College Basketball Nation: Arkansas Razorbacks

SEC team previews

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
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From Sept. 30 through Oct. 25, Insider will be rolling out its college basketball preview, including breakdowns on every Division I team, projected order of finish for every conference and essays from Insider's hoops experts.

Here are previews for each team in the SEC:

Alabama Crimson Tide Insider
Arkansas Razorbacks Insider
Auburn Tigers Insider
Florida Gators Insider
Georgia Bulldogs Insider
Kentucky Wildcats Insider
LSU Tigers Insider
Mississippi State Bulldogs Insider
Missouri Tigers Insider
Ole Miss Rebels Insider
South Carolina Gamecocks Insider
Tennessee Volunteers Insider
Texas A&M Aggies (FREE)
Vanderbilt Commodores Insider

The 10 worst nonconference schedules

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
10:45
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Sometimes it’s smart to schedule soft. You’re a year or two into your job at a program that needs to be completely rebuilt. You want some easy wins early to develop confidence in your players and fan support/excitement for your team. So you construct a nonconference schedule filled mostly with patsies and vow to change your ways a few years down the road when things are on stable footing.

Makes total sense.

Thus, as we unveil our list of the 10 worst nonconference schedules in the country among the big boys, I can totally understand why a coach such as Mississippi State’s Rick Ray or TCU’s Trent Johnson devised a relatively weak slate. Others such as Mike Anderson at Arkansas and Jamie Dixon at Pittsburgh have no excuse.

Whatever the context, all of the schools on this list are high-major programs from the nine conferences that were part of this package and all 10 could’ve done better by at least adding another marquee game or two (schools listed in alphabetical order).

AIR FORCE

Toughest: Colorado (Nov. 30)
Next-toughest: Richmond (Nov. 27)
The rest: vs. Army (Nov. 8 in Lexington, Va.), vs. Citadel/VMI (Nov. 9 in Lexington, Va.), Jackson State (Nov. 14), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Nov. 17), Colorado Christian (Nov. 20), South Dakota (Dec. 5), Western State (Dec. 9), UC Riverside (Dec. 14), at UC Davis (Dec. 21)

Give the Falcons credit for scheduling a pair of quality opponents at home in Colorado and Richmond. But there really isn’t much else to get excited about here. Air Force’s only true road game is a Dec. 21 tilt at UC Davis. The rest of the schedule is abysmal, but Dave Pilipovich’s squad is in rebuilding mode, so this is actually a smart slate for this particular team.

ARKANSAS

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27)
Next-toughest: SMU (Nov. 18)
The rest: SIU-Edwardsville (Nov. 8), Louisiana (Nov. 15), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 3), Clemson (Dec. 7), Savannah State (Dec. 12), Tennessee-Martin (Dec. 19), South Alabama (Dec. 21), High Point (Dec. 28), Texas-San Antonio (Jan. 4)

This is one of the more embarrassing schedules on this list. If I'm ranking the top 10, Arkansas would probably be No. 2 or No. 3. Other than the Maui Invitational (the Razorbacks open against Cal and then play either Minnesota or Syracuse), there is not a single noteworthy game on this list. Arkansas is known for its tremendous fan support. Yet the best home game Mike Anderson can schedule for the Razorback faithful is a tilt with SMU? Inexcusable.

CLEMSON

Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24), at Arkansas (Dec. 7)
Next-toughest: South Carolina (Nov. 17)
The rest: Stetson (Nov. 8), Delaware State (Nov. 13), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 29), South Carolina State (Dec. 3), Furman (Dec. 14), at Auburn (Dec. 19), VMI (Dec. 30)

The Tigers will likely enter ACC play with a gaudy record, but they won’t have many quality wins on their résumé. Other than maybe a road tilt at Arkansas, there isn’t one noteworthy game on this schedule. Unless, of course, you count the Charleston Classic, but it doesn't have a particularly strong field this season. Brad Brownell’s team opens up with Temple and will face either Georgia or Davidson the following day. This is an incredibly weak slate. Luckily Clemson has a big-time football team that will hold fans’ attention until January.

HOUSTON

Toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Next-toughest: at Texas A&M (Dec. 4)
The rest: Texas State (Nov. 8), at UT-Pan American (Nov. 11), UT-San Antonio (Nov. 14), Lehigh (Nov. 17), Howard (Nov. 21), Texas-Corpus Christi (Nov. 30), San Jose State (Dec. 7), Alcorn State (Dec. 9), Louisiana-
Lafayette (Dec. 14), Rice (Dec. 21)

Four players on the Cougars' roster were ranked in the Top 100 of their respective high school class. In other words, there is way too much talent on Houston’s roster to be playing a schedule this weak. Playing Stanford (and either Pittsburgh or Texas Tech) at the Legends Classic is fine. But if UH wants to be taken seriously on a national level, it needs to add a few marquee games to its slate starting next season. The Cougars -- who won 20 games last season -- are in a big-boy conference now. They need to start scheduling like it.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Toughest: at Utah State (Nov. 23), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 19)
Next-toughest: Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
The rest: Prairie View A&M (Nov. 8), Kennesaw State (Nov. 14), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 19), Jackson State (Nov. 27), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 1), TCU (Dec. 5), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 13), Florida A&M (Dec. 17), Maryland Eastern Shore (Jan. 2)

The Bulldogs’ program was in shambles when Rick Ray took over prior to last season -- and things got even worse during the year thanks to a long list of suspensions and injuries. It got so bad that Ray had to use a graduate assistant in practice, until he tore his ACL. Somehow, Ray kept his players’ spirits up, and they managed to win a few games (including one against NCAA tournament team Ole Miss) near the end of the season. It was a phenomenal coaching job by Ray, but make no mistake, this program is still in full rebuilding mode, which is why this schedule makes sense. Whoever thought that Florida Gulf Coast would be the No. 1 home opponent on the nonconference schedule of a team from a major conference?

PITTSBURGH

Toughest: vs. Cincinnati (Dec. 17 in New York)
Next-toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Savannah State (Nov. 8), Fresno State (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 17), Lehigh (Nov. 20), Duquesne (Nov. 30), Penn State (Dec. 3), Loyola Marymount (Dec. 6), Youngstown State (Dec. 14), Cal Poly (Dec. 21), Albany (Dec. 31)

The Panthers aren’t doing much to prepare themselves for their first season in the ACC, which will easily be the nation’s toughest conference. When your marquee nonconference game is against Cincinnati -- and this is the only thing close to a marquee game on this schedule -- then you know you’ve got problems. The only other semi-decent opponents are Penn State in early December and then Texas Tech in the Legends Classic, with a game against either Stanford or Houston the following night. Pittsburgh lost some key players to graduation (Tray Woodall) and the NBA draft (Steven Adams). And J.J. Moore transferred to Rutgers. So this may be the perfect year for a weak slate. Still, considering how good Pitt has been over the years, this could be the worst schedule in America.

SETON HALL

Toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer (Nov. 22-23 in New York)
Next-toughest: at Rutgers (Dec. 8)
The rest: Niagara (Nov. 9), Kent State (Nov. 13), at Mercer (Nov. 16), Monmouth (Nov. 18), Fairleigh Dickinson (Dec. 1), LIU Brooklyn (Dec. 5), NJIT (Dec. 10), St. Peter’s (Dec. 14), Eastern Washington (Dec. 22), Lafayette (Dec. 27)

My colleague, Dana O’Neil, said it best about the Pirates in her analysis of nonconference schedules in the Big East: “If the Pirates beat Oklahoma in the Coaches vs. Cancer, they might face Michigan State. Or they might not. And that’s about all there is to like about this schedule.”

TCU

Toughest: vs. SMU (Nov. 8 in Dallas), at Washington State (Nov. 24)
Next-toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 27, 29-30), at Mississippi State (Dec. 5)
The rest: Longwood (Nov. 12), Abilene Christian (Nov. 19), Texas Pan-American (Dec. 15), Grambling State (Dec. 19), Tulsa (Dec. 21), Texas Southern (Dec. 29)

This would be a terrible schedule for a program that was experiencing a moderate amount of success. But considering TCU won just two Big 12 games last season, this is the perfect slate for the Horned Frogs as they try to rebuild. Second-year coach Trent Johnson didn’t schedule the type of Top 25 squads that will shatter his team's confidence. But he also didn't produce a schedule so weak that it wouldn’t challenge his team as it continues to grow. SMU could contend for an NCAA tournament berth and, even though Washington State has struggled in recent seasons, Pullman is a difficult place to play. Tulsa and Texas Southern are both solid teams, and Mississippi State was making huge strides at the end of last season.

TEXAS A&M

Toughest: Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30), vs. Oklahoma (Dec. 21 in Houston)
Next-toughest: Buffalo (Nov. 8)
The rest: Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 11), Rice (Nov. 15), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 19), Sam Houston State (Nov. 24), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Nov. 26), Houston (Dec. 4), McNeese State (Dec. 14), North Texas (Dec. 31), UTPA (Jan. 4)

I’m a little surprised that Billy Kennedy didn’t put together a tougher schedule for his third season. Granted, the Aggies lost two of their top players (Elston Turner and Ray Turner), so this team may take a small step back. But there’s not a single true road game on the nonconference schedule. The Aggies’ most daunting nonleague game is against an Oklahoma squad that probably won’t make the NCAA tournament. And their most appealing home contest is against Houston. Yay.

UTAH

Toughest: at Boise State (Dec. 3), BYU (Dec. 14)
Next-toughest: Fresno State (Dec. 7)
The rest: Evergreen State (Nov. 8), UC Davis (Nov. 15), Grand Canyon (Nov. 21), Lamar (Nov. 22), Savannah State (Nov. 23), Ball State (Nov. 27), Idaho State (Dec. 10), Texas State (Dec. 19), St. Katherine (Dec. 28)

After struggling for most of the season, Utah won four of its final five games last spring and entered the offseason full of enthusiasm about the 2013-14 campaign. Reaching the NCAA tournament, however, will be darn near impossible with a schedule that includes just one true road game (at Boise State) and only two contests against likely tourney-bid contenders (Boise State and BYU). Playing a weak schedule the past two seasons made sense. But the Utes should’ve stepped it up a bit this season.

Nonconference schedule analysis: SEC

September, 10, 2013
9/10/13
10:45
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This week, ESPN.com is breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation's top leagues. Next up: the SEC.

ALABAMA

Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 18-19, Nov. 27/29), Wichita State (Dec. 17), at UCLA (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: vs. Oklahoma (Nov. 8 in Dallas), Xavier (Dec. 21)
The rest: Texas Tech (Nov. 14), North Florida (Dec. 4), at South Florida (Dec. 7), Charleston Southern (Dec. 14), Robert Morris (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Trevor Releford will have to carry a lot of weight for Anthony Grant’s program this season, even though the Crimson Tide will add a couple of top-100 recruits. His backcourt mate Trevor Lacey transferred to NC State during the offseason. So the turbulence could come early for this program. The NIT Season Tip-Off presents a variety of challenging possibilities. Final Four contender Wichita State will be a handful even though the Shockers travel to Tuscaloosa in mid-December. A road game against Pac-12 contender UCLA in renovated Pauley Pavilion will be difficult for this rebuilding program, too. And the matchups with Oklahoma and Xavier could also be interesting challenges for Bama.

ARKANSAS

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27)
Next toughest: SMU (Nov. 18)
The rest: SIU-Edwardsville (Nov. 8), Louisiana (Nov. 15), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 3), Clemson (Dec. 7), Savannah State (Dec. 12), Tennessee-Martin (Dec. 19), South Alabama (Dec. 21), High Point (Dec. 28), Texas-San Antonio (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Arkansas could have been an SEC contender, but BJ Young and Marshawn Powell turned pro. Now, the program will rely on a roster that lost 35.1 PPG from last season. The Razorbacks are young and could feel the fire early. But not often. The Razorbacks open the Maui Invitational against Cal. From there, they could play Syracuse, Baylor or Gonzaga. But it’s more likely that they’ll be matched up against Minnesota in the second round and Dayton or Chaminade on the final day of the tournament. There’s really nothing else here. Larry Brown is building something at SMU, but the Mustangs probably aren’t ready for the Big Dance yet. Only thing holding up this nonconference schedule are a few unlikely matchups in Hawaii.

AUBURN

Toughest: at Iowa State (Dec. 2)
Next toughest: Illinois (Dec. 8), Boston College (Dec. 22)
The rest: Nicholls State (Nov. 8), Northwestern State (Nov. 15), Jacksonville State (Nov. 19), Murray State (Nov. 23), Tennessee State (Nov. 26), Clemson (Dec. 19), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Dec. 30), Florida A&M (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Did a bunch of SEC teams get together and wager on who could assemble the ugliest nonconference schedule? Seems like it. Tony Barbee’s program certainly doesn’t have the worst nonconference slate in the league, but it’s still not great. It’ll be tough to get out of Ames with a win when the Tigers travel to Iowa State in early December and Illinois is rebuilding but John Groce’s team should be tough in his second season. The matchup against Boston College in December will be interesting. Maybe. Auburn is not expected to be a top-half team in the SEC. So perhaps this nonconference arrangement makes sense. To someone.

FLORIDA

Toughest: at Wisconsin (Nov. 12), at UConn (Dec. 2), Kansas (Dec. 10), Memphis (Dec. 17)
Next toughest: Florida State (Nov. 29)
The rest: North Florida (Nov. 8), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 16), Southern (Nov. 18), Middle Tennessee (Nov. 21), at Jacksonville (Nov. 25), Savannah State (Dec. 9), Fresno State (Dec. 21), Richmond (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- This nonconference schedule is a beast. Billy Donovan’s program might be the only legitimate obstacle in Kentucky’s path to the SEC crown and the Gators will face a variety of contenders before they collide with Kentucky and the rest of the league. The Kansas matchup could move Florida into a top-five ranking or higher if it gets the win. And it won’t be much fun to play at UConn, a team that boasts one of the nation’s top backcourts. Josh Pastner reloaded at Memphis. And Wisconsin and Middle Tennessee shouldn’t be overlooked in another difficult nonconference slate for a national title contender.

GEORGIA

Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24)
Next toughest: at Colorado (Dec. 28)
The rest: Wofford (Nov. 8), Georgia Tech (Nov. 15), Appalachian State (Nov. 29), Chattanooga (Dec. 2), Lipscomb (Dec. 14), Gardner-Webb (Dec. 19), Western Carolina (Dec. 21), at George Washington (Jan. 3)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- If Georgia beats Davidson in the opening round of the Charleston Classic, the Bulldogs could move on to face Temple then New Mexico in the championship. But that’s far from a guarantee for a team that lost lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the NBA. The possibility, however, certainly helps. A road game against a Colorado squad that could steal the spotlight from Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-12 will be a challenge for Mark Fox’s squad in late December. Georgia Tech (Nov. 15) returns most of its top players from last season. Not exactly a gauntlet but enough challenges for a team hoping to stay out of the SEC’s basement.

KENTUCKY

Toughest: vs. Michigan State (Nov. 12 in Chicago), at North Carolina (Dec. 14), Louisville (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Baylor (Dec. 6 in Arlington, Texas), vs. Providence (Dec. 1 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), Boise State (Dec. 10)
The rest: UNC-Asheville (Nov. 8), Northern Kentucky (Nov. 10), Robert Morris (Nov. 17), Texas-Arlington (Nov. 19), Cleveland State (Nov. 25), Eastern Michigan (Nov. 27), Belmont (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Is there a rating higher than 10? John Calipari is not going to bring his highly touted recruiting class to Division I basketball with an easy introduction. Just the opposite, in fact. If Kentucky gets through this slate, then the Wildcats will more than justify the hype. They’ll face Michigan State, a team that’s certainly in the national title preseason conversation, in Chicago in early November. They play at Chapel Hill in mid-December. And then, the reigning champ, Louisville, comes to Lexington on Dec. 28. Oh, Baylor and Boise State -- who should both be in the preseason top 25 -- will be thirsty for an upset. The only knock against this lineup is that it features only one true road game. Still, good luck, youngsters.

LSU

Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next toughest: at UMass (Nov. 12)
The rest: Northwestern State (Nov. 16), New Orleans (Nov. 19), Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 22), UL-Monroe (Dec. 14), at Texas Tech (Dec. 18), UAB (Dec. 21), McNeese State (Dec. 28), Rhode Island (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- In his first season, Johnny Jones went 19-12 with an LSU squad that should be much better this season. Johnny O’Bryant III (15 double-doubles) is back and nationally ranked recruits Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey will give the Tigers one of the best frontcourts in the SEC and, possibly, the nation. LSU’s opening slate, however, is only so-so. Too many subpar opponents. The Old Spice Classic, however, could change that. The Tigers could face both Memphis and Oklahoma State if they get past Saint Joseph’s in the opening round. But those matchups aren’t guaranteed. A road game against Atlantic 10 contender UMass in early November is worth mentioning. The rest of the nonconference schedule? Not so much.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Toughest: at Utah State (Nov. 23), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 19)
Next toughest: Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
The rest: Prairie View A&M (Nov. 8), Kennesaw State (Nov. 14), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 19), Jackson State (Nov. 27), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 1), TCU (Dec. 5), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 13), Florida A&M (Dec. 17), Maryland Eastern Shore (Jan. 2)

Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Last season, Rick Ray’s program was so depleted by injuries, suspensions and departures that he had to use a graduate assistant in practice. And then, the G.A. tore an ACL. It was an unlucky debut for the rookie head coach. Well, the Bulldogs’ early challenges will be limited in 2013-14. A December meeting with last season’s Cinderella, Florida Gulf Coast, could be their toughest nonconference game. It’s never easy to steal a win on the road against Utah State and UNLV might be waiting for the Bulldogs -- if they beat South Florida in the first round -- in the Las Vegas Classic. Not breathtaking but that might be the right fit for this program as it prepares for another challenging season.

MISSOURI

Toughest: UCLA (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Illinois (Dec. 21), at NC State (Dec. 28)
The rest: Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 8), Southern Illinois (Nov. 12), Hawaii (Nov. 16), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 23), IUPUI (Nov. 25), Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29), West Virginia (Dec. 5), Western Michigan (Dec. 15), Long Beach State (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Frank Haith’s program lost four key players from last season’s underachieving squad, including point guard Phil Pressey. Once again, Haith’s team will have to rebuild chemistry with veterans (Earnest Ross, Jabari Brown) blending with newcomers (a nationally ranked recruiting class). Well, they won’t face much adversity early in the process. Their toughest nonconference opponent, UCLA, travels to Columbia. Rival Illinois will enter 2013-14 with a brand-new roster and limited experience. Other than that? Not much. Games against Northwestern and Nevada in the Las Vegas Invitational are lackluster. Perhaps NC State’s young studs will make a Dec. 28 clash against the Tigers interesting. Not much to get excited about, though.

OLE MISS

Toughest: Oregon (Dec. 8 )
Next toughest: Barclays Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), at Kansas State (Dec. 5)
The rest: Troy (Nov. 8), at Coastal Carolina (Nov. 16), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 22), North Carolina A&T (Nov. 26), Middle Tennessee State (Dec. 14), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 18), Mercer (Dec. 22), at Western Kentucky (Dec. 30), Dayton (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Ole Miss’ offseason has been all about Marshall Henderson, who was suspended indefinitely for reportedly failing a drug test. He could return at some point this season, and if he does, he might have to be better than he was a year ago with Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner gone. The good news for the Rebels is that they won’t have many tests before SEC play. Oregon is probably their toughest nonconference matchup and the Ducks have to replace some talented players from last season. Games against Georgia Tech and (potentially) St. John’s in Brooklyn probably won’t help much on Selection Sunday and a road game against Kansas State would be more interesting if Angel Rodriguez hadn’t transferred to Miami.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Toughest: at Baylor (Nov. 12), Oklahoma State (Dec. 6)
Next toughest: Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
The rest: Longwood (Nov. 9), at Clemson (Nov. 17), Florida International (Nov. 24), Manhattan (Dec. 17), USC Upstate (Dec. 19), Akron (Dec. 28), Marshall (Dec. 30), South Carolina State (Jan. 3)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- When he’s not listening to the latest Pitbull hit, Frank Martin is trying to enhance the South Carolina program. That task seemed nearly impossible prior to his arrival, but he’s building. The Gamecocks will take a multitude of losses with seven freshmen on the roster in 2013-14, but a year from now, they could surge up the SEC standings. As for this season … a road game against Baylor could be an unpleasant “Welcome to college basketball” moment for South Carolina’s youngsters. Oklahoma State might beat Martin’s squad by 30 or more in early December. The Diamond Head Classic features some talented potential opponents (Iowa State, Boise State), but the Gamecocks might not move past Saint Mary’s in the opening round.

TENNESSEE

Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), at Wichita State (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Xavier (Nov. 12), NC State (Dec. 18), Virginia (Dec. 30)
The rest: USC Upstate (Nov. 16), The Citadel (Nov. 18), Tennessee State (Nov. 22), Tennessee Tech (Dec. 7), Morehead State (Dec. 23), Tusculum (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Cuonzo Martin will guide one of the league’s -- and nation’s -- sleepers in 2013-14. Yes, the Vols could contend for the SEC title. But a win over something called Tusculum in early January won’t prove much. Ditto for matchups against The Citadel and USC Upstate. But the Vols could meet Kansas in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game. To get there, however, they’ll have to go through UTEP and then they’ll have to beat either Xavier or fellow sleeper Iowa. They’ll also travel to Xavier prior to the tournament. And it’s never easy to get a win over the Musketeers in Cincy. Virginia is stacked. And a road game against a Wichita State squad seeking revenge from a loss in Knoxville last season will be a major challenge for Martin’s program.

TEXAS A&M

Toughest: Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30), vs. Oklahoma (Dec. 21 in Houston)
Next toughest: Buffalo (Nov. 8)
The rest: Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 11), Rice (Nov. 15), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 19), Sam Houston State (Nov. 24), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Nov. 26), Houston (Dec. 4), McNeese State (Dec. 14), North Texas (Dec. 31), UTPA (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 1 -- This is just bad. Again. The Aggies didn’t have many obstacles during their nonconference season in 2012-13. That trend will continue in 2013-14. Ugh. An Oklahoma squad that probably won’t make the NCAA tournament is their toughest scheduled nonconference game. No. 2? Probably a matchup against a Buffalo team that will be led by new coach Bobby Hurley. Sure, the Aggies -- who lost standouts Elston Turner and Ray Turner -- could earn a game against Virginia in the Corpus Christi Challenge if they survive an opening-round meeting with Missouri State. That, however, is not enough to save this disappointing nonconference slate.

VANDERBILT

Toughest: Saint Louis (Dec. 30)
Next toughest: at Butler (Nov. 19), Paradise Jam (Nov. 22-25), at Texas (Dec. 2)
The rest: Georgia State (Nov. 12), Lipscomb (Nov. 15), Marshall (Dec. 5), Austin Peay (Dec. 17), Georgia Tech (Dec. 21), Northeastern (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The bad news is that Vanderbilt is a mess right now. Top scorer Kedren Johnson and three other players from last season’s squad will not be available for the 2013-14 season. Even worse? The Commodores could enter the SEC campaign with multiple losses and little confidence. Atlantic 10 contender Saint Louis could do a lot of damage when it visits in late December. Butler has a new staff and no Roosevelt Jones, but Hinkle Fieldhouse will still be a crazy atmosphere that the Commodores will be asked to overcome in mid-November. They’ll open the Paradise Jam against Providence and subsequent matchups against La Salle and Maryland/Northern Iowa are possible. Texas lost a chunk of its roster, too. But the Longhorns can certainly beat this incomplete Vandy team at home. This could be an ugly nonconference season for Kevin Stallings’ program.

Bracket reveal: Maui Invitational

July, 17, 2013
7/17/13
10:50
AM ET
Editor's note: Over two days, we're releasing the brackets/matchups for 11 of the top early-season events. A thread of previews and info for all 11 tourneys can be found here.

Tournament bracket for the EA Sports Maui Invitational

When and where: Nov. 25-27 at the Lahaina Civic Center in Maui, Hawaii

Initial thoughts: The 2012 EA Sports Maui Invitational will be tough to top.

Chaminade’s stunning annihilation of Texas ... Rotnei Clarke’s buzzer-beater to lift Butler past Marquette ... North Carolina’s uncharacteristic display of mediocrity ... Illinois players hoisting the championship trophy after winning three games by an average of 23.3 points. Each game brought a new storyline.

This year’s event could provide similar drama. Although there is only one preseason top-10 team (Syracuse) in the bracket, the 2013 field is far from weak. Gonzaga spent time as the nation’s No. 1 team last season, Cal and Minnesota made the NCAA tournament, and Baylor won the NIT championship.

Each of those teams (with Baylor being the possible exception) should take a small step back this season, but all of them will still be solid and contend for NCAA tournament berths. In other words, there’s not a dud in this bunch, which leads me to believe that almost every game in this year’s event will be entertaining and competitive.

[+] EnlargeAndre Hollins
Kevin Jairaj/US PresswireMinnesota will be counting on Andre Hollins to provide a scoring punch again this season.
Matchup I can’t wait to see: Minnesota vs. Syracuse. Event organizers couldn’t ask for anything better than a first-round game pitting two of the biggest names in coaching: Pitino and Boeheim. Ha-ha. Gotcha. This isn’t Hall of Famer Rick Pitino we’re talking about. Instead it’ll be his son, Richard, coaching for Minnesota against Jim Boeheim’s Orange. Richard is in his first season with the Gophers after being plucked from Florida International to replace Tubby Smith. Minnesota lost two of its best players (forwards Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams) to graduation, but guards Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins return in the backcourt and may be able to make this game competitive, especially since Syracuse is replacing a few key parts as well.

Potential matchup I’d like to see: Baylor vs. Gonzaga. Baylor shouldn’t have any problems beating Chaminade in the opening round and advancing to the semifinals against either Gonzaga or Dayton. The Flyers are always pesky, but I still think Gonzaga wins that game. Baylor and Gonzaga have faced off in two of the past three seasons, with Gonzaga winning both times by single digits. But I’d pick the Bears in this one. The Zags lost their top two post players (Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris), and Baylor’s strength is in the paint with Cory Jefferson, Isaiah Austin, Ricardo Gathers, Taurean Prince and Royce O’Neale. Gonzaga boasts one of the country’s top point guards in Kevin Pangos while Baylor is searching for a replacement at that position following the graduation of Big 12 scoring leader Pierre Jackson. Still, Baylor’s overall depth in the backcourt is strong with experienced players such as Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin there to guide newcomers like Ishmail Wainright, Kenny Chery and Allerik Freeman.

Five players to watch

Justin Cobbs, Cal: Transfers are hit and miss, but things couldn’t have worked out any better when Cobbs left Minnesota for Cal a few years ago. The athletic guard averaged 15.1 points and 4.8 assists a game as a junior last season. He’ll be asked to do even more following the departure of leading scorer Allen Crabbe to the NBA.

Tyler Ennis, Syracuse: Returning standouts C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant are more recognizable names, but no player in the Maui Invitational will be under as much scrutiny as Ennis, the freshman point guard who has been tabbed to replace NBA lottery pick Michael Carter-Williams. How Syracuse fares in the ACC and, ultimately, the postseason will depend heavily on how Ennis performs in his first season of college basketball.

Andre Hollins, Minnesota: Hollins led the Gophers in scoring last season with 14.6 points per game. His 41-point effort in a victory over Memphis in the Battle 4 Atlantis was one of the top performances in college basketball all season. He should combine with Austin Hollins (no relation) to give Minnesota one of the more formidable backcourts in the Maui field. The biggest issue for the Gophers will be finding scoring down low.

Cory Jefferson, Baylor: The Bears power forward is fresh off a breakthrough season in which he averaged 13.3 points and eight rebounds a game. Jefferson was particularly effective in the postseason, when he averaged 21.2 points over a five-game stretch to lead Baylor to the NIT championship. The freakishly athletic Jefferson will combine with the 7-foot Austin and a bruiser in Gathers to give Baylor one of the nation’s top frontcourts.

Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga: A point guard, Pangos ranked third on the Zags in scoring last season with 11.9 points per game and averaged a team-high 3.3 assists. He shot just 42 percent from the field, a number that will need to increase this season. The loss of leading scorers Olynyk and Harris (who combined to average 32.4 PPG) means that Pangos will likely be asked to score at a higher rate.

Title game prediction: Syracuse over Baylor

Baylor has the size, depth, talent and experience to hang with Syracuse, and winning the championship of such an elite tournament would be a huge momentum boost for a squad loaded with potential. Syracuse, though, is an incredibly difficult team to prepare for on short notice because of its unorthodox style. Even though they lost Carter-Williams, James Southerland and Brandon Triche, the Orange aren’t short on experience, depth or talent either. Fair averaged a team-high 14.5 points and seven rebounds a game for a team that reached the Final Four last spring. Grant showed flashes of brilliance when his minutes increased during Southerland’s suspension, and DaJuan Coleman, Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita are poised for breakthrough seasons. They’ve proved they can excel at the highest level. Look for Syracuse to win an entertaining championship game.

Who others are picking:

Eamonn Brennan: Baylor over Syracuse
Jeff Goodman: Gonzaga over Syracuse
Andy Katz: Syracuse over Gonzaga
Myron Medcalf: Syracuse over Baylor
Dana O'Neil: Syracuse over Baylor

Kansas picks up Hunter Mickelson

April, 26, 2013
4/26/13
11:45
AM ET
In 2011, when Hunter Mickelson committed to John Pelphrey at Arkansas, he was highly regarded. He was the No. 8-ranked power forward in the class, the No. 55-ranked overall player, and a key part of the recruiting class that was supposed to save Pelphrey's job. It didn't. When Mike Anderson took over, there was some question where Mickelson would fit within "40 Minutes of Hell," whether he was the type of player that could really excel in Anderson's run-and-gun system.

He didn't and now he's transferring. And, to paraphase the immortal words of Jon Lovitz in "The Wedding Singer," Kansas is reaping the benefits.

Mickelson announced his decision to transfer to Lawrence Thursday afternoon, ending a pretty brief examination period during which he considered a handful of schools, Butler most seriously. But you can't fault the decision either way, and you have to think Mickelson could be a really nice addition for the Jayhawks.

Sure, he averaged just 5.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 16.6 minutes a game last season, with an offensive rating of just 97.0 and decent, but unspectacular, rebounding rates on both ends. Those aren't high-impact, elite-transfer type numbers. But it's entirely possible that Mickelson was simply lost on a team and in a style of play that didn't fit him. That was the consensus during his departure which was amicable as it gets, by all accounts). He could still be scratching the surface. Oh, and in case you hadn't noticed, Bill Self's staff at Kansas tends to make players better. Like, every player.

And even if none of that is true, Mickelson is a good defender and a great shot-blocker. He finished with a 13.5 percent block rate as a freshman, which took a dive last season (to a still-very-respective 8.2 percent); he once went 20 games in a row with at least one blocked shot. Even if that's all you get from him, fine, right? Plenty of coaches would take it.

Memphis forward Tarik Black has taken over the transfer circuit this season, because everyone wants a big, physical, veteran big. If Black is desirable enough to earn the affections of the nation's best, by 2013-14 Mickelson might just be the steal of the summer.

