For 3: Don’t look now, but Spartans are surging

  • Basketball recruiting insider.
  • Joined ESPN in 2014.
  • Graduate of University of Delaware.

The penultimate Saturday of the regular season for the power conferences — and the final weekend for a number of smaller conferences that start their conference tournaments in the next few days — brought back some of the insanity from the first two months of the season. Heading into the late games Saturday, nine teams in the AP top-25 had already suffered losses, including four top-10 teams.

Baylor lost for the second time in three games after winning 24 of its first 25 games, while Duke suffered its second loss in a row and Florida State fell at Clemson on a layup with one second left. San Diego State avoided joining that group, coming back to beat Nevada behind Malachi Flynn’s career-high 36 points.

Markus Howard played the final home game of his career, scoring 37 points — but Seton Hall dominated Marquette to keep control of the Big East standings.

Two teams continuing to surge are Providence and Texas. The Friars went to Villanova and won their fourth game in a row, likely sealing an NCAA tournament bid with yet another key win. Texas, meanwhile, is doing its best to get a berth and save Shaka Smart’s job. The Longhorns beat Texas Tech in Lubbock. One team going the opposite direction is West Virginia, which has now lost six of seven after falling at home to Oklahoma.

Two notes. One, Kansas will stay at No. 1 after escaping at Kansas State — but Udoka Azubuike only played 20 minutes after injuring his ankle on a couple of occasions. And two, Evansville completed an 0-18 Missouri Valley campaign; and according to STATS, the Purple Aces became the first team in NCAA history to both beat a No. 1 team (Kentucky) and lose all their conference games in the same season.

On to the big storylines from a very busy day:

3 things from Saturday

1. Michigan State starts March momentum a day early with win at Maryland

For most of this season, it looked like it just wasn’t going to happen for Michigan State, the nation’s preseason No. 1 team. A season-opening loss to Kentucky, a loss to Virginia Tech, inconsistency during Big Ten play — things just weren’t coming together. And maybe the Spartans still won’t ever live up to their preseason billing … but Michigan State is starting to gather momentum at the right time. The Spartans went to Maryland on Saturday night, and instead of it turning into a coronation for the Terrapins’ Big Ten regular-season title, Michigan State scored the first nine points of the game en route to a 78-66 win in College Park.

Cassius Winston will get most of the plaudits after his 20-point, six-assist effort, but it was Winston’s supporting cast that really opened some eyes. Malik Hall had his best game of the season since a November win at Seton Hall, finishing with 16 points and six boards before fouling out. Rocket Watts hit a couple huge shots in the second half when Maryland was making a run, but it was his defense on Anthony Cowan that made the biggest impact. Winston and Xavier Tillman are going to be the constants for Tom Izzo, but if he can get consistency from Hall or Watts or Aaron Henry, Michigan State’s ceiling rises.

Michigan State’s win also cuts Maryland’s lead atop the Big Ten standings to one game with two left. The Terps have to go to Rutgers and host Michigan, while Michigan State plays at Penn State and hosts Ohio State.

Coaching and point guards win in March, and Michigan State has two of the best in Izzo and Winston. The Spartans’ bandwagon is going to pick up a few passengers after Saturday.

2. Kentucky wins SEC title with impressive win over Auburn

Much like Michigan State is rounding into form at the right time, John Calipari has Kentucky playing its best basketball of the season down the stretch. The Wildcats clinched the SEC regular-season title on Saturday with a win over Auburn, avenging their last loss of the season — to the Tigers on Feb. 1. Kentucky hasn’t lost since then, rattling off eight wins in a row and pushing for a top-two seed in the NCAA tournament.

After a back-and-forth first 10-plus minutes, Kentucky went on a 20-3 run in the first half to take the lead and kept Auburn at an arm’s length the rest of the way. Immanuel Quickley had 18 points and 12 rebounds, continuing to make his case for SEC Player of the Year. In his past 18 games, dating back to the win over Louisville in late December, Quickley is averaging 19.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and shooting 46.5% from 3-point range. Tyrese Maxey’s outside shot hasn’t been falling, but he’s making better decisions at the offensive end, hitting double figures in each of the past seven games.

