The big talking point this week comes with Kentucky’s win over Tennessee, which came just four days after Kentucky lost at home to LSU.
I wrote all about the top five battle on Saturday. Without taking anything away from what Kentucky did, I think that the way that game played out had as much to do with situation — Kentucky, at home, coming off a brutal loss against a team that hadn’t been tested in two months — and matchup as it did with what each of those two teams are.
Put another way, I still buy the idea that this Tennessee team can win it all, just like I still believe Virginia can win it all despite losing to Duke twice in the last month.
Beyond that, the toughest thing to do with ranking teams this week was figure out what to do about injuries. I dropped Michigan State to No. 17 because it appears that they have lost Nick Ward for an extended period of time. The Spartans were not all that talented to begin with and now they are down their top two scorers. I also dropped Kansas State over the uncertainty surrounding Dean Wade’s health. If he’s not 100 percent — and if Cartier Diarra isn’t playing — then Kansas State is a bad basketball team offensively.
Barrett has been something of a disappointment this season considering what the expectations for him were coming into the year. He was the No. 1 prospect in the class, the guy we thought was going to the No. 1 pick, and he’s been … just an all-american?
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, I guess.
One of the knocks on Barrett throughout the year has been that he can be too selfish and that he’s an inefficient gunner. Well, on Saturday, as Zion Williamson poured in 32 points while battling foul trouble in a 94-78 win over N.C. State, Barrett completed just the fourth triple-double in the history of the Duke program. He had 23 points (8-for-16 shooting), 11 boards and 10 assists, and he did it without committing a turnover.
MICHIGAN: The Wolverines kept a hold on first place in the Big Ten race by rolling over No. 24 Maryland in Ann Arbor on Saturday.
AVERY BENSON AND ANDREW SORRELLS: No. 15 Texas Tech steam-rolled another Big 12 opponent on Saturday, beating Baylor by 25 points. And while the win didn’t make all that much noise, Texas Tech did make some headlines thanks to a pair of walk-ons who through an alley-oop in the final seconds of a blowout win. Chris Beard was not happy:
Chris Beard is HEATED. He wanted Texas Tech to run out the clock, instead they went alley-oop in the final seconds when they were up 23. pic.twitter.com/xwqo3nKhNw
Whatever the punishment ends up being — the suicides, the wall-sits, whatever it is — it was worth it. Walk-ons only get so many shots at glory. If you have a chance to throw a lob or catch a lob and dunk it as a walk-on, you take it. Those two already are legends on campus.
Like I said, it was worth it.
LSU: The Tigers hung on to beat Georgia on the road, their second road win of the week. This is significant because Kentucky knocked off Tennessee on Saturday as well, and that Wildcat win means that LSU is now tied with Tennessee for first place in the league standings. The best news? Four of LSU’s final six games are at home, including hosting a game against the Vols. And the Vols also have to play Kentucky against. Is … is LSU the odds-on favorite to win the SEC now?
INDIANA: This has to be rock bottom for the Hoosiers, right?
Not only have they now lost 10 out of their last 11 games, but this loss was a total and complete humiliation. The Hoosiers lost by 21 points at Minnesota. They trailed by as many as 30. With an NCAA tournament bid still up in the air, Indiana played as if they didn’t even want to make the trip up to Minneapolis. This has not been the sophomore season that Archie Miller wanted.
DEAN WADE’S FOOT: No. 18 Kansas State lost to No. 23 Iowa State at home on Saturday, which cost them the cushion they had in the Big 12 title race, but that might not be their biggest loss of the day. Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Dean Wade suffered another foot injury. It does not appear to be all that serious, but for a guy that has missed long stretches of each of the last two seasons with foot injuries, everything is serious.
CLEMSON: The Tigers lost their second straight game in demoralizing fashion on Saturday. Against Louisville, the Tigers erased a seven point deficit in less than 15 seconds and, with 3.5 seconds left in a one-point game, forced a turnover and had two shots two win it at the buzzer. Spoiler alert: They didn’t. On Wednesday, it was Miami — one of the worst teams in the ACC — hitting a last-second jumper that bounced off the backboard twice before going in. There’s only a bid to the NCAA tournament on the line here.
Kansas is always going to find a way to win the Big 12.
I mean, it’s proven to be true for 14 straight years, regardless of what disaster or obstacle gets put in their way.
And after what transpired on Saturday, it looks like we’re heading down that same road again.
Kansas State entered the day holding a two game lead in the loss column in the league title race. But they lost at home to Iowa State and, in the process, lost Dean Wade. The injury does not appear to be serious, but it does appear to be something that will, at the very least, bother him for a little while. We know what Kansas State is without Wade on the floor at 100 percent (not very good), which opens the door for Kansas.
The standings, as of today, look like this:
Kansas State (9-3)
Texas Tech (9-4)
Iowa State (8-4)
Kansas still has to play at Texas Tech next Saturday in the game that appears to be the most likely to keep Kansas from calling themselves Big 12 champions one again. The Jayhawks also host Kansas State while Texas Tech pays a visit to Iowa State on the last day of the regular season.
Those are the games that will decide the Big 12 regular season title.
And despite starting four freshmen, one of whom was supposed to redshirt this season, while playing without Udoka Azubuike, Marcus Garrett and Lagerald Vick, Kansas is very much in the thick of the race.
One win in Lubbock next week, and they might even be the favorites.
Someone once told me, time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re going to do over and over and over again.
R.J. Barrett’s triple-double, Zion Williamson’s 32 points lead No. 2 Duke past N.C. State
DURHAM, N.C. — RJ Barrett had Duke’s first triple-double in 13 years, finishing with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in the second-ranked Blue Devils’ 94-78 victory over North Carolina State on Saturday night.
Zion Williamson scored 32 points on 12-of-16 shooting and Tre Jones added 13 to help the Blue Devils (23-2, 11-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) win their ninth straight.
Barrett became the fourth Duke player with a triple-double and the first since Shelden Williams in January 2006. He completed it in the final minute, hitting Williamson for a layup that put Duke up 90-74.
Duke overcame 19 percent shooting from 3-point range by building a 44-26 rebounding advantage and scoring 22 points off N.C. State’s 12 turnovers.
Markell Johnson had 16 points and 10 assists, Torin Dorn scored 17 points and C.J. Bryce added 13 points for the Wolfpack (18-8, 6-7), who had their two-game winning streak snapped.
N.C. State: The Wolfpack played like a team that believed it could beat Duke — because they had, winning each of the last two meetings — and kept coming up with an answer when the Blue Devils tried to pull away. But their struggles to keep Duke from scoring in the paint — the Blue Devils had 58 points there — kept them from their first three-game winning streak in the series since 1987-88.
Duke: The Blue Devils didn’t need a rally in this one, unlike their victory at Louisville four nights earlier in which they stormed back after trailing by 23 with less than 10 minutes left. They kept one neighborhood rival at arm’s length all night — though they never really delivered a knockout blow — and now they can focus on a bigger one: No. 8 North Carolina, which comes in Wednesday night.
IN THE SEATS
There was even more buzz inside Cameron Indoor Stadium for this one, with boxer Floyd Mayweather sitting directly behind the Duke bench and next to former Blue Devils guard Quinn Cook. Among the handful of other NBA players in attendance was Minnesota’s Tyus Jones, the older brother of the current Duke point guard, and Phoenix’s T.J. Warren, a Durham native and former N.C. State star who was in the stands with NBA All-Star Weekend taking place 2 hours away in Charlotte.
Best Bets: Previewing Tennessee-Kentucky, Iowa State-Kansas State, weekend’s biggest games
There are a number of reasons that this battle of top five teams is one of the most interesting matchups of the season, and perhaps the most relevant is the obvious: These are both top five teams! I know Kentucky just lost to LSU in Rupp Arena, but that still doesn’t really change the fact that Kentucky is, legitimately, one of the eight-to-ten teams that are the most likely to earn a spot in Minneapolis for that first weekend in April.
Kentucky still gets two shots at Tennessee, who also must travel to LSU. A SEC regular season title is still very much in the cards for the Cats.
And all of that is before you get to the actual personnel matchups here, which should be terrific. Grant Williams, for my money, is No. 2 in the National Player of the Year voting. He’s been dominant on the block for the Vols this season, and he will be asked to go up against P.J. Washington and Reid Travis on Saturday afternoon. The more intriguing matchup of the two will be Washington, who himself has been playing like a first-team All-American over the course of the last three weeks.
