Nerlens Noel Reginald Buckner

Five sleepers and five upset specials to keep an eye on

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A hearty welcome to those of you just now joining the rest of us in following college basketball now that football season has ended. We’ll be running a series of posts to get all you football fans caught up on the season at-large. To read through them all, click here.

It’s never to early to start thinking about the NCAA tournament bracket and your office pool. In fact, I’d say that’s the reason that 75% of the people that watch college basketball on any given night are doing it. Scouting.

I get it.

Trust me.

It’s been four years since I haven’t finished in the money in a tournament pool. So book mark this page, and consider it my gift to you: a guide of who to focus on while you “scout”.

Five lower seeds that can make a tournament run:

Kentucky Wildcats: Kentucky’s on pace to end up getting somewhere around an eight or a nine seed. If I’m John Calipari, I’m hoping for a seven or a ten seed. Or lower. I don’t know if the Wildcats have the horses to knock off one of the top four teams in the country, but I think they certainly will be good enough to make the Sweet 16, regardless of seeding. They are starting to show some signs of growth, and with (at least) four lottery picks on the roster, I’m not ready to write this group off yet.

VCU Rams: The Rams play such a unique and tough-to-prepare-for style, they can spring an upset on a team with a back court that’s uncomfortable going against their pressure. The key for VCU is and always will be turnovers in the full court; given their lack of size, half court defense is not a strength for Shaka Smart’s club.

Pitt Panthers: The Panthers are almost certainly going to be underseeded as a result of their embarrassing non-conference schedule. And trust me when I tell you this is a good basketball team. They can defend, they are excellent at getting to the offensive glass, they pass the ball well and they have an underrated back court. You don’t want to see the Panthers in the second round of the tournament.

St. Louis Billikens: Tough, physical, half court defense. That’s how St. Louis wins game. And that’s out a team with less athleticism and less talent can win a basketball game. And, like Pitt, thanks to a couple of questionable losses this year, the Billikens are probably going to be seeded lower than they should be.

Long Beach State 49ers: LBSU isn’t going to be getting a seeding much better than 14 or 15, but this is a group with high-major talent and athleticism. James Ennis is legit, and he’s got a slew of talent — Michael Caffey, former top 25 recruit Keala King, DePaul transfer Tony Freeland, West Virginia transfer Dan Jennings — around him.

Five higher seeds that may bow out early:

NC State Wolfpack: NC State doesn’t defend at all, their star point guard has a bum ankle and has been up-and-down all season long, and their most talented player struggles when trying to take a game over and has been ineffective down the stretch. There’s so much to like about NC State this season, which is why it’s frustrating to see them struggle.

Minnesota Golden Gophers: I just don’t trust Minnesota offensively. So much of what they do relies on their ability to get to the offensive glass. Good teams are going to be able to keep them from getting there; it’s going to depend on the matchup. I don’t trust Minnesota to be consistent. They lost four in a row at the end of last month, and needed an impressive choke-job from Iowa to avoid losing to the Hawkeyes.

Creighton Bluejays: The Bluejays are a much-improved defensive team this season, yet they still rank 81st in the country in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. Throw in the fact that this is a team that survives because of their ability to shoot the basketball, and they are a risky play. On the nights those threes go down, they’re going to be tough to beat. On the nights they don’t, the Bluejays can be beaten.

Oregon Ducks: How healthy is Dominic Artis? That’s the biggest concern for Oregon right now, because without him, the Ducks simply cannot protect the ball. Already in the bottom third of the country when it comes to turnover percentage, Oregon has seen that number dip to 29.8% — literally the worst in the country — in the last three games without him.

Butler Bulldogs: I realize that it’s sacrilegious to say that Butler might get knocked out of the tournament early. I’m not happy about doing it. But here’s my thought process: Butler is good, but they don’t play the kind of defense that we expect out of Butler teams. They can struggle against teams that defend them physically (ahem, St. Louis) and I don’t love Butler’s point guard situation. But thanks to wins over Indiana, Gonzaga, Marquette and North Carolina, Butler looks like they could be in line for a three or a four seed, depending on how the A-10 plays out.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

No. 6 UCLA routs USC 102-70, snaps 4-game skid against rival

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 21:  Bryce Alford #20 of the UCLA Bruins shoots a free throw against the UAB Blazers during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KFC YUM! Center on March 21, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES — Bryce Alford, whose fresh-faced looks belie his skills as a sharpshooter, landed on his rear after a drive and snarled.

On the bench, his coach-father Steve Alford knows that look. In the stands, his mother Tanya recognized it, too.

“I like it when he snarls,” the elder Alford said. “I wish he would snarl in warmups. When he gets that, he goes to another level toughness-wise.”

