2018 was one of the wildest NCAA Tournament’s ever. From #1 Virginia’s first-round exit, to 11-seed Loyola-Chicago streaking to the Final Four, and everything in between, it was a crazy tournament with some insane games. One such game occured on St. Patricks’ Day, when Michigan, a 3-seed, took on Houston, the sixth seed, in a Round of 32 matchup.
The Setup The game took place in the West Regional, which had seen #1 Xavier and #2 North Carolina fall, meaning that the winner of this game had as good a shot as anybody had surviving the region. Michigan was coming off a sluggish victory over #14 Montana, albeit still a 14-point win, while Houston had barely survived in a 67-65 win over San Diego State. The winner would be facing #7 Texas A&M in the Sweet 16.
How it went down The first half was relatively defensive, and no buckets were scored in the final 1:55 of game time. After claiming an early lead, Houston let Michigan climb back in front, and then the two teams jockeyed for an advantage before heading to the locker room tied at 28 points apiece. The second half was much of the same, as neither team could seize control. Houston had the biggest lead of the game, as, spurred on by spectacular offense from Rob Gray, they scratched out a six-point advantage at 49-43. The Wolverines answered with an 8-2 run to knot the score back up, and the tug-of-war battle continued. With 44 seconds remaining, Devin Davis of Houston hit a pair of shots from the charity stripe, giving Houston a 62-61 lead. However, down the stretch, Davis hit just 1 of 4 from the line, giving Houston just a 63-61 lead, with four seconds remaining. Michigan got the ball quickly down the court and to Jordan Poole, a substitute who had just five points in the game. With the final seconds draining from the game clock, Poole rose up for a three and buried it, ripping Houston’s hearts out and sending Michigan onto the Sweet 16.
The Aftermath Poole’s shot spurred the Wolverines on a deep March Madness run, as they dispelled three Cinderella stories in short order, decimating Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, edging past #9 Florida State in the Elite 8, and handling Loyola Chicago by twelve points in the Final Four. Their spirited charge through the bracket came one step short of a happy ending, as they ran into the Villanova machine in the national championship and lost by 17. Houston did take the next step in 2019, as they put together a strong campaign and earned a 3-seed, advancing to the Sweet 16 before falling to Kentucky. They were headed for a third straight NCAA Tournament berth, a feat they haven’t accomplished since dancing four straight times from 1981-1984.
Notable NBA Players Houston – None Michigan – Moritz Wagner (Wizards), Duncan Robinson (Heat), Jordan Poole (Warriors)
There were very few Big 10 games yesterday, but they were both absolute thrillers, so here’s a quick recap and takeaway from the Big 10 games yesterday, along with results from Friday and games to come on Sunday/
Illinois 64 Michigan 62
The Recap: What a game. Ayo Dosunmu poured in 27 for the Illini including his game-winner with half a second left as Illinois took down the Wolverines on the road to improve to 15-5 overall and take the sole lead in the Big 10 standings.
The Takeaway: Michigan is not a threat. Lots of credit is due to Illinois, but Michigan just doesn’t seem to have that ‘it’ factor this year. They’ve lost four straight games, all by less than ten points, and they seem unable to pull out wins in close games.
Rutgers 75 Nebraska 72
The Recap: Well there wasn’t a lot of Big 10 teams in action on Saturday, but the games that were played made up for that. Following Illinois’s buzzer-beater, Geo Baker buried a three with 1.1 seconds to play and Rutgers survived a stiff test from Nebraska at home.
The Takeaway: No Conference Game is ever a lock. I’m not sure if I learned much about Rutgers, and I’m not any higher on Nebraska after their tight loss, but it does speak to the parity in college basketball. For teams with NCAA tournament aspirations, avoiding letdowns in games they should win will be critical to securing a berth or higher seed come Selection Sunday.
Much like the ACC, I don’t believe the top of the power structure in the Big 10 has changed too much. Michigan State is still the odds-on favorite, and I still regard Maryland and Ohio State as their biggest challengers. However, beyond that? Identifying favorites is a complete nightmare, as results have varied greatly. Here’s a look at who is boosting their stock, and who is struggling in the conference.
Biggest Risers: Iowa, Rutgers, Penn State
Iowa has soared into the national picture courtesy of the potential Big 10 player of the year in Luka Garza. Garza continues to put up monster numbers and has essentially put the Hawkeyes on his back. After a disappointing loss to Nebraska 16 days ago, Iowa has won four straight, including wins over Rutgers and Maryland. This team has the skill and star power to make a little run in March.
Rutgers is one of the hottest teams in the country, even with their close loss to Iowa last night. They are propelled by their 13-0 record at home, and they are extremely close to making a breakthrough on the road, having lost several tight ones to ranked opponents away from home. They’ll need to improve in that area to push themselves into true Big 10 title contention, but the Scarlet Knights are surprisingly relevant in their conference right now.
After a tough start to Big 10 play, Penn State is starting to get hot. They put together an impressive performance to beat Ohio State at home. The Buckeyes had beaten the Nittany Lions by 30 points earlier in the year. They then went to Ann Arbor and took down a solid Michigan squad, 72-63. After their slow start in conference games largely negated their impressive 10-1 non-conference record, the Nittany Lions are playing their way back into the Big 10 conversation.
Biggest Fallers: Purdue, Michigan
Last week, I was praising Purdue for their ability to win at home. After a 71-42 throttling of Michigan State, they looked like a team that could stay relevant due to their home-court advantage. However, they followed up easily their most impressive result of the year with a road loss to Maryland and then a 79-62 flop at home to Illinois. Maybe that was a blip on the radar in the big picture, but the tough loss did a lot to damage the perception of Purdue being extremely tough to beat in their own house.
Michigan has now lost three straight and four of five in Big 10 games, as the Wolverines seem unable to keep up with their conference foes. Last night’s home loss to Penn State was the most concerning, as the Wolverines looked extremely flat at times on their own court, outclassed by an unranked opponent. Michigan is hardly looking like a Big 10 contender, and they certainly don’t resemble the national contender they were heralded to be during the preseason.
My current prediction is that 8 teams in the Big 10 make the NCAA Tournament field, but I could see that number fluctuating as the surprising results pour in. Currently I predict Michigan State, Maryland, Ohio State, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Rutgers to secure tournament berths.
I believe four Big 10 teams are still very much in the picture, and they have a lot to play for down the stretch: Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Minnesota.
I’m declaring 2 teams officially dead in the Big 10 picture, and those teams are Northwestern and Nebraska, who have combined for a 3-13 mark in Big 10 play.