It could go down as the move that altered the entire course of the 2010-11 season.
North Carolina was staggering through a so-so season and seemed headed toward a first-weekend exit in the NCAA tournament before Tar Heels coach Roy Williams inserted freshman point guard Kendall Marshall into the starting lineup.
That midseason change catapulted North Carolina to an unlikely ACC regular-season title. Marshall scored 15 points and dished out 11 assists Saturday as the host Tar Heels beat Duke 81-67 to clinch the conference championship outright.
North Carolina (24-6 overall, 14-2 in the ACC) has gone 12-1 since Marshall moved into the starting lineup. UNC's victory over Duke on Saturday avenged the only loss the Tar Heels had suffered with Marshall as a starter.
"One of my buddies said I got a lot smarter in the last couple of weeks," Williams told reporters after the game. "I don't know that I got smarter, but my team got a heck of a lot better."
The same team that lost four non-conference games and got blown out 78-58 by Georgia Tech on Jan. 16 - one of the season's most puzzling results in retrospect - now heads into the postseason as a legitimate Final Four contender. If the Tar Heels win the ACC tournament next week in Greensboro, N.C., they conceivably could be a No. 1 seed.
"I think we've come a long way since [losing to Minnesota and Vanderbilt in] Puerto Rico, and I still think we have a long way we can go," Marshall told reporters. "Our potential is through the roof."
Marshall's addition isn't the only key to North Carolina's improvement. Harrison Barnes has started to live up to the considerable billing that accompanied his arrival on campus. Barnes was the first freshman ever to be selected as a preseason first-team All-American by The Associated Press, but he initially struggled to adapt to the college game.
Barnes has proved a quick study, though, and developed a penchant for clutch shooting while emerging as an impact player. Barnes' 3-pointer with 3.1 seconds left in a 72-70 victory at Florida State on Wednesday marked the fifth time he has made the game-winning or go-ahead shot in an ACC game. Barnes scored 18 points Saturday while also helping the Tar Heels shut down Duke star forward Kyle Singler, who was 3-of-14 from the field.
Duke (27-4, 13-3) looked as if it had a legitimate chance to win a second consecutive national title before freshman point guard Kyrie Irving injured his right toe in a Dec. 4 victory over Butler. Irving, who had been performing at an All-America level, hasn't played since. Duke hasn't looked quite the same without him, even if its record doesn't necessarily reflect it.
The Blue Devils still have enough talent and experience to contend for a championship, but it's hard to imagine them earning a No. 1 seed. Not after they failed to win the regular-season title of a conference that was much weaker than usual.
Duke is stumbling into the postseason with two losses in its past three games. One week after Duke scored just nine points in the final 11 minutes of a 64-60 loss at Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils made just one basket in the last 10 1/2 minutes against North Carolina.
Nolan Smith scored 30 points and Seth Curry added 20 points, but the rest of the Blue Devils combined to score 17 points while shooting 7-of-30. Blue Devils didn't get much offense from anyone else. Curry went 6-of-11 from 3-point range, and his teammates were 0-of-16.
Singler, the most outstanding player in last season's Final Four, has shot 34.8 percent (39-of-112) over his past six games.
"He's just not shot well this last month," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters after the game. "Look, I've gone to really good places with my best players, [with me] having confidence in these guys. I'll continue to do that. He's been a part of 120 wins. He's a national champion.
"This is a big game, but the biggest games are going to be played in about a week-and-a-half or two weeks. Those are the biggest games. We have to be ready for that, and we have to make sure that Kyle and Nolan are still leading us in that regard, just like they did last year."
Spartans left reeling
For the past two seasons, Michigan State has been the team nobody wanted to face in the NCAA tournament. In this season's NCAA tournament, the Spartans may be a team nobody has to face.
A team that has made two consecutive Final Four appearances weakened its already-questionable postseason credentials Saturday with a 70-63 loss at Michigan. It was the Spartans' 13th loss, and a season that began with the Spartans ranked second nationally could end in the NIT.
"I don't know where we are," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told reporters after the game about the Spartans' postseason prospects. "I'm going to take it ether way. We're going to do what we can do to win. There will be no politicking or begging, I can promise you that."
This wasn't the way anyone expected Michigan State's season to turn out.
Izzo resisted overtures from the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers this summer and instead returned to Michigan State to coach one of the nation's most talented and experienced rosters. Raymar Morgan was the only senior starter on a Michigan State team that lost to Butler in last season's NCAA semifinals.
But the team that took the floor Saturday wasn't quite the same as that team from last March. Chris Allen, who averaged 8.2 points per game last season, was dismissed from the team over the summer and has since transferred to Iowa State. Junior guard Korie Lucious was suspended for the rest of the season in late January and later announced he would join Allen at Iowa State.
Durrell Summers looked like a rising star as he led the Spartans to the Final Four last season, but he hasn't been nearly as effective this season. Summers' struggles have put more pressure on senior Kalin Lucas and junior Draymond Green, the two best players on Michigan State's roster.
"To win at this level, you need your three best players to play well," Izzo said. "For us, it's Lucas, Summers and Green. That's the way it is. As we all know, one of them has struggled for quite a while. The other two have been pretty steady. But that's what we need and that's what we've got to get."
Rarely have all three played well in the same game. The trend continued Saturday. Summers came up big with 13 point and 13 rebounds. Lucas added a game-high 25 points, but Green fouled out with seven points after going 3-of-14 from the floor.
The Spartans don't have much time to sort things out. Michigan State (17-13 overall, 9-9 in the Big Ten) doesn't necessarily have to win the Big Ten tournament to earn an NCAA invitation. Even though the Spartans have a mediocre record, they remain in contention for an at-large bid because they've played one of the nation's toughest schedules.
But the Spartans have gone just 3-9 against teams that entered Saturday in the top 50 of the RPI. They headed into Saturday shooting 41.1 percent from the field, a percentage that was tied with Northwestern and Penn State for last in the Big Ten. They shot just 30.8 percent against Michigan.
Michigan State's inability to beat top-level teams or establish any kind of rhythm all season won't help the Spartans stack up favorably with other bubble teams. For instance, why would the selection committee pick Michigan State ahead of Michigan?
Although Michigan (18-12, 9-9) also hasn't fared well against top-50 teams, the Wolverines swept the regular-season series with their in-state rival for the first time since 1996-97. Their only loss in their last four games was a 53-52 heartbreaker against Wisconsin that was decided when the Badgers' Josh Gasser banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
"It gives us momentum, but we can't let it get to our heads and [just] be proud of this," said Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who scored all 20 of his points in the second half. "We've still got a long way to go, and we still have a lot of work to do."
Michigan was one of the biggest winners and Michigan State one of the biggest losers to come out of the final Saturday of the 2010-11 regular season. Here's a recap of the day's other winners and losers.
UNC Asheville's defense: UNC Asheville earned the first ticket to the NCAA tournament by forcing 21 turnovers in a 60-47 upset of top-seeded Coastal Carolina in the Big South championship game. Coastal Carolina entered the conference tournament ranked 16th nationally in scoring at 78.3 points per game.
Belmont: Whatever No. 3 or No. 4 seed ends up facing Belmont in the NCAA tournament will have one heck of a first-round chore. Belmont's 87-46 thrashing of North Florida in the Atlantic Sun championship showed a national audience why the Bruins are one of the deepest and best-coached teams outside the six major conferences. Three of Belmont's four losses this season came against either Vanderbilt or Tennessee. The Vanderbilt game was decided by nine points, and each of the two losses to Tennessee came down to the final minute.
Pittsburgh's home-court hex on Villanova: Pittsburgh clinched the Big East championship outright with a 60-50 victory over Villanova that continued the Panthers' home-court dominance in this rivalry. Villanova hasn't won at Pitt since Feb. 17, 1996. The Wildcats aren't the only team to struggle in Pittsburgh, as the Panthers have won 24 of their past 25 home games.
Iowa F Jarryd Cole: Cole, a 6-foot-7 senior, collected 16 points and 10 rebounds as Iowa stunned Purdue 67-65 in the final home game of his college career. Purdue's loss means Ohio State wins the Big Ten regular-season title.
Clemson coach Brad Brownell: Earlier in his career, Brownell reached the NCAA tournament in his debut seasons at UNC Wilmington and Wright State. Now he may be on the verge of getting back to the tournament in is first season at Clemson (20-10 overall, 9-7 in the ACC). The Tigers' 69-60 victory over Virginia Tech put them in much better position for an NCAA bid, though all they've clinched so far is a first-round bye in the ACC tournament.
