What We Learned: Two Days From Selection Sunday
1. Kemba Walker was stealing the show. He had the prime location of New York and the historic stage of Madison Square Garden; he had the programming power of ESPN and the cachet of an 11-bid conference. He had all of those things in his favor, and delivered his fourth, heroic performance in four nights at the Big East tournament, scoring 33 points to lead UConn to an overtime upset of Syracuse and a spot in Saturday's championship game. Afterwards, he posed for pictures with former President Bill Clinton, who'd been wowed in the stands, and it seemed for a moment that the college basketball universe, just as it had after the Maui Invitational in November, was revolving around Walker. He was making us forget about a certain other scorer we'd become obsessed with in the months in between:
Kemba Walker was the toast of everyone at Madison Square Garden -- even ex-President Bill Clinton. (AP)
BYU's Jimmer Fredette, the nation's leading per-game scorer, was being relegated to a Las Vegas sideshow. He was stuck with a 9 p.m. tipoff on a semi-obscure cable network (CBS College Sports); he was stuck playing a New Mexico team that had already beaten the Cougars twice. And he was without a true inside presence to do battle against the Lobos, because his suspended center, Brandon Davies, was stuck on the bench in a cardigan sweater. Merely advancing to the Mountain West tournament final was going to be an issue, much less recapturing the straying hearts of the college basketball nation.
But The Jimmer began hitting jump shots -- threes, leaners, leaning threes, sideways leaners around defenders -- and he had 10 points in three minutes, then 17 points in 12 minutes. Word spread through Twitter, through press rows and press rooms at other tournaments, that you must find this on TV, lest you miss a vintage performance. By halftime, without the help of a single free throw, Fredette had broken the MWC tourney single-game scoring record with 33 points. What Kemba needed 45 minutes to do, Jimmer had accomplished in 20.
In the next half, all he did was break Danny Ainge's all-time BYU scoring record; finish with a career-high 52 points (on just one free-throw!), equaling Providence's Marshon Brooks for the highest single-game point total this season; and carry the Cougars to an 87-76 victory and yet another meeting with San Diego State.
Less than two hours after the world was Kemba's, it was Jimmer's again.
He clearly has no desire to back into the Wooden and Naismith Awards, and -- what matters even more -- he may just salvage a No. 1 seed for BYU. The Cougars were almost removed from the No. 1 discussion after losing Davies on March 1 and being blown out by New Mexico on March 2. But if they beat San Diego State a third time to own both Mountain West titles and finish 31-3, is there any logical way the selection committee could deny BYU a No. 1?* Especially with Pitt going one-and-done in the Big East, and Notre Dame failing to reach the championship round? You can't punish BYU for losing Davies to an Honor Code violation, if all it did without him was win its conference tournament.
(* If the committee is reading: In the event that you insist on making BYU a No. 2, I'll promise to keep my complaints to a minimum if the No. 3 in that region is UConn. You know full well that a Jimmer-Kemba Sweet 16 game would drive TV ratings through the roof.)
2. Meanwhile, some degree of punishment is appropriate for Penn State and Wisconsin, which forced fans at the Big Ten tournament to endure a 36-33 quarterfinal (won by the Nittany Lions) that featured just 42 possessions, making it the slowest D-I game since 1998, according to @bigtengeeks. Talor Battle has become a scoring legend over his four years in the league, but on the night of Jimmer and Kemba, the fact that Battle led PSU with nine points -- nine! -- was somewhat embarrassing. The Nittany Lions would still need to knock off Michigan State in the semifinals to get into serious consideration for an NCAA tournament bid ... but the Spartans are finally playing like a scary team: Their leading scorer, Kalin Lucas, dropped a Kemba-like 30 on Purdue in an 18-point rout earlier on Friday.
3. The two biggest stories heading into the NCAA tournament could be a Duke right toe ... and a Duke left toe. Kyrie Irving, who has been rehabilitating his big right toe since he injured it against Butler in December, made a surprise appearance in warmups with the Blue Devils on Friday prior to their 87-71 win over Maryland. It sparked wild speculation that the kid who was college hoops' best freshman (averaging 17.4 points and 5.1 assists before his injury) might be suiting up during the ACC tournament.
Then Irving went back to the locker room ... and re-emerged for the game in street clothes. False alarm. After the game, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski dismissed any notion that Irving's comeback was imminent, saying, "He's not going to magically appear tomorrow or anything like that." Coach K had a different toe to worry about, anyway: That of senior Nolan Smith, the ACC Player of the Year, who appeared to jam his left foot against the shoe of Maryland's Cliff Tucker with 6:48 left in the second half, and then collapsed to the floor in pain. Smith is scheduled to have the second toe on his left foot X-rayed on Saturday, and it's unclear whether he'll play another minute in the ACC tournament. Fellow senior Kyle Singler said following the game that he expected Smith to be back, but ponder this (long-shot) scenario: What if the Blue Devils were to lose Smith for the rest of the season but regain Irving at full-strength? Where would you seed them, and would you put them in your Final Four?