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Weekend Preview: UCLA-Arizona, Florida-Kentucky headline a wild weekend

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No. 5 UCLA at No. 4 Arizona, Sat. 8:15 p.m.: The way things currently stand, it’s very unlikely that the Bruins are going to be able to find a way to win even a share of the Pac-12 regular season title. They are two games behind Arizona in the league standings with just three games left to play. They play at Arizona this weekend, a building the Wildcats have yet to lose in this season, and even if they somehow manage to leave the McKale Center with a ‘W’, they will still need Arizona to lose to Arizona State, Oregon to lose to Oregon State and to sweep the Washington schools in the final week of the season just to be able to share the league title with those two teams.

This is Arizona’s Pac-12 title to lose, and if they can knock off UCLA on Saturday, all they have to do is beat Arizona State to win the title outright.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for UCLA to play for, because the secret here is that whichever of those three teams the NCAA tournament Selection Committee believes has the best overall résumé will very likely end up being the No. 2 seed out west. They’ll play in Sacramento or Salt Lake City the first weekend, followed by a short trip to San Jose for the second weekend before ending up in Phoenix for the Final Four.

That’s the plan at least, but given the committee’s bracketing rules, only one of those three teams can actually be in the West Region. UCLA is the one playing catchup right now, having split with Oregon and losing at home to Arizona. They need to get this one back — and, if all goes according to plan, beat both Oregon and Arizona en route to the Pac-12 tournament title — if they have any hope of poaching that top seed.

So yes, there is quite a bit to play for here.

But that’s not the best part about this game.

The best part is that both Sean Miller and Steve Alford have their programs rolling at the same time, which is not something that has been in the case in the Pac-12 in recent times. UCLA was going to Final Fours under Ben Howland as Arizona was in the midst of their regime change, going from Lute Olsen to Russ Pennell to Sean Miller. When Howland’s program took a dip near the end of his tenure, Arizona rose up to be the league’s resident power while Steve Alford tried to find his footing.


What we have is a top five matchup between two programs that target the same players — remember, T.J. Leaf was originally committed to Arizona, which prompted Sean Miller to once question in a press conference why anyone would want to go to a program that couldn’t fill Pauley Pavilion — and are battling for west coast supremacy that will be played in primetime with league title and major NCAA tournament implications on the line.

It just doesn’t get any better than that.

  • PREDICTION: UCLA’s been better defensively, but I find it hard to believe that below average defenders have suddenly gotten good. Arizona’s talented perimeter trio of Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier ate up UCLA in the first meeting, as Sean Miller repeatedly targeted and exposed Bryce Alford. I expect that he’ll do it again. Arizona (-3)

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No. 13 Florida at No. 11 Kentucky, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (CBS): This is the SEC title game.

There’s really no question about it, is there?

Florida and Kentucky are clearly the two-best teams in the league. They face off on Saturday afternoon in a position where they are both sitting at 13-2 in the conference, tied for first place with a two-game lead on the rest of the field. Kentucky closes the season with Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. Florida closes the season with Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Those are games that both the Wildcats and the Gators should win.

Kentucky enters Saturday on a bit of a slide. They’ve regained their winning ways since an ugly run a couple of weeks ago. But they’re not exactly impressing in their wins. They barely beat a Georgia team playing without Yante Maten. They struggled to put away an awful Missouri team on the road. This Kentucky team has flaws, and those flaws can be exploited by the Gators.

Florida won the first matchup between these two teams by 22 points, as Malik Monk was never able to get going and Kasey Hill looked like the best player on the floor. Florida’s a tough, physical and aggressive defensive team that does all the things that we’ve waited all year to see Kentucky consistently do.

  • PREDICTION: Kentucky is a better team at home mainly because Monk is a better scorer at home. Kentucky (-3)
LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)


  • No. 9 Baylor at Iowa State, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN): These two teams couldn’t be more different. Until the last three weeks, Baylor has been one of the best and most consistent teams in the country, playing slowing, grinding out stops and pounding the ball into the paint. Iowa State? They’ve been inconsistent until the last four games, they like to run-and-gun, they have no interior depth and they are at their best when they’re banging threes. Will Hilton Magic win out? PREDICTION: Iowa State (-1)
  • No. 12 West Virginia at TCU, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN): This is a win that TCU might have to win if they want to be in the NCAA tournament this season, and it’s a game that may be winnable. The Mountaineers have looked great against Kansas and Baylor this season, but they’ve looked beatable against some of the lesser teams in the conference. PREDICTION: West Virginia (-6)
  • No. 23 Creighton at No. 2 Villanova, Sat. 3:00 p.m. (FOX): For just the third time this season, Villanova will be playing a game coming off of a loss. Creighton has put together some promising performances since Mo Watson’s injury, but I think that they are going to run into the buzzsaw that is angry Villanova. PREDICTION: Villanova (-10)
  • Syracuse at No. 7 Louisville, Sun. 2:00 p.m. (CBS): The Orange are coming off of thrilling, buzzer-beating win over Duke on Wednesday night. That got them onto the right side of the bubble … for now. If they want to lock up a bid to the tournament, win this game. It won’t be easy, not when Rick Pitino was clearly upset about the way his team performed at North Carolina. PREDICTION: Syracuse (+13)
  • No. 22 Butler at Xavier, Sun. 3:30 p.m. (FS1): Butler just finished off their sweep of Villanova on Wednesday night, setting themselves up to make a run at a top three seed in the NCAA tournament if they can win out. Xavier has been reeling of late, as they’ve struggled to adjust to the loss of Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett. This is a win that the Musketeers badly need to get. PREDICTION: Butler (-1)

The end was disappointing, but Kentucky’s season outpaced all expectation

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In yet another example of what makes March Madness the greatest and most unpredictable sporting spectacle on the planet, Kentucky’s run to the Sweet 16 this season is going to be looked at as a disappointment.

Who saw that coming back in January?

Who thought that this team had second weekend potential when they were in the midst of the first four-game losing streak of John Calipari’s tenure in Lexington?

And please, show me who, at that point in time, predicted that Kentucky media would be calling a loss in the Sweet 16 “the worst loss” in the Calipari era back when there were actual discussions being had over whether or not the Wildcats were going to get into the NCAA tournament?

It’s amazing how quickly the tide turns in college basketball

Kentucky lost on Thursday night. The fifth-seeded Wildcats fell to the ninth-seeded Wildcats of Kansas State in a game that turned into drama-filled slugfest down the stretch. The final score was 61-58. Kentucky had two shots at the end of regulation to force a tie or take the lead. They also gave up an offensive rebound to a 6-foot-3 no-name with 40 seconds left that led to the game-winning bucket.

The narrative is going to be that Kentucky choked this game away, that their inability to run offense — and P.J. Washington’s free throw yips — cost them the Final Four that seemed a given Thursday morning and a pipe dream on Selection Sunday.

The truth is that Kentucky was a flawed basketball team that got hot at the right time before running into a team that executed a game-plan to perfection while getting the benefit of a couple of bounces and whistles going their way.

And let me be perfectly clear: In no way, shape or form am I saying that Kentucky or Big Blue Nation should be happy with this loss. It should be disappointing. It should hurt — more so for the players than the fans, but whatever. The bracket broke perfectly for them. Everyone in their region was a cinderella. We weren’t wrong in thinking that Coach Cal’s kids were the heavy favorites to get to San Antonio out of Catlanta.

But we need to say that while also acknowledging this: There is a reason that Kentucky was a No. 5-seed this season.

This was a flawed basketball team.

They were young. They didn’t have enough shooting. Their offense was entirely too predictable, even when they were winning. If Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox weren’t carrying the load for them on that end, they didn’t really have anywhere to turn. And on Thursday night, they ran into a team that had the personnel and a game-plan to take away Kentucky’s two go-to guys.

Kansas State is not overly talented, but what they have in abundance are tough, athletic and older guards that are going to put in a shift on the defensive end of the floor. Kentucky fans may not know who Barry Brown is, but I guarantee you that fans of every Big 12 team can tell you just how good he can be. I guarantee that coaches in the Big 12 can tell you just how annoying their guards are, and those little guards played that role to perfection.

To put it another way, it wasn’t a fluke that Gilgeous-Alexander struggled to make plays off the dribble the way he has for the last two months of the season. It wasn’t an accident that Kevin Knox struggled to find a way to get the looks he had become accustomed to getting coming off of Kentucky’s circle sets.

And in a 40 minute basketball game, when one team matches up well with another, something as simple as Xavier Sneed catching fire and Washington going 8-for-20 from the foul line will get you beat.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Because the real point that I am trying to make here is that this particular Kentucky team just wasn’t all that good. They were young. They were injured. They had their flaws masked by the improvement of a couple of kids who played out of their minds for long stretches of the season, and I just don’t think that’s something that should be overlooked.

Maybe this is just my mindset as a fan. I enjoy the ride more than I need to celebrate the ending. Give me a reason to tune in every game. Make me excited to have the monotony of a week broken up when the ball tips. I’m good.

And I think this Kentucky team accomplished just that.

But two weeks ago, no one thought this team had a shot of getting to the Elite 8. Two months ago, every Kentucky fan would have taken a trip to the second weekend in a heartbeat.

The ending sucked.

No doubt about it.

But this team kept fighting and kept improving and, in the end, lost because someone took makeup remover to the cosmetics that Calipari applied.

Be disappointed, but don’t lost sight of the big picture.

VIDEO: Townes’ late 3 seals Loyola’s win over Nevada

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Nevada was faced with a dilemma. The Wolf Pack were down just one possession – just one point – and were on defense with with a five-second differential between the game and shot clocks.

Foul and extend the game or play it out and hope for a stop?

Nevada opted to play it straight-up, and Loyola hit them with the worst-case scenario – a 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock.

The 3-pointer from Marques Townes made it a two-possession game and the clock all but ruled out the possibility for two possession.

And that’s why Loyola is now in the Elite Eight.

2018 NCAA Tournament: Saturday’s tip times, TV channels, announcer pairings

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Half the spots in the Final Four are up for grabs Saturday. Be sure you know where your TV needs to be before the nets are cut down.

Atlanta: Brian Anderson, Chris Webber and Lisa Byington

  • 6:09 p.m. – No. 9 Kansas State vs. No. 11 Loyola, TBS

Los Angeles: Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Dan Bonner and Dana Jacobson

  • 8:49 – No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 9 Florida State, TBS

VIDEO: This is the shot that ended Kentucky’s season

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Barry Brown has spent all season being underrated.

And Kentucky found that out the hard way on Thursday night.

This bucket with 18 seconds left gave Kansas State a lead they would never relinquish in a win over Kentucky in the Sweet 16.

Florida State advances past Gonzaga to Elite Eight

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Florida State was an afterthought heading into the season in an ACC that was as loaded as it was top-heavy.

They were a No. 9-seed in the NCAA tournament in part because they were able to pick off North Carolina and Clemson at home by a combined three points.

They needed three overtimes to hold off Miami and Syracuse at home. They needed a win over Boston College on Senior Night to avoid heading into the ACC tournament with a losing record, and they ended up going and losing in the first round of the ACC tournament to a Louisville that never really sniffed the bubble and parted ways with their interim head coach as soon as their NIT run ended.

They were almost universally picked to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Missouri because everyone knew Michael Porter Jr. was back and secretly hoped that the potential top five pick might actually make some noise as a collegian before his run came to an end.

The Seminoles have been written off and ignored for the entire college basketball season.

And now they are a win away from the Final Four.

Terance Mann scored 18 points and Florida State held fourth-seeded Gonzaga to 35 percent shooting as the Seminoles advanced to their first Elite 8 since 1993 with a 75-60 win on Thursday night. The Seminoles will advance to take on No. 3-seed Michigan with a trip to the Final Four on the line. They have not been to a Final Four since 1972, which was the last Elite 8 before their last Elite 8.

Put another way, the program that has been ignored all season long has been to precisely one Elite 8 since 1972.

That’s a long time to be irrelevant.

So I guess it’s time that we all started to pay attention.

And here’s the interesting part of this: The Seminoles are actually a fun team to watch this year. This is not the kind of grind-it-out Florida State teams that we have become accustomed to with Leonard Hamilton at the helm of this program. They don’t try to play as many enormous human beings at one time as they can. Florida State plays a lot of small-ball. They have a lot of physical, athletic and switchable defenders. They press. They try to force turnovers. They get out and run in transition. They have a couple dudes; Mann and Braian Angola and M.J. Carter. They’re not exactly VCU and they’re not exactly West Virginia and they’re not exactly last season’s South Carolina, but there’s a little bit of all of them there.

And that’s what did Gonzaga in.

The Zags entered this game short-handed, as their starting five-man Killian Tillie was unable to go due to a hip injury that he aggravated during warmups, but that would not have made all that much of a difference in the Staples Center.

The issue was guard play.

Florida State’s pressure simply overwhelmed Gonzaga’s guards. Josh Perkins, Silas Melson and Zach Norvell were a combined 10-for-36 from the floor and had a nightmare-of-a-time trying to get the ball into the lane. The Zags committed 13 turnovers, trailed by 12 within the first ten minutes of the game and never really made a run keeping this thing within striking distance.

If there was an issue with Tillie being out, it came when Gonzaga tried to space the floor.

The Zags were playing without enough shooters, particularly in the front court. That clogged the paint and made it difficult for the likes of Johnathan Williams III and Rui Hachimura to get some space down there to operate. Perhaps the most telling stat on Thursday — more than Gonzaga’s 34 percent shooting or the 5-for-20 that they shot from three — was that the Zags were 8-for-27 on layups on the night.


For 27.


And it makes me wonder just how Michigan is going to be able to handle this group, but that’s neither here nor there.

We’ll get to it in time.

For now, it is time for the Seminoles and their fans to basket in this moment.

They were right, we were wrong.