Late Night Snacks: Seton Hall’s win over No. 3 Villanova highlights busy Thursday

Leave a comment

GAME OF THE DAY: Seton Hall 64, No. 3 Villanova 63

Conventional wisdom has three of the four one-seeds in the NCAA tournament spoken for, with Arizona, Florida and Wichita State being the teams occupying those spots. The fourth? That’s anyone’s guess at this point, and Villanova is seen as one of the possible options. But the Wildcats didn’t help themselves on Thursday afternoon, falling to eight-seed Seton Hall on a Sterling Gibbs jumper as time expired. Does this mean Villanova won’t get that one seed? The answer will depend on what happens in other conference tournaments, with multiple candidates still in action.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

1) No. 10 Kansas 77, Oklahoma State 70 (OT) 

Playing without center Joel Embiid the Jayhawks needed an extra five minutes to beat the Cowboys, with Andrew Wiggins leading the way. Wiggins finished with 30 points, eight rebounds and three assists, continuing his recent run of excellent play. Wayne Selden Jr. added 14 points for Kansas, which takes on No. 16 Iowa State in a Big 12 semifinal. Le’Bryan Nash led four Oklahoma State players in double figures with 19 points.

2) Colorado 59, California 56

A 19-6 first half run gave the Buffaloes some needed separation, and Tad Boyle’s team will get a third shot at No. 4 Arizona on Friday. Askia Booker scored 17 points and Xavier Talton added 13 for Colorado, which looks to be on its way to the NCAA tournament as a result of this win. As for Cal, the Golden Bears lost five of their last seven to end the season and may have gone from being a tournament lock in February to the Postseason NIT.

3) Providence 79, St. John’s 74

With Bryce Cotton struggling with foul trouble the Friars needed someone to step up against St. John’s. Enter Josh Fortune, who scored 24 points to lead Providence to an important win at the Big East tournament. Four starters finished in double figures for Ed Cooley’s team, which advanced to the Big East semis and added a needed win to its NCAA tournament resume.

STARRED

1) Doug McDermott (Creighton) 

McDermott set a Big East tournament record by scoring 27 points in the first half of Creighton’s 84-62 win over DePaul. He finished the game with 35 points on 14-for-22 shooting, five rebounds and three assists.

2) Andrew Wiggins (Kansas)

Racked up 30 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals in the Jayhawks’ 77-70 overtime win over Oklahoma State in a Big 12 quarterfinal.

3) Stephen Madison (Idaho)

Accounted for 26 points and 17 rebounds in the Vandals’ 73-70 win over Kansas City in a WAC quarterfinal.

STRUGGLED

1) Rutgers 

26 turnovers, 12 made field goals and 31 points in a  61-point loss to No. 5 Louisville in an American Athletic Conference tournament quarterfinal.

2) Mike Gesell (Iowa)

Gesell shot 0-for-10 from the field in Iowa’s 67-62 loss to Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

3) UCSB

Remove Alan Williams (7-for-17 FG) and Michael Bryson (7-for-10) and the other Gauchos combined to shoot 2-for-22 in a 69-38 loss to Cal Poly in a Big West quarterfinal.

CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS

  • American: Houston upsets SMU
    Thanks to wins over three of the other four top teams in the American, SMU’s seen as a team guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament. But outside of those wins (two over UConn and one each against Cincinnati and Memphis) there isn’t much on the Mustangs’ resume, which makes their 68-64 loss to Houston concerning. Nic Moore struggled for SMU, and TaShawn Thomas made some big plays late for Houston. Top-seed Cincinnati outlasted UCF, with Louisville beating Rutgers by a stunning 61-point margin and UConn outclassing Memphis.
  • Atlantic 10: Dayton, UMass avoid bad losses
    UMass is in good shape with regards to the NCAA tournament but a loss to rival Rhode Island likely would have impacted their seeding. The Minutemen won 65-61, joining Dayton (an 87-74 winner over Fordham) in avoiding a damaging result. The other winners on Thursday were St. Bonaventure (over La Salle) and Richmond (over Duquesne).
  • ACC: Bojanovsky’s dunk ends Maryland’s ACC tenure
    Maryland won’t officially move to the Big Ten until July 1, but a Boris Bojanovsky dunk with four tenths of a second remaining ended the Terrapins’ 61-year run in the conference. Florida State advances to play Virginia, and that game represents a great opportunity for the Seminoles. The other winners in Greensboro: Pittsburgh (over Wake Forest), N.C. State (over Miami) and Clemson (an overtime win over Georgia Tech).
  • Big 12: Baylor keeps rolling
    Scott Drew’s Bears have won nine of their last ten games, the most recent being a 78-73 win over Oklahoma in Kansas City. Next up for Baylor is Texas, which beat a West Virginia team that match up with very well for the third time this season. Kansas and Iowa State will meet in the other semifinal.
  • Big East: Xavier holds off Marquette
    How much work Xavier still had to do entering Thursday’s games was unknown, but their 68-65 win over Marquette certainly doesn’t hurt the Musketeers’ chances of receiving an at-large bid. Xavier will play two-seed Creighton in the semis, with the Bluejays beating DePaul 84-62. Seton Hall and Providence will meet in the first semifinal.
  • Big Sky: Portland State, Northern Colorado and North Dakota advance
    The Big Sky race was highly competitive this season and the first day of the conference tournament didn’t disappoint either. Portland State eliminated reigning champion Montana, joining Northern Colorado and North Dakota in the semifinals. Next up for the Vikings is top seed Weber State, which received a bye into the semifinals. Northern Colorado and North Dakota will meet in the other semifinal.
  • Big Ten: Northwestern drops Iowa
    The Hawkeyes have now lost six of their last seven games, and they’ll be limping into the NCAA tournament as a result. Northwestern won 67-62 with Tre Demps scoring 20 points and Drew Crawford 15. The other winners on Thursday were Illinois (over Indiana), No. 24 Ohio State (over Purdue) and Minnesota (over Penn State). The Golden Gophers are on the bubble, so earning a shot at Wisconsin can help their case if they take advantage.
  • Big West: Cal Poly steamrolls UCSB
    UCSB finished second in the Big West with a 12-4 conference record and had the look of a team capable of reaching the title game. Cal Poly had other ideas, beating the Gauchos 69-38. Next up for the Mustangs is top seed UC Irvine, which beat UC Riverside 63-43. Long Beach State and Cal-State Northridge will meet in the other semifinal, with the Matadors coming back to beat Hawaii 87-84 in overtime.
  • Conference USA: Southern Miss eliminates host UTEP
    Of the four teams that finished tied atop the C-USA standings Southern Miss drew the toughest quarterfinal matchup, with host UTEP being the opponent. Donnie Tyndall’s team took care of business, beating the Miners 64-56 to advance to the semifinals where they’ll play top-seed Louisiana Tech. The other winners on Thursday were Tulsa and Middle Tennessee.
  • MAC: Eastern Michigan wins again
    The Eagles are headed to the MAC semifinals after beating three-seed Buffalo, 69-64. Karrington Ward scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds for EMU, but the big story was the fact that the Eagles limited Javon McCrea to 2-for-13 shooting. They’ll take on two-seed Toledo in the semifinals, with Akron advancing to face top-seed Western Michigan on the other side of the bracket.
  • MEAC: No surprises on Thursday
    Coppin State’s win over Hampton on Wednesday was the only upset in the quarterfinals, with Morgan State and Norfolk State advancing on Thursday. Morgan State, which beat Florida A&M, will take on Coppin State Friday with the other semifinal matching Norfolk State and regular season champion North Carolina Central.
  • Mountain West: Preseason top four advance to the semifinals
    They didn’t finish the way the coaches expected them to back in October, but Boise State, New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV are all in the semis of the Mountain West tournament. Boise State beat three-seed Nevada, advancing to take on New Mexico with SDSU and UNLV in the other semifinal.
  • Pac-12: No. 4 Arizona, UCLA and Stanford roll
    Colorado’s win over California was the only result to provide any drama in Las Vegas, with No. 4 Arizona whipping Utah, UCLA dropping 82 points on Oregon and Stanford beating three-seed Arizona State by 21. Arizona and Colorado will meet in one semifinal, with UCLA and Stanford meeting in Friday’s nightcap.
  • SEC: Arkansas may have punched its ticket…to the NIT
    Arkansas has two wins over Kentucky on its resume, and after a 71-69 loss to South Carolina Mike Anderson’s team will find out just how much value there is in those wins. Missouri managed to escape a similar fate, beating Texas A&M in double overtime, with LSU and Ole Miss being the other winners on Thursday. The top four seeds, Florida, Kentucky, Georgia and Kentucky, begin play Friday.
  • Southland: Northwestern State, Sam Houston State advance
    There were no surprises in the quarterfinals, as Northwestern State handled Nicholls State and Sam Houston State beat Oral Roberts. Next up for the Demons is top-seed Stephen F. Austin, with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi awaiting Sam Houston State.
  • Sun Belt: UT-Arlington, UALR advance
    UT-Arlington and UALR advanced to the quarterfinals with wins over UL Monroe and Troy, respectively. Next up for the Mavericks is four-seed Arkansas State, and UALR will play three-seed Louisiana in the other quarterfinal. The top two seeds, Georgia State and Western Kentucky, have byes to the semifinals.
  • SWAC: Alabama A&M eliminates Arkansas-Pine Bluff
    Just one team ineligible for postseason play remained alive in the SWAC at the start of play on Thursday, but that would change with Alabama A&M’s win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff. As a result of that outcome the remaining four teams are all eligible to play in the NCAA tournament, sparing the conference some embarrassment. Alabama A&M takes on Prairie View A&M in one semifinal, with Texas Southern and Alabama State meeting in the other.
  • WAC: Two-seed New Mexico State survives
    New Mexico State was the preseason pick to win the WAC, and they remain alive thanks to a 70-68 win over Seattle. Regular season champ Utah Valley advanced with a comfortable win over UTPA, with five-seed Idaho and six-seed Bakersfield joining them in the semifinals. Utah Valley and Idaho will meet in one semifinal, with NMSU and Bakerfield meeting in the other.

Team of the Week: North Carolina Tar Heels

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

No. 7 North Carolina went into Knoxville on Sunday afternoon and picked off a good, scrappy No. 20 Tennessee team in front of a raucous crowd in a game where they did not even play all that well.

The win pushed the Tar Heels to 10-1 on the season, and it easily their most impressive victory to date.

There are a lot of things about this North Carolina team that I don’t like. They really only have one proven offensive weapon, depending on how you view Luke Maye. They are a program built on having a frontline that is better than their opponent’s frontline, but this year have to rely on a stretchy-four in Maye and a trio of freshmen that may or may not actually be ready to play at this level. I’m not convinced they have the three-point shooting they need, either.

But here we are, nearly six weeks into the season, and the Tar Heels have just a single loss to their name – which came against Michigan State – and just picked up a win at Tennessee. Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks appear to be growing into the roles that they are being asked to play. Maye has looked like an all-american for the most part. They’re shooting 40 percent from three on the season. They’re defending.

And, as a result, they’re winning.

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Rutgers: Saturday could not have gone much better for the Rutgers program. They erased a 13-point deficit and came back from nine points down with six minutes left as they won for the first time in four games against in-state rival and No. 15 Seton Hall. They closed the game on a 17-2 run to land the biggest win of the Steve Pikiell era, and they did it in front of a packed house at the RAC. They picked a good day to prove too their fan base that their is something to be excited about with this team.
  • Oklahoma: The Sooners made a statement on Saturday, going into Wichita and knocking off the Shockers in impressive fashion. They were up by 15 points at halftime and never were truly threatened in the second half.
  • Kentucky: For the first time since the fifth day of the season, Kentucky played a game against a team that was actually relevant, beating Virginia Tech, 93-86, in what turned out to be a shootout in Rupp Arena on Saturday afternoon. The most important part of that win wasn’t the win itself; it was the fact that Kentucky went 11-for-22 from three in the process. Their ability to make perimeter shots has, clearly, been the major question mark with this group, and while they still need to prove they can be consistent, making it clear that they are at least capable of shooting like this matters.
  • Indiana: Archie Miller landed the first marquee win of his tenure, as his Indiana team overcame a 14-point first half deficit and an eight-point deficit with just over two minutes remaining to knock off No. 18 Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic. Performances like this is why Miller was hired for this job.
  • Cincinnati: After losing two straight, capped by a loss to Florida in the Never Forget Classic last weekend, the Bearcats bounced back with a pair of solid wins this week. They handed Mississippi State their first loss of the season on Tuesday and followed that up with a win over UCLA in Pauley Pavilion on Saturday.

Player of the Week: Juwan Morgan, Indiana

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Juwan Morgan made Bankers Life Fieldhouse his home on Saturday afternoon.

Not only did he post a career-high 34 points to go along with his 11 rebounds against No. 18 Notre Dame, but he did the majority of his damage in crunch time. Morgan scored the final 12 points in regulation for Indiana, points that came as the Hoosiers erased an eight-point deficit in the final two minutes and change. Morgan then scored eight of Indiana’s 15 points in overtime, including four points in the final 11 seconds.

