It's the worry of nearly every team on the bubble this time of the year: the bid thief. The team that had little or no chance of getting into the NCAA Tournament makes a run in its conference tournament, grabbing the automatic bid and possibly snatching a chair at the table from another team in college basketball's answer to "musical chairs". Houston (Conference USA) and New Mexico State (WAC) were the two teams to do that on Saturday, and the question now is which at-large candidates will be headed to the NIT as a result of these outcomes.
Tom Penders' Cougars completed a run of four wins in four days in Tulsa with an 81-73 victory over regular season champ UTEP, who's no shoo-in when it comes to an at-large berth, and that was with the nation's leading scorer struggling from the field. Aubrey Coleman, who averages 26.0 points per game, shot 4-for-20 from the field and scored thirteen points to go along with nine rebounds. But Kelvin Lewis more than made up for it, making eleven of his fifteen field goal attempts in scoring a game-high 28 points. Now 19-15 on the season, the Cougars were nowhere near the bubble before this weekend and there was talk that this would be Penders' last go-round at UH. But that's all on the backburner for the newly-crowned champs, and with the combo of Coleman and Lewis this is a team that could shoot its way to an upset next week.
As for the New Mexico State Aggies, they took out Utah State 69-63 in Reno to win the WAC Tournament title. Jared Quayle led Utah State with 25 points but it wasn't enough to make up for two starters (Tyler Newbold and Pooh Williams) going scoreless and Tai Wesley shooting 5-for-13 from the field. Jahmar Young led New Mexico State with 19 points while Troy Gillenwater, a player who rejoined the team in early February and was thought to be a key cog in their stretch run, added 15 off the bench. Utah State, which had its' 17-game win streak snapped, should be an at-large team but there's no better feeling than to know that you're definitely in. They'll join the likes of UTEP, Illinois and Virginia Tech (among many others) in sweating out these final hours.
Three Key Happenings
1. Washington wins the Pac-10 title; what does this do to Cal? Neither team playing in the Pac-10 final was a shoo-in to go dancing without the league's automatic bid, and the team that was in worse shape going into the game ended up with the crown. Washington won 79-75 in Los Angeles, sealing the game on a pair of Venoy Overton free throws with 2.1 seconds remaining. Winners of their second consecutive conference tournament title, the Huskies can look forward to their seeding and who they could play (as well as where) next week. The wait isn't so easy for the Golden Bears, who have the misfortune of winning their first regular season title in 50 years in a year that's been historically bad for the Pac-10.
They've got the top non-conference strength of schedule ranking in America but they also lost all of their toughest games than built that ranking. Theo Robertson was out for much of the non-conference slate due to injury, but while that helps explain losses to the likes of Syracuse, Ohio State and Kansas it doesn't explain how they lost five Pac-10 games with him in the lineup. They're the one team on the bubble that could be hurt the most by the perception of their league; the Pac-10's taken an absolute beating all year long and that likely won' t change on Selection Sunday. Will they get in? This will make for an interesting case.
2. Minnesota whips Purdue and can now win the Big Ten title. Tubby Smith's Golden Gophers took one more step towards an NCAA Tournament bid by taking full advantage of a brutal offensive performance by Purdue, winning 69-42 in the Big Ten semis. Up next for Minnesota is Ohio State and depending upon who you ask they may have done enough to get into the Big Dance without a win on Sunday. But you never know, meaning that they'd be best served to win that game and earn the automatic bid. Ralph Sampson III led the Golden Gophers with 13 points and Minnesota won the rebounding battle 45-20 as Purdue shot 27.6% from the field.
What helps Minnesota in regards to their resume is four RPI Top 50 wins; the non-conference strength of schedule ranking of 61st isn't bad either. But you can never be sure, especially when you're a team that was barely on the radar as recently as two weeks ago. E'Twaun Moore shot 1-for-14 from the field for Purdue, who hasn't looked good in either of their two biggest games since losing Robbie Hummel to a torn ACL (Michigan State, Minnesota). The loss could drop them at least a full seed line (if not two) on the bracket and you have to wonder about their Final Four hopes if they can't find a third scorer to pick up the slack if Moore or Ja'Juan Johnson goes cold.
3. Kansas beats Kansas State for the third time this season. There was talk going into the Big 12 title game that Frank Martin's Wildcats could make a run at a one-seed with a win over the Jayhawks in Kansas City. No such luck as they fell to Kansas for the third time this season, this one by the final of 72-64. Marcus Morris led all scorers (and four Jayhawks in double figures) with 18 points while also grabbing eight rebounds, and the Jayhawks made up for shooting 44.2% from the field by attempting thirty-one foul shots (making 24) on the night. Denis Clemente and Jacob Puller combined to score 30 points but the other three Wildcat starters scored eleven and that was essentially the difference. Bill Self's team likely locked up the top overall seed while K-State likely finds itself on the two line (or possibly the three) depending upon what happens with Ohio State and Duke on Sunday.
Top Three Games
1. West Virginia 60, Georgetown 58 (Big East final) Under ten seconds...Da'Sean Butler...you should know the rest. If not, check the Big East final recap link above.
2. Ohio State 88, Illinois 81 (2OT) (Big Ten semifinal) This one went back and forth in Indianapolis, but late-game execution cost the Illini at the both the end of regulation and the first overtime. And now they have to worry as to whether or not those issues cost them an at-large bid as well. Evan Turner finished with 31 points, 10 rebounds and six assists while Demetri McCamey led the Illini with 22 points and five assists.
3. Richmond 89, Xavier 85 (OT) (Atlantic 10 semifinal) Kevin Anderson and David Gonzalvez combined to score 63 points as the Spiders advanced to a meeting with Temple for the Atlantic 10 Tournament title.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Marqus Blakely (Vermont) 24 points, 18 rebounds, five assists and an absolutely filthy dunk in the Catamounts' 83-70 win over Boston University to win the America East Tournament title.
2. G/F Evan Turner (Ohio State) 31 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in the Buckeyes' 88-81 double-overtime win over Illinois.
3. G Kelvin Lewis (Houston) On a day in which leading scorer Aubrey Coleman struggled from the field the senior came up big, scoring 28 points on 11-for-15 shooting to lead the Cougars to an 81-73 win over UTEP to win the Conference USA Tournament title.