Keith Appling

Weekend Preview: Is this the weekend Michigan State takes control of B1G?

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Is this the weekend Michigan State takes control of the Big Ten?: It seems like we make the mistake every season: we forget about the Spartans after a couple of losses to good teams in the non-conference portion of the schedule, only to watch as Tom Izzo leads his team on a courageous run through the Big Ten regular season before reestablishing his dominance in March. You think we would have learned by now.

But apparently we haven’t.

Because all anyone can talk about in the Big Ten is Michigan and Indiana, conveniently forgetting about the team that is currently tied with them at the top of the league standings. And if the Spartans ended up taking over sole possession of first place in the conference on Monday morning, no one should be surprised. Michigan is at Wisconsin on Saturday. Indiana is at Ohio State on Sunday. The Spartans can’t overlook a scrappy Purdue squad (7:00 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network), but how many people would have thought back in December that the Spartans could have control of the best conference in the country in February?

Is Kansas in trouble in the Big 12?: All of a sudden, the Big 12 race is wide-open. Thanks to back-to-back losses to Oklahoma State and TCU, the Jayhawks have lost their two-game advantage and have fallen back into a first-place tie with Kansas State. And not only are they coming off of their worst performance of the Bill Self era, they have to visit Oklahoma on Saturday (4:00 p.m. ET, ESPN) and follow that up with a visit from Kansas State on Big Monday.

All of a sudden, what looked like it could have simply been a two-game blip on the Kansas radar has become the potential for catastrophe for the Jayhawks. They’ve won at least a share of eight straight Big 12 regular season titles. I doubt anyone on the roster wants to have their name associated with the one Kansas team that broke that streak. Is that adding to the pressure that Kansas feels? Does that play a role in their lack of confidence on the offensive side of the ball? Who knows, but what’s clear is that a third straight loss would be a disaster for Kansas.

The season’s top two scorers square off: South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters went for 53 points on Thursday night in a come-from-behind win at IPFW. That’s the most points that any player has scored in a game this season. The previous high? Travis Bader of Oakland, who went for 47 in a win over IPFW. SDSU visits Oakland on Saturday afternoon (5:00 p.m. ET). That should be fun.

Does anyone want to be the second-best team in the SEC?: Have we really reached a point in the season where Kentucky is the second-best team in the SEC? Because, at this point, we can say with complete certainty that it’s not Missouri, who lost to Texas A&M on the road on Thursday night. The Tigers have no cohesiveness, can’t win on the road and lack leadership. But they also got smacked at home by an Ole Miss team that hanged their hat on the fact that they beat Missouri this year. For what it’s worth, Kentucky hosts Auburn on Saturday afternoon, meaning that the Rebels will likely have to win at Missouri on Saturday if they want to remain a game out of first place in the league.

Every Saturday is going to be insane in the Atlantic 10: But this seems more ridiculous that usual:

  • VCU at Charlotte (7:00 p.m. ET)
  • No. 14 Butler at George Washington (2:00 p.m. ET)
  • Temple at Dayton (11:00 a.m. ET, ESPNU)
  • St. Joe’s at UMass (2:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
  • St. Louis at Richmond (6:00 p.m. ET)

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.