If you’re going to advance very far in the NCAA tournament, you’re going to be in your fair share of close games. It’s just the way it works. And if you find yourself needing to pull out a game late, you’re going to need a clutch player. Here’s our starting five of players you want with the ball with your season in the balance.
Jalen Brunson, Villanova: There might not be a cooler or level-headed player in the country. Brunson, our National Player of the Year is always in control, always calm and always in command of the moment. Brunson put up huge numbers this season, but it’s the intangible stuff, the things that makes the Wildcats go, that make him the go-to guy with the game on the line.
Keenan Evans, Texas Tech: Remember this shot?:
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier: Bluiett proved his worth last season when he was the best player in the tournament for three games while leading No. 11 seed Xavier to the Elite 8. And I would post a video here of him making a game-winning shot, but there are just too many to pick from.
Collin Sexton, Alabama: Texas A&M found out the hard way how good Sexton can be in the waning moments of a close game, as did the rest of the country. Sexton is one of the most dynamic players in the nation, and can get a good look whenever he wants thanks to his speed and athleticism. Give him the ball and let him go to work.
Carsen Edwards, Purdue: Not only is he a great player, but Edwards looks to be great at preaching coolness under pressure to his teammates.
This GIF is better than any inspirational poster ever.
Miles Bridges, Michigan State: Talent from head to toe and ice water in his veins, Bridges’ offensive ability makes him one of the great late-game players in the country. Get him the rock, and let him win you the game.
Devonte Graham, Kansas: He may not be quite as good in the clutch as his former backcourt mate Frank Mason, but Graham controls the game and is a great decision-maker. The Big 12 player of the year, Graham is completely capable of guiding the Jayhawks to the finish line when things get tight.
Trae Young, Oklahoma: Yes, Young’s production has dropped as the Sooners stumbled to the finish line this season, but ask yourself a simple question: Who is more capable of making a tough shot or creating an open look for a teammate with the game on the line than Young? The answer may be no one. Get Young across halfcourt and he’s within his range. Get him near the rim, and he’s got a circus shot he can execute. Throw extra defenders at him, and he’ll get the ball to an open shooter. If the game’s on the line and the ball’s in Young’s hands, you’ve got a shot.
Friday’s College Basketball Recap: North Carolina outlasts Duke, Ayton stars and the drama continues at Memphis
The 7-foot-1 freshman put up 32 points and 14 rebounds as Arizona defeated UCLA, 78-67 in overtime. He made 13 of 16 shots and 5 of 6 from the line while also posting three assists and a pair of blocks and steals each.
There will be debates in draft rooms across the NBA about who to take No. 1, but Ayton continues to make his case that it should be a short conversation. Luka Doncic could very well be awesome, Marvin Bagley III is great and Michael Porter, Jr. is intriguing, but Ayton has put up huge numbers night in and night out for a team embroiled in chaos more often than not.
He was great again. And he’s the player of the day.
THE REST OF SATURDAY’S STARS
JORDAN DAVIS, Northern Colorado: Who cares what his numbers were. He did this. If you don’t click that link, you’re depriving yourself of one of life’s greatest gifts.
Remember when Alabama lost five-straight to finish the year and entered the SEC tournament on the bubble? After Collin Sexton’s heroics Thursday and domination Friday, that seems like an awfully long time ago.
The Crimson Tide got 31 points and seven boards from Sexton and defeated rival Auburn, 81-63, to not only strengthen their NCAA tournament team, but to suddenly have a look of a team that should have top seeds running scared.
It’s amazing what a difference a couple of days in March can make.
GAME OF THE DAY
There are plenty of candidates for this one given what a wildly entertaining day Friday was, but let’s give it to a game that was decidedly uncompetitive.
San Diego State 90, No. 22 Nevada 73. Final.
The Aztecs led by as many as 30 and just ran roughshod over a really good Wolf Pack team. All five SDSU starters scored in double figures and they shot 51.9 percent as a team. Now they’ve got a shot to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015.
Tubby Smith’s lawyer accused Penny Hardaway of sabotage.
