How much does this season’s Middle Tennessee team have in common with the Drexel Dragons of a season ago?
In the aftermath of the Blue Raiders’ 61-57 loss to Florida International in the semifinals of the Sun Belt conference tournament, Middle Tennessee (28-5, 19-1) fans are hoping for a Selection Sunday fate better than Drexel’s from a season ago.
Deric Hill scored 16 points and Cameron Bell added 15 for FIU, who will play for a trip to the NCAA tournament in the first season of Richard Pitino’s tenure as head coach. And given where the program was under Isiah Thomas that’s an incredible achievement for FIU.
But the question now is whether or not the Sun Belt can send two teams to the NCAA tournament, with a Middle Tennessee team that dominated the league during the regular season being the recipient of an at-large bid. That discussion likely requires a look back at last year’s Drexel squad.
Drexel was 27-6 on Selection Sunday following a loss to VCU in the title game of the CAA tournament. With an RPI of 66 and an overall strength of schedule of 189 the Dragons found themselves on the outside looking in. Drexel went 1-1 in games against RPI Top 50 teams and 5-3 against teams ranked between 51 and 100.
By comparison Middle Tennessee has an RPI of 24 and an overall strength of schedule of 128. But even with a far better non-conference strength of schedule they’ve got no RPI Top 50 wins and just two wins against teams ranked between 51 and 100 (Ole Miss and UCF). With two fewer losses to teams ranked between 101 and 200 (one) than that Drexel team (three), Middle Tennessee may be in a better spot than the Dragons were.
But like Drexel the Blue Raiders find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to watch other bubble teams continue to play, and hope the selection committee has seen enough of them on TV (or in person) to have a good idea of how talented they are.
Middle Tennessee has just one double-figure scorer (forward Marcos Knight – 11.9 ppg) but they get the job done with balance (six other players average between 5.3 and 9.7 points per game) and defense. With ten players averaging double-digit minutes the Blue Raiders limit opponents to 39.2% shooting, and their adjusted defensive efficiency (88.4) ranks 15th nationally according to kenpom.com.
Unfortunately this is life for teams in one-bid leagues, something Middle Tennessee is all too familiar with after missing out on the NCAA tournament last season after winning 26 games and losing in the Sun Belt quarterfinals. Will they get a better result this time around? The Blue Raiders can only sit around and watch, hoping for a different result.
1. Jalen Brunson has been so good this year and no one’s talking about it: Maybe it’s because there are 6,000 quality point guards in college basketball this season. Maybe it’s because he’s been overshadowed by his teammate Josh Hart. Maybe it’s because he’s a sleepy-eyed, doughy land warrior-of-a-point guard and never, ever does anything flashy and simply cares more about winning than the attention that comes with it.
Whatever the case is, the improvement that Jalen Brunson has made this season has been one of the more overlooked story lines in college basketball this season. After a stellar, 22-point, 10-assists performance in a 22-point win at Seton Hall on Saturday – one that saw Brunson shoot a perfect 7-for-7 from the floor – the sophomore is averaging 14.6 points and 4.5 assists for the Wildcats this season.
He’s the engine that makes Villanova go. He’s the reason that the Wildcats haven’t missed Ryan Arcidiacono all that much this season. He’ll probably end up being the Big East Player of the Year at some point before his career comes to an end, and it’s all from a guy who looks like he’s moving about as quick as I do on a basketball court.
One NBA scout told me over the summer that Brunson is the “smartest player that I’ve ever scouted.”
And while he may not be the physical specimen that Dennis Smith Jr. or Lonzo Ball is, he’s pretty doggone talented, too.
2. There will be no team more battle-tested than Kansas in March: The Jayhawks have won 12 games in the Big 12, and at this point, that is basically enough to crown them the Big 12 champs for 13th straight season. Nine of them are by seven points or less. Seven are by five points or less. They came from 14 points down in the final three minutes to beat West Virginia. They won at Baylor in a game they trailed by 12. They beat Kentucky on the road by six points. They beat Duke by two. They lost to Indiana in overtime.
Some of that is luck – Svi’s travel against Kansas State, the legal illegal screen at Texas Tech – but a lot of it is some combination of talent, mental toughness and Bill Self. The bottom-line is this: No one will be more prepared to handle a close game in March than Kansas because no one has been through more this season than the Jayhawks.
3. Who you got in the ACC Player of the Year race?: Because it’s not easy to pick someone.
Let’s start with Luke Kennard, who is probably the most likely player from the league to earn a spot on an all-american team. But so much of his work was done early on in the season, before the start of conference play, which would bring us to Donovan Mitchell, who has been just sensational over the course of the last month, helping to buoy the Cardinals despite the fact that they spent quite a bit of time playing without both of the point guards on their roster. But then there is Justin Jackson, who has played the best basketball of his career in league play this year and is the best player on the team that currently looks primed to win the conference regular season title outright.
Those three are probably the favorites.
But what about Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson, whose ability to star at the four in the ACC despite standing just 6-foot-5 is astonishing. Or Wake Forest’s John Collins, who has gone for at least 20 points in ten straight games and has notched a double-double in six of those ten games. Or Dennis Smith Jr., who is putting up crazy numbers for a terrible team.
I’d lean Jackson over Mitchell and Kennard at this point, but I change my mind almost daily.
4. Tell me what to make of Wichita State: I’m at a loss.
On the one hand, they’re 25-4 on the season and straight steamrolling teams in the Missouri Valley. They beat Illinois State by 41 points. They beat Northern Iowa, who had won eight of nine entering the game, by 29 points. They’re rated 13th by KenPom.com, and they’re coached by a man named Gregg Marshall, maybe you’ve heard of him. That has cache.
But their only top 100 win on the season is Illinois State, whose only top 50 win on the season in Wichita State. The Shockers lost Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker to graduation, and the Valley, as a whole, isn’t the league that it’s been in the past.
So they’re good, right?
I think we can all agree on that.
But just how good? Try and find a way to cogently answer that question.
5. Injuries just keep piling up this season: On Saturday, it was Michigan State’s Eron Harris who suffered a nasty-looking knee injury that turned out to be a season-ender, joining a list that already includes teammates Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter. That happened about 90 minutes before Georgia star forward Yante Maten suffered what the team termed a knee sprain just 90 seconds into a game against Kentucky, a win the Bulldogs desperately needed. That happened the same week that Florida center John Egbunu went down for the season with a torn ACL and North Carolina announced that guard Kenny Williams will likely miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.
Oklahoma’s Jordan Woodard tore his ACL. Virginia Tech’s Chris Clarke tore his ACL. Kansas center Udoka Azubuike had season-ending surgery on his wrist. Villanova’s Phil Booth hasn’t played since the third game of the year. UConn lost Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert for the season.
Oh, there’s more.
It’s not just the volume of players. Look at these names: Indiana lost O.G. Anunoby to a season-ending knee injury. Creighton lost their all-american point guard Mo Watson to a torn ACL just a few weeks before Xavier star point guard Edmond Sumner tore his. Arizona’s Ray Smith tore his ACL for the third time in the preseason and retired. Harry Giles III had his third knee surgery in the preseason and still isn’t close to healthy.
Two weeks ago it looked like it was over, for both Arkansas and Mike Anderson.
The Razorbacks capped a stretch where they lost three of four games by getting smacked at home by Vanderbilt and losing to Missouri. They looked like a longshot to get into the tournament, not necessarily because they didn’t have the profile to earn an at-large bid at the time, but because any team that can lose at Missouri can lose to anyone, anywhere, any time.
Missing the tournament could very well be the end of Anderson’s tenure with Arkansas. There’s a reason he was on just about every hot seat list entering the season, and it looked like Arkansas was on the verge of fulfilling that prophecy.
Until this week.
On Wednesday, went into Columbia and knocked off No. 21 South Carolina in a win that should give them some breathing room on the right side of the bubble, following that up with a drubbing of Ole miss in Fayetteville.
Nothing is certain yet, not for a team capable of losing to Missouri, but as of today, the Razorbacks have gotten into the dance, likely, saved their coach’s job.
Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have themselves a bad week, coming back from 14 points down in the final three minutes to force overtime in a win over No. 9 West Virginia. They followed that up by coming back from six points down in the final three minutes to knock off No. 4 Baylor in Waco. Through it all, they managed to all-but lock up their 13th straight Big 12 regular season title.
Minnesota: We might as well lock the Gophers into a tournament bid at this point, and they’ll probably end up getting a higher seed than you may realize, thanks to close wins over both Indiana and Michigan this week. We’ll know a lot more about them in the next two weeks, however, as they have to visit both Maryland and Wisconsin before the season is out.
UCLA: The Bruins snapped a four-game losing streak against intra-city rival USC on Saturday, and they did it in statement fashion, winning by 32. UCLA put up 102 points on the Trojans, outscoring them by 22 points and doing a fair bit of showboating down the stretch. There was a point to be made in this game, and Steve Alford’s club accomplished that.
UNC: The Tar Heels made a statement on Saturday night during Gameday, mollywhopping No. 14 Virginia to the tune of a 65-41 win that didn’t ever feel that close. Their defense showed up, Virginia did not. And if that wasn’t enough, they beat N.C. State bad enough on Wednesday that the Wolfpack fired their head coach.
