Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Best Bets: Breaking college basketball’s title contenders into tiers

Leave a comment

Over the course of the next two days, we will be diving into the best teams in the country and breaking them down into tiers.

Tomorrow, we will dive into the Final Four sleepers and the teams that are good enough to win six games in March and flawed enough to fail to get out of the first round of the tournament. 

Today, we will take a look at the six elite teams in college hoops as well as three more teams that are on the verge of being elite.

Let’s get into it:

THE ELITE OF THE ELITE

DUKE (+200)

THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: They’re the best team in the country.

Do I really need to break this down?

OK, I will.

Zion Williamson is the best player in college basketball and has proven, over and over again, to be the most unstoppable force in college hoops. R.J. Barrett may very well be the second-best player in college basketball. At the very least he is absolutely the best player in the country that is the second-best player on his own team. Playing without their starting point guard, these two combined to put 57 points on Virginia on 21-for-35 shooting, which is not something that happens.

And I still haven’t mentioned the other two lottery picks on their roster, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones.

As I said, they’re the best team in the country.

BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: They can be beaten by teams that control pace, pack in their defense and force Duke to try and make shots over the top. That’s exactly what Syracuse did to win in Cameron, and it’s what Virginia tried to do last Saturday. The Blue Devils shooting just 31.2 percent from three as a team, and their two best shooters — Reddish and Jack White — are both dealing with confidence issues.

WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Tre Jones returning will help because it will reduce the reliance that Duke has on scoring in the halfcourt. Reddish and White finding their three-point stroke will help as well, but it might not even matter. Duke has the talent to win six games in March with or without their shooters shooting.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

TENNESSEE (+1000)

THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: There aren’t three teams in college basketball with a group of guys that are more bought into the collective than Tennessee. Everyone on this roster understands, embraces and excels in the role they are being asked to play, and there’s not better example of this than Jordan Bowden. The junior guard started as a freshman, started as a sophomore and started the first five games of this season before Rick Barnes made a change, sending Bowden to the bench and moving Yves Pons into the starting lineups. Bowden didn’t complain. He accepted his role as a microwave scorer off the bench, and he’s thriving: In five games in SEC play, he’s averaging a team-high 17.6 points while shooting 45 percent from three.

Now to be clear, there is plenty on talent on this roster. Grant Williams going to be a first-team all-american and will play in the NBA while Admiral Schofield could end up being a first round pick this year, but that’s not why they’re so dangerous. It’s because they’re old, they have all that talent and all of their pieces do their job without complaining. It’s hard to beat that.

BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: I don’t know if they have a game-changing talent, and winning six straight games in March against some of the best teams in the country often requires that. As much as I love Schofield, what makes him so valuable is his switchability defensively and the way he can shoot the ball from deep. He’s not necessarily a guy you can give the rock to and trust that he’ll create a shot. Williams has been better this year at getting his — and he is a greatly improved passer — but he was not the guy that took over in Tennessee’s two biggest games this season. (Part of that is because he fouled out of both, which is another concern — he’s fouled out of four games already this year.)

WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Honestly, not too much. I’m sure Rick Barnes would like to see Jordan Bone shooting it better than 26.7 percent from three. I’m also sure he’d like to see Williams chill out with some of the excessive fouling. But beyond that, Tennessee is an efficient machine that is second nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and more or less matchup proof defensively.

(AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

VIRGINIA (+800)

THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: This year, Virginia is essentially matchup-proof.

This was a concern for them entering the season. We didn’t know if they were going to get Braxton Key eligible or whether or not there was any backcourt depth on the roster. Key got his waiver, but the emergence of Kihei Clark as a legitimate ACC-caliber starter has been just as important.

Suddenly, Virginia has more lineup versatility than I can ever remember a Tony Bennett team having. If they want to go big, they can play De’Andre Hunter at the three, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome in the backcourt and Mamadi Diakite alongside Jack Salt up front. If they simply need athleticism and length on the floor, Diakite can slide over to the five alongside Hunter and Key. If they want to move Jerome off the ball or are forced to play small, Clark can handle point guard duties. And I haven’t even mentioned next year’s breakout star, Jay Huff.

And perhaps most importantly, they proved in the loss at Duke that they can hang with anyone on any court even if they are taken out of what they want to do offensively. I’m all-in on Virginia.

BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Without relying too much on narratives, the single biggest hurdle this team is going to face is the mental side of things. I don’t know how they’re going to handle the onslaught of attention that comes their way once the NCAA tournament starts. The “Virginia is for chokers” crowd will be incessant, and the way they react to someone, at some point, putting a run on them in March will be fascinating. I think this team is mentally strong enough to handle that — and frankly, if we’re rooting for the best story, seeing Virginia turn this around and win a title a year after suffering the biggest indignity in college basketball history would be amazing — but that’s heavy.

WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: I’d love to see Bennett use his most athletic lineup more often — Jerome, Guy, Hunter, Key, Diakite — but as of today, Virginia not only has the second-best adjusted efficiency margin in KenPom’s database, they are the only team in the country that is ranked in the top five of both KenPom’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency metrics. They’re effing good.

(AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

GONZAGA (+700)

THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: The Zags have the nation’s most high-powered offense and are arguably the most talented team in the country this side of Duke. There are five players on the roster that are a threat to put up 20 points on any given night, and that doesn’t include Geno Crandall — who scored 28 on Gonzaga last season as a member of North Dakota — or future WCC Player of the Year Corey Kispert.

There is no player in college basketball that can get hot the way that Zach Norvell gets hot. He is the best big-shot-maker in the sport. Rui Hachimura is the team’s leading scorer and a dynamic combo-forward that has made game-winning shots against both Duke and Washington this year. Brandon Clarke is the best defensive big man in the country, but he’s also the second-leading scorer on the roster. Josh Perkins is a dynamic ball-screen point guard in an offense that constantly runs ball-screens.

And Killian Tillie still has not found his rhythm yet.

They’re really, really dangerous.

BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: They don’t guard as well as they need to. The Zags have certainly made strides on that end of the floor, but the fact of the matter is that they are always going to have three starters on the floor that after average to below-average individual defenders — Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell and Rui Hachimura.

As of today, this is probably not a concern that is going to derail their season. They are currently 47th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and in 2009, North Carolina won the title with the nation’s best offense and the 39th-best defense. But it is something that they constantly need to improve.

WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: I’m not sure if there is something that needs changing, but the Zags do need to figure out exactly how they are going to use Killian Tillie. The biggest issue this team has is that through the first 15 games of the season, they developed roles and minutes and a rotation based on a roster that didn’t have Tillie available. Now that he’s back, Mark Few has to find a way to work him into the lineup without upsetting that balance. It’s been fine so far, but that has not exactly come against the best competition in the world.

(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN (+1200)

THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: That defense is just so stingy and they are coached by John Beilein.

What else do you need to know?

The thing that’s so impressive about Michigan on the defensive end of the floor is that there is a legitimate argument to be made that three of their players are the best defensive player in the country at their position. Zavier Simpson is an absolute nightmare as an on-ball defender at the point, Charles Matthews can make people disappear on the wing and Jon Teske, believe it or not, has developed into a monster that can switch screens, protect the rim and battle in the post.

This program made the national title game nine months ago on the strength of their defense, and this team is better on that end of the floor. That can carry a team a long way.

BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: They can go long stretches without looking competent offensively, which is not something I ever thought I would say about a team coached by Beilein. The truth is this — we all knew how good this team was going to be on the defensive end this year. The questions we had centered around a team that struggled to score last year and was losing their three best options offensively.

This all came to light in the last two games. There are basically two players on the roster than can consistently create for themselves (Iggy Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole), and if one of them is having an off night, there is a real lack of offensive firepower. There really is no difference between this Michigan team and the Virginia teams of the past.

WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Charles Matthews needs to be a scoring threat. He’s the difference-maker on this team. He’s the guy that can help take some of the offensive burden off of Poole and Brazdeikis. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Michigan has been at their best this season on the nights when he’s shot it well.

(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

MICHIGAN STATE (+700)

THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: Cassius Winston has developed into one of, if not the best point guard in college basketball.

There’s plenty more to like about this Michigan State team than just what their point guard has been able to do — the emergence of Matt McQuaid, the way Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman have been able to share the floor, Kenny Goins going from walk-on to starter, Aaron Henry playing like a senior, not a freshman — but Winston is the engine. He’s the guy that has taken over in Michigan State’s biggest wins. He’s the engine that allows their transition game to function. He is one of the most efficient players in the country.

There are a lot of reasons Michigan State is good. Cassius Winston playing the way he’s been playing is why they are good enough to win six games in March.

BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: The Spartans are decidedly unathletic. I don’t think there is a player in their top six that you could call a plus athlete, at least not when comparing them to some of the other players around the country. The Spartans also have a relatively small perimeter core.

These issues will pop up in certain matchups. What happens when Michigan State’s bigs have to face off with the likes of Gonzaga or Duke? How will their wings handle being defended by Yves Pons and Admiral Schofield? One common theme with the best teams in the country this year is elite point guard defenders. We know Cassius Winston struggles against Zavier Simpson. How will he handle Ashton Hagans or Kihei Clark?

WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: I’m not sure there is anything about this group that necessarily needs changing — beyond, you know, Josh Langford’s ankle getting healthy. But I do think that it would serve them well to continue bringing some of their freshmen along. Henry has cracked the rotation, as has Kyle Ahrens, and both seem to be trusted to play critical minutes. They could end up being the guys that allow Sparty to matchup with bigger, more athletic teams in March.

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

ONE TWEAK AWAY FROM BEING THE ELITE OF THE ELITE

KENTUCKY (+1400)

THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: The talent on this roster is all coming together now.

We can differ about the reason why it’s happening. Some will argue that the emergence of Ashton Hagans has the starting point guard has given Kentucky an emotional leader that brings a level of toughness and confidence that has become contagious. I’m sure that plays a big role in it, as does Tyler Herro starting to play like the go-to guy we (I) thought he would be coming into the season. P.J. Washington is playing the best basketball of his Kentucky career. Nick Richards is starting to figure some things out. Immanuel Quickly has been effective as a bench option, and Keldon Johnson has continued to be as awesome has he was from day one.

The truth, however, is simpler than all of that: John Calipari has a proven track record of being capable of bringing young teams along and making them better and better as the season progresses, and honestly, that’s probably all this is. His guys are figuring it out, as they always do, and they now look like one of the nation’s best.

BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Just how good is Ashton Hagans offensively? Coming into this season, that was the concern. He was a mess on that end of the floor. He was making the wrong read, he was turning the ball over and he was not a threat to score. He’s gotten much better, but he’s still not a threat from the perimeter, and while I would not call him a liability offensively any more, he is still limited.

WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: If Kentucky is going to reach their ceiling they need Nick Richards to be good enough to knock Reid Travis out of the starting lineups. I like Travis, he is a monster on the block and a guy that can really rebound the ball, but he is not a vertical spacer or a rim-protector, and that’s what this Kentucky team needs inside. Travis has had one good game in SEC play (at Auburn) and Richards still can’t crack the starting lineup. That should tell you what you need to know about where Richards is right now.

(Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

NORTH CAROLINA (+1400)

THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: They have as much talent and offensive firepower as anyone. Think about it like this: In Monday night’s win over No. 10 Virginia Tech, North Carolina got a combined 50 points out of Nassir Little and Coby White, their two star freshmen, and I can make a pretty sound argument that those two players are their third and fourth options offensively behind Luke Maye and Cam Johnson.

When this team gets rolling, there are not many out there that can go bucket for bucket with them.

BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Roy Williams still hasn’t found the best way to deploy Nassir Little.

I wrote about this in-depth here, so I won’t repeat myself too much, but the issue is three-fold:

  1. Little is playing a position where he has to beat out Maye (a preseason all-american) and Johnson (a borderline all-american this season) for minutes at a forward spot. That’s because …
  2. … Williams’ system calls for two bigs on the court at all times, which means that one of Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley or Brandon Huffman will be playing the five for the Tar Heels. That is hard on little due to the simple fact that …
  3. … he is not a skilled enough on the perimeter to be a wing in this system but he’s not big enough to play the four. He’s not Justin Jackson, or Theo Pinson, or Isaiah Hicks. He’s a combo-forward, a small-ball four, a defensively versatile big wing that simultaneously fits the NBA game perfectly and is stuck in a situation where his skillset doesn’t really fit all that well with what UNC wants to do.

WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Unlocking Little is the key to reaching their ceiling, and I think that Williams will eventually figure it out. I’ve long said that the Tar Heels will be at their best when they realize their best five is White, Kenny Williams, Little, Johnson and Maye and figure out how to play with them on the floor. I still believe that to be true.

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

KANSAS (+2000)

THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: Bill Self is an absolute magician as a basketball coach. He figured out how to win with the team that had Josh Jackson playing the four. He figured out how to win with the team that played four guards around Udoka Azubuike and had Svi Mykhailiuk playing the four. I have no doubt that he’ll find a way to win when he has four switchable wings, a McDonald’s All-American point guard and a first-team all-american five in Dedric Lawson.

BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: This team is just not as talented as we thought they were entering the season. I mean this with all sincerity: How many players on this Kansas roster will play in the NBA? Dedric Lawson will get a shot because of his size and skill, but go see if you can find him listed on a first round mock anywhere on the internet. Lagerald Vick had to return to school after getting run out of the program because he professional options were so limited. Marcus Garrett can’t shoot, which is a problem for NBA teams. Quentin Grimes has the most hype, yet he’s been benched for Ochai Agbaji, who might be the best NBA prospect on the roster.

Kansas was going to redshirt him this season.

That should tell you what you need to know.

WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Since I don’t think that it is possible for the Jayhawks to magically become a 40 percent three-point shooting team, I think the answer here is pretty simple: They either need to get Grimes playing like the top ten prospect that he was coming out of high school, or they need to fully get on boards with the idea that Agbaji needs to start over him. Agbaji is a better athlete, a better defender, plays with more energy and has actually been an efficient and productive player offensively.

Women’s Wednesday: Kobe Bryant’s impact on women’s basketball

Getty Images
Leave a comment

“His legacy will live on. You’ll feel Kobe Bryant.”

Dawn Staley’s words ring true as the world continues to mourn the untimely and tragic passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, as well as his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.  

Staley, the head coach for the South Carolina women’s basketball team, is a Hall of Fame coach and player and a three-time Olympic gold medalist. She was also a friend of Kobe’s, growing up in Philadelphia and sharing a gym with him under the watch of the 76ers’ John Lucas. The two also participated in the Olympic games together. 

The Laker legend is known worldwide for his impact on the NBA, with five championship titles, two Finals MVPs, and more.

While his resume is endless, Staley also remembers “The Black Mamba” for the father he was to four daughters, and the impact he had on women’s basketball. 

“Kobe was like no other when it came to supporting women’s basketball,” Staley expressed.

“He single-handedly took women’s basketball to another level by showing up at the games, by giving interviews and expressing what he felt was in his heart about women’s basketball. Once you’re able to see women’s basketball in that light, it helps grow the game, especially when it’s someone as powerful as Kobe Bryant, and as thoughtful, as detailed, as he was.”

Staley stressed the impact that Gianna’s love of the game had on her father being a fierce advocate for women’s basketball, saying, “I think Kobe would have been like this in whatever his daughters chose to have a passion about.”

“He thought long term and expressed things that no other professional men’s basketball player would ever say, that there are players in the WNBA that could play in the NBA,” the Gamecocks coach explained. “Kobe saw what he was instilling in his daughter. He probably wanted to say those things about Gigi… that she could one day play in the NBA.” 

After his retirement, Kobe could be found sitting courtside with his daughter, affectionately nicknamed “Gigi,” but he could also be found coaching at Mamba Sports Academy, where he was the head coach for Gigi’s team, the Los Angeles Lady Mambas.

Gigi dreamed of playing for UConn, and frequently went to Husky games with her dad. The pair also championed other top women’s programs, such as Oregon. 

“If you look at every single player that he has touched — Sabrina Ionescu, or the entire Oregon women’s basketball team,” Staley said, with emotion evident in her voice. “You look at UConn. Gigi wanted to go to UConn, she was fascinated with what accomplishments and traditions UConn stood for. We feel [her loss], there is a big void.”

Kobe’s passion for basketball, paired with the love he had for Gigi, has left many thinking that he would have become more involved in the WNBA in years to come. 

“I think women’s basketball would’ve grown to the point where Kobe would’ve put more of his money into it, because I know he put money into the Mamba Academy,” Staley said. “I’m sure he eventually would’ve gotten around to maybe even buying a team or buying into the league in some form or fashion.”

The devastating helicopter crash that took nine lives — including two other young girls, GiGi’s teammates, taken far too early — reminds us all of the fragility of life, and how quickly it can be taken away from us. 

In the wake of this tragedy, people are turning towards love and one another. 

Timelines are flooded with stories and anecdotes about Kobe, his relationship with his wife, Vanessa, and four daughters. Buildings and memorials all over the country are lit up in purple and gold, while tributes for the all-star pour in from as far away as the Philippines. 

Kobe has left a lasting legacy, one that Staley won’t forget.

“I hope with several of the NBA players, when they speak on keeping Kobe’s legacy alive, they will bring the women’s game along with it.

“Because that’s what Kobe Bryant was doing.”

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

UConn faced off against the U.S. national team on Monday night, putting up impressive show but ultimately falling short of an upset in a 79-64 loss. Fiver former Huskies dressed for the national team’s exhibition game.

Alongside many NBA teams, UConn and Team USA took honorary shot clock violations to start the game as a tribute to Kobe Bryant. 

The Huskies set up a stunning memorial for the late Gianna Bryant, who dreamt of playing for UConn one day, on their bench:

– The top teams in the county took care of business this weekend, with not a single ranked team upset by a lower-ranked team on Saturday or Sunday. 

– South Carolina maintained its No. 1 spot atop the polls, with 26 first-place votes from the AP panel, after an 88-53 rout of Georgia on Sunday. Baylor is No. 2 once again as well. 

– The rest of the top-10 reflects the talent among the top teams, with UConn and Oregon swapping spots as Oregon notched two back-to-back wins over rival Oregon State to take No. 3 in the rankings from the Huskies. The Ducks beat the Beavers 76-64 on Friday, outscoring Oregon State 45-29 in the first half, and then again on Sunday, 66-57.

When asked about her mentor and friend Kobe Bryant after the game, Sabrina Ionescu replied that “this season’s for him”:

Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu continued on her record-breaking rampage, toppling Gary Payton’s passing record as the all-time leader for Pac-12’s men and women’s assists. She is now No. 7 on the women’s career assists list.

– In another in-state rivalry, then-No. 18 Arizona secured the 59-53 upset over then-No. 16 Arizona State. The Wildcats jumped up to No. 16 while the Sun Devils dropped to 19.

– No. 7 N.C. State continues to impress with a 76-68 win over rival North Carolina. 

– And in the Play Of The Week: Anna Makurat goes behind the back to Christyn Williams for the layup in STYLE:

“I trust the SEC office will do the right thing,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes says after bump from official

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Tennessee 63-58 loss to Texas A&M wasn’t without some controversy.

In the final seconds of the game, official Mike Nance appeared to bump into Vols coach Rick Barnes, who was standing stationary on the sideline, and the two exchanged words.

“I really have a lot of confidence in the SEC office that they are going to look at that,” Barnes said after the game about the incident, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. “I believe they will look at this game and take it apart. I just think they will do that. That shouldn’t happen in any way shape or form. I would like to say what I want to say, but I won’t because I trust the SEC office will do the right thing.”

Nance was headed to the monitor to review a call when the bump occurred, and Nance appeared to ask Barnes if the coach initiated the contact.

“Coach (Bob) Knight told me a long time ago that in a game officials are going to miss seven to nine or 10, 11, 12 calls,” Barnes said. “He kept going up every year. He said, ‘You just hope things aren’t egregious at any point in time.'”

Coach K screams at Duke fans, defending Jeff Capel

Getty Images
Leave a comment

In one of the stranger things that we’ve seen in college basketball this season, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski went off on the Cameron Crazies for what he believed was a shot they were taking at former Duke player Jeff Capel.

The crazies were chanting, “Jeff Capel sit with us.” Coach K thought he heard something else.

Check out the video:

After the game, Coach K acknowledged that he misheard what the fans said, adding that he will apologize for the mishap.

“I made a mistake,” he said. “But I’d rather make a mistake for the protection of my guy.

“I love Jeff. I erred on that side. I just hope the ACC doesn’t fine me like they did [Mike] Brey.”

He ended the back and forth with this: “Jeff can sit with me anytime.”

 

Tuesday’s Things to Know: Villanova gears up for big stretch, Auburn wins ugly in 2OT and Rutgers keeps rolling

Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The headliner of Tuesday night was Virginia regaining an NCAA tournament pulse with a win over No. 5 Florida State, but there were plenty of other developments on the bubble across the country.  Here’s what else you need to know:

1. Villanova runs streak to seven ahead of grueling stretch

Jay Wright’s team had little trouble winning its seventh-straight Tuesday with a 79-59 victory at Madison Square Garden over St. John’s. Saddiq Bey was brilliant, scoring 23 points on 8 of 14 shooting, including 5 of 9 from deep. Collin Gillespie was equally great, going for 17 points, 13 boards and six assists while Jeremiah Robinson-Early had 13 points and 14 rebounds. Cole Swider and Justin Moore both had 11 to put all five Wildcat starters in double-figures to help offset the absence of the injured Jermaine Samuels.

The victory, while unremarkable given St. John’s mediocrity, keeps momentum for Villanova heading into a huge stretch that very well could decide the Big East. They’ve got Creighton at home Saturday before a trip to No. 16 Butler and then back-to-back home games against No. 10 Seton Hall and Marquette, which handed the ‘Cats their lone conference loss this season.

How Villanova emerges from this four-game stretch – and subsequently what the Big East landscape looks like – will likely be determined by a couple of things. If the ‘Cats are going to make it through in the conference driver’s seat, it’ll probably because Villanova’s defense proves for real. The Cats’ defense this season on the whole has been fine, ranking 60th nationally on KenPom, but it’s been the best in the Big East during conference play. They’ve been stingier both inside and outside the arc while improving on the glass. They’ve kept opponents from launching a lot of 3s and have mostly kept them off the line.

Wright’s team is going to be fine offensively, even if they haven’t been elite in Big East play yet. If the defense holds up, the ‘Cats are going to be sitting pretty come March.

2. No. 17 Auburn comes from behind to win in 2OT

Things were looking pretty dire for Auburn. The Tigers narrowly avoided a third loss in four games over the weekend when they blew a big lead to a sub-.500 Iowa State team, and then they fell behind by 19 in the second half Tuesday at Ole Miss.

It turned out to be nothing to be worried about, unless you were on your couch hoping to watch good overtime basketball.

The Tigers narrowly escaped, 83-82, against the Rebels, overcoming a huge deficit and mistakes of their own making that could have negated their comeback but instead will be footnotes.

Auburn shot 56 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point range in the second half to mount its comeback while Ole Miss shot just 33 percent. They nearly gave the game away, though, after taking a two-point lead in the final seconds of overtime. The Tigers missed a jumper that would have put them up four with 25 seconds left, but the shot missed and they inexplicably fouled on the rebound to allow Ole Miss to tie the game with 22 seconds left on free throws. After a missed 3 in a tie game by Danjel Purifoy, Ole Miss gave Auburn a gift it just wouldn’t accept. Devontae Shuler’s inbounds pass under the basket with 2 seconds left went astray and was headed out of bounds, which would have resulted in no time coming off the clock and Auburn getting the ball on the baseline, but Isaac Okoro, for some reason, grabbed the ball, waited a second and called timeout. Samir Doughty’s forthcoming 3 out of the huddle as time expired miss to send things to 2OT.

Ole Miss led by as many as four in overtime, but Auburn took the lead with 1:41 left. The two teams traded missed opportunities for the remainder of the game, leaving the Tigers with a win.

College basketball: Not always pretty, but rarely boring.

3. Rutgers continues to build its case

It’s been 29 years since Rutgers last made the NCAA tournament. It’s been 13 since the Scarlet Knights even finished above .500 in a season. Both those streaks seem incredibly likely to fall in just a handful of weeks.

Rutgers ran its overall record to 16-5 and its Big Ten mark to 7-3 with a 70-63 victory Tuesday at home against Purdue.

Steve Pikiell’s team is building a bulletproof resume after losses to St. Bonaventure and Pittsburgh in the first month of the season made it seem as the status quo would be very much in place in Piscataway this winter. Since then, the only three losses Rutgers have taken have all been on the road to high-quality opponents, with Michigan State, Illinois and Iowa the only teams able to get the best of them.

Rutgers is doing it o the strength of a top-10 defense that overcomes an offense that can be clunky at times, especially at the 3-point line. Defense as stout as the Scarlet Knights are playing, though, makes up for a lot of deficiencies on the other end.

Bubble Banter: Virginia, Mississippi State the biggest winners of the night

Getty Images
Leave a comment

It was a wild night on the bubble on Tuesday night, as 12 teams with their NCAA tournament hopes still up in the air were in action.

A full bubble watch breakdown can be found here. Here are tonight’s winners and losers:

WINNERS

VIRGINIA (NET: 58, NBC: Off the bubble): It is impossible to overstate just how big a win over Florida State (15) for a Virginia team that entered the night without a top 50 win to their name. They had one Quad 1 win on their resume — at Syracuse (64) — to go along with wins over Virginia Tech (50) at home and Arizona State (56) on a neutral floor. That’s it. When combined with a pair of Quad 3 losses — South Carolina (89) at home and at Boston College (153) — there’s a reason that the Wahoos were completely out of the NCAA tournament picture entering the day.

And to be honest, I’m not sure that a win over a top 20 team at home is really going to change all that much. But with just three more games against the top of the ACC left on their schedule, this was an opportunity that could not slip through their fingers.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (NET: 48, NBC: Off the bubble): The Bulldogs added a critical road win on Tuesday night, going into Gainesville and knocking off Florida (37). It’s the second Quad 1 win in six days for Mississippi State, who needs to add some pop to the top of a resume that includes a pair of Quad 3 losses. This will help.

MICHIGAN (NET: 35, NBC: 10): Michigan entered Tuesday night having lost four games in a row and five of their last six and were playing without Isaiah Livers and Zavier Simpson at Nebraska (158). They could not lost this game. They did not.

RHODE ISLAND (NET: 47, NBC: First four out): Rhode Island is in a spot where they probably cannot afford to take a loss to anyone other than Dayton (5), who they play twice, the rest of the season. On Tuesday night, the Rams beat George Mason. Next up: VCU (39) on Friday night.

UTAH STATE (NET: 62, NBC: Off the bubble): Utah State absolutely could not lose at Wyoming (299) on Tuesday, and they didn’t. The Aggies have neutral site wins over LSU (25) and Florida (37), which is enough to keep them in this discussion despite road losses at Boise State (102), UNLV (130) and Air Force (184). They make the trip to Viejas Arena to take on San Diego State (2) on Saturday, and that feels like a must-win for Utah State at this point.

LOSERS

TENNESSEE (NET: 55, NBC: Next four out): The Vols took a loss that they just could not afford to take on Tuesday, falling to a bad Texas A&M (149) at home. It’s their first Quad 3 loss, meaning that now half of their eight losses are outside the Quad 1 level. With just two Quad 1 wins, neither of which came against a top 35 opponent, Tennessee is backing themselves into a corner. The good news? They still play eight Quad 1 games, and that doesn’t include Florida at home. The Vols can survive this if they get hot.

SYRACUSE (NET: 64, NBC: Off the bubble): The Orange saw their five game winning streak come to an end on Tuesday as they fell at Clemson (81). This is not a terrible loss, but for a team that is already trying to make up ground on the field, these are the kind of losses that really hurt.

RICHMOND (NET: 54, NBC: First four out): Tuesday’s visit to the Siegel Center was Richmond’s last shot at getting a Quad 1 win dueing the regular season. They lost to VCU (39) by 17 points. For my money, the Spiders’ at-large hopes are more or less dead.

ST. JOHN’S (NET: 67, NBC: 10): The Johnnies lost for the seventh time in their last nine games when Villanova (14) waltzed into MSG and beat the Red Storm by 20. That’s not ideal. St. John’s is still in the mix because of wins over West Virginia (7) and Arizona (10), the latter of which came on a neutral court. But with road games left against Villanova, Seton Hall (12) and Butler (9), Mike Anderson’s club has backed themselves into a corner.

PURDUE (NET: 36, NBC: Next four out): The Boilermakers dropped to 11-10 on the season with a 70-63 loss at Rutgers (23) on Tuesday night. That means Purdue has dropped five of their last seven games. They’re 2-7 against Quad 1 opponents with a 29 point win over Michigan State (8), but there are a lot of losses on their resume already and the Big Ten is a bear.

VIRGINIA TECH (NET: 50, NBC: First four out): The Hokies did themselves no favors by losing at Miami (106) on Tuesday night. In the last three days, they’ve suffered their two worst losses of the season. The Hokies also have a non-conference SOS that ranks 341st, which eliminates much of their margin for error. The good news? They still have pair of Quad 1 wins — including Michigan State (10) on a neutral — and four of their five Quad 1 and 2 wins came away from home. It’s not all bad.

GEORGETOWN (NET: 52, NBC: Next four out): The Hoyas lost their third straight game on Tuesday night and have now dropped six of their last eight. Making things worse is that they were up by 13 points on Butler (9) late in the first half. This was their best chance to land an elite win this season. They still get Villanova (14) and Seton Hall (12) at home, but the biggest issue with Georgetown’s tournament chances is that they are trending in the wrong direction with just seven scholarship players.