Four top-10 teams played at home on Thursday night as significant favorites and all four emerged with wins as the regular season winds down and we turn our attention to the evolving NCAA Tournament bracket projections and Selection Sunday.
No. 2 Michigan left no doubt with a rivalry win that tastes even sweeter as beating Michigan State also comes with clinching the Big Ten regular-season championship. After falling to an Ayo-less Illinois for its second loss of the season, Michigan needed a solid bounce back and this more than served the purpose of re-centering the Wolverines before the conclusion of the season. Up next is the return game with the Spartans, which will serve as its own challenge to maintain that level of competition with a clear goal achieved.
No. 3 Baylor also did a great job of continuing their bounce back with an 81-70 win against Cade Cunningham and No. 17 Oklahoma State. The Bears have followed their first loss of the season with a road win in overtime at West Virginia and now a second-straight ranked win against the Cowboys. No. 6 West Virginia had its own bounce-back spot as well hosting TCU, and jumped all over the Horned Frogs early with a 14-point halftime lead it defended en route to a 76-67 victory. The Big 12 thrills didn’t stop there, with No. 13 Kansas also catching a scare against UTEP, but more on that later.
No. 5 Iowa left absolutely no doubt hosting Nebraska, with Jordan Bohannon getting hot from deep and the bench got a lot of run in the second half of a 102-64 win. Luka Garza had just 14 points but played only 24 minutes in the game, making it a both a great win for Iowa in light of the postseason grind ahead and also a below-average scoring night for a National Player of the Year candidate.
Winner: First Big Ten championship for Juwan Howard
In just his second year as head coach of his alma mater, Howard has Michigan positioned to secure a No. 1 seed and enter the NCAA Tournament with expectations of a lengthy stay in Indiana. Michigan throttled Michigan State 69-50 to clinch the Big Ten regular-season championship, with Franz Wagner and Hunter Dickinson leading the way. Given the early returns, it’s easy to extrapolate the small sample size and assume this is the first of multiple Big Ten regular-season crowns for Howard, especially given the combination of veterans, transfers and young talent all meshing together here on the 2021 Wolverines. We have spent much of the season viewing the sport through a Gonzaga-Baylor prism, but Michigan has returned from a COVID-19 pause with only one misstep so far and remains among the top picks to win the national championship.
The National Player of the Year discussion has started with Luka Garza since before the season, but when voters decide that and other accolades in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see how Jared Butler stacks up against his peers at the top of the sport. He leads Baylor on the floor and in the biggest moments of the season, like what we saw against West Virginia, and he was the team-leader on Thursday night with 22 points to go with five assists, three rebounds and three steals. The time Baylor spent on pause created a lull for the college basketball audience (and many award voters) to spend time watching Butler and the Bears take care of business in the efficient manner they have done throughout most of their 20-1 start to the season. Butler did struggle in the loss at Kansas, but he’s been playing at an All-American level on the season as a whole and it’s going to be interesting to see if he, as the star player on this national championship contender, gets any late push for the top honors int he sport.
Loser: Everyone, potentially (for Cade Cunningham’s injury)
Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton had no update on Cunningham’s injury or status after the Cowboys loss in Waco. Cunningham was elite, again, carrying the weight for the offense and leading the way with 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting in 39 minutes of action. In the final moments of the game, he stepped on the foot of Baylor’s Davion Mitchell and walked gingerly off the court when it was done. The comments from Boynton included a reference to the bigger picture with Cunningham, with being a potential No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
“I’m always first and foremost worried about his future,” Boynton said, via 247Sports. “As much as winning and representing is, my commitment to these kids is always first. I want to make sure he’s okay. If he’s okay he’ll continue to work with us, if it’s anything more serious than it feels like it is right now than we’ll plan and evaluate how we feel moving forward.”
Cunningham is an electric talent and Oklahoma State has been one of the hottest teams in the country for almost a month, and as the Cowboys’ NCAA Tournament eligibility and contention became more clear, the buzz had been building for his role in March Madness. The hope is that the ankle injury is minor, but those comments from Boynton hint at the resistance to risk further injury.
Winner: Pat Kelsey
Winthrop is 22-1 on the season, ranked No. 105 in KenPom and on Sunday will play for a spot in the NCAA Tournament thanks to a 82-61 win against Longwood on Thursday night in the Big South semifinals. Prior to that 21-point win, the Eagles beat Tubby Smith’s High Point squad by 29 and now all the Eagles have to do is beat Campbell in the championship game to get its shot at a major conference opponent. Heading into the night, Jerry Palm had Winthrop as a 13-seed in his latest Bracketology, and you can bet that a 23-1 team is going to get some attention as a potential Cinderella from that spot in the bracket. Kelsey last led Winthrop to the NCAA Tournament in 2017, falling to No. 4-seed Butler in the first round.
Loser: Jayhawks narrowly avoid Quad 3 loss
Perhaps No. 13 Kansas should have learned a lesson from North Carolina and avoided adding a late-season nonconference game that could do nothing to help its resume. But last Thursday, the day after the Tar Heels suffered a Quad 3 loss at home to Marquette, the Jayhawks announced they were picking up a Quad 3 game with UTEP. The bill on that decision came due in a nearly catastrophic way when the Jayhawks squeaked out a 67-62 win over a Miners team that led 34-20 at halftime. UTEP (12-11) extended its lead to 48-33 early in the second half before Kansas finally woke up for a late rally to avoid its first loss outside of Quad 1. David McCormack scored 16 of his 18 points in the second half to help KU avoid the disaster.
The Texas senior missed the first meeting against rival Oklahoma, but he made up for his absence in that one-point loss on Jan. 26 as arguably the biggest difference-maker for the Longhorns in a 69-65 revenge game win on Thursday night. Sims led the team in points (16) and rebounds (12) while adding three blocks, and avoided foul trouble on the way to an impressive 8-for-10 showing from the field. When it comes to the team’s postseason fortunes Texas will be defined by its guard play, but Sims’ performance proved to be the difference in this matchup against another top-tier Big 12 foe.