Lukas Harkins investigates six college basketball takeaways of the past week, including Houston’s perseverance and Toledo’s star play.
Okay, so maybe I forgot that the NFL Playoffs were about to start when I said college basketball was set to take center stage after Georgia defeated Alabama in the CFP. But seriously, football playoff games are only a few days a week; college basketball is on every single night and there are constantly new talking points due to the sheer number of games.
With that said, it’s time for a new Hark’s Remarks.
This week’s edition looks into several topics across the nation. The two top contenders in the MAC, for instance, are both emerging as serious threats to be Cinderellas. Both teams are led by breakout star sophomore guards that have the potential to make mid-majors sweat during the opening weekend if they make it. With Ohio’s recent dominant win over Miami-OH, the Bobcats might actually be in consideration for an at-large bid later in the year.
Additionally, Houston and Illinois are on opposite ends of the injury bug while both are playing very well. The Cougars are down their two top guards but continue to play well with a breakout frontcourt. The Illini, on the flip side, just got their star guard back in action; how will their floor-spacing react to pairing Curbelo and Cockburn on the floor together again?
That’s enough introduction. Let’s dive in.
Houston continues to persevere through injuries
Not many teams in the country have been as decimated by injuries as Houston this season. The Cougars first lost Tramon Mark to a season-ending shoulder injury after he played just seven games to begin the campaign. Less than a week later, All-American candidate Marcus Sasser was ruled out for the rest of the year as well with a foot injury. Additionally, Reggie Chaney and Kyler Edwards both missed a game while Taze Moore missed two.
Yet, head coach Kelvin Sampson just keeps winning games. The Cougars have won seven consecutive games at this point and hold a 15-2 (4-0 AAC) overall record. In fact, their No. 6 spot on KenPom is the exact same it was after the Battle 4 Atlantis back in November. Houston is still an elite group and three players, in particular, have stepped up in the absences of Mark and Sasser:
Coach Sampson isn’t shortening his rotation all that much, either. The Cougars still rank 125th nationally in the percentage of minutes played by the bench. Houston is the AAC favorite and still feels likely to land on a top 4 seed line. A repeat run to the Final Four would be miraculous given their injuries but they are persevering so far.
Wyoming’s postseason potential is real
Wyoming may have lost Marcus Williams to transfer this offseason, but the program is putting together an excellent season. Jeff Linder’s group has leaped out to a 13-2 (2-0 MWC) overall record and just completed back-to-back road wins over Utah State and Nevada. While neither victory is a signature win, piling up those kinds of performances bolster a potential at-large resume. It might still be early in the bracketology season, but Wyoming is firmly in the conversation.
The Cowboys rank 22nd in SOR, 26th in the NET, and 31st in KPI. They are 2-1 in Quadrant 1 games as well. And while their quality rankings may not agree, those are consistently improving. They have already climbed from a preseason KenPom ranking of No. 183 all the way to No. 61. They have increased 40 spots on the top analytics site over just their last three games.
Wyoming has not played a home game since Dec. 11. This is partially due to a long pause (they have since returned to action) but they have also played a bunch of games away from Laramie. Building an at-large resume from the Mountain West requires dominance in conference play or showing the ability to win on the road. Wyoming is 7-2 away from home this season.
Toledo’s Rollins has taken the sophomore leap
Toledo has ever so quietly emerged as arguably the MAC favorite. The Rockets have won five consecutive games and moved into the KenPom top 100. While they appear to lack the high-quality wins to be an at-large contender, their overall record of 14-4 (6-1 MAC) is hard to ignore. Head coach Tod Kowalczyk is leading a high-efficiency offensive group and he is building around a serious star: Ryan Rollins.
Rollins is the reigning MAC Freshman of the Year and he has upped his game across the board this season. He has not only increased his points per game average but is doing so on significantly better efficiency. Even with the Rockets only ranking 304th nationally in turnover rate forced, Rollins is making a difference in that category as well; he is averaging nearly two steals per game and ranks 209th nationally in steal rate.
Rollins is a mid-major name to know as this season progresses. Toledo has a strong chance of reaching the NCAA Tournament and he is the type of go-to scorer that can make them a Cinderella threat. Our Tournament Index at Heat Check CBB lists Toledo at No. 79 in the power ratings; the Rockets take care of the ball and feature a star talent with fringe NBA potential.
Who is Illinois with Andre Curbelo?
Andre Curbelo was expected to be Illinois’ second-best player this season and a potential All-American running mate for big man Kofi Cockburn. Cockburn has held up his end of the bargain, dominating en route to building his NPOY candidacy. Curbelo, on the other hand, experienced a shaky start to his sophomore year and then missed 11 games due to a concussion. He returned to action this week in a loss to Purdue, so it is time to wonder who Illinois is with him on the floor.
The Illini went 11-1 without him and its lone loss came against a top-5 opponent in Arizona.
Curbelo’s absence allowed head coach Brad Underwood to space the floor with more shooting. Most notably, Alfonso Plummer joined the starting lineup and immediately provided a major punch with his high-volume and high-efficiency shooting. Curbelo is a career 7-for-45 (15.6 percent) shooter from deep in 36 games; Plummer is 50-for-121 (41.3 percent) in his 13 games as an Illini starter.
Curbelo is a dynamic player, especially as a finisher and creator. However, the fact that he is a non-threat from three tightens up the floor around Cockburn (also a non-floor-spacer). There’s no denying that Curbelo makes some awesome plays, including the game-tying bucket against Purdue below.
However, Coach Underwood has a tough challenge ahead. Keeping his two best players on the floor while also featuring enough spacing will be difficult. Illinois is a better team with Curbelo in the rotation. They just need to figure out how everything will align as the Big Ten schedule progresses. Six of the Illini’s next nine games are on the road and could prove to be a pivotal stretch.
One performance can change a resume
This remark is fairly straightforward, as bad losses and signature wins are always major factors when it comes to NCAA Tournament selection and seeding. However, resume-building or resume-breaking results are not what I am referring to with this takeaway. I am rather talking about teams that can put on a big enough show in a given game to increase their quality metrics in a way that drastically change their postseason futures. For anyone that has followed the “Remarks” this season, they’ll know exactly who I’m about to talk about: Ohio.
The Bobcats entered their road matchup with Miami-OH this week ranked No. 104 on KenPom. Considering they held a 13-2 record with the lone losses coming on the road against Kentucky and LSU, that felt fairly low relative to their resume. Resume metrics backed that up as well; the Bobcats ranked 30th in strength record but sub-100 in all quality metrics.
That is about to change, though. Ohio did not just secure a solid road win on Jan. 18th; they dismantled the RedHawks in a 23-point victory. The Bobcats soared all the way up to No. 89 on KenPom as a result of their performance. Now, all of a sudden, they are rising into the at-large conversation. Blowout wins have tremendous value in the modern era of bracketology, especially for mid-major teams on the fringe of consideration without earning an automatic bid.
The MAC features a few very talented teams, and Ohio might not even be the league’s frontrunner as a result. However, with the Bobcats securing such a dominant win over Miami-OH, they could compete on the bubble.
Loyola Chicago keeps playing with fire
Loyola Chicago started this season playing excellent basketball. The Ramblers leaped out to a 9-2 start and ranked No. 21 on KenPom. Their lone two losses were to Michigan State and Auburn – both at neutral-sites – and they carried a few solid wins on their resume as well. However, they did not play for nearly a month after that start, pausing for 27 days before returning to action on Jan. 6 for a neutral-site matchup with San Francisco.
The Ramblers won that game in Las Vegas, a big resume-building victory to improve to 10-2. Since then, though, they have not quite looked right. They won their following three games but they were not nearly as dominant as they had been earlier in the year. Considering the opposition, Loyola Chicago should have made quicker work of these victories:
- Won vs. Bradley (KenPom No. 121) by 7 in overtime
- Won vs. Valparaiso (KenPom No. 207) by 7 in 2OT
- Won at Indiana State (KenPom 160) by 8
Loyola Chicago played with fire far too much in those games. Despite being heavy favorites in all three contests, the Ramblers had to overcome minimum win probabilities of 22.3 percent, 15.3 percent and 33.7 percent in those games. They are still the overwhelming favorite to win the Missouri Valley but need to regain their form if they are to remain a firm at-large contender.
Thankfully, a bounceback performance may have come in their most recent game. The Ramblers were a 13-point favorite (on KenPom) at Evansville and won by 29. Are they done playing with fire and back to dominating the conference? Perhaps.