A few observations from another exciting Saturday evening in college basketball ...
Let’s talk about Alex Len: The 7-foot-1 sophomore from Ukraine got paid Saturday. Settle down, NCAA. No runners were involved. But the young man clearly elevated his NBA draft stock with his grown-man performance in Maryland’s 83-81 victory over No. 2 Duke, a crucial victory for the Terrapins' at-large résumé. Seth Allen's late free throws sealed the win after a furious late push by the Blue Devils turned Maryland’s 80-72 lead into an 81-all tie in the final seconds. But Len’s performance was the difference. He was a star (19 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks), while Duke counterpart Mason Plumlee (4 points, 2-for-7) struggled.
The Terrapins don’t have any postseason guarantees right now. It’s a soft bubble but they’re still on it. Right now, the Terps are on Joe Lunardi’s “First Four Out” list, but every game on their remaining ACC slate is winnable. Maryland, however, needs this Len every night. He had failed to crack double figures in three previous losses. But on Saturday, he showcased the talent that has fueled the NBA lottery buzz that currently surrounds him. If he gives the Terps that juice over the next six games, they might not lose again in the regular season.
Arizona State stays in the Pac-12 race with crazy win: The Pac-12 has given college basketball fans multiple exciting finishes this season. And the conference did not disappoint Saturday, when both Oregon-Washington State and Arizona State-Colorado were decided in overtime. The latter matchup ended on Evan Gordon's buzzer-beating layup. The Sun Devils’ 63-62 road win was significant in their pursuit of the Pac-12 crown.
Freshman Jahii Carson (18 points, 4 assists) can take Herb Sendek’s program there. It won’t be easy, especially since the Sun Devils have road games against UCLA and Arizona in the coming weeks. But at least they’ll face two of the Pac-12 teams slotted ahead of them in the standings. Arizona State just made the Pac-12 race more interesting.
UNLV needed this one: The Runnin’ Rebels were desperate Saturday. They’re now 6-5 in the Mountain West, three games behind first-place New Mexico. But a lot can happen over the next five games, especially in a volatile league such as the MWC. A loss Saturday, however, would have certainly removed the Runnin’ Rebels from the conversation. And their so-so at-large résumé would have taken another hit, too.
They played like a team that understood the stakes in the 72-70 victory over San Diego State. Khem Birch blocked Jamaal Franklin's shot in the final seconds as UNLV preserved the win, completed a sweep of the Aztecs and maintained a place in the Mountain West race. Anthony Bennett (21 points, 12 rebounds) and Birch (16 points) could lead the Rebels to a strong finish and help the team solidify a bid. The latter seems far more reasonable and feasible. I don’t think I would have felt that way about either if UNLV had lost.
Kansas State recovers: On Monday, the Wildcats went to the Phog and suffered a 21-point loss to archrival Kansas. On Saturday, they beat Baylor by 20 points. No better way for a team to clear its head after a tough loss. I think the 81-61 win says a lot about Kansas State’s mental makeup.
Sure, Baylor has been inconsistent all season. But the Bears also are one of the Big 12’s top defensive teams. The 81 points they surrendered to Kansas State were the most they’d given up in Big 12 play this season. Angel Rodriguez led the Wildcats with 22 points and 10 assists. Four Wildcats recorded double figures in a game that helped K-State remain in the Big 12’s three-way tie for first place (Kansas and Oklahoma State both won Saturday, too). And it helped the program move past Monday’s lopsided loss to the Jayhawks.
Memphis? I think the Tigers have the athleticism and talent to compete with other top-25 teams at neutral sites. Their problem is they don’t have many opportunities to show it right now due to the limited competition in Conference USA. Much like Gonzaga or Florida, the only way for the Tigers to prove their value nationally is to stomp opponents in league play.
To their credit, they’ve won three games by 13 or more in February. They returned to the national rankings last week based on that dominance. They beat Marshall (71-59) on Saturday. There were highlights for the Tigers. But there also were a few confusing moments.
Like the fact that Memphis scored 43 points in the first half but just three points in the first 10 minutes of the second half in a matchup against a Marshall squad that is at the bottom of C-USA and had lost five of its previous seven entering the game.
The Tigers might have the skill to make noise in March. That ugly second half, however, didn’t convert anyone.
On the Horizon: Detroit and Valparaiso might have played the best game of the night. Detroit was down by 15 points with 10 minutes remaining in its road game against the Crusaders. But the Titans launched a 17-2 run over the next five minutes. They eventually won by 10 points, 84-74, and now they’re a half-game behind Valpo in the Horizon League standings. Nick Minnerath and Jason Calliste scored 21 points apiece, while Ray McCallum Jr. added 15 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals. In the first meeting between the two teams, Detroit led by 18 at halftime and 11 with three minutes to play -- but lost by one. Sweet revenge tonight.