Pac-12 conference tournament preview

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The Pac-12 race this season had some similarities to the Mountain West race, in that there were two teams entering the season that many pegged to be the class of the conference. Arizona and UCLA, due in large part to the newcomers joining both programs, were thought by many to be far ahead of the other ten programs but the race didn’t exactly play out that way.

Ben Howland’s Bruins won the regular season title thanks not only to their talented freshmen but also due to the play of veterans who proved to be more useful than many anticipated. The Pac-12 race was tight all season, with Arizona, Oregon and even California having a shot at the Pac-12 crown. With that in mind look for the conference’s first weekend in Las Vegas to be just as unpredictable as most trips to Sin City. The only difference: someone goes home with the trophy and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Bracket

Where: Las Vegas (MGM Grand Arena)

When: March 13th – March 16th

Final: March 16th, 11 p.m. (ESPN)

Favorite: UCLA

This is a group that’s had bouts with inconsistency, with a loss at Washington State last week being the most recent example of that. Drew led the Pac-12 in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, quite the turnaround given how things ended at North Carolina. Jordan Adams led the way for the freshmen to start the season, with Kyle Anderson and Pac-12 Co-Freshman of the Year Shabazz Muhammad hitting their stride as the season wore on. Those players, as well as Travis Wear, are the ones who will lead the way but UCLA will also need contributions from David Wear and Tony Parker inside.

And if they lose?: Arizona

The Wildcats were the best offensive team in the conference from an efficiency standpoint, which may come as a surprise to those who lament their lack of a “true” point guard. Sean Miller’s team has senior leadership in Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and Mark Lyons, with Lyons being the one running the show, and sophomore Nick Johnson can be a factor on both ends of the floor.

A few keys for the Wildcats in Las Vegas: Lyons playing under control, the freshmen bigs holding their own inside and doing a better job of defending the three. Arizona was the worst team in the Pac-12 in three-point percentage defense, an interesting development when considering how good they’d been under Miller in the two season prior.

Other contenders: Oregon, California and Colorado are all capable of winning the tournament, with the Buffaloes needing to win four games in order to do so. Tad Boyle’s young team did just that last March, and in Spencer Dinwiddie and Andre Roberson he’s got two all-conference selections. (UPDATE: Roberson has been cleared to play.) Dominic Artis’ return makes Oregon a far better team when it comes to taking care of the basketball but they limp into the weekend after losing at both Colorado and Utah last week. As for the Golden Bears, Crabbe and Justin Cobbs form one of the league’s best perimeter tandems but they need consistent production from David Kravish and Richard Solomon inside if they’re to win.

Sleeper: Stanford 

Guards Aaron Bright and Chasson Randle are solid on the perimeter, and in Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell head coach Johnny Dawkins has two of the league’s better front court players as well. But will Stanford score as they did in wins over Utah and Cal to end the regular season? If so, the Cardinal may have a run left in them.

Deeper sleeper: Arizona State

With USC without the services of two big men this week it’s either the Sun Devils or Washington here. Despite their struggles of late (2-6 in their last eight games) take Arizona State, which is led by Pac-12 Co-Freshman of the Year Jahii Carson. Carson’s been a culture-changer of sorts for Herb Sendek’s program, and in senior Carrick Felix ASU has one of the best front court defenders around as well. The one concern: depth. Just six players average double-digit minutes, meaning that foul trouble will prove problematic as it did in their regular season finale at Arizona.

Studs:

– G/F Shabazz Muhammad (UCLA): Third in the conference in scoring (18.3 ppg), Muhammad is the one Pac-12 player destined to end up in the 2013 NBA Draft lottery.

– G Allen Crabbe (California): Crabbe led the conference in scoring (18.6 ppg) but he’s doing more than that, grabbing five board or more in each of Cal’s last nine games.

– F Solomon Hill (Arizona): Don’t be fooled by the numbers (13.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Hill is one of the league’s most versatile players.

– F Brock Motum (Washington State): This is the swan song for Motum, and while the Cougars haven’t performed well he’s been one of the best players in the league.

Prediction: The third time is the charm for Arizona, who gets past a UCLA team that swept the season series on the way to its first Pac-12 tournament title since 2002.

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Elite 8 Preview: Sunday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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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.