NCAA Picks: A quick breakdown of some 2013 Final Four possibilities

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This has been a season of upsets, underdogs, and unpredictability. The conventional wisdom has been that the NCAA tournament will follow suit. But will it? Will we see four No. 1 seeds in Atlanta, or none at all? Check out the tiered preview below:

The Top: These are the teams that, when judging by seed alone, should have the best shot at making the Final Four

Indiana

The Hoosiers began the season as the No. 1 team in the country and are looking to come full circle and win a national title in Atlanta. Yes, they have weapons like Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford, and Yogi Ferrell, but the key will be how each of those gets involved. Oladipo will be the do-everything forward, but Zeller needs to be assertive and physical down low. Because of that, beware of a team that can push the Hoosiers around on the interior.

Louisville

The Cardinals pulled off an immaculate comeback to beat Syracuse in the Big East title game, but it will ultimately come down to guard play for Louisville. If Russ Smith and Peyton Siva are clicking offensively and the defense is forcing turnovers, they’re very tough to beat. If those two are off track for a game, though, the Cardinals could be sent home early.

Gonzaga

Gonzaga hasn’t gotten as much national respect as it perhaps should have, even when it reached No. 1 in the national polls. This is their time to prove their worth. Kelly Olynyk is one of the country’s most mobile and versatile big men and will be at the center of everything the Zags do. Expect an early challenge from Pittsburgh in the Round of 32.

Kansas

Kansas powered through the Big 12 on the backs of Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey but turnovers will be the biggest stumbling block for the Jayhawks on the road to the Final Four. Especially if Kansas meets VCU in the Sweet 16, we could have an upset. If they keep that under control, though, coach Bill Self’s team has the firepower to make a Final Four push.

The Non-No. 1s: Just because they’re not No. 1 seeds doesn’t mean they can’t challenge for a Final Four

Ohio State

The Buckeyes won the Big Ten title the same way they have won games all season: defense. Their ability to defend on that end of the floor will never be in question, but we’ll need to see how they work offensively to get a good taste of how far this team can go. Deshaun Thomas cannot be the only scoring option. Lenzelle Smith, Jr., Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott, LaQuinton Ross, Evan Ravenel, and the rest can all find ways to contribute.

New Mexico

The Mountain West has been as brutally competitive as nearly any conference in the country this year and from it emerges a Final Four sleeper pick, New Mexico. How are the Lobos a sleeper pick as a No. 3 seed? Because many know little about them. Keep an eye on Kendall Williams, Tony Snell, and Alex Kirk, all of whom need to be going offensively for the Lobos to shift into gear. The major concern will be shooting percentage. New Mexico has to hit shots consistently to advance.

Miami

At the beginning of the season, Miami was not expected to do what it has done. Point guard Shane Larkin is a big reason for that, but it has also been a matter of team cohesiveness and the ability to play at different paces. Reggie Johnson needs to be a factor on the interior and the Hurricanes have a chance to make life tough for opponents if Kenny Kadji is stretching the defense from the power forward spot.

Georgetown

Otto Porter, defense, and more Otto Porter. That will be Georgetown’s gameplan in the NCAA tournament. Porter does a little bit of everything well, but will need help from Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera offensively for the Hoyas to make it to the Final Four being in the same regional as Kansas.

The Mid-Majors: These teams are dangerous in March. They might have come from smaller leagues, but watch out.

VCU

Coach Shaka Smart and the Rams live off of turnovers. They force close to 20 per game and it becomes the lifeblood of a transition offense that can put points on the board in a hurry. Against Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10 championship game, VCU erased a 13-point deficit in close to three minutes.

Saint Louis

Saint Louis, the team that beat VCU to win the A-10 title, is efficient, poised, and smart with the basketball. In a region like the Midwest where Louisville is the No. 1 seed, the Billikens match up favorably. If they can control turnovers, it hurts what Louisville can do offensively. Kwamain Mitchell against Peyton Siva would be one to watch.

Creighton

When your team features one of the country’s best players, you’ll always in a position to be dangerous in the NCAA tournament. Doug McDermott will be the centerpiece of this team, but Grant Gibbs, Gregory Echenique, and Austing Chatman aren’t to be discounted, either. We all should be rooting for a Creighton-Duke matchup in the Round of 32, if for no other reason than to see Ryan Kelly go head-to-head with McDermott.