Calipari has settled on his rotation, his lineup and his primary guys at the end of games. Quickley has bought into his go-to-guy role, Nick Richards has blossomed into one of the better post players in the SEC and Maxey gets buckets. The key is going to be Ashton Hagans, but if he can limit turnovers and hassle opposing guards at the point of attack, that might be enough for Kentucky. The Wildcats are clicking.

3. What’s going on with Baylor and Duke?

As mentioned above, two of the more surprising results from Saturday came with Baylor and Duke both losing on the road, to TCU and Virginia, respectively. Baylor fell to one game back of Kansas in the Big 12 standings and while the Bears are unlikely to lose their 1-seed (or even their status as No. 2 overall team in the field), a few issues are coming to the surface for Scott Drew’s team. In the two losses the past two weekends, the Bears shot 11-for-37 from 3-point range. Freddie Gillespie had a great game against TCU on Saturday, finishing with 18 points and 17 rebounds — but Baylor needs more from its elite guard group. The Bears have one of the best perimeter collections in the country, but the quartet of Jared Butler, MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell and Devontee Bandoo haven’t been at their best in the two losses. Baylor relies on its guards to make shots and can ill afford three or four of them to struggle on the same night.

As for Duke, the Blue Devils are now tied with Virginia for third in the ACC and are seeing their grasp on a potential regular-season title disappear in the span of a week with losses at Wake Forest and Virginia. Duke was woeful offensively against the Cavaliers on Saturday, and while that’s not shocking for a team facing a Tony Bennett-coached defense, this was a historically bad effort for the Blue Devils. They scored fewer than 0.80 points per possession, their lowest output since 2009. Duke is struggling to shoot the ball from the perimeter and Vernon Carey fouled out of both games this week. Mike Krzyzewski’s team can’t survive without one of its few consistent scorers being on the floor.

3 things for Sunday

1. Michigan heads to Ohio State

Michigan and Ohio State have had somewhat similar seasons. Both teams got off to a great start to the campaign, with Michigan winning the Battle 4 Atlantis en route to a 7-0 start and a No. 4 ranking and Ohio State winning 11 of its first 12 games and rising to as high as No. 2 in the AP poll. The Wolverines lost eight of their next 11 after the 7-0 start and Ohio State lost six of seven following the 11-1 start. Both teams have bounced back and are pushing for top-five seeds in March.

The key on Sunday for Michigan will be health. Isaiah Livers has played five of the past six games, but has missed time with a couple of different injuries. Meanwhile, Eli Brooks — arguably the team’s best defender this season — missed Thursday’s home loss to Wisconsin with a broken nose. At full strength, this team has enough to make a deep March run. Ohio State won the first meeting between the two teams by three, on Feb. 4.

2. Creighton looks to extend hot streak

There aren’t many teams playing better basketball right now than Creighton, which has won five games in a row and nine of its past 10 to make a push toward a top-two seed on Selection Sunday. In fact, heading into the weekend, the Bluejays ranked No. 2 in adjusted efficiency in February at Greg McDermott’s team is playing offense at an outrageous rate, and they’ve made at least 13 3-pointers in three of their past five games and scored at least 1.1 points per possession in eight of their past 10 games.

Sunday, they will head to St. John’s to keep their Big East title hopes alive. They entered the weekend tied for second place with Villanova, one game back of Seton Hall — and then the Wildcats lost, but Seton Hall beat Marquette on the road. Creighton needs to win to stay within striking distance.

3. Several bubble teams face must-wins

It’s going to be a massive day for the bubble. In the early afternoon, there’s a Big East bubble battle, with Xavier looking to essentially punch its ticket to the NCAA tournament and Georgetown hoping to keep whatever at-large hopes it has remaining. Cincinnati also has a massive chance to boost its résumé with a road trip to Houston, and Rhode Island looking to avoid a loss at home against Saint Louis. Indiana is in good position for a bid, but the Hoosiers can really lock things up with a road win at Illinois.

Then in the later afternoon, Wichita State has righted the ship since a three-game losing streak at the start of the month, but the Shockers are on the road on Sunday to face SMU. Stanford is right on the cut-line, and the Cardinal get a chance for a résumé-building win with Colorado coming to Palo Alto. To end the night, Minnesota is likely finished after dropping to 13-14 with a collapse against Maryland — but the Golden Gophers can regain their pulse with a win at Wisconsin, which has won five in a row.

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