Bubble Banter: Illinois, California the biggest movers

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It’s been a big two weeks for Illinois.  The Illini have won four straight, including victories over Indiana and Minnesota.  When combined with wins over Gonzaga, Butler, and Ohio State, it’s hard to imagine the Illini as a bubble team at this point in time.  Taking care of winnable games down the stretch should be enough.

La Salle continues to make a push, as does California.  The Bears have won three straight – including a huge road victory at Arizona.

At the same time, the bubble remains very fluid.  How many SEC teams will ultimately make it?  Maryland and Virginia are right there in the ACC.  The Atlantic 10 is deep, but only Butler, VCU, and Saint Louis have separated at this point.  What we do know is this: It’s going to be a busy few weeks until Selection Sunday.  Much can (and will) change between now and then.  The s-curve moves daily.

Our latest look at the bubble is a picture at this moment in time – through games played on Sunday, February 17.  Enjoy another great week of hoops.

UPDATED: Monday, February 18 | 10:00 p.m. ET

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

Automatic Bids (31): None at this time

  • Projected Locks (19): Teams who project to have secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
  • Should Be In (16): These teams are in solid position to receive an at-large bid.
  • Bubble: (31): Teams projected to be under consideration for at-large selection.
  • Spots Available (11): 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 17.  RPI and SOS data is credited to InsiderRPI at ESPN.
Atlantic 10
Locks: Butler | Should Be In: Saint Louis, VCU | Bubble: La Salle, Temple, Charlotte, Massachusetts, Xavier
  • Charlotte (18-7 | 6-5) | RPI: 49 | SOS: 98 | – Charlotte treaded water last week after a road split with Butler and Saint Louis (it’s worth noting that Butler played without center Andrew Smith). A victory over La Salle is the 49ers other NCAA-level win at this point. Wins over Davidson, UMass, and Xavier are worth mentioning. A weak non-conference schedule (No. 240) means Charlotte has to finish strong in the A-10. The schedule is somewhat favorable if the 49ers can win at home and take care of winnable road games.
  • La Salle (18-6 | 8-3) | RPI: 33 | SOS: 76 | – It was a two-win week for the Explorers – the best over Saint Joseph’s. 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. La Salle is 5-5 vs. Top 100 teams, and the only blemish is an early November loss at CCSU. Road games at Temple and Saint Louis give the Explorers a chance to secure an NCAA bid provided they take care of business in their other games.
  • Massachusetts (16-8 | 6-5) | RPI: 56 | SOS: 63 | – UMass missed a golden opportunity this past week, falling to both VCU and Temple. While the Minutemen are 6-7 vs. the Top 100, they are just 1-6 vs. Top 50 teams. Time is running short as the only NCAA-level win left on the regular-season calendar is a home game with Butler.
  • Temple (17-8 | 6-5) | RPI: 48 | SOS: 59 | – The Owls continue to teeter on the bubble. Temple took a bad one-point home loss against Duquesne before bouncing back to win by one at Massachusetts. The victory over Syracuse continues to pay dividends, and the Owls also have wins over Saint Louis, Charlotte, and Villanova. Games with La Salle and Charlotte are up next. Winning both would certainly help Temple’s at-large position. It would be a close call if today were Selection Sunday.
  • Xavier (14-10 | 7-4) | RPI: 97 | SOS: 112 | – After a loss at Dayton, the Musketeers numbers took a major hit. That said, wins over Butler, La Salle, and Temple keep the Musketeers on the at-large list for another day. But it may not last long. Xavier has five sub-100 losses, including Wofford (No. 248). If there’s a reason for optimism, it’s this: Xavier closes with five potential NCAA opponents, one of which is Memphis. Put together a strong finish and the Musketeers have a chance entering the A-10 tournament. Odds of that happening? Not great at this point.
ACC
Locks: Duke, Miami-FL | Should Be In: NC State | Bubble: North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Florida State
  • Florida State (14-11 | 6-6) | RPI: 65 | SOS: 14 | – Florida State hasn’t won back-to-back games since beating Clemson and Maryland on the road in early January. Without a winning streak, FSU is likely headed for the NIT. The Seminoles are 1-6 vs. Top 50 RPI teams to go along with non-conference losses to South Alabama and Auburn. A sweep of Maryland helps some – especially if the Terrapins get it together. But how much it helps remains to be seen. FSU plays NC State twice along with UNC and Virginia down the stretch. Can the ‘Noles take advantage?
  • Maryland (18-7 | 6-6) | RPI: 63 | SOS: 101 | – The Terps picked up a huge victory over Duke this weekend. Combined with a victory over NC State, there are two NCAA-level wins on UM’s profile. The albatross, however, is a non-conference schedule (No. 295) that sticks out like a sore thumb. While the Terrapins have no “bad” losses, they lack quality wins. Even with the win over Duke, Maryland is 3-7 vs. Top 100 teams – and one of those is Stony Brook. Assuming the Terrapins can avoid an ACC upset, they close with North Carolina and Virginia.
  • North Carolina (16-8 | 7-5) | RPI: 30 | SOS: 13 | – Carolina ended a two-game skid by beating Virginia. That’s the good news. The bad news is a 1-6 mark vs. Top 50 teams (UNLV). Within the ACC, the Tar Heels have beaten Florida State, Maryland, and Virginia – none of which are guaranteed NCAA teams right now. While the good showing at Duke was nice, a victory would have been much better. The only “bad” loss on the Heels’ profile is at Texas. An NCAA bid is squarely on Carolina’s shoulders. UNC has remaining games with NC State, Florida State, Maryland, and Duke.
  • Virginia (18-7 | 8-4) | RPI: 77 | SOS: 181 | – After a week in which UVA beat Va. Tech and lost at UNC, the highlights and low-lights of the Cavaliers’ resume are well documented: some good wins (including one at Wisconsin) and a bunch of questionable losses (none more so than Old Dominion). While a 6-1 mark vs. Top 100 teams is impressive, Virginia has done most of its quality work in the ACC at home. And then there’s the non-conference SOS number (No. 319) that will test the Selection Committee’s value on quality scheduling. With upcoming games against Miami, Duke, and Maryland, Virginia does have some control of their post-season destination.
BIG EAST
Locks: Syracuse, Louisville, Georgetown, Marquette | Should Be In: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame | Bubble: Villanova, St. John’s
  • St. John’s (15-10 | 7-6) | RPI: 57 | SOS: 18 | – It’s hard to penalize St. John’s too much for road losses at Syracuse and Louisville. Of course, a win would have helped. The Red Storm have a win at Cincinnati, a victory over Notre Dame, and are 5-7 vs. the Top 100. Outside the Big East, however, SJU’s best win is Detroit, so there’s not a lot of beef to fall back on. SJU has NCAA-level games left with Pittsburgh and Marquette at home, and Notre Dame on the road. Both of the Red Storms’ bad losses were early in the season (San Francisco and UNC-Asheville). It may very well come down to the Big East tournament.
  • Villanova (15-10 | 7-6) | RPI: 58 | SOS: 32 | – All-in-all, a road split with Cincinnati and Connecticut probably helps the Wildcats. Of course, it’s the back-to-back wins over Louisville and Syracuse that are really helping ‘Nova’s resume. That said, Villanova is 5-9 vs. Top 100 teams and Saint Joseph’s is the Wildcats’ best non-league victory. So there’s a lot of average on the Wildcats’ profile. Plus, there’s an ugly home loss to Columbia in November. That seems like a long time ago. So a late push would probably make it a mute point.
BIG 10
Locks: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin | Should Be In: Illinois, Minnesota | Bubble: Iowa
  • Iowa (17-9 | 6-7) | RPI: 79 | SOS: 127 | – The Hawkeyes routed Minnesota over the weekend to collect another Top 50 win. Overall, Iowa has won three straight (Northwestern and Penn State were the other two). At the same time, a No. 325 non-conference SOS is hard to overcome and it drags down the Hawkeyes’ profile. The other problem is a 2-6 mark in true road games. Down the stretch, Iowa’s only two NCAA-level opponents are Indiana (away) and Illinois (home). Outside the Big Ten, Iowa’s best win is Iowa State. They lost big at Virginia Tech.
BIG 12
Locks: Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Baylor, Oklahoma, Iowa State
  • Baylor (15-9 | 7-5) | RPI: 55 | SOS: 27 | – Wins over St. John’s, and BYU are worth noting, but neither are likely to carry Baylor into the NCAAs. That leaves a home victory over Oklahoma State as the Bears’ highlight. That and an early win at Kentucky. So it’s safe to say Baylor has work to do between now and Selection Sunday. Three of Baylor’s final six games are away from home, so a 3-5 road mark is worth noting. Upcoming games with Iowa State and Oklahoma could be very important. The Bears also play Kansas and Kansas State down the stretch.
