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Weekend Preview: First place in the Pac-12, SEC on the line

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NOTE: This preview was written before the Allonzo Trier news broke.

SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 14 Arizona at No. 3 UCLA, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (CBS): First place in the Pac-12 is on the line on Saturday when Arizona makes the trek to Pauley Pavilion to square off with UCLA. The Bruins, who many believe are actually the best team in college basketball, currently sit a game behind both Arizona and Oregon – who may or may not have just lost Dillon Brooks to another foot injury – in the Pac-12 race, and this will be their chance to close the gap on at least one of those two.

Arizona is an interesting team. On paper, this team has some serious question. As talented as Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons – and, as of midnight last night, Allonzo Trier – are, and as good as that 17-2 record looks, the Wildcats still really haven’t done anything this season that would make you believe they are the No. 14 team in the country. Their best win is either Michigan State, who is not the Michigan State we thought they were going to be entering the season, or USC on the road.

UCLA, on the other hand, has an offense that is capable of putting up more than 100 points on anyone. They made 19 threes at Colorado. They made 16 threes against Arizona State on Thursday night, knocking down 10-of-13 in the first half. They’ve had two different players go for more than 30 points in Pac-12 play, and neither of them are Lonzo Ball or T.J. Leaf, UCLA’s two lottery picks. UCLA’s issue is that they don’t defend. As dangerous as this team is, they’re currently sitting at 11th in KenPom because they rank 92nd in defensive efficiency, and while I have my doubts about the Wildcats, they do have three guys that can light it up offensively.

  • PREDICTION: I was on UCLA (-4), but with the line moving and Allonzo Trier getting cleared, Arizona (+6) is where I would want my money, and I think that this game will hit over (+/- 162), too.

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No. 24 South Carolina at No. 5 Kentucky, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN): The Pac-12 isn’t the only conference where first-place is on the line. South Carolina and Kentucky are the only two undefeated teams left in the league after the Gamecocks beat No. 19 Florida on Wednesday night, and we will get a chance to see the pair of them square off Saturday evening. I think that South Carolina is the second-best team in the SEC, and I think that they do have the pieces to give the Wildcats a fight. It’s worth noting that with Sindarius Thornwell available, South Carolina is undefeated on the season.

Frank Martin’s clubs are never going to get out-toughed, and that is particularly true with this group, whose roster of big, physical veterans have used a pressuring, half-court man defense to sit atop KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. It will be strength on strength for South Carolina, as Kentucky has the nation’s No. 2 offense.

The key? Keep the Wildcats out of transition. Given the lack of perimeter shooting on Kentucky’s roster, if South Carolina can find a way to avoid live-ball turnovers and prevent Kentucky from getting easy buckets on the break – for what it’s worth, no one has really been able to do this – they should be able to keep this game interesting.

The x-factor? Foul trouble. The style that both of these teams like to play does not exactly align with the way college basketball is being officiated this season.

  • PREDICTION: I think Kentucky wins this, but I think the nation’s best defensive team will be able to avoid getting run off the floor, so I’ll take South Carolina (+13).

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No. 12 Louisville at No. 10 Florida State, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN): Florida State is part of a three-way tie for first place in the ACC with Notre Dame and North Carolina after the Seminoles knocked off the Fighting Irish on Wednesday evening. The way Leonard Hamilton’s club got that done was to pressure the Irish in the half court and force them to make mistakes offensively. Notre Dame had to shoot 15-for-21 from three to keep that thing respectable.

Louisville is going to face similar issues offensively as well. Already a team with question marks on that end of the floor, they are going to be playing this game without the services of Quentin Snider, who is dealing with a hip flexor injury. Donovan Mitchell looked good against Clemson on Thursday night, but Clemson and Florida State are two different beasts.

It’s worth noting, however that the ‘Noles have point guard issues as well. Xavier Rathan-Mayes isn’t exactly Chris Paul, and Louisville currently has the nation’s second-best defense.

  • PREDICTION: I don’t think Louisville wins this game on the road without their point guard, so I was on Florida State (-1). With the line now at FSU (-4.5), I think I’d rather bet the under (+/- 149). Two tough defenses, two teams without point guards.
LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 11: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Louisville Cardinals shoots the ball during the game against the Pittsburgh Panthers at KFC YUM! Center on January 11, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Donovan Mitchell (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • Syracuse at No. 15 Notre Dame, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN): The Irish are coming off of their first loss of the season, falling at Florida State despite the fact that they shot 15-for-21 from three. Given the way that Notre Dame can shoot the ball and pass the ball, this may not be the best matchup for the Orange zone. PREDICTION: Syracuse (+8)
  • Georgia Tech at No. 16 Virginia, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ACC Network): If you haven’t noticed yet, Josh Pastner actually have Georgia Tech playing some good basketball. The Yellow Jackets have wins over North Carolina, Clemson and N.C. State. Their only losses? At Duke, at Louisville and at Virginia Tech. PREDICTION: Virginia (-18)
  • No. 17 Wisconsin at Minnesota, Sat. 4:30 p.m. (BTN): The Golden Gophers got off to a good start to the season, but in the last week they’ve lost at Michigan State and at Penn State. Richard Pitino’s club, if they are going to be a tournament team, needs to land a couple more wins over the top teams from the Big Ten. This is the perfect opportunity. PREDICTION: Wisconsin (-4.5)
  • No. 7 West Virginia at Kansas State, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN2): The Wildcats have been on the wrong end of three tough losses already this season. If they are going to have a real chance to get to the NCAA tournament this is the kind of game they need to win. PREDICTION: Kansas State (+3)
  • No. 6 Baylor at TCU, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPNU): TCU is sitting pretty with a 14-4 record, but the Horned Frogs really have beaten anyone yet this season. Two wins over Washington, UNLV, Iowa State, Oklahoma. If this program is going to be good instead of, “Hey, TCU isn’t a guaranteed win anymore,” they need to do things like beat the best teams in the conference at home. That would be Baylor. PREDICTION: Baylor (-2.5)

