Teams are running out of time, and more to the point, chances. And as we well know, tournament resumes are built on impressive performances, and more importantly W's, when those chances arise.
ESPN has accomplished so much -- national television coverage first and foremost, but also its association with the V Foundation and other efforts aligned with the NCAA's core mission -- but one of its greatest ideas came 10 years ago when a powerful sports entity decided to explore a national showcase of the nation's mid-major programs.
It was a novel concept met with some skepticism. This was before the days of George Mason, VCU and Butler. The power programs' iron fists ruled college basketball; they controlled the money (to a larger degree than today), the television exposure and the NCAA championship tournament. Many wondered if an event promoting smaller schools would reap any financial benefit and prove a worthwhile use of television time and advertising spots.
Ten years later, it has proved genius. Mid-major programs have gained greater respect with greater success in March, starting with George Mason's shocking run to the Final Four and followed by Butler's back-to-back Final Fours and VCU's sprint to the national semifinals from the initial First Four. These programs have gained exposure (a nationally televised game on ESPN does wonders for recruiting if nothing else). Yet, the most important benefit is a mid-to-late February chance -- removed from the RPI killers of conference play, rather a handpicked opportunity to state tournament worth against a like-minded foe.
Which brings us to the 2012 BracketBusters, a three-day event that gave the likes of Wichita State, Creighton, VCU, Drexel, Saint Mary's and Murray State chances to improve their NCAA Tournament resumes. Assessing the bubble- worthy's March hopes is an exercise for Friday (From the End of the Bench runs both Monday and Friday through the first Monday night in April), but below is a quick synopsis of the teams that did themselves favors and those that didn't during this made-for-TV event.
Murray State: To hoops loyalists, Isaiah Canaan is already a household name, but for those casual viewers just tuning in, what a methodically efficient show they witnessed Saturday night. Canaan scored 23 points on just 13 shots, playing through the offense instead of clogging it with isolation attempts. He and the Racers played perhaps their most complete game of the season with the world watching and Dickie V in the house. Three main thoughts from Saturday's 65-51 demolition of a very good Saint Mary's team: Murray State has someone the VCUs or George Masons didn't have -- a first-team All-American candidate. Yes, Canaan is that good. The Racers have three RPI Top 25 victories, which to me weigh more heavily than a gaudy one-loss record in the Ohio Valley Conference, the 21st-rated conference by the RPI. Finally, Ivan Aska may be Murray State's most important player down the stretch because he provides a perimeter-oriented team with some toughness and interior scoring. The Racers are a more dangerous, well-rounded outfit with Aska on the floor, and his eight-point, four-rebound line from Saturday doesn't do justice to the difference he made.
Drexel: I discussed the Dragons' at-large profile on Twitter yesterday before their rout of short-handed Cleveland State and will again in the Friday column, but for now, who can't be impressed with Bruiser Flint's outfit over the last two months? The Dragons haven't lost since January 2 (a bad loss at that, though, 58-44, to Georgia State), rolling off 15 straight wins in relative obscurity until the 69-49 victory over the Vikings on Saturday. Freshman Damion Lee scored 18 points to pace the Dragons, who are tied with George Mason atop the Colonial Athletic Association standings (the Dragons won the only meeting, 60-53).
Creighton and Long Beach State: Both members of Saturday's instant classic make this list for their effort and for passing the tournament benchmark dubbed as the "eye test." The 49ers took it to the Bluejays for a good portion of the game, but give Creighton credit, it took a punch and used its offensive firepower to fight back into the game. Antoine Young's left-handed floater just before the buzzer proved to be the game-winner, but this slugfest didn't produce a loser. Creighton's Doug McDermott, stuck in a funk of sorts that aligned with the Bluejays' recent tailspin, exploded for 36 points and 11 rebounds, almost single-handedly destroying the 49ers with jump shots, dribble-drives and one acrobatic, over-the-head tip-in that is sure to be on Top 10 lists for some time. Yet, Long Beach State did little to hurt its at- large chances with its road performance. Yes, a win would have been a nice buffer, but the 49ers are blitzing through the Big West in a such a dominant fashion that an auto bid seems like a mere formality. But if it isn't? Well, there is always this battle in Omaha, but also a large inspection of a non- league schedule that was the toughest in the nation. More on that Friday.
Saint Mary's: The Gaels are in the NCAA field, but the last two games have lowered the roar around this team to a murmur. Saint Mary's has lived all season off its WCC-best offensive efficiency (1.17 points per possession adjusted), but Matthew Dellavedova's ankle injury has significantly hampered the Gaels' ability to score easy baskets and even work their way into basic sets. The loss to the Racers was a perfect storm, yes, but it also was the third defeat in four contests and points to an alarming trend: Saint Mary's is having trouble scoring, and its defense is not stingy enough to make up for the sudden offensive inefficiency.
Davidson: It was a long shot, but a victory over Wichita State, coupled with the December victory at Kansas and a close loss in the Southern Conference championship game may have made an intriguing case. Instead, the Wildcats never found answers for the Shockers' Joe Ragland, who poured in 30 points during the 91-74 victory. Davidson now must travel the auto bid route.
Elsewhere last week, other programs took advantage of their chances, while others fell short. From the End of the Bench cherry-picks North Carolina State and Kansas State for polar-opposite results.
It was a week of opportunity for the resurgent Wolfpack, who stared at resume- building games at Duke and versus Florida State. The week started splendidly, as North Carolina State looked the tournament-worthy part, jumping out to a 16-point lead in Durham and holding a 20-point edge early in the second half. Then, the attacking mentality crawled into a not-to-lose shell, possessions were wasted through stagnation and turnovers, and foul trouble mounted. Duke took advantage from the charity stripe and with a pressure defense that made the ticking seconds seem longer. The result was a complete collapse and a missed opportunity that ended with a 78-73 loss. The weekend ended with a much weaker effort in a 78-62 loss to Florida State, which was marred by two Wolfpack legends -- Tom Gugliotta and Chris Corchiani -- ejected from the stands for apparently berating the officials.
Kansas State's week began with a narrow 59-53 loss to Kansas, not a harmful defeat but definitely one Frank Martin would have liked to squeeze out as a prized profile enhancer. It got the quality W five days later, a road victory, 57-56, at Baylor. Jordan Henriquez-Roberts' bucket in the closing seconds gave the Wildcats the lead, and they held their collective breath when Quincy Miller's jumper just before the horn drew only iron. "When a team punches us, we have to punch them back," said Henriquez-Roberts. That mindset makes the Wildcats a dangerous club come March; the grind-it-out bunch that could cause undisciplined teams fits. The Wildcats' bubble standing will also be discussed on Friday.
1. Kentucky (26-1): The Wildcats showcased their depth in a 77-62 victory over Ole Miss. Terrence Jones led one of five Wildcats in double figures. Up next: Mississippi State, which is on a three-game skid and moving precariously close to the bubble.
2. Syracuse (27-1): Two tough road wins at Louisville and Rutgers bring the Orange's mettle to the forefront. C.J. Fair scored a career-best 21 points in the 74-64 win over the Scarlet Knights. Fair's offensive outburst again demonstrates Syracuse's offensive depth ahead of a visit from suddenly-surging South Florida, winners of four straight and 10-4 in conference play.
3. Missouri (25-2): The Tigers' seventh straight victory was bolstered by Kim English's 21 points at Texas A&M. Matt Pressey, a valuable bench presence, sprained his left ankle ahead of a big week that starts Tuesday against Kansas State and finishes Saturday in a battle royal at Allen Fieldhouse.
4. Kansas (22-5): After outlasting the Wildcats, Kansas thumped Texas Tech, 83-50, ahead of a trap game at Texas A&M. Thomas Robinson and company can't look ahead to its Saturday date with Missouri.
5. North Carolina (23-4): North Carolina continued its mastery at home against Clemson, winning for the 56th straight time in Chapel Hill against the Tigers. Harrison Barnes scored 24 points and Tyler Zeller added 14 in the victory. North Carolina's road week ahead includes tough tests at desperate North Carolina State and Virginia.
