Top 25 non-conference games for 2013-2014

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click hereThe rest of our Top 25 Countdown can be found here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

With six months of no college basketball to watch, it’s about time that the ball starts bouncing once again. The season gets underway in just over a month, so here are some of the non-conference games that you should keep an eye on this season. The top game should come as little surprise, but there are many other intriguing match-ups between teams who will be in the Top 25 and on the fringe, as well as a few mid-major teams looking to prove themselves in the early going.

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1. Kentucky vs. Louisville (December 28)

Like you thought the number one non-conference game would be something other than Kentucky vs. Louisville at Rupp? Two legendary coaches, a slew of future NBA players on the court from both teams, two of the best and most rabid fan bases in the country – this game at the end of December is a great way to close the book on 2013.

Last meeting: Louisville 80, Kentucky 77 (2012)

2. Duke vs. Kansas (November 12)

You’d be hard pressed to find a better double-header of games all season than Duke vs. Kansas and Kentucky vs. Michigan State (see below) as part of the Champions Classic. All four teams ranked inside the Top Ten with national title hopes on their minds. The nightcap pits Duke against Kansas, and two of the best freshman against one another — Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins.

Last meeting: Duke 68, Kansas 61 (2011)

3.Kentucky vs. Michigan State (November 12) 

Depending on how the preseason rankings shake out, the early game of the night very well could have the No. 1 team in the county playing the No. 2 — how’s that for some early season fireworks? This will also be Kentucky’s first true test of the young season; the nation will see how far along Coach Cal has his young team of superstars against a veteran Michigan State bunch led by Adreian Payne and Keith Appling.

Last meeting: Michigan State 94, Kentucky 88 20T (2005 NCAA Tournament)

4. Michigan vs. Arizona (December 14)

An intriguing match-up between two teams who lost a fair bit of talent from last season, but still have high expectations for the 2013-14 season. Arizona, of course, has one of the top freshman in the country in Aaron Gordon, while Michigan — coming off of its first Final Four appearance in 20 years — returns a trio of sophomores in Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, and Nik Stauskas, along with highly touted freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr.

Last meeting: Arizona 61, Michigan 60 OT (2004)

5. North Carolina at Michigan State (December 4)

One of the featured games of the ACC / Big Ten Challenge, North Carolina faces their first true road test of the season traveling to East Lansing. This being Carolina’s sixth game of the year, one has to assume that P.J. Hairston’s suspension will have been lifted by this point, although that all depends how stringent Roy Williams and North Carolina wish to be with Hairston. With Reggie Bullock foregoing his senior season, the Tar Heels will lean on Hairston as a primary scoring option. The match-up between Hairston and Gary Harris would be a great one to watch.

Last meeting: North Carolina 67, Michigan State 55 (2011)

6. Florida vs. Kansas (December 10)

An enigma for the latter half of the prior season, Florida is coming off of three straight appearances in the Elite Eight. Their game against Kansas is sandwiched in between games against Connecticut and Memphis — talk about a tough three game stretch. Replacing Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario will be a challenge, although some would posit Boynton is addition by subtraction given his erratic play at times.

Last meeting: Kansas 82, Florida 80 OT (2006)

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7. Duke vs. Michigan (December 3)

Another one of the premier games of the ACC / Big Ten Challenge, Duke welcomes Michigan to Cameron Indoor. Duke has dominated this series in recent years winning nine of the last ten meetings, but many of those games took place when the Wolverines were a struggling program marred near the bottom of the Big Ten. Incoming freshman Jabari Parker and transfer Rodney Hood will be major factors in the Duke frontcort, but handling the size and brute strength of Mith McGary inside will be a challenge.

Last meeting: Duke 82, Michigan 75 (2011)

8. North Carolina vs. Kentucky (December 14)

This was one of the “can’t miss” games of the 2011-12 season, and the college basketball community is certainly pleased to see this series continue between two of the most storied programs in history — last year proved to be a brief hiatus in the series. Kentucky’s slew of talented freshmen will be a storyline all year, but keep an eye on the match-up between North Carolina’s James Michael-NcAdoo and how he performs inside against Julius Randle.

Last meeting: Kentucky 73, North Carolina 72 (2011)

9. Marquette vs. Ohio State (November 16)

Each of these teams are coming off of runs to the Sweet 16 last year, and both will be adapting to life after losing their top players from a year ago — DeShaun Thomas at Ohio State and Vander Blue at Marquette. Perhaps more difficult for Marquette to overcome is losing point guard Junior Cadougan. In this the Golden Eagles’ first test of the year, it will be interesting to track how Derrick Wilson, who will most likely take over the point guard duties, handles himself against Aaron Craft.

Last meeting: Marquette 82, Ohio State 70 (1994)

source: Getty Images10. Oklahoma State vs. Memphis (November 19)

Two of the top backcourts in the country will do battle early in the year. Marcus Smart gave Travis Ford a very nice present heading into the offseason when he elected to stay at Oklahoma State for his sophomore year, thereby solidifying one of the top backcourts in the country with Smart and Markel Brown. Meanwhile, Memphis has dream backcourt with a quartet of fine guards in Michael Dixon Jr. Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford, and Joe Jackson.

Last meeting: Oklahoma State 70, Memphis 53 (2004 NCAA Tournament)

11. Connecticut vs. Florida (December 2)

We should all be delighted this tilt is being played at Connecticut’s on-campus gym, Gampel Pavilion, rather than the XL Center, the arena in downtown Hartford. The Huskies have a prolific backcourt with Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, but are thin up front which plays into Florida’s advantage as they return Patric Young.

Last meeting: Florida 69, Connecticut 60 OT (1994)

12. Colorado vs. Kansas (December 7)

Colorado figures to be a Top 25 team as they return do-it-all guard Spencer Dinwiddie, along with Askia Booker. Last year, the Buffaloes were dismantled at Kansas losing by 36 points, but they’ll look to return the favor to Wiggins and company this year at home.

Last meeting: Kansas 90, Colorado 54

13. Duke vs. UCLA (December 19)

While UCLA plays at Missouri on December 7, the first time Steve Alford and his team will truly be in the limelight comes in the Big Apple against Duke. Despite losing the talented, Alford has plenty of talent to work with as the Wear twins return along with rising sophomores Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams.

Last meeting: Duke 84, UCLA 73 (2002)

14. Memphis vs. Florida (December 17)

If you can believe it, it’s been nearly 40 years since these two programs last met. This season’s game will greatly challenge a Florida backcourt without the services of the previously mentioned Boynton and Rosario, especially facing a supremely talented and deep Tigers backcourt.

Last meeting: Florida 84, Memphis 83 (1976)

15. Kansas vs. New Mexico (December 14)

The Lobos will have a new-look on the sidelines with Craig Neal taking over for Steve Alford, but the product on the court will largely be the same. Senior guard Kendall Williams returns, as does the Lobo’s front court duo of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow. New Mexico figures to be a Top 25 team and the class of the Mountain West, and their game against Kansas will go a long way proving just how good they are this season.

Last meeting: Kansas 59, New Mexico 40 (1964)

16. Florida at Wisconsin (November 12)

Last meeting: Florida 74, Wisconsin 56 (2012)

17. Syracuse vs. Indiana (December 3)

Last meeting: Syracuse 61, Indiana 50 (2013 NCAA Tournament)

18. Wisconsin vs. Marquette (December 7)

Last meeting: Marquette 60, Wisconsin 50 (2012)

19. Notre Dame vs. Ohio State (December 21)

Last meeting: Ohio State 67, Notre Dame 62 (2008)

20. Memphis vs. Gonzaga (February 8)

Last meeting: Memphis 62, Gonzaga 58 (2011)

21. Wichita State vs. Tennessee (December 14)

Last meeting: Tennessee 69, Wichita State 60 (2012)

22. Colorado vs. Harvard (November 24)

Last meeting: Harvard 82, Colorado 66 (2010)

