The Thursday of college basketball’s Championship Week is one of the most under-rated days in sports. With 36 games in the major conference tournaments, let’s jump around the country:
(1) The day started in Indianapolis where the Indiana Hoosiers were wearing new jerseys for the first time since 1971-72. This is a big deal for a team that values tradition as much as Indiana, and not all Indiana fans were pleased with the change.
Noah Vonleh may be a good NBA player someday, but I have no idea how good he can become. Illinois implemented the same strategy that so many teams have used against the Hoosiers this year. They played zone defense, and/or double teamed him on every touch. Per the usual, when you take Vonleh out of the game, Indiana did not have enough offense to win.
Keeping with my tracking seniors theme from yesterday, Indiana’s Will Sheehy is one of those players that college basketball fans will miss. He’s arrogant/confident, he’s fundamentally sound, and he was a key part of Indiana’s resurrection to a Big Ten title last season. His NCAA tournament hopes ended with this game, but he scored 11 points in the first half and he has nothing to hang his head about.
(2) Over in Brooklyn, a La Salle team that went to the Sweet Sixteen a year ago and brought nearly everyone back, saw their season end in disappointing fashion, losing their opening game in the A10 tournament. Whatever magic Tyrone Garland had last year, the senior ended his career in disappointing fashion with an 0-7 shooting day and zero points.
(3) Meanwhile at Madison Square Garden, Seton Hall knew that if they lost, their season was over. Villanova was playing for a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament. And yet Seton Hall led by eight at halftime. And the game was tied in the final minute of regulation.
Seton Hall had the ball, but Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono tipped the ball for a steal with 45 seconds left, and the fast-break bucket gave Villanova the lead. Then Seton Hall freshman Jaren Sina hit a three pointer to give Seton Hall the lead. Then with just eight seconds left, Villanova’s Darrun Hilliard hit a turn-around jumper in the lane to give Villanova the lead by one. Then finally, with time running down, Seton Hall’s Sterling Gibbs hit a step-back jumper for the game-winner. Villanova probably lost their shot at a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and Seton Hall lives to play another day. But the real winner here was the fans. There are lots of close games in college basketball, but rarely do you see an ending as good as this one.
(4) Off to Greensboro, for another fabulous ending. Florida St.’s Boris Bojanovsky dunked home a basket with 0.4 seconds left in a tie game, and the Seminoles kept their bubble hopes alive for another day.
(5) And now Kansas City, where Iowa St. put on an offensive clinic against a good Kansas St. defense. And yet, Kansas St. kept scoring too. I’ve heard coaches say that they will not even teach their team to take charges anymore because it is such a low percentage play with the new rules. But Bruce Weber is clearly not in that camp. With 3:55 left, Kansas St.’s Thomas Gibson slid over and drew a charge on DeAndre Kane, and Kane fouled out of the game. With Iowa St.’s PG done, it seemed like Iowa St.’s offensive dominance might slow down. But Fred Hoiberg had his troops ready. Iowa St. scored immediately by dumping it in the block after the timeout. And the Cyclones got to 91 points in the quarterfinal win.
(6) Meanwhile in Memphis, Houston knocked off SMU. Larry Brown’s squad is probably in the tournament, but with another “bad loss” on their resume, they might now have to worry about playing in the First Four in Dayton.
(7) Next I checked in on Atlanta. Missouri seems like they have so much talent (particularly in the backcourt) that they should be in the NCAA tournament easily. But they’ve struggled in SEC play for the second year in a row, and they probably needed to win Thursday and beat Florida Friday to have any hope of an at large bid. So of course, with time running down in regulation in a tie-game, Missouri fumbled the ball and didn’t get a clean look at the game winner. This is how their season has gone.
In OT, a player fouled out for Texas A&M in ridiculous fashion. The Missouri guard literally stepped on the foot of the Texas A&M player and the defender was called for the foul. Yet somehow Texas A&M didn’t give up. A former walk-on, Blake McDonalds, stole a Missouri inbounds pass, and passed it to a teammate to tie the game and send it to a second OT.
Finally, in the second OT, a fourth Texas A&M player fouled out and Missouri prevailed. But this game was a microcosm of Missouri’s season. Despite special performances (Johnathan Williams 8 offensive rebounds, 26 points from Jabari Brown), Missouri just does not win games easily.
(8) Today, I learned the story of Dayton head coach Archie Miller’s name. Archie Miller was actually named Ryan Miller, but he was so grumpy as a child that his parents nicknamed him after Archie Bunker, and the nickname has stuck.
As the announcers pointed out, when Dayton went up 19 points, he was Ryan. But when Fordham cut the lead to five points, he was Archie. Either way, Archie’s team prevailed.
(9) Back in Indianapolis, after Aaron Craft missed a free throw, Purdue had the ball down two with a chance to tie or win in the final seconds. But Lenzelle Smith Jr. got his hands on the ball in traffic, and his steal helped clinch the victory. This is probably a microcosm of Ohio St.’s season. Ohio St. doesn’t win with offense, they win with outstanding on-the-ball defense. Earlier Smith scored the 1000 point of his Ohio St. career.
