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.

LATE NIGHT SNACKS: No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 20 Providence continue losing ways; No. 16 SMU falls at home

Texas A&M guard Anthony Collins (11) walks up the court during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Alabama, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Alabama won 63-62. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: Alabama 63, No. 15 Texas A&M 62

This one was tight until the final seconds and the Aggies had a chance to tie or take the lead with one of the nation’s best free-throw shooters at the line. Anthony Collins, a 92 percent free-throw shooter, missed both and Texas A&M continued its recent freefall. So what happens next for the Aggies?

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

Marquette 96, No. 20 Providence 91, 2 OT: Marquette picked up a crucial season sweep over Providence in the Big East as freshman Henry Ellenson had 26 points and 16 rebounds and Haanif Cheatham tallied 21 points. The Friars saw Ben Bentil go for 41 points, but they still lost because he didn’t have enough help in the end.

Tulsa 82, No. 16 SMU 77: Nice road win for the Golden Hurricane in the American as Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard combined for 41 points. Tulsa shot a ridiculous 58 percent from the field to give the Mustangs their first home loss of the season.

Butler 81, Seton Hall 75: An important Big East road win for the Bulldogs as Roosevelt Jones made a late runner in traffic to ice the win. Kelan Martin tallied 23 points for Butler while Kellan Dunham added 18. After Isaiah Whitehead went 8-for-8 for 23 points in the first half, the Bulldogs defense held the sophomore to only three points in the second half. 

South Carolina 94, LSU 83: The Gamecocks continue to stockpile wins as they’re up to 21-3 on the season while gaining a share of first place in the SEC. Sindarius Thornwell finished with 24 points while Michael Carrera had 14 of his 16 points in the second half to lead South Carolina. Ben Simmons finished with 20 points while Antonio Blakeney had 22 points.

BUBBLE BANTER: Butler, Wisconsin among early winners

STARRED

Devonta Pollard, Houston: The former McDonald’s All-American certainly lived up to that billing in a win over Memphis as he went for 34 points on 14-for-24 shooting from the field. Pollard also added four rebounds, four assists and two steals.

Louis Dabney, Tulane: It only took three overtimes, but the Green Wave outlasted East Carolina as Dabney hit huge shots and pumped in 32 points. Dabney hit a game-tying jumper with under a minute left to end regulation and the first overtime as he went 11-for-20 from the floor.

Anthony Beane, Southern Illinois: The senior guard went for 31 points and six rebounds as the Salukis earned a Missouri Valley road win at Indiana State. Beane was 10-for-17 from the field and 5-for-10 from 3-point range.

Tra-Deon Hollins, Omaha: In a matchup of two of the top teams in the Summit League, Hollins had a stat-sheet-stuffing effort in a win over South Dakota State, as the junior guard had 28 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals. Hollins was 9-for-12 from the field and 8-for-11 from the free-throw line.

STRUGGLED

Tim Quarterman, LSU: The guard finished with seven points on 2-for-7 shooting (0-for-5 from 3-point range) and fouled out in a loss to South Carolina. Quarterman also had three turnovers and was mostly a non-factor.

OTHER TOP 25 RESULTS

  • Playing without Rico Gathers, No. 21 Baylor earned a road win at Kansas State in the Big 12 as Al Freeman had 21 points on 6-for-7 shooting from the field.

OTHER NOTABLE RESULTS

  • Wisconsin has won six consecutive games as Nigel Hayes had 20 points and Vitto Brown added 18 points in a Big Ten home win over Nebraska.
  • Vanderbilt cruised past Missouri as five players finished in double-figures. Wade Baldwin led with 17 points while Luke Kornet had 13 points and 13 rebounds.
  • Utah picked up a solid Pac-12 home win over Washington as Jakob Poeltl had 23 points and six rebounds. Poeltl was 11-for-12 from the field.
  • It wasn’t pretty, but Michigan won on the road in the Big Ten at Minnesota. Point guard Derrick Walton Jr. had 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists to pace the Wolverines.
  • Georgia Tech topped Wake Forest in the ACC as Marcus Georges-Hunt went for 30 points and Charles Mitchell had 14 points and 15 rebounds.
  • Davidson beat La Salle in the Atlantic 10 as Brian Sullivan had 20 points and seven assists.
  • St. Bonaventure was able to outlast Fordham in overtime as Dion Wright and Marcus Posley both had 21 points.
  • Saint Joseph’s earned a great road win in the Atlantic 10 at George Washington as Isaiah Miles had 21 points.
  • T.J. Cline finished with 18 points as Richmond defeated Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10.
  • Northern Iowa ran away from Missouri State as Jeremy Morgan had 21 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
  • Belmont earned a win over Jacksonville State in the Ohio Valley as Evan Bradds had 18 points and nine rebounds.

Marquette upsets No. 20 Providence in double overtime to earn season sweep

Marquette's Duane Wilson grabs a loose ball in front of Providence's Ryan Fazekas (35) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
(AP Photo/Morry Gash)
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Marquette earned an important Big East season sweep for its postseason aspirations as they held on in double overtime to upset No. 20 Providence 96-91 on Wednesday night.

The Golden Eagles (16-9, 5-7) overcame rallies from the Friars in both regulation and the first overtime to finally put away the home victory. Freshmen led the way for Marquette as Henry Ellenson had 26 points and 16 rebounds while Haanif Cheatham added 21 points.

Providence was led by Ben Bentil, as he poured in 41 points by hitting numerous tough looks to keep the Friars in the game. Player of the Year candidate Kris Dunn finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists for Providence but he committed a key turnover on an errant pass when the game was tied on the final possession in regulation. Dunn fouled out in the first overtime and Bentil did his best to knock in tough 3-pointers (6-for-13) to keep Providence in the game.

Marquette did just about everything they could to give this game away but still came away with a critical win. The Golden Eagles blew a nine-point lead in the second half and showed their youthful inexperience by fouling Bentil on a key 3-point attempt in extra time. With a chance to make it a two-possession game at the end of the first overtime, Cheatham corralled an offensive rebound — on a bad shot attempt in the first place — and put up a wild putback attempt when the Golden Eagles could have run clock and forced Providence to foul.

Despite those mistakes, the Golden Eagles have to be pleased to pick up a season sweep over the Friars as they beat a good team twice in very tight games. Playing without center Luke Fischer in overtime, Marquette still managed to pick up the victory. Coming off of consecutive losses, Marquette needed this win badly as they now get Creighton twice with a road game at DePaul sandwiched in between.

As for Providence (18-7, 6-6), Bentil showed that he’s recovering just fine from that ankle injury but this team still needs more help outside of the dynamic duo of Dunn and Bentil. It was encouraging that Providence rallied in the first overtime without Dunn in the game to force more time, but Bentil ran out of gas in the second overtime and didn’t have much help to keep the Friars in the game. The Friars have now dropped four of their last five games, including a three-game losing streak that includes road losses at DePaul and Marquette. Providence is back to .500 in the Big East and needs a solid showing its next three games against solid competition.