From the top of the bracket to the bottom of the bubble watch, we break down the final push for placement into the 68-team men’s March Madness tournament.

Joel Embiid and Marcus Smart should become pen pals, be in each other’s T-Mobile Fave 5, or any sort of arrangement that forces them to communicate on a regular basis.

This week, Embiid told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman that he was strongly considering returning for his sophomore season. If Smart had Embiid’s phone number he should have been blowing it up.

Marcus Smart was assured of being a top-five NBA draft pick last June, and this season hasn't gone as planned. Smart's fallen out of the National Player of the Year running and won’t be drafted for a few more months, but he deserves to be the nominee for an Oscar on March 2nd. Or a Razzie depending on your perspective on flopping.

Marcus Smart’s unique size projects him to be a Deron Williams-type, but his defensive tendencies have shades of Chris Paul. This season, Smart has inexplicably picked up the acting bug. The manner in which he picks roles that end up with him flailing wildly as if he’d been picked off by a sniper. He’s the John Hurt of college hoops. The Academy and the NCAA should award him a lifetime achievement award.

In his defense, pun intended, Smart’s stood firm and doesn’t understand why he’s being singled out when everyone else does it. There are no flopping stats, but there should be. If there was, I’d be willing to bet, he’d be one of the national flopping leaders.

Once he turns pro, NBA rules will hopefully curb this habit, but that’s not the only issue that has affected Smart this season. He’s not the level-headed leader you’d expect him to be at this juncture in his career. The improvements in his shaky shooting have been non-existent. It’s almost as if he’s shooting at a moving target during an 8.0 earthquake on the Richter scale. His three-point shooting is down from the 29 percent he shot as a freshman despite the work he put in improving his stroke.

As Oklahoma State plummets in the Top 25 rankings, Smart’s draft stock has stagnated and slipped just a bit while perception of him has dropped.

If there’s a college football comparison for his season has turned out, Jadaveon Clowney would be an apt comparison.

Like Smart, Clowney was advised to start prepping for his pro career a year early while Smart was raked over the coals or praised in the highest order for returning for his sophomore season. Ultimately, he could still end up as a top-five pick, but his negatives are more glaring than ever.

He’s a testament to why going back to school isn’t the best policy it’s touted to by analysts and pundits. Embiid won’t get anything out of dominating undersized 6-8 centers for another season. Embiid is a redwood tree amid a group of field of pottery plants. It won’t help that the 2015 Draft could feature a slew of freshman redwood centers that could complicate Embiid’s draft positioning. Embiid doesn’t want to get lost in that forest.

Embiid needs to listen to his book smarts, street smarts and Marcus Smart.

 

CLIMBING THE LADDER – Most Devastating Injuries Rankings

Greg McDermott clinched every national Player of the Year award imaginable last week in a win over St. John’s so this week, we’ll rank the top-five lingering injuries that have affected the college hoops season. Next week, who knows what we’ll rank. Perhaps the top-five flops of the season.

1. Spencer Dinwiddie (Colorado)

At the time Dinwiddie tore his ACL, 14-2 Colorado was ranked 15th in the nation. In Dinwiddie’s absence, Colorado lost four out of five before their current two-game winning streak against Utah and Washington State. The offense, which was averaging over 74 points a game at the time of his injury eclipsed 60 just once before stabilizing in the month of February.

2. Brandon Ashley (Arizona)

In addition to losing on a last-second fadeaway jumper to California, Ashley’s season-ending injury is especially painful for the Wildcats because he is the second-leading scorer, third-leading rebounder and doubles as the Wildcats backup center meaning starter Kaleb Tarczewski will have to play bigger minutes. Nick Johnson, freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and unproven Gabe York will have to take up a bigger load of Arizona’s offense, which was outside the 35th most efficient units in the nation.

3. Mitch McGary (Michigan)

McGary expects to return in time for the NCAA tournament, but even if he does, what percentage of McGary will Michigan be receiving? And if he returns early as a shell of himself, they’ll be losing one of the most inspirational bench coaches in college hoops. Is that worth it?

4. Michael Cobbins - The leader of Oklahoma State's interior defense tore his ACL. Oklahoma State was ill-equipped to replace him, left Kamari Murphy as Oklahoma State's only big man and has forced Marcus Smart to go down low and become one of the Cowboys most reliable players on the glass. Their point guard!!

5. Branden Dawson (Michigan State)

Dawson’s broken hand was compounded by the fact that it occurred watching film before a rivalry game. It reminded me of one of my favorite death scenes in movie history.

Dawson was absolutely essential to that lineup without Adreian Payne. In the long run, it shouldn’t hurt Michigan State too much as long as he returns in time to get into shape for the conference tournament.

 

GAME RECOGNIZE GAME

Oregon at No. 2 Arizona

Our first chance to see the new-look Arizona minus Ashley. They’ll be opposite Oregon’s up-tempo offense.

Pick: Arizona

No. 10 Michigan at No. 17 Iowa

Without Mitch McGary, Michigan is abysmal on the boards while Iowa is one of the top-five rebounding teams in the nation. Michigan has a void in the middle where Iowa has strengths. Michigan’s offense is once again a top-three offensive team, but they’re 63rd in defensive efficiency. Iowa is a little better with a sixth-ranked offense according to KenPom’s offensive efficiency rankings and third in offense. This is a matchup that Iowa needs to take advantage of inside against Michigan’s small, but athletic interior defenders. Adam Woodbury isn’t a reliable scorer, but center Gabe Olaseni is coming on strong for Iowa in its last four games. They should benefit from playing this one at home.

Pick: Iowa

 

IN THE BONUS

On Wednesday night, both of the Associated Press’ top-five mid-major teams went down to the wire with inferior conference foes. Wichita State separated itself from Indiana State in the final two minutes of regulation by putting the pillow over their heads in a display of shutout defense. Down two, San Diego State relied on Xavier Thames penetrating and finding Dwayne Polee III on the wing for the go-ahead three with four second remaining in regulation to finish off the Boise State Broncos.

They weren’t the most impressive victories, but a conference win counts no matter the margin. At least in the standings it does. To casual observers, the Aztecs and Shockers will get knocked for not doubling up on their foes. As long as there are haves and have-nots, college hoops lower class will be judged by a stricter standard.

Wichita State’s best win came against No. 13 ranked Saint Louis, which itself faces accusations of beating up on a Puppy Bowl schedule slate.

Conversely, San Diego State is one of the more slept on teams in the entire nation. Wichita State is one of two undefeated programs left in the entire nation and was a Final Four participant last season, but San Diego State’s slate of wins is superior.

We won’t even include Saint Louis, Gonzaga or Creighton in this discussion of the top mid-major teams. Creighton is 59th in defensive efficiency, but teams outside the top-30 rarely make waves deep into the tournament with the exception of last season’s Michigan’s uber-talented squad.

Saint Louis is second nationally and in the thick of a school-record 15-game winning streak, but they’re offense is 193rd in points per game and 204th in field goal percentage.

Wichita State and San Diego State are eighth and ninth in defensive efficiency, however, the strength of schedule is what separates the Shockers from the Aztecs. The Shockers 138th ranked SOS is the highest of any team in the top 20 besides Louisville. San Diego State is a respectable 78th with wins over Kansas and Creighton.

This wasn’t a win over Kansas that occurred when Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins were still getting a feel for the college game. San Diego State was unable to stop Embiid from forcing a double-double on Jan. 5, but they made a statement nonetheless. Prior to that loss, Kansas was 94-5, averaged 83.5 points per game and shot 50.7 percent in 99 nonconference home games during the Bill Self era. San Diego State held them to 29.8 percent from the field. It’s not a fluke either. San Diego State’s offense is somewhat limited, but their field goal defense has consistently been No. 1 in the nation for much of the season.

That’s a defense which travels, which comes in handy in March when teams are hitchhiking from neutral site to neutral site. Keep in perspective that Kansas is the fourth ranked field goal shooting percentage in all of college hoops. San Diego State’s lone loss came to a top-five team—Arizona.

Second-leading scorer Winston Shepard is a former four-star prep out of national powerhouse Findlay Prep and Josh Davis is the nation’s sixth-best rebounder.

Xavier Thames may be the top mid-major player not named McDermott. The Aztec guard is averaging 18.2 points and shooting better from behind the arc(44.7 percent) than he is overall(43.5 percent). To say Thames has come out of nowhere is an understatement.  In 28.7 minutes per game last season, Thames averaged just 9.5 points a game on 35 percent shooting. He’s doubles that average in just an extra minute per game of action.

Wichita State is perfect, but whether they’re the best of the rest is still open for debate.