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Mississippi State rides for the SEC

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NEW YORK – Within the first week of the college basketball season, we saw three of the SEC’s top five teams lose.

Mississippi State and Vanderbilt were dropped at home by Akron and Cleveland State, respectively. Florida went on the road and ran into the buzzsaw known as the Ohio State Buckeyes. The initial reaction was, naturally, that the SEC is once again down this season.

Don’t worry. I won’t hold it against you if you did. I jumped to the same conclusion. After the way that the SEC has struggled over recent seasons, it made too much sense.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the answer isn’t so simple.

Vanderbilt is playing without Festus Ezeli, whose knee injury essentially extended the six game suspension he is currently serving through December. During their loss to Cleveland State, John Jenkins injured his ankle, and while he kept playing, it was bad enough that he didn’t suit up against Bucknell. I’ve been as harsh on Vandy as anyone, but even I can admit that judging them too harshly before they play at 100% is a bit unfair.

Florida’s loss to Ohio State is about as far from a bad loss as you can get. Road games are difficult regardless of opponent. Hanging within seven of a top three team on their home court in mid-November is a promising performance.

Which brings us to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs completed their run to the Coaches vs. Cancer Championship with a 67-57 win over Arizona on Friday night, all but erasing the doubts created by the memories of that loss to Akron.

But for the second straight night, this was more than simply a win for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs never trailed Arizona. Hell, the score was only tied once, at 23. The Bulldogs jumped out to leads of 7-0 and 21-11, over-powering the Wildcats on the interior. Arizona did battle back to tie the game and only trailed by one at the half, but the Bulldogs once again got off to a quick start in the second half. Arizona wasn’t blown out by any means — the lead didn’t hit double digits for the half — but it never felt like Mississippi State ever lost control of the game.

“I am proud of our team,” Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said after the game. “And I am proud from this standpoint: I think when the game was on the line in the second half, we survived. … Our team dug in defensively and the stats back it up. We held them to eight field goals in the second half and we had a plus-nine rebound margin. Those are winning plays.”

Arnett Moultrie led the way, finishing with 19 points (on 8-9 shooting), 10 boards and the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. Moultrie isn’t always going to be a big scorer like this, but the threat of having two big men capable of putting up 20 points and 10 boards is part of what makes Mississippi State so dangerous.

The other part of what makes the Bulldogs dangerous is there back court, and not simply Dee Bost. Stansbury’s star senior shot just 3-12 from the field, finishing with eight points and six assists to along with three turnovers. And while Stansbury will disagree with my assessment of how Bost played — he called me out during the press conference, saying that the effort and leadership that Bost played with is what they need from him — the bottom line is that the Bulldog’s best scorer wasn’t scoring well.

And Mississippi State still won.

A big part of that was due to the play of DeVille Smith, a diminutive freshman point guard. For the second straight night, Smith came into the game and created a spark. Smith, who was the third-leading scorer for the Bulldogs during their trip to Europe, had seven points and a pair of assists, scoring six points and handing out an assist in a five minute stretch of the second half in which the Bulldogs pushed the lead from one to nine.

“[Being a spark plug] is something that coach wants me to do, but its also something that I want to do. I’ll do whatever it takes to win the game,” Smith said.

Smith isn’t the only role player that stepped up for the Bulldogs. Wendell Lewis had six points and seven boards off the bench. Rodney Hood had nine points and hit a couple of big jumpers. Brian Bryant add six points and helped keep Arizona’s slew of perimeter players in check.

“We have a lot of different guys on different nights,” Stansbury said. “We have people on different nights who can step up and do big things for us.”

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Player of the Week: Lauri Markkanen, Arizona

TUCSON, AZ - JANUARY 12:  Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats drives the ball past Torian Graham #4 of the Arizona State Sun Devils during the first half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on January 12, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Lauri Markkanen entered this week mired in an awful slump.

Over the course of his last four games, he was shooting 20 percent from the floor and 25 percent from three. He hadn’t scored more than eight points in any of the four games and, frankly, looked nothing like the seven-footer who had drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki as he averaged 15.4 points and shot 45.7 percent from three.

That was until the Wildcats had to play against the Washington schools.

With Dusan Ristic and Kadeem Allen both battling injury, Markkanen played some of his best basketball of the season, averaging 22.5 points and 12.0 boards in the two wins. The most promising part of it is that Markannen was more than willing to change his game, going away from being a perimeter oriented player to anchoring Arizona’s post offense. On the season, roughly 45 percent of Markannen’s field goals come from beyond the arc. This past week, just six of the 30 shots he attempted were three-balls.

Yes, it came against Washington State and Washington.

But that’s not what matters here.

