West Region Preview: Arizona rules, but chaos could reign

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Every year, there is one region that just obliterates everyone’s bracket, and this season, that region could very well end up being the West. Arizona earned the No. 1 seed, which had been considered a given for weeks. The Wildcats are the best defensive team in the country and have finally found a rhythm on the offensive end without Brandon Ashley.

But after that, the West Region has some serious ‘all hell breaks loose’ potential.

There are three teams in the conference that had climbed into the top ten nationally at one point this season before having their season seemingly fall off a cliff. Oklahoma State lost seven straight games in Big 12 play before righting their ship as Marcus Smart turned back into the player we all fell in love with last season Baylor lost eight of their first ten Big 12 games, but they won nine of their last 11 and made it to the finals of the Big 12 tournament. Oregon lost eight of ten in Pac-12 play but won eight in a row — a streak that came within three one-possession games of being 13 straight — before getting dropped by UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament.

What’s crazier is that all three of those teams drew matchups that could end up vaulting them into the Sweet 16.

Yeah.

Good luck.

MORERead through all of our bracket analysis here

Three story lines to watch

  • 1. Doug McDermott’s chase for his One Shining Moment: McBuckets has had a legendary career that is missing one thing: a deep run in the tournament. I wrote a column on this two weeks ago.
  • 2. Is this the year Bo Ryan makes the Final Four?: Wisconsin’s head coach has had an exemplary career in Madison. He’s never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten in his 13 seasons at the helm, but he has just one Elite 8 and no Final Fours to show for it. This might be his most potent Wisconsin team. Can they break through?
  • 3. Will Scott Drew ever get credit for being a good coach?: He’s usually a punchline, but he did a terrific job turning this season around for the Bears. He’s been to two Elite 8s in the last four tournaments. Can he tap into that tournament magic again?
source: AP
AP

The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 3 Creighton

I’m not going to lie: I’m very high on this Arizona team. When you can defend, you are always going to be in a game and, this season, there is no one near as good as the Wildcats are defensively. The key for them is going to be scoring in transition, as they struggle to get buckets against a set defense. As far as Creighton is concerned, I think they are quite beatable this season simply because so much of what they do relies on their ability to hit threes. On the nights they fall — especially when Ethan Wragge and Jahenns Manigat are hitting — they’re near-unbeatable. When they aren’t falling, they can be beaten by anyone. There’s no one on their side of the bracket that truly strikes fear into me, however, so I’ll ride with McBuckets one last time.

It’s worth noting: this matchup would pit the nation’s best offense against the nation’s best defense as well as the nation’s best scorer (McDermott) against the nation’s best defender (Aaron Gordon).

MOREEight teams that can win the national title.

Final Four sleeper: Oregon Ducks

Like I wrote earlier, the Ducks are three two-point losses away from a 13-game winning streak late in the season. Ever since they started buying-in defensively, things have changed. Oh, and should I mention that Dominic Artis looks like he might have finally broken out of his slump? The Ducks matchup well with everyone on the bottom-half of the bracket and they are arguably the most talented team in the region.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 10 BYU vs. No. 7 Oregon: Both the Ducks and the Cougars like to run. Both score a lot of points. Neither play much defense. That’s always fun.
  • No. 9 Oklahoma State vs. No. 8 Gonzaga: The Pokes were one of the teams that I figured I would be picking to make a run regardless of where they would up, but the Zags are actually a tough matchup for them. Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski are tough to handle inside, and Oklahoma State has neither depth nor size up front. But can Mark Few find a way to slow down Marcus Smart and Markel Brown?

Matchups to root for

  • No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 11 Nebraska: Two in-state rivals with large, passionate fan-bases that just so happened to be having banner years for their programs.
  • No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 1 Arizona: Two defensive powerhouses. Two programs that recruit Southern California as well as anyone. Two large, passionate fan bases. The game is in Anaheim. Gimme.
  • No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 7 Oregon: Creighton is kind of like BYU, only better.

The studs you know about

  • Doug McDermott, Creighton: He’s the National Player of the Year for a reason.
  • Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, Oklahoma State: Smart was a Player of the Year candidate entering the season, and he’s been playing like it since he returned from his suspension as he’s cut down on turnovers and displayed much-improved shot selection. But Brown may actually be the best scorer on this team and the best dunker in the country.
  • Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga: He’s been battling turf toe all season long, but if he’s healthy, he’s one of the best lead guards in the country.

