Reviewing the entirety of a college basketball season is a very difficult project.
There’s such a clear line of demarcation between the regular season and “tournament season” (otherwise known as Championship Week, followed by the NCAA tournament) that the first 30 games very quickly recede into the background. What happens in the final six to nine games of the season on neutral courts in March claims most of the area in our basketball craniums. It’s not fair. It’s not the way it should be. Yet, it’s the way it is, and there’s no getting around that emotional reality.
Tournament play — more specifically, a dissection of the smaller-conference tournament brackets — becomes a national discussion point early next week. While this week is still alive, it’s worth beginning the slow process of looking back at the season that was.
There’s rarely a more instructive thing to do in a college basketball season than to show how influential the first games ultimately became. February matters, but so does January.
More than that, December and November matter as well.
From the very first night of this and every season, games matter. It’s the underappreciated truth of college basketball. March focuses our attention and propels our passions, but the substance of a season — whether a success or failure in its fullest dimensions — develops from the start.
In service of this important truth, we offer 10 unexpected plot twists from pre-Thanksgiving games.
When football was still king of the college sports news cycle, and when a fair number of games took place beyond the contiguous 48 states, several bubble profiles were altered in meaningful ways. A number of other teams suffered setbacks which, while painful at the time, figured to be easily surmountable in the chase for an at-large NCAA tournament berth… but have become a lot more burdensome.
When these 10 events happened, chances are you didn’t express a specific thought about each one of them. Thus begins our “Like Hell You Did!” list of the pre-Thanksgiving games which lent ample definition to this college basketball season… but in ways you didn’t anticipate:
NOVEMBER 13: MONMOUTH 84, UCLA 81 (OT)
I thought, “This is going to get Monmouth an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.”
Like hell you did.
See how this works?
The Hawks aren’t an at-large lock, but they’re very much in the mix with so many power-conference bubble teams struggling. Additional wins later in the season bolstered their profile, but this was the win which started it all, on the very first night of the season in a sparsely-populated Pauley Pavilion.
NOVEMBER 17: TULSA 77, WICHITA STATE 67
I thought, “This could keep Wichita State out of the at-large conversation.”
Like hell you did. (LHYD.)
The Shockers, having rolled to the Sweet 16 a year ago with a veteran backcourt ready to do it all over again, did not figure to be outside the at-large candy store at this point in the season. Even when they lost to Tulsa — a bubble team a year ago and a bubble team now — they didn’t figure to be disadvantaged to a severe extent, but here we are. Wichita State will very likely need to win Arch Madness in St. Louis to put on its Dancing shoes. Gonzaga is a similarly high-profile team which will have to win its conference touranment to Dance.
NOVEMBER 18: PROVIDENCE 60, ILLINOIS 59
I thought, “This is going to mean the difference between Providence being a lock and a bubble team (likely to be in the field, but still unsafe) in late February.”
With Kris Dunn at the controls, the Friars weren’t supposed to be in danger of missing the NCAA tournament this season, and in fact, they haven’t been. The Friars aren’t a raging success or a profound disappointment. Considering where the program once was, making NCAA appearances on a regular basis is still pretty darn good. (Consider the fate of Boston College as a cautionary tale of expectations and aspirations.)
With a loss at home to Illinois — a team currently outside the RPI Top 150 — Providence would still be above the cut line, but its position would be at least somewhat precarious. As things stand right now, the Friars probably need to win just one more game to be an absolute lock. Losses to both St. John’s and DePaul in the coming weeks could legitimately push the Friars to the bubble.
Good thing they beat Illinois by one in mid-November.
NOVEMBER 19: TEMPLE 75, MINNESOTA 70 (PUERTO RICO)
I thought, “This will keep Temple alive in the bubble conversation in late February.”
No one could have known how bad Minnesota would ultimately become. This result has become valuable for Temple not as a good win, but as a narrowly-avoided loss. Had Temple not won in Puerto Rico against the Golden Gophers, it would be just about done as an at-large candidate. As things stand, the Owls still have a chance.
NOVEMBER 20: TEXAS TECH 74, MISSISSIPPI STATE 72 (PUERTO RICO)
I thought, “This game will give Texas Tech an important bubble cushion at the end of the regular season.”
The Red Raiders were not widely expected to be an NCAA tournament team this season. Even at the start of this month, Texas Tech was barely on the bubble — if at all — following damaging Saturday losses to West Virginia (Jan. 23) and especially Arkansas (Jan. 30). Then came a five-game winning streak, with three wins over top-25 opponents. Avoiding this loss to Mississippi State offers a crucial dose of leverage to Tubby Smith’s team in its pursuit of an at-large bid. One more win should seal a ticket to the tourney.
NOVEMBER 21: ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK 49, SAN DIEGO STATE 43
I thought, “This could get UALR an at-large, and knock the Aztecs out of the at-large pool.”
The Sun Belt has put more than one team in the NCAA tournament only twice since 1994, and one of those instances was the First Four in 2013 with Middle Tennessee, a team which:
A) is no longer in the league (Conference USA);
B) performed very poorly when given that opportunity.
Arkansas-Little Rock scored a quality win in San Diego, but the idea that the Trojans would be one of only three teams with only three losses on the morning of February 25 was (is?) preposterous.
Equally preposterous was the idea that San Diego State wouldn’t rebound from this loss. In a conference-specific context, the Aztecs have indeed regrouped: They’ve lost only one Mountain West game. However, they continued to stumble in the month following their lapse against Little Rock. San Diego State fell to San Diego and Grand Canyon, losing ground in the at-large race. SDSU has to win its next five games just to have a reasonable shot at an at-large bid. UALR is in better shape on the at-large board… just as we all thought would be the case on Nov. 21.
NOVMEBER 21: NORTHERN IOWA 71, NORTH CAROLINA 67
I thought, “This will not matter for Northern Iowa; the Panthers will decline and fail to make the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, North Carolina will still likely lead the ACC heading into March.”
LHYD — at least for the first part.
Northern Iowa had just gained a No. 5 seed in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Coach Ben Jacobson has established himself as one of the better bench bosses in America. Surely the Panthers were going to turn this win (and a win over Iowa State, and a win over Wichita State) into another tourney ticket.
Meanwhile, North Carolina — though without Marcus Paige in this game — didn’t put its best foot forward. Virginia has gained the No. 1 seed in each of the last two ACC Tournament showcases, so the idea that Carolina was ready to respond to the Cavs took a big blow after this loss in the heartland. Yet, UNI and UNC have watched their seasons travel in dramatically different directions.
NOVEMBER 22: WISCONSIN 74, VCU 73 (NEW YORK)
I thought, “This could mean the difference between VCU being in or out of the NCAA tournament.”
VCU, after absorbing a loss to a well-below-.500 George Mason team on Wednesday night, finds itself in extreme bubble danger. A win over Wisconsin in Madison Square Garden would have come in handy for the Rams, who must now get even more work done in the coming weeks.
NOVEMBER 24: SAINT BONAVENTURE 77, CANISIUS 73
I thought, “Avoiding a loss here could mean the difference between the Bonnies getting into the field of 68 or not.”
Saint Bonaventure, profiled here, had not made the NCAAs since 2012. Avoiding a bad loss to Canisius might have been an NIT-bearing achievement, but not a big-bracket buffet. The Bonnies aren’t in the clear, but their resume is so much better as a result of escaping the Golden Griffins two nights before Thanksgiving.
NOVEMBER 25: WAKE FOREST 80, UCLA 77 (MAUI)
I thought, “This will severely, not mildly, affect UCLA’s bubble candidacy in the fullness of time.”
Wake Forest had beaten Indiana earlier in the Maui Invitational. The Demon Deacons weren’t expected to make the NCAA tournament, but they were viewed as a team on the rise under Danny Manning. Wake Forest enters the coming weekend with only two ACC wins. Only a historically awful Boston College team has prevented Wake from occupying the ACC cellar. UCLA has picked up some valuable wins this season. Losing to Wake Forest was a bad result at the time, but few could have imagined the setback would become this oppressive for the Bruins.