Bubble Banter highlights the teams we believe are on the NCAA Bubble. If a team isn’t listed, they aren’t a bubble team at the time of the update. RPI and SOS data is credited to CollegeRPI.com. If you would like great access to regular RPI information, Jerry Palm provides great information for all NCAA Tournament fans. A subscription is very reasonable.
UPDATED: Monday, March 7
Automatic Bids (4): UNC-Ashville (Big South), Morehead State (OVC), Belmont (Atlantic Sun), Indiana State (MVC)
Total Spots (68): Number of total teams in the Field.
Projected Locks (29): Teams who project to have secured a spot in the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
Should Be In (4): These teams are teams in solid position to receive an at-large bid.
Bubble: (26): Teams projected to be at or near the cutline for being selected as at-large candidates.
Spots available (11): Number of projected available openings for the bracket.
Leaving the Bubble: Cleveland State (out), Southern Mississippi (out)
Joining the Bubble: New Mexico, USC
RPI and SOS: RPI and SOS data are updated 11:00 p.m. ET on March 6.
Locks: Xavier, Temple | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Richmond
Richmond (24-7 | 13-3) | RPI: 56 | SOS: 138 | – The Spiders closed with 10 wins in 12 games – their only losses to Xavier and Temple. The win over Purdue continues to be a major helping point, and a victory over VCU is looking better again. Because the Spiders suffered lopsided losses against Xavier and Temple in their regular-season meetings, do they need to beat one of them in the A-10 tournament? We’ll see. Doing so would certainly make them feel more secure on Selection Sunday.
Locks: Duke, North Carolina | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech
Boston College (19-11 | 9-7) | RPI: 44 | SOS: 25 | – After closing out Wake Forest Sunday, BC enters the ACC tourney on a three-game winning streak. Winning at Virginia Tech could prove really big as the Eagles swept the Hokies. That said, BC remains just 1-5 vs. Top 50 RPI teams (Texas AM), even though they are 7-10 vs. the Top 100. Although the Eagles are in just “in” right now, BC needs to win its opening ACC tournament game.
Clemson (20-10 | 9-7) | RPI: 57 | SOS: 74 | – The Tigers won their critical home game with Virginia Tech on Saturday in the only meeting between the two. Clemson’s resume remains pretty modest (2-5 vs. Top 50 teams – BC and Florida State), however, and is backed by a rather weak No. 204 non-conference schedule. Clemson has non-league losses to Old Dominion, Michigan, and South Carolina to go along with hiccups against NC State and Virginia. Whether the Tigers end up in the NCAAs will depend on how they perform at the ACC Tournament.
Florida State (21-9 | 11-5) | RPI: 49 | SOS: 78 | – While it’s hard to see FSU missing the NCAAs with an 11-5 ACC record, most of their wins are against teams below them in the standings. The Seminoles’ win over Duke is helping, but FSU was swept by Carolina. Outside the league, Florida State’s best win is Baylor (Hawaii). They also lost to Butler. The Seminoles are 2-4 vs. Top 50 teams and 6-8 vs the Top 100 – other bubble teams have more such wins. Beating NC State on Sunday was important. Avoiding a one-and-done at the ACC tourney should be enough.
Virginia Tech (19-10 | 9-7) | RPI: 64 | SOS: 87 | – Losing back-to-back games against bubble teams in your own conference has certainly created a lot of doubt after the win over Duke. The Hokies enter the ACC Tournament squarely on the cutline. An opening-round loss could very well mean another year of heartbreak. Besides Duke, the Hokies beat Florida State in the ACC, and Penn State. They were swept by Boston College and lost their only game with Clemson. They were also swept by Virginia, lost at Georgia Tech, and are 4-6 in road games. VT is 2-6 vs. the Top 50 and 7-7 vs. the Top 100.
Locks: Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Syracuse, Villanova, Louisville, St. John’s West Virginia, Cincinnati | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Marquette
Marquette (18-13 | 9-9) | RPI: 67 | SOS: 31 | – By losing at Seton Hall, Marquette has left some doubt about their once-promising NCAA hopes. The Golden Eagles are 4-11 vs. Top 50 RPI teams – an amazing number of high-level games. But they are also just 11-13 vs. the Top 200 – a stat that has often meant the NIT. We’ll see if the strength of the Big East and a strong SOS overall helps the Golden Eagles. Winning at Connecticut was huge because it proved that Marquette could win away from home. Still, Marquette is just 4-7 on the road. Out of conference, Marquette’s best win is Bucknell. A first-round loss to Providence at the Big East tourney would create some uncertainty.
Locks: Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Illinois, Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State
Illinois (19-12 | 9-9) | RPI: 41 | SOS: 17 | – The Illini took out some frustration on Indiana Saturday in Champaign and avoided a costly loss. While the general feeling is the Illini will make it, their outlook would be clearer if they can beat Michigan (again) in the Big Ten quarterfinals. Good wins include N. Carolina, at Gonzaga, Wisconsin, and perhaps Michigan State. Down the stretch, however, Illinois has gone 5-7 in its last 12 games. Strong SOS numbers and 10 Top 100 wins are a plus. The loss at UIC is a major sore point – along with the dropped game at Indiana in January.
Michigan State (16-13 | 9-9) | RPI: 48 | SOS: 9 | The Spartans won 3 of 5 down the stretch, but struggled on the road against Michigan on Saturday – giving the Wolverines a season sweep. MSU is hoping its strong SOS will be rewarded; we’ve seen it in the past. The Spartans are just 3-9 vs. Top 50 teams, but 9-12 vs. the Top 100. They are 12-12 vs. the Top 200. What’s it all mean? Michigan State plays Iowa in its Big Ten tourney opener. A second loss to the Hawkeyes could prove too much. A victory and a good showing against Purdue? Close call.
Michigan (18-12 | 9-9) | RPI: 55 | SOS: 18 | Michigan played well down the stretch, going 8-4 in its last 12 Big Ten games. Through a series of tiebreakers, the Wolverines earned the 4-seed in the Big Ten tourney and play Illinois Friday. The Illini won in Champaign – the only meeting between the two. A 3-8 mark vs. Top 50 teams is somewhat offset by a 9-11 mark against the Top 100. Outside the league, Michigan’s best win is at Clemson, although they did beat Harvard, too. In the Big 10, Michigan swept Michigan State and Penn State. Their only “bad” loss was at Indiana in early January. If good losses help, Michigan took Kansas to OT in Ann Arbor. If they lose to Illinois, it could go right down to the wire.
Penn State (16-13 | 9-9) | RPI: 53 | SOS: 6 | The Nittany Lions staved off bubble elimination by winning at Minnesota Sunday. Penn State has three solid victories at home (Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State) but the Lions are a just 3-8 on the road – a major disparity. PSU was also swept by Michigan. Despite a solid SOS, PSU’s best non-conference victories are Fairfield and Duquesne. They also lost at Virginia Tech. Penn State has to beat Indiana in its B10 tourney opener, and probably upset Wisconsin to sneak in. They are 3-7 vs. the Top 50 and 9-12 vs. the Top 100.
Locks: Kansas, Texas, Texas AM, Missouri, Kansas State | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Baylor, Colorado
Baylor (17-12 | 7-9) | RPI: 84 | SOS: 39 | – Baylor has dropped 5 of 6 and is clinging to life support after losing to Texas at home. The Bears’ RPI is sliding fast and the only thing keeping them afloat is a world of talent and a sweep of Texas AM. It’ll take a deep run in the Big 12 tourney at this point. It starts with Oklahoma.
Colorado (18-12 | 8-8) | RPI: 76 | SOS: 72 | – Colorado’s win over Nebraska Saturday did two things – kept them near the cutline and kept Nebraska off the immediate bubble. While the Buffs have some high-level wins (5-6 vs. the top 50 and a sweep of Kansas State), a horrific non-conference SOS (No. 322) could still prove to be an at-large killer. That, and a 3-9 record in true road games. It’s also worth noting that Colorado is just 10-12 vs the Top 200 – often an NIT qualification. The Buffs best non-conference win is over fellow bubble-dweller Colorado State. Colorado gets a rematch with Iowa State in its Big 12 tourney opener. Another loss to the Cyclones (in 10 days) might very well end their hopes of an NCAA bid.
Locks: BYU, San Diego State, UNLV | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Colorado State, New Mexico
Colorado State (18-11 | 9-7) | RPI: 43 | SOS: 33 | – The Rams lost 4 of 5 down the stretch after falling at San Diego State. CSU is just 1-6 vs. the Top 50 and 4-8 vs. the Top 100. CSU has to reach the MTW final to warrant re-evaluation. Next up is New Mexico in an elimination game.
New Mexico (19-11 | 8-8) | RPI: 70 | SOS: 90 | – While still a long-shot, we have to welcome back the Lobos who have won three straight and own a season sweep of BYU. They also split with Colorado State and beat Colorado. UNM’s non-conference SOS (No. 257) is still an eyesore, but if the Lobos could reach the MTW final, they would be in the picture. First, UNM has to beat Colorado State in an elimination game.
Locks: Arizona | Should Be In: UCLA | Bubble: Washington, Washington State, USC
Washington (20-10 | 11-7) | RPI: 46 | SOS: 52 | – The Huskies have left themselves on the bubble by playing some very inconsistent basketball. They beat UCLA at home (season sweep), then lost on their same home floor to USC two days later. Keep in mind that Washington accomplished nothing outside the Pac-10 – Long Beach State is the Huskies best non-league win. Thus, it’s hard to move Washington above the fray just yet. They open the Pac-10 tourney against Washington State. What if they lose and WSU or USC makes a run? Washington also has losses at Stanford, Oregon, and Oregon State.
Washington State (19-10 | 9-8) | RPI: 74 | SOS: 86 | – With Klay Thompson suspended, the Cougars coughed up a late lead to UCLA and lost in OT. That could be a major blow if the Cougars lose to Washington in their Pac 10 tourney opener. WSU is 6-8 vs. Top 100 teams, but just 2-6 vs. the Top 50. The Cougars have beaten Gonzaga and Baylor, but lost to Butler. WSU also swept Washington, but was swept by Arizona.
USC (18-13 | 10-8) | RPI: 68 | SOS: 42 | – Having won 5 of 6, it might be prudent to add Southern Cal to the bubble, but the Trojans have a long way to go. Yes, they have 5 Top 50 wins (Texas early, and then at Tennessee included), but they also have 6 sub-100 RPI losses – including 3 sub-200 losses (TCU, Oregon State, Bradley). They were also swept by Oregon. That type of resume suggests the NIT. But if USC can reach the Pac-10 final? We’ll see how the landscape looks.
Locks: Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt | Should Be In: Tennessee | Bubble: Georgia, Alabama
Georgia (20-10 | 9-7) | RPI: 39 | SOS: 36 | – Having won at Tennesse and beaten Kentucky, the Bulldogs remain decent position. They also have a win over UAB. A victory at Alabama would have helped, but the Bulldogs do have one edge on some other bubble teams – no “bad” losses. In fact, every loss except at Alabama has been to teams in the Top 40 of the RPI. Outside the league, Georgia beat Colorado but lost to Xavier and Temple. Overall, the Bulldogs are 3-9 vs. the Top 50 and 5-10 vs. the Top 100. Is Georgia safe? Not yet. They can’t afford a loss to Auburn in their SEC tourney opener.
Alabama (20-10 | 12-4) | RPI: 79 | SOS: 127 | – What will the Selection Commitee do with Alabama? That’s a big topic of debate. Winning the SEC West was hardly epic work, but a 12-4 SEC mark is hard to ignore. Outside the SEC, Alabama’s profile is very questionable. Their non-conference SOS ranks No. 280 and the Tide’s best non-league win is Lipscomb. They also have early losses to St. Peter’s, Iowa, and Seton Hall. With just 4 Top 100 wins, it’s hard to move Alabama off the bubble. Yes, the Tide beat Kentucky at home, but UK has been an average team on the road. Their other notable win – other than Georgia at home Saturday – is at Tennessee. But the Vols are very unpredictable. Is that enough? Alabama had better win at least one game in Atlanta. They might need two.
BEST OF THE REST
Locks: NONE | Should Be In: George Mason, Old Dominion | Bubble: Butler, Missouri State, Memphis, UAB, Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, Utah State
Butler (21-9 | 14-5) | RPI: 37 | SOS: 71 | – Butler has done what it had to do by reaching the Horizon League final. They play at Milwaukee on Tuesday. Certainly, winning the automatic bid would be best, but the Bulldogs have won 8 straight to be squarely in the conversation. A win over Florida State in Hawaii helps as could a win over Washington State – although that is more questionable. It’s the five league losses – including a sweep by Milwaukee – causing the question mark. Butler played a strong non-conference schedule (No. 12), and might be rewarded. That said, losing three times to Milwaukee could be a stumbling block.
Missouri State (25-8 | 17-4) | RPI: 42 | SOS: 124 | – Long wait coming up for the Bears who lost to Indiana State in the finals of the MVC tournament. With no Top 50 wins and just a 3-6 mark vs. the Top 100, Missouri State has to hope the Selection Committee values an outright MVC regular season title. Odds aren’t promising, we’ll see how the week develops.
Memphis (22-9 | 10-6) | RPI: 38 | SOS: 55 | – Memphis lost 3 of 5 down the stretch and needs to do some hefty work in the C-USA tourney. The Tigers swept UAB and Southern Miss in league play but also managed to lose at East Carolina, Rice, and SMU. Further, Memphis was blown out in its prime-time matchups with Kansas, Georgetown and Tennessee. The win at Gonzaga is Memphis’ only non-conference victory of note. Have to think the Tigers need to at least reach the C-USA final.
UAB (22-7 | 12-4) | RPI: 28 | SOS: 68 | – UAB wrapped up the C-USA regular-season title – something to note. Whether that would warrant an at-large bid is questionable. The Blazers are just 3-4 vs. Top 50 teams (but two of those are Marshall at No. 50). However, they do have 8 top 100 wins overall. The Blazers’ best non-conference win is VCU – they lost at Georgia and Duke. Within the league, UAB was swept by Memphis, we’ll see if that matters. A 9-5 road mark helps, but there’s just not a lot to be excited about. UAB needs to reach the C-USA final.
VCU (23-10 | 14-6) | RPI: 49 | SOS: 91 | – After losing 4 of 5 down the stretch, VCU rallied to beat Drexel and then upset George Mason in the CAA tournament. Now, the Rams are in the title game against Old Dominion. Winning would erase all doubt, although VCU should be in the conversation either way. The Rams have a neutral-court win over UCLA and also won at Wichita State in the BracketBuster. VCU is 3-4 vs. the Top 50 and 8-7 vs. the Top 100. A loss at UAB could come into play.
Gonzaga (21-9 | 11-3) | RPI: 66 | SOS: 103 | – Gonzaga had won 9 of 10 heading into the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas and held off San Francisco Sunday to advance to the title game with St. Mary’s. That’s a good spot, and helps their at-large case. They have wins over Xavier, Marquette, and Baylor, as well as a home loss to Memphis. The ‘Zags split two games with St. Mary’s. A 2-6 mark vs. Top 50 RPI teams is somewhat concerning, but a 5-7 mark vs. the Top 100 helps a little.
St. Mary’s (22-7 | 12-3) | RPI: 47 | SOS: 114 | – The Gaels beat Santa Clara to advance to the WCC title game. An early win over St. John’s helps, and St. Mary’s split with Gonzaga. The rest of the resume is light, however, (1-4 vs. Top 50 teams and 3-5 vs. the Top 100). In the at-large discussion, the Gaels would likely fall behind Gonzaga. A home loss to Utah State could also pose a problem. In an interesting note, SMC has a game with Weber State on March 11 – after the WCC tourney concludes.
Utah State (27-3 | 15-1) | RPI: 17 | SOS: 122 | – The Aggies thoroughly dominated the WAC and may very well have done enough. Still, with a very light 2-2 mark vs. Top 100 teams – and one of those being Long Beach State (No. 95) – we can’t assume USU is a lock. Avoiding an early WAC flameout would be advised. Reach the final and it could be difficult to leave the Aggies home on Selection Sunday.
Twenty players were announced as members of the preseason watch list for the Karee Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year award.
Among the 20 are Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, Texas A&M’s Tyler Davis, Texas’ Mohamed Bamba, St. Mary’s senior Jock Landale and Purdue’s Isaac Haas.
“I would like to thank the Basketball Hall of Fame for the honor of being the namesake of this award,” said Abdul-Jabbar, a 1995 inductee of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and six-time NBA Champion, said in a release. “The student-athletes recognized have worked tirelessly to earn their spots on this list and I look forward to seeing how their hard work will pay off this season.”
Previous winners include Przemek Karnowski (2017), Jakob Poetl (2016) and Frank Kaminsky (2015).
The group of 20 (though players not included in the preseason watch list can be later included) will be trimmed to 10 in February and five finalists in March. The winner will be announced April 6.
2018 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award Candidates
Southland Preview: Can Stephen F. Austin regain the throne?
Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Southland.
The Southland finally saw Stephen F. Austin‘s dominant run end last season as New Orleans claimed the regular season title and NCAA tournament autobid. Although the Lumberjacks finished in second place in head coach Kyle Keller’s first season, expectations are in place for another potential conference title in 2017-18. Stephen F. Austin returns eight of their top nine producers from last season including Player of the Year candidate T.J. Holyfield on the interior. If Stephen F. Austin’s offense can get a boost then they could be in for another dangerous season.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has to replace the scoring punch of forward Rashawn Thomas but do-it-all senior Ehab Amin is back to lead the charge. Amin led the nation in steals last season while filling up the box score in many other ways as he’s flanked by guards Kareem South and Joseph Kilgore. Lamar made a leap last season as they won 19 games and made a CIT appearance. Senior forward Colton Weisbrod is a throwback undersized frontcourt presence while the backcourt of point guard Joey Frenchwood and shooter Nick Garth is among the league’s stronger returning duos.
Returning most of last season’s contributors, Abilene Christian is hoping to make a major leap up the Southland standings. Sophomore big man Jalone Friday is a promising player to build around while junior guards Jaren Lewis and Jaylen Franklin both put up double-figures in the scoring column last season. Incarnate Word is going to put up points but the Cardinals will need to figure things out on the defensive end. Jalin Hart, Simi Socks and Shawn Johnson are all returning upperclassmen who averaged at least 14 points per game each last season.
Southeastern Louisiana has a chance to make noise as junior point guard Marlain Veal and junior forward Moses Greenwood are a solid 1-2 punch. With a deep bench returning, the Lions have a lot of upperclass experience and could be a surprise team. The return of Jalan West for a seventh season is a major story for Northwestern State. The former Player of the Year candidate has to stay healthy but he’s joined by junior big man Ishmael Lane and senior guard Devonte Hall to form a solid nucleus.
Losing four starters will be tough for Sam Houston State but junior point guard John Dewey III is back to lead the team’s offense. Senior big man Chris Galbreath has a chance to be a breakout player. Central Arkansas has the Southland’s returning leading scorer in senior guard Jordan Howard but the Bears have to make major strides on the defensive end and controlling turnovers.
New Orleans has a lot of new pieces after last year’s run to the Big Dance as the Privateers need to replace three starters. Senior forward Travin Thibodeaux and senior big man Makur Puou are back along with a lot of question marks. After a CIT appearance, Houston Baptist loses five seniors and multiple transfers but senior center Josh Ibarra is an all-league threat.
Nicholls lost seven seniors and needs to rebuild as senior point guard Jahvaughn Powell has a chance to have a big year. McNeese finished in last place a season ago but most of that group is back. Sophomore guard Kalob Ledoux has a chance to be one of the league’s better guards.
PRESEASON SOUTHLAND PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Ehab Amin, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
College basketball’s leader with 124 total steals last season (3.4 per game), this 6-foot-4 senior guard can also put up numbers all over the stat sheet. The Egyptian averaged 16.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game last season while shooting 46 percent from the floor. If Amin improves his 28 percent three-point shooting then he could be in for a monster season.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON SOUTHLAND TEAM
Colton Weisbrod, Lamar: Undersized at 6-foot-5 but great in the paint, this senior averaged 15.1 points and 8.1 boards per contest. Weisbrod shot 52 percent from the floor but only 16 percent from three-point range.
T.J. Holyfield, Stephen F. Austin: Versatile junior forward averaged 11.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.0 steals per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor.
Jordan Howard, Central Arkansas: The senior has a chance to reach 2,000 career points after dropping 19.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game last season. Howard could stand to improve his shooting efficiency.
Jalone Friday, Abilene Christian: Intriguing sophomore big man had tremendous splits (52% FG, 45% 3PT, 82% FT) and put up 13.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game last season in only 21.7 minutes per contest.
The 19,000 fans who secured tickets to the Sprint Center for the charity-inspired reignition of the Border War won’t be the only ones to be able to watch Kansas and Missouri play Sunday.
The exhibition game, whose proceeds will be used for hurricane relief, will be streamed live for those willing to spend $40, the schools announced Friday.
“Our first objective was to sell out Sprint Center,” the two schools said jointly in a release. “Once we achieved the sellout so quickly, our fans who could not get tickets expressed tremendous interest in having the game televised. We wanted to make sure that the charities we’ve identified would be the only entities to derive revenue from this game. SIDEARM Sports has provided the platform to allow us to create a second stream of revenue via this telecast.”
The broadcast will feature Leif Lisec doing play-by-play and ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla and Holly Rowe as the analyst and sideline reporter, respectively. The trio are donating their time for the broadcast.
The Jayhawks and Tigers haven’t played since 2012, when Missouri bolted the Big 12 for the SEC. There certainly has been resentment from the move, which has kept the two from scheduling a non-conference tilt. Now, though, they’re hoping the layoff has built enough anticipation to raise upward of $1 million for the Houston Harvey Relief Fund, the Rebuild Texas Fund, the Florida Disaster Fund, Juntos y Unidos Por Puerto Rico and the Fund for the U.S. Virgin Islands after a devastating hurricane season in the United States.
The game will pit the perennial powerhouse Jayhawks, expected to be a top-five preseason team and strong favorite to win the Big 12, against an ascendant Missouri, which has the potential 2018 No. 1 NBA draft pick Michael Porter, Jr. headlining the roster reboot under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for two schools to do something together for the better of the masses,” Kansas coach Bill Self said last week, “and be able to send a significant amount of money to people that are suffering right now. So that is going to come to fruition, and we’re real happy about it.”
College Hoops Contender Series: Can Michigan State’s sophomore class carry them to a title?
Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.
We should start with Miles Bridges here, shouldn’t we?
Bridges is the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year. He averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 boards, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 38.9 percent from three on more than five threes per game as a freshman. He was a top ten pick in last year’s loaded NBA Draft and he made the decision to return to school. That doesn’t happen all that often, so it should come as no surprise that Bridges will enter the year as a potential top five pick and the star of a team everyone believes will be in the top five. ‘Who has the best player in college basketball?’ is a great starting point for trying to figure out who are the best teams in college basketball, and Bridges, on paper, is a good bet to be the best player in college basketball.
But there is more to this than the simple fact that Tom Izzo more or less lucked his way into not only having the local five-star prospect pick the Spartans over the likes of Kentucky, but then opt to stay with the Spartans over heading to the NBA Draft.
Bridges is so perfect for what the way that Izzo wants to play.
He’s arguably the best athlete is all of college basketball. He can guards threes and fours. He can protect the rim. He attacks the glass, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, and he can get out and run in transition. Defense, rebounding and the transition game are staples of the teams Izzo wants at his disposal, and Bridges can do all three things well.
Then throw in the rest of the Michigan State front court. Nick Ward is a throwback. He’s a 6-foot-8, 260 pound left-handed behemoth that is impossible to stop one-on-one on the block. He averaged 13.9 points in less than 20 minutes as a freshman. Freshmen aren’t supposed to do that. Sophomores aren’t, either. Ward will be paired up front with Jaren Jackson, who couldn’t be a more perfect compliment to Ward and Bridges. He’s a 6-foot-11 power forward with all the skills you expect out of a modern power forward: He protects the rim, he rebounds and he can space the floor offensively with his three-point shot. He may not have the hype of some of the other big men in the 2017 recruiting class, but he projects as a one-and-done lottery pick all the same.
I still haven’t even mentioned Xavier Tillman, another land-warrior freshman in the front court. He may surprise some people this season. Throw in Ben Carter, Gavin Schilling and Kenny Goins, and there may not be a more talented and deep front line in the country.
The back court is where the issues lie — we’ll get to that in a second — but there are some things to like about this group. For starters, both Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford were top 30 recruits in the Class of 2016. Neither were all that impressive during their first year in East Lansing, but the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Langford shot 41.6 percent from three last year and Winston averaged 5.2 assists in just over 20 minutes. They are talented and they should continue to improve.
Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn Jr. is back for his senior season, and his ability to push the ball in transition has made him a favorite of Izzo, while Matt McQuaid is somehow only a junior. Assuming that both Winston and Langford take a fairly significant step forward, Nairn and McQuaid will be rotation players off the bench, and if that is the case, this Spartan roster looks as strong as any roster in the country.
There are two real concerns that I have with this Michigan State team heading into next season.
The first, believe it or not, is with Bridges. I don’t see anyway that you can question his ability. He’s a monster. But part of what made him just so effective as a freshman was because he is the prototype for what you look for in a college four in modern — read: small-ball — basketball. He’s big enough to guard power forwards defensively. He rebounds the ball, he protects the rim, he can switch onto anyone defensively and he just so happens to be a perimeter player on the other end of the floor. In other words, he can guard college power forwards but they cannot guard him.
That is an incredibly valuable weapon for a team like Michigan State to have.
And as a sophomore, he won’t be taking advantage of that versatility in the same way. He’ll likely end up playing the majority of his minutes at the three. Jaren Jackson is too good to keep on the floor, particularly when it would mean playing Matt McQuaid of Tum Tum Nairn over him, but Jackson is a full-blown power forward.
It begs the question: Just how effective is Bridges going to be if he is playing at the three? Will it be easier for college small forwards to cover him? Will he be able to take them into the paint if Ward is already occupying space down there? And what about his three-point shot? He made 38.9 percent as a freshman, but how many of those were a result of getting clean looks at the rim because the power forwards guarding him didn’t know how to guard a player like that on the perimeter?
I don’t think this will end up being an issue — hell, we have Bridges as the Preseason National Player of the Year — but it will definitely be something to monitor moving forward.
The bigger question mark, however, will likely end up being Winston, and to a lesser degree Langford.
I love Tum Tum. I wrote a story on him when he was still in high school. His name is awesome. He’s a terrific personality with the kind of back story that makes you want to root for him. But he’s just not good enough to be the starting point guard for a team with national title aspirations. Last season, Nairn started 30 games at the point. Winston started five, and while Izzo had found ways to manufacture minutes for the duo to play to together later in the season, this much was clear: there was something that the Hall of Fame head coach didn’t quite trust about Winston.
Maybe it was his 23 percent turnover rate. Maybe it was Winston’s issues on the defensive end of the floor, or the fact that he didn’t lead the way that Izzo wanted his point guards to. Most likely it was all of the above, and as a sophomore, those are issues that Winston will have to fix.
And I think that he will.
Again, Michigan State is a consensus top three team for a reason. They’re my pick to win the national title this season.
But I can certainly tell myself a story where the Spartans don’t quite come together, and it starts with Winston’s issues at the point.
Langford I am less worried about. He will mostly be fine. Yes, he needs to be more aggressive as a scorer, and we saw some of that late in the season. But mostly he needs to be a guy that can knock down open shots, provide a consistent defensive threat and be a threat in transition, whether he’s spotting up for a three or finishing at the rim. He will be, at best, the third option for these Spartans offensively, and I don’t think it will be that hard for him to fill that role.
Michigan State is my pick to win the national title.
I’m sure I won’t be the only one to say that between now and the start of the season.
And as good as Tom Izzo is, it’s worth noting that when he has had a team projected as a title contender, the season usually ends up being disappointing. Since the Spartans won the title in 1999, there have been four seasons where they were considered to be a favorite to win the title at some point during the season. In 2009-10, they were No. 2 in the preseason top 25 and limped their way to a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament; they would eventually get to the Final Four in Detroit that year. In 2010-11, they were again the preseason No. 2 team in the country and finished the year 19-15 with a loss to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
In 2013-14, they were the preseason No. 2 team yet again, living up to the hype for most of the year until a wrist injury suffered by point guard Keith Appling derailed their season; Sparty still found a way to win the Big Ten tournament and get to the Elite 8. Then in 2015-16, the Spartans quickly emerged as one of the nation’s best team before losing to Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed.
The scope and ramifications of the investigation by the FBI into corruption in college basketball remains an unknown.Who will be ensnared, what programs will be impacted and how the sport as a whole will cope are all pressing questions that will likely unfold over weeks, months and maybe years.
In the short-term, though, the fallout is already being felt.
Arizona lost the commitment Thursday of five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, he announced via social media.
“After careful consideration, my family and I have determined it is in my best interest to retract my verbal commitment to The University of Arizona,” Quinerly posted to Twitter. “I’d like to thank my extended family and fans for your continued love and support. Your positivity and kindness never goes unnoticed.”
While Quinerly didn’t address the investigation, it’s easy to draw a line from the arrest and eventual firing of Arizona assistant Book Richardson and Quinerly’s decision. Quinerly is believed to be the player referenced in federal court documents that was on the receiving end of money Richardson took from agents, according to the Arizona Republic.
What’s next for Quinerly will certainly be worth watching. How seriously will other schools pursue him? Will he opt to just go overseas and bypass the NCAA – and any investigations it may launch – all together?