Southeast Regional breakdown, team capsules

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Who wins, who’s overrated and what’s the best game? I’m here to help.

Here’s a regional breakdown and team capsules for the Southeast. Enjoy.

Underrated: Utah State
The Aggies got a 12 seed despite a sweep of the WAC regular-season and conference tournament titles, 30 wins, an RPI of 16 and a kenpom.com rating of 16. That is far from a 12 seed. This isn’t anything new for Utah State, which received a 12 seed after winning 27 games last season.

Their reward? Facing a physical Kansas State squad that played its best basketball late in the season after underperforming amid Final Four expectations. The Wildcats are talented and tough. Too bad for Utah State.

Overrated: Florida
The Gators have a gaudy profile — 26 wins, 8th in the RPI, an SEC regular-season title — but play more like a 4 seed. They don’t shoot well and can be soft inside on defense. With either UCLA or Michigan State awaiting in the second round, Florida might be exposed.

Most likely first-round upset
Poor St. John’s. Back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2003, but senior forward D.J. Kennedy won’t be available because of an ACL injury. That opens the door for Gonzaga to pull off the 6-11 upset.

The Zags (24-9) will have some trouble checking powerful guard Dwight Hardy, but that’s about it. Besides, Mark Few’s team is due for a little March magic.

Best matchup: No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 Belmont
There aren’t two more different teams in matched up in the field. The Badgers play slow, work every possession and rely on their two stars, Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer, to do most of the scoring. The Bruins use a fleet of players — five in, five out — and force teams to play fast, and force them into mistakes.

Which style wins? Wisconsin was overwhelmed in its first-round matchup vs. Cornell last season, but that was because the Big Red got smoking hot from outside. But it’s foolish to overlook Belmont, which has won 30 games and boasts impressive tempo-free numbers. This one’s beyond compelling, it’s must-see

Impact player
Hmm. Tough call. There’s Taylor, Leuer, Hardy, Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas, Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen and Utah State’s Tai Wesley, but there’s really only one choice.

Jimmer Fredette.

BYU’s senior guard leads the nation in scoring, jaw-dropping shots and almost carried the Cougars to the Mountain West tournament title by scoring 52 vs. New Mexico and 30 against San Diego State. For BYU to reach the second weekend — let alone the Final Four — Fredette will have to be spectacular. And defenses know it. Should be memorable.

Champion: Pitt
The region’s top seed benefits greatly by having the weakest 2 seed (Florida), the most vulnerable 3 seed (BYU) and a plodding 4 seed (Wisconsin). That sets up Jamie Dixon’s team for a breakthrough run to the Final Four, a first for the coach and the school’s first since 1941.

Pitt (27-5) will have some detractors because it lost its opening Big East tournament game, but remain a team with an elite offense and an underrated defense. Scorers? Rebounders? Floor leaders? The Panthers have it all.

TEAM CAPSULES

No. 1 Pittsburgh Panthers

Location: Pittsburgh.

Conference: Big East

Coach: Jamie Dixon

Pre-tournament record: 27-5, 15-3

Best wins: Texas, Syracuse, (twice), West Virginia (twice)

Surprising losses:Tennessee (at home)

Team stats

Key players: Senior guard Brad Wanamaker, junior guard Ashton Gibbs, senior forward Gilbert Brown, senior center Gary McGhee.

Full team roster

Strengths: Rebounding, shooting, ball-handling, help defense.

Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, free-throw shooting.

Outlook: Forget the Pitt clichés of tough defense and an offense that relies on gritty guards. This is the nation’s best offense. (The defense isn’t bad either, but we’ll get to that.) The Panthers run superb offensive sets to create shots for Gibbs and Wanamaker (who may be the most underrated player in D-I). If they miss, guys like McGhee, Brown and Dante Taylor grab the rebound and score. If that’s not enough, Pitt rarely turns the ball over on offense. Anyone who says Pitt doesn’t score enough points to win the national title doesn’t know what they’re talking about. If there’s a concern for the Panthers, it’s that they don’t have a lockdown defender who’s able to take an opposing scorer out of the game. Their help-defense is good, but can be burned at times (ask Ben Hansbrough). Still, things are lining up for Pitt to reach the Final Four for the first time since ’41. They’ll rarely have a better path.

No. 2 Florida Gators

Location: Gainesville, Fla.

Conference: Southeastern

Coach: Billy Donovan

Pre-tournament record: 26-7, 13-3

Best wins: Kentucky, Florida State, Xavier, Vanderbilt (twice)

Surprising losses: Jacksonville, Central Florida, South Carolina

Team stats

Key players: Sophomore guard Kenny Boynton, senior forward Chandler Parsons, junior guard Erving Walker.

Full team roster

Strengths: Offensive rebounding, perimeter defense.

