What makes a breakout star is a subjective thing. Zion Williamson could average 50 and 25 as Duke cruises to a national title, but the only thing he’d be breaking is records.
Ja Morant plays for a mid-major, but he’s going to be a top-five pick come June’s draft.
So there’s a sweet spot of either being a role player thrust into prominence, an OK team who advances because of its best player or an unknown star for a mid-major.
That’s at least the criteria we’ll be looking at here.
Amir Coffey, Minnesota
Coffey was a major prospect before an ACL tear in high school kept his recruitment a bit lower-key, and he ultimately stayed home to play for the Gophers. At 6-foot-8 with athleticism and guard skills, Coffey is super talented and productive. He has the ability to absolutely go off, too, having scored 30-plus three times against Big Ten opponents. The trouble for him will be sticking around long enough to get noticed with Minnesota drawing the 10 seed in the east with No. 7 Louisville first and then potentially No. 2 Michigan State, which beat the Gophers by 24 in the teams’ only meeting this year.
Matt Mooney, Texas Tech
The Red Raiders, along with Kansas State, ended Kansas’ 14-year reign over the Big 12, and with Chris Beard the architect of their defense, there’s a real shot at a deep run here. Jarrett Culver draws the headlines and NBA scouts, but Mooney, a South Dakota transfer, is a decent bet to outperform expectations. He’s shooting 50 percent on 3s in the last month and if Texas Tech is going to be a true Final Four threat, they’ll need to give Culver some help offensively.
Anthony Lamb, Vermont
The Catamounts’ star is a high-scoring, rebound-grabbing, sweet-shooting and major-usage player in the form of the 6-foot-6 Rochester, N.Y native. Lamb averages 21.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.9 blocks per game. He shoots 37 percent from 3 and 52.1 percent overall. He shoots a ton – taking nearly 35 percent of his team’s attempts while he’s on the floor – and sometimes volume is the key to Big Dance stardom. The only way to make a bunch of shots is to take a bunch of shots. The draw is a little tough with Florida State in Round 1, but then a sinking Marquette team or good-but-not-daunting Murray State team between them and the Sweet 16.
Matt McQuaid, Michigan State
The 6-foot-5 senior is an absolute sharpshooter for one of the country’s best teams. Shooting from 3 at a 43.3 percent clip, McQuaid is going to be tasked with taking and making big shots for the Spartans, who are looking to get back to the Final Four after three-straight first-weekend flameouts. Cassius Winston is the Spartans’ star, no doubt, but here’s betting McQuaid finds himself in a situation or two where he can be a hero on a big stage.
Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s
Ponds is an electrifying guard that can take over a game – the NCAA tournament loves players like that – and he averaged 19.5 points per game for Chris Mullin and Co. He can really fill it up, and it’s fun to watch him cook when he’s at his best. The problem is, he can run hot and cold, plus there’s the issue of St. John’s being exiled to Dayton and the First Four. Ponds has the game and the role to breakthrough, but there’s plenty working against him, too.
ONE SHINING MOMENT HEROES
Jarron Cumberland, Cincinnati
The Bearcat junior is a name hoop-heads know well, but isn’t on the radar of NBA draftniks or casual fans by virtue of playing in the AAC. Cincinnati is a basketball brand, though, and that could help Cumberland capture hearts and minds. The 6-foot-5 AAC player of the year averaged 18.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. His shooting percentage is ugly at 40.4 percent overall, but that’s because he struggles inside the arc, shooting just 41.3 percent on 2s. Outside the arc, it’s a strong 39.1. He’s another high-usage player, who if he gets hot will put up monster numbers. The path isn’t horrible either, with No. 10 Iowa in the opening round and then a Tennessee team that’s great but also just took a 20-point L to Auburn.
Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga
Clarke shouldn’t be on this list. He plays for one of the best programs in the country and is having an absolutely astounding season. Honestly, it’s been fantastic. He wasn’t, however, names as a Naismith semifinalist or on the final watch list for the Karl Malone power forward award (or the Abdul-Jabbar for center if you see him as a five). So, apparently, he’s not getting the due he deserves, whether it’s because Gonzaga basically stops being part of the conversation for two months in the WCC, the discussion on Killian Tillie’s health sucked up the oxygen or playing next to Rui Hachimura just makes it hard to get noticed. The truth, though, is that Clarke is one of the most efficient offensive players in the country, and one of it’s most versatile and productive defenders. Maybe March is the time for the public to learn all that.
