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SEC Preview: Kentucky, Florida and Texas A&M look primed to battle for a title

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SEC.

The SEC has generated quite a bit of hype this offseason.

Some of it is justified.

Increased recruiting efforts by the likes of Alabama, Missouri, Auburn and Mississippi State mean that there are a number of teams that aren’t accustomed to NCAA tournament buzz getting some in October.

That’s before you consider that Kentucky, Florida and Texas A&M all look top 25-good while Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Arkansas have ‘tough out’ written all over them.

But we’ve heard this story before.

Will this season be any different than the last?

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Kentucky is ridiculously talented, but the pieces may not fit together

The Wildcats are loaded with talent once again. When Jarred Vanderbilt returns from his foot injury, John Calipari will have eight five-star prospects at his disposal this year. Three of them – Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Hamidou Diallo – spent last season as a part of the program in one way or another, and that doesn’t even include Shae Gilgeous-Alexander, who has quietly been climbing up NBA Draft boards.

Kentucky should be terrific on the defensive end of the floor thanks to all that length and athleticism. The problem is on the offensive side of the ball. For starters, there just isn’t enough shooting on the roster to be able to space the floor. There also is a lack of elite-level playmaking and shot creation. Put another way, if Kentucky finds themselves in a grind-it-out half-court game, how are they going to be able to create offense? Who on this team scares you if you are an opposing coach?

Part of the problem is the roster construction. Much like the 2014-15 team, Kentucky may have too many big guys. Don’t be surprised to see Kevin Knox, who should be a four at the college level, play the majority of his minutes on the perimeter. But unlike that Kentucky team, this one doesn’t have the same caliber of potential NBA talent. There is no Karl Towns or Devin Booker. There is n Tyler Ulis or Harrison twin. I would even argue that Knox is less effective on the perimeter than Trey Lyles was.

I trust in John Calipari to figure this thing out, to find a role for each of his guy’s to play and a way to get them to buy into that role. He’s one of the best at that.

I just can’t see how that is going to play out from where I’m sitting.

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Tyler Davis (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. Texas A&M can actually contend for the SEC crown

I firmly believe that this season, and it starts with their front court, which is as big and as talented as anyone. The name to know is probably Robert Williams, a 6-foot-10 sophomore from tiny Oil City, Louisiana, who opted to forgo the NBA and return to college for his sophomore season. He is a potential top five pick, should his jumper and perimeter ability catch up to his ridiculous athleticism and physical tools, but he probably won’t be the best big on the Texas A&M roster this season.

That title belongs to Tyler Davis, a 6-foot-9 behemoth. He’s the rock on the low block for the Aggies, who can score and draw fouls in the paint and own the glass. Throw in shooters like Tony Trocha-Morelos and D.J. Hogg to space the floor, and that’s going to be tough to deal with.

The concern is in the back court. Texas A&M was without a point guard last year and brought in three potential cures to that issues: freshman Jay Jay Chandler, redshirt freshman J.J. Caldwell and grad transfer Duane Wilson, who left Marquette to enroll with the Aggies. One of those three is going to have to step up and take over the position this year.

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3. Kentucky isn’t the only team with awesome freshmen

While the Wildcats have the most – as in number – talented recruits on their roster, they don’t have the most – as in best – talented newbies in the SEC.

That title probably belongs to Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr., a 6-foot-10 freak-of-nature athlete who already has advanced perimeter skills and an impressive ability to knock down the three. I’m not comparing him to Kevin Durant as a player – Nno one should ever be compared to Kevin Durant as a player unless it’s to say “he’s not ever going to be as good as Kevin Durant” – but I could see his freshman season following in the footsteps of Durant’s: Massive numbers on a team that he carries, early round NCAA tournament exit after landing a middling seed. Simply put: Missouri’s supporting cast is either A) a freshman, like his younger brother Jontay, or B) not all that talented.

While Porter could end up being the first pick of the 2018 NBA Draft, the first point guard taken off the board looks like it could end up being Alabama’s Collin Sexton. Sexton is interesting for a couple reasons:

  1. He’s a high-volume scorer that did so much of his work by drawing fouls. Is he going to get the same calls at the college level that he got in high school and AAU?
  2. He’s a guy that could average 20 points on a team that desperately needs a scoring boost. The Crimson Tide finished 158th nationally in offensive efficiency last season. They were 10th in defensive efficiency. They need Sexton.

The addition of both Porters immediately makes Missouri one of the most interesting teams in the country, let alone the league. Will that be enough for Cuonzo Martin to get to his third NCAA tournament in ten seasons as a head coach? On the other hand, Alabama has a legitimate argument to be considered a top three team in the league. We’ll see if either of those things lasts.

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Michael Porter Jr., Missouri Athletics

4. The losses suffered by Florida are going to hurt more than you think

The good news for the Gators is that they returned KeVaughn Allen, who is one of the most dangerous scorers in all of college basketball. He’s capable of popping off for 30 points on any given night, and if he, as an upperclassmen this season, can find a way to iron out some of those inconsistencies, we’re talking about a potential SEC Player of the Year candidate.

That’s big.

But it’s also burying the lede, because the Gators lost three critical pieces from last season’s team: Kasey Hill, Devin Robinson and Justin Leon. Hill never did live up to the hype that he had coming out of high school, but by the time that he graduated from Florida he was a veteran leader, an above average playmaker and a defensive menace at the point. Throw in Robinson and Leon, two versatile, athletic forwards that were switchable defensively, and this group is going to take a big step down from the team that finished last season ranked as college basketball’s No. 2 defense, according to KenPom.

