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Nick Ward leads No. 6 Michigan State over Penn State, 71-56

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Tom Izzo wasn’t impressed with much of No. 6 Michigan State’s double-digit victory over Penn State.

The Spartans built a big lead early and dominated at times in the paint in their 71-56 win on Sunday. From Izzo’s standpoint, that’s all they did well and that won’t be enough for the Spartans to be the team they want to be.

“Maybe we’re all talking too much about how good we are,” Izzo said. “We’re not that good.”

Playing without guards Joshua Langford and Kyle Ahrens, Michigan State’s offense suffered through spurts of inconsistency while also mounting the runs necessary to keep the game out of reach.

Nick Ward had 16 points and 11 rebounds, Matt McQuaid added 15 points and Cassius Winston chipped in 11 for the Spartans (15-2, 6-0 Big Ten), who have won 10 straight. They also beat the Nittany Lions (7-10, 0-6) for the 10th consecutive time.

Michigan State turned the ball over 17 times and shot 49 percent from the field.

“They missed some shots that I think they could’ve made,” Izzo said. “The turnovers were a joke.”

Kenny Goins added 10 rebounds for the Spartans, who only trailed for 10 seconds and led by as many as 21 with 6:44 to play.

The Spartans took control just over five minutes into the first half with a relentless possession.

Fueled by a pair of offensive rebounds from Goins and Xavier Tillman, the Spartans controlled the ball for nearly 40 seconds and took the lead for good when Winston pinpointed a bounce pass through traffic to Goins, who finished with a right-handed dunk. Goins’ jam sparked a 28-14 run for the Spartans, who led 40-24 at halftime.

Lamar Stevens led Penn State (7-10, 0-6) with 20 points. Myles Dread, Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins all scored 11 points.

“We haven’t brought it all together yet,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “We still have 14 (games) to go and we can turn this ship around right away.”

CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM

Izzo leveled some pointed criticism at Winston.

“I hate to say it, and I’m giving him credit for the whole season, but I told Cass, that was one of the worst games I’ve seen him play,” Izzo said.

Winston, who entered averaging 18 points per game, led the team with seven turnovers. His 11 points were his lowest output since Florida held him to 10 on Dec. 8.

Izzo said he wasn’t sure when Langford and Ahrens, who missed his first game this season with a back injury, would be back to help take the load off Winston in the backcourt.

“He sure as hell deserves a hall pass,” Izzo said. “But he can’t get many of them if we’re going to be a real good team.”

DOMINATION ON THE GLASS

Ward and Goins combined to grab more than half the Spartans’ rebounds. Overall, Michigan State outrebounded Penn State 41-21 but only scored two more points in the paint than Penn State’s 22.

“We did a better job keeping them off the glass in the second half,” Chambers said.

NOTHING TO DREAD

Dread went down with an apparent ankle injury with 8:11 to play.

The freshman guard got tangled up with Ward chasing a loose ball, fell and appeared to twist his left leg while sliding to a stop. He writhed in pain and had to be helped to the locker room. He was able to return minutes later, however.

Dread entered the afternoon averaging 8.4 points per game, and his 28.3 minutes per game were fourth on the team.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan State: The Spartans are getting by just fine without Langford, who missed his fourth straight game with an ankle injury. In his place, a handful of Spartans have provided scoring depth, including Ahrens, Aaron Henry and McQuaid.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions are in desperate need of some positivity. Their 0-6 start in the Big Ten is their worst since the 2014-15 season, when they finished 4-14 in conference play.

NBC Sports Top 25: Buh-bye Iowa State, hello Ole Miss?

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The #DausterCurse strikes again!

After going all-in on Iowa State, taking them from outside the top 25 to No. 10 in the country based on a dominant win against Kansas and buying into the (what I thought was an accurate) eye-test, the Cyclones never stood a chance. They lost by three at Baylor on Tuesday night and followed that up by blowing a late lead and losing at home to Kansas State on Saturday.

So much for that.