Weaknesses: Free-throw shooting, ball-handling, 3-point shooting.

Outlook: It’s tempting to say Florida worked out the kinks from a rough non-conference schedule that included some odd losses (Jacksonville at home?) and blowouts (Ohio State). So go ahead and take that leap. They have the conference player of the year in Parsons, two quick, athletic guards in Walker and Boynton and a pair of hardworking forwards in Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin. The Gators were mighty good during SEC play, matching Kentucky for the lead in efficiency margin. That’s impressive given how poorly they shoot from outside and that they don’t get to the free-throw line very often. It’s good to be cautious, but this team has performed well enough time and time again that the Sweet 16 seems inevitable. But any further than that and you’re getting greedy.

No. 3 BYU Cougars

Location: Provo, Utah

Conference: Mountain West

Coach: Dave Rose

Pre-tournament record: 30-4, 14-2

Best wins: San Diego State (twice), Arizona

Surprising losses: New Mexico (twice)

Team stats

Key players: Senior guard Jimmer Fredette, senior guard Jackson Emery, junior forward Noah Hartsock .

Full team roster

Strengths: Shooting, ball-handling.

Weaknesses: Offensive rebounding, forcing turnovers.

Outlook: BYU has the nation’s leading scorer in Fredette, excellent spot-up shooters in Emery and Abouo and a skilled forward in Hartsock. They shoot 37 percent from beyond the arc and get more than 30 percent of their points from 3s. But with the dismissal of center Brandon Davies – their most reliable post player and leading rebounder – they’ve become one-dimensional and unable to rebound. That means Fredette is being asked to do more, the other shooters have defenders paying closer attention and if nobody is hitting, BYU is in trouble. Can Fredette shoot them into the Sweet 16?

No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers

Location: Madison, Wis.

Conference: Big Ten

Coach: Bo Ryan

Pre-tournament record: 23-8, 13-5

Best wins: Ohio State, Purdue, Illinois

Surprising losses: Penn State (twice)

Team stats

Key players: Senior forward Jon Leuer, junior guard Jordan Taylor

Full team roster

Strengths: Shooting, defensive rebounding, not committing turnovers.

Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, perimeter defense.

Outlook: Wisconsin hasn’t missed the NCAA tournament in 10 seasons under Ryan. Yet the Badgers have made the Sweet 16 only once. Why? Look at it two ways: They’ve either hit hot teams (Cornell, Xavier and Davidson) or they’ve underperformed all those years. It’s probably a little of both, mixed in with their style of play. When Wisconsin’s ball-control offense is on, it’s deadly. All-Big Ten players Leuer and Taylor are great shooters and key an attack that prizes ball movement, precise passing and screens to work for good shots. The Badgers rarely push the pace, mostly because they’re focused on squeezing every possible possession for as many points as possible. And on defense, foes usually get one shot. However, the slow pace allows opponents to stay in games and if Wisconsin’s not hitting shots, it doesn’t have the defensive firepower to create turnovers. It’s a great team, but one that doesn’t have any margin for error in a tournament.

No. 5 Kansas State Wildcats

Location: Manhattan, Kan.

Conference: Big 12

Coach: Frank Martin

Pre-tournament record: 22-10, 10-6

Best wins: Kansas, Texas, Gonzaga

Surprising losses: Oklahoma State, Colorado (twice)

Team stats

Key players: Senior guard Jacob Pullen, senior forward Curtis Kelly, sophomore guard Rodney McGruber.

Full team roster

Strengths: Offensive rebounding, 3-point shooting, interior defense.

Weaknesses: Sloppy play, fouling, free-throw shooting.

Outlook: Here’s a puzzling team. Kansas State entered the season as a Final Four contender, hit a stretch where it was 2-5 in Big 12 play, then won seven of its last eight games to close the regular season. Then it lost to Colorado in the Big 12 tournament. Who knows what awaits the Wildcats? They’ve had two forwards leave the team, dealt with tantrums from Pullen and Kelly, only to jell in February. They’re a brutal team to play. Few teams are more physical on defense, or crash the offensive boards more. When Pullen’s shot is falling, they’re worthy of the Elite Eight. But if he’s off a step, they’ll be gone by Sunday.

No. 6 St. John’s Red Storm

Location: Queens, N.Y.

Conference: Big East

Coach: Steve Lavin

Pre-tournament record: 21-11, 12-6

Best wins: Duke, Pitt, Notre Dame

Surprising losses: St. Bonaventure, Fordham

Team stats

Key players: Senior guard Dwight Hardy, senior forward Justin Brownlee, senior forward D.J. Kennedy.

Full team roster

Strengths: Defensive pressure, ball-handling.

Weaknesses: Perimeter defense, 3-point shooting, fouls.

Outlook: The Red Storm are back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2002. Serendipitously, that also was the last time coach Steve Lavin was in the NCAA tournament. UCLA fired Lavin in ’03, he spent the years in-between in TV, then returned in time to lead senior-laden St. John’s to a stupendous season. That’s kismet. Question is, can St. John’s keep it rolling? Few teams can boast of such highs – Duke, Pitt and Notre Dame – and lows. There’s little doubt the Red Storm possess the talent to reach the Sweet 16, especially when Hardy’s on a roll. But when the defense becomes too aggressive and players get into foul trouble, or when their shots aren’t falling, they’re vulnerable. Be wary of being too confident in St. John’s.

No. 7 UCLA Bruins

Location: Los Angeles

Conference: Pac-10

Coach: Ben Howland

Pre-tournament record: 22-10, 13-6

Best wins: BYU, St. John’s, Arizona

Surprising losses: Montana, VCU

Team stats

Key players: Freshman center Josh Smith, sophomore wing Tyler Honeycutt, junior guard Malcolm Lee, sophomore forward Reeves Nelson.

Full team roster

Strengths: Interior defense, offensive rebounding.

Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, ball-handling, 3-point shooting.

Outlook: UCLA has run the gamut this season. It opened 3-4, beat BYU shortly after that, stumbled to start Pac-10 play, went on a tear, then lost two of its last three. The Bruins have decent talent and play hard, but lack the defensive nastiness of Howland’s Final Four teams from a few years ago. They don’t have any good on-ball defenders and are OK on the boards, but make up for it by being physical inside. Smith is big, Nelson is tough and Honeycutt leads the Pac-10 in blocks. Everything on offense depends on Smith. When he’s on, he’s impossible to stop – ask Kansas – but he’s often plagued by foul trouble and dumb plays. Honeycutt can score, but is inconsistent, which speaks to the Bruins’ issues at scoring from anywhere besides the key. If UCLA reaches the Sweet 16, it’ll be because they outhustled two opponents.

No. 8 Butler Bulldogs

Location: Indianapolis

Conference: Horizon League

Coach: Brad Stevens

Pre-tournament record: 23-9, 13-5

RPI: 35

Best wins: Florida State, Washington State

Surprising losses: Evansville, Youngstown State

Team stats

Key players: Senior forward Matt Howard, junior guard Ronald Nored, junior guard Shelvin Mack.

Full team roster

Strengths: Defensive rebounding, ball control, 3-point shooting.

Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, fouling, interior defense.

Outlook: This isn’t the same Bulldogs team that made a run to last year’s title game. Sure, they play the same way – deliberate, with an emphasis on high-percentage shots or 3-pointers and preventing opponents from getting second-chance points – but don’t have a standout talent like Gordon Hayward anymore. The odds of them reaching the second weekend? Slim. That said, Butler will be a tough, tough opponent. Howard’s an efficient scorer, sophomore center Andrew Smith is an improving talent, while Mack and Nored are gamers. Butler will keep the game close and be in it at the end.

No. 9 Old Dominion Monarchs

Location: Norfolk, Va.

Conference: Colonial Athletic

Coach: Blaine Taylor

Pre-tournament record: 27-6, 14-4

Best wins: Xavier, George Mason

Surprising loss: Delaware

Team stats

Key players: Senior forward Frank Hassel, junior swingman Kent Bazemore, senior guard Ben Finney.

Full team roster

Strengths: Rebounding, shot blocking and rebounding. Also, rebounding.

Weaknesses: Turnovers, perimeter shooting and defense.

Outlook: The Monarchs aren’t great shooters, but it doesn’t really matter. They lead the nation in offensive rebounding, grabbing 45 percent of their misses. Hassell and Finney are the guys who do most of the work, along with junior forward Chris Cooper. They also snare three of every four missed shots by opponents. Combine that proficiency with their deliberate style and it’s little wonder ODU’s a formidable team. Last year, they stunned Notre Dame in the first round as an 11 seed. This season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Monarchs in the Sweet 16, but that would take more than just great rebouding against a team like Pitt. ODU would need to catch fire from outside.

No. 10 Michigan State Spartans

Location: East Lansing, Mich.

Conference: Big Ten

Coach: Tom Izzo

Pre-tournament record: 19-14, 9-9

Best wins: Purdue, Wisconsin, Washington

Surprising losses: Iowa, Michigan (twice)

Team stats

Key players: Senior guard Kalin Lucas, junior forward Draymond Green, freshman guard Keith Appling, junior forward Delvon Roe.

Full team roster

Strengths: Defensive rebounding, interior defense.

Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, perimeter defense, shooting.

Outlook: Three weeks ago, it didn’t look like the preseason No. 2 would get in. But then Lucas took over on offense, the defense picked up and the schedule allowed for some confidence-building games. A win over Purdue in the Big Ten quarterfinals? Didn’t see that coming. But before anyone starts thinking about Izzo’s team pulling off a third-straight run to the Final Four, consider this: It’s not the typical Spartans team that grabs every rebound and scores when it needs to. It’s good on the defensive glass, average on the offensive and can hardly shoot. Part of that is related to inconsistency from Summers and a dearth of perimeter players. Lucas thrives as a high-possession, mid-range scorer, while Appling’s still finding his niche in an increased role. Green’s a great all-around player but is limited in his offensive ability. That said, their draw (UCLA and probably Florida) makes a Sweet 16 run a strong possibility.

No. 11 Gonzaga Bulldogs

Location: Spokane, Wash.

Conference: West Coast

Coach: Mark Few

Pre-tournament record: 24-9, 12-3

Best wins: Marquette, Xavier

Surprising losses: at San Francisco, at Santa Clara

Team stats

Key players: Senior guard Steven Gray, senior center Robert Sacre, sophomore forward Elias Harris.

Full team roster

Strengths: Rebounding, interior defense.

Weaknesses: Perimeter defense, sloppy play.

Outlook: These Zags play defense. And sometimes, they play offense, too. Behind the 7-footer Sacre, the Bulldogs allow opponents to make just 42.8 percent of their 2-pointers, far below the D-I average. Sacre and Harris also are behind their solid offensive shooting, though both tend to struggle against foes of similar size and skill. Gray is the playmaker, but his inconsistent shooting prevents him from being a reliable offensive threat. The wild card is freshman David Stockton, who’s played more and more as the season closed. He’s small, but an effective offensive leader and has a knack for making big plays.

No. 12 Utah State Aggies

Location: Logan, Utah

Conference: Western Athletic

Coach: Stew Morrill

Pre-tournament record: 30-3, 15-1

Best wins: St. Mary’s, Long Beach State

Surprising loss: Idaho

Team stats

Key players: Senior forward Tai Wesley, junior guard Brockeith Pane, senior guard Brian Green.

Full team roster

Strengths: Defensive rebounding, challenging shots, shooting.

Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, athletic teams.

Outlook: The Aggies have crushed WAC foes the last three seasons, racked up 87 wins and always feature an efficient defense or offense. (This year, it’s the defense.) So will this be the season they finally win a tournament game? It will depend on the matchup. Both BYU and Georgetown beat Utah State, but the Aggies ripped Long Beach State, the Big Sky champs. Much depends on how effective the 6-7, 240-pound Wesley is inside. He’s their go-to guy on offense and a good rebounder and shot-blocker to boot. He’s flanked by experienced guards who take care of the ball, but also don’t force many turnovers. Keeping a team like Kansas State off the boards will be tough, but ensuring their guards can handle the Wildcats’ pressure will be even tougher. This is a rough go for a team with 30 wins.

No. 13 Belmont Bruins

Location: Nashville, Tenn.

Conference: Atlantic Sun

Coach: Rick Byrd

Pre-tournament record: 30-4, 19-1

Best win: East Tennessee State (twice)

Surprising loss:Lipscomb

Team stats

Key players: Sophomore guard Ian Clark, junior forward Mick Hedgepeth, senior guard Jordan Campbell.

Full team roster

Strengths: Shooting, offensive rebounding, depth, pressure defense.

Weaknesses: Occasional sloppy play, foul prone.

Outlook: Belmont’s sure to be a popular pick to pull off an upset or two, and with good reason. Any time a team wins 30 games and sweeps its conference’s regular-season and conference tournament titles by an average of 16.4 points per game, it must be awfully good. The Bruins do it by playing a ton of guys in their up-tempo, pressure scheme that uses five-man platoons. When the starters get tired, Byrd replaces them with five fresh guys. As a result, they force more turnovers than all but one D-I team and get good looks at the basket (they make 52.4 percent of their 2s). When they do miss, they grab 40 percent of their misses. Belmont has size (Hedgepeth and junior Scott Sanders are both 6-9), so they won’t be overmatched against most NCAA tournament teams. Don’t be surprised to see them in the Sweet 16.

No. 14 Wofford Terriers

Location: Spartanburg, S.C..

Conference: Southern

Coach: Mike Young

Pre-tournament record: 21-12, 14-4

Best win: George Mason

Surprising loss: Cornell

Team stats

Key players: Senior forward Noah Dahlman, senior guard Cameron Rundles, senior guard Jamar Diggs.

Full team roster

Strengths: 3-point shooting, offensive rebounding, ball-handling.

Weaknesses: Defense.

Outlook: When the Terriers made the NCAA tournament last season for the first time, it was because of their defense. This year, credit the offense. They don’t play any faster, but have the effective combination of Dahlman inside – the team’s leading scorer is also one of the nation’s most efficient at it – and a brigade of 3-point shooters outside. Rundles, junior Brad Loesing and junior Kevin Giltner all make at least 41 percent of their attempts beyond the arc, while Diggs can hit from pretty much anywhere. But before you go picking Wofford to pull off an upset, consider the defense. It struggles in essentially every area and is the main reason why a host of non-conference foes like Minnesota, Clemson, Xavier and South Carolina beat Wofford this season.

No. 15 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos

Location: Santa Barbara, Calif.

Conference: Big West

Coach: Bob Williams

Pre-tournament record: 18-13, 8-8

Best wins: UNLV, Long Beach State

Surprising losses: Cal St. Fullerton, Cal St. Northridge (twice)

Team stats

Key players: Junior guard Orlando Johnson, junior guard James Nunnally.

Full team roster

Strengths: Shooting, interior defense.

Weaknesses: Ball-handling, rebounding, perimeter defense.

Outlook: If you’ve seen the Gauchos play, you’re probably wondering: How did these guys lose so many games with Johnson and Nunnally? Join the club. They’re two of the conference’s top players, guys who can create their own shot, finish when needed and shoulder the offensive load. Well, for whatever reason, it never quite clicked. UCSB lost by double digits twice to Big West regular-season champ Long Beach State before Johnson went off for 28 in the conference title game and the Gauchos won. Now they’re back in the tournament for the second straight year. Last season, they were throttled as a 15 seed by Ohio State. Expect more of the same this time around. UCSB’s hot streak isn’t going to last.

No. 16 Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans

Location: Little Rock, Ark.

Conference: Sun Belt

Coach: Steve Shields

Pre-tournament record: 19-16, 7-9

Best win: South Alabama

Surprising loss: Tulsa

Team stats

Key players: Senior guard Solomon Bozeman, senior guard Alex Garcia-Mendoza, freshman guard Daylon Guy.

Full team roster

Strengths: Ball-handling, 3-point shooting.

Weaknesses: Rebounding, defense.

Outlook: The Trojans pulled off a surprising run in the Sun Belt title tournament for the automatic berth. Behind Bozeman’s heroics – he averaged 22 points in the tournament, including the game-winner vs. North Texas — they’re off to the Big Dance for the first time in 21 years. They won’t be around long to enjoy it, though. Little Rock can hit the 3 and has good guards, but doesn’t have the defense to make enough stops against a top seed.

No. 16 UNC Asheville Bulldogs

Location: Asheville, N.C.

Conference: Big South

Coach: Eddie Biedenbach

Pre-tournament record: 19-13, 11-7

Best win:Coastal Carolina (twice)

Surprising losses:South Carolina Upstate, High Point

Team stats

Key players: Junior guard J.P Primm, junior guard Matt Dickey, junior guard Chris Stephenson.

Full team roster

Strengths: Forcing turnovers, blocking shots, getting to the free-throw line.

Weaknesses: 3-point shooting, defensive rebounding, turnovers.

Outlook: A surprise out of the Big South, Asheville got hot late and beat regular-season champ Coastal Carolina twice in a week. The Bulldogs heavily rely on Primm and Dickey for a chunk of minutes and outside shooting, though neither is particularly deadly from beyond the arc. When Asheville’s defense is clicking, forcing turnovers and getting easy baskets as a result, they’re a pesky team to beat. But don’t expect miracles in the NCAA tournament. This is a team that lost to Ohio State by 47 points earlier this season.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

No. 20 Maryland upsets No. 7 Notre Dame at the buzzer, 74-72

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Diamond Miller scored 31 points, including the game-winner at the buzzer, to lead No. 20 Maryland to a 74-72 victory over seventh-ranked Notre Dame on Thursday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Irish guard Sonia Cintron’s layup had tied the game with 15 seconds left off before Maryland held for the last shot. Miller hit a contested mid-range jumper just before time expired to give the Terrapins a victory over a top-10 opponent. It was the 15th lead change of the game.

Miller also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds to go along with five assists. Shyanne Sellers added 17 points.

Maryland (7-2) picked up its first win over Notre Dame (6-1) since 2007.

Cintron’s double-double led the Irish with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Notre Dame’s leading scorer Olivia Miles got off to a slow start on Thursday due to foul trouble. She scored 12 of her 14 points in the final 15 minutes of the game to go along with seven assists and two steals.

BIG PICTURE

Maryland: The Terrapins picked up their second top-20 win of the season ahead of the upcoming Big Ten opener.

