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Four-Point Play: Michigan sweeps Michigan State, North Carolina's surge continues

Nik Stauskas was tremendous once again as Michigan topped Michigan State. (Tony Ding/AP)Nik Stauskas was tremendous once again as Michigan topped Michigan State to sweep the season series. (Tony Ding/AP)

Four-Point Play is One and One’s attempt to highlight one notable team, player, game and GIF/video from the past seven days of college hoops. Expect this column every Sunday.

Michigan completes sweep of Michigan State

The high point of No. 20 Michigan’s 8-0 start to conference play was its 80-75 win at then-No.3 Michigan State on January 25. The Wolverines shot 58 percent from three-point range, scored 1.27 points per possession and grabbed a higher percentage of offensive and defensive rebounds than the Spartans did. Sophomore guard Nik Stauskas even blew a kiss to the Breslin Center crowd. Stauskas didn't blow any kisses this time, but the Wolverines finished their season sweep of the No. 13 Spartans with a 79-70 win at the Crisler Center.

Stauskas shot 9-of-13 from the field for 25 points, the most he has scored since his 26-point effort in an eight-point win over Iowa on January 22. Sophomore guard Caris LeVert added 23 points on 7-of-15 shooting.

LeVert, who scored 14 points in the first half, seemed to break the game open midway through the second half when he drilled a three around the eight-minute mark and drove in for a dunk less than a minute later, which pushed the Wolverines' lead to 12. The Spartans, who came in Sunday ranked first in the Big Ten in points allowed per possession during conference play, couldn’t get the stops it needed (particularly in the second half, when Stauskas scored 21 points). Michigan shot 50 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range and scored 1.27 points per possession.

Michigan State has dealt with a number of injuries throughout the season – junior forward Branden Dawson has missed nine games with a broken hand and senior point guard Keith Appling has missed three with a wrist injury, to name a couple – but it had close to its full complement of players available on Sunday.

Senior center Payne, who missed seven games (including the loss to Michigan) because of a foot injury, played Sunday but scored only 12 points on nine shots (though he did grab 11 rebounds). The Spartans got 21 points from sophomore guard Gary Harris, but it took him 17 shots, including 13 three-point attempts, to score them.

The Spartans have alternated wins and losses over their last 10 games. The prevailing sentiment is that Michigan State, when healthy, is one of a handful of teams that can compete for the national championship. The Spartans have played so many games with at least one member of their rotation unavailable, it’s hard to remember what this team looks like at full-strength. Michigan State has struggled without Dawson, though he is expected to return in March. Appling has played the last three games, but his wrist injury seems to have held him back; Appling hasn’t played more than 25 minutes or attempted more than four shots per game.

This is the type of confidence-building win that could propel Michigan to a strong regular season finish. The Wolverines, who now hold a half game lead over Michigan State for first place in the Big Ten, could easily win their next four games (at Purdue, Minnesota, at Illinois, Indiana). If Michigan doesn't suffer any unexpected losses, it should be able to hold off the Spartans -- who face a tougher schedule (Illinois, Iowa, at Ohio State) -- for the Big Ten title.

North Carolina is now one of the most feared teams in the ACC after a sluggish start to the year. (MCT via Getty Images) North Carolina is now one of the most feared teams in the ACC after a sluggish start to the year. (MCT via Getty Images)

North Carolina erasing “inconsistent” label

The NCAA Tornament selection committee may have trouble seeding North Carolina. On Thursday night, the Tar Heels beat Duke at the Dean Smith Center to become the first team to knock off the Associated Press preseason poll’s top four teams (the AP released its first preseason poll in 1961-62). North Carolina has also knocked off then-No. 3 Louisville, then-No. 1 Michigan State and then-No. 11 Kentucky. A collection of wins that good is enough to make any NCAA Tournament hopeful feel secure about where it stands. But teams that demonstrate the ability to beat national championship contenders, as North Carolina has this season, should be able to beat bad teams, too.

Until recently, The Tar Heels couldn’t do it consistently. They lost at home to Belmont (Nov. 17) and Miami (Jan. 8) and on the road to UAB (Dec. 1) and Wake Forest (Jan. 5). It was all rather difficult to comprehend: why was a team good enough to knock off elite teams losing to appreciably inferior ones?

But somewhere along the line – probably after North Carolina’s ugly loss at Syracuse on January 11, in which the Tar Heels scored an anemic 45 points in 60 possessions – the narrative shifted. No longer were the Tar Heels an inconsistent team. Many observers believed they simply weren’t very good.

North Carolina announced it would not apply for the reinstatement of star forward P.J. Hairston, and the Tar Heels’ complementary pieces weren’t scoring enough to offset the impact of his absence. Coach Roy Williams said this was his most trying season. The Tar Heels had seemingly fallen out of the ACC championship race. Their outlook was bleak.

But since getting blown out at Virginia on January 20, North Carolina has won nine consecutive games. This week, it survived a tough test at Florida State, knocked off the Blue Devils at home and, less than 48 hours later, routed Wake Forest – the team that handed the Tar Heels their first of three losses to open conference play. What’s the best way to describe North Carolina in light of its recent success?

A nine-game winning streak is anything but “inconsistent”, and “bad” certainly doesn’t apply. Making the leap to “elite,” would be a stretch. So let’s go with something simple: North Carolina is a good team.

"I'm having a whole lot of fun right now,” freshman guard Nate Britt said Saturday. “We just beat our rivals the other night. We lost to Wake [Forest] earlier in the season and we got a big win tonight. So I feel like I'm on cloud nine right now and I'm just hoping that we can keep the intensity going and just keep it moving forward."

Defense has fueled the Tar Heels’ surge. Over the past nine games, they have allowed just one opponent to score more than a point per possession. North Carolina has also gotten strong play from forward James Michael McAdoo and guard Marcus Paige. Guard Leslie McDonald and forward Kennedy Meeks stepped up for the Tar Heels this week.

Meeks scored a career-high 23 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the win at Florida State and had 15 and four against Wake Forest. McDonald went for 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting against the Blue Devils and poured in 19 on 5-of-9 against Wake Forest to help North Carolina to an outstanding 1.44 points per possession.

“Our kids have shown a lot greater attention to details,” Williams said. “They've shown a greater sense of urgency.”

North Carolina’s remaining schedule is manageable. It plays at North Carolina State and Virginia Tech this week, then hosts Notre Dame and closes the season at Duke. The Tar Heels will make the NCAA Tournament; the question is where the selection committee will seed them.

For all the nice wins North Carolina has racked up this season, those puzzling non-league losses cannot be ignored. Still, the Tar Heels have clearly demonstrated by winning nine consecutive conference games that they’re one of the best teams in the ACC.

Cameron Bairstow has established himself as one of the best players in the Mountain West Conference. (Aaron Sweet/Getty Images)Cameron Bairstow (41) has become one of the best players in the Mountain West Conference. (Aaron Sweet/Getty Images)

Bairstow leading Lobos’ charge

For most of the season, San Diego State has been the best team in the Mountain West. Before conference play began, the Aztecs beat Creighton and Marquette on neutral courts and won at Kansas. Their only loss came against full-strength Arizona.

Then San Diego State won its first 10 conference games and, for a spell, was rightfully considered a candidate for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Aztecs were the lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal year for the Mountain West. The only other strong candidate to make the NCAA Tournament, it seemed, was New Mexico.

The two teams met for the first time this season on Saturday, and the Lobos – thanks in large part to senior forward Cameron Bairstow’s 26 points and nine rebounds – rolled to a 14-point win. Earlier this week, Bairstow helped New Mexico survive a tough test at UNLV by scoring 18 points, grabbing six rebounds and blocking five shots.

Bairstow’s improvement this season has been remarkable. He has more than doubled his scoring average (9.7 ppg to 20.5) and upped his rebounding (5.9 to 7.2) and blocks (0.9 to 1.7). Bairstow is also playing a higher percentage of minutes (59.9 to 80.4) and using more possessions (23.1 to 28.6) while scoring more efficiently – his offensive rating (107.4 to 120.2), effective field goal percentage (45.6 to 56.2) and true shooting percentage (53.7 to 61.4) have spiked.

“I got the best power forward in the country playing for us in Cameron Bairstow,” Lobos coach Craig Neal said Saturday.

Alongside preseason All-Mountain West team members junior forward Alex Kirk and senior point guard Kendall Williams, Bairstow has fueled a high-powered Lobos offense that ranks first in the conference in points scored per possession during league play. But the Lobos’ three-game winning streak has been keyed by strong defense.

After giving up 1.04 points per possession in an 18-point win over Nevada on February 15, the Lobos held UNLV four days later to 0.89 and San Diego State on Saturday to a measly 0.75. Aztecs senior point guard Xavier Thames, a prime contender for the Mountain West player of the year award, scored just seven points on 2-of-12 shooting and posted his worst offensive rating (69) against major conference competition this season.

For Bairstow, Saturday was merely another day at the office. The 6-foot-9 forward has been playing at a high-level all season. With Saturday’s performance, he may have taken the lead in the conference player of the year race, though it will be hard to pick a winner until after the Lobos face the Aztecs at Viejas Arena on March 8, in a game that could decide who wins the Mountain West title.

New Mexico is now tied for first place with San Diego State in the conference standings. Two of the Lobos’ next three games are at home and they should be able to win at Nevada, which ranks 138th in Pomeroy’s team ratings. San Diego State still has to play at UNLV and Fresno State – who rank fourth and sixth, respectively, among Mountain West teams in Pomeroy’s team ratings – before hosting the Lobos.

“There's a little bit of rivalry going on, it is huge for us but in the picture we've still got four or five more games to go and knowing we still have to play at their place last game of the season,” Lobos Junior guard Hugh Greenwood said. “The defense is playing really well, we're moving the ball, we're scoring, it's all coming together but we're not peaking too early."

New Mexico is on track to make the NCAA Tournament no matter what happens in that game. It has an RPI of 22, a 7-2 record against the top 100 and just one loss to a team ranked outside the top 100. The Lobos are pegged as a nine-seed in SI’s latest bracket projection, which doesn't take into account the wins over UNLV and San Diego State.

On Monday, New Mexico should return to the top 25 of the AP Poll for the first time since November. With Bairstow’s help, the Lobos could finish the season where a majority of media believed they would when they picked New Mexico first in the Mountain West preseason poll.

Space beats Tennessee…Again

In Tennessee’s first meeting with Texas A&M this season, Aggies sophomore forward Antwan Space hit a contested pull-up three with 4.4 seconds remaining for a one-point win. He helped Texas A&M clinch a season sweep of the Vols on Saturday by breaking a 65-65 tie late in overtime with a game-winning, step-back trey.

Space has hit just nine three-point shots all season, but two of them have broke the Vols' heart. As impressive as Space’s shot was, the big takeaway from this game is what it means for Tennessee’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament. The Vols, losers of three of their last four games, have some work to do to.

Another loss in the regular season would be extremely costly. Three of those games are against teams (Mississippi State, Auburn and Missouri) that won’t make the NCAA Tournament and the other is against a fellow SEC bubble team (Missouri). Tennessee isn’t out of the running, but it might have to make some noise in the conference tournament to improve a profile that features just one RPI top-50 win (Virginia) and, in part because of Space, two sub-100 losses.

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