Bubble Banter: Illinois, Oklahoma this week’s big winners

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With just over a month until Selection Sunday, it’s time to take a look at the current NCAA bubble.  It’s a bit crazy – especially with teams like Kentucky and North Carolina missing from “lock” status.  We also have teams like Virginia – whose resume features quality wins, head-scratching losses, and a weak strength of schedule.  How will the Selection Committee view the Cavaliers?  Those are just three of many challenges within the current landscape of college hoops.

For what it’s worth, the Atlantic 10, Pac-12, SEC, and Mountain West have a variety of bubble teams.  It’ll be interesting to see how things play out.

Bubble Banter will ebb and flow over the next month.  Teams will be added and teams will fall away.  Others will move off the bubble and confirm their place in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.  While we could stretch the bubble even further, we’ve limited teams to those with realistic at-large hopes at this point in time.  Ask Villanova how quickly things can change, however.  Beating Louisville and Syracuse in back-to-back games can do that.

It’s going to be a fun ride.  Here’s to some great hoops and a stronger-than-usual bubble down the stretch.  This edition of Bubble Banter includes results through games played on Sunday, February 10.  RPI and SOS data is credited to InsiderRPI at ESPN.

UPDATED: Monday, February 11

Total Spots (68): Number of teams in the Field.

Automatic Bids (31): None at this time

  • Projected Locks (14): Teams who project to have secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
  • Should Be In (18): These teams are in solid position to receive an at-large bid.
  • Bubble: (40): Teams projected to be under consideration for at-large selection.
  • Spots Available (14): Estimated number of openings after Automatic Bids, Locks, and Should Be Ins are considered.
  • RPI and SOS: RPI and SOS data are updated through games completed on Sunday, February 10.
Atlantic 10
Locks: Butler | Should Be In: Saint Louis, VCU | Bubble: La Salle, Temple, Charlotte, Massachusetts, Xavier
  • Charlotte (17-6 | 5-4) | RPI: 60 | SOS: 125 | – Wins over La Salle, UMass and Xavier are the 49ers’ calling cards. That probably won’t be enough. And Charlotte fell further behind the league leaders are falling at home to VCU on Saturday. A weak non-conference schedule (No. 221) means Charlotte has to right the ship and finish strong in the A-10.
  • La Salle (16-6 | 6-3) | RPI: 33 | SOS: 48 | – A home win over Butler and a road victory at VCU highlight the Explorers’ resume. They also have a win over fellow-bubble dweller Villanova. Overall, La Salle is 4-5 vs. Top 100 teams, but only two of those are likely NCAA squads. The only real blemish is a November loss at CCSU. The Explorers need to keep winning because other than Temple and Saint Louis, there are no NCAA-level games left on the docket until the A-10 tournament.
  • Massachusetts (16-6 | 6-3) | RPI: 51 | SOS: 88 | – Outside the A-10, the Minutemen’s best win is Harvard. That could be a problem. UMass did win at La Salle, which is a solid victory. And while the Minutemen are 5-4 vs. the Top 100, they are just 1-2 vs. Top 50 teams. With games left against VCU, Temple, and Butler, there’s still time. A couple of wins in those games would really help.
  • Temple (16-7 | 5-4) | RPI: 40 | SOS: 45 | – A win over Syracuse continues to help the Owls. They also have a victory at Villanova. Within the A-10, highlights are wins over Saint Louis and Charlotte. Temple also battled Kansas to a close loss in Lawrence. So why the bubble? Until a stretch of three wins in four games, the Owls were well off the conference pace. At 1-3 vs. Top 50 teams, Temple still needs some wins.
  • Xavier (13-9 | 6-3) | RPI: 81 | SOS: 85 | – Wins over Butler, La Salle, and Temple (all Top 50 RPI teams) are what’s keeping the Musketeers on the at-large list, but it’s a long shot given XU’s power numbers. Xavier has five sub-100 losses, including Wofford (No. 248). Xavier closes with five potential NCAA opponents, one of which is Memphis. It’ll take a late surge for the Musketeers to have at-large hopes in March.
ACC
Locks: Duke, Miami-FL | Should Be In: NC State | Bubble: North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Florida State
  • Florida State (13-10 | 5-5) | RPI: 66 | SOS: 20 | – The Seminoles are 0-5 vs. Top 50 RPI teams and dropped their fourth sub-100 game by falling to Wake Forest on Saturday. The plus side: FSU is 5-6 vs. the Top 100 including wins over BYU, Charlotte, and a sweep of fellow bubble-dweller Maryland. The SOS numbers are there, but the Seminoles have work to do down the stretch to overcome a suspect resume.
  • Maryland (17-7 | 5-6) | RPI: 70 | SOS: 116 | – The albatross for Maryland is a non-conference schedule (No. 299) that gets noticed in the wrong way. While the Terrapins have no “bad” losses, they lack quality wins. Only a home victory over NC State is NCAA-worthy. Sunday’s loss to Virginia doesn’t help, as it knocks the Terps further down the s-curve. They did win at Northwestern outside the ACC, but the Wildcats aren’t likely headed to the NCAAs. All but three wins have come against teams ranked 100 or lower in the RPI.
  • North Carolina (15-7 | 6-4) | RPI: 36 | SOS: 35 | – Carolina has a solid home win over UNLV. After that, UNC’s resume is somewhat light. The Tar Heels’ other “notable” wins are Florida State and Maryland. With no “bad” losses and solid RPI and SOS numbers, UNC may sneak in, but it’s no sure thing. Carolina has two games left with Duke. They may need one of those. UNC was hammered Saturday in its only meeting with league-leader Miami.
