Loren Tate: Upsets galore about to unfold
Early Sunday afternoon, future Big Ten member Maryland blew a three-point lead in the final seconds but still defeated ACC champion Virginia in overtime. Upset?
Later Sunday, a Nebraska team that lost to Illinois 60-49 Feb. 26 snapped Wisconsin’s eight-game win streak. Surprise?
Not really. Just a natural windup to the craziest regular season ever. If you’re filling out an NCAA bracket, you don’t have a chance.
Taking the top 27 teams in last week’s Associated Press poll (including Ohio State and Texas, which had just fallen out), these “elite” teams have lost 31 games since March 1, and 22 of those losses came against teams ranked below them.
Under these conditions, there shouldn’t even be a Top 25 poll, much less four No. 1 seeds. It’s absurd ... laughable. The teams from No. 11 through No. 27 have prevailed in 27 of 50 games since March 1.
Illinois whacked two of them ... on their own courts. Former No. 1 Syracuse lost four of its last six games. Kansas fell late to Oklahoma State and West Virginia (trailing by 25 in that game). Kentucky is limping home.
This is mass carnage. Six ranked teams managed to avoid losses since March 1: Florida, Wichita State, Villanova, Michigan, San Diego State and Oklahoma. Look for several of these to lose in conference tournaments this week.
What we’re left with is the wildest edition of March Madness yet. I wouldn’t bet two cents on any of them, including the 34-0 Shockers. Their biggest win all season came against Saint Louis, and the Billikens lost three of their last four games.
Defense holds the key
Players practice jump shots by the hour, launching thousands every summer. But defense? Only in organized drills. Only when the coach twists their arms.
But let’s see:
When you analyze Iowa’s late-game failures and general underachievement, what does it say when the Illini topped 63 points just twice in the last 15 games, and both came against the Hawkeyes?
By contrast: The Illini defense (1) limited six of their last eight foes to 55 or lower, (2) held the Hawkeyes 20 points under their average in a 66-63 win Saturday night and (3) allowed just four field goals and no free throws in the final 11:25 ... this against a home team that shot nearly 100 more free throws (actually 91) than any other Big Ten team.
John Groce’s faith in his veterans paid off Saturday. Jon Ekey drained a game-winning trey, Rayvonte Rice made two vital steals in the last 2:30 and Nnanna Egwu turned in a clutch performance to spark the game-ending 18-9 run from a 54-48 deficit.
But the key was preventing Roy Devyn Marble from breaking loose. With Illinois trading off between man-to-man and a zone, the Hawkeyes senior scratched to get eight points, this after topping 20 in the previous five outings and hitting double figures in the other 17 Big Ten games.
Marble entered the final weekend with a 13-point lead in Big Ten games but lost that honor to Nebraska’s Terran Petteway (who went 5 for 18 against Illinois on Feb. 26). Doesn’t it sound like defense is making a difference?
Henson the front-runner
Will Lou Henson get his name on the State Farm Center court?
Something tells me, with the idea so popular, that it will somehow happen. Many fans wouldn’t be favorable toward anything else.
But “Henson court” may have lost a likely fundraiser when the Orange Krush committed $1 million toward its own hospitality club.
First question: What kind of annual donation does Mike Thomas expect for the court’s naming rights?
Second: Wouldn’t Illini Nation carry negative vibes toward any name other than Henson on that floor?
Third: If it happens, would Henson be the only coach with his name on two floors (it didn’t cost anything at New Mexico State).
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.