It’s officially fewer than 20 days until Selection Sunday. The countdown is on, and big performances this week may translate to seeding changes or even the difference between dancing and sitting at home in a few weeks. Which teams and players stood out the most this week? Sports Illustrated dives into this week’s Five Stars:
The Wolverines passed by far their biggest test of the season Sunday, knocking off Ohio State in an instant classic between two of the nation’s best. It was the type of performance that proves this Michigan team is a legitimate national title contender and a very real threat to Gonzaga’s and Baylor’s reign at the top of the sport.
Despite Michigan’s shooting a red-hot 10 for 13 from beyond the arc in the first half, Ohio State hung in the game thanks to big performances from Duane Washington Jr. and E.J. Liddell. While the shots didn’t fall from deep for the Wolverines in the second half, Juwan Howard’s club used a steady diet of Hunter Dickinson in the post to wear down the Buckeyes and eventually get its biggest win of the year. Dickinson controlled the game on the glass, snatching five offensive rebounds and tallying a team-high 22 points to help the Wolverines pull away slightly in the second half.
The win almost assuredly locks in Michigan for a No. 1 seed come March, an incredible accomplishment for a team that wasn’t ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 poll. Another major test looms Thursday against Iowa.
Noah Williams, Washington State
To turn around a Washington State program that is one of the toughest places to win in high-major basketball, Kyle Smith was going to need to find some diamonds in the rough. He certainly has in Williams, a former Buffalo commit from Seattle who has blossomed into one of the Pac-12’s best players as a sophomore. Williams exploded over the weekend for a combined 72 points in two wins for the Cougars, including a 40-point outburst Saturday to will WSU past Stanford. Those 40 points were a career high, eclipsing his 32 points, nine rebounds and seven assists on Thursday against Cal.
Williams’s performance this weekend proves that Washington State has a building block on its hands. The Cougars have overachieved in year two of the Smith era and are on pace for their first finish over .500 since the 2011–12 season, a significant accomplishment, especially considering WSU lost leading scorer CJ Elleby to the NBA draft after last season. Williams has been one of the nation’s biggest breakout stars, blossoming from a steady role player into a star in just one year. Perhaps the most notable improvement is his shooting ability: Williams was just 4 for 27 from deep last season but has knocked down 45 threes at a 42% clip this season. The Seattle native’s growth has been fun to watch, and his game should only continue to get better as he grows up in this Washington State program.
Is Duke back? The Blue Devils have won four straight, including knocking off ACC contender Virginia and blowing out Syracuse. That’s enough to give Duke at least a puncher’s chance at an at-large bid. More importantly, Duke is finally playing at a level closer to what Blue Devil fans expect, with the midseason departure of Jalen Johnson seemingly helping them find their rhythm on both ends of the floor.
Part of Duke’s resurgence has been the ability of different players to step up on different nights. Against Virginia, Mike Krzyzewski went to smaller lineups with versatile forward Jaemyn Brakefield playing next to star Matthew Hurt in the frontcourt. Brakefield gave the Blue Devils a huge lift on both ends, scoring 11 points and blocking four shots off the bench. In the Syracuse game, Coach K gave big minutes to true center Mark Williams, and Williams responded with his first career double double in the win. Consistent play from the likes of Brakefield, Williams and freshman Jeremy Roach gives a huge lift to a Duke team that has lacked answers outside of Hurt and star freshman DJ Steward. Saturday’s home tilt with Louisville looms large if it wants to find its way into the field of 68.
Joseph Yesufu, Drake
Drake continues to walk a tightrope on the NCAA tournament bubble, and Yesufu stepped up in a major way to lead the Bulldogs to two wins over Evansville. With star point guard Roman Penn out for the year with a foot injury, coach Darian DeVries looked to Yesufu and the sophomore has responded. After scoring 32 points Sunday on 12-for-14 shooting, Yesufu one-upped himself with 36 points Monday to complete the sweep of the Purple Aces. The sweep moved Drake to 23–2 on the year and inched it one step closer to punching its ticket to the Big Dance.
With Penn and leading scorer ShanQuan Hemphill each out with injuries, Yesufu becomes the primary scoring option for this team. He’s a dynamic ballhandler who can knock down outside shots and slash to the basket. The big question will be whether Yesufu can also take on primary point guard responsibilities and keep this offense flowing. The Bulldogs’ NCAA tournament hopes may depend on it.
The Yellow Jackets’ late charge onto the bubble will certainly get less attention than Duke’s push, but Georgia Tech is likely in better shape in the eyes of the selection committee at this point after two big wins this week. While a road win over Miami may not move the needle significantly, Georgia Tech dominated that game and climbed 17 spots on KenPom, from No. 56 to No. 39 after the 27-point win. “Style points” may not directly matter to the committee, but metrics like KenPom and the NET certainly do, and big wins help with that.
The Jackets then followed that Miami win up with a 69–53 win at Virginia Tech. While the Hokies were coming off a COVID-19 pause, it’s still a significant win given VT was the No. 16 team in the most recent AP poll and will be a Quad 1 win for the Yellow Jackets. While it still has a tough hill to climb after two bad losses to open the season against Georgia State and Mercer, Josh Pastner’s team now has a path to the Big Dance if it can finish strong heading into the ACC tournament.