Forde Minutes: 5 teams that have surged onto the bubble

Yahoo Sports

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (smelling salts sold separately in Illinois, where Loyola Chicago is the best team in the state by a wide margin):

[First Half: Seven coaches on the hot seat]

SECOND HALF: FIVE ON THE RISE

Teams that didn’t have much hope of making the NCAA tournament a month ago, but now are alive and breathing on the bubble:

North Carolina State (21). On Jan. 22, the Wolfpack was 13-7 overall, 3-4 in the ACC and winless in true road games. Since then, the Pack (18-9, 8-6) has won five of seven overall and four out of five on the road — filling a glaring hole on the résumé. Of particular import: wins at North Carolina and Syracuse. Combine those with a neutral-site victory over Arizona, home ACC triumphs over Duke and Clemson, and a victory over fellow bubble dweller Penn State, and N.C. State is in the mix.  But there also have been a lot of games against DI dregs: VMI, Charleston Southern, Presbyterian, South Carolina State, UMKC and Jacksonville. Remaining schedule: home games against Boston College, Florida State and Louisville, and a road game against Georgia Tech.

Penn State (22). Can a winning Big Ten record and a sweep of Ohio State get the Nittany Lions into the Big Dance? We’re close to finding out. The Nittany Lions (19-10, 9-7) have won six of their last eight, including the aforementioned sweep of the Buckeyes, to get Pat Chambers off the hot seat and get themselves at least into the conversation. But a 9-7 Big Ten mark isn’t what it used to be, given the hapless nature of the league and the unbalanced schedules. There also are about half a dozen losses to likely non-tournament teams.

UCLA (23). The Bruins (19-8, 10-5) have won six of their last seven to climb into a tie for second place in the Pac-12 with the centerpiece of the renaissance a win at Arizona. The 6-1 run over the last month was partially brought on by Steve Alford inserting freshman guard Jaylen Hands in the starting lineup, helping the offense flow more smoothly. UCLA also has a neutral-site win over Kentucky, and a sneaky-good win over 24-6 South Dakota. But their last three games are on the road, and a late losing streak could be fatal.

UCLA center Thomas Welsh (40) walks off the court with head coach Steve Alford after scoring 21 points in their 82-79 win over Southern California at an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker)
UCLA center Thomas Welsh (40) walks off the court with head coach Steve Alford after scoring 21 points in their 82-79 win over Southern California at an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker)

Utah (24). First game in UCLA’s closing road stretch is Thursday at the Utes (17-9, 9-6), who have won seven of their last nine. They close with home games against the Bruins, USC and Colorado, which could boost their stock considerably. Graduate transfer point guard Justin Bibbins, all of 5-8 and 150 pounds, has been big in recent weeks. There have been seven losses by a dozen points or more, including a blowout loss to a bad UNLV team in November, but Utah should hold its tourney destiny in its own hands at this point.

Baylor (25). Heading into February, the Bears were 12-10 overall, 2-7 in the Big 12. Today they’re 17-10, 7-7, and possess victories of conference co-leaders Kansas and Texas Tech. After four league losses by three points or fewer, Baylor’s last two wins are by a combined three points. Forward Terry Maston seems to be having a senior surge, scoring 23 against Iowa State, 26 against Texas and 24 against Texas Tech — after never scoring more than 20 in a college game until this month. All four remaining games are revenge opportunities for earlier losses.

PLAY ANGRY TOUR STILL GOING STRONG

Late in Sunday’s taut battle with Cincinnati (26), Shaquille Morris (27) was lying face-down on the floor as team training staff checked him out. After a long while, Morris suddenly hauled his 280 pounds to his feet and bounced off the court, to a resounding chorus of boos from the Bearcat faithful.

Morris didn’t look hurt at the moment, but emerged from the locker room later with an ice bag and a Band-Aid covering a cut on his swollen left cheek. A few minutes earlier, his coach, Gregg Marshall (28), came out of the same locker room with his yellow shirt soaked from an impromptu water dousing.

It was just like old times for Wichita State (29). Leave the opposing fans fuming and leave their gym with a victory.

Wichita’s Play Angry Tour, which dominated the Missouri Valley Conference for years, has made an impressively strong transition to the tougher American Athletic Conference. After ending Cincinnati’s 39-game home winning streak (including games played this year at Northern Kentucky University, while UC’s gym is being remodeled), Wichita is 21-5 and tied for second in the AAC, with a chance to win the league in its first year.

“We’ve had some nice wins,” Marshall said. “But this is probably the best.”

This was an ideal transition year for the Shockers, who have six seniors on the roster and a wise-beyond-his-years sophomore point guard in Landry Shamet (30). Still, there is a big jump from playing in Terre Haute, Carbondale and Springfield to long trips east to play a considerably tougher schedule.

Even with Cincy’s games moved south of the Ohio River, the home fans brought plenty of intensity to a showdown game the league had been looking forward to all season.

“I’ve never played in anything like that before,” said Shamet. “I love the hostility and knowing everyone hates you and wants you to lose.”

Wichita State guard Landry Shamet (11) steals the ball and is fouled by Connecticut guard Christian Vital during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, in Wichita, Kan. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle via AP)
Wichita State guard Landry Shamet (11) steals the ball and is fouled by Connecticut guard Christian Vital during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, in Wichita, Kan. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

That is the Wichita way. Infuriating everyone and fostering hard feelings. The attitude has served the Shockers well in their ascendance under Marshall.

“They play with a little chip on their shoulder,” Marshall said. “I coach with a little chip on my shoulder. It’s no secret. We’d like to recruit bigger and better players, but we’re not going to get into the slop. We’re not even going to approach the slop.”

Given the current slopfest that is college basketball, that comment could be taken as a shot across some high-profile bows. Or, heck, as an application for one of the high-profile jobs that has been tainted (or will be tainted) by the ongoing federal investigation of the sport.

Gregg Marshall is good enough to coach anywhere. But he might be best off at the place where playing angry is the only way they know.

INJURIES AND ABSENCES AND … WHEN ARE THEY COMING BACK?

Four significant injuries with vague timetables about returning to action. All of them could affect the NCAA tournament — who is in it, how high teams are seeded, how far they’ll go.

Bonzie Colson (31), Notre Dame. Colson suited up for the Fighting Irish’s game against Miami on Monday night, his first time putting on a uniform since a broken foot sidelined the potential national Player of the Year in early January. But Colson didn’t play, and the injury-riddled Irish lost another close one, 77-74. Colson may not make it back, and when he does he might not be able to play at his customary level, and it might all be too little and too late for a team that is now 16-12 overall, 6-9 in the ACC. But if anything is going to give Notre Dame a chance with the selection committee, it would be seeing Colson play at a high level for even a few games between now and Selection Sunday.

Michael Porter Jr. (32), Missouri. The nation’s top freshman coming into the season has played a grand total of two minutes before being shelved by back surgery. But there has been increasing discussion of a late-season comeback, with a doctor’s appointment this week potentially providing the green or red light on Porter playing again this season. Even if he is cleared to resume practice, it seems unlikely Porter would be ready to go when Missouri visits Kentucky on Saturday.

Marvin Bagley III (33), Duke. The guy who has been the top freshman — yes, Trae Young included — has missed three straight games with a knee sprain. On the ACC teleconference Monday, coach Mike Krzyzewski offered no new insight on whether Bagley will be ready for Louisville on Wednesday.  “He’s improving,” K said. “We’re going to make sure he’s completely good before we get into March. … We wait until game day, when we have our shootaround, and then we know where he’s at at that time.”

Vincent Edwards (34), Purdue. He missed the Boilermakers’ game against Penn State on Sunday with a sprained ankle, and the result nearly was Purdue’s fourth straight loss. Edwards’ perimeter shooting had been slumping this month before the injury, but there is little doubt the Boilers will need him to make the kind of run they’re hoping for in March.

DASH STAT OF THE WEEK

With the stunning home loss by Vermont (35) to Hartford on Sunday, we officially have no more teams undefeated in conference play. Last time that happened: 2011.

And with Delaware State’s first MEAC victory of the season Monday, only five teams are winless in conference play: Pittsburgh (ACC), San Jose State (Mountain West), Incarnate Word (Southland), Northwestern State (Southland) and Chicago State (WAC). Incarnate Word plays Northwestern State on Wednesday, so the ranks of the winless will be whittled by at least one more this week.

FIVE QUESTIONS WITH A COACH

The Minutes caught up with Gonzaga’s Mark Few (36), whose 25-4 team is rampaging toward a sixth straight West Coast Conference title.

Q: After the most successful season in school history, how have you avoided any complacency and maintained such a high level of play?

A: There wasn’t much threat of complacency, just because we lost so many guys. We’ve lost seniors before and early-entry guys before, but we’ve never lost seniors AND multiple early-entry guys at the same time. (The Zags lost Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins early, plus seniors Jordan Mathews and Przemek Karnowski.) I don’t think we’ve ever lost that much in one year. So we never could afford any complacency, because we had to weather some early storms.

Q: One of your revelations this year as been sophomore Rui Hachimura of Japan. How did he develop?

A: We consider him a freshman. He missed 70 percent of our practices last year, being in English classes and just not knowing at all what’s going on. So he had a lot to learn, but he’s picking it up. He’s a specimen. He’s built like Kawhi Leonard. He’s actually been up and down a little bit, but in the bigger games he’s been good. (Hachimura averaged 22 points in two games against primary WCC rival Saint Mary’s.)

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, left, and forward Johnathan Williams look on during senior day activities after an NCAA college basketball game against Pepperdine in Spokane, Wash., Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, left, and forward Johnathan Williams look on during senior day activities after an NCAA college basketball game against Pepperdine in Spokane, Wash., Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Q: You put last year’s team through something of a wilderness survival test. Did you do that again with this group?

A: We did something this year, but it wasn’t as hardcore. The weather was bad, so we improvised and did something out at the lake. They all survived.

Q: As a veteran of having a week off between your conference tournament and Selection Sunday, any advice for Big Ten teams who will be facing that for the first time this year?

A: It’s really worked out well for us. I can’t remember many years when we struggled in that NCAA first-round game (Gonzaga has won nine straight first-round tourney games, with the last loss coming to Steph Curry and Davidson in 2008). It’s helped us with resting up, and you can kind of mess around with endgame situations, put in some new actions on offense. The guys are fresh, chomping at the bit to get going. I think they’re going to like it. I certainly like it better than sitting around a hotel room watching the selection show after playing that day.

Q: What is the best fish you have caught in the last year?

A: It was probably a week or 10 days after the Final Four. I went to Alaska with some buddies and caught the biggest steelhead I’ve ever caught. It was gorgeous, probably pushing 25 pounds. Steelhead can be tough, especially on a fly, but it was an awesome day and we hit it just right.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Eric Musselman (37), Nevada. His team all but salted away its second straight Mountain West title last week with two road wins, most importantly winning at Boise State for a sweep of the second-place Broncos. In his third year in Reno, Musselman will be an attractive candidate for openings out West and elsewhere in the coming weeks.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK 

Mike White (38), Florida. His Gators have been all over the map, going 5-6 in their last 11 games and mixing big wins with bad losses. But last week was the worst, losing at home to Georgia and on the road to Vanderbilt, a pair of teams that aren’t making the NCAA tournament without winning the SEC tourney. Florida has to guard more consistently. Average points allowed in losses since Jan. 13: 73. Average points allowed in wins during that time: 59.3.

BUZZER BEATER

When ready for Happy Hour in College Station, Texas, The Minutes recommends dropping by The Corner Bar and Grill (39). Head to the rooftop to contemplate the overwhelming beigeness of the town, order a plate of specialty fries and accompany it with a Hopadillo IPA from Houston-based Karbach Brewing Co. (40). Thank The Minutes later.

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