By Brendan Kapfer
We are currently in the home stretch of the college basketball season. Four games left for all of the teams until their conference tournaments. In the past week we have seen Maryland add to their impressive resume for the tournament.
Kansas joins the race for #1 overall seed and North Carolina falls closer to elimination from postseason contention. These are just a few things that have contributed to the thrilling race to the postseason as of late, but as we enter the home stretch the only thing one can expect is chaos. There have been four different #1 teams in the country and one of which is currently in jeopardy of not making the tournament. With every week comes new excitement and new questions so let’s dive in.
Game of The Week:
North Carolina vs. #23 NC State
This game was neck and neck the entire way through until the five-minute mark. North Carolina needed a quality win, as they are currently in true danger of missing the NCAA Tournament, something nobody could have predicted coming into the tournament. Caleb Love and Armando Bacot both had great games for North Carolina as they
tend to do so, but Jarkell Joiner and DJ Burns of NC State produced enough offensively to hold off UNC’s heavy firepower. North Carolina’s duo of Bacot and Love had thirty-nine points whereas NC State’s duo of Joiner and Burns had forty-seven points. Burns and Joiner had help from their teammates along the way with two other players scoring in double figures, and Bacot and Love did not have any other teammate score ten points.
Until the five-minute mark of the second half, the game was within two possessions. The Tar Heels could not seem to gain any separation from Wolfpack, even when they had a four point lead. The Tar Heels could not manage to come back after NC State established a seven point lead and increased it to twelve after going on a fifteen to three point run. The Tar Heels got rattled by the away crowd and folded under the pressure. This was a massive game with two teams desperate for a win. After going on a seven-point run to lead sixty-seven to sixty, North Carolina just could not find an answer to NC State’s powerful offense. The final score was seventy-seven to sixty-nine NC State.
Team of The Week:
To put it mildly, the Wildcats have not had the best of seasons. The Wildcats coming into the season were ranked as the #4 team in the country but have suffered losses to Georgia and South Carolina to put them far from the conversation of contenders to win the national title. To be clear, I am not saying what they did this weekend makes them national title contenders, just that they can belong in the conversation of teams that can make a run come late March.
Following a bad loss on the road against Georgia, Kentucky went to play a team of their caliber, with the same record as them in Mississippi State. Despite attaining a double-digit lead in the second half, Kentucky saw the Bulldogs start to mount a comeback. Although the Wildcats have allowed opposing crowds to let teams back into the game and decide the game on the road, Kentucky did not allow that to happen last week. They finished the Bulldogs off with some clutch free-throws and some stellar defense to force the game-clinching turnover.
The win against Mississippi State was a good win but it was not a win good enough to make Kentucky my team of the week. They would need to do more than bounce back from two bad losses on Saturday, and so they did. They did so by sweeping the Volunteers of Tennessee who were ranked as the #10 team in the country and having just beat the #1 team in the country in Alabama. The game was never really in doubt, with Kentucky leading by around ten points the entire way through. Four of their five starters were in double figures scoring wise, and nobody in Tennessee was able to get anything easy for the forty minutes that these two teams were on the court. Tennessee has the best defense in the country, and Kentucky proved itself on the offensive side this past week.
That is why they are the team of the week.
Player of the Week:
Kansas had a huge game last week. It’s not the kind of game you circle on your planner at the beginning of the week. It’s not even the kind of game you circle on your calendar at the beginning of the month. It’s not that kind of game because you have had this game circled since the moment the schedule was released. Jalen Wilson this weekend showed up in that game which was against Baylor, the other team that has won a national championship during this decade.
Against star forward, who some say is a first round pick in the NBA Draft in Flo Thamba, Wilson held his ground giving up just two rebounds and one point during the entire game. During this same game, Wilson dominated the glass with thirteen rebounds and was so impactful during the game he sat for just three minutes. In addition to the impressive defense and paint dominance, Wilson scored twenty-one points which is just another day at work for him. His performance this weekend has people really talking about whether or not Kansas can win back-to-back championships. If he keeps playing like this, Kansas will be among the only teams left to choose from.
