The selection committee didn’t show much love for the newly-formed American Athletic Conference, however, it did give this Round of 64 a great storyline as Steve Masiello, who has led Manhattan into the tournament for the first time in a decade, faces his former coach Rick Pitino.
Masiello certainly has familiarity with Louisville, serving as an assistant to Pitino for six seasons and recruiting guys like Russ Smith and Wayne Blackshear.
But he also has a pretty good team as well. The Jaspers have the perimeter talent in George Beamon and Mike Alvarado while reigning MAAC Defensive Player of the Year Rhamel Brown manning the frontline. I’d would have considered going with Manhattan as an upset pick in most games, but Louisville is playing at a high-level at the moment. The Jaspers are still dangerous, though.
No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Dayton — South — Thursday, 12:15 p.m.
The selection committed made another intriguing matchup, pitting in-state opponents Dayton and Ohio State together in the Round of 64. The Flyers and Buckeyes don’t meet in the regular season, but they will in the South Region. Ohio State has had its well-documented offensive struggles, but Archie Miller’s guys can light it up from beyond the arc. The Flyers are led by Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert and Devin Oliver, both scoring better than a dozen a game.
No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 13 Delaware — East — Thursday, 4:40 p.m.
When the Spartans are healthy, they are a national contender, and they sure look that part lately. The four-seed is penciled in by many as the team advancing out of the East Region. But in its first game of the tournament Michigan State will go up against a high-scoring perimeter attack as Devon Saddler (19.7 ppg), Davon Usher (19.4 ppg) and Jarvis Threatt (18.1 ppg) can put up points in a hurry. The Fighting Blue Hens can certainly make this interesting on Thursday evening.
No. 5 VCU vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin — South — Friday, 7:27 p.m.
The Rams had a six-game winning streak ended in the Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship game at the hands of Saint Joseph’s. Stephen F. Austin hasn’t lost since Nov. 23, winners of 28 in a row.
Like Havoc, the Lumberjacks can really defend. Both force a highest percentage of turnovers. VCU has had trouble shooting the ball from beyond the arc, especially with Melvin Johnson out on Sunday. This could be the 12 over 5 upset.
No. 6 North Carolina vs. No. 11 Providence — East — Friday, 7:20 p.m.
Marcus Paige vs. Bryce Cotton? Yes, please.
The Tar Heels have lost two straight, including one to Pittsburgh in the ACC quarterfinals. Providence ended up winning the Big East Tournament over Creighton. The Friars are back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2004, and they have an All-American talent in Cotton.
Providence has a lot of momentum heading into the tournament and we’ve seen how up-and-down North Carolina can be this season. This could be an upset in San Antonio.
No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 12 North Dakota State — West — Thursday, 7:27 p.m.
This could shape up to be an early round matchup that goes down to the final possession. The Bison are no joke. They defeated Notre Dame in South Bend, when the Irish still had Jerian Grant. They have a nice one-two punch with Taylor Braun and Marshall Bjorklund. North Dakota State gets some of the best looks on offense in the country with a 55 percent effective field goal percentage, according to kenpom.com
No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 11 Nebraska — West — Friday, 12:40 p.m.
Two power conference teams in a Round of 64 matchup will always be one to look out for. The Bears finished the season strong after digging themselves in the Big 12 basement, winning six of their last seven.
Nebraska has been a fun team to watch, back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. How will Cornhuskers handle this stage? They ended the Big 12 Tournament, blowing a double-digit lead to Ohio State, but this is also the same team that defeated Michigan State on the road and Wisconsin nine days ago.
When Wisconsin got up big against Coppin State Tuesday, coach Greg Gard emptied his bench with one exception. That player is no longer with the program.
Alex Illikainen, a senior from Minnesota, has elected to leave the Badgers, the school announced Wednesday.
The 6-foot-9 forward appeared in 85 career games for Wisconsin, averaging 1.5 points and 1.3 rebounds per game. He was a top-150 prospect coming out of Brewster Academy in the 2015 class. His role with the Badgers decreased every season after he averaged 9.8 minutes per game as a freshman. He did not play in Wisconsin’s season-opening 22-point victory.
“We wish Alex luck as he continues to pursue earning his degree from the University of Wisconsin in May,” Gard said in a statement. “We also want to thank him for his efforts during his three-plus years with our program.”
If Illikainen is able to graduate, he would likely be able to transfer and be immediately eligible for a final collegiate season.
Duke leapfrogs Kansas for No. 1 in latest AP Top 25 poll
I’m sure that, at some point this season, we are going to see an individual performance better than the one that C.J. Massinburg posted late on Friday night in Morgantown, W.V., but it’s not going to be easy to do. In a 99-94 overtime win over then-No. 13 West Virginia, Massinburg put up a career-high 43 points to go along with 14 boards and three assists all while shooting 9-for-15 from three.
But the box score itself doesn’t really do his performance justice. He had nine points in an 11-3 run in the final three minutes of regulation that capped off a flurry late in the second half as Buffalo erased a double-digit lead. He hit a three with 14 seconds left that forced the extra frame. He scored nine of Buffalo’s 15 points in overtime.
It was incredible, and it came on the road against a tournament team that plays one of the most aggressive brands of basketball in the country. This is the kind of win that will help get Buffalo on the right side of the bubble should disaster strike during their conference tournament.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: Duke Blue Devils
The irony is almost too much to bear.
After repeatedly getting burned by overhyping the one-and-done bluebloods and overstating the impact that one recruiting class, regardless of how good it is, can have on a basketball, the one time that the discussions surrounding a loaded freshman class is somewhat muted, that class ends up looking like it will be as dominant as any that we have ever seen.
Duke brought in three of the nation’s top five freshmen and may have the top three picks in the 2019 NBA Draft on their roster, and it sure did look like it in Tuesday’s season-opener, as the Blue Devils absolutely man-handled Kentucky, beating the then-No. 2 Blue Devils, 118-84.
The win was so dominating and so overwhelming that Duke is going to unseat Kansas from the No. 1 spot in the polls despite the fact that Kentucky is 1-0 with a win over a top 15 team. That’s impressive.
DUKE IS GOING TO GO UNDEFEATED
How do you stop Duke’s Big Three?
That is the question that is going to force opposing coaching staffs to lose sleep for the next five months, and I’m not sure there actually is an answer. If we’ve learned anything from the first two games that Duke has played, it is that it is going to take a herculean effort to slow down either R.J. Barrett (28.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.0 apg) or Zion Williamson (27.5 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 3.5 bpg, 3.0 apg). Given their size and their athleticism, there are few teams at the college level that will have one — let alone — two elite wing defenders to put on them.
And then there is Cam Reddish (23.5 ppg, 3.0 apg, 10-for-21 from three). He’s another big, athletic wing and a potential top three pick in the 2019 draft, and he’ll be checked night-in and night-out by what can only be described as the worst wing defender opposing teams have on the floor.
Let me put this another way: Duke has three players on their roster that college teams are not going to be able to defend. That’s a good problem for Coach K to have.
Normally these overreactions are meant to be somewhere between semi-serious, moderately-outlandish and a good old fashioned hot-take, but I’m not kidding in the least when I ask this question: Can Duke be beaten?
AUBURN IS THE BEST TEAM IN THE SEC
Entering the season, I thought that Kentucky would be the best team in the SEC this season as most did. I also thought that Tennessee, given what they brought back from the reigning SEC title team, would end up being the second-best team in the league. I thought Auburn would end up being third, partially by default but mostly because I didn’t think that their success last season would be as replicable as Tennessee’s.
It is still early, but boy, does that look like a dumb take.
Auburn smoked South Alabama in their opener before putting a 22-point win on Washington in their second game of the season. Jared Harper looks terrific, Bryce Brown’s shooting shoulder seems to be healthy and the addition of Samir Doughty is already paying dividends.
But the real difference in this group is the return of Anfernee McLemore and the emergence of Chuma Okeke. That’s Auburn’s starting frontcourt. Both are athletic, 6-foot-8 forwards with legitimate three-point range. Okeke has five blocks through two games. McLemore led the nation in block percentage last season, and looking back, it’s not hard to figure out that the reason Auburn trailed off towards the end of last season was the loss of McLemore.
Auburn’s system works when they have a switchable, floor-spacing, rim-protecting big.
And Bruce Pearl now has two.
Can we please get Duke-Auburn in the Maui Invitational?
PRESS VIRGINIA WILL NEVER BE THE SAME WITHOUT JEVON CARTER
We talk about unicorns in college basketball all the time, and while there is nothing about Carter’s physical tools that make him unique in college basketball, there is no questioning just how good he was as a defensive presence last year. He could single-handily take a player out of a game, and on Friday night, West Virginia desperately needed someone to do that to C.J. Massinburg.
They didn’t have that player.
And while Beetle Bolden, Brandon Knapper, Chase Harler and Jordan McCabe are all fine players that will win games for the Mountaineers, the fact that they cannot put anyone on Jevon Island this season is going to hurt.
KENTUCKY HAS THREE FIVE-STAR POINT GUARDS AND A MAJOR POINT GUARD PROBLEM
There are all kinds of issues currently plaguing this Kentucky program, but I don’t think any of them are as big as the point guard conundrum that John Calipari is currently facing. There are three point guards on their roster that were five-star prospects in high school, and none of them are good enough to take over that point guard role.
Ashton Hagans is a complete mess at this point. It’s still early in the year and Hagans is a guy that reclassified to enroll early, so it’s being too harsh on him probably isn’t fair, but suffice to say that he cannot play major minutes in close games at this point. Immanuel Quickly is probably the best scorer of their trio of ball-handlers, but he has just one assist in 50 minutes thus far this season and did not make a shot from the field against Duke. Quade Green is the guy with the experience, but truth-be-told, he’s better playing off the ball as a secondary ball-handler due to some of his physical limitations.
Rationing minutes between Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson is going to become an issue — especially if Herro keeps making it clear Johnson should be on the floor — as will P.J. Washington’s disastrous start to the season — is Kentucky’s best front-line really Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery?
But none of those things will matter if Calipari doesn’t fix what’s ailing his point guards.
THE ATLANTIC 10 AND AMERICAN WILL END UP ONE-BID LEAGUES
The start to this season as been absolutely disastrous for the Atlantic 10.
George Mason got first-place votes in the A-10 preseason poll. They’re 0-2 with home losses to American and Penn. George Washington is 0-3 with home losses to Stony Brook (after leading 22-0) and Siena. Michigan is next. La Salle started 0-2 with a loss at home to Lafayette. Richmond lost at home to Longwood, St. Bonaventure lost at home to Bucknell and Fordham lost at home to Houston Baptist.
Things haven’t been much better in the American. League-favorite UCF lost at home to Florida Atlantic. SMU lost at home to Southern Miss. Wichita State did look impressive in a neutral site game against Providence, but they had to win that after losing their opener at home to Louisiana Tech. Cincinnati got dropped by Ohio State at home. East Carolina lost to James Madison. Tulane took a home loss as well, but at least that came to No. 17 Florida State, who absolutely pounded Florida in their opener.
Non-league performance is critical for conferences like this. The dreck at the bottom of the leagues already hurts the computer numbers for everyone in the conference, and taking this many ugly losses early in the year only gives those computer numbers a lower floor.
I’m not sure anyone will be that shocked if the Atlantic 10 ends up only sending their automatic bid winner to the NCAA tournament.
But it will be quite the wake-up call for the AAC if they do the same.
With all the hand-wringing and excitement about the return of college basketball this week, you might be surprised to learn that just three teams ranked in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 lost.
Two of those losses came in the Champions Classic, as Kentucky and Michigan State fell to the top two teams in this week’s NBC Sports Top 25, Duke and Kansas, respectively. The third? Then-No. 17 West Virginia losing at home to now-No. 25 Buffalo on Friday night.
I say all that to say this: There really isn’t all that much to change about the Top 25 this week. There are really only three questions that need to be answered, so I’ll walk you through my thought process for each one:
Can Kansas fall out of the top spot with a win over a top 15 team?: Hell yes they can. The Jayhawks were the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason based on projections and feelings we had about how good they might end up being. Now we have actual, actionable results to evaluate, and there really should be all that much of a discussion. I’m not even sure there are Kansas fans will sit here and say that, after watching Duke beat Kentucky by 34 points, they believe the Jayhawks are better than the Blue Devils.
How far should Kentucky fall?: I dropped the Wildcats to 18th. I’ve seen other top 25s that have Kentucky at the back-end of the top ten. I don’t think that’s crazy, but I also think that we have much more to worry about with this Wildcat team that those folks realize. Kentucky still has top ten potential, but for my money they are much further from reaching their ceiling than anyone realized. I ended up with them 18th because I couldn’t justify dropping them below LSU or Mississippi State.
What do we do with West Virginia and Buffalo?: I was already lower on West Virginia entering the season than the public, so dropping them out of the top 25 with a loss at home against Buffalo was pretty easy for me to do. I know that loss came as a result of a once-in-a-career blow-up game from C.J. Massinburg and that the Mountaineers didn’t have Beetle Bolden down the stretch as he dealt with cramping issues, but it seemed pretty evident that Press Virginia has some kinks to work out. Buffalo, on the other hand, entered the season as one of the best mid-majors in the country after smoking Arizona in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament. They lived up to that billing, so why not reward them?
Washington’s bad road trip to Alabama got worse on Friday night when the team had to evacuate their bus.
Following an 88-66 road loss at Auburn earlier in the night, the Huskies boarded the team bus to take a charter flight home to Seattle. That’s when the team bus blew a tire about 15 miles outside of the airport in Montgomery.
The bus caught fire and the team had to evacuate. A Washington spokesperson told Percy Allen of the Seattle Times that no one was injured. Senior big man Noah Dickerson documented the experience on Twitter. The team had to wait for a second bus to arrive at 1:30 a.m. to get them to the airport to end a long night.
Thankfully, everybody seems to be okay after this incident. Washington doesn’t play again until hosting San Diego on Monday night, as they will hopefully have time to rest after a long night of travel.