What we learned after Kansas, Marquette losses, Tennessee victory

Saturday’s slate began with the ultimate bubble battle: Villanova at Providence, which pitted one team among the “first four out” against one clinging to a “last four in” spot. The schedule ended with a Gonzaga squad in need of a win to secure an at-large bid traveling to face a Saint Mary’s team looking to complete an unbeaten WCC season. In between, there were dozens of games with huge NCAA tournament implications.

After a couple of weeks that featured debates near the top of the rankings, three of the top five teams in this week’s AP poll were heading on the road, which has been kryptonite for top-25 teams this season. Were we in store for another wild day of losses by Final Four contenders? March is here, and the first Saturday of the best month on the calendar did not disappoint.

ESPN’s Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and Joe Lunardi break down the big storylines from a loaded slate of games.



Baylor fans erupt on Rayj Dennis’ steal-and-score

Rayj Dennis comes up with the steal and drives to the rim for 2 Baylor points.

Myron Medcalf: Right now, Kansas doesn’t look like a national title contender. While the return of Kevin McCullar Jr. was a positive — coming just days after Bill Self said he didn’t expect the potential All-American to play the rest of this season because of a knee injury — the Jayhawks failed to overcome the same issues that plagued them in their home loss to BYU on Tuesday. Against both Baylor and the Cougars, their half-court offense failed to deliver when they needed it most. On Tuesday, they had no rhythm and eventually blew a 12-point lead in the second half. Against the Bears, they resorted to hero ball late in an attempt to climb back.

These offensive woes have been a growing problem. Hunter Dickinson settles for tough shots sometimes. Freshman Johnny Furphy doesn’t always look comfortable. Dajuan Harris Jr., who is more impactful as a distributor, sometimes becomes a scorer by default, as he did in key possessions on Saturday. It’s difficult to see the Jayhawks having a shot to cut down the nets in April. Which is a rare thing for a Kansas team. But this group seems to be a step below the real contenders right now.

Jeff Borzello: The continued improvement of Yves Missi and growing consistency of Ja’Kobe Walter make Baylor’s offense one of the most dangerous in the country, and a difficult out in the NCAA tournament. Since their three-game losing streak in January (by a combined nine points, it should be said), the Bears have won seven of 10, falling only at Kansas, at BYU and against Houston. They have the best offense in the Big 12 — though they’re not as reliant on the 3-point shot as they were earlier this season — with RayJ Dennis establishing himself as the bellwether of this attack.

Entering Saturday, Dennis averaged 13.9 points, 6.3 assists and 2.9 turnovers on 44.3% 3-point shooting in Baylor’s wins, and 11.4 points, 7.1 assists, 4.5 turnovers on 23.1% 3-point shooting in Baylor’s losses. Against the Jayhawks, he took over late and finished with 19 points, 10 assists and just 3 turnovers.

Joe Lunardi’s bracket impact: Another mammoth matchup with no bracket changes from the result. That’s often the case when the “expected” happens, especially this late in the season with so many other data points in the book. We’ll keep both as 3-seeds, though the Bears (No. 10 overall) creep past the Jayhawks (No. 11) on the overall seed list.

Medcalf: For the second year in a row, Marquette has to weather a Tyler Kolek injury in March. A year ago, the Golden Eagles lost to Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament, with the star guard nursing a thumb injury he’d suffered in the first round against Vermont. Now, he’s dealing with an oblique injury that forced him to miss this loss. He didn’t travel with the team and Shaka Smart hasn’t offered any definitive details about his potential timetable to return. Oblique injuries are challenging and the recoveries vary. If Kolek returns relatively soon and is fully recovered, the Golden Eagles will enter the postseason as a team with Final Four ambitions. If he remains out or returns but isn’t fully healthy, the Golden Eagles will face an uphill climb to compete against top teams in the NCAA tournament.

Borzello: It’s time to start talking about Baylor Scheierman as a potential All-American and Big East Player of the Year candidate. The versatile lefty is playing as well as anyone in the country right now. He entered Saturday averaging 19.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.3 rebounds over 11 games, then finished with 26 points, 16 rebounds and 4 assists against the Golden Eagles. He had 15 points in the second half, including three 3-pointers in a two-minute span late in the game that helped extend Creighton’s lead from two to 12 and clinch the win.