  • Virginia (17-6 | 7-3) | RPI: 75 | SOS: 176 | – There has been much debate about UVA’s resume. And while Sunday’s win at Maryland helps, questions remain. Wins over UNC, NC State and Wisconsin (on the road) stand out. But there are six sub-100 losses, including a real head-scratcher against Old Dominion. A horrible SOS number includes a No. 323 mark in non-conference. What’s it’s all mean? Despite some good wins, Virginia has given the Committee plenty of reasons to leave them home. It’s up to UVA to erase doubts down the stretch.
BIG EAST
Locks: Syracuse, Louisville | Should Be In: Cincinnati, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Notre Dame | Bubble: Villanova, St. John’s
  • St. John’s (15-9 | 7-5) | RPI: 52 | SOS: 14 | – Even with Sunday’s loss at Syracuse, St. John’s has quietly compiled a resume worth of NCAA consideration. The Red Storm have a win at Cincinnati, a victory over Notre Dame, and are 7-6 vs. the Top 100 of the RPI. Outside the Big East, however, SJU’s best win is probably Detroit, so there’s not a lot to fall back on. Strength of schedule will help St. John’s, and overall the schedule is favorable down the stretch. Besides a growing loss total, the only blemishes are early losses to San Francisco and UNC-Asheville.
  • Villanova (14-9 | 6-5) | RPI: 62 | SOS: 49 | – Back-to-back wins over Louisville and Syracuse do wonders for an at-large resume. That said, ‘Nova is 0-5 against other Top 50 competition and Saint Joseph’s is the Wildcats’ best non-league victory. A loss to Columbia is certainly noticeable, as is being swept by Providence. The rest of Villanova’s resume is very average. Can two wins carry ‘Nova to the NCAAs? Four of the Wildcats’ final seven games are away from home. A .500 finish will likely put Villanova squarely on the bubble.
BIG 10
Locks: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State | Should Be In: Minnesota, Wisconsin | Bubble: Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa
  • Illinois (16-8 | 4-7) | RPI: 26 | SOS: 5 | – No bubble team had a better week than the Illini – who upset Indiana in Champaign and backed it up with a win at Minnesota. That’s two Top 15 RPI wins in a week and gives the Illini five Top 25 RPI wins on the season. If it weren’t for a 4-7 mark in the Big Ten – largely due to a home loss to Northwestern – Illinois probably wouldn’t even be on the bubble. The schedule is favorable if the Illini can avoid a let down in their next three – Purdue, at Northwestern, and Penn State. Quality non-conference wins include Butler (Maui) and at Gonzaga.
  • Iowa (15-9 | 4-7) | RPI: 91 | SOS: 106 | – The Hawkeyes’ may be better than their numbers suggest. But a No. 325 non-conference SOS is something that will hurt Iowa on Selection Sunday. Why so bad? A 10-1 mark vs. teams ranked 150 or lower in the RPI. A non-conference win over Iowa State is noteworthy as is a home win over Wisconsin. But Iowa is just 2-7 vs. Top 50 teams. Against the RPI Top 150, Iowa is 5-8. That leaves the Hawkeyes with work to do over the next month.
  • Northwestern (13-11 | 4-7) | RPI: 96 | SOS: 56 | – It’s going to be a long, uphill climb for Northwestern which has lost four of six games. They are 2-5 vs. the Top 50, and just 3-10 vs. the Top 100. The Wildcats may be in for a short stay on the bubble. What Northwestern does have: road wins at Illinois and Baylor and a home victory over Minnesota. Their only questionable loss is to UIC.
BIG 12
Locks: Kansas | Should Be In: Kansas State, Oklahoma State | Bubble: Baylor, Oklahoma, Iowa State
  • Baylor (14-8 | 6-4) | RPI: 53 | SOS: 23 | – The Bears have lost three of four games and are 2-6 vs. Top 50 teams. An early win at Kentucky helps as does a victory over Oklahoma State. Wins over Lehigh, St. John’s, and BYU will be noticed, but won’t necessarily carry Baylor into the NCAAs. To feel somewhat safe, the Bears need a couple more NCAA-level wins between now and Selection Sunday.
  • Iowa State (16-7 | 6-4) | RPI: 37 | SOS: 50 | – While the power numbers look good for the Cyclones, a 2-5 mark vs. Top 50 teams suggests there work to do. ISU has Big 12 wins over Kansas State and Oklahoma at home. But a 2-6 road mark is somewhat concerning. ISU’s best non-conference win is probably BYU – which isn’t an NCAA team at this point. Iowa State lost to Iowa, and also has a “bad” loss to Texas Tech.
  • Oklahoma (15-7 | 6-4) | RPI: 19 | SOS: 6 | – Strong SOS numbers are boosting the Sooners’ power profile, but you have to look a little deeper. Beating Kansas at home Saturday was a major boost. Beyond that, OU is 2-5 vs. Top 50 teams. The Sooners’ best non-conference win is Texas AM, which is a fringe bubble team at this point. Odds are in Oklahoma’s favor – given the RPI numbers. But the Sooners can’t fall off the pace in the Big 12 race.
CONFERENCE USA
Locks: None | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Memphis, Southern Miss
  • Memphis (20-3 | 9-0) | RPI: 35 | SOS: 102 | – Once again, Memphis is in a tough spot (especially for seeding). The Tigers missed early chances against VCU, Minnesota, and Louisville. Now, after beating Southern Miss, they have a two-game lead in C-USA – and an outright title by multiple games would probably be enough to lock up an at-large. But UM’s overall resume remains light – with the win over So. Miss being the Tigers’ only Top 50 win (1-3 overall). Non-conference wins are Harvard, Tennessee, and Ohio. The positive: there are no “bad” losses on the slate.
