Big East Basketball Tournament - Cincinnati v Syracuse

Save the best for last: 5 players rolling entering the tournament

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It happens every year. One player steps up his game and carries his team to a huge upset or a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Here are five guys to keep an eye one. Five who are playing the best hoops of their lives.

Ray McCallum – Detroit: McCallum, a sophomore, has been lighting up the Horizon all year. He led the team in scoring and finished 2nd in the conference. In the conference opener he had a pedestrian 10 points on 2-7 shooting. And then he got hot. In the next three games Detroit knocked off Youngstown State, the #2 seed (Cleveland State) and the #1 seed (Valparaiso) to clinch an automatic bid. In those 3 games the 6’2 McCallum made 78% of his 2s and 18-20 FTs.  He averaged 23 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5 assists.

Opening round opponent: Kansas (2)

Mike Scott – Virginia: Mike Scott was able to terrorize ACC opponents this season since he got hurt last year and qualified for a medical redshirt. He was 1st Team All Conference, but turned it up a notch when Virginia needed a win to secure a bye in the conference Tourney. In the past three games he’s averaged a ridiculous 28.7 points and 10.3 rebounds.

Opening round opponent: Florida (7)

Dion Waiters – Syracuse: The 2nd sophomore on this list, Waiters nearly doubled his scoring output this year, going from 6.6 as a freshman to 12.6 as a soph. But in the final regular season game and the two Big East Tourney games, he went to the next level. Waiters made 55% of his 2s and 63% of his 3s on his way to 19.7 points a game.

Opening round opponent: UNC-Asheville (16)

Andrew Nicholson – St Bonaventure: The A-10 champs finished 3rd in the regular season, and won the A-10 Tourney without having to face the #1 or #2 seed. But the way Nicholson was playing it probably wouldn’t have mattered. After the Bonnies loss to Temple on February 15th dropped them to 6-5 in the conference, Nicholson took over.  In the following 8 games he averaged 26 points and 10.6 rebounds.

Opening round opponent: Florida State (3)

Michael Snaer – Florida State: The Seminoles have been in the ACC for 20 seasons, and they just locked up their first ever conference championship. And to accomplish that they had to go through Miami, Duke and North Carolina. How’d they do it? Michael Snaer. Starting with the regular season finale which clinched the 3-seed, Snaer averaged 19.3 points and couldn’t miss when he set up for a 3. He made 14-19 (74%) in those games.

Opening round opponent: St Bonaventure (14)

Michael Rogner is the founding editor of Run the Floor, and you can find him on Twitter: @RunTheFloor

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.