Sweet 16

Sweet 16 Preview: Breaking down what’s left of the South Region

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The South Region will kick off the 2016 Sweet 16 action, as No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 3 Miami matchup in a battle of Final Four head coaches; Jim Larrañaga went in 2006 with George Mason while Jay Wright was there in 2009 with his Scottie Reynolds-led Villanova team. The nightcap in Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center will feature the No. 1 overall seed Kansas Jayhawks squaring off with No. 5 Maryland, as Bill Self and Mark Turgeon renew a rivalry that stems from Turgeon’s Big 12 days at Texas A&M.

Here is everything you need to know about the South Region:

KEY STORYLINES

  1. Can Kansas live up to the hype?: Bill Self has a national title and a Final Four on his rèsumè. The former came in 2008, when Mario Chalmers’ three and a slew of missed Memphis free throws earned him a ring in overtime. The latter came in 2012, when he rode Thomas Robinson’s coattails to the national title game. But the Jayhawks have won 12 consecutive Big 12 regular season titles, which is why two Final Fours and five first weekend exits in that timeframe makes people question Bill Self’s ability in March. Like the Jayhawks were in 2010, when they got Farokhmaneshed, the Jayhawks are the No. 1 overall seed and considered a favorite to win the title. Can they get it? Can they at least get to Houston?
  2. Will the real Maryland ever stand up? Or is this just who they are?: That’s basically been the story all season long with this group, right? They have as much talent as anyone in the country, but they just cannot find a way to get the pieces to work together. We see it in flashes: the first half against South Dakota State, that 14-0 run against Hawai’i. But that’s all we get from them. Flashes. At what point do we just accept that this is who Maryland is? Or will they eventually prove us wrong?
  3. The monkey is off of Jay Wright’s back. So … what now?: Villanova had lost in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament the past two seasons as a No. 2 and a No. 1 seed. They also lost in the first weekend in 2010, when Omar Samhan took the world by storm. This year, Villanova shook off that curse in impressive fashion, whipping Iowa into submission. So … where do the Wildcats go from here? Is a trip to the Sweet 16 enough to prove to people that their three-year run of dominance over the Big East means they’re really, really good, or will Villanova always be overrated until they get to another Final Four?

WHY THEY’LL GET TO THE FINAL FOUR

No. 1 Kansas: For my money they’re the best, and most trustworthy, team left in the NCAA tournament. They may not have the ceiling of, say, Maryland or North Carolina, but you’re never going to see their floor, so to speak. They have four guys that can take over a game and beat you, headlined by Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, two former mid-major recruits that have turned themselves into the nation’s most underrated two-way back court. You can’t game-plan to slow down one guy, because if you build your defensive game-plan around stopping, say, Perry Ellis, you’ll give Wayne Selden, Mason and Graham will find room on the perimeter to beat you. A punch does the most damage when you don’t know where it’s coming from.

No. 2 Villanova: People love to crush Villanova because of their league affiliation and the struggles that they’ve had in the postseason. I get that. But remember, this is a team with a senior point guard in Ryan Arcidiacono and a senior center in Daniel Ochefu anchoring the team. Jalen Brunson is a freshman that has the poise of a senior while Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges are impact guys off the bench. And then there is Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart, two matchup problems at the forward spots that make the Wildcats really hard to guard, especially with the way that Jenkins is currently playing.

No. 3 Miami: The Hurricanes are as big and athletic as anyone left in the tournament. Sheldon McClellan is one of the nation’s most underrated talents, Tonye Jekiri anchors a big and physical and old front line that understands their roles, and Jim Larrañaga is one of the best coaches in the country at fitting his offense and his players together. When Angel Rodriguez plays the way he did on Saturday — 28 points and three assists against Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker — they can beat anyone in the country.

No. 5 Maryland: I’d make the argument that Maryland is the most talented team left in the NCAA tournament. Their entire starting lineup could end up cashing an NBA paycheck at some point in their professional careers. Look at it on paper: Of the teams left in the tournament, which front court would you take over Jake Layman, Robert Carter and Diamond Stone? Which back court is definitively better than Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon? And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Trimble has been one of the best big game and big moment players in the country for the majority of his career. They should be a real title contender.

Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)
Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)

BUT THIS IS WHY THEY WON’T

No. 5 Maryland: The Terps haven’t played up to their talent level for a consistent or extended period of time yet this season. They almost gave away their first round game against No. 12 South Dakota State and really only played well for a three-minute second half stretch against Hawai’i in the second round. Why, if this has been an issue all season long, should we believe that they are going to find answers against the best team in college basketball on Thursday night?

No. 3 Miami: Angel Rodriguez. He’s an inconsistent as he is talented. Even in that game against Wichita State, when he played so well, he finished with seven turnovers, five of which came in a four-minute first half stretch that allowed Wichita State to get back into it. This group does have the horses to get to the Final Four, but the question of whether or not they can trust Angel Rodriguez to carry them there is valid.

No. 2 Villanova: This is just not a team with an elite level of athleticism. Josh Hart is the exception. He’s as strong, explosive and tough as anyone left in the event. But beyond that? Kris Jenkins has to be hidden at times defensively. Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson are big guards and savvy offensively but they can struggle at times when they have to guard quicker players. And the one thing about the teams in the South Region — they all have quality back courts, and all of those quality back courts include a pair of quick, talented guards.

No. 1 Kansas: The Jayhawks don’t have a star. Sometimes, that’s a good thing, because it means that you don’t know who is going to be their go-to guy in a given game or on a given possession. But it’s also nice to have that star power that you know you can rely on to carry your team if things get tough. To me, Frank Mason is that guy for Kansas, and as good as Frank Mason has been, is he good enough to be that guy for a team that’s going to win a national title? He might be. But we won’t know the answer to that for another two weeks.

THE X-FACTORS

  • Angel Rodriguez: Read this. It will explain it all.
  • Kris Jenkins: When Jenkins is scoring and shooting the way that he has over the course of the last month, Villanova is a nightmare to try and defend. He’s hit at least two threes in each of the last ten games and scored at least 15 points in nine of them. Good luck trying to guard him and Josh Hart with a big lineup.
  • Melo Trimble: Trimble is one of the nation’s best clutch performers and as good as anyone in ball-screen actions. You want him with the ball in close games, except … for the last month he’s really struggled shooting the ball. Maryland has to have good Melo to have any shot of beating Kansas.
  • Landen Lucas: Lucas has been a revelation for the Jayhawks, providing them with something of an anchor on their front line. His size allows them to better matchup against big men like Diamond Stone or Robert Carter or Tonye Jekiri or Daniel Ochefu or … you get the point. He’s the presence we thought Cheick Diallo would be.

CBT PREDICTION: Kansas wins. Kansas is barely challenged.

Sweet 16 Preview: The 16 best players left in the NCAA tournament, plus 16 more

Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield (24) drives to the basket around Cal State Bakersfield guard Dedrick Basile (5) in the second half during a first-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Oklahoma City, Friday, March 18, 2016. Oklahoma won 82-68. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
(AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
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We’re kicking off our preview coverage of the Sweet 16 today with a ranking of the 16 teams left in the NCAA tournament to get you primed for the second weekend.

If you’re not ready to let the first weekend go, trust me, I hear you.

It was wild. You relive the eight buzzer-beaters we saw or the 13 craziest moments we experienced.

And when you’re ready to move on, go check out our Sweet 16 Power Rankings and the Sweet 16 Things You Need To Know. Then continue reading here.

1. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Think about this for a second: In the second round of the NCAA tournament, Buddy Hield scored 36 points. That’s pretty incredible, right? Well, 29 of those points came in the second half, which is an insane number for anyone to score in one half of a college basketball game. But it gets better: Hield scored 26 of Oklahoma’s final 31 points as No. 10 seed VCU was doing everything they could do to try and erase a 13-point half time deficit. They even took the lead at one point, which is why it is safe for us to say Hield literally put the Sooners on his back and dragged them to the Sweet 16.

That’s absurd, what he was able to do. How come we aren’t talking about it more?

2. Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia: Brogdon can go into star mode and take over a game offensively. Maybe he didn’t do it on Saturday, but he’s done time and again this season. Where Brogdon really makes a difference is on the defensive end of the floor. He can, when needed, totally shut down an opponent’s best player, whether it’s a point guard or, in the case of Butler’s Andrew Chrabascz, a power forward. So, Georges Niang, are you ready for Friday night?

