Six scores from Saturday that shook up league races

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source: AP

Some league leaders didn’t fare so well Saturday.

Three suffered their first losses of the season, while three more fell in crucial road games that either dropped them from the top of the standings or created opening for others. Just another packed weekend day in college basketball. You NFL fans just tuning in are gonna love it. (But more on that later.)

How crucial were the defeats? Let’s take stock.

Big 12: Missouri 74, Kansas 71
The day’s biggest game also had one if its most dramatic finishes and clutch performances (Marcus Denmon, take a bow) that gave the Big 12 race some added kick. Denmon scored 29 points, including three 3-pointers in the final 2:05 to rally the Tigers (21-2, 8-2) against their longtime rivals. More impressive? He wanted everyone to act like a win over the Jayhawks (18-5, 8-2) was a normal occurrence and didn’t warrant a court-rush.

Impact: Significant. Missouri, Kansas and Baylor (21-2, 8-2) are packed atop the Big 12 standings. The Jayhawks and Bears both seem bound for another two losses apiece (nasty road games coming up), while the Tigers get Baylor, K-State and Iowa State at home. Only a road game at Kansas looms as a likely loss. This may be the day where Missouri finally got within sight of a Big 12 title.

Atlantic 10: St. Joe’s 70, La Salle 66
Figures a Big 5 game would shake things up a bit. The Explorers (17-7, 6-3) couldn’t must a second-half comeback and lost sole possession of the A-10 lead in the process. Temple’s victory vs. Rhode Island makes it the league’s only two-loss team.

Impact: Crucial. The odds of La Salle running away with the A-10 were zero. But the chances of them staying in the hunt with a win Saturday were pretty good. Now the Explorers face a three-game stretch (at Richmond, vs. St. Louis, at UMasss) that easily could leave them at .500 in conference play. The Owls (17-5, 6-2) aren’t going to cruise to the regular-season crown, but they have a slightly easier path and one less loss.

Missouri Valley: Northern Iowa 65, Creighton 62
It seemed logical that the Blue Jays (21-3, 11-2) would lose another Valley game at some point, but most would’ve bet on Wichita State exacting revenge next weekend. Instead, the Panthers (16-9, 6-7) pulled out a thrilling win thanks to Anthony James’ 3-pointer at the buzzer (after Antoine Young’s 3 4.6 seconds earlier had tied the game). But hey, this kind of thing happens in the Valley.

Impact: Significant. Next week’s Creighton-WSU game takes on added importance now. The league’s two best teams (no other school is within four games) matchup in Omaha with the winner likely earning the top seed for Arch Madness? That’s some drama, brother. The only thing keeping it from being a high-stress situation is that both teams are likely headed for the NCAA tournament.

Mountain West: Wyoming 68, UNLV 66
Playing at a higher elevation does have its advantages. Unless you’re UNLV. The Rebels (21-4, 5-2) had their chances to avoid the upset, but couldn’t connect in the final seconds and now find themselves a game behind San Diego State. Wyoming (18-5, 4-3) didn’t seem overly worried about UNLV’s preferred up-tempo pace. Maybe that’s because playing at 7,200 feet doesn’t bode well for teams like that.

Impact: Significant. The MWC’s gone from two-team league to a deep, trying conference this season. Any edge is crucial, though UNLV does benefit by playing host to SDSU next weekend. Make up a game there and trips to New Mexico and Colorado State become more manageable.

MAAC: Iona 85, Manhattan 73
Technically not an upset (the Gaels were favored by 2.5 points; Kenpom had them losing by 1), this wasn’t a huge surprise given the talent gaps between the teams. Iona (19-5, 10-2) features three of the conference’s best players in Scott Machado, Michael Glover and Momo Jones. Yes, they’d lost earlier in the season to Manhattan, at home even. But when they opened up a 19-point second-half lead, they weren’t about to blow it – like their 18-point lead earlier this season.

Impact: Crucial. Manhattan (17-8, 10-3) was one of two MAAC teams tied with Iona entering Saturday’s games. The other is Loyola (Md.), which plays host to the Gaels next Saturday. If the newly mature Iona team shows up – it’s all about focus for them – this conference race is over.

Sun Belt: Denver 75, Middle Tennessee 60
Another “non” upset (oddsmakers favored the Pioneers; Kenpom had it as a 1-point Denver loss), it was still Middle Tennessee’s first conference loss. The Blue Raiders’ only loss since Dec. 10 had been to Vandy (last weekend), but also lessening the surprise was their close victory against North Texas on Thursday. Maybe that’s why Denver closed out the final five minutes on a 14-5 run.

Impact: Minimal. The Blue Raiders (21-4, 10-1) are blessed to be in the league’s weaker division, avoiding the likes of Denver, North Texas, Arkansas-Little Rock and Louisiana Lafayette twice in a season. They’ll stil cruise to the division crown.

WAC: Idaho 72, Nevada 68
Forget the marquee teams. This was the stunner of the day. The Wolf Pack hadn’t lost since Nov. 25 (BYU), a stretch of 16 straight wins, including two against Pac-12 schools and their first eight WAC games. Nevada (at home!) was favored by 10.5. Kenpom had its chance of winning at 81 percent. Yet it was the Vandals (12-11, 5-4) who made the late plays and hit the shots for the win.

Impact: Moderate. Nevada (19-4, 8-1) still holds a two-game lead over New Mexico State and has already beaten the Aggies at their place. The Wolf Pack should still win the WAC, but this loss was certainly odd.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

USC lands four-star 2018 guard Elijah Weaver

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USC landed an important commitment for its future on Monday night as four-star Class of 2018 guard Elijah Weaver.

Regarded as the No. 35 overall prospect in the Rivals’ national Class of 2018 rankings, the 6-foot-5 Weaver gives the Trojans a floor leader to build around for the future as he provides great size in the backcourt. Capable of playing multiple guard spots, Weaver has a lot of upside for a program that has done a very solid job of developing backcourt talent under head coach Andy Enfield.

Weaver’s commitment is also important for the Trojans because it comes despite the looming FBI investigation that the program is dealing with thanks to former assistant coach Tony Bland. USC had recently lost a four-star commitment from forward J’Raan Brooks, so the commitment of Weaver is a huge momentum boost for them as they get right back on track in the Class of 2018.

With Weaver in the mix, USC now owns three four-star pledges in the 2018 class as he joins four-star forward Taeshon Cherry and four-star guard Kevin Porter.

Jim Larranaga believes he’s ‘Coach-3’ in FBI investigation

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Despite losing key contributors Davon Reed and Kamari Murphy from last season’s NCAA tournament team, the Miami Hurricanes are expected to be a player both within the ACC and nationally this season. But instead of having the focus solely on the likes of JaQuan Newton, Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker, Jim Larrañaga’s program is also having to deal with the impact of the ongoing FBI investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball.

While no one connected to the Miami men’s basketball program was arrested last month, the program is referenced in the FBI report. On Monday, Larrañaga stated during a press conference that he believes that he is “Coach-3” in the FBI report. Larrañaga also maintained his innocence, saying that he had done nothing wrong while also being thankful that none of his assistant coaches were involved.

“It’s been a strain, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually,” Larrañaga said according to the Palm Beach Post. “It’s something that’s there. I have to deal with it. I have the support of my wife and a wonderful family. I have the support of the university, my staff and players.”

According to the FBI report, “Coach-3” requested that payments totaling $150,000 be funneled to “Player-12” in order to ensure his commitment to their university. It has been reported that “Player-12” was 2018 five-star prospect Nassir Little, who has also stated that he had done nothing wrong. Two of the schools recruiting Little at the time, Arizona and Miami, have been entangled in the FBI investigation to varying degrees.

While Miami has not had anyone connected to its program arrested, Arizona assistant coach Emmanuel “Book” Richardson was one of the four Division I coaches were were indicted. As a result Little removed both Arizona and Miami from consideration before ultimately committing to North Carolina earlier this month.

There’s no telling what the FBI investigation will ultimately uncover, which for the schools involved could take a heavy toll not only for the 2017-18 season but for future years as well. The FBI case has been comparatively quiet since the first set of indictments, with future moves likely to be influenced by what authorities learn from the ten individuals named in the first announcement.

Miles Bridges discusses being offered money during recruiting process

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With the FBI launching an investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball last month, the entire sport has found itself under the microscope. Ten people, including four Division I assistant coaches, were arrested and there’s no telling just how long the FBI’s investigation will last or what information it will produce.

Michigan State forward Miles Bridges is considered by many to be the leading candidate for national Player of the Yeah honors, and he had the opportunity to turn pro after a good freshman season. But Bridges made the decision to return to East Lansing, and with that comes questions as to why he would do that as opposed to cashing in on his NBA potential as soon as possible.

In an interview with Brendan Quinn of The Athletic (subscription required) Bridges discussed a host of issues, including being offered money by people while going through the recruiting process.

“I mean, if you get caught, that might be the end of your career. I wanted to play in college really bad,” Bridges told Quinn. “I don’t know — materialistic things, they don’t really get to me. So when people were offering me money, I would say no right away, because I wanted to be able to live out my college experience. But really, I don’t know, it is hard, especially because I was so young at the time — 17.”

Given the ongoing investigation, high-profile players and teams will be on the receiving end of increased scrutiny even if they aren’t part of the FBI probe. It’s an unfair situation for a player like Bridges to deal with, as even in the actual cases of alleged wrongdoing the players themselves are essentially commodities whose services are being auctioned as opposed to the main characters looking to cash in.

Unfortunately, due to recent events a decision like the one made by Bridges will result in some questioning whether or not the player received something from the school or another entity/individual. And that’s a tough — and unfair — thing for a young player to have to deal with.

Broken hand sidelines North Carolina PG Joel Berry II

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North Carolina’s defense of its national title will likely begin without its most important player, as it was announced on Monday that senior point guard Joel Berry II will miss approximately four weeks due to a broken bone in his right hand.

Berry started at the point each of the last two seasons, earning Most Outstanding Player honors in April as the Tar Heels defeated Gonzaga to win the national title. As a junior, Berry averaged 14.7 points, 3.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game and started 37 of the 38 games in which he played. Berry shot 42.6 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from three, with the latter percentage being the best on team amongst players who attempted at least two three-pointers per game.

Berry was named an NBC Sports Preseason Third-Team All-American in late September.

With Berry out of the lineup, North Carolina loses its floor general as well as one of their top perimeter shooters. Sophomore Seventh Woods and freshman Jalek Felton become more important options at the point as a result of Berry’s injury, and the team doesn’t lack for perimeter shooters either with Cameron Johnson, Brandon Robinson, Kenny Williams and freshman Andrew Platek all being capable of helping to pick up the slack.

North Carolina opens its regular season on November 10 against Northern Iowa.

Bill Self’s stance on Kansas/Missouri series remains unchanged

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Sunday afternoon in Kansas City, bitter rivals Kansas and Missouri got together on the basketball court for the first time since 2012, with the Showdown for Relief raising $1.75 million for recent hurricane victims. In what was an entertaining game, the Jayhawks won by the final score of 93-87 with point guard Devonté Graham leading the way for the winners with 25 points and ten rebounds.

Kansas finished the game with five players in double figures, including Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman (17 points) and center Udoka Azubuike (16). On the other side freshman Michael Porter Jr. paced four Tigers in double figures with 21 points while younger brother Jontay grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds off the bench.

However despite the excitement for the two rivals being on the same court in any capacity, Sunday’s meeting was different given the circumstances. Following the game Kansas head coach Bill Self was asked about the possibility of the two teams meeting in a regular season game, and he maintained the stance he’s held since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC.

“I’m not going to say never, but I don’t think there’s been any change in our position as far as the university goes,” Self said following Sunday’s exhibition. “I’m the spokesman, I guess, on this but trust me, I’m not the only one that feels that way.”

While it would certainly benefit college basketball if Kansas and Missouri were to renew acquaintances down the line, it is understandable that Self — and maybe some others on the Kansas side of things — would have reservations. The programs, even with the arrival of Cuonzo Martin in Columbia and the freshman class led by the aforementioned Michael Porter Jr., are in different places right now.

The Jayhawks have their sights set on a 14th consecutive Big 12 title and a run at their first national title since 2008, Missouri is looking to fast-track a rebuilding process after struggling mightily under former head coach Kim Anderson. Yet with that being said, the state of the two athletic departments during realignment likely has more to do with the teams not playing each other.

Missouri was a school with options earlier this decade before joining the SEC, but that was not the case for Kansas. Had the Big 12 broken up as some believed would be the case, where would the Jayhawks have landed? Fortunately for the school the Big 12 survived the realignment craze, losing four schools (Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten) and adding TCU and West Virginia to get their membership number to ten.

Given that, the best bet for college basketball fans who want to see this rivalry played during the regular season may be to hope for the programs wind up in the same in-season tournament. Even better, how about the same NCAA tournament region?