Last summer, D'Angelo Russell stood on the sideline of a Louisville playground during an annual streetball tourney. Surrounded by a group of friends, he mentioned that he wanted to participate in the event but refused to risk injury.

So instead, he just stood there.

He didn't say much. But everyone in the park noticed him. And Russell bathed in that attention.

He had this "you don't know me yet, but you'll definitely know me soon" swagger that you can't fake. This slight lean to the right. This brash glare.

[+] EnlargeD'Angelo Russell
Joe Maiorana/USA TODAY SportsD'Angelo Russell led the Buckeyes in Ohio State's upset win over Maryland
This cool.

And there it was again on Thursday night in Ohio State's 80-56 upset over No. 16 Maryland, in which Russell finished with 18 points (4-for-6 from the 3-point line), 14 rebounds, six assists, two steals and zero turnovers.

Oh, that's the 3-point line? I'd rather stand 5 feet behind it. That ball? I'll fling it through the lane like I'm skipping rocks in a pond. These NBA scouts in the building wondering if I'm the real the deal? You see that pass? The answer is yes. Yes, I am.

The Big Ten has been the Big Flop throughout the season. And that's unusual. The league is often mentioned in conversations about the best conferences in America.

In 2012, the Big Ten secured six bids to the NCAA tournament. In 2013, there were seven berths and six more in last year's Big Dance. Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology projects six more bids this season. That's the norm.

But most of the potential tourney teams from this year's Big Ten look like programs that won't reach the second weekend of March Madness. The Big Ten produces contenders. Outside Madison, however, who in the league can compete for the national championship?

And if the Big Ten is not as entertaining as it has been in the past, and if its talent level is down, why watch?

That's why the conference needs Russell. You have to pay attention to him.

Caris LeVert is hurt, and although Michigan is off to a surprising start in conference play, it has fallen short of preseason expectations thus far. This isn't the typical gritty, reliable Michigan State squad. Iowa is up and down. Nebraska went from NCAA tournament team to a squad that could play its way out of the NIT field. Minnesota is 2-7 in Big Ten play. Indiana beat Maryland by 19 but lost to Purdue by double digits on Wednesday night. Maryland has lost its past two Big Ten road games by an average of 21.5 PPG.

Only two teams in the league (Nebraska and Maryland) are ranked among the top 40 in defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy.

Big Ten basketball is usually exciting this time of year. Right now? It's unremarkable.

But maybe Russell can change that.

The future lottery pick is clearly a dribbling, driving, shooting, dunking, And1 Mixtape Tour-passing storyline. Ohio State's defense continues to improve, and the team is on a three-game winning streak. The Buckeyes have won four of their past five. They're in second place in the league, and they won't see Maryland again this season. Plus, their only matchup against first-place Wisconsin will be on March 8 in Columbus.

And they're led by a young star, which also helps.

Right now, Ohio State has the best chance to make the Big Ten a legit race. Russell's I'm-the-man-all-day style is appealing.

Sure, Ohio State could collapse in the coming games like the rest of the league and ruin its outside shot to pursue a Big Ten title. Maybe Russell will finally compete like a freshman and struggle in the spotlight the way that fellow freshman wing Melo Trimble (0-for-8, three points) did on Thursday night for Maryland.

It's possible.