23. Virginia vs. Virginia Commonwealth (November 12)

Last meeting: Virginia 86, Virginia Commonwealth 70 (1998)

24. Creighton vs. Arizona State (November 28)

Last meeting: Creighton 87, Arizona State 73 (2012)

25. Oregon vs. Georgetown (November 8, in Camp Humphreys, South Korea)

Last meeting: Oregon 57, Georgetown 50 (2006)

Five ‘Dream’ Games

The following five games we are crossing our fingers that if things break right in these early season tournaments, these match-ups will happen:

  • Arizona vs. Duke (Championship of the NIT Season Tip Off)
  • Louisville vs. North Carolina (Championship of the Hall of Fame Tip Off)
  • Syracuse vs. Gonzaga (Championship of the Maui Invitational)
  • Michigan vs. Virginia Commonwealth (Second Round of the Puerto Rico Tip Off)
  • Connecticut vs. Indiana (Championship of the 2K Sports Classic Benefiting The Wounded Warrior Project)

Best Bets: Previewing Tennessee-Kentucky, Iowa State-Kansas State, weekend’s biggest games

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Here is everything you need to know when betting the biggest games this weekend.

As always, this is coming out before the Vegas lines for Saturday’s games, so we are using projections from KenPomTorvik and Haslametrics to walk through how the game will play out. 

No. 1 TENNESSEE at No. 5 KENTUCKY, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kentucky 74, Tennessee 72
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Kentucky 74, Tennessee 72
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Kentucky 75, Tennessee 73

There are a number of reasons that this battle of top five teams is one of the most interesting matchups of the season, and perhaps the most relevant is the obvious: These are both top five teams! I know Kentucky just lost to LSU in Rupp Arena, but that still doesn’t really change the fact that Kentucky is, legitimately, one of the eight-to-ten teams that are the most likely to earn a spot in Minneapolis for that first weekend in April.

Kentucky still gets two shots at Tennessee, who also must travel to LSU. A SEC regular season title is still very much in the cards for the Cats.

And all of that is before you get to the actual personnel matchups here, which should be terrific. Grant Williams, for my money, is No. 2 in the National Player of the Year voting. He’s been dominant on the block for the Vols this season, and he will be asked to go up against P.J. Washington and Reid Travis on Saturday afternoon. The more intriguing matchup of the two will be Washington, who himself has been playing like a first-team All-American over the course of the last three weeks.

It is precisely that frontcourt battle that is going to play a major role in determining the outcome of this game. For starters, it will be strength on strength. Tennessee’s offense runs through Williams. Kentucky’s offense runs through Washington and Travis. We also need to note that the Wildcats can be absolutely dominant on the offensive glass. They are third nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. They know that there are times where their best offense is a missed shot, and the Vols have not been great on the defensive glass this season.

The perimeter battle may actually end up being more interesting. As we discussed on the Why Your Team Sucks podcast, the concern for both of these teams is whether or not there is enough firepower in their backcourts to win at the level they expect to win. For Kentucky, the concern is obvious: Ashton Hagans, as good as he is defensively, is not a threat on the offensive end of the floor while Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson have gone through the bouts of inconsistency that you expect out of freshmen.

The conversation is a bit more nuanced with Tennessee. Their backcourt is not overloaded with high-end talent, and if there is an issue standing between them and a national title, it’s whether or not those guards are going to be able to win them close games against elite teams. We will get that answer on Saturday night.

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PICKS: All three metrics project this game to be play in the mid-70s with the line landing at Kentucky (-2). Frankly, I am not sure what side I want to be on here. On the one hand, Kentucky is coming off of a home loss, they are hosting the No. 1 team in the country in their building and they have a roster that has more talent on it. It’s also worth noting here that while Tennessee is on a 19 game winning streak, the only surefire NCAA tournament team they’ve beaten in that streak was Gonzaga on Dec. 9th. The best team they have played in the last two months was … Alabama? Florida? This will be their first major test in a long, long time.

That said, there is a very real difference in toughness and experience on these two teams. This is the same Tennessee roster that won the SEC last year. They have been through the rigors of a title race. They are also a much older and tougher group of guys that were overlooked throughout their career, and I can guarantee that there is nothing they would love more than pounding on some highly-touted freshmen that haven’t had to fight the fights they’ve fought.

Tennessee is the most complete team in the country, but I just cannot bring myself to pick against Kentucky after the way they lost on Tuesday. If the line opens at (-2), I’ll probably be on the Wildcats, but here’s to hoping the total opens in the high-140s and we can bet the under instead.

No. 23 IOWA STATE at No. 18 KANSAS STATE, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kansas State 64, Iowa State 63
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Kansas State 65, Iowa State 64
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Iowa State 66, Kansas State 65

Might we be getting a battle between the two best teams in the Big 12 on Saturday afternoon? That could very well be the case.

The first time these two teams got together, Kansas State won 58-57 in Ames after an Iowa State defensive breakdown in the final seconds gave Barry Brown an easy bucket for the win. I do not expect the rematch to be quite as ugly as the first battle, and the reason for that is the return of Dean Wade. He played 22 minutes in the first game, but he was not back to being himself after battling a foot injury. He is now, and he’s playing the all-american we predicted him to be.

And for my money, he will be the most important player in this game, especially with Cartier Diarra out after undergoing surgery on his hand. Iowa State plays four perimeter players at almost all times, meaning that Wade is going to be the mismatch. He’ll have smaller players — Talen Horton-Tucker? — on his when he’s at the four and will be guarded by slower bigs when he is at the five. If he can win those matchups on the offensive end, it will be tough for Iowa State.

Wade’s return has boosted Kansas State offensively. There was one point this season where they ranked outside the top 200 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric, and while they are hardly last year’s Villanova with Wade — their best shooter and best passer — back, they have worked their way back to 109th in KenPom’s rankings. In conference play alone, they are the fifth-best offensive team, one spot in front of Kansas, and that includes their 0-2 start to league play where they scored 47 points against Texas and 57 points against Texas Tech.

PICKS: This could be the game that wins Kansas State the outright Big 12 title. They currently hold a two-game lead over the field in the loss column, and their schedule really lightens up down the stretch. Their next two games are at West Virginia and Oklahoma State at home. They still have to go to Allen Fieldhouse, but they end the season with Baylor at home, TCU on the road and Oklahoma at home.

Win on Saturday, and Kansas State can afford a loss at Allen Fieldhouse and still control their own destiny.

I will be very curious to see where this line opens. The metrics still are underrating Kansas State because of how dreadful they were without Wade, so if this opens around Kansas State (-1), then I will hammer the Wildcats.

No. 24 MARYLAND at No. 6 MICHIGAN, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (FOX)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Michigan 67, Maryland 60
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Michigan 68, Maryland 61
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Michigan 66, Maryland 62

This could be the worst possible time for anyone to play Michigan. The last time we saw the Wolverines, they were getting embarrassed by the last place team in the Big Ten as Penn State went up 13 points at halftime as John Beilein was tossed before he even made it back to the locker room for the break.

Michigan is now tied for first in the league instead of having sole possession of first place, and they’re heading home pissed off after a loss where they played terribly?

That’s a tough spot before you consider that Maryland just does not matchup well with Michigan. Anthony Cowan will have to deal with Zavier Simpson. Bruno Fernando will have Jon Teske to battle with. They are Maryland’s two major sources of offense.

PICKS: I tend to lean towards Michigan here, even if the line opens at (-7) or so. I just don’t know where Maryland gets offense from.

(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

No. 13 VILLANOVA at ST. JOHN’S, Sun. 5:00 p.m. (FS1)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Villanova 73, St. John’s 72
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: St. John’s 75, Villanova 74
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: St. John’s 76, Villanova 72

I actually think St. John’s is a difficult matchup for the Wildcats because of the way the Johnnies play. Like Villanova, they essentially role five switchable perimeter players out there without much, in any, interior scoring presence. For years, Villanova has thrived on their ability to create mismatches all over the floor, and I just don’t know if they’re going to be able to do that against the Johnnies. The first time they played this year, St. John’s led for most of the game before a late Villanova run won it.

That said, there is no comfort betting on a team that is as inconsistent as St. John’s is. They are currently 6-6 in Big East play with home losses to DePaul, Georgetown and Providence, but they’ve also swept Marquette this season.

PICKS: I have no idea what this line is going to be. KenPom is favoring Villanova by one point. Torvik has St. John’s winning by one. Haslametrics has the Johnnies winning by four. If St. John’s ends up favored, I’ll probably bet Villanova simply because I am not in the business of betting against Villanova, especially when Jay Wright is going up against Chris Mullin.

N.C. STATE at No. 2 DUKE, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Duke 89, N.C. State 70
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Duke 93, N.C. State 73
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Duke 94, N.C. State 72

I have a feeling that this game is going to get really ugly, really quickly.

The way to beat Duke is proven. Defensively, you stay disciplined, you pack the paint, you gap them and you dare them to beat you with jumpers. Offensively, you need to slow the game down and control tempo, avoiding quick shots and live-ball turnovers that lead to layups. N.C. State wants to press, they want to run and they want to gamble to force turnovers.

I just don’t see that working out all that well.

PICKS: The projections suggest Duke should be roughly a 20 point favorite, although I think the line will be closer to (-17ish). I like the Duke side if that is the line, but I like the over even more, assuming it opens around 160. For perspective, when N.C. State played North Carolina, the final scores were 90-82 and 113-96.

BAYLOR at No. 15 TEXAS TECH, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Texas Tech 66, Baylor 58
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Texas Tech 67, Baylor 58
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Texas Tech 68, Baylor 56

The question that you have to ask here is whether or not you buy the Texas Tech that we’ve seen of late. After a swoon in mid-January that saw Chris Beard’s club lose three in a row, they’ve won five of their last six, including a pair of blowout wins in the last two weeks that have seemingly given them their confidence back on the offensive end.

And that’s where I think this game will be won. Baylor runs a wonky zone that is somewhere between a 2-3 and a 1-3-1, and the issue that the Red Raiders face is that they can really go through droughts offensively, especially when Jarrett Culver isn’t on his game. They aren’t a great shooting team or a great passing team, and those are the two things you need to be able to do to beat a zone.

That said, the shots have been falling of late. They made 22 threes in their last two games.

Two other things to note: Baylor has lost two of their last three games, but Makai Mason returned to action on Monday after missing last Saturday’s game against Kansas State. There is no word yet on King McClure’s status. The first time these two teams played this year, Baylor won 73-62 in Waco.

PICKS: I’ve long been a believer in Texas Tech, and I think that the Bears are going to come back to earth hard over the final stretch of the season. They won three of their first four road games in Big 12 play, but those were wins at Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Oklahoma, the bottom three teams in the league standings. Their four road trips to end the season: Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State and Kansas. If this line opens at (-8), I’ll be on the Red Raiders.

LeBron on the Zion recruiting trip: ‘I didn’t talk to anybody’

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The story that overshadowed the story Duke’s win at Virginia last Saturday was the presence of LeBron James and his agent Rich Paul sitting courtside in John Paul Jones Arena.

Were they simply there to watch two of the best teams in the country? Were they just trying to catch a glimpse of The Zion Show before LeBron is forced to call him a competitor? Or was this Paul and LeBron on a recruiting trip for Klutch, the agency that Paul runs and LeBron is a client of?

According to the GOAT himself, it’s the former.

“I love what those young boys are doing over there,” he told ESPN in a story published on Friday. “I love what Zion and RJ [Barrett] and Cam [Reddish] and Tre [Jones], I love what they’re doing. So, [the trip] was a no-brainer. It was easy.”

LeBron also bristled at the notion that this was anything more than taking his chance to see the rematch of what was the biggest game of the year in college hoops.

“A recruiting trip? I didn’t talk to anybody,” James said. “They’re only saying that because it’s Rich. When Shaq came to see me play in high school, when A.I. came to see me play in high school, they weren’t saying it was a recruiting trip then. But because it’s Rich Paul and LeBron, now it’s a recruitment trip.

