Weekend Preview: Saturday is the best slate of games this season

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GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 9 Oklahoma State at No. 15 Kansas, 4:00 p.m.

This is going to be a doozy. Let’s start with the obvious: Oklahoma State and Kansas are the two best teams in the Big 12. And while the preseason luster of Marcus Smart vs. Andrew Wiggins (who, at the time, were considered the two favorites to win National Player of the Year) has faded a bit, there is still a bit of animosity there. Marcus Smart called out this year’s freshmen class in the preseason. He also infamously did a back-flip after the Pokes knocked off Kansas in Stillwater last year. Add in the intrigue of Bill Self being a graduate of Oklahoma State and, well, you have your pick of storylines heading into this one.

The basketball should be just as intriguing, although I think that Oklahoma State is going to have some trouble with Kansas for one reason: Joel Embiid. He may actually have the highest ceiling of any prospect in this draft class, and as a 7-footer with a low-post game, he is going to give an Oklahoma State team lacking in post front court depth problems. Travis Ford is really going to feel the loss of Michael Cobbins on Saturday.

 

THE OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 22 Pittsburgh at No. 2 Syracuse, Sat. 4:00 p.m.

Since having one intriguing game on the docket at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday isn’t enough, why don’t we just go ahead and have the two best teams in the ACC square off at the same time as well. That’s right, I said the “two best teams in the ACC”. Pitt and Syracuse, longtime Big East rivals, are now taking over Tobacco Road. Part of me loves this, part of it breaks my Big East-born-and-raised heart, but what I know for certain is that this matchup doesn’t have any shortage of storylines, either.

As far as the actual game is concerned, I think Pitt actually matches up fairly well with the Orange. Lamar Patterson is the prototype for high-post zone busters given his size and skill, James Robinson isn’t going to be flustered by Syracuse’s length and ability to force turnovers, and the Panthers can get to the offensive glass against the zone. But playing without Durand Johnson, one of their better perimeter shooters, is going to hurt.

FIVE  TO KEEP AN EYE ON:

  • Tennessee at No. 13 Kentucky, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: Kentucky isn’t going to have a chance to pick up too many quality wins in the SEC this season, and given their mediocre resume to date and a loss to Arkansas this week, they cannot afford to lose to a Tennessee team that is, quite frankly, desperate.
  • No. 25 Oklahoma at No. 12 Baylor, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: Oklahoma has a ton of perimeter talent but they don’t have much front court depth. Baylor has a loaded front line. Neither team plays any defense, and both have a number of highlight reel dunkers. Fundamentals may go out the window, but it will be fun.
  • Indiana State at No. 5 Wichita State, Sat. 4:00 p.m.: If the Shockers are going to lose to anyone in Missouri Valley play, it’s probably going to be Indiana State and Jake Odum, who already own a win at Notre Dame this season.
  • Michigan at No. 3 Wisconsin, Sat. 6:00 p.m.: Wisconsin might be a bit overrated at this point, while Michigan, sans Mitch McGary, looks like they are finally finding their stride.
  • No. 18 Louisville at UConn, Sat. 9:00 p.m.: It’s ironic, really. UConn and Louisville are incredibly similar. They both have an all-american lead guard, a talented-but-enigmatic back court mate, an inconsistent wing forward and a front line that could use some depth. Shabazz Napier vs. Russ Smith is going to be must-see TV.

WHO’S ON UPSET ALERT?

  • N.C. State at No. 23 Duke, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: Duke struggles defending quick, penetrating guards. N.C. State has Cat Barber and Tyler Lewis, not to mention one of the best scorers in the country in T.J. Warren.
  • No. 8 Iowa State at Texas, Sat. 4:00 p.m.: Iowa State is a team that is notorious for struggling in road games. Texas may not be a tournament team this year, but they are nowhere near as bad as was originally thought.
  • UNLV at No. 10 San Diego State, Sat. 6:05 p.m.: UNLV is talented and desperate for a big win. They have the size to matchup with SDSU, and if DeVille Smith, Bryce Dejean-Jones and Kevin Olekaibe play like they did Wednesday, the Runnin’ Rebels are dangerous.
  • No. 16 UMass at Elon, Sat. 7:00 p.m.: Elon is the best team in the SoCon, coming off of a win at Davidson on Thursday. UMass is talented and 15-1, but they’ve had a tendency to start slow and struggle to beat teams they’re better than of late.
  • No. 4 Michigan State at Illinois, Sat. 8:00 p.m.: Are the Spartans healthy? Because if they aren’t, they could lose to anyone. And for all of Illinois’ issues this season, they have two talented guards and they can get after it defensively.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1) There are going to be three good games on the NBC Sports Network this weekend. There will be a double-header on Saturday, with George Mason heading to Rhode Island (12:30 p.m.) and Fordham visiting No. 24 Saint Louis (2:30 p.m.). On Sunday, there will be a CAA battle as Towson heads to Charleston at 3:30 p.m.

2) The Big Ten is going to churn out awesome matchups on a daily basis this season, and Minnesota at No. 14 Iowa at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday falls into that category. The Gophers looked great beating Ohio State at home. Road trips are a different story.

3) Doug McDermott continues his initiation into the Big East as No. 20 Creighton makes the trip to Providence on Saturday at 8:00 p.m.

4) Florida State heads to Virginia at noon on Saturday in a game that will have some real implications in the ACC standings. Both the ‘Noles and the ‘Hoos are sitting at 3-1 in ACC play..

5) A pair of SEC teams with unblemished league records hit the road on Saturday: Texas A&M at Mississippi State, Sat. 1:30 p.m., and No. 7 Florida at Auburn, Sat. 4:00 p.m.

Villanova’s Battle 4 Atlantis title could end up hurting their NCAA tournament profile

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When Villanova made the decision to play in the 2017 Battle 4 Atlantis, they expected that the event would give them a shot at landing at least two quality wins, if not three.

Instead, the Wildcats will be leaving paradise with a title that came with victories over Western Kentucky, Tennessee and Northern Iowa, after Friday’s 64-50 triumph.

It’s hard to say that winning three games in three days in a resort’s ballroom on a tropical island is a bad thing, but this certainly was not a best-case scenario for Jay Wright’s club. Instead of playing – and, in theory, beating – No. 19 Purdue in the semifinals and No. 3 Arizona in the title games, upsets took those matchups out of play.

Great!

That means that Villanova brings themselves home a trophy and a couple more strands of net.

But that’s not exactly the reason that teams play in these events. The experience of playing a neutral site game after a crazy amount of travel on back-to-back nights certainly does good for the team as a whole, but that’s not quite as important as strengthening non-conference schedules and adding the kind of quality wins that could bump them up a seed line or two.

Think about it like this: The only two quality non-conference opponents that Villanova has left on their schedule are No. 17 Gonzaga, UConn and Temple. Maybe Tennessee will do them a favor and get good enough to be looked at as a quality win, and there’s always a chance that Northern Iowa will end up being one of the nation’s best mid-major programs, but this is still a major blow to Villanova’s non-conference profile.

So when Bracketology season starts and Villanova finds themselves getting mentioned as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed because they don’t have the kind of quality wins that other contenders for the top seed line do, remember this week.

Villanova may be good enough that it does not matter.

But it would be foolish to pretend like those upsets don’t have some kind of effect.

Is it time to be concerned about the Pac-12’s dreadful Thanksgiving Week performances?

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Thanksgiving was not a day for fans of the Pac-12 the thankful.

For the second time in two days, No. 2 Arizona lost to a team that is in no way a lock to get to the NCAA tournament, falling to SMU just 24 hours after they lost to N.C. State; the Wolfpack, mind you, lost to Northern Iowa in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis the next night.

The only saving grace for what has been a disastrous homecoming for Deandre Ayton is that Arizona gets to play No. 19 Purdue in the 7th-place game. At least the Wildcats will get another shot at a potentially good win.

Arizona’s loss came just a couple of hours after Oregon fell against a UConn team that looks like it will be competitive this season but is a long way away from being the UConn teams your older brother knew. Stanford followed up Oregon’s loss by getting absolutely run out of the gym by No. 8 Florida, who put up 58 first half points and were in garbage time mode when the second half kicked off. Utah lost by 27 to UNLV. Oregon State lost to St. John’s. Just a day earlier, California took a 24-point beating by Division II Chaminade, a program that is getting run out of the Maui Invitational because they aren’t good enough.

And this all came during the same week that UCLA couldn’t get past Creighton in the first round of the Hall Of Fame Classic.

Arizona State takes No. 15 Xavier on Saturday afternoon while No. 10 USC hosts No. 16 Texas A&M this weekend, a last gasp for the conference to salvage what has been a disastrous start to the year.

Rest assured, those losses are going to matter come March. Quality non-conference wins are not only good for the individual teams getting those wins, they buoy the computer numbers for the teams within the conference itself. If, say, Arizona State turns out to be a top 25 team in KenPom and the RPI, then that makes every loss they take in conference that much better for their opponent and every win they get that much easier for the other team to write off. If all ships rise with the tide, then all NCAA tournament résumés rise with a strong non-conference performance.

The Pac-12 is doing the opposite of that, and it doesn’t help that there were really only thought to be four or five good teams in the league before the start of the season.

The big question now becomes whether or not this is something that the league can turn around. Maybe it’s just a fluky coincidence that Arizona, UCLA and Oregon played some of their worst basketball at the same time. UCLA still gets Michigan, Cincinnati and Kentucky before league play. Arizona has UNLV, Texas A&M, Alabama, New Mexico and UConn on their schedule. It’s not like they can’t turn this thing around.

But … at some point we’re going to have to talk about the distraction narrative.

Generally speaking, I think the idea of off-the-court distractions affecting sports teams is a little overblown, but this is more than just a regular distraction. UCLA is missing three players because of a shoplifting incident in China that has turned into a twitter battle between LaVar Ball and Donald Trump. Arizona had one assistant coach fired as a result of the FBI investigation into college basketball, another suspended and is currently without Rawle Alkins, who has a broken foot. USC also had an assistant coach fired and is playing without De’Anthony Melton, who had a relative caught accepting money in the FBI investigation.

That’s a lot to deal with.

So maybe it is playing a role in the league’s slow-start.

And I’d recommend the league’s big three find a way to right the ship, and quickly.

Because they are not going to have the luxury of being able to build their tournament résumé during league play.

No. 2 Arizona drops second-straight

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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — SMU attacked the glass and kept scoring off turnovers to offset a bad shooting performance. It was enough to hand No. 2 Arizona a second stunning loss to an unranked opponent in two nights.

Ben Emelogu scored 20 points and the Mustangs upset the Wildcats 66-60 in Thursday’s consolation round at the Battle 4 Atlantis, a jarring start for an Arizona team that began the season as a Final Four favorite with a preseason Associated Press All-American in Allonzo Trier.

Arizona (3-2) lost to North Carolina State 90-84 in Wednesday’s first round. It’s the first time the Wildcats have dropped back-to-back games against nonconference opponents since losing to Mississippi State and San Diego State in November 2011.

“This is a different feeling,” coach Sean Miller said. “It might be healthy for our team because instead of everybody telling you how good you are and you’re going to get to a Final Four and you’re awesome, it’s going to go opposite now.

“And I think that it could be something that drives our team to have even better practice to fix a few things and hopefully get back in the winner’s circle.”

The Mustangs (5-1) blew an 11-point lead in the second half but responded with a 10-2 run to go ahead for good. SMU won despite shooting 31 percent and going eight minutes without a basket in the second half.

“I always say — and everybody thinks I’m lying but I’m not when I say this — the best wins of the year are always when you can’t get your shots to go in the basket and you find a way to win anyway,” SMU coach Tim Jankovich said. “That’s how great seasons are made. Everybody wins when they shoot great and feel great and all that.”

The Mustangs hung on in two ways. First, they capitalized on 20 Arizona turnovers by scoring 19 points off those miscues. Then there was their effort on the boards; they were outrebounded 43-39 overall but nearly doubled up Arizona on the offensive glass (20-11) to finish with 23 more shot attempts and 14 second-chance points.

“We talk about this all the time,” Jankovich said. “Really break it down: Does it take a lot of talent to go run after a ball? Does it take a lot of talent to dive on a ball? … And the answer is no. So really what it takes is the character and it takes an unselfishness and a commitment to the things that win rather than the things that necessarily make me look good.

“And in the end, if you have a team full of those guys, then you’re going to have a successful team.”

Trier scored 22 points to lead the Wildcats, who shot 47 percent. Arizona freshman Deandre Ayton added 17 points and 15 rebounds, but no other Wildcats player scored in double figures. Arizona also shot just 5 of 20 on 3-pointers.

“No, our confidence isn’t affected at all,” freshman forward Ira Lee said. “We’ve just got to see these two games as a learning experience and move on.”

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: Miller immediately said offense wasn’t the problem after the loss to N.C. State, noting the Wildcats haven’t dropped many games when scoring 84 points. Rather, he was concerned about a bad defensive effort. This time, his team had some good defensive moments, but Miller said there was something missing in glaring fashion.

“Maybe we did play some good defense,” Miller said, “but defense always ends with the rebounding. And we were unable to rebound.”

SMU: The Mustangs trailed much of the way against Northern Iowa in their first-round tournament game, but played from ahead in this one. They also came up with a counterpunch, regaining the lead after Arizona erased that 11-point deficit.

“The effort, gosh darn, I don’t care if we were big or tiny or medium-sized out there or who was guarding who, I saw some fighting cats out there,” Jankovich said. “And I loved it.”

EMELOGU’S NIGHT

Emelogu went 7 of 11 from the field and 5 of 7 on 3-pointers to lead SMU’s offense. The rest of SMU’s starters made 12 of 53 shots (23 percent).

“A lot of times, you just play hard and play defense, you win games even though offense didn’t go our way,” Emelogu said.

UP NEXT

Arizona: The Wildcats will play No. 18 Purdue in Friday’s seventh-place game.

SMU: The Mustangs will play Western Kentucky in Friday’s fifth-place game.

Western Kentucky upsets No. 18 Purdue 77-73 in Bahamas

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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Darius Thompson scored 12 points and hit two clinching free throws with 5.1 seconds left to help Western Kentucky upset No. 18 Purdue 77-73 in Thursday’s consolation round at the Battle 4 Atlantis.

The Hilltoppers (3-2) led nearly the entire night, but needed to make several clutch plays late to hang on.

P.J. Thompson hit a corner 3-pointer with 5.8 seconds remaining to bring the Boilermakers (4-2) to 75-73, but Thompson answered with two free throws that made it a two-possession game and all but sealed the win.

Justin Johnson led the Hilltoppers with 17 points, including a tough driving score for a five-point lead with 21 seconds left.

Isaac Haas scored 22 points to lead Purdue, which shot just 32 percent in the first half. The Boilermakers trailed 42-31 at the break and never fully recovered.

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: That’s an 0-2 showing in two days for the Boilermakers in the Bahamas. The high-scoring, 3-point shooting offense hasn’t found its rhythm here, though Purdue shot 50 percent after halftime in this one to give itself a chance late.

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers were coming off a loss to No. 5 Villanova, making this the first time they had played consecutive games against ranked opponents since the 1993 NCAA Tournament. But they earned a win against a ranked team for just the second time in the last 15 tries.

UP NEXT

Purdue: The Boilermakers will play the Arizona-SMU loser in Friday’s seventh-place game.

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers will play the Arizona-SMU winner in Friday’s fifth-place game.

Duke overcomes tenacious Portland State 99-81

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Marvin Bagley III said the Blue Devils knew they had to wake up for the second half against Portland State.

And eventually, they did. Trevon Duval had 22 points and No. 1 Duke pulled away for a 99-81 victory over the surprisingly tenacious Vikings on Thursday to open the Phil Knight Invitational.

