The eight most important individual matchups in the Sweet 16

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The first weekend could not have been more thrilling, beginning with Vee Sanford’s runner that sent No. 11 Dayton past No. 6 Ohio State and ending with the dunk show that Aaron Gordon put on for No. 1 Arizona.

In between, we unbelievably only had one true buzzer-beater — Cameron Ridley dispatching No. 10 Arizona State — but we did manage to put together the best day of Round of 64 games ever and the single best college basketball game since Louisville beat Michigan for the 2013 title.

We now have just 16 teams left in the dance. Here is our list of the eight most important individual matchups in the Sweet 16:

MORETop 16 players in the Sweet 16 Sweet 16 Preview | Sweet 16 Power Rankings

Deandre Kane vs. Shabazz Napier: Two of the best point guards in the country. The engines driving two of the best offenses in the country. Two all-americans going head-to-head. You don’t really need any analysis here, just enjoy the fireworks.

Glenn Robinson III vs. Jarnell Stokes: I’m not sure if these two will end up guarding each other, but the fact of the matter is this: Tennessee has a massive, physical front line that can be overwhelming when Stokes plays the way he has this tournament. Michigan often uses Robinson as their four and plays a finesse game compared to Tennessee’s power. What wins out?

Nick Johnson vs. Xavier Thames: This is simple: Xavier Thames is San Diego State’s offense. Case in point: late in the win over North Dakota State, his 30 points and eight assists accounted for 46 of SDSU’s 55 points and 15 of their 19 field goals. Nick Johnson is one of the best defenders in the country. Slow down the all-american Thames, beat SDSU.

Frank Kaminsky vs. Isaiah Austin: Baylor beat Creighton because they were able to stretch out their 2-3 zone, hug the Creighton shooters and dare the Bluejays to try to score over Isaiah Austin in the paint. Wisconsin takes 40% of the field goals from beyond the arc, which is top 40 nationally. If Scott Drew employs the same tweak in his zone on Thursday night, Kaminsky will become the most important player on the floor.

Russ Smith vs. the Harrison twins: The most fun matchup in the Louisville-Kentucky game will be Julius Randle vs. Montrezl Harrell, but the most important will be between Russ Smith and the Harrisons. Smith, as well as Terry Rozier and Chris Jones, are going to have to get the Wildcats sped up and force some live-ball turnovers. Offensively, Smith needs to play like the guy that was a first-team all-american, not the guy that shot 6-for-19 with 11 turnovers in the first weekend.

Devin Oliver and Dyshawn Pierre vs. Josh Heustis and Dwight Powell: Stanford beat Kansas because their size overwhelmed a smaller Jayhawk front line. Oliver and Pierre and unquestionably smaller than Powell and Heustis, but they are more skilled on the perimeter than some of the Jayhawk fours. They’ll need to take advantage of that if Dayton wants to make the Elite 8.

Akil Mitchell vs. Adreian Payne: There may not be a more physically overwhelming player in the Sweet 16 than Adreian Payne. If he has a flaw, it’s that he can be inconsistent, even quiet, at times. Akil Mitchell, as well as Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill, will be charged with keeping the big fella in check. Gary Harris might be Michigan State’s best player, but when Payne gets it going, Michigan State can be near-unbeatable.

Scottie Wilbekin vs. UCLA’s defense: Florida is not the kind of team that gets blown out. They’re good enough on the defensive end of the floor that even a team that can put up points the way that UCLA can won’t be running away from them. And assuming this does come down to being a close game, the guy that Florida goes to in the clutch is Scottie Wilbekin. He’s their closer. Keep him from getting big buckets in big moments, and the Bruins will have a chance to pull an upset.

Villanova’s Battle 4 Atlantis title could end up hurting their NCAA tournament profile

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When Villanova made the decision to play in the 2017 Battle 4 Atlantis, they expected that the event would give them a shot at landing at least two quality wins, if not three.

Instead, the Wildcats will be leaving paradise with a title that came with victories over Western Kentucky, Tennessee and Northern Iowa, after Friday’s 64-50 triumph.

It’s hard to say that winning three games in three days in a resort’s ballroom on a tropical island is a bad thing, but this certainly was not a best-case scenario for Jay Wright’s club. Instead of playing – and, in theory, beating – No. 19 Purdue in the semifinals and No. 3 Arizona in the title games, upsets took those matchups out of play.

Great!

That means that Villanova brings themselves home a trophy and a couple more strands of net.

