Some non-BCS schools sitting pretty for at-large NCAA bids

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Which non-majors have put themselves in a position to be in the at-large discussion next March?

There is, of course, a lot of basketball yet to be played, so things may look a bit different when we launch Bubble Banter in February.  We’ll call this Stocking Stuffer Part I.  Part II will feature a look at major conference teams that could be on or near the bubble come March.

(Note: For this discussion, Atlantic 10, Mountain West, and Conference USA teams will be featured in Part II.)

Teams to watch

Murray State
The Racers have beaten Southern Mississippi at the Great Alaska Shootout, Dayton at home, and Memphis on the road.  Those were the three biggest challenges on Murray’s non-conference slate.  The victory at Memphis figures to hold the most weight, although the Tigers have not looked much like a Top 20 team this season.

Road Bumps: The Ohio Valley Conference isn’t very strong and will certainly be an anchor to Murray’s RPI and overall strength-of-schedule.  The Racers have also played three non-Division I opponents – two of those scheduled at home.  If Murray can finish its non-conference slate unbeaten, the Racers should be able to absorb a loss or two in the OVC.  Any more than that, plus a loss in the OVC tournament, would make it interesting.  How Southern Miss, Dayton, and Memphis finish the season will also be a factor.

Creighton
The Bluejays’ victory at San Diego State could pay big dividends.  Beating Northwestern (Dec. 22) will be important, too.  That would leave Creighton 2-1 against its best non-conference opponents (CU lost at St. Joseph’s).  Given the Bluejays status as Missouri Valley favorite, the outlook for an at-large bid is favorable if the scenario above unfolds.

Road Bumps: Playing on the road in the Valley is never easy, but it will be important for Creighton to avoid “bad losses” along the way.  It will also help if CU separates itself with or above Northern Iowa and Wichita State at the top of the standings.

Northern Iowa
While the Panthers are off to a strong start – including a 4-1 record away from home, they lack a marquee victory.  UNI’s win at Old Dominion was solid but the Panthers followed it up with a double-digit loss at St. Mary’s – another potential bubble team.  The game with Ohio (Dec. 20) figures to be huge for both schools.

Road Bumps: Northern Iowa will need to keep pace – and beat – both Creighton and Wichita State during the Missouri Valley season.  Much like Creighton, UNI will need to avoid “bad losses” to those at the bottom of the league standings.

Wichita State
After missing chances against Alabama and Temple in Puerto Rico, the Shockers posted a strong win over UNLV at home.  Without that, WSU’s profile is much less inviting.  Thus, the Shockers’ margin for error is a smaller than it might appear.   Last year, Wichita State missed its chances against Connecticut (Maui) and San Diego State (road) and headed to the NIT.  Will the victory over UNLV hold enough weight?  Depends on how the Rebels finish the season.

Road Bumps: See Creighton and Northern Iowa above.  The three frontrunners in the MVC need to stay above the fray and beat each other along the way.

Harvard
Without a conference tournament, Harvard doesn’t have the option of winning a regular-season title and then losing in its tournament final.  It’s all or nothing.  So the question becomes, could Harvard make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team by finishing second in a conference currently ranked 18th in the RPI?  Wins over Florida State and Central Florida in the Bahamas will help – even though Harvard was outmatched at Connecticut.  The Crimson’s game with St. Joseph’s is their last chance to make a strong impression.

Road Bumps: Other than St. Joe’s, there are no teams ranked in the Top 100 of the RPI remaining on Harvard’s schedule.  Any league losses will be to non-NCAA teams.  Finishing behind one of those teams during the course of the regular season could make an at-large bid hard to find.

Belmont
The Bruins are team many believe can win a game (or two) in the NCAAs.  But Belmont has to make the field first.  Right now, the Bruins’ best victory is a double-overtime win at Middle Tennessee State – a team the Bruins played on the road again this past week (and lost).  Saturday’s loss at Miami-OH is the one that could sting the Bruins, though.  If close counts, then Belmont’s one-point loss at Duke to open the season may help.  But there’s no question that Duke and Memphis were Belmont’s best chances to make a splash, and the Bruins missed both opportunities.  Beating Marshall (Dec.19) is now critical.  It’s the Bruins’ last chance against an NCAA-caliber team.

