Within twenty-four hours Purdue had sole possession of first place in the Big Ten. Ohio State went into East Lansing and took down co-leader Michigan State 74-67 early this afternoon. The Buckeyes were balanced overall, but first among equals is still Evan Turner, who posted 20 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists. OSU also did the unthinkable and outrebounded the Spartans 38-32. This is a battle Tom Izzo teams almost always win, even if they lose the game. They didn’t today.
Kentucky put a stranglehold on the SEC by surviving Vanderbilt 58-56. Both teams shot the ball poorly, but Patrick Patterson played big for the Wildcats with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Vandy’s backcourt duo of Jermaine Beal and Brad Tinsley, and big man A.J. Oglivy were ineffective offensively, averaging less than six points apiece. This game wasn’t pretty, but it speaks well of Kentucky that they could win a game like this. It doesn’t have to pretty in the NCAA Tournament either, but all teams have to survive at least one war like this one. Kentucky, playing on the road against its top conference rival, showed it could.
Duke and Virginia Tech finished off the run of big games tonight and it was another poor shooting game on both sides. The Blue Devils were able to step up and win by hitting more three-pointers and hitting the glass. Center Brian Zoubek muscled up for 16 rebounds. Zoubek’s rebounding efforts are gaining steam and gives Coach K real hope for a big run in March if it sustains. Both backcourts played well, but between Zoubek’s rebounding and Kyle Singler’s 25 points, Duke rolled to a 67-55 win that dropped the Hokiest two off the pace in the ACC.
With two weeks left, let’s get a quick snapshot look of the conference races, and how the bubble picture is shaping up. At this point in the season, if you aren’t within a game of the lead, you aren’t a title contender. Miracle finishes certainly happen, but there are too many realistic scenarios to consider in six conferences to spend too much time on the outlandish. We’ll deal with that when the time comes. And for bubble teams, if you don’t rank at least #80 in the Pomeroy rankings, I’m not discussing you. Actually that’s being generous, for teams like North Carolina and Boston College are in the Top 80, so that’s merely a minimum prerequisite.
Syracuse handled the road this week while Villanova didn’t. The Orange won at Georgetown on Thursday night, while the Wildcats fell at Pitt this afternoon. As a result Jim Boeheim’s club has a one-game lead. These two teams have a major showdown coming up next Saturday night on ESPN in the Carrier Dome. Underneath the leaders, Pitt, West Virginia and Georgetown are all coasting into the tournament.
Beyond these five locks, Louisville is in good shape and Marquette took a big step forward with an overtime win at Cincinnati today. If the bids went out today, these two likely make the field. The battle is underway at Seton Hall, South Florida and Notre Dame, all of whom can play their way in with a good closing push. St. John’s is well off the pace, but with recent wins over Louisville, ND and South Florida, they haven’t impacted an NCAA field this much since Lou Carnesecca and Chris Mullin ruled the roost in Queens back in 1985. Of intrigue is UConn. The 14-11 record says they should have to win out and tack on at least one win the conference tourney. But their Top 50 Pomeroy ranking says they might have room for error. All depends what the committee values most this year.
Duke’s win over Virginia Tech tonight narrows this race to two teams. Maryland is still right on Duke’s heels, a game back and they go head-to-head in College Park on March 3. A lot of kudos have to be given to Maryland for their past week. They had three games on the schedule, a consequence of the snow that hit this area last week (I write from just north of Baltimore) and caused a makeup game with Virginia. Furthermore, the Terps have to play this trio coming off a beating at Duke the previous Saturday. But Gary Williams’ crew stood up with their ACC hopes on the line and swept the board, capped off by an astonishing finish on Saturday, where they hit the game-winning shot not once but twice. For both Duke & Maryland now, it’s just about keeping focus until March 3.
After a disappointing December, at least by their standards, the ACC is in surprisingly good shape for a solid haul of NCAA bids. Wake Forest, Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech all look very good in terms of both record and Pomeroy ranking (Tech’s 18-8 record and 23 ranking is the worst in this quartet). And don’t rule out Miami, at 17-9 and #55 making a late push.
Purdue has the lead, as noted above and has another big home date coming up Sunday when Michigan State comes to town. This is Sparty’s last stand to defend its title and to try and recover from their tailspin that’s seen a three-game lead disappear. Ohio State is also one game out and of its final three games only a home date with Illinois is really a threat. They are ready to knock in the door if Purdue allows it to be opened.
Wisconsin is locked in for the Big Dance. Illinois is the interesting case here. With a ranking of #52, that screams bubble. But they have played much better down since conference play started. How much will the committee penalize them for a slow start? Or can they close with a flourish and make it irrelevant? Minnesota is sitting on a shaky 15-10 record, but a strong #33 Pomeroy. Northwestern is fading fast after losses to Iowa and Penn State. At 17-9 and #76, they probably need to win out these next two weeks to get in serious position again.
Kentucky basically sewed this race up and holds a two-game lead on Vanderbilt, with everyone else at least three back. Vandy is a lock for March Madness, and Tennessee looks to be coasting in too. If the bids went out today, Mississippi State and Ole Miss probably make it, but they have work to do. Florida is 18-8 and #53, both of which are the definition of bubble. Longshots are Alabama and South Carolina, which each need to win out.
Kansas has had this race blown open for a couple weeks and hasn’t let up. Kansas State is the only team within three games and does get a head-to-head with the leaders, but that’s too little too late. What this conference does have is a strong and thriving middle class. Missouri, Baylor and Texas all join K-State in being very strong in the Pomeroys, as well as in their overall record. Texas A&M is on the cusp of locking up an invitation, which would put half the conference in the field. And Oklahoma State at 18-7, #50 is in reasonable striking distance.
Only in this conference this season could you have a team with a 12-13 record and a #101 Pomeroy within striking distance of the league championship. But that’s UCLA’s world, as Cal keeps stubbing its toe and letting inferior competition hang around. This underscores a possibility for serious conference embarrassment—the regular season champ not getting an NCAA invite. UCLA or Arizona, also a game back, would still need to win the automatic berth in the conference tournament. USC, tied in the loss column, is on probation. Only Arizona State, which edged Arizona today and moved into a tie for first, joins Cal as a team that could finish first and also get an at-large bid. The Golden Bears and Sun Devils are on a collision course for a showdown on Saturday.
Washington is out of the championship race, but still might get at-large consideration. They are at 17-9 and #42. But how much credit will they get for playing in this league? I can’t imagine it would be that much.
See you tomorrow for a preview of Monday and Tuesday’s best games.