Riding a six-game conference winning streak, the Tennessee Volunteers find themselves in the thick of the at-large conversation. Since losing at home to Georgia in early February, the Vols have won three league road games and beaten Kentucky and Florida in Knoxville. And while one could argue (correctly) that the SEC isn’t particularly strong or deep, Tennessee has given itself a chance to participate in March Madness. Such a scenario would have been considered a stretch a month ago.
A similar streak helped Illinois overcome a 2-7 mark in the Big Ten. Without a major slip, the Illini are now a likely NCAA participant. A lot can change in two weeks.
Which brings us to Selection Sunday – now just over two weeks away.
Our latest bubble update finds teams moving both toward and away from the cutline. Besides the aforementioned Volunteers, here are some teams climbing the at-large ladder: Temple, Saint Mary’s, and California. Akron should be included too. The Zips beat Ohio for a second time Wednesday and have a clear path toward an outright Mid-American Conference title. That will add credibility to the Zips’ profile if they were to fall short in the MAC tournament.
Teams moving in the opposite direction include Arkansas, Charlotte, and Indiana State. The Sycamores have lost any momentum they once had and probably need to win the MVC tournament in St. Louis to reach the NCAA tournament. For now, they’ve been removed from the bubble.
One other Missouri Valley note: Both Creighton and Wichita State remain as “Should Be In” teams at the time of this update. However, both have slipped a bit of late and certainly aren’t locks. Saturday, they battle for the MVC title. The winner takes a significant step toward an NCAA bid as it’s hard to imagine the outright MVC champion being left out of the Field.
RPI and SOS data is credited to ESPN and is for games played through Wednesday, February 27.
UPDATED: Thursday, February 28
Total Spots (68): Number of teams in the Field.
Automatic Bids(31): None at this time
Projected Locks (20): Teams who project to have secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Should Be In (16): These teams are in solid position to receive an at-large bid.
Bubble: (31): Teams projected to be under consideration for at-large selection.
Spots Available (11): Estimated number of openings after Automatic Bids, Locks, and Should Be Ins are considered.
RPI and SOS: RPI and SOS data are updated through games completed on Wednesday, February 27.
Locks: Butler, Saint Louis | Should Be In: VCU | Bubble: La Salle, Temple, Charlotte, Massachusetts, Xavier
Charlotte (18-9 | 6-7) | RPI: 63 | SOS: 97 | – Dayton handed Charlotte its third straight loss Wednesday. Unless the 49ers make a serious run in the A10 tourney, an NCAA bid now appears unlikely.
La Salle (19-7 | 9-4) | RPI: 35 | SOS: 73 | – The only thing lacking from La Salle’s resume at this point is a volume of quality wins. A one-point win over Butler and a road victory at VCU stand on their own. The Explorers’ other Top 100 wins are Villanova, Richmond and Saint Joseph’s. So it’s too early to move La Salle off the bubble. Assuming they can avoid a home upset in the next two (Duquesne, Geo Washington), the closing road trip to Saint Louis will tell us how much work – if any – is needed at the A10 tourney.
Massachusetts (17-9 | 7-6) | RPI: 57 | SOS: 67 | – UMass beat Dayton last weekend to stay alive in the bubble conversation. But the Minutemen have still lost 3 of 4 games. The next two are big: Xavier and Butler. While the Minutemen are 7-7 vs. the Top 100, they are just 1-5 vs. Top 50 teams. Win their next two and we’ll re-evaluate.
Temple (19-8 | 8-5) | RPI: 41 | SOS: 37 | – The Owls have won three straight over fellow A-10 bubble teams – including a 20-point victory over Charlotte. Other victories of note: Syracuse, Saint Louis, and Villanova. A tidy 8-6 mark vs. Top 100 teams is pretty nice given some other bubble teams. With three of four at home down the stretch, Temple controls its NCAA fate.
Xavier (16-11 | 8-5) | RPI: 86 | SOS: 96 | – Just when the RPI numbers suggested it was time to remove XU from the bubble, the Musketeers held off Memphis for a crucial victory. When you factor in wins over Butler, Temple, and La Salle, XU has a decent top-end profile. The problem remains overcoming five sub-100 RPI losses and a 4-6 mark vs. Top 100 teams. Xavier has home games left with UMass and Saint Louis before a trip to Butler. A tough slate, but one the Musketeers needs if they want to make a late charge.
