Rob Dauster

Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes celebrates with fans after an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, in Iowa City, Iowa. Wisconsin won 67-59. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

BUBBLE BANTER: Huge night for Atlantic 10, Pac-12 teams

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It’s time for us to take a deeper look at VCU’s (KenPom: 32, RPI: 46, CBT Bracketology Seed: 10) résumé, because after losing at George Mason on Wednesday evening, the Rams look like they might be in some trouble.

Here are the things that you need to know: VCU challenged themselves early in the season, putting together a non-conference schedule ranked in the top 100, but they whiffed on all five of their games against top 75 opponents. They have two top 50 wins — at Saint Joseph’s and St. Bonaventure — and a 5-6 record against the top 100, but they also and a pair of losses outside the top 100 — at UMass and at George Mason.

That’s not an ideal combination, as their RPI will likely fall outside the top 50 when it gets updated on Thursday morning.

The other side of this is that VCU also still had three games on their schedule against teams ranked in and around the top 50: at GW, Davidson, at Dayton. So they still have chances to really improve on their résumé, but all three of those games are losable.

Put a different way, unlike a lot of the other bubble teams in their league — and, frankly, across the country — whether or not VCU gets an at-large bid is under their control.

And if I was Will Wade, I would want a 2-1 finish to the regular season to really feel comfortable.

WINNERS

  • George Washington (KP: 80, RPI: 50, CBT: First Four Out): The Colonials got some revenge for a loss they took at home earlier this season, beating Richmond in dominating fashion on the road. GW is on the wrong side of the bubble right now, but with a pair of borderline top 50 teams remaining on their schedule (VCU at home, Davidson on the road) they’ll have some chances to play their way into the tournament.
  • Wisconsin (KP: 37, RPI: 42, CBT: 9): The Badgers all-but punched their ticket to the dance tonight. We wrote about it in depth here.
  • Colorado (KP: 69, RPI: 35, CBT: 10): Did Colorado do the same? We wrote about that here.
  • Michigan (KP: 48, RPI: 55, CBT: 11): The Wolverines were down early to Northwestern at home, but they managed to scrap out a win in a game they simply could not afford to lose.
  • Oregon State (KP: 62, RPI: 31, CBT: Play-In Game): When you’re a team that is sitting squarely on the bubble you cannot afford to lose any games, which is what made Stevie Thompson’s shot (travel) so important. The Beavers needed the win over Washington because they couldn’t afford the hit they’d take from a loss. And they got it.
  • St. Bonaventure (KP: 67, RPI: 33, CBT: 11): The Bonnies flirted with disaster, but they ended up holding on to beat Duquesne. This is not a team with room to spare right now. The good news? They do have a game left against Saint Joseph’s, meaning they’ll have a chance to add another really nice with to their profile. They may need it.
  • Saint Joseph’s (KP: 39, RPI: 28, CBT: 8): The Hawks are getting closer to being taken off of this list. They won at UMass, and as long as they don’t take a loss to one of the landmines left on their schedule, they’ll be dancing.
  • Wichita State (KP: 10, RPI: 47, CBT: 10): The Shockers handled Loyola (IL) on Wednesday, a loss that they couldn’t have afforded to take.

LOSERS

  • Pitt (KP: 46, RPI: 34, CBT: 7): The Panthers are still sitting on the right side of the bubble right now, but if they had been able to hold onto a lead at home against Louisville on Wednesday night, they would have come pretty close to locking up a bid at this point.
  • Washington (KP: 65, RPI: 70, CBT: Next Four Out): The Huskies might have seen their NCAA tournament hopes dashed on a travel that wasn’t called. Tough break. If they don’t win at Oregon this weekend, they’re probably going to need the automatic bid.

FILM SESSION: The latest Calipari ‘tweak’, and why Derek Willis changed the course of Kentucky’s season

Kentucky's Derek Willis (35) hits an uncontested three point shot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 80-70. (AP Photo/James Crisp)
(AP Photo/James Crisp)
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Kentucky has had a bit of a roller coaster season.

Early in the year, when they were steam-rolling Duke at the Champions Classic and mowing down buy-game opponents, Kentucky looked like a team that was on their way to competing for a national title.

Then came the loss at UCLA. And the loss to Ohio State. Then they fell at LSU and at Auburn. None of those four teams are destined for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, which begged the question: Can we really trust this Kentucky team? If their front court isn’t getting any better and Skal Labissiere is never going to be the kid that we wanted him to be this season, was it time to adjust our expectations for this group? Was it time to say that simply getting to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament would be a successful season?

And the answer to that question, as we’ve learned in the five weeks since Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl picked off his old nemesis, John Calipari, was a resounding ‘No!’

There have been a couple of changes in the last ten games for the Wildcats, not the least of which is their effort on the defensive side of the ball. Kentucky currently ranks 41st nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which is good for sixth in the SEC. But if you look at just their performance in league games, the Wildcats are the best defensive team in the SEC.

I’ll take it a step further: Every game the Wildcats have lost this season, they’ve allowed at least 1.00 points-per-possession. They’re 4-7 in those games and 17-0 when they hold opponents under 1.00 PPP. This isn’t exactly breaking news, but when teams get better defensively, they tend to win more games.

Shocking, I know.

But Kentucky’s improvement has been about more than just their effort on defense.

Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray have gone from promising-but-inconsistent to the nation’s best back court pairing, and it all stems from a tweak that Coach Cal made after the Auburn loss.

It starts with Derek Willis, a 6-foot-9 combo-forward and in-state recruit that spent the majority of his first two seasons in Lexington as nothing more than a glorified walk-on. He was on scholarship, but his minutes were mostly limited to garbage time; he was the guy that the Rupp Arena crowd would be screaming for when the Wildcats held a 25 point lead with three minutes left.

And while he showed some flashes early on this season — he had 25 points in the season’s first two games, he scored 11 points at UCLA — it wasn’t until the Auburn loss when saw more than 19 minutes of playing time against an opponent not named Albany. He had 12 points and 12 boards in 31 minutes of action against Auburn, which was enough for Cal to roll the dice on him as a starter the next game — at Arkansas — and Willis delivered. He had 12 points and seven boards, hitting 2-for-4 from beyond the arc, and he hasn’t looked back since.

In the last 11 games he’s started (Willis sat out last night’s win over Alabama with an ankle injury), he’s averaging and 10.1 points and shooting 26-for-52 from three, an even 50 percent.

“Putting Derek Willis in the role he’s in has changed us,” Cal said. “Now all of a sudden Derek gives us another stretch guy that you’ve gotta go play with Tyler and Jamal. It lets Isaiah do his thing, it posts up Alex where he should be. It puts us all in the right spots.”

Here’s what Cal is talking about: In this possession from UK’s loss at LSU in early January, take a look at how clogged the lane is. With Isaiah Briscoe, Alex Poythress and Skal Labissiere on the floor together, there are essentially three guys the defense does not need to worrying about guarding beyond 12-15 feet from the rim. In this example, you can see how Ben Simmons traps Murray off the ball-screen. He knows Craig Victor is there to help on Labissiere’s roll to the rim because Keith Hornsby can play 20 feet off of Briscoe without being worried about getting burned by a three:

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Here’s the full possession:

Here’s another example, with Briscoe on the same side of the floor as the ball-screen. Texas A&M’s Danuel House (green arrow) is camped out in the paint because he’s (rightfully) more concerned about Marcus Lee rolling to the rim than he is with Briscoe spotting up in the corner:

Briscoe Corner

As you can see, Briscoe bricked the jumper:

It’s different with Willis on the floor. Whether or not he’s actually making threes, it’s the threat of the shot that makes the difference. “You have to really decide how you want to guard those ball-screens,” one SEC coach told NBCSports.com. “His shooting makes them much harder to guard.”

Here are three examples of what that coach is talking about.

1. Willis sets a ball-screen for Ulis, and with South Carolina icing the screen (meaning forcing the ball-handler away from the screen and towards the baseline), the big has to make sure Ulis doesn’t get a head of steam going to the rim. Willis can then pop into space for a clean look at a three:

Willis pick n pop

Buckets:

2. Defenders are forced to choose between taking away Willis’ jumper and helping on drives. Here, you’ll see a Tennessee defender cutting off Ulis in the paint, meaning that he’s not able to recover when the Kentucky point guard finds his open shooter:

Willis three help

Again, buckets:

3. He’s a threat even when he’s not involved in the play. In this example, which comes out of Kentucky’s ‘Elbow’ series, you see South Carolina’s Chris Silva locked onto Willis’ hip, so when Ulis gets by his defender and sees the weak-side help coming, he’s able to find a cutting Briscoe, who has a wide-open lane to the rim:

Briscoe Layup

Layups:

Willis’ presence is not the be-all and end-all here. Kentucky’s resurgence wouldn’t be possible without Ulis playing out of his mind or Murray shooting like he’s trying to make Steph Curry jealous. (Can we start calling him Chef Murray yet or nah?)

And it certainly has to be noted that Murray’s role has changed as well. He’s no longer being used as much as a play-maker or simply a spot-up shooter. Cal has him running off of more screens as opposed to just spotting up on the perimeter. To Murray’s credit, he’s fully embraced his role as a shooter. One of the concerns about him entering the season was what position he would play and whether he could accept being off the ball, and he has. Without question. As a result, not only has he become a much more consistent shooter, but he’s cut down on the stupid decisions that he made earlier in the year; when you decision-making process is limited to ‘if you’re open, shoot the ball’, it’s much easier to avoid making mental mistakes.

But the larger point here is that all of that was made possible — or, at the very least, made easier — by Willis’ presence on the perimeter.

Who would’ve thought in November that the most important player on this Kentucky roster was a junior from Bullitt County that had never played a meaningful minute for the Wildcats?

Stanford star to miss the rest of the season

Villanova's Daniel Ochefu (23) defends against Stanford's Reid Travis (22) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Nov. 26, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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Reid Travis will miss the rest of the season and apply for a medical redshirt, Stanford announced this week.

Travis played eight games this year but he’s been out of the lineup since December with a stress reaction in his leg.

“We want the best for Reid,” Cardinal coach Johnny Dawkins said. “He played a big role for us during his time on the court earlier this season and we have missed his presence in our lineup these last two months. Reid’s health is most important, however, and both he and I are in agreement that it is best to avoid more serious injury by not returning to the court before he is fully healthy. We wish him all the best as he continues his rehabilitation and look forward to having him back to full health as a major contributor for us next season.”

Travis was averaging 12.8 points and 7.1 boards for the Cardinal, who are sitting at 13-12 on the year. The NIT isn’t a guarantee for them at this point, which is why it wouldn’t make sense to burn a year of eligibility to try and get Travis back for the final few weeks of the year.

NEW PODCAST: Scout.com’s Brian Snow explains why your favorite team sucks

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Today’s podcast was a fun one to record, as my buddy Brian Snow of Scout.com hopped on the pod to chat about Ben Simmons, Skal Labissiere and the Class of 2016.

Snow makes his living evaluating high school prospects, and his insights into Simmons and Labissiere — and whether or not we can classify them as disappointments — are worth the listen.

But we spent the majority of the pod playing a game I called “Why your team sucks.” The nicer way of putting it is that Snow and I went through the weaknesses of each of the top 15 teams in the country, but the bottom line is this: There is no team without a major flaw on their roster.

It’s worth the time, at least in my opinion.

As always, you can listen to the podcast by clicking “play” on the Soundcloud player embedded below. Or you can do so through either iTunes or Stitcher if you so choose. Thanks for listening!

No. 6 Michigan State looks like a title favorite in win over Ohio State

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks with Denzel Valentine during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Wisconsin, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State won 69-57. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
(AP Photo/Al Goldis)
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At this point in the season, you could try to talk me off the idea that No. 6 Michigan State isn’t the best team in college basketball, but I’m not sure that it would work.

The Spartans went into Columbus on Tuesday night and knocked off Ohio State in pretty impressive fashion, sending the Buckeyes back to their dorms with an 81-62 loss that never truly felt like it was in doubt.

And here’s the thing: They did it on a night where Denzel Valentine didn’t exactly look like himself despite the fact that he finished with 17 points, eight assists and five boards; that should tell you a thing or two about just how good he’s been this season.

The Spartans have rediscovered the form that they were in before Valentine missed time with that knee injury. A large part of that is due to the fact that Valentine is playing the best basketball of his life. There’s a very real chance that he could end up usurping Buddy Hield’s National Player of the Year award by the time they are announced, which is shocking given how far ahead of the pack Hield was as recently as three weeks ago.

But it’s more than just Valentine.

Matt Costello has been playing at a different level since the Spartans snapped a three-game losing streak with a win over Maryland while Bryn Forbes has seemingly forgotten how to miss from beyond the arc — he had 27 points on Tuesday and shot 7-for-10 from three, which upped his three-point percentage to 49.4%.

But the real danger of this Michigan State team is that the role players on their roster are Deyonta Davis and Eron Harris. Harris averaged more than 17 points for West Virginia two years ago, and he’s finally figured out a way to consistently be a good defender. And Davis? He’s probably the best NBA prospect on the roster and a former five-star recruit that provides Tom Izzo with a measure of size and athleticism he can’t get from anywhere else.

But the most important part is that this team buys in and executes the way you expect every Michigan State team to, and which Valentine running the Sparty’s secondary break offense, there may not be a player more perfectly suited to the team that he’s leading than him.

VIDEOS: Josh Henderson hits 80-footer, then steals some popcorn

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 8.26.15 PM
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First things first, how about this sequence: Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis blocks a shot at the end of the half, and Josh Henderson grabs the loose ball, and with three seconds left on the clock, flings it the length of the floor.

Buckets:

But that’s not the best part of this play.

As he leaves the floor, Henderson steals some popcorn from an unsuspecting Gator fan: