By Josh Stonberg
Weekly readers, it is officially February. In a mere four weeks it will be March, and basketball craziness will ensue. But before we look ahead, lets recap this crazy week and how it impacts the outlook of March Madness:
Wednesday, January 28
Duke 73, Notre Dame 77
This was a matchup of true Final Four contenders, and both teams proved it in a well-played game that stayed close until the final whistle. Both came into the game with only two losses and, with the top three teams in the nation having a combined one loss, the Blue Devils and Fighting Irish both needed a win to stay in the race for the final one seed. The contest came down to two of the country’s best: Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant. While it is hard to disparage Okafor’s 22 points and 17 rebounds, this was Grant’s night.He knocked down a crazy jumper, assisted a shot-clock beating three, and blocked a Duke layup attempt in the final minute and seven seconds. For the game he ended up with 23 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks, forcing his way into the player of the year discussion. Okafor, on the other hand, went an atrocious 1-5 from the free throw line late in the game. Ya think Okafor wants those attempts back?
Arizona, Kansas, Louisville, Wichita St. and Northern Iowa win
The only team ranked in the top 20 to lose on Wednesday night was Duke; the rest handled business
Thursday, January 29
Maryland 56, Ohio St. 80
A statement win for the Buckeyes. Ohio State has gone through their fair share of struggles this year, but recently they’ve been trending in the right direction. D’Angelo Russell, who had 18 points and 14 rebounds from the point guard spot, is quickly turning into one of the nation’s top players. In a weak big ten conference, Ohio State has eight matchups against unranked teams leading up to a showdown in Columbus against the fifth-ranked Badgers. Do not be surprised if the Buckeyes rack up the W’s and earn a high seed entering the NCAA tourney.* Maryland, on the other hand, is doing everything they can to prove their excellent start was a fluke. With only four losses however, they have not fully tarnished their resume and still have time to turn it around.
*editors note: Like we said, don’t be surprised if the Buckeyes drop their next game to an unranked opponent.
Friday, January 30
Oregon State 34, Arizona 57
The Wildcats avenge their last lost and beat a bad team by a lot of points.
Saturday, January 31
Virginia 63, Duke 69
The biggest game of the night ended with the most exciting finish. Down eight with 4:48 left in the game, with a sell-out Cavalier crowd heckling them, Duke looked headed for a second straight loss. Instead, they showed that they are a truly an elite team. Over the final five minutes, it seemed like they couldn’t miss from deep. Quinn Cook put the Blue Devils ahead by three with over a minute remaining, and with only ten seconds left, the cold-blooded Tyus Jones increased Duke’s lead to six; all but ending the game. After leading most of the game, Virginia has to be disappointed that they let this one slip away. Still, they only have one loss and remain frontrunners for a one seed come March. The Cavaliers cannot afford to mourn this loss too much as their next two games are against #13 North Carolina and #10 Louisville.
Notre Dame 72, Pittsburgh 76
Jerian Grant, where did you go?! For most of the game, it seemed as if Notre Dame’s best player was not even on the court. He finally did show up at the end, scoring nine straight points to put Notre Dame up 72-71 with only 31 seconds left to go. But on this day, Pitt would not be denied. On their home court, needing a marquee win to keep their tournament hopes alive, James Robinson put the Panthers ahead for good with twelve seconds left. Notre Dame is making it incredibly tough to figure out how good they are. At this point it’s anybody’s guess as to which Fighting Irish team will show up on a given night, much less a month from now.
UNC 68, Louisville 78 OT
Though Louisville ended up pulling out a double digit win, the game was a lot closer than the final scoreline. North Carolina led by 18 in the second half until the Cardinals stormed back to tie the game at 60 at the end of regulation. Montrezl Harrell looked absolutely dominant in the second half, playing with an energy and ferocity unmatched by any other player on the court. He finished with 22 points and 15 rebounds, and UNC coach Roy Williams described his performance as “possessed.” North Carolina showed two things on Saturday: they have the ability to beat the best teams in the nation, and they can play absolutely terribly for long stretches of games (usually a fatal flaw come tourney time).
Wichita St. 54, University of Northern Iowa 70
Seth Tuttle is a beast. His 29 points and 7 rebounds paced UNI in a rout of #12 Wichita St. The Shockers must step up their game in the next month and a half, or they are going to have another early exit from the tournament.
Texas 60, Baylor 83
The longhorns are a mess. Even in the tough big 12 conference, 14-7 is not going to cut it. They are on a three game losing streak and are in danger of playing themselves out of the tournament picture. They have a few easy games to get back on track, but their schedule does not soften up too much as they face a remarkable five ranked teams in a row from February 17- March 2. Baylor, on the other hand, is trending upwards, and looks like they are morphing into a real force to reckon with.
Monday, February 2
North Carolina 64, Virginia 75
Let’s not count Virginia out just yet. Yes, they dropped a game this week. But as the AP top 25 rankings reflect, it does not change their outlook too much. The last team to go undefeated through the whole season and march madness were the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. An 11 point win over a UNC squad hungry to bounce back from a deflating overtime loss to Louisville is a strong statement. On the other side, it’s gut check time for Roy Williams’ Tar Heels. After a very good start to ACC play, they have dropped back to back games, albeit to top ten teams, and they are starting to see themselves drop out of the three/four seed range.
Iowa State 76, Kansas 89
The Jayhawks are proving themselves time and time again in the challenging big twelve conference. Now on a five game winning streak, with three coming against ranked opponents, Kansas is making their case for a move up in the rankings. They are packing together a one seed caliber resume, with only three losses, one being against Kentucky and another at Iowa State. Ignore their ugly loss by 25 to Temple, because their seven wins against ranked opponents is a better representation of who they are as a team. Iowa State has ample opportunity to make up for this loss with five ranked opponents in their last nine games. These two teams could meet again in the big twelve tournament and, if the seedings work out, they would be my picks to face each other in the big twelve final.