Bubble update: Tennessee making a push for NCAA consideration

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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.
Atlantic 10
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.
ACC
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.
BIG EAST
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.
BIG 10
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.
BIG 12
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.
CONFERENCE USA
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.
MISSOURI VALLEY
Locks: None | Should Be In: Creighton, Wichita State | Bubble: None
MOUNTAIN WEST
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.
PAC 12
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.
SEC
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.
WEST COAST
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.

Saturday’s Things To Know: Four top ten teams go down

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Ethan Happ, Wisconsin

Considering all of the context surrounding this game — Wisconsin having lost four of their last five, Michigan entering the day undefeated, the Badgers’ struggles on the offensive end of the floor, the tenacity with which the Wolverines defend — the performance the we got out of Ethan Happ on Saturday afternoon in the Kohl Center was one of the best individual performances of the year.

Happ finished with 26 points, 10 boards, seven assists and two steals against No. 2 Michigan, one of the nation’s top five defenses, to lead the Badgers to a 64-54 win that moved them to 4-3 in the Big Ten and ended Michigan’s best start to a season in program history. All told, Happ was responsible for 43 of Wisconsin’s 64 points, a fact made even more impressive by the presence of Jon Teske, who has morphed into one of the best defensive big men in the country.

This wasn’t a must-win game for Wisconsin — those don’t exist in January — but it was a ‘prove it’ game.

And Wisconsin did just that.

Thanks to Ethan Happ.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Baylor Bears

Freshman Jared Butler scored 14 of his 19 points in the second half to lead Baylor to an upset home win over No. 8 Texas Tech on Saturday evening. Butler also might have hit the biggest shot of the game, burying a three with 4:30 left in the game after Tech has reeled off an 11-0 run to cut the lead to two points. On the next Baylor possession, he finished a three-point play, and the Bears would go on to win 73-62.

This win is so important for Baylor because it not only adds a marquee win to their tournament resume, but it keeps them in the race for the Big 12 title.

Seriously.

Baylor isn’t in a tie for first right now, but that’s only because they haven’t played as many games as the four teams that are currently tied for first in the league. They are, however, tied in the loss column, and a win at last place West Virginia on Monday would get them there.

Should I mention West Virginia just beat Kansas?

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Tyler Herro, Kentucky

Tyler Herro was the star for Kentucky in their biggest win of the season.

The No. 12 Wildcats went into Auburn Arena and knocked off No. 14 Auburn, 82-80, to keep pace at the top of the SEC standings, and Herro was the reason why. He scored 10 of his team-high 20 points in the final 5:23, including a pair of free throws in the final minute to give Kentucky a lead they would never relinquish.

SATURDAY’S BIGGEST WINNERS

DUKE: I’ve written plenty on Duke’s win over Virginia. Read it all here.

BIG 12 PARITY: Goooooooood luck trying to figure the Big 12 out this year.

As of today, there are four teams in the league that are tied in first place with a 4-2 record in the league — Kansas, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Iowa State. That doesn’t include Baylor, who beat the Red Raiders on Saturday to move to 3-2 in Big 12 play, or Texas, who knocked off Oklahoma to get to 3-3 on the year in league play. TCU, who is in seventh place in the conference race, is just one game out of first in the loss column while Oklahoma, who is ranked 20th in the AP Poll, is sitting in a tie for eighth.

Should I mention that West Virginia — the team in last place in the league — beat the eventual league champs* Kansas today?

*We all know it’s happening. 

WEST VIRGINIA: You heard that right. West Virginia, who entered Saturday with an 0-5 mark in Big 12 play and have played the entirety of the league schedule to date without Sagaba Konate, knocked off No. 7 Kansas in Morgantown for the fourth time in the last five years. In the process, West Virginia exposed the fatal flaw in this Kansas program.

JA MORANT TRACKER: The Murray State superstar and future top five pick finished with 10 points and 10 assists in a win over SIU-Edwardsville. There are some real concerns about his shooting stroke moving forward, but it’s worth noting here: Morant was 21-for-21 from the free throw line. Sources say that’s pretty good.

SATURDAY’S BIGGEST LOSERS

TOP TEN TEAMS: Four of them lost today. Three of those four — No. 2 Michigan, No. 7 Kansas and No. 8 Texas Tech — lost on the road to unranked teams in league play. The fourth — No. 4 Virginia — lost on the road in league play as well, only they fell to … No. 1 Duke. That’ll happen.

UNDEFEATED TEAMS: Entering the day, there were two of them.

As of this very moment, there are none. Of the ten biggest leagues in the sport, only Michigan State, Tennessee, LSU, Villanova, Washington, Gonzaga and Saint Louis are still unbeaten in league play.

AAC OFFICIALS: Gregg Marshall, after getting ejected from a home game against Cincinnati, told reporters afterwards that, “I felt like the road team today.” This was the third time this week that an AAC officiating crew was in the headlines. On Thursday night, Tulsa coach Frank Haith and UConn coach Dan Hurley were both ejected at the same time after being given two technical fouls apiece for this dust-up. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was also ejected earlier in the week.

It’s worth noting here — two of the officials that tossed Haith and Hurley (Pat Adams and Marques Pettigrew) also tossed Marshall.

SEC TEAMS IN ALABAMA: No. 14 Auburn did not have a good day. They dug themselves a 16 point second half hole against No. 12 Kentucky, came roaring back thanks to 25 second half points from Bryce Brown and then lost in the final seconds because a game-winning bucket from Jared Harper happened to roll off the rim. Brutal.

But Alabama might have had it worse. They had so many chances to put No. 3 Tennessee away in the final minutes, but they couldn’t run offense. They had a chance to win with 11 seconds left, but John Petty traveled. It was not ideal.

FINAL THOUGHT

No. 25 Indiana was embarrassed on Saturday.

They lost to rival Purdue 70-55, but it wasn’t the scoreline that really is the indicator here. It was Romeo Langford, who managed just four points in 22 minutes, getting bench with 3:19 remaining because Indiana was, frankly, better without him. His plus-minus was -16, meaning that Indiana actually outscored Purdue in the 18 minutes that Langford was glued to the pine.

It was the fact that the Hoosiers were once again beaten up in a game that they badly needed to win. This was their fourth straight loss. On Monday, they were beaten by 15 points at home against Nebraska.

And look, it should not be all that surprising that Indiana is working through some growing pains here. This is a young team with a freshmen backcourt and a roster that has dealt with some injury issues. They aren’t all that talented, and they don’t shoot it all that well, and, if we’re going to call a spade a spade, they have not gotten the best that Archie Miller has to offer has a head coach yet.

I think Archie would probably tell you that.

And I think he would also tell you that he’s about to learn, first-hand, just how much pressure there is being the coach of a program like Indiana.

Because the fans are not happy about this losing streak, not when one of their own, the one-and-done lottery pick that is supposed to lead Indiana to the promised, is seeing his only season go to waste. Now the media is starting to pile on. Look at the biggest names covering the team. Gregg Doyel ripped them. Dan Dakich (continues) to rip them. Rick Bozich ripped them. I’m sure there are more that I just haven’t noticed yet.

And it’s not going to stop there.

The Colts are out of the playoffs. The Pacers aren’t going to be winning any titles this year. College basketball is going to drive any and all conversation, and the Hoosiers getting humiliated by their in-state rival is all anyone is going to want to talk about.

It’s not easy being the coach of a blueblood.

There’s a reason that someone like Shaka Smart prioritized Texas and Billy Donovan loved it at Florida. It’s nice when the money is there and the pressure only comes after the football team plays a bowl game and before spring practices start.

That’s certainly not the case at Indiana.

And Archie is going to learn that the hard way this week.

RJ Barrett leads No. 1 Duke past No. 4 Virginia 72-70

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DURHAM, N.C. — No. 1 Duke and fourth-ranked Virginia kept trading baskets — and the lead — down the stretch of another classic at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Here’s the difference: The Blue Devils had RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and a defense that -even without key on-the-ball defender Tre Jones- flipped the script on the Cavaliers.

Barrett scored 30 points, Williamson had 27 and Duke gave Virginia its first loss of the season by beating the Cavaliers 72-70 on Saturday night.

