Chaotic Weekend Builds Drama for Regular Season’s Final ActPosted by Bennet Hayes on March 3rd, 2014
It was a weekend that saw 11 ranked teams fall, an unlikely band of Shockers find a small slice of immortality (the regular season variety), and an already jumbled NCAA Tournament bubble grow exponentially more confusing. Ever predictably, the arrival of March meant great drama for college basketball fans. With one week now left in the regular season, here are three key storylines that emerged from a riveting weekend of action on the college hoops hardwood.
Last #1 Seed Up For Grabs
Presumptive #1 seeds Arizona, Florida and Wichita State were all able to avoid the upset bug this weekend, and barring multiple losses in the next two weeks, each seems adequately safe on the top line. But with Syracuse continuing its mini-slide in Charlottesville Saturday afternoon, that fourth #1 seed has no apparent owner heading into the season’s final week. By my count, no fewer than eight teams should still be in play for the honor, although scenarios for five of those squads — Creighton, Michigan, Wisconsin, Villanova and Virginia – would almost surely include winning out through their conference tournaments, and then also getting help from elsewhere. The trio with the firmest grasp on their own fate — Duke, Kansas, and the aforementioned Orange — may not be doing as much Championship Week scoreboard watching as those five teams, but all would still likely need to win out to earn that last #1 seed. But before those three schools face the gauntlet that will be the Big 12 and ACC Tournaments, there is still business to be tended to this week. Despite a date with surging rival UNC (at Cameron), Duke may have the easiest list of chores among the three: KenPom’s predictor gives the Blue Devils a 68 percent chance of finishing off the regular season with a pair of wins. Kansas faces Texas Tech at Allen Fieldhouse before concluding the regular season with a visit to West Virginia; the latter contest offers a challenge sufficient enough to leave KenPom predicting that a Jayhawks’ final week sweep will occur only 60% of the time (and that number probably does not account for the likelihood that Joel Embiid sits out). Syracuse shouldn’t look past Georgia Tech on Tuesday (don’t forget those Boston College Eagles!), but its Sunday trip to Tallahassee is a significant landmine — significant enough that the Orange are expected to polish off their regular season with two wins just 48 percent of the time. The margin for error is thin for all three of these teams; a loss – no matter where it comes from – would all but end dreams of that fourth #1 seed.
Nearing End Of Dramatic Season, NCAA Tournament Again in Sight for Marcus Smart and His Pokes
Somewhere between Marcus Smart’s explosive scoring binge against Memphis on November 19 and Saturday night’s stirring, potentially season-salvaging win over Kansas, Oklahoma State became a team that you couldn’t take your eyes off of, no matter how hard you tried. Okay, so there was a fairly distinct, attention-grabbing incident that induced much of the hypnosis, but the point is that this Cowboys’ season has almost never been boring. Saturday night’s prime-time match-up with the Big 12 champs (no further identification necessary – email me for an explanation if you are just waking up from an 11-year slumber) featured the Pokes and their leader at their schizophrenic, theatrical best. We got bad Marcus Smart (0-of-7 FG, three TOs in the first half) and dramatic Marcus Smart early, but the histrionics would eventually gave way to a dose of late brilliance. In the final 10 minutes, Smart converted all four of his field goal attempts, dished out three assists without a turnover, and became the biggest reason why Oklahoma State enters the final week of the season with extremely realistic NCAA Tournament hopes. The value of the win over the Jayhawks cannot be overstated, but the Cowboys’ work is not done. Kansas State visits Stillwater in a quick turnaround game tonight, and then it travels to Iowa State for a season-ending date with the Cyclones. Feeling completely comfortable on Selection Sunday may be an impossibility for Travis Ford’s crew, but splitting two games this week should leave the Pokes in pretty solid shape. Losing both games would seriously tempt fate, as no team has ever made the NCAA Tournament with 11 conference losses (the Cowboys would finish 7-11 in the Big 12). Expect Oklahoma State to get at least one here this week and find their happy ending, but if the bit of theater that has been this season was to find a tragic ending, who else would cast the final stone but Texas Tech? A two-loss week for the Pokes sets up a first-round date with the Red Raiders next Wednesday, where their NCAA Tournament life would most assuredly be on the line.
Bubble Teams Staying the Course
Outside of the Cowboys’ seismic Saturday night victory, this weekend featured little in the way of signature wins for our current bubble occupants. But that doesn’t mean it was a bad two days for those sweating out the final days of the regular season. The entirety of the SEC’s bubble contingent held serve, as Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas all notched expected but necessary victories. Ditto Florida State in the ACC, Nebraska in the Big Ten, Providence in the Big East, Oregon in the Pac-12, and Baylor in the Big 12, as each avoided losses to lesser-regarded conference foes. But for those five teams mentioned above, a far stiffer challenge awaits in the season’s final week. Any of the five could go 0-2 with the schedules that await them, and while a split may be near-mandatory for NCAA Tournament inclusion, 1-1 won’t look so bad in many cases. Teams should welcome the chance to play their way in to the field, so relish the signature victory opportunities, Noles (vs. Syracuse), Huskers (at Wisconsin), Friars (at Creighton), Ducks (vs. Arizona), and Bears (vs. Iowa State). Rest assured, the Selection Committee is watching.