Observations: Denzel Valentine makes No. 8 Michigan State the team to beat

Any team with Tom Izzo as its head coach would be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament, but Denzel Valentine’s ability to regain his early season form has made the Spartans the team people should put in bold print just a little more than three weeks away from Selection Sunday.

The 6-foot-5 senior was playing like the best player in college basketball in November and December, but suffered a minor setback when he missed four games with a knee injury in January.

That all seems like a distant memory with the way he’s played over the last week and a half.

Performing with the confidence that a four-year veteran should, Valentine is averaging 27.0 points, 11.0 assists, and 6.7 rebounds over his last three games while shooting 49.0 percent from the floor and 48.0 percent from 3-point range during that span.

This is the most wide open college basketball season we’ve seen in years, but if you need a horse to count on this point it should be Michigan State (22-5).

The Spartans have a coach in Izzo that’s been to seven Final Fours and a player in Valentine that’s playing like he has no peer in the sport.

That combination should be more than enough to comfort you over the next eight weeks when your head hits the pillow.

The American Conference Tournament will be beyond unpredictable

You want drama during championship week?

Go to Orlando.

We’re exactly 23 days away from Selection Sunday and not one team in the American Conference is safely in the NCAA Tournament.

The team with the best profile — SMU — is ineligible for the postseason and everyone else aside from the Ponies is clustered together in a hodge podge.

Temple is currently in first place in the conference standings with a league record of 10-3, but the Owls’ next two games are on the road at Tulsa and Houston.

Those two teams, UConn, and Cincinnati are currently all within a half game of each other in the won-loss column and that doesn’t include Memphis, who is also capable of winning multiple games in Orlando.

There’s only one way for any of these teams to feel good about their NCAA Tournament chances — by getting the automatic bid.

This is life on the bubble.

Miami can make a play for the ACC regular season title Saturday at North Carolina

Jim Larranaga has a combined 8-5 record over the Tar Heels and Duke since he took over the Hurricanes’ program and can put Miami in position to win another ACC regular season title with a win in Chapel Hill on Saturday.

The Hurricanes aren’t regularly mentioned with the ACC’s elite programs, but winning a second regular season title in four seasons could alter that conversation moving forward.

Miami’s veteran perimeter tandem of Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan isn’t going to be phased on the road, but the key to this game for the Hurricanes is how Kamari Murphy and Tonye Jekiri hold their own on the backboards against Bruce Johnson and the rest of the North Carolina front court.

If Miami controls the glass it will control the game.

The Hurricanes and Tar Heels are currently tied for first place in the ACC with identical 10-3 records.

This game can be seen at 1 PM ET Saturday on CBS.

This and That

  • North Carolina’s starting back court of Marcus Paige and Joel Berry was a combined 4-of-22 from the field in Wednesday’s loss to Duke. That’s not a very comforting statistic if you’re a Tar Heels fan. Winning in March hinges on having efficient guard play. Right now North Carolina’s is a long ways away from where it needs to be.
  • 55 of Oklahoma’s last 105 field goal attempts have been from 3-point range. Live by the bomb — die by the bomb.
  • Parker Jackson-Cartwright’s last three games for Arizona: 13.0 points, 5.3 assists, and just three total turnovers in 79 minutes played. That’s T.J. McConnell type stuff right there.
  • Does anyone else think that Luke Kennard resembles a 6-5 version of Toni Kukoc? Duke’s talented freshman is insanely skilled and always seems to be playing the game on a decline. Kennard’s 15 points off the bench were an integral part of the Blue Devils’ win on Wednesday night at North Carolina.
  • Avery Johnson deserves credit for the way he’s developed Alabama’s Retin Obasohan. The 6-1 guard averaged 6.2 points last season as a junior, but is now averaging 16.7 points as a senior. Obasohan dropped 35 in Wednesday night’s win over LSU in Baton Rouge.
  • The next time you watch Villanova play be sure to notice how often Kris Jenkins uses a shot fake. The crafty junior has always boasted a high basketball IQ, but this latest move has allowed Jenkins to frustrate defenders and get more opportunities at the free throw line. Jenkins has already attempted 61 shots from the stripe this season. He got to the foul line a total of 59 times last year as a sophomore.
  • Brandon Taylor is quietly having an All-Big Ten caliber senior season for Penn State. The 6-6 forward has been an anchor for the Nittany Lions on both sides of the floor and averaged 21.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in Penn State’s two wins over Indiana and Iowa.
  • Temple was headed for euphoria prior to Wednesday’s game against Villanova. Now it may be headed towards purgatory. The Owls’ next two road games are at Tulsa and at Houston. Fran Dunphy’s squad is 16-9 overall and 10-3 in conference play.
  • One of the unsung reasons why Saint Joseph’s is 22-4 is the evolution of sophomore point guard Shavar Newkirk. The 6-foot floor general is averaging 10.0 points over his last four games and only has committed a total of three turnovers in 94 minutes during that span. Newkirk averaged just 3.3 points last season as a freshman.
  • Minnesota fired Tubby Smith in 2013 after he won a game against UCLA in the NCAA Tournament. No other words are needed.

Angel Rodriguez and Miami can make a statement at North Carolina. (USATSI)
Angel Rodriguez and Miami can make a statement at North Carolina. (USATSI)

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