“We did a lot of switching tonight, and we were able to move their defense enough — just enough, not every time — to get some driving lanes,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

The Blue Devils (15-2, 4-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) bounced back from an overtime loss to Syracuse that could cost them their top ranking. They avoided their first two-game losing streak at home since 2016 and proved they can win without Jones.

DeAndre Hunter scored 18 points, and Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy had 14 apiece for the Cavaliers (16-1, 4-1), who entered as the nation’s last unbeaten after No. 2 Michigan was upset at Wisconsin earlier in the day. Virginia allowed Duke to shoot 63 percent in the second half — and hit 12 of 15 shots inside the 3-point arc — while giving up a season-high point total.

“We’re a solid defensive team,” coach Tony Bennett said, “but tonight, we were not solid enough.”

The fourth matchup of top-ranked teams in the sport’s history — Virginia entered at No. 1 in the coaches’ poll — was a tournament-caliber game throughout. There were 14 ties and 15 lead changes, and it was a one-possession game for a 14 1/2-minute stretch of the second half.

“If you scored, you beat good defense,” Krzyzewski said. “If you didn’t score, good defense beat you.”

After the Cavaliers missed 11 of 12 shots during a late nine-minute stretch, they pulled within 69-66 on Guy’s 3-pointer with 23 seconds left. Barrett hit two free throws with 20.9 seconds to play, and Virginia let too much time elapse before Braxton Key was fouled with 8.9 seconds remaining and hit both shots to make it 71-68.

Cameron Reddish hit a free throw to make it a four-point game before Hunter hit a jumper before the buzzer for Virginia.

BIG PICTURE

Virginia: The Cavaliers’ best start since opening 19-0 in 2014-15 is history, and they won’t wind up at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 on Monday. After winning a top-five matchup here last year, untimely cold shooting down the stretch — and their struggles to keep the Blue Devils from getting to the rim on defense — led to their first defeat. But circle the date on the calendar: The rematch in Charlottesville comes on Feb. 9.

“That was our game,” Jerome said. “We had that game. We lost it. We made mistakes that we can control.”

Duke: With one key freshman out — Jones — the Blue Devils rode the three other members of their freshman class to a significant victory. Williamson, Barrett and Reddish combined to take 47 of Duke’s 51 shots and score 66 of their 72 points.

“Coach K gives us the freedom to be us,” Williamson said. “When there’s movement for the three of us, no telling what we can do.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Good luck to the voters who have to sort this out. It’s hard to punish the Cavaliers too much for losing at Cameron. The question surrounding the Blue Devils: Will the spoils of this victory weigh more than their overtime loss to Syracuse when they were down two starters?

STRATEGY

Bennett said Duke was the first team to switch on every screen set by the Cavaliers — a tweak to the game plan Krzyzewski said he made a couple of days before the game in an attempt to limit Virginia’s open 3-pointers, especially the catch-and-shoot 3s that are an integral part of Guy’s game. He compared Guy to former Duke star J.J. Redick, calling him “the closest that I’ve seen to J.J. in the league.” Guy was 2 of 7 from 3-point range, and Virginia finished 3 of 17 from beyond the arc.

INJURY REPORT

This was the Blue Devils’ first full game without Jones, who separated the AC joint in his right shoulder early on against Syracuse. Jones watched from the bench in a polo shirt but without a sling. Duke had just six assists on 26 baskets after averaging 18 assists in its previous 16 games. Krzyzewski said there’s still no timetable for Jones’ return.

Baylor wins 73-62 to hand No. 8 Texas Tech 2nd loss in row

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WACO, Texas — Baylor freshman Jared Butler scored 14 of his 19 points after halftime and the Bears beat No. 8 Texas Tech 73-62 on Saturday, handing the Red Raiders their second loss in four days.

After Texas Tech scored 11 in a row to get within a basket, Butler hit a 3-pointer with 4 1/2 minutes left before Tech’s Jarrett Culver then had a short shot roll off the rim no good. That led to Butler driving for a layup and making the free throw after getting fouled to stretch the lead back to 61-53.

The Red Raiders (15-3, 4-2 Big 12), coming off a home loss to Iowa State on Wednesday night, are still tied for the Big 12 lead after No. 7 Kansas lost earlier Saturday at West Virginia.

Makai Mason added 16 points for Baylor (11-6, 3-2), which beat a Top 10 team for the seventh time in the last three seasons. The Bears are 7-7 in such games during that span.

Culver led the Red Raiders with 19 points and nine rebounds. Brandone Francis had 14 points and Davide Moretti had 13.

After Texas Tech raced out to a 23-10 lead in the first 9 1/2 minutes, Baylor went ahead to stay with a 23-6 run. Four Bears, including Butler, made 3-pointers in that span while the Red Raiders went more than 10 1/2 minutes without making a field goal.

Baylor had a 33-31 halftime lead before Butler scored the first eight points for the Bears out of the break. It was 41-33 after King McClure stole the ball from Culver and passed ahead to Butler for a breakaway layup.

BIG PICTURE

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders had been the only Big 12 team without a conference loss before this week, and their only loss before that was against No. 1 Duke.

Baylor: This was the most lopsided Big 12 game so far for the Bears, whose first five conference games had all been decided by five points or less. Baylor also won at home against Texas Tech last season when the Red Raiders were a Top 10 team.

UP NEXT

Texas Tech plays on the road for the third time in four games Tuesday night at Kansas State. The Red Raiders play three of their four games after that at home.

Baylor plays Monday night at West Virginia, which is coming off its win over Kansas after a 31-point loss at TCU. It’s the second week in a row the Bears follow a Saturday home game with a Monday road game.

Four takeaways from No. 1 Duke’s win over No. 4 Virginia

AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson combined to score 57 points as No. 1 Duke survived an off-night from Cam Reddish to take down No. 4 Virginia, the last remaining unbeaten in college basketball, 72-70.

De’Andre Hunter led Virginia with 18 points while Ty Jerome finished with 14 points, four assists and four boards, the majority of his damage being done in the second half. Duke led 37-32 heading into halftime, cut the lead to 40-39 by the first TV timeout. From that point until the Blue Devils used a 6-0 run to push their lead out to 67-60, the game was a thrilling, one possession battle between two of the best teams in the country.

For me, that was the most important factor on display.

These could very well be the two best teams in college basketball. On a different day — one where Kyle Guy or Braxton Key makes one or two of the handful of wide open threes they had in the second half — Virginia wins this game. At the same time, we can say that if Tre Jones is healthy for the return leg, Duke could go into John Paul Jones Arena and get a win and no one would be surprised.

Speaking of Jones, much was made of the importance of his absence in the buildup to this game, but Duke still managed to find a way to win.

Here are four things to takeaway from the result:

1. ZION WILLIAMSON IS SPECIAL

Breaking news!

The likely No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and the probably National Player of the Year is a great basketball player.

Shocking, right?

But in all seriousness, he was absolutely unstoppable on Saturday night in Cameron. There is no team in the country that is better than Virginia when it comes to stopping dribble penetration — that is the entire point of the Pack-Line — and Zion was able to get to the rim more or less at will. Virginia tried everything to slow him down, from using future top ten pick De’Andre Hunter, to Mamadi Diakite, to Braxton Key. By the end of the second half, Tony Bennett put Jack Salt on Zion, hoping that it would be more effective using the burly, 7-foot New Zealander to keep Zion from bullying his way to the basket while helping as much as possible.

(I know this is probably a different conversation for a different space, but in all seriousness, Virginia’s entire premise defensively is to force drivers to play with as little space as possible, and Zion got wherever he wanted. In the NBA — with the longer three-point line, shooters all over the floor and more space than anyone knows what to do with — how do you keep him out of the lane?)

With the loss to Syracuse on Monday night, Duke is going to fall out of the top spot in the AP Poll. That’s justified.

But it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that a team with Zion Williamson as the second-option offensively is not the best team in college basketball.

2. THE CHESS MATCH BETWEEN THESE TWO COACHES WAS AMAZING, BUT COACH K WON THIS ROUND

It was fascinating to watch these two coaching geniuses trade haymakers for 40 minutes on Saturday night.