While I still do believe that Iowa State is really, really good and that they may actually be the second-best team in the Big 12 this season — two one possession losses are just that, one possession losses — I can’t justify ranking them in the top 25 today and keep any shred of credibility that I have remaining.

Beyond that, there isn’t anything to talk about in the top ten. Duke won on the road against Florida State despite playing without Zion Williamson for an entire half, further solidifying by belief that they are the best team in the country. Michigan, Tennessee and Virginia all logged impressive wins at every turn. Michigan State, Kansas, Texas Tech and Virginia Tech took care of business, and Gonzaga survived what may be the toughest test they face in league play, a trip to San Francisco.

Things get weird outside the top nine, as Ole Miss beating Auburn at home and Mississippi State on the road threw things for a loop. So did North Carolina. The Tar Heels went into Raleigh and beat N.C. State before turning around and getting blown out at home against Louisville, but I could only drop them one spot because A) they still beat N.C. State on the road, and B) everyone in that group of teams directly behind them lost at some point this week, too.

The only really notable development near the bottom of the top 25 was that Villanova jumped back into my rankings. The Wildcats have won five in a row, just handled Creighton in Omaha fairly easily and now sit as the lone undefeated team in the Big East at 4-0.

Here is the full NBC Sports Top 25:

1. Duke (14-1, Last Week: 1)
2. Michigan (17-0, 2)
3. Tennessee (14-1, 3)
4. Virginia (15-0, 4)
5. Gonzaga (16-2, 5)
6. Michigan State (15-2, 6)
7. Kansas (14-2, 7)
8. Texas Tech (15-1, 8)
9. Virginia Tech (14-1, 9)
10. Kentucky (12-3, 11)
11. Nevada (16-1, 14)
12. Marquette (14-3, 19)
13. North Carolina (12-4, 12)
14. Florida State (13-3, 13)
15. Ole Miss (13-2, NR)
16. N.C. State (14-2, 15)
17. Auburn (12-3, 16)
18. Mississippi State (12-3, 17)
19. Buffalo (15-1, 20)
20. Maryland (14-3, NR)
21. Villanova (13-4, NR)
22. Houston (16-1, 21)
23. Oklahoma (13-3, 25)
24. Indiana (12-4, 24)
25. Louisville (11-5, NR)

New Additions: 15. Ole Miss, 20. Maryland, 21. Villanova, 25. Louisville
Dropped Out: No. 10 Iowa State, No. 18 Ohio State, 22. St. John’s, 23. Wisconsin

Best Bets: Eight top ten teams on the road, which underdogs have a chance to win?

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There is a wild weekend of basketball on tap.

The No. 1 team in the country is heading down to Tallahassee to take on a top 15 team, and they are one of eight top ten teams that will be playing on the road this weekend. 

One of those games is a rivalry game. Two of them involve elite mid-major teams visiting the second-best team in their league. Two elite Big 12 defenses face-off while Kansas takes another road trip in the league. Indiana tests themselves at Maryland. Myles Powell vs. Markus Howard. And, surprisingly enough, a battle between two Mississippi schools that carries quite a bit of weight. 

But the game of the weekend is the features a pair of teams that reached last year’s Elite Eight, one of whom has an entirely new roster and the other who returned basically everyone from a season ago.

As always, this column is running on Friday morning. The official Vegas lines will not come out until Friday night or Saturday morning, so we will be using projections from KenPom and Haslametrics. KenPom is typically better for projecting what the lines will be, while Haslametrics tends to be more useful to gauge if I’m on the right side of the bet or not. 

No. 1 DUKE at No. 13 FLORIDA STATE, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Duke 81, Florida State 73
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Duke 85, Florida State 71

This game is projected to be quite high scoring, as Duke plays at the ninth-fastest pace nationally while Florida State averages better than 70 possessions per game, and it’s worth noting that the only two losses that Florida State has taken on this season have come in their two slowest games — Villanova on a neutral and at Virginia.

There aren’t a lot of teams that want to run with Duke, but my guess is that the Seminoles will be one of those teams — they are in the 63rd percentile nationally in points-per-possession in halfcourt offense, and average 0.15 PPP more in transition than they do in a halfcourt setting. There are two reasons for this: They do not have good point guard play and they are not a good three-point shooting team. If they have to go up against a set defense, one that can clean the defensive glass, they are in trouble. (They were down 65-36 to Virginia, which is all the evidence you need.)

Duke is not Virginia in the halfcourt, but what they are is a top 30 team nationally in steal percentage playing a Florida State team that turns the ball over on 20.6 percent of their possessions. In fact, they actually rank second in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric as of today, while Virginia ranks third.

So this is how I see this game playing out: Tre Jones overwhelms whoever is trying to initiate offense for the Seminoles. Duke gets their quota of “pick-six” dunks and layups off of live-ball turnovers, and Florida State’s press struggles to slow down a team that starts four players that can bring the ball up the floor. The only real concern that I have here is that Duke will be playing on the road against a good team for the first time this season, and I don’t love taking heavy favorites on the road.

PICKS: This matchup favors Duke, and if the line ends up close to what KenPom is projecting, I would probably take the Blue Devils and the over. I can’t see the game not getting into the 80s, and I don’t think that Duke will smother the Seminoles like Virginia did. Their defense isn’t about suffocating teams, it’s about turning steals and rebounds into easy buckets.

No. 3 TENNESSEE at FLORIDA, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Tennessee 67, Florida 65
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Tennessee 67, Florida 65

I just do not see it with Florida this year. This is a young group whose two best returners — Jalen Hudson and Kevaughn Allen — have seemingly forgotten how to score the ball. They are 9-5 on the season. Their three best wins came against West Virginia, Arkansas and Butler, none of whom were in our more recent bracket update. Only Butler was close, and the Bulldogs split with the Gators.

Should I mention that Florida lost at home to South Carolina?

PICKS: I will say this about Florida: They are terrific defensively. They grind teams down and force a bunch of turnovers, although I’m not sure that will have too much of an effect on a Tennessee team that protects the ball. I love Tennessee and I think the computers are overvaluing Florida at this point in the season, but the fact that both KenPom ad Haslametrics are projecting the same score is worrisome. I like the Tennessee side better, but I’ll probably stay away.

No. 4 VIRGINIA at CLEMSON, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ACCNET)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Virginia 65, Clemson 58
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Virginia 67, Clemson 54

Virginia has played two ACC games this season and both of them were essentially 30-point blowouts. Clemson has played two ACC games this season and gotten rocked by Duke and Syracuse, both on the road. Coming back home will help, but the Tigers are a team that struggles with turnovers and can’t shoot it from the perimeter, which is what you have to be able to do to beat the Pack-Line.

PICKS: Clemson has struggled this season adjusting to a lineup where they have to play three forwards instead of three guards, and struggling is not something that works against a team as ruthless as Virginia. I expect this line to be around (-8), and I love Virginia there.

No. 5 GONZAGA at SAN FRANCISCO, Sat. 10:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Gonzaga 80, San Francisco 73
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Gonzaga 83, San Francisco 73

Don’t sleep on San Francisco. The Dons already own wins over Stanford, Cal (on the road) and Saint Mary’s. The knock on Gonzaga is on the defensive end of the floor, and while they’ve rocketed up from sub-70 to top 35 in adjusted defensive efficiency, they’ve done so by steamrolling six horrible teams. The Zags have struggled to stop good teams this year, and USF is the second-best team in the WCC.

PICKS: My concern here is that USF doesn’t have the dudes to really take advantage of Gonzaga’s weaknesses. Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. can be exploited in plus-matchups, and it’s hardly a secret that talented forwards can attack Rui Hachimura, a freak athlete that is still figuring it out defensively. I do, however, have plenty of respect for the Dons defensively, and I think they’ll be able to handle Gonzaga’s ball-screens action. Where the line opens will be interesting. If it gets to double-digit, I’ll be all over USF, but I don’t expect it to open higher than around (-8).

No. 6 MICHIGAN STATE at PENN STATE, Sun. 4:30 p.m. (CBS)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Michigan State 75, Penn State 67
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Michigan State 81, Penn State 64

Penn State has had a brutal start to Big Ten play, and it doesn’t get any easier with Michigan State coming to town. The Nittany Lions are a 7-9 team on the verge of starting 0-4 in Big Ten play. Their backs are against the wall, and unfortunately, the Spartans are hitting their stride.

PICKS: I’m not really interested in this game from a betting perspective. I’m still trying to figure out what Michigan State is, and Penn State always has at least one shocking win in them per season. If I do bet this game, it will probably be just a small moneyline bet on the Nittany Lions.

No. 7 KANSAS at BAYLOR, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kansas 70, Baylor 66
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Kansas 69, Baylor 66

Kansas is cratering in KenPom. They’re all the way down to 10th after losing two of their last five games, and I still don’t think we truly know that this team is without Udoka Azubuike. Baylor, who plays a tricky zone, will certainly make it difficult for the young Jayhawks and will definitely make a team that can’t really shoot prove they can hit threes.

PICKS: I like the Baylor side here. Playing Scott Drew’s zone — which is somewhere between a 1-1-3, a 1-3-1 and a 2-3 — is always weird, and without knockdown perimeter shooters or their best offensive rebounder, I can see Bill Self’s team getting into some trouble. Iowa State has a similar makeup to what Kansas is right now, and they lost in Waco on Tuesday.

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No. 8 TEXAS TECH at TEXAS, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (LHN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Texas Tech 61, Texas 60
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Texas 58, Texas Tech 57.8

Texas Tech has the nation’s No. 1 defense, according to KenPom, and ranks outside the top 100 in adjusted offensive efficiency. Texas is 11th defensively and 73rd offensively. This will not be pretty basketball.

PICKS: This total is going to open in the low 120s. Take the under. This will be my heaviest bet of the day. I also expect the Red Raiders to win, and fully expect this to end up in the 50s.

No. 10 NEVADA at FRESNO STATE, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPNU)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Nevada 73, Fresno State 70
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Nevada 71, Fresno State 69

Is it safe to believe in Nevada again? They bounced back from an ugly loss at New Mexico by absolutely running San Jose State out of California. But Fresno State on the road will be the toughest game that Nevada has played to date.

PICKS: I’m going to be very interested to see where this line opens up. If I had to guess, I think it will open around (-3) and get bet up a few points once the public sees a top ten team in what’s perceived as a weak league only giving three. I think I’d probably lean towards Fresno State here, but I will wait and see where the line moves before I bet on it.

No. 25 TCU at No. 23 OKLAHOMA, Sat. 2:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Oklahoma 75, TCU 70
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Oklahoma 75, TCU 71

The key here is entirely Jaylen Fisher. If he doesn’t play, then I really like Oklahoma if the line ends up around (-4). This is a really, really good defensive team, and Fisher means so much to the Horned Frogs offensively.

No. 22 INDIANA at MARYLAND, Fri. 7:00 p.m. (FS1)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Maryland 74, Indiana 69
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Maryland 75, Indiana 68

Another injury to keep an eye on here. If Indiana point guard Robert Phinisee is out, I would lean towards taking Maryland, but I don’t really love this spot. I’m not quite buying the Terps the way that the computers are at this point, and while Indiana’s three losses are on the road, two of them were at Duke and at Michigan and the third was a game they probably should have won at Arkansas. They tend to play teams tight, so if this ends up around (-7), it would be tough not to take the points.

Again, a lot of that thinking revolves around Phinisee.

SETON HALL at No. 21 MARQUETTE, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (FS1)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Marquette 78, Seton Hall 72
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Marquette 76, Seton Hall 72

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I do not like betting on Marquette because you’re betting on whether or not you think Markus Howard will go bonkers. I do think Seton Hall’s Myles Cale will be able to disrupt Howard — the key to slowing him down is length, but there really is no “key” to slowing Howard down because he could put 35 on a Monstar if he gets into a rhythm — but again, I don’t like betting Marquette.

PICKS: If I’m going to bet this game, I’ll probably just take the over, assuming it’s in the high 140s. I also like the idea of taking prop bets on points scored by Howard and/or Myles Powell. Always take the over with them.