Saddle Up: Indiana wants it all

March, 5, 2013
3/05/13
12:27
PM ET
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.

Arkansas at Missouri, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

Every now and then, you hear someone characterize Missouri as a team that can't go on the road. This is not entirely unfair -- the Tigers are 2-7 in true road games this season, their only real road victories coming at Mississippi State and South Carolina, while seven of their eight total losses have come at UCLA, Florida, Ole Miss, LSU, Texas A&M, Arkansas and, most recently, Kentucky. It is difficult to overrate the importance of home-court advantage during the college hoops regular season; it has a real, measurable impact on teams' performances. But it would be doubly hard to do so with this Missouri team.

However, my question is this: Does being a good road team really matter? This has long been the argument of teams whose nonconference schedules include nary a true road game. The NCAA tournament isn't played on the road. It is played at neutral sites, and Missouri was pretty good there -- 3-1, to be exact, with wins over VCU, Illinois and Stanford, and a loss to Louisville. The point is, if you're preparing to either pick or discard Missouri in your NCAA tournament bracket, you're probably better off doing so because of its fundamentals -- because you love all that talent on the offensive end, with Phil Pressey running the show, or because you question whether the SEC's eighth-best defense (1.005 points per trip) is good enough to get the job done in March -- not because Missouri is bad on the road, even if it is.

Anyway, that's an aside. The Tigers are at home Tuesday night, which makes bubble-bound Arkansas' job all the more difficult. But it also makes the stakes much higher. Having already beaten the Tigers in Fayetteville, BJ Young & Co. have a chance to notch a sweep over a surefire NCAA tournament team. That isn't a chief selection criteria, of course -- Arkansas' own 1-8 road record is a factor, as is a 6-9 mark against the top 100 and some pretty ugly computer numbers (RPI: 75; SOS: 79, noncon SOS: 116) -- but having a sweep of Missouri to add to wins over Florida and Oklahoma can't hurt. Big, big road test for the Hogs. If not now, when?

No. 14 Ohio State at No. 2 Indiana, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

You might be asking: Hey, what's the big deal? When Trey Burke swiped the Artist Formerly Known as Keith Appling on Wednesday and helped seal Michigan's win over Michigan State, Indiana's redemptive work was essentially done: The Hoosiers are Big Ten champions. Sure, they were guaranteed just a share of the conference title, and there were two Big Ten games left to play, but conference titles are shared all the time. It doesn't diminish the accomplishment. It's a big deal. Cue the celebration, right?

Not so much. From the Bloomington Herald-Times' Dustin Dopirak:
Tom Crean watched the end of the Michigan-Michigan State on Sunday in his office while the assistants and strength coach Je'Ney Jackson were getting the squad warmed up for practice. When he walked downstairs to Cook Hall, he informed his charges that for the first time in a decade, and after a taxing five-year rebuilding process, they were Big Ten champions. [...]
But what said a lot to him about his team was what happened next -- practice kept going without much of a hitch. They showed they were pleased, but then they moved on.
“It’s something that we’ve been working for all year, so it’s obviously exciting for us,” IU sophomore center Cody Zeller said. “But it’s only a share of the Big Ten championship. We were right back to work to getting this win tomorrow night and having it all to ourselves.”

Dustin's isn't a story about Indiana taking its accomplishments in stride but looking ahead to bigger and better things, the type of which you hear often about likely No. 1 seeds at this stage of the season. This is a story about Indiana very specifically wanting to seal the outright conference title, about wanting to go down as the first Indiana team in 20 years -- since 1993 -- to sit alone atop the Big Ten at the end of a hard-fought regular season. It's also about providing a righteous senior night send-off to Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls (as well as forward Derek Elston). Hulls, a Bloomington native, was a Hoosier before he was born; Watford, Tom Crean's first prized recruit, chose to attend Indiana and try to rebuild it after the worst season in the program's history. There have been ups and downs, but those three players have come out on the other side and have already been part of a couple of the most successful Indiana teams in decades. And they still have time to do so much more.

There are plenty of other reasons this is going to be a great game -- Ohio State is playing some of its best basketball of the season at the right time, and its perimeter defense might be just the thing to slow Indiana's attack. Aaron Craft could occasionally draw Victor Oladipo on the wing, which would be fascinating to watch. Neither of these coaches or programs or fan bases seems to like the other all that much -- and watching Indiana go for its first outright conference title in 20 years probably doesn't seem like much. Fair enough. But you better believe IU fans disagree.

Elsewhere: Two big bubble games worth keeping an eye on tonight: Alabama at Ole Miss and Boise State at UNLV. UNLV is the only safe tournament team of the bunch; everyone else needs a win. The rest of the slate looks like mostly mismatches, but, well, by now you don't need me to warn you of how quickly such evenings can go haywire. At this point, it's practically a guarantee.
In addition to plenty of just-plain-great games -- Louisville's win at Syracuse, Marquette's big home win over Notre Dame, that amazing Duke-Miami thriller at Cameron Indoor Stadium -- Saturday was also filled with bubble action, from the start of the day to its finish.

That's typical, of course; this is the time of year when NCAA tournament at-large selection very rapidly shifts from the theoretical to the concrete. What isn't so typical is the level of carnage wrought on this Saturday, the sheer number of teams with bubble hopes that suffered losses -- some of them devastating.

How do I know Saturday was a bubble massacre? Your Tennessee Volunteers -- a new bubble entity this week after their victory over Florida -- managed to lose at Georgia (RPI: 142), 78-68, and, according to our own Joe Lunardi, moved into the bracket. Yeah. That happened.

That is one of the things worth remembering about the bubble, of course: It's all relative. We need to get to 68 teams somehow. And if everyone falls apart, maybe, in the end, no one does.

Here is your Saturday Bubble Watch update:

WINNERS

Creighton: For months, Creighton had no place in the bubble conversation. It was assumed, and not unfairly so, that the Bluejays and star forward Doug McDermott would rather effortlessly coast through Missouri Valley Conference play, maybe suffer an upset or two, and not have to worry much or at all about locking up an at-large bid in case Arch Madness proves to be exactly that.

And then things came apart. Creighton dropped a game at Drake. McDermott's scoring dried up in a hard fall at Indiana State, which was followed by a close home loss to Illinois State and a 61-54 upset at Northern Iowa. The Bluejays barely got past Evansville -- a fourth straight loss would have started a major panic -- and last Saturday's trip to Moraga, Calif., for a BracketBusters matchup with Saint Mary's didn't go so well, either. All of a sudden, Creighton, a lock in our Bubble Watch since the month-old first edition, was at semi-serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament.

Its fans can breathe easier now. McDermott's 15-of-18 shooting, 41-point masterpiece led the Bluejays to a 91-79 win over Wichita State -- another surefire tournament team in its own right -- Saturday afternoon. If there was any doubt in the selection committee's mind, having your All-American reclaim his status with a Bill Walton-esque shooting performance over the best competition your league has to offer should just about shore everything up. Finally.

Boise State: Boise State will be just as thrilled about the aforementioned Bluejays' big win -- all season, Boise State's best bubble credential has been its surprising late-November win at Creighton. That win looks much better now.

But Boise State should mostly thank itself, and by "itself," I mean Derrick Marks. Marks had a McDermott-like day: 38 points on 13 of 18 from the field with 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. Most important is he did it in a 78-65 win over Colorado State, a top-20 RPI team and a very good one to boot. (It's worth making a distinction, as teams ranked in the top 20 in the RPI aren't always actually good, but CSU definitely is.) Marks put his team on his back, to steal a phrase from that awesome Marshawn Lynch YouTube video, and the combination of a win over Colorado State and Creighton's big win will put Boise back into the serious at-large conversation -- the fifth team from the nine-team Mountain West to deserve such talk.

Oklahoma: The Sooners snuck up on us this season. It's OK to admit it: No one really expected much in Lon Kruger's second year in Norman, and if there was any expectation at all, it was to keep getting better and maybe surprise a few people in an otherwise-down Big 12. But Kruger's group of unheralded, workmanlike guys has done much more than that. By now, the Sooners have all but locked up an NCAA tournament bid. Sure, sure: There was that loss at Texas earlier in the week, but Oklahoma's convincing win over bubble-stuck Iowa State on Saturday was huge, and the Sooners' computer numbers -- a No. 29 RPI, a No. 9-ranked SOS, a No. 28 nonconference schedule figure -- and big wins over Kansas and Oklahoma State make them impossible to ignore. They have West Virginia and TCU left. If they handle business, they're in.

Massachusetts: It is worth noting, of course, that even after beating Memphis at home this week, Xavier's RPI is still just No. 87. It is also worth noting that the Minutemen's only top-50 win came at La Salle, which, while a decent team, is nobody's idea of a season-defining power. But even after noting all that, we should also note that UMass won at Xavier on Saturday, something the touted Memphis Tigers were unable to do just a few days prior. That definitely counts for something. With a home game against Butler next on the docket, Derek Kellogg's team still has time to make some noise — or at least reverse the damage of last week's loss at St. Bonaventure.

Arkansas: So, what's a home win over Kentucky worth these days, anyway? It's a good question: The Wildcats beat Missouri in their own building just seven days ago, but that's their only top-50 win of the season, and it's safe to say the selection committee won't hold John Calipari's team in vaunted regard with injured forward Nerlens Noel out. So it's hard to know how much this victory can aid Arkansas' late push toward the bubble finish line. But I do know this: It can't hurt. On a day when so much of the rest of the bubble, particularly the SEC versions, seemed intent on imploding, a win over a fellow bubble team counts as a totally positive development. (A win at Missouri on Tuesday would be even better.)

California: Hey, remember when Cal was kind of bad? It happened this season, I swear it did -- it was just Dec. 29 when a depleted Harvard toppled the Bears in Berkeley, after all. You can be forgiven if you don't quite remember, because it hasn't been the case for weeks. On Saturday, Cal rattled off its seventh consecutive win, a 62-46 destruction of visiting Colorado. This stretch began with a win at Arizona and included a home victory over UCLA and a win at Oregon. With no bad losses weighing them down, I'm not sure how the Bears could miss out on the tournament now.

UCLA: The Bruins completed their season sweep of Arizona Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA wasn't really on the bubble -- not like some of these other poor, desperate souls -- but even so, it's safe to say sweeping the Wildcats makes you a lock. This file is officially closed.

LOSERS

Kentucky, Tennessee, and — gulp — Ole Miss: Does anyone from the SEC actually want to go to the NCAA tournament? Is everybody already thinking about spring football? What on Earth is going on?