Yeah, you read that right. the Memphis coach’s long-time attorney threw a pretty big allegation in Hardaway’s direction, positing that the potential Smith replacement and the leader of grassroots powerhouse Team Penny has been steering high-level Memphis kids away from their hometown team.
It’s quite the accusation, but it’s also kind of a self-own. Smith’s lawyer is essentially admitting that Memphis would maybe, probably, potentially be getting Memphis kids – highly-ranked Memphis kids – if Hardaway took over the program. Even if there is something underhanded going on – and there doesn’t appear to be any evidence right now there is – telling the world your guy is essentially getting out-recruited by the favored replacement isn’t exactly a winning strategy. Especially on a day that Memphis was, ya know, actually winning.
The federal investigation into college basketball has been awfully quiet – aside from leaks detailing ASM Sports’ business plan – but the feds apparently aren’t done digging. The Raleigh News & Observer reported Friday that NC State has been served with a subpoena seeking documents.
Mississippi State’s Nick Weatherspoon suffered what looked to be a very scary injury when a Tennessee player inadvertently stepped on his head. The school later announced that the freshman, whose brother is a junior on the team, was awake and had feeling throughout his body.
NCAA has not yet cleared Alabama freshman Collin Sexton
On Monday morning, Alabama freshman Collin Sexton was announced as one of 32 players on the preseason watch list for the Oscar Robertson Trophy for the national player of the year.
Later Monday, the school announced the point guard will not be on the floor to start the season as he has yet to be declared eligible by the NCAA due to details in court records stemming from the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball.
“The NCAA informed us late this afternoon that Colin Sexton has not had his eligibility reinstated by the NCAA,” Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said in a statement. “We don’t have any further information at this time, but we will continue to cooperate with the NCAA and work toward a resolution that results in Colin’s timely reinstatement.
“While we are disappointed, the right decision was to err on the side of caution for tonight’s exhibition game.”
After Monday’s exhibition against Alabama-Huntsville, the Tide play Memphis on Friday in their season-opener. Sexton’s absence will certainly be a huge blow to Avery Johnson’s program if it extends far into the year. The 6-foot-3 Georgia native was a consensus top-10 player in the 2017 class.
Alabama basketball administrator Kobie Baker resigned earlier this fall as part of the scandal. Baker is reportedly “Staff Member 1” in federal court records, and is alleged to have accepted money from a cooperating witness in the investigation in return for introducing the FBI informant to the father of a highly-rated recruit, who is believed to be Sexton.
Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.
First up: Final Four Sleepers
It takes a certain amount of talent to be able to win a national title in college basketball, even if that talent doesn’t always show up every night.
Winning four games in two weeks to get to the season’s final weekend can be done by a team with a handful of future pros and 10 losses on the season. We see it all the time.
Here are seven teams that have the tools to make a run to the Final Four even if they don’t have a great chance of winning their conference and look likely to enter the NCAA tournament outside the top four seeds.
If you’re not the kind of program that is going to be landing five-star, soon-to-be lottery pick freshmen by the car-load each and every fall, the best way to win basketball games is to get old and stay old. No one quite embodies that ethos this season like Seton Hall does.
Head coach Kevin Willard entered the 2015-16 season on the hot seat after his loaded 2014 recruiting class sparked a 13-3 start to the 2014-15 season before the team fell off a cliff, losing 12 of their last 15 games and missing out on the postseason entirely. Following that season, the Pirates jettisoned some of their baggage and returned a core of sophomores that would eventually lead the program to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances despite losing Isaiah Whitehead to the 2016 NBA Draft.
And now, four members of that 2014 recruiting class — guards Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez, big men Angel Delgado and Ishmael Sanogo — are now seniors leading what may be the best Seton Hall team since the P.J. Carlesimo days. Delgado’s name is the one you need to know. The 6-foot-9 Dominican power forward is one of the toughest and most physical bigs in the country. It’s not a mistake that he averaged 15.2 points and 13.1 boards last season, numbers that jumped to 16.4 points and 14.5 boards in Big East play.
