Big East Basketball Tournament - Villanova v Louisville

Need last minute bracket advice? Well, we’ve got Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg here

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We’ve got some good stuff for you today. Jeff Eisenberg, the man behind The Dagger, was kind enough to join us to chat about his bracket picks in between writing about the biggest player in the tournament and catching up with the folks that wound up on the wrong end of a buzzer-beater. Trust me, you’ll want to see what he has to say:

Rob Dauster: The most interesting part about this year’s tournament, to me, is that after spending five months talking about how wide-open the field is, 90% of the people filling out brackets are picking Louisville to win the national title. I get it. They’ve got a dominant defense. They’ve lost just once since late January. They embarrassed Syracuse in the Big East title game. I’ll admit, I think the Cardinals are probably the best team in the country right now.

And I also have them losing in the Sweet 16 to St. Louis. I went into detail about it already so I won’t elaborate too much here, but talk me off the ledge, Jeff. Why am I wrong about the Billikens?

Jeff Eisenberg: Here’s the thing: You’re not wrong. Saint Louis is a terrible matchup for Louisville. The Cardinals thrive in an up-tempo game in which they can force turnovers and turn those into transition points. The Billikens play at a slow pace and feature eight seniors who rarely get frazzled or turn the ball over. The Cardinals are vulnerable in a half-court game against a team who can force them to rely on their erratic outside shooting. The Billikens are a well-schooled, defense-oriented team capable of executing that game plan.

So why am I still riding with Louisville? In spite of those advantages, Saint Louis isn’t going to have an easy time scoring either. Plus, I’m willing to bet on Rick Pitino with superior talent and five days to prepare a game plan to offset some of those issues. I believe Saint Louis will be the toughest game Louisville sees in the midwest regional — yes, more challenging than Duke or Michigan State in a regional final — but I think the Cardinals will find a way.

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So, Rob, I see you have Gonzaga in the title game? What has you sold on the Zags?

RD: They have the best front line in the country, in my opinion. The combination of size and versatility for both Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris makes them a matchup nightmare. To get an idea of just how those two have been, think about this: heading into the season, no one was talking about how good Mark Few’s big guys were. They were talking about Kevin Pangos, who averaged 13.6 points as a freshman, and how much better Gary Bell could end up being alongside him. Those two have been good this year, but they’ve been completely overshadowed.

The irony of my Gonzaga pick is that I think they may be the No. 1 seed most susceptible to getting upset in the round of 32. Whether they get matched up with Pitt or Wichita State, they are going to be playing a team with a big, physical front line that can get to the offensive glass. For everything that the Zags do well, blocking out and defending on the interior is not one of those things.

Personally, I think that Wisconsin may be the best matchup for the Zags in that West Regional. Why do you have them losing to the Fighting Bo Ryans?

JE: Fair point on Wisconsin not being the prototypical gives-Gonzaga-fits matchup. The Badgers don’t have elite perimeter athleticism, nor are they unstoppable on the offensive glass (though they are very good on the defensive boards).

Nonetheless, I do think Jared Berggren is a formidable enough defender to eat into Kelly Olynyk’s usual efficiency and I think Wisconsin’s defensive matchups are pretty good everywhere else. Plus, is it just me or is Wisconsin far better than its seed? The Badgers weren’t great early in the season as they were trying to recover from the loss of Josh Gasser, but they finished the season 6-3, made the Big Ten title game and beat Indiana twice, Illinois twice and Ohio State and Minnesota along the way. I think Gonzaga is very capable of winning this game — especially if their fans make Staples Center into Spokane South the way they did Las Vegas last week — but it’s certainly not an easy draw.

So I see you have Florida in the Final Four, yet last I remember you’ve been railing on the Gators’ inability to win a close game for weeks. What gives? You think they’re just going to blow out Georgetown and Kansas?

RD: That was literally the most difficult decision I had when filling out my bracket (and I still might end up changing my mind before I turn in brackets where I have, ahem, my pride on the line). And at the end of the day, I just think Florida is a better basketball team than Georgetown and Kansas.

For starters, I think Will Yeguete is the ideal matchup defensively for Otto Porter. He’s just as mobile and athletic and he doesn’t care at all about anything beyond being a defender and a rebounder. And while I have my doubts about the shot selection of guys like Mike Rosario, Kenny Boynton and Scottie Wilbekin, there’s no arguing that they can lock up defensively. Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera have played great, but they’re mostly spot-up shooters at this point. Yeguete makes life difficult for Porter, which means that Starks and DSR don’t get open looks which means that Georgetown can’t score.

Against Kansas, I think that the Gators are good enough defensively to win that game even though I do recognize the stupidity in picking a team that can’t win close games against Bill Self. Here’s my question for you: Does Kansas even make it to the Elite 8? Do they get picked off by UNC or VCU (or Michigan)?

JE: I don’t see Kansas losing before the Elite Eight. With its new four-guard look, North Carolina can spread the floor the same way Iowa State has to give the Jayhawks fits, but the Tar Heels don’t have an outside-shooting big man to draw Jeff Withey to the perimeter, nor are they good enough defensively to topple Kansas in Kansas City. I don’t like how Michigan finished the season, so that’s a no. And while I think VCU could turn Elijah Johnson over with its swarming defense, I also fear the Jayhawks would score very, very easily on the Rams on possessions where they successfully beat the press.

That brings us to the Elite Eight, where I’m in agreement with you that Kansas sees Florida for many of the same reasons you mentioned. The Gators would have to be awfully careless offensively against Georgetown to blow a game where they match up so well defensively. I worry about Florida’s shot selection and decision making down the stretch in close games, but something tells me the Gators are going to improve in the NCAA tournament in those areas in the same way they did defensively last March. Plus, a team can’t lose in the Elite Eight three straight years … uh, right?

So let’s talk potential first-round upsets. I think the 6-11 games will produce the most surprises this year. You agree?

RD: I do. I like St. Mary’s over Memphis (and I like Middle Tennessee State over Memphis as well) for the same reason that I like Belmont over Arizona: guard play. Both the Gaels and the Bruins run ball-screen heavy offenses with veteran playmakers that have won big games. I’ll ride with the Ian Clarks and Matthew Dellavedovas of the world anyday.

The two 11 seeds I don’t like are Minnesota and Bucknell. I don’t care how good the matchup is, I’m not picking a team that has lost 11 of their last 16 games to win in March. I’m not doing it.

And while I like Bucknell, I have faith in Brad Stevens. I think Andrew Smith is big and tough enough to give Mike Muscala problems, and I trust that Stevens will figure out how to game-plan to win a game in March. Picking against him is heresy.

Am I crazy to think Davidson can beat Marquette?

JE: I’m with you on Belmont. I like the Bruins’ backcourt and I don’t think Arizona will exploit its size advantage inside enough to compensate. Where we differ is in our other 6-11 upset. Give me Minnesota over UCLA for a couple of reasons in spite of the Gophers’ poor finish. 1. Minnesota is an elite offensive rebounding team; Rebounding has been undersized UCLA’s greatest weakness all season. 2. UCLA’s ability to score so many different ways made it tough to beat the past couple months, but the loss of second-leading scorer Jordan Adams makes it easier for teams to focus on blanketing Shabazz Muhammad and keeping Larry Drew out of the lane.

I do worry about the Gophers’ feeding into UCLA’s transition attack with turnovers, but UCLA isn’t a team that will pressure the ball effectively.

I don’t think you’re crazy to like Davidson, especially not with five starters back from last year and one of the best under-the-radar coaches in the nation. If I were going to pick a team seeded 13th or higher to win a game this year, Davidson would get my nod. I expect big things from the Nate Wolters show against Michigan, but I’m not sure he has enough of a supporting cast for South Dakota state to pull that off.

RD: We do agree there. I’m expecting Wolters and Trey Burke to put on a show. Two high-usage, high-efficiency point guards in spread, ball-screen heavy offenses could make for a game that reaches the 80s.

Thanks for joining us, Jeff, and hopefully this will be the boost you need to help you win your office pool.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

PHOTO: Nevada wearing pink jerseys to honor Coaches vs. Cancer this week

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Nevada announced that they’ll be wearing special pink uniforms for the next two games to promote cancer awareness.

The Wolf Pack will wear the jerseys on Wednesday (Jan. 25) on the road against Boise State and at home on Saturday (Jan. 28) against New Mexico.

“We are extremely excited and honored to release our new Pink “Cancer-Awareness” Jerseys. It was apparent very early in our time here, that many members of our Nevada Wolf Pack Basketball Program and in our Pack community have been affected or are currently being affected by cancer,” Nevada head coach Eric Musselman said in the release. “We could not be more proud to help support the cause and unite to fight this horrible and devastating disease.”

 

UCLA is no longer a Final Four contender if their defense doesn’t improve

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins reacts after making a three-point basket against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Saturday’s win over No. 8 UCLA was massive for No. 7 Arizona for a number of reasons.

They got Allonzo Trier back into the fold. They remained undefeated atop the Pac-12 standings, keeping pace with an Oregon team that’s dealing with another Dillon Brooks foot injury and getting ready to make the nightmarish trip to the Mountain schools, Utah and Colorado, this weekend. They took a two game lead over the Bruins in the Pac-12 standings.

Perhaps more importantly, the Wildcats certified themselves as a legitimate threat to get to the Final Four. Their 17-2 record entering Saturday was pretty. A win at Pauley finally gave that résumé some substance.

So good for Arizona.

But that wasn’t the biggest story line coming out of Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon.

UCLA’s defense, or lack thereof, was.

Ever since the Bruins went into Rupp Arena and knocked off then-No. 1 Kentucky, UCLA has been considered one of the very best teams in the country. Villanova’s up there, too. So is Kansas, and Gonzaga, and those Kentucky Wildcats. North Carolina probably should be in that conversation as well. Maybe Baylor, maaaybe Florida State.

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You get my point. The Bruins, for better or worse, were one of the handful of teams that everyone thought would enter the NCAA tournament as a favorite to win the national title, but it’s time for us to question whether or not that is actually the case. That’s how bad the UCLA defense has been this season, particularly of late.

Against Arizona, the Bruins were a train-wreck. They gave up 96 points on 1.315 points-per-possession, which, for those of you who aren’t into advanced stats, is atrocious. That game was the culmination of a four-game stretch where UCLA’s defense had gone from concerning-but-good-enough to a major red flag. In those four games – road trips to Colorado and Utah and home games against Arizona and Arizona State – the Bruins allowed an abysmal 1.153 PPP. For comparison’s sake, the 2015 Kentucky team that went 38-1, the best defense we’ve seen in the KenPom era, gave up 0.847 PPP. UCLA averages 75 possessions a game, which is a difference of 23 points over 40 minutes.

That’s a big deal.

And on the season, UCLA has fallen the way to 125th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric.

That’s a bigger deal.

For those that don’t know, KenPom.com is a website that ranks teams based on how many points they score and allow per possession, adjusted for schedule strength. It’s widely considered the best way to determine who the best offensive, the best defensive and the best overall teams are.

It’s been around since 2002.

And since 2002, given where UCLA’s defense is today, they would be the second-worst defensive team to ever get to a Final Four.

In 2011, VCU ranked 138th in defensive efficiency as of Selection Sunday*, and they are the only team to ever rank outside the top 80 in defensive efficiency and make it all the way to the Final Four. Only three other teams have ranked outside the top 50 and made it to the final weekend of the season: Marquette in 2003 (76th), Butler in 2011 (72nd) and Michigan in 2013 (66th). Two others ranked outside the top 40 and won at least four games in the Big Dance: Texas in 2003 (46th) and Wisconsin in 2014 (50th):

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*(All of this info is via KenPom.com and as of Selection Sunday in those given seasons. That’s important to note, because winning games against good teams in the tournament changes those stats.)

The precedent is there.

UCLA, unquestionably, has to get better defensively if they want to win a national title.

But all hope is not lost.

The two teams with the lowest defensive efficiency entering the NCAA tournament to win the national title – North Carolina in 2009 and Duke in 2015 – both had top three offenses nationally.

UCLA leads the nation in offensive efficiency.

AP Poll: Villanova, Kansas neck-and-neck for No. 1

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 13: Head coach Jay Wright and Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats congratulate Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats in the second half against the Temple Owls at The Pavilion on December 13, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Temple Owls 78-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Villanova maintained a slim lead over Kansas for the No. 1 spot in this week’s AP poll, with Gonzaga being the only other program to receive any first place votes.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

After losing to Arizona at home, UCLA dropped to eighth as the Wildcats vaulted them into No. 7 in the poll.

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1. Villanova (35 first-place votes)
2. Kansas (28)
3. Gonzaga (2)
4. Kentucky
5. Baylor
6. Florida State
7. Arizona
8. UCLA
9. North Carolina
10. Oregon
11. Butler
12. Virginia
13. Louisville
14. Notre Dame
15. Wisconsin
16. Creighton
17. Duke
18. West Virginia
19. Cincinnati
20. Purdue
21. Saint Mary’s
22. Maryland
23. South Carolina
24. Xavier
25. Florida

Coaches Poll: Kansas remains No. 1, Villanova No. 2

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 21: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives to the goal against Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns in the first half at Allen Field House on January 21, 2017 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Kansas remained No. 1 in the Coaches Poll this week, getting 18 of the 32 first-place votes.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

Villanova sits at No. 2 in the poll, with Gonzaha in third, the only other team to receive a first-place vote.

After beating UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, Arizona jumped up to No. 9 but still sits two spots behind UCLA at No. 7.

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1. Kansas (18 first-place votes)
2. Villanova (11)
3. Gonzaga (3)
4. Kentucky
5. Baylor
6. North Carolina
7. UCLA
8. Florida State
9. Arizona
10. Oregon
11. Butler
12. Notre Dame
13. Virginia
14. Louisville
15. Wisconsin
16. Creighton
17. Duke
18. West Virginia
19. Cincinnati
20. Purdue
21. Sainy Mary’s
22. Xavier
23. Maryland
24. South Carolina
25. Florida

College Basketball Talk Top 25: It gets muddy after a clear-cut top four

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in front of Lamarr Kimble #0 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks in the first half at The Pavilion on December 3, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 88-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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This week’s rankings were probably more difficult to put together than any week so far this season.

The top four, frankly, seem pretty obvious. I have Villanova No. 1, but I would have no qualms with ranking any of Kentucky, Kansas or Gonzaga in that No. 1 spot. I expect those to be the four teams that get votes for No. 1 in the AP and Coaches Polls this week.

After that, however, is when it gets difficult. Are you going to rank North Carolina above Florida State? UNC beat the Seminoles when they squared off this season but that was the Seminoles lone loss in a six game run against ranked teams. I went with Carolina over them because, simply, I think UNC is a better team.

Then there’s the question of what to do with the top three teams in the Pac-12. Arizona just won at UCLA and they got Allonzo Trier back. Oregon also owns a win over the Bruins, but there’s came at home on a buzzer-beater from Dillon Brooks, who is dealing with a foot injury again. And while UCLA has consistently proven to be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the country, they are a nightmare defensively right now.

Where does West Virginia slot in after a pair of losses? What about Creighton without Mo Watson Jr.? Butler’s profile looks great but their performance on the floor has been less than stellar since their win over Villanova. Is Duke actually back?

You can find the rankings below. What did I get wrong?

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1. Villanova (19-1, Last Week No. 1)
2. Kentucky (17-2, 2)
3. Kansas (18-1, 4)
4. Gonzaga (19-0, 5)
5. North Carolina (18-3, 5)
6. Baylor (18-1, 7)
7. Florida State (18-2, 8)
8. Arizona (18-2, 16)
9. UCLA (19-2, 3)
10. Oregon (18-2, 10)
11. Louisville (16-4, 11)
12. Wisconsin (16-3, 13)
13. Purdue (16-4, 15)
14. Notre Dame (17-3, 17)
15. Cincinnati (17-2, 18)
16. Duke (15-4, 19)
17. West Virginia (15-4, 10)
18. Butler (17-3, 14)
19. Creighton (18-2, 12)
20. Saint Mary’s (17-2, 20)
21. Virginia (16-3, 22)
22. South Carolina (15-4, 24)
23. Maryland (17-2, 25)
24. Kansas State (15-4, NR)
25. Iowa State (12-6, NR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 21 Xavier, No. 23 Florida
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 24 Kansas State, No. 25 Iowa State