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Weekend Preview: Saint Mary’s is the last team with a chance to end Gonzaga’s undefeated regular season

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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 1 Gonzaga at No. 20 Saint Mary’s, Sat. 8:15 p.m. (ESPN): This is the last game standing between Gonzaga and an undefeated regular season.

Technically, that’s not true. Gonzaga will still play four games in league play after Saturday – three of which are at home – but the Zags have won every league game by double-figures this season, and that includes a road trip to BYU and their home date with Saint Mary’s back in January.

So while this is college basketball and anything is possible, I feel pretty confident saying that the Zags are going to be able to get into the WCC tournament undefeated … if they can escape Moraga with a win.

And that isn’t going to be an easy task.

The Gaels are good. They control as well as anyone in college basketball. They don’t force a ton of turnovers, instead relying on their ability to make you take tough shots and clearing the defensive glass. They spread the floor with snipers around Jock Landale, the best big man you’ve never heard of, and have yet another in their pipeline of awesome Aussie guards that are straight killers in pick-and-roll action in Emmett Naar.

The question is whether or not they have the weapons you need to beat a Gonzaga team that has as few weaknesses as anyone in college basketball. The best way to beat Gonzaga is to attack their back court with big, athletic guards, as Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins just don’t have the physical tools that elite back courts do. They do, however, thrive in pick-and-rolls, so it will be interesting to see if Randy Bennett can find a way to scheme Przemek Karnowski into those ball-screens actions.

Bennett is one of the best coaches in the country. McKeon Pavilion will be rocking for Gameday. Will that be enough?

  • PREDICTION: I think Saint Mary’s wins this game, which means that I’ll gladly take the Gaels (+2).

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No. 2 Villanova at No. 24 Xavier, Sat. 2:30 p.m. (FOX): Xavier is playing without Edmond Sumner right now, who tore his ACL two weeks ago, but that hasn’t slowed the Musketeers down. They’re 3-0 since the injury and they’re the only team that is still within a game of first place Villanova in the Big East standings.

This is going to be their chance to make a run at winning at least a share of the Big East title. It’s not going to be easy to do – Villanova is really good at switching defensively and Xavier doesn’t have the horses inside to capitalize on the fact that Darryl Reynolds is Villanova’s starting center – but they will be playing in the Cintas Center and they will have Trevon Bluiett, who has been sensational of late. He’s hit for at least 20 points in five of his last six games, and he’ll need to do at least that to win on Saturday.

  • PREDICTION: I think this is the game where the Musketeers come back to earth. Villanova is too good, so give me the Wildcats (-3).

FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • Cal at No. 9 Arizona, Sat. 10:00 p.m. (ESPN2): Cal has quietly climbed their way into the Pac-12 title discussion, as they sit just two games out of first place in the league standings. Arizona is in first place. Cal badly needs to add some quality wins to their profile, and this is one of the few they have left. PREDICTION: Arizona (-8)
  • No. 5 Oregon at USC, Sat. 10:30 p.m. (Pac-12): Oregon is coming off of a loss at UCLA on Thursday night and will be asked to handle USC, a team with a very similar style of play, on Saturday. The Trojans are currently playing for NCAA tournament seeding. PREDICTION: Oregon (-3)
  • No. 11 Cincinnati at No. 25 SMU, Sun. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN): It’s tough to figure out just how good these two teams are because the rest of the AAC stinks. Last month they played a barn-burner in Cincinnati, and you can bet that Semi Ojeleye and the Mustangs will be ready to get some revenge. PREDICTION: SMU (-5)
  • No. 12 Virginia at Virginia Tech, Sat. 6:30 p.m. (ESPNU): Nothing like a little in-state rivalry game to kick your Saturday up a notch. The ‘Hoos are in the mix for the ACC regular season title while the Hokies are on the edge of the bubble. This is a critical game for both teams. PREDICTION: Virginia (-8)
  • No. 14 Florida State at Notre Dame, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN): The Irish have a point to prove after they lost at Florida State earlier this season. Notre Dame hit 15 threes in that game but had no answer for Jonathan Isaac. PREDICTION: Notre Dame (-1)

 

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.