ATB: A Couple of Big Bubble Wins, Miami Stunned at the Buzzer and a Whole Bunch of Weird Losses…Posted by Chris Johnson on March 7th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Two Questionable At-Large’s Cash In. At the end of a long season, after a mixed bag of wins and losses leaves you wanting more, every now and then the schedule throws you a lifeline. Teams get big resume-boosting opportunities right in their own home gyms. Sometimes they take advantage; other times not. Villanova and Iowa State were blessed with such propositions in their respective home confines Wednesday night, with Oklahoma State visiting Hilton Coliseum and Georgetown making its way to the Wells Fargo Center. With Tourney ticket-punching affairs hanging in the balance, their agendas were simple. Win and you’re in.
Your Watercooler Moment. Bubble-Dwellers Score Big.
When national player of the year candidates meet desperate bubble teams, I’ll take the latter every time and never think twice. Arguably the best player in college basketball over the past few weeks, Georgetown’s Otto Porter, came upon a collective force he could not overcome in Philadelphia, PA. That force was Villanova’s home court advantage and added motivational edge, and the Wildcats – having already knocked off Syracuse, Louisville and Marquette at home this season – were not about to let this golden opportunity slip away. Sure, Jay Wright’s team could have busted off a few Big East Tournament wins and maybe, maybe snuck into the field after a loss Wednesday night. Instead, thanks to the efficient offense of JayVaughn Pinkston and solid defensive work on Porter, Villanova can go into Selection Sunday feeling optimistically comfortable about its position in the field. The other big bubble game didn’t feature a top-five team. A National POY candidate was in the building, though, and not even Marcus Smart could hold down the Cyclones’ potent offense in Ames. Like the Georgetown win, ISU’s triumph should get them over the hump (ISU’s case is thornier than Villanova’s, no doubt), provided it takes care of business Saturday at West Virginia. It’s never smart to make definitive statements about who’s in and who’s out before the selection committee gets together and sets in stone the field of 68. The committee has been known to make some puzzling decisions from time to time. And I don’t consider myself skeptical when I say the selection process will render more than a few dumbfounding choices this season. But on Wednesday night these two teams may have eliminated the possibility of selection day robbery altogether. Their profiles look worthy.
Also Worth Chatting About. Uh, Miami?
One of the main takeaways from Saturday’s loss at Duke, besides Ryan Kelly’s marvelous return, was the way Miami hung tough for 40 minutes, battled the Blue Devils every step of the way, and came one three-point shot away from sending the game into overtime. Miami came away with a loss, but if you’re Jim Larranaga you head back to Coral Gables feeling like your team not only managed the pressures of a brutal environment with poise and aplomb, but also nearly knocked off arguably the best team in the country (I don’t subscribe to this notion, but it’s out there) on a night when its newly-healthy senior forward miraculously returned from a weeks-long absence to play one of the best games in program history. It happens. Conference games are hard to win on the road. And besides, Miami still had the ACC regular season crown to bank on, right? All it had to do was win one of its final two regular season games to clinch its first outright conference title since moving to the ACC; easy stuff. On Wednesday night Georgia Tech was anything but “easy” at the BankUnited Center. The Yellowjackets stunned Miami, delaying its outright conference title and shaking up the ever-fluid NCAA Tournament seeding permutations, but more than anything else, Georgia Tech handed the Hurricanes their first truly worrisome lost of the conference season (shout out to Florida Gulf Coast!). Mere weeks away from the opening round, Miami will need to assess its mistakes and roll into the tourney riding the same confidence and momentum it had throughout most of league play.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Michigan Keeps the Dream Alive. With the score knotted at 64 and just over three minutes remaining Wednesday night at Mackey Arena, Michigan stared down the possibility of preempting its Big Ten regular season title aspirations from Sunday’s titanic matchup with Indiana at the Crisler Center. A brief fit of rage washed over me as I pondered all the lost intrigue, all the lost Wolverines aspiration from that Sunday showdown. My concerns were quickly washed away when Trey Burke took over down the stretch and helped UM hold off the Boilermakers for a five-point win. Then I wondered why I was ever nervous in the first place. Me, Nervous? With Michigan on the road and Burke running the show? Nahh.
- Arena Finale Not A Disappointment. For the Huskers fans in attendance to witness Wednesday night’s game against Minnesota, it was the last time spectators were able to watch their favorite team at the Bob Devaney Sports Center. Next season, Nebraska will open up Pinnacle Bank Arena and officially take an administrative step forward into a bright basketball future under Tim Miles. But before anyone starts thinking about the Huskers’ new digs, they made sure to send off the Devaney center with a bang. Nebraska knocked off Minnesota after never trailing the entire game to finish the conference season with a respectable 5-12 record (given the expectations). I guess this is where I should get to talking about what this means for the Gophers’ late-season performance, and their Tournament seed, but the Nebraska angle – a new stadium, and a fitting way to do away with the old one – is the right choice here. Besides, once you read the below section and realize how many teams suffered unlikely losses, you’ll be happy I spared you of at least one Tournament-oriented post-defeat narrative.
- A Miss For Maryland. The final two games of Maryland’s season were sort of important. After losses to Boston College and Georgia Tech, the Terrapins had basically played themselves out of the Tournament conversation. Two wins in their last two, over UNC and Virginia, would merit a reconsideration, or at least give the Terrapins some credible hope heading into the ACC Tourney. Wednesday night initiated that crucial stretch with an eminently winnable game (UNC), and Maryland fell short. The Tar Heels are playing their best basketball of the season of late, and Maryland, well, isn’t. But if there ever were a moment where Mark Turgeon’s squad would unleash the devastating potential of Dez Wells and Alex Len on offense, and truly commit to locking down on the other end, it was Wednesday night. They didn’t; bubble imperatives or not, Maryland was not the better team in own building when it absolutely needed to be.
- An Upset at Wazzu. Too many times this season, UCLA has put together nice little stretches of games where it looks like the clear-cut favorite in the Pac-12, where Kyle Anderson and Shabazz Muhammad sling the rock along the perimeter, the Wear Twins man up on the low block and Larry Drew guides a high-powered offense. The Bruins can look really good. Then you get nights like Wednesday, where UCLA fell at league doormat Washington State (3-14, Pac 12). The Bruins are a fun team to watch, and when they get to running in the open floor, and Muhammad puts his lottery pick potential on full display, they can scare just about anyone in the country. But with freshmen-heavy teams there’s always the question of whether youthful, raw, NBA-smitten minds can hold up over the course of a season, particularly in tricky road environments. Thankfully for UCLA, the NCAA Tournament is the final leg of a long marathon, a sprint to the finish, and it is not played on the road. Plus, the Bruins are just the type of team that can get hot in short bursts, which plays perfectly into the abbreviated single-elimination tourney format.
- Bears’ Streak Snapped. Over the final few weeks of league play, it was hard to make the argument that any team not named Cal could rightfully claim ownership of the fuzzy title of “Pac 12’s best team”. After all, the Bears had won nine of their last ten, including games over Colorado, UCLA, Arizona and a sweep of Oregon. The Bears were running through the Pac 12’s best competition like no other league opponent before it, and if you were to frame a quick snapshot of the league landscape after a hard-fought regular season, Cal would have stood at the top (or right below it). A win at home over Stanford Wednesday night would have sent the Bears into the P12 Tournament with an eight-game unbeaten streak and all the momentum necessary to stage a title run. If you haven’t noticed, there are a bunch of “would haves” littered about the previous graf. Why so many hypotheticals? I’m glad you asked. Stanford won at Cal Wednesday night, and by win I mean double-digit domination. Of all the weird upsets on this fine night of hoops, Cal’s may be the weirdest.
