In the long history of LSU basketball, their biggest win over Kentucky came in the regional finals of the 1986 NCAA Tournament. The undermanned Tigers, coached by master motivator Dale Brown, stunned the favored Wildcats and reached the Final Four as an 11-seed, unprecedented at the time and matched in future years only by George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth. Tonight’s LSU-Kentucky game (7 PM ET, ESPN) from Baton Rouge won’t match that, but it could take over the #2 spot.
Kentucky’s pursuit of the first undefeated season and national championship since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers is the biggest story in college basketball. LSU is a bubble team in the push for the NCAA Tournament and desperately needs marquee wins. The elements are in place for a max effort from the underdog and a packed house going crazy, but do the Tigers have enough for a victory?
LSU is built on good defense and excellent rebounding. They rank 34th in the nation in defensive efficiency—not spectacular, but pretty good for a bubble team. The Tigers have two sophomores down low, Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin, that clean up the glass hard and each can score. Mickey & Martin, the Baton Rouge version of the M&M Boys combine to average 33 points/20 rebounds per night.
The perimeter players all contribute, with Keith Hornsby and Tim Quarterman each averaging double figures and Josh Gray averaging four assists per game. But the problem is that no one shoots the three-ball very well. It’s why LSU is only 94th in the nation in offensive efficiency.
LSU’s advantage tonight is that Kentucky doesn’t shoot the three very well either, although Aaron Harrison showed us in last year’s NCAA Tournament run that he can get hot from out there. But if the ‘Cats don’t shoot the three, and LSU doesn’t turn the ball over in the face of that wave of nine Big Blue players attacking, the game can be close. And that can give the home team the chance for an upset.
This advantage though, is also LSU’s disadvantage. If each team is going to play a similar style, wouldn’t you naturally default to the one who has a demonstrated ability to do it a much higher level? It would seem that to upset Kentucky you have to be a different type of team and force them out of the comfort zone.
As far as tonight goes, I don’t think anyone can force Kentucky out of their comfort zone, though I make the usual caveats about this being the kind of atmosphere that will invite a big effort from the home underdog. I won’t be shocked if there’s an upset, and I’d probably take LSU with the (+10.5) points being offered at the window, but not to win outright.
What I’m more interested in from LSU’s standpoint is whether this Tiger team can make the NCAA Tournament. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi presently has LSU in the field, at a #11 seed, the very definition of the bubble.
LSU’s overall record is 17-6, but they have some notable bad losses on their resume. Within conference play, they’ve lost to bad teams in Missouri, Mississippi State and Auburn. Outside the league, they’ve dropped games to Clemson and Old Dominion—neither team is bad, they are games you should at least split. Especially when the only marquee victory on the slate right now is at West Virginia. It’s a nice win, but it’s asking a lot to argue your way into the NCAA Tournament based solely on that.
The SEC is currently packed with bubble teams behind Kentucky. Lunardi has five other conference teams making the field. Arkansas is fairly safe for the time being at a 6-seed. Georgia is an 8-seed. Then you go to Texas A&M on the 10-line and LSU at 11. Tennessee and Florida are not currently on the field nor among the first eight teams to miss, but their records are good enough that a February run to contention is reasonable.
What that means is that LSU needs to find a way to separate itself. After tonight, they go to Tennessee on Saturday, to Texas A&M next Tuesday and host Florida on the Saturday after that. It’s a decisive stretch for the Tigers. When your resume is crying out for a marquee win though, nothing would be bigger than to stop Kentucky’s unbeaten season in Baton Rouge tonight.
If March Madness is the great feast of college basketball, then the conference tournaments are the appetizer. All across America, from Brooklyn to Atlanta to Kansas City to a double down in Las Vegas and a lot of other places in between, the major leagues gather for several days of non-stop hoops.
Our focus is the nine power conferences, looking at who needs to win. We’re going to ignore the obvious answer—the teams that are completely out of the running for an NCAA Tournament bid unless they win their events and the automatic bid that goes with it. At best, only one such team is going to win its tournament and even that would be a lot.
We’ll look at what teams are on the NCAA bubble and need at least one victory, if nothing else, for the comfort of their own fans on Selection Sunday. But when I talk about who “needs to win” a conference tournament, I have something more redemptive in mind.
Yesterday, TheSportsNotebook celebrated the regular season conference champions. For every champion, there’s one or more teams that had a legitimate expectation of winning a conference title, but came up short. The chances to hang a banner are running out. And while I don’t think winning a weekend tournament should have the same prestige as winning a long conference schedule, it does count for something. Its teams like these that have my attention the most in the coming day.
One final note before we run through everything. I’m not focusing on who needs to win to move up or down on the seed lines. Those are interesting conversations—where I live just outside Milwaukee, I’ve had plenty regarding Wisconsin’s chances (can they get a #1, will they be placed in Milwaukee, etc). But I’m not nearly as sold as the mainstream media that this is vitally important.
SEC (Atlanta) Who Needs Redemption:Kentucky Who Needs Wins: Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri Comment: I’m opening with the SEC, because no conference combines a program that needs a redemptive championship with so many who just need to get some wins. Kentucky’s up-and-down season and John Calipari’s frustrations have been a matter of national attention. The Wildcats are the 2-seed and have a clear path to a potential Sunday matchup up with Florida.
Tennessee and Arkansas are each among the last teams in the field for ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. And if Arkansas takes care of the Auburn-South Carolina winner on Thursday, then it’s Hogs and Vols in a showdown in Friday’s quarterfinals. Missouri, in a strange twist, is the 8-seed in their own league, yet still on the bubble. Their path would include Florida, a win that would surely get everyone’s attention. The twist gets stranger in considering that 3-seed Georgia is nowhere on the Lunardi radar.
ACC (Greensboro) Who Needs Redemption: Duke, Syracuse Who Needs Wins: Pitt, Florida State Comment: Virginia’s surprise run to the ACC title came at the expense of the Blue Devils and Orangemen and thereby gives heightened importance to the latter’s potential third meeting in Saturday’s semis.
Florida State appears on a path to miss the NCAAs, but they are in the discussion. The Seminoles play Maryland on Thursday and potentially Virginia on Friday. If FSU gets through that, they’ve got another winnable game on Saturday against presumably North Carolina. That’s a path that gives Florida State a reasonable chance to play their way in without actually winning the tournament.
Pitt is probably going to make it, but they haven’t played their best basketball of late, and are down to a 10-seed in the current Lunardi projections. The Panthers probably get in no matter what, but if they lose to Wake Forest/Notre Dame on Thursday, there’s going to be some frayed nerves in the Steel City. If Pitt wins that game, it sets up a good Pitt-UNC game in the quarters. Pitt’s the kind of team where we can’t be surprised if they lose on Thursday and we can’t be surprised if they’re still playing on Sunday.
Big Ten (Indianapolis) Who Needs Redemption: Wisconsin Who Needs Wins: Minnesota, Nebraska Comment: As a Badger fan, I’m still annoyed this team, the most talented I’ve seen in Madison, didn’t win the Big Ten title and in fact missed it by three games to a Michigan team that overcame a lot of adversity. Wisconsin is the 2-seed in Indy and needs to be cutting down the nets on Sunday.
It sets up a Friday clash of Redemption vs. Desperation. Minnesota is dead square on the bubble, and if they get past Penn State on Thursday, a Badgers-Gophers battle awaits. Nebraska got its big win over Wisconsin last Sunday night, but everything is still up in the air for the Cornhuskers. Their first game will be Friday, likely against Ohio State. If Nebraska wins that one, you have to think a bid is a done deal.
Big East (New York) Who Needs Redemption: Creighton, Villanova Who Needs Wins: Xavier, St. John’s, Providence Comment: The Creighton-Villanova rivalry is interesting from the redemptive dynamic. These two teams are clearly the class of the league and Villanova won the conference, which logically puts the burden on Creighton this weekend at Madison Square Garden. But ‘Nova was absolutely humiliated in the two head-to-head games the rivals played. If a Round 3 awaits in the Saturday final, I’ve got think the kids from Villanova are going to want payback in a way that’s more personal than just who hangs banners.
Xavier appears to be leaning into the NCAA field, but they certainly need to beat Marquette on Thursday night to make themselves a little more comfortable. St. John’s and Providence are pure bubble teams and they play in the Thursday quarters. It’s the most consequential head-to-head game anywhere in the conference tournaments this week.
Pac-12 (Las Vegas) Who Needs Redemption: No one Who Needs Wins: Colorado, Stanford, Cal Comment: Arizona was the class of the league and chalk favorite who delivered a conference title. The Wildcats don’t need redemption and it would be unreasonable to pin that burden on anyone else. UCLA, Arizona State and Oregon had nice seasons and are NCAA-bound. A tournament title would be nice, but it’s not like any of the three have failed expectations.
Colorado and Stanford are projected by Lunardi for the 10-seed line, which allows a wide room for error and them still to make it. But if either one loses early, then the slip closer to the true bubble. Stanford plays Washington State, then Arizona State. Cal is a true bubble team and is headed for a collision with Colorado in the quarters.
Big 12 (Kansas City) Who Needs Redemption: Baylor Who Needs Wins: Oklahoma State Comment: Baylor has underachieved all year, and while a late surge appears to have them stabilized for making the NCAA Tournament, I still want to see the Bears make something happen in Kansas City. This is a program I’ve come to follow a lot lately. I fell in love with the basketball team when LaceDarius Dunn was there and they got on the map in the 2010-12 timeframe.
I started liking the football team when RG3 was there and I pushed his Heisman candidacy and then he ended up playing for my favorite NFL team. And I rooted for the baseball team this past February when I was vacationing in Tempe and watched them open the season in Arizona State. It’s time for the hoops team to live up its potential.
I’ll be shocked if Oklahoma State misses the field, especially with a recent win over Kansas under their belt. But Lunardi has them on the 10-line, and that’s my benchmark for needing at least one win to avoid any nerves on Sunday.
Atlantic 10 (Brooklyn) Who Needs Redemption: No one Who Needs Wins: Dayton, St. Joseph Comment: This is the conference where the two bullet points that open it really don’t tell the whole story. There’s no one in the A-10 that was so good—either by this year’s talent or by program pedigree—that you should demand some sort of championship. But Virginia Commonwealth and George Washington can feel like they were at least as good as St. Louis, who won the regular season title, and now is the chance to prove it. Or UMass for that matter, who is the 6-seed, but capable of beating anyone with electric point guard Chaz Williams.
As to who needs wins, how about St. Louis? The Billikens dropped three games late, nearly blew the conference championship and barely hung on in UMass. Any season that ends with an A-10 title is a success in St. Loo, but if the season ends with a slump and early exits here and in the Big Dance, I’m sure it’s going to leave a bit of a sour taste.
Dayton and St. Joe’s are both right on Lunardi’s bubble, and need to win the quarters. Even though UMass is seeded lower than either, the Minutemen’s overall resume is strong enough that the ESPN analyst has them safely in.
American (Memphis) Who Needs Redemption: Memphis Who Needs Wins: No one Comment: Memphis has been one of the year’s big disappointments for me. Their win over Louisville down the stretch showed their potential, and the Tigers are comfortably in the NCAA Tournament field. But Memphis should have done what Cincinnati did, and run with Louisville for the conference race. Or what Larry Brown and SMU did and become a good story. Playing this tournament at home, Memphis needs to redeem themselves.
This conference has five teams that are locks for the NCAA field—UConn will join the four mentioned above. Everyone else needs to win the automatic bid or go home.
Mountain West (Las Vegas) Who Needs Redemption: No one Who Needs Wins: No one Comment: Suffice it to say I haven’t been asked to write promotional copy for the Mountain West tournament. But the top-heavy favorite to win the conference championship was San Diego State and they did so. New Mexico will join them in the NCAA field and anyone else who follows will have to win the automatic.
If you’re really dead set on watching this event (a label I suspect applies to no one), then UNLV would be a redemptive team—not a good year for a proud program and playing at home. And a team to keep an eye on for a surprise run would be Nevada. The Wolfpack had a horrible non-conference run that took them out of NCAA at-large consideration almost immediately, but turned it around in MWC play. The Pack are the 3-seed and if the two favorites aren’t motivated, Nevada could steal a bid from the bubble teams.
Whether it’s the bubble of the NCAA Tournament or that in the playoff races of the NBA and NHL, the marginal teams are in the spotlight tonight. TheSportsNotebook’s daily sports talk will run through all three, starting with action in the NBA.
*Milwaukee is currently the #8 seed in the East and has a safe lead on the field in the East. With a big overtime win over Utah last night, the Bucks are threatening the Celtics to escape the last playoff spot and the first-round matchup with Miami. I’ll refer you over to Stat Intelligence and my friend Jeff Fogle for a game recap—and preview of the Horizon League tournament in college hoops—if you scroll down.
Suffice it to say that Milwaukee’s recent winning—they’ve also knocked off Dallas, Houston and Toronto over the past several days—is turning up the heat on Boston, who leads up a TNT doubleheader tonight when they visit Philadelphia at 7 PM ET. And Utah’s loss creates some opportunity for the Los Angeles Lakers, who finish the TNT twinbill with a 9:30 PM ET tip in Oklahoma City. The Lakers are 2 ½ games back of the Jazz for the last playoff spot in the West coming into tonight.
*The NHL is just about to halfway point and in the Western Conference there are six teams tied for the final four playoff berths, with 24 points apiece—not to mention the teams immediately one spot above and below are only separated by a point. Four of the six deadlocked teams are in action. Los Angeles, who got a needed win over Nashville (the team sitting on 23) last night behind a hat trick from Jeff Carter, is hosting St. Louis, who also has 24 points. San Jose takes its 24 points to Vancouver. And the most interesting one is going to be the Minnesota Wild—because they’re in the Windy City, where the amazing Chicago Blackhawks still haven’t lost a regulation game yet this year.
Over in the Eastern Conference it’s not quite as wild, but the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers are only separated by a point for the #8 position in the standings and these two blood rivals go head-to-head tonight. This is the game the country will get the opportunity to see, with a 7:30 PM ET faceoff on NBC Sports Network.
*Let’s conclude with the bubble race that’s hottest and it’s that for the NCAA Tournament. Cincinnati missed a chance last night to solidify its position, losing 67-51 at Louisville. The Cardinals were in lockdown mode defensively, holding Cincy to 35 percent shooting and forcing 21 turnovers. The Bearcats can still play their way in, but we can’t say the same for Baylor. A disastrous Big 12 season for the Bears hit its nadir last night when they played shaky perimeter defense, let Texas guard Myck Kabongo have a nice night and a bad Longhorns team get a 79-70 win. Baylor is 17-13 and even beating Kansas this weekend won’t be enough to save them. It’s win the conference tournament or go home, and I have to think the average Baylor fan is more than ready to just go home at this point.
Looking ahead to tonight, it’s the SEC that will be on the spotlight. TheSportsNotebook took a closer look at a crazy bubble situation that hasfive teams with their fate up in the air. Arkansas goes to Missouri (7 PM ET, ESPN) with a chance to show they can win a big road game. Alabama-Ole Miss (9 PM ET, ESPNU) features two teams that are likely on the outside looking in and need to win just to keep at-large hopes alive for next week’s conference tournament.
St. John’s is an NCAA longshot, but winning at Notre Dame (7 PM ET, ESPN2) would give them a puncher’s chance. The same goes for Iowa, who hosts Illinois in a Big Ten Network telecast at 7 PM ET. And perhaps no bubble game is more significant than Boise State-UNLV. The Broncos are playing good basketball and in position to nail down a bid if they can win this game, or win this weekend against San Diego State. The Mountain West is, believe it or not, the highest-rated conference in the RPI. I went off about that in my podcast yesterday with Greg DePalma at Prime Sports Network as we broke down the field, but the numbers are what they are. By the way, if you’re monitoring the NFL offseason, Greg will have a good show today at 2 PM ET with Neil Hornsby, the editor of Pro Football Focus.
Finally, let’s move off the bubble and talk about a team in position to win a conference championship. Indiana has already secured a tie for the Big Ten crown and they can win the league outright if they beat Ohio State (9 PM ET, ESPN). The last time Indiana won the league outright? It was when Bob Knight was on the sidelines, Calbert Cheaney was national Player of the Year and I was still in college, back in 1993. Yeah, that’s been a long time.
BEST GAME(S) TO WATCH: For me it’s easy, because I’m a Celtics fan who lives in Big Ten Country, so I’ll watch the Celts-Sixers and then shift over to Indiana-Ohio State (okay, I may also cheat and sneak in some CBS drama action with NCIS Los Angeles and Vegas too). For someone who was purely objective and wanted to watch the most meaningful games, I would suggest making it an SEC night and watch Arkansas-Missouri and Alabama-Ole Miss in succession. If nothing else, it will remind you that this league does something besides play football.
BEST BET: I lost yesterday on my belief in the New Jersey Devils over Toronto, as the Maple Leafs won 4-2. I’ll try my hand at college basketball tonight and take Alabama (+5) over Ole Miss. The Rebs just lost to Mississippi State and are reeling. I think this line hasn’t factored in how bad Ole Miss has played for the past few weeks and is overstating homecourt advantage. Famous last words.
At this point in the schedule, the Big 12 is shaping up to have an interesting race regarding the bubble of the NCAA Tournament, and Oklahoma basketball is right at the heart of the conversation. The Sooners are a modest surprise, off to a 13-5 start, including victories in four of six Big 12 games. But, a crucial and difficult stretch in their schedule starts tonight when they visit Baylor (7 PM ET, ESPNU). Then OU hosts Kansas State on Saturday (6 PM ET, ESPN2).
Next week doesn’t get any easier for the Sooners, with a Wednesday game at fellow contender Iowa State (7 PM ET, ESPNU) and finally a game on Saturday with first-place Kansas (4 PM ET, ESPN). If you’re wondering about Oklahoma basketball, you can watch it all unfold over the next couple weeks and TheSportsNotebook will get a head start by taking a closer look at what the Sooners bring to the table.
Forward play is where Oklahoma is most consistent, with senior Romero Osby and junior Amath M’Baye. Both are double-digit scorers, and while the Sooners could use a little more rebounding, the two forwards do get six apiece per game. The best player overall is in the backcourt, with Steve Pledger. The only player on the team who attempts three-point shots with any regularity, Pledger averages 11 ppg and hits 37 percent from behind the arc.
The X-factors are a pair of freshman guards, in Buddy Hield and Je’lon Hornbeak. Neither have had a huge impact to date, although Hornbeak’s 39 percent shooting from three-point range is good enough to suggest that maybe he should launch a few more from long range, particularly given the lack of a true muscle player underneath.
Oklahoma’s big win in conference play has been a 77-68 home victory over Oklahoma State, another team in the mix for the NCAA Tournament bubble. It’s noteworthy that in that game, Hield and Hornbeak combined to shoot 5-for-7 from three-point range. Oklahoma also played good defense and held their in-state rivals to a little below 40 percent shooting from the field.
The two losses in league action have been Kansas and Kansas State. The most obvious point on both is that these were on the road, while the Oklahoma State win came in Norman. What was most lacking was consistent defense, as OU allowed the opponents to shoot in the mid-to-high 40s from the floor. What was also lacking was the three-point shooting. The Sooners only made six threes combined in the two games, and Hiel went 0-for-5 in the Kansas game.
For better or for worse, Osby and M’Baye were very consistent in these three games, with performance mostly tracking their season averages and little variation from game-to-game. That’s mostly for the better, as consistency should be where it starts for your key players. However, the inability of either, or of Pledger, to find another gear, doesn’t bode well for Oklahoma’s chances of winning big games the rest of the way.
I’m very skeptical of OU’s ability to navigate this tough schedule stretch ahead. If they even steal one win out of the four games, they’d get to 5-5 in the league and have a shot at making a run to the NCAA Tournament. But getting even that one win is going to be a big challenge. If it were me, I’d tell Hornbeak to step up and shoot. I think we’ve established that Osby, M’Baye and Pledger are good college players, but not ones who will go to the next level. Whether it’s Hornbeak, Hield, or someone from off the grid, the Sooners need a fourth wheel in the offense.
ELSEWHERE ON THE BIG 12 BUBBLE
Oklahoma is currently projected as a #10 seed by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. In that same territory is Oklahoma State and Iowa State, who go head-to-head tonight.
Of all the Big 12 bubble teams, Oklahoma State would look to be in the best shape. While they’re 3-3 in the conference, the losses have all been on the road and to fellow contenders—OU, Kansas State and Baylor, and the Cowboys will pay a visit to Kansas on Saturday. That means Okie State will have every big conference road game out of the way by the time the Super Bowl kicks off. They’ll be set up for a strong February run, and are led by entertaining freshman Marcus Smart. The guard averages 13 points/6 rebounds/5 assists per game and is being talked about as a one-and-done who will be a top 10 NBA draft pick in June. And in case you’re curious, he’s not related to Keith Smart, the current head coach of the Sacramento Kings and one-time hero for Bob Knight’sIndiana team back in 1987.
Iowa State is the most enigmatic of the bubble teams. They’ve managed to lose to Texas Tech, but also took Kansas to overtime in Lawrence, and beat Kansas State. The Cyclones are led by a good forward tandem of Will Clyburn and Melvin Ejim, who combine for 25 ppg, and more importantly, they pound the glass for a combined 17 boards per night. Iowa State further benefits from senior transfer Korie Lucious running the show. The former Michigan State player is kicking in 10 points per game and averages five assists. It’s not going to be an easy ride for Iowa State, but they’ve got the core talent to separate from Oklahoma and make the NCAA Tournament.
It’s the last college basketball report before NCAA Tournament talk starts next week at TheSportsNotebook, so we’ll try and move through and cover everything for the weekend edition, from lookaheads to conference tournament action and picking some national award winners.
Throughout the week, TheSportsNotebook has been doing conference reports, and the links to the eight major conferences reports are all below. As part of that, a Player of the Year and Coach of the Year were chosen in each league. From that pool, we’ll draw national winners for both categories.
Coach of the Year offers great candidates, and the top jobs would go to John Calipari (Kentucky), Stan Heath (South Florida), Bill Self (Kansas) and John Beilein (Michigan). Calipari may recruit extraordinary talent, but to put together a team with three freshmen in its starting lineup and be within one point of an undefeated year is even more extraordinary. Ironically it was Indiana, the last team to win the NCAA title with a perfect record back in 1976 that handed Kentucky its only loss on a buzzer-beating trey. Self was supposed to be rebuilding at Kansas, with only Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor to build around. No individual players really stepped up, but Self put together a complete team and won the Big 12—again. Beilein lacks any kind of inside game and while his guards are good, they don’t take your breath away. Yet there Michigan is, sharing the Big Ten title with Michigan State and Ohio State. And Heath had what looks like an NCAA Tournament-caliber year at South Florida, won 12 games in the Big East and did it without a double-digit scorer in his lineup.
My choice is Calipari. Just winning the SEC title wouldn’t have been enough to get him this honor, but to win at almost a history-making clip with such a young team makes him a worthy winner. Now the question is can he get his first national title in New Orleans. The last time the Final Four was in the Bayou, Calipari was there with Memphis and had the crown all but won on Monday night until a missed free throws and mistakes let it slip away in overtime. The opponent on the other sideline that night? Bill Self. Could a Self-Calipari rematch in New Orleans be ahead this year?
It’s been a while since TheSportsNotebook has really gone crazy with an off-the-wall choice for a major award. Go back to 2010, and I agreed with the final choices for every major individual award in every sport. In 2011, I think my “big stand” was taking Matt Kemp over Ryan Braun for the NL MVP award. So I feel like I’m due for a pick that sounds crazy, but meets the standards of logic and a year where no clear Player of the Year candidate exists makes this the time.
Tim Frazier at Penn State is my choice. He averaged 18 ppg, 6 assists per game and was second in the Big Ten in steals. He put up these numbers playing with no support whatsoever and in the nation’s toughest conference. I find the other more conventional choices—Anthony Davis at Kentucky, Kevin Jones at West Virginia and Thomas Robinson at Kansas (whom I didn’t even pick in his own league, opting instead for Texas’ J’Covan Brown) to have enough support around them that they don’t rise to Frazier’s level. Yes, Penn State won only 12 games. Without Frazier they might have had to start a rivalry with Towson. That’s “Most Valuable” enough for me.
Now on to conference tournament action. Four leagues are down to their semi-finals tonight…
BIG EAST:I predicted that of the top four seeds, all four would lose last night and then suffered through a night that reminds me why it’s better to talk about betting than to actually do it. Cincinnati and Notre Dame survived in overtime, while Syracuse barely held off UConn. Only Louisville, my pick to win this tournament, got it done in forcing 26 turnovers against Marquette. I was within three plays of looking like a genius and ended up 1-3.
Enough about myself, tonight’s semis are Syracuse-Cincinnati and Louisville-Notre Dame. The action starts at 7 PM ET and both games are on ESPN in succession. Syracuse, like Kentucky, has lost just one game and that was in decisive fashion at Notre Dame. It would surely be sweet if the Orange could get another crack at the Irish in Saturday’s final. Also of note, is that three teams who are more Midwest than East are playing tonight, a victory for the era of realignment. Somewhere, the Big East legends like John Thompson, Rollie Massimino and Lou Carnesecca have to be weeping.
BIG 12: It’s going to be a great night of basketball in Kansas City, with Baylor-Kansas followed by Texas-Missouri. Both games are on ESPNU and the doubleheader starts at 7:30 PM ET. Texas played its way into the NCAA field last night against Iowa State, so there’s not any bubble suspense going on here. Just a lot of good basketball players and coaches. As much as attending the Big East tournament on a Friday night in New York is a goal of mine, if I could get a plane ticket to anywhere tonight, it would be Kansas City.
PAC-12: The upsets started happening in the quarterfinals of the league nobody wants to win. Conference champ Washington was stunned by Oregon State, and the Huskies may end up missing the NCAA field as a result (my guess is they still sneak in, but they’re going to drop down to that 12-13 seed level at least). Oregon missed its chance to close the deal when they lost by a point to Colorado. Tonight it’s Oregon State-Arizona and Colorado-Cal. The Wildcats need to play their way back in after dumping a game to Arizona State last week, and Colorado probably needs to win the tournament. The flip side is the Buffs have the talent to do it. I originallysaw UCLA as a good bet to win this before they lost to Arizona. But I’m standing firm on the principle that an unlikely candidate is going to win, and I see Colorado upending Arizona tomorrow in the final.
MOUNTAIN WEST: Four teams are pushing for the Dance and all four won last night’s quarterfinals. It’s Colorado State-San Diego State and UNLV-New Mexico tonight. I think all four are likely in, and I see the regular season co-champs, San Diego State and New Mexico, each losing tonight. With the tournament being in Las Vegas, it’s UNLV that beats Colorado State in a final game that will be good regardless of who ends up playing.
Four more major conferences have quarterfinal action going today and build to a Sunday conclusion…
ACC: Duke forward Ryan Kelly will miss the tournament with a foot injury, though there’s no indication thus far this will keep him out of the NCAAs next week. Duke plays a Virginia Tech team that took them to overtime down the stretch in the regular season, while on the bracket’s other side, North Carolina plays Maryland. In between these two are key games involving bubble teams. N.C. State should be in the field now, but could use a win over Virginia to eliminate any doubt. Miami is not in the field right now, but beating Florida State can get them back in the conversation. In the ACC Report yesterday I picked Florida State to win the tourney and Kelly’s injury certainly aids that pick, as FSU and Duke would be on pace to meet in a semifinal. Today’s games are all on ESPN2, and then tomorrow’s semis and Sunday’s final are on ESPN.
BIG TEN: The story of Northwestern took a big step back last night with an overtime loss at Minnesota. Most observers will push Northwestern out of the bracket and that’s understandable, if only for the fact that not every bubble team is coming through down the stretch. Today’s games from Indy start with Iowa-Michigan State followed by Indiana-Wisconsin in the afternoon on the top of the bracket. The evening session is Minnesota-Michigan and Purdue-Ohio State, with the semis and final being televised by CBS over the weekend.
SEC:I have to correct an error made in discussing Alabama yesterday when I put forward Tony Mitchell alongside teammate JaMychal Green as the Tide’s two key threats. Mitchell is suspended for the rest of the season. ‘Bama still won yesterday and plays Florida today. That’s a 3 PM ET start and the other early game is LSU-Kentucky. Tonight’s session is Ole Miss-Tennessee and Georgia-Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs win over Mississippi State may have finally put a knife in the collapsing Bulldogs. Tomorrow ESPN will have carry at least one semi-final and ABC has the title game on Sunday.
ATLANTIC 10: It’s time for basketball and blackjack in Atlantic City, and I see a tournament that’s going to be crazy. This afternoon it’s UMass-Temple and St. Joe’s-St. Bonaventure, while the evening session is LaSalle-St. Louis and Dayton-Xavier. This is a balanced league and I think NCAA locks Temple and St. Louis will go out before the final and pave the way for St. Joe’s and Xavier. Also keep an eye on St. Bonaventure. With Andrew Nicholson, this league’s best player manning the post, they’re good enough to put on a three-day run and steal an NCAA bid off the bubble.
Outside the eight conferences TheSportsNotebook focuses on, watch the Conference USA tourney. Southern Miss and Memphis are NCAA locks and in today’s semi-finals. If either Marshall or Central Florida wins the event, C-USA becomes a three-bid league. In the WAC, conference champ Nevada will at least get some at-large consideration if they don’t win their tournament, though I suspect a Bracket Buster weekend loss at Iona probably mean the Wolfpack need to get the automatic bid. And let’s watch Pat Knight’s boys from Lamar. Right on the heels of his stunning beration of his senior class, Lamar is not only in the conference final as the #3 seed, but they’ll be the favorite, as fourth-seeded McNeese State is the opponent on Saturday.
Conference championships are up for grabs on this final weekend of the regular season and nowhere is the finish going to be more dramatic than in the ACC. Once again, it’s Duke and North Carolina tied for first and going head-to-head in Durham on Saturday night (7 PM ET, ESPN). The Blue Devils have the kind of team that can beat anyone on any given night, with their ability to hit the three-point shot. Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins can nail from downtown. Ryan Kelly can step out from his power forward spot. And Austin Rivers? UNC head coach Roy Williams might have a casual familiarity with the freshman guard after Rivers ripped the heart out of Chapel Hill with a game-winning trey at the end of the teams’ February 8 meeting.
But if Duke has a team that can win any individual game, North Carolina has the kind of team that can win a national championship. The Tar Heels are big and tough on the blocks, with John Henson and Tyler Zeller patrolling. Harrison Barnes is an elite talent at small forward and one of the best players in the country. And no one on Carolina is more valuable than point guard Kendall Marshall, who gets the ball where it needs to be as well as any floor leader in the country. That’s why, even though Duke won the initial meeting and has homecourt, I think North Carolina is going to win its second straight ACC crown on Saturday night. The only way the Blue Devils can beat the league’s upper echelon is to be red-hot from behind the arc. It worked the first time against Carolina. It worked last week against Florida State. It’s asking too much for that approach to work each game.
Then on Sunday it’s the Big Ten that comes down to the wire. Michigan State has a tie for first clinched, but Ohio State can claim a share of the title if they win a head-to-head game in East Lansing. And if that happens, Michigan can make it a tri-championship if they win at Penn State. The Buckeyes-Spartans game is at 4 PM ET on CBS and gives us a big battle on the blocks, with Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Michigan State’s Draymond Green. The Buckeyes have the better supporting cast, and if DeShaun Thomas can help out Sullinger down low and William Buford can hit the trey, Michigan State will have a hard time keeping up. But while the Spartans don’t have the raw talent, Tom Izzo has done a superb job fitting everyone into their roles and his team held Ohio State to 26 percent shooting a couple weeks ago in Columbus. The Buckeyes have also been inconsistent this year, and I’m not ready to go with them on the road in a championship game. I see Green hungry to make himself a reputation against the more heralded Sullinger and having a big 17/12 type game and Michigan State wins another slugfest. I also need a Spartan win to save face, because I woke up the echoes of ABC News on Election Night 2000 and called this race too early, writing off Ohio State and moving Michigan into the middle class with Wisconsin and Indiana in an article earlier this week.
CHAMPIONSHIP RACE REPORT
Atlantic 10: Temple has clinched a tie for first and can wrap up the outright crown with a win at lowly Fordham. By all rights Xavier should have played its way out of the NCAAs with the Tuesday loss at second-place St. Louis, but I’ve been more negative on the Musketeers than other bracket projections. So perhaps they still have a chance when they host Charlotte. St. Louis has locked up a bid and is at Duquesne, hoping for a break in the championship race.
Mountain West: This is the league nobody wants to win. UNLV and San Diego State have each had their moments of seeming in control. New Mexico really had it, with a two-game lead and a soft schedule the rest of the way. But here we are, with SD State and New Mexico tied for first. It’s likely to end that way, as the Aztecs are at TCU, and the Lobos host Boise State (Insert obligatory football joke right here). The most interesting story beyond the title chase if Colorado State’s drive for an NCAA bid. They beat UNLV earlier this week and go to Air Force on Saturday. If the Rams win this game and make the semis of the conference tournament next week, I think they should get in.
Pac-12: Washington is the team in control here, with a one-game lead, but a tough game on Saturday at UCLA (2 PM ET, CBS). The Bruins showed how much they were really affected by the damaging Sports Illustrated report about improprieties in the program, by blowing out Washington State last night. Oh, here’s a thought to SI—why not do some historical investigating on the role booster Sam Gilbert played in luring talent to Westwood during the John Wooden era? It might bring down the whole myth of the Wooden Dynasty if it turns out Gilbert was more than just an interested friend of the program. Back to basketball today, if UCLA gets this win over Washington, it opens the door for Cal to claim a share of the crown against Stanford on Sunday. Arizona is probably in the NCAA Tournament and just as probably could use a win over a bad Arizona State team to make sure. Oregon knocked out Colorado last night and now needs to knock themselves in by beating lowly Utah and then winning a conference tourney game next week.
WHERE CONFERENCES ARE CLINCHED
Big East: Syracuse is sailing on in to shore in the Big East race and hosts Louisville on Saturday (4 PM ET, CBS). Along with Marquette-Georgetown these are games that are more tune-ups for the tournament in Madison Square Garden next week. The big games this weekend are on the NCAA bubble. If South Florida isn’t in, I’ll scream to the heavens, and winning at home against rapidly sinking West Virginia is a good place to save my voice. Cincinnati should also be in and plays Villanova. Seton Hall and UConn look to nail down bids against DePaul and Pitt respectively. Note that all Big East games are on Saturday, an unusual step by the conference and done presumably because their league tournament begins on Tuesday in MSG.
SEC: The Kentucky-Florida game on Sunday (Noon ET, CBS) doesn’t have much impact now that the Wildcats have wrapped up the championship. UK is still going for the perfect regular season. On the bubble, there’s three interesting games Saturday. Alabama probably needs to win at least one more and they play Ole Miss. Mississippi State absolutely needs to keep winning and they host Arkansas. What’s interesting is that Ole Miss and Arkansas are just good enough to be darkhorses to steal a bid if they win here and get hot in the conference tournament—“hot” being defined as reaching the final game. The same goes for Tennessee who hosts Vanderbilt.
Big 12: Kansas has the championship wrapped up. Missouri, Baylor, Iowa State and Kansas State are all in the NCAAs. But Texas, while looking good, can’t be resting securely and they go to Kansas for ESPN’s Saturday night showcase (9 PM ET, ESPN). I’m sure the Longhorns can play their way in by winning a less difficult first-round tournament game in Kansas City next week and might not even need that. But they could eliminate all doubt with a road shocker in Phog Allen Field House.
MIDMAJOR CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT S
We’ll start to see some automatic bids go up on the board this weekend, so for those of you playing Bracket Manager over at CBS Sportsline, expect to see UNC-Asheville win the Big South and become the first qualifier. The Missouri Valley also plays its tournament over the next three days and it’s a place to watch for possible bracket-busters. Wichita State is a mortal lock for the tournament. Creighton is probably in too. But if someone else can sneak in and steal the title, then the power conference bubble teams can start sweating early. And in that same vein, the power teams need to pull for Murray State in the Ohio Valley tournament, where the Racers play a semi-final game tonight and the presumably the championship game tomorrow. Anyone other than Murray State winning turns the OVC into a two-bid league.
The Colonial will probably be a one-bid league this year, although my podcasting colleague Greg DePalma over at PrimeSportsNetwork.com (where I’ll be on at 3 PM ET on Friday and the same time again on Monday) is still thinking that perhaps two of the Drexel, Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason, Old Dominion quartet might get in. The quarterfinals of this tournament start Saturday and if the four favorites win, Sunday’s semi-finals should provide the good people of Richmond a great show. Any of these teams can be cutting down the nets on Monday night (this coming Monday night, not the big Monday night on April 2).
And we conclude with the West Coast Conference, which has BYU looking to play its way in tonight against San Diego. If the Cougars win it sets up a semi-final date with Gonzaga tomorrow (the Zags and St. Mary’s are automatically seeded to the semis as part of an extended bracket process the conference uses). Loyola Marymount isn’t an at-large threat but is good enough to steal this tournament title. They’re looking to earn a date with St. Mary’s in tomorrow’s semis. The championship game will go on Monday night.
No conference race has as many good scenarios for the final week than the Pac-12, as the league begins its usual run of Thursday night games that set the stage for the weekend. The championship is in play, five teams are on the radar for the NCAA Tournament, and only one can really feel secure about its position in the Dance. So if you don’t feel like following the controversy that’s flared up at UCLA about whether Ben Howland is or isn’t in control of the program, there’s still plenty of on-court action to keep up with in the Pac-12. TheSportsNotebook will look at the five relevant teams.
We can break them down into three groups. Washington/Cal are still playing for the league title and will probably make the NCAA Tournament, though only Cal can really feel safe. Arizona is likely to make the NCAAs, though out of the championship mix. Oregon and Colorado are right on the bubble. Here’s the rundown…
Washington (20-8, 13-3, projected #10 seed): If they get road wins at USC and UCLA, the Huskies lock up an outright Pac-12 championship in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Lorenzo Romar’s program. The core of the lineup is a trio of players who run 6’5” and 6’6” and can control the wings. Tony Wroten, Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox have ppg averages of 17, 15 & 14 respectively. Wilcox is lights-out from behind the arc. Wroten is a good playmaker. Ross crashes the boards. The best news for Romar is none of these kids has hit their junior year. Of course for the short-term prospects in big games, maybe that’s also the worse news. I’ve been saying for at least the last year that if 7’0” center Aziz N’Diaye really becomes a force in the post, the Huskies can make a big run on the national stage. But I’m tired of waiting. N’Diaye is a respectable rebounder, but not a dominator.
Washington deserves to be more secure than ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi projects them, but Lunardi is trying to track with the Selection Committee will do, not what teams deserve, and there’s a good chance he’s right. While most of the Huskies are losses are “good”—no shame in Marquette or Duke, you can live with St. Louis and Nevada. But dumping a 19-point game to South Dakota State at home? That game would be the reason Washington could be a rare champ of a power conference still needing at least one win in their league tournament.
Cal (23-7, 13-4, projected #9 seed): There’s only one game left for the Golden Bears’ regular season and even if Cal loses at Stanford and again in the league tournament, they’re probably still in. The non-conference losses to Missouri, San Diego State and UNLV are respectable enough and Cal had won six in a row prior to a loss at Colorado.
This is a team that’s very good at the guard spots. Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobb both can shoot the trey, and the 6’6” Crabbe contributes some board work. Jose Gutierrez is a solid point guard and while not a three-point threat, his does shoot well enough from the floor that defenses can’t sag in too much to stop him off the dribble. Harper Kamp is a decent scorer at power forward. There’s not a lot of depth, nor much muscle, but if you have a point guard who can control tempo, others who can get hot from downtown, and a head coach in Mike Montgomery who knows what he’s doing, you can win some games in the NCAA Tournament. It all depends on the matchups, but in general, I like Cal’s chances to advance.