OLE MISS at No. 14 MISSISSIPPI STATE, Sat. 1:00 p.m. (CBS)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Mississippi State 78, Ole Miss 72
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Mississippi State 79, Ole Miss 72

This is quietly a huge gauge game in the SEC. Ole Miss has won a bunch of games but didn’t beat anyone until they took down Auburn at home. Mississippi State has won a bunch of games and does have some solid Ws, but they also just lost to South Carolina.

PICKS: To be frank, I have no feel for Ole Miss and how good they are, but if we don’t know whether or not a team is good by mid-January, I think we can bet on the idea they aren’t that good. If Mississippi State is (-5) or lower at home in the Egg Bowl, I’d feel comfortable taking them.

No. 6 Michigan State shakes off bad start, tops Purdue 77-59

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EAST LANSING, Mich. — Cassius Winston shook off a slow start and finished with 23 points to help No. 6 Michigan State beat Purdue 77-59 Tuesday night.

The Spartans (14-2, 5-0 Big Ten) have won nine straight.

The Boilermakers (9-6, 2-2) won their previous three games by a combined total of 55 points.

Purdue got off to a strong start, rattling Michigan State with pressure defense and took a 9-2 lead a few minutes into the game.

The Spartans cut down on their turnovers and held together as Winston, their leading scorer, made his first shot with 3:52 left in the first half. The junior point guard closed the half with nine points, giving Michigan State a 39-26 lead.

Purdue’s Carsen Edwards had a season-low 11 points on 3-of-16 shooting, including 2 of 13 from the 3-point line. He entered the game averaging 25.5 points to rank among the nation’s leading scorers. Edwards had five points in a 27-second span midway through the second half to pull Purdue within four points and to match his scoring from the first 28 minutes of the game.

Winston scored three of the Spartans’ next five points to push their lead to nine midway through the second half, and they added to the cushion by ending the game with an 11-1 run.

Michigan State’s Nick Ward scored 16 points and Xavier Tillman had 11 points.

Ryan Cline, Purdue’s second-leading scorer, had 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting. Freshman Trevion Williams had season highs with 13 points and 12 rebounds for the Boilermakers off the bench.

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: Edwards had his worst game of the season, struggling to get his shot off against a defense geared to slow him down. When the junior guard did have an open look, he often missed. Edwards had scored 19 or more points in every other game this season, including a 40-point performance in a four-point loss at Texas last month.

Michigan State: The Spartans are winning without one of their top players, junior guard Joshua Langford. He missed a third straight game with an ankle injury. The players filling in for him have made the most of the opportunity, including freshman Aaron Henry, who was a part of the defensive effort against Edwards.

UP NEXT

Purdue: At Wisconsin on Friday night.

Michigan State: At Penn State on Sunday.

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

Monday Overreactions: Kansas-Iowa State, Nevada is in trouble and weekly awards

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s

Last Saturday, Ponds was held in check as the Johnnies blew a big second half lead while suffering their first loss of the season against Seton Hall. It was his most disappointing performance of the season in the only loss that the team has suffered to date.

That performance also feels like it is so far in the past after the week that Ponds had. On New Years Day, in a battle of what appears to be the two best teams in the Big East this season, the junior point guard went for 20 of his 26 points in the first half, completely out-dueling Markus Howard and leading St. John’s to a dominant, 89-69 win. He followed that up by popping off for 37 points and five assists as the Johnnies went into Capitol One Arena and landed a come-from-behind win over Georgetown, 97-94.

Ponds is getting the kind of national attention that some of the other great guards around the country are. He’s been totally overshadowed by Howard in his own league. But Ponds has quietly been an absolute monster when St. John’s has needed him to be. The Red Storm have played six games that were decided by single digits. In four of those six, Ponds finished with at least 32 points, popping off for 37 against Georgetown and Georgia Tech.

If he is at his best in the biggest games, I can’t wait to see what the rest of Big East play has in store for us.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: New Mexico Lobos

Where in the hell did this come from: New Mexico 85, Nevada 58.

