Syracuse entered the ACC Tournament feeling pretty good about their NCAA Tournament chances for the first time since 2013.
Despite being without leading scorer Tyus Battle due a lower back injury, the Orange defeated Pittsburgh, 73-59, in the first round of the ACC Tournament on Wednesday night. Syracuse trailed the Panthers, 36-30, at halftime, but used an 8-0 run with all 8 points scored by Buddy Boeheim to take a 43-39 lead early in the second stanza. The Orange would not relinquish the lead the rest of the way.
After shooting 60-percent from three-point range in the first half, Pittsburgh cooled down and shot just 30.8-percent from deep after the break. Conversely, Syracuse heated up from beyond the arc down the stretch, shooting 54.6-percent from three in the second half.
Jared Wilson-Frame led the Panthers with 24 points, on 8-of-16 from three-point land, and seven rebounds. Sidy N’Dir added 10 points in the losing effort.
Boeheim paced Syracuse with 20 points, on 6-of-13 shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. Elijah Hughes and Frank Howard scored 18 points apiece. Hughes also grabbed four rebounds, dished out three assists, and came away with two steals.
The Orange squared off with Duke in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament on Thursday night. Battle missed his second straight game with a lower back injury. After rallying back from as much as a 17 point deficit in the first half, Syracuse tied the game at 46 on a triple by Boeheim with 13:02 to go. The Blue Devils pulled away down the stretch to win 84-72.
In a turnover plagued affair, Duke outshot the Orange as the Blue Devils shot 53.7-percent from the floor, compared to 48.1-percent shooting for Syracuse.
The real difference in the game was that Duke has the best player in the country and the likely #1 pick in the NBA Draft Zion Williamson. Williamson, who returned after missing five consecutive games with a sprained knee, erupted for 29 points on a perfect 13-of-13 from the floor, 14 rebounds, and five steals. Fellow freshman phenomenon RJ Barrett tallied 23 points, on 8-of-16 from the field, and six rebounds. Freshman point guard Tre Jones finished with 15 points and eight assists.
Howard led the Orange with a career-high 28 points, on 11-of-2o shooting, and three assists. Boeheim poured in 15 points, while Oshae Brissett finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.
Despite the loss, Syracuse entered the NCAA Tournament with a record of 20-13. Howard was named to the ACC Tournament Second Team, while Williamson was named the MVP after Duke won the championship game over Florida State, 73-63, Saturday night.
Battle is expected to return in the NCAA Tournament, but playing without him in the ACC Tournament gave others the opportunity to step up, specifically, Howard and Boeheim.
Player of the Week: Frank Howard
This week’s player of the week for Syracuse was Frank Howard. After a lower leg injury caused him to miss the first four games of the season, Howard did not play to the form he showed he was capable of during his junior campaign. The senior point guard averaged 23 points on 50-percent shooting in Battle’s absence at the ACC Tournament. With Battle back and Howard and Boeheim shooting with confidence, the Orange just might be poised to make another run in the “Big Dance.”
Up Next: The NCAA Tournament vs. #9 Baylor
For the first time since 2013, Syracuse did not have to sweat it out on Selection Sunday. This year, the Orange were firmly in and earned the 8-seed in the West Region. Syracuse will take on the 9-seed Baylor in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tip-off is set for Thursday night at 9:57pm. The game will be seen on truTV. The Bears are 19-13 overall and are coming off an 83-66 loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals. Baylor is led by Tristan Clark who is averaging 14.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
If the Orange were to defeat the Bears, they would take on the winner of the game between the 1-seed Gonzaga and the 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson, who defeated Prairie View in the First Four Tuesday night.
Last season, the Big Twelve rivaled ACC for the title of the toughest conference in the country. Will the Big Twelve be just as good in 2018-19? Another question to ask is can anyone stop Kansas?
Let’s take a look at how the Big Twelve will shake out in 2018-19.
1.) Kansas Jayhawks
The Kansas Jayhawks have sat atop the Big Twelve for the last fourteen years. Expect to see more of the same in 2018-19. Bill Self and the Kansas program was under FBI investigation for the recruitments of Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa. Preston left the University of Kansas after never playing a game and went undrafted, while De Sousa will sit out until the NCAA rules on his eligibility. Despite the looming investigations, the Jayhawks are still the best team in the Big Twelve by far and will share the top spot in the national polls with Kentucky in the preseason. Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick return from a team that made it to the Final Four a year ago. New additions include Memphis transfers Dedric and KJ Lawson and five star point guard Quentin Grimes. With that loaded roster, there is no doubt that Kansas has a great shot at winning the Big Twelve for the fifteenth time in as many years.
2.) West Virginia Mountaineers
Jevon Carter is no longer in Morgantown, but Bob Huggins club will have a chance at challenging Kansas for the conference crown this year. West Virginia has a tremendous returning frontcourt headlined by Sagaba Konate, Esa Ahmad, and Lamont West. The question for Huggy Bear is whether or not he will get consistent guard play in the post-Carter era.
3.) Kansas State Wildcats
The last team in the top tier of the Big Twelve is Kansas State. Bruce Webber and the Wildcats would want nothing more than to dethrone their in-state rivals for the Big Twelve regular season championship. Kansas State made it to the Elite Eight a year ago without their best player Dean Wade who was out with an injury. Wade and Barry Brown return to Manhattan and will look to take the conference by storm.
4.) TCU Horned Frogs
TCU made it to the NCAA Tournament in Jamie Dixon’s second year in Fort Worth, but was upset by Syracuse in the first round. Vladimir Brodziansky and Kenrich Williams departed due to graduation, but a healthy Jaylen Fisher, along with Desmond Bane, Alex Robinson, and Kouat Noi should be enough for the Horned Frogs to make their second consecutive trip to the “Big Dance.”
5.) Texas Longhorns
The Longhorns have produced NBA Draft lottery picks in each of the last two seasons, but have failed to be a force in the Big Twelve and advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in either of those years. Andrew Jones was diagnosed with leukemia in January, but the cancer is in remission and he is set to return at some point this season. Jones, Kerwin Roach budding star Jericho Sims will look to make Texas a factor in the Big Twelve.
6.) Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech was one of the most surprising teams in college basketball last season in Chris Beard’s second year in Lubbock. The Red Raiders will be without the services of Keenan Evans who graduated and Zhaire Smith who declared for the NBA Draft after his freshman campaign. Jarrett Culver will hope to keep Texas Tech relevant in conference play and on the right side of the bubble this year.
7.) Iowa State Cyclones
A year removed from finishing in the basement of the Big Twelve, Iowa State is poised to put themselves in the conversation to be in the middle of the pack in the conference this year. Sophomore guard Lindell Wigginton, Nick Weiler-Babb, Cameron Lard, and Virginia transfer Marial Shayok will make for an exciting combination in Ames this season.
8.) Baylor Bears
Baylor was one of the first four out on Selection Sunday a year ago. Scott Drew will turn to transfers Mario Kegler and Makai Mason to lead his team in 2018-19. The Bears will likely find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble again this year.
9.) Oklahoma State Cowboys
Despite finishing below .500 in conference play a season ago, Oklahoma State swept the season series with Kansas. The Cowboys will probably find themselves near the bottom of the Big Twelve this season after losing Jeffrey Carroll and a host of others to the transfer market.
10.) Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma rode the Trae Young train wherever it led in 2017-18. The freshman point guard electrified the college basketball scene and led the nation in points and assists before being chosen fifth overall in the NBA Draft. Brady Manek and transfers Aaron Calixte and Miles Reynolds will try and keep the Sooners out of the cellar of the conference this year.
With the season behind us, let’s dive in and take a look at the five best players in college basketball this season who earned the right to be called All-Americans.
Jalen Brunson, G, Villanova
Jalen Brunson was the Player of the Year in college basketball, so naturally he is a First Team All-American. The junior guard served as the floor general of the nation’s best team and eventual National Champion, Villanova. Brunson averaged 18.9 points and 4.6 assists per game and shot 52.1% from the floor and 40.8% from three. He posed a tough match-up for opposing defenses as he could shoot the three, take it to the hole, post-up and be a threat in the mid-range. After the Wildcats defeated Michigan in the National Championship game, Brunson decided to forego his senior season and enter the NBA Draft, where he is projected as a late first round or early second round pick. He has etched his name in Villanova lore as he was a starter on two National Championship teams in three years.
Trae Young, G, Oklahoma
When Trae Young decided to stay home in Norman, Oklahoma and play for the Sooners rather that head off to Kentucky, very few people predicted that he would have the success he did in his only year in college. Young became the first player ever to lead the nation in both scoring and assists. The freshman scored 27.4 points per game and dished out 8.8 assists per game, leading Oklahoma to the NCAA Tournament where they fell in the first round to Rhode Island in overtime. Oklahoma relied on Young’s scoring and play-making. Although his numbers dipped toward the end of the season, he shot 42.2% from the floor and 36% from three. Young’s NBA Draft stock improved more than any other player in the country as he is now projected to be a top-ten pick in the NBA Draft.
Devonte’ Graham, G, Kansas
Devonte’ Graham’s decision to return to Lawrence for his senior season was a good one as the guard led his team to the Final Four for the first time since 2012 where they lost to Villanova. Graham led Kansas in scoring with 17.3 points per game on 40% shooting from the floor and 40.6% from beyond the arc. The senior point guard also corralled 4 rebounds and 7.2 assists per contest. After graduation, Graham will likely be chosen in the NBA Draft—he is projected to be an early second round selection.
Marvin Bagley III, F, Duke
The reclassification of Duke’s Marvin Bagley III was one of the biggest stories in college basketball heading into the 2017-18 season. Bagley III certainly did not disappoint as he led the nation’s most talented team in both scoring and rebounding. He also won ACC Player and Rookie of the Year honors, despite missing four games during conference play due to injury. The freshman averaged 21 points and 11.1 rebounds per game and led the Blue Devils to the Elite Eight where they lost to Kansas. The big man shot 61.4% from the floor and was a beast on the offensive glass. Bagley III will likely be a top five pick in this year’s NBA Draft. If he can improve his shooting from distance and his defense, he has all the ability to be an impact player at the next level.
Deandre Ayton, F, Arizona
Arizona’s Deandre Ayton rounds out the 2018 First Team All-American selections. Ayton is a physically imposing big man that shined in his one year in the Desert as he picked up both Pac-12 Rookie and Player of the Year honors. The freshman big man led the Wildcats to the Pac-12 Regular Season and Tournament Championships before getting upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Buffalo as he posted a double-double per contest at 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds. Ayton shot 61.2% from the floor during his freshman campaign. He is projected to be a top-three pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Scouts will hope that Ayton can develop a jumper and improve his shot blocking ability in order to become an elite NBA player.
If you’re like me, you’re probably feeling a little empty not having any college basketball to look forward to this weekend. Let’s take a step back to remember the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
This year’s “Big Dance” featured an upset for the ages, a Cinderella run that made a nun an international sensation, buzzer beaters, the agony of defeat and, most importantly, the best team won it all.
The National Champs: Villanova
Jay Wright did it. Two National Championships in three years. Villanova has become the program to beat in college basketball. The Wildcats dominated in March as they won all of their games in the NCAA Tournament by double-digits. Wright joined an exclusive club by cutting down the nets for the second time in his career as he joined Coach K and Roy Williams as the only active coaches to win multiple championships. National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges will likely forego their senior seasons and enter the NBA Draft, but Coach Wright will bring back three starters, Phil Booth, Eric Paschall, and Omari Spellman, and Donte DiVincenzo, who came off the bench and scored 31 points in the title game on Monday. The Wildcats have been the most dominant program over the last five years and with Wright at the helm, there is a culture of winning in Philadelphia. Villanova will be back next year to defend their title and create a dynasty.
The Runners-Up: Michigan
Michigan was the hottest team in the country entering the NCAA Tournament and rode their streak all the way to Championship Monday where they ran into the buzz saw that was Villanova. Mo Wagner’s decision to return to Ann Arbor paid dividends as he led his squad back to the National Championship game for the first time since 2013. John Beilein had the best defensive squad of his career that gave opponents fits throughout the month of March. The run to San Antonio almost didn’t happen as the Wolverines needed a buzzer beater by freshman Jordan Poole to get past Houston in the second round and led to one of the best celebrations of the Tournament. Wagner and seniors Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson will depart, but Michigan will be back with a talented recruiting class next season.
We witnessed history in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. For the first time in history, a 16-seed upset a 1-seed in the first round. Many had hinted at the fact that an Ivy League school, Penn, presented the best chance for a 16-seed to take down a 1-seed in their match-up with Kansas. When that didn’t happen on the first Thursday of the Tournament, many thought we would have to wait at a chance for history until next year. Enter Jairius Lyles and the UMBC Retrievers. In the final set of first round contests, UMBC took the world by storm—both on the court and on Twitter. The Retrievers stayed with Virginia and did not back down when the game was tied at 21 at halftime. UMBC outscored the #1 overall seeed 53-33 in the second half, busting pretty much every bracket filled out this year as the Cavaliers were a favorite to win it all. The three point shooting and defense by the Retrievers sent Kyle Guy and the rest of the Virginia team home crying as the first #1 to lose to a 16-seed in NCAA Tournament history. Tony Bennett was without a key piece, De’Andre Hunter, that Friday night in Charlotte. Maybe this would not have happened with him in the lineup, but Bennett will have to wait another year for a chance at the Final Four.
K-State to the Elite Eight
Kansas State got past Creighton in the first round and instead of having to face Virginia, they were up against Cinderella UMBC in the second round. The Wildcats dispatched the Retrievers and then took down Kentucky in Atlanta to make the Elite Eight for the first time since 2018. More impressively, Kansas State made their run without the services of their leading scorer, Dean Wade, who suffered a foot injury in the Big 12 Tournament. Although they were unable to get past Loyola-Chicago and make the Final Four, the Wildcats may have saved Bruce Weber’s job.
Buffalo Beats Zona
Buffalo knocked out Arizona in the first round. The Wildcats were a favorite to make a run to the Final Four, but an impressive shooting performance and stout defense by the Bulls made for an early exit for Sean Miller’s team. With the outcome of the FBI investigation still unknown, the future of Arizona basketball is uncertain as they will lose Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier, and Rawle Alkins to the NBA and Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic to graduation.
Sister Jean and Loyola-Chicago
Loyola-Chicago became the fourth 11-seed to make the Final Four and in doing so, their Team Chaplain Sister Jean became an international sensation at 98 years young. Donte Ingram’s buzzer beater to beat Miami was one of the highlights of the first round, but the Ramblers proved they weren’t done yet. They took down the 3-seeed Tennessee on a jumper in the waning seconds by Clayton Custer. Marques Townes’ dagger was enough to beat Nevada and advance to the Elite Eight where they blew out Kansas State. Their run came to an end with a loss to Michigan in the Final Four, but the Missouri Valley Champs took the world by storm in the month of March.
Nevada led for only 1:56 of its first two games of the NCAA Tournament, but managed to make the Sweet Sixteen. The Wolfpack trailed Texas by 14 points in the second half, but came back to win in overtime to advance to the Round of 32. There, Nevada erased a 22 point Cincinnati lead and came back to eliminate the second seeded Bearcats from the “Big Dance.” The Wolfpack lost to Loyola-Chicago in the Sweet Sixteen, but they will return most of their core from this year’s team and could be a top ten team next season.
Florida State to the Elite Eight
Many were saying that Florida State was the worst at-large team to receive an NCAA Tournament bid this year. The Seminoles proved the haters wrong and took down Missouri in the first round before they pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the Tournament, knocking off top-seeded Xavier in the second round to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Florida State’s run would not end there, as they took down a Gonzaga team without Killian Tillie. The Seminoles ended their season just short of the Final Four as they fell 58-54 to Michigan. If nothing else, they proved they belonged.
Texas A&M Takes Down the Tar Heels
In a season filled with ups and downs, Texas A&M’s NCAA Tournament run proved to be just that. The Aggies battled through injuries and suspensions to earn a 7-seed in the “Big Dance,” but drew the 10-seed Providence, who was one of the hottest teams entering the Tournament. Texas A&M ended the Friars’ season and went on to the Round of 32 where they pummeled North Carolina. In a poetic end to their tumultuous season, the Aggies were crushed by Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen. With Tyler Davis and Robert Williams both declaring for the NBA Draft, it will be interesting to see what the future looks like in College Station.
Marshall Shocks Wichita State
In a year where there were no 12-5 upsets, the 13-seeds stole the show. Buffalo beat Arizona and Marshall knocked off Wichita State. Jon Elmore’s sharp-shooting led the Thundering Herd past the Shockers and into the second round where they were ousted by in-state rival West Virginia, but an upset win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament is definitely something that Marshall, who finished fourth in Conference USA, should be proud of.
The 2-3 Zone Did it Again
Syracuse snuck into the NCAA Tournament as the last team to make the field, but the Orange were not satisfied with only receiving a bid. Jim Boeheim’s patented 2-3 zone puzzled opponents as Syracuse defeated Arizona State, TCU, and Michigan State, three teams averaging over 80 points a game to less than 60 on their way to the Sweet Sixteen. Their run was cut short as they fell 69-65 to Duke, but the NCAA Tournament run put a positive ending on a season where the Orange remained on the Bubble to the very end. If leading scorer Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett return, Syracuse could be poised to make another run in next year’s Tournament. Darius Bazley’s decision to decommit from the Orange and enter the G-League was unfortunate and leaves the team’s status for next season more uncertain, but Jalen Carey, Buddy Boeheim, and East Carolina-transfer Elijah Hughes will provide more depth at he guard position for next year’s team.
Game of the Tournament: Duke vs. Kansas—Elite Eight
The line in “One Shining Moment”—In the blinking of an eye that moment’s gone, couldn’t be more of a reality for the Duke Blue Devils as Grayson Allen’s potential game-winning rolled off the rim and out at the end of regulation. Kansas’ Malik Newman scored all 13 of the Jayhawks’ points in the overtime period to punch their ticket to San Antonio where they lost to eventual champion Villanova in the Final Four. Both Duke and Kansas will be title favorites heading into next season. Coach K and the Blue Devils have adopted the one-and-done strategy. The 2018-19 roster will look completely different for Duke. All five are their starters from this season’s team will be first round draft picks. Duke has the top recruiting class in the country next season as they welcome four of the top fifteen recruits in the country, including all of the top three recruits, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish, to Durham next fall. Tre Jones, the 12th ranked recruit and younger brother of 2015 Final four Most Outstanding Player, Tyus Jones, who also played at Duke, will also join the squad. Kansas is the way-too-early preseason #1 with Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick returning. The Jayhawks have a pair of five-star guards coming to Lawrence in the fall: Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes. Bill Self will also add Memphis-transfers K.J. Lawson and Dedric Lawson and Cal-transfer Charlie Moore, all of which will be eligible to play next season.
The Road Begins Now
The 2017-18 season has come and gone and it was surely a wild one. Congratulations to the Villanova Wildcats who reign superior this year. The Road to the 2019 Final Four in Minneapolis begins now.
The NCAA Tournament is upon us. Let’s take a look at the Midwest Region. The one seed in the Midwest, Kansas, will look to cut down the nets in Omaha on their way to the Final Four in San Antonio. However, there are 17 other teams looking to do the same thing. Here’s what to watch for.
Upset Pick: #12 New Mexico State over #5 Clemson
New Mexico State is in the field of 68 for the seventh time in the last nine years. The Aggies have won six consecutive games, including a victory in the WAC Championship game over Grand Canyon. New Mexico State is led by Zach Lofton who is averaging 19.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. The Aggies defense will be the difference if they are able to upset Clemson. The Tigers dropped four of five games in conference play against teams ranked in the top 50 nationally in defensive efficiency. New Mexico State ranks fourth nationally and will look to stifle Marcquise Reed in their first round match-up.
Sleeper: North Carolina State Wolfpack
As a nine seed in the Midwest, NC State is my pick to be a sleeper in this region. The Wolfpack have been giant killers all season and have wins over Arizona, Duke, Clemson, and North Carolina. Allerik Freeman leads the team in scoring at 15.4 points per contest. With the resume and the wins they have, NC State will be ready and if they can beat Seton Hall, they will be a tough out for Kansas in the second round.
Pick to Win the Midwest Region: Duke Blue Devils
I expect chalk to prevail in the Midwest Region until the Elite Eight, where Duke will defeat Kansas and earn a trip to San Antonio for the Final Four. The Blue Devils are the most talented team in the country and enter the NCAA Tournament winners of seven of their last nine games. The key down the stretch for Duke has been their commitment to playing defense. The use of the 2-3 zone has allowed the Blue Devils to hold their opponents to 61.1 points per game over that stretch. Duke will rely on the senior leadership of Grayson Allen, but freshman big men Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. will be the key to the Blue Devils’ success if they can make it to the Final Four at the Alamo Dome.
Now that I’ve made my picks for who will advance to the Final Four, its time to discuss who will cut down the nets.
North Carolina def. Arizona
Villanova def. Duke
Villanova will defeat North Carolina in a rematch of the 2016 National Championship and the Wildcats will be crowned the Kings of College Basketball.
