Friday’s Pregame Shootaround: Wiggins, Warren, and possible Bluejay upset alert

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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 10 Kansas (24-8) vs. No. 16 Iowa State (24-7), 7 PM, ESPNU

Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins is going HAM. He’ll never admit that — his seeming modesty preclude the Jayhawk freshman from hyping his accomplishments — but the forward is an offensive juggernaut the past several games, scoring 41 in a loss to West Virginia and then 30 against Oklahoma State in KU’s Big 12 quarterfinal contest. His dominating streak, of course, began against the Cyclones, so it is only fitting the two teams again meet in the conference semis. In late January, the player we all thought would revolutionize the college game (note the hyperbole) dropped 29 on Fred Hoiberg’s club, the final time the two squads met during the regular season. Wiggins was option 1, 1A, and 1B in ISU’s conference tournament scouting report, and while Hoiberg undoubtedly has a game plan for the freshman, it likely will not matter: Wiggins’s play has clearly elevated to another realm. Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim may have been awarded the conference’s player of the year honor, but the Cyclone worth attention is Georges Niang. The undersized forward will likely be labeled as a breakout candidate next season, so study his game now and proclaim yourself an early follower: Niang has an old man game, predicated on deception, jump hooks, and skillfully using his lower body to dislodge defenders. Niang leads the Cyclones in percentage of shots taken, and his efficiency within the field hasn’t significantly dropped (55 percent from within the arc) despite an increased offensive role.

RELATED: Is your team in the field of 68? Check our latest Bracketology

THE OTHER GAME OF THE NIGHT: North Carolina State (20-12) vs. No 11. Syracuse (27-4), 7 PM, ESPN

Unless Mark Gottfried’s team makes April’s first weekend, the topic that will come to define the 2014 Wolf Pack is: should TJ Warren been awarded a continuation foul in State’s close loss to the Cuse? In only their second meeting this season, Warren has a chance to again propel the squad past Syracuse, and luckily for Gottfried and his staff, the ACC player of the year is currently peaking: a streak consecutive 40-plus point games was disrupted by a mundane 24 points last night in a win over Miami, and as Dylan Burkhardt recently posted out on his fantastic Shot Analytics’ site, Warren has elevated his game by his consistent, and effective, use of the floater. The Orange forced ten turnovers in the inaugural match-up, so the recent enhanced play of NC State frosh Cat Barber will be crucial: during the past three games, Barber has handed out 15 assists and no turnovers.

RELATED: Conference Tournament schedules for every league

WHO’S GETTING UPSET? No. 14 Creighton (25-6) vs. Xavier (21-11), 9:30, Fox Sports 1

Even through realignment caused the stronger teams (Louisville, Connecticut, Cincinnati, et al) to flee the Big East, the new-look conference tournament has not disappointed. Seton Hall shocked Villanova, and there could be another upset when Xavier, which outlasted fellow bubble compatriot Marquette, takes on Creighton. The win propelled the Musketeers into the tournament field, and Chris Mack’s program is perfectly suited to counter-balance the Bluejays. Regardless that XU already defeated CU once this season (and their first match-up likely should have been won by Xavier), Xavier is skilled at crashing the defensive glass, diminishing Creighton’s ability to begin their break, and there is some evidence that teams which are very physical with Creighton fare well. All of Omaha had traveled to Madison Square Garden to watch the Bluejays beat down on DePaul, but the Musketeers have a very strong chance of surviving, and outlasting, Creighton’s three-point outbursts.

Get to know all of the NCAA Tournament’s automatic bids here.

MID-MAJOR GAME OF THE DAY: Southern Miss (27-5) vs. Louisiana Tech (26-6), 6:30, CBS Sports Network

Both coaches in this match-up — Donnie Tyndall and Michael White — have been early candidates floated by the national media for the Auburn opening, but that sort of attention shouldn’t diminish what will be a classic contrast: Conference USA’s best offense (USM, 1.12 PPP) versus its best defense (LaTech, .90 OPPP). The deciding factor could be determined at the free throw line: nearly 30 percent of the Golden Eagles’ points come from free throws, a nationally ranked rate that also leads the conference, and the squad is preternaturally skilled at drawing fouls at a rapid clip. And while Louisiana Tech does have a stingy defense, they are graduates of the Frank Martin school of defense, committing a foul on more than 40 percent of their defensive possessions. Senior forward Daveon Boardingham, who leads the team in fouls drawn per 40 minutes and free throw attempts, should have a fruitful day at the stripe.

(MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews)

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW

1) Kethan Savage returns to the George Washington (23-7) lineup in their quarterfinal match-up with Massachusetts (24-7). Mike Lonergan told me that the Colonials haven’t been able to really practice this season due to injury concerns — they don’t have enough bodies to compensate for another injury — and Savage, who missed twelve games recovering from a foot fracture, was sorely missed when the team faced UMass in mid-February. Massachusetts outlasted Rhode Island in what was a physical, and at time ugly, game, and while people are currently holding on to the sides of the Minuteman bandwagon, the team can be erratic — consistency has been Derek Kellogg’s bugbear this year.

2) Northern Colorado (18-12) was somehow able to outlast a furious Northern Arizona rally in their opening round game, and the Bears are primed to derail the Big Sky tournament title hopes of Weber State (17-11). At one point in the second half, UNC led by 20 points, and though the LUmberjacks cut the margin to two, UNC, which showed the broad spectrum of their skills (an unreal ability to score points) and deficiencies (little to no attention paid on the defensive side of the ball), prevailed. It is worth noting, as Weber State’s Twitter account pointed out last night, that UNC, along with the other two semifinalists (Portland State and North Dakota), are 1-32 when playing the Wildcats in Ogden.

3) Shabazz Napier has been very busy recently. Not only did the Connecticut (25-7) senior guard have a solid stat-line in a win over Memphis (11 points, seven boards, three assists), but he also clarified his recent AAC player of the year comments about Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick, words that will surely be motivation for Cincinnati (27-5) in today’s AAC semifinal. Napier had earlier said that Kilpatrick had played well this season but had help from his senior ‘mate Justin Jackson, and following last night’s UConn win, he added, “I’m not into individual accolades. I don’t want to play Cincinnati just to play Kilpatrick. I’m here for my team, and I’m trying to play against Cincinnati. That’s it.” Even though he may disagree, sounds like someone is happy with the AAC coaches awarding him the POY award.

4) Chris Collins has done a phenomenal job in his first season at Northwestern (14-18), a sentiment further cemented when the Wildcats beat Iowa in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. Can NU keep the momentum? The squad faces a Michigan State (23-8_ team riddled with question marks, and if NU wants another upset, Tre Demps and Dave Sobolewski will have to continue their torrid attack of the basket. The duo scored a combined 30 points — Sobo added ten, the most points he has scored since the beginning of the season — and their ability to deflect defensive attention from Drew Crawford significantly boosts Northwestern’s offense.

5) There are two Pac-12 games tonight, and both feature teams desperate to escape the NCAA bubble. Colorado (23-1), which faces Arizona (29-3) in the semifinals, lost three of their last four entering the conference tournament, but has used stout defense — .91 OPPP against USC and California — to propel the Buffaloes. Stanford (21-11) is matched with UCLA (24-8), and while the Cardinal continuously seem to beguile, and underachieve, under Johnny Dawkins, a win would provide a huge boost.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25:

  • No. 6 Virginia vs. Florida State, noon
  • No. 8 Michigan vs. Illinois, noon
  • No. 18 Saint Louis vs. St. Bonaventure, noon
  • No.1 Florida vs. Missouri 1 PM
  • No. 24 Ohio State vs. Nebraska, 2 PM
  • No. 15 North Carolina vs. Pittsburgh, 2 PM
  • No. 23 VCU vs. Richmond, 6:30 PM
  • No. 12 Wisconsin vs. Minnesota, 6:30 PM
  • No. 5 Louisville vs. Houston 7 PM
  • No. 7 Duke vs. Clemson, 9 PM
  • No. 8 San Diego State vs. UNLV, 9 PM
  • No. 20 New Mexico vs. Boise State, 11:30

NOTABLES:

  • Saint Joseph’s vs. Dayton, 2:30 PM
  • LSU vs. Kentucky, 7 PM

No. 1 Kansas dominates No. 4 Purdue in style

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Kansas, the top-seeded team in Midwest region, didn’t just beat No. 4 Purdue, it did so in style. Fast break after fast break, dunk after dunk, the Jayhawks ran the Boilermakers off the floor, advancing to the Elite Eight with a 98-66 win on Thursday night in Kansas City.

Kansas went on an 11-0 run in the second half, forcing four Purdue turnovers during that stretch. Once the Boilermakers finally got back on the board, the Jayhawks led 69-56. That run broke open the game en route to the 32-point victory.

Frank Mason II and Devonte Graham each had 26 points. Mason added seven rebounds and seven assists. Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan ended his season — and perhaps, his college career — with 18 points and seven rebounds.

Kansas advances to play No. 3 seed Oregon on Saturday in the Elite Eight.

WATCH: LaGerald Vick’s 360 dunk

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It takes a lot of confidence to throw down a dunk better suited for pre-game lay-up lines than the middle of a NCAA Tournament game.

But Kansas sophomore guard LaGerald Vick thought this breakaway opportunity in the second half of a Sweet 16 matchup against No. 4 seed Purdue was the perfect time to throw down a 360 dunk.

Jordan Mathews three sends No. 1 seed Gonzaga past No. 4 West Virginia

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Jordan Mathews hit a three with less than a minute left and West Virginia missed a pair of threes on the final possession of the game as No. 1 seed Gonzaga won a dogfight, 61-58, over No. 4 seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night.

Mathews, who finished with 13 points on the night, spent 4:30 on the bench before checking into the game right before hitting the eventual game-winning three. It came on a possession fitting of this game, which was the embodiment of the mantra ‘a close game is not always a good game.’ Nigel Williams-Goss, who played arguably his worst game as a member of the Zags, turned the ball over immediately after gathering a defensive rebound. But West Virginia’s Nathan Adrian had a shot blocked at the rim and, after corralling the loose ball, Williams-Goss found Mathews open in the wing for a three that put the Zags up 60-58 with 37 seconds left.

What’s going to be talked about after this game is the final possession for West Virginia.

Jevon Carter, who finished with 21 points and who, prior to that final possession, continued to hit big jumper after big jumper for the Mountaineers, airballed a three and, after West Virginia gathered the rebound, threw up another tough three that bounced off the front rim. West Virginia again got the loose ball, and after Carter dribbled 15 seconds off the block, he gave the ball up to Daxter Miles, who didn’t have enough time to get the shot off:

That possession is going to haunt Carter for a long, long time, and West Virginia was rightfully criticized for the way that they “executed” on that possession — I wonder if Bob Huggins regrets not saving a timeout for the end of the game — but it’s impossible to criticize West Virginia without also mentioning that Gonzaga’s defense was as good as it gets.

Not just just on that possession, either.

The Zags made life difficult for West Virginia all night long, and that should not come as a surprise to anyone that has been paying attention to this Gonzaga team. West Virginia shot 26.7 percent from the floor. They were 5-for-23 from three, and if it wasn’t for the 20 offensive rebounds they grabbed — more than the 16 field goals they made on the night — Gonzaga would have walked out of the SAP Center with a comfortable win. They are, quite literally, the best defensive team in college basketball, according to KenPom, and they made the plays they needed to make down the stretch to get the win. That’s what championship-caliber teams do.

And if you still don’t believe that Gonzaga can win a national title this season, than I’m not sure what else you need to see.

West Virginia was a terrible matchup for Gonzaga. Their guards, as good as they’ve been all season long, are not cut out for playing against a back court that is that much tougher, that much quicker, that much more aggressive and that much more athletic than them. Williams-Goss, who was a second-team NBC Sports All-American, was exposed. He finished the evening 2-for-10 from the floor with five turnovers and just a single assist before finding Mathews for the game-winning three. As a team, Gonzaga turned the ball over 16 times. Josh Perkins didn’t even get a shot off. Silas Melson was 2-for-7 from the floor. Throw in Zach Collins, who had just a single point, and four of Gonzaga’s top seven players were flat out bad on Thursday night.

That was, unequivocally, a game played the way West Virginia wanted it to be played. The Mountaineers controlled the game.

And yet, Gonzaga is still headed to the Elite 8, one game — against the winner of No. 2 Arizona and No. 11 Xavier — away from the right to go to the Final Four.

