It’s the last college basketball report before NCAA Tournament talk starts next week at TheSportsNotebook, so we’ll try and move through and cover everything for the weekend edition, from lookaheads to conference tournament action and picking some national award winners.
Throughout the week, TheSportsNotebook has been doing conference reports, and the links to the eight major conferences reports are all below. As part of that, a Player of the Year and Coach of the Year were chosen in each league. From that pool, we’ll draw national winners for both categories.
Coach of the Year offers great candidates, and the top jobs would go to John Calipari (Kentucky), Stan Heath (South Florida), Bill Self (Kansas) and John Beilein (Michigan). Calipari may recruit extraordinary talent, but to put together a team with three freshmen in its starting lineup and be within one point of an undefeated year is even more extraordinary. Ironically it was Indiana, the last team to win the NCAA title with a perfect record back in 1976 that handed Kentucky its only loss on a buzzer-beating trey. Self was supposed to be rebuilding at Kansas, with only Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor to build around. No individual players really stepped up, but Self put together a complete team and won the Big 12—again. Beilein lacks any kind of inside game and while his guards are good, they don’t take your breath away. Yet there Michigan is, sharing the Big Ten title with Michigan State and Ohio State. And Heath had what looks like an NCAA Tournament-caliber year at South Florida, won 12 games in the Big East and did it without a double-digit scorer in his lineup.
My choice is Calipari. Just winning the SEC title wouldn’t have been enough to get him this honor, but to win at almost a history-making clip with such a young team makes him a worthy winner. Now the question is can he get his first national title in New Orleans. The last time the Final Four was in the Bayou, Calipari was there with Memphis and had the crown all but won on Monday night until a missed free throws and mistakes let it slip away in overtime. The opponent on the other sideline that night? Bill Self. Could a Self-Calipari rematch in New Orleans be ahead this year?
It’s been a while since TheSportsNotebook has really gone crazy with an off-the-wall choice for a major award. Go back to 2010, and I agreed with the final choices for every major individual award in every sport. In 2011, I think my “big stand” was taking Matt Kemp over Ryan Braun for the NL MVP award. So I feel like I’m due for a pick that sounds crazy, but meets the standards of logic and a year where no clear Player of the Year candidate exists makes this the time.
Tim Frazier at Penn State is my choice. He averaged 18 ppg, 6 assists per game and was second in the Big Ten in steals. He put up these numbers playing with no support whatsoever and in the nation’s toughest conference. I find the other more conventional choices—Anthony Davis at Kentucky, Kevin Jones at West Virginia and Thomas Robinson at Kansas (whom I didn’t even pick in his own league, opting instead for Texas’ J’Covan Brown) to have enough support around them that they don’t rise to Frazier’s level. Yes, Penn State won only 12 games. Without Frazier they might have had to start a rivalry with Towson. That’s “Most Valuable” enough for me.
Now on to conference tournament action. Four leagues are down to their semi-finals tonight…
BIG EAST: I predicted that of the top four seeds, all four would lose last night and then suffered through a night that reminds me why it’s better to talk about betting than to actually do it. Cincinnati and Notre Dame survived in overtime, while Syracuse barely held off UConn. Only Louisville, my pick to win this tournament, got it done in forcing 26 turnovers against Marquette. I was within three plays of looking like a genius and ended up 1-3.
Enough about myself, tonight’s semis are Syracuse-Cincinnati and Louisville-Notre Dame. The action starts at 7 PM ET and both games are on ESPN in succession. Syracuse, like Kentucky, has lost just one game and that was in decisive fashion at Notre Dame. It would surely be sweet if the Orange could get another crack at the Irish in Saturday’s final. Also of note, is that three teams who are more Midwest than East are playing tonight, a victory for the era of realignment. Somewhere, the Big East legends like John Thompson, Rollie Massimino and Lou Carnesecca have to be weeping.
BIG 12: It’s going to be a great night of basketball in Kansas City, with Baylor-Kansas followed by Texas-Missouri. Both games are on ESPNU and the doubleheader starts at 7:30 PM ET. Texas played its way into the NCAA field last night against Iowa State, so there’s not any bubble suspense going on here. Just a lot of good basketball players and coaches. As much as attending the Big East tournament on a Friday night in New York is a goal of mine, if I could get a plane ticket to anywhere tonight, it would be Kansas City.
