over Maryland.
- Jaquon Parker, Cincinnati – Who, you ask? It’s Cincinnati’s ‘glue guy’ who went off on Wednesday, scoring a career-high 28 points on 10-18 shooting with seven rebounds, two assists, and no turnovers for a team that is now definitely headed for the Big Dance.
- Jared Sullinger, Ohio State – Sully had been struggling recently, not recording a double-double in his past four games which is unthinkable for this efficient star. He rebounded in a big way, scoring 22 points and grabbing 18 rebounds at Northwestern including the game-winning basket with three seconds to play.
- Robbie Hummel, Purdue – What a way to end a home career for Hummel, a guy that’s hard not to root for. On Senior Night, he tallied 26 points, eight rebounds, and six assists in Purdue’s blowout victory over Penn State.
- Khalif Wyatt, Temple – If you don’t know about Khalif, now you know. The junior guard is one of the breakout guards in the country this season, now up to 17.4 points and 2.1 steals per game after racking up 26 points and three steals in the Owls’ win over UMass. He also contributed across the board, as he usually does, with six assists, four rebounds, and a ridiculous 17-18 shooting night from the foul line.
Tweet of the Night. Colorado State was down by 15 at the half versus UNLV tonight, yet head coach Tim Miles still found time to get in a tweet after his halftime speech. His players clearly got the message, hopefully via the speech and not the social medium, but the team stormed back to win in the second half.