Corey Davis Jr., Houston
The senior guard is the best player on the team we don’t talk about enough after they went 31-3 in the regular season. Davis averaged 16.7 points per game and shot 38 percent from 3-point range. With Georgia State in the first round and then either an inconsistent Iowa State team or a mediocre Ohio State awaiting them, Houston’s path to the Sweet 16 isn’t overly formidable. Then it’s an excellent-but-beatable Kentucky and then maybe the field’s weakest 1-seed in North Carolina away from the Final Four. If it happens, bet that Davis will be a big reason why.
Given the stage he’ll be given provided the Bulldogs take care of business, Clarke is going to make it wildly apparent how good he is and how early we’ll hear his name from Adam Silver later this summer.
Report: Billy Kennedy out at Texas A&M after SEC tourney
Kennedy’s ouster has been rumored for weeks as the Aggies mired in a 13-17 season. Texas A&M made the Sweet 16 in 2016 and 2018 but are 150-115 overall during Kennedy’s tenure, which began in 2011 after he went to one NCAA tournament in five seasons at Murray State.
He was asked Tuesday if he anticipated being back in College Station for a ninth season.
“I do,” he said, per the Houston Chronicle. “I think we’ve done a lot of good things in this program when you look at winning a (league) championship, our guys academically are doing well and our program is in good shape.
We’ve got a good (recruiting) class coming in, and we’ve got some solid guys returning who’ve proven they can win in this league. I feel very confident about where we’re at as a program.”
Virginia Tech’s Buzz Williams and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson are expected to be the frontrunners to replace Kennedy, sources told NBC Sports.
Williams is a former Texas A&M assistant while Sampson helped build Houston into an AAC powerhouse that has spent much of the year ranked in the top-15.
Texas A&M begins SEC tournament play Wednesday against Vanderbilt.
Sunday’s Things to Know: Houston wins AAC title; three autobids earned; bubble madness in the Big Ten
The final regular-season Sunday in college basketball had some drama as a major conference title was decided. On the postseason side, three more autobids were also claimed while the bubble had some action as well.
Houston runs past Cincinnati to claim AAC regular-season title
Houston earned its first regular-season conference title since 1992 with a convincing 85-69 road win at No. 20 Cincinnati. The No. 12 Cougars poured on 48 second-half points as they went on a 35-12 run to put the game away. Corey Davis Jr. scored a career-high 31 points while freshman Nate Hinton produced a double-double of 16 points and 11 rebounds — knocking down some key three-pointers to ignite the comeback run.
For the fourth time in the last six games, Houston scored at least 85 points, which is a notable accomplishment considering the Cougars generally prefer to play on the slower side (232nd in adjusted tempo on KenPom). Houston already has a top-15 defense, so if its offense is getting hot before the postseason, then it’s a trend to keep an eye on during Championship Week.
Autobids handed out to Bradley, Gardner-Webb and Liberty
Sunday didn’t have very many regular-season games left. But there were plenty of conference tournaments to keep track of with three autobids being handed out in traditionally one-bid leagues.
The Big South kicked the autobid day off as Gardner-Webb earned its first NCAA tournament bid in school history by knocking off Radford for a true road win. With back-to-back true road wins during the conference tournament, the Bulldogs certainly earned their way into the Field of 68 with two difficult wins.
Things got crazy during the second half of the Missouri Valley Conference title game shortly after as Bradley rallied from an 18-point second-half deficit to stun Northern Iowa. A day after knocking out a Final Four team from last year in Valley No. 1 seed Loyola, the Braves followed it up with their eighth win of the season in which they were trailing at halftime to come back and win. This will be Bradley’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006 when they stunned the nation as a No. 13 seed who made the Sweet 16.
