Dylan Buell/Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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.

 

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

Getty Images
3 Comments

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

Getty Images
3 Comments

McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

jared butler baylor
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

Getty Images
3 Comments

TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

xavier tillman nba draft
Getty Images
Leave a comment

In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.