And by Sunday night, college basketball could finally rest. This after a weekend blizzard of plot twists, otherwise known as Much Ado About March. There were four top-10 showdowns — something that’s never happened before on the same weekend during the regular season. There were coast-to-coast showdowns between conference contenders. We haven’t seen this much commotion coming out of the TV since the last shot of Taylor Swift cheering for a Kansas City Chiefs first down.
Here, then, is a chronicle of 44 mad hours, with stats, oddities and takeaways, starting at 7 p.m. Friday in New Haven, Connecticut, in the gym that sits in a nine-story tower that looks like a cathedral from a Monet painting. And ending at 3 p.m. Sunday in Madison, Wisconsin.
Only five of Yale’s first 19 games have been at home so it’s good to be in the friendly confines. “It’s hard to lose when you have that kind of atmosphere at home,” Yale coach James Jones says afterward. Also hard to lose when you shoot 25 free throws and the visitor shoots three. The Bulldogs end the weekend 6-0 in the Ivy League and tied for the lead with Cornell. Princeton, coming off a Sweet 16 season, is suddenly two games back. Since the pandemic scrubbed the Ivy League tournament in 2020 and ’21, it has been five years since the championship game was not Princeton vs. Yale. They’ve split the past two years.
They take the court tied for the Mid-American Conference lead at 8-1. The Zips win but gasp to the end by committing four of their 12 turnovers in 37 seconds. Akron’s Enrique Freeman is still one of college basketball’s best under-the-radar stories. The senior gets 20 points and 14 rebounds for his nation-leading 19th double-double, continuing a stellar career that began with him getting no offers out of high school, attending Akron on an academic scholarship and showing up at an open tryout to walk on.
It’s the first Big East game in 13 years with both teams topping 95 points in regulation. Butler commits only five turnovers, two of them in the final 10 seconds. The Bulldogs apparently never got the memo that Creighton can’t be beaten on Friday night at home. The Bluejays had won 33 in a row in Omaha on that day going back to 1975, turning TGIF into a team policy. Butler bears watching, with victories already at Marquette and Creighton. The Bulldogs will drop in on Connecticut on Tuesday.
Saturday begins in Madison Square Garden with St. John’s trying to beat a No. 1 team at home for the first time since 1978. The wait goes on. Connecticut has lost once since Dec. 1 and seems to like it fine in the top spot. The Huskies have won 10 in a row and are 20-2 even though they have been able to use their current starting lineup only four times because of injuries. The chances of a repeat national championship increase by the week.
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It’s the Nittany Lions’ first win in Bloomington in nearly 10 years and is accomplished without injured leading scorer Kanye Clary. The Hoosiers lose for the sixth time in nine games and drop to 102 in the latest NET rankings. Mike Woodson is a Hoosier legend as a player, but the clouds are growing over his coaching regime.
They now share the lead in the Northeast Conference and both have a food reason to be hungry. Central Connecticut hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 17 years, Merrimack never.
These two have been paired in four of the past five Mountain West tournament finals, each winning twice. Utah State comes into the game leading the MWC and 19-2 overall, but the Aggies are in the wrong place against the wrong team. San Diego State was beaten by Colorado State Tuesday and the Aztecs have now won 33 games in a row at home when coming off a loss.
Where to begin? The Cougars are 2-3 in away games in the Big 12 and 17-0 everywhere else, getting a full understanding of the peril of life on the road in that conference. Especially when going to Lawrence. It wasn’t just that the Jayhawks shot 68.9 percent against a Houston defense that had been leading the nation by allowing only 35.5 percent. Or that the 68.9 number is Kansas’ best shooting day in 27 years, and the best in a conference game since 1991. Or that the Jayhawks built a 43-28 lead at halftime, scoring more points than five previous Cougars opponents managed the entire game. Or that the Houston juggernaut leading the nation with a 21.2-point average winning margin is actually down 20 at one stage.
Yeah, all that, but then there is this rather amazing number: Bill Self is now 19-1 when facing a higher ranked opponent in Allen Fieldhouse. That includes 16 in a row going back to 2006 and a 14-0 mark against top-10 teams. Gulp. This Tour de Jayhawks is a reminder that Kansas is basically a five-man operation — every starter goes at least 33 minutes and only seven of the 78 points come off the bench — but those five are a real handful. That now includes Australian freshman Johnny Furphy, who is listed as a 6-9 guard and a month ago was averaging only 5.7 points his first season. He has since gone for 15, 13, 23, 15, 11 and 17 points, and torches Houston with 6-for-7 shooting and three 3-pointers. “A blindfolded person would do better than we did,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson says afterward. But the Jayhawks will have to come to Houston in March.
Here’s one way to knock off your neighbor, who is leading the league and winner of 11 in a row. Play ugly for 20 minutes, missing your first 11 shots from behind the arc. Halftime score: 20-18. Then turn into Caitlin Clark. The Rams hit five of their last seven 3-pointers to beat their Spider pals from across town for the ninth time in their last 11 meetings. Richmond and Dayton still lead the Atlantic 10 but VCU is making noise.
The beat goes on for the Southern Conference leaders who have won 20 of their last 21 and lost once since Nov. 10. The nation’s fourth highest scoring team finishes 10 points beneath its average but whips the second-place team on its court by 22 is still pretty convincing. No doubt Samford can’t wait for the opportunity the Southern Conference tournament will provide. The 20-3 Bulldogs haven’t seen the NCAA tournament in 23 years.