We talked about Kentucky in the Arkansas blurb; the Wildcats remain one of the more intriguing at-large cases for the committee to handle, but I'm not sure their status as a just-above-the-bubble squad was totally damaged by a loss at Arkansas. And Tennessee, as we mentioned in the intro, managed to lose at Georgia and still move into the bracket. Wait, what? Huh? How does that happen?

[+] EnlargeAndy Kennedy
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsAndy Kennedy has seen Ole Miss turn a 17-2 start into a 21-8 mark after Saturday's ugly loss.
The answer brings us to Ole Miss.

On Saturday, Ole Miss lost to Mississippi State. It's a little bit difficult to explain how bad this loss is without sounding a little bit mean to the Bulldogs, but I don't live in the South, so I don't have to couch my insults with the written equivalent of "Bless your heart": Mississippi State is horrible. Awful. The Bulldogs were riding a 13-game losing streak, to no real fault of theirs or their coach's, as -- thanks to injuries and being at the start of a rebuilding process -- Rick Ray has just seven scholarship players at his command this season. Mississippi State's RPI is No. 236. It began Saturday ranked No. 277 in the KenPom.com efficiency rankings, just one spot below mighty Samford. Many fans believe this to be not only the worst Mississippi State team, but the worst Southeastern Conference team of all time.

That team beat Ole Miss on March 2.

Not only is it a disaster for the Rebels, who have lost in recent weeks at Texas A&M and South Carolina and have turned a 17-2 start into a 21-8 mess, it's also a disaster for coach Andy Kennedy, who began the season on the proverbial hot seat and needed this Ole Miss team to be the redeemed group that got back to the NCAA tournament. It looks less likely than ever that is going to happen. And why? Mississippi State. It doesn't get much worse than that.

Arizona State: Speaking of stalled redemption songs, it's been hard to not root this season for the Sun Devils, who soaked up freshman point guard Jahii Carson's dynamic skill like a sponge en route to a very legitimate spot in the at-large conversation, a far cry from the depths of the let's-just-pretend-it-never-happened 2012 campaign. But Herb Sendek's team appears to be fading a bit late: It fell at home to Washington last Saturday, missed a close one at UCLA on Thursday, and suffered an absolutely brutal 57-56 loss at USC on Saturday. The Washington loss was easily the worst, but because USC began the season so poorly (before it fired coach Kevin O'Neill), a one-point loss looks worse for bubble purposes than it actually is (as USC has been playing really good basketball for about a month). Just tough breaks here.

St. John's: This week, the Red Storm suspended D'Angelo Harrison, one of its most gifted and frustrating players. Whether that departure can be blamed for Saturday's loss is questionable; what I do know is a loss at Providence for a team with an already very shaky bubble case is not a good thing. You probably know that, too. Failing two wins in its final two regular-season games -- at Notre Dame, versus Marquette, good luck -- Steve Lavin's team may well miss the tournament.

Iowa State: Poor Cyclones. Really. Sure, Saturday's 86-69 loss at Oklahoma was ugly on the score line, but a) Oklahoma's good, and b) can you really blame Iowa State? After what happened in Hilton Coliseum this week? Being on the receiving end of one of the worst calls of the season -- in a sport that feels ever more infected by awful officiating -- hurts. Not beating Kansas when you should following an emotionally intense performance. Seeing Fred Hoiberg's young child crying on the sideline hurts. Of course, no one in that locker room will be throwing a pity party, nor should they: Iowa State still has a very good chance of getting into the Dance. But the Wednesday home game against Oklahoma State looms large.

Indiana State: Ah, Sycamores. You thrilled us with your win over Miami at the Diamond Head Classic; you dazzled us with victories at Wichita State and against Creighton. Unfortunately, you've now lost five of your past six, including Saturday's loss at Evansville (RPI: 100) and defeats to Missouri State (RPI: 212), Bradley (RPI: 171) and Drake (RPI: 131). Failing a deep run in Arch Madness, the dream appears to be over.

Akron: Before Saturday's shocking loss at Buffalo, a 12-17 team with an RPI of 241, Akron's last loss came on Dec. 15. Hopefully the committee takes that into account, because this really is a good team. But the margin for error for mid-majors like Akron is always razor-thin. You can't lose random league games to bad opponents, and when you do, you should probably pick a team that isn't Buffalo. It'll be really interesting to see how this résumé will be viewed going forward.

SURVIVORS

Temple: Temple had just regained its footing. The Owls had a rough, wild February, wherein they played five consecutive one-point games in conference play, a stretch that included a home loss to Duquesne. But things were looking up: A win at UMass, a home non-one-point-win over La Salle, a double-digit win at Charlotte, and Thursday's solid home victory over Detroit all injected a little life into an at-large profile that included a big win over Syracuse, a nice win over Saint Louis, and not much else. And surely the Owls would take care of things at home against Rhode Island on Saturday, right? Wait … right?

Right. Phew. Temple held on for a 76-70 victory over a Rhode Island team that has played a lot of its Atlantic 10 foes really tight in the past two months; shaking the Rams off is no easy feat. (Just ask Saint Louis, which last lost when Rhody upset the Billikens in Saint Louis. True story.) That Temple was able to do so must have elicited a major sigh of relief from fans, and coach Fran Dunphy, and not necessarily in that order.

Cincinnati: It's hard to say Cincinnati would have been in bubble trouble with a home loss to Connecticut on Saturday, but our eyebrows would have been ever so slightly raised. It would have been Cincinnati's fourth straight loss, after all, albeit to three solid-to-great (UConn, Notre Dame, Georgetown) Big East teams. The Bearcats held on for a five-point win over Kevin Ollie's scrappy guys, and there's little reason to raise eyebrows now.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Alabama: When you're a bubble team in the SEC -- oh god, here we go again -- you don't get many opportunities for marquee wins. Missouri is decent but not great, whether in the RPI or otherwise. Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Ole Miss don't come anywhere close. (Obviously.) Really, your only opportunity to drastically change the perception of your team or the trajectory of your season -- or both -- is to beat Florida. Florida's really good. If you can knock the Gators off, you deserve to be viewed differently. If you can do it at Florida? You should probably get into the NCAA tournament on sheer principle, which is why Alabama's 12-point loss in Gainesville on Saturday, while expected, is still a missed opportunity: Shockingly enough, the Crimson Tide had Florida well within striking distance as late as the final two minutes of regulation. That final score is a mirage; this game was close, and Alabama just couldn't quite get there when it counted.

Baylor: It's been easy to poke fun at Baylor this season. The Bears play a wacky zone defense. They've probably underachieved. Those uniforms. Etc. But I refuse to make fun of Baylor after Saturday's absolutely brutal last-second loss. It would be easier than ever. The Bears did inbound the ball out of bounds over the the full length of the court without touching it with one second left, and then allowed Rodney McGruder to get free and fire a game-winning 3-pointer within that one second on the ensuing baseline out-of-bounds play. That's a borderline-comical way to lose. But it's also incredibly brutal.

That is, of course, in part because Baylor desperately needed a big win to buttress its bubble case; the Bears are directly atop the bubble right now, and the biggest flaw in their résumé is their lack of marquee wins. The visit from Kansas State was a plum opportunity to knock off a really good team with a really good résumé, and Baylor was just that close.

"Ouch" doesn't even begin to describe it.
This will be tonight's final look unless Rutgers upsets Georgetown. How wild was the day on the bubble? So many teams near the cut line lost that Tennessee was actually bumped into the Last Four In category despite losing at Georgia. (Note to Boise State fans: Don't worry about the omission. The Broncos' win against Colorado State tonight was impressive enough to move BSU "above" the Last Four In category.

TOP SEEDS
Indiana/MIDWEST
Gonzaga/WEST
Kansas/EAST
Georgetown/SOUTH

LAST FOUR IN
Iowa State
Temple
Villanova
Tennessee

FIRST FOUR OUT
Alabama
Baylor
Kentucky
Southern Miss

NEXT FOUR OUT
Ole Miss
Maryland
Arizona State
Arkansas

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

March, 1, 2013
3/01/13
9:30
AM ET
My latest attempt to rank the SEC ...

1. Florida. Still No. 1 to me. I’m not going to drop the Gators for a loss to a hungry Tennessee team this week. Billy Donovan’s squad was short-handed. But Will Yeguete and Michael Frazier II will be available for Saturday’s matchup against Alabama. The Gators have followed the trend within the SEC and nationally by struggling on the road. Every squad on this list, however, has encountered the same off-campus struggles. But no team in this conference possesses Florida’s talent, skills and résumé.

2. Missouri. Frank Haith’s program has improved. The Tigers are finally fulfilling their potential. Perhaps it took three, four months for this group to achieve the chemistry necessary to make it happen. Injuries to Keion Bell and Laurence Bowers did not help. But they’re jelling now. Sure, it’s just a win over South Carolina but the Tigers topped 80 points in their second consecutive road game with that 90-68 victory Thursday night. Also, Phil Pressey did not attempt a field goal in the game, but he finished with nine assists. His recent performances prove he realizes Mizzou needs him to be a better distributor.

3. Tennessee. Cuonzo Martin is cooking something in Knoxville. The Vols are sitting on the NCAA tournament bubble after six consecutive wins, a streak that includes victories over Kentucky and Florida. Tuesday night’s win over the Gators was crucial for Martin’s squad. The Vols have certainly dealt with a variety of obstacles this year. Jeronne Maymon has been sidelined all year with a knee injury. The Vols lost four of their first five SEC games. But they’re playing great basketball right now. Jarnell Stokes is more assertive now. Trae Golden is leading. Jordan McRae is balling. This could be a very dangerous squad if it cracks the field in the NCAA tournament.

4. Kentucky. Kudos to John Calipari’s team. It’s not easy for a veteran squad to move forward after losing its best player. This crew is making a push with freshmen. The Wildcats have won three of four without star Nerlens Noel. The 30-point loss they suffered at Tennessee in their first full game without the freshman standout projected trouble for the young crew. But the Wildcats are fighting for an at-large bid. Alex Poythress is a matchup problem for any team in America when he wants to be. And his recent efforts prove he recognizes his significance to this team’s postseason, especially with Noel sidelined. He scored 16 points in Wednesday’s 85-55 victory at Mississippi State, and he dropped 21 points in Saturday’s 90-83 overtime win against Missouri.

