No. 13 Michigan State: Can Cassius Winston carry the load?

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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.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 13 Michigan State.


To understand the level of expectation that there was on this Michigan State program last season, consider this: The Spartans went 30-5 last year. They won the Big Ten regular season title outright. After a loss to Duke in the second game of the regular season, they won 28 of their next 30 games.

And the year was, depending on who you ask, somewhere between underwhelming and an outright disappointment.

There are myriad reasons for that.

  1. Michigan State entered the season as a consensus top three team in the country. Many people had them ranked No. 1. That’s what happens when a loaded sophomore class, headlined by Preseason Player of the Year Miles Bridges, is joined by a player as talented as Jaren Jackson Jr. Expectations were enormous.
  2. Speaking of Jaren Jackson Jr., the theme of last season for the Spartans was, more or less, “why won’t Tom Izzo play Jackson at the five and Bridges at the four?” That frustration lingered, and was palplable.
  3. In January, ESPN published a story about the way that Michigan State’s basketball program handled sexual assaults, and it certainly was not positive. Izzo spent much of the rest of the season dealing with questions about the story, and they were done no favors by how much that story was tied into reporting about Larry Nassar. This lingered over the program and, to an extent, still does.
  4. Not only did the Spartans get bounced in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but they sat at home and watched in-state rival Michigan — who knocked them out of the Big Ten tournament — make a run to the national title game.

Put simply, Michigan State’s regular season was marred by off-the-court issues and on-the-court frustrations before a decidedly disappointing performance in March.

That is how an otherwise successful season can get distorted.

And it leads to the inevitable question: What does Michigan State have in store for an encore?

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MICHIGAN STATE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

Think about this in a vacuum.

The Spartans went 30-5 last season. They won the Big Ten regular season title outright. They return three of their top four scorers and four of the six players that played starters’ minutes last season. They’ll start at least four, and possibly five, upperclassmen this year, including a trio of top 50 prospects that are finally — hopefully? — coming of age.

On paper, without all the noise that comes with the hangover of last season, this team looks really, really good.

Let’s start by talking about Cassius Winston. The 6-foot junior is one of the nation’s best passers and, as his sophomore season progressed, he grew into being one of the most dangerous shooters in college hoops. He led the Big Ten by averaging 6.9 assists per game which finishing second nationally in assist rate. He shot 49.7 percent from three on more than four attempts per game, which led the Big Ten and put him fifth nationally. He finished third in the country in offensive rating for players that used at least 20 percent of their team’s offensive possessions.

Simply put, there is no questioning just how valuable he is to Michigan State’s offensively, even if he still turns the ball over at a higher-than-ideal rate.

And Winston, like Joshua Langford and Nick Ward, will be entering his junior season with a chance to make this team his. The last two seasons, Miles Bridges has been the name that everyone associated with Spartans basketball, and that worked but only to a point: Bridges was built more as a role player than an alpha-dog. Losing a player like that isn’t a good thing, but it may make things easier from a role allocation perspective.

Langford and Ward will determine Michigan State’s ceiling — I’ll expand on that in a bit — while the rest of this roster is filled with veteran try-hards that Izzo has had so much success with and a promising freshman class that will be better than most realize. Senior Matt McQuaid should start in the backcourt while Kenny Goins will likely compete with sophomore big man Xavier Tillman — who has dropped 30 pounds — for a starting spot at the four.

Aaron Henry is the freshman that should have the biggest impact, as he’s a terrific athlete with a body that’s filled out and an understanding of how to play without needing to have the ball in his hands. He is not going to come in and put up 15 points a night, but he should provide big minutes as a defensive presence. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both four-star recruits with terrific physical tools that are still learning how to best use them while adding weight and strength. Foster Loyer is the guy that will backup Winston at the point.

