College Basketball Talk’s staff Final Four picks

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Kentucky is the choice of many to win it all (AP Photo)

Six weeks after the start of practices the moment we’ve all been waiting for is finally here, with Friday marking the start of the 2014-15 regular season. There have been no shortage of opinions on how this season will shake out, with No. 1 Kentucky seen by many as the favorites to cut down the nets in Indianapolis. However that doesn’t mean every fan or pundit will subscribe to the thinking that John Calipari’s team will coast to the storied program’s ninth national title.

Below are the College Basketball Talk staff’s picks for the Final Four and national champion, with each writer providing reasons for their selections as well.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Rob Dauster (@RobDauster)

Final Four: Arizona, Kentucky, Gonzaga and Oklahoma
National champion: Arizona

I think Arizona and Kentucky are easily the two most talented teams in the country this season, and when it comes to NCAA tournament success, talent is a pretty good indicator of who will advance. No one should argue with picking either of those two teams to reach Indy. As far as Gonzaga is concerned, I think this is the year that they make the jump (finally!). A healthy Kevin Pangos combined with the additions of Kyle Wiltjer, Byron Wesley and Domantas Sabonis will make this group unstoppable offensively.

Oklahoma is the final pick for me, and I’m basing this on the assumption that Tashawn Thomas will eventually get a waiver to be eligible to play this season. Jordan Woodard and Buddy Hield make up the nation’s most underrated back court, Ryan Spangler is a hoss in the paint and Thomas provides the athleticism and versatility that they lacked from a true four last year.

Raphielle Johnson (@raphiellej)

Final Four: Kentucky, Arizona, North Carolina and VCU
National champion: Kentucky

Unlike last season I have a hard time picking against Kentucky, not only because of their talent but also the mix of freshmen and returnees who experienced last year’s run to the national title game and all of the publicity that preceded it (remember the 40-0 talk?). I think the experiences of Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, the Harrison twins and the other returning players helps Kentucky as they deal with the hype, and all involved will benefit. As for their biggest threat, I’ll take Arizona because Sean Miller has a group that certainly doesn’t lack for talent or experience. The one question mark for Arizona: consistent perimeter shooting. If Stanley Johnson, Gabe York and T.J. McConnell can provide that help, things open up for Brandon Ashley (who was arguably their best perimeter shooter before hurting his foot) and Kaleb Tarczewski in the front court. They’re going to be really good defensively; if the offense takes a step forward they’ll be in Indianapolis.

As for North Carolina, the Tar Heels have something they didn’t have a season ago: more help for Marcus Paige. The three freshman, especially Justin Jackson, will help him offensively as will an improved J.P. Tokoto. And in the paint both Brice Johnson (who’s gained weight) and Kennedy Meeks (who’s lost weight) enter the season with transformed bodies, which will mean even better seasons for them. Lastly, I really like VCU. They lost Juvonte Reddic but they’re deeper in the front court than they were a season ago, and Treveon Graham and Briante Weber will lead the way on the perimeter. Look for their loss to Stephen F. Austin to serve as fuel for Shaka Smart’s Rams, and do not gloss over the return of Melvin Johnson when assessing their chances. He wasn’t available late last season due to a knee injury, and that’s a big deal given his ability to provide an offensive spark off the bench.

Scott Phillips (@phillipshoops)

Final Four: Arizona, Kentucky, Texas and Wichita State
National champion: Arizona

Arizona is the biggest national championship contender to enter the 2014-15 season, but by a slim margin. Sean Miller’s team isn’t even the most talented group of Wildcats in the country — more on them in a second — but the West Coast version of the Wildcats play a more selfless brand of ball. Without the injury to Brandon Ashley last season, Arizona could have very easily entered this season as the defending champions. Now that they’re healthy, Stanley Johnson is a better lineup fit for Arizona than Aaron Gordon was last season and this Arizona team has more depth than last season. Kentucky is my close runner-up, as John Calipari’s ballclub once again features an absurd amount of talent (and egos) that have to come together for a common goal. If Calipari can get those egos to mesh together, they’ll assuredly win the national championship, but Kentucky has only earned one national championship in five years under Calipari and the Harrison twins need to grow as players — and leaders — in order for Kentucky to win.

As for Texas, the Longhorns only lose Martez Walker from last season — who was, truthfully, a distraction — and gain McDonald’s All-American big man Myles Turner to a team that exceeded expectations in an incredibly difficult Big 12 last season. Point guard Isaiah Taylor is more experienced, Texas has the bodies inside to match up with any team in the country and they have a lot of depth. Lastly, things are way too quiet in Wichita, Kansas this preseason. I watched Wichita State lose to Kentucky in the Round of 32 last season and that was a Final Four-caliber matchup in the first weekend. The Shockers return all three members of its backcourt from the past two seasons of ridiculous success and new starting front court member Darius Carter had some solid games last year as a first-year Division I player. The Shockers could also have more depth this season — depending on the contributions of their newcomers — and as Shabazz Napier proved last March, great guard play wins in the NCAA Tournament and Wichita State has the most tournament-experienced group of guards in the country.

Terrence Payne (@terrence_payne)

Final Four: Kentucky, Arizona, Wisconsin and Villanova
National champions: Kentucky

Kentucky is the preseason favorite, and we’ve seen these Wildcats perform on the court in multiple nationally-televised games already. Platoon system will likely have its ups and downs, but Kentucky’s depth will wear down opponents. Arizona has the most talent in the country outside of UK, and that’s saying something given the departures of Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon. Sean Miller was somewhat critical of his team last week, but this roster is loaded enough to get him to his first Final Four. 

Bo Ryan waited 13 years for last season’s Final Four trip, but shouldn’t have to wait that long for his second. He’s got a team of veterans with All American candidates Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker on the frontline with seniors Trae Jackson and Josh Gasser in the back court. For my final team, I’ll go with Villanova. A 29-win season was overshadowed by early exits in the Big East and NCAA tournament, but Jay Wright brings back essentially the same team. The Wildcats should breeze through the Big East, and early on last season they proved they were a top-10 after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis.

Northwestern beats No. 20 Michigan State in Big Ten opener

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EAST LANSING, Mich. – Boo Buie scored 20 points and Northwestern beat No. 20 Michigan State 70-63 on Sunday night in the Big Ten opener for both teams.

Chase Audige added 15 points and Ty Berry had 13 for Northwestern (6-2), which ended a two-game losing streak.

“Needless to say, this was a huge win for us,” coach Chris Collins said. “Coming off our performance in the ACC-Big Ten challenge, where we lost badly on our home floor (to Pittsburgh), I was really pleased with our resolve the past couple days.”

Mady Sossoko and A.J. Hoggard each had 12 points for Michigan State (5-4) and Joey Hauser added 10. The Spartans have lost two in a row, falling to Notre Dame earlier in the week.

Hoggard cut Northwestern’s lead to 64-63 with 46 seconds left. After a timeout, Buie scored on a layup with 23 seconds left.

“We got out-toughed,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Northwestern took the lead late in the first half on a layup by Buie and never relinquished it, leading by as many as nine points.

“We put (the loss to Pittsburgh) under the rug,” Buie said. “We turned the page, just like we do with any win or loss. The season is so long you can’t get caught up on one single game. Just like tonight. We’re super happy with the win, but after tonight it’s over. You can’t dwell on things.”

The Wildcats went 21 of 24 on free throws, while the Spartans were 9 of 12.

“I was concerned about a knockout punch early,” Collins said. ‘I knew they would be revved up after the Notre Dame loss. They hit us early and got a seven-point lead, and then we settled down.”

UP NEXT

Northwestern: Hosts Prairie View A&M on Dec. 11

Michigan State: At Penn State on Wednesday night.

Miles, No. 7 Notre Dame women beat No. 3 UConn; Fudd hurt

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Olivia Miles had 21 points and eight rebounds for No. 7 Notre Dame, and UConn star Azzi Fudd suffered a knee injury in a collision with a teammate, as the Fighting Irish handed the third-ranked Huskies their first loss of the season, 74-60 on Sunday.

“I think she’ll be all right,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said afterwards of Fudd, who went into the day averaging 24.0 points, but finished scoreless on two shots over 13 minutes.

Fudd exited in the final minute of the first quarter after teammate Aaliyah Edwards fell on her. She returned midway through the second period to play four hobbled minutes, but sat the rest of the way as a precaution, according to Auriemma.

Maddy Westbeld had a season-high 17 points and nine rebounds for Notre Dame (7-1), which bounced back from a 74-72 loss to No. 20 Maryland three days earlier.

“I think Thursday’s loss really fueled us today,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “We learned a lot from that game. We have incredible scorers on our team, a lot of balance offensively, but it’s our defense that’s gonna win games, so that was our focus the last 48 hours. (The players) took the challenge and came out and played with heart and defensive intensity. I feel like if we can play that way, we can beat anyone in the country.”

Notre Dame shot 56% from the field while limiting the Huskies to 37%.

“We played very badly (Thursday), but we were still two points away,” Miles said, “so it’s kind of scary what we can do when we play really well.”

Led by Miles, the Irish roared to a 41-24 lead by intermission, outscoring the Huskies 30-11 over the final 11 minutes of the first half.

Miles scored 13 of Notre Dame’s 18 first-quarter points, going 6 of 7 from the field. Westbeld provided her scoring punch after averaging 5.2 points over her previous five outings.

Lou Lopez Senechal led UConn (6-1) with 21 points. Edwards added 14.

“We didn’t win the rebound battle and that hurt us,” said Auriemma, whose club was outboarded 39-26 and outscored in the paint. 46-16. “We just didn’t have enough scoring on the court and enough people playing at a real high level to get enough buckets when we needed them.”

The Huskies got as close at 49-44 at the 3:44 mark of the third quarter, but the Irish stretched their lead back to as high as 70-53 at the midway mark of the fourth period.

Notre Dame ended a seven-game head-to-head losing streak against UConn in regular-season play, prevailing for the first time since a triple-overtime decision in March 2013.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies faced a top-10 opponent for the fourth time this season, but this one was their first true road game. If Fudd’s injury doesn’t turn out to be serious, UConn ought to still have a chance to do what it’s done for decades: craft a resume that will make them a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Notre Dame: The Irish, coming back from that loss at the buzzer to Maryland, showed that Thursday’s outcome may just be a blip on their promising season. Notre Dame matched last season’s win over No. 3 North Carolina State for the highest-ranked team it has beaten in its third year under Ivey.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies host Princeton on Thursday before visiting Maryland next Sunday.

Notre Dame: The Irish have a couple apparent mismatches coming up as they visit Lafayette (2-7) on Thursday and host Merrimack (1-6) on Saturday.

Brink leads No. 2 Stanford women over No. 23 Gonzaga 84-63

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STANFORD, Calif. – Gonzaga may be rolling out an injury-depleted roster, but the Bulldogs nevertheless left a lasting impression on their West Coast rival in Stanford.

And that leads the Cardinal to wonder if the two power programs might meet again on college basketball’s biggest stage come March.

“This is a team that is a Top-25 team,” Hall of Fame Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I think if we can do it, they’re going to be in Seattle (for the NCAA Tournament).”

Cameron Brink had 14 points and a season-high 16 rebounds and Brooke Demetre made a career-high five 3s and scored 17 points, leading second-ranked Stanford past No. 23 Gonzaga 84-63 on Sunday.

The Cardinal (10-1) have now won five straight games after falling to top-ranked South Carolina in overtime on Nov. 20.

“I kind of call Brooke my secret weapon,” VanDerveer said. “She is a really special young lady, and when you have both Cam out there and Brooke, it’s a two-headed monster.”

“She has one of the highest releases I’ve ever seen, one of the quickest releases,” Brink said of Demetre. “She can shoot it, and we’ve always had confidence in her.”

Hannah Jump hit four 3s and scored 14 points, and Haley Jones had 12 points for Stanford.

Short-handed Gonzaga (7-2), limited to seven players because of illness and injuries, had won three in a row.

The Zags kept the pressure on Stanford early in the game, thanks to a 20-point first half from Kaylynne Truong.

Truong shot 4 of 9 from deep and finished with a career-high 22 points.

Brynna Maxwell contributed 19 points. Yvonne Ejim, Gonzaga’s leading scorer, was held to two points in the first three quarters but added six points in the fourth.

“We try to focus on a leading scorer and try to limit them,” VanDerveer said. “But you can’t just focus on (Ejim) because they’ve got Truong, they’ve got Maxwell. . I think we did a much better job (on defense) in the second half.”

STAT OF THE GAME

The Cardinal were able to pull away due to a strong game from beyond the arc, making 15 3-pointers on 15 of 28 (53.6%) shooting. A season-high eight different Stanford players made a 3, led by Demetre’s five and Jump’s four.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: Lost its fourth straight in the series with Stanford and dropped to 1-7 on the Cardinal’s home floor. The Zags haven’t won any matchups since a 79-73 victory at home on Dec. 2, 2018. … Despite playing short-handed, Gonzaga did not yield an easy win to its higher-ranked opponent, trailing by just one point after the first quarter before fading in the second half.

Stanford: Held a 37-23 rebounding advantage. … This win marked the beginning of a crucial stretch in the Cardinal’s season. Stanford’s next two games come against Tennessee – receiving votes in The Associated Press Top 25 poll – and No. 13 Creighton, followed by the start of Pac-12 Conference play against rival California on Dec. 23.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs return to McCarthey Athletic Center to start a five-game homestand, starting with a Tuesday matchup vs. Queens University of Charlotte.

Stanford: After a two-week break for final exams, the Cardinal will continue their seven-game homestand vs. Tennessee on Dec. 18.

Top-ranked Houston grinds out 53-48 win over Saint Mary’s

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FORT WORTH, Texas – J’Wan Roberts scored 15 points, Marcus Sasser added 13 and top-ranked Houston held on to beat Saint Mary’s 53-48 on Saturday night.

The Cougars (8-0) won twice in their first week as the No. 1 team since the final poll of the 1982-83 regular season, when Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon led high-flying Phi Slama Jama.

Logan Johnson scored 17 points and Aidan Mahaney had 14 for the Gaels (6-3), who lost their third in a row following a 6-0 start.

Houston was the favorite to win it all in the second of three consecutive trips to the Final Four nearly 40 years ago, but lost to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in one of the iconic championship games.

Coach Kelvin Sampson’s first top-ranked team is coming off trips to the Final Four and Elite Eight the past two seasons.

For the third straight year, the postseason path will start at Dickie’s Arena, where Sampson likes to bring his team during the regular season as prep for the American Athletic Conference tourney.

This victory in the Battleground 2k22 series improved the Cougars to 9-0 in the arena near downtown Fort Worth, where they have won AAC tournament titles each of the past two years.

Saint Mary’s whittled a 12-point deficit to a single possession when Mahaney hit a 3, and he made it a three-point game again at 46-43 with another from long range.

Roberts answered by backing down for a short jump hook before Sasser converted a three-point play to put the Cougars up 51-43.

Houston broke a 17-all tie with a 14-3 run to finish the first half, with Saint Mary’s going 1 of 11 from the field in that stretch against the vaunted Cougars defense. Both teams shot 37%.

BIG PICTURE

Saint Mary’s: Facing the No. 1 team isn’t foreign to the Gaels, who play in the West Coast Conference with Gonzaga. St. Mary’s is 2-7 against the Zags when they have the top ranking, with one of the victories coming last season.

Houston: The Cougars had no trouble in their debut with the No. 1 ranking, blowing out Norfolk State 100-52 at home Tuesday. A disciplined and tournament-tested opponent for the second game was just the threat Sampson’s club figured it could be.

UP NEXT

Saint Mary’s: Missouri State at home Wednesday.

Houston: North Florida at home Tuesday.

Clowney, No. 11 Alabama recover to beat South Dakota St

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Freshman Noah Clowney’s breakout game – 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists and a steal – helped No. 11 Alabama recover from blowing a 20-point lead and beat South Dakota State 78-65 on Saturday night.

Clowney shot 8 of 17, including 5 of 12 on 3s, in his highest-scoring game of the season.

“We’ve encouraged him to shoot it, I’m glad he did,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “His senior year of high school, he started out pretty poorly from 3 then shot it 40% after that, so I kind of referenced that.”

Alabama (7-1) led 37-17 with 6 1/2 minutes left in the first half. South Dakota State (3-6) rallied to go ahead 51-50 on Alex Arians’ 3-pointer with 11 1/2 minutes remaining.

Nimari Burnett’s foul shot a minute later put the Crimson Tide ahead for good at 54-53. Alabama used a 9-0 run to pull away.

Mark Sears scored 19 points and Brandon Miller had 16 points and nine rebounds for the Crimson Tide

Alabama made 14 of its first 26 shots to build a big lead before it slipped away.

“I’m not going to call them mature, we still have some room to grow,” Oats said. “Our guys have to understand, no matter who we’re playing, even if their record isn’t great, they’re Division I basketball players, they’re good teams. Last year, we had issues with this going down the road.”

Charlie Easley and Arians each scored 17 points for the Jackrabbits. Zeke Mayo added 12 points and Matt Dentlinger contributed nine rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Sears continues to be a force at home for Alabama. In Alabama’s last three home games – wins over Liberty, Jacksonville State and South Dakota State – he has scored 22, 18 and 19 points, making at least three 3-pointers in all three games. Alabama’s next home game comes against a Memphis team that already has two wins over SEC competition.

SECOND HALF SPRING

South Dakota State coach Eric Henderson noticed that in Alabama’s first two home games, Longwood and Liberty both trailed by fewer than 10 points at halftime before losing by 21 and 36 points, respectively. He viewed the first five minutes of the second half as critical in both instances, seeing an Alabama team using the home environment to its advantage.

Henderson stressed to his team that it had to win those five minutes to have a chance. Down 42-35 at the break, it did, and ultimately took the lead.

“They really increase the pressure, they try to play a little faster, they get downhill and they really spray it,” Henderson said. “I thought we were getting some 50-50 balls, I thought we were playing with some confidence. There’s been a lot of schools to come in here and have a good first half and it ends up being a 30- or 40-point game.”

UP NEXT

South Dakota State stays on the road to face Montana on Tuesday.

Alabama takes a weeklong break before its second game against the current No. 1 team in the nation, this time a road game against Houston on Saturday. The Crimson Tide beat former No. 1 North Carolina in its first shot at the top-ranked team, winning 103-101 in four overtimes on Nov. 27.