- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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At this point in the season, college hoops' biggest games come in two different sizes. There are: 1) genuinely big games and 2) genuinely big bubble games.
We had a smattering of both categories this afternoon. We'll cover all of the evening action later Saturday night, but let's dig into what we've seen so far:
No. 4 Kansas 87, No. 3 Missouri 86: If these two teams don't meet in the Big 12 tournament -- and let's all pray to the basketball gods that they do -- well, at least we'll always have Feb. 25, 2012, the day a century-old rivalry served up an absolute classic.
Have we seen a better, more important, more frenzied game this season? In the past five years? Sure, UNC-Kentucky and Duke-UNC were great, but there wasn't anywhere near as much on the line. The putative end of a rivalry. Missouri's impending move to the SEC. The increased tension and finger-pointing therein. The Big 12 regular-season title, and KU's eight-year streak at the top of the league, and Mizzou's last, best chance to do something about it. This was always going to be a good game. But it delivered so much more: A brilliant offensive night from Missouri, an incredible second-half comeback by Kansas,* huge plays down the stretch from both teams, an overtime fraught with tension, an insane atmosphere. Kansas 87, Missouri 86 lacked for nothing. We got it all.
Judging by my Twitter feed -- which may or may not be a representative sample of all of America (OK, it isn't) -- you were probably watching this game, so there's little need to recap it minute by minute. (Plus, our own Jason King has you covered, and he'll have more from Allen Fieldhouse to come.) Instead, let's take a moment to review the state of the national player of the year race, in which Thomas Robinson remains very much a factor. Anthony Davis (as you'll see just below) has crept closer and closer to Robinson in recent weeks, and rightfully so: Davis' game-changing talents are the main reason Kentucky is so difficult to beat. But Robinson isn't ceding to the freshman without a fight. His performance today -- Robinson posted 28 points and 12 rebounds -- was a dose of mastery at the season's most important time. Even within the game, Robinson was the hero: His game-tying three-point play gave Kansas the tie in regulation, and his subsequent block of a streaking Flip Pressey with just four seconds remaining pushed the game to overtime. Whenever Kansas needed a big play, Robinson gave it to them.
Let the player of the year arguments rage on. If you can pick one player over the other, more power to you. Because I certainly can't.
In any case, I'm going to go watch the replay of this game. More than once, probably. When the college hoops gods serve up something this good, you can't discard it after one use. Whatever happens to the Kansas-Mizzou rivalry now, regardless of the Big 12 tournament, we'll always have this. Thank you, hoops gods. We love you, too.
*Which, by the way, tied the record for the biggest home comeback in Kansas history. KU recovered from a 19-point home deficit Dec. 2, 1995 against UCLA, but that started in the first half. Big game, but nothing like this. Crazy.
No. 1 Kentucky 83, Vanderbilt 74: Vandy coach Kevin Stallings isn't the type to revel in moral victories, but even so, it would be hard for him to walk away from today's loss at Kentucky and not feel pretty good about his team. Kentucky, as you know, is a steamroller, an incredible collection of talent with a transformative defensive player in Anthony Davis and a coterie of first-round draft picks on the floor at any given time. But over the 80 minutes these two teams have played, Vanderbilt has come closest to legitimately challenging UK. There's a victory in there somewhere.
In any case, newsflash: Kentucky is still really, really good. Another newsflash: So is Davis. His incredible line -- 28 points, 11 rebounds, six blocks, and a 10-of-11 mark from the field -- pretty much says it all. (According to ESPN Stats and Information, Davis' 10-of-11 night gave him the highest field goal percentage of any Kentucky player against an SEC opponent in the past 15 seasons. We're running out of adjectives to describe this guy.)
No. 7 North Carolina 54, Virginia 51: Lost in the hubbub of Missouri-Kentucky was this rather excellent game in Charlottesville, in which the Cavaliers executed their gameplan to precision. This team thrives in slow-paced affairs -- its adjusted tempo of 60.4 possessions per game is the eighth-slowest in the country -- and keeping this game in that range was Virginia's only hope of containing UNC's balanced, talented and typically uptempo offensive attack. That much went well. Virginia made every possession an important one. But having done so, the Cavaliers couldn't get the crucial stops and buckets they needed when the game tightened even further in the final minutes.
With 13.3 seconds remaining, Tyler Zeller headfaked Akil Mitchell and got all the way to the rim for a game-defining dunk. Virginia fans will be upset with the referees in this one; there's no question Mike Scott's foul changed the game, to say nothing of the issues it caused him defensively, with no fouls to spare down the stretch. Scott missed large portions of the game due to foul trouble, which included a very questionable fourth foul on John Henson, as our Robbi Pickeral recounted in her Rapid Reaction. But UVa had chances to win this one, to hold the Tar Heels back. It just couldn't quite get there.
Iowa State 65, Kansas State 61: Before today, there was a good chance the Cyclones were going to make the NCAA tournament. They had built their resume in solid but unspectacular fashion in recent weeks, avoiding (for the most part) the kind of bad losses that could introduce some doubt into the process. With the closing troika of Kansas State (away), Missouri (away) and Baylor (home), the Cyclones could potentially have closed with an 0-3 mark and still gotten in. There wasn't a bad loss to be had.