Notre Dame: The Irish have had issues with foul trouble this season, a problem that persisted on Thursday. Miles played just 25 minutes, including the majority of the fourth quarter, due to picking up her fourth foul late in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

Maryland: Returns to College Park for the program’s Big Ten opener Sunday against Nebraska.

Notre Dame: Stays home to host No. 3 UConn Sunday.

Virginia’s depth helping its rapid climb in the AP Top 25

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The starting five is the same, but that is where comparisons between the Virginia team that has climbed to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 and last year’s NIT quarterfinalists ends.

Yes, one more year together and a trip to Italy has made the first five significantly better, but part of the credit for that surely goes to another group: the reinforcements. They’ve helped the Cavaliers (6-0) already knock off No. 6 Baylor, No. 16 Illinois and Michigan.

Virginia has scored 70 points or more in its first six game for the first time since the 2003-04 season, and coach Tony Bennett said it was the offense – and not UVA’s signature relentless defense – that saved them in a 70-68 victory this week at Michigan in the ACC/Bg Ten Challenge.

“Our offense kind of kept us in it in the first half,” Bennett said, before the team put it all together, erasing an 11-point halftime deficit to disappoint a raucous Wolverines crowd.

Reece Beekman was the offensive catalyst, scoring 15 of his 18 points before halftime, but four others joined him in double figures, including Jayden Gardner. His foul-line jumper with 39.9 seconds left provided the last of his 11 points, and the winning margin.

Gardner, who led Virginia in scoring last season (15.3 ppg), is averaging 11.5 this year.

“We’ve got a lot of capable scorers and we’re just gonna keep playing together. And we’re playing very unselfish basketball right now,” Gardner said after scoring 24 against Maryland Eastern Shore. He went into the game with 31 points through four games.

“He’s not the most jumping type of guy, but he’s got so much power,” Hawks coach Jason Crafton said of Gardner, an East Carolina transfer with 2,068 career points. “That low center of gravity and the flexibility that he has to be able to get under people and hold his position is elite. When he wants the ball at a certain spot, he can get it there.”

The leader remains guard Kihei Clark, who already has a place in Virginia history, having retrieved a loose ball and fed Mamadi Diakite for a jumper that sent the Cavs’ Elite Eight game against Purdue into overtime on the way to winning the 2019 national championship.

Newcomers Ben Vander Plas, a transfer from Ohio, and freshman Isaac McKneely have given Bennett more options, and more scoring power than a year ago.

As a junior, Vander Plas had 17 points for No. 13 seed Ohio when the Bobcats upset Virginia 62-58 in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

He scored seven straight in the second half against the Wolverines, twice scoring inside and then swishing a 3-pointer while trying to slow down bruising big man Hunter Dickinson.

“Ben, yeah. Just his poise and composure in the post, took advantage of some mismatches and he really gave us a great lift,” Bennett said. Vander Plas is the son of a teammate of Bennett’s at Green Bay, and his first name is a tribute to Bennett’s father, Dick.

McKneely scored 15 and made 4 of 6 3-point tries in an 89-42 victory against Monmouth

“He was standing in front of our bench. I’m like, `Listen, we’re not helping off him,”‘ Monmouth coach King Rice said he told his team, pointing at McKneely, a two-time player of the year in West Virginia. “And he kind of looked at me and I said, `Yeah, you, because you make all of them,’ and he started laughing.”

Ryan Dunn also made quite the impression on Rice in his first collegiate appearance, scoring 13 points with six rebounds and three blocks in almost 27 minutes.

“I was in the building when De’Andre Hunter came off the bench and had a breakout game,” Rice said of Hunter, now with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. “Dunn reminds me a lot of Hunter, and you can tell he’s young. But when he grows into that body with that skill set, he’ll be giving people problems for a long, long time.”

The Cavaliers open Atlantic Coast Conference play against Florida State, then host top-ranked Houston, which beat them 67-47 last season, a week later.

“A good schedule for sure and it tests you, it kind of shows you, win or lose, you see where you’ve got some holes,” Bennett said.

So far, the Cavaliers have been able to fill them all.

No. 4 Arizona turning heads early in the season

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd knew there was talent on his roster. He wasn’t exactly sure how good the team would be.

The former longtime Gonzaga assistant had a similar view of last year’s team and that one turned out to be pretty good, running all the way to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

This year’s team could end up being even better.

Buoyed by transfers and improved returning players, Arizona has rolled through the early part of its schedule, climbing to No. 4 in this week’s AP Top 25 after winning the Maui Invitational.

“I learned that we’re good,” Lloyd said. “We’re tough. We’re gritty. I think there’s going to be some great things for us to really double down on and some things to show our guys where we went the wrong way.”

Lloyd had a superb first season in the desert, earning coach of the year honors last season with a team that lost three players to the NBA.