Entering Saturday night, the Lobos were ranked 190th on KenPom. They were 6-6 against Division I competition on the season. They had lost to New Mexico State by 35 points. They lost to Saint Mary’s by 25 points. They lost at home to the likes of Penn and North Texas. They opened the day as 14 point underdogs at home and, despite winning for the entire first half and taking a 38-26 lead into the break, they were still getting points from live-betting sites — the Nevada money line was -139 and the second half betting line was Nevada -13.5.

That’s incredible.

And while much of that blame falls on Nevada — I’ll get to them — the credit also has to be given to the Lobos. To be frank, there is no way that this team should be 190th in anything. There is talent on the roster, especially now that Carlton Bragg is eligible and playing. Regardless, this is a great win for Paul Weir’s program and, hopefully, a chance for them to reignite a program with a massive, passionate fanbase that has been dormant since Steve Alford left.

MONDAY’S OVERREACTIONS

1. KANSAS IS STILL THE FAVORITE TO WIN THE BIG 12

I love this Texas Tech team. They are the redneck version of Virginia, a team with toughness oozing out of their pores that plays suffocating defense and has a first-team All-American running the show in Jarrett Culver.

I also love Iowa State — I’ll get to them in a second — and we shouldn’t gloss over just how good Oklahoma has been and TCU can be when Jaylen Fisher is healthy and running with the starters.

That said, for my money, Kansas is still the favorite to win the Big 12 and my pick to take home their 15th straight regular season title.

There are a couple of reasons for this, but the most obvious is the man running the show: Bill Self. Every year, we ask whether or not this is going to be the year where the Jayhawks slip up, and every year, Self somehow finds a way to get it done. There are not many coaches in the country that are as good at figuring out how to get the most out of a team as Self is, and while losing Udoka Azubuike to a torn ligament in his hand is going to force him to change up some things, I’m still betting on the Jayhawks figuring this thing out.

For starters, they still have an all-american to run their offense through in Dedric Lawson. He’s been as good as advertised, and while having him at the five takes away some of what made him so effective — his ability to pass in high-low actions — it does mean that he will be the anchor in the post. They also still have Lagerald Vick, and while he has come back to earth after a scorching start to the year, this is still a guy that is capable of putting up 30 on any given night. Vick is joined on the perimeter by a trio of highly-regarded youngsters — Marcus Garrett, Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson. All four of them have question marks (Garrett hasn’t really figured out how to be a threat to score, Grimes seems to finally have regained his confidence and Dotson can’t seem to stop turning the ball over) but there is talent there.

There things that need to be fixed. Grimes cannot continue to be a 31.5 percent three-point shooter. Garrett needs to find a way to contribute offensively and Lawson … well, he has to be at his best. That said, those are certainly things that can happen.

So I’ll bet on Kansas for now, because that bet has been a winner for nearly a decade and a half.

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2. BUT IOWA STATE IS A TOP TEN TEAM

There were some fluky things that happened in Iowa State’s 77-60 win over Kansas on Saturday afternoon.

Azubuike was ruled out an hour before the game after suffering a hand injury the day before the game, forcing the Jayhawks to play a smaller lineup. That smaller lineup meant that the Cyclones could matchup perfectly with Kansas. Iowa State made 13 threes, hitting 9-of-13 in the second half, and did so while playing in front of one of the rowdiest environments in college basketball.

So I feel pretty comfortable saying that part of that result was situational and fluky.

But I also do think that Iowa State is a top ten team this season, mainly because Steve Prohm has an ideal roster for the way modern basketball is played.

He starts four wings, all of whom stand between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-6. The smallest of the four — Talen Horton-Tucker — checks in at 240 pounds and has a 7-foot-1 wingspan. It makes them switchable and versatile on the defensive end of the floor, where Marial Shayok, Nick Weiler-Babb and Tyrese Haliburton can all guard up and down somewhere between adequately and effectively. The Cyclones are historically a team that has a reputation for being soft on the defensive end, and that’s not this group.

