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Conference Catchups: Can Ohio State or Wisconsin hold off Michigan State?

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College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Keith Appling, Michigan State

The Big Ten is the toughest conference to pick a midseason Player of the Year as there are six or seven legitimate candidates for the award as of today. I didn’t even has space to mention Gary Harris or RayVonte Rice (or Aaron Craft or Frank Kaminsky or Roy Devyn Marble) below, and all of those guys can put together a strong enough performance in league play to be deserving of the award.

But for now, I’m going with Keith Appling for a couple of reasons. For starters, I think he’s been the most valuable player on the Michigan State roster this season. He’s finally embracing his role as a point guard, distributing when needed and taking over in crunch time in some of the Spartan’s biggest wins. His numbers (15.9 ppg, 5.0 apg, 1.9 t/o’s, 47.7% 3PT) speak for themselves, but it’s been his presence that has been just as important.

All-Big Ten First Team:

  • Nik Stauskas, Michigan
  • Tim Frazier, Penn State
  • Keith Appling, Michigan State
  • Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
  • Adreian Payne, Michigan State

Midseason Coach of the Year: Bo Ryan, Wisconsin

I think we all expected Wisconsin to be good this season because Wisconsin is good every season. But I don’t know how many people had the Badgers entering Big Ten play as a top five team with one of the nation’s strongest non-conference resumes. Before the season started, I said that it was going to be exciting to watch how Wisconsin plays out this season, and it sure has been. Sam Dekker has become the star we all expected him to be, Frank Kaminsky has become the latest in a long line of sharp-shooting Wisconsin big men, and the three-guard lineup Ryan has used has been a nightmare for opponents to match up with. This may be end up being Ryan’s best coaching job of his career.

Favorite: Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State has not been as dominant as many expected they would be during the non-conference part of the season, but much of that has to do with the fact that they have yet to get fully healthy. Adreian Payne and Keith Appling have dealt with nagging injuries, Gary Harris can’t seem to get his ankle back to full health and Matt Costello is still battling mono. That’s four starters. Once this team gets fully healthy? Does anyone really want to bet against a Tom Izzo-coached team with three guys talented enough to be all-americans and win Big Ten Player of the Year? Because I don’t.

And three more contenders: 

  • Ohio State has the nation’s most efficient defense, and the ever-enigmatic LaQuinton Ross has been playing fantastic the last month. After a slow start, Ross is averaging 17.1 points and shooting 48.5% from three in his last eight games.
  • We’ve already been over Wisconsin. I would not be surprised in the least to see them atop the Big Ten standings come March.
  • I may be in the minority here, but for my money, the fourth-best team in the Big Ten is Iowa. See below.

source:  Most Surprising Team: Iowa Hawkeyes

Surprising may be the wrong word to use here because a lot of people were predicting Iowa to make the jump this season. But I’m not sure how many people saw this team having a shot at finishing in the top four of the conference. The Hawkeyes are talented, they are deep, they have size, they have multiple ball-handlers, they are well-coached, they can score, they’re capable defensively. There is a lot to like about this group. Oh, and it’s worth noting that Aaron White and Roy Devyn Marble are two of the best players in the conference.

Most Disappointing Team: Michigan Wolverines

Calling this team disappointing is a little unfair given the fact that the biggest reasons they’ve struggled early on this season are that Mitch McGary’s back has kept him from being healthy at any point this season and that Derrick Walton is a freshman point guard trying to replace Trey Burke. As good as Nik Stauskas has been and as talented as Glenn Robinson III is, having limitations at the point guard and center positions has been killer. That said, this is a four-loss team with multiple NBA draft picks that was in the preseason top ten. There’s no two-ways around that.

Most Important Player (in league play): Nik Stauskas, Michigan

Derrick Walton is not ready to be the guy that facilitates Michigan’s offense. Mitch McGary will probably never be at 100% this season. But the Wolverines could still end up being a top four team in the Big Ten if they allow Stauskas to be the guy that initiates everything. He’s a lights-out shooter, that we know. But he’s much better off the dribble than you realize and a much-improved creator. Putting the ball in his hands will be the best thing that John Beilein can do.

Coming in a close second? Ohio State’s LaQuinton Ross.

Who will slide?: Illinois Fighting Illini

I’m not quite yet ready to buy Illinois as a contender in the Big Ten. As of now, they are a borderline top 25 team being kept afloat by a pair of scoring guards in Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice. I like Joseph Bertrand, and I think Jon Ekey and Nnanna Egwu are tough for opposing bigs to matchup with, but I’m not convinced this team will be able to hang with the best in the Big Ten.

Who is the sleeper?: Indiana Hoosiers

It seems like everyone is ignoring Tom Crean’s club this season, doesn’t it? That’s what happens when you have a young roster and lose the only three notable games that you play during the non-conference. But the Hoosiers have one of the better point guards in the Big Ten in Yogi Ferrell and a roster that works with the uptempo, defensive-minded style that Crean wants to play. Noah Vonleh’s development as a low-post scorer and the emergence of perimeter shooters will determine just how good Indiana ends up being this year.

New Power Rankings

1. Michigan State
2. Wisconsin
3. Ohio State
4. Iowa
5. Michigan
6. Indiana
7. Illinois
8. Penn State
9. Minnesota
10. Purdue
11. Nebraska
12. Northwestern

No. 1 Gonzaga loses their first game of the season at home to BYU

SPOKANE, WA - FEBRUARY 25: Head coach Dave Rose of the BYU Cougars works from the sideline in the first half against the Gonzaga Bulldogs at McCarthey Athletic Center on February 25, 2017 in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
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The streak is over.

Despite jumping out to an 18-2 lead on BYU in The Kennel, No. 1 and previously undefeated Gonzaga found a way to lose their first game of the season late on Saturday night, falling 79-71 to the Cougars behind 29 points and 11 boards from Eric Mika.

Tyler Haws added 17 points and Elijah Bryant chipped in with 14, but this game was less about BYU than it was about Gonzaga.

The concern with this Zags team is that whether or not they have the guard play to be able to create offense in critical moments, and on Saturday, that looked like one of their biggest issues. Gonzaga’s offense went dead down the stretch. If they weren’t getting shots in transition, they were trying to run their sets through Przemek Karnowski in the post. That’s not an awful idea — he’s awesome — but BYU is not a good defensive team. If Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins struggled with their ability to beat Nick Emery and T.J. Haws off the dribble and couldn’t find a way to finish around Eric Mika and a member of BYU’s football team, what happens when they go up against, say, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk or Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham?

It’s a real concern, and every got a glimpse of that on Saturday night.

The other problem: Was I the only one that thought the Zags looked a little tight down the stretch, like they weren’t comfortable playing in a close game like that? Gonzaga shoots 73.8 percent from the free throw line on the season and shot 16-for-29 on Saturday. They’re 32nd nationally in three-point shooting and finishing Saturday 3-for-16 from beyond the arc. They missed makeable shots in the post. No one stepped up and took control down the stretch. Who is the alpha-dog?

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that’s what the view looked like from my couch.

As far as how Gonzaga’s national title hopes are affected by this, I’m not too concerned. I think ditching the pressure of chasing a perfect season will probably be a net positive in the long run, and if anything, this loss made it painfully obvious for Mark Few what he needs to work on with this team. I don’t buy into the idea that “you need to lose” before the tournament, but I do think Gonzaga needed to get tested like this before the losses meant the end of their season.

The biggest concern is going to be whether or not this costs Gonzaga a No. 1 seed, but I still don’t think that it does, at least not yet. I’m not sure that Oregon, Arizona or UCLA has surpassed them, and the gap between Baylor and the No. 1 seed line only gets bigger with each passing loss. The Zags should be a No. 1 seed if they win the WCC tournament.

And to be frank, this loss doesn’t change the way that I feel about Gonzaga. They still are one of the two or three best teams in college basketball, a team that is good enough to win a national title.

But what this loss does do is make me less confident in the ability of the Zags to get it done.

Because all the issues we talked about with Gonzaga came to fruition Saturday night:

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No. 5 UCLA dominates offensive boards to edge No. 4 Arizona

EUGENE, OR - DECEMBER 28: Bryce Alford #20 of the UCLA Bruins hits a shot over Dylan Ennis #31 of the Oregon Ducks during the second half of the game against the Oregon Ducks at Matthew Knight Arena on December 28, 2016 in Eugene, Oregon.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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TUCSON, Ariz. — Thomas Welsh scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half and No. 5 UCLA dominated the offensive boards to beat No. 4 Arizona 77-72 in a Pac-12 showdown Saturday night.

The Bruins (26-3, 13-3) snapped Arizona’s 21-game home court winning streak and dropped the Wildcats (26-4, 15-2) into a tie with Oregon for first place in the Pac-12 heading into the final week of the regular season. The Ducks hold the tiebreaker by beating Arizona in the teams’ only meeting.

UCLA, avenging a 96-85 home loss to Arizona on Jan. 21, trailed 53-49 at the half but took control with a 19-4 second-half run.

Allonzo Trier scored a career-high 28 for the Wildcats. Parker Jackson-Cartwright added 11, and Lauri Markkanen had 10 for Arizona.

Five players reached double figures for the Bruins, led by Bryce Alford’s 15. TJ Leaf and Aaron Holiday added 12 apiece, and Lonzo Ball had 11 along with eight assists.

UCLA had 19 second-chance points to Arizona’s four. In the second half, the Bruins outrebounded the Wildcats 9-1 on the offensive boards.

The Bruins switched to a zone most of the second half and stretched the lead to 11 twice late in the game, the last at 73-62 on Welsh’s’ inside basket with 4:38 to play before Arizona managed one final charge, finishing the game on a 10-4 run.

Markkanen’s two free throws cut the Bruins’ lead to 75-72 with 29.2 seconds to play. Holiday missed the first of a one-and-one free throw opportunity and Arizona had a chance to tie it but Kadeem Allen, with a dislocated pinkie finger on his shooting hand, threw up an air ball from 3-point range.

After trailing by as many as seven points, Arizona outscored the Bruins 10-1 over the last 2 1-2 minutes of the first half to lead 43-39 at the break. Jackson-Cartwright scored seven in the surge.

UCLA took the lead for good, 54-53, on Welsh’s basket with 12:52 to play.

REVENGE

With the victory, UCLA had come back to beat all three teams that have beaten them this season. After a two-point loss at Oregon on Dec. 28, the Bruins came back to beat the Ducks in Los Angeles 82-79 on Feb. 9.

USC upset the Bruins 84-76 on Jan. 25 but UCLA came back to rout the Trojans 102-70 on Feb. 18.

PAC-12 REMATCH?

The outcome in Tucson could set the stage for a rematch between the two teams in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournaments.

Assuming, both teams win out, Arizona would be the tournament’s No. 2 seed and UCLA the No. 3. Oregon would get the No. 1 seed and, barring upsets, would face the UCLA-Arizona winner in the conference title game.

UP NEXT:

UCLA: The Bruins return home to face Washington on Wednesday night.

Arizona: The Wildcats play their final regular-season game of the season at Arizona State on Thursday.

No. 5 UCLA wins at No. 4 Arizona thanks to defense, rebounding?

TUCSON, AZ - FEBRUARY 25:  Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins moves the ball upcourt during the second half of the college basketball game against the Arizona Wildcats at McKale Center on February 25, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona. The Bruins defeated the Wildcats 77-72.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Showtime UCLA Bruins, the team that has defined the pace-and-space movement in college basketball, the nation’s most lethal offensive attack, landed their second elite road win of the season on Saturday night, going into Tucson and knocking off No. 4 Arizona thanks to their ability to grind out stops defensively, milk the clock and crash the offensive glass.

Yeah.

Who saw that happening?

The fifth-ranked Bruins avenged a beatdown that they took at the hands of Arizona a month ago, going into the McKale Center and handing the Wildcats just their second Pac-12 loss of the season, 77-72. The difference came in the second half, with just under 15 minutes left, when head coach Steve Alford made the change from a man-to-man defense to a 3-2 zone that just had Arizona completely flummoxed. The rhythm that the Wildcats had offensively completely disappeared, but that wasn’t just the work of UCLA’s defense.

Part of it was their offense, too.

Let me digress, for a second: Part of what makes Virginia’s defense so consistently successful is that the Cavaliers make you work on the defensive end of the floor, using up as much of the shot clock as possible. The reason is mostly that Tony Bennett wants his team to control pace and to work the ball around until they have the perfect shot, not just a good shot, but the by-product is that is just takes the air out of the ball for the team that is forced to spend that much time defending. Every. Single. Possession.

This is what UCLA started doing. If they weren’t getting layups in transition, they were running their sets, working the ball into Thomas Welsh and T.J. Leaf, trying to get Lonzo Ball isolated against the smaller Parker Jackson-Cartwright, milking the clock for all that it was worth.

That was before the offensive rebounds.

TUCSON, AZ - FEBRUARY 25:  TJ Leaf #22 of the UCLA Bruins attempts a shot between Dusan Ristic #14 and Rawle Alkins #1 of the Arizona Wildcats during the first half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on February 25, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

UCLA grabbed nine of them in the second half — Arizona half just seven defensive rebounds in total, including three straight at the end of the game — and scored 14 second chance points in the second half. These weren’t just tip-ins at the rim. These were hustle plays, UCLA beating out Arizona’s big men to secure a board and work 30 more seconds off of the clock. Those are the back-breakers. Those are the plays that allow a visiting team to keep momentum in their favor and keep the home crowd from getting into the game. Those are the plays that helped prevent Arizona from looking like they had any clue how to attack a zone in the second half.

And that’s just not what we’ve become accustomed to seeing the Bruins do this season.

They run and they chuck threes and they let Lonzo Ball do what he can do and they don’t play much defense. That’s exactly who they were in the first half. They won this game because that’s who they weren’t for the final 15 minutes.

It brings us to a fascinating situation with the Pac-12.

Only one team from the conference is going to get a top four seed in the West Region. Whether it’s a No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 seed, you will only see one of Arizona, UCLA and Oregon — all of whom have essentially locked up a top three seed at this point — in the same bracket as Gonzaga on Selection Sunday. That’s how the bracketing rules work. This is incredibly advantageous because of where their games would be played: In Sacramento (or Salt Lake City) the first weekend, San Jose the second weekend and Phoenix for the Final Four. Not only would all of those games be fairly local — particularly for UCLA and Arizona — but they would be played on West Coast time, an underrated advantage for teams who don’t have to readjust their body-clock to a 10 p.m. ET tip-off time.

The only way that this scenario wouldn’t play out is if a Pac-12 team climbs up to the No. 1 seed line where undefeated Gonzaga also lurks, but as of today — which is a long, long, LONG way from Selection Sunday — it seems like those four No. 1 seeds are pretty set in stone.

UCLA has now won at Kentucky and at Arizona. That’s the best pair of road wins of any team in college basketball. They beat Oregon at home. They’re 26-3 on the season. If they’re going to win the Pac-12 tournament title, they’re probably going to have to go through Arizona and Oregon to do it.

And if they pull that off, the Bruins could very well end up being the top seed coming out of the conference.

They wouldn’t have to leave California until the Final Four in Phoenix.

And had they lost at Arizona on Saturday, I’m not sure it would have been possible.

So while the Bruins were already more-or-less out of the Pac-12 regular season title running, this win had oh-so-much more meaning that simply quieting a rival on their home floor.

No. 3 Kansas clinches outright Big 12 regular season title

AUSTIN, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives around Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns at the Frank Erwin Center on February 25, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas — Josh Jackson scored 18 points and Frank Mason III added 16 to help No. 3 Kansas beat Texas 77-67 on Saturday night to secure its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season championship outright.

Devonte Graham and Dwight Coleby added 12 points apiece for the Jayhawks (26-3, 14-2 Big 12) who have won six straight games.

Jarrett Allen led Texas (10-19, 4-12) with 20 points. Andrew Jones added 18 for the Longhorns, losers of five straight games.

Texas committed 15 turnovers, six by guard Kerwin Roach Jr., and Kansas converted them into 28 points.

Kansas used a 12-0 push in the first half to take a 13-point lead before settling for a 40-31 edge at the break. Coleby, a little-used junior forward who averages 1.2 points a game, scored 10 in the half, converting 4 of 5 shots inside. Kansas had a 24-8 edge in points in the paint. His 12 points matched a career best.

Texas shot four air balls and committed nine turnovers in the half — five of them Kansas steals.

The Longhorns cut the lead to five with a 3-point basket by Jacob Young midway through the second half, but Kansas responded with an 8-1 run and eventually led by 15 with less than three minutes remaining. Mason and Jackson scored four points apiece during that span.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The Jayhawks have won 12 of their last 13 games against Texas, including seven straight, giving them a 29-8 edge since the Big 12 began competition in 1996-97. Texas did, however finish in a first-place tie with the Jayhawks during two of these 13 straight Kansas Big 12 regular season championships — in 2006 and 2008. The Longhorns beat Kansas in Austin both seasons.

Texas: The Longhorns are 4-4 in Big 12 home games. Before Saturday, their largest margin of victory or defeat was four points.

UP NEXT

Kansas is at home against Oklahoma on Monday. The Jayhawks beat Oklahoma 81-70 on Jan. 10 with Mason scoring 28 points, including five 3-point baskets.

Texas is at Texas Tech on Monday. The Longhorns beat the Red Raiders 62-58 on Feb. 1 in Austin. Eric Davis Jr. made a big 3-point basket with 28.8 seconds remaining for Texas, which does not have a road win this season.

SATURDAY’S SNACKS: North Carolina, Villanova get conference titles; Kentucky, Iowa State, Michigan, Miami win big ones

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 biggest game of the night: No. 5 UCLA landed their second elite road win of the season by going into the McKale Center and knocking off No. 4 Arizona, 77-72. UCLA’s comeback down the stretch was fueled by defense and rebounding … wait, what? It sets up for a fascinating situation in the Pac-12 down the stretch.

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.

Then things got crazy for ranked teams on the road during a 30-minute stretch.

It started in the Big 12 as Iowa State earned its seventh consecutive win by beating No. 9 Baylor with a little Hilton Magic. I have more on how the Cyclones have looked different since making a tweak to their lineup.

Michigan also looks more-and-more like an NCAA tournament team with a good home win over No. 14 Purdue. Senior Derrick Walton continues to play really well lately as I have more on the Wolverines here.

No. 6 Oregon survived at Stanford, getting a wild tip-in from Jordan Bell with 14 seconds left to gift them another one-possession road win this week. The Ducks won on a buzzer-beating three from Dillon Brooks at Cal on Wednesday.

And finally, Miami took advantage of No. 10 Duke being without Grayson Allen as the Hurricanes outlasted the Blue Devils in the ACC.

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.

Bruce Brown, Miami — Brown had 23 points to lead the Hurricanes to a win over the No. 10 Duke in Coral Gables. Brown has quietly been one of the ACC’s best freshmen all season long.

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

REST OF THE TOP 25

  • No. 3 Kansas cruised past Texas in Austin without all that much trouble.
  • 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.
  • Iowa went into College Park and handed No. 24 Maryland by 14 points. The Terps, like Purdue, are now in a spot where they have really no chance to win the Big Ten regular season title. Might Wisconsin be the champions by default?
  • 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.