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Who should be the Preseason No. 1 team in the country?

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A month ago, as we tried to hash out our Preseason Top 25 rankings, Raphielle Johnson, Scott Phillips and myself had an fairly intense email discussion regarding where we wanted to place Kentucky in comparison to Michigan State and Louisville.

I wanted the Wildcats to be No. 1. Raph and Scott did not, and as you can tell by the post that went up this morning, I got outvoted. This is the discussion that followed.

Please join in the debate with us in the comments section. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Why?

Rob: I really don’t get it. Tom Izzo makes that much of a difference for a team that’s going to rely on a point guard that’s not really a point guard and a center with no proven back up or and three year of inconsistency to his name?

Raphielle: For all their talent, I don’t trust the Harrisons yet. That’s why I didn’t take UK. And if anything, I have faith in Appling improving, Harris staying healthy and Payne making the move he should make in his senior year.

Rob: That’s fair, I guess. I have concerns about the Harrisons as well, and I’m worried that Kentucky might just have TOO much talent. But they also have the nation’s best coach when it comes to smoothing egos.

And, for what it’s worth, it’s not like Michigan State is without question marks. Appling’s heading into second or third season as Michigan State’s PG (depending on how you view Draymond Green’s role in 2012), why does he make the jump now? For all the love thrust on Adreian Payne, he only averaged 10.5 points and 7.6 boards last season, rarely showing up when it wasn’t a national TV game.

I’ll go with it if that’s what we end up voting, but I’m not giving up this argument easily.

Raphielle: Why do I think Appling and Payne take the next step? Urgency. They’re both seniors. No more time to mess around and say “I’ll get it right next year.” I think the end result is a level of urgency that pushes them, and by extension Michigan State, over the hump.

And while I trust Calipari, quite a few people said until February last year that he’d figure it out. Far more talented team than that group (and deeper), but by no means is it a lock. I expect them at Jerry World, but I buy MSU and Louisville* more right now.

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Rob: Last year’s issue had more to do with Ryan Harrow, Alex Poythress and just an overall lack of talent that fit well together. Then Noel went down. This year? Much, much closer to 2010 and 2012 than anything else. I have Michigan State No. 3, so I obviously love that group, but I just cannot understand putting anyone above UK or UL right now.*

*(This conversation happened before Chane Behanan’s suspension.)

Scott: I don’t like Kentucky to win it all because their three best players are ball-dominant, isolation guys. The Harrisons don’t make plays by using some intricate two-man game in the backcourt; to this point in their career, they’ve passed to each other as a bailout when one can’t score by himself. Julius Randle loves isolations. He has a tendency to overdribble and uses power moves to score, which is a concern given the freedom Coach Cal is reportedly giving him on the perimeter. Now all three of them are pros and can score on most anyone, but this is a deep and talented year with a number of teams that can stop an offense that doesn’t move the ball particularly well.

I don’t think that Kentucky will ever be cohesive enough to maximize their potential.

Rob: I mean, I agree with most of that, Scott. I do. But keep this in mind: John Calipari made DeMarcus Cousins sane for an entire year. Cousins is STILL sane whenever he goes back to Lexington. Cal convinces people to buy-in. That’s what he does.

Now, I’ve said all summer long that the biggest difference between this team and the 2011-2012 team is that the two best players that year, Davis and MKG, were essentially role players, and that it’s impossible understate just how much that means. I’ve also said that my biggest concerns about Kentucky are, more or less, exactly what you just said. But I think it’s ludicrous to ignore the fact that Kentucky could end up bringing three eventual first picks off of their bench.

Think about that!

Kentucky is so loaded this year that neither of you have even mentioned James Young yet, the guy that scouts have been drooling over this fall!

We have a team with far and away the most talent in the country and a coach with a proven track record of taking talented teams and getting them to mesh. The idea that that team isn’t preseason No. 1, to me, is kind of insane.

Now if Louisville wasn’t losing Siva and Dieng or if Michigan State didn’t have question marks at the point and in their front court, this would be a different story. But without a clearcut favorite, I just think it’s crazy not to rank Kentucky No. 1.

Scott: With Kentucky this year it isn’t just “making Boogie sane”. It’s about getting a half-dozen wannabe all-americans and future lottery picks to somehow all collectively buy in, share the dream — and the ball — and beat some very good, very deep and very experienced teams.

No doubt Kentucky has the most talent, but what happens when they face adversity and start pointing fingers, especially in light of the insane expectations and ludicrous talk of a perfect season? I just don’t buy that they mesh.

