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Weekend clarifies NCAA tourney field
Everything in college basketball is a moving target this year. The moment a team is No. 1 in the AP Poll, that team loses. The moment a bubble team seems to have secured a spot in the NCAA tournament with a good RPI win, it suffers a bad loss and goes right back on the bubble. Go on a February vacation and you’ll come back to see the entire March landscape upended.
Despite a weekend of college basketball that didn’t have a signature upset or a wild, multiple-overtime victory, we still learned plenty about how the NCAA tournament field is shaping up, both for the top seeds and for the bubble teams.
What we learned:
The Kansas Jayhawks — that team that couldn’t beat the Topeka YMCA a month ago — are, for the first time all year, playing like a No. 1 seed. They couldn’t be peaking at a better time. KU has won six in a row since their three-game skid had us all wondering what in the world was happening in Lawrence. On Saturday, KU crushed West Virginia at home, 91-65, to stay atop the Big 12. If their two stars, Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey, play throughout March the way they did Saturday, you’re looking at your national champion. McLemore gave juice to his national player of the year case, catching fire from the field and dropping 36 points. Withey on Saturday gave juice to his defensive player of the year case with nine blocks; his defensive presence has led this team to No. 1 in the nation in defensive field-goal percentage. Oh yeah: Elijah Johnson is back, too. This team is a perfect example of master puppeteer Bill Self doing what he does best: coaching his guys up throughout their careers and throughout a season.
The Creighton Bluejays, if they were ever on the bubble, are now safely off it. Doug McDermott couldn’t miss if he tried on Saturday. The junior scored 41 points on 15-of-18 shooting and gave the home crowd something to cheer about in what might have been his final game in Omaha. They beat Missouri Valley rival Wichita State 91-79 to win the conference regular-season title. McDermott reinserted himself into the up-in-the-air player of the year discussion, and more importantly, Creighton proved why it’s one of the best of the mid-majors. A 4-4 February wasn’t kind to Creighton. They weren’t scoring like they should. But 91 points against the top defense in the Missouri Valley, plus outrebounding the team that’s eighth in the nation in rebounding margin, showed that Creighton is back on track.
Louisville is as hot as anyone in the Big East (except maybe Georgetown). ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Louisville as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament now, but few are playing as well as Rick Pitino’s team. A month and a half ago, the Cardinals were ranked No. 1 in the nation. A Michael Carter-Williams steal and dunk in the closing seconds of the Syracuse game snatched a win from Louisville, and that started a three-game skid. Since then, Louisville’s only loss was the five-overtime thriller to Notre Dame that, save some Russdiculousness by the bad version of Russ Smith, Louisville should have won. The Cards are a half-game back of Georgetown in the brutal Big East after avenging their Syracuse loss on Saturday. So what if they can’t shoot (116th in the nation in field-goal percentage). So what if they really can’t shoot from the line (131st in free-throw percentage). It’s that defense — oh, that defense. They’re ranked third in the nation in defensive efficiency, most of Louisville’s losses are close losses, they’re third in the KenPom rankings, and they’re built for March. If any of the projected No. 1 seeds stumble, Louisville should move into that spot.
Duke is a slam-dunk No. 1 seed. Especially if the selection committee looks deeper into its record. The Blue Devils are 16-0 with Ryan Kelly, 9-4 when he was out with his foot injury. Kelly showed Saturday why he’s irreplaceable for this team. In his first game back, Kelly scored a career-high 36 points on 7-of-9 shooting from three in the most exciting game of the weekend, Duke’s 79-76 victory over fifth-ranked Miami. If Kelly had been healthy all season, Duke would have been the clear No. 1 team in the nation throughout. Heck, they might even be undefeated.
The Miami Hurricanes should be proud of their close loss at Duke on Saturday. They dipped a little in the AP Poll to eighth, but there is no shame in heading to Cameron Indoor, dealing with a red-hot Ryan Kelly, and having a three-point attempt at the buzzer to tie things up. Todd Fuhrman, a former oddsmaker at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, tweeted this after the Duke victory: “Why the Vegas bracket > than @AP_Top25: Miami will move up based on this outstanding performance, even in a losing effort.” The AP Top 25 poll is reactionary, and the reaction after a loss is to automatically move a team down. Vegas, however, has skin in the game. This experienced Miami squad still has a shot at a No. 1 seed, and will have plenty of momentum leading into March Madness. Fingers crossed for a Duke-Miami rubber match in the ACC tournament.
The Baylor Bears had their opportunity, and they blew it. Baylor is the very definition of a bubble team, sitting at 17-12, 8-8 in the Big 12, floating around 60th in RPI, with lots of close losses but no signature wins. Baylor on Saturday lost its shot at the NCAA tournament in the most heartbreaking fashion possible. After having tied the game 61-61 with a second remaining — a game against 13th-ranked Kansas State that would have been the statement win Baylor needed — Baylor was inbounding at the opposite end from its basket. The game seemed headed for overtime. Instead, Baylor threw the ball the length of the floor, and it went out of bounds untouched. Kansas State then got the ball under its own basket with a second left, and Rodney McGruder hit a 3 at the buzzer to win it. The game was a perfect representation of Baylor’s season: A talented team that’s almost there but not quite, and often shoots itself in the foot. Their only way into March Madness is to win the Big 12 tournament.
Is there a more different home/road team this season than Iowa State? (Well, maybe Arkansas, or Missouri, or the many other teams who are unbeatable at home but miserable on the road.) The Cyclones looked like a completely different team in their loss at Oklahoma than they had earlier in the week in their controversial near-win at home against sixth-ranked Kansas. At Oklahoma, the Cyclones scored 69 points on 11-of-31 shooting from 3. That was five days after scoring 96 points on 17-of-41 shooting from 3 against one of the top defenses in the country. The Cyclones are on the right side of the bubble — Lunardi projects them as an 11-seed — but with two losable games remaining (15th-ranked Oklahoma State at home, West Virginia on the road), they could find themselves on the wrong side really quick. They need to win them both.
Dud Butler give mid-major haters some ammo that Brad Stevens’ team ought not make the tournament after their 32-point loss at VCU? Um . . . no. The havoc of playing at VCU is a nightmare matchup for the methodical Butler team. It was a demoralizing loss, but not entirely unexpected. While they surely moved down a spot or two in their projected seed (and VCU surely moved up), the Bulldogs are easily playing in March. Whether they’re the same Brad Stevens team as the one that made two national title games in a row is a different story. Not even close.
The Arkansas win over Kentucky in Fayetteville was easily the most intriguing bubble game of the weekend — because both teams still don’t look like they’re making the tournament after Arkansas took down the team ranked third in the nation in the preseason polls. Kentucky is 51st in RPI and Arkansas 78th (and it should be noted that the team with the lowest RPI to get an at-large big was Air Force, ranked 75th in 2004). Both Arkansas and Kentucky will need to win their final two games of the regular season to boost their stock. (And you better believe the selection committee knows this Kentucky is less than its 20-9 record would indicate, since 17 of those wins came with Nerlens Noel in the lineup, and he’s now out with a torn ACL.) Arkansas has an RPI opportunity at Missouri and Kentucky has an RPI opportunity at home against Florida. They can both make it, but they’re both running out of time. If they don’t prove themselves in this final week, they better put on a show at the SEC tournament.
Alabama is another SEC team on the outside looking in. The Crimson Tide (19-10, 11-5 in the SEC) had an opportunity to punch their NCAA tourney ticket Saturday at Florida, but getting outscored 23-5 in the final 10 minutes put an end to that hope real quick. They’ll need to win their final two regular-season games, plus win some games in the SEC tournament, to get an at-large bid.
Speaking of the Florida Gators — they’re no longer a No. 1 seed (and according to Lunardi’s Bracketology aren’t even a No. 2 seed) after losses at Missouri and at Tennessee in recent weeks. But there’s good news in Gainesville, too. A team that hasn’t been at 100 percent since early January finally is. It’s not a coincidence that Saturday’s end-of-game defensive display against Alabama came with Will Yeguete, Casey Prather and Michael Frazier — who’ve all been injured at various points over the past two months — getting significant minutes. This is college basketball’s second-most-efficient defense, and combine that with the nation’s sixth-most-efficient offense and you have a team that can still impress in March despite its February stumbles.
A couple months ago UCLA — perhaps college’s basketball most talented, most fun-to-watch team — had plenty of folks wondering if it would even make it into March. With its second win this season over 11th-ranked Arizona on Saturday night, the Bruins not only made that January talk look way premature — they made a case that the way to the Pac-12 title goes through Westwood. They are tied with Oregon for the conference lead and now ranked 23rd in the AP Poll. If the talented Bruins stay on a roll, watch out.
Ins and outs: Indiana State is done. Despite beating Ole Miss, Miami, Wichita State and Creighton earlier in the season, it's now lost five of its last six. … Cincinnati is in. While there was a bit of irrational exuberance around this team when it was ranked as high as eighth in the nation earlier this year, the team that lost five of six last month didn’t seem like the true Bearcats either. The team that beat a pretty good UConn team on Saturday feels like the correct version of the Bearcats: They’ll make the tourney, but they won’t make much noise in it. … Temple is in. Probably. Maybe. That home loss to Duquesne (215th in RPI) still hurts, but this team beat Syracuse, St. Louis and Villanova earlier this year, and beat Rhode Island, barely, on Saturday. It's on the right side of the bubble, according to Lunardi, but no team has a thinner margin for error. … Ole Miss is out. It lost to Mississippi State (a lowly 226th in RPI) on Saturday. Once upon a time, this was a very good (17-2, 6-0 in the SEC) team, with one of the most intriguing players in college hoops in Marshall Henderson. After losing six of its last 10, that Mississippi State loss ought to take Ole Miss out of the discussion for an at-large bid. … Villanova is going to need to either beat Georgetown at home this week (yikes), or win some games in the Big East tournament, to get in. How could you not put a team in the tournament that beat fifth-ranked Louisville and third-ranked Syracuse earlier this year? But how could you put a team in the tournament that lost twice to Providence (77th in RPI), and once each to Seton Hall (116th in RPI) and Columbia (an ugly 269th)? The answer is, you put the Wildcats in if they can prove it to you when it matters. They lost in overtime at Pitt on Sunday in a game that really mattered. A win over Pitt would have punched their ticket. So now is when it really, really matters.
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