College Basketball Nation: Jae Crowder

PHOENIX -- The No. 7 seeds in the 2012 NCAA tournament were as follows:

Notre Dame. Saint Mary's. Gonzaga. Florida.

Sing it with me now: One of these things is not like the others.

For starters, Florida was the only No. 7 seed to survive the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, and the only one -- after Thursday's 68-58 victory over Marquette -- to reach the Elite Eight and the one-game-from-the-Final-Four precipice it so intensely entails.

But even before the first weekend played out as it did, the Gators stood apart. Their No. 7 seed felt low -- but not because of the RPI or résumé. That part made sense. Rather, this vague feeling was about talent. It was about whether this team could come together at the right time, could flip the proverbial switch, could play up to the tantalizing possibilities presented by so much offensive firepower and future NBA potential.

Two weeks later, Billy Donovan's team has provided the answer.

Thanks to a defense that has suddenly morphed into a shutdown force -- and the continued emergence of talented freshman guard Bradley Beal -- Florida is back in the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season. If the Gators find a way to break down Louisville's vaunted defense Saturday, they'll be back in the Final Four for the first time since Donovan's back-to-back national titles in 2006-07 -- and would become the first No. 7 seed to make it to the tournament's biggest stage since the 1984 Virginia Cavaliers.

"We're starting to peak right now," Florida forward Patric Young said. "It's the greatest time to play your best basketball."

That did not appear to be the case in February, when Florida was drubbed at Kentucky, lost at home to Tennessee and finished SEC regular-season play with three consecutive losses, including a 76-62 defeat at Georgia on Feb. 25.

At that point, it was easy to have the Gators pegged: This was a good, sometimes great, offensive team reliant on 3-point shots and guard play, but one that didn't defend well enough to hold opponents back when that steady stream of outside shots failed to fall.

That once-shaky defense has experienced a sea change in the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament. Last weekend, the Gators held Virginia and Norfolk State to an incredibly low .74 points per trip -- combined. (They won both games by a total margin of 60 points.) On Thursday night, against a much better opponent in Marquette -- and one that boasted not one but two potent All-Big East players in Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder -- the Gators held that duo to 10-of-30 from the field and, in the process, allowed the Golden Eagles just .86 points per trip.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, the 153 points allowed by UF is the third-lowest total in a team’s first three tournament wins during the shot-clock era.

When your offense is one of the nation's five most efficient for an entire season (it is currently No. 3 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings) your defense doesn't have to be this good. When it is? Well, look out.

[+] EnlargeBradley Beal
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonFlorida freshman Bradley Beal led all scorers with 21 points and added 6 rebounds and 4 assists.
"When you don't make shots, the easiest thing to say is, well, we just missed shots that we typically make," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "That wasn't what happened. They were really good. They were outstanding."

And the Gators needed to be. Marquette is itself an awfully good defensive team, and one particularly inclined -- thanks to its coterie of guards and athletic bigs and focus on tight perimeter defense -- to take Florida out of its bombs-away 3-point shooting game. To some extent, that's what happened. The Gators struggled from the field, and especially from beyond the arc; they went 4-of-14 in the first half and just 3-of-13 in the second. In all, Marquette held UF to a mere 1.01 points per possession, an unusually low number for one of the nation's best offenses.

The difference, by the end, was Beal. The Gators not named Beal shot 16-of-49 from the field and 4-of-22 from 3. Meanwhile, the UF freshman played one of the most efficient individual games of the NCAA tournament to date, dropping 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting (and 3-of-5 from 3).

Fittingly, it was Beal's final basket, a soaring open-floor dunk, that truly signaled the end of Marquette's comeback bid, in which it cut a 14-point second-half lead to six with just 3:18 left to play. Donovan warned his players the Golden Eagles would "keep coming," and keep coming had finally, in the final minute, gone away. For all of Marquette's fight, for all its guile, and for all the ideal matchups it could field against Florida's guard-heavy lineup, Williams' team had no match for Donovan's surefire future lottery pick.

Williams put it in political terms:

"I think Bradley Beal is their swing vote," he said, "because he's so multi-versatile and talented."

Indeed, Beal's stature as one of the nation's top recruits -- he was the fifth-rated player in the class of 2011 -- was one of the main reasons Florida began the season so highly regarded despite losing forward Chandler Parsons from last season's Elite Eight team. With Beal joining Young and Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker and Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario, the promise of this team was limitless.

But Beal, like so many freshmen, took time to adjust to the college game -- to figure out how it feels when, all of a sudden, the game doesn't quite come so easily.

"At times he could get a little moody and get a little pouty and just didn't know how to handle it," Donovan said. "I had a hard time with him early in the year. ... I asked [Brad] one time, 'What's the most difficult part for you playing in college?' He said, 'Dealing with adversity and dealing with bad games -- because I didn't have a lot of those in high school.'

"He was always the best player on the floor."

Even with two of the nation's most talented teams on the court -- even with two Big East first-teamers on the squad opposite him -- there was no mistaking the best player on the court Thursday night.

His continued emergence, alongside a suddenly stout defense and an offensive attack still capable of sniping defenses into submission, has the Gators one win away from a Final Four. Of course, they'll have to topple another very good defense -- the Louisville Cardinals, who shut down No. 1-seeded Michigan State just minutes before Florida took the court Thursday. And Donovan will have to best his old coach and mentor, Rick Pitino, before UF can line up any Big Easy travel plans. (The over/under on the number of times you read about this dynamic in the next 48 hours is somewhere in the five-digit area. Fair warning.)

But one thing is clear: This is no normal 7-seed. The Gators had their share of ups and downs, sure, but this team is primed for March, playing its best basketball, as Young said, at the perfect time. We say that often about teams this time of year. Rarely does it ring so true.

"We're really locked in," Young said. "Hopefully we haven't reached that peak. Hopefully, we're still going up."

PHOENIX -- A quick recap of Florida's 68-58 win over Marquette Thursday night:

Overview: Maybe Florida can defend after all. The Gators' defense has been their chief deficiency all season, the one major factor keeping such a talented team -- and such a high-powered offense -- from truly breaking through. But after two huge defensive performances in their first two tournament wins, the Gators kept it up, holding Marquette stars Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom to a combined 29 points on just 10-of-30 shooting from the field.

