Ten teams capable of winning the national title

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Before the NCAA Tournament bracket was released there were a number of teams many believe to be capable of winning a national title. Given how wild the regular season was that list is longer this season than in years prior, but there’s only so much that can be determined without knowing what the paths of those teams would be. Now that we know the field of 68, which ten teams are most capable of winning the national title?

1. Louisville 

The Cardinals are the top overall seed and with good reason, given their 29-5 overall record and Big East tournament title (after winning a share of the regular season title). The Cardinals aren’t the best perimeter shooting team, with Luke Hancock being their best long-range option, but they defend well and have depth at all positions. If Russ Smith can remain under control (by Russ standards, of course), Louisville can win another six games in a row.

2. Indiana

The Hoosiers may have lost in the semis of the Big Ten tournament but that’s just as much an issue of the matchup (Wisconsin’s won 12 straight in the series) as it was how well Tom Crean’s team played. Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo lead the way for the Hoosiers, who certainly don’t lack for depth. Three key veterans over the next couple of weeks are Jordan Hulls, Will Sheehey and Christian Watford. If they all contribute that helps make up for an off night from either Oladipo or Zeller. And if this group defends, Indiana can win it all.

3. Duke

The Blue Devils are 17-1 this season with their full rotation available, with stretch four Ryan Kelly being a difficult matchup offensively and a key figure defensively. With Mason Plumlee in the middle and Seth Curry on the perimeter Duke has three primary scorers on which to rely, and guards Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon will figure prominently as well. They also have head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who’s been through more than a few of these rodeos himself.

4. Kansas

Point guard play is still somewhat of a concern for the Jayhawks but it must be noted that both Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe have raised their level of play over the last month. The other key for Kansas: Ben McLemore embracing the moment as this team’s star. There will be a point in this tournament when the Jayhawks need him to make a play, and while most remember the three against Iowa State there have been moments where the freshman hasn’t grabbed the reins. With veterans such as Johnson, Travis Releford and Jeff Withey at Bill Self’s disposal the Jayhawks have plenty of experience both on the court and on the sideline.

5. Gonzaga

More than a few people have rushed to discount the Bulldogs due to the number of wins against teams ranked outside of the RPI Top 100, with many of those coming against WCC opposition. But Gonzaga has the tools needed to win a national title, led by forward Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk. Olynyk went from redshirting last season to earning All-America honors, and Harris has been a dependable figure in Mark Few’s rotation for four years. The guard play is solid, and if they defend well on the perimeter the Zags can go where no prior Gonzaga team has gone before.

6. Miami 

With an average age of 22.3 years the Hurricanes are the oldest team in the field, and they’re talented as well. Sophomore Shane Larkin leads the way at the point and the other four starters are all seniors. Kenny Kadji causes problems for opponents at the four with his ability to step out beyond the three-point line and Durand Scott and Trey McKinney-Jones are both quality options on the perimeter. The key for Miami: Reggie Johnson. While he didn’t have the best of weeks in Greensboro his talent should not be underestimated, and head coach Jim Larranaga has the experience needed to help the Canes navigate the Big Dance.

7. New Mexico

The Lobos won both the regular season and tournament titles in the Mountain West, and given their performance on the court throughout the season Steve Alford’s team should be considered a serious threat to win it all. Kendall Williams and Tony Snell form one of the best backcourt tandems in the tournament, and with Hugh Greenwood and Jamal Fenton the Lobos have some depth there as well. Inside Alex Kirk’s path is similar to that of Kelly Olynyk’s as a back injury forced him to redshirt last season. They’re not a great offensive team but due to their execution and defense, New Mexico has no issue winning “ugly.”

8. Georgetown

The Hoyas have one of the best players in the country but this pick isn’t solely about sophomore forward Otto Porter. John Thompson III’s team has matured steadily as the season’s worn on, with point guard Markel Starks and freshman D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera being two of the players who have shown the most growth. Georgetown’s solid offensively but they’re even better defensively, as their defensive efficiency is among the best in the country. And with a talent like Porter, Georgetown has a star capable of carrying the team a long way.

9. Michigan State

Keith Appling’s gone through his struggles this season but the prospect of facing non-Big Ten opponents could result in a jump in his performance. Inside the Spartans have Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, with the latter playing very well in their Big Ten semifinal loss to Ohio State on Saturday. Freshman shooting guard Gary Harris is their best perimeter shooter, and then there’s the Tom Izzo factor. He’s been one of the game’s most successful NCAA tournament coaches over the last decade, which will only help Michigan State in tense situations.

10. Michigan

The Wolverines didn’t finish the regular season well, losing three of their last six games, but don’t give up on John Beilein’s squad. Trey Burke has been the best point guard in the country, and with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas the Wolverines don’t lack for shooters. Michigan was one of the most efficient teams in the country and they take care of the basketball as well. Inside Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary will need to hold their own on the glass, and if Michigan can regain some sense of balance (Burke can’t do everything) they can get rolling again.

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

Hunter scores 17 points, No. 2 Virginia beats Ga Tech 64-48

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ATLANTA (AP) — Virginia got off to a sluggish start offensively.

Fortunately for the Cavaliers, their defense never takes a night off.

De’Andre Hunter came off the bench to score 17 points and No. 2 Virginia turned in another defensive masterpiece Thursday, stretching its winning streak to nine in a row with a 64-48 victory over Georgia Tech.

The Cavaliers (17-1, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) limited Georgia Tech to 40.5 percent shooting and forced 18 turnovers, leading to 16 points.

“The defense held us in there until we got a little rhythm and hit some shots,” coach Tony Bennett said. “We were stingy to score against. That always carries you on the road.”

Virginia snapped a four-game winning streak for the Yellow Jackets (10-8, 3-2).

After making the first basket of the game, Georgia Tech quickly got an idea of what kind of night it would be. The Jackets missed their next eight shots and turned it over four times before Josh Okogie finally broke a nearly eight-minute scoreless drought with a dunk off a backdoor pass.

Virginia shot just 40 percent in the first half but still led 28-19 at the break.

Georgia Tech never got any closer the rest of the way.

“They’re just a very disciplined team offensively and defensively,” Yellow Jackets center Ben Lammers said. “That makes it very difficult. You can’t make a mistake or you’ll pay for it.”

The last gasp for the home team essentially came in the closing seconds of the first half. It looked as though the Jackets would go to the locker room on a bit of a high after Curtis Haywood hit his second 3-pointer from far beyond the stripe, closing the gap to 24-19.

But Hunter got free in the corner and knocked down a trey with 0.1 seconds left in the half, turning it into a four-point play when Abdoulaye Gueye foolishly went for the block and sent the Virginia player sprawling to the court .

The free throw gave the Cavaliers their biggest lead of the opening period.

“That’s definitely not the way you want to end a half,” Lammers said. “We were on a little bit of a roll. It’s definitely a bit of a downer for our team. I think it helped their momentum.”

Virginia steadily pulled away over the final 20 minutes, dominating the inside for a 44-20 edge on points in the paint. Ty Jerome added 12 points, while Devon Hall and Kyle Guy had 11 apiece.

Tadric Jackson led Georgia Tech with 14 points. No one else was in double figures.

BIG PICTURE

Virginia: The Cavaliers held an opponent under 50 points for the eighth time this season. They came into the night allowing the fewest points of any Division I team, and actually improved on their 52.9 average. That helped to cover for a tough night from 3-point range on which the Cavs connected on just 3 of 13 attempts.

Georgia Tech: Okogie, averaging 18.8 points per game, struggled to get open and finished with just nine points on 3-of-8 shooting. But coach Josh Pastner is especially concerned about Lammers, who attempted only five shots, made one and finished with four points. “We’ve got to get more out of him offensively,” Pastner said. “When you’re not scoring, it sucks the life out of you.”

WILKINS STEPS UP

The Cavaliers switched things up a bit against Lammers, turning to Isaiah Wilkins to handle the bulk of the defensive duties.

When the teams met last season , 6-foot-10 Jack Salt limited Lammers to seven points on 3-of-12 shooting.

This time, it was the 6-foot-7 Wilkins — the stepson of former Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins — making life miserable for Georgia Tech’s big man.

“He played to his personality,” Bennett said. “He’s such a giver. He thinks help. He thinks cover for teammates. He knows how to anticipate. If you can find that, it’s worth its weight in gold for a defensive player.”

PACKED PAVILION

It was an especially disappointing performance for the Yellow Jackets, considering it came before their first sellout of the season at 8,600-seat McCamish Pavilion.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Plays its second straight ACC road game at Wake Forest on Sunday.

Georgia Tech: Faces a short turnaround before traveling to Chapel Hill on Saturday for another game against a ranked opponent, No. 15 North Carolina.

Palmer scores 19, leads Huskers in 72-52 rout of Michigan

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — James Palmer Jr. scored 19 points, Isaiah Roby had a career-high 14 and Nebraska beat No. 23 Michigan 72-52 on Thursday night for its first win over the Wolverines since joining the Big Ten.

Nebraska (14-7, 5-3), which needed Palmer’s 3-pointer to beat last-place Illinois 64-63 on Monday, led 32-21 at the half and never let Michigan get closer than 10 points in the last 17 minutes.

Michigan (16-5, 5-3), which had won nine of its last 10, suffered its most lopsided loss of the season and had a season-low for points. Charles Matthews had 15 points for the Wolverines, who shot 37.5 percent from the floor and a season-low 22.2 percent (4 of 18) on 3-pointers.

The Wolverines had come in 8-0 against the Huskers since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011-12, and they had won 10 straight in the series.

In the final regular-season game last year, Michigan won 93-57 in Lincoln, the Huskers’ most lopsided home loss in program history. Michigan set the arena record for points by an opponent and matched the arena record with 14 made 13-pointers in that game.

Nebraska was in total control this time.

The Huskers played strong defense on the perimeter and forced nine of Michigan’s 12 turnovers the first 20 minutes. Roby, Duby Okeke and Jordy Tshimanga rendered Moritz Wagner a non-factor.

Wagner, who scored 27 points last Saturday against Michigan State and had reached double figures in all but two games, missed his only shot of the half. He finished with a season-low two points, his only basket coming on a dunk early in the second half.

Roby had two dunks and another basket during an 18-4 run that turned Nebraska’s 12-10 deficit into a 28-16 lead. The Wolverines went scoreless for more than 6 minutes and without a field goal for 7½ as the Huskers broke things open. The Wolverines missed 14 of their last 16 shots of the half.

The Huskers built the lead to 21 with less than 5 minutes to play.

Tshimanga, who missed the last two games for personal reasons, entered the game in the middle of the first half. The first time he touched the ball, he passed to Roby for a dunk.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: Though the Wolverines have owned Nebraska, Pinnacle Bank Arena is a tough place to play, and they might have been out of gas after an emotional win over Michigan State and having to rally to beat Maryland 68-67 on Monday.

Nebraska: This was a crucial win for a team that has hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. Michigan came into the game No. 30 in the RPI; no other opponent Nebraska has beaten is in the top 50. Another big opportunity comes Monday when the Huskers visit Ohio State (No. 18 RPI).

UP NEXT

Michigan hosts Rutgers on Sunday.

Nebraska visits No. 22 Ohio State on Monday.

St. Mary’s gets critical NCAA tourney resume win over No. 13 Gonzaga

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No one should probably get too worked about about one game in mid-January.

First of all, it’s one game. Forty minutes of small sample size randomness that could very well mean next to nothing.

Second, there is still nearly two months of regular season to play. What seems important now very well could fade to irrelevance come mid-March. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to attach much meaning to one game between two teams well ahead of when the stakes are actually clear.

Unless you’re St. Mary’s and you’re at Gonzaga.

Then, you can get hyped.

The Gaels finally delivered a resume-boosting win this season by dispatching the 13th-ranked Bulldogs, 74-71, in Spokane to invigorate a season that seemed destined to end with plenty of wins but few – if any – that really mattered.

Yeah, it’s one game. Yeah, it’s mid-January. Yeah, a lot can happen between now and Selection Sunday to render this moot. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

But make no mistake about it, St. Mary’s beating Gonzaga at The Kennell is a monumental victory for Randy Bennett’s team when the Gaels lacked even a notable one before it.

St. Mary’s non-conference schedule has become a tired topic, but it is absolutely why they find themselves in such a high-stake game just a couple weeks after New Year’s. It’s also perhaps maybe less their fault than ever. Bennett can’t be faulted for Cal being awful and Dayton being down. Those should be solid wins. But they aren’t. Then there’s the loss to Washington State. That should have been an opportunity for a good win. Instead it’s become a blight on their resume with the Cougars unable to compete in the anemic Pac 12.The one true chance for a meaningful win came against Georgia, and the Bulldogs nipped them in OT.

Beyond that, there’s a lot of wins on the resume for the Gaels, but not a lot of substance. Beating up a couple times each the likes of Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Santa Clara doesn’t exactly move the needle.

That’s what made Thursday night so incredibly critical for St. Mary’s, and, if we’re being honest, for college basketball. The Gaels are absolutely one of the 68 best teams in the country. Conservatively, I’d say somewhere around the top 30. The NCAA tournament simply would have been worse off without them.

They showed why against Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs looked poised to pull away on numerous occasions, leading by as many as nine in the second half, but the Gaels wouldn’t let them gain comfortable separation. There was always an answer.

At least there was always Jock Landale.

The 6-foot-11 senior brought his All-American stuff to Spokane, going for 26 points on 12 of 15 shooting while also posting 12 rebounds and three assists. There’s not much flash to Landale’s game, but his fundamentals do the work for him. He established great position early and just went to work, abusing Gonzaga’s frontline time and again.

Landale is one of the most efficient offensive players in the country while simultaneously being one of its better rebounders. That’s a dude who in his senior year needs to be in the NCAA tournament. I won’t hear arguments to the contrary.

This win doesn’t guarantee a spot for the Gaels, obviously. They can’t afford a major slip-up, and another win against the Zags would go a long way, but it at least puts them in a tenable position with more than six weeks until March.

It’s the cruel reality of life in the WCC. Whether it would have won or lost Thursday night, St. Mary’s clearly established itself as a peer to Gonzaga, a team whom no one wonders about its NCAA tournament viability. St. Mary’s is right there with them. If they would have lost, it may not have mattered. The W-L, the RPI and the resume just wouldn’t have enough evidence to support what was so readily apparent to anyone watching.

They did win, though.

Sure, it’s still only one game. Sure, it’s still early. Sure, plenty can still go wrong.

Sure beats the alternative, though.

Merchandise with Bagley III’s likeness shows up for sale online

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What started off as a father’s attempt to promote and support his son may have morphed into an NCAA issue for Duke.

The father of Blue Devils star freshman Marvin Bagley III designed shirts with the younger Bagley’s likeness on them and distributed them to Duke students last week, but the design has subsequently shown up online for sale on all sorts of different merchandise, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.

Apparently, it was without the consent or knowledge of the Bagley family.

“THESE CROOKS on this website tried to copy my shirt and ILLEGALLY profit on my son’s name, image and likeness!” Bagley, Jr., the father of the star forward, wrote on Facebook on Jan. 14, according to the News & Observer.

It is, of course, impermissible under NCAA rules for a player or his family to profit of his likeness.

Duke “will take whatever action is necessary for NCAA, intellectual property and trademark purposes,” spokesperson Jon Jackson told the News & Observer. “This is not the first time we’ve had to address this kind of issue with one of our student-athletes and we are taking the necessary steps through our compliance office and legal counsel to address it.

“In all other instances such as this, the eligibility of the student-athletes was not in question.”

Given that both the Bagley family and Duke appear to be pushing back on the monetization of his likeness – and not profiting from it themselves – there would seem to be little concern that Bagley III would be in any sort of jeopardy with the NCAA. It does, though, highlight the problematic nature of the NCAA’s amateurism rules.

By apparently no fault of their own, the Bagley family is having to deal with this situation instead of simply being in the position to better control Bagley III’s name and likeness themselves if NCAA rules didn’t keep them from making money off it while Duke and the NCAA can use it in their own promotional material.

Bagley will likely cash in as a top-five pick in June’s NBA Draft, but this episode just shows there’s a market for his celebrity that he’s banned from participating in, leaving the door open for the more unscrupulous.

 

Creighton loses starter Krampelj for the season

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Creighton big man Martin Krampulj will miss the rest of the season after tearing the ACL in his left team, the team announced on Thursday.

Krampelj was one of the most improved players in the Big East this year, averaging 11.9 points and 8.1 boards while starting 19 games. He suffered the injury in a win over Seton Hall on Wednesday.

Last year, the Bluejays lost all-american point guard Mo Watson to a torn ACL right around this same point in the season.