But wait, that Smith steal was not the clinching play after all, as Smith made only 1 of 2 free throws. Instead we got to see a situation where the fouling up three strategy almost back-fired. Leading by three, Ohio St. fouled Purdue, Purdue made the first free throw, missed the second, and the rebound went off of Ohio St. and out of bounds. That gave Purdue a look at a three pointer to win the game in regulation. The shot was off-the-mark, but that’s why some coaches don’t foul when up three.
(10) With Villanova falling, Providence against St. John’s suddenly became a much more important game. Not only could these teams advance and preserve their NCAA at-large hopes, but with Villanova falling, the odds of a Big East tournament title and automatic bid suddenly became much higher.
St. John’s was not stellar for most of the game, falling behind by 17 points. But Steve Lavin loves full-court pressure because of how it can magnify the pressure of the tournament. And St. John’s rattled Providence with ball pressure and timely shot-blocking. St. John’s cut the lead all the way down to one point and had the ball with a chance to take the lead.
That is when Providence had an answer. Carson Desrosiers and Josh Fortune got back-to-back blocks, and the Friars hung on for the narrow win. It isn’t clear if Providence is in the tournament field for sure, or if St. John’s is out for sure, but Providence now makes a clear case that they are more worthy of a tournament bid than St. John’s.
(11) Kansas faced Oklahoma St. without Joel Embiid, and once again Oklahoma St.’s pressure defense rattled Kansas’ PGs. The Jayhawks had far too many turnovers in the second half. But the odd thing about Kansas is the more chaotic and open-court the game becomes, the more Andrew Wiggins tends to score. Kansas isn’t necessarily at its best in a wide-open game, but Wiggins is, and he bailed the team out with 30 points on Thursday.
(12) (13) (14) (15) And then the blowouts started. Pittsburgh beat Wake Forest by 29 points. Arizona beat Utah by 41 points. San Diego St. beat Utah St. by 43 points. And Louisville beat Rutgers by 61 points. Ouch.
(16) Between February 5th and March 5th, Arkansas went on a tremendous run, going 8-1 in the SEC, including an OT win at Kentucky. During this stretch the Razorbacks posted the following numbers:
Arkansas was essentially playing at the level of a Top 15 team nationally. But given the quality of their overall profile (including a brutal start to SEC play), that run was only enough to put Arkansas in the bubble discussion. And after getting blown out by Alabama in the season finale, the Razorbacks absolutely needed to beat South Carolina on Thursday to keep their NCAA hopes alive.
Trailing South Carolina by 1 point, Arkansas got exactly what they wanted. The 6’10” Bobby Portis caught the ball in the paint, defended by only the 6’5” Sindarius Thornwell. But Portis missed the chip shot basket, and Arkansas lost. The Razorbacks may now be headed to the NIT.
(17) It seems like UNLV gets a tremendous advantage because the MWC tournament is played on their home floor. But UNLV was only 11-7 at home this year (6-5 on the road, 2-0 at neutral sites). UNLV went up by 13 late in the game, but saw Wyoming pull within 1 point in the final minute. As in many home games this year, UNLV had trouble finishing.
(18) Or maybe I should just say that no one gives up during Championship week. Colorado went up by 11, only to see California take a desperation three at the end of regulation for the tie. What lead is safe?
(19) Wait, let me ignore that last statement. Duquense never really came back against Richmond.
(20) Dan Dakich “That is the thing about the bottom of the Big Ten this year. There is no Rutgers.” Wait, he knows Rutgers is coming into the league next year, right?
Mike Tirico seemed to be having fun ribbing Dan Dakich on Thursday night. He brought up Blake Hoffarber’s shot to beat the Dakich coached Hoosiers. Then Tirico mentioned that all 10 teams in Indiana would not be in the NCAA tournament this year. (With Indiana and Purdue losing earlier in the day, no Indiana team is alive in its conference tournament, and no Indiana team has an at-large worthy profile.) But was he joking when he said that Dan Dakich gave up Twitter for Lent?
Minnesota needed to beat Penn St. and probably beat Wisconsin tomorrow to have a shot at an at large bid. But despite Penn St. shooting 2 of 18 to start the game and looking largely out-manned, the Gophers needed a late three from Andre Hollins to seal the game.
(21) When Georgetown lost on Wednesday, I thought Creighton’s opening game in the Big East tournament would be a bore, but that’s the great thing about having a national player-of-the-year favorite on your team. Even games against low-level teams are fun. McDermott scored 27 points in the first half and may become the fifth highest scorer in NCAA history tomorrow.
(22) Mick Cronin has done an incredible job building a tough-nosed team. His team thrives on the idea that they don’t get enough respect nationally, and plays intimidating defense. I really don’t think TV does their defense justice. When you see this team in person, you realize how physical and intimidating they can be to an opposing offense.
That said, I also hate when big men get abused and the refs do nothing about it. Often refs seem to think that just because a player weighs 300 pounds, the defender can get away with anything.
With two minutes left in the UCF-Cincinnati game, UCF big man Justin McBride caught the ball in the paint, and Cincinnati’s Titus Rubles used his left hand to throw McBride to the ground. It was the only way to keep the UCF big man from getting up a clean shot. But it also clearly wasn’t a basketball play. Just because it would take a huge amount of leverage to keep McBride from getting a shot off didn’t make it right. Fortunately the refs got the call right and called a flagrant foul on Rubles. Unfortunately for UCF, McBride missed the FTs, UCF missed the ensuing shot, and eventually the game. Hard-nosed Cincinnati survived to play another day.
(23) (24) Can anyone say rematch? NC State went on a 16-5 run to pull away from Miami FL in the final minutes, setting up a thrilling re-match with Syracuse. Syracuse beat NC State by one point less than a month ago.
Earlier this week, I talked about how much I wanted to see LSU play Kentucky again. Well, they beat Alabama, and an LSU team with the true size to rattle Kentucky, gets a third shot at the Wildcats.
But I can’t leave this game without talking about Alabama senior Trevor Releford. As a first-team all-SEC selection, I probably cannot call Releford under-rated. But I feel like he never got his day in the national spotlight. He had 1000+ minutes for four straight seasons, over 1800 career points, nearly 400 career assists, over 400 rebounds, and over 250 career steals. He also became a more efficient player throughout his career, seeing his ORtg raise from 102 to 110 to 117 the last two years, all while increasing his shot volume from 20% to 28% of his team’s shots. Truly Releford was an amazing stat-sheet stuffer, but because Anthony Grant could never keep the right lineup eligible around him, he never advanced in the NCAA tournament. To see his career end on a 2 for 11 day from the field when Alabama was never really competitive was disappointing.
(25) (26) (27) Is it time to talk about blowouts again? Baylor built a 21 point lead on Oklahoma, and while they nearly blew it, (hey Royce O’Neale, who was that full-court pass intended for?), Oklahoma never came back all the way.
UCLA crushed Oregon, enough that I started to wonder whether Oregon is really back. Most of Oregon’s late season wins were against the bottom of the league (or against a UCLA team without two starters.) But I guess the Arizona St. and Arizona wins were pretty legitimate.
New Mexico’s game against Fresno St. became enough of a blowout that Doug Gottlieb started debating the NBA merits of various players. I love his general take here, “It is one thing to be a man among boys, but in the NBA, you are a man among men. If Tyler Hansbrough couldn’t make it in the NBA with his stats, don’t assume [Player X] can make it.”
(28) UMass’ electric PG Chaz Williams couldn’t make a shot and spent much of the second half sitting on the bench. Then in one funny sequence, the 5’9” PG got caught guarding 6’8” Gilvydas Biruta and had to commit his fourth foul. Still, Williams hit what felt like the game sealing three with 1:40 left in the game. That shot took a lot of heart after so many misses, but I still don’t know how UMass won after shooting 31 percent from the floor and making only 3 of 15 threes.
(29) I feel bad for Iowa fans after the team lost to Northwestern, the Hawkeyes sixth loss in seven games. I assume the team is still headed to the NCAA tournament, but when you haven’t gone to the tournament in a few years, you want to win some games at the end of the season and feel like you earned it. There is just no way to celebrate an NCAA bid with the way the Hawkeyes’ season has ended.
(30) I feel almost as bad for Mississippi St. fans. To blow a double digit lead is one thing, but to blow a game to your arch-rival is quite another. How do you turn a 9-point half-time lead into a 12 point loss? Well, at one point, Mississippi St. was shooting 17% in the second half.
(31) I think I’m running out of steam now. I watched a great close game with Xavier edging Marquette and the only comment I have written down is that Xavier has the best goggles in college basketball.
(32) Sean Farnham said it perfectly. Georgia Tech’s Daniel Miller just made the Top 10 and the not Top 10. Miller’s amazing fall-away jumper at the end of regulation sent the game into OT. But in OT, with his team leading by two, he blew a dunk. The missed points hurt, but it really seemed to shift the momentum as Clemson pulled away after that point.
(33) (34) And we’re back to talking about blowouts. If West Virginia momentarily climbed into the bubble conversation with the win over Kansas last weekend, trailing Texas 35-14 at half-time and losing by 17 to Texas essentially erased all that good feeling.
Meanwhile, Memphis’ margin-of-victory was already distressingly low for an NCAA lock, and Thursday’s blowout loss to UConn is not going to help that. I suspect a lot of stat-heads are going to pick the Tigers to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
(35) Arizona St.’s offense really seems broken when Jermaine Marshall isn’t making threes. But I should give Stanford credit for the easy win. On March 5, Stanford had a three game losing streak and feared another late-season collapse. But this team of Juniors and Seniors was not going to be denied again.
(36) Boise St. may be a disappointment this season, but there they sit in the MWC semifinals. All they need is two more wins and they can still reach their preseason goal of a return trip to the NCAA tournament.