Well folks, I can’t believe it, but we’re really here: The final week of college basketball’s regular season. It seems like only yesterday we were watching Kentucky’s Pro Day workout, all while trying to figure out how to properly pronounce Shai Gilegous-Alexander’s hyphenated last name, and now all of a sudden we are entering the last week of the season. I ask ya, where does the time go?
Of course while there are only two weeks left until Selection Sunday, and one week left in the regular season, make no mistake: These are the most important weeks of the entire college hoops season. Outside of a select few programs most NCAA Tournament bids are up for grabs, be it as an at-large contender, or as an automatic bid in a smaller conference. Furthermore, even the teams that are safely in the field (like Kentucky) are still playing for tournament seeding in the Big Dance.
So with just one week left in the season, what are the national storylines you need to watch? Here are seven:
What’s next with college basketball’s FBI scandal?
While Friday’s wild day of news courtesy of Yahoo doesn’t have to do directly with this year’s NCAA Tournament, it remains the biggest story in the sport. It’s the kind of thing that has piqued interest from non-college basketball fans, and one that – like it or not – will be a cloud which hangs over the sport the next few weeks.
Yet what has been increasingly interesting over the last couple days is this: While everyone took Yahoo’s report as gospel when it first broke early on Friday, there has been increased skepticism over quite a few elements in the days that followed. That tends to happen when (as I’ve mentioned on Twitter several times) the entire case is built on leaked expense reports and e-mails from someone who isn’t the most trustworthy character. Remember, the man at the center of this case (Christian Dawkins) is a noted con-man, who was once fired for charging $42,000 in fake expenses to a client’s credit card. Is that really someone that we should trust with 100 percent authority? Especially in a case that can alter college basketball forever?
Reminder: Virtually every piece of info came out yesterday was via invoices/emails of Christian Dawkins, a noted con man who was once fired for charging $42,000 in fake Uber charges to a client's credit card. Take his word with a grain of salt https://t.co/It7UhjsttG
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) February 24, 2018
It seems like it’s questionable, and what’s been shocking is how many people have pushed back on the initial report. Whether it’s players like Malcolm Brogdon who’ve said they’ve done nothing wrong (or in some cases even met Christian Dawkins period) to others like Duke (Wendell Carter), Kentucky (Kevin Knox) or Alabama (Collin Sexton) who’ve played players in question, it’s clear that folks across college sports aren’t buying it. The fact that Michigan State consulted with the NCAA directly before clearing Miles Bridges to play Sunday makes me believe that the folks in the actual NCAA aren’t buying all the details of the story either.
Ultimately, it’s been fascinating to see how much has changed in this story, just in the last 72 hours. And how much could change going forward.
What’s next with Arizona?
Oh, you thought I forgot about the Wildcats, didn’t you? Well don’t worry, we’re going to get to them here. Considering that they were implicated in a separate report (this one by ESPN), it felt like a good idea to bring them up in a separate section. Which is exactly what I’m doing here.
And unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few days, you know exactly what Arizona is accused of, as head coach Sean Miller has reportedly been caught on an FBI wiretap, setting up a payment with star forward DeAndre Ayton. In a surprising move, the school elected to play Ayton Saturday at Oregon, while also keeping Miller on the sidelines as a head coach.
What’s been fascinating about this case is that this has also come under scrutiny in recent days. For starters, ESPN has had to make a major retraction to the report already, as they incorrectly stated when the call was made. Initially they said it was in the summer of 2017 (when Ayton was already on campus), before correcting it to say the call actually came in 2016. That feels like kind of a big detail, no? Many are questioning how ESPN even got access to the call in the first place, considering that the tapes are under protective order. Because of it, both Arizona and Ayton’s family have put out strongly worded statements in the past few days, refuting much of ESPN’s report.
And again, ultimately this looks like it will be an equally fascinating story to follow as we inch closer to the NCAA Tournament. If Arizona is at full-strength (we haven’t even mentioned that second leading scorer Allonzo Trier is out indefinitely after failing a drug test) they can play with, and beat anyone in college basketball.
The question is whether they will be at full-strength. Not just with the players on the court, but also the coaches on the sidelines.
Hey, how about the Big Ten Tournament being played a week early?
Oh, you forgot about this one, didn’t you? That’s right, in an attempt to take over the world, the Big Ten decided that they wanted to play this year’s Big Ten Tournament at the World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden! Just one problem: The Big East has MSG locked up for Championship Week for the next several years, meaning that to play the tournament in the Garden, the Big Ten had to move their tournament up a week. Fast-forward to today, and we’re right about 48 hours from the start of a major conference tournament! Yes, the Big Ten Tournament will be played this week. Weird, right?
But as weird as it is, I’ll be honest, I kind of love this idea. One, it gives a lot of kids a chance to play at Madison Square that might not have had the chance to otherwise, and two…. WE GET DAY BASKETBALL A WEEK EARLY! Seriously, for everyone complaining about the Big Ten Tournament being moved up, what else were you going to do on a Thursday afternoon in early March? Watch “The Bold and the Beautiful” (wait, is that show still on?).
