Stars shine brightest in March. It’s win-or-go-home season, with conference tournaments tipping off and bubble teams fighting for their lives and a chance at NCAA tournament glory. Which players and teams did the most to boost their stock before Selection Sunday? Sports Illustrated dives into that with the first March installment of Stars of the Week.
Horizon League Tournament
The games may have happened on March 2, but the Horizon League men’s quarterfinals brought us our first true taste of March Madness. The four games produced multiple buzzer beaters, an improbable comeback and five total overtime periods.
No. 1 seed Cleveland State hosted No. 10 seed Purdue Fort Wayne in the teams’ fifth matchup of the season. Fort Wayne hung tough, and the teams traded blows at the end of regulation to send the game to overtime. Things really got wild in double OT, when the Mastodons took a pair of five-point leads with two minutes to play and drained a three to take a three point lead with 32 seconds to go. But big man Algevon Eichelberger drained a banked-in prayer of a three to tie it and send the game to triple-overtime. There, CSU sealed the game by sending in its secret weapon: 7′ 2″ freshman Mabor Majak, whose length disrupted the inbounds pass by Fort Wayne to steal the win.
Meanwhile, No. 2 seed Wright State blew a 24-point lead with just over six minutes to play in the game to No. 8 seed Milwaukee. A three by DeAndre Gholston completed the comeback to send the game to overtime, and Gholston continued to dominate in OT to lead Milwaukee to a thrilling victory. The Panthers had a win probability of 0.03% at its lowest point, per KenPom, matching the largest comeback since KenPom began tracking it.
Add in a buzzer beater by Northern Kentucky to push the Norse past Detroit and an excellent overtime finish between Oakland and Youngstown State, and it was peak March in the Horizon.
Moses Wright, Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech continues to surge toward an NCAA tournament bid with a five-game winning streak, and Wright’s elite play has been a huge reason for the Yellow Jackets’ recent success. Wright played all 40 minutes in a hard-fought Saturday win over Syracuse, wrecking Cuse’s 2–3 zone with 31 points and 16 rebounds (including nine offensive ones) to lead Tech to an 84–77 victory. He was then the best player on the floor Tuesday against Duke, posting 29 points, 14 rebounds and five assists in an overtime victory to win a battle with fellow ACC Player of the Year candidate Matthew Hurt.
The Yellow Jackets’ win over Duke gives them yet another solid victory for their NCAA tournament hopes. While not a lock yet, Georgia Tech is in solid shape despite two early-season losses to mid-major foes thanks to their recent success. The Yellow Jackets have clinched consecutive finishes over .500 in conference play for the first time since 1990 and have an outside chance for a top-four finish in the conference should they beat Wake Forest Friday.
No Ayo, no problem for Illinois. The Illini’s All-American guard missed the team’s last three games after suffering a facial injury, but Brad Underwood’s team has not missed a beat without him. Beating Nebraska and Wisconsin without your star is one thing—Illinois was talented enough to beat Nebraska and athletic enough to overwhelm Wisconsin—but winning on the road against Michigan, in dominant fashion without your star, is one of the most impressive feats any team has achieved all season. Michigan played its worst basketball of the season, but the Illini deserve an immense amount of credit for what was a smothering defensive performance. The Wolverines were never comfortable in the game, and Underwood’s team was able to manufacture consistent offense even without Dosunmu on the floor.
The win at Michigan significantly strengthens Illinois’s case for a No. 1 seed. The Illini are now the only team in the country with nine Quad 1 wins, and a road win at Michigan is the best win any team in the country has on its résumé right now. Add in a No. 4 overall NET ranking, and at this point I’d be surprised if Illinois isn’t the nation’s fourth No. 1 seed.
Neemias Queta, Utah State
Utah State is likely in the worst position of the four Mountain West teams for an at-large bid, but Queta kept the Aggies’ hopes alive by leading them to a weekend sweep of Nevada. The Portuguese big man had a pair of monster performances in two wins, opening the weekend with 16 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks in a 75–72 nailbiter before exploding for 26 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in a Sunday night blowout of the Wolf Pack.
In his last four games, Queta is now averaging 26 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and two blocks per game. He’s an imposing interior presence and a major reason why USU is the top rebounding margin in the country with an average edge of 9.9 boards per game. If the Aggies can finish the regular season strong with wins over Wyoming and Fresno State, then make a solid run in the Mountain West tournament, they’ll have a real chance at sneaking into the field with an at-large bid. However, they have won the conference tournament in each of Craig Smith’s first two seasons on the job in Logan, so it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they removed all doubt and clinched a bid that way.
The Razorbacks are without a doubt playing their best basketball of the season at the right time. The Hogs have now won 10 straight SEC games after three more victories in the last week, including a statement win over conference leader Alabama and a 101-point eruption on the road at South Carolina. The recent success has moved Eric Musselman’s team into the top 15 nationally in both KenPom and the NET and opened the door for a potential top-four seed in the NCAA tournament later this month.
What makes the Hogs so dangerous is their quality depth. Arkansas got 42 points from its bench against South Carolina and 25 or more bench points in all three games this week. Freshman Jaylin Williams has really emerged throughout the season as a quality player at center when the Razorbacks take 7-foot-3 Connor Vanover off the floor. Meanwhile, guards Desi Sills and JD Notae bring big-time scoring punch off the bench to supplement star freshman Moses Moody and veteran Justin Smith’s production.
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