As usual, a focus on games with bubble implications (so no UNC/Duke analysis today... sorry). Here goes:
UConn 67, Syracuse 60
Win number 500 for Jim Calhoun at Connecticut keeps the Huskies hopeful for this year. They are certainly far from earning an at-large bid, but seeing as how they were worried about making the Big East Tournament last week - just the possibility of qualifying for the real Tournament has to feel good. The RPI is still 83 (they need to get it under 65 to even be considered on Selection Sunday), and that 0-5 record against the RPI Top 50 is a glaring problem. But they have won two straight in conference to move to 4-6, without a single ranked team left to play. Not only that, but they have the perfect games for a team trying to build an RPI - good teams with good RPIs, but not good enough that they can't be beat. They get a mediocre Georgia Tech team on the road (RPI of 57). And the best of all is a home match against Villanova, a team far overranked at 18th in the RPI. I'd say that UConn really needs to win five of their last seven games to have a shot, but it's not totally unreasonable. As for the Orange, this loss drops them to 5-5 in the Big East. With an RPI that has dropped outside the Top 60, and a 5-7 record against the RPI Top 50, they definitely need a big improvement to have an at-large bid. It's pretty amazing how few bids the Big East might get this year after such a successful 2005-06 season.
#7 Texas A&M 100, #25 Texas 82
I know, this game has nothing to do with the bubble. Texas A&M is already a lock for the Tournament, and Texas will be soon enough. My comments on this game have to do with Kevin Durant, a player who has gone from unknown to overhyped in about three months. I was one of the earliest people on the Durant bandwagon, immortalizing him here as early as November 13th. The kid is an absolutely amazing talent. He's been compared to Kevin Garnett, but I see him more as a tall Tracy McGrady. Garnett is a ferocious defender and rebounder, which Durant is not. But Durant is a much smoother offensive player, and has the scoring ability that reminds me more of T-Mac. Regardless, he's the Freshman of the Year, and I would be absolutely fine with him going first in the draft. That being said, it's a lot like an 18 year old Lebron James or a rookie Michael Jordan - you can see the great talent and potential, but they're not yet the complete player and floor leader. That's why, to me, Durant should not be a favorite to win National Player of the Year. And this game is the perfect example. He put up 28 points and 15 boards, which is basically his average during the Big 12 season - pretty remarkable. But what I noted more was the way he seemed to disappear from the floor when A&M went on a run in the second half. With a little over 14 minutes remaining, Durant already had 24 points and Texas held a one-point lead. Over the rest of the game not only did A&M go on a 43-24 run, but they did it while Durant went 1-for-6 from the field. That's unacceptable for a floor leader. Compare that to the senior leadership of Alando Tucker, a player far more deserving of the Player of the Year award. Unlike Durant, he has shined brightest when his team has needed him most. His highest scoring performance came against the highest ranked opponent he played all year - 32 points against Pitt. Second most were 29 on the road against a tough Georgia team, followed by 28 points on the road at Marquette (a top ranked team at the time). Meanwhile, he hasn't inflated his stats against bad teams, averaging only 14 points per game against Wisconsin-Green Bay, Southern, Florida International, Pacific and Gardner Webb. And going beyond that, Tucker has always come up with the big shots when his team has needed points most. I can't see how a serious analyst of the game could see Durant as a better Player of the Year candidate than Tucker. I'd draft Durant earlier than Tucker in the draft, for sure. But right now, for this year, I'd rather have Tucker on my team.
Georgia Tech 74, North Carolina State 65
Something of an elimination game for these two teams, neither of which had a real shot at the Tournament before this game anyway. With this, NC State is basically done. They now have six conference losses and an RPI out of the Top 100. With an RPI of 55, Tech's looking a lot better despite also having six conference losses. Of course, that 0-6 road record means that they're due for another conference loss or two. I really don't think either of these two teams will be seriously considered.
Virginia 69, Maryland 65
An important balance-of-power game in the ACC. This young Cavaliers team has really come on strong at the right time, and is amazingly still tied for first in the conference. Eight conference wins, along with four wins over ranked teams - including Duke and Arizona - has Virginia sitting pretty. With an RPI inside the Top 30, this really feels like a Tournament team right now. As for Maryland, they're the epitome of a bubble team. A nice 16-6 record overall, but an awful 3-6 in conference. An RPI of 36, but a mediocre 3-5 against the RPI Top 50 with a below-.500 road record overall. They've had the tough schedule and some good wins, but they really need to go 9-7 in the ACC to feel good for a bid. At 3-6 now, that's a long road to go. This was the type of loss that they really can't afford anymore.
