Thursday’s jam-packed slated of college basketball conference tournament action brought a couple of reminders about how just how unorthodox this season has been. First off, any proclamations over the diminished impact of COVID-19 recently were proven premature when Duke had to withdraw from its run in the ACC Tournament due a positive case within its Tier 1 personnel.
Then, the on-court action reinforced just how much of a struggle it’s been this season for some of the sport’s historic powers. With Syracuse, Kentucky, Michigan State, UCLA, Indiana and Villanova all bowing out of their league tournaments early, it’s more apparent than ever that the power balance in the sport has tilted toward the common man — at least for now.
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But Selection Sunday is coming, and whether or not some of the sport’s big brands hear their names called, it’s clear that March Madness will be wild as ever. Here are the winners and losers from the day.
One of the prominent teams to lose Thursday was Villanova, but instead of harping on the woes of injury-plagued Wildcats, how about some love for Georgetown? After surviving for a dramatic 72-71 win over the No. 1 seed in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals, the No. 9 seed Hoyas have won six of their last eight games. Now, coach Patrick Ewing’s squad is just two wins away from snatching an unlikely NCAA Tournament berth. The Hoyas will face No. 5 seed Seton Hall in Friday’s semifinals after splitting their regular season series with the Pirates.
Here’s the finish from Thursday’s thriller, as narrated in legendary fashion by the program’s radio voice Rick Chvotkin. — Cobb
Winner: Patrick Ewing owns MSG
Ewing went on a postgame rant for getting stopped in the hallways of Madison Square Garden while security guards ask for his clearance passes, and he was right to do so. An 11-time All-Star and Hall of Famer for the Knicks, the man at one point was The Garden. He doesn’t own the building, but he kind of owns the building, you know? Patrick Ewing can do whatever he darn well pleases in MSG. Instead, as coach of his alma mater Georgetown, he’s getting stopped and asked for passes.
“I thought this was my building,” he said. “Everybody in this building should know who the hell I am. I’m getting stopped, I can’t move around this building. I was like ‘what the hell, is this Madison Square Garden?’ I’m gonna have to call Mr. Dolan and say, ‘jeez, is my number in the rafters or what?'”
I once shared a hallway with Mr. Ewing a few years back, so to pander to the legend, I’ve got to say I agree with him. You don’t see 7-footers roaming arenas often. So when you see one — and when you see it’s Ewing — the best option as an MSG security fella is probably to either nod your head or ask for an autograph. Checking clearance at MSG? That should not be on the to-do list of anyone in the building for a man with the stature of Patrick Ewing. — Boone
Loser: Syracuse’s NCAA Tournament resume
Several bluebloods around the country saw their aspirations of winning a league tournament title wilt in different fashion. The honor of most-dramatic defeat belonged to Syracuse, which dropped a 72-69 game to No. 1 seed Virginia in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, when UVA’s Reece Beekman drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer. The loss will leave the Orange sweating on Selection Sunday after they began the day listed as one of the “last four in” according to Jerry Palm’s Bracketology. — Cobb
Loser: Michigan State’s momentum
Likewise, Michigan State’s NCAA Tournament fate is now in the hands of the selection committee after the Spartans produced a dud by losing 68-57 to Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament’s second round. The Spartans entered the day as a projected No. 9 seed but still on Palm’s bubble. Their resume might be good enough to warrant an at-large bid, but another victory would have helped erase any doubt, and this loss was particularly frustrating since the Spartans led 23-11 early. On the flip side, Maryland will feel a lot better about its chances of making the Big Dance now after standing as a projected No. 10 seed entering the game. — Cobb
Loser: Duke’s abrupt end
Duke’s end was the most heartbreaking. After consecutive double-digit victories to begin the week that provided a faint glimmer of hope for the Blue Devils, they were forced to withdraw from the ACC Tournament due to a COVID-19 issue. Duke was supposed to play No. 2 seed Florida State on Thursday, but with their shot at getting an at-large or automatic NCAA Tournament squashed, the program confirmed its season is indeed over. It’s an unceremonious end to the season for a program that will miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995. — Cobb
Winner: Mississippi State puts Kentucky out of its misery
Finally, Kentucky’s season of horror is over following a 74-73 loss to Mississippi State during the second round of the SEC Tournament. The Wildcats finished the season 9-16 for their worst winning percentage in a season since the 1926-27 team finished 3-13. Yikes. But how about a tip of the cap for the Bulldogs? Someone had to euthanize these Wildcats, and Mississippi State surely derived great pleasure from doing it after losing a two-overtime affair to UK earlier this season. Coach Ben Howland’s squad has won four of its last six now and now has a chance to take down No. 1 seed Alabama after playing the Crimson Tide close twice in the regular season. — Cobb
Loser: Indiana and UCLA falter
As if the day’s early carnage for bluebloods wasn’t enough, Indiana and UCLA added to the casualty list in the evening by losing their first games in postseason play. While the Bruins still have a good shot to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team after losing 83-79 to Oregon State in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals, the Hoosiers are toast. Indiana wraps the season with a 12-15 record and losers of six straight games to close it out. Thursday’s dreary finish in a 61-50 loss to Rutgers will only heighten the scrutiny being applied to fourth-year coach Archie Miller, who has yet to qualify for an NCAA Tournament.