  • Iowa State (17-8 | 7-5) | RPI: 46 | SOS: 80 | – The Cyclones are pretty good at home – wins over Kansas State, Oklahoma, and Baylor. The road is a different story. ISU is 2-7 away from home and their best road win is TCU. That could be a significant factor if the Cyclones find themselves on the bubble. There’s also a bad loss at Texas Tech. Like many other bubble teams, quality opportunities remain. It’ll be up to ISU to make it happen – or not.
  • Oklahoma (16-8 | 7-5) | RPI: 17 | SOS: 4 | – We could say similar things about the Sooners, who have home wins over Oklahoma State and Kansas and a 3-5 road record. Of course, winning at West Virginia is better than TCU. Oklahoma’s best non-conference win is Texas AM, and there’s not a lot of help coming from the Aggies. Given the Sooners’ RPI and SOS numbers, Oklahoma will get a long look from the Selection Committee. And 9 wins vs. Top 100 teams are a big help, too. If there’s an underlying issue for the Sooners, it’s their closing schedule. They get Iowa State and Baylor at home (which helps). But there aren’t any more chances for truly marquee wins.
CONFERENCE USA
Locks: None | Should Be In: Memphis | Bubble: Southern Miss
  • Southern Miss (18-6 | 9-2) | RPI: 40 | SOS: 94 | – It comes down to this: Southern Miss has to beat Memphis at home this weekend and avoid any bad C-USA losses down the stretch. That will at least keep USM on the at-large board. Right now, their best win is Denver (RPI No. 92) and they are 1-6 vs. Top 100 teams. While the Golden Eagles have thus far avoided any sub-100 losses, an NCAA bid is very unlikely without beating an NCAA-level team.
MISSOURI VALLEY
Locks: None | Should Be In: Creighton, Wichita State | Bubble: Indiana State
  • Indiana State (15-10 | 9-6) | RPI: 60 | SOS: 73 | – How many questionable losses can the Sycamores’ endure? ISU added two more to their profile last week, losing at Missouri State and Bradley. The losses dropped Indiana State’s power numbers into dangerous territory. What’s left is a neutral-court win over Miami-FL and MVC wins at Wichita State and home to Creighton. Add in a win over Ole Miss, and there’s a reason why ISU had NCAA aspirations. But the Sycamores’ overall profile is dwindling and only a home game with Wichita State remains as a boost. ISU needs a sweep of the Shockers and has to avoid further letdowns.
MOUNTAIN WEST
Locks: New Mexico | Should Be In: Colorado State, San Diego State, UNLV | Bubble: Boise State, Air Force
  • Air Force (13-9 | 6-5) | RPI: 69 | SOS: 67 | – The Falcons’ beat UNLV at home but couldn’t pull off the double-down after losing to surging Colorado State. It leaves AF at 4-8 vs. Top 100 teams. More troubling, though, is a non-conference SOS ranked 250-plus in which a victory over Arkansas Pine-Bluff (No. 216) is the highlight. So far, all of Air Force’s trump cards have come at home. With trips to Boise State and San Diego State ahead, that can change. The Falcons’ also have a home date with New Mexico. They need a late surge.
  • Boise State (14-8 | 4-6) | RPI: 42 | SOS: 58 | – Like Air Force, a non-conference SOS in the mid-200’s won’t help. But unlike the Falcons, BSU has a non-conference road victory at Creighton. They also lost a close contest at Michigan State. Inside the MTW, Boise has managed only a win over UNLV at home, and a sweep of now-struggling Wyoming. Boise played New Mexico tough in Albuquerque but came up a bit short. Down the stretch, the Broncos have plenty of opportunities. Can they take advantage?
PAC 12
Locks: Arizona | Should Be In: Oregon, Colorado, UCLA | Bubble: Arizona State, Stanford, California
  • Arizona State (19-7 | 8-5) | RPI: 70 | SOS: 125 | – The victory at Colorado was huge following a sub-par loss at Utah. It gave ASU a sweep of the Buffaloes and raised the Sun Devils’ mark to 3-3 vs. Top 50 teams. Wins over California and Arkansas are also looking a little better. The real trouble is a 13-2 mark vs. sub-150 RPI teams and a non-conference SOS ranked No. 287. That could yet be a big hurdle to overcome. After visits from the two Washington schools, ASU closes with road trips to UCLA, USC, and Arizona. Those three games may decide the Sun Devils’ post-season fate.
  • California (16-9 | 8-5) | RPI: 54 | SOS: 35 | – For a team with a very average profile, three straight wins makes a big difference – especially with two of those wins being at Arizona and against UCLA. While a 4-9 mark vs. Top 100 teams isn’t great, it’s certainly a huge improvement from two weeks ago. The other plus on the Bears’ resume: no bad losses. If Cal can survive a trip through Oregon, the schedule is favorable for a solid close.
