Originally Published: February 26, 2012

Drama doesn't have to wait for March Madness

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

It all starts in November, not March.

Long before the office pools and Selection Sunday chatter commence, college basketball dazzles devoted followers for four months.

And unfortunately, a multitude of casual spectators don't show up for the play until the final scene. They don't know what they're missing.

Saturday's action, anchored by a classic matchup between Kansas and Missouri, proved that college basketball is far more than a delicacy to be enjoyed for three fabulous weeks at the end of the season.

[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerKansas and Missouri provided a classic finish for what might be the last regular-season Border War.
The two Big 12 titans, Missouri and Kansas, did not play a basketball game. They staged a battle, one that demanded overtime. One that necessitates the continuance of the rivalry. One that stirred up the Twittersphere, as blessed witnesses tried to grasp what they'd just seen.

Celebrities, pro athletes, Kansas fans, Missouri fans, reporters … anyone near a TV as the Jayhawks' 19-point comeback unfolded attempted to capture the moment. Kansas sank the Tigers, 87-86.

Comedian Aziz Ansari tracked the action: "Kansas just put in Jeremy Lin!! Don't know how or why but this game is awesome!!! #Linsanity"

Kansas alum and Miami Heat point guard Mario Chalmers didn't let preparations for NBA All-Star Weekend festivities (he competed in the 3-point contest) stop him from offering this take on the game: "Congrats to my jayhawks. That's the way to fight to the end."

After the game, its hero, Tyshawn Taylor, tweeted: "If it was camera crews following us tonight it would be something like a movie and that's no b.s."

The epic matchup showcased the pre-March drama that's often overlooked.

College basketball bumps up against every major sport in the country. College football bowl games tend to overshadow the sport until January. The NFL steals the national spotlight through early February. There's spring training and the start of the baseball season. And the NBA.

There's always competition for college hoops. Always another option for the sports fan with a remote attached to his palm.

But college basketball was at its best Saturday. Why would anyone change the channel?

In Kentucky, one of the greatest defenders in college basketball history made a strong case for national player of the year honors. Anthony Davis recorded 28 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks during the Wildcats' 83-74 victory over Vanderbilt. It was the 14th time that Davis had blocked at least five shots this season.

Meanwhile, Thomas Robinson -- the other top contender for national player of the year honors -- countered with 28 points and 12 rebounds.

Standings and computers don't decide postseason berths in college basketball. So in late February, borderline NCAA tourney teams audition for a group of decision-makers who will determine their fate from a hotel room in Indianapolis in two weeks. Their collective desire to earn that postseason bid is often undeniable.

Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa State lost to the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. Not Purdue, a squad that should have locked up an NCAA tourney slot with a 75-61 victory at Michigan on Saturday. Terone Johnson scored a career-high 22 points. …

To read the rest of Medcalf's column, visit the Nation blog.

Team of the Week: Kansas

The Jayhawks had one of the best weeks of the season for any of the potential No. 1 seeds. Kansas held on for a solid 10-point win at Texas A&M and then in an epic finale to the Border War came back from 19 points down to beat Missouri 87-86 in overtime.

KU clinched its eighth straight Big 12 title. The only thing barring an outright championship would be if the Jayhawks were to lose their final two games at Oklahoma State and Texas and Missouri swept Iowa State and at Texas Tech. The former is unlikely.

[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/The Tuscaloosa News/Dusty ComptonAnthony Grant kept his team together through suspensions.
Kansas displayed real toughness to win a game in an unbelievable college environment in what is likely to be the last regular-season meeting between these century-old rivals. Thomas Robinson scored 28 points and had 12 boards while Tyshawn Taylor made a number of key plays, like creating contact (whether it was an air brush or not) to get to the free-throw line and convert two free throws with eight seconds left in overtime for the win. KU had to win this game without key interior player Jeff Withey, who was limited to nine minutes due to an injured ankle. A Kansas spokesperson said Withey will play Monday against OSU.

Kansas wasn't picked to win the Big 12. Bill Self wasn't expected to be a candidate for national coach of the year. Robinson was expected to star, but national player of the year frontrunner? And of course no one would have had Kansas as a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. Well, all four of these may occur after the Jayhawks' win over Missouri.

-- Andy Katz

Editor's note: This edition is only for games played from Monday, Feb. 20, to Sunday, Feb. 26.

More teams that impressed us

[+] Enlarge
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/Getty ImagesAnthony Davis' offensive abilities were on display against Vanderbilt.
Alabama: Head coach Anthony Grant has the attention of his team. He issued strong suspensions and the Tide still won three of the past five games during this stretch. The past two were two of the most impressive, winning at Arkansas by 11 and dominating Mississippi State by 17. Alabama will be in the NCAAs. The suspensions didn't cost a bid.

Drexel: The Dragons won the CAA outright, the first conference title by a former America East team in the Colonial and first for a team not located in the state of Virginia or named UNC Wilmington. Drexel beat Old Dominion by one on the road after taking down James Madison handily. The Dragons, winners of 17 in a row, should be in the NCAAs in my opinion, even if they lose in the CAA tourney.

