February can be over any day now. After all that happened on a deliciously eventful Wednesday night, we’re sufficiently primed and ready for March, and the best month on the sports calendar can’t get here soon enough.
We still have 11 days (including a leap day) before the madness of March arrives, but Wednesday night gave us a taste of what’s in store. With variety galore, it reminded us of the buffet that is the first day of the NCAA Tournament (the Thursday one, not that Tuesday lead-in), all packed into a few evening hours. And it was so much more than one showcased game, though that one was plenty good, too.
Duke won. Or perhaps North Carolina lost. It will be debated for some time just what happened Wednesday night, but the Blue Devils’ 74-73 win will be remembered for some time-for Duke essentially going with an iron five lineup after Matt Jones went out early with an ankle injury, and for the Tar Heels inexplicably seeming to forget they had the most dominant player on the floor and not feeding the ball to Brice Johnson time and again late in a game where he still finished with a staggering 29 points and 19 rebounds.
The No. 3 and No. 4 ranked teams also both went down, with Oklahoma falling to Texas Tech 65-63 and Penn State stunning Iowa 79-75. There’s some room to be concerned, too, especially for the Sooners, who have dazzled all season with their shooting yet now are displaying what has been lurking the whole time: it’s hard to rely as heavily on the three-pointer as they have.
Big deficits were overcome, or big leads were given away, depending on your perspective. Boise State led New Mexico by 15 points with six minutes left, yet somehow lost 80-78. Colorado had a 14-point lead at USC with eight minutes to play, and then watched the Trojans zoom up in their rearview mirror, blowing by and eventually winning 79-72 to move to 15-0 at the Galen Center this year.
The nation’s longest winning streak and longest losing streak-both gone as of Wednesday night. Stony Brook’s 18-game roll was halted by regular tormentor Albany 82-70, and there may not be a more anticipated third meeting of the season than there would be if these two met again in the American East final. On the flip side, it took St. John’s 17 tries to back up its December win over Syracuse, but the Red Storm stopped a 16-game skid with an 80-65 win over DePaul.
At-large contenders couldn’t digest perceived cupcakes, and now may be at-large contenders no longer. St. Bonaventure lost at La Salle 71-64, beaten by a team that is 6-18 but yet now somehow has wins over the Bonnies and Dayton. Florida State, meanwhile, slipped up at home against Georgia Tech 86-80, and suddenly a profile that looked solid 10 days ago is looking something much less than.
At least some teams with postseason uncertainty helped themselves. Besides Texas Tech, Saint Joseph’s was one of the biggest winners of the night, leading almost wire-to-wire to defeat Dayton 79-70 and earn a signature win. Alabama also continues to improbably make a serious push for the NCAA Tournament. It’s Avery Johnson, not Nick Saban leading the Crimson Tide, who won at LSU 76-69 with Retin Obasohan scoring a career-high 35 points that served two purposes-continuing the Tide’s strong play while also dealing a serious blow to a fellow SEC contender.
Through it all, it was with great irony that one of the few steady rocks on a wild night in a wild season was the No. 1 ranked team in the country. Villanova was as impressive as anyone, going on the road-albeit still within the same city-and physically handling Big 5 rival Temple 83-67 to win the Philadelphia city series title this year. The Wildcats looked like a No. 1 seed in March. Then again, so many others have this year, too. It’s just about time to settle this, moving up on us quickly now. Still not quickly enough, but we’ll continue to enjoy the journey.
- Among the other most notable results from a packed Wednesday was Xavier rolling past Providence 85-74, racing out to a big lead and holding off a Friars’ comeback. It was not Kris Dunn but Myles Davis who rolled a triple-double-11 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists. There are no sure bets this year, but the Musketeers may be one of the closest things-this is a team primed for a big run in March.
- Arizona blitzed rival Arizona State 99-61. The Wildcats are ascending to their usual perch, as the top team in the Pac-12.
- Seton Hall continues to mature. The Pirates won at Georgetown 72-64, methodically hanging on despite not making a single field goal in the final 14:07 of the game. A team can do that when it builds a 15-point lead and also makes 21 of 25 free throws over that same stretch.
- Contenders continue to bubble to the surface in the Missouri Valley. Illinois State won its fifth straight and eighth in nine games, hammering Indiana State 78-50. Meanwhile, Loyola (Ill.) completed a season sweep of Northern Iowa with a 59-56 win in Chicago, and don’t count out the Ramblers at Arch Madness either.
- The Hartford Courant reported yesterday that Central Connecticut State coach Howie Dickenman will retire at the end of this season. The Courant story notes in great detail the terrific career at CCSU for Dickenman, an alumnus who has spent 20 years there and took the school to its first three NCAA tourneys. The Blue Devils have fallen on hard times the last two years and are just 3-22 this year, but Dickenman will be missed if this is in fact the 69-year old coach’s last year.
Tonight’s Menu: A very busy night with all kinds of games with regular season conference championship implications.
- Despite middling credentials right now, Connecticut still has more than enough chances to play its way into the NCAA Tournament. That includes a pair of regular season matchups remaining with SMU, starting with a home meeting tonight (8 p.m. EST, ESPN2).
- Also in the AAC, Cincinnati can pad its credentials with a road win, while Tulsa almost needs to beat the Bearcats at home to have any at-large chances (9 p.m., CBSSN).
- Wisconsin already has a win at Maryland, but the Badgers need to keep winning. That won’t be easy with games such as a trip to Michigan State (9 p.m., ESPN), especially since MSU will be particularly motivated after losing the first meeting in Madison in the final seconds.
- A pair of 30+ year CAA rivals square off with UNC Wilmington at William & Mary, and it may be one of the last chances for the field to reel the Seahawks back in. UNCW holds a two-game lead over its nearest challenger Hofstra with four games to play.
- Entering the season, NJIT against North Florida was anticipated to be one of the biggest matchups in the regular season in the Atlantic Sun, and sure enough, the two are tied with Jacksonville for first at 7-4 with three conference games left. UNF won the first meeting up in New Jersey.
- Big South co-leader Winthrop hosts Coastal Carolina, which is just half a game behind the Eagles and UNC Asheville for the top spot. This also matches the finalists from the last two Big South tourney title games.
- The Northeast Conference has four teams tied for the top spot at 9-5. Two of them are Wagner and Fairleigh Dickinson, with FDU’s Knights hosting tonight.
- The top two teams in the Summit League meet with South Dakota State at IPFW. Both are 9-3 in league play.
- Heading west, a key Pac-12 battle with California at Washington (11 p.m., FS1). The Golden Bears need a road win; the Huskies just need a win after struggling on the road recently. Also, Utah is at UCLA, and if the Bruins are going to make a late push it needs to start immediately.
- Cal State-Bakersfield still has a chance to catch New Mexico State for the WAC title, but the Roadrunners need to win in Las Cruces tonight.
Enjoy your Thursday.