Rob: I agree. I don’t think it’s crazy to think that UK will lose to both Louisville and MSU before the New Year.

These guys may want to be all-americans, but I’m pretty sure they all really, really like money. In fact, I remember the Harrisons’ father saying something along the lines of “why is it worth it for me to take money to send my kids to a school when they’re seven months from guaranteed millions?” It’s a pretty easy pitch for Calipari to say Davis/MKG/etc. shut up, played their roles, won a title and went No. 1 and No. 2 in the draft and that the kids in 2013 didn’t, and look what happened.

This is what Calipari does. Until proven otherwise, it’s insane that a team that he coaches with multiple first rounders coming off the bench isn’t preseason No. 1. It just is.

Now if I get outvoted, that’s fine. We can go a different way. But we’re overthinking this. Talent is talent, and at the end of the day, more talent is going to beat less talent most of the time. Preseason rankings should reflect that.

Scott: If college basketball played 7-game series like the NBA then I would buy your talent argument, but I’m going with the proven and experienced team that’s been there. Anthony Davis and MKG were selfless winners that did up everything on both ends of the floor and that isn’t this group.

Rob: Wait, so you’re saying that Kentucky is the best team, but you think they’ll lose in the tournament? For me, preseason rankings aren’t about who we think is going to win the NCAA tournament, it’s about who we think the best team is. And, for those ranking Michigan State No. 1, what have they proven and what is their experience? No one on this roster has been past the Sweet 16…

Raphielle: If you’re going to use the “what have they proven” point on Michigan State, what has Kentucky’s current group proven? Their best players are freshmen and the sophomores went to the NIT. If you use that argument, aren’t you essentially saying Cal can out coach Izzo?

Rob: I don’t do rankings based solely on talent alone. That’s why you don’t see Baylor in my top 25, and it’s why you see Michigan State and Louisville at No. 2 and No. 3 instead of teams like Arizona, Kansas and Duke, who I’d argue have more talent. I say all that because I don’t think there is an obvious No. 1 team in the country. Michigan State, Louisville, Duke (front court), Arizona (Aaron Gordon as a three, shooting), Kansas (point guard, Perry Ellis, youth?) all have issues.

Kentucky does as well.

But simply saying “I don’t think Coach Cal can get thru to these players” is a good enough reason to move a team with seven players in most first round mocks out of the No. 1 spot when every single team in this discussion has major question marks?

AP Poll: Gonzaga remains No. 1, Baylor falls to No. 9

Baylor forward Johnathan Motley (5) reacts to a play against Texas in first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, in Waco, Texas. Baylor won 74-64. (Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP)
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The Zags remained alone atop the AP Poll on Monday morning, amassing 59 of a possible 65 first-place votes.

Villanova remained at No. 2 and Kansas stayed steadfast at No. 3. Baylor dropped from fourth to ninth after a pair of losses, while Virginia went from 14th to 18th after losing to Duke and North Carolina in the same week.

Here is the entire poll:

1. Gonzaga (59 first-place votes)
2. Villanva (5)
3. Kansas (1)
4. Arizona
5. UCLA
6. Oregon
7. Louisville
8. North Carolina
9. Baylor
10. Duke
11. Kentucky
12. West Virginia
13. Florida
14. Purdue
15. Cincinnati
16. Wisconsin
17. SMU
18. Virginia
19. Florida State
20. Saint Mary’s
21. Notre Dame
22. Butler
23. Creighton
24. Maryland
25. Wichita State

Bracketology: Tar Heels vault to top line

WINSTON-SALEM, NC - JANUARY 11:  Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after a shot against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during their game at LJVM Coliseum Complex on January 11, 2017 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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If today were Selection Sunday, and North Carolina was the ACC champion, the Selection Committee would likely be inclined to reward the Tar Heels with a No. 1 seed over a very strong Baylor team whose profile is equally impressive but lacks a conference title. In the world of splitting hairs, we just did.  On that note, two interesting twists await.  First, UNC hosts Louisville on Wednesday, and the Cardinals are No. 6 on the Seed List.  If Louisville wins in Chapel Hill, the Cards could make a strong case for the top line on Thursday.  Second, the Tar Heels close with an incredibly tough slate, going to Pittsburgh and Virginia before finishing at home with Duke.  Baylor can easily play its way back up.

In the race for No. 1 seeds, Villanova and Kansas are sitting in strong positions as the regular season comes to a close. Should Gonzaga finish unbeaten, it would hard to drop the Zags from their No. 1 perch in the West.  Which leaves, at least for now, one top seed up for grabs, and it could go any number of ways.

