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Shaka Smart’s coaching tree is thriving as his Texas tenure is slow to start

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As Isaac Vann grabbed the final rebound of the night, corralling a loose ball after Matt Coleman’s would-be game-winning three went in and then came back out, Texas head coach Shaka Smart was already heading to the other end of the Erwin Center.

He embraced with VCU coach Mike Rhoades, a dear friend and former assistant. He shook hands with a roster full of Rams, only one of whom, fifth-year senior Michael Gilmore, knew him as anything other than the man that used to coach their program.

The anguish was already imprinted on his face, as the coach that four years ago was tasked with making Texas basketball great again had to choke down another three-game losing streak, the second straight that came at home against a coach that had once called Smart boss. Last Friday, Smart had to go in front of reporters and explain why he had lost to Radford and Mike Jones, the first of six former assistants that have left his staff to take a Division I head coaching job. On Wednesday, he had to explain why a season that just two weeks ago looked so promising had come back to earth so quickly.

On Nov. 23rd, 24 hours after the Longhorns landed a Thanksgiving Day win over North Carolina in which they scored 92 points, Texas had opened up a 25-6 lead on Michigan State. The offensive issues that have plagued Texas from the start of Smart’s tenure were no where to be found, Kerwin Roach looked like a guy heading for the first round of the NBA Draft and the talk of the basketball world was, for a moment, that he had figured it out.

And just that quickly, the moment was gone. Texas would lose by 10 to Michigan State. They would follow that up with the back-to-back losses to Radford and VCU, and here we are, wondering whether or not Texas made the right decision to replace Rick Barnes, who won the SEC with Tennessee last year.

That, however, is not the most interesting question to ask here.

Smart is 41 years old. He has six former assistants that are currently Division I head coaches — Jones, Rhoades, LSU’s Will Wade, Siena’s Jamion Christian, UNC Asheville’s Mike Morrell and FIU’s Jeremy Ballard. That’s the same number as Bill Self, who has won the Big 12 for 14-straight seasons. That’s one more than Billy Donovan and two more than both Tom Izzo and Jay Wright. That’s one less than Mike Krzyzewski and Thad Matta.

How has a man that is at least a decade younger than all six of those national-title winning Hall of Famers managed to churn out head coaches at such a high rate?

And why has his staff become so popular for athletic directors looking to hire a basketball coach?


(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Mike Ellis knew it was only going to be a matter of time. The associate athletic director at VCU, who spent 13 years as an assistant coach at the school, was aware Auburn’s overtures were not the last that Jeff Capel was going to hear. Eventually, he was going to move on to bigger and better things. Eventually, he was going to need to be replaced, and Ellis knew that he needed to be prepared for that day.

So during the 2004 July live period in Las Vegas, he called up a number of administrators he knew would be on the hunt for new coaching blood and invited 33 of the nation’s best-qualified assistant coaches to the Mirage for an informal reception to be held at Villa No. 7.

It was a hit.

“It allowed them to see these coaches in a different setting than they would in a regular interview,” Ellis told NBC Sports. Before long, the event was being held at Nike’s campus in Portland with a guest list that only included the best up-and-coming assistant coaches at Nike-affiliated schools.

It was where, in 2007, then-VCU athletic director Norwood Teague first met a 29-year old Clemson assistant coach named Shaka Smart. Two years later, when Anthony Grant — who was hired to replace the Oklahoma-bound Capel in 2006 — left for Alabama, Teague knew who to call.

Smart by then had been hired by Billy Donovan at Florida.

Teague offered the job to Smart, then 31, and the rest is history.

The event they met at would go on to be named The Villa 7 Consortium.


(Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

We’re now into the fourth year of Smart’s tenure at Texas, and he has yet to get that thing going the way many expected him to.

For four years, he was the hottest name on the coaching carousel. He took a program that played in the CAA from the First Four to the Final Four when he was 33 years old. He then shepherded that program from the CAA to the Atlantic 10 without missing a beat. The Rams were a mainstay in the top 25 in the four years Smart was with the program after the Final Four. He reached the NCAA tournament in his last five seasons in Richmond, the last three as a member of the Atlantic 10. It’s no wonder that brands like UCLA, Marquette and N.C. State came calling.

Smart finally settled on taking the Texas job, but the success has not translated. If he gets things turned around this season he’ll make the tournament for the third time in four years in Austin, but he has yet to win a tournament game with Texas; he hasn’t made it out of the first round since 2013 and has not gotten back to the Sweet 16 since the Final Four run.

The crux of the issue has been on the offensive side of the ball, where Texas finished 177th and 89th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric the last two seasons — they are 99th this season as of this writing — and people in and around college basketball have varying opinions on why that is the case.

Part of it is well beyond Smart’s control. After going 20-13 in his first season in Austin, Smart watched as point guard Isaiah Taylor opted to skip his final year of eligibility to head to the professional ranks. Instead of having a borderline All-American running the show, Smart was left with a talented crop of youngsters that lacked leadership, a natural point guard and an ability to create offense in the halfcourt. It was always going to be a rebuilding year.

The following season, Texas reached the NCAA tournament as Mo Bamba anchored one of the nation’s best defenses, but the program was once again limited offensively due to circumstances beyond Smart’s control: Andrew Jones, their starting point guard and a potential NBA draft pick, was diagnosed with leukemia 10 games into the season and roughly a month after breaking his wrist.

For the second straight season, a team that was already limited offensively was forced to play out the year with a freshman starting at the point.

That’s not the end of it, either. In his second year on the job, Tevin Mack, his leading scorer at the time, left the program 15 games into the season. The following season, Jones was the team’s leading scorer when he was diagnosed. That’s not easy to rebound from.

This year, however, hasn’t been much different. Matt Coleman has struggled. Kerwin Roach put together one of the best single-game performances of the season in the win over North Carolina but has been somewhere between a mess and a disaster in the six other games he’s suited up. The Longhorns have scored 0.835 points-per-possession in the last two games, both of which came at home against teams that rank outside the top 100 on KenPom.

“He is offensively challenged,” one high major coach said of Smart after watching the Longhorns in the last week.

Mohamed Bamba (Chris Covatta/Getty Images)

And that leads me to the other issue that Smart has had at Texas: The players don’t stay around long enough.

Talk to anyone that was in or around Smart’s VCU program, and they will tell you that the crux of his success was that his roster was made up of tough, overlooked kids playing with a chip on their shoulder and willing to run through a wall for Smart because they knew Smart would run through a wall for them.

“One of the things at VCU that coach would harp on us to look for was competitive spirit,” Mike Morrell said. Now the head coach at UNC Asheville, Morrell spent more time working for Smart’s than anyone. He was a GA at Clemson when Smart was an assistant, and he spent seven years on staff at VCU and Texas as everything from a DOBO to a full-time assistant. “Competitiveness and enthusiasm are things that are important to him, and that was most evident at VCU.”

This was a priority for Smart.

And it showed up in the way the program played.

We all know about ‘Havoc’, the name that gets associated with the pressing defense that Smart employed at VCU. But listen to the people that worked for him at VCU, and Havoc was about more than just a 1-2-1-1 press.

“Havoc was a lifestyle,” Morrell said. “Havoc was a culture. It was a mentality that those guys had every day, and that was a direct, direct product of Coach Smart.”

And he was able to build that culture, that lifestyle, because he was able to spend four or five years with the guys he brought into the program. While Smart made his mark by finding the players no one else believed to be good enough, there was still top talent on the roster. Three of guys from those VCU teams are still hanging around the NBA — Troy Daniels, Briante Weber and Treveon Graham — and even more are cashing paychecks while playing overseas.

But their success wasn’t the result of simply having better basketball players than their opponents.

It was a direct result of Smart’s greatest strength as a coach, the thing he does better than just about anyone in college basketball, the part of his program that is the priority: His ability to build relationships and connect with the people that he works with every day.


(Chris Covatta/Getty Images)

Depending on who you ask, The Villa 7 Consortium was either a great way for athletic directors and young up-and-coming assistants to connect, or it was Nike’s way to push certain coaching candidates that they had close ties with to the front of the line.

The truth is somewhere in the middle — yes, Nike favored their guys, but they also created a venue for coaches like Smart, or Buzz Williams, or Kevin Keatts to be able to sell themselves to employers.

What everyone seems to agree on, however, is that VCU’s association with Villa 7 impacted the perception of the coaches on that staff. An assistant coach working at the school that created one of the premier networking events in the business had to know what they were doing when it comes to hiring assistants, right? Add to that the fact that VCU has been one of the best basketball programs outside the power conferences since Capel arrived in 2002, and it only made sense that athletic directors would be looking to that staff to make hires. It’s not a coincidence that all nine assistant coaches that worked at VCU from 2007-2014 are Division I head coach at this very moment. That doesn’t even count Smart, Capel or Anthony Grant.

But there’s more to it than that.

Because the hires that Smart has made weren’t simply based off of who the hot name was at Villa 7.

On his first staff at VCU, he reached down to the Division III ranks to hire Rhoades, who had spent a decade as the head coach of a powerhouse Randolph-Macon program. He was hired after the two missed the 2009 Final Four games as they talked their way through a dinner in Detroit. When Jones took the Radford job, Smart was coming off of a trip to the Final Four and could have hired just about anyone. He looked 45 minutes down I-95 and hired Jamion Christian, who began his coaching career at Division III Emory & Henry, off of William & Mary’s staff. In nine months, Christian was the head coach at his alma mater, Mt. St. Mary’s. He was never a part of the Villa 7 program. Neither was Morrell.

“I played Division III,” Smart told me in July. He had just finished up a search for Morrell’s replacement on his staff at Texas, hiring Neill Berry away from Iowa State. “I never put a whole lot of stock into what level a guy is coming from. One thing that has been, not frustrating, but humbling, I know that there is some guy out there in Division II or Division III, or high school even, that would be perfect. I just don’t know who he is. The thing is, as I get older, I get a little bit further away from knowing who all those young guys are. So it gets harder.”

Shaka Smart with Joey Rodriguez in 2011 (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Like every coach in the country, Smart keeps a list of the good, young assistants. He also keeps a list of everything that is important to him in an assistant. He has it written on a notecard. He keeps a picture of that notecard on his phone. And while he opted not to show me what was on the list, he did say that there were about ten responsibilities that he prioritized in an assistant, and that none of them were more important than the ability to build relationships.

He wants to hire well-rounded people. He wants coaches that understand how to run offense, that know how a press works, that have the recruiting connections that will get players while being capable of making proper evaluations, understanding which of those players will fit in his program. He makes a point of having everyone on his staff have a hand in every aspect of running a program.

“I remember vividly in practice him not [running] every single drill,” said Joey Rodriguez, the starting point guard of Smart’s Final Four team. “Every coach is really involved, and he gives them time to handle what’s going on in practice. He splits up scouts to all his assistants and does what they believe.”

Coaches, like players, need to be developed, and Smart gives them a chance to grow on his staff.

But none of that was as important as “spending time.” That’s a term that Smart learned while working under Keith Dambrot at Akron. Dambrot was something of a screamer in those days, the kind of coach that would break players down in practice. After every practice, he required his assistant coaches to spend at least 10 minutes in the locker room with the players, helping to build them back up. Except they weren’t in there to talk about basketball. They were there to talk about everything else. Girlfriends, schoolwork, family problems, life goals.

“I don’t do that the way he does, because I think that the locker room needs to be their space most of the time, but just the concept of spending time with guys, I got that from Keith,” Smart said.

It worked.

Christian said that one of his first days on the job, he walked into the gym 45 minutes after a practice and saw Smart sitting on the floor at center court talking with Dareus Theus. Rodriguez was blown away at how Smart was able to bring the team closer together even though he had just joined the program. During that first summer, Rodriguez said the gym that they would work out in didn’t have air conditioning, but that didn’t stop the entire team from showing up during individuals.

Mike Rhoades (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

“Our whole team was there hanging out, watching the workouts,” he said. “You don’t really see that a lot. We’d be there for four straight hours, watching our friends work out, talking, chilling, supporting.”

“Everyone says they want to foster a family atmosphere,” Rodriguez added. “He really does it.”

The family atmosphere wasn’t just within the program.

Few cities have embraced the culture of a college basketball program the way that the city of Richmond embraced VCU and Havoc.

It’s something athletic directors tried to mimic. When Will Wade was hired by Chattanooga, he created ‘Chaos.’ Christian did the same at Mt. St. Mary’s, coining the term ‘Mayhem.’ Neither slogan took off, but the basketball programs did. Wade twice finished second in the SoCon and, within two years, had built up enough of a resume to get the VCU job when Smart left. He went to two straight NCAA tournaments — and won a regular season conference title with the Rams, something Smart has never done in his coaching career — before getting scooped up by LSU in 2017.

Christian never had a losing record in NEC play in six seasons at his alma mater. He made two NCAA tournaments in a four-year span and was hired by Siena this spring. Rhoades dragged the Rice basketball program out of the gutter, won 23 games in 2016-17 and was hired by VCU to replace Wade. Jones was in danger of losing his job at one point, but he reached the 2018 NCAA tournament and has now beaten both Texas and Notre Dame on the road this season.

Smart may not be having the success that he would like in Austin, but the coaches that have been hired off of his staff have unquestionably been successful. Morrell and Ballard were just hired this spring, but of the other four, three have already moved on to bigger and better jobs.


Shaka Smart coaches Andrew Jones(Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

So where does this leave Smart and the Texas program?

He’s in a tough spot.

The way that he needs to recruit at Texas is to land four- and five-star prospects. He’s done that. He brought in Jarrett Allen. He brought in Andrew Jones. He landed Matt Coleman and Mo Bamba. He beat out the likes of Kentucky for Jaxson Hayes.

The problem, however, is that those players don’t end up staying around all that long. His core coaching philosophy, the thing that he does better than anyone else, is to connect with his players, to get them to play harder than anyone that they face. That works at VCU, where his best recruits are going to be in town for four years. It’s not quite as simple at Texas, where the guys that are there for four years haven’t proven to be talented or consistent enough; where the guys that are good enough turn pro after a year or two.

There’s still plenty of time for Smart to get this thing turned around at Texas, to show that he can make it work at that level.

What has become abundantly clear, however, is that the way he runs his program, the way he teaches the people on his staff to coach, can thrive at the lower levels of the sport.

And that isn’t going to change.

Best Bets: Is it time to go all-in on Virginia at Duke?

AP Photo/Steve Helber
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Here is everything you need to know when betting the biggest games this weekend.

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

No. 4 VIRGINIA at No. 1 DUKE, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Duke 71, Virginia 69
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Duke 73, Virginia 70

The biggest game of the weekend got a lot more interesting with Tre Jones suffering a shoulder injury and likely being forced to miss the game. Jones may be the fourth-best freshman on this Duke team, but he’s arguably the most valuable and certainly the most irreplaceable player on the roster.

Without him, I think this is Virginia’s game to win, even in Cameron Indoor Stadium, a building that Virginia won in last season.

And it all stems from the way that Duke wants to play.

The dirty little secret with this Duke team is that they are not all that good in the halfcourt, and they are even worse when they are forced to play in late-clock scenarios. On the season, the Blue Devils have scored 0.923 points-per-possession (PPP)* in halfcourt possessions (97th nationally) and 0.763 PPP in short-clock scenarios (130th nationally), but they are scoring 1.161 PPP in transition with 23.9 percent of their total possessions coming in transition. Only ten teams have played a higher percentage of their offensive possessions on the break, and North Carolina is the only high major among them.

Virginia, on the other hand, is specifically designed to avoid playing in transition as much as possible. They’ll typically fade the offensive glass, sending three players back and ensuring that the game will be played at their pace. In total, 88.9 percent of Virginia’s defensive possessions have been played in the half court, which is the fourth-highest total of 353 Division I basketball teams; Michigan is the only high-major that has faced fewer transition possessions while Texas Tech is the only team in the country that can better Virginia’s 0.713 PPP allowed in halfcourt defense.

And that’s before we get into the issue of three-point shooting.

Virginia is famous for running the Pack-Line Defense, which, as I explained in full detail here, is built around two core concepts: 1) The player guarding the man with the ball is to provide intense ball-pressure well beyond the three-point line while 2) The other four help defenders are to all be within an imaginary, 16-foot arc. What this does is encourage penetration into those help-defenders, known as ‘The Pack’, forcing kick-outs to spot-up shooters who will have to take a jumper with a defender running at them.

Or, more simply, don’t allow penetration into the paint or baseline and contest all jumpshots from the perimeter.

There is not a worse matchup for Duke than this.

For starters, we know all about their issues shooting from the perimeter. They were shooting 33 percent from three before going 9-for-43 from beyond the arc against Syracuse. And then there are the issues that R.J. Barrett has with overdribbling into help. We saw what happened at the end of the Gonzaga game. Barrett has been better, but the Syracuse loss was another perfect example of this. The Orange play zone instead of Pack-Line, but they basically did the same thing defensively Virginia will do: Pack big bodies in the lane to limit Zion Williamson’s effectiveness and give Barrett no space to drive, dare Duke to win with kickout threes to Reddish, Jack White and Alex O’Connell.

And this is where the loss of Jones plays a major factor in this game.

One of the problems is that it will either force Jordan Goldwire to play or, as it did on Monday night, push Barrett into the point guard role. That’s not ideal, because Goldwire isn’t good enough and Barrett is wired to score; he’s better playing off the ball than on the ball. Hopefully, this will mean Duke decides to unleash Reddish at the point, but I’m not convinced that will happen.

The bigger story, however, is on the defensive side of the ball. Jones is such a menace. He creates so many turnovers that lead to easy buckets at the other end — pick-six turnovers, if you will — but it’s more than just that. His ball pressure forces opposing point guards to chew up clock getting the ball over halfcourt. Then they are forced to initiate offense 40-feet away from the rim with their back to the basket to protect the ball from Jones’ pesky hands. By the time they are finally running action, the shot clock is starting to run down. This creates more rushed shots, lower efficiency offense and more misses. Those misses lead to more opportunities for Duke in transition — Williamson grab-and-go’s, Barrett or Reddish leading the break, long rebounds creating 3-on-2s or 2-on-1s, etc. — which takes the scoring burden off of executing in the halfcourt.

This is the worst possible matchup for a healthy Duke team, and the absolute worst possible team to face without Jones.

*All stats via Synergy

PICKS: The lines are going to be fascinating to see when they come out, but if Virginia is getting points, I will hammer them. I’ll probably bet them even if the line comes out as, say, Virginia (-3). I also think that, assuming the total ends up around 140 or so, the under will be a good bet as well.

(AP Photo/Justin Hayworth)

TCU at KANSAS STATE, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: TCU 66, Kansas State 65
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: TCU 70, Kansas State 61

It’s not the biggest game of the weekend, but it is the one that I feel the most confident in how it will play out, which is why the line on this game is going to be fascinating to see. TCU has been better than Kansas State this year, which is why both KenPom and Haslametrics are projecting the Horned Frogs to go into the Octagon of Doom and get a win. But TCU also just lost their fourth player to transfer this year — Jaylen Fisher — while Kansas State is playing their best basketball of the season, having won at Iowa State and Oklahoma in the last week. That coincided with the return of Dean Wade, their best offensive player and the only guy on the roster than can be thought of as a dangerous three-point shooter.

Vegas knows all of that.

But then there’s this: Barry Brown Jr. is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country. In three games against TCU last season, Kansas State won twice (at home, in the Big 12 tournament) and in those three games, Robinson — the engine of TCU’s offense — finished with 17 assists and 18 turnovers. On the season, he had a 2.6:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

And then there’s this: In 47 games since the start of the 2017-18 season, Robinson has played 47 games and turned the ball over more than five times in just three of them. Two of those games came against Kansas State.

PICKS: I expect this line to open somewhere around Kansas State (-3), which is a line I would love.

No. 12 KENTUCKY at No. 14 AUBURN, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Auburn 74, Kentucky 70
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Auburn 74, Kentucky 70

A matchup between the two teams vying for second in an SEC that is currently being dominated by Tennessee will make for one of the more entertaining matchups of the weekend, but it’s a game that is pretty difficult to figure out.

Let’s start with the obvious: Kentucky is horrid at running teams off the three-point line. On the season, they’re allowing opponents to shoot 36.3 percent from beyond the arc (270th nationally), and more than 36 percent of the points that they have given up this season have come from three (52nd-highest). Those numbers come after Kentucky held Vanderbilt and Georgia to a combined 11-for-51 from three in the last two games. Auburn shoots 46.1 percent of their field goals from deep, and only 18 teams — and just three high-majors — score a higher percentage of their points from three than Auburn does.

That would usually make me lean towards the Auburn side here, but it is also worth noting just how important Jared Harper is to the Tigers at the point guard spot, and Kentucky just so happens to have Ashton Hagans on their roster. Hagans is as good on the ball as any defender in the country. Hagans shut down North Carolina’s Coby White, held Alabama’s Kira Lewis to 4-for-14 shooting, forced Texas A&M’s T.J. Starks into five turnovers without an assist (he did have 18 points on 7-for-15 shooting) and kept Vanderbilt and Georgia’s guards from getting going. I should also note that Louisville’s Christen Cunningham had one of his best games against Kentucky.

So I don’t know what to make of this.

PICKS: Both KenPom and Haslametrics are projecting the same score on Saturday, and if the line is Auburn (-4) I think I would probably lean towards the Kentucky side — I just think the Wildcats are a better team, I’m not buying Auburn this year — but I will be staying away personally.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

No. 2 MICHIGAN at WISCONSIN, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Michigan 63, Wisconsin 62
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Michigan 64, Wisconsin 60

Michigan is going to get a serious test on Saturday, as they head to the Kohl Center as one of just two undefeated teams left in college basketball. Since pounding Villanova in the second week of the season, Michigan has played just two road games, and one of those two was on Dec. 4th. John Beilein’s team has overwhelmed people at home, but they only beat Northwestern by two (the Wildcats had a shot to win it at the buzzer) at their place and beat Illinois by 10.

Wisconsin, however, has not been good of late. They’ve lost four of their last five games, including home dates with Minnesota and Purdue. They’ve really struggled to get things going offensively at times as well, scoring just 14 first half points against Minnesota and 15 first half points against Maryland. The last thing you want to do is start slow against Michigan’s vaunted defense.

PICKS: The computer models really like Wisconsin despite the fact that they are just 11-6 on the year. The Badgers are 17th in KenPom, which is probably too high. The problem, however, is that I have a hard time seeing a situation where this isn’t a close, grind-it-out game played in the 50s. Michigan has a top three defense and hasn’t had a road test like this year this year. Wisconsin has a top 15 defense and hasn’t been able to score against worse teams. Both teams fade the offensive glass. Neither of them turn the ball over. Both play at a pace that ranks in the bottom 30 nationally.

If the total ends up being in the mid-to-high 120s, I think the under is probably my favorite bet. (When Wisconsin played Virginia, the final score was 53-46.) I’ll probably stay away from the line unless it is Michigan (-1), a pick-em or Wisconsin is favored; then I’ll be on Michigan.

No. 19 MARYLAND at OHIO STATE, Fri. 6:30 p.m. (FS1)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Ohio State 70, Maryland 67
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Maryland 69, Ohio State 67

Ohio State comes into this one on a three-game losing streak while Maryland own sole possession of second place in the Big Ten race with a 6-1 record. The Terps have won six in a row as Anthony Cowan has thrived playing in a role off the ball and Bruno Fernando has been dominant in the paint.

PICKS: Personally, I just think that the Terps are a much better basketball team that Ohio State is. All due respect to Chris Holtmann, but that team has been playing above their level all season long, and frankly, wins at Cincinnati, at Creighton and over UCLA don’t look as good now as they did at the time. My only concern is that the Buckeyes have Kaleb Wesson, and he’ll be able to ensure that Fernando does not wear anyone down in the paint.

The line here is going to be interesting. KenPom is projecting it at Maryland (+3), at which point I would be all over the Terps. But Haslametrics has it at Maryland (-2), which I probably will stay away from.

No. 25 INDIANA at PURDUE, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (FOX)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Purdue 75, Indiana 69
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Purdue 76, Indiana 70

This will be a fun rivalry game between two Big Ten brands that are in something of a rebuilding year. The Hoosiers have now lost three in a row (at Michigan, at Maryland, Nebraska at home) with two of those three coming by double-digits. Purdue, on the other hand, has won five of their last six games with the only loss coming on the road against Michigan State in a game where Carsen Edwards shot like was Carsen Daly.

PICKS: Mackey Arena is a mad house for big games, and I don’t expect anything less on Saturday. The question you need to ask is whether or not you think Indiana can slow down Edwards. I don’t think that the Boilermakers have the defenders to keep Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan from getting their’s, and Indiana has proven that they can be really good at running teams off of the three-point line — threes are where Purdue butters their bread on the offensive end. Lead guards have been able to get it going against Indiana this year, so I think Edwards will as well.

If this line opens at Purdue (-6), I’d probably lean towards Purdue.

No. 8 TEXAS TECH at BAYLOR, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Texas Tech 63, Baylor 59
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Texas Tech 64, Baylor 55

The Red Raiders too, their first loss of the season on Wednesday night at home against Iowa State. The Cyclones have quite a bit of talent on the perimeter and the way they play, they can stretch a defense with some shooting and with playmakers. Baylor ranks 286th nationally in three-point percentage (although they have been shooting it well in league play) and turn the ball over a ton. That plays right into Tech’s hands.

PICKS: Tech is the best defensive team in the country this season, but they struggle to score the ball. This means they are going to be in tight games every single night in a league where, frankly, just about every team is more or less built the same way. Throw in Baylor’s zone defense, which can be tough to crack, and my guess is that the Red Raiders once again find themselves in a defensive battle.

Where this line opens will determine who I bet. If it is Tech (-4), like KenPom predicts, I’d lean Tech. If it’s Baylor (+9), I’d probably be on Baylor. Either way, if the total gets up into the mid-120s, I think the under is the clear best bet here.

No. 7 KANSAS at WEST VIRGINIA, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kansas 78, West Virginia 72
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Kansas 83, West Virginia 69

West Virginia is not very good this year.

At all.

Kansas has won three straight and is starting to figure things out without Udoka Azubuike.

PICKS: The x-factor is Sagaba Konate. If he plays, I’d be less inclined to bet Kansas, because that rim protection makes West Virginia’s defense work better than it has. But frankly, I don’t have a ton of respect for the Press Virginia system right now, and while Morgantown has been a bit of a bugaboo for Kansas over the years, this is a different WVU. If the line is Kansas (-6), as KenPom suggests, hammer it.

ALABAMA at No. 3 TENNESSEE, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Tennessee 85, Alabama 70
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Tennessee 90, Alabama 71

Tennessee has been able to simply overpower the lesser teams in the SEC this season, and on paper, Alabama is a lesser team. The question you have to ask is just how much of a “lesser” team is Alabama. They have NBA talent on their roster and, as they showed against Kentucky, they have some dudes on the roster that can take over a game.

PICKS: Based on the projections, this looks like it will be a pretty large spread. Tennessee (-15) is a lot of points, and I might be tempted to take the Vols to cover. I’ll probably pass, personally, but the Vols would be the better bet.

Thursday’s Things To Know: No. 6 Michigan State outlasts Nebraska, Ja Morant dunks all over the OVC and the Pac-12 has a sole leader

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There wasn’t a matchup of top-25 teams Thursday, but there were competitive games across the country, starting in Lincoln with Michigan State and Nebraska and ending in Tempe with Oregon State and Arizona State. Pl, there was a dunk that may have qualified as national emergency. Here’s what you need to know:

NO. 6 MICHIGAN STATE STAYS PERFECT IN THE B1G WITH WIN AT NEBRASKA

Nebraska looked like it had the sixth-ranked Spartans on the ropes in Lincoln with the score knotted at 44 just inside the midpoint of the second half. Then, though, Michigan State ripped off a 7-0 run and never looked back – despite an ugly final minute – to claim a 70-64 win over the Huskers to move to 16-2 on the year and 7-0 in the Big Ten.

The win is most notable for the Spartans as it once again came without the services of Joshua Langford or Nick Ahrens, both of whom continue to be sidelined with injuries. With both on the shelf, Cassius Winston put together a game to bolster his player of the year candidacy, scoring a career-best 29 points on 9 of 15 shooting while dishing out six assists and grabbing three rebounds. Winston doesn’t have the game that always pops off the TV screen, but he’s the type of veteran point guard that can help propel a team to a national title, especially if Langford comes back healthy and productive.

For the Huskers, it’s certainly not a bad loss given Michigan State’s profile, but the opportunity cost has to sting. Last year Tim Miles’ team racked up wins, but missed out on the tournament because not enough of them were of the quality variety. Here, they had a top-10 team staggered with less than 10 minutes to play at home but couldn’t close the deal. The good news for them is they’ve already got a couple of nice wins on the resume, but most importantly the B1G isn’t the wasteland it was last year, leaving them with bountiful opportunities to pick up meaningful victories before March. To do that, though, they can’t have James Palmer, Jr. going 6 of 21 from the floor like he did against the Spartans. To Palmer’s credit, though, he got to the line 11 times and made every attempt to finish with 24 points while grabbing eight rebounds and recording three assists. Shooting 5 of 26 (19.6 percent) from 3-point range won’t win you too many games, either.

STAY OUT OF JA MORANT’S WAY

If you wanna jump with Ja Morant, God bless you, but it ain’t going to work out well for you. Eastern Illinois learned that lesson Thursday as Morant unleashed yet another must-see dunk.

On top of that, the future lottery pick had 27 points and nine assists while shooting 11 of 16 from the floor and 4 of 5 from 3-point range. He’s an unsolvable problem for the OVC.

WASHINGTON IS ALONE IN FIRST IN THE PAC-12

Congratulations to the Washington Huskies, the last remaining undefeated in Pac-12 play. It may not be an honor, but it’s something, at least.

Mike Hopkins’ team blasted Stanford (80-64) while Arizona lost at home to Oregon (59-54) and Oregon State was behind big before making things tight in Tempe and eventually losing to Arizona State (70-67), which has now won three of four. There’s been plenty written about the Pac-12, but the league continues to do itself damage, most notable with the Wildcats taking a loss in Tuscon to a depleted Ducks team. That’s not going to do much for the conference’s reputation or their own NCAA tournament resume.

Zach Norvell leads No. 5 Gonzaga over Loyola Marymount 73-55

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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Zach Norvell Jr. scored 17 points and No. 5 Gonzaga used a stout defense to beat Loyola Marymount 73-55 on Thursday night, the eighth consecutive win for the Bulldogs since a pair of losses knocked them out of the top spot in The AP Top 25.

Brandon Clarke added 13 points, Corey Kispert 12 and Rui Hachimura 10 for Gonzaga (17-2, 4-0 West Coast), which beat Loyola Marymount for the 20th straight time. The Zags have won 18 straight games at home.

James Batemon led Loyola Marymount (13-5, 1-3) with 12 points.

Loyola used a slow-down offense and stingy defense to keep the scoring low, and it mostly accomplished that goal.

Gonzaga, which averages 92 points a game, led just 17-16 midway through the first half.

The Zags went on a 19-6 run the rest of the half to take a 36-22 lead at halftime. The Lions shot only 36 percent in the first and committed 11 turnovers.

A 3-pointer by Norvell highlighted a 14-2 Gonzaga run to open the second half that lifted the Bulldogs to a 50-24 lead. Meanwhile, the Lions were missing eight of their first 10 shots.

Loyola Marymount made just five of its first 20 shots in the second half, and fell behind 61-35 with less than 8 minutes left.

BIG PICTURE

Loyola Marymount: The Lions opened the season 11-1, but have dropped off since … The Lions ranked 13th in the NCAA in defense at 61.2 points per game … Their last win in this lop-sided series was in 2010. They have not won in Spokane since 1991 … The Lions have already surpassed last season’s 11 wins.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs are cruising toward another WCC title, outscoring conference foes by nearly 30 points per game… The Zags suffered back-to-back losses to No. 3 Tennessee and at No. 13 North Carolina in mid-December and have not lost since … They lead the nation in field goal shooting at 52.6 percent and are second in scoring at 92.2 points per game … Gonzaga and Marquette are the only programs with both men’s and women’s teams in the Top 15.

UP NEXT

Loyola Marymount hosts Pepperdine on Saturday.

Gonzaga plays at last place Portland on Saturday.

Cassius Winston’s career-high 29 lifts No. 6 Spartans over Huskers

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Four nights after Tom Izzo called out Cassius Winston for his poor play in Michigan State’s previous game, the Spartans’ star point guard responded better than his coach would have expected.

Winston scored a career-high 29 points to go over 1,000 for his career, had six assists and played tough defense on Glynn Watson Jr. while leading No. 6 Michigan State past Nebraska 70-64 on Thursday night.

“I told him before the game, ‘You’re going to get measured on how you bounce back,’ ” Izzo said.

Winston more than passed the test.

“Cassius, the way he ran that whole thing, he was like a quarterback dissecting a defense,” Izzo said.

In a win at Penn State on Sunday, Winston had seven turnovers, and his 11 points were his fewest since Florida held him to 10 on Dec. 8. Izzo told reporters it was one of the worst games Winston had played in his three seasons.

Of the Spartans’ first 18 field goals against Nebraska, Winston scored eight of them and had assists on five others. He held Watson, the Huskers’ hottest player the last week, to 3-of-13 shooting from the field and eight points.

Izzo’s criticism motivated him, he said.

“Just get back on track, playing at the level I was playing at,” Winston said. “I want to play at the highest standard, my best ability. I’ve got to do that for this team and put us in the best situation.”

Michigan State (16-2, 7-0) won its 11th straight game overall and extended its school-record Big Ten winning streak to 19 games. The Cornhuskers (13-5, 3-4) had their school-record 20-game home win streak end.

Nick Ward added 15 points and 10 rebounds for his second straight double-double. He also made his first 3-pointer of the season and second of his career.

“That should keep him happy for a week or 10 days,” Izzo said.

The Spartans led by 12 points in the final 2 minutes, but Nebraska cut the lead to four twice before Matt McQuaid made a pair of free throws for his first points with 14.2 seconds to put the game away.

Nebraska shot a season-low 32.8 percent and was just 5 of 26 on 3-pointers, 1 of 12 in the second half.

“I wasn’t very pleased with our offense in any way, shape or form,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said.

James Palmer, who led Nebraska with 24 points, struggled mightily from the field, going 6 of 21, but he made all 11 of his free throws.

“Palmer’s a good player, and I feel like I did a pretty good job on him,” McQuaid said. “I just tried to do what I could. He’s a bigger, more physical guard. I tried to get a couple charges, but things weren’t going my way. So I had to figure out different ways to guard him.”

Nebraska had hoped to build off its win at No. 25 Indiana on Monday night but couldn’t get going. The Huskers were trying for their first win over a top-10 opponent in nine tries.

“You need to build and play from the front against these teams,” Miles said.

He found no consolation in playing the Spartans close for most of the game, which had 11 lead changes and six ties.

“There are no moral victories,” Miles said. “I’m utterly mad and disappointed.”

BIG PICTURE

Michigan State: This was a gut-check win for the Spartans, who were without Joshua Langford (ankle) for a fifth straight game and Kyle Ahrens (back) for a second in a row.

Nebraska: The Huskers were feeling pretty good about themselves after an impressive win at No. 25 Indiana on Monday, and they had an amped standing-room crowd on hand. But they could never find rhythm until it was too late against the nation’s No. 3 team in field-goal defense.

HE SAID IT

“We were paranoid of this game. They didn’t make shots tonight. Those things happen sometimes. Tim’s got a great team that’s going to be an NCAA Tournament team, and I hope they keep on winning now.” — Izzo.

UP NEXT

Michigan State hosts No. 19 Maryland on Monday.

Nebraska visits Rutgers on Monday.

WATCH: Ja Morant can’t be stopped

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The Ohio Valley Conference is just not equipped to deal with Ja Morant.

The Murray State guard just keeps dunking on anyone and everyone that stands in his way, the latest victim coming Thursday night at Eastern Illinois.

There’s just so much to love about this dunk. The athleticism. The explosiveness. The aggressiveness. The ferocity. It’s thunder meeting lightning at the rim.

If there’s someone who can stop Morant, a likely top-10 pick in June, it sure ain’t in the OVC.

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