Midwest Region Preview: Is 4-seed Louisville the favorite?

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The biggest gripe that I saw regarding the release of the bracket was regarding Louisville. How did they end up a No. 4 seed? How could a team that is ranked second on KenPom.com end up being ranked fourth in their region? What is the world coming to?

Whatever.

If I’m a Louisville fan, I’m celebrating tonight. They’re in a pod with a slumping No. 5 seed in Saint Louis and the weakest No. 1 seed in Wichita State, and there’s a possibility that the Cardinals will be able to play — and knock out? — archrival Kentucky in the Sweet 16. So, again, what is the problem here?

If there is any team that has a complaint about the way that the bracket was seeded, it’s the Shockers. NCAA Tournament draws can be unflinchingly cruel, and Wichita State ended up with a worst-case scenario. Their Round of 32 matchup will be against preseason No. 1 Kentucky or Kansas State in St. Louis. Win that, and they’re likely looking at one of the hottest teams in the country in Louisville. If that wasn’t enough, that Sweet 16 game would be held in Indianapolis, a 90-minute drive from Louisville. The undefeated Shockers would be going on the road in the Sweet 16.

And here’s the worst part: they will be crucified if they can’t put together another run to the Final Four. An exit in the Round of 32 will essentially render their 34-0 pre-NCAA tournament record invalid in the court of public opinion.

I don’t root for anyone anymore. I think I’ll be rooting for Wichita State to pull this off, if for no other reason than I want to see their season “justified”.

MORERead through all of our bracket analysis here

Three story lines to watch

  • 1. The Chase for Perfection: Wichita State will be the first team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated since UNLV in 1991. They will try to become the first team to finish the season undefeated since Indiana in 1976. We’re watching history happen before our eyes. Enjoy it.
  • 2. Can Kentucky pull a Fab Five?: People tend to forget that, as freshmen, the Fab Five were a No. 6 seed before making a run to the National Title game. Kentucky is not quite as good as that Michigan team was, but they were a different team in the SEC tournament than they were … all season long? Can that success continue?
  • 3. Is Louisville headed to a third straight Final Four?: For the third straight season, Rick Pitino has his Cardinals streaking at the perfect time. The last two years, Louisville bounced back from a rough stretch in the regular season to win the Big East tournament title and make a run to the Final Four in 2012 and the National Title in 2013. The Cardinals were written off after Chane Behanan was kicked off the team and they lost at home to Memphis, but a run to the American tournament title has the Cards looking like a trendy pick to repeat as champs.
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The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 2 Michigan

I might end up picking Louisville to win the National Title, I think they’re that good. I like Michigan on the other side of the region. To beat the Wolverines, you need the kind of on-ball defenders that can get up into Nik Stauskas and keep him from having a field day in John Beilein’s offense. Neither Texas or Arizona State has a guy like that. Duke does — Tyler Thornton — but this is a different Michigan team than the one that lost at Cameron in December. They’re running much more of their offense through Stauskas, Walton is a different player and Glenn Robinson III finally woke up. And if Thornton is on Stauskas, who tries to slow down Caris LeVert?

MORE: Eight teams that can win the national title.

Final Four sleeper: No. 8 Kentucky

Are the Wildcats really a sleeper? You kind of sacrifice that name when you are the preseason No. 1 team in the country, but after a disappointing season, Kentucky heads into the dance as a No. 8 seed. The good news? They played their best basketball of the season during those three days in Atlanta. ‘The Tweak’ that John Calipari talked about so much was simply getting his team to buy-in to what he wanted. The key is Andrew Harrison at the point. He was terrific during the SEC tournament. He needs to be terrific in the NCAA tournament. If he is, this is still one of the most talented teams in the country.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 11 Iowa vs. No. 11 Tennessee: One of the three play-in games in the Midwest, this should be a doozy. Iowa is, on paper, a Final Four threat, but they’ve really struggled in the last month and a half. Tennessee is, on paper, an NIT team that has somehow turned into one of the hottest teams in the country the last couple of weeks.
  • No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 13 Manhattan: Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello was a walk-on for Rick Pitino at Kentucky and an assistant on his staff at Louisville for six years.

Matchups to root for

  • No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 Kentucky: I don’t need to explain this, do I?
  • No. 3 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan: I would not complain about a rematch. At all. Both the Wolverines and the Blue Devils have top five offenses and sub-100 defenses, according to KenPom. Can you say shootout?

The studs you know about

  • Russ Smith, Louisville: Once known as Russdiculous, Smith has become more of a point guard for Louisville this season while remaining a terror defensively.
  • Jabari Parker, Duke: Arguably the most well-rounded offensive weapon in the country and a potential No. 1 pick in the draft in June.
  • Nik Stauskas, Michigan: The Wolverines turned into a Big Ten champion when John Beilein allowed Stauskas, a 6-foot-6 sharpshooter with bounce, handle, great vision and noticeable attitude, to be the centerpiece of his offense.
  • Julius Randle, Kentucky: Another future top five pick, Randle is a double-double machine.

MORE: All-Americans | Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | Freshman of the Year

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State: You’ve heard the name, but have you seen him play this year? Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early are great, but Van Vleet is their engine.
  • Langston Hall, Mercer: Hall is a big time scorer for the Bears that has a knack for hitting big shots in big moments. He’ll give Duke problems in the first round.
  • T.J. Warren, N.C. State: Everyone in the ACC knows about Warren, but he’s slept-on nationally because the Wolfpack were perceived as an NIT team. He went for 40 points in back-to-back games two weeks ago and is the best scorer in the country not named Doug McDermott.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 11 Tennessee over No. 6 UMass: I’m just not a huge fan of the Minutemen this season, and Tennessee is a tough, veteran team playing their best basketball of the season right now. I’d make the same pick if Iowa beats Tennessee in the play-in game.
  • No. 4 Louisville over No. 1 Wichita State: I like this upset for a couple reasons: Montrezl Harrell will dominate the Shockers up front, the Shockers don’t have anyone that can guard Russ Smith and Louisville’s back court is quick and pesky enough to give Wichita State’s guards problems.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • No. 8 Kentucky or No. 9 Kansas State over No. 1 Wichita State: This pick has nothing to do with matchups. To me, this will be about desire. I’m not sure there is a better motivator in college basketball than WSU’s Gregg Marshall. The Shockers went 34-0 this season, which means they never slipped up against an inferior team. They never sleep-walked through a game and never overlooked an opponent. They’ll be ready, and they won’t be overwhelmed by the moment against either team.

Feeling like gambling?

  • No. 14 Mercer over No. 3 Duke: Duke is a nightmare to try and defend. Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker might be the best 1-2 punch in the conference. But they can be exploited by talented, penetrating guards. Remember, this Mercer team won the Atlantic Sun regular season title over Florida-Gulf Coast last season. They’re good. Can Hall have his C.J. McCollum moment?

CBT Predictions: No. 4 Louisville beats No. 1 Wichita State and No. 2 Michigan en route to their third straight Final Four.

College Basketball Power Rankings: After a wild week, let’s start this thing over

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This has been an unbelievably weird season to date, which feels about par for the course for college basketball in the era of the FBI investigation.

Arizona fell off a cliff in the Bahamas before returning stateside and reeling off four straight wins, three of which came at UNLV, on a neutral against Texas A&M and at home against Alabama. Duke lost at Boston College after playing like they deserved to lose four or five times already this season. Florida lost to Florida State and Loyola-Chicago. Kansas lost to Washington and Arizona State, who actually has a shot of being ranked as the No. 1 team in college basketball on Monday.

Seriously.

But wait.

There’s more.

Notre Dame lost to Ball State. Minnesota got blown out at Nebraska and Arkansas. Purdue lost to Western Kentucky. I could go on but you get the point. Nothing makes sense anymore. My best guess is that we’re all watching basketball in the upside-down.

I’m starting anew. Instead of trying to figure out who goes up because they beat Team A who beat Team B after Team B upset Team C who lost by 30 to Team D. I’m just going to rank who I think are the 25 best teams in the country in order.

So bear with me as I try to figure out just what to make of college basketball in the year of our lord, 2017.

1. Villanova, 10-0 (Last Week: No. 4)
2. Michigan State, 9-1 (2)
3. Miami, 8-0 (7)
4. Wichita State, 8-1 (8)
5. Duke, 10-1 (1)
6. Arizona, 7-3 (22)
7. Arizona State, 9-0 (18)
8. Texas A&M, 8-1 (6)
9. Xavier, 9-1 (10)
10. West Virginia, 9-1 (17)
11. Seton Hall, 8-1 (15)
12. North Carolina, 9-1 (19)
13. Kansas, 7-2 (3)
14. Gonzaga, 8-2 (9)
15. Notre Dame, 8-2 (11)
16. Purdue, 10-2 (20)
17. Kentucky, 7-1 (14)
18. Virginia, 8-1 (16)
19. Oklahoma, 7-1 (NR)
20. Tennessee, 7-1 (NR)
21. Florida State, 9-0 (NR)
22. Florida, 6-3 (5)
23. Cincinnati, 7-2 (13)
24. Texas Tech, 7-1 (20)
25. TCU, 10-0 (21)

NEW ADDITIONS: No. 19 Oklahoma, No. 20 Tennessee, No. 21 Florida State

DROPPED OUT: 12. Minnesota, 23. Texas, 24. Baylor, 25. Creighton

No. 16 Arizona State hands No. 2 Kansas second-straight loss

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No. 16 Arizona State got a combined 72 points, 14 assists and nine steals from their three-headed monster of Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Remy Martin as the Sun Devils went into Phog Allen Fieldhouse and handed Kansas their second-straight loss, 95-85. ASU went on an 18-0 second half run to turn a 52-47 deficit into an 65-52 lead they would never relinquish.

It’s the first time since Dec. 2013, when Kansas lost to Colorado and Florida in back-to-back road games, that the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks lost two in a row. The difference, of course, is that neither of these losses came on the road; Kansas was beaten by Washington in Kansas City on Wednesday.

Arizona State now owns wins at Kansas and over St. John’s and No. 14 Xavier on a neutral floor. They were, without a doubt, the favorite to win the Pac-12 title at this point. They are probably the best team on the west coast, and there is a valid argument to rank them as the No. 1 team in the country.

Here are four things to take away from this result:

1. YES, WE CAN RANK ARIZONA STATE NO. 1 IN THE COUNTRY

I probably won’t be the guy to do that, not when Villanova and Michigan State still exist, but there is more than enough reason to do so.

Namely: their wins.

Is there a program in the country that has put together a better trio of wins than at Kansas, Xavier on a neutral and St. John’s on a neutral? The Sun Devils also own wins over San Diego State and Kansas State, and perhaps the most impressive part of it is that each of those wins, with the exception of Kansas State, came by double-digits. They put up 102 points on Xavier despite trailing by 15 in the first half. They put up 95 points on Kansas despite trailing by 13 in the first half.

If you’re the kind of person that does your rankings based totally on the rèsumè that a team has produced – a completely valid way to rank – then putting Arizona State at No. 1 makes total sense.

So don’t be surprised when they get some of them in this week’s AP poll.

2. ARIZONA STATE’S ACHILLES’ HEEL IS NOT THREES, IT’S DEFENSE

One idea that I’ve seen bandied about is that Arizona State’s performance early on this season is something of a mirage. These guards, as talented as they are, are just tough-shot makers that are running hot right now, and there might be something to that. I’m not going to pretend that shooting 14-for-28 from three at Phog Allen Fieldhouse or 13-for-27 from three against Xavier is the kind of thing that is going to happen every single time that Arizona State plays this season, but I also don’t think that’s why their offense has been so successful this season.

The Sun Devils get to the line more than just about any other team in the country; Cal St.-Fullerton is the only program with a higher free throw rate than the Sun Devils. That has everything to do with the ability of Evans, Holder and Martin to put the ball on the floor and get into the paint. It’s why they get to the line so often, and it’s why Romello White gets to the line so often.

That is sustainable, more so than shooting nearly-50 percent from three is.

What may not be sustainable, however, is winning games like this while posting a sub-150 adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. That’s where Arizona State has problems they need to solve. We saw it on Sunday, as Kansas had a never-ending parade of dunks. Ironically, what may have ended up being the difference is the fact that the Sun Devils had a handful of run-out layups – pick-six turnovers, if you will.

Bobby Hurley’s team allowed 1.39 points-per-possession on possessions where Kansas did not turn the ball over. That, quite simply, has to improve if you assume that Arizona State doesn’t shoot 50 percent from three every night.

3. KANSAS DESPERATELY NEEDS THEIR REINFORCEMENTS

We talk about it over and over again, but it’s the truth. Right now, Kansas goes seven-deep. One of those seven is Mitch Lightfoot, a 6-foot-9 back-up center that is the only big man on the Kansas roster not named Udoka Azubuike. He’s fine as a back-up. He’s not fine as a guy that is going to have to provide 15-18 minutes a night as the only big man on the floor. He doesn’t provide rim protection. He doesn’t provide post scoring. He’s not a great rebounder. He can commit five fouls and but Bill Self some time with Azubuike on the bench. That’s it.

They need Silvio De Souza to get his test score and enroll early. They need to find a way to get Billy Preston cleared to play this season. If they don’t, we probably need to start entertaining the idea that this might be the Kansas team that sees their Big 12 title streak come to an end.

The other issue is that the only other player on the KU bench is Marcus Garrett, who is a freshman that doesn’t quite seem ready for the minutes he’s getting. Malik Newman has not been as good as advertised this season, and on Sunday, Svi Mykhailiuk reverted back to the Svi Mykhailiuk of the last three years. What that means is that …

4. … KANSAS HAS ONE GUY THAT CAN CREATE FOR HIMSELF RIGHT NOW

And I’m not quite sure when that is going to change.

I just don’t think Newman is all that good. Svi is at his best as a spot-up shooter and a guy that attacks close-outs. Garrett, as of now, cannot be relied upon, and I’m not convinced that Sam Cunliffe or Lagerald Vick are guys that can be more than finishers; at the rim, as a spot-up shooter, etc.

Even Azubuike is someone that has to more or less rely on getting the ball in a position where all he has to do is catch it and dunk it.

That’s a massive burden to ask Devonte’ Graham to carry, especially when he has to do so while playing every second.

Ayton leads Arizona to 88-82 win over Alabama

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Deandre Ayton had 29 points and 18 rebounds, Allonzo Trier scored 20 of his 25 points in the second half and Arizona outlasted Alabama 88-82 Saturday night.

Arizona’s first real home test and the fans were ready, making McKale Center louder than it’s been all season.

The Wildcats (7-3) responded with their second quality win of the week, backing up a victory over No. 7 Texas A&M with a strong all-around performance to win their 45th straight nonconference home game.

Alabama (7-3) matched Arizona nearly shot for shot in one of college basketball’s toughest road environments, pulling within 84-80 on Riley Norris’ 3-pointer with 38 seconds left.

Trier, who took just six shots, hit three free throws in the final 34 seconds to seal it for Arizona.

Freshman Collin Sexton scored 21 of his 30 points in the second half to keep the Crimson Tide close.

Arizona’s defense was a sore spot to start the season, leading to three straight losses in the Bahamas that dropped the Wildcats out of the AP Top 25 from No. 2 — a first since Louisville in 1986.

Even when the Wildcats rolled over Long Beach State, coach Sean Miller lamented their defensive effort in a 25-minute postgame rant.

Arizona shored up its defense on Tuesday, when it grinded out a 67-64 victory over No. 7 Texas A&M in Phoenix.

For their first big home test, the Wildcats got back sophomore guard Rawle Alkins, a tough, emotional player who Miller hoped would give them a lift.

Arizona had a spark before Alkins even entered the game, efficiently working its offense during a 10-0 run that put the Wildcats up 24-13. The Crimson Tide fought back behind their defense, using a 13-2 run to tie it at 26-all.

Alabama had no one who could stop Ayton in the first half — 15 points and nine rebounds — but Sexton banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to put the Tide up 40-38.

