South Region Preview: Can anyone stop the Florida Gators?

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No surprise here as Florida got the No. 1 overall seed and took the top line in the South Region, setting them up for a path through Orlando and Memphis on the way to North Texas.

Here’s the other thing: the way the bracket breaks down is as favorable for Florida as it is for any No. 1 seed in the bracket. The shouldn’t be pushed by Spencer Dinwiddie-less Colorado or a Pitt team that has beaten exactly one quality team this season, they matchup as will with UCLA as they do any team in the country, Syracuse hasn’t played well in a month and a half and Kansas may not make it out of the first weekend without Joel Embiid in the lineup.

It’s not a cakewalk — it never is at this time of year — but when you combine the fact that Florida is the best team in the country with being coached by a guy that’s what two titles and took a team led by Kenny Boynton to the Elite 8 the past three seasons, and what you get is a Final Four favorite and a serious National Title contender.

MORERead through all of our bracket analysis here

Three story lines to watch

  • 1. Joel Embiid’s back: Kansas’ star center and a future top three draft pick, Embiid missed the last two games of the regular season and the Big 12 tournament with a stress fracture in his spine. He’s not expected to play in the first weekend of the tournament, either. Are the Jayhawks a contender without him?
  • 2. Will Syracuse ever be back?: The Orange won their first 25 games of the season. Since then, they’ve lost five of their last seven and while their offense has completely stalled. Is this as simple as the Orange being in a slump — they’re playing like their confidence is completely shot — or is their identity that of a horrid offensive basketball team?
  • 3. Will UCLA’s defense be enough to make a run?: This Bruin team is as talented and entertaining as any in Westwood since Steve Lavin was still slicking his hair back. Kyle Anderson, the 6-foot-9 point guard nicknamed Slo-mo, is the engine that makes their uptempo offense run. But in order for the Bruins to make a run, they need their defense to play the way it did during the Pac-12 tournament.

The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 1 Florida vs. No. 2 Kansas

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There are going to be a lot of people picking No. 7 seed New Mexico to upset Kansas in the Round of 32, and I’ll be honest, I might end up doing the same once I officially fill out my bracket. New Mexico is playing as well as they have all season long, their offense is built around a pair of talented, physical veteran post players in Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk, and Kansas, who hasn’t played defense in a couple of weeks, will likely be without Joel Embiid. But it’s worth noting that Stanford actually matches up very will with the Lobos in the Round of 64, and Kansas is still coached by Bill Self and will still feature a trio of first round picks, including potential No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins.

MOREEight teams that can win the national title.

Final Four sleeper: New Mexico

Back to the Lobos, there are three names that you really need to know with this group: Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams. Bairstow is the best post-scorer in the country, a behemoth on the block that is the nation’s single-most improved player. Kirk is a pick-and-pop seven-footer with some size and the ability to block shots. Williams is the reigning MWC Player of the Year and is having a better season this year despite barely being in contention for the award. He takes, and makes, a lot of big shots.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 12 Stephen F. Austin vs. No. 5 VCU: Talk about an intriguing clash of styles. VCU runs their ‘Havoc’ pressure defense, hounding their opponents for 94 feet for 40 minutes. SFA? They played more of a half-court style, but they pressure on the wings and jump passing lanes. Both rank top three nationally in defensive turnover percentage.
  • No. 11 Dayton vs. No. 6 Ohio State: A little in-state rivalry? Dayton’s Jordan Sibert vs. the team he transferred away from. Thad Matta can’t duck Archie Miller now.

Matchups to root for

  • No. 1 Florida vs. No. 2 Kansas: Arguably the two best coaches in college basketball. The best team, a senior laden group without much NBA potential, vs. a team with possibly the top two picks in the NBA Draft. Just hope Embiid is healthy for it.

The studs you know about

  • Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: He’s been overanalyzed, but remember: he’s the leading scorer, third-leading rebounder and best perimeter defender on a top five team.
  • Jordan Adams, UCLA: Anderson gets all the publicity for the Bruins, but Jordan Adams was the team’s leading scorer this season.
  • Scottie Wilbekin, Florida: He’s terrific in the pick-and-roll and a killer in crunch-time. He’s the go-to guy for Florida at the end of games.

MOREAll-Americans | Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | Freshman of the Year

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico: I’m telling you, he’s a beast now. You’ll see.
  • David Brown, Western Michigan: Brown is the leading scorer for WMU and a guy good enough to carry WMU to a Round of 64 win.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 7 New Mexico over No. 2 Kansas: Here’s the thinking: without Embiid, the Jayhawks can’t stop Bairstow and Kirk inside, and Deshawn Delaney is athletic enough to keep Wiggins in check. Crazier things have happens.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • Anyone over No. 1 Florida: They are the best team in the country and they don’t have an exploitable flaw. You have to go out and outplay them on both ends, and that’s not happening in this region.

Feeling like gambling?

  • No. 14 Western Michigan over No. 3 Syracuse: The Broncos are a tough matchup, they have a star guard and they can get to the free throw line, but to beat the Orange they’ll have to protect the ball and score in the lane. That will be tough, but hey, the Orange are sputtering enough offensively that you never know what will happen.

CBT Predictions: No. 1 Florida rolls

Bates-Diop, No. 22 Ohio State top Minnesota 67-49

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NEW YORK (AP) — Keita Bates-Diop had 17 points and 12 rebounds, leading No. 22 Ohio State over Minnesota 67-49 Saturday for its seventh straight win.

The game was part of a two-sport Big Ten doubleheader at Madison Square Garden. At night, Minnesota and Michigan State were set to meet in hockey.

The Buckeyes (17-4, 8-0 Big Ten) used a 24-2 burst to overcome a 10-point deficit midway through the first half. They stayed in control, and went on to match last season’s win total.

Kaleb Wesson added 15 points and eight rebounds for Ohio State.

Amir Coffey, who missed five games because of a shoulder injury, scored 11 points for the Golden Gophers (14-8, 3-6). Jordan Murphy had 13.

Maye, Pinson help No. 15 UNC beat Georgia Tech 80-66

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Luke Maye had 17 points and 11 rebounds, and No. 15 North Carolina beat Georgia Tech 80-66 on Saturday.

Theo Pinson added 11 points and 10 rebounds, and Joel Berry II and Cameron Johnson finished with 16 points apiece to help the Tar Heels (16-4, 5-2 Atlantic Coast Conference).

They shot 42 percent and dominated the glass, building a 46-25 rebounding advantage and scoring 26 second-chance points to Georgia Tech’s four.

Jose Alvarado scored 17 points and hit four 3-pointers, including one that pulled the Yellow Jackets to 70-62 with about 3½ minutes left. But he fouled Berry on the Tar Heels’ ensuing possession — and then stepped over him, earning a technical foul with 3:21 to play.

Berry hit three of the four free throws he was awarded to put North Carolina’s lead into double figures to stay. The Tar Heels were 19 of 24 from the line, while Georgia Tech was just 3 of 6.

Josh Okogie led Georgia Tech (10-9, 3-3) with 18 points, while Ben Lammers and Abdoulaye Gueye each had 12. The Yellow Jackets were just 5 of 18 from 3-point range.

BIG PICTURE

Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets had won four in a row before this two-game run against top-15 opponents. After suffocating against No. 2 Virginia’s ACC-best defense, Georgia Tech couldn’t keep up with North Carolina’s fast-paced offense, which averages nearly 83 points — especially after one stretch in which it had two field goals in 10-plus minutes.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels’ winning streak remains intact, but Berry had a rough day until his free-throw bonanza all but iced it. The most outstanding player at the Final Four finished just 3 of 17 from the field and was just 1 of 8 from long range.

VIDEO: Ted Valentine apologizes to Joel Berry for incident

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Two weeks ago, during a North Carolina loss at Florida State, official Ted Valentine missed an obvious foul committed on Joel Berry that resulted in a turnover.

When Berry went to ask TV Teddy about the no-call, the veteran referee turned his back on Berry.

Literally.

Today, prior to Georgia Tech’s game at North Carolina which Valentine officiated, he apologized to Berry for the previous incident:

“He was just telling me that he apologized for what he did,” Berry said after the game. “That’s all he said, just apologized and made sure that there was nothing wrong between us and I told him it was all good, it was in the heat of the moment.”

Xavier’s win over Seton Hall shows they’re still a team to be reckoned with

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J.P. Macura had arguably the best game of his career as the senior guard helped will No. 11 Xavier to a 73-64 road win over No. 19 Seton Hall in the Big East on Saturday.

Putting together a strong effort on both ends of the floor, Macura finished with 27 points, five rebounds and three assists as he punctuated a Musketeers comeback with a monster tip dunk in the game’s final minutes. This was arguably the biggest win of the year for Xavier — the first road win against a top-25 team and a comeback after losing for a sizable chunk of the contest.

Macura’s efforts on both ends as the star in this one proved how dangerous Xavier can be and why they’re still a force to be reckoned with for the rest of the season. Already hovering in the range of a No. 2-3 seed, the Musketeers should elevate into the top ten of the national rankings after another bloodbath week for the best teams in college basketball.

And Xavier is showing plenty of balance by having multiple players who can take over a game. Senior Trevon Bluiett (15 points) is the All-American candidate who has often been celebrated for much of his career but he doesn’t need to play to his best for the Musketeers to beat strong opponents.

Macura seems to feed off of certain situations and the Seton Hall home crowd chanting at him must have done something to help ignite a big performance. Diving for loose balls and knocking down big shots, Macura made plays all over the floor as he’s capable of taking over a game when Xavier needs him.

Others like Kerem Kanter on the interior, Kaiser Gates on the wing, or Naji Marshall running the wing also chip in plenty of points. This team can use balanced scoring with the heavy lifting being done by the hot hand as a dangerous concoction that’s tough for opponents to stop.

Just 10 days ago, Xavier was reeling following a loss to Providence and a blowout road loss to Villanova in Philadelphia. After a three-game winning streak that includes a blowout win over Creighton and a comeback win over Seton Hall on the road, the Musketeers are right back in the Big East title race.

The next month also proves to be fairly average from a scheduling standpoint for Xavier. There isn’t a ranked opponent on the schedule until a rematch with Seton Hall in Cincinnati on Feb. 14 and another big home game against No. 1 Villanova looms right after.

If Xavier continues to pile up wins — they do have tourney-caliber opponents in Butler, Creighton and Marquette — and sweep Seton Hall, then they’ll still get a home game against Villanova that could decide the conference. If both teams keep winning that could even be an important game for the No. 1 seed discussion.

Don’t look now, but Xavier is right back in the top ten and they could stick around for a bit.

Trae Young’s 48 points not enough as Oklahoma State upsets No. 4 Oklahoma

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Trae Young snapped out of his slump, tying a Big 12 record and setting a career-high by scoring 48 points, but No. 4 Oklahoma still fell in overtime on the road against in-state rival Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys jumped out to a 25-6 lead as Young continued to struggle early on in the first half. The Sooners trailed 42-30 at the break, but they were able to rally throughout the second half and only headed to overtime after Kendall Smith hit a three to tie the game at 73 with 6.2 seconds left. Young missed a three at the buzzer that would have won the game.

This win puts Oklahoma State squarely in the bubble conversation. The Cowboys are now 13-6 on the season. They’re only notable wins to date are Oklahoma and Florida State, but they’ll have plenty of chances to add to that résumé over the final two months of the season.

The loss is the second in a row and third in the last five games for the Sooners. All three of those games came on the road, where it has been nearly impossible to win in the Big 12.

Since Texas Tech won at Kansas and TCU won at Baylor on January 2nd, Big 12 road teams have gone 2-22. (At the time of this posting, TCU was trailing at Kansas State and Kansas was yet to tip off at home against Baylor.) Those two wins were Kansas at TCU and Kansas at West Virginia, meaning that for the last 18 days, the only team to win a road game in the Big 12 is the program that has won 13 straight Big 12 regular season title.

With that in mind, Young’s performance was … almost promising?

There is no shame in this loss. Yes, it puts the Sooners two games behind the Jayhawks in the conference title race, but winning the Big 12 regular season title isn’t their only goal this year, and for Oklahoma to come anywhere near reaching any of those goals, they’re going to need Trae Young to be better than he has been over the course of the last two weeks.

Young was in the second half on Saturday. Where the concern truly lies is with the supporting cast. Young shot 14-for-39 from the floor in this loss. The rest of the Oklahoma team shot 14-for-43. Young shot 8-for-20 from three. His teammates shot 2-for-15. Young made all 12 of his free throws. His teammates shot five and missed two. Young scored 48 points. Every other Sooner combined for 33.

As I wrote last week, part of the reason for Young’s struggles was because he was trying to do too much.

Maybe this is why.

It’s a catch-22.

Young needs to be able to trust that his teammates can make winning plays when defenses key on him and take him out of the game, but his supporting cast – Brady Manek, Christian James, Kameron McGusty – need to give him a reason to trust them.