But at least Russell gives us a reason to watch Big Ten basketball and find out.
What we're reading while we pine for the glory days of LAN parties. Submit links via Twitter.
  • In this, our great winter of scoring discontent, there has been an increased focus on the college basketball rule book. Understandably so: After all, the NCAA tried to open the game up, and make it slightly faster, with direct rules changes last season. In practice, those rules have been largely abandoned. This week, SI's Brian Hamilton checked in with rules committee chair Rick Byrd on another area ripe for potential reform -- policing the flop: “I’ll be surprised if we don’t pull up the [Louisville guard Chris] Jones play on the fake elbow, getting hit, and probably some other ones,” Byrd said. “And [we’ll] say, is this an issue we need to address? Is it growing? Is it not growing? Just personally, and that’s all it is -- I might be the chair, but I’m one guy on committee and I’m one coach out of 1,000 -- I think it’s something that needs to be talked about.” Flopping is bad, mmmkay. We can agree on that much. But ancedotally speaking, flopping seems less of a problem now than at any time in recent memory. Officials scoff at oversold calls just as often as they're tricked. Even if that weren't the case, there are far more important issues for the rules committee to tackle next summer. The shot clock. Freedom of movement. Timeouts. Length of video replays. All of these things could play a role in making the game better, more open, less stagnant, and more entertaining for fans. If a player flops during a game no one is watching, does he really make a noise?
  • Texas freshman Myles Turner, the No. 2-ranked player in the Class of 2014, has had a fascinating season thus far. For much of the season, Turner has been great against overmatched opponents but struggled against top teams. He reversed that trend this week, posting 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting (including 7-of-10 from inside the arc), six rebounds, and three blocks in the Longhorns' 89-86 loss at Iowa State. ESPN Insider Fran Fraschilla called that game, and on Thursday he turned his attention -- and some handy gifs -- to evaluating Turner's strengths and weaknesses. The result is a scout's-eye view of an impressive teenage talent who could nonetheless might benefit from another season on campus.
  • On Jan. 13, Kentucky beat Missouri by 49 points. On Thursday, the rebuilding Tigers host the Wildcats, and the local newspaper folks asked former coaches to talk about just how good Kentucky really is. And what about first-year Missouri coach Kim Anderson? "We have to play almost perfect to win," Anderson said. Almost?
  • If you dislike the spread of court-storming in college basketball, Jerian Grant is officially your new favorite player.
  • In early January, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak joined the national treasure that is Bill Walton for a rather unique camera segment. The topic of the day was sweetgrass, a breed of grass from Krystkowiak's home state of Montana which the Utah coach ritually burns before every game. The video itself was revealing, because Utah has declined media requests to view Krystkowiak's ritual. This week, the coach talked to the Salt Lake Tribune about it, and his answers were pretty great. Seems pretty chill. But what if you burned sweetgrass while you released butterflies?! I think I just blew my own mind.
Elijah Thomas has been a touted recruit for a few years now, ranking among the top-10 prospects in the country back when he was a sophomore.

While he's dipped a little bit in the class, the 6-foot-9 Texas A&M signee still was among the nominees to be selected to the McDonald's All American game. When the rosters were revealed on Wednesday evening, though, only one Texan was listed and it wasn't Thomas.

And the No. 29-ranked prospect in the ESPN 100 took to Twitter and used some self-deprecating humor to demonstrate his dismay at the snub.

Watch: Arizona's point guard does his best Marshawn Lynch impersonation

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
Marshawn Lynch's act has spread to college basketball -- well, sort of.

As you surely know by now, the star running back for the Seattle Seahawks refuses to speak with the media. At Tuesday's Super Bowl media day, he uttered the phrase "I'm here so I won't get fined" 29 times in under five minutes.

So after his team's 90-56 win over Oregon on Wednesday night, Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell had a little fun with reporters -- but quickly made it clear he was just joking.

The list below features 10 teams that could make deep runs in March. Some of these squads might even reach the Final Four in Indianapolis.

There is no denying their respective talent, potential and capability.

But there’s also something about each of them that makes it difficult to assume they'll ever reach their ceiling this season. On paper is one thing. On the court? Well, that's a bit more complicated with the following programs. They're the kind of squads that induce moments of beauty and heartbreak, sometimes in the same game.

Can't trust them … yet.

Agree? Disagree? Tell us on Twitter by using #Top10Thursday.

1. Maryland Terrapins

Maryland TerrapinsDenny Medley/USA TODAY Sports
There’s so much to love about Mark Turgeon’s program. Melo Trimble and Jake Layman are pros. The Terrapins might be the only team with the goods to dethrone Wisconsin in the Big Ten, and they have a favorable matchup in their only meeting of the season with the Badgers toward the end of the conference schedule in College Park, Maryland. But Dez Wells (36 percent clip in the past four games), a 19-point loss at Indiana and a tight home victory over Northwestern that demanded a miracle in the final seconds should concern supporters of a team that has gone 10-13 in February under Turgeon.

2. Louisville Cardinals

Louisville CardinalsAndy Lyons/Getty Images
There isn't one bad loss on the Cardinals' résumé (Kentucky, Duke, at North Carolina). Their defense is holding teams to just .89 points per possession, a mark topped by only a handful of schools. But Louisville's challenges on offense (48th in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy) could prove to be a hindrance in the coming months. The Cardinals are shooting just 30.7 percent from the 3-point line. Chris Jones and Wayne Blackshear are both shooting less than 40 percent from the field. Again, this defense will keep Louisville alive against any future opponent, but can the team close the show if it can't find the rim?

3. Indiana Hoosiers

James Blackmon, Ryan Burton, Troy WilliamsMike Granse/USA TODAY Sports
First, Tom Crean deserves credit for everything he's achieved thus far following a turbulent start that appeared to be the beginning of the end for him. Indiana is a top-five team in the Big Ten. After all of that early drama? Wow. Yogi Ferrell leads a high-powered, top-10 offensive attack that produced 89 points against Maryland. But can the Hoosiers stop anyone? They couldn't stop (gulp) Purdue in a 16-point loss to their rival on Wednesday. They're ranked 227th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They've given up an average of 85 points per game in their six losses. So, Indiana can score 90. But it can also surrender 95. That's what makes the Hoosiers both fascinating and impossible to trust right now.

4. Oklahoma Sooners

Oklahoma SoonersJustin K. Aller/Getty Images
After Lon Kruger added big man TaShawn Thomas, it was clear the Sooners had a shot to battle for the Big 12 title. Early victories over Butler and UCLA only strengthened that notion. But you can't take this team outside Norman, Oklahoma, and expect much. Oklahoma is 2-5 in true road games. The Sooners are 4-6 overall in neutral and road games. Also, Kruger's squad has lost four of its past five. Yeah, the Big 12 is tough, but you’re not getting a bid on Selection Sunday simply because you're a member or because of a 45-point win against Texas Tech on Wednesday night. You must earn it, and right now, Oklahoma is doing plenty to squander a solid seed in the NCAA tournament field.

5. Baylor Bears

Lester MedfordRay Carlin/USA TODAY Sports
The program's supporters will come at you with Scott Drew's postseason success, and it is impressive: two trips to the Elite Eight and a Sweet 16 appearance since 2010. That’s the shield used to defend the program against critics who point to the perennial in-season inconsistency. Want to bet on Baylor? Fine. But the Bears are 3-4 in the Big 12. They faced just two top-100 BPI teams during the six-game winning streak that preceded conference play. Sure, sure. It's a stacked league. But those blown leads against Kansas State and Iowa State, that overtime thriller against TCU, that 66.4 percent clip from the charity stripe? All problems. Will Baylor be a nonfactor in the final month of Big 12 play and a one-and-done in the NCAA tournament? We'll see.

6. Iowa State Cyclones

Iowa State CyclonesReese Strickland/USA TODAY Sports
Yep, Fred Hoiberg might have his best squad yet, and that was probably true before Jameel McKay arrived to dunk on the world, collect transition buckets and swat shots. He's a game-changer for the Cyclones. Forget the 3-ball (34.8 percent overall). Iowa State connects on 57.3 percent of its 2s (fourth in the nation). Its victory over Kansas in Ames, Iowa, showed the world the Cyclones could win the league. That weekend loss at Texas Tech? Well, that just magnified the program's challenges with slow starts, especially on the road. It's almost like you gotta give the whole roster smelling salts before games or something. The big matchups? Iowa State will be ready. The rest (South Carolina, at Texas Tech, at Baylor)? Not always. Time for the Cyclones to decide if they want a ring or not.

7. LSU Tigers

Jordan MickeyJamie Squire/Getty Images
There were certainly concerns about Johnny Jones' program early. The Tigers lost to Old Dominion, Clemson and Missouri. Yes, they secured a great road win over West Virginia. But it still wasn't clear if a team with a pair of NBA prospects named Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey would manage to fall short of expectations again entering conference play. They're off to a solid 4-2 start in the SEC. That's a good thing. Doesn't guarantee much, though. In all, the Tigers have played four overtime games. They're 2-1 in games decided by three points or fewer. The Tigers are 92nd in adjusted offensive efficiency. They're committing turnovers on 21.4 percent of their possessions (282nd nationally). That unreliable offense could lead to problems in the final stretch of the season and beyond. They've been walking a tightrope all season.

8. Texas Longhorns

Texas LonghornsTim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports
Rick Barnes has everything he needs in Austin. He's blessed with more size than 95 percent of the teams in the country. Prince Ibeh, Cameron Ridley and Myles Turner are three of the reasons that opponents are shooting just 38.1 percent (fourth nationally) against the Longhorns inside the arc. But their offense is a mess, in part because, midway through the season, they're still struggling with roles, inconsistency at the charity stripe and shot selection. Turner, a 7-footer, is shooting just 28.8 percent on shots at the rim ( He has to call for the ball and post up more often. Fifty-three percent of Javan Felix's shots are 3-pointers. Ridley gets nearly three free throw attempts for every four shots he takes, but he's only making 63.6 percent of his free throws. Texas has to play big and execute on offense, and neither has been the norm thus far.

9. Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State BuckeyesJoe Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports
The Buckeyes have found an abundance of success under Thad Matta. One thing they're not searching for this season is a star. D'Angelo Russell (19.4 points per game, 5.2 rebounds per game, 5.1 assists per game) has accepted that role and the NBA buzz that often accompanies those numbers. The Buckeyes are 5-3 in the Big Ten with a significant matchup against Maryland on Thursday. Are the Buckeyes contenders? Stay tuned. It's just odd to see an Ohio State team struggle on the defensive end. Ohio State is giving up 0.96 points per possession, according to Ken Pomeroy, their highest mark since since the 2008-09 season, which ended with a 22-11 record and a first-round loss to Siena in the Big Dance. The team held opponents below 0.90 points per possession three of the four seasons of the Aaron Craft era. Though they are connecting on 38.6 percent of their 3s, they are not much of a threat in the paint via their bigs. Does Ohio State have the talent to surge in the Big Ten? Of course. The balance? TBD.

10. Miami Hurricanes

Sheldon McClellan, Angel Rodriguez, Davon Reed, Manu Lecomte, Tonye JekiriJoel Auerbach/Getty Images
Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan practiced together last season as transfers from Kansas State and Texas, respectively. Both guys decided they needed a new opportunity, and their decisions have turned Miami into an NCAA tournament team again. The Hurricanes beat Duke by 16 points. At Cameron Indoor Stadium. That's the game they'll tell their grandchildren about. They won't mention losses to Green Bay, Providence and Eastern Kentucky. Perhaps Miami was a different team then. You can't deny the Hurricanes' 4-3 start in ACC play or Rodriguez's leadership. His team follows him. That has been a challenge at times. He went 2-for-15 with three turnovers in that loss to Green Bay, 0-for-6 in a loss to Eastern Kentucky and 1-for-10 in that loss at Notre Dame. Wednesday night? He went 0-for-8 in a 20-point home loss to … Georgia Tech?!? Rodriguez is one of the best players in the country, but will Miami be able to recover on his off nights? That has been the issue.

3-point shot: VCU's impressive start led by defense

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
Andy Katz discusses VCU's improved defense, Syracuse's NCAA tournament hopes, and the Big East's confounding resume.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The statement home wins against ranked opponents aren't new to Notre Dame. Neither are the take-control seniors or the big comebacks.

It's the combination of qualities that could propel the Fighting Irish to unchartered ground in two months. They have a nationally elite player in guard Jerian Grant -- "such a bright lights, big-stage guy," coach Mike Brey said after Grant's latest star turn. They have respected, reliable senior leaders in Grant and Pat Connaughton. They continue to make Purcell Pavilion the nation's least talked about hostile building for talented visitors (Notre Dame is now 6-1 in its past seven home games against top 10 foes and 14-7 overall under Brey).

But there's one quality Notre Dame has displayed throughout January that could pay off in March, when promising Brey teams typically crack under the brightest lights, on the biggest stages. If the Irish find themselves down big in the NCAA tournament, regardless of the opponent, they will not flinch.

"We should never panic when we're down now 'cause it's happened a bunch and we've come back," Brey said. "We'll be able to handle just about anything."

[+] EnlargeJerian Grant
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsFor Jerian Grant and Notre Dame, rallying from double-digit deficits has been the norm in ACC play.
The Irish showed Wednesday they could handle No. 4 Duke, despite a 10-point deficit with 11:28 left. Notre Dame rallied for a 77-73 victory, its fourth comeback from a double-digit hole in the past five games. The eighth-ranked Irish have five double-digit comebacks in ACC play this month alone.

Most 20-2 teams don't endure such frequent adversity. Perhaps that's a knock on Notre Dame, which will continue to be critiqued for its defense and lack of size. But it's also a trait that could carry the team past the first weekend in the NCAA tournament -- a program bugaboo under Brey.

"It's developing that winning mentality," Connaughton said. "The biggest part about the regular season, the league play, all that, is you've got to develop a winning mentality so that you have confidence when you can win when the later parts come."

No Irish player reflects the mentality and confidence like Grant, who delivered a premier performance (23 points, 12 assists, six rebounds), especially on two critical possessions, that won't soon be forgotten around here. Notre Dame followed a familiar crunch-time plan: set a flat ball screen for Grant, let him read it and take over.

On the first play, with Notre Dame up 71-70 and just more than a minute left, Grant tried to shake Duke's Tyus Jones, but Jones stood firm. Grant wanted to step back and drive past Jones but lost the ball, only to recover and sink a wild heave to beat the shot clock.

"God, he loves the moment," Brey said.

After Duke once again cut its deficit to a point, Grant isolated himself, preparing to drive, but just as the clock wound down, he fired a pass to Steve Vasturia, alone behind the arc but 0-for-4 on the night.

"I was going to shoot a little fadeaway over the smaller defender," Grant said. "But when I got up there, I saw everybody crash the boards and Steve had his hands ready, spotted up in the corner."

Stay ready. That's what Grant had told the struggling Vasturia during a timeout minutes earlier. The message from Notre Dame's top scorer to its least likely option paid off.

"It has a huge effect," Vasturia said, "when the best player on the court has the confidence in you to shoot the ball."

Notre Dame beat Duke here last year, too, but Grant wasn't part of it, sidelined because of academic troubles. He has propelled Notre Dame into ACC title contention, and on a night when NBA scouts flocked to see Duke's Jahlil Okafor, Grant stole the show.

"When I look back, I do think about [the absence]," Grant said. "I'm excited we're back here, we're winning together."

Notre Dame needed Grant's best performance to beat Duke, and it also needed lifts from others like freshman Bonzie Colson, who contributed on both ends against Okafor while filling in for the foul-plagued Zach Auguste. Colson gained valuable experience when Auguste missed a Jan. 14 game against Georgia Tech.

The Irish now have another option for their thin front line.

"He just played with a lot of heart," said Okafor, who finished with 22 points and 17 rebounds but missed several attempts around the rim and five free throws, including three down the stretch. "He had a huge part in his team winning."

Okafor and the Blue Devils should be there late in March. They have the offensive firepower and depth to make a deep run, despite their third loss in six games.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, must prove its staying power. It showed it belonged in the Big East. It's showing it belongs in the ACC.

But the Irish have just one Sweet 16 appearance in Brey's 14 previous seasons.

Brey isn't ready to throw out superlatives just yet. He could Saturday at Pittsburgh.

"We would have every reason to be a little flat, a little under-energized," Brey said. "I said, 'If you get the one in Pittsburgh, I'll start to refer to you as having special qualities.'"

Those qualities were on display Wednesday night in familiar surroundings. Notre Dame needs them to show up in unfamiliar settings in March.

Afternoon Links: Free Dorian

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
What we're reading while we compare this approach to the mine-equipped dogs the Soviets trained to run under German tanks on the Eastern Front. Submit links via Twitter.
  • Way back in 2006, LeBron James had this game-winning play against the Wizards that heralded a new dawn. Before LeBron, last-second, game-winning shots were almost always taken in the Michael Jordan mold: You waited for the clock to wind down, pushed your defender as far back as possible, tried to get a clean 18-foot jumper, and then held your fist in the air. LeBron didn't do this. His power was such that he could get a game-winning shot from pretty much wherever he wanted, and so he did. A game-winning baseline drive against the Wizards made Free Darko -- word to the old sports blog heads out there -- reconsider its entire understanding of what a last-second shot could be: "When the game's on the line in the half-court, though, [Kobe's] taking a jumper, same as anyone else. It might be the most shrewdly contorted one you ever saw, but he's still playing a mortal's game. LeBron, not so. Granted, this was the Wizards. But really, who else do you see getting game-winners around the basket, much less going baseline and with four defenders in his path? Unfortunately, LeBron makes it all seem so right, makes him as a player seem so natural, and creates an airlock of suspended disbelief around everything he does." So: Why I am quoting an eight-year-old Free Darko post on a college basketball blog? Because Dorian Finney-Smith's game-winning dunk against Alabama Tuesday night reminded me of exactly that discussion. Blame Alabama's awful defensive rotation, but still: How often do you see a game won on a thunderous dunk?
  • Hall of Fame writer John Feinstein is the only Associated Press top 25 voter currently ranking Virginia over Kentucky. He emailed WDRB's Rick Bozich to explain why, even if he seems confused that anyone cares in the first place. Which is fair.
  • On Tuesday, Yahoo!'s Pat Forde used his regular Forde Minutes feature to ask "What's wrong with college basketball and how to fix it," the headline goes. Forde aligns with our own view -- and the apparent consensus -- pretty well: In general, college basketball is too slow and way too physical, and these qualities often get in the way of entertaining basketball. This may be the defining theme of the 2014-15 season, just one year after the NCAA instituted (and the officials quickly abandoned) rules that were briefly effective in solving these problems. We're right back where we were two years ago, and it's kind of sad. We can all agree on that, right? Right. Anyway, Forde pointed to the nation's two unbeaten teams (Kentucky and Virginia) as examples of the problem, and naturally this has both UK and UVa fans riled up. Streaking the Lawn's Brian Schwartz writes: "But if someone isn't entertained by teams like Virginia and Kentucky, which perform among the sports elite on both sides of the floor, then he just isn't a fan of great basketball." Sigh.
  • After his dismissal from Washington this week, Robert Upshaw, the nation's leading shot-blocker, may be considering a move to the D-League.
  • Duke has a rather massive matchup at Notre Dame this evening, but in the meantime the commemoration of Mike Krzyzewski's 1,000th career win -- earned at St. John's on Sunday -- rolls on. This week, larval ACC rival Syracuse took out a full-page ad in the Duke Chronicle featuring a picture of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim shaking Coach K's hand congratulating the Duke coach on the milestone. Florida State followed suit. Sportsmanship!