Bucknell

If you don’t know Mike Muscala’s name yet, you likely will when this NCAA tournament tips off. The Bucknell big man anchors the paint for the Bison and is part of a defensive team that likes to grind teams down to a halt. It’s not always an easy way to win, but Muscala will be the engine behind a push.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Saturday’s Things To Know: Huge wins for UNC, Kansas, Indiana

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Juwan Morgan, Indiana

Juwan Morgan really loves playing at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

A year after setting his career-high by scoring 34 points in a win over Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic, Morgan broke that record by dropping 35 points as No. 25 Indiana won their fourth-straight one-possession game, picking off Butler, 71-68.

Rob Phinisee is going to be the guy that makes all of the highlight reels after this game — we’ll get to that in a minute — but Morgan was the hero for Indiana. They’re no where near a position to be able to win this game at the buzzer if Morgan doesn’t keep this thing close. Butler controlled the game for 35 minutes. They led by as many as 11 points. They were up by two or three possessions for the majority of the second half, but Morgan did just enough to keep Indiana connected.

Butler was never able to pull away, and in the end, that is what cost them the game.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Belmont Bruins

The Bruins of Nashville paid a visit to the Bruins of Westwood and left with a 74-72 victory. They did this despite trailing by 12 points in the second half and while their star forward Dylan Windler spent much of the afternoon struggling with the length and athleticism of UCLA’s frontline. And given what we know about this UCLA program, it should surprise exactly no one that the Bruins lost this game because they got beat on a backdoor cut.

This was another in a long line of bad losses for the Pac-12 this season. While Washington was smoked by No. 13 Virginia Tech and Utah was embarrassed by No. 19 Kentucky, the good news here is that the weekend wasn’t a total loss. No. 20 Arizona State found a way to beat Georgia after trailing by 14 while Stanford overcame a big first half deficit against Eastern Washington in Palo Alto.

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Robert Phinisee, Indiana

Also known as the new Big Shot Bob:

SATURDAY’S BIGGEST WINNERS

NORTH CAROLINA: The Tar Heels picked up a massive win over No. 4 Gonzaga, a win that this program really needed after a disappointing run through the non-conference portion of their schedule. We spent quite a bit of time on that game already today, so read that here.

KENTUCKY: The Wildcats looked like they had a point to prove on Saturday. After seeing one of their teammates transfer out of the program and after dealing with a week where everyone was talking about why this group was so overrated, whether or not John Calipari can still win with the one-and-done model and if Kentucky has lost their edge, the Wildcats came out and whipped up on poor Utah, their first impressive performance of the season. They won 88-61, and it will be interesting to see where this team goes from here.

MISSISSIPPI STATE: The Bulldogs landed a really important home win over Cincinnati, 70-59, in one of their only relevant non-conference games this season. Mississippi State is now 9-1 on the season — tied for the best record in the SEC — but this may be their best win to date, depending on how you feel about victories over St. Mary’s, at Dayton and Clemson. If Ben Howland is going to get this group to the NCAA tournament, this was a game he needed.

SATURDAY’S BIGGEST LOSERS

BUTLER: In a game they really, really needed to win, Butler dominated Indiana for 35 minutes, held Romeo Langford in check and blew up Indiana’s last-second play … before watching Phinisee’s game-winner go in. The Bulldogs are now 7-3 on the season with losses to Indiana, Saint Louis and Dayton. In a Big East where there may not actually be a good win available, this is a bad spot to be in. A trip to Florida on Dec. 29th is suddenly a critical game.

GEORGIA: Tom Crean is not going to be happy about the way that this one ended. The Bulldogs led by as many as 18 points in the first half against No. 20 Arizona State and still somehow managed to find a way to lose, 76-74, at home despite Arizona State’s late-game execution being horrendous.

UAB: UAB had a chance to get a signature win on Saturday evening, and they couldn’t put it away. Jared Harper scored 23 of No. 8 Auburn’s last 30 points as the Tigers outlasted UAB in overtime, 75-71. This could have been a season-defining win for the Blazers. Now it is a warning for Bruce Pearl’s team that they cannot expect to sleepwalk through the season and win the games they want to win.

SYRACUSE: We thought the Orange had gotten things figured out after landing a come-from-behind win over Georgetown last Saturday, but it turns out we were wrong. The Orange let B.J. Stith score all 18 of his points in the second half as they lost to Old Dominion in the Carrier Dome, 68-62. The Orange are now 7-3 on the season with losses to ODU, UConn and Oregon. Not good.

FINAL THOUGHT

There are nine teams that are still undefeated this season.

Some of them are simply a product of scheduling (Houston, St. John’s) while some of them are good mid-majors that went out and won a buy game or two (Buffalo, Furman). There are a couple of true national title contenders that remain unblemished (Virginia, Michigan) and a third (Texas Tech) that is more dangerous this season than anyone realizes.

And then there is Kansas, and there is Nevada.

I cannot figure out either of these teams.

We’ve been over the issues that are plaguing Kansas this season. I wrote 1,000 words on them right here. No Udoka Azubuike is forcing Dedric Lawson to play in a position that is not his best when Kansas doesn’t actually have a player to fill the ideal role for Lawson, and all of that is happening as Quentin Grimes is struggling to find his footing and the rest of the Kansas perimeter attack is … well, it’s just Lagerald Vick.

The Jayhawks have not looked dominant for a full 40 minutes yet this season — they struggle to put together an entire half — and they could have three or four losses at this point in the year.

But they’re 9-0.

Is this a good thing (good teams win when they play bad, and Kansas will figure it out) or is this something that we should be very, very worried about (at some point, this is going to catch up with them).

And then there is Nevada, who has trailed at the half in three of their last four games after turning a 40-33 halftime deficit into a 72-68 win over South Dakota State. They haven’t really beaten anyone that matters — winning at Loyola and at USC isn’t impressive, although the win over Arizona State in LA will carry some weight on Selection Sunday — and we might not see them play an NCAA tournament team again until the NCAA tournament.

But there is also something to be said for a team full of veterans struggling to get up for the dregs of non-conference play when classes are done and they’re just thinking about holiday break.

So we’ll see what happens with both of these teams, but even their most avid supporters should admit that their team isn’t playing great right now.

No. 8 Auburn outlasts UAB 75-71 in overtime

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Jared Harper scored 23 of Auburn’s last 30 points and finished with 31 to help the No. 8 Tigers outlast UAB 75-71 in overtime Saturday night in the Mike Slive Invitational.

In front of a crowd of 15,856, the budding in-state rivals raced to the overtime finish via the 3-point arc. After Harper scored 12 of the Tigers’ last 15, UAB’s Jeremiah Bell hit a pair of triples in the final 40 seconds, including a contested shot with 10 seconds left to send the contest to overtime. Bell finished with 13 points. Guard Jalen Perry led the Blazers (6-4) with 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

Chuma Okeke added 11 points for Auburn (9-1).

Harper took over in the overtime period, scoring or assisting on 25 of Auburn’s final 32 points. That streak began midway through the second half when Harper converted on a coast-to-coast lay-in. The basket tied the game after UAB led by as many as seven in the half.

“We’ve got Jared Harper and they don’t,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “That happens a lot of the time against a lot of people. We have him and they don’t.”

BIG PICTURE

UAB

Saturday marked the 21st meeting in the series since UAB began playing basketball 40 years ago. Auburn leads 11-10. Pearl said postgame that the teams are in talks about possibly renewing a contract to play yearly.

AUBURN

Forward Danjel Purifoy played in his first game since March 8, 2017, after sitting out all last season due to eligibility concerns. After serving a nine-game suspension this year, he scored two points and had one rebound in seven minutes.

No. 18 Mississippi State beats Cincinnati 70-59

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STARKVILLE, Miss. — Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters scored 14 points each, Reggie Perry and Tyson Carter both added 12, and No. 18 Mississippi State beat Cincinnati 70-59 on Saturday night.

Mississippi State (9-1) used a 7-0 run midway through the second half — holding the Bearcats scoreless for more than four minutes — to break a tie game and take a 52-45 lead.

The Bulldogs were able to keep a fairly comfortable advantage the rest of the way. Mississippi State shot 12 of 23 (52 percent) from 3-point range. Peters added nine assists.

Perry came off the bench to score 10 points in the first half, giving Mississippi State some much-needed offense after starting forward Abdul Ado picked up two quick fouls. The 6-foot-10 freshman was a McDonald’s All-American and has quickly earned an increased role with his ability to score both inside and outside.

Mississippi State hit 7 of 12 3-pointers in the first half to take a 37-32 halftime lead.

Cincinnati (9-2) had its nine-game winning streak snapped. The Bearcats never looked comfortable offensively and shot just 37 percent from the field.

Jarron Cumberland led Cincinnati with 21 points. Keith Williams added 15.

BIG PICTURE

Cincinnati: The Bearcats had some good moments but couldn’t generate much offense when they needed it during the final 10 minutes. They scored 27 points in the second half.

Mississippi State: It’s another quality win for the Bulldogs, who have won six straight. Perry’s continued development is a big plus for Mississippi State. Peters continues to play very well with his combination of scoring and floor vision.

No. 13 Virginia Tech holds off Washington 73-61

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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Nikell Alexander-Walker scored 24 points to lead No. 13 Virginia Tech to a 73-61 victory over Washington on Saturday night in the Air Force Reserve Boardwalk Classic.

Justin Thomas, Kerry Blackshear and Ahmed Hill each added 10 points for the Hokies (9-1), who won their fourth straight. They led by 18 points at halftime.

Matisse Thybulle scored 16 points to lead Washington (7-4), which pulled within seven points with nine minutes left but couldn’t get any closer. David Crisp scored 12 points, and Naz Carter had 11 points and a game-high nine rebounds.

The Huskies (7-4) pulled within seven points with nine minutes left in regulation but couldn’t sustain the comeback.

Virginia Tech shot 42.9 percent from the field and a swarming defense limited Washington to 35.6 percent while forcing 15 turnovers.

No. 20 Sun Devils rally from 18 down to beat Georgia 76-74

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ATHENS, Ga. — Remy Martin scored 21 points, Romello White added 16 and No. 20 Arizona State rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat Georgia 76-74 on Saturday night.

Martin gave the Sun Devils (8-1) their first lead of the game with a baseline jumper to make it 71-70 with 2:43 remaining.

Rayshaun Hammonds and Tyree Crump each scored 19 points for Georgia (5-4). Nicolas Claxton had nine points and 13 rebounds, but the Bulldogs, looking for their first signature win under coach Tom Crean, were undone by 10 turnovers that led to 12 Arizona State points in the second half.

Tye Fagan’s reverse layup put Georgia back ahead with 25 seconds remaining, but Luguentz Dort beat Claxton off the dribble to make it 75-74 with 11 seconds to go.

The victory was a strong comeback for Arizona State, which lost last week to No. 6 Nevada in Los Angeles.

Dort intercepted a long inbound pass from Jordan Harris before the Bulldogs’ last chance to win fell short on Claxton’s air-ball 16-footer.

Crump had 16 points in the first half, his best move coming on a feed from Claxton. Cutting through the lane, Crump took the pass, paused quickly to wait for a defender to clear and laid the ball off the glass for a nine-point lead.

He followed with consecutive 3s before hitting four of five free throws on a single possession. Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley was called for a technical foul after Dort bumped him on a 3-point attempt, and Crump closed a 20-3 run to give the Bulldogs their biggest lead at 18.

White, a sophomore from Wheeler High School in suburban Atlanta, was the only player in the double figures in the first half for Arizona State.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona State: The Sun Devils gave a strong indication of their depth as Dort, their leading scorer, was just 2 for 10 from the field and finished with 10 points. Seven of his points came on free throws. … Martin was 0 for 3 beyond the arc. … Cheatam had 10 rebounds.

Georgia: Hammonds, who fouled out with 4:41 remaining, scored 14 points in the opening 20 minutes. He gave Georgia a 42-29 lead with a crossover dribble down the lane and a spin move that brought a roar from the crowd. … Crump hit a 3 to give the Bulldogs a 70-64 lead, but he wasn’t a factor late, going 1 for 4 in the second half.