The Crimson Tide went on a quick run to start the second half, but Arizona rallied and the teams traded athletic plays, neither to gain much separation.

Alabama closed in around Ayton to limit his shots, but Trier got free multiple times to keep the Wildcats around the lead.

Sexton was Alabama’s go-to player, confidently stroking in long 3-pointers and driving to the basket.

BIG PICTURE

Alabama came up short, but handling a hostile environment at McKale Center and keeping it close against a good team should only help the Crimson Tide later in the season.

Arizona could find itself back in the AP Top 25 next week after two quality wins.

UP NEXT

Alabama hosts Mercer on Dec. 19.

Arizona plays at New Mexico next Saturday.

No. 18 West Virginia holds off Pittsburgh 69-60

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PITTSBURGH — West Virginia coach Bob Huggins made it a point to schedule back-to-back games against No. 15 Virginia and Pittsburgh to give the 18th-ranked Mountaineers a taste of what awaits when Big 12 play begins in three weeks.

“I was trying to prepare them and we flunked that test,” Huggins said.

Well, maybe not technically. It just sort of felt that way to Huggins after his team nearly let a 20-point lead get away before holding on for a 69-60 over the Panthers on Saturday night in the renewal of the “Backyard Brawl.”

“This is getting to be finals week,” Huggins said. “I hope they do better on their finals than they did tonight.”

The Mountaineers (9-1) forced just 14 turnovers, were outrebounded by six and sent the Panthers to the free-throw line 31 times. Only Jevon Carter’s occasional brilliance and some lockdown defense over the final 5 minutes prevented a staggering upset.

“They kicked our butt on the glass,” Huggins said. “I wasn’t surprised. I told our guys for two days that’s what I was afraid was going to happen.”

Carter finished with a game-high 19 points but also ran into foul trouble in the second half, watching as the Panthers nearly erased all of an 18-point halftime deficit. Daxter Miles Jr. added 15 points and Lamont West finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds and the Mountaineers won their ninth straight following a season-opening loss to Texas A&M.

Still, work remains to be done. Pitt pulled within 61-59 when Marcus Carr completed a 4-point play with 5:31 left. The Panthers, however, never got any closer. Pitt missed its last six shots and turned it over twice as West Virginia escaped.

“We knew that we could beat this team,” said Carr, who finished with 12 points. “It was a matter of time of putting it all together. We still didn’t play our best (but) it’s another step in the right direction.”

Ryan Luther overcame early foul trouble to lead Pitt (5-5) with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Shamiel Stevenson added 12 points for the Panthers, who dissected West Virginia’s defense in the second half after shooting just 5 of 22 (23 percent) in the first half.

“We got our butts kicked in the first half,” Pitt coach Kevin Stallings said. “Guys of lesser character would have put their heads between their legs and thought the night was over … I couldn’t have asked any more out of them than they gave.”

The 185th meeting between the schools featured the programs in two very different places. The Mountaineers are a legitimate threat to challenge No. 2 Kansas in the Big 12, while the Panthers were picked to finish last in the ACC while undergoing what could be a lengthy rebuilding process.

Still, old habits die hard. Pitt offered a promotion that included “13-9” decals to customers if they bought a Panthers cap, the score of Pitt’s epic football upset of the Mountaineers a decade ago that kept West Virginia out of the Bowl Championship Series title game.

Then the game started and the punch Stallings told his team would come courtesy of the Mountaineers’ pressure defense arrived. West Virginia dominated at times during the opening 20 minutes. Carter went on a personal 12-0 run at one point and it seemed as if West Virginia was going to pull away.

It didn’t happen. Kham Davis hit a 3-pointer on Pitt’s first possession of the second half and pumped his fist at the Panthers bench, starting a wave that crested with Carr’s 4-point play.

“We don’t take too much consolation in a loss,” Luther said. “I thought we stuck together. We played extremely hard. If we keep snowballing, keep getting better in practice we’ll be better when conference play starts.”

ALMOST HEAVEN?

The crowd of 7,748 was the largest of the season at the Petersen Events Center, though a considerable portion came courtesy of folks in blue-and-gold who made the short 70-mile trip from Morgantown.

“It sounded like a home game honestly,” Carter said.

BIG PICTURE

West Virginia: The Mountaineers will have trouble in the Big 12 if the games are called tight. The offense needed either Carter or Miles on the court (and preferably both) to be functional. That will require them staying out of the kind of foul trouble they ran into in the second half.

Pitt: The Panthers are showing signs of progress. Measuring improvement in wins and losses could be difficult for a roster filled with nine freshmen, but Pitt’s effort and savvy in the second half provided concrete evidence the players are buying into whatever Stallings is selling.

UP NEXT

West Virginia: has a week off then hosts Wheeling Jesuit in an exhibition game on Dec. 16.

Pitt: welcomes McNeese State on Dec. 16.

Barford, Gafford lead Arkansas past No. 14 Minnesota, 95-79

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Jaylen Barford was still learning what major college basketball was all about a year ago as a first-year junior college transfer when Arkansas went to Minnesota and lost by 14 points.

This time around, the Razorbacks senior had a clear idea of how to attack the 14th-ranked Golden Gophers — and he had plenty of help along the way.

Led by Barford’s 22 points, Arkansas (7-2) returned the favor from last year’s loss with a 95-79 victory over Minnesota on Saturday night. It did so while continuing what’s been nothing short of an offensive onslaught in Bud Walton Arena to open the season, raising its home scoring average to 93.2 points per game with the win.

Barford entered the game second in the Southeastern Conference in scoring at 19.6 points per game, and he finished 9 of 15 from the field — adding four rebounds and four assists. The 6-foot-3 senior also hit two 3-pointers and had a block while making amends for last year.

“I think it was just having the experience and maturity level of our game, and just taking our time and being more poised this year,” Barford said. “Last year was our first road game, and (we thought) things were going to be a cakewalk, and it wasn’t.”

While Barford brought plenty of experience to the court, Arkansas’ newest rising star fared just well while making the first start of his career.

Freshman Daniel Gafford had 16 points on 8-of-8 shooting, and the 6-foot-11 forward added seven rebounds and six blocks while facing a talented Minnesota (8-3) front line. He did so in only 21 minutes and helped the Razorbacks hit 39 of 68 shots (57.4 percent) for the game.

During one second-half possession, Gafford swatted two straight shots by the Gophers and added to his growing highlight with three dunks — bringing his season total to 21 in nine games.

“If he works hard and he’s a good kid, (Gafford) could be a first-round pick,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said.

The loss is the third in the last four games for the Golden Gophers, who lost earlier in the week at Nebraska . Jordan Murphy led Minnesota with 20 points and 10 rebounds, Amir Coffey had 18 points and Nate Mason 17 in the loss.

The Gophers shot 41 percent (25 of 61) in their first road game against an SEC opponent since a loss at Georgia in 2001.

“Certainly we have our deficiencies we have to fix, but the sky’s not falling,” Pitino said.

BIG PICTURE

Minnesota: Senior Reggie Lynch entered the game averaging 11.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and a national-best 4.5 blocks per game. The 6-10 Lynch rarely had the chance to affect much of the game on Saturday, committing four fouls in his first 6 minutes and finishing with five points in 14 minutes.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks entered Saturday having won their four home games by an average of 25.3 points per game. They were nearly as dominant against the Gophers, leading from start to finish and by as many as 19 points in the second half while making their case for a Top 25 ranking.

MORRIS’ INTRO

New Arkansas football coach Chad Morris was busy recruiting early on Saturday, attending a prep state championship football game in Little Rock. That didn’t stop Morris from making the trip back to Fayetteville by the evening, just in time to be introduced in the first half of the basketball game — much to the delight of the 17,853 fans in Bud Walton Arena.

HOME COOKING

The victory was the first for the Razorbacks over a top 15 team since defeating No. 5 Texas A&M during the 2015-16 season, and it extends their home winning streak to eight games. “That was Bud Walton Arena at its best,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “That’s how we do it around here.”

UP NEXT

Minnesota returns home to face Drake on Monday night.

The Razorbacks are off for finals before hosting Troy on Dec. 16.