But that’s not exactly the reason that teams play in these events. The experience of playing a neutral site game after a crazy amount of travel on back-to-back nights certainly does good for the team as a whole, but that’s not quite as important as strengthening non-conference schedules and adding the kind of quality wins that could bump them up a seed line or two.

Think about it like this: The only two quality non-conference opponents that Villanova has left on their schedule are No. 17 Gonzaga, UConn and Temple. Maybe Tennessee will do them a favor and get good enough to be looked at as a quality win, and there’s always a chance that Northern Iowa will end up being one of the nation’s best mid-major programs, but this is still a major blow to Villanova’s non-conference profile.

So when Bracketology season starts and Villanova finds themselves getting mentioned as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed because they don’t have the kind of quality wins that other contenders for the top seed line do, remember this week.

Villanova may be good enough that it does not matter.

But it would be foolish to pretend like those upsets don’t have some kind of effect.

Is it time to be concerned about the Pac-12’s dreadful Thanksgiving Week performances?

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Thanksgiving was not a day for fans of the Pac-12 the thankful.

For the second time in two days, No. 2 Arizona lost to a team that is in no way a lock to get to the NCAA tournament, falling to SMU just 24 hours after they lost to N.C. State; the Wolfpack, mind you, lost to Northern Iowa in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis the next night.

The only saving grace for what has been a disastrous homecoming for Deandre Ayton is that Arizona gets to play No. 19 Purdue in the 7th-place game. At least the Wildcats will get another shot at a potentially good win.

Arizona’s loss came just a couple of hours after Oregon fell against a UConn team that looks like it will be competitive this season but is a long way away from being the UConn teams your older brother knew. Stanford followed up Oregon’s loss by getting absolutely run out of the gym by No. 8 Florida, who put up 58 first half points and were in garbage time mode when the second half kicked off. Utah lost by 27 to UNLV. Oregon State lost to St. John’s. Just a day earlier, California took a 24-point beating by Division II Chaminade, a program that is getting run out of the Maui Invitational because they aren’t good enough.

And this all came during the same week that UCLA couldn’t get past Creighton in the first round of the Hall Of Fame Classic.

Arizona State takes No. 15 Xavier on Saturday afternoon while No. 10 USC hosts No. 16 Texas A&M this weekend, a last gasp for the conference to salvage what has been a disastrous start to the year.

Rest assured, those losses are going to matter come March. Quality non-conference wins are not only good for the individual teams getting those wins, they buoy the computer numbers for the teams within the conference itself. If, say, Arizona State turns out to be a top 25 team in KenPom and the RPI, then that makes every loss they take in conference that much better for their opponent and every win they get that much easier for the other team to write off. If all ships rise with the tide, then all NCAA tournament résumés rise with a strong non-conference performance.

The Pac-12 is doing the opposite of that, and it doesn’t help that there were really only thought to be four or five good teams in the league before the start of the season.

The big question now becomes whether or not this is something that the league can turn around. Maybe it’s just a fluky coincidence that Arizona, UCLA and Oregon played some of their worst basketball at the same time. UCLA still gets Michigan, Cincinnati and Kentucky before league play. Arizona has UNLV, Texas A&M, Alabama, New Mexico and UConn on their schedule. It’s not like they can’t turn this thing around.

But … at some point we’re going to have to talk about the distraction narrative.

Generally speaking, I think the idea of off-the-court distractions affecting sports teams is a little overblown, but this is more than just a regular distraction. UCLA is missing three players because of a shoplifting incident in China that has turned into a twitter battle between LaVar Ball and Donald Trump. Arizona had one assistant coach fired as a result of the FBI investigation into college basketball, another suspended and is currently without Rawle Alkins, who has a broken foot. USC also had an assistant coach fired and is playing without De’Anthony Melton, who had a relative caught accepting money in the FBI investigation.

That’s a lot to deal with.

So maybe it is playing a role in the league’s slow-start.

And I’d recommend the league’s big three find a way to right the ship, and quickly.

Because they are not going to have the luxury of being able to build their tournament résumé during league play.

No. 2 Arizona drops second-straight

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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — SMU attacked the glass and kept scoring off turnovers to offset a bad shooting performance. It was enough to hand No. 2 Arizona a second stunning loss to an unranked opponent in two nights.

Ben Emelogu scored 20 points and the Mustangs upset the Wildcats 66-60 in Thursday’s consolation round at the Battle 4 Atlantis, a jarring start for an Arizona team that began the season as a Final Four favorite with a preseason Associated Press All-American in Allonzo Trier.

Arizona (3-2) lost to North Carolina State 90-84 in Wednesday’s first round. It’s the first time the Wildcats have dropped back-to-back games against nonconference opponents since losing to Mississippi State and San Diego State in November 2011.

“This is a different feeling,” coach Sean Miller said. “It might be healthy for our team because instead of everybody telling you how good you are and you’re going to get to a Final Four and you’re awesome, it’s going to go opposite now.

“And I think that it could be something that drives our team to have even better practice to fix a few things and hopefully get back in the winner’s circle.”

The Mustangs (5-1) blew an 11-point lead in the second half but responded with a 10-2 run to go ahead for good. SMU won despite shooting 31 percent and going eight minutes without a basket in the second half.

“I always say — and everybody thinks I’m lying but I’m not when I say this — the best wins of the year are always when you can’t get your shots to go in the basket and you find a way to win anyway,” SMU coach Tim Jankovich said. “That’s how great seasons are made. Everybody wins when they shoot great and feel great and all that.”

The Mustangs hung on in two ways. First, they capitalized on 20 Arizona turnovers by scoring 19 points off those miscues. Then there was their effort on the boards; they were outrebounded 43-39 overall but nearly doubled up Arizona on the offensive glass (20-11) to finish with 23 more shot attempts and 14 second-chance points.

“We talk about this all the time,” Jankovich said. “Really break it down: Does it take a lot of talent to go run after a ball? Does it take a lot of talent to dive on a ball? … And the answer is no. So really what it takes is the character and it takes an unselfishness and a commitment to the things that win rather than the things that necessarily make me look good.

“And in the end, if you have a team full of those guys, then you’re going to have a successful team.”

Trier scored 22 points to lead the Wildcats, who shot 47 percent. Arizona freshman Deandre Ayton added 17 points and 15 rebounds, but no other Wildcats player scored in double figures. Arizona also shot just 5 of 20 on 3-pointers.

“No, our confidence isn’t affected at all,” freshman forward Ira Lee said. “We’ve just got to see these two games as a learning experience and move on.”

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: Miller immediately said offense wasn’t the problem after the loss to N.C. State, noting the Wildcats haven’t dropped many games when scoring 84 points. Rather, he was concerned about a bad defensive effort. This time, his team had some good defensive moments, but Miller said there was something missing in glaring fashion.

“Maybe we did play some good defense,” Miller said, “but defense always ends with the rebounding. And we were unable to rebound.”

SMU: The Mustangs trailed much of the way against Northern Iowa in their first-round tournament game, but played from ahead in this one. They also came up with a counterpunch, regaining the lead after Arizona erased that 11-point deficit.

“The effort, gosh darn, I don’t care if we were big or tiny or medium-sized out there or who was guarding who, I saw some fighting cats out there,” Jankovich said. “And I loved it.”

EMELOGU’S NIGHT

Emelogu went 7 of 11 from the field and 5 of 7 on 3-pointers to lead SMU’s offense. The rest of SMU’s starters made 12 of 53 shots (23 percent).

“A lot of times, you just play hard and play defense, you win games even though offense didn’t go our way,” Emelogu said.

UP NEXT

Arizona: The Wildcats will play No. 18 Purdue in Friday’s seventh-place game.

SMU: The Mustangs will play Western Kentucky in Friday’s fifth-place game.

Western Kentucky upsets No. 18 Purdue 77-73 in Bahamas

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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Darius Thompson scored 12 points and hit two clinching free throws with 5.1 seconds left to help Western Kentucky upset No. 18 Purdue 77-73 in Thursday’s consolation round at the Battle 4 Atlantis.

The Hilltoppers (3-2) led nearly the entire night, but needed to make several clutch plays late to hang on.

P.J. Thompson hit a corner 3-pointer with 5.8 seconds remaining to bring the Boilermakers (4-2) to 75-73, but Thompson answered with two free throws that made it a two-possession game and all but sealed the win.

Justin Johnson led the Hilltoppers with 17 points, including a tough driving score for a five-point lead with 21 seconds left.

Isaac Haas scored 22 points to lead Purdue, which shot just 32 percent in the first half. The Boilermakers trailed 42-31 at the break and never fully recovered.

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: That’s an 0-2 showing in two days for the Boilermakers in the Bahamas. The high-scoring, 3-point shooting offense hasn’t found its rhythm here, though Purdue shot 50 percent after halftime in this one to give itself a chance late.

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers were coming off a loss to No. 5 Villanova, making this the first time they had played consecutive games against ranked opponents since the 1993 NCAA Tournament. But they earned a win against a ranked team for just the second time in the last 15 tries.

UP NEXT

Purdue: The Boilermakers will play the Arizona-SMU loser in Friday’s seventh-place game.