Coach K landed the first blow. Virginia runs the blocker-mover offense, which is more-or-less a continuity offense where three guards (movers) are constantly running off of screens from the two bigs (blockers), and he was able to completely take UVA out of their offense by switching all exchanges, 1-through-5. Tony Bennett said at halftime that no one had done that against them before. Switching off-ball screening actions minimizes their effectiveness, especially when the bigs aren’t good enough to overpower the guards that are switched onto them:

This through Virginia for a loop early on, but they adjusted. This is when Bennett gets on the scorecard for the first time, because he totally scrapped his offense and started doing exactly what Duke does: He ran screen after screen after screen until he got the matchup he wanted — usually, Marques Bolden on Ty Jerome or De’Andre Hunter. Then he would lift the defense, send the big out to set a ball-screen and let the dribbler attack the space in the paint since Duke wasn’t leaving shooters:

Duke’s response?

They switched to a 2-3 zone for a number of possessions late in the second half, and it got Duke the win, but I do think that it’s important to note than Virginia entered this game as the nation’s seventh-best three-point shooting team and they missed three or four really good looks from three against that Duke zone. If those threes — the shots that Virginia wanted to get, mind you — go down, maybe I’m writing something different here.

They didn’t.

And Duke was able to land themselves the two-point win.

(One point that I think is important to add here: One of the things that people love to cite when they say that Tony Bennett will never be able to coach in the NBA is the offense that he runs. Well, in the second half, Virginia essentially ran the same offense that was run for the entirety of the 2018 Western Conference Finals. He simply moved players into screens to force switches into advantageous matchups, then he let his stars go and make a play. Oh, and should I mention that the Portland Trailblazers run the blocker-mover offense? Because they do.)

Anyway, the more important point about the Wahoos is that …

3. … DE’ANDRE HUNTER AND TY JEROME ARE DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

After watching that game and rewatching much of the second half, I am more sold on the idea that this Virginia team is the team that can finally get to the Final Four.

No one is going to defend Virginia this season as well as Duke did on Saturday night. The Blue Devils schemed UVA out of everything they wanted to do offensively, and Virginia still gave Duke a fight in Cameron.

The point here isn’t to celebrate a moral victory — remember, Virginia won in Cameron last year and lost in the first round to UMBC. The point is that Hunter and Jerome are as good as any 1-2 punch in college hoops this side of Duke. They can create outside of the confines of Virginia’s system. They can take games over, as Hunter did for a stretch in the first half and as Jerome did for much of the second half. They are NBA players that are hidden by the slowest pace in the sport.

The point is that the concern people have about Virginia winning in March is that they are susceptible to losing to teams that can take them out of what they want to do. Duke did that, and Virginia came a couple of missed threes away from picking them off in Cameron.

Maybe Virginia is more matchup-proof than we realized.

4. DUKE DEFINITELY MISSED TRE JONES

It’s easy to hide flaws in a roster when the top two picks in the draft are able to put up  combined 57 points on 21-for-35 shooting against one of the best defenses in college basketball, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t chinks in the armor.

Part of the reason that Duke had to switch as much as they did on Saturday night, and part of the reason they were eventually forced to go to zone, is that Tre Jones’ defense wasn’t on the floor. Part of the reason that Duke had to play Marques Bolden for 33 minutes despite the fact that he was the guy that Virginia targeted every time they switched was because Tre Jones was on the bench. Part of the reason that Cam Reddish struggled to get things going was because there was no true point guard on the floor to initiate offense.

Duke is better with Tre Jones.

I don’t even think there is a question.

But when you have two dudes that are as good as Zion and RJ are, there are going to be a lot of games where it just doesn’t matter.

WATCH: De’Andre Hunter answers Zion Williamson’s dunk with his own poster

Eric Espada/Getty Images
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This Duke-Virginia game is living up to the hype.

After Zion Williamson came close to ending the internet by posterizing Jay Huff, Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter — who is No. 5 in the latest NBC Sports Mock Draft — answered with a poster of his own: