Saturday was a rather noisy day in college hoops, and the performances of teams on the bubble — both inside and outside it — echoed the loudest.
For some of the sport’s biggest brands, it was both good and bad. North Carolina upended No. 11 Florida State in a stunning win to gift wrap Roy Williams’ 900th win in style just days after an equally stunning stumble at home against Marquette. Elsewhere across the country, Oregon also escaped a bad loss by eking past Cal. The Ducks were among Jerry Palm’s “last four in” entering the day, and the Tar Heels were among the “first four out.” Both, for now, are in the 68-team bracket.
In non-bubble news, it was (mostly) a good day for ranked teams. No. 3 Michigan dispensed of wobbly Indiana like a PEZ, improving its resume to receive a No. 1 seed. No. 5 Illinois stole one on the road over No. 23 Wisconsin. And No. 20 Arkansas won its billionth (give or take) game in a row, marking its ninth consecutive win in SEC play.
But others weren’t as fortunate. So, as these things go, there were naturally plenty of losers to emerge from the dust on the day that was. So let’s start with a doozy in Madison, Wisconsin, and work our way through the winding slate with some other winners and losers.
Loser: Wisconsin falls to shorthanded Illini
Facing an Ayo Dosunmu-less Illinois team at home, No. 23 Wisconsin could not capitalize on his absence Saturday in a disappointing Senior Day that saw the Badgers fall 74-69. Wisconsin never led in the game. It did make it interesting late, climbing to within a point of the Illini lead. But it just wasn’t Wisconsin’s night.
The loss itself — against a top-five Illinois team vying for a No. 1 seed — is not why the Badgers are a loser here, though to be sure it is a big reason. The problem is that they ensured themselves a dreadful February, with their only three wins coming against the bottom three teams in the league (Nebraska, Penn State and Northwestern).
Winner: Arkansas stays red-hot in SEC play
I’ve finally figured out the real reason why Eric Musselman keeps stripping his shirt off in postgame celebrations. It’s because his team is absolutely, positively scorching hot.
The Razorbacks won their seventh consecutive game Saturday, 83-75 over LSU, showing no signs of a hangover after ousting SEC-leader Alabama earlier in the week. It’s the Razorback’s ninth win in 10 games and ninth consecutive win in league play as they continue charging ahead with a wave of momentum into the postseason.
Winner: Cade Cunningham carries Oklahoma State
What happens when a future No. 1 pick gets to lace ’em up against college players? Consider that hypothetical question answered: 40 points, 11 rebounds and one win. That’s what Oklahoma State standout freshman Cade Cunningham did to rival Oklahoma on Saturday in a Bedlam showing for the ages.
“People know he’s a really good player,” coach Mike Boynton said after the game. “I’m not surprised that on the biggest game on our schedule, on the road, he stepped up and was ready to go compete at the highest level.”
Added Boynton: “He’s 19 years old, by the way, in case anyone needs a reminder of why he’s special.”
Loser: Tennessee lays an egg
Saturday shaped up to be a bounce-back day for Tennessee after taking lopsided losses to Kentucky and LSU in the last two weeks, with its only wins coming over South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Instead, the Vols put out a puzzling stinker, falling on the road to Auburn 77-72 without the services of star Tigers guard Sharife Cooper. Tennessee shot better than Auburn from the field and from distance in the game. But the Tigers’ big edge came in a stunning free-throw attempt disparity of 37 to 10 in Auburn’s favor.
“I don’t understand the inconsistency,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said. “There’s enough guys who have played enough basketball right now. But this week we’ve got to go back and take a good hard look, all of us, everybody in the program. See if we can use this week to get better.”
Barnes added that the combination of players not understanding roles and not playing with confidence has given Tennessee real problems that continue to show up in inconvenient spots this season.
“If we could simply do that: get guys to play their role the way they should play it, we would be OK,” he said.
Winner: Texas Tech shows off defensive prowess
It was knotted up at 33 each at halftime in Lubbock, Texas, on Saturday, with No. 14 Texas and No. 18 Texas Tech in the heat of a close battle. That was until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. The Red Raiders came out of halftime by locking down on defense. Texas went without a made field goal for the opening eight minutes and 55 seconds of the second half. And in that span, the Red Raiders built a 10-point lead, cushy enough to ride to a 68-59 win.
Tech had lost its last three games entering the day and steadily backslid in tourney positioning during that skid, so it needed this one Saturday.
Winner: Liberty takes home the A-Sun regular season title
In a de facto winner-take-all Saturday matinee between the A-Sun’s two top teams, Liberty broke the tie by besting Bellarmine in the regular-season finale 94-78 to claim the league title. It was Liberty’s ninth consecutive win to improve to 20-5 overall, and ensured the Flames for the fifth consecutive season under Ritchie McKay a 20-win season. They will enter the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed.
Winner: Texas State wins the Belt
When Texas State coach Danny Kaspar resigned in September just before his eighth season, the Bobcats promoted assistant Terrence Johnson to interim head coach, hoping the program could build on the momentum of consecutive 20-win seasons. Johnson did a fantastic job, culminating with a win over Louisiana-Monroe on Friday night that earned the program its first Sun Belt title. In a cruel twist of fate, Johnson was not on the sideline for the victory due to COVID-19 protocols. But the team managed to find a creative way to celebrate with him anyway. Not bad for a team picked to finish fifth in the league.
Loser: Indiana’s NCAA Tournament hopes
There is no shame in losing to Michigan, but dropping three in a row and four of five while on the NCAA Tournament bubble is pretty shameful, especially when you’ve got a player like Trayce Jackson-Davis. If Indiana could string a few wins together, Jackson-Davis would be in the Big Ten Player of the Year conversation with Iowa’s Luka Garza and Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu. At any rate, the No. 3 Wolverines did a decent job of bottling up Indiana’s star forward in a 73-57 victory that leaves IU in must-win territory for its final regular season games against Michigan State and Purdue next week. But at this point, it’s getting hard to believe the Hoosiers have what it takes to secure an at-large bid.
Georgia Tech senior Moses Wright has been one of the most underrated players in the ACC for two seasons, and now he’s starting to look like one of the most underrated players in the country. The 6-foot-9 forward was barely recruited out of high school and has continued to raise his productivity level every season under coach Josh Pastner. Now it seems Wright is making it a personal mission to get the Yellow Jackets to their first NCAA Tournament since 2010. His 31 points and 16 rebounds carried Georgia Tech to a huge bubble victory over Syracuse for the team’s fourth straight win. Wright is averaging 23.8 points and 10.3 rebounds during the winning streak. Those are Garza-like numbers, and they are coming at the right time for a team that began the day as one of the “last four in” for the projected NCAA Tournament field, according to Jerry Palm.
Loser: Ole Miss’ NCAA Tournament hopes
With five wins it its last six games, including two victories over Missouri and one over Tennessee, Ole Miss had played its way onto the bubble entering Saturday’s game at shorthanded Vanderbilt. But the Commodores may have burst the Rebels’ bubble with a 75-70 win that was just their third in league play. Any win against SEC competition is a good one for the reeling Commodores, but this was one especially momentous because they were without leading scorers Scotty Pippen and Dylan Disu. The duo averages a combined 35.5 points per game. In their absence, the trio of Trey Thomas, D.J. Harvey and Isaac McBride combined to score 37 points off the bench.
Winner: Clemson’s resurrection is real
As February dawned, it looked like Clemson might be done. A 9-1 start that included wins over Purdue, Maryland, Alabama and Florida State had been fun. But January brought a 35-point loss to Virginia, an 18-point loss to Georgia Tech, a 19-point loss in a rematch with Florida State and, finally a 26-point loss at Duke. As it turns out, the Tigers were just waiting for their second wind. Saturday’s 66-58 win over Miami wasn’t a thing of beauty, but it was Clemson’s fifth straight victory. Now 15-5 (9-5 ACC), the Tigers are a projected No. 4 seed in Palm’s latest bracketology and close with very winnable games against Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
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