- Michigan State gets the last word in the Big Ten, Duke gets a silver lining after another loss to UNC, and everything else worth taking into championship week.
The final Saturday of the college basketball regular season brought the first punched ticket to the 2019 NCAA tournament and sweet redemption for a handful of bubble teams that were teetering on the brink at the beginning of March. With the high-profile conference tournaments ahead and Selection Sunday one wild week away, here's what we learned from the biggest games of the season's final weekend.
Injuries and adversity aside, Michigan State is in March mode
The sight of Michigan State perched atop the Big Ten with a share of the regular-season league title and the top seed next week in Chicago might draw a yawn from those just now tuning in for the March Madness buildup, but consider the Spartans' journey relative to the league's other national title contenders.
Michigan was the team of the moment in nonconference play, winning its first 17 games of the season on the strength of a relentless defense. Then it was Purdue's turn to hit its stride, led by the Big Ten's leading scorer Carsen Edwards. While that was going on, Michigan State lost its two highest-profile nonconference games (to Kansas and Louisville), then started losing key cogs to injuries left and right: an ankle injury ended Joshua Langford's season after 13 games, swingman Kyle Ahrens missed four conference games with back issues and forward Nick Ward hasn't played since suffering a hairline fracture in his hand in mid-February.
No matter. A bizarre sweep at the hands of Indiana aside, the Spartans look like the class of what is arguably the nation's deepest league after completing a season sweep of Michigan with a 75–63 win at the Breslin Center. Junior point guard Cassius Winston capped off his conference player of the year case with 23 points to lead all scorers, and the Spartans clamped down on Michigan's offense after freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis came out of the gates on fire in the first half. (Brazdeikis finished with 20 points but fouled out with more than six minutes to play.) Michigan State is used to ending up atop the Big Ten, but everything it went through on its journey to tournament time can only sweeten what happens from here.
Ja Morant saved a rough weekend for mid-major darlings
Some of this year's most entertaining mid-major stories came to abrupt ends well short of Selection Sunday. Campbell star Chris Clemons, the nation's leading scorer aiming to be the first player in a generation to average 30 points a game, saw his tournament hopes end when Campbell lost to Gardner-Webb at home in the Big South semifinals. Loyola-Chicago lost to Bradley in the Missouri Valley quarterfinals to keep the Ramblers from chasing another Final Four trip. South Dakota State was stunned in the first round of Summit League tournament play by a Western Illinois team that had won nine games all year, cutting short the career of forward Mike Daum, who, like Clemons, reached the 3,000-point mark for his career this season, a milestone only eight men had reached before this year.
Fortunately for Cinderella-seekers and NBA draftniks alike, Murray State and its high-flying guard Ja Morant will be dancing. The Racers outlasted top-seeded Belmont in the Ohio Valley championship game to earn this year's first automatic bid and head into the tournament with a 27–4 record and a great opportunity to improve on last March's one-and-done showing. Morant dropped 36 points in the 77–65 win, along with seven rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal. Pity the higher seed that draws Murray State and has to find a way to slow down its do-everything star.
Who's the better Big 12 co-champ?
With Kansas out of the picture, Texas Tech and Kansas State entered Saturday needing a win to clinch at least a share of the Big 12 title, and both teams took care of business: The Red Raiders got a season-high 31 points from Jarrett Culver in an 80–73 road win over Iowa State, and then the Wildcats blew past Oklahoma at home for a 68–53 win that wasn't even that close.
Of the two, Texas Tech seems more likely to return to the Elite Eight. Culver is one of the nation's 10 best players, and the relentless defense preached by Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard has been known to travel well. But Kansas State has a knack for doing everything right when faced with teams of equal or lesser athletic talent and suffocating slow tempo that should limit surprises for Bruce Weber.
Another Duke loss to UNC, another Javin DeLaurier appreciation
Just as they did in the season's first North Carolina–Duke game, the Blue Devils saw a starter go down with an injury before the first media timeout. No one will mistake Marques Bolden for Zion Williamson in terms of impact, but the junior center's exit with a sprained MCL after he hit the stanchion under the basket posed another challenge to Duke's questionable depth.
Both times that challenge has been met admirably by junior Javin DeLaurier, who played a season-high 28 minutes in Duke’s 79–70 loss on Saturday, finishing with eight points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. DeLaurier's athleticism makes him a more flexible interior defender than Bolden, and his motor on both ends helps compensate for Duke's natural energy dip when Williamson isn't available. With Williamson expected back for the ACC tournament and Bolden's status more uncertain, keep an eye on DeLaurier to factor into how far the banged-up Blue Devils go.
