Four-Point Play: Nebraska bolsters at-large candidacy; Baylor's Chery thriving, more
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.
Nebraska topples No. 9 Wisconsin; moves closer to NCAA bid
During a press conference for Big Ten coaches at the league’s media day in October, Tim Miles acknowledged the low expectations that had been set for his team. “I see we’re picked 12th out of 12th again,” the Nebraska coach said. “And it’s not just by you guys. I see it’s everybody.” Indeed, not only did the league’s media pick the Huskers to finish in the Big Ten cellar, the most Big 10 basketball fans would have said the same. Nebraska was going to be bad again, the consensus was, because when was the last time Nebraska wasn’t bad? Were we to pose that question again in April, the answer would be obvious: 2013-14
The Huskers knocked off AP No. 9 Wisconsin, 77-68, Sunday at Pinnacle Bank Arena to improve to 11-7 in the Big Ten and take a huge step toward earning their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1998. After the game, as Huskers fans stormed the court and celebrated around him, Miles encapsulated the moment. “It’s awesome.”
Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser hit two free throws at the 9:14 mark to put Wisconsin ahead by four points. Over the next four minutes, the Huskers ripped off a 12-1 run, capped by a layup from forward Terran Petteway, that put them up by seven. Nebraska got a couple of timely jump shots – including a contested three from the wing from sophomore forward Walter Pitchford with three minutes, 13 seconds remaining – and converted enough free throws in the final two minutes to hold off the Badgers. Petteway, the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 17.8 points per game, finished with 26 points on 7-of-16 shooting and 10 rebounds. Guard Shavon Shields added 26 on 10-of-17.
The win clinches the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye for Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament, which begins Thursday at Bankers Life FieldHouse in Indianapolis. The Huskers are will face either No. 5 seed Ohio State or No. 12 seed Purdue in the quarterfinals on Friday. Win that, and Nebraska probably won’t have to sweat out selection Sunday. The Huskers have now beaten three teams ranked in the top 30 of the RPI and boast a solid strength of schedule (35) and RPI (47) figure.
Since getting blown out at Big Ten regular season champion Michigan on February 5, Nebraska has won eight of nine games, the lone blemish an 11-point loss at Illinois. The Cornhuskers, in other words, are the hottest team in the nation’s toughest conference. Sunday night’s win was the culmination of their stirring charge toward tourney inclusion.
— Paul Myerberg (@PaulMyerberg) March 10, 2014
When Nebraska hired Miles two years ago, anyone with a sliver of common sense could see the former Colorado State coach was embarking on a long-term rebuild. Nebraska was an archetypal “football school” that hadn’t won a regular season conference championship in hoops since 1950 (when it was a member of the Big Seven conference).
The Huskers couldn’t even beat Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State on the gridiron. What evidence was there to suggest Nebraska’s hoops team team could battle with those Big Ten heavyweights? Pinnacle Bank Arena, the gleaming basketball facility opened in downtown Lincoln in August 2013, wasn’t supposed to stage games this big, this early in Miles’ tenure. It seemed it would take a lot longer than two years before the Huskers were, say, hosting potential NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds in March with at-large berths on the line.
That timeline was far too conservative. Nebraska is in good position to make the NCAA Tournament, and with just one major contributor, senior guard Ray Gallegos, leaving in the offseason, the Huskers are set up for future success. And for those people who picked Nebraska to finish last in the preseason: you were off by eight spots.
Chery shining during Baylor’s turnaround
One of the biggest questions Baylor needed to answer entering this season was who would replace Pierre Jackson? The point guard who averaged a Big 12-best 19.8 points and 7.1 assists, ran Baylor’s offense and was named to the All-Conference First Team by the Associated Press last season wouldn’t be easy to replace, after all.
Adding Jackson, who transferred from the College of Southern Idaho to Baylor in 2011, worked out well for the Bears two years ago. But would tapping the JUCO ranks again to find Jackson’s successor yield similar results? Expecting Kenny Chery, formerly of State Fair Community College in Missouri, to replicate Jackson’s production would have been unfair. If he could just play well enough to help the Bears make the NCAA Tournament, Baylor’s first season with Chery would be a bigger success than its last with Jackson.