Turning point: As usual, Florida's shooting made the difference. The Gators maintained a six-point lead for the first six minutes of the first half when Erving Walker and Bradley Beal made back-to-back 3s, opening a 12-point advantage the Gators more or less maintained until the final three minutes. That's when Marquette -- thanks to a steal, a timeout call, a made 3 and a fast-break layup, all from Todd Mayo, all in the matter of 50 seconds -- drew the game back to 58-52.

On the ensuing possession, Walker found Kenny Boynton for a wide-open 3. Boynton missed, but forward Patric Young corralled the rebound and kicked it out just in time to preserve the possession. Walker knocked down a 3 of his own, stretching the lead to nine. Crowder answered with a 3 -- as expected, the Eagles refused to go away --but four free throws from Boynton essentially sealed the game.

Key player: Bradley Beal. The freshman and likely NBA lottery pick has had a mostly unsung season for the Gators, but he remains as dangerous as any player on the floor at any given time. His 21 points -- the last two of which came on a thunderous punctuation-mark dunk in the game's final minute -- came in hyperefficient fashion on 8-of-10 shooting from the field. Beal doesn't force; rather, he picks and chooses his spots. He did so brilliantly Thursday night.

Key stats: The combined marks for Crowder and Johnson-Odom tell the tale; without efficient contributions from its two stars, Marquette scored just 58 points on 66 possessions, well below its typically stellar offensive averages.

What’s next: Marquette coach Buzz Williams saw his second straight team into the Sweet 16, but that's the ceiling yet again. The Golden Eagles will go back to the drawing board in 2012-13 without their two senior stars. Meanwhile, the Gators progress to the Elite Eight, where they will meet No. 4-seeded Louisville, which got there by posting the tournament's best defensive performance to date. That should be a fascinating matchup.
PHOENIX -- A lesson to those still getting to know Marquette coach Buzz Williams:

If you give him a chance to be self-deprecating, he will take it. Boy, will he ever take it.

Asked Wednesday how he would compare himself to the three other coaches in this region -- Florida's Billy Donovan, Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Louisville's Rick Pitino -- Williams didn't hesitate to draw the differences. And, as usual, he came prepared with numbers to buttress his case.

"Coach Donovan has won 27 NCAA tournament games," Williams said. "Coach Izzo has won 37. Coach Pitino has won 40. All of them have won national championships. All of them have coached in the [NBA] or decided they didn't want to coach in the league. And the league that I should be in is the Lone Star Conference, a Division II league in Texas. I should be an assistant in that league. So I don't belong. I don't compare.

"I wish that would have been a question on the SAT. I wouldn't have had to go to junior college. [On] the word association on the SAT, I would have gotten that right."

This is the Buzz college hoops fans have come to know the past four seasons: a witty, effusive presence who dresses to impress on the sideline (Williams says his one non-basketball hobby is clothes: "I really like looking at different shirts and ties and suits and gear"), dances when his players dunk (just YouTube it), dances to West Virginia's "Country Roads" in Morgantown (for which Williams again apologized Wednesday), and who, despite all the fun, works so relentlessly that in 2010 he was told by a doctor at the Mayo Clinic he would "die a very early death" unless he dedicated himself to getting more sleep.

[+] EnlargeBuzz Williams
AP Photo/Jim Prisching"He's very enthusiastic about what he does," senior guard Darius Johnson-Odom says of Marquette coach Buzz Williams, above.
Williams' edge is borne of his beginnings. He earned his nickname during his time at Navarro College, when Navarro coach Lewis Orr remarked that Williams constantly "buzzed" around the men's basketball program at the Texas school. At 21, Williams landed his first coaching job by first camping in a hotel lobby at the Final Four and then, ultimately, outside the house of University of Texas-Arlington coach Eddie McCarter.

Now 39 and four years into his tenure at Marquette, Williams has reconfigured an already successful hoops program in his image. Last season, Williams' first trip to the Sweet 16 came thanks to four former junior college players: Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler and Dwight Buycks. Butler was drafted last season and Buycks graduated, but Crowder and Johnson-Odom remain, not only as senior leaders but as two of the top five contenders for Big East player of the year.

Crowder won the award, but Johnson-Odom was just as qualified. Together, they lead a team whose identity stems from its coach, and vice versa.

"There's no telling what you might see from our coach," Johnson-Odom said. "He's very enthusiastic about what he does. I think that's why a lot of people love him. When you have that much energy, to show your guys that 'I'm here for you guys,' the coach just wants to win because of the stuff he has been through as a coach. As his players, I think it's a joy to see."

Williams also brings another element to the table, one occasionally lost in the talk about shirt-tie combos and junior colleges and "Country Roads" -- few head coaches in the country are as open and fluent in the language of tempo-free statistics. To wit, of Florida, Williams said Wednesday:

"There's very few teams -- everybody knows that they lead the country in 3-point field goal makes, but there's very few teams that have that offensive rebounding percentage and at the same time have those offensive efficiency-type numbers. So it's as potent an offensive team as I've studied this year."

This isn't just manna for college hoops nerds (though we'll certainly take it); it's also a key reason Williams finds himself wedged in a West Region with three of college basketball's most successful coaches, just two winnable games away from the Final Four.

To get there, of course, his team will first and foremost have to handle Florida's aforementioned potent offense. The good news? Marquette's perimeter defense is among the best units remaining in the tournament; since Feb. 24, only one team (BYU) has shot better than 28 percent from beyond the arc against the Golden Eagles. That may be the key matchup in Thursday's second game in Phoenix (10:17 p.m. ET), and the one that could push Williams further than he's ever been in his head coaching career: to the Elite Eight.

Whatever happens, the matchup of two speedy, guard-oriented teams should be one of the tournament's best to date -- a reprise of Marquette's thrilling, hard-fought win over Murray State in the round of 32.

And if Williams' team wins, maybe we'll even see a little dance.

"How could you not love a guy like that?" Johnson-Odom said.

Who to watch

Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom: DJO's offensive skills are well-documented, but where he will be especially important is on the defensive end. Florida's guards fire more 3s than most, and the Gators' offense -- which relies on ball screens and spacing and minimal post opportunities for forward Patric Young -- has to be efficient from distance to make up for what has been for much of the season a merely mediocre defense.

Florida's Kenny Boynton: Boynton has quietly had a stellar season, at least on the offensive end. There are plenty of worthy guards on this team -- from diminutive senior Erving Walker to likely lottery pick freshman Bradley Beal to former Rutgers transfer and bench spark plug Mike Rosario -- but Boynton's consistency has made him the most indispensable part of Florida's attack.

