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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.

FLORIDA (South)

  • 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.

WISCONSIN (West)

  • 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.

No. 1 Gonzaga loses their first game of the season at home to BYU

SPOKANE, WA - FEBRUARY 25: Head coach Dave Rose of the BYU Cougars works from the sideline in the first half against the Gonzaga Bulldogs at McCarthey Athletic Center on February 25, 2017 in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
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The streak is over.

Despite jumping out to an 18-2 lead on BYU in The Kennel, No. 1 and previously undefeated Gonzaga found a way to lose their first game of the season late on Saturday night, falling 79-71 to the Cougars behind 29 points and 11 boards from Eric Mika.

No. 5 UCLA dominates offensive boards to edge No. 4 Arizona

EUGENE, OR - DECEMBER 28: Bryce Alford #20 of the UCLA Bruins hits a shot over Dylan Ennis #31 of the Oregon Ducks during the second half of the game against the Oregon Ducks at Matthew Knight Arena on December 28, 2016 in Eugene, Oregon.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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TUCSON, Ariz. — Thomas Welsh scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half and No. 5 UCLA dominated the offensive boards to beat No. 4 Arizona 77-72 in a Pac-12 showdown Saturday night.

The Bruins (26-3, 13-3) snapped Arizona’s 21-game home court winning streak and dropped the Wildcats (26-4, 15-2) into a tie with Oregon for first place in the Pac-12 heading into the final week of the regular season. The Ducks hold the tiebreaker by beating Arizona in the teams’ only meeting.

UCLA, avenging a 96-85 home loss to Arizona on Jan. 21, trailed 53-49 at the half but took control with a 19-4 second-half run.

Allonzo Trier scored a career-high 28 for the Wildcats. Parker Jackson-Cartwright added 11, and Lauri Markkanen had 10 for Arizona.

Five players reached double figures for the Bruins, led by Bryce Alford’s 15. TJ Leaf and Aaron Holiday added 12 apiece, and Lonzo Ball had 11 along with eight assists.

UCLA had 19 second-chance points to Arizona’s four. In the second half, the Bruins outrebounded the Wildcats 9-1 on the offensive boards.

The Bruins switched to a zone most of the second half and stretched the lead to 11 twice late in the game, the last at 73-62 on Welsh’s’ inside basket with 4:38 to play before Arizona managed one final charge, finishing the game on a 10-4 run.

Markkanen’s two free throws cut the Bruins’ lead to 75-72 with 29.2 seconds to play. Holiday missed the first of a one-and-one free throw opportunity and Arizona had a chance to tie it but Kadeem Allen, with a dislocated pinkie finger on his shooting hand, threw up an air ball from 3-point range.

After trailing by as many as seven points, Arizona outscored the Bruins 10-1 over the last 2 1-2 minutes of the first half to lead 43-39 at the break. Jackson-Cartwright scored seven in the surge.

UCLA took the lead for good, 54-53, on Welsh’s basket with 12:52 to play.

REVENGE

With the victory, UCLA had come back to beat all three teams that have beaten them this season. After a two-point loss at Oregon on Dec. 28, the Bruins came back to beat the Ducks in Los Angeles 82-79 on Feb. 9.

USC upset the Bruins 84-76 on Jan. 25 but UCLA came back to rout the Trojans 102-70 on Feb. 18.

PAC-12 REMATCH?

The outcome in Tucson could set the stage for a rematch between the two teams in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournaments.

Assuming, both teams win out, Arizona would be the tournament’s No. 2 seed and UCLA the No. 3. Oregon would get the No. 1 seed and, barring upsets, would face the UCLA-Arizona winner in the conference title game.

UP NEXT:

UCLA: The Bruins return home to face Washington on Wednesday night.

Arizona: The Wildcats play their final regular-season game of the season at Arizona State on Thursday.

No. 5 UCLA wins at No. 4 Arizona thanks to defense, rebounding?

TUCSON, AZ - FEBRUARY 25:  Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins moves the ball upcourt during the second half of the college basketball game against the Arizona Wildcats at McKale Center on February 25, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona. The Bruins defeated the Wildcats 77-72.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Showtime UCLA Bruins, the team that has defined the pace-and-space movement in college basketball, the nation’s most lethal offensive attack, landed their second elite road win of the season on Saturday night, going into Tucson and knocking off No. 4 Arizona thanks to their ability to grind out stops defensively, milk the clock and crash the offensive glass.

Yeah.

Who saw that happening?

The fifth-ranked Bruins avenged a beatdown that they took at the hands of Arizona a month ago, going into the McKale Center and handing the Wildcats just their second Pac-12 loss of the season, 77-72. The difference came in the second half, with just under 15 minutes left, when head coach Steve Alford made the change from a man-to-man defense to a 3-2 zone that just had Arizona completely flummoxed. The rhythm that the Wildcats had offensively completely disappeared, but that wasn’t just the work of UCLA’s defense.

Part of it was their offense, too.

Let me digress, for a second: Part of what makes Virginia’s defense so consistently successful is that the Cavaliers make you work on the defensive end of the floor, using up as much of the shot clock as possible. The reason is mostly that Tony Bennett wants his team to control pace and to work the ball around until they have the perfect shot, not just a good shot, but the by-product is that is just takes the air out of the ball for the team that is forced to spend that much time defending. Every. Single. Possession.

This is what UCLA started doing. If they weren’t getting layups in transition, they were running their sets, working the ball into Thomas Welsh and T.J. Leaf, trying to get Lonzo Ball isolated against the smaller Parker Jackson-Cartwright, milking the clock for all that it was worth.

That was before the offensive rebounds.

TUCSON, AZ - FEBRUARY 25:  TJ Leaf #22 of the UCLA Bruins attempts a shot between Dusan Ristic #14 and Rawle Alkins #1 of the Arizona Wildcats during the first half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on February 25, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

UCLA grabbed nine of them in the second half — Arizona half just seven defensive rebounds in total, including three straight at the end of the game — and scored 14 second chance points in the second half. These weren’t just tip-ins at the rim. These were hustle plays, UCLA beating out Arizona’s big men to secure a board and work 30 more seconds off of the clock. Those are the back-breakers. Those are the plays that allow a visiting team to keep momentum in their favor and keep the home crowd from getting into the game. Those are the plays that helped prevent Arizona from looking like they had any clue how to attack a zone in the second half.

And that’s just not what we’ve become accustomed to seeing the Bruins do this season.

They run and they chuck threes and they let Lonzo Ball do what he can do and they don’t play much defense. That’s exactly who they were in the first half. They won this game because that’s who they weren’t for the final 15 minutes.

It brings us to a fascinating situation with the Pac-12.

Only one team from the conference is going to get a top four seed in the West Region. Whether it’s a No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 seed, you will only see one of Arizona, UCLA and Oregon — all of whom have essentially locked up a top three seed at this point — in the same bracket as Gonzaga on Selection Sunday. That’s how the bracketing rules work. This is incredibly advantageous because of where their games would be played: In Sacramento (or Salt Lake City) the first weekend, San Jose the second weekend and Phoenix for the Final Four. Not only would all of those games be fairly local — particularly for UCLA and Arizona — but they would be played on West Coast time, an underrated advantage for teams who don’t have to readjust their body-clock to a 10 p.m. ET tip-off time.

The only way that this scenario wouldn’t play out is if a Pac-12 team climbs up to the No. 1 seed line where undefeated Gonzaga also lurks, but as of today — which is a long, long, LONG way from Selection Sunday — it seems like those four No. 1 seeds are pretty set in stone.

UCLA has now won at Kentucky and at Arizona. That’s the best pair of road wins of any team in college basketball. They beat Oregon at home. They’re 26-3 on the season. If they’re going to win the Pac-12 tournament title, they’re probably going to have to go through Arizona and Oregon to do it.

And if they pull that off, the Bruins could very well end up being the top seed coming out of the conference.

They wouldn’t have to leave California until the Final Four in Phoenix.

And had they lost at Arizona on Saturday, I’m not sure it would have been possible.

So while the Bruins were already more-or-less out of the Pac-12 regular season title running, this win had oh-so-much more meaning that simply quieting a rival on their home floor.

No. 3 Kansas clinches outright Big 12 regular season title

AUSTIN, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives around Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns at the Frank Erwin Center on February 25, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas — Josh Jackson scored 18 points and Frank Mason III added 16 to help No. 3 Kansas beat Texas 77-67 on Saturday night to secure its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season championship outright.

Devonte Graham and Dwight Coleby added 12 points apiece for the Jayhawks (26-3, 14-2 Big 12) who have won six straight games.

Jarrett Allen led Texas (10-19, 4-12) with 20 points. Andrew Jones added 18 for the Longhorns, losers of five straight games.

Texas committed 15 turnovers, six by guard Kerwin Roach Jr., and Kansas converted them into 28 points.

Kansas used a 12-0 push in the first half to take a 13-point lead before settling for a 40-31 edge at the break. Coleby, a little-used junior forward who averages 1.2 points a game, scored 10 in the half, converting 4 of 5 shots inside. Kansas had a 24-8 edge in points in the paint. His 12 points matched a career best.

Texas shot four air balls and committed nine turnovers in the half — five of them Kansas steals.

The Longhorns cut the lead to five with a 3-point basket by Jacob Young midway through the second half, but Kansas responded with an 8-1 run and eventually led by 15 with less than three minutes remaining. Mason and Jackson scored four points apiece during that span.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The Jayhawks have won 12 of their last 13 games against Texas, including seven straight, giving them a 29-8 edge since the Big 12 began competition in 1996-97. Texas did, however finish in a first-place tie with the Jayhawks during two of these 13 straight Kansas Big 12 regular season championships — in 2006 and 2008. The Longhorns beat Kansas in Austin both seasons.

Texas: The Longhorns are 4-4 in Big 12 home games. Before Saturday, their largest margin of victory or defeat was four points.

UP NEXT

Kansas is at home against Oklahoma on Monday. The Jayhawks beat Oklahoma 81-70 on Jan. 10 with Mason scoring 28 points, including five 3-point baskets.

Texas is at Texas Tech on Monday. The Longhorns beat the Red Raiders 62-58 on Feb. 1 in Austin. Eric Davis Jr. made a big 3-point basket with 28.8 seconds remaining for Texas, which does not have a road win this season.

VIDEO: Indiana caps 22-0 first half run with 75-foot buzzer-beater

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The Hoosiers were down 26-14 late in the first half. They were up 36-26 at the break thanks to this: