Belmont v Kansas

Five mid-majors who can throw your bracket into chaos

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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.

Every March there seems to be a mid-major program that goes from being a team heard of by few to being a national darling. Here are five teams, all of whom will likely need to win their respective conference’s automatic bid, to keep an eye on as we get closer to the month of March.

1) Belmont (19-4, 10-0 OVC) 

After reaching the NCAA tournament as winners of the Atlantic Sun the Bruins have made themselves right at home in the OVC. Guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson are combining to average 32.6 points per game, and senior forward Trevor Noack (12.5 ppg) has raised his scoring average more than ten points from last season.

Rick Byrd’s team, which has wins over Stanford and Middle Tennessee to its credit, isn’t as deep as last season’s outfit but with an eight-man rotation the Bruins are deep enough. Belmont’s an efficient group offensively (ranking 15th nationally in offensive efficiency and 8th in field goal percentage), and when combining this with their experience at key positions this is a team that can win in the NCAA tournament.

2) Akron (17-4, 8-0 MAC) 

The nation’s hottest team, the Akron Zips have won 13 straight games and are the lone undefeated team in MAC play. Leading the way are 7-footer Zeke Marshall and 6-7 forward Demetrius Treadwell, with five other players averaging between 5.8 and 9.9 points per game. The Zips are one of the nation’s most efficient offenses, ranking 28th in efficiency according to statsheet.com and that front court tandem of Marshall and Treadwell can give opponents fits in the paint. The key for Akron in March may be point guard Alex Abreu however, because when he’s under control and properly balances getting his own shots with putting teammates in the best position to be effective Akron is a handful.

3) Middle Tennessee (20-4, 12-1 Sun Belt) 

Kermit Davis’ Blue Raiders won 25 regular season games last season but a loss in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt tournament resulted in a trip to the NIT. So while their resume this season includes a win over Ole Miss (Middle Tennessee has lost to both Belmont and Akron), that experience and the fact that they have just three RPI Top 100 victories should keep this group motivated to grab the Sun Belt’s automatic bid.

Senior guard Marcos Knight is the lone Blue Raider averaging double figures but five others average between six and nine points per game, and this is a group that gets after it defensively. Middle Tennessee leads the Sun Belt in field goal and three-point percentage defense and they force 16.5 turnovers per game as well. If a team with shaky ball-handling draws the Blue Raiders come March, look out.

4) Bucknell (19-4, 6-1 Patriot) 

Dave Paulsen’s Bison are led by one of the best big men in the country in 6-10 senior Mike Muscala, who is currently averaging 19.0 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game (he leads the team in each category). Muscala is one of four Bucknell starters averaging double figures, and the Bison lead the Patriot League in field goal percentage.

The Bison have also performed well defensively, limiting opponents to 37.4% shooting (ranking 11th nationally), something they accomplish more with positioning as opposed to pressuring opponents into turnovers (opponents are averaging just 9.3 turnovers per game). Bucknell’s lone conference loss came to Lehigh (who won at Bucknell twice last season), so there’s no guarantee that we’ll see the Bison in the NCAA tournament. But if they can make it the Bison are capable of causing some trouble.

5) Montana (16-4, 12-0 Big Sky)

The Grizzlies had to navigate much of their non-conference slate without the services of senior guard Will Cherry due to a broken foot. But with the reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year back in the fold Montana has the best tandem in the conference in Cherry and junior Kareem Jamar. Inside senior Mathias Ward averages a team-high 15.2 points per game, with the versatile Jamar being the team’s best rebounder.

With a two-game lead over Weber State the Grizzlies are in good position to grab home court for the conference tournament, something that served them well in getting to the NCAA tournament last season. With Cherry out other players gained valuable experience, and that could work out in Montana’s favor at the end of the year.

Other teams to consider: Davidson, Detroit, Lehigh, Louisiana Tech, North Dakota State, Valparaiso and Weber State. 

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej

Ole Miss’ Brooks taken to hospital after collapse

Mississippi guard Rasheed Brooks (14) is called for charging against Tennessee guard Shembari Phillips (25) during an NCAA college basketball game in Oxford, Miss. on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. (Bruce Newman/Oxford Eagle via AP)
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Ole Miss senior Rasheed Brooks has been taken to an Oxford area hospital during the Rebels’ game against Tennessee on Tuesday evening, the school announced.

Brooks reportedly was taken by stretcher out of the arena after he collapsed during a timeout.

Obviously, a scary situation, but immediately there were few details. The game did commence following the incident.

VIDEO: Patsos shakes imaginary hands after Rider storms off court

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 13:  Head coach Jimmy Patsos of the Siena Saints watches on during their game against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 13, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Apparently unhappy with how the game unfolded late, Rider decided against the traditional handshake line Tuesday in its 78-68 loss to Siena.

That didn’t stop Saints coach Jimmy Patsos from going through with it anyway.

The animosity apparently extends from the ejections of Siena’s Marquis Wright and Rider’s Anthony Durham following an altercation between the two, according to the Times-Union. Both Patsos and Rider coach Kevin Baggett were also hit with technicals. Baggett, who had to be held back by assistants, apparently had words with Wright.

Theatrics aside, the win was the fourth-straight for Patsos’ Saints after a 1-3 start to MAAC play. Lavon Long had 29 points to lead the way. Rider has now dropped three in a row and is 4-4 in the league.

Creighton’s Mo Watson Jr. has a torn ACL

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 25:  Head coach Greg McDermott of the Creighton Bluejays talks with Maurice Watson Jr. #10 during the team's game against the Massachusetts Minutemen during the championship game of the Men Who Speak Up Main Event basketball tournament at MGM Grand Garden Arena on November 25, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Creighton won 97-76.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Mo Watson Jr.’s Creighton career is over.

The star point guard for the Blue Jays had an MRI on Tuesday to determine the damage suffered in his left knee, and it revealed a torn ACL. Watson entered Monday’s game at Xavier averaging 13.4 points and a nation’s-best 8.8 assists on the season. He was the engine that made Creighton’s high-octane offense work.

“Devastated for [him],” head coach Greg McDermott said. “His impact on our program has been incredible. His leadership will continue to be vital to our success.”

With Watson, who was having an all-american season and was seventh in our Player of the Year Power Rankings as of Tuesday, Creighton was a team with Final Four upside. Their defense was a concern, but their ability to score in transition and to get easy looks from three – both of which were largely due to the ability of Watson – ensured that teams were going to have to score in the 80s to beat them.

Without Watson, Creighton was able to hang on to beat Xavier in Cincinnati, but it’s unclear what the future will hold. Isaiah Zierdan replaced Watson at the point down the stretch, and Greg McDermott does have a number of talented guards on his roster, but that doesn’t do much to mitigate was is a devastating loss for this team.

Watson released a statement on twitter on Tuesday:

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Mason, Hart, Lonzo. Who ya got?

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1. Frank Mason III, Kansas
2. Josh Hart, Villanova
3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: At this point in the year, I feel pretty comfortable making the guarantee that the National Player of the year is going to be one of these three players for three reasons:

  1. All three of them are not just an important piece but the critical component to their team’s success.
  2. The team’s that they play on could very well be the three best teams in college basketball, and I’ve always been of the mindset that winning matters when it comes to Player of the Year and all-american honors.
  3. Their numbers alone are good enough to get them into the conversation even if they didn’t happen to be the best player on one of the best teams in the country.

Frankly, the more that I think about it, labeling this a two-horse race was probably wrong. I’ve had Lonzo Ball third in these rankings for more or less the entire season, but there’s always been a gap between him and the two guys slotted above. Ball’s numbers are ridiculous – 14.6 points, 8.0 assists, 5.5 boards, 1.8 steals, 2.3 turnovers – but it’s what he’s done to that UCLA team that I’ve under-valued. Ball is a talent, and so is T.J. Leaf, but on paper, the difference between this team and last year’s team shouldn’t be as stark as going from a 15-17 season to a year where they are a buzzer-beating three at Oregon away from being undefeated on Jan. 17th. Ball’s presence did that.

The other difference?