The Wildcats (6-0) had to replace three NBA players again this season. Again, they made a seamless transition.

Improvement on the part of the returning players has been a big part of it.

Oumar Ballo, considered a project as a freshman at Gonzaga, has transformed into one of the nation’s best big men. The 7-foot, 260-pound center from Mali has vastly improved his footwork and developed patience in the post, setting himself up for good shots instead of trying to bull his way to the basket.

Ballo is averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 76.7% from the field, fourth-best nationally. He was named Maui Invitational MVP after finishing with 30 points and 13 rebounds against No. 7 Creighton in the title game.

Not bad for a player who averaged 2.5 points and 6.3 minutes per game two years ago at Gonzaga.

“When he struggled, I still believed in him,” Lloyd said. “I didn’t need for him to be instantly successful for me to reaffirm my belief in him. When he struggled, we continued to love him and work with him and then he continued to hang in there and I think it is a great story.”

Fellow big man Azuolas Tubelis has made a few strides of his own, adding strength and toughness to his athletic, fluid game. The 6-10 forward leads Arizona with 19.3 points per game while grabbing 8.0 rebounds.

Fiery point guard Kerr Kriisa has rounded into a reliable floor leader, averaging 15.3 points and 7.5 assists while shooting 51% from the 3-point arc.

“I don’t pay attention to the antics because they don’t mean anything to me,” Lloyd said. “I know maybe that draws attention to him from other people but when it comes to just pure basketball, I mean he is doing a good job and I think he is really showing something.”

So is Courtney Ramey.

The Texas transfer has given the Wildcats a huge boost in his first season in Tucson, providing hounding defense, leadership and another scoring option. He’s averaging 16 points per game and has hit 10 of 16 from 3-point range so far this season.

Campbell transfer Cedric Henderson Jr. has provided an athletic lift off the bench and 7-foot Estonian Henri Veesaar has given Arizona solid minutes.

The mix of new and old has helped Arizona lead the nation with 97.5 points a game and rank second with 21.8 assists per game. The Wildcats climbed 10 spots in this week’s poll after wins over Cincinnati, No. 24 San Diego State and Creighton.

Arizona opens Pac-12 play Thursday at Utah.

“It was good to get the recognition, but we’re not satisfied,” Ramey said. “Our ultimate goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the season and be the final two teams playing, so I think the regular season matters but it’s not the ultimate goal for us.”

The Wildcats are certainly off to a good start.

Gardner, No. 3 Virginia rally for 70-68 win at Michigan

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Tony Bennett’s team passed all its tests in the opening month of the season.

Jayden Gardner made a go-ahead jumper with 39.9 seconds left and blocked Jett Howard’s 3-point shot just before the buzzer, allowing No. 3 Virginia to stay undefeated with a 70-68 win over Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night.

The Cavaliers (6-0) won their first true road game against a team that was ranked in the first two polls this season, a little more than a week after beating then-No. 5 Baylor and then-No. 19 Illinois in Las Vegas.

“It got pretty intense in here,” Bennett said.

Virginia trailed by 11 points at halftime, rallied to go ahead with 7:25 left and built a five-point lead that didn’t last.

The Wolverines (5-2) went ahead 66-65 at the 1:42 mark when Hunter Dickinson made one of two free throws.

Michigan missed chances to stay or go ahead when Dickinson missed a hook shot with 1:01 to go and Princeton transfer Jaelin Llewellyn turned the ball over with 16 seconds left.

“Hunter has made that running hook before,” coach Juwan Howard said. “The turnover, yes, down the stretch, it hurt, but overall that’s not the reason we lost the ballgame.

“We could’ve easily put our heads down when they came out in the second half and made a run.”

Reece Beekman, who finished with 18 points, stepped in front of Llewellyn’s pass in the final minute and made one of two free throws.

Virginia’s Armaan Franklin missed two free throws with 5.7 seconds left, giving Michigan a chance to extend or win the game. Howard took a contested shot beyond the 3-point arc on the right wing – near his father, Michigan’s coach – and Gardner came up with the block against the freshman guard while Wolverines coaches and players screamed for a foul call.

It appeared that Gardner got all ball on the block.

Kihei Clark scored 16 points, Gardner had 12, Kadin Shedrick fouled out with 12 points and Ben Vander Plas added 10 for the balanced Cavaliers.

“You need different guys, and that’s what it takes, to make plays offensively and defensively,” Bennett said.

Dickinson scored 23 points, Jett Howard had 11 of his 15 in the first half and Kobe Bufkin added 11 points for Michigan.

“Jett is a gamer, he’s going to compete no matter what,” Juwan Howard said. “He’s loved basketball since he was a little baby boy.

“He’s going to help us win a lot of games this year.”

