Previewing your College Hoops Weekend: Happy New Year!

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Game of the weekend: 12:00 pm: No. 4 Louisville @ No. 3 Kentucky

Hopefully Chane Behanan is more accurate in his prediction that this game will “go down as one of the best games in history” than he was about Louisville’s undefeated season. The Battle of the Commonwealth is always going to be a passionate affair, but with both teams currently sitting in the top five of the country, on paper its easy to see why folks like Behanan are expecting this game to be an instant classic. The problem is that the games aren’t played on paper, they are played on a basketball court. And on a basketball court, Louisville simply is not in the same league as Kentucky right now.

That’s not meant as a shot at Louisville, either. I think the Cardinals are a quality basketball team. But they are borderline top ten quality, not Final Four favorite quality. The issue with the ‘Ville this year is on the offensive end of the floor — they ain’t scoring. For all the ability that Peyton Siva has when it comes to using his dribble to beat his defender, he’s yet to become the unstoppable playmaker that some hypothesized that he would turn into this year. As a result, Louisville’s half court offense tends to stagnate, something that won’t be helped by Kentucky’s top-five defense and shot-blocking ability around the rim.

Where Louisville is going to have to find success is defensively, specifically in their press. Marquis Teague has been playing better of late, but he is still quite turnover prone. The Cardinals have a couple of very good back court defenders that are known for their ability to wreak havoc on opposing ball-handlers. If they can force some turnovers, it will take some pressure off their offensive by creating easy baskets.

So what does Kentucky have to do to win? Well, frankly, they just need to play well. The Wildcats are just a better team than Louisville, even if Terrence Jones is struggling with his finger injury. And as good as Kentucky’s front court is, I think the biggest advantage the Wildcats are going to have is on the wing. I’m not sure who on Louisville is going to be big enough to defend Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the paint. I also am not sure who is going to be the person tasked with making sure Doron Lamb doesn’t get hot, but I can see the sophomore getting quite a few open looks against.

My pick: Kentucky by 10 in a game that isn’t necessarily as close as the final score indicates.

Four other games to keep an eye on

Sat. 6:00 pm: No. 2 Ohio State @ No. 15 Indiana: The consensus feeling is that Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten by a fairly decent margin. And, generally speaking, on topics like this, I tend to side with the consensus. But the key component here is whether or not Jared Sullinger is a) healthy and b) in game shape. He looked pretty good going for 17 points and 14 boards in a blow out of Northwestern, but playing well in a 30 point win is a different story than having to chase Cody Zeller up and down the court in Assembly Hall. That right there is the key. Indiana is capable of pushing the ball up the floor, and if Zeller can tire Sullinger out, that becomes a big factor for the Buckeyes on the offensive end of the floor.

There are a couple of other things to keep an eye on in this game. For starters, the matchup between Christian Watford and DeShaun Thomas pits two of the best face-up fours in the country, both of whom are dangerous offensive weapons that play marginal defense at best. Indiana is also the best three-point shooting team in the country. Will they be going down? And will Will Sheehey be in uniform in this one? He missed the last game with an ankle injury.

A win keep the Hoosiers from starting Big Ten play off 0-2, which could end up being a hole that is very difficult to pull themselves out of.

Sat. 6:00 pm: No. 19 Creighton @ Wichita State: This is what the Missouri Valley is all about. Creighton, the favorite to win the league and the only team from the conference that is ranked, is coming off of a loss to Missouri State in their conference opener and is an underdog in their second game. Wichita State is a team I am still trying to get a handle on. They beat UNLV by 19 at home, but they also lost to both Alabama and Temple on neutral courts, both of whom have seen their seasons get turned upside down in recent weeks. How the Shockers go about slowing down Doug McDermott will be interesting. Missouri State “held” him to 19 points and 12 boards, but much of that was the result of McDermott’s deference down the stretch.

Sat. 8:00 pm: Gonzaga @ Xavier: Two perennial powerhouses from outside the power conferences, both of whom have fallen off of late. Xavier has an excuse, although I’m not sure I want to call it valid. Since the brawl that they got in with Cincinnati, the Musketeers have gone 1-3, with their lone win coming against (wait for it) Southern Illinois. Xavier looked like a top ten team before that, and Gonzaga may be just the team they want to see to get back into a rhythm. As much as I like Kevin Pangos, he is not what you would call a defender. And when he is sharing the back court with David Stockton, Gonzaga’s ability to keep penetrating guards out of the paint is non-existent. Xavier is tough enough defensively that the Zags need their best offensive team on the floor, but that team includes Pangos and Stockton, who are going to get deep-fried by Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons. Xavier needs a big game out of Elias Harris, who will be a matchup problem for the Muskies.

Sat. 4:00 pm: Illinois @ Purdue: Here’s what makes this game so interesting to me: Illinois is a team full of role players that is lacking the kind of star power that will close out games. Purdue has Robbie Hummel, who has been playing some of the best basketball of his career this season, including being the guy that knocks down big shots for the Boilermakers. But he lacks the kind of supporting that he had with JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore in town. Its too bad we can’t combine these teams.

Who’s getting upset?: Fri. 7:00 pm: No. 8 Missouri @ Old Dominion

No team in the country has been playing a prettier brand of basketball over the first two months of the season than Missouri. The Tigers have two dynamic ball-handlers that are capable of getting into the lane at will and finding the Tiger’s shooters on the perimeter. Missouri’s biggest advantage comes in the form of Kim English, a 6’6″ two-guard that has slid over and taken the four spot. He’s big enough that he can battle in the paint defensively but he doesn’t miss when he gets his feet set beyond the arc. But here’s the thing about Old Dominion: they are big, they are physical and they can play at home. It will be interesting to see if the Monarchs are able to get Missouri out of their game-plan.

Four more teams on upset watch

Sat. 2:00 pm: Rice @ Texas: Texas A&M wasn’t on upset watch when they played Rice last week. You know what happened? The Aggies lost to the Owls in a game that the Owls controlled for much of the second half. I don’t think Texas is going to make that same mistake, but that by no means guarantees a Texas win. The Longhorns are 291st in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, and they will be facing the best pound-for-pound rebounder in the country in Arsalan Kazemi.

Sat. 2:05 pm: Utah State @ No. 14 Mississippi State: Has Utah State finally turned things around? After starting the year out just 4-5, the Aggies have rallied around the play of Preston Medlin and Brockeith Pane and won four in a row. The last of those wins was a 19 point whooping against Kent State. Now, the Bulldogs have much more talent, especially up front, than Kent State, but the point remains the same here: Utah State is coming off of their best win of the season since opening night, but both of those came at the Spectrum. Can Utah State win one on the road?

Sun. 5:00 pm: Penn @ No. 5 Duke: This pick might seem silly, but I think that Penn is pretty solid. Their point guard, Zach Rosen, might be the third best point guard in the ACC behind Kendell Marshall and Terrell Stoglin. Their off-guard, Tyler Bernardini, is finally healthy and playing like it. Prior to Thursday’s loss to Davidson, Bernardini had his eight threes in back-to-back games.

Sat. 8:00 pm: No. 20 UNLV @ Hawaii: Hawaii is playing with a little bit of confidence after a decent showing at the Diamondhead Classic. And, like the Diamondhead Classic, this game will take place on the islands, meaning the Runnin’ Rebels have a long trip in front of them. It will be interesting to see who Dave Rice uses against Zane Johnson and how he opts to guard the sharp shooter.

Mid-major matchup of the weekend: Sat. 4:00 pm: St. Joseph’s @ No. 23 Harvard

This game has fun written all over it. St. Joe’s is under-the-radar this season, but thanks to Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, the Hawks are a national brand that people pay attention to. Harvard, on the other hand, had a non-existent profile prior to Tommy Amaker’s tenure, and this season the Crimson have parlayed that notoriety into a top 25 rankings and a spot as the Ivy League favorite. Where St. Joseph’s is an uptempo team with a pair of high-scoring guards and a couple of athletic bigs, Harvard is much slower, a team that relies on the Ivy League version of Jared Sullinger (Keith Wright), execution offensively and a roster full of sharpshooters.

Four more mid-major matchups to watch

Fri. 7:00 pm: George Mason @ Charleston: How often do you see two freshmen that were both in the top 100 in the country square against one another in a matchup of true mid-majors? Not that often, but that’s what we have as Eric Copes and Adjehi Baru go toe-to-toe on Friday evening. Baru has had a much bigger role early in the season than Copes has, but neither has become a star. What will be interesting to watch here is how well Andre Cornelius reacts to the battle of the big.

Sat. 2:00 pm: Milwaukee @ Butler: Milwaukee looks like they may end up being the class of the Horizon League this season. But until Butler loses their grip — completely, as in they are knocked out of the Horizon League tournament — I won’t believe that anyone else is going to win a game in that conference.

Sat. 3:05 pm: Drake @ Missouri State: How many people that these two teams sitting at 1-0 after playing Creighton and Indiana State in their openers? I didn’t. But the Bluejays got the job done for us.

Sat. 6:00 pm: St. Louis @ New Mexico: This falls under the category of sneaky-good game that no one is going to talk about. St. Louis is not a secret anymore, and they just may be the second best team in the Atlantic 10. On the other hand, New Mexico has slowly but surely grown past the struggles that they had earlier in the year.

The rest of the top 25:

Sun. 5:00 pm: No. 1 Syracuse @ DePaul: The Orange have yet to slip up as the No. 1 team in the country. That time will come, but not against DePaul.

Fri. 7:00 pm: Western Michigan @ No. 5 Duke: Western Michigan has been playing much better basketball of late, but it won’t be enough against the Blue Devils.

Sun. 3:00 pm: Monmouth @ No. 6 UNC: I’ll pass. The only intrigue will be how much UNC scores.

Sat. 12:00 pm: St. John’s @ No. 9 UConn: St. John’s looked like they were dead in the water for a while, but the Johnnies had a terrific game in the eithr big East

Sat. 2:00 pm: Yale @ No. 10 Florida: Greg Mangano wants to play in the NBA? Here’s your chance, kid. Prove yourself against Patric Young.

Sat. 1:00 pm: Iowa @ No. 11 Wisconsin: Can Iowa break 40?

Sat. 2:00 pm: Providence @ No. 12 Georgetown: Providence is coming off of a seal-clubbing loss to St. John’s that ticked off their coach, forcing him to challenge his player to play and Practice hon i

Sun. 1:00 pm: Villanova @ No. 13 Marquette: Villanova was the original disappointment in the Big East. Then came Pitt and Cincinnati. Now, finally, Marquette is on the robs, having lost to LSU on the road and Vandy (by 20) at home. Who snaps out of it?

Sun. 4:00 pm: Minnesota @ No. 16 Michigan: Minnesota has actually been one of the most surprising teams in the country, but I just don’t see them matching up well with Minnesota, who can’t shoot a lick from the perimeter;;

Sat. 3:00 pm: No. 17 Michigan State @ Nebraska: Michigan State’s win over Indiana was fluky, but I expect a much more thorough performance against Nebraksa.

Sat. 4:00 pm: North Dakota @ No. 18 Kansas: The Jayhawks are fresh off of drilling Hampton in my picket. Literally.

Fri. 8:00 pm: No. 21 Murray State @ Eastern Illinois: This shouldn’t be a test for the Racers.

Sun. 7:00 pm: Cincinnati @ No. 22 Pitt: This game has all kinds of intriguing plot lines. The Panthers bouncing back from a trio of losses. Cincinnati trying to prove themselves a legitimate contender. Cincy’s four guards vs. Pitt’s bigs. The last game Yancy Smith can play in as well.

Fri. 7:00 pm: Towson @ No. 24 Virginia: With a loss, Towson will have gone winless in the calendar year in 2011.

Sat. 2:00 pm: Howard @ No. 25 Kansas State: Two days after getting absolutely worked by Kansas, Howard extends their trip to take on Kansas State.

Other notable games

Friday:

– 7:00 pm: CCSU @ UMass
– 7:00 pm: Princeton @ Florida State
– 7:00 pm: Ole Miss @ Dayton
– 8:00 pm: Oakland @ South Dakota State
– 8:00 pm: West Virginia @ Seton Hall

Saturday:

– 12:00 pm: Virginia Tech @ Oklahoma State
– 4:00 pm: UCLA @ Cal
– 9:00 pm: Charlotte @ Memphis
– 10:00 pm: Oregon @ Washington

Sunday:

– 4:00 pm: Akron @ Marshall

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Elite 8 Preview: Sunday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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No. 4 FLORIDA (-3) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 2:20 p.m., CBS: If you’re a fan of uptempo, wide-open basketball, of teams running beautiful offensive sets, spreading the floor and using the three-point line like it should be used, this game probably is not going to be for you.

This is going to be as physical and as tough as any game you watched all season long. Both the Gamecocks and the Gators are top five teams in defensive efficiency, and both of them get out and pressure defensively, Florida in the full court and South Carolina in the half court. They shun shooters for the toughest athletes on their roster. They pride themselves in being tougher, both mentally and physically, than whoever they end up playing.

And they think that a game played in the 50s is beautiful basketball.

So bet the under if you can.

But the pick I like is Florida here. Their ability to defend is going to make it very difficult for South Carolina’s offensive renaissance to continue, and their guards will be able to make the plays offensively that South Carolina dares you to make.

PREDICTION: Florida (-3)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-2.5) vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 5:05 p.m. CBS: This is the rematch we all wanted, right?

Ever since that day three months ago, when Kentucky got 47 points from Malik Monk in a 103-102 win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, I don’t think there is a soul in the country that would have told you otherwise.

There are two major differences between these two teams now and those two teams then. The biggest is the presence of Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender. Pinson has dealt foot injuries all season long, and when these two got together in December, he was not yet healthy enough to play. I assume that he will draw the assignment of Malik Monk, chasing around the man that had definitively been Kentucky’s most dangerous scorer. Pinson will make life more difficult for Monk than it was the first time around.

But is he going to spend the entire game on him?

Because after De’Aaron Fox’s 39-point outburst against UCLA on Friday night, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Pinson may be better suited to taking on the task of keeping Fox from getting into the paint. Whatever Roy Williams opts to do, the bottom line is pretty simple — if he needs to find a way to keep Kentucky’s back court in check.

The other difference between now and then is that Bam Adebayo has been playing up to his potential for the past six weeks. He was solid earlier in the year. He can be dominant at times now, and that is going to be critical for the Wildcats, who are going to be outsized by a significant margin by UNC’s front line. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and they are one of the only elite teams that thrives playing two bigs at the same time. In other words, one of Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis are going to have to deal with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley. That’s a matchup that favors UNC, which is why Aebayo is going to have to play up to his size.

In the end, I think Pinson’s presence and North Carolina’s size advantage will be too much.

But if Fox and Monk play their game, they can carry Kentucky a long, long way.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (2.5)

Lawrence Police Department trolls Bill Self following Elite Eight loss

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Kansas had its season ended with a 74-60 loss to No. 3 seed Oregon.

The Jayhawks were the top seed in the South region. They were playing a de facto at the Sprint Center, which is 40 miles away from the school’s campus. As you can imagine, fans in Lawrence were likely unhappy, especially since it’s the second year in a row KU has been bounced one-game shy of the Final Four.

The Lawrence Police Department, while prepping for potential riots, couldn’t help tweeting a joke at the future Hall of Famer’s expense.

Bill Self’s teams have been eliminated seven times in the Elite Eight during his tenure at Kansas. He’s led the Jayhawks to a pair of Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2008.

Kansas finished the season 31-5.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

The slogan of the NCAA Tournament is “The Road to the Final Four”.

Outside of Duke, the runaway preseason favorite, and it’s months-long narrative of “Is Duke back?”, you could make the case there wasn’t a Final Four contender with a journey filled with more ups and downs than Oregon.

Weeks following a season-ending loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, Oregon learned that both Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey would return to school for the next season. In July, Dylan Ennis was granted a sixth-year of eligibility. With Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell returning, and Payton Pritchard joining the program, the Ducks were an easy choice for a preseason Final Four pick.

Brooks’ offseason foot surgery — and the recovery that followed — raised concern about whether or not Oregon could fully reach its preseason potential, entering conference play without a notable win. Brooks’ Pac-12 Player of the Year season put to rest the status of his foot, leading the Ducks to a 16-2 Pac-12 record.

Hours before Oregon was set to battle with Arizona, it was announced that Chris Boucher had torn his ACL and would be out for the remainder of the season. Not only could this have played a role in the team’s seeding by the selection committee, but Boucher offered more than rim protection, as he helped space the floor given his ability to step out and shoot from the perimeter.

After fending off a good fight from Iona, the Ducks looked to be part of a Rhode Island’s magical postseason run. Tyler Dorsey ended that. In the Sweet 16, Oregon was matchup with Michigan, dubbed as the team of destiny. Bell and Dorsey, Oregon’s two tournament stars, stepped up in critical moments once again. Slated as an underdog for the second straight game, Oregon proved its Final Four worth by handing Kansas its worst tournament defeat of the Bill Self era in a regional final game that was played 40 miles away from the KU campus.

“I’m happy for our team,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said following the game. “I’m happy for, as I mentioned, our university and our state. It’s been a long time coming and now we just need to go continue to play well.”

For Oregon, its road to the Final Four has come full circle.