  • Stanford (15-11 | 6-7) | RPI: 73 | SOS: 42 | – Stanford’s hopes are fading fast after back-to-back home losses to USC and UCLA. Now it’s off for a swing through Oregon, and the Cardinal are just 3-5 in road games this season. The losses are mounting, and a sub-.500 record in the Pac-12 won’t cut it. Stanford needs a winning streak. The Cardinal are just 1-8 vs. Top 50 teams. That’s not exactly an endearing mark.
SEC
Locks: Florida | Should Be In: Missouri | Bubble: Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas
  • Alabama (16-8 | 9-3) | RPI: 59 | SOS: 70 | – While Alabama’s profile has plenty of holes (and suspect losses), the Crimson Tide played several of those games without Andrew Steele. How that plays out remains to be seen. With a 1-3 mark vs. Top 50 teams (that win being Kentucky), the Tide’s overall 9-3 SEC mark is somewhat deceiving. A non-conference win over Villanova is noteworthy. The rest is pretty average. It’s hard to tell how an 11 or 12-win SEC team will fare. What’s left that matters (really) are trips to Florida and Ole Miss.
  • Arkansas (16-9 | 7-5) | RPI: 75 | SOS: 85 | – We’ve established that Arkansas can win at home – Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri. What we’ve also established that to this point the Razorbacks can’t win away from home (1-6). Will a bunch of nice home wins be enough? Probably not. Arkansas also played a number of sub-300 RPI teams which is dragging down its RPI numbers. The Hogs have remaining road games at Florida, LSU, and Missouri. How they fare in those games will be important.
  • Kentucky (17-8 | 8-4) | RPI: 43 | SOS: 49 | – Without Nerlens Noel, Kentucky is 0-1 with a lopsided loss at Tennessee. While the Wildcats still have time to show what they can do without one of their best players, it’s not overly promising. UK had a mediocre profile before the injury (4-8 vs. Top 100 teams and 0-4 vs. Top 50 teams). If there’s good news, four of UK’s final six games are at Rupp Arena. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.
  • Mississippi (19-6 | 8-4) | RPI: 53 | SOS: 137 | – Ole Miss’ profile doesn’t have anything bad. But it also doesn’t have a lot of really good, either. The Rebels have home wins over Missouri and Arkansas and a sweep of Tennessee. But the rest is ho-hum. Outside the SEC, the Rebels’ best win is Rutgers. They lost to Indiana State and Middle Tennessee. There’s also a non-conference SOS ranked No. 280. Another issue? Ole Miss has one remaining game against a team with any realistic NCAA hopes: Alabama. Best recipe is to keep winning all winnable games.
WEST COAST
Locks: Gonzaga | Should Be In: None | Bubble: St. Mary’s, BYU
  • BYU (18-8 | 9-4) | RPI: 68 | SOS: 103 | – At this point, the Cougars don’t have a lot to offer the NCAA Selection Committee. BYU’s best wins are Tennessee State, Montana, and Santa Clara. That made losses to San Diego and San Francisco all the more troubling. Without beating both Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga down the stretch it’s hard to imagine BYU getting much consideration.
  • Saint Mary’s (21-5 | 11-2) | RPI: 50 | SOS: 149 | – Saint Mary’s best RPI win is Harvard, although BYU might be better. Either way, the Gaels’ profile is largely empty despite a high volume of wins. Early losses to Georgia Tech and Pacific are there too. SMU has to beat BYU at home, and probably needs to beat Creighton to be in the mix heading to the WCC tournament. The Gaels were swept by Gonzaga.
BEST OF THE REST
Locks: None | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Middle Tennessee, Belmont, Bucknell, Akron, Louisiana Tech
  • Akron (20-4 | 12-0) | RPI: 52 | SOS: 175 | – 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 Zips are 16-1 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.
  • Belmont (18-6 | 11-2) | RPI: 29 | SOS: 64 | – 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 – although Northeastern isn’t great. If Belmont wins the OVC outright and makes it to the title game the Committee will have an interesting decision. From there, it depends on the overall landscape.
  • Bucknell (20-5 | 8-2) | RPI: 61 | SOS: 204 | – 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 helped quite as much as expected. The negatives are losses at Penn State and Princeton and a very weak overall schedule.
  • Louisiana Tech (23-3 | 14-0) | RPI: 51 | SOS: 261 | – La Tech’s strength of schedule is a major hurdle to overcome – reflected by 20 games (19-1 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 (23-4 | 15-1) | RPI: 25 | SOS: 107 | – 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 15-0 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.

