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Previewing Championship Week: What to expect from mid-major conference tournaments

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Championship Week kicks off in earnest tonight. Here are the eight story lines from the mid-major ranks to follow over the course of the next 12 days. 

1. Can Gonzaga get to Selection Sunday with just one loss?: Because at this point, that’s probably the only way the Zags can get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Barring something fluky happening over the course of the next 12 days, Kansas, Villanova and North Carolina have pretty much locked up their spots on the top line of the bracket in the Midwest, East and South, respectively.

But the West has yet to be won.

As of today, the Zags are probably the leaders for that spot, but what you have to remember is that the winner of the Pac-12 tournament, if it is Arizona, Oregon or UCLA, could very well add two more top 10 wins to their profile during that run. Let’s say it ends up being UCLA that wins the tournament, and they beat both Oregon and Arizona to cut down those nets. That would give them five top ten wins on the season — only one of which came at home — with wins at Arizona and Kentucky. In total, they would have at least 13 top 100 wins and their only three losses on the season would be at Oregon, at USC and Arizona at home.

I’m all for Gonzaga getting a No. 1 seed. I don’t think I could give Gonzaga a No. 1 seed over that résumé even if they do have a 32-1 record.

2. Will the Missouri Valley be a two-bid league?: This one of our only hopes for an at-large bid coming out of the mid-major ranks, and regardless of who wins the league’s automatic bid — Wichita State or Illinois State — there is going to be some controversy on Selection Sunday.

The Shockers are 27-4 on the season. If they lose in the final of the MVC tournament to Illinois State, they’ll be 29-5 on the year with no sub-50 RPI losses. They rank No. 10 on KenPom, which is largely considered the best site for determining how good teams are, and they have a roster laden with top 100 prospects and coached by one of the best in the business in Gregg Marshall. Logic suggests they should be in the tournament.

The problem, however, is that they have just one RPI top 75 win on the season, and that win came against Illinois State. The Redbirds are in an even worse situation, as they have three sub-100 losses and just one top 85 win which … came against Wichita State. Logic only gets you so far when you don’t have the results to back it up.

One, if not both, of those teams are going to be sweating out Selection Sunday, hoping that they see their names called. And frankly, given the decisions the Selection Committee has made in past seasons and the value they gave big wins during the bracket reveal on Feb. 11th, I’m not sure we’ll see both teams in the tournament this season.

3. First Ivy league tournament: For the first time ever, the Ivy League will be determining their league’s automatic bid by holding a tournament. They were previously the only conference that still awarded their bid to the winner of the league’s regular season title. The tournament will take place on March 11th and 12th at the Palestra in Philly, and it will be a four-team event.

And if you are Princeton, this terrifies you. The Tigers are currently sitting at 12-0 in the conference standings, all alone with a two-game lead with just two regular season games left. But, depending on how things shake out during the final week of the season, there is a good chance that Princeton will have to play a first round Ivy League tournament game against Penn … on Penn’s home floor.

That would be a hell of a way to lose out on an NCAA tournament bid.

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4. Will Middle Tennessee State be back in the dance?: The Blue Raiders orchestrated one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament last season, knocking off the popular pick to win the national title in No. 2 Michigan State in the first round. Kermit Davis brought back a team good enough to make a run against this season, highlighted by the fact that his group has beaten UNC Wilmington on a neutral, Vanderbilt at home and won at Ole Miss and at Belmont. The problem they have is that three of their four losses are considered bad losses, and one of them — at UTEP — only recently climbed inside the RPI top 250. If they don’t win the CUSA tournament title they’ll add another sub-100 loss into that equation.

After what this team did in last year’s tournament, it would be a shame if they missed out on doing it again. But if they don’t get their league’s automatic bid, they may have to watch the likes of TCU or Georgia Tech play in the tournament during their off days in the NIT.

5. Which dominant mid-majors lose in league tournament?: Middle Tennessee and Princeton are the two easiest to identify, but they aren’t the only teams that have stormed to a conference regular season title and will not have to play a tournament to prove their league record is worthy of a tournament bid. Vermont went 16-0 in the America East and gets to host every game of the league tournament on their home floor, but that’s hardly a guarantee. UNC Wilmington won the CAA and earned the league’s automatic bid last season, but it won’t be easy to defend their title in that league tournament. UT-Arlington owns, at worst, a share of the Sun Belt title and a win at Saint Mary’s, but they’re anything but a lock for the tournament. Belmont won the OVC by a full five games while Monmouth won the MAAC by four and Bucknell won the Patriot League by three. Akron, at 13-3, is the only team in the MAC with less than six league losses.

My guess is that at least five of the nine teams that I just mentioned will lose in their league tournament, meaning that the NCAA tournament will feature a team that isn’t the best team from at least five mid-major leagues.

Is this really the best way to do things?

6. Just how healthy is Alec Peters?: The star scorer for Valparaiso, Peters was an NBC Sports preseason all-american, but between a couple of bad league losses and a surge from Oakland late in the year, the Crusaders have reached a point where they are not in position to receive an at-large bid to the Big Dance. But he’s currently dealing with a stress reaction in his foot, and while he’s expected to play in the Horizon League tournament, it’s difficult to know just how healthy he is. Peters is good enough to lead Valpo to a win as a No. 13 or No. 14 seed, and it would be a shame to see him miss out on the Big Dance.

7. Keep an eye on these mid-major stars, who may be the March darlings this year: The name that everyone knows is Marcus Keene, who is averaging 29.7 points and 5.0 assists for Central Michigan this season. He’d be thrilling to watch go up against, say, Malik Monk and Kentucky in a first round game.

Or what about South Dakota State’s Mike Daum? The sophomore big man has a 50-point game to his name already this season. Montana State’s Tyler Hall has gone for 40 once and 30 more times this season. North Florida’s Dallas Moore is one of the best point guards you’ve never seen play.

Someone, from somewhere, is going to step up and make themselves a star in March. The fun is watching it all play out.

8. Which coach earns themselves a bigger job?: The easiest way to move up the ranks of the coaching industry is to get your team to an NCAA tournament and to get a win in that NCAA tournament.

Who are the guys that might be able to parlay postseason success into a bigger job? UNC Wilmington’s Kevin Keatts is a hot name. He’s a former Rick Pitino assistant that coached in the prep school ranks before he made the jump to Division I. He’s turned the Seahawks into the flagship program of the CAA in just three years. MTSU’s Kermit Davis will also likely have some big-name suitors, as the stench of NCAA violations from nearly three decades ago are starting to wear away. Illinois State’s Dan Muller will likely being getting phone calls.

Chattanooga’s Matt McCall and ETSU’s Steve Forbes were hot names entering the season, but Furman’s Niko Medved went out and won himself a share of the SoCon regular season title. Vermont’s John Becker may have a chance to make a move, while Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey, Princeton’s Mitch Henderson, UT-Arlington’s Scott Cross and Monmouth’s King Rice all have their name mentioned with bigger openings.

Two more names to keep an eye on: UNC Asheville’s Nick McDevitt, who has kept that program at the top of the Big South despite losing two star freshmen to transfer to Louisville and Arizona last season, and Mount St. Mary’s Jamion Christian, who led the Mount to a NEC title. Both of those coaches are alums of the program they are currently coaching at.

What’s Wrong With Trae Young: An in-depth look at how defenses are adjusting to the Oklahoma superstar

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In the past two weeks, Oklahoma’s Trae Young learned the hard way that there is always a cost that comes with success, and for him, it appears to be the weight of expectation.

Young has become a sensation in college basketball this season. He is this year’s version of Adam Morrison, or Jimmer Fredette, or Stephen Curry. He is the best story in college basketball, must-see TV not just because of the numbers he puts up but because of the entertainment that comes with getting seats to the The Trae Young Show.

Not only that, but Young is playing in the toughest conference in college basketball for a title contender as a 19-year old freshman in the biggest, most important and most influential role I can ever remember seeing a player in. Put another way, he has the best coaches in the country ranking their brains for a way to slow him down and get the ball out of his hands all while he, in the back of his mind, is wondering how he can top what he did the game before.

Young has never told me that’s the way he feels, but isn’t that human nature? When I write a great story, I want the next one to be just as good if not better. Musicians want their next single to be better than their last. Lawyers that crush a cross-examination want their closing argument to ensure they win the case. And Young wants to be better every game than he was the previous.

And that, it seems, is why Young has hit the first slump of his post-high school career.

On Tuesday night, No. 4 Oklahoma went into Kansas State and got whooped, 87-69, as Young shot 8-for-21 from the floor and turned the ball over 12 times. Against the Wildcats, Bruce Weber came up with a game-plan that was as simple as it was effective. They blitzed Young on every ball-screen and dribble-handoff, forcing the ball out of his hands before face-guarding him to try and prevent him from getting the ball back.

That came on the heels on committing nine turnovers against TCU over the weekend. He currently leads the country in turnovers – 5.2 per game, including 39 turnovers in his last five games – and it’s a result of the degree of difficulty of the plays that Young is trying to make; it’s almost as if he’s trying to get an assist, to make a highlight reel pass, on every possession, an issue that gets magnified by the number of layups opponents get off of those turnovers:

“He’s trying to do too much,” Young’s father, Rayford, said this week. “He wants to win so bad. He’s got to understand in this league coaches make a lot of money to scout you and shut you down.”

“That’s the difference between now and the beginning of the year. People didn’t understand how to get the ball out of his hands. Now there is some film on him.”

The other issue with Young of late is making the right read. I wrote earlier this season about Young’s passing and how he is so good at reading where defenders are in pick-and-rolls. He had a knack for almost always making the right pass:

But he’s made mistakes more often in recent games than in the first couple of weeks of the season.

In the first clip below, you’ll see Young try to make a no-look pass to the roll-man out after getting blitzed, not seeing that Kansas State was sending a weak-side defender to help. The pass that was open was to the weak-side corner, where Christian James would have had an open look at a three:

In the second clip above, the pass Young tries to make isn’t wrong – getting Jamuni McNeace the ball with a smaller defender on his back can work – but he didn’t put the ball on the money.

That is another trend I noticed watching Young in recent games. I’m not sure sloppy would be the right word to use, but where he typically had been putting the ball exactly where it needed to be previously, he’s now throwing the ball into the crowd.

In the first clip below, you’ll see Young make the right read and find Brady Manek for an open three. The shot didn’t go down, but that’s the shot that Oklahoma is looking for. In the second clip, Young does the same, except the pass ended up three feet off the mark and resulted in a turnover. At the end of the play, Young is visibly frustrated:

In the end, I think the fix here is fairly simple.

For starters, Lon Kruger just needs to settle the kid down. The first action of a possession doesn’t have to lead to a shot. Keeping possession and running more offense is better than forcing a pass with 20 seconds left on the shot clock. I would also expect Kruger to find more ways to get Young into a ball-screen action that goes beyond a simple high-ball screen. Some false motion at the start of a possession can work wonders moving a defense around and getting individual defenders into uncomfortable positions.

Young also needs to trust his teammates a little more, and not in the sense that he doesn’t think they can get the job done but because it would alleviate some of the pressure that falls on his shoulders. Brady Manek, Christian James, Kameron McGusty. Those are good players that can probably handle more of the load.

At the end of the day, opponents have made some adjustments to what Oklahoma wants to do.

And now it is on the Sooners to tweak what they do.

This happens with every team in the country during the course of the season, but given how reliant Oklahoma is on one player, the effect is magnified.

That’s a long-winded way of saying this: The Sooners are fine.

Stanford’s surprising mid-season turnaround continues with upset of No. 16 Arizona State

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Stanford earned a huge home win over No. 16 Arizona State on Wednesday night, taking down the Sun Devils for an 86-77 Pac-12 win.

The win for the Cardinal continues one of the best (and most surprising) turnarounds in the nation as Stanford is keeping pace with Arizona atop the Pac-12 standings. Now sitting at 5-1 in the conference, the Cardinal have won five consecutive games after sitting at 6-8 for the season following a loss to Cal. Stanford has picked off UCLA, USC and Arizona State since the start of 2018 while also sweeping the Washington schools on the road last week. Now Stanford is 11-8 overall while looking like one of the more dangerous teams in the Pac-12.

So how did this turnaround exactly happen?

Stanford figured things out with the mid-season addition of touted freshman forward Kezie Okpala. A bit of a late-blooming prospect coming out of high school, the 6-foot-8 Okpala was a high-end four-star recruit who had to sit out Stanford’s first 12 games this season due to academic complications.

During his final semester of high school, Okpala dropped below the threshold of what Stanford required in an AP calculus course while he tried to juggle the academic rigors of three AP classes. Stanford’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions notified Okpala of this and said they’d honor the original decision to admit him if he agreed to sit out of competition.

It was initially unclear if Okpala would play this season, but he’s figured out the academic side of things, and Stanford is very happy that he’s with them on the court. Since Okpala’s debut, the team has gone 5-2 with the freshman playing extended minutes in all seven contests. Okpala has even scored in double-figures in five of seven games he’s played in so far this season.

While Okpala actually had his worst shooting performance of the season on Wednesday in the win over Arizona State — finishing with four points on 1-for-8 shooting — his size and skill level on the wing (five assists) helped the Cardinal in other facets of the game. Outrebounding the Sun Devils, 44-30, while adding 13 offensive rebounds, Stanford has a long and athletic main lineup with Okpala in the mix.

Forward Reid Travis (18 points, 10 rebounds) remains one of the Pac-12’s most productive players after helping dismantle the Sun Devils with another double-double. Seniors like guard Dorian Pickens (19 points) and center Michael Humphrey (four points, five rebounds) are solid contributors. Freshman guard Daejon Davis (13 points, eight assists) is also seeing his play improve over time as he’s been picking things up lately as conference play gets going.

It might be too-little, too-late when it comes to Stanford’s NCAA tournament hopes after such a rough start. At least the Cardinal are showing plenty of fight now that they have their prized recruit in the lineup. Okpala’s return has given Stanford a major boost as the Cardinal look like a real threat with its rotation in place.

There’s still a long way to go before the Pac-12 conference race is decided. Stanford still has to prove this five-game winning streak isn’t merely a fluke like the half-court buzzer-beater that lifted them past USC. But the Cardinal has at least put themselves in the conversation among the league’s better teams. Nobody saw that coming a few weeks ago.

Wednesday’s Three Things To Know: No. 8 Texas Tech, No. 19 Seton Hall get dropped on the road

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The nights where there aren’t any marquee games are always the nights where college basketball goes absolutely batty.

Wednesday night was no different.

Here are the three things you need to know.

1. TEXAS TECH BLEW THE ADVANTAGE THEY HAD IN THE BIG 12 RACE

It’s a talking point that never really caught on, but prior to Wednesday night’s trip to Austin, No. 8 Texas Tech had the inside lane in the race for the Big 12 regular season title.

There is a clear-cut top four in the conference: Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma and the Red Raiders. The way to win the league was simple: Beat the teams outside of the top four and protect your home court against the other three contenders. Entering Wednesday, Texas Tech and Kansas were sitting one game ahead of West Virginia, who had lost at home to Kansas, and Oklahoma, had lost on the road to Kansas State. Texas Tech already had a leg up on the Jayhawks as well, as they won in Phog Allen Fieldhouse earlier this year.

I would hesitate to call anyone a favorite in the Big 12 that isn’t named Kansas, but the Red Raiders had certainly put themselves in a position where they had the easiest path.

And then the Texas game happened.

Mo Bamba went for 15 points, 11 boards and five blocks and Kerwin Roach poured in 20 in a return to the lineup as Texas beat No. 8 Texas Tech, 67-58. We knew losses were likely coming for the Red Raiders – no one is going to make it through this league without taking some lumps – but it has to be frustrating that those losses came when the program had a chance to keep pace with Kansas.

Credit to Texas. Their defense played as well as it has in weeks, they showed some toughness to get the win against a physical Tech team and they landed a résumé win that should age well.

Texas Tech also did a really cool thing for Andrew Jones prior to the game.

2. SETON HALL GOT BLOWN OUT ON THE ROAD AND DESI RODRIGUEZ GOT BENCHED

Twice in the last eight days, No. 19 Seton Hall has lost by at least 17 points on the road after they fell, 80-63, at Creighton on Wednesday night.

Creighton is a good team. They were playing at home in an arena that routinely puts 17,000 butts in seats. When they get it going they are tough to beat, so there really isn’t all that much to be concerned about here in a vacuum.

But we’re not in a vacuum.

Creighton lost by 20 points at Marquette last Tuesday. Marquette is not as good as Creighton and they do not play in as tough of an atmosphere as there is in Omaha.

What’s worse, however, is that Desi Rodriguez – the guy that has probably been Seton Hall’s Player of the Year – played just six minutes. Here is Kevin Willard’s explanation:

“He had that look in his face where he just didn’t want to be out there. When he gets that way, you just got to let him regroup and refocus. And it just never happened.”

That’s probably a cover for something else, but the concern for Seton Hall fans was that Rodriguez was hurt.

Getting benched isn’t ideal. But it’s better than getting hurt.

3. ALABAMA ENDED NO. 17 AUBURN’S 14-GAME WINNING STREAK

But what is more impressive is that they did it without Collin Sexton, who was sitting out with an injury.

That is a massive win for the Crimson Tide’s NCAA tournament hopes, which our Scott Phillips detailed here.

No. 24 TCU snaps 3-game skid with 96-73 over Iowa State

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Vladimir Brodziansky had 26 points and No. 24 TCU snapped a three-game losing streak with a 96-73 win over Iowa State on Wednesday night, when the Horned Frogs played for the first time without injured starting point guard Jaylen Fisher.

Alex Robinson, who started at point guard, scored eight points and had a school-record 17 assists for the Horned Frogs (14-4, 2-4 Big 12), who never trailed and shot 60 percent from the field. He had only one turnover in 38 minutes.

Brodziansky shot 11 of 13 for his third 20-point game in five games. JD Miller added 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting with five 3-pointers. Kouat Noi scored 16 points and Kenrich Williams had his eighth double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

Donovan Jackson had 19 points for Iowa State (10-6, 1-5). Cameron Lard and Lindell Wigginton each had 16.

Fisher was scheduled to have surgery Thursday, two days after injuring his right knee during practice. The sophomore guard missed the team’s trip to Australia in August after tearing meniscus in his left knee during practice then, but was back for the start of the season after surgery.

Robinson’s 12th assist, surpassing his previous career high of 11, was on pass to Brodziansky for a slam dunk that made it 70-53 with 11:36 left before an Iowa State timeout. That was among many plays applauded by Fisher, who sat in a chair near the TCU bench.

TCU jumped out to a 14-4 lead in the game’s first 5 minutes, and led by as many as 17 in the first half.

BIG PICTURE

Iowa St.: Even while they shot 51 percent from the field (30 of 59), the Cyclones couldn’t gain any momentum coming off their first Big 12 victory Saturday against Baylor. Wigginton, the freshman who was the Big 12 newcomer of the week after games with 30 and 27 points last week, had only two points at halftime after he got two fouls in the first 9 minutes.

TCU: After so many close games, including consecutive overtime losses on the road last week, the Frogs finally had a game in which they didn’t have to press in the closing minutes. Their four Big 12 losses are by a combined 11 points, and their only previous conference win was by three points in overtime.

UP NEXT

Iowa St.: Another ranked opponent for the Cyclones, who host No. 8 Texas Tech on Saturday.

TCU: The Horned Frogs play three of their next four games on the road. They are at Kansas State (13-5, 3-3) on Saturday.

No. 14 Arizona overcomes slow start, runs past Cal 79-58

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BERKELEY, Calif. — Deandre Ayton had 20 points and 11 rebounds, and No. 14 Arizona overcame a slow, sloppy start to beat California 79-58 on Wednesday night.

Parker Jackson-Cartwright scored 14 points with three 3-pointers during a decisive stretch spanning halftime as the Wildcats won their third straight since losing at Colorado on Jan. 6.

Dylan Smith made all four of his 3s and added 14 points and Allonzo Trier scored 15 as Arizona (15-4, 5-1 Pac-12) played without sophomore guard Rawle Alkins, held out as a precaution with what the school said was mild right foot soreness.

Justice Sueing scored 19 points to lead Cal (7-12, 1-5) but missed all six of his 3-point attempts for the cold-shooting Golden Bears, held to 35.3 percent and outrebounded 36-22. Don Coleman had 11 points but shot just 3 of 13.

Ayton made 9 of 11 shots and Arizona shot 62 percent, going 11 for 19 from deep.

Arizona connected on six straight 3-pointers from the 9:20 mark until 2:32 left before halftime to take control, three by Parker Jackson-Cartwright, then seven in all spanning halftime. Cal got within single digits, down by nine, for all of 17 seconds in the second half.

The Wildcats went four possessions until getting their first shot off while committing three quick turnovers and falling behind 6-0. They had turnovers on six of their initial nine possessions and 21 overall but still wound up shooting 70 percent in the opening half.

Arizona won its fourth straight in the series.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: The Pac-12’s top team from the free throw line, the Wildcats followed up a 34-of-37 showing at the line against Oregon last Saturday — the program’s first time at 90 percent or higher with at least 35 attempts since going 38 of 40 (.950) vs. Washington on Jan. 27, 2005, a span of 454 games — by shooting just 13 free throws and making six. Arizona came in shooting 85.3 percent at the line. … The Wildcats are 18-11 in Pac-12 road games played in the state of California under Sean Miller since 2009. Miller also is 12-4 vs. Cal.

Cal: Kingsley Okoroh, a 7-foot-1 center, scored 10 points to post his first game in double figures scoring since Nov. 16 against Wofford. … Cal has beaten ranked Arizona teams 11 times, including No. 1 four years ago at Haas Pavilion. While the Bears averaged 54.5 points over their recent road trip to Washington and Washington State last weekend, they hurt their chances with a 1-for-13 shooting performance from 3-point range but made 21 of 30 free throws.

UP NEXT

Arizona: At Stanford on Saturday afternoon.

Cal: Hosts Arizona State on Saturday night.