Still recuperating from your midweek bar crawl? Are you nostril deep in term paper research? Have no fear, fellow bracketeers. As a companion to the Bracket Big Board, the I.D. is here to highlight all the college hardwood action from the week that was and preview the most pivotal matchups of the weekend. Unlike McLovin’s fake Hawaiian driver's license, there's nothing fake about this I.D. …
On several high-major campuses across the country, the feeling of unrest is palpable. Hoops fanatics in traditional powerhouse locales such as College Park, Waco, Cincinnati and Lexington have swelled watering holes and grumbled over airwaves in an attempt to release their unbearable angst. Their cherished teams, which had high tourney hopes preseason, have failed to meet expectations, painting themselves into a difficult corner.
So goes life on the bubble.
With conference tournament season just days away, those unfortunate fan-bases with schools teetering on the fence should ransack online shops for apparel from a handful of NCAA-bound mid-majors. Their school’s fate could rest on the shoulders of squads in the Missouri Valley, Mid-American and Ohio Valley. One slip-up by the favorite, and a brand-name program could tumble … into the NIT.
For those on the edge of their seats, here are five schools you need to pull hard for over the coming weeks:
Memphis Tigers (REC: 24-4, RPI: 18, SOS: 74, vs. RPI Top-50: 2-3) – Barring a complete collapse down the stretch it appears the Tigers are a near-lock for at least an at-large bid in what should be a one-bid conference. Yes, the SOS is rather unsavory and they only have a pair of notable wins on the year (Southern Miss twice), but Joe Jackson and company have dominated foes in league play, winning by an average margin of 14.0 points per game. If Memphis, which has a seemingly insurmountable three game lead on the Golden Eagles, wears the regular season crown, it should be rewarded by the Committee regardless of what transpires in the C-USA tournament. However, Tuesday's out of conference loss to a middle-of-the-road Xavier team did it no favors.
Belmont Bruins (REC: 23-6, RPI: 24, SOS: 85, vs. RPI Top-50: 1-2) – As the Committee, and those who’ve participated in mock selections over the years, have stated and restated, conference affiliation plays little to no role in the vetting process. In other words, the Ohio Valley’s No. 22 RPI ranking has no bearing on the Bruins’ overall profile. With a critical road win (at Stanford), a statement even Ohio State couldn’t make, and a home smashing of Middle Tennessee under its belt coupled with a top-85 SOS, Belmont will be a hotly debated team if it doesn’t earn the automatic. Right now, its resume is stronger than Bubblicious reps Mississippi, St. Mary’s and Alabama.
Creighton Blue Jays (REC: 23-7, RPI: 40, SOS: 89, vs. RPI Top-50: 3-3)/Wichita St. Shockers (REC: 24-6, RPI: 39, SOS: 104, vs. RPI Top-50: 3-0) – Nicknamed ‘Arch Madness,’ the Missouri Valley tournament is one of the most competitive and entertaining events in college basketball, which doesn’t bode well for those precariously sitting on the bubble. Wichita will enter as the favorite, but a number of teams, including Indiana St., Illinois St. and Northern Iowa, are capable of cutting down the nets at Scott Trade Center. If the Jays or Shockers don't emerge from the fray unscathed, a bubble will most certainly burst.
Gonzaga Bulldogs (REC: 27-2, RPI: 9, SOS: 68, vs. RPI Top-50: 5-2)/St. Mary’s Gaels (REC: 25-5, RPI: 44, SOS: 120, vs. RPI Top-50: 1-2) – With the way the ‘Zags have pulverized league opponents, it seems highly unlikely they will stumble in the postseason. Still, stranger things have happened. No matter what occurs, they are cemented as a top seed. Meanwhile the Gaels, though far from a sure thing, are another squad that, in the event of an early WCC exit, could crush the hopes of a high-major. Their overall strength of schedule isn’t anything to write home about, but with 25 wins and a top-50 RPI ranking, it seems unlikely they will be denied a spot in the Dance.
Akron Zips (REC: 23-4, RPI: 35, SOS: 135, vs. RPI Top-50: 1-2) – Quietly in LeBron’s old stomping grounds, the Zips have rolled through MAC competition like the Heat the NBA. At 13-0 in league play and with a noteworthy non-conference win against Middle Tennessee and OT loss to Oklahoma State on a neutral floor, they deserve to dance. Their 130-plus SOS is mediocre at best, but with a top-50 standing in the RPI, KenPom, Massey and Sagarin ratings, measurements the Committee weighs, it has a strong at-large argument if it fails to deliver in the MAC tourney.