Big 12 Tournament: March 7-March 10, Sprint Center, Kansas City, MO
The Big 12 will host their 2018 men’s basketball conference tournament at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. The Tourney will feature six teams destined for a run in the NCAA Tournament and three teams fighting to build their resume for an at-large bid or to secure an automatic bid.
Kansas (24-7, 13-5) enters the Big 12 Tournament as the one seed after securing their 14th consecutive Big 12 Regular Season title. A loss in the regular season finale at Oklahoma State has the Jayhawks’ hopes of being on the top seed line in the NCAA Tournament in jeopardy. Kansas may need to cut down the nets in Kansas City to hang on to a one seed depending on what happens in the rest of the conference tournaments. Led by Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham, All-Big 12 Second Team selection Svi Mykhailiuk, and All-Big 12 Third Team performer Udoka Azubuike, the Jayhawks will look to assert their dominance over the rest of the conference. Kansas will open on Thursday against the winner of the eight-seed Oklahoma State and the nine-seed Oklahoma at 2:30pm.
Texas Tech (23-8, 11-7) proved that, though they were a surprise in the non-conference, they are here to stay. The Red Raiders gave Kansas a run for their Regular Season title this year, but came up just short. Texas Tech, led by All-Big 12 First Team member, Keenan Evans, will look to hold onto a top four seed in the “Big Dance,” and a chance to play their opening weekend games in Dallas. The Red Raiders may be looking at a chance at revenge in the championship game on Saturday. Texas Tech will open on Thursday against the winner of 7-seeded Texas and 10-seeded Iowa State at 7pm.
West Virginia continues to be a perennial face at the top of the conference. The Mountaineers are 22-9, 11-7 in the Big 12, and have been in one of the nation’s best teams all year. Led by Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jevon Carter and co-Big 12 Defensive Team mate Sagaba Konate, West Virginia attacks its opponents on defense and allows nothing easy. The Mountaineers have struggled offensively when they fall behind late in games, but their defense always gives them a chance. West Virginia is a legitimate contender to win the Big 12 Tournament. The Mountaineers will open against the six seed Baylor on Thursday at 9pm.
TCU is 21-10, 9-9 in conference play, and well on their way to the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 1998. The Horned Frogs will look to improve their seeding with a win over Kansas State at the Sprint Center. Jamie Dixon has his alma mater rising to prominence in basketball behind the play of his senior leaders Kenrich Williams and Vladimir Brodziansky, who represent TCU on the Big 12’s Second and Third teams, respectively. The Horned Frogs will open against the four seed Kansas State on Thursday at 12:30pm.
Baylor looked lost and completely off the bubble following a loss to Florida in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. The Bears responded with wins over Kansas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma down the stretch and seem to now be a lock for the Dance at 18-13 overall, 8-10 in the Big 12. A win over West Virginia would certainly cement Baylor’s chance for an at-large bid. All-Big 12 Second teamer Manu Lacomte and All-Big 12 Third Team selection Jo Lual-Acuil, Jr. will look to do exactly that against the third seeded Mountaineers on Thursday at 9pm.
Oklahoma, behind the brilliance of All-Big 12 First Team selection, Trae Young, solidified their NCAA Tournament standing early in the conference schedule. Despite Young’s (and the team’s) struggles down the stretch, the Sooners should still feel good about their chances to hear their name called on selection Sunday. Oklahoma will look to take down their in-state rival eighth seeded Oklahoma State when they tip-off the Big 12 Tournament against each other on Wednesday at 7pm.
On the Bubble: Kansas State, Texas, Oklahoma State
Kansas State is on the good side of the bubble, sitting among the last four byes on most early projections of the NCAA Tournament field. A win over TCU would solidify their chance to be one of the 68 teams vying for a National Championship. Led by All-Big 12 First Team selection Dean Wade and All-Big 12 Second Teamer Barry Brown, Jr., the Wildcats may have their chance to upset the rival Jayhawks in the semis which could catapult their seeding come Selection Sunday. But first, K-State will have their hand full with the fifth seeded Horned Frogs on Thursday at 12:30pm.
Texas, despite losing their second leading scorer, Andrew Jones, for the rest of the season as he battles leukemia, is squarely on the bubble as one of the last four in as they enter Kansas City. With freshman phenom and All-Big 12 Second Team selection, Mohamed Bamba, uncertain for opening round tilt with Iowa State, the Longhorns will need to avoid a bad loss that could pop their bubble. Texas will look to follow up their big win over West Virginia in the last game of the regular season with a win over Texas Tech if they can get by the Cyclones on Wednesday at 9pm.
Oklahoma State has the most work to do of the three bubble teams that will take to the Sprint Center this week. After beating Kansas in the regular season finale, the Cowboys will look to follow that up with a deep run in this week’s Big 12 Tournament. All-Big-12 Third Team member Jeffrey Carroll will look to lead his team to an at-large bid to the Dance. As one of the first four teams out, Oklahoma State has a chance to beat Kansas for the second time in a week if they can defeat Oklahoma in Bedlam in Kansas City on Wednesday at 7pm.
Here’s a look at the 2018 Big 12 Tournament Bracket:
Semis: Kansas def. Kansas State, West Virginia def. Texas Tech
Final: Kansas defeats West Virginia in the title game.
Here’s a look at this week’s winners and losers and Saturday’s premier match-up.
