ATB: Buzzer-Beaters Galore, Conference Tournament Aplenty and Bubble Consolidation…Posted by Chris Johnson on March 11th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC C0lumnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The Weekend’s Lede. Regular Season Finale. The end is here. Sad, isn’t it? When I say end, I don’t mean the real end. That comes later, at the end of the greatest tournament in American sports. No, what I’m referring to is the regular season, the five-month long slog that took us through the uncertain fall months of non-conference play, across the New Year into a rugged conference landscape, and finally, into the brink of league tourney season. Other than the official crowning of regular season conference champions, select NCAA bids handed out in smaller leagues and a spate of meaningful bubble movement, nothing really happened over the weekend. It was sort of ordinary – if ordinary means a continuation of the craziness we’ve witnessed all season. So without further ado, I present your final regular season weekend ATB. Let’s have at it…
Your Watercooler Moment. The Big Ten Title Bout.
The Big Ten regular season championship was up for grabs when the league’s five top teams (Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State) began action Sunday afternoon. The basic expectation was that Indiana, after being manhandled at home by Ohio State earlier this week, would lose at Michigan to open up the conference crown to all kinds of contingencies and x-way split scenarios. The Buckeyes wanted a piece of the pie; Tom Izzo’s team didn’t want to be left out; and the Wolverines, well, their fate was in their own hands. The thinking was absolutely on point – the Buckeyes showed Tuesday night in Bloomington what grit and defensive focus and physicality can do to the nation’s most efficient offense, how it can throw Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford into a funk and render the Hoosiers’ hot jump shooters mostly impotent for large stretches. The optics of IU’s postgame celebration – a major national talking point the next day, oddly enough – only increased the wackiness of the entire situation. IU had fallen in a game it was widely expected to win, and the postgame ceremony was expected to include not just a celebration of Indiana’s seniors, but also the official honoring of the Hoosiers’ first outright Big Ten title since 1993. It took another five days before checking that second box, but Indiana got its long-coveted conference title. The Hoosiers sunk Michigan (and its conference title hopes) in the final minute on a debilitating string of missed UM free throws, six consecutive IU points, a crucial layup from Cody Zeller and a whole lot of late-game savvy in front of a deafening Crisler Center crowd.
An outright conference title is just one of the prizes IU shored up Sunday. Another? The inside track on landing the Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis) hosting site for the NCAA Tournament, where red-and-white partisans will turn any IU game into a virtual home court advantage. Then there’s the NPOY implications – the fact that Oladipo, in the biggest game of the season, came up huge with 14 points, 13 rebounds (not to mention Zeller’s 25/10, if you still believe in Zeller’s outside shot at the POY awards) and his usual brand of supercharged defensive disruptiveness, and that Trey Burke just couldn’t get his team over the hump when it mattered most. Yes, Indiana won a lot more than standings supremacy over the nation’s toughest league. Just days after a puzzling loss, the Hoosiers now roll into postseason play with utmost confidence in their ability to make good on the preseason No. 1 ranking.
Also Worth Chatting About. Wildcats Buck up in Must-Win Finale.
Like any historically dominant sports entity, Kentucky has its share of location-agnostic dissidents within its sport. It is one of two teams, along with Duke, to drown in the national hatred. The Wildcats are blue, well-funded, a self-generating news cycle and in most seasons, good. Kentucky is good; oceans hold water; the sky is blue (you get the point). Making that argument would have seemed a bit silly for much of this season, with the possible exception of a mid-season stretch where the Wildcats tore off five straight wins, watched Nerlens Noel develop into a bona fide defensive star and potential lottery pick, and laid waste to most of the NCAA Tournament doubts heaved their way during an uninspiring non-conference performance. When Noel lost his season to an ACL injury in a road defeat at Florida, the stakes changed. Kentucky needed to show the selection committee that it belonged in the Tournament without its best and most important player. It needed to prove it was good, again. The only sign of goodness prior to Saturday from this current UK team came in an inspired overtime win over Missouri. The rest of the Wildcats’ Noel-less work, including road losses at Arkansas and Georgia, was less than inspiring. Kentucky had work to do before its at-large credentials could be considered even reasonably acceptable by selection committee standards.
But UK isn’t just any bubble-tethered team biting its nails and anxiously watching scoreboards in early March. It is one of the most successful programs in the history of the sport, a hoarder of NBA lottery talent, a wildly passionate legion of fans with unyielding postseason demands. Of course Kentucky’s schedule lined up perfectly, with a home game to close the season against road-weary Florida, and of course the Wildcats took advantage of the opportunity on tap to significantly boost their chances heading into the SEC Tournament. As much as rival programs wail, and as far down on the bubble pecking order as UK may have stood after Noel’s injury, discounting the Wildcats entirely was never a smart line of thinking in the first place. Kentucky is who they are, and where it belongs, historically, is in the NCAA Tournament. As of Saturday afternoon, it sure looks like the Wildcats will get there, provided they proceed cautiously in the opening round of the SEC Tournament.
This Weekend’s Quick Hits…
- So Much For Duke-UNC Being Interesting. Going into round two of 2012-13’s Tobacco Road Rivalry saga, North Carolina had momentum, home-court advantage and a spanking new, lithe, chique small-ball style to counter Duke’s big man tandem of Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee. Duke had the number one overall seed on its mind, and besides, when is Duke-Carolina not at least nominally interesting? Saturday night, that’s when; Duke crushed UNC from the tip, led by Mason Plumlee’s efficient interior work and Seth Curry’s unconscious jump shooting. The impulsive reaction would be to blast UNC and its chances of advancing past the first round in the Tournament, but really, your opinion of Roy Williams’ team shouldn’t change all that much after Saturday night. The most sensible takeaway, at least to me, is that Duke is trending back towards the unquestioned number one it was earlier this season – if you’re UNC, there’s no shame in losing to a full-strength Duke. Since Kelly’s return, the Blue Devils have won two big games (Miami, and at UNC), and appear to have a clear edge over one-seed Miami heading into the conference Tournament. The rubber match with the Hurricanes, if such a matchup comes about in the championship round, will be must-see viewing.
- SEC Bubble Action. Three classic bubble squads put their resumes on the line Saturday with different challenges at hand. Alabama and Ole Miss faced completely manageable games against Georgia and LSU, respectively, while Tennessee openly welcomed a travel-averse Missouri squad to Knoxville for a big-time opportunity to move on up the at-large totem pole. The Rebels, in a rare showing of predictability, took care of business in Baton Rouge with minimal fuss. The other two games weren’t as simple. The Volunteers held on for a two-point win after Mizzou point guard Phil Pressey air-balled a three inside the final minute of regulation, which is a hugely important development for Tennessee, but only half as dramatic as what took place in Tuscaloosa, Al. With the game tied at 58 and under 10 seconds to play, Georgia commits a reckless turnover, Alabama wins possession, the ball finds its way to Tide forward Trevor Releford, who then……well, just watch. My quick bubble analysis: Tennessee is alive and well (UT is in better shape), but a conference tourney win or two can’t hurt. Ole Miss and Alabama are still floating, I guess, though their league tourney agenda is more daunting (h/t Rob Dauster, NBC Sports)
- Five Bids For the Mountain West. I feel reasonably confident making that claim after Boise State, the only bubble waffler among the Mountain West’s company heading into the weekend, edged San Diego State at home Saturday. The Broncos have been something of a mystery all season long, from their nonconference win at Creighton to a 16-point blowout loss at Nevada to a batch of impressive wins over MWC contenders (UNLV, Colorado State, SDSU). Through it all, Boise has stayed the course, stayed under the radar and seeped in the RPI love of a deep and computer-buoyant league. Now Leon Rice’s team is on the brink of its first NCAA bid since 2008, and in a league as unpredictably competitive as the 2012-13 MWC, that is without question a huge accomplishment for a program with little in the way of recent hoops credibility.
- Baylor Shows Life! When Baylor lost at Texas Monday, following a home loss to Kansas State two days prior, it looked like the uber-talented Bears had finally seen their at-large hopes slip through the cracks. There was always the regular season finale against Kansas, but did anyone really think this disjointed and erratic team could buck up and knock off a Jayhawks team that had recovered from a three-game midseason swoon to rattle off seven straight victories? Not only did Baylor beat Kansas, it bumrushed the visiting Jayhawks in an 81-58 rout and boosted its Tournament prospects in its biggest game of the season. For much of this season, it was fair to heap the same old criticisms on Scott Drew – that he couldn’t coach all the five-star talent flowing into Waco into anything more than a disparate mix of shiny toys, that the program was way too inconsistent under his watch to trust in a big game. On Saturday, Baylor was much, much more than that. The Bears stepped up and pulled off the win they sorely needed.
- A-10 Home Teams Protect Home Court. Based on the way Temple has turned things around since that abominable mid-February home loss to Duquesne, it was not surprising to see the Owls stay strong at the Liacouras Center Sunday and solidify their just-ok NCAA profile. Turning a 16-point deficit into a 17-point lead is a huge micro in-game achievement, but if you take the win alongside another, it’s not like anyone will come away with newfound confidence in Temple’s postseason prospects. Speaking of postseason prospects, Xavier might have played its way into the at-large conversation had they hung on at Butler Saturday. The Bulldogs handled Chris Mack’s team, and so – for the moment, and barring some sort of pre-Tournament week bubble permissiveness – the Musketeers appear to be headed for less-prized postseason destination. For all their variously baffling losses throughout this season, it remains true that Butler and Temple are two of the A-10’s best, and both ended the season by nailing home that concept.
- The End of the Line in the Pac-12. All the early-season recriminations and national scrutiny, all the Shabazz Muhammad NCAA turbulence and transfer-related mysteries, all the rumblings about Ben Howland’s job security. All of it led to this: UCLA is your 2012-13 Pac 12 regular season champion. This wouldn’t have sounded like such a crazy idea in the preseason, when the Bruins were set to unleash the nation’s best recruiting class and a crop of serviceable veterans on a marginally improved league. But after the early-season turmoil that captured Westwood, the Bruins’ steady (albeit sometimes erratic) run through Pac-12 competition will go down as one of the regular season’s most impressive gradual developmental curves. Two of the three teams tied for second place – Oregon and Cal – lost their final regular season games, and Arizona, long considered the favorite to finish out on top, downed state rival Arizona State Saturday to earn a co-share of the hotly-contested runner up spot.
- Memphis Completes Perfect C-USA Season. After a disappointing November and December where Memphis missed on every big nonconference opportunity of note, the mandate going forward was clear: don’t lose any conference games. Memphis probably could have dropped a C-USA contest or two anyway, but the Tigers made it through unscathed nonetheless, a feat completed by Saturday’s win over UAB. The current basketball climate in Memphis won’t celebrate the Tigers’ nightly league success without a postseason reward on the back end, and if they fail, again, to win one (or even two) NCAA Tournament games, coach Josh Pastner will once again feel the brunt of the blame. C-USA was awful this season, sure, and the Tigers were expected to win every game they played, but actually staying unbeaten over the course of a 16-game league schedule – I don’t care what league you’re in – is a measure of endurance and toughness few teams in any conference can claim to have.
- Saint Louis Brings Home A-10 Title. The only thing standing between Saint Louis and an A-10 championship, after suffering its first loss in 12 games midweek at Xavier, was a home game against La Salle Saturday. The Billikens have dropped a couple of puzzling home games this season (Santa Clara, Rhode Island), so the notion that La Salle – a not-so-safe bubble proposition – could have gone into Chaifetz Arena and pulled out a win wasn’t completely out of the question. Then you watch this Saint Louis team, realize just how tough, disciplined and workmanlike Jim Crews’ group really is, and think to yourself: why did I question Saint Louis? The short answer: you shouldn’t have. The Billikens steamrolled La Salle, and their end-game prize was an A-10 Title. Well-deserved.