Rehearse your choreographed moves one last time. Get into costume. And press "play" on your boombox. It's time for an Interpretive Dance …
Here are this week’s biggest bracket bulls and bears:
DA BULLS (MOVING UP)
St. Louis Billikens (22-5, RPI: 30, SOS: 68, Current Seed: 6)
Comment: Clowns, Great White sharks and the creepy, wide-eyed demonic-looking Billiken – these are the specters that haunt my nightmares. The way St. Louis is playing it too is leaving A-10 coaches in cold sweats. After undercutting Butler at Hinkle last Friday, the Billikens sit all alone atop the conference throne. Filling the head-coaching vacancy after the abrupt resignation and subsequent death of Rick Majerus early this season, Jim Crews has done a masterful job carrying on the legend's disciplined legacy. Majerus' stamp is everywhere. The Billikens are well-drilled, yield few turnovers and exhaust opponents on defense. They've forced turnovers on 23.6-percent of possessions while holding competitors to just 0.89 points per possession, the 26th-best mark in the college game. On the offensive end, they're also well-above average, especially from three. Sharpshooters Mike McCall and Cody Ellis a combined 38.7-percent beyond the arc. Unless the Billikens are snake-bitten over their final three regular season games, they should sew up a league title in short order. Do that and they will earn a favorable top-six seed regardless how they perform in the A-10 tournament. Because of their surgical half-court execution, bevy of upperclassman and excellent defense, St. Louis is a dangerous club capable of making serious noise in March.
Georgetown Hoyas (22-4, RPI: 10, SOS: 26, Current Seed: 2)
Comment: Discussed at length in this space three weeks ago, the peaking Hoyas are once again foaming at the mouth. When the calendar flipped to the new year, Georgetown was a team still searching for an offensive identity. Miscues were abundant. Bricks were laid. Scoreboards hardly moved. Standing at 2-3 in Big East play and ranking north of No. 125 in offensive efficiency, it was on the fast-track to Bubbleland. But thanks to the sensational Otto Porter, the Hoyas traveled down a different path. Victorious in 10 straight games, they are, improbably, the current pacesetter in the Big East. Apparent in its 1.07 points per possession average during that stretch, Georgetown has improved greatly carrying out its Princeton offense. That continues and it could blaze a trail to Hot-lanta. Defensively, the Hoyas are incredibly stingy. As seen in Syracuse, they typically bludgeon opponents in a half-court setting, controlling tempo, coaxing turnovers and forcing questionable shots. According to KenPom.com, they're the fifth-best defense in the country on a per possession basis. Two of their final three games are a bit treacherous (at 'Nova, vs. 'Cuse), but lock up the regular season title, and the Hoyas are destined for a No. 2 seed, at a minimum, and a deep Dance run.
UNLV Runnin' Rebels (21-7, RPI: 16, SOS: 13, Current Seed: 5)
Comment: Similar to Seth McFarlane's performance at the Oscars (The 'boobs' number was quite entertaining), the Rebels haven't received enough good press. Though they're chasing league leader New Mexico, they boast an underappreciated resume with key wins at home against the aforementioned Lobos, San Diego State, Colorado State and Iowa State. Most impressively, they have achieved what few have, tally victories away. The Rebels' storming of the Aztec Bowl and Haas Pavilion (Cal) will score major points with the Selection Committee. Dave Rice dodged a bullet earlier this week when doctors revealed Anthony Bennett's stiff shoulder was caused by awkward sleep, a temporary setback. When at or near 100-percent, the super frosh is arguably the most-versatile big man in the country. He's converted 59-percent from two, 37.2-percent from three and over 70-percent at the charity stripe. Mike Moser hasn't been the same player since dislocating his elbow in December, but his 11-point, seven-rebound effort against Wyoming last Saturday was his best showing in weeks. If his game comes alive, watch out. Still, turnovers and suspect shot selection have occasionally plagued UNLV. However, if its recent performance spills over into March, it has the best shot of any Mountain West team to advance far.
Also Flaming: Minnesota, Gonzaga
DA BEARS (MOVING DOWN)
Cincinnati Bearcats (19-9, RPI: 50, SOS: 29, Current Seed: 11)
Comment: The Bearcats, crashing and burning at the most inopportune time, are the Big East's version of the Hindenburg. Wrecked offensively, they've dropped five of six, netting a humiliating 0.90 points per possession during that span. Really Cincinnati is what Georgetown used to be, an offensively inept team that leans on its staunch defense to keep it within arm's reach. However, poor shooting matched with a general ineffectiveness at the charity stripe (64.6 FT%) have mystified Mick Cronin's club in high-leverage situations. Senior guard Cashmere Wright who snacked on Krispy Kremes against Notre Dame (0 points in 20 minutes), must wake up from his late-season slumber. He and Sean Kilpatrick move the meter offensively for Cincinnati. When both are clicking, they are tough to take down. When off, and they're very vulnerable. It seems unlikely the 'Cats will spring an upset at Louisville Monday, but if it can defend home-court against UConn and South Florida it should remain in good tourney standing. Few teams on the bubble have as many or more standout wins or have played a more strenuous schedule. Still, whether an 11-seed or better, Cincy has the make-up of an early-round casualty.
Miami Hurricanes (23-4, RPI: 3, SOS: 4, Current Seed: 1)
Comment: That thunderous sound in the distance isn't a meteorite exploding in the Russian sky, it's the thousands of hoop heads jumping off the Miami bandwagon. After losing its first conference game of the season at Wake Forest last Saturday, many have unfairly written the Hurricanes' postseason obituary. To naysayers, the off-the-radar team preseason is a farce. Based on their sagging offense and rebounding efforts in three of their past four games, some derision is warranted. However, assuming it can spark a turnaround in short order, Miami remains a legitimate national title contender. Among tourney caliber teams, only Colorado St. and Middle Tennessee house more experience. Depth and free-throw percentage are issues, but with space-eaters Reggie Johnson and Kenny Kadji patrolling the paint and Shane Larkin and Trey McKinney-Jones keeping opponents honest on the outside, the 'Canes present many mismatches. Couple that with a suffocating defense that ranks No. 9 in adjusted efficiency, and they are far from cooked. However, if they get thumped against revenge-minded Duke at Cameron Indoor Saturday, that narrative could change.
Butler Bulldogs (22-6, RPI: 29, SOS: 55, Current Seed: 6)
Comment: Has the Brad Stevens magic worn off? Just over a month ago, the Bulldogs were sitting on mountain high. At that time, they had just disposed of Gonzaga on a heart-stopping Roosevelt Jones jumper, a victory that catapulted them into the AP top-10. However 6-4 since, the perennial giant-killer has floundered, losing pivotal home games against Charlotte and St. Louis. Now two games behind the Billikens in the A-10 pecking order and with a daunting schedule remaining (at VCU, at UMass, Xavier), Butler is in unfamiliar territory. Several factors have ailed the Bulldogs. They've come unhinged at times defensively, failed to cash in at the free-throw line and committed an uncharacteristic number of turnovers. Rotnei Clarke, who's nailed shots from different zip codes this season, has especially hurt them. His offensive contributions haven't subsided, but his 1:1 AST:TO ratio since January 26 has been a problem. Still, it's impossible to count out Stevens. The man relishes the challenge of March. If anything, Butler's recent fall will benefit it. High seeds who overlook it will be in for a rude awakening. Simply put, if you're a No. 2, this is a squad you absolutely don't want landing on the 7-line.
Michigan Wolverines (23-5, RPI: 11, SOS: 40, Current Seed: 2)
Comment: Three weeks ago the unthinkable happened. Kansas, seemingly on a collision course for a top seed, walked into Daniel Meyer Coliseum in Fort Worth, Tex. and promptly laid an egg. Its near-to-impossible seven-point loss to TCU, arguably the worst high-major team in college basketball, was, in terms of RPI disparity, the biggest upset in 20 years. Shockingly on Wednesday, the unthinkable happened again. Michigan, 194 spots higher than its opponent, Penn State, in the RPI entering the evening, improbably left Bryce Jordan center in utter disbelief. The Nittany Lions, though improving over their past couple games, slew Goliath, their first win of the Big Ten season. For the Wolverines, who’ve dropped four out of their last seven, the unanticipated blow cost them a chance at a No. 1 seed. Though they possess the most RPI top-20 wins on the collegiate hardwood, the timing couldn’t have been more inopportune. More discouraging, the misstep is yet another sign Michigan may have peaked too soon. Spearheaded by Player of the Year candidate Trey Burke, the Maize and Blue remain an elite scoring force averaging a stout 1.21 points per possession. However, it’s come unglued defensively down the homestretch, giving up an unappealing 1.13 points per possession this month. Talent-wise, the Wolverines have enough firepower to make a deep tourney run, but until they exude toughness and dedication on D, they will be susceptible to defeat. With home dates against Michigan State and Indiana left, they must rectify their problems in a hurry.
Also Laming: Syracuse, VCU, Florida
SOWING THE SEEDS
This segment sifts through the bountiful weekend slate to highlight five titanic games that will bear the greatest impact on a team's "Bracket Big Board" standing
1. Miami (FL) at Duke
The Blue Devils are bloodthirsty. The last time they faced Miami, it returned to Durham in a cardboard box, victims of a 27-point evisceration, one of the nastiest beat-downs of a No. 1 ranked team in NCAAB history. Lethargic offensively in three of their past four games, the Hurricanes need to wake up quickly. Duke, which has reeled off 14 straight wins at Cameron Indoor, excelled in its last two games totaling an insane 1.35 points per possession. In a game with serious No. 1 seed implications, the Devils may serve revenge the best way, cold. Reggie Johnson, who's accounted for just 17 points in his last four, and Kenny Kadji must control the paint in order to contain POY candidate Mason Plumlee. Do that and the 'Canes will be tough to fend off. Don't and it will most certainly hit the skids in consecutive games.
Prediction: Duke 73 Miami 62
2. Kansas State at Baylor
Desperation has set in for the Bears. A mere five games above .500, they need a resume-building win in the worst way. With an appealing No. 37 strength of schedule and two Ws against the RPI-top-50 – more than St. Mary's, Mississippi and Kentucky – it could play its way back into the field. Pierre Jackson has been nothing short of spectacular in his past three contests, netting 73 points in losses to Iowa State and Oklahoma and road win at West Virginia. Additionally, arc assassin Brady Heslip has regained his stroke, swishing at least three threes in six of his past seven. Clearly, offense isn't the issue. However, awful D is. Over Baylor's recent three-game downturn it gave up a staggering 1.23 points per possession. UGLY. The Wildcats drop-kicked Baylor by 20 earlier this year. To prevent a similar outcome in Waco, the Bears must clamp-down defensively.
Prediction: Baylor 78 Kansas State 74
3. Wichita St. at Creighton
Unnoticed by most casual fans, the unpredictable nature of the Missouri Valley has been highly entertaining. Creighton, widely believed to be the league's nearly unrivaled favorite, is hanging by a precarious thread. After a loss to St. Mary's in BracketBusters, the 'Jays' overall resume is rather underwhelming. But add another quality win to it, and it should strap on a pair of dancing shoes. The Shockers, however, have emerged from a mid-season lull stronger than ever. Cleanthony Early has executed brilliantly in the clutch. Carl Hall has controlled the interior. And Malcolm Armstead has done a marvelous job facilitating the offense. Stalwarts on defense and balanced offensively, Wichita is simply the better team. As good as Doug McDermott is, Creighton's shortcomings on defense (No. 88 in D-efficiency) will again lead to its undoing.
Prediction: Wichita State 68 Creighton 65
4. Villanova at Pittsburgh
There may be no team more exemplary of the Jekyll and Hyde persona than 'Nova. One minute it can upend a string of top-five opponents (e.g. Syracuse and Louisville). The next, it cedes a tight battle to a bumbling team in the throes of despair (e.g. Seton Hall). To shore up its at-large standing, the 'Cats need to seize The Zoo. Lane clogger Mouphtaou Yarou must neutralize Steven Adams and Talib Zanna in the paint, which he did a fairly good job of earlier this season. 'Nova must also attack the rim, draw contact and convert. Nearly 28-percent of its points come at the free-throw line, the highest yield in that category in the nation. However, if the Pitt team that demolished St. John's last weekend reappears, it will push the 'Cats back onto the bubble.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 63 Villanova 58
5. Colorado State at Boise State
For the Broncos to truly reenter the bubble picture, a win Saturday in Boise is essential. Their timing couldn't be more impeccable. Colorado State, fresh off tough losses to UNLV and New Mexico, is struggling mightily on defense. Over its past three games it's conceded 1.19 points per possession. The Rams creamed Boise in Fort Collins by 20 back in late January, but the Broncos' top shooter, Jeff Eloriagga, did not suit up in that contest. With the junior, whose netted an unreal 44.7-percent from three, back in blue, a different ending will likely be written. Go 2-1 down the homestretch and Leon Rice's club will definitely dance.
Prediction: Boise State 73 Colorado State 70
Last week: 2-3
Year to date: 12-8
Other Notable Games: Louisville at Syracuse, Arizona at UCLA, Iowa State at Oklahoma, Colorado at California, Notre Dame at Marquette, Butler at VCU, Michigan State at Michigan
MID-MAJOR HALL OF FAME
What underrated player earned his bust?
Isaiah Canaan, Murray State, G
– If Canaan's storied career could be summarized in one word it would be "SICK." During his four-year run with the Racers, he and his teammates have pumped their fists in triumph 105 times, making Murray one of the most successful programs at any level. Right now, Belmont has a stranglehold on the Ohio Valley, outpacing the Racers by two games, but Canaan and company toppled the Bruins 79-74 in their lone matchup this year. In that game the scrappy point-man dropped 26 points. A rematch in the OVC title game seems inevitable. Recently, he's proven even more unstoppable. In a frenetic game against Morehead State, a contest in which both teams combined for 206 points, he scored a season high 35, drilling five threes while going 10-for-11 from the free-throw line. Overall, he's surpassed the 20-point threshold in a game 17 times this year. Among floor generals, the national media has anointed Trey Burke Napoleon. But Canaan may be the game's Wellington.
HIGH-MAJOR WALK OF SHAME
What high-profiled player took a long, embarrassing walk home?
Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse, G
– NBA scouts across the country are drooling over Carter-Williams' long-term potential. His length, athleticism and versatility at the point-guard position is a rarity. However, his game is still very unrefined, particularly between-the-ears. As witnessed at Marquette Monday, his often wayward decision-making has led to questionable shots and a plethora of unforced errors. Over the Orange's two-game slide, he's accounted for 10 assists and seven turnovers. In the postseason, that won't cut it. For Syracuse to survive the first weekend, it's imperative he makes headier choices, especially against high-octane clubs that exert pressure. If he fails in that endeavor and the Big East's favorite Ice Queen, Jim Boeheim, is sure to deliver a post-game presser to remember.
Each week, per your tweets, the Noise will attempt to get inside the mind of Selection Committee chairman Mike Bobinski.
Prior to Tuesday's uproarious win over top-ranked Indiana, Goldy's fantastic downfall was akin to the career paths of Haddaway, Cuba Gooding Jr. and the laser disc. It reached its apex January 9 when it flattened Illinois in Champaign, a key road win that ballooned its record to 15-1 and solidified its top-10 national ranking. But after that the wheels came off as Minnesota lost eight of 11. The magic of Tubby Smith's lip sweater seemed forever ago.
With another standout W on its resume, the Gophers are WAY in. No team in the country has played a tougher schedule, a characteristic the Committee will undoubtedly reward. A seed ranging from 7-10 is very likely. Their final three regular season games are very winnable (Penn St., at Nebraska and at Purdue). If Minny can conquer the weak, its at-large bid will be etched in stone, no matter how it performs in the Big Ten Tournament. Moreover, it could regain confidence lost.
Prior to the meltdown, the Gophers were an offensive juggernaut. In their first 16 games they scored 1.14 points per possession. However in the 11 games leading up to the Indiana thriller, they netted a meager 0.98 points per possession. Trevor Mbakwe , who no Hoosier could contain, cleans up regularly on the glass, generating several second-chance opportunities. If Rodney Williams can snap out of his current shooting funk and the Gophers take care of the basketball the rest of the way, they should be competitive in the second season. If not, and I highly recommend you schedule a booze-filled ice-fishing trip the opening weekend of the tournament.
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