- A-10 Kingpin Crumbles. Regardless of specific personnel, and without knowledge of prior game results, you can pretty much always count on Xavier playing everyone tough in the Cintas Center. Winning is an onerous proposition. Even for the A-10’s hottest team, Saint Louis, who entered Wednesday night having won 11 straight and risen into something of a feared non-Power-Six juggernaut. The Billikens play one of the most physical brands of hoops in the country. They swarm on the perimeter, muscle you off the boards and run smooth sets on the offensive end. It’s no wonder why you found them alone atop the A-10 before Wednesday night. After it, the Billikens are tied for first with VCU, who beat Richmond at home. Yup, you guessed it: Xavier defended home court, finally outdoing Saint Louis in overtime. I’m not going to take too much away from a game like this. One loss in the span of an immensely impressive winning streak isn’t going to change my mind. And if a loss at Xavier prompts you to alter your perception or lower your faith in the Billikens as an NCAA Tournament power, I’d suggest you go back, watch a few A-10 games from this season and realize Wednesday night’s result was more likely than not a function of late-season fatigue and – it needs to be said – a tough, tough road venue.
- Huskies Punked at South Florida. It has to be hard to look around at the college hoops landscape, hear all this talk about bubble teams and resume profiles and seeding implications and know that – thanks to academic penalties committed under a former coach – you will have no part in any of it. That’s what UConn has dealt with all season long, and Coach Kevin Ollie has managed to not only keep his team motivated throughout, but also turn a transfer-riddled roster into a to a legitimately scary Big East challenger. The Huskies have stayed the course all season; it has been remarkable to observe. Perhaps too remarkable: on Wednesday night, UConn was blown out at South Florida. The Wildcats could have lost this game for any number of reasons. Motivation or anti-postseason weariness may have had nothing to do with it. But it’s a valid question to ask, if for no other reason to explain how a team as woeful as USF could wrangle UConn into such an ugly performance.
- Bryant Knocked out. The Towson Tigers will go down as this season’s turnaround kings: they won 17.5 more games this season than last, and their praise is well-earned. Bryant wasn’t far behind. The Bulldogs, who saw their dream season end Wednesday night in the first round of the NEC Tournament, finished with a grand total of two wins last season (one in conference). Their 2013 season total? 19. The Bulldogs won 12 games against NEC competition, knocked off Boston College and Lehigh (with C.J. McCollum) in the nonconference and made a strong push for the league title, only to finish to games back of perennial power Robert Morris. It hurts to have your season unceremoniously ended in a first-round conference tourney upset, but in special cases like these, you take the massive progress made over the entire season and minimize the unfortunate conclusion.
Dunkdafied. A jacked-up Hilton Coliseum crowd and the Cyclones’ streaky offense was the perfect antidote for Smart and company. Babb’s forceful finish punctuated a huge win for Fred Hoiberg’s team.
Wednesday Night’s All-Americans.
- Trey Burke, Michigan (NPOY) – With Michigan’s conference title hopes on the line at Mackey, Burke delivered in winning time. He finished with 26 points and seven assists in a possible NPOY performance in the traditional sense.
- Brenton Williams, South Carolina – I’d like to call into question Frank Martin’s previous characterization of his team as “zombies.” Williams is no zombie. Zombies don’t score 38 points.
- Reggie Bullock, North Carolina – I still think Miami is better than UNC, but the argument isn’t as wild as it once might have been. The Heels are rolling and Bullock (19 points, 12 rebounds) has been one of the driving forces.
- Will Clyburn, Iowa State – A bubble fait accompli: Clyburn’s 20/5/5 assts pushed Iowa State past Oklahoma State and quite possibly into the NCAA Tournament.
- James Southerland, Syracuse – Best way to cure a three-game losing streak in the Big East? Play DePaul. Southerland’s 22 points and 10 rebounds helped the Orange dispatch the Blue Demons at the Carrier Dome.
Tweet of the Night. It wasn’t hard to bet on Duke beating the Hurricanes at Cameron Saturday. A home loss to a young Georgia Tech team with no postseason hopes to speak of is another matter entirely. It was, let’s just say, unexpected.