Top 25 Countdown: No. 8 NC State

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 24-13, 9-7 ACC (t-4th); Lost in the Sweet 16 to Kansas

Head Coach: Mark Gottfried

Key Losses: DeShawn Painter, CJ Williams

Newcomers: TJ Warren, Tyler Lewis, Rodney Purvis

Projected Lineup:

G: Lorenzo Brown, Jr.
G: Rodney Purvis, Fr.
F: Scott Wood, Sr.
F: CJ Leslie, Jr.
C: Richard Howell, Sr.
Bench: Tyler Lewis, Fr.; TJ Warren, Fr.; Jordan Vandenburg, Jr.

Outlook: There may not be a more polarizing team in the country that NC State this season. I say polarizing because, on paper, this team looks great.

Lorenzo Brown has morphed into one of the best point guards in the country. There really isn’t anything he can’t do at the position. He’s always had the size and athleticism, and last season he showed that he can be a primary scorer and ballhandler. What he’s added over the summer, according to most reports from people that have seen the Wolfpack workout, is that Brown has added an elite understanding of what it means to be a ‘point guard’. And with plenty of talent around him this season, the importance of his ability to get everyone shots cannot be understated.

Brown isn’t the only star on the NC State roster, as CJ Leslie is primed to have a monster season. Leslie entered the NC State program as a lanky, athletic forward, but he’s developed his game to the point that it wouldn’t be shocking to see him average 16 or 17 points this year. Leslie still has plenty of doubters, but I think that it’s important to note that he’ll be the sidekick this year. This is Brown’s team, and part of what makes Brown so good and Leslie so promising is that Leslie is going to get eight or ten points a night simply by catching and finishing opportunities created by Brown.

The Wolfpack got huge news back in mid-September when it was announced that the NCAA had granted NC State’s appeal and freshman Rodney Purvis was cleared to play this season. That had been in question, and the talented two-guard didn’t make the trip to Europe with the team. The addition of Purvis is important because he’s talented enough to create his own shot and get 15 or 20 points no a night when Brown and Leslie are struggling. Having that third threat to score is important, keeping defenses honest. The same can be said for TJ Warren, a wing that will play a similar role to what Deshaun Thomas played for Ohio State his freshman season.

Tyler Lewis, the third talented freshmen that Gottfried brought in this season, will back up Brown at the point, while Scott Wood will be the designated floor-spreader. The 6-foot-7 Wood hit 40.9% from beyond the arc as a junior.

The biggest issue NC State has from a personnel issue will be front court depth. Richard Howell, who averaged 10.3 points and 9.2 boards as a junior last season, is back and will start alongside Leslie, but with Deshawn Painter’s decision to transfer closer to his southern Virginia home, the Wolfpack are lacking big men. 7-foot-1 junior Jordan Vandenburg will likely be the first guy off the bench for Gottfried, while sophomore Thomas de Thaey will see some emergency minutes.

There is plenty of talent here, but the questions that most have regarding this team are a) whether or not Mark Gottfried is the guy that can bring that talent together, and b) if NC State is being overrated because of a pair of wins that came in the NCAA tournament.

Gottfried had a respectable tenure at Alabama, winning a couple of division titles in the SEC and making the Elite 8 one season. But he was hardly considered an elite coach during his time there and even fielded a couple of talented-but-disappointing teams. After spending a couple of seasons sitting at a desk at ESPN and making a move to Raliegh, he’s all of a sudden supposed to be able to turn the talent on his roster into wins?

It’s not exactly like last season was a shining example of coaching acumen. The Wolfpack finished 22-12 in the regular season and 9-7 in a top heavy ACC, managing to grab one of the last at-large bids in one of the weakest NCAA tournament fields in recent memory. They went just 1-6 against NCAA tournament teams from the ACC, and their only two wins over tournament teams in non-conference play came against UNC Asheville and Texas, when Longhorn star J’Covan Brown got a technical and was ejected with eight minutes left, completely changing the course of the game. NC State was down 18 in the second half of that game.

Just because they won two games in March means we’re supposed to forget the rest of the season happened?

That’s why this team is doubted by many. And that’s why there are people that believe this ranking will be too high.

Predictions?: Me? I believe in this group. I think there are going to be plenty of kinks to work out. I’m not sure how well Purvis is going to accept being third or fourth fiddle offensively, and Warren coming off the bench could be an issue as well. Any foul trouble up front will be worrisome. As talented as Leslie and Brown as, neither one has really shown that killer instinct; NC State blew a lot of leads last season (most notably a 20 point second half lead at Duke), which is worrisome. But this is a new year, and there is talent on this roster. I think the Wolfpack, who have a cushy ACC schedule, win the conference and get to at least the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

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

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.