Cassius Winston (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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BUT MICHIGAN STATE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

As a team, the Spartans were not very athletic last season. Miles Bridges was an absolute freak-show, but beyond that, their roster was made up of below-the-rim land warriors in the paint and guards that notable because they are skilled and savvy and crafty, not because they can jump over a car.

Jaren Jackson Jr. was the second-best athlete on this team last season, and even he was an average-at-best athlete; he was long and smooth more than he was explosive.

What’s left is a team that may not have a plus-athlete in their starting lineup.

I’m sure Winston can dunk, but I’ve never seen him do it in a game. Langford has matured into a really effective jump-shooter, but one of the reasons he’s the highest-rated five-star from the Class of 2016 that’s still in college is that he doesn’t have the burst to turn a corner or finish amongst the trees. Ward and Tillman are both big, physical forwards, throwbacks to an era where a power forward was, you know, powerful. McQuaid gets the most out of his physical ability, but he is what he is.

There is some athleticism in this freshman class, but I’m not quite sure just how ready those kids are for the grind of the Big Ten.

This team actually reminds me quite a bit of North Carolina’s 2017 national title team, the one that starred Kennedy Meeks, Joel Berry and Justin Jackson.

It’s proof that you can win without having the best athletes on the floor.

But Berry was an all-american, Jackson was a lottery pick and Meeks was able to defend without fouling and avoid turnovers. Winston might end up being an all-american, but Langford is a long way from being a lottery pick right now while there is a reason that Ward — who struggles with fouls, turnovers and maintaining Izzo’s trust — has yet to average 20 minutes a night despite 13 points and nearly seven boards in his two seasons.

Which is why …

Joshua Langford (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

… this team’s ceiling is going to be determined by what Langford and Ward turn into this year.

Both players are talented, although the reasons that they have struggled to consistently live up to expectations differs.

The answer is probably easier with Ward, whose struggles with playing time seem to be more self-inflicted than anything else. Some of it was bad body language. Some of it was defensive miscues, whether it be a missed assignment or mounting foul trouble he couldn’t seem to avoid. Some of it was the fact that he just turned the ball over too damn much. The end result, however, was a season of frustration spent playing fewer minutes than he felt he deserved while bouncing in and out of Izzo’s doghouse.

It should shock no one that Ward’s struggles were magnified against elite competition. Case in point: His offensive rating last season was 116.8, but that dropped to 112.4 against Big Ten foes, 103.1 in top 100 games (adjusted for location) and 89.4 in top 50 games. Similarly, his foul and turnover rates soared against better competition.*

Ward, when he’s right, is one of the most dominant low-post scorers in the country and a guy that is actually much better than he gets credit for as a rim-protector, but so much about the way that Izzo manipulates his rotation is about trust — that’s why Kenny Goins may start and Tum Tum Nairn played as many minutes as he did — and Ward has yet to earn his trust for an entire season.

Nick Ward (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

Langford’s issue is a bit different.

He’s been fine as a player, someone that started all 35 games last year while averaging 27 minutes. He was as consistent as anyone on the team too, which ended up being something of a detriment for him. Relatively speaking, Langford is just an OK athlete at the Big Ten level. He’s not one of these two-guards that thrives putting the ball on the floor and getting all the way to the rim, and even when he does, he lacks the vertical burst to deal with the shot-blockers at the rim.

The result is that he’s turned into something of a midrange jump-shooter, and if you know even the slightest thing about basketball analytics, you know that two-point jumpers are the worst shot in basketball you can take.

Why?

Because players in general — and Langford specifically — doesn’t make them at a rate that is all that much higher than shooting threes, but every shot he makes is worth one point less. That, quite literally, is the definition of inefficiency. That is how a guy that shot better than 40 percent from three and 84.9 percent from the free throw line finished with an offensive as low as his was.

If those two play up to an all-Big Ten level, the Spartans will likely win the Big Ten regular season title for a second straight season.

If they don’t, the outlook for this season is much, much different.

*(Data from KenPom)

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The Big Ten is not all that good this season. Even the most ardent Big Ten supporters would probably agree with that. There will be more depth this year than in year’s past, but the fact of the matter is that Michigan State is our highest-ranked team in the league heading into 2018-19, and I’m not sure there is anyone that is going to disagree with that.

Which means that the Spartans have a pretty good chance at repeating as Big Ten champs. At the very least they are going to be in the mix. Winston is good enough that he’ll allow them to be effectively offensively, while I think Izzo is incapable of having a team that is outright bad on the defensive end.

Put another way, they’ll be fine.

I do wonder whether or not this group has the upside to make another run to the Final Four. Generally speaking, talent wins out in March. Teams with NBA players win in March, and I wonder if there actually is a first round pick on this roster.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Miller, Wong rally Miami past Texas 88-81 for 1st Final Four

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On the eve of Miami playing for a place in its first Final Four, the quiet conversation floating through the team hotel did not revolve around all that the Hurricanes had accomplished this season. Instead, they talked about what had happened to bring last season to a close.

The sting of an Elite Eight defeat was fresh to those who were there. And they made everyone else feel it, too.

“That loss sat with me for a really long time,” the Hurricanes’ Jordan Miller said. “It doesn’t go away, and the fact that we had the opportunity to come back and make amends, make it right, that’s what was pushing me.”

Miller responded with a perfect performance against second-seeded Texas in the Midwest Region final Sunday. Along with Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Isaiah Wong and March dynamo Nijel Pack, Miller rallied the Hurricanes from a 13-point second-half deficit for an 88-81 victory that clinched that long-awaited trip to the national semifinals.

“How hard we fought to come back in this game, especially on a stage like this, it’s an amazing feeling,” said Pack, one of Miami’s newcomers. “I know how much these guys wanted to win this game, especially being here last year and losing the Elite Eight, and now being able to take it to the Final Four is something special.”

Miller finished with 27 points, going 7 of 7 from the field and 13 of 13 from the foul line, while Wong scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half against the Longhorns, who had been the top remaining seed in a topsy-turvy NCAA Tournament.

Now, the No. 5 seed Hurricanes (29-7) have a date with No. 4 seed UConn on Saturday night in Houston. Two more Final Four newbies, fifth-seeded San Diego State and No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic, will play in the other national semifinal.

It’s the first time since seeding began in 1979 that no team seeded better than No. 4 made the Final Four, so perhaps it is fitting that Miami coach Jim Larrañaga is involved. He took George Mason there as an 11 seed 17 years ago to the day.

Miami was a 10 seed last year when it lost 76-50 to eventual national champion Kansas in a regional final.

“No one wanted to go home,” said Miller, coincidentally a George Mason transfer, who joined Duke’s Christian Laettner as the only players since 1960 to go 20 for 20 combined from the field and foul line in an NCAA tourney game. “We came together. We stuck together. We showed really good perseverance and the will – the will to just want to get there.”

After Miami climbed back from a 64-51 deficit with 13:22 to play, the game was tied at 79-all when Norchad Omier was fouled by the Longhorns’ Brock Cunningham while going for a loose ball. He made both of the foul shots to give the Hurricanes the lead, then stole the ball from Texas star Marcus Carr at the other end, and Wong made to more free throws with 34 seconds remaining to keep them ahead for good.

Miller kept drilling foul shots down the stretch to ice the Midwest Region title for the Hurricanes.

Wooga Poplar scored 16 points, and Pack followed up his virtuoso performance against top-seeded Houston with 15, as the same school that once dropped hoops entirely in the 1970s advanced to the game’s biggest stage.

“You just love when your players accomplish a goal they set out before the season,” Larrañaga said.

Carr led the Longhorns (29-9) with 17 points, though he was bothered by a hamstring injury late in the game. Timmy Allen added 16 and Sir’Jabari Rice had 15 in the finale of a season that began with the firing of Chris Beard over domestic violence charges that were later dropped and ended with interim coach Rodney Terry consoling a heartbroken team.

“These guys more than any group I’ve worked with in 32 years of coaching have really embodied, in terms of staying the course, being a team,” Terry said, choking up so hard on the postgame dais that he could barely speak. “They were so unselfish as a team, and they gave us everything they had. They really did.”

The Longhorns revealed about 90 minutes before tipoff that Dylan Disu, the Big 12 tourney MVP and early star of the NCAA Tournament, would miss the game with a foot injury. He hurt it in the second round against Penn State and only played about 90 seconds in the Sweet 16 against Xavier before watching the rest of that game in a walking boot.

Without their 6-foot-9 star, the Longhorns’ deep group of dangerous guards resorted to potshots from the perimeter against Miami’s porous defense. Rice hit two 3s early, Carr two of his own, and the Longhorns stormed to a 45-37 halftime lead.

On the other end, Texas tried to keep Pack and Wong from producing a sequel to their 3-point barrage against Houston.

Pack, who dropped seven 3s in the regional semifinal, didn’t even attempt one until there were 7 1/2 minutes left in the first half, and his best shot – a looping rainbow as he fell out of bounds – didn’t even count because it went over the backboard.

Wong took as many shots and scored as many points (two) as he had turnovers in the game’s first 20 minutes.

The Longhorns’ advantage stretched to 13 in the second half, and tension built on the Miami bench. At one point, Harlond Beverly and Larrañaga got into a verbal spat and the 73-year-old coach yanked the backup guard from the game.

Fortunately for the ’Canes, Pack and Wong were poised, Poplar and Miller seemingly possessed.

Still trailing 72-64 with about eight minutes to play, Pack and Wong joined Miller and Omier in turbocharging a 13-3 run to give the Hurricanes a 77-75 lead, their first since the opening minutes. When Rice answered at the other end for Texas, Miller calmly made two go-ahead free throws to begin his late-game parade to the line.

Carr made a nifty turnaround jumper to tie the game again for Texas, but the Miami momentum never slowed. Omier made two free throws with a minute left, swiped the ball from Carr at the other end, and Miller and Co. finished it off.

“We just all bought into staying together, keeping that hope alive,” Miller said, “and the way we just willed this one through, I think everybody played really well, and I think it really shows the poise of this squad.”

San Diego State muscles past Creighton, makes 1st Final Four

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Darrion Trammell converted a go-ahead free throw after he was fouled on a floater with 1.2 seconds left, and San Diego State muscled its way into its first Final Four, grinding out a 57-56 victory over Creighton on Sunday in the NCAA Tournament’s South Region final.

Lamont Butler scored 18 points and Trammell had 12 for the fifth-seeded Aztecs (31-6), who slowed down the high-scoring, sixth-seeded Bluejays (24-13) and became the first Mountain West Conference team to reach the national semifinals.

The experienced Aztecs, in their sixth season under coach Brian Dutcher, will play the surprising East Region champion, ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic, on Saturday in Houston for a spot in the national title game.

With the game tied at 56-all on San Diego State’s final possession, Trammell drove toward the free-throw line, elevated for the shot and was fouled by Creighton’s Ryan Nembhard. Trammell missed the first free throw but converted the second.

Creighton’s Baylor Scheierman threw the ensuing inbound pass the length of the floor. San Diego State’s Aguek Arop and Creighton’s Arthur Kaluma both jumped for it and the ball deflected out of bounds. Officials reviewed the play and determined that time had expired, and the celebration was on for the Aztecs.

Scheierman had tied the game at 56-all when he stole an inbounds pass and converted a layup with 34 seconds remaining.

Ryan Kalkbrenner scored 17 points and Scheierman and Arthur Kaluma had 12 apiece for the Bluejays, who went 2 of 17 from 3-point range.

The Aztecs, who got this far thanks to defense and physical play, held the Bluejays to 23 second-half points on 28% shooting. Creighton shot 40% overall.

San Diego State shot 38% but got clutch baskets from Nathan Mensah, whose jumper gave the Aztecs a 56-54 lead with 1:37 left, and Arop, who made two straight shots to put San Diego State ahead 54-50 with 3:03 remaining.

Creighton, which beat San Diego State in overtime in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, fell just short of joining Big East rival UConn in the Final Four.

Kaluma played against his brother, San Diego State’s Adam Seiko. Their parents sat a few rows up at midcourt, sitting quietly before joining Seiko to celebrate.

UConn routs Gonzaga 82-54 for first Final Four in 9 years

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LAS VEGAS — Jordan Hawkins scored 20 points and UConn overwhelmed its fourth straight NCAA Tournament opponent, earning its first trip to the Final Four in nine years with an 82-54 blowout of Gonzaga on Saturday night.

The Huskies (29-8) have felt right at home in their first extended March Madness run since winning the 2014 national championship, playing their best basketball of what had been an up-and-down season.

“The Big East Conference is the best conference in the country, so we went through some struggles,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “But once we got out of that league and started playing nonconference teams again, we’ve been back to that team that looked like the best team in the country.”

UConn controlled the usually efficient Bulldogs at both ends in the West Region final, building a 23-point lead early in the second half to waltz right into the final section of the bracket.

The Huskies’ two NCAA Tournament first-round exits under Hurley are now well in the rearview mirror.

“If you’re playing for him, you’ve got to play up to that standard or else you’re not going to be out there,” UConn guard Andre Jackson Jr. said.

These elite Huskies did what the UConn women couldn’t for once and are headed to Houston, where they will play either Texas or Miami.

The Bulldogs (31-6) didn’t have the same second-half magic they had in a last-second win over UCLA in the Elite Eight.

Gonzaga allowed UConn to go on a late run to lead by seven at halftime and fell completely apart after All-American Drew Timme went to the bench with his fourth foul early in the second half.

The Zags shot 33% from the field – 7 of 29 in the second half – and went 2 for 20 from 3 to stumble in their bid for a third Final Four since 2017.

Timme had 12 points and 10 rebounds, receiving a warm ovation after being taken out of his final collegiate game with 1:50 left.

Alex Karaban scored 12 points and Adama Sanogo had 10 points and 10 rebounds for UConn.

The Zags started off like they had a Vegas hangover, firing off two air-balled 3-pointers and a wild runner by Timme. Once Gonzaga shook out the cobwebs, the Bulldogs kept the Huskies bridled with defense, with hard hedges on screens and Timme sagging off Jackson to protect the lane.

UConn countered by getting the ball into the strong hands of Sanogo, the facilitator. The UConn big man picked apart Gonzaga’s double-teams for five first-half assists, including two for layups. Karaban hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to put the Huskies up 39-32 at halftime.

It got worse for Gonzaga to start the second half.

UConn pushed the lead to 12 and Timme picked up his third and fourth fouls in the opening 2 1/2 minutes – one on a charge, another on a box-out under the rim.

The Huskies really got rolling when Timme took a seat, using their defense to get out in transition and set up 3-pointers. A 14-3 run put UConn up 60-37 and Gonzaga coach Mark Few took the calculated gamble of bringing Timme back in.

It made little difference.

UConn kept up the pressure and kept making shots, blowing out yet another opponent and looking an awful lot like the favorite to win it all.

UConn’s Final Four streak ends with 73-61 loss to Ohio State

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SEATTLE — UConn’s record Final Four run is over, thanks to a monumental performance by Ohio State.

The Buckeyes ended UConn’s unprecedented streak of reaching 14 consecutive Final Fours, beating the Huskies 73-61 on Saturday in the Sweet 16 of the women’s NCAA Tournament.

“The problem with streaks is the longer they go, you’re closer to it ending than you are to the beginning of it,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It’s just a matter of time. I mean, it’s not if it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of time when it’s going to happen. And it was going to happen sooner rather than later.”

Cotie McMahon scored 23 points for the Buckeyes, who snapped their three-decade Elite Eight drought. The Buckeyes hadn’t made a regional final since 1993, when they eventually lost in the title game to Texas Tech.

“When I had the opportunity to come to Ohio State, this was certainly the goal and the vision to go farther than they have been going,” said coach Kevin McGuff, who had never beaten UConn. “It’s not easy to get here, obviously. But I’m really proud of our team and our program of how we’ve evolved to be able to get to this point.

“Like I said, I mean, I have so much respect for Geno and his staff and all that they have accomplished. So for us to be able to win this game in the Sweet 16 is obviously extremely significant. They’re just hard to beat. They’re so well-coached. So this is a great win for us.”

The third-seeded Buckeyes (28-7) forced No. 2 seed UConn (31-6) into 25 turnovers, ending the Huskies’ season before the national semifinals for the first time in 14 seasons. UConn hadn’t been eliminated this early since 2006.

“It’s an impossibility to do what we have done already,” Auriemma said. “What’s the next highest streak? … And you take that in stride and you say, yeah, it was great while it lasted and it’s a credit to all the players that we had and all the times that you have to perform really, really well at this level.”

Ohio State will play Virginia Tech on Monday night in the Seattle 3 Region final with a trip to Dallas at stake. The Hokies beat Tennessee 73-64.

Ohio State, which had to rally from a double-digit deficit in the first round against James Madison, used full-court pressure to disrupt the Huskies’ offense.

“Our press is what we rely on, and sticking together and talking through it,” said Ohio State’s Jacy Sheldon, who had 17 points and went 10-for-10 from the foul line. “We knew UConn was going to be ready for us, so we knew we were going to have to stay consistent throughout the game.”

This has been the most trying year of Auriemma’s Hall of Fame career. UConn was beset by injuries and illnesses to both players and coaches, including a torn ACL that sidelined star Paige Bueckers all season. It got so bad the Huskies had to postpone a game when they didn’t have enough scholarship players. They also saw their unbelievable run of 30 years without consecutive losses come to an end.

“We picked the worst day to actually be doing the things that we’ve been struggling with all year long,” Auriemma said in a sideline interview during the game.

Lou Lopez Senechal scored 25 points for the Huskies, Azzi Fudd had 14, and Ohio State transfer Dorka Juhasz finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

The Huskies led 17-9 before Ohio State started scoring and turning UConn over with its full-court press. The Buckeyes scored the next 17 points, forcing 11 turnovers during that stretch, which spanned the first and second quarters. UConn had eight turnovers to start the second quarter, leaving Auriemma exasperated on the sideline.

McMahon was converting those turnovers into points for the Buckeyes as the freshman finished the half with 18 points – equaling the number of turnovers the Huskies had in the opening 20 minutes. Ohio State led 36-26 at the break.

This was only the sixth time UConn had trailed by double digits at the half in an NCAA Tournament game, according to ESPN. The Huskies lost all of those.

UConn did a better job of taking care of the ball in the second half and cut the deficit to 44-39 on Senechal’s layup with 3:53 left in the third quarter. Ohio State responded and still led by 10 after three quarters.

The Buckeyes didn’t let the Huskies make any sort of run in the fourth quarter. UConn got within nine with 4:30 left, but McMahon had a three-point play to restore the double-digit lead. The Huskies never threatened after that.

Now the Huskies will start their offseason sooner than any time in the past 17 years.

TIP-INS

This was the first win for Ohio State over UConn in seven tries. The teams’ last meeting was in the 2019-20 regular season. … UConn was a paltry 7-for-15 from the foul line while Ohio State went 22-for-30. … UConn’s season high for turnovers was 27 against Princeton.

THE HOUSE THAT SUE BUILT

The Seattle Regionals are being played in Climate Pledge Arena – home of the Seattle Storm. UConn and Storm great Sue Bird was in the stands, sitting a few rows behind the scorers’ table. She received a loud ovation from the crowd when she was shown midway through the first quarter on the videoboards.

FAMILIAR FOE

Juhasz graduated from Ohio State two years ago and flourished there, earning all-Big Ten honors twice. She came to UConn last year looking for a new challenge and wanting to play for a team that could compete for national championships. She’ll leave without one.

There is a mutual respect between Juhasz and the Buckeyes’ coaching staff.

FAU holds off Nowell and K-State to reach 1st Final Four

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NEW YORK — Alijah Martin, Vlad Goldin and ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic became the first and lowest-seeded team to reach this year’s Final Four as the Owls withstood another huge game by Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell to beat the Wildcats 79-76 on Saturday night.

FAU (35-3), making just its second appearance in the NCAA Tournament, won the East Region at Madison Square Garden and will head to Houston to play the winner of Sunday’s South Region final between Creighton and San Diego State.

In one of the most unpredictable NCAA Tournaments ever – all four No. 1 seeds were out by the Elite Eight – the Owls from Conference USA typified the madness.

“I expect the prognosticators to pick us fifth in the Final Four,” fifth-year FAU coach Dusty May said.

The winningest team in Division I this season had never won an NCAA Tournament game before ripping off four straight, all by single digits, to become the first No. 9 seed to reach the Final Four since Wichita State in 2013 and the third to get that far since seeding began in 1979.

Nowell, the 5-foot-8 native New Yorker, was incredible again at Madison Square Garden, with 30 points, 12 assists and five steals, coming off a Sweet 16 game in which he set the NCAA Tournament record with 19 assists. He didn’t get enough help this time.

Nae’Qwan Tomlin was the only other player in double figures for Kansas State (26-10) with 14 points. Keyontae Johnson, the Wildcats’ leading scorer, fouled out with nine points.

Martin scored 17 points, including a huge 3 down the stretch, the 7-foot-1 Goldin had 14 points and 13 rebounds, and Michael Forrest made four clutch free throws in the final 20 seconds for the Owls, who held steady as the Wildcats made a late push.

Cam Carter made a 3 from the wing with 22.8 seconds left to cut FAU’s lead to 75-74 and Kansas State fouled and sent Forrest to the line with 17.9 seconds left. The senior made both to make it a three-point game.

Nowell found Tomlin inside for a layup with 8.6 seconds left to cut the lead to one again, and again K-State sent Forrest to the line. With 6.9 remaining, he made them both.

With no timeouts left, Nowell rushed down the court, gave up the ball to Ismael Massoud outside the 3-point line, and never got it back. FAU’s Johnell Davis swiped it away and time ran out.

“It was trying to get Ish a shot,” Nowell said. “Coach wanted to Ish to set the screen, and I waved it off because I felt like on the right side of the court, that’s where Ish hits most of his shots. And they closed out hard to him, and he didn’t get his shot off.”

Nowell was named the most outstanding player of the region, but FAU turned out to be the best team. As the Owls built their lead in the final minutes, Kansas State fans who had packed the building became anxiously quiet and the “F-A-U!” chants started to rise.

The Owls rushed the floor to celebrate a historic moment for the school. FAU didn’t even have a basketball program until the late 1980s and has only been in Division I for the last 30 years.

“I’m living the dream right now,” Forrest said.

FAU held up to Tennessee’s bully ball in the Sweet 16 and dropped a 40-point second half on the best defense in the nation to eliminate the Southeastern Conference team.

Against one of the Big 12’s best, FAU dominated the boards, 44-22, and became the first team from C-USA to reach the Final Four since Memphis in 2008.

The Owls aren’t hanging around much longer. They’re moving to the American Athletic Conference next season. But first: a trip to Texas.