Portland v Gonzaga

Can Zags handle being No. 1? It’s now or never.

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Following No. 1 Indiana’s loss to Minnesota on Tuesday, and Virginia’s big upset of No. 3 Duke, No. 2 Gonzaga appears poised to seize the school’s first No. 1 ranking ever. The questions began to circulate immediately: Do they belong on top? Can they handle the pressure?

The first step in quieting the naysayers happened today: Gonzaga pounded Portland 81-52. It’s not a particularly impressive win in context of the weakness of the West Coast Conference this season, but it’s mega-impressive in the larger context of the top five this season. Indiana is the latest No. 1 team to suffer a surprising loss, but hardly the first. So, we’ll not scoff at the Bulldogs for handling the pressure of that next win, which was absolutely required for anyone to even think of naming them No. 1 next week.

Given that the WCC is providing no challenge for the Zags this year, the deeper question remains: can they win in the Big Dance? Can they make the Final Four? Anything less, at this point, would be an immense letdown for a program that has been knocking on the door for more than a decade.

There are a couple of ways to answer this question. One is the eyeball test. We can all look at what Gonzaga puts on the floor, think back to prior Final Four participants, and say “do they have what it takes?”

The Zags are lousy with upperclassmen, and those upperclassmen are key contributors. Kelly Olynyk, a junior, has put himself in the conversation alongside Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Duke’s Mason Plumlee when the best big men in the nation are discussed. By his side are seniors Elias Harris and Guy Lanrdy Edi and junior Sam Dower. Even freshman Przemek Karnowski has had his moments, which gives Gonzaga a distinctive size plus depth advantage over most opponents they face. The backcourt is a bit younger, featuring sophomores Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, Jr., but legacy junior David Stockton brings some experience to the table.

That’s a team with experience, size, shooters, quality point guard play and a brilliant coach in Mark Few. The eyeball test plays out in their favor.

Second, we can do the math. Tempo-free statistics were developed in hopes of providing predictive metrics with a little science behind them. Per Kenpom.com, Gonzaga has the nation’s third-best adjusted offense, and 23rd-best adjusted defense. In this context, “adjusted” means strength of schedule has been factored in. Those two numbers – combined, adjusted, folded and spun in a centrifuge – put the Zags at No. 4 in the Kenpom rankings, behind Florida, Indiana and Louisville. In fact, Gonzaga is sort of a reverse-Louisville, with the Cards showing the single-digit defensive ranking and double-digits in offense.

So, math also makes them one of the top four teams in America.

Finally, there’s always superstition. Look at Gonzaga’s two losses: When Illinois beat the Bulldogs on December 8, they were ranked No. 13 in the nation. When Gonzaga went into Indianapolis and lost a thriller in Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler was ranked No. 13. C’mon. Everyone knows that’s the unluckiest number there is. As long as they don’t face a 13-seed in the NCAAs, they should be golden.

The Zags are built to win in March, and well-led. They’ve had similar teams in the past, and never made the ultimate leap, being surpassed by latter-day mid-major heroes like George Mason, VCU and, yes, Butler. This is the year they must make good on that promise, because the opportunities will grow thinner in the future. With St. Mary’s recently slapped with a four-year probation, the WCC as a whole is about to take a serious credibility hit, giving each league opponent two less chances to earn an RPI-enhancing win in the regular season.  That places even more pressure on NCAA hopefuls from the conference to schedule tough out-of-conference teams, which generally means lots of long-distance road trips – assuming anyone wants to take them up on it.

So, overall, it looks like the Gonzaga Bulldogs will be No. 1 come Monday, and that they’ll do what must be done to retain that spot. Whether they finally make the Final Four or hoist a title trophy is another question entirely. Right now, Gonzaga has the perfect storm brewing. An opportunity this great may never come again.

Eric Angevine is editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

The Most Intriguing Bubble Profiles: Breaking down Wichita State, Syracuse, Clemson and more

WICHITA, KS - NOVEMBER 13:  Guard Daishon Smith of the Wichita State Shockers drives in for a basket against the Long Beach State 49ers during the first half on November 13, 2016 at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita, Kansas.  (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
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Wichita State (and Illinois State): The Shockers are, once against, going to be the most interesting bubble team, and test case for the Selection Committee, come Selection Sunday.

Here’s the nuts and bolts of it: The Shockers, by every measure that we use, are a good team, good enough to merit an at-large bid. They rank 13th in KenPom and 16th in Sagarin — both of which are predictive metrics — as well as 43rd in KPI and 45th in RPI — both of which are results-based metrics. They’re 25-4 on the season and they’ve been napalming everyone they come across in the Missouri Valley of late. They beat then-undefeated Illinois State by 41 points earlier this month and Northern Iowa, who is third in the league and who had won eight of their last nine games entering the game, by 29 points on Saturday.

It’s also Wichita State, a program that was in the Final Four in 2013, won 35 straight games in 2014 and has one of the most in-demand head coaches in the game in Gregg Marshall.

The problem, however, is that they haven’t actually done anything of note this season. Their best win on the year — their only top 95 RPI win on the season — came against league foe Illinois State. The Redbirds are 34th in the RPI, but they have the exact same problem as Wichita State: the Shockers are their only top 75 win.

Wichita State’s four losses on the season are to Louisville on a neutral, Michigan State on a neutral, Oklahoma State at home and at Illinois State. They don’t have a bad loss, but the only thing they’ve done outside of their league is beat a bad Oklahoma team and win at Colorado State, who is the leader of a mediocre Mountain West conference. (The difference, as it relates to this conversation, with Illinois State is that they have two sub-100 losses and also lost to San Francisco.)

Let’s assume that the Shockers end up winning out until the final of the MVC tournament, where they fall to Illinois State, a best-case scenario if they’re going to need an at-large bid. They’ll be 30-5 on the season without a single bad loss on their résumé, but they’ll only have one top 50 win and, depending on what Colorado State does down the stretch, that may end up being their only top 100 win.

Wichita State was in a similar situation last season, the difference being that they did have one elite win — Utah — while also have three bad losses to their name. That year was also different in the sense that there was quite a bit more competition for the Shockers to deal with. The lack of tournament caliber teams in the Atlantic 10, Mountain West, American and across the mid-major ranks has depleted this year’s crop of bubble teams. Simply not having bad losses may be enough this year.

That said, it’s also important to note that the reveal of the top 16 seeds 10 days ago slotted Gonzaga as the fourth No. 1 seed despite being undefeated. The committee showed us they value the presence of good wins over the lack of bad losses.

The Missouri Valley title game is eight days before Selection Sunday. Whoever isn’t holding the trophy at the end of Arch Madness is going to have a long, stressful wait for Sunday.

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The Bottom of the ACC (SyracuseGeorgia Tech, Clemson): Given the depth of the ACC this season and the lack of potential at-large candidates outside the power conferences, we’re getting some crazy profiles coming out of the bottom of that league.

Let’s start with the Orange. The bad: they lost to a bad UConn team, they were blown out at Boston College, and they lost to St. John’s at home by 33 points. There is no high-major team with that collection of awful losses to their name, and it doesn’t help that Jim Boeheim’s club has nine more losses to add to the mix. They have some good wins – Virginia, Florida State, Wake Forest, Miami – but they’ve only won two games away from the Carrier Dome: at Clemson and at N.C. State, who fired their coach three days ago. With FSU and UVA careening – combined, they’ve lost five straight games – neither of those wins look at good as they did two weeks ago. The Orange are 15-12, but they get Duke at home this week and Louisville on the road this weekend. Those are season-changers.

Georgia Tech is similar, with wins over North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame. But they also won at VCU – which is now a top 30 road win – and their worst loss came against an Ohio team that looked like they could win the MAC before their best player went down with a season-ending injury. The Yellow Jackets don’t have the same volume of good wins, however, and one good road win doesn’t change the fact that most of their best work came at home.

Which brings us to Clemson. The Tigers are 14-12 overall and 4-10 in the ACC, which is not the kind of record that you typically see out of an at-large team. But they’ve won at South Carolina, they swept Wake Forest and they beat UNC Wilmington. All told, they have nine top 100 wins, four of which came away from home, and just one of their losses came outside the top 85. They need to win at least three, and probably all four, of their remaining games — at Virginia Tech, Florida State, N.C. State, at Boston College — but those are all winnable. A 4-10 ACC record sounds bad, but an 8-10 ACC record is deserving, right?

Middle Tennessee: Like some of the other mid-majors on this list, Middle Tennessee State will have a long, long wait until Selection Sunday if they don’t find a way to win the Conference USA automatic bid. But unlike those other teams, the Blue Raiders do have some positives on their profile: They’ve beaten UNC Wilmington on a neutral. They beat Vanderbilt at home. They mollywhopped Ole Miss in Oxford. They beat Belmont in Nashville. The kicker for Kermit Davis’ program is that MTSU will have at least five losses on Selection Sunday if they need an automatic bid, only one will be a “good” loss. Tennessee State got them at home. Georgia State got them at home. They lost at UTEP, who only recently climbed their way out of the 300s in the RPI.

