NIT Season Tip-Off

Delaware’s trip to MSG: Great experiences, missed opportunities

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NEW YORK, N.Y. – It wouldn’t be fair to say that Delaware caught a break that this happened to be the season they took part in the Preseason NIT.

They won the games that they had to win to get to Madison Square Garden and the semifinals of the country’s only true preseason tournament. They beat Penn. They went into Charlottesville and knocked off Virginia. They made it to the bright lights of MSG and a primetime showcase on ESPN on their own.

But I do think it is fair to say this: it didn’t hurt matters that the year the Blue Hens took part in the event just so happened to be the season that Monte’ Ross has his most talented roster in seven years in Newark, and that they just so happened to get put in a regional with a Virginia team that is now officially in the post-Mike Scott era.

If they happened to have gotten placed in Pitt’s regional, they may not have made it this far. If they had happened to have been invited to the event next season, than they would have been playing without star center — and potential NBA Draft pick? — Jamelle Hagins. This group had “Team of Destiny” written all over it. And when a Devon Saddler three cut a Kansas State lead that had grown to eight back to one, at 39-38, with 13:40 left in the game, everyone on press row had the same reaction: the Blue Hens might actually do this!

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as 32 points from Saddler weren’t enough for Delaware to complete the upset win over the Wildcats, losing 66-63 and missing out on a chance to take a swing at No. 4 Michigan on Friday.

The reason for the loss had nothing to do with intimidation, however. The Blue Hens didn’t make their way into the third place game because they were overwhelmed by the platform they were playing on or because they shied away from the challenge of playing a potential tournament team from the Big XII.

What cost them in this game was … spasming muscles?

With 15 minutes left in the game, one possession before that Saddler three cut Kansas State’s lead to 39-38, Hagins, who had 12 points and 15 boards before getting hurt, went down in serious pain, holding his legs. I could read his lips from press row. He said, simply, “Cramps. In both.” He’d return for a couple of possessions later in the contest, but Hagins was never the same. That was a massive loss; he has a chance to be an NBA Draft pick. Those don’t make their way down to Delaware too often.

“Who knows how this game would have turned out if Jamelle hadn’t come out,” Ross said. “They started pounding us inside when he came out.”

And those weren’t the only cramping issues that Delaware had to deal with. Jarvis Threatt, a sophomore and Delaware’s starting point guard, left the game with five minutes left as he was dealing with cramping issues. It’s kind of hard to pull off an upset when two of a team’s three best players are glued to the bench, getting their legs rubbed down by trainers with bags of ice.

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The beauty of Delaware’s trip to the Garden was that it was actually allowed to happen.

Far too often, the satellite rounds of the early season tournaments are nothing more than exhibitions and a guarantee made to the high-profile participants that they’ll get four games for signing up. Just ask Georgia. They lost to Youngstown State — “lost” is being kind; they were blown out at home by the Penguins — in the ‘opening round’ of the Legends Classic.

But who did you see lose to No. 1 Indiana on Monday night at the Barclays Center? And who did No. 11 UCLA beat on Tuesday? It certainly wasn’t Youngstown State. I know. I was there.

And that’s what makes the Preseason NIT so special.

“It would have been anticlimactic to beat Virginia and not get a chance to go to the Garden,” Ross said. “This is an earn your way tournament. It’s not predetermined. That’s what makes this tournament so special. For us, it was such a big deal to earn our way here and have an opportunity to play Kansas State.”

“I just hope it never changes, because it’s fantastic for a school like Delaware to have the opportunity we had. Like you said, it’s dwindling.”

The irony here is that people like me will paint this as a great story about the team from the little league winning the right to play with the big boys on the big stage. Use a couple of big words, toss in a few of alliterations and throw in some prose, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a great story about those darling Blue Hens from the CAA.

Except the scribes are the only one that saw this group as a ‘David’.

“I knew coming into the game that we could play with them,” said Saddler, whose disgust for being asked about the implications of simply playing well on a big stage was as palpable as it was refreshing in its honesty. “It wasn’t no pride thing. We’re not into moral victories.”

I feel you, Devon. I do. And I don’t want to disagree with you, but I’m going to.

Saying that Delaware played badly in the first half would be a compliment. Saddler didn’t get it going until midway through the second half. His back court mates Jarvis Threatt and Terrell Rogers played as poorly as I’ve ever seen them play in the first 20 minutes. Kyle Anderson wasn’t hitting anything, and Delaware’s big men were getting abused on the offensive glass. The only guy that played well in the first half for Delaware was Hagins, and most of what he did was block and/or change enough shots that Kansas State couldn’t put together a big run. And despite that, the Blue Hens were only down two at the break.

In the second half, things didn’t get much better, as Hagins went down early, Threatt and Rogers continued their subpar play and Anderson still wasn’t hitting anything.

And despite all of that, Delaware went into the break down by two points and ended up losing by only three points to a team that is missing one player (and their head coach) from last year’s group that earned a No. 8 seed.

What happens when this team puts together 40 minutes of quality basketball?

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“There’s no such thing as great people in this world. There’s people, just like you and I, that take advantage of a great opportunity. We have a great opportunity right in front of us. Let’s take advantage of it.”

Those are the last words that Ross spoke to his team in the locker room before he sent them out to the Madison Square Garden floor. And while the Blue Hens fought and scrapped and threw every last punch they had against Kansas State, it wasn’t enough. The Wildcats were simply more physical and hit more key jump shots.

This wasn’t a wasted opportunity as much as it was a missed opportunity. Delaware could have won this game had they played better.

That will sting.

But that sting won’t last long.

Because the Blue Hens will have another great opportunity to take advantage of at 2:30 pm ET on Friday.

Their Madison Square Garden experience isn’t over yet.

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

WEEKEND PREVIEW: Kansas-Oklahoma rematch and who gets the No. 1 seeds?

Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr. steals the ball from Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield during the first half on Monday, Jan. 19, 2015, night at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan. (Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/TNS via Getty Images)
(Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/TNS via Getty Images)
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GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 6 Kansas at No. 3 Oklahoma, Sat. 2:30 p.m.

The rematch we’ve all been waiting for will happen on Saturday.

A little more than a month after Buddy Hield burst onto the national scene with 46 points in a triple-overtime thriller — thriller doesn’t do it justice, that was one of the best college basketball games of all time — the Jayhawks will may their return trip to Norman to take of the Sooners. Only the circumstances of Saturday’s showdown will be a little bit different than what they were on that Monday night in January, when the No. 1 team in the AP poll squared off with the No. 1 team in the Coaches poll.

Oklahoma is no longer the No. 1 team in the country, as they’ve gone just 3-2 in their last five games while needing last-second game-winners to hang on against LSU and Texas during that stretch. But Kansas is not longer ranked at the top of the polls either, as the Jayhawks have managed just a 2-3 record in the Big 12 away from Phog Allen Fieldhouse, with those two wins coming against TCU and Texas Tech. They needed to beat West Virginia on Tuesday night just to ensure that this game would feature two teams sitting at the top of the Big 12 standings.

And that, at the end of the day, is going to be the most important takeaway from this game. Kansas plays four of their last seven Big 12 games on the road, and three of those road trips are against top 25 teams. Oklahoma? They have four road trips left as well, but they will be paying visits to Texas Tech and TCU during that stretch. That’s what makes the result of this one so important. Oklahoma, with a win, would put themselves in the driver’s seat for the Big 12 title race, and with a (road) game left against West Virginia — the third team tied for first in the league — they would control their own title destiny.

Before I move on, there’s one other interesting point that needs to be made here. When these two teams last played, Hield and Kansas guard Wayne Selden both looked like Big 12 Player of the Year candidates. Since then, Hield has emerged as the clear favorite for National Player of the Year, Selden has fallen off the map. It’s been 10 games since these two last faced off. Selden blew up for 33 in the win over Kentucky, but in the other nine games, he’s averaging just 9.9 points; he’s scored a total of 21 points in three games since beating Kentucky.

THIS ONE’S GOOD, TOO: No. 24 Texas at No. 14 Iowa State, Sat. 8:30 p.m.

The Longhorns are suddenly looking like a legitimate Big 12 contender, which was not exactly expected to happen during Shaka Smart’s first season in Austin. The Cyclones, on the other hand, are trending in the opposite direction. They just lost at Texas Tech, they’re starting center (Jameel McKay) has been suspended for two games stemming from the way he’s behaved in practice and, even with McKay in the lineup, Iowa State is working with, essentially, a six-man rotation. So here’s the question: Will this game be the turning point in Iowa State’s season, or will Texas continue their assault on the top of the conference?

OH, AND HOW ABOUT THIS: No. 23 USC at No. 17 Arizona, Sun. 8:00 p.m.

Oregon is probably still the best team in the Pac-12 despite the loss to Cal last night, but USC and Arizona are the two teams that are the most likely to be able to make a run at unseating the Ducks from the top of the conference. As a matter of fact, the Trojans might be the most talented team in the Pac-12, but we’re basing all of this off of an Arizona team that was without Allonzo Trier for four weeks. Now that he is back and working his way into the rotation, this will be a nice gauge to see just how good the Wildcats really are.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

  1. Duke seems to have righted the ship when it comes to their season. The Blue Devils have won three straight and four of their last five, including Monday’s win over No. 13 Louisville. They get a visit from a streaking No. 7 Virginia at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, a team that has gone from being atrocious on the road to blowing out Louisville and Pitt in their own buildings.
  2. Indiana is coming off of a huge win over No. 4 Iowa on Thursday night, but there’s no time for rest as the Hoosiers will be at No. 8 Michigan State, tipping off on Sunday 1:00 p.m. Michigan State just lost to Purdue on Tuesday, dropping them to 7-5 in the league, three games off the pace in the conference.
  3. No. 5 Xavier was mollywhopped by Creighton on the road on Tuesday. Butler? They picked up a critical win for their bubble profile at Seton Hall on Wednesday. The two will square off in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
  4. We’re going to find out a lot about the SEC power structure this weekend. At noon on Saturday, No. 22 Kentucky will travel up to Columbia to take on South Carolina, both of whom are sitting in a tie for first in the league standings. Just an hour later, No. 15 Texas A&M — who was the best team in the SEC but now sits a game out of first place — will trip to Baton Rouge to take on LSU. The Tigers? They’re right there with Kentucky and South Carolina, tied for first in the conference.
  5. The bottom-line is this: Gonzaga will not be receiving an at-large bid to the tournament if they do not win at No. 16 SMU on Saturday. Tip is at 10:00 p.m.

WHO’S GETTING UPSET?: Everyone

Ok, maybe not everyone.

But the easiest way to predict upsets — meaning ranked teams losing to unranked teams, not teams favored to win losing — it to look at which ranked teams are playing on the road and to decide which of those unranked teams are actually good. Well, this weekend, ten ranked teams will be firing up the busses (or chartered jets) and paying a visit to an unranked opponent: No. 5 Xavier, No. 7 Virginia, No. 11 Oregon, No. 12 Miami (FL), No. 13 Louisville, No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 18 Purdue, No. 19 Dayton, No. 22 Kentucky and No. 23 USC. Of those ten teams, only Dayton (at Rhode Island) will be visiting a team that is out of the NCAA tournament picture.

And that’s saying nothing of Gonzaga’s visit to No. 16 SMU. Or UCLA’s visit to No. 17 Arizona. Or Pitt playing at No. 9 UNC. Or Indiana heading to No. 8 Michigan State.

In other words, expect to see quite a few teams with numbers next to their name take a loss in the next three days.

WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT ON MONDAY: You mean other than what’s assured to be another class between Kansas and Oklahoma?

Maybe now it’s time to start discussing No. 1 seeds. Because of just how wide open this season has been, it feels like that part of the bracketology discussion has been somewhat overlooked. Usually, at this point in the year, that’s a dominant part of the conversation. Last season, the big story was whether or not Wisconsin and Kentucky were going to end up being slotted in the same region as a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed, and what the Badgers had to do to break into that No. 1 seed line.

This year?

That talk hasn’t really kicked off yet. So let’s change that, shall we?

Villanova, at this point, feels like the only lock for a No. 1 seed for a couple reasons: 1) Their profile is impressive, and 2) there doesn’t really appear to be anyone in the Big East that’s ready to challenge them. I’m not sure that a loss at Xavier will really be enough to drop them down a seed line.

I’d wager a guess that Oklahoma is probably a favorite to get a No. 1 seed right now as well, particularly if they knock off Kansas on Saturday. Currently, Oklahoma has six top 50 wins, an 11-3 record against the top 100 and three losses that all came in true road games, the worst of which is current bubble team Kansas State. If the Jayhawks win, they’ll be a No. 1 seed in Monday’s bracket projections and they may be on that seed line even with a loss. Kansas has eight top 50 wins, a 12-3 record against the top 100 and four losses that all came away from Phog Allen Fieldhouse. The one black eye? That loss to Oklahoma State.

That fourth No. 1 seed? Even with the loss last night, it’s probably Iowa. Their worst loss is at Indiana and they have six top 50 wins, although none of those wins — at least in the eyes of the RPI, that 19 point drubbing of Michigan State at the Breslin Center was damn impressive — are as good as Virginia’s three best wins. But all four of Virginia’s losses are worse than any of Iowa’s

So I’ll rock with Iowa for now. I’d lean Virginia over North Carolina if the Hawkeyes lose this weekend. Both teams have lost four games, all on the road, and while UNC’s losses are “better”, Virginia has much better wins. Eight in the top 50, to be exact, compared to just three for the Tar Heels. It will be nine top 50 wins for the ‘Hoos if they can take care of Duke this weekend.

I’m not sure Maryland has enough quality wins available on their schedule to be able to play their way up to the No. 1 seed line, while Oregon has too many losses at this point to be thought of as more than a No. 2/3 seed.

THE REST OF THE WEEKEND’S NOTABLE GAMES

UCLA at No. 17 Arizona, Fri. 7:00 p.m.
No. 19 Dayton at Rhode Island, Fri. 7:00 p.m.
No. 23 USC at Arizona State, Fri. 8:00 p.m.
Northern Iowa at No. 25 Wichita State, Sat. 12:00 p.m.
No. 18 Purdue at Michigan, Sat. 2:00 p.m.
No. 11 Oregon at Stanford, Sat. 4:00 p.m.
No. 13 Louisville at Notre Dame, Sat. 4:00 p.m.
Pitt at No. 9 North Carolina, Sun. 1:00 p.m.
No. 12 Miami (FL) at Florida State, Sun. 6:30 p.m.

Indiana upsets No. 4 Iowa, moves into first-place tie in Big Ten

Indiana's Troy Williams (5) and Collin Hartman (30) celebrate after Williams made a shot and was fouled during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 85-78. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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Indiana picked off the No. 4 team in the country on Thursday night, beating Iowa in Assembly Hall, 85-78.

It goes without saying that this was a huge win for the Hoosiers. They had just a single top 50 win on their résumé entering the night. They were on the right side of the bubble entering the day, but for a team that just moved into a tie for first place in the Big Ten with the win, they were no where near as safe as you might think.

You read that right.

Indiana is not exactly safe when it comes to their NCAA tournament standing despite, on February 11th, being tied with Iowa and Maryland for first place in the Big Ten.

So yes, adding a top ten win to that profile is incredibly significant.

Having a realistic shot at winning the Big Ten regular season title is incredibly significant.

But more than anything, how this win came to be matters more than anything.

For starters, it came on a night where Yogi Ferrell was off. He hit his first shot and his last shot of the night, but missed all ten field goal attempts in between. He finished with just one assist compared to two turnovers and four fouls. He was bad. And it didn’t matter. For a team that relies as heavily upon a player as Indiana relies upon Yogi, that’s significant.

As is the fact that the Hoosiers were able to win despite blowing a 16-point lead. Remember, Indiana had lost to Penn State on Saturday. Following that up by blowing a huge lead at home in the most important game of the season is the kind of thing that can obliterate a team’s confidence, and with a brutal stretch run — at Michigan State, Nebraska, Purdue, at Illinois, at Iowa, Maryland — getting into a funk now would be a season-killer.

Six Hoosiers scored at least nine points, led by 14 from Ferrell, while it was the play of Thomas Bryant and Troy Williams, grabbing 10 of Indiana’s 19 offensive rebounds, that really made the difference; the Hoosiers scored 26 second-chance points.

As far as Iowa is concerned, the only real problem coming from this loss was their inability to keep Indiana off of the offensive glass. The Hoosiers had 12 offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes. Iowa had 11 total rebounds. On the season, the Hawkeyes are 225th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. Indiana gets to the offensive glass as well as anyone, but Fran McCaffery is not going to be happy about their numbers — or effort — when he watches this film.