Five observations from the week that was:
1. Let’s call the whole No. 1 debate off. Thanks to Purdue’s collective toughness and E'Twaun Moore’s singular brilliance, Ohio State lost for the second time in eight days Sunday. But the Buckeyes weren’t the only likely No. 1 seed to lose this week, or even this weekend. On Saturday, Texas fell at Nebraska and Pittsburgh fell at St. John’s ... all of which was preceded by Kansas’ loss at Kansas State on Big Monday. In other words, the best four teams in the nation -- or what we thought were the best four teams in the nation -- all lost this week.
Naturally, this is likely to spark some discussion both before and after the polls are released Monday afternoon. Last week, yours truly spent too much time debating the various merits of the AP and coaches’ polls, but that’s because those polls deserved to be debated. (I didn’t think Kansas was a clear No. 1 over Ohio State and Texas, and I hate the fact that pollsters just automatically move a team up or down based on who lost most recently. Ugh.) This week? Try as you might, it’s pretty tough to argue that any of the top six teams in the nation -- OSU, Kansas, Texas, Duke, Pittsburgh, San Diego State -- are obviously better or more deserving of the current No. 1 ranking than any of the others.
Pick your cliche: “parity,” “no great teams,” whatever you prefer. Whatever overriding theme you think produces this top-tier equality, let’s just all agree that we’re not going to know which team is best -- or whether a “great team” does in fact exist this season -- until the Final Four is done and decided. In the meantime, we can probably find other stuff to argue about, yes?
2. Derrick Williams deserves more player of the year love. This is not a new thing. Williams has been touted here and elsewhere for his incredible efficiency since, oh, December. But it remains true, especially after the sophomore’s primetime coming-out party in Arizona’s huge win over Washington on Saturday. Williams scored 26 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, but it was his monstrous, out-of-nowhere block in the closing seconds that effectively sealed the win for the Wildcats. He wasn’t perfect -- he had seven turnovers, after all -- but all in all, Williams proved why efficiency-minded folks have been so high on him for months, and why NBA GMs are going to be drooling if they have the chance to select him this summer.
3. The Missouri Valley Conference is a one-bid league. We learned this Friday and Saturday, when the MVC went 3-7 in some crucial (and some not-so-crucial) BracketBusters matchups. Losers included the MVC’s top six teams – one-time at-large hopefuls such as Wichita State, Missouri State, Northern Iowa were all among the losers. Those losses at the top -- especially for the Shockers and Bears -- will almost certainly doom the Missouri Valley to one-bid status when the committee sits down to select and seed the field in March.
4. Michigan State could make a run. OK, OK, I know: We do this every year. But no season in recent Tom Izzo vintage has been quite the roller coaster this season has been, and given where the Spartans were two weeks ago -- getting blown out at Iowa and never competing at Wisconsin -- it’s hard to argue this team hasn’t turned some sort of corner. Michigan State has won two of its past three, including nice home wins over Illinois and Penn State, and the loss in that stretch was a close, hard-fought defeat to Ohio State in Columbus. After that game, Izzo told the media the Spartans “ain’t dead yet.” A few weeks ago, we wouldn’t have believed him. Now? We’ve learned to temper our expectations -- this team will never justify its No. 2 preseason ranking, and it probably isn’t going to the Final Four -- but it’s hard to disagree about there still being some life left.
5. Illinois still hasn’t figured it all out. The Fighting Illini were again underwhelming in the aforementioned loss to Michigan State on Saturday, scoring .93 points per possession thanks to some substandard shooting, lack of interior rebounding and an inability to get to the free throw line against MSU’s usually physical defense. In other words, Illinois lacked toughness, which has been one of Bruce Weber’s criticisms of this team throughout its struggles in January and February. The Illini have lost seven of their past 11, and if it wasn’t for a 54-52 squeaker over Michigan at home Wednesday night, that tally would look even worse. (And Illinois would be on the bubble.) As it is, the Illini are almost certainly going to get in the tournament, but if they want to go far, they’ll need to get more from their frontcourt. The good news is Demetri McCamey -- who faced his own criticism from Weber this week for letting “outside influences” distract him -- seems to have found his shot again. If Illinois wants to turn all that talent into something resembling what most of us expected, it will have to hope McCamey can put it all together sometime soon. If not, this team (like so many of the Big Ten’s middle-pack) may be doomed to disappoint. In many ways, it already has.