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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.

Five things we learned: Duke’s a mess, Gonzaga’s a controversy, Baylor’s back

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 27:  Nigel Williams-Goss #5 and Josh Perkins #13 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrate a victory over the Iowa State Cyclones at HP Field House on November 27, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
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1. The ‘Is Gonzaga a No. 1 seed?’ controversy is coming whether you like it or not: Gonzaga improved to 17-0 this week, meaning that the Zags are now exactly halfway to entering the NCAA tournament undefeated on the season. The statement was made on Saturday night, when No. 5 Gonzaga hosted No. 21 Saint Mary’s and won by 23 points.

The game was much closer than the final score – a late-run from the Zags and foul trouble for Jock Landale were the culprits in the end – but it was a statement nonetheless. Saint Mary’s is really good, and Gonzaga dispatched them with little trouble. It more or less confirms what we already knew: there is a very real chance that the Zags can go undefeated during the regular season, and it is a virtual certainty that ‘Is Gonzaga really a No. 1 seed?’ will be one of the biggest talking points on Selection Sunday.

Think about it: How many more games will the Zags actually lose? Their trip to Saint Mary’s is going to be tricky, BYU is certainly dangerous and they’ll likely face one of those two teams in the WCC title game. Throw in the fact that every road game they play is the biggest game of the year for their opponent, and I’ll set the over/under for Zag losses at 2.5; worth noting: KenPom projects Gonzaga to be favored in every game they play.

Let’s think about this in a best-case scenario: The Zags will enter Selection Sunday with neutral site wins over Iowa State, Arizona and Florida, but a clean sweep of Saint Mary’s. That will, in all likelihood, be the totality of their top 50 wins. The Selection Committee is going to have to compare that profile to the profiles of Villanova, Kansas, Kentucky and the eventual ACC champion, not to mention fellow west coast powerhouse UCLA.

If Gonzaga ends up going 34-0, they’ll be an automatic No. 1 seed, or at least they should be. But if they lose a game or two?

That’s when this will become interesting.

And even if the Zags don’t lose a game, there will still be people saying they don’t deserve to get a top seed.

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2. Duke is a total mess right now: Twice in the last week and for the third time this season, Duke went on the road in ACC play and took a loss in a game that never felt like it was all that much in doubt. On Tuesday, the Blue Devils lost by 16 at Florida State in a game where they gave up 88 points. On Saturday, they lost by nine at Louisville, giving up 78 points to the offensively-challenged Cardinals.

And that’s where their issues begin. On defense, particularly in ball-screen defense. Harry Giles III just doesn’t look like he quite understands where he has to be and when he has to be there yet, while Marques Bolden, in Amile Jefferson’s absence, is playing behind both Chase Jeter and Javin DeLaurier. Offensively, the issues they’ve had with point guard play are really coming to the forefront, as Grayson Allen, for all his ability, is an attacker, not a facilitator, at heart. Jayson Tatum is a super-skilled scorer, but he lacks a feel for the game to the point where Duke has actually looked like a better team with him on the bench.

The Blue Devils lack toughness. They lack a killer. They get pushed around. And their leaders – Coach K on the bench and Jefferson on the floor – are both currently on the mend.

At what point do we start questioning if, not when, Duke can turn this thing around?

3. Xavier has their own problems: The Musketeer’s issues have less to do with ability than they do with the fact that this team lacks résumé wins. As of this moment in time, Chris Mack’s club may not have a win over an NCAA tournament team. They beat Clemson who can’t beat anyone in the ACC. They beat Utah before Utah had David Collette and Sedrick Barefield eligible. They beat Wake Forest (whatever) and Northern Iowa twice (they stick this year).

There are still plenty of good wins left for them to get – Creighton twice, at Cincinnati, Xavier at home, Butler at home, the Big East tournament – and this team is good enough to get some of them, but it’s worth noting that, as of today, Xavier’s tournament profile is not good.

4. Maybe Baylor wasn’t the best team in the country after all: It was fun while it lasted for the Bears, as No. 1 Baylor went into Morgantown and learned what Press Virginia is all about. They committed 29 turnovers in a 21-point loss. And frankly, if you were paying attention, the result shouldn’t have been all that surprising. Yes, Scott Drew’s club got beaten worse than we thought, but they were also a team that earned that No. 1 ranking because of the way that the voting is done, not necessarily because they were the best team in the country.

WACO, TX - JANUARY 7: Johnathan Motley #5 and Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. #0 of the Baylor Bears celebrate after defeating the Oklahoma State Cowboys 61-57 on January 7, 2017 at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas.  (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
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5. New Mexico and Colorado State do not like each other: New Mexico and Colorado State got into a couple of different altercations on Saturday in UNM’s win at Colorado State. It started in the pregame, where a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal reported that CSU players were talking trash to UNM players about the job status of the Lobo coaches. During the game, a hard-screen set by a UNM player resulted in a near-brawl, one where UNM assistants Chris Harriman and Terrence Rencher were ejected for leaving their bench.

After the game is when things really got interesting. The Journal reporter published video of a verbal altercation outside the arena between Rencher and CSU player Emmanuel Omogbo. Omogbo, who was held back by CSU head coach Larry Eustachy, claimed that Rencher started the altercation, and Eustachy’s wife, Lana, accused him of laughing when he was told of the tragedy Omogbo has lived through; his parents and two two-year old sisters died in a house fire last year.

UNM strongly denied that those allegations were true, and their account was supported by the Journal reporter. It turned into a big deal this weekend, largely due to the fact that it was a coach and a player that got into it …

… and because it was on video.

And that was where the real damage was done.

Dust-ups like what happened in and around that building on Saturday happen more than you think, particularly in the gyms where both teams have to leave the floor through the same tunnel. In this incident, a 22-year old coming off of a chippy home loss lost his temper. It happens. Rencher didn’t raise his fists or raise his voice, essentially responding to the player by saying, “Keep it moving, you don’t want these problems.”

Neither man covered himself in glory, and neither of them did anything that was all that bad.

It was a situation that was diffused pretty quickly, never escalated into any type of violence and only became ‘a thing’ because it was captured on video.

These two teams play again in mid-February. Hopefully this will be the last time we have to talk about it until then.

Team of the Week: West Virginia Mountaineers

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25:  Head coach Bob Huggins of the West Virginia Mountaineers reacts against the Temple Owls in the second half during the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center on November 25, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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The Mountaineers did two things this week that should impress you.

For starters, they absolutely crushed No. 1 and then-undefeated Baylor at home. The Bears committed 29 turnovers and lost by 21 points in a game that never felt like it was in doubt for WVU. Press Virginia has never looked so good.

But Bob Huggins’ club followed that up on Saturday by going on the road, playing in an empty arena at Texas and overcoming a flu outbreak to land a come-from-behind win over the Longhorns. Let-down games are a real thing, especially when those games are played in arenas that don’t have the same kind of energy as a packed WVU coliseum.

We know what this team is and we know what they bring on a nightly basis. Their loss to Texas Tech puts them behind the eight-ball in a conference where Kansas is going to be so difficult to beat, but we need to take them as seriously as a Big 12 title contender as we do Baylor.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • UCLA: The Bruins became just the fourth team since Utah and Colorado joined the Pac-12 to sweep the road weekend at the Mountain schools. UCLA hit 19 threes and scored 104 points at Colorado and followed that up with a come-from-behind win at Utah, a game where UCLA’s legs were clearly weighing on them. Worth noting: the other three schools to accomplish this feat both won the conference.
  • Mississippi State: For all the talk about Mississippi State’s struggles this season, they’re quietly looking pretty good this year. They’re 12-4 on the season and, after a win at Arkansas and a win over Texas A&M at home, are sitting at 3-1 in the SEC.
  • Louisville: The Cardinals shook off a slow start to ACC play this week, hanging on to beat Pitt despite 43 points from Jamel Artis and following that up with a win over Duke in the Yum! Center on Saturday. Anas Mahmoud played the best game of his career in the win over Duke.
  • Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish are now 16-2 on the season and 5-0 in the ACC after landing close wins at Miami and Virginia Tech this week. The Irish choked away big leads and lost a game down the stretch against both Villanova and Purdue. It looks like they may have shed those demons. Their five ACC wins are by a combined 23 points.
  • Cincinnati: The Bearcats asserted their dominance atop the American by beating SMU at home on Thursday night. They followed that up with a road win at an overmatched East Carolina. Cincinnati is one of the nation’s best defensive teams, and a team that we probably are not paying enough attention to right now.

