ATB: Wild Weekend Full of Tournament Tickets Punched And Regular Season FinalesPosted by EJacoby on March 5th, 2012
This Weekend’s Lede – What makes the official start of March Madness? Saturday, March 3, which included 105 total games, three conference tournament championships, and 15 ranked teams playing their regular season finales definitely felt like the appropriate start date. Sunday saw eight more ranked teams play and one more conference tournament decided. It was a wonderful start to Championship Week that included both the usual (Murray State won the OVC) and the unexpected (Wichita State, Iona, and Middle Tennessee all lost before the title game) that makes our sport so much fun to watch. All regular season games but one Ivy contest are now completed, so the power leagues start up their own conference tournaments in the next couple of days. Over the course of the next week we will find out 27 more automatic bid winners and the 37 at-large teams to fill out the NCAA Tournament bracket. Let’s start by rehashing what took place over the weekend, and who looks good to go dancing. We start in the Big Ten…
Your Watercooler Moment. Buckeyes Victory Means a Three-Way Tie for Big Ten Supremacy
Who said that Ohio State blew its chance at a Big Ten title last week with its loss to Wisconsin? Well, we were actually guilty of thinking the same, as Michigan State had built a two-game lead with two games to play in the conference season. But after losing at Indiana, the Spartans needed to defend their home court and defeat Ohio State in Sunday’s regular season finale if they wanted the outright Big Ten championship. The Buckeyes had other ideas, as they came back from down double-digits in the second half to eventually win on a game-winner with one second remaining. William Buford’s jumper not only evened Ohio State with Michigan State at 13-5 in the conference, but it also means that Michigan’s 13-5 record holds up as a third team atop the Big Ten. These three teams all slipped up at home late in the season, but none was more costly than this Michigan State loss with the outright title and a likely NCAA Tournament #1 seed on the line. The Big Ten Tournament will be as great to watch as ever before, with so many teams jockeying for postseason inclusion or seeding position, and three teams all as co-favorites. In the tiebreaker scenarios, Michigan State comes out victorious as the regular-season champion and #1 seed, but all three split their season series and can stake a legitimate claim as league champ.
Top Storyline – North Carolina Exacts Revenge on Duke. If it weren’t for Austin Rivers’ buzzer-beating three on February 8, then North Carolina would currently be on a 13-game winning streak in ACC play with a +13.6 average scoring margin in those games. The Tar Heels got revenge on Duke for that shot and made sure everyone remembers how great this team is as UNC throttled Duke from the outset of Saturday night’s regular season finale. The Tar Heels jumped out to an 18-5 lead in under four minutes, wound it all the way up to a 24-point advantage at halftime, and finished it off with an 88-70 blowout victory going away. Duke has struggled in Cameron Indoor Stadium this season, but nothing like this, in which the road team was superior in every facet of the game. The Tar Heels’ entire starting lineup finished with at least 12 points, Kendall Marshall dished out his usual 10 assists, and John Henson and Tyler Zeller each had 10 rebounds. Carolina is the ACC champion and peaking at the right time of year.
Five More Weekend Storylines.
- Volunteers Stepping Up. What a job first-year coach Cuonzo Martin has done at Tennessee — a team that was picked 11th in the preseason SEC poll, UT defeated Vanderbilt in its season finale on Saturday to improve to 10-6 in the conference. With Kentucky’s ensuing defeat of Florida, the Vols finished in second place in the SEC. Looking for a surprise at-large team that could end up in the First Four matchups? This Tennessee squad might be it. The Vols sport an RPI of just #81 and have 13 losses on the year, but they’ve finished the season at 8-1 in a strong conference with Jarnell Stokes newly in the lineup. Four top 50 wins, #35 strength of schedule; could a mini-run in the SEC Tournament send this team dancing? Stay tuned.
- Adding Injury to Insult. Sunday was extra bad for Michigan State when it learned that freshman forward Branden Dawson‘s knee injury was indeed a torn ACL, leaving the Spartans without a major weapon for the postseason. Dawson had been making consistent improvements and was averaging 8.0 points and 4.3 rebounds per game in conference play. But he will be missed mostly for his strong defense and toughness, something that’s been a staple of Tom Izzo’s team all year. Sparty is hurting even more from Sunday’s loss and must recover quickly to regain the form of an elite team in the NCAA Tournament.
- Messy Pac-12 – We all know it’s been a bad year for the Pac-12 Conference, but things got even more confusing for the league when its three top teams dropped their regular season finales. Washington lost at UCLA, Cal dropped at Stanford, and Arizona suffered a bad loss at Arizona State. Only Oregon is playing well in this league and looks like it wants to impress the NCAA Tournament committee, but the Ducks didn’t do a whole lot in the non-conference slate and will finish at 13-5 in a weak league with transfer Devoe Joseph becoming eligible. This could actually end up being a one-bid league, though it’s likely that one team of these four will end up with a final at-large bid come Sunday.
- Murray State Hangs On to Win OVC.
Jewuan Long is known more for his defensive prowess, but the Racers’ senior guard poured in the game-winning layup on Saturday to give Murray State the Ohio Valley conference tournament championship. After Long’s bucket went down and Tennessee State tried to answer in the video above, the Tigers had 1.1 more seconds to stay alive. A play was drawn up for star Robert Covington, but his three-point shot was off and the Racers were crowned champions. What a wild ride it’s been for Murray State, one of this season’s darlings who captured the nation’s attention with a 23-0 start that provided the narrative of a possible perfect season. The Racers dropped a home game to Tennessee State in February and plenty of fans jumped off the bandwagon, but four weeks later they’re now OVC champions at 30-1. Let that soak in for a minute: 30-1! Isaiah Canaan and company are one of the special teams of the year, and they’re definitely peaking once again heading into the NCAA Tournament. This team could receive any seed from a #4 to a #7 and will be one of the must-watch teams in the first round of the Dance to see how legitimate they are in a playoff scenario.
- Three Mid-Majors Blow Their Opportunity. Middle Tennessee, Iona and Butler were three strong mid-major teams to keep tabs on as possible NCAA Tournament Cinderellas. Iona leads the nation in scoring per game with several offensive stars, MTSU is top-five in the country in field-goal percentage, and we all know why you can’t doubt Butler. But all three of these teams lost in their conference tournaments over the weekend and sport lackluster resumes that are not likely to result in at-large bids. It’s a shame that we won’t be able to see Scott Machado play in the Big Dance or Brad Stevens gunning for a third straight Final Four appearance, but that’s what happens when you don’t perform best when it matters most. We’ll see you in the NIT.
This Other Interesting Thing – Belmont, Creighton and UNC-Asheville Are Going Dancing
All three of these teams were strong favorites in their championship games, so nothing is a big surprise here. But it’s still noteworthy that the Bruins, Bulldogs, and Bluejays all won their league tournaments because they’re all fun to watch and can score with the best teams in the country. Each of these three teams scores at least 80 points per game and ranks in the top seven in the nation in scoring. Creighton is in a much different position than the other two, being a likely top seven seed in the tourney, but all three of these teams will make for tough opponents against high-level competition.
Dunkdafied. It’s not very often that you see a player jump over a defender to dunk during a game, but Oregon’s Olu Ashaolu did just that during Oregon’s dominant win over Utah on Saturday. Wow.
- Doug McDermott, Creighton (NPOY) – McDermott capped off a special season with a superstar performance for his team in the Missouri Valley conference championship, going for 33 points and six rebounds for Creighton in its overtime victory over Illinois State on Sunday. The Bluejays may not play a lot of defense, but they’re going to be a tough out as long as Dougie is producing at this level.
- Kendall Marshall, North Carolina – The nation’s best point guard had one of the best games of his career at a most crucial time. UNC locked up the ACC regular season title behind Marshall’s game-high 20 points and 10 assists in Saturday night’s win at Duke.
- Anthony Davis, Kentucky – Davis put the final stamp on his National Player of the Year candidacy with 22 points, 12 rebounds, and six blocks in Kentucky’s regular season finale at Florida on Sunday, a 15-point win. His team, 16-0 in the SEC, shows no signs of slowing down.
- Thomas Robinson, Kansas – Did we say National Player of the Year candidate? That label obviously applies to Robinson, as well, who continues to match Davis eye for eye with his own special performances. T-Rob had 25 points and 14 rebounds in the Jayhawks’ win versus Texas on Saturday night.
- Mike Scott, Virginia – Think this senior wants to finally play in an NCAA Tournament? Scott willed his team to victory with 35 points and 11 rebounds in Virginia’s overtime win at Maryland on Sunday.
- Will Barton, Memphis – Possible C-USA Player of the Year? Will Barton made his statement, going for a 30-point, nine-rebound effort in Memphis’ win over Tulsa in the season finale. Barton also added four assists and three steals, shooting 12-17 from the field.
- Kevin Jones, West Virginia / Jae Crowder, Marquette– The two leading candidates for Big East Player of the Year both had huge games on Saturday afternoon. Jones went for 18/11 in WVU’s clutch road victory, while Crowder had 26 points, 14 boards, three assists, and five steals in the Golden Eagles’ big home win over Georgetown.
- Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State – How can you sway voters in a conference Player of the Year race? How about going for 35 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists like Franklin did in SDSU’s overtime road victory against TCU? The forward is starting to reach his incredible upside.
- Pierre Jackson, Baylor – His team lost, but it wasn’t Jackson’s fault. The Baylor point guard was the only Bear that came to play against Iowa State and nearly single-handedly led his team to victory with 35 points in the loss.
- Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga – The ‘Zags freshman guard is finishing the regular season just like he started it; with a breakthrough performance. In the WCC conference semis, Pangos put up 30 points with four assists on 10-17 shooting.