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

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette: An NBA prospect from the Sun Belt, Payton is a bigger, athletic point guard that is a terrific defensive player.
  • Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: Kaminsky has turned into one of the nation’s most versatile front court players. He scores in the post, he hits threes and he squares people up on the perimeter.
  • Xavier Thames, San Diego State: The leading scorer for the Aztecs all season long, Thames has made innumerable big shots for SDSU this season.
  • Taylor Braun, North Dakota State: The Summit League Player of the Year is a 6-foot-7 wing that hit a number of huge shots in the league title game.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 7 Oregon over No. 2 Wisconsin: Wisconsin can score this year. They are getting up and down the floor much more than in the past, which fits in well with how the Ducks like to play. And the Badgers struggle against teams with guards that can penetrate.
  • No. 12 North Dakota State over No. 5 Oklahoma: If there is going to be a mid-major team that makes a run in the tournament this season, it’s going to be the Bison. The key? Defending the three-point line. NDSU hasn’t done it well this year, and Oklahoma A) shoots a lot of threes and B) shoots them well.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • No. 9 Oklahoma State over No. 1 Arizona: There are a couple reasons for this: 1) the Pokes don’t have anyone that can handle Kaleb Tarczewski on the block; and 2) Arizona has three of the best defenders in the country, and they match up perfectly with OSU’s best players (Nick Johnson vs. Markel Brown, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson vs. Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon vs. LeBryan Nash).

Feeling like gambling?

  • Pick No. 6 Baylor, No. 7 Oregon or No. 9 Oklahoma State to make a run to the Final Four. They’re talented enough to it.

CBT Predictions: No. 1 Arizona advances after a thrilling win over No. 3 seed Creighton.

Report: LSU coach Will Wade drawing NCAA scrutiny

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Will Wade’s success on the recruiting trail in his first 11 months at LSU has caught the eye of the NCAA, according to a report from Yahoo sports.

This does not appear to coincide with the FBI’s investigation into corruption in the sport for the simple fact that the NCAA has kept clear of the players, coaches and the programs named in the FBI complaints and the documents published by Yahoo in the last week while the government does their job.

At this point, according to the report, it appears to be a simple case of fact-finding. The investigation has “stalled” because the NCAA has not gotten enough people to talk, but Wade — who spent two years as the head coach at Chattanooga before going to VCU for two seasons — has undoubtedly been cleaning up on the recruiting trail. He landed four-star point guard Tremont Waters, a Connecticut native and a former Georgetown commit, just a couple of months after getting hired. He’s also landed five-star Naz Reid (New Jersey) and Emmitt Williams (Florida) along with four-stars Darius Days (Florida) and Javonte Smart (Louisiana) in the Class of 2018.

Wade and LSU made headlines last month, as Williams, who was arrested for sexual assault in October, committed to the program on the same day that ESPN dropped their bombshell Michigan State investigation.

With hoops under federal probe, fans say business as usual

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Arenas were packed, fans were cheering and schools were competing.

In most places, it was a typical Saturday of college basketball. There was little visible hangover from the latest developments in the federal investigation of corruption in college basketball.

Coaches were taking the same tact they have been, some saying they’ve found no evidence of wrongdoing and appear to be waiting for the next shoe to drop. Several players still played despite being named in a Yahoo Sports report saying documents showed they had taken impermissible benefits.

Fans, for the most part, were not surprised — with some saying the circumstances have been reality in college hoops for a long time.

Others had fun with it.

At SMU, where the Mustangs were taking on No. 13 Wichita State, some students chanted “FBI! FBI!” and held balloons spelling out the name of the federal agency leading a corruption investigation that has led to 10 arrests of coaches and others alleged to have worked in the seamy underbelly of the sport. One of more than two dozen names mentioned as receiving impermissible benefits in documents in a Yahoo Sports report Friday was former Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet, now with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.

In sentiments echoed by many coaches, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said he didn’t know about the alleged payments but that his program overall has “nothing to hide.”

Utah’s student section mocked Southern California forward Chimezie Metu, who was mentioned in Yahoo’s report but played and scored 14 points to lead the Trojans in a win. The Utah fans displayed signs like “Need Money? Metu! (Me too)” and chanted, “Payroll! Payroll!” whenever he had the ball or returned to the bench.

“When I’m on the court, nothing else matters. I was just out there playing. I wasn’t paying attention to anything anybody else was saying,” Metu said. “I’m not going to lose any focus at all. I didn’t do anything wrong. Nobody in my family did anything wrong. … For me, there was never a doubt I’d play.”

One school where officials were not enjoying themselves Saturday was Arizona.

Wildcats recruit Shareef O’Neal, son of former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, withdrew his commitment after ESPN reported coach Sean Miller was heard on a wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to freshman Deandre Ayton to get him to sign with the school.

Arizona announced that Miller would not coach Saturday night in the 14th-ranked Wildcats’ game at Oregon. Associate head coach Lorenzo Romar stood in for Miller, and the Wildcats lost 98-93 in overtime to the Ducks.

It was unclear what the coaching situation at Arizona would be going forward.

