Bubble teams hitting the home stretch

Leave a comment

We still have 37 teams on the Bubble with roughly 15 spots up for grabs as we head into the final three weeks of the regular season.  Butler and Michigan joined (or re-joined) the fray this week.  We also saw Arizona and St. John’s join those teams listed as Should Be In.  There remain few Locks at this point, but that number should grow as teams head down the stretch.  Looking ahead, the bubble will start to shrink as several teams are close to moving up.  Others will be leaving.  Should be a great race to the finish.  More at Bracketville.

If you think we’ve missed something, send a rebound.  Include some data or notes to support.  Conversation is great. 

Bubble Banter highlights the teams we believe are on the NCAA Bubble. If a team isn’t listed, they aren’t a bubble team at the time of the update. RPI and SOS data is credited to CollegeRPI.com.

UPDATED: Wednesday, February 16  |  Records, RPI, and SOS data for Division-I games through Tuesday, February 15

Automatic Bids (31): None decided | Total Spots (68): Number of total teams in the Field.

  • Projected Locks (10): Teams who project to have secured a spot in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Some of these projected locks may become automatic qualifiers should they win their conference tournament.
  • Should Be In (18): While not yet locks, these are teams in good position to receive an at-large bid.
  • Bubble: (37): Teams projected to be at or near the cutline for being selected as at-large candidates, or those whose profiles are not yet complete enough to be considered as Should Be In as of the this update.
  • Spots available (15): Number of available openings for the bracket based on spots reserved for automatic qualifiers, projected locks, and teams projected as Should Be In at this update.
  • Leaving the Bubble: Maryland (off), Penn State (off), Arizona (in), St. John’s (in)
  • Joining the Bubble: Butler (up), Michigan (up)
  • Below is a conference breakdown of the bubble picture
Atlantic 10
Locks: NONE | Should Be In: Temple, Xavier | Bubble: Duquesne, Richmond
  • Duquesne (15-7 | 8-2) | RPI: 83 | SOS: 122 | – After losing to Xavier on Sunday, Duquesne has lost two straight and has two more road games this week (UMass, Dayton). It’s critical the Dukes stay at the top of the A-10 standings because there’s nothing to report in the non-conference season. Duquesne has a win over Temple at home, but little else is helping. Key losses include Penn State and a 2-OT affair with George Mason. The Dukes need a strong finish and a solid run in the A-10 tourney.
  • Richmond (20-6 | 9-2) | RPI: 69 | SOS: 154 | – The Spiders have won four straight to remain among the last four teams currently in the field. This week’s game at Temple is important, as is a closing game at home vs. Duquesne. With iffy power numbers, Richmond can’t afford much of a slip. The Spiders continue to hope a non-conference win over Purdue holds a lot of weight. Other key wins are Seton Hall and VCU. Richmond has a loss to fellow bubble-team Old Dominon. It may still take a long A-10 tourney run to feel safe.
ACC
Locks: Duke | Should Be In: North Carolina | Bubble: Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech
  • Boston College (16-9 | 6-5) | RPI: 43 | SOS: 19 | – Beating Maryland Saturday gave the Eagles a season sweep of the Terps, something that could come in handy if Maryland re-appears on the bubble. That said, the loss at Clemon keeps BC in a questionable spot – hovering around .500 in the mediocre ACC. Other than the early win over Texas AM, there’s nothing out of conference helping the Eagles, and BC is just 1-5 vs. Top 50 RPI teams. BC has also lost (at home) to two Ivy League schools and has dropped 4 of its past 6 games. A trip to Carolina is next followed by a must have at home vs. Miami-FL.
  • Clemson (17-8 | 6-5) | RPI: 72 | SOS: 88 | Beating Boston College last week was an important win, but the Tigers couldn’t beat North Carolina at home on Sunday. Thus, Clemson had a neutral seven days. That won’t be good enough moving forward. The Tigers need to win four of their last five – they can probably afford a lose at Duke, but that’s it. Other than a home win over Florida State, the resume is light. Clemson has non-league losses to Old Dominion, Michigan, and South Carolina.
  • Florida State (18-7 | 8-3) | RPI: 49 | SOS: 83 | – If the Seminoles sweep a week of winnable road games (@Wake Forest, @Maryland), they’ll be in good shape to move off the bubble. While the loss at Auburn was probably a fluke, it’s an example of inconsistent play. A weak non-conferense SOS (no. 230), could still spell trouble if FSU stumbles down the stretch. The Seminoles are just 2-4 vs. Top 50 teams, so there’s not a lot of high-level wins. Beating Duke was huge. Finishing third in the ACC standings would likely be enough.
  • Virginia Tech (17-7 | 7-4) | RPI: 59 | SOS: 91 | – The Hokies took care of business by beating Georgia Tech at home last week. Next up is Maryland at home followed by a trip to Virginia. In reality, VT needs to win its next three ahead of Duke’s arrival on Feb. 26. Credit VT with playing a better non-conference schedule, the Hokies just failed to win many of the games – the best is over fellow bubble-dweller Oklahoma State. Virginia Tech controls its destiny. Can the Hokies take advantage?
BIG EAST
Locks: Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Georgetown | Should Be In: Syracuse, Villanova, Louisville,West Virginia, St. John’s | Bubble: Cincinnati, Marquette
  • Cincinnati (19-6 | 6-6) | RPI: 54 | SOS: 106 | – Losing at home to St. John’s puts the Bearcats in a tough position. The closing stretch is brutal and begins with a home game vs. Louisville – followed by road trips to pesky Providence and then surging Georgetown. While there are opportunites for big wins, UC needs another marqee victory or two. The Bearcats are 2-6 vs. Top 50 teams (Xavier, St. John’s) and it will likely take a 9-9 finish in the Big East to feel good – especially given UC’s horrible non-conference SOS.
  • Marquette (15-11 | 6-7) | RPI: 66 | SOS: 30 | – Another loss to a good team Tuesday as the Golden Eagles dropped a home game to St. John’s. With a 3-8 mark away from home, losing home games could yet prove disasterous. If there’s good news, it’s that Marquette’s schedule is favorable down the stretch – other than a road trip to UConn. Posting wins is critical as Marquette is 3-10 vs. Top 50 teams and just 5-11 vs. Top 100 teams. If Marquette wins the games it should down the stretch, the Golden Eagles may still Dance. But the margin for error is now very thin.
BIG 10
Locks: Ohio State | Should Be In: Purdue, Wisconsin | Bubble: Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota, Michigan
  • Illinois (16-9 | 6-6) | RPI: 40 | SOS: 21 | – The Illini split last week, winning at Minnesota and losing at home to Purdue. Any road win helps, but had Illinois held serve at home, they could have given themselves a bit more breathing room. Next up is Michigan at home followed by back-to-back trips to Michigan State and Ohio State. Finishing 9-9 in the Big 10 would make Selection Sunday somewhat tenuous without a run in the league tournament. Good wins include N. Carolina, at Gonzaga, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. The losses at Indiana and UIC are sore points.
  • Michigan State (13-11 | 6-7) | RPI: 46 | SOS: 5 | After a debacle at Iowa, the Spartans pounded Penn State in East Lansing ahead of a good showing in Columbus on Tuesday. That said, MSU has just two wins since the dismissal of Korie Lucious – Indiana and Penn State at home. Can’t imagine those wins will carry a lot of weight. If there’s any magic left in Tom Izzo’s hat, now’s the time to pull out the rabbit. MSU is 3-8 vs. Top 50 teams and is 9-11 vs. the Top 200 – stat lines that often suggest NIT. Can MSU get to 10 league wins? That might be what it takes. Up next is home visit from Illinois.
  • Michigan (15-10 | 6-7) | RPI: 56 | SOS: 18 | While there’s not a lot to love about the Wolverine’s profile (2-7 vs. Top 50 teams), they have won 5 of 6 to creep into the at-large conversation. The win at Michigan State is helping. The Wolverines also have a sweep of Penn State. It’ll take a strong finish to warrant serious consideration – and it starts at Illinois. Michigan also has games against Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Minnesota remaining. Win those, and the Wolverines could have the league’s fourth-best in-conference profile. Would that be enough?
  • Minnesota (17-8 | 6-7) | RPI: 36 | SOS: 29 | Since the Gophers play Illinios only once in the regular season, losing at home to the Illini could prove problematic. Minnesota continues to fight through its injuries and personnel issues. Winning at Iowa ended a four-game slide, but how will the Committee view Minnesota with its current roster? Some of the team’s best wins came with players no longer on the active roster. Much like Michigan State, it could take 10 league wins for the Gophers to feel good heading into the Big 10 tourney in Indianapolis. Up next is a trip to Penn State followed by a home date with Michigan State.
BIG 12
Locks: Kansas, Texas | Should Be In: Missouri, Texas AM | Bubble: Kansas State, Baylor, Colorado, Oklahoma State
  • Baylor (16-8 | 6-5) | RPI: 62 | SOS: 62 | – While the win at Texas AM helps, the Bears can’t rely on one quality victory as a ticket to the Dance. Their overall profile remains very weak with a 1-4 mark vs. Top 50 teams and only 4 Top 100 victories. Out of conference, the Bears failed to win a Top 100 RPI game and their non-league SOS ranks No. 236. Up next is a must-win at home over Texas Tech followed by a trip to Missouri. The closing three won’t be easy, so time if of the essence. Baylor may need four more Big 12 wins.
  • Colorado (15-10 | 5-6) | RPI: 90 | SOS: 82 | – Thanks to a replay that saved Colorado from Jacob Pullen’s last-second trey in Boulder, the Buffaloes remain on the bubble. The victory also gave CU a season sweep of the Wildcats – something that could be useful. Three of the Buffs’ closing games are away from home – including a trip to Kansas – and one of the remaining home games is Texas. Tough spot, but the Buffaloes need big wins, so opportunity awaits. A non-league win over Colorado State is notable, but Colorado’s overall non-conference SOS ranks No. 307. Ouch. It’ll be tough to overcome weak power numbers, but CU remains alive.
  • Kansas State (16-9 | 5-6) | RPI: 32 | SOS: 7 | – Beating arch-rival Kansas in Manhattan gave K-State it first Top 50 RPI win (1-6 overall). But … one big win won’t push the Wildcats into the Field of 68. Other than a trip to Texas, the closing stretch is favorable for a nice run. K-State was swept by Colorado – we’ll see if that comes into play. So far, the Wildcats have avoided a bad RPI losss, something other bubble teams can’t necessarily say. A resurgence by Baylor, Washington State and Gonzaga would also help. Next up is a home date with Oklahoma followed by a trip to Nebraska.
  • Oklahoma State (16-8 | 4-6) | RPI: 55 | SOS: 64 | – The Cowboys’ loss at Nebraska puts OSU in a difficult spot. Up next is a trip to Texas. Then it’s home to Texas AM before a trip to Kansas. OSU is 2-6 in road games so it may not be long until the Cowboys leave the bubble. Oklahoma State has head-to-head losses against several other bubble teams (Gonzaga, Colorado, Baylor), too. It’s best non-conference win is Alabama in December. The Big 12 is taking a toll and OSU may not win enough to stay in the top half of the standings.
MOUNTAIN WEST
Locks: BYU, San Diego State | Should Be In: UNLV | Bubble: Colorado State, New Mexico
  • Colorado State (16-7 | 7-3) | RPI: 42 | SOS: 45 | – Beating New Mexico last weekend sets up a tough closing stretch with 4 of 6 away from home – including trips to league frontrunners BYU and San Diego State. CSU will probably need to beat San Diego State and/or BYU to feel good about its chances. CSU is 2-3 vs. the Top 50 and 5-5 vs. the Top 100. Winning at UNLV is a hight point, but the losses to Sam Houston and Hampton are not.
  • New Mexico (16-8 | 5-5) | RPI: 68 | SOS: 108 | – After falling at Colorado State to split the season series, the Lobos prepare for a trip to San Diego State. Since New Mexico has beaten BYU at The Pit, taking down the other league heavyweight could do wonders – especially on the road. Troubling road losses are to Utah and Wyoming. The power number are okay, but not ideal. Out of conference, there’s not much helping the Lobos and the number of quality wins remain light (2-3 vs. Top 50 / 4-6 vs the Top 100). Closing games include UNLV at home and a return trip to BYU. So there are chances if UNM can avoid any untimely losses.
PAC 10
Locks: NONE | Should Be In: Arizona | Bubble: Washington, Washington State, UCLA
  • Washington (17-7 | 9-4) | RPI: 37 | SOS: 58 | – The Hukies took care of their home games with Stanford and Cal last week in preparation for a swing through Arizona this weekend. Win both and Washington will put itself in good position for a closing slate of home games. A split would be okay. Losing both would be a signifcant step backward. UW’s top wins are Arizona and at UCLA – and overall Washington remains just 2-3 vs. Top 50 RPI teams. At this point, Washington still looks okay, but it falling off the pace wouldn’t be advised.
  • Washington State (17-8 | 7-6) | RPI: 74 | SOS: 99 | – WSU saved a potentially disasterous homestand by beating Cal on Saturday – they opened last weekend with a loss to Stanford. Overall, WSU is just 1-4 vs. Top 50 teams and 4-6 vs. Top 100 teams – so work remains. An early win over Gonzaga is not helping as much as expected, although the Baylor win could hold more weight if the Bears rebound. The next three (@Arizona, @Arizona State, and @Washington) may decide if the Cougars head to the NCAAs or the NIT.
  • UCLA (18-7 | 9-3) | RPI: 41 | SOS: 41 | – Having won 5 straight, the Bruins are good position with a second-place standing in the Pac-10. Victories over St. John’s and BYU are solid, although UCLA is still light on quality wins (2-4 vs. Top 50 teams). RPI and SOS numbers are good, but not outstanding. The Bruins only real blemish is an early defeat to Montana. So what’s ahead? … trips to Cal and Stanford this weekend. Getting both would be ideal, as the Arizona schools come to Pauley next week.
SEC
Locks: NONE | Should Be In: Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt | Bubble: Georgia, Alabama
  • Georgia (17-7 | 6-4) | RPI: 39 | SOS: 36 | – The Bulldogs are talented enough to make the NCAAs, but can they win enough SEC games? The next three should be telling – Vanderbilt at home, followed by road trips to Tennessee and Florida. UGA has an early victory over Kentucky, and a win over UAB could also help. All of the Bulldogs losses have been to teams ranked in the Top 40 of the RPI, so that’s a plus. Sounds a lot like Marquette. Time to start a winning streak.
  • Alabama (16-8 | 8-2) | RPI: 87 | SOS: 119 | – Assuming Alabama continues to beat its SEC West opponents, the Tide’s biggest closing games are at Florida and vs. Georgia. Thanks to a rough November and early December, Alabama’s overall resume remains questionable. Whether the Committee will overlook the Tide’s poor start (losses to St. Peter’s, Iowa, Seton Hall) largely depends on how the Tide finish. If they win the SEC West by multiple games, and notch another win or two over East Division contenders, there could be enough to warrant at-large consideration in March.
BEST OF THE REST
Locks: NONE | Should Be In: NONE | Bubble: Butler, Cleveland State, Missouri State, Wichita State, Old Dominion, George Mason, VCU, Memphis, Southern Mississippi, UAB, UTEP, Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, Utah State
  • Butler (18-9 | 11-5) | RPI: 44 | SOS: 51 | – Butler has won 5 straight to re-enter the Bubble picture | – Assuming the Vikings avoids any further upsets, the BracketBuster game at Old Dominion is huge. A loss would likely eliminate CSU from at-large consideration; a win would keep hopes alive. After being swept by Butler in head-to-head games, the best thing CSU can do is catch Valparaiso in the Horizon League standings.
  • Cleveland State (20-5 | 11-4) | RPI: 38 | SOS: 123
  • Missouri State (21-6 | 13-3) | RPI: 48 | SOS: 132 | – Missouri State has won four straight MVC games and remains tied with Wichita State atop the standings. The good news is the Bears have league wins at Wichita State and Northern Iowa. MSU hosts Wichita State on Feb. 26 with a chance to sweep the series. A non-conference SOS of No. 225 hurts as does a 2-4 mark vs. Top 100 RPI teams. The Bears’ best non-conference win is Pacific, so an MVC title might be necessary.
  • Wichita State (21-5 | 13-3) | RPI: 47 | SOS: 112 | – The Shockers are just 2-4 vs. Top 100 teams, so an outright Missouri Valley title might be necessary for serious at-large consideration. The good news is Wichita State travels to Missouri State on Feb. 26 – so avoiding any league losses between now and then is critcal. The winner would claim the MVC’s top seed in the league tournament. Missed chances in Maui continue to haunt WSU. An 8-1 record in road games is a plus, but losing to Missouri State at home could hurt if the Shockers are swept in the season series. The BracketBuster matchup with VCU is big as well.
  • Memphis (19-6 | 7-3) | RPI: 33 | SOS: 46 | – With a sweep of Southern Miss and a win at UAB in hand, the Tigers are in the best at-large position of any Conference USA team. Memphis also has nice road win at fellow bubble-dweller Gonzaga. The main prize, however, remains winning the C-USA title. Up next is a home date with UAB that would give Memphis another sweep. Then, the big date is at UTEP on Feb. 26 – assuming the Miners keep winning. It doesn’t help that Memphis was largely non-competitive in losses to Kansas, Tennessee, and Georgetown – and an ugly loss at SMU still lingers – but the Tigers’ outlook is better than some.
  • UAB (16-6 | 6-3) | RPI: 36 | SOS: 69 | – The Blazers are a solid team that lacks a marquee win. They are 0-4 vs. Top 50 teams (Duke, Memphis, Georgia, So. Miss). UAB’s best non-conference win is VCU at home. Within the league, their best is a 3-OT affair with UTEP. There’s also losses at Tulsa and Arizona State. Up next is a critical trip to Memphis. Overall, the Blazers close with 3 of 5 on the road. Staying with the C-USA leaders is a must.
  • Southern Mississippi (16-6 | 7-4) | RPI: 50 | SOS: 101 | – The Eagles are just 1-2 vs. Top 50 teams and have now been swept by Memphis. USM is also a game back of the C-USA leaders, so time is of the essence. Losses to Colorado State and Mississippi won’t help; neither will a non-conference SOS ranked No. 256. Next is a must-win game at home vs. UTEP. Beat the Miners and the closing stretch is manageable. A regular-season title would be a huge plus. Without it, the Eagles probably need a run to the C-USA final.
  • UTEP (18-5 | 7-2) | RPI: 53 | SOS: 127 | – Of UTEP’s 18 D-I wins, 15 are to teams ranked outside the Top 100 of the RPI. The best is an early victory over Michigan. Add in three sub-100 losses and the Miners are here as a fringe candidate because of their C-USA standing. Not much has changed, the Miners need to win a C-USA title for serious consideration. Even then, it could take a trip to the conference tournament final.
  • Old Dominion (21-6 | 12-4) | RPI: 30 | SOS: 67 | – Winning at VCU was a big get for the Monarchs, who look to be in decent shape at this point. Solid non-conference wins include Xavier, Richmond, and Clemson. ODU also played Georgetown to within three points. An 8-5 mark vs. Top 100 teams will help as will a non-league SOS ranked No. 25. Next is the BracketBuster with Cleveland State. Closing the regular season on a three-game winning streak would put ODU in a good spot heading into the CAA tournament.
  • VCU (20-8 | 12-4) | RPI: 63 | SOS: 130 | – Losing back-to-back home games to George Mason and Old Dominion could put VCU in a tough spot. VCU is 5-5 vs. Top 100 teams but would fall behind George Mason and Old Dominion in the CAA at-large pecking order. Not a great place to be. The Rams BracketBuster game at Wichita State might be a must-get ahead of the CAA Tournament. A game at Drexel to close won’t be easy, either.
  • George Mason (22-5 | 14-2) | RPI: 21 | SOS: 66 | – After a dominant road win at VCU on Tuesday, the Patriots lead the CAA by two full games. Winning the league by that margin could be enough to give GMU an at-large bid, if needed. The Patriots are 8-4 vs. Top 100 teams. The lone miscue is Wofford in November. The BracketBuster game at Northern Iowa isn’t critical, but another Top 100 victory would certainly make the Patriots’ case even stronger. GMU’s final two CAA games are very winnable (N’Eastern, Ga. State).
  • Gonzaga (16-9 | 7-3) | RPI: 71 | SOS: 69 | – The Zags’ home loss to Memphis could still hamper the Bulldogs’ at-large chances. There are some good wins – Baylor, Xavier, Marquette – but only Xavier is a solid NCAA team at this point. A good SOS always helps. At the same time, Gonzaga is 1-6 vs. Top 50 RPI teams and 7-9 vs. the Top 200 – generally a big no-no for at-large consideration. Winning at St. Mary’s (Feb. 24) is important, too.
  • St. Mary’s (20-4 | 10-1) | RPI: 31 | SOS: 116 | – Winning an outright WCC title would likely be enough as long as St. Mary’s doesn’t slide to the finish. An early win over St. John’s helps, but the Gaels were blown out at Vanderbilt and have only the one Top 50 win. At 3-4 vs. Top 100 teams, St. Mary’s can’t breathe too easy. A BracketBuster matchup with Utah State holds some weight, too.
  • Utah State (23-3 | 12-1) | RPI: 26 | SOS: 144 | – The Aggies have a lot of wins but only one (Long Beach No. 99) to a team ranked in the Top 100 of the RPI. That could still be a major hurdle – especially if the Aggies lose their BracketBuster game at St. Mary’s. USU missed against BYU and Georgetown. Would the Committee leave USU out if they lose in the WAC tournament? We’ve seen it happen before.
  •  

Robinson’s Return Provides Boost For Virginia Tech

AP Photo/Ben Margot
Leave a comment

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Having star point guard Justin Robinson back on the court was music to the ears of Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams.

Specifically for Williams, it was the relaxing feeling he gets when listening to the Eagles playing their soft rock classic “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

“When 5 has the ball, I think everybody feels that way,” Williams said Saturday, referring to Robinson’s uniform number. “Our guys don’t listen to that genre of music. When 5 had the ball yesterday, I know statistically it wasn’t his normal game, but in the 27 minutes he played he was a big part of handling Saint Louis’ pressure, handling their physicality. Because when he has the ball, you know he’ll make the right decision.”

Robinson’s return after missing 12 games with an injured left foot helped make the Hokies complete again.

The player his teammates dub the engine that makes Virginia Tech go and the player Williams calls perhaps the most important person in the turnaround of the program the past few years, is back for the most important stretch of the season.

After shaking off some rust in the 66-52 win over the Billikens, Robinson is ready to build on that performance and go on a long tournament run when the fourth-seeded Hokies (25-8) take on 12th-seeded Liberty (29-6) in the second round in the East Region.

“To be able to play how many minutes I played last night was big for my team and big for my confidence,” Robinson said. “There were a couple of shots that I’d normally hit that I missed. I had four turnovers. That’s not like me. That’s something I’m not happy with. But being able to get out there and play again was big for me. Being able to get the rust off is something I can build on.”

The Hokies managed to go 7-5 in Robinson’s absence, beating perennial power Duke at home and losing only once to an unranked team in the process. But it didn’t mean his presence wasn’t missed.

Williams said he’s had few players better in his coaching career at translating his lessons to the players on the court to make sure the team operates at peak efficiency.

Robinson came into the game with 13:39 to play in the first half. He had a steal that led to a fast-break basket by Ahmed Hill and then made his first shot he took, a 3-pointer, prompting him to yell, “I’m back!”

He finished with 9 points and two assists in 27 minutes, but helped handle the pressure that kept Saint Louis at bay in the second half. He got a hug from Williams on the sideline after he came out of the game in the final minute.

“You almost feel the presence,” teammate Nickeil Alexander-Walker said. “We’ve had good starts offensively without him but you almost see glimpses of what we were in nonconference, how everything flows just a little bit better. You really feel a presence. Having an all-conference guy back just doing what he does, even if it’s just a little bit, it helps a lot to our offense. Now we add another weapon, another threat. … Just having him back was huge.”

Robinson is Virginia Tech’s all-time leader in assists and averaged 14.4 points and 5.5 assists per game before getting hurt at Miami in January. During his absence, Virginia Tech scored more than 12 fewer points per game and averaged more than four assists fewer per game.

His impact is no surprise to the Flames, who saw him up close back in November in a charity exhibition. Robinson led all scorers with 20 points that game as Virginia Tech won 86-70.

“I think he’s a pro. He’s got unbelievable vision. What he brings to Virginia Tech is a heightened sense of confidence,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said. “Obviously he’ll probably have to shake off some rust, but he’s a terrific player. He’s one of the best guards that we’ve faced all year. And we’ve faced some really good ones.”

Ja Morant’s thrilling season comes to an end in the second round

AP Photo/Jessica Hill
Leave a comment

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Ja Morant, perhaps sensing this would be his last opportunity to score for Murray State, turned on the jets and darted through three defenders for a driving layup.

That gave Morant 28 points and Racers fans one final thrill in a season full of them. Moments later, with Florida State way ahead and about a minute and half left on the clock, Morant came out of the game. He received a warm ovation from the Murray State fans, took a seat on the sideline and draped a towel over his head.

As the clock wound down on Florida State’s 90-62 victory against 12th-seeded Murray State in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, Morant wondered what more he could have done for his team and what could have been.

“I was just hurt not being able to take the floor with these guys for the rest of this season, for another game or possibly two, three, four,” Morant said. “But it’s been a great season. I really was just thinking back on what all we have accomplished this year.”

Two days after Morant became the talk of the tournament with a triple-double that had NBA stars Steph Curry and Luka Doncic marveling at the sure-fire lottery pick, his breakout season ended with far less fanfare. He dazzled early, going 5 for 5 from 3-point range in the first half against the Seminoles, flashing his step-back and cross-over jumpers. He had 18 points at the half. But Florida State was winning everywhere else, forcing turnovers, getting into transition and knocking down 3s.

Morant had only four assists after notching 16 in the first round. He leads the country at 10 assists per game and the Seminoles were determined not to let Morant pick them apart. The 3-pointers looked good, but as far as Florida State was concerned that was a good sign.

“We knew that eventually that’s not the way they want to play,” Florida State’s Terance Mann said.

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton chuckled at the suggestion the Seminoles did good job on Morant.

“Because to be honest with you, I’m still not sure that we stopped Morant, and I’m not sure anybody can,” Hamilton said.

Morant was 2 for 9 in the second half. His only other bucket was, of course, highlight-worthy. The lanky 6-foot-3 point guard drove right at 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje and flipped in a layup while getting fouled.

“I’m really just hard on myself. I’m never no good. I feel like I could have done a lot of things better tonight. Just pick my teammates up,” Morant said.

Stopping Morant is probably not going to be a problem for college coaches anymore. After being lightly recruited out of high school, Morant ascended to stardom this season as a sophomore, and is now projected to be a top-three pick. In a quiet locker room after the game, Morant dutifully said he has not made up his mind about entering the draft and was not sure when he would.

“I’m not focused on that right now,” Morant said “I’m just trying to celebrate a wonderful season with my teammates.”

Teammate Darnell Cowart made it pretty clear he was not expecting Morant to be back.

“Would you leave?” Cowart asked reporters after the game.

Murray State won two straight Ohio Valley Conference championships with Morant and made the NCAA Tournament twice. Morant was a promising freshman role player on last year’s team, but this season he blossomed into a sensation. His tournament triple-double, just the ninth recorded by the NCAA, turned him into a celebrity.

“I thought he was able to really do a tremendous job of blocking out all the noise and just staying focused on becoming the best player he could be,” Murray State coach Matt McMahon said.

Saturday marked the end for Murray State’s season, but Morant’s story seems to be just getting started.

Best Bets: The Bettor’s Guide to Sunday’s NCAA tournament games

John Weast/Getty Images
Leave a comment

12:10 p.m.: No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 10 Iowa, CBS

  • LINE: Tennessee (-8)
  • TOTAL: 156.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Tennessee 82.25, Iowa 74.25
  • KENPOM: Tennessee 83, Iowa 76

I love Tennessee this year and I think Iowa is not really all that good this year, so I’m always going to be on the Tennessee side here. But this is the kicker for me: We’ve talked all season long about how Tennessee is unique in the sense that they are one of the nation’s elite offenses from an efficiency perspective despite the fact that they get just 25.6 percent of their points from beyond the arc.

What they do, however, is get 55.8 percent of their points on two point field goals (20th nationally) and shooting 55.7 percent from two point range (19th nationally). Iowa is one of the worst teams in the country in terms of defending two-point shots. That’s all I need to know.

PICK: Tennessee (-8)

2:40 p.m.: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Washington, CBS

  • LINE: North Carolina (-11.5)
  • TOTAL: 147.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: North Carolina 79.5, Washington 68
  • KENPOM: North Carolina 78, Washington 68

I really like North Carolina to cover here because I don’t going zone against the Tar Heels is necessarily ideal. One of the tenets of UNC’s offense is that they pound the offensive glass. We all know how difficult it is to rebound out of a 2-3 zone, and Washington is particularly bad at it — 345th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage.

The other part of this is that North Carolina has not been all that turnover prone this year, and one of the ways that Washington generates offense is with their defense. Pick-six buckets off live-ball turnovers, blocked shots leading run outs, all of the things that Syracuse thrives on. It’s worth noting that the Tar Heels beat the Orange, 93-85, the one time they played this season.

PICK: As impressive as Washington was in the first round, I do think that UNC’s familiarity with the zone that Washington plays will play a factor. Part of the reason that Jim Boeheim made the zone his staple is because it makes his opponents uncomfortable. I don’t see that happening with UNC — according to Synergy, they are actually more efficient playing against a zone than against man — and that’s to say nothing of the fact that their transition game will help reduce the number of possessions they have to face the zone.

5:15 p.m.: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 9 UCF, CBS

  • LINE: Duke (-13.5)
  • TOTAL: 143.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Duke 78.5, UCF 65
  • KENPOM: Duke 77, UCF 66

UCF has not been quite as good defensively this season as they were last season, but this is still a team and a program that is anchored by the way that they can defend. Their strength on that end of the floor is funneling players into the paint where they have one of the world’s 40 tallest human beings — 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall — patrolling. We all know the scouting report on Duke at this point. The Blue Devils attack the rim relentlessly because they are one of the worst shooting teams in college basketball, and I think that UCF will be able to control tempo and muck it up in the paint enough to keep Duke from running away with this thing.

PICK: I think UCF (+13.5) is the play, and I also think that the under here is mildly interesting, the concern that I have is with Duke’s transition game. UCF is hardly Virginia when it comes to protecting the ball and avoiding turnovers, but B.J. Taylor has been pretty effective at protecting the ball this season.

6:10 p.m.: No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 6 Buffalo, TNT

  • LINE: Texas Tech (-3.5)
  • TOTAL: 146
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Texas Tech 75.25, Buffalo 71.75
  • KENPOM: Texas Tech 74, Buffalo 70

I honestly don’t have a great feel for this game because I think these teams are just so similar. They both rely on toughness. They both play terrific, physical perimeter defense. They both force a ton of turnovers.

PICK: I’m probably going to stay away, but I will say this: I would never, ever bet on someone out-toughing a Chris Beard team. So if you’re going to make me bet, I’ll take the Red Raiders.

7:10 p.m.: No. 4 Virginia Tech vs. No. 12 Liberty, TBS

  • LINE: Virginia Tech (-9)
  • TOTAL: 125.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Virginia Tech 67.25, Liberty 58.25
  • KENPOM: Virginia Tech 68, Liberty 60

Liberty’s head coach, Ritchie McKay, is a Tony Bennett disciple, and what that means is that he runs the Pack-Line, he controls tempo as much as possible and his teams played a slowed down brand of basketball. The evidence? They are 349th nationally in tempo.

Virginia Tech is no different this season. While they have put up some pretty big scoring and shooting numbers this year, this is a group that ranks outside the top 300 in pace, in average possession length on the offensive end of the floor and average possession length on the defensive end of the floor.

PICK: I like the Liberty side, as nine points is a lot of points in what will assuredly be a low-scoring game. The under is also an interesting bet here. This is going to be a 60 possession basketball game, and I think that these two defenses are good enough to keep the game in the high 50s or low 60s.

7:45 p.m.: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 9 Oklahoma, TruTV

  • LINE: Virginia (-11.5)
  • TOTAL: 127.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Virginia 69.5, Oklahoma 58
  • KENPOM: Virginia 70, Oklahoma 59

The question that you need to ask yourself here is whether or not you think that Virginia shook off their NCAA tournament demons in the first round, because on paper, this is just an atrocious matchup for the Sooners. Oklahoma is not a team that gets much of their offense from beyond the arc, and making perimeter jumpers over the Pack-Line is the way that you typically have to play to beat the Wahoos.

The one thing I will say is this: Oklahoma does have some bigger guards, and Lon Kruger runs them off of a lot of flex cuts and inverts his offense with his guards posting up. This could be exploitable, especially when Tony Bennett runs out lineups that have both Kihei Clark and Kyle Guy on the floor.

PICK: I tend to lean towards Virginia here. Oklahoma has played well of late, but I just don’t think that they have enough answers for Virginia.

8:40 p.m.: No. 3 Houston vs. No. 11 Ohio State, TNT

  • LINE: Houston (-6)
  • TOTAL: 131
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Houston 68.5, Ohio State 62.5
  • KENPOM: Houston 68, Ohio State 62

I think this is where the Ohio State run comes to an end, and it’s because I think that the Cougars will be able to overwhelm Ohio State on the defensive end of the floor. Houston leads the nation in defensive effective field goal percentage. Most importantly there is the fact that they double the post and do everything they can to keep bigs from beating them, which is bad news for an Ohio State team that runs their stuff through Kaleb Wesson.

PICK: There is a part of me that wants to stay away from this game. I have the utmost respect for Chris Holtmann as a coach. He’s proven over and over again that he can get more out of a group of kids than just about anyone, and I fully expect the Buckeyes to be prepared for this game. If I had to bet, I’ll take Houston, but I don’t love it.

9:40 p.m.: No. 12 Oregon vs. No. 13 UC Irvine, TBS

  • LINE: Oregon (-5.5)
  • TOTAL: 122.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Oregon 64, UC Irvine 58.5
  • KENPOM: Oregon 64, UC Irvine 60

Like Liberty-Virginia Tech, this game is going to be slow, physical and low-scoring. And like Liberty, Irvine is legitimately good enough to beat another power conference team. I’ve also reached the point where I am fully bought in on this Oregon team being a legitimate top 25 caliber team. They’ve won nine straight games, and seven of those nine have come on the road or on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Washington twice — both away from home — and smacked around Wisconsin on a neutral court.

The other part of this is that Oregon is a tougher matchup for Irvine than Kansas State was without Dean Wade. The Ducks have more shooters, their wings are bigger and more capable than Kansas State’s were and they don’t rely on scoring inside the arc the way that the Wildcats did.

PICK: It will be interesting to see where the total moves here. 122.5 is a really low number, and based on what’s happened with some other games with low totals, I would not be surprised to see it drop. If this gets under 120, I think I like the over.

I also think that Oregon (-5.5) is the bet here. I have the utmost respect for Russell Turner and the job that he has done with the Anteaters, but Dana Altman has this Oregon team playing their best basketball at the right time.

Cassius Winston’s brilliance on full display as Michigan State returns to the Sweet 16

AP Photo/Nati Harnik
Leave a comment

DES MOINES, Iowa — Starved for something to cheer for, the thousands of Minnesotans who made the trek a couple hundred miles south down Interstate 35 finally came to life. The Gophers they were there to cheer for, the program which was looking to return to the Sweet 16 for the first time in two decades, trimmed a 20-point lead against the Big Ten co-champs, the team that had destroyed them by 24 a month earlier, to nine points.

Seemingly everything other than the scoreboard seemed in Minnesota’s favor, and that looked suddenly in play.

“It got loud,” Winston said.

That’s when Tom Izzo told Winston to go to work.

“I told him he’s got to take over,” the Hall of Famer said, “and like a true All-American did.”

Instead of a superhero in a cape, the Spartans have a diminutive guard in a headband, though the results are largely the same.

Winston scored seven-straight points while recording two steals and a rebound in just over a minute to resecure the game for Michigan State and send the Spartans into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015’s Final Four run with 70-50 win Saturday against Minnesota at Wells Fargo Arena.

“You’ve got to make big plays. I’ve got to be who I am for this team. That’s my role for this team,” Winston said. “That’s what I’ve been doing all year. I don’t try to do too much. I don’t try to put the world on my shoulders, but I try to make plays to the best of my ability.”

The world may not have been on Winston’s shoulders, but the Spartans were on his back during that remarkable 82-second stretch that few players in the country could replicate.

An 8-0 run by Minnesota trimmed what had once been a 20-point Michigan State advantage to single digits, 40-31, with under 14 minutes to play in the game. After a Michigan State turnover, the Gophers had the opportunity to cut even further into their deficit, but Dupree Macbrayer’s jumper was off the mark, and Winston collected the rebound. On the ensuing possession as the shot clock dipped down, Winston connected on a step-back jumper.

He then picked off a pass from Gabe Kalscheuer, and hit another jumper on the other end. Next it was a deflection that lead to a fast break, where Winston pulled up in transition and buried a 3-pointer. Seven points in 57 seconds. A ballgame decided and a Sweet 16 trip to Washington, D.C. locked up in under a minute.

“That really killed us,” Gopher forward Amir Coffey said. “We had it going a little bit, and Cassius just came through for Michigan State and hit some clutch shots.”

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It’s what Winston has been doing for Michigan State all year. Whether it was a season-ending injury to Josh Langford or the  ailments that have sidelined Nick Ward or Kyle Aherns. Michigan State has time and again looked as though it faced a situation where its season could go sideways only to have Winston there to set the Spartans straight. The Big Ten player of the year has been tremendous, averaging 19.1 points and 7.5 assists per game while shooting 47.2 percent from the floor and 40.4 percent from distance.

“That’s just typical Cassius. That’s just what he does,” sophomore Xavier Tillman said. “Whenever we need him to score, whenever we need him to distribute, whenever we need him to just lead vocally he does whatever we need him to do, and that was just another day in the park.”

That scoring outburst was exactly what Michigan State needed to shutdown the Gophers, and it was about all Winston could give the Spartans. The Big Ten tournament champions have played five games in eight days, and Winston has looked worse for the wear. Those seven points were more than half of what he scored for the game, finishing with 13 points on 5 of 11 shooting (1 of 4 from 3) along with nine assists and four turnovers.

When Minnesota had its chance to truly threaten the Spartans, Winston found the strength, will, fortitude or maybe just a second wind enough to put a halt to it.

“He was hurting. He just was worn out. I said, ‘Well, here is the way it is, my man,’” Izzo said. “‘If you’re worn out you’ll get a lot of rest. If you’re not worn out you got another week or so and you’ll get a lot of rest any way. So how about we get after it and try to prolong this.’

“I just love the fact that he responded. He wouldn’t have responded like that two years ago if you ask me. He responded and I know how he felt. Yet I also know what he did. It was pretty impressive.”

It also put an end to the recent run of calamities for the Spartans in the NCAA tournament. There was Middle Tennessee State in 2016 followed by a nine-seed season that No. 1 Kansas put an end to in the Round of 32. Last year it was 11-seed Syracuse that sent Michigan State home that first weekend.

For a program that has prided itself on consistent Final Fours, a run like that is grating.

“Amazing, to finally get over the hump,” Winston said, “get to that second weekend.”

Nearly as amazing as how Winston took a few dozen seconds to win a game and keep the Spartans on track to perhaps in a week retrace the path all those dejected Gopher fans were making Saturday night, north to Minneapolis.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

 

Missouri’s Jontay Porter re-tears ACL

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jontay Porter, a 6-foot-11 sophomore for the Missouri Tigers, re-tore the ACL in his right knee while rehabbing the injury in Denver, the school confirmed on Saturday evening.

Porter missed the 2018-19 season after tearing the ACL and the MCL in the same knee. He averaged 9.9 points and 6.8 boards as a freshman before declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft. He went through the draft process, but opted to return to school for his sophomore season.

He suffered the first injury in October.

Jontay is the younger brother of Michael Porter Jr., who missed almost all of his freshman season at Missouri with back problems.