Locks: Duke, Miami-FL | Should Be In: NC State | Bubble: North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland
Maryland (19-9 | 7-8) | RPI: 73 | SOS: 119 | – The Terrapins have lost back-to-back road games to Boston College and Georgia Tech. That’s an NIT recipe for a bubble team – especially one with a weak non-conference schedule (ranked No. 291). Despite wins over NC State and Duke, Maryland needs to sweep it’s last three to regain any real foothold for an at-large bid. And two of those (Wake Forest and Virginia) are on the road.
North Carolina (18-8 | 9-5) | RPI: 20 | SOS: 9 | – Three straight wins have certainly helped the Tar Heels, and their power numbers suggest they are on fairly solid footing. But the Committee won’t overlook a 2-6 mark vs. Top 50 teams – both victories at home. The closing stretch isn’t easy: it includes games at Clemson and Maryland. And there’s that rematch with Duke on March 9.
Virginia (19-8 | 9-5) | RPI: 65 | SOS: 142 | – The next two weeks are huge for the Cavaliers – beginning with Duke at home on Thursday night. Even with a pile of questionable losses, Virginia has put itself in position for at-large consideration thanks to wins over NC State, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin – the latter at the Kohl Center during the Big10-ACC Challenge. But a mediocre finish could still spell trouble. A non-conference SOS ranked above 290 is a major reason why.
Locks: Syracuse, Louisville, Georgetown, Marquette | Should Be In: Pittsburgh, Notre Dame | Bubble: Cincinnati, Villanova, St. John’s
Cincinnati (19-9 | 7-8) | RPI: 49 | SOS: 26| – After losing three straight and five of six, the Bearcats find themselves moving in the wrong direction. There are plenty of positives – including non-conference wins over Oregon, Iowa State, and Alabama – and no bad losses. But Cincinnati’s final three games now have added importance. They have a solid Connecticut team at home Saturday before a trip to Louisville. A split would be very helpful. Losing both would certainly create some anxious moments heading into the Big East tourney.
St. John’s (16-11 | 8-7) | RPI: 61 | SOS: 30 | – Following Sunday’s loss home loss to Pittsburgh (SJU’s third loss in four games), time is quickly working against the Red Storm. And the final three aren’t easy – at Providence, at Notre Dame, Marquette. Winning at least two of those is critical. Anything less and there will be a hill to climb in New York. SJU is 4-8 vs. Top 100 teams.
Villanova (17-11 | 9-7) | RPI: 55 | SOS: 39 | – Villanova found a way to lose at Seton Hall Monday. With games at Pittsburgh and home to Georgetown still ahead, that loss could create some issues. Of course, victories over Louisville, Syracuse, and Marquette still hold a lot of weight (3-1 vs. Top 25 teams). Other than SHU, the only other “bad” loss on the Wildcats’ resume is to Columbia in November. A split down the stretch would take some pressure of an early game (or two) at the BE tourney.
Locks: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin | Should Be In: Illinois, Minnesota | Bubble: Iowa
Iowa (18-10 | 7-8) | RPI: 90 | SOS: 139 | – Letting a big lead slip away at Nebraska put the Hawkeyes on the fringe of the bubble even with Wednesday’s home win over Purdue. Given a horrible non-conference SOS number (321), a so-so Big Ten profile won’t be enough. It doesn’t help that they are 2-7 in games played outside Carver Hawkeye Arena. And a trip to Bloomington is up next.
Locks: Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Baylor, Oklahoma, Iowa State
Baylor (16-11 | 8-7) | RPI: 58 | SOS: 36 | – The Bears ended a three-game slide and avoided further trouble by winning at West Virginia. Next up is Kansas State at home. Then it’s a trip to Texas before the home finale with Kansas. Baylor really needs a split with the Kansas schools and a victory at Texas. That would put them in position to do some work at the B12 tourney. The Bears are 4-9 vs. Top 100 teams and have a troubling 9-11 mark vs. the Top 150.
Iowa State (19-9 | 9-6) | RPI: 53 | SOS: 72 | – Some tough luck has left Iowa State’s resume a bit bare. That said, the Cyclones look like an NCAA team when you watch them play. If the “eye test” matters in the Committee room, ISU might be okay. At the same time, there’s no escaping a 2-6 mark vs. Top 50 teams and a 3-7 record in road games. A sweep of Baylor helps, but not as much if the Bears fall short. Right now, ISU has just two wins against NCAA teams (K-State, Oklahoma). And there’s the ugly loss at Texas Tech. It would be best for the Cyclones to at least split their upcoming games with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and then take care of West Virginia in Morgantown.
Oklahoma (18-9 | 9-6) | RPI: 29 | SOS: 10 | – Although the Sooners have a great computer profile (which helps), their lack of high quality wins remains a concern. Which means losing a big lead against Texas Wednesday wasn’t ideal. OU’s best wins are very good (Oklahoma State, Kansas) but a 2-5 mark overall against Top 50 teams suggests an NCAA berth isn’t wrapped up. A sweep of Baylor helps and the closing stretch is favorable – although Iowa State will be motivated for Saturday’s game in Norman. After that, it’s a home date with West Virginia before a closing trip to TCU. Losing more than one of the closing three would create some uncertainty heading into B12 tournament play. Winning all three would be ideal.
Locks: None | Should Be In: Memphis | Bubble: Southern Miss
Southern Miss (19-7 | 10-3) | RPI: 38 | SOS: 80 | – Other than some decent computer numbers Southern Miss doesn’t have much too offer. The Golden Eagles’ best wins are Denver, East Carolina, and UTEP, and they were swept by C-USA leader Memphis.
Locks: None | Should Be In: Creighton, Wichita State | Bubble: None
Locks: New Mexico | Should Be In: Colorado State, San Diego State, UNLV | Bubble: Boise State, Air Force
Air Force (14-10 | 7-6) | RPI: 64 | SOS: 52 | – The Falcons’ stayed on the at-large board thanks to a home win over Wyoming Tuesday. But AFA still has considerable work to do given a 3-8 mark vs. Top 50 teams, a 3-7 road record, and a less-than-stellar non-conference schedule (best win was Arkansas Pine-Bluff). Closing games include San Diego State and at New Mexico. AFA really needs both of those.
Boise State (17-8 | 7-6) | RPI: 47 | SOS: 99 | – Boise took care of business Wednesday against Nevada. Now, the NCAA push begins for real. The Broncos end with this slate: Colorado State, at UNLV, San Diego State. Win two of those and Boise has a chance for serious consideration. Anything less will leave some work to do at the MTW tournament. A non-conference win at Creighton is a potentially nice wildcard.
Locks: Arizona | Should Be In: Oregon, UCLA, Colorado | Bubble: Arizona State, California
Arizona State (20-9 | 9-7) | RPI: 88 | SOS: 128 | – A three-game road trip to end the season – which will likely determine ASU’s post-season invitation – started with an overtime loss at UCLA. Next is USC, which upset Arizona Wednesday. Then it’s off to Arizona. Win both of those and the Sun Devils can stay in the conversation. Lose both and it’ll probably take the P12 tournament title to qualify. Although ASU has four Top 50 wins (including a sweep of Colorado), their overall SOS is suspect. They have played 16 games against teams ranked 150 or lower in the RPI (and gone 14-2 in the those games).
California (18-9 | 10-5) | RPI: 46 | SOS: 32 | – After sweeping the Oregon schools, Cal is probably in better shape than some people think. Their 5-game winning streak includes victories at Arizona and over UCLA. That’s improved Cal to 4-5 vs. Top 50 teams (although they have just 5 Top 100 wins overall). They also have not lost to anyone outside the RPI Top 100. With three games at home to close (Utah, Colorado, and Stanford), a sweep would likely land the Bears in the Field of 68. Some sort of odd split might leave them a little patch-up work to do in the Pac-12 tourney.
Locks: Florida | Should Be In: Missouri | Bubble: Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee
Tennessee (17-10 | 9-6) | RPI: 51 | SOS: 19 | – It’s been a productive two weeks or so for the Volunteers, and they’ve moved from the fringe of bubble consideration all the way to serious at-large consideration. Six straight conference wins have a way of helping (ask Illinois). An earlier blowout of rival Kentucky was followed by Tuesday’s victory over Florida. With two other Top 100 games in that stretch, UT’s record against that group is now 8-9. The Vols also have a win over Wichita State, and their only questionable loss is against Georgia. If Tennessee can avoid two road landmines (@Georgia, @Auburn) up next, they close with Missouri in Knoxville.
Alabama (18-9 | 11-4) | RPI: 62 | SOS: 106 | – Piling up SEC wins isn’t necessarily the same as piling up quality wins. Alabama took care of Auburn Tuesday but they still have just one Top 50 RPI win (Kentucky at home). The Crimson Tide split with Tennessee and did beat Villanova. But there are also four sub-100 RPI losses – which include Mercer and Tulane. Upcoming trips to Florida and Ole Miss will likely make or break the Tide’s chances.
Arkansas (17-11 | 8-7) | RPI: 81 | SOS: 89 | – Arkansas spent Wednesday night losing at LSU – which dropped the Razorbacks to an ugly 1-8 mark in road games. It’s the sort of thing that sticks out like a sore thumb because there aren’t an NCAA games in Bud Walton Arena. Fortunately, the Hogs have home games remaining with Kentucky and Texas AM. But it might be the trip to Missouri that determines whether this team stays in the hunt. A home victory over Florida is the biggest highlight. But that’s one of only four wins against Top 100 teams.
Kentucky (20-8 | 11-4) | RPI: 50 | SOS: 66 | – UK routed Mississippi State Wednesday at Rupp Arena. Which sets the Wildcats up for their stretch run. It begins Saturday with a trip to Arkansas and ends with a home date against the Gators. In between there’s a somewhat testy trip to Georgia. Can UK survive? How the Selection Committee ultimately judges Kentucky without Nerlens Noel remains to be seen. Another quality win or two would make it a lot easier to figure out.
Mississippi (21-7 | 10-5) | RPI: 56 | SOS: 149 | – Ole Miss beat Texas AM at home Wednesday and remains firmly on the bubble. The positives are a home win over Missouri and a sweep of Tennessee. The negatives are a weak non-conference SOS (No. 283), a loss at South Carolina last week, and 10 wins against teams ranked 200 or lower in the RPI. There’s aren’t any “up” games left on the Rebels’ schedule – the best is Alabama at home. Best to keep on winning and hope that a high volume of wins makes up for a lack of high-quality ones.
Locks: Gonzaga | Should Be In: None | Bubble: St. Mary’s
Saint Mary’s (24-5 | 13-2) | RPI: 45 | SOS: 135 | – Saint Mary’s is playing some pretty good basketball these days. But will the “eye test” surpass the resume test? That could be huge for the Gaels. They lost both games to Gonzaga, but looked the part against Creighton last weekend. After blowing past Pepperdine Wednesday, the Gaels close with Santa Clara at home. Win that and Saint Mary’s will be in decent shape heading into the WCC tournament. A potential third matchup with BYU in the WCC semis could yet be important.
BEST OF THE REST
Locks: None | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Middle Tennessee, Belmont, Bucknell, Akron, Louisiana Tech
Akron (22-4 | 13-0) | RPI: 36 | SOS: 129 | – The Zips have not lost since December 15 (at Detroit). And Wednesday, they took a major step toward wrapping up an outright MAC title by winning at (and sweeping) Ohio. A clear league championship by multiple games has proven helpful to teams like Akron in the past. An early win over Middle Tennessee State helps, giving the Zips a 3-3 mark vs. the Top 100. The potential negative is a 16-1 mark against teams ranked below 150 in the RPI. Assuming they win out, reaching the MAC title game will give the Committee a reason to seriously consider the Zips for an at-large bid.
Belmont (21-6 | 13-2) | RPI: 26 | SOS: 77 | – Good scheduling and a 5-4 mark vs. Top 100 teams has put the Bruins on the radar for at-large consideration. A win over Middle Tennessee State is the Bruins’ best RPI win, although a victory at Stanford might be equally important. There are no “ugly” losses on the Bruins’ resume – although Northeastern isn’t great. If Belmont wins the OVC outright and makes it to the title game the Committee will have an interesting decision. From there, it depends on the overall landscape.
Bucknell (23-5 | 11-2) | RPI: 54 | SOS: 173 | – A victory over La Salle highlights a resume that shows a lot of wins but not a lot of quality W’s. Bucknell has beaten New Mexico St and won at Purdue. Unfortunately, the latter isn’t helping like it normally might. The negatives are losses at Penn State and Princeton and a very weak overall schedule.
Louisiana Tech (23-3 | 14-0) | RPI: 52 | SOS: 269 | – La Tech’s strength of schedule is a major hurdle to overcome – reflected by 20 games (19-1 record) against sub-150 opponents. The Bulldogs’ best win is over bubble-dweller Southern Miss. There’s also an ugly loss at McNeese State. Despite a high volume of wins, an at-large bid is unlikely.
