Ranking the Sweet 16 games

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A quiet first round of the NCAA tournament gave way to a second round that got just a little too out of control.

Particularly in the East Region.

It’s a bit of a snoozer in Madison Square Garden this weekend. But everywhere else, things are going to get a little crazy for the Sweet 16 and the Elite 8:

8. No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 7 South Carolina (East): With all due respect to South Carolina and Baylor, this game just doesn’t do it for me. The Bears play a grind-it-out style offensively, hammering the ball into Johnathan Motley in the post, that is effective but isn’t exactly the most aesthetically pleasing way to play. And South Carolina? They were a train wreck on the offensive end of the floor for the final month of the regular season before somehow averaging 90.5 points through two games during the first weekend. I’d expect the Gamecocks to come back to earth on that end, but that won’t make them any easier to score against. My advice: bet the under.

7. No. 4 Florida vs. No. 8 Wisconsin (East): The intrigue here is the clash of styles. The Badgers want to slow the pace down, pound the ball into Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ and crash the offensive glass. Florida wants to speed the game up, force some turnovers and get their talented perimeter players into beneficial matchups. Here’s the thing that should worry you as an impartial observer: Florida is the third-best defensive in the country, according to KenPom. Wisconsin is the seventh. Neither of them are in the top 25 in offensive efficiency. This probably won’t be all that pretty.

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6. No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 11 Xavier (West): The story line is more enticing than the game itself. Sean Miller used to be the head coach at Xavier. His assistant was Chris Mack, who is now the head coach at Xavier. They’re still close, neither has been to a Final Four and it’s very possible that whoever wins this game will break that streak. That’s heavy. The game itself, however, is weird. Xavier looked like they were done late in the season, then somehow managed to put together one of the fiercest tail-whippings that we’ve seen in this year’s tournament, a 25-point beatdown of Florida State. The Musketeers are without Myles Davis and Edmond Sumner, who were two of their three most important players entering the season. Can the streak continue?

5. No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 Butler (South): Butler has turned into something of a Cinderella in their region. That’s what happens when you’re the Big East team trying to escape the South, which also includes three of the biggest brands in college athletics. The Bulldogs are no pushover, however, as they swept Villanova and own wins over two Sweet 16 teams — Arizona and Xavier twice. UNC, for my money, is arguably the best team left in the field. They have the horses inside, they are the nation’s best offensive rebounding team and they can rely on Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson to carry them on the perimeter. With Theo Pinson healthy, they also happen to have one of the nation’s best shutdown defenders, who will likely give Kelan Martin fits. This should be a fun one.

4. No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan (Midwest): What I love about this matchup is the way both teams play. Oregon is small-ball through and through with Chris Boucher out of the lineup, running Dillon Brooks out there at the four and spreading the floor as much as they possibly can. Michigan spreads things out as well, but they also happen to have to 6-foot-10 front court players in D.J. Wilson and Mo Wagner who can play out on the perimeter. This is a quintessential John Beilein roster, and ever since the middle of the season, Derrick Walton Jr. hs been as good as any point guard in the country. I think this game comes down to the battle at the four-spot. Does Brooks for Michigan to go small, or can Wilson handle chasing him around?

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

3. No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 4 Purdue (Midwest): Let’s start with the obvious here: This is a battle between the two front runners for National Player of the Year. You have everyone’s pick in Frank Mason III, who has been sensational all season long and seems to be the favorite to win the award, and you have Caleb Swanigan, who is putting up Tim Duncan-esque numbers for the Boilermakers. Obviously, those two aren’t going to be guarding each other, and that’s where this game gets even more intriguing. Kansas has one big man on their roster worth his 6-foot-11 frame and that’s Landen Lucas. They play Josh Jackson, who will likely be a two-guard in the NBA, at the four. Purdue has the biggest, most physical front line in the country, and between Swanigan and Isaac Haas, they draw 14.3 fouls per 40 minutes combined. Will Lucas be able to stay on the floor? Will Jackson? This is a more dangerous matchup for Kansas than I think people realize.

2. No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 West Virginia (West): Oh, this is going to be so good. Let’s talk about Press Virginia first. They come at you in waves. They play as hard as anyone, they trap, they foul and they make life difficult for whoever is trying to get the ball over half court. Gonzaga, on the other hand, does not have the most athletic back court. Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins have both had really good years, but both of them tend to struggle against quicker, stronger and more physical players. That’s what West Virginia has in boat loads. That said, the way for West Virginia to get into their press is to score, and, believe it or not, Gonzaga currently has the No. 1 defense in the country, according to KenPom. If they keep the Mountaineers from putting the ball in the basket, they keep them from being able to get that pressure rolling. Gonzaga also has a distinct size advantage inside. Let’s see if that pays off, and let’s see if Mark Few will have a chance to play for his first career Final Four.

1. No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 UCLA (South): Where do I even start? De’Aaron Fox vs. Lonzo Ball? Malik Monk vs. whoever tries to slow him down? A rematch from December’s thriller in Lexington? The Steve Alford-to-Indiana rumors? John Calipari’s return to Memphis? The bottom-line is this: these are two of the four best teams left in the field, both of whom can win a National Title. This is a Final Four-caliber matchup in the Sweet 16. This is the kind of game that you do not want to miss. I’m not sure how else I can put it.

NCAA tourney chair addresses non-conference strength of schedule and quadrant system

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The way the NCAA tournament selection committee picks teams for inclusion into the sport’s crowning event is always under intense scrutiny. It’s a national past time, really.

One of the easiest targets is the RPI, an obviously flawed metric. It was the topic of discussion recently in the Omaha World-Herald, most notably the non-conference strength of schedule component.

That post spurred a lengthy response from Creighton athletic director and selection committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen, who defended the committee’s work with a metric that it acknowledges to be imperfect.

Here’s Rasmussen:

“Non-conference SOS is not a predominant tool in selections.

In fact, each year that I have been on the committee, we have discussed why you have to look beyond the number to evaluate a team’s non-conference strength of schedule, and even with this qualifier, non-conference schedule ranks well behind other factors such as how you did against other tournament caliber teams, did you win the games you were supposed to win, and how did you do away from home since winning away from home is difficult and the tournament games are all games away from home.

“I have argued each year that I have been on the committee that non-conference SOS should be taken off the team sheet, but until we develop a new metric it is staying. However, understand that the committee understands its fallacies (as we also recognize other weaknesses in the current RPI formula) and it is not a prominent factor in decisions.”

Rasmussen also examined the quadrant system being used:

“Many think that the first and second quadrants are silos and that every win in the first quadrant or every win in the second quadrant is treated equally.  I think it is important that while we refer to first and second quadrant wins, we also better communicate that this is only a sorting mechanism and each game in these quadrants is looked at differently. They don’t have the same value.”

So while it’s fair to question NCAA selection committee’s decisions and the way in which they make them, it’s clear there is an extensive amount of well-intentioned thought put into the process.

College Basketball Coaches Poll: Michigan State moves atop the Top 25

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Michigan State is your new No. 1 team in the country, according to the USA Today Coaches Poll.

The Spartans received 20 of a possible 32 first-place votes after their comeback from 27 points down to beat Northwestern on the road on Saturday.

Virginia is still sitting at No. 2 while Villanova and Xavier round out the top four. Duke climbed a few spots to No. 5.

Here is the full coaches poll:

1. Michigan State (20 first-place votes)
2. Virginia (8)
3. Villanova (4)
4. Xavier
5. Duke
6. Gonzaga
7. Texas Tech
8. Kansas
9. Purdue
10. North Carolina
11. Cincinnati
12. Wichita State
13. Auburn
14. Arizona
15. Ohio State
16. Michigan
17. Clemson
18. Rhode Island
19. Tennessee
20. Saint Mary’s
21. West Virginia
22. Nevada
23. Houston
24. Middle Tennessee State
25. Arizona State

Was Bob Huggins justified in his anger over foul shots in Kansas win over West Virginia?

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Much has been made of Bob Huggins’ ejection on Saturday evening, as West Virginia blew yet another double-digit lead at Phog Allen Fieldhouse as Kansas picked up a critical, 77-69 win.

The ejection was hilarious, and everything that I want to remember Huggy Bear by: Cussing out all three refs as he earns his second technical and an ejection while needing to hold up his pants with his hands:

Huggs is a national treasure.

The more interesting conversation, however, centered around why Huggins was tossed. Kansas shot 35 free throws on Saturday. West Virginia shot just two, which is an absolutely staggering number.

And I thought this was deserving of further scrutiny.

Let’s start with the obvious: West Virginia fouls a lot, enough that it’s not an exaggeration to say that a foul could probably be called on every possession. Part of the strategy of playing the way that Press Virginia does is that they are betting that officials are not going to call a foul on every possession, because they won’t. West Virginia is also a jump-shooting team this season, as nearly 40 percent of their field goal attempts come from beyond the arc. Their free throw rate both offensively and defensively is dead last in the Big 12.

Put another way, the Mountaineers are always going to be outshot from the free throw line.

Then you have to combine that with the Kansas stats. The Jayhawks are second in the Big 12 on offensive free throw rate and third in defensive free throw rate. Throw in the home court advantage that comes with playing in the Phog, and the safest bet in the world would have been Kansas outshooting West Virginia from the charity stripe.

It also needs to be noted that the 35-2 advantage was 27-2 before West Virginia started fouling intentionally and before Kansas went to the line for those two late Huggins’ technical fouls.

But that didn’t stop Huggins from going off in the press conference after the game:

“We blew the game last year,” Huggins said. “We should have won the game. We had the game. They did a great job, they made shots, we threw it around, we missed free throws, we did everything humanly possible to lose the game. That was us.”

“I’ve been doing this 40 years. I don’t I’ve ever been in a game where we shot two free throws. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a game where the disparity 35-2. I’ve never been in a game like that.”

But perhaps his most telling line was this, when asked what his message to his team was:

“It wasn’t their fault.”

It’s pretty clear that Huggins believed his team was hosed on the road.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

West Virginia is normally going to shoot fewer free throws than their opponents. Kansas is normally going to shoot more free throws that their opponents. Studies have proven that home environments in college basketball have an impact referee decisions as much as any sport in the world, including English soccer. That’s part of having a home court advantage, and it’s part of the advantage of having a rowdy, raucous and loud crowd. It’s why places like Phog Allen, and Cameron Indoor Stadium, and Koch Arena, and the McKale Center, and anywhere else with a big and loud fan base.

But 35-2 is 35-2, and it will take quite a bit of video evidence to proof to me that Kansas did not get a significant benefit from playing in front of their home crowd on Saturday night.

So did the referees cost West Virginia the game?

Debatable. I’d argue that Jevon Carter missing some shots and Daxter Miles’ insistence on passing up open threes to try and pass the ball to players going for a rebound played a pretty big role, as did the fact that Kansas is a really good team that made some big shots down the stretch.

But the whistles played some kind of a role.

Just like they always do in the Phog.

College Basketball AP Poll: Virginia, Michigan State, Villanova top the Top 25

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Virginia remained in the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll while Michigan State and Villanova still sit at No. 2 and No. 3 with Xavier once again in fourth.

The biggest change in the poll was that Duke rose to No. 5 after three straight wins; they were No. 12 last week.

Kentucky is still not a part of the top 25.

Here is the full AP Poll:

1. Virginia (42 first-place votes)
2. Michigan State (19)
3. Villanova (4)
4. Xavier
5. Duke
t-6. Texas Tech
t-6. Gonzaga
8. Kansas
9. Purdue
10. North Carolina
11. Cincinnati
12. Auburn
13. Wichita State
14. Arizona
15. Clemson
16. Ohio State
17. Michigan
18. Rhode Island
19. Tennessee
20. Nevada
21. West Virginia
22. Saint Mary’s
23. Houston
24. Middle Tennessee
25. Florida State

VIDEO: Wichita State celebrates in locker room after win over Cincinnati

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Wichita State went into Cincinnati — well, Northern Kentucky — on Sunday evening and landed their biggest win of the season.

They were fired up about it, as you might imagine.

And their locker room celebrating after the win was, as the kids say, litty:

Here’s the funny part to me: This game wasn’t played at Cincinnati. It wasn’t played at Wichita State. It was played at Northern Kentucky, where the Bearcats are playing their home games while they wait for the renovations on their arena to be completed.

Which means that some poor NKU employee that had nothing to do with either of these two programs had to spend the time cleaning up this mess.