We’re getting to the point of the season where every day there are several games that have major NCAA tournament implications. That could come with respect to the number one seeds, or with the all-important bubble. Who got popped, and who got squeezed? Let’s follow the bouncing ball and see.
Game of the week: Maryland 83, Duke 81. With the Terrapins moving to the Big Ten in two years, this was potentially the final game between these two arch rivals in College Park. What a way to go out. The Terrapins got a time-capsule performance from 7-1 sophomore center Alex Len. Not only did Len toss in a team-high 19 points (to go along with nine rebounds), but he singlehandedly shut down Mason Plumlee, Duke’s senior center who was previously considered a favorite for national player of the year. Maryland committed a whopping 26 turnovers, largely because coach Mark Turgeon had suspended his starting point guard, Pe’shon Howard, for violating team rules. If Maryland can avoid overcelebrating this win, it has a real chance to make the NCAA tournament.
Player of the week: Marcus Smart, 6-foot-4 freshman guard, Oklahoma State. I submit that this strong, intelligent, tough freshman is as talented and valuable a player as there is in the country. Smart was absolutely brilliant in helping the Cowboys to a comeback overtime victory at home over Oklahoma. He finished with a career-high 28 points, and he also had seven rebounds, four assists and two steals in the 84-79 win. The Pokes have a huge game at home this Wednesday against Kansas, which will be thirsting for revenge because of Oklahoma State’s victory in Allen Fieldhouse two weeks ago.
Upset of the week: Charlotte 71, Butler 67. This actually wasn’t a huge upset because Butler was not at full strength. Center Andrew Smith was out with an abdominal strain. Charlotte is also a pretty good team, sitting one game over .500 in the Atlantic 10. Still, what made this result surprising was the fact that it took place in Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the Bulldogs had won 12 straight. After facing Duquesne on Tuesday night, Butler has a pivotal stretch coming up in the league against St. Louis at home, VCU and UMass on the road, and then Xavier at home. Those are four of the top five teams in the league.
Georgetown. The Hoyas have very quietly won seven straight games to climb into a tie for first place in the Big East. Last week was particularly impressive as they schooled Marquette at home, 63-55, and then took a tough road win at Cincinnati, 62-55. Versatile sophomore forward Otto Porter, Jr., gets most of the love on this team, but junior point guard Markel Starks has really come into his own. Starks had 17 points, three assists and three steals against the Bearcats.
Gonzaga. Regardless of whether this really is Mark Few’s best team, it does appear to have an excellent chance to be his first to earn a number one seed. Gonzaga faced what was supposed to be its toughest test last week at Saint Mary’s, which sits in second place in the West Coast Conference. However, the big contest turned out to be no contest as the Zags cruised to a 77-60 victory.
Colorado State. Larry Eustachy has one of the oldest teams in the country, and their maturity has helped lift the Rams into a surprising spot atop the Mountain West rankings. The Rams have won eight of their last nine games, including last week’s 66-60 win at home over San Diego State and 89-86 win at Air Force despite 45 points from Falcons senior guard Michael Lyons. This being the Mountain West, the Rams have a tough week ahead. They play at UNLV on Wednesday night and they host league leader New Mexico on Saturday.
Kentucky. The Wildcats were already a precarious bubble team heading into their game at Florida on Tuesday night. For all intents and purposes, their season ended when their best player, 6-11 freshman center Nerlens Noel, tore his ACL while crashing into a stanchion. Noel’s backup, 7-foot freshman Willie Cauley-Stein, is considered a future NBA prospect, but he was woefully overmatched in UK’s next game at Tennessee, which it lost by 30 points. Since the NCAA tournament selection committee has to evaluate teams based on whom they have (or don’t have), it looks nearly certain that the defending champs will not be in the field of 68.
Arizona. The Wildcats were cruising along as a top-five team for most of the season, but they have stumbled by losing two of their last three games. Even their win didn’t come easy – a 68-64 escape at last-place Utah. Arizona can put up points with the best of ’em, but the problem of late has been on defense. It’s also troubling that freshmen forwards Bradon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski are not making more progress.
Texas. The Longhorns have suffered through a miserable season, but they received a glimmer of hope last week when sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo returned from an NCAA suspension and led them to an overtime win over Iowa State. That glimmer was extinguished Saturday night in Allen Fieldhosue, where the Longhorns were blown out by Kansas, 73-47. Their only hope of playing in the NCAA tournament is to win the Big 12 tournament, and that is not gonna happen.