Sweet 16 Power Rankings: How do the title contenders stack up?

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1. Louisville: Coming into the tournament, we knew that guard play would dictate far this team goes. If Russ Smith and Peyton Siva played well, that would mean that the defense is able to set up and create turnovers, which takes the Cardinal attack to another level. They’ve not fallen short of those expectations so far and face Oregon next.

2. Indiana: The Hoosiers were able to do enough against Temple to get the win, but the defense can’t allow another Khalif Wyatt-like performance in this tournament. Shooting from the perimeter will be key against the Syracuse zone in the next round, so the impact of Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford is magnified. As has been the case all season, the more involved and aggressive Cody Zeller is, the better off the Hoosiers are as a whole.

3. Duke: Ryan Kelly has yet to get going in this NCAA tournament, but the Blue Devils have still advanced without much trouble. If he starts to find his stroke like he did when he came back from injury, the offense will be able to spread the floor and make more happen. That will be especially key against a Michigan State team that is no slouch defensively.

4. Michigan: Michigan looked like a well-oiled machine against Virginia Commonwealth. When Michigan is playing up-tempo and in transition like that without turning the ball over, they’re hard to beat. The real question will be what happens when they meet a team that is physical inside and can exploit their lack of size in the paint.

MORE: This Sweet 16 (mostly) madder than any before

5. Michigan State: The first two games of this tournament were no problem for the Spartans, but point guard Keith Appling is banged up with injuries and will need to play well against Duke in the next round. Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne will also be key as players who can go head-to-head with the strong front line of Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee for the Blue Devils.

6. Miami: Miami can play at different paces and still win, as it showed Sunday night in a grind-it-out win over Illinois. It will likely be another slow-paced game against Marquette in the Sweet 16. The Hurricanes need Shane Larkin to continue to run the show with the confidence that he has shown all season.

7. Kansas: Few liked what they saw from Kanas through sixty minutes of play in one and a half NCAA tournament games. The Jayhawks then took it to UNC in the second half of their win Wednesday. They’ll need to play for like that second half and get Ben McLemore more aggressive and involved to make a run to the Final Four.

8. Florida: It will be about defense if Florida wants to stop the high-flying Florida Gulf Coast attack. The Eagles already dismantled one quality defensive team, Georgetown, and will be out for another in the next round. The Gators got 25 points from Mike Rosario in their win over Minnesota. Can he be a reliable scorer down the stretch?

9. Ohio State: LaQuinton Ross broke out for 17 points in the Buckeyes’ win over Iowa State and that was a much-needed surprise. This team is solidly built around defense, but needs an ensemble of scorers around Deshaun Thomas to contribute in order to advance. Aaron Craft played the role of hero with his shot ISU.

MORE: The best photos of the NCAA tournament

10. Syracuse: Syracuse blew out Montana, but then struggled past California. Against Indiana in the next round, it will be up to Jim Boeheim’s zone to slow down Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. The biggest question is, though, can they hit shots consistently? Misses would create run-out opportunities for the Hoosiers and the Orange could get buried quickly.

11. Arizona: Arizona has yet to be given a test, but they beat two mid-majors in a way that they ought to. The bigger question moving forward centers around whether the inexperienced front court of the Wildcats can produce when it meets a team that matches up well in the paint. Teams will also try to neutralize Mark Lyons, so who steps up to score?

12. Oregon: Oregon has proven itself to be one of the most underseeded teams in this tournament. The key in the next round will be limiting turnovers because Louisville forces a lot of them. That weight falls on the shoulders of point guard Dominic Artis.

13. Wichita State: The Shockers were the first team to take down a No. 1 seed in this NCAA tournament when they beat Gonzaga. They have a good chance of advancing to the Elite Eight because of their size on the interior against the guard-oriented La Salle attack. Cleanthony Early needs to be a factor, as he has been up to this point.

14. Marquette: The Golden Eagles shot horribly from the field and barely escaped against Davidson, but deserve credit for outlasting a tough Butler team in the Round of 32. The reason for the low seeding here is because of their next matchup, Miami. The Hurricanes have proven that they can play at different speeds and still win ballgames.

15. Florida Gulf Coast: Florida Gulf Coast has been electric through the first two games of this tournament. They are confident, flashy, and explosive in transition. For all of that, though, they now face one of the nation’s best defenses in Florida. Does the show continue?

MORE: Is Florida Gulf Coast the most surprising Cinderella ever?

16. La Salle: The four-guard set for La Salle has been terrific so far, but big man Jerrell Wright will be the X-factor in the next round. Ramon Galloway and Tyrone Garland are great, but Wright’s ability to be a force inside is the complementary piece that makes this team more well-rounded.

