With only one week to go until Selection Sunday, each college basketball game takes on a huge meaning. Last week was choc full of meaningful results, especially on and around the proverbial NCAA tournament bubble. Here, then, is a look back at the final week of the regular season. Things are only going to get more maddening from here on out.
Game of the week: Belmont 70, Murray State 68 (overtime). March is indeed the cruelest month. Murray State held a seven-point lead with around three minutes to go in regulation in the championship game of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, but it frittered that away and let the game get into overtime. Then, with under 30 seconds to play in the extra session, Racers senior guard Isaiah Canaan, an All-America caliber player who turned down a chance at the NBA to come back for his senior season, accidentally dribbled the ball off his foot, which led to an over-and-back violation. On the ensuing possession, Belmont guard Kerron Johnson, who had had to leave the game earlier to receive stitches in his chin, hit the game-winner in the lane to send Belmont to the NCAA tournament and Murray State to the NIT.
Player of the week: Cody Zeller, 7-foot sophomore center, Indiana. Zeller has been picked apart and dissected ad nauseum this season, but at the end of the day he started just where he began it – as arguably the best player on arguably the best team in all of college basketball. Zeller had 25 points and ten rebounds in the Hoosiers’ comeback win at Michigan, which gave them the outright Big Ten championship. Zeller may appear to be too passive at times, but he is still only a college sophomore, and he has been remarkably consistent this season. He averaged nearly 17 on 57 percent shooting this season while also grabbing eight rebounds a game and making 76 percent from the foul line. Every player should underachieve like this guy.
Upset of the week: Baylor 81, Kansas 58. There’s life in the Bears yet! Maybe it was the pep talk they got last Friday from Robert Griffin III, but Baylor showed an enthusiasm and purpose that has sorely been lacking this season. The result was an upset win over the Big 12 regular season champs that at least put Baylor back in the bubble conversation, if not into the field of 68. The Bears’ case for an at-large bid would have been a lot stronger if they didn’t sleepwalk through a 79-70 loss at Texas on Tuesday night. Baylor plays Oklahoma State in the first game of the Big 12 tournament. If it wins that game, it will have a much stronger case for inclusion, but even that might not be enough.
Ohio State. The Buckeyes went through a rough patch in early February when they lost three out of four, including an embarrassing 21-point drubbing at Wisconsin. But they have now won five straight games to finish tied with Michigan for second place in the Big Ten, just one game behind Indiana. The Buckeyes never did develop that second consistent scorer alongside Deshaun Thomas, but they sharpened their defensive identity behind their stellar junior point guard Aaron Craft, who scored 14 or more points in three of his last four games. Ohio State is not a spectacular team, but it plays smart basketball and doesn’t beat itself, and you can’t say that about a lot of teams in college basketball right now.
Louisville. The Cardinals also went through a rough patch of their own, at one point losing three straight games and falling in five overtimes at Notre Dame on February 9th. Their problem then was that Peyton Siva could not make a shot, but he finally showed some offensive efficiency during their win over Notre Dame on Saturday. Playing on Senior Day, Siva scored 13 points on 3 for 6 three-point shooting and he also dished out five assists. Louisville also has the best center in the country in 6-11 junior Gorgui Dieng, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds in the win over the Irish. I have a feeling this Louisville team could be reminiscent of last year’s, which lost to Providence by 31 points in early January but still ended up in the Final Four.
Liberty. Only one other time in the history of the NCAA tournament has a team with 20 losses made it into the bracket, but Liberty will be the second. That’s because the Flames, who lost their first eight games of the season and finished with a 6-10 record in the Big South, made a surprising dash through the conference tournament to claim the league’s automatic bid with an 87-76 win over Charleston Southern. Liberty will almost certainly be sent to the First Four site in Dayton, but if they should happen to win there, it would be fascinating to see the Flames go up against Duke in the round of 64. That’s because Duke senior guard Seth Curry spent his freshman season at Liberty before transferring out.
Syracuse. You know when a coach says he feel like “playing golf somewhere,” a season can’t end soon enough. That’s what Orange coach Jim Boeheim said after his team scored 39 – count em, 39 – points in a humiliating season finale at Georgetown. It was Syracuse’s fourth loss in the last five games, which is shocking considering this team should have gotten better when senior forward James Southerland returned from academic suspension. The fact that Georgetown was able to dominate the game with Otto Porter failing to make a basket until the second half was all the more surprising. Syracuse was once ranked in the top five, and its overall body of work might warrant around an 8 or 9 seed, but I can’t see too many people projecting this team to make it to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.
Cincinnati. The Bearcats avoided a devastating loss at home to South Florida by rallying at the end of regulation to win by eight points in overtime. As it stands, Cincinnati is probably still on the inside looking out of the NCAA tournament bubble, but it can’t afford any more bad losses. The Bearcats, who have had a hellacious time scoring the ball all season, have lost six of their last nine games to fall to .500 in the Big East.
San Diego State. The Aztecs once held high hopes and a high ranking, but lately they have been slumbering their way through the ultra-tough Mountain West Conference. They lost at Boise State, 69-65, last weekend to drop to into a tie for fourth place in the conference. San Diego State plays hard and plays smart, but it has suffered through most of the season by an inability to hit jump shots, which has just put too much pressure on their defense. Against the Broncos they shot 3 for 16 from three-point range.