A college basketball fan’s guide to the current grassroots basketball scene

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In the modern 24-hour sports news cycle, nearly every aspect of the four major sports of are covered. Extensively.

Free agency is broken down like crazy and draft coverage is at an all-time high, complete with a movie starring Kevin Costner and talk of potential one-and-done players dominating college basketball until February.

But one of the great unknowns left to the casual sports fan is grassroots basketball, which is often mistakenly referred to by people as AAU.

The Amateur Athletic Union is an organization within the current structure of spring and summer high school travel basketball for American players, but is hardly the only — or preferred — way that athletes play basketball.

Most elite players opt to play in shoe company leagues and never actually play in an AAU game. The term — AAU — has just overtaken the name of the scene — grassroots basketball — like Kleenex has for tissues.

Having covered grassroots basketball for the last seven years, I get asked a lot of questions about the overall scene and what it is. College basketball fans will commonly see people tweeting at events on most spring weekends, but they don’t understand some of what is actually going on.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the common questions and misconceptions I hear about the grassroots basketball scene from college basketball fans.

What is grassroots basketball?

Like almost every sport in America now, basketball is a year-round endeavor complete with spring and summer travel basketball and fall leagues and camps between high school seasons.

In the spring and summer, teams of high school players form with other players in their area — or sometimes from a state or two away for bigger and more prominent programs — and travel a schedule of weekend tournaments or play in a league.

Teams are broken down into three levels for high school:

17U – Seniors to be
16U – Juniors to be
15U – Sophomores to be

Many tournaments will also devote time for 14U and younger age divisions in off-site locations as well, but we’re focusing on high school for now.

Why is grassroots basketball so popular among basketball’s elite prospects?

Kids want to play basketball and grassroots basketball gives them the opportunity to play with and against the best players nearly every weekend. While high school basketball can have limitations in scheduling or playing time or style of play for certain players, players can often pick-and-choose what they’re looking for in a grassroots program. Want to play in a shoe company league? Want to play for a coach that will play you extended minutes? Players can find any situation ideal if they look for the right fit.

How are grassroots teams formed?

Teams are often recruited together by programs that try to maintain strong play throughout multiple age groups. Many of these programs are usually apart of the three shoe company leagues that will be on display this spring. The adidas Gauntlet, the Under Armour Association and the current standard of the leagues, the Nike EYBL. These teams offer a lot of exclusive apparel and travel to places around the country to play in league games.

For teams that don’t fall under these leagues, many will play an independent schedule or opt to play in AAU events.

AAU events are held at the state level and teams that win a local qualifier will advance to nationals in July. Many teams form for the sake of playing for some kind of overall title in a league or the AAU events.

Where are grassroots events held?

Events are held locally, regionally and nationally and tend to be held in bigger cities and places with multi-court facilities.

What is the basketball actually like?

The basketball is usually very up-and-down. There’s a lot of fast tempo play and with some tournaments making kids play up to three games in a few hours time, they can get exhausted quickly and play can get very sloppy.

With the changes in structure to shoe company leagues, however, less stress is being put on kids on weekends by scheduling out full league schedules with adequate time off and a cap on games per weekend. The coaching is also much, much better than people think. I’ve seen players like Julius Randle and Jabari Parker have to adjust to multiple zone looks and double-teams on the offensive end while more teams are running complete sets thanks to the integration of a shot clock in the EYBL.

Are grassroots basketball events fan friendly?

Yes and no. Fans can sit very close to the action at a grassroots event and see a lot of basketball during a Saturday session, but there commonly aren’t programs or scorecards and names aren’t listed on jerseys so it can be hard to identify players for common fans. Some camps are also exclusive to media and family and don’t allow fans to attend at all. But if the coaches are out in July and you can hit a big-time grassroots game attended by a lot of coaches, it can be fun to watch. Two highly-ranked kids battling on a national stage can be a great experience as a basketball fan.

Why is grassroots basketball so influential in modern basketball?

Since the talent comes together in the form of leagues and elite teams, it is much easier for scouts and media members to see a big collection of top players in just a single weekend. When you also include games being played for multiple sessions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and there is a lot of time to get games in.