VCU: The Rams have now won eight straight games after beating Saint Joe’s and winning at Richmond, VCU’s intra-city rival, on Friday night. One of those wins was against St. Bonaventure, when they won thanks to a premature court storm, and one of those wins was against George Washington, when they won thanks to a questionable foul call with 0.4 seconds left, but it doesn’t matter. VCU has played their way into the tournament either way.
Lauri Markkanen entered this week mired in an awful slump.
Over the course of his last four games, he was shooting 20 percent from the floor and 25 percent from three. He hadn’t scored more than eight points in any of the four games and, frankly, looked nothing like the seven-footer who had drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki as he averaged 15.4 points and shot 45.7 percent from three.
That was until the Wildcats had to play against the Washington schools.
With Dusan Ristic and Kadeem Allen both battling injury, Markkanen played some of his best basketball of the season, averaging 22.5 points and 12.0 boards in the two wins. The most promising part of it is that Markannen was more than willing to change his game, going away from being a perimeter oriented player to anchoring Arizona’s post offense. On the season, roughly 45 percent of Markannen’s field goals come from beyond the arc. This past week, just six of the 30 shots he attempted were three-balls.
Yes, it came against Washington State and Washington.
But that’s not what matters here.
What matters is that Lauri got his groove back and Sean Miller figured out that he has another option to work the post if Ristic gets himself into foul trouble or sprains an ankle during the NCAA tournament.
Mike Daum, South Dakota State: Daum went for 51 points and 15 boards, hitting seven threes as a 6-foot-9 forward, as the Jackrabbits beat Fort Wayne on Saturday. That came on the heels of a 26-point performance during the week. Daum is the first player to score 51 points in a game since … South Dakota State’s own Nate Wolters in 2013.
Frank Mason, Kansas: Mason played just about his best game of the season on Saturday, finishing with 23 points and eight assists as the Jayhawks went into Waco and knocked off No. 4 Baylor. That came on the heels of a 24-point, 5-assists, 4-rebound performance in Monday’s comeback win over No. 9 West Virginia.
Jayson Tatum, Duke: Tatum had 19 points and seven boards in Duke’s win over Wake Forest on Saturday, but his most impressive performance came on Wednesday night, when he had 28 points and eight boards – including three game-changing threes in the final five minutes – as the Blue Devils landed an impressive road win over No. 14 Virginia.
Markus Howard, Marquette: Howard went for 34 points and tied a Marquette record by hitting nine threes on Saturday night as the Golden Eagles landed a statement, 22-point win over Xavier. That win may be enough to get Marquette into the NCAA tournament.
Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall: Carrington went for a career-high 41 points and seven assists as the Pirates landed a critical win over No. 20 Creighton last week, one that could be enough to get Seton Hall into the tournament. He also had a team-high 22 points in the loss to Villanova on Saturday.
College Basketball Talk Top 25: So what do we do with Baylor and Virginia right now?
The big question this week is what to do with Baylor and what to do with Virginia.
With Baylor, it’s pretty clear: They’re still a top ten team, but as of today, they’re just not playing as well as they were earlier in the season. They’ve lost four of their last six games, but it’s not like they were embarrassed in any of the four. They came back and had three shots to win or force overtime in their loss at home to Kansas State. They lost at Texas Tech, who very nearly beat Kansas in that same gym. They got swept by Kansas, turning the ball over when they had a chance to force overtime at Phog Allen Fieldhouse and losing by two at home after their best guard, Manu Lecomte, injured himself midway through the second half.
What’s that tell us?
Baylor isn’t some dominant team. But there is no dominant team anywhere this season, and while Baylor has been on the wrong end of some bad luck and a couple poor finishes, they’re still the same Baylor they’ve been all season. They’ll get this thing turned around soon enough.
Virginia is a different story. They’ve now lost three in a row and five of their last seven games, falling all the way off the pace in the ACC title race. The Wahoos, however, are in much more trouble than Baylor because they simply are running out of ways to score. They had 44 points with two minutes left in their loss to Duke. They managed just 41 points in their loss to North Carolina.
But here’s the question that needs to be asked: Is Virginia struggling because they aren’t good enough to win a game or two in March, or is this a direct result of having to play Duke and North Carolina in back-to-back games?
Syracuse was unable to cap off a thrilling comeback on Sunday night due, in large part, to the fact that Tyler Roberson was called for an illegal screen with 16 seconds left in the game and the Orange down just two points.
They had gone on a 20-9 run in the previous four minutes to close the deficit, and had gotten a stop in order to get the ball on that possession.
But here’s the thing: The call was, to put it politely, controversial. I don’t think that Tyler Roberson committed a foul here.