The knock on this Gonzaga team was their toughness, both physical and mental. Would they be able to handle a team that plays the way that West Virginia plays? Would they be able to handle the game pressure of playing to the final possession in the Sweet 16?

The answer is yes.

That doesn’t mean Gonzaga is going to win the national title.

But they are certainly good enough to get it done.

No. 3 Oregon advances after thriller with No. 7 Michigan

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Oregon is returning to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season following a thrilling, 69-68, victory over No. 7 Michigan in the Sweet 16 in Kansas City on Thursday night.

In a game in which neither team could fully grasp control of the game, it came down to the wire. Michigan held a 3-point lead with two minutes to play. Jordan Bell, who was unquestionably the deciding factor in this contest, came up with the first of several critical hustle plays down the stretch. He knifed in on a missed free throw, for the second-chance bucket, cutting the deficit to one.

On the ensuing Michigan possession, Bell didn’t block it but affected Derrick Walton Jr.’s shot enough to force the miss. Tyler Dorsey, the other hero for the Ducks, continued his stellar play this month with a go-ahead layup after he spun through the Wolverine defense. Bell’s close out on D.J. Wilson sent his 3-point attempt way off the mark. Bell would corral another offensive rebound on the other end of the floor, and while Dylan Ennis left the door open for Michigan following another missed free throw, Bell, deservedly, rebounded Walton’s miss as time ran out.

“Do whatever you can to win,” Bell told reporters after the game. “Me, get every rebound, offense or defense, help my team out as much as possible.”

Bell had 16 points and 13 rebounds. Tyler Dorsey poured in 20 points. Walton Jr., who front-rimmed a potential game-winner at the buzzer, ended his collegiate career with stat-line of 20 points, eight assists, and five rebounds. Zak Irvin added 19.

Dillon Brooks is without a doubt the star, but Bell and Dorsey round out a big three that could lead the Ducks to Phoenix.

Before the start of the Pac-12 Tournament championship game on March 11, Oregon announced that Chris Boucher would miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. How would this effect Oregon’s defense days before it began its quest for a Final Four?

Bell has helped answer those questions on Thursday night. He’s a big reason why Oregon outscored Michigan, 34-16, in points in the paint. But his greatest impact was how he slowed down the two-headed monster of Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson, two forwards whose increased production is a big reason why Michigan’s unlikely run extended into the second weekend of the tournament. The duo scored a combined 19 points off 7-of-20 shooting.

The other for Oregon was the continued offensive tear of Dorsey. In six postseason games, the sophomore two-guard is averaging 23.0 points per game. He went toe-to-toe with Walton, who was playing as good as any guard in the country, in the final minutes and got the better of the battle. Playing at this level, Oregon has another go-to scorer, one who has no issue taking a big shot late in the game. In either matchup in the next round, that should come in handy. Dillon Brooks, one of college’s toughest matchups, will either be busy with Purdue’s massive frontline or locked in an all-out war with Kansas’ Josh Jackson the perimeter.

“I’m really fortunate to have Jordan for three years and Tyler for two and Dillon Brooks,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said. “We’ve just been really fortunate. We’ve got good players and guys that are unselfish. They want to win. They’re competitive. We got down four there and guys could have gave into it. They didn’t. They fought their way back. Shows you what kind of competitive spirit they’ve got.”

The Ducks, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, will face the winner of top-seeded Kansas and No. 4 Purdue on Saturday night at the Sprint Center.

“We know Purdue is really big and Kansas is Kansas,” Altman said.

WATCH: Steve Alford end practice with half-court shot

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford ended practice on Thursday by drilling a half-court shot on the first attempt.

According to the Associated Press, this has been a season-long battle between the UCLA coaching staff and the players.

“Truth be told, we’ve been getting slaughtered. We’ve got guys like Lonzo (Ball) literally takes a jump shot from the timeline. We were just lucky that they only got one shot at it. I think coaches are down about eight on the half-court shots this year. I told them, though, that the coaches are ahead at the Sweet 16. I don’t think they’re buying it.”

No. 3 seed UCLA is set to play No. 2 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night in Memphis. The Bruins defeated the Wildcats, 97-92, in a non-conference matchup on Dec. 3.