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2018-19 American Preview: Year of the AAC rebuild

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the American Athletic Conference.


The AAC wasn’t as deep last year as the league would have hoped, but it was strong at the top with Cincinnati, Houston and Wichita State all proving themselves among the country’s best – even if all three had disappointing ends to their seasons in the NCAA tournament.

This season will be one of transition for the conference as those three tournament teams from last year all having major roster turnover while two of the league’s traditional power programs – Memphis and UConn – made splashy head coaching moves after both had fallen into mediocrity in recent years.

That means the league is there for the taking this season.

Cincy, Houston and Wichita State could all be back at the top while talented UCF could shrug off last season’s injury woes to take the crown or one of the league’s middle tier could jump up and surprise.

The AAC probably won’t have those high-end, national contenders this season, but it figures to be an intriguing year, especially with the changes in Memphis and Storrs.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Penny’s back

There is just something overwhelmingly cool about Penny Hardaway. His game – full of both power and grace – as a 6-foot-7 point guard just screamed style. As did the jersey he wore while he came to prominence. Those 1990s Magic uniforms – especially the black pinstripes – was the thing of Starter jacket dreams. And those teams. Oh, those teams. Penny and Shaq in Orlando was more entertaining than anything their Disney neighbors could have dreamed up. I haven’t even mentioned the Chris Rock-voiced Lil’ Penny. Even the name ‘Penny’ is great.

My goodness, was Penny Hardaway cool. Now he’s trying to bring cool – and winning – back to his alma mater, Memphis.

An alum and city native, the former NBA All Star brings his starpower and puts his legacy on the line in trying to get the Tigers back in line after a slump in production and a slide into apathy under Tubby Smith. Hardaway brings instant credibility thanks to his NBA career and his work winning state titles at Memphis East and navigating the EYBL with Team Penny. Whether he can coach at an elite collegiate level remains to be seen, but he’s already attracting talent – including the ever-important homegrown Memphis talent – to the Tigers program.

His return to helm Memphis is also one of college basketball’s top storylines. Memphis basketball is cool again, simply by association. Whether it’ll be a winner remains to be seen.

Dan Hurley, AP

2. UConn rebuild begins under Hurley

Given his last name and success at Wagner and, more recently, Rhode Island, Dan Hurley had multiple chances to move on to a bigger program. It took a shot at rebuilding one of college basketball’s biggest brands to get him to move. Hurley, the son of legendary high school coach Bob and brother Arizona State coach and Duke legend Bobby, is tasked with taking a program that went from national championship to downtrodden in the span of just four years back to the heights it so long enjoyed for years under Jim Calhoun and then briefly under Kevin Ollie.

Bringing UConn back to national prominence is an interesting challenge for Hurley as while the Huskies were in the AAC when they won the 2014 national title, they were just a year removed from playing in the Big East. The challenges of recruiting to the AAC are certainly different, even with a brand as strong as UConn. Still, it’s a brand that carries weight, just like the Hurley name. And both are extremely strong in the northeast. After back-to-back losing seasons under Ollie, UConn should be better in Hurley’s first year due largely to the return of Jalen Adams and Christian Vital, but getting back to the NCAA tournament – and winning a few games there – is a more likely outcome later in Hurley’s Storrs tenure. That fate, however, would seem to be a foregone conclusion.

3. Wichita State, Houston and Cincy suffer heavy losses…but remain contenders

Even with Memphis and UConn down and UCF hit hard by injuries, it was a strong season for the AAC in 2017-18 thanks to the strength of Cincinnati, Wichita State and Houston, the league’s three NCAA tournament teams that were all seeded sixth or higher. The trio of teams carried the AAC banner admirably, even if the tournament results – Cincy’s blown lead against Nevada and Houston’s last-second loss to Michigan costing them Sweet 16 berths, and Wichita’s first-round loss to Marshall – left something to be desired. There was no doubting those three teams’ strengths, and that they play some real ball in the AAC.

This year, though, all three are slated to take steps back, though the degree to which remains to be seen.

The Bearcats arguably have the most to replace, but are the best equipped to do it after the losses of Jacob Evans (first-round pick), Gary Clark (AAC player of the year) and Kyle Washington (two-year starter) from last year’s team but the return of potential AAC player of the year Jarron Cumberland. Mick Cronin also remains on the bench, and Cincy continues to be a safe bet for the NCAA tournament, even with the roster turnover.

Houston’s losses were fewer, but no less significant as the Cougars will be without the AAC’s leading scorer Rob Gray, Jr. and their top rebounder, Devin Davis. Things look to remain on track with the Cougars, who will open a new $60 million home this season, with Kelvin Sampson staying put after the Orlando Magic made some inquiries this offseason. Corey Davis, Jr. will also be a big reason why after shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range and averaging 13.1 points last year. He’ll be tasked with keeping the ever-potent Cougar offense (which has ranked in the top-40 in efficiency the last three years) humming.

If you believe in Wichita State this year, it’s because you believe in Gregg Marshall. The Shockers lost all five starters from last year’s team, which was successful but had at times difficulty navigating the new waters of the AAC after dominating the Missouri Valley Conference for so long. Marshall also already suffered his first loss to Penny Hardaway and Memphis when four-star commit Alex Lomax flipped to the Tigers after Hardaway, his high school coach, was hired at Memphis. If the Shockers are going to compete at the top of the AAC and get back to the NCAA tournament, it’ll likely have to be on the strength of a bounceback season from Markis McDuffie. The former MVC freshman of the year and first-team all-conference performer never seemed to find a rhythm last season after a stress fracture in his foot cost him the year’s first weeks. The Shockers will need him to return to star status this year.

Tacko Fall (Dan Forcella/UCF Athletics)

4. UCF’s talented – but unlucky – trio

The Knights are hoping they didn’t miss their window. Or, rather, they’re hoping beyond hope injuries didn’t slam that window shut. There were high expectations for UCF in Johnny Dawkins’ second year with not just talent, but unique talent, across the roster. Instead of fielding one of the AAC’s most talented groups, however, the Knights had one of its most frustrating.

Aubrey Dawkins, Johnny’s son and a transfer from Michigan, was lost before the season started with a torn labrum, B.J Taylor missed the first two months with a broken foot and Tacko Fall, he of 7-foot-6 fame, shut things down due to a shoulder injury. Instead of a fearsome threesome, the Knights had a rag-tag group that still scratched its way to a 19-13 record. With its trio back – and presumably healthy – the Knights could be the most talented team in a league that saw much of its top talent depart. If those three can stay on the court, UCF might be the last team standing in the AAC.

5. Dunphy’s last dance

Fran Dunphy began his Philadelphia Big 5 career in 1967 as a player at La Salle then had assistant gigs at his alma mater and Penn before taking the first chair for the Quakers in 1989 and then moving across town to replace John Chaney at Temple in 2006. And now after more than 50 years, his career will come to a close. The winningest coach in Big 5 history will step down after one final ride with the Owls, handing over the reins to former Temple star, NBA veteran and current Owls associate head coach Aaron McKie.

Dunphy is one of just five coaches to win at least 200 hundred games while going to at least six NCAA tournaments at two schools with Lou Henson, Rick Pitino, Eddie Sutton and Roy Williams the others to accomplish the feat. Following Chaney was no easy task, but Dunphy has taken the Owls to seven NCAA tournaments. He’s not largely mentioned as one of the most accomplished coaches in college basketball, but as he enters his 30th and final season, he certainly is exactly that.

PRESEASON AMERICAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: JARRON CUMBERLAND, Cincinnati

Cumberland has spent his first two seasons in the Queen City in a supporting role for a team that won a combined 61 games while setting the standard in the AAC. This year, he’ll step into a starring role for a team looking to maintain that caliber of excellence. The 6-foot-5 guard studied under Jacob Evans and Troy Caupain and looks more than capable of taking the mantle of a Mick Cronin team.

Cumberland embodies the toughness and grit that has come to define Cronin’s Bearcat teams, but he’s plenty skilled as well. The Wilmington, Ohio native posted offensive efficiency ratings of 118.6 and 109.7 in his first two seasons as the team’s third or fourth offensive option. This year he’ll doubtless be the go-to guy, something he looked ready to assume with big NCAA tournament performances. The key to taking the step from role to star player, however, will be consistency. Cumberland’s production too often ebbed and flowed last season. This year’s team will need him to be good every night out. With the team unquestionably his, Cumberland will get his shot to be the next great Bearcat.

THE REST OF THE AMERICAN FIRST TEAM

  • B.J. TAYLOR, UCF: Injuries cost Taylor his sophomore season and half of his junior campaign, but the 6-foot-2 guard is a prolific scorer who will help the Knights compete for an AAC championship.
  • JALEN ADAMS, UConn: After averaging 18 points and seeing his coach get fired, Adams nearly went pro this summer, but instead returns to Storrs to give Dan Hurley a talented guard in his first season at the helm.
  • JEREMIAH MARTIN, Memphis: The 6-foot-3 guard has steadily and impressively improved his numbers every season and now he’ll get the chance to do so under Penny Hardaway.
  • JARREY FOSTER, SMU: Foster was on track for a big junior campaign before a torn ACL cut his season short, but his return will give him the chance to be the Mustangs’ featured player with Shake Milton gone to the pros.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • TACKO FALL, UCF
  • MARKIS MCDUFFIE, Wichita State
  • QUINTON ROSE, Temple
  • COREY DAVIS JR, Houston
  • AUBREY DAWKINS, UCF
Jarron Cumberland (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Maybe it’s been done before, but UConn’s Alterique Gilbert being named the AAC preseason rookie of the year twice is certainly a unique accomplishment. The possibility he may win it a third time is a little bit heartbreaking. The former top-50 recruit has played just nine games in two years for the Huskies after shoulder injuries twice ended what should have been his debut seasons before they could really get underway. Two lost seasons and three shoulder surgeries later, the point guard hopes to be healthy enough to play this season. If he’s able to play this season and can return to the form that made him a McDonald’s All-American in 2016, both he and the Huskies could be the surprise of the season in the AAC.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

There really isn’t a coach that enters this season in risk of losing his job as each program either has a new head man, stability or an expected rebuild ahead of it. That means this distinction belongs not to a man coaching for his job, but one coaching for his legacy.

Penny Hardaway’s return to Memphis has been heralded as one of the biggest stories in college basketball – and rightfully so. He’s got the star power and cache that really only a few people can bring to the job, and probably no one else could have duplicated at Memphis, his alma mater and hometown. But the hype and hope come with a dark side. If Hardaway can’t pull this off, it’ll be a blow to his to his rock-solid reputation in Memphis. Fred Hoiberg pulled off this feat with his alma mater at Iowa State, but Chris Mullen is finding it difficult to replicate at St. John’s. Memphis has one of the most interesting situations in the sport, but feel-good stories eventually have to translate to wins to keep the good vibes.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

That the AAC isn’t as strong this season as last, but that it remained respectable with at least three bids.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Did I mention FREAKING PENNY HARDAWAY IS THE COACH AT MEMPHIS?

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Dec. 15, Memphis vs. Tennessee
  • Nov. 7, Cincinnati vs. Ohio State
  • Dec. 1, Houston vs. Oregon
  • Dec. 2, UCF vs. Missouri
  • Dec. 5, SMU vs. TCU
Kelvin Sampson, AP

PREDICTED FINISH

1. UCF: Winning the league will require quite a few things to go right for Johnny Dawkins’ team, but the Knights have the talent to do it, especially with the conference’s traditional powers not looking as powerful. It’ll largely come down to health. Can B.J. Taylor, Aubrey Dawkins and Tacko Fall all stay healthy all year long? If they share the floor all winter long, it’s not hard to see UCF atop the standings.

2. CINCINNATI: Despite heavy losses from last year’s 31-win team, Cincinnati should be strong enough once again to compete for a conference title. Jarron Cumberland will fill the offensive void, but it’s hard to envision a world where Mick Cronin’s team doesn’t defend well enough to win a ton of games in the AAC.

3. HOUSTON: Kelvin Sampson probably hasn’t been given the credit he deserves for the turnaround he’s engineered at Houston thanks in no small part to his scandal-forced exit at Indiana that kept him out of a head coaching chair for six years. The Cougars have developed into an AAC power, however, and look to stay there with an athletic department flush with cash in a new arena in one of the country’s booming cities. Houston is back on the basketball map, and even significant losses from last year won’t keep them off it.

4. SMU: The Mustangs are still under the purview of scholarship reductions from the Larry Brown era, but with a healthy Jarrey Foster and Mahmal McMurray, they should be competitive after injuries contributed to a second-half slide last season. Shake Milton is gone to the NBA and there are questions regarding the roster, but the Foster-McMurray one-two punch could be enough to elevate the Mustangs.

5. WICHITA STATE: This is a bet on the continuity of excellence. The Shockers will have to regroup after losing all five starters, including first-round pick Landry Shamet, but Gregg Marshall has been good enough long enough to warrant faith in a quick reload. Markis McDuffie is a talented piece to build around, especially if you give him the benefit of the doubt that last year’s struggles were the result of injury and not regression. All Marshall has done in Wichita has win, so it’s hard to believe we’ll see anything different this season, even if the faces on the floor are changed.

6. UCONN: While UConn engages in an ugly battle off the court with former coach Kevin Ollie, the Huskies should be in line to play, if not beautiful, at least passing ball under first-year coach Dan Hurley. Jalen Adams could be the best player in the league, and Christian Vital is a proven commodity. If Alterique Gilbert is healthy and productive and Mamadou Diarra can return from injury, the Huskies could be frisky in the AAC race.

Fran Dunphy, AP

7. TEMPLE: Fran Dunphy’s swan song to Big 5 basketball isn’t likely going to be a sweet one. The Owls have struggled to find footing in the AAC as they’ve made the NCAA tournament just once in their five seasons in the league after six-straight appearances to end their stint in the Atlantic 10. There’s talent on the roster, especially in Quinton Rose and Shizz Alston, but it may not be enough for an upper-half finish in the conference.

8. MEMPHIS: The Tigers are the most talked about team in the league thanks to Penny Hardaway’s homecoming, but this season could be a struggle. Jeremiah Martin is one of the league’s best players and Kyvon Davenport is a proven contributor, but the rest of the roster is less impressive. Hardaway has already brought in a strong first recruiting class, but it’s not a group that will be able to be counted on to help win a lot of games right off the jump. Expectations are up and hope has returned to Memphis, but a Hardaway’s work is far from over.

9. TULSA: This is probably too low for the Golden Hurricane. Not because they’re wildly talented, but because Frank Haith consistently has gotten his teams to beat expectations in Tulsa. Sterling Taplin is as experienced as they get and is a potential all-conference guard while Martins Igbanu is also a solid contributor. If the Golden Hurricane can rebound and get to the line like they did last year, they could replicate that level of success in the standings.

10. TULANE: Mike Dunleavy’s hiring in New Orleans felt like a strange in 2016, but he’s took the Green Wave to six wins his first year to 14 last season while turning Melvin Frazier into an NBA draft pick. It’s hard, though, to see Tulane sustain that growth this season with Frazier with the Orlando Magic and Cameron Reynolds graduated. Dunleavy has shown he can get the Green Wave moving in the right direction, but it might not be a straight-line trajectory.

11. EAST CAROLINA: Joe Dooley is back in Greenville, y’all. Nearly 20 years after his first stint with the Pirates, Dooley returns to take the helm of the program he led from 1995-99 after winning big in Dunk City the last five years. He took Florida Gulf Coast over from Andy Enfield and won five-straight conference titles and got to two NCAA tournaments. Dooley will have his work cut out for him at his new job in his old home as the Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 2013.

12. SOUTH FLORIDA: A return to a head coaching spot wasn’t a rampant success for Brian Gregory as his Bulls went just 10-22 overall and 3-15 in AAC play last season. There isn’t a lot of hope that the turnaround will begin in earnest this season with just five upperclassmen on the roster

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 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.

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.