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College basketball takeaways: Classic UNC-Duke rivalry game turns into ugly scene as taunts, drinks lobbed

The final Saturday of men's college basketball regular season served as a tantalizing appetizer for the Madness still to come this month. There were high-profile showdowns, heated rivalry games and results that all but defied explanation.

Arkansas never trailed in regulation at Alabama … and lost. Villanova fell behind by 24 points in the first half against Creighton … and nearly won.

Here are nine takeaways from Saturday’s slate, leading off with North Carolina completing a season sweep of rival Duke:

1. North Carolina rains 3s, Cameron Crazies rain drinks

For more than two hours of game action, the latest edition of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry didn’t deliver much drama.

It wasn’t until after the Tar Heels84-79 victory that things finally became more interesting.

North Carolina players celebrated their ACC regular season title-clinching victory by taunting the Cameron Crazies, prompting a handful of Duke students to retaliate by tossing drinks and other projectiles in the Tar Heels’ direction.

As that was dying down, Duke head coach Jon Scheyer then approached the Crazies, shook hands with students in the front row and apologized, reportedly promising, “We’re going to get this right.”

The spicy scene followed a game that North Carolina led from start to finish. Even after a Jeremy Roach 3-pointer briefly trimmed UNC's nine-point halftime deficit to one early in the second half, North Carolina responded with a 9-1 blitz and never let the Blue Devils mount much of a charge. Cormac Ryan led the Tar Heels with 31 points, including a dagger of a 3-pointer in the final two minutes.

Last month, after North Carolina’s 93-84 victory in Chapel Hill, Scheyer said he was “disappointed” in his team because the Blue Devils “didn’t compete to the level that you need to.” Scheyer said Saturday night that he felt the same after Duke’s poor shot selection, careless turnovers and lack of urgency helped the Tar Heels to bolt to an early double-digit lead.

“It was a disappointing loss for us,” Scheyer said. “It would be one thing if you felt like you controlled the things you can control. I don't think we did that.”

Maybe North Carolina’s postgame taunting will motivate Duke if the two rivals meet in the ACC title game. Or maybe it will be more of the same. For 80 minutes, the Tar Heels have been the tougher, more aggressive, clearly superior team.

2. Why Kelvin Sampson should be national coach of the year

For weeks, the consensus has been that UConn’s Dan Hurley is the most deserving candidate to win national coach of the year. CBS Sports analyst Seth Davis even went so far as to tweet earlier this week, “I don’t see how you go with anyone but Dan Hurley.”

Hurley certainly deserves consideration for how UConn has reloaded despite losing five of its top eight scorers from last year’s national championship team, but right now he’d be second on my ballot. My choice would be Houston’s Kelvin Sampson, especially after the Cougars claimed a regular-season title in college basketball’s toughest league on Saturday evening with a 76-46 demolition of Kansas.

Houston, like UConn, had to replace three starters off last year’s team. That includes NBA lottery pick Jarace Walker and All-American guard Marcus Sasser.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampton celebrates as he speaks to the crowd after an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas Saturday, March 9, 2024, in Houston. Houston won 76-46 and finished the regular season as the Big 12 Conference Champions. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson has made a strong case for national coach of the year after guiding his Cougars to a Big 12 title. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Houston, like UConn, entered Saturday with a record of 27-3. I wouldn’t argue if you said that the Huskies, at their best, have been more dominant, but the Cougars have been No. 1 in all the major predictive metrics since early December. And the Cougars’ 13 Quadrant 1 victories is the most of any team in the nation.

Still, the deciding factor to me is how easy Houston has made it look jumping from the American to the Big 12. The Cougars were just as dominant as they’ve been in league play the past five years, winning the Big 12 title outright by two games over second-place Iowa State.

Saturday’s blowout victory was symbolic of everything Houston has achieved in its inaugural Big 12 season. At one point, the Cougars led 34-9 over the program that for decades has been the standard bearer in this league.

There are plenty of worthy choices for national coach of the year: Hurley, Utah State’s Danny Sprinkle, Iowa State’s T.J. Otzelberger or South Carolina’s Lamont Paris. Sampson’s achievements in year one in the Big 12 put him comfortably amongst that group, perhaps at the top of it.

3. Kentucky is the team No. 1 seeds should want to avoid

It doesn’t matter that Kentucky is unlikely to receive any higher than a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament even if it wins the SEC tournament next week.

The Wildcats are the team that No 1 seeds should want to avoid.

A thrilling 85-81 victory at SEC champion and potential No. 1 seed Tennessee served as a reminder of how lethal Kentucky can be at its best. Antonio Reeves and Reed Shepard both scored 27 points as the Wildcats built an 11-point lead with 2:35 remaining and withstood a late rally from the Vols.

Since a Feb. 10 home loss to Gonzaga, Kentucky has won seven of its past eight games, the only setback coming at the buzzer at LSU. An array of future NBA perimeter players spearhead one of the nation’s highest-powered offenses and the Wildcats have shown badly needed signs of competence defensively.

Is Kentucky still susceptible to an early round upset if it shoots poorly from the perimeter and regresses to its pre-February defensive form? Absolutely. But the talent-laden Wildcats’ ceiling is as high as anyone, and that makes them a team the likes of Houston, Purdue and UConn should not want to draw.

4. “This is our Super Bowl.”

Here’s some friendly advice for coaches: If you’re going to describe an upcoming game as your “Super Bowl,” make sure your team is ready to play.

That’s how embattled coach Villanova coach Kyle Neptune described Saturday’s matchup with visiting Creighton, but the Wildcats came out at a preseason-level intensity.

It was 12-0 Creighton before Villanova scored its first points. It was 21-3 when Neptune burned his second timeout. At one point midway through the first half, Creighton had hit more 3-pointers (7) than Villanova had scored points (5).

Credit Villanova for showing impressive resilience and fight during the rest of its 69-67 loss. The Wildcats sliced a 24-point deficit to 11 by halftime and even tied the score on three Eric Dixon free throws with 23 seconds left. Then Trey Alexander added to his reputation as a big-game player with this last-second game winner.

The home loss turns up the pressure on Villanova (17-14, 10-10) entering next week’s Big East tournament. Most mock brackets projected the Wildcats as one of the final teams in the NCAA tournament field entering Saturday. To stay on the favorable side of the cutline, the Wildcats can’t take a bad opening-round loss at Madison Square Garden and they might need to reach at least the semifinals to feel comfortable.

5. It’s now auto bid-or-bust for Memphis …

In mid-January, Memphis improved to 15-2, cracked the top 10 in the AP poll and seemed to be poised for its best season under Penny Hardaway. Less than two months later, the Tigers have fallen so far that they’ll likely need to win the American Athletic Conference tournament to land an NCAA bid.

A 92-84 loss at Florida Atlantic on Saturday afternoon appears to be the kill shot for Memphis’ at-large hopes. In a must-win game against an NCAA tournament-bound opponent, the Tigers (22-9, 11-7) had no answer for 7-footer Vlad Goldin and couldn’t string together enough stops to make a serious run at the Owls down the stretch.

Injuries and chemistry issues have contributed to Memphis’ collapse, as has the devaluing of some of the Tigers’ early season accomplishments. Back in November and early December, it seemed like beating Michigan, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas A&M would be meaningful. Now, three of those are sub-.500 teams and the fourth appears headed for the NIT.

6. … and South Florida

South Florida’s 76-70 loss at Tulsa might have been the most costly loss that any fringe bubble team suffered on Saturday.

The Bulls damaged their case as a team that the committee should evaluate for what they are now and not what they were in November.

Early Quadrant 4 home losses to sub-200 Central Michigan and Maine buried South Florida in all the major metrics. Two subsequent road losses to Hofstra and UMass also haven’t helped even if they weren’t quite as damaging.

Since early December, when South Florida began to jell under new coach Amir Abdur-Rahim, the Bulls have been a totally different team. They were 21-1 during that stretch before Saturday’s Quad 3 loss to a Tulsa team that entered the day 190th in KenPom.

Yes, South Florida won the American by two full games. Yes, the Bulls have quality wins over Florida Atlantic, Memphis, SMU and Florida State. Yes, they’re a terrific story. But this is a team that’s 73rd in the NET, 86th in KenPom and running out of time to improve those numbers. South Florida will either secure an NCAA bid via its conference tournament or settle for a trip to the NIT.

7. Morehead State first team to secure an NCAA bid

Morehead State lost the preseason OVC player of the year Mark Freeman to a season-ending wrist injury days before the year began.

Turns out it didn't matter.

On Saturday night, the Eagles became the first men's team to secure a place in the NCAA tournament with a 69-55 victory over top-seeded Arkansas Little Rock in the OVC title game. Morehead State squandered an early 15-point lead but showed impressive resilience, pulling away anew after the Trojans briefly rallied to take the lead a few minutes into the second half.

Morehead State is the first men's team to secure an NCAA tournament bid. The Eagles promise to be a tough out as a potential No. 14 or 15 seed.

8. Conference tournament carnage

This is the cruelest time of year in college basketball.

Teams who dominated one-bid leagues often see all that good work go to waste because of one uncharacteristic performance during conference tournament play.

By early Saturday evening, conference tournament carnage had already waylaid a pair of No. 1 seeds. Longwood rallied from a 15-point second-half deficit in the Big South semifinals to stun host High Point on its own floor and crush the Panthers’ hopes of making their first NCAA tournament. Wagner later outplayed 20-win Central Connecticut State in the NEC semifinals to move within one win of its first NCAA tournament in 21 years.

Vermont nearly became another upset victim, but the top-seeded Catamounts rallied late in their America East quarterfinals to avoid a massive upset and edge Albany, 75-72. In the past three seasons, Vermont has lost a total of three America East games.

9. Karma is on Merrimack’s side

Only a year ago, Division I newcomer Merrimack won the Northeast Conference tournament but was ineligible to receive an NCAA bid. The Warriors then had to watch the Fairleigh Dickinson team they defeated in the NEC title game seize its moment in the NCAA tournament spotlight with a stunning 16-versus-1 upset of Purdue.

That bittersweet memory no doubt fueled Merrimack’s returning players on Saturday as they grinded out a 61-51 NEC semifinal victory over fourth-seeded Le Moyne. The second-seeded Warriors will at last experience the NCAA tournament this year if they can defeat sixth-seeded Wagner in Sunday’s NEC title game.

Defense is again Merrimack’s strength, especially after last season’s three leading scorers all transferred to bigger programs. The Warriors boast a top-100 defense this season and held Le Moyne to 34.7% shooting on Saturday.