Winner: Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State (25-3, 13-2) has now won nine consecutive games after defeating #3 Purdue last Saturday at home on a three-pointer in the closing second by Miles Bridges and drubbing Minnesota by 30 on Tuesday thanks to 27 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 blocks from Jaren Jackson Jr. The Spartans climbed to #2 in the country and are tied for first place in the Big Ten with Ohio State. With a lower strength of schedule than the rest of the top teams in the country, Michigan State has kept themselves in the conversation by simply winning games and avoiding bad losses. The Spartans close out the regular season with games at Northwestern on Saturday at 2, home against Illinois, and at Wisconsin. A strong showing at Madison Square Garden in the Big Ten Tournament could land Michigan State a one seed. With a week off to prepare between the end of their conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans will be primed and ready for a deep run in March. Look for Michigan State to be motivated by the disrespect the selection committee demonstrated when they seeded them as a 3-seed in their bracket reveal last week.
Loser: Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma has now lost four games in a row (and seven of their last nine) and is proving that the selection committee’s choice to seed them as a 4-seed in the bracket reveal last week was an absolute joke. Trae Young has tried to keep his team afloat all season, but has fallen short recently. Despite the fact that Young is averaging 29.1 points and 9.3 assists per game, his percentages have slipped a bit recently. Specifically, Young has misfired on 18 of his last 19 attempts from three-point land. Aside from Young, Oklahoma only has two other double figure scorers in Christian James and Brady Manek. Oklahoma is in desperate need of a big game from Young or contributions from some of their supporting cast to get back in the win column. The Sooners (16-9, 6-7) have slid to #23 nationally and fifth place in the Big 12. Oklahoma will look to avenge an earlier loss to Texas when they take on Mohamed Bamba and the Longhorns at noon on Saturday. Although Young is still the leading candidate to win the National Player of the Year, I am skeptical of the Sooners’ reliance on him to take them far in March.
Premier Match-Up: #3 Villanova at #4 Xavier (4:30pm FOX)
Saturday’s premier match-up features a rematch between #3 Villanova (23-3, 10-3) and #4 Xavier (24-3, 12-2) in Cincinnati. The winner would all but win the Big East regular season championship. The Wildcats trounced the Musketeers in Philadelphia on January 10 when Phil Booth, who has been sidelined with a broken hand since late last month, led all scorers with 21 points. Villanova, who relies heavily on three pointers, struggled in their loss to Providence as they made just 3-of-20 of their attempts from deep. The Wildcats have lost two of their last three outings and will look to bounce back with a big win against Xavier. Villanova averages 11.3 successful three-point tries per game and their dreadful performance against the Friars snapped an 83 game streak where they connected on 4 or more shots from behind the arc. In light of their recent struggles, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges have been spectacular this season as they are averaging 19.8 and 16.5 points, respectively. Prior to breaking his hand, Booth was third on the team in scoring at 11.6 points per game. Donte DiVincenzo has stepped into a starting role and is now averaging 14 points per contest. The other two starters, Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall are also averaging double figures. With Booth out, there is little bench production for Villanova. The Wildcats will have to rely heavily on their stars to leave the Cintas Center victorious.
Xavier enters Saturday as winners of their last nine games since losing to Villanova and have won those games by an average margin of 87-78. Most recently, the Musketeers went off for offensive explosion in their 102-90 victory over Seton Hall in which Trevon Bluiett lit it up for 37 points on only 12 shots. Bluiett, J.P. Macura, and Kerem Kanter have led Xavier to the top of the conference. Xavier ranks 9th nationally in points per game, but 239th in points allowed, while Villanova is 3rd and 133rd in those same categories. The Musketeers will look to make their case for a one seed by defending their home court against the Wildcats. Xavier is a perfect 16-0 at home this season. Expect Xavier to hold serve and take care of business at home in a fast, up-and-down, offensive game.
Non-conference games in late January? Here’s a quick look at the premier match-ups in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Saturday.
Baylor Bears at #20 Florida Gators—Noon, ESPN
Baylor enters Saturday in need of a win as they are 12-8 overall, having lost their last two games at #5 Kansas and home against Kansas State. A non-conference win on the road against a ranked opponent in Florida could serve them well if they hope to climb onto the good side of the bubble come March. Manu Lecomte will need to have a big game if the Bears plan on upsetting the Gators on Saturday. Lecomte leads Baylor in scoring at 16.6 points per game. Florida has had a rollercoaster of a season, but enters the Big 12/SEC Challenge at 14-6, having won six of their last eight games. After beating then #18 Kentucky, the Gators lost a midweek home game to South Carolina. If Florida is to come away with a win over Baylor on Saturday, it will likely be due to the play of their senior leader Chris Chiozza who is one of the most valuable players in the SEC. Chiozza is averaging 12.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 6.2 assists per game. Look for Florida to shoot their way past Baylor at home.
Florida 77, Baylor 66
#12 Oklahoma Sooners at Alabama Crimson Tide—2:15, ESPN
Trae Young leads Oklahoma into Tuscaloosa fresh off a home win over #5 Kansas on Monday. The Sooners (15-4) will look to grab a non-conference win on the road in pursuit of a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Young, the nation’s leading scorer and assist man (averaging 30.3 points and 9.6 assists per game), will put his skills to the test against Alabama’s Collin Sexton (averaging 18.5 points per game) who is also projected to be a top ten pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Protecting home court will be key for Alabama (13-7) as they look to secure a signature win and land on the right side of the bubble come tournament time. Look for the Sooners led by Young to outlast Sexton and the Crimson Tide on the road.