  • Southern Miss (16-6 | 7-2) | RPI: 49 | SOS: 99 | – It was a bad week for So. Miss. The Golden Eagles dropped games to UCF and Memphis, falling two games behind the Tigers in the C-USA race. With an 0-6 mark vs. the Top 100, USM is at risk of leaving the bubble all together. Outside of a trip to Memphis, there’s little opportunity left for the Golden Eagles to make an NCAA-level statement. Right now, USM’s best win is at Denver.
MISSOURI VALLEY
Locks: None | Should Be In: Creighton | Bubble: Indiana State, Wichita State
  • Indiana State (15-8 | 9-4) | RPI: 48 | SOS: 53 | – The Sycamores are in the thick of the MVC title chase and have non-conference wins over Ole Miss and Miami-FL. The latter is especially impressive (although the ‘Canes weren’t at full strength in Hawaii). ISU also won at Wichita State and handled Creighton at home. Four sub-100 losses – especially to Morehead State and So. Illinois – are keeping the Sycamores on the bubble. Avoiding any more “bad” losses should be enough to earn an NCAA bid. But that might be easier said than done.
  • Wichita State (20-5 | 9-4) | RPI: 43 | SOS: 129 | – An early win at VCU is helping the Shockers, as is a home win over Creighton. But WSU has lost three of four, including one at Southern Illinois. Other non-conference wins of note include Iowa and at Air Force. All-in-all, it could be a short stay on the bubble, especially with a 3-1 mark vs. Top 50 teams and 5-2 mark vs. the Top 100. But the recent skid is cause for momentary concern, and the Shockers do have three sub-100 losses. Upcoming trips to Illinois State and Indiana State could be very important.
MOUNTAIN WEST
Locks: New Mexico | Should Be In: San Diego State, UNLV | Bubble: Colorado State, Boise State, Air Force
  • Air Force (12-8 | 5-4) | RPI: 67 | SOS: 87 | – The Falcons’ at-large hopes took a hit with the loss to Nevada on Saturday. But it’s certainly not over. The next three games – UNLV, Colorado State, and at Boise State will be telling. A non-conference SOS ranked 250-plus won’t help AF and the Falcons’ best non-conference RPI win is Arkansas Pine-Bluff (No. 210). Which means the Falcons have to excel in the Mountain West. An average showing won’t be enough.
  • Boise State (14-7 | 4-5) | RPI: 45 | SOS: 75 | – Like Air Force, a non-conference SOS in the mid-200’s won’t help. But unlike the Falcons, BSU has a non-conference victory at Creighton. They also lost a close contest at Michigan State. Inside the MTW, however, Boise has managed only a win over UNLV at home, and a sweep of now-struggling Wyoming. Combined with losses to Nevada and Utah, the Broncos need a strong finish.
  • Colorado State (17-4 | 6-2) | RPI: 15 | SOS: 55 | – Colorado State has a strong computer profile and a very solid mark in MTW play. At the same time, only a home win over UNLV is an NCAA-level win at this point. The win over Boise State helps, but the Broncos have work to do, too. The Rams do have a non-conference win over Washington (and Montana), which help some. An early-loss to Illinois-Chicago isn’t a huge concern. The next four games (SDSU, @Air Force, @UNLV, New Mexico) will be huge for CSU’s profile. An even split would be nice.
PAC 12
Locks: Arizona | Should Be In: Oregon, UCLA | Bubble: Arizona State, Washington, Stanford, California
  • Arizona State (18-6 | 7-4) | RPI: 65 | SOS: 104 | – The Sun Devils have Pac-12 wins over Colorado and UCLA. Their best non-conference win is Arkansas. They are 2-3 vs. The Top 50 and 4-5 vs. the Top 100. The only “bad” loss is to DePaul in early December. But … ASU is 13-1 vs. sub-150 RPI teams and has a non-conference SOS ranked in No. 267. That will be a big hurdle to overcome. The home loss to Stanford is somewhat troubling – especially with five of the Sun Devils’ final seven Pac-12 games on the road.
  • California (14-9 | 6-5) | RPI: 58 | SOS: 38 | – Just when the Bears needed something big on their resume, they got a huge road win at Arizona on Sunday night. Before that, Cal was a woeful 1-9 vs. the Top 100 and 1-5 vs. the Top 50. Those aren’t NCAA numbers. Now, one victory over Arizona doesn’t an NCAA profile make. But it keeps the Bears on the radar. Outside league play, Cal’s best win is probably Georgia Tech. With five of seven games at home to close, the Bears need to pile up wins.
  • Stanford (15-9 | 6-5) | RPI: 57 | SOS: 37 | – The Cardinal have won four of five games, including a road victory at Arizona State this weekend. Even so, Stanford is a discouraging 1-7 vs. Top 50 teams, so work remains. They are 4-8 vs. the Top 100. The best of those is a home victory over Oregon. An early win at Northwestern isn’t quite once it once was. The schedule is favorable down the stretch, and Stanford needs every win it can get as its quality wins are lacking.
  • Washington (13-11 | 5-6) | RPI: 78 | SOS: 33 | – Much like the other Pac-12 bubble teams, the Huskies lack a high-profile non-conference victory – their best is over Saint Louis. UW is 1-6 vs. Top 50 teams – but does have solid road wins at Cal and Stanford. Four sub-100 losses are also something UW has to overcome – including an early loss to Albany. Closing games with Oregon, UCLA, and Arizona will be critical. The Huskies may have to win all of those to be in the picture next month. Sunday’s loss at USC doesn’t help.
SEC
Locks: Florida | Should Be In: Missouri | Bubble: Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas
  • Alabama (14-8 | 7-3) | RPI: 63 | SOS: 58 | – While Alabama’s profile has plenty of holes (and suspect losses), the Crimson Tide played without Andrew Steele in some of those games. The Selection Committee will take that under consideration. That said, an ugly low-scoring loss at Auburn last week counts. ‘Bama is 1-3 vs. the Top 50 (beating Kentucky at home) and 6-4 vs. Top 100 teams. Outside the league, the Tide have wins over South Dakota State and Villanova. Inside the league, they have wins over Tennessee, Texas AM, and Arkansas at home. But those won’t carry the Tide into the NCAAs. Closing games at Florida and Ole Miss will be telling if ‘Bama can keep winning until then.
  • Arkansas (14-9 | 5-5) | RPI: 92 | SOS: 81 | – Arkansas has yet to win a true road game, so the Razorbacks are probably looking at a short stay on the bubble. They arrive, however, with a 2-4 mark vs. Top 50 teams, including a home victory over Florida. They also beat Oklahoma outside the conference. But at 3-7 vs. Top 100 teams, it doesn’t look promising. The lopsided loss at South Carolina was ugly.
  • Kentucky (17-6 | 8-2) | RPI: 44 | SOS: 72 | – The Wildcats are inching their way toward “Should Be In.” But with a 1-3 mark vs. Top 50 teams (4-6 vs. the Top 100), it’s hard to consider UK a for-sure NCAA team at this point. The SEC is down – especially at the bottom, making quality wins harder to find. Beating Ole Miss on the road was a solid step. But other than a win over Maryland, UK’s non-conference resume is light (11-0 vs. sub-150 opponents). With trips to Florida and Tennessee up next, it’s a big week for the Wildcats.
  • Mississippi (18-5 | 7-3) | RPI: 47 | SOS: 119 | – With a non-conference SOS ranked 250-plus, Ole Miss has to maintain a strong profile in the SEC. The Rebels’ best non-conference victory is Rutgers, so yes, work remains. Inside the SEC, Ole Miss has a win over Missouri at home but lost to the Tigers over the weekend in Columbia. That leaves the Rebels at 1-5 vs. Top 50 teams – which is hardly lock status. On the plus side, Ole Miss has not had any “bad” losses, and, in fact, has not lost to anyone ranked outside the RPI Top 50. The bad news? Ole Miss doesn’t play any remaining SEC opponents that are certain NCAA teams.
WEST COAST
Locks: Gonzaga | Should Be In: None | Bubble: St. Mary’s, BYU
  • BYU (17-8 | 8-4) | RPI: 64 | SOS: 89 | – The Cougars’ at-large NCAA hopes took a serious hit after back-to-back losses to San Francisco and San Diego. It drops BYU well off the WCC pace with just five games to play. Overall, BYU is 0-3 vs. Top 50 teams and just 2-6 vs. the Top 100. And both of those are victories are over Santa Clara. The Cougars have to beat both St. Mary’s and Gonzaga down the stretch to have any realistic at-large hopes.
  • St. Mary’s (20-4 | 10-1) | RPI: 50 | SOS: 183 | – A weak overall schedule is hampering the Gaels. SMU has played just one Top 50 opponent (0-1 overall) and only four Top 100 teams (3-1). The Gaels best non-conference win is Harvard. That said, they can still tie Gonzaga for the WCC if they beat the ‘Zags at home this week. It might take a tie for St. Mary’s to grab an at-large spot. It’ll be interesting to see how the Committee weighs a volume of decent wins vs. a lack of quality wins. History would suggest that quality wins tend to be more important.
BEST OF THE REST
Locks: None | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Middle Tennessee, Belmont, Bucknell, Akron, Louisiana Tech, Lehigh
  • Akron (18-4 | 10-0) | RPI: 54 | SOS: 158 | – The Zips have not lost since December 15 (at Detroit). That said, Akron’s only Top 100 win during that stretch is Ohio at home. An early win over Middle Tennessee State helps, giving Akron a 2-3 mark vs. the Top 100. The other problem? The Zips are 15-1 vs. sub-150 teams – meaning all but three wins are against the lower half of Division I. Akron has to win an outright MAC title and probably reach the conference tourney final to have a realistic shot at this point.
  • Belmont (18-5 | 11-1) | RPI: 23 | SOS: 61 | – Good scheduling and a 5-4 mark vs. Top 100 teams has put the Bruins on the radar for at-large consideration. A win over Middle Tennessee State is the Bruins’ best RPI win, although a victory at Stanford might be equally important. There are no “ugly” losses on the Bruins’ resume. A loss last week to Murray State keeps the Racers only a game back in the OVC. Belmont has to win the league outright. After that, the Bruins’ at-large hopes depend on the overall landscape come March.
  • Bucknell (19-4 | 7-1) | RPI: 59 | SOS: 186 | – A victory over La Salle highlights a resume that shows a lot of wins but not a lot of high-quality W’s. Bucknell has beaten New Mexico St and won at Purdue. Unfortunately, the latter hasn’t help up quite as much as expected. Could the Bison win a game if they reach the NCAAs? Sure. But getting there won’t be easy. The negatives are losses at Penn State and Princeton.
  • Lehigh (16-5 | 7-1) | RPI: 77 | SOS: 210 | – Other than a win over league foe Bucknell, the Mountain Hawks resume is suspect (1-3 vs. Top 100) teams. They also have home losses to Bryant and Lafayette. At this point, an at-large bid is a long shot. But we’ll keep Lehigh here as they are tied with Bucknell atop the Patriot League standings.
  • Louisiana Tech (21-3 | 12-0) | RPI: 55 | SOS: 242 | – La Tech’s strength of schedule is a major hurdle to overcome – reflected by 16 games (15-1 record) against sub-150 opponents. The Bulldogs’ best win is over bubble-dweller Southern Miss. There’s also an ugly loss at McNeese State. Despite a high volume of wins, an at-large bid is unlikely.
  • Middle Tennessee (22-4 | 14-1) | RPI: 29 | SOS: 111 | – An early win over Ole Miss helps but the Blue Raiders’ only other Top 100 win is Central Florida. Like some others on this list, a 15-1 mark vs. sub-150 teams is a drag on the schedule. Middle Tennessee also has losses to fellow bubble-dwellers Belmont and Akron – although both were on the road.