6. Michigan State (22-5): I think "we" as hoops fans undersell Draymond Green's skill set. We wax poetic about his leadership and his intangibles, but the senior forward is having an All-America season. He scored 20 points with 10 rebounds and seven assists in a 76-62 victory at Purdue. The Spartans' week ahead includes a trip to Minnesota (a game the Golden Gophers need) and a home date with Nebraska.
7. Duke (23-4): The big reason for Duke's ferocious rally against the Wolfpack? Not Austin Rivers but Seth Curry, who attacked the rim with a controllable aggression I haven't seen from the guard this season. If he becomes another dribble-drive scorer, it could really open shooting lanes for a player you haven't heard much from lately: Andre Dawkins. Duke has a dangerous Thursday night date with Florida State (the Seminoles already won in Cameron) before hosting Virginia Tech two days later.
8. Georgetown (20-5): There is much talk, and rightfully so, about the Hoyas' Princeton offense, but they defend with just as much precision. The Hoyas held Providence, a team that went for 90 against Louisville earlier this season, to 25 percent shooting in the 63-53 victory. The Hoyas head to Seton Hall early in the week before hosting Villanova on Saturday.
9. Ohio State (22-5): The Buckeyes' main problem? Jared Sullinger has the team's best three-point percentage. David Lighty is long gone, and William Buford and DeShaun Thomas struggle when teams don't double-team Sullinger in the post. Buford is shooting just 36 percent from long range and Thomas only 32.6 percent. Ohio State needs one of the two to shoot more consistently to take some of the pressure and focus off Sullinger. Up next for the Buckeyes is Illinois, which is laboring and checking out by the game with embattled head coach Bruce Weber frustrated and out of answers.
10. Marquette (22-5): The Golden Eagles' 79-64 beatdown of UConn was a simple case of disciplined vs. undisciplined. Marquette plays within and embraces a system, while the Huskies freelance and go into 1-on-1 isolation far too often. Marquette is a two-man offense with Jae Crowder (20) and Darius Johnson-Odom (24), but the Golden Eagles play such suffocating defense, the two-man sets (they took 31 of the team's 54 shots) may not be an issue. Rutgers heads to Milwaukee early in the week before the Golden Eagles take the show on the road to West Virginia.
11. Florida (21-6): Tough to figure out the Gators, who looked lost a week ago then responded in impressive fashion with consecutive road wins at Alabama and Arkansas, the latter a 30-point waxing where they finished two points short of the century mark. With no more talk about the Gators' at-large viability, we can look ahead to a week that includes a home date with Auburn and a road game at Georgia.
12. Baylor (22-5): The Bears will never reach their potential this season if Perry Jones III doesn't start playing like the NBA lottery pick many scouts assume he is. Look, I've chastised Jones' up-and-down play all season, but truth be told, sometimes it takes a freshman a while to adjust. Well, it's been more than enough time, and the four-point, four-rebound outing against Kansas State will not cut it. Baylor travels to Texas and hosts Oklahoma on Saturday.
13. Murray State (26-1): The Racers can book their tickets for the big dance after the thorough smack-down of Saint Mary's, now the only question is seeding. Murray State's seed ceiling will be an interesting case study if the Racers win out and claim the Ohio Valley's automatic bid. The Racers' season ends this week with two tough conference games. They try to avenge their only loss with a game at Tennessee State on Thursday and travel to Tennessee Tech on Saturday.
14. Michigan (20-7): Believe it or not, the Wolverines can win the Big Ten title, and the schedule sets up for them. Winnable road games at Northwestern, Illinois and Penn State surround a home date with Purdue. Four straight W's may give the Wolverines a surprising conference crown.
15. New Mexico (22-4): From out of nowhere, the Lobos have stormed into the Fine 15 and the national spotlight with the most impressive week in some time. A 10-point win at San Diego State was eye opening in itself, but a 20-point walloping of UNLV at The Pit puts the Aggies in position to win an upper-tier conference this season and perhaps vault into protected seed territory (top 4 seeding). There can be no let up with a road week on the way. First, a tough trip to Fort Collins to face bubble-sitter Colorado State followed by a weekend visit to TCU.