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Sweet 16 preview: West Region’s top players, champ

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The details: There are all kinds of intriguing storylines in this region. For starters, there is the potential matchup between Duke and UConn, who have played three times in the tournament, all of which have yielded classic games. There is Sean Miller, who has brought the Arizona program back to national relevancy with a Pac-10 title and a trip to the Sweet 16. Then there is Steve Fisher, the coach that went down with the Fab Five, potentially making his return to the Final Four.

Matchups

No. 2 San Diego State (34-2) vs. No. 3 UConn (28-9)
Time: 7:15 p.m. ET on CBS

No. 1 Duke (32-4) vs. No. 5 Arizona (29-7)
Time: 9:45 p.m. ET on CBS

Team to beat: Duke Blue Devils

I fully expect Kyrie Irving to be close to 100% by the time the Sweet 16 games roll around, meaning that Duke will once again be arguably the most talented team in the country. Kyle Singler was a preseason favorite for national player of the year, Irving was a favorite for national player of the year before he got hurt, and Nolan Smith has emerged as a favorite since Irving was injured. Not many teams can boast that kind of 1-2-3 punch. The problem? Duke’s weakness is on the interior, and the three teams that the Blue Devils can end up facing all have at least one powerful front court presence.

Team with nothing to lose: San Diego State

The Aztecs, despite being the No. 2 seed in the West region, are the underdog heading into the Sweet 16. They play in the Mountain West Conference. They played all of one BCS conference team this season, beating Cal by 20 points. They have a head coach with the reputation of a guy that just rolls the ball out. They were the trendy pick by analysts to get upset in the second round of the dance by Temple. This team has no expectations, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They head into the Sweet 16 playing without pressure.

Players to watch:

  • Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State: Leonard is one of the most entertaining players in the country to watch, and its a shame that he isn’t known on a more national scale. When dreaming up a prototype small forward, you think of Leonard. He’s 6’6″, he’s got long arms, he’s quick and athletic and explosive. He attacks the glass as hard as anyone in the country, but he can also lead the break when need be. By the time he fully develops, he’s the kind of player that can average 15, 10, 5, 2, and 2.
  • Alex Oriakhi, UConn: Kemba Walker is the star. Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith, and Shabazz Napier take turns as his sidekick. But Oriakhi may be the most important player on the roster outside of Walker. He’s really the only strong, interior presence the Huskies have. He defends the rim and is one of the best in the country at battling on the offensive glass.
  • Derrick Williams, Arizona: Like Leonard, Williams is probably a talent that you haven’t seen enough of this season. He’s a versatile, 6’8″ forward that can score from any where on the floor. He’s been good enough this season to warrant consideration as the No. 1 overall pick come June. And he’ll be a nightmare for the Plumlees to cover.
  • Nolan Smith, Duke: I fully expect Kyrie Irving to be back to full strength by the time the Sweet 16 games come around, which puts Smith in an awkward position. Will the senior that has become the team’s leader, star, and is a national player of the year candidate and defending champion be willing to play second fiddle to a freshman with seven games experience?

Coach under pressure: Jim Calhoun

The coach isn’t going to be under pressure as much as the team is. The Big East sent 11 schools to the NCAA Tournament. All but two of them have been eliminated. The other one? No. 11 seed Marquette, playing in the toughest region left. Its too much to say that the fate of the Big East is riding on UConn’s shoulders. But it isn’t too much to say that the Huskies are the conference’s only hope to make the Final Four.

Outcome: Duke is the favorite to reach the Final Four out of this region. But that doesn’t mean that they are going to have an easy road. Derrick Williams will be a matchup nightmare for the Plumlees or Ryan Kelly or Kyle Singler or whoever they end up putting on him. San Diego State’s front line will be even more difficult for Duke to matchup with. Billy White, Kawhi Leonard, and Malcolm Thomas are just that much more physical than Duke’s. Alex Oriakhi is a horse in the paint, and Duke has had issues with players of his ilk this season.

So much of what happens will depend on which Kyrie Irving we see. That said, my money is going to be on the winner of the San Diego State-UConn game.

No. 22 Butler ruins No. 2 Villanova’s seniors’ perfect Pavilion record

Butler center Nate Fowler and Villanova forward Eric Paschall, right, vie for a rebound in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Villanova, Pa. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)
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All Villanova players have known since they joined the program is winning at The Pavilion. Late into Wednesday’s game against No. 22 Butler, it looked like that would continue to be their only frame of reference for a group of seniors that were 45-0 in the building.

Then another ‘0’ turned that zero into a ‘1.’

The Bulldogs ripped off an 18-0 run in a 5-minute span to ultimately claim a 74-66 victory over second-ranked and defending national champion Villanova.

VIllanova looked like it was going to cruise to another home win when Josh Hart’s 3-pointer with 10 minutes, 37 seconds remaining put the Wildcats up 49-42.

They wouldn’t score again until nearly the 4-minute mark.

During that span, Butler made 7 of 11 shots, with three being 3-pointers, while the Wildcats went 0 of 6 from the field and turned the ball over twice.

A seven-point lead for Villanova became an 11-point advantage for Butler. Villanova would try to rally, but couldn’t pull it off as it saw its home winning run stopped, its seniors’ perfect Pavilion record blemished and its seven-game winning streak come to a halt.

Beyond it probably being immensely annoying to the senior class, the loss probably doesn’t hurt Villanova too much as it looks to hold on to a No. 1 seed, preferably in the East region. The Wildcats’ resume is still as strong as nearly anyone in the country and they are, after all, the defending champs. They’ll be fine.

For Butler, it’s a signature win for a team that’s had a number of really good victories, but a few confounding losses, like St. John’s on the road and to Creighton (without Maurice Watson) and Georgetown at home. Beating Villanova – at the Pavilion, no less – could be worth a seed line.

Keelan Martin was fantastic for Butler, going for 23 points and eight boards, while Kamar Baldwin went for 15 points off the bench.

Jalen Brunson led the way for Villanova with 24 points while Josh Hart had 18 points and six rebounds. Kris Jenkins struggled, going 1 of 8 from the floor while scoring eight points.

The Wildcats get a chance to start a new streak at the Pavilion on Saturday with Creighton coming to town.

 

No. 8 North Carolina stakes their claim to the title of ‘nation’s best’ with beatdown of No. 7 Louisville

CHAPEL HILL, NC - FEBRUARY 22:  Theo Pinson #1 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after a play against the Louisville Cardinals during their game at the Dean Smith Center on February 22, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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North Carolina may not have anyone on their roster that sends chills down the spine of opposing coaches, and they may not have anyone on their roster that is going to be targeted by NBA franchises as lottery pick, and they may not be dominating the headlines like undefeated Gonzaga, reigning champ Villanova, winner of 13 straight Big 12 titles Kansas or even Tobacco Road rival Duke.

They’re not a sexy pick, they’re not the favorite in Vegas and they may finally crack the No. 1 seed line in all bracket projections after beating No. 7 Louisville 74-63 on Wednesday night, but at this point, I’m not sure that the Tar Heels aren’t the best team in college basketball.

‘The Best Team In College Basketball’ is not an easy title to earn this season, not because there are too many candidates but more because everyone of those candidates have some kind of glaring flaw that makes you wonder have they’ve made it to late-February with a winning record. Think: UCLA’s defense. Or maybe: Kansas’ total lack of front court depth. How about: Kentucky can’t shoot. And then there’s: Duke doesn’t have a point guard, or: Gonzaga doesn’t play anyone.

We can play that game with every team in the country.

In fact, I did, just last week on a podcast.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

North Carolina didn’t escape our wrath. There are question marks about Joel Berry II’s consistency, as he had a nasty habit of laying an egg every once in a while. Is that defense going to hold up for six games in a single-elimination tournament? Do they have enough consistent three-point shooting? Can Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson stay healthy?

Here’s the thing: I think the answer to all those questions is ‘yes’.

Justin Jackson has developed into a bonafide all-american and quite possibly the ACC Player of the Year. He’s a versatile scorer that is shooting the grip off the ball and has proven the ability to be the guy to take and make big shots for the Tar Heels this season. That’s taken some of the pressure off of Berry, who can spend more time as a secondary offensive weapon, facilitator and a leader than having to worry about carrying the team offensively. Theo Pinson’s return has opened some things up offensively, while UNC’s four-headed front court monster — Kennedy Meeks, Hicks, Tony Bradley and Luke Maye — have shown that they can score in the post or off of a missed shot, where they lead the nation on offensive rebounding percentage.

And as far as the defense is concerned, they’re ranked 20th in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom.com. Yes, a lot of that has to do with the pistol-whipping that was Gameday on Saturday night against Virginia, but Louisville, who was the third-best offensive team in ACC play, managed just 63 points in 73 possessions on Wednesday.

My point?

That defense doesn’t have to be great, it just has to be good enough, and it probably is.

But here’s the most important number to know: Two.

That’s how big North Carolina’s lead in the ACC is as of today. Louisville, Duke, Florida State and Notre Dame have all lost five times this year. As long as the Tar Heels can go into Pittsburgh and get a win over the Panthers, they are going to clinch a share of the ACC regular season, and they can lock up the outright league title before the showdown with the Dukies on the season’s final night.

The margins are thin, yes, but after Wednesday, North Carolina has as much claim to the title of ‘Nation’s Best’ as anyone in college basketball.

VIDEO: UNC fan ejected after heated exchange with Rick Pitino

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A UNC fan sitting court side in the Dean Dome on Wednesday was ejected from No. 8 North Carolina’s win over No. 7 Louisville after getting in a heated verbal exchange with Rick Pitino.

Cell phone video posted by a reporter attending the game showed Pitino having to be held back by members of his staff. According to ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor, who said she heard what the fan said, the line that set Pitino off was, “Pitino you suck.”

Bubble Banter: California, TCU and Syracuse with critical games tonight

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 10:  Ivan Rabb #1 of the California Golden Bears stands on the court during a quarterfinal game of the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament against the Oregon State Beavers at MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 10, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. California won 76-68.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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The latest NBC Sports bracketology can be found here. That is where the seeds you see listed below come from. 

This post will be updated throughout the night.

WINNERS

Syracuse (RPI: 84, KenPom: 48, first four out): Did the Orange just lock up their NCAA tournament bid? It’s going to be close, after John Gillon banked in a 23-foot three at the buzzer to send No. 10 Duke back to Durham with a loss. Here’s how it stands for the Orange: They’s 17-12 on the season and guaranteed to finish at least .500 in ACC play. They now have six top 50 wins and nine top 100 wins, but they also have three losses to sub-100 teams, 12 total losses and they play at Louisville on Saturday. The road hasn’t been kind to Syracuse, either; they’ve won just two roadies this season, at N.C. State and at Clemson.

Providence (RPI: 69, KenPom: 58, first four out): All of a sudden, Providence is one of the most interesting bubble teams in the country. Last week they beat Butler and Xavier at home, and on Wednesday night, they went into Creighton and picked off the Bluejays. The Friars are now 17-11 on the season with five top 50 wins, including three in the top 25. They are 8-8 against the top 100, but the problem is that they have one sub-100 loss and two more sub-200 losses, which is really, really bad. They won the games that they had to win to get themselves into this position, but I still would strongly recommend that they win out down the stretch.

Seton Hall (RPI: 47, KenPom: 59, play-in game): I think the Pirates may have just punched their ticket to the tournament as they beat Xavier at home on Wednesday. They have four top 50 wins — two away from home — and seven top 100 wins with just a single sub-100 loss. I won’t say they’re a lock because a loss to DePaul would not be good for them.

Wake Forest (RPI: 40, KenPom: 31, next four out): The Demon Deacons are still in the tournament picture after landing a comeback win over Pitt on Wednesday night, but they have some work left to do. They have no bad losses and seven top 100 wins, but that 1-9 record against the top 50 is an eyesore. They get Louisville at home next week. That’s a game they have to have.

Arkansas (RPI: 33, KenPom: 51, No. 9 seed): Arkansas kept themselves away from the danger of the cutline and just about locked up a bid with a win over Texas A&M on Wednesday. With three games left, and one of those three at Florida, it will be hard for the Razorbacks to miss the dance at this point. But this is also a team that lost to Missouri. They can pull anything off.

Michigan (RPI: 52, KenPom: 27, No. 10 seed): The Wolverines avoided disaster on Wednesday night using a late rally to avoid what would’ve been a killer of a loss at Rutgers. They were already in the tournament with a little bit of room to spare entering today, and this win — however ugly it was — doesn’t hurt that.

VCU (RPI: 26, KenPom: 41, No. 9 seed): The Rams beat Saint Louis on Wednesday night, which means that they didn’t lose to the Billikens. They are close to a lock by now, because two of their last three games are at Rhode Island and at Dayton — neither of which is a bad loss — and they close with GW at home. Even if they lose out, I think it will be hard for roughly ten teams to jump them in the bubble standings.

TCU (RPI: 54, KenPom: 43, play-in game): There’s no shame in losing at Kansas, which TCU did on Wednesday night, but they did miss out on an opportunity to land a résumé-defining win. The Horned Frogs are just 2-8 against the top 50 with just five top 100 wins, which isn’t a bad profile but it is one that lacks enough depth to feel anywhere near comfortable.

Illinois State (RPI: 36, KenPom: 50, No. 12 seed): The Redbirds beat Southern Illinois, so they’re still in the mix. But with just one top 75 win and three sub-100 losses, it’s going to be hard to get in if they don’t get that MVC automatic bid.

LOSERS

Cal (RPI: 39, KenPom: 47, No. 10 seed): Cal is probably still safe after losing at home to No. 6 Oregon on Wednesday, but it sure isn’t going to feel good that they were up by 15 and blew a lead in a game that would have cemented their status as an at-large team. As it stands, Cuonzo Martin’s team is 18-9 on the season without a single bad loss, but they’re only 1-7 against the top 50, their only win over a tournament team is USC and they may not play another RPI top 100 team this season. Don’t lose anymore.

Kansas State (RPI: 51, KenPom: 28, No. 11 seed): Bruce Weber really just cannot make this easy on himself. Kansas State lost for the seventh time in the last nine games on Wednesday, falling at home to Oklahoma State. The Wildcats have just four top 100 wins, but three of those are top 30 wins, two of them are on the road and one of those is at Baylor. That’s enough to keep them on the cut line for now, but with at Oklahoma, at TCU and Texas Tech left, I would urge them to find a way to turn this slump around.

Tennessee (RPI: 50, KenPom: 42, first four out): The Vols may have finally played themselves off the bubble — which is an exceedingly difficult thing to do this season — by losing at home to Vanderbilt. In fact, I think I would go as far as to say that the Commodores now have a better chance of getting an at-large bid than Tennessee.

Pitt (RPI: 59, KenPom: , next four out): Pitt was in the picture because the bubble is trash. They had a chance to land a nice win at a Wake Forest team that has really good computer numbers … and then blew a 19 point lead. I can’t see them getting an at-large bid at this point.

 

VIDEO: Brooks hits 3-pointer with 0.2 left to lift Oregon past Cal

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Dillon Brooks did it earlier against UCLA. Wednesday, he added Cal to his list.

The Oregon junior hit a game-winning 3-pointer with 0.2 left on the clock to give the sixth-ranked Ducks a 68-65 victory over the Bears after trailing by as many as 16 in the second half.

It’s the second time this season that Brooks, who finished with 22 points, has hit a game-winning three, and this one keeps the Ducks within a game of first-place Arizona in the Pac-12 standings.

The bigger story here may actually be Cal, as the Golden Bears gave away a 15-point lead in the final 10 minutes and a 10-point lead in the final five minutes in a game they desperately needed to win for their at-large résumé. Cal is just 1-7 against the RPI top 50 this season, and while they don’t have any bad losses to their name, this was their last chance to land a marquee win before the Pac-12 tournament.

I don’t think they’re in danger of missing the dance just yet, but I would not recommend tempting fate and losing down the stretch of the season.