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.

No. 8 Kentucky finally has it easy against Fort Wayne, 86-67

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Nick Richards had career highs of 25 points and 15 rebounds, and 70 percent first-half shooting propelled No. 8 Kentucky to an 86-67 rout of Fort Wayne on Wednesday night.

Kentucky’s 19-of-27 shooting before halftime countered the Mastodons’ eight 3-pointers that kept them close for a while. Once Fort Wayne started missing, it couldn’t match the length or speed of the young Wildcats (5-1), who eventually led 78-48 with 6:50 remaining on the way to their most decisive win this season.

Richards thrived in both halves and on both ends, making 9 of 10 from the field and all seven free throws for his first career double-double. The 6-foot-11 freshman’s previous highs were 10 points against Utah Valley and nine rebounds against Kansas last week.

Quade Green, Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander each added 11 points as Kentucky shot a season-best 33 of 55 (60 percent) and dominated the rebounding 44-21.

Junior guard John Konchar had 19 points and Bryson Scott 18 for Fort Wayne (3-2), who had won three in a row before losing on 40 percent shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Fort Wayne: A year after upsetting Indiana, the Mastodons led Kentucky 37-36 with 3:51 left in the first half behind 8-of-22 shooting from long range. They went cold from outside and elsewhere after that and the Wildcats pounced to lead at the break and stretch the advantage to 30 points in the second half. The Mastodons’ 12 3-pointers were their third-highest total this season.

Kentucky: Something had to give after all those tense performances and the Wildcats thrived because of their size and best shooting effort this season. Richards couldn’t be stopped on either end, and teammates seemed in sync for the first time. Sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel came up just short of a double-double with 10 rebounds and nine points.

UP NEXT

Kentucky hosts Illinois-Chicago on Sunday to wrap up the Rupp Classic before getting a few days off.

Fort Wayne visits East Tennessee State on Saturday. ETSU lost 78-31 to Kentucky last Friday.

VIDEO: Providence beats Belmont on Kyron Cartwright’s buzzer-beating three

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We got the first wild buzzer-beater of the college basketball season on Wednesday night, as Kyron Cartwright answered a Belmont bucket with 3.7 seconds left by going 94-feet to hit a leaning three at the buzzer:

Providence won the game 65-63.

Cartwright finished with 17 points in the win.

Four Takeaways from N.C. State’s upset win over No. 2 Arizona

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Five games into the Kevin Keatts era and N.C. State already has themselves a signature win.

The Wolfpack upset No. 2 Arizona in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis, 90-84, sending Sean Miller home without reaching the Final Four once again. Allerik Freeman led the way with 24 points, while Braxton Beverly chipped in with 20 points off the bench and the combination of Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven combined for 21 points and 17 boards.

This wasn’t a fluky win, either.

N.C. State had control throughout. They were up 15-6 before Arizona woke up, they didn’t trail in the first half and they were the ones that made the Wildcats chase them down in the second half. It was quite impressive, as Keatts had this group playing hard and pressing for 40 minutes. It’s been a while since N.C. State fans can say that they’ve seen that.

Here are three things to takeaway from that win.

1. Arizona is going to have some things to figure out on the defensive end of the floor if they want to win a national title: Deandre Ayton is a man amongst boys. In his first college basketball game against competition that actually deserved to be on the same floor as him, Ayton finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds, a performance that makes me so damn excited to see just how good Marvin Bagley III, Miles Bridges and players of that ilk are if Ayton does not end up being the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

Trier struggled in the first half, but he still managed to put together a 27-point performance, with 24 of those 27 coming in the second half. They put up 84 points. That wasn’t the issue.

The 90 points they allowed was.

Even more concerning was the fact that the Wolfpack scored those 90 points on just 73 possessions. The bottom-line is this: That’s not good enough, not when N.C. State is hardly a contender for the Final Four, let alone a national title challenger.

2. Kevin Keatts is making the most of the talent Mark Gottfried squandered: I’m not sure quite how good the Wolfpack actually are. I don’t think it’s possible to tell this early, even after a win over a team like Arizona. But what is undeniable is the simple fact that this N.C. State team plays are and with most passion and intensity than any Mark Gottfried team did.

They look like they are trying. They look like they care. And frankly, that often matters more than the simple stock-piling of talent. There’s no way anyone could look at this N.C. State roster and think that it has more talent on it than, say, a team with Dennis Smith Jr. or a team with T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack may not have a future lottery pick on this roster. But they do have guys that play their tails off, that play as if they have a point to prove and that play as if they are being coached.

It makes you wonder what could have been had Keatts been in Raleigh last season.

3. Braxton Beverly getting ruled eligible is going to be a big deal for N.C. State: Earlier this fall, Braxton Beverly was one of the biggest stories in college basketball, believe it or not. He had transferred to N.C. State from Ohio State after enrolling in summer courses prior to Thad Matta’s firing. He was ruled ineligible for this season with the Wolfpack, and it turned into the cause celebre for college basketball media members looking to circle the wagons and bash the NCAA.

It took longer than it should have, but Beverly was eventually cleared by the NCAA. He’s eligible to play this season, and he just so happens to be the point guy on the N.C. State press and one of their best shooters. He put up 20 points on the No. 2 team in America. I think he’s going to be relevant this season.

4. Arizona’s point guard issues rose to the forefront: When the Wildcats made their push in the second half, they did it on the strength of hustle plays and transition buckets. Jumping passing lanes and going coast-to-coast. Beating N.C. State’s press and getting a layup. Points that came off of offensive rebounds. Where they struggled was with their half court execution. The question with this team entering the season was with the point guard play. Was Parker Jackson-Cartwright going to be good enough to carry this team to a title? I’m not sure we can truly say we got on answer on Wednesday – N.C. State’s pressure, which was ratcheted up by the fact that Arizona couldn’t get a stop, played more of a role than anything – but Jackson-Cartwright certainly did not put in the kind of performance that would make Arizona fans feel comfortable.

Walker struggles in return home, No. 11 Miami beats La Salle

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READING, Pa. (AP) — Prized freshman Lonnie Walker IV struggled in his return home, but Dewan Huell scored 16 points and No. 11 Miami did just enough to get by La Salle 57-46 on Wednesday night and remain unbeaten.

Part of Miami’s recruiting pitch for the projected NBA lottery pick was a game in his hometown. Walker was held to five points and 2-of-8 shooting, and his woes were contagious. Miami (4-0) shot 37 percent from the field and the Explorers were 0 of 15 from 3-point range.

B.J. Johnson scored 16 points on 6-of-20 shooting and Pookie Powell added 15 on 5-of-15 from the field for La Salle (3-3) in its third straight loss.

La Salle traveled about 60 miles from campus, but it was a Miami home game and the crowd was solidly behind their local hero’s team. Walker has provided a needed boost to a struggling city northwest of Philadelphia.

Once a bustling railroad and mill town of 120,000, Reading has been in a steady decline for decades. It ranked as the poorest city in the nation in the 2010 Census based on median household income. Population has plummeted to under 88,000.

Walker and his Reading High School team had given the city something to be proud of in March, winning its first state title.

Many in the crowd wore red Reading High state champion T-shirts and sweatshirts, with sprinkles of Miami orange and La Salle blue and gold sprinkled in.

Walker didn’t start — he hasn’t yet this season — but the crowd roared as he got off the bench and walked to the scorer’s table 4 minutes in.

While Walker didn’t appear to have any issue with the left ankle he turned in a win over Florida A&M last week, it was a struggle. He missed his first three shots before finally bringing the crowd to its feet with a nifty crossover dribble and bank shot in the lane in the final seconds of an ugly first half that made it 19-19.

Walker couldn’t get it going in the second half, either. But he fed Bruce Brown Jr. for a 3-pointer with 3:23 left to put Miami up 49-39 during an 8-0 run.

Huell hit 8 of10 shots and added seven rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

La Salle: The Explorers dropped their third straight game to a Power 5 team (Northwestern, Boston College), but this was one they could have won with a decent shooting performance. They shot 29 percent from the field.

Miami: It was tough to tell if Walker was 100 percent with his ankle. He likely had some nerves. It was far from the performance he would have liked. Walker has been held to single digits in three straight games.

UP NEXT

La Salle hosts Big 5 rival Temple on Sunday before departing for a two-game tournament in Northern Ireland next week.

Miami returns home to face North Florida on Saturday before traveling to No. 14 Minnesota next Wednesday.

No. 5 Villanova beats Western Kentucky 66-58 in the Bahamas

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 16: Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats drives against Elijah Long #55 of the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers in the first half during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyBank Center on March 16, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Fifth-ranked Villanova failed to speed up Western Kentucky’s controlled tempo and struggled to make shots through the first half of its Battle 4 Atlantis debut.

In the second half, the Wildcats looked far more like the high-scoring bunch that had cracked 100 points in each of their past two games.

Jalen Brunson scored 18 points while Villanova finally got loose in transition after halftime, helping the Wildcats beat the Hilltoppers 66-58 in Wednesday’s opening round.

The Wildcats (4-0) found themselves in a close game until early in the second half. That’s when they ran off a 13-2 burst to push ahead by double figures, part of a hot-shooting stretch that had them picking up the pace and scoring off turnovers.

“They usually play a little faster than that, but I think they were smart knowing they’ve got three days here,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They controlled the tempo. … Offensively they had us out of whack, and I think that had a lot to do with our poor shooting in the first half.”

Villanova didn’t get many easy scores in the first half and had just two fast-break points by the break, but had 14 in the second half while also scoring 16 of their 23 points off turnovers.

Villanova made 15 of 24 shots (63 percent) after halftime after shooting just 33 percent to lead 27-24 at the break. The Wildcats ultimately led by 18 points late.

“They find ways to have spurts and make runs,” Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury said. “And they were able to find a way to spurt out the second half a little bit on some turnovers.”

Darius Thompson scored 16 points for the Hilltoppers (2-2), who shot 44 percent but struggled to maintain control with Villanova converting easy baskets off turnovers in the second half.

“I think our turnovers were kind of self-inflicted,” Thompson said. “Just trying to do a little too much in the wrong times.”

BIG PICTURE

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers kept Villanova close through the first half and trailed just 34-33 early in the second. Still, the Hilltoppers fell to 1-13 in their last 14 games against ranked opponents.

“I’m really proud of our team’s effort,” Stansbury said, “but I think it’s the way we kind of let the game get away from us in the second half that I’m most disappointed with.”

Villanova: The Wildcats came in putting up big offensive numbers, including 113 points against Nicholls State and 104 more against Lafayette in their last two games. They didn’t find that same roll here, though they ultimately built a big lead and cruised to the final horn.

“We still have to get a lot better,” Brunson said. “We’re still a work in progress.”

BRIDGES’ ROLL

Brunson is a preseason Associated Press All-American, but Mikal Bridges is leading Villanova in scoring. The junior guard had set career scoring highs with 23 points against Nicholls and then 24 against Lafayette, and he followed with 17 points and eight rebounds in this one.

BENCH SPARK

Sophomore Donte DiVincenzo scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half for Villanova off the bench. He finished a tough layup through contact for a three-point play at the 5:11 mark.

DiVincenzo has scored in double figures in three of four games this season.

“He’s really an unselfish guy,” Wright said. “We really have six starters, you can tell by the minutes. And he’s a guy that just said, ‘I don’t care, I’ll do whatever you need me to do.’

“And he comes in off the bench and he’s incredible, and brings great energy. He was awesome in the second half.”

UP NEXT

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers will face No. 18 Purdue in Thursday’s consolation bracket.

Villanova: The Wildcats advanced to play Tennessee on Thursday.