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.

Roach scores 20 as Texas beats No. 8 Texas Tech 67-58

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AUSTIN, Texas — Kerwin Roach II scored 20 points in a surprise return to the lineup and Texas got another home win over a Top 25 opponent in a week, beating No. 8 Texas Tech 67-58 Wednesday night.

Roach, who had missed the previous two games with a fracture in his left, non-shooting hand, was expected to miss a few more. But he suited up for pregame warmups and was cleared to play right before tipoff.

Roach gave the Longhorns a new threat both inside and out with his 3-point shooting and aggressive drives to the basket. The Longhorns — who beat then-No. 16 TCU 99-98 in double-overtime last Wednesday — also played their best defense in weeks, anchored by freshman center Mo Bamba under the basket. Bamba had 15 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks.

Texas (12-6, 2/3 Big 12) led by 13 early in the second half before the Red Raiders rallied to get within four. But the Longhorns got two big 3-pointers by Eric Davis, Jr., including one with 3:28 left that pushed the lead back to 10.

Jarrett Culver scored 16 points to lead Texas Tech (15-3, 4-2).

BIG PICTURE

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are having their best season in years and second-year coach Chris Beard has the program contending for the Big 12 title. But they missed a chance to pick up an important road win and dropped their 22nd consecutive game in Austin. The Red Raiders haven’t beaten Texas in Austin since 1996, when both programs were in the old Southwest Conference.

Texas: The Longhorns will get a shot of confidence in an inconsistent season with another big win. Most of all the Longhorns showed they can protect a big lead, even if just barely. Texas let a double-digit second half lead get away in a crushing road loss at Oklahoma State last week.

UP NEXT

Texas Tech plays at Iowa State

Texas plays at No. 6 West Virginia

SMU lands massive résumé win at No. 7 Wichita State

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It’s too strong to say that SMU saved their season on Wednesday night.

The Mustangs already own a neutral court win over No. 14 Arizona. They also knocked off USC, Boise State and UCF, all of which will be varying degrees of “good win” come Selection Sunday. That loss to Northern Iowa doesn’t look good today, and it’s hard to imagine losses to Tulane and Temple – the latter of which came at home – are going to age gracefully, but in a year where it seems like everyone is mediocre at best, a marquee win combined with a stable of solid résumé wins could end up being enough.

That said, on Wednesday, SMU sure went a long way towards making sure they won’t have to sweat out the bracket reveal, as the Mustangs went into Koch Arena and knocked off No. 7 Wichita State, 83-78. The win snapped a three-game losing streak for SMU.

The star of the show was Shake Milton. A player that has had NBA hype for what seems like the better part of a decade, Milton had a career-high 33 points on Wednesday night, the best game of his career in what has been a breakout junior season. He did it on 11-for-14 shooting, making 5-for-6 from three and outdueling fellow NBA Draft prospect Landry Shamet, who finished with 20 points and 10 assists.

SMU now has two elite wins to pin at the top of the tournament profile – both of which came away from home – and it affords them a bit of breathing room as they matriculate through American play.

This win isn’t just a big deal for SMU.

It matters for the American has a whole as well.

Heading into today, it looked like the conference was trending towards getting just two bids to the Big Dance – Wichita State and Cincinnati – and that, in turn, created a problem for everyone else in the conference. If there are only two good teams in the league then there are only two teams that American bubble dwellers can beat and improve their résumé. We won’t know how much this affects SMU’s computer numbers until they update, but it is safe to assume that a win over a team that is top 20 in both the RPI and KenPom will help significantly. Entering Tuesday, SMU was rated 83rd in the RPI.

Assuming that Jarrey Foster’s knee sprain doesn’t turn out to be serious – he left the game after six minutes and did not return – than this day could not have possibly gone better for the Mustangs.

On the other hand, it does raise some questions about this Wichita State team.

Specifically defensively.

As we noted earlier today, Wichita’s defense hasn’t exactly been great this season. They entered today ranked outside the top 25 in defensive efficiency, and the return of Markis McDuffie, who has yet to return to the starting lineup, has not exactly helped matters.

But it really came to a head on Wednesday night. SMU scored 83 points on 60 possessions, or 1.383 points-per-possession, which is the worst ass-kicking that the Shockers have received under Gregg Marshall, who has been employed by the school for a decade. The only time anyone came close to that involved Doug McDermott going for 41 points and shooting 15-for-18 from the floor.

And that game came on the road.

I wrote a column earlier this season wondering whether or not we could start discussing Wichita State as potentially the best team in the country. That column was predicated on the idea that the Shockers were going to be one of the nation’s best defensive teams.

