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College Basketball’s Most Improved Players: Part I

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Before the season, we took a look at the players that we thought had a chance to be breakout stars this season.

We’re now halfway through the year, which means that it is time to take a look at the guys that actually did breakout.

Here are the first five in our list of college basketball’s Ten Most Improved Players. The second five can be found here:



OBI TOPPIN, Dayton

Last Year: 14.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.9 apg, 0.8 bpg, 0.6 spg
This Year: 19.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.3 bpg, 1.3 spg

Toppin is the most interesting name on this list because I think there is an argument to be made that, as a player, Toppin hasn’t really gotten all that much better since last season. His efficiency levels are more or less the same as they were during his redshirt freshman season, and while the counting stats are up, some of that can be attributed to Toppin playing more minutes in a larger offensive role for a team that’s playing at a faster pace than they did a season ago.

As one NBA front office member told me, “he was already good,” noting that he had gotten better — consistently dominant, a better rebounder, more confident — “but he’s largely the same guy.”

So how did Toppin go from being a guy that started the season as “well, maybe he can beat out Marcus Evans for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year” to a legitimate candidate to win National Player of the Year?

This is the narrative portion of the program.

I think this season has been a perfect storm for Toppin. He’s putting up big numbers on a really good-not-great Dayton team in a year where all of the best teams fall into that good-not-great category and, for the first time in a decade, there is no obvious frontrunner for NPOY. Combine that with the fact that he has had some viral highlights and that the Flyers went to the Maui Invitational and showed out in one of the most-watched early-season college basketball events, and this is what you get.

I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve all of the attention he’s getting — he does, unquestionably — I’m just trying to put that attention into context.

Breaking him down as a player is almost as nuanced.

He has certainly improved in some areas. I don’t think there is any doubt that he is a better, more confident shooter this season than he was last season. He’s nearly doubled the number of threes he shot as a freshman and we’re only 17 games into the year. He’s only making them at a 33.3 percent clip right now, but Dayton coach Anthony Grant would not allow him to shoot that many threes unless he believed in the work Toppin put in developing his shot. His handle is getting better. His body continued to develop; Grant told NBC Sports in October that Toppin enrolled with the Flyers at 6-foot-7 and 185 pounds. He’s now 6-foot-9, 220.

But that development also needs to be taken into context.

Dayton is a significantly better basketball team this season than they were a season ago. They are a lethal three-point shooting team that is as old as anyone in the country. They put four shooters on the floor at all times around Toppin, and more often than not, allow him to roam as a small-ball five. He’s a threat to pick-and-pop because of his shooting, he’s a lob target as a roll-man due to his length and athleticism, and his physical tools make near impossible for opposing bigs to keep out of the paint. Combine all of those things with the fact that defenses are so spread out because of the rest of the shooters on the floor, and what you get is the nation’s No. 3 offense, according to KenPom. Toppin is probably the most important piece in that offense.

Toppin is also a terrific defensive piece because he can protect the rim, guard bigs and switch onto smaller players.

I say all that to say this: The biggest reason why Toppin is thriving this season is that the pieces around him and Dayton’s style of play allow the things he does best to shine. Whether or not he is actually a better basketball player is largely irrelevant in this conversation, because he is, unquestionably, a more effective basketball player now than he was a year ago.

And the result is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime season for the Flyers and a spot in the lottery of the 2020 NBA Draft.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

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NICK RICHARDS, Kentucky

Last Year: 4.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.3, bpg, 59.8% FG
This Year: 13.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.3 bpg, 66.9% FG

It took two and a half years for us to get here, but I think that we have finally reached a point where Nick Richards is the guy we thought he would be when he enrolled at Kentucky as a McDonald’s All-American.

Over the course of the last four games, Richards is averaging 16.0 points, 10.0 boards and 2.5 blocks. But it’s more than just the numbers. Richards is finally posting games like this against high-major competition, something that he hasn’t done before. It should come as no surprise to anyone that those four games have changed the course of Kentucky’s season. They finally look like the team that entered the season in the top five of every preseason poll.

“He’s getting better,” head coach John Calipari said last week. “He started playing basketball when he was 14, so it’s taken him more time. But who cares how long it takes? It’s, can I get to the point where I’m a significant player? And he is now.”

The genesis of the change is simple, according to a person close to the Kentucky program: Richards believes in himself now.

“You can’t coach a kid’s confidence,” he said. “He has to build it himself.”

With Richards, building his confidence came with actually seeing his work turn into success in the actual games. He needed to see the ball go through the basket. He needed to actually take a game over before it really clicked for him that he can take games over if he played a certain way.

“Some kids you say don’t read your press clippings,” the source said. “With this kid, it helps him. ‘You think I’m good? OK, I need to turn up.'”

And with Richards, the way that confidence has manifested is that he wants the rock. He’s no longer scared when a play is called for him. He posts harder. He runs the floor in transition harder. He’s calling for lobs. He’s ready when tough passes are thrown to him, and, in turn, is catching more of those passes than he had in the pass. All of this leads to guards that are now more willing to give him the ball. They’re not worried that a Nick Richards post touch will lead directly to a turnover anymore.

As a result, Kentucky once again looks like a title contender.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

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DANIEL OTURU, Minnesota

Last Year: 10.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg
This Year: 19.9 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 2.9 bpg, 34.6% 3PT

Minnesota knew that they had a player when they landed Daniel Oturu as an in-state, top 100 prospect two years ago, but they did not realize that they were bringing in a kid that had a chance to be a first round pick.

Oturu didn’t realize it, either.

He does now.

“I could tell Daniel to ignore the NBA Draft boards but Daniel knows that right now he is picked 10th on NBADraft.net,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “He knows teams reach out to me. I tell him.”

With some players, this could be a bad thing. You don’t want that going to their head. You don’t want them checking out of a season at the start of league play just because they happened to see their name on a mock draft on the internet. But with Oturu, the simple fact that he has a chance to play in the NBA has been the best thing for him.

“He was immature even for a freshman, but he’s shown maturity [this year],” one source close to the program told me. “He’s got a chance to be a pro now. It’s one thing to talk about it. It’s another thing to be on draft boards. He’s seeing that. His focus level has changed. He’s staying after practice, taking extra shots, working on his game.”

And it hasn’t hurt him that Jordan Murphy has graduated. Now, he’s getting the post touches. He’s getting the isolation at the elbows. He’s the guy that the offense is being built around, and there’s more space for him to operate.

“He makes it look so easy,” one Big Ten assistant coach said. “You know how guards look at bigs like, ‘why can’t you make layups?’ Not him. He just makes the game look so easy, so effortlessly.”

The key now is going to be ensuring that Oturu stays focused on the task at hand. His name is on draft boards right now because he’s turned into a worker. He has to avoid letting the thought get into his head that he’s made it because he was on a mock draft.

“They don’t draft in early January,” Pitino said.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

AMES, IA – DECEMBER 12: Tyrese Haliburton #22 of the Iowa State Cyclones drives the ball in the first half of play against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Hilton Coliseum on December 12, 2019 in Ames, Iowa. The Iowa Hawkeyes won 84-68 over the Iowa State Cyclones. (Photo by David K Purdy/Getty Images)

TYRESE HALIBURTON, Iowa State

Last Year: 6.8 ppg, 3.6 apg, 3.4 rpg, 1.5 spg, 43.4% 3PT
This Year: 16.6 ppg, 7.7 apg, 5.9 rpg, 2.6 spg, 41.7% 3PT

There is not a single person on the planet that watched an Iowa State game last season that thought Tyrese Haliburton was going to be anything other than great.

Part of it is the size. Part of it is the shooting, even if his release makes Shawn Marion look like J.J. Redick. Part of it was the passing ability and basketball IQ. The reason we only saw it in flashes last season was because Iowa State had more talent on their roster than they knew what to do with. It’s why they looked so good when they played well, and it’s why so many people got frustrated when they didn’t.

And Haliburton?

He was fine playing the background.

“If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’re making a big change in your life, there are situations where you just try to fit in,” head coach Steven Prohm said earlier this season. “Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes it can take away a little bit of who you are. It didn’t take away who he was as a person or his spirit, but he tried to just fit in playing-wise. It helped that team.”

“I had a role last year, and I had to buy into that,” Haliburton said.

The Iowa State staff knew he was going to be special this year when he went to Greece and starred on the gold medal-winning U19 team. He had the ball in his hands on a roster with a bunch of other future first round picks. Nothing about this season has surprised anyone in Ames.

“I know what I’m capable of,” he said.

And that’s because he’s put in the work.

One of the things that impress people around the Iowa State program is the way Haliburton works. He practices the passes that he’ll make out of ball-screens. With his left hand, with his right hand, baseline drifts, pocket passes, finding shooters in the weakside corner. He does all of that on his own, and it’s paying off.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

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MARCUS ZEGAROWSKI, Creighton

Last Year: 10.4 ppg, 3.4 apg, 3.2 rpg
This Year: 17.1 ppg, 4.8 apg, 3.8 rpg

The most important part of Marcus Zegarowski’s development from a guy in Creighton’s backcourt to the guy in Creighton’s backcourt has been, quite simply, his health.

As a freshman, Zegarowski dealt with a hip injury that required offseason surgery. He also missed three games after breaking a bone in his hand. He was all kinds of banged up, and while he hardly had a bad freshman season, there was a level that he couldn’t get to. Part of that was because he was, physically, limited. Part of it was because the injury sapped some of the belief he had in himself, not only to be able to make certain plays, but to be the voice that he needed to be on the floor.

“There’s a confidence level that has developed,” head coach Greg McDermott said. “His leadership has gone to another level. As a freshman, he was a little hesitant to step on toes and let his voice be heard.”

Not anymore.

Not only is a healthy Zegarowski now playing the best basketball of his life, he’s doing so as the leader on a team that has cracked the top 25.

“It happened faster than I anticipated,” McDermott said. “I couldn’t imagine a better fit for how we want to play.”

“I think they are best when they have a guy who is a passer and a playmaker,” a Big East coach told me, “and he fits their system perfectly. He’s always been that type of player, and I think he’s just improved his game. He’s been very effective.”

One thing that I have noticed about Zegarowski from watching Creighton play this year is that he always looks angry, like someone used his airpods and gave them back without charging them. I asked McDermott about this, and he said, chuckling: “He doesn’t change that expression much. He’s really hard on himself and doesn’t celebrate as much as he should. He’s a perfectionist from a basketball family, but I think a really important part of a point guard’s job is to be the same person. You know what you’re going to get day in and day out. He’s really dependable.”

Click here for No. 6-10 of our list of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

Saturday’s Things To Know: Kentucky survives, Ayo Dosunmu’s on a tear, Roy and Huggs reach milestones

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It was actually a relatively slow day for a Saturday in late-January in college hoops, but there is still plenty to discuss. Here are the ten things that you need to know:

1. No. 15 KENTUCKY KNOCKED OFF No. 18 TEXAS TECH

Nick Richards went for 25 points, 14 boards and four blocks and Immanuel Quickley chipped in with 21 points of his own as Kentucky went into Lubbock and knocked off the Red Raiders in overtime. A full breakdown of that game can be found here.

2. TEXAS TECH IS IN REAL BUBBLE TROUBLE

I’m not sure people realize just how little their is on Texas Tech’s resume right now. They beat Louisville (11) on a neutral court. They beat Iowa State (70) at home. They beat Oklahoma State (83) at home. They won at Kansas State (89). Combined, that’s one Quad 1, two Quad 2 and a Quad 3 win. They have eight wins against sub-200 teams and have lost to seven Quad 1 opponents, including Kentucky (23) at home on Saturday. The Red Raiders will have plenty of chances to build on their profile — they get West Virginia (7) at home and play at Kansas (3) next week alone — but there is no doubt that this team has to start winning some games against teams that are not horrific.

3. AYO DOSUNMU CONTINUED HIS TEAR

In case you haven’t noticed, No. 21 Illinois is the hottest team in the Big Ten, sitting all alone in first-place in the conference standings and Ayo Dosunmu — who scored 27 points and hit the game-winner at Michigan today — has been the best player in the Big Ten this month. More on the Illini and their star here.

4. ROY WILLIAMS PASSED DEAN SMITH ON THE ALL-TIME WINS LIST

It’s ironic when you think about it: North Carolina was in the midst of their first five-game losing streak since 2003, and it just so happened to come after Williams had tied Smith on the all-time wins list. He finally broke the streak on Saturday, blowing out Miami, 94-71, to win his 880th game as a head coach. It is, quite literally, the first win for the Tar Heels in 2020.

5. BOB HUGGINS PASSED ADOLPH RUPP ON THE ALL-TIME WINS LIST

No. 14 West Virginia blew out Missouri in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge to give Huggy Bear is 876th career win, good for seventh on the all-time list, one better than Adolph Rupp, the legendary Kentucky head coach.

6. No. 1 BAYLOR UPSET UNRANKED FLORIDA

This might sound ridiculous, but if you subscribe to the theory that any underdog that wins a game is an upset happening, then No. 1 Baylor going into the O-Dome and knocking off Florida is, technically, an upset. The Gators entered the game as 2.5 point favorites, jumped out to a big league and then proceeded to watch as the nation’s best team proved that they are, in fact, the nation’s best team.

We have spent the majority of this season explaining away the reasons why there isn’t an elite team in college basketball, but I’m beginning to think that there’s a chance Baylor could be that team. They’re never going to be the darlings of the metrics and they don’t have much NBA talent, but they are so balanced, so effective in crunch time and elite on the defensive end of the floor.

7. MEMPHIS BLEW AN 11-POINT LEAD IN THE FINAL SIX MINUTES

This one was hard to do.

The Tigers were up 70-59 with less than six minutes remaining in the game and then never scored again. They would give up a 15-0 run in that stretch and go on to lose, 74-70, at home to an SMU team that is not very good. Penny Hardaway’s team has found themselves in a bad, bad spot this season.

8. ARIZONA BLEW A 22-POINT LEAD

The No. 22 Wildcats led Arizona State in Tempe by 22 points in the first half. With 1:40 left before the break, they were ahead 43-24. At halftime, they were up 43-30. With 16:30 left on the clock, the Sun Devils had cut that lead to 43-40, and after Alonzo Verge scored with 10 seconds remaining, the Sun Devils had a 66-65 lead and went on to win by that score.

The importance of this win for Bobby Hurley’s club cannot be overstated.

9. SAN FRANCISCO WORKED THEIR FOULING MAGIC AGAIN

Last weekend, San Francisco fouled a ball-handler at the end of the first half in order to get the ball back. It was a sneaky bit of math that gave the Dons an extra two points on their lead heading into the break.

On Saturday against BYU, Todd Golden drew up something similar. With 22 seconds left in the game and the Dons clinging to a 79-77 lead, he had his team intentionally foul Yoeli Childs, BYU’s star center who just so happens to be a 60 percent free throw shooter and coming off of a broken finger. The reasoning was simple: Since BYU was in the one-and-one, Childs shooting free throws meant that A) BYU’s xPPP for that possessions was 0.96, lower than the average possession for a team that had scored 77 points in 39 minutes and shot 15-for-27 from three on the night. If he made both, USF had a chance to win on the final possession. If he missed one, BYU’s best rebounder was shooting the free throws. Turns out, he missed the first, and USF hung on to win, 83-82.

10. SAMUELL WILLIAMSON MAY HAVE HAD HIS BREAKOUT GAME

Last weekend, it was freshman David Johnson that had his breakout game for No. 6 Louisville. He went for 19 points and seven boards as the Cardinals went into Cameron and beat Duke. This weekend, it was fellow freshman Williamson, who scored 14 points for the Cards as they blew out Clemson in the Yum! Center. Is this the start of his star turn?

No. 1 Baylor smothers Florida 72-61, 16th straight win

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — MaCio Teague and Devonte Bandoo scored 16 points apiece and No. 1 Baylor extended its winning steak to 16 with a 72-61 victory over Florida in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Saturday night.

The Bears improved to 6-1 in the annual inter-conference series – the best record of any team in either conference – and themselves another week atop The Associated Press poll.

Baylor also gave the Big 12 an even split (5-5) in the daylong series.

The Bears (17-1) overcame an eight-point deficit early and led by 19 points in the second half before Florida mounted a minor rally. The Gators (12-7) had a chance to make it a single-digit game with a little more than 7 minutes to play, but they missed the front end of three consecutive one-and-ones. Kerry Blackshear Jr. misfired twice on back-to-back possessions and then Noah Locke did the same seconds later.

What could have been an eight-point game was still a comfortable lead for the Bears.

Florida eventually managed to whittle Baylor’s lead to 10 on Andrew Nembhard’s driving layup with 2:40 remaining. But the Bears answered on the other end thanks to their 13th offensive rebound, which led to two free throws for Bandoo.

Davion Mitchell finished with 11 points and six assists for Baylor, which was a slight underdog entering the game. Jared Butler chipped in 10 points.

Baylor’s length, athleticism and defensive prowess posed problems all night for Florida, which shot 44% from the field and 23.5% from 3-point range.

The Gators fell to 2-17 against the No. 1 team, including 10 consecutive losses.

Keyontae Johnson led Florida with 20 points. Nembhard added 16 points and eight assists, but he missed more shots (8) than he made (6), including all four 3-pointers. The Gators missed 13 of 17 from behind the arc.

Baylor took control of the game with a 13-2 run to close the first half, turning a tie game into a double-digit lead. The Bears hit six 3-pointers in the opening 20 minutes – twice as many as Florida – and had seven offensive rebounds.

They got help from an unlikely source. Bandoo, who averages 7.5 points off the benched, scored 11 in the opening half on 4 of 6 shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The Bears matched their best 18-game start in school history. They also started 17-1 in 2011-12 and 2016-17. They landed No. 3 seeds in the NCAA Tournament after those regular seasons and were eliminated both times by SEC teams (Kentucky in ’12, South Carolina in `17).

Florida: The Gators appeared to be taking strides while beating then-No. 4 Auburn last Saturday and nearly stunning LSU on the road earlier this week. But the team’s offensive woes returned against Baylor – no surprise given the Bears are one of the best defenses in the nation.

STILL HOBBLING

Florida forward Dontay Bassett missed his second consecutive game with a calf injury. Bassett averages 1.3 points and 2.1 rebounds.

UP NEXT

Baylor: Returns to Big 12 action and plays at Iowa State on Wednesday night. The Bears have won three of the last four in the series, but lost to the Cyclones in the conference tournament last March.

Florida: Returns to SEC play and hosts Mississippi State on Tuesday night. The Gators lost to the Bulldogs last year to end an eight-game winning streak in the series.

Richards, Quickley lead No. 15 Kentucky to OT win at No. 18 Texas Tech

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Nick Richards hit two free throws with 10 seconds left on the clock and Ashton Hagans managed to strip Davide Moretti on the ensuing possession as No. 15 Kentucky went into Lubbock and knocked off No. 18 Texas Tech, 76-74, in a thrilling overtime battle.

Richards finished the night with 25 pints, 14 boards and four blocks while shooting 7-for-10 from the floor and 11-for-14 from three. Immanuel Quickley chipped in with 21 points for the Wildcats, who shot 7-for-15 from three and won despite 15 combined turnovers from their three starting guards.

Kyler Edwards led the way for Texas Tech with 18 points and seven boards, but the Red Raiders shot just 3-for-19 from beyond the arc and never could figure out an answer to Richards’ in the paint.

Here are the three things that we can take away from this game:

1. KENTUCKY WON WITHOUT TYRESE MAXEY AND ASHTON HAGANS

Maxey and Hagans did, technically, play on Saturday night, but neither of them were any good. Maxey finished 2-for-10 from the floor with five turnovers and four fouls. Hagans finished with seven assists and three steals, but he shot just 2-for-6 from the floor and had four turnovers of his own. Combined, they scored 13 points, which is 14 points below their season average.

The reason this is relevant is that Kentucky has been, for much of the season, a four-man show. We’ve spent the majority of the season trying to figure out who they can plug into a lineup with those four to get an optimal performance out of the Wildcats. When half of that group is struggling, it’s not exactly a recipe for success.

But that didn’t matter on Saturday.

Kentucky still found a way to get a win against a top 20 team on the road.

And the reason for it was the play of Richards. This is notable, because if you look at Kentucky’s biggest wins of the season to date, they all happened to be a result of one of Hagans or Maxey going absolutely nuts. Maxey had 27 in the win over Michigan State. He had 26  against Louisville. Hagans went for 21 points, seven boards and seven assists against Georgia Tech. He had 13 points, six boards and six assists at Arkansas and 15 points, nine boards and nine assists against Alabama.

Point being, this is the first time that Richards has definitively been the best player on the floor while carrying Kentucky to a win like this on the road.

I also get it: He completely overwhelmed Texas Tech’s frontline — which, frankly, is not a new occurrence, if you have seen the Red Raiders play this season. But we’ve seen Richards play against frontlines he should dominate and, well, not dominate.

And Kentucky got themselves a win as a result.

2. KENTUCKY ISN’T LONG FOR MARCH IF THEY CANNOT GET THEIR LATE-GAME EXECUTION FIGURED OUT

As impressive as this win was for the Wildcats, we cannot talk about it without mentioning that Kentucky did get a little bit lucky. Davide Moretti is a 92 percent free throw shooter and missed one with 18 seconds left that gave Kentucky one more possession with the game tied.

Truthfully, it never should have gotten to that point. For the third time in four games, Kentucky blew a double-digit second half lead. They were up 14 in the second half at South Carolina in a game that they lost, 81-78. They were up by 11 in the second half at Arkansas and, after allowing the Razorbacks to get up by three, rallied after John Calipari was ejected from the game. And on Saturday, they were leading the Red Raiders by as many as 10 points. Texas Tech never once held the lead in the second half.

To put this into context, Kentucky scored six points in the final 9:30 of regulation. They made one field goal, and that came with 6:31 left on the clock. They went to the foul line four times and shot 1-for-2 on every trip. Now, part of that is due to Tech’s defense — spoiler alert, they’re really good — but this is becoming something of a trend for the Wildcats.

3. KYLER EDWARDS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER ON TEXAS TECH

Jahmi’us Ramsey is Texas Tech’s leading scorer, their most talented player and probably the best NBA prospect on the roster. Chris Clarke is the x-factor that Chris Beard likes to use to take advantage of mismatches. T.J. Holyfield is the guy that the Red Raiders need to play out of his mind because of their lacking interior depth.

But for my money, the most important player on Texas Tech is Kyler Edwards.

More than anyone else on this roster, including Ramsey, Edwards is the guy that can fill the role that was played by Keenan Evans and Jarrett Culver the last two seasons. He’s the big combo-guard that can be more than just a shooter. He’s the guy that can create for himself while also being capable of finding assists or creating shots for his teammates.

And this season, he’s averaging just 11.8 points and shooting 30 percent from three.

Now, he’s been better of late. He averaged 23 points in wins over Iowa State and Kansas State last week. And, yes, he had 18 points against Kentucky on Saturday.

The reason he’s so important is simple: Texas Tech is really limited offensively, particularly when it comes to guys that can create on their own. It’s why Moretti’s efficiency is down this year. It’s why they are so reliant on Chris Clarke trying to take advantage of mismatches. It’s why Ramsey turning into something of a three-point shooter is a bad sign longterm.

Tech needs Edwards to be awesome if they can to be able to make a run in March.

Dotson, Azubuike lead No. 3 Kansas past Tennessee 74-68

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Devon Dotson scored 22 points, Udoka Azubuike added 18 and No. 3 Kansas beat Tennessee 74-68 Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.

Azubuike was the lone big man for the Jayhawks (16-3) after Silvio De Sousa was suspended 12 games and David McCormack banned five for their roles in a brawl Tuesday against Kansas State.

After Azubuike went to the bench with two fouls early, Yves Pons hit consecutive 3-pointers to put the Volunteers (12-7) on a 14-2 run for a 20-13 lead. Kansas answered when Azubuike checked back in, stringing together a 12-0 run en route to a 37-30 lead at halftime.

Azubuike finished with 11 rebounds and four blocks.

Pons led the Volunteers with 24 points, and Jordan Bowden came alive early in the second half, knocking down three 3-pointers and finishing with 19 points after a scoreless first half.

Tennessee pulled within three late in the second half, but Azubuike had a block and hit four free throws late to keep the Volunteers in check.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The pressure will stay on Azubuike, whose early foul trouble stalled Kansas’ offense and allowed for a substantial Volunteer run.

Tennessee: Only three Volunteers – Pons, Santiago Vescovi and John Fulkerson – scored in the first half, and Tennessee turned the ball over 15 times. Despite the offensive struggles, the Volunteers were able to stay within arms’ length.

UP NEXT

Kansas: The Jayhawks head to Stillwater, Oklahoma, on Monday to take on Oklahoma State.

Tennessee: The Vols host Texas A&M on Tuesday.

Bubble Banter: It’s that time of year again!

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It’s getting to be that time of year.

Bubble Banter is back, baby!

Over the course of the next three days, we are going to be diving headlong into bubble chatter right here, breaking down every single team that is on or near the bubble for the NCAA tournament Field of 68. This, of course, is according to our Dave Ommen, who sent me a list of all the bubble teams. Our cut-off, at least for this conversation, is teams that currently sit as a No. 9 seed or better in the most recent bracket that we released.

Why?

Because — with the notable exception of Ohio State — it is difficult to see how any of those teams can end up out of the NCAA tournament before our next bracket projection gets published on Monday.

So, you know, they’re not currently on the bubble.

Anyway, come back throughout the weekend to see who the winners and the losers are and what it means for their standing in regards to the cut line.

WINNERS

PURDUE (NET: 37, NBC: Off the bubble): Purdue’s schizophrenic January continued on Friday with a blowout win over Wisconsin (30) at home. The Boilermakers have lost four of their last six, and the two wins were utterly dominant wins over the Badgers and Michigan State (10). Their 11-9 (4-5) record isn’t pretty, but three Quad 1 wins and just one Quad 3 loss — at Nebraska (165) — is enough to keep them in the mix.

NORTH CAROLINA (NET: 113, NBC: Off the bubble): The Tar Heels are still in the mix for the NCAA tournament for one, simple fact: All of their worst losses have come without Cole Anthony, and it appears that Anthony will be returning to the team at some point. After beating Miami, UNC is now 3-7 without him and 6-3 with him on the floor. They’ve beaten Alabama (38) on a neutral court, they’ve beaten Oregon (17) on a neutral court and all three of their losses with Anthony are Quad 1 losses. Remember, they still play four top ten teams during the regular season. They’ll have chances, and if they can get hot with Anthony back, they’ve got a shot.

ARIZONA STATE (NET: 62, NBC: Next four out): The Sun Devils landed just an enormous win on Saturday night, coming back from 22 points down to beat Arizona (9) at home in their last chance to take on the Wildcats during the regular season. Believe it or not, that is the first Quad 1 win for the Sun Devils, and given that they only have one Quad 2 loss — Virginia (64) on a neutral court — I think it’s pretty clear that this group is not all that far away from getting a bid. They just needed a couple big wins. Knocking off Arizona certainly qualifies.

OKLAHOMA (NET: 47, NBC: Play-in game): The Sooners have put themselves in a pretty good spot after knocking off Mississippi State (52) on Saturday. They’re 13-6 overall and all six of their losses are of the Quad 1 variety. Throw in a pair of Quad 1 wins — Minnesota (39) on a neutral and Texas (67) on the road — and five Quad 2 wins, and this is a good start. With six games left against Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia and Texas Tech, there are plenty of resume-boosting wins available.

SYRACUSE (NET: 66, NBC: Off the bubble): The Orange are starting to play like a top five team in the ACC this season. On Saturday, they knocked off Pitt in the Carrier Dome, pushing them to 6-3 in the league and 13-7 overall. They do have a questionable home loss to Notre Dame (79, Quad 3) but they’ve won four true road games in league play, two of which are Quad 1 wins. A 5-6 record in Quad 1 and 2 games is enough to keep them in and around the bubble for now.

