Creighton takes Missouri Valley title, 'Bama rues loss, more hoops
How can you tell it's March? When the early-afternoon slate is packed with high-impact games and stars play like stars. Here's a quick rundown of the impactful results so far:
• Creighton 91, Wichita State 79
The Shockers opened the door with a surprise home loss midweek and the Bluejays walked right through it, winning at home to take the Missouri Valley regular-season crown by a game. The Bluejays shredded the Shockers' D, shooting 70.2 percent for the game and scoring nearly 1.5 points per possession. Doug McDermott was a stud again, making 15 of 18 shots on his way to a season-high 41-point effort. I'd be all for a third matchup of these two teams in St. Louis, but there's no guarantee either will make the Valley final the way this season has gone in that conference.
Quick takeaways: The Bluejays seem to have stabilized after a concerning skid that was pushing them uncomfortably toward the bubble discussion. The outright league title should be plenty for them to dance, and now they have up to three more games to determine their seed in the dance. Wichita State also should be comfortably in the field of 68. Now we'll see if a mystery tournament winner can make it three from the Valley. It's not unlikely, although an eventual winner may have to beat both top dogs.
• No. 8 Florida 64, Alabama 52
The Gators outscored the Crimson Tide 27-7 in the final 11:17 of the game to thwart the upset bid. The Tide scored two points over a nine-minute span to let a massive opportunity slip away. The Gators shot 22 of 26 from the line and got 11 minutes from Will Yeguete, which is a plus even with his modest stats on the afternoon.
Quick takeaways: This probably was a game Alabama had to have to have reasonable NCAA tournament at-large hopes entering the SEC tournament. Now they almost certainly have to win at Ole Miss this week (in a huge clash for both teams' hopes) and do some work in the postseason to make it. They have a very empty record in SEC play and a batch of bad losses without the quality wins to offset them.
Florida needs to use this stretch run to get fully healthy and back in rhythm. While this wasn't ultimately a "close game," it shows the concern over the Gators "clutchness" is overblown. This game ended up being double-digits because they completely throttled a decent opponent for the last quarter of the game. If the Gators can get back (or close to back) to hitting on all cylinders, there will be few teams in better shape (flaws and all) to make a run to the Final Four.
• No. 10 Louisville 58, No. 12 Syracuse 53
The newly (more) efficient Russ Smith had 18 points on just 11 shots and Luke Hancock stuck four big threes as the Cardinals took the Orange out late at the Carrier Dome. Syracuse was held to 35.7 percent shooting as its backcourt struggled again.
Quick takeaways: I said on radio a few times this week that I felt Louisville was being overlooked nationally and this is another step in their surge back into the national title discussion. Much like Kansas was written off in a lot of quarters after a three-game losing streak, the same thing happened to the Cardinals, but they're rounding into form at the right time. Since the 5OT Hero Ball Fiasco, Smith has been a much more measured offensive player, which is a good development.
As for Syracuse, this is about the point where you have to admit they are what they are. Their starting guards combined for 5-for-21 shooting today. Before C.J. Fair made a 3-pointer in the final seconds when down by six, the Orange had made just 4 of 12 from behind the arc, with James Southerland hitting three of them. There's no mystery here. This team simply cannot shoot from the outside. Three of their primary 3-point shooters are under 30 percent for the season, with Brandon Triche having regressed badly as a senior.
• VCU 84, No. 20 Butler 52
Otherwise known as "What happens when a turnover-prone team that lacks athleticism meets Havoc on the road." The Rams scored at will off forced turnovers and the final score probably doesn't full represent the level of dominance over 40 minutes. This game was a TKO Round 1.
Quick takeaways: There's a lot of social media chatter about Butler being overrated, and there's some merit to that. They hit miracle shots to beat Marquette and Gonzaga to swell their résumé accomplishments, and their overall level of play for the season is not one of a top-25 team. That doesn't mean they're not a good or dangerous team or one you'd want to draw in the NCAAs. It just means that today was a bad matchup and the Bulldogs handled it really poorly. Other than losing at home to an OK Charlotte team, there's not really a bad loss in the bunch.
For VCU, well, this was a prototype performance. Feast on opposition weakness, force the ball free and convert in transition, then repeat ad nauseum. The win also helps solidify their NCAA résumé. It will be interesting to see how the A-10 is treated in the seeding process, as the best teams have really taken bites out of each other (with the exception of Saint Louis, which is mostly doing the biting these days).
-- No. 22 Marquette 72, No. 21 Notre Dame 64: The Golden Eagles throttled the Irish in the first half and took an impressive home win. The victory keeps them tied for second in the Big East, one loss behind Georgetown, which plays Rutgers at home later. Jamil Wilson and Chris Otule combined to shoot 14-of-18 from the field for 35 total points.
-- Maryland 67, Wake Forest 57: It's not the quality win(s) that Maryland needs, but the Terps needed to avoid more losses and got it done in a place where better teams have really struggled this season. Best guess in a vacuum: Terps need four more wins (in whatever combo) to make the NCAAs.
-- Memphis 76, Central Florida 67: Back in the cozy comfines of C-USA, the Tigers stayed perfect with a road win. There's not very much more they can prove to the committee this season. Winning out would give them a gaudy record without a ton of top-end substance behind it. Good team, so-so profile.
-- Oklahoma 86, Iowa State 69: A big, dominating win for the Sooners, who tied an NCAA record by going 34-for-34 from the free throw line. The Cyclones have to be careful. They're far from an NCAA lock at this point. A consummate solid team with a profile most notable for missed chances against Kansas, among others.
-- Georgia 78, Tennessee 68: The Vols' at-large push got dinged significantly when they were swept by the Bulldogs, this one in Athens. As @DanWolken noted, this Georgia team is 8-8 in the SEC. That says a lot about the SEC.
-- Cincinnati 61, UConn 56: The Bearcats held off the Huskies for an absolutely crucial win for their NCAA tournament hopes. UConn committed sloppy turnovers on two late possessions with a chance to at least tie.