Sports on Earth writers will be publishing daily updates on college basketball's Championship Week in "Tournament Today" as we get ready for Selection Sunday on March 17.
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For all we know, the ball is still sitting on the rim in Ann Arbor, waiting for Carl Spackler to knock it in. In a conference season filled with drama week after week, this was how it had to end for the Big Ten.
Joining a long line of "Game of the Year" candidates in the best conference in America, Michigan and Indiana played down to the wire on Sunday, the home Wolverines blowing a four-point lead in the final minute to lose 72-71 to the Hoosiers, who, barring some sort of Big Ten tournament disaster, are headed for a No. 1 seed in the Indianapolis region.
Everyone tuned in expecting to see a duel between national Player of the Year frontrunners Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo -- and despite slow starts, they delivered in their own ways. But they were still overshadowed by preseason favorite Cody Zeller, who scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds while spending the entire game infuriating the crowd at Crisler Arena by drawing questionable (depending on your perspective) foul calls. It's easy to be awed by Oladipo at times, but it would be foolish to forget just how good Zeller is as a talented post player who does an incredible job running the floor.
While Oladipo scored 14 and didn't hit a three, he was, as always, incredibly active on the defensive end and had 13 rebounds (seven offensive). Burke, meanwhile, hit five threes and finished with 20 points, but he couldn't save Michigan from the most heartbreaking of finishes, as his final shot just missed and Jordan Morgan's putback sat on the rim for an eternity before falling off.
Michigan will undoubtedly point to the officials' weird refusal to call an intentional foul (even with the aid of replay) on Christian Watford's mugging of Glenn Robinson III on a breakaway with 52 seconds left. But what's done is done, and the Wolverines still had chances to win the game. Indiana wins the Big Ten regular season outright, while the Wolverines missed a chance at a Big Ten tournament bye and instead face an early afternoon Thursday tipoff against 2013 nemesis Penn State, who pushed Michigan in Ann Arbor before pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the season in Happy Valley.
If it feels like hyperbole to be constantly gushing about how entertaining the Big Ten is, it's not. Even Wisconsin and its slow-it-down conservative style has found ways to be thrilling, and the Badgers did so again on Sunday by leaving Penn State fans speechless thanks to Traevon Jackson's buzzer-beating three.
Week after week, the conference has exceeded expectations, and the performance of Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin might be the most intriguing storyline of the NCAA tournament, given that the conference is as competitive as ever, but is still searching for its first national title since the Spartans won in 2000. Indiana is the best bet, but all five of those teams are capable of pushing for a Final Four berth -- or, as we've seen, losing on the first day.
For Big Ten observers who spend an unhealthy amount of time watching bad noon football games in the fall, basketball season has been a revelation. Fortunately, there's still more to come this week in Chicago, and probably as late as April in Atlanta.
Five teams punched their tickets to the dance over the weekend. Here they are, ranked In order of strength:
Creighton. The Bluejays' season didn't quite go as expected, as a shaky February landed them in bubble territory, but they got the job done anyway, holding off a furious Wichita State rally in the final four minutes on Sunday in the Missouri Valley final. They held on despite a mediocre outing from All-American center Doug McDermott, who shot 5-of-13 from the field to score 14 points after dropping 41 on the Shockers eight days earlier. Creighton won't draw as good of a seed as it would have hoped in December, but the Bluejays are a dangerous team centered around McDermott (23 points per game) and some of the best three-point shooting in America. With wins over Wisconsin, California, Arizona State and Akron, we know they're capable of beating good teams and making a run, but they could get stuck in the same situation as last year, when they won an 8/9 game and then were handled by top-seeded North Carolina.
And we can't talk about the MVC title game without noting the fan who made a half-court shot but missed out on $50,000 because he forgot the rules. In high school, I participated in one of these contests at a Lehigh game, but my missed half-court shot would have only won a catered party. At least I remembered the rules and made the three-pointer for a free pizza.
Belmont. One of these years, Belmont will actually pull off an NCAA tournament upset. For the sixth time in eight seasons, the Bruins are dancing, and this year they pulled it off in dramatic fashion. After joining the Ohio Valley from the Atlantic Sun, Belmont and Murray State battled into overtime, where Racers star Isaiah Canaan lost the ball off his foot in the closing seconds, giving the possession to Belmont, who got the game-winning shot from Kerron Johnson with 1.2 seconds left. Johnson saved the Bruins from a week of anxiety, as they would have had a shaky at-large case dependent on the results of upcoming conference tournaments. Instead, they're automatically in, and they'll take another shot at their first NCAA tournament win.
Four of Belmont's five losses in the tournament were by double digits; the other was a heartbreaking 71-70 loss to Duke in 2008 in which the 15th-seeded Bruins held the lead late, lost it, and then threw the ball away with four seconds left and missed a half-court attempt. They'll likely be a 12 or 13 seed, meaning millions of people will pick them for upsets, and those millions of people will continue to not forgive them for losing again to Duke.
Harvard. The Ivy League continues to cling to the old-fashioned way of doing things, rewarding the regular-season champion with an NCAA tournament bid by forgoing a tournament. The lack of a tournament means seven fewer games, which means seven fewer opportunities for TV broadcasters to recycle the same jokes about how the players are probably discussing quantum physics during timeouts. After not making the tournament since 1946, the Crimson have made it in consecutive seasons under Tommy Amaker. Last year's squad made it into the Top 25 and lost to Vanderbilt in the opener as a 12 seed. This year, they locked up the Ivy title on Saturday with a 65-56 win over Cornell. While the team isn't as highly regarded as last season, they're good at shooting threes, something that can put a scare into favored opponents on the tournament's first weekend.
