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Preseason Mid-Major Power Rankings

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Teams outside of the power conferences had a noticeable impact on the 2017-18 season, including UMBC becoming the first 16-seed to beat a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament and Loyola-Chicago winning 32 games and reaching the Final Four.

Buffalo and Marshall also managed to win an NCAA tournament game, and the College of Charleston gave Auburn all it wanted before falling by four points.

So what’s in store for mid-majors this season?

While predicting another Final Four participant at this stage is tough to do, there are a host of teams that possess the combination of talent and experience that generally leads to success.

Below are our preseason rankings of the 16 best mid-majors heading into the 2018-19 season.

Note: No teams from the American, Atlantic 10, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Mountain West, Pac-12 or SEC were eligible. The same goes for Gonzaga and BYU out of the WCC.



1. BUFFALO

Nate Oats’ Buffalo squad is coming off of a season in which it won 27 games, the MAC East regular season and MAC tournament titles. And all the Bulls did once in the NCAA tournament was blow out Arizona before falling to Kentucky in the second round. Buffalo will have to account for the loss of Wes Clark, but having five of the team’s top six scorers from a season ago back will certainly help with that.

Seniors CJ Massinburg, Nick Perkins and Jeremy Harris all averaged between 15.5 and 17.2 points per game, and junior guard Davonta Jordan made 35 starts and dished out 4.0 assists per game. Add in another senior in guard Dontay Carruthers, and two talented freshmen in point guard Ronaldo Segu and wing Jeenathan Williams, and Buffalo has the pieces needed to not only repeat as MAC champs but do even more damage in the NCAA tournament.

2. MARSHALL

Like Buffalo the Thundering Herd managed to win a game in the NCAA tournament, as Dan D’Antoni’s team knocked off Wichita State before falling to West Virginia. And despite losing forward Ajdin Penava, who averaged 15.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game, to the professional ranks Marshall is well-equipped to make a return trip to the Big Dance.

A big reason why is the prolific backcourt tandem of Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks, who combined to score an average of 42.8 points per game last season. In addition to leading the team in scoring, Elmore also dished out 6.8 assists per game and was second on the team in rebounding (5.8 rpg). In total six of Marshall’s top seven scorers from a season ago are back, which sets this team up for another run.

3. LOYOLA-CHICAGO

While the Ramblers are best known for their run through the NCAA tournament, reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1963, the fact of the matter is that Porter Moser’s bunch was darn good all season long. Loyola won the Missouri Valley regular season title by four games, and by the time their season was complete the Ramblers had amassed a school-record 32 wins. A stingy defense and a balanced offense were the keys, and the question now is what will Loyola do for an encore.

Reigning Larry Bird Missouri Valley Player of the Year Clayton Custer (13.2 ppg, 4.1 apg) is back, as is fellow senior Marques Townes (11.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and sophomores Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson. That quartet will have to help account for the loss of two seniors who averaged 11.0 points per game last season (Donte Ingram and Aundre Jackson) and the Valley’s top defender in Ben Richardson. Loyola’s path to another Valley title won’t be an easy one, as the competition has improved, but they’re capable of repeating.

Porter Moser (Chris Covatta/Getty Images)

4. WESTERN KENTUCKY

For some programs a saga like the Mitchell Robinson one would have dealt a crushing blow to the team’s hopes for that particular season. But that wasn’t the case for Rick Stansbury’s Hilltoppers, who won 27 games and reached the Conference USA tournament final. After getting over the disappointment of not reaching the NCAA tournament, WKU managed to reach the semifinals of the Postseason NIT. WKU returns just two starters from that team, guards Lamonte Bearden and Taveion Hollingsworth, but a look at the players Stansbury has added to the program reveals why there should be optimism in Bowling Green.

Five-star freshman big man Charles Bassey leads WKU’s freshman class, ad the Hilltoppers also managed to add some experience with transfers Desean Murray (Auburn) and Jared Savage (Austin Peay) among the non-freshman newcomers. If WKU can get consistent play in the post to help account for the loss of Dwight Coleby and Justin Johnson, who combined to average 26.8 points and 17.4 rebounds per game last season, look out.

5. SOUTHERN ILLINOIS

After finishing below .500 in each of Barry Hinson’s first three seasons in Carbondale, the Salukis have won 22, 17 and 20 games in each of the last three years. And with all five starters back from a team that finished second in the Missouri Valley, SIU is capable of reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. Three seniors, led by guard Armon Fletcher, averaged at least 12.1 points per game last season and junior guard Aaron Cook wasn’t far off with an average of 9.8 points per.

The one thing to watch with this group is the progress of senior center Thik Bol, who averaged 9.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in 2016-17. Bol missed all of last season with a knee injury that ultimately required two surgical procedures (addressing different issues on the same knee), the second of which occurred in July. His ability to rebound and block shots make the 6-foot-8 senior a valued member of the rotation, but the question is just how much can Bol give them. SIU will still be a factor in the Valley if Bol is severely limited, but his return makes this group that much better if he can go.

6. UNC GREENSBORO

As noted in the Wofford blurb the Spartans are the reigning SoCon champions, as Wes Miller’s team managed to win a school-record 27 games and the conference’s regular season and tournament titles. First team all-conference guard Francis Alonso, who averaged a team-best 15.6 points per game as a junior, is back as are reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Year James Dickey (8.4 rpg, 2.1 bpg), senior guard Demetrius Troy and sophomore guard Isaiah Miller. UNCG returns three starters and four of its top six scorers, with Marvin Smith (12.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Jordy Kuiper both having graduated.

The Spartans may have finished last season with just two double-digit scorers, Alonso and Smith, but a big reason why they were so successful was their work on the defensive end. In conference games UNCG led the SoCon in defensive efficiency and block percentage and also did a good job of both defending inside of the three-point line and ending possessions with a rebound (best defensive rebounding percentage in the league). If they can duplicate those efforts and have someone step forward to help account for the loss of Marvin Smith’s production, there’s no reason why UNCG can’t repeat as SoCon champs.

7. ILLINOIS STATE

Like Loyola and SIU, Dan Muller’s Redbirds should be a major factor in the Missouri Valley race. Last season Illinois State went 18-15, 10-8 in conference play, but with four starters having returned this should be a team that can make a case to be considered the preseason favorite. Senior forward Milik Yarbrough was a first team all-conference selection last season, as he averaged 16.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game, and fellow senior Phil Fayne was a second team all-conference selection. Fellow starters Keyshawn Evans and William Tinsley are also back for the Redbirds, who have the talent and experience needed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.

8. WOFFORD

Mike Young’s Terriers won 21 games and finished fourth in the Southern Conference last season, and four starters are back from that team led by reigning SoCon Player of the Year Fletcher Magee. Magee is one of college basketball’s best shooters, and in averaging 22.1 points per game the 6-foot-4 guard shot 48.4 percent from the field, 43.9 percent from three and 90.7 percent from the foul line. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Magee is a 50/40/90 player as a senior.

Mike Young (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Magee will have help offensively too, as guards Cameron Jackson and Nathan Hoover and center Trevor Stumpe (all double-digit scorers) all return. Guards Storm Murphy and Matthew Pegram are also back, meaning that the Terriers return the top six scorers from last season. What could also help this group in its quest to dethrone UNCG is the fact that it took a summer trip to Portugal, as those practices ahead of the trip can be quite valuable.

9. MONTANA

Since taking over at his alma mater in 2014, Travis DeCuire has led the Grizzlies to at least 20 wins in three of his four seasons at the helm. Last year’s squad managed to win 26 games and the Big Sky’s regular season and tournament titles, reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. Montana may not have to wait that long for another trip to the Big Dance either, thanks in large part to one of the better guard tandems around in seniors Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine.

Rorie and Oguine combined to average 33.0 points, 9.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game, with the former leading the Griz in both scoring (17.2 ppg) and assists (3.7 apg). In total Montana returns four starters from a season ago, with seniors Bobby Moorehead and Jamar Akoh being the others. This group has experience, talent and depth, which makes Montana the class of the Big Sky heading into this season.

10. GEORGIA STATE

If you’re putting together a schedule of college basketball games to watch the first week, mark this one down: Georgia State at Montana, November 9. Ron Hunter has four starters back from a team that won 24 games and the Sun Belt tournament title last season, led by dynamic junior guard D’Marcus Simonds. Simonds averaged 21.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, and if he can improve his perimeter shooting some (29.2 percent shooter from three last season) the 6-foot-3 junior becomes an even tougher matchup for opponents.

Also back are guard Devin Mitchell and forwards Jeff Thomas and Malik Benlevi, who averaged between 9.6 and 12.0 points per game in 2017-18. With Jordan Session and key reserve Isaiah Williams having moved on Georgia State will need some of its supplementary options to step forward, but with Simonds leading the way the Panthers can make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.

11. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE

By now you should know who the headliner is for the Jackrabbits: 6-foot-8 senior forward Mike Daum. “The Dauminator” has won Summit League Player of the Year honors each of the last two seasons, and in 2017-18 he averaged 23.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Due in large part to Daum’s efforts T.J. Otzelberger’s program won 28 games and the Summit League regular season and tournament titles, resulting in a third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

Sophomore guard Davis Jenkins, who as a freshman averaged 16.1 points per game, and senior guard Tevin King and Skyler Flatten shouldn’t be overlooked either, as the Jackrabbits return four starters from a season ago. Daum, and the production around him, are reasons why South Dakota State should once again rank among the best mid-majors in college basketball.

Mike Daum (Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)

12. RIDER

Kevin Baggett’s Broncs won 22 games and the MAAC regular season title last season, only to once again experience disappointment in the conference tournament. Rider will take another stab and reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994, and having all five starters back will certainly help with that quest.

Sophomore guard Dimencio Vaughn (16.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg), the MAAC Rookie of the Year last season, leads the way with fellow sophomores Jordan Allen and Frederick Scott and juniors Stevie Jordan and Tyere Marshall back as well. All five were double-digit scorers on a team that had just one senior, one fewer than the number of seniors on this season’s roster. Rider can certainly rack up the wins during the season, but it’s all about that first weekend of March. This group has the talent needed to get over the hump.

13. LIPSCOMB

Prior to last season a member from the Sunshine State represented the Atlantic Sun in the NCAA tournament three straight years, FGCU twice and North Florida once. Lipscomb managed to end that run last season by beating FGCU in the A-Sun tournament title game on the Eagles’ home floor, and the Bisons have the pieces needed to make a return trip to the Big Dance.

Lipscomb returns its top six scorers from last season, led by seniors Garrison Mathews (21.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Rob Marberry (15.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg). Also, guard Nathan Moran, who averaged 11.1 points and 4.2 assists per game in 2016-17, returns after offseason hip surgery led to his taking a medical redshirt. Casey Alexander managed to lead Lipscomb to its first NCAA tournament as a Division I member last season, and the Bisons may not have to wait long for that second trip.

14. MURRAY STATE

Yes, Matt McMahon has two major holes to fill thanks to the departures of OVC Player of the Year Jonathan Stark and fellow first team all-conference selection Terrell Miller. Those aren’t players who can easily be replaced. That being said, Murray State has a promising young talent in sophomore guard Ja Morant. As a freshman Morant averaged 12.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game, shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 80.6 percent from the foul line.

Due to the departures of Stark and Miller more will likely be asked of Morant from a scoring standpoint, but he’s got the talent needed to rise to that challenge. Seniors Leroy “Shaq” Buchanan and Brion Sanchious return as well, giving Murray State three returning starters to work with as they look to remain atop the OVC.

15. BELMONT

Rick Byrd may return just two starters, Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain, from last season’s squad but year after year Belmont managed to put forth teams capable of contending for conference titles. Since the last time Belmont failed to win 20 games in a season (2009-10, and they won 19 games that year), the program has made four NCAA tournament appearances and won at least 22 games in seven of those eight seasons.

In Windler the Bruins have an outstanding 6-foot-7 senior forward who averaged 17.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, and he can shoot the ball from anywhere on the court. McClain averaged 12.6 points per game as a junior, and sophomore Nick Hopkins (7.4 ppg) was a solid reserve off the bench. Belmont has some holes to fill, but their system is incredibly difficult to defend. And when you have a player the caliber of Windler, you’ve got a shot to be really good.

16. VERMONT

The Catamounts won the America East regular season title for the second consecutive season, going 27-8 overall and 15-1 in conference play. But thanks to UMBC’s Jairus Lyles hitting a game-winning three in the America East title game, UVM had to settle for the Postseason NIT…and we all know what UMBC went on to do in its next game. The Catamounts, even with the graduation of three of the top four scorers from that team, are still a team worth keeping an eye on this season.

Forward Anthony Lamb, who was hampered some by injury, still averaged 14.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore, and redshirt senior Ernie Duncan (10.8 ppg) is back as well. Vermont’s hopes of returning to the NCAA tournament will rest upon the shoulders of those two, and they’ll need returning starter Everett Duncan to take a step forward as well, but John Becker’s work during his time in Burlington will ensure that they’ll remain a favorite in America East.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 3 Gonzaga uses late run to defeat Loyola Marymount

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gonzaga finished 21 of 22 from the foul line.

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

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

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

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

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

BIG PICTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIG PICTURE

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

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

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

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Here is our latest bracket projection, from Thursday morning. 

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

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

The how is, honestly, pretty simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it will be close.

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

I can get down with that.