Welcome to Fieldhouse Confidential, a regular college basketball feature from Will Leitch, Mike Tanier and Matt Brown, published every Friday.
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I love the NBA, and I know that the game is played at such a higher level professionally than collegiately that the two games are barely the same sport. But the reason I like college basketball more, the reason the game hits that same little spot in the soul that baseball does, is nights like Thursday night.
My beloved Illini – my alma mater, and essentially the Yankees of my rural Illinois hometown – beat Indiana 74-72 on a last-second lay-in by Tyler Griffey, a senior who came into the game 0-for-his-last-22 on 3-pointers and who barely got off the bench during last year's late-season implosion. I haven't lived in Champaign for 16 years, but I never miss an Illini game, so Griffey, like all Illini players since I was eight, has essentially become part of my family. (I certainly see him more than any of my aunts.) I've seen his struggles, his triumphs, his whole college journey, really. So when something like that happens – when the whole world is watching your team, your guy, your family – it feels like seeing a friend get married, or graduate, or have some sort of major life milestone. It's silly: I don't know Tyler Griffey, and if I did, it'd be weird that I was trying to pal around with a college student. But I found myself ecstatic for him last night like we'd been friends for decades.
That's what's great about college basketball: Every player seems hyperlocal. They seem like real people in a way professional athletes don't … can't. It matters more.
And as we all know: In college basketball, every game counts. If my NBA team wins on a last-second basket, people are excited, but everyone just moves on to the next game, like the professionals they are. But when my college team wins that way, my phone blows up within seconds of the end, and we start comparing the win to great games of our youth and we spend all night watching highlights over and over and over and over. The NBA is bigger. The NBA plays better basketball. The NBA can take your breath away. But the NBA can't do this.
Enough emotional prattling on. It's time to get down to the nit and the grit of the bubble. Last night's win put Illinois back in the tourney, but the Illini are still 3-7 in the Big Ten. Considering their high-quality wins (home against Indiana and Ohio State, neutral court against Butler, on the road against Gonzaga), 8-10 should easily get them in the dance. But it's still a long way to go to get to 8-10.
So, let's go to it. Remember: The S-Curve lets you know the top team on each line, the one closest to the next seed. There are geographic and regional concerns with the seeding that must be accounted for, but we won't worry about those until we get closer to Selection Sunday. And, as always, remember, the main purpose of fake brackets is to remind us that, sometime very soon, we will get a real one.
(automatic qualifiers in CAPS)
No. 1: MICHIGAN, DUKE, Indiana, KANSAS
No. 2: FLORIDA, ARIZONA, GONZAGA, Miami (Fla.)
No. 3: SYRACUSE, Michigan State, NEW MEXICO, Louisville
No. 4: BUTLER, Ohio State, Kansas State, Marquette
No. 5: Minnesota, Cincinnati, Oregon, CREIGHTON
No. 6: San Diego State, N.C. State, Pittsburgh, Ucla
No. 7: Wisconsin, Georgetown, Wichita State, Oklahoma State
No. 8: Virginia Commonwealth, Nevada-Las Vegas, Notre Dame, Colorado State
No. 9: Mississippi, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina
No. 10: Colorado, MEMPHIS, Oklahoma, Iowa State
No. 11: Illinois, Indiana State, La Salle, St. Louis
No. 12: MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE, LOUISIANA TECH, Temple (play-in), Arizona State (play-in), St. Mary's (play-in), St. John's (play-in)
No. 13: BELMONT, AKRON, BUCKNELL, HARVARD
No. 14: STEPHEN F. AUSTIN, VALPARAISO, SOUTH DAKOTA STATE, DAVIDSON
No. 15: LONG BEACH STATE, MONTANA, NIAGARA, NORTHEASTERN
No. 16: SOUTHERN, STONY BROOK, BRYANT (play-in), NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL (play-in), FLORIDA GULF COAST (play-in), UNC ASHEVILLE (play-in)
Last Four In: Temple, Arizona State, St. Mary's, St. John's
Last Four Out: Virginia, Baylor, Maryland, Villanova,
Next Four Out: Southern Mississippi, Boise State, Florida State, Lehigh
We're going to say this every week, but: Boy howdy is the bubble full of wobbly teams. Illinois is 3-7 in the Big Ten and, frankly, sort of comfortably in right now. Freaking Lehigh is on the bubble.