Duke: The Blue Devils were supposed to get swept by Florida State and fall back in the ACC title chase. Instead, Duke was the aggressor and won in a place where rival UNC lost by 33. Duke then nearly lost at home to Virginia Tech, but still managed to win in overtime with Seth Curry and Austin Rivers making plays to keep the Blue Devils in position for a possible ACC title and No. 1 seed.

Marquette: The Golden Eagles had one of their best wins of the season. You may even say it was dance-worthy. Buzz Williams did. After beating Rutgers earlier in the week, Marquette suspended three starters and four players overall at West Virginia and came back from 11 down for another crucial road win.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels faced two difficult road games this week and won them both. The Tar Heels had to take out an NC State team that was desperate for a win to impress the tourney committee. It didn't matter as the Heels coasted to a win. Then Virginia was amped to take out Carolina. Virginia had a lead but couldn't make shots late and lost by three. UNC is now in position to win the ACC if it can sweep its final two games -- Maryland and at Duke.

Penn: Harvard looked like it had the Ivy wrapped up with a home sweep of Princeton and Penn. Do that and the Crimson would have clinched at least a share of the title. Instead, Penn swept a road swing to Dartmouth and Harvard and now is in position to possibly force a playoff with Harvard if both win out. The Quakers have the tougher road since that would mean winning at rival Princeton on March 6.

Purdue: The Boilermakers had their best win of the season by taking down Michigan by 14 on the road. Purdue had easily handled Nebraska earlier in the week. The Boilers were searching for one more quality road win to erase any doubt about their ability to be an NCAA team. They didn't show any sign of unrest despite the dismissal of Kelsey Barlow and a suspension earlier in the week of D.J. Byrd.

Syracuse: The Orange had two challenges and swatted them both. Syracuse got pushed early by surging South Florida and won at home, then held on to beat UConn in a hostile Gampel Pavilion and win the Big East title outright.

TCU: The Horned Frogs are suddenly a realistic spoiler in the Mountain West Conference tournament, their final foray into Las Vegas before leaving for the Big 12. TCU pounded New Mexico after winning by three at Air Force. TCU had already beaten UNLV in overtime. Jim Christian's team has momentum now going into Vegas and into the Big 12.

Valparaiso: The Crusaders won their first-ever Horizon League title in Bryce Drew's first season as head coach. They had to go to overtime to beat lowly Loyola (Ill.), but then handled Butler easily. Valpo will now host the Horizon League semifinal and the title if they win in the semis.

Shoutout-worthy: Iowa State, Kentucky, Ohio, St. John's, Saint Mary's, South Florida, Texas-Arlington, VCU, Western Kentucky, Wisconsin

-- Andy Katz

Player of the week: Anthony Davis, Kentucky

A strong case could be made for North Carolina's Tyler Zeller, who wrestled away the ACC player of the year debate from Mike Scott of Virginia with his 20-point effort at Virginia. Or Jae Crowder, who really carried a suspension-riddled Marquette in a win at West Virginia.

But no performance was as complete as Davis against Vanderbilt. The one criticism of his game has been his offense. But Davis hadn't been asked to be an offensive force for the Wildcats. Well, Kentucky looked for him more against the Commodores and he answered with authority. Davis scored 28 points, grabbed 11 boards and had six blocks.

This came on the heels of another solid effort at Mississippi State, where he scored 13 points and had 11 boards. Davis' efficiency throughout the week was at a high clip. Against Vandy, he missed only one shot (11-of-12) and made baskets facing the hoop with the defense needing to extend.

The Davis-Thomas Robinson player of the year debate is healthy. And you can't go wrong either way. But Davis made as a strong a case as he has this season about his overall importance against Vandy.

-- Andy Katz

More performances that wowed us

Quincy Acy, Baylor: 22 pts (7-10 FG), 16 rebs in win at Texas
Nick Barbour, High Point: 44 pts (7-10 3-pt FG) in win over Campbell
Julian Boyd, LIU Brooklyn: 21 pts, 20 rebs in win at Fairleigh Dickinson
Bradford Burgess, VCU: Career-high 31 pts in win over George Mason
Scott Christopherson, Iowa State: 29 pts (10-13 FG, 5-5 3-pt FG) in win at Kansas St.
Jae Crowder, Marquette: 53 pts (20-31 FG), 5 blks, 6 stls in wins over Rutgers, WVU
Jamaal Franklin, San Diego St.: 31 pts, 16 rebs in win over Colorado St.
Chris Gaston, Fordham: 35 pts, 15 offensive rebs, 4 blks in win over La Salle
Matt Gatens, Iowa: 33 pts (12-18 FG, 7-10 3-pt FG) in win over Wisconsin
Reggie Hamilton, Oakland: 62 pts (8-13 3-pt FG), 13 asts in wins over UMKC, USD
Elias Harris, Gonzaga: 19 pts, 16 rebs in win over BYU
Ken Horton, CCSU: 61 pts (22-32 FG), 20 rebs, 8 asts, 10 stls in wins over FDU, Wagner
Kendall Marshall, UNC: 22 pts (4-5 3-pt FG), 13 asts in win at NC State
Preston Medlin, Utah State: 32 pts (11-13 FG, 6-8 3-pt FG), 8 rebs in win over Idaho
Daniel Mullings, New Mexico St.: 28 pts, 12 rebs, 10 asts, 5 stls in win over Hawaii
Charles Odum, Portland State: 38 pts (11-16 FG) in win at Sacramento State
Kevin Olekaibe, Fresno State: 43 pts (14-14 FG) in win over Seattle
Thomas Robinson, Kansas: 28 pts, 12 rebs in win over Missouri
Colt Ryan, Evansville: 43 pts (17-24 FG), 6 rebs, 5 stls in OT loss to Creighton
Parker Smith, North Florida: 46 pts (11-17 3-pt FG) in win over Mercer
Jordan Theodore, Seton Hall: 29 pts (5-5 3-pt FG), 5 asts in win over Georgetown

-- Brett Edgerton

King's observations from the week that was

1. As impressed as I was with Kansas in Saturday's 87-86 come-from-behind victory over Missouri, I was equally taken aback by the Tigers. I've been on hand for every big matchup at Allen Fieldhouse since 2000 and, considering the pressure and circumstances surrounding the game, I can honestly say that I've never seen an opponent play as well in that building as Missouri did on Saturday. The mental toughness the Tigers displayed in one of the loudest game-day environments in college basketball history -- the noise level reached a record 127 decibels -- says everything you need to know about first-year coach Frank Haith and veterans such as Kim English, Marcus Denmon, Ricardo Ratliffe and Michael Dixon. The Tigers are a Final Four-caliber team. And the Jayhawks are, too.

2. Mississippi State has become the most underachieving squad in college basketball. How a team with Dee Bost, Renardo Sidney, Arnett Moultrie and Rodney Hood can be 6-8 in a weak SEC is beyond me. Saturday's 17-point loss to Alabama marked the fifth straight defeat for the Bulldogs, who are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament after being ranked in the top 15 just a month ago. Mississippi State plays at South Carolina Wednesday before hosting Arkansas on Saturday. It probably needs to win both of those contests to get a bid -- and keep head coach Rick Stansbury off the hot seat.

3. There's a new king in the West Coast Conference -- at least for now. Saint Mary's clinched the league championship outright by defeating San Francisco on Saturday. Gonzaga had won at least a share of the title the previous 11 seasons. Randy Bennett has led the Gaels to 25 or more wins in each of the past five seasons. Saint Mary's reached the Sweet 16 in 2010.

4. The Big East player of the year will come from Marquette. The problem will be choosing between forward Jae Crowder and guard Darius Johnson-Odom. The players, both seniors, have been equally valuable for a Golden Eagles squad that is 13-3 and in second place in the conference standings. Johnson-Odom averages 18.4 points a game while Crowder chips in 17.4 along with a team-high 7.6 rebounds. Crowder is averaging 26.3 points in his past four games.

5. The final week of the regular season will be great. By this point in the season I'm usually anxious for the start of the conference and NCAA tournaments. But with so much drama potentially unfolding over the next several days, I can wait. It's likely that Duke and North Carolina will both be 13-2 in ACC play when they square off for the league title in Durham on Saturday. Georgetown plays Marquette that day, too, and Syracuse hosts Louisville. Even games such as West Virginia at South Florida and Northwestern at Iowa carry intrigue. Three of those schools (Iowa being the exception) are on the NCAA tournament bubble.

--Jason King

They said it (or tweeted it)

"I know they sick of me !!!! F.O.E [family over everything]"
-- A tweet from Kansas forward Thomas Robinson after he scored 28 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in 87-86 overtime victory against Missouri.

"I'm up still can't sleep #SMH"
-- A tweet from Missouri guard Marcus Denmon, who scored 28 points but saw his Tigers blow a 19-point lead to KU.

"We've got the worst group of seniors right now that I've ever been associated with. Their mentality is awful. Their attitude is awful. It's been their [custom] for the last three years. To come out in a game like this, with no emotion and flat, it's terrible. … These guys are stealing money by being on scholarship with their approach to things. … When I played, if you acted the way some of these guys did, you got shoved in a locker with a forearm up against your neck and told: 'You don't do that. That's not how we do things at Indiana,' and that's what we need."
-- Lamar head coach Pat Knight following his team's 62-52 loss to Stephen F. Austin.

"As a shooter, sometimes you get in those zones, and luckily for me it's going over a few games. You get in that zone and you don't really care who's on you or where they're at. You just want to get the ball and put it in."
--Matt Gatens, who scored 33 points in Iowa's 67-66 victory over Wisconsin.

"I could put Denis Clemente at the 5-spot in practice and he would run whatever set I asked him to run better than our centers. I don't have a guy on my team who can do that right now. They know what they do. They don't know what anyone else does. Until we grow past that moment, we are going to continue to have moments like the ones we have had the last few days."
-- Kansas State head coach Frank Martin following a 65-61 loss to Iowa State.

-- Myron Medcalf

Comments

You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?