Saturday was a rather noisy day in college hoops, and the performances of teams on the bubble — both inside and outside it — echoed the loudest.
For some of the sport’s biggest brands, it was both good and bad. North Carolina upended No. 11 Florida State in a stunning win to gift wrap Roy Williams’ 900th win in style just days after an equally stunning stumble at home against Marquette. Across the state, it wasn’t as rosy as Duke took a rough overtime loss to Louisville. Both were among Jerry Palm’s “first four out” entering the day, so while UNC did itself some real good, Duke’s loss did the opposite to its dossier.
In non-bubble news, it was (mostly) a good day for ranked teams with a few notable exceptions. No. 3 Michigan dispensed of wobbly Indiana, improving its résumé to receive a No. 1 seed. No. 5 Illinois stole one on the road over No. 23 Wisconsin. And No. 20 Arkansas won its billionth (give or take) game in a row, marking its ninth consecutive win in SEC play.
But others weren’t as fortunate, chief among them No. 2 Baylor, which took its first loss of the season. So, as these things go, there were naturally plenty of losers to emerge from the dust on the day that was. So let’s start with a doozy at Duke, then work our way through the winding slate with some other winners and losers.
Loser: Duke misses huge chance to bolster résumé
After winning its last four games and surprisingly turning its season around without the services of Jalen Johnson, Duke entered Saturday on the outside of the bubble with a chance to perhaps pop inside it and into the field of 68 projections. Alas, Louisville had other plans, coming to Cameron Indoor and ousting the Blue Devils on their home court in overtime 80-73. Don’t put a nail in Duke’s coffin just yet. Still plenty of time to course-correct. But it was among Jerry Palm’s “last four out” ahead of the game and did itself no favors with a tough home loss to the Cards, who were a projected No. 8 seed.
Loser: Baylor takes its first loss of the season
No. 2 Baylor looked flat earlier in the week when it came off a three-week COVID pause and barely scooted past Iowa State. It looked similarly rocky Saturday on the road against No. 17 Kansas — hitting only six of its 26 3-point attempts and going 23-of-66 from the field — but this time it paid the price. Its 71-58 loss is Baylor’s first of the season, meaning there is just one undefeated team left in college hoops: No. 1 Gonzaga.
Winner: Alabama locks up regular-season SEC title
No. 6 Alabama, a No. 2 seed in Palm’s Bracketology to start the day, needed just one win to secure the SEC regular-season title before facing — and falling — to Arkansas earlier in the week. But that long-anticipated win finally came Saturday against Mississippi State, as its 64-59 win clinched the crown for the Tide and handed them their first regular-season SEC championship since 2002 — with two regular season games to spare.
Winner: Xavier gets big bubble win
Xavier (13-5, 6-5 Big East) picked a good time to stop its slump against fellow Big East foe Creighton. The Musketeers snapped their three-game skid against the No. 13 Bluejays with a 77-69 on Senior Day. The win for X is a critical one for a team smack dab in the middle of Jerry Palm’s dreaded bubble as a No. 9 seed to start the day. It’s their first over a ranked opponent all season and an injection of hope for their tourney hopes amid a season that has seen nearly a dozen of their games postponed.
Loser: Wisconsin falls to shorthanded Illini
Facing an Ayo Dosunmu-less Illinois team at home, No. 23 Wisconsin could not capitalize on his absence in a disappointing Senior Day that saw the Badgers fall 74-69. Wisconsin, who was a No. 7 seed, never led in the game. It did make it interesting late, climbing to within a point of the Illini lead. But it just wasn’t Wisconsin’s night.
The loss itself — against a top-five Illinois team that is a No. 2 seed in Bracketology and vying for a No. 1 seed — is not why the Badgers are a loser here, though to be sure it is a big reason. The problem is that they ensured themselves a dreadful February, with their only three wins coming against the bottom three teams in the league (Nebraska, Penn State and Northwestern).
Winner: Arkansas stays red-hot in SEC play
I’ve finally figured out the real reason why Eric Musselman keeps stripping his shirt off in postgame celebrations. It’s because his team is absolutely, positively scorching hot.
The No. 20 Razorbacks, a No. 3 seed in Palm’s latest bracket, won their seventh consecutive game 83-75 over LSU, a team seeded No. 9 in Palm’s Bracketology but on the bubble, showing no signs of a hangover after ousting SEC-leader Alabama earlier in the week. It’s the Razorback’s ninth win in 10 games and ninth consecutive win in league play as they continue charging ahead with a wave of momentum into the postseason.
Winner: Cade Cunningham carries Oklahoma State
What happens when a future No. 1 pick gets to lace ’em up against college players? Consider that hypothetical question answered: 40 points, 11 rebounds and one win. That’s what Oklahoma State standout freshman Cade Cunningham did to rival Oklahoma on Saturday in a Bedlam showing for the ages.
“People know he’s a really good player,” coach Mike Boynton said after the game. “I’m not surprised that on the biggest game on our schedule, on the road, he stepped up and was ready to go compete at the highest level.”
Added Boynton: “He’s 19 years old, by the way, in case anyone needs a reminder of why he’s special.”
Loser: Tennessee lays an egg
Saturday shaped up to be a bounce-back day for No. 25 Tennessee after taking lopsided losses to Kentucky and LSU in the last two weeks, with its only wins coming over South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Instead, the Vols put out a puzzling stinker, falling on the road to Auburn 77-72 without the services of star Tigers guard Sharife Cooper. Tennessee, who were a No. 4 seed to start the day, shot better than Auburn from the field and from distance in the game. But the Tigers’ big edge came in a stunning free-throw attempt disparity of 37 to 10 in Auburn’s favor.
“I don’t understand the inconsistency,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said. “There’s enough guys who have played enough basketball right now. But this week we’ve got to go back and take a good hard look, all of us, everybody in the program. See if we can use this week to get better.”
Barnes added that the combination of players not understanding roles and not playing with confidence has given Tennessee real problems that continue to show up in inconvenient spots this season.
“If we could simply do that: get guys to play their role the way they should play it, we would be OK,” he said.
Winner: Texas Tech shows off defensive prowess
It was knotted up at 33 each at halftime in Lubbock, Texas, with No. 14 Texas and No. 18 Texas Tech in the heat of a close battle. That was until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. The Red Raiders came out of halftime by locking down on defense. Texas went without a made field goal for the opening eight minutes and 55 seconds of the second half. And in that span, the Red Raiders built a 10-point lead, cushy enough to ride to a 68-59 win.
Techa projected No. 6 seed, had lost its last three games entering the day and steadily backslid in tourney positioning during that skid, so it needed this one vs. the Longhorns, who were a projected No. 4 seed.
Winner: Liberty takes home the A-Sun regular season title
In a de facto winner-take-all Saturday matinee between the A-Sun’s two top teams, Liberty broke the tie by besting Bellarmine in the regular-season finale 94-78 to claim the league title. It was Liberty’s ninth consecutive win to improve to 20-5 overall, and ensured the Flames for the fifth consecutive season under Ritchie McKay a 20-win season. They will enter the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed.
Winner: Texas State wins the Sun Belt
When Texas State coach Danny Kaspar resigned in September just before his eighth season, the Bobcats promoted assistant Terrence Johnson to interim head coach, hoping the program could build on the momentum of consecutive 20-win seasons. Johnson did a fantastic job, culminating with a win over Louisiana-Monroe on Friday night that earned the program its first Sun Belt title. In a cruel twist of fate, Johnson was not on the sideline for the victory due to COVID-19 protocols. But the team managed to find a creative way to celebrate with him anyway. Not bad for a team picked to finish fifth in the league.
Loser: Indiana’s NCAA Tournament hopes
There is no shame in losing to Michigan, but dropping three in a row and four of five while on the NCAA Tournament bubble is pretty shameful, especially when you’ve got a player like Trayce Jackson-Davis. If Indiana could string a few wins together, Jackson-Davis would be in the Big Ten Player of the Year conversation with Iowa’s Luka Garza and Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu. At any rate, the No. 3 Wolverines, who will be a No. 2 seed in Palm’s next Bracketolgy update, did a decent job of bottling up Indiana’s star forward in a 73-57 victory that leaves IU in must-win territory for its final regular season games against Michigan State and Purdue next week. But at this point, it’s getting hard to believe the Hoosiers have what it takes to secure an at-large bid.
Winner: Moses Wright puts Georgia Tech on his back
Georgia Tech senior Moses Wright has been one of the most underrated players in the ACC for two seasons, and now he’s starting to look like one of the most underrated players in the country. The 6-foot-9 forward was barely recruited out of high school and has continued to raise his productivity level every season under coach Josh Pastner. Now it seems Wright is making it a personal mission to get the Yellow Jackets to their first NCAA Tournament since 2010. His 31 points and 16 rebounds carried Georgia Tech to a huge bubble victory over Syracuse for the team’s fourth straight win. Wright is averaging 23.8 points and 10.3 rebounds during the winning streak. Those are Garza-like numbers, and they are coming at the right time for a team that began the day as one of the “last four in” for the projected NCAA Tournament field, according to Jerry Palm.
Loser: Ole Miss‘ NCAA Tournament hopes
With five wins it its last six games, including two victories over Missouri and one over Tennessee, Ole Miss had played its way onto the bubble entering Saturday’s game at shorthanded Vanderbilt. But the Commodores may have burst the Rebels’ bubble with a 75-70 win that was just their third in league play. Any win against SEC competition is a good one for the reeling Commodores, but this was one especially momentous because they were without leading scorers Scotty Pippen and Dylan Disu. The duo averages a combined 35.5 points per game. In their absence, the trio of Trey Thomas, D.J. Harvey and Isaac McBride combined to score 37 points off the bench.
Winner: Clemson’s resurrection is real
As February dawned, it looked like Clemson might be done. A 9-1 start that included wins over Purdue, Maryland, Alabama and Florida State had been fun. But January brought a 35-point loss to Virginia, an 18-point loss to Georgia Tech, a 19-point loss in a rematch with Florida State and, finally a 26-point loss at Duke. As it turns out, the Tigers were just waiting for their second wind. Saturday’s 66-58 win over Miami wasn’t a thing of beauty, but it was Clemson’s fifth straight victory. Now 15-5 (9-5 ACC), the Tigers are a projected No. 4 seed in Palm’s latest Bracketology and close with very winnable games against Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
Winner: Gonzaga is the last unbeaten
Gonzaga pulled its usual stunt and smelled the food for a bit before devouring it. But when the Bulldogs started pulling away from Loyola Marymount late in the first half, they never looked back and won 86-69 to escape the day as the nation’s lone undefeated team. The victory also marked Gonzaga’s 51st straight home win, which is a new program record. It’s the longest active home winning streak in the nation. On that note, the Zags are done with the regular season and will head into next week’s West Coast Conference tournament with a 24-0 record.