He’s Seton Hall’s All-American. He was also the team’s third-leading scorer last year, behind Carrington and Rodriguez, who are both tough, physical New York City guards; Carrington is more of a combo while Rodriguez is a wing. Sanogo Michael Nzei are tough, athletic, defensive-minded front court players, and you’re starting to see the trend here, right?
Playing Seton Hall is not going to be fun this season, and while they may not be the most talented team in the country this year, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that plays harder.
There are going to be two things that determine Seton Hall’s ceiling:
Does Seton Hall have a point guard? Freshman Jordan Walker is the only true point that will be eligible this season, and the Pirates ran into some problems that came with a lack of playmakers last season. Asking a freshman to handle those responsibilities will be tough, but it helps that Carrington can handle the ball and that everyone else on the floor will be a veteran.
What does Myles Powell turn into? He had some promising moments as a freshman, including 26-point outbursts at Iowa and at Xavier. If he become a more consistent shooter, that opens up a lot more space for Delgado inside.
Last year, Alabama finished the season as one of the top ten defensive teams in college basketball, according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.
Not only do the Crimson Tide return essentially everyone from that team, they also add one of the nation’s best recruiting classes to the mix. More importantly, that recruiting class features players that are able to get buckets in a hurry, and if you any Alabama basketball a year ago, you know that was a major issue; they were 153rd in adjusted offensive efficiency and, in February, played a four-overtime game against South Carolina where they managed all of 90 points in 60 minutes of basketball.
The name that you’re going to want to be familiar with is Collin Sexton, a top ten prospect in the class and the pound-for-pound best freshman scorer in the country. Assuming he’s eligible – which is no guarantee given the fact that he appears to be linked to the college basketball bribery scandal that erupted last week – it’s going to be interesting to see how he adjusts to the college level — in high school, the 6-foot-2 guard’s game was centered around getting into the lane, throwing his body into people and getting to the foul line — but he should immediately help relieve some of those scoring issues, as will five-star off-guard John Petty. Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram are both back in the mix as well, while former four-star big man Daniel Giddens will be eligible after transferring in from Ohio State.
I’m still very-much taking a wait-and-see approach with the Tide this year, but the combination of last year’s defense combined with the influx of scoring talent Avery Johnson will see in his back court this year gets the Tide a ceiling that is as high as anyone’s in the SEC this side of Kentucky and Florida.
It’s going to be easy for people to write off this UCLA team.
Lonzo Ball is gone, as is T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford. Instead, the Bruins will enroll Liangelo Ball, the worst of the three Ball brothers and the one that may end up igniting LaVar’s ire if he does not play the kind of minutes and get the kind of shots he envisions.
Frankly, I’m not even going to bother trying to convince you otherwise. There are major, major question marks surrounding this team.
But let’s pretend, for a second, that LaVar Ball did not exist.
The Bruins may have the best point guard in the Pac-12 in Aaron Holiday, who is one of the nation’s most underrated players. They have Thomas Welsh, a senior big man that can space the floor, and G.G. Goloman, another veteran front court presence. Prince Ali is coming off of an injury but he was a five-star prospect coming out of high school. Then there is the recruiting class: Jaylen Hands might be the reason that Holiday isn’t the best point guard on UCLA this year, and wing Kris Wilkes may actually have the biggest impact as a freshman. Throw in four-star recruits Chris Smith, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, and there is talent, depth and experience up and down this lineup.
They’ve got a shot to make some noise.
You want a sneaky sleeper pick for National Player of the Year that no one seems to be talking about?
The 6-foot-6 wing was an absolute killer when he wasn’t dealing with an ankle injury last season, and through the first three rounds of last year’s NCAA tournament, he was the best player in the event. He’ll be back, potentially as a Preseason First-Team All-American, to anchor a roster that is probably more talented and athletic than you realize.
Senior wing J.P. Macura is back, as is sophomore Quentin Goodin, a former four-star recruit that has some promising moments as in an up-and-down freshman season filling in for the injured Edmond Sumner. Throw in a trio of four-star perimeter recruits, an experienced and versatile frontline and The Return of the (Chris) Mack, who was a target during Indiana’s coaching search, and there is a lot to like about this team.
But it’s Bluiett that is the centerpiece. As much as anyone in college basketball, he can put this group on his back and carry them to four straight wins in March, and with this supporting cast and coaching staff, that make Xavier a dangerous team.
The Golden Gophers were one of college basketball’s biggest surprises a season ago. Richard Pitino entered the season on the hot seat before winning 12 of their first 13 games only to lose five straight midway through Big Ten play. They would regroup, however, winning eight straight down the stretch, finishing the year with 24 wins and, somehow, turning into the obvious first round NCAA tournament upset as a No. 5 seed.
It was a roller coaster, but given the youth that was on that roster and the fact that Akeem Springs is the only contributor that won’t be returning to school, it was a nice starting point for what could turn into an extended run of Big Ten success.
Nate Mason is back for his senior year while junior Dupree McBrayer and freshman Isaiah Washington give Pitino plenty of back court options. Amir Coffey, a former five-star recruit, had a terrific freshman campaign as a versatile wing while the front court options are plentiful — Reggie Lynch and Bakary Konate return, and Davante Fitzgerald’s return to health should help mitigate the loss of Eric Curry.
All told, that means a Pitino-coached team has a talented, experienced perimeter attack with a bevy of big bodies on the front line. If Coffey can grow into an all-Big Ten talent, Minnesota will have the horses to give Michigan State a run for their money atop the league.
To me, the Fighting Irish have reached the point in their program development that they are to the ACC what Wisconsin was to the Big Ten under Bo Ryan. Instead of trying to figure out who is going to play what role, just assume that the pieces Mike Brey has matriculating through his program will find a way to figure it out.
There is no better example of this than last year, when the Irish lost Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste from a team that went 24-12 and somehow managed to win more games with a better ACC record despite using 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson as their small-ball center for much of the year.
And never has there been a player more perfectly-suited to a role than Colson is to playing in Mike Brey’s system. He’s borderline unstoppable one-on-one, and when the Irish plant knockdown shooters everywhere around him, they become a nightmare to defend.
Matt Farrell, who was one of the most pleasant surprises in college basketball last season, will return as well, but the key for this group is going to be three-fold:
Will Temple Gibbs and Rex Pflueger, two wings that entered Notre Dame with expectations and a high rankings by recruiting services, take advantage of the minutes made available by the graduation of Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem?
Will D.J. Harvey, a talented forward that was once a top ten player in the Class of 2017, have an immediate impact as the big wing that the Irish currently lack?
Does Martinas Geben become a player that can anchor a front line when needed?
If all three of those things happen, Notre Dame will once again be a top 20 team that can beat anyone on any given night.
Second SEC team falls to Canadian powerhouse Carleton
For the second time in a five-day span, an SEC program has fallen to the dominant Canadian powerhouse, Carleton University.
On Monday evening, the Ravens defeated Vanderbilt, 61-56, in the Paradise Jam Tournament held at the U.V.I. Sports & Fitness Center in St. Thomas.
Eddie Ekiyor, originally a Xavier forward, led the Ravens with 17 points to go along with his five rebounds. Matthew Fisher-Davis matched Ekiyor’s point total with 17 of his own to lead the Commodores.
The Ravens have won 13 of the last 15 national titles, including seven in a row.
Last week, Carleton took down Alabama, a team pegged in the top-25 for next season, 84-71, in the 2017 Can-Am Shootout. The victories over the two SEC teams mark the 29th and 30th victory Carleton has landed over NCAA Division I programs.
This is the second loss in as many days for Vanderbilt, falling to the U.S. Virgin Island national team, 81-78, in the first exhibition game of the team’s summer foreign tour.
The Commodores are back in action on Wednesday against Brock University (Canada). They take on Carleton again the following day.
Carleton has two more opportunities to upset NCAA Division I opponents, bookending the rematch with Vandy with exhibition contests against Northern Colorado and James Madison.