Another meh and blah weekend along the cutline.  Should we lose solid mid-major programs like Middle Tennessee State, UNC Wilmington, and say, Monmouth or Illinois State during their conference championships, the Committee will have to heavily weigh a bunch of mediocre power teams versus some solid programs who have fewer chances for marquee wins.

UPDATED: February 20, 2017

Regarding bracketing principles, can read them for yourself at http://www.ncaa.com. For example: teams from the same conference may now meet before a Regional final, even if fewer than eight teams are selected. The goal is to keep as many teams as possible on their actual seed line.

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FIRST FOUR PAIRINGS – Dayton (First Round)

  • Georgia Tech vs. Marquette | South Region
  • Seton Hall vs. TCU East Region
  • NORTH DAKOTA vs. UC-IRVINE | Midwest Region
  • MT. ST. MARY’S vs. NEW ORLEANSE | East Region

BRACKET PROJECTION …

EAST New York MIDWEST Kansas City                   
Buffalo Tulsa
1) VILLANOVA 1) KANSAS
16) NEW ORLEANS / M.S. MARY’S 16) NO. DAKOTA / UC-IRVINE
8) Dayton 8) Minnesota
9) Miami-FL 9) Arkansas
Milwaukee Milwaukee
5) Virginia 5) Notre Dame
12) UNC-WILMINGTON 12) ILLINOIS STATE
4) PURDUE 4) Butler
13) AKRON 13) UT-ARLINGTON
Indianapolis Orlando
6) Saint Mary’s 6) Wisconsin
11) Seton Hall / TCU 11) Kansas State
3) Kentucky 3) Florida State
14) PRINCETON 14) BELMONT
Indianapolis Salt Lake City
7) Northwestern 7) Iowa State
10) Wichita State 10) Michigan
2) Louisville 2) ARIZONA
15) BUCKNELL 15) NO. DAKOTA ST
SOUTH – Memphis WEST – San Jose
Greenville Salt Lake City
1) NORTH CAROLINA 1) GONZAGA
16) NC-CENTRAL 16) TX-SOUTHERN
8) Xavier 8) Virginia Tech
9) VCU 9) USC
Sacramento Buffalo
5) Creighton 5) CINCINNATI
12) VALPARAISO 12) MONMOUTH
4) UCLA 4) West Virginia
13) NEVADA 13) VERMONT
Orlando Greenville
6) SMU 6) Maryland
11) Georgia Tech / Marquette 11) MID TENNESSEE ST
3) FLORIDA 3) Duke
14) UNC-ASHEVILLE 14) FLA GULF COAST
Tulsa Sacramento
7) South Carolina 7) Oklahoma State
10) California 10) Michigan State
2) Baylor 2) Oregon
15) FURMAN 15) CSU-BAKERSFIELD

NOTES on the BRACKET: Villanova is the No. 1 overall seed, followed by Kansas, Gonzaga, and North Carolina.

Last Four Byes (at large): California, Michigan State, Wichita State, Kansas State

Last Four IN (at large): Seton Hall, TCU, Marquette, Georgia Tech

First Four OUT (at large): Providence, Syracuse, Clemson, Tennessee

Next four teams OUT (at large): Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Indiana, Texas Tech

Breakdown by Conference …

ACC (9): NORTH CAROLINA, Louisville, Duke, Florida State, Virginia, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Miami-FL, Georgia Tech

Big 10 (7): PURDUE, Wisconsin, Maryland, Northwestern, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State

Big 12 (7): KANSAS, Baylor, West Virginia, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, TCU

Big East (6): VILLANOVA, Butler, Creighton, Xavier, Seton Hall, Marquette

Pac 12 (5): OREGON, Arizona, UCLA, USC, California

SEC (4): FLORIDA, Kentucky, South Carolina, Arkansas

Atlantic 10 (2): VCU, Dayton

American (2): CINCINNATI, SMU

West Coast (2): GONZAGA, Saint Mary’s

Missouri Valley (1): ILLINOIS STATE, Wichita State

Mountain West (1): NEVADA

ONE BID LEAGUES: Monmouth (MAAC), Middle Tennessee State (C-USA), UT-Arlington (SBELT), Princeton (IVY), North Dakota (BSKY), Valparaiso (HORIZON), New Orleans (SLND), Furman (STHN), UC-Irvine (BWEST), Akron (MAC), Florida Gulf Coast (ASUN), Belmont (OVC), UNC-Wilmington (CAA), Winthrop (BSO), NC-Central (MEAC), North Dakota State (SUM), CSU-Bakersfield (WAC), Vermont (AEAST), Bucknell (PAT), Mt. St. Mary’s (NEC), Texas-Southern (SWAC)

