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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

Karnowski leads No. 4 Gonzaga past Santa Clara 88-57

Gonzaga forward Zach Collins (32) drives past Santa Clara center Tony Lewis (35) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Coming off a big win in a showdown with rival Saint Mary’s, No. 4 Gonzaga could have been in for a bit of a letdown.

Seeing another frenzied crowd hoping for an upset was more than enough to keep the Bulldogs on their game.

Przemek Karnowski scored 19 points on just seven shots from the field and Gonzaga remained the only undefeated team in Division I with an 88-57 victory over Santa Clara on Thursday night.

“I’ve been here for five years and basically wherever you go it’s the biggest game of the season, in the conference at least,” Karnowski said. “We have to be prepared for that. Their crowd was really into it. We came out focused and I liked our intensity.”

Karnowski made six shots against the undersized Broncos and added seven more points from the free throw line to help the Bulldogs (18-0, 6-0 West Coast Conference) extend the best start in school history with another lopsided win.

Zach Collins had 16 points and Nigel Williams-Goss added 11 points and 10 rebounds in Gonzaga’s 11th straight double-digit win.

“Every game they come out ready to go,” coach Mark Few said. “They come out with energy, effort, and attention to detail has been really good. They’re a mature group.”

Jared Brownridge scored 23 points to lead the Broncos (10-10, 4-3) but got little help from his teammates as Santa Clara dropped its 13th straight to Gonzaga and 37th in the past 39 meetings.

“We just were stagnant on the offensive end – it had everything to do with us,” Brownridge said. “They’re a great team, there’s no argument about it. Tonight’s game had to do with us.”

Gonzaga scored 13 straight points midway through the first half to open a 20-point lead and never looked back as Santa Clara struggled to get open shots and couldn’t keep the Bulldogs out of the paint.

Brownridge keyed a 15-5 run early in the second half that cut a 21-point lead to 11 but the Bulldogs quickly built the lead back to 20 and coasted to the win.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: After easily passing their first true test in conference play with a 23-point win over then-No. 21 Saint Mary’s on Saturday, the Bulldogs avoided a letdown by building the big early lead. There don’t figure to be many tough tests the rest of the regular season outside of a return trip to Saint Mary’s next month so the main task for Gonzaga will be to maintain their intensity before for the tournaments in March.

Santa Clara: The Broncos came into the game having won four of five but it was a different level of competition this game. They missed 14 of their first 18 shots – with six air balls – and never had a chance at the upset. They struggled to get any consistent offense outside of Brownridge and were overmatched inside in coach Herb Sendek’s first game against the class of the WCC.

DEFENDING BROWNRIDGE

Brownridge moved into seventh place on the WCC all-time scoring list with 2,079 points, jumping ahead of Loyola Marymount’s Forrest McKenzie. He made six 3-pointers but Few was happy with the overall defensive effort.

“Brownridge is an unbelievable player and he’s unbelievably gifted coming off those pin-downs and finding his shots,” Few said. “I thought we did a nice job, mixed up the coverages and made it hard, not just on him, but everyone else.”

LIVING AT THE LINE

Santa Clara committed six fouls in the first 4:13 of the second half and Gonzaga lived at the free throw line from there. The Bulldogs shot 18 for 23 from the line in the second half as they repeatedly fed Karnowski and Collins inside.

“They were in the double bonus early in the second half so we tried to take advantage of that and tried to go inside and pin fouls on them,” Karnowski said.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

A lopsided win over an overmatched opponent should do little to change the ranking for the Bulldogs in the AP poll .

UP NEXT

Gonzaga: Hosts Portland on Saturday.

Santa Clara: Hosts Loyola Marymount on Saturday.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

No. 3 UCLA routs Arizona State 102-80 behind 3-point barrage

UCLA guard Bryce Alford (20) goes to the basket between Arizona State's Ramon Vila (33) and Kodi Justice during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. UCLA won 102-80. (AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) Like any shooter in a slump, Isaac Hamilton just kept putting the ball up, figuring it would eventually go in.

Did it ever.

The senior guard scored 33 points – three off his career best – and hit a career-high nine 3-pointers to help No. 3 UCLA rout Arizona State 102-80 on Thursday night.

The Bruins improved to 11-0 at home.

The performance left Hamilton speechless. He cut his tongue in the game and needed stitches afterward, leaving him unavailable to talk to media.

