There wasn’t a matchup of top-25 teams Thursday, but there were competitive games across the country, starting in Lincoln with Michigan State and Nebraska and ending in Tempe with Oregon State and Arizona State. Pl, there was a dunk that may have qualified as national emergency. Here’s what you need to know:
NO. 6 MICHIGAN STATE STAYS PERFECT IN THE B1G WITH WIN AT NEBRASKA
Nebraska looked like it had the sixth-ranked Spartans on the ropes in Lincoln with the score knotted at 44 just inside the midpoint of the second half. Then, though, Michigan State ripped off a 7-0 run and never looked back – despite an ugly final minute – to claim a 70-64 win over the Huskers to move to 16-2 on the year and 7-0 in the Big Ten.
The win is most notable for the Spartans as it once again came without the services of Joshua Langford or Nick Ahrens, both of whom continue to be sidelined with injuries. With both on the shelf, Cassius Winston put together a game to bolster his player of the year candidacy, scoring a career-best 29 points on 9 of 15 shooting while dishing out six assists and grabbing three rebounds. Winston doesn’t have the game that always pops off the TV screen, but he’s the type of veteran point guard that can help propel a team to a national title, especially if Langford comes back healthy and productive.
For the Huskers, it’s certainly not a bad loss given Michigan State’s profile, but the opportunity cost has to sting. Last year Tim Miles’ team racked up wins, but missed out on the tournament because not enough of them were of the quality variety. Here, they had a top-10 team staggered with less than 10 minutes to play at home but couldn’t close the deal. The good news for them is they’ve already got a couple of nice wins on the resume, but most importantly the B1G isn’t the wasteland it was last year, leaving them with bountiful opportunities to pick up meaningful victories before March. To do that, though, they can’t have James Palmer, Jr. going 6 of 21 from the floor like he did against the Spartans. To Palmer’s credit, though, he got to the line 11 times and made every attempt to finish with 24 points while grabbing eight rebounds and recording three assists. Shooting 5 of 26 (19.6 percent) from 3-point range won’t win you too many games, either.
On top of that, the future lottery pick had 27 points and nine assists while shooting 11 of 16 from the floor and 4 of 5 from 3-point range. He’s an unsolvable problem for the OVC.
WASHINGTON IS ALONE IN FIRST IN THE PAC-12
Congratulations to the Washington Huskies, the last remaining undefeated in Pac-12 play. It may not be an honor, but it’s something, at least.
Mike Hopkins’ team blasted Stanford (80-64) while Arizona lost at home to Oregon (59-54) and Oregon State was behind big before making things tight in Tempe and eventually losing to Arizona State (70-67), which has now won three of four. There’s been plenty written about the Pac-12, but the league continues to do itself damage, most notable with the Wildcats taking a loss in Tuscon to a depleted Ducks team. That’s not going to do much for the conference’s reputation or their own NCAA tournament resume.
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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.
To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.
Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?
Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?
What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?
What is still left for us to figure out?
We break it all down here.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Pac-12.
MIDSEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tres Tinkle, Oregon State
The Pac-12 doesn’t have a ton of great teams and star power this season. But the 6-foot-8 Tinkle has been the league’s best and most consistent player to this point.
Averaging 19.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.4 steals per game, Tinkle rates in the top seven among Pac-12 players in all of those categories. While Tinkle is a noted scorer and double-double threat, his passing has improved over the course of his college career as he’s smart enough to find the open man when opposing defenses collapse.
Consistency has also been a huge part of Tinkle’s year. Only once has Tinkle played less than 33 minutes in a game this season while 12 points is his season low.
THE ALL PAC 12 FIRST TEAM
Tres Tinkle, Oregon State
Luguentz Dort, ArizonaState: Surprising many with his play as a true freshman, Dort narrowly missed mid season Player of the Year honors. Dort is putting up 18.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, but he’s struggled over the past few weeks to find his offense.
Robert Franks, Washington State: The Pac-12’s leading scorer is putting together a solid senior season. Franks is averaging 22.1 points, 7.9 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor. Clearly Washington State’s best player, the Cougars recently lost multiple games while Franks dealt with a hip issue.
Bol Bol, Oregon: Much like Dort, this freshman big man would in the thick of the league’s POY race if he was healthy. Bol is averaging 21.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, but he’s been sidelined with a foot injury since mid-December.
Jaylen Nowell, Washington: The sophomore has blossomed into one of the league’s best all-around guards. Nowell is putting up solid numbers as he’s at 17.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game for the season while shooting 52 percent from the floor and 38 percent from three.
NCAA: Arizona State, Oregon
NIT: Arizona, Washington, Colorado, Oregon State
OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: UCLA, USC, Stanford, Washington State, Utah, Cal
THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED
1. The Pac-12 is dreadful
It’s a new year, so I’ll try to be as nice as possible while describing the atrocity that is Pac-12 basketball. But this league is horrendous, so that is going to be tough.
There are numerous other metrics that point to the Pac-12’s overall awfulness. The eye test is probably all you need. Every Pac-12 team has at least three losses, with a sizable chunk of those losses coming in buy games. They are, as a league, 4-31 in Quadrant 1 games. They are 7-10 against the WCC. Nine teams have beaten two Pac-12 teams already this season. Among them: San Francisco (Stanford, Cal), Santa Clara (USC, Washington State), San Diego (Colorado, Washington State), Seattle (Washington State, Cal) and Hawaii (Colorado, Utah).
No team in the Pac-12 currently has more than a two-game winning streak. While I don’t believe the Pac-12 will end up a one-bid league this season (more on that below), it’s definitely a conversation we might still be having in March.
2. Arizona State has a chance to be pretty good thanks to freshman Luguentz Dort’s breakout start
Arizona State freshman guard Luguentz Dort has been perhaps the Pac-12’s most positive surprise through the first part of the season. Although Dort was regarded as a consensus four-star prospect and top-50 type of talent, not many envisioned that Dort would immediately be this good.
Over the last several weeks, however, Dort has seen his blistering start slow down. The past four games, Dort is only shooting 9-for-45 from the field as his high point total is 13 over that span. Arizona State is still talented enough to knock off Kansas while Dort was in the midst of his funk. The Sun Devils were also bad enough to drop a home game to Princeton during Dort’s worst outing of the season.
So what happened to Dort these last few weeks and how will it impact Arizona State going forward? Was it merely a hot start? Are opposing defenses catching on to Dort’s tendencies and slowing him down? If Dort plays at the level he displayed to start the season, then the Sun Devils should have no issues making the NCAA tournament. But it remains to be seen how Dort will handle conference play and how he breaks out of this slump.
3. Younger players will determine the outcome of this league
College basketball has increasingly become an underclass game at the high-major level as the years have rolled along.
But this year’s Pac-12 is particularly young. Many of the league’s best players thus far have been freshmen and sophomores. And most of the teams hoping to make the NCAA tournament will have to rely on those same players to come through and take them to March.
Given the shaky start of the league this season, that’s not guaranteed to happen. Some talented young teams like UCLA have already fizzled out. Others like Oregon need to get healthy. Many of these teams are going to depend on freshmen for the rest of the season and it’s going to come with mixed results.
THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW
1. Can the Pac-12 rebound and get multiple teams in the NCAA tournament?
So, we already know the Pac-12 is really bad. Can the league still rebound and salvage the season?
It will likely take a few of the top teams like Arizona State, Oregon, Arizona and Washington pooling together and beating up on the other teams in the conference to create a lead pack. As things currently stand, those are the only four programs rated in the top 75 on KenPom with any sort of chance at making an at-large bid.
As long as those four teams don’t suffer horrible losses to teams like Cal, while winning some games against each other, the Pac-12 will have plenty of chances to improve its at-large status before March.
2. Can Arizona get over the hump and make it back to the tournament?
This season was always going to be a difficult one for Sean Miller and Arizona. The FBI’s college basketball corruption scandal hit the Wildcats hard.
It led to many of Arizona’s top recruiting targets going elsewhere. Yet Arizona still finds itself at 9-4 and in good position to make at least some kind of postseason. Whether that’s the NCAA tournament or not remains to be seen.
Arizona finally had its seven-year non-conference home winning streak snapped this season. They haven’t defeated anyone of note besides for Iowa State and UConn. But there’s just something about this team that’s intriguing for some reason. The Wildcats usually defend at a high level. Miller is still one of the best coaches in the country. The three-point shooting has been dreadful at times, but Arizona has still managed. If the Wildcats can figure out some things on offense, then they could be a dangerous team in a down conference.
3. The health of Oregon
Oregon has a chance to figure things out and be pretty good. It all starts with getting healthy.
Freshman Bol Bol has been sidelined with a left foot injury since mid-December as he’s missed the past four games for the Ducks. Head coach Dana Altman has been pretty vague about Bol’s injury, so there’s some uncertainty as to when he might return to the team.
Big man Kenny Wooten will also be sidelined four-to-six months after suffering a broken jaw. And another highly-touted freshman, Louis King, is still working himself back into proper game shape after missing the first several weeks of the season.
If Oregon is able to get fully healthy, they have the weapons to be the best team in the Pac-12. But for right now, that’s a major question mark
1. The Pac-12 goes winless in the NCAA tournament after getting two teams in
The Pac-12 went 0-3 in the 2018 NCAA tournament. And two of those teams were featured in First Four games.
While I don’t think the Pac-12 is so bad that it’s only a one-bid league this season, things are certainly trending in a negative direction once again. Even if the Pac-12 gets multiple teams into the Field of 68, none of its teams are going to have a desirable enough profile to merit a great seed. The entire process is going to be an uphill battle.
And while Arizona State knocked off Kansas, there haven’t been a lot of marquee wins against quality competition for the Pac-12 this season. Even if the Pac-12 is fortunate enough to get multiple teams into the tournament, I don’t have confidence that they’ll win any games once they get there.
2. Arizona State wins the Pac-12
To this point in the season, Arizona State has defeated two top-25 teams. The rest of the Pac-12 combined has one top-25 win.
And while Arizona State has shown plenty of flaws in some recent losses — particularly some woeful stretches of poor shooting — they have the talent to compete with any team in the country. Dort has looked like a go-to player at times this season and he’s flanked by three more double-figure scorers in Remy Martin, Kimani Lawrence and Zylan Cheatham. The Sun Devils currently have a top-50 defense.
In a league that doesn’t have any truly goodteams it says something when Arizona State knocks off a national title contender like the Jayhawks. Unless Oregon gets healthy and figures it all out, the Sun Devils look like the favorite in the league at this point.
3. The UCLA coaching search becomes more interesting than the on-court action
Let’s be honest, with the Pac-12 being as bad as it is on the court this year, the off-court movement of the UCLA coaching search is going to be more fun to watch (or hear about).
The Bruins likely won’t be able to start conducting serious interviews until the end of the season — since most of their presumed targets are currently coaching. But if UCLA decides to make some early moves on an out-of-work coach like Fred Hoiberg or Earl Watson then things could get really interesting.
To be clear, UCLA is not making a change for this current season. But the framework will be put in place for the coaching search, as we’ll start to hear names trickle out of the Westwood over the next several months. The UCLA job isn’t what it used to be. It’s still an elite program with an unmatched history conducting a coaching search with big names being thrown around in the middle of the season. That sort of thing rarely, if ever, happens in college hoops.
College basketball’s biggest storylines heading into 2019
We saw what might have been the best team in college basketball history win a title as Villanova landed their second ring in the last three years. We saw the sport get turned on its head as an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball led to trials, convictions and some of the secrets as to how the sausage is made in recruiting. That investigation also led to the NCAA changing a number of rules that don’t really make all that much sense.
With 2019 now just around the corner, here are the biggest storylines to follow for the rest of the season and the upcoming year.
This is the biggest, most exciting story in college basketball this season. Zion Williamson is an absolute sensation, and rightfully so. We have never seen anything like him before in college hoops — there’s a reason that we are looking at him as the clear-cut favorite to be the No. 1 pick in June — and he is far from alone on this Duke roster. R.J. Barrett could be the No. 2 pick. Cam Reddish could be the No. 3 pick. Tre Jones could be a lottery pick. We’ve never seen anything like that.
But there is certainly some question as to whether or not this is a team that can win a national title. For starters, the other six teams that are currently sitting at the top of the college hoops hierarchy are loaded with veterans; there’s a reason that only two teams built around freshmen have won the title in the one-and-done era. It’s hard to do, and that’s before you consider some of the issues that Duke has had. For example: Reddish has struggled to figure out what, exactly, his role is and how, exactly, he fits as a guy wired to play on the ball while being asked to play off it. Another example: Can Barrett figure out how to be a playmaker while defenses get tailored to his tendency to barrel into defenders in the paint?
This is the most entertaining team in the country and loaded with talent. Seeing whether or not they can finish it off with a ring is the biggest story in the sport.
IS THE PAC-12 A ONE-BID LEAGUE?
If the season ended today, it probably would be. Outside of Arizona State, no one in the conference has done anything that would earn them consideration as an at-large bid. UCLA is such a dumpster fire that Steve Alford has already lost his job — more on that in a second. USC isn’t much better, as the Trojans have a matching 7-6 record while their star player, Kevin Porter Jr., may have disappeared. Oregon is losing buy games to Texas Southern. Washington is 8-4 on the season. No one in the league has less than three losses. As a league, they are just 7-9 against the WCC, and if you look at the conference ratings on KenPom, the conference belongs in the same tier as the American and the WCC, not the Big East or the SEC or the rest of the big boys.
This reminds me of the 2011-12 season, the year that Washington went 7-6 in league play, won the Pac-12 regular season title and missed the NCAA tournament as Colorado — a No. 11 seed — and Cal — a No. 12 seed — were the only two programs from the conference to get into the tournament.
That leads me into the next question …
HOW MUCH COACHING TURNOVER WILL THERE BE IF IT IS?
We already have an answer on one program in the Pac-12 — UCLA will be hiring in March, and who fills that job could be the kind of thing that launches the coaching carousel. For example, what if it is Notre Dame’s Mike Brey that gets the job? Or TCU’s Jamie Dixon? Or N.C. State’s Kevin Keatts?
(Also, what if it is Rick Pitino, although that is an entirely different — and much more interesting — can of worms.)
And that could end up being far from the only job that opens up in the league. Cal’s hire of Wyking Jones has been an abject disaster. Ernie Kent is in his fifth season at Washington State and has yet to win more than 13 games in a season. Andy Enfield has USC at 7-6 on the season after his program spent the last year in the FBI’s crosshairs. Wayne Tinkle is in year five at Oregon State and has as many NCAA tournaments to his name as he has five-win seasons. Even Washington is something to keep an eye on, as Mike Hopkins will be the obvious name to keep an eye on if this is finally the year that Jim Boeheim retires.
As one Pac-12 coach put it, the Pac-12 has only “two established, highly successful coaches.”
NEVADA’S UNDEFEATED RUN
I don’t know if the Wolf Pack is actually good enough to go undefeated heading into the NCAA tournament, but I do know they have the best chance of anyone in college basketball to get it done this season. The Mountain West is actually deeper than anyone initially thought — both Utah State and Fresno State should give Nevada a fight when they play, and both have a shot at getting an at-large bid should they upset Eric Musselman’s program — but Nevada is going to be the heavy favorite every night they take the court the rest of the season.
Personally, I want them to make a run at an undefeated record in the regular season. It would be great for the sport the same way that Wichita State, Kentucky and Gonzaga going on prolonged undefeated runs in the last five seasons was.
CAN VIRGINIA GET TO THE FINAL FOUR?
They are coming off what may be the most embarrassing loss in college basketball history, becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This season, they may actually be better than they were last year, as Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter both look like first round picks while the rest of that program is as solid as you would expect a Virginia team to be. Three years ago, we all thought Villanova were choke artists. You can’t win the big one until you win the big one.
TEXAS TECH TO MAKE ANOTHER RUN AT KANSAS?
The Red Raiders would have won the Big 12 last season if Keenan Evans hadn’t broken his toe. This year, with Jarrett Culver running the offense, can Chris Beard’s team make another run at knocking off Kansas? I’ll say this: Tech is the best team in the Big 12 that is not named Kansas, and while the Jayhawks have struggled through the start of the season, I do think their upside is immense. Udoka Azubuike is back and Quentin Grimes illl, eventually, get right. (Right?) Either way, I’m hoping that Texas Tech at least makes it interesting.
There are still two more trials scheduled to happen stemming from the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball, although at least one of those defendants — former USC assistant coach Tony Bland — is on the verge of taking a plea. Will either of those trials take place? If they do, what kind of dirt is going to arise from the evidence that the FBI has collected? Will any of this impact coaches that are currently employed at powerhouse programs (looking at you, Bill Self)? When will the NCAA investigations begin in full, and what is the timetable for those investigations to be completed?
The FBI investigation changed the way that a lot of things happen in college basketball. For starters, if high school kids are allowed to take $125,000 to go play in the G League, is this something that the elite of the elite are truly going to consider? If they don’t, will the extra scrutiny on recruiting as a result of this investigation change where some of these kids end up? No rule change the NCAA has implemented has been ripped more consistently than their changes to the recruiting calendar, which goes into effect in the coming months. Will the NCAA backtrack on those changes?
Oh, and what about the NET rankings? They looked like an abject failure a month ago, but not so much today. How will they turn out come March, and will it change the way that teams are determined for the NCAA tournament?
NBC Sports Top 25: Duke back to No. 1, Tennessee hops Gonzaga
Here’s the conundrum that is going to face voters in the top 25 this week: What do you do with Kansas?
When it comes to resume, Kansas probably has the strongest one of any team in the top seven. They’ve beaten Michigan State on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Tennessee on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Marquette on a neutral court. Every win they have in Phog Allen Fieldhouse this year comes against teams ranked in the top 135 on KenPom.
And then there is this: Kansas has beaten Tennessee. Tennessee has beaten Gonzaga. Gonzaga has beaten Duke. Duke, according to some, can beat the Cavs, which officially means that Kansas is a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
Or something like that.
The point is that it makes total sense to rank Kansas No. 1 based on what they’ve accomplished this season, but I think that even the most irrational Kansas fans will cop to the fact that these Jayhawks haven’t come close to hitting their stride yet this season, and that’s before you factor in the loss of Udoka Azuibuike to an ankle injury.
The difference between the top seven teams this season is marginal, particularly if you are not as high on Duke as I am, and while that means there really isn’t all that much difference between Nevada at No. 7 and whoever it is that you are going to rank No. 1, it does mean that a team like Kansas — who is in a bad run of form — drops to sixth in this ranking.
And to be frank, as long as your top seven is, in some order, the same as my top seven, your ranking is probably going to be just fine. I’d quibble with ranking Nevada in the top four, and I think it’s probably silly to have Duke, Tennessee or Gonzaga outside the top four, but there are arguments to justify it all. I’m sure Kansas fans will call me a Duke homer and say that Bill Self must ignore my calls, but the truth of it is that there are a lot of really good teams at the top this year. Parsing through a jumbled mess like that is never easy.
I dropped Kentucky all the way out of the top 25, as I did Kansas State, but I’ll go more in depth on that in the Monday Overreactions column.