West Region Preview: Arizona rules, but chaos could reign

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Every year, there is one region that just obliterates everyone’s bracket, and this season, that region could very well end up being the West. Arizona earned the No. 1 seed, which had been considered a given for weeks. The Wildcats are the best defensive team in the country and have finally found a rhythm on the offensive end without Brandon Ashley.

But after that, the West Region has some serious ‘all hell breaks loose’ potential.

There are three teams in the conference that had climbed into the top ten nationally at one point this season before having their season seemingly fall off a cliff. Oklahoma State lost seven straight games in Big 12 play before righting their ship as Marcus Smart turned back into the player we all fell in love with last season Baylor lost eight of their first ten Big 12 games, but they won nine of their last 11 and made it to the finals of the Big 12 tournament. Oregon lost eight of ten in Pac-12 play but won eight in a row — a streak that came within three one-possession games of being 13 straight — before getting dropped by UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament.

What’s crazier is that all three of those teams drew matchups that could end up vaulting them into the Sweet 16.

Yeah.

Good luck.

MORERead through all of our bracket analysis here

Three story lines to watch

  • 1. Doug McDermott’s chase for his One Shining Moment: McBuckets has had a legendary career that is missing one thing: a deep run in the tournament. I wrote a column on this two weeks ago.
  • 2. Is this the year Bo Ryan makes the Final Four?: Wisconsin’s head coach has had an exemplary career in Madison. He’s never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten in his 13 seasons at the helm, but he has just one Elite 8 and no Final Fours to show for it. This might be his most potent Wisconsin team. Can they break through?
  • 3. Will Scott Drew ever get credit for being a good coach?: He’s usually a punchline, but he did a terrific job turning this season around for the Bears. He’s been to two Elite 8s in the last four tournaments. Can he tap into that tournament magic again?
source: AP
AP

The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 3 Creighton

I’m not going to lie: I’m very high on this Arizona team. When you can defend, you are always going to be in a game and, this season, there is no one near as good as the Wildcats are defensively. The key for them is going to be scoring in transition, as they struggle to get buckets against a set defense. As far as Creighton is concerned, I think they are quite beatable this season simply because so much of what they do relies on their ability to hit threes. On the nights they fall — especially when Ethan Wragge and Jahenns Manigat are hitting — they’re near-unbeatable. When they aren’t falling, they can be beaten by anyone. There’s no one on their side of the bracket that truly strikes fear into me, however, so I’ll ride with McBuckets one last time.

It’s worth noting: this matchup would pit the nation’s best offense against the nation’s best defense as well as the nation’s best scorer (McDermott) against the nation’s best defender (Aaron Gordon).

MOREEight teams that can win the national title.

Final Four sleeper: Oregon Ducks

Like I wrote earlier, the Ducks are three two-point losses away from a 13-game winning streak late in the season. Ever since they started buying-in defensively, things have changed. Oh, and should I mention that Dominic Artis looks like he might have finally broken out of his slump? The Ducks matchup well with everyone on the bottom-half of the bracket and they are arguably the most talented team in the region.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 10 BYU vs. No. 7 Oregon: Both the Ducks and the Cougars like to run. Both score a lot of points. Neither play much defense. That’s always fun.
  • No. 9 Oklahoma State vs. No. 8 Gonzaga: The Pokes were one of the teams that I figured I would be picking to make a run regardless of where they would up, but the Zags are actually a tough matchup for them. Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski are tough to handle inside, and Oklahoma State has neither depth nor size up front. But can Mark Few find a way to slow down Marcus Smart and Markel Brown?

Matchups to root for

  • No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 11 Nebraska: Two in-state rivals with large, passionate fan-bases that just so happened to be having banner years for their programs.
  • No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 1 Arizona: Two defensive powerhouses. Two programs that recruit Southern California as well as anyone. Two large, passionate fan bases. The game is in Anaheim. Gimme.
  • No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 7 Oregon: Creighton is kind of like BYU, only better.