Kentucky’s loss to South Carolina isn’t surprising, it’s just who they are

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It happens all the time.

A good team will go on the road in league play, take a loss to a team they probably shouldn’t lose to and suddenly we all will starting talking about why this team stinks and how we knew it all along.

It happened with Duke when they lost at Boston College. It happened with Villanova when they lost at Butler. It happened with Michigan State when they lost at Ohio State. It happened with Arizona when they lost at Colorado.

And it happened last night when Kentucky lost at a rebuilding South Carolina team.

The only truly surprising part of Kentucky’s 76-68 loss to the Gamecocks was that it came after Kentucky held a 14-point second half lead. South Carolina has never exactly been known as an offensive juggernaut and, this year, they are still adapting to playing without Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier. They closed the game on a 36-14 run just three days after winning a game where they shot 27.1 percent from the field.

If there is a concern here, it’s that Kentucky collapsed.

“This looked like a bunch of freshman playing,” John Calipari said afterward. “First time this year,” later adding that, “there’s an unwarranted arrogance that when we get up, we look really good. ‘I’m really good. I’m going to do what I’m choosing to do and I’m not going to listen.’ That’s what happened. It started rolling and all of a sudden we couldn’t stop it.”

Coach Cal is notorious for speaking to his players through press conferences. He knows that everything is said is going to get plastered all over social media and every Kentucky website, particularly after a loss like this. He knows it will pop up on his players’ twitter feed or when they are watching Sportscenter, so taking what he says publicly with that in mind is important.