Oklahoma 81, Alabama 73
Texas A&M Aggies at #5 Kansas Jayhawks—4:30, ESPN
Texas A&M returns to Lawrence to take on Kansas for the first time since they were Big 12 opponents. The Aggies are one of the most disappointing and unpredictable teams in college basketball this season. At 13-7, Texas A&M is in need of a key win to push them to into the field come March. With five players averaging double figures, the Aggies have a balanced offensive attack and are talented enough to come away with a win at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. If Texas A&M is able to pull off the upset, it will likely be due to their strength inside. Tyler Davis is averaging 14.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, while Robert Williams, a possible lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft, is averaging 10.4 and 9.9 rebounds per game. The Aggies need to feed their big men in the post and hope to get Kansas’ only post threat Udoka Azubuike in foul trouble. Kansas will look to counter Texas A&M’s inside scoring with a barrage of three pointers. The Jayhawks live and die by the three. If Kansas wins, they will look for big games from senior leaders Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk who are averaging 17.8 and 16.5 points per game, respectively. I expect this to be the closest game of the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
Kansas 74, Texas A&M 71
Kentucky Wildcats at #7 West Virginia Mountaineers—7, ESPN
After losing at home to Florida last Saturday, Kentucky (15-5) fell out of the rankings for the first time since 2014. The young Wildcats responded with a win over Mississippi State on Tuesday night and will look to pull off an upset of #7 West Virginia in Morgantown on Saturday night. Kentucky has struggled to take care of the ball so far this season. The Wildcats average 14 turnovers per game. Kentucky’s guards will need to be prepared to face West Virginia’s full court press in a hostile environment. Kevin Knox (averaging 14.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game) has been inconsistent this year, but the Wildcats need him to have a good game if they hope to win. On the other hand, West Virginia (16-4) has lost three of their last four games. The Mountaineers will look to turn it around against Kentucky. The Mountaineers balanced attack, led by Jevon Carter, will need to focus on stronger shot selection to take down the Wildcats. Look for West Virginia’s full court press and a raucous home court crowd to come up with a victory at home.
West Virginia 71, Kentucky 65
My picks for the rest of the games in the Big 12/SEC Challenge:
#14 TEXAS TECH at South Carolina
Ole Miss at TEXAS
Georgia at KANSAS STATE
#22 TENNESSEE at Iowa State
TCU at Vanderbilt
Oklahoma State at ARKANSAS
Projected winners in BOLD
Based on these projections, my pick is for the Big 12 to win the 2018 Big 12/SEC Challenge 7-3.
Here’s a summary of the winners and losers this week and a look ahead at Saturday’s premier match-up.
Winner-Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech is off to a 13-1 start, with their lone loss to Seton Hall on a neutral court. They are now 2-0 in Big 12 play after defeating #18 Baylor 77-53 last weekend and #10 Kansas 85-73 on Tuesday. The Red Raiders were impressive against Kansas. They controlled the game all the way from the tip to the final buzzer and picked up their first win in program history at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. Texas Tech has a balanced attack that combines experience with youth. Senior point guard Keenan Evans leads the team averaging 16.5 points per game and has been hot at the start of conference play, scoring 18 against Baylor and 15 against Kansas. Freshman Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver are averaging 10.7 and 10.5 points per contest, respectively. The Red Raiders will look to take care of Kansas State at home on Saturday afternoon before traveling to Norman to take on Trae Young and #7 Oklahoma on Tuesday.
Loser-Texas A&M Aggies
After going 11-1 in non-conference play, which included a win over West Virginia in the season opener in Germany and their lone loss to Arizona on a neutral site, the Texas A&M Aggies have scuffled out of the gate in conference play. This week, the Aggies lost their first two games in SEC play, losing 79-57 at Alabama last Saturday and 83-66 to a struggling Florida team at home on Tuesday night. Injuries and off the court issues have stymied Texas A&M as of late, most notably a three-game suspension to their leading scorer D.J. Hogg and a knee injury that has sidelined big man Admon Gilder. The Aggies need them back sooner rather than later if they hope to snap out of their slump and be contenders in SEC play. Texas A&M takes on LSU at home on Saturday before traveling to Lexington to face #17 Kentucky on Tuesday.
#7 Oklahoma at #6 West Virginia-7:15pm ESPN2
Saturday’s premier matchup features two of the nation’s top teams squaring off against each other in Morgantown, West Virginia. Oklahoma, led by the nation’s leading scorer and assist man, Trae Young, will face off against Jevon Carter and West Virginia. The two programs have combined to win 23 consecutive games heading into Saturday’s showdown. The game will likely be determined by Trae Young’s ability to handle West Virginia’s full court press. The Mountaineers hold their opponents to just 64.9 points per game, while the Sooners lead the nation in scoring at 95.8 points per game. In a game of contrasting styles, it will be interesting to see which will prevail. They say defense wins championships, but this is just a regular season game in early January. Despite being on the road, I predict Oklahoma will defeat West Virginia 81-74.
The beginning of the college basketball season was one that we have never seen before. For the first time in the history of the sport there were no undefeated teams entering the month of January. Upset after upset led to a tumultuous and cluttered field at the top, but I’m here to try and help you sort it out.
Let’s take a look at Joe Lunardi’s top seed line in his latest edition of Bracketology, see what each team has done to this point and assess what they need to do to hold their projected seed, and consider potential weaknesses on the teams.
1 Seeds: Duke, Villanova, Michigan State, Arizona State
Duke Blue Devils
Record: 13-1 (1-1 ACC)
Notable Wins: Michigan State (neutral), Texas (neutral), Florida (neutral), Florida State
Bad Losses: at Boston College
Stay: With the top RPI and the top Strength of Schedule in the country, Duke has a little more wiggle room than the rest of the teams on the top seed line. The ACC is the toughest conference in the country. Duke will need to avoid bad losses against teams at the bottom of the conference and steal a few wins from the rest of the teams at the top of the conference on the road to impress the committee. Finishing strong over their last ten games would protect the Blue Devils from falling off the top seed line if things don’t go so well in the ACC Tournament.
Drop: Duke would fall off the top seed line if they suffer more than one bad loss at home and struggle on the road against the ACC toughest competition. Problems could arise for Duke if they become complacent, lose games down the stretch and fail to showcase themselves well in the ACC Tournament.
Stay: Villanova will need to continue to show that they are the class of the Big East if they hope to stay on the top seed line. Having already lost on the road to Butler, Villanova will need to prove they are worth a spot as a one seed. The Big East is better than advertised and the chance to beat both Xavier and Seton Hall twice could go a long way in making a case for Villanova to keep their seat amongst the top four teams in the nation.
Drop: With Arizona failing to make the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis, Villanova lost the opportunity to snag a quality win on a neutral floor against a perennial national powerhouse. Failing to win games against the cream of the crop in Big East play could jeopardize Villanova’s chances to retain its top seed.
Michigan State Spartans
Record: 15-1 (3-0 Big Ten)
Notable Wins: North Carolina (neutral), Notre Dame
Bad Losses: None
Stay: Michigan State will need to seize every opportunity they have to secure a win against a ranked opponent throughout Big Ten play. As of now, their only chance to do so is against Purdue at home on February 10. The Spartans may need to run the table to hold onto it’s ranking.
Drop: With a lower RPI and Strength of Schedule compared to the other three teams on the top seed line, largely attributable to the weaker than normal Big Ten, Michigan State has a slimmer margin for error than the rest of the teams on the top seed line. More than one bad loss at home and a rough end to the regular season, combined with a poor showing in the Big Ten Tournament could derail the Spartans’ hopes to remain number one.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Record: 12-2 (0-2 Pac-12)
Notable Wins: Xavier (neutral) at Kansas
Bad Losses: at Colorado
Stay: Similar to Michigan State, Arizona State only has one remaining game on their schedule against a ranked opponent. After losing to their in-state rival Arizona, who is on the rise, and at Colorado, the rematch against the Wildcats in Tempe is a must win for the Sun Devils if they hope to hold onto a one seed.
Drop: With back-to-back losses to open up conference play, another slip up could knock Arizona State off of the one line. America’s surprise team will need to continue to do so if they plan to be on the top seed line come Selection Sunday. Arizona State would be my pick to fall off the one line.
There is a lengthy list of honorable mentions that could possibly find themselves sitting on the one line come tournament time. For the time being, let’s focus on Lunardi’s 2 seeds in his latest Bracketology: Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, and Xavier.
Oklahoma is my first pick to steal a one seed if any of the current one seeds slip up throughout conference play. Led by the nation’s best player, Trae Young, the Sooners are tough to stop on the offensive end. Oklahoma lost to Arkansas in the PK80, but have not lost since. The Sooners are now 2-0 in Big 12 play, including a win over a previously undefeated TCU team. The offensive potency combined with the wins they already have and the opportunities in the loaded Big 12 to come up with additional marquee wins are a perfect storm for Oklahoma to make a run to the top of the field of 68. Given the strength of the Big 12 and the weakness of both the Big Ten and the Pac-12, it is tough to imagine a world where the Big 12 Champion is not a one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Right now, I predict it will be Oklahoma. A win in a crucial game at West Virginia this weekend could shape their case even further.
Virginia was unranked during the preseason, but the Cavaliers have climbed through the rankings to establish themselves in the top 10 once again. Kyle Guy, minus the man bun, has taken over his team in his sophomore campaign. The Cavaliers have an opportunity to make noise again in the ACC. If they can remain at the top of the ACC throughout the regular season, an ACC Championship could propel them to a one seed. The question for Virginia is whether they can score enough points against defenses that are just as tough as theirs. The Cavaliers lone loss this season is to West Virginia, an equally stout defensive team that held Virginia to 61 points.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Although there are no remaining undefeated teams in college basketball this season, there is one team that is undefeated on American soil. That would be West Virginia. The Mountaineers have rattled off 12 consecutive wins since losing their season opener to Texas A&M in Germany. Senior guard Jevon Carter has led the team through the non-conference slate. The Mountaineers are 2-0 in Big 12 play with wins over Oklahoma State and Kansas State. A win over Oklahoma would go a long way in launching West Virginia further into the conversation for a one seed in the Big Dance.
Xavier has one loss on the year against Arizona State. The Musketeers blew out Cincinnati in a heated cross-town rivalry and are off to a 3-0 start in Big East play with wins over Marquette, DePaul, and Butler. Trevon Bluiett and the rest of the Musketeers have a chance to steal a one seed. Xavier plays Villanova twice. Two wins against the Wildcats could propel Xavier to the top seed line come March Madness.