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.

Notre Dame remaining cautious as Bonzie Colson returns to practice

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Notre Dame senior forward Bonzie Colson is getting closer to returning after being out since early January.

The 6-foot-6 Colson has been out with a fracture in his left foot since Jan. 2 as the Irish have struggled to a below-.500 mark in the ACC. With the Irish likely out of the NCAA tournament picture at this point in the season, head coach Mike Brey told reporters, including Tim Prister of 247 Sports, that he would exercise caution with Colson returning to practice for Notre Dame this week. Colson is slightly ahead of the eight-week projection for his return so far, but he also has a pro future to account for after this season while the Irish don’t have a bright NCAA tournament future.

Colson was hoping to make his season debut on Saturday against Wake Forest but Brey isn’t optimistic about that debut.

“I won’t trust his judgment,” Brey said of Colson, “I’m not going to trust his judgment at all.

“He would have to really show something Thursday and Friday. I’ve got an open mind. Show me. I’ve got an open mind. But I just don’t know if that would be smart.”

Brey is hoping to gradually ease Colson back into the Notre Dame rotation so that he can earn some minutes to close out his senior season. Colson dressed for the Irish’s game against Miami on Monday night and he’s been working hard with Notre Dame’s strength and conditioning coaches.

“It would be energizing for us if Bonzie is back for at least half a practice Thursday,” Brey said. “That’s what we’re going to try. That would probably be energizing for everybody, especially for the seniors, to see him back in practice.

“But I don’t think he’s going to be ready to play (vs. Wake Forest) after two semi-days of practice. Pittsburgh’s realistic, depending upon how he reacts. That’s a positive. We need him back.”

It’s nice to see Brey exercise caution with this situation since Colson has the NBA Draft Combine to prepare for on May 16. Obviously, things haven’t gone as planned for the Irish this season, but they’ve battled a lot of injuries up and down the roster besides for Colson.

Colson does have some incentive to return as well as he’s looking to close out his college career in the best way possible while also showing pro teams that he’s healthy and active following the broken foot.

VIDEOS: Tom Izzo gets emotional on Michigan State Senior Night

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Michigan State has one of the best Senior Night traditions in college basketball as its departing players kiss the center floor logo before exiting the floor for the final time.

The Spartans had plenty of time to celebrate during a beatdown of Illinois in its home finale on Tuesday night as the program sent off some notable seniors like Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter and Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr.

Head coach Tom Izzo could barely keep his composure with Nairn coming off of of the floor.

Although Michigan State celebrated a big win over the Illini, there is plenty of work left to do. The Spartans are hoping to make its first Final Four run since 2015.

(H/t: ESPN and Michigan State on BTN)

VIDEO: Nebraska’s bench mob inspired by Olympics, WWE and NBA dunk contest

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Nebraska’s bench mob has been one of the best parts of a surprising 20-win team this season.

As the Huskers took down Indiana for a Big Ten home win on Tuesday night, the Nebraska bench mob added some new and unique shows on the sideline. Inspired by the Olympics, WWE and the recent NBA dunk contest, the Nebraska bench mob had plenty of new material during the win.

My favorite would probably be the six-man bobsled. Usually run with two- or four-person operations during the Olympics, the Huskers couldn’t keep two members of the group, making it a six-person operation for their routine. The Randy Orton-inspired RKO was also solid and I especially enjoyed the guys who teamed up to form the ropes.

Nebraska’s bench had previously incorporated the Rockettes and the macarena into their bench mob routine, so they’re jumping all over the pop culture spectrum for inspiration this month.

(h/t: ESPN)

Tuesday’s Three Things to Know: URI survives, Kentucky comes back, Michigan State and Ohio State roll

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1. NO. 18 RHODE ISLAND SURVIVES A HERCULEAN EFFORT FROM LA SALLE’S B.J. JOHNSON

The 18th-ranked Rams clinched at least a share of the Atlantic 10 regular season title, but it wasn’t easy as they needed overtime to beat La Salle 95-93 in Philadelphia. The “foul or defend” question came up on multiple occasions late in regulation and overtime, with Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley opting to foul each time. Late in regulation the strategy didn’t work out, as Tony Washington rebounded an intentional miss and scored the basket that forced overtime.

B.J. Johnson was outstanding in a losing effort for La Salle, finishing with 29 points and 23 rebounds. The rebound total was one off of the Atlantic 10’s single-game record, which is held by the late Yinka Dare. As for URI, Jeff Dowtin and Stanford Robinson led the way with 25 and 20 points, apiece, with the former also dishing out seven assists and grabbing five rebounds. With the win Rhode Island can clinch the outright A-10 title by beating Dayton Friday night, and the result also keeps the Rams in the conversation to earn a 4-seed (or possibly better) in the NCAA tournament.

BUBBLE BANTER: Texas A&M and Creighton suffer rough losses

2. KENTUCKY REBOUNDS FROM SLOW START TO WIN AT ARKANSAS

On multiple occasions John Calipari’s young team has produced efforts that led to many wondering if they had turned the corner. But after ending a four-game losing streak on Saturday, the Wildcats trailed Arkansas 11-0 with Darryl Macon and Jalen Barford serving as the sparks for the Razorbacks. But instead of wilting and getting blown out Kentucky fought, pulling even by halftime. And in the second half the Wildcats were even better, controlling the action and picking up an 87-72 victory.

Five Kentucky players scored in double figures, with Kevin Knox accounting for 23 points and seven rebounds and fellow freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander adding 18 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Three of the five double-figure scorers came off the bench, with Jarred Vanderbilt and Quade Green providing much-needed sparks in the first half. Kentucky’s now won back-to-back games for the first time since late January, and while that may not seem like a big deal it’s certainly a positive development for this group.

ALSO: NO. 21 WEST VIRGINIA GETS BACK TO BASICS IN WIN OVER BAYLOR

3. NO. 2 MICHIGAN STATE AND NO. 16 OHIO STATE HOLD SERVE

Both the Spartans and Buckeyes took care of overmatched foes on their respective senior nights, with Michigan State beating Illinois by 20 and Ohio State whipping Rutgers by 27. With its win Michigan State wrapped up at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title, and the Spartans can wrap up the top seed in next week’s Big Ten tournament with a win over Wisconsin on Sunday. Miles Bridges led the way with 19 points and Joshua Langford added 16 for Michigan State, which shot 47.1 percent from the field and 11-for-27 from three.

What Michigan State will need to do against Wisconsin will be known by tip-off, as Ohio State completes its regular season schedule Friday night at Indiana. Tuesday night, Chris Holtmann’s team rolled past an overmatched Rutgers squad, with C.J. Jackson scoring a game-high 18 points off the bench. Keita Bates-Diop shot just 3-for-11 from the field and scored six points, but Ohio State received quality efforts from multiple players as it ended a two-game losing streak.

Jarred Vanderbilt’s value coming to the forefront as Kentucky wins second straight game

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Maybe Jarred Vanderbilt was the key that unlocked Kentucky’s potential all along.

The struggles that this team has had this season have been covered ad nauseum at this point in the season. Do they have a go-to guy? Can Kevin Knox become consistent and aggressive enough to be a star? Is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander going to takeover the lead guard role? Just what in the world is going on with Hamidou Diallo?

Hell, that really only scratches the surface, doesn’t it?

We’ve reached the point where the national conversation about Kentucky is … well, it’s almost non-existent. We’ll talk about them when they give us something to talk about.

And they have.

The Wildcats won their second straight game on Tuesday night. But unlike a home win over an Alabama team that isn’t all that much older than Kentucky, the Wildcats went into Bud Walton Arena and beat down a talented, veteran Arkansas team, 87-72.

Knox finished with 23 points. SGA had 18 points, seven assists and five boards. P.J. Washington (13 points, ten boards, three assists, two steals, two blocks) and Quade Green (12 points, six boards, four assists) both had big games coming off of the bench. Those are the kind of performances the Wildcats need out of their four-most talented offensive weapons.

But the x-factor here, the guy that now looks like he could be what sparks a Kentucky run that could salvage their season, is Vanderbilt. He is the one player on this roster that can change a game without needing the ball in his hands. He’s a workhorse on the glass with boundless athleticism and energy. He can block shots. He can play a small-ball five role and he can also get out an defend on the perimeter when needed. He can take a defensive rebound and go coast-to-coast.

No one else on this team can do all of those things. And that is before you get to the simple fact that he has some dog in him. He brings a level of intensity and toughness, both physically and mentally, that Kentucky has lacked at times, and in the last two games he seems to finally be getting up to speed with what it takes to win at this level.

What Vanderbilt’s presence does is allow Kentucky to utilize their best lineup: Green, SGA, Knox, Washington and Vanderbilt.

We’ve been banging the ‘Kentucky needs to go small’ drum for a while. At some point, John Calipari is going to have to accept that this is the five that is going to win him games. I understand why he won’t give up on players. It’s not hard to read into what he said yesterday as, essentially, “we won’t do what Duke did to Marques Bolden to our players.” Diallo may be struggling, Nick Richards and Sacha Killeya-Jones may not be ready to handle SEC basketball just yet, but Cal is not going to give up on them. They’re going to get their chances, and I have no problem with that. Kids can’t develop, can’t learn what it takes to play, if they don’t play.

But when it comes to winning time, when it comes to tournament games where losses mean you are heading home, that five — Green, SGA, Knox, Washington and Vanderbilt — is the five that needs to play the majority of the minutes. It gets their best offensive players on the floor, it gets at least two of their best defenders on the court and it lets them matchup with big and with small lineups.

That is their best five.

Now before anyone overreacts or snitches on me to Old Takes Exposed, this is not me saying that Kentucky Is Back!!!

Beating good but inconsistent teams in the middle of the SEC is not exactly a sign that the Wildcats are destined for the Final Four, not when we’re just a week removed from a four-game losing streak.

But it’s hard to ignore the difference in the way Kentucky played on Tuesday in contrast with the way Kentucky rolled over at Texas A&M two weeks ago.