And while there is some merit to what he’s saying, it’s also important to remember these three things:

  1. Kentucky is not only the youngest team in America, they were playing without their starting point guard (Quade Green) while trying to acclimate yet another freshman (Jarred Vanderbilt) into the rotation. Vanderbilt saw minutes at the point last night. Brad Calipari saw minutes, too.
  2. All of that happened against a team that just so happens to be one of the nation’s toughest and most physical defenses. South Carolina may lack some of the talent they had last season but they are still tough, strong kids that play for Frank Martin and are never going to back down. I guarantee there is nothing the kids on that roster love more than landing a shot against a team full of cocky future lottery picks.
  3. I’m going to say it slowly, so pay attention: Kentucky. Is. Not. That Good. We know this. They are ranked 21st in the AP Poll. They are rated 29th on KenPom. They don’t have a star. The only reason anyone is freaking out about this game is because of the name on the front of the jersey. If Auburn or Tennessee or Clemson blew a 14-point lead on the road against South Carolina we would chalk it up to a pretty good team falling victim to that home court advantage that is so prevalent in college hoops.

We will all save ourselves quite a bit of time and energy if we just accept what has become obvious: This is not a typical Kentucky team in the Cal era.

There is still Final Four upside should Cal figure this thing out, and with the way things are going in the SEC, a conference title is certainly still within reach.

But Kentucky is going to take some more lumps in league play. They’re going to end up getting a seed somewhere in that 5-7 range. Getting to a Sweet 16 would be good for them. A Final Four isn’t an impossibility, not with the upside on this roster, but dropping out of the dance before the final weekend certainly wouldn’t be a massive disappointment.

That’s just who they are.

What can KenPom’s efficiency rankings tell us about this year’s title contenders?

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Yesterday, we took a look at whether or not Duke’s issues on the defense end of the floor will affect whether or not they can win a national title, and barring a dramatic turnaround over the final three months of the season, the answer appears to be yes.

No one with a defense that ranks lower than Duke’s currently does has ever reached the national title game, and only two that are in the same vicinity have even played on the final Monday of the season.

That’s concerning.

But Duke is far from the only good team with major red flags this season, so today we are going to take a look which of the other national title contenders compare favorably with past Final Four teams.

(All the data in these charts come from KenPom.com. They are the adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency rankings for each team, from prior to the start of the NCAA tournament as well as from the end of the season. We cannot use the adjusted efficiency margin because that data does not translate across seasons. KenPom’s database only goes back to the 2001-2002 season.)

Since 2002, just 13 of the 64 Final Four teams have had an offensive efficiency ranking outside the top 30 when the NCAA tournament began. Only four of those teams reached the national title game, while 2014 UConn is the only one to win a ring with an offense that wasn’t among the best in the country:

This season, there are a handful of top ten teams – teams that are largely considered among the best in the country – that are ranked outside the top 30 in adjusted offensive efficiency, including a pair of Big 12 title challengers.

Some of these teams you would expect to be on here. Virginia hasn’t lost a step defensively this year, but without a killer like Joe Harris or Malcolm Brogdon, they aren’t among the elite on the offensive side of the ball. The same can be said for Cincinnati, Texas Tech and West Virginia. We know they win with their defense.

The surprise is Michigan.

John Beilein is widely regarded as one of college basketball’s best offensive tacticians, and to see him put together a team that is winning with their defense is … well, it is weird. He and Brad Stevens are the only two coaches to take teams to a title game with a defense that ranked outside of the top 40.

I know that the saying is “defense wins championships,” but that doesn’t hold water in the college basketball realm. While there have only been 11 Final Four teams that ranked outside the top 30 in defensive efficiency prior to the start of the tournament, three of them won the national title and three more reached the title game.

Put another way, it’s easier to win in March with a great offense and future NBA players than it is to win with a great defense that can sometimes struggle to score.

The one difference here is that the floor is not as low.

North Carolina’s 2009 team is the lowest-rated defense at 39th to win a title and they had four players still in NBA rotations today and two more than saw time on an NBA roster as some point.

Where this discussion gets really interesting is when looking at the teams that do not have great defenses this season.

Duke, who currently ranks 72nd in adjusted defensive efficiency, is the team that we always talk about, but there are nine teams that have been ranked in the top five of the AP Poll at some point this season are currently outside the top 25 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric: Wichita State, Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova, Oklahoma, Xavier, Duke, Arizona and Arizona State:

So who can actually win a title this season?

Of the last 16 national champs, 12 have ranked in the top ten of either offensive or defensive efficiency and 15 of the 16 have ranked in the top 20. The only team to win a national title while entering the NCAA tournament ranked outside the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency was Kemba Walker’s 2011 UConn team, and they ranked 22nd and 25th, respectively.

Remember, this can all change rather quickly. If you look at the difference in the pre-tournament ratings vs. the post-tournament ratings below, you can see how much getting hot for a six-game stretch can change things, especially on the defensive end of the floor.

So this is a snapshot of how things stand today. In a two week’s time, these numbers could end up being irrelevant.

With that in mind, here are the six teams that – as of today – ranks in the top 25 of both offensive and defensive efficiency.

 

For reference, here are the rankings for every national champion of the last 16 years.

Trae Young’s turnover-plagued night costs No. 4 Oklahoma at Kansas State

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When Stephen Curry was a freshman at Davidson, in one of the first games of his college career, he turned the ball over eight times in the first half of a game at Eastern Michigan. Head coach Bob McKillop toyed with the idea of benching his star freshman, instead opting to turn him loose again in the second half.

Curry scored 13 second half points – to go along with five turnovers – and then went out and dropped 32 in his next game.

Those 15 points and 13 turnovers were his first career double-double, and I’m not sure that he’s slowed down since.

I say all that to say this: It is a minor miracle that the first time that Trae Young looked mortal came on January 16th.

No. 4 Oklahoma went into Manhattan on Tuesday night and got worked over by Kansas State. The Sooners ended up losing 87-69. They trailed by 14 points within the first 10 minutes of the game. Young finished with 20 points and six assists – numbers that would be phenomenal for literally any other point guard on the road in conference play – but he shot just 8-for-21 from the floor, finished 2-for-10 from three and turned the ball over 12 times.

12!

In a vacuum, this performance really wouldn’t be anything to worry about. Young is Oklahoma’s offense. When he has a bad game, the team is going to struggle. That’s the risk of relying this much on one player. It is that simple, and the idea that we should expect a freshman point guard to make it the entirety of conference play in a league as difficult as the Big 12 is ludicrous. He’s going to throw up a dud every now and again, and that’s what happened on Tuesday.

“I played terrible,” Young said. “I blame a lot of this loss on me.”

Where this becomes a concern for the Sooners is that the turnover problem that Young dealt with on Tuesday is not exactly an isolated incident. Young is leading the nation averaging 5.2 turnovers per game, and while that number is inflated by opportunity – Young plays in the nation’s third-fastest offense with the highest-usage rate we’ve ever seen in the KenPom era – his turnover rate of 19.2 is somewhat concerning. For comparison’s sake, Jalen Brunson’s turnover rate is 10.5. Joel Berry II’s is 11.7. Devonte’ Graham’s is 17.0.

The biggest worry is that the number keeps rising. Young has set a career-high in turnovers in each of the last two games, three of the last four games and four times total since the start of Big 12 play. There are a lot of good coaches, good teams and great point guards in the Big 12. Teams may have started to solve the riddle, which means that Lon Kruger and Young are going to have to start making some adjustments.

And that will come.

Kruger is one of the best pure basketball coaches in the business.

He’ll find an answer.

Which is why the most disappointing part about this loss is that it puts Oklahoma in a tough spot in regards to an outright Big 12 regular season title. With how strong the top of the conference is, losing games against anyone outside of the top four is a major disadvantage, and Oklahoma is now the only team amongst that group – West Virginia, Texas Tech and Kansas included – that has lost one.

But credit where credit is due: Bruce Weber put together a game-plan to stymie Young, got 24 points and five assists out of Barry Brown and 21 points, seven boards and seven assists out of Dean Wade.

The Wildcats kicked Sooner tail on Tuesday, and in the process, earned themselves a win that is going to carry quite a bit of weight on Selection Sunday.

Silva leads Gamecocks to 76-68 win over No. 18 Wildcats

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari thought his freshmen looked like freshmen for the first time all season. South Carolina’s Chris Silva continued to look like a major force in the Southeastern Conference who led the Gamecocks’ dramatic second-half comeback against the Wildcats.

Silva tied his career high he set earlier this month with 27 points as South Carolina (12-6, 3-3 SEC) rallied from 14 points down in the second half to top No. 18 Kentucky 76-68 on Tuesday night.

Silva “was the difference,” Calipari said. “He manhandled everyone we put on him.”

It didn’t look like it would have an impact midway through the second half when Kevin Knox’s short jumper with 12:28 to go put the Wildcats ahead 54-40. But that’s when South Carolina, fueled by the powerful, 6-foot-9 Silva, got going and outscored Kentucky (14-4, 4-2) 36-14 the rest of the way to pull off the upset.

Silva had 12 points in that stretch to lift the Gamecocks.

As well as Silva played, Kentucky’s vaunted group of freshmen began trying to make the splashy, dramatic play instead of the smart one, Calipari said. As South Carolina gradually cut into the margin, the Wildcats shrunk from the challenge.

“All of a sudden, you’ve got a bunch of young guys that don’t know how to grind it,” Calipari said.

That was evident when Wesley Myers’ driving layup tied the game at 65-all and he followed that with a second straight layup for the Gamecocks’ first lead of the second half, this one ruled good when Kentucky’s Nick Richards was called for goaltending.

Maik Kotsar made four straight foul shots to give South Carolina a 71-67 lead and Kentucky could not respond.

“We weren’t listening to nothing the coaches were saying,” Knox acknowledged.

The Gamecocks broke a four-game losing streak to Kentucky, which managed just three points over the final 6 minutes.

South Carolina coach Frank Martin talked with Silva at halftime, urging him to go straight up and over Kentucky’s defenders instead of putting up shots away from the basket. “He told me to go strong and finish,” Silva said.

All the Gamecocks seemed to follow Silva’s lead.

“Our guys took ownership,” Martin said as the Gamecocks won for third time in four games after opening SEC play 0-2.

Frank Booker added 18 points for South Carolina.