Winner: North Carolina and Kansas survive
The Tar Heels and Jayhawks avoided the fates of the other traditional powers and looked impressive during conference tournament quarterfinal victories over quality opponents. No. 6 seed North Carolina knocked off No. 3 seed Virginia Tech 81-73 for a third straight victory. In the Big 12 Tournament, No. 2 seed Kansas handled No. 7 seed Oklahoma 69-62. That’s eight wins in nine games now for the Jayhawks, who are quietly beginning to look like they could be a serious threat in the NCAA Tournament. Ochai Agbaji’s 26 points were a career-high for Kansas.
Just last weekend, Oklahoma State went on the road and knocked off West Virginia without the services of its two most important players: Cade Cunningham and Isaac Likekele. And I gotta admit — felt a little fluky. West Virginia’s tough as nails at home and winning without the potential No. 1 pick given the way OSU is constructed is pretty improbable.
But the Pokes backed it up Thursday with another win over West Virginia, this one in the Big 12 tournament. Cunningham and Likekele returned to the lineup and both reached double figures in scoring, with Cunningham leading the way with 17 points and eight rebounds. It marked OSU’s seventh win in eight games as it continues to heat up at the right time. Big opportunity for the Pokes on deck Friday facing No. 2-ranked Baylor with a shot to advance to the conference title game for the first time since 2009. Team is absolutely rolling right now with a full steam ahead into the Big Dance.
“We didn’t get to this point being a one-man show. I think that shows,” Cunningham said after the game in which four Pokes reached double figures in scoring and several non-Cunningham Cowboys came up big in clutch time. “It’s a team game. Especially in March.” — Boone
Loser: Arizona State’s disappointing season ends
After being pegged in the preseason to finish second in the Pac-12 — and even garnering five first-place votes! — Arizona State’s season mercifully came to meet its end Thursday with a 91-73 loss to Oregon. The loss moved the Sun Devils to an 11-14 finish, the fewest wins in a season since 2011-2012, when under Herb Sendek they went 10-21 in the inaugural season of the Pac-12 hierarchy.
“It’s been a tough year,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said. “There’s been a lot of things thrown at us all year. These guys never folded.” — Boone
No. 5 seed Ohio State jumped out to a 13-0 lead over No. 13 seed Minnesota and ended up needing every bit of that early advantage to hold on for a 79-75 win. The Buckeyes still have plenty of issues to iron out, but avoiding a fifth straight loss entering the NCAA Tournament was critical for a team that still began the day on Palm’s projected No. 2 seed-line for the Big Dance.
The No. 13 seed in the ACC Tournament nearly pulled an upset as well, as Miami took No. 4 seed Georgia Tech down to the wire before falling 70-66. It was the Hurricanes’ third game in three days but just the first of the week for Georgia Tech, which entered the day as a projected No. 10 seed, according to Palm. The Yellow Jackets avoided a potentially catastrophic loss. — Cobb