5. Alabama. Bama has won four of its past five games. But the Crimson Tide didn’t achieve that success against the league’s best -- and the Tide suffered a triple-overtime road loss to LSU over the weekend. Their next two matchups, road games against Florida and Ole Miss, however, will give Anthony Grant’s team a chance to prove it’s a top-tier team in this league and one that should be feared in the conference tournament. Trevor Releford can lead Bama in this final stretch, but he’ll need other scorers to step up consistently to avoid a late collapse (61.7 PPG in SEC play, ninth in the league).

6. LSU. Johnny Jones' squad has won four of five. The Tigers are not in the NCAA tournament conversation. But if you’re looking for a team that could rally in the SEC tournament, check out the Tigers. They play fast (41st in adjusted tempo per Ken Pomeroy). They defend the 3-point line (SEC squads are shooting just 28.9 percent from the arc against the Tigers). And sophomore Johnny O’Bryant III (13.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG) is a young star.

7. Arkansas. It’s the same story with the Razorbacks. They can contend with America’s best when they’re home. The road is a completely different tale for this squad. They’ve secured double-digit home wins against Tennessee and Florida. They have a win over Missouri, too. They’ve lost to South Carolina and Vandy on the road. The Razorbacks would be in the mix for the conference title if they had avoided those road losses to subpar SEC squads.

8. Ole Miss. It’s getting hot for Andy Kennedy and his program. The Rebels have tumbled in the standings after losing five of their past nine games. The good news? They’ve actually won three of four and they can win the last three SEC games on their slate. The bad news? Their at-large hopes have been jeopardized by their recent fall. They’re the league’s best offensive team (75.9 PPG) and one of its worst defensive squads (70.3 PPG allowed). That’s a formula for chaos.

9. and 10. Texas A&M/Vandy. Both are 6-9 in the SEC, and that’s surprising for different reasons. Texas A&M has wins over Kentucky and Missouri but the Aggies have had far more lows than highs. Kevin Stallings’ young squad has won four of its past six games. That’s a finish that his program can build on for next season.

11. Georgia. Mark Fox’s program had amassed momentum during a five-game winning streak. Since then? The Bulldogs have lost four of their past five.

12.-14. South Carolina/Mississippi State/Auburn. It’s difficult to separate these three teams. The good news for all three? It’s March. This will end soon.
A few observations from another intriguing Saturday night of college basketball…

Kentucky stepped up in the most important game of its season. Prior to Saturday’s Missouri-Kentucky matchup, the SEC had already completed multiple exciting games earlier in the day. LSU beat Alabama in triple overtime. Georgia defeated South Carolina in overtime. And Tennessee outplayed Texas A&M in quadruple overtime. But Kentucky and Missouri delivered in the conference’s most significant matchup. After losing Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury, the Wildcats lost to Tennessee by 30 points. Season over, right? I mean, that team competed like a team that just wanted the season to end. Kentucky didn’t do anything that a squad should do when it’s trying to convince the selection committee that it’s worthy of an NCAA tournament bid. I had no faith in this group. The Wildcats, however, silenced some of their critics with their overtime win against Missouri at Rupp Arena on Saturday. The 90-83 victory might help UK get into the field of 68 -- and the Cats might have changed the trajectory of their entire season with the gutsy win. Julius Mays led the Wildcats (four reached double figures) with 24 points. By the end of the game, he could barely walk. Kentucky had earned that exhaustion. Missouri, meanwhile, earned criticism. More criticism. Once again, the Tigers collapsed on the road. They were up by 13 points in the first half, and then they unraveled. They always do outside Columbia, it seems. Phil Pressey's costly turnover with 48 seconds remaining in overtime summed up Mizzou’s entire season: talent marred by mistakes and chemistry issues. In the end, a Tigers team comprised of veterans lost to a group of raw youngsters which graduated from high school a year ago. Give Kentucky credit. Doubt the Tigers.

Health will be Florida’s top concern in March. The Gators proved that they’re still a high-powered team when they bullied Arkansas 71-54 on Saturday. Florida’s loss to Missouri -- and an earlier loss at Arkansas -- sparked questions about Billy Donovan’s program, but the Gators have been one of the nation’s most dominant teams all season. And their successes outweigh their stumbles. In March, they’re not going to run into many teams that can handle their backcourt and Patric Young (14 points, 7 rebounds and a block on Saturday). What about their health? Michael Frazier II suffered a concussion in the victory over the Razorbacks. Erik Murphy tweaked an ankle this week. Will Yeguete is out with a knee injury. Donovan’s program hasn’t been 100 percent in a long time. That’s a concern now and as March Madness approaches. A healthy Gators team can contend with any program in the country. There will be less certainty, however, if Florida enters the NCAA tournament at anything less than 100 percent.

[+] EnlargeMouphtaou Yarou
P Photo/H. Rumph JrMouphtaou Yarou throws down a pair of his 10 points in Nova's upset of Marquette.

I don’t understand Villanova, but I like its style. Check Villanova’s résumé. Confused? You should be. The Wildcats have been swept by Providence. They have a nonconference loss to Columbia. Alabama beat them by 22 points in the first half of the season. But the Wildcats also have recent victories over Louisville and Syracuse. They’re 7-9 against the RPI top 100 but 3-1 against its top 25. Still, the Wildcats had zero guarantees entering Saturday’s matchup with a Marquette team that was locked in a three-way tie for first place in the Big East, and they played like a team that recognized its predicament. And I dig that. I mean, don’t expect a bid. Take one. And that’s what Villanova may have done with Saturday’s victory. Mouphtaou Yarou finished with 10 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals and an assist in his final game at The Pavilion. Yarou and his teammates (Darrun Hilliard led all scorers with 22 points) fought. Marquette (19 turnovers) made a late push, but it couldn’t overcome the Wildcats’ lead. Villanova’s résumé is not perfect, but you can’t tell me that the Wildcats aren’t playing like a tourney team right now.

Saint Mary’s is doing what it can. The Gaels entered their home game against Creighton in a bubble situation. Their one problem all year? Gonzaga. The Zags are five steps beyond the rest of the league, and the West Coast Conference doesn’t offer any other true quality opponents (BYU is OK, I guess). So Saturday’s home game against a Creighton team that looked like a lock for the tourney was crucial for the Gaels. Saint Mary's toyed with the Bluejays in a 74-66 win. That’s what a team in SMC's situation should do. The Gaels can’t enhance the WCC in the coming weeks, but they can win convincingly in their toughest remaining matchups. Saturday was a good start. It also proves that the Missouri Valley Conference is not as good as many expected it to be. A few weeks ago, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall told me that the Valley was like a “mini-Big Ten,” and I agreed with him. At the time, Indiana State, Creighton, and Wichita State were all tourney teams. Not today. Creighton has struggled on the road in MVC play. The Bluejays could lose to Bradley next week and then stumble in the conference tourney. And now a mid-major conference that appeared to possess three bids could enter Selection Sunday with one lock (Wichita State) and a Creighton team sitting on the bubble.

  • I believe in Trae Golden and Jarnell Stokes. The duo has fueled Tennessee’s five-game winning streak. On Saturday, Golden (32 points) and Stokes (20 points, 16 rebounds) -- along with Jordan McRae (23 points) -- led the Vols to a 93-85 four-overtime road win over Texas A&M. The SEC is a very lukewarm league. Most teams have suffered surprising road losses. Few have compiled impressive runs. But Tennessee is playing its best basketball right now. There are no guarantees in the SEC tourney. The Vols aren’t in the dance right now, but they could be in a few weeks.
  • What a week for Cal. The Bears held off Oregon State for a 60-59 win on Saturday. On Thursday, Justin Cobbs hit a shot in the final seconds to seal his team's two-point victory over Oregon. Cal has won five in row. With three games left, the Bears still in the mix for the Pac-12 title.

Video: Florida 71, Arkansas 54

February, 23, 2013
2/23/13
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Patric Young's 14 points and 7 rebounds helped No. 5 Florida bounce back from its loss at Missouri with a 71-54 victory over visiting Arkansas.

Stats in the Paint: Weekend Outlook

February, 22, 2013
2/22/13
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Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesJames Southerland (center) and No. 8 Syracuse host No. 11 Georgetown on Saturday.

Let’s get ready for the weekend on the college hardwood by highlighting a few notes and nuggets from our college hoops advanced stats research team (a group we call the "Stats in the Paint" team).

(11) Georgetown at (8) Syracuse – Saturday at 4 ET
Saturday marks the final meeting between Syracuse and Georgetown at the Carrier Dome before the Orange leave for the ACC next season. To showcase the matchup of Big East founding members, let’s look at the showdown by the numbers:

36.5 – Syracuse has scored an average of 36.5 points per game in the paint this season, the most in the Big East and the third-most by a Power Six conference school. The Orange are 17-1 when scoring at least 30 points in the paint this season and 5-3 when they don’t.

21.4 - Georgetown has allowed 21.4 points per game in the paint this season, the third-fewest in the Big East. The two teams that allow fewer than the Hoyas are Pittsburgh and Villanova and both of which defeated Syracuse earlier this season.

34.2 & 35.1 – Syracuse is holding opponents to 34.2 percent shooting in the half court this season (fourth in D-I) and Georgetown opponents are seventh in the nation at 35.1 percent in half-court sets.

112.9 – Syracuse is averaging 112.9 points per 100 possessions in games in which James Southerland has played this season, an offensive efficiency that would rank 11th in Division I. Its efficiency was 105.4 in six games without him, an average that would be tied for 92nd.

9.7 – Georgetown has allowed opponents to score just 9.7 points per game in transition this season, second-fewest in the Big East. The Hoyas will be tested Sunday as the Orange are third in the Big East with 15.4 transition points per game and have scored 18.1 points per game on the break when Southerland has played.

OTHER NOTABLE GAMES SATURDAY

(16) New Mexico at (22) Colorado State – 4 ET
Key stat: Colorado State rebounds 58.9 percent of all missed shots, the highest percentage in Division I this season. In their 61-59 loss to UNLV on Wednesday, the Rams posted season lows in rebounding percentage (44.9), offensive rebounding percentage (27.0) and defensive rebounding percentage (65.6).

Arkansas at (5) Florida – 7 ET on ESPNU
Key stat: Florida allows just 84.1 points per 100 possessions this season, the second-fewest in the nation behind only Stephen F. Austin (78.4). No team from a Power Six conference has finished with a better defensive efficiency over the last 12 seasons.

Creighton at Saint Mary's – 6 ET on ESPN
Key stat: Creighton has been the most efficient half-court offense in the nation this season, scoring a D-I-best 1.01 points per play. The Bluejays are also one of just two teams that have made at least half of their shots in the half court.

