Pistol Pete courtesy of Oklahoma State Athletics

Conference Catchup: Best Cowboy up if you want to beat Kansas

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Big 12 Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Kansas

Yep. Again. You may feel like one of these other Big 12 programs is about due to win the league, but this sure isn’t looking like the year to bet the ranch on it. Jeff Withey has become a force majeure under his own basket, and Ben McLemore is the enfant terrible who collects outlet passes and embarrasses his elders any chance he gets. They’re such an effective one-two punch that I had to speak in tongues to do it justice. Surrounded by steady, capable upperclassmen like Travis Releford, Kevin Young and Elijah Johnson, the dynamic duo doesn’t even have to do it all.

Contenders: Oklahoma State is coming on fast and strong, with a super-solid nucleus of Marcus Smart, Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte. Gallagher-Iba’s going to be a miserable place for opponents to visit this season, and quite a few will want to roll up the welcome mat when the Cowboys take to the road as well. It’s not just about offensive fireworks, either. The Cowboys are playing elite-level defense as well.

Kansas State is rolling in their first season under Bruce Weber, but we’ll hold off on getting too excited about that just yet. Baylor needs to locate a little defense to go with a high-powered offense, but they’re very much in this race. Iowa State seems to be lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike.

Biggest Surprise: Kansas State

We’ve all come to expect some pretty uneven results from Bruce Weber, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that his Wildcats were chosen to finish fifth in the league after he took over for the hastily-departed Frank Martin. So far, he’s wisely played to his team’s strengths, keeping them in the top-25 of defensive efficiency and taking offensive opportunities as they come. Michigan and Gonzaga were able to crack the code, but Florida was not, and the Wildcats carry a national ranking into the new year.

Biggest Disappointment: Texas

It’s popular to lay blame for the Longhorns’ deficiencies on the NCAA, for not letting Myck Kabongo play most of this season. That seems a bit naive. Great as Kabongo is as a point guard, shouldn’t Rick Barnes — who’s coached in the Big 12 since 1998 — be able to get a little more out of the talent he’s accumulated in Austin this season? The guy used to be able to win 20+ games with Dogus Balbay and a spool of baling wire.

Player of the Year: Ben McLemore, Kansas

McLemore’s situation last season had to be galling to Bill Self. He made it to the national title game with one of his best players sitting out a season. Bygones are bygones, however, and now Self has a nominal freshman who spent a year getting his house in order and stepped on the court ready to dominate this season. McLemore can drive and dunk or splash a three, making him exceptionally hard to guard, and he creates his own opportunities on defense, swiping 1.2 steals per game. This may be his only season in Lawrence, but it’s bound to be a memorable one.

Best Freshman: Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State

I know. That’s two freshmen. But they’re both worthy of a nod. Smart caught the nation’s attention with this stat line against NC State: 20 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals, 4 blocks. The only team that’s really slowed him down since is Missouri State, by being so inept that Travis Ford decided to sit Smart for half the game rather than humiliate the Bears any further. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the McLemore/Smart battles coming our way this season.

Three Predictions

  • Texas will bounce back. The offense is struggling, granted. But Texas is playing lights-out defense, coming in third nationally in defensive efficiency according to Kenpom. That includes a DI-best perimeter defense. All it will take is for one or two things to start clicking offensively, and this team will be a threat.
  • TCU will win a single league game. Trent Johnson will start his first season in the Big 12 off with a win over Texas Tech, then proceed to lose every game thereafter. What the Big 12 is, the basketball Horned Frogs ain’t ready for.
  • Hardin-Simmons will wish they had asked for more money. Baylor travels to Kansas on January 14, then hosts Oklahoma State on the 21st. In-between, they’ll paste the tar out of the poor, frightened Hardin-Simmons Cowboys of DIII for no apparent reason except that they can. I’m with Harten – can’t we just end these shenanigans?

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Kansas*
2. Oklahoma State*
3. Kansas State*
4. Baylor*
5. Iowa State*
6. Texas
7. Oklahoma
8. West Virginia
9. Texas Tech
10. Texas Christian

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

VIDEO: Why did the NCAA ban dunking in 1967?

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With UCLA playing in the Sweet 16 tonight, it’s a fitting time to bring up the story of the time that the association banned dunking.

It was in 1967, and it was because there was a kid named Lew Alcindor at UCLA who led the Bruins to a 30-0 record and a national title.

Cleveland State hires Dennis Felton as head coach

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Cleveland State has found its next head coach as the school announced the hiring of Dennis Felton.

A veteran head coach with previous stops at Western Kentucky and Georgia, Felton made three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with the Hilltoppers before taking the job with the Bulldogs before the 2003-04 season.

Felton takes over for previous head coach Gary Waters, who retired after 11 seasons at Cleveland State.

“I’m extremely excited to return to the head coaching ranks with this opportunity at Cleveland State University,” Felton said in the release. “I’m grateful to Dr. Berkman and Mike Thomas for the opportunity to lead this program. Cleveland State is an outstanding University that continues to grow in stature on the national landscape. I’m eager to start working with our players to build a championship program and getting out to share my vision of how we plan to partner with the entire community to do special things at Cleveland State.”

Felton made one NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons with Georgia as he was fired in the middle of the 2008-09 season. Having a tough time overcoming NCAA sanctions lobbied after the Jim Harrick’s time with the school, Felton’s time with the Bulldogs never got rolling as he dealt with scholarship limitations and other obstacles.

After his time coaching in college, Felton spent time as a college scout with the Phoenix Suns before becoming director of pro player personnel for the San Antonio Spurs for a few seasons.

Cleveland State finished 18-45 over the last two seasons as they’ve struggled in the Horizon League. Felton will be tasked with turning the Vikings around as he hopes to find some of the magic that helped make Western Kentucky a consistent winner.

But with NBA connections and a lot of head coaching experience, Cleveland State made a solid hire here.

Frank Kaminsky trolls Arizona after high school teammate Sean O’Mara gets winning basket for Xavier

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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No. 11 seed Xavier’s upset win over No. 2 seed Arizona left a lot of people stunned late Thursday night. Naturally, people took to Twitter to share their opinions of the Musketeers advancing to the Elite Eight to face No. 1 seed Gonzaga.

Some of those with comments on Arizona’s loss included members of Wisconsin’s back-to-back Final Four teams in 2014 and 2015. You might recall that the Badgers eliminated the Wildcats in both years in the Elite Eight to make the trips to the Final Four–so there is some history here between the two schools.

The Twitter comments started with former Wisconsin guard Ben Brust questioning Arizona head coach Sean Miller for going away from his big men. Brust’s “should have kept touching the big Serb” comment would indicate that getting touches for Arizona center Dusan Ristic was important–although others were pointing out freshman Lauri Markkanen’s minimal involvement in the Arizona offense during the last 10 minutes.

That’s when former Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky entered the discussion and promptly shut things down.

Wisconsin’s personal history with Arizona hit closer for Kaminsky than a normal game when Xavier junior big man Sean O’Mara scored the game-winning bucket for the Musketeers with just under a minute left.

There’s a major connection here. O’Mara hails from Benet Academy in the Western Suburbs of Chicago, the same high school program that produced Kaminsky.

So Kaminsky made sure to mention that after the loss.

When Kaminsky was a senior and Benet started its season 29-0 and was nationally ranked in the USA Today High School rankings, O’Mara was the freshman big man that Kaminsky was beating up in practice every day.

While Kaminsky has turned into a productive member of the Charlotte Hornets rotation this season, O’Mara is having himself a solid 2017 NCAA Tournament run as he’s averaging 12.3 points a game after putting up 6.1 per game during the regular season.

We definitely know who Kaminsky will be rooting for when it comes to the West Region.

Saturday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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Regional Finals – Saturday, March 25

6:09 p.m., TBS, San Jose
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 11 Xavier (Brian Anderson, Chris Webber, Lewis Johnson)

8:49 p.m., TBS, Kansas City
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 3 Oregon (Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Dan Bonner, Dana Jacobson)

Sweet 16 Preview: Friday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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Thursday brought us a thrilling night of college basketball. Oregon won a thriller. Gonzaga did, too. Kansas put on a show, toying with the Big Ten champs. 

And that was just the appetizer for what’s on tap Friday night.

For an in-depth look at each region, check these out:

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-7.5) vs. No. 4 BUTLER, 7:09 p.m. (CBS): As weird as it sounds for a team that finished second in the Big East, that swept Villanova and that has a combined three wins over Arizona and Xavier, Butler is basically back to being a mid-major in the South Region. That’s what happens when you get stuck in a region with three of the biggest brands in the sport.

And don’t think, for a second, that Butler is going to be overmatched here. They’ve proven, time and again this season, that they are good enough to play with the best of the best even if their roster, on paper, doesn’t look that way.

But here’s the thing about North Carolina: If they play their best basketball game, they should be able to run through the Bulldogs. That’s a big ‘if’, however, especially if Joel Berry II plays the way that he has played in the first two games of the tournament. North Carolina goes as Berry goes, and he’s 3-for-21 from the floor in those two games.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (-7.5)

No. 3 BAYLOR (-3.5) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 7:29 p.m., (TBS): Baylor’s front line is massive. Johnathan Motley is an all-american in the middle, Jo Lual-Acuil was one of the nation’s most improved players this season there’s an argument to be made that Terry Maston has been the most important player for the Bears in this tournament. That’s where Baylor’s strength lies, and they play to it. The Bears want to play slow and they want to pound the ball into the paint.

Where Baylor struggles, however, is with their guard play. Manu Lecomte and Jake Lindsey are not exactly Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham, and if we’ve learned anything about South Carolina this season, it’s that their defense can be a nightmare for opponents to try and run offense against. They don’t pressure in the full court, but their half court defense is just as tough and as physical and as frustrating as West Virginia’s. I think the first one to 60 wins this game, and I think South Carolina gets it done.

PREDICTION: South Carolina (+3.5)

No. 2 KENTUCKY (even) vs. No. 3 UCLA, 9:39 p.m. (CBS): Does it get any better than this?

Do you really need me to tell you that a matchup between two of the four best teams in college basketball, two teams that can legitimately win a national title, playing in the Sweet 16 is must-see TV?

You shouldn’t.

You probably know all the storylines by now, too, so I’m going to say this: I think this game comes down to how UCLA decides to matchup with Kentucky’s guards. My best guess at what happens is that Aaron Holiday chases Malik Monk around all those screens while Lonzo Ball draws De’Aaron Fox, mostly to save his legs but in part because he has the length to challenge a jump shot while playing far enough off to keep his from getting into the lane.

PREDICTION: I think Kentucky wins, but I love the over (165.5)

No. 4 FLORIDA (-1.5) vs. No. 8 WISCONSIN, 9:59 p.m. (TBS): Florida is one of the best defensive teams in the country. They have length and athletes everywhere on the floor, and head coach Mike White knows it. They pressure, they overplay passing lanes and they make life miserable for opposing playmakers. Wisconsin, like Baylor, is a team that plays through their bigs, but unlike Baylor, a post-up for Nigel Hayes or Ethan Happ is like their point guard getting an isolation. Both guys are just such great passers out of the post that Greg Gard doesn’t have to worry as much about the lack of playmakers in his back court.

I think that is a huge advantage for Wisconsin in what could otherwise be thought of as a bad matchup.

But more than anything, I trust Wisconsin’s vets more in NCAA tournament games than just about anyone else. This is going to be the 17th NCAA tournament game for Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, the most of anyone in the tournament. They’ve both played in two Final Fours and two more Sweet 16s. Hayes and Koenig are the two career leaders in NCAA tournament scoring, and Koenig may be the single-most clutch shooter left in the tournament. I’ll bet on that.

PREDICTION: Wisconsin (+1.5)