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Monday Overreactions: Tennessee’s done, Michigan’s done, Texas Tech is back!

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: R.J. Barrett, Duke

Barrett went out on Saturday evening and reminded everyone in the country that Duke is more than just Zion Williamson.

Playing on the road in front of a record crowd against a Syracuse team that had already beaten Duke once this season, Barrett popped off for 30 points and seven assists on 14-for-20 shooting from the floor and 2-for-5 shooting from three. He carried the Duke offense throughout the first half, as the team’s struggles from beyond the arc once again became the biggest talking point for a team that ranks near the bottom nationally in three-point percentage. Once Syracuse started to try and force the ball out of his hands, he became the facilitator, setting up the likes of Alex O’Connell — who scored 17 of his career-high 20 points in the second half — in a 75-65 win.

It was utterly dominant and a stark reminder that, yes, Zion Williamson is the best player in college basketball, but that R.J. kid is pretty damn good, too.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Texas Tech Red Raiders

There is no team in the country that is currently hotter than Texas Tech is.

Three weeks ago, the Red Raiders went into Lawrence and got drubbed by Kansas, 79-63, in a game where they trailed by 25 points midway through the second half. They have won five games in a row since that loss by an average of 27 points, and in those five games, Texas Tech is shooting 58-for-124 (47%) from three. That run was capped by one of the most all-encompassing beatdowns that we have seen from anyone this season — a 91-62 evisceration of Kansas that put the Red Raiders a game up on the Jayhawks in the Big 12 standings and in sole possession of second place, one game behind Kansas State.

On January 31st, Texas Tech ranked 101st in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. After this run, the Red Raiders now rank 47th.

I do not expect Tech to be able to continue shooting at this clip the rest of the season, but I do think that this group, with the way that they are capable of defending, is good enough to get to a Final Four and win the national title if they can continue to shoot anywhere near this well.

MONDAY OVERREACTIONS

1. THERE ARE FIVE TEAMS IN THE TOP TIER

We reached an era where we love talking about tiers in college basketball, and I have to admit, I am one of those people that loves it the most.

So let’s do it.

As of today, there are five teams that are very clear sitting a cut above everyone else in the sport. There are five teams that we can call the favorites to win the national title. Let’s talk through them all:

1. DUKE: This is obvious. The Blue Devils are the most talented team in the country when they are at full strength, and based on what we know about Zion Williamson’s knee injury, there is no reason to think that he won’t return to the lineup at some point soon. When Duke is hitting their threes, they are borderline unbeatable, but there is hardly a guarantee, on a night-by-night basis, that they are going to be hitting said threes. That’s where this weekend’s win over Syracuse becomes interesting: Alex O’Connell, the real AOC, hit five threes and scored 20 points. Is he the key that unlocks Duke’s Death Lineup?

2. GONZAGA: There is only one team in college basketball that has beaten a full strength Duke this season, and it is the Zags. Their depth up front took a hit when Killian Tillie went down for the second time, and there are some valid concerns about Josh Perkins, their ability to defend and whether or not we can trust a team that will end the season on a two month run of not being tested, but there is no questioning the talent they have or just how good they can be offensively.

3. VIRGINIA: The Cavaliers have lost twice this season, and both of those losses came against Duke. This is probably the best Virginia team that we have seen in the Tony Bennett era, and I say that because De’Andre Hunter is an absolute monster that gives them the kind of lineup and matchup versatility the ‘Hoos have lacked in recent seasons. They are legit.

4. KENTUCKY: I’ve been on the ‘Kentucky is back’ bandwagon since they pummeled North Carolina two months ago. The rest of the world is catching up to me after the Wildcats pummeled Tennessee and Auburn on back-to-back Saturdays this month. With how good P.J. Washington has been for the last five weeks, the Wildcats are going to be a threat to beat anyone and everyone they see in March.

5. NORTH CAROLINA: If there is a questionable addition to this list, it’s probably the Tar Heels. I say that because we’ve seen North Carolina be somewhat inconsistent this year. But in the last week, UNC went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and pounded the same Duke team that won at Syracuse by 16 points. Then, on Saturday, they pounded a Florida State team that had won eight straight games. Luke Maye is starting to get it going. Nassir Little looks like he’s ready to turn a corner. This is a dangerous basketball team, one that looks like they are getting ready to peak at the right time.

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2. SUNDAY’S LOSS IS PROOF MICHIGAN CANNOT WIN A NATIONAL TITLE

Everything was lining up for Michigan to make a run at winning the outright Big Ten regular season title this year. The Wolverines had four games left on their Big Ten schedule, with two of those games coming against the Spartans. Not only that, but the first of the two — on Sunday — came in Ann Arbor in a game where Michigan State was playing without Josh Langford and Nick Ward, their second- and third-best scorers. That meant all of their offense would be running through Cassius Winston, who was going to spend the afternoon dealing with Zavier Simpson, who is a pest when playing anyone, let alone his team’s biggest rival in a game that had Big Ten title implications.

And what happened?

