College basketball: 8 under-the-radar teams to watch as March approaches
They are teams that have either fallen out of the rankings, or never been in them, and thus, fly now off the radar screen. Some might make the NCAA tournament, others won’t. But each has accomplished feats that should not go unnoticed, so we begin February with special meritorious awards.
First, No. 2 Arizona. Then, No. 2 Duke. Last week, No. 10 North Carolina, right there in Chapel Hill. Might as well have been in Roy Williams’ driveway. That makes three top-10 wins this season for the Wolfpack. Also on the resume are back-to-back ACC victories on the road for the first time in 31 years, and a 3-0 record against fellow Tobacco Road colleagues North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest for the first time since 1975.
So Kevin Keatts’ honeymoon as the new coach who landed from UNCW is going quite nicely, thank you.
Well, most of the time.
NC State is 15-7, including taking some real poundings on the road. There was the 30-point loss at Notre Dame, 17 at Virginia, 16 at Clemson. And there are also unsightly defeats by Northern Iowa and UNC Greensboro.
But still -- Arizona, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson in a rematch. Pretty good victims list. Last year, the Wolfpack went to Chapel Hill and lost by 51.
Today was a good day!— NC State Men's Bball (@PackMensBball) January 28, 2018
Highlights of today’s OT win over the 10th-ranked Tar Heels pic.twitter.com/eMafjOnOhI
“I tell everybody we have some great wins, but I kind of look at our total year,” Keatts said over the phone this week. “I think you learn so much from your losses. I’ve been excited that even in our losses, we have competed the entire time, even when we didn’t do things right or things weren’t going our way. That’s the biggest plus for me.”
He’s used seven different starting lineups to get things moving, and preached pressure defense from the start. NC State has forced 20-plus turnovers in four games. The Wolfpack had only two of those the past seven seasons combined. The turnover margin is plus-74. Last year, it was minus-67.
So Keatts has finished half his first ACC tour at 5-4. “A complete grind,” he called it, though he said it's been fun watching the fire all those big wins have lit under the fan base. But he has quickly come to understand how much it takes to survive in a league that demands so much.
Highlights of Allerik Freeman from last week's wins over Pitt and UNC-CH that led to him being named ACC Player of the Week pic.twitter.com/SqaPYM4UDg— NC State Men's Bball (@PackMensBball) January 29, 2018
“The way you do it is try to build a culture. There is no easy game. As a matter of fact, for a long time NC State has been one of the teams that was the easy game.”
Not anymore, if you’re ranked in the top 10.
The Trojans started the season in the top 10, then executed a swan dive out of the rankings with a 9-5 start. That included giving up 103 points to Princeton in an overtime defeat and 67 percent shooting at home in an 88-81 Pac-12 opener loss to Washington.
Then they apparently decided some defense was in order. They went 7-1 in January, for the most wins in that month since 1982 and best percentage since 1973. The six-game winning streak in the conference is their longest in 26 years. Since that Washington shredding, they have held eight opponents to 42.6 percent shooting, and forced 151 turnovers with 74 steals. And the only January loss came at Stanford, when a half-court Hail Mary beat them.
“We’re a 55-foot buzzer-beater away from being in first place in the league,” coach Andy Enfield said. “It’s a compliment and credit to our players.”
But there’s danger dead ahead. Beginning Saturday, the 17-6 Trojans play at UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona over eight days. “On the road, people are going to talk about your mommas and grandmas,” USC’s Elijah Stewart said. “I don’t ever remember it being a good time going to (UCLA) Pauley. They heckle you coming off the bus.”
Look who’s suddenly fourth in the Big Ten, crowding in on Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan State. The team that finished tied for 12th last season. The 17-8 Cornhuskers just played four conference games in eight days, won three of them, and are now 8-4 in the league – their best start in 19 years. The seven January wins are the most since 1980. They outscored Wisconsin 30-8 in the last 10 minutes to come from 11 points down and win in Madison, which they hadn’t done in 27 years.
Imports have helped. Leading scorer James Palmer Jr. came from Miami, second leading scorer Isaac Copeland from Georgetown. Together, they account for 42 percent of the points in their first seasons as Cornhuskers.
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What’s really striking about that 8-4 Big Ten record is Nebraska has already had to play at Purdue, and at Michigan State, and at Ohio State. With four of their last five Big Ten tipoffs at home, the Cornhuskers could make a serious move for Selection Sunday. Their last NCAA tournament bid was 2014. Their last tournament win was, well, never.
True, the record is only 14-8, but the Tide has beaten three ranked teams, including throwing a blanket over Trae Young and Oklahoma the other day. All this with various aches, ailments and absences that have forced Avery Johnson to use 10 different starting lineups. Only four players have appeared in every game.
Freshman Collin Sexton is still rolling along at 18.7 points a game, but here’s another average that should be noted. His 4.0 grade point his first semester in college.
A couple of close losses can eat at a team. How about a six-pack of them? The Horned Frogs’ six losses came by 19 points. Their first three Big 12 defeats on the road all went overtime. Going back to last season, eight consecutive regular season Big 12 losses were by five or fewer points. Before Jamie Dixon arrived in 2016, only six of TCU’s 64 league losses had been by five or under.
All this has fallen upon an unselfish team that has assisted on 63 percent of its field goals this season, and the 16-6 Horned Frogs keep coming back for more. They won Tuesday at Oklahoma State for the first time since 1925. Dixon, meanwhile, has not lost in seven Tuesday games since becoming TCU coach last season. The Horned Frogs’ next Tuesday assignment is Feb. 6. At Kansas.
Creighton in the Big East
The Bluejays have played against seven ranked opponents, six of them away from home. Why is that significant? Because they’re 13-0 in the friendly confines of CenturyLink Center, none of them closer than seven points. All that heavy lifting in strange places, and they’re still 17-5 and third in the Big East.
Creighton looks to take down a #1 team for the first time in program history on Thursday when it visits top-ranked Villanova at Wells Fargo Center #GoJays #LetItFly #BIGEASThoops— Creighton Men’s Basketball (@BluejayMBB) January 30, 2018
PREVIEW https://t.co/kNcrFUZon5 pic.twitter.com/dXjfmUdcSX
They’re making do without the 12 points and eight rebounds a game from Martin Krampelj, lost for the season to a knee injury, just like nation assists’ leader Maurice Watson Jr. was last year, missing by 24 hours of being injured on the exact same date.
Speaking of ranked opponents on the road, Creighton starts February at No. 1 Villanova. But the Wildcats and Xavier – the two ranking powers of the Big East – must still visit Omaha.
On Jan. 9, the Spiders lost at home to Dayton to drop to 3-13 on the season. They haven’t been beaten since. They’ve reeled off five consecutive Atlantic 10 victories, three of them on the road, and that includes a 67-52 thrashing of city cousin VCU. They might be 8-13, but they’re suddenly tied for second in the league.
The state of Illinois in the Missouri Valley Conference
Loyola of Chicago -- no NCAA tournament appearance in 32 years – is in first place. Bradley -- 5-27 two seasons ago with 10 freshmen on the roster – joins Southern Illinois in second. Illinois State is tied for fourth. A league tournament title for any of them would truly accomplish something for Illinois. The state slogan might as well be Land of Lincoln -- and Few NCAA Tournament Bids. Illinois has produced only three this entire decade; Northwestern last spring and Illinois in 2011 and ’13.
All the above teams can stand to be recognized. January has been good. What's coming in March for them is a little less clear.