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CBT Roundtable: Most Important Player heading into the NCAA tournament

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In today’s Roundtable, we will each make a pick as to who is the most important player in the National Title race.

Rob Dauster: This pick is easy: Keith Appling.

I’ve been saying it all season long. If Michigan State can get healthy, they’re going to enter the NCAA tournament as one of, if not the favorite to win the national title. Gary Harris is over the ankle issues tht plagued him earlier in the season. Adreian Payne’s foot has gotten better. Travis Trice and Matt Costello have gotten past what ails them. Even Branden Dawson is on the verge of returning from his broken hand.

The one guy that Tom Izzo is waiting on is Appling. He injured his wrist in a hard fall back in December against North Carolina, and it hasn’t been right since then. That was two and a half months ago. He even sat out three games at one point. So the question is: will Appling ever get healthy? Will he ever be the guy that looked like an All-American back in November? Because when he plays that way, it makes the Spartans that much better. He was their closer, their facilitator, finally living up to the billing he’s had since he came out of high school.

If he can get back there, the Spartans will have a great shot to cut down the nets in North Texas. If he can’t, well, they’re still going to be a contender, but as we have seen all season long, they won’t be the same team.

Raphielle Johnson: No. 5 Kansas has steadily emerged as one of the favorites to win the national title, with the growth of freshmen Joel Embiid, Wayne Selden and Andrew Wiggins being one reason why. But if the Jayhawks are to win a national title there’s another, more experienced player who holds the keys. That would be point guard Naadir Tharpe, who’s currently averaging 9.0 points and 5.1 assists per game. Back in November more than a few folks (myself included) questioned whether or not the Jayhawks would be better off with freshman Frank Mason at the point, especially when considering how he played down in the Bahamas. But as the season’s progressed it’s clear that Tharpe is the player best suited to run the show.

When Tharpe plays well he’s both distributing the basketball and scoring in an efficient manner, which makes the Jayhawks an even tougher team to defend. And in many of Kansas’ six losses Tharpe hasn’t played at the level he’s displayed for most of the season. In those games he’s averaged 6.0 points and 4.8 assists per game, shooting 37.2% from the field with his performance at Kansas State (13 points, ten assists) being the best of the bunch. Kansas has the talent needed to make a deep run, but they can’t win six straight if Tharpe isn’t at his best.

Scott Phillips: For me, it has to be Duke’s Jabari Parker. Doug McDermott is the Player of the Year, but does anybody actually believe Creighton has a chance to win a title? Duke does have a chance at a title and a lot of that will have to do with the play of Parker.

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The focus for many will obviously be on Jabari’s offensive capabilities — and whether he can consistently score at a high level over a potential six-game stretch — but what about on the defensive end of things? Parker has to be able to score and rebound during the tournament while also having to face some of the best interior players in college basketball as a defender.

Is Parker up to the challenge? That remains to be seen, but as a lifelong Chicagoan, I watched Parker and Simeon win four consecutive Class 4A state championships in Illinois and you just didn’t bet against that dude when it came time for tournament play.

Obviously, the stakes, the level of play and the overall talent is much higher at the collegiate level, but Parker is a proven winner and will be a huge factor if Duke can make a Final Four run.

Terrence Payne: The former No. 1 team in the nation stumbled with back-to-back losses to Boston College and Duke last week. In those defeats, Tyler Ennis shot a combined 8-for-27 from the field. And while he still protected the ball — 12 assists to four turnovers — Duke was able to limit his effectiveness on the offensive end in the Blue Devils’ 66-60 win on Saturday.

What’s interesting about those pair of losses is that Syracuse had opportunities to win, and remain unbeaten. BC took Cuse to overtime, before pulling off the three-point upset win. The odds weren’t in the Orange’s favor with 10 seconds to go against Duke, but it was still only a one-possession game before Jim Boeheim became an Internet meme with his first career ejection.

Syracuse has gotten itself into a lot of close calls this season, and Ennis has been a key reason why the Orange have been able to prevail in many of those outcomes. Obviously the buzzer-beater against Pitt stands out, but it’s more so his decision-making and his poise down the stretch with the game in the balance. Entering that game against Pitt two weeks ago, Ennis had yet to commit a turnover in the last five minutes of a game.

Though, Ennis struggled from the field in the late stages against BC, typically a time where he flourishes. It was likely just a bump in the road in an otherwise impressive freshman campaign. A season which could end in Arlington for the Orange, if Ennis continues to thrive under pressure.

Matt Giles: Scottie Wilbekin is the reason why Florida’s offense is ranked fifteenth nationally. The junior guard, who is also arguably the team’s best on-ball defender, is no scoring slouch – 38 percent from beyond the arc – and his ability to create for the other Gators makes the team a favorite to reach the first weekend of April. Casey Prather can convert off the bounce, but the rest of the squad requires help to boost their scoring average.

The majority of Florida’s offense, when not in transition, is spent either spotting up or using pick and rolls, and Wilbekin is skilled at simultaneously understanding defensive spacing and how to best position his teammates to score. Nearly a quarter of UF’s offensive possessions are jumpers, and of those, 79 percent come from three, so Wilbekin’s passing acumen – per Hoop-Math.com, only 35 other teams are more dependent on an assist for a three point attempt than Billy Donovan’s squad – is crucial if Florida is to remain offensively efficient and avoid lulls, like during the second half against Vanderbilt.

Michael Frazier II, Patric Young, and Dorian Finney-Smith – three Gators whose percentage of shots taken is more than 20 percent – all are talented on offense, but without their point guard to position them in a perfect scoring opportunity, Florida likely wouldn’t be mentioned in any 2014 national title conversation.

Coaches Poll: Villanova takes the top spot

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Kris Jenkins #2 of the Villanova Wildcats yells to his team in the first half against the Saint Joseph's Hawks 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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Villanova has overtaken Kentucky as the new No. 1 in the Coaches Poll on Monday.

The defending champions also took No. 1 in the new AP poll thanks to an 8-0 start while UCLA beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena this weekend. The Bruins finished at No. 2 while Kansas and Duke are right behind them.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | NBC Sports Top 25

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

AP Poll: Defending champion Villanova is the new No. 1

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Josh Hart
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The defending national champs are back at No. 1.

Villanova is atop the latest Associated Press top 25 poll this week as the 8-0 Wildcats are off to a hot start. With Kentucky’s loss to UCLA and North Carolina’s loss at Indiana there were some major shakeups in the polls this week.

  1. Villanova (57 first-place votes)
  2. UCLA (2)
  3. Kansas
  4. Baylor
  5. Duke
  6. Kentucky
  7. North Carolina
  8. Gonzaga
  9. Indiana
  10. Creighton
  11. Louisville
  12. Saint Mary’s
  13. Xavier
  14. Virginia
  15. West Virginia
  16. Butler
  17. Purdue
  18. Wisconsin
  19. South Carolina
  20. Arizona
  21. Florida
  22. Cincinnati
  23. Notre Dame
  24. Oregon
  25. Iowa State

 

Five things we learned last week: UCLA, Kentucky, the Big 12 and Lagerald Vick

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Isaac Hamilton #10 of the UCLA Bruins drives to the basket against Bam Adebayo #3 of 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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1. There’s a lot more to this UCLA team than just Lonzo Ball: Entering this weekend, that’s the name that everyone knew on UCLA. Ball is the team’s superstar freshman point guard, a player that has been compared favorably to Jason Kidd and whose ability to spray passes all over the floor is the biggest reason that the Bruins offense is a juggernaut.

But that offense isn’t going to be the difference-maker for the Bruins this season, because the Bruins were able to score last year, too.

No, the reason that UCLA has a chance to win a national title this season is that they can actually defend. They’re not Virginia. They’re not going to hold good teams to 50 points. They’re not going to be forcing 20 turnovers a night. They don’t have to. All they need to do is to be ‘good enough’ on that end of the floor. Limit penetration, protect the rim, clean the defensive glass.

If we learned anything on Saturday, it’s that the Bruins are going to be able to do the latter two things on that list. T.J. Leaf injected a shot of athleticism into the front court while Ike Anigbogu provides a physicality and a toughness they haven’t had in the paint under Alford. Throw in Thomas Welsh, who more than held his own against the Wildcats, and this is a pretty good front line that UCLA is working with.

And given what we already know about this team’s guards, that’s a scary proposition.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Five Takeaways

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: De'Aaron Fox #0 and Isaiah Briscoe #13 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate in the first half of the game against the UCLA Bruins 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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2. Kentucky is going to be just fine: Saturday’s loss was a humbling one for the Wildcats. After steam-rolling through literally everyone they’ve played this season – Kentucky entered the game having won by at least 21 points in every game – the Wildcats got outplayed by UCLA pretty thoroughly. That’s going to happen with young teams, regardless of how well they play against inferior competition, and it may happen again before SEC play starts; Kentucky still have to play North Carolina and Louisville before Christmas.

The Wildcats are an elite defensive team, and they are even better at scoring in transition. Where they struggle, however, is with half court offense. They simply don’t have enough shooters to be able to consistently create high-percentage looks against a set defense, and the way to force them into half court offense is, simply, to score on them. UCLA is one of just a handful of teams that has the guard play and the offensive weapons to be able to do that consistently for 40 minutes, and even then, it took the Bruins a while to grow into the game.