The younger Alford scored 26 points, including 10 straight in the game’s final seven minutes, and No. 6 UCLA beat Southern California 102-70 on Saturday night, snapping a four-game skid against its crosstown rival while improving to 5-0 in February.

“When I get it going for my team and I know I’m helping my team win, it’s just what happens to my face,” Alford said.

Playing their first game in six days, the Bruins (22-5, 9-5 Pac-12) avenged an 84-76 loss at USC last month to remain the league’s only unbeaten team this month. They are 14-1 at home.

“It took a home loss to Arizona and a road loss at USC to really grab guys’ attention,” Steve Alford said. “They want to make a run not just in the conference race but in the conference tourney and postseason.”

TJ Leaf added 19 points and Thomas Welsh had 16 points and a career high-tying 16 rebounds for the Bruins, who handed USC its worst loss of the season.

“Any time you’re playing a rival like that and you’re up big at the end, it just gets fun,” Leaf said.

Especially with star freshman Lonzo Ball at the helm.

Alford’s alley-oop pass set up Ball’s dunk that had the crowd in a tizzy before Alford hit UCLA’s 10th 3-pointer for a 96-66 lead. Another dunk by Ball got the Bruins to the century mark for the ninth time this season.

“Going into March, we got to hit our strides now,” Ball said.

Bennie Boatwright had 20 points and 10 rebounds for the Trojans (21-6, 8-6). They tied a season high with 14 3-pointers in last month’s win, but hit seven this time and just two in the second half of their first game in a week.

“It felt like it snowballed late,” Boatwright said. “That’s a good word for it.”

Leaf was held to eight points on 4-of-10 shooting while in foul trouble in the Bruins’ previous loss. His shooting was on early in Saturday’s game, hitting 5 of 7 for 12 points in the first half.

The Bruins tied the game 23-all on Isaac Hamilton’s 3-pointer, one of five made during their 28-11 run to close the half and take a 46-34 lead. Ball’s 3-pointer with four seconds remaining was UCLA’s seventh of the half.

Led by Welsh, the Bruins extended their lead to 15 points to open the second half. He scored eight of their 18 points to start the half, with Leaf hitting a 3-pointer that made it 61-46.

The Trojans never got closer than nine points before the rout was on.

“It felt like we still had a chance midway through the second half but then we couldn’t get any stops,” USC guard Jordan McLaughlin said. “Once they started making shots they’re a tough team to stop.”

Alford stretched UCLA’s lead to 81-61 on 10 straight points. He made a 3-pointer and then drove the lane, got hip-checked by Elijah Stewart to draw the foul and high-fived courtside fans before making the free throw. Alford got fouled on UCLA’s next possession, made both and scored on their next trip down the court.

“You’re not going to beat UCLA when you shoot 33 percent from the field and 31 percent from 3,” said USC coach Andy Enfield, who got a technical late in the game. “We missed a lot of easy shots and this is a tough place to play, but we did not get stops when we needed them.”

BIG PICTURE

USC: The Trojans have lost two in a row with four games left in the regular season, including at No. 5 Arizona next week.

UCLA: The Bruins’ hopes of winning the Pac-12 title remain slim with four games remaining in the regular season. They trail first-place Arizona (one loss) and second-place Oregon (two losses).

UP NEXT

USC: Visits No. 5 Arizona on Feb. 23 in the second of three straight road games. The Trojans lost by seven points in the first meeting last month.

UCLA: Visits Arizona State on Feb. 23, a team the Bruins beat by 22 points last month.

VIDEO: John Calipari’s sensational rant on coaching business over Gottfried, Fox

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After No. 13 Kentucky landed an 82-77 win at Georgia that they probably didn’t deserve, head coach John Calipari went on a terrific rant about the state of the coaching profession based on Georgia head coach Mark Fox and the now-fired-but-still-coaching Mark Gottfried.

And he says a lot in here – video below – including good points about Gottfried’s success at N.C. State and the fact that Fox has been incredibly unlucky this year. From overtime losses at Florida and at Kentucky to a loss at Texas A&M because of a clock malfunction to a loss at home to Kentucky when star forward Yante Maten goes down with a knee injury 90 seconds into the game, no one has been more snake-bit than Georgia this season.

The worst part?

It’s coming in a year where Fox’s job is on the line.

But here is the best point that Cal makes: “He keeps his team together. That’s coaching. Not when things are going good. It’s when things go south and you lose a bunch in a row, how do you get them to go?”

“They do this to us without Maten. That’s what kind of coach Fox is.”

Cal also went in on N.C. State for their treatment of Gottfried.

“We’re firing coaches in midseason. Are you s******* me?,” Cal said. “We’re firing coaches in midseason. You know what I’m putting my contract? You can fire me at midseason but you’re going to have to pay me $3 million. Oh, you’ll let me stay now, won’t you. You can fire me midseason, but you’re paying me.”

“Every coach in the country, PUT IT IN YOUR CONTRACT. What if Mark Gottfried goes on a run at the end and gets to the NCAA Tournament, which he was in four out of five years? Two Sweet 16s, which is not done at NC State. What happens if he now if he goes and wins and gets another team [into the tournament]. He had good players but they’re young, they’re like my team. It’s hard to do this with young guys.”

Down two starters, No. 5 Arizona survives Washington

TUCSON, AZ - JANUARY 12:  Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats reacts after scoring against the Arizona State Sun Devils during the second half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on January 12, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona. The Wildcats defeated the Sun Devils 91-75. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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SEATTLE — Lauri Markkanen had 26 points and 13 rebounds, Allonzo Trier scored a season-high 21 points and No. 5 Arizona held off a challenge from Washington for a 76-68 victory on Saturday night.

Arizona (25-3, 14-1 Pac-12) remained on top of the conference standings and won its fourth straight. The Wildcats did it short-handed, with starters Dusan Ristic and Kadeem Allen out because of injuries.

It wasn’t easy, as Washington put forth one of its best efforts of the season but still couldn’t snap a losing streak that’s now reached nine games, tied for the longest in school history. Chance Comanche’s rebound and dunk with 52 seconds left finally gave Arizona enough of a cushion to hold on in the final moments.

Markelle Fultz scored 26 points, but the Huskies (9-18, 2-13) had no field goals over the final 4:41 of the game.

Comanche finished with 12 points filling in for Ristic. Ristic was out after spraining his left ankle in Thursday’s win over Washington State. Allen was considered a game-time decision after dislocating a finger on his shooting hand, but never left the Wildcats’ bench.

Washington took its only lead at 52-51 as Fultz spun through the lane and converted a difficult layup with 14:50 remaining. Arizona coach Sean Miller called timeout and Arizona immediately went to a zone defense that stymied the Huskies. Meanwhile, Trier hit his fourth 3-pointer to put Arizona in front and dunks by Markkanen and Comanche pushed the lead to 60-53 with 10:40 remaining.

David Crisp’s 3-pointer snapped a nearly five-minute drought without a field goal by Washington, but Markkanen scored four straight points to push the lead to 67-58 with 7:20 left.

The Huskies didn’t go away. Fultz rattled in a 3-pointer with 4:37 left and Arizona’s lead was down to 69-65. It was the final field goal for the Huskies as the Wildcats pulled away in the closing moments.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: Trier had a combined 11 points in his previous two games and made 3 of 17 shots in those games against California and Washington State. He was 6 of 10 against the Huskies, including five 3-pointers, a new career high.

Washington: Center Malik Dime played for the first time since breaking a finger in his shooting hand last month and since serving a suspension for slapping a fan at Colorado. Dime played just 20 minutes due to foul trouble but at least gives the Huskies another size option on the interior the final few weeks of conference play.

UP NEXT

Arizona: The Wildcats return home to host USC on Thursday night.

Washington: The Huskies travel to rival Washington State next Sunday.

VIDEO: Louisiana-Lafayette wins game on half court buzzer beater

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Jonathan Stove for the win!

Georgia’s Yante Maten leaves loss to No. 13 Kentucky with knee injury

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 13:  Yante Maten #1 of the Georgia Bulldogs shoots the ball against the South Carolina Gamecocks during the quarterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 13, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Playing what may be their most important game of the season, Georgia suffered a brutal blow less than two minutes into the game.

Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe stumbled after scoring on a drive to the rim and fell into the right knee of Georgia’s star center Yante Maten.

Maten, a 6-foot-8 junior averaging 19.4 points this season, did not return to the game.

This is a brutal loss for the Bulldogs, who needed to beat the No. 13 Wildcats to have a realistic chance of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, but for the sixth time this season, Georgia lost a hard-fought game to a top 25 team.

The final score on Saturday was 82-77 despite Georgia’s star point guard J.J. Frazier going for 36 points. De’Aaron Fox scored 12 of his 16 points down the stretch to help the Wildcats land a come-from-behind win in a game that, frankly, they did not play well enough to win.

That’s the sign of a good team, but that probably won’t be much comfort for Kentucky fans that are tired of seeing their team struggle. Fox finished with 16 points, five boards and five assists while Malik Monk chipped in with 16 points.

The win does keep the Wildcats atop the SEC standings.