 Bagley added 18 points, and Grayson Allen had 14 points and nine assists. The Blue Devils (6-0) will face the winner of the Thursday game between Butler and Texas.

Duke trailed by as many as eight points but took control midway through the second half when Wendell Carter Jr.’s dunk put the Blue Devils in front 67-62. They would go on to lead by as many as 21 points.

“The first half we obviously weren’t playing like we were normally do. We weren’t doing the things that we do well. We weren’t going to our strengths. We kind of came out sluggish,” Bagley said. “But going into the second half it was just ‘You have to wake up.’ They (the coaches) mentioned to us that these are the type of games that are going to be like that if you don’t come out ready to play.

It was coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 200th victory as coach of a No. 1-ranked team. He’s 200-29 when the Blue Devils sit atop the poll.

Deontae North led the Vikings (4-1) with 24 points, including 20 in the first half, but fouled out with 8:39 left in the game.

It was the first time in program history that the Vikings had faced a top-ranked team. Portland State’s last win over a ranked opponent was an 86-82 victory over then-No. 25 Portland in December 2009.

“I thought they just knocked us back the whole first half,” Krzyzewski said. “We were in a reactionary mode the first 20 minutes.”

The tournament involves 16 teams playing in two brackets on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, with a break on Saturday. The field also includes No. 4 Michigan State, No. 7 Florida and defending national champion North Carolina.

Dubbed the PK80, the tournament celebrates Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday.

Duke and Portland State were in the Motion Bracket, playing Thursday at the Memorial Coliseum. Teams in the Victory Bracket played at the adjacent Moda Center.

Knight was sitting courtside for the game.

The five-time NCAA champion Blue Devils were coming off a 92-63 victory over Furman on Monday night, led by Bagley with 24 points.

Portland State was coming off an 83-79 victory over Utah State at the Memorial Coliseum on Monday. The Vikings are playing the first season under coach Barret Peery.

“I’m proud of our team,” Peery said. “But I was proud of our team before the ball went up.”

Portland State was no pushover from the start, taking a 12-11 lead on North’s 3-pointer with 16:54 to go in the opening half. North hit another 3 that put the Vikings up 19-15 and Michael Mayhew’s jumper extended the lead.

North made another 3 to make it 33-26 with 8:33 left in the half. The Vikings stayed out in front until Gary Trent Jr. made a pair of free throws for Duke to tie it at 42 with 2:09 left in the half.

Mayhew hit a long 3-pointer and Portland State led 49-45 at the half. Mayhew was among five Vikings who fouled out in the second half.

Carter’s layup put Duke out in front 54-53, but North answered with a jumper and Bryce Canda added a 3-pointer.

Carter had another layup to give the Blue Devils a 61-60 lead and Bagley’s tip-in pushed the lead to 63-60, energizing the mostly blue-clad crowd at the Coliseum. Duke never trailed again.

“This was a big stage for us,” said Canda, who finished with 14 points. “But we can’t hang our heads.”

BIG PICTURE

Duke: Allen scored just five points against Furman, and Krzyzewski said he was banged up and held out of a couple of practices going into the game. But he was back in form against Portland State. He taunted a Portland State player late in the game and got a technical, eliciting a strong reaction from Krzyzewski.

Portland State: It was the first time Portland State had faced a No. 1-ranked team. The Vikings have twice faced a No. 2 team, including Duke in 1997. … The Vikings play in the Big Sky conference. They’ve made the NCAA tournament twice, in 2008 and 2009, with first-round losses both times.

MORE COACH K: Krzyzewski has coached 229 games with a No. 1-ranked team, surpassing John Wooden for the lead. … It is the 500th week that Duck has been ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll under him, most by a coach in the AP Top 25’s history.

NORTH’S SECOND TECH: North was on the floor in front of the scorer’s desk, getting ready to check into the game when he earned his second tech of the game. Coach Peery said apparently the ref thought North had commented on the previous play.

UP NEXT

Duke: The Blue Devils go on to face the winner of the late Thursday afternoon game between Butler and Texas when the tournament continues on Friday.

Portland State: The Vikings will face the Butler-Texas loser.