A closer look at 6 teams on the NCAA bubble

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A closer look at 6 teams on the NCAA bubble

From Comcast SportsNet
The college basketball season is winding down and it's time for the NCAA tournament selection committee to zoom in on all those RPIs, SOSs and W-Ls. The final decisions, at least for some of the final spots, will likely come from something beyond the numbers: The eyeball test. In other words, do they look like NCAA tournament teams? So, with the regular season starting to wrap up and the conference tournaments starting next week, the teams on the bubble need to make a good impression. A big win at this point in the season could boost them into the 68-team bracket, a bad loss to the NIT or home. There's still a couple dozen teams in position to make a move and we're taking a closer look at six of those. ------ Iowa State: In a conference that includes No. 3 Kansas, No. 7 Missouri and No. 9 Baylor, the Cyclones have quietly made a case for NCAA tournament consideration. With its win over Kansas State on Saturday, Iowa State has beaten the Wildcats twice and beat then-No. 10 Kansas last month. The Cyclones have won 21 games and are 11-5 in the Big 12, tied with Baylor for third in the conference. Iowa State has an RPI of 31 and has three wins over teams in the top 50 of the RPI rankings. The Cyclones probably still have a little work to do and don't have an easy schedule, with a road game against Missouri on Wednesday and Baylor at home on Saturday. Get one of those and have a decent run at next week's Big 12 tournament, Iowa State should have a decent shot. ------ Arizona: Sean Miller-coached teams always seem to get better at the end of the season and this one has been no different. The Wildcats were inconsistent early in the season as they integrated four freshmen -- three after Sidiki Johnson left the team in December -- and the returning players adapted to new roles with Pac-10 player of the year Derrick Williams gone to the NBA. After sweeping the Southern California schools last week, Arizona has won seven of its past eight games, with its lone loss coming on the road to Pac-12 leader Washington. The Wildcats have won 21 games and are 12-5 in conference, with three of those losses by a combined five points. Arizona could be hurt by a down year in the Pac-12, but with a win over struggling rival Arizona State on Saturday and a decent showing in the conference tournament after that, the Wildcats will likely be headed back to the NCAAs. ------ Alabama: The Crimson Tide should have gone into a downward spiral the past few weeks after coach Anthony Grant suspended four players, including Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green, the team's leading scorers and rebounders. Instead, Alabama has won three straight and six of eight, including a big victory over fellow bubbler Mississippi State on Saturday. Mitchell has been suspended for the rest of the season, but Green returned against Mississippi State. The Tide has 19 wins, is fourth in the SEC at 8-6 and has a strong RPI of 25. Alabama has a relatively easy finishing stretch, with games against Auburn and Ole Miss left, so a halfway-decent run in the conference tournament should be enough to punch its ticket. ------ Harvard: The Crimson looked like a lock for the NCAA tournament after going 14-2 in nonconference. After Saturday's 1-point loss to Pennsylvania, their lead in the Ivy League is down to a half game over the Quakers. Harvard missed out on its first NCAA berth since the Truman presidency by losing a one-game playoff to Princeton last season and could face another winner-goes-dancing game if it finishes the regular season tied with Penn. The Crimson do have a decent resume, with wins over Florida State -- on their way to the Battle 4 Atlantis title -- and Saint Joseph's, but a loss to Fordham doesn't look good. Harvard has a good shot at an at-large bid with wins over Columbia and Cornell in the final two games, but another one-game playoff loss could lead to a lot of Rolaids being passed around on selection Sunday. ------ Colorado State: The Rams picked up what appeared to be a huge win over New Mexico last week, but followed it with a loss to No. 21 San Diego State, a game that really could have solidified their resume. It also didn't help Colorado State much that New Mexico got blown out by TCU in its second game last week. The Rams are just 6-6 in the Mountain West and lost to Stanford and Boise State, teams with RPI ratings over 100. The good news for Colorado State is that it's 27th in the RPI and has 17 wins in a schedule ranked fourth-toughest in the nation. The Rams face what could be a huge look-at-us game against No. 17 UNLV on Wednesday before closing out the season against Air Force on Saturday. Without another marquee win or a strong conference tournament, it could get tight for Colorado State. ------ Virginia Commonwealth: The Rams made an unexpected run to the Final Four last season, have 25 wins and finished a game behind Drexel in the Colonial Athletic Association. Even so, VCU could be left on the outside looking in. The Rams have a win over fellow bubble team South Florida and beat likely MAC winner Akron, but there aren't many other eye-popping wins on the schedule. Their RPI also is a so-so 60th and strength of schedule is 213th. VCU does enter the conference tournament on a good note; the Rams won their final three games, including a payback win over George Mason in the season finale. Win a few games in the CAA tournament, the Rams could solidify their chances. If not, maybe they'll get lucky and the selection committee will decide last year's run and another chance to see coach Shaka Smart work his magic in the postseason will be enough to give them a nod.

Scouting report: What the Bulls are getting in newly acquired Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn

Scouting report: What the Bulls are getting in newly acquired Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn

The Bulls have entered their rebuilding phase, dealing Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick, which became Arizona power forward Lauri Markkanen. Time will tell what Markkanen becomes as a stretch forward/center but he certainly was worthy of the selection. LaVine and Dunn had been with the Timberwolves since they were drafted, and give the Bulls two versatile options in a backcourt that will look far different than it did a year ago.

Here’s what the Bulls are getting in the two former Timberwolves guards:

LaVine, a two-time NBA Dunk Contest champion, was having a career year before he suffered a torn ACL on Feb. 3. Playing a bigger role in his second season under Thibodeau, LaVine averaged 18.9 points on 46 percent shooting and shot a respectable 39 percent from deep on 6.6 attempts per game, 16th most in the NBA.

LaVine is known for him thunderous dunks, but that athleticism allowed him to shoot nearly 64 percent at the rim last year, per basketball-reference. He’s a scorer first and foremost, topping 25 or more point 10 different times in those 47 games. He went for 40 points in a late December loss to the Kings. He also had five or more assists on eight different occasions, so he’s able to distribute the ball as well. He’s a true combo guard who should finally give Fred Hoiberg some backcourt flexibility.

The Bulls got a firsthand look at LaVine’s skill set in December when he went for 24 points, six rebounds and six assists in a win over the Bulls at the United Center. He shot 10-for-18 and made a few key shots over Dwyane Wade late to seal the game. It was part of a stellar 16-game stretch between November 23 and December 23 when LaVine averaged 23.6 points and 3.5 assists.

He flirted with 50/40/90, shooting 49 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep and 88 percent from the line. He did all this, of course, playing behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. While that gave LaVine more one-on-one situations as defenses dealt with his two budding star teammates, shots were hard to come by until LaVine asserted himself and worked him into a featured role in the offense.

LaVine had ACL surgery on February 14 and spoke about his recovery in late May, saying “everything is going well.” LaVine said at that time he was only allowed to run on an anti-gravity treadmill, and there’s still no timetable for his return to the court. A source told Insider Vincent Goodwill LaVine is “training softly.”

Dunn has plenty of work to do to show he can compete at the next level. Though he only played one season, his rookie campaign under Thibodeau was one to forget. The No. 5 pick in the draft averaged 3.8 points and 2.4 assists in 17.1 minutes per game. He played in 78 games behind Ricky Rubio, although he did lose some playing time to Tyus Jones late in the season.

Dunn’s shooting is his biggest weakness. In terms of true shooting percentage, which takes into account 3-point shots and free throws, Dunn was second-to-last in the NBA last year with a 43.2 percent mark. He shot just 38 percent from the floor, 29 percent from beyond the arc and 61 percent at the free-throw line.

For his season-long struggles he did look good in the second half of the year. After the All-Star break he improved his percentages to 40.4/33.3/77.8 and had a handful of impressive games. He had 11 points and seven assists against the Lakers and followed it the next night with a career-best 17 points against the Blazers. In the season finale he handed out 16 assists to go with 10 points, the first double-double of his career.

Where it’s clear he excels is taking care of the ball. His 1.1 turnovers were seventh fewest among point guard who averaged at least Dunn’s 17 minutes per game. He’s ready to facilitate, but he’ll need to score at a higher and more efficient clip to earn playing time.

Where both fit into the Bulls is a question for now. The Bulls have a decision to make with Rajon Rondo and whether to pick up his team option for next season. The Bulls traded for both Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne in the last calendar year, and Isaiah Canaan is under contract for another year. On the wing, LaVine will replace Butler and get as much run as he can handle. With only Denzel Valentine and Anthony Morrow available at shooting guard, LaVine is in line for a big role from Day 1. He’s also in the last year of his rookie contract so the Bulls will be looking to extend him sooner than later.

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

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The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”