The studs you know about

  • Doug McDermott, Creighton: He’s the National Player of the Year for a reason.
  • Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, Oklahoma State: Smart was a Player of the Year candidate entering the season, and he’s been playing like it since he returned from his suspension as he’s cut down on turnovers and displayed much-improved shot selection. But Brown may actually be the best scorer on this team and the best dunker in the country.
  • Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga: He’s been battling turf toe all season long, but if he’s healthy, he’s one of the best lead guards in the country.

MOREAll-Americans | Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | Freshman of the Year

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette: An NBA prospect from the Sun Belt, Payton is a bigger, athletic point guard that is a terrific defensive player.
  • Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: Kaminsky has turned into one of the nation’s most versatile front court players. He scores in the post, he hits threes and he squares people up on the perimeter.
  • Xavier Thames, San Diego State: The leading scorer for the Aztecs all season long, Thames has made innumerable big shots for SDSU this season.
  • Taylor Braun, North Dakota State: The Summit League Player of the Year is a 6-foot-7 wing that hit a number of huge shots in the league title game.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 7 Oregon over No. 2 Wisconsin: Wisconsin can score this year. They are getting up and down the floor much more than in the past, which fits in well with how the Ducks like to play. And the Badgers struggle against teams with guards that can penetrate.
  • No. 12 North Dakota State over No. 5 Oklahoma: If there is going to be a mid-major team that makes a run in the tournament this season, it’s going to be the Bison. The key? Defending the three-point line. NDSU hasn’t done it well this year, and Oklahoma A) shoots a lot of threes and B) shoots them well.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • No. 9 Oklahoma State over No. 1 Arizona: There are a couple reasons for this: 1) the Pokes don’t have anyone that can handle Kaleb Tarczewski on the block; and 2) Arizona has three of the best defenders in the country, and they match up perfectly with OSU’s best players (Nick Johnson vs. Markel Brown, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson vs. Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon vs. LeBryan Nash).

Feeling like gambling?

  • Pick No. 6 Baylor, No. 7 Oregon or No. 9 Oklahoma State to make a run to the Final Four. They’re talented enough to it.

CBT Predictions: No. 1 Arizona advances after a thrilling win over No. 3 seed Creighton.

Notre Dame ends skid with over Boilermakers, may have lost Pflueger

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INDIANAPOLIS — Notre Dame finally played the way coach Mike Brey wanted.

They worked hard, shot well and they demonstrated they could deliver a knockout punch, too.

John Mooney scored 21 points and grabbed seven rebounds while D.J. Harvey matched his career-high with 19 points to lead Notre Dame past Purdue 88-80 in the first game of Saturday’s Crossroads Classic.

“This is huge for us. We lost to two good teams away from our building. If we go 0-3 we’re digging out of a hole for a while,” Brey said. “If there are must-wins in December, we were staring at one today.”

The Fighting Irish (7-3) snapped a two-game losing streak by becoming the first in-state school to beat Purdue since February 2016.

And though they never trailed over the final 35 minutes, it sure wasn’t easy on or off the court.

One day after the athletic department announced freshman Robby Carmody would miss the rest of this season with a torn labrum, the Irish suffered another big blow when senior Ref Pflueger crumpled to the floor with 5:36 to play, clutching his left knee. He was carried directly into the locker room and later returned to the bench with the knee packed in ice.

Brey credited Pflueger with helping the Irish turning things around Saturday and said the starting guard would have an MRI next week.

“It didn’t look good,” Brey said. “There’s fear that it’s an ACL.”

Pflueger’s teammates took the cue from his big game — seven points and a career best 10 assists — and closed it out almost according to the script, too.

Notre Dame opened the game by making 11 of their first 14 shots and eventually used a 12-2 spurt to take a 30-18 lead with 8:14 left in the first half.

The Boilermakers (6-5, 1-1 Big Ten) closed the half on a 7-2 run, cutting the deficit to 36-29, and got as close as 42-38 with 16:01 left to play before Notre Dame answered with a putback and Harvey’s 3-pointer to make it 47-38.

