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Bubble Banter: Kansas State, Xavier the big winners while the Big Ten takes an L

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The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here. That is where the seeds you see listed below are from.

This post will be updated throughout the day.

LOSERS

Illinois (RPI: 58, KenPom: 67, first four out): Coming off of a loss to Rutgers in their season finale, a loss that put the Illini on the wrong side of the bubble, John Groce’s club caught a break in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, playing a Michigan team that saw their plane skid off the runway on Wednesday evening and did not arrive in D.C. until three hours before the game, playing in their practice jerseys.

And the Illini were still run off the floor, falling by 20 points in a “lose and go to the NIT” game. The question we all want answered at this point is not whether or not this team will get a bid, but whether another year without a trip to the tournament costs John Groce his job.

USC (RPI: 41, KenPom: 62, No. 11 seed): The Trojans lost on Thursday night, falling by two to No. 3 UCLA in a game that USC had to win if they were going to end up getting through Selection Sunday without stress. As it stands, USC has a pair of top 20 wins, but both of them came at home. They’re 24-9 on the season with just one sub-100 loss, but they have a grand total of six top 100 and nine top 150 wins. They went 10-8 in the Pac-12, but they went just 1-6 against the top three teams in the league. At this point, USC is rooting against all of the bubble teams and hoping that they’ve done enough to sneak into a play-in game.

One x-factor that hasn’t really been mentioned with USC is Bennie Boatwright. He missed 17 games this season, and the Trojans went just 5-4 in Pac-12 play without him.

Iowa (RPI: 71, KenPom: 66, first four out): Illinois wasn’t the only Big Ten bubble team to take a beating on Thursday. The Hawkeyes lost to Indiana by 30 in a game they had to win to really have a chance of winding up on the right side of the bubble.

Marquette (RPI: 55, KenPom: 28, No. 9 seed): The Golden Eagles fell in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, meaning that they are going to have to spend the next 72 hours sweating it out with the rest of the bubble teams. And frankly, I don’t think that Marquette has all that much to worry about. My guess is that they will safely be in the tournament, but as we’ve mentioned a number of times over the course of the last week, four of Marquette’s five best wins on the season came against Xavier and Creighton after the season-ending injuries to Edmond Sumner and Mo Watson. I don’t expect this to cost Marquette a bid — maybe a seed line or two — but it is a story line to keep an eye on.

Providence (RPI: 53, KenPom: 53, No. 10 seed): The Friars are going to be an interesting case on Selection Sunday. They do have six top 50 wins, but just three of those wins are top 40. They’ve also won just eight total top 100 games — all of which are in the top 60 — but they also lost three games to sub-100 competition, including two games to sub-200 teams. I think the Friars are going to be OK, but every game a bubble team wins is bad news for Ed Cooley.

WINNERS

Kansas State (RPI: 59, KenPom: 32, play-in game): Kansas State knocked off No. 9 Baylor on Thursday night, a win that puts the Wildcats in a really good position to get an at-large bid on Selection Sunday. I would not go as far as to call them a lock for the tournament. The Wildcats have a pair of wins over Baylor — both of which came away from home — but they have just four more top 100 wins to their name in addition to a pair of sub-100 losses. The Wildcats will advance to face West Virginia in the Big 12 semifinals.

Xavier (RPI: 33, KenPom: 44, play-in game): Xavier beat No. 18 Butler in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament. Welcome to the NCAA tournament, Muskies. You are no longer on the bubble because Chris Mack went rogue.

California (RPI: 56, KenPom: 58, next four out): Cal advanced to the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament with a win over Utah on Thursday afternoon, and it sets the Bears up for a must-win against Oregon on Friday. Cal’s tournament résumé has one, glaring hole in it: the lack of elite wins. Their best win on the season is over USC, and the Trojans are only 41st in the RPI, needing to play their win into the Big Dance as well. To be frank, I’m not even sure a win over Oregon would be enough for Cal, but it would give them a real chance, and as of right now, that is not the case.

Middle Tennessee State (RPI: 38, KenPom: 52, No. 11 seed): The Blue Raiders avoided a loss in the Conference USA quarterfinals, which is good news because it means their dreams of getting the automatic bid is still alive. And rest assured, MTSU wants that automatic bid. They do not want to sweat out Selection Sunday with the four sub-100 losses they would have on their résumé if they were to take a loss in the Conference USA tournament.

Vanderbilt (RPI: 45, KenPom: 40, No. 11 seed): Vanderbilt blew out Texas A&M in their SEC tournament opener, meaning that they have just about played their way into the Big Dance. If they beat Florida on Friday, the Commodores will likely find themselves dancing. If they don’t, Vandy will remain one of the most fascinating bubble teams in the country.

Seton Hall (RPI: 44, KenPom: 54, No. 10 seed): Seton Hall beat Marquette on Thursday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, a win that should lock up their at-large status. The Pirates probably would have been on the right side of the bubble either way.

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.