Arizona (21-9, 12-5, projected #11 seed): Sean Miller’s team struggled against good teams in December as they tried to rebuild after the loss of power forward Derrick Williams to early entry in the NBA draft. The Wildcats fell to Mississippi State, San Diego State, Florida and Gonzaga. But there were no South Dakota State-esque defeats, and as Arizona came together the wins started coming. While Miller had to break two freshman into the starting lineup, seniors stepped up with forward Jesse Perry and guard Kyle Fogg playing well, along with junior forward Solomon Hill. The team lacks a true post presence and the depth is not great, but not only have they won games in the Pac-12, three of the losses have come by two points or loss (contrasted to only one win by that margin). Arizona is playing as well as anyone in this conference and deserves to make the field.
Oregon (20-8, 11-5, projected to miss field by 5-8 spots): Oregon is a very finesse-oriented team with no one taller than 6’6” able to make any real contribution. Forward E.J. Singler is the “big man” and he’s better suited to step out and hit the outside shot. Fortunately he’s a good shooter inside the arc and a respectable one outside it. The offense is ultimately led by senior Devoe Joseph, who scores 17 ppg a night and can shoot the ball from anywhere on the floor, with Garrett Sim a solid supporting player in the backcourt. Kudos to head coach Dana Altman for keeping a team with this little depth and size in the race. If they win their home games this week against Colorado and Utah they deserve to make the field and I’m optimistic that they’ll be the fourth team out of the Pac-12 to have its name called on Selection Sunday.
Colorado (19-9, 11-5, projected to miss field by 5-8 spots): I know Lunardi has them basically even with Oregon, but I don’t see it. They’ve been blown out four times in league play. Colorado lost to Stanford by 20-plus points twice, including just last week. They lost by 17 to UCLA and 14 to Arizona. The non-conference schedule is filled with losses to shaky teams on the NCAA bubble—Maryland, Colorado State and Wyoming, along with a more understandable losses to Wichita State. I was a defender of this team’s NCAA prospects, but the most recent tank job against Stanford leaves even me thinking a lot of work has to be done.
The Buffs have the talent. Andre Roberson averages an 11/11 each night and will be high on TheSportsNotebook’s list when conference player of the year honors are given out next week. Carlon Brown can open it up from outside, and Austin Dufault and Spencer Dinwiddie can both fill supporting roles effectively. I can see this team winning the Pac-12 tournament. What I can’t see is how this current resume is NCAA Tournament-worthy. To my way of thinking, Colorado needs to win at Oregon tonight, at Oregon State to close the season and then at least win their quarterfinal game in the Pac-12 tourney, presumably against Oregon or Arizona. Do all that, and maybe we can talk about getting them in the field.
Missouri’s win over Kansas earlier this month was right up there with the finish to North Carolina-Duke in Chapel Hill when it comes to college basketball’s regular season. The Tigers rallied from nine down in the final two minutes and stole a win from UK. It should have set up a great winner-take-all battle for the Big 12 crown on Saturday in Lawrence. Unfortunately, Mizzou dropped a home game to Kansas State, so the Tigers can only move into a tie for first. Kansas, on the other hand, can all but sew up another conference championship in front of the home fans at 4 PM ET on CBS.
Both coaches have done great jobs this season. While Missouri’s Frank Haith has a backcourt filled with both depth and star talent, the frontline is very thin, with only Ricardo Ratcliffe able to hold down the fort, and as a power forward he would be better suited to a lineup that had a true center and allowed some flexibility. Kudos to both Haith and Ratcliffe for making it possible for the guards like Kim English and Marcus Denmon to carry the team to elite levels.
And Bill Self has done a great job in piecing together a rotation in Kansas. At the start of the season I thought this was a two-man team in point guard Tyshawn Taylor and post man Thomas Robinson that would be exposed by more talented lineups in the Big 12. As the season winds down I think it’s a two-man team of Taylor and Robinson that hasn’t been exposed because Self has done the best job this side of Greg Popovich when it comes to maximizing use of his roster and getting the most out of everyone. Kansas nearly won on the road at Missouri and at this point, there’s no reason to go against the Jayhawks on their home floor.
Elsewhere in the Big 12, Texas still needs wins to nail down its NCAA bid when they visit Texas Tech, while Iowa State and Kansas State are both safely in and play each other for seeding position.
Looking at the rest of the country…
BIG EAST: Syracuse can sew up a piece of the conference championship with a win at UConn at 9 PM ET on Saturday night, the prime-time ESPN game. Notre Dame is one of two teams, along with idle Marquette giving chase, and the Irish visit St. John’s in a noon tip on ESPN. Georgetown hosts Villanova on Saturday and Louisville welcomes Pitt on Sunday, both 2 PM ET tips on CBS and both cases where the home team is playing only for seeding. Seton Hall got a big win over the Hoyas that probably puts them on the right side of the NCAA bubble, but they need to keep it going against Jersey rival Rutgers. And the biggest game of the weekend is Cincinnati-South Florida, with both teams still needing to win.
ACC: Duke got the win it had to have against Florida State last night in spite of my prediction otherwise (a burden that a surprising number of teams manage to overcome). It’s a two-team race now with Duke and UNC. The Blue Devils host Virginia Tech, while Carolina goes to Virginia (4 PM ET, ESPN). Miami needs to win on Sunday night against Florida State (6 PM ET, ESPNU) and N.C. State absolutely must beat Clemson on the road on Saturday.
BIG TEN: Michigan State will hold the lead in the conference against Nebraska, while Ohio State looks to keep in pursuit when they host Wisconsin at 4 PM ET Sunday, a CBS game. Michigan is also just one back and has a game with Purdue, a desperate team who needs a marquee win. Northwestern still has a shot at its first-ever NCAA bid and goes to Penn State.
PAC-12: I’m utterly disgusted with Colorado, whom I was bucking the tide and predicting to make the NCAA Tournament. Then they turn around and lose by 24 to Stanford last night. The Buffs play co-leader Cal on Saturday, while the other co-leader Washington, has a gimme at Washington State. Arizona is the team that needs to keep winning and they host UCLA in a 2 PM ET tip on Saturday on CBS that the western part of the country will see.
SEC: Kentucky keeps the push for an unbeaten season going and can clinch an outright league championship against Vanderbilt on Saturday (Noon ET, CBS). The biggest game though is Mississippi State-Alabama, two bubble teams that would seem to be leaning in right now, but in situations too close to call. The Bulldogs and Tide tip at 6 PM ET on ESPN.
ATLANTIC 10: I got wrapped up in St. Joe’s push for the NCAA Tournament and was disheartened by their upset loss at Temple this week that means the Hawks won’t get an at-large bid. Unlike Colorado though, I’m not disgusted because St. Joe’s is a rebuilding team that’s made tremendous progress this season. They host Temple in a Philadelphia fight on Saturday (7 PM ET, ESPNU), with the Owls trying to hold off St. Louis for the A-10 title. St. Loo goes to Rhode island. Earlier this week a Temple win over LaSalle took the Explorers off the longshot list, but UMass is still there, and fights for its life at Dayton.
MOUNTAIN WEST: Colorado State’s win over New Mexico on Tuesday gives them a shot at the Big Dance, and I wouldn’t put San Diego State in as a lock too quickly. The Aztecs are starting to slip and they host CSU in a big game on Saturday. This game won’t actually be televised, because it’s apparently federal law that every Big East game make it onto national television, but Rams-Aztecs is as significant as any game in the country this week.
I hope your sports week was better than mine (well, unless you’re the fan of a rival team). The Celtics are melting down. The Bruins have the Senators in the rearview mirror. Wisconsin lost to Iowa again last night. If your sports residence is in Boston-Madison Corridor With Redskins Detour, life is rough. With Wisconsin at Ohio State on Sunday I don’t anticpate college hoops getting much better, although if the B’s can beat Ottawa tomorrow night, that’s what I want the most.
Now, to the point of this post, which is to link you to the eight feature articles that ran here at TheSportsNotebook from Monday thru Thursday.
