Nate Austin, Kelly Olynyk

West Regional Preview: Is this finally Gonzaga’s Final Four year?

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After much consternation and discussion and analysis in the six days since Gonzaga ended their season by winning the WCC tournament, it turns out that the Zags did end up getting the No. 1 seed out West. That means that, if they keep on winning, they’ll be playing their first two games in Salt Lake City and their next two games in Los Angeles.

The problem with that plan?

New Mexico, the dual-champion of the Mountain West Conference and one of the stingiest defensive teams in the country, is the No. 3 seed out West and will be following that same path towards the Final Four. As will No. 6 seed Arizona, should they make it out of their tough opening round matchup with Belmont.

Should I mention that the Zags also are going to have their hands full with whoever ends up winning the rugby match that will break out during No. 8 seed Pitt’s battle with No. 9 seed Wichita State?

Here’s your West Regional breakdown:

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Three story lines to watch

  • The narrative for this region will end up being that it’s the easiest of the four, which isn’t necessarily untrue. It’s certainly not as intimidating as the Midwest, and none of the top four seeds are going to strike fear in the hearts of cinderellas. But when that point is brought up, it’s important to mention that this is not a good draw for Gonzaga in terms of matchups. Both Pitt and Wichita State have the size to matchup with Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. Kansas State does as well, and New Mexico may matchup with the Zags better than any team in the country.
  • There are some really dangerous double-digit seeds out West. Iowa State can beat anyone in the country on the nights their threes are going down. Belmont’s a veteran team with arguably the best backcourt in the region. Ole Miss is hot, coming off an SEC tournament title, and has one of the nation’s most dangerous scorers in Marshall Henderson. Even the Boise State-La Salle winner and Harvard can win a couple games, and Iona has a number of high-major transfers on their roster.
  • Can Ohio State make another run to the Final Four? There hasn’t been a hotter team in the country over the last month, and they’ve got a favorable bracket.

The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 3 New Mexico

Difficult matchups aside, I still believe that Gonzaga is as good as any team in the country, if not the best team in the country. Their front line is just a nightmare to try and defend, and while they will have to get by some teams with size up front, how many of those teams have big men with the size and the versatility of Gonzaga’s? (Hint: none.) I know the reputation of the Mountain West is to underperform in the NCAA tournament, and while I don’t necessarily see that changing this season, I think this season will be the time that New Mexico finally bucks that trend. Ohio State will be tough, but I think the Lobos are stingy enough defensively to take away Deshaun Thomas and balanced enough offensively to limit Aaron Craft’s disruption.

Final Four sleeper: Pitt

The Panthers are the No. 8 seed out West. They also happen to be the No. 7 team in the country according to Kenpom’s efficiency rating. Pitt historically struggles in the tourney, but if they can pull the upset over Gonzaga in the Round of 32, Jamie Dixon’s club will have favorable matchups the rest of the way.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 13 Boise State vs. No. 13 La Salle: Both the Broncos and the Explorers are overloaded with quality perimeter players, and this should “devolve” into a open-court, up-and-down affair that sees plenty of threes being fired up.
  • No. 8 Pitt vs. No. 9 Wichita State: It may end up being the polar opposite of Boise State and La Salle, but if you like seeing big men battle in the paint, this game will provide that.

Matchups to root for

  • No. 3 New Mexico vs. No. 6 Arizona: Not only would that pit the best team from the Mountain West against one of the best teams in the Pac-12 for west coast bragging rights, it would take place in Salt Lake City, a locale easy for both fan bases to get to.
  • No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 11 Belmont: Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott might be the best defensive back court in the country. They get Momo Jones and Sean Armand of Iona and then, hopefully, Notre Dame’s Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant and Belmont’s Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark.

The studs you know about

  • Aaron Craft, Ohio State: Deshaun Thomas gets the attention, but Craft is a difference-maker defensively and his emergence offensively has spurred Ohio State’s late-season surge.
  • Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga: He’s a seven-footer with guard skills that has become the most devastatingly-efficient front court scorer this side of Doug McDermott.
  • Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss: He’s brash, he’s cocky, he’s emotional and unafraid to show it, and he just so happens to be a 20 ppg scorer.
  • Rodney McGruder, Kansas State: McGruder had some issues shooting the ball earlier this season, but he’s like a less-athletic version of Ben McLemore.

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Ian Clark, Belmont: Not only was he the OVC’s co-Player of the Year alongside Isaiah Canaan after averaging 18.1 points, but the 6-foot-1 sharpshooter was also the Defensive Player of the Year.
  • Ramon Galloway, La Salle: Galloway is a senior from Philly that transferred to his hometown school from South Carolina and has had a great season. He’s a bigger, more athletic guard with a vicious handle that’s unafraid to pull from deep. He takes — and also makes — some crazy shots.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 11 Belmont over No. 6 Arizona: Belmont’s back court is going to give Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson nightmare, while I just don’t see Arizona’s front court being big enough to take advantage of the Bruin’s lack of size inside.
  • No. 10 Iowa State over No. 7 Notre Dame: The Cyclones are a streaky team because of their reliance on the three-ball, but they have perimeter-oriented big men that will be a nightmare for Jack Cooley to try and cover; it’s how they nearly beat Kansas twice this season. Point guard Korie Lucious has played in a Final Four, and Chris Babb is an excellent on-ball defender.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • No. 7 Notre Dame/No. 10 Iowa State over No. 2 Ohio State: Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott will shut down Notre Dame’s talented back court, while the Buckeyes have displayed a small lineup of late — using Deshaun Thomas at the five — that can matchup with ISU.
  • No. 12 Ole Miss over No. 5 Wisconsin: The Rebels got hot late, and they deserve credit for that, but I can’t see a team that lost to Mississippi State and South Carolina beating Bo Ryan’s team.

CBT Predictions: I think New Mexico’s front line ends up being too much for the smaller Ohio State to deal with, but the Lobos end up losing in a thriller — and packed house — for the right to go to Atlanta.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

No. 22 Butler ruins No. 2 Villanova’s seniors’ perfect Pavilion record

Butler center Nate Fowler and Villanova forward Eric Paschall, right, vie for a rebound in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Villanova, Pa. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)
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All Villanova players have known since they joined the program is winning at The Pavilion. Late into Wednesday’s game against No. 22 Butler, it looked like that would continue to be their only frame of reference for a group of seniors that were 45-0 in the building.

Then another ‘0’ turned that zero into a ‘1.’

The Bulldogs ripped off an 18-0 run in a 5-minute span to ultimately claim a 74-66 victory over second-ranked and defending national champion Villanova.

Villanova looked like it was going to cruise to another home win when Josh Hart’s 3-pointer with 10 minutes, 37 seconds remaining put the Wildcats up 49-42.

They wouldn’t score again until nearly the 4-minute mark.

During that span, Butler made 7 of 11 shots, with three being 3-pointers, while the Wildcats went 0 of 6 from the field and turned the ball over twice.

A seven-point lead for Villanova became an 11-point advantage for Butler. Villanova would try to rally, but couldn’t pull it off as it saw its home winning run stopped, its seniors’ perfect Pavilion record blemished and its seven-game winning streak come to a halt.

Beyond it probably being immensely annoying to the senior class, the loss probably doesn’t hurt Villanova too much as it looks to hold on to a No. 1 seed, preferably in the East region. The Wildcats’ resume is still as strong as nearly anyone in the country and they are, after all, the defending champs. They’ll be fine.

For Butler, it’s a signature win for a team that’s had a number of really good victories, but a few confounding losses, like St. John’s on the road and to Creighton (without Maurice Watson) and Georgetown at home. Beating Villanova – at the Pavilion, no less – could be worth a seed line.

Kelan Martin was fantastic for Butler, going for 23 points and eight boards, while Kamar Baldwin went for 15 points off the bench.

Jalen Brunson led the way for Villanova with 24 points while Josh Hart had 18 points and six rebounds. Kris Jenkins struggled, going 1 of 8 from the floor while scoring eight points.

The Wildcats get a chance to start a new streak at the Pavilion on Saturday with Creighton coming to town.

 

No. 8 North Carolina stakes their claim to the title of ‘nation’s best’ with beatdown of No. 7 Louisville

CHAPEL HILL, NC - FEBRUARY 22:  Theo Pinson #1 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after a play against the Louisville Cardinals during their game at the Dean Smith Center on February 22, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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North Carolina may not have anyone on their roster that sends chills down the spine of opposing coaches, and they may not have anyone on their roster that is going to be targeted by NBA franchises as lottery pick, and they may not be dominating the headlines like undefeated Gonzaga, reigning champ Villanova, winner of 13 straight Big 12 titles Kansas or even Tobacco Road rival Duke.

They’re not a sexy pick, they’re not the favorite in Vegas and they may finally crack the No. 1 seed line in all bracket projections after beating No. 7 Louisville 74-63 on Wednesday night, but at this point, I’m not sure that the Tar Heels aren’t the best team in college basketball.

‘The Best Team In College Basketball’ is not an easy title to earn this season, not because there are too many candidates but more because everyone of those candidates have some kind of glaring flaw that makes you wonder have they’ve made it to late-February with a winning record. Think: UCLA’s defense. Or maybe: Kansas’ total lack of front court depth. How about: Kentucky can’t shoot. And then there’s: Duke doesn’t have a point guard, or: Gonzaga doesn’t play anyone.

We can play that game with every team in the country.

In fact, I did, just last week on a podcast.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

North Carolina didn’t escape our wrath. There are question marks about Joel Berry II’s consistency, as he had a nasty habit of laying an egg every once in a while. Is that defense going to hold up for six games in a single-elimination tournament? Do they have enough consistent three-point shooting? Can Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson stay healthy?

Here’s the thing: I think the answer to all those questions is ‘yes’.

Justin Jackson has developed into a bonafide all-american and quite possibly the ACC Player of the Year. He’s a versatile scorer that is shooting the grip off the ball and has proven the ability to be the guy to take and make big shots for the Tar Heels this season. That’s taken some of the pressure off of Berry, who can spend more time as a secondary offensive weapon, facilitator and a leader than having to worry about carrying the team offensively. Theo Pinson’s return has opened some things up offensively, while UNC’s four-headed front court monster — Kennedy Meeks, Hicks, Tony Bradley and Luke Maye — have shown that they can score in the post or off of a missed shot, where they lead the nation on offensive rebounding percentage.

And as far as the defense is concerned, they’re ranked 20th in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom.com. Yes, a lot of that has to do with the pistol-whipping that was Gameday on Saturday night against Virginia, but Louisville, who was the third-best offensive team in ACC play, managed just 63 points in 73 possessions on Wednesday.

My point?

That defense doesn’t have to be great, it just has to be good enough, and it probably is.

But here’s the most important number to know: Two.

That’s how big North Carolina’s lead in the ACC is as of today. Louisville, Duke, Florida State and Notre Dame have all lost five times this year. As long as the Tar Heels can go into Pittsburgh and get a win over the Panthers, they are going to clinch a share of the ACC regular season, and they can lock up the outright league title before the showdown with the Dukies on the season’s final night.

The margins are thin, yes, but after Wednesday, North Carolina has as much claim to the title of ‘Nation’s Best’ as anyone in college basketball.

VIDEO: UNC fan ejected after heated exchange with Rick Pitino

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A UNC fan sitting court side in the Dean Dome on Wednesday was ejected from No. 8 North Carolina’s win over No. 7 Louisville after getting in a heated verbal exchange with Rick Pitino.

Cell phone video posted by a reporter attending the game showed Pitino having to be held back by members of his staff. According to ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor, who said she heard what the fan said, the line that set Pitino off was, “Pitino you suck.”

Bubble Banter: California, TCU and Syracuse with critical games tonight

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 10:  Ivan Rabb #1 of the California Golden Bears stands on the court during a quarterfinal game of the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament against the Oregon State Beavers at MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 10, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. California won 76-68.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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The latest NBC Sports bracketology can be found here. That is where the seeds you see listed below come from. 

This post will be updated throughout the night.

WINNERS

Syracuse (RPI: 84, KenPom: 48, first four out): Did the Orange just lock up their NCAA tournament bid? It’s going to be close, after John Gillon banked in a 23-foot three at the buzzer to send No. 10 Duke back to Durham with a loss. Here’s how it stands for the Orange: They’s 17-12 on the season and guaranteed to finish at least .500 in ACC play. They now have six top 50 wins and nine top 100 wins, but they also have three losses to sub-100 teams, 12 total losses and they play at Louisville on Saturday. The road hasn’t been kind to Syracuse, either; they’ve won just two roadies this season, at N.C. State and at Clemson.

Providence (RPI: 69, KenPom: 58, first four out): All of a sudden, Providence is one of the most interesting bubble teams in the country. Last week they beat Butler and Xavier at home, and on Wednesday night, they went into Creighton and picked off the Bluejays. The Friars are now 17-11 on the season with five top 50 wins, including three in the top 25. They are 8-8 against the top 100, but the problem is that they have one sub-100 loss and two more sub-200 losses, which is really, really bad. They won the games that they had to win to get themselves into this position, but I still would strongly recommend that they win out down the stretch.

Seton Hall (RPI: 47, KenPom: 59, play-in game): I think the Pirates may have just punched their ticket to the tournament as they beat Xavier at home on Wednesday. They have four top 50 wins — two away from home — and seven top 100 wins with just a single sub-100 loss. I won’t say they’re a lock because a loss to DePaul would not be good for them.

Wake Forest (RPI: 40, KenPom: 31, next four out): The Demon Deacons are still in the tournament picture after landing a comeback win over Pitt on Wednesday night, but they have some work left to do. They have no bad losses and seven top 100 wins, but that 1-9 record against the top 50 is an eyesore. They get Louisville at home next week. That’s a game they have to have.

Arkansas (RPI: 33, KenPom: 51, No. 9 seed): Arkansas kept themselves away from the danger of the cutline and just about locked up a bid with a win over Texas A&M on Wednesday. With three games left, and one of those three at Florida, it will be hard for the Razorbacks to miss the dance at this point. But this is also a team that lost to Missouri. They can pull anything off.

Michigan (RPI: 52, KenPom: 27, No. 10 seed): The Wolverines avoided disaster on Wednesday night using a late rally to avoid what would’ve been a killer of a loss at Rutgers. They were already in the tournament with a little bit of room to spare entering today, and this win — however ugly it was — doesn’t hurt that.

VCU (RPI: 26, KenPom: 41, No. 9 seed): The Rams beat Saint Louis on Wednesday night, which means that they didn’t lose to the Billikens. They are close to a lock by now, because two of their last three games are at Rhode Island and at Dayton — neither of which is a bad loss — and they close with GW at home. Even if they lose out, I think it will be hard for roughly ten teams to jump them in the bubble standings.

TCU (RPI: 54, KenPom: 43, play-in game): There’s no shame in losing at Kansas, which TCU did on Wednesday night, but they did miss out on an opportunity to land a résumé-defining win. The Horned Frogs are just 2-8 against the top 50 with just five top 100 wins, which isn’t a bad profile but it is one that lacks enough depth to feel anywhere near comfortable.

Illinois State (RPI: 36, KenPom: 50, No. 12 seed): The Redbirds beat Southern Illinois, so they’re still in the mix. But with just one top 75 win and three sub-100 losses, it’s going to be hard to get in if they don’t get that MVC automatic bid.

LOSERS

Cal (RPI: 39, KenPom: 47, No. 10 seed): Cal is probably still safe after losing at home to No. 6 Oregon on Wednesday, but it sure isn’t going to feel good that they were up by 15 and blew a lead in a game that would have cemented their status as an at-large team. As it stands, Cuonzo Martin’s team is 18-9 on the season without a single bad loss, but they’re only 1-7 against the top 50, their only win over a tournament team is USC and they may not play another RPI top 100 team this season. Don’t lose anymore.

Kansas State (RPI: 51, KenPom: 28, No. 11 seed): Bruce Weber really just cannot make this easy on himself. Kansas State lost for the seventh time in the last nine games on Wednesday, falling at home to Oklahoma State. The Wildcats have just four top 100 wins, but three of those are top 30 wins, two of them are on the road and one of those is at Baylor. That’s enough to keep them on the cut line for now, but with at Oklahoma, at TCU and Texas Tech left, I would urge them to find a way to turn this slump around.

Tennessee (RPI: 50, KenPom: 42, first four out): The Vols may have finally played themselves off the bubble — which is an exceedingly difficult thing to do this season — by losing at home to Vanderbilt. In fact, I think I would go as far as to say that the Commodores now have a better chance of getting an at-large bid than Tennessee.

Pitt (RPI: 59, KenPom: , next four out): Pitt was in the picture because the bubble is trash. They had a chance to land a nice win at a Wake Forest team that has really good computer numbers … and then blew a 19 point lead. I can’t see them getting an at-large bid at this point.

 

VIDEO: Brooks hits 3-pointer with 0.2 left to lift Oregon past Cal

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Dillon Brooks did it earlier against UCLA. Wednesday, he added Cal to his list.

The Oregon junior hit a game-winning 3-pointer with 0.2 left on the clock to give the sixth-ranked Ducks a 68-65 victory over the Bears after trailing by as many as 16 in the second half.

It’s the second time this season that Brooks, who finished with 22 points, has hit a game-winning three, and this one keeps the Ducks within a game of first-place Arizona in the Pac-12 standings.

The bigger story here may actually be Cal, as the Golden Bears gave away a 15-point lead in the final 10 minutes and a 10-point lead in the final five minutes in a game they desperately needed to win for their at-large résumé. Cal is just 1-7 against the RPI top 50 this season, and while they don’t have any bad losses to their name, this was their last chance to land a marquee win before the Pac-12 tournament.

I don’t think they’re in danger of missing the dance just yet, but I would not recommend tempting fate and losing down the stretch of the season.