The Wolverines started slowly, trailing 9-2 in the opening minutes, before Howard scored eight points to lead a 13-2 run. Michigan led 45-34 at halftime when Bufkin made a layup after a steal.

“We can’t be sloppy like that on the defensive end, but we did battle hard in the second half,” Bennett said.

Vander Plas scored nine points during an 11-2 run that put Virginia ahead 65-60. The Cavaliers then went 4 1/2 minutes without a basket before Gardner’s big shot.

THE TAKEAWAY

Virginia: The Cavaliers have their highest ranking since the 2018-19 season – which ended with a national title – and are off to their best start since being 7-0 three years ago. The team continues to honor the memory of three football players who were fatally shot on campus earlier this month, wearing warmup jerseys with their names.

Michigan: Juwan Howard’s team matched up well in its first game against a ranked opponent this season.

“When we come out with the effort like we did today for 40 minutes, I love our chances against any college team in the country,” he said.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Hosts Florida State (1-7) on Saturday.

Michigan: Plays No. 19 Kentucky (5-2) on Sunday in London.

Marquette’s defense overwhelms No. 6 Baylor in 96-70 win

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
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MILWAUKEE – Marquette has developed a habit under Shaka Smart of saving its top performances for the best opponents on its schedule.

Olivier-Maxence Prosper scored 24 points and Marquette capitalized on a dominant start from its defense to roll past No. 6 Baylor 96-70 on Tuesday night in the Big 12-Big East Battle. This was the highest-ranked team Marquette (6-2) has beaten under Smart and the Golden Eagles improved to to 7-6 against AP Top 25 squads in his tenure.

“Most of the time against these great teams, they don’t have us winning that game,” said David Joplin, who scored 19 points. “We just come out, we want to go out and prove everybody wrong. And that feeling, that chip makes us play so much better.”

Marquette nearly produced its most lopsided victory against a Top 25 team. The Golden Eagles trounced No. 16 Providence 88-56 on Jan. 4 in Smart’s debut season.

“When you go into a game and the game is bigger in the minds of your players than anything else, to me that’s the best recipe for winning,” Smart said. “It should be that way all the time, but human nature sometimes messes with that.”

Marquette’s defense embarrassed a highly regarded Baylor backcourt.

The Golden Eagles raced to a 51-25 halftime lead thanks to a 24-0 edge in points off turnovers. Baylor (5-2) already had a season-high 16 turnovers by halftime.

Baylor entered Tuesday ranked third among Division I teams in assist-turnover margin. The Bears had 20 turnovers and 12 assists against Marquette.

“I didn’t see that coming,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Credit the crowd. Credit them for building momentum. Credit Shaka for having them prepared and how hard they played. At the end of the day, we fed to the fire by turning it over and making some uncharacteristic mistakes.”

Prosper scored 10 points and sank two 3-pointers during a 23-2 run that turned an early 7-2 deficit into a 25-9 advantage. Chase Ross capped the spurt by getting a steal and throwing down a left-handed dunk.

Baylor never cut Marquette’s lead below 22 points in the second half.

Kam Jones had 20 points as Marquette shot 58.3% overall to win its third straight. The Golden Eagles shot 12 of 25 from 3-point range, with Jones going 4 of 7 and Prosper and Joplin each going 3 of 4.

Baylor’s LJ Cryer had 17 of his 19 points, in the second half. Adam Flagler had 16 and Keyonte George added 12 for the Bears.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The Bears shot 48.2% (27 of 56) but had no answers for Marquette’s defense and dug too deep a hole. Baylor rallied from a 25-deficit to force overtime in an NCAA Tournament loss to North Carolina last season, but the Bears never mounted any kind of comeback Tuesday.

Marquette: After losing to Purdue and Mississippi State earlier this season, the Golden Eagles delivered the kind of performance that showed they’re capable of beating anyone. Marquette will try to prove that again when it hosts Wisconsin on Saturday.

BIG 12 VS. BIG EAST

The Big 12-Big East Battle started Tuesday and runs through Sunday. Last season’s Big 12-Big East Battle ended in a 5-5 tie.

HONORING THOMPSON

Marquette came out of its locker room wearing shirts with No. 24 to honor George Thompson, who died in June of complications from diabetes. Thompson played for Marquette from 1967-69, and he was the school’s career scoring leader for 40 years.

Tuesday would have been Thompson’s 75th birthday. A No. 24 banner with Thompson’s name hangs from the Fiserv Forum rafters.

“I really felt like we needed to win tonight to honor George,” Smart said. “If you make it George Thompson Night, you couldn’t lose.”

UP NEXT

Baylor: Faces No. 14 Gonzaga on Friday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Marquette: Hosts Wisconsin on Saturday.