Now we’re getting down to business. Or should I say, bid-ness. With March officially underway, the one thing that every team is hoping for is a bid to the NCAA tournament. Even though nothing was decided last week, every day produced several games with major bubble (or number one seed) implications. Who says the regular season doesn’t matter in college hoops? Nobody who’s watching, that’s for sure. Here’s the latest on who did what, who’s up and who’s down so far in the most glorious month of the year.
Game of the week: Kansas 108, Iowa State 96 (overtime). The best thing about this game was the fact that both teams had 90 points at the end of regulation. During a season in which points have been hard to come by, that was a fresh air. Otherwise, this game was notable for two reasons. The first was the stellar play of Kansas guard Elijah Johnson, who scored 30 of his career-high 39 points after halftime. The second was the series of questionable calls at the end of regulation that ostensibly cost Iowa State a chance to win. The officiating was so bad that the league office felt compelled to recognize it. It’s not fair to blame Iowa State’s loss totally on the officiating, but considering that a win over Kansas would have gone long way toward helping Iowa State claim an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, you can be sure that this game will be remarked upon frequently over the next two weeks.
Player of the week: Ryan Kelly, 6-11 senior forward, Duke. You would be hard-pressed to find an example of a player who accomplished what Kelly did on Saturday. It would have been amazing enough had he just scored a career-high 36 points in a win over a top-five team. But it was downright astounding that Kelly could pull that off in his first game back after a seven-week absence because of a foot injury. Kelly had had just one practice with his teammates before taking the court against Miami, and that was just a light, thirty-minute workout on Friday. His ability to drain long-range jumpers (he was 7 for 9 from three-point range) completely changes the dimensions of Duke’s offense, because it makes it impossible for teams to double-team Mason Plumlee in the post. Duke is undefeated this season with Ryan Kelly in the lineup. His return didn’t just give Duke a key win and the inside track at a number one seed. It put the Blue Devils back on the short list of teams to beat in the NCAA tournament.
Upset of the week: Penn State 84, Michigan 78. The Wolverines had every reason to believe they could sleepwalk to a victory. After all, the Nittany Lions had not won a Big Ten game all year, and they trailed Michigan by 15 points in the second half. It just goes to show that there is no such thing as sleepwalking to victory on the road. Yes, Michigan had very little mental energy in the second half, which was reflected in their poor defense on Penn State guard Jermaine Marshall, who scored 25 points. But the loss also revealed just how vulnerable Michigan can be when it becomes overly reliant on jump shooting. The Wolverines shot 5 for 20 from three-point range in the loss. Michigan rebounded by edging out Michigan State at home in its next game, but until the Wolverines learn to shoot more free throws and fewer three-pointers away from Crisler Arena, they will be vulnerable against a hot team.
North Carolina. Roy Williams decided to shake up his lineup a few weeks ago and go to a smaller lineup, and the results have been impressive. The speedier Tar Heels walloped Florida State by 21 points at home on Saturday to claim their fifth consecutive win, which moved them into sole possession of third place in the ACC. I especially like the maturation of freshman point guard Marcus Paige. He is doing a much better job of attacking the rim and holding onto the basketball. The Heels have a huge game at home on Saturday against Duke, but even if they lose that game, they are going into the NCAA tournament with lots of momentum.
Oregon. The Ducks stumbled a bit when freshman point guard Dominic Artis went out with an injury, but he returned to the lineup last week and led his team to convincing wins at home over Stanford and Oregon State. Artis is a good point guard, but the main reason the Ducks missed him so much is they don’t anyone else who can handle the position. With Artis back running the show, they are better able to take advantage of their imposing frontcourt trio of E.J. Singler, Tony Woods and Arsalan Kazemi. Even with all of their ups and downs, the Ducks are tied with UCLA for first place in te Pac 12.
Louisiana Tech. It is an incredible accomplishment for a team to go into the second week of March undefeated in conference play. That is where the Bulldogs stand with their 16-0 record in the WAC and 26-3 overall record, which has gotten them into the national rankings. This is not a team with overwhelming talent (its leading scorer, sophomore guard Raheem Appleby, is averaging about 15 points per game), but they are a stingy group on defense and they don’t make many mistakes. People can question the competition all they want, but I believe winning is a habit, and that is going to make Louisiana Tech a very scary early-round opponent for some highly-seeded team.
Michigan State. The Spartans played their way into the top five a few weeks ago, but recently they have suffered the consequences of having to play through the Big Ten’s gauntlet. On Sunday in Ann Arbor, they had the ball on the final possession trailing by one but couldn’t get a shot off. That was their third consecutive loss. The other two came at home to Indiana, and on the road at Ohio State. I have liked this team all season and I am especially impressed with the improvement of big men Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, but I can’t quite shake the feeling that 6-1 junior Keith Appling is miscast as a point guard. He does a lot of good things out there, but he strikes me as one of those guards who’s just good enough to get you beat.
Arizona. The Wildcats traveled to Los Angeles last weekend with a chance to get the inside track at a Pac 12 title. Instead, they went home 0-2. On Thursday, they fell at USC, which had been having such a miserable season that the school fired coach Kevin O’Neill in January. Then, on Saturday night, Arizona was helpless against Shabazz Muhammad and company as they lost 74-69 in Pauley Pavilion. The Wildcats have two problems right now. First, they are very mediocre on defense, particularly when it comes to guarding the perimeter. Second, they brought in Xavier transfer Mark Lyons to run the point, even though Lyons had never played the position before. Lyons is a good scorer and he gives this team a lot of toughness, but it is hard at this stage of a person’s career to come into a new situation and run a team when you’ve never done it before. Arizona was ranked in the top ten for much of the season, but right now this is very much a team adrift.
Ole Miss. The Rebels’ at-large hopes were already dwindling, but they were all but extinguished when they lost at Mississippi State, the worst team in the SEC, on Saturday. Marshall Henderson was once college basketball’s “it” girl for his deadeye shooting and incendiary antics, but he shot his team out of the NCAA tournament in this game. Henderson was 4 for 19 from the field and 3 for 18 from three-point range against the Bulldogs. Ole Miss has now lost six of its last ten games and will have to go on a near-miraculous run in the SEC tournament to play itself back into at-large contention.