It is not an existential crisis if a team moves from the one line down to the two line in the NCAA Tournament, chiefly because a No. 2 seed can sometimes mean a better path in the brackets. In the middle of January, the most important stories in college basketball concern the teams fighting for survival. Top-seed dramas are best left until late February and early March, along with all the other subplots properly attached to bracketology.
Right now, the urgency of a season is never more apparent than in the teams trying to gain the significant wins which will buy them a greater margin for error — and more time — over the coming weeks. This next weekend, several teams face hugely important moments, but none more than four specific teams. Two of them played Wednesday night.
The Florida Gators defeated Arkansas, but head coach Mike White could not have liked what he saw. His team’s effort was sincere, but sloppy and wayward. The Gators couldn’t hit the side of a barn and committed some very weird off-balance fouls in the final minutes, giving Arkansas cheap points on possessions which appeared to be going nowhere.
The combination of bad shooting and bailout fouls very nearly turned a 51-36 lead with under six minutes remaining into a loss. Florida had to sweat out a four-foot leaner from the Razorbacks, up 53-51 in the final 15 seconds, before hanging on for a 57-51 win in Bud Walton Arena. The Gators got the result they had to have, but they know they need a transformation in the way they play.
Next up for the Gators this weekend: a home game against the clear SEC favorite, the Tennessee Volunteers.
Florida has very quickly arrived at a moment of supreme consequence in its season: This game versus the Vols isn’t quite do-or-die; the Gators will get other chances for quality wins in a two-month stretch. However, there is no bigger win in the SEC this year than a win over Tennessee. A victory over the Vols on Saturday would instantly change the Gators’ outlook and take an enormous amount of pressure off White’s back. For a January 12 game, this is bigger than normal.
Three other teams inhabit a situation similar to the Gators this weekend: at home, against the big shot in the conference, desperately needing a win which relieves pressure and might awaken a sense of confidence which needs to enter the picture.
The team other than Florida which played Wednesday night was Creighton. The Bluejays have let a number of high-end games slip away this season, but none in a more brutal fashion than against Big East foe Marquette.
If you have seen it once this season, you have seen it on several occasions over the years: A team tries to kill the final few seconds of a game by throwing a length-of-the-court pass, only for that team to put none of its players near the opposite baseline. The baseball pass goes over the outstretched hands of the deepest player, never touching anyone before going out of bounds. The play brings the ball back to the team’s own basket, giving the opposition a realistic chance of tying the game with a shot it never should have had. The opponent does indeed hit the tying basket, and it wins in overtime.
This is how Creighton blew a lead at the very end of regulation and lost in overtime to Marquette. The Jays squandered one conference home game against an upper-tier foe. If they don’t regroup on Sunday to beat Villanova at home, they will be in very deep trouble. Teams have to pick off a reasonable percentage of their high-end home games, and after letting Marquette escape Omaha, Creighton’s margins are already uncomfortably small heading into the battle with the defending national champions. It might not be a pure must-win, but it’s close.
Two other teams share the basic plight of Florida and Creighton, albeit to varying degrees. Texas, having just lost to Oklahoma State, gets Big 12 leader Texas Tech at home on Saturday. The Longhorns have a knack for playing to the level of their competition under Shaka Smart. If they can beat Texas Tech, they will have a win whose quality is very likely to hold up through the rest of the season, and be a huge buffer against any possible future slides. If Texas can’t bag this win, it will very likely need to win at least one very tough Big 12 road game, which is hardly automatic given how poorly the Longhorns have shot the ball all season long (the North Carolina win being a very conspicuous exception).
Rounding out this “final four” of sorts: Penn State. The Nittany Lions have been shredded in the early stages of Big Ten play. If Pat Chambers wants to make a final stand in what could be his last chance to change impressions in State College, his team needs to beat Michigan State at home on Sunday afternoon.
Penn State missed a big opportunity to bag a home-court win against Wisconsin. If it whiffs against MSU–one of the two clear heavyweights in the Big Ten alongside Michigan–the Nittany Lions won’t have many chances left to make a huge statement in their own arena. Making those statements on the road will be exponentially harder.
These four teams are all realizing what Yogi Berra once said about playing the outfield in Yankee Stadium during the World Series and its lengthening October shadows:
“It gets late early out there.”
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