ACC, Big Ten and SEC stick to script
Despite some bumps along the way, Duke, OSU and Tennessee live up to expectations
Back in October, if you had been predicting league tournament champions and said Duke in the ACC, Ohio State in the Big Ten, and Tennessee in the SEC you might have drawn a few guffaws for your complete risk aversion.
Really? That's your "expert" opinion? A day-old infant could predict that! Go a millimeter out on a limb, why don't ya?
With the talent those three teams had returning, there was no reason last fall not to expect them to collect their respective trophies and automatic bids come March.
Funny thing is, though, about a month ago, at least two of those favorites weren't looking quite so hot. One in particular.
On Feb. 6, Ohio State lost by six points at home to Northwestern, and the Buckeyes were 13-9 overall, 4-6 in the Big Ten, and totally uncertain of making the NCAA tournament.
On Feb. 7, Duke fell by a basket at North Carolina, the Blue Devils' second defeat in three games. Admittedly, the other loss was at UConn, but was such a blowout -- 81-57, and could have been much worse -- that it seemed perhaps Duke just wasn't going to be in that very top tier of teams nationally.
Duke lost just one more game -- Feb. 17 at Maryland -- and took the No. 1 seed into the ACC tournament at not-far-away Greensboro, N.C. Still, Miami was a hot team coming in, having won six in a row, and there were a handful of teams that seemed capable of winning the ACC championship.
Meanwhile, Ohio State stopped a three-game losing skid on Feb. 10 with a victory against Purdue. And the Buckeyes haven't lost since.
That brings us to Sunday's tournament finals in the ACC, Big Ten and SEC, which turned out to be just as predictable as you and that fictional newborn might have thought in October.
Duke, Ohio State and Tennessee all earned their Big Dance cards with double-digit victories in which the stars really asserted themselves.
The Blue Devils have gotten grief this season for a clunky offense. But in their three ACC tournament games, their shooting percentage was 50.9, 58.7 and 46.0. In their 81-66 victory in the final against North Carolina, the Blue Devils were led by Jasmine Thomas with 21 points, but also got 13 from another senior, Karima Christmas.
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In fact, it was an excellent tournament for Christmas, who in the three games combined for 39 points and 21 rebounds. The Blue Devils also got a lift off the bench from their freshmen. Everything Duke did in Greensboro bodes well for a good run through the NCAA tournament -- if the Blue Devils can play as well against non-ACC foes.
We also should give a nod to senior Jessica Breland and the Tar Heels, who came into Greensboro having lost four in a row. They made it back to the title game, and Breland had a huge weekend with 28 points and 10 rebounds against Miami and 27 and seven against Duke.
The question is, which UNC team will show up in the NCAA tournament? The one that lost four in a row, or the one that made it to the ACC final?
Of course, probably no program in the country has done more of an about-face in personality than Ohio State. When the Buckeyes lost at Iowa in early January, coach Jim Foster seemed perplexed. He couldn't figure out how mostly the same group of players from the season before was shooting so much worse than it had the previous season.
The Buckeyes won their first seven games this season before things went awry. They then had a stretch during which they lost nine of their next 15. In the Feb. 6 loss to Northwestern, Ohio State's offense was solid, but the defense wasn't. But then four days later
The Buckeyes' offense went into overdrive, as all five starters scored in double figures and they beat Purdue 90-67. From then on, it was as if the real Ohio State had returned. In the next game, a victory at Minnesota, senior Jantel Lavender had 29 points to surpass Katie Smith as the Buckeyes' all-time leading scorer.
Feb. 20 at Purdue, injured senior Sarah Schulze -- who'd hurt her knee Jan. 16 -- returned to action, and even with just four minutes of playing time gave the Buckeyes an emotional boost. They beat the Boilermakers 76-74 on Brittany Johnson's 3-pointer with less than a second left. OSU's mojo was definitely back.
Feb. 24 was another close test on the road, but the Buckeyes survived 54-53 at Michigan State. Ohio State finished out the regular season clobbering Wisconsin, then won by double digits in the Big Ten tourney over Iowa, Michigan State and Penn State. Sunday's 84-70 victory featured Lavender's 23 points and 15 rebounds and Samantha Prahalis' 23 points and nine assists -- Buckeyes basketball at its best.
And to think not too long ago, there was a lot of angst about the Buckeyes being host for the NCAA early rounds and either not making the tournament or being a poor seed. Now, Ohio State has improved its NCAA tournament seed considerably.
As for the SEC, Tennessee has looked like an NCAA No. 1 seed for quite some time, and nothing that happened in the league tournament dispelled that. To the contrary, Tennessee's performance in Nashville made it look all the more like a Final Four team.
In the SEC opener against Florida, post player Glory Johnson was the star, scoring 25 points. In the semifinals, Tennessee handed Georgia its second beatdown in two weeks, winning 82-58. (In their regular-season matchup Feb. 21, Tennessee won 77-44.)
But then Tennessee saved its best for Kentucky in the final, nailing 16 3-pointers and leaving the Wildcats muttering, "OK, what on earth are we supposed to do when they do that?"
Indeed, Tennessee looked so good Sunday, coach Pat Summitt probably could have subbed in a couple of team managers and still cruised to the finish line. Senior Angie Bjorklund missed six games earlier this season with an injury, but her 7-of-8 performance from behind the arc Sunday on the way to a team-high 23 points was further proof that she is completely back.
Sunday didn't provide much drama in the ACC, Big Ten or SEC . But it did give everyone a chance to see three teams who are heading into the NCAA tournament full speed ahead.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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