#14 Vanderbilt 72, #1 Tennessee 69
I always talk about player psychology on this blog, and one of the most important types of games is the letdown game. And the classic set-up for a letdown game was what Tennessee went through Saturday night at Memphis. It was a game they'd been looking forward to for a month - they were playing for number one in the country, in their own state, with a frenetic crowd. Everybody went all out in that game, and I'm sure that many of the Tennessee players didn't have much left to give after the buzzer went off. Following that up with a key game at Vandy, against a hostile crowd, was just a perfect recipe for a letdown game. It was so obvious that even the normally-oblivious studio hosts on ESPN were predicting an upset before the game. Now, as I discussed here, Vandy is set up for their own letdown game. They head to a desperate Arkansas squad, enjoying the glow of their own epic win. I'd say that Arkansas has got to be favored for that game. So, while Vandy fans are penciling their team into the Final Four, I think people need to realize that the Commodores are vastly overrated. I don't think any Final Four team has ever entered the Tournament with a Sagarin PREDICTOR of 48th (where Vandy is right now). They're obviously on pace for a nice seed - something in the 4-to-6 range. But I have to warn you against buying into the Vandy hype all too much.
Missouri State 86, #20 Drake 83
Speaking of letdown games, Drake hit a speed bump after their huge BracketBusters win at Butler. In the end, this game actually doesn't mean all too much. Drake should easily take care of Wichita State in their finale, to wrap up the regular season at 25-4, and 15-3 in the Missouri Valley. Even if they somehow lose to Wichita State, they're still a lock for the Tournament. The only question is if they can nail a #4 seed, or if they slip to something like a 6 or 7 seed. The Valley as a whole has still got a decent shot of being a multi-bid conference, with Illinois State and SIU well in the bubble mix, and Creighton still alive as well. Assuming the top seeds all progress through the early rounds, a key could be the Missouri Valley Semifinals. If all goes according to seeding, we'd see Drake against Creighton, and Illinois State against SIU. And there's a good chance that those games will be must-wins for Creighton, Illinois State and SIU. Should be an interesting Arch Madness.
#12 Indiana 72, Ohio State 69
Another tough, heartbreaking loss for an Ohio State Buckeyes team still struggling to get off the bubble. Barring a total collapse, I still think that the Buckeyes will be a Tourney team - but they've got to earn their way in. The RPI has slipped to a very dangerous 51st, although the Sagarin is at a reasonable 36th. But the fact is that Ohio State has had a ton of chances to impress, and just haven't cashed in. They are now 1-9 against the RPI Top 50, with two more home games against RPI Top 50 teams (Michigan State and Purdue). I think that a key will be their other game, which happens to be their next game, on Saturday at Minnesota. A loss there would be devastating, and might actually knock them out of the bracket. If they can take care of business there, then it comes down to the aforementioned games against MSU and Purdue. A split there should probably be enough to get an at-large bid. A sweep and they will probably need a little run in the Big Ten Tournament to wrap up a slot in the Tournament. With all the talent on this Ohio State team, it's shocking that they're still on the bubble. But they're just so young that they don't have the experience necessary to close out close games against more veteran teams like Indiana and Wisconsin. If all of this talent sticks around, Thad Matta will have a heck of a team next year. If not, he might start regretting the recruiting of so many one-and-done players.
Florida 77, Georgia 64
A key "taking care of business" win for a Gators team still looking for a marquee win. They are now 21-7, including 8-5 in the SEC and a win over Vanderbilt. The Sagarin is 38th, although the RPI is in the 50s. If the season ended now, they'd probably be in the Tournament, but they've got a very tricky end to the season. They get Mississippi State at home, Tennessee at home, and then head to Rupp Arena. Mississippi State is a very key game, because Florida might end up fighting with the Bulldogs for an at-large spot. Nobody will criticize Florida for losing to Tennessee, although it's obviously a very winnable game in front of what should be a very loud O'Connell Center crowd. If they can't take out Tennessee, the game at Kentucky could be the key to locking up an at-large bid. Kentucky is obviously on a heck of a roll, and a win over them would be a nice closer for the Gators.
Kentucky 58, Mississippi 54
Speaking of Kentucky, how is this game for a Tale of Two Seasons? I bet you could have gotten about 100-to-1 odds a month ago that at the end of February, Kentucky would be ranked higher on the Bracket Matrix than Mississippi. Kentucky's overall RPI is still in the low-60s, but I think the Selection Committee is going to weight the late season wins over the early season losses. A lot of people have the attitude that the Tournament should invite the 34 best teams right now, not the 34 teams that were best in November. Still, the resume can't be that bad. We can overlook the early-season losses to Gardner-Webb and San Diego, but you can't look past the 4-8 record against the RPI Top 100. They still need to finish strong. If they can't win at Tennesse, they probably need to win their final two games. If they lose their home finale to Florida, they will probably slip to 11-5 in the SEC, and there's a good chance that won't be enough. As for Ole Miss, they are now in very bad shape. This makes their 9th loss in the SEC, and they need to win their final three regular season games to even be in the discussion on Selection Sunday. It's hard to see a 7-9 SEC team making the Tournament, even with more than 20 wins. But a 6-10 SEC team? No chance.
Nebraska 63, Oklahoma 45
For those people who question - this is why I keep around teams with awful resumes in my teams "still alive, but basically need a miracle" category. Nebraska's season looked pretty bleak at 3-7 in the Big 12 with a triple-digit RPI. But three straight wins over Kansas State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma, along with a Sagarin Rating of 60th, means that Nebraska has popped into at-large consideration as February comes to a close. They're obviously real long shots still, but there is a scenario for them to sneak in. Of their three remaining games, they have two winnable games sandwiching a game at Texas. If they can pull the upset at Texas, they'll have a real shot at an at-large bid. If not... well, it's not like Cornhusker fans really expected much out of this season anyway. Oklahoma, of course, is much better positioned for an at-large bid. They are also at 6-7 in the Big 12, but the rest of the resume is much stronger. Even with this loss, they're inside the Top 40 in both the RPI and Sagarin. They're also a decent 8-9 against the RPI Top 100, and despite a mediocre 18-10 record they can balance that with a top ten schedule (which you probably could have guessed from the fact that 17 of their 28 games were against the RPI Top 100). The thing is, I don't think a 7-9 team in the Big 12 has ever gotten an at-large bid. So that means they need a minimum of two wins in their final three regular season games. All three games are winnable... and all three are losable. They need to win two to stay firmly in the at-large discussion. And unless they sweep all three, they'll need to make sure that they win at least one game in the Big 12 Tournament. In other words - they really could have used this one. Not a good loss at this point in the season.