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Final Four Previews: Why each team can, or can’t, win a national title

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FINAL FOURAll Final Four coverage | X-Factors 

KENTUCKY (Midwest)

  • Why they can win: The Wildcats are the most talented team in the country. That’s really all you need to know. There’s a reason that they were the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason, and we’re finding that out in this tournament. What makes them so tough is that they are impossible to prepare over because of the size and athleticism that they have along their front line. You simply cannot replicate Julius Randle in practice. You can’t copy the size of Dakari Johnson, and if he’s healthy, Willie Cauley-Stein. And it’s that size and athleticism that allows them to attack the offensive glass with reckless abandon.
  • But why they won’t win: If Kentucky plays the way that they have over the course of the last three games, they’re going to beat Wisconsin and give Florida (or UConn) all they can handle in the title game. Even the most cynical Louisville fan in the world will admit that. But the biggest difference between the Kentucky that’s shown up the last three games and the Kentucky that showed up for the three months before that is the shooting of the Harrisons and James Young. On the season, those three combined to make around 35% of their threes. In the tournament, they’re shooting 44.9% from beyond the arc and have hit the game-winning jumper from beyond the arc in all three games. An off night could stop their season in its tracks.

UCONN (East)

  • Why they can win: Shabazz Napier. It’s that simple. Napier is going to be the best player on the floor every single time he steps on the court in Dallas, and the team with the best player on the floor is going to win a lot of games. Napier can take over a game on the offensive end of the floor. He controls everything UConn does. Watch him on Saturday. He moves players around in their sets. He calls for ball-screens to come out. He waves off plays and call new ones. It’s impressive, and it’s also before you consider just how incredible he is at making big shots. Being ‘clutch’ simply means you have the confidence to take big chances and make big plays in crunch time, and no one is better at capitalizing on the moment than Napier.
  • But why they won’t win: That’s not to say that UConn can win if he’s a one-man show, because they can’t. Kemba Walker led UConn to the 2011 National Title, but he wouldn’t have been able to do that if Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi and … Shabazz Napier hadn’t stepped up and played well in March. DeAndre Daniels, Ryan Boatright and Amida Brimah need to have their March moments as well.


  • Why they can win: The Florida defense is just so tough. We’ve been over this time and time again. They have a ton of size and versatility and they can give so many different looks. Multiple zone looks, multiple different man-to-man defenses, full court presses, half court traps. It’s a nightmare to prepare for, and it makes them blowout-proof. They’re going to be in the game down the stretch, and that’s when Scottie Wilbekin takes over.
  • But why they won’t win: Here’s why Florida is going to be so tough to beat: because finding a flaw on this team that will be exploitable by one of the other three teams in this Final Four is a difficult thing to do. Their biggest issue is probably a lack of consistent three-point shooters. Michael Frazier is lights-out and Wilbekin can stroke it, but beyond that, the rest of the roster are non-shooters with the exception of Dorian Finney-Smith, who is as streaky as they come.


  • Why they can win: The Badgers have the single biggest matchup problem in the Final Four in Frank Kaminsky. How do you guard him? Put a center on him and he’ll step out to the perimeter, where seven-footers are not used to having to chase someone off the three-point line. Put a forward on him and he’ll overpower them in the post. He single-handedly tore apart the best defense in college basketball against Arizona, there’s no reason he can’t do the same to Kentucky.
  • But why they won’t win: The biggest issue for Wisconsin is their last of size. They are a fundamentally sound group — they all box out and their guards are willing to crash the defensive glass — but that doesn’t change the fact that Kentucky’s front line can flat out overpower them. Sam Dekker is going to start out guarding Julius Randle. Wisconsin’s little guards are going to match up with Kentucky’s 6-foot-6 guards. Josh Gasser will spend a lot of time guarding Alex Poythress. Kentucky can flat out overwhelm you with their size, which is what Wisconsin is the most susceptible to.

WEEKLY AWARDS: Denzel Valentine’s big week, Kansas makes a statement

Denzel Valentine
(AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

In the title game of the Wooden Legacy, a game that was billed as a matchup between the two best players in college basketball — Valentine and Kris Dunn — Valentine was downright bad …

… by his standards. He finished with “just” 17 points, six assists and five boards. I say “just” because, in the previous two games of the tournament, the Spartan superstar averaged 30.5 points, 10.0 boards and 8.0 assists. He’s been, hands down, the best player in college basketball this season, and that didn’t change this week.


  • Ben Bentil, Providence: Kris Dunn is the guy that is going to get all the national praise, but it was Bentil’s emergence that was critical for the Friars. He averaged 21.7 points and 6.0 boards in three games in the Wooden Legacy, carrying PC when Dunn was battling foul issues.
  • Wayne Selden, Kansas: The highlight of Selden’s week was scoring 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting in the Maui title game win over No. 19 Vanderbilt. For the week, he averaged 19.3 points and shot 12-for-17 from three.
  • Justin Robinson, Monmouth: Robinson averaged 25.7 points in three games for Monmouth at the Advocare Invitational. The Hawks beat No. 17 Notre Dame and USC in the process, only losing to Dayton by three.
  • Justin Jackson, North Carolina: Remember when Justin Jackson was struggling? He averaged 21.5 points, 9.0 boards and 5.0 assists in wins over Northwestern and Kansas State. That came on the heels of a 25-point performance in the loss at Northern Iowa.
  • Henry Ellenson, Marquette: Ellenson notched three straight double-doubles for the Golden Eagles this week, which included 16 points and 11 boards in a win over Ben Simmons and LSU.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas headed out to Maui as a team that many weren’t really sure what to make of. They looked good against Michigan State for 30 minutes, then they blew that game as Denzel Valentine went bananas. They had as much depth as anyone in the country, but Brannen Greene was suspended, Cheick Diallo was ineligible and Wayne Selden was the most notable of a handful of talented players that had been somewhere between inconsistent and ineffective this year.