Road Bumps: Atlantic Sun play will offer little help, so Belmont will need to win its league (again) in impressive fashion.  Do that and the Bruins can stay in the at-large discussion.  Whether it’s enough depends on how the rest of the national landscape looks on Selection Sunday.

Iona
The Gaels’ resume is pretty solid at this point.  Iona has wins over Maryland (neutral), St. Joseph’s (home), Denver (road), and Richmond (road).  Losses are to Purdue (one point – neutral) and at Marshall.  The Gaels are currently in a stretch of eight straight road games have gone 6-1 in the first seven.  Those are numbers and schedule benefits that will compare favorably in March.

Road Bumps: Fairfield will challenge Iona for the MAAC title.  A regular-season title would certainly help the Gaels’ at-large chances.  We saw that with UAB last year.

Denver
The Pioneers have wins over Southern Mississippi and St. Mary’s at home.  Both could be fellow bubble teams.  Losses are at California and to Iona at home.  The latter could prove important if those two are compared.  That said, Denver has positioned itself as an at-large candidate if it can win a regular-season Sun Belt title and avoid many more losses along the way.

Road Bumps: Middle Tennessee State has proven it can beat quality teams, so the road to a Sun Belt title won’t be easy.  If both of those teams dominate the conference and play each other in the conference tournament final, it’ll be interesting to see if the loser garners an at-large bid.

Middle Tennessee State
An early win at UCLA is not helping the Blue Raiders much right now.  But a split with Belmont (both at home) is worthy of consideration.  MTSU’s other loss is at UAB – which hurts.  Up next is Mississippi (Dec. 21).  It’s MTSU’s last chance to put something of note on its non-conference resume.

Road Bumps: The Raiders will have to keep pace with Denver in the Sun Belt and split games with the Pioneers to have any realistic shot at an at-large bid.  If that happens, and both teams play in the Sun Belt final, MTSU will likely be on the at-large board.  It may not be enough, but they will be in the discussion.

Long Beach State – Few teams have played a tougher slate.  A victory at Pittsburgh will help, but there was also a miscue at Montana. To date, LBSU has lost at San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina.  Those are all good losses in close games.  The question is whether LBSU can compile enough quality wins.  It may come down to the 49ers game with Xavier on Dec. 22. 

Road Bumps: The Big West isn’t very strong so the conference road has the potential for a host of bad losses.  LBSU doesn’t have to be perfect in conference play, but pretty close.  If the 49ers can avoid more than one or two losses, they should be in the at-large picture.

St. Mary’s
In its toughest games to date, the Gaels beat Northern Iowa at home and lost at Denver. A road trip to Baylor (Dec. 22) and a date with Missouri State are St. Mary’s last chances to do anything outside the West Coast Conference.  A split is important – especially if the Gaels can pull off the upset in Waco. Then it’ll come down to St. Mary’s performance against BYU and Gonzaga in the WCC.

Road Bumps: Playing two non-DI games won’t help the Gaels and the WCC is stronger top to bottom than most people think.

BYU
The Cougars are behind the curve after opening with a loss at Utah State and falling easily at Wisconsin.  Saturday, the Cougars missed a golden chance to upset Baylor.  The rest of BYU’s non-conference slate isn’t much to talk about.  Beating Oregon at home is OK, but not the type of victory that will earn many NCAA points.

Road Bumps: At this point, BYU needs to finish with Gonzaga and St. Mary’s at the top of the West Coast Conference.  Finishing third and losing early in the WCC tourney probably won’t be enough.

Ohio – A close loss at Louisville and a victory at Marshall have the Bobcats in contention.  Ohio’s game at Northern Iowa (Dec. 20) is huge.  It would give the Bobcats another notable non-conference victory and position them ahead of UNI heading into conference play.

Road Bumps: Kent State, and a few others, will make the Mid-American Conference journey a bit challenging.  If Ohio can pile up MAC wins, avoid “bad losses”, and reach the conference title game against Kent State, an at-large bid is possible.

Kent State – The Flashes are many people’s favorite to win the Mid-American Conference.  A season-opening victory at West Virginia will help and Kent’s loss to Cleveland State won’t hurt the flashes – even though it was home.  KSU’s biggest issue is that its remaining conference slate has been pretty light, and the Flashes won’t play another Top 100 RPI team until they travel to Ohio on January 18.

Road Bumps: Kent will need a strong run in the MAC season to keep the door open.  That won’t be easy with teams like Ohio, Akron, and Bowling Green to contend with – especially on the road.

Cleveland State – The Vikings have played just two home games.  That will help CSU’s power numbers.  So will victories at Vanderbilt – although the Commodores have sputtered – and Kent State.  The dent in the armor is a “bad loss” at Hofstra.  Whether or not that plays a role depends on CSU’s performance in the Horizon League.  At this point, Horizon foes Butler and Detroit will not provide a significant resume boost Milwaukee is a wildcard.  That could change, of course, but it’s something to note.

Road Bumps: Conference play is never easy.  How the Vikings navigate the Horizon landscape will be telling.  A strong showing and regular-season title will keep CSU in the at-large picture.

Dave Ommen is one of college basketball’s premier bracketologists. You can read more of his work at Bracketville or follow him on Twitter @BracketguyDave.

Miles Kelly leads Ga. Tech to 79-77 win over rival Georgia

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 02 Northeastern at Georgia Tech
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ATLANTA – Georgia Tech’s Miles Kelly hit another winning shot against a state rival.

Terry Roberts endured a nightmarish final minute for Georgia.

Kelly hit a long 3-pointer and then a drove for the game-winning floater with 23 seconds remaining as the Yellow Jackets rallied to beat Georgia 79-77 on Tuesday night.

Kelly hit the winning shot in similar fashion against Georgia State on Nov. 12. He did it again to beat the Bulldogs, finishing with a team-high 17 points after failing to score in the first half.

“I’m going to continue to keep shooting, no matter how many times I miss,” Kelly said.

Roberts missed a 3-pointer, turned the ball over twice with bad passes, and was called for an offensive foul as he was trying to drive for the basket that would’ve sent the game to overtime.

“A tough finish for us,” Georgia first-year coach Mike White said. “We were in position to steal one on the road.”

A pair of second-chance buckets seemingly put Georgia (7-3) in control with a 77-73 lead.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t score again as Kelly led the comeback for the Yellow Jackets (6-3) – with a big assist from Roberts.

He had a chance to essentially seal it for the Bulldogs, but his jumper beyond the arc clanked off the rim.

Georgia Tech grabbed the rebound and raced down the court, where Kelly swished a 3 from well behind the stripe that brought Georgia Tech within a point with about a minute left.

Trying to work the ball inside, Roberts made an ill-advised entry pass that was deflected and stolen by Deivon Smith, setting up Kelly’s drive for the basket that put the Yellow Jackets back ahead,

Roberts tried a drive of his own, only to have it blocked by Jalon Moore. Georgia retained possession, but Roberts’ inbounds pass was stolen by Moore, who was fouled and made one of two free throws.

Roberts took the ball again and hurriedly dribbled toward the basket, only to be called for an offensive foul when he sent Smith flying.

“Just sacrificing my body for the team,” Smith said.

Georgia stole an inbounds pass around midcourt, giving Karlo Oquendo one last shot to launch a 3 that still would’ve won it for the Bulldogs. It bounced off the rim.

The game was tight throughout. Neither team led by more than eight, and a sequence in the second half showed just how tightly these rivals were matched.

With both squads playing at a frenetic pace and showing little regard for defense, the lead changed hands on eight straight possessions as the teams traded baskets.

Stunningly, they combined to score on 19 straight possessions before Georgia’s Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe missed a pair of free throws with 5:17 remaining.

FIRING UP THE CROWD

Perhaps the biggest cheer of the night came when Georgia Tech football coach Brent Key addressed the crowd at halftime.

Key, who served as interim coach for the last eight games of the season, was introduced Monday as the full-time choice for job.

He fired up the fans by getting them to chant “To hell with Georgia” over and over again. When a smattering of Bulldogs fans responded with barks, Key smiled and egged on the Yellow Jackets crowd to drown them out.

He also declared Georgia Tech to be the “greatest school in the entire state, the entire country,” following up his vow the previous day to not back down from the defending national champion and top-ranked Bulldogs.

BIG PICTURE

Georgia: This will be a tough one to swallow for Roberts, who led his team with 16 points and seven assists. The Bulldogs lost despite shooting 53.4% from the field.

Georgia Tech: Four players scored in double figures, and two others players finished with eight points. But it was Kelly, as usual, who had the ball in his hands at the end of a tight game.

UP NEXT

Georgia: After a nearly two-week break, the Bulldogs return to Atlanta on Dec. 18 to face Notre Dame at State Farm Arena in the Holiday Hoopsgiving event.

Georgia Tech: Head to North Carolina on Saturday for the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against the struggling Tar Heels.

No. 17 Illinois rallies late, beats No. 2 Texas 85-78 in OT

Illinois v Maryland
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NEW YORK – Terrence Shannon Jr. scored 12 of his 16 points in overtime, including the tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3:34 remaining, and No. 17 Illinois rallied to hand second-ranked Texas its first loss of the season, 85-78 on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic.

Jayden Epps added 11 points, including the final five points of regulation – a 3-pointer with 35 seconds left and two tying free throws with 8 seconds remaining. Epps then blocked Marcus Carr’s jumper in the lane just before the buzzer to force overtime in an entertaining showdown at Madison Square Garden.

Matthew Mayer, who faced Texas several times at Baylor, tied a career high with 21 points as he made his first seven shots and finished 8 of 10.

Shannon, who missed eight of nine shots in regulation, took over in the extra period to help Illinois (7-2) beat a ranked foe for the second time this season. He opened overtime with a jumper after Marcus Carr was called for traveling and then hit an open 3 from the right wing over Brock Cunningham for a 73-70 lead.

Shannon then converted a reverse layup and finished off a three-point play to make it 77-70 with 2:16 left. Carr hit two free throws to get Texas within one with 1:28 remaining. Jayden Epps hit a layup, RJ Melendez sank two free throws to put Illinois ahead by five, and Shannon made two free throws with 27.7 seconds left.

Timmy Allen scored a season-high 21 points for Texas (6-1), which failed to open 7-0 for the first time since 2014-15. Tyrese Hunter added 10 points but Carr was held to nine points on 3-of-14 shooting as Texas had 12 shots blocked and shot 42%.

Texas took its only double-digit lead when Dillon Mitchell hit a layup with 8:28 left. Illinois cut the lead to 58-56 on a 3 by Melendez nearly four minutes later. After Cunningham hit an open 3 with 4:15 remaining, Si’Jabari Rice made a 3 for a 64-58 lead.

Allen found Cunningham for an open jumper that counted when officials called goaltending on Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins. That gave Texas a 65-61 lead with with 1:51 remaining.

Carr’s rainbow jumper in the lane made it 68-63 with a minute left and Illinois had a 3-pointer by Melendez waved off because it called timeout with 45.3 seconds left. After the timeout, Epps made an open corner 3 with 33 seconds remaining.

Hunter missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to set up Epps’ tying free throws.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois: The Illini continued to struggle with turnovers, committing 17. But only two of them came in the final 10-plus minutes of regulation or overtime. Illinois’ 15th turnover was an offensive foul by Mayer, which sent him to the bench with four fouls with 10:42 remaining.

Texas: The Longhorns had little offense beyond Allen and Hunter. While the duo was a combined 13 of 29, the rest of the team missed 24 of 40 shots.

UP NEXT

Illinois hosts Penn State in its second Big Ten game on Saturday. The Illini lost their conference opener to No. 13 Maryland.

Texas hosts Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the Jimmy Blacklock Classic on Saturday.

Clark, Gardner lift No. 3 Virginia past James Madison, 55-50

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Kihei Clark scored 18 points, Jayden Gardner had 14 points and eight rebounds, and No. 3 Virginia beat feisty in-state rival James Madison 55-50 on Tuesday night.

The Cavaliers (8-0), who lost starting guard Reece Beekman to a right leg injury early in the first half, prevented the Dukes (7-3) from winning a second straight December game in Charlottesville. James Madison beat Virginia 52-49 last Dec. 7.

Clark had seven assists while playing nearly 39 minutes with Beekman sidelined.

“Kihei gave everything he had and I had to, you know, ride him,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Sure, he missed some free throws. And I know he made some mistakes, but you could just see him, you know, how tough-minded he was.”

Dukes coach Mark Byington said he told Clark – who’s playing his fifth season for Virginia – after last year’s game that he loved watching him play.

“He’s seen everything and nothing you’re going to do is going to surprise him,” Byington said. “There’s nothing Kihei Clark hasn’t seen out there, and he’s poised. I mean, you can’t rattle him. … So I told him this time I was like, `Look, I better never see you in college basketball again.’ But he’s one of my favorite players to watch just because he’s tough, talented, and he’s a winner.”

Takal Molson scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half for James Madison, including a 3-pointer that tied the game at 42-all with 7:47 to play. Gardner responded for Virginia by scoring five straight points in a 9-1 run.

The Cavaliers kept the Dukes in the game by missing eight of 13 free throws over the last six minutes.

Molson made an acrobatic layup while being fouled with 1:51 left, but he missed the free throw. He scored again with 1:01 left, pulling the Dukes within 52-50, but freshman Ryan Dunn answered with a strong move on the baseline for Virginia with 35 seconds to play.

James Madison threw the ball away on its ensuing possession.

BIG PICTURE

James Madison: The Dukes came into the game leading the nation in scoring (93.3 points per game) and having scored as many as 95 points five times. They were shooting 52.7% for the year, but made just four of their first 19 shots and finished 15 of 55 (26.9%). Vado Morse scored 11 points, the only other JMU player in double figures.

“Yeah, we knew how good they were and they showed it in spots tonight,” Gardner said. “But I think you saw a lot of resiliency tonight on the defensive end getting crucial stops.”

Virginia: The Cavaliers played the final 36 minutes without Beekman and gave extensive minutes to freshman Isaac McKneely. Virginia will hope Beekman, its third-leading scorer and a primary ballhandler and defender, recovers in time for its showdown with No. 1 Houston on Dec. 17.

UP NEXT

The Dukes return home to play Gallaudet on Saturday night.

Virginia has a 10-day break before hosting the top-ranked Cougars.

No. 25 Villanova women beat American University 83-42

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VILLANOVA, Pa. – Maddy Siegrist had 24 points and seven rebounds, Lucy Olsen added 14 points and No. 25 Villanova beat American University 83-42 on Tuesday night.

Siegrist scored 15 points in the opening 13 minutes as Villanova led 34-15. The Wildcats extended it to 46-23 by halftime before starting the second half on a 9-0 run for a 32-point lead.

Villanova added an 8-0 run in the fourth quarter for its largest lead of the game at 79-36. The Wildcats held American to 15-of-50 shooting (30%) and scored 21 points off 19 turnovers.

Christina Dalce scored 13 points for Villanova (8-2), which plays Saint Joseph’s on Saturday before taking a week off for final exams. Siegrist, who was coming off a 29-point performance on Sunday, made 10 of 17 shots as Villanova shot 56%.

Emily Johns scored 12 points for American (0-8), which hosts Marist (3-5) on Saturday.

No. 6 UConn star Azzi Fudd out 3-6 weeks with knee injury

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STORRS, Conn. — Sixth-ranked UConn’s top scorer, Azzi Fudd, is expected to be out three to six weeks because of a right knee injury she suffered during her team’s weekend loss to No. 5 Notre Dame, a university athletic spokesperson said.

The sophomore guard was injured in the first half of the game when a teammate collided into her. She returned midway through the second period to play four hobbled minutes, but sat the rest of the way.

“I think she’ll be all right,” coach Geno Auriemma said afterward.

Fudd entered the game averaging 24.0 points but finished scoreless on two shots over 13 minutes in the team’s first loss of the season.

The athletic spokesperson didn’t specify the type of knee injury Fudd sustained.

She underwent evaluation and an MRI confirmed the injury, the spokesperson said.

The Huskies host Princeton next.