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2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown East Region: Villanova is the No. 1 overall seed

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THREE STORYLINES TO WATCH

  1. Will Villanova repeat as National Champs?: They sure look like they are ready to do so. In fact, I think Villanova’s title defense is probably the biggest story in the sport as we head into the start of the tournament, and yet, it doesn’t feel that way, does it? They have the star in Josh Hart, they have point guard play, they are well-coached, they have veterans at every spot on the floor. The Wildcats certainly have the talent on the roster to make a run at this.
  2. After winning the ACC tournament, does Duke have another run in them?: Like Villanova, Duke just finished up putting together a run to a title in a league tournament that was played in the Big Apple, cutting down the nets at the Barclays Center just a few hours after Villanova did so in the Garden. The Blue Devils have put it all together here late in the season, shaking off all the injuries, suspensions, surgeries, everything to look like a team that almost always has three of the four best players on the floor.
  3. Is there anyone in the East that can beat those two?: For my money, there are four favorites as we head into this tournament: Kansas in the Midwest, North Carolina in the South and then Duke and Villanova in the East. In fact, I think that it’s just about a lock that these two are going to be playing in the Garden on Sunday night, going head to head in what should be an unbelievable atmosphere for the right to play in the Final Four. Can anyone in the region beat them? Wisconsin over Villanova in the second round is somewhat worrisome, but I don’t think that Florida without John Egbunu or Virginia given their inability to score will give the Wildcats a run. As for Duke, their biggest test before the Elite 8 will probably end up being SMU. None of those teams really worry me.

REGIONAL BREAKDOWNS: East | Midwest | South | West

THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … ?: No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 2 Duke

Like I said earlier, I just cannot see anyone else in this region beating either of these two teams, not when they play the way that they’ve been playing this past week.

FINAL FOUR SLEEPER: No. 6 seed SMU

The Mustangs are better than anyone is giving them credit for this season. They’re currently sitting at 11th in KenPom’s rankings, and they handled Cincinnati fairly easily in the last two games those two teams played. Semi Ojeleye is a monster, and he’s a former Duke player. I fully expect the Mustangs to get past Baylor and into the second weekend, which would pit Ojeleye against his former team playing a role that Duke knows so well these days: the small-ball four.

RELATED: Printable NCAA Tournament Bracket

Via @MarchMadness

UPSETS THAT CAN HAPPEN

  • No. 13 East Tennessee State over No. 4 Florida: I really like the team that Steve Forbes has put together. He has high-major talent on that roster and a star guard in T.J. Cromer. The Gators have looked vulnerable without John Egbunu in the paint.
  • No. 6 SMU over No. 3 Baylor: This is one of the easier picks for SMU. I just flat out think that SMU is a better basketball team, as Baylor has been reeling over the course of the last month of the season.
  • No. 8 Wisconsin over No. 1 Villanova: This one is worrisome to me. The Badgers love working the ball through their posts, Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes, and if there is a weakness to Villanova’s team, it’s their ability to defend big guys.

UPSETS THAT WON’T HAPPEN

  • No. 12 UNCW over No. 5 Virginia: The Seahawks, who are a very, very good basketball team heading into their second straight NCAA tournament, got a terrible draw against UVA. UNCW wants to push tempo, force turnovers, shoot threes and create chaos. Virginia does not let that happen when they play.

FEEL LIKE GAMBLING?: No. 7 South Carolina to the Sweet 16

The Gamecocks will be playing in Greenville, S.C., and have one of the nation’s toughest defenses. They are physical, they are strong and they are old, which is exactly the kind of thing that could give Duke trouble in the second round. That said, I’m not sure they get past Marquette and I don’t know if they can score enough points to give either of those two teams a fight.

RELATED: Power Rankings 1-68 | Duke deserved a No. 1 seed | Committee got bubble right

THE STUDS YOU KNOW ABOUT

  • Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum and Grayson Allen, Duke: To me, these three are almost always going to be three of the four best players on the floor at any given time.
  • Josh Hart, Villanova: There’s nothing flashy about Hart’s game. He’s just a grinder, a junkyard dog that gets every loose ball and pounds the offensive glass and that is good enough to put up 29 points in the Big East title game.

THE STUDS YOU’LL FIND OUT ABOUT

  • Semi Ojeleye, SMU: He’s got a chance to be a first round pick this June, and I don’t know if anyone knows his name. He’s a powerfully athletic, 6-foot-8 combo-forward that allows SMU to play four-around-one when they need to.
  • T.J. Cromer, ETSU: Cromer averaged better than 19 points per game this season, and he’s got enough ability to be the guy that carries a mid-major team to the Sweet 16.
  • C.J. Bryce, UNCW: Just a sophomore, the 6-foot-5 Bryce is averaging 17 points as a two-guard in Keatts’ system. You have to think that, if Keatts jumps at a bigger job after the tournament, Bryce might be a guy that follows him there.

BEST OPENING ROUND MATCHUP: No. 5 Virginia vs. No. 12 UNCW

It may not be the most aesthetically-pleasing game, but the contrast in styles between these two programs is just so fascinating, and it brings up an interesting debate I had over the weekend: If you are a mid-major program trying to land an upset, do you want to go up against a team that plays a totally different style from you and hope that the matchup works, or do you want to take on a team that plays similarly but just has better athletes and players? If it’s the former, should I be re-thinking my take on UNCW in this game?

MATCHUPS TO ROOT FOR: No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 2 Duke

That is a game that is good enough to be for the national title, and we might get it in the Elite 8 in the best building to watch a neutral site game between two teams that really turn out fans in NYC. This needs to happen.

CBT PREDICTION: Picking a winner in that game is so hard to do, but I think I lean Duke. Talent wins out at the end of the day.

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.