Archie Goodwin, Alex Oriakhi, Keion Bell

Bubble Update: Kentucky among those teams with work to do

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As the roller-coaster college basketball season continues, the race for at-large bids to the 2013 NCAA tournament remains unsettled.  In the span of a few hours this past Saturday, six teams projected to be on the cusp of at-large selection all lost.  Which brings us here: an estimated 11 at-large spots are still available with Selection Sunday right around the corner.

Since last week’s update, only two teams (North Carolina and California) have moved into Should Be In territory and neither are absolute locks to stay there.  It’s going to be a critical 12 days for several teams, including the Kentucky Wildcats.  With a home game against Florida this weekend and the SEC tournament just ahead, UK will have a chance to play its way into the Field of 68.  The same can be said for about five other SEC teams.  It’s been that kind of year.

As conference tournament play gets underway, keep an eye out for bid thieves.  It’s not uncommon for one or more at-large spots to be taken by a surprise conference tournament winner.  This could easily happen in the Missouri Valley – which has proven quite unpredictable over the years.

Bubble Banter highlights the teams we believe are currently on the NCAA Bubble.  To be somewhat brief, teams listed are those with a realistic chance to be considered at the time of the update.  Given the current landscape, those teams could change in the coming few days.  So stay tuned.  RPI and SOS data is credited to InsideRPI at ESPN.

RPI data is for games played through Monday, March 4.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 5

