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. 2 Villanova clinches Big East title with win over No. 23 Creighton

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 25: Kris Jenkins #2 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in front of Justin Patton #23 of the Creighton Bluejays in the first half at the Pavilion on February 25, 2017 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Villanova continued its dominance of the modern Big East on Saturday as the No. 2 Wildcats made a late charge to secure a 79-63 home win over No. 23 Creighton.

By clinching at least a share of the Big East regular season crown, Jay Wright’s program has now won four consecutive regular-season conference titles as they try to make another push towards the postseason.

Eric Paschall led a balanced Villanova scoring effort with 19 points while Josh Hart (15 points), Kris Jenkins (14 points) and Mikal Bridges (11 points) also finished in double-figures. The late push at the end was a good sign that Villanova might have shaken off a recent sluggish stretch that included a home loss last game to Butler and an uninspired first half against Creighton.

There were also times during Villanova’s win on Saturday where they didn’t look fully engaged and Creighton was right with them. Maybe it was partly because of the emotion of Senior Day, but while the Wildcats are still a heavy favorite to land a top seed and make it back to the Final Four, there are also some concerns about depth and health at this point in the season.

The Wildcats have been able to withstand the rib injury and five-game absence of veteran big man Darryl Reynolds, but it does seem like this team might be getting a bit tired entering the stretch run. Villanova was only 4-for-19 from three-point range on their home floor on Saturday while Hart is just 1-for-9 from the free-throw line in his last two games.

That could mean a cold stretch but it could also mean some tired legs. Thankfully for Villanova, they only have one regular-season game next week on the road at a Georgetown team that has lost back-to-back games to DePaul and St. John’s. Coupled with the early bye in the Big East tournament and the Wildcats should get some time to rest and recover over the next few weeks.

It’ll be interesting to see if Villanova comes out with any kind of intensity against Georgetown — with nothing really to play for — or if they try to put away a reeling Hoyas team early.

SATURDAY’S SNACKS: North Carolina clinches share of ACC title; Kentucky tops Florida on Monk’s huge half

of the Florida Gators during the game Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena on February 25, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.
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SATURDAY’S THINGS TO KNOW

The ACC saw No. 8 North Carolina win on the road as they handled Pitt to claim at least a share of the ACC regular season conference title. CBT’s Rob Dauster has more on why this season might be Roy Williams’ best coaching job yet.

Things became a little bit clearer in the SEC as No. 11 Kentucky rallied behind a monster second half from freshman Malik Monk (30 of 33 points in second half) to beat No. 13 Florida. On a day in which De’Aaron Fox was out with injury, Monk and freshman Bam Adebayo (18 points, 15 rebounds) combined to give the Wildcats the conference lead with a week left. Dauster has more on Monk and Kentucky’s prospects heading into March.

Defending national champion Villanova clinched at least a share of the Big East regular season title as the No. 4 Wildcats used a late push to run past No. 23 Creighton. A balanced effort helped the Wildcats bounce back from this week’s loss against Butler as Eric Paschall led with 19 points.

STARRED

Virginia’s offense — The Cavaliers were in a mighty slump during their four-game losing streak as the Cavaliers had failed to crack 55 points during the last three. That changed during a win Saturday on the road at N.C. State. Virginia shot 11-for-16 from three-point range (68.8 percent) and freshman Kyle Guy had more points in this one (19) than he did in his previous five games (17).

Malik Monk, Kentucky — Erupting in the second half was the freshman guard as he totaled 33 points in the Wildcats’ important SEC home win over visiting Florida. Monk only had three points at halftime and showed why he’s the country’s most electric player with just a few strong minutes to help Kentucky rally. Monk was 5-for-7 from three-point range and also added five assists and four rebounds.

RELATED: Get caught up on all of today’s bubble action

REST OF THE TOP 25

  • Surviving on the road was No. 12 West Virginia as they won by a point over TCU in Big 12 play. Jevon Carter paced the Mountaineers with 15 points.
  • Playing in front of former head coach Larry Brown, No. 17 SMU ran out to an early lead on UConn and never looked back. The Mustangs had 20 points from Shake Milton in the AAC road win as they’ve won 11 straight.
  • Looking more like the program we’ve seen the past few years, No. 18 Virginia played much better offensively in an ACC road win at N.C. State. Freshman Kyle Guy broke out with 19 points while Devon Hall (18 points) and London Perrantes (16 points) also played well.
  • Winning on the road hasn’t been easy for No. 19 Florida State this season but they held off Clemson to likely eliminate the Tigers from NCAA tournament contention. The Seminoles had 15 points from Xavier Rathan-Mayes in the win.
  • Continuing to pile up double-digit wins is No. 25 Wichita State as they ran past Missouri State for a Missouri Valley Conference road win. Landry Shamet had 23 points for the Shockers while Shaquille Morris had 20 points.

NOTABLE

  • The plunge continued for Georgetown as they fell to St. John’s after losing to DePaul earlier in the week. Freshman Shamorie Ponds led the Red Storm with 24 points, becoming the third St. John’s freshmen to register 500 total points in a season.
  • In the Big Ten, Minnesota beat Penn State for a home win as Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason each had 16 points.
  • South Carolina snapped a three-game losing streak with a blowout home win over Tennessee. P.J. Dozier had 19 points to pace the Gamecocks.
  • Oklahoma State continued its recent surge with an easy home Big 12 win over Texas Tech. The Cowboys had 17 points from Jeffrey Carroll and 15 points each from Jawun Evans and Phil Forte.
  • Winning on the road in convincing fashion was Illinois State as the Redbirds ran past Northern Iowa. As a team right on the bubble, the Redbirds are now co-Missouri Valley Conference champs with Wichita State heading into Arch Madness.
  • Also hovering on the bubble is Seton Hall as they held off a late charge from DePaul for a Big East road win.

Malik Monk scores 30 in second half to lead No. 11 Kentucky past No. 13 Florida

LEXINGTON, KY - FEBRUARY 25:  Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates during the game against the  Florida Gators at Rupp Arena on February 25, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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The reason why No. 11 Kentucky is still a national title contender, the reason why no one will ever be able to say that this team cannot get to a Final Four regardless of how much they have struggled over the course of the last month of the season, is Malik Monk.

He’s also the reason why that run isn’t all that likely.

Simply put, he’s college basketball’s single-most unstoppable force, and, once again, he showed us all why on Saturday. Monk scored 30 of his 33 points after halftime and added six assists as the Wildcats outscored No. 13 Florida 32-14 in the final 13 minutes of a 76-66 win that put them in the driver’s seat for the SEC regular season title.

The Gators and the Wildcats entered Saturday tied for first in the league at 13-2. Florida was able to jump out to early leads in both halves, but it was Kentucky that took control down the stretch. Much of that credit goes to Monk, whose shooting brought an energy to Rupp Arena that we haven’t seen in a while and brought on an effort defensively that doesn’t always show up when Kentucky takes the floor.

For a while during the second half, Kentucky looked like the team that we saw early in the season despite the fact that De’Aaron Fox wasn’t playing due to a knee bruise. Their athletes were flying around defensively, they were getting out and running in transition, they were throwing down crazy dunks. That’s the way they played in November and December, when they were scoring in the 90s on a nightly basis and beating teams like Arizona State by 46 points.

That coincided with the time that Monk caught fire.

It’s not just energy that he brings. It’s not just the confidence you see Kentucky’s players get when he’s draining 30-footers like they’re free throws. When he’s scoring, it opens everything up for them on the offensive end of the floor. He’s a shooter with gravity, dragging defenders with him, and he’s a willing and capable enough passer to be able to find open teammates when he puts the ball on the floor. That Kentucky was able to put this kind of a run on a very good Florida team tells you all you need to know about how dangerous they can be.

But here’s the issue: to get to a Final Four, Kentucky, who seems likely to end up around a No. 3 or No. 4 seed, is going to have to beat three really good teams in a row. To win a national title, they’re going to have to do it five straight times. Can Monk catch fire for three straight weeks?

Since the start of the new year, Monk has scored at least 20 points in consecutive games just once — one of those games was a lost at Tennessee — and it’s probably worth noting that the best win Kentucky has in a game where Monk finished below his season scoring average is probably Arkansas at home.

There are a couple of x-factors here, the most obvious of which is De’Aaron Fox getting back to full strength. Between rolled ankles, bruised knees and illnesses, Fox just hasn’t looked like himself for a month. When he’s right, he can be a difference-maker, as can Bam Adebayo, who went for 18 points and 15 boards against a Florida team playing without John Egbunu. He had 22 points and 15 boards against Missouri on Wednesday, and has been playing his best basketball of the season the last couple of weeks.

It should go without saying that Kentucky is better when those two are better. It reduces their reliance on one player doing something that, statistically, is not all that likely.

But they aren’t what makes Kentucky dangerous.

That’s Monk.

He’s good enough that he can literally carry Kentucky to a win over anyone.

But unless Kentucky can find a way to be consistently good on the nights where the inconsistently great Monk isn’t, it’s hard to imagine them making a run to Phoenix.

Milton scores 20 to help No. 15 SMU beat UConn

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 17:  Semi Ojeleye #33 celebrates with Shake Milton #1 of the Southern Methodist Mustangs against the Pittsburgh Panthers in the second half during the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 17, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) Shake Milton had 20 points and seven rebounds to lead No. 15 SMU over UConn 69-61 on Saturday.

The Mustangs (25-4, 15-1 American Athletic Conference) won their 11th straight and haven’t lost since Jan. 12 at Cincinnati. Semi Ojeleye had 16 points, Ben Moore added 15 and Sterling Brown had 11.

The Huskies (14-14, 9-7), who have dropped two straight after a four-game winning streak, were led by Kentan Facey’s 15 points. Freshman Christian Vital and Vance Jackson each added 14, while Rodney Purvis had 11.

The Mustangs rode the hot shooting of Milton, who made 6 of 7 from 3-point range, to lead 41-30 at halftime. SMU led by as many as 16 points, with Milton’s fifth 3-pointer giving it a 31-15 lead with 8:04 to play.

Milton scored just two points in the Mustangs’ previous win, a 76-66 decision over Houston on Feb. 18.

SMU shot 50 percent from the field and led by double digits for almost the entire final 13:28 of the half. Vital’s 3-pointer with 34 seconds left made it 39-30, but Moore closed the half with a dunk.

The Mustangs survived some foul trouble in the half, with Ojeleye and Brown sitting for extended periods with two fouls apiece.

UConn shot just 11 for 32 in the half, with the starting backcourt of Purvis and Jalen Adams a combined 3 for 16. Adams missed the final 2:58 of the half with a left ankle sprain and did not return.

Without Adams, UConn tried climbed within 57-52 with 9:20 to play, but the Mustangs answered with a 9-2 run to regain control.

BIG PICTURE

SMU: The Mustangs and No. 15 Cincinnati are vying for the top seed in the AAC Tournament, but it will come down to the wire. The teams split in the regular season.

UConn: The Huskies are looking to lockup a top-five seed in the AAC Tournament, but could be in trouble if Adams is out for an extended period of time. Vital and Purvis are the only healthy guards left.

UP NEXT

SMU finishes the regular season at home with Tulsa and Memphis.

UConn closes at East Carolina and Cincinnati.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.

No. 18 Virginia snaps 4-game skid, beats NC State 70-55

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - FEBRUARY 20: Marial Shayok #4 of the Virginia Cavaliers shoots a three point shot during Virginia's game against the Miami Hurricanes at John Paul Jones Arena on February 20, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Freshman Kyle Guy scored 19 points to help No. 18 Virginia snap out of an offensive funk to beat North Carolina State 70-55 on Saturday, ending a four-game skid.

Devon Hall added 18 points for the Cavaliers (19-9, 9-7 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 49 percent and made 11 of 16 3-pointers – a huge change from missing shot after shot during three particularly ugly offensive performances coming in.

It was Virginia’s longest losing streak since losing nine straight during coach Tony Bennett’s first season in 2009-10. But the Cavaliers led 35-21 by halftime, pushed that to 19 early after halftime and led by double figures nearly the entire second half.

The Wolfpack (15-15, 4-13) made a last-stand run to get within 59-51, only to see London Perrantes bury a 3-pointer with 5:04 left then Hall put back his own miss to push the margin back to 13.

N.C. State got no closer than 10 again in the final regular-season home game for coach Mark Gottfried. The school announced earlier this month that he won’t return next year after a once-promising season completely unraveled.

Freshman Dennis Smith Jr. scored 13 points but made just 4 of 14 shots for N.C. State, which shot 32 percent and made 7 of 27 3s (26 percent).

BIG PICTURE

Virginia: Virginia got its shot back, for a game at least. The Cavaliers had shot just 32 percent in its last three games while making 10 of 52 3-pointers (19 percent). They need this performance badly.

N.C. State: N.C. State finished its home regular-season schedule at 2-7 in ACC games, just one of many reasons for the Wolfpack’s disappointing season that ultimately cost Gottfried his job.

UP NEXT

Virginia: The Cavaliers get a quick turnaround to host No. 8 North Carolina on Monday.

N.C. State: N.C. State plays its regular-season finale Wednesday at Clemson.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25