The Atlantic 10 isn’t having one it’s best years in college basketball, but there’s still an interesting a conference championship race and some fluidity among the NCAA bubble teams that make it worth keeping an eye for fans of power conference teams. TheSportsNotebook breaks six teams into three categories. You have Temple/St. Louis in the race for the top spot. Xavier/St. Joe’s are legitimate NCAA bubble teams. And LaSalle/UMass are longshots, but could still play their way onto the NCAA radar with a spirited finish. Here’s the rundown…
Temple(21-5, 10-2, projected #5 seed): The Owls are playing great basketball right now, having won ten in a row. They got their center, Micheal Eric back from an injury and his return coincides with the last nine wins. Eric completes the puzzle for a team that has a dynamic three-guard backcourt. Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt are both electric scorers and each share the basketball well. Juan Fernandez is a reliable third guard who knows his role and can bury the trey. While Eric is the only true post player, both Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and Anthony Lee chip in some rebounding help. Temple has all the pieces, but the remaining schedule won’t be easy. They play intra-city battles tonight against LaSalle and this weekend at St. Joseph’s, before a home game with UMass. With St. Louis breathing down Temple’s neck for first place, there’s no room for error.
St. Louis (22-5, 10-3, projected #8 seed): St. Louis is a well-balanced team, but they don’t have the electricity at the guards that Moore and Wyatt give Temple, nor the true post player that Eric provides. What they do have is a good collection of shooters, with guards Kwamain Mitchell, Mike McCall and Kyle Cassity, along with forward Cody Ellis, able to hit from long range. Brian Conklin is a nice frontcourt player, while Dwayne Evans plays bigger than his 6’5” frame would suggest. The Billikens close the season with winnable road games at Rhode Island and Duquesne and a tough home game with what should be a desperate Xavier team. They need to sweep if they want to catch Temple for at least a piece of the league title. As far as the NCAA goes, you’d certainly have to give them a shot in an 8-9 or 7-10 game, regardless of seeding, but I don’t see St. Loo as a sleeper.
NCAA BUBBLE TEAMS
Xavier (17-10, 8-5, projected #11 seed): A big caveat on that seed projection is that ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi put that out on Monday and Xavier lost last night at UMass. The Musketeers are about as disappointing a team as there is in the country. The backcourt can score with anybody, as Tu Holloway is one of the country’s best, and Mark Lyons gets 17 a game himself. Holloway can take you off the dribble and Lyons can bury the trey. Kenny Frease stands 7’0” tall in the post and seemed ready to emerge as a dominant player, but it never quite worked out. Dezmine Wells is a solid shooter in third scorer in the backcourt, who fulfills the same role as Temple’s Fernandez.
This team should be a Sweet 16 contender and Final Four darkhorse. Early season wins over Vanderbilt, Purdue and Cincinnati seemed to validate that. But there was a bad brawl and a lot of suspensions on both sides in the Cincy game, and Xavier has not been the same team since. At minimum they need to beat St. Louis on the road next Tuesday and I’m going to take the rare step of dissenting from Lunardi’s brackets—I think the Selection Committee is going to minimize credit for what happened pre-suspension, the same way the minimize it if a team suffers an injury. Unless they beat St. Louis and/or at least reach the final of the A-10 tournament, I believe the Musketeers are toast.
St. Joe’s (18-10, 8-5, projected just outside the NCAA): Lunardi currently has the Hawks missing the Dance by anywhere from 5-8 spots. That’s probably outside the margin of error if bids went out today. But they don’t go out today and St. Joe’s is a young team playing some good basketball right now. The tandem of Carl Jones and Langston Galloway gives them their own solid backcourt duo. This is more of a finesse-oriented team, as the forwards like to step out and shoot threes. Neither C.J. Aiken or Hali Kanacevic do it all that well, so coach Phil Martinelli should consider banning them from going behind the arc. But the guard play has the team rolling and they’ve got a home game with Temple this weekend that’s crucial to building the NCAA resume and the A-10 tourney will be as well. The Hawks would be better off getting up to third place and getting St. Louis, rather than Temple in the semi-finals of the league tournament.
UMass (19-8, 8-5): Everyone’s life could have been easier had Xavier taken care of the Minutemen last night, but at 19-8 and chances for a road win at Temple still ahead of them mean UMass can play its way into the conversation. Chaz Williams is one of the conference’s top players at the point, with an average of 16 points/4 rebounds/6 assists per night and the rest of the team is a series of three-point gunners. If they get hot, can they gun the team to three straight wins, then two more in the A-10 tournament? That would put them at 24-9 in the at-large discussion and it likely means two late wins over Temple. (Obviously if they win the tournament they get the automatic bid and this whole discussion is moot). I could see them getting in.
LaSalle (18-9, 7-5): A lot of years a resume with competitive losses to Villanova, Pitt and Dayton would be a good thing. This year is not one of them, so the Explorers have their backs to the wall. This is not a lineup with a lot of depth and four players chew up most of the minutes and all are guards. Earl Pettis, Ramon Galloway, Tyrek Duren and Sam Mills are virtually carbon copies, all pretty good scorers, and all pretty good shooters. On the positive side, the remaining schedule is manageable. The toughest game is Temple and that’s a home game (although it’s an intra-city rivalry, some homecourt doesn’t mean as much). But unlike UMass, getting to 22-9 won’t mean a juicy road win down the stretch, so I think even if they reach the tournament final, it’s not enough. LaSalle needs to pull off a miracle in Atlantic City if they want to dance.
The battle on the NCAA bubble is intense in the Big East and ACC, and particularly down in the southern part of Florida. Today, TheSportsNotebook will take a look at the cases of bubble teams in Miami and South Florida, and briefly summarize the rest of the conference.
Miami(16-9, 7-5): I thought Miami would be in better shape right now. Jim Larranaga came down from George Mason to take his crack at coaching in a power conference. He’s got a great tandem on the front line with Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson, both of whom stand 6’10”. Both have played well this season, and at times Johnson has stepped up to become truly dominant. Collectively, they average 25 points/13 rebounds a game, and Kadji is able to step out and hit the three-ball. With help, they’d be a good foundation for a true ACC contender.
The problem Larranaga’s had is in his backcourt. Miami’s got very talented guards with junior Durand Scott and senior Malcolm Grant, but both have had tough season shooting the ball. The point production is there (this duo also combines for 25 ppg), but efficiency is now, with Grant struggling at 33 percent from the floor. Even worse, there is consistent three-point shooter in the backcourt. Freshman Shane Larkin, the son of Cincinnati Reds’ Hall of Fame shortstop and ESPN analyst Barry Larkin, has promise here, but while Larkin’s 35 percent from behind the arc is good enough to justify taking the shot, it won’t stretch a defense out. Hence, if Miami wants consistency from behind the arc, they have to get Kadji outside, which in turn takes away from a key team strength.
Miami stepped up with a big win on Super Bowl Sunday when they won in overtime at Duke, but that’s the only notable win they’ve got this year. The schedule is filled with losses to fellow bubble contenders—the ‘Canes lost at Ole Miss, at Purdue, at West Virginia, and at home to Memphis and N.C. State. That’s a collective body of work that gives the selection committee plenty of reason to reject you in a close race, and with ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi currently projecting Miami as a #12 seed and one of the last four teams to make the field, this is nothing if not a close race.
While I don’t like Miami’s resume I still like their talent, and the win at Duke showed why I believe they can play well in these final four games and in the ACC tournament. The ‘Canes play at Maryland tomorrow, and then have a huge home game with Florida State. Next week they have an even bigger road game at N.C. State—currently one of the last four to miss the field according to Lunardi—and then a home date with lowly Boston College. This isn’t a team I’d want to mess with if I were a #4 or #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, as Kadji and Johnson present a lot of matchup problems. The question is whether they can find the consistency the rest of the way to get that shot.
Lunardi currently projects Miami as one of five ACC teams to get a bid. Duke and North Carolina are each sitting as #2 seeds, while Florida State—tied for first with the Big Two, albeit a weaker non-conference resume—is sitting on #4. Virginia is at #8. Then you have Miami and N.C. State squarely on the bubble with the ‘Canes leaning in. But that’s a race that will change with each game both teams play. Maryland has slipped to 15-11 overall and short of winning out and grabbing a couple wins in the ACC Tournament, is not going to the NCAA.
South Florida (17-10, 10-4): When South Florida started poorly in November and December there was no reason to think it would be impacting our thinking in late February. The Bulls lost at home to Old Dominion and Penn State, and dropped road games to Virginia Commonwealth and Auburn, along with a predictable defeat at Kansas. They lost in Big East play to UConn, Marquette and Georgetown. But other than that, they’ve turned it around in conference play and been very consistent, putting together a 10-4 conference record and at 17-10 overall are now back in the picture for the NCAA Tournament. If not for those home losses to ODU and Penn State, South Florida would be a lock.
South Florida is a team oriented toward the frontcourt with five of its top seven players going 6’6” or taller, and the go-to player is 6’10” senior Augustus Gilchrist. He’s averaging an 11/5 each night. Gilchrist has been an impact player in the Big East through his career and is finally getting a chance to prove it in big games in these coming weeks.
Anthony Collins is the freshman at the point and a good shooter, at least inside the three-point line. After Collins, the Bulls are mostly a team of interchangeable parts. Toarlyn Fitzpatrick is more of a rebounder, while Hugh Roberson is a good shooter, but for the most part Stan Heath has some flexibility in how he uses the five players between Collins at the point and Gilchrist in the post.
It’s easy to look at South Florida’s Big East record and think that will be enough to carry them, but they really don’t have much in terms of quality wins. A home win over Seton Hall is the best conference victory on the schedule, while Cleveland State is the best non-conference win. That would have to be the reason Lunardi currently projects him as one of the first four teams to miss the NCAA bracket.
The good news for Heath is that not only is he close enough to be in the margin of error, but the remaining schedule provides plenty of chances to get those quality wins. South Florida visits Syracuse and Louisville in these final two weeks and has home games with fellow bubble teams Cincinnati and West Virginia. If the Bulls can even split those four games and finish 19-12/12-6, you’d have to like their chances going into the Big East tournament. Of course the bad news is they’ll need more than Gilchrist to win two of those games. It’s time for the supporting cast to step up.
Lunardi is currently showing Big East teams Seton Hall and Cincinnati sneaking into the field, while South Florida just misses. I’m not as sold on Seton Hall, while I think the Bearcats are better off than the ESPN bracketologist gives them credit for. Conversely, a projection of UConn at #11 seems optimistic to me given the Huskies poor play since Jim Calhoun was sidelined. West Virginia is sitting on #10, reasonably safe, but one loss puts them back on the bubble. The absolute locks are Notre Dame (#6), Georgetown (#3), Marquette (#3) and Syracuse (#1).
It was last Saturday, in front of an ESPN audience, that Michigan State went to Columbus, held Ohio State to 26 percent shooting from the floor, and came up with a road win that turned the Big Ten race into a dead heat coming down the stretch. The Spartans and Buckeyes both answered tests during the week, beating Wisconsin and Minnesota respectively. Now they both face stern tests again on Saturday, each on the road.
ESPN’s Gameday will make the trek to Ann Arbor, where Ohio State visits Michigan (9 PM ET). The Wolverines are the one team left who can still get into the title picture, trailing the co-leaders by a game (Wisconsin fell by the wayside with their loss in East Lansing last night). Is homecourt, combined with the scoring Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke in the backcourt enough to beat an Ohio State team that can play the inside-out game with Jared Sullinger and William Buford? In fairness, that soundbite, doesn’t adequately factor in a depth advantage for Michigan. My problem is that here in the latter part of February I don’t know what to make of Ohio State. They go into Madison and get a nice road win, but then can’t seal the deal on their home floor. Call it a gut feeling, but I think the Wolverines, with the home crowd behind them, are able to ride out some big stretches from Sullinger and win this one at the wire.
On Sunday, it’s Michigan State-Purdue, and I would presume will be on CBS, given the 1 PM ET tip-time, but for some reason the network remains non-committal about its Big Ten game—as though Wisconsin-Penn State or Indiana-Iowa are better fare. As a Badger fan whose good friends with a Nittany Lion fan I appreciate the thought, but let’s get real—the Spartans-Boilers should be the showcase game. I like Michigan State’s chances a little better on the road. Robbie Hummel is capable of carrying Purdue, who is in a must-win spot in the race for the NCAA Tournament, but Tom Izzo has produced a team that rebounds the ball well and just seems very mentally tough, as last week’s road win shows. I like Michigan State to do it again and take sole possession of first place with two weeks to go.
Here at TheSportsNotebook we’ve been talking Bracket-Busters all week, in looking at the mid-major conferences. If you missed it, be sure and read this week’s overviews of Conference USA, the Missouri Valley and an eclectic mix of Harvard, Long Beach State and the Colonial’s Big Three (I don’t really know if that mix is “eclectic” but it makes me sound hip. Or stupid). And there’s previous material on Gonzaga, BYU & St. Mary’s, plus a piece on Murray State, which are a little more dated, but still relevant if you’re looking for a crash course on the midmajors. The two biggest games of Saturday’s feature will be St. Mary’s-Murray State (6 PM ET, ESPN) and Long Beach State-Creighton (10 PM ET, ESPN2). Of those four teams, St. Mary’s is the only I’d feel confident about getting an at-large bid to the NCAA if they lose the conference tournament. Murray and Long Beach would still have reasonable shots, but I think Creighton either must win this game or must win the automatic. And don’t overlook Yale-Harvard, where the Yalies can pull into a tie with the Crimson in a race where the regular season championship settles the NCAA bid.
Elsewhere around the country…
BIG EAST: When you have a 16-team league, you’re going to have a lot of big NCAA bubble games this time of year. None are bigger than Seton Hall-Cincinnati, where I think the Bearcats could come close to sealing the deal if they win at home, and the Pirates really need a signature win. UConn needs to win a home date with Marquette on noon ET on ESPN, while the Golden Eagles still nurse an outside shot at catching Syracuse for first place.
PAC-12: Arizona-Washington is a monster battle here. The Huskies won a previous meeting by two points and are tied for first with Cal, with the Wildcats only one game back. Playing up in Seattle, I like Lorenzo Romar’s team to defend their home floor, but if you’re looking at a hot team who will be affordably seeded *in the NCAA bracket, Arizona’s one to watch.
MOUNTAIN WEST: Another big one in the West is UNLV-New Mexico. After an entire season of being comfortably ensconced in a UNLV-San Diego State paradigm in this conference race, the Lobos have jumped up and taken sole possession of first. They lead each rival by one game. Saturday’s game tips at 1 PM ET and will share CBS coverage along with a meaningless UCLA-St. John’s game. By “share” I’m sure that means pockets of Las Vegas and Albuquerque will get the good game, while the rest of us get stuck with the big market teams that are going nowhere.
ACC: Duke’s rally to beat N.C. State last night kept this a three-way tie, along with North Carolina and Florida State, and also denied the Wolfpack a chance for a badly needed win to secure an NCAA bid. Now N.C. State comes home and it’s Florida State that’s on the docket. North Carolina’s got a winnable home game with a respectable, if not NCAA-caliber Clemson team, while Duke visits lowly Boston College on Sunday night. In another bubble game, Miami absolutely must take care of Wake Forest.
BIG 12: It’s a Missouri-Kansas race to the finish, with a head-to-head war in Lawrence still ahead. Mizzou takes to the road against Texas A&M. I can’t rule out a trap spot here, but the Tigers have been generally pretty good about avoiding such, save one defeat to Oklahoma State, and there’s nothing special that they’re coming off that would leave them susceptible to being trapped. Kansas has an easy win at home against Texas Tech. On the bubble, Texas visits Oklahoma State, and the Longhorns recent strong play means that a couple more wins and it’s time to take them off the bubble and put them in.
SEC: Mississippi State is ranked 23rd, but if you’re looking for a Top 25 team begging for a come-uppance on Selection Sunday the Bulldogs are it, and they need to take care of business at Auburn. Kentucky has this league title wrapped up and host an Ole Miss team that still has a shot at playing its way into the NCAA field and missed an opportunity last night with a 102-96 overtime loss to Vanderbilt. Arkansas can also still play its way in, but needs to get a marquee home win over Florida.
ATLANTIC 10: The Battle Of Western Ohio Disappointments features Dayton-Xavier. The Flyers aren’t getting an at-large bid, and the Musketeers are in jeopardy. Xavier desperately has to win this game. The conference leaders, Temple and St. Louis, have winnable home dates with Duquesne and Fordham respectively.