San Diego State 62, #13 Air Force 41
A win that San Diego State desperately needed. They're still on the outside looking in, but with an RPI inside the Top 60 with their first win over a ranked team (after previously going 0-5 against the RPI Top 50) they're still alive. The biggest beneficiaries of this loss, however, might be Brigham Young and UNLV, the two teams dueling with Air Force for the Mountain West title. I had been doubting whether the Selection Committee would take three teams from the Mountain West, but if these three teams end up tied or within a game of each other and with losses against each other (Air Force has already lost to BYU, and has to head to Las Vegas in two weeks), the Committee might be forced to take all three. BYU, especially, benefits as they now move alone into first place in the conference at 8-2 (Air Force and UNLV wait back at 7-3). BYU has one more game at Air Force, but even a loss there parlayed with an Air Force loss at UNLV would likely mean a BYU regular season title. That would lock up a bid for the Cougars without a doubt.
#23 Georgetown 73, Louisville 65
A problematic loss for the Cardinals. Certainly, it's never a debacle to lose to a ranked team, but Louisville has a particular problem. They don't really have any marquee wins, they aren't going to make the Tournament because of any one game that sticks out. If they're getting in, it's going to be because of their good overall record. Their Big East record has dropped to a not-so-great 6-4, and their overall record of 16-8 isn't going to blow anyone away either. Not to mention that their RPI has now dropped out of the Top 70. Their easy out-of-conference schedule has really killed them. At this point, I don't think a 9-7 Big East record will cut it. They really need to go 10-6 (simply because I have a hard time seeing the Committee denying a 10-6 Big East team). Breaking it down, they have three easy wins (South Florida, St. John's and Seton Hall at home). The Cardinals have struggled against top opponents this year, but their one skill has been taking care of business against lesser opponents. They also have two tough road games, at Pitt and Marquette. After that, they have UConn on the road. If we take my theory that a 10-6 record will get them in and a 9-7 record will not, then losses at Pitt and Marquette will make the UConn game a must-win. Remember, a possibly desperate Huskies team will not be an easy beat on the road. If nothing else, Louisville needs a win at Pitt or Marquette just for that marquee win. Right now, their best win is over Providence (RPI of 48). That's pretty weak.
Clemson 71, Florida State 58
An important win for a Clemson team that had been falling into a tailspin. This win pushes them back up to .500 in the ACC, and to 19-5 overall. The RPI of 21 and the 9-5 record against the RPI Top 100 are both excellent. This team is a lock at 9-7 in the ACC. At 8-8 they will be a tough sell. It will depend on their final RPI and their performance in the ACC Tournament. As for the Seminoles, they're perplexing. The 5-5 ACC record won't blow anyone away, or their 3-6 road record or 5-6 record against the RPI Top 50. But they have some huge wins and have survived a brutal schedule that has their RPI safely inside the Top 25. In a lot of ways they're very similar to Clemson, despite the fact that the two have taken very different paths to this point. Like Clemson, I'd say that a 9-7 conference record gets them in automatically. An 8-8 record might not do it, although they probably will garner some sympathy after being one of the first teams out last year.
Purdue 62, Michigan State 38
A horrible game for a Spartans team that hasn't wrapped up a Tournament bid yet. It goes to show how valuable Drew Neitzel has been, that State can barely score at all when he's off (2-of-11 from the field). Purdue probably won't make the Tournament, but this season has to be considered a success. They're relevant in the Big 10 again, and they're improving by the week. Michigan State, meanwhile, has dropped their RPI out of the Top 40. Their 4-6 record in a mediocre Big 10 isn't too impressive either. Similarly, that 3-6 road record and 1-6 record against the RPI Top 50 looks awful. They can really use a win in one of their two games against Wisconsin. They need a defining win.
Drake 67, Northern Iowa 59
Another devastating win for a Northern Iowa team in a real tailspin. They've now dropped five of their last six games, most of them against the lower half of the Missouri Valley. After competing for the Valley lead for most of the season, they are now 7-7 and tied with Wichita State and Bradley for fourth in the conference. The way I see it, Creighton, Southern Illinois and Missouri State are safely on their way to the Tournament. The Valley should get a fourth team, but probably not a fifth. Which means that this duel between Northern Iowa, the Shockers and Bradley is vital for survival. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they've been the worst of the bunch in recent games. This loss drops their RPI from 66th out of the Top 80, well below both Bradley and Wichita State. They need three of their last four conference games or a win at Nevada in two weeks or else they can forget about a Tournament bid. Big game for them Saturday against Missouri State.