Sunday, February 20, 2011
Tallying Saturday's winners and losers
By Eamonn Brennan
The NCAA tournament bubble is a function of time and desperation. As the teams that make up this soft bubble inch toward Selection Sunday, every game is both a threat and and an opportunity. A win might seal your bid. A loss might put you away. That's true throughout the year, of course -- people who say college basketball's regular season doesn't matter have apparently never tracked their team's bubble odds -- but November and December are always full of promise. February and March are all about cold, hard reality.
It's Feb. 19. Crunch time is officially here. Who made the most of their opportunities Saturday? Who missed out? Here's a look at the day's winners and losers, bubble-bound and otherwise:
St. John's Red Storm: Steve Lavin's team just keeps knocking off top-ranked foes at home. Pittsburgh was the latest victim of the resurgent Red Storm in a resurgent Madison Square Garden -- St. John's and the Knicks are both doing their part to revive the nation's most famous arena -- in Saturday afternoon's nail-biting 60-59 loss. The Panthers were arguably the victim of some poor officiating; Dwight Hardy's last-second, game-winning layup might not have counted had the baseline official been watching Hardy's feet, both of which appeared to be out of bounds. But no matter. A win is a win is a win. And when it comes to big wins, there aren't many teams in the nation with a more impressive tally than St. John's. (Hardy & Co. now have six top-50 RPI wins, including five -- five! -- against the RPI top 12: Georgetown, Notre Dame, Duke, UConn, Pittsburgh.) As a result, the Johnnies are off the bubble, out of the Big East cellar, and -- for the moment, at least -- nationally relevant once again.
Nebraska's win over Texas puts the Cornhuskers back into the Bubble Watch conversation.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: I left Nebraska for dead in the Bubble Watch in recent weeks, but we wrote Friday that if any of the lower-tier Big 12 teams (Colorado, Oklahoma State and the aforementioned Huskers) vying for a bubble spot could win this weekend, they'd be back in the picture for good. The Cornhuskers came through. Not only did Saturday's impressive defensive effort earn Doc Sadler's team its sixth conference win, it sank a Texas team that had yet to be challenged in Big 12 play, created yet more uncertainty at the top of the polls, and gave the Huskers a legitimate chance of sneaking into the tournament. Wins don't get much bigger than this.
Arizona forward Derrick Williams: Sure, Arizona won and Washington lost, but there were no real losers in Tucson on Saturday. The Wildcats effectively sealed their Pac-10 title hopes. The Huskies proved their offense is back on track with a gutty performance against a good team in a tough road environment. And both teams got some much-needed national exposure, a resource in short supply during the Pac-10's two-year swoon. But the real winner here was Arizona forward Williams, who made the most of a rare nationally televised, prime time appearance with a monstrous performance. (Lorenzo Romar's words, not mine.) Williams was his typically brilliant self (26 points, 11 rebounds), but he saved the best -- a ferocious last-second walk-off block -- for last. If he wasn't already, Williams became a very rich man Saturday. One lucky NBA general manager will soon see to that.
Utah State Aggies: The Aggies finally got that top-100 RPI win, and they got it in rather impressive fashion, too. Even after last week's ugly loss to Idaho, the Aggies were (perhaps miraculously, given their notable lack of quality victories) still on the right side of the bubble this week, but they needed at least one win to have something -- anything -- to point to as proof they could compete with quality teams outside their own building. Beating a good, if struggling, Saint Mary's team in Moraga is exactly that.
Michigan State Spartans:Big win for Tom Izzo's team. Not only does it buttress the Spartans' bubble bonafides, it caps a lightning-fast late-season turnaround that has seen Michigan State go from being blown out at Iowa to nearly toppling Ohio State before finishing the job against Illinois Saturday. Two weeks ago, this looked like an NIT team. Not any more.
UNLV Runnin' Rebels: The Rebels' tourney chances could probably have survived a loss at Colorado State on Saturday, but why risk it? Instead, UNLV recovered from an ugly first half, hung 46 on the Rams in the second half, pulled within a half-game of CSU in the MWC standings, and -- along with their more impressive nonconference performance -- ensured the Mountain West's third bid goes to Vegas instead of Fort Collins.
West Virginia Mountaineers: If the Mountaineers were in real danger of missing the NCAA tournament -- and with that insane computer profile, I'm not sure they were -- that danger is over now. West Virginia's convincing home win over Notre Dame all but ensures this team will make the tournament. Considering the 'Eers backloaded schedule (their last four games are at Pittsburgh, at Rutgers, versus Connecticut and versus Louisville), and their one-step-forward two-steps-back performances in recent weeks, this win couldn't have come at a better time.
