The Hardcourt Shuffle: The Weekend’s Top 10 Games

AP Photo/Ralph Wilson

Today is the first of March, and so I wish you a Happy March Day. March Day is the lesser-known cousin of May Day, which is a pagan holiday celebrated on May 1. But March Day is far more important because it means we’re getting close to the most essential time of year: The Madness. When 64 become one, all shall be revealed. Hail March Day, for The Madness Is Upon Us.

(If there’s ever an apocalypse that wipes out most of humanity, I hope the only thing future societies recover from our time is the paragraph above, with absolutely no context.)

Time for the top 10 games of the weekend. Note that a week from Sunday, the regular season is OVER.

10. NC State at Georgia Tech, Sunday, 6 p.m., ESPNU

I put this game here for one reason and one reason only: If the Wolfpack lose, are they a bubble team? Joe Lunardi has them as an 8-seed on the way down in his latest projection, and the idea that they might not make the tournament is probably enough to make heads explode in Raleigh. Keep in mind, this is the team that began the year ranked sixth and came in with a ton of expectations. But also keep in mind that NC State fans have been so traumatized by NC State shit that they couldn’t help but expect a disaster. And if this one comes to pass, they may never believe in anything again.

But let’s look at the facts: The Pack are 20-8, 9-6 in the ACC, which is a bubble record. They have 1.5 “good” wins on the résumé: home vs. Duke, neutral vs. Connecticut. They’re ranked 27th in the RPI, which is a stupid system that should be abolished, but apparently still means something. They can’t win on the road, running up a 2-5 record in-conference. They play almost no defense, relative to a very efficient offense. They were fortunate to beat Clemson and Virginia Tech in back-to-back games two weeks ago when even one loss would have put them squarely on the bubble.

Nobody’s talking about bubble possibilities yet, though, and I think that’s mostly because everyone expects them to get to at least 22 wins. But is it crazy to think they’ll lose the last three games of the year? Two games — Georgia Tech and Florida State — are on the road, where anything goes, and the third is at home against Wake Forest, a team that beat State at home. At 20-11, surely State would need at least two wins in the ACC tournament to make the Dance, right?

Granted, I don’t think Wake can upset State at home on March 6, and I’m assuming the Pack can get their act together long enough to advance at least one round in the conference tournament. So, yeah, they’ll probably make it. But the path to bubble-land isn’t far-fetched, and a loss to Georgia Tech this weekend makes it a legitimate discussion.

9. Alabama at no. 8 Florida, Saturday, Noon, ESPN

In theory, this is a “good” game. Florida leads the SEC by one game at 12-3, and Alabama is just a game behind. The Gators have shown vulnerability with recent losses at Tennessee and Missouri. Bama has won four of five. But let’s be honest — it’s going to be another home massacre for the Gators. For whatever reason, the team’s modus operandi this year seems to be road letdowns (starting very early in the season with the collapse at Arizona) followed by statement victories at home. Here are Florida’s margins of victory in SEC home games: +33, +31, +39, +14, +25, +17, +17. And, frankly, Alabama just isn’t that good. In fact, aside from a home win against Kentucky, there isn’t an impressive line on the Tide’s résumé. The 11-4 conference record says more about the SEC than it does about Alabama.

8. No. 21 Notre Dame at no. 22 Marquette, Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN

A classic Big East slugfest between two gritty, hard-nosed, blue-collar squads! Get ready for a real war!

(This is the description I’ll be using for any remaining games between two slow, boring teams that have done pretty well in the Big East. And, yes, I see the irony in calling Notre Dame “blue-collar.”)

7. Iowa at no. 1 Indiana, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

I wanted so bad to root for Iowa to make the tournament. I was totally on board with Fran McCaffery’s fast, fun team. I even had my main argument, which went like this: They’ve only lost to really good Big Ten teams since conference play started! A lot of the games were really close! They had a tough schedule, and they even beat Wisconsin and Minnesota!

