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Saturday, March 3, 2012
What we learned from Saturday afternoon

By Eamonn Brennan

Believe it or not, a certain massive matchup in Durham, N.C., isn't the only college hoops game on the schedule today. Hard to believe, I know, but it's true.

Here's a look at much of the action -- bubble and otherwise -- that served as the appetizer to tonight's main course. Be sure to check back later this evening for our writers' reactions and analysis from across the country.

No. 7 Marquette 83, No. 12 Georgetown 69: When March calms down, and the offseason finishes out its usual assortment of draft decisions, coaching intrigue and off-campus arrests (and everything else), I'm going to sit down one week and calculate college hoops winning percentages on senior night. With the exception of Northwestern (which lost in heartbreaking fashion Wednesday), it felt like nearly every team in the country won its final home game of the season this week. A lot of that is just good, old-fashioned home-court advantage, and some of it is skill and so forth, but when you strip all that away, I'm still going to guess pretty much every college hoops team in the country sees a massive bounce in its winning in the final home game of the season. Quantifying emotion is never easy. This feels like a chance.

In any case, Marquette followed this (presumably real, potentially imagined) trend Saturday, easily handling a Georgetown team that was itself coming off a dominant performance in its final home game of the season, a 59-41 victory over Notre Dame. In doing so, the Golden Eagles extended their Big East record to 14-4 and ensured the No. 2 seed in the Big East tournament next week. Meanwhile, Jae Crowder made one last-ditch pitch for Big East player of the year: He scored 26 points and grabbed 14 rebounds on 8-of-15 from the field and 10-of-12 from the free throw line. (Crowder missed all five 3-point attempts, a portion of his game that he's really improved this season. When your center can shoot 37 percent from 3-point range, you've got a very difficult team to guard.)

Can Crowder win the award? Because he should. With all due respect to Darius Johnson-Odom and like four or five different Syracuse players, Crowder's mix of offensive efficiency (offensive rating: 122.9; including 61 percent from inside the arc, a low turnover rate, and the aforementioned perimeter solidity), rebounding and defense (he's averaging 2.3 steals and 1.0 blocks per game) make him, to me, the most complete, most important player in the conference.

No. 9 Murray State 54, Tennessee State 52 (Ohio Valley Championship): With six minutes left in the OVC title game, bubble teams across the country were no doubt finding it difficult to establish regulated breathing patterns. Tennessee State was up 48-43, the Racers were struggling to find stops against the dish-and-kick action of the Tigers' 1-4 low sets, and even worse, Isaiah Canaan, Murray State's do-it-all star, was battling through an off night. A two-bid OVC -- and a suddenly shrunken bubble -- were very real possibilities.

But Murray State locked in on defense, stacking great possession after great possession, cutting the Tigers off and preventing easy shots in the paint, and eventually came back to seal the win. The final go-ahead basket was a matter of immediate controversy at the broadcast table; our own Fran Fraschilla was convinced Murray State guard Jewuan Long charged on his game-winning basket. The call was close, no question. But all due respect to Fran, who is way better than this than I am, I disagree that it should have been a charge. A few things here. Long shot the ball before contact was initiated; the defender was still slightly sliding under the move, rather than entirely in front of it; and, most importantly, it was the penultimate play of a one-possession game with the NCAA tournament on the line. The ref needs to swallow his whistle there. And, in general, college coaches and players -- frankly, this applies to the NBA, too -- need to stop coaching defense like this! It's bad for the sport. There are plenty of ways to defend a driving player without fouling or attempt to draw a foul. Choose one. Don't run to a spot and hope the ref gives you the benefit of a 50-50 call, especially when your season is on the line. In short: Play defense.

Maybe that's the pickup player in me coming out; I would have little sympathy even if Long committed a blatant charge. But it wasn't. The no-call couldn't have been more appropriate. And every bubble team in the country can breathe just a little bit easier as a result.

Illinois State 65, No. 14 Wichita State 64: On second thought, bubble teams, you can go back to freaking out now. Why? Because Arch Madness has yielded its first truly mad result of the tournament. Wichita State is the Missouri Valley's best team and No. 1 overall seed, not to mention everyone's pick to be this year's mid-major tournament darling. But that didn't stop the Redbirds -- thanks to Tyler Brown's two clutch free throws and two misses in the last six seconds from WSU's Toure' Murry and Garrett Stutz -- from shocking the Shockers all the same. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

Wichita State doesn't have much to worry about in the way of its NCAA tournament seed, of course. But every team along the bubble line, including many of those mentioned below, should be terrified. If Creighton suffers the same fate at any point this weekend, the Missouri Valley will send three teams to the NCAA tournament and steal one bid from a bubble that is destined to shrink even further down the stretch.

Could that third team be Illinois State? Why not? When you beat Wichita State on a neutral court, you deserve the benefit of the doubt.

No. 2 Syracuse 58, No. 18 Louisville 49: This was always an uphill battle for Louisville for one obvious reason: The Cardinals can't score. Louisville can defend. It can rebound. It can get stops when it needs them. But when you have the Big East's 11th-best offense on a per-possession basis, when your effective field-goal percentage ranks outside the nation's top 200 teams, when you turn the ball over on 21.8 percent of your possessions (national rank: No. 241) and your task is to break down Syracuse's smothering 2-3 defense in the Carrier Dome, well, good luck. Syracuse played its typically potent brand of extended defense, forcing Louisville a downright awful 2-of-23 mark from beyond the arc, and that's pretty much your game right there.

