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Seven key story lines during Championship Week

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1. Will there be a No. 1 seed from Pac-12?: The battle for the top seed coming out of the Pac-12 is going to be fascinating.

For starters, all three of the favorites — No. 1 Oregon, No. 2 Arizona and No. 3 UCLA — have similar enough résumés that the results of the Pac-12 tournament will likely determine which of those three is going to get the top seed coming out of the conference. That’s significant because all three of them are locks to be top four seeds, but the way that the bracketing rules are written, there can only be one team per league in the top four seeds of a specific region. That means only one of these four teams will be given the right to be in the West Region, where they will play in Sacramento the first weekend, San Jose the second weekend and, if they make it that far, Phoenix for the Final Four.

They would never have to leave the Pacific time zone, and they’d end up with Gonzaga as the other top two seed in their region.

That’s a much better than flying back East to face off with Villanova in New York or Kansas in the Midwest.

But there’s more to it than that. Because if, say, UCLA or Arizona wins the title, and they do it while picking off the other top three teams on the way, there’s a chance that the Pac-12 champ could end up being the No. 1 seed out West, particularly if Gonzaga finds a way to lose to Saint Mary’s on Tuesday night.

No one at the top of any league has more on the line this week than the teams at the top of the Pac-12.

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2. So what do we do with the Big East’s bubble teams?: There are four of them right now, and surprisingly enough, Xavier may be the most interesting case. It’s been more than a month since the Musketeers beat anyone other than DePaul. They’ve lost six of their last seven games, they are playing without star point guard Edmond Sumner and their 19-12 record puts them in a position where they aren’t a lock.

That said, three of those six losses came without Trevon Bluiett, and he’s back on the floor and healthy now. How the committee evaluates Xavier will be almost as fascinating as how the committee evaluates the three Big East teams that feasted on the Musketeers, and Creighton, after those two former Big East title contenders lost their star point guards. Marquette beefed up their résumé with four wins against those two teams post-injuries. Seton Hall won two, and also owns a win over South Carolina, which came without USC’s best player on the floor. Providence beat both Creighton and Xavier after the injuries.

Those wins — well, those injuries — are what put seven Big East teams in a position to get into the Big Dance. Does the committee consider that at all?

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3. Can De’Aaron Fox get it going again?: To me, that’s the most important part of the SEC tournament for Kentucky. Sure, it would be nice if they can bring home a trophy, but their ceiling as an NCAA tournament title contender is limited as long as Fox is playing the way that he’s been playing the last month. He’s dealt with some ankle and some knee issues, and he got sick last month. While his raw numbers haven’t taken a massive hit, anyone that’s watch the Wildcats play knows that he hasn’t been the same guy that he was earlier in the year.

Kentucky needs Fox to get back to being the guy that was playing like a first-team all-american for the first half of the season, because Malik Monk isn’t going to be able to carry this team for four, or five, or six games all by himself.

4. Does anyone make a job-saving run through their league tournament?: The way I see it, there are probably three coaches that are more or less coaching for their jobs this week: Kansas State’s Bruce Weber, Clemson’s Brad Brownell and Illinois’ John Groce. To say nothing of how dumb it is to determine how you’ll invest millions of dollars in the future of your basketball program based on one week of hoops at the end of a five-year tenure, those are three men that entered this season with their seats hot, needing a tournament trip to potentially save their job.

Those aren’t the only potential openings that will be interesting for some of the best and brightest mid-major coaches to track. Tom Crean and Indiana have a love-hate relationship that dates back years, and it’s never a surprise when his name shows up on lists like this. Tim Miles hasn’t gotten Nebraska back to the tournament in a few years, and while he has a promising young team and packs Nebraska’s home gym every single night, there seems to be some pressure on him this spring as well. And then there is Georgetown, where the fanbase has already turned on John Thompson III, who essentially has a lifetime

5. Might the Big 12 only get five teams in?: For all the talk about how good and how deep the conference is, there’s a chance that the conference could only end up getting five teams into the tournament. Six seems like the max, considering just how far off the bubble TCU and Texas Tech currently are. Even Kansas State, who appears to be one of the first four teams out as of now, has some work to do before they can be considered a lock.

The talk all season long was about how the Big 12 is the best conference in the country because of the depth and the balance, but can it really be the best league if half the field gets in when, say, the Big East and the ACC are sending better than two-thirds of their league teams to the dance?

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6. Will the ACC get to 11 bids?: That would tie the record set by the old Big East for the most tournament bids ever for a single conference, and there’s a chance that the ACC can get there. It would require both Syracuse and Wake Forest to win a game or two in Brooklyn this week, but that’s mostly as a precaution; neither team can really afford another bad loss to their name.