Purdue never got closer than five again despite getting 27 points from Carsen Edwards and 15 from Ryan Cline. The Boilermakers have lost two in a row, four of five and had their nine-game winning streak against in-state schools snapped.

“We just had too many breakdowns defensively,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “When you’re just trying to outscore somebody, you’re not going to win too many basketball games.”

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Irish completed a brutal nonconference stretch by going 3-2 against five straight power-conference teams. Things should get a little easier before heading into ACC play, and if they can overcome the injuries Notre Dame could emerge as a stronger team.

Purdue: The Boilermakers have struggled to find a consistent complementary scorer for Edwards and it looks like they will continue to struggle until they do.

STAT PACK

Notre Dame: Notre Dame won its first game in the Classic in three years. … T.J. Gibbs scored 12 points and Dane Goodwin added 11 points. … The Irish shot 52 percent from the field and were 11 of 21 on 3s.

Purdue: The Boilermakers are 0-3 against ACC schools with previous losses against Virginia Tech and Florida State. … A six-day break didn’t help the Boilermakers solve their shooting woes. After going 9 of 32 on 3s in last Sunday’s loss at Texas, they were 9 of 29 against Notre Dame. … Trevion Williams scored 10 points and was the only other player to reach double figures. … Purdue had a 40-30 rebounding advantage, including 15-2 on offensive rebounds.

THEY SAID IT

Notre Dame: “It’s huge. We closed it out,” Mooney said.

Purdue: “It was just our lapses that gave them open shots. We can’t just play through our offense. We have to get stops,” Cline said.

No. 5 Michigan beats Western Michigan 70-62, stays unbeaten

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Charles Matthews made a layup just before halftime to give No. 5 Michigan its first lead and the smooth-shooting guard matched a season high with 25 points to help the undefeated Wolverines beat Western Michigan 70-62 on Saturday.

Michigan (11-0) is off to its best start since it was 16-0 six seasons ago.

The Broncos (5-5) were in control for much of the first half and led by eight points with 2:58 remaining after Michael Flowers scored 11 of his career-high 31 points in just over two minutes.

Matthews scored eight of his team’s 10 points to close the first half, giving Michigan a 30-28 lead. He scored five more points during the Wolverines’ 14-2 run early in the second half, giving them a cushion they needed because the Broncos stayed aggressive on both ends.

Matthews made a 3-pointer with 1:13 left to put the Wolverines ahead by eight.

Michigan’s Zavier Simpson scored 15 points and Jordan Poole had 14.

The Wolverines’ leading scorer, Ignas Brazdeikis, was held scoreless for more than 24 minutes before finishing with just four points — 13 below his average.

Jared Printy had 10 points for the Broncos, whose top two scorers were held well below their average. Seth Dugan had seven points, more than 10 points below his average, and Josh Davis fouled out with four points after entering the game scoring nearly 14 points per game.

BIG PICTURE

Western Michigan: The Broncos, who hadn’t played a ranked team since 2016, will likely get a boost of confidence for leading for much of the first half and refusing to get routed when Michigan took control in the second half.

Michigan: The Wolverines looked rusty in the first half and must learn how to stay sharp with only one game per week from Dec. 8 to Dec. 30 before resuming Big Ten play in early January.

Schofield scores 29, No. 3 Tennessee beats Memphis 102-92

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Admiral Schofield scored 20 of his 29 points in the second half and added 11 rebounds as third-ranked Tennessee beat Memphis 102-92 Saturday to snap a three-game skid to the in-state rival.

The Volunteers (8-1) avoided any letdown after a weeklong layoff for finals since upsetting then-No. 1 ranked Gonzaga last weekend in Phoenix. That win pushed the Vols to their highest Associated Press ranking since Feb. 25, 2008, when they went to No. 1 after upsetting another top-ranked team in Memphis.