Top Three Teams:
1. Houston Cougars
Consistency matters. It has mattered, it still matters and will matter. Houston is the only team in the country with two losses, and one of those losses came against the #2 ranked team in the country in Alabama. The other loss they had, that came against Temple, was avenged and it was avenged on the road. The Cougars will get knocked for not playing in a conference that has more than one ranked team, but as we learn in college sports, you can only play the games that are on your schedule. Houston has a win over Virginia who was the second best team in the country at the time and beat that team in Virginia. Houston has played lights out defense in their last seven games and that is what consistency and being a team that can win it all is all about.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
If I were to say what makes this Alabama team tick, I would not know where to start because all around they are one of the strongest teams offensively I have seen in quite some time. Brandon Miller though has led this team to its first #1 overall ranking in twenty years. Although this team is not the #1 team anymore because of a loss to Tennessee, they are still having a season for the ages. Miller is averaging eighteen points per game and eight rebounds per game as a first-year student which looks like last year’s first overall pick in the draft Jabari Smith Jr.’s numbers when he was at Auburn. In addition to all of this, he has become the fastest Alabama freshman to ever achieve five-hundred points. This young team has lost just three games this season and if they can stay consistent this team will be a nightmare to see come late March.
3. Kansas Jayhawks
Kansas has been phenomenal once again. I would put them as my #1 team in the country, but I need just a little more from them. It is a three-team race right now for this last spot in the top three and all of those teams are in the Big Twelve. In the last four games Kansas has played both of those other teams, Baylor and Texas, and won both of those games. They have had clutch performances from the player of the week in Jalen Wilson to the knock down shooter in Grady Dick. They have grown from last year and despite facing even better competition, they are still in the same place they were last year heading into the tournament.
Questions of the Week?
1. Is it too late for North Carolina to build its resume?
The Tar Heels coming into the season were in are in trouble. That term gets thrown around too much, so I am going to restate that. North Carolina is in real danger of missing the NCAA Tournament following a year in which they went to the National Championship and barely lost. To add insult to injury, this North Carolina team was the number one team coming into the season and returned all three of its best players. They need a win this weekend against Virginia, and if they lose another game, it would be extremely hard to make a case for them to be in the tournament. If they do win this weekend, then we can talk about a resume and we can discuss what they need to do to make the tournament. Right now this game is to stay alive, not to move up a seed in the tournament.
2. Can Kansas State stay in the title conversation?
The way I see college basketball, all teams that are one, two, three or four seeds are in the conversation as title contenders. The tournament has sixty-eight teams, and six wins will get you a national championship so as seeding is important, it is not everything as was the case with North Carolina last year. Now Kansas State is on the verge of being a team outside of the top-twenty which would put them as a six seed in the tournament. Tonight, they play against Baylor who also will want to bounce back but are a team that will be playing for the second time on the road in three days. This is Kansas State’s last chance before the Big Twelve Tournament to prove itself as a top sixteen team in the country, but a win would go a long way to putting them in the title conversation.
3. Can Maryland finish with a run?
Beating the #3 team in the country is cool. It is more than cool, especially when you do it at home but when you get caught up in the moment and lose to as bad a team as Nebraska it is humbling. Maryland needs to redeem itself, and yes, they should make the tournament but if they want to turn that should into will they need to go into the big dance running. There are a total of four games left and the Terps need three of them. Winning all four of their remaining games is not a tall task, considering the ranked team they play, Northwestern will be coming to College Park but they cannot afford to slip up like they did this past weekend. UMD has a really solid basketball team this year, but the question is can that solid basketball team get over the finish line? They win and the question will become how far can they go?
Game of the upcoming week?
#21 Northwestern @ Maryland
Maryland just beat Purdue as we have already discussed but they followed that with a bad road loss to Nebraska. They are a good enough team to surprise the best teams in the nation, but to do that in March they have to hit the ground running now. These two teams have not met yet this season, but have had similar paths to get to where they are. Northwestern is currently on a four game win streak and is two games behind Purdue in the race for the Big Ten regular season championship. Last weekend, they beat Purdue so if they can somehow get those two games back of Purdue, they will have the #1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Both teams have had impressive years, both surprising a lot of the nation but they need to get across the finish line to complete the season. Northwestern can put itself on the five seed line with a victory, and Maryland should be in the top 25 come next week with a victory.
Games to watch
#9 Baylor vs. #14 Kansas State on ESPN2 at 7:00 P.M
#8 Texas @ #9 Baylor on ESPN at 4:00 P.M. on Saturday
North Carolina @ #6 Virginia on ESPN at 6:00 P.M. on Saturday
#17 Indiana @ #5 Purdue on Fox at 7:30 P.M on Saturday
#15 Saint Mary’s @ #12 Gonzaga on ESPN at 10:00 P.M on Saturday
#21 Northwestern @ Maryland on Big Ten Network at 12:00 P.M. on Sunday
There is a lot on the line, with not a lot of time left. From the Midwest to the southwest, college basketball is at its best time of the year. With Conference Championship week, fast approaching, let’s see who can put themselves in the best position for the NCAA Tournament. Friends, welcome to the home stretch of the College Basketball Season.