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.

No. 5 Duke’s defense turns up again as Blue Devils look like title favorite

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Duke is back!

After drubbing Louisville 82-56 in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday night, the Blue Devils have now won four straight games despite the fact that they have been playing without Marvin Bagley III during this stretch.

Grayson Allen is back, too. He finished with 28 points on Wednesday night, making six threes and handing out threes assists. He entered Wednesday night averaging 22.3 points and 5.3 assists in his last three games, the first time all season long that he has scored more than 19 points in three consecutive games. He’s shooting the ball with confidence. He’s been moved into more of a playmaking, lead guard role in the half court offense as Coach K has transitioned back to being the focal point on that end, the first time he’s been in that role since his sophomore season.

Wendell Carter’s been on fire, too. He missed his fourth-straight double-double by a single rebound on Wednesday, but he did finish with 18 points, six assists and three blocks. In four games without Bagley, he’s now averaging 16.3 points, 10.5 boards, 3.0 blocks and 3.0 assists.

But that’s not why Duke is winning these games.

It’s not why I’m sitting here saying that Duke is back.

The reason why I’m warming up to the idea of Duke finding a way to be a Final Four team again is because they’ve figured out a way not only to just get stops, but to be damn good on the defensive end of the floor.

During this four-game stretch, Duke has not allowed a team to break 1.0 points-per-possession against while holding three of their four opponents to 57 points or less. In those four games, they’ve allowed 0.883 PPP. If they did that over the course of an entire season, the Blue Devils would be third-nationally defensive efficiency* behind only Virginia and Cincinnati. In the process, they’ve managed to climb from 79th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric to 27th, which is precisely the kind of drastic defensive improvement that the 2015 team made. They were in the 60s and 70s in adjusted defensive efficiency for much of the season. They were 37th before the tournament started. They were 11th when they cut down the nets.

And it begs the question: Is Duke better without Marvin Bagley III?

Lol.

No.

Don’t be stupid.

Marvin Bagley III is an alien. He makes every single team that he is on a better one.

What will be interesting to see is how Duke integrates him back into the team when he finally does return to the floor. There are two things that have allowed Duke to improve the way that they’ve improved over the course of the last two weeks, and both of them involve Bagley in a pretty significant way:

  1. The ball doesn’t stick as much offensively as it did when he was on the court. That’s why Allen’s been able to play the way that he’s played of late. The middle of the floor has also opened up because Duke’s gone away from trying to run high-low actions as much as they did before. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better to run offense this way, but you cannot convince that it’s a bad thing that Allen is back into a rhythm.
  2. Much more importantly, however, is that Duke has turned into a very good defensive team in this zone, and the biggest reason for that is the activity of Javin DeLaurier. Bagley is a terrific athlete, but he’s more of a five at this level than a four and he’s also a guy that is not an instinctual or, frankly, energetic defender. DeLaurier is more mobile and, since he’s not really a threat offensively, he can burn off of his energy on that end.

Bagley wasn’t the lone culprit for Duke’s defensive problems.

The bigger issue may have been simply that the Blue Devils vacillated between playing man and zone until these last four games, and Coach K fully embracing being a zone team has allowed them to figure it out. As one high-major coach put it to me, it’s better to be great at one defense than it is to be good at seven of them. Duke is doing that now.

But there is valid reason to be concerned about playing Bagley and Carter together simply because playing them together has been an issue defensively before.

Maybe that means that, instead of seeming them on the court together for 30 minutes a night, they’ll each play 10 minutes with DeLaurier at the four and play together for 20 minutes. Maybe it means that instead of being awesome defensively Duke is simply good enough, and maybe good enough is all they need to make a run in March this season.

And maybe the answer is that Bagley returns and is ready to defend the way that he needs to defend.

We’ve seen that happen, too. Remember the Miami game?

Whatever the case may be will play out over the course of the next six weeks. The one thing that is clear, however, is that these Blue Devils are suddenly a whole lot more intriguing than they were two weeks ago when they lost at North Carolina.

*(For those looking at KenPom, raw points-per-possession and KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric are two different numbers. The latter is the former adjusted for strength of opponent.)

Williams helps No. 19 Tennessee beat Florida 62-57

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Grant Williams bounced back from one of his worst performances of the season to score 23 points and No. 19 Tennessee beat Florida 62-57 on Wednesday night to hand the Gators their third consecutive loss.

Williams had a season-low five points Saturday in a 73-62 loss at Georgia. The Tennessee scoring leader responded Wednesday by shooting 8 of 13 from the floor and 7 of 8 from the foul line.

Florida trailed nearly the whole way, but threatened in the final minute.

Chris Chiozza made a basket to cut Tennessee’s lead to 60-57 with 24.5 seconds left, and he got fouled by Williams in the process. But Chiozza missed the ensuing free throw and couldn’t get Florida any closer.

Jordan Bowden made a pair of clinching free throws with 14 seconds left.

Admiral Schofield had 16 points and eight rebounds for Tennessee (20-7, 10-5 Southeastern Conference).

Jalen Hudson had 13 points for Florida (17-11, 8-7), and Chiozza and Keith Stone each added 11. Chiozza also had nine assists and six rebounds.

Florida was seeking a quality road win that could boost its NCAA Tournament credentials.

The Gators entered the night 65th in the RPI and have a demanding schedule the rest of the way. Florida hosts No. 12 Auburn, visits Alabama and hosts Kentucky in its final three regular-season games.

The offensive struggles that have hindered Florida lately carried over. Florida had more turnovers (eight) than baskets (seven) during a first half in which it shot 26.9 percent overall and 1 of 10 from 3-point range.

Tennessee closed the first half on an 11-1 run to go into the locker room with a 27-18 advantage.

The Vols extended the lead to 10 early in the second half, but Florida crept back into the game while Williams was on the bench with three fouls.

Florida was trailing by just one point when it had two chances midway through the second half to regain the lead, but Deaundrae Ballard missed a 3-pointer on one possession and Dontay Bassett missed a baseline jumper the net time the Gators had the ball.

Tennessee then created some distance by going on a 7-0 run that included a Jordan Bowden dunk and five points from Schofield.

BIG PICTURE

Florida: The Gators continually misfired from 3-point range for most of the night. They missed 15 of their first 17 3-point attempts before making four of their last seven. By the time they finally started to heat up, they already had dug themselves too deep a hole.

Tennessee: The Vols got big efforts from their two top players — Williams and Schofield — and didn’t back down when Florida finally started making its shots down the stretch. Tennessee preserved its lead by going 13 of 15 from the foul line, including 9 of 11 in the second half.

UP NEXT

Florida: Hosts No. 12 Auburn on Saturday.

Tennessee: At Mississippi on Saturday.

VIDEO: George Mason stuns Saint Joseph’s with second buzzer-beating win this season

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George Mason knocked off Atlantic 10 rival Saint Joseph’s with a ridiculous buzzer-beater for the second time this season on Wednesday night as Ian Boyd was the hero this time.

The Patriots went the length of the floor to attempt a game-winning shot as a loose ball ended up in Boyd’s hands at the top of the key just before the game ended. Boyd launched a quick prayer and knocked it down to give George Mason the unlikely win.

Earlier this season, the Patriots won on another buzzer-beater over the Hawks when Otis Livingston II buried a contested 30-footer to win that one. By this point, Saint Joe’s is probably hoping to avoid George Mason in the Atlantic 10 Tournament after the two devastating losses they’ve already endured.

Harper, Okeke lead No. 12 Auburn to 90-71 win over Alabama

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AUBURN, Ala. — Jared Harper scored 21 points, Chuma Okeke had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and No. 12 Auburn beat rival Alabama 90-71 Wednesday night even without ailing star Mustapha Heron.

Down to seven scholarship players, the Tigers (24-4, 12-3 Southeastern Conference) turned a five-point halftime lead into a blowout thanks largely to big performances from Okeke and Malik Dunbar off the bench.

Auburn responded with Heron out with a stomach ailment one game after center Anfernee McLemore was lost for the rest of the season to an ankle injury.

Collin Sexton scored 25 points to lead the Crimson Tide (17-11, 8-7).

Bryce Brown scored 18 points for the Tigers despite shooting just 3 for 14 on 3-pointers. Harper also had six assists.

Okeke, who figures to be a key figure on replacing McLemore, scored 13 points in the second half and finished with a career-high. Dunbar also turned in his top performance with 14 points. Desean Murray had nine points and eight boards.

Auburn took command with a 17-2 run after having its lead cut to one early in the second half.

Sexton made 8 of 12 shots for the Tide, but other top scorers struggled.

John Petty, who had eight 3-pointers and 27 points in the Tide’s January win, missed his first eight attempts and finished with three points.

Donta Hall came in hot but had just seven points and five rebounds. Backup point guard Avery Johnson Jr. scored 10 points.

BIG PICTURE

Alabama: Had won five straight games over ranked teams and could have made a big statement for the NCAA Tournament. Came into the game giving up a league-best 65.6 points in SEC games.

Auburn: Moved a step closer to clinching its third SEC title and first since 1999. Game had to be a confidence builder for players like Malik Dunbar and freshmen Okeke and Michell.

UP NEXT

Alabama hosts Arkansas on Saturday.

Auburn visits Florida on Saturday night.

Bridges has 27 points, No. 3 Villanova beats DePaul 93-62

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 16: Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats drives against Elijah Long #55 of the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers in the first half during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyBank Center on March 16, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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PHILADELPHIA — Mikal Bridges scored 27 points and Phil Booth added 14 in his return to the lineup to lead No. 3 Villanova to a 93-62 victory over DePaul on Wednesday night.

Eric Paschall had 16 points, and Jalen Brunson added 11 points and seven assists to help the Wildcats (25-3, 12-3 Big East) beat DePaul for the 16th straight time.

Booth played 16 minutes, going 4 for 6 from the field and 2 for 4 from the arc in his comeback from a broken right hand that sidelined him seven games.

Max Strus scored 21 points for the Blue Demons (10-17, 3-12).

The Wildcats had a comfortable 46-30 lead at the break. They surged to a 27-point advantage with 17:47 left in the contest by scoring 13 of the first 15 second-half points over 2:13. Bridges capped the run with a 3-pointer that made it 59-32 and practically erased any chances of a DePaul comeback.

Booth entered 2:53 into the contest and made his presence felt, scoring eight points in eight minutes to help the Wildcats to their 16-point halftime lead. The game was tied at 16 after a Strus 3-pointer with 11:09 left in the half, but the Wildcats slowly and methodically pulled away.

Bridges had 15 points and Paschall added nine in the opening 20 minutes. Villanova was 10 for 14 from the free-throw line while the Blue Demons didn’t attempt a foul shot. For the game, the Wildcats finished 15 for 21 from the line while DePaul was 0 for 1.

BIG PICTURE

DePaul: The Blue Demons need a victory in one of their three remaining games to reach four conference wins, which would be their most since joining the Big East.

Villanova: The four-time defending Big East champion Wildcats also have three regular-season games remaining. They are tied for first place with Xavier but own the tiebreaker with the Musketeers after beating them twice, including Saturday’s 95-79 win at No. 4 Xavier.

WRIGHT STUFF

Coach Jay Wright recorded his 411th win at Villanova to close within two victories of tying Alexander Severance for first place in all-time coaching victories. In his 17th season at Villanova, Wright improved to 17-2 against DePaul.

SERIES DOMINANCE

The Wildcats have won 26 of the 34 matchups, with DePaul’s last win coming Jan. 3, 2008. Villanova won at DePaul 103-85 on Dec. 27 in the other contest of this season’s two-game series.

STRUS FOR 3

Strus made three 3-pointers, finishing 3-for-9, to up his single-season total to 74 to pass Quentin Richardson for second-most in a season. Drake Diener, with 85 in the 2004-05 season, tops the list.

UP NEXT

DePaul: Host Marquette on Saturday.

Villanova: At Creighton on Saturday.