Interpretive Dance: UCLA within striking distance of a No. 1 seed
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 what teams are gaining and what teams are losing ground in the march toward the NCAA Tournament.
DA BULLS (Moving Up)
UCLA Bruins (Record: 26-3; KenPom: 13 SOS: 84 Current Seed: No. 2) – Watching from his couch (ESPN still believes differently) in Los Angeles, LaVar Ball probably announced to anyone willing to listen his son, Lonzo, will soon earn the Imperial Medal of Bravery for his galactic performance in Tuscon. Ball and cohorts were indeed brilliant. They racked an explosive 1.22 points per possession against a steadfast Arizona defense. More outstandingly, they out-rebounded the Wildcats and defended sufficiently. Yes, you read that correctly. If their 3-2 zone employment continues to frustrate, the sky’s the limit. They are, after all, the most electric offense in the country. Ball, T.J. Leaf, Thomas Welsh, Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday and Isaac Hamilton are insanely efficient. As a group, they net over 41 percent from beyond the arc and over 60 percent inside it. Expected to be heavy favorites in their final two regular season games, home clashes against Washington and Washington St., they have an outside shot at a No. 1 seed, though they would need Gonzaga to bomb in the WCC Tournament and capture the Pac-12 automatic bid.
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Butler Bulldogs (23-6; KenPom: 20 SOS: 14 Current Seed: No. 3) – The Bulldogs, despite receiving little publicity, have earned their Beggin’ Strips this year. Kelan Martin, who is averaging just shy of 16 points per game, is arguably the best player you’ve never heard of. A quiet assassin, the 6-foot-7 forward is a scoring smorgasbord who can back opponents down, drain mid-range jumpers or swish from downtown. But Butler is far from a one man show. Andrew Chrabascz, Kamar Baldwin, Kethan Savage, Tyler Lewis, Tyler Wideman and Avery Woodson each contribute meaningful minutes. It’s that collective effort which explains why the Bulldogs rank top-40 in offensive and defensive efficiency and swept the regular season series against ballyhooed Villanova. Noteworthy out-of-conference take downs of Northwestern, Cincinnati, Vanderbilt and Arizona also shouldn’t be discounted. Locked into the No. 2 seed in the Big East Tournament, Butler could serve its fans a No. 3 seed with a strong run. When the Big Dance gets underway, overlooking this tight-knit group isn’t recommended.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (22-7; KenPom: 30 SOS: 16 Current Seed: No. 5) – Mostly subterranean on offense this season, the Gophers have finally surfaced, a timely emergence. Over its last seven games, all victories, Goldy has averaged a potent 1.15 points per possession. Hat tip to Jordan Murphy. The sophomore forward has attacked the tin, made opponents pay at the line and snagged numerous rebounds, developing into the team’s true catalyst. In his last seven games, he’s recorded four double-doubles. His scorching execution combined with Minnesota’s collective efforts on defense makes it an extremely tough out. Long, athletic and active, the Gophers asphyxiate the competition. The 14th stingiest defense in the land, they allow only 0.94 points per possession. Continue to rev the engine offensively and Junior Pitino’s bunch could easily reach the Sweet Sixteen for only the fifth time in school history. It’s time to take them very seriously.
DA BEARS (Moving Down)
Maryland Terrapins (22-7; KenPom: 46 SOS: 39 Current Seed: No. 7) – Maryland, largely resilient on the road and led by one of college basketball’s most fearless upperclassman, Melo Trimble, has suddenly and dramatically hit the skids. Whether the root cause is Michael Cekovsky’s season-ending knee injury or another reason, something is ailing the Terps. Falling short in five of their last seven contests, they’ve plummeted from a projected No. 5 to a No. 7 seed. Unraveling on both ends of the floor, they’ve posted a mediocre 1.04 points per possession on offense and surrendered 1.05 points per possession on defense, an ill-favored formula. Iowa’s three-point assault – the Hawkeyes nailed 16 treys – on Maryland was a prime example how poorly it’s rotated and extended on defense. It’s also had troubles boxing out allowing an uncomfortable number of second-chance opportunities and been plagued by turnovers. The Terps have a pair of winnable games remaining, a road trip to Rutgers and home battle versus Michigan St., but unless they rediscover their pre-slump form, they will be lucky to survive Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament.
USC Trojans (21-8; KenPom: 67 SOS: 61 Current Seed: No. 10) – Most assumed when Bennie Boatwright returned from a knee injury USC would possibly climb into the Pac-12’s upper tier and challenge frontrunners UCLA, Oregon and Arizona. That, sadly for “Fight on!,” hasn’t been the case. For the fourth time in as many games, the Trojans fell on their sword. Dropping tilts to the aforementioned Bruins, Ducks and Wildcats was acceptable, but getting forked by Arizona St. was a harsh groin kick. The slip up marked its first bad loss, however, with only two significant wins (SMU and UCLA) under its belt, USC marches into murky territory. Sweep the Apple Cup (Washington and Washington St.) and win a game in the Pac-12 tournament and it should secure a spot. Still, it shouldn’t be in this position. Boatwright has played marvelously, but defensively (1.25 points per possession allowed last four) the Trojans must pull together.
Northwestern Wildcats (20-9; KenPom: 36 SOS: 64 Current Seed: No. 9) – Time to stock up on your favorite adult beverage, Seth Meyers. The late-night comic, like many Northwestern alums, are exceedingly nervous, and understandably so. After the Wildcats absorbed the 22-0 first-half punch levied by Indiana, they responded by controlling much of the next frame, except the final minute. Thomas Bryant’s free throw with 2.4 seconds remaining sealed Northwestern’s fate, its fifth February loss. Its record may be lopsided, but looking under a magnifying glass it owns just two signature wins (Dayton and at Wisconsin). Taking down the Badgers in Madison was highly impressive, but it’s hard to argue its resume stands out more than bubble residents Providence, Marquette, Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt, schools that own more quality wins and played tougher schedules. Ultimately, for the fading Wildcats to make history, they absolutely must win one of their next three games. Fail to do so, and their NCAA Tournament streak of futility extends. Netting a hideous 0.95 points per possession over their past eight games, they need to snap quickly out of their scoring funk.
DA BUBBLE (Living in limbo)
TCU Horned Frogs (17-12; KenPom: 40 SOS: 27) – In my best Yosemite Sam voice, “GREAT HORNY TOADS!!! TCU IS IN TROUBLE!!!” Saturday against visiting West Virginia, Jamie Dixon’s club spoiled a golden opportunity. Matching the Mountaineers blow-for-blow in the second half, it was victimized by an egregious foul call, which allowed Jevon Carter to regain the lead, and attempted one of the most laughable game-winning chucks in recent memory. Desmond Bane, a 35 percent three-point shooter, wasn’t even close on an uncontested bomb at the buzzer. The defeat puts TCU (2-10 vs. RPI Top-50) in a very precarious position. It has three noteworthy victories to its name (Illinois St., Iowa St. and Kansas St.), but crestfallen by a five-game losing streak, it must register wins against K-State and Oklahoma and make a stirring run in the Big 12 Tournament (Think 2-3 wins) to reenter the at-large conversation.
Vanderbilt Commodores (16-13; KenPom: 43 SOS: 4) – Two weeks ago the Commodores had run aground after they were torpedoed by 20 points at Missouri. But they quickly repaired the leak and are the verge of punching an NCAA Tournament ticket. Vandy’s four RPI Top-50 wins and No. 2 strength of schedule should play well in the Selection Committee room. Its ascending defense (46.9 eFG% allowed in SEC play) and tremendous scoring balance will be tested down the homestretch. It finishes with Kentucky, at Rupp, and Florida. Yikes. Split and it will alleviate all doubt, but lay an egg and how it performs in the SEC Tournament will become imperative.
Illinois Fighting Illini (17-12; KenPom: 69 SOS: 12) – Encased in ice and abandoned somewhere in Siberia only weeks ago, Illinois has not only thawed, it’s in serious contention for an at-large berth. How? Downward spirals experienced by Kansas St. and TCU combined with a rising profile have the Illini knocking at the door. Just glance at their resume. They’ve played the 12th-toughest schedule in the country and registered four RPI top-50 wins. Given how wimpish many on the bubble are that’s enough to push Malcolm Hill and Co. over the top. Riding high offensively, especially after canning 13 trey bombs at Nebraska, the Big Ten reps may only need three more Ws – a tango with Michigan St. Wednesday looms large – to cut rug. Achieve that and John Groce’s head likely avoids the chopping block. Remarkable.
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