On Monday, Creighton and Duke tumbled out of the top ten, following conference upsets.
Florida State dropped back to #7 after losing to Clemson. Baylor dropped back to #4 following a loss against TCU. It’s one of the rare times you’ll see a team lose to a non-tournament team and only drop two spots. The field has been so volatile and the top is so heavy, the loss to TCU doesn’t tarnish Baylor’s resume because their resume is so impressive.
After Monday, the madness in the top ten continued. Kentucky blew a huge lead at home to Tennessee. Seton Hall was beaten at home against Villanova. As the Conference tournaments begin to take shape, the NCAA Tournament field is beginning to solidify at the top. Right now, we have a fairly clear top four, as San Diego State continues to squeak by marginal opponents.
I don’t see San Diego State jumping Baylor unless Baylor makes an early exit in their conference tournament. All that being said, the end of the regular season and conference tournament week is going to give us a lot to process before the tournament begins.
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The Top 10
#1 – Kansas (27-3)
The Jayhawks extended their win streak to 15 games following gritty wins against Kansas State and TCU. It was a bit of a letdown week for Kansas, which says a lot when you win both games, but they weren’t nearly as crisp as the games from a little over a week ago.
Kansas State actually led for a majority of the game. In what was a seesaw battle, Kansas took control very late and held on strong down the stretch to preserve the win. On Wednesday, Kansas rode the 31-point, 14 rebound performance from Udoka Azibuke to rally and pull away from TCU in the end.
Azibuke was 13-14 from the field and was the absolute difference in the game. This weekend, Kansas will look to win the conference outright as they travel to Lubbock to take on the Texas Tech Red Raiders, who are looking for a big win to avoid the bubble.
#2 – Gonzaga (29-2)
After a big loss to BYU last week on the road, Gonzaga bounced back in a huge way, destroying San Diego, 94-59. Filip Petrusev was one of five Gonzaga players with at least 12 points, finishing with a game-high 21 points.
Gonzaga shot 52% from the field and was +24 on the rebounding differential. After trouncing San Diego, Gonzaga took a little over a half but finally got breathing room against St Mary’s and managed to keep the Gaels at a safe distance to close out the game. Jordan Ford did his best to keep the Gaels close, but another solid game from Filip Petrusev and Gonzaga on the boards (+8) was enough.
Petrusev simply couldn’t be slowed down, going 8-12 from the field and 11-13 from the line. Gonzaga’s regular season is complete. The West Coast Conference Tournament begins Monday. Even if Gonzaga loses the conference tournament, they’re still probably going to get a #1 seed in the tournament.
#3 – Dayton (27-2)
Dayton may be close to hitting full-stride at this point. Last week, they beat up Davidson at home by 15 before going on the road and crushing Rhode Island by 27 earlier this week. In the Davidson game, the Flyers dominated the boards (+15) and shot 72% from the field. They actually went 27-28 on two-point attempts in the game as well. Obi Toppin has been my pick for Player of the Year since the midway point of the season and he continued backing his claim with another strong performance (10-11 for 23 points and 12 rebounds).
On Wednesday, Dayton to Kingston, Rhode Island to take on a tough conference foe, Rhode Island. The spread here was just 3.5 points (in favor of Dayton), but the game turned into a boat race early on and ended in a blowout fashion no one was prepared to see. Dayton shot 47% from the field, 40% from three, and were +11 on the glass. Obi Toppin, Trey Landers, and Jalen Crutcher combined for 51 points in the lopsided blowout.
Those three guys have shown all year that Dayton is much more than just a one-man-band. It’s a dynamic team with good guard and wing play and I expect they’ll go deep into the tournament this year. Dayton will finish the season with George Washington at home on Saturday and go into the A-10 Conference tournament as the top seed. Dayton will likely need to beat George Washington and win one conference tournament game to secure a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
#4 – Baylor (25-3)
TCU played out of their minds on Saturday, shooting 49% from the field and 45% from three. They also rebounded tremendously well against a much more highly-regarded rebounding team. As well as Baylor player forcing turnovers (+4), they simply didn’t shoot well from deep (4-17). The loss didn’t necessarily hurt Baylor in the polls as they only fell one spot, but it did eliminate them from winning the conference outright and showed other teams Baylor is much more vulnerable than we previously suspected.
It was a tough loss for Baylor but they had less than 48 hours to shake it off before heading home to face Texas Tech. Texas Tech was coming off a ten-point loss to Texas and a loss to Oklahoma the week prior. It seemed like a good opportunity for a bounce-back game for Baylor. As it turns out, Texas Tech came out playing desperate and Baylor was tight the entire game. Devonte Bandoo came up big for the Bears (18 points and 4-5 from three), as the three-ball they needed so badly in the TCU game came when they needed it against the Red Raiders. Baylor has one final game against a desperate West Virginia team at Morgantown before the Big 12 tournament. As long as they don’t get tripped up before the Big 12 final, I can’t see the Bears losing out on a #1 seed.
#5 – San Diego State (29-1)
San Diego State managed to overcome a 13-point second-half deficit to defeat the Nevada Wolfpack in the season finale last Saturday. The Aztecs shot 53% from the field but the story was the tremendous effort of Malachi Flynn (36 points) that stole the headlines. After celebrating their Mountain West title, the Aztecs traveled to Nevada Thursday to meet the Air Force Falcons in the Quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament.
Following a big push in the second half, San Diego State was able to win their conference tournament-opening quarterfinal game over Air Force. The Aztecs got off to a horrible start and trailed by as many as eight in the second half. Wetzell, Schakel, and Flynn each had at least 16 points as the trio combined to go 17-31 from the field and lead the Aztecs in a comeback victory. There are still a number of valid questions for this team as we near the NCAA Tournament.
First, their rebounding may be an issue, especially if they run into a team with some size. The Aztecs only won the rebounding battle with Air Force by four. It will be interesting to see if any of the top four teams struggle in their conference tournaments or in their season finales, because if the Aztecs take the Mountain West tournament title, they’ll make a good case to be a #1 seed in the tournament.
Tonight, San Diego State will take on the #5 seeded Boise State in the Semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament, with a potential clash against Utah State on the near horizon.
#6 – Kentucky (24-6)
In front of a packed house in Rupp Arena last Saturday, Kentucky clinched the SEC regular-season title against the Auburn Tigers. Kentucky went on a 22-5 run in the first half to put themselves ahead for good in a close, hard-fought game with Auburn. Kentucky was +3 in turnovers but the most telling stat was free throws. Kentucky went 27-33 from the line (82%) and iced the Tigers down the stretch.
Despite a poor performance from beyond the arc (2-13), Auburn was just 9-34 from three. On Tuesday, Kentucky blew a 17-point second-half lead at home to the Tennessee Volunteers and lost by eight in a game that left John Calipari extremely disappointed. John Fulkerson had 27 points on 10-15 shooting, and the Vols outrebounded the Wildcats by five as Tennessee exploded for 50 in the second half.
Kentucky had an outside shot at a #1 seed and a good chance at a #2 seed before blowing this one at home. The reason it was considered an outside shot is still likely the loss to Evansville at Rupp arena. Evansville, in case you haven’t been paying attention, went 0-18 in the Mississippi Valley Conference this season. Kentucky will close out the season Saturday at Florida.
#7 – Florida State (25-5)
Florida State lost an absolute heartbreaker on Saturday at Clemson, 70-69. Trent Forrest made a nice, pull-up jumper with eight seconds to go, only for Clemson to made the winning layup with one second left on the clock. Clemson is very tough at home this season and the game reflected it. The crowd was extremely into the game, all the way through.
Florida State outshot (all three areas) and outrebounded the Tigers (+2), but Clemson was +4 on turnovers and it was enough to be the difference in the game. Following the rough loss to Clemson, Florida State traveled to South Bend to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Wednesday. The Noles trailed by 13 with ten minutes to go before going on a run to close the gap late. With just under a few seconds left, Trent Forrest got a put-back to go in and Florida State survived the impending disaster.
In an odd reversal of fortune, Florida State was outshot in this game and rebounding was about even, but the difference was turnovers. Florida State was +5 in that differential. MJ Walker put up 21 points on 6-10 shooting and a perfect 5-5 from the line. This Saturday, Florida State has a big opportunity to win the ACC if they can beat Boston College (FSU holds the tiebreaker over Louisville by virtue of H2H).
#8 – Seton Hall (21-8)
Seton Hall made their triumphant return to the top ten this week, but promptly lost on Senior night to the visiting Villanova Wildcats, thus continuing the carousel of fringe top ten placeholders known as the Big East leader. In their Saturday matchup at Marquette, Seton Hall was lights-out in the shooting department, going 53% from the field and 50% from three.
Myles Powell was on fire, finishing with 28 points and going 5-13 from deep. Okay, so 9-22 isn’t “On fire” but Myles is a high-volume guy. If we want to talk about efficiency, Sandro Mamukelashvili was 10-13 and 3-3 from deep. Honestly, this is the problem with college basketball people. Powell gets the headlines after an inefficient game and Sandro is and has been the guy this team has leaned on all season.
On Wednesday, Seton Hall couldn’t produce consistently in the second half. Despite Villanova nearly choking away the game from the line late, Myles Powell’s YOLO shots cost the Pirates a chance at clinching the Big East title. Powell went 5-18 from the field and 3-10 from three in what has become an all too familiar scene in Seton Hall’s losses this year. Powell took some late threes from ten feet beyond the arc.
I suppose if you’re a Player of the Year candidate, you should be taking dumb shots throughout the game, especially if making just one will give you even more praise. Seton Hall will have an opportunity to close out the season with a conference title if they can beat Creighton on the road this Saturday.
#9 – Maryland (23-7)
Following back to back losses against Michigan State and Rutgers, Maryland has now lost three of their last four and will surely be bumped out of the top ten by next week. The question now is, “How much of a drop with their seeding take?”
Last Saturday, Michigan State handled Maryland with no real issue. They led from tip to the final whistle, with one brief moment where the game was tied up in the first half. Michigan State was +6 on the glass and 43% from beyond the arc. Maryland’s Anthony Cowan Jr and Eric Ayala struggled, going a combined 6-19 from the floor and 0-6 from deep. The bottom line from this game was, when you don’t shoot very well from the field against a team who can rebound like the Spartans, you’re probably not going to win.
Following the home loss against the Spartans, Maryland was completely subdued throughout the course of the game against a Rutgers team who flat-out appeared to want it more. Teetering on the edge of bubble discussions, Rutgers was in need of a big win. The Scarlet Knights were, at one point a few weeks back, ranked in the top 25.
Jacob Young came up huge off the bench for Rutgers, going 7-10 for 17 points and three steals. Rutgers was more aggressive on the glass, winning the rebounding battle (+5) and the turnover battle (+2). Maryland now must hope to beat Michigan to end the season and hope for a Wisconsin loss if they want to win the Big 12 title.
#10 – Louisville (24-6)
Louisville made its return to the top ten following a thorough second-half beatdown of Virginia Tech on Sunday. With the game tied at 27 at the half, Louisville came out in the second half and took it to the Hokies, winning the rebounding battle (+14) and suffocating the Hokies on defense. Louisville was +4 on turnovers and cruised to victory thanks to a big second-half performance of Jordan Nwora (20 points and 12 rebounds).
With the win, Louisville remains tied with Florida State for the ACC lead. The Cardinals will need to win their final regular-season game this Saturday at Virginia and will need Florida State to lose their finale at Boston College if they hope to win the regular-season conference title.
Best Futures for Conference Tournament Champions
A look at the best futures to win their respective Conference Tournament Championship. All lines are provided by PlaySugarHouse.
Ohio Valley Conference Winner: Murray State +225
Yes, I realize Ja Morant is no longer on the team. My argument for why I like the Racers is simple. Belmont is the other OVC team to worry about. In their first meeting, Murray State won by ten. In their second meeting, Belmont won by seven. Murray State and Belmont are tied at 15-3 in the conference, but Belmont is -250 to win the conference tournament.
The tournament is also closer in proximity to Murray State. In a tournament that’s basically a coin flip between these two teams, I like the team with substantially longer odds.
Pac-12 Conference Winner: UCLA +800
I love this team right now. Mick Cronin has been coaching probably the hottest team in the country, who was at one point 8-9 on the year. UCLA is playing great basketball and has the talent to pull off the upset over their marginally difficult opponents.
The biggest threat, to me, will be Oregon, who has been the steadiest power in the conference all season, led by guard, Payton Pritchard. I love the odds here for UCLA and even if their odds were the best going into the conference tournament, I still might lean their way.
Big Ten Conference Winner: Michigan State +300
Michigan State has been on a tear recently, playing a much more complete brand of basketball. We all expected earlier in the season, when they were the nation’s top-ranked team to begin the year. Xavier Tillman and Cassius Winston have been great. Rocket Watts is getting more comfortable in the offense, and the Spartans are dangerous from every angle.
If they can keep up their aggression on the glass and continue to spread the ball around well on offense, this tournament title is theirs for the taking.