Florida State picks up late commit from McDonald’s All-American

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The losses sustained by Florida State have been numerous and significant. Three players declared early for the NBA Draft. Another two contributors were lost to graduation. All in all, the Seminoles haven’t had the greatest of springs.

Wednesday, though, they got some good news.

McDonald’s All-American wing M.J. Walker committed Leonard Hamilton’s program to give Florida State a late, and important, addition to its 2017 recruiting class, beating the likes of Ohio State, Georgia Tech and UCLA.

Walker, a 6-foot-5 guard, gives the Seminoles yet another five-star prospect after landing Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac in the last two recruiting classes. Walker will help Hamilton and Co. reboot after both Bacon and Isaac, along with Xavier Rathan-Mayes, all left school to pursue professional careers after the Seminoles’ 26-9 season that saw them advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Walker becomes the sixth member of Hamilton’s 2017 recruiting class that was previously headlined by four-star 7-footer Ikechukwu Obiagu. That group will be tasked to retool a team losing not only major NBA-level talent, but also major production. The Seminoles won’t return a single player who averaged double-digit points per-game last year and just one who played at least 20 minutes per night.

Michigan returns Mo Wagner, loses D.J. Wilson

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The best-case scenario did not take place for Michigan this week.

The Wolverines waited for four weeks to hear back from their pair of mobile big men, and the news on Mo Wagner was positive. The 6-foot-10 junior from Germany announced on Wednesday that he will return to school after testing the NBA Draft waters.

The news was not as fortunate with D.J. Wilson, who announced less than ten hours before the deadline that he will be signing with an agent and turning pro. Wilson is projected as a late first round or early second round pick.

Without Wilson in the fold, Michigan lacks some front court depth, which will probably be enough to keep them out of the preseason top 25.

Gonzaga to return Johnathan Williams III

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Losing Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins to the professional ranks probably torpedoed Gonzaga’s chance of making another run to the NCAA tournament national title game, but after Johnathan Williams III announced on Wednesday that he will be returning to school and withdrawing from the NBA Draft, Gonzaga does appear to be a favorite to win the WCC title again.

Williams is now Gonzaga’s leading returning scorer and rebounder, anchoring a front court that also loses Przemek Karnowski to graduation. He was expected to go undrafted.

With Williams back in the fold, the Zags should be right there with Saint Mary’s in the race for the WCC title. Josh Perkins, Silas Melson and Killian Tillie all return as well.

ESPN was the first to report the news.

Injured Gamecocks point guard Blanton gives up basketball

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina guard TeMarcus Blanton is giving up basketball after struggling with a serious hip injury he suffered before his freshman season.

Gamecocks coach Frank Martin says Blanton told him he could not get his body to respond to a level that would allow him to continue playing basketball. Blanton is a 6-foot-5 junior from Locust Grove, Georgia, who hurt his hip during preseason for the 2014-15 season. He needed surgery and could not return to the court until his sophomore year.

Blanton played in 29 games, averaging 1.4 points a game.

He said on social media he is grateful to his coaches, teammates and South Carolina fans, “but my journey of basketball has come to an end.”

Blanton received a medical exemption from the Southeastern Conference to remain part of the Gamecocks’ program moving forward.

North Carolina’s Tony Bradley to remain NBA Draft

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For the first time in a decade and just the third time in 14 seasons as UNC’s head coach, Roy Williams has a one-and-done player.

North Carolina’s Tony Bradley will sign with an agent and remain in the NBA Draft.

Bradley had an impressive freshman season, averaging 7.1 points and 5.1 boards in less than 15 minutes per game as the sixth-man for the national title-winning Tar Heels. He initially declared for the draft without signing with an agent, testing the waters, and the feedback was positive: He’ll likely be a late first round or early second round pick.

As the process dragged on, it became fairly evident that Bradley would keep his name in the draft, and that is a massive blow for a UNC team that is already losing Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, not to mention Justin Jackson.

As it stands, Roy Williams will likely start the following lineup next season: Joel Berry II, Kenny Williams and Theo Pinson on the perimeter with Luke Maye and either Brandon Huffman or Garrison Brooks, both freshmen, alongside him. Williams is one of the few coaches left in the sport that still relies on playing two bigs and utilizing an overwhelming front court to win games, and that is not going to be an easy thing to do with that group of bigs.

UNC’s perimeter is strong. Berry will likely be a preseason all-american while Pinson and Williams are both above average role players on the wings.

But without that hoss in the paint — Bradley, like Berry, would have popped up on preseason all-american teams — the Tar Heels are going to have a tough time making a run at an ACC title, let alone a third straight trip to the national title game.

North Carolina is currently ranked 18th in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.