It is precisely that frontcourt battle that is going to play a major role in determining the outcome of this game. For starters, it will be strength on strength. Tennessee’s offense runs through Williams. Kentucky’s offense runs through Washington and Travis. We also need to note that the Wildcats can be absolutely dominant on the offensive glass. They are third nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. They know that there are times where their best offense is a missed shot, and the Vols have not been great on the defensive glass this season.
The perimeter battle may actually end up being more interesting. As we discussed on the Why Your Team Sucks podcast, the concern for both of these teams is whether or not there is enough firepower in their backcourts to win at the level they expect to win. For Kentucky, the concern is obvious: Ashton Hagans, as good as he is defensively, is not a threat on the offensive end of the floor while Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson have gone through the bouts of inconsistency that you expect out of freshmen.
The conversation is a bit more nuanced with Tennessee. Their backcourt is not overloaded with high-end talent, and if there is an issue standing between them and a national title, it’s whether or not those guards are going to be able to win them close games against elite teams. We will get that answer on Saturday night.
PICKS: All three metrics project this game to be play in the mid-70s with the line landing at Kentucky (-2). Frankly, I am not sure what side I want to be on here. On the one hand, Kentucky is coming off of a home loss, they are hosting the No. 1 team in the country in their building and they have a roster that has more talent on it. It’s also worth noting here that while Tennessee is on a 19 game winning streak, the only surefire NCAA tournament team they’ve beaten in that streak was Gonzaga on Dec. 9th. The best team they have played in the last two months was … Alabama? Florida? This will be their first major test in a long, long time.
That said, there is a very real difference in toughness and experience on these two teams. This is the same Tennessee roster that won the SEC last year. They have been through the rigors of a title race. They are also a much older and tougher group of guys that were overlooked throughout their career, and I can guarantee that there is nothing they would love more than pounding on some highly-touted freshmen that haven’t had to fight the fights they’ve fought.
Tennessee is the most complete team in the country, but I just cannot bring myself to pick against Kentucky after the way they lost on Tuesday. If the line opens at (-2), I’ll probably be on the Wildcats, but here’s to hoping the total opens in the high-140s and we can bet the under instead.
No. 23 IOWA STATE at No. 18 KANSAS STATE, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Kansas State 64, Iowa State 63
TORVIK PROJECTION: Kansas State 65, Iowa State 64
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Iowa State 66, Kansas State 65
Might we be getting a battle between the two best teams in the Big 12 on Saturday afternoon? That could very well be the case.
The first time these two teams got together, Kansas State won 58-57 in Ames after an Iowa State defensive breakdown in the final seconds gave Barry Brown an easy bucket for the win. I do not expect the rematch to be quite as ugly as the first battle, and the reason for that is the return of Dean Wade. He played 22 minutes in the first game, but he was not back to being himself after battling a foot injury. He is now, and he’s playing the all-american we predicted him to be.
And for my money, he will be the most important player in this game, especially with Cartier Diarra out after undergoing surgery on his hand. Iowa State plays four perimeter players at almost all times, meaning that Wade is going to be the mismatch. He’ll have smaller players — Talen Horton-Tucker? — on his when he’s at the four and will be guarded by slower bigs when he is at the five. If he can win those matchups on the offensive end, it will be tough for Iowa State.
Wade’s return has boosted Kansas State offensively. There was one point this season where they ranked outside the top 200 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric, and while they are hardly last year’s Villanova with Wade — their best shooter and best passer — back, they have worked their way back to 109th in KenPom’s rankings. In conference play alone, they are the fifth-best offensive team, one spot in front of Kansas, and that includes their 0-2 start to league play where they scored 47 points against Texas and 57 points against Texas Tech.
PICKS: This could be the game that wins Kansas State the outright Big 12 title. They currently hold a two-game lead over the field in the loss column, and their schedule really lightens up down the stretch. Their next two games are at West Virginia and Oklahoma State at home. They still have to go to Allen Fieldhouse, but they end the season with Baylor at home, TCU on the road and Oklahoma at home.
Win on Saturday, and Kansas State can afford a loss at Allen Fieldhouse and still control their own destiny.
I will be very curious to see where this line opens. The metrics still are underrating Kansas State because of how dreadful they were without Wade, so if this opens around Kansas State (-1), then I will hammer the Wildcats.
This could be the worst possible time for anyone to play Michigan. The last time we saw the Wolverines, they were getting embarrassed by the last place team in the Big Ten as Penn State went up 13 points at halftime as John Beilein was tossed before he even made it back to the locker room for the break.
Michigan is now tied for first in the league instead of having sole possession of first place, and they’re heading home pissed off after a loss where they played terribly?
That’s a tough spot before you consider that Maryland just does not matchup well with Michigan. Anthony Cowan will have to deal with Zavier Simpson. Bruno Fernando will have Jon Teske to battle with. They are Maryland’s two major sources of offense.
PICKS: I tend to lean towards Michigan here, even if the line opens at (-7) or so. I just don’t know where Maryland gets offense from.
No. 13 VILLANOVA at ST. JOHN’S, Sun. 5:00 p.m. (FS1)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Villanova 73, St. John’s 72
TORVIK PROJECTION: St. John’s 75, Villanova 74
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: St. John’s 76, Villanova 72
I actually think St. John’s is a difficult matchup for the Wildcats because of the way the Johnnies play. Like Villanova, they essentially role five switchable perimeter players out there without much, in any, interior scoring presence. For years, Villanova has thrived on their ability to create mismatches all over the floor, and I just don’t know if they’re going to be able to do that against the Johnnies. The first time they played this year, St. John’s led for most of the game before a late Villanova run won it.
That said, there is no comfort betting on a team that is as inconsistent as St. John’s is. They are currently 6-6 in Big East play with home losses to DePaul, Georgetown and Providence, but they’ve also swept Marquette this season.
PICKS: I have no idea what this line is going to be. KenPom is favoring Villanova by one point. Torvik has St. John’s winning by one. Haslametrics has the Johnnies winning by four. If St. John’s ends up favored, I’ll probably bet Villanova simply because I am not in the business of betting against Villanova, especially when Jay Wright is going up against Chris Mullin.
N.C. STATE at No. 2 DUKE, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Duke 89, N.C. State 70
TORVIK PROJECTION: Duke 93, N.C. State 73
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Duke 94, N.C. State 72
I have a feeling that this game is going to get really ugly, really quickly.
The way to beat Duke is proven. Defensively, you stay disciplined, you pack the paint, you gap them and you dare them to beat you with jumpers. Offensively, you need to slow the game down and control tempo, avoiding quick shots and live-ball turnovers that lead to layups. N.C. State wants to press, they want to run and they want to gamble to force turnovers.
I just don’t see that working out all that well.
PICKS: The projections suggest Duke should be roughly a 20 point favorite, although I think the line will be closer to (-17ish). I like the Duke side if that is the line, but I like the over even more, assuming it opens around 160. For perspective, when N.C. State played North Carolina, the final scores were 90-82 and 113-96.
BAYLOR at No. 15 TEXAS TECH, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Texas Tech 66, Baylor 58
TORVIK PROJECTION: Texas Tech 67, Baylor 58
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Texas Tech 68, Baylor 56
The question that you have to ask here is whether or not you buy the Texas Tech that we’ve seen of late. After a swoon in mid-January that saw Chris Beard’s club lose three in a row, they’ve won five of their last six, including a pair of blowout wins in the last two weeks that have seemingly given them their confidence back on the offensive end.
And that’s where I think this game will be won. Baylor runs a wonky zone that is somewhere between a 2-3 and a 1-3-1, and the issue that the Red Raiders face is that they can really go through droughts offensively, especially when Jarrett Culver isn’t on his game. They aren’t a great shooting team or a great passing team, and those are the two things you need to be able to do to beat a zone.
That said, the shots have been falling of late. They made 22 threes in their last two games.
Two other things to note: Baylor has lost two of their last three games, but Makai Mason returned to action on Monday after missing last Saturday’s game against Kansas State. There is no word yet on King McClure’s status. The first time these two teams played this year, Baylor won 73-62 in Waco.