Indiana trailed by three with 11 seconds left on the clock when Morgan was fouled on a layup. He missed the free throw, but Indiana grabbed an offensive rebound and it wound up in Morgan’s hands, whose dunk was the game-winning basket.

There was more meaning to this win than simply beating a top 20 in-state rival.

Archie Miller is still in the process of building a program in Bloomington. He’s developing a brand, so to speak, and while his team is still going to be at a talent-deficit more often than not, this is tangible evidence that things are trending in the right direction. Miller’s Dayton programs were built around versatile and under-sized forwards and tough defense.

That’s what we saw on Saturday from Indiana.

THE ALL-‘THEY WERE GOOD, TOO’ TEAM

  • TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma: Young continued what has been a sensational season to date, scoring 21 of his 29 points and handing out seven of his 10 assists in the first half as the Sooners paid a visit to No. 3 Wichita State and left with a statement victory. The Sooners were up by 15 at halftime and threw it into cruise control in the second half.
  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: After a week full of criticisms for the inability of this Kansas team to find a way to get the ball into the paint, the Jayhawks finally did. Azubuike finished with 26 points on 13-for-17 shooting to go along with 10 boards and a game-saving block as the Jayhawks escaped a trip to Nebraska with a 73-72 win.
  • RAWLE ALKINS, Arizona: We finally got a glimpse of what Arizona was missing without Alkins in the lineup, as he went for 26 points on 11 field goal attempts to go along with five boards and a pair of assists. Arizona cruised to a win at New Mexico despite the fact that Allonzo Trier took just nine shots and Deandre Ayton scored just 14 points.
  • OSHAE BRISSETT, Syracuse: Brissett set a pair of career-highs in Syracuse come-from-behind win over arch-rival Georgetown on Saturday. The Orange were down by 13 points in the second half. Brissett scored 24 of his 25 points and grabbed 10 of his 14 rebounds in the second half and overtime.
  • COREY SANDERS, Rutgers: Sanders finished with 22 points – including a huge jumper with a minute left to put the Scarlet Knights up 67-63 – as Steve Pikiell and Rutgers landed their biggest win, coming from nine down with six minutes left to beat their biggest in-state rival, No. 15 Seton Hall.

College Basketball Power Rankings: Wichita State’s loss, Oklahoma’s gain, and ‘why Arizona?’

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
Leave a comment

It seemed like this was going to be a pretty straight-forward week for the Power Rankings … until Saturday happened, and five top 25 teams lost to unranked opponents.

The toughest one to figure out what to do with was Wichita State, who dropped all the way down to No. 16 from No. 3. They currently sit one spot behind Oklahoma, who beat them in Wichita on Saturday. Ranking the Shockers is a difficult thing to do at this point in the schedule, mainly because what we see on the floor from them doesn’t exactly jibe with what we assume that program to be.

They have not been themselves defensively through the first six weeks of the season. Or maybe they have and they just aren’t as good on that end of the floor as we assumed they would be. However you slice, the bottom-line is this: If Wichita State is not among the nation’s elite defensively they are not going to be in the conversation with Villanova, Michigan State and Duke as one of college basketball’s best. They just don’t have the horsepower on the other end of the floor.

The ranking that I got the most push-back on last week was putting Arizona at No. 6. They’re at No. 5 this week, up a spot after Wichita State dropped out. My reasoning is this: I am generally going to bet on talent, and rare will be the night when Arizona is not the most talented team on the floor. How many teams in the country will they play where Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton are not the two-best players on the floor? Maybe five? Ten, tops? And of those five-to-ten teams, I don’t think a single one of them can claim that they have two of the three best players on the floor.

And now they have Rawle Alkins back, who just went for 26 points on 11 shots at New Mexico.

Since the disaster in the Bahamas, Arizona has won five straight. They won at UNLV. They won a semi-home game against a very good Texas A&M team. They beat Alabama. They handled New Mexico fairly easily in The Pit. In a year where everyone has warts, I’m fine being the first one to say that those three games in Atlantis were just one of those weird things that happen in college basketball.

Anyway, here are this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Villanova, 10-0 (Last Week: No. 1)
2. Michigan State, 10-1 (2)
3. Miami, 9-0 (3)
4. Duke, 11-1 (5)
5. Arizona, 8-3 (6)
6. Arizona State, 10-0 (7)
7. Texas A&M, 9-1 (8)
8. North Carolina, 10-1 (12)
9. Xavier, 10-1 (9)
10. West Virginia, 9-1 (10)
11. Purdue, 11-2 (16)
12. Gonzaga, 9-2 (14)
13. Kansas, 7-2 (13)
14. Kentucky, 9-1 (17)
15. Oklahoma, 8-1 (19)
16. Wichita State, 8-2 (3)
17. Seton Hall, 9-2 (11)
18. Virginia, 9-1 (18)
19. TCU, 10-0 (25)
20. Notre Dame, 8-3 (15)
21. Cincinnati, 9-2 (23)
22. Tennessee, 7-2 (20)
23. Texas Tech, 9-1 (24)
24. Baylor, 9-2 (NR)
25. Arkansas, 8-2 (NR)

NEW ADDITIONS: 24. Baylor, 25. Arkansas

DROPPED OUT: 21. Florida State, 22. Florida

No. 5 Arizona State rallies to beat Vanderbilt 76-64

David Becker/Getty Images
Leave a comment

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State came out flat, missing shots, tossing balls into the stands, allowing open 3-pointers.

The No. 5 team in the country? The Sun Devils looked more like they should be unranked, not among college basketball’s elite.

In a matter of minutes, it all changed. Arizona State forced turnovers, got out on the break and dropped in 3-pointers to keep the crowd on its feet.

Once the Sun Devils get rolling like this, there’s no stopping them.

Tra Holder scored 25 points, Shannon Evans II added 15 and No. 5 Arizona State overcame a dismal start with a massive halftime-spanning run to beat Vanderbilt 76-64 on Sunday. The Sun Devils improved to 10-0 for the first time in their history.

“We had the bursts and it’s great we took the game from a one-two possession game and all of a sudden it’s mid-doubles,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “It happens fast.”

Arizona State built a national buzz with last week’s road win over Kansas and its highest ranking in 36 years.

The Sun Devils looked nothing like the team that won at Allen Fieldhouse early against Vanderbilt (3-7), falling into a 13-0 hole. Once one of the nation’s most explosive teams finally came to life, Vanderbilt had no chance.

Sharp at both ends, Arizona State used a 26-3 run spanning halftime to turn what started out as an embarrassing performance into a runaway that had Wells Fargo Arena the loudest it’s been all season.

Mickey Mitchell provided the Sun Devils a spark off the bench, playing solid defense while grabbing 13 rebounds. Arizona State hit 14 of 28 shots in the second half to remain one of the nation’s four undefeated teams.

Saben Lee had 24 points to lead Vanderbilt, which shot 4 of 30 from 3-point range.

“We’re a small team, like ASU, and we have to make 3s,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said.

Following last Sunday’s 10-point win over then-No. 2 Kansas, the Sun Devils moved up to No. 5, their highest ranking since being No. 3 in 1980-81, and received five first-place votes in the Top 25, a program first.

Suddenly, they were a trendy pick to make a Final Four. Hurley was being touted as a national coach of the year candidate by the coach of Arizona State’s biggest rival. A buzz spread across the Valley of the Sun and beyond about the program being touted as “Guard U.”

The spotlight appeared to be too bright for the Sun Devils early against Vanderbilt.

Disjointed and struggling with double teams in the post, Arizona State had five turnovers in the game’s opening five minutes. The Sun Devils didn’t score until Romello White’s layup at 14:49, and the fans who were rowdy long before tipoff groaned with each miscue.

“We were knocking down shots and they were missing at the beginning,” Lee said.

Then Arizona State got back to playing the way it had to open the season.

The Sun Devils harassed the Commodores into difficult shots late in the shot clock and jumped into passing lanes to create turnovers. Shots missed earlier at the rim started going in, and they made a couple of late 3-pointers after missing their first nine.

Holder had one of those 3s, dropping a deep one at the halftime buzzer that put Arizona State up 30-29.

The Sun Devils kept the engine revving in the second half, scoring 12 straight points to push the lead to 49-31. Vanderbilt made one push, but got no closer than 12.

“We were just a little rusty. We had a long week off,” said Holder, who made all 11 of his free throws. “But we got back to our groove.”

BIG PICTURE

Vanderbilt showed it can play with highly-ranked teams in the opening 10 minutes. The final 30 showed the Commodores still have plenty of work to do before the SEC season starts.

Arizona State looked like the No. 5 team in the country after its shaky start and could move up in Monday’s poll after No. 3 Wichita State lost.

LEE’S HOMECOMING

Lee grew up in Arizona and played at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, so Sunday’s game was a homecoming of sorts.

The freshman guard is Vanderbilt’s assist leader with 34 and made 9 of 14 shots to set a career high in points.

“It was pretty weird, knowing that I watched a lot of games here and now I’m going against them,” Lee said. “But it was a good experience..”

UP NEXT

Vanderbilt hosts Houston Baptist on Wednesday.

Arizona State hosts Longwood on Tuesday.

Illinois State’s Dan Muller pleaded for a tougher schedule on Twitter and got it

(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

Finishing the regular season at 27-6 wasn’t good enough to get Illinois State into last season’s NCAA tournament.

Although the Redbirds shared the Missouri Valley Conference title with Wichita State and split a regular-season series against the nationally-ranked Shockers, the NCAA tournament selection committee left Illinois State in the cold for an at-large bid on Selection Sunday.

The major reason: schools from power conferences continually refuse to schedule quality mid-major opponents like Illinois State. The Redbirds only played TCU from a “Power 5” conference during non-conference play last season. A road loss to the Horned Frogs didn’t do Illinois State much good in the eyes of the committee.

So Illinois State head coach Dan Muller took an interesting approach to generating a more respectable non-conference schedule. Muller took to Twitter and fully utilized his bitmoji game to call out programs from bigger conferences. His goal was to get the NCAA tournament selection committee’s attention with how tough it is for mid-major programs to schedule bigger schools. Muller also hoped the Redbirds could secure a home-and-home series against legitimate, power-conference competition.

“It got a lot of play. I thought it would go national. I didn’t think it would get as big as it got,” Muller said to NBCSports.com. “I got interviews across the country, some TV stuff, and a lot of responses from coaches, friends. A lot of them said it was hilarious. A lot of them said it was great. My point was to emphasize the difficulty in how the selection committee wants schools like us to do [things].”

Muller’s plea quickly went viral. More importantly, Muller’s plea actually worked.

Ole Miss was interested in making a home-and-home deal with the Redbirds. The two programs literally started the series with a very public back-and-forth on Twitter. There was a previous connection between the schools as Torrey Ward had been an assistant coach with both programs. Ward was tragically killed in a plane crash after the 2015 Final Four while he was the associate head coach of the Redbirds.

“It was all public, to be honest. What you saw is how it started,” Muller said of the series. “Rob Bjork, the AD at Ole Miss, tweeted back to me and I hit him back. I’ve known Andy Kennedy for a long time. Obviously there’s a very close acquaintance and friend we’ve got in Torrey Ward — so we had a connection there. That’s why AK wanted to do it. So, we’re grateful and appreciative.”

The two programs started the home-and-home series in Oxford on Saturday as Ward was honored with a video tribute from Ole Miss before the game. Ward’s family was also in attendance — including his mother, ex-wife and two children.

“It was great to see [Ward’s family],” Muller said. “We honored Torrey before the game and I know that was a big part of what Andy wanted to do.”

Besides for the heartwarming gesture in honoring a fallen friend, the game was also beneficial for Illinois State because they earned an overtime win, on the road, against an SEC opponent. Muller’s plan actually worked. The Redbirds have tried to answer the committee this season by playing a top-20 non-conference schedule. Unfortunately, Illinois State isn’t currently in position to earn a potential at-large bid after a sluggish 5-6 start.

But the Valley appears to be wide open now that Wichita State has ascended into the American Athletic Conference. Illinois State has been missing two key members of its rotation for nearly the entire season. Muller is optimistic that the tough non-conference schedule has properly prepared the Redbirds for the conference slate. The race for the Valley’s at-large bid is still going to be tight.

“We’re getting better; we have a lot of talent. We’re building our depth. But we’ve got to be healthy,” Muller said. “If, and when, we’re healthy, I really do think we’ll have a chance to be right there in the end.”

Even if Illinois State falls short of the NCAA tournament this season, Muller has laid the groundwork for another competitive non-conference schedule for next season. Always an aggressive coach when it comes to scheduling, Muller and the Redbirds have some solid opponents like Ole Miss, BYU and Florida Gulf Coast coming to campus next season. Arizona State also called to show interest in a potential home-and-home series with Illinois State. The two programs couldn’t figure out a date to make things work but it served as a reminder that Muller’s tweet was working.

What started as a plea to the NCAA tournament selection committee has turned into an unexpected boon to Illinois State’s scheduling practices. Muller acknowledged that he doesn’t prefer to use Twitter. But Muller might have to bring out his popular bitmoji character more often if it continues to lead to results like this.