I have Frank Mason III as the current leader for the award. Part of that is because Josh Hart has had a couple of bad games in a row and Mason, in the three games since we last convened here, led comebacks at Oklahoma and against Oklahoma State before guiding Kansas to a win at Iowa State. But there is also an argument to be made that Josh Hart has been somewhat figured out in league play. Teams can key in on him and he isn’t quite to the point where he has a response. Big 12 opponents haven’t been able to do that against Kansas.

That, however, is the definition of picking nits, but that’s what we have to do to differentiate these three at this point.

Because when the chips are down, those three players, at this point in the season, have all been sensational, and I would have no issue with someone picking either of the three to win the award.

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4. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: In Purdue’s only game last week, Swanigan had “just” 17 points and eight boards, but he had a late turnover, missed a critical, point-black shot with less than a minute left and then watched a ball bounce out of bounds that was ruled – probably incorrectly – to be off of Purdue. It wasn’t the greatest finish we’ve seen out of a player this year.

5. Luke Kennard, Duke: In the first 14 games of the season, Luke Kennard averaged 13.9 shots per night and consistently churned out enough terrific performances that he deservedly has been the only Duke player considered for a spot on all-american teams all season long. In the last four games, however, Kennard is averaging just 9.8 shots, which can be attributed to a couple of different things. I don’t think the issue is defenses being more focused in on stopping him, mainly because I think the issue is Jayson Tatum.

Tatum has led the Blue Devils in field goal attempts in six of the last seven games. His usage rate (the percentage of possessions that end with him while he’s on the floor) is 27.8 on the season despite posting an offensive rating of 105.1, meaning he scores 1.051 points-per-possession. In the last seven games, he’s only had an offensive rating better than 109 in home games against Georgia Tech and Boston College.

Kennard, on the season, has an offensive rating of 133.5, which is third nationally for players that with a usage rate above 20, but his usage rate is stuck at 21.7. In other words, the numbers back up what our eyes have been telling us – that Duke’s offensive isn’t as good when the offense flows through Tatum instead of Kennard.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07: De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

6. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox is the most important player on Kentucky, and I don’t understand people that argue otherwise. Malik Monk can win games with his ability to score, but Fox ‘s ability to defend and to turn defense into offense is why the Wildcats are in a position for Monk to win games with his scoring alone.

7. Mo Watson Jr., Creighton: It looks like Creighton dodged a bullet on Monday. There has yet to be an official diagnosis, but what initially to be a non-contact knee injury for Watson, it appears that there is no ligament damage. A torn meniscus will not be an easy thing to recover from, but a bone bruise would be. Here’s to hoping he’s OK, but Watson is the engine that makes Creighton’s high-powered offense run.

(UPDATE: Watson’s career is over. He tore his ACL.)

8. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Berry has been fantastic this season, and there’s a very strong argument to be made that he’s the ACC’s Player of the Year as of today. He is everything we wanted Marcus Paige to be over the course of the last two seasons.

9. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss has been terrific this season, and I’m not sure how many people have noticed. After posting 19 points and six assists in a 23-point win over No. 21 Saint Mary’s, he’s averaging 15.2 points, 5.8 boards, 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals with shooting splits of 49.5/41.1/89.5. This is the best Gonzaga team Mark Few has ever had, and Williams-Goss is the best player on the roster.

10. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Luke Kennard is third nationally in offensive rating for players with a usage rate that’s better than 20. No. 1 on that list? Lauri Markkanen, who is quietly having a terrific season for the Wildcats.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Malik Monk, Kentucky
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
Markelle Fultz, Washington
Josh Jackson, Kansas
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
Justin Jackson, North Carolina
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Melo Trimble, Maryland

Lauri Markkanen, Arizona Athletics
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona Athletics

CBT Podcast: Luke Winn joins to talk Kansas and their unorthodox backcourt

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 03:  Devonte' Graham #4 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrates with Frank Mason III #0 after making a three-pointer during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Allen Fieldhouse on December 3, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn, Mr. Power Rankings himself, joined the podcast this week to talk about something other than the Power Rankings.

Luke wrote a long feature on Kansas’ back court of Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham, a serendipitous pairing of former mid-major recruits that have turned into arguably the nation’s best pair of guards and the next great two-point guard back court. You can read that story here. You can listen to the podcast below.

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