Nerlens Noel Reginald Buckner

Five sleepers and five upset specials to keep an eye on

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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.

It’s never to early to start thinking about the NCAA tournament bracket and your office pool. In fact, I’d say that’s the reason that 75% of the people that watch college basketball on any given night are doing it. Scouting.

I get it.

Trust me.

It’s been four years since I haven’t finished in the money in a tournament pool. So book mark this page, and consider it my gift to you: a guide of who to focus on while you “scout”.

Five lower seeds that can make a tournament run:

Kentucky Wildcats: Kentucky’s on pace to end up getting somewhere around an eight or a nine seed. If I’m John Calipari, I’m hoping for a seven or a ten seed. Or lower. I don’t know if the Wildcats have the horses to knock off one of the top four teams in the country, but I think they certainly will be good enough to make the Sweet 16, regardless of seeding. They are starting to show some signs of growth, and with (at least) four lottery picks on the roster, I’m not ready to write this group off yet.

VCU Rams: The Rams play such a unique and tough-to-prepare-for style, they can spring an upset on a team with a back court that’s uncomfortable going against their pressure. The key for VCU is and always will be turnovers in the full court; given their lack of size, half court defense is not a strength for Shaka Smart’s club.

Pitt Panthers: The Panthers are almost certainly going to be underseeded as a result of their embarrassing non-conference schedule. And trust me when I tell you this is a good basketball team. They can defend, they are excellent at getting to the offensive glass, they pass the ball well and they have an underrated back court. You don’t want to see the Panthers in the second round of the tournament.

St. Louis Billikens: Tough, physical, half court defense. That’s how St. Louis wins game. And that’s out a team with less athleticism and less talent can win a basketball game. And, like Pitt, thanks to a couple of questionable losses this year, the Billikens are probably going to be seeded lower than they should be.

Long Beach State 49ers: LBSU isn’t going to be getting a seeding much better than 14 or 15, but this is a group with high-major talent and athleticism. James Ennis is legit, and he’s got a slew of talent — Michael Caffey, former top 25 recruit Keala King, DePaul transfer Tony Freeland, West Virginia transfer Dan Jennings — around him.

Five higher seeds that may bow out early:

NC State Wolfpack: NC State doesn’t defend at all, their star point guard has a bum ankle and has been up-and-down all season long, and their most talented player struggles when trying to take a game over and has been ineffective down the stretch. There’s so much to like about NC State this season, which is why it’s frustrating to see them struggle.

Minnesota Golden Gophers: I just don’t trust Minnesota offensively. So much of what they do relies on their ability to get to the offensive glass. Good teams are going to be able to keep them from getting there; it’s going to depend on the matchup. I don’t trust Minnesota to be consistent. They lost four in a row at the end of last month, and needed an impressive choke-job from Iowa to avoid losing to the Hawkeyes.

Creighton Bluejays: The Bluejays are a much-improved defensive team this season, yet they still rank 81st in the country in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. Throw in the fact that this is a team that survives because of their ability to shoot the basketball, and they are a risky play. On the nights those threes go down, they’re going to be tough to beat. On the nights they don’t, the Bluejays can be beaten.

Oregon Ducks: How healthy is Dominic Artis? That’s the biggest concern for Oregon right now, because without him, the Ducks simply cannot protect the ball. Already in the bottom third of the country when it comes to turnover percentage, Oregon has seen that number dip to 29.8% — literally the worst in the country — in the last three games without him.

Butler Bulldogs: I realize that it’s sacrilegious to say that Butler might get knocked out of the tournament early. I’m not happy about doing it. But here’s my thought process: Butler is good, but they don’t play the kind of defense that we expect out of Butler teams. They can struggle against teams that defend them physically (ahem, St. Louis) and I don’t love Butler’s point guard situation. But thanks to wins over Indiana, Gonzaga, Marquette and North Carolina, Butler looks like they could be in line for a three or a four seed, depending on how the A-10 plays out.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

As good as they’ve been, No. 3 Michigan State has yet to play their best

Bryn Forbes, Ryan Fazekas
Associated Press
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Sunday night’s Wooden Legacy title game matchup between No. 3 Michigan State and Providence was billed as a matchup of the nation’s two best players, and rightfully so. Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine (17 points, six rebounds, five assists), who already has two triple-doubles to his credit this season, and Providence redshirt junior Kris Dunn (21 points, five rebounds, seven assists) have more than lived up to the preseason expectations and more of the same was expected in Anaheim.

And while both had their moments, it was Michigan State’s supporting cast that made the difference in their 77-64 victory. The scary thing for future opponents on Michigan State’s schedule is that Tom Izzo’s team is nowhere near being a finished product.

With Valentine dealing with first-half foul trouble Bryn Forbes stepped up, scoring 13 of his 18 points to help the Spartans take a two-point lead into the half. As for the 11-0 run that Michigan State produced to take control of the game late, a host of players stepped forward in regards to scoring, rebounding and defending.

Freshmen Deyonta Davis and Matt McQuaid combined to score nine points over the final 5:32, with transfer guard Eron Harris adding six of his 12 points during that stretch. The Spartans outscored the Friars, who aren’t as deep, 22-7 during that stretch to close out the game, hunting for quality shots and hitting the offensive glass while making things difficult for Providence on the other end of the floor.

The end result was a final margin that does not indicate just how close the game was. While Providence seemed to run out of steam Michigan State received contributions from multiple players, which is undoubtedly a good sign for this group moving forward.

The Spartans will return the currently injured Gavin Schilling later this season, giving them another big man alongside Davis, Matt Costello and Colby Wollenman. He was a player they missed Sunday night, as he can defend opposing big men both in the post and on the perimeter. His absence was a main reason Michigan State didn’t have an answer for Providence’s Ben Bentil (20 points, seven rebounds) defensively.

The key for this group is going to end up being role definition, which is especially true in the case of Harris. A transfer from West Virginia, Harris came to East Lansing with the reputation of being a big time scorer. He’s struggled through the first two weeks of the season, but he got on a roll on Sunday night, finishing with 12 points, three boards and three assists. He showed he’s capable of doing a variety of things on the perimeter, and fitting into a “Swiss army knife” kind of role would make Michigan State that much more dangerous.

There’s no denying that Michigan State has been one of the nation’s best teams thus far.

But there’s also no denying that the Spartans have yet to hit their ceiling, which is definitely a positive moving forward.

Wichita State’s Anton Grady returns home with team

AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.
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Wichita State forward Anton Grady was released from a hospital in Orlando on Sunday afternoon in time to return home with his Shocker teammates.

Grady suffered a spinal corn concussion on Friday when he collided head-first with an Alabama defender, snapping his head sharply to the side. He lay on the court motionless for 10 minutes after the injury and was taken off the floor on a stretcher.

[RELATED: Can WSU still make tourney?]

“I want to send out a big thank you to Shocker Nation and all of my friends and family for of the love and encouragement that I have received the past few days,” Grady said in a statement on Sunday morning. “I’ve been reading your tweets and posts and appreciate every last one of them. I have a lot of work to do to get back on the court, but with the help of such a great support system, I’m ready for the challenge.”

By Friday night, Grady had feeling in all of his extremities, but he has a long road of rehab ahead of him.