It's going to be interesting to see how Rick Pitino tries to adjust this team as he heads toward the NCAA tournament. A few weeks ago, Pitino told ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt that he liked to speed the game up and take more risks in the tournament; in his experience, too many coaches slow down in the tournament, fearing disorganization and disarray. This might be his only course of action in March. The Cardinals can't find any offense, but they can press and trap and slap and claw and hope to get easy buckets from turnovers and bad shots in transition. At this point, with this anemic, predictable offense (prediction: Peyton Siva won't see a defense guard him over the top on another ball screen all season), does Pitino have any other choice?

Variously Questionable Bubble Losses

West Virginia 50, South Florida 44: The Mountaineers desperately needed this win. Before this week's victory over DePaul, WVU had lost seven of its previous nine games and seen its once-certain at-large tournament bid -- WVU was once a No. 5 seed in Joe Lunardi's bracket; now it's a No. 12 -- become an entirely precarious matter. This win obviously helps, and not just because it was a win: It also put a ding on one of WVU's potential bubble rivals, South Florida, which has surged into the bubble conversation in recent weeks thanks to a gaudy Big East record and consecutive victories over Cincinnati and Louisville. A win Saturday might have put the Bulls on the right side of the bubble in official fashion. As it is, their profile still looks much better than it used to, but with a 5-10 road record and a 2-8 mark against the RPI top 50, some positive results in the Big East tournament may well be necessary.

UCLA 75, Washington 69: First things first: This was a really nice win for UCLA. It hasn't been the easiest week for the Bruins (that's a candidate for understatement of the year), but with back-to-back good wins (a blowout of Washington State and this plucky victory over the league's standings leader) at least they finished on a positive note. As for Washington, the loss might well have cost the Huskies the outright Pac-12 title. Cal still needs to win get a likely but hardly guaranteed win at Stanford, but either way, the Huskies' argument -- that an outright regular-season conference title in a high-major, albeit really bad, conference should guarantee a spot in the NCAA tournament -- looks even more specious now. Washington, like the rest of this league, has nothing in the way of nonconference results to point to as proof that it is considerably better than the RPI's impression of the Pac-12 as the 10th-best league in the country. It will be fascinating to see how the committee treats UW, and the Pac-12 as a whole, but if I'm the Huskies I'm planning on making a very deep run through the Pac-12 tournament, just to be safe.

Marshall 79, Southern Miss 75: Will a loss at Marshall damage Southern Miss's bubble chances? Doubtful. Marshall is a quality team -- a deep fringe bubble candidate in its own right -- and a four-point loss in the Herd's building isn't, or shouldn't, be the kind of thing that damages a team's bubble chances. What's more, the Golden Eagles still own an RPI within the top 20. In the past 16 years, no team with an RPI of 20 higher has ever missed the tournament. (The closest was 2005-06 Missouri State, which didn't have nearly as strong a profile as this team.) They should be fine.

Maintenance-Minded Bubble Wins

Xavier 72, Charlotte 63: Xavier's final home win of the season wasn't what the Musketeers would have planned heading into the season. To wit, from the AP: "It was a bittersweet day for Xavier, which had grown accustomed to ending its final home game with a spray of confetti and a few celebratory snips of the net. The Musketeers' streak of five straight A-10 regular-season titles was snapped this season." That dream was over weeks ago. Xavier has bigger fish to slice now. The Musketeers are as close to the bubble as you can be (Lunardi's most recent bracket has them as the first team outside the field). A win won't necessarily change that, but a loss would have been disastrous, and Xavier is now in at least slightly better position as it heads into A-10 postseason play.

Northwestern 70, Iowa 66: It was very easy to imagine Northwestern -- which missed marquee wins (Michigan, Ohio State) in soul-crushing fashion twice in the past two weeks -- losing at Iowa. The Hawkeyes beat Wisconsin and Indiana at home in recent weeks, Northwestern would no doubt be feeling the historic tournament pressure, and so on. But this was an impressive victory, or at least as impressive as a victory over Iowa can ever be. This is a little like Xavier's win: It doesn't provide a bubble bump, but it does prevent a potentially disastrous move in the wrong direction at the worst possible time of the season. Is Northwestern in right now? I'd guess yes. But it's hardly a done deal. Like nearly everyone else on the bubble, the only way for Bill Carmody's team to enter Selection Sunday with any measure of confidence is to play well in next week's conference tournament. That much is clear.

Miami 77, Boston College 56: Same situation here: A loss would have been a dream-killer. A win doesn't move the needle. Miami basically has two tourney-worthy qualities on its profile: A win at Duke (huge) and a home win over Florida State (slightly less huge, but still important). But other than that, there's not much there. Can the Hurricanes knock off one of this league's top four teams -- especially Duke or UNC -- on a neutral floor next week? That might be the baseline requirement going forward.

Connecticut 74, Pittsburgh 65: The Huskies have spent much of the past three weeks looking downright determined to overcome their computer numbers (a top-five overall strength of schedule and a top-20 nonconference figure) and somehow, some way, miss the tournament. This week's loss to Providence was an apparent punctuation mark on a pretty much horrible Big East season, or at least horrible relative to this team's elite talent. After this win, though, it looks like UConn will -- just barely -- hold on to a spot above the bubble fray.