3. Brice Johnson, North Carolina: The best big man left in the tournament. Johnson is averaging a double-double this season, but he’s made tremendous strides on the defensive end of the floor in the last three weeks. And it’s that improvement defensively that has changed this Tar Heel team.

4. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: Ferrell has been phenomenal for Indiana this season, as he carried the team through a stretch where a group of young guys were learning new roles and figuring out how they can impact a game at this level. And he’s still capable of that. But it’s worth noting that, now, the Hoosiers supporting cast is playing at a level where he doesn’t always have to dominate. That’s why there is a real chance that Indiana can beat North Carolina on Friday night.

5. Grayson Allen, Duke: There seems to be a national push-back against Grayson Allen right now, given the hate that comes with being white and a star at Duke (and, of course, the tripping). But what’s worth remembering is that Allen is a “star at Duke”. He’s the biggest reason why a team with no depth, a single post player that Coach K trusts and a single point guard — an inconsistent freshman, at that — on the roster is in the Sweet 16.

6. Josh Hart, Villanova: Criminally underrated. That’s the best way to describe Hart, whose ability to rebound and defend multiple positions allows Kris Jenkins to be somewhat hidden defensively. He’s always been tough as nails, though, but now that he’s actually scoring at a consistent rate as well? Look out. I judge how much people know about basketball based on what they think of Hart as a player.

7. Georges Niang, Iowa State: There may not be a more versatile or dangerous 1-on-1 scorer in the country than Niang. Like Allen, he’s carrying a team that has so many roster flaws they really shouldn’t be in the position that they are in right now. He’s not underrated at this point, but he may be under-appreciated.

8. Domas Sabonis, Gonzaga: There’s an argument to be made that Sabonis is the best big man left in this tournament. I think that title still belongs to Brice Johnson, but Sabonis isn’t that far behind. He’s a nightmare to deal with in the paint because of his strength, his physicality and his ability to work through contact. That, and he might be the toughest player in the sport.

9. Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: Niang is the most recognizable name on the Cyclones, but there’s an argument to be made that Morris is their best player. The dynamic point guard doesn’t turn the ball over and gives Steve Prohm two dynamic, borderline unstoppable players on his perimeter.

10. Brandon Ingram, Duke: Ingram’s really flourished since he was asked to take over the small forward role for the Blue Devils. His matchup with Oregon is going to be really interesting and telling, because Oregon has the athletes at the four spot to matchup with him.

Brandon Ingram
(AP Photo/Ted Richardson)

11. Perry Ellis, Kansas: I initially had Ellis lower on this list than 11th, which should tell you something about Kansas: They’re the best team left in the tournament but their best player is Perry Ellis? The thing that makes the Jayhawks so good is that they don’t have a star, because a punch does the most damage  when you don’t know where it’s coming from.

12. Dillon Brooks, Oregon: This may actually be too low for him. Brooks is one of the guys that lets Oregon play a small-ball style. He’s their leading scorer and their go-to guy in big moments, be he’ll be tested defensively against Duke.

13. Sheldon McClellan, Miami: Like Hart, McClellan is really underrated. He’s a terrific athlete that can score at all three levels as well as create his own shot with the bounce. He’s the guy in that Miami back court where you know what you’re going to get on a nightly basis.

14. Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame: Jackson is the engine that makes Notre Dame’s offense tick, much the way that Jerian Grant was Notre Dame’s engine last season.

15. Melo Trimble, Maryland: I loved Trimble last season, and in the preseason, and early this season. But he’s been such a disappointment the last month or so. Is the real Melo going to show up for the Sweet 16 and Kansas?

16. Danuel House, Texas A&M: He’s the kind of guy that can score 18 points in the final 11 minutes and change of a double-overtime win against Northern Iowa. He’s also the guy that scored exactly zero points in the first 35 minutes of that game.

