Contenders and Pretenders

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A hearty welcome to those of you just now joining the rest of us in following college basketball now that football season has ended. We’ll be running a series of posts to get all you football fans caught up on the season at-large. To read through them all, click here.

Out of any season in recent memory, there are more contenders this season than there have been in recent years. There does not appear to be a great team as of now — although Florida is doing everything they can to convince us otherwise — as opposed to a handful of really good teams that have the pieces to win six straight games in the tournament but a fatal flaw that could leave them exposed in the right matchup.

Here are the nation’s five leading contenders and pretenders:

Contender: Florida Gators

We wrote on the Gators earlier today, so I won’t go into too much detail here. The long and short of it is that Florida is as tough defensively as any team we’ve seen in the last decade, and they can just as effective playing man, going zone or throwing on a press, That’s a nightmare to prepare for, especially when they have an offensive attack that rivals Michigan and Indiana.

Pretender: Arizona Wildcats

Arizona is 19-2 on the season and carries with it a No. 7 national ranking. They are a good basketball team that could end up winning the Pac-12. But that gaudy record is the result of some lucky breaks: Nick Johnson’s game-saving block against San Diego State, Sabatino Chen’s game-winner that was incorrectly waved off, Florida playing like a high school JV team in the final minute. There is nothing about the roster makeup of the Wildcats that scares a championship-caliber team.

Contender: Indiana Hoosiers

The Hoosiers have arguably the most talented player in the country on their roster in Cody Zeller, and he isn’t even the MVP of this team. Victor Oladipo is. That’s how good Indiana is. They are still scoring like they did last season, only now they have a defense that ranks in the top 20 and one of the best on-ball defenders in the country in Oladipo.

Pretender: Duke Blue Devils

Duke is currently sitting at No. 4 in the country, but that has as much to do with what they did at the start of the season — rolling through the Battle 4 Atlantis, where they beat Louisville, VCU and Minnesota — than what they have done recently — which includes a 27 point loss to Miami. Duke is missing Ryan Kelly, who is a key piece on both sides of the ball. Duke will be a pretender until he’s back in the lineup.

Contender: Michigan Wolverines

John Beilein’s club is the most potent offensive attack in the country and led by the most dangerous point guard in the country in Trey Burke. The Wolverines have a typical John Beilein-esque roster makeup in terms of their versatility, but instead of having guys like Zak Novak and Stu Douglass on the wings, they have NBA prospects in Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III.

Pretender: Kansas Jayhawks

Ugh. It kills me to say this because I picked Kansas to win the title this year, but I just think they have too many concerns offensively. They don’t have a point guard, as Bill Self made quite clear. Their star player can’t create on his own. They don’t have a viable low-post scoring threat. As good as Kansas is defensively, I just see them having issues scoring against good teams.

Contender: Louisville Cardinals

Louisville was the No. 1 team in the country and a popular pick as the best team in college hoops as recently a two weeks ago. But then they went out and lost three games — by a total of 13 points — and dropped to 12th in the country. Three close losses changes that much about how a team is viewed? Louisville’s pressure is unmatched, and as long as they avoid extended droughts offensively, they’ll be fine.

Pretender: Ohio State Buckeyes

Deshaun Thomas may be the best scorer in the country. Aaron Craft may be the best defender in the country. Beyond that, there’s a lot of ‘meh’ when you look at Ohio State’s roster. Craft is too often forced into the role of secondary scorer, and that’s not how you want him to play. No interior scoring presence hurts as well.

Contender: Michigan State Spartans

Typical Tom Izzo. Sparty is big, they are tough and they are physical. They rebound the ball and they defend. Most importantly, they have a pair of guards in Keith Appling and Gary Harris that are a threat to go for 20 on any given night.When Tom Izzo has a good team, you don’t want to get caught betting against him.

Pretender: Gonzaga Bulldogs

This one hurts, too. I really like this Gonzaga team. They are as good as they have been since Adam Morrison was stache-ing it up in Spokane. They have a pair of big men that are an awful lot of fun to watch in Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. Kevin Pangos is as good of a shooter as you are going to find. They just don’t defend well enough — especially when Olynyk is on the floor as the same time as Pangos and David Stockton — to stop good teams with elite guards.

No. 2 Michigan State beats Wisconsin, wraps up Big Ten

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Cassius Winston scored 20 points and went 6 for 6 from the 3-point line, and No. 2 Michigan State held off Wisconsin 68-63 on Sunday to earn the outright regular-season Big Ten title.

Winston hit two 3s during an 11-2 run in the second half — the second with a defender in his face from well beyond the arc — to lead the Spartans (28-3, 16-2).

Brad Davison finished with 30 points for Wisconsin (14-17, 7-11), including a 3 with 4.7 seconds left that had hometown fans holding out hope for an upset.

Miles Bridges wrapped up the Spartans’ 12th straight win with two foul shots.

It was a milestone victory in what has been a challenging season off the court for Michigan State basketball.

One issue involved Bridges. The star forward had 10 points on 3-of-15 shooting in his first game since getting cleared by the NCAA following a Yahoo! Sports article on Friday that identified him as one of many players who may have received improper benefits.

Winston and Nick Ward, who had 14 points, picked up the scoring slack. Winston’s 3 with 4:45 left gave the Spartans a 58-51 lead, a huge cushion in what had been a tight game.

Davison nearly single-handedly brought Wisconsin back, giving the Badgers a huge boost even after aggravating a left shoulder injury. The freshman sprinted to the locker room with a trainer with about 14 minutes left before returning a couple minutes later and checking right back into the game to rousing applause.

He scored Wisconsin’s next six points, popping perimeter jumpers to electrify an already vocal home crowd in the regular season finale.

The teams dueled the rest of the way until Bridges’ late foul shots.

Michigan State muscled its way to a 34-27 halftime lead by taking control of the paint early before softening up the perimeter for Winston. The sophomore sharpshooter made 3 of 4 from beyond the arc in the first half, with a couple buckets coming quickly in transition.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan State: Documents in the Yahoo! story showed that the star forward may have improperly accepted benefits from an agency implicated in a federal investigation into bribery and other misdeeds in college basketball. The team said Saturday that the school’s compliance office conducted a “thorough internal review” and presented findings to the NCAA, which then cleared Bridges. … The Spartans had too much bulk up front for Wisconsin, building an early edge on points in the paint and finishing with a 40-28 edge on the boards.

Wisconsin: The team honored three reserve seniors in its final regular-season game, including fifth-year forward Aaron Moesch. He is the last link to the Badgers’ back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2014 and ’15, a little-used backup on each of those squads. The Badgers’ reliance on freshmen to play key roles in the rotation, especially in the backcourt, led to growing pains this season. They’ve shown signs of maturity of late, winning three straight games before Sunday.

UP NEXT

Michigan State: Opens play in the conference tournament in New York on Friday after earning a double bye as the top seed.

Wisconsin: Locked into the Big Ten tourney as the No. 9 seed, where it will play Maryland on Thursday.

No. 11 Cincinnati rallies for 82-74 win over Tulsa

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — Gary Clark led a 24-4 run that put Cincinnati ahead to stay early in the second half, and the 11th-ranked Bearcats held on for an 82-74 victory over Tulsa on Sunday that preserved their one-game lead in the American Athletic Conference heading into the final week.

Cincinnati (25-4, 14-2) stayed ahead of No. 13 Wichita State (23-5, 13-3) in the race for the regular-season title. The Shockers won on Cincinnati’s home court 76-72 a week ago.

Wichita State plays at UCF on Thursday and hosts Cincinnati next Sunday in a potential showdown game. The Bearcats play at Tulane on Thursday before heading to Wichita State.

The Bearcats struggled defensively, giving up a season-high 14 3-pointers, but made a season-high 15 from beyond the arc. Clark and Jarron Cumberland had 17 points apiece.

Tulsa (17-11, 10-7) led by eight points early in the second before Clark scored during the decisive run. Junior Etou scored 21 for Tulsa, which had its six-game winning streak snapped.

Cincinnati completed its season playing at Northern Kentucky University while its on-campus arena is renovated, going 14-1 at BB&T Arena.

BIG PICTURE

Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane is wrapping up a regular season that marks a step up for the program. Tulsa went 15-17 last season and 8-10 in the AAC, finishing seventh. It’s fourth in the league with two games to go.

Cincinnati: Even though the Bearcats rank second nationally in defense, they’d given up a lot of open shots in the previous two games, a concern to coach Mick Cronin. The Golden Hurricane got plenty of those, too, while shooting 59 percent in the first half. The Golden Hurricane led 47-44 at the break, the most points Cincinnati has allowed in a half this season.

UP NEXT

Tulsa: Golden Hurricane plays at East Carolina on Thursday. Tulsa opened AAC play by beating ECU 79-53 on Dec. 28.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats have won four straight and 14 of 15 against Tulane, including a 78-61 victory last season.

Bubble Banter: Sunday Funday on the bubble

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Sunday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

YET TO PLAY

TEMPLE
UCLA
PENN STATE
NEBRASKA
N.C. STATE

Georgia’s Mark Fox ‘disgusted’ by investigation into college basketball

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Georgia head coach Mark Fox did not hold back when asked about the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball, calling is “disgusting” and pleading with coaches and the institutions that employ them to do right.

“It starts with our coaches, and then you ask how the NCAA has handled it,” Fox said. “The NCAA is made up of member institutions. How are the institutions handling it? That’d be my first question. How are they handling it? Putting their head in the sand and looking the other way? I’m past anger, sadness. It’s just disgusting, and we’re really hurting the game, and the game has been so good to everybody.”

Fox is in a difficult position. He’s regarded as one of the nicer coaches in the business and is considered to be ‘clean’. He team also appears headed for another NIT, which could end up costing him his job.

“We’ve had some situations where we didn’t get players because of that reason, and other teams have, too,” Fox said.

“I’m disgusted,” he added. “I’m disgusted with how people have treated our game. It’s absolutely disgusting.”

Cuonzo Martin: ‘No timetable’ for a Michael Porter Jr. return

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There still is not clarity on whether or not Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr. will return to the court this season.

On Saturday, he participated in Missouri’s shootaround at Kentucky but did not run through warmups and did not play in the game.

“I don’t have a timeline,” Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said after Saturday’s 87-66 loss. “He wants to play.”

“We have to make sure he’s ready to go.”

Porter has only had one full practice since he underwent surgery on his back in November, and that came on Friday. A source confirmed to NBC Sports that Porter was, in fact, cleared for full contact on Thursday afternoon after a visit with a doctor.

Porter is expected to continue practicing with the team. He told reporters earlier this month that he would like to get a few games prior to the start of tournament play if he happens to take part in any games.