Weekend Preview: We’ve reached the oversaturation point of early-season exempt events

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Typically, I use these Weekend Previews to discuss the best games of the weekend, but this weekend, there just aren’t any games that are actually worth talking about.

So I’m going to go on a rant instead.

We’ve officially reached the point of over-saturation when it comes to the early-season exempt events.

This is the second weekend of the college basketball season and we’re right in the middle of what should be one of the better weeks of college hoops. The Gavitt Games are happening, the Champions Classic more or less lived up to the hype and, starting on Thursday, we dove head first into tropical locale tournament season.

Except … these events all suck.

The Charleston Classic started on Thursday. Auburn beat Indiana State to advance and take on Temple, who dispatched Old Dominion. The winner of that game will take on the winner of Clemson and Hofstra, because Hofstra upset Dayton in the first round. There are four mid-major teams in the Charleston Classic, and none of the high-major teams look like they will be tournament-bound.

The Puerto Rico tip-off is even worse. It features teams from the Missouri Valley, Conference USA, the Sun Belt and the SoCon. The best team in the event is either an Iowa State team that lost to Milwaukee at home by double-digits, a Tulsa team that lost to Lamar at home, a South Carolina team that got picked off in the first round of the event or Boise State, who wasn’t picked to be in the top two of the Mountain West.

It won’t get any better when the Paradise Jam starts today. The three best teams in that event are Houston, Colorado and Wake Forest and features an opening round game between Mercer and Liberty.

There are also a number of events in the Northeast this weekend and next week. I live an hour from New York City and I won’t be making the trek up to any of the games at the Garden or the Barclays Center until next Saturday, and these are what are supposed to be big games being held there for the next eight days. I cover this sport for a living, but I’d rather watch on TV and spend time with my son than go see Pitt play Penn State or Texas Tech square off with Boston College.

Even the Maui Invitational isn’t all that intriguing. Cal is down. VCU is down. Michigan and Marquette have struggled early. LSU is intriguing but only in the sense that they appear to not be a train-wreck this year. If Notre Dame doesn’t play Wichita State in the final, that tournament will not feature a single must-see game.

Now granted, much of this is due to the fact that Nike pulled 14 power programs out of the exempt event rotation for the PK80, and I’ll admit, that event should be fun. But man, it was such a buzzkill when I realized that the 16-team event was really just two eight-team tournaments.

It makes sense – you can’t have conference rivals facing off in the same tournament – but it just never clicked for me.

Which brings me back around to the larger point that I wanted to make: Can we start doing away with some of these events and play marquee non-conference games on campus again? On Thursday night, we got a chance to see No. 15 Xavier pay a visit to Wisconsin for the Gavitt Games, and it was everything that we love about college basketball. Two elite programs featuring an all-american facing off in front of a raucous crowd that spent the entire second half letting J.P. Macura know that they think he is an a******. Ethan Happ, the best post player in the country, according to Chris Mack, got pissed about not getting a couple of foul calls and proceeded to will Wisconsin back into the game only to see Trevon Bluiett bury two dagger threes in a minute stretch to put the game away.

After hitting those threes, Bluiett proceeded to shush the crowd. A minute later, after throwing down an alley-ooo to put Xavier up 12 with just seconds left on the clock, Macura proceeded to do the Gator Chomp over and over and over at the Wisconsin student section to remind them of who knocked the Badgers out of last year’s NCAA tournament.

That was awesome!

Yes, Macura was a little over the top, and yes, the Wisconsin fans probably earned Macura’s trolling, but everything about that game was what makes college basketball great.

And it was a game between the No. 15 team in America and an unranked Wisconsin program. It wasn’t even a marquee matchup. The environment at the Champions Classic rivaled that – there really is nothing better than having an arena packed with fan bases from both teams playing – but when those neutral site games don’t feature blue blood programs or teams with large alumni bases in the city or fans that are willing to spend the money to travel, it’s boring. Virginia Tech got upset by Saint Louis at Madison Square Garden last night and I’m pretty sure I could have put my son to sleep while sitting behind the basket.

So this is my plea to the NCAA tournament Selection Committee: Make it obvious just how much you value quality road wins in non-conference play. Make them so valuable that programs simply cannot afford not to play them. Make Xavier’s win at Wisconsin on Thursday night worth at least a seed line even if Wisconsin ends up being a bubble team.

That’s the only way we’re going to get teams to play great games on campus in the fall.

No. 15 Xavier’s win over Wisconsin should, and will, be rewarded by Selection Committee

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This Wisconsin team is probably not going to end up being quite as good as past Wisconsin teams.

That’s inevitable when you lose the players that they lost to graduation, but it also doesn’t change the fact that No. 15 Xavier went into the Kohl Center and snagged a win that is going to look quite good on Selection Sunday.

The Musketeers took care of the Badgers, 80-70, thanks to 25 points and nine boards from Trevon Bluiett and 20 points from J.P. Macura. Bluiett struggled to find a rhythm for much of the game, but he hit a pair of critical jumpers midway through the second half to stem a Wisconsin run and, with the game tied and just over a minute left on the clock, buried three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to lock up the win.

For a stretch midway through the second half, it looked like Wisconsin was getting ready to run away with this game. Ethan Happ – who finished with 21 points and eight assists and who Xavier head coach Chris Mack referred to as “one of the best post players in the entire country” – was in the midst of taking the game over and Wisconsin’s sold out Kohl Center was in full voice. That’s when Bluiett went into takeover mode, quieting the crowd and getting Xavier out of Madison with a win.

That shouldn’t be overlooked, and if there is any justice in the world, it will be the kind of thing that the Musketeers get rewarded for come Selection Sunday.

I enjoy the neutral site tournaments that pop up every year. They create some drama every November, and there are always some fun matchups over the weekend and afternoon basketball during the week. That’s great. But the best part of college hoops is the environment of playing a big game on campus. The crowd, the student section, players like Macura doing the Gator Chomp at the Wisconsin fans – the Badgers lost to Florida in the NCAA tournament last year – after they spent the entire second half bombarding him with ‘a******’ chants every time he touched the ball.

It was great.

And it will be better if that kind of a win, even against a Wisconsin team that is probably closer to being top 40-good than top 25-good, is something that the Selection Committee values. Those changes are supposedly coming, and it will be a good thing for the sport. Give top 15 teams an incentive to play road games in November.

Because Thursday night’s clash in the Kohl Center was everything that is great about college hoops.

Kentucky finds an answer in Kevin Knox while questions about point guards still linger

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CHICAGO – The most interesting part of Kentucky’s 65-61 loss to Kansas came after the game, in the press conference, as the Wildcats publicly projected an air of satisfaction.

John Calipari, Kevin Knox, they spoke as if hanging with Kansas, as if pushing the No. 4 team in the country, a team with 6.5 scholarship players available on Tuesday night, was a moral victory.

And no one batted an eye.

Kentucky had struggled in their season-opening win over Utah Valley, trailing by as much as 12 points early in the second half before coming alive and winning by ten. They only beat Vermont by four, as the Catamounts slowly and methodically chipped away at a Kentucky lead in the second half, missing two shots to tie the game in the final minute.

It wasn’t a surprise, not with the overwhelming amount of youth on the Kentucky roster and the simple fact that none of those youngsters fall into the same class as Michael Porter Jr., Deandre Ayton or Marvin Bagley III. We all knew that Kentucky was going to go through growing pains this season, that the product they put on the floor in March will be markedly different than the one we’ve seen through the first week of the season, but it is still odd to see a program the caliber of Kentucky qualifying a loss with ‘we played hard.’

“We were just fighting. I give it to my teammates. We really fought,” Kevin Knox, the most celebrated member of Kentucky’s freshman class, said. “A lot of people ha us losing this game by 20, 30 points, but we said before the game that we’re not having it. They’re a veteran team, we’re a real young team. A lot of people thought they’d have the advantage, but tonight we really fought our butts off. We played really hard in the second half, and we could have won the game. We only lost by four points.”

I couldn’t agree with that statement more, and there were a lot of positives to take out of that game.

And it may have answered one of the two biggest questions hanging over the program this season: Who is Kentucky’s closer? Who is Kentucky’s go-to guy?

Kevin Knox, or so it seems.

Knox struggled through the first two games of the season. He was 6-for-23 from the floor, he was 2-for-8 from three and he was averaging 11.5 points. Against Kansas, however, Knox was terrific, finishing with 20 points, banging how three threes and showing off a perimeter game that I wasn’t sure that he had in his arsenal yet; he made a couple pull-ups and he was able to create offense off of the dribble.

He’s not where he needs to be yet, but I left the United Center feeling much better about where Kentucky stands this season than I did entering.

“I still don’t know how we’re going to play late in a close game,” head coach John Calipari said, adding that “late in the game, that’s not on those kids. We haven’t worked on late-game situations.”

“I knew it was going to be tough, but I need to put these kids into those situations. I need to see who can make a shot, who can make a free throw. You can only learn about your team in games like this.”

They’ll get there eventually.

The bigger concern is at the point guard spot. Kentucky has two on their roster this season, and neither of them appear to be the answer. Quade Green, who has started the last two games after coming off the bench, is better on the offensive end of the floor but struggles defensively. Vermont’s Trae Bell-Haynes ate him up in the second half of Kentucky’s win. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a much better defender, but when he’s on the floor and Green isn’t, Kentucky’s only effective means of generating offense comes in transition or on the offensive glass. Against Kansas, Gilgeous-Alexander turned the ball over six times.

The way Calipari wants to run his program is clear: Go get one of the best incoming freshman point guards to run his team. Whether it’s Tyreke Evans or Derrick Rose or John Wall or De’Aaron Fox or Marquis Teague, the trend is clear. This year, he didn’t get a player on that level. Green and Gilgeous-Alexander both fall in that second tier of point guard, and the only other year where that was the case for Cal was back in 2012-13, when N.C. State transfer Ryan Harrow ran the show and Kentucky ended up in the NIT.

I don’t think the Wildcats are in danger of repeating that season, particularly if Knox keeps growing into that go-to guy role. They’re still going to be very good defensively and they’re still going big enough to get to dominate the glass on most nights, which should help them mitigate the fact that their perimeter shooting is not quite where it needs to be.

But the difference between Kentucky being good and Kentucky genuinely being considered among the nation’s best teams is at the point, and unless Calipari can find a way to fuse Green’s ability on the offensive end of the floor with Gilgeous-Alexander’s skill as a defender, I’m not quite sure what the answer is going to be.

Michael Porter Jr.’s injury growing more concerning, misses trip to Utah

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The injury to Michael Porter Jr., Missouri’s star freshman and a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, seems to be a little more concerning that many initially believed.

The 6-foot-10 forward will not play tonight as the Tigers visit Utah, and he reportedly did not even travel with the team.

“I think it’s day-to-day,” head coach Cuonzo Martin told reporters when asked about Porter’s injury on Monday night. “That’s the best assessment for me to say right now. It’s day-to-day.”

According to Missouri, the injury was suffered during warmups prior to Missouri’s first game. Porter played the first two minutes of that opener against Iowa State last week so as to avoid a technical foul – he was already listed in the starting lineup – but he did not return to the game, sitting with an icepack on his hip on the bench. Porter was not on the bench when Missouri beat Wagner by 44 points earlier this week, but Porter was not on the bench during the game. Missouri said that was due to the fact that is was more comfortable for Porter to sit elsewhere.

Thomas’ career-high 24 leads Creighton over No. 20 Northwestern

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ROSEMONT, Ill. (AP) — Khyri Thomas had a career-high 24 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, Martin Krampelj added a career-high 17 points and Creighton beat No. 20 Northwestern 92-88 on Wednesday night in a Gavitt Tipoff Games matchup.

Ty-Shon Alexander had 14 points and Marcus Foster had 12 for the Bluejays (3-0).

Vic Law had a career-high 30 points and Bryant McIntosh added 24 for Northwestern (2-1).

Creighton senior Toby Hegner went down in the first half with a high ankle sprain and was on crutches at the end of the game.

The Wildcats rallied from a 15-point first-half deficit to take the lead in the second half, but couldn’t maintain the momentum as Creighton answered the run and took the lead for good with 14 minutes to go.

Law scored 12 straight Northwestern points early in the second half to lead a furious comeback from a 51-43 halftime deficit. Included in that run was a four-point play 3 minutes into the half to put the Wildcats on top 56-55 — their first lead since early in the first half.

Creighton is 12-1 against teams from the Big Ten since November 2011. The Bluejays had four wins over teams ranked in the Top 25 last season.

THE BIG PICTURE

Creighton: The Bluejays scored 109 points in their previous game against Alcorn State and were on a pace for 120 or more in racing out to a 44-29 lead 15 minutes into the game. But after Northwestern picked up its defensive intensity, they managed just 11 points over the next 8 minutes in losing the big lead. The players, though, responded and reclaimed control.

Northwestern: The Wildcats are coming off their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament last season and were ranked in the AP preseason poll for the first time. But Wednesday night showed that nothing is going to come easy this season just because expectations are high — especially if they don’t play with the same intensity on the defensive end as last season.

UP NEXT

Creighton: The Bluejays face No. 23 UCLA on Monday night in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City.

Northwestern: The Wildcats face La Salle on Saturday in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn.