We are at that point of the season when the wins and losses are keenly felt. When losing a game can mean the official end to your season if you’re in a conference tournament. When losing a game can mean the unofficial end to your hopes, if you’re hoping for an at-large bid.
So it is time to tally the scores, to see who emerged on this final weekend of the regular season as the winners and losers. Can't include everyone of course, but here's my take on some of the games and performances that mattered most to the national picture.
(For the winner and loser in that little game down in North Carolina Saturday night, check out the column by my colleague Pat Forde).
Bill Self: The burden of being really good at what you do is people tend to take it for granted. So Kansas lost the two players (Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins) who personified their team and another who was talented enough to be selected in the lottery (Xavier Henry)? So KU is back in the top five anyway? So the Jayhawks have now won at least a share of seven consecutive Big 12 titles? It’s Kansas. That’s supposed to happen. Except if it’s always supposed to happen, why doesn’t anyone else do it? Self’s run of supremacy is wildly impressive and pathetically under appreciated.
Bubble-bouncers: In the head-to-head bubble games of the day, Clemson, Alabama, Michigan and Colorado all emerged with prettier dockets. None are assured to be in the NCAA tournament yet. In order from most to least likely would go: Michigan, Clemson, Colorado and Alabama -- but all at least gave themselves a little wiggle room late.
Arizona and Derrick Williams: A year after Arizona’s amazing run of 25 consecutive NCAA tourney appearances ended, the Wildcats started a new streak. With a 90-82 win against Oregon, Arizona clinched its first Pac-10 regular-season title in six years. The Wildcats didn’t need the win to make the tourney, but it certainly feels good to not have to share with UCLA. The fast-track to recovery has come even more quickly than coach Sean Miller could have hoped and the reason is Williams. The absolute lock for conference player of the year honors finished with 14 points (5-for-7) despite foul trouble and a balky pinky finger.
UNC-Asheville: Three years ago, the Bulldogs had what might have been the tallest player in college basketball history, 7-foot-7 Kenny George. George’s career was tragically cut short after he had to have part of his foot amputated following a life-threatening staph infection. Asheville went 15-16 in each of the following two years. On Saturday, the Bulldogs became the first team to officially punch a Dance ticket, winning at Coastal Carolina to take the Big South tournament crown. UNCA has won five in a row and rewarded Eddie Biedenbach with his first NCAA berth since 2003.
Belmont: Country crooner Vince Gill is singing a happy song. The Bruins are in the tournament. It shouldn’t be a surprise -- Belmont dropped just one game in the Atlantic Sun all season. Three years ago, the Bruins scared the bejesus out of Duke in the first round, losing 71-70 as a No. 15 seed. This time, it won’t be nearly as surprising if Belmont plays close or pulls off an upset.
Big East (sort of): OK, so this isn’t exactly how the conference was looking to become a winner, but hey it works. Thanks to Villanova's late-season and Connecticut slide (see losers below), the Big East will have two blue bloods playing in what are usually its dregs games on Tuesday -- not to mention a Marquette team that finds itself right back on the bubble after a blowout loss at Seton Hall. Another Big East winner on Saturday? With a 70-67 win at UConn, the Fighting Irish wrapped up the No. 2 seed in Big East tourney. Who saw that coming in the preseason? (For more on the Irish, check out Andy Katz's postgame coverage from Storrs, Conn.)
Florida: One game that probably got overshadowed on Saturday in a flurry of other meaningful results was Florida’s rather easy 86-76 win at Vanderbilt. Every SEC team can tell you how tough it is to play in Vandy’s Memorial Gymnasium. Memorial Magic is real. But on Saturday night, the Gators took control, and in the process, clinched an outright SEC title -- it’s first since the school’s second national-title season (2007).
Harvard: Other than maybe former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, no one will be rooting harder for the Penn Quakers on Tuesday than Crimson fans. Harvard students stormed the court after the win against Princeton, but that only assures Tommy Amaker’s team of a share of their first Ivy League crown. To win it outright, and to get the NCAA tournament automatic bid, Princeton has to lose to Penn. Otherwise, it’s a one-game, winner-take-the-bid game this weekend.
Kenneth Faried: The Morehead State senior is already the all-time leading rebounder in NCAA history, is tied for second in the record books with the most double-doubles in a career (he has 84, tied with Ralph Sampson and three shy of Tim Duncan) and now he’s got the ultimate award: a return ticket to the NCAA tournament. It got a little hairy late, but Faried and the Eagles held on to beat Tennessee Tech 80-73 to clinch the Ohio Valley Conference title. Morehead will be a popular upset pick thanks to the surefire NBA draft pick.
Popping bubbles: It’s a little too early to say theirs are entirely popped, but Michigan State (see below), Virginia Tech, Georgia and Baylor certainly didn’t help their causes. The Hokies really played themselves into a pickle, all but dismantling their reward points for beating Duke with back-to-back losses to Boston College and Clemson.
Preston Knowles: The senior’s bad day turned horrifically awful in the final seconds at West Virginia. Had Louisville won the game, Knowles’ 5-of-16 shooting would have been an afterthought. But because the Cardinals lost when Knowles, a senior who ought to know better, clanked a 3-pointer and then fouled Truck Bryant in a tie game approximately 47 miles from the basket and 0.6 remaining, his crummy day will be etched into history.
Surging Spartan Theory: Michigan State won two in a row, beating Illinois and Minnesota, and plenty of people (present company included) thought maybe this is it. Maybe this is where the Spartans finally gets it together and play like the team everyone thought they could be. Um, no. Michigan State has lost two of its past three to reverse its fortune with its rival. Michigan promptly put itself on the good side of the NCAA bubble with its win against Michigan State, while the loss certainly will make the Spartans a little more uncomfortable entering the Big Ten tourney in Indianapolis.
Purdue: There’s no handbook on how to get a No. 1 seed or how to lose one, but this would probably be on the Don’t list: don’t lose to one of your league’s cellar-dwellars on the final day of the regular season and tarnish what was once a pretty resume. Purdue went to Iowa on a seven-game win streak and the Hawkeyes were in the midst of a six-game losing streak. The 67-65 Iowa victory put an end to both runs and very well could have put an end to the Boilermakers’ outside chance at a No. 1 seed.
Coastal Carolina: Once the owners of a 22-game winning streak, the Chanticleers are out of the NCAA tournament picture and now facing a more daunting task: an NCAA investigation. Coastal’s home loss to UNC-Asheville officially ended what once looked like an easy road to the NCAAs. But easy took a few detours. In January, Mike Holmes was kicked off the team and in February, leading scorer Desmond Holloway was indefinitely suspended, leaving the Chanticleers with seven scholarship players. The NCAA is investigating if Holloway received improper benefits. Few teams have fallen harder or faster than Coastal over the past month.