I think Chiozza will be fine at the point, and Egor Koulechov and Jalen Hudson should be able to impact this team immediately, but unless the likes of Keith Stone and DeAundre Ballard are ready to fill the void left by Robinson and Leon, the Gators are going to have some growing pains.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

5. Critical seasons are on tap for Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland

For the last three years, we’ve been hearing about how the influx of talent and investment into coaching ability was going to change the trajectory of SEC basketball for the teams not named Kentucky and Florida in the league. To date, that hasn’t exactly gone as planned. Frank Martin reached the Final Four last season with a once-in-a-generation South Carolina team. Rick Barnes has been fine at Tennessee; the Vols play hard and win above their talent level, and they have a solid young core that could make them relevant in a year or two.

Pearl and Howland are a different story. Pearl is in year four now, and after arriving at Auburn with a massive amount of hype, he’s yet to even sniff the NCAA tournament. This year’s team has the talent to do so, but the cloud of the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball is hanging over the program. A former assistant coach, Chuck Person, was arrested after taking more than $90,000 in bribe money from a financial advisor, some of which was supposed to be earmarked for players on the Auburn roster.

Auburn has a roster that is good enough to make the NCAA tournament this season. Will all of those players remain eligible all season long? Will Bruce Pearl still be employed in March?

Howland is in a bit of a different situation. Mississippi State has had a number of strong recruiting classes in a row, and with Quinndary Weatherspoon retuning to school and being joined in Starkville by his brother, Nick, the Bulldogs look like a team that should be able to make a run, particularly when you factor in Lamar Peters. But chemistry issues have dogged this program, and Howland has never really been one for team-building activities, so there are some real concerns.

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Bruce Pearl (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tyler Davis, Texas A&M

I’m not sure that there is a tougher big man to guard in college basketball than Tyler Davis. At 6-foot-10 and 261 pounds of solid muscle, Davis has slimmed down from the 300-pound behemoth that committed to A&M. He immovable when he gets position on the block, and while he’s something of a land warrior when it comes to protecting the rim, he does have some solid moves on the block, a soft touch around the rim and the ability to use his body to create angles.

THE REST OF THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM

  • Michael Porter Jr., Missouri: Porter is an obscenely talented freshman, a player that has the potential to end up being the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. His 6-foot-10 size, athleticism and ability to play on the perimeter like a guard makes him a candidate to score 20 points per game this season.
  • KeVaughn Allen, Florida: Allen is one of the most dangerous scorers in college basketball. We all saw him go for 35 points on Wisconsin. Consistency is the issue with him.
  • Yante Maten, Georgia: Perennially underrated playing for a middlling SEC program like Georgia, Maten’s flown under the radar over the course of the last two seasons. He’s the best big man in this league, and that’s saying a lot.
  • Robert Williams, Texas A&M: Big Bob Williams made the decision to return to school for his sophomore season, something that was relatively unexpected but that really helped boost the stock of the Aggies.
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FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky
  • Mustapha Heron, Auburn
  • Collin Sexton, Alabama
  • Quinndary Weatherspoon, Mississippi State
  • Terrence Davis, Ole Miss
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Grant Williams (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR: Grant Williams, Tennessee

Grant Williams doesn’t look like a guy that would be a great basketball player. Generously listed at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, Williams has the build of a tight end, not a power forward, but that didn’t stop him from putting together a terrific freshman season. He averaged 12.6 points, 5.9 boards and 1.9 blocks and, with the Volunteers losing a couple of scorers off last year’s roster, he’ll be asked to play a bigger role this year. He’ll be a name SEC teams have to pay attention to.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Mark Fox, Georgia

Mark Fox is one of the more well-respected coaches in the SEC. His teams run good offense, they’re well-disciplined defensively, generally-speaking they tend to play above their talent level. He’s good at what he does. He’s also a basketball coach at a football school in a football state, and while he’s done well to make the program respectable – he’s been there for eight seasons, reached two NCAA tournament and three NITS and hasn’t finished below .500 in the league since 2012 – but at some point winning matters. With J.J. Frazier gone, Fox is heading into Yante Maten’s senior year without much coming down the pipeline.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

How did the SEC end up getting seven teams into the NCAA tournament?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

… the one season that we’ll get Michael Porter Jr. on a college campus. He has a chance to be special.

EIGHT NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 11/10, Texas A&M vs. West Virginia (Germany)
  • 11/14, Kentucky vs. Kansas (Chicago, Champions Classic)
  • 11/26, Texas A&M at USC
  • 12/5, Texas A&M vs. Arizona (Phoenix)
  • 12/9, Florida vs. Cincinnati (Newark, N.J.)
  • 12/23, UCLA vs. Kentucky (New Orleans, CBS Sports Classic)
  • 12/29, Louisville at Kentucky
  • 1/27, Kentucky at West Virginia
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Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky Athletics
CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

POWER RANKINGS

1. Texas A&M: The Aggies have a front court that is absolutely loaded. One of the best in the country. Picking them to win the conference means betting that Billy Kennedy will be able to figure it out with the young point guards on his roster.
2. Kentucky: This is a young, athletic and talented Kentucky roster that doesn’t seem to fit together all that well. I have expanded thoughts here, but in a nutshell: I think they’ll take their lumps early but that John Calipari will figure it out.
3. Florida: Florida will be good, but as I wrote earlier, I’m not buying the hype that this is a top ten team entering the season.
4. Alabama: I’m not sure what else there is to add about Alabama from what I wrote earlier. This is a team that was elite defensively and lacked scoring before going out and landing Collin Sexton.
5. Missouri: This is where the SEC gets really interesting. The top four in the league is pretty clear-cut, but the teams ranked 5-10 can pretty much be put into any order. I bet on talent, which is why I have Michael Porter Jr.’s team at the top of this group, but my concerns about this roster makeup can be read in full here.
6. Tennessee: The Vols are my sleeper in the SEC this season. This is a young group that plays hard, defends well and has an up-and-coming star in this league in Grant Williams. Rick Barnes is a better coach than you realize.
7. Ole Miss: I have no idea what Andy Kennedy is going to do with this front court to replace Sebastian Saiz, but I do know that a back court that includes Deandre Burnett, Terence Davis, Markel Crawford, Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler – and that doesn’t include Cullen Neal – is one of the nation’s most underrated.
8. Arkansas: I don’t get the hype Arkansas has gotten this offseason. They lost one of the SEC’s best rim protectors and rebounders in Moses Kingsley and once of the best floor-spacers in Dusty Hannahs, and they’re supposed to get better?
9. Vanderbilt: The loss of Luke Kornet is really going to hurt this group. Matthew Fisher-Davis is one of the better guards in the SEC you probably haven’t heard of, and the ‘Dores are going to be old and well-coached, but I’m not seeing tournament upside here.
10. Auburn: The Tigers have top four upside, particularly in Austin Wiley can get healthy (and in shape) and Mustapha Heron continues to develop as a scorer. But I’m still not sold on this team being able to overcome everything that is currently swirling around the program.
11. Georgia: I think Mark Fox is a terrific coach and Yante Maten is a terrific player, but there just isn’t enough talent on this roster to beat out what is a good middle-of-the-pack in the SEC.
12. Mississippi State: As much talent as there is on the Bulldogs roster, I’m worried about their front court. Mario Kegler was the one guy that could space the floor. He transferred.
13. South Carolina: The loss of Sindarius Thornwell is a blow, but losing P.J. Dozier might have hurt more. He was a guy the Gamecocks could have built around this season. Not anymore.
14. LSU: I do think that the future is bright for LSU under Will Wade. They are already recruiting well, landing a top point guard prospect in the Class of 2017 in Tremont Waters. But when the best thing you can say about a program is ‘they’re recruiting well,’ it’s not a good sign for the present.

Bubble Banter: Who helped their NCAA tournament standing?

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There is plenty of action happening on the bracketology bubble watch despite it being a relatively slow night for college hoops.

Dave Ommen’s latest bracketology can be found here. Rob Dauster’s Bubble Watch can be found here. The full NET rankings can be found here.

Here is everything you need to know to.

THE BUBBLE WATCH WINNERS

VIRGINIA (NET: 52, NBC: 9): Virginia won for the fifth straight time on Wednesday, blowing a huge lead at Virginia Tech (84) before Kihei Clark saved the day with a buzzer-beating win. They only have three Quad 1 wins and a 10-6 mark against the top two Quads with home dates left against Duke (6) and Louisville (8). They’re getting closer to a spot where they can afford a slip-up, but picking up one of those elite wins should do the trick and get them dancing.

ARKANSAS (NET: 45, NBC: Next four out): Arkansas won the second straight game with Isaiah Joe back on Wednesday, working over Tennessee (65) in Fayetteville. They have a pair of Quad 1 wins and a 4-10 mark against the top two Quads, but the more important record is this: They are now 17-5 on the season with a healthy Isaiah Joe. It will be very interesting to see how the selection committee handles Arkansas.

SOUTH CAROLINA (NET: 63, NBC: Off the bubble): The Gamecocks snapped a two-game losing streak and avoided disaster by beating Georgia (90) in overtime at home on Wednesday. With just one Quad 1 opportunity left on their schedule — at Alabama (40) on Saturday — I think Frank Martin’s club needs to win out to get in.

STANFORD (NET: 31, NBC: First four out): The Cardinal are now on a three-game winning streak after beating Utah (82) at home. They are just 3-5 against Quad 1 opponents, 6-8 against the top two Quads and have a Quad 3 loss — at Cal (142) — to their name, but they are playing well at the most important time of their season. They still get Colorado (12) at home and Oregon (19) on the road, so there will be chances to improve their resume, but the Cardinal will need to capitalize on those to feel good on Selection Sunday.

RHODE ISLAND (NET: 38, NBC: 10): Disaster almost struck for the Rams on Wednesday, as they went into Fordham (277) and barely avoided what would have been a devastating loss. They’re now 20-7 overall with just one Quad 1 win, but they are 6-6 against the top two Quads. The loss to Brown (218) is ugly, but as long as URI avoids the landmines on their schedule, I think they can get an at-large even with a loss to Dayton (5) at home in March.

RICHMOND (NET: 50, NBC: First four out): The Spiders avoided disaster at George Washington (189) on Wednesday. Richmond had their five-game winning streak snapped on the road against St. Bonaventure (113), which is not a bad loss in real life but is a bad loss on an NCAA tournament resume. The Spiders only have one truly terrible loss to their name — Radford (162) got them on a neutral court — but with only three Quad 1 wins and a 4-6 record against the top two Quads, their margin for error is completely gone.

EAST TENNESSEE STATE (NET: 39, NBC: 11): The Buccaneers survived a trip to Wofford (151) on Wednesday night. ETSU has gotten through the toughest part of their schedule. They have a win at UNCG (62) and a win at LSU (30). With a 22-4 record and a Quad 4 loss to Mercer (197) at home, the Buccaneers have to win out and lose to only UNCG or Furman in the SoCon tournament to have a chance, and even that might be a bit of a longshot.

NORTHERN IOWA (NET: 46, NBC: 12): Northern Iowa took care of business against a bad Evansville team on Wednesday. UNI has a win at Colorado (18) and they beat South Carolina (63) on a neutral court, but they are 5-3 against the top two Quads with a pair of Quad 3 losses. I want to see them get an at-large — every one of their non-Quad 1 losses is a road game in league play — but I’m not sure they have done enough to beat out some of these power conference teams.

… AND LOSERS

RUTGERS (NET: 34, NBC: 10):  The Scarlet Knights have one of the weirder resumes on the bubble right now after losing at Penn State (25) on Wednesday. They’re 19-11 overall and they are 9-9 in a Big Ten that is as deep as any league I can remember. They have three Quad 1 wins, just one Quad 3 loss and a 7-10 mark against the top two Quads. Eight of their ten losses are to Quad 1 opponents. They played a tough non-conference schedule, and they have some really impressive home wins. The problem? They’ve only won a single game outside of the RAC this year, and that came at Nebraska (183), who is the worst team in the Big Ten. Their season finishes with Maryland (7) and at Purdue (37). Rutgers has some work left to do, and I really think they will want to win both to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday.

GEORGETOWN (NET: 59, NBC: Next four out): The Hoyas are now sitting at 15-13 overall with a 5-10 record in the Big East and games left at Creighton (11) and against Villanova (10) at home. They have four Quad 1 wins and nine wins against the top two Quads, but they are just 4-11 against Quad 1 opponents. I think they need to win out during the regular season to get an at-large bid.

Wednesday’s Things to Know: Minnesota’s loss is Maryland’s gain, Penn State survives Rutgers and Kihei Clark delivers

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Some wild finishes from around the country Wednesday night. Let’s not waste any time diving into them. Here’s what you need to know:

Maryland wins after Minnesota stumbles down the stretch..again

This one was equal parts great for Maryland and devastating for Minnesota.

Well, it’s probably more devastating for the Gophers.

Minnesota, its NCAA tournament hopes already barely registering a pulse and its coach’s job security looking increasingly suspect, led the ninth-ranked Terrapins by as many as 17 in the first half and then by eight with just over 2 minutes to play, but absolutely crumbled down the stretch as Maryland got a go-ahead 3 from Darryl Morsell with 1.9 seconds left to deliver a 74-73 victory at Williams Arena.

For Richard Pitino and the Gophers, it was probably the end of whatever hopes they had for an NCAA tournament berth that didn’t include a conference tournament championship run. They’re 13-14 on the season, and were already looking at being on the bubble from a considerable distance. A win against a top-10 team at home could have changed that in a major way, but a loss leaves them in the status quo. Put it in context that its another blown home game – not much unlike the Iowa and Indiana games earlier this month – and it’s even harder to see the path to an second-straight NCAA tournament. Which means an All-American-type season for sophomore center Daniel Oturu, who had 28 & 11 against Maryland, will likely go for naught.

So that leaves Minnesota outside the dance for the fifth time in seven seasons under Pitino. The Gophers are also in danger of finishing under .500 for the second time in three years and the third in five. The school president and athletic director also weren’t the ones around when Pitino replaced Tubby Smith – who went to three tournaments in six years – in 2013. There may be a decision to consider in Minneapolis next month.

On the happier side of the ledger is Maryland, which maintained its two-game lead over Michigan State and Penn State along with its chances of a No. 1 seed come selection Sunday. It was the fourth time this season that the Terps have overcome a deficit of at least 14 points to win a game. They played much of the first half without Jalen Smith, who was dealing with foul trouble, while shooting 31 percent from the field and going 2 of 14 from the 3-point line. Smith played all 20 minutes of the second half (scoring 14 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking two shots) while Maryland shot 44.1 percent from the field (although still just 4 of 14 from deep).

All that is a long way of saying that Maryland was pitted against a desperate team on the road, played without one of its most important players and shot it terrible in the first half, but still won.

Still, Mark Turgeon is gonna wake up tired tomorrow.

Penn State blows a big lead, but holds on against Rutgers

Not a dissimilar situation from Maryland/Minnesota.

Penn State was the team blowing a lead in this one – a 21-point lead – but the Nittany Lions’ Myles Dread’s late 3-pointer delivered a 65-64 win for the home favorite and hand the team in need of an NCAA tournament boost a crushing L.

The Scarlet Knights have an OK resume – they’ve got three Quad 1 wins, a single Quad 3 loss and are 7-9 against Quad 2s – but with Wednesday’s loss at Penn State, they still don’t have a win away from home on the season. And for a team already on the bubble, a home game against Maryland and a road trip to Purdue isn’t an ideal way to have to finish the season and wrap up a bid before the conference tournament.

Conversely, Penn State is already clearly going to get the first NCAA tournament spot under Pat Chambers and has a couple of really nice resume opportunities left. They’re at Iowa before hosting Michigan State (and then finishing up at Northwestern). Winning the Big Ten regular season title is probably a long shot with Maryland up a pair of games, but getting a top-four seed is absolutely in play.

Kihei Clark won Virginia its fifth-straight game

When you’re in a down league and playing good-but-not-great basketball a year after winning the national title, you don’t generate a lot of buzz. Especially if you’re Virginia, playing games with halftime scores like 26-11, as was the case Wednesday against Virginia Tech.

The Cavaliers, though, have now won five-straight because after the Hokies figure a few things out offensively, Virginia got a game-winner from Kihei Clark.

Tony Bennett’s team is now just a game back of second in the ACC and two behind Florida State in first with three games – including against Duke and Louisville – to play.

Virginia certainly isn’t nearly as interesting or good as the team that cut down nets in Minneapolis last spring, but they’re playing serious defense and getting clutch plays from the point guard. Not a bad March formula.

Bubble Watch: Breaking down every team in at-large conversation

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It’s that time of the year again, which means that we are diving head first into our annual NCAA tournament bubble watch.

The way that it will work is simple: We’ll be looking at every team that our Dave Ommen, the best bracketologist in the business, considers in the mix for an at-large bid. In an effort to keep this somewhat manageable, we are going to assume that the top 36 teams in the field — every team that is a No. 9-seed or above — is “off the bubble”. This does not mean those teams are a lock to dance, it just means that they have given themselves enough room for error that we can take them out of the conversation until they do something dumb.

Dave’s latest bracket can be found here. The full NET rankings can be found here.

So with all that in mind, let’s get into the full NCAA tournament bubble watch:



ACC BUBBLE WATCH

TOP 9: Duke (NBC: 2), Florida State (NBC: 2), Louisville (NBC: 3)

VIRGINIA (NET: 52, NBC: 9): Virginia won for the fifth straight time on Wednesday, blowing a huge lead at Virginia Tech (84) before Kihei Clark saved the day with a buzzer-beating win. They only have three Quad 1 wins and a 10-6 mark against the top two Quads with home dates left against Duke (6) and Louisville (8). They’re getting closer to a spot where they can afford a slip-up, but picking up one of those elite wins should do the trick and get them dancing.

N.C. STATE (NET: 53, NBC: 10): The Wolfpack fell to 17-11 on the season as North Carolina (96) finished off a season sweep with an 85-79 win in Chapel Hill. N.C. State has a weird resume. They are the proud owners of three Quad 3 losses as well as four more losses to sub-70 teams on the road. That’s not good. But they beat Duke (6) by 22 points in Raleigh, which is just one of their five Quad 1 wins. They are 9-8 against Quad 1 and 2 opponents on the season. It’s worth noting that Markell Johnson, N.C. State’s best player, did not play in one of the three Quad 3 losses — Georgia Tech (79) — so that will be something to monitor for the Selection Committee.


AMERICAN BUBBLE WATCH

TOP 9: Houston (NBC: 9)

WICHITA STATE (NET: 43, NBC: Play-in game): Wichita State saw their three-game winning streak snapped on Sunday afternoon, losing by three at Cincinnati (53). They have beaten VCU (57) and Oklahoma (54) at home, and they don’t have any truly terrible losses, but with just one potential Quad 1 games left on their schedule — all of which are on the road — and without a top 50 win on the season, I think the Shockers are going to have an uncomfortable Selection Sunday. The fact that they are 8-7 against the top two Quads without a bad loss is something of a saving grace at this point.

MEMPHIS (NET: 61, NBC: First four out): Memphis is hanging on by a thread right now, and losing at SMU (86) on Tuesday night is certainly not going to help anything. They are still alive after landed a critical win over Houston (24) at home over the weekend, but Memphis still only has a pair of Quad 1 wins compared to three Quad 3 losses. Memphis is also playing with D.J. Jeffries right now, which complicates matters as well. They end their season like this: at Tulane (174), Wichita State (44), at Houston (24). I think they need to win all three at this point.

CINCINNATI (NET: 53, NBC: 11): The Bearcats shot themselves in the foot on Wednesday, losing at home to UCF (125). They bounced back and beat Wichita State (43) at home on Saturday, which gives Cincinnati an eighth win over Quad 1 and 2 opponents. As of this very moment, Cincinnati has just two Quad 1 wins and four Quad 3 losses, all of which came to teams sitting outside the top 100. They’re in a bad spot right now, and with just one more potential Quad 1 win on their resume, I’m not sure just how much they’ll be able to do to fix it. Beating Houston (25) on the road next Sunday has become a must-win.


ATLANTIC 10 BUBBLE WATCH

TOP 9: Dayton (NBC: 2)

RHODE ISLAND (NET: 38, NBC: 10): Disaster almost struck for the Rams on Wednesday, as they went into Fordham (277) and barely avoided what would have been a devastating loss. They’re now 20-7 overall with just one Quad 1 win, but they are 6-6 against the top two Quads. The loss to Brown (218) is ugly, but as long as URI avoids the landmines on their schedule, I think they can get an at-large even with a loss to Dayton (5) at home in March.

RICHMOND (NET: 50, NBC: First four out): The Spiders avoided disaster at George Washington (189) on Wednesday. Richmond had their five-game winning streak snapped on the road against St. Bonaventure (113), which is not a bad loss in real life but is a bad loss on an NCAA tournament resume. The Spiders only have one truly terrible loss to their name — Radford (162) got them on a neutral court — but with only three Quad 1 wins and a 4-6 record against the top two Quads, their margin for error is completely gone.


BIG 12 BUBBLE WATCH

TOP 9: Baylor (NBC: 1), Kansas (NBC: 1), West Virginia (NBC: 6), Texas Tech (NBC: 8)

OKLAHOMA (NET: 55, NBC: Play-in game): The biggest winner of the night was, without question, Oklahoma. The Sooners picked up their fourth Quad 1 win of the season with an impressive, 65-51 win over Texas Tech (15). It snaps a three-game losing streak that had dropped Oklahoma to 17-11 on the season and sets them up for a massive trip to West Virginia (17) on Saturday, who they beat at home earlier this month. They are now 17-11 on the season and are sitting with a 4-9 record against the top Quad and nine total wins against the top two Quads. It’s also worth noting they only have two road wins on the season — at Texas (66) and at North Texas (92).

TEXAS (NET: 66, NBC: Off the bubble): The Longhorns won their third straight game on Monday night, as they beat No. 20 West Virginia (17) despite playing without Jericho Sims, Gerald Liddell and Jase Febres. Suddenly, a team that we had all written off is right back in the mix, as the Mountaineers are a top 20 team in the NET and the kind of elite win that Texas was sorely lacking on their resume. As it stands, the Longhorns are sitting at 17-11 overall and 7-8 in the Big 12. They have three Quad 1 wins, Monday night’s win as well as roadies at Purdue (36) and Oklahoma State (69), and a 5-11 mark against the top two Quads without a bad loss to their name. Saturday’s trip to Lubbock to take on Texas Tech (15) is going to be the make or break game. It’s not a win-and-you’re-win type deal, but I do think that taking a loss to the Red Raiders would mean that the Longhorns will have to beat one of the Big 12’s top four teams in the conference tournament to have a realistic shot at getting to the dance.


BIG EAST BUBBLE WATCH

Top 9: Seton Hall (NBC: 3), Villanova (NBC: 3), Creighton (NBC: 3), Butler (NBC: 6), Marquette (NBC: 7)

XAVIER (NET: 43, NBC: 10): The Musketeers shook off a loss to Villanova (12) at home on Saturday by knocking off DePaul (73) on Tuesday night. The best thing about this Xavier team’s resume is that they really have not taken all that many bad losses. Their worst loss of the season came at Wake Forest (109), which is a Quad 2 loss. It’s the only team ranked outside of the top 35 in the NET that Xavier has lost to. They only have three Quad 1 wins — and two of them are at St. John’s (70) and at DePaul (73) — but they do have a win over Seton Hall (17) in Newark, which helps quite a bit. I personally think that Xavier has to do more work that it looks like. They are just 3-9 against Quad 1 opponents, and that could drop to 1-9 if St. John’s and DePaul fall outside the top 75. With games at Georgetown (58), at Providence (48) and Butler (23), they’ll have three more chances to land Quad 1 wins. I think Xavier probably should win two of those to really feel comfortable.

PROVIDENCE (NET: 46, NBC: Play-in game): The Friars are now the official owners of the strangest resume in college basketball. On Friday, Marquette (26) paid a visit to The Dunk and lost. Providence has now won three straight games and have now won five of their last seven. All five of those wins are Quad 1 wins, and they include a road win over Butler (20), home wins against Creighton (11) and Seton Hall (17), and Saturday’s win against Marquette. The Friars now have seven Quad 1 wins. If you only look at wins, Providence is like a five seed.

The problem is the losses. There are 12 of them, and some of them are really, really bad. Providence lost to Charleston (142) and Long Beach State (288) on neutral courts, at Northwestern (164) and to Penn (154) at home. That’s three Quad 3 losses and a Quad 4 loss. It’s wild that the Friars are even in the conversation with all of that garbage on their resume, but they very much are.

GEORGETOWN (NET: 59, NBC: Next four out): The Hoyas are now sitting at 15-13 overall with a 5-10 record in the Big East and games left at Creighton (11) and against Villanova (10) at home. They have four Quad 1 wins and nine wins against the top two Quads, but they are just 4-11 against Quad 1 opponents. I think they need to win out during the regular season to get an at-large bid.


BIG TEN BUBBLE WATCH

TOP 9: Maryland (NBC: 2), Michigan (NBC: 4), Penn State (NBC: 4), Ohio State (NBC: 5), Michigan State (NBC: 5), Iowa (NBC: 6),  Illinois (NBC: 7), Wisconsin (NBC: 7), Indiana (NBC: 8)

RUTGERS (NET: 34, NBC: 10):  The Scarlet Knights have one of the weirder resumes on the bubble right now after losing at Penn State (25) on Wednesday. They’re 17-11 overall and they are 9-9 in a Big Ten that is as deep as any league I can remember. They have three Quad 1 wins, just one Quad 3 loss and a 7-10 mark against the top two Quads. Eight of their ten losses are to Quad 1 opponents. They played a tough non-conference schedule, and they have some really impressive home wins. The problem? They’ve only won a single game outside of the RAC this year, and that came at Nebraska (183), who is the worst team in the Big Ten. Their season finishes with Maryland (7) and at Purdue (37). Rutgers has some work left to do, and I really think they will want to win both to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday.

PURDUE (NET: 37, NBC: Off the bubble): After the Boilermakers lost to Michigan (23) at home on Saturday, they are sitting at 14-14 overall and just 7-10 in the Big Ten. They do actually have a pretty strong resume in regards to the number of good wins that they have, but the biggest issue currently facing Purdue is the number of losses, including a Quad 3 loss. The most losses an at-large team has ever had is 15. For context, Indiana last season was 17-15 with six Quad 1 wins and nine Quad 1 and 2 wins and they were left out. Purdue is 5-10 against Quad 1 opponents — three of those five wins vacillate between Quad 1 and Quad 2 — and 7-12 against the top two Quads with a 3-8 record on the road. Their best road win is at Indiana (58). They’re in a tough spot right now.


PAC-12 BUBBLE WATCH

TOP 9: Oregon (NBC: 4), Colorado (NBC: 5), Arizona (NBC: 7), Arizona State (NBC: 8)

UCLA (NET: 76, NBC: First four out): The Bruins are making a push to get into the NCAA tournament. On Saturday, they completed a sweet of the mountain schools — the toughest road trip in all of college basketball — and have now won five in a row and nine of their last 11 games. They own a sweep of Colorado (18), they won at Arizona (9) and while they do have a Quad 3 loss — Hofstra (114) — and a Quad 4 loss — Fullerton (261) — the Bruins are now sitting on five Quad 1 wins, three of which came against top 15 teams, two on the road. The metrics don’t love the Bruins, but today’s win will help and if the metrics love Arizona and Colorado this much, it should mean quite a bit that UCLA was able to beat them. Their resume isn’t quite as weird as Providence’s, but both of these teams are going to give the Selection Committee a headache on Selection Sunday.

With games left against Arizona, Arizona State and USC, the Bruins will have the chances to play their way in. It’s wild to think that we’re here after the way the season started, but we are.

USC (NET: 47, NBC: Play-in game): After sweeping the Washington schools in LA two weeks ago, the Trojans turned around and lost at Colorado (18) and Utah (81) last week. Suddenly, they’re in a bit of a bad spot. They only have two Quad 1 wins and are now 8-8 against the top two Quads with an 8-7 mark away from the Galen Center, including five road wins. The home loss to Temple (111) is not ideal, but it is survivable. The biggest issue may be how tough their remaining schedule is. The Trojans still get Arizona (8), Arizona State (41) and UCLA (76), who is a game out of first place in the Pac-12, at home. I think they’re still in a pretty good spot, but it’s not going to be comfortable if they don’t win at least two more games before Selection Sunday.

STANFORD (NET: 31, NBC: First four out): The Cardinal are now on a three-game winning streak after beating Utah (82) at home. They are just 3-5 against Quad 1 opponents, 6-8 against the top two Quads and have a Quad 3 loss — at Cal (142) — to their name, but they are playing well at the most important time of their season. They still get Colorado (12) at home and Oregon (19) on the road, so there will be chances to improve their resume, but the Cardinal will need to capitalize on those to feel good on Selection Sunday.


SEC BUBBLE WATCH

TOP 9: Kentucky (NBC: 4), Auburn (NBC: 5), LSU (NBC: 8), Florida (NBC: 9)

ARKANSAS (NET: 45, NBC: Next four out): Arkansas won the second straight game with Isaiah Joe back on Wednesday, working over Tennessee (65) in Fayetteville. They have a pair of Quad 1 wins and a 4-10 mark against the top two Quads, but the more important record is this: They are now 17-5 on the season with a healthy Isaiah Joe. It will be very interesting to see how the selection committee handles Arkansas.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (NET: 57, NBC: Next four out): Mississippi State significantly dinged their at-large chances by losing at Texas A&M (117) on Saturday. That’s the third bad loss on their resume, and with a win at Florida (34) and a sweep of Arkansas (45) the only notable accomplishments to date, the Bulldogs find themselves in a tough spot. Saturday’s win against Alabama (40) at home on Tuesday helps, but that’s only a Quad 2 win. The Bulldogs have just Quad 1 wins to date. What’s worse is that they only get one more Quad 1 opportunity in the regular season, and that’s a game at South Carolina (63).

ALABAMA (NET: 40, NBC: Next four out): The Crimson Tide lost on Tuesday, falling at Mississippi State (57) in what was their last opportunity to land a Quad 1 win. They’re now 15-13 overall and while they do have two Quad 1 wins — Auburn (28) and LSU (29) at home — but both of those teams are one loss away from potentially falling out of the Quad 1 range. They also have a pair of Quad 3 home losses. I think the dream is done for Alabama.

SOUTH CAROLINA (NET: 63, NBC: Off the bubble): The Gamecocks snapped a two-game losing streak and avoided disaster by beating Georgia (90) in overtime at home on Wednesday. With just one Quad 1 opportunity left on their schedule — at Alabama (40) on Saturday — I think Frank Martin’s club needs to win out to get in.


BUBBLE WATCH FOR EVERYONE ELSE

TOP 9: Gonzaga (NBC: 1), San Diego State (NBC: 1), BYU (NBC: 6), Saint Mary’s (NBC: 9)

UTAH STATE (NET: 38, NBC: 11): After wiping the floor with San Jose State (280), the Aggies have won six in a row and nine of their last ten games, ensuring they are still in the NCAA tournament mix and fully turning around a season that looked like it was lost as recently as five weeks ago. Wins over LSU (29) and Florida (33) are nice, but with three road losses to sub-85 teams and no more chances to land marquee wins, how are they going to make up for those losses? They don’t play another top 100 team the rest of the season. I don’t see how they can feel comfortable about getting in without beating San Diego State (5) in the MWC tournament.

EAST TENNESSEE STATE (NET: 39, NBC: 11): The Buccaneers survived a trip to Wofford (151) on Wednesday night. ETSU has gotten through the toughest part of their schedule. They have a win at UNCG (62) and a win at LSU (30). With a 22-4 record and a Quad 4 loss to Mercer (197) at home, the Buccaneers have to win out and lose to only UNCG or Furman in the SoCon tournament to have a chance, and even that might be a bit of a longshot.

NORTHERN IOWA (NET: 46, NBC: 12): Northern Iowa took care of business against a bad Evansville team on Wednesday. UNI has a win at Colorado (18) and they beat South Carolina (63) on a neutral court, but they are 5-3 against the top two Quads with a pair of Quad 3 losses. I want to see them get an at-large — every one of their non-Quad 1 losses is a road game in league play — but I’m not sure they have done enough to beat out some of these power conference teams.

Late 3 salvages win over Rutgers for No. 16 Penn State

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Myles Dread hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 28 seconds left to lift No. 16 Penn State over Rutgers 65-64 on Wednesday night after the Nittany Lions blew a 21-point lead.

Trailing 40-19 late in the first half, the Scarlet Knights tied the game at 62 with 1:32 left in the game on Geo Baker’s layup. His jumper gave Rutgers a two-point lead with 42 seconds remaining.

After a timeout, Dread hit his 3-pointer and Akwasi Yeboah’s shot at before the buzzer was off.

Izaiah Brockington scored 16 points and Lamar Stevens added nine for the Nittany Lions (21-7, 11-6 Big Ten).

Jacob Young scored 13 points for the Scarlet Knights (18-11, 9-9), who lost their third straight.

Penn State led for all but 2:04 and by double digits well into the second before the Scarlet Knights rallied.

Beforehand, the Scarlet Knights had cut it to 51-50 with a 15-2 run that began as Young found ways to penetrate Penn State’s defense.

RELATED: NCAA TOURNAMENT BUBBLE WATCH

Young, who entered the night averaging eight points per game, hit a layup with 14:45 left and added two more along with a dunk from Ron Harper Jr. and a layup from Myles Johnson to pull the Scarlet Knights within a point with 10:03 left.

Stevens scored the next two baskets and Penn State got some more offense to go back up by 10.

Both teams played sturdy defense early before the Nittany Lions edged ahead 13-10 eight minutes in. Stevens increased his team’s lead with a 3-pointer from the corner two minutes later. Stevens’ first make of the game sparked a 27-9 run to make it a 21-point lead.

THE BIG PICTURE

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights have had a season to remember, but most of the highlights came in the first half when they went 12-3 up until Jan. 7. Since then they’re 6-8.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions have been coughing up big leads in the second half of the season. They needed to halt their skid and were able to do so, though coach Patrick Chambers still wants his team to develop a killer instinct to put teams away.

UP NEXT

Rutgers: Hosts No. 9 Maryland on Tuesday.

Penn State: Visits No. 18 Iowa on Saturday.

No. 12 Villanova topples St. John’s

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VILLANOVA, Pa. — Saddiq Bey scored 23 points and Justin Moore added 21 to lead No. 12 Villanova past St. John’s 71-60 on Wednesday night.

The Wildcats (22-6, 11-4 Big East) had trouble shaking St. John’s until late on a night the program honored former star Kyle Lowry. Lowry, a five-time All-Star guard for the NBA champion Toronto Raptors, played two seasons for the Wildcats and was one of the early pieces that helped build coach Jay Wright’s program into a national power.

Lowry was flanked by former teammates and called the jersey recognition honor a “once in a lifetime” experience that he was able to share with his wife and two young sons. His sons, Karter and Kameron, played with the microphones at a halftime press conference.

Lowry played from 2004-2006 when the Wildcats made their first two NCAA Tournament trips of Wright’s young tenure.

“From the time I got here, he was kind of on that proverbial hot seat,” Lowry said. “Now, he’s never going anywhere and he’s one of the best coaches in the history of college basketball.”

RELATED: NBC SPORT’S LATEST BRACKETOLOGY

Wright has since won two national titles at Villanova and was named the AP Coach of the Decade. Wright has said how Lowry skipped classes and was disruptive at practice, so much so that it got to the point where the feisty guard might not have made it to a second season. Lowry, now extremely close with Wright, laughed when he recalled his rocky relationship with his coach.

“My freshman year, I was such an immature kid and I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know what I wanted or what I could do or what my abilities were off the court,” Lowry said. “I didn’t know what I was, I didn’t know who I was. Me and Coach never talked about basketball. We always talked about these things off the court. That’s why me and Jay, to this day, have the relationship that we have. It wasn’t nothing about basketball. He didn’t worry about me on the court. He worried about me as a man.”

Wright’s biggest worry Wednesday was a St. John’s team that came in 12½-point underdogs and kept the deficit within single digits for most of the second half. Greg Williams Jr. buried a 3 for the Red Storm (14-14, 3-12) with 4:37 left that pulled them within six.

Moore, though, steadied the Wildcats with his fifth 3 of the game, a driving layup and a pull-up jumper in succession that stretched the lead to 13 and sealed another win for the perennial Big East power.

PRETTY CLOSE

Villanova hit seven 3s to St. John’s one in the first half but only led 36-34 at the break.

BIG PICTURE

St. John’s is just counting down the days until the season ends. Barring an improbable run to a championship in the Big East Tournament, the Red Storm are looking for the future. They played their fourth straight game without Mustapha Heron (13.8 points) because of a sprained right ankle.

Villanova won its fifth straight game and has a big rematch against No. 13 Seton Hall ahead on March 4. Seton Hall won the first meeting and both teams could meet again in a conference tournament title game.

NOVA-ON-NOVA RUMBLE

Lowry had a staredown with former Wildcat Donte DiVincenzo, the most outstanding player of Villanova’s 2018 title team, after a hard foul in Toronto’s game against Milwaukee on Tuesday.

“Donte better cut that stuff out,” Lowry said with a laugh. “That’s my guy, though. I fouled him hard and he didn’t like it. It’s all in the competitive nature. I love Donte and what he’s doing. He’s having a great year. Hopefully, we see them in the playoffs.”

UP NEXT

St. John’s returns home to play No. 10 Creighton

The Wildcats play Providence on Saturday at Wells Fargo Center.