It’s March and things are already crazy. Educate yourself on the proceedings.
The first weekend of March was appropriately mad. You don’t need to know about everything that happened in order to get into the spirit, but you should at least be well-versed in the biggest items. Here they are:
1. Wichita State will head to the postseason with a perfect record
Wichita State cruised past Missouri State, 68-45, to move to 31-0 and become the first Division-I team in 10 years to finish the regular season undefeated. Next on the docket for the Shockers is winning this week’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in St. Louis and becoming the first squad since the 1990-91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels to enter the NCAA Tournament with an unblemished overall mark.
That undefeated Saint Joseph’s team from a decade ago wound up losing to Xavier by 20 in their first Atlantic 10 tournament game, but still earned a No. 1 seed in the big dance. Still, there’s no guarantee that Wichita State will receive the same treatment if they fail to win three Arch Madness contests this week. In 2004, the Atlantic 10 sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament, and that Xavier team that handed the Hawks their first loss ended up making the Elite 8. The Missouri Valley isn’t on that level this season. Still, Wichita State will be up against no more than three teams that will be both eager to end their run at perfection, and desperate to keep their own seasons alive. That should be plenty test enough.
2. Virginia is your ACC regular season champion
The other team that generated significant undefeated buzz deep into February, Syracuse, will enter its own conference tournament as no better than the No. 2 seed. The Orange saw their dreams of an ACC regular season title in their first season as a member of the conference crash and burn with a humbling 75-56 loss at Virginia. While a modest fall from grace was somewhat predictable even before Syracuse tasted defeat for the first time, I’m not sure anyone thought they’d drop three of four and be out of the ACC title hunt before the start of the final week of the regular season.
The bigger story, however, is Virginia, which has locked up its first outright ACC championship since Ralph Sampson was patrolling the paint in Charlottesville 33 years ago. While the Cavaliers gave an underwhelming performance during the non-conference portion of the season — they fell to VCU and Green Bay, lost to bubble-bound Tennessee by 35 and scored just 38 in a loss to Wisconsin — a 17-1 conference season followed up by a tournament championship in Greensboro should be enough to get UVA at least in the discussion for a No. 1 seed in the big dance.
While it’ll likely take some significant outside help for UVA to land a one seed, that doesn’t change the fact that few teams have been as impressive as the Cavs since the calendar flipped to February. Virginia has won 13 straight since a tough 69-65 loss at Duke on Jan. 13, and they’ve held 10 of their last 11 opponents to fewer than 60 points.
3. Lots of teams with little numbers next to their names lost
On Saturday, five top 10 teams (No. 4 Syracuse, No. 5 Kansas, No. 7 Louisville, No. 9 Creighton and No. 10 Saint Louis) lost on the same day for the first time since January, 2003. The teams ranked in the next 10 didn’t fare much better, as four more teams ranked in the top 20 (No. 11 Cincinnati, No. 15 Iowa State, No. 17 Kentucky and No. 18 Michigan State) also fell.
After four months of non-stop college basketball, here’s the sum total of what we know: Florida looks like they’re pretty good, and that undefeated team that went to the Final Four last season is also probably pretty good. Outside of that…
This was supposed to be the season where the overwhelming strength at the top resulted in a March short on parity and high on powerhouse showdowns late in the tournament. Instead, we enter the month knowing less at this point than in just about any other season I can remember.
4. The fall of Kentucky
The 40-0 and “greatest recruiting class of all-time” talk has sort of overshadowed the simpler fact that college basketball’s preseason No. 1 is trending towards being a six or seven seed in the NCAA Tournament. While most rational folks were able push past the over-the-top preseason hyperbole, a quick Google search of preseason polls and rankings still shows that there was nobody out there who didn’t believe the Wildcats were going to be anything less than awfully good. Instead, after Saturday’s embarrassing loss to SEC cellar dweller South Carolina, UK has eight losses with two games still to play in the regular season.
The good news for Big Blue Nation is that size is still on their side. Kentucky is abnormally large and talented in a sport where that sort of thing is at a premium. While we all thought they would be vastly better on the perimeter, on defense and in transition, the Wildcat bigs are still good enough to overwhelm more than half of the teams that will be in the NCAA Tournament. Still, that’s only going to be enough to get them into the Sweet 16 without at least a minimal effort on the defensive end, a few outside shots going in and at least some indication that these guys aren’t miserable being on the court with one another.
5. The rise of Marcus Smart
The biggest off-the-court story of the 2013-14 season is in the process of morphing into one of the more intriguing turnaround stories of the season. Maybe that’s going a tad too far, but there’s no question that there are more than a few national eyes taking aim at Oklahoma Sate, which has responded to a seven-game losing streak by winning three straight since Marcus Smart returned from his three-game suspension for shoving a Texas Tech fan.
The most impressive of those three Cowboy victories came Saturday night, when Smart scored a game-high 21 points in OSU’s 72-65 win over No. 5 Kansas. While there’s no such thing as a “must-win game” in a situation where a loss does not result in the end of a team’s season (don’t let anyone tell you any differently these next couple of weeks), this was about as close as Travis Ford’s team could get.
Had the Jayhakws been able to escape Gallagher-Iba Arena win a win, Oklahoma State would have been guaranteed a losing record in Big 12 play, and probably would have been looking at a situation where they would have needed to advance to at least the conference tournament semifinals to feel good about themselves on Selection Sunday. Instead, OSU would almost certainly be in the field of 68 if the tournament began today, and they have an opportunity to solidify their spot this week with games against Kansas State and Iowa State.
Even with all the drama in Stillwater before, during and after the Smart incident, this team is way too talented to be relegated to a tournament other than the big show. College hoops fans should want to see these guys in the field when the brackets are released in 13 days, and it’s looking like the Cowboys are finally focused on doing the things necessary for that to happen.