Tipoff Live, 2:30 p.m. ET

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
Join college basketball reporters Eamonn Brennan, Dana O'Neil, C.L. Brown and Myron Medcalf as they discuss the biggest games of the week and take your questions live.

3-point shot: Bracketology edition

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi joins Andy Katz to discuss Virginia, Kentucky and the rest of the SEC.
While national attention is centered on Charlottesville, Virginia, where undefeated and second-ranked Virginia will play host to No. 4 Duke on Saturday, that other ranked team in the commonwealth is quietly becoming one no opponent will want to face come March.

No. 14 Virginia Commonwealth has reeled off 12 straight wins after Tuesday's 72-48 win over George Washington. The Colonials were tied with Dayton in second place in the Atlantic 10 and a win would have tied them with the Rams for first.

VCU proved there is still quite a gap between it and the rest of the league. And in the process maybe it has proven the gap isn't as big as it once seemed between it and the top teams in the nation.

[+] EnlargeVCU coach Shaka Smart
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsShaka Smart's VCU Rams have won 12 in a row and might be his best team since the 2011 Final Four squad.
No one who has watched Kansas can say it's the same team that lost to Kentucky by 32 in November. Likewise, the Rams have improved and matured as a team since losing big to Villanova (77-53) and Virginia (74-57) in games that were both played before first semester final exams. A virtual eternity ago.

Since then, VCU beat Northern Iowa, won at Cincinnati, handled Davidson at home and gave Rhode Island its first home loss. ESPN's Joe Lunardi has VCU as a 4 seed in the latest Bracketology prediction.

Here's why the Rams could arguably be coach Shaka Smart's best team since the 2011 Final Four version: They take care of the ball. They had just eight turnovers against George Washington, which was below their season average of just 10.5. Indeed, the collateral damage foes suffered from the frenetic pace of Smart’s "havoc" defense sometimes led the Rams to get careless with the ball, too.

Last season, VCU ranked 88th in offensive turnover percentage, according to Ken Pomeroy. This season it ranks 12th, which marks the highest of Smart's six-year tenure.

Guard Briante Weber is at the forefront of the improvement. Entering the George Washington game, he ranked 29th nationally in assist-turnover ratio at 2.82, right behind Duke's Tyus Jones. Weber also has improved from 3-point range, shooting 42.3 percent, which now means teams can't sag off and clog the lane.

While the Rams slipped a bit in forcing turnovers -- they ranked first the past three season in defensive turnover percentage -- they are still fourth nationally.

That formula helps them compensate for not being a particularly good shooting team (they averaged 43 percent from the field) and being a bit undersized in the frontcourt (their rebound margin is minus-2.1).

Most teams that make deep runs in March boast at least one NBA talent. Treveon Graham could be that man for the Rams.

Basketball junkies know his name and come March a lot of casual fans could know it, too. The 6-foot-6 senior guard leads the team in scoring at 17.3 points and adds a team-best 6.8 rebounds per game. He's the go-to guy every team wished they had in the clutch and made a buzzer-beating layup for the win at St. Louis on Friday.

When VCU is in need of a basket, Graham usually delivers.

That was a problem back when the Rams lost to Nova and the Wahoos. The Rams probably looked to Graham too much to generate their offense. That's no longer the case. When Graham missed last week's win at Duquesne due to an ankle injury, they proved they're not a one-man team.

Sophomores JeQuan Lewis and Doug Brooks provided unexpected contributions from off the bench with 16 and 10 points, respectively.

That trend continued against the Colonials with Graham held to just seven points, as freshman guard Terry Larrier, who averages 6.7 points, scored 15 points from off the bench.

They've got more offensive weapons than last season, when they ranked 107 in adjusted offense on The Rams sit at 36 this season.

All that combined with a veteran core of starters should make VCU a dangerous team in the postseason.

The program hasn't made it out of the NCAA tournament's first weekend since its magical 2011 Final Four run, but don't be surprised if this is the team that makes it to the second weekend.

