Conference Catchups: A three-bid SEC this season?

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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 ACC Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Missouri

The Tigers have their issues, but given how weak the SEC is as a whole, there really isn’t much of an argument to make here. Phil Pressey has turned into one of the nation’s most dangerous playmakers at the point at the same time that Laurence Bowers has gone from a defensive presence into a terrific all-around player with a killer perimeter jumper.

There are three things that are going to determine whether or not the Tigers end up being something special this season:

  • Defensive playmaking. The Tigers don’t force turnovers and don’t block shots. That’s why their defense is mediocre.
  • Can Phil Pressey develop better shot selection? As good of a passer as he is, there are times where he gets into takeover mode. He’s not a good enough scorer to go into takeover mode as often as he does.
  • Can Missouri consistently hit threes? That’s where the loss of Mike Dixon hurts the most. Can Jabari Brown, Earnest Ross and Keion Bell consistently spread the floor?
  • Alex Oriakhi and Bowers got beat up by Mike Muscala on Saturday. What happens when they go up against Jarnell Stokes or Kentucky’s big men or Patric Young?

Contenders: Florida is the biggest threat to Missouri in the SEC thanks to their tough, versatile defense. And when Kenny Boynton is shooting well, they’re a potential Final Four team. That’s no guarantee, either. Through his first five games, Boynton was 13-29 from deep. The five after that? 4-32. In his last two games? 11-17. Go figure.

It would also be foolish to write off Kentucky. That’s a young team, but that’s a team with a ton of talent that looks better every game. Ryan Harrow appears to be filling the void at the point guard spot quite nicely, which was the biggest key. John Calipari’s new task? Getting Alex Poythress to consistently dominate and developing some kind of offensive game for Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein.

Biggest Surprise: How bad the league has been

Texas A&M is third in the SEC in the RPI. They lost to Southern at home. Their last four wins — against Stephen F. Austin, Texas A&M-CC, Army and Houston Baptist — came by an average of 8.5 points. Ole Miss and LSU currently have the second and fourth best record in the conference, respectively. The best win between the two: Seton Hall? Hawaii? Missouri and Florida can play with anyone in the country. Kentucky will get there. Beyond that, there may not be another NCAA tournament team amongst them.

Biggest Disappointment: Alabama

The Crimson Tide looked very promising early in the season, as they beat South Dakota State, Villanova and Oregon State early in the season. Since then? They had a buzzer-beating loss at Cincinnati, which wasn’t a problem. They lost at home to Dayton, which was iffy but acceptable. The Tide then got embarrassed by VCU, nearly lost at Texas Tech and then dropped home games to Mercer and Tulane. They’ll visit Missouri on Tuesday. That could be ugly.

(I avoided listing Tennessee here because so much of their struggles can be pinpointed on the balky knees of Jeronne Maymon.)

Player of the Year: Phil Pressey and Laurence Bowers, Missouri

Both have been terrific for the Tigers this season, as Pressey’s playmaking has provided a dynamic piece offensively while Bowers has been the only consistent perimeter shooter Frank Haith has had at his disposal.

Best Freshman: Nerlens Noel, Kentucky

The problem with John Calipari landing dominant freshman is that it makes Noel’s 10.3 points, 9.2 boards, 3.5 blocks and 2.6 steals seem disappointing. While he’s not exactly putting up all-american numbers, Noel has been terrific on the defensive end and getting to the offensive glass. He’s lanky, athletic and very active.

Three Predictions

Kentucky enters the tournament as a six or seven seed and makes the Elite 8. They haven’t beaten anyone this season, save for a Maryland team that has an even less impressive collection of wins. They aren’t going to jack up their computer numbers by landing a handful of quality wins in league play, either. But as this team continues to gel and develop as the season goes along, they are only going to get better. Playing them in the Round of 32 will not be pleasant.

The SEC gets three teams into the tournament: Outside of the top three, there hasn’t been much about the SEC that’s impressive. That lack of quality non-conference wins means that conference play won’t generate a wealth of good wins for bubble teams.

LSU surprises people: I actually like the Tigers this season. I think they’ll do very well in conference play. I just don’t see them having a strong enough resume to make a legitimate case for an at-large bid.

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Missouri*
2. Florida*
3. Kentucky*
4. LSU
5. Ole Miss
6. Tennessee
7. Arkansas
8. Alabama
9. Texas A&M
10. Vanderbilt
11. Auburn
12. South Carolina
13. Georgia
14. Mississippi State

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

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

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Regional Finals – Sunday, March 26

2:20 p.m.,CBS, New York
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Florida (Verne Lundquist, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce)

5:05 p.m., CBS, Memphis
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kentucky (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Steve Alford: ‘I’m very happy at UCLA’

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford was still processing an 86-75 season-ending loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night when he had to answer questions about another blueblood program.

Sine the dismal of Tom Crean at Indiana, Alford has been one of the names rumored to be in the mix for the coaching vacancy. A reporter in the press conference in Memphis didn’t even get a chance to finish his question before Alford cut him off and a publicly state that he was happy in Westwood.

“I said it last week, and I’ll reiterate it again even more so, I guess, that I love Los Angeles,” Alford said. “To begin with, it’s a beautiful place, and our family has fallen in love with it. I’ve got two sons now, Kory first and now Bryce, that have graduated. Bryce is done, so he’s graduating from UCLA, so I’ve got two sons that are graduates from there, a daughter that loves the school she’s going to in Thousand Oaks. I’m very happy. I’m at UCLA. I don’t know of a lot of people that are out there wanting to leave UCLA.

“This is a pretty special place. We’ve worked awfully hard. Our staff has worked hard. We’ve got the No. 2 recruiting class coming in next year. We’re opening a brand-new, state-of-the-art, 60-plus million practice facility, Mo Ostin Center, that is going to be spectacular that we’ve worked awfully hard to be a part of that, and I want to see that through, and we’ve got some special kids that are coming to join us.

“I’m very, very happy where I’m at, and hopefully, that’ll continue.”

Alford won a national championship with the Hoosiers in 1987, scoring more than 2,400 points in his career under head coach Bob Knight. He has been with UCLA since 2013, reaching the Sweet 16 in three of his four seasons with the Bruins.

Crean was fired on March 16 after nine season in Bloomington.

Lonzo Ball has officially declared for the 2017 NBA Draft

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Following a season-ending loss in the Sweet 16 of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, UCLA freshman point guard unsurprisingly announced that he will enter the NBA Draft.

“That was my final game for UCLA. I appreciate the fans,” Ball told reporters.

The 6-foot-6 point guard has a strong case to be the No. 1 overall pick. It could be almost too enticing for the Los Angeles Lakers to pass on a Southern Cal product if the ping pong balls fall in their favor. New Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka were in Memphis for Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky.

Ball, in an All-American freshman season with the Bruins, averaged 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and a nation’s best 7.6 assists per game, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 42 percent from three.

He ended his college career with an 86-75 loss to the Wildcats, scoring 10 points, off 4-of-10 shooting, with eight assists.

VIDEO: Florida’s Chris Chiozza beats Wisconsin at the buzzer

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — So you didn’t think the NCAA Tournament had enough excitement this year?

Wisconsin and Florida solved that problem for you.

The Badgers started things, as they erased a 12-point deficit in the final 4:15 to force overtime, a stretch that included an 8-0 run at the end of regulation that was capped by a Zak Showalter running three with 2.5 seconds left on the clock to tie the game at 72.

Wisconsin jumped out to a lead in overtime, but the combination of an inability to make free throws and and this epic chasedown block from Canyon Barry left the door open for the Gators, who eventually won the game on this running three from Chris Chiozza:

What.

A.

Game.

If we get a better one than this, I just hope I’m courtside for it.

KeVaughn Allen led the way for the Gators with 35 points, and no one else on the Gators scored more than eight points, but it didn’t matter. The Gators are still headed to the Elite 8, and Mike White will have a chance to play for the right to go to the Final Four in his first NCAA Tournaments.

Replacing a legend like Billy Donovan was never going to be easy, but White is doing an admirable job.

The other subplot here: With the win, Florida becomes the third member of the SEC in the Elite 8, and with a regional final against South Carolina on Sunday afternoon, it guarantees that there will be at least one SEC team in the Final Four.

While there were celebrations in the Florida locker room, Wisconsin’s was one of devastation.

The Badgers started four seniors, including tournament stalwarts Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, who played in their 17th career NCAA Tournament games.

Hayes had 22 points, but he’s going to be haunted by the free throws he missed. He was 7-for-14 from the line on the night, including four missed freebies in overtime. The end was similarly heart-breaking for Koenig, as he was a non-factor in overtime due to an injury he suffered on the possession before Showalter’s game-tying three.

Both of them are going to spend years thinking ‘What if?’ That’s how the NCAA Tournament works.

Everyone leaves in tears, either because they’re cutting down the nets at the Final Four or because their season — their career — just came to an end.

Hayes and Koenig were no different.

VIDEO: Canyon Barry saves Florida with epic chase down block

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Florida’s Canyon Berry had the best chase down block since LeBron James in the 2016 NBA Finals.

It kept Wisconsin’s lead at two points and gave the Gators a chance to tie and, eventually, win the game.

Look at this: