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CBT Roundtable: Final Four Picks!

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February is right around the corner, which means that we’ve officially hit the stretch run of the college hoops season. 

With a little more than a month left in the college basketball regular season, we figured today would be as good as any to take a look at stretch-run Final Four picks:

Raphielle Johnson:

  • Arizona: The foul shooting is a bit of a concern but I think the Wildcats will be able to properly navigate that when the time comes. Their defensive versatility, with multiple players have the ability to defend multiple positions, is what stands out to me.
  • Syracuse: They need Trevor Cooney to get back to the form he displayed earlier in the season, and they can’t afford another interior injury with DaJuan Coleman out. However with Tyler Ennis & C.J. Fair leading the way I won’t bet against the Orange.
  • Kansas: Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Wayne Selden…and now Naadir Tharpe’s raising his level of play at the point. Deep, with a nice mix of youth and experience.
  • Michigan State: My preseason pick to win it all, I can’t bet against them even with Dawson and Payne currently out. They get healthy, the Spartans will get to Arlington.

Scott Phillips:

  • Arizona: The No. 1 team in the country is just so big, athletic and balanced. It’s hard for me to see a team knocking them off before the Final Four, especially if they stay out West like they should.
  • Kansas: The Jayhawks have a chance to be scary good if Embiid and Wiggins keep improving — and stay consistent — and Tharpe stays steady with the ball. Kansas has played the most difficult schedule in the country; they’ll be prepared for all comers.
  • Florida: Billy Donovan has done it before and with the way this Gator group has persevered through close games, injuries and suspensions, they’ve been tested as much as anyone in the country when it comes to getting through adversity.
  • Michigan State: Much like Florida, the Spartans have dealt with injuries or illness to nearly all of their starting five while also playing a very tough schedule. As long as Michigan State stays healthy enough — which I believe they will — they are the best team in the country and I don’t see how they miss the Final Four.

Terrence Payne:

  • Kansas: The Jayhawks played a tough schedule early in the season, but within the last month the talent on that roster has really developed into a serious national title contender.
  • Syracuse: I like was the Orange have to offer, with plenty of holdovers from last season’s Final Four team and the addition of point guard Tyler Ennis. I’d be more confident in this pick if Trevor Cooney finds his shot again.
  • Florida: Chris Walker is set to join the Florida lineup in the coming weeks, adding another big body to that talented frontline. The Gators have dealt with injuries and Walker’s absence, and have been just fine so far. They can be dangerous with the whole team together.
  • Wichita State: Like Cuse, the Shockers have guys back that helped lead last year’s Final Four run. Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, an Cleanthony Early have the toughness and talent to bring them back in 2014.

Kevin Doyle:

  • Arizona: They are so tough defensively, and Nick Johnson is playing like a legitimate NPOY. Top to bottom, Arizona has all of the pieces to cut down the nets in April.
  • Florida: I still believe we haven’t seen the best that Florida has to offer. How Chris Walker transitions into the rotation will largely depend on whether the Gators firmly supplant themselves as a true national title contender.
  • Michigan: A trendy pick right now, but has there been a more impressive team during conference play? With freshman point guard Derrick Walton nicely filling the void Trey Burke left, Michigan is as lethal as they come on the offensive end.
  • Syracuse: The Orange made the Final Four a season ago, and they are better this season. C.J. Fair, Tyler Ennis, and Jerami Grant is a trio that matches up with anyone out there.

Rob Dauster:

  • Arizona: The NCAA tournament is all about matchups. Arizona will never be on the wrong end of a mismatch, not with their size up front, the versatility of Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and the defensive ability of T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson.
  • Kansas: Joel Embiid came into his own earlier this month. Andrew Wiggins has scored 56 points in the last two games. Naadir Tharpe is playing great basketball. If the Jayhawks hit their stride, if everything clicks, this is the most talented team in the country. Oh, and Bill Self.
  • Michigan State: Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling, Branden Dawson, Tom Izzo. They’re not healthy right now. When they are, do you really want to bet against them?
  • Florida: The Gators are elite defensively. Ask Tennessee. That’s before they brought in Chris Walker. They have some issues on the offensive end, but if anyone can iron out those kinks, it’s Billy Donovan.

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