Alabama: South Carolina has been the most generous team in college basketball this season, handing out quality wins to bubble teams all over the place. Clemson got their best win courtesy of the Gamecocks. So did Arkansas, and so did Alabama, who went into Columbia and knocked off SC in four overtimes. As of this moment, Alabama is still on the wrong side of the bubble, but they still have games to play. Win these four games — Georgia, at Texas A&M, Ole Miss, at Tennessee — and suddenly Avery Johnson looks like he has an NCAA tournament team on his hands.

Bubble Banter: Clemson, Georgia Tech and Marquette with key games

MILWAUKEE, WI - JANUARY 24:  Head coach Steve Wojciechowski of the Marquette Golden Eagles watches action during a game against the Villanova Wildcats at BMO Harris Bradley Center on January 24, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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STILL TO PLAY

Clemson (RPI: 60, KenPom: 38, first four out) at Virginia Tech (RPI: 35, KenPom: 46, No. 8 seed), 7:00 p.m.

George Mason at Dayton (RPI: 27, KenPom: 33, No. 8 seed), 7:00 p.m.

N.C. State at Georgia Tech (RPI: 73, KenPom: 79, play-in game), 8:00 p.m.

Evansville at No. 25 Wichita State (RPI: 45, KenPom: 13, No. 10 seed), 8:00 p.m.

St. John’s at Marquette (RPI: 72, KenPom: 35, play-in game), 8:00 p.m.

Tom Izzo challenged to help Michigan State keep NCAA streak

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans reacts against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Eron Harris will not score another point for Michigan State this season.

The senior guard, though, did deliver an assist to the Spartans with a tear-jerking speech after finding out his college career was over because of a season-ending knee injury .

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, still emotional a day later, said Harris provided his inspirational perspective at a team meeting Sunday by sharing his thoughts while being taken off the court at Purdue on a stretcher.

“I realized my career is over,”‘ Izzo recalled Harris saying as the coach fought back more tears. “That was … that was hard.”

It will be really difficult for the Spartans (16-11, 8-6 Big Ten) to extend their Big Ten-record NCAA tournament streak to 20 if they can’t overcome the loss of Harris, who made a team-high 43 3-pointers this season and was just one of three players scoring in double figures.

Michigan State, tied for fifth place in the conference, hosts Nebraska on Thursday night and No. 16 Wisconsin on Sunday. The Spartans close the regular season on the road against Illinois and No. 24 Maryland before the Big Ten tournament, where they may need some wins to avoid missing college basketball’s showcase for the first time since 1997 when Izzo was in his second season in charge of the program.

“We only have two weeks left on the regular season and a ton to play for,” Izzo said.

He knew this season would be a struggle before it started.

Izzo was without seven players from last year’s team, including national player of the year Denzel Valentine, in the biggest turnover he’s had since 2001 when he lost as many players off his team that went to a third straight Final Four and won four straight Big Ten titles.

The Spartans, already thin in the post with Deyonta Davis’ decision to enter the NBA draft after his freshman season, took hits when 6-foot-9 seniors Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter needed knee surgeries that relegated them to the sideline this entire season.

Miles Bridges, one of the top freshmen in the country, missed seven games during the middle of the season with an ankle injury. Harris, one of just two healthy seniors, getting knocked out of the lineup just adds to the season-long list of woes that leads Izzo acknowledging this has been his most challenging season .

Senior Alvin Ellis, who started one game as a freshman and one as a sophomore, may step into the lineup to replace Harris. The guard is averaging just 6.6 points, but scored 18 last week in a win over Ohio State and a career-high 20 in the Big Ten-opening win at Minnesota.

“I’m expecting to play a bigger role,” Ellis said. “I’m trying to pick it up for (Harris).”

Izzo has always appeared to be a coach that gets the most out of his players, who rarely are ranked among the nation’s best. He also thinks tough schedules set up his teams to have success in the NCAA tournament. This season, however, a grueling schedule and a string of setbacks before the Big Ten season might end up haunting him if the team’s overall record is not good enough to get into the tournament. And, traveling the team for 13,600 miles over 22 days in November may end up being one of Izzo’s regrets when he looks back at this season.

Michigan State lost to No. 4 Arizona, No. 9 Baylor, No. 11 Kentucky and then-No. 5 Duke along with Northeastern, without Miles, a defeat that looks worse now than it did back in December because the Colonial Athletic Association team has fallen to .500 by losing nine of its last 11 games. The Spartans do have a quality win from their nonconference schedule, beating No. 25 Wichita State.

As the regular season approaches the end with just 10 healthy players on scholarship, Izzo insisted he won’t mention the school’s NCAA streak to his team.

“I haven’t put that pressure on them,” he said. “Don’t plan on putting that pressure on them.”

 

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Frank Mason III goes #BIFM, takes control of race

LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 28:  Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks dribbles the ball against the Kentucky Wildcats during the game against at Rupp Arena on January 28, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: For my money, Mason solidified his standing as the National Player of the Year front runner, the guy whose award it is to lose, this week. He was the spark of a comeback from 14 points down in the final three minutes against No. 12 West Virginia and led the Jayhawks back from 12 points down – six in the final three minutes – at No. 9 Baylor on Saturday, the win that solidified what will very shortly be the 13th straight Big 12 title for Bill Self.

Against West Virginia, he had 24 points, five assists and four boards. Against Baylor, Mason played arguably his best game of the season, finishing with 23 points and eight assists in a game where the Jayhawks struggled to find offense for long stretches.

But more to the point, what Mason provides this team is more than the numbers. There’s a competitiveness and a toughness that he brings. At the risk of being too cliché for my own good, he’s a winner and a leader that will drag his teammates along with him even when they aren’t playing well. He’s not the best player on Kansas — that would be Josh Jackson — and he’s probably not even the most valuable — hello, Landen Lucas — but there is no one that is more responsible for the fact that Kansas has won nine of their 12 Big 12 wins by seven or fewer points and seven of those nine by less than five points.

Mason’s numbers are sensational — 20.3 ppg, 5.0 apg, 4.2 rpg, 50.4 percent 3PT — but his numbers simply do not tell the whole story here.

#BIFM indeed.

2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Last week, I tried to make the point that Josh Hart’s Player of the Year bid was going to die on the vine because his season was devoid of moments. That happened before Frank Mason led Kansas to wins in two thrilling comebacks, both of which were games between top ten teams that were the most important matchups of that day. Hart? Played at the same time as Kansas-Baylor on Saturday. He’ll play at the same time as Louisville-North Carolina on Wednesday. Saturday’s matchup with No. 23 Creighton would’ve drawn every eyeball in the sport … if Mo Watson Jr. hadn’t gotten hurt.

He’s a terrific player having a career-year for an awesome team. I don’t think he’s going to be the Player of the Year.

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3. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Swanigan had one of his best games of the season, going for 24 points, 15 boards and five assists as the Boilermakers beat Michigan State on Saturday. I’m not sure what else there is to say about Swanigan at this point in the season. He’s the best big man in the country, and I’m not quite sure it’s all that close.

4. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: Ball has changed the culture of the UCLA program, at least for this year, and he’s done it with his unselfishness and his ability to create offense out of nothing. But more important than that, since the comeback against Oregon, the one where UCLA game up 0.65 points-per-possession in the final 14 minutes of the game, the Bruins have allowed 0.915 PPP in wins over Oregon State and USC. They become a real title contender again when they are consistently buying in defensively like that.

5. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss averaged 24 points and seven assists in two wins last week, including a 30-burger against San Francisco. He’s the star and the go-to-scorer of the only undefeated team in the country.

6. Luke Kennard, Duke
7. Justin Jackson, North Carolina
8. Donovan Mitchell, Louisville: I wrote about the ACC Player of the Year race in my weekly takeaways column on Monday, but I wanted to elaborate on it.

With all due respect to Bonzie Colson, John Collins and everyone else in that league, I think there is a pretty clear-cut top three for the ACC Player of the Year race. And if I had to pick ACC Player of the Year, it would probably be Justin Jackson over Donovan Mitchell by a whisker — depending on what happens Wednesday night — with Luke Kennard in third.

But if we’re ranking for National Player of the Year, I think that Kennard is first, Jackson is behind him and Mitchell is third out of that group. Hell, having Mitchell ranked eighth overall is somewhat debatable; that’s how poor he played, at least compared to his ACC counterparts, before the start of ACC play.

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 09:  Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils battles for a loose ball against Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 9, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Luke Kennard and Justin Jackson (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

9. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: Happ ranks fifth in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings. My only issue with that: It doesn’t factor in that his foul shooting is a real problem, one that has, at times, forced him off the floor in crunch-time. That’s a pretty big concern for a guy that, in all other facets of the game, is criminally-underrated.

10. Josh Jackson, Kansas: What can’t Jackson do on a basketball court? He’s a pro shooting guard that is playing the four for Kansas. He blocks shots at the rim and gets steals on the perimeter. He’s lethal in transition. He’s a spot-up three-point shooter, he can make plays off the dribble and he’s a talented, albeit at times careless, passer. He’s tough, he’s competitive, he’s not afraid of a big moment or a big game.

It’s hard to argue against the fact that he’s been the best player for Kansas over the course of the last month or two. That’s the same Kansas team that Frank Mason III plays for.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Malik Monk, Kentucky
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Alec Peters, Valparaiso