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Sam Merrill jumper lifts Utah State past San Diego State, into NCAA tournament

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Sam Merrill is 2020’s first March Madness hero.

The Utah State star buried a deep three-pointer with just under three seconds left to put the Aggies into the 2020 NCAA tournament.

Merrill’s jumper was the difference as Utah State knocked off No. 5 San Diego State, 59-56, in the Mountain West conference title game.

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Before Saturday’s win, Utah State found itself squarely on the bubble. That’s no longer a concern after Merrill’s dagger. The Aggies are dancing for the second consecutive season. After being ranked in the CBT preseason Top 25, Utah State is finally starting to live up to the hype.

Injuries have derailed some of this season for the Aggies. Utah State also struggled to pull off big NCAA tournament-caliber wins even when at full strength. Merrill put the team on his back the biggest week of the season. The senior finished with 27 points to finish off San Diego State. Before Saturday, Merrill had games of 29 points against New Mexico and 27 points against Wyoming.

The in-season struggles and injuries don’t matter anymore. Sam Merrill hit the shot that has the Aggies dancing. Utah State just knocked off a potential No. 1 seed in the conference title game. Suddenly, the Aggies are an intriguing NCAA tournament team behind Merrill and big man Neemias Queta.

Thursday’s Things to Know: Illinois’ B1G title hopes hurt, San Diego State survives scare and Tulsa wins without playing

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Even with conference tournament season upon us, some of the most interesting things of the day happened off the court. Kansas responded to the NCAA’s notice of allegations. John Beilein hung out at the Crisler Center. As for actual basketball Thursday, here’s what you need to know:

Illinois’ B1G title hopes fade

It’s been a really solid, resurgent season for Illinois. A needed one given the two sub-.500 years to start Brad Underwood’s tenure in Champaign.

It won’t likely end with a Big Ten title, though.

Illinois’ hopes of claiming a piece of the regular-season B1G championship took a critical hit with a 71-63 loss to Ohio State in Columbus. The Illini are now a game back of Michigan State, Maryland and Wisconsin in the Big Ten standings and would need all three – none of whom play each other – to lose in their B1G finales this weekend and then the Illini would need to beat Iowa as well.

So, probably not happening. But with the NCAA tournament looming ahead, Illinois has a welcome consolation prize in its future.

Illinois led by as many as 11 in the first half, but saw that lead slip away with the Buckeyes taking an 11-point advantage themselves after halftime. Ayo Dosunmu was electric for the Illini, scoring 21 points on 9 of 14 shooting to go along with five boards and five assists, but the rest of the roster didn’t provide much in the way of offensive support. Andres Feliz was the only other Illini to lodge double figures with 11 points, but he was 4 of 14 from the floor. Illinois was 6 of 22 (27.3 percent) from 3-point range.

Ohio State, meanwhile, got a 17 points and 11 rebounds off the bench from E.J. Liddell while Kaleb Wesson had 19 points. CJ Walker had 15 points, six boards and five assists. The Buckeyes are heading into the postseason on something of a roll after their turn-of-the-year struggles (in which they lost six of seven games). They’ve ripped off four straight that includes victories against Maryland, Michigan and the Illini. Michigan State is up next Sunday in the finale in yet another resume-boosting opportunity in the Big Ten.

San Diego State moves on after scare

There was a little space of time Thursday afternoon where teams like Dayton, Florida State and Seton Hall saw an opening. Air Force, the No. 9 seed in the Mountain West, led San Diego State, a presumptive No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, nearing the midway point of the second half. For a moment or two there, it look as though a top seed might open up.

Then the Aztecs got back to being the dominant force they are in that league, holding Air Force without a bucket for nearly the final four minutes and closing out the last 94 seconds on a 7-0 run.

It was a 13-point win, but still one in which they trailed for a big chunk of the game. Not great evidence to refute the idea that San Diego State has gone wobbly lately. First they lost at home to UNLV (who lost its MWC tourney opener Thursday) and then beat Colorado State and Nevada by just single digits. Easily could just be a team that’s been mostly unbeatable all season long getting a little bored with the stakes lowered a little bit. Or it could be something more.

We might find out in a couple weeks.

Tulsa wins a piece of the American

It wasn’t unreasonable to think heading into this season Frank Haith might be feeling the heat at Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane made the First Four in his second season there and spent the subsequent three seasons missing the NCAA tournament. His peers in the American picked his team to finish 10th in the 12-team league in the preseason poll. All that doesn’t scream job security.

Winning the conference does, though.

Tulsa clinched at least a share of the American on Thursday when UConn knocked off Houston, 77-71, in Storrs. The Hurricane can wrap up the title to themselves if they’re able to beat Wichita State on the road Sunday.

Wednesday’s Things to Know: Texas Tech’s huge win; Markus Howard exits Marquette’s win; Baylor, San Diego State roll

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Wednesday night in college basketball didn’t have major top-25 showdowns or a lot of noteworthy upsets.

But national runner-up Texas Tech earned its biggest win in weeks to help its postseason profile while Marquette had to figure out a way to win without All-American guard Markus Howard.

1. Texas Tech beats No. 12 West Virginia for important profile win

Entering Wednesday night, defending national runner-up Texas Tech had a very unusual NCAA tournament profile. The Red Raiders were ranked in the AP top 25 just last week. An overtime home loss to Kentucky on Saturday continued a troubling trend of Texas Tech losing Q1 games.

The Red Raiders found themselves only 1-7 against Q1 teams entering this week. They only had three Q2/Q3 wins as well.

Things changed dramatically for the Red Raiders’ on Wednesday. Texas Tech tore apart the nation’s No. 1 defense in a convincing 89-81 Big 12 win over No. 12 West Virginia.

The Red Raiders still have some work to do to feel completely safe when it comes to their tournament stature. Beating West Virginia is a huge step in the right direction before Texas Tech plays at No. 3 Kansas this weekend.

2. Markus Howard leaves with injury as Marquette outlasts Xavier in double OT

Marquette gutted out an impressive double overtime win at Xavier in the Big East on Wednesday night. The road win gives the Golden Eagles a very solid 4-5 mark in Q1 games while keeping them in the middle of a crowded Big East race.

And the win is even more impressive when you consider Marquette basically won without Markus Howard.

While the nation’s leading scorer still had an impact by finishing with 18 points, Howard exited the win with 12 minutes left in the second half and didn’t return. Taking an inadvertent elbow trying to secure a defensive rebound, Howard watched two of his teammates step up.

Sacar Anim (28 points) and Koby McEwen (18 points) both came through with monster efforts to push Marquette to victory. Anim now has 20-plus points in three straight games. He’s becoming a legitimately difficult second option for opposing teams to defend. And if McEwen can maintain that type of aggressiveness as a third scorer it makes the Golden Eagles that much more dangerous.

Howard’s status for Marquette’s next game at home against DePaul will be something to monitor. But Marquette deserves credit for pulling out this win and showing that they are more than a one-man operation.

3. Potential No. 1 seeds Baylor and San Diego State roll to road wins

Baylor and San Diego State are trying to break the narrative that college basketball lacks elite teams this season.

The No. 1 Bears and No. 4 Aztecs both did their part by securing double-digit road wins on Wednesday night.

Baylor continued its Big 12 dominance with a 67-53 takedown of Iowa State. Defense and a balanced offense paced the Bears — winners of 17 consecutive games.

San Diego State, meanwhile, jumped out to an absurd 17-0 start and coasted from there. The Aztecs destroyed New Mexico in the Pit with an 85-57 Mountain West win. Still undefeated, San Diego State gets a much stronger test when they face Utah State this weekend.

Ten Things to Know: Long road losing streaks end during wild day of college hoops

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College basketball was all about big road wins.

The Big 12 and ACC saw two huge road losing streaks end. The rest of the day saw some upsets along with an injury to keep tabs on.

BAYLOR GOT ITS FIRST-EVER WIN IN PHOG ALLEN FIELDHOUSE

Everything you need to know about the biggest game of the day can be found right here.

CLEMSON GOT ITS FIRST-EVER WIN (IN 60 TRIES!) IN CHAPEL HILL

Clemson basketball kicked off a big sports weekend for the school. The Tigers snapped their 0-59 mark in Chapel Hill with a 79-76 double-overtime win over North Carolina.

Brad Brownell’s team celebrated in euphoric fashion.

This isn’t your typical ACC road win. It was one of the premier streaks in college basketball. Clemson and North Carolina first played men’s basketball during the 1925-26 season. Both programs are founding members of the ACC.

Same conference.

Since 1953.

So for the Tigers to FINALLY earn a win in Chapel Hill, even if North Carolina happens to be down right now, is a monumental accomplishment.

For North Carolina, the recent freefall continues. The Tar Heels have lost three straight and dropped to 1-4 in ACC play. Following the loss, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams made some emotional remarks blaming himself.

Even though North Carolina is well outside of the top 25, they remain one of the most compelling teams in college hoops.

WEST VIRGINIA SHUTS DOWN TEXAS TECH

Things weren’t particularly pretty in Morgantown on Saturday night. Using seemingly its whole roster to wear down the Red Raiders, West Virginia earned an impressive Big 12 home win.

Despite only making three shots from three-point range on the night, West Virginia held a comfortable advantage thanks to one of the nation’s best defenses. The Mountaineers held Texas Tech to 28 percent shooting. The Red Raiders simply had no answer for the swarm of West Virginia defenders.

While West Virginia has continued to climb up the national rankings with an underrated array of quad one wins, this is one of the program’s best wins this season. The Mountaineers are surely a contender in the Big 12. The major question becomes if they are more than just a conference title contender. And more of a potential national title contender.

NICK RICHARDS IS THE KEY TO KENTUCKY’S SEASON

Over the course of the last four games, No. 14 Kentucky has asserted themselves as one of the best teams in college basketball once again. They’ve knocked off Louisville, Missouri, Georgia and Alabama during that run, and it should come as no coincidence that the best stretch of Kentucky’s season has come at the same time that Nick Richards has played the best basketball of his career.

In those four games, Richards is averaging 16.0 points, 10.0 boards and 2.5 blocks, but more importantly, he’s staying on the floor for more than 29 minutes per game. He’s starting to figure things out, and that, in turn, has helped build his confidence, his belief in himself.

“You can’t coach a kid’s confidence,” a source close to Kentucky said. “He needs to build it himself.”

He’s posting harder, he’s demanding the ball, he’s doing all of the things that Kentucky has been waiting for him to two do two-and-a-half years. And it hasn’t only helped Richards, the guards that feed him the rock have confidence in him as well. If you’re a point guard and you know Richards doesn’t want the ball, are you going to give him a post touch? Are you going to throw a post entry when you don’t think anything good will happen?

Saturday proved my point.

In the first half against Alabama, Richards had 11 points, six boards and four blocks, and Kentucky went into the break with a 45-35 lead. He finished with just two points in the second half, and Alabama cut the lead to one in the final two minutes.

OHIO STATE HAS NOW LOST FOUR STRAIGHT GAMES

The 12th-ranked Buckeyes dropped to 11-5 on the season and 1-4 in the Big Ten after losing their fourth straight game on Saturday, 66-54, to Indiana.

During that four game losing streak, Ohio State has shot 28-for-97 from three, a cool 28.9 percent. Prior to the start of this losing streak, after they beat Kentucky in Las Vegas and when they were sitting at No. 1 in KenPom and splitting votes with Gonzaga for No. 1 in the AP poll, the Buckeyes were shooting 41.5 percent from three as a team.

The reason why they are struggling from beyond the arc is a bigger question. Part of it is just regression — water eventually finds itself — and part of it is that as D.J. Carton has struggled, who had seven turnovers on Saturday, Ohio State’s offense has struggled. They don’t have the individual playmakers to create offense for themselves, and if Carton (and C.J. Walker) are struggling to create easy shots for their teammates, Ohio State becomes really limited offensively.

Oh, and should I mention that Ohio State’s second-leading scorer, Duane Washington, didn’t take a single shot and was benched for the final 30 minutes. He’s either hurt or Chris Holtmann is fed up with his defensive lapses.

Either way, what was clicking for the first month of the season is clearly no longer working.

AUBURN AND SAN DIEGO STATE ARE STILL UNDEFEATED

The No. 5 Tigers cruised past Georgia at home, winning 82-60, while the No. 7 Aztecs took care of business against Boise State at home, 83-65.

Auburn’s biggest tests of the season to date will come next week, as they travel to take on Alabama and Florida. SDSU heads to Fresno State on Tuesday and then will host Nevada next weekend.