Lunardi’s bracket impact: There is no change for either team off this result. Marquette stays in the bottom half of the 2-seeds (No. 7 overall) and Creighton is right on the fence of a 3-seed or 4-seed. I’m keeping the Bluejays as a 3-seed (No. 12 overall) but with Kentucky getting awfully close in the rearview mirror.



Mashack does it all for Tennessee with a 3 and steal leading to and-1

Jahmai Mashack hits the 3-pointer, then gets a steal leading to a Jonas Aidoo and-1.

Medcalf: With his team down by three and 44 seconds to go, Mark Sears launched a rushed, errant 3-pointer that clanked off the rim and cost Alabama a chance to tie the game. Nate Oats’ team didn’t need a 3 — but if the plan was to launch one there, the Crimson Tide needed a better look. And that’s the issue with this gifted squad, which possessed the most efficient offense in the country entering Saturday. The Tide can put up ridiculous, awesome numbers, and they can also get in their own way, surrendering 85 points or more in seven of their eight losses.

Alabama played better than Tennessee in multiple stretches. It forced Dalton Knecht into a 5-for-14 effort. It orchestrated a 12-0 run to end the first half and take the lead. And then, it missed 11 of 12 shots after halftime. In March, we all know Alabama can challenge any team in America with its elite offense. But the question remains: For how long? Good basketball for 40 minutes could help Alabama get to the Final Four. Good basketball in spurts? That version of Alabama is not a guarantee to reach the second weekend.

Borzello: We knew Tennessee’s defense was elite; we knew it could go toe-to-toe with Alabama’s elite offense (because it already beat the Tide this season by 20). But could it travel to Tuscaloosa? It did. The Tide shot just 9-for-37 from 3 and made just two shots from behind the arc in the second half. But perhaps the more important development from Saturday night was UT keeping up offensively with Alabama without Dalton Knecht going for 40. The All-American dealt with foul trouble and was held to 13 points on 14 shots. But Zakai Zeigler made shots, Jahmai Mashack made shots and Josiah-Jordan James was productive. Rick Barnes has options.

Lunardi’s bracket impact: Tennessee stays alive for a No. 1 seed with a huge win in Tuscaloosa, but Arizona did the Vols no favors by thumping Oregon to remain ahead and keep the spot on the top line. The Vols — and anyone else chasing Arizona — will need the Wildcats to lose at some point to move up. Alabama, meanwhile sits solidly as a 4-seed (No. 14 overall) but has slipped behind Kentucky (No. 13) on the seed list.

Quick hits

A long time coming

Five years ago, then-Wisconsin assistant coach Howard Moore’s life changed when he and his family were involved in crash with a wrong-way driver. His wife and daughter, as well as the driver of the other vehicle, were killed. Moore suffered serious, career-altering injuries. His son also suffered minor injuries.

On Saturday, Moore made his first public appearance since the crash during the Badgers’ home matchup against Illinois. The school also announced it had decided to name its basketball offices after Moore. Forget basketball. It was good to see Moore on Saturday. Kudos to Wisconsin for honoring him the way that it did. — Medcalf

Kentucky‘s all-freshman lineup

John Calipari subbed in Justin Edwards at the 5:42 mark of the second half against Arkansas, a change that put five freshmen on the floor for the Wildcats. They didn’t make another substitution the rest of the game, as the freshman-only crew outscored the Razorbacks by 12 the rest of the way. I don’t expect Calipari to use that lineup too often, but it’s a great sign for the Wildcats that Zvonimir Ivisic is becoming a factor and Edwards’ two-way influence is growing. Moreover, the moment — trailing a middling Arkansas team deep into the second half — didn’t seem too big for the young quintet. — Borzello

The Big East roller coaster

The day’s most important “bubble game,” if you will, was Villanova‘s double-digit win at Providence. The Wildcats are now the last team in our projected NCAA field while the Friars sit as the first team out. Incredibly, the teams directly on either side of those two also reside in the Big East: Seton Hall (next-to-last team in) and St. John’s (second team out). The Big East roller coaster is just beginning, and it’s not going to stop until we reach Madison Square Garden. — Lunardi

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