Teams outside the top 10 most likely to make the Final Four, more mail

Wednesday February 26th, 2014

Marcus Smart has lived under scrutiny this year at Oklahoma State, but would it have been worse for him in the NBA?
Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Aaron (@Perrywinkle1267): [Marcus] Smart came back this year, which turned out to be dumb. So should the [Harrison] twins ignore Smart's example and be dumb?

As you all know, I am staying away from all NBA draft talk until June, but it seems pretty clear to me that the Harrison twins could use at least another year of college. Sure, they're big and athletic, but there are a lot of big athletes in the NBA. The Harrisons need to become better players.

The more intriguing question for me is whether Marcus Smart, who returned last weekend from his three-game suspension for shoving a fan, did the right thing by coming back to Oklahoma State for his sophomore season. The consensus seems to be that Smart made a huge mistake by coming back to school. I could not disagree more.

We know what Smart gave up -- Travis Ford has said that the Orlando Magic planned to pick Smart at No. 2. And Smart will not be drafted that high this June. Much of that is because of the strength of this year' draft class, but it's also a result of the disappointing season Smart has had so far. Two things have been exposed: his inabilty to make three-point shots consistently and his emotional instability.

To those who argue that Smart should have turned pro last year, I have a question: Don't you think those weaknesses would have been exposed anyway? As an NBA player, Smart would have been in a far less nurturing environment than the one he is in now. It is a cutthroat world up there, with real men fighting each other every day for the chance to make a living. Had Smart been a rookie in the NBA this season, it is not hard to envision him struggling with his outside shooting, falling apart in the face of adversity and doing serious damage to his long-term career.

Smart has learned some hard lessons this season, but some valuable ones as well. He's not Superman. He needs to handle adversity better. He needs to figure out how to channel his competitive passion and maintain an even keel, even in the good times. And he needs to become a more complete player.

Keep in mind that Smart will turn 20 years old next week. He has a lot of growing up to do. But isn't that the whole point of college? Yes, Smart might make a little less money during his first few years in the NBA, but I believe that because of everything that has happened to him this season, he will enter life as a professional basketball player better prepared not just to play in the league, but have an impact for a long, long time. Bet against him at your own peril.

Justin Evans (@_Evansj_): Do you still have MSU one of your favorites to win it all despite injuries and losses?

Another day, another question about Michigan State's injuries. The only thing more tiresome for Tom Izzo than having to answer such questions is having to deal with the injuries themselves. "I've never been through anything like this," he said after the loss to Michigan on Sunday. "When you add up the number of people that have missed practices, we're in to the 150s. I've had years where we were at 10, 12, 15. So if I'm not handling it totally proper, it's because it's new territory for me. There's been nothing close to this. I'm hearing all these teams, Arizona and Syracuse missing a guy. We've missed a lot of guys."

The team finally got some good news this week when junior forward Branden Dawson returned to practice after missing the last five weeks because of a broken hand he suffered while pounding on a table. Before Dawson could return, he had to get pins surgically removed, so it will be a while before that incision is totally healed. In the meantime, Dawson needs to get his conditioning back, which will take some time. And time, if you haven't noticed, is starting to run out on this team.

As for Keith Appling, who is playing despite a badly injured right wrist, I raised the question over the weekend whether Michigan State might be better off without him right now. Overall, I think he brings more positives than negatives, but this is a problem. Because of his injury, Appling did not shoot in practice for nearly three weeks. That has thrown off his rhythm and battered his confidence. And while he is playing with pain, he has also been complaining that the wrist is physically weak. That's why in the three games since he has been back, he has attempted just two three-pointers. He only took one shot in the win at Purdue, but he had nine assists in a game where the Spartans set a school record for made threes in a game. He is the one player who can get this team's running game going.

There are other lingering problems as well. Senior center Adreian Payne is still out of shape because of his long layoff from a foot injury, and Gary Harris is playing with a busy head that has robbed him of his shooting touch. I'd like to say -- as I've been saying for months -- that once Michigan State gets healthy, this team will be a legitimate run at a national championship. But we're in the last week of February. The Spartans are who we think they are -- a good team, not quite a great one, which is trying not to wither under an endless run of bad luck.

Kirk Bristol (@kbraptor): I have to pick someone from outside the top 10 to make [the] Final Four. Who and why?

I love questions that inspire me to make a list. Here's my top five outside the top 10:

1. Wisconsin (AP rank: 14) -- The Badgers are under-ranked because their five-out-of-six losing skid temporarily knocked them out of the polls. They had some miserable shooting nights during that stretch, but those turned out to be outliers. Wisconsin shot 45 percent in a win at Michigan and 48 percent in a win at Iowa. Most of all, I like that they are learning to get some work done in the post, not only by sending Frank (The Tank) Kaminsky down there but also by relying on the muscle and energy of freshman forward Nigel Hayes.

2. Michigan (18) -- It's pretty amazing to think the Wolverines could win the Big Ten despite playing most of the season without Mitch McGary, but that's what happens when John Beilein is running the show. The Wolverines' backcourt of Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert are tailor-made for Beilein's intricate sets and blue-collar work ethic.

3. Michigan State (18) -- The Spartans are beat up but still have plenty of potential. They also have a coach whose tournament record is pretty good.

4. Kentucky (17) -- My sense is the Wildcats' guards are not good enough to get them to Arlington, but there are not many teams with this big of a front line.

5. UConn (NR) -- Of course it's ludicrous to suggest the Huskies could win a national championship. Then again, I seem to remember a UConn team finishing fifth in the Big East and then winning the 2011 title behind a diminutive do-everything point guard with a huge heart.

Joel Norris (@JoelNorris777): How many wins does Nebraska need to make the tourney and will they need B1G tourney help?

This is going to be one of the most interesting bubble cases of these final two weeks. I don't usually care too much one way or another which teams makes the tournament, but you'd have to be made of cardboard not to hope that the Huskers will get over the finish line. This is a program that has not been to the tournament since 1998 and has never won an NCAA tournament game. Not one!

Right now, Nebraska is two games over .500 in the Big Ten. That puts the Huskers in the conversation, but they still have work to do. The good news/bad news is they have a favorable schedule down the stretch: at Illinois, vs. Northwestern, at Indiana and vs. Wisconsin. If they go 2-2 with a win over Wisconsin, they will be in a very strong position. If they go 3-1, they will be looking pretty good. If they go 2-2 and lose to Wisconsin, then they need to avoid a bad loss in the Big Ten tournament and hope for a favorable bounce in the committee room.

"Me Not You" (@autos816): Do u see a KU /WSU meeting in the elite 8 possible (SIC) this year?

This is an alluring twist on the "Does Wichita St. deserve a one-seed?" debate. (Even though I really don't think there will be much debate as long as the Shockers stay undefeated.) After all, Bill Self has gone on record as saying he has no interest in setting up a home-and-home series with the Shockers -- and I don't blame him. But if there were ever a year we should want them to play, this is it, so we're going to have to hope that the basketball gods make it happen for us in March. If the tournament started today, I believe Kansas would be a No. 2 seed and Wichita State would be a No. 1, in which case they would both be sent to the Midwest. That means a meeting in the Elite Eight would be possible. The only question then will be whether the state of Kansas can survive such a titanic clash.

Of course, there is also a chance that both these teams could end up on the top line, especially given the way Syracuse has played the last couple of weeks. While that raises the even more-tantalizing possibility that these teams could meet at the Final Four, it also reduces the chances that they would play, since it is so difficult to get that far. Really, if you think about it, the only way to absolutely make sure that these two play in the tournament is to send them both to the First Four. Sure, that would be going against the grain a little, but I'm game if you are.

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