The March Toward March: The best college basketball games of the season

In the penultimate edition of this column, we cover the best games the sport had to offer.

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“The March Toward March” is a column by Curran Rastogi about men’s college basketball teams and their journeys to March Madness.

I cannot overstate this enough: College basketball was outstanding this year. So in order to send this season off on a high note, let’s take a look at five of the best games we witnessed this year.

Quick note: When I call a game “good,” I look at a myriad of factors. This includes the teams playing and their playstyles, how each team performs in terms of their efficiency, the rewatchability and the storylines of the game.

No. 10 Creighton vs. No. 9 Arkansas, 90-87 (November 22, 2022)

The 2022 college basketball season started off with a bang after Crieghton beat Arkansas in the semifinals of the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. This game previewed two teams ranked in the Top 10 of the preseason AP poll, and both went on to make deep March Madness runs. It featured five players who scored at least 20 points, and both teams shot over 40% from behind the arc.

Arkansas, led by future NBA lottery pick freshman guard Anthony Black, trailed by 12 points with 1:45 left in the first half, which was the largest lead of the game. From there, the team traded baskets back and forth before a dunk from junior center Ryan Kalkbrenner cemented Creighton’s win. Combine that with the tournament itself, a college basketball nerd’s dream, and the game was electric from start to finish. Not only were the teams good on the day, but both teams pulled off upsets en route to their respective strong finishes.

No. 21 Indiana vs. No. 1 Purdue, 79-74 (February 4, 2023)

The season’s first battle for college basketball superiority in the state of Indiana was a thriller that ended up with a sea of red and white on the floor of Assembly Hall. The Indiana Hoosiers entered the second half of this rivalry game with a 15-point lead, and slowly but surely, the Purdue Boilermakers chipped away and made it a four-point game with less than 10 minutes remaining. What followed was a nervous finish for Hoosier fans as the Boilermakers made it a one-point ball game in the final two minutes.

Indiana won this game in large part due to their defense. Usually, when games are high scoring, players don’t accumulate impressive defensive stats, but the Hoosiers had 11 steals during the game. This game also saw junior center Zach Edey score 33 points and grab 18 rebounds, as the defense of senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis could not stop the soon-to-be National Player of the Year. It also foreshadowed Purdue’s eventual embarrassing loss to 16-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson, with the Knights forcing the same amount of turnovers as the Hoosiers did in their win.

No. 6 Marquette vs. No. 11 UConn, 70-68 (March 10, 2023)

Gus Johnson and Madison Square Garden. What could be a better combination? This game was a matchup that felt like the final of the Big East Tournament with Marquette and UConn, two soon-to-be trendy Final Four picks. If you ask for a matchup that epitomizes the tough but skillful brand of Big East basketball, this would be the perfect one.

This clash of Big East heavyweights came to a close through incredibly stout defense. After Marquette took a 4-point lead with 3:42 left in the game, they scored a grand total of zero points in the rest of the game. The Golden Eagles held on and took down the future National Champions at the World’s Most Famous Arena. The shot making on display by sophomore forward David Joplin helped propel Marquette to their first Big East Championship in school history.

No. 3 Kansas State vs. Michigan State, 98-93 (March 23, 2023)

Cometh the man, cometh the hour: senior guard Markquise Nowell. Sometimes a player’s individual performance is so good that it etches a particular game into college basketball history. Nowell set an NCAA tournament record for assists after dishing out his 19th assist with 0:15 left in overtime. This game was the definition of an offensive clinic, with both teams making utterly ridiculous shots and shooting over 45% from 3-point range.

But the game will forever live in our minds as college basketball fans for one play. Nowell dribbled up the court with less than a minute remaining, arguing with his coach about what play to run. Only, it turned out that the argument was a ruse. Senior forward Keyontae Johnson cut back-door, and Nowell threw him a perfectly placed lob pass to take the lead. This play was executed to perfection. That day, it just felt like Nowell and Kansas State could do no wrong.

No. 9 Florida Atlantic vs. No. 5 San Diego State, 72-71 (April 1, 2023)

Jim Nantz’s penultimate Final Four game was bound to be an instant classic, and on all accounts, it delivered. For a large part of the game, the Aztecs weren’t performing at their highest level — Florida Atlantic held a 14-point lead with 13 minutes to go. As the Aztecs chipped away at the lead, many wondered if they’d get over the hump and regain it, once and for all.

With 10 seconds remaining, Florida Atlantic sophomore guard Johnell Davis drove the lane, only for his shot to come up short. The ball was passed to San Diego State junior guard Lamont Butler who attempted to drive towards the hoop, only to be walled off. Realizing the time left on the clock, he backed it out and took a comfortable mid-range jumper which found the bottom of the basket.

It was a “San Diego State miracle,” as called by the legendary broadcaster.

This year was absolutely electric, and there are plenty of honorable mentions, but these games are the ones that I will never forget.

“The March Toward March” runs every Thursday.