What to watch

Florida's defense: Florida's somewhat disappointing regular season -- at least relative to preseason expectations and the immense talent of its personnel -- had much to do with a defense that couldn't force stops or turnovers and would fall behind when UF's outside shooting hit occasional (though rare) slumps. But the Gators have shown signs of a postseason turnaround. In their two NCAA tournament victories, they allowed their opponents (Virginia and Norfolk State) a mere .71 and .77 points per possession, respectively. But is that improvement real, or the product of meager opposition? We know Marquette will come to play on defense, and we know the Golden Eagles are capable of scoring in bunches on the other end. Whether Florida has made legitimate defensive strides will almost certainly decide who goes home Thursday night.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- You'd never know it now by looking at his sculpted body, but Marquette's Jae Crowder used to be pudgy, to put it kindly.

Going into his junior year of high school, Crowder was a 5-foot-11 point guard. He weighed 235 pounds.

"I still had my Gary Payton shuffle," he said. "Backing people down. That was me."

What Crowder is now is one of the most versatile, important players left in this NCAA tournament. He led Marquette into the Sweet 16 for the second straight year with two enormous games at the KFC Yum! Center this week, including his heroics down the stretch in a 62-53 victory over a tough Murray State team Saturday.

Crowder had his second consecutive double-double, with 17 points and 13 rebounds, but that only partially reveals the 6-foot-6 senior's importance. His fingerprints were all over the Golden Eagles' closing kick, during which they went from down 46-41 to up 55-48 to take control. He hit a key 3-pointer during the run after struggling with his shot in the first half. He also took a big charge and came up with a steal late as Marquette's defense clamped down in the final minutes.

That's what the Big East player of the year has been doing all season.

[+] EnlargeJae Crowder
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJae Crowder was crucial on both ends of the floor as Marquette polished off Murray State to advance.
"He doesn't care about stats or anything," Marquette guard Junior Cadougan said. "He just plays to win."

Crowder didn't even get serious about basketball until the end of his high school career in Villa Rica, Ga. He preferred football, in which he played quarterback. That is, until he broke his hand late in his senior season on a running play, and when he realized he wasn't going to play Division I in that sport. Besides, he had hit a growth spurt that took him up to 6-foot-4, helping his body better carry his weight. And basketball was in his genes, as his father, Corey, had played in the NBA and professionally overseas.

So Crowder got focused and started his college career at South Georgia Tech. To his horror, he later found out the junior college wasn't accredited, meaning none of his coursework would transfer to another school. He had no choice but to go to yet another two-year school, this time heading to Howard College in Texas. He spent the summer holed up in his dorm room, taking courses online to make up for lost time and not knowing a soul in town.

Through all that, Crowder kept flourishing on the court, eventually leading Howard to its first national title. He had to fight perception that disciplinary or other reasons sent him to two different junior colleges. But he found a kindred soul when Marquette coach Buzz Williams came on a recruiting call.

"He said, 'If you want a coach to be on your butt -- he used profanity, of course -- come play for me,'" Crowder said. "If you want a coach to give you stuff and not get you better as a basketball player and a person, go elsewhere."

Crowder loved the honesty, and he fit right in with Marquette's mindset of toughness and physicality, pulling sleds and doing other football-type drills to build strength. The 240-pounder is now built like a defensive end, and Williams said NFL teams have even asked him about Crowder. But he also still has his point guard skills and can play anywhere on the court.

"He can be a physical player and he can shoot jumpers," said 6-foot-8, 290-pound teammate Davante Gardner, whom Crowder sometimes checks in practice. "He does everything."

Crowder was a good player on a Sweet 16 team last year, but he knew he had to make the transition to great in the offseason. He spent the summer in Fort Myers, Fla., working out daily with his father, running through cones, using a basketball shooting machine and doing other exercises.

"You could see a drastic improvement," Cadougan said. "He really learned how to work."

Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom are the two leaders on this team, and the Golden Eagles needed every bit of them to slip past Murray State. The Racers showed everybody this weekend why they went into Saturday at 31-1, matching Marquette's intensity beat for beat. They just couldn't hit shots down the stretch.

And they didn't have Jae Crowder. The definitively non-pudgy version.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Here's a quick look at No. 3 seed Marquette's 62-53 victory over No. 6 seed Murray State at the KFC Yum! Center.

Overview: The storyline going into this game was that these teams were mirror images of each other. That proved true and led to a highly entertaining game played at an express-lane pace, if a little ragged at times.

It was possible to cramp up just watching Marquette and Murray State trade possessions in transition over and over. Ultimately, Marquette pulled away late with excellent defense and a lack of marksmanship from the Racers, who made just 31.3 percent of their shots and went only 4-of-21 on 3-point tries.

But this was a street fight for 40 minutes, and Murray State vindicated its 31-2 season with two top-flight tournament performances, even if the Racers failed to make their first Sweet 16. Marquette, meanwhile, now has an advantageous path to the West Region final and is looking like a serious Final Four threat.

Turning point: Neither team could get much distance from the other most of the way, but Murray State looked like it had all the momentum when it used a 7-0 run to take a 46-41 lead, its biggest of the game, with less than eight minutes to play in the second half. The pro-Murray crowd, bolstered by Kentucky fans who were rooting for their fellow state school, was going nuts. After a pair of timeouts, though, Marquette regrouped and charged back with a 14-2 run of its own, which included a couple of big baskets inside by reserve big man Davante Gardner and lots of defensive stops. The run was aided by missed shots from Murray State star Isaiah Canaan, who suffered through a brutal 4-for-17 night.

Key player: Marquette's Jae Crowder had another huge night after putting up 25 points and 16 rebounds Thursday against BYU. Crowder struggled with his shot early but played great defense in the second half, and finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds.

Key stat: Canaan and Donte Poole, Murray State's top two scorers, were a combined 7-for-30 from the field.

Miscellany: Marquette advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year. ... The Golden Eagles made a big play just before the half, as Darius Johnson-Odom picked up a loose ball in a crowd and laid it in just before the horn after a Murray State turnover. That cut the halftime deficit to 28-25. ... The Racers' Ed Daniel was all over the place and finished with 14 rebounds, but he was quiet late. ... Murray State players said they did extra work on free throws Friday in practice after bricking 13 of 26 attempts from the foul line in their victory over Colorado State. The practice paid off, as the Racers went 9-for-10 on free throws.

