The final Saturday of the 2020-21 college basketball regular season absolutely delivered. There were NCAA Tournament bracket implications all across the country, buzzer-beaters, upsets and a top-10 thriller that set the stage for an epic Big Ten tournament.
Illinois' win at Ohio State marked both the return of Ayo Dosunmu and the Fighting Illini moving one step closer to securing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament after they entered the day as the final projected No. 1 seed in Jerry Palm's Bracketology. It helps not only that Illini rolled off back-to-back road wins against top-10 teams but that the victories came against a Michigan team seemingly locked into the top line and an Ohio State team that was holding onto slimming chances that it could roar back from a losing streak and close the season strong after holding that "projected No. 1 seed" status earlier in the season.
While Illinois was celebrating the return of its best player, projected No. 4 seed Oklahoma State proved that it had depth beyond Cade Cunningham with a win at West Virginia while the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft nursed an ankle injury suffered on Thursday night. On the other end of the spectrum, projected No. 3 seed Villanova played its first game since losing Collin Gillespie, and not only lost at Providence, but saw guard Justin Moore suffer an ankle injury in the first half.
North Carolina, a projected No. 11 seed, was one of the big winners of the night with its dominant win against a Duke team on the bubble, strengthening its NCAA Tournament profile and closing out a regular season sweep of its biggest rival. The loss puts Duke's streak of 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in real focus, especially since the 11-11 finish marks the first time the Blue Devils haven't had a winning record in the regular season since that 1995 absence from the Big Dance.
The day saw multiple No. 1 seeds lose in their conference tournaments and ain a battle. We get into some of that and much more below in our edition of winners and losers from another loaded Saturday in college hoops.
Winner: Oklahoma State without Cade Cunningham
With star freshman Cade Cunningham sidelined due to an ankle injury and leading rebounder Isaac Likekele also missing a fourth straight game with a hand injury, no one would have blamed the No. 17 Cowboys for mailing it in during Saturday's regular-season finale at No. 6 West Virginia. Instead, OSU secured one of its most impressive victories of the season with an 85-80 win over the Mountaineers. Avery Anderson III led the Cowboys with 31 points as he bested his previous career-high by 14 points and reminded the country that this team is loaded with talent beyond its one-and-done star.
Loser: Villanova's bad luck continues
The No. 10 Wildcats were already dealing with the crushing loss of senior leader Collin Gillespie for the rest of the season. In the first half of their first game without Gillespie on Saturday, third-leading scorer Justin Moore went down, and Villanova coach Jay Wright said Moore will need an MRI on his knee. As if things weren't tough enough for the Wildcats, they ended up losing 54-52 at Providence in a game that would have gone to overtime if this tip-in had come just an instant sooner.
Matt Painter is 7-0 against Indiana since Archie Miller was hired, and there isn't a Purdue fan in the Hoosier state who won't be reminding their Indiana alum co-workers of this fact on Monday and throughout the offseason. Beyond the rivalry bragging rights, however, is some real excitement about this Purdue team as we kick off March Madness. The Boilermakers are a projected No. 4 seed with a strong NCAA Tournament profile that includes a sweep of Ohio State and a win against Wisconsin, but just as exciting as the team sheet is their current form. Purdue has five straight wins and plenty of signs to suggest this group that relies on two freshmen starters and two more rookies as significant contributors off the bench are growing up and ready to play some of their best ball in the postseason.
Loser: Duke's NCAA Tournament hopes
The Blue Devils got demolished 91-73 by rival North Carolina as their NCAA Tournament hopes took a potentially fatal blow. At 11-11, Duke will need a strong run in the ACC Tournament to avoid missing the Big Dance for the first time since 1995. Saturday's loss means the Blue Devils are the No. 10 seed for the ACC Tournament and will have to play Tuesday against No. 15 seed Boston College. Seeing that will be surreal.
Loser: Florida State gives up ACC crown in South Bend
The Seminoles had a chance to clinch the outright regular season ACC championship for the second straight season on the road at Notre Dame. It wasn't the only path to a conference championship and a No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament, but beating the Fighting Irish certainly seemed like the easiest path considering Notre Dame had lost four straight games and things had gotten bad enough for the students to chant "Fire Brey" at the conclusion of Wednesday night's loss to NC State. Brey and Notre Dame helped turn the tide in a major way with this win against the Seminoles, but the bigger story is a missed opportunity for Florida State, which entered the day as a projected No. 3 seed. The bad loss cost the Seminoles the regular season championship as Virginia went on to beat Louisville later in the day.
Winner: USC's Tahj Eaddy beats Bruins at buzzer
Down 63-61 with 3.7 seconds remaining, USC guard Tahj Eaddy shook off the fact that he had missed five of his six three-point attempts in a game the Trojans had never led. This was the rivalry against UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, and Eaddy was going to step up in a way that would prove to be a dagger for all daggers for the Bruins. UCLA did almost everything right to avenge the lopsided loss to the Trojans from earlier in the year and defend home court to split the series, but it wasn't enough as Eaddy's 3-pointer at the horn cemented the sweep for Andy Enfield and a USC team that will be dangerous in the NCAA Tournament. UCLA, on the other hand, still needs to beef up its NCAA Tournament resume a bit after entering the day as a projected No. 10 seed but still on the bubble, according to Palm.
Loser: No. 1 seeds missing out on auto-bids
The top seed in the Patriot League Tournament fell on Saturday afternoon as Navy took a 76-68 defeat at the hands of Loyola-Maryland. That opens the door for Colgate, winners against Boston University for the fifth time this year, to take advantage of the situation as it avoids a potential matchup with the Midshipmen in its pursuit of a conference championship and NCAA Tournament bid. Navy, the league's best defensive team, and Colgate, the league's best offensive team, never played in the regular season and now won't in the conference tournament. The Raiders, now 12-1, become the new favorites to claim the auto-bid from the Patriot League.
But that wasn't all: top-seeded UMBC lost to UMass Lowell in the America East tournament and Wagner lost to Mount St. Mary's in the NEC tournament. Throw in Belmont's loss to Morehead State in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament final with a loss by Texas State to Appalachian State in the Sun Belt Tournament quarterfinals you've got five 1-seeds who, more than likely, saw their NCAA Tournament hopes dashed on Saturday. It wasn't an awful day overall for the No. 1 seeds. Loyola Chicago, St. Bonaventure and Georgia State moved one step closer to the NCAA Tournament with wins in their tournament semifinals, while UNCG and South Dakota State avoided early upsets in their quarterfinal matchups.
Belmont's loss, given it coming in the championship game and the team's 26-4 record, brings the most significant fallout. The Bears are a good team that lost quality opponents from its 2020-21 non-conference schedule because of the pandemic, removing several opportunities to record quality NCAA Tournament wins and boost the team's strength of schedule ratings. But even with context applied to the team's metrics, the argument will be tough against other bubble teams and it's possible Saturday's loss moves the Bears from the Big Dance to the NIT.
Winner: Rutgers cements NCAA Tournament resume
The Scarlet Knights entered Saturday's regular-season finale at Minnesota as a projected No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and may still have been in the field with a loss. But for a program that hasn't been to the Big Dance since 1991, some reassurance would be nice. Rutgers got that by knocking off Minnesota 77-70 in overtime to enter the Big Ten Tournament with a 14-10 (10-10 Big Ten) record. Last year's squad was going to break the program's NCAA Tournament drought, but COVID-19 wiped out the opportunity. So it was nice to see the long-suffering Scarlet Knights get a chance to exhale on Saturday.
Loser: Embattled Big Ten coaches
Wins on Saturday probably wouldn't have done much to salvage the faded NCAA Tournament hopes of Indiana and Minnesota. But embattled Gophers coach Richard Pitino and scrutinized Hoosiers coach Archie Miller sure could have used the victories. The Rutgers loss was the seventh in a row for the Gophers, who will finish with a losing record for the second straight season and fourth time in Pitino's eight seasons unless they win a couple games in what figures to be a brutal Big Ten Tournament. As for Miller, the Hoosiers are stumbling into the Big Ten Tournament with five straight losses. This is Miller's fourth season leading the Hoosiers, and his tenure has seen the program ranked in the AP Top 25 for a grand total of five weeks. That was back in 2019 when they peaked at No. 21 and then missed the NCAA Tournament.
Loser: Big East bubble teams
Palm dubbed Seton Hall's game at St. John's as a "must-win" for the Pirates' to stay in the hunt for an at-large bid. But they must have missed the memo, because St. John's handed the Pirates their fourth straight loss to end the regular season. The Red Storm won 81-71, even without star freshman Posh Alexander. Seton Hall will get a rematch on Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament.
Xavier also suffered a rough loss Saturday, making it a bad day in general for the Big East considering that standard-bearer Villanova struggled as well. The Musketeers entered as a projected No. 9 seed, according to Palm, but lost 66-59 at Marquette. Xavier will have to play in the first round of the Big East Tournament on Wednesday against Butler and will probably a need a couple of wins to feel better about the chances of hearing its name called on Selection Sunday.
Stop me if you've heard this before, but Georgia led Alabama at halftime and then the Crimson Tide came out of the locker room with decidedly different play and stormed back for a win. OK, all Tua-related national championship game jokes aside, this was a strong course correction from an Alabama team that turned on the jets and starting burying three-pointers en route to turning a first-half double-digit deficit into a double-digit win. Villanova transfer Jahvon Quinerly came off the bench and had a team-high 18 points to lead the Crimson Tide, who overcame 22 turnovers to improve to 21-6 on the year while reinforcing their status as a projected No. 2 seed in the Big Dance.
Loser: it gets worse for ASU and ISU
Mercifully, Arizona State's season of misery is nearly over. After beginning the regular season ranked No. 18 in the AP poll, the Sun Devils ended it Saturday with a 10-13 (7-10 Pac-12) record by losing 98-59 at Utah. Going long stretches of the year without talented freshmen Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley hurt this squad, but there's no reason ASU should be this bad.
Speaking of bad, how about Iowa State? The Cyclones lost their 17th straight game on Saturday when they fell 61-56 against a Kansas State team that is finishing the regular season just 8-19. As bad as the Wildcats have been this season, they should feel good about themselves compared to the Cyclones, who are 2-21. At the moment, ISU is just 14-41 over the past two seasons and there is no indication whatsoever that a run in the Big 12 Tournament is even a remote possibility.