Grant Williams added 19 points for Tennessee. Jordan Bone had 17, Jordan Bowden 12 and Kyle Alexander 10.

Kyvon Davenport helped Memphis (5-5) keep Tennessee from blowing the Tigers out. He scored 26 of his career-high 31 points after halftime and had 11 boards. Tyler Harris added 10 points.

First-year Memphis coach Penny Hardaway remains winless against the Vols after going 0-2 when playing for the Tigers in the early 1990s. Simply having the former NBA star as head coach has Tigers’ fans excited enough about the future that they sold out the FedExForum for the first time since March 7, 2009, against Tulsa just before coach John Calipari left for Kentucky.

This rivalry had cooled down since that No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in 2008. It’s the first game between the programs on either end of Tennessee since January 2013.

These Vols came in with a big advantage in both size and experience with all five starters back from the team that shared the Southeastern Conference regular season title last year. They trailed only once at 3-2 within the first minute on a trio of free throws by Harris.

With Tennessee hitting its first five shots, including a trio of 3-pointers, the Vols jumped out to a 15-5 lead on Schofield’s 3 with 16:21 left. Tennessee led 50-35 at halftime.

The Tigers pulled to 63-56 when Antwann Jones’ 3 capped eight straight. Schofield scored the next five for Tennessee. Davenport did his best to rally Memphis but couldn’t get the Tigers closer than eight despite hitting 10 of 12 shots.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Vols finally have a true road game on their resume with the arena filled with lots of Memphis blue.

Memphis: Hardaway needs more time and the recruiting class he is building for 2019 is led by James Wiseman. But he had the Tigers racing up the floor every chance they got in transition. Hardaway’s halftime adjustments were evident when the Tigers hit as many shots (10) within the first nine minutes as the entire first half.

Vick, Lawson lead No. 1 Kansas past No. 17 Villanova

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Dedric Lawson and Lagerald Vick combined for 57 points and scored all but one of the Jayhawks field goals in the second half as No. 1 Kansas remained undefeated with a 74-71 win over No. 17 Villanova in Phog Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon.

Villanova, who was coming off of their third loss of the season — and their second to a mid-major — when they were beaten by Penn on Tuesday, put up an impressive fight, but they did not have an answer for the Big Two of the Jayhawks.

Here are three things we can takeaway from that game:

1. KANSAS REALLY MISSES UDOKA AZUBUIKE

The Jayhawks were essentially a two-man band on Saturday afternoon, as Dedric Lawson and Lagerald Vick accounted for 57 of their 74 points. They were 19-for-30 from the floor. The rest of the Kansas roster was 4-for-16 combined. A Devon Dotson layup late in the second half was the only field goal made by someone not named Dedric or Lagerald in the second half.

I bring this up because Udoka Azubuike’s absence has created a situation where Lawson is forced to play a different role than what would be ideal for him and for Kansas. Self has made it clear that he wants to run his offense through the post. We know this, and without the dynamic guard play that he’s had the last two or three years, he doesn’t really have another option. Dotson is good. He’s not Frank Mason or Devonte’ Graham, at least not yet.

But with Azubuike dealing with an ankle injury, Lawson is the only player on the roster that can come close to matching Azubuike’s low-post production. Mitch Lightfoot isn’t that guy. K.J. Lawson isn’t that guy. David McCormack isn’t ready. Silvio De Sousa isn’t eligible. So it has to be Dedric, but running him as a low-post presence means that he’s not out there as a playmaking four.

So not only does Kansas lose Doke’s presence on the block and not only is Dedric forced to play out of position, but they don’t really have anyone that can do the things that Dedric can do when he’s playing the five instead of the four.

And Kansas is still undefeated, despite having played one of the toughest schedules in the country for high-major program.

2. AND THEY NEED TO FIND SOME WAY TO GET QUENTIN GRIMES GOING

Another problem with Kansas is that they are getting absolutely nothing out of Quentin Grimes. He scored a single point in 14 minutes on Saturday, which is more or less in line with everyone game he’s played since that 21 point outburst he had in the win over Michigan State. This is a problem because teams don’t really have to pay attention to him defensively. They don’t really have to pay attention to Marcus Garrett, either. Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson haven’t been threats to score. Other than Vick and Dotson, who is as up and down as you would expect a freshman to be, Kansas doesn’t have anyone to worry about on the perimeter when Quentin Grimes is playing like he’s Rick Grimes.

(Now do you see why Bill Self has everything running through the post?)

I’m not really sure what the issue is here, either, beyond Grimes not knowing where he fits in this offense. He’s not going to be the guy asked to run ball-screens. He’s not going to be the guy asked to score in isolation, at least not when Vick is doing what he’s been doing to start the season. He’s never been a pure jump shooter.

There’s a reason he’s a projected lottery pick. The kid is talented. Self just needs to figure out how to get him going.

3. IT’S CLEAR WHO JAY WRIGHT TRUSTS AND DOES NOT TRUST

We know he doesn’t trust Jahvon Quinerly. That much has been proven true time and again. Saturday was JQ’s fourth DNP-CD of the season.

But as Villanova plays more games in tough environments like this — with Big East play bearing down, it’s going to happen quite a bit more often — we’re likely going to see his rotation condense unless some of the guys on the outside looking in step up.

On Saturday, Phil Booth, Collin Gillespie and freshman Saddiq Bey all played at least 36 minutes. Eric Paschall would have matched that if he didn’t pick up his fourth foul midway through the second half. Dhamir Cosby-Rountree played 28 minutes and fouled out.

And for the most part, it looks like that is going to be the five guys Wright rolls with. Jermaine Samuels will see minutes as a guy that gives Villanova a different look. Joe Cremo will be the guard that gives Gillespie and Booth a breather. Swider will get a few minutes here and there as Wright tries to get him to find his shot.

But Swider has now missed his last eight threes and is shooting 24.2 percent from deep on the season. Cremo has looked like an America East player. Samuels isn’t ready for this level yet.

Wright is never a stranger to a short bench, but this year it feels more like this is being forced upon him than it is a conscious decision to condense minutes.

Stith leads Old Dominion’s rally, upset of No. 25 Syracuse

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. — B.J. Stith scored all of his 18 points in the second half, and Old Dominion overcame an 11-point second-half deficit to stun No. 25 Syracuse 68-62 on Saturday.

Xavier Green had 15 points and Marquis Godwin added 11 for the Monarchs (8-3), who trailed by 13 points late in the first half and by 11 early in the second before rallying for their sixth straight victory.

After Elijah Hughes made a 3-pointer to put the Orange (7-3) ahead 39-28, Old Dominion went on a 13-2 run, capped by a 3-pointer from Goodwin that tied it at 41 with 10:19 remaining.

Syracuse pulled aback ahead and led 50-46, but a jumper by Godwin and a 3-pointer by Ahmad Carter put the Monarchs on top again. Syracuse went ahead 53-51 with 4:15 to go, but that was the Orange’s last lead of the game.

Three foul shots by Stith and five straight points by Green extended the Monarchs to a 59-53 margin with under three minutes to go. Six points by Stith down the stretch sealed the upset.

Tyus Battle led Syracuse with 23 points on just 5-of-14 shooting. Hughes had 15. Oshae Brissett had just nine, going 3 of 11 from the field.

Syracuse shot just 33 percent from the field for the game and 8 of 22 from 3-point range.

Syracuse closed on a 12-3 run to take a 33-23 halftime lead. Battle, who scored 13 in the first 20 minutes, accounted for eight straight points during the run.

BIG PICTURE

Old Dominion: The Monarchs are flying high. Six straight wins and a huge comeback at the Carrier Dome give Old Dominion huge momentum heading into its matchup with in-state rival Richmond.

Syracuse: The Orange are still in search of an offense. Frank Howard isn’t himself and Syracuse won’t go far if its point guard doesn’t contribute.