Here’s the conundrum that is going to face voters in the top 25 this week: What do you do with Kansas?
When it comes to resume, Kansas probably has the strongest one of any team in the top seven. They’ve beaten Michigan State on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Tennessee on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Marquette on a neutral court. Every win they have in Phog Allen Fieldhouse this year comes against teams ranked in the top 135 on KenPom.
And then there is this: Kansas has beaten Tennessee. Tennessee has beaten Gonzaga. Gonzaga has beaten Duke. Duke, according to some, can beat the Cavs, which officially means that Kansas is a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
Or something like that.
The point is that it makes total sense to rank Kansas No. 1 based on what they’ve accomplished this season, but I think that even the most irrational Kansas fans will cop to the fact that these Jayhawks haven’t come close to hitting their stride yet this season, and that’s before you factor in the loss of Udoka Azuibuike to an ankle injury.
The difference between the top seven teams this season is marginal, particularly if you are not as high on Duke as I am, and while that means there really isn’t all that much difference between Nevada at No. 7 and whoever it is that you are going to rank No. 1, it does mean that a team like Kansas — who is in a bad run of form — drops to sixth in this ranking.
And to be frank, as long as your top seven is, in some order, the same as my top seven, your ranking is probably going to be just fine. I’d quibble with ranking Nevada in the top four, and I think it’s probably silly to have Duke, Tennessee or Gonzaga outside the top four, but there are arguments to justify it all. I’m sure Kansas fans will call me a Duke homer and say that Bill Self must ignore my calls, but the truth of it is that there are a lot of really good teams at the top this year. Parsing through a jumbled mess like that is never easy.
I dropped Kentucky all the way out of the top 25, as I did Kansas State, but I’ll go more in depth on that in the Monday Overreactions column.
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.
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.
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.
No. 2 MICHIGAN at WISCONSIN, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN)
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.