Auburn rounding into form
On Feb. 23, after Auburn was run out of Rupp Arena in an 80–53 loss to Kentucky, it was as clear as ever that the SEC's elite tier stopped at three teams. You had to squint to find the Tigers' wins worth celebrating, and they seemed headed for a middle-of-the-road SEC finish and a middle-of-the-road NCAA tournament seed. Now everyone on the Plains has something to celebrate: the first win over a top-five team since 1995. Chuma Okeke scored 22 points (one shy of his season high) and outplayed one of the SEC's toughest frontcourts as Auburn knocked off No. 5 Tennessee, 84–80, for its fourth-straight win.
South Carolina's win over Georgia boxed the Tigers out of the SEC's four double-bye spots, but if they carry over their 38.2% hit rate from three-point range on Saturday, they have as good a chance as anyone to crash the conference championship game on Selection Sunday as the No. 5 seed. Junior Samir Doughty provided the dagger from deep with 1:11 left, catching a vicious Grant Williams block right in his shot pocket and rising straight up for a three from the wing to extend the lead to six. The problem is that Auburn has shot the ball much better at home than on the road. Bruce Pearl told ESPN's Allison Williams after the game that "we couldn't have done it outside Auburn Arena," which seemed to be a compliment to the raucous crowd on hand but could just as easily be read as a challenge to his team to stay hot for neutral-site tests in Nashville and beyond.
The ACC tournament's first must-see game is set
Bubble enthusiasts will be taking a long lunch on Wednesday at noon ET, when NC State and Clemson tip off the ACC tournament's second-round quadruple-header with the highest stakes imaginable. The Wolfpack and Tigers have shrunk from every chance they've been afforded of being assured an at-large bid over the past two months, finishing the regular season a combined 2–15 in games against AP Top 25 opponents. NC State, which choked away its goodwill with a last-second loss to Georgia Tech at home earlier this week, righted the ship with a 73–47 blowout of Boston College on Saturday; Clemson missed its first 13 shots against Syracuse but clamped down on defense in the second half to close out a 67–55 win. The winner may still have work to do in the quarterfinals and beyond, while the loser probably won't like what it sees on Selection Sunday.
Seton Hall locks up a bid...
Finally, a Big East team other than Marquette and Villanova will be able to breathe easy on Selection Sunday. Seton Hall saved its two best performances of conference play for last, stunning the Golden Eagles 73–64 on Wednesday and holding off the defending national champions on Saturday in Newark with a 79–75 win. Myles Powell put his name in lights with 34 points against Marquette, but Saturday's hero was a more difficult name to fit on the marquee: 6'10" sophomore Sandro Mamukelashvili, who finished with 12 points and 18 rebounds, dictating play inside against Villanova's undermanned frontcourt. (Powell, for his part, drained a 30-foot three that pushed the Pirates' lead back out to 11 midway through the second half and set the Prudential Center off.)
If Seton Hall becomes the darling of next week's Big East tournament, it won't be the first time this year the Pirates played up to the moment in Madison Square Garden, the site of the overtime win over Kentucky in December that stood alone atop their résumé until this past week.
...And Marquette's slide continues
What is going on in Milwaukee? Markus Howard scored 28 points but missed seven of his 10 three-point attempts as the Golden Eagles lost their fourth-straight game after Villanova's loss gifted them a chance to play for a share of the Big East regular-season title. Three days removed from a blowout loss at the hands of DePaul, fringe bubble team Georgetown came into FiServ Forum and shot 45.1% from the field, with freshman Mac McClung and James Akinjo combining for 48 points in an 86–84 win.
After committing 55 turnovers in the first three games of their current skid, Marquette took much better care of the ball but could not find a way to get separation from a feisty team playing for its tournament life. It will encounter plenty of those next week in Manhattan.
Kentucky proves it can close
The Wildcats lost control of their SEC regular-season title chances after a 19-point loss at Tennessee last weekend, but everything else they've done in March indicates that John Calipari has once again prepped his charges to play their best when it matters most. Playing their fifth consecutive game without senior frontcourt leader Reid Travis, Kentucky pulled away from a back-and-forth battle with Florida late for a 66–57 win, days after surviving a similar slugfest for a four-point win at Ole Miss. Four Wildcats finished with 14 points or more, led by 17 from freshman Tyler Herro, who scored six points over six-plus minutes of second-half action in which Kentucky held Florida scoreless and ballooned its lead from two to 12 with less than five minutes left in the game.
Even without Travis's tone-setting attitude inside, the Wildcats' defense (which currently sits eighth in kenpom.com's adjusted efficiency rankings) has made the difference down the stretch, and it could be the talk of the town next week in Nashville, where they will try to win their fifth SEC tournament in a row.