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

Automatic Bids (31): None at this time

  • Projected Locks (21): 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: (27): Teams remaining who are 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 Monday, March 4.
Atlantic 10
Locks: Butler, Saint Louis | Should Be In: VCU | Bubble: La Salle, Temple, Massachusetts
  • La Salle (20-7 | 10-4) | RPI: 39 | SOS: 95 | – The Explorers navigated through Rhode Island and Duquesne. They have one more landmine to avoid – George Washington at home. Then it’s off to Saint Louis for the regular-season finale. A significant issue for La Salle is the lack of a meaningful non-conference victory (best is Iona or Delaware). Will an impressive win at VCU and a one-point home win over Butler be enough? Hard to be certain. At 5-6 vs. Top 100 teams, La Salle has to stay on the bubble. A victory at SLU would certainly make the Explorers more comfortable heading into the A10 tourney.
  • Massachusetts (18-9 | 8-6) | RPI: 54 | SOS: 75 | – Wining at Xavier on Saturday was a must-get, because while the Minutemen are 7-7 vs. the Top 100, they are just 1-5 vs. Top 50 teams (and 9-9 overall against the Top 150). A home date with Butler is up next. UMass needs that one and must avoid a loss at Rhode Island to keep its hopes alive heading to Brooklyn.
  • Temple (21-8 | 9-5) | RPI: 42 | SOS: 51 | – The Owls rallied to beat Rhode Island and have now won five straight after a victory over Detroit last week. A tidy 9-5 mark vs. Top 100 teams is looking better all the time. Temple has also been helped by several other bubble teams losing during the same stretch. If the Owls can avoid a bad loss at Fordham, they close with VCU at home. Winning their last two will probably be enough to push them into the Field of 68. A split may require a little work at the A10 tourney.
ACC
Locks: Duke, Miami-FL | Should Be In: NC State, North Carolina | Bubble: Virginia, Maryland
  • Maryland (20-9 | 8-8) | RPI: 68 | SOS: 130 | – The Terrapins handled a had-to-have road game at Wake Forest. They had lost back-to-back road games to Boston College and Georgia Tech prior to that. Despite wins over NC State and Duke, Maryland really needs to sweep it’s last two (North Carolina, at Virginia) to improve a 3-7 mark vs. Top 100 teams. It’s also going to take a strong finish to overcome a non-conference SOS ranked around No. 300.
  • Virginia (20-9 | 10-6) | RPI: 60 | SOS: 133 | – The Cavaliers just can’t get out of their own way. They followed up a home win over Duke with yet another headscratching loss – this time at Boston College on Sunday. It’s the seventh (7th) sub-100 loss on their resume. How many such losses are too many? At the same time, Virginia has seven Top 100 wins and has put itself in position for at-large consideration with victories that include NC State, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin – the latter at the Kohl Center during the Big10-ACC Challenge. A non-conference SOS ranked No. 306 is a major sticking point, too. A mediocre finish would keep the Cavaliers in very questionable territory. It could go either way.
BIG EAST
Locks: Syracuse, Louisville, Georgetown, Marquette | Should Be In: Pittsburgh, Notre Dame | Bubble: Cincinnati, Villanova
  • Cincinnati (20-10 | 8-9) | RPI: 48 | SOS: 15 | The Bearcats are breathing a little easier after holding off Connecticut this past weekend. It gave the Bearcats a fourth Top 50 win. Although UC lost at Louisville on Monday, as long as the Bearcats don’t lose to South Florida, they should feel okay heading into the BE tourney. Once they reach New York, avoiding a bad loss and/or early exit will probably be enough. UC has not lost to a sub-100 RPI team all season.
  • Villanova (17-12 | 9-8) | RPI: 55 | SOS: 30 | – Losing late leads against Seton Hall and Pittsburgh on the road have slowed the momentum gained from prior wins at Connecticut and over Marquette. Now, the closing game with Georgetown is huge. Beat the Hoyas, and the Wildcats would have Big East wins over Louisville, Syracuse, Georgetown and Marquette. Finding another bubble team with those credentials could be tough. What’s holding Villanova back is a non-conference performance that lacked much significance. Early victories over Saint Joseph’s and Purdue aren’t holding up as anticipated.
BIG 10
Locks: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin | Should Be In: Illinois, Minnesota | Bubble: Iowa
  • Iowa (18-11 | 7-9) | RPI: 86 | SOS: 118 | – Iowa has made a habit of losing competitive games. Saturday at Indiana was no exception as the Hawkeyes put up a game effort in Bloomington. But what they really needed was a signature victory. Given a very weak non-conference SOS number (321), the Hawkeyes have extra work to do. The good news: Iowa closes with Illinois and Nebraska at home. If they get both, they head to Chicago at 9-9 in B10 play. A couple of victories in the Windy City could make it interesting. The Hawkeyes best non-conference wins are Iowa State and Northern Iowa. What doesn’t look good is a 2-8 record in road games and a 7-10 mark vs. Top 150 opponents.
BIG 12
Locks: Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Baylor, Oklahoma, Iowa State
  • Baylor (16-13 | 8-9) | RPI: 67 | SOS: 31 | – The Bears absorbed a brutal defeat Saturday and followed it up with a loss at Texas on Monday. Given the above, Baylor has to find a way to beat Kansas this weekend. If nothing else, a victory over KU would put them in position to do some work at the B12 tourney. The Bears are 4-10 vs. Top 100 teams and have a troubling 9-13 mark vs. the Top 150. An early win at Kentucky isn’t what it once was. The mounting loss total has to be a concern, too.
  • Iowa State (19-10 | 9-7) | RPI: 53 | SOS: 65 | – Oklahoma put it on the Cyclones in Norman on Saturday. While that’s not what ISU needed, they have a home game with Oklahoma State up next. Win that, and the Cyclones are back to where they were a week ago – which is probably among the final few teams in the Field of 68. At the same time, there’s no escaping a 2-7 mark vs. Top 50 teams and a 3-8 record in road games. Right now, ISU has just two wins against NCAA teams (K-State, Oklahoma). And there’s the ugly loss at Texas Tech. Best idea: beat OSU this weekend and win at least one game at the B12 tourney.
  • Oklahoma (19-9 | 10-6) | RPI: 23 | SOS: 7 | – After pounding Iowa State on Saturday, the Sooners appear in pretty decent shape at this point. Their computer profile (RPI, SOS) numbers are strong and might be good enough to get OU in at this point. Especially with a 10-6 mark in the B12. Even so, we can’t completely move the Sooners off the bubble. They have two final hurdles to clear – West Virginia and TCU. Win both and it’s probably a done deal. Losing either might require at least one win at the B12 tourney to feel safe.
CONFERENCE USA
Locks: None | Should Be In: Memphis | Bubble: Southern Miss
  • Southern Miss (20-7 | 11-3) | RPI: 36 | SOS: 78 | – Other than some decent computer numbers Southern Miss doesn’t have much too offer. The Golden Eagles’ best wins are Denver, East Carolina, and UTEP, and they were swept by C-USA leader Memphis. If there is a positive, it’s that everyone around the Eagles keeps losing. At some point, that has to help.
MISSOURI VALLEY
Locks: None | Should Be In: Creighton | Bubble: Wichita State
  • Wichita State (24-7 | 12-6) | RPI: 40 | SOS: 100 | – While the Shockers are in good shape given the current landscape, it might not be wise for them to exit the MVC tourney quickly with a bad loss. If for no other reason, it leaves open the possibility of being squeezed if bids tighten between now and Selection Sunday. With a 3-1 mark vs. Top 50 teams and eight Top 100 wins, again, it’s hard to see WSU not making it. But when you break it down, the Shockers have only two wins against projected NCAA teams at this time (Creighton, VCU). Win a game in St. Louis and it’ll likely be a short stay on the bubble list.
MOUNTAIN WEST
Locks: New Mexico | Should Be In: Colorado State, San Diego State, UNLV | Bubble: Boise State
  • Boise State (18-8 | 8-6) | RPI: 44 | SOS: 89 | – Few teams had a better weekend than the Broncos. Most importantly, they beat Colorado State at home for a third Top 50 RPI win. Secondly, most of the other so-called bubble teams around them lost. The Broncos close with UNLV and San Diego State. At this point, splitting those two games might be enough. It would guarantee BSU of a winning MTW record and add another Top 50 victory to their list. A non-conference win at Creighton is a potentially nice wildcard, too. If the Broncos lose their last two, however, it may require a couple of wins at the MTW tourney to feel secure.
PAC 12
Locks: Arizona, UCLA | Should Be In: Oregon, Colorado, California | Bubble: Arizona State, Washington
  • Arizona State (20-10 | 9-8) | RPI: 92 | SOS: 132 | – A three-game road trip to end the season has resulted in two losses thus far (UCLA, USC) and really puts the Sun Devils on the outside looking in. Although ASU has four Top 50 wins (including a sweep of Colorado), their overall SOS is very suspect and they have played 16 games against teams ranked 150 or lower in the RPI (and gone 14-2 in the those games). At this point, the Sun Devils have to win at Arizona this weekend and probably grab a couple of more W’s at the P12 tourney. It’s hard to imagine ASU making it with their current profile.
  • Washington (16-13 | 8-8) | RPI: 81 | SOS: 37 | – Given a weak bubble, we’re adding the Huskies, but there’s a lot of work to do – beginning with home dates against UCLA and USC this week. They have to win both to have a fighting chance for any at-large consideration during the P12 tournament. A 7-9 mark vs. Top 100 teams is worth mentioning, but there are also four sub-150 RPI losses included three at home. UW’s best wins are Saint Louis in November and California before the Bears turned things around.
SEC
Locks: Florida | Should Be In: Missouri | Bubble: Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee
  • Tennessee (17-11 | 9-7) | RPI: 56 | SOS: 25 | – They won’t be playing “Sweet Georgia Brown” anytime soon in Knoxville. After a very productive two weeks, the Volunteers dropped a 10-point decision at Georgia – giving the Bulldogs a season sweep. On the plus side, those two losses are the only sub-100 RPI losses on the Vols’ resume. Given the current status of the bubble and eight (8) Top 100 wins overall, Tennessee is still in position to claim an at-large bid. But … Tennessee has to beat Auburn to close the SEC season, and given the Vols’ 3-7 road mark that’s no guarantee. After that, it may come down to elimination games in the SEC tournament among several conference bubble teams.
  • Alabama (18-10 | 11-5) | RPI: 59 | SOS: 98 | – There’s no shame in losing at Florida, and the Crimson Tide put up a quality effort. But for a team that lacks a signature win, time is of the essence. Alabama lacks a Top 50 RPI win (Kentucky fell to No. 51 in this update). The Crimson Tide have a split with Tennessee and they beat Villanova. But there are also four sub-100 RPI losses – which include Mercer and Tulane. Closing games at Ole Miss and home to Georgia can set the stage for the SEC tourney. A pile of SEC wins on its own merit isn’t enough to lock up an NCAA berth this year.
  • Arkansas (18-11 | 9-7) | RPI: 75 | SOS: 79 | – Arkansas did what’s its done most of the year Saturday against Kentucky – win at home. But the Razorbacks won’t have any home games in the SEC tourney (or beyond). And the Hogs are a yucky 1-8 in road games (their lone road win is at Auburn). Other than that, the Razorbacks’ profile is decent – with victories over Oklahoma, Florida and Missouri. The one really bad loss is at South Carolina.
  • Kentucky (20-9 | 11-5) | RPI: 51 | SOS: 70 | – A good effort from the Wildcats fell short at Arkansas – which was no real surprise. Assuming UK can get past Georgia in Athens (no guarantee), this weekend’s game with Florida is huge. The Wildcats’ NCAA aspirations (at least prior to the SEC tourney) likely come down to beating the Gators. How the Selection Committee ultimately judges Kentucky without Nerlens Noel remains to be seen. In all likelihood, how UK performs at the SEC tourney will be a significant factor.
  • Mississippi (21-8 | 10-6) | RPI: 58 | SOS: 164 | – No team suffered a more damaging loss than Ole Miss on Saturday – losing at Mississippi State. It’s especially bad on the heels of a loss at South Carolina – both sub-200 RPI teams. For a team with just one Top 50 win (Missouri at home) and a non-conference SOS among the bottom third in the nation (290), those two losses are potentially devastating. Can the Rebels’ regroup? They close with Alabama and LSU. Win both and the Rebels still have an at-large chance entering the SEC tourney.
WEST COAST
Locks: Gonzaga | Should Be In: None | Bubble: St. Mary’s
  • Saint Mary’s (25-5 | 14-2) | RPI: 41 | SOS: 126 | – Saint Mary’s is playing some pretty good basketball these days. But will the “eye test” surpass the resume test? That will be huge for the Gaels. SMU took care of Santa Clara over the weekend and is poised for the WCC tournament. A potential semifinal with BYU might still be important, although the Gaels’ odds have gone up recently with other bubble losses. If they get past the Cougars, a good showing in the WCC final (assuming its against Gonzaga) could still be enough. Keep in mind, however, that SMU’s win over Creighton is their only Top 50 victory of the year, and their only win over what appears to be an NCAA team.
BEST OF THE REST
Locks: None | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Middle Tennessee, Belmont, Bucknell, Akron, Louisiana Tech
  • Akron (22-5 | 13-1) | RPI: 46 | SOS: 136 | – It’s unfair to expect any team from any conference to have to go through an entire league season without a loss. But we also know that teams like Akron tend to have a smaller margin for error and that’s why Saturday’s loss at Buffalo can’t be overlooked. If the Zips go ahead and reach the MAC title game, they’ll still be in decent position. But after Saturday, there is less room for any early exit from the MAC tourney. It also means the Zips might be more easily passed if available at-large spots shrink.
  • Belmont (22-6 | 14-2) | RPI: 24 | SOS: 72 | – The Bruins closed their regular season on a four game winning streak that included a win over Ohio in the BracketBusters game. Good scheduling and a 6-2 mark vs. Top 100 teams has the Bruins on the radar for at-large consideration. Their resume includes a victory over Middle Tennessee at home. Of Belmont’s four sub-100 losses, only the one to Northeastern at home would be considered bad. It’s fair to think that Belmont has an at-large chance if they reach the OVC title game. After that, it all depends on what the at-large field looks like.
  • Bucknell (24-5 | 12-2) | RPI: 52 | SOS: 189 | – Given a mid 50’s RPI and SOS numbers that aren’t great, the Bison might be the least likely of this bunch to garner serious at-large consideration. What they have is early wins over La Salle and at Purdue, plus a close loss to Missouri in Columbia. The rest, including an 18-2 mark vs. sub 150-RPI teams, isn’t much help.
  • Louisiana Tech (25-3 | 16-0) | RPI: 50 | SOS: 251 | – Even with a high volume of wins, the Bulldogs’ at-large chances are still questionable. The good news is this: a few of their victories have improved from an RPI standpoint, leaving Tech with a 5-2 mark vs. Top 100 teams. Of those, the best is Southern Miss, and none are against projected NCAA teams. An overall strength of schedule ranked above 250 suggests that an at-large bid is unlikely. Fair or unfair, Tech has played just one game against Top 50 teams (So. Miss). They are 18-1 against teams ranked 150 or below.
  • Middle Tennessee (27-4 | 19-1) | RPI: 25 | SOS: 131 | – A solid RPI and strong non-conference SOS ranked No. 9 in the nation are nice starting points for the Blue Raiders. What hurts, however, is a 1-3 mark vs. Top 50 teams that included losses at Belmont and Akron – two teams on this list. MTSU really needs Ole Miss to turn it around as that’s their signature win. You have to wonder if good computer numbers are enough. History would suggest they might not be.

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