And I’m not sure they’ve hit their ceiling yet. The best player in the program is Lindell Wigginton, a 6-foot-2 combo-guard that returned to action in the Big 12 opener after missing about a month with a foot injury. He played just 17 minutes on Saturday and shot 2-for-11 from the floor. He’s one of three players on this roster that are skilled enough to play the point — Weiler-Babb is technically the starting point guard while Haliburton, a sneaky NBA prospect, is averaging 8.3 points, 4.5 boards, 4.2 assists and 2.1 steals while shooting 45 percent from three. Throw in Horton-Tucker, and there are now four perimeter players on this team that are averaging 3.0 assists this season.

That doesn’t include Shayok, who is the leading scorer in the Big 12 at 20.1 points, and Horton-Tucker is the only member of that perimeter rotation that is not a dangerous three-point threat.

Then throw in the fact that Michael Jacobson, who is averaging 14.5 points and 6.2 boards, is currently outplaying the most talented big man on the roster, Cameron Lard, and there is still room for Iowa State to grow.

They are for real.

3. VIRGINIA TECH IS THE BEST ACC TEAM NOT NAMED DUKE OR VIRGINIA

We haven’t spoken all that much about Virginia Tech this season, which is what tends to happen when you are a football school in a basketball conference that is overshadowed by a bigger, better program in your own state.

But the Hokies are currently sitting at 13-1 on the season after starting out ACC play with wins over Notre Dame and Boston College. They’ll play at Georgia Tech on Wednesday before next Tuesday’s showdown with Virginia in Charlottesville.

The reason I like this team so much is because they are essentially playing with two point guards — Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker — on a team that loves running ball-screens, shoots 44.2 percent from three and, like Iowa State, has switchable defenders all over their perimeter.

Two of their next four games are at Virginia and at North Carolina, so we’ll have a better feel for what this team is come January 22nd, but I’m getting ahead of the curve. Virginia Tech is the third-best team in the ACC.

(AP Photo/Don Petersen)

4. MICHIGAN AND MICHIGAN STATE ARE THE ONLY BIG TEN TEAMS THAT AREN’T THOROUGHLY AVERAGE

On the other hand, I’m not sure who the third-best team in the Big Ten is, but I don’t think there is anyone that is on par with the two Michigan schools.

We have spent plenty of time talking about how good the Wolverines are this year, and I am starting to believe that Michigan State — who is now ranked ahead of Michigan on KenPom — is not all that far behind. They went into Columbus and knocked off Ohio State without Josh Langford. That’s not easy to do, not when you trail by seven points at the half.

That is going to be a fun race, one that will feature two battles between the teams in the final four games of the regular season. I am here for that.

The question I have is whether or not anyone else in the Big Ten is actually good, or if the rest of the league is a mashup of teams that are good enough to talk about but aren’t quite good enough to be a threat to do anything of note. Wisconsin, for example, is now 11-4 on the season after following up their loss at Western Kentucky by losing to Minnesota at home. Nebraska opened up 2019 with losses at Maryland and Iowa, neither of whom have been super-impressive this year. Purdue has looked good in stretches but has a bunch of “good” losses on their resume. Ohio State seems to be punching above their weight again this season. Indiana might have a shot to get into that conversation if they can ever find a way to get, and stay, healthy.

I still think this league is going to end up putting as many as ten teams into the NCAA tournament. I just don’t know if anyone outside of the top two are actually worth getting all that excited about.

5. NEVADA CAN GET TO THE FINAL FOUR AND CAN ALSO REALISTICALLY MISS THE NCAA TOURNAMENT

Nevada can beat anyone in college basketball. That includes Duke, and Virginia, and whoever else you consider among the elite in college basketball. That’s how high their ceiling is. This roster is built around three all-american caliber players that thrive in isolation. Caleb Martin, Jordan Caroline, Cody Martin — those are tough shot-makers that have proven the ability to take over games. It’s what they do, and on the nights when they get it rolling, they can do things like they did in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year: light up Cincinnati, one of the nation’s toughest defensive teams.

