What we learned: Teams on the cutline showed out

After last weekend’s quartet of marquee top-10 matchups, this Saturday was more about teams on either side of the NCAA tournament cutline needing to take advantage of résumé-boosting opportunities. Six top-10 teams faced unranked teams on the road — environments where highly-ranked teams have consistently struggled all season. This group doesn’t include the likes of Marquette, which was hosting a St. John’s team in need of a win, or Kentucky, which was at home against a desperate Gonzaga squad. Michigan State, Colorado, Cincinnati, Florida were also all in need of a victory to boost their NCAA tournament hopes. Who could close the deal and get a win?

With just one month left in the regular season, bubble teams are running out of time to pick up wins that will matter on Selection Sunday. Saturday provided some clarity, and ESPN’s Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and Joe Lunardi accordingly have some thoughts.


Medcalf: Baylor’s challenges at Allen Fieldhouse continue. The Bears are now 1-18 in their last 19 games at Kansas. And they had never had a better chance to steal a victory over Bill Self in a hostile venue. No Kevin McCullar Jr. due to injury. Dajuan Harris Jr. injured his ankle late in the game. Instead of adding a signature win to boost their tournament seed, the Bears couldn’t stop the shorthanded Jayhawks.

The game also highlighted the Big 12’s superiority. Three of the four teams that joined the league this season — Houston, BYU and Cincinnati — are all top-35 on KenPom. The fourth (UCF) has wins over Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Ten teams overall in this conference are top-40 in the NET rankings.

In this league, a good team like Baylor — one of America’s most offensively efficient teams, first in the country in 3-point shooting, though subpar defensively — could win a league title with a run down the stretch, or end the season in the middle of the pack. Or worse. The competition is that tough.



No. 13 Baylor misses two tying 3-pointers in closing seconds vs. No. 4 Kansas

Baylor misses two open game-tying 3-pointers as they fall 64-61 to Kansas.

Borzello: On the one hand, Kansas beating a top-15 team without McCullar Jr., with Harris Jr. banged-up late and with Hunter Dickinson sidelined with foul trouble and struggling for long stretches of the game is flat-out impressive. The Jayhawks scored 17 points off 21 turnovers and got a couple big shots from Nicolas Timberlake — which is a great sign moving forward.

But it wasn’t all positive. That Baylor struggled to make shots from the perimeter, coughed it up 21 times and still had chances to send the game to overtime late was surprising. And the way Kansas defended Baylor in the final two possessions, when Jayden Nunn and Ja’Kobe Walter got wide open 3s, will not make Bill Self happy.

Perhaps most concerning, though, was Harris’ late injury. He finished the game, but we’ll have to keep an eye on it this coming week.

Lunardi’s bracket impact: We call this a “status quo” game, where the outcome was essentially chalk. When that happens, especially this late in the season, there’s very little movement from a single result. Kansas came into the game as a 2-seed, No. 8 overall, and remains exactly that. Baylor entered as a 4-seed, No. 14 overall, and drops only to No. 15 (behind Duke) as a still-solid No. 3 seed.


Medcalf: After emerging from a double-digit halftime deficit with a second-half run, Kentucky ended Saturday’s loss with another curious decision: what appeared to be a designed lob from Reed Sheppard to Adou Thiero, which was intercepted by Ben Gregg. That wasn’t Kentucky’s only missed opportunity this game though. There were missed defensive assignments. A key offensive rebound late in the game that Gonzaga snatched up simply because Kentucky didn’t play with a sense of urgency.

It just does not seem like John Calipari and his players are on the same page. Yes, the Wildcats — who are 2-4 in their last six games and haven’t won a game against a top-30 KenPom team since January 6 against Florida — are playing some of the worst defense among Power 5 teams. But the disconnect goes beyond that. A team full of NBA prospects has been outworked by opponents who lack that talent. They’re in a free fall, and it’s unclear how they will stop it.



Ben Gregg’s steal secures Gonzaga’s win over Kentucky

Ben Gregg rises and steals the rock to secure Gonzaga’s upset over Kentucky.

Borzello: Gonzaga suddenly has NCAA tournament life. The Zags’ postseason hopes essentially hinged on Saturday’s game, as they were without a Quadrant 1 win all season, and this was one of their last chances to get one. They still need to take care of WCC business — and the regular-season finale at Saint Mary’s looms large — but Mark Few’s team now at least has a realistic chance moving forward.

How did Gonzaga do it on Saturday? They got back to basics and simply dominated the paint. Graham Ike, Anton Watson, Braden Huff and Gregg combined for 66 points, and Ryan Nembhard stayed in attack mode in the pick-and-roll. The Zags have struggled from the perimeter all season, but didn’t try to beat Kentucky from 3; they instead found a weakness and continued to exploit it.

Lunardi’s bracket impact: The knee-jerk reaction will be to put Gonzaga immediately into the projected NCAA field. Not so fast, say the bracketologists. This win definitely gives the Zags life as an at-large candidate, but there is plenty more work to do, considering how lacking their profile was heading into Rupp Arena. We’ll move the Bulldogs comfortably into “Next Four Out” territory, within range of “First Four Out,” but needing to run the table in the WCC — including a win at Saint Mary’s on Mar. 2 — to have any breathing room in the conference tournament.



Collin Murray-Boyles throws down big dunk vs. Vanderbilt Commodores

Collin Murray-Boyles throws down big dunk vs. Vanderbilt Commodores

Quick hits

South Carolina’s young star

The Gamecocks emerged from a sloppy first half to beat Vanderbilt by double digits (75-60) and extend their winning streak to seven ahead of a tough matchup at Auburn. During that stretch, three different players have led the Gamecocks in scoring. Lamont Paris always preaches about SC’s value as a team; that’s how it’s won this season.

But freshman Collin Murray-Boyles — who was out for the first month of the season with mononucleosis — has emerged a young star. Against the Commodores he finished with 31 points (14-for-17), seven rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block. He is just the third South Carolina player to score 30 points with an 80% shooting clip in the last 25 seasons, per ESPN Stats & Info. It was also the third consecutive game where he was his team’s leading scorer. South Carolina is just playing for its seed at this point, but Murray-Boyles is emerging into an excellent young talent who has raised SC’s postseason ceiling — and his own. –Medcalf



Auburn Tigers vs. Florida Gators: Game Highlights

Auburn Tigers vs. Florida Gators: Game Highlights

Bubble hopes stay alive

While the Zags keeping their at-large hopes alive received the most headlines, two other teams that entered Saturday in need of a résumé boost added marquee victories: Michigan State over Illinois, and Florida over Auburn. The Spartans were on the right side of the bubble entering the day, but had just lost at Minnesota and needed to bounce back. And Tom Izzo’s seniors stepped up: A.J. Hoggard (23 points), Malik Hall (22 points), Tyson Walker (19 points).

Meanwhile, Florida beat Auburn by 16 in a game that wasn’t nearly that close. The Gators led by as many as 29 points and didn’t make a shot for the final nine minutes. They’ve now won five of six — including victories over Mississippi State, Kentucky and, now, the Tigers. –Borzello

Big East makes moves

My eye was largely on the Big East bubble heading into Saturday’s play and the games did not disappoint. Butler affirmed its at-large status with a hard-fought win over Providence, while the Friars, Xavier and St. John’s all lost chances to move up or into the projected NCAA field. The conference has still another big-time bubble game on Sunday as Villanova hosts Seton Hall: The Wildcats are multiple wins away from a return to the field, while the “last team in” Pirates are just a single loss away from dropping out. –Lunardi

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