In other words, there aren’t very many teams that can do what UCLA did to Kentucky’s defense.

Thus, there aren’t very many teams that can actually beat Kentucky.

So don’t be worried about the ‘Cats.

They’ll be just fine.

3. Turns out, the Big 12 is really good: The narrative on the Big 12 entering the season was that the league was down outside of Kansas. The Jayhawks were the favorite to win the league just like they always are, but once you got past Bill Self’s club, there really wasn’t much of substance in the league.

That looks to be a dumb narrative.

It starts with Baylor, who has been awesome this season. The Bears picked up yet another excellent non-conference win on Saturday, coming from behind at halftime to beat No. 7 Xavier by 15 points in Waco. It turns out that Baylor actually has the supporting cast around Johnathan Motley to be relevant, and if the tournament was to start today, Baylor would very likely be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

Then there’s West Virginia, who went into Charlottesville and picked up a road win over No. 6 Virginia the same week that they forced 40 turnovers in a 40 minute game. Iowa State is probably still top 25 good, even with that home loss to Cincinnati last week, and we’d be remiss not to mention the play of both Texas Tech and TCU, the latter of whom is one of just two teams in the league and 11 teams in the country that are still undefeated.

Here’s the kicker: As of today, the No. 1 conference in college basketball, according to KenPom.com, is … the Big 12.

LAWRENCE, KS - NOVEMBER 29: Lagerald Vick #2 of the Kansas Jayhawks dunks on a fast break as Javonntie Jackson #35 of the Long Beach State 49ers looks on during the game at Allen Fieldhouse on November 29, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Lagerald Vick (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

4. Is LaGerald Vick the most surprising player in the league?: Baylor’s Manu Lecomte has been better than expected, as has his teammate, Jo Lual-Acuil. Jawun Evans has been a star for Oklahoma State, but we all knew that he was going to be good. Texas A&M transfer Alex Robinson is leading TCU in points, assists and steals, but he was a good player for the Aggies before he left. We knew he would do good things in Fort Worth.

But Vick?

I’m not sure anyone expected Vick to develop into a starter for Kansas just weeks into the season, but here we are. He’s averaging double-figures on the season. He’s made 9-of-11 threes in the last three games, a stretch where he’s averaging 15.3 points. He’s been terrific defensively, and his presence has allowed Kansas to put plus-defenders on the floor at every position while playing small-ball lineups.

Who saw that coming?

5. So maybe the North Carolina hype train got a bit out of control: Yes, North Carolina played well early on this season. Yes, they were impressive in their wins against Chattanooga and in the Maui Invitational. Yes, Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson have both gotten better.

But the fact that the narrative last week somehow turned into North Carolina being the most impressive team in college basketball seemed a little bit weird, a fact that was confirmed by UNC’s loss at Assembly Hall on Wednesday night.

Now let me be clear: There’s no shame in losing in Assembly Hall, not when IU was playing the way they were playing. But UNC dug themselves a 26-9 hole early in the first half that they were never really able to dig out of. They were rattled by the atmosphere. They did not play well at all, and I just don’t think that if this was truly the best team in college basketball, that doesn’t happen that way.

UNC is good, and probably better than many thought entering the season, but before we go anointing them the champs can we take a second to remember these are basically the same dudes we’ve been unimpressed by for a couple of years now?

Team of the Week: UCLA Bruins

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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We may not see a better win all season long than what UCLA did on Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena, at least not in the eyes of the selection committee.

And that’s before you consider how talented Kentucky is, how well they have been playing this season and the fact that UCLA was playing their first road game of the season against them in front of 23,000 screaming members of Big Blue Nation.

With all that in mind, really consider what the Bruins did on Saturday, overcoming a sluggish start and an early Kentucky run to more-or-less manhandle the Wildcats for a solid 25 minutes. UCLA was up double-figures for the majority of the second half and would have won by that amount if it wasn’t for a late flurry of buckets from Kentucky.

And they did all of that despite the fact that Lonzo Ball really only played about 20 good minutes on Saturday. T.J. Leaf was terrific, Ike Anigbogu opened quite a few eyes and Aaron Holiday completely changed the course of the game when he entered in the first half.

It was a team effort, one that proved a point to everyone: This UCLA team is here to stay.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Five Takeaways

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - DECEMBER 03: Jevon Carter #2 of the West Virginia Mountaineers dribbles the ball against London Perrantes #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the first half during a game at John Paul Jones Arena on December 3, 2016 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Jevon Carter (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • West Virginia: The Mountaineers certainly made a statement on Saturday, as they went into Charlottesville and knocked off No. 6 Virginia. They did so despite not having anyone on the roster score more than 11 points and while forcing just 14 turnovers. West Virginia really needed this win after falling against Temple earlier in the season.
  • Indiana: The Hoosiers landed their second elite win of the season as they knocked off No. 3 North Carolina in Assembly Hall on Wednesday night. This comes three weeks after they beat Kansas on a neutral court, giving them the best pair of wins in the country. The bad news? O.G. Anunoby sprained his ankle and will have to miss some time, but that’s neither here nor there. That injury isn’t going to take either of those wins off the board.
  • Middle Tennessee State: Kermit Davis may have a better team this season than the one that he had last season, when the Blue Raiders beat No. 2 seed Michigan State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The Blue Raiders obliterated Ole Miss on the road on Wednesday, following that up with a win at South Alabama.
  • Illinois: Coming off of a three-game losing streak that seemingly had Illinois fans ready to fire John Groce on the spot, Malcolm Hill and the Illini responded with a pair of quality wins. They knocked off Dennis Smith Jr. and N.C. State on Tuesday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and followed that up by beating VCU, 64-46.
  • TCU: The Horned Frogs are one of just two teams in the Big 12 that remain undefeated after a 2-0 week. TCU not only knocked off potential No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz at the Washington Huskies for the second straight time, they also manhandled a good Arkansas State team, 77-54. Jamie Dixon and company will head to SMU and raucous Moody Coliseum on Wednesday. We’ll know more about them by then.

Player of the Week: Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin

MADISON, WI - NOVEMBER 27:  Nigel Hayes #10 of the Wisconsin Badgers drives against JD Wallace #12 of the Prairie View A&M Panthers in the second half at the Kohl Center on November 27, 2016 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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Nigel Hayes had arguably the best week of his career in what might turn out to be the most important week of Wisconsin’s season.

It started on Tuesday night, when Hayes had nine points, 10 assists and 11 boards as he eviscerated No. 22 Syracuse’s zone in a dominating, 77-60 win for the Badgers. Four days later, Hayes finished with a season-high 28 points, adding six assists and shooting 10-for-13 from the floor as Wisconsin pulled away late to be Oklahoma, 90-70.

The past week was the best week of basketball that the Badgers have played this season, and so much of that credit falls on the shoulders of Hayes, who has refocused the way that he’s playing the game. The knock on Hayes during his junior year and through the first two weeks of his senior season was simply: He settled for way too many threes. As a junior, he shot 29.3 percent while shooting 3.8 threes per game. Prior to the last three games, Hayes was shooting 29.0 percent from three while taking 4.5 per game.

In other words, after a year where Hayes essentially proved that he was not a good enough shooter to be a ‘shooter’, he was shooting even more.

The last three games, however, Hayes has taken just two threes and made them both. He’s playing inside-out, he’s operating as a facilitator as much as he is a scorer and, as a result, he’s looked every-bit the part of the guy that was picked to be Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year.

When Hayes plays like this, the Badgers are right there with Indiana as the favorite to win the Big Ten title this season.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Five Takeaways

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • T.J. Leaf, UCLA: Leaf was the best player on the floor for the Bruins as they went into Rupp Arena and knocked off No. 1 Kentucky. Leaf showed off his versatile skill-set, but he also played with a toughness and a defensive mettle that wasn’t exactly expected of him entering the season. We know how good the Bruins are on the offensive end of the floor, but if they’re getting stops, too? Scary.
  • Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart is playing some of the best basketball of his career, and never was that more evident than this week. He averaged 14.0 points and 8.5 boards while chipping in with 19 total assists in wins over Penn and Saint Joseph’s. We’ve already talked about how Hart has added a consistent three-point shot and how he can make plays in ball-screen actions, now he’s handing out double-figure assists? Entering the week, Hart had never averaged two assists per game for a season, including this season.
  • Rodney Bullock, Providence: It’s too early in the year to make any blanket statements about Bullock or a young Friar team, but he’s averaging 21.4 points on the season and, this week alone, had 36 points in a win over New Hampshire and followed that up with 17 points as the Friars beat No. 21 Rhode Island.
  • Kevin Hervey, UT Arlington: Hervey, who may be the best NBA prospect in the mid-major ranks, posted a pair of double-doubles in road wins this week, including 18 points and 10 boards as UTA went to Austin and knocked off Texas.
  • Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame: Colson, the 6-foot-5 power forward for the Fighting Irish, is averaging 18.7 points and 10.7 boards this season. He’s notched five straight double-doubles, two of which came this week, including a 24-point, 17-rebound, three-block performance in a win over Iowa.