CBT Podcast: Joe Ovies on Mark Gottfried, Jesse Newell on Kansas

NC State v Louisville
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Joe Ovies is a radio host at 99.9 The Fan WRAL in Raleigh, and he gives us some great insight into why and when Mark Gottfried was fired, as well as some discussion about the narratives being bandied about regarding State. Jesse Newell is the Kansas beat-writer for the Kansas City Star, and he drops by to discuss the streak and whether or not Kansas can win it all.

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Five Things We Learned This Week: Jalen Brunson’s awesome, ACC POY and all the injuries

OMAHA, NEBRASKA-DECEMBER 31: Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats drives to the basket between Maurice Watson Jr. and Marcus Foster #0 of the Creighton Bluejays during their game at the CenturyLink Center on December 31, 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
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1. Jalen Brunson has been so good this year and no one’s talking about it: Maybe it’s because there are 6,000 quality point guards in college basketball this season. Maybe it’s because he’s been overshadowed by his teammate Josh Hart. Maybe it’s because he’s a sleepy-eyed, doughy land warrior-of-a-point guard and never, ever does anything flashy and simply cares more about winning than the attention that comes with it.

Whatever the case is, the improvement that Jalen Brunson has made this season has been one of the more overlooked story lines in college basketball this season. After a stellar, 22-point, 10-assists performance in a 22-point win at Seton Hall on Saturday – one that saw Brunson shoot a perfect 7-for-7 from the floor – the sophomore is averaging 14.6 points and 4.5 assists for the Wildcats this season.

He’s the engine that makes Villanova go. He’s the reason that the Wildcats haven’t missed Ryan Arcidiacono all that much this season. He’ll probably end up being the Big East Player of the Year at some point before his career comes to an end, and it’s all from a guy who looks like he’s moving about as quick as I do on a basketball court.

One NBA scout told me over the summer that Brunson is the “smartest player that I’ve ever scouted.”

And while he may not be the physical specimen that Dennis Smith Jr. or Lonzo Ball is, he’s pretty doggone talented, too.

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2. There will be no team more battle-tested than Kansas in March: The Jayhawks have won 12 games in the Big 12, and at this point, that is basically enough to crown them the Big 12 champs for 13th straight season. Nine of them are by seven points or less. Seven are by five points or less. They came from 14 points down in the final three minutes to beat West Virginia. They won at Baylor in a game they trailed by 12. They beat Kentucky on the road by six points. They beat Duke by two. They lost to Indiana in overtime.

Some of that is luck – Svi’s travel against Kansas State, the legal illegal screen at Texas Tech – but a lot of it is some combination of talent, mental toughness and Bill Self. The bottom-line is this: No one will be more prepared to handle a close game in March than Kansas because no one has been through more this season than the Jayhawks.

3. Who you got in the ACC Player of the Year race?: Because it’s not easy to pick someone.

Let’s start with Luke Kennard, who is probably the most likely player from the league to earn a spot on an all-american team. But so much of his work was done early on in the season, before the start of conference play, which would bring us to Donovan Mitchell, who has been just sensational over the course of the last month, helping to buoy the Cardinals despite the fact that they spent quite a bit of time playing without both of the point guards on their roster. But then there is Justin Jackson, who has played the best basketball of his career in league play this year and is the best player on the team that currently looks primed to win the conference regular season title outright.

Those three are probably the favorites.

But what about Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson, whose ability to star at the four in the ACC despite standing just 6-foot-5 is astonishing. Or Wake Forest’s John Collins, who has gone for at least 20 points in ten straight games and has notched a double-double in six of those ten games. Or Dennis Smith Jr., who is putting up crazy numbers for a terrible team.

I’d lean Jackson over Mitchell and Kennard at this point, but I change my mind almost daily.

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 09: Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils battles for a loose ball against Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 9, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Luke Kennard and Justin Jackson (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

4. Tell me what to make of Wichita State: I’m at a loss.

On the one hand, they’re 25-4 on the season and straight steamrolling teams in the Missouri Valley. They beat Illinois State by 41 points. They beat Northern Iowa, who had won eight of nine entering the game, by 29 points. They’re rated 13th by KenPom.com, and they’re coached by a man named Gregg Marshall, maybe you’ve heard of him. That has cache.

