February 24, 2024

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The state of men's hoops after the Baylor-Kansas, Gonzaga-Kentucky and bubble games

The state of men's hoops after the Baylor-Kansas, Gonzaga-Kentucky and bubble games

After a quartet of top-10 matchups last weekend, this Saturday was more about the teams on either side of the NCAA Tournament line needing to take advantage of resume-boosting opportunities. Six of the top 10 teams faced unranked teams on the road – environments in which highly ranked teams have consistently struggled throughout the season. This group does not include the likes of Marquette, which was hosting a St. John's team that needed a win, or Kentucky, which was at home against a desperate Gonzaga team. Michigan State, Colorado, Cincinnati and Florida all needed a victory to boost their NCAA Tournament hopes. Who can close the deal and get the win?

With just one month left in the regular season, bubble teams are running out of time to pick up wins that will matter on Selection Sunday. Saturday provided some clarity, and based on that, ESPN's Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and Joe Lunardi have some thoughts.

Medcalf: Baylor's challenges continue in Allen Fieldhouse. The Bears are now 1-18 in Kansas' last 19 games. And they never had a better chance to steal victory over Bill Self in a hostile setting. Kevin McCullar Jr. is out due to injury. Dajuan Harris Jr. injured his ankle late in the game. Instead of adding a marquee win to boost their tournament seed, the Bears couldn't stop the short-handed Jayhawks.

The game also highlighted the Big 12's supremacy. Three of the four teams joining the league this season — Houston, BYU and Cincinnati — are all among KenPom's top 35 teams. Fourth (UCF) beat Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Ten teams overall in this conference are in the top 40 in the NET rankings.

In this league, a team as good as Baylor — one of America's most efficient teams offensively, and No. 1 in the country in 3-point shooting even though it's subpar defensively — could win the league title by a wide margin, or finish the season in the middle of the pack. Or worse. The competition is that tough.

Borzello: On the one hand, Kansas beating a top-15 team without McCullar, with Harris injured late and with Hunter Dickenson sidelined with foul trouble and struggling for long stretches of the game is quite impressive. The Jayhawks scored 17 points off 21 turnovers and got two big shots from Nicholas Timberlake — a great sign moving forward.

But it wasn't all positive. Baylor surprisingly struggled to shoot from outside the field, hitting them 21 times, and still had chances to send the game into overtime late. And the way Kansas defended Baylor on its final possession, when Jayden Nunn and Jacob Walter got wide-open 3-pointers, won't make Bill Self happy.

Perhaps most troubling was Harris' late injury. He finished the game, but we'll have to keep an eye on him next week.

Lunardi arc effect: We call this the “status quo” game, where the outcome is essentially chalky. When that happens, especially late in the season, there is very little movement from one score. Kansas entered the game as the No. 2 seed, No. 8 overall, and remains that way. Baylor entered as a No. 4 seed, No. 14 overall, and only dropped to No. 15 (behind Duke) as a still-strong No. 3 seed.

Medcalf: After coming out of a double-digit deficit in the first half with a second run, Kentucky closed out Saturday's loss with another bizarre decision: what appeared to be a designed drop ball from Reed Shepard to Ado Theroux, which was intercepted by Ben Gregg. This wasn't Kentucky's only missed opportunity in this game. There were missed defensive assignments and a key offensive rebound late in the game that Gonzaga snatched away simply because Kentucky didn't play with a sense of urgency.

John Calipari and his players don't seem to be on the same page. Yes, the Wildcats — who are 2-4 in their past six games and haven't won a game against a top-30 KenPom team since Jan. 6 against Florida — are playing some of the worst defenses among Power 5 teams. But the disconnect goes beyond that. A team full of NBA prospects has been overwhelmed by opponents who lack that talent. The Wildcats are in free fall, and it's not clear how they'll stop it.

Borzello: Gonzaga suddenly had NCAA Tournament life. The Zags' postseason hopes essentially came to a halt in Saturday's game, as they had never had a winning first quarter all season and this was one of their last chances to get one. They still need to take care of WCC business — and the end of the regular season at St. Mary's is looming — but Mark Few's team now at least has a realistic chance of moving forward.

How did Gonzaga do it on Saturday? The Bulldogs went back to basics and simply dominated the paint. Graham Icke, Anton Watson, Braden Huff and Gregg combined for 66 points, and Ryan Nembhard stayed in attack mode in the pick-and-roll. The Zags struggled from the perimeter all season but never tried to beat Kentucky from the 3; Instead they found a weakness and continued to exploit it.

Lunardi arc effect: The knee-jerk reaction would be to immediately put Gonzaga in the expected NCAA field. Not so fast, say arcologists. This win certainly gives the Zags life as an at-large candidate, but there's a lot of work to be done, considering how much they lack the profile heading into Rupp Arena. We'll move the Bulldogs comfortably into 'Next Four Out' territory, within 'First Four Out' range but need to run the table in the WCC – including a win at Saint Mary's on March 2 – to have any breathing room. In the conference championship.

He plays


Auburn Tigers vs. Florida Gators: Game Highlights

Auburn Tigers vs. Florida Gators: Game Highlights

Fast strokes

Young South Carolina star

The Gamecocks came out of a sloppy first half to defeat Vanderbilt by double digits (75-60) and extend their winning streak to seven heading into a tough game at Auburn. During that span, three different players led the Gamecocks in scoring. Lamont Paris always preaches South Carolina's value as a team. That's how he won this season.

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But freshman Collin Murray-Boyles — who was out the first month of the season with mononucleosis — has emerged as a young star. Against the Commodores, he finished with 31 points (14-17), 7 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal and a block. He is the third South Carolina player to score 30 points on 80% shooting in the past 25 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It was also the third consecutive match in which he was his team's top scorer. South Carolina is only playing for its seeding at this point, but Murray-Boyles is emerging as an excellent young talent who has raised SC's postseason ceiling — and his own as well. –Medcalf

Bubble hopes survive

While the Zags team that kept their overall hopes alive got the most headlines, two other teams that entered Saturday needing a resume boost added notable wins: Michigan State over Illinois, and Florida over Auburn. The Spartans were on the right side of the bubble entering today but they had just lost in Minnesota and needed to bounce back. Senior Tom Izzo stepped up: AJ Hoggard (23 points), Malik Hall (22 points), Tyson Walker (19 points).

Meanwhile, Florida beat Auburn by 16 in a game that wasn't even that close. The Gators led by as many as 29 points and didn't make a shot in the final nine minutes. They have now won five of six — including victories over Mississippi State, Kentucky, and now the Tigers. — Borzello

The Big East is making moves

I had my eyes largely on the Big East bubble heading into Saturday's game, and the games did not disappoint. Butler confirmed its overall standing with a hard-fought win over Providence, while Friars, Xavier and St. John's lost all chances to advance or enter the projected NCAA field. The conference has another big game on Sunday as Villanova hosts Seton Hall: The Wildcats are several wins away from getting back on the field, while the “last team in” Pirates are just one loss away from bowing out. — Lunardi