But Saturday proved that they are not talented enough to avoid getting caught on the nights they decide not to show up, and that matters because of how weak their schedule is.

To put this into context, Saint Mary’s entered Selection Sunday with a 28-5 record last season, a win at Gonzaga and four of their five losses away from home — their one home less was to the Zags. They missed the NCAA tournament. Now, Nevada’s non-conference schedule was tougher than that Saint Mary’s team, and the Mountain West is better than last year’s WCC, but there’s nothing that Nevada can do that will be remotely as impressive as winning at Gonzaga.

And … well, their non-conference wins keep looking less and less impressive. That win at USC? Whatever. Beating Arizona State on a neutral looked more impressive before the Sun Devils lost to Vanderbilt, Princeton and Utah, the latter two at home. Winning at Loyola-Chicago and Utah are solid Quadrant II-ish wins. Hell, the only team that Nevada has played that is currently in the top 50 at KenPom is Utah State, and they are 47th.

We’re still three losses away from really needing to have this conversation, but if Nevada can lose by 27 points at New Mexico, why should we assume that they’ll go 17-1 in the Mountain West?

And if they lose three more league games — at Utah State, at Fresno State, San Diego State — we might actually head into the MWC tournament wondering if this team has a resume that is truly deserving of getting an at-large bid.

NBC Sports Top 25: Duke remains No. 1, Iowa State into the top ten

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Nothing changed in the top five this week, as Duke, Michigan, Tennessee, Virginia and Gonzaga all won the games that they were supposed to win, some in more impressive fashion that others.

Where things changed began with Kansas at No. 6 and Nevada at No. 7.

Let’s start with the Jayhawks: I only dropped them from fifth to sixth despite the fact that A) they lost by 17 points to Iowa State, and B) they lost Udoka Azubuike for the season. That’s because the Jayhawks lost Azubuike the day before a game where they had to go into Hilton Coliseum and take on an Iowa State team that is both very good and matched up perfectly with the short-handed Jayhawks. And yes, Kansas will be different without their star 7-footer, but they also have a coach in Bill Self who knows how to tweak lineups and has spent the last two seasons coaching up a team that had to play four guards. I’m still in wait and see mode here.

And then there is Iowa State, who is right there with Texas Tech as the second-best team in the Big 12. I bumped them all the way up to No. 10 this week, and my reasoning as to why can be found here.

There were some other tweaks as well — Michigan State seems to be really flying under the radar right now, as does Virginia Tech — but the other major change was dropping Nevada from No. 7 to No. 14. I’m still in on the Wolf Pack as a threat to make a run in March, but as their schedule starts to look less and less impressive (they’ve only beaten one KenPom top 50 team, and that was No. 47 Utah State at home) and they continue to play like the regular season doesn’t matter all that much to them, it’s hard to rank them any higher than this.

I still think they can beat just about anyone on any given night given their talent and the way they like to play, but they proven with a 27 point loss to New Mexico that their floor is lower than anyone realized.

Anyway, here is the full top 25:

1. Duke (12-1, Last Week: 1)
2. Michigan (15-0, 2)
3. Tennessee (12-1, 3)
4. Virginia (13-0, 4)
5. Gonzaga (14-2, 5)
6. Michigan State (13-2, 10)
7. Kansas (12-2, 6)
8. Texas Tech (13-1, 8)
9. Virginia Tech (13-1, 11)
10. Iowa State (12-2, 25)
11. Kentucky (10-3, 12)
12. North Carolina (11-3, 13)
13. Florida State (12-2, 9)
14. Nevada (14-1, 7)
15. N.C. State (13-1, 14)
16. Auburn (12-2, 15)
17. Mississippi State (12-1, 19)
18. Ohio State (12-2, 16)
19. Marquette (12-3, 17)
20. Buffalo (13-1, 20)
21. Houston (14-0, NR)
22. St. John’s (14-1, NR)
23. Wisconsin (11-4, 18)
24. Indiana (12-3, 23)
25. Oklahoma (12-2, 24)

New Additions: 21. Houston, 22. St. John’s
Dropped Out: 21. Nebraska, 22. Iowa