What's next: Marquette advances to play the winner of Sunday's game between Norfolk State and Florida. The Golden Eagles should be a heavy favorite over either one of those teams in that game, scheduled for Thursday in Phoenix.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Thursday's slate of second-round games at the KFC Yum! Center didn't offer a lot of intrigue. All four higher seeds won by an average of 16 points.

Maybe they were just setting the stage for a dramatic doubleheader Saturday. On paper, at least, we have the possibility of two great games. The opener features teams with similar, fast-paced styles, while the nightcap pits the tournament's No. 1 overall seed against an upstart that might have the right ingredients for an upset.

Here's a closer look at Saturday's two third-round games in Louisville:

No. 3 seed Marquette (26-7) vs. No. 6 Murray State (31-1), 5:15 p.m. ET

What to watch: Each team must feel like it's looking into a mirror when scouting the other. Both like to crowd passing lanes and push the pace, and though neither is particularly big, their frontcourt players are active around the rim. So the question is, which one does it better? Marquette has more ability to switch up styles and pound the ball inside, especially when 6-foot-8, 290-pound forward Davante Gardner comes off the bench. He is averaging 17 points and six rebounds in three games since returning from a knee injury. But Murray State should have a significant crowd advantage from its fans who made the short trip here, and from Kentucky backers who likely will pick up their fellow state school's cause.

Who to watch: Both teams have terrific lead guards who could match up against one another. Murray State will almost assuredly need a big game from star Isaiah Canaan to have a chance to advance. The Racers' backcourt will have to slow down Darius Johnson-Odom, who can fill it up from outside or stutter-step and drive the lane. But the Golden Eagles' Jae Crowder presents the toughest matchup problem with his versatility. The 6-6 slasher had 25 points and 16 rebounds in the win against BYU. It's not height but bulk that might bother Murray State, as players like Johnson-Odom and Crowder look like they've spent as much time on their bench press as their jump shot. "They look like they should all be in spring practice at Alabama and LSU playing defensive back and linebacker," Racers coach Steve Prohm said.

Why to watch: This has all the makings of an entertaining, up-and-down game that shouldn't tax the shot clock operator. Canaan and Crowder are among the best players in the country. The winner of this game has a very real chance at making it to the West Region final and beyond.

What they're saying: "For people to look at us as a Cinderella story, it's an honor. But we try to stay level and remember the things that got us to this point, and try to remember to do those things. Because we know if we do that, everything else will take care of itself." -- Murray State guard Isaiah Canaan.

"You just visualize what the moment will be like when you see your 14 guys celebrating going to the Sweet 16. And that's how you're preparing right now, so those guys can have that moment." -- Murray State coach Steve Prohm.

"It's like watching Syracuse. You watch six or seven games, and by the time you're watching the eighth game, you're like, 'Yeah, they just do the same stuff over and over and over. Not to be over-simplistic, but maybe that's why they win." -- Marquette coach Buzz Williams, on scouting Murray State.

"They've got good guards, their bigs run in transition. We've got to get back in transition and keep the ball out of the paint. They look like they come to play and fight every night, and that's how we play." -- Marquette guard Junior Cadougan.

Of note: Donte Poole took an elbow to the nose on Thursday against Colorado State. The Murray State guard said his nose was sore and congested, but he plans on playing Saturday without a protective face mask. ... Marquette is looking to make its second straight Sweet 16 appearance and 15th overall. Murray State has never advanced that far. ... This is just the second meeting between the schools. The first came in the 1969 NCAA tournament, with Marquette winning 82-62.

No. 1 seed Kentucky (33-2) vs. No. 8 Iowa State (23-10), approximately 7:45 p.m. ET

What to watch: Kentucky should get its first real challenge of the tournament against an Iowa State team that took out defending champion Connecticut with ease Thursday night. The Cyclones can bury you from 3-point land by putting four shooters outside the arc on most possessions, but they also can get physical inside, as they showed against UConn. Of course, Kentucky still has Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and all that other NBA talent, and it will be playing in the friendliest Big Blue confines outside of Rupp Arena. So Iowa State will be a heavy underdog, but that's a role this team has wholeheartedly embraced.

Who to watch: Iowa State's Royce White nearly transferred to Kentucky from Minnesota two years ago. John Calipari visited him in Minneapolis and said "it was done." But when it came time for White to enroll in summer school, he balked. White, who has an anxiety disorder, said he felt uncomfortable getting on a plane, and the mother of his first son had just found out she was pregnant again. Could White come back to haunt the Wildcats? He's one of the most unorthodox players in the country, a 6-8, 270-pounder who serves as the team's primary ball-handler and distributor. If he can throw his weight around inside and find open shooters, look out. But Kentucky also has big men who can play on the perimeter. "He's not LeBron James," Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said. "Can we pressure him? Yeah. He's not special."

Why to watch: The tournament favorite against a very game underdog? That's appointment television.

What they're saying: "We've got to do a great job of trying to keep their guards in front of us and try to make them shoot contested jump shots over us. Because if you do give up guard penetration to the middle, they have incredible athleticism and length, and they can just kind of flip it up there on the rim." -- Iowa State guard Scott Christopherson.

"I think I read somewhere that we were only picked in 32 percent of the brackets on the ESPN challenge. We have played that underdog role, and we have played it well. Our guys have gone out there and taken it personally. And hopefully, we'll do that again [Saturday] night." -- Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.

"It's not nerves that I'm worried about. Iowa State is a really good team. I watched some tapes where I had to stop watching because I started getting worried that we can't beat this team. So I'm trying to watch a tape or two where they've lost. ... This is going to be one of the toughest games we've played in a while." -- Kentucky coach John Calipari.

Of note: Hoiberg played against Kentucky in the second round of the 1992 NCAA tournament when he was a Cyclones freshman. Hoiberg scored two points and fouled out of a 106-98 loss. "It was the only game in my college career that I fouled out," Hoiberg said. ... Looking ahead? Kentucky guard Marquis Teague said he hopes to see No. 4 seed Indiana -- which handed the Wildcats their only regular-season loss -- in next week's Sweet 16. "We want to play them because of the way they beat us," he said. "We're upset about that." ... White is Iowa State's only starter taller than 6-6, but the Cyclones have outrebounded their past 10 opponents. ... Kentucky's Jones is on a roll in March, averaging 20.8 points and 11 rebounds in his past four games.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The afternoon games at the KFC Yum! Center were more crummy than yummy, at least for those who prefer their NCAA tournament games seasoned with crunch-time drama. But Murray State and Marquette fans aren't complaining.

Here's a quick look at No. 3 seed Marquette's 88-68 victory over No. 14 BYU:

Overview: There would be no Mormon Miracle this time around.

BYU roared back from a 25-point deficit Tuesday to beat Iona in the First Four, recording the largest comeback win in NCAA tournament history. The Cougars again dug themselves a massive hole on Thursday, but Marquette was far too good to get caught from behind.

The Golden Eagles led by as many as 19 points in a dominant first half and held off a couple of medium-sized Cougars charges to keep the advantage in double digits most of the way home. Marquette was a little too quick, a little too insistent on the glass and had a little too much Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom.

The team's two senior anchors combined for 45 points and answered every comeback attempt by BYU. If those two can keep playing like that, Marquette is going to be a difficult team for any West Region opponent to handle.

Turning point: Back-to-back BYU 3-pointers sliced the lead to 52-46 with a little more than 15 minutes to go. Marquette responded with a quick 8-0 run, capped by a dunk in transition by Crowder. The margin would get no closer than eight points the rest of the game.

Key player: You probably won't find many better lines than Crowder's this opening weekend. He had 17 points and 10 rebounds ... in the first half. His versatility was too much for BYU to handle, especially when he hit three 3-pointers in the first half. Crowder finished with 25 points, a career-high 16 rebounds, five steals and four assists. Johnson-Odom provided a nice wingman with 20 points, five rebounds and four assists of his own.

Key stat: Marquette outrebounded BYU 48-32 and had 16 offensive rebounds. The Golden Eagles scored 18 second-chance points to just five by the Cougars.

Miscellany: Marquette's Davante Gardner, in his third game back since a left knee injury sidelined him in January, chipped in 15 points and six rebounds off the bench. ... BYU's Brandon Davies led his team with 19 points and 11 rebounds. Cougars fans can only wonder what might have been last year had Davies not been suspended. ... Former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa sat in the Marquette section behind the team's bench.

What's next: Marquette advances to play No. 6 seed Murray State in the West Region third round on Saturday. It should be an interesting matchup between two high-tempo, athletic teams.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The NCAA tournament has arrived at the KFC Yum! Center, and this pod definitely comes Kentucky-fried for your enjoyment.

Murray State begins the day by playing within its state's borders, and No. 1 seed Kentucky and No. 16 seed Western Kentucky will renew their intermittent rivalry in the evening. But some outsiders will seek to crash this Commonwealth celebration.

Let's take a look at the afternoon games on tap here Thursday:

No. 6 seed Murray State (30-1) vs. No. 11 seed Colorado State (19-13), 12:15 p.m. ET

What to watch: Is Murray State for real? That has been a season-long question, as the Racers won their first 23 games and broke into the top 10 for the first time in school history. They ended the season ranked ninth in the coaches' poll but received a No. 6 seed because of a soft schedule. But they drew a favorable opening matchup in Colorado State, a guard-oriented team that doesn't have a player over 6-foot-6. The Rams love any open shot and rank sixth nationally in 3-point field goal percentage.

Who to watch: Murray State guard Isaiah Canaan is one of the top players in the country, averaging 19.2 points and shooting 47 percent from 3-point range. Colorado State coach Tim Miles admiringly described Canaan as a "pain in the butt" and went so far as to compare him to Jimmer Fredette. If the Racers make a run in this tournament, Canaan could be one of the breakout stars of March.

Why to watch: Any team that goes 30-1 must be doing something right, and Murray State can cause enough matchup problems to make a run to the Sweet 16. The Ohio Valley Conference champ has won a game in each of the last two NCAA tournaments. Colorado State is looking for its first NCAA win since 1989, and the highly entertaining Miles will churn out some memorable sound bites if it happens.

What they're saying: "I think we're kind of used to this situation. We've kind of been looked at as an underdog all year long. I know that gym's probably not going to be in our favor [Thursday]. Our conference tournament kind of prepared us for that a little bit. So we're used to this kind of atmosphere. We're going to try not to let that stuff get to us and just concentrate on our game plan and the way we've got to play to win." -- Colorado State guard Wes Eikmeier.

"I think Murray's always been on the map. They have a great winning tradition. But I just think with this year that it just opened up some more eyes. More people kind of went out of their way to see where Murray State was, who these guys were, what are they doing, how do they represent themselves. So I think it was just a matter of us doing a little bit extra for the program." -- Murray State guard Donte Poole.

Of note: Poole signed with Colorado State out of high school and even attended summer school there in 2007. ... The Racers are one of just five teams to enter the NCAA tournament with only one loss but not earn a No. 1 seed. The best showing by any of those previous teams was Texas Tech's Sweet 16 run in 1996. ... Miles has often worn a Smarty Jones hat in honor of the 2004 Kentucky Derby winner to remind his teams of their underdog possibilities. "And just by chance, we end up in Louisville," he said. "I thought that was pretty cool karma."

No. 3 seed Marquette (25-7) vs. No. 14 seed BYU (26-8), approximately 2:45 p.m. ET

What to watch: Marquette crashed the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed a year ago and now looms as a potential Final Four threat in the West Region. The Golden Eagles love to get out in transition, and BYU just beat one of the fastest teams in the country while completing a stunning comeback against Iona in Dayton. Can BYU follow VCU's unconventional path from a year ago?

Who to watch: Marquette's 1-2 punch of Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. Johnson-Odom can beat you from 3-point range or off the bounce, while Big East player of the year Crowder is a 6-6 matchup nightmare who can do a little of everything. Both are seniors who won't be easily rattled.

Why to watch: BYU has already turned in possibly one of the most entertaining games of this year's tournament, and the Cougars have the fascinating redemption saga of forward Brandon Davies. Marquette matches the high energy of its coach, Buzz Williams, and is almost never boring.

What they're saying: "When I first got in here, I smelled the chicken being cooked. So that reminded me of the last time we were here." -- Marquette's Crowder, recalling his team's last appearance at the KFC Yum! Center, when the Golden Eagles blew an 18-point lead in the final six minutes during a loss last year to Louisville.

"A lot of confidence comes from coming from behind and winning, especially in the NCAA tournament. There's a lot of new emotions and adrenaline that comes into play when you're in this tournament. It gives us a lot of confidence to know that we can play and battle back from a pretty big deficit." -- BYU forward Brock Zylstra.

Of note: Marquette typically wins the fast-break battle, but it gave up a season-high 35 transition points in its loss to Louisville in the Big East tournament last week. ... The last time the Golden Eagles were a No. 3 seed, they made the Final Four in 2003 behind Dwyane Wade. ... With Tuesday's victory, BYU has won NCAA tournament games in three straight years for the first time in school history. ... The Cougars spent Tuesday night in Dayton and made the short bus ride to Louisville on Wednesday, arriving about 2:30 p.m. ... BYU coach Dave Rose said forward Noah Hartsock, who has been battling knee and ankle problems, was "pretty sore" after the Iona game, but he expected Hartsock to be ready to play Thursday.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Looking for something interesting in the Thursday night session at the KFC Yum! Center? Well, we've got the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 overall seed and the defending national champions each playing and possibly charting a collision course toward one another. Is that something you might be interested in?

Here's a closer look at the two late games here in Louisville:

No. 1 seed Kentucky (32-2) vs. No. 16 Western Kentucky (16-18), 6:50 p.m. ET

What to watch: Western Kentucky was 9-18 on Feb. 18. Now the Hilltoppers have an NCAA tournament win under their belts and will face the No. 1 overall seed in what also happens to be an in-state rivalry. So they're playing with house money and can give Kentucky their best shot with no pressure on their backs. The Wildcats will open up in front of an extremely friendly crowd, but they need to shake off the disappointing loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final.

Who to watch: Player of the year candidate Anthony Davis begins his first and only NCAA tournament, and the Wildcats will likely go as far as he can carry them. Western Kentucky's Teeng Akol, a rail-thin 6-foot-11 junior, has the unenviable task of trying to contain Davis. Don't be surprised to see the Hilltoppers play a lot of zone, as Vanderbilt did with great success. Do be surprised if they come close to approaching the 53-30 rebounding edge they held over Mississippi Valley State in Round 1.

Why to watch: Kentucky is the commanding favorite in this tournament, but don't forget this team starts three freshmen who have never experienced March Madness as players. They'll need to work out the butterflies early. Western Kentucky has manufactured two ridiculous comebacks, first just to get to the NCAA tournament and then in erasing a late 16-point deficit in Tuesday night's win. If the Hilltoppers find a way to upset the Wildcats and become the first No. 16 seed to oust a No. 1, the city of Bowling Green may never stop partying.

What they're saying: "It was a very intense practice. We don't like losing. Coach Cal doesn't like losing, so we tried to pick it up a little bit. We tried to get focused on what we need to do going into this tournament. That has been our main goal all year." -- Kentucky guard Darius Miller on the mood of the team after the Vanderbilt loss.

"You don't want to start out the game bad against a team like this because ... it's kind of like horse racing. When you're racing a really big horse, you don't want to get behind too much because the race is only so long." -- Western Kentucky forward Vinny Zollo.

Of note: Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Western Kentucky leading scorer Derrick Gordon were high school teammates and close friends at St. Patrick in New Jersey. "It's like a dream come true for both of us," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I can't wait to play them." Kidd-Gilchrist will likely be assigned to defend Gordon. ... Zollo committed to Kentucky as a high school freshman but dropped his pledge after Billy Gillispie was fired in 2009. ... The two schools haven't played since Western Kentucky upset then-No. 4 Kentucky 64-52 in November 2001.

No. 8 seed Iowa State (22-10) vs. No. 9 seed UConn (20-13), approximately 9:20 p.m.

What to watch: UConn is the defending national champion, but Iowa State is actually the higher seed. And don't discount the Cyclones, who were good enough to beat Kansas, Baylor and Kansas State this season. The Huskies, who needed to win two games in the Big East tournament last week to feel secure about getting here, have looked indifferent at times this season, especially in their perimeter defense. That could spell trouble against an Iowa State team that was one of the most prolific 3-point shooting clubs in the country while making nearly nine treys per game.

Who to watch: Iowa State forward Royce White is the only player in the country to lead his team in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. So, yeah, he can do it all. But can the 6-foot-8 Royce do it all effectively inside against UConn shotblocker Andre Drummond?

Why to watch: The Huskies begin their title defense, and with Jim Calhoun back on the bench they have to be taken seriously. This is still a talented team with two future pros in Drummond and Jeremy Lamb, though the chemistry has seemed off most of the season. Iowa State is better than many think. Whoever wins this game has a chance to cause No. 1 Kentucky some problems in the next round.

What they're saying: "I mean, Kemba Walker's not coming back, is he? Obviously, we know Connecticut is one of the most storied programs in all of college basketball. We know they're the defending national champs. [But] we feel like we earned our way to be here, too. We respect them, but I don't think there's like a fear factor with them at all." -- Iowa State guard Scott Christopherson.

"You definitely hear it from the fans. They definitely want to see the UConn-Kentucky matchup. We're just trying to beat Iowa State and then play Saturday." -- Connecticut forward Alex Oriakhi.

Of note: Calhoun is 16-1 all time in the first round, with a 2008 loss to San Diego his only blemish. ... The Huskies haven't been seeded this low since they were ninth in the 1992 tournament. ... Iowa State scores 36.4 percent of its points from 3-point range, the fifth-highest among power six conference teams. Connecticut is allowing its opponents to score 33.9 percent of their points from 3-point range, the second-highest rate among power six conference teams.
1. Stan Heath has had quite a run in his career. He was at Kent State for one season and went to the Elite Eight. He landed a big money job in Arkansas and when he got run out of Fayetteville, he landed on his feet at South Florida. It appeared he could be on shaky ground, but now the Bulls are on the verge of a getting a possible NCAA berth. He was named Big East coach of the year Tuesday after winning 12 conference games. The Bulls better beat Villanova Wednesday to ensure the selection committee doesn’t leave out USF.

2. Marquette coach Buzz Williams was genuinely giddy about Jae Crowder being named Big East player of the year. Williams fully grasped the value and all-around play of Crowder as he was the most consistent player for the Golden Eagles. Kevin Jones had a phenomenal season for West Virginia. But it’s hard to give Jones the award since the Mountaineers finished much lower in the standings.

