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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.

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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.

Thursday’s Things To Know: The Pac-12 gets wild and the greatest comeback of the year

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It was a wild night out west, as the WCC and the Pac-12 got a little rowdy.

Here’s everything you need to know.

1. THERE IS STILL A THREE-WAY TIE ATOP THE PAC-12

We did not get much more clarity in the Pac-12 regular season title race on Thursday night. All four teams that were sitting in a tie for first-place in the league were in action, and the only one that lost — No. 14 Oregon — is the one that was playing on the road against another league leader.

The Ducks fell at Arizona State on Thursday night, losing 77-72 as the Sun Devils picked up their sixth straight win. They are now sitting at 9-4 in the league and have more or less played their way into a spot where missing out of the NCAA tournament would be something of an upset.

RELATED: Latest CBT Bubble Watch

Elsewhere in the Pac-12, No. 18 Colorado erased an early double-digit deficit at home against USC as the Buffaloes moved to 10-4 in the Pac-12. Technically speaking, Colorado is sitting all alone in first place in the league, one game up in the win column on both of the Arizona schools.

Speaking of Arizona, the No. 24 Wildcats blew out Oregon State at home on Thursday night, winning by 26 as their three freshman combined for 43 points. The Ducks will visit the Wildcats on Saturday afternoon at the same time that Arizona State is hosting Oregon State. UCLA, who is sitting just a game out of first place in the Pac-12, will pay a visit to Colorado.

Put another way, we’re one wacky Saturday away from having a five-way tie atop the Pac-12.

I’m here for that insanity.

2. SAN FRANCISCO MADE THINGS INTERESTING ENOUGH TO KEEP ME UP LATE

The Dons gave No. 2 Gonzaga their toughest fight of the WCC season in San Francisco last month, and at halftime of their visit up to Spokane on Thursday night, it looked like we were in store for another battle.

USF was up 31-22 at the half. By the time they woke in the second half, they were down 46-33. That’s a 24-2 run for those of you scoring at home.

The Zags would go on to win 71-54.

3. EASTERN ILLINOIS ERASES 27-POINT LEAD WITH 40-10 RUN

Eastern Illinois trailed Murray State, who entered the night tied for the lead in the Ohio Valley, 50-23 with just over 11 minutes left in the game. They trailed by 21 points with just over six minutes left. They were down by 15 points at the four minute mark.

Then, over the course of the last 3:34, the Panthers hit nine straight shots, went on a 23-5 run and won when this shot went in at the buzzer:

Arizona State lands sixth straight win over No. 14 Oregon

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TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Alonzo Verge Jr. scored 26 points, Rob Edwards added 24 and Arizona State beat No. 14 Oregon 77-72 on Thursday night for its sixth straight victory.

The Sun Devils (18-8, 9-4 Pac-12) continued their unexpected charge up the conference standings following a mediocre January. Every team in the Pac-12 has lost at least four league games.

Oregon (20-7, 9-5) bumbled its way through a big chunk of the game, clanking errant 3-pointers and giving up turnovers. But the Ducks used an 11-0 run to it at 54 with 7:17 left.

RELATED: Latest CBT Bubble Watch

Arizona State responded with the next six points, which included a 3-pointer from Edwards, and never trailed again.

Payton Pritchard had 18 points for Oregon but fouled out with about two minutes left, badly hurting the Ducks’ chances of a last-minute rally. Will Richardson also had 18 points and Chris Duarte added 10.

Oregon struggled for most of the first half, especially in the first few minutes, and missed 11 of its first 12 shots. Arizona State started slowly too, but closed the first half on a 12-4 run. Remy Martin hit a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left to give the Sun Devils a 34-23 halftime lead.

Martin – the team’s leading scorer at about 20 points per game – took an inadvertent elbow to the face midway through the first half and had to go to the locker room. He missed a few minutes before returning and banking a 3-pointer into the basket on the next possession.

The Ducks shot just 37% in the first half and had 11 turnovers.

BIG PICTURE

Oregon: The Ducks made a run in the second half to make things interesting but couldn’t totally overcome their rough offensive game. Oregon’s now lost three straight road games.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils continued their mid-season surge with a gritty performance that relied on defense and hustle. The program’s trying to make its third straight NCAA Tournament appearance for the first time since the 1960s.

UP NEXT

Oregon has another road game against No. 24 Arizona on Saturday.

Arizona State hosts Oregon State on Saturday.

Follow David Brandt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Luka Garza’s big night carries No. 20 Iowa past No. 25 Ohio State

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) Luka Garza scored 24 points, and No. 20 Iowa got strong contributions from its bench in a 85-76 win over No. 25 Ohio State.

It was Garza’s 12th consecutive game of 20 points or more in Big Ten play, the longest streak for an Iowa player in 49 seasons and the most by any conference player in the last 20 years.

Bakari Evelyn came off the bench to score 15 points for the Hawkeyes. Joe Wieskamp had 13 points, and Ryan Kriener added 12.

RELATED: Latest CBT Bubble Watch

The Hawkeyes (19-8, 10-6 Big Ten) opened the game with a 27-8 run in the first 10 minutes. Ohio State (17-9, 7-8) closed to within 43-35 with 41 seconds left in the first half, and was within nine points on three occasions early in the second half before Iowa went on an 18-8 run to lead 69-50 with 6:43 to play.

Freshman E.J. Liddell led Ohio State with a season-high 17 points. Duane Washington Jr., had 15 points. C.J. Walker had 11. Kaleb Wesson had 10 points before fouling out.

FREDRICK OUT

Iowa redshirt freshman guard CJ Fredrick missed his second consecutive game because of a right ankle injury.

Fredrick, who has 22 starts this season, is averaging 10.7 points per game and is second on the team with 42 3-pointers. He missed two games earlier this season with a stress reaction in his left foot.

BIG PICTURE

Ohio State: The Buckeyes, who had won five of their last six games, lost a little momentum heading into Sunday’s game with Big Ten leader Maryland.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes extended their home winning streak to 12 games and stayed among the top teams in the league standings.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Ohio State: The Buckeyes moved into the poll this week after a four-week absence. This loss could drop them out of the rankings.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes are off until next week, so they should maintain their position, if not improve a spot or two.

UP NEXT

Ohio State: The Buckeyes play at home against Maryland on Sunday.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes play at Michigan State next Tuesday.

Meet The Mabreys: Three sisters making a splash in women’s hoops

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A college athlete, a WNBA player, and an assistant coach.

Dara, Marina and Michaela Mabrey all have a fierce passion for basketball and an unbreakable bond with each other. Despite being almost constant competitors—whether that be in their driveway growing up or as foes in the ACC—the sisters have found a way to remain close and act as one another’s role models and confidants.

Their two brothers, Roy and Ryan, also share a love for the game, and finish out the Mabrey family starting five.

The Mabrey sisters have made quite the impact on women’s college basketball. The youngest sister, Dara, is a sophomore at Virginia Tech, while Marina and Michaela both played for Notre Dame—even overlapping for one year. On Thursday night, Dara’s Hokies will face off with Michaela’s Fighting Irish.

“I’m just super proud of both of them and where they’re at in their careers,” Michaela said. “I’m really happy to watch them every day and see how much they’ve grown, as basketball players and as women.”

The bonds of sisterhood

“As much as we can, we’re always there for each other.”

Despite the current distance between them, they find a way to talk every single day, Michaela added.

It’s been difficult for the sisters since the WNBA season ended. Marina is currently playing basketball overseas in Latvia, and her sisters haven’t seen her since September. Michaela is at Notre Dame and Dara resides in Blacksburg, Virginia, but the two face a rigorous ACC schedule that keeps them apart for most of the season. 

“We’re all super super close,” Dara said. “Even when things happen and we’re upset, we’re always the first people we call. Especially when we really need it, it does suck being away from your sister.”

Even while Marina was still in college, it could be hard to see each other with the busy schedules that college athletes undertake. But, this never stopped the Mabrey sisters from being there for one another when it really counted. 

When Marina was in her freshman year, Michaela spent time with her sister, walking her through all the challenges and obstacles of being a student athlete. And when Dara was dealing with the typical plight of being a first-year college athlete, Michaela went down to Virginia to be with her. 

Marina, learning from her big sister, did the same for Dara. 

“Marina drove through the night one night, my first summer there when I was kind of homesick,” Dara added. “She drove through the night for 11 hours from Notre Dame to Virginia Tech.”

When Michaela graduated and went into the working force, she was still able to find time for both of her sisters. 

“Last year, when I was working at LSU, we had a bye week and I was able to see Dara and watch her play against North Carolina,” Michaela said. “And I followed Marina throughout her entire tournament last year. I was at every game.”