Then the Hawkeyes had to go and lose at Nebraska. Talk about deflating. I realize the Big Ten schedule is such a hard slog that those kind of letdown games are inevitable (hello, Michigan losing to Penn State!), but man, that still shattered some dreams. At this point, Iowa needs to pull off a stunner, and Indiana might be the last chance. After this, the schedule ends with Illinois and Nebraska, and then the Big Ten tournament. There’s no doubt that the Hawkeyes are on the outside of the bubble looking in, but I still want to believe there’s a chance …

6. Wichita State at Creighton, Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN2

Hey, look, it’s two teams we thought might be good! I’m going to pat myself on the back for identifying Creighton as a phony back in January, though it probably wasn’t that tough a call. Starting with the Wichita State loss, though, the Blue Jays have gone 6-4 in the Missouri Valley Conference. And it’s not like Wichita has done much better; a 12-5 mark in the MVC isn’t impressive for either team.

So, let’s talk tourney. I get that Creighton is almost definite, with a 23-7 record and early wins over Wisconsin, Cal, Arizona State, and St. Joe’s. I guess that’s enough. But can someone explain why we’re even entertaining the idea of Wichita State in the Dance if it can’t win the conference title? Seriously, look at this résumé. The Shockers had semi-decent wins over VCU and Iowa very early on, but since then, a home win against Creighton is the only thing worth noting amid the five bad conference losses. Say they lose to Creighton on Saturday and don’t win the MVC tournament; you’re telling me this is an at-large team? I can’t see it.

5. No. 20 Butler at VCU, Saturday, Noon, ESPN2

Unlike the Wichita–Creighton game, this one involves two teams that could do serious damage in the tournament. In Butler’s case, there’s an offensive and defensive balance that makes them dangerous, along with having a gunner in Rotnei Clarke who can light it up and a coach with a weird ability to win close games under pressure. For VCU, there’s … well, there’s havoc. When you force the highest percentage of turnovers and get the highest percentage of steals of any team in the country, you have a chance to make it deep into the tournament. Add in an increasingly efficient offense, two tall perimeter sharpshooters in Troy Daniels and Treveon Graham, and a high percentage of offensive rebounds, and future opponents should absolutely be scared.

This is a hard game to analyze precisely because it’s such a style clash. Butler will obviously try to play slow and grind things out underneath, limiting VCU’s second chances and getting easy baskets underneath. And VCU will obviously try to hurry Butler into mistakes and maintain a fast tempo. My gut tells me Butler coach Brad Stevens will have his team ready to face the pressure, and we know from experience that it’s easier for slow-tempo teams to impose a style on their faster brethren. It should be a great test for the Rams, who are bound to run into a Butler-type team in the early rounds of the tournament.

An interesting note here is that if Butler manages to win, it pretty much guarantees an A-10 regular season title for St. Louis. I only bring that up because if you’re looking to get in on a mid-major sleeper that might be one of the five best teams in the country, the Billikens are it.

4. No. 11 Arizona at UCLA, Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN

We’ve got a bit of a cluster near the top of the Pac-12 at the moment, with four teams within a game of the lead. If the Bruins can defend their home floor, they’ll vault into a tie at the top with Oregon and have a very good chance to win the regular season title. After Shabazz ran roughshod over Arizona on the road earlier in the year, Sean Miller’s team has a lot prove; especially after falling to USC this week. The grim reality with Arizona has been taking shape for almost two months, and it’s become clear that the Cats have been ranked above their ability ever since beating Florida. The leadership at guard is strong, but as the season wears on, the big freshmen seem to be a year away from reaching their potential. If they can’t stop UCLA from scoring, we’ll know to avoid picking them past the second round.

3. No. 5 Miami at no. 3 Duke, Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN

In case you were wondering if this would be the year that Mason Plumlee actually lives up to his early season performance and keeps delivering through the ACC schedule and into the tournament, wonder no more: It ain’t.

Thursday’s loss at Virginia might have been the worst performance to date for a guy with so much athletic ability that he should be scoring 40 points per game, and yet possesses absolutely no court sense. He’s like a lost child when the pressure’s turned up, reverting to his one post move — an ugly running hook — and playing scared interior defense, as though someone ordered him to concede easy layups in order to avoid a foul. He’s the most frustrating player I’ve ever watched at Duke, and I watched Miles Plumlee for four years.

Now I’m about to say something that will make everyone accuse me of whining. (Fair enough on that front.) But in Thursday’s post, when I outlined three changes that would help college basketball become a better game, there were two I left off due to length issues that many people brought up. The first is the absurd charge calls that scare teams from driving to the basket, and I’ll be the first to admit that Duke has been a huge beneficiary in that department. The second, though, has killed Duke, and that’s the habit defenses have of grabbing and bumping and shoving perimeter players when they move off the ball. It makes it impossible for guard-heavy teams like Duke to move, and it completely grounds the offense. Virginia was just latest team to “prevent” Duke from executing, and in my mind, they did it by fouling over and over and over again. That’s the hallmark of teams like Virginia: physical defense that uses every ounce of referee tolerance, and is especially successful at home. It uglies up the game, and makes the sport less free-flowing and attractive. And it shouldn’t be allowed.

2. No. 10 Louisville at no. 12 Syracuse, Saturday, Noon, CBS

A classic Big East slugfest between two gritty, hard-nosed, blue-collar squads! Get ready for a real war!

OK, that’s probably not fair here. Both of these teams seem like they could be elite. And in fact, I think Louisville is ready to prove itself; the only Cardinal loss in the past eight games came in the bizarre quintuple-overtime game against Notre Dame, and things were very, very weird that night. And believe me, I still worry about Rick Pitino’s offense in crunch time, which seems to consist of having Russ Smith toss up prayers from just inside the 3-point arc. But there’s no arguing with Louisville’s defense, which is the most efficient in the country, and given the choice between great offense and great defense in the tournament, I’m taking D every time.

But if Louisville looks poised to join the upper echelons, Syracuse is a complete mystery. Which is appropriate, because Jim Boeheim is the most unpredictable coach in world history. This year’s team stomped Notre Dame and beat Louisville on the road, but has also lost four road games and fell by double digits at home to Georgetown. I can already tell I’ll have no idea what to do with them in the bracket. Neither a second-round exit nor a Final Four appearance would surprise me. Just another Boeheim team.

1. No. 9 Michigan State at no. 4 Michigan, Sunday, 4 p.m., CBS

One of my favorite parts of watching the Spartans demolish the Wolverines in East Lansing was hearing a quote from Tom Izzo (bottom of the article) in a small group of reporters after the game. After noting that the win would make things twice as hard in Ann Arbor, a reporter suggested that maybe the Spartans were so good that they’d blow them out on the road, too.

“Don’t kid yourself,” said Izzo.

It was half funny, half world-weary. The weight of experience was in those words, and I trust Izzo that things won’t be easy. But the first win was so convincing that I understand the reporter, too, because the formula for Michigan State’s success is easy: Use Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson to bully them down low, bottle up Nik Stauskas and Tim Hardaway Jr. on the perimeter, and make Trey Burke operate in a vacuum. It seemed really, really easy the first time around.

Which puts the onus on Michigan. For a team ranked no. 4 in the country, the Wolverines have looked very weak on the road, and obviously losing to Penn State on Wednesday was an embarrassment on the Kansas–TCU level. But therein lies the question — do road games really matter, aside from regular-season conference titles? Does it mean anything in March? Maybe not, but for the Wolverines to remain relevant, they have to show that they can beat elite teams like Michigan State and Indiana. This weekend and next, they’ll have their chance.

Filed Under: Alabama, Arizona, College Basketball, Duke, Florida, Georgia Tech, Indiana, Louisville, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Shane Ryan, Syracuse, UCLA

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere