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Five Things We Learned This Week: UCLA’s defense, Duke’s depth and Gonzaga undefeated?

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1. So UCLA might be able to defend after all?: The knock on the Bruins is a secret to absolutely no one.

They don’t defend, at least not consistently or with the kind of effort needed to be able to beat some of the nation’s elite teams.

Here’s the only stat you need to know in regards to UCLA: They currently rank 126th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and the only team to reach the Final Four with a defensive efficiency that rated that low in the KenPom era – since 2002 – was VCU in 2011.

It’s an issue, but it’s one that the Bruins seemingly found a solution – or, at the very least, a bandaid for – this week.

On Thursday night Oregon came to town fresh off of a 27-point depantsing of then-No. 5 Arizona, and in the first 30-or-so minutes, that Duck offense didn’t slow down in the least. They put up 48 first half points. They were up 64-49 with just under 15 minutes left in the game, and that’s when everything changed. Over the course of the final 14 minutes, according to Kory Alford, a UCLA staffer, the Bruins gave up just 0.65 points-per-possession. They followed that up by allowed just 60 points on 66 possession to Oregon State on Sunday afternoon.

UCLA actually saw their defensive efficiency ranking drop from 115th to 126th after this week, but much of that had to do with the fact that A) they were eviscerated for 25 minutes by Oregon, and B) KenPom’s formula weighs the caliber of opponent, and Oregon State is ranked 281st in the country. What matters, however, is that the Bruins proved that they can defend when they need to, and that’s half of the battle.

The next step?

Make it a consistent thing.

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2. Gonzaga is going to go undefeated: At this point, it seems a virtual lock that they are going to finish the regular season with a 30-0 record. I’m not sure how you can predict anything else to happen. The Zags have won every game they’ve played in the WCC by double-figures, and that includes the road trips to BYU and Saint Mary’s, where the hosts had to scrap just to get the final deficit to 10 points.

Three of their last four games are at home, in a building where Gonzaga took down No. 20 Saint Mary’s by 23 points last month.

In fact, I’d be surprised at this point if Gonzaga doesn’t enter the NCAA tournament with an undefeated record, and you should seriously be considering them as a national title contender. (I went in depth on why right here.) And while I do understand if the public-at-large has Gonzaga fatigue – they get hyped every year, and fail to deliver every year – this is a great story line for college basketball. For the third time in the last four seasons, we could end up with a team entering the NCAA tournament with an unblemished record.

As a sports fan, greatness is something you should either root for or enjoy seeing achieved. The Zags have a chance to do just that this season.

3. Duke’s depth is a major, and unforeseen, concern: For a team with half-a-bajillion McDonald’s All-Americans, it seems ridiculous that they need to worry about the amount of depth on their roster, but that’s precisely where we are with this team right now.

Duke wants to play small-ball, which means that Jayson Tatum starts at the four with three of Duke’s four guards – Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen and either Matt Jones or Frank Jackson. Those four guards rotate through and, generally speaking, play the combined-120 minutes at the three perimeter positions. Tatum plays the four, where he is really the only guy suited for the small-ball role; there are not many players that are 6-foot-9 with guards skills and the physicality to hold their own on the defensive glass with natural power forwards, which is what makes him such a useful weapon.

But it also is an easy way to drain the legs of a player at this point in the season. That was evident on Saturday, when Duke played Clemson 39 hours after their emotional win over North Carolina and looked totally drained, almost listless. Tatum was the one that seemed to be dealing with fatigue the most.

The problem is their front court. Chase Jeter is unplayable right now due to some combination of injury and ineffectiveness. Marques Bolden, simply put, is nowhere near where he needs to be on the defensive end of the floor to be able to contribute to this team. Amile Jefferson is playing through pain, but he needs to contribute upwards of 30 foul-free minutes a night because Harry Giles III still isn’t ready to give 20 effective minutes. He shines for a few minutes, but he doesn’t have the stamina, explosion or the strength to handle the workload; it’s hard to come back from two surgeries and 14 months away from the game.

Put another way, this Duke team has roughly six guys that Coach K trusts at this point, and that may be generous considering Jackson’s been somewhat up-and-down this season.

LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 14: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Duke Blue Devils dribbles the ball during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on January 14, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. Just how much should we respect the Big Ten: The conference, as a whole, could end up getting as many as eight teams into the NCAA tournament, but that has as much to do with the fact that there are very few mid-majors worthy of an at-large bid while leagues like the AAC, the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West do not have the depth that we are used to seeing.

This fact is exacerbated by Northwestern beating Wisconsin on Sunday night. The Badgers, who have been taken to overtime by Nebraska and Rutgers in recent weeks, lost at home to a team that was playing without their leading scorer. They had already been left out of the top 16 in Saturday’s bracket reveal, and that loss certainly isn’t going to help their cause.

At this point, it’s worth asking if the Big Ten will disappear from the NCAA tournament before the Sweet 16.

5. Donte DiVincenzo is going to be a star: The reason that Villanova has not felt any ill-effects from the injury suffered by Phil Booth has been the play of the “Big Ragu”. He’s just a redshirt freshman, but he’s been terrific of late. He’s averaged 17.3 points over his last three games, including a team-high 17 in the win at Xavier, and that doesn’t factor in his game-winning tip-in against Virginia earlier this month. He is going to be the most popular Breakout Star pick next October.

Xavier sophomore Edmond Sumner declares for NBA Draft

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Xavier sophomore Edmond Sumner has declared for the NBA Draft and is expected to sign with an agent.

“First let me start by saying these three years at Xavier have been the best of my life,” Sumner said in a statement. “I have certainly been presented with some ups and downs but they have only served to make me a stronger person. This decision was very hard for me because of the love I have for X. After weighing my options with my family, I have decided to enter the 2017 NBA Draft, fulfilling a lifelong dream. I want to thank Coach Mack and the rest of the staff for believing in me and giving me a chance when no one did! I’ll always be grateful for that. Xavier Nation I will always love you!”

Sumner, a 6-foot-6 point guard with dynamic athleticism and first round potential that averaged 15.0 points, but he is coming off of a torn ACL that he suffered in January. He’s likely to be a second round pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

This is a big loss for the Musketeers, but it’s one that they planned for. After his eruption last season, most expected him to put his name in the draft this season.

Duke freshman Harry Giles III declares for NBA Draft

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Harry Giles III has declared for the NBA Draft after playing just one season at Duke.

“Playing in the NBA has been my goal for as long as I can remember, and I’m so excited to take the next step in that journey,” Giles said. “My time at Duke has been a dream come true. I’ve built so many strong relationships here and I have so many people to thank, from my teammates and coaches to our medical staff and strength coach. I can’t understate how proud I am to be part of the Duke Basketball program forever.”

Giles played in 26 games for the Blue Devils. He started six games and averaged 3.9 points and 3.8 rebounds, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story with Giles. At one point considered to be the best player in the loaded Class of 2016, Giles has dealt with a pair of devastating knee injuries already. He underwent a third surgery right before the start of the season and never seemed like he was fully able to get back to being the player he was when he was in high school.

This is the right decision for Giles to make, as there is still some uncertainty regarding the health of his knees. Were his struggles due to the fact that he was tossed right into the middle of a college basketball season after having sat out for 14 straight months, or was this simply a result of knees that no longer allow him to be the player that he used to be?

He might still end up being a first round pick this year. At the very least, he’s make some guaranteed money if he can get into a camp. Maybe returning to school could have helped vault him into the lottery in 2018, but another year like this year would’ve firebombed his draft stock.

“With his uplifting personality and love for the game, Harry Giles has been a joy to coach,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He is only beginning to scratch the surface of how good he can be on the basketball court. Harry has an exciting NBA future ahead of him and we are here to fully support him as a member of our brotherhood.”

I know I’m not alone when I say I hope that Giles gets healthy and succeeds in the NBA.

Frank Mason III, Lonzo Ball headline AP All-American teams

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Frank Mason III was a last-minute recruit for Kansas. He turned into the Jayhawks’ latest All-American.

The senior guard was the only unanimous selection to the 2016-17 AP All-America team Tuesday, receiving all first-team votes from the same 65-member national media panel that selects the weekly AP Top 25.

“I love the kid and I think he knows how I feel about him, but I’ve never been more proud — not that he’s won a postseason award — but he’s done everything that he’s supposed to do,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “He’s been a great teammate, he’s been tough as nails, he’s worked his butt off, he’s loved by everyone in the academic departments, graduated, and to see him reap these benefits after putting in so much time is an unbelievable honor.”

The rest of the All-America team includes guards Josh Hart of Villanova and Lonzo Ball of UCLA, plus forwards Caleb Swanigan of Purdue and Justin Jackson of North Carolina. Votes were based on the regular season and conference tournaments.

Mason averaged 20.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists while shooting 48.7 percent from 3-point range.

“My goals were always just to be successful as a team, do whatever I can do to make sure we’re successful and really change it at the defensive end and get after it,” Mason said. “Yeah, that’s pretty cool to see my name alongside those great KU players, it means a lot to me, but nothing would be possible without my teammates and coaching staff.”

Mason is the first All-American from Kansas since Thomas Robinson in 2012.

Hart, a senior who was key to Villanova’s 2016 national championship, averaged 18.9 points and 6.5 rebounds for the Wildcats. He received 62 first-team votes.

“It was definitely a goal,” Hart said of the All-America recognition. “Now that it happened, it’s humbling. A great honor. I’ve got to thank everyone that voted for me.”

Coach Jay Wright called Hart “the perfect combination of talent, hard work, intelligence and humility.”

“He never let any single year’s accomplishment deter him from getting better,” Wright said. “I think he’s one of the most complete basketball players in the country.”

The sophomore Swanigan led the nation with 26 double-doubles and was the only player in Division I to average 18 points (18.5) and 12 rebounds (12.6) while shooting 53.4 percent, 43.1 percent on 3s.

“He’s a very knowledgeable guy, now he’s been through it in terms of experience, understanding scouting reports and those types of things,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “He really gets it. I think he really separated himself from a lot of people with the consistent play.”

Ball, who has already declared for the NBA draft, took the country by storm as a freshman. He averaged 14.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.9 assists while putting UCLA back on the national map in a hurry. He received 54 first-team votes.

Coach Steve Alford called Ball “very deserving of the recognition.”

“He’s been special for us all year,” Alford said. “He’s been an incredible teammate, and everything that he’s done has been contagious throughout our team.”

The last All-American from UCLA was freshman Kevin Love in 2008.

Jackson, who received 24 first-team votes, helped lead the Tar Heels to a second straight Final Four. The junior averaged 18.1 points and 4.6 rebounds this season.

“He’s a better player overall,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “He’s better defensively, better rebounder, he can score the basket and he’s just had a year for us.

“He’s been the leader of our team on the court, on the stat sheet. I couldn’t be happier for him because he’s really got it the old-fashioned way,” Williams said. “He’s worked, he’s put in the sweat.”

Nigel Williams-Goss of Gonzaga led the second team and was joined by fellow juniors Dillon Brooks of Oregon and Johnathan Motley of Baylor, sophomore Luke Kennard of Duke and freshman Malik Monk of Kentucky.

The third team included freshmen Josh Jackson of Kansas, Markelle Fultz of Washington and Lauri Markkanen of Arizona, junior Bonzie Colson of Notre Dame and sophomore Ethan Happ of Wisconsin.

There has been at least one unanimous All-America pick the last four seasons.

First Team

· Frank Mason III, Kansas, 5-11, 190, senior: 20.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 5.1 apg, 48.7 3-pt fg pct, 36.2 minutes (65 first-place votes, 325 points).

· Josh Hart, Villanova, 6-5½, 215, senior: 18.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.1 apg, 50.8 fg pct, 40.7 3-pt fg pct, 1.6 steals (62, 319).

· Caleb Swanigan, Purdue, 6-9, 250, sophomore: 18.5 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 2.9 apg, 53.4 fg pct, 43.1 3-pt fg pct (61, 308).

· Lonzo Ball, UCLA, 6-6, 190, freshman: 14.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 7.9 apg, 54.4 fg pct, 41.0 3-pt fg pct, 2.0 steals (54, 296).

· Justin Jackson, North Carolina, 6-8, 210, junior: 18.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.7 apg (24, 223).

Second Team

· Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga, 6-3, 195, junior: 16.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.8 apg, 52.1 fg pct, 91.0 ft pct, 1.8 steals (13, 191).

· Luke Kennard, Duke, 6-6, 202, sophomore: 20.1 ppg, 5.3 pg, 2.5 apg, 44.3 3-pt fg pct, 84.9 ft pct (10, 189).

· Malik Monk, Kentucky, 6-3, 200, freshman: 20.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.4 apg, 40.3 3-pt fg pct (7, 165).

· Dillon Brooks, Oregon, 6-7, 225, junior: 16.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.7 apg, 51.3 fg pct, 41.4 3-pt fg pct, 1.2 steals, 24.0 minutes (15, 152).

· Johnathan Motley, Baylor, 6-10, 230, junior: 17.3 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 2.4 apg, 51.7 fg pct (4, 143).

Third Team

· Josh Jackson, Kansas, 6-8, 207, freshman: 16.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.1 apg, 51.1 fg pct, 1.1 blocks, 1.7 steals (1, 96).

· Markelle Fultz, Washington, 6-4, 195, freshman: 23.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.9 apg, 41.3 3-pt fg pct, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks, 35.7 minutes (3, 74).

· Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame, 6-5, 225, junior: 17.5 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 52.3 fg pct, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals (1, 70).

· Ethan Happ, Wisconsin, 6-10, 232, sophomore: 13.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 2.8 apg, 58.2 fg pct, 1.1 blocks, 1.9 steals (1, 66).

· Lauri Markkanen, Arizona, 7-0, 230, freshman: 15.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 43.2 3-pt fg pct, 82.4 ft pct (1, 50).

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)

Ian Baker, New Mexico State; Trae Bell-Haynes, Vermont; Evan Bradds, Belmont; Gian Clavell, Colorado State; T.J. Cline, Richmond; Patrick Cole, N.C. Central; Mike Daum, South Dakota State; Angel Delgado, Seton Hall; Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State; Nana Foulland, Bucknell; De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky; Jerome Frink, LIU Brooklyn; Kevin Hervey, Texas-Arlington; Isaiah Johnson, Akron; Keon Johnson, Winthrop; Peter Jok, Iowa; Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga; Marcus Keene, Central Michigan; Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s; TJ Leaf, UCLA; Paris Lee, Illinois State; Zach Lofton, Texas Southern; Donovan Mitchell, Louisville; Dallas Moore, North Florida; Monte Morris, Iowa State; Luke Nelson, UC Irvine; Semi Ojeleye, SMU; Alec Peters, Valparaiso; Justin Robinson, Monmouth; Devin Sibley, Furman; Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State; Erik Thomas, New Orleans; Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina; Melo Trimble, Maryland; Spencer Weisz, Princeton; Jacob Wiley, Eastern Washington; JaCorey Williams, Middle Tennessee; T.J. Williams, Northeastern.

N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr. will declare for the NBA Draft

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Dennis Smith Jr. announced on Tuesday that he will be declaring for the NBA Draft.

“I would like to announce my decision to declare for the 2017 NBA Draft,” said Smith on ESPN’s SportsCenter telecast Tuesday morning. “I believed I had a good chance (to turn pro) when I entered college. It was definitely an attainable dream for me and I knew I would chase it with all of my might. It meant a lot for me (to play at NC State). I’ve been a State fan my entire life, as well as my family, so it was definitely a dream come true to play in the red and white. I have the utmost respect for everybody I was there with. I’m thankful for the opportunity.”

Smith averaged 18.1 points, 6.2 assists and 4.6 boards as a freshman this season.

This decision is not a surprise, as Smith was considered a potential top five pick in the NBA Draft.

2017 Final Four: Rankings the starters left in the NCAA Tournament

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Today, we’re going to rank the top 20 players left in the NCAA tournament.

But instead of ranking them solely based on who the best players are we’re going to rank them based on the likelihood that they end up being the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. 

I’m sure this won’t cause any arguments:

1. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: For my money, Berry is the most important player on North Carolina. Justin Jackson deservedly was named ACC Player of the Year, and if anyone from UNC finds their way onto an all-american team, it’s going to be him. But UNC goes as Berry goes. When he is at his best, the Tar Heels are at their best, and the Tar Heels are going to need to be at their best if they are going to run through Oregon and whoever comes out of the left side of the bracket. I know he’s got a bum ankle right now, but I fully expect him to be ready to play come Saturday.

2. Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga: When Gonzaga played West Virginia last week, the Zags had to run their offense through Karnowski because the pressure on their back court was too much for the guards to handle. While South Carolina doesn’t play the same kind of pressing defense that West Virginia does, the goal is the same: They want to overplay everything and take you out of what you want to do offensively. What that means is that there should be some space in the lane for Karnowski to operate.

3. Justin Jackson, North Carolina: Jackson is UNC’s all-american, and he’s played like it through the first two weekends, averaging 19.8 points and 4.3 assists through four games. He was also tasked with chasing around Malik Monk during Sunday’s showdown with Kentucky, and did a good job with it. Will he draw the assignment of slowing down Tyler Dorsey?

4. Dillon Brooks, Oregon: Brooks, believe it or not, has been the third-best player on Oregon through the tournament. Jordan Bell has turned into Ben Wallace and I’m not sure that Tyler Dorsey has actually missed a shot yet, but I’m going with Brooks here because I think that if the Ducks are going to win a title, it’s going to be him that is the star. North Carolina, Gonzaga and South Carolina all use lineups that feature two bigs while Brooks plays a small-ball four role for the Ducks. If Oregon is going to win the national title, it’s going to be because Brooks forces whoever Oregon is playing to go small to matchup with him.

5. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss is the all-american for the Zags, but he played what may have been his worst game as a collegian against West Virginia in the Sweet 16. He was 2-for-10 from the floor with five turnovers and a pair of offensive fouls. South Carolina, like West Virginia, plays a defense that dares guards to make plays against them, and I just don’t think that Williams-Goss is athletic enough to make plays against them. Can he be the Final Four MOP if he doesn’t play well in Gonzaga’s first game?

6. Tyler Dorsey, Oregon: No one has shot the ball better than Dorsey during the month of March. He’s yet to score fewer than 20 points in a game since the start of the Pac-12 tournament and has a game-winner and countless daggers during that time frame. How long will this run last? He has to miss eventually, right?

7. Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Thornwell has been the best player in the tournament over the course of the last two weeks, averaging 25.7 points, which leads all scorers, and playing stout defense. South Carolina would not be anywhere near the Final Four if it wasn’t for Thornwell and they have almost no chance of winning the National Title if he doesn’t play well. That said, I have him seventh on this list for one, simple reason: South Carolina is the ‘Cinderella’ in this Final Four. They have to win it for Thornwell to be named MOP.

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

8. Johnathan Williams III, Gonzaga: Williams has probably been Gonzaga’s best player in the tournament. At the very least, he’s been their most consistent.

9. Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina: Hicks is going to have a chance to be a game-changer for North Carolina against Oregon, as he’ll likely go head to head with a smaller Oregon defender. Meeks was terrific for UNC against Kentucky, grabbing 17 rebounds. He’ll have his work cut out for him against Bell on Saturday.

10. Jordan Bell, Oregon: Bell was absolutely dominant on the defensive end of the floor against Kansas and Landen Lucas. If he can do the same thing to North Carolina’s front line, he’ll be in the mix for Final Four MOP.

11. Jordan Mathews, Gonzaga: Mathews has turned into Gonzaga’s big shot maker turning this tournament. He hit a number of big threes, including the game-winner, against West Virginia.

12. Theo Pinson, North Carolina: Pinson is UNC’s secondary playmaker and their best perimeter defender. He’s going to be called into action quite a bit with the likes of Tyler Dorsey, Dillon Brooks, Sindarius Thornwell and Nigel Williams-Goss in this Final Four.

13. Luke Maye, North Carolina: He was the South Regional MOP. He deserves mention here as much as anyone else on UNC even if he does come off the bench.

 (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

14. Josh Perkins, Gonzaga: If Williams-Goss struggles against South Carolina the way he did against West Virgina, Perkins is going to be asked to play a bigger role as a secondary ball-handler.

15. Dylan Ennis, Oregon
16. Payton Pritchard, Oregon: Both Ennis and Pritchard have had big games for Oregon this season, and if defenses can slow down Brooks and Dorsey, there are the guys that are going to be asked to carry the load for the Ducks.

17-20. P.J. Dozier, Chris Silva, Maik Kotsar and Duane Notice, South Carolina: This is not a shot at these four kids. All four were terrific in the regional. Dozier and Silva made huge plays in the second half against Florida, Kotsar made the game-clinching jumper and Notice has played sensational on-ball defense all tournament long.

But this isn’t a ranking of the best players. It’s a ranking of the most likely to win Final Four MOP. That gets given to the best player on the team that wins the national title, and I just don’t see any feasible way that South Carolina can win a national title without Thornwell doing what he’s been doing for the last two weeks.