Winners and losers: North Carolina makes case for No. 1 seed; Villanova backs into Big East title
Many people associate the madness of March with the NCAA Tournament, but here’s a pro tip: chaos isn’t exclusive to the 68-team event that takes over the sports calendar from mid-March to early-April.
Just take Saturday as an example.
Between No. 5 Tennessee getting its chances to win an outright SEC regular season title stripped by unranked Auburn, Seton Hall and Georgetown throwing a monkey wrench in the Big East race with wins over No. 23 Villanova and No. 16 Marquette, and No. 3 North Carolina again handling No. 4 Duke, disarray and upheaval were a fixture across the landscape of the sport. To break down the frenzy that was, we’ve recapped the day’s biggest winners and losers, starting with that SEC-altering outcome in Alabama.
Winner: Auburn’s starring role as spoiler
Tennessee and Auburn shared last season’s SEC regular season title. That was not on the table this year for the Tigers. What was an option, however, was potentially spoiling the Vols’ shot at winning the SEC this season.
Put another way: Bruce Pearl had a chance to lead Auburn to an upset over his former employer, where he coached from 2005-2011.
The Tigers happily did their head coach a solid. Auburn upset No. 5 Tennessee 84-80 on Saturday, giving Bruce Pearl a nice taste of revenge. He held his punches afterwards though, taking the high road with praise for the Vols.
“That was a great college basketball team. Tennessee is a championship program,” he said. “Everybody realizes Tennessee is a Final Four team. Everyone now also realizes that Auburn is capable of beating, and just did beat, a Final Four team.”
Loser: Big East’s reputation
It can’t be a good thing when the top two teams in your league combine to go 7-10 in their final 17 games of the regular season. That’s what Marquette and Villanova did. The Golden Eagles are on a four-game losing streak and vomited away chance after chance to finish atop the league standings. On Saturday, they kept Georgetown’s faint NCAA Tournament hopes alive by losing 86-84 at home to the Hoyas.
Villanova, meantime, has gone 3-5 down the stretch and fell on the road to Seton Hall, affording the Pirates a potential NCAA Tournament bid-clinching win the process.
The Big East is going to get at least five teams into the Big Dance — and could get six — but all but Nova and Marquette are in danger of being double-digit seeds. It seems like destiny that at least one team is going to Dayton for the First Four; could there could be two that get sent there.
Winner: Texas Tech
Winner on Saturday, winner this season, winner in general. What a remarkable campaign for Chris Beard in his second year at TTU. The Red Raiders got a no-doubt-about-it 80-73 win at Iowa State. Beard lost five of his seven best players from last season, was picked seventh in the Big 12 back in October … and guides his guys to the top of the Big 12 standings — .
Oh, yeah: Texas Tech wins a regular-season crown for the first time in 23 years. The last time TTU did that, the Big 12 wasn’t a thing yet — the Red Raiders were a member of the old Southwest Conference. Beard is doing things at a rate that are unprecedented at that school. The Red Raiders don’t have a shot at a No. 1 seed, but a 2 is very much within reach. Win the Big 12 tourney and it will be a lock.
So, in closing, Chris Beard probably needs to be the national Coach of the Year winner.
Winner: North Carolina
On Nov. 28, North Carolina fell 84-67 to Michigan. Afterwards, Roy Williams ripped his own coaching — and the play of his team — promising an improvement in both. “They played a heck of a lot better than we did, coached a heck of a lot better than we did. It’s very frustrating right now,” he said at the time.
Saturday, despite hubbub all season about Duke, the Tar Heels completed the season sweep of the Blue Devils with a 79-70 win, clinching a share of the ACC regular season title with Virginia in the process.
UNC might very well have just submitted one of the more compelling cases to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament by sweeping one of the most talented teams in the country. The Tar Heels have a 26-5 record, an ACC title, and two convincing wins over the most talented team in college basketball will be hard to keep off the 1-line.
Loser: Texas‘ postseason hopes
Texas fell to 16-15 on Saturday when it got thumped 69-56 by TCU — another bubble team. There has never been an at-large selection with 16 losses in NCAA Tournament history. Unless Texas snags an auto bid by winning the Big 12 tourney, the Longhorns will have 16 losses. It’s probably going to be too much. The committee will have a hard time justifying putting in a 16-16 or 17-16 or even 18-16 team into the field. Longhorns were a big loser on Saturday not just for getting swiped by erratic TCU, but losing decisively. Eye test is unkind.
Winner and loser: Kentucky
Pretty simple here: Kentucky pulls away late to beat Florida 66-57. In the process, and thanks to Tennessee’s loss, Kentucky gets to the 1 line. If the Wildcats don’t lose again before Selection Sunday, they’re a lock for a 1.
So how is UK a loser? Well, let’s check in on the status of Reid Travis.
That’s … not good. Travis is vital to UK’s national title hopes. It can probably make a Final Four without him, but asking UK to win six times without its most physically imposing player is asking too much. UK fans need to prepare not to see him in the SEC tourney, then hope the Cats are around for the Sweet 16. It sounds like that’s a best-case scenario at this point.
It took a collapse of epic proportions from Marquette down the home stretch of the regular season, but Villanova — despite its own struggles over the last month — won the Big East title outright on Saturday. Yes, the Villanova team that lost to Furman and Penn in non-conference play, and dropped five of its last eight games of the season.
The Wildcats have Marquette to thank for that — the Golden Eagles were in the catbird seat to win the conference before falling in each of their final four games, including to Georgetown on Saturday.
Loser: The NCAA Tournament darling of 2018
Loyola-Chicago stole the hearts of college hoops fans across the country last season. And what little sliver of the world they didn’t, their team chaplain, Sister Jean, did.
That won’t be the case this season. The Ramblers, a 1 seed in the MVC Tournament, fell Saturday in stunning fashion to 5 seed Bradley, ensuring they won’t be the auto-bid from the MVC — and that their postseason destination is likely the NIT.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Louisville lost after gaining a lead in the second half.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
This time it was to No. 2 Virginia. A quality opponent, absolutely — and in a road environment. But the Cardinals’ 73-68 loss Saturday marks the fifth time since February they have held a second-half lead and wound up losing. Alarming trend. Buyer beware come tourney time.
Winner: Temple coach Fran Dunphy
Temple beat UCF 67-62, getting to 23-8 and, in the eyes of most bracketologists, hopping into the field of 68 for now. Fran Dunphy is in his final season at Temple. He’s a Philly legend who turned Penn into an Ivy League power before replacing John Chaney in 2006 and guiding the Owls to seven NCAA Tournaments. This year should be No. 8. One more win in the American Athletic Conference tourney figures to be enough. Temple is just outside the top 50 of the NET rankings but has eight Quad 1 and 2 wins, which stacks up well to other teams on the bubble.
Everyone in college coaching is rooting for Dunphy to make the tournament in his final season with Temple. He’s just about there. Huge day for him and the AAC, which may add another team to the field of 68 with the Owls’ win