- UVA Lives On. The bubble case study flavor of the year in 2013 is Virginia. The Cavaliers have one of the weirdest profiles in recent memory, with a host of ghastly losses (Old Dominion, Delaware, George Mason to name a few) paired with a few nice wins (UNC, NC State, Duke, Tennessee, Wisconsin), and everything in between. If the Cavaliers get in, the eye test – their ability to go blow-for-blow with the ACC’s best, armed with a stifling defense and a go-to scorer in point guard Joe Harris – will have a lot to do with it. So too, will Sunday’s overtime win over Maryland. Look, Maryland isn’t a great win or anything like that; it’s the competing agendas, the fact that both UVA and the Terrapins entered the weekend squarely on the bubble, that makes this a crucial distinguishing win. The Cavaliers’ fate rests in the ACC Tournament bracket. Their work is not yet complete.
- And the Big East Regular Season Title Goes To… If you predicted the Big East regular season winner in the preseason, your choice probably included one of the teams to take home the league’s final regular season trophy. The other two? I’m not so sure. Thanks to wins over St. John’s, Syracuse and Notre Dame, respectively, Marquette, Georgetown and Louisville finished Saturday night with a three-way split of the league crown. Each team has endured a mix of wins and losses – some good, some bad, some just flat out weird – but at the end of it all, the Big East’s three most deserving teams will each lay claim to the coveted hardware. Marquette figures to land somewhere in the 3-4-seed range; Georgetown and Syracuse could very well be playing for a No. 1 seed in the Big East Tournament. Speaking of the Golden Eagles, if not for Vander Blue’s buzzer beater, I would have had to exclude them from this Big East championship blurb. Good thing, huh?
… and Misses.
- Speculation Hovers Around Jim Boeheim’s Coaching Tenure. After a 61-39 loss at Georgetown Saturday, Jim Boeheim sat before the media and sounded like a man finishing out the end of a long and prolific career. “I’m ready to go play golf some place,” he said. “If I was 40 years old, I would be real upset. I’m not 40 years old. That should be obvious.” Speculation began earlier this week when the official Syracuse University Twitter account sent containing a link to a story saying Boeheim would retire after this season. Boeheim won his 900th game this season, owns five Big East Tournament titles, nine Big East regular season titles and one national championship (2010). There’s nothing much to report right now, other than dispiriting body language and statements from a man frustrated with his team’s recent struggles. Until we know more, it’s best not to draw any conclusions.
- Almost, Providence. It might sound crazy, and at first glance, I wouldn’t blame you for receiving the following information with some combination of disbelief and cynical laughter. But here goes: Providence (yes, Providence) had been playing some of the best basketball of any team in the Big East, and after having won seven of its previous eight Big East contests (including over Villanova, Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Saint John’s) had washed up on the outer reaches of bubble territory. A win at UConn Saturday would have made things interesting, and at least given the Friars a palatable workload at the upcoming Big East Tournament. After losing in overtime in at Gampel Pavilion, Providence may need to play its way to the league tourney final – and knock off a few Tournament-bound outfits along the way – to warrant consideration.
- Once Thriving, Akron Is Heading In The Wrong Direction. The at-large dream may have died once Akron lost at Buffalo last weekend. If it didn’t, then Friday night’s home loss to Kent State closed the door. The conference tournament remains a last-ditch safety net, as is the case for most of the nation’s high-win outfits from smaller leagues, but the Zips look nothing like the conference hegemon they’ve been for much of the season. Without point guard Alex Abreu, who was charged last week with possession and trafficking of Marijuana, Akron was clearly out of sync in its final regular season game. Unless the Zips can find a way to recalibrate their winning formula without Abreu at the controls, their NCAA aspirations – at-large, auto and any other path I’m not currently aware of – are slim at best.
