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Kentucky’s daunting task of a title-or-bust is ‘unavoidable’

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Even for Kentucky, this was a rare season.

The Wildcats won 30 games in the regular season, rolled through the SEC regular season with a 16-0 mark and spent 10 weeks atop the polls. Freshman center Anthony Davis is the front-runner for national player of the year and coach John Calipari’s scooped up a few honors of his own.

Maybe that’s why Sunday’s loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final rankled Big Blue Nation a bit. Losing for the first time in 24 games – not since Dec. 10 – as the NCAA tournament looms is hardly the way to begin a quest for what’s really the only acceptable ending in the Bluegrass State this season.

“This year, anything short of a national title would be seen as a disappointment among the Big Blue Nation,” says Glenn Logan, managing editor of A Sea of Blue, a popular Kentucky blog.” That’s probably unfair considering the overall youth of this team, but when you go out and win 30 games in the regular season, I think stratospheric expectations are reasonable and frankly, unavoidable.”

It’s title or bust. It’s that simple.

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This is the most talented team Kentucky has seen since the 1996 team that featured nine future NBA players, dominated throughout the season and finished 34-2. It didn’t have anyone with Davis’ incredible talent, but John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader says it was “deeper and meaner.”

Clay knows his Kentucky hoops, too. He’s been at the Herald-Leader the last 30 years and a columnist since 2000. He says this year’s team is better than the 2009-10 version that featured John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, two lottery picks who helped UK win 35 games. It’s better than the 2002-03 “Suffocats” who boasted a 16-0 SEC record. Davis and wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could be the top two picks in the 2012 NBA draft. Sophomore Terrence Jones is also a lottery pick.

When you roll out those superlatives, sky-high expectations will follow. Luckily for Kentucky, Calipari knows this.

The loss to Vanderbilt provides the perfect motivational tool because it humbles and focuses the players at once. Plus, it’s easier to shrug off the media attention as hype.

“[Calipari] thought we were getting full of ourselves,” senior Darius Miller told the Louisville Courier-Journal after the loss. “This kind of brought us back to reality, that we can be beat. I felt like we knew that from the beginning. He might’ve been right, though. There were times we went back on film and it kind of looked that way.”

That’s how one must approach a single-game elimination tournament. Even dominant teams can fall short of the Final Four – Kansas and Ohio State last year – let alone not cut down the nets. That’s a prospect that Kentucky doesn’t even want to consider.

“We’re taking every team serious,” freshman point guard Marquis Teague told the paper. “We’re not really worried about that loss anymore. We’ve got something bigger on our minds now.”

Music to the ears of Big Blue Nation.

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So, what will it take to cut down the nets in New Orleans?

Kentucky’s road to the Final Four is rated by both Ken Pomeroy and Luke Winn as the easiest among any of the one seeds. And if simply making the final weekend is half chore, that’s a start. Navigating the likes of Iowa State/UConn, then Wichita State and probably Baylor should be manageable. The Wildcats (32-2) possess significant size and skill advantages against all of those teams except perhaps Baylor. (The Bears’ frontcourt is tall, but usually soft.)

Those last two games are tricky. UConn negated Kentucky’s 3-point shooting last season thanks to a nasty defense (and maybe some ‘Cat nerves). This year’s squad boasts a slightly better offense despite shooting slightly worse from beyond the arc. It’s not as one-dimensional.

There’s no real weaknesses. Thus, the high expectations among the fans. They can almost taste this title, which would be Kentucky’s eighth.

Expectations aren’t like this every season. “I can remember many years when Kentucky fans were, or would have been, pretty happy with a Final Four — like last year, for example,” Logan says. But this is a special group. That’s been evident all season, whether it’s been during wins against North Carolina or beating Florida by 20.

Combine that with the time since the Wildcats’ last championship – 1998, an eternity in Kentucky – and it creates a fever pitch.

Mostly. Clay says the all-or-nothing question misses the mark ever so slightly.

“I don’t know that it will be seen as a failure, but it will be a tremendous heartbreak. Kentucky fans all but live — no, they do live — for that eighth banner,” he says. “To have a team they think is more than capable of winning it all, to go through the SEC undefeated, to lose the conference tourney final and still be ranked No. 1, to be the overall No. 1 seed, and then not win it would be excruciating.”

A Final Four won’t cut it. Only a title will do.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

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)

Michigan State senior Eron Harris to have season-ending knee surgery

Michigan State's Eron Harris (14) shoots against Wisconsin's Jordan Hill (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
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Michigan State senior guard Eron Harris will undergo season-ending surgery on his knee after leaving Saturday’s loss at Purdue on a stretcher, the school announced on Sunday.

The 6-foot-3 fifth-year senior suffered the right knee injury during Michigan State’s loss at Purdue on Saturday as the unsettling injury resulted in some Michigan State players being brought to tears. Harris is a native of Indianapolis and received a standing ovation from the road crowd at Purdue as he was taken off the floor.

“We all feel absolutely awful for Eron,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said in the release. “As I said last night, I couldn’t ask for more than what Eron has given me and this program. Over the last month he’s grown even more as a leader and been an example to his young teammates. And maybe I didn’t even fully grasp it until I walked on the court and saw the admiration his teammates had for him and the tears in their eyes. There’s no faking the respect they have for Eron as a man, as a player, and most importantly a teammate.

“It’s cruel to see a senior’s career end this way. If there is a silver lining, it’s that we expect Eron to be able to make a full recovery and pursue a basketball career after graduation. He’s always worked for everything he’s accomplished on the court, and that same passion and mindset will serve him well in his recovery. Basketball is important to all players, but for Eron it was a way of life. Very few have spent more time in this facility or worked harder than Eron has. That’s why I’m confident his best basketball is still in front of him.”

Although Harris was never able to recreate his awesome sophomore season at West Virginia after his transfer to Michigan State, losing him still hurts this Spartans team because he’s one of the team’s veterans and, at times, a capable scorer. Harris averaged 10.7 points and 3.0 rebounds per game as a senior while shooting 43 percent from the floor and 38 percent from three-point range.

The injury bug has hit Michigan State pretty hard this season as they’ve also lost Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling to season-ending injuries.

No. 11 Wisconsin takes down No. 23 Maryland

MADISON, WI - FEBRUARY 19:  Ethan Happ #22 of the Wisconsin Badgers works against Michal Cekovsky #15 of the Maryland Terrapins during the first half of a game at the Kohl Center on February 19, 2017 in Madison, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Wisconsin snapped a two-game losing streak with a 71-60 Big Ten home win over No. 23 Maryland on Sunday. With senior guard Bronson Koenig returning to the rotation after missing the Michigan loss with injury, the No. 11 Badgers looked more like themselves for the first time in the last few games.

Here are some takeaways from this one.

1. This was an ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly game (just the way Wisconsin wanted)

Sorry to make you read the word “ugly” four times but I felt it was completely necessary to hammer home the point that this basketball game was not a pleasant viewing experience (and this has nothing to do with pace or style of play).

Wisconsin only shot 41 percent from the field, 16 percent from three-point range and 54 percent from the free-throw line and still won by double digits because they were the older and more physical team. While the Terps were able to hang in the game until the final five minutes or so because of junior guard Melo Trimble’s scoring punch, a younger Maryland team was physically dominated by Wisconsin for most of the game.

The Badgers owned the glass (44 to 27), got to the free-throw line 37 times and did a nice job of getting Maryland’s bigs into foul trouble.

Even though Wisconsin couldn’t generate a lot of consistent offense, they had enough from guys like Nigel Hayes (19 points) and Ethan Happ (20 points) to feel comfortable once they built a bit of a cushion. Wisconsin winning ugly isn’t any sort of new phenomenon, but it does bode well for the Badgers that they handled Maryland this easily despite such a poor shooting game.

2. Maryland needs even more help for Melo to be elite

Maryland has been able to stay in the top 25 this season because junior Melo Trimble has had a lot of help from a talented freshman class. Anthony Cowan has given the Terps another attacking guard, Kevin Huerter is one of the Big Ten’s better all-around freshmen and Justin Jackson has given Maryland a nice dose of athleticism.

Those three freshmen had a game to forget in Madison on Sunday. While Trimble went for 27 points, those three freshmen went a combined 3-for-15 from the field as they just didn’t show up to play during a very important game for conference implications.

Freshmen are going to have off games but this was the biggest game of Maryland’s season and they didn’t look ready to play.

Looking to fire up his team in the second half, head coach Mark Turgeon even went on the floor during a Wisconsin possession and basically forced the officials to whistle him for a technical foul. Even after trying to rally his team with that tech, the Terps didn’t fair much better.

It is also concerning that center Michael Cekovsky went down with an ankle injury in the second half. Cekovsky grabbed his ankle and left the game — looking noticeably frustrated on the bench — and that could be something to watch for Maryland in these final few weeks. Although Cekovsky is only a reserve big man, his 10-point showing on Sunday was one of his best games since returning from injury as he was just starting to look more comfortable.

Losing Cekovsky could hurt, but thankfully for Maryland, the remaining schedule isn’t too daunting. Three of four games come at home and the only road game comes at Rutgers. Even with Sunday’s lackluster effort, Maryland can stay in the Big Ten race if they continue to win.