AND HERE ARE 16 MORE GUYS THAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

17. Marcus Paige, North Carolina
18. Frank Mason, Kansas
19. Isaiah Cousins, Oklahoma
20. Anthony Gill, Virginia
21. Zach Auguste, Notre Dame
22. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
23. Chris Boucher, Oregon
24. Troy Williams, Indiana
25. Angel Rodriguez, Miami
26. Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
27. Michael Gbinije, Syracuse
28. Elgin Cook, Oregon
29. Thomas Bryant, Indiana
30. Kris Jenkins, Villanova
31. Jalen Jones, Texas A&M
32. London Perrantes, Virginia

Tradition of success through change raises expectations at Xavier

Chris Mack has Xavier back in the Sweet 16 (AP Photo)
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Chris Mack has Xavier back in the Sweet 16 (AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES — Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino have stellar reputations for winning in March, combining to reach the Sweet 16 13 times in the last eight seasons. They also happen to head the only two programs that can say they’ve been to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament more often during that time than Xavier, who has won at least two games in college basketball’s biggest event five of the last eight years.

There’s more.

Xavier has been to the NCAA tournament nine of the last ten seasons, something that only ten schools can claim. Five of them — Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Michigan State and Wisconsin — have been all ten years, which puts the Musketeers in a class with college basketball’s elite.

This current run has occurred under the watch of the two head coaches who will meet in a West Region semifinal Thursday night. Sean Miller, the head coach of No. 2 Arizona, ran the Xavier program from 2004-09, with his understudy and current head coach of No. 6 Xavier, Chris Mack, taking the reins from that point forward.

Mack was a member of Miller’s staff before getting promoted once Miller left for Tucson, and that is a storyline that has received an ample amount of attention this week. But there’s also the matter of continuity, and a look into that will reveal that both coaches had — or, in the case of Mack, have — tools at their disposal at Xavier that have helped the program both attain and sustain success despite multiple coaching changes and multiple conference affiliations.

“Everybody is aligned, and their basketball program is very important,” Miller said when asked about what stuck out to him during his eight years (assistant and head coach) at Xavier. “And because it’s very important, there are people that have given their heart and soul to make it the best it can be, whether it be the Cintas Center, and if you haven’t been there, in my opinion it’s one of the great arenas in the game that’s built right on campus. It’s a quest to be better every year. Never be satisfied.”

Those traits go well beyond the current ten-year run, with Xavier winning 21 or more games in 27 of the last 32 seasons going back to Bob Staak leading the Musketeers to 22 wins in 1982-83. Following Staak’s six-year run some familiar names have led the program, from Pete Gillen to the late Skip Prosser, and from Prosser to current Ohio State head coach Thad Matta who won 26 games in each of his three seasons (with Miller as one of his assistants) before moving on.

For some programs the coaching changes not only result in the occasional transition year, but a prolonged malaise of sorts where the act of winning 20 games in a season becomes something to celebrate as opposed to an achievement that is simply accepted.

“I would say that ever since Bob Staak and Pete Gillen, along with some great players, guys like Byron Larkin and Tyrone Hill and Derek Strong really put Xavier on the map, the expectations for Xavier basketball have been extremely high,” Mack said.

“Guys like Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean, carried the torch and simply elevated the program to new heights. Our fan base has come to expect getting to the NCAA tournament, and that not even being acceptable, but to advance.”

The question for Xavier moving forward is whether or not those expectations have and will increase. When the Musketeers began this lengthy run of success in the early 1980’s they were a member of the Midwestern City Conference (which was eventually renamed the Midwestern Collegiate Conference and is now the Horizon League).

Since then the Musketeers have spent time in the Atlantic 10, and this is their second season as a member of the Big East. While the competition and traditions of the Atlantic 10 schools are nothing to scoff at, moving to the Big East changed the equation for Xavier and fellow newcomers Butler and Creighton.

“I think it’s been a natural progression for our program to go from the MCC, which is now the Horizon League, to the Atlantic 10, which was a great move at the time for Xavier, now to a conference that is arguably one of the best basketball conferences in the entire country,” Mack said of the conference moves. “It’s a hefty bar at Xavier.”

But does that move apply some sort of pressure to Xavier to get past the second weekend, despite the fact that many of the most powerful programs in college basketball can also tap into another revenue stream (major college football)? The program’s had the resources needed, from coaches to facilities to everything else that comes with college basketball, to be successful and Xavier’s history bears that out.

“That’s why when you look at seven Sweet Sixteens, when you look at [Xavier’s] tournament history…I was actually looking at our history at Arizona, which you could make the case is second to none,” Miller noted. “When you put up Xavier’s history, especially in the NCAA tournament, it’s amazing that there are some comparisons.”

While the final weekend of the college basketball season is obviously important, focusing solely on that can at times be at the expense of recognizing what’s been done leading up to that point. But as we’ve seen both this season and in years past, matchups have a lot to do with whether or not a program can navigate the bracket and reach the Final Four. And with those being unpredictable until the bracket is released, the best a program can do is to ensure that its coaches and players have everything they need to succeed.

Do that, and for many programs the one-game “lottery” that is the NCAA tournament eventually produces a favorable result. Will there be a point where a trip to the Final Four will be “demanded” of Xavier? Maybe so, but a lot of that depends upon factors such as seeding. Look at Gonzaga, which has transformed from a “Cinderella” program to one that’s been criticized in recent years for not backing up strong regular seasons with deep tournament runs (despite losing just one game to a lower-seeded team since 2009).

Whether or not questions are asked when it comes to the Final Four doesn’t matter, because they’re going to be there. All a program can do is assemble the resources needed to maximize their chances of breaking through, which is what Xavier’s worked hard to do over the years.

“The last level [Final Four] is the only thing that’s missing, and clearly they’re here to make that happen,” Miller added. “It’s just, I think, amazing when everybody cooperates and thinks the same, you have some really intelligent people at the top, how great things happen. The benefit in so many cases is the student-athletes, watching their experience and what they become when they leave the school.”

Ranking the Sweet 16 matchups

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No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 North Carolina, Thu. 7:47 p.m.: The luster on this matchup will dull a bit if Kennedy Meeks is actually unable to play, but the Badgers should still get a test from a North Carolina team that still seems to be flying a bit under the radar. I’m high on UNC. We all know how good Marcus Paige is and how is is capable of taking a game over, but UNC is so much more than that this year. It starts with their front line, who can physically overwhelm opponents even if Meeks is unable to go. But with J.P. Tokoto, Justin Jackson and Joel Berry playing better of late, the Heels have gotten enough help on their perimeter to take quite a bit of pressure off of Paige.

The Badgers have not played their best basketball yet in this tournament, and if that continues on Thursday, the Heels will have a real chance to send them back to Madison.

No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 5 West Virginia, Thu. 9:45 p.m.: Let me preface this by saying that I think Kentucky ends up winning this game. That said, I have a feeling that West Virginia is going to give the Wildcats a fight and will be within striking distance down the stretch. There’s three reasons why:

  • 1. The press. West Virginia’s pressure is different and more aggressive than anything Kentucky has faced this season. The Harrisons aren’t great ball-handlers, and Tyler Ulis is small enough that those traps may overwhelm him.
  • 2. No team coached by Bobby Huggins is ever going to be intimidated. By anyone. And when playing this Kentucky team, that’s half the battle.
  • 3. Huggins has a reputation, and very little of it has to do with his coaching acumen. But Huggs is one of the best at finding a way to put his players in a position to win. Remember the 2010 Elite 8, when a West Virginia team led by Da’Sean Butler beat Kentucky, who had John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson. Can he do it again?

The Mountaineers have the size, depth and athleticism to give Kentucky some trouble, and I think that they will.

No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 7 Wichita State, Thu. 7:15 p.m.: The perimeter battle in this game will be unbelievable. Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson vs. Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. Yes, please. Let’s make some predictions on how they match up, shall we? I think it will be fairly straight forward for the Irish — Jackson on VanVleet, Grant on Baker, etc. — when they’re not in zone. But I think the Shockers mix it up, sliding Tekele Cotton onto Grant and using either Baker or VanVleet on Jackson. In my mind that makes Jackson the x-factor for the Shockers, as he may be the quickest player left in the NCAA tournament and should be able to beat either of the two Wichita State defenders off the bounce.

No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Michigan State, Fri. 10:07 p.m.: The way that Michigan State beat Virginia was to open things up in transition, beating the Cavaliers down the floor and scoring before they could set their vaunted Pack-Line defense. Oklahoma, like Virginia, is elite defensively, meaning that the Spartans will be looking to do the same thing again. That said, Oklahoma likes to get up and down the floor as well, so that could play right into their hands. This game has the most “thrill potential” of any in the Sweet 16.

No. 1 Duke vs. No. 5 Utah, Fri. 9:45 p.m.: I really like this Utah team, but I’m having trouble trying to figure out how they are going to deal with Jahlil Okafor inside. I’m not sure Jakob Poeltl is nearly strong enough to play any real defense against him in the post, and while Dallin Bachynski is probably a better option on that end, Poeltl’s effectiveness in the pick-and-roll will draw Okafor out defensively, where he struggles. If Utah is going to have a shot, Delon Wright is going to have to play like an all-american, which he hasn’t done yet this tournament.

No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 6 Xavier, Thu. 10:17 p.m.: I feel bad for Sean Miller. He had to knock out Ohio State and, Thad Matta, one of his best friends in the business, in the Round of 32. Now he has to play Chris Mack, who was on his staff at Xavier and, obviously, succeeded him as Musketeer head coach.

No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 11 UCLA, Fri. 7:15 p.m.: On paper, this seems like it should be close, as the Bruins are one of the most talented 11 seeds that you’ll see in the tournament. But this is the best team that Mark Few has ever had at Gonzaga. The biggest, too, so Tony Parker won’t be making light work of Gonzaga’s front line like he did to UAB. Bryce Alford vs. Kevin Pangos will be fun, but the key here is going to be Kyle Wiltjer vs. Kevon Looney. Whoever gets the best of that matchup wins.

No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 N.C. State, Fri 7:37 p.m.: You know it’s a good Sweet 16 when a game like this is the “worst” matchup. Here’s what makes it intriguing to me: N.C. State is clearly the more talented team, and they might have been the more talented team even if the Cardinals still had Chris Jones on the roster. But the Wolfpack have been anything but consistent this season — hell, this tournament — and they’ll be going up against Rick Pitino, who will have five days to prepare for the game.

Elite 8 Preview: No. 1 Florida vs. No. 11 Dayton

Archie Miler
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On Saturday and Sunday, we will be breaking down all eight of the Elite 8 matchups. Here is our look at No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 2 Wisconsin:

WHEN: Saturday, 6:09 p.m. (TBS)

WHERE: FedEx Forum, Memphis (South Region)

MAJOR STORY LINES: Billy Donovan has led the Gators to his fourth consecutive Elite 8. But he hasn’t been to a Final Four since he was his second national title back in 2007. This time around, he’ll be going up against a No. 11 seed as a double-digit favorite. It’s time for Donovan — and Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young and Will Yeguete — to make a Final Four. On the other side of the court, we have Archie Miller, the younger brother of Arizona head coach Sean Miller. Can both brothers make the Final Four? Will Archie get to the Final Four despite coaching at a place like Dayton?

KEY STATS: The bottom line is this: Florida is the No. 2 defense in the country, according to KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ratings. And when it comes to coaching, it may be even more difficult to build a gameplan around how to beat the Gators. They simply give you so many looks defensively. They can play man or zone, they can press or play in the half court, they can try to force turnovers or focus on preventing offensive rebounds. The bottom line is that Billy Donovan’s club is the best in the business.

KEY PLAYERS: The guys that have made the difference for Dayton through three games in the NCAA tournament aren’t the guys that will get the publicity. it’s not Archie Miller and it’s not Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert. The players to keep an eye on are the forwards for Dayton: Dyshawn Pierre and Devin Oliver. The two of them are a nightmare given then ability to shoot from the perimeter.

POINT SPREAD: Florida (-10.5)

THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1. Scottie Wilbekin: There isn’t a single player in the country that has consistently proven himself in big situations than Wilbekin has. All he does is hit big shots in clutch moments down the stretch, and nothing that happened against UCLA would prove otherwise.

2. Dayton’s threes: The best way to beat a favorite, especially one that will get as much action as Dayton will on Sunday, is to control the number of threes that they are able to make. Dayton shoots 37.5% from beyond the arc.

3. How long will Dayton hang around?: I hate phrasing it like that, but the bottom line is that the Flyers really don’t have any business competing with Florida, who is more or less the best team in the country at this point in the season. I’m a huge Archie Miller fan and I expect Florida to give the Flyers a fight, but that doesn’t mean that this group will be able to pull off the upset.

CBT PREDICTION: Florida

Kentucky continues to fight with its Sweet 16 win over Louisville

Kentucky v Louisville
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INDIANAPOLIS — The intense rivalry game between No. 8 seed Kentucky and No. 4 seed Louisville came down to the final minute in Friday’s Sweet 16 thriller at Lucas Oil Stadium.

