As of Saturday night, it would appear the Mountain West Conference has two NCAA tournament-worthy teams. As long as they can find the remains of one of them.
Interesting touch on Saturday by New Mexico, which evidently added a Sarlacc monster to The Pit. Might have been fairer to warn San Diego State about that, as it was a legitimate explanation for the devouring that occurred in a 58-44 win for the Lobos that wasn’t nearly as merciful as even a 14-point margin suggests.
Also a legitimate explanation: New Mexico might be the best team in the league and Cameron Bairstow may be the best player in the league, or at least both are pretty even with San Diego State and Xavier Thames, respectively, on both counts. The Lobos were the preseason top 25 team, after all. The raw material for high-level success was abundant. This was an effort jet-propelled by a full-throated home crowd, and a moment New Mexico craved more.
Bairstow dropped in 26 points on 11-of-18 shooting and added 10 rebounds in an All-American team audition reel. The 6-foot-9 senior drained his last bucket and held the follow-through high while the crowd’s glee washed over him. As if that didn’t underscore the meaning of the night enough, guard Kendall Williams set the ball on the court as time ran down and leapt up to slap the backboard, then flexed and screamed for the crowd. The urgency was as one-sided as the result.
For now, New Mexico has a top-shelf win and presumably a viable case for NCAA tournament inclusion. Meanwhile, San Diego State has wounds to lick. Xavier Thames shot 3-of-16 from the floor for just seven points and the Aztecs’ offense was accordingly putrid. They mustered just five assists on 21 baskets against nine turnovers, a stilted, barely intelligible offering on that end. Gone for now will be thoughts of a No. 2 seed, though there is time for retribution and recovery in 15 days when New Mexico pays a visit for the rematch.
Then, the Aztecs can even the head-to-head ledger while also inching ahead of the Lobos in the standings. Then, Thames can reassert a claim to league Player of the Year honors that Bairstow put in a headlock on Saturday. But that is then. The here and now has New Mexico solidifying its postseason aspirations while strengthening a grip on its league.
No. 4 Arizona 88, Colorado 61. There was a solid case to be made before the weekend that UCLA was perhaps the best team in the Pac-12, or perhaps at least performing on the same plane as the presumptive best team in Tucson. The Bruins’ loss to Stanford and the Wildcats’ no-sweat win in Boulder comprised a quick knockdown of that theory. Arizona had itself a nice sweep of the road swing through Utah and Colorado before getting the northern California schools at home. Maybe the Wildcats are not what they were before Brandon Ashley’s season-ending knee injury… but they’ve lost two games by a combined six points. They’re still quite formidable, and now they have a chance to bolster their momentum heading into March.
No. 3 Wichita State 83, Drake 54. As expected, the last undefeated team in the nation remained so, with the Shockers moving to 29-0 by eviscerating the Bulldogs at home. That was a perfunctory rout, and now all eyes move to central Illinois and Wichita State’s trip to Bradley on Tuesday. Should the Shockers lose to a team that has just ended a three-game losing streak and sits at 7-9 in the Missouri Valley Conference? Of course not. But weird stuff can happen on the road. Wichita State’s depth and total unflappability generally precludes the weird stuff, but it’s one more test to watch closely.
No. 24 Ohio State 64, Minnesota 46. “In this league, you need to play like every game is the biggest of your life,” Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said afterward. “If you’re not ready to compete, fight or execute, you’re going to be embarrassed.” He just might have been alluding to a first half that saw Ohio State score 18 points. But he was likely happier with the 46 points and 56.7 percent shooting after halftime, ensuring a sixth win in seven games in February. That has revived a season left in the cold during a 2-5 January. Meanwhile, Minnesota coaches might want to focus less on smarmy barbs over what beat writers write and more about correcting another inelegant February face-plant. A sixth loss in eight games has the Gophers very much not on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Alabama 80, Missouri 73. Things to not do when lingering on the NCAA tournament fringes, when clamoring to be considered the third-best team in the SEC: Lose on the road to a 10-16 team. Yet here was Missouri, doing just that Saturday, shredded by Levi Randolph coming off the bench to score a career-high 33 points, fueled by five three-pointers on an 11-of-15 shooting night. The Tigers are at 7-7 in a league where .500 alone won’t cut it come Selection Sunday. Neither Kentucky nor Florida appear in the final four regular season games, though, so there’s always chum to feed on. No. 22 Memphis 82, Temple 79 (OT). Memphis needed overtime at home to beat Temple? Really? That's a thing that happened?