- LA Bummer. The possibility that Louisiana Tech could sneak into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large felt more and more legitimate as the season wore on. The Bulldogs had already knocked off Southern Miss, Utah State, Denver and New Mexico State, touted a solid RPI figure (49 as of Saturday night) and would have given the selection committee a very strong case had they managed to get past a brutal closing road stretch at NMSU and Denver. The Bulldogs lost the first of those games Thursday night, then turned around and lost the second, at Denver, Saturday night to all but crush their at-large hopes. The WAC league Tournament officially begins Tuesday; for LA Tech, tourney play begins with a quarterfinals matchup Thursday.
- This is Who NC State Is. If you extract losses to UNC, Miami and Duke from Florida State’s home conference schedule, the Seminoles are undefeated in Tallahassee during ACC play. They have underperformed all season, are coming off an emotional two-point win over Virginia and, wait. Why am I rattling off traits that explain how Florida State managed to topple NC State Saturday night? Isn’t it obvious? The Wolfpack just aren’t that good away from home (Sorry!), as loathe as many preseason proponents may be to accept it. NC State can get hot and win a couple of games in the NCAA Tournament, but it’s never shown the aptitude to win tough road games at any point this season. Florida State isn’t anywhere near the bubble cutline; it’s more like an average if flawed team, but not one incapable of giving the road-vulnerable Wolfpack fits at home. NC State has struggled away from Raleigh all season. This loss isn’t some new-age hoops discovery.
- Sooners Lose Stunner. Let me start by saying this: TCU’s win over Kansas was, more than anything else, a fluke. Kansas played its worst offensive game of the season and lost; Bill Self made jokes about Topeca YMCA in the post game press conference. The upset came and went, and no one really expected much of TCU for the rest of the regular season. That thinking was probably for the best: TCU lost its next eight games, entered Saturday ranked 317th in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings and remained nothing more than a one-night wonder searching for a nice send-off for first year coach Trent Johnson. In other words, it was hard to give TCU a whole lot of faith heading into its regular season finale against one of the league’s more capable outfits: Oklahoma. Lo and behold, a 19-1 first half run bled into a cold shooting night from the Sooners (0-for-16 from downtown) and when the dust cleared, the Horned Frogs had another remarkable home win to add to its 2012 grand total (2).
- Ugh, Minnesota. No, Minnesota won’t finish with a winning record in the Big Ten. That much was certain after Saturday’s blowout loss at Purdue (on a related note: kudos to the Boilers, who finished the season by first raiding Wisconsin’s senior day at Kohl center, then playing Michigan to a five-point loss and beating Minnesota). And yes, I’m willing to admit the Gophers aren’t playing their best basketball of the season of late. But just look at Minnesota’s computer numbers, its assortment of wins (Indiana, Illinois, Iowa), its schedule strength, and just try and tell me Minnesota isn’t getting in over, say, Ole Miss or Alabama or Iowa. It’s not even an argument worth having. Like it or not, Minnesota is getting into the NCAAs.
- Colorado Did What? How does one thrash No. 19-ranked Oregon by 23 points on Thursday night then follow that up with a six-point home loss to RPI scourge Oregon State two days later? Only Colorado can answer that question. I’ll stick to the basic facts, and the bottom line is that the Buffaloes have one too many bad losses (Utah, OSU, Washington) to take their first-round game in the Pac-12 Tournament lightly. Don’t get me wrong: Colorado is probably safe, but an opening-round victory in the league tournament to tie some loose ends on a worthy but shaky profile isn’t a terrible idea – that’s all. What I can’t wrap my head around is the fact that Colorado absolutely destroyed the better half of the Oregon travel duo, but allowed the bottom-dwelling little brother, OSU, to desecrate its own home gym.
- Losing at Air Force Isn’t Terrible; Losing at Home to Fresno State is. Whatever your thoughts on Air Force, however you view them in the fluid MWC power structure, know this: the Falcons are mighty tough at home. They played their final game of the season at Clune Arena Saturday against league champion New Mexico, and in a mini-snap shot of the thrilling hoop that’s characterized the Mountain West all season, Air Force sunk the Lobos on a dagger three with under three seconds to go. UNLV also took a loss in its final regular season game, but it’s impossible to put a road slip-up at Air Force and a home defeat to Fresno State on the same plane. The Rebels are immeasurably talented but far too inconsistent to trust beyond, oh I don’t know, the first weekend of the NCAAs?. Losing at Air Force isn’t a great look for the Lobos, but it doesn’t discredit their steadiness and remarkable staying power in this year’s rigorous MWC. Beyond a potential NCAA Tournament seeding hit, the Lobos are fine. As for Vegas, just another baffling loss to a team whose performance continues to betray the dazzling array of talent on deck (h/t RD).
