South Region Preview: Star power and early upsets?

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Here’s the irony about the South Region: there is more star power in this portion of the bracket than anywhere else, yet it is as wide-open as any region this season.

Let’s start with the coaches, as ten of them — Bill Self, Roy Williams, Jay Wright, Shaka Smart, Ben Howland, Tubby Smith, Billy Donovan, Steve Fisher, Lon Kruger and John Thompson III — have made at least one Final Four. That list doesn’t include John Beilein.

That’s almost as impressive as the number of stars that will be setting foot on the court. Trey Burke, Otto Porter, Ben McLemore, Jeff Withey, Shabazz Muhammad, Nate Wolters, Jamaal Franklin, James Michael-McAdoo.

The bottom-line?

There will be no shortage of people to write about in the South.

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Three story lines to watch

  • Will this be the end of the road for Ben Howland at UCLA? The chatter about his job status that started back in November hasn’t exactly subsided. With the amount of talent that he brought into the program this season, what does Howland need to do to save his job, assuming he even wants to remain with the Bruins? A Sweet 16? An Elite 8? Without Jordan Adams? That’s a tall task.
  • Take a look at who Howland drew in the opening round: Minnesota and head coach Tubby Smith, who is dealing with his own hot seat issues right now. Winner remains employed?
  • With the obvious caveat that they first need to knock off Villanova in the opening round, how awesome would it be to see Kansas reunite with former head coach Roy Williams in the round of 32? And to have the game take place in Kansas City, no less?

The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 3 Florida

I still think that Kansas is probably the favorite to come out of the South, although I think that they are probably the least likely of the No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four. Their back court play has been better of late, but the Jayhawks still don’t have a true point guard. Ben McLemore is going to be a top five pick, but at this point in his career he’s still more of a spot-up shooter and transition finisher than he is a go-to guy. But their defense, anchored by Jeff Withey, can be dominant when it needs to be, and Kansas will need it to be.

As far as Florida is concerned, I’m very well aware of their issues in close games. They are 0-6 in games decided by single digits. But those account for six of just seven losses, meaning that they’ve won a lot of games by a lot of points, which is part of the reason why the Gators are the only team in the country in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency. I don’t think they get challenged until the Sweet 16 and Georgetown, and I think that Florida’s smothering defense — and Will Yeguete on Otto Porter — may be enough to get them to the Elite 8.

Final Four sleeper: VCU Rams

And they may be more than just a ‘sleeper’. Think about it like this. VCU’s press can be flat-out devastating. Akron’s starting point guard was suspended after getting arrested. Michigan may be the nation’s least turnover-prone team, but they are also very young, they haven’t seen a press this season and they’ll have about 48 hours to prepare for it. Kansas has all kinds of turnover issues in their back court. Georgetown and Florida aren’t exactly striking fear in the hearts of Shaka Smart’s club. Am I losing it?

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 13 South Dakota State: This may actually be the single-best opening round matchup int he entire tournament. Similar styles. Nate Wolters vs. Trey Burke. Thank you, Selection Committee.
  • No. 7 San Diego State vs. No. 10 Oklahoma: Lon Kruger knows the Aztecs well from his time at UNLV in the Mountain West, but will that be enough to handle Jamaal Franklin and company?

Matchups to root for

  • No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 8 North Carolina: It’s more than just the Roy Williams thing. UNC actually has a chance to win this game. Going four guards, spreading the floor and forcing Withey to defend on the perimeter is how Oklahoma beat Kansas and how Iowa State nearly beat Kansas twice. That’s what the Heels will do.
  • No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 5 VCU: The clash of styles would just be so intriguing to watch.
  • No. 6 UCLA vs. No. 7 San Diego State: These two schools have developed a bit of a SoCal’s finest rivalry over the past couple of seasons. There are some hurt feelings from the recruiting trail involved here.

The studs you know about

  • Trey Burke, Michigan: Point guard. National Player of the Year.
  • Otto Porter, Georgetown: Small forward. First team all-american and National Player of the Year runner-up.
  • Ben McLemore, Kansas: Future top five pick in the NBA Draft, McLemore may have the prettiest stroke in the country and also throws down windmills in games. Now we’ll see if he can do anything else.
  • Nate Wolters, South Dakota State: The kid’s not a secret anymore. He played in the tournament last season after being hyped up all year long. The only surprise people are going to have about Wolters is that he’s still in school.

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State: You should know who he is after he did this.
  • Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova: He’s more than just the complicated last name. The freshman point guard has proven that he has the guts to take and make a big shots.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 11 Minnesota over No. 6 UCLA: I know how well Minnesota has played of late. I get it. But they don’t need to play well against the Bruins. All they have to do is play hard. The Gophers are as good as anyone in the country at getting to the offensive glass, and UCLA is small and doesn’t seem to care all that much about rebounding.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • No. 13 South Dakota State over No. 4 Michigan: The Wolverines and the Jackrabbits just play too similar of a style, as they both rely heavily on the playmaking of a dynamic point guard that dominates the ball.
  • No. 7 San Diego State over No. 2 Georgetown: San Diego State struggles shooting from beyond the arc, and that’s exactly what they will be forced to do by the Georgetown defense.

CBT Predictions: As of today, I’m picking Florida over VCU for a trip to the Final Four, but that’s going to chance. Check back on Wednesday for my ‘official’ picks.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Wednesday’s Three Things to Know: Duke blows out Louisville, Texas Tech falls to Oklahoma State

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1. DUKE PICKED UP ITS FOURTH STRAIGHT WIN IN IMPRESSIVE FASHION (DESPITE MISSING MARVIN BAGLEY III ONCE AGAIN).

Duke was, once again, missing freshman star Marvin Bagley III with a knee injury, but it didn’t seem to matter too much as the Blue Devils ran past Louisville for an 82-56 win. Grayson Allen had 28 points to pace the Duke offense while Wendell Carter Jr. continued to look strong on the interior without Bagley.

CBT’s Rob Dauster explores Duke’s recent stretch without Bagley and wonders if the team might have a better defense without the All-American big man.

2. OKLAHOMA STATE UPSET NO. 6 TEXAS TECH AS KANSAS NOW HAS A ONE-GAME BIG 12 LEAD.

The Cowboys dropped the Red Raiders in Stillwater to earn a Big 12 upset win in this one. But the bigger story is Kansas assuming sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with another Texas Tech loss. The two Big 12 leaders are still scheduled to meet in Lubbock on Saturday as the Red Raiders will get a chance to even things up with the Jayhawks in the conference race.

First, Texas Tech has to get senior guard Keenan Evans healthy again. Hampered by a toe injury the past two games, Evans didn’t look close to 100 percent on Wednesday night. An unhealthy Evans is a big reason for Texas Tech dropping a few games.

3. VIRGINIA TECH GETS THE NIGHT’S BIGGEST BUBBLE WIN

On a busy Wednesday night for bubble teams, no team did more for its case than Virginia Tech. The Hokies took advantage of a depleted No. 15 Clemson in picking up an ACC home win.

While Virginia Tech has looked like a safe bet to make the field thanks to some big wins, the win on Wednesday gives the Hokies a fifth Quadrant 1 win — a huge safety net for a team trying to get in the field.

CBT’s Rob Dauster has more on Virginia Tech’s NCAA tournament hopes while he also breaks down the rest of Wednesday’s bubble action in Bubble Banter.

No. 5 Duke’s defense turns up again as Blue Devils look like title favorite

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Duke is back!

After drubbing Louisville 82-56 in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday night, the Blue Devils have now won four straight games despite the fact that they have been playing without Marvin Bagley III during this stretch.

Grayson Allen is back, too. He finished with 28 points on Wednesday night, making six threes and handing out threes assists. He entered Wednesday night averaging 22.3 points and 5.3 assists in his last three games, the first time all season long that he has scored more than 19 points in three consecutive games. He’s shooting the ball with confidence. He’s been moved into more of a playmaking, lead guard role in the half court offense as Coach K has transitioned back to being the focal point on that end, the first time he’s been in that role since his sophomore season.

Wendell Carter’s been on fire, too. He missed his fourth-straight double-double by a single rebound on Wednesday, but he did finish with 18 points, six assists and three blocks. In four games without Bagley, he’s now averaging 16.3 points, 10.5 boards, 3.0 blocks and 3.0 assists.

But that’s not why Duke is winning these games.

It’s not why I’m sitting here saying that Duke is back.

The reason why I’m warming up to the idea of Duke finding a way to be a Final Four team again is because they’ve figured out a way not only to just get stops, but to be damn good on the defensive end of the floor.

During this four-game stretch, Duke has not allowed a team to break 1.0 points-per-possession against while holding three of their four opponents to 57 points or less. In those four games, they’ve allowed 0.883 PPP. If they did that over the course of an entire season, the Blue Devils would be third-nationally defensive efficiency* behind only Virginia and Cincinnati. In the process, they’ve managed to climb from 79th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric to 27th, which is precisely the kind of drastic defensive improvement that the 2015 team made. They were in the 60s and 70s in adjusted defensive efficiency for much of the season. They were 37th before the tournament started. They were 11th when they cut down the nets.

And it begs the question: Is Duke better without Marvin Bagley III?

Lol.

No.

Don’t be stupid.

Marvin Bagley III is an alien. He makes every single team that he is on a better one.

What will be interesting to see is how Duke integrates him back into the team when he finally does return to the floor. There are two things that have allowed Duke to improve the way that they’ve improved over the course of the last two weeks, and both of them involve Bagley in a pretty significant way:

  1. The ball doesn’t stick as much offensively as it did when he was on the court. That’s why Allen’s been able to play the way that he’s played of late. The middle of the floor has also opened up because Duke’s gone away from trying to run high-low actions as much as they did before. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better to run offense this way, but you cannot convince that it’s a bad thing that Allen is back into a rhythm.
  2. Much more importantly, however, is that Duke has turned into a very good defensive team in this zone, and the biggest reason for that is the activity of Javin DeLaurier. Bagley is a terrific athlete, but he’s more of a five at this level than a four and he’s also a guy that is not an instinctual or, frankly, energetic defender. DeLaurier is more mobile and, since he’s not really a threat offensively, he can burn off of his energy on that end.

Bagley wasn’t the lone culprit for Duke’s defensive problems.

The bigger issue may have been simply that the Blue Devils vacillated between playing man and zone until these last four games, and Coach K fully embracing being a zone team has allowed them to figure it out. As one high-major coach put it to me, it’s better to be great at one defense than it is to be good at seven of them. Duke is doing that now.

But there is valid reason to be concerned about playing Bagley and Carter together simply because playing them together has been an issue defensively before.

Maybe that means that, instead of seeming them on the court together for 30 minutes a night, they’ll each play 10 minutes with DeLaurier at the four and play together for 20 minutes. Maybe it means that instead of being awesome defensively Duke is simply good enough, and maybe good enough is all they need to make a run in March this season.

And maybe the answer is that Bagley returns and is ready to defend the way that he needs to defend.

We’ve seen that happen, too. Remember the Miami game?

Whatever the case may be will play out over the course of the next six weeks. The one thing that is clear, however, is that these Blue Devils are suddenly a whole lot more intriguing than they were two weeks ago when they lost at North Carolina.

*(For those looking at KenPom, raw points-per-possession and KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric are two different numbers. The latter is the former adjusted for strength of opponent.)

Williams helps No. 19 Tennessee beat Florida 62-57

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Grant Williams bounced back from one of his worst performances of the season to score 23 points and No. 19 Tennessee beat Florida 62-57 on Wednesday night to hand the Gators their third consecutive loss.

Williams had a season-low five points Saturday in a 73-62 loss at Georgia. The Tennessee scoring leader responded Wednesday by shooting 8 of 13 from the floor and 7 of 8 from the foul line.

Florida trailed nearly the whole way, but threatened in the final minute.

Chris Chiozza made a basket to cut Tennessee’s lead to 60-57 with 24.5 seconds left, and he got fouled by Williams in the process. But Chiozza missed the ensuing free throw and couldn’t get Florida any closer.

Jordan Bowden made a pair of clinching free throws with 14 seconds left.

Admiral Schofield had 16 points and eight rebounds for Tennessee (20-7, 10-5 Southeastern Conference).

Jalen Hudson had 13 points for Florida (17-11, 8-7), and Chiozza and Keith Stone each added 11. Chiozza also had nine assists and six rebounds.

Florida was seeking a quality road win that could boost its NCAA Tournament credentials.

The Gators entered the night 65th in the RPI and have a demanding schedule the rest of the way. Florida hosts No. 12 Auburn, visits Alabama and hosts Kentucky in its final three regular-season games.

The offensive struggles that have hindered Florida lately carried over. Florida had more turnovers (eight) than baskets (seven) during a first half in which it shot 26.9 percent overall and 1 of 10 from 3-point range.

Tennessee closed the first half on an 11-1 run to go into the locker room with a 27-18 advantage.

The Vols extended the lead to 10 early in the second half, but Florida crept back into the game while Williams was on the bench with three fouls.

Florida was trailing by just one point when it had two chances midway through the second half to regain the lead, but Deaundrae Ballard missed a 3-pointer on one possession and Dontay Bassett missed a baseline jumper the net time the Gators had the ball.

Tennessee then created some distance by going on a 7-0 run that included a Jordan Bowden dunk and five points from Schofield.

BIG PICTURE

Florida: The Gators continually misfired from 3-point range for most of the night. They missed 15 of their first 17 3-point attempts before making four of their last seven. By the time they finally started to heat up, they already had dug themselves too deep a hole.

Tennessee: The Vols got big efforts from their two top players — Williams and Schofield — and didn’t back down when Florida finally started making its shots down the stretch. Tennessee preserved its lead by going 13 of 15 from the foul line, including 9 of 11 in the second half.

UP NEXT

Florida: Hosts No. 12 Auburn on Saturday.

Tennessee: At Mississippi on Saturday.

VIDEO: George Mason stuns Saint Joseph’s with second buzzer-beating win this season

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George Mason knocked off Atlantic 10 rival Saint Joseph’s with a ridiculous buzzer-beater for the second time this season on Wednesday night as Ian Boyd was the hero this time.

The Patriots went the length of the floor to attempt a game-winning shot as a loose ball ended up in Boyd’s hands at the top of the key just before the game ended. Boyd launched a quick prayer and knocked it down to give George Mason the unlikely win.

Earlier this season, the Patriots won on another buzzer-beater over the Hawks when Otis Livingston II buried a contested 30-footer to win that one. By this point, Saint Joe’s is probably hoping to avoid George Mason in the Atlantic 10 Tournament after the two devastating losses they’ve already endured.

Harper, Okeke lead No. 12 Auburn to 90-71 win over Alabama

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AUBURN, Ala. — Jared Harper scored 21 points, Chuma Okeke had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and No. 12 Auburn beat rival Alabama 90-71 Wednesday night even without ailing star Mustapha Heron.

Down to seven scholarship players, the Tigers (24-4, 12-3 Southeastern Conference) turned a five-point halftime lead into a blowout thanks largely to big performances from Okeke and Malik Dunbar off the bench.

Auburn responded with Heron out with a stomach ailment one game after center Anfernee McLemore was lost for the rest of the season to an ankle injury.

Collin Sexton scored 25 points to lead the Crimson Tide (17-11, 8-7).

Bryce Brown scored 18 points for the Tigers despite shooting just 3 for 14 on 3-pointers. Harper also had six assists.

Okeke, who figures to be a key figure on replacing McLemore, scored 13 points in the second half and finished with a career-high. Dunbar also turned in his top performance with 14 points. Desean Murray had nine points and eight boards.

Auburn took command with a 17-2 run after having its lead cut to one early in the second half.

Sexton made 8 of 12 shots for the Tide, but other top scorers struggled.

John Petty, who had eight 3-pointers and 27 points in the Tide’s January win, missed his first eight attempts and finished with three points.

Donta Hall came in hot but had just seven points and five rebounds. Backup point guard Avery Johnson Jr. scored 10 points.

BIG PICTURE

Alabama: Had won five straight games over ranked teams and could have made a big statement for the NCAA Tournament. Came into the game giving up a league-best 65.6 points in SEC games.

Auburn: Moved a step closer to clinching its third SEC title and first since 1999. Game had to be a confidence builder for players like Malik Dunbar and freshmen Okeke and Michell.

UP NEXT

Alabama hosts Arkansas on Saturday.

Auburn visits Florida on Saturday night.