Georgia Tech is the more interesting case. The Yellow Jackets have some good wins this year, but they’ve amassed quite a few losses and haven’t done much damage away from home. If they are going to get to the NCAA tournament, my guess is they need three wins: beat Pitt in the opener, get past Virginia in the second round and then pick off Notre Dame in the quarterfinals.

7. Does any Big Ten team emerge as a threat this month?: The Big Ten is such a weird league this year. The bottom isn’t as weak as it has been in past seasons, and, depending on what Illinois and Iowa do this week, they could end up sending as many as nine teams to the Big Dance.

But is anyone in the league actually good enough to get to the final weekend of the college basketball season?

The conference has been defined by mediocrity this year. Wisconsin has lost five of their last six games and struggled to put bad teams away before that. Michigan State is you, obliterated by injuries and lacking size. Maryland has Melo Trimble, but their youth shines through too often. Ohio State and Indiana are in down years. Michigan and Minnesota look dangerous, but they look more like Sweet 16 threats than Final Four contenders.

The saving grace may end up being Purdue, but the Boilermakers hardly seemed dominant in the league this year.

Will anyone step up this week?

Stanford’s surprising mid-season turnaround continues with upset of No. 16 Arizona State

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Stanford earned a huge home win over No. 16 Arizona State on Wednesday night, taking down the Sun Devils for an 86-77 Pac-12 win.

The win for the Cardinal continues one of the best (and most surprising) turnarounds in the nation as Stanford is keeping pace with Arizona atop the Pac-12 standings. Now sitting at 5-1 in the conference, the Cardinal have won five consecutive games after sitting at 6-8 for the season following a loss to Cal. Stanford has picked off UCLA, USC and Arizona State since the start of 2018 while also sweeping the Washington schools on the road last week. Now Stanford is 11-8 overall while looking like one of the more dangerous teams in the Pac-12.

So how did this turnaround exactly happen?

Stanford figured things out with the mid-season addition of touted freshman forward Kezie Okpala. A bit of a late-blooming prospect coming out of high school, the 6-foot-8 Okpala was a high-end four-star recruit who had to sit out Stanford’s first 12 games this season due to academic complications.

During his final semester of high school, Okpala dropped below the threshold of what Stanford required in an AP calculus course while he tried to juggle the academic rigors of three AP classes. Stanford’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions notified Okpala of this and said they’d honor the original decision to admit him if he agreed to sit out of competition.

It was initially unclear if Okpala would play this season, but he’s figured out the academic side of things, and Stanford is very happy that he’s with them on the court. Since Okpala’s debut, the team has gone 5-2 with the freshman playing extended minutes in all seven contests. Okpala has even scored in double-figures in five of seven games he’s played in so far this season.

While Okpala actually had his worst shooting performance of the season on Wednesday in the win over Arizona State — finishing with four points on 1-for-8 shooting — his size and skill level on the wing (five assists) helped the Cardinal in other facets of the game. Outrebounding the Sun Devils, 44-30, while adding 13 offensive rebounds, Stanford has a long and athletic main lineup with Okpala in the mix.

Forward Reid Travis (18 points, 10 rebounds) remains one of the Pac-12’s most productive players after helping dismantle the Sun Devils with another double-double. Seniors like guard Dorian Pickens (19 points) and center Michael Humphrey (four points, five rebounds) are solid contributors. Freshman guard Daejon Davis (13 points, eight assists) is also seeing his play improve over time as he’s been picking things up lately as conference play gets going.

It might be too-little, too-late when it comes to Stanford’s NCAA tournament hopes after such a rough start. At least the Cardinal are showing plenty of fight now that they have their prized recruit in the lineup. Okpala’s return has given Stanford a major boost as the Cardinal look like a real threat with its rotation in place.

There’s still a long way to go before the Pac-12 conference race is decided. Stanford still has to prove this five-game winning streak isn’t merely a fluke like the half-court buzzer-beater that lifted them past USC. But the Cardinal has at least put themselves in the conversation among the league’s better teams. Nobody saw that coming a few weeks ago.

Wednesday’s Three Things To Know: No. 8 Texas Tech, No. 19 Seton Hall get dropped on the road

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The nights where there aren’t any marquee games are always the nights where college basketball goes absolutely batty.

Wednesday night was no different.

Here are the three things you need to know.

1. TEXAS TECH BLEW THE ADVANTAGE THEY HAD IN THE BIG 12 RACE

It’s a talking point that never really caught on, but prior to Wednesday night’s trip to Austin, No. 8 Texas Tech had the inside lane in the race for the Big 12 regular season title.

There is a clear-cut top four in the conference: Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma and the Red Raiders. The way to win the league was simple: Beat the teams outside of the top four and protect your home court against the other three contenders. Entering Wednesday, Texas Tech and Kansas were sitting one game ahead of West Virginia, who had lost at home to Kansas, and Oklahoma, had lost on the road to Kansas State. Texas Tech already had a leg up on the Jayhawks as well, as they won in Phog Allen Fieldhouse earlier this year.

I would hesitate to call anyone a favorite in the Big 12 that isn’t named Kansas, but the Red Raiders had certainly put themselves in a position where they had the easiest path.

And then the Texas game happened.

Mo Bamba went for 15 points, 11 boards and five blocks and Kerwin Roach poured in 20 in a return to the lineup as Texas beat No. 8 Texas Tech, 67-58. We knew losses were likely coming for the Red Raiders – no one is going to make it through this league without taking some lumps – but it has to be frustrating that those losses came when the program had a chance to keep pace with Kansas.

Credit to Texas. Their defense played as well as it has in weeks, they showed some toughness to get the win against a physical Tech team and they landed a résumé win that should age well.

Texas Tech also did a really cool thing for Andrew Jones prior to the game.

2. SETON HALL GOT BLOWN OUT ON THE ROAD AND DESI RODRIGUEZ GOT BENCHED

Twice in the last eight days, No. 19 Seton Hall has lost by at least 17 points on the road after they fell, 80-63, at Creighton on Wednesday night.

Creighton is a good team. They were playing at home in an arena that routinely puts 17,000 butts in seats. When they get it going they are tough to beat, so there really isn’t all that much to be concerned about here in a vacuum.

But we’re not in a vacuum.

Creighton lost by 20 points at Marquette last Tuesday. Marquette is not as good as Creighton and they do not play in as tough of an atmosphere as there is in Omaha.

What’s worse, however, is that Desi Rodriguez – the guy that has probably been Seton Hall’s Player of the Year – played just six minutes. Here is Kevin Willard’s explanation:

“He had that look in his face where he just didn’t want to be out there. When he gets that way, you just got to let him regroup and refocus. And it just never happened.”

That’s probably a cover for something else, but the concern for Seton Hall fans was that Rodriguez was hurt.

Getting benched isn’t ideal. But it’s better than getting hurt.

3. ALABAMA ENDED NO. 17 AUBURN’S 14-GAME WINNING STREAK

But what is more impressive is that they did it without Collin Sexton, who was sitting out with an injury.

That is a massive win for the Crimson Tide’s NCAA tournament hopes, which our Scott Phillips detailed here.

No. 24 TCU snaps 3-game skid with 96-73 over Iowa State

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Vladimir Brodziansky had 26 points and No. 24 TCU snapped a three-game losing streak with a 96-73 win over Iowa State on Wednesday night, when the Horned Frogs played for the first time without injured starting point guard Jaylen Fisher.

Alex Robinson, who started at point guard, scored eight points and had a school-record 17 assists for the Horned Frogs (14-4, 2-4 Big 12), who never trailed and shot 60 percent from the field. He had only one turnover in 38 minutes.

Brodziansky shot 11 of 13 for his third 20-point game in five games. JD Miller added 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting with five 3-pointers. Kouat Noi scored 16 points and Kenrich Williams had his eighth double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

Donovan Jackson had 19 points for Iowa State (10-6, 1-5). Cameron Lard and Lindell Wigginton each had 16.

Fisher was scheduled to have surgery Thursday, two days after injuring his right knee during practice. The sophomore guard missed the team’s trip to Australia in August after tearing meniscus in his left knee during practice then, but was back for the start of the season after surgery.

Robinson’s 12th assist, surpassing his previous career high of 11, was on pass to Brodziansky for a slam dunk that made it 70-53 with 11:36 left before an Iowa State timeout. That was among many plays applauded by Fisher, who sat in a chair near the TCU bench.

TCU jumped out to a 14-4 lead in the game’s first 5 minutes, and led by as many as 17 in the first half.

BIG PICTURE

Iowa St.: Even while they shot 51 percent from the field (30 of 59), the Cyclones couldn’t gain any momentum coming off their first Big 12 victory Saturday against Baylor. Wigginton, the freshman who was the Big 12 newcomer of the week after games with 30 and 27 points last week, had only two points at halftime after he got two fouls in the first 9 minutes.

TCU: After so many close games, including consecutive overtime losses on the road last week, the Frogs finally had a game in which they didn’t have to press in the closing minutes. Their four Big 12 losses are by a combined 11 points, and their only previous conference win was by three points in overtime.

UP NEXT

Iowa St.: Another ranked opponent for the Cyclones, who host No. 8 Texas Tech on Saturday.

TCU: The Horned Frogs play three of their next four games on the road. They are at Kansas State (13-5, 3-3) on Saturday.

No. 14 Arizona overcomes slow start, runs past Cal 79-58

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BERKELEY, Calif. — Deandre Ayton had 20 points and 11 rebounds, and No. 14 Arizona overcame a slow, sloppy start to beat California 79-58 on Wednesday night.

Parker Jackson-Cartwright scored 14 points with three 3-pointers during a decisive stretch spanning halftime as the Wildcats won their third straight since losing at Colorado on Jan. 6.

Dylan Smith made all four of his 3s and added 14 points and Allonzo Trier scored 15 as Arizona (15-4, 5-1 Pac-12) played without sophomore guard Rawle Alkins, held out as a precaution with what the school said was mild right foot soreness.

Justice Sueing scored 19 points to lead Cal (7-12, 1-5) but missed all six of his 3-point attempts for the cold-shooting Golden Bears, held to 35.3 percent and outrebounded 36-22. Don Coleman had 11 points but shot just 3 of 13.

Ayton made 9 of 11 shots and Arizona shot 62 percent, going 11 for 19 from deep.

Arizona connected on six straight 3-pointers from the 9:20 mark until 2:32 left before halftime to take control, three by Parker Jackson-Cartwright, then seven in all spanning halftime. Cal got within single digits, down by nine, for all of 17 seconds in the second half.

The Wildcats went four possessions until getting their first shot off while committing three quick turnovers and falling behind 6-0. They had turnovers on six of their initial nine possessions and 21 overall but still wound up shooting 70 percent in the opening half.

Arizona won its fourth straight in the series.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: The Pac-12’s top team from the free throw line, the Wildcats followed up a 34-of-37 showing at the line against Oregon last Saturday — the program’s first time at 90 percent or higher with at least 35 attempts since going 38 of 40 (.950) vs. Washington on Jan. 27, 2005, a span of 454 games — by shooting just 13 free throws and making six. Arizona came in shooting 85.3 percent at the line. … The Wildcats are 18-11 in Pac-12 road games played in the state of California under Sean Miller since 2009. Miller also is 12-4 vs. Cal.

Cal: Kingsley Okoroh, a 7-foot-1 center, scored 10 points to post his first game in double figures scoring since Nov. 16 against Wofford. … Cal has beaten ranked Arizona teams 11 times, including No. 1 four years ago at Haas Pavilion. While the Bears averaged 54.5 points over their recent road trip to Washington and Washington State last weekend, they hurt their chances with a 1-for-13 shooting performance from 3-point range but made 21 of 30 free throws.

UP NEXT

Arizona: At Stanford on Saturday afternoon.

Cal: Hosts Arizona State on Saturday night.

Holtmann makes Big Ten history as Ohio St. tops Northwestern

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ROSEMONT, Ill. — Chris Holtmann became the first coach in 95 years to win his first seven Big Ten games as No. 22 Ohio State defeated Northwestern 71-65 on Wednesday night.

C.J. Jackson had 12 points, eight assists and three steals, Micah Potter scored 13 points off the bench, Jae’Sean Tate added 12 and Keita Bates-Diop had 10 points and eight rebounds for the Buckeyes (16-4, 7-0), who won their sixth straight overall.

Holtmann is the third Big Ten coach to win his first seven conference games, joining Wisconsin’s Walter Meanwell (1911-12) and Iowa’s Sam Barry (1922-23). Holtmann replaced Thad Matta, the program’s all-time wins leader, this season.

Vic Law scored 14 points and Scottie Lindsey added 13 for Northwestern (11-9, 2-5) as the Wildcats suffered their second straight double-digit loss.

Picked to finish 11th in the Big Ten in a preseason media poll, the Buckeyes have been the story of the conference so far this season.

Coming off successive routs of then-No. 1 Michigan State, Maryland and Rutgers, Ohio State led Northwestern by as many as 15 in the second half before holding off a late Wildcats charge.

Northwestern got within three at 68-65 on a 3-pointer by Lindsey with 43 seconds left, but Jackson sealed the the victory from the foul line.

BIG PICTURE

Ohio State: The Buckeyes won on the road without a big game from Bates-Diop. The reigning two-time Big Ten Player of the Week, Bates-Dio entered the game leading the Big Ten in scoring (20.3) and third in rebounding (8.8).

Northwestern: With four starters back from the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance, the Wildcats have fallen far short of expectations and are going to have turn things around in a hurry to make a case for another invitation to the dance.

UP NEXT

Ohio State: The Buckeyes host Minnesota on Saturday.

Northwestern: The Wildcats host Penn State on Saturday.