- The Streak That Wasn’t Snapped. I’m not going to punish Kansas State for losing at Oklahoma State Saturday afternoon. In isolation, that’s a perfectly respectable loss to one of the Big 12’s best teams. Marcus Smart is a top-five NBA talent and one of the nation’s finest young players. So what. But I can’t help but feel at least a little bit disappointed in the Wildcats for not carpeing Saturday’s diem. A win at Gallagher-Iba wouldn’t just have sent the Wildcats into the Big 12 Tournament with a huge momentum boost. It also would have handed Bruce Weber’s team an outright Big 12 championship, and more importantly, it would have prevented Kansas from grabbing at least a share of the regular season crown for the first time in nine years. Pity, that.
Dunkdafied. I know Missouri lost, and at this point the Tigers’ road woes are probably something worth talking about – even if NCAA Tournament games are, after all, played at neutral sites. I’m too enamored with Laurence Bowers’ two-handed slam to think about Mizzou’s macro issues right now.
Small(er) Conference Tournament Rundown. You’ll notice the title of this section refrains from using the term “mid-major.” I don’t condemn the description or hold anything against anyone who has ingrained the Power-Six divide in this parlance. Matter of fact, you can even catch me using it from time to time. It’s just that I don’t exactly know where the separation exists. Is the Mountain West, arguably the second best league in the country this season, a mid-major league? What about the Atlantic 10? The characterization is so fuzzy and arbitrary and trite and so very blasé, that I try to stay away from it as much as possible. In any case, you don’t need to agree on my terms of smaller-league discussion to identify what follows:
- Patriot. Allow me to use this space to wave a fond farewell to Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum. Lehigh fell to local rival Lafayette in the semifinals of the league tournament Saturday to end any chance of a postseason return for McCollum and all his individual brilliance. It’s tough to watch such a talented player walk away without getting an opportunity to bring his team along for some more NCAA madness. He will forever be remembered for his 30-point, Duke-killing virtuoso and the 15-2 upset partnership it forged with Norfolk State’s toppling of Missouri. McCollum’s masterful scoring aptitude will be sorely missed, undoubtedly. Bucknell and Lafayette will square off for a trip to the Big Dance on Wednesday.
- America East. After winning a First Four game against Lamar in last year’s Tournament, Vermont predictably dropped its next game to UNC (with a healthy Kendall Marshall). The Catamounts are a win away from making a return trip to the NCAAs. All it will take is a win over Albany in the championship game, which won’t take place until Saturday. UVM swept the Great Danes in conference play this season.
- CAA. There is no George Mason, no Drexel, No Old Dominion – none of those customarily good to great CAA outfits will be dancing this season. Instead, Northeastern will meet James Madison with an auto bid on the line Monday night. The Huskies won the regular season crown after posting just 14 wins last season.
- Northeast. One of the more under-the-radar upsets of the weekend, Mount Saint Mary’s win over one seed Robert Morris (who ranked 14th nationally in turnover percentage before Saturday) gives LIU Brooklyn, winners of two consecutive NEC tournaments, a big opportunity to three-peat in Tuesday night’s championship game. MSM has now won nine games in a row.
- Summit. We’re still in the developmental stages of the Summit bracket, with semifinal games being played Monday night: Nate Wolters and South Dakota State will lock horns with IPFW in the first game before North Dakota State matches up with Western Illinois.
