Steve Fisher, Jim Boeheim

Weekend Preview: Syracuse-SDSU highlights a strong weekend slate

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Game of the Weekend: Sunday, 4:00 p.m. No. 9 Syracuse at No. 20 San Diego State (Fox Sports)

Syracuse flies out to sunny Southern California to take on the Aztecs in a game that was postponed from Friday evening due to a rainout. Seriously. With wet weather settling in over San Diego and the Battle of the Midway set to be played on the USS Midway, one of three aircraft carrier games this weekend, organizers were forced to move the game to Sunday afternoon. But regardless of when the game is played, the ‘where’ is going to be an issue for SDSU. Playing against a zone — especially one as long as Syracuse’s — this early in the season is never an easy task, and that’s before you factor in the complications that come with playing outdoors. There will be a breeze and there won’t be a typical shooting back drop, which means that perimeter jumpshots may not be falling. That would hurt the Aztecs quite a bit.

The other advantage that Syracuse is going to have will be on the interior. SDSU has a ton of good guards, headlined by reigning MWC Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin and the underrated Chase Tapley. But until James Johnson gets eligible in December, they are going to be small up front. Could the bigger Orange take advantage of their size? One guy to keep an eye on for the Cuse will be Michael Carter-Williams. He’s a 6-foot-6 playmaker in the back court that was stuck on the bench as a freshman. He’s expected to have a big year.

Five more games to watch:

  • Friday, 7:00 p.m.: No. 4 Ohio State vs. Marquette (NBC Sports Network): Another game that will be played on an aircraft carrier, this one taking place in Charleston, SC. And while it is difficult to make season-long assumptions based on the first game of the season, especially when it is played outdoors, this will be a good chance to get a gauge on both of these teams. Given what OSU has lost the last two season, particularly with Jared Sullinger entering last year’s NBA Draft, the Buckeyes have a lot of questions marks, the most notable being the absence of a secondary scorer alongside Deshaun Thomas. Marquette may be playing without the suspended Todd Mayo, but this is still a Golden Eagle team that is flying a bit under the radar. Buzz Williams always produces tough, disciplined teams that thrive in an underdog role. This group has more talent than they are being given credit for.
  • Friday, 8:30 p.m.: No. 3 Kentucky vs. Maryland in Brooklyn (ESPN): There is so much to talk about in this game. The new-look Kentucky roster, the addition of Dez Wells, the recruiting battle over the Harrison twins, the battle between Alex Len and Kentucky’s twin towers. But the most important point to make? Maryland, who is now a top four team in the ACC, will have a great shot to earn a win that will continue to earn dividends as the season progresses and Kentucky improves.
  • Friday, 8:05 p.m.: North Texas @ No. 16 Creighton (No TV): These may be the two best mid-major teams in the country. Creighton is a juggernaut on the offensive end of the floor that returns plenty of experience, while the Mean Green of UNT has quite a bit of young, inexperienced talent on their roster. This could end up being one of the five or ten most interesting non-conference games of the season. But it’s biggest selling point? First Team All-American Doug McDermott squaring off with future lottery pick Tony Mitchell. Yes. Please.
  • Friday, 9:00 p.m.: No. 10 Florida vs. Georgetown (NBC Sports Network): The more time passes, the more it looks like Georgetown will be able to pull off the upset against the Gators. For starters, two rotation players — Casey Prather (concussion) and starting PG Scottie Wilbekin (suspension) — are out for Florida. Kenny Boynton will be sliding over to the point. That could get interesting. But Florida also is a team that relies quite a bit on perimeter shooting, which is never easy outdoors. Throw in the fact that this Georgetown team has the kind of versatility, with guys like Otto Porter and Greg Whittington, to be a very good defensive team, and I like the Hoyas to pull the upset.
  • Friday, 5:00 p.m.: Lehigh at No. 19 Baylor (FOX Sports Southwest): There is one reason and one reason only that I’m so excited about this game: CJ McCollum vs. Pierre Jackson. McCollum is an all-american that finally made a name for himself after three sensational years at Lehigh by leading the Mountain Hawks to a win over No. 2 seed Duke in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Jackson is a guy that’s had his fair share of critics in his time in Waco, but I think he’s going to have a huge year. He’s as tough-minded and athletic as any point guard in the country, and this will be his team this season. Lehigh will have a shot at pulling this upset if Gabe Knutson can hold his own against Isaiah Austin and Ricardo Gathers up front.

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

PHOTO: Nevada wearing pink jerseys to honor Coaches vs. Cancer this week

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Nevada announced that they’ll be wearing special pink uniforms for the next two games to promote cancer awareness.

The Wolf Pack will wear the jerseys on Wednesday (Jan. 25) on the road against Boise State and at home on Saturday (Jan. 28) against New Mexico.

“We are extremely excited and honored to release our new Pink “Cancer-Awareness” Jerseys. It was apparent very early in our time here, that many members of our Nevada Wolf Pack Basketball Program and in our Pack community have been affected or are currently being affected by cancer,” Nevada head coach Eric Musselman said in the release. “We could not be more proud to help support the cause and unite to fight this horrible and devastating disease.”

 

UCLA is no longer a Final Four contender if their defense doesn’t improve

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins reacts after making a three-point basket against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Saturday’s win over No. 8 UCLA was massive for No. 7 Arizona for a number of reasons.

They got Allonzo Trier back into the fold. They remained undefeated atop the Pac-12 standings, keeping pace with an Oregon team that’s dealing with another Dillon Brooks foot injury and getting ready to make the nightmarish trip to the Mountain schools, Utah and Colorado, this weekend. They took a two game lead over the Bruins in the Pac-12 standings.

Perhaps more importantly, the Wildcats certified themselves as a legitimate threat to get to the Final Four. Their 17-2 record entering Saturday was pretty. A win at Pauley finally gave that résumé some substance.

So good for Arizona.

But that wasn’t the biggest story line coming out of Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon.

UCLA’s defense, or lack thereof, was.

Ever since the Bruins went into Rupp Arena and knocked off then-No. 1 Kentucky, UCLA has been considered one of the very best teams in the country. Villanova’s up there, too. So is Kansas, and Gonzaga, and those Kentucky Wildcats. North Carolina probably should be in that conversation as well. Maybe Baylor, maaaybe Florida State.

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You get my point. The Bruins, for better or worse, were one of the handful of teams that everyone thought would enter the NCAA tournament as a favorite to win the national title, but it’s time for us to question whether or not that is actually the case. That’s how bad the UCLA defense has been this season, particularly of late.

Against Arizona, the Bruins were a train-wreck. They gave up 96 points on 1.315 points-per-possession, which, for those of you who aren’t into advanced stats, is atrocious. That game was the culmination of a four-game stretch where UCLA’s defense had gone from concerning-but-good-enough to a major red flag. In those four games – road trips to Colorado and Utah and home games against Arizona and Arizona State – the Bruins allowed an abysmal 1.153 PPP. For comparison’s sake, the 2015 Kentucky team that went 38-1, the best defense we’ve seen in the KenPom era, gave up 0.847 PPP. UCLA averages 75 possessions a game, which is a difference of 23 points over 40 minutes.

That’s a big deal.

And on the season, UCLA has fallen the way to 125th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric.

That’s a bigger deal.

For those that don’t know, KenPom.com is a website that ranks teams based on how many points they score and allow per possession, adjusted for schedule strength. It’s widely considered the best way to determine who the best offensive, the best defensive and the best overall teams are.

It’s been around since 2002.

And since 2002, given where UCLA’s defense is today, they would be the second-worst defensive team to ever get to a Final Four.

In 2011, VCU ranked 138th in defensive efficiency as of Selection Sunday*, and they are the only team to ever rank outside the top 80 in defensive efficiency and make it all the way to the Final Four. Only three other teams have ranked outside the top 50 and made it to the final weekend of the season: Marquette in 2003 (76th), Butler in 2011 (72nd) and Michigan in 2013 (66th). Two others ranked outside the top 40 and won at least four games in the Big Dance: Texas in 2003 (46th) and Wisconsin in 2014 (50th):

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*(All of this info is via KenPom.com and as of Selection Sunday in those given seasons. That’s important to note, because winning games against good teams in the tournament changes those stats.)

The precedent is there.

UCLA, unquestionably, has to get better defensively if they want to win a national title.

But all hope is not lost.

The two teams with the lowest defensive efficiency entering the NCAA tournament to win the national title – North Carolina in 2009 and Duke in 2015 – both had top three offenses nationally.

UCLA leads the nation in offensive efficiency.

AP Poll: Villanova, Kansas neck-and-neck for No. 1

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 13: Head coach Jay Wright and Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats congratulate Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats in the second half against the Temple Owls at The Pavilion on December 13, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Temple Owls 78-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Villanova maintained a slim lead over Kansas for the No. 1 spot in this week’s AP poll, with Gonzaga being the only other program to receive any first place votes.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

After losing to Arizona at home, UCLA dropped to eighth as the Wildcats vaulted them into No. 7 in the poll.

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1. Villanova (35 first-place votes)
2. Kansas (28)
3. Gonzaga (2)
4. Kentucky
5. Baylor
6. Florida State
7. Arizona
8. UCLA
9. North Carolina
10. Oregon
11. Butler
12. Virginia
13. Louisville
14. Notre Dame
15. Wisconsin
16. Creighton
17. Duke
18. West Virginia
19. Cincinnati
20. Purdue
21. Saint Mary’s
22. Maryland
23. South Carolina
24. Xavier
25. Florida

Coaches Poll: Kansas remains No. 1, Villanova No. 2

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 21: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives to the goal against Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns in the first half at Allen Field House on January 21, 2017 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Kansas remained No. 1 in the Coaches Poll this week, getting 18 of the 32 first-place votes.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

Villanova sits at No. 2 in the poll, with Gonzaha in third, the only other team to receive a first-place vote.

After beating UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, Arizona jumped up to No. 9 but still sits two spots behind UCLA at No. 7.

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1. Kansas (18 first-place votes)
2. Villanova (11)
3. Gonzaga (3)
4. Kentucky
5. Baylor
6. North Carolina
7. UCLA
8. Florida State
9. Arizona
10. Oregon
11. Butler
12. Notre Dame
13. Virginia
14. Louisville
15. Wisconsin
16. Creighton
17. Duke
18. West Virginia
19. Cincinnati
20. Purdue
21. Sainy Mary’s
22. Xavier
23. Maryland
24. South Carolina
25. Florida

College Basketball Talk Top 25: It gets muddy after a clear-cut top four

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in front of Lamarr Kimble #0 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks in the first half at The Pavilion on December 3, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 88-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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This week’s rankings were probably more difficult to put together than any week so far this season.

The top four, frankly, seem pretty obvious. I have Villanova No. 1, but I would have no qualms with ranking any of Kentucky, Kansas or Gonzaga in that No. 1 spot. I expect those to be the four teams that get votes for No. 1 in the AP and Coaches Polls this week.

After that, however, is when it gets difficult. Are you going to rank North Carolina above Florida State? UNC beat the Seminoles when they squared off this season but that was the Seminoles lone loss in a six game run against ranked teams. I went with Carolina over them because, simply, I think UNC is a better team.

Then there’s the question of what to do with the top three teams in the Pac-12. Arizona just won at UCLA and they got Allonzo Trier back. Oregon also owns a win over the Bruins, but there’s came at home on a buzzer-beater from Dillon Brooks, who is dealing with a foot injury again. And while UCLA has consistently proven to be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the country, they are a nightmare defensively right now.

Where does West Virginia slot in after a pair of losses? What about Creighton without Mo Watson Jr.? Butler’s profile looks great but their performance on the floor has been less than stellar since their win over Villanova. Is Duke actually back?

You can find the rankings below. What did I get wrong?

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1. Villanova (19-1, Last Week No. 1)
2. Kentucky (17-2, 2)
3. Kansas (18-1, 4)
4. Gonzaga (19-0, 5)
5. North Carolina (18-3, 5)
6. Baylor (18-1, 7)
7. Florida State (18-2, 8)
8. Arizona (18-2, 16)
9. UCLA (19-2, 3)
10. Oregon (18-2, 10)
11. Louisville (16-4, 11)
12. Wisconsin (16-3, 13)
13. Purdue (16-4, 15)
14. Notre Dame (17-3, 17)
15. Cincinnati (17-2, 18)
16. Duke (15-4, 19)
17. West Virginia (15-4, 10)
18. Butler (17-3, 14)
19. Creighton (18-2, 12)
20. Saint Mary’s (17-2, 20)
21. Virginia (16-3, 22)
22. South Carolina (15-4, 24)
23. Maryland (17-2, 25)
24. Kansas State (15-4, NR)
25. Iowa State (12-6, NR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 21 Xavier, No. 23 Florida
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 24 Kansas State, No. 25 Iowa State