PAC-12: The upsets started happening in the quarterfinals of the league nobody wants to win. Conference champ Washington was stunned by Oregon State, and the Huskies may end up missing the NCAA field as a result (my guess is they still sneak in, but they’re going to drop down to that 12-13 seed level at least). Oregon missed its chance to close the deal when they lost by a point to Colorado. Tonight it’s Oregon State-Arizona and Colorado-Cal. The Wildcats need to play their way back in after dumping a game to Arizona State last week, and Colorado probably needs to win the tournament. The flip side is the Buffs have the talent to do it. I originallysaw UCLA as a good bet to win this before they lost to Arizona. But I’m standing firm on the principle that an unlikely candidate is going to win, and I see Colorado upending Arizona tomorrow in the final.
MOUNTAIN WEST: Four teams are pushing for the Dance and all four won last night’s quarterfinals. It’s Colorado State-San Diego State and UNLV-New Mexico tonight. I think all four are likely in, and I see the regular season co-champs, San Diego State and New Mexico, each losing tonight. With the tournament being in Las Vegas, it’s UNLV that beats Colorado State in a final game that will be good regardless of who ends up playing.
Four more major conferences have quarterfinal action going today and build to a Sunday conclusion…
ACC: Duke forward Ryan Kelly will miss the tournament with a foot injury, though there’s no indication thus far this will keep him out of the NCAAs next week. Duke plays a Virginia Tech team that took them to overtime down the stretch in the regular season, while on the bracket’s other side, North Carolina plays Maryland. In between these two are key games involving bubble teams. N.C. State should be in the field now, but could use a win over Virginia to eliminate any doubt. Miami is not in the field right now, but beating Florida State can get them back in the conversation. In the ACC Report yesterday I picked Florida State to win the tourney and Kelly’s injury certainly aids that pick, as FSU and Duke would be on pace to meet in a semifinal. Today’s games are all on ESPN2, and then tomorrow’s semis and Sunday’s final are on ESPN.
BIG TEN: The story of Northwestern took a big step back last night with an overtime loss at Minnesota. Most observers will push Northwestern out of the bracket and that’s understandable, if only for the fact that not every bubble team is coming through down the stretch. Today’s games from Indy start with Iowa-Michigan State followed by Indiana-Wisconsin in the afternoon on the top of the bracket. The evening session is Minnesota-Michigan and Purdue-Ohio State, with the semis and final being televised by CBS over the weekend.
SEC: I have to correct an error made in discussing Alabama yesterday when I put forward Tony Mitchell alongside teammate JaMychal Green as the Tide’s two key threats. Mitchell is suspended for the rest of the season. ‘Bama still won yesterday and plays Florida today. That’s a 3 PM ET start and the other early game is LSU-Kentucky. Tonight’s session is Ole Miss-Tennessee and Georgia-Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs win over Mississippi State may have finally put a knife in the collapsing Bulldogs. Tomorrow ESPN will have carry at least one semi-final and ABC has the title game on Sunday.
ATLANTIC 10: It’s time for basketball and blackjack in Atlantic City, and I see a tournament that’s going to be crazy. This afternoon it’s UMass-Temple and St. Joe’s-St. Bonaventure, while the evening session is LaSalle-St. Louis and Dayton-Xavier. This is a balanced league and I think NCAA locks Temple and St. Louis will go out before the final and pave the way for St. Joe’s and Xavier. Also keep an eye on St. Bonaventure. With Andrew Nicholson, this league’s best player manning the post, they’re good enough to put on a three-day run and steal an NCAA bid off the bubble.
Outside the eight conferences TheSportsNotebook focuses on, watch the Conference USA tourney. Southern Miss and Memphis are NCAA locks and in today’s semi-finals. If either Marshall or Central Florida wins the event, C-USA becomes a three-bid league. In the WAC, conference champ Nevada will at least get some at-large consideration if they don’t win their tournament, though I suspect a Bracket Buster weekend loss at Iona probably mean the Wolfpack need to get the automatic bid. And let’s watch Pat Knight’s boys from Lamar. Right on the heels of his stunning beration of his senior class, Lamar is not only in the conference final as the #3 seed, but they’ll be the favorite, as fourth-seeded McNeese State is the opponent on Saturday.