And possibly beyond.
What we're reading while we wince at the back half of Syracuse's ACC schedule. Submit links via Twitter.
  • It wasn't all that long ago that Washington was rolling. The Huskies toppled San Diego State on Dec. 7, which could have been dismissed as a defensive fluke were it not for UW's neutral-court win over still-ranked Oklahoma 13 days later. Before Utah established itself as the lone disruptive force capable of ending Arizona's Pac-12 dominance, Washington was the sudden surprise bet. A month later, the Huskies are crumbling. After opening up Pac-12 play with three straight losses (including a home loss to Washington State), Lorenzo Romar's team is 3-4 in the league. Which would be bad enough at full strength. On Monday, ESPN's Jeff Goodman reported that Romar had dismissed center Robert Upshaw for a violation of team rules, with sources reporting that Upshaw -- who led the nation in block percentage (17.2) and was the biggest factor in the team's defensive success -- had failed multiple drug tests at Washington and former program Fresno State. The Seattle Times' Percy Allen writes that Upshaw had been on a "last-straw" policy and subject to frequent drug tests at UW, and tries to figure out where the Huskies can possibly go from here.
  • Tuesday Truths leads off with a Super Bowl flavor wherein John Gasaway compares the New England Patriots' remarkably low fumble rate from the past 14 seasons (as calculated by Slate's Warren Sharp) to some of "the more statistically aberrant team-based behaviors currently occurring in college hoops." Even in a sport as wacky and unpredictable as college basketball, nothing comes close: Tuesday Truths has been one of our country’s most cherished traditions since the Taft administration, and in that time I’ve never seen a team statistic vary from its league mean by three standard deviations, much less close to four. I don’t suppose there’s a single correct conclusion to be drawn from that observation -- mundane circumstances produce statistically zany outcomes once in a great while. But put me down as one vote for "the most statistically extreme thing I’ve yet run across."
  • Georgetown has a rather large game tonight. The Hoyas, unbeaten in their past four, are coming off a blowout home win over Villanova and a lights-out offensive performance (despite in-game injuries to starters Jabril Trawick and L.J. Peak) in a 95-85 OT win at Marquette. All of the telltale signs of a team with real collective momentum -- namely the emergence of freshman star Isaac Copeland -- are here. But a home loss to Xavier tonight, against a team that has struggled on the road this season, could derail that progress just as quickly.
  • You've probably been keeping tabs on VCU's 6-0 start to Atlantic 10 play, but did you know George Washington was 6-1? Or that the Colonials were 16-4 overall, with all four losses coming on the road, and with a neutral-court win over Wichita State? Did you know that the Colonials boast the A-10's highest free throw rate on the offensive end and the league's lowest on the defensive end? The answer is probably "no," because Mike Lonergan's team is still just outside the radar. But if the Colonials can manage their typical free throw disparity against VCU's press Tuesday night, and become the first unranked team in 25 attempts to topple the Rams in Richmond, rest assured you'll be hearing much more in the days to follow.
  • ESPN recruiting analyst Jeff Borzello writes that the collective non-Kentucky-or-Florida struggles of the SEC -- a widely discussed topic in recent seasons, especially in 2014-15 -- may soon be coming to an end: "That should shift dramatically over the next few seasons, though, as the SEC’s other teams have improved the talent level in the league with the Class of 2015 more than perhaps any other conference. Kentucky has the No. 1 class in the country and Florida sits at No. 8, but those two are the annual staples at the top of the standings -- this season’s Gators notwithstanding. It’s the rest of the SEC that holds the key to improving the perception of the league, and several of those teams have greatly upgraded their talent during the 2015 recruiting cycle. Eight SEC teams rank among ESPN’s top 40 classes, with seven of those programs sitting in the top 22."
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Many thought Nate Britt would drop in North Carolina's rotation with the addition of freshman guard Joel Berry II.

He didn't.

Others still thought it a desperation move when Britt switched shooting hands from his left to his right over the summer.

It wasn't.

The Tar Heels didn't consider Britt as the solution to their search for an outside shooter to complement Marcus Paige. But now?

They just might.

Britt delivered the message to Syracuse on Monday night, scoring a career-high 17 points, including four 3-pointers, during the Tar Heels' 93-83 victory. He's now shooting 7-for-15 from behind the arc in ACC play.

It's pretty timely, too. With injuries to Berry and Theo Pinson, the Heels are short on their perimeter rotation. That means more playing time for Britt, who sometimes is in a lineup in which he's the only true guard with a bunch of forwards.

"We've got to have some other guys make shots," Paige said. "Nate being able to knock down shots adds an extra element so we don't have to rely on the same guys every night, 'cause that's not always a given."

Britt hasn't been a given this season. The No. 0 jersey he wears might as well stand for overlooked. Yet Britt finds a way to deliver for the Heels just when he's counted out.

"I started wearing zero my freshman year of high school," Britt said. "The area where I'm from, a lot of guys are naysayers, and I felt like I had a lot of those people when I was coming up through high school. It's just a constant reminder that I have to try to prove myself every night."

Britt received 15 stitches in his upper lip after a collision at the close of the Heels' win over Wake Forest on Jan. 21. He said it still hurts to eat and to talk. But he's got plenty to gloat about after helping power the Heels past the Orange.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim called Britt the "difference-maker" in the game. It got to the point where the Orange defenders were giving him full respect as a knockdown shooter, scrambling to close out on him.

Britt isn't exactly used to that. He was just 3-of-12 all of last season from 3-point range.

This season he'd gone through a three-game stretch against NC State, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest in which he was 2-for-14 from the field.

"This was almost like being a freshman again, shooting-wise," Britt said. "Everyone goes through spells when they can't hit shots. This was kind of like the same thing over and over again for me, so for me to be able to knock down shots felt good."

Britt never got out of his shooting slump as a freshman, shooting 36.7 percent from the floor. He had such a hitch in his shot that Roy Williams approached his dad in the offseason about changing it. Since making the unheard of switch from his left hand to his right, Britt has never wavered -- although he hasn't automatically started to light it up.

"His release looks great, and his left-handed release because of the hitch he had never looked great," Williams said. "I've never doubted that decision, and I'm so proud of him for going along with me.

"He's been struggling, but the little rascal was a big-time player for us tonight."

Britt's struggles included off the court, where his paternal grandfather passed away the night of the Heels' win over NC State. Ned Britt lived in La Grange, North Carolina, and got to spend more time with one of his favorite grandkids since Nate Britt enrolled at Carolina.

"I know he's watching; I feel like he's my guardian angel," Britt said. "I could attribute this game to him. I feel like he's always with me now."

And with a bit of confidence behind him, Britt will quietly go about trying to silence those who still doubt him.


Afternoon Links: Still Big Monday

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
What we're reading while we urge you to vote for "Hoosiers". Submit links via Twitter.
  • So you're feeling slightly let down by tonight's Iowa State-Texas matchup. Both lost on Sunday -- ISU at Texas Tech, Texas at home to Kansas. All of a sudden, this marquee Big Monday matchup doesn't feel quite as exciting. Wide Right and Natty Lite helpfully explains the flaws in this line of thinking: "Both the Cyclones and Longhorns have spent time in the top 10 throughout the year, but the Horns have now lost three of their last five and Iowa State is looking to recover from an embarrassing road loss to Texas Tech. In many ways, this game could represent a turning point for each respective team. At .500 in league play, Texas needs to make up some serious ground, and scoring a road win in Ames would do just that. For the Cyclones, the loss in Lubbock means that the margin for error going forward has become razor thin, meaning that protecting home court is an absolute must. It's probably a little too early in the conference season to say that desperation has sunk in for either of these programs, but entering the second third of the league round-robin, it's getting close. Win and stay alive. Lose and ... well, kiss your conference title hopes goodbye."
  • Jeff Eisenberg takes a step back to evaluate the leading contenders for coach of the year. Tony Bennett is the obvious favorite, but there have been plenty of sterling coaching performances -- both from conventional overachievers and unconventional but nonetheless laudable strategists (Kentucky's John Calipari, Oregon State's Wayne Tinkle).
  • How could an Ohio State cheerleader cost Indiana guard Robert Johnson minutes in what has been a standout freshman season? By leaving some sort of documentation strewn near the baseline during Indiana's 82-70 loss at OSU Sunday. "(There was) a red folder or papers that were laying close enough to the court, that he slipped on," Crean said on the Big Ten coaches teleconference Monday. "They were just laying there, when he finished his layup." Johnson tweaked his knee and had to leave the game. He tried to come back in the second half, but couldn't get right, and Crean isn't sure if he'll be ready for Wednesday's rivalry date with Purdue. Cheerleaders! Guys, we all know clutter happens, but come on. Let's try to respect each other's work spaces, OK? (Wait, who took my Diet Coke from the cubicle fridge?! Gary!!)
  • Michigan State was all set to make its first expedition into the Big Ten's recently annexed northeast territories Tuesday. Weather has since interfered. Well, not technically; the snowstorm currently freaking out much of the northeast corridor hasn't technically happened yet, but it's coming. People are being told to work from home, school is being cancelled, the works. The Spartans' Tuesday night trip to Rutgers is no exception.
  • I always go into any instance of Big Ten power rankings with an open mind. I am ready, you see, for someone to help me make sense of the Big Ten, of what still, at this late date, appears to be one really good team (Wisconsin), a handful of decent-but-flawed outfits, and a bunch of mediocrity. And every time, no matter the details or specific orders, that remains the only conclusion that can be drawn. What a weird league.

3-point shot: Weekly awards

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
Andy Katz hands out awards for the team and player of the week, and he recognizes a couple of big performances.