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Sweet 16 Breakdowns: How the West will be won

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The West Region saw three of the top four seeds survive with only No. 3 Florida State getting knocked out by No. 11 Xavier early.

While some might feel like a rematch between No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 seed Arizona is inevitable, it would not be wise to count out No 4 seed West Virginia and head coach Bob Huggins?

Here’s what each team in the West has to do to make it to Glendale.

No. 1 GONZAGA

How they can get to the Final Four: There’s a reason Gonzaga started this season 29-0. As one of only two teams in the country that rates in the top 12 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency on KenPom, the Bulldogs are one of the most complete teams in the country.

Scoff as Gonzaga’s inability to get to the Final Four in the past at your own peril because this is perhaps the deepest and best team that Mark Few has had during his tenure.

With a tight-knit, eight-man rotation that can throw some different looks at you, Gonzaga is led by an All-American point guard in Nigel Williams-Goss while former starting lead guard Josh Perkins adds additional backcourt stability as a ball handler and shooter. Another lethal shooter in Cal graduate transfer Jordan Matthews also starts on the wing for the ‘Zags while the front-court is an intriguing four-man rotation that is hard to wear down.

Senior Przemek Karnowski is one of the country’s most unique big men while Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams is a nice compliment and double-figure scorer.

Gonzaga’s bench also features an experienced guard in Silas Melson and a double-figure scorer in McDonald’s All-American big man Zach Collins–who has quietly been one of the best freshmen in the nation. Another freshman, Killian Tillie, gives the Bulldogs additional athleticism on the inside if they need to go to a quicker lineup.

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

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Why they won’t get to the Final Four: Gonzaga might have won a lot of games this season but they haven’t exactly been dependable in late-game situations. Part of this is because the Bulldogs really weren’t tested all that often in the regular season — especially once the non-conference portion of the schedule was done.

But Gonzaga had some concerning meltdowns against BYU in its only regular-season loss, as well as in the second round against Northwestern. Credit the Zags for rallying together and holding off the Wildcats to advance to the Sweet 16 but the second half of that game also showed that Gonzaga is susceptible to giving up double-digit leads.

Facing a team like West Virginia who can turn you over very quickly in their Sweet 16 matchup, that could be something to watch for even if Gonzaga holds a second-half lead.

Besides for the shaky play in tight games, Gonzaga hasn’t shot the ball particularly well during the 2017 NCAA Tournament as they’re only 12-for-46 (26 percent) from three-point range in its two wins.

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No. 2 ARIZONA

How they can get to the Final Four: Playing some of the best ball of any team in the country right now, the Wildcats were impressive in winning the Pac-12 Tournament before advancing to the Sweet 16 with wins over North Dakota and Saint Mary’s.

Now the Wildcats avoid a potentially tough matchup with a long and athletic Florida State team to face a hot No. 11 seed in Xavier.

Since sophomore guard and leading scorer Allonzo Trier returned to the lineup after his suspension, Arizona has looked like one of the best teams in the country as Trier being back on the floor has made things a lot easier for the other Wildcats.

Freshman big man Lauri Markkanen is the NCAA Tournament’s most unique weapon because he’s a 7-footer who is a truly elite perimeter shooter at 43 percent from three-point range and he’s also Arizona’s best player on the glass.

Two more talented freshmen roam the Arizona backcourt as Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons are both capable of making plays while point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright is content to distribute to the team’s many weapons. Senior Kadeem Allen is one of the better perimeter defenders left in the field while the Wildcats have a solid rotation of big men besides Markkanen between Dusan Ristic, Chance Comanche and Keanu Pinder.

This team doesn’t have many weaknesses and they’re top 25 in KenPom in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. It’s easy to see why many believed they could reach the Final Four near home in Glendale.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: While Arizona might be one of the most complete teams left in the field they also lost to No. 1 seed Gonzaga earlier this season on a neutral floor. Granted, the Wildcats were still without Trier at that point, but the main takeaway from the regular-season clash is that the Zags will know what to expect from everyone else on the roster while also having the confidence of knowing that they beat them.

Perimeter shooting might be the key for Arizona to reach the Final Four. The Wildcats are shooting 39.6 percent from three-point range this season but they were only 1-for-8 from three-point range in the first loss to Gonzaga. Since the Bulldogs do such a good job of taking away the three (No. 6 in defending the three at 30.0 percent), Arizona is going to have to work harder to get free for clean perimeter looks.

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No. 4 WEST VIRGINIA

How they can get to the Final Four: “Press Virginia” is in the Sweet 16 after getting past Bucknell and Notre Dame over the first two rounds. The pillar of this Bob Huggins-coached group is the team’s ultra-aggressive full-court trap, which is No. 1 in the country in turnover percentage on defense at 27.7 percent.

With a long and athletic rotation that throws a lot of different players at you, West Virginia comes at teams in waves and wears them down for easy buckets.

Besides an ability to get easy buckets off of turnovers, the Mountaineers are better than expected in the half court on offense. Junior guard Jevon Carter is a standout perimeter defender but he’s also a crafty scorer who hit shots or distribute.

Since the Mountaineers have 10 players averaging at least 10.9 minutes per game they don’t have a lot of individuals putting up big numbers but West Virginia is relentless the entire game and almost never lets up on defense.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: If a team can beat West Virginia’s press consistently then they have a chance to score plenty of easy buckets.

The Mountaineers might be effective at turning other teams over but it is also a risky defense that can allow for a lot of good transition looks and mounting foul trouble. Teams who have reached this point in the tournament generally have decent guard play so it will be intriguing to see how Gonzaga has prepared to handle West Virginia’s press.

Beating the press is the obvious solution to getting past West Virginia but this team can also be shaky at times on offense in half-court situations. With not a lot of players who can create for themselves, West Virginia runs some ugly possessions as they were No. 110 in effective field goal percentage this season. Also a mediocre team at the line, West Virginia only shoots 68.3 percent from the free-throw line as a team.

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No. 11 XAVIER

How they can get to the Final Four: Not many pegged that Xavier would be in the Sweet 16, especially when they went a month with its only wins coming against DePaul. But things have improved dramatically for the Musketeers in the last few weeks as they’ve finally appeared comfortable since the loss of star sophomore guard Edmond Sumner.

Even though Xavier is a double-digit seed, they shouldn’t be counted out by any means since they have some dangerous pieces. Junior Trevon Bluiett is one of the hottest players in the field as he’s 8-for-15 from three-point range in two games while totaling 50 points.

If junior J.P. Macura gets going as a second major scorer to compliment Bluiett then Xavier becomes even more dangerous. Macura is the type of player who can heat up and easily go for 20-plus points.

Besides Bluiett and Macura’s ability to pop off from the perimeter, Xavier has been getting strong performances from role guys during the tournament. Reserve big man Sean O’Mara has scored in double-figures in both games for the Musketeers while others like Kaiser Gates and Tyrique Jones have also been picking up their play.

Gates, in particular, has been another big shot-maker from the perimeter during the tournament and he’s given Xavier more spacing while also contributing on the glass.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: Xavier has been to four Sweet 16s in the last eight years under head coach Chris Mack but they’ve never advanced past this round in three previous tries with him as coach.

Not that that has much to do with how this current roster has reached this point, but history isn’t exactly on Xavier’s side against No. 2 seed Arizona.

Besides for history, let’s be honest: Xavier was really struggling for the final month of the season. Without Sumner they still have a shaky point guard situation and the team’s offense can sputter at times if they aren’t hitting shots. Also expecting role players like O’Mara and Gates to continue to play like this might not be sustainable for Xavier.

It’s been a nice run for Xavier to reach this point but they would be one of the most unlikely Final Four teams in modern college basketball if they made it to Glendale.

VIDEO: Providence coach Ed Cooley always needs a mic

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On Friday night at DePaul, Providence head coach Ed Cooley allowed himself to be mic’d up for a TV broadcast, and things got interesting.

Around the 36 second mark, Cooley starts talking about … vampires and bats and dracula?

Then robbing banks and saying thank you?

I don’t know. Just watch.

VIDEO: Kansas celebrates in locker room after West Virginia win

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After coming from 16 points down to knock off No. 6 West Virginia in Morgantown on Monday night, Kansas had themselves some fun in the visitor’s locker room.

I’m not exactly sure what is happening here, but I do know Devonte’ Graham is having a hell of a time.

COLUMN: Kansas is back on top in the Big 12

My only question … where is Billy Preston’s shirt? He didn’t even play:

No. 10 Kansas overcomes deficits and its own issues to win at No. 6 West Virginia

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It’s hard to look at Kansas – the roster, the stats, the resume and all that comes with it – and not conclude this is the most vulnerable squad the Jayhawks have fielded since its current domination of the Big 12 began in 2005. The flaws are apparent, and they’re serious. They could easily be enough to sink the Jayhawks in an unforgiving conference.

It also could just be business as usual for Bill Self’s program

Tenth-ranked Kansas sputtered and struggled Monday night, but, ultimately, it didn’t matter as the Jayhawks stole a game at a rowdy WVU Coliseum, topping sixth-ranked West Virginia, 71-66, to keep its spot atop the Big 12 despite whatever issues bothered them against the Mountaineers and may persist well into the winter.

One of the major differences of this Kansas team from the 13 that preceded it is the Jayhawks can’t overwhelm with talent and athleticism. There’s no Andrew Wiggins, Josh Jackson, Thomas Robinson or any other surefire lottery pick to just go get buckets. There isn’t a host of high-level athletes that can help Kansas just run inferior teams off the floor. When you have two things, your margin of error gets padded. Mistakes aren’t magnified. They’re minimized. That’s not a luxury Kansas now enjoys.

Then there’s the issue of the roster. Even with Silvio De Sousa being declared eligible, Kansas is still incredibly thin and inexperienced up front. Udoka Azubuike is a load, but he’s the only big man that even inspires a bit of fear from opponents. If Billy Preston ever gets on the floor, maybe this becomes less of an issue for the Jayhawks, but it’s difficult to believe a true freshman making a whole host of difference this late in the season.

So for Kansas to win its 14th-straight Big 12 regular season championship, the Jayhawks are going to have to have to play a specific way. There’s not much wiggle room. They’ve got to defend. They’ve got to shoot 3s. They’ve got to be tough. They’ve got to be resilient.

That’s exactly what the Jayhawks were against Bob Huggins’ team Monday. If you can out-tough, out-hustle and out-work a Huggins team on their home floor, you’re on to something.

West Virginia led by as many as 16 in the first half. The Mountaineers had Kansas shook. Well Sagaba Konate did, at least. Eulogies were already being written for Kansas, especially as West Virginia’s lead stayed in double digits past the midway point of the second half.

West Virginia is designed to wear down opponents. The Mountaineers try to create a crucible, especially in Morgantown, that will force opponents to wilt. That’s supposed to be its most potent late in games.

That’s when Kansas thrived.

The Jayhawks outscored West Virginia 26-11 over the final 8 minutes. The Mountaineers were 5 of 14 (35.7 percent) from the floor with four turnovers during that stretch. Kansas, conversely, make 7 of 10 shots overall and 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

It wasn’t exactly rope-a-dope, but Kansas saved its best for last. They made winning plays. That’s really what’s going to have to separate them from the pack this season. As good as Devonte Graham is, as effective as Svi Mykhailiuk can be and as good as Self is, the Jayhawks are going to have to grind more than they’re accustomed to. 

The Big 12 is unmerciful this season. Texas Tech already has a win at Allen Fieldhouse, Trae Young has gone full supernova and even the league’s bottom tier looks like tough outs. Kansas faces a major test, and they’ll do so without a roster that compares to some of the powerhouses Self has assembled. The Jayhawks have often been able to win just by delivering broad strokes. They were bigger, faster, stronger and, simply, better. When they coupled that with a mastery of the finer points of the game, they dominated.

If The Streak is going to reach 14, it won’t be with that blueprint. The grittier parts of the game are going to have to come to the forefront. Outlasting West Virginia in Morgantown while shooting 44 percent and facing double-digit deficits would suggest the Jayhawks have the toughness and ability to make clutch plays that can paper over other issues.

Kansas isn’t going to overwhelm the Big 12 this year. They still very well could win it.

Monday’s Three Things to Know: Duke wins, Kansas wins and … BC wins?

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1. SO MAYBE KANSAS IS GOING TO WIN THE BIG 12 AFTER ALL

It happens EVERY YEAR.

Kansas goes on some prolonged slump, plays like a hot garbage for a few weeks and gets all of us thinking that yes, this year is different than all of the other years, that this is the year the Jayhawks won’t actually win the Big 12 regular season title.

I am a member of that club, and I feel pretty stupid after Monday night.

Kansas went into Morgantown and knocked off No. 6 West Virginia, 71-66, despite trailing for the majority of the game and spending the first 12 minutes of the second half staring up at a double-digit deficit. Simply put: the Jayhawks had no business winning on Monday night, and yet they did anyway, moving themselves into sole possession of first place in the Big 12 and making up for the fact that they lost at home to Texas Tech earlier this season.

Our Travis Hines penned a column on this game, so I’ll let him elaborate more, but one thing I will note here is that Silvio De Sousa played well in some important minutes at the end of the first half. Turning him into a player that can be a competent energy for 10-15 minutes off the bench will be massive.

2. BC’S ROLLING

The Jim Christian era at Boston College hasn’t exactly been sunshine and rainbows. The Eagles have never finished a season above .500 and failed to reach double-digit wins the last two years. That put Christian on the hot seat coming into the season and with little reason to believe the temperature would come down in the always-competitive ACC.

Things, though, have been pretty good – at least when judged against the last three years – in Chestnut Hill. With Monday’s 81-75 win over Florida State, Boston College is now 3-3 in the ACC, which exceeds its conference win total from the last two years…combined. Yes. BC won just two games against ACC opponents combined in 2016 and 2017, winning two games last year after going 0-18 the season prior.

It hasn’t really been a function of scheduling or luck, either. Other than getting stomped by North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Boston College has been competitive every night out, losing by a combined five points to Virginia and Clemson. Now, don’t go putting Boston College in the FIeld of 68 or anything like that just yet, but it’s easy to see that after three years in the woods, the Eagles may be closer to finding something akin to consistent competency.

3. DUKE IS STARTING TO PLAY SOME DEFENSE

The Blue Devils won at No. 25 Miami tonight. Rob Dauster has a column up on that game right now which gets into everything you need to know.

But there is this tidbit that is important to know: Duke allowed less than 1.00 points-per-possession on Monday night. It’s the third straight game that they have allowed less than 1.00 PPP, and that’s the first time that they have done that since 2014.

Granted, the best offense in those three games ranks outside the top 50 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric (Wake Forest) and two of them (Miami, 107th, and Pitt, 236th) rank outside the top 100. but you have to start somewhere. Is this the beginning of another defensive renaissance?

VIDEO: West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate hosts block party vs. Kansas

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Do not try Sagaba Konate.

The West Virginia big man has no time for anyone – especially Kansas Jayhawks attempting dunks – at the rim.

Konate’s first half against Kansas on Monday night was borderline dominant on the defensive end, with the 6-foot-8 sophomore blocking five shots as the Mountaineers controlled the game against Big 12 favorite Kansas.

The numbers were great, but the actual blocks were even better.

It looked like Konate had submitted his Block of the Year candidate early when Kansas senior Svi Mykhailiuk challenged him on a fast break. Konate wasn’t having any of it.

Konate may have one-upped himself later in the half, though, when Marcus Garrett, despite presumably having eyes and a short-term memory, thought it was a good idea to try to put Konate on a poster with a dunk of his own.

Super bad idea.

The Big 12 has some dominant shot blockers in the 7-footer mold of Texas’ Mo Bamba and Jo Lual-Acuil, but Konate may be the best of the bunch.