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Michigan completes sweep of Michigan State to advance to Big Ten title game


NEW YORK — The biggest shot of the game came with 2:48 left on Saturday afternoon.

30-feet away from the rim with the shot clock down to two, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman rattled home a three that kissed the rim three different times, dying against the glass before falling through the net.

The biggest defensive play of the game came just 15 seconds left, when Abdur-Rahkman drew an offensive foul on Miles Bridges. Michigan had the ball back, up 62-54 with just over two minutes as Madison Square Garden turned into Crisler Arena. By the time the final buzzer had sounded, Michigan had upset top-seeded Michigan State in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, 75-64, completing a season sweep of the Spartans and advancing to the finals of the Big Ten tournament for the second time in as many seasons.

For John Beilein, who took the Wolverines to the 2013 national title game were they lost to Louisville nobody, he’s on the verge of another feather in the cap for what has been a sensational career as a tournament coach. He reached the Sweet 16 last season. He reached the Elite 8 the year after he lost Trey Burke. He took West Virginia to the Elite 8 and the Sweet 16 in back-to-back seasons, and also won the NIT with the Mountaineers. He won a game as a No. 14 seed with Richmond way back in 1998.

So seeing Beilein win three games in three days, sweeping their in-state rivals in the process, to end up playing for the right to call themselves back-to-back Big Ten tournament champions is not necessarily a surprise.

What may actually be a surprise is that the Wolverines may have just played their way into a position where getting seeded above Michigan State, one of the preseason favorites to cut down the nets, is a realistic possibility.

While that probably says more about the strength of the Big Ten and the randomness that comes with a league that doesn’t play a full round-robin schedule than anything else, it does present an interesting conversation to have: Just how good is Michigan State?

And is there something that the Spartans can fix over the course of the next 12 days to fix that?

The answer to the first question is easier to answer: Really good, and in the context of a season where the best teams in the country are all flawed in some major way, the Spartans could very well be college basketball’s best. To put it another way, they are not going to be a team that any No. 1 seed wants to draw in their region.

“The one thing that I would remind everybody, this team has won 12 games in a row and 29 games this season,” head coach Tom Izzo said after the game. “And through some trying times.”

“Now, do we have to get it back on track? Yeah, we do.”

Cassius Winston was not himself this weekend, particularly against Michigan, where he finished 3-for-10 from the floor and struggled to break down Michigan off the dribble. Winston entered NYC shooting 56.5 percent from three. He’ll leave having made just one of 11 from beyond the arc in the Garden.

Nick Ward wasn’t himself, either, as his issues defensively and with immobility against teams that can play small limited him to 25 minutes in the two games. Josh Langford hasn’t played well for two months, and Michigan State’s experiment with playing small — Jaren Jackson at the five, Miles Bridges at the four — seems to have died on the vine.

And all of that came while losing a game that resulted in a sweep against their in-state rival.

“We’re just going to try and move on,” Bridges said.

“It was a big game, but it’s not the end of our season,” added Winston. “There’s still another big goal that we’re very capable of achieving.”

There will be time to figure this out. If Michigan State gets put into a pod where they play Friday-Sunday, they will be looking at a 13-day layoff between the end of their Big Ten tournament run and the start of an NCAA tournament run. Izzo may not need to reinvent the wheel, but he’ll certainly have enough time to do so.

“I haven’t ever been through that,” Izzo said, meantioning that the team might head to Chicago to see Denzel Valentine play. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. And the best part is we’re on spring break next week. So we might just go to the beach in East Lansing, see if we can play a little beach basketball.”

“It will be the one time in my life the NCAA has no rules on us. We’re on break and we don’t have any games. That doesn’t happen very often. It’s never happened to me, so knowing me, I’m going to take advantage of that.”

Late run sparks Villanova past West Virginia, into Elite Eight

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BOSTON — It is always just a matter of time before the avalanche comes.

And when it does, you better hope that lead you have is big enough to withstand what’s coming.

For No. 5-seed West Virginia, it was not. With 11 minutes left on Friday night in Boston’s TD Garden, the Mountaineers led 60-54 and had seemingly wrestled control of the game from the No. 1-seed in the East Region. Less than five minutes later, after the Wildcats hit four of their next five threes, Villanova had taken a 76-66 lead by going on a 22-6 run, and West Virginia was never able to recover.

Jalen Brunson led the way for the top-seeded Wildcats with 27 points and four assists while Omari Spellman finished with 18 points, eight boards and three blocks and Mikal Bridges chipped in with 16 points despite playing relatively poorly — by his standards — on Friday.

With a 90-78 win, Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight and a date with the winner of tonight’s game No. 2 Purdue-No. 3 Texas Tech.

