But the focus goes to the teams already in the field, beginning with Eddie Biedenbach's Bulldogs. UNC Asheville won at Coastal Carolina 60-47, limiting the regular season champions to 34% shooting from the field and 18.8% from three. UNCA wasn't much better offensively but they forced 21 turnovers, and Matt Dickey knocked down a dagger with 1:39 remaining just two weeks after capping this thrilling win with a three-pointer at the buzzer. Thus ends a tough season for the Chanticleers, who looked near unbeatable in late-January but heavy personnel losses greased the skids for a second consecutive title game loss on their home floor.
Morehead State finished the job left incomplete last year by a loss to Murray State in the OVC title game with their 80-73 win over Tennessee Tech in Nashville. Kenneth Faried, who has grabbed the most rebounds in the history of Division I basketball, posted another double-double with 24 points and 15 rebounds and Demonte Harper was outstanding as well with 27 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. The Eagles were in control for much of the second half before they became too generous, allowing Kevin Murphy (30 points) and company back into the game with 22 turnovers. Donnie Tyndall's team will offer quite the challenge to whomever they face in the first round, as a player of Faried's (and Harper's) caliber isn't easy to corral.
But the trendy selection for a first-round upset will be Rick Byrd's Belmont Bruins, who capped a dominant run through the Atlantic Sun with a virtuoso performance in their 87-46 whipping of North Florida. Mick Hedgepeth was outstanding, finishing with 23 points, nine rebounds and two assists and sidekick Scott Saunders added 15 points off the bench.
Belmont plays an uptempo style that applies pressure to opponents on both ends of the floor due to their unselfish nature on offense and a defense that can turn teams over (North Florida finished with 22 turnovers). Belmont goes at least 10 deep, and given the nature of the game on Saturday just three players played 20 or more minutes and 12 played at least 12 minutes.
"I came to the realization as a coach that you can ask your guys to play harder if they are not playing 35 minutes a game," said Coach Byrd. Ian Clark added that "it will help us in the tournament as well seeing as other teams probably won't sub as much as our system and it could help us in the last minutes of the game in a big game in the NCAA tournament." (quotes courtesy of the Atlantic Sun Conference)
Whether or not the Bruins can make noise in March will ultimately depend on who they draw, but it's a safe assumption that no one will be thrilled to see Belmont on the bracket as their opponent. How well these three teams do in the NCAA Tournament is a discussion better saved for next week when the matchups are known. This week offers the champions a chance to rest up and celebrate what they've achieved to date. Congratulations.
Other Notable Happenings
1. North Carolina beats Duke to clinch an outright ACC title.
First there was last season, a year far tougher than anyone expected of the North Carolina program despite heavy personnel losses from a team that won the 2009 national title. Then there was the uneven beginning, with their 1-2 showing in the Puerto Rico Tipoff displaying just how far the Tar Heels had to go in regards to both guard play and interior toughness. But all the while the freshmen grew up. Harrison Barnes figured out and became more comfortable with his role in Roy Williams' system, and Kendall Marshall improved to the point where the departure of Larry Drew II helped the team because it required Marshall to play even more. The end result: the outright ACC title, as the Heels beat rival Duke 81-67 in Chapel Hill on Saturday night.
Barnes scored 18 points, Marshall posted a double-double with 15 points and 11 assists and John Henson (10 points, 12 rebounds) and Tyler Zeller (14 points) played well inside to lead the way. Duke's problems offensively came from deep, as players other than Seth Curry (6-11) shot 0-for-16 from three and there was little help for Curry (20 points) and Nolan Smith (30). Kyle Singler made just three of fourteen shots, and the goal between now and the ACC Tournament has to be to snap the senior out of his current shooting funk. But Saturday night was about the lighter shade of blue, and a group of players who have grown together and now are seeing the fruits of their labor. It's tough to call someone a "sleeper" when they have the hardware to prove otherwise.
2. Arizona (Pac-10), Florida (SEC), Kansas (Big 12), Ohio State (Big Ten) and Pittsburgh (Big East) all do the same.
Despite the childhood lessons about the virtues of sharing they don't apply to championships, and the other five titles in BCS conference are all of the outright variety. "Welcome back" messages could be in order for both Arizona and Florida, with the Wildcats winning their first Pac-10 title since 2005 and the Gators hadn't done so in the SEC since 2007. The more impressive of the two wins: Florida winning at Vanderbilt, with all five starters reaching double figures and guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker combining for just three turnovers (Walker had six assists to just one turnover). When those two play smart and get the basketball to Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons (who could be SEC Player of the Year) and Alex Tyus the Gators are a tough team to beat.
Ohio State clinched their thanks to Purdue's loss at Iowa and Pittsburgh took care of reeling Villanova at home to lock up the top spot in the Big East. As for longevity, that honor goes to a Kansas team that won their seventh straight Big 12 title by winning at Missouri despite 24 turnovers. Three of the four number one seeds in the NCAA Tournament could very well come from this group (Kansas, Ohio State and Pittsburgh) but the other two are nothing to scoff at either. Say what you well about the quality of the Pac-10, but when you have one of the best players in America (Derrick Williams) and supplementary pieces that understand (and more importantly accept) their roles you have a chance to make some noise. Saturday's achievements were just the first step for these five, who all home to have far more to celebrate over the next month.
3. Notre Dame picks up a revealing win at Connecticut, and people need to calm down with the Big East automatically getting 11 teams in chatter.
The idea of Notre Dame being a potential one-seed in the NCAA Tournament may feel a bit far-fetched, but upon closer inspection it isn't that far off. The Fighting Irish were by far the second-best team in the Big East, and their win at Pittsburgh was the only home loss the Panthers suffered all season (the Tennessee loss was at the CONSOL Energy Center). But there may not have been a more revealing win for Mike Brey's team than their 70-67 win at Connecticut, which stemmed from the star wasting the trust of his coach by picking up a silly 5th foul with more than eight minutes left in the game. Ben Hansbrough, the lone unanimous selection to the Big East's First Team All-Conference squad, was called for an offensive foul just moments after Brey put him back out on the floor.
But instead of wilting as Kemba Walker sparked a 13-0 UConn run the Irish stood their ground, with Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott rising to the challenge. Can Notre Dame rise to that top line come Selection Sunday? They'll need to make some noise in New York most likely, and if they can do that it's definitely possible. The other issue in regards to the Big East has nothing to do with Notre Dame (or Connecticut) and everything to do with Marquette. Many have simply assumed that the Big East will get 11 teams into the field, but the question is who have the Golden Eagles beat of consequence since that painful loss at Louisville? They did win at Connecticut last week, but Marquette has lost four of its last seven games and the UConn win is their best league victory away from the Bradley Center (Marquette did beat Notre Dame and Syracuse at home). Marquette will more than likely be in the field, but the thought that they're a lock may be putting too much stock in the many close losses on their resume.
4. Clemson beats Virginia Tech to grab a first-round bye in the ACC Tournament.
Virginia Tech's loss to Boston College on Wednesday night was a tough one, as it not only came at home but capped another regular season sweep (Virginia) that could hurt the Hokies come Selection Sunday. But they had a chance to redeem themselves on Saturday afternoon, and instead of coming out of the gates firing Seth Greenberg's team showed up at Clemson flat. Brad Brownell's Tigers took full advantage and they were able to hold off Virginia Tech's attempts to rally in winning 69-60. Jerai Grant (17 points, nine rebounds) and Demontez Stitt (15, five rebounds, five assists) stepped up in their final games at Littlejohn Coliseum, wrapping up the four-seed in the upcoming ACC Tournament. More than likely that means a matchup with Boston College (the Eagles should take care of Wake Forest today, and then in the rematch on Thursday) with the winner getting a shot (potentially) at North Carolina. The best thing a team can do for its tournament fate this time of the year is to win, and by doing so Clemson's put themselves in a position to make their way into the field with more positive results.
5. Wichita State falls in the Missouri Valley semis, likely relegating them to the NIT.
The preseason favorites to win the MVC became more of an afterthought in regards to the NCAA Tournament bubble due to the missed chances at high-profile scalps that litter their resume. But Gregg Marshall's team had a chance to keep their name in the public conversation by getting to today's Missouri Valley Conference final. Their 61-54 loss to Indiana State on Saturday makes it tough for the Shockers because now they have no more chances on the court to state their case, and to have it happen now means a painful week of watching other teams while they slip into the background. J.T. Durley led the Shockers with 18 points and 11 rebounds but Wichita State struggled from the field, making just 33.9% of their shots (outside of Durley the Shockers shot 13-for-46) from the field and 24.1% from beyond the arc. Is there still a chance? Definitely, as no one's truly ruled out until the end of the Selection Show. But it sure doesn't look good right now.
Top Five Games
1. VCU 62, Drexel 60
The second game of the day at the CAA Tournament was a thriller, as Jamie Skeen's turnaround at the buzzer answered a game-tying three from Drexel's Chris Fouch. The Rams move on to play top-seed George Mason in today's semifinals while the Dragons should have a good enough profile to merit and NIT bid. Skeen finished with 24 points and eight rebounds while Fouch led Drexel with 20 and seven boards.
2. (7) Notre Dame 70, (16) Connecticut 67
3. (2) Kansas 70, (24) Missouri 66
The Jayhawks survived 24 turnovers, 12 in each half, to wrap up yet another Big 12 title with a win over rival Missouri. Marcus Morris (21 points, 10 rebounds) and Thomas Robinson (15 and 13) led the way for Kansas, who has now won seven straight Big 12 titles, and Laurence Bowers led the Tigers with 22 points, 10 rebounds and five steals.
4. USC 62, Washington 60
Just two nights after beating UCLA the Huskies didn't do much to sustain the positive vibes in regards to their NCAA Tournament prospects. Jio Fontan led the Trojans with 20 points and Nikola Vucevic added 19 and 10 rebounds (Alex Stepheson finished with 11 and 14 rebounds) as they added a road victory to their resume. Isaiah Thomas led four Huskies in double figures with 16.
5. Saint Joseph's 71, Charlotte 70
Langston Galloway's free throw with 4.1 seconds remaining proved to be the difference as the Hawks wrapped up the final spot in next week's Atlantic 10 Tournament. Galloway matched his career-high with 27 points and Carl Jones added 19 to lead the Hawks. Chris Braswell led Charlotte, who tied things up on a Derrio Green three, with 16 and 10 rebounds.
Five Notable Performances
1. F/C Kenneth Faried and G Demonte Harper (Morehead State)
Faried tallied 24 points and 15 rebounds while Harper accounted for 27 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in the Eagles' 80-73 win over Tennessee Tech to win the OVC Tournament.
2. G Jimmer Fredette (BYU)
38 points and four rebounds in the Cougars' 102-78 win over Wyoming to wrap up a share of the Mountain West title.
3. F Mike Glover (Iona)
31 points and 11 rebounds in the Gaels' 94-64 win over Siena to move on to the MAAC semifinals.
4. G Kemba Walker (Connecticut)
34 points and six rebounds in the Huskies' 70-67 loss to Notre Dame.
5. G Louis Krogman (South Dakota)
37 points (13-20 FG) and two rebounds in the Coyotes' 96-87 win over Houston Baptist.
Special Mention: G Marshon Brooks (Providence)
28 points, seven rebounds and five assists in the Friars' 75-74 win over Rutgers. Brooks broke the Big East's single-season scoring record (468 points) as a result of his performance.