Missouri Valley showdown headlines biggest bubble games of weekend

Leave a comment

With the calendar flipping to March it’s crunch time for teams whose NCAA tournament prospects aren’t locked in stone. Here are the five games that fans of teams on the bubble need to keep track of this weekend.

1) Wichita State at Creighton (Saturday, 2:00 p.m. on ESPN2) 

There will be a lot on the line when the Bluejays host the Shockers in Omaha. The winner grabs the Missouri Valley regular season title and the top seed in next weekend’s conference tournament, and there’s also the matter of neither team in position to feel completely satisfied with their respective NCAA tournament resumes. The two teams are separated by six spots in the RPI (Wichita State ranked 47th and Creighton 41st according to warrennolan.com) with each team having three Top 50 wins this season.

Wichita State won the first meeting by three despite having twice as many turnovers (14) as Creighton, due in large part to Bluejays other than Doug McDermott and Grant Gibbs shooting a combined 8-of-27 from the field. Carl Hall scored 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead four Shockers in double figures, and they’ll need that kind of balance on Saturday if they’re to complete the sweep of the season series.

2) Iowa State at Oklahoma (Saturday, 1:30 p.m.)

Iowa State had a major resume-building victory in their grasp on Monday night, only to see Kansas leave Ames with a 108-96 overtime win. That makes their trip to Norman all the more important, and the Sooners did their part with a stunning collapse at Texas on Wednesday night. Oklahoma has the better RPI (25) and one more Top 100 victory (seven) than the Cyclones, and their computer numbers are due in part to smart scheduling (they’ve played just five games against teams ranked 201 or worse; Iowa State’s played ten such games).

Iowa State rolled in the first meeting (83-64), shooting 51% from the field and knocking down 11 three-pointers at Hilton Coliseum. Will Clyburn scored 19 points and in total ten Cyclones managed to score. Oklahoma has to keep ISU from running their sets if they’re to return the favor in Norman.

3) No. 22 Butler at VCU (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. on ESPN2)

Brad Stevens’ Bulldogs have done enough in both the non-conference and Atlantic 10 to feel good about their NCAA tournament prospects. This one’s all about the Rams, whose overall resume doesn’t exactly match their standing within the A-10. The Rams have wins over Memphis, Belmont and Alabama to their credit, but the resume lacks wins over teams considered to be “locks” to reach the Big Dance.

This is the only regular season meeting between the two A-10 newcomers, and the key for both teams will be turnovers. If VCU can harass Butler and force them to cough up the basketball the Rams will be in good shape. But if Butler can take care of the basketball and control tempo as Saint Louis did (the Billikens are a bad matchup for both teams), Rotnei Clarke and company may leave Richmond with a valuable result.

4) Alabama at No. 8 Florida (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. on CBS)

Speaking of teams lacking wins over NCAA tournament locks, Alabama visits Gainesville with hopes of picking up a much-needed victory. Anthony Grant’s team has won 11 SEC games, but a closer look at their schedule reveals the fact that they have just one Top 50 victory (Kentucky) and they also have losses to Dayton, Mercer, Tulane and Auburn on the resume.

Is Florida in the conversation for a one-seed? At this rate who really knows, but at the very least they’ll have Will Yeguete back in the rotation. The Gators will be fine regardless of the outcome, but Alabama has a lot of work to do (and that likely includes a run in the SEC tournament) if they’re to return to the NCAA tournament.

5) Villanova at No. 23 Pittsburgh (Sunday, 12:00 p.m.)

The Wildcats suffered a damaging road loss to Seton Hall on Monday night, dropping a game they led by four with 27 seconds remaining. But this week gives Jay Wright’s team a shot at two quality wins before the Big East Championship, beginning with a trip to Pittsburgh to take on the Panthers. Villanova gets No. 7 Georgetown at home on Wednesday night but a win of this caliber would look very good on a resume that currently has just one quality road victory (at Connecticut).

Pittsburgh limited Villanova to just 43 points in the first meeting (neither team shot well; Villanova simply shot worse), and the Panthers also attempted 12 more free throws. Ryan Arcidiacono will need to exercise smart shot selection while also slowing down Pitt senior guard Tray Woodall, who scored 25 points in a win at St. John’s on Sunday.

Other Games of Note

– Colorado State at Boise State (Saturday, 8:00 p.m.)

Boise State’s profile is better than many think, and with their schedule to end the season the Broncos will have opportunities to make their case for inclusion in the NCAA tournament.

– No. 19 Memphis at UCF (Saturday, 1:00 p.m. on FSN) 

The Tigers have an impressive record but their loss at Xavier may have put them in position to need an undefeated run through Conference USA to feel comfortable in regards to an at-large bid.

– Connecticut at Cincinnati (Saturday, 2:00 p.m.) 

The Bearcats are reeling and need to turn things around before they end up on the wrong side of the bubble.

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

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
2 Comments

Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Leave a comment

UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.