Kansas F Thomas Robinson: In the best indication yet that he's all the way back after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last month, Robinson had 15 points and a season-high 13 rebounds as Kansas closed the regular season with a 70-66 triumph at Missouri. This marked the first time Robinson had scored in double figures since Feb. 1.
Notre Dame G Ben Hansbrough's teammates: Hansbrough has carried Notre Dame all season, but the Irish proved Saturday they could win without their Big East player of the year candidate. Hansbrough fouled out with 8:24 left Notre Dame's 70-67 victory at Connecticut. The Huskies scored 13 consecutive points after Hansbrough's exit to grab a five-point lead, but the Irish answered with a run of their own to pull ahead for good. Freshman PG Eric Atkins did an admirable job running the Irish offense in Hansbrough's absence.
West Virginia F Kevin Jones and G Casey Mitchell: West Virginia's top inside player and best outside shooter have produced up-and-down seasons, but both came up huge in the Mountaineers' 72-70 victory over Louisville. Jones, a junior, had a career-high 25 points to go along with 16 rebounds. Mitchell made two 3-pointers in the game's final 17 seconds, including one that tied the game with 10 seconds left.
Alabama G Charvez Davis: Davis went 5-of-10 from 3-point range and scored 17 points as Alabama defeated Georgia 65-57 to finish the regular season with a perfect home record. Alabama entered the day last in the SEC in 3-pointers per game (4.0) and 3-point percentage (.297). The Tide had gone 6-of-31 from beyond the arc in the three games leading up to this one. The victory kept the Tide's slim at-large hopes alive.
Illinois G Demetri McCamey: McCamey continued his late-season surge by recording 22 points, four assists and only one turnover in a 72-48 blowout of Indiana. McCamey has averaged 19.3 points over his past three games, and he has delivered three times as many assists as turnovers during that stretch.
Temple F Lavoy Allen: Allen, a senior who is Temple's leading career rebounder, scored a career-high 24 points and added 11 boards as the Owls defeated La Salle 90-82 to complete the regular season with a perfect home record.
Fordham: The Rams beat Massachusetts 77-73 to end their 41-game Atlantic 10 losing streak. Fordham, which had dropped 17 games in a row overall, hadn't won a conference game since a 67-65 victory at St. Bonaventure on Jan. 28, 2009. This marked Fordham's first home conference win since a 69-62 triumph over St. Bonaventure on March 8, 2008.
Arizona: The Wildcats clinched the outright Pac-10 regular-season title with a 90-82 victory over Oregon. Although Arizona had made 25 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances before getting left out last season, this marks the Wildcats' first Pac-10 title since 2004-05.
Memphis F Tarik Black: Black, a freshman, kept Memphis' NCAA tournament at-large hopes alive with 24 points and 11 rebounds as the Tigers rallied for a 66-61 victory over Tulane.
UCLA's defense: The Bruins made two steals in the final 15 seconds of a 58-54 overtime victory over Washington State. The first of the two steals was particularly crucial, as Washington State was preparing to take the final shot in a tie game before Tyler Honeycutt swiped the ball away.
Morehead State: Senior F Kenneth Faried, the leading Division I rebounder in the modern era, had 24 points and 15 rebounds as Morehead State defeated Tennessee Tech 84-79 in Nashville to win its second Ohio Valley Conference tournament title in three seasons. Harper proved Morehead is more than a one-man show by pouring in 27 points.
Harvard: The Crimson clinched at least a share of their first Ivy League title with a 79-67 triumph over Princeton. A Penn victory over Princeton on Tuesday would give Harvard its first NCAA tournament bid since 1946. If Princeton beats Penn, it would face Harvard again in a one-game playoff at a neutral site to determine the Ivy titlist.
Florida's balance: All five Florida starters scored in double figures as the Gators won 86-76 at Vanderbilt to win the outright SEC regular-season championship. Kenny Boynton led the way with 17 points and continued his recent hot shooting by going 4-of-9 from 3-point range. Boynton hasn't shot particularly well from beyond the arc for most of his two-year career, but he has gone 13-of-26 in the Gators' past three games.
Providence G/F Marshon Brooks: Brooks scored 28 points to lead Providence to a 75-74 victory over Rutgers. Brooks scored 468 points in 18 conference games to break the Big East single-season record formerly held by Donyell Marshall, who scored 462 points in Big East competition for Connecticut during the 1993-94 season.
Virginia Tech: Remember the popular theory that Virginia Tech had locked up an NCAA bid last weekend by upsetting top-ranked Duke? Forget it. The Hokies have followed up that emotional victory by falling back on the bubble with consecutive losses to Boston College and Clemson. Here's a sobering fact for Hokies fans: Boston College, Clemson and Virginia Tech are the three ACC teams on the bubble. The Hokies are a combined 0-3 against Boston College and Clemson.
Washington State G Klay Thompson: His arrest on a marijuana possession charge Thursday night forced Washington State to play its regular-season finale without the Pac-10's leading scorer. Thompson's absence may have made the difference in a 58-54 overtime loss to UCLA that dealt a big blow to the Cougars' NCAA tournament hopes.
Marquette: The Eagles (18-13 overall, 9-9 in the Big East) played their way back onto the NCAA bubble with a loss at Seton Hall. Marquette put itself in good position to nab an NCAA bid with a recent three-game winning streak, but the Eagles have followed that up with consecutive losses at home to Cincinnati and at Seton Hall. Marquette wasn't even competitive in an 85-72 loss to Seton Hall despite having much more at stake than the Pirates.
Georgetown without Chris Wright: The Hoyas clearly aren't the same without their injured point guard. Georgetown ranked among the NCAA leaders in field-goal percentage when Wright was in the lineup, but the Hoyas have gone 0-2 and have averaged just 49 points in the two games Wright has missed with a broken left hand. Georgetown shot 36 percent in a 58-51 loss to Syracuse last week and shot just 32.1 percent Saturday while falling 69-47 at Cincinnati. The Hoyas are hoping Wright will return in time for the NCAA tournament.
Louisville G Preston Knowles' last-second decision: When Knowles missed a long 3-pointer in the closing seconds of a 70-70 game between Louisville and West Virginia, overtime seemed inevitable. But after Darryl "Truck" Bryant grabbed the rebound, Knowles inexplicably fouled him about 80 feet from the basket with six-tenths of a second remaining. Bryant made two free throws to give West Virginia a stunning 72-70 victory.
Purdue: Losing to Iowa in its regular-season finale definitely cost the Boilermakers any shot at sharing the Big Ten regular-season title. It also likely cost them a shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, no matter how they fare in next week's Big Ten tournament.
DePaul: The Blue Demons were on the wrong end of the most lopsided game in Big East history as they fell 107-59 to Syracuse. DePaul was playing without leading scorer Cleveland Melvin, who sprained his left thumb last week.
Maryland: With their NCAA tournament at-large hopes already dashed, the Terrapins laid an egg at home in their regular-season finale. Maryland lost 74-60 at home to a mediocre Virginia team and ended the regular season on a three-game losing streak.
Villanova's lack of balance: Villanova might have upset Pitt if any of Maalik Wayns' teammates could have offered more support. Wayns' 27 points accounted for more than half of Villanova's offense in a 60-50 loss. Villanova G Corey Stokes missed the game with a hamstring injury, and G Corey Fisher was 3-of-14 from the floor and scored only seven points to continue his late-season slump.
Missouri's shooting: Missouri shot 29.3 percent overall and went 3-of-23 from 3-point range while falling to Kansas for its third consecutive loss.
Baylor: On a night when LaceDarius Dunn became the Big 12's leading career scorer, Baylor still fell 60-54 to Texas in a loss that severely damaged the Bears' hopes for an at-large bid. Baylor (18-12 overall, 7-9 in the Big 12) began the day 76th in the RPI.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings' ill-timed technical foul: Vandy trailed Florida 56-53 midway through the second half when John Jenkins made a basket while drawing contact to start what appeared to be a potential game-tying three-point play. But while one official started to signal a blocking foul, another official ruled a charge that wiped out the basket. Stallings then left the bench and drew a technical foul. Boynton made the ensuing two free throws to start a 9-1 run that helped the Gators put the game away.
Louisiana Tech's offense: Louisiana Tech was 10-of-56 from the field (17.9 percent) and missed all 14 of its 3-point attempts in a 72-30 loss to Utah State. Louisiana Tech's five starters went a combined 6-of-41 and scored 22 points.
Marist's offense: Marist lost 55-31 to top-seeded Fairfield while delivering the lowest point total in the history of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, which began in 1982.