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Weekend Preview: The Battle for Michigan marred by injury

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GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 21 Michigan at No. 3 Michigan State, Sat. 7:00 p.m.

Michigan State may be playing this game in the Breslin Center, but it’s hard to see a way that the Spartans will be considered a favorite heading into this game. We already know they are going to be without Branden Dawson, who broken a bone in his hand slapping a table during a film session this week. But it appears likely that they will be without Adreian Payne as well, as the big fella is still dealing with a sprained foot that is no where near healthy yet. 

The good news? The Wolverines don’t necessarily have the size inside to take advantage of the Spartans missing their two most athletic big men. Keith Appling and Gary Harris should be able to matchup with nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert. The key is going to be what happens with Glenn Robinson III. He’s been more aggressive of late, and the Spartans don’t have a win that can match his size and athleticism without Dawson.

The winner will take over sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.

THE OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 22 Kansas State at No. 16 Iowa State, Sat. 1:45 p.m.

Iowa State desperately needs this win. The Cyclones have lost three games in a row in league play. Their next three games? At Kansas, Oklahoma and at Oklahoma State. If this group doesn’t get things figured out quickly, there’s a real possibility that they could end up sitting at 2-7 in Big 12 play, a hole deep enough that it could cost them a trip to the NCAA tournament. Rebounding from seven straight losses is not an easy thing to do.

Kansas State is one of the best defensive teams in the country, and they’ll have their work cut out for them against an Iowa State team that thrives on the mismatches they can create with opposing front court. Thomas Gipson should have his way down low on Saturday, but who does he guard on Iowa State’s perimeter?

FIVE MORE TO KEEP AN EYE ON:

  • No. 4 Villanova at Marquette, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: Marquette has been one of the major disappointments in college basketball this season. This may be the most important game of their season, and they get Villanova days after the Wildcats got embarrassed by Creighton at home. 
  • Cal at UCLA, Sun. 8:00 p.m.: The Bears are still sitting all alone in second place in the Pac-12, but they are coming off of an embarrassing loss at USC. They really need to right the ship in Pauley Pavilion.
  • Florida State at No. 18 Duke, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: Duke has been rolling in the last two games, winning by a combined 56 points. The Seminoles have the athleticism to matchup with Duke’s forwards, however.
  • Tennessee at No. 6 Florida, Sat. 4:00 p.m.: Florida has had some issues offensively this season, and while Tennessee has been too up and down this year, there is a reason they were picked third in the SEC. Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon vs. Patric Young could be a wrestling match.
  • BYU at Gonzaga, Sat. 10:00 p.m.: Both BYU and Gonzaga can put up points in a hurry, and neither of them are very adept at defending. A high-scoring WCC game is a nice way to cap off a college hoops Saturday.

WHO’S GETTING UPSET?:

  • No. 2 Syracuse at Miami, Sat. 1:00 p.m.: Miami had the lead on Syracuse for about 35 minutes in the Carrier Dome. They’re a scrappy team that controls tempo and forces you to hit jumpers. Will Syracuse make enough jumpers in the MIA?
  • No. 10 Iowa at Northwestern, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: Northwestern is essentially the Big Ten’s version of Miami. They’ve also beaten Illinois, Indiana (on the road) and Purdue. Is Iowa next?
  • Texas at No. 24 Baylor, Sat. 1:30 p.m.: I don’t even know if this would technically be considered an upset at this point, but Texas is good and they have the size to matchup with Baylor in the paint. 
  • No. 9 Wisconsin at Purdue, Sat. 5:00 p.m.: The Badgers are skidding right now, playing the worst defense a Bo Ryan team has ever played. Will they right the ship in West Lafayette?
  • No. 8 Kansas at TCU, Sat. 9:00 p.m.: You haven’t forgotten already, have you?

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1) There will be four games on the NBC Sports Network this weekend. On Saturday, George Washington heads to George Mason at 12:00 p.m. while the 4:00 p.m. tip features Atlantic 10 conteders St. Joe’s at Richmond. On Sunday, Jon Severe and Fordham pay a visit to No. 13 UMass at noon while Harvard looks to bounce back from a loss to Florida Atlantic at Dartmouth at 4:00 p.m.

2) No. 5 Wichita State will put their undefeated record on the line at Drake on Sat. at 8:00 p.m. Whenever the Shockers go on the road in the MVC, they will be on upset watch.

3) The Big East will host two big games on Saturday. At 8:00 p.m., Georgetown will visit the sharpshooters at Creighton while 5-1 Xavier is at 4-2 Providence, which tips at 12:00 p.m. Are the Friars really a Big East contender?

4) Five more ranked teams play, three of which are on the road:

  • No. 7 San Diego State at Utah State, Sat. 11:00 p.m.
  • No. 20 Pitt at Maryland, Sat. 6:00 p.m.
  • No. 25 Oklahoma at Texas Tech, Sat. 4:00 p.m.
  • West Virginia at No. 11 Oklahoma State, Sat. 2:00 p.m.
  • Georgia at No. 14 Kentucky, Sat. 1:30 p.m.

5) New Mexico has a huge game at Colorado State. The cannot afford another loss in the league to anyone other than San Diego State if they want a chance to win the conference.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

So good for Arizona.

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

UCLA’s defense, or lack thereof, was.

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

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

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

That’s a big deal.

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

That’s a bigger deal.

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

It’s been around since 2002.

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

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

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

The precedent is there.

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

But all hope is not lost.

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

UCLA leads the nation in offensive efficiency.

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

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

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

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

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

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

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

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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