In terms of what to actually watch out for, the Big Ten will unfortunately provide some of the least compelling storylines of Championship Week. Michigan State is playing for a No. 1 seed, but other than that, just about everyone is either locked into their NCAA Tournament spot (Purdue, Michigan etc.) or not going to the tournament at all.
The only bubble team that could potentially play their way in is Nebraska. The Cornhuskers begin conference tournament play Thursday afternoon.
Speaking of “Bubble Talk”
This week will provide fun insight into which teams can seal their fates and play their way into or out of the NCAA Tournament. Really, that jockeying started last week, when teams like UCLA and Syracuse struggled, dropping big games that (at least for UCLA) they had to have. Things will only get ramped up significantly this coming week.
We’ll get to the SEC in a minute, but looking across the country, there are so many fascinating story lines. What happens in the Big 12, where both Texas and Baylor are fighting for their tourney lives? What about the small conferences, where Boise State (Mountain West) and St. Bonaventure (Atlantic 10) are trying to play their way in as at large teams? What about the ACC, where schools like Syracuse (mentioned up top), Virginia Tech and Miami are trying to secure NCAA Tournament bids?
Heck, what about Louisville. Sure they picked up a huge victory this weekend at Virginia Tech, but the Cards still probably have some work to do going forward. You’d think if they can win either of their final two games (Virginia, at NC State) they are basically locked in, and if they win both, they will be in for sure.
But lose both, and they could be playing for their NCAA Tournament livelihood at the Barclay’s Center next week.
And then, there’s the SEC:
And wooooooah buddy, is this an interesting conference when it comes to NCAA Tournament seeding and selection. Frankly, it might be the most interesting one entering the final few weeks of the season.
Here’s why: For a league which many believe will get more NCAA Tournament bids than any other, there are only a handful of teams who have already “locked up” a bid. Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky are in, no matter what. I also think that Arkansas is probably in too. Even if they lose both of their final two games and their SEC Tourney opener, I believe they’d be in the field of 68. One victory would lock it up for the Hogs.
Then there’s everyone else, and it feels pretty safe to say that the SEC has a whole bunch of teams that would seal a bid with just one more win. But then when you look at the schedule, and realize that a lot of these bubble teams will play each other, it makes things significantly more complicated. Just for example, Alabama probably needs just one win to seal a bid, but they still have games against Florida and at Texas A&M to get through. Florida is probably in with a win too, but they have to travel to ‘Bama and play Kentucky at home. Texas A&M should feel good with another win or two, but have to play at Georgia and host Arkansas. Georgia, in theory, could play themselves into the conversation but needs to beat Texas A&M and win at Tennessee to make it happen. Mississippi State should probably feel pretty good if they can knock off Tennessee this week. If not, they’ll be sweating entering their season finale at LSU.
Oh, and then there’s Missouri, which might be the most intriguing team of all, if only because of…
Michael Porter Jr.
Ultimately, this became the story which never really was a story this weekend. Michael Porter Jr. – widely regarded as the best player in the 2017 high school class last year – was cleared to play by doctors last week and traveled with the team to Kentucky. But then, after putting on a blistering warm-up performance (at least according to my colleague Drew Franklin) didn’t even play against Saturday. Heck, he wasn’t even in uniform.
Based on this 10 minute warmup, Michael Porter Jr. looks like one of the best basketball players ever.
— Drew Franklin (@DrewFranklinKSR) February 25, 2018
But although Porter didn’t play, it does lead to the fascinating question of “What’s next for Michael Porter Jr.” Ultimately I do think he plays, since Cuonzo Martin has more or less said as much. But what happens after that? How much does he play? How good will he be? And how big of an impact will he have on this year’s team? Also, how long will it take his teammates to readjust to his presence?
Out of every on-court question in the coming weeks, this one is the most interesting to me.
What’s next for Kentucky?
We know the Wildcats are in the Big Dance and we know that they are the hottest team in the SEC right now. The next question comes in two parts: Can they keep it up? And what will it mean going forward?
For starters, yes, I think they can keep it up. They are playing Ole Miss this week, which feels like a guaranteed win, and I could see the Florida game going either way. The Gators aren’t exactly unbeatable at home (Florida has lost to Georgia and Alabama at home in the last month) and if the Wildcats win both games, that would lock up a Top 3 seed at the SEC Tournament. Getting that double-bye (and the rest that comes with it) is crucial for the Wildcats for a good performance there.
And then, that’s where it gets interesting. If Kentucky can make a run in St. Louis, it’s a great sign for the Wildcats to move up in the brackets. The goal should be to get a Top 4 seed, since Top 4 seeds get some leniency in terms of where they play their first and second round games. Can you imagine if UK got sent to Nashville and how dominant the home-court crowd might be?
Point being, that as good as Kentucky has been, they still have quite a bit to play for in the coming days and weeks.
It will be just one fascinating thing to keep an eye on as we head into the final week of the regular season.