Sweet 16 Preview: The x-factor in each game this week

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Jahlil Okafor vs. Jakob Poeltl: Anyone that has seen No. 1 Duke play this season will tell you that slowing down Jahlil Okafor is a prerequisite to beating the Blue Devils, and after watching Okafor single-handily demolish San Diego State’s formidable defense last weekend, it’s hard to imagine freshman Jakob Poeltl having a real shot at slowing down Okafor. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Dallin Bachynski is probably the better option defensively, given his strength.

That said, I’m not sure either player is going to be able to take Okafor away, which creates an interesting dilemma for Larry Krystkowiak. Where Okafor truly struggles is on the defensive end of the floor, particularly in ball-screen actions. Poeltl may not be all that advanced offensively, but he is mobile, has great hands and works well with Delon Wright in the pick-and-roll. Utah’s best chance to beat Duke may be using Poeltl and hoping that, A) he can hold his own defensively, and B) he can take advantage of Okafor defensive struggles on the other end of the floor.

READ MORE: Sweet 16 Power Rankings | Which are the best Sweet 16 matchups?

Kyle Wiltjer vs. Kevon Looney: Kyle Wiltjer is such an incredibly important piece in what Gonzaga wants to do on the offensive end of the floor. Not only does his shooting ability create a ton of space for drivers and post touches, but he’s excellent in high-low actions with Przemek Karnowski and Domas Sabonis and even better working with Kevin Pangos in the pick-and-roll. It’s not an accident that he is Mark Few’s best scorer.

That said, Wiltjer can be a liability on the defensive end of the floor, which is where UCLA may end up having an advantage. Kevon Looney is arguably UCLA’s most talented player, an athletic combo-forward that averages 11.6 points and 9.2 boards and shoots 43.1 percent from three. Wiltjer will likely be matched up with Looney. Will he be able to keep Looney off of the offensive glass? Will he keep him from going off for 20 points? If Looney’s healthy — he’s been playing with a mask since fracturing a bone in his face during the Pac-12 tournament — he’s the kind of player that can force Wiltjer to the bench, and that makes the Zags a much different team. In the first matchup between these two teams, Wiltjer had 24 points in 30 minutes, shooting 9-for-13 from the floor while Looney went for 14 points, eight boards and four assists in 36 minutes.

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Kentucky’s defensive rebounding: All anyone has talked about regarding the matchup between No. 1 Kentucky and No. 5 West Virginia has been the Mountaineer press. Can they force the Harrison twins and Tyler Ulis to turn the ball over enough to keep the game close? And while that will always be a major factor in any game that West Virginia plays, the other key is going to be how well the Wildcats can rebound the ball. Kentucky ranks 191st in defensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom.com, while West Virginia is No. 6 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. For West Virginia to have any shot at beating the Wildcats, they’re going to need to get easy baskets off of turnovers and second chances.

J.P. Tokoto vs. Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes: The biggest weakness for Wisconsin on the defensive end of the floor is a quick, versatile slasher at the small forward spot, a kid — like, say, Maryland’s Dez Wells — that can take advantage of being guarded by the slower Sam Dekker and/or Nigel Hayes. Tokoto fits that bill. Where Wisconsin generally takes advantage is the mismatch at the other end, as there are very few wings that are strong enough to be able to handle either of those two in the post.

Who guards Jerian Grant?: The perimeter battle between Notre Dame and Wichita State is going to be phenomenal, but the key is going to end up being who Gregg Marshall decides to put on Grant. The best matchup may end up being Tekele Cotton, who is Wichita State’s premier on-ball defender. What the Irish do so well is allow Grant to make plays off the dribble in isolation or in ball-screen actions, drawing help and finding open shooters. Cotton’s ability defensively could help keep Grant out of the lane, but the question then becomes who slows down Demetrius Jackson? Jackson is one of the quickest players left in the tournament, and if he’s defended by either Fred VanVleet or Ron Baker, he should have an advantage off the dribble.

Which N.C. State team shows up?: The Wolfpack needed a collapse from LSU just to get past the opening round of the tournament. Then they went out and soundly beat No. 1 Villanova. The only reason that makes sense is because this is what N.C. State has done all season long. They lost to Wake Forest, at Boston College and to Wofford while beating Duke and winning at Louisville and North Carolina. I know. I don’t get it.

The Wolfpack have the pieces to win this game and get to the Elite 8, but it all depends on whether or not they come to play. The key will be their back court, where Cat Barber and Trevor Lacey are better than Terry Rozier and Quentin Snider.

Matt Stainbrook vs. Arizona’s front line: Dee Davis is going to have his work cut out for him trying to slow down T.J. McConnell defensively, but to me, the key to this game will be how effective Stainbrook is against the bigger Wildcats. Stainbrook is a skilled passer and scorer in the post, a guy that the Musketeers can run their offense through. And given how good Arizona is defensively, that’s critical. Can he hold his own defensively and on the glass?

Branden Dawson vs. Tashawn Thomas: Dawson is and always well be Michigan State’s x-factor. He’s a perfect power forward at the college level, one that can routinely post double-doubles when he motor is running. The problem? That motor isn’t always running. He’ll be matched up against Thomas, who is Oklahoma’s best low-post scorer. The Sooners have made a habit of isolating Thomas on the block with a shooter throwing him an entry pass. Can Dawson keep Thomas from getting into a rhythm offensively?

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.