Finally, Liberty gutted out yet another road win for a team in an autobid situation by advancing in front of a sold-out crowd at Lipscomb. A high-level game featuring two teams who deserve a real look from the NCAA tournament committee, the Flames are back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2013. While Liberty is a potentially-dangerous double-digit seed, Lipscomb remains on the bubble as they have a long week of waiting ahead.
The bubble gets crazy in the Big Ten
Among bubble teams playing on Sunday, things got especially chaotic in the Big Ten. Indiana began the conference’s bubble day with a home win over Rutgers. Winners of four consecutive games, the Hoosiers have played their way back into the serious at-large discussion after a mid-season freefall.
Later in the afternoon, No. 21 Wisconsin outlasted Ohio State for an overtime road win that brutally hurts the Buckeyes’ bubble profile. Rallying from 23 points down to tie the game and force overtime, this was a golden opportunity for Ohio State to add some insurance by getting another Q1 win. Instead, they’ve dropped three straight games as the slide continues entering the postseason.
These two results mean that Thursday’s Big Ten tournament matchup between Indiana and Ohio State will have massive implications for the bubble. Both of these teams appear to be teetering right on the edge of the cut line as this result could ultimately put one team in while leaving the other team out of the proceedings.
NBC Sports Top 25: The final power rankings of the college basketball season
Yes, I’m the guy that still has Duke at No. 1. I explained why in detail last week, and I’m not going to do it again, especially now that it appears Zion Williamson will be back for the ACC tournament.
And just to make it clear: This does not mean that I believe Duke should be a No. 1 seed. I don’t. Losses, even if they come when a team is not at full strength, need to matter for things like NCAA tournament seeding. They don’t matter when it comes to how the industry — and me, specifically — rank which of those teams are the best.
Beyond that, there isn’t all that much to talk about in what will be the final top 25 of the 2018-19 season.
I bumped Texas Tech up to fifth after they won a share of the Big 12 regular season title. Outside of a three-week stretch in January when Jarrett Culver forgot how to shoot, the Red Raiders were the best team in that conference. With the way they are shooting and scoring the ball in the last month combined with that defense, they are very much a threat to win a national title.
One other thing that I’ll note here: I think there are three tiers at the top of college hoops. At the top is a healthy Duke, Gonzaga and Virginia. Right behind that trio sits North Carolina, Texas Tech, Tennessee and Kentucky. I think those seven are pretty clearly the top seven teams in the country, and one you get past them, it starts to get wild. Purdue, Kansas State, Michigan State, Houston, Michigan, Florida State, Nevada. I think there is an argument for all of these teams to be ranked in the back end of the top ten.
CINCINNATI — Galen Robinson Jr. raised his arms at midcourt as the buzzer sounded and red-clad Cincinnati fans headed glumly for the exits. No. 12 Houston has just drubbed the American Athletic Conference’s defending champion, leaving no doubt about who’s best this time around.
It’s the Cougars, and it’s not even close.
Corey Davis Jr. scored a career-high 31 points Sunday, and Houston dominated the second half for an 85-69 victory over No. 20 Cincinnati that clinched the AAC’s regular-season title outright.
The Cougars (29-2, 16-2) knocked off the defending champs and earned their first league title since 1992 in the Southwest Conference. Coach Kelvin Sampson got a celebratory dousing from his players afterward.
“At no point in time this year did I think we were a great team, but I thought we were a pretty good team and it showed on the road,” said Sampson, who had a white towel draped over the back of his soaked blue shirt.
Down by six early in the second half, Nate Hinton hit back-to-back 3s that started a 35-12 spurt. Davis’ back-to-back 3s put the Cougars up by 17 points and sent Cincinnati fans headed home with 4:22 to go.
“Corey Davis is the best two-way player in this league, plays both ends with the same voracity,” Sampson said. “Corey’s been consistently good. He never had a bad practice, never had a bad game.”
Hinton added 16 points and a career-high 11 rebounds as Houston scored at least 85 points for the fourth time in the past six games.
Last year, the Bearcats (25-6, 14-4) won the regular-season title and the AAC Tournament, beating Houston in the title game. This time, the Cougars swept the season series, winning in Cincinnati for the first time after 16 losses.
The Bearcats were outrebounded 42-28, with the Cougars getting 18 offensive rebounds. Coach Mick Cronin said the rebounding performance was embarrassing and suggested he’d invite some of Cincinnati’s football players to try out after such a poor showing.
“You give a team like that extra chances, they’re going to light you up,” Cronin said. “There’s not a whole lot to say when you get whipped that bad physically, dominated physically. The dam’s going to break eventually.”
The Cougars put themselves in position for a league title by beating the Bearcats 65-58 in Houston on Feb. 10, holding Cincinnati scoreless for the final 6:11.
Jarron Cumberland scored 20 points for Cincinnati on 4-of-11 shooting from the field.
Cincinnati held a slim lead through most of the first half, but Davis Jr. made a jump shot, a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws in the last 1:33 that sent the Cougars into halftime up 37-35. They missed eight of their first nine shots in the second half, and Cincinnati pulled ahead 47-41 .
Hinton hit back-to-back 3s that sparked the decisive run. The Cougars went 8 of 14 from beyond the arc in the second half while pulling away.
While Houston held its ground, the Bearcats’ losses this week to UCF and Houston could knock them out of the Top 25.
Houston finally overtook the team that had dominated them until this season — Cincinnati leads the series 31-5. The Cougars also set a school record with 29 regular-season wins, topping the 28-win team from 1967-68.
Cincinnati fell to 0-4 against ranked teams on the season, the main reason they never gained much traction in the poll despite their gaudy record. The Bearcats opened the season at home with a loss against then-unranked Ohio State and concluded it with the loss to the Cougars.
Houston handed Cincinnati its most lopsided loss since a 75-59 defeat at Temple on Feb. 10, 2015. It was the Bearcats’ most lopsided loss at home since a 68-47 defeat against VCU on Dec. 20, 2014.
The Bearcats honored senior point guards Justin Jenifer and Cane Broome pregame.
TOUGH AAC HOME
The Bearcats have rarely lost an AAC home game, going 34-3 in the past four seasons. The only other losses were against Temple and Wichita State. Overall, Cincinnati is 49-5 in AAC home games since the league was formed for the 2013-14 season.
Both teams will start tournament play Friday in the quarterfinals in Memphis, Tennessee.
Here is everything you need to know when betting the biggest games this weekend.
As always, this is coming out before the Vegas lines for Saturday’s games, so we are using projections from KenPom, Torvik and Haslametrics to walk through how the game will play out.
No. 4 DUKE at No. 3 NORTH CAROLINA, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)
KENPOM PROJECTION: North Carolina 84, Duke 83
TORVIK PROJECTION: North Carolina 87, Duke 85
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: North Carolina 87, Duke 85
This game is going to be one that is difficult to project because we don’t have an absolute answer on Zion Williamson’s status as of this writing. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski hinted at the idea that he would not be playing after their 71-70 miracle win over Wake Forest in Cameron on Tuesday night, so I would guess that he will likely be out.
I also have no feel for what the line or the total is going to end up being because there is no way that Vegas is going to rely on the projections for this one. Put another way, if the line opens at North Carolina (-2), I will bet everything I own including the dog on the Tar Heels.
Remember, this is a North Carolina team that went into Cameron and beat the Blue Devils by 16 points when Zion Williamson wasn’t playing. This time, they will be playing at home with a chance to land a sweep over their archrivals with a share of the ACC title — or, if Virginia loses to Louisville earlier in the day, the outright ACC title — on the line.
PICKS: We have talked plenty about just how much Williamson’s absence affects Duke, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. Without him, they lose rim protection. They lose their best rebounder. They lose the guy that forces live-ball turnovers and pick-six layups. They lose the guy that they can put on Luke Maye and know that they’ll have him neutralized.
But beyond that, they lose a guy that can score in transition and a guy that can get them easy buckets on the offensive glass. North Carolina isn’t exactly known for being a defensive powerhouse, but they are 11th in adjusted defensive efficiency this season and Duke, as we know, can struggle to score when they are forced into the halfcourt and their shots aren’t falling.