“As basketball players, we have a job. And we’re not going to let outsiders, outside noise, let it mistreat us, in a way. We’re just going to keep pushing, keep grinding,” senior guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said. “We have games to play. We have practices to practice. That’s what we’re looking forward to.”

While Miller was absent, Ayton played and finished with 28 points and 18 rebounds. Oregon fans taunted him with a sign in the image of a check for $100,000.

In Omaha, where Creighton played No. 3 Villanova, the Bluejays were also linked to possible violations.

The Yahoo report said Christian Dawkins, who worked for former agent Andy Miller, may have bought dinner for former Creighton center Justin Patton or his family. Patton signed with Miller’s agency but fired him once Miller was implicated in the probe in September. Creighton coach Greg McDermott has said he didn’t know if Dawkins had a meal with Patton, but knew Dawkins met with Patton because McDermott also attended the meeting.

“So they took him to dinner. Big deal,” said 54-year-old Creighton fan Jim Belgrade, who has been attending games since he was 6. Belgrade said there needs to be a crackdown if money is exchanging hands and that some fans are more concerned than others.

“They will be if it’s a big-time school involved,” Belgrade said. “And there are people who say it’s the rules, and the rules are the rules, so we have to cap it some way. But will fans at Missouri Valley schools be worried about it? Probably not.”

Several players singled out in the report played on Saturday.

Kentucky fans cheered Kevin Knox as usual before he started against Missouri, and the freshman forward did his best to keep things normal. An internal review found no issues and he said afterward, “I was sure I would be able to play all week. I let Kentucky and compliance handle all that.”

Texas held out Eric Davis against Oklahoma while the Longhorns conduct their own investigation, while Alabama’s Collin Sexton started against Arkansas.

At Duke, Wendell Carter Jr. was in the starting lineup after the school said there were no issues with his eligibility. Afterward, Carter said he refused to let it become a distraction “because I know I didn’t do anything. I know my family didn’t do anything.”

The only obvious indication that anything was different was found on the dry-erase board near the Cameron Crazies’ entrance: A Twitter hashtag , #FreeWendell.

“Obviously I was disappointed that a former player was acknowledged in this report,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said after the Terrapins were beaten 85-61 by No. 17 Michigan . Former Maryland player Diamond Stone, who played one season for the Terrapins, was also mentioned as receiving an improper loan from an agent.

“I have absolutely zero relationship with that agent or that agency. Wouldn’t know him if he walked into the room today,” Turgeon said.

Michigan guard Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman said he is aware of the scandal, but that’s about as far as it goes.

“We still have to go out there and play the game. People didn’t pay us. I mean, there’s here and there,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “I don’t really think about it. I can’t speak for anyone else.”

Ken Tighe, a Terrapins season-ticket holder since 2002, said college basketball has an issue that needs to be addressed.

“I think the problem is widespread,” Tighe said. “Diamond Stone is part of an attempt by agents to influence the game.”

Michigan coach John Beilein offered a simple solution.

“Educate your players, educate the parents the best that you can,” Beilein said. “When somebody’s offering them something, they’ve got to say no to a Coca-Cola if an agent is talking to them, and they’ve also obviously got to say no to money.”

In Dallas, Jim Randolph — who attended SMU in the late 1960s and was a fan during the 1980s when the football program received the so-called death penalty from the NCAA — said fans expect their teams to do whatever they can to win.

“The entire infrastructure of amateur athletics, especially basketball, is just as dirty as can be,” Randolph said. “So many people have looked the other way for so long. It’s about time it surfaced.”

Dustan Foster of San Angelo, Texas, grew up in Missouri and is a lifelong Kansas fan. The 36-year-old oil field worker attended the eighth-ranked Jayhawks’ game at Texas Tech on Saturday and said he doesn’t know what is going to happen next.

“I don’t even think (NCAA President) Mark Emmert knows at this point,” Foster said. “I don’t think anybody knows. Flip a coin.”

Villanova coach Jay Wright said the scandal has cast a cloud over basketball that everyone in the sport has to work together to remove.

“It’s certainly not a good day for us,” Wright said. “But I do think we have a lot of good people in college basketball, a lot of good things in college basketball that we’re all going to try to work together to get it right again.”

When asked about a line item on an expense report by Dawkins cited by Yahoo that said Dawkins had a meal with “Villanova coaches,” Wright said: “My athletic director has advised me not to respond to it. He will. The athletic department is on top of it and will respond to it.”

AP Sports Writers Eric Olson in Omaha, Nebraska; Joedy McCreary in Durham, North Carolina; Schuyler Dixon in Lubbock, Texas; Anne M. Peterson in Oregon and Gary B. Graves in Lexington, Kentucky; and Associated Press writers Jeff Miller in Dallas and Matthew Coles in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

No. 2 Michigan State beats Wisconsin, wraps up Big Ten

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Cassius Winston scored 20 points and went 6 for 6 from the 3-point line, and No. 2 Michigan State held off Wisconsin 68-63 on Sunday to earn the outright regular-season Big Ten title.

Winston hit two 3s during an 11-2 run in the second half — the second with a defender in his face from well beyond the arc — to lead the Spartans (28-3, 16-2).

Brad Davison finished with 30 points for Wisconsin (14-17, 7-11), including a 3 with 4.7 seconds left that had hometown fans holding out hope for an upset.

Miles Bridges wrapped up the Spartans’ 12th straight win with two foul shots.

It was a milestone victory in what has been a challenging season off the court for Michigan State basketball.

One issue involved Bridges. The star forward had 10 points on 3-of-15 shooting in his first game since getting cleared by the NCAA following a Yahoo! Sports article on Friday that identified him as one of many players who may have received improper benefits.

Winston and Nick Ward, who had 14 points, picked up the scoring slack. Winston’s 3 with 4:45 left gave the Spartans a 58-51 lead, a huge cushion in what had been a tight game.

Davison nearly single-handedly brought Wisconsin back, giving the Badgers a huge boost even after aggravating a left shoulder injury. The freshman sprinted to the locker room with a trainer with about 14 minutes left before returning a couple minutes later and checking right back into the game to rousing applause.

He scored Wisconsin’s next six points, popping perimeter jumpers to electrify an already vocal home crowd in the regular season finale.

The teams dueled the rest of the way until Bridges’ late foul shots.

Michigan State muscled its way to a 34-27 halftime lead by taking control of the paint early before softening up the perimeter for Winston. The sophomore sharpshooter made 3 of 4 from beyond the arc in the first half, with a couple buckets coming quickly in transition.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan State: Documents in the Yahoo! story showed that the star forward may have improperly accepted benefits from an agency implicated in a federal investigation into bribery and other misdeeds in college basketball. The team said Saturday that the school’s compliance office conducted a “thorough internal review” and presented findings to the NCAA, which then cleared Bridges. … The Spartans had too much bulk up front for Wisconsin, building an early edge on points in the paint and finishing with a 40-28 edge on the boards.

Wisconsin: The team honored three reserve seniors in its final regular-season game, including fifth-year forward Aaron Moesch. He is the last link to the Badgers’ back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2014 and ’15, a little-used backup on each of those squads. The Badgers’ reliance on freshmen to play key roles in the rotation, especially in the backcourt, led to growing pains this season. They’ve shown signs of maturity of late, winning three straight games before Sunday.

UP NEXT

Michigan State: Opens play in the conference tournament in New York on Friday after earning a double bye as the top seed.

Wisconsin: Locked into the Big Ten tourney as the No. 9 seed, where it will play Maryland on Thursday.

No. 11 Cincinnati rallies for 82-74 win over Tulsa

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — Gary Clark led a 24-4 run that put Cincinnati ahead to stay early in the second half, and the 11th-ranked Bearcats held on for an 82-74 victory over Tulsa on Sunday that preserved their one-game lead in the American Athletic Conference heading into the final week.

Cincinnati (25-4, 14-2) stayed ahead of No. 13 Wichita State (23-5, 13-3) in the race for the regular-season title. The Shockers won on Cincinnati’s home court 76-72 a week ago.

Wichita State plays at UCF on Thursday and hosts Cincinnati next Sunday in a potential showdown game. The Bearcats play at Tulane on Thursday before heading to Wichita State.

The Bearcats struggled defensively, giving up a season-high 14 3-pointers, but made a season-high 15 from beyond the arc. Clark and Jarron Cumberland had 17 points apiece.

Tulsa (17-11, 10-7) led by eight points early in the second before Clark scored during the decisive run. Junior Etou scored 21 for Tulsa, which had its six-game winning streak snapped.

Cincinnati completed its season playing at Northern Kentucky University while its on-campus arena is renovated, going 14-1 at BB&T Arena.

BIG PICTURE

Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane is wrapping up a regular season that marks a step up for the program. Tulsa went 15-17 last season and 8-10 in the AAC, finishing seventh. It’s fourth in the league with two games to go.

Cincinnati: Even though the Bearcats rank second nationally in defense, they’d given up a lot of open shots in the previous two games, a concern to coach Mick Cronin. The Golden Hurricane got plenty of those, too, while shooting 59 percent in the first half. The Golden Hurricane led 47-44 at the break, the most points Cincinnati has allowed in a half this season.

UP NEXT

Tulsa: Golden Hurricane plays at East Carolina on Thursday. Tulsa opened AAC play by beating ECU 79-53 on Dec. 28.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats have won four straight and 14 of 15 against Tulane, including a 78-61 victory last season.

Bubble Banter: Sunday Funday on the bubble

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Sunday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

YET TO PLAY

UCLA
PENN STATE
NEBRASKA
N.C. STATE