PICKS: I’ve long been a believer in Texas Tech, and I think that the Bears are going to come back to earth hard over the final stretch of the season. They won three of their first four road games in Big 12 play, but those were wins at Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Oklahoma, the bottom three teams in the league standings. Their four road trips to end the season: Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State and Kansas. If this line opens at (-8), I’ll be on the Red Raiders.
LeBron on the Zion recruiting trip: ‘I didn’t talk to anybody’
The story that overshadowed the story Duke’s win at Virginia last Saturday was the presence of LeBron James and his agent Rich Paul sitting courtside in John Paul Jones Arena.
Were they simply there to watch two of the best teams in the country? Were they just trying to catch a glimpse of The Zion Show before LeBron is forced to call him a competitor? Or was this Paul and LeBron on a recruiting trip for Klutch, the agency that Paul runs and LeBron is a client of?
According to the GOAT himself, it’s the former.
“I love what those young boys are doing over there,” he told ESPN in a story published on Friday. “I love what Zion and RJ [Barrett] and Cam [Reddish] and Tre [Jones], I love what they’re doing. So, [the trip] was a no-brainer. It was easy.”
LeBron also bristled at the notion that this was anything more than taking his chance to see the rematch of what was the biggest game of the year in college hoops.
“A recruiting trip? I didn’t talk to anybody,” James said. “They’re only saying that because it’s Rich. When Shaq came to see me play in high school, when A.I. came to see me play in high school, they weren’t saying it was a recruiting trip then. But because it’s Rich Paul and LeBron, now it’s a recruitment trip.
“Now Rich is a threat to everybody, and they look at it and they want to keep trying to jab my agent and jab my friend. And what is he doing that’s wrong?”
As far as Zion himself, LeBron’s read on the super star is … well, not all that different from everyone else. He was impressive with his “agility and quickness for his size” as well as his athleticism, but this nugget was more interesting.
“When they asked him about, you know, guys in our league and people who cover our league talking about, ‘If I was Zion Williamson, I would sit out for the rest of the year,’ he was like, ‘That’s [silly]. Why? I’m here to play basketball. I love to play basketball. I’m here at Duke, I’m having fun. These are my friends. I’m having a great time. Why would I sit out?'” LeBron said.
Since it’s Valentine’s Day, we’ll sweep the epic crumbles of futility – otherwise known as this year’s bubble – under the proverbial rug and try not to look.
Instead, we’ll send Happy Heart greetings to the Duke Blue Devils and LSU Tigers, both of whom celebrated huge road wins in the Commonwealth on Tuesday. For their efforts, Duke remains the No. 1 overall seed in today’s bracket. LSU rises to No. 12 on the seed list, good for the final No. 3 seed.
As for those crumbles, today’s cutline decisions included serious consideration for teams like Oklahoma, Indiana, Butler, and Florida, all of whom have significant resume issues. There are no clear answers, especially with regards to how the Selection Committee will use the NCAA’s new NET ratings. The good news for those four, and others, is we still have games to play.
BRACKET UPDATE: February 14, 2019
FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
Clemson vs. Arizona State
UNC Greensboro vs. Utah State
Norfolk State vs. Quinnipiac
Robert Morris vs. Prairie View
EAST – Washington, DC
SOUTH – Louisville
16) QUINNIPIAC / NORFOLK ST
Salt Lake City
5) KANSAS STATE
4) Iowa State
13) OLD DOMINION
6) Florida State
7) Mississippi State
7) Ohio State
10) NC State
10) Seton Hall
2) North Carolina
WEST – Anaheim
MIDWEST – Kansas City
Salt Lake City
16) SAM HOUSTON
16) ROB MORRIS / PR VIEW
8) St. John’s
5) Texas Tech
12) Clemson / Arizona State
12) NC-Greensboro / Utah State
13) NEW MEXICO ST
6) Virginia Tech
14) NORTHERN KENTUCKY
14) SOUTH DAKOTA ST
7) Ole Miss
2) MICHIGAN STATE
15) TEXAS STATE
Last 4 Byes
Last 4 IN
First 4 OUT
Next 4 OUT
TOP SEED LINE: Duke is the No. 1 overall seed, followed by Tennessee, Virginia, and Gonzaga
Breakdown by Conference …
ACC (9): DUKE, Virginia, North Carolina, Louisville, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, NC State, Clemson