ST. JOHN’S (NET: 81, NBC: Off the bubble): Since beating Arizona in California on Dec. 21st, St. John’s has now lost six of their last eight games. The only team that they have beaten in that stretch is DePaul, who they swept on Saturday with a road win. That’s the third Quad 1 win for this group, but with eight losses on the season — including a loss at home against Vermont (101) — the Red Storm have work to do.

ALABAMA (NET: 38, NBC: Next four out): The biggest problem that Alabama has right now is their losses. They dropped a home game to Penn (181) on the opening night of the season. They lost a game to North Carolina (113) in the Bahamas. They also lost to Iowa State (70) in the Bahamas. Those do not look good right now. The Tide have turned their season around — beating Kansas State (89) on Saturday was their fourth straight win and their seventh win in the last nine games — but they have just one win over a top 50 team. They get LSU (24) on the road on Wednesday and, in February, play at Auburn (18) and LSU again. I think winning two of those three games will be critical.

SAINT MARY’S (NET: 40, NBC: Last four byes): The Gaels hung on against Loyola Marymount on the road on Saturday, meaning that they avoided one of the landmines left on their schedule. They Gaels own wins over BYU (27) and Wisconsin (30) and while they have lost to Santa Clara (103) and Winthrop (137) at home, the Gaels are 6-2 against the top two Quads and still get BYU on the road and two shots at Gonzaga (4).

VCU (NET: 41, NBC: Play-in game): The Rams avoided one of the landmines on their schedule as they went into Philly and knocked off La Salle. VCU is now 15-5 overall with a Quad 1 (LSU, 24) and Quad 2 (at Charleston, 124) win. The Rams have a ton of work left to do, but the fact that their worst loss is against Tennessee (59) on a neutral court and that there are a number of potential Quad 1 wins left on their league schedule will help quite a bit.

RHODE ISLAND (NET: 53, NBC: First four out): The Rams avoided one of the landmines left on their schedule, winning at St. Bonaventure on Saturday, but they are not in a great spot at the moment. URI is on the wrong side of the bubble right now, and while every team in the power conferences are playing one or two Quad 1 games a week, URI has just two left on their schedule — their two games against Dayton (5).

UTAH (NET: 77, NBC: Off the bubble): The Utes are in the mix because they have a pair of Quad 1 wins on their resume — Kentucky (23) and BYU (27) on neutral courts. And if you ignore their trip to Myrtle Beach, where they lost to Coastal Carolina (185) and Tulane (126). On Saturday, they avoided another such loss by knocking off Washington State (102).

EAST TENNESSEE STATE (NET: 49, NBC: 12): The Buccaneers are in a pretty good spot right now thanks to a win at LSU (24) in December. They’re 17-3 overall with a pair of Quad 1 wins, but they do have one bad loss — at North Dakota State (159) — which means that they cannot take step on another landmine during league play. Winning out in the regular season is the only option here.

YALE (NET: 60, NBC: 12): The Elis are in this conversation because they don’t really have a bad loss to speak of. Their “worst” loss was a road game at San Francisco (!00), and if North Carolina gets Cole Anthony back, then that loss is not going to look nearly as bad by Selection Sunday. Their problem is a lack of quality wins. They won at Clemson (75), which is barely a Quad 1 win. That’s their only win that didn’t come against Quad 3 or 4 opponents. That’s not going to change in the Ivy. I think they need to win out and lose to Harvard in the Ivy title game to have a real at-large chance.

LOSERS

MEMPHIS (NET: 42, NBC: 10): Oh, Memphis. Two days after losing by 40 at Tulsa (65), the Tigers turn around and blow an 11-point lead in the final five minutes at home against SMU (68). They aren’t in real trouble yet, but it is worth noting that they have not beaten a single team in the top 45 in the NET and that their three best wins — N.C. State (45), Tennessee (59) and Cincinnati (56) — are teams that may not make the NCAA tournament.

TEXAS TECH (NET: 32, NBC: Play-in game): I’m not sure people realize just how little their is on Texas Tech’s resume right now. They beat Louisville (11) on a neutral court. They beat Iowa State (70) at home. They beat Oklahoma State (83) at home. They won at Kansas State (89). Combined, that’s one Quad 1, two Quad 2 and a Quad 3 win. They have eight wins against sub-200 teams and have lost to seven Quad 1 opponents, including Kentucky (23) at home on Saturday. The Red Raiders will have plenty of chances to build on their profile — they get West Virginia (7) at home and play at Kansas (3) next week alone — but there is no doubt that this team has to start winning some games against teams that are not horrific.