Locks: Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan State
Not Entirely Dead: Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue
Locks: Louisville, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Marquette
Bubbling: Georgetown, Notre Dame, St. John's, Villanova,
Not Entirely Dead: None.
Locks: Duke, Miami (Fla)
Probables: North Carolina State
Bubbling: North Carolina, Maryland, Florida State, Virginia
Not Entirely Dead: None.
Locks: New Mexico
Probables: San Diego State, UNLV, Colorado State
Bubbling: Boise State
Not Dead Yet: Wyoming
Locks: Arizona, Oregon, UCLA
Bubbling: Arizona State, Colorado
Not Dead Yet: Washington, Stanford
Locks: Kansas, Kansas State
Probables: Oklahoma State
Bubbling: Baylor, Iowa State, Oklahoma
Not Dead yet: None
Bubbling: Kentucky, Missouri, Alabama
Not Dead Yet: Texas A&M, Arkansas
Bubbling: Virginia Commonwealth, Temple, St. Louis, La Salle
Not Dead Yet: Xavier, Charlotte, St. Joseph's, Massachusetts
Any questions or obvious omissions, leave 'em in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And enjoy the games this weekend.
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Typical Big 12
You know college basketball season is heating up when you are flipping channels on a Wednesday night and stumble into one of the most dramatic sporting events you have seen all year, the Super Bowl included. Oklahoma State's 69-67 overtime win over Baylor provided one of the season's most breathtaking finishes – Markel Brown going coast-to-coast for a layup in the final seconds for the Cowboys, after Michael Cobbins blocked what appeared to be a game-winning shot for the Bears – but also had enough scoring runs, dunks, blocks, and well-executed plays to satisfy everyone from casual fans to hoops traditionalists.
"I think everybody saw a great game for TV," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "It was a typical Big 12 game - two teams battling out there." It was certainly a Big-12 style of game, with a fast pace and tons of action in the paint. But it was anything but typical.
Oklahoma State did not sink a three-pointer until there was 7:40 left to play in regulation and finished 3-of-21 from beyond the arc, yet the Cowboys led by 14 points late in the second half. Pierre Jackson had 24 points, most of them during Baylor's late run to tie the game and in overtime, but also committed 11 turnovers. Baylor freshman center Isaiah Austin had seven points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks, several of the blocks looking like mosquito-on-the-windshield swats. Marcus Smart went just 4-of-21 from the field but provided seven assists, eight rebounds, and four steals for the Cowboys. Smart's final shot from the paint in overtime missed its mark, setting the stage for Cobbins to block A.J. Walton under the Baylor basket.
The dramatics are becoming commonplace for Oklahoma State (16-5, 6-3). Smart's runner in the lane with 3.1 seconds left lifted the Cowboys past Iowa State last week. The Cowboys built a 14-point lead on the road against Kansas on Saturday, only to see that lead cut to one point in the final seconds. Four ice-water free throws and a layup by Paul Forte gave Oklahoma State a win over the then-second-ranked Jayhawks, 85-80. The Cowboys are back in the Top 25 and on pace to be one of the top four seeds in a regional bracket come March.
As for Baylor (14-8, 5-4), the Bears are on a three-game losing streak and are now sixth in the Big 12. Upcoming games against weak Texas Tech and West Virginia teams should stop the bleeding, but the Bears are now in bubble territory, and they are too talented for that. Jackson leads the Big 12 in scoring and is an all-purpose offensive threat. Austin and Cory Jefferson give the Bears an athletic frontcourt tandem that is active at both ends of the court. Just as the Cowboys are finding ways to close out tight wins, the Bears are finding ways to come up just short. They cut a 16-point deficit to one point last week against Oklahoma, but Jackson and Brady Heslip missed game-winning opportunities on their final possession.
Blocked layups, missed jumpers, cross-court drives and clutch free throws: such is the difference between life in the Top 25 and life on the bubble. Of course, a lot can still happen in a conference where Kansas just lost to not-so-mighty TCU, Kansas State is on a hot streak thanks to one of the nation's best defenses and Iowa State has proven it can score with anyone. With nine games left on most team's schedules, nothing is guaranteed, not even a top seeding for the Jayhawks in the conference tournament.
That's nothing unusual. It's typical Big 12.
Someone Should Inspect the Fuse Box First
The Sun Belt Conference will move its postseason tournament from Hot Springs, Ark., to New Orleans after this season. For some reason, the conference decision makers felt the need to oversell us on the move.
"New Orleans is a great destination for our basketball championships and the recent renovations to Lakefront Arena make it an excellent venue to showcase our league," according to the official statement by Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson. "The city's great restaurants, shopping, entertainment and accommodations, provide Sun Belt fans numerous things to do when away from the arena."
"New Orleans is a great destination for Sun Belt fans, as those who have attended the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl can attest," added Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr., Chancellor of Troy University and President of the Sun Belt Conference Executive Committee. "It provides an excellent geographical fit for our league and is easily reachable for our fans."
Yes, when we think of New Orleans, we think of the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, and absolutely nothing else. And when we think of the Sun Belt Conference, we think of university chancellors whose names sound like they are legendary blues men. (On the boogie-woogie piano, the Doctor of Delta Blues himself, Jack Hawkins Junior. And on the harp, deputy dean of admissions emeritus at Louisiana-Monroe Charlie "Brilloface" DuPree.) If only Benson had mentioned that New Orleans had great restaurants and shopping in a mid-major conference press release before the Super Bowl, many of us would not have spent the week watching "Property Virgins" on HGTV and cooking ramen noodles in the hotel bathroom sink.
Yes, this is a lot of mileage out of press release boilerplate, but why even have such press release boilerplate? New Orleans is good enough for the Super Bowl and the Final Four, so it is more than ample to meet the needs of the Sun Belt Conference. If the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference moved its tournament from Springfield, Mass., to New York City, would it feel the need for lengthy explanations? With its ample shopping, fine dining and cultural attractions, we think MAAC fans will find some way to amuse themselves in this mysterious new land we discovered called "Manhattan."
This year's Sun Belt tournament is a potential source of bracket intrigue. Middle Tennessee State, led by guard Marcos Knight and a very deep roster, is 21-4 and 13-1 in the conference, its only loss coming to Arkansas State on Jan. 3. The Blue Raiders are running away with the Sun Belt and will likely be the lone conference representative in the NCAA tournament if they win the Sun Belt tournament. If they lose in the tournament, however, they will bring a solid at-large resume to the selection table. It makes the goings on in Hot Springs worth keeping an eye on in mid-March.
And really, what else is there to do in Hot Springs, Arkansas? Except visit one of over a dozen spas that have used the region's natural spring water as a basis for a thriving relaxation-and-pampering industry for decades. And enjoy some excellent hiking, fishing and boating on Lake Hamilton. Oh, and there is a racetrack and an amusement park. Also, a Baseball History Tour, as Hot Springs was a popular spring training location for many years, and an alligator petting zoo for adventurous tykes.
Wait, why are they moving to New Orleans again?
What to Watch
No. 1 Indiana at No. 10 Ohio State (1 p.m. Sunday, CBS)
There is no better individual rivalry in America right now than Aaron Craft's defense against Trey Burke's offense. The two put on a one-on-one show in Michigan's win over the Buckeyes on Tuesday in Ann Arbor, Craft playing his usual relentless defense that will overwhelm most young guards – or, well, anyone. The Craft-Burke matchup is the best of the best given Burke's status as the best all-around point guard – maybe the best all-around player – in the country, but it doesn't make Sunday's matchup in Columbus any less intriguing. Fresh off the shocking buzzer-beater loss at Illinois that made Mr. Leitch so happy Thursday night, the Hoosiers must continue their search for a significant road win. Star guard Victor Oladipo will take his turn against Craft in this one, and while Indiana has perhaps the strongest roster in the country led by Oladipo and center Cody Zeller, the best team the Hoosiers have beat on the road is Iowa. Four of their final eight are road trips to Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota and Michigan, all top-10 teams. Indiana might be as good a bet to make it to the Final Four as anyone, but this team likely isn't done losing. Welcome to the Big Ten in 2013.