OBI TOPPIN ROLLED HIS ANKLE

The star big man for No. 15 Dayton stepped on someone’s foot early in the second half of an 88-60 win over UMass and had to leave the game. He ended up leaving the game and returning to his team’s bench with a boot on his left foot.

Toppin told reporters after the game that, “it’s good.” Head coach Anthony Grant, speaking in his press conference after the game, said that he thought it was a sprained ankle and that the team would know more in the next 24 hours, but he did not sound overly concerned.

VIRGINIA DROPS SECOND STRAIGHT TO UNRANKED OPPONENT

It’s looking like defending national champion Virginia will fall out of the top 25 next week. A second consecutive loss to an unranked team on Saturday likely sealed the Cavaliers’ new fate.

After falling on the road at Boston College last game, Virginia fell to Syracuse at home.  The Orange earned an unlikely overtime win while also avenging its season-opening home loss to the ‘Hoos.

Hitting some massive three-pointers once overtime started, the Orange played completely free and with a lot of confidence once the extra session started. It also pointed to a continuing glaring issue Virginia has faced. Who is this team’s go-to player when they need a bucket?

Things don’t get easier for Virginia when they head on the road to Florida State next game. With three of their next four coming on the road, the Cavaliers have some work to do to stay with the ACC’s best.

GONZAGA AND DUKE CRUISE TO VICTORY

Easy day for No. 1 and No. 2 on Saturday.

Gonzaga made quick work of Loyola Marymount. The Bulldogs won by 25 on the road.

In the ACC, Duke ran past Wake Forest. The Blue Devils were fueled by Tre Jones in a 31-point victory.

MYLES POWELL, SETON HALL OUTDUEL MARKUS HOWARD, MARQUETTE

CBT’s Preseason All-America Team featured Myles Powell and Markus Howard both on the first team.

So Saturday’s Big East clash between Seton Hall and Marquette was must-see TV. Both stars finished an identical 8-for-22 from the field as Howard dropped 27 points and Powell delivered 23 points.

Most importantly, however, was the Pirates claiming the 69-55 Big East win. Seton Hall has six straight wins since Powell returned to the lineup from a concussion. Saturday’s win gives the Pirates a leg up on the rest of the league and Powell a leg up on Howard with one matchup to go.

Not many people seem to be talking about Seton Hall. That’s a mistake. This team is playing really well over the last several weeks and look like the possible team to beat in the Big East.

Five-star Boogie Ellis asking out of Duke letter of intent

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A five-star recruit is set to be available late in this spring recruiting cycle.

Boogie Ellis, a top-40 guard from San Diego, has asked out of his National Letter of Intent with Duke, according to multiple reports.

The 6-foot-2 guard signed with the Blue Devils in November after also considering San Diego State, Memphis, USC and North Carolina, the last of which he made an official visit to.

It’s a significant loss for the Blue Devils, but hardly a crippling one to their top-ranked recruiting class that includes top-10 players in Vernon Carey and Matthew Hurt along with top-35 prospects Wendell Moore and Cassius Stanley.

Given the strength of that recruiting class along with Tre Jones’ decision to return for a sophomore season, minutes will likely be at a premium in the Duke backcourt next season, even without Ellis, who now becomes one of the top available players in the country.

San Diego State’s Jalen McDaniels turning pro

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San Diego State redshirt sophomore Jalen McDaniels is leaving school to turn pro, the school announced in a release on Wednesday.

The 6-foot-10 McDaniels could get first-round NBA Draft consideration as he provides unique size and skill for a wing forward. Putting up 15.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game this past season, McDaniels was one of the most productive players in the Mountain West.

McDaniels also improved his three-point shooting percentage to 32 percent from 21 percent as a freshman as his perimeter shooting will be one of the main focuses for his draft stock.

“I want to thank San Diego State University, particularly the coaching staff, my teammates and our amazing fans, for guiding and supporting me both on and off the court,” McDaniels said in the release. “These past three seasons I have matured as a person and a basketball player. I cherish the memories I have made with my teammates and the relationships that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”

San Diego State is still recruiting Jalen’s younger brother, Jaden, as the five-star prospect in the Class of 2019 has the Aztecs in his top five. It’s hard to say if Jalen’s pro decision will impact Jaden’s college decision, except we now know the brothers won’t play together in college.