But forget all that now: With this road win, the Cyclones are in. Kansas State had sealed its fate last week with back-to-back road wins over Baylor and Missouri. Iowa State's ability to overcome a tough, grooving defensive team on the road, to ride a scorching-hot Scott Cristopherson's 29 points (on 10-of-13 from the field and 5-of-5 from 3), to hold on to the win in the final moments, was all very impressive, the kind of thing that distinguishes you from the score of shaky bubble squads in the mix. There's no chance Iowa State misses the tournament now. Fred Hoiberg's team just killed the suspense.
Ole Miss 72, LSU 48: LSU's bubble chances were always slim, but they might officially be over now. A loss at Ole Miss isn't a killer if you have an otherwise strong profile. LSU doesn't. Even worse, though, is that the Tigers weren't competitive. They never held a lead in this game, trailed 34-24 at halftime, and flailed throughout the second half en route to the rout. In the process, they shot 4-of-23 from 3 and 18-of-58 overall. A loss of any kind at Ole Miss may have pushed LSU's fringe bubble candidacy back too low along the S-Curve for the Tigers to be considered a legitimate contender, but a loss this bad definitely does.
Arizona 65, UCLA 63: What a game for Arizona's seniors. In their final home game against their program's chief existential rival, Kyle Fogg and Jesse Perry combined for 36 points -- 28 of which came in the second half -- on the way to an ugly but well-deserved two-point win. As emotionally big as this victory no doubt was, it is even bigger for Fogg's, Perry's and the rest of the Wildcats' chances at making it to the NCAA tournament. A loss here would have been an ill-advised move in the wrong direction, as Arizona's profile -- like much of the Pac-12's -- includes only one top-50 RPI win. Those lack of top-end wins puts everything in jeopardy for squads like Washington and Arizona, who have been among their conference's best teams even as the rest of the college hoops world puzzles over just how bad the league really is. Nothing is guaranteed for anyone in the Pac-12. This win, expected though it may have been, is huge.
Memphis 87, Marshall 67: The Tigers' at-large chances have long been boosted by their nonconference schedule, which was among the best (read: most difficult) in the country in November and December. The Maui Invitational was just that good. But the Tigers weren't necessarily all the way safe; another loss or two like last week's home defeat to UTEP could have spelled some bubble trouble down the stretch. But after today's dominant win at Marshall -- which included some scuffling and squaring up, as well as what appeared to be some discord on the Memphis sideline -- the Tigers are in really strong shape. In fact, between these two, Marshall needed this game more. The Thundering Herd's rather quiet at-large credentials were worth noting this week. They weren't in the field by any means, but they had their chances to get there. This was one of those chances. Marshall failed to take advantage -- and emphatically so.
Clemson 72, NC State 69: In the past two weeks, NC State has had three shots at big wins. It let one slip in dramatic, mind-boggling fashion at Duke. It couldn't hang with Florida State or North Carolina. Those missed opportunities made today's road trip to Clemson a must. The Wolfpack entered Saturday right on the bubble, with a razor-thin difference between in or out status, and almost no margin for bad-loss error. But a bad loss is exactly what they got. Clemson's RPI isn't as bad as it once was -- the Tigers have steadily improved in ACC play -- but the committee will still see this as a loss to a sub-100 RPI (in Clemson's case, sub-140) and a fourth straight defeat at the season's most important time. With just a few games remaining, and no chances to notch a marquee win in the mix, NC State's fans may be destined to watch their team miss the tournament for yet another year. The future is bright under Mark Gottfried, but the present remains frustrating.
Rhode Island 64, Saint Louis 62: Look up the phrase "bad loss" in the Official Unabridged Bubble Watch dictionary, and you're sure to see "at Rhode Island" at or near the top of the list. Saint Louis' profile -- a sound but hardly exciting ledger with a top-25 RPI but no top-50 wins -- now looks much shakier as a result of this loss. The Rams' RPI is in the high 200s; they entered Saturday with a horrid 5-23 record and 11 losses in their past 13 games. That changed when Billy Baron, son of Rams coach Jim Baron, made the game winner with just four seconds remaining, giving the Rams their best win of the season and putting SLU's at-large chances under much greater scrutiny. The Billikens aren't going to fall out of the bracket thanks to one awful loss, but if these struggles continue (Xavier and at Duquesne are up next), that outcome is hardly out of the question.
Drexel 73, Old Dominion 72: Even with an imbalanced CAA schedule (which gave them just one game apiece vs. VCU and George Mason, both at home) the Dragons' streak of 22 wins in 23 games was impressive and worthy of bubble consideration. But the Dragons are still, like VCU and Mason and most of the CAA, hampered in many ways by their conference's lack of quality non-league wins, not to mention big RPI numbers and bigger nonconference strength of schedule figures. In other words, to stay in the at-large hunt, Drexel had to win on the road at ODU today. It did. When you win 23 of your final 24 regular-season games, you have to be in the tourney picture. But if Drexel's computer numbers stay this ugly, will the committee be impressed? Will three sub-150 losses (including Nov. 18's neutral-court loss to Norfolk State) doom the Dragons? This will be one of the more interesting questions the committee tackles in the hours leading up to the final bracket reveal.