Pick: Indiana 67, Ohio State 66
No. 3 Michigan at Wisconsin (Noon Saturday, ESPN)
OK, so the Craft-Burke showdown was fantastic to watch. But can someone please put an end to the end-of-game, wait-until-the-clock runs-down iso plays? John Beilein, I understand. Trey Burke is the best at what he does. You want the ball in his hands. You want to leave as little time on the clock as possible. But then there's Tuesday night, tie game, 21.3 seconds to go:
Three of Michigan's five players spend nearly the entire 21.3 seconds lining the base line, doing absolutely nothing. Burke finally moves from midcourt with nine seconds left, wisely getting a screen on Craft, but uselessly getting the screen way out on the edge of the midcourt logo. He doesn't make a move inside the three-point line until less than four seconds left, even though he's better at driving than anyone in America. He steps back and fires a three-pointer that's off the mark, and 21.3 seconds and a Beilein timeout were totally wasted. This kind of thing happens almost every day, it seems. If someone could ban end-of-game timeouts, I would not be opposed.
Pick: Michigan 70, Wisconsin 65
No. 11 Louisville at No. 25 Notre Dame (9 p.m. Saturday, ESPN)
Notre Dame has now scored a whopping 47 points in each of its last two losses, to Georgetown on Jan. 21 and to Syracuse on Monday. Given that they needed overtime to beat DePaul, it's not been the greatest of weeks for the Fighting Irish, who also announced that they'll stick around the Big East for another year – meaning we'll get another year of Louisville-Notre Dame Big East games before they become ACC games. Despite the 47-point debacles, Notre Dame boasts the 10th most efficient offense in the country, according to kenpom.com, but Saturday night represents the toughest test yet against Louisville's phenomenal defense. The Cardinals are back on track, edging Pitt and running away with wins over Marquette and Rutgers to give them a three-game winning streak after a surprising three-game losing streak, one that may have made people forget this is still a supremely talented team capable of making a Final Four run. Louisville is bound to get hot down the stretch, and it all starts with a win in prime time in South Bend.
Pick: Louisville 65, Notre Dame 59
North Carolina at No. 8 Miami (2 p.m. Saturday, ESPN)
The fact that Miami is the clear favorite over North Carolina in a basketball game does not lessen the feeling that any time Miami beats North Carolina should be cause for a massive celebration. The following things are of course true: 1) Miami, despite losing to Florida Gulf Coast and Indiana State, is undefeated in conference play, 9-0, and blew the doors off of Duke on national television; 2) North Carolina is not what you would commonly think of as North Carolina, with its six losses and all, including a home loss to, yes, Miami. The Tar Heels remain on the tournament bubble, and it goes without saying that a road game against a top-10 Hurricanes team is rather important in terms of developing a NCAA resume that relies on more than just "We're North Carolina and we swear we're still good." The Tar Heels' best win came against UNLV, a team that is shaping up to be a disappointment in the Mountain West. The simple truth is that UNC's inexperience doesn't match up with Miami's veteran talent, and the Hurricanes are actually the ones with a No. 1 seed in their sight.
Pick: Miami 76, North Carolina 66
No. 15 New Mexico at UNLV (9 p.m. Saturday, NBCSN)
It's been well established that many consider the Mountain West one of the best leagues, top to bottom, in the country. So maybe we can excuse UNLV for conference losses, on the road, to Colorado State and Boise State. We cannot excuse Wednesday's loss to Fresno State, arguably the worst team in the league, by nine points. It was their first bad loss, but that makes six total for the season, and the only notable wins have come against Iowa State and San Diego State. In the process, preseason All-American Mike Moser has morphed into a role player coming off his elbow injury. He didn't start or score in the Fresno State game, leaving star freshman Anthony Bennett as the clear centerpiece of the team. The Rebels are a tournament team, but it's about time they start playing like one again.
Pick: UNLV 67, New Mexico 63