They were supposed to be the appetizers for a five-star main course. A jam-packed final Saturday of the regular-season—with some conferences already set to hand out invitations to the big dance—chock full of games that kept you glued to the television set all day long. One thrilling finish, rolling into the next. All of it ending with the mother of all rivalry games: Duke at North Carolina.
O.K., so the main course ended up more like the "meh" course.
The second Duke-Carolina game fizzled out down the stretch with the third-ranked Blue Devils pulling away for an 84-77 win and a season-sweep of their Tobacco Road rivals. Probably, for the best. If you are a college basketball fan, you were probably already quite stuffed from the all-you-can-eat buffet of finishes and wild ending throughout the day.
In 12 hours, Saturday saw the full gamut of the madness of March:
• A bubble burst for a top-25 team.
• A ticket to the tournament yanked back in the final second.
• A pair of Sunflower State powers getting shocked.
• A stunner in the South that was sweet music for a team in need of a win.
Missed any of it? Want to relive it all over again? You're in the right place.
Remember the 1990s Grateful Dead? Everyone thought the band was past its prime, chugging along on old favorites while trying to force-feed you new classics that didn't exactly measure up. You'd still by a ticket for the Dead, but it wasn't exactly a pleasurable experience.
That's kind of an apt metaphor for LSU's season to date.
There was a point midway through the season when the Tigers were 13-3, cruising toward a NCAA tournament appearance and then ... boom. The wheels started coming off, they went 4-4 over the next eight games with losses to Mississippi State and Auburn. In short, they needed help. LSU needed a rejuvenation.
Kind of like when the Dead brought Bruce Hornsby on board.
(This is where we tie it all together. Promise.)
The Tigers were up big in Fayetteville, trying to knock off a top-25 team and all a little more certainty to their NCAA profile. But after blowing an 11-point lead in the second half, it was looking more and more like another fall-on-your-face moment. Until Keith Hornsby's 3-pointer at the buzzer changed all that. The shot shocked the Arkansas crowd and gave LSU a much-needed win.
Hornsby is the son of—you guessed it—Bruce Hornsby.
He transferred into LSU before last season from UNC-Asheville and sat out the year. He's been a solid role contributor (much like his dad's piano-playing in the 90s), averaging just over 13 points a game and being LSU's best long-range threat — he shoots almost 40 percent from 3.
And he couldn't have picked a bigger time to make an impact.
Last year was the Shockers' personal party in St. Louis. At Arch Madness, entering with a 31-0 regular during the regular-season, Wichita State received a coronation party. It won each of its three games in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament by double-digits and romped its way to a No. 1 seed.
That ... will not happen again.
Illinois State ensured that the Shockers would not see the conference's championship game for the third straight season. Overcoming an eight-point halftime lead, the Redbirds continued to chip away at Wichita State, riding a 14-0 run early in the second half to flip the game completely around. Daishon Knight played the hero in the upset, scoring 25 points for Illinois State, which beat the defending champs for the first time all season. (Head coach Dan Muller's team was 0-2 during the regular-season.)
The win by the Redbirds was easily the most attention-grabbing scoreline of the afternoon, strictly because of the impact Sunday's championship game could have on the NCAA field. The Missouri Valley is projected to only send two teams dancing — Wichita State and Northern Iowa — which means that on the first official day of Championship Week, we have our first potential bid-stealer.
Northern Iowa wins, status quo remains the same for the next 24 hours.
Illinois State wins and someone's hopes are toast before they've even started.
With 5.4 seconds left, it appeared as if Oklahoma had gift-wrapped momentum—and overtime—right to Kansas.
Up 73-70, the Sooners inexplicably fouled Jayhawks guard Frank Mason III attempting a 3-pointer. Following a wild previous 10 seconds where both teams went back-and-forth with each other at the free-throw line, Kansas had a chance to tie it up and send it to an extra session.
Mason sank all three free-throws. The Lloyd Noble Center went quiet, expecting another Kansas escape.
Woodard went coast-to-coast, splitting two Jayhawk—er, defenders?—and easily getting a clean look at a lay-up at the two-second mark. But Woodard's ball bounced off the back iron and right into the hands of a soaring Hield, who tapped it in as the horn sounded. It was a massive exclamation point for Oklahoma to put on the end of what has been a very strong regular season.
The Sooners enter the Big 12 tournament with 21 wins (including Ws over conference opponents, Baylor, Texas twice, West Virginia, Iowa State and now Kansas), to go with a non-conference slate that saw them go 9-3. Kansas meanwhile, will head to Kansas City as the favorite and the still-reigning conference regular-season champion. But Saturday marked a first for the Jayhawks in the Bill Self era.
It was the first time Kansas has lost five games in the Big 12.
Poor Murray State.
There's really no way or reason to sugarcoat this one, because it is going to haunt this program for a long time. The Racers finally reached the top 25 of both polls this week, after amassing a winning streak that was simply too big to ignore any longer. Outside of their bluegrass brethren, Kentucky, no one else had one more consecutive games in Division I men's hoops this season. A 25-game winning streak, dating back to Nov. 30.
And in all likelihood, Murray State's reward will be a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NIT next week.
The Ohio Valley Conference's automatic bid—and the first one of this year—was claimed by Belmont, which upended the Racers in the championship. Murry State head coach Steve Prohm already began the lobbying process to try and keep his team in the conversation for one of the final NCAA at-large bids next Sunday, but it's a futile effort at this point.
Despite a top-25 ranking and a 27-5 record, Murray State's profile is simply not going to be enough. The RPI is 66, the strength of schedule is 255 and the non-conference strength of schedule is 233. Even KenPom isn't helping, as the Racers check in ranked 77th.
Working against Murray State as well, will be that its loss came so early during Championship Week. There is still so much bubble shifting to happen over the next seven days. Murray State, like so many others, will become Northern Iowa fans, lest its hopes be completely snuffed out. By the time the decisions must be made by Saturday and Sunday, Murray State could slide from the last team in/first team out range, to the dreaded "Next Four Out" category.
It was a surprising result to say the least, but that's March in a nutshell.
Sometimes the best team doesn't win. Sometimes the best month is also the cruelest.
Yale hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1962. It's part to punching its ticket on Saturday was crystal-clear following a win over its closest pursuer, Harvard on Friday night: Win and you're in. And playing a Dartmouth team that entered the game with a 13-14 overall record, going dancing seemed like an easy task.
Not. So. Fast.
Dartmouth—a program that hasn't reach the NCAAs since 1959—pulled out perhaps the stunner of the day, stealing the game and a solo Ivy League championship for the Bulldogs in the final second. Yale coughed up a five-point lead in the final 35 seconds, as Miles Wright scored all five points (two on free throws, to go with a game-tying 3-pointer with 13 seconds left) to turn the game. [daily_cut.college basketball]
And even still, the Bulldogs had a chance. An ill-timed foul with 2.3 seconds left put Yale's Javier Duren on the line with two shots. After missing the first, he connected on the second, giving the Bulldogs a 58-57 lead.
With Harvard having won minutes earlier, 72-62 over Brown, Yale had to win in order to capture the title and the league's automatic berth.
Only problem was that 2.3 was on the clock and the Big Green had to go the length of the floor. Wright went for a 3/4-court pass to the foul line for 6-foot-9 Lithuanian forward, Gabas Maldunas, but the pass was broken up. However, the ball went off Yale and out-of-bounds, giving Dartmouth a second second-chance. The inbounds play went to Maldunas again and this time he converted a layup as time expired to steal the game away from Yale.
It now forces a co-Ivy League champion—Harvard now has shared or won the title outright the last five seasons—and brings about one of the best phrases of March: One-game Ivy League playoff. The game will take place on Saturday at The Palestra in Philadelphia, with the winner getting the bid to the NCAA tournament.
Yale had it within its grasp on Saturday. Can it finally clutch what it's been waiting over 50 years for next Saturday?