Middle Tennessee (25-4 | 17-1) | RPI: 23 | SOS: 120 | – An early win over Ole Miss helps but the Blue Raiders’ only other Top 100 win is Central Florida. Like some others on this list, a 16-0 mark vs. sub-150 teams is a drag on the schedule. Middle Tennessee also has losses to fellow bubble-dwellers Belmont and Akron – although both were on the road.
Kentucky lands commitments from two more elite prospects
John Calipari is getting his work done early in the 2020 recruiting class, as he added two more commitments over the weekend.
On Thursday, it was Lance Ware, a 6-foot-10 post player from Camden, New Jersey, that announced his commitment. Ware is a top 50 recruit that held offers from the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Miami. The bigger news, however, came on Saturday afternoon, when Terrance Clarke announced that he will be enrolling at Kentucky whenever he ends his high school tenure. Clarke is currently a member of the Class of 2021, but the plan is for him to reclassify and graduate high school this year.
Clarke is a consensus top three player in 2021 – and he may be the No. 1 player in that class, depending on who you ask – and should immediately vault into the top five of the 2020 recruiting class. An athletic, versatile wing that stands 6-foot-6, Clarke is a potential lottery pick given his physical tools and the way that he projects as multi-positional defender with the ability to create off of the dribble. Ware, like Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery before him, projects as the kind of player that will spend 2-3 years in Lexington.
Clarke and Ware join top ten prospect B.J. Boston and another top 50 recruit, Cam’Ron Fletcher, in Kentucky’s 2020 class. That’s three wings in the class with Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney, Dontaie Allen and Keion Brooks currently on campus. Throw Montgomery into the mix, and that’s eight players that fit somewhere into a lineup as a wing or a face-up big man, and it seems rather unlikely that all five of the guys currently at Kentucky will leave the school this offseason. Put another way, this looks like the end of Kentucky’s pursuit of the likes of Jalen Green and Josh Christopher.
Calipari is still recruiting Cade Cunningham despite the fact that many expect Cunningham to end up at Oklahoma State, where Mike Boynton hired his brother Cannen, but Cade has skyrocketed up the recruiting rankings as he has transitioned to playing the point. Kentucky is still in the mix for a handful of other forwards, including Scottie Barnes, Isaiah Todd and Greg Brown.
Tony Bennett turns down raise, signs contract extension
Virginia announced that they have signed head coach Tony Bennett to a contract extension, keeping him under contract through the 2025-26 season.
This is not unexpected. He just won the national title. I think he earned a new deal.
What is unique here, however, is that Bennett turned down a raise. He asked for more money for his assistants and for some cash to be put towards improvements in both his program and the other Virginia sports teams, but he passed on getting more money put into his own bank account.
“[My wife] Laurel and I are in a great spot, and in the past I’ve had increases in my contract,” Bennett said in the news release. “We just feel a great peace about where we’re at, all that’s taken place, and how we feel about this athletic department and this community and this school. I love being at UVA.
“… I have more than enough, and if there are ways that this can help out the athletic department, the other programs and coaches, by not tying up so much [in men’s basketball], that’s my desire.”
That’s the dream scenario right there, being rich enough to turn down more money.
NCAA urges California governor not to sign ‘fair pay’ bill
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The NCAA Board of Governors wants California Gov. Gavin Newsom to reject a new attempt to pay college athletes.
And it is prepared to take the fight to court if necessary.
In a six-paragraph letter released Wednesday, the board urged Newsom not to sign the legislation known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, which would allow college athletes to be paid for the use of their names, likenesses and images. The move comes two days after approval of the measure by the California Assembly, with the state Senate expected to consider the measure later this week.
The board warned that California schools may be declared ineligible for NCAA competition if the bill becomes law because they would have an unfair recruiting advantage.
“We’ve explored how it might impact the association and what it might do. We believe it would inappropriately affect interstate commerce,” Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief operating officer and chief legal officer, told The Associated Press. “It is not intended to be a threat at all. It’s a reflection about the way California is going about this.
“I’m not saying there will never be a day we would consider that (legal action), but it is not meant to be a threat,” Remy said.
The NCAA said the measure would affect more than 24,000 athletes in the nation’s most populous state.