Player of the Week: Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II, North Carolina

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At this point, it’s almost too difficult to separate the contributions being made by Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson.

Berry is the guy that makes everything easier for No. 11 North Carolina offensively. Jackson has turned into the sharpshooter and the closer that the Tar Heels have lacked the last two seasons. And the two of them have essentially taken turns making the big shots down the stretch for UNC this season.

On Wednesday, in a win at Wake Forest, it was Jackson burying a clutch three in a game where he led the Tar Heels with 19 points. On Saturday, it was Berry that had an answer for every Florida State run. He finished with 26 points against FSU. Jackson had 22, and he had a three in a late run that put the game away.

At this point, these two make up the best one-two punch in the ACC. They deserve to be in the same conversation with the likes of De’Aaron Fox-Malik Monk, Josh Hart-Jalen Brunson and Frank Mason III-Josh Jackson when it comes to the best one-two punches in the sport. Both have earned at least consideration for all-american teams.

They are the reason that UNC is very much a contender to get back to the Final Four and win that elusive national title.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss was the best player on the floor for the Zags on Saturday night as they handed Saint Mary’s their worst loss of the season, 79-56. It was quite the statement for Gonzaga, as Saint Mary’s was considered by many to be a real contender for the WCC title. Is it too early to start talking about Gonzaga’s undefeated season?
  • Bryce Alford, UCLA: Alford put together one of the best shooting performances we’ve seen this season, hitting 9-for-14 from three in a 37-point outburst at Colorado. Alford also hit a huge three late in the second half of the Bruins’ win at Utah, only the fourth time in six years that a Pac-12 team has swept the Mountain schools on the road.
  • London Perrantes, Virginia: Virginia bounced back from a rough start to ACC play with a pair of wins this week, including a win at Clemson. Perrantes was fantastic in the two wins, averaging 24.5 points and hitting a number of critical shots late in the win at Clemson. He’s turning into the go-to guy that the Cavaliers lost in Malcolm Brogdon.
  • Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Beating an in-state rival like Arizona State is always awesome. Scoring 30 points in a game is always awesome. Scoring 30 points in a blowout win over your in-state rival? Priceless. Or something like that, right? Regardless, Markkanen has more than lived up to the hype he had entering the season.
  • Vlad Brodziansky, TCU: The Horned Frogs moved to 3-2 in the Big 12 this season with wins at Texas and over Iowa State at home, and Brodziansky was the biggest reason why. The 6-foot-11 Slovakian averaged 22 points, 10 boards and three blocks while shooting better than 70 percent form the floor.

College Basketball Talk Top 25: Just how far will Duke fall?

PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 28:  Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after losing 76-62 to the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Petersen Events Center on February 28, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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There was a lot of movement in this week’s top 25, mainly a result of Baylor and Duke taking the losses that they took.

Baylor, on Tuesday, took a 21-point beating at the hands of West Virginia, a loss on the road in which they committed 29 turnovers. While the final score was worrisome, the actual result really should not have been overly surprising. West Virginia is a pressing team that plays their best at home when the crowd is rocking, and Baylor is a team that entered the season with question marks at the point guard spot.

As bad as the result looked, it was pretty predictable, particularly when you factor in that Baylor maybe wasn’t actually the best team in the country.

Duke was much more difficult to rank. This team is still the co-favorite in Vegas to win the national title, meaning their ceiling is still just as high as anyone’s, but at this moment, Duke is a total mess. Without getting too much into their specific issues – I wrote 1,000 words on that very topic on Saturday – it’s getting harder and harder to justify keeping them in the top 25.

As of today, I think it’s too early to drop them out when teams like Maryland and Minnesota are in and around the top 25.

But if you don’t want to rank the Blue Devils, I’m not going to be the one to tell you you’re wrong.

On to the rankings:

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

DROPPED OUT: No. 24 Minnesota
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 25 Maryland

PHOTO: Drake wears jersey of Zion Williamson, 2018 recruit

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Drake, who is famous for jumping on bandwagons and Canada’s most well-known Kentucky basketball fan, was spotted in an Instagram post wearing the jersey of Zion Williamson, one of the best players in the Class of 2018:

@mikewillmadeit @troubledte6

A photo posted by champagnepapi (@champagnepapi) on

This Williamson kid is good, too.

Well, he’s great for the mixtapes.

Because he does stuff like this: