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Bubble Banter: Nebraska’s fortunes have changed thanks to better Big Ten

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Here is the most recent bracket NBC Sports bracket projection.

There is no better example in college basketball of the importance of non-conference play for a league and the value that performance brings to a team than Nebraska.

A year ago, the Cornhuskers entered Selection Sunday with a 22-10 record and a 13-5 mark in the Big Ten and barely got a sniff of life on the bubble. That was a direct result of just how weird the Big Ten was that season. The conference had four teams that were good enough to be top five seeds on Selection Sunday — Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan — and a bunch of nothing beyond that. To put it into perspective, prior to last season, there had never been a team with 12 Big Ten wins to get left out of the NCAA tournament and there have only been two teams in the history of the conference to win 11 games and be relegated to the NIT. Hell, the only time that any power conference team won 13 league games and missed the NCAA tournament was when it happened to Washington and Oregon in 2012. Washington won the league title but the conference was worse than it is this year, so they got left out.

Nebraska? They went 13-5 in conference play and they were a No. 5 seed in the NIT.

How?

Unbalanced scheduling meant that Nebraska only got one game against each of those top four teams — three of which came on the road — and they won the one game they got at home by 20 points over the same Michigan team that reached the national title game. They, like the much of rest of the conference, whiffed on all of their chances to land big wins outside of league play, and when they lost at Illinois late in the season, it was more or less the end of the road.

This year, Nebraska is sitting at 5-10 in league play with a 15-11 record overall, and … they’re one of our Next Four Teams Out?

How is that possible?

It’s simple: The Big Ten cleaned up in non-conference play, meaning that everyone in the league except for Rutgers is ranked in the top 80 of the NET. If Illinois (77) and Northwestern (78) find a way to get into the top 75, it would mean that 13 of the 14 teams in the conference would be Q1 wins if you beat them on the road. Yes, Nebraska lost seven games in a row, but five of those seven losses were Q1 losses and the other team were Q2.

They’re 15-11 on the season but they don’t have a single bad loss to their name. What they’re missing are those high-end wins, and that’s where things get really interesting. The final five games on Nebraska’s schedule — including Tuesday night’s trip to Penn State (70) — are Q1 games. They close the season against Purdue (12), at Michigan (8), at Michigan State (7) and Iowa (28). Let’s say they finish the season 3-2 and pick up a win at a depleted Michigan State team in the process. Suddenly, they would be sitting at 18-13 on the season. The committee would not factor in that 8-12 record in the Big Ten or that there was a seven-game losing streak in the middle of the year.

Instead, they would look at a team that is 5-10 in Q1 games and 10-13 against Q1 and Q2 opponents with a win in East Lansing in their back pocket.

I look at bubble profiles every single day this time of year.

And that resume? I think it probably gets them into the tournament.

What a time to be alive.

WINNERS

BAYLOR (NET: 36, SOS: 36): The night’s biggest bubble winner was undoubtedly Baylor as the Bears slowed down a recent slide with a monstrous Big 12 road win at No. 19 Iowa State. Sweeping the Cyclones for the regular season, Baylor earned another all-important Q1 win to put them at a respectable 4-6 against that group. Also 7-1 against Q2 teams, the Bears have a lot of quality wins despite all of the injuries they’ve sustained during the season. Already projected as a No. 9 seed before this victory, Baylor put themselves in position to lock-in an at-large bid with Tuesday’s win. With five Big 12 regular-season games left, the Bears have three winnable home games (West Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma State) while still getting two more opportunities at Q1 road wins at Kansas State and Kansas.

VCU (NET: 42, SOS: 33): A blowout home win for VCU over Atlantic 10 rival Rhode Island gives them another Q3 win. Much like some of the others on this bubble list tonight, the Rams just needed to avoid a damaging loss more than this win actually helps. Riding a seven-game winning streak, VCU’s remaining schedule doesn’t give them a lot of opportunities for quality wins. Saint Louis and a road game at George Mason could be tough, but both of those wins wouldn’t mean much based on NET. But as long as the Rams continue to win the games they should, they’re trending in a positive direction.

BUFFALO (NET: 24, SOS: 77): Putting up 114 points in a blowout win over Ohio, the Bulls avoided a harmful Q4 loss to one of the MAC’s worst teams. While this game won’t do much of anything to enhance Buffalo’s at-large credibility, the Bulls have to be pleased by how they played on Tuesday — regardless of competition. Five MAC regular season games remain for Buffalo, with a rematch at home against Bowling Green (a team that beat Buffalo on Feb. 1) on March 8 as the game that matters most. As long as Buffalo wins out the regular season, they should safely get into the field even with a MAC Tournament loss.

LOSERS

NEBRASKA (NET: 38, SOS: 81): So, of course, after all of that, what does Nebraska do? They go on the road and get blown out by Big Ten bottomfeeder Penn State during an embarrassing 95-71 loss. It’s only a Q1 loss (for now, as Penn State is hovering close to No. 75 in NET), but at this point in the season, the Huskers can’t be hurting themselves by no-showing in a must-win game. As noted above, Nebraska still has ample opportunities to play great teams and earn quality wins. But this might very well be the loss that puts the Huskers in the NIT for the second straight year.

ALABAMA (NET: 50, SOS: 20): An underwhelming profile got that much worse for the Crimson Tide with an SEC road loss at Texas A&M. Barely in our current projected field as a No. 11 seed, Alabama getting swept by Texas A&M could ultimately be the thing that keeps them out of the field. Now riding a three-game losing streak, the Q2 loss on Tuesday drops the Tide to 5-3 in that quadrant as they remain 3-6 against Q1 teams. With two Q3 losses (4-2 overall) also on the books, Alabama probably needs one (or two) more quality wins to feel safe about getting into the field. They’ll get those chances with upcoming games against LSU, Auburn and on the road at Arkansas. But given the way the Crimson Tide are playing lately, another quality win is definitely not a given.

CLEMSON (NET: 41, SOS: 32): Sitting as the top team in “First Four Out” status entering Tuesday night, Clemson didn’t help its cause by losing at home to No. 16 Florida State. Now a miserable 1-8 against Q1 teams, the Tigers are in the midst of a three-game losing streak as they continue their bizarre season of highs and lows. At this point, Clemson will welcome the upcoming ACC games against Boston College and Pitt as they try to figure things out and get on the right track. March home games against North Carolina and Syracuse are looking crucial for Clemson now after this latest stretch.

DAVIDSON (NET: 67, SOS: 128): Suffering its second Q3 loss in 10 days, Davidson lost at home to Dayton in Atlantic 10 play. With no Q1 wins (0-2) and just a 3-1 mark against Q2 teams, the Wildcats already didn’t have enough to get into the field as an at-large. Now, dropping to a very mediocre 6-4 mark against Q3 teams, it would be surprising to see Davidson even listed among bubble teams after this loss. We’re now looking at an autobid or bust scenario for Bob McKillop’s team.

 

New-look Virginia back to work after winning NCAA title

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Tony Bennett’s first offseason as a national champion coach has come with benefits on the recruiting trail. His first season at Virginia after winning the title, however, will bring challenges.

Five players who helped Virginia beat Texas Tech to capture the first basketball title in school history are gone, and that’s four more than expected. Center Jack Salt graduated, and guards De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy declared for the NBA draft. Seldom-used Marco Anthony transferred.

Recruiting was already well underway before the Cavaliers won it all, but Bennett said Wednesday the result “certainly can’t hurt and I think it has helped. It validates a lot of good stuff that’s happened in the past.”

Virginia hopes the spoils of those improvements are evident quickly in incoming freshmen guard Casey Morsell, big men Justin McKoy and Kadin Shedrick and junior college shooting guard Tomas Woldetensae.

Virginia opened its summer practice period on Tuesday, and Bennett said he’s not sure just yet who will be ready to contribute.

“Everyone will have ample opportunity, the newcomers, so to speak,” he said. “To say who, you just don’t know. … There are some opportunities out there. So it’s the returners and we can go down the list of the guys we brought in, but I think they’re excited about the opportunity.

“There’s always a learning curve any time you go from whether it’s high school to college or junior college to college or coming from a redshirt to being eligible. … Going up a level and playing in the ACC, for any of these guys, there’s the challenge of the physicality and the level of talent and the speed.”

Woldetensae, a left-handed shooter, averaged 17.3 points per game and shot 47.6 percent from 3-point range last season at Indian Hills Community College.

“We thought we needed to add some experience and a quality player on the perimeter and when he was mentioned and we did our homework and watched film and all those kinds of things,” he said. “His personality came out as a young man of character and we always start there. He seemed wanting to challenge himself at a very high level.”

The Cavaliers were delighted that Mamadi Diakite decided to come back for his senior year after testing the professional waters. And they added senior transfer Sam Hauser, who averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds last season at Marquette. Hauser will be eligible to practice with the team, but won’t be able to play until 2020-21.

Bennett’s offseason included numerous speaking engagements, recruiting, talking to NBA scouts about his players and some time to decompress.

He also checked an item off his bucket list when, with his father, longtime college coach Dick Bennett, he played Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters. That, he said, “was amazing.”

Now, it’s back to work.

“I’m grateful for the busy-ness of it,” he said of the offseason. “It means something good happened.”

Four-star forward commits to West Virginia

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West Virginia landed a top-75 recruit Thursday night.

Isaiah Cottrell, a 6-foot-9 forward from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, committed to West Virginia’s 2020 recruiting class.

Cottrell picked the Mountaineers overs offers from the likes of Kansas, Washington and Arizona, among others. His father, Brian Lewin, played for West Virginia in the 1990s. The four-star prospect continues a promising recruiting trend for Bob Huggins, who landed a top-40 commit in center Oscar Tshiebwe in the 2019 class.

The Mountaineers missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in four years as they slid to 15-21 overall and last in the Big 12 with a 4-14 mark.

John Calipari’s new deal at Kentucky worth $86 million over 10 years

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John Calipari and Kentucky agreed in April to what was described as a “lifetime contract.” Thursday, the exact terms of that deal were disclosed.

The Wildcats coach’s new contract worth $86 million over 10 years.

“I’ve said from day one that this would be the gold standard and it has been for student-athletes and coaches,” Calipari said in a statement released by the school. “As I enter my 11th year, I’m reminded it took me 20 years to get an opportunity to like this. There is no other place I want to be. As I look forward, my mindset is what’s next and how can we be first at it for the young people that we coach.”

Calipari, 60, will likely continue to be a source of speculation for other jobs presuming he keeps things rolling in Lexington as he has for the last 10 years, but what Kentucky is paying him will almost certainly be more than any other program – and potentially NBA franchises – are going to be willing to. Calipari’s success, NBA history and ability to always be central to the broader college basketball conversation means he’ll always be in demand, but it’s hard to picture a situation that could intrigue Calipari enough to leave one of – if not the – best jobs in basketball.

“(Calipari) has added a special chapter to the greatest tradition in college basketball and it’s a chapter we want him to continue writing until the end of his coaching career,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “We are pleased to announce a new contract that will enable him to do exactly that.”

Calipari 305-71 with one national championship, four Final Fours and 26 first-round draft picks in 10 years with the Wildcats. He and Kentucky will likely open the 2019-20 season as one of the frontrunners for the national championship.

Michigan State reports violation for Tom Izzo hosting visit for former high school

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Michigan State self-reported an NCAA rules violation for Tom Izzo hosting Iron Mountain High School for a tour while the team was in town to compete for its first ever state title that weekend.

Izzo unknowingly committed the violation — which only occurred because Iron Mountain was competing in the Breslin Center that weekend — and the Spartans immediately gave notice once they became aware of it. Proud of his alma mater for advancing to Michigan’s final weekend, Izzo was merely taking interest in players and a team connected to his youth. The Iron Mountain program toured the Breslin Center with Izzo and toured Michigan State’s locked room while also watching the Spartans practice before their state semifinal game.

Since it was a special privilege for Iron Mountain, playing in an event there, the Spartans were technically at fault for a violation. The fact that Izzo and Michigan State have to report a violation for this sort of thing is kind of ridiculous since Izzo has a natural connection to the team in question. Although Michigan State likely isn’t going to get hit with any NCAA issues from this, it’s the kind of thing that critics come to question about the NCAA’s rulebook.

Former lacrosse star Pat Spencer commits to Northwestern for basketball

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Northwestern landed a unique graduate transfer on Thursday as Loyola lacrosse star Pat Spencer will spend his final year of college eligibility hooping for the Wildcats, according to Stadium’s Jeff Goodman.

A former high school basketball standout at Boys’ Latin (MD), Spencer was one of the best lacrosse players in the country for the Greyhounds the past four years in college. He was selected in two drafts during the Spring. Spencer was taken first overall in the inaugural PLL College Draft while getting taken seventh overall in the MLL’s Collegiate Draft. Loyola remains in the NCAA tournament as Spencer is playing out his senior season of college.

Spencer is passing up multiple professional lacrosse opportunities to play Big Ten basketball for Northwestern. For a stud athlete in a sport to pass up money to pursue another athletic dream is one of the college basketball’s best things to follow next season.

As if Spencer’s background wasn’t unique enough, he’ll be at a Northwestern team starving for an identity since making the NCAA tournament a few seasons ago. By playing in the Big Ten, Spencer will be thrown against Final Four contenders and potential draft picks, which makes this transition particularly intriguing. It’s a cool story to follow this season as college hoops doesn’t often get athletes from other sports playing in such prominent conferences.

Greg Paulus famously went from Duke point guard to Syracuse quarterback as a graduate transfer, but he was leaving the sport to pursue an opportunity to play football. Spencer choosing basketball over a sure pro shot in lacrosse is an interesting opportunity for him this season. It’ll be interesting to see if he can still contribute anything on the hardwood.

(Ht: Jeff Goodman, Stadium)