Grassroots basketball is the major influencer of national rankings because the top players have more of a chance to matchup throughout the course of the spring and summer. Camps in June and August also allow top players to come together nationally in exclusive events that put them all together for practices and games. This makes it even easier for people to make rankings because the best are playing each other. Kids want to be ranked and travel to big events, so they continue to play with or without coaches being allowed out.

When are college coaches allowed at grassroots events?

The open period for grassroots events is only one weekend in April from the 25th through the 27th and then 15 days in July:

July 9-13
July 16-20
July 23-27

The limited face time for college coaches — given how much the players play — is not good in helping them identify players outside of the high school season in which they’re coaching themselves.

College coaches cannot have off campus in-person contact with players or their legal guardians during the evaluation period. Coaches can still make telephone calls to players or legal guardians, and players can still make campus visits.

Is grassroots basketball a necessity to be a big-time college basketball player?

It helps, but definitely not. And plenty of players play on great local teams that play local events and continue to work and get better as basketball players. Does it do you better to sit on the bench of a high exposure team in a shoe company league or does it pay to play for the smaller local team and gain more experience? That’s the question some kids have to ask themselves.

Three Things To Know: Shaka’s seat heats up, Baylor survives, Virginia doesn’t

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It was a slow night for college hoops on Monday, but there is still plenty to talk about after some weird results.

Here are the three things you need to know:

1. SHAKA’S SEAT IS HEATING UP

The Shaka Smart era at Texas feels like it has hit an inflection point.

On Monday night, the Longhorns went into Morgantown, W.V., and found themselves wishing Country Roads would take them home before the first half came to a close. No. 14 West Virginia, coming off of blowout loss at Kansas State on Saturday, used a 28-2 run over a 10 minute stretch in the first half to turn a 15-13 lead into a 43-15 blowout. They would go on to win 97-59.

The loss dropped Texas to 12-6 on the season and 2-4 in the Big 12. The Longhorns certainly are not out of it just yet — three of their four Big 12 losses came against teams that currently rank in the top six at KenPom — but it’s getting harder and harder to defend the situation that’s brewing in Austin. Texas has now lost four of their last six and five of their last eight. They are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the second straight season and for the third time in four years.

But perhaps the biggest concern is that the Longhorns just don’t seem to be growing as a program. Last year, while Texas ended up missing the tournament, they finished as a top 25 team on KenPom and made a run all the way to the NIT title. It’s worth noting that before the tournament started, they were already a top 30 team on KenPom; their ranking wasn’t skewed by getting hot for three weeks in a tournament no one cares about.

The problem this season is that there has been no progression. Texas has been a program under Shaka that has hung their hat on defense, but this is the worst defensive team he has had in his tenure. That becomes even more of an issue when you factor in that they cannot score. They’re 111th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, which is what happens when your offense is, essentially, a spread ball-screen into a contested three.

KenPom has Texas favored to win just three more games the rest of the season. They’re projected to finish 17-14 overall and 7-11 in the Big 12.

That’s not good.

2. NO. 1 BAYLOR SURVIVES

It looked like Baylor was going to cruise to a pretty easy win at home against Oklahoma, but the Sooners had other ideas. They hung around long enough in the second half to make things interesting late. Oklahoma hit back-to-back threes in a 40 second span to cut a 59-51 lead to 59-57 with 41 seconds left, and after Baylor couldn’t find a way to score on their next possession, Austin Reaves cut off a 3-on-1 break to flare to the corner and fire up a wide-open, go-ahead three with less than five seconds left.

He missed.

Baylor won.

And No. 1 lived to fight another day.

3. VIRGINIA LOSES AGAIN

The reigning national champions lost for the fourth time in their last five games on Monday night, this time falling at home against N.C. State, 53-51.

Like Oklahoma, Virginia had a shot to win the game at the buzzer, as N.C. State fouled up three and then missed free throws of their own at the other end. But Virginia is the 346th-best three-point shooting team in the country for a reason, and Casey Morsell missed the game-winner as time expired.

At this point, it’s getting harder to see how Virginia is going to find a way to play their way into the NCAA tournament.

Chris Mack: David Johnson’s shoulder ‘is fine’

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The biggest concern coming out of Louisville’s win at Duke on Saturday evening was the status of David Johnson’s shoulder.

Johnson was the best player on the floor for Louisville, finishing with 19 points, seven assists, four boards, three steals and two blocks as the Cardinals landed a much-needed win in Cameron. But with three minutes left in the game, he landed on his surgically-repaired left shoulder and had to leave the game. He returned to the bench, but he did not return to the game.

Head coach Chris Mack did not seem overly concerned about the injury after the game, and he confirmed as much in a conference call on Monday.

“The shoulder is fine,” Mack said. “He’s just a little sore, but he’ll practice the next couple of days and we fully expect him to play on Wednesday.”

Bracketology: Welcome to the top line, San Diego State

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Here is the latest NCAA tournament bracketology projection.

Welcome to the top line, San Diego State.  The Aztecs join Baylor, Gonzaga, and Kansas as No. 1 seeds in our latest bracket update.  SDSU remains the only unbeaten team in college hoops, buoyed by wins over tournament teams Iowa, Creighton and BYU.

The West-leaning geographical slate of top seeds means someone has to go East.  As SDSU is the fourth overall seed, that adventure belongs to them.  Several additional power conference teams are pushing for the top line, too – including Florida State, Michigan State and surging Seton Hall.  And let’s not forget about Louisville, a preseason top seed.  The Cardinals put together an impressive road win at Duke on Saturday.

The latest look at where our NCAA tournament bracketology projection stands …

UPDATED: January 20, 2020

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
EAST REGION Virginia Tech vs. Georgetown
WEST REGION NC State vs. VCU
SOUTH REGION  PR VIEW-AM vs. NORFOLK ST
WEST REGION MONMOUTH vs. ST. FRANCIS (PA)

SOUTH Houston                           WEST – Los Angeles
Omaha Spokane
1) BAYLOR 1) GONZAGA
16) PV-AM / NORFOLK ST 16) MONMOUTH / ST. FRANCIS (PA)
8) Arkansas 8) Illinois
9) Memphis 9) HOUSTON
Tampa Sacramento
5) Colorado 5) Arizona
12) EAST TENNESSEE ST 12) NC State / VCU
4) Maryland 4) Iowa
13) S.F. AUSTIN 13) NEW MEXICO ST
St. Louis Greensboro
6) Marquette 6) Michigan
11) NORTHERN IOWA 11) Saint Mary’s
3) LOUISVILLE 3) Duke
14) NORTH TEXAS 14) LITTLE ROCK
Albany Spokane
7) Wisconsin 7) LSU
10) USC 10) Oklahoma
2) SETON HALL 2) Oregon
15) WILLIAM-MARY 15) UC-IRVINE
EAST – New York MIDWEST – Indianapolis
Sacramento Omaha
1) SAN DIEGO STATE 1) Kansas
16) RADFORD 16) MONTANA
8) Rutgers 8) Indiana
9) STANFORD 9) Florida
Albany Cleveland
5) Kentucky 5) Creighton
12) LIBERTY 12) YALE
4) Villanova 4) DAYTON
13) AKRON 13) VERMONT
Greensboro St. Louis
6) Penn State 6) Auburn
11) Virginia Tech / Georgetown 11) BYU
3) West Virginia 3) Butler
14) COLGATE 14) WRIGHT STATE
Tampa Cleveland
7) Ohio State 7) Wichita State
10) DePaul 10) Texas Tech
2) Florida State 2) MICHIGAN STATE
15) AUSTIN PEAY 15) NORTH DAKOTA ST

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
USC Virginia Tech Purdue Washington
DePaul NC State Minnesota Saint Louis
Saint Mary’s Georgetown Arizona State St. John’s
BYU VCU Xavier Richmond

Top Seed Line
Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas, San Diego State
Seed List

Breakdown by Conference …
Big Ten (10)
Big East (7)
ACC (5)
SEC (5)

Big 12 (5)
Pac 12 (5)
American (3)

West Coast (3)
Atlantic 10 (2)
Mountain West (1)

AP Poll: Baylor leapfrogs Gonzaga, seventh No. 1 team this season

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Here is the latest college basketball AP Poll.

For those interested, here is the NBC Sports Top 25.

Baylor and Gonzaga were the only two teams in the top five that took care of business last week.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t move around, too.

The Bears (15-1) leaped over the Bulldogs and into the No. 1 spot in college basketball AP poll on Monday, using wins over Iowa State and Oklahoma State to give the Top 25 its seventh team on top this season. That matches the record set in 1983 for the most No. 1s in the history of the poll, which dates to the 1948-49 season.

Gonzaga (20-1) was merely a victim of its conference schedule. The Bulldogs blew out Santa Clara and BYU, but just enough voters considered those wins to be less impressive than the Bears’ perfect Big 12 start. Baylor received 33 first-place votes and had 1,591 points from the 65-member media panel while Gonzaga received 31 first-place votes for 1,588 points.

“It takes a team to win,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team also reached the top of the poll two years ago. “As a coach, you’re just really proud when different people step up, especially guys that have been working hard.”

The rest of the top five looks a whole lot different after Duke, Auburn and Butler all lost both of their games last week.

Kansas (14-3) rose three spots to No. 3 in the college basketball AP poll after victories over Oklahoma and Texas, the latter requiring a big comeback in Austin. San Diego State (19-0) remained perfect with wins over Fresno State and Nevada, and Florida State (16-2) barged into the fifth spot after it beat reigning national champion Virginia and survived overtime to best Miami.

The Seminoles haven’t lost since playing Indiana in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge the first week of December.

Louisville, which tasted the top spot earlier this season, jumped five spots to sixth after beating Pittsburgh in overtime and handling the Blue Devils. Dayton was next, followed by Duke, Villanova and Seton Hall to round out the top 10.

Duke also lost to Clemson earlier in the week, sending coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team tumbling five spots.

“We just have to get older,” he said after the Blue Devils’ 79-73 loss to the Cardinals on Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “I’m really up on my team. It’s a long journey. I’ve never told you that we’re great. It’s a process for us, playing these two teams. Getting beat, we have to learn from it and move on. It’s a long journey.”

Krzyzewski’s team wasn’t alone in getting a tough lesson last week. Fourth-ranked Auburn fell all the way to No. 16 after losing a pair of blowouts to Alabama and Florida, and fifth-ranked Butler was bounced all the way to 13th after the Bulldogs followed up a loss to Seton Hall by getting soundly beaten by DePaul.

“It’s the time of the year when we should be trying to elevate our play, and we’re not,” said Tigers coach Bruce Pearl, whose team had won its first 15 games. “Obviously, there’s a pretty big price on our head being ranked fourth in the country. And so I think we have to respond to the step-up that we saw this week from both Alabama and Florida.”

Here is the full college basketball AP poll:

1. Baylor (33 first-place votes)
2. Gonzaga (31)
3. Kansas (1)
4. San Diego State
5. Florida State
6. Louisville
7. Dayton
8. Duke
9. Villanova
10. Seton Hall
11. Michigan State
12. Oregon
13. Butler
14. West Virginia
15. Kentucky
16. Auburn
17. Maryland
18. Texas Tech
19. Iowa
20. Memphis
21. Illinois
22. Arizona
23. Colorado
24. Rutgers
25. Houston

Others receiving votes: Wichita St. 94, LSU 83, Michigan 73, N Iowa 42, Ohio St. 36, Stanford 28, Wisconsin 28, Penn St. 24, Liberty 21, Florida 21, Arkansas 19, Virginia 13, Creighton 13, Duquesne 13, Purdue 9, ETSU 6, Indiana 6, Southern Cal 4, Marquette 2, BYU 2, Harvard 1.

Here’s a closer look at the other big news in another fresh Top 25:

RUTGERS ON THE RISE

The Scarlet Knights bounced back from a loss to Illinois by beating Indiana and Minnesota at home, running their record at the RAC to 13-0 this season — the best start in school history. That was enough to get Rutgers (14-4) into the poll at No. 24 for the first time since the final poll of the 1978-79 season. And with Seton Hall at No. 10, the state of New Jersey has two teams ranked for the first time since the Pirates were joined by Princeton in the last poll of the 1990-91 season.

OTHER NEWCOMERS

Iowa, which has been in and out of the poll all season, made the biggest jump back in at No. 19 after its win over then-No. 19 Michigan. The Hawkeyes were joined by No. 22 Arizona — which beat a ranked team in Colorado — and No. 25 Houston, which romped through SMU and then-No. 16 Wichita State last week.

ON THE WAY OUT

The Shockers dropped all the way out after losing to Houston and Temple. The Wolverines also fell out, along with Big Ten rival Ohio State and Creighton, whose one-week stay ended with a loss early last week to Georgetown.

BUCKEYES BUMMER

No team has been falling as steadily as Ohio State, which was 9-0, was ranked in the top five and received first-place votes just six weeks ago. The Buckeyes have lost six of their last nine games, and five of their last six, to complete their tumble from the poll. Their lone victory in the last few weeks was against lowly Nebraska.

___

More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

Monday’s Overreaction: Myles Powell, Payton Pritchard, David Johnson and the two worst chokes of the year

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Myles Powell, Seton Hall

Seton Hall improved to 6-0 in Big East play this season with wins over Butler and St. John’s, but that doesn’t come anywhere close to telling the whose story here.

The Pirates trailed by double-figures at halftime of both of those games. Both of those games were on the road. They were down 40-30 at the break at No. 5 Butler, but Myles Powell came to the rescue, scoring 19 of his 29 points after the break to lead the Pirates to a 78-70 win.

Then on Saturday, Seton Hall trailed St. John’s 43-30 at the Garden at halftime, but Powell — again — took over, scoring 23 of his 29 points in the second half as Seton Hall remained perfect in the Big East.

It took him a while to get fully healthy, but now that he is, Powell is showing everyone why he is a favorite to win National Player of the Year.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

What Steve Pikiell has done with this Rutgers program should never, ever be overlooked.

After a week in which the Scarlet Knights beat both Indiana and Minnesota at the RAC, They are now sitting at 14-4 over and 5-2 in the Big Ten, good for second in the toughest conference in college basketball. They are 24th in KenPom, which is the highest that this program has ever ranked in the metric we all use the most when evaluating teams. They are 18th in the NET with a 2-3 mark against Quad 1 opponents and five Quad 1 and Quad 2 wins combined.

Put another way, Rutgers is very much in a position where missing the NCAA tournament this season would be something of a disappointment.

Now, it should be noted that this is when their schedule gets tough. They play at Iowa on Wednesday and still face off with Michigan twice, Maryland twice, Purdue twice and play at Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State. A home game against No. 24 Illinois is about their sixth-toughest game left on the schedule.

It won’t be easy.

But getting to 14-4 wasn’t easy in the first place.

MONDAY’S OVERREACTIONS

1. DAVID JOHNSON MAKES LOUISVILLE GREAT AGAIN

Louisville may have finally found an answer to their point guard problems.

David Johnson, a freshman from Louisville that has spent the season to date trying to get back up to speed after offseason shoulder surgery, had his coming out party in a big way on Saturday, going for 19 points and seven assists as Louisville went into Cameron and knocked off Duke.

That is incredibly important news for a Louisville team that has desperately been searching for a guy to do all of the things that Johnson did on Saturday night.

The way he scored those points is the most significant part of the equation. He broke down defenses. He dribbled right past Jordan Goldwire and drove the lane for a dunk. He created out of ball-screens. He handled Duke’s ball-pressure like he was playing against high school opponents.

And then there was the passing (see below):

 

This is what the Cardinals have been waiting for. It’s been a talking point all season long, and every time I have mentioned it, I have also mentioned that Louisville was just waiting to see if Johnson would ever get healthy. That staff believed he was a pro after getting him on campus, and anyone that watched him play on Saturday night would be inclined to agree.

If he can remain healthy and play somewhere close to this level for the rest of the season, then this Louisville team is much, much more dangerous.

2. PAYTON PRITCHARD IS A KILLER

The reason Payton Pritchard is one of the frontrunners for National Player of the Year is the fact that he is putting up terrific numbers this season for a top ten team and doing so while putting together some incredibly impressive performances in crunchtime.

Saturday might have been his statement game.

Oregon erased a 13-point second half deficit thanks in large part to Pritchard, who hit a huge three with a minute left to tie the game. In overtime, he hit a floater to give the Ducks the lead before burying this insane three to win the game with 3.2 seconds left:

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Payton Pritchard called game!!!!!!

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No. 8 Oregon avoided going 0-2 on the Washington road trip with a 64-61 win. Pritchard finished with 22 points. The Ducks are now 3-0 in overtime games this season largely due to the fact that Pritchard is arguably the most clutch player in college basketball.

Is there anyone that you would want taking a big shot in a big game more than him?

3. BAYLOR IS A KILLER, TOO

I talked about this in depth at the 19:00 mark of the podcast, but with the exception of an early season loss against Washington — I’ll get to that — the Bears have been arguably the best team in college basketball down the stretch of close games.

Whether it’s wins at Texas Tech, or Kansas, or Oklahoma State, Baylor has consistently been able to execute in situations where teams like Duke have not been able to execute. That is why they are sitting at No. 1 in the country right now and Duke has three losses to their name.

And as far as the Washington game is concerned, the Huskies play zone. Baylor was totally lost against that zone down the stretch. Oklahoma State played zone as well, and Baylor discovered the answer in the second half: Matthew Mayer. They plugged him in at the high post, and it launched a comeback.

So now they have an answer for that, too.

4. WE ALL SHOULD HAVE SEEN THIS WEEK COMING FOR AUBURN

Auburn entered this seek as one of just two undefeated teams left in college basketball, but there were question marks.

The Tigers don’t have a single win over a team ranked in the top 40 on KenPom. They have only played three Quad 1 games this season. Their only Quad 1 win is barely a Quad 1 win: It came at Mississippi State, who currently ranks 70th in the NET; the cutoff for Quad 1 road wins is top 75.

The other two Quad 1 games that Auburn has played this season?

They were both this week.

And they were both ugly losses.

On Tuesday, it was Alabama that ran over Auburn in the basketball version of the Iron Bowl, 83-64. On Saturday, it was Florida doing the damage, as they held Auburn to 25.5 percent shooting from the field, 4-for-23 shooting from three (17.4%) and to just a single point during an eight-minute stretch late in the second half that saw the Gators push their lead from 47-43 to 69-44. They won 69-47.

Suddenly, those concerns look prescient.

The truth is this: Auburn is dangerous. They are a team that can make a lot of threes, that can force turnovers and play in transition and has the ability to play big (with Austin Wiley) or small (without Austin Wiley). They have a lottery pick in Isaac Okoro and they have a couple of guards on their roster capable of taking games over in J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty.

But they haven’t consistently played up to the level of a top five team, and their 15-0 record was inflated by feasting on teams that are just good enough to make us believe.

Auburn is still good.

They’re just not a top five team.

5. STANFORD AND UTAH STATE, WHO CHOKED WORSE?

Stanford was up 46-25 in the second half of their loss at USC on Saturday evening. They led by 15 points with less than 10 minutes left. They were up by five points with 15 seconds left and the ball out of bounds underneath USC’s basket, and not only did they find a way to lose that game in overtime, but they got lucky to actually get to OT. USC missed a free throw that could have won the game in regulation.

According to KenPom, USC had a 3.8% chance to win this game at the half, a 3.6% chance to win the game with 10 minutes left and just a 0.7% chance to win with 15 seconds left.

But that’s not as bad as what happened to Utah State.

The Aggies led 66-48 with less than 4:10 remaining. Boise State had a 0.3% chance of winning this game with five minutes left. Turnovers, fouls, missed threes. Utah State did it all, but they still led 73-67 with 15 seconds left, 75-70 with eight seconds left and 75-73 with three seconds left and the ball.

And they lost.

That just does not seem possible.