Previewing the week that was and the week to come in college basketball:
Best game: Ohio State 72, Michigan State 70. Late in the first half, the Spartans were up by 15 points and looked to be in total command. The Buckeyes however, never lost their poise, and as a result they ended up in a three-way tie with Michigan State and Michigan for the Big Ten regular season title. The win was especially significant for Ohio State because it was sparked by senior forward William Buford, whose inconsistent (and strangely passive) play over the last few weeks has led people to question whether this team is of championship caliber. Buford finished wiht 25 points and was 7 for 12 from the foul line. As if losing an outright league title and a chance at a No. 1 seed wasn’t bad enough for the Spartans, they also lost the services of freshman forward Branden Dawson, who tore his ACL and is done for the year.
Biggest win: UConn 74, Pittsburgh 65. With a little over three minutes left, this game was all tied up, and UConn’s season was momentarily on the brink. If the Huskies had lost this game – at home, to a team that will not be playing in the NCAA tournament – it would have been their 10th loss in their last 13 games. That means they would have needed at least two wins in the Big East tournament to make the NCAAs. Fortunately for them, sophomore point guard Shabazz Napier was able to rescue UConn and deliver the win. Napier ended up with 23 points, six assists and four steals in what was arguably his best all-around floor game of the season.
Player of the week: Doug McDermott, Creighton. The Bluejays’ 6-foot-7 sophomore forward was brilliant in the Missouri Valley Conference championship. He scored 33 points on 12-for-18 shooting – including 3 for 5 from three-point range – to propel Creighton to an 83-79 overtime victory over Illinois State. That capped an All-America season for “The Dougie,” who is the nation’s third-leading scorer at 23.2 points per game and also sank a ridonkulous 49.5 percent from three-point range this season. Creighton isn’t nearly as effective on defense, but when you have someone who can light up a scoreboard like this, defense can be optional.
Rising: Memphis. Right before New Year’s Eve, Tigers sophomore point guard Joe Jackson, who is a local legend, contemplated transferring out of the program. Instead of trying to placate his player, Memphis coach Josh Pastner sat Jackson for a game and gave him 48 hours to make up his mind. Jackson came back to the team, and Pastner’s stand has paid off. Memphis has now won 17 of its last 20 games, and the three that it lost came by a total of six points. Much of the credit for the team’s success goes to 6-6 sophomore guard Will Barton, who has averaged 18.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 52.5 percent from the floor.
Falling: Virginia. Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers were ranked in the top 25 for most of the season, but lately they have put their at-large hopes in jeopardy by droppoing four out of six games heading into last weekend. The last of those losses came at home to Florida State. Virginia led by 11 points with 4:30 to play but were felled by a three-point buzzer beater by Seminoles guard Ian Miller. The Cavaliers notched a critical win in overtime at Maryland on Saturday, so they are probably in good shape for the NCAA tournament, but suffice to say they are not entering the postseason with a great deal of momentum.
Games to watch this week:
Miami vs. Georgia Tech, Thursday. This is a winnable – and must-win – game for the Hurricanes if they are going to have any hope of making the NCAA tournament. Miami has two really good wins at Duke and home against Florida State (in a game where they played without their starting center), but the Canes only have one other win over a team ranked in the top 100 of the RPI. A loss to Georgia Tech would be fatal, but a win still might not be enough. The winner of this game plays Georgia Tech, so if Miami can win two games in the ACC tournament it should be in excellent shape.
Iowa State vs. Texas, Thursday, 9:30 p.m. This is a quarterfinal game of the Big 12 tournament, and it appears to be setting up as a one-game playoff for the Longhorns. If Texas can beat the Cyclones, who have been surging the last four weeks, then it will have a strong case for an at-large bid. If the Longhorns can’t pull off the win, they are likely to run out of real estate by the time the brackets are announced on Sunday. The good news for Texas is it beat Iowa State the last time they played, even though its leading scorer, junior guard J’Covan Brown, only scored 12 points on 3-for-16 shooting.
Northwestern vs. Minnesota, Thursday. A lot of people seem to think Northwestern has a strong bubble resume, but I disagree. The Wildcats had 11 chances to beat teams that are ranked in the top 50 of the RPI this season, and they only won once. If Northwestern loses this game, it will prove beyond a doubt that it is not worthy of an at-large bid. The Wildcats can always count on a big scoring night from senior forward John Shurna, who is one of the toughest inside-out matchups in college basketball, but they are a much more potent team with 6-5 junior guard Drew Crawford is hunting for his shot. Crawford scored just five points when the Wildcats lost at Minnesota on Jan. 22.
Colorado State vs. TCU, Thursday. Colorado State has played itself onto the bubble by notching some big games the last few weeks. The Rams have won four of their last five tames, and since Jan. 28 they have beaten all three Mountain West heavyweights at home. But that’s the rub – all of those wins came at home. The Rams do not have a single top-100 win away from home, so it is especially imperative that they knock off the Horned Frogs in the conference tournament quarterfinals in Las Vegas. That, however, will be no easy task. TCU has been playing the spoiler of late, beating UNLV, Colorado State and New Mexico over the last three weeks. The Horned Frogs also have one of the top guards in the league in Hank Thorns, who ranks third in the Mountain West in assists (4.7) and is eighth in scoring (13.0).
Pac 12 semifinals, Friday. The teams in these games are still to be determined in Wednesday’s quarterfinals, but since this league performed so poorly in the nonconference, the tournament semifinals could potentially be viewed as de facto play-in games for the NCAA tournament. The three top candidates for an at-large bid all lost on the road last weekend – Arizona to Arizona State, Washington to UCLA, and Cal to Stanford. Washington won the league regular season title, and it is slated to play Arizona in the semis if the Wildcats can get be the UCLA-USC winner. Meanwhile, the sleeper in all of this is Oregon, which as the No. 3 seed in this tournament would face No. 2 Cal in the semis if both win their first games. Oregon has an impressive record – 22-8 overall, 13-5 in the Pac 12 – but the Ducks are 0-5 against teams that are ranked in the top 50 of the RPI.