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Bubble Banter: A look at who has helped and hurt their tournament cause

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To see the latest NBC Sports bracket projection, click here.

WINNERS

Miami (RPI: 66, KenPom: 42, first four out): Entering Saturday, Miami had the kind of schedule that’s difficult to judge: they had no bad losses on the season, but their best win was either at Pitt or over N.C. State at home. That’s not much to go on. But on Saturday, the Hurricanes blew out North Carolina in Coral Gables, landing what will likely be a top 10-15 win on Selection Sunday. For ACC teams trying to get an at-large bid, all they’ll need to do is protect their home court.

Georgia Tech (RPI: 73, KenPom: 76, No. 11 seed): At this point, we shouldn’t be talking about Georgia Tech as a team that’s on the bubble, because as of today, the Yellow Jackets are in the NCAA tournament, and pretty comfortably, too. Look at this group of wins Josh Pastner has amassed in his first season in Atlanta: at VCU, North Carolina, Clemson, at N.C. State, Florida State and, after today, Notre Dame. The Tar Heels, Seminoles and Fighting Irish are the three teams currently sitting at the top of the ACC standings. Tech’s only “bad” loss at at home against Ohio, who was a contender in the MAC until they lost their best player for the season.

Tennessee (RPI: 46, KenPom: 43, next four out): The Vols backed up their win over Kentucky on Tuesday by knocking off a good Kansas State team in Knoxville. Tennessee still has some work left to do to make up for some of their poor early season performances, but this win is going to look better as the season moves closer to March.

Oklahoma State (RPI: 41, KenPom: 27, bubble): The Cowboys have such a weird profile. They put together a pretty good non-conference schedule but managed to lose their first six games in Big 12 play. But three straight wins, capped by a blowout win at Arkansas, keeps them in the bubble picture. Eight wins in conference play might be enough.

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 13: Head coach Josh Pastner of the Memphis Tigers calls a play during the Final of the 2016 AAC Basketball Tournament against the Connecticut Huskies at Amway Center on March 13, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Head coach Josh Pastner (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Clemson (RPI: 50, KenPom: 33, first four out): The Tigers picked up a nice bounce-back win at Pitt, getting them their second win in league play against another program sitting on the bubbly’s cut-line. A loss would have hurt much more than a win helps, but this is a start.

Texas Tech (RPI: 69, KenPom: 41, No. 11 seed): The Red Raiders were probably the biggest loser in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Getting a road game against LSU does nothing to help them with a him. In fact, playing that game probably hurts their computer numbers.

Middle Tennessee State (RPI: 45, KenPom: 48, No. 9 seed): The Blue Raiders remained perfect in Conference USA play with a win over Louisiana Tech. I’d recommend going undefeated in the regular season if they want to feel comfortable about an at-large bid.

Utah (RPI: 59, KenPom: 36, bubble): The Utes picked up a win over a bad Oregon State team on Saturday, but the loss that really hurt them was falling at home to Oregon on Thursday. Their only game against one of the top three teams in the Pac-12 remaining comes at Oregon in February.

Rhode Island (RPI: 57, KenPom: 51, bubble): Rhode Island has some work to do throughout the rest of the Atlantic 10 schedule, mostly because the Rams are not going to have many great wins to get in league play. Beating St. Bonaventure at home was almost a must-win, and they did it.

Nevada (RPI: 39, KenPom: 67, No. 12 seed): Given the relative strength of everyone else in the Mountain West, I’m not sure that Nevada can afford another loss and still get an at-large bid. They beat New Mexico today.

UT Arlington (RPI: 52, KenPom: 73, bubble): Like Nevada, UT-Arlington is in a position where they probably cannot afford to lose until their conference tournament if they’re going to get an at-large bid. Their win at Saint Mary’s is going to look phenomenal on Selection Sunday.

NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 10: Head coach Kevin Stallings of the Pittsburgh Panthers yells to his team against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the second half of a college basketball game at Prudential Center on December 10, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. Pitt defeated Penn State 81-73. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Kevin Stallings (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

LOSERS

Marquette (RPI: 43, KenPom: 31, No. 9 seed): After the Golden Eagles beat No. 1 Villanova on Tuesday, I said that Marquette should be in the NCAA tournament as long as they don’t do anything dumb the rest of the year. Losing at home to Providence qualifies as one of those dumb things. Steve Wojciechowski is still in a pretty good spot, but this loss is just going to give them that much more work to do. Tournament teams protect their home floor, especially against the bottom of their league.

Iowa State (RPI: 38, KenPom: 24, No. 9 seed): The Cyclones were in a pretty good spot entering Saturday afternoon at Vanderbilt, but they fell in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge to the Commodores. It’s a road loss, so it’s not a killer, but it does make ISU’s path to locking up an at-large bid just that much more difficult.

Kansas State (RPI: 39, KenPom: 26, No. 10 seed): Games like this are why the Wildcats are going to regret not winning those close games at Kansas and Texas Tech early this season. Tennessee is a tough team to beat at home, but they may not end up being a tournament team. On Selection Sunday, this wouldn’t have been a great win by any means, but it is another loss they’re going to have to overcome.

Minnesota (RPI: 19, KenPom: 39, No. 9 seed): Minnesota missed a chance to put themselves in a great position heading into the stretch run, losing a close game to No. 22 Maryland at home. The Golden Gophers are still in a good spot, but this was a missed opportunity.

Wake Forest (RPI: 26, KenPom: 35, play-in game): Wake blew a golden opportunity to add to their résumé, blowing a late lead to Duke at home in a game where they were clearly the best team for 39 minutes. If Duke eventually puts it all together, that result is going to sting if the Demon Deacons find themselves on the outside of the tournament picture.

TCU (RPI: 36, KenPom: 34, play-in game): The Horned Frogs took a bad loss at home to Auburn on Saturday, a loss that will probably drop them out of the tournament as of today. TCU is much-improved this season, but they need to make a late-run in league play.

Illinois (RPI: 42, KenPom: 66, bubble): The Illini have now lost four of their last five and five of their last seven after falling at Penn State today. Their last game against a top three team in the Big Ten is next week against Wisconsin.

Arkansas (RPI: 27, KenPom: 46, No. 8 seed): The Hogs are 16-5 on the season. Their best win? Tennessee. A solid record on the road is the only reason they’re in the conversation right now.

UNC Wilmington (RPI: 31, KenPom: 44, No. 10 seed): The Seahawks’ shot at getting an at-large bid is effectively gone with a loss at William & Mary today.

Pitt (RPI: 47, KenPom: 78, next four out): With a home loss to Clemson on Saturday, the Panthers are all alone in the ACC’s basement and out of bubble discussion until they land a couple of wins in a row.

Texas Tech forward Zach Smith returns to school after withdrawing from NBA Draft

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Texas Tech forward Zach Smith will return for his senior season, the school confirmed on Monday.

The 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most intriguing athletes in college basketball as he’s been a double-figure scorer for the Red Raiders the past two seasons. As a junior, Smith put up 12.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as he shot 50 percent from the field.

Three-point shooting was something that Smith improved dramatically last season as he increased it to 39 percent in a small sample size. If Smith can continue to show that he’s a perimeter shooting threat then he could be an ideal three-and-d candidate at the pro level.

By returning to Texas Tech, Smith gives head coach Chris Beard a potential all-league candidate who should be counted on to be a double-double threat next season.

 

Missouri lands five-star forward Jontay Porter

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Missouri has another member of the Porter family in the fold as forward Jontay Porter officially committed to the Tigers on Monday night.

Following in the footsteps of older brother Michael Porter Jr., and father Michael Porter Sr., Jontay is currently a member of the Class of 2018 who is rumored to be reclassifying to the Class of 2017.

A 6-foot-10 forward who was recently elevated to five-star status on Rivals.com, Porter is having a monster spring in the Nike EYBL with MoKan Elite. Porter has been one of the best players in the league, as he’s putting up 18.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

If Jontay is able to join Missouri next season then he gives the Tigers another intriguing piece to play alongside his brother Michael, who is good enough to be a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although Jontay isn’t the go-to player that his brother is, he could be a very effective SEC role player early in his career, as his ability to rebound and stretch the floor makes him an extremely intriguing piece on the floor.

Kevin Stallings is a tone-deaf clown

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Pitt guard Cameron Johnson is the most coveted transfer in college basketball this offseason.

The 6-foot-8 Johnson is coming off of a strong campaign with the Panthers in which he put up 11.9 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.

Not only is Johnson a proven double-figure scorer in a league like the ACC, but he’s eligible to play right away thanks to his graduation from Pitt. Johnson graduating from school in three years and missing one season due to injury also makes him the rare graduate transfer who has two seasons of eligibility remaining. So, not only can Johnson come in and make an immediate impact, but he’s also able to stay for another year after.

This sort of thing almost never happens, let alone with a 6-foot-8 shooter that could sway the national title race.

It’s why blueblood programs like Kentucky and UCLA are in hot pursuit of Johnson. It’s why another ACC school, reigning national champion North Carolina, is also intrigued by Johnson being on the market.

Except Johnson won’t be allowed to attend North Carolina, or any other school in the ACC, without first sitting out a season and losing one season of eligibility. At least that’s how things currently stand thanks to Pitt’s power over Johnson — despite Johnson graduating from the school and having no more formal educational ties to the school.

Here’s what Pitt said on the matter in a release to the News-Observer.

“Cameron Johnson and his father were informed of our policy as well as the appeals process when they elected to seek to transfer. They went through our transfer appeals process and were granted permission to contact ACC schools; however, the committee upheld the policy to limit immediate eligibility within the conference.

If Cameron were to transfer within the ACC, he would be eligible to receive financial aid immediately but would have to sit out a year of competition due to standard NCAA transfer regulations. Throughout this process, we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings had a peculiar interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was published about two weeks ago. During the interview, of which the full transcript was made public, Stallings went in-depth about Johnson’s transfer and the current state of college basketball. Stallings also made remarks about how the media holds programs accountable for trying to bully certain players.

Here’s a small sample of what Stallings had to say.

“But the unexpected departures are the things that are becoming more common than uncommon in college basketball. You have guys constantly trying to transfer up. You have guys going pro that have never played a minute of college basketball after they’ve sat out a year at a school. You have guys asking out of their letters of intent with frequency. We’re dealing in a landscape in college basketball right now that is as probably as difficult and peculiar as it’s ever been. It used to be if a kid signed his letter of intent and he wanted out of it, you had to play a year of junior-college ball to get out of it.

“The media didn’t basically force institutions to let people break a binding agreement. It’s kind of interesting now the media tries to put so much pressure on programs, whether it be athletic directors or coaches, saying ‘Well, the coaches can move.’ Well, hey, guess what? I’ve got a great big buyout in my deal that prevents me from moving. I’ve got something in my contract saying I can’t go to another league school. It’s not as easy for coaches to go. That’s everyone’s rationale — ‘Well, the coaches can leave.’ We’re dealing in an environment right now that is as fluid as it’s ever been. It’s just where we’re at in the whole thing with the unexpected departures.”

Stallings makes some sound points–particularly about coaches having buyouts and the general perception of coaching changes in basketball.

But Kevin Stallings mostly sounds like a tone-deaf clown here.

Nobody is going to feel sorry for a millionaire coach who willingly makes the decision to change jobs.

Nobody.

Especially if that same millionaire is comparing a choice to change jobs to the transfer decisions of unpaid student-athletes. It’s even more laughable now that Stallings is holding power over an unpaid student-athlete from going to play at another school because of purely basketball reasons.

Pitt and Stallings need to do the right thing and release Johnson to play at any school right away because Johnson has already done everything he needs to do to appease the program.

Things changed dramatically for Johnson during his three years at Pitt. He became one of the ACC’s better players and earned his degree. Johnson held up his end of the bargain when he signed his Letter of Intent.  Now Johnson just wants the chance improve his basketball future by playing with one of the nation’s elite programs.

Stallings can blame the current state of college basketball, the media, or whoever he wants for Johnson’s transfer from Pitt.

But Stallings also has to realize that he’s going to be the one who looks stupid if he continues to leave these restrictions in place for Johnson. Stallings already has a history of this sort of thing when he placed transfer restrictions on former player Sheldon Jeter. If Stallings continues to uphold transfer restrictions on Johnson, then he’s going to gain a permanent reputation in recruiting during a time when players continue to gain more freedom over their basketball futures.

If Johnson does happen to go to an ACC school like North Carolina, it’s not as if Pitt has any sort of competitive roster that is going to be fighting the Tar Heels for league supremacy during the next two seasons.

Stallings and Pitt need to just bite the bullet, let Johnson have his freedom, and hope it doesn’t come back to hurt them for one or two seasons in ACC play.

It surely beats the alternative of being labeled a head coach who limits player freedom after six players left Pitt during a single offseason. That type of burn lasts a lot longer than two years.

Presbyterian hires Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns as new head coach

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Presbyterian finally has its new head coach as the program is set to hire Wofford assistant coach Dustin Kerns, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Kerns has been an assistant at Wofford for the past seven years during his second stint with the program. Also spending six seasons as an assistant coach at Santa Clara, the Tennessee native is getting his first shot at running his own program.

Finishing last in the Big South last season at 5-25 and 1-17 in conference play, Presbyterian is trying to rebuild after head coach Gregg Nibert resigned in April. Nibert was the head coach of the Blue Hens for 28 seasons, so Kerns is going to be a completely fresh start for the program.

Tennessee lands impact graduate transfer James Daniel

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Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes earned a commitment from one of the top graduate transfers on the market on Monday when Howard guard James Daniel pledged to the Volunteers.

The 6-foot-0 Daniel was the nation’s leading scorer at 27.1 points per game his junior season in 2015-16. Daniel played in only two games last season as a left ankle injury caused him to have surgery.

With nearly 2,000 career points to his name, Daniel gives Tennessee an additional perimeter scorer who should come in and make an immediate impact right away. While Howard has low shooting percentages and a high usage rate during his time at Howard, it’ll be interesting to see how the year off and more talented teammates will alter his game.

If Howard can be a more efficient scorer in his final season, then he has a chance to be one of the better players for the Volunteers this season.