- Southern. Way back in the age of nonconference innocence, when Davidson entered the season as one of the ten or so best non-Power Six teams in the land, there was real buzz about the Wildcats suiting up a team capable of rekindling the glory days of Stephen Curry. At the very least, Davidson would rip off some of the delectable nonconference opportunities on tap – New Mexico, West Virginia (back when WVU still had name-brand value) and Gonzaga (HA!) chief among them. The Wildcats took their nicks before SoCon play, quietly developed into a top-40 efficiency offense and have now won 16 straight heading into Monday night’s conference championship game against College of Charleston.
- OVC. The regular season bout between newcomer Belmont and league Kingpin Murray State went the Racers’ way, but the Bruins got revenge in the tournament final in one of the best games of a crazy hoops weekend. Belmont guard Kerron Johnson hit a clutch fadeaway to send the game into overtime, then finished the deal by sinking Isaiah Canaan and co. on this nifty pull-up. Belmont was the best team in the OVC over the course of the season, so their Tournament ticket – the third in four years – is well-earned.
- Sun Belt. When high-win outfits from smaller leagues close in on the end of the regular season, and questions about at-large viability pop up, my advice is always the same: just go win your conference Tournament. Middle Tennessee lost in the Sun Belt semis Sunday night, and its profile – an RPI of 25, 2-3 record against the top 100, 11 SOS figure – deserves a serious look in the selection room. The committee has not been kind to teams of the Blue Raiders’ ilk in recent years (see: Drexel 2012), but their case is not unfounded. MTU can really play, so we’ll wait and see. In the meantime, credit to Richard Pitino and FIU, who will get a shot at last year’s Sun Belt auto-bid getter, Western Kentucky in the championship game on Monday.
- Ivy. A rocky summer that resulted in Harvard’s two senior leaders, Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey, being ineligible for the season after being implicated in a landmark academic scandal created a bleak outlook for the Crimson as they entered 2012-13 looking for a second straight trip to the NCAAs. Tommy Amaker’s team wrapped up the Ivy’s lone bid Saturday when a win over Cornell Saturday – coupled with an assist from Brown, who upended Princeton – sewed up the regular season title. Great news for Harvard, obviously, but my hoops heart pangs for a different conclusion to the one conference who decides its Tournament bid based on regular season merit (ehem, the right way); a one-game playoff for Tourney inclusion is what we all really wanted to see.
- Atlantic Sun. The first spot allotted in this year’s Tournament field went to a team that beat Miami all the way back in November, and who topped one-seeded Mercer Friday night after losing to Belmont in the tourney final last season. Can’t figure it out? Here: Florida Gulf Coast.
- Horizon. I don’t even know where to begin with this one. The scene: two-seeded Detroit is in a tight game with Wright State. Raiders guard Miles Dixon dribbles himself into a terribly difficult position under the basket, pivots, turns, then swooshes a game-winner at the buzzer. Enough drama for one conference tournament’s semifinal round, right? Wrong. The night-cap was even more wild. Host and top-seed Valparaiso trailed Green Bay by two points as Ryan Broekhoff approached the three-point line. The rest is captured in the video below (a note: watch Valpo coach Bryce Drew’s reaction as Broekhoff’s shot falls through. Just awesome.). The Crusaders will stage a do-or-die Tourney showdown with Wright State Tuesday night.
- MVC. Few leagues had a more defined favorite heading into this season than Creighton. The Blue Jays welcomed back national player of the year candidate Doug McDermott, big man Greg Echenique and some underrated ancillary parts that all helped make the Blue Jays’ offense one of the most lethal units in the country. There were some rocky patches, a few shocking road losses, and a brief time where Creighton’s NCAA Tournament status was up in the air, but the Blue Jays firmed up down the stretch, knocked off chief league rival Wichita State in the regular season finale and dispatched the Shockers once again in the league tourney final. Creighton has holes (mostly on defense), and any tough, defensive-minded, pace-dictating team could give them real problems, but the good news is the NCAA Tournament is better when national stars like McDermott are in it. I, nor you, or anyone else, is complaining.
- WCC. Two good teams, one better than the other, each with its own unique objective, will meet Monday night to decide the tournament champion. That hazy description should have left no stones unturned, but just in case you weren’t sure, the WCC final will feature a Gonzaga team seeking to lock up a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and second-seeded Saint Mary’s, whose at-large future should be safe either way. Even if it’s not the bubble do-or-die scenario many once envisioned with Saint Mary’s, are you really going to pass up a chance to watch Gaels point guard Matthew Dellavedova run his trademark pick and roll one last time against WCC opposition, or Kelly Olynyk’s smooth post game destroy SMC’s undersized frontcourt? No, you’re not.
- MAAC. The nation’s 11th fastest and 18th most efficient offense, owned by Iona, upset number one seed Niagara in the semifinals to set up a championship matchup with six-seed Manhattan Monday night. The Gaels are no stranger to the NCAA Tournament; they were one of last year’s surprise inclusions, and with a quickstrike offense at the ready, Iona has the point-scoring potential to win a potential first-round game.
- Big South. The last time a team made the NCAA Tournament with a winning percentage lower than Liberty’s 0.429 (15-20) was eight years ago, when Oakland brought a 12-18 overall win-loss mark into the field of 64. The Flames opened the season on an eight-game losing streak, won back-to-back games just once before this week and play worse defense than 303 teams around the country on a per-possession basis. This is the upshot of conference tournaments: giving regular-season snoozers like Liberty a shot at a national spotlight.
Another Buzzer-Beater. There were a lot of buzzer beaters this weekend, and I really tried my best to keep up, but I may have missed a few. Please forgive me. This one came by way of Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson, who buried Penn State as the clock strikes red with a three-point that’s ice-cold and dead-on and well-guarded and swish.
The Weekend’s All-Americans.
- Pierre Jackson, Baylor (NPOY) – Nights like Saturday, when Jackson lit up Kansas with 28 points, 10 assists and six boards, remind you why PJ was once a front-runner for Big 12 player of the year.
- Derrick Marks, Boise State – Desperate bubble times require both strong collective efforts and singular offensive success. Marks supplied the latter Saturday against San Diego State with 27 points, nine rebounds, and six assists.
- Will Clyburn, Iowa State – The bigger win of the week came Wednesday night against Oklahoma State. Clyburn’s 27-point, 10-rebound double-double Saturday at West Virginia was a more noteworthy individual output.
- Mason Plumlee, Duke – A re-entry into the national player of the year discussion is probably off the table, but Plumlee’s 23/13 double-double was NPOY-worthy.
- Cody Zeller, Indiana — When Indiana needed a bucket in winning time Sunday at the Crisler Center, Zeller delivered with the game-deciding layup. He also finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds.
- Khalif Wyatt, Temple – In the process of trying to stay calm in the face of VCU’s manic trapping defense, Wyatt dropped 30 points while going just 1-of-8 from three (he finished 13-of-16 from the free throw line).
- Ryan Broekhoff, Valparaiso – The buzzer-beater linked above capped a 25-point, six-rebound effort for Valpo’s senior forward.
- Gorgui Dieng, Louisville – Enjoy Dieng while you can. All indications point to him leaving for the NBA after this season. Against Notre Dame Saturday, Dieng scored 20 points, grabbed 11 boards and blocked five shots in a convincing win.
- Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis – Height (6’5’’) hasn’t stopped Evans from becoming one of the nation’s better rebounders. He leads the Billikens in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, and on Saturday night he snared 17 boards and added 16 points in a A-10 title-clinching win over La Salle.
- Kenny Kadji, Miami – The home loss to Georgia Tech was a bad look. Miami needed a comfortable rebound Saturday against Clemson. Kadji accepted the challenge: He dominated the Tigers’ frontcourt in a 13-point win with 23 points and 12 rebounds.
Tweet of the Weekend. One year removed from a national championship, John Calipari and the Wildcats found themselves in a must-win situation Saturday. Pulling out the win was one thing. Doing it with just two days distance from losing at Georgia and, in a gloomy postgame press conference, admitting he had done a “crap job” with his team, is astonishing. It’s one of the best single-game displays of coaching acumen of the season.