After winning the National Invitational Tournament in 2013, Baylor is on track to make the field of 68. Much of the credit should go to Chery. Though he hasn’t posted Jackson-like numbers in his first season of college hoops, Chery is averaging a respectable 11.1 points and five assists per game.
In Baylor’s two wins this week over No. 16 Iowa State and Kansas State, Chery scored a combined 45 points on 15-of-28 shooting and dished out 12 assists. Chery hit two big jump shots in the 13-0, game-sealing run Baylor ripped off in the final 2:14 of the home win over the Cyclones.
On Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum, where Kansas State had previously lost just once this season, Chery, who finished with a career-high 29 points, knocked down 10 consecutive free throws inside the final three minutes to help Baylor hold off the Wildcats. “Kenny was huge,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said Saturday. “He has been great from the free throw line, all except for that stretch when he was injured. We have confidence in him up there. In practice, he makes them.”
Few teams have exhibited more season-to-season variance over the past four years than Baylor. Since 2010, the Bears have alternated between making the Elite Eight and missing the NCAA Tournament altogether. The pattern dictates Baylor will make the regional finals in March.
It wasn’t so long ago that it appeared the Bears wouldn’t even have an opportunity to make it that far. On February 8, Baylor lost to then-No. 21 Oklahoma to fall to 2-8 in the Big 12. The Bears had seemingly fallen out of contention for an at-large tourney bid and shown no signs they could turn things around. Chery, limited by turf toe, played only nine minutes in that game, and 11 in the Bears’ loss to Kansas four days earlier.
Since Chery returned to the starting lineup for the Bears win over TCU on February 12, Baylor has won seven of eight games. During that stretch, Chery has averaged 15.9 points and posted an offensive rating of 121.5. “At the end of the day, we need him,” Drew said. “He is a very good player and he runs the team.” Not to be overlooked: senior forward Cory Jefferson scored 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting against Iowa State and 16 on 6-of-11 against Kansas State.
With eight wins over teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI and a top-10 strength of schedule, Baylor is projected by most mock brackets to earn a No. 7 or No. 8 seed. The Bears can improve their standing by winning a game or two in the Big 12 Tournament, which begins Wednesday. Baylor, the league’s No. 7 seed, will face No. 10 seed TCU in the first round. “We have control over our own destiny, and if we are still are playing then we still have a chance to move up,” Drew said. “We have been playing together. It has not been pretty but you know that is the Big 12.”
Assuming they get past the Horned Frogs, the Bears will face No. 2 seed Oklahoma, and the Sooners swept Baylor in the regular season. Both losses came during the 2-8 stretch that seemingly doomed Baylor’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament. In a potential third meeting with Oklahoma, the stakes will be different for Baylor. Over the past week, Chery has pushed the Bears to the brink of tourney lock status. The Bears are just trying to polish their resumé at this point. And who knows, maybe another Elite Eight trip is in the offing.
Neutral fans would probably prefer Baylor loses before then. Staring at these things for two hours at a time will be a challenge.
Tennessee boosts tourney chances
Last week, I wrote about how Arkansas had seemingly played its way into the field by winning at then-No. 17 Kentucky and at home against third-place Georgia. Where the Razorbacks stand after getting blown out Saturday at Alabama is unclear; they probably need two wins in the SEC Tournament to feel comfortable heading into selection Sunday.
But whereas the Razorbacks saw their case for an at-large bid weakened, another SEC bubble team notched a big win at the expense of a yet another SEC bubble team. Tennessee pummeled Missouri, 72-45, Saturday in Knoxville to cap a four-game winning streak to end the season.
Tennessee took its fourth bad loss – roughly defined in tourney parlance as coming against a team ranked outside the top 100 of the Ratings Percentage Index – of the season on February 22 at Texas A&M. That result appears to have motivated the Vols. They’ve won their last four games on average by a margin of 25 points (31 over their last three).
Another source of motivation? Trying to save coach Cuonzo Martin’s job. Tennessee has not reached the NCAA Tournament in two-plus seasons under Martin, and there’s been some speculation that he could be let go if the Vols don’t make it this season. Jeronne Maymon talked Saturday about the effect the hot seat talk has had on the team. "Most definitely,” Maymon said, according to VolQuest.com. We obviously want to take some of that [speculation] off our coach," Maymon said. "It's not his fault for us to go out there and lose games. He's not taken a shot this whole season. So wanted to go out there and kind of stand up for him. Play as hard as we can for him.”
None of the teams Tennessee beat (Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Missouri) during its streak is likely to make the NCAA Tournament, but winning four games in resounding fashion to close out the regular season will at least make the committee sit up and take notice.
Conference champion Florida and Kentucky will hear their names called on selection Sunday. How many more teams will the SEC get in the field? One, maybe two. Tennessee’s win Saturday over Missouri seemed to have put the Vols ahead of at least one of the SEC teams scrapping for an at-large bid. The Vols could potentially cement their place ahead of the other, Arkansas, if it beats the Razorbacks in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. All Arkansas needs to do to make that matchup happen is beat either Auburn or South Carolina.
If the Vols keep playing the way they have recently, Arkansas won’t provide much resistance. Over the past three games, Tennessee has scored an average of 1.27 points per possession and allowed just 0.76. The Vols’ efficiency margin over that span (+ 0.51 PPP) dwarfs the mark (+ 0.18 PPP) posted by first-place Florida over the entire conference season. “Guys are just playing unselfish, giving their body up, sticking to their roll and staying confident when their shot isn't falling,” Junior forward Jarnell Stokes said Saturday. Stokes scored 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds against Missouri on Saturday, three days after notching a 20-7-7 line against Auburn. Meanwhile, point guard Antonio Barton seems to be hitting his stride.
After scoring in double figures just once between a January 18 loss at Kentucky and the aforementioned loss at Texas A&M, Barton has scored 21 points against Vanderbilt, 14 against Auburn and 16 against Missouri. The Memphis transfer picked a perfect time to play his best basketball of the season. The Vols need Barton, and shooting guard Jordan McRae, to complement what Stokes and forward Jeronne Maymon (10.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg) provide on the interior. "My confidence level is high right now,” Barton said Saturday. “Thanks to my teammates they are finding me and I'm knocking down shots. I just have to work and continue to get better”
The selection committee takes teams’ entire bodies of work into consideration, but wins over fellow SEC bubble dwellers Missouri and Arkansas in the final two weeks before selection Sunday would be huge for Tennessee. The Vols have also beaten ACC regular season champion Virginia and possible tourney team Xavier and own a solid RPI (41) and very good strength of schedule figure (21).
In notching four consecutive wins, Tennessee finished the regular season with more momentum than most bubble teams. Whether it will be enough to nudge Tennessee into the field of 68 is an open question – one a potential win over Arkansas in the conference tournament quarterfinals would help the selection committee answer.
Long strikes again against Oklahoma State
(Via Youtube user RobDauster99)
On February 3, Iowa State guard Naz long buried a three to force triple overtime in the No. 16 Cyclones’ one-point win at Oklahoma State. In the return game Saturday at Hilton Coliseum, Iowa State point guard DeAndre Kane rebounded a rare missed free throw from Cowboys guard Phil Forte (86.7 FT%) and fed Long with a bounce pass near midcourt with less than four seconds remaining in regulation. The Cowboys chose not to foul and Long took two dribbles, sidestepped a defender, pulled up and sank a game-tying trey. Iowa State went on to win in overtime, 85-81. The next time Oklahoma State faces Iowa State, if it’s a close game in the waning seconds, the Cowboys might want to use Loyola Maryland’s unique strategy for defending Stephen Curry. And even that might not be enough to prevent Long from breaking the Cowboys’ hearts.