The last two weekends in February always seem to be the days everyone looks back at as the turning points (good or bad) for college basketball's major players once the season is over. Stretch runs start, collapses begin, contenders hit their stride and frauds start to get exposed. It's all a lot of fun.
That said, here's your full recap of everything that went down on the next-to-last (full) weekend in February.
No. 1 Syracuse 56, NC State 55
Jim Boeheim must be living right, because three nights after beating Pitt on a 35-foot shot at the buzzer, the Orange again utilized a combination of luck and skill in the closing seconds of a game to remain unbeaten.
With Syracuse trailing by a point and getting ready to send NC State to the line, Rakeem Christmas stole a Cat Barber pass with just under 15 seconds to play. That led to a fast break where Tyler Ennis found C.J. Fair for what would prove to be the game-winning basket.
T.J. Warren, who led all scorers with 23 points, forced up a shot on the other end that barely drew iron. The win brought Syracuse to 25-0 overall and improved the Orange's record to 8-0 in games decided by six points or less.
While the biggest takeaway here is the No. 1 team in the country staying undefeated, you have to wonder how long this charmed existence can continue. NC State is not a squad that should be able to hang around with one of the national title favorites on their home floor, especially when the Orange should have still been riding high after Wednesday night's heroics. It's probably not an effort that's going to get the job done in Saturday's already ultra-hyped rematch with Duke at Cemron Indoor.
THE WEEK AHEAD:
vs. Boston College (Wednesday)
At Duke (Saturday)
Wichita State 84, Evansville 68
Things were decidedly less exciting for the nation's other undefeated team, which notched a season-high 14 steals in a 16-point triumph at Evansville.
With the win, Wichita State became just the 21st team in NCAA history to start a season 27-0 -- the same record St. Joe's had when they ran the regular season table in 2003-04. Perhaps more important to the Shockers is the fact that they're now just one win away from locking up a share of the Missouri Valley's regular season title and securing the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
Ron Baker (and his remarkable, remarkable hair) scored a career-high 26 points to lead the way for Wichita State.
Rockstar Grannies, your quick thoughts?
I'd have to agree.
THE WEEK AHEAD:
AT Loyola (IL) (Wednesday)
vs. Drake (Saturday)
Game of the Weekend
No. 24 Connecticut 86, No. 20 Memphis 81 (OT)
One of the first games to tip-off on Saturday was also about as good as it got this weekend, as this AAC showdown proved to be one of the most competitive and entertaining tilts of 2013-14 so far.
Shabazz Napier may have taken the largest step of any of the candidates out there towards winning The American's Player of the Year award by posting a career-high 34 points, a total which included a three-pointer in overtime that all but put the game out of reach.
The result may have been more significant for Memphis, which likely lost out on any chance of contending for the AAC's regular season title. The Tigers and Huskies now both sit at 8-4 in the league standings, 3.5 games behind first-place Cincinnati. UConn's win also marks the first time that Memphis has been swept in conference play in 13 years.
Three Teams That Had Stellar Weekends
Any doubts surrounding the Gators' credentials as one of the two or three best teams in college basketball are long gone.
Heading into Saturday, Kentucky was 83-2 at Rupp Arena under John Calipari, with both of those losses coming during last season's weirdness. Add in the facts that ESPN was in town for College GameDay and that the Wildcats were looking for a showcase win to start justifying their preseason hype, and it seemed as though Florida was up against it Saturday night.
While effort alone certainly didn't decide the outcome, the game just seemed to mean more to Florida's upperclassmen (none of whom had ever won at Rupp) than it did to Kentucky's freshmen and sophomores. The Gators scoring on each of their last 13 possessions of the game -- a streak which began when UK had a seven point lead -- probably played a decently large role as well.
The biggest takeaway from the evening is that Florida might be the best team in the country, and even if they aren't, they're one of the two or three out there with the best chances of cutting down the nets in Dallas this April. It's the first time in program history that the Gators have been 12-0 in the SEC, and they have a great shot at being 17-0 when the Cats come to Gainesville for the rematch on March 8.
As for Kentucky, this was their chance to show that they can still become the team everyone thought they'd be back in October, a metamorphosis that, for whatever reason, doesn't seem like it's going to happen. The Wildcats have elite size and next-level talent, which makes them a national championship contender, but it's going to take the right matchups and a heavy dose of good luck for UK to bring title No. 9 back to Lexington.
Villanova is a top 10 team that has lost just three times this season. They've beaten Kansas and Iowa on neutral courts, and are 10-0 against Big East teams not named Creighton. In those two games against the Bluejays, however, VU has been humiliated by a combined score of 197-148.
For Creighton, Sunday's victory put them at 11-2 in the Big East and in control of the race for the league's regular season title. Villanova also has just two conference losses, but there's nothing Jay Wright's team can do to keep the Jays from taking the top seed with them into Madison Square Garden since they were swept in the regular season series.
The other big story from Creighton's 101-80 romp was national POY front-runner Doug McDermott dropping 39 and moving past Larry Bird on the NCAA's all-time scoring list. Of course Bird put up his total in three seasons and without the benefit of a three-point line, but still...it's Larry Bird and you're passing him in something.
Here's the shot that made that passage happen:
McDermott, who finished 13-of-17 from the field on Sunday, will likely move past Tyler Hansbrough and into 12th place on the scoring list when Creighton faces Marquette on Wednesday.
The Big Ten continued to be a glorious mess of muddled unpredictability over the weekend as the Badgers won their fourth straight, a fairly dominating 75-62 victory at No. 15 Michigan.
Big Frank Kaminsky led the way with 25 points and 11 boards for Bucky, which got 69 of its 75 total points from its starting five. The Badgers finished Sunday afternoon with just two turnovers, and they outscored Michigan 32-14 in the paint.
The Wolverines have now lost three of their last five, a stretch which has seen Nik Stauskas score nearly seven points per game below his season average. There is a correlation there.
Three Teams That Did Not Have Stellar Weekends
It's safe to say that no team had a worse week than the Pitt. Jamie Dixon's team followed up a heartbreaking loss to the No. 1 team in the country (who just so happens to be a bitter rival) with a 75-71 defeat at the hands of surging North Carolina.
The Panthers will head into the final stretch of the regular season with a sparkling record of 20-6 and a solid RPI of 30. They also have precisely zero wins over teams that would be in the field of 68 if the NCAA Tournament started today.
The bigger issue with Pittsburgh right now is that there's no longer the potential for a win over a team that's a lock to make the Big Dance. The Panthers have home games left against Florida State and NC State, and then hit the road at Boston College, Notre Dame and Clemson. Those five teams have a combined ACC record of 25-37.
So long as the team takes care of business over the final three weeks of the regular season, Pitt probably isn't going to find itself in a position where it's overly nervous come Selection Sunday. But when it comes to seeding, there might not be a team in the country with more to lose or more to gain during Championship Week.
I know you guys haven't been burdened with the "legitimate tournament team" title for a long time, but losing to squads that are 6-17 overall and 1-10 in your conference isn't the way to handle it.
SMU is still in pretty decent shape as far as making the field of 68 is concerned, but their second loss to one of the awful teams in the bottom half of the AAC will make their final three weeks of the regular season even more stressful than it was going to be already. The Mustangs get Houston and Central Florida at home, but also have to host Louisville and play at Connecticut and Memphis. They'll probably need to win one of those last three games to feel really good about themselves heading into Selection Sunday.
3. Oklahoma State
The tailspin continues in Stillwater, where the Cowboys have gone from a 15-2 Final Four contender to a team that seems destined to end its season with an early-round NIT loss. The latest blow was a Marcus Smart-less 77-74 home loss at the hands of rival Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, the Sooners bounced back from a puzzling home loss to Texas Tech on Wednesday to win their fourth Big 12 road game of the season. Barring an absolute collapse over the next four weeks, OU should be dancing.
Player of the Weekend
Plenty of worthy candidates, but let's go with Billy Baron of Canisius.
The Baron (Do people call him that? I'm calling him that) played all 55 minutes of Canisius' 92-88 triple overtime win over Siena, scoring 40 points, grabbing 10 boards, dishing out five assists and hitting 18-of-19 from the free-throw line. The performance boosted the nation's third-leading scorer's season average to 24.9 ppg.
Billy Baron, Canisius - We legitimately just talked about him. Pay attention.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin - It wasn't as memorable as the 43 he dropped earlier in the year, but big Frank's 25-point, 11-rebound performance at Michigan was his best of the season.
John Brown, High Point - The sophomore guard dropped 34 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and three blocks in a 72-65 win at Radford on Saturday.
Doug McDermott - Did Doug McDermott things we already talked about in Creighton's rout of Villanova.
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut - Scored a career-high 34 and again hit the biggest shot of the game in UConn's enormous win over Memphis.
Dunk of the Weekend
I'll take Jabari Parker bidding farewell to the Duke/Maryland rivalry.
Quote of the Weekend
"We'd never heard the silence...but we love the silence." --Florida senior Casey Prather on the Gator veterans scoring their first road win at Kentucky
Number of the Weekend
Creighton's win over Villanova was its first home victory over a team ranked in the top 10 in 41 years. It hadn't happened since the Bluejays defeated Houston back in 1973.
Five Items to End On
1. The theme of the St. John's season has quickly shifted from Steve Lavin's job security to whether or not the Johnnies can be a team that win a couple of games in the tournament.
The credit for that goes to a stretch that has seen the Red Storm win five straight and eight of their last nine. Their most recent triumph was a dominating 82-60 win over Georgetown, another squad planted firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
When it comes to the Johnnies tourney hopes, there's still a very slim margin for error, but they're playing as well as anyone in that conference. Even if they don't do enough to make the field of 68, they will be a force that demands significant attention a year from now.
2. Michigan State finally got back to (nearly) full strength on Sunday...and promptly lost to Nebraska at home.
It was a season-defining win for Tim Miles' Cornhuskers, who snapped a 21-game losing streak in road games against ranked teams. As for the Spartans, getting players back is one thing, but getting them back in playing shape and on the same page as the rest of the team is a totally different beast.
3. An Auburn fan hitting a 95-foot putt to win a car is still probably my favorite thing of the weekend.
Not joking when I say that this is and will be the defining moment of the Tigers' 2013-14 season. It's a slight step up from last season's defining moment: the Marshall Henderson GIF.
4. They didn't get mentioned in the "teams that had less than stellar weekends" section, but Ole Miss and Indiana both took extremely damaging losses over the weekend to Georgia and Purdue, respectively.
5. Rick Pitino and his Louisville coaches and players say they aren't shaving until they lose again, something which didn't come close to happening on Sunday when the Cardinals humiliated Rutgers, 102-54.
The early stages of Pitino's beard are...not promising.
At least the suit sets it off nicely.