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Bubble Banter: Northwestern looks like they’re tournament bound

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

WINNERS

Northwestern (RPI: 37, KenPom: 30, No. 8 seed): At this point in the season, it’s too early to call anyone a lock for the NCAA tournament unless their school resides in a town like Spokane, Lexington or Lawrence. It’s particularly difficult to label Northwestern a lock considering that A) Their best win this season is over Wake Forest, Dayton or an Indiana team that is without James Blackmon Jr. and O.G. Anunoby, and B) They’re Northwestern. There’s a reason that they haven’t been to the NCAA tournament in the history of the program, and it’s not simply because they cannot get talent to Evanston.

It’s because they’re Northwestern, the program that always finds a way to choke a defeat out of the jaws of victory.

“We’ll either do something special or we’ll be like every other NU team,” Bryant McIntosh said after a win over Indiana on Sunday night. “I worry about it every second,” head coach Chris Collins added when asked about whether he is concerned about how his team will handle success. (Both of those quotes came via Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated.)

But it seems awful unlikely that this Northwestern team will follow that path. As of today, they’re 18-4 on the season and 7-2 in the Big Ten, something they haven’t done since 1937-38. The win over Indiana was they’re sixth straight win, something they haven’t done in league play since 1932-33. Their schedule is somewhat backloaded – NU still has to play Purdue twice, at Wisconsin and Maryland at home – but all of those games are winnable; no one in the Big Ten is markedly better than Northwestern, and while the Big Ten is down this year, that still says more about the Wildcats than it does after the conference.

Bottom line? I don’t even think that Northwestern can mess this one up.

Michigan State (RPI: 50, KenPom: 51, No. 10 seed): The Spartans are going to be a fascinating team on Selection Sunday. This is clearly not one of Tom Izzo’s best teams, but is it really bad enough that they could end up missing out on the Big Dance? Sunday’s win over Michigan was important because, at this point, Sparty can’t really afford anymore dumb losses. They’re 13-9 on the season. They’re 5-4 in the league after this win snapped a three-game losing skid. They’ve lost to Northeastern, Penn State and Ohio State. Five of their last nine are on the road. This is going to be an uphill battle.

Virginia Tech (RPI: 35, KenPom: 50, No. 8 seed): Virginia Tech is interesting because they’re a team with an awesome record that doesn’t really have many awesome wins. Beating Duke at home is huge, and Duke winning at Wake Forest helps them in that regard, but there isn’t much else in their 16-5 record – other than losses to Texas A&M and N.C. State – worth noting. Four of their next five games are on the road, and three of their next five games are against Louisville and Virginia. This is the stretch that will make or break their at-large profile.

Cal (RPI: 48, KenPom: 59, first four out): Cal picked up a win over Stanford on Sunday night, which isn’t exactly a great win but it means they avoided an ugly loss. The biggest issue for the Golden Bears right now? They don’t have any good wins, but they still get Arizona on the road and Oregon at home.

Wichita State (RPI: 79, KenPom: 21, first four out), Illinois State (RPI: 36, KenPom: 37, No. 10 seed) and Valparaiso (RPI: 74, KenPom: 90, No. 13 seed autobid): At this point, I think it will be nearly impossible for two of these three teams – Wichita State and Valpo – to get an at-large bid if they lose before their conference tournament final, while I think Illinois State is going to get to Selection Sunday with a profile that would make things much less stressful if it comes with an automatic bid. All three won their games on Sunday.

LOSERS

N.C. State (RPI: 64, KenPom: 78, No. 11 seed): The Wolfpack lost at No. 13 Louisville, which is hardly a blemish on their profile. In fact, with No. 17 Duke avoiding a loss at Wake Forest – N.C. State won at Duke on Monday – this weekend was probably a net-positive for them. But that Louisville win had the potential to erase some of the ugliness that N.C. State had endured early-on in league play; they had a chance to give themselves some breathing room.

Michigan (RPI: 59, KenPom: 35, play-in game): On paper, losing at Michigan State isn’t all that bad of a loss, but given the muck that is the middle of the Big Ten and a rough close to the regular season – the Wolverines play four of their last five and five of their last seven on the road – John Beilein’s 13-8 Michigan team is in a tough spot.

Indiana (RPI: 80, KenPom: 39, No. 7 seed): Assuming that whatever is ailing James Blackmon Jr. isn’t season-ending, the Hoosiers should be able to shake this loss off. The bigger issue for them is going to be how the committee judges their hideous RPI and just how much they take into account the fact that O.G. Anunoby played in the big wins Kansas and North Carolina but is now out for the year.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.