The Best Last-Place Game Ever?

When a new basketball season starts, there are always so many questions. On good thing about the annual holiday basketball tournaments is that we usually glean quite a bit of information to help guide the storyline of the entire season. Those teams that finish in championship games usually figure out ways to keep the momentum going well into February. Those teams looking to avoid an 0-3 finish usually find ways to struggle their way through the rest of the season.

In the hierarchy of these annual tournaments, the Battle 4 Atlantis has quickly risen to the top of the heap. Since its inception in 2011, this event has attracted nearly every big-name program in the sport (Kentucky being the only main exception). With so many top teams, including higher mid-majors, there's always opportunity for a good team to have a bad week.

This year's installment of the event featured its usual gaggle of heavyweights. The leader of the group was Arizona. The Wildcats entered the season ranked as a top-five team (3rd in the AP, 5th in the Coaches). After the Champions Classic participants beat up on each other, those rankings rose to 2nd and 4th, respectively. This all happening despite a rough offseason featuring an inclusion in the FBI's corruption probe. The probe led to the arrest of former (as of Tuesday) assistant coach Emmanuel "Book" Richardson and has held a cloud over the program, especially in November. On the court, however, U of A showed no ill effects.

On the other side of the bracket, you had Villanova, the champion once removed. But a worthy challenger by name of Purdue laid in the woods. The Boilermakers have been more solid than threatening when it comes to the Matt Painter tenure. Who knows what would have happened had Robbie Hummel stayed healthy during his last run with JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore (2010-2011). It wasn't until last season that the promise of contention resurfaced. Although All-American Caleb Swanigan left early for the NBA draft, the Boilers still had enough stored respect to garner a preseason ranking (20th in the AP, 21st in the Coaches). Going into Atlantis, Purdue was an impressive 4-0 with rankings in the upper teens.

While an Arizona/Villanova final was the draw in the Bahamas, an Arizona/Purdue tilt would have also been quite entertaining. Then, reality stepped in. Reality stepped up in the form of Tennessee and NC State programs that were a bit underrated going in. The Boilermakers fell in overtime to the former, while the Wildcats were stunned by the latter. Reality stepped up in the form of Western Kentucky and SMU programs that could show up in the NCAA bracket. That left this power-packed matchup in a place no one thought it would land ... a battle to not finish last.

On that Saturday after Thanksgiving, the holiday weekend couldn't have ended any worse for 'Zona. The Wildcats were thoroughly dominated by Purdue, losing by 25, and, ultimately, doing the unthinkable ... falling from inside the top-five one week to outside the top 25 the next. The Boilermakers, even with the victory, didn't fare much better, becoming unranked themselves. But this was just the beginning of the story.

Since the meeting at Imperial Arena, several teams have kept their foot on the gas, creating gaudy records and staying in the spotlight. However, very few squads have been hotter than those two combatants. Purdue has put together 15 straight wins, starting with that victory over the Wildcats. And Matt Painter's team hasn't just been winning, they've been rolling. The last 15, this team has a point differential of +324 (or a margin of +21.6 ppg).

They've also proven that Issac Haas isn't the only weapon in the arsenal. Carsen and Vincent Edwards (no relation) lead the crew with a combined 30.8 ppg. Dakota Mathias scores well and has range (48.9% three-point shooter). Overall, the team shoots nearly 50% from the floor and at 47% from deep. This has them sitting at 19-2 and ranked third in the nation.

The Wildcats took their lumps from the Bahamas. It appears that they learned from them. After getting back into the country, Sean Miller and his guys figured something out. It's hard to put your finger on it. Their scoring is decent enough. They've had some good defensive outings. It's about having just enough moxie for this team to pull games out. And they're breaking hearts along the way. They ended Texas A&M's unbeaten season. They ended Arizona State's unbeaten season. All the while, their position as Pac-12 favorites has been re-established.

The return of sophomore guard Rawle Alkins has been a big boost to the starring duo of Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton. Ayton, the freshman big man, is really showing his talents, averaging 19.7 points and 11.1 boards a contest. Put this all together, and you have a stretch where the Wildcats have won 13 of 14, compiled a record of 16-4, and worked their way back near the country's top 10.

Thursday marks two months since Purdue and Arizona met. Oddly enough, both teams will play that night. Coincidentally enough, both matchups stress revenge. The Boilermakers hope to avoid it, hosting a Michigan team they beat by just one in Ann Arbor. The Wildcats hope to embrace it, hosting a Colorado squad that provided the only Arizona loss since Nov. 25 (a 3-point margin in Boulder). These hot streaks won't last forever. Sports has a way of ending those at some point. But it would be nice to see these two programs battle once again. Would late March work out?

And all of this from a last-place game in the Bahamas. Who woulda thunk it?

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