Interpretive Dance: Dangerous SMU continues to fly under radar

Tim Jankovich and his SMU Mustangs need to be heard after taking down Cincinnati. (Getty)

Still recuperating from your midweek bar crawl? Are you nostril deep in term paper research? Have no fear, fellow bracketeers. As a companion to the Bracket Big Board, the I.D. is here to highlight what teams are gaining and what teams are losing ground in the march toward the NCAA Tournament.  

DA BULLS (Moving Up)

Florida Gators (Record: 20-5; KenPom: 6 SOS: 23 Current Seed: No. 3)  – Fried Gator may taste like chicken, but digest the profile of these swamp creatures and it tastes like a fearless Final Four contender. Michael White has asserted himself in his second year calling the shots in Gainesville. His club, winners of six straight including a pivotal triumph over Kentucky, is locked in a three-way first-place tie with UK and South Carolina atop the SEC. Team-wide balance explains the success. Currently top-25 in offensive and top-five in defensive efficiency, the Gators sport an analytics makeup nearly identical to perceived powerhouses Baylor and Louisville. They force numerous turnovers (22.4 TO%), protect the rock and record several second-chance opportunities. Their skillful guards, Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza, front-court depth and Canyon Berry’s multidimensional offerings should make them a very difficult out. Four of UF’s final six contests are on the road, a rematch against Big Blue Nation being the toughest. Tally a 5-1 or 4-2 mark over that span and execute adequately in the SEC Tournament and it should land on the No. 4 line at a minimum.

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SMU Mustangs (22-4; KenPom: 12 SOS: 80 Current Seed: No. 5)  – Not receiving as much publicity as other nationally ranked teams, SMU is a very talented group capable of wrecking brackets. Mature, fundamentally sound and lengthy, it presents matchup problems similar to a North Carolina, Arizona or Florida St. Case in point, Semi Ojeleye, Shake Milton, Jarrey Foster and Sterling Brown – all listed at 6-foot-6 or taller – each shoot 41 percent or better from distance. In its battle for AAC supremacy against Cincinnati Sunday, SMU proved rubberlike, bouncing back from a 10-point deficit early in the second half to win 60-51. Brown recorded his sixth double-double of the season and, as a unit, the Mustangs held the Bearcats to only 0.94 points per possession. Now in sole possession of first place in the American, they are elevating and fast. The Selection Committee will punish it for playing in a languid conference, but the projected No. 5 seed is an opponent no high-profiled school wants in its region. Beware, giants.

Creighton Bluejays (21-4; KenPom: 22 SOS: 51 Current Seed: No. 5)  – When Maurice Watson tragically succumbed to an ACL tear January 16 in Cincinnati, Bluejays fans became immediately distraught. The floor general, who at that time was the nation’s assists per game leader, was the fuel for Creighton’s high-octane offense. Elevated backup Tyler Clement has filled the void suitably (20:8 AST:TO split last five), but the ‘Jays have managed a 3-3 record since Watson’s unfortunate exit. Despite the loss, Greg McDermott’s squad remains a potent scoring team. Seven-footer Justin Patton is a certifiable NBA lottery pick, slasher Khyri Thomas is a premier inside/outside threat and Cole Huff (47.8 3PT%), Toby Hegner (43.9) and Isaiah Zierden (50.9) snipe often from distance. Also, no pushover defensively, the ‘Jays have seemingly absorbed what many felt was a knockout punch. As Selection Committee chair Mark Hollis noted over the weekend, Creighton was in the next group behind the top-16. Topple Seton Hall, Marquette and show respectably at Villanova and it could secure a No. 4 seed.

DA BEARS (Moving Down)

Wisconsin Badgers (22-3; KenPom: 15 SOS: 103 Current Seed: No. 5)  – When the Selection Committee omitted the Big Ten leader from its initial top-16, a number of Badger fans dropped their cheese curds in disbelief. The slight was a clear indictment of the Big Ten, a conference, ignoring Wisconsin and Purdue, brimming with mediocre clubs. Though field setters see the Badgers in a completely different light compared to analytical measurements – Wisky ranks top-15 in KenPom – their viewpoint is justified. Wisconsin’s overall resume creates a conundrum. It exhibits a lopsided overall standing and 7-4 mark against the KenPom top-50, but none of those victories came against a top-25 opponent. In other words, it handled teams it was supposed to beat, inexplicably losing at home to Northwestern the lone exception. Throw in a 100-plus strength of schedule and a No. 4 seed may be its peak, even it plays flawlessly through the Big Ten Tournament. Composed, well-coached and featuring a battle-tested foursome in Bronson Koenig, Ethan Happ, Vitto Brown and Nigel Hayes, the Badgers have the needed ingredients for another Sweet Sixteen, or better, appearance, but expect a bumpier road. Blame the conference, Bucky.

Miami Hurricanes (16-8; KenPom: 34 SOS: 69 Current Seed: No. 11)  – For roughly three-fourths of Saturday’s tilt in Louisville, the Hurricanes were in control. Their long-range bombardment, unyielding D and command on the glass had the Cardinals on the ropes. Then Quentin Snider and Deng Adel started canning threes. A once sizable margin quickly evaporated as the home team pulled away late. The missed opportunity put the ‘Canes in a precarious position. On a granular level, they’re a tourney quality team. Davon Reed and Ja’Quan Newton are the primary reason why they net 1.11 points per possession. Also active on the offensive glass, Miami, by the eye test is at-large deserving. However, its weak non-conference schedule and lack of marquee wins suggest more work is necessary. How it performs over its final four games – at Virginia, Duke, at VA Tech and at Florida St. – will determine its postseason fate. Finish with a .500 conference record and 19 total wins Miami should dance.

TCU Horned Frogs (16-7; KenPom: 38 SOS: 33 Current Seed: No. 11)  – Last spring, many were surprised when Jamie Dixon bolted from Pittsburgh to his alma mater, a school that hadn’t appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 1998. Taking up the challenge of building a competitive program, Dixon, thanks to a ballyhooed freshmen class, has the Horned Frogs on the verge. They’ve feasted around the basket, particularly Slovakian import Vladimir Brodziansky, generated plentiful offensive rebounds, distributed the ball beautifully (No. 12 in A/FGM) and defended stiffly (0.97 pts/poss allowed). But the resume isn’t overly impressive. TCU’s best wins are against Illinois St., Iowa St. and Kansas St. On the wrong side in five of its last eight, posting a 3-3 mark – against the likes of West Virginia, Kansas, Iowa St. and Oklahoma St. – rest of the way is imperative.

DA BUBBLE (Living in limbo)

Indiana Hoosiers (15-11; KenPom: 49 SOS: 44)  – Toss a 15-pound bowling ball into the nearest, deepest, darkest lake and that sums up Indiana’s NCAA Tournament hopes. Yes, it lost interior force OG Anunoby, but even with James Blackmon Jr. back in uniform, the biggest disappointment in college basketball couldn’t stop the bleeding. Its downfall at home to Michigan, its fifth loss in its past six games, was another nail in the coffin. Barring a miraculous turnaround or Big Ten Tourney run, the Hoosiers, and their laughable defense (1.11 pts/poss surrendered in B1G play), will inevitably wind up in the NIT. Pace nervously, Tom Crean.

Seton Hall Pirates (15-9; KenPom: 55 SOS: 53)  – It’s rather odd a veteran-rich team like the Pirates is barely treading water. When bringing its ‘A’ game, Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez are a phenomenal trio. Collectively, the Pirates defend and rebound relentlessly, but occasional outages on offense have mostly sunk the ship. Off a bad loss to St. John’s and standing at 5-7 in Big East play, the Hall’s margin for error is very small. Its next three home matchups – Creighton, Villanova and Xavier – are critical, and that’s a gross understatement.

Rhode Island Rams (16-8; KenPom: 44 SOS: 41)  – Rhode is a tough nut to crack. It slots inside the KenPom top-50, has played a challenging schedule, but only owns one RPI top-50 win (Cincinnati). That, my friends, is why URI will likely be heavily debated inside the Selection Committee room come mid-March. For EC Matthews and Co. to enter the Committee’s good graces, they must finish the homestretch undefeated. Achieve that, which would include a crucial top-50 win versus VCU, and they could be the A-10’s second representative. Fail in that endeavor and they will have to run the table in their conference tournament.

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