3. It’s odd how some times these seasons come full circle. Detroit was the preseason favorite in the Horizon League but fumbled its way through the season. But Tuesday night, Ray McCallum and his son, Ray McCallum Jr., led the Titans to a convincing road win at Valparaiso to earn the NCAA’s automatic berth. Valpo will at least go to the NIT after winning the regular season. It has been quite a season for Valpo coach Bryce Drew and his family, as his parents Homer and Janet battled cancer. Drew has done a tremendous job coaching that team and deserves plenty of praise for doing so under emotional duress.

National POY Straw Poll: The final tally

March, 6, 2012
Robinson/DavisUS PresswireKentucky's Anthony Davis, left, and Kansas' Thomas Robinson remain locked in a virtual dead heat for player of the year honors.
With ballots already due or with deadlines within the next week, the National Player of the Year race remains way too close to call.

Kentucky freshman forward Anthony Davis and Kansas junior Thomas Robinson are still in a virtual tie in the final Player of the Year poll. Robinson led the first three straw polls and was overtaken in the fourth by Davis.

The latter increased his lead -- barely -- in the final poll, which is composed of actual POY voters. After a three-point lead in last week’s vote, Davis now leads Robinson by seven points, 134-127.

The rules for the poll are a first-place vote gets three points, a second-place vote gets two points and a third-place vote gets one vote.

Davis and Robinson, who were named on all 53 ballots received for the final poll, are separated by nine first-place votes. But considering there are four different awards that have four different due dates, it still means there is a better-than-decent chance there is either a split in Player of the Year awards or the award is shared in some instances.

The Robertson ballots were due Sunday. The Naismith is due Friday and Associated Press this coming Sunday. The Wooden ballots are due following the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

In 2002-03, there was a split award when Xavier’s David West won the Robertson and Associated Press Player of the Year awards and Texas guard T.J. Ford won the Naismith and Wooden.

The Naismith and Wooden awards haven’t been split since 1994-95, when Maryland’s Joe Smith won the Naismith and AP and UCLA’s Ed O’Bannon won the Wooden and Robertson. The only time a major award was shared was in 2005-06, when Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison and Duke’s J.J. Redick shared the Robertson Award.

So depending what happens over the next two weeks, there still could be enough fluctuation for ballots to change.

That said, here’s a look at the 53 ballots that comprise the closest POY race in recent memory:

Poll Analysis:

-- Davis continued inching ahead of Robinson, but not by much. Green solidified himself in the No. 3 position and the Big Ten Player of the Year is a likely All-American.

-- The final poll had a season-low nine players listed. Those nine players were from six conferences -- ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Missouri Valley and SEC. One team, Kentucky, had two players mentioned on the final ballot.

-- This ballot was the first all season that did not have a single guard listed.

-- Six players from the fourth ballot dropped off before the final one -- Murray State guard Isaiah Canaan, Marquette guard Darius Johnson-Odom, UNLV forward Mike Moser, Duke guard Austin Rivers, Iona guard Scott Machado and Missouri guard Marcus Denmon. Two players, Kidd-Gilchrist and Jones, made a return to the final ballot after falling off prior ones.

-- The top five vote-getters in the final poll were listed on every poll this season and were the top five vote-getters in the past two polls.
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.

Highlights: Marquette 83, Georgetown 69

March, 3, 2012

Jae Crowder had 26 points and 14 rebounds in his final home game as a senior, helping Marquette defeat Georgetown, 83-69. With the win, the Golden Eagles clinched the No. 2 seed in the Big East tournament.

National POY Straw Poll: As close as it gets

February, 29, 2012
Anthony Davis, Thomas RobinsonUS Presswire/Getty ImagesKentucky's Anthony Davis and Kansas' Thomas Robinson are neck and neck in the POY race.
Editor’s Note: writer Jason King has wrestled with his POY pick all season on Wooden Watch. Click here to find out who's he picking as of this week.

It’s essentially a tie.

With some ballots for the varying National Player of the Year awards due as early as next week -- more on this later -- Kentucky freshman forward Anthony Davis and Kansas junior forward Thomas Robinson are within three points of each other in the latest Player of the Year poll, taken every two weeks over the last couple months of the college basketball season.

In my four seasons doing this poll, this is by far the closest ballot I’ve ever had -- and the closest it has ever been this late in the season. Of the 59 ballots received by actual award voters, Davis received 32 first-place votes. Robinson received 26. Overall, Davis leads Robinson by three points, 146-143, based on our voting system that allows three points for a first-place vote, two for a second-place vote and one for a third-place vote.

It is for that reason that it would be unsurprising -- and at this point likely -- if Davis and Robinson either shared some honors or there was a split between the four major awards.

Here’s one reason: Each of the major awards has a different ballot due date. The USBWA ballot is due Sunday. The Naismith ballot is due March 9. The Associated Press ballot is due on Selection Sunday.

The Wooden Award, meanwhile, allows for postseason play to be taken into consideration with a later due date of March 19.

This means Davis, Robinson or even Michigan State senior Draymond Green, currently in third place, could make enough of a push to still change the race. A quick look at their numbers shows why:

  • Davis: 14.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 65.8 FG pct; 4.8 blocks per game.
  • Robinson: 17.8 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 53.1 FG pct; 36.4 3-point pct; 1.1 steals per game, 1.1 blocks per game.
  • Green: 16.0 ppg; 10.2 rpg, 45.6 FG pct; 40.7 3-point pct; 3.6 assists per game

Looking at tempo-free stats, courtesy of

  • Davis: 137.6 offensive rating; 65.8 eFG percentage; 11.8 offensive rebound percentage; 22.3 defensive rebound percentage; 5.5 assist percentage; 2.8 steal percentage; 14.6 block percentage.
  • Robinson: 108.5 offensive rating; 53.6 eFG percentage; 10.7 offensive rebound percentage; 32.5 defensive rebound percentage; 12.7 assist percentage; 2.0 steal percentage; 3.8 block percentage.
  • Green: 108.8 offensive rating; 51.4 eFG percentage; 8.3 offensive rebound percentage; 26.8 defensive rebound percentage; 22.8 assist percentage; 2.8 steal percentage; 3.2 block percentage.

With those numbers in hand, here’s the balance of this week’s poll, which had 59 participants:

Poll analysis:

-- A note: Ballots were due at 5 p.m. Tuesday, meaning Green’s 29-point effort against Indiana on Tuesday evening was not reflected in this polling.

-- Robinson was the only player on all 59 ballots. Davis made all but one ballot. For the first time in the history of the poll, one voter was so torn about his third-place vote that he asked the poll to split his third-place vote between Green and Canaan. The poll obliged, so a half-vote is taken into account for the first time in the four-year history of the poll.

-- After three polls with 17 players mentioned, only 12 players made this ballot. Those 12 players are from nine conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, MAAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Ohio Valley and SEC).

-- This is the closest of any poll in its four-year history. As stated earlier, this screams either a shared or split award when it comes to the four major national awards.

-- Three players (Marquette’s Jae Crowder, Iona’s Scott Machado and Duke’s Austin Rivers) made their first poll appearances of the season. Eight players -- West Virginia’s Kevin Jones, Mississippi State’s Arnett Moultrie, Virginia’s Mike Scott, Missouri’s Ricardo Ratliffe, North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall, Weber State’s Damian Lillard, Siena’s O.D. Anosike and St. Mary’s Rob Jones -- dropped out of the poll.

-- Davis continued his rise. He moved from second to first -- and all the way up from fourth on the first two ballots -- and went from 112 points to 146 points. Green had the biggest move, however. While it didn’t show in overall points, Green moved from fifth to third and went from being on eight ballots in the third poll to 32 in this one.

-- Sullinger continued his fall. He dropped from third into a tie for fourth and from 26 points to 10. He and McDermott, at varying points this season, were as high as second in the poll behind Robinson.

So what comes next for the contenders?

-- Davis faces Georgia on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday and then is at Florida at noon Sunday.

-- Robinson faces Texas at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN on Saturday.

-- Green faces No. 11 Ohio State in his season finale at 4 p.m. ET on Sunday.

This is also where it gets tricky when it comes to voting. The USBWA won’t count any conference tournaments for the Robertson Awards. The Naismith will see the beginnings of the SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten tournaments. The AP will be able to take into account the entirety of the conference tournaments and the Wooden will go through the entire first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

It’ll all make the rest of the player of the year race very, very intriguing.

Breaking down this weekend's top games

February, 24, 2012
Editor’s note: Jay Bilas breaks down Missouri-Kansas in today’s Weekend Watch. Andy Katz offers a dozen more games to keep an eye on this weekend.


Marquette at West Virginia (9 ET, ESPN): West Virginia has to win this game, right? The Mountaineers have lost six of their past eight games. The only wins were over lower-level teams (Providence and Pitt) on the road. Marquette has been on a tear of late and may have the Big East Player of the Year in Jae Crowder or Darius Johnson-Odom.


Vanderbilt at Kentucky (noon ET, CBS): Kentucky has three games left to finish off an undefeated SEC regular season. No offense to Georgia, but the Cats should take care of the Bulldogs. If UK takes out Vandy, the only obstacle left is a game at Florida to end the regular season. If Kentucky can accomplish an unblemished mark, it would go down as one of the most impressive regular seasons in coach John Calipari’s career.

Iowa State at Kansas State (1:30 ET, ESPN3): Wins at Baylor and Missouri have changed the complexion of Kansas State’s season. The Wildcats have finally finished games by playing smart in the final possessions. Iowa State has a tough slate to finish the season with games at K-State and Missouri and then hosting Baylor. Not an easy road for a team that wants to wrap up an at-large bid.

North Carolina at Virginia (4 ET, ESPN): UVa has had injury issues and hasn’t been able to find consistency against the league’s elite (Duke and North Carolina). But the Cavs have a shot to re-establish themselves. This could turn into an ACC Player of the Year-type game as Tyler Zeller of the Tar Heels matches up with Mike Scott of the Cavs. UVa must ensure that it controls the tempo to have a chance.

Mississippi State at Alabama (6 ET, ESPN): Mississippi State has stumbled down the stretch and has no momentum going into the SEC tournament. The Bulldogs have lost to the bottom of the SEC and now to Kentucky at the top. Meanwhile, Alabama has done a tremendous job, despite player suspensions, to be in the hunt for an NCAA tournament berth. The win at Arkansas was one of the more impressive for the Tide this season.

George Mason at VCU (6 ET, ESPN2): George Mason was going to be in position to possibly catch Drexel and win the conference. But an overtime loss at Northeastern has pushed the Patriots into a second-place tie with VCU. The winner will get the No. 2 seed in the CAA tournament and potentially set up for a final matchup against Drexel.

Temple at Saint Joseph’s (7 ET, ESPNU): Temple has emerged as the class of the A-10. St. Joe’s had some fleeting hopes of getting a bid, but the Hawks lost at home to Richmond and scored only 49 points in the process. This is now a must-win for them. This is a huge rivalry game but the toughness of the Owls should prevail.

Penn at Harvard (7 ET, ESPN3): If Harvard gets by Princeton on Friday night, a win against Penn could give the Crimson a share of the Ivy League title and a chance to clinch it outright the following Friday at Columbia. Harvard is trying to get to the NCAAs for the first time since 1946.

Syracuse at Connecticut (9 ET, ESPN): The Huskies have new life after Shabazz Napier’s 3-point heave went in to beat Villanova on Monday night. The Orange have been as good, if not better, on the road than at home -- other than at Notre Dame. Syracuse should dominate the bench scoring. The Huskies have a chance if Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi can win the post, and Napier and Ryan Boatright can get into the zone with floaters to score. UConn is in desperate mode to get this win.


Wisconsin at Ohio State (4 ET, CBS): The Badgers lost at Iowa on Thursday night and now have to go to Ohio State? Yikes. Iowa let Wisconsin back in the game, but then the Badgers couldn’t finish and lost by one. OSU, save the game against Michigan State, has been as dominant at home as any team in the country. The Badgers have to find a way to score and avoid the droughts that can decimate their chances of pulling off an upset like this one.

California at Colorado (5:30 ET, FSN): Colorado had a chance to make some noise down the stretch in the Pac-12, but losing at home to Stanford took some of the energy out of this game. The Buffaloes had overachieved to that point. Cal needs to get a sweep of the mountain area to win the Pac-12 regular-season title, assuming Washington doesn’t stumble.

Florida State at Miami (6 ET, ESPNU): The Seminoles lost their shot to win the ACC regular-season title by dropping a home game to Duke. Miami desperately needs this game to prove to the selection committee that it is tourney-worthy. This game will have ACC tournament seeding implications as well.