February is the calendar’s shortest month, which is good news if you are impatiently waiting for the postseason, but not the most welcome news when March serves as the deadline for your season’s fate. As January is put to bed by the middle of this week, so begins a crucial month where the college basketball season heads into the home stretch. With that in mind, let us begin this week by looking at a dozen teams for which February may prove particularly crucial, ranging from those fine-tuning themselves into contenders come tourney time to those hoping to build the resume needed to even make it there.
Yeah, yeah—the Blue Devils’ defense needs work. But they also will have to get more out of their backcourt. Over the last three games, freshman point guard Trevon Duval is averaging 3.7 points on 26.3% shooting with a 1.4 assist/turnover ratio. Grayson Allen has scored five points or fewer in three of his last five outings. That type of production won’t cut it on a title team, and Coach K will have to sort out whether Allen needs to handle more point duties.
After scoring 48 points on 39 shots in a two-point overtime loss to Oklahoma State on Jan. 20, freshman sensation Trae Young had his two lowest-usage games of the season last week. Against Kansas he remained effective (26 points on nine field goal attempts, with nine assists), but Alabama largely took him out of the game. Much of the Sooners’ February will be about finding the right balance between Young’s heroics and a more varied attack.
The Tar Heels have now dropped consecutive games for the second time this season and have now lost at home to Wofford and North Carolina State. It’s not a team with truly glaring issues, but it would be well served by denying opportunities at the arc and getting Joel Berry II back into form after three games in which he shot a combined 31.3% with eight assists and 10 turnovers.
The extremely young Wildcats have yet another new piece to fit in and bring up to speed quickly in forward Jarred Vanderbilt, who in his first four games back from a preseason foot injury has been beastly on the boards (29 rebounds in 49 minutes) but an offensive liability (5-for-22 shooting). If they can even out Vanderbilt’s Jekyll-and-Hyde act by getting him comfortable enough offensively to stay on the court, that could be a huge February boost.
The Sun Devils won 12 in a row to start the season; now they’re 4-5 in the Pac-12 and haven’t won consecutive games in more than a month. Their offense has hit a major wall, thanks in no small part to inefficient scoring inside. More concerning might be how many opposing big men are putting up some of their best numbers against Arizona State. Bobby Hurley’s team will have to defend the interior to right the ship.
How real are the Tigers? The Bracket Matrix (which reflects a general consensus among tourney projections) has them as a low No. 3 seed, which would be quite a come-up, but is hard to reconcile with last week’s dismal 36-point visit to Virginia. A mid-month stretch where visits to Florida State and Virginia Tech sandwich a home date with Duke will be revealing.
Earning a season split by winning their Valentine’s Day date with Nevada would go a long way toward boosting the Broncos’ bubble prospects. Just as important will be avoiding any regrettable losses in Mountain West play—a very real prospect when you have the league’s second-worst turnover rate on both ends. They’ll also need to hope forward Chandler Hutchison (who uses a MWC-high 32.9% of his team’s possessions) can keep shouldering the load.
A Big Ten team with 20 wins would be hard for the selection committee to ignore (though not impossible, as Ohio State could tell you). The 16-8 Cornhuskers can get there just by sweeping their four remaining home dates, but it’s the road trips to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois where they will have to avoid resume-dampening losses. The Big Ten’s worst-rebounding team must hit the glass to do so.
With five losses in a row and perhaps this season’s most impactful combination of injuries—forward Bonzie Colson’s broken foot and lead guard Matt Farrell’s badly sprained ankle—the Fighting Irish are fighting to keep their heads above water. February will be about scratching and clawing out any wins they can to keep their bubble chances alive, and hoping all they can that Colson and/or Farrell might return to finish out their senior seasons.
Frankly, with seven losses in its last nine games, this is not a tournament team as things stand now. But the upside of a gauntlet as grueling as the Big 12’s is it provides ample opportunity to pick up quality wins. A winning record the rest of the way and a win or two in the conference tournament could score an invite. First the Bears must cut down on the Big 12’s worst turnover rate and improve its lowest shooting percentages inside the arc and out.
A neutral-site win over Kansas and road win at USC (plus a 5-3 Pac-12 start) have the Huskies in the conversation for a surprise tourney bid in Mike Hopkins’s first year in Seattle. The first four games of February could prove make-or-break: home dates with Arizona and Arizona State and visits to Oregon and Oregon State. The Huskies’ offense remains a work in progress; until this past week they hadn’t had a game with better than 0.97 points per possession since December.