Should the bill pass, Newsom would have 30 days to sign or veto it. If he does nothing, the bill would become law. It would be the first measure of its kind and the outcome is being closely watched as one of the biggest challenges in years to the NCAA’s longstanding and far-reaching model of amateur sports. Over the past decade, that model has come under increasing pressure – and attacks in court – as critics push for big-time college athletics to clear the way for the athletes themselves to benefit financially.
NCAA rules prohibit athletes from profiting off their athletic skills. The organization, however, has recently begun considering rules changes to loosen those restrictions, though NCAA President Mark Emmert – and the board again on Wednesday – insist that players cannot be paid or become the equivalent of a university employee. Formal recommendations are expected to be made at the board’s October meeting.
It appears there is an appetite for significant changes.
Board members met with the working group studying these issues in August but neither Remy nor board member Denis McDonough would discuss specific proposals.
“The rules that we operate under, many of which date to 1975, may not be suitable for us in 2021 with the challenges and opportunities student-athletes face,” said McDonough, the White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama. “So we are and have been taking a very close look at how we can modernize those rules. We’re hoping the state of California would recognize that modernizing those rules for student-athletes across the country is the best way to do that.”
Supporters think those changes are already overdue and believe California’s elected officials should act now.
“The NCAA’s assertions are purposefully misleading,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association. “The 9th Circuit upheld a ruling concluding that the NCAA’s ban on player name, image, and likeness compensation does not bring forth a level playing field. The Big 12 commissioner stated competitive equity is `largely an illusion.’
“NCAA amateurism is a fraud. It’s a $14 billion a year industry with millionaire coaches. An NCAA ban on California colleges would amount to an illegal group boycott that would violate federal and California antitrust laws.”
The NCAA believes the California measure would violate the federal Commerce Clause and may not withstand a legal challenge; Remy cited a previous case in California in which the state tried to inhibit the NCAA from enforcing its rules. The NCAA won that case.
Should the measure pass, Remy said, the NCAA would penalize the schools, not individual athletes.
“There are two parts to this and part of this is the membership and that includes the California schools,” Remy said. “Schools and universities agree to comply with the rules of (NCAA) membership and there are a set of eligibility criteria that go along with being member institution. The California schools have consented to that criterion. So in that context it would be the schools that would directly impacted.”
Road To Redemption: How Virginia went from losing to 16 seed to winning title
Over the course of the next month, we will be taking a look at some of the most memorable and important things that happened during the 2018-19 season and what kind of impact those moments are going to have on the 2019-20 season.
We’ll start with the obvious: Those Virginia Cavaliers.
Without question, the single best and most memorable moment from the 2018-19 college basketball season was The Redemption.
Less than 13 months removed from suffering what will go down as the most humiliating and demoralizing defeat in the history of college basketball – if not sports, period – Virginia went out and won the Whole. Damn. Thing.
And oh buddy, was it a roller coaster ride.
In the opening round, in their first game against a No. 16 seed since they became the first team to lose to a No. 16 seed, Virginia dug themselves a 14 point first half hole against Gardner-Webb before pulling their collective heads out of their, ahem, keisters and rolling to a win. The ‘Hoos handled Oklahoma with relative ease in the second round to advance to the second weekend, where that postseason roller coaster ride got an injection of Dominic Toretto’s NoS.
In the Sweet 16 against Oregon, Kihei Clark ended an 18-5 Duck run by burying a three and, two possessions later, finding Ty Jerome for another triple, giving UVA a lead that they would never surrender after they blew a lead they shouldn’t have lost. Virginia’s Elite Eight win will go down as one of the best NCAA tournament games of the decade. UVA survived Carsen Edwards going Super Saiyan while lighting up college basketball’s best defender in De’Andre Hunter for 42 points, and they did so thanks in very large part to one of the best and most instinctual plays you’ll ever see a college kid make:
Again, it was Clark coming to the rescue, as Virginia found a way to not only beat Purdue, but cover a 4.5 point spread in the overtime period.
Not that I’m still bitter or anything.
That brings us to the Final Four, the first of Tony Bennett’s illustrious career, where those Wahoos did their very best to make everyone believe they had not left their inner choke artist behind. Thanks to a couple of bone-headed fouls by Ty Jerome followed Auburn’s Bryce Brown making a pair of critical three-balls, Virginia blew a 57-47 lead in all of 3:16. In the blink of an eye, they found themselves down 61-57 with 17 seconds left after a pair of Anfernee McLemore free throws.
This time, it was Kyle Guy coming to the rescue. He buried a three with nine seconds left to cut the lead to one, and after Jared Harper missed one of two free throws, Guy was – controversially, but correctly – fouled while shooting a three with just 0.6 seconds on the clock. He would step to the line and swish not one, not two, but all three free throws, sending Virginia to the national title game, where they would face off with Texas Tech, a matchup that was billed as the worst national title game of all-time.
And that prediction turned out very, very wrong.
It took a while to get going, but by the time the final ten minutes rolled around, the battle between the two best defenses in all of college basketball was as intense and as physical as any game this year. We knew that was coming. What we didn’t know was that it would be the offenses for both those programs that would take over, as the shot-making and execution in the second half reached a level we rarely see in the college game. That said, Virginia again blew a double-digit second half lead, getting to overtime when Jerome found Hunter in the corner for a game-tying three with 12 seconds left:
Virginia would take the lead in the extra frame on another Hunter three with 2:10 remaining, pulling away to win 85-77 and cut down the nets for the first time in program history.
It was a wild ride, one that ended the opportunity for the dummies out there to criticize Tony Bennett’s coaching acumen because of a couple of fluky, unlucky tournament results.
But for my money, what made the turnaround so memorable – and what truly cemented Bennett’s standing as arguably the best in the game today – has everything to do with how Virginia changed the way they play after UMBC.
Before we get into the changes that Virginia actually made, I think it is important to put into context what actually happened in that loss to UMBC.
As Hunter has been quick to remind his teammates – over and over again – he did not play in Virginia’s loss to UMBC. He fractured his wrist before the start of the tournament, and the hole that he left in the lineup was drastically bigger than his 6-foot-7 frame. You see, Hunter was the guy that made Virginia matchup proof. He was the best, most versatile defender in all of college basketball as a sophomore. When Virginia won at North Carolina earlier this year, Hunter was, at different points throughout the game, matched up on lottery pick point guard Coby White, lottery pick wing Cameron Johnson and All-American power forward Luke Maye.
That’s who Hunter was as a freshman, too.
He was and is a monster defensively.
Back to UMBC, the America East champs had a team that, in 2018, played a lineup with four guards and often had five players on the perimeter. It would not have been an issue to throw Hunter on any of them, especially since he was good enough offensively to be able to take complete advantage of that matchup on the other end of the floor. He was, after all, the No. 4 pick in June’s draft. He would have been a mid-first round pick had he left a year earlier.
But without Hunter on the floor, Bennett ran into a problem: He needed to play two bigs because of the offense that he ran, but none of Jack Salt, Isaiah Wilkins or Mamadi Diakite were going to be able to duplicate what Hunter could do. They couldn’t stay with those little UMBC guards, and they weren’t good enough offensively to take advantage of the mismatch on the offensive end. When UVA went small, it just meant that Nigel Johnson had to play more and, well, that was not ideal.
Now, look. Hunter’s absence is not a valid excuse for this loss. Virginia was still a much, much better team even without their best player. They played their worst game on a night where UMBC absolutely caught lightning in a bottle. It got into their heads. Jairus Lyles played the game of his life. UMBC ran away with the win. Weird things happen when college kids play sports. What can I say.
But Hunter’s absence and the slight matchup advantage that gave UMBC over UVA certainly played a major role in how this game played out, and I think it is fair to say that this game would have been much closer, and, in all likelihood, had a different result, with Hunter on the floor.
Here’s the proof.
These two clips are the same play. In the first example, Jerome finds Hunter for a game-tying three in the national title game. In the second example, Jerome finds Wilkins, who is not a shooter and the play results in yet another missed three in Virginia’s loss to UMBC:
“That situation made me take a look at a lot of things,” Bennett told me during last year’s Final Four. “From a basketball standpoint, that was such a pivotal moment.”
As I reported then, what Bennett did was reach out to former Wisconsin Badger Kirk Penney, a man he calls “a little brother to me.” Penney had played in the NBA and all over Europe before finishing out his career in New Zealand, so Bennett asked him, “In all your experiences, did you run any stuff that opens up the court more?”
Turns out, Penney had.
He knew exactly what Bennett needed.
You see, Bennett had spent the majority of his time in Charlottesville running the Blocker-Mover offense that his father created. That offense is fairly simple – there are three perimeter players on the floor, the “movers”, that continuously run off of screens that are set by the two bigs, the “blockers”:
But as effective as Virginia has been running Blocker-Mover in the past, running that offense with his 2018-19 roster makeup didn’t make sense. And again, this was because of De’Andre Hunter.
Hunter was the prototype college four. At 6-foot-7 and a strong 225 pounds, he’s big enough to guards fours while simultaneously taking advantage of them with his ability to shoot and beat slower defenders with straight-line drives. But he was also far and away the most talented player on the Virginia roster, and running Blocker-Mover would put Bennett in a position where he was forced to either play Hunter in a role where he was predominantly a screener or put him in a position where he was going to be defended by college threes doing something – specifically, running off of pindowns and flare screens – that is not his forte.
Enter Penney, who helped Virginia install a Ball-Screen Continuity offense, what Virginia called their “Flow Continuity.”
Again, the concept of this offense is fairly simple. The goal is to get open-side ball-screens, which just means having a big screening for a guard on one side of the floor with three players – preferably shooters – spacing on the opposite side. If nothing comes of the first ball-screen, the offense is designed for the ball to end up in a second ball-screen with the sides of the floor reversed. It’s run until a they get a shot, hence “continuity.”
It’s easier to show it than to explain it:
This is not something that Virginia has ever really run before this season.
Which brings me back to that game-tying three in the national title game.
While it’s not exactly the continuity ball-screen, it is a high-ball screen for Jerome. He did what he does so well: He got into the paint, he drew defenders and he found the guy everyone forgot about.
Now, one of the reasons that this worked so well for Virginia is that they had the players to execute it. Hunter was the best basketball player not named Zion Williamson in college basketball last season. Jerome was as good as anyone as the handler in a ball-screen, and he also happens to be an elite shooter that can run off of screens just as effectively. Guy was one of the very best shooters in the country. Clark is a defensive menace that allowed Jerome to move off the ball when necessary.
That changes next year.
Hunter, Jerome and Guy are all on NBA rosters. They will be replaced by Braxton Key, Tomas Woldetensae, Kody Stattman and Clark. Clark proved himself to be much better than I ever gave him credit for last season, but being effective in last year’s role and taking over full-time point guard duties for an All-American like Jerome are two very different things. Woldetensae and Stattman can both shoot, but they are not the shooters that Guy was. And most important, Key is a good player and can play the same position that Hunter played, but he’s not the player that Hunter was. If Hunter is Kraft Mac and Cheese, Key is whatever brand they carry at Aldi.
That puts Bennett in a tough position this season.
Because he doesn’t really have the guards to run his flow continuity offense as effectively as he did last year, but the guys that project as his starting bigs – Jay Huff and Diakite – fit a ball-screen heavy offense better than they do the Blocker-Mover. Huff is 7-foot-1 with ridiculous length, and he shot 14-for-31 from three this past season. He’s more or less the perfect five for ball-screen actions because he can catch a lob as a roll-man as effectively as he can bury a three when he picks-and-pops. Diakite can make threes as well, and he’s even more effective as a roll-man.
So I really don’t know what Virginia is going to look like next season.
Like Villanova last year, they are not exactly built to withstand that many critical pieces leaving with eligibility remaining.
My best guess? We see a lot of lineups with Key, Diakite and Huff on the floor at the same time as Bennett figures out exactly how he is going to be able to work in a guy like Woldetensae, who has never been asked to defend near the level he will have to defend with Virginia, and how he can effectively use Clark.
But I certainly expect Bennett to figure something out.
That’s just what he does.
The ‘Hoos will have some growing pains, and asking them to compete with Duke, Louisville and even North Carolina in what appears to be a three-horse race for the ACC title is tough, but I’d be shocked if they enter the NCAA tournament as anything other than a top four seed.
Boston College guard Wynston Tabbs to miss season due to knee surgery
Boston College sophomore guard Wynston Tabbs will miss the entirety of the 2019-20 as he will undergo surgery on his left knee, the school announced on Wednesday.
This is an injury that has been plaguing Tabbs since last season, when he averaged 13.9 points but played in just 15 games.
“While I won’t be able to play this season, I know that it is a temporary setback and I will be back stronger than ever before,” Tabbs said in a press release from the school. “I want to thank my family, the Boston College Basketball program, and all our fans for their continued support. I’ve overcome obstacles before in my life and will work tirelessly to overcome this one. I am built for this.”
Tabbs has all-ACC potential and was going to be counted on to help fill the void left by Ky Bowman.