It's like our Saturday observations, but on Wednesday instead! A few end-of-day thoughts from another tremendous evening of college hoops:
1. Kansas stole one at Oklahoma State. Don't get it twisted: I'm not saying the Jayhawks didn't deserve to win in Stillwater on Wednesday night, because they did. All I'm saying is they managed to get out of that suffocating arena with a 68-67 double overtime win
and are back in charge of the Big 12 title race without playing their best basketball.
How so? You can start with Ben McLemore, Kansas's surefire lottery pick, one of the most complete and dangerous offensive weapons in the country. McLemore finished 3-of-12 from the field for seven points in 49 minutes, and usually looked tentative and unwilling to attack. Or you can focus on the huge role played by Kansas guard Naadir Tharpe, who never met a long early-clock jumper he didn't like. He finished 2-for-11 total and 0-of-6 from 3. Or you can look at Kansas's 1-for-11 mark from behind the arc. Or you can look at Oklahoma State's 4-of-21 from 3, or its 32.8 percent shooting overall, or that Cowboys stars Marcus Smart and LeBryan Nash combined to shoot 5-of-24 from the field.
Or maybe you want to chalk all of that up to defense. That would be fair: For all of their other issues, the Jayhawks remain a very difficult team to break down on the defensive end (Kansas has allowed just .90 points per trip in Big 12 play) and Oklahoma State's isn't all that far behind (.95). When two teams finish a double-overtime game with fewer than 70 points, that is slow, hard-fought, defensive basketball, no question about it.
The Jayhawks caught a few breaks, including a tough fifth foul (on a nondescript positional call) on Michael Cobbins and a overtime charge on Smart that sent him to the bench for the rest of the game. After a night of mostly abominable choices, Tharpe's overtime penetration helped Kansas get great looks at crucial times. And Travis Releford -- the lone player on his team to play well for almost all of his minutes -- tip-toed the sideline with just a few seconds left in the second overtime, saving possession and preventing Oklahoma State from one final crack.
But none of that should diminish the Jayhawks' accomplishment. There was a lot on the line Wednesday night, not least of all pole position in the Big 12 title chase. Oklahoma State's defense did its work, Kansas helped out with some ugly offense, and still the Jayhawks were able to get out of Gallagher-Iba with a win.
For as frantic and frustrated as he was all night, when Releford saved the final possession, KU coach Bill Self pumped his fist as violently as he could without spraining something. Most Kansas fans were right there with him.
2. The Mountain West is awesome. Regular readers won't need this reminder; they've been well aware of the conference's numerous merits since November. But for those of you just tuning in to college basketball -- show of hands, it's OK, we know you're out there, don't be shy -- please be advised: You really need to be watching the Mountain West.
Wednesday night was just the latest example. Colorado State -- by my reckoning the best and most well-rounded team in the league, but we'll get to that in a second -- traveled to the Thomas and Mack Center for a huge matchup with UNLV, one the Rebels desperately needed to maintain any pace with CSU and New Mexico at the top of the league standings. And in what has become a seemingly nightly occurrence in the MWC, we got another great tight game with the Rebels winning 61-59. UNLV opened with an early lead, and controlled the game 32-21 at the half, but Colorado State -- led by former Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson (playing the best basketball of his life) -- came roaring back in the second half not once, but twice. With less than four minutes left, it looked like CSU was going to get this one: Wes Eikmeier was getting to the rim, Iverson was scoring buckets, Colorado State's bench was erupting in celebratory grunts, and it just felt like all the momentum, all the swagger, was on the visitors' side.
Then Bryce Dejean-Jones took over. He dropped a pretty pass off to UNLV center Khem Birch, who dunked over Iverson for a three-point play, and followed that up with a follow-and-foul of his own. CSU's Dorian Green missed a 3 on the other end. UNLV senior Anthony Marshall -- part of the backcourt that has often been the Rebels' biggest weakness this season -- made a game winner with just seven seconds left.
The RPI has shone brightly on Colorado State yet again this year, but unlike in 2012, the gap between the Rams' actual performance and their RPI performance hasn't been that wide. This is a really good team -- the best rebounding team in the country. (Colorado State clears its own misses at the second highest rate in college basketball, and no one corrals more defensive rebounds.) In other words, UNLV's win is not only a sign of the power of a good home court, or a nice victory for a group still putting it all together -- though it is all of those, too -- but also practically an official one-way ticket to the NCAA tournament.
And it was all just another night in the Mountain West. I'm telling you, noobs. Get on it.
3. Minnesota can't miss the tournament ... right? The simple answer is no, they can't. Their numbers are too good. They have a top-15 RPI and the second-strongest schedule in the country, (according to the RPI); their nonconference SOS ranks No. 14. When you actually look around the country, and take even a passing glance at the résumés of teams actually on the bubble, you realize how comparatively strong Minnesota's position really is.
Having said that ... the Gophers are not playing good basketball right now. Wednesday night's 71-45 loss at Ohio State was every bit as bad as that score. Minnesota never looked engaged, let alone capable. And this is starting to become a pattern. The Gophers are 4-8 in their past 12 games, the only wins coming at Illinois (back on Jan. 9, when Illinois was playing terrible), at home vs. Nebraska and Iowa, and in overtime at home against Wisconsin last week. On Sunday, the Gophers lost 72-51 at Iowa.
In other words, everything about Minnesota appears to be heading in the wrong direction ... except their NCAA tournament chances. How this ends is anyone's guess.
4. Ole Miss is apparently uninterested in dancing, too. That's the best explanation for the way the Rebels played at South Carolina on Wednesday night. Yes, you read that right: Marshall Henderson and company fell, 63-62, to a team with a 13-13 record and a 3-10 mark in a bad SEC. A team that, after last week's 64-46 home loss to LSU, led coach Frank Martin to say the following: "If you take Bruce Ellington off our team, you probably have 12 leading candidates for the Walking -- what’s that movie called? -- the Return of the Living Dead. The zombie movie. If you took Bruce off our team, our guys would probably win an Academy for their performance in that movie. I’ve been doing this for 28 years, nine of which was a junior varsity high school coach. That means I dealt with 14-year-olds. I’ve never been more embarrassed to call myself a basketball coach than I am today." Right. The Return of the Living Dead, as dubbed by their own head coach -- that team beat Ole Miss Wednesday night.
Ole Miss was already squarely on the bubble beforehand; the Rebels began the night with the No. 52 RPI, a 1-4 mark against the top 50, a mere 5-6 mark against the top 100, some really paltry strength of schedule numbers (133 overall; 280 nonconference) and their only "marquee" win coming at home against Missouri, who destroyed the Rebels on the return visit. Needless to say, the Zombie Gamecocks' No. 205 RPI won't help matters. If you're on the bubble, and you want to go to the tournament, you can't lose that game. Of course, that assumes Ole Miss actually wants to go to the tournament. Which, again, remains an open question.
5. That other Big 12 game was pretty good, too. I'm referring, of course, to Iowa State's 87-82 road win at Baylor. No, the Cyclones and Bears weren't waging the league's marquee matchup Wednesday night, but this game was still important to both team's tournament hopes, and had the effect you might expect on both.
For Iowa State, it is a solid road win to buttress a decent-but-still-incomplete NCAA tournament profile; for Baylor, it's yet another understandable but disappointing loss in a season that has been filled with them. At this point, a team expected to contend for the Big 12 title (and not unreasonably, with Isaiah Austin and the rest of the talent) has settled in to relative mediocrity, and an uncertain bubble fate, at least to date.