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Sunday’s Things to Know: Houston wins AAC title; three autobids earned; bubble madness in the Big Ten

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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.

Introducing Cinderella: Bradley earns comeback win to grab Missouri Valley’s autobid

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Bradley rallied from an 18-point second-half deficit to stun Northern Iowa on Sunday as the Braves earned the Missouri Valley Conference’s autobid with a stunning 57-54 win.

The Braves trailed by 12 at halftime as they only mustered 15 points of offense before getting hot and rallying quickly in the second half. Down 35-17 with 17 minutes left, Bradley made a furious comeback (a common theme for them this season) behind a balanced scoring effort.

Sophomore forward Elijah Childs paced the Bradley offense with 16 points while senior guard Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye (13 points) and senior guard Luqman Lundy (11 points) also finished in double-figures. Bradley was able to rally and win despite a poor offensive night from junior guard Darrell Brown — the team’s All-MVC player. Brown was only 3-for-10 from the floor to finish with seven points, yet the Braves still found a way to win and advance to the dance.

After knocking out No. 1 seed Loyola in the semifinals and rallying to beat Northern Iowa, Bradley is playing with a lot of confidence heading into the NCAA tournament.

CONFERENCE: Missouri Valley Conference

COACH: Brian Wardle

RECORD: 20-14, 9-9 Missouri Valley Conference

RATINGS:

  • KENPOM: 170
  • NET: 176

PROJECTED SEED: Missouri Valley top seed Loyola was previously projected as a No. 15 seed in our latest bracket and Bradley finished below them in both the conference standing and most major metrics. That means we could be seeing a very dangerous No. 16 seed come from a historically-proud basketball conference if the right teams in other one-bid leagues keep winning.

NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: Junior guard Darrell Brown (14.9 ppg, 3.1 apg, 44% 3PT) is the heart-and-soul of the Braves as he’s earned back-to-back All-MVC honors. Sophomore forward Elijah Childs (12.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg) is the team’s top interior presence. Junior Nate Kennell (9.5 ppg, 39% 3PT) and senior Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye (8.5 ppg, 40% 3PT) are upperclass veterans on the perimeter who can both light it up from three-point range.

BIG WINS, BAD LOSSES: Bradley didn’t play a particularly tough non-conference schedule but they did pick up a Q1 win by beating Penn State on a neutral floor — the only Q1 game they’ve played all season. The Braves have also been inconsistent at times this season, as evidenced by a very mediocre 7-4 record against Q4 opponents — including a very bad loss to Eastern Illinois (309).

STATS YOU NEED TO KNOW: Bradley has trailed at halftime and come back to win eight times this season as they’ve shown tremendous resiliency. Three-point shooting will likely be the key for the Braves in the NCAA tournament as they shot a respectable 37 percent from there (52nd in the country) during the season.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?: The Braves were an actual Cinderella story the last time they made the NCAA tournament in 2006. Behind eventual first-round pick Patrick O’Bryant in the middle, Bradley took down No. 4 seed Kansas and No. 5 seed Pitt before falling to No. 1 seed Memphis in the Sweet Sixteen. Former veteran NBA guard Hersey Hawkins, one of college basketball’s most prolific scorers of all time, is also a Bradley alum.

FINAL THOUGHT: Head coach Brian Wardle deserves a tremendous amount of credit for rebuilding Bradley into the team they have today. Inheriting a program that didn’t have a lot of hope or talent, Wardle and the Braves suffered through a miserable 5-27 campaign during his first season in 2015-16. But Wardle and his staff found players who fit their system and continually improved as they’ve now reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in 13 years.

Missouri, Evansville engage in public battle over Dru Smith transfer waiver

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Missouri and Evansville are engaging in an increasingly public battle over the offseason transfer of junior guard Dru Smith.

After a promising sophomore season in which Smith averaged 13.7 points and 4.6 assists per game for the Purple Aces, he opted to transfer to the Tigers when Evansville fired head coach Marty Simmons and replaced him with Walter McCarty.

Smith’s transfer to Missouri didn’t come as any sort of surprise. He was also expected to miss the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. But when Missouri was granted an NCAA waiver that allowed another offseason transfer, guard Mark Smith from Illinois, to play right away, questions started to arise if Dru Smith (unrelated to Mark) might also be receiving a waiver to play this season.

On Monday, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Ben Frederickson wrote a scratching column that directly accused Evansville of preventing Smith from receiving a waiver to play right away — citing a source close to Smith.

From Frederickson’s column:

Don’t blame the NCAA for this one.

The answer is Evansville.

The NCAA denied Mizzou’s initial attempt to secure a waiver for Dru Smith. A source close to the player confirmed Monday that Evansville did not cooperate with the waiver request. An Evansville spokesman declined to comment on the program’s stance. It was unclear Monday if Mizzou can challenge the NCCA ruling.

There is a lot of he-said, he-said going on between Mizzou and Evansville. That’s common in these situations. But the big picture seems clear. Evansville changed coaches because it wanted a fresh start, but it does not think Dru Smith deserves the same. The Purple Aces have planted a petty flag.

On Wednesday, Evansville responded to those accusations with a long public statement from athletics director Mark Spencer. Spencer and the Purple Aces are claiming that they’ve cooperated with Missouri’s waiver request, but they also refuse to support inaccurate statements about Smith’s transfer.

Evansville is claiming that Missouri wanted the Purple Aces to admit in the waiver claim that they had “run off” Smith so that he didn’t have a place on the team thanks to the coaching change. Spencer denied the “run off” claims, stating that Smith, and all Evansville players, were properly notified about everything involving the coaching change while being given the opportunity to sign financial aid agreements for the future.

In the statement, Evansville also said that Smith emailed Spencer informing him of his decision to transfer on March 29th — six days after McCarty was hired. In the transfer email, Smith told Spencer his reason for leaving was, “mainly because the opportunities that I have are too hard to pass up.” Evansville also said that Smith was publicly supportive of the McCarty hiring when it happened.

Based on Evansville’s thorough response to Frederickson’s claims, it appears that they’ve been willing to help Missouri’s waiver process — but only if that process was truthful in their eyes. While Missouri is likely frustrated that they can’t get Smith eligible right away when they could use another point guard option, you also can’t fault Evansville for wanting to protect the integrity of their program.

It’ll be interesting to see if Missouri, or any Missouri-based columnists, respond to Evansville’s side of things.

For now, Smith is still scheduled to sit out the 2018-19 season based on NCAA transfer rules.

Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge matchups announced

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The 2018 edition of the annual Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge is the last one in the current contract, and on Thursday the matchups were announced.

The headliner for the event is set for Tuesday, November 27, as reigning Mountain West regular season champion Nevada visits reigning Missouri Valley regular season and tournament champion Loyola University Chicago. The two teams staged a thriller in the Sweet 16 of this year’s NCAA tournament, with the Ramblers winning 69-68 in Atlanta.

Loyola, which finished the season with a 32-6 record, would go on to beat Kansas State in the Elite Eight to earn the program’s first trip to the Final Four since 1963.

In total there are three matchups on November 27, with Boise State visiting Drake and Southern Illinois visiting Colorado State.

Five matchups have been scheduled for Wednesday, November 28, including Valparaiso visiting UNLV and Wyoming visiting Evansville. The final two games of the Challenge will be played Saturday, December 1, with Mountain West tournament champion San Diego State visiting Illinois State and Bradley hosting New Mexico.

Fresno State is the Mountain West team that will not play in the Challenge, as the league has 11 members. Below are the dates and matchups, with tip times and television information to be released at a later date. Last season’s Challenge ended in a 5-5 tie.

Tuesday, November 27

Nevada at Loyola
Boise State at Drake
Southern Illinois at Colorado State

Wednesday, November 28

Valparaiso at UNLV
Northern Iowa at Utah State
Indiana State at San Jose State
Missouri State at Air Force
Wyoming at Evansville

Saturday, December 1

San Diego State at Illinois State
New Mexico at Bradley

Horizon League filed a lawsuit against Valparaiso

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The Horizon League is looking to take Valparaiso to court, only this time it’s not on the hardwood of a college campus.

On Thursday, Jason Belzer of Forbes, reported that the league is suing the university for breach of contract. The Horizon League claims Valpo did not give the conference a year’s notice and owes $500,000 in exit fees.

Valparaiso left its conference home since 2007 in order to join the Missouri Valley Conference. The Crusaders were replacing Wichita State, which departed for the American Athletic Conference, as the Missouri Valley’s 10th member.

The Horizon League voted to up the exit fee from $50,000 to $500,000 in 2012. The change came following Butler’s back-to-back national championship game appearances in 2010 and 2011, which led to the university accepting an invitation to join the Atlantic 10 Conference. Valpo’s defense is that the exit fee was not part of the initial agreement the two sides reached in 2006. Belzer went on to note the several cases of exit fees as precedents that would go against Valpo’s defense.

This lawsuit was filed on June 27. A day later IUPUI was added to the Horizon League as Valparaiso’s replacement.

Report: Wichita State approaches Mountain West

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A year ago, Wichita State president John Bardo called for the school to study the feasibility of bringing football back to the athletic program.

Apparently the Shockers administration has even grander designs.

Wichita State has approached the Mountain West Conference about membership, according to a report from CBSSports.com.

The Missouri Valley Conference, which has been the Shockers’ home since 1946, is aware of Wichita State’s interest in switching conference affiliation, the report states. The Mountain West would makes sense for the Shockers as the conference currently has an odd-number hoops membership of 11 and would provide them with higher-profile opponents than the Valley. Just twice in conference history has the MWC been a one-bid NCAA tournament team, with last year being the first since 2001 for it to occur. The Shockers are also reportedly eyeing other leagues, like the AAC and Conference USA.

MWC commissioner Craig Thompson told CBS Sports that if Wichita State were to leave the Valley, “it ain’t going to be to us.”

Wichita State, which dropped football in 1986, has seen its basketball profile skyrocket in recent years under Gregg Marshall, who led the Shockers to a Final Four and a 35-0 start to the season in back-to-back years before reaching the Sweet 16 in 2015 and the Round of 32 last year. Marshall now makes more than $3 million per season.

Losing Wichita State would be a considerable blow to the Valley, which already lost perennial power Creighton to the Big East in the last round of realignment. Loyola Chicago, formerly of the Horizon League, filled the Bluejays’ spot.