But despite never leading since a 2-0 advantage in the first minute of the game, Kentucky was able to use a go-ahead three-pointer from Aaron Harrison with 38 seconds remaining to take a 70-68 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish in holding out for a 74-69 win.

In a season full of finger-pointing and failing to overcome adversity, John Calipari’s Wildcats once again showed that they’re starting to put things together as Kentucky enters Sunday’s Elite 8 contest with No. 2 seed Michigan.

Despite missing sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein to a sprained ankle and freshman wing James Young fouling out with 5:32 remaining, Kentucky continued to fight despite trailing their rival and the defending champion Cardinals for nearly the entire game.

Freshmen like center Dakari Johnson and guard Dominique Hawkins played key minutes down the stretch for Kentucky as Andrew Harrison continued to be the Wildcats’ vocal leader in the game’s final minutes. Aaron Harrison hit the go-ahead basket and Julius Randle recorded his third consecutive double-double to open the NCAA Tournament — only the third time a freshman has ever done that.

Kentucky stayed unified despite losing two key players in the biggest game of the Wildcats’ lives and now they are one game away from playing in the Final Four.

“(Andrew) told us we were going to fight and win, that’s his two biggest words that I kept remembering coming out of his mouth,” Hawkins said. “In the huddles and on the court. We were going to fight and win and find a way to win.”

Indeed Kentucky — who lost 10 regular season games including losses to Arkansas and South Carolina — outfought the defending national champions in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats have outfought previously-unbeaten Wichita State and defending champion Louisville in back-to-back games. A team composed mainly of freshmen and sophomores came together and beat two of last year’s Final Four teams in the last week. Kentucky is finally realizing its scary upside at precisely the right moment.

​”We just kind of had to put the past behind us and leave it where it was. It’s a new season, the postseason,” Randle said. “That’s really all we can worry about, survive and advance, and we’ve gotta take one game at a time. We carry momentum from the SEC Tournament and brought it to the NCAA Tournament. We’re just taking it a game at a time.”

The dejected Cardinals locker room was filled with tears and frustration in what amounted to getting out-played by their rival in the game’s defining moments. Kentucky had 18 second-chance points against Louisville and won despite shooting 28 percent from the three-point line (4-for-14). The Wildcats trailed by seven points with 4:11 left.

It wasn’t pretty, but Kentucky clawed its way back by cleaning up misses and hitting the glass as hard as possible. Kentucky needed maximum effort from all five players on the floor to get past Louisville.

“They wanted it more than us. Obviously you can see that on the backboards,” Louisville junior Wayne Blackshear said. “That was the key thing for us and we didn’t come away with it.”

Although sophomore forward Alex Poythress only scored six points and grabbed four rebounds in 14 minutes of play, he was a key reason why Kentucky won on Friday. Poythress’ three-point play tied the game at 66 with 2:13 remaining and the sophomore was finally making winning plays after struggling the entire game.

After getting yelled at on the bench for much of the game, Poythress woke up and along with him, Kentucky.

“To see what he went through the whole game — he was struggling the whole game — in the final five minutes just the plays he made, the rebound and the and-one putback and the free throws, that just shows what kind of kid he is. Those plays are the reason we won the game,” Kentucky senior guard Jarrod Polson said.

“​I will say this because he’s not up here, Alex Poythress won the game for us,” Calipari said. “We were begging him the whole game to start playing, and he played at the right time. It was unbelievable how he finished. That’s who he needs to be for us as we finish the year out.”

With the Harrison twins and Julius Randle continuing their consistent start in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, Kentucky has used other players at different times to complement their three key freshmen.

Young stepped up and made big plays down the stretch against Wichita State last weekend and on Friday, Johnson, Hawkins and Poythress continued to make unsung contributions that helped lead Kentucky to a win.

The Wildcats appear ready to fight anyone in their path and right now they’re a dangerous team since they’re playing together.

Michigan will be the third consecutive Final Four opponent from last season that Kentucky will face in the 2014 NCAA Tournament as they attempt to make their own trip to the third weekend with a win on Sunday.

Can the Wildcats make it 3-for-3? With they way they’re fighting, it certainly seems possible.

“(I) told them before the game, you’ll get punched in the mouth and you’re going to taste blood. You’re going to fight or brace yourself for the next shot. They fought. They never stopped playing,” Calipari said.