Missouri at Kentucky – 9 ET on ESPN
Key stat: Kentucky averages 37.3 points in the paint per game this season, the most in the SEC and second-most among Power Six conference teams. The Wildcats average 42.1 paint points per game at home and 30.7 per game away from Rupp Arena.

Bubble Watch: Saturday's survivors

February, 17, 2013
2/17/13
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Saturday wasn't packed with as many high-quality, top-10 games as we've become used to -- we're spoiled, us hoops fans -- but it did feature a plethora of variously shaky NCAA tournament hopefuls looking to add further credentials to their respective résumés. Here's a look at who won and lost, and who survived and missed out, in a jam-packed day of bubble action.

WINNERS

[+] EnlargeMark Turgeon
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyMark Turgeon had plenty to celebrate after he scored his first victory over Duke as Maryland coach.
Maryland: For Maryland fans, there's nothing in the world better than beating Duke, particularly after a three-year drought against their hated rivals. The same can be said for Maryland's place on the bubble. The Blue Devils are hardly the best team in the country (even if this week's coaches poll inexplicably disagreed) but they did enter Saturday with the No. 1 RPI in the country, the product of victories over Minnesota, VCU and Louisville in the November Battle 4 Atlantis (as well as a home win over Ohio State). Maryland entered Saturday planted about as firmly as possible on the tournament bubble, with prohibitive RPI (70) and SOS numbers (SOS: 119; nonconference SOS: 301), and with just one top-50 win, a 51-50 home defeat of NC State, to its name. Duke presented the right combination of a beatable team with a hugely flattering NCAA tournament profile, and the Terps took advantage.

Does that mean they're a lock? Hardly. The Terps would do well to avoid some potential scares on the road (at Boston College, at Georgia Tech, at Wake Forest) and take down North Carolina at home March 6, which is probably their last chance to beat a fellow potential tournament team. And they're still just outside the bracket in Joe Lunardi's latest configuration. But Saturday's win was a huge step forward, no doubt about it.

North Carolina: Speaking of North Carolina, the Tar Heels still have plenty of work to do themselves before they can feel safe about their spot in the NCAA tournament. But this was a good week. Not only did Roy Williams' team get a promising 93-81 win over Virginia on Saturday -- if you can stretch Virginia to that many possessions, let alone 93 points, you are officially in control of the ballgame -- but it played probably its best game of the season in Wednesday night's close loss to Duke. For strict RPI purposes, that Duke loss will go down as nothing more than that -- a loss to a good team on the road. But the committee was surely watching (it happened to be gathered in Indianapolis for meetings and mock selection), and for a committee never shy about applying the "eye test," UNC's week was a winner.

Philly trio: Philadelphia hoops might not be at its vintage best these days, but things are trending upward. Villanova backed up its back-to-back wins over Syracuse and Louisville -- the wins that made it a bubble entity in the first place -- with a solid road victory at Connecticut. Temple, which lost to Duquesne 84-83 this week, saw karma return the favor in an 83-82 win at fellow bubbler Massachusetts. And sneaky-good La Salle just keeps winning, this time in a Big 5 matchup victory over St. Joe's.

Arkansas: For the first two months of the season, the Razorbacks were among the most disappointing teams in the country. After all, why shouldn't this team be good? At the very least, why can't Arkansas play in the tournament? The Razorbacks have an NBA guard in BJ Young and some nice pieces around him, and Mike Anderson's Nolan Richardson-inspired up-tempo system isn't just perfect for Arkansas' basketball climate, it's also effective. But soft defense plagued this group throughout November and December as it embarked on what appeared to be yet another mediocre campaign.

That might still be true -- Arkansas did lose at Vanderbilt 67-49 just seven days ago, somehow -- but it's at least worth noticing the Hogs' big wins. On Feb. 5, they handed Florida its first SEC loss of the season, and Saturday afternoon, Young's two late and-1 plays helped Arkansas notch a win over Anderson's former school, Missouri. There is a long way to go before the Razorbacks will start getting serious tournament looks, but at least they seem interested in the postseason.

UCLA: The Bruins aren't in dire bubble shape but they don't have a ton of room for error, and they had a tough assignment Saturday, playing a surging Stanford team on the road. They got out of Palo Alto with an 88-80 win -- say this much for Ben Howland's team: It can really score -- to remain on the right side of the bubble conversation.

Arizona State: What a wacky week for the Sun Devils. After last week's three-point home loss to Stanford, ASU fell at Utah, which is better than it was last season (by a lot) but still not one of the 100 or even 150 best teams in college basketball. The only way Arizona State could erase the damage of that defeat was with a big, unlikely win at Colorado -- itself coming off a 13-point win over Arizona -- which, of course, is exactly what happened. Given Colorado's top-20 RPI, ASU's victory in Boulder puts a check in all the boxes the committee holds dear and should help the Sun Devils' own No. 76 RPI to boot.

LOSERS

Kentucky: There were plenty of questions to ask in the wake of Nerlens Noel's season-ending ACL injury at Florida, among them what it meant for Noel's professional career, what (if anything) it said about the one-and-done rule in the NCAA and so on. But chief among them was what the injury would mean for Kentucky's season, and how the Wildcats -- already a somewhat shaky bubble proposition -- would respond. The answer, received Saturday, was "not well." In its first post-Noel game, Kentucky was blown out at Tennessee, 88-58. It was a fair bet to assume the loss of Noel would hurt UK's defense; he is, after all, one of the nation's best shot-blockers-slash-turnover-creators. But no one could have assumed Kentucky would suddenly become the type of defense that allows 88 points to the Volunteers, themselves an often-brutal offensive outfit.

This is all bad news. Because the NCAA tournament selection committee appraises teams based on what they'll be when the tournament begins, it doesn't pay much attention to what happens before a key player gets hurt. The first three months of the season are essentially moot; the committee will evaluate Kentucky on what it does from now until Selection Sunday, and if Saturday was any indication, that appraisal will not be favorable.

Indiana State: The Sycamores were one of the feel-good stories of the season, an unheralded bunch that emerged from the tough Missouri Valley in lieu of popular preseason tourney picks such as Northern Iowa and Illinois State. Unfortunately, after Saturday's loss at Bradley (RPI: 175) -- which followed a loss earlier this week at Missouri State (RPI: 207) -- much of the bloom has come off this rose. To wit, Lunardi moved Indiana State out of the field in his late bracket update Saturday. Indiana State has four games left in the regular season and one major bubble opportunity: Tuesday night's home date against Wichita State. If ISU can't manage to take down the Shockers in Terre Haute, its final three games (Iona, Drake, at Evansville) won't do much to help.

Air Force: Between Jan. 19 and Feb. 2, Air Force rattled off five consecutive Mountain West Conference wins, beginning with Boise State and ending with a home victory over San Diego State. The Falcons lost a pair of road games in early February, at New Mexico and Nevada, but came back with another huge home win over UNLV on Feb. 13. All of which made Saturday's home game against Colorado State and its top-15 RPI something like a must-win. Instead, the Falcons fell short, 89-86. I wouldn't count this team out just yet -- it has proved it can play with pretty much anyone in the MWC -- but with its current computer numbers (including an RPI in the 60s and a noncon SOS ranked outside the top 250), Air Force's at-large margin for error is now drastically slim.

The middle portions of the Atlantic 10: Those of you waiting for the Atlantic 10 to start making some sort of sense can keep waiting, but I'm done. It simply isn't going to happen. But with all that chaos governing the league, it seemed possible some of the more middling teams -- Xavier, Charlotte, UMass -- could extend this one-year-only 16-team's NCAA tournament contenders deeper than anyone previously assumed. But all three of those teams lost Saturday: Xavier lost at Dayton, Charlotte was handled at Saint Louis and UMass missed a big opportunity in a one-point loss to Temple. Much like the A-10 in general, there are varying degrees of résumé in that group. But the overwhelming impression of that trio is mediocrity.

SURVIVORS

NC State: The Wolfpack are in much better bubble shape than most of the teams above, but the fact remains that a home loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday would have called into question just how tourney-built the Wolfpack really are. Since its Jan. 12 home win over Duke, NC State has lost at Maryland, at Wake Forest, at Virginia and in Durham (as well as a one-point home loss to Miami), and last Sunday only barely got by at Clemson (final score: 58-57) in one of its ugliest offensive outings of the season. NC State entered Saturday's game with a 6-5 record in ACC play and a 2-5 record on the road. And things were dicey in Raleigh. NC State needed a five-minute second-half Hokies drought and a 14-point run, plus overtime, to get past Erick Green (who notched 29 points and eight assists) and company. We might not remember it in March, but that might end up being the best -- or at least the most important -- win of NC State's up-and-down season.

Creighton: Two weeks ago, in my first edition of Bubble Watch, I put the Bluejays on the lock line because ... well, because, why not? Of course they were going to make the tournament. Two weeks later, after Creighton lost consecutive games at Indiana State, at home against Illinois State and at Northern Iowa, the Bluejays' profile -- two top-50 wins (over Wisconsin and Akron), an RPI of 50, a SOS of 114 -- suddenly looked like anything but a lock. That made Saturday's trip to Evansville fraught with intrigue, and the Purple Aces were more than happy to play the spoiling role. But thanks to Doug McDermott's 21 points and 10 rebounds and a 9-for-18 night from 3, Creighton held on 71-68, avoiding its fourth loss in a row and -- much more importantly -- avoiding making me break my "I don't unlock locks; that's why they're locks" Bubble Watch rule. At least for now.

Ole Miss: For all the hype Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson has received at various times this season, Ole Miss is not a guaranteed tournament team. The Rebels' only marquee win came at home against Missouri, which hasn't played like a marquee-win type of team in months, and besides, Missouri blitzed Ole Miss in Columbia one month later. The Rebels' is the type of profile that is safe only in so far as it's not as shaky as the Villanovas of the world, but it is just as vulnerable to bad losses in an SEC full of them. In other words, Saturday's rally and eventual 84-74 OT victory over Georgia was crucial, if expected.

MISSED OUT

Virginia: The Cavaliers were hardly the favorite in Chapel Hill on Saturday, but they could have very much used a road win over an ostensible ACC team, and they bossed the game so handily when UNC visited Charlottesville that it seemed entirely plausible the same could happen in a different venue. It didn't -- UNC hung 93 -- and so the Cavs and their truly bizarre at-large profile remain in precarious position.