Winston went for 27 points and eight assists as Michigan State went into Crisler Arena and pushed around the Wolverines. They won 77-70. They got what they wanted on the offensive end of the floor, especially down the stretch. They also made the Wolverines look utterly inept on the offensive end of the floor, and in the end, that’s their Achilles’ heel. It doesn’t matter how good Michigan is defensively if good teams are going to be able to stifle them offensively.

3. SATURDAY’S LOSS IS PROOF TENNESSEE CANNOT WIN A NATIONAL TITLE

The Volunteers climbed all the way to No. 1 in the nation by steamrolling the dregs of the SEC. Now that they are starting to play the teams at the top of the conference, things are … well, they are not going as well as the Vols had hoped. One week after going into Lexington and getting absolutely mollywhopped by Kentucky, Tennessee went into Baton Rouge, took on an LSU team that did not have Tremont Waters available and got precisely nothing out of their star big man Naz Reid and still found a way to lose.

I love the idea of this Tennessee team. They are a group of unheralded kids that have taken the nation by storm, winning an SEC title last year and 23 of their first 24 games this year. But the more I watch the Vols, the more I think that there is a ceiling for this team that isn’t as high as some of the teams they are going to see in the Elite Eight and beyond. They aren’t guarding like they did a year ago, and while they have been uber-efficient on the offensive end of the floor this season, the things they do well can be taken away far too easily.

This is the first time all year I’m officially worried.

4. KANSAS STATE IS ONE WIN AWAY FROM WINNING THE BIG 12

Tonight’s game in Phog Allen Fieldhouse might just be the biggest game that Bruce Weber has coached since he took Bill Self’s Illinois team to the national title game in 2005. He’s going into Lawrence with a one-game lead on Texas Tech and a two-game lead on Kansas in the race to be the first team to win an outright Big 12 title since 2004, the first year that Self was at Kansas after leaving the Illini.

And the game couldn’t come at a better time.

Kansas is coming off of a 29 point loss at Texas Tech on Saturday. Kansas State is coming off of a 39 point win over Oklahoma State. They haven’t won in Lawrence since 2006. This is the game-changer.

5. JAY WRIGHT DOESN’T KNOW THAT YOU ARE ALLOWED TO SHOOT TWO-POINTERS

You live by the three, you die by the three, and over the course of the last three game, Jay Wright’s team has been murdered by the three-ball. They have now lost three games in a row — to St. John’s, Xavier and Georgetown — and four of their last five, falling two games off of the pace set by Marquette at the top of the Big East.

And while some will look at this and say that it is proof that Villanova’s start to conference play was inflated by who they were playing, I think the bigger issue is that teams have figured out what Villanova wants to do and Jay Wright hasn’t found an answer yet.

On the season, the Wildcats are shooting 53.2 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc, the second-highest percentage in the country. But during this three-game losing streak, 109 of their 178 field goal attempts — a whopping 61.3 percent — have been three-balls. They have made just 30, or 27.5 percent, of those threes during the losing streak.

Villanova can’t find ways to score inside the arc, and because of that, they are being forced to shoot contested threes.

That’s a bad combination of things.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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.

UTAH STATE (NET: 62, NBC: Off the bubble)

Virginia upends No. 5 Florida State, 61-56

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Remember back to the season’s opening night? Nearly three months ago? That was when Virginia embarrassed Syracuse in a 48-34 win. That game foretold a lot of the season up to this point for the Cavaliers. Their title-defending team would have the defense that’s defined Tony Bennett’s program while the offense, well, that would be a bit of a struggle. What it did not predict was more Quad 1 wins, as the Cavaliers, despite a dominating defense, failed to rack up another such victory after that season-opener.

Until Tuesday.

Virginia injected some life into its NCAA tournament hopes with a 61-56 win over fifth-ranked Florida State in Charlottesville to pick up a critical victory in an ACC that offers far fewer marquee opportunities than in years past.

The victory was exactly what Bennett’s team needed to help buoy that resume before the start of February. January was extremely rough on them with a 3-4 mark before the win over the Seminoles put them at .500 for the month. With only four chances left against the ACC’s best of FSU, Duke and Louisville, beating the Seminoles at home may not have been an absolute-must for the Cavs, but it sure makes it a lot easier to chart a path to the tournament now, even if it’s still a rocky road, than if they had dropped the game.

Point guard Kihei Clark scored 11 of his 15 points after halftime, changing the game offensively for the Cavaliers with his dribble penetration into the middle of the Florida State defense. He wasn’t wildly efficient, but his ability to get into the teeth of the defense – creating some buckets and free throws for himself and chances for his teammates – provided just enough lift for the offensively-challenged team. His beautiful reverse layup with a minute left gave Virginia a lead it would not relinquish as it closed the game on an 8-0 run.

Mamadi Diakite had 19 points and nine boards for Virginia while Braxton Key had 13 points and nine rebounds.

The loss stops a 10-game winning streak for the ‘Noles, who led for most of the game but could not ever find any meaningful separation. Devin Vassell had 17 points to lead Florida State, which had two shots to tie the game in the final seconds but missed both 3-point attempts horribly. If Virginia can surge a little in the season’s final month, this win won’t be much more than a missed opportunity for the Seminoles, but if it proves to just be a blip on the radar for Virginia, Florida State may have done some damage to its seed line Tuesday.