Knox led Kentucky with 21 points. No other Wildcat had more than 10 points.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats had little consistency with their shooting touch. But their relentless style helped them claw back from an early 19-12 deficit to lead 37-34. The active Kentucky lineup pushed the pace and made the Gamecocks pay for putting them on the free throw line, going 17 of 22 in the first 20 minutes. Things changed down the stretch as Kentucky’s freshman-heavy team struggled to keep up with the Gamecocks. The Wildcats were just 6 of 14 from the free throw line after the break.

South Carolina: When the Gamecocks miss shots, they’re in trouble. After starting the game 7 of 9 from the field, South Carolina missed 18 of its final 21 shots of the opening half. That helped turn a seven-point lead into a 37-34 deficit at the break. Shooting woes have plagued the team much of the season. In fact, the Gamecocks shot just 27 percent from the field last time out and somehow pulled out a 64-57 victory at Georgia on Saturday. The Gamecocks shot just 37.1 percent in this win.

VANDERBILT’S DEBUT: Highly regarded 6-9 freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt, who was out with a left foot injury, finally saw his first action as he came in off the bench against South Carolina. And Vanderbilt was rusty after not playing this season. He missed his only attempt in the opening half and tipped in a ball for a South Carolina basket while fighting for a rebound. Vanderbilt finished with six points and five rebounds. “I thought he was pretty good first time out,” Calipari said.

KNOX’S STREAK-SAVING SHOT

The Wildcats were 1 of 11 on 3-pointers and the one made 3 by Knox ran Kentucky’s string of consecutive games with a basket from behind the arc to 1,031. Knox’s shot came with 7 minutes to go.

UP NEXT

Kentucky starts a two-game home stand against Florida on Saturday.

South Carolina faces its second straight ranked opponent in No. 21 Tennessee at home Saturday.

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More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

Tuesday’s Three Things to Know: Kentucky loses, K-State whips Oklahoma and UNC wins

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1. KENTUCKY FALLS AS JARRED VANDERBILT MAKES HIS LONG-AWAITED DEBUT

Having missed No. 18 Kentucky’s first 17 games due to a foot injury, Kentucky freshman Jarred Vanderbilt made his debut Tuesday night against South Carolina. While Vanderbilt showed some flashes of the skill that made him one of the top recruits in the 2017 class, it was clear that there’s a lot of rust to be shaken off. But the return of Vanderbilt was not enough to help Kentucky avoid defeat, as South Carolina picked up the 76-68 victory thanks in large part to Chris Silva.

Silva, who’s been thrust into a position of leadership due to how much South Carolina lost from last year’s Final Four squad, was the best player on the floor Tuesday night. Silva scored a game-high 27 points while also grabbing eight rebounds, shooting 9-for-17 from the field and 9-for-13 at the foul line. Outside of Nick Richards, who tallied 12 points and four rebounds before fouling out, Kentucky did not offer up much resistance in the paint and Silva made the Wildcats pay for it.

Add in the fact that both Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (six points, six turnovers) and Hamidou Diallo (five points) struggled to get going, and the end result was the shorthanded Wildcats losing a game they led by 13 points with 13:25 remaining. In a game that lacked flow for significant stretches — the teams combined to attempt 74 free throws — Kentucky managed just four fast break points. And with the point guard play lacking sans the injured Quade Green, Kentucky couldn’t do enough offensively to close out the Gamecocks.

2. KANSAS STATE WHIPS NO. 4 OKLAHOMA

There’s no denying the fact that Oklahoma freshman point guard Trae Young is one of the nation’s best players, and an early frontrunner for national Player of the Year honors. That being said, the Sooners really need their best playmaker to get his turnover issues in check. After turning the ball over nine times in the Sooners’ overtime win over TCU on Saturday, Young racked up a stunning 12 turnovers in Oklahoma’s 87-69 loss at Kansas State Tuesday night.

Add in the fact that he shot 8-for-21 from the field in scoring his 19 points, and the end result was what is the worst night of Young’s freshman season. Give credit to Bruce Weber’s charges, especially Barry Brown Jr., for much of this as they were active defensively and got after Young all night long. Brown also scored 24 points and dished out five assists, with Dean Wade adding 21, seven boards and seven assists as Kansas State picked up its first win over a ranked team this season.

Our Rob Dauster has more on Young’s rough night here.

3. NO. 15 NORTH CAROLINA HOLDS OFF NO. 20 CLEMSON

Having never beaten North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Clemson dropped to 0-59 all-time as Cameron Johnson led five Tar Heels in double figures with 21 points. After shooting a combined 3-for-16 from three in the four games prior, Johnson was 6-for-9 from deep and 7-for-10 from the field overall. Johnson and Kenny Williams III combined to score 20 points in the first half, which helped North Carolina build a 15-point halftime lead despite Joel Berry II and Luke Maye both struggling offensively.

Berry and Maye would pick it up in the second half, which helped North Carolina hold off a Clemson team that made ten of its first 11 shots from the field. Marquise Reed tallied 21 points and Shelton Mitchell 18 for the Tigers, who shot better than 61 percent from the field in the second half. Clemson should be fine moving forward, but the big takeaway from this result is Johnson breaking out of his slump and showing just how valuable he is to North Carolina moving forward.