Oklahoma: Advanced stats tell us Oklahoma has been playing some very good basketball for the past couple of months, even as the Sooners failed to clinch big results in close games against Kansas State (twice) and at Kansas. When they toppled the reeling Jayhawks in Norman last week, they proved they could break through against a top team, and we shouldn't have been surprised when the Sooners pushed Oklahoma State to the brink in Stillwater on Saturday afternoon. Nor, perhaps, should we have been surprised when Oklahoma State sealed a tight five-point win. But man, would that one have been huge for OU.

Boise State: Unlike fellow MWC bubble-crasher Air Force, we've seen the Broncos coming since Nov. 28, when they upset Creighton in Omaha. Unfortunately, Boise hasn't gained Air Force-esque steam as the season has progressed, its only notable victory a home win over UNLV. On Saturday, the Broncos played New Mexico tight for 37 minutes and trailed by just two points with three minutes left to play. Then the Broncos faded. There's no shame in losing at New Mexico, but when you have the nation's third-ranked RPI squad on the ropes in its own building, it has to hurt when you can't come through.

My Saturday afternoon observations

February, 16, 2013
2/16/13
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Just last week, NCAA tournament selection committee chair Mike Bobinski hosted the first of a handful of teleconferences heading toward Selection Sunday. It was just a day after Nerlens Noel tore his anterior cruciate ligament, so naturally Bobinski was asked how the loss of Kentucky’s best player would affect the Wildcats’ chance at an NCAA tourney berth.

Here’s what he said:

“The reality is we have about 4 1/2 weeks of basketball left to be able to watch Kentucky play and see how they perform without him in the lineup now, and that will really tell the story I think of how we ultimately judge and view Kentucky."

Well, here’s what the committee saw:

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsA rocky road got worse Saturday for John Calipari and defending-champion Kentucky.
Tennessee 88, Kentucky 58. Tied for the fourth-worst loss for UK in the past 80 years. John Calipari's worst loss since Feb. 18, 1989. That was a lifetime ago, in his first season at Massachusetts, when the Minutemen lost to Duquesne by 31. He didn’t have quite as many McDonald's All Americans on that roster.

If this were an audition for the tourney bracket, the director would be yelling, "Next!"

Just barely on the bubble to begin with -- Kentucky has zero top-50 RPI wins now that free-falling Ole Miss has dropped to 51 -- the Wildcats were quickly dumped to the First Four Out by Joe Lunardi on Saturday afternoon (remember, even before Noel got hurt, UK was getting essentially run out of the gym by Florida).

There is no question that losing Noel is a huge blow, but it is not just in terms of X's and O's. That Tennessee loss -- and give the Vols credit for playing a near-flawless game (especially point guard Trae Golden) -- exposed the real crux of the problem for Kentucky sans Noel.

For most of the season, he has been the only one playing with a combination of consistent ferocity and passion. The rest of the team tends to disappear frequently, lollygags on defense often and shows such dispassionate body language at times that you have to wonder whether the players are clock-watching.

In Noel’s absence, his freshman classmates Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin combined for 13 points, 13 fouls and nine turnovers.

A year after coaching one of the best collections of hard-working, unselfish players, Calipari has a group he cannot cajole, bullwhip or beg into cohesion. It has gotten so bad that the coach spent the week before the Florida game talking about his team’s need to find love. Not the Valentine kind, but the bromance of basketball.

Thanks to the cottony soft bubble, Kentucky isn’t dead yet. But the Grim Reaper is standing by. The Wildcats have six regular-season games left -- four that can only hurt them (against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Georgia) and two that will mean everything (visits from Missouri and Florida).

Noel, of course, won’t be there for any of them, but for Kentucky right now, it’s more about channeling the way he played.

Some other observations from Saturday afternoon:

1. Opportunity knocked ... And North Carolina answered. Oklahoma couldn’t unlock the door. Stanford didn’t hear the doorbell. In what might go down as an ACC bracket-buster game, the Tar Heels topped Virginia, 93-81. That doesn’t officially seal either team’s fate, but certainly it’s a feather for UNC and a glancing blow for the Cavaliers.

Meanwhile, in the Big 12, Oklahoma blew an 11-point lead and lost 84-79 in overtime at Oklahoma State, which has won seven consecutive league games for the first time in nearly a decade. It’s a body blow for the rival Sooners, who have a confusing NCAA résumé -- an RPI of 20 but a 3-5 record against the RPI top 50.

As for Stanford, Bill Walton quite naturally put it best. Somebody, the analyst said, needs to start watering the roots of the Tree. Just two weeks ago, the Cardinal looked like the team that promised to capitalize on its NIT run from last season, winning three games in a row, including one against hot Oregon. Now, Stanford has lost three of four, blowing show-me opportunities against both Arizona and now UCLA.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiFreshman Marcus Smart scored 28 in OK State's rivalry win, the Cowboys' seventh in a row.
2. Pay attention to Marcus Smart: The Oklahoma State guard might be the most unheralded player in the country right now. Seriously. The reason might be that on their own, none of his numbers jumps off the stat line -- he averages 14.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 3.0 steals per game -- but then go back and look at that list collectively.

He’s good at everything. Offense, defense, scoring and sharing, he is the consummate individual player and the consummate teammate. In the victory against the Sooners, he had 28 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Just another day at the office. He's also the reason the Cowboys are poised for their first NCAA tournament bid since 2010. Oklahoma State has won seven in a row. In that stretch, Smart is averaging 19.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.4 steals.

3. What would happen if ... Arkansas and Missouri played on a neutral court? Would the game ever end? Or better yet, would it ever start? Would both teams be turned into pillars of salt, frozen in fear by the unfamiliar, away-from-home surroundings? Give the Hogs credit -- they're now 15-1 at home after squeaking past Mizzou, 73-71. But neither team can win on the road, which is something the selection committee kind of likes to see every once in a while.

4. Can a player win national player of the year and not make the NCAA tournament? It has never happened with a Wooden winner, but Doug McDermott might be on the verge of rewriting history in a decidedly twisted way. McDermott is continuing to put up huge numbers -- he is averaging 23 points per game and just eclipsed the 2,000-point plateau -- but his team isn’t doing much to prove it belongs in the field of 68.

The Bluejays rallied from a double-digit deficit to win 71-68 at Evansville and end their three-game skid. Feel free to celebrate the end of the losing streak, but then realize that Evansville is 14-13 overall and just 7-8 in the league, so skating to a three-point win doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence, does it?

In the latest player-of-the-year straw poll of actual voters, collected by Michael Rothstein, McDermott was second behind Michigan’s Trey Burke. He had 118 points and 21 first-place votes to Burke’s 136 and 30 (the poll is done every two weeks), and the next-closest vote getter, Mason Plumlee, wasn’t even in the neighborhood, with 35 points and only four first-place votes.

Numbers matter in player of the year ballots, but don’t think for a minute winning isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a factor. If Creighton doesn’t right the ship well enough soon, it will be interesting to see whether McDermott is part of the collateral damage.

5. Watch out for Providence: No, I’m not joking. Done in by injuries and down to five scholarship players early, the Friars appeared destined for their annual bottom-third-of-the-Big East finish. Not so fast. Coach Ed Cooley has talent -- Bryce Cotton, Kadeem Batts, Vincent Council and Kris Dunn -- and now he's getting something out of it. Providence has won four consecutive Big East games for the first time since 2004, including wins against Cincinnati and today's 71-54 victory over Notre Dame, which snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Irish.

I’m not sure whether the Friars are good enough to keep that streak going -- they go to Syracuse next -- but after too many lean years to count, Cooley has this team headed in the right direction. In a confusing Big East -- explain Villanova, please? -- Providence is good enough to make things even more confounding.

A week of struggles for top-five teams

February, 9, 2013
2/09/13
10:34
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AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
Oklahoma forward Romero Osby (24) reacts at the end of Oklahoma's upset win over No. 5 Kansas.

It’s been a bad week to be a top-five ranked team. Since the men’s Associated Press poll came out Monday, top-five teams have gone 0-5 on the road.

All five losses have come to unranked opponents, with the No. 5 Kansas Jayhawks the latest to fall, losing Saturday in Norman, Okla., to the Oklahoma Sooners.

Tuesday -- Arkansas 80, (2) Florida 69
The Arkansas Razorbacks knocked off the No. 2 Florida Gators, the first victory for the Razorbacks against a top-two team since they beat No. 2 Auburn on Feb. 24, 1999.

In seeing their 10-game win streak snapped, the Gators allowed Arkansas to score 80 points and shoot 49.1 percent from the field, both season worsts for a Florida team that entered perfect in conference play while outscoring opponents by nearly 27 per game.

Wednesday -- TCU 62, (5) Kansas 55
The Jayhawks managed only 13 points in the first half, their fewest in 15 seasons, and shot 29.5 percent from the field, their worst mark in 344 games under Bill Self.

Not only did TCU get its first Big 12 win of the season, it was the program’s first win over a top-five opponent ever.

Kansas entered sixth in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI). The 240-spot difference between that Jayhawks' ranking and TCU's 246 was larger than in any of the 1-versus-16 matchups in last year’s NCAA tournament.

Thursday -- Illinois 74, (1) Indiana 72
Illinois shocked No. 1 Indiana with a buzzer-beating layup from Tyler Griffey to make it five consecutive weeks that the top-ranked team in the country has lost.

Perhaps the biggest shock was that Illinois got the win in comeback fashion -- the Fighting Illini trailed by 12 at the half and closed the game on a 13-2 run. There’s only been one larger comeback from a halftime deficit against a top-ranked team in the past 15 years (Stanford rallied from 13 down against top-ranked Duke to win on Dec. 21, 2000).

Indiana connected on more than half its 3-pointers but went cold down the stretch, making just one basket in the game’s final five minutes.

Saturday -- Wisconsin 65, (3) Michigan 62 (OT)
Today’s mayhem started in Madison, where the Wisconsin Badgers won their 11th consecutive home game over Michigan.

To force overtime, the Badgers needed a game-tying buzzer-beater from Ben Brust from about 40 feet. Since the 1996-97 season, NBA players are just two of 64 (3.1 percent) on potential game-tying shots from that distance with less than two seconds left.

Saturday -- Oklahoma 72, (5) Kansas 66
In Norman, the Sooners got revenge on the Jayhawks, snapping a 10-game losing streak against their Big 12 rival.

The Kansas defense, which had been the best in the nation against the 2-point shot entering the game, allowed Oklahoma to shoot 50 percent from 2-point range.

The Jayhawks have now lost three games in a row to unranked opponents. On the bright side, the last time they did that was in 1988, when they went on to win the national title.

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