Johnny Dawkins’ 300th career victory as coach is a reminder of what mischief the Knights have been up to in their first season in the Big 12, especially at home. First, Kansas, now the No. 23 Sooners. They won at Texas, too. This from the team picked to finish last in the league. Then again, BYU was voted 13th and has beaten No, 24 Iowa State and Texas. Cincinnati was picked 11th and just won at Texas Tech and earlier beat TCU. The Bearcats also lost to Texas by one point, Baylor by three, Oklahoma and West Virginia by four and Kansas by five. Houston is 4-0 at home in the league by an average margin of 23.5 points. In other words, the new guys in the Big 12 are doing just fine.
The 20-3 Sycamores keep their grip on their Missouri Valley Conference lead by rolling past second-place Drake. The nation’s best 3-point shooting team wins despite a bad day from the arc, going 7-for-30. Jayson Kent helps by getting 20 rebounds on his 22nd birthday. Too bad he didn’t get his hands on two more. That should keep Indiana State No. 1 in the CollegeInsider.com mid-major poll, a spot usually reserved for Gonzaga.
This might give an idea of how well the Tar Heels play: Duke shoots nearly 51 percent, has three guys score at least 20 points… and leads for only 16 seconds all night, at 2-0. This might be another factor in the victory: Four of North Carolina’s starters are ages 25, 23, 22 and 21. Duke starts three sophomores and a freshman. It’s the 49th meeting with both teams in the Associated Press top-10 and the first 48 were split at 24-24, with a difference in scoring of 0.8 points. You expect anything else from North Carolina-Duke? The message from this day seems clear enough: The Tar Heels are rolling. They’re 10-1 in the ACC and have led by double digits in all 11 games. “They are just as good as anybody,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer says.
Unusual numbers galore from this one. Such as Rick Barnes is now 7-1 at Tennessee against Kentucky teams ranked in the top-10, not to mention 11-9 overall vs. the Wildcats — which is saying something since in the previous 22 seasons before his arrival, the Volunteers were 9-35. Such as this is only the fourth time an opponent hit 100 in Rupp Arena against Kentucky, and the second in 32 years. Or that the Wildcats, with the home crowd roaring for something good to happen, trailed for 39 minutes and 48 seconds, and the 11-point final spread matches Tennessee’s largest ever against Kentucky. Or that the last time the Volunteers broke 100 on the road against an SEC team was 31 years ago. Or that the big scorer of the night — the Wildcats’ Rob Dillingham with his 35 points — comes off the bench. And maybe this one is oddest of all: After a brightly-lit match of top-10 teams, Tennessee is fourth in the SEC and Kentucky is tied for fifth.
The long and frantic Saturday ends with considerable glee for Saint Mary’s. The Gaels’ 10th consecutive win is hard labor — they lead only 8:30 after falling behind 11-2 — but they make it happen against an old nemesis. Gonzaga had won 25 of the last 30 meetings and was 56-13 against Saint Mary’s under Mark Few. In the past 16 years, the Gates have been 11-33 against the Zags and 201-38 against everyone else in the West Coast Conference. They also had not won in Spokane in six years. But now Saint Mary’s has a two-game lead, and Gonzaga is sliding around on the NCAA tournament bubble. The Zags have lost two conference games this season. The previous seven years they were 122-7 in the WCC.
The weekend parade of blockbuster games concludes Sunday afternoon in Madison, as the Purdue resume picks up even more gravitas. The win makes the No. 2 Boilermakers 7-0 against ranked opponents and 8-2 in Quad 1 games, matching Connecticut for the nation’s best. It comes not with a Zach Edey expose on points in the paint but rather a perimeter attack. The three Purdue starting guards outscore their Badger counterparts 51-30.
The final count for the four top-10 showdowns: Purdue and Tennessee won on the road, Kansas and North Carolina at home. Three of the four games went to the higher-ranked team. There were only five lead changes in the four games combined, as all four victors made powerful statements. Tennessee and Purdue get extra credit for winning in hostile places. But then again, they are two teams who face many ghosts from the past months of March, so their moments of truth are to come.
And while those eight top-10 teams bumped heads to considerable fanfare, Connecticut thundered on, ahead of them all.
There was one other unmissable trend from the weekend. It came to mind as Lance Jones’ 20 points led Purdue’s stand at Wisconsin, and Cam Spencer helped carry Connecticut with 23 points, and North Carolina’s Harrison Ingram threw a double-double at Duke, and Hunter Dickinson was a high scorer for Kansas while L.J. Cryer was top man for Houston, and RayJ Dennis led Baylor over Iowa State and Keshon Gilbert, and Simas Lukosius keyed Cincinnati’s surprise at Texas Tech, and Great Osobor tried to keep Utah State in the game at San Diego State, and Jaylen Sellers led UCF past Oklahoma, and Max Abmas was Texas’ top weapon over No. 25 TCU, and Jahmyl Telfort led Butler’s upset bid at Creighton with.
Those players all led their teams in scoring or rebounding this weekend in big-time games. And all popped out of the transfer portal this season. Of the 93 players averaging in double figures for the AP top-25 teams going into Friday, 44 were transfers, and 25 just arrived in 2023. It is the gale wind that blows through modern college basketball, especially on the biggest weekend of the regular season.