While it could be easy to let life get in the way, that’s not how the Mabrey sisters operate.

“Those are my best friends,” Michaela beamed, seeming to smile through the phone. 

Growing up

“Obviously when you’re growing up, you do the same things your older siblings do,” Dara explained.

That’s how it all started for the Mabrey sisters. Michaela, the oldest, watched her brother Roy play basketball, and Marina and Dara followed in her footsteps from there. 

“We were all eager to play when we were younger… watching it and being around it so much made us want to do it,” Dara said. 

Each only two and a half years apart, the New Jersey natives didn’t have to wait long to be able to play against one another in their childhood driveway — where some of their most intense and competitive battles took place.

“Someone would come in crying or someone would be in trouble for pushing too hard,” Dara laughed. “There were plenty of times where someone would think it was a foul, someone thought it wasn’t a foul… Then someone would end up walking away. You’d give them 5 minutes to calm down and then eventually ours start playing one on one again.”

“I would try to play against Roy and Michaela and cry if I lost,” Marina added. “My mom would make them play with only their left hands and try to make it somewhat fair…but I stomped and cried every time I lost.”

Michaela has one story that comes to mind out of all of the pickup games the siblings played growing up.

“Last Christmas, when everybody was home, we went to the gym on Christmas morning. And it was Marina, Dara and Ryan — my little brother who’s 16.

“Marina always wins, she’s won almost every single year we’ve played. She always wins. And Ryan beat her this last Christmas. Me and my dad were on the side just laughing… They’re yelling at each other and they’re fouling each other. And my little brother Ryan ended up winning and Marina had a giant fit and it was so fun to just watch.”

While each sister had to deal with the pressure of being compared to an older sibling, Marina and Dara had to fight to escape Michaela’s shadow. Marina was apprehensive about choosing Notre Dame, as she wanted to make sure it was the right place for her. Dara, on the other hand, felt she had to differentiate herself from both older sisters.

“I was never compared to people in my class that I was playing against,” Dara admitted. “I was always compared to Marina and Michaela, which kind of stunk.

“Definitely, there was that added pressure my entire life. But I think people knew I was for real when I chose Virginia Tech, and they were like, ‘Oh she’s doing her own thing.’ That’s when they actually started taking it seriously.”

(William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Playing the game they love

“I just knew. When I came back from Virginia Tech I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I want to go there,’” Dara gushed. 

Instead of following in her sister’s footsteps to Notre Dame, Dara chose to go to another ACC school. In her freshman year, the 5-foot-7 guard averaged 11.2 points per game and was shooting 46.2 percent from beyond the arc. This year, Dara is averaging 12.7 ppg and is shooting 38.4 percent from three.

“I’m undersized, obviously, so I have to make up for it by playing as hard as I can,” Dara explained. “You can erase any mistakes when you do that. I’ve always been a believer in that, but what some people don’t know is that there’s a lot more where that comes from.”

“I’m just super proud of her and how she’s progressed the last year,” Michaela said of her sister. “I’m super excited for her and her career taking off a little bit more this year, and how their team is playing. They’ve got a really great team and Dara is a huge part of it.”

Michaela is no stranger to great teams, either, as part of the winningest class in Notre Dame women’s basketball history from 2012-2016. Marina was at Notre Dame from 2015-2019, overlapping with her sister for one year and being a part of the 2018 national championship team. 

“Winning the ACC championship together and everything like that, it was so unique,” Michaela said. “That year still to this day is one of the best years of my life, and to be able to share that with Marina.”

The oldest Mabrey sister thought about going overseas to play professionally after she graduated, but changed her mind “kind of last minute.” She had been told by different people that she’d make a great coach, so she tried it. 

“I love it, I love being back at Notre Dame and helping these girls just have the best experience on and off the court,” Michaela gushed. 

Marina went on to be drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks as the 19th pick in the second round, and averaged four points and 1.2 rebounds in 11.5 minutes per game in her rookie campaign. 

“For Marina, this has been her dream since I can’t remember how old… she is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever been around,” Michaela said, getting audibly choked up. “If she has a dream, she’s going to go get it. This has been something she’s talked about forever, being a WNBA player.”

The middle Mabrey sister is currently playing for TTT Riga in Latvia, where she is averaging 15.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 9 games. 

“I’m learning a lot about what it takes to be a pro here,” Marina explained. “I feel like I’m becoming a much better point guard because I’m working very hard every game to get my teammates involved and also understand when it’s time for me to contribute.”

Beyond her basketball skill, Marina is known for creating the “This Is My Kitchen” campaign.

“This is my kitchen campaign came about because people on Twitter would put down women’s basketball,” Marina explained. “They would make it hard for people to support us because of their disrespectful comments stereotyping where women belong, such as in the kitchen, cleaning or cooking. I got tired of reading it and of no one standing up for women’s basketball so I decided to.”

Her shirts gained the support of a wide variety of people, from NBA stars—such as Kyle Kuzma and Bradley Beal—to her teammates. Even the late legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi showed their support for the campaign.

“A lot of NBA players were in support of the movement and tweeted their support,” Marina said. “They reached out to me to have girls they know wear the shirt, so I’m happy that the world will spread that women’s sports deserve respect.”

Looking ahead

For the second year in a row, Dara will be up against one of her best friends. 

Marina was a senior at Notre Dame when Dara was a freshman, and the two faced off once, with the Fighting Irish handling the Hokies easily in an 80-51 win. Their parents sat in the stands wearing shirts that had the Irish on one side and Hokies on the other—Marina’s creation.

This year, Dara will face Notre Dame with Michaela on board as an assistant coach. 

”It’s definitely a unique situation,” Michaela admitted. “And, obviously, I’ve been watching Virginia Tech since Dara went there so I think I have a little advantage… But, I do my scouts the same every single time, whether we’re playing Dara or anyone else in the ACC. I think it’s just going to be an exciting moment for Dara and I.”

“Michaela’s a really good coach and it turns out, of course, that she’s scouting Virginia Tech. So she’s probably going to tell her players every single one of my weaknesses and how to defend it,” Dara laughed. 

Just as Dara didn’t follow her sisters to Notre Dame, she may not follow their career paths either.

“I’d like to do either [coach or play professionally], but if I can get a really good broadcasting job, I also might do that because I know that basketball definitely doesn’t last forever,” she said.

Marina is excited to get back to the Sparks in May and utilize what she’s learned overseas in her second year with the team. She’s excited to “earn more playing time, get better individually and become a better teammate.”

Michaela is focusing on how she can impact the women at Notre Dame both on and off the court, and is excited about the future of women’s collegiate and professional basketball.

“I think there’s a lot of attention that has stirred around women’s basketball the last few years,” Michaela said excitedly. “Even with the new rules that the WNBA put in and how much respect we get from NBA players, from men’s college basketball players. I think it’s just going to keep going up and up.”

“For women sports to reach the respect level of men sports, we’ll just have to keep pushing and give it time,” Marina added. “The WNBA is young compared to the NBA in years and we’re on track to be popular and start to strive towards much more popularity and attention.”

Bubble Banter: NC State, Indiana land massive wins

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There is plenty of action happening on the bracketology bubble watch despite it being a relatively slow night for college hoops.

Dave Ommen’s latest bracketology can be found here. Rob Dauster’s Bubble Watch can be found here. The full NET rankings can be found here.

Here is everything you need to know to.

THE BUBBLE WATCH WINNERS

N.C. STATE (NET: 60, NBC: First four out): The Wolfpack are easily the biggest bubble winners of the week, as they blew out Duke (6) at home on Wednesday. It’s the fifth Quad 1 win for Kevin Keatts — they’re also beaten Wisconsin (30) at home and three sub-50 teams on the road — to go along with an 8-6 record against the top two Quads. The biggest problem here is that they have three Quad 3 losses, two of which came at home. As of today, I would have N.C. State on the right side of the cutline and in a play-in game.

INDIANA (NET: 63, NBC: 10): Indiana picked up their fifth Quad 1 win of the season on Wednesday, going into Minnesota (44) and knocking off the Golden Gophers. This one was particularly important because of the fact that the Hoosiers only had a single road win entering the night — at Nebraska (175). They are 7-9 against the top two Quads, and their worst loss is at home to Arkansas. The Hoosiers are in a better spot than people realize.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (NET: 53, NBC: First four out): After beating South Carolina (62) at home on Wednesday night, the Bulldogs have now won two straight games and five of their last seven games. Those two Quad 3 losses are not going away, but with a pair of Quad 1 road wins and a 6-7 mark against the top two Quads, Mississippi State has themselves in a spot where they cannot afford to slip-up given that they have just a single Quad 1 opportunity left on their schedule.

VIRGINIA (NET: 54, NBC: 11): The Wahoos have now won three in a row and six of their last seven after picking off Boston College (151) at home. They have three Quad 1 wins and an 8-6 mark against the top two Quads with home dates left against Duke (6) and Louisville (10). They’re in a good spot right now.

UTAH STATE (NET: 41, NBC: Play-in game): After beating Wyoming, the Aggies have won five in a row and eight of their last nine games, ensuring they are still in the NCAA tournament mix and fully turning around a season that looked like it was lost as recently as four weeks ago. Wins over LSU (31) and Florida (35) are nice, but with three road losses to sub-90 teams and no more chances to land marquee wins, how are they going to make up for those losses? They don’t play another top 100 team the rest of the season. I don’t see how they can get in without beating San Diego State (1) in the MWC tournament.

MEMPHIS (NET: 59, NBC: Next four out): Memphis is hanging on by a thread right now, but they are still alive after knocking off a bad East Carolina (208) team at home. Memphis has just one Quad 1 win and they don’t have a win over a team inside the top 50; their best win is Cincinnati (50) at home. Throw in a pair of quad 3 losses, and the Tigers have plenty of work to do. The good news? They still get two games against Houston (27), a trip to SMU (67) and a home date with Wichita State (43).

RICHMOND (NET: 46, NBC: Play-in game): The Spiders are still in a good spot for an at-large bid after beating up on George Mason (167) at home. They’re sitting at 20-6 overall with a pair of Quad 1 wins — Wisconsin (30) on a neutral and at Rhode Island (32) — as well as two Quad 2 wins. The trouble with their resume is a a pair of Quad 3 losses, but in a year where so many bubble teams look destined to amass 11 or 12 losses, Richmond will be in the mix. They cannot truly improve their resume until the A-10 tournament.

EAST TENNESSEE STATE (NET: 42, NBC: 11): After beating Furman (71) on Wednesday night, the Buccaneers have gotten through the toughest part of their schedule. They have a win at UNCG (55) and a win at LSU (31). With a 21-4 record and a loss to Mercer (205) at home, the Buccaneers have to win out and lost to only UNCG or Furman in the SoCon tournament to have a chance, and even that might be a bit of a longshot.

STEPHEN F. AUSTIN (NET: 87, NBC: 12): Stephen F. Austin is 23-3 on the season and 20-3 against Division I competition. Their losses came at Rutgers (28), at Alabama (38) and at home to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (316) by a single point. That’s the worst loss that anyone on the bubble is going to take this season. But they also own a road win at Duke (6), which will go down as one of the very best wins that anyone gets this season. I’m not sure what else they can do.

… AND LOSERS

CINCINNATI (NET: 48, NBC: Play-in game): The Bearcats shot themselves in the foot on Wednesday, losing at home to UCF (125) in the fourth straight overtime game that they have played and their sixth one possession game in a row. Cincinnati have just two Quad 1 wins and four Quad 3 losses. They’re in a bad spot.

GEORGETOWN (NET: 43, NBC: Play-in game): The Hoyas fell to 15-11 on the season with a home loss to Providence (58). It snapped a two-game losing streak and put the Hoyas in a very difficult spot. With road trips to DePaul (70), Marquette (23) and Creighton (11) and home dates with Xavier (39) and Villanova (15), Georgetown has a tough, tough schedule remaining. They do have five Quad 1 wins and a 9-11 mark against the top two Quads, so they are in a good spot.

MINNESOTA (NET: 44, NBC: Off the bubble): The Gophers are below .500 after losing to Indiana (63) at home. This is the last time they’ll be in this space until they start winning a few games.

SOUTH CAROLINA (NET: 65, NBC: Next four out): The Gamecocks had a chance to play themselves into a really good spot on Wednesday, but they lost a close game at Mississippi State (53). At 16-10 overall with a Quad 3 and a Quad 4 loss, the Gamecocks have plenty of work left to do and not all that many great chances left for wins.

ALABAMA (NET: 36, NBC: First four out): Alabama fell to 14-12 overall with a loss to a bad Texas A&M (134) on Wednesday. They now have just one Quad 1 win compared to a pair of Quad 3 losses. Throw in their overall record and the fact that they don’t have a road win over a team ranked in the top 95, and they are in serious trouble.