“He’s back,” guard Lonzo Ball said. “I like playing with him like that.”

The Bruins (19-1, 6-1 Pac-12) made 16 3-pointers and shot 60 percent from the field.

Last year if Hamilton wasn’t hitting, the Bruins found it hard to recover on their way to a losing season.

Now, the team is loaded with offensive threats who can pick up the slack for him.

“He gained a lot of confidence in that and he got it rolling,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “The guys did a good job of finding him. That’s what makes us hard to guard. We can make shots a variety of different ways.”

The Bruins led by 25 points in the first half and were up by 16 early in the second before the Sun Devils (9-10, 2-4) got within single digits in the matchup of the league’s top two scoring and 3-point shooting teams.

“We started slow but fought back,” said Torian Graham, who led Arizona State with 26 points. “We overcame adversity and I think we showed we can play with anybody. After we cut it to seven, we didn’t get stops and they got a lot of open looks. They’re very good in transition and that was the difference.”

TJ Leaf added 19 points and nine rebounds, and Ball had 10 points and 12 assists for the Bruins.

“It’s always good to see Isaac shoot well,” said Aaron Holiday, who added 13 points. “That’s a big part of his game and I’m glad he finally got it going.”

Tra Holder tied his career-high with 22 points for Arizona State, which has lost seven straight road games to UCLA. The Sun Devils hit 11 3-pointers, including six by Graham.

Graham scored 10 of Arizona State’s first 22 points in the second half to close to 68-61.

The Bruins’ offense kicked in and they ran off 14 straight points to go up 82-61. Holiday scored eight points, including two 3-pointers, in the spurt.

“It was cool to come back on them, but I didn’t get the result I wanted,” Holder said. “We gave up too many easy baskets. They are a fast team and they score before you know it. The game should not have ended like it did. We cut it to seven, but then they went to a zone and we got all discombobulated.”

The Sun Devils dropped their third straight and fourth in five games.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona St.: The Sun Devils play at Southern California before returning home to face the Washington schools. After that, they have a road game against No. 11 Oregon and will face the Bruins once more in February.

UCLA: The Bruins again built a big lead only to see it dwindle to single digits, a habit that has dogged them at times this season. “We got to start picking things up and stop having those 10 minutes where we don’t do too much,” Ball said.

TIDBITS

Arizona St.: Holder joined the 1,000-point club with 1,005 in his first three years.

UCLA: The Bruins had 30 assists for the first time since Feb. 23, 1995, when they had 32 in a win over California. … They have six players averaging double-figure scoring. … UCLA’s 19-1 start is its best since going 21-1 to begin the 1991-92 season.

UP NEXT

Arizona St.: Visits Southern California on Sunday to end a stretch of playing five of its first seven Pac-12 games on the road.

UCLA: Hosts No. 14 Arizona on Saturday in game featuring the Bruins’ No. 1 offense in the Pac-12 against the Wildcats’ No. 1 defense.

More AP college basketball coverage: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25

Donovan Mitchell leads No. 12 Louisville past Clemson

LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 11:  Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Louisville Cardinals shoots the ball during the game against the Pittsburgh Panthers at KFC YUM! Center on January 11, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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No. 12 Louisville played their first game without Quentin Snider of Thursday night and it looked like they should play every game without Quentin Snider.

The Cardinals shook off an early nine-point deficit with a 29-10 run to close the first, eventually pounding Clemson into submission in a 92-60 win in the Yum! Center.

Donovan Mitchell led the way for the Cardinals, scoring all 18 of his points in the first half. Deng Adel added 18 points of is own while VJ King, who started in place of the injured Snider, finished with 14, the most he’s scored in ACC play. Perhaps more importantly, that trio finished 7-for-15 from beyond the arc in the win.

Perimeter scoring and perimeter shooting has been an issue for the Cardinals all season long. King is the only one of Louisville’s top five perimeter options that shoots better than 38 percent from the floor, and without Snider available, he’s the only one that shoots better than 34 percent from three. Snider is also the team’s sole point guard, and there were real concern about how this team was going to perform without him.

On Thursday, they did just fine.

Saturday will be a different story.

The Cardinals will square off with No. 10 Florida State, who just forced 18 turnovers against Notre Dame on Tuesday. The Irish are seventh-nationally in protecting the ball, meaning that we are going to get a much better feel for whether or not those point guard issues are real.

No. 11 Oregon blows by Cal, but Dillon Brooks leaves with “lower left leg injury”

Oregon Ducks forward Dillon Brooks (24), collides in the first half against California in an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Eugene, Ore. Brooks later left the game with an injury on a different play. (AP Photo/Thomas Boyd)
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Oregon defeated Cal on Thursday. The score was 86-63. That hardly matters, though, considering what else occurred in Eugene.

Ducks star Dillon Brooks left the game with a “lower left leg injury,” which is particularly ominous considering it was a surgically repaired left foot that sidelined Brooks all summer and kept him from joining Oregon on the floor until mid-November.

As of Thursday evening, there was no specific clarification, leaving only questions not only about Brooks’ health but what Oregon will have to potentially do without him.

The Ducks can win without Brooks. They went 8-1 before Brooks ever logged 30 minutes in a game and blasted Washington State in Pullman when Brooks got ejected after just seven minutes. They didn’t need him to dismantle the Bears, shooting 58 percent from the floor for the game and 54.2 percent without him in the second half. Jordan Bell made 11 of 12 shots for a career-best 26 points, and three other Ducks scored in double figures.

It wouldn’t be ideal, but Oregon could tread water to a high seed with him missing a chunk of time as they’ve shown at different times throughout this season. The Ducks only have one matchup left with both UCLA and Arizona, coming back-to-back in the first week of February.

But if it’s a serious injury, it necessitates a recalibration of expectation for Oregon.

Brooks scored 23 and had the game-winner as the Ducks handled No. 3 UCLA its lone loss this season and had 28 points when they blew out then-No. 22 USC to end December. Brooks is too talented, too versatile and too important for a prolonged absence to be meaningfully weathered. The NCAA tournament just too often demands too much from teams to be without a player of Brooks’ caliber.

For Oregon to reach the heights that many predicted for it since last spring, Brooks has to be on the floor.

The wait for the diagnosis and prognosis, not just for Brooks but for Oregon’s season, is on.

After win at Iowa, what’s to be made of No. 25 Maryland?

Maryland guard Anthony Cowan is fouled by Iowa forward Ryan Kriener, right, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in Iowa City, Iowa. Maryland won 84-76. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Maryland, after an 84-76 win at Iowa, now stands at 5-1 in the Big Ten. The Terps are the only team in the league with five conference wins and are tied with Wisconsin in the loss column atop the Big Ten.

Is it time to start taking them seriously as Big Ten title contenders?

It just might be, less so for who Maryland is proving to be but, in part, for how the schedule lays out for the Terps.

The resume right now isn’t overly impressive, other than sheer volume of wins at 16. There’s the loss at home to Nebraska for one thing, but they haven’t been overly convincing in a win since their opener against Illinois.

Many of their issues were on display against the Hawkeyes, a team that has lodged a number of good wins but still shows loads of inconsistency with a roster heavily dependent upon freshmen. Maryland led by 15 in the first half and held a double-digit lead well into the second half. Then, as carelessness set in, it was gone with just over 6 minutes to play and the Terps trailed with as little as 3 minutes left.

Turnovers were nearly the Terps’ undoing. They committed 21 of them that led to 30 points for the Hawkeyes, who are hardly known for turning opponents over. Maryland, though, has consistently failed to take care of the ball with a turnover rate hovering around 20 percent.

What saved them against Iowa was, what (or who) else, than Melo Trimble. One of the game’s most clutch players, Trimble hit back-to-back 3s after Maryland fell behind to turn a three-point disadvantage into a three-point lead that the Terps wouldn’t hand back to a feisty Iowa squad. Trimble finished with 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.

So, 21 turnovers and a blown lead salvaged only by Trimble’s heroics doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in a team with as many question marks as Maryland, even if it came on the road.

The Terps, though, do keep winning and while close games do invite luck and chance into the equation, Trimble’s presence and Maryland’s track record suggests it may be able to survive the variance.

Then you’ve got to look at that schedule. They’ve got Rutgers at home before a tricky Minnesota-Ohio State road trip. Then of the Big Ten teams currently with two losses or less, Maryland gets Purdue and Michigan State at home and has just one game apiece against Wisconsin and Northwestern, though both are away from College Park.

So while it may be hard to fully buy in to Maryland given its so-so offense and unremarkable defense, the Terps have made it nearly to the end of January with just two losses and have a manageable road ahead.

That’s something that has to be taken into account, just like Maryland in the Big Ten.