What matters is that Lauri got his groove back and Sean Miller figured out that he has another option to work the post if Ristic gets himself into foul trouble or sprains an ankle during the NCAA tournament.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Takeaways | Top 25

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Mike Daum, South Dakota State: Daum went for 51 points and 15 boards, hitting seven threes as a 6-foot-9 forward, as the Jackrabbits beat Fort Wayne on Saturday. That came on the heels of a 26-point performance during the week. Daum is the first player to score 51 points in a game since … South Dakota State’s own Nate Wolters in 2013.
  • Frank Mason, Kansas: Mason played just about his best game of the season on Saturday, finishing with 23 points and eight assists as the Jayhawks went into Waco and knocked off No. 4 Baylor. That came on the heels of a 24-point, 5-assists, 4-rebound performance in Monday’s comeback win over No. 9 West Virginia.
  • Jayson Tatum, Duke: Tatum had 19 points and seven boards in Duke’s win over Wake Forest on Saturday, but his most impressive performance came on Wednesday night, when he had 28 points and eight boards – including three game-changing threes in the final five minutes – as the Blue Devils landed an impressive road win over No. 14 Virginia.
  • Markus Howard, Marquette: Howard went for 34 points and tied a Marquette record by hitting nine threes on Saturday night as the Golden Eagles landed a statement, 22-point win over Xavier. That win may be enough to get Marquette into the NCAA tournament.
  • Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall: Carrington went for a career-high 41 points and seven assists as the Pirates landed a critical win over No. 20 Creighton last week, one that could be enough to get Seton Hall into the tournament. He also had a team-high 22 points in the loss to Villanova on Saturday.

College Basketball Talk Top 25: So what do we do with Baylor and Virginia right now?

LOUISVILLE, KY - DECEMBER 28:  London Perrantes #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers dribbles the ball during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on December 28, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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The big question this week is what to do with Baylor and what to do with Virginia.

With Baylor, it’s pretty clear: They’re still a top ten team, but as of today, they’re just not playing as well as they were earlier in the season. They’ve lost four of their last six games, but it’s not like they were embarrassed in any of the four. They came back and had three shots to win or force overtime in their loss at home to Kansas State. They lost at Texas Tech, who very nearly beat Kansas in that same gym. They got swept by Kansas, turning the ball over when they had a chance to force overtime at Phog Allen Fieldhouse and losing by two at home after their best guard, Manu Lecomte, injured himself midway through the second half.

What’s that tell us?

Baylor isn’t some dominant team. But there is no dominant team anywhere this season, and while Baylor has been on the wrong end of some bad luck and a couple poor finishes, they’re still the same Baylor they’ve been all season. They’ll get this thing turned around soon enough.

Virginia is a different story. They’ve now lost three in a row and five of their last seven games, falling all the way off the pace in the ACC title race. The Wahoos, however, are in much more trouble than Baylor because they simply are running out of ways to score. They had 44 points with two minutes left in their loss to Duke. They managed just 41 points in their loss to North Carolina.

But here’s the question that needs to be asked: Is Virginia struggling because they aren’t good enough to win a game or two in March, or is this a direct result of having to play Duke and North Carolina in back-to-back games?

You tell me.

Anyway, here are the full rankings:

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Takeaways | Top 25

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1. Gonzaga (28-0, Last Week: No. 1)
2. Villanova (26-2, 2)
3. Kansas (24-3, 3)
4. Louisville (22-5, 4)
5. Oregon (24-4, 6)
6. North Carolina (23-5, 6)
7. Arizona (25-3, 8)
8. UCLA (24-3, 9)
9. Baylor (22-5, 5)
10. West Virginia (21-6, 10)
11. Kentucky (22-5, 12)
12. Duke (22-5, 12)
13. Purdue (22-5, 13)
14. Florida (22-5, 15)
15. Wisconsin (22-5, 15)
16. Cincinnati (24-3, 18)
17. SMU (24-4, 19)
18. Notre Dame (21-7, 20)
19. Saint Mary’s (24-3, 21)
20. Florida State (21-6, 17)
21. Iowa State (17-9, UR)
22. Virginia (18-8, 14)
23. Northwestern (20-7, 23)
24. Butler (21-6, UR)
25. Wichita State (25-4, UT)

DROPPED OUT: No. 22 South Carolina, No. 24 Xavier, No. 25 Creighton
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 21 Iowa State, No. 24 Butler, No. 25 Wichita State

You Make The Call: Did Tyler Roberson set an illegal screen?

SYRACUSE, NY - JANUARY 28:  Tyler Roberson #21 of the Syracuse Orange dunks the ball against the Florida State Seminoles during the first half at the Carrier Dome on January 28, 2017 in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)
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Syracuse was unable to cap off a thrilling comeback on Sunday night due, in large part, to the fact that Tyler Roberson was called for an illegal screen with 16 seconds left in the game and the Orange down just two points.

They had gone on a 20-9 run in the previous four minutes to close the deficit, and had gotten a stop in order to get the ball on that possession.

But here’s the thing: The call was, to put it politely, controversial. I don’t think that Tyler Roberson committed a foul here.

You make the call:

The loss put the Orange in a bad spot with just two weeks left before the end of the regular season. We go all the way through their at-large profile here.

Bubble Banter: Let’s talk about Syracuse, Georgetown and Georgia Tech

CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 16:  Tyus Battle #25 of the Syracuse Orange during their game at the Dean Smith Center on January 16, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here. This is where the seeds you see listed below come from.

This post will be updated throughout the night. 

LOSERS

Georgetown (RPI: 61, KenPom: 53, first four out): The Hoyas missed a golden opportunity to add an elite road win to their profile, losing at Creighton by 17 points, and now I think we’re just about to a point where we can write the Hoyas off. They’re sitting at 14-13 on the season and 5-9 in the Big East. The win over Oregon on a neutral, at Butler and over Creighton at home got them back into the picture, but three losses in their last four games will probably be too much to overcome.

That said, I’m going to keep listing them here because I think that if they can win out – DePaul, at St. John’s, at Seton Hall, Villanova – they’ll have an argument. In the early bracket reveal, the committee made clear that they value good wins over anything, which is why Gonzaga was rated as the fourth No. 1 seed despite having fewer losses than any of the other No. 1 seeds. There aren’t many teams that would be able to match Georgetown win for win in they win out.

Syracuse (RPI: 77, KenPom: 46, No. 10 seed): The Orange lost to Georgia Tech on Sunday, so let’s talk about Syracuse, because they are on track to enter Selection Sunday with one of the weirder profiles. The bad first: they lost to a bad, injury-depleted UConn team at the Garden. They were blown out at Boston College. They were blown out by St. John’s at home by 33 points. There is no high-major team with that collection of awful losses to their name, and it doesn’t help that Jim Boeheim’s club has nine more losses to add to the mix.

They also have some good wins – Virginia, Florida State, Wake Forest, Miami – but they’ve only won two games away from the Carrier Dome: at Clemson, who is 4-10 in the ACC, and at N.C. State, who fired their coach three days ago. With FSU and UVA careening – combined, they’ve lost five straight games – neither of those games look at good as they did two weeks ago. So after today, for my money, Syracuse is out. That can change, however. They get Duke at home this week and Louisville on the road this weekend. Those are season-changers.

WINNERS

Georgia Tech (RPI: 79, KenPom: 78, first four out): The Yellow Jackets have a very similar profile to that of Syracuse, who they beat at home on Sunday. They have wins over North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame, but they also won at VCU – which is now a top 30 road win – and their worst loss came against an Ohio team that looked like they could win the MAC before their best player went down with a season-ending injury. Their problem? Their non-conference strength of schedule is 244th, and that RPI is dreadfully low for an at-large contender.

Michigan (RPI: 52, KenPom: 27, No. 10 seed): The Wolverines lost an overtime game on the road to Minnesota, which is not the kind of loss that is really going to hurt their profile beyond the opportunity cost of it. The Wolverines are still in a good spot.

Valparaiso (RPI: 74, KenPom: 97, No. 12 seed): Valpo is in as a No. 12 seed in our bracket, but they are in as an automatic bid, meaning that there are no at-large teams rated below them. Being the best automatic bid does not guarantee that they’ll be in as an at-large, not when their best win is a Rhode Island team that is fading and they’ve lost four games to sub-100 competition. Win that auto-bid.

Illinois State (RPI: 35, KenPom: 49, No. 12 seed): Illinois State beat Loyola (IL) on Sunday to keep themselves alive for a potential at-large bid should they lose in the Missouri Valley tournament. Their profile, however, is quite different than that of Wichita State. Their only top 50 win is a Wichita State team whose only top 50 win is … Illinois State. They have also lost to San Francisco, Tulsa and Murray State, who is 239th in the RPI. Pro-tip: Don’t risk it, even with the weak bubble. The committee is going to value wins over a lack of losses.

 

VIDEO: Valparaiso’s Micah Bradford makes 3/4 court shot off the shot clock

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Valparaiso freshman Micah Bradford made one of the most ridiculous shots we’ll see all season on Sunday against Detroit.

With time winding down in the first half, Bradford hoisted a 3/4 court buzzer-beater and watched as it hit the shot clock, flew high in the air, hit the rim and dropped through the hoop to the disbelief of everyone in attendance.

Unfortunately, Bradford’s wacky three-pointer did not count as he finished with five points in a 20-point Valpo win.

(H/t: Eric Fawcett)