Thursday March 5th, 2015

Miami 67, Pittsburgh 63

Take a look at Miami and Pittsburgh’s respective schedules and you’ll see near mirror images in ACC play. Miami got off to a hot start, winning four of its first six games, including a dominant victory over Duke in Durham. The Hurricanes went on to lose four of their next five and went more than a month without beating a potential tournament team.

It was the inverse for Pittsburgh. The Panthers were 3-5 one month into conference play, racking up ugly losses to Virginia Tech and Clemson. They would then beat Notre Dame, Syracuse and North Carolina over the following 15 days, and add another win over the Orange one week later.

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As such, the Hurricanes and Panthers headed into their Wednesday night showdown in Pittsburgh both firmly on the bubble in a de facto play-in game of sorts. If one of these teams ends up making the dance and the other ends up falling short, this game could very well be the deciding factor. In that case, advantage Miami.

Behind 20 points from Sheldon McClellan and 19 from Davon Reed, the Hurricanes turned around a slim halftime deficit to pick up a 67-63 win at Pittsburgh. The Panthers actually held McClellan in check for most of the night, but Miami’s leading scorer took over in the final quarter of the game. With 12 minutes left, he had just six points and the Hurricanes trailed by two. He poured in 14 the rest of the way, including a personal six-point run that gave Miami a lead it would never relinquish.

The Panthers started the night as one of the first four teams out of the SI.com field, while the Hurricanes were one of the next four out. By virtue of this win, they have traded spots on the bubble. Still, both teams have a little work to do to impress the selection committee. Miami is now on a trajectory to meet Notre Dame in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, while Pittsburgh would have to get through Syracuse to play Virginia. They both may need to beat those highly seeded teams to get an at-large berth in the dance. If it comes down to the two of them, however, Miami now has the upper hand.

Michigan State 72, Purdue 66

Let’s have some fun with blind resumes. Entering play tonight, guess which team is which.

Team A: RPI 30, KenPom 20, 2-6 vs. top 50, 7-8 vs. top 100, best win over Ohio State, two sub-100 losses

Team B: RPI 59, KenPom 50, 4-4 vs. top 50, 8-8 vs. top 100, best win over Ohio State, two-sub 100 losses

The ratings likely give away that Team A is Michigan State, but if you look at what these two teams have accomplished on the court, there’s an argument that Purdue has actually been better to this point of the season. That’s why this was an important game for both teams in East Lansing. Travis Trice starred on senior night, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting, leading the Spartans to a 72-66 win that, for all intents and purposes, secured their spot in the field of 68.

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Branden Dawson ended up missing the last 30 minutes of the game after taking an inadvertent forearm to the side of the head. On top of that, both Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling were in foul trouble for most of the second half, leaving Michigan State in a precarious spot up front against A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas. When Denzel Valentine limped off the court after getting his leg rolled up, it looked like the Boilermakers had a great chance to steal a road win.

A Kendall Stephens three cut Michigan State’s lead to five points with just more than six minutes left. Trice then stepped up, hitting threes on consecutive possessions to put the Spartans ahead 53-44. Purdue would never be within one score the rest of the way.

If any team laments Indiana’s recent slide, other than Indiana, of course, it’s likely its in-state rival. One of the first signature wins for the Boilermakers as they improbably built their case for an at-large bid was a 16-point decimation of the Hoosiers on Jan. 28. When they needed a road win to impress the committee, they got it in Bloomington with a four-point win on Feb. 19. With Indiana faltering, however, Purdue lost a pair of top-50 victories. Still, its four wins have it in range for a bid. Saturday’s regular-season finale against Illinois is as close to a regular-season play-in game as two teams can get.

Tennessee 78, LSU 63

LSU entered the night a rung or two ahead of the final few teams in the tournament, but still not quite in a safe spot. Those bubble teams in its rear-view mirror got a whole lot closer after its 78-63 loss to Tennessee.

The teams traded blows for most of the first half, and a Keith Hornsby three shortly after halftime gave LSU a brief lead. Over the next 10 minutes, Tennessee went on a 27-8 run, taking control of the game and running away from the Tigers.

On its face, this was a good matchup for LSU. It headed into the game 12th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, while Tennessee was just 108th in adjusted offensive efficiency. There was, however, one spot where the Volunteer offense had an edge over the Tiger defense. LSU has been susceptible to offensive rebounds all season, ranking 252nd in defensive rebounding rate. Tennessee, meanwhile, grabs boards on 36.7 percent of its misses, ranking 25th in the country. The Vols brought that advantage to bear in Baton Rouge.

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Tennessee grabbed 13 offensive rebounds leading to 13 second-chance points. Unsurprisingly, the Volunteers also owned the paint, scoring 36 points inside. Josh Richardson led the way with 20 points, while Armani Moore had 19.

The loss isn’t close to fatal for LSU. The team still has four top-50 wins, including road victories over West Virginia and Mississippi. However, the Tigers are now 10-7 in the SEC and wrap up conference play with a game at Arkansas. They’re likely to be the 6-seed in the conference tournament, which would keep them from a double bye. On top of that, it would set them up for a potential matchup with plucky South Carolina in their first game in the conference tournament. The Gamecocks own wins against Iowa State and Oklahoma State this year, as well as a sweep of Georgia. If the Tigers bow out of the SEC tournament in their first game, they’re going to make a nervous bunch on Selection Sunday.

One under-the-radar result of this game is the toll it took on Texas A&M’s stock. The Aggies’ two best wins are over LSU this season. Those don’t look nearly as good after the Tigers' lackluster effort on Wednesday.

Cincinnati 56, Tulsa 47

Is it possible to go from first place in a multi-bid conference in the final week of the regular season to the NIT in a two-week stretch? Tulsa may be about to find out.

The Golden Hurricane began this week at 14-2 in the American Athletic Conference, a half-game ahead of SMU for first place. They may have just two top-50 wins, but they were also just one win away from clinching at least a share of the AAC regular season championship. It’s awfully difficult for a team to be crowned its conference’s regular-season champ and then watch multiple other teams go to the tournament while it doesn’t get to put on its dancing shoes. In other words, one win this week could all but secure a bid for Frank Haith’s bunch.

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They’ll have to get that win at SMU’s house over the weekend after having another woeful offensive night in a 56-47 loss to Cincinnati. The Golden Hurricane went just 18-for-53 from the floor, including an ugly 11-for-38 inside the arc. Leading scorer James Woodard connected on just four of his 14 field goal attempts, while Shaq Harrison shot 3-for-14.

That offense has held Tulsa back all season. It came into the night ranked 150th in adjusted offensive efficiency, with poor shooting from distance (253rd in three-point percentage) and at the line (306th). The knock on its at-large bona fides has been an alarming tendency to come up short against quality teams. After the loss to Cincinnati on Wednesday, Tulsa is now 2-5 against potential tournament teams. Both of those wins were over Temple, a team that is firmly on the bubble and could end up on the wrong side just as easily as it could hear its name called on Selection Sunday.

There’s still hope for the Golden Hurricane, but they’re going to have to upset SMU in Dallas on Sunday. If they lose that game, the Mustangs will win the conference outright, dropping Tulsa to second place. At that point, it would have to, at the very least, make it to the conference tournament championship game to have any hope for an at-large bid.

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