That all changed in Maui — well, other than Greene’s suspension — as Kansas rolled over Chaminade, UCLA and Vanderbilt to bring home the tournament title. Blowing out Chaminade was to be expected. But beating down a talented UCLA team? Dominating a very good Vanderbilt squad? That’s the Kansas we’ve been hoping to see show up for a few years now. The question is whether or not it’s sustainable, and at least on paper, it appears to be. Selden’s shooting percentages will come back to earth, but his raw numbers are less important than his confidence and aggressiveness. Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham are going to continue to take pressure off of each other in the back court. Perry Ellis isn’t going anywhere.

I questioned whether or not Kansas was truly one of the nation’s elite when the season started. I think they answered that question for me.


  • Xavier: The Musketeers not only won the Advocare Invitational in Orlando, they blew out in-state — and former Atlantic 10 — rival Dayton in the finals.
  • Syracuse: The Orange are going to be a factor in the ACC this season. How much? I don’t know. But after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis by knocking off No. 18 UConn and No. 25 Texas A&M, it’s clear they’re going to be involved all season.
  • Northeastern: The Huskies picked up a road win against No. 15 Miami on this buzzer-beating jumper.
  • Arkansas-Little Rock: The Trojans picked up their second huge road win of the year, going into Tulsa and knocking off the Golden Hurricane. They’re now 5-0 on the season, having also won at SDSU.
  • Tournament winners: West Virginia knocked off Richmond and San Diego State to bring home the Las Vegas Invitational title, No. 24 Cincinnati beat Nebraska and George Washington in the Barclays Center Classic and Marquette knocked off LSU and Arizona State to win the Legends Classic.


Tuesday: No. 2 Maryland at No. 9 North Carolina, 9:30 p.m.
Wednesday: Butler at No. 24 Cincinnati, 7:00 p.m.
Wednesday: Louisville at No. 3 Michigan State, 7:15 p.m.
Wednesday: No. 13 Indiana at No. 6 Duke, 9:15 p.m.
Saturday: No. 11 Arizona at No. 10 Gonzaga, 3:15 p.m.

As good as they’ve been, No. 3 Michigan State has yet to play their best

Bryn Forbes, Ryan Fazekas
Associated Press
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Sunday night’s Wooden Legacy title game matchup between No. 3 Michigan State and Providence was billed as a matchup of the nation’s two best players, and rightfully so. Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine (17 points, six rebounds, five assists), who already has two triple-doubles to his credit this season, and Providence redshirt junior Kris Dunn (21 points, five rebounds, seven assists) have more than lived up to the preseason expectations and more of the same was expected in Anaheim.

And while both had their moments, it was Michigan State’s supporting cast that made the difference in their 77-64 victory. The scary thing for future opponents on Michigan State’s schedule is that Tom Izzo’s team is nowhere near being a finished product.

With Valentine dealing with first-half foul trouble Bryn Forbes stepped up, scoring 13 of his 18 points to help the Spartans take a two-point lead into the half. As for the 11-0 run that Michigan State produced to take control of the game late, a host of players stepped forward in regards to scoring, rebounding and defending.

Freshmen Deyonta Davis and Matt McQuaid combined to score nine points over the final 5:32, with transfer guard Eron Harris adding six of his 12 points during that stretch. The Spartans outscored the Friars, who aren’t as deep, 22-7 during that stretch to close out the game, hunting for quality shots and hitting the offensive glass while making things difficult for Providence on the other end of the floor.

The end result was a final margin that does not indicate just how close the game was. While Providence seemed to run out of steam Michigan State received contributions from multiple players, which is undoubtedly a good sign for this group moving forward.

The Spartans will return the currently injured Gavin Schilling later this season, giving them another big man alongside Davis, Matt Costello and Colby Wollenman. He was a player they missed Sunday night, as he can defend opposing big men both in the post and on the perimeter. His absence was a main reason Michigan State didn’t have an answer for Providence’s Ben Bentil (20 points, seven rebounds) defensively.

The key for this group is going to end up being role definition, which is especially true in the case of Harris. A transfer from West Virginia, Harris came to East Lansing with the reputation of being a big time scorer. He’s struggled through the first two weeks of the season, but he got on a roll on Sunday night, finishing with 12 points, three boards and three assists. He showed he’s capable of doing a variety of things on the perimeter, and fitting into a “Swiss army knife” kind of role would make Michigan State that much more dangerous.

There’s no denying that Michigan State has been one of the nation’s best teams thus far.

But there’s also no denying that the Spartans have yet to hit their ceiling, which is definitely a positive moving forward.