“Now Rich is a threat to everybody, and they look at it and they want to keep trying to jab my agent and jab my friend. And what is he doing that’s wrong?”

As far as Zion himself, LeBron’s read on the super star is … well, not all that different from everyone else. He was impressive with his “agility and quickness for his size” as well as his athleticism, but this nugget was more interesting.

“When they asked him about, you know, guys in our league and people who cover our league talking about, ‘If I was Zion Williamson, I would sit out for the rest of the year,’ he was like, ‘That’s [silly]. Why? I’m here to play basketball. I love to play basketball. I’m here at Duke, I’m having fun. These are my friends. I’m having a great time. Why would I sit out?'” LeBron said.

“That’s the type of s— that strikes me.”

No. 3 Gonzaga uses late run to defeat Loyola Marymount

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LOS ANGELES — Third-ranked Gonzaga was trailing midway through the second half and the nation’s highest-scoring team was being slowed.

The Bulldogs came up with a late burst to extend their winning streak to 15 games.

Gonzaga closed the game with a 20-6 run to beat Loyola Marymount 73-60 on Thursday night. It was only the second West Coast Conference game that the Bulldogs (24-2, 11-0) have not led by at least 20 at some point.

“They were a tough out tonight. They would have been a tough out for a lot of teams tonight,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.

Rui Hachimura led Gonzaga with 22 points and Brandon Clarke added 17 points and 12 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season.

The game was close until late in the second half. Loyola Marymount took a 54-53 lead with 8:45 remaining on Joe Quintana’s 3-pointer, before the Bulldogs took control.

James Batemon’s jumper brought Loyola Marymount (17-9, 5-7) within 60-58 with 4:59 remaining but Gonzaga scored 13 of the game’s last 15 points. The game was similar to Gonzaga’s Jan. 12 victory at San Francisco, where it trailed late before going on a 17-2 run in the final four minutes.

“They did a good job taking us out of our normal pace of offense,” said Zach Norvell Jr., who had 13 points, including a pair of 3-pointers late in the second half. “Once we settled down and found holes, we were able to pick them apart.”

Gonzaga finished 21 of 22 from the foul line.

The Bulldogs came in leading the nation with 91.4 points per game but had their lowest-scoring half of the season, as they led 32-31 at halftime. It was only the fourth time this season they have been held under 80 points in a game.

Gonzaga opened the second half with 3-pointers by Josh Perkins and Corey Kispert. The Lions fought back though and kept it close until the final six minutes.

“We just stayed poised and not get caught up in the moment. We did a good job of having a mature approach and getting stops on our end,” Clarke said.

Dameane Douglas led Loyola Marymount with 13 points, Batemon added 12 and Mattias Markusson and Eli Scott scored 11 apiece. The Lions had a 15-6 edge in offensive rebounds and controlled the inside with a 38-30 edge in points in the paint. They also had an 18-2 advantage in second-chance points but were 1 of 14 on 3-pointers.

“We didn’t allow them to push it out until the end. The bottom line is we missed some layups late. Against a team that is third in the country, those are empty possessions,” Loyola Marymount coach Mike Dunlap said. “Statistically there is a lot to put your teeth into that positive, but how do you take it the rest of the season and go forward?”

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: The Zags came into the game as the nation’s top shooting team (52.8 percent) but were just 9 of 28 in the first half. They improved greatly in the second half, going 14 of 22.

“Loyola beat us up and was physical. We settled too much in the first half and missed a bunch of layups,” Few said. “We settled things down and got to the rim a little bit more and guys made 3s in the second half.”

Loyola Marymount: The Lions have dropped 21 straight to Gonzaga, and 25 of their last 26 Their last win in the series came on Feb. 18, 2010.

No. 9 Houston beats UConn 71-63 for 9th straight victory

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HARTFORD, Conn. — DeJon Jarreau had 18 points and seven assists to help No. 9 Houston beat UConn 71-63 on Thursday night for its ninth straight victory.

Armoni Brooks added 12 points for the Cougars (24-1, 11-1 American Athletic Conference). They opened the second half with a 17-4 run to take control.

Christian Vital had 15 points for UConn (13-12, 4-8). The Huskies have lost three straight since a knee injury took out scoring leader Jalen Adams.

Jarreau’s driving layup gave Houston a 17-point lead with just over 7 1/2 minutes to go. UConn cut it to 61-55 after a 3-pointer by Sidney Wilson and a free throw from Christian Vital.

Another driving layup by Jarreau, followed by a steal and two foul shots from Cedrick Alley Jr. brought the lead back to double digits.

The Huskies failed to capitalize on 21 Houston fouls, going 14 of 25 from the line.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies played without two stars. Junior point guard Alterique Gilbert missed his fifth straight game since suffering the latest in a series of injuries to his left shoulder. Adams has what may turn out to be a season-ending knee injury. The Huskies are 1-4 since Gilbert’s injury.

Houston: The Cougars’ bench, led by Jarreau, outscored UConn’s 42-9. Chris Harris Jr., Cedrick Alley Jr. and Brison Gresham were a combined 9 for 9 from the floor.

Bubble Banter: This is how a two-bid OVC and a three-bid SoCon would be possible

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Here is our latest bracket projection, from Thursday morning. 

There were three mid-major teams in action on Thursday night with a real chance of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Two were from the SoCon — WOFFORD (NET: 28, SOS: 167) and UNC GREENSBORO (NET: 46, SOS: 191) — and one was a member of the Ohio Valley — BELMONT (NET: 60, SOS: 166).

I think that it is possible for all three of these teams to not only get into the NCAA tournament, but for all three to get in as at-large teams. That would mean that a three-bid SoCon is possible, as well as a two-bid OVC.

The how is, honestly, pretty simple.

It starts with UNCG and Wofford, who play each other on Saturday. For this to really be a possibility, UNCG has to win that game on the road because the Spartans, after losing at Furman on Thursday night, have just a single Q1 win — at East Tennessee State (71) and the only two wins they have against teams ranked in the top 120 of the NET are conference foes; they also beat Furman (57) at home.

Wofford has some wiggle room here. They Terriers beat UNCG and East Tennessee State on the road. They won at South Carolina. Their worst loss came at Oklahoma (42) and they have won eight road games this season. They have a really, really strong profile, one that would be able to survive a Q2 loss to UNCG with the way the bubble is shaking out this season.

If UNCG wins and both Wofford and UNCG win out after Saturday, I think that both of those teams would be in position to earn an at-large bid to the dance assuming they they both get knocked out of the SoCon tournament by either Furman or ETSU.

Which is where this interesting nugget comes into play: The Pac-12 has one top 60 team and three top 75 teams in the NET as of today. The SoCon has three top 60 teams and four top 75 teams. The difference between the SoCon and other mid-major leagues is that the at-large candidates can lose in the semifinals without torpedoing their resume.

I also think that Furman has a case to be an at-large team as well, and while they have the best win in the league — they took down Villanova (19) on the road — they also lost to Samford (149) and have non-conference SOS of 287. Put another way, they have just five wins that aren’t against Q4 opponents. That’s not ideal.

As far as Belmont is concerned, they simply need to win out and ensure that they lose to Murray State and only Murray State in the OVC tournament. The Bruins actually have the best wins of any of this mid-major teams. They swept Lipscomb (38) in a home-and-home. They beat Murray State (68) on the road in their only meeting. They won at UCLA (102), which doesn’t look nearly as good now as it should in theory. The problem here is that there are three losses to teams outside the top 125 on their profile. Belmont was swept by Jacksonville State (133) and lost at Green Bay (221).

So it will be close.

But with the way the bubble looks today, if Belmont loses to Murray State in the OVC tournament — and, frankly, the likes of Buffalo, VCU, Nevada, Gonzaga and Washington all win their automatic bids — then we could be looking at a two-bid OVC to go along with the three-bid SoCon.

I can get down with that.