Come mid-March, December 19th may hold a special meaning to more than a few college basketball teams selected to the NCAA Tournament.
Saturday furnished us one of the best slates of games we’ll see all season. If there was a theme through the day, it was of teams earning signature wins, ones that could either make the difference in teams qualifying for the Big Dance or not or, in conjunction with other big wins, could pump up their seed a line or two. Among those huge games:
Utah 77, Duke 75 (OT). Few might remember it, but the Utes have a rich history playing in New York City and at Madison Square Garden in all of its incarnations. Utah won the 1944 NCAA title as well as the 1947 NIT championship at the previous Garden building and made frequent appearances at the Garden when in the 1940s and ’50s when it was the mecca of the sport and regularly hosted the best from around the country.
The Utes added to their record at MSG with a win over the defending national champions, as Jakob Poeltl and Kevin Kuzma owned the inside with a combined 40 points and 22 rebounds. A week ago, Utah played at Wichita State and was not close in a 67-50 loss, but Larry Krystkowiak’s team was up to the challenge and now has a huge non-conference win for its March resume.
Butler 74, Purdue 68. The Bulldogs entered Saturday’s Crossroads Classic at 8-1 with a best win at Cincinnati, but the win over the previously undefeated Boilermakers will take their March resume to another level. Butler certainly passed the “eye test” Saturday, leading by as many as 16 in the second half, and the battled to a draw on the glass against a much taller Purdue team (as the Boilers are against virtually everyone they face) and also forced 18 turnovers. Like Utah, this Butler team is capable of a very deep run in March.
Northern Iowa 81, Iowa State 79. The Panthers led this one virtually from start-to-finish but had to fend off repeated ISU rallies late to knock off another undefeated team. Wes Washpun was nearly unstoppable (28 points) and Paul Jesperson was incredible from three-point range (21 points on 7 of 9 shooting from behind the arc). UNI now has wins over North Carolina and Iowa State, both who could easily be 2 seeds or better in March. Northern Iowa has a big tournament coming up with the Diamond Head Classic over Christmas in which it can further amp up its resume or make it even more complex than it already is, with sizable losses on the road to Richmond and New Mexico (albeit two teams who could be in the NCAA tourney) plus a season-opening home loss to Colorado State. If the Panthers can win 22-23 games, though, they’ll be right in the thick of the at-large conversation in March, and any more wins than that should have them dancing, in large part because of their huge, huge wins out of conference.
Seton Hall 80, Wichita State 76 (OT). The Pirates received a lesson in the first half on the type of defense needed to beat a top-notch opponent, and then applied it in the second half to rally after being down by 13 early. Wearing 1989 throwback uniforms that ought to be permanent, Seton Hall earned easily its best win of a non-conference schedule that has been fairly benign. An 8-2 record coming into this featured a win over Mississippi as its best feature (a win that is looking better by the day) so this is a statement that could go a long way if the Pirates are on the bubble in March. And yes, this still is a big-time win-an overtime loss on the road to a good Big East team is no time to panic for the Shockers, who just hammered Utah last week and are a much different team with Fred VanVleet than they were without them. As long as WSU takes care of the Missouri Valley in the regular season the way it is expected to, it will be in the NCAA tournament. And if Seton Hall can get into the top 4-5 in the Big East, it likely will be too.
Ohio State 74, Kentucky 67. The day’s theme could even be true for Ohio State. Whether it was home losses to Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech or a loss on national television last week against Connecticut, the Buckeyes have looked nothing like an NCAA tourney team before yesterday. A win over the Wildcats, though, is the type that could turn their season around, and a more-middling-than-usual Big Ten is going to offer opportunities for someone to grab an NCAA at-large bid that one may have thought there was no chance of in mid-December.
- Hoopville czar Phil Kasiecki has a review of many of the biggest games of the busy day with his Saturday notes.
- The star stat line of the day belonged to Oakland’s Kahlil Felder. The outstanding junior guard lit it up for 38 points as well as nine rebounds and six assists as his team won at Washington 97-83. The battle between the Golden Grizzlies and Valparaiso for the Horizon League title is going to be a good one. Oh yes, Domantas Sabonis also had 36 points and 16 rebounds in Gonzaga‘s 86-79 win over Tennessee.
- The wildest finish came in Albuquerque, N.M., where New Mexico‘s Tim Williams called a timeout that his team didn’t have with :00.1 left in regulation, resulting in a technical foul. Rice‘s Egor Koulechov made the free throw, giving the Owls a 90-89 comeback win on the road.
- Louisville’s dominant 78-56 win over Western Kentucky was marred by an injury to center Mangok Mathiang, who suffered a broken bone in his foot. Mathiang is expected to miss 6-8 weeks. He is averaging 7.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.
- Stanford announced Saturday night prior to its tough 75-73 loss to Texas that sophomore forward Reid Travis is out indefinitely due to a “stress reaction” in his left leg. Travis is averaging nearly 13 points and more than seven rebounds per game for the Cardinal, who are now 5-4 this year.
- Another terrific game in Madison Square Garden as Pittsburgh faces Davidson (Noon EST, ESPNU). On a weekend when we’re talking about resumes so much, these are two teams currently missing a big non-conference win.
- The country has another chance to see Monmouth as the Hawks go to Rutgers (1 p.m., Big Ten Network) for a game that was moved from Saturday to Sunday specifically so BTN could show the Hawks.
- Arkansas-Little Rock goes for a 10-0 record when it hosts Northern Arizona.
- Evansville is at Fresno State in an intriguing cross-country non-conference game.
- East Carolina is at James Madison in a matchup of former CAA rivals.
Have a great Sunday.