Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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?

MOREPreseason Top 25 | NBC Sports All-Americans | Preview Schedule

MOREMid-Major Power Rankings The Hot Seat | Perry Ellis All-Stars

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)
RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games

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

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

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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’

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
3 Comments

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

Harry How/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
1 Comment

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

AP Photo/Gerry Broome
1 Comment

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.