Because they always are.

During this six-year run of consecutive NCAA tournaments, the Shockers have never finished lower than 26th in defensive efficiency. The last four years they’ve finished in the top 15, and that is despite playing in the Missouri Valley. (KenPom adjusts his efficiency numbers for opponent strength.)

Wichita State was 26th entering today.

They’re now 55th.

Only two teams have ever reached a national title game with a lower defensive efficiency.

This is a problem that badly needs fixing, but if McDuffie wasn’t the answer, is there one?

Texas Tech honors Andrew Jones before game against Texas

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Texas Tech became the latest team to show support towards Texas sophomore Andrew Jones, who was diagnosed with leukemia last week.

The Red Raiders are facing the Longhorns on Wednesday as they wore shooting shirts with Jones’ No. 1 and name on the back, joining Oklahoma State as recent opponents to show support.

So far, over $104,000 has been raised in just over five days for the Andrew Jones and Family Support Fund, which has been started by the University of Texas to help the family pay for medical expenses.

No. 1 Villanova leads by 44, beats Ewing, Georgetown 88-56

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WASHINGTON — Top-ranked Villanova led by as many as 44 points — 44! — and gave Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing a rude welcome back to the schools’ rivalry, handing the Hoyas their worst loss in more than 40 years, 88-56 on Wednesday night.

Jalen Brunson led the way with 18 points and seven assists for Villanova (17-1, 5-1 Big East), which finished 17 for 33 on 3s, while Georgetown went 4 for 15.

Mikal Bridges scored 17 for the Wildcats, winners of seven consecutive games against the Hoyas, Villanova’s longest streak in a series that dates to 1922.

The last time Ewing faced Villanova in any capacity was in the last game of his college playing career at Georgetown, a surprising 66-64 victory for the underdog Wildcats in the 1985 NCAA championship game. It was quite clear, quite quickly, on Wednesday that there would be no such tight outcome —nor any chance of an upset by Georgetown (12-6, 2-5).

This is Ewing’s first season as a head coach at any level, and he opted to go with an easy-as-can-be non-conference schedule to try to build his players’ confidence. Now that league play is underway, especially against a foe like Villanova, the gap between the Hoyas and the best teams is obvious.

It was 42-20 at halftime, and Georgetown to that point had more turnovers (nine) than made baskets, shooting 8 for 26, including 0 for 8 on 3s.

Villanova just kept pushing the margin after the break, going up by 30, then 40, and then reaching the apex at 88-44 on a layup by Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree with about 3½ minutes remaining. Less than a minute later, Villanova coach Jay Wright finally sent on the subs and pulled any remaining starters.

INJURED AND ILL

Villanova: Reserves Tim Delaney and Jermaine Samuels sat out with a virus.

Georgetown: Backup PG Trey Dickerson left in the first half with a back spasm and did not return.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: Since its only loss, 101-93 at Butler on Dec. 30, Villanova has won four games in a row, propelled by an efficient offense that gets a lot of its work done from beyond the arc.

Georgetown: This was the Hoyas’ largest margin of defeat since a 33-point loss to Maryland, 104-71, on Dec. 10, 1974.

UP NEXT

Villanova: Travels to UConn on Saturday in a matchup between former Big East rivals and the Wildcats’ first game at Hartford in five years. Villanova is 12-0 in non-conference games heading into the last one on their schedule.

Georgetown: Hosts St. John’s on Saturday, the teams’ second meeting in less than two weeks. The Hoyas won 69-66 at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 9

NCAA pushes up college hoops start date as Champions Classic will open the season

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The NCAA is pushing up the start of the college basketball regular season to begin on the Tuesday before the second Friday in November.

That means the Champions Classic will open the college basketball season in 2018-19 as announced in an official release on Wednesday. So now, we get Duke vs. Kentucky and Michigan State vs. Kansas in Indianapolis at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to open the college basketball regular season?

Yes, please.

This is a very smart move for the NCAA as men’s and women’s basketball can now open the regular season a bit earlier. The made-for-TV, neutral-court spectacle of the Champions Classic is also the perfect programming to get casual sports fans to tune in for the opening night of college basketball.

There will also be a new level of intrigue for the Champions Classic with all four superpowers making their season debuts in the event next season. Instead of getting a regular-season tune-up to begin to campaign, all of these teams will get thrown straight into the fire.

Hopefully, the sport can continue to make moves like this to generate casual interest and develop more intriguing non-conference possibilities. College basketball’s regular season has suffered from too many lulls in the past. At least now the regular season will start with a bang.