Put another way, there is no chance that I am going to be on the Duke side of this bet. The question is just how high the line needs to be before I think the Tar Heels lose value, and for me, it’s probably right around (-9). I also want no part of betting the under here, but I would probably only consider the over if the total opens around the mid-150s.
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Michigan State 70, Michigan 64
A rivalry game between two top ten teams with a Big Ten regular season title on the line. That sounds like a great way to end the final Saturday of the college hoops regular season.
The first time these two teams got together, Michigan State was playing just their second game after Nick Ward fractured a bone in his hand. We don’t have a definitive answer on Ward either way, and there was some speculation earlier this week that he might be ready to go, but for now I am going to operate with the mindset that he is not playing. The same can be said about Charles Matthews.
When these two teams squared off just 13 days ago, Michigan State changed the way that the defend ball-screens to tailor their defense to Michigan’s personnel: They went way under every ball-screen that Zavier Simpson was involved and, when it was Jon Teske setting those screens, they switch 1-to-5. The Wolverines haven’t played since Sunday, meaning that John Beilein will have had a full week to figure out a way to attack that defense.
I also think that it’s important to note that Zavier Simpson is as competitive as anyone in the country, and that he is not going to be happy about just how badly Cassius Winston cooked him when they played. Winston had 27 points and eight assists, and of the 57 possessions that Michigan State had before the Wolverines started fouling, 36 were a result of Winston ball-screens and another nine were run through Winston. He shoulders a massive load offensively, and Simpson is going to be the guy tasked with stopping him.
PICKS: This will likely be a stay-away from me, depending on what the lines opens at. I don’t want to bet on Michigan on the road, but I also don’t want to bet on Michigan State sweeping their archrival without three of their top seven or eight players. I fully expect this game to be close, so if the line gets to, say, Michigan (+5.5), I’ll buy the Wolverines.
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Texas Tech 72, Iowa State 67
These are two teams trending in very, very different directions.
Texas Tech has won eight in a row and ten of their last 11. They are currently tied for first in the Big 12 title race with Kansas State, and a win on Saturday afternoon would guarantee at least a share of — and possibly the outright — Big 12 regular season title. Iowa State, on the other hand, has lost two in a row and five of their last seven. They were blown out at Texas and at West Virginia in the last six days and they have lost three games in Hilton Coliseum this season.
The Red Raiders lost at home against the Cyclones earlier this year, but that was a different time and place for both of these teams. Texas Tech has been the best shooting team in the country over the course of the last six weeks, vaulting themselves from outside the top 100 in adjusted offensive efficiency into the top 40. Iowa State, on the other hand, may or may not have had a fight in practice that may or may not have resulted in Marial Shayok possibly breaking a toe by kicking a door. He did not play against WVU. On Wednesday night, Talen Horton-Tucker and Michael Jacobson had a bit of a shoving match on the court in the second half.
It’s a mess in Ames right now.
PICKS: I’m going to be very interested to see where this line opens. up. The average of the projections is about Texas Tech (-2.5), and while this game is going to be played in Ames, I think that number will climb. Considering that the Red Raiders have won three straight road games by an average of 15 points and that they will be playing with the Big 12 title on the line, I’d probably take Tech up to about (-8). There’s only one side that I want to be on in this game.
OKLAHOMA at No. 18 KANSAS STATE, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Kansas State 65, Oklahoma 59
TORVIK PROJECTION: Kansas State 66, Oklahoma 60
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Kansas State 66, Oklahoma 61
The first thing to note here is that Kansas State is going to know what they are playing for. If Texas Tech wins, they will be playing for a share of the Big 12 title. If Texas Tech loses, they get to be the first team not named Kansas to win an outright Big 12 title since Oklahoma State in 2004. Either way, there is a ton of motivation here for K-State.
I also think it is worth noting that Oklahoma more or less punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament with a win over Kansas on Tuesday night. Now they are turning around and playing on the road against a team that beat them by 13 points in Norman.
PICKS: Oklahoma has finished the season strong after losing five straight in the middle of Big 12 play. They’ve won four of their last five games, and while their defense has regressed to the mean a little bit, they are still better on that end of the floor than they are offensively. I think they can make it interesting, and I think that brings the over into play.
But the best bet here is, I think, Kansas State (-5.5) or so. I’ll be a little bit worried if the line climbs past (-7.5) because, like I said, I can see Oklahoma hanging with the Wildcats.
That said, this game will be played on Senior Night in Bramlage Coliseum, which has been known as the Octagon of Doom. They will be playing for the right to either be co-Big 12 champs or outright Big 12 champs in the first year that Kansas has not one the league in 14 years. To get a sense of what that rivalry means to Kansas State, the Wildcat fans stormed the floor after beating Kansas earlier this year despite the fact that they were in first place in the Big 12 at the time.
That building will be rocking on Saturday.
No. 5 TENNESSEE at AUBURN, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Tennessee 76, Auburn 75
TORVIK PROJECTION: Tennessee 77, Auburn 76
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Tennessee 77, Auburn 75
Do you trust Tennessee’s defense? In the last two games, the Vols have put together their best two defensive performances of the season. They held Kentucky to 52 points and Mississippi State to 54 points. They’ve forced 17 turnovers in each of the last two games and held them to a combined 31 percent shooting from the floor and 25.7 percent shooting from three. Auburn, as we know, shoots a ton of threes, and the two biggest weaknesses the Vols have had defensively this season have been the defensive glass and running opponents off of the three-point line.
And that brings me to a larger point: The status of Austin Wiley. Wiley is a guy that might be able to play the role that Reid Travis did for Kentucky the first time the Vols and the Wildcats played, someone that can keep Tennessee from sealing in the paint and force Grant Williams out of the lane. He’s missed the last three games and has say eight of the last 14 in SEC play. There are only two high-major programs — Arkansas and Washington — that are worse on the defensive glass that Auburn, and Tennessee does have some guys that can create second chance points.
PICKS: Auburn is going to have a lot to play for here — they really don’t have many great wins — but I have a hard time seeing Tennessee losing. The Vols will be playing for an SEC title, and while LSU plays after them, the Tigers are playing Vanderbilt (0-17 in the SEC) at home. The Vols have to win, and rolling the way they are rolling, I can’t see them losing.
And the more I think about it, the more I like the under … despite the fact that I said the opposite on the podcast. (Whoops.) Tennessee’s defense is playing much better and so much of what Auburn does offensively comes off of their ability to force turnovers. They lead the nation in defensive turnover rate. Tennessee is 23rd nationally in offensive turnover rate.
No. 23 VILLANOVA at SETON HALL, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (FOX)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Villanova 70, Seton Hall 68
TORVIK PROJECTION: Villanova 70, Seton Hall 68
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Villanova 70, Seton Hall 68
Seton Hall more or less punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament on Wednesday night with a come-from-behind win over Marquette, and while they’ll still have something to play for — better seeding in the NCAA and Big East tournaments, senior night, etc. — Villanova will have a lot more on the line. The Wildcats are playing for the outright Big East regular season title. Win and they get it.
PICKS: I am probably staying away from this game. I have no interest in betting against Villanova to win a championship of any sort. I also have no interest in betting on Villanova to win on the road when they have lost their last four games on the road.
Houston picked off SMU on Thursday night, but Cincinnati could not fulfill their side of the bargain. The Bearcats lost at UCF, which means that the Cougars now hold a one game lead on Cincinnati. Instead of a game that is being played for the outright AAC regular season title, Cincinnati is hoping to earn a share of the crown.
PICKS: When it comes down to it, in a game like that, I tend to lean towards the home team. Unless Houston is getting three or four points, I’ll probably end up on Cincinnati.
FLORIDA at No. 6 KENTUCKY, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (CBS)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Kentucky 68, Florida 58
TORVIK PROJECTION: Kentucky 67, Florida 59
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Kentucky 68, Florida 56
The is a must-win game for Florida, who has found a way to lose close quite a bit this season. They are 17-13, but thanks to the fact that they haven’t lost a game by more than 14 since Nov. 6th, they are still 30th in KenPom and 32nd in the NET.
PICKS: That is more or less where I am at with this game. Kentucky has struggled in the last weeks. Florida has lost two in a row, both at home, but they almost always play teams close.