A bubble team whose best wins are at home against bubble mates Maryland and Virginia Tech (and is just 3-4 outside of the Carrier Dome), the Orange’s loaded February schedule (trips to Duke, Miami, Louisville; visits from Virginia and North Carolina) pretty much means they will either be picking up some more quality victories or not winning much at all. Syracuse is 3-3 in games with 70-plus possessions and 12-3 otherwise. Controlling the tempo is a must.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Monday column on college hoops. It’s a sort of a grab-bag of news and tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to gripe about the injustice of SZA getting snubbed at the Grammys, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
It’s unlikely any two press conferences were as closely watched this weekend as Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s on Friday and Saturday, and with good reason. As questions arise regarding how the school dealt with allegations of sexual abuse against former gymnastics trainer Larry Nassar, ESPN released a bombshell report by Paula Levigne and Nicole Noren that details how the Spartans’ men’s basketball and football teams have had their own pattern of insufficient handling of sexual misconduct allegations. Among those pertaining to basketball are student-assistant coach (and former team captain) Travis Walton remaining on staff after being charged with punching a woman in the face at a bar (he eventually plead guilty to a separate littering charge) and later being accused, along with two Spartans players, of sexually assaulting a female student. (Walton told ESPN he does not remember anything from that accusation.) Another incident involved then-Michigan State teammates Keith Appling and Adreian Payne being accused of sexually assaulting another female classmate and faced some punishment from the school but apparently none from the basketball program. You can read the full ESPN report here.
As for Izzo, what he said on the subject in those press conferences was close to nothing. On Friday, the day of ESPN’s report, he said he would “cooperate with any investigation going forward, as we have always done. And that’s all I have to say about it.” After his team’s win over Maryland on Sunday, Izzo tried to fend off repeated questions from ESPN’s Tisha Thompson about the Appling situation with the same sort of blanket vow to cooperate with investigations, including when asked if he had any regrets about his program’s past handling of sexual assault allegations. The full video is below:
This situation is, rightly, not going away anytime soon. Izzo is likely being advised to limit his public statements at this time, but for a figure of his stature and regard, it’s a disconcertingly flat response. Eventually Izzo is going to have to give more of a response than this. He owes a lot of answers.
And some of those questions may well come from inside his program. According to the Athletic’s Brendan F. Quinn, when whether Spartans players are seeking information or trying to just focus on basketball, point guard Cassius Winston made it clear it was the former. “You don't put up walls,” Winston said. “This is real life. This is a terrible situation. This is something we're going to use to tell our daughters one day, or our sons, especially. You can't ignore it. You've got to listen to it. We have to listen. We have to discuss. That's when you get answers.”
1. Virginia: Nobody in the ACC is within two games of the Cavaliers in the loss column after Saturday’s win at Duke, putting the Hoos in the driver’s seat for their third league title in five seasons. Virginia’s current adjusted defensive efficiency would be the best of the KenPom era (since 2001-02) by a whopping 0.32 points per possession.
2. Kentucky: Playing in Morgantown seems daunting enough; playing there as the youngest team in the country and trailing by 15 at halftime seems impossible. But the Wildcats pulled off one of this season’s most impressive wins thanks to a true breakout from Kevin Knox (34 points on 11-of-17 shooting) and dominance of the offensive boards (they grabbed 21 of a possible 38).
3. Cincinnati: After Virginia, who’s got the second best defense of the KenPom era? That would currently be (just about) a tie between 2009 Memphis (84.1) and the current Bearcats (84.2), which puts in perspective just how outstanding Mick Cronin’s team has been on that end. Cincinnati is 8-0 in AAC play and only one of those wins has been by single digits. Five have been by 20-plus.
4. Auburn: The Tigers just keep rolling, winning by 18 at Missouri and then beating LSU by 25 at home. They’re 7-1 in the SEC and just three of their remaining 10 league games are against teams with a current winning conference record.
5. East Tennessee State: Wins over Mercer and Wofford give the Buccaneers, who have the SoCon’s best offense and defense, a two-game cushion in the league standings. Steve Forbes’s team is experienced and deep and nearly won at Xavier in December. Stash this name away for tourney time.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Joseph Kilgore, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi guard
The Houston native stuffed the stat sheet in the Islanders’ two wins last week, first putting up 13 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and five steals against Abilene Christian, then netting a 24-point, 12-rebound, 11-assist triple double (with three blocks) in overtime against Houston Baptist.
Junior: Jimond Ivey, Akron guard
The Zips fell to Ball State in double OT on Saturday, but Ivey did more than his fair share, scoring 48 points on 15-of-23 shooting from the field (including 9-for-12 from three) to go with eight rebounds. He also had 17 points, six rebounds and four assists in a win over Ohio.
Sophomore: Zane Martin, Towson guard
You know what’s cooler than a 30-point game? Two 30-point games. Martin scored 35 points in a win over William & Mary on Thursday, then 32 in a loss to Elon on Saturday—the first two 30-point efforts of his collegiate career.
Freshman: Mohamed Bamba, Texas forward
It’s hard to have a more efficient week than Bamba’s. Over the Longhorns’ wins against Iowa State and Ole Miss, Bamba made 15 of 17 field goals, all three of his three-point tries, 16 of 17 free throws, and grabbed 27 rebounds and blocked seven shots — all without turning the ball over once.
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Cincinnati senior forward Gary Clark, who is averaging 13.3 points and 9.1 rebounds for the Bearcats. So, Gary, tell us about the best...
...animal at the zoo. “Probably a lion. I love watching the Discovery Channel, and seeing a lion in a zoo atmosphere compared to out in wildlife, it’s just like, This is a beast. They have a beast tamed right now.”
...meal that you can make. “I would have to say breakfast, with French toast, eggs, and bacon. My grandfather, before he passed, made French toast for me one time and taught me how to toss the yolk back and forth in the egg to get rid of the egg white so you’re dealing with just the yolk, so it’s easier to make perfect French toast. I try to make it at least once a week, once every two weeks maybe, depending on our schedule and travel.”
...decoration in your room. “My Christmas tree. I live by myself and last year I started a thing where I left my tree up all the way until April. All my friends saw it on my Snapchat all the time and they were giving me the most crap about it. So this year nobody knows but the people I have over to my apartment, but I still have my Christmas tree up. It’s all decorated—lights, ornaments. I may leave it up until I graduate. My mom may come up and take it down before then though.”
Social Media Post of the Week
Assigned Viewing: Kansas at Kansas State, Monday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN
The Wildcats haven’t beaten their in-state rivals since February 2015, dropping five in a row to the Jayhawks since then, including an thrilling one-point loss in Lawrence on Jan. 13. They’ll have a chance to snap that streak Monday night in what should be a rocking Bramlage Coliseum, where the home team has knocked off Oklahoma and TCU since these two teams’ previous meeting. In that game, Kansas State guard Barry Brown (5-for-14 shooting) and Kansas forward Svi Mykhailiuk (4-for-11) both had atypically mediocre performances in the midst of potential all-conference seasons. Don’t expect a repeat here. And there will be much more than Sunflower State bragging rights on the line, as a Wildcats win would move them into a tie with the Jayhawks for first place in the Big 12. There’s a February possibility no one saw coming.
Before You’re Dismissed...
• According to a report from the Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach, Michigan State’s alleged mishandling of sexual assault allegations may have further consequences beyond the school. Auerbach reports that NCAA president Mark Emmert was personally alerted to “37 reports involving Michigan State athletes sexually assaulting women” in November 2010. Emmert subsequently denied ignoring the letter detailing the reports, in a letter the Athletic added below its initial story as an addendum.
• UConn’s men’s basketball team is under NCAA investigation again, according to the Connecticut Post. That’s more bad news for a program in the midst of a dismal 11-10 season after a 16-17 campaign a year ago. Head coach Kevin Ollie is under contract through 2021.
• Penn State and Ohio State had what might end up being the finish of the year.
• Villanova guard Phil Booth’s broken hand is a significant blow to the short rotation of a national title contender. His season is not necessarily done, though he’s reportedly expected to be out for at least a month.
• Here’s an impressive stat via ESPN’s Jeff Goodman: Since the 2013-14 season, Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s teams are 64-16 in ACC play. In that same span, Roy Williams is 57-23 and Mike Krzyzewski is 56-24.
• Oh my, this dunk by Illinois State sophomore Madison Williams.
• And this alley-oop pass from UCLA’s Jaylen Hands against Stanford. That’s one way to do it.
• But honestly, this transition pass from LSU’s Tremont Waters was even better, if much less flashy.
• Another thought in light of Michigan State, and before that Tennessee, and Baylor, and Penn State, and so on: It's almost like universities entering into a tangentially related, highly lucrative, extremely visible side business inherently warps their priorities to the potential detriment of the rest of their student body. Almost.
• In case you were worried our increasingly web-based economy and culture couldn’t get any more fraudulent and hollow, here is an informative (and well-presented) look at fake Twitter followers from the New York Times. As our digital culture continues to constitute more of our offline one—as retweets and trending topics influence our news cycle and thus our public attention, as “influencers” gain further cultural cachet—it's important to understand how much of an illusion so much of it might be.