College Basketball Power Rankings: Wichita State’s loss, Oklahoma’s gain, and ‘why Arizona?’

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It seemed like this was going to be a pretty straight-forward week for the Power Rankings … until Saturday happened, and five top 25 teams lost to unranked opponents.

The toughest one to figure out what to do with was Wichita State, who dropped all the way down to No. 16 from No. 3. They currently sit one spot behind Oklahoma, who beat them in Wichita on Saturday. Ranking the Shockers is a difficult thing to do at this point in the schedule, mainly because what we see on the floor from them doesn’t exactly jibe with what we assume that program to be.

They have not been themselves defensively through the first six weeks of the season. Or maybe they have and they just aren’t as good on that end of the floor as we assumed they would be. However you slice, the bottom-line is this: If Wichita State is not among the nation’s elite defensively they are not going to be in the conversation with Villanova, Michigan State and Duke as one of college basketball’s best. They just don’t have the horsepower on the other end of the floor.

The ranking that I got the most push-back on last week was putting Arizona at No. 6. They’re at No. 5 this week, up a spot after Wichita State dropped out. My reasoning is this: I am generally going to bet on talent, and rare will be the night when Arizona is not the most talented team on the floor. How many teams in the country will they play where Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton are not the two-best players on the floor? Maybe five? Ten, tops? And of those five-to-ten teams, I don’t think a single one of them can claim that they have two of the three best players on the floor.

And now they have Rawle Alkins back, who just went for 26 points on 11 shots at New Mexico.

Since the disaster in the Bahamas, Arizona has won five straight. They won at UNLV. They won a semi-home game against a very good Texas A&M team. They beat Alabama. They handled New Mexico fairly easily in The Pit. In a year where everyone has warts, I’m fine being the first one to say that those three games in Atlantis were just one of those weird things that happen in college basketball.

Anyway, here are this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Villanova, 10-0 (Last Week: No. 1)
2. Michigan State, 10-1 (2)
3. Miami, 9-0 (3)
4. Duke, 11-1 (5)
5. Arizona, 8-3 (6)
6. Arizona State, 10-0 (7)
7. Texas A&M, 9-1 (8)
8. North Carolina, 10-1 (12)
9. Xavier, 10-1 (9)
10. West Virginia, 9-1 (10)
11. Purdue, 11-2 (16)
12. Gonzaga, 9-2 (14)
13. Kansas, 7-2 (13)
14. Kentucky, 9-1 (17)
15. Oklahoma, 8-1 (19)
16. Wichita State, 8-2 (3)
17. Seton Hall, 9-2 (11)
18. Virginia, 9-1 (18)
19. TCU, 10-0 (25)
20. Notre Dame, 8-3 (15)
21. Cincinnati, 9-2 (23)
22. Tennessee, 7-2 (20)
23. Texas Tech, 9-1 (24)
24. Baylor, 9-2 (NR)
25. Arkansas, 8-2 (NR)

NEW ADDITIONS: 24. Baylor, 25. Arkansas

DROPPED OUT: 21. Florida State, 22. Florida

No. 5 Arizona State rallies to beat Vanderbilt 76-64

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TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State came out flat, missing shots, tossing balls into the stands, allowing open 3-pointers.

The No. 5 team in the country? The Sun Devils looked more like they should be unranked, not among college basketball’s elite.

In a matter of minutes, it all changed. Arizona State forced turnovers, got out on the break and dropped in 3-pointers to keep the crowd on its feet.

Once the Sun Devils get rolling like this, there’s no stopping them.

Tra Holder scored 25 points, Shannon Evans II added 15 and No. 5 Arizona State overcame a dismal start with a massive halftime-spanning run to beat Vanderbilt 76-64 on Sunday. The Sun Devils improved to 10-0 for the first time in their history.

“We had the bursts and it’s great we took the game from a one-two possession game and all of a sudden it’s mid-doubles,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “It happens fast.”

Arizona State built a national buzz with last week’s road win over Kansas and its highest ranking in 36 years.

The Sun Devils looked nothing like the team that won at Allen Fieldhouse early against Vanderbilt (3-7), falling into a 13-0 hole. Once one of the nation’s most explosive teams finally came to life, Vanderbilt had no chance.

Sharp at both ends, Arizona State used a 26-3 run spanning halftime to turn what started out as an embarrassing performance into a runaway that had Wells Fargo Arena the loudest it’s been all season.

Mickey Mitchell provided the Sun Devils a spark off the bench, playing solid defense while grabbing 13 rebounds. Arizona State hit 14 of 28 shots in the second half to remain one of the nation’s four undefeated teams.

Saben Lee had 24 points to lead Vanderbilt, which shot 4 of 30 from 3-point range.

“We’re a small team, like ASU, and we have to make 3s,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said.

Following last Sunday’s 10-point win over then-No. 2 Kansas, the Sun Devils moved up to No. 5, their highest ranking since being No. 3 in 1980-81, and received five first-place votes in the Top 25, a program first.

Suddenly, they were a trendy pick to make a Final Four. Hurley was being touted as a national coach of the year candidate by the coach of Arizona State’s biggest rival. A buzz spread across the Valley of the Sun and beyond about the program being touted as “Guard U.”

The spotlight appeared to be too bright for the Sun Devils early against Vanderbilt.

Disjointed and struggling with double teams in the post, Arizona State had five turnovers in the game’s opening five minutes. The Sun Devils didn’t score until Romello White’s layup at 14:49, and the fans who were rowdy long before tipoff groaned with each miscue.

“We were knocking down shots and they were missing at the beginning,” Lee said.

Then Arizona State got back to playing the way it had to open the season.

The Sun Devils harassed the Commodores into difficult shots late in the shot clock and jumped into passing lanes to create turnovers. Shots missed earlier at the rim started going in, and they made a couple of late 3-pointers after missing their first nine.

Holder had one of those 3s, dropping a deep one at the halftime buzzer that put Arizona State up 30-29.

The Sun Devils kept the engine revving in the second half, scoring 12 straight points to push the lead to 49-31. Vanderbilt made one push, but got no closer than 12.

“We were just a little rusty. We had a long week off,” said Holder, who made all 11 of his free throws. “But we got back to our groove.”

BIG PICTURE

Vanderbilt showed it can play with highly-ranked teams in the opening 10 minutes. The final 30 showed the Commodores still have plenty of work to do before the SEC season starts.

Arizona State looked like the No. 5 team in the country after its shaky start and could move up in Monday’s poll after No. 3 Wichita State lost.

LEE’S HOMECOMING

Lee grew up in Arizona and played at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, so Sunday’s game was a homecoming of sorts.

The freshman guard is Vanderbilt’s assist leader with 34 and made 9 of 14 shots to set a career high in points.

“It was pretty weird, knowing that I watched a lot of games here and now I’m going against them,” Lee said. “But it was a good experience..”

UP NEXT

Vanderbilt hosts Houston Baptist on Wednesday.

Arizona State hosts Longwood on Tuesday.

Illinois State’s Dan Muller pleaded for a tougher schedule on Twitter and got it

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Finishing the regular season at 27-6 wasn’t good enough to get Illinois State into last season’s NCAA tournament.

Although the Redbirds shared the Missouri Valley Conference title with Wichita State and split a regular-season series against the nationally-ranked Shockers, the NCAA tournament selection committee left Illinois State in the cold for an at-large bid on Selection Sunday.

The major reason: schools from power conferences continually refuse to schedule quality mid-major opponents like Illinois State. The Redbirds only played TCU from a “Power 5” conference during non-conference play last season. A road loss to the Horned Frogs didn’t do Illinois State much good in the eyes of the committee.

So Illinois State head coach Dan Muller took an interesting approach to generating a more respectable non-conference schedule. Muller took to Twitter and fully utilized his bitmoji game to call out programs from bigger conferences. His goal was to get the NCAA tournament selection committee’s attention with how tough it is for mid-major programs to schedule bigger schools. Muller also hoped the Redbirds could secure a home-and-home series against legitimate, power-conference competition.

“It got a lot of play. I thought it would go national. I didn’t think it would get as big as it got,” Muller said to NBCSports.com. “I got interviews across the country, some TV stuff, and a lot of responses from coaches, friends. A lot of them said it was hilarious. A lot of them said it was great. My point was to emphasize the difficulty in how the selection committee wants schools like us to do [things].”

Muller’s plea quickly went viral. More importantly, Muller’s plea actually worked.

Ole Miss was interested in making a home-and-home deal with the Redbirds. The two programs literally started the series with a very public back-and-forth on Twitter. There was a previous connection between the schools as Torrey Ward had been an assistant coach with both programs. Ward was tragically killed in a plane crash after the 2015 Final Four while he was the associate head coach of the Redbirds.

“It was all public, to be honest. What you saw is how it started,” Muller said of the series. “Rob Bjork, the AD at Ole Miss, tweeted back to me and I hit him back. I’ve known Andy Kennedy for a long time. Obviously there’s a very close acquaintance and friend we’ve got in Torrey Ward — so we had a connection there. That’s why AK wanted to do it. So, we’re grateful and appreciative.”

The two programs started the home-and-home series in Oxford on Saturday as Ward was honored with a video tribute from Ole Miss before the game. Ward’s family was also in attendance — including his mother, ex-wife and two children.

“It was great to see [Ward’s family],” Muller said. “We honored Torrey before the game and I know that was a big part of what Andy wanted to do.”

Besides for the heartwarming gesture in honoring a fallen friend, the game was also beneficial for Illinois State because they earned an overtime win, on the road, against an SEC opponent. Muller’s plan actually worked. The Redbirds have tried to answer the committee this season by playing a top-20 non-conference schedule. Unfortunately, Illinois State isn’t currently in position to earn a potential at-large bid after a sluggish 5-6 start.

But the Valley appears to be wide open now that Wichita State has ascended into the American Athletic Conference. Illinois State has been missing two key members of its rotation for nearly the entire season. Muller is optimistic that the tough non-conference schedule has properly prepared the Redbirds for the conference slate. The race for the Valley’s at-large bid is still going to be tight.

“We’re getting better; we have a lot of talent. We’re building our depth. But we’ve got to be healthy,” Muller said. “If, and when, we’re healthy, I really do think we’ll have a chance to be right there in the end.”

Even if Illinois State falls short of the NCAA tournament this season, Muller has laid the groundwork for another competitive non-conference schedule for next season. Always an aggressive coach when it comes to scheduling, Muller and the Redbirds have some solid opponents like Ole Miss, BYU and Florida Gulf Coast coming to campus next season. Arizona State also called to show interest in a potential home-and-home series with Illinois State. The two programs couldn’t figure out a date to make things work but it served as a reminder that Muller’s tweet was working.

What started as a plea to the NCAA tournament selection committee has turned into an unexpected boon to Illinois State’s scheduling practices. Muller acknowledged that he doesn’t prefer to use Twitter. But Muller might have to bring out his popular bitmoji character more often if it continues to lead to results like this.

No. 7 North Carolina’s late-run earns win at No. 20 Tennessee

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Joel Berry II scored 21 points and Kenny Williams added 15, including a three with 32.7 seconds left that gave the Tar Heels a lead they would never relinquish, as No. 7 North Carolina went into Knoxville and knocked off No. 20 Tennessee, 78-73.

The Volunteers were in control for much of this game, but UNC used a 9-0 run in the final minute – a run that was aided by a pair of Tennessee turnovers – and made the shots and the plays they needed to make down the stretch to get the win.

It’s almost like North Carolina won the national title last season, their second straight year playing in the national title game.

For the first 20 minutes, North Carolina had no idea how to handle Tennessee’s defensive intensity. They committed 12 first half turnovers land trailed 38-32 at the break. But over the course of the second half, UNC got control of their turnover problems and got back into the game. Ironically enough, turnovers were precisely why the Tar Heels were able to make their comeback. Tennessee committed two turnovers in the final minute, including giving the ball away up by one with a minute left on the clock. That possession ended with Williams’ game-winning three.

Grant Williams led five Tennessee players in double-figures with 15 points.

Here are three things we can take away from this game:

1. North Carolina has their deficiencies, but they just keep on winning

There are a lot of things about this North Carolina team that I don’t like. They really only have one proven offensive weapon, depending on how you view Luke Maye. They are a program built on having a frontline that is better than their opponent’s frontline, but this year have to rely on a stretchy-four in Maye and a trio of freshmen that may or may not actually be ready to play at this level. I’m not convinced they have the three-point shooting they need, either.

But here we are, nearly six weeks into the season, and the Tar Heels have just a single loss to their name – which came against Michigan State – and just picked up a win at Tennessee. Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks appear to be growing into the roles that they are being asked to play. Maye has looked like an all-american for the most part. They’re shooting 40 percent from three on the season. They’re defending.

And, as a result, they’re winning.

2. Tennessee is legit, but losing this game is going to hurt

Part of the reason I’m coming around on North Carolina after this win is that this is the first time that they have beaten someone truly impressive. Arkansas on a neutral is one thing. Michigan, Northern Iowa and Davidson at home are good, not great wins. Stanford on the road is whatever.

But Tennessee?

Tennessee is really good. They’re tough, they’re physical, they can defend and force turnovers, and they play in front of an arena that, when the Vols matter, can get as loud and rowdy as any. The Vols, to me, are in the conversation for top four in the SEC, are clearly a top 25 team and look like they can make a run to the second weekend of the tournament if they get a good draw. They’re legit.

Which is why this is a good win for UNC.

But it’s also a loss that the Vols should have won.

Tennessee was in control for the majority of this game. They were up at the half. They held that lead through the second half and they had the ball with the lead with less than a minute left … and turned it over. Winning is a skill. Developing the ability to execute and handle game pressure in crunch time is learned. The Vols aren’t quite there yet, and it showed in the final minute tonight.

That will sting.

3. Kenny Williams turning into a knockdown shooter is a difference-maker for UNC

Williams made one three as a freshman. One. He shot 33.8 percent from three as a sophomore.

This year?

After hitting the game-winner on Sunday evening he’s now knocking down 54.5 percent of his threes while shooting four per game. He’s turned into one of the best shooters in the ACC, which is so important for UNC. A lack of perimeter shooting has been an issue for them in recent years, but they were able to overcome it because their big men were so dominant. This year, without those dominant big men, North Carolina has to rely more on their perimeter game, and if Williams can shoot any where near this clip, Maye remains the player that he’s been most of the year and Cam Johnson comes back healthy, the Tar Heels are suddenly a team that look very, very difficult to guard.

VIDEO: Mykhailiuk’s late 3-pointer lifts Kansas over Huskers 73-72

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Kansas snapped a two-game losing streak in dramatic fashion late on Saturday night, getting a three from Svi Mykhailiuk with 23 seconds left to give the Jayhawks a 73-72 lead at Nebraska:

The real hero of the game, however, was not Svi.

It was Udoka Azubuike.

For a team that has been surviving on jumpshooting for far too much of their offense, Azubuike’s arrival could not have come at a better time. The 6-foot-10 center went for 26 points on 13-for-17 shooting – oddly enough, he didn’t get to the foul line a single time – and added nine boards, five of which were on the offensive end.

Azubuike also made the game-saving play in the final seconds, blocking a shot by James Palmer and tracking down the loose ball to preserve the win.