That’s the way that it works with this Villanova team. Armed with the most potent, high-volume three-point shooting attack in college basketball — maybe in the history of college basketball — fans of their opponents are just waiting for the inevitable.

On Friday night, Villanova shot 13-for-24 from three, which is damned-impressive and exactly what we expect at the same time, but the game was won during that five-minute surge when West Virginia just didn’t have an answer.

VIDEO: Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall with mammoth dunks for Villanova

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Villanova took the lead on West Virginia and turned the tide of momentum with a pair of emphatic dunks in transition.

It started with Omari Spellman, who had an unbelievable sequence, spiking a shot into the floor before throwing down a put-back dunk all over a defender:

A couple of possessions later, Eric Paschall finally did the impossible.

He dunked on Sagaba Konate:

I am having way too much fun at this game.

No. 1 Kansas into Elite Eight with win over No. 5 Clemson

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OMAHA, Neb. — Once Kansas found its stride, Clemson had little chance of keeping pace – even after a late stumble.

The No. 1 Jayhawks ran away from the No. 5 Tigers with a second-half flurry that powered them to a 80-76 victory Friday night at CenturyLink Center to put them in the Elite Eight on Sunday against either Duke or Syracuse.

Kansas moves on to the Midwest Region final on the back of a second-half offense that Clemson had nearly no success in slowing until the final minutes, when the Tigers turned a 20-point laugher into  a six-point nail-biter.

Malik Newman paced Kansas with 17 points while Devonte Graham 16 and Udoka Azubuike 14 and 11 rebounds.

Clemson got 31 points from senior Gabe DeVoe, but there just wasn’t enough help around him for the Tigers to keep things competitive after the Jayhawks hit them with three-consecutive 3s in the opening minutes of the second half to open up a 20-point lead.

Clemson was already hanging on by a threat after it shot just 35.7 percent from the floor and committed eight turnovers. DeVoe’s 12 first-half points kept the Tigers afloat, but they never enjoyed a lead before halftime.

The Jayhawks, meanwhile, had five players  score at least six points in the first half, including 10 from Azubuike, Their usual strengths – 3-point shooting (4 of 13) and Devonte Graham (1 of 7) – were absent in the first half, but Clemson was unable to take advantage as Kansas continued to get quality looks inside and stops on defense.

The Jayhawks previously played Syracuse in December, beating the Orange by 16 on a neutral floor in Miami. They haven’t faced the Blue Devils, though they have already shared a building with them once this year in the Champion’s Classic. Kansas topped Kentucky, 65-61, while Duke defeated Michigan State, 88-81, that November night in Chicago.

VIDEO: Mikal Bridges tries to dunk on Sagaba Konate, gets denied

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There really is nothing better in this world than seeing someone who is typically a great dunker take flight to try and dunk on Sagaba Konate of West Virginia, because it never, EVER ends well for the dunker.

See: Bridges, Mikal:

Auburn AD Greene gives Bruce Pearl a vote of confidence

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Speaking publicly for the first time about head coach Bruce Pearl, new Auburn athletic director gave his embattled head coach a vote of confidence.

Greene was on an in-house podcast produced with the voice of Auburn sports, and was asked about Pearl’s standing in a pod that lasted less than five minutes and felt more like a press release than anything else.

“He’s been a tremendous blessing for the Auburn family,” Greene said. “The FBI investigation is a long process. We’re going through that process to make sure that we, as a university, are doing what it is that we’re supposed to do to comply. Coach Pearl has been excellent in that regard and I look forward to continuing to work with him as we continue to do the very best to support he, his staff and the student athletes of Auburn University.”

This is the first time since former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested that a member of the Auburn athletic department had spoken so positively about Pearl. In the fall, Auburn’s president Steven Leath lamented Pearl’s lack of cooperation in the investigation, but just last week released a statement saying Pearl is “working with university officials as part of our due diligence.” Pearl said after his team’s 84-53 loss to Clemson in the second round of the NCAA tournament that he would like to return.

There has been speculation that Pearl’s job was in jeopardy ever since Auburn was mixed up in the FBI’s complaint. Two players were forced to sit out this entire season after the FBI alleged they had received money funneled through Person from a runner for an agent and a financial advisor.

“One of the challenges that we have facing the industry is college basketball,” Greene said. “We want to make sure we work incredibly hard to clean up the game, to make it as pure as it can possibly be so that our student-athletes can enjoy the intercollegiate athletic experience. one of the things that we have to keep in mind is that the state of college basketball is not in a good place right now and I’m a little bit disappointed that auburn is involved in that, but that doesn’t take away from the excellent job that Coach Pearl has done.”