PITT (NET: 74, NBC: Off the bubble): On the one hand, the Panthers have a couple of really nice home wins — Florida State (12) and Rutgers (19). On the other hand, they have a couple of really ugly losses — Wake Forest (104) and Nicholls (180), both at home. If Cole Anthony returns and North Carolina wakes up it could end up being a game-changer for the Panthers, who have swept the Tar Heels.

TEXAS (NET: 67, NBC: Off the bubble): Texas rallied, and ultimately lost, at home against LSU (24) on Saturday, which is a tough blow for the Longhorns. LSU is a Quad 1 opponent, and the Longhorns have some ground they need to make up. They’ve now lost three in a row and five of their last seven games, and a November win at Purdue (37) does not look quite as good now as it did at the time.

VIRGINIA TECH (NET: 44, NBC: Last four byes): The Hokies may go down as the biggest loser of the weekend. Playing at Boston College (164), Virginia Tech suffered their first Quad 3 loss of the season despite the fact that the Eagles shot just 11-for-27 from the free throw line. That’s just brutal. Bubble teams need to avoid these landmines, and Mike Young’s team couldn’t. The good news? They have three Quad 1 wins — including Michigan State (10) on a neutral — and they all came away from home. It’s not all bad.

LIBERTY (NET: 50, NBC: 12): The Flames just killed their hope of getting an at-large. The Flames are 0-1 in Quad 1 games, 1-0 in Quad 2 games (Akron on a neutral) and 2-1 in Quad 3 games. They have 14 wins over Quad 4 opponents and just lost to Stetson (309). They’re frauds.

TENNESSEE (NET: 59, NBC: Next four out): Tennessee missed on a great chance to add a marquee win to their resume when they lost at Kansas (3) on Saturday. The Vols had won four of their last five prior to that game, and it looks like they’ve gotten their season turned around. They are 12-7 overall but just 3-7 against the top two quadrants and they have yet to beat a top 40 team. They still play seven Quad 1 games, and that doesn’t include Arkansas or Florida at home. The Vols are in a good spot if they can get hot.

BYU (NET: 27, NBC: 10): The Cougars have really good computer numbers, and they do have some quality wins to their name — at Houston (36), Virginia Tech (44) and Utah State (73) on neutrals — but after losing at San Francisco on Saturday, BYU now has three Quad 2 losses and a 4-7 record against the top two Quads. With games remaining against Saint Mary’s (40) and Gonzaga (4) at home, BYU should be OK if they can get one of those and avoid the landmines.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (NET: 52, NBC: Next four out): There’s not a lot to like about Mississippi State’s resume right now. They have one win over a top 75 team this season — Arkansas (34) at home — and their only road win came at Coastal Carolina. They’s lost to Louisiana Tech (91) at home and New Mexico State (109) on a neutral floor. What am I supposed to be impressed with?

N.C. STATE (NET: 45, NBC: Last four byes): The Wolfpack have a 14-6 record to go along with solid computer numbers and three Quad 1 wins, two of which came on the road. The issue with their resume, outside of a lack of elite wins, is a pair of losses to Georgia Tech (93). Today’s came on the road. N.C. State has four games left against top ten teams, including three at home. They’ll have their chances to add to this profile.

WASHINGTON (NET: 48, NBC: Off the bubble): Washington lost at Colorado (20) on Saturday, meaning they have now lost three in a row, five of their last six and seven of their last nine games. They’re 12-9 overall with a pair of Quad 3 losses, a 1-5 mark against Quad 1 and a 2-7 record against the top two Quads. But here’s the thing: They beat Baylor (2) on a neutral, and that will go down as arguably the best win in college basketball this season. With two more games against Arizona (9) and another shot against Stanford (16) at home, the Huskies are far from dead.

DEPAUL (NET: 57, NBC: Last four byes): Saturday’s home loss to St. John’s (81) is not going to do any favorites for DePaul, who now has as many Quad 3 losses (three) as they have Quad 1 wins. It doesn’t help matters that four of their next five are on the road, starting with a visit to Seton Hall (13) on Wednesday. The Blue Demons have lost six of their last seven games. The next two weeks will determine where they play in March.

RICHMOND (NET: 54, NBC: First four out): The Spiders lost to Dayton (5) on Saturday at home, a critical loss because it’s really the only game-changing opponent that they had left on their schedule. They do play VCU (41) twice, and picking them off in Richmond will be a Quad 1 win, but that’s not going to be enough to get them to leapfrog any high-major teams that play a dozen Quad 1 games in league play. Richmond is in a bad spot.

LEFT TO PLAY

SUNDAY

VIRGINIA at Wake Forest, 12:00 p.m.
No. 11 Michigan State at MINNESOTA, 3:00 p.m.
Fordham at SAINT LOUIS, 3:00 p.m.
XAVIER at Creighton, 4:00 p.m.
Loyola-Chicago at NORTHERN IOWA, 4:00 p.m.
OHIO STATE at Northwestern, 6:30 p.m.