Florida Gulf Coast. Improbably, the team that beat a short-handed Miami team early in the season is dancing for the first time in just its second year of Division I postseason eligibility. Last year, the Eagles went 15-17 and lost to Belmont in the Atlantic Sun final. This year, they jumped to 24-10 and beat Mercer 88-75 on Saturday. They'll likely be a 15 or 16 seed, but, hey, we've already seen them beat a top seed by 12, even if Miami in November without Durand Scott and Garrius Adams wasn't quite the Miami we know now.
Liberty. Hello, Dayton, meet the Liberty Flames. Playing in the Big South -- frequently represented by noted first-round loser Winthrop -- Liberty compiled a 6-10 conference record, 14-20 overall, making the Flames only the second team ever to make the NCAA tournament with 20 losses. Score one for the "regular season is meaningless" crowd. The Flames finished fifth in their division, and that's after they also opened the season 0-10 against Division I opponents. For what it's worth, the Flames did at least lose to Georgetown by only nine, although the Hoyas played without Otto Porter, so never mind.
Saturday's headliners fall flat. Three games jumped off the page on Saturday's schedule, making for a much-anticipated triple-header of sorts. Surprisingly, given how this season has gone, none of them came close to meeting expectations. In their final regular-season meeting as Big East rivals, Georgetown clocked Syracuse 61-39, leading Jim Boeheim to say he's "pretty much ready to go play golf somewhere." He'll have to wait at least a few more weeks, unless a sympathetic selection committee sends Syracuse to Austin instead of Detroit. Syracuse has now lost four of five and got embarrassed by the Hoyas despite only 10 points from Otto Porter, who still chipped in eight rebounds and seven assists with no turnovers. The Big East tournament has turned into a battle for a No. 1 seed between Georgetown and Louisville (who shared the league title with Marquette after the Golden Eagles' dramatic win at St. John's), especially after Louisville torched Notre Dame 73-57 behind 20 points and 11 rebounds from Gorgui Dieng. The Cardinals' only loss since Jan. 26 was in five overtimes.
As for the nightcap, a North Carolina team at home on a six-game winning streak was no match for a Duke team with Ryan Kelly. Duke jumped out to a 14-0 lead before the under-16 timeout, and while Kelly scored only eight, we're seeing the Blue Devils of old: Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee combined to score 43 points with their old friend back on the court. Once again: Duke has not lost with Kelly in the lineup, and it's no coincidence that Plumlee again looks like the Player of the Year frontrunner we saw the first couple months of the season.
At least Kentucky fans won't have to travel far. After Saturday's crucial 61-57 home win over enigmatic Florida, Kentucky can breathe a bit more easily. Make no mistake, the Wildcats remain firmly on the bubble and can't afford to lay an egg in an SEC tournament filled with bad teams. But, if nothing else, a trip up the road to Dayton for the bubble round early next week is looking more and more likely. Even without Nerlens Noel, we know Kentucky has the pieces, but that collection of talent also lost to Georgia on Thursday. Florida, meanwhile, can kiss its No. 1 seed hopes goodbye as it lost its fourth road SEC game of the season despite beating most other opponents by 30. The Gators are infuriating to watch when they actually play close games, and that continued to be true in Saturday's debacle in which they didn't score in the last seven and a half minutes.
Baylor isn't quite done yet. The Bears finished 18-13, with only four wins since Jan. 26, plus nonconference losses to Northwestern and College of Charleston, but on Saturday they notched a resume-saving win. Not only did they beat Kansas, but they blew the Jayhawks out 81-58 behind 28 points from Pierre Jackson and 25 points from Cory Jefferson. Kansas, of course, still clinched a remarkable ninth Big 12 title in a row thank to Kansas State's loss to Oklahoma State, but it's safe to say the Jayhawks hoped to do so in more impressive fashion. Kansas will enter the Big 12 tournament as the top seed, while Baylor is now featured in one of the most intriguing early-round games of Championship Week, as it opens with Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State in another chance for a resume-booster. An NCAA bid remains a long shot, but Baylor still has a pulse.
When conference tournaments make no sense. Next Sunday night will be an uneasy time for Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders dominated the Sun Belt during the regular season, going 19-1 in league play -- five games better than the next best team, South Alabama. They finished 28-5 overall in the regular season, notching wins over Vanderbilt and Ole Miss with no bad losses (at Florida, at Akron in OT, at Belmont and at Arkansas State in OT). They were obviously the best team in the conference. … Then they lost to Richard Pinto and Florida International in the Sun Belt tournament semifinals on Sunday. From the happy world of the automatic bid to the terrifying world of mid-major bubble, Middle Tennessee would be in the tournament if the Sun Belt followed the Ivy League model, but nobody does, eschewing the more logical choice of sending the regular-season champion in favor of the more entertaining choice of playing a tournament. Those are the breaks, and now Middle Tennessee joins a long list of bubble hopefuls.
On Tap for Monday
With five bids down, another five bids will be decided Monday. No. 1 Gonzaga takes center stage in the West Coast Conference final (9 p.m., ESPN3), blowing out Loyola Marymount to set up another showdown with Saint Mary's in Las Vegas. Led by Player of the Year candidate Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga is undefeated in WCC play, while Saint Mary's only two league losses came against the Bulldogs. While it's no guarantee, Saint Mary's should be in the tournament regardless, while Gonzaga is playing for a possible No. 1 seed. Elsewhere, Manhattan and Iona will decide the MAAC title (9 p.m., ESPN2); James Madison and Northeastern will play for the CAA title (7 p.m., NBCSN); Florida International and Western Kentucky will meet for the Sun Belt (7 p.m., ESPN); and Davidson will play Charleston for the Southern title (7 p.m., ESPN2). The MAC and MEAC tournaments get started, and the Summit League will play its semifinals.