|This story originally published on CollegeHoops.scout.com|
For sheer drama conference tournament drama, it's going to be tough topping that Gerry McNamara 3-point push/floater that gave Syracuse a 74-73 victory over Cincinnati in a first-round game of the Big East Tournament Wednesday afternoon in Madison Square Garden.
But Jihad Muhammad did almost that, barely missing on his half-court heave at the buzzer.
By the way, watch the replay of McNamara's drive that culminated in his game-winning (and NCAA Tournament at-large bid-hope extending) shot. First Muhammad and then Cedric McGowan were in position to cut off McNamara's penetration but couldn't get it done.
So the Bearcats, who could have approached Sunday's NCAA Tournament bracket and pairings announcement with something approaching confidence if McNamara had not connected on his shot, will have a long and nerve-wracking at-large bid wait Sunday.
But Jim Boeheim's team didn't guarantee itself anything with the victory other than an opportunity to face the nation's best team – Connecticut – in a quarterfinal Thursday.
If Boeheim's players want the NCAA committee members holed away in their Indianapolis conference room to give a little less credence to that three-game losing streak (including a 39-point loss at DePaul, which didn't even make the Big East Tournament 12-team cut) they closed the season with and more to that thrilling win Wednesday and their overall "body of work", here's a suggestion: Play the Huskies very competitively Thursday. I didn't say they have to beat them. Just use the game against Connecticut to convince the majority of those folks in Indy that they are entitled to one of those precious 34 at-large bids.
BOUNCING AROUND THE OTHER TOURNAMENTS:
Barring a major upset in the tourney title game Sunday afternoon in Nashville, the conference's NCAA Tournament representation is pretty well locked up.
The only exceptions might arise if Kentucky (to Mississippi) and Arkansas (vs. Georgia) were to drop first-round games Thursday. But, even with one or both of those situations, the Wildcats and Hogs would still be relatively comfortable – relatively being the operative word – barring an inordinate number of upset conference winners that would swell the pool of viable at-large candidates.
Taking a team, minus its best player (Nick Welch, out all season with injuries), to a 24-5 overall record (and 12-4 in conference) in your first season with the program is a pretty good working definition of "exceptional".
Even if it doesn't win the conference tournament on its home floor in Reno Saturday, look for Nevada to become one of the sexy choices to be a "surprise" Sweet 16 participant.
But it should be all that surprising to see Mark Fox's club playing in the second week of the tournament, as the Wolf Pack did two years ago under Trent Johnson.
Nevada, which takes an 11-game winning streak into its Thursday night opener against No. 8-seed Idaho, is led by one of the 10 best players in college basketball in 6-11 Nick Fazekas and has one of the nation's most underrated sophomores in Marcelus Kemp.
Regular-season champion UCLA lost four times in Pac 10 play but, because of the way the tournament bracketing is aligned, the Bruins couldn't face one of the three teams that knocked them off in the regular season until the championship game Saturday in the Staples Center.
Bruins' Coach Ben Howland is hopeful that his team will be rewarded with a No. 2 NCAA Tourney seed with a Pac 10 tourney title to go along with the regular-season version, which would bring UCLA's record to 27-6.
Or, could the NCAA committee members decide that Gonzaga, despite an impressive RPI and seemingly every other number in its favor, should rate only a No. 3 seed because of its considerably less-than-impressive last few weeks of play – even in Spokane – within the West Coast Conference?
The Illini closed fast (with wins at Minnesota and Michigan State) to finish – along with Iowa – just a game behind first-place Ohio State while the Spartans dropped five of their final seven games to finish 8-8 in conference.
Yet, with Paul Davis (Photo above), Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown in the lineup and Tom Izzo coaching them, how many would be surprised if the Spartans are the last team standing in Conseco Fieldhouse Sunday afternoon?
Inducted into the USBWA Hall of Fame last April,
Frank Burlison is Scout.com's national basketball expert and is also a columnist