Potential NCAA tournament bid thieves bubble teams should be rooting against

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This season is a bit weird in that there are only two “mid-major” conferences that will be sending at-large teams to the tournament. That limits some of the potential bid thieves from the smaller leagues, but here is a list of teams that are completely out of the bubble picture with the ability to make a surprise run to their conference tournament title and win an automatic bid:

UConn: I mean, this one is obvious, right? The Huskies, coming off of a national title run, have been one of the country’s most disappointing teams this season. But Ryan Boatright is one of the nation’s most talented guards and capable of carrying UConn the way Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier have done before him. Throw in the fact that Rodney Purvis and Daniel Hamilton seem to finally be hitting their stride, and that Amida Brimah is still swatting away everything at the rim, and Kevin Ollie’s club has the talent to beat anyone in the American. Ask SMU. They lost to UConn on Sunday.

Illinois State: The Redbirds have been beaten up for much of the season, but they’re now healthy and enter Arch Madness having won four straight games. They’re 11-3 against the Valley teams not named Wichita State or Northern Iowa, and three of their four losses to the top two teams in the league were by single digits.

Wyoming: The Cowboys were playing like the best team in the Mountain West midway through league play when Larry Nance Jr., a conference Player of the Year candidate, got mono and missed a few weeks. The Pokes have lost four of their last six since Nance went out, but when he was healthy, they swept Colorado State and beat Boise State in the only matchup between the two teams. At full strength, they can take home the title. But will they — meaning Nance — ever be at full strength this month?

Richmond: The Spiders have been inconsistent this season, but they do have some terrific wins on their resume. To name a few: they swept arch rival VCU and beat George Washington in D.C. You won’t find a team with a more difficult back court to guard than Richmond, who boast a pair of sub-6-foot speed demons in Kendall Anthony and Shawn’Dre Jones. On the nights those two are playing well and Richmond’s threes are dropping, they can beat anyone. And with the Atlantic 10 being wide-open this year, don’t be surprised to see the Spiders make a run.

Kansas State: The Wildcats are in a similar boat as UConn. They certainly have the talent to be an NCAA tournament team, but outside factors — and the inability of Marcus Foster to consistently stay out of trouble — means that they are just 15-15 on the season heading into their finale against Texas. But this group has seven top 50 wins on the season, which includes upsets of both Kansas and Iowa State last week. If they show up ready to play, Kansas State absolutely can earn the automatic bid from the Big 12. And if not, losing in the title game might give them enough quality wins to actually earn an at-large bid. Be nervous, bubble teams.

THREE MORE TO KEEP AN EYE ON

  • St. Mary’s: Gonzaga is clearly the best team in the WCC, and with BYU streaking, the Cougars look like a tournament team as of today. But don’t sleep on the Gaels, who had a dominant low-post presence in Brad Waldow and surround him with a slew of shooters and high-major transfers.
  • Evansville: Evansville has one of the Valley’s best scorer on the roster in D.J. Balentine and they’re the only team in the conference that actually owns a win over Northern Iowa or Wichita State; they beat the Panthers at home in the conference opener.
  • UNLV: The Rebels have been inconsistent all season long and after still waiting to see if Rashad Vaughn will be back for the MWC tournament. So the odds are long. But consider this: the Rebels are more talented than anyone else in the conference, they beat Arizona in Vegas earlier this season and the MWC tournament will be played in … Vegas.

Cassius Winston addresses Michigan State crowd: ‘I lost a piece of my heart’

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Michigan State guard Cassius Winston spoke publicly for the first time since his younger brother died by suicide nine days ago.

He thanked the crowd at the Breslin Center:

Can Kentucky cure what is ailing them?

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For the second straight game against mid-major competition, the Kentucky Wildcats looked like everything but the team that beat No. 1 Michigan State in the season opener.

On Tuesday night, the Wildcats blew a 14-point second half lead and allowed Mark Madsen’s Utah Valley Wolverines to have a couple of shots to take the lead in the final three minutes of what eventually turned into an 82-74 win. This came just six days after the Wildcats, as the No. 1 team in the country, found a way to lose to Evansville, who turned around and lost to SMU at home Tuesday.

So things have been better in Lexington.

Much better.

But panicking over anything would be silly right now.

Because the thing that this Kentucky team needs more than anything else is the only thing that cannot be rushed: Time.


What’s wrong with Kentucky? We broke it down last week.

One of college basketball’s most annoying bits of coachspeak and cliche is the saying, “This will be a different team come March.”

Sometimes it’s accurate. Sometimes it’s a coach or a columnist trying to explain away the dumb mistakes that a team keeps making.

And sometimes, it’s said in regard to this iteration of the Kentucky Wildcats, who will be a completely different team in, what, two weeks? A month? Surely not much more than that. Right now, Kentucky more closely resembles a MASH unit than it does a college basketball. Look at this seemingly ever-growing list of injuries:

  • E.J. Montgomery has missed the last three games with an ankle injury he suffered in the opener against Michigan State.
  • Ashton Hagans has been dealing with some kind of leg injury that John Calipari hasn’t specified but that had limited him early on this season.
  • Nick Richards is still battling an ankle injury that has kept him out of practices.
  • Immanuel Quickley missed the Utah Valley game with what was termed a chest injury.
  • Dontaie Allen is still recovering from a torn ACL.
  • Kahlil Whitney appeared to dislocate a finger with three minutes left before popping it back in himself. He did not return to the game.

Do the math, and the Wildcats finished this game with six scholarship players, two of whom are not at 100 percent.

That’s rough for any team to deal with, especially when three of the opening night starters are on that injured list.

But the issue is magnified for Kentucky.

The Wildcats are not only incredibly young, but they also lack the kind of elite talents we typically associate Big Blue with. There is no surefire lottery pick on this roster. More importantly, there may not be a college All-American on this roster. Tyrese Maxey is the most dangerous scorer they have, but he’s shooting 28 percent from three, has eight assists and nine turnovers in four games and has looked far from the star guard he played like against Michigan State. Ashton Hagans and Nick Richards were terrific on Tuesday, but if they’re the two best players on this team that’s a far cry from Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns, or John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis.

Hell, there isn’t anyone on this roster that is as good as P.J. Washington or Tyler Herro were last season.

At least right now. That’s the important part here.

Because, if you remember, neither P.J. Washington or Tyler Herro were as good in November as they were in February and March. They got better as the season went on, just like the guys on this roster will get better (and healthier) as the season goes on.

So when you put it all together, what you have is a team that we knew was going to need time to gel dealing with injuries to half their roster that is keeping key pieces out of games and, perhaps more importantly, out of practice. Don’t gloss over that. If injuries are keeping these guys from practicing, it’s keeping them from getting better, from learning their roles, from growing into the player they will hopefully be once league play begins. That is in no way insignificant.

Frankly, Maxey going absolutely bonkers in Madison Square Garden while Michigan State paired foul trouble with 5-for-26 shooting from three papered over a lot of these cracks.

We knew Kentucky was going to take their lumps early on these season and we ranked them where we ranked them anyway.

They are taking their lumps.

And if you are patient, they’ll look like Kentucky again soon enough.

No. 9 Kentucky gets another scare, holds off Utah Valley

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Ashton Hagans scored a career-high 26 points, and No. 9 Kentucky survived another close game against what should have been a lesser opponent, beating Utah Valley 82-74 on Monday night.

The Wildcats (3-1) dropped out of the No. 1 spot in The Associated Press Top 25 after losing at home to Evansville last week, and they had to overcome a late surge to hold off the Wolverines.

Kentucky led by 16 points early in the second half, but Utah Valley steadily chipped away until T.J. Washington’s 3-pointer got the Wolverines (3-2) within one at 68-67 with 3:26 remaining. Nate Sestina responded with a three-point play that helped the Wildcats pull away.

Kentucky was without second-leading scorer Immanuel Quickley, who sat out because of a chest injury. Quickley has scored 16 points in each of the last two games.

The Wildcats also have been without forward EJ Montgomery, who has missed the past three games because of an ankle injury. Coupled with Quickley’s injury, Kentucky’s roster has dwindled to seven scholarship players, leaving the Wildcats short-handed in practice.

Nick Richards had 21 points and 10 rebounds, while Tyrese Maxey added 14 points.

Washington led the Wolverines with 22 points, followed by Trey Woodbury with 17 and Jamison Overton with 10.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats are used to shooting free throws and averaged 29.7 attempts per game in their first three. Kentucky made 31 of 34 from the line against the Wolverines, including 14 of 15 in the first half. The Wildcats held a 46-27 edge in rebounding, including 34 on the defensive end.

Utah Valley: Just as Evansville did in its upset, the Wolverines spread the floor and forced the Wildcats to play defense in the open court. The Wolverines made 11 3-pointers to keep the game close.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Wildcats play two more games this week and could move up a spot or two with three victories, although games like this will surely give voters pause. The Wildcats don’t play a ranked opponent again until they take on No. 10 Ohio State at Las Vegas on Dec. 21.

UP NEXT

Utah Valley hosts Lamar on Thursday.

Kentucky hosts Mount St. Mary’s on Friday

Villanova’s Antoine medically cleared for game action

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Freshman guard Bryan Antoine has been medically cleared for game action, Villanova announced on Monday.

Antoine is a former five-star prospect that has missed the first two weeks of the season. He underwent surgery on his shoulder on May 31st.

“Bryan has been fully cleared to play in games and we’re happy for him,” head coach Jay Wright said in a statement. “He’s worked extremely hard in his rehab with Jeff Pierce and John Shackleton to get to this point.

“Our plan is to bring Bryan along slowly. He’s only just returned to practice and the learning curve is steep for any freshman. Bryan’s working hard to catch up and we’re going to do all we can to help him in this transition.”

UConn guard charged with evading police is granted probation

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VERNON, Conn. — UConn guard James Bouknight was accepted Monday into a probation program designed to leave him without a criminal record in connection with a September traffic accident.

The freshman, who was charged with evading responsibility, interfering with police, driving without a license and driving too fast for conditions, was approved by a Connecticut Superior Court judge for admission into the state’s accelerated rehabilitation program for first-time offenders.

Police say Bouknight smelled of alcohol and fled from an officer after driving another student’s car into a road sign near campus early in the morning of Sept. 27.

Under the terms of his probation, the 19-year-old from New York City must stay out of trouble for a year and pay the car’s owner for the damage to the vehicle.

“I made a terrible mistake,” Bouknight told Judge Hope Seeley. “I would like to apologize to my family, my coaches and my team.”

The car’s owner initially told police that about 20 people were in her apartment the night of the accident and her keys had been taken from a counter without permission.

She amended her statement Oct. 13 to say she had been drunk, does not remember giving Bouknight permission to drive the car but did not want to pursue theft charges.

Her family submitted a letter to the court saying it supported accelerated rehabilitation for Bouknight.

Bouknight turned himself in to police Oct. 3 and gave a statement acknowledging responsibility for the crash and saying he had been given permission to drive the car.

The 6-foot-4 guard served a three-game suspension and is expected to play Thursday when UConn (2-1) faces Buffalo in the Charleston Classic.

Outside the courtroom, Bouknight apologized and told reporters he’s learning to be “the student, best athlete, best citizen I can be.”