But their only top 100 win on the season is Illinois State, whose only top 50 win on the season in Wichita State. The Shockers lost Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker to graduation, and the Valley, as a whole, isn’t the league that it’s been in the past.

So they’re good, right?

I think we can all agree on that.

But just how good? Try and find a way to cogently answer that question.

5. Injuries just keep piling up this season: On Saturday, it was Michigan State’s Eron Harris who suffered a nasty-looking knee injury that turned out to be a season-ender, joining a list that already includes teammates Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter. That happened about 90 minutes before Georgia star forward Yante Maten suffered what the team termed a knee sprain just 90 seconds into a game against Kentucky, a win the Bulldogs desperately needed. That happened the same week that Florida center John Egbunu went down for the season with a torn ACL and North Carolina announced that guard Kenny Williams will likely miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.

Oklahoma’s Jordan Woodard tore his ACL. Virginia Tech’s Chris Clarke tore his ACL. Kansas center Udoka Azubuike had season-ending surgery on his wrist. Villanova’s Phil Booth hasn’t played since the third game of the year. UConn lost Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert for the season.

Oh, there’s more.

It’s not just the volume of players. Look at these names: Indiana lost O.G. Anunoby to a season-ending knee injury. Creighton lost their all-american point guard Mo Watson to a torn ACL just a few weeks before Xavier star point guard Edmond Sumner tore his. Arizona’s Ray Smith tore his ACL for the third time in the preseason and retired. Harry Giles III had his third knee surgery in the preseason and still isn’t close to healthy.

And I guarantee that I missed some names.

Team of the Week: Arkansas Razorbacks

FAYETTEVILLE, AR - FEBRUARY 23:    Head Coach Mike Anderson of the Arkansas Razorbacks reacts to a call during a game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bud Walton Arena on February 23, 2012 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  The Crimson Tide defeated the Razorbacks 79-68.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
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Two weeks ago it looked like it was over, for both Arkansas and Mike Anderson.

The Razorbacks capped a stretch where they lost three of four games by getting smacked at home by Vanderbilt and losing to Missouri. They looked like a longshot to get into the tournament, not necessarily because they didn’t have the profile to earn an at-large bid at the time, but because any team that can lose at Missouri can lose to anyone, anywhere, any time.

The kicker?

Missing the tournament could very well be the end of Anderson’s tenure with Arkansas. There’s a reason he was on just about every hot seat list entering the season, and it looked like Arkansas was on the verge of fulfilling that prophecy.

Until this week.

On Wednesday, went into Columbia and knocked off No. 21 South Carolina in a win that should give them some breathing room on the right side of the bubble, following that up with a drubbing of Ole miss in Fayetteville.

Nothing is certain yet, not for a team capable of losing to Missouri, but as of today, the Razorbacks have gotten into the dance, likely, saved their coach’s job.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have themselves a bad week, coming back from 14 points down in the final three minutes to force overtime in a win over No. 9 West Virginia. They followed that up by coming back from six points down in the final three minutes to knock off No. 4 Baylor in Waco. Through it all, they managed to all-but lock up their 13th straight Big 12 regular season title.
  • Minnesota: We might as well lock the Gophers into a tournament bid at this point, and they’ll probably end up getting a higher seed than you may realize, thanks to close wins over both Indiana and Michigan this week. We’ll know a lot more about them in the next two weeks, however, as they have to visit both Maryland and Wisconsin before the season is out.
  • UCLA: The Bruins snapped a four-game losing streak against intra-city rival USC on Saturday, and they did it in statement fashion, winning by 32. UCLA put up 102 points on the Trojans, outscoring them by 22 points and doing a fair bit of showboating down the stretch. There was a point to be made in this game, and Steve Alford’s club accomplished that.
  • UNC: The Tar Heels made a statement on Saturday night during Gameday, mollywhopping No. 14 Virginia to the tune of a 65-41 win that didn’t ever feel that close. Their defense showed up, Virginia did not. And if that wasn’t enough, they beat N.C. State bad enough on Wednesday that the Wolfpack fired their head coach.
  • VCU: The Rams have now won eight straight games after beating Saint Joe’s and winning at Richmond, VCU’s intra-city rival, on Friday night. One of those wins was against St. Bonaventure, when they won thanks to a premature court storm, and one of those wins was against George Washington, when they won thanks to a questionable foul call with 0.4 seconds left, but it doesn’t matter. VCU has played their way into the tournament either way.