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers will play the Arizona-SMU winner in Friday’s fifth-place game.

Duke overcomes tenacious Portland State 99-81

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Marvin Bagley III said the Blue Devils knew they had to wake up for the second half against Portland State.

And eventually, they did. Trevon Duval had 22 points and No. 1 Duke pulled away for a 99-81 victory over the surprisingly tenacious Vikings on Thursday to open the Phil Knight Invitational.

 Bagley added 18 points, and Grayson Allen had 14 points and nine assists. The Blue Devils (6-0) will face the winner of the Thursday game between Butler and Texas.

Duke trailed by as many as eight points but took control midway through the second half when Wendell Carter Jr.’s dunk put the Blue Devils in front 67-62. They would go on to lead by as many as 21 points.

“The first half we obviously weren’t playing like we were normally do. We weren’t doing the things that we do well. We weren’t going to our strengths. We kind of came out sluggish,” Bagley said. “But going into the second half it was just ‘You have to wake up.’ They (the coaches) mentioned to us that these are the type of games that are going to be like that if you don’t come out ready to play.

It was coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 200th victory as coach of a No. 1-ranked team. He’s 200-29 when the Blue Devils sit atop the poll.

Deontae North led the Vikings (4-1) with 24 points, including 20 in the first half, but fouled out with 8:39 left in the game.

It was the first time in program history that the Vikings had faced a top-ranked team. Portland State’s last win over a ranked opponent was an 86-82 victory over then-No. 25 Portland in December 2009.

“I thought they just knocked us back the whole first half,” Krzyzewski said. “We were in a reactionary mode the first 20 minutes.”

The tournament involves 16 teams playing in two brackets on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, with a break on Saturday. The field also includes No. 4 Michigan State, No. 7 Florida and defending national champion North Carolina.

Dubbed the PK80, the tournament celebrates Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday.

Duke and Portland State were in the Motion Bracket, playing Thursday at the Memorial Coliseum. Teams in the Victory Bracket played at the adjacent Moda Center.

Knight was sitting courtside for the game.

The five-time NCAA champion Blue Devils were coming off a 92-63 victory over Furman on Monday night, led by Bagley with 24 points.

Portland State was coming off an 83-79 victory over Utah State at the Memorial Coliseum on Monday. The Vikings are playing the first season under coach Barret Peery.

“I’m proud of our team,” Peery said. “But I was proud of our team before the ball went up.”

Portland State was no pushover from the start, taking a 12-11 lead on North’s 3-pointer with 16:54 to go in the opening half. North hit another 3 that put the Vikings up 19-15 and Michael Mayhew’s jumper extended the lead.

North made another 3 to make it 33-26 with 8:33 left in the half. The Vikings stayed out in front until Gary Trent Jr. made a pair of free throws for Duke to tie it at 42 with 2:09 left in the half.

Mayhew hit a long 3-pointer and Portland State led 49-45 at the half. Mayhew was among five Vikings who fouled out in the second half.

Carter’s layup put Duke out in front 54-53, but North answered with a jumper and Bryce Canda added a 3-pointer.

Carter had another layup to give the Blue Devils a 61-60 lead and Bagley’s tip-in pushed the lead to 63-60, energizing the mostly blue-clad crowd at the Coliseum. Duke never trailed again.

“This was a big stage for us,” said Canda, who finished with 14 points. “But we can’t hang our heads.”

BIG PICTURE

Duke: Allen scored just five points against Furman, and Krzyzewski said he was banged up and held out of a couple of practices going into the game. But he was back in form against Portland State. He taunted a Portland State player late in the game and got a technical, eliciting a strong reaction from Krzyzewski.

Portland State: It was the first time Portland State had faced a No. 1-ranked team. The Vikings have twice faced a No. 2 team, including Duke in 1997. … The Vikings play in the Big Sky conference. They’ve made the NCAA tournament twice, in 2008 and 2009, with first-round losses both times.

MORE COACH K: Krzyzewski has coached 229 games with a No. 1-ranked team, surpassing John Wooden for the lead. … It is the 500th week that Duck has been ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll under him, most by a coach in the AP Top 25’s history.

NORTH’S SECOND TECH: North was on the floor in front of the scorer’s desk, getting ready to check into the game when he earned his second tech of the game. Coach Peery said apparently the ref thought North had commented on the previous play.

UP NEXT

Duke: The Blue Devils go on to face the winner of the late Thursday afternoon game between Butler and Texas when the tournament continues on Friday.

Portland State: The Vikings will face the Butler-Texas loser.