What to watch in college basketball this weekend: Sabrina Ionescu making history, Baylor vs. Kansas

LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 14: Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the Oregon Ducks moves the ball in the second quarter against Long Beach State at Walter Pyramid on December 14, 2019 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 14: Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the Oregon Ducks moves the ball in the second quarter against Long Beach State at Walter Pyramid on December 14, 2019 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images) /

Sabrina Ionescu’s pursuit of history and Baylor vs. Kansas are just two of the storylines college basketball fans should be watching this weekend.

Hot Seats

The biggest news for college basketball came from a coaching change made in the NBA. John Beilein stepped down as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers following the All-Star break and has been reassigned to a different role within the organization for now. However, the feeling among many is the former Michigan Wolverine coach is looking to get back into the college game.

It’s not every day a coach of Beilein caliber finds himself on the open market and universities across the country will be looking to pounce on him quickly.

This is bad news for coaches who currently find themselves on the hot seat, particularly the ones at bigger universities. Both the Texas Longhorns and Indiana Hoosiers handed their programs over to young, up-and-coming coaches recently — Shaka Smart and Archie Miller. Given their storied history, neither team was anticipating a prolonged rebuild but that is exactly where they find themselves at the moment.

In Austin, Smart has brought in talented players (Jarrett Allen and Mo Bamba among them) but the skills have yet to translate into an improved win-loss record during his five seasons as the man in charge. The Hoosiers have looked to recapture some of the Bob Knight-era magic when they brought Miller on board but his team has yet to surpass 20 wins in a season in his three years.

With a proven commodity like Beilein out there their seats are getting even hotter.

There are also some lower-tier schools in major conferences that could try to lure Beilein back to college basketball. Boston College and Wake Forest are the types of places that could go whale hunting this offseason with the added bonus of potentially promising Beilein’s son Patrick to be his father’s successor when the 67-year-old decides to call it quits.

Sabrina Ionescu’s pursuit of the career 2k, 1k, 1k

The Oregon Ducks have tried to make their case as the dominant team out West on the men’s side but have struggled to find consistency. Yet, the woman’s team has been one of the best teams in the country for the last two years.

The catalyst for this leap has been senior point guard, Sabrina Ionescu. She was able to lead her team to a Final Four appearance last season and many thought that would be her final stint in college basketball. She decided to come back — and stick with a loaded returning roster in the Pacific Northwest; they were the only college team to take down the USA Basketball Women’s National Team during their six-game college exhibition tour — to take care of unfinished business.

Oregon is ranked third in the nation in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll. They are one of the favorites to cut down the nets in New Orleans when the NCAA Tournament ends.

Before we get to March, Ionescu has the opportunity to do something no player in college basketball (men’s or women’s) has ever accomplished. She has already surpassed 2,000 points and 1,000 assists but the walking triple-double finds herself just 20 rebounds short of reaching 1,000 rebounds for her career.

The Ducks face the California Golden Bears on Friday night and then have a top-five matchup against the Stanford Cardinal on Monday. Ionescu averages 8.7 rebounds a game, there is a very real chance she gets the 20 rebounds she needs in these next two games.

She will eventually reach the milestone, just like she will eventually be the number one pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft. When you think of all the high-profile names that have spent multiple seasons in the NCAA, seeing a player do something that has never been done in the 124-year history of college basketball is a once-in-a-lifetime moment. We all should be paying attention to what Ionescu has done and continues to do in Oregon.

Wooden Watch

Last month, the John R. Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 list was released. With the amount of change we’ve seen at the top of the rankings this season, there is no clear favorite to take home the award this year. Usually, the player selected is either the best player from the best team or the player with the most impressive statistical resume.

Of those selected, there’s three who really stick out Filip Petrusev (Gonzaga), Devon Dotson (Kansas) and Luka Garza (Iowa). Petrusev and Dotson fall under the category of the best player on the best team. Even though the Bulldogs and Jayhawks are not currently ranked in the top spot an argument can be made for either program holding claim to the title. Garza, on the other hand, has put together a season for the ages. He’s averaging 23.7 points and 9.6 rebounds per game with a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 35.6 — for comparison, Zion Williamson finished with a PER of 40.8 last year.

Out West, the Zags will face off against the BYU Cougars who enter the game as the 23rd ranked team in the nation. For years, Mark Few’s team and accomplishments have been dismissed at times due to the lack of a challenging schedule. For Petrusev, a game against a top-25 foe that is also nationally televised (10 p.m. ET on ESPN) is the chance to showcase his talents for the world to see.

Last year, he bided his time behind two first-round picks in the 2019 NBA Draft (Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke) but the sophomore has exploded this season. His near double-double average has been the propeller for Gonzaga’s flight to elite status this season.

Dotson was great as a freshman for Bill Self but this season he’s taken his play to another level. In recent seasons, we’ve seen Kansas led by Frank Mason and Devonte Graham. What Dotson is doing this year is more in line with what we saw from those two at the end of their careers in Lawrence.

On a nightly basis, Dotson is contributing 18.4 points, 4.2 assists and 4.1 rebounds for the Jayhawks. His ability to control the game has paid huge dividends for this group. We’ll get to the game of the weekend between Kansas and Baylor later but if the Jayhawks want to win,  they’ll need the best out of Dotson. Big performance in a big moment could be the catalyst to him bringing home the Wooden Award at the end of the season.

Garza and the Hawkeyes played last night and lost to an Ohio State team that is finding itself at just the right time. They are off this weekend and don’t play again until Feb. 25. Of their final four games remaining, three come against teams positioned within the top five of the Big Ten conference standings (Michigan State, Penn State and Illinois).

With that murderer’s row awaiting them, Iowa has a chance to really make some noise to close the year out. Winning out gives them an outside chance — they are two and a half games behind Maryland — of potentially claiming the Big Ten regular-season title. The conference has established itself as the best in college basketball this year. Adding that notch to Garza’s belt along with his impressive stats it makes him much more likely to be considered the favorite to win the most prestigious award in the nation.

On the Bubble

March is right around the corner and that means it is time to start thinking and talking about the bubble.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has become synonymous with the bubble and bracketology overall. Let’s take a look at a few of the teams that are currently listed among the “Last Four In” and “First Four Out” section of the bubble and see which teams could really use a win to bolster their chances of making it into the tournament.

First up, North Carolina State. The Wolfpack just shocked many with their 22-point defeat of the Duke Blue Devils in Raleigh. You may think a dominant win like that would keep them out of this discussion but on the contrary, it makes how they play this weekend even more important. Particularly because they get another top-10 opponent coming to the PNC Arena this weekend as the Florida State Seminoles come into town. Beating them would prove their win over Duke wasn’t just them catching lightning in a bottle but rather they are a team worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid.

Providence saved their season by upsetting the Seton Hall Pirates. They then followed that up with a win over Georgetown — another team in Lunardi’s “First Four Out” grouping. IF they want to play more meaningful games into March they will need to keep the winning going a little while longer. They get to play Marquette at home on Saturday and then will travel to Villanova the week after. A pair of wins in those games would have a huge impact on where the Friars are projected to be placed on Lunardi’s bracket.

However, before we can think that far ahead, they will need to start with a win tomorrow. The Golden Eagles are a top-20 team so it’s not going to be as easy as showing up and rolling the balls out. Ed Cooley will need to do his best coaching job of the year if Providence wants to keep hope alive of making the NCAA Tournament this year.

Since blowing the doors off of Michigan State, Purdue has gone on a two-game losing streak, a three-game winning streak and is currently in the midst of a three-game losing streak. Their inability to build off their victory over the Spartans has landed them on the outside looking in according to Lunardi.

The Boilermakers have a gift and a curse for the remainder of their games as they play in the toughest conference in college basketball this year. It’s a gift because any win they get the rest of the way helps their chances of being part of March Madness. It’s a curse because there are no easy wins left on their schedule. It all begins tomorrow when they welcome Michigan into their home. Juwan Howard’s team could use a win as well so the Wolverines aren’t going to go down without a fight.

Game of the weekend: Baylor vs. Kansas

For the majority of the college basketball season, there has been a lot of talk about how there isn’t a “superteam” this year. No one team has been head and shoulders above the rest of the competition. The amount of upsets that occur on a weekly basis backs up this idea of all the programs being on a more even level.

Yet, on Saturday at noon, we will watch the number-one ranked Baylor Bears take on the number-three ranked Kansas Jayhawks. It is the must-see game of the upcoming weekend. Both teams are not only fighting for Big 12 supremacy but also trying to move themselves up on the list of the number one seeds for the NCAA Tournament.

This will be the second meeting of the year between the teams. In the first, Baylor went to Allen Fieldhouse and got the better of Self and the Jayhawks. Winning in Lawrence is no easy proposition but the Bears didn’t just win, they were clearly the better team. Scott Drew’s team took a 13-point lead into the half and would end up winning the game by 12. It was the Bears’ first win on the road against Kansas in program history.

The key for the Bears was their stifling “No Middle” defense that was able to make life hard for Dotson (nine points in 28 minutes) and the rest of the Jayhawks perimeter players. Kansas couldn’t get it going from the outside either as they went 4-for-15 on 3-pointers. Meanwhile, Baylor was firing on all cylinders. They forced 14 turnovers and shot 45 percent from the field and 42.1 percent on 3-point attempts. Jared Butler won the head-to-head battle against Dotson as he finished with 22 points and shot 50 percent from the floor.

This time around, the game will take place in Waco. On the year, Baylor is undefeated at home with wins over Villanova, Arizona, Butler and West Virginia. It might not have the same history as “The Phog” but for the Bears, it’s been a place where they rarely lose.

The game within the game will be between Butler and Dotson. Both are potential Big 12 and National Player of the Year recipients. Whichever of them can make the bigger impact — Dotson as a penetrator and scorer or Butler as a shooter and facilitator — on the game will likely be able to lead their team to victory.

A win by Baylor likely cements their status as one of the top one seeds in March. A loss by Kansas could see them drop down to the two-line depending on what some other teams in college basketball perform. Flip the result and the race for the overall number one seed in the NCAA Tournament becomes even trickier to decipher.

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