The MAAC in general: Wait, the MAAC? What gives? I'll tell you what: The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference went 9-1 in the BracketBusters Saturday. Even lowly Marist, with its 3-13 MAAC record, managed to hold on for a nice home win over New Hampshire. None of these teams are on the bubble, none of these wins really means all that much in any national context, but who cares? That's an awesome day for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Blake Griffin: Yes, the car dunk was a little overhyped, but whatever. Dude is crazy. We knew him when!
The Missouri Valley Conference in general: It was not a good weekend for the MVC. Before the BracketBusters, both Missouri State and Wichita State had hopes -- however faded they may have been -- of landing at-large bids to the 2011 NCAA tournament. After Saturday, it's clear this is a one-bid league. The Valley went 3-7 in BracketBusters this weekend thanks in large part to losses by its top six teams. Creighton lost at Akron. George Mason beat Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. Valparaiso rocked Missouri State. Throw in Wichita State's crushing one-point loss to VCU Friday night, and well, yeah. As much as it pains us to toss this proud mid-major league to the bubble dustbin, we really don't have a choice.
Teams with long win streaks: Entering Saturday, four teams in the country held winning streaks of 10 games or more. Exiting Saturday, only one remains. George Mason extended its nation-best streak to 13, but Texas lost at Nebraska, Vermont was crushed at Charleston and Princeton suffered its first Ivy defeat in a stunning 75-65 loss to 9-14 Brown.
Memphis Tigers: Every time you think this Memphis team is starting to figure things out, it goes and does something like this ... and totally crushes its at-large profile yet again. Yes, the Tigers lost at Rice. Yes, Rice's record is 12-14 overall and 4-8 in conference play, and yes, Rice's RPI is 170. And no, I can't possibly word this better than The Associated Press headline here: The Owls "took a shovel" to Memphis' NCAA tournament chances. Yep. Pretty much.
Virginia Tech Hokies: The Hokies had been playing their best basketball of the season lately; they appeared to be creating separation between themselves and the rest of the ACC's muddled, sub-bubble middle. And then ... this happened. Yes, Virginia Tech lost to Virginia for the second time this season, thanks in large part to the sort of ugly shooting (40.4 percent from the field, 31.8 percent from 3-point range) that dogged Tech in its handful of disappointing nonconference losses. The Hokies picked a bad time to rediscover their previous shooting woes, as this loss puts them right back in the thick of the bubble mess. Ouch.
Dallas Elmore and the Eagles wasted a good opportunity to improve their tournament résumé.
Boston College Eagles: When you sit squarely on the bubble, and you catch North Carolina on what has to be its worst offensive day of the season (and certainly of the past month), and you have a legitimate chance to get a huge road win against a team with a sexy RPI, you have to find a way to get that victory. BC didn't. Instead, UNC scored its fewest points ever at the Smith Center and yet held on for a shockingly ugly 48-46 win. It's not that Boston College held the ball too long on its final possession, though that was a killer. It's that the Eagles -- one of the best offenses in the country this season -- couldn't muster more than .79 points per trip. If BC plays even average offense -- which, for them, would still have been well below average -- it gets this win and suddenly look like a very strong at-large candidate. Instead, the Eagles come away with nothing. Let's hope this one doesn't come back to haunt them.
Washington State Cougars: Washington State has hung around on the bubble for much longer than it's probably deserved; such is the nature of this season's extra-squishy at-large landscape. No more. You can't lose four of your past six -- including losses to Oregon, Stanford and at Arizona State (combined Pac-10 wins: 12) -- and expect to get the benefit of the doubt in March. Unless this disjointed, uneven team somehow wins at Washington next Saturday, they'll have to win the Pac-10 tournament to get in. Ick.
Duquesne Dukes: It's not that Duquesne should have been expected to win at Dayton. Dayton is reasonably tough, especially in its own building, and Duquesne was probably due for a correction after its startling 8-0 start to A-10 play. But the one-point loss to the Flyers was a huge missed opportunity for a team that desperately needed to avoid losses to stay in the bubble picture down the stretch. Duquesne led 58-52 with less than five minutes remaining Saturday, but Dayton answered with 10 straight points, capped off by a crucial Juwan Staten free throw with 28 seconds left on the clock. A win would have kept the Dukes' fading at-large chances alive. The loss might've squashed those chances for good.
Serge Ibaka: Come on, judges! Serge was all the way behind the free throw line! He grabbed a teddy bear in his mouth! What more do you need?