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?

New Mexico State suspends player after shooting

Nathan J. Fish/Sun News/USA TODAY NETWORK
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LAS CRUCES, N.M. — New Mexico State’s athletic director says power forward Mike Peake has been suspended indefinitely from the team in connection with last month’s fatal shooting of a student from a rival university.

That game was canceled along with the Dec. 3 rematch in Las Cruces.

Mario Moccia also told reporters that neither he nor the school could comment on Peake’s enrollment status as a student. The 21-year-old Peake has not been charged in the Nov. 19 pre-dawn shooting on the University of New Mexico’s campus in Albuquerque hours before the host Lobos were to play the Aggies.

“Mike is suspended from our basketball team until the completion of the university’s investigation and the investigation of the proper authorities,” Moccia said. “When those investigations will be complete, I can’t say.”

State police investigators said 19-year-old Brandon Travis conspired with two other UNM students and a teenage girl to lure Peake onto campus.

The subsequent shootout left Travis dead at the scene and Peake hospitalized with a leg wound that has required several surgeries.

A brawl at an Oct. 15 UNM-NMSU football game in Las Cruces was a precursor to the shooting, police said.

First-year NMSU men’s basketball coach Greg Heiar was not made available to talk to media until 10 days after the shooting.

He expressed his condolences for Travis and his family and said he took full responsibility for the actions of multiple players who sneaked out of the hotel on that morning of the game.

But NMSU officials had not spoken publicly about any specific discipline for Peake related to the shooting.

“If there is criticism over this decision, I am in a position to take it on myself,” Moccia said. “I’ve known this player for years and I know what kind of person he is. I didn’t feel a need to rush to judgment. I wanted to give the investigation time to play out before making any decisions.”

Peake, a 6-foot-7 junior from Chicago, played one season at Georgia before transferring to Austin Peay. He joined New Mexico State in 2021 and averaged 4.1 points and 2.4 rebounds last season, helping the Aggies reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

No. 18 Gonzaga withstands scare from Kent State for 73-66 win

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SPOKANE, Wash. – Drew Timme scored 29 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, and No. 18 Gonzaga closed the game on an 11-0 run to rally past Kent State 73-66 on Monday night.

The nation’s longest home win streak was extended to 69 games but not without a major scare by the Golden Flashes. Kent State led 66-62 with 3:38 left after Miryne Thomas’ 3-pointer, but the Bulldogs tightened on the defensive end and got a handful of big plays offensively to hold off the Flashes.

Julian Strawther added 14 points, including a 3-pointer with 3:19 left that started Gonzaga’s decisive run. Timme’s spinning basket in the lane with 2:29 left gave Gonzaga (6-3) the lead, and he added a key defensive play blocking Sincere Carry’s layup attempt at the other end.

Timme was fouled and split free throws with 1:55 left, but Malachi Smith grabbed the offensive rebound and his three-point play gave the Bulldogs a 71-66 lead. It was Smith’s first basket of the game.

“(Timme) was heroic. He wasn’t really looking for the ball much early and wasn’t demanding it . he was splitting the defense and scoring in a variety of ways like he does,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “To end up with 17 boards is monster and we needed every one of them.”

Nolan Hickman added 10 points and seven rebounds for the Bulldogs, who held a 43-30 advantage on the boards. It was just the second home game inside the McCarthey Athletic Center for Gonzaga and first since Nov. 7 against North Florida.

Thomas led Kent State (6-3) with 16 points, including four 3-pointers. Malique Jacobs added 11 points and Carry, who was averaging 18.5 points per game, was held to 10.

“I think in the second half we moved the ball well, we got some turnovers, got some easy shots and was able to give us a lead playing a great team and great program. . Unfortunately we couldn’t finish it off. Give them a lot of credit for that,” Kent State head coach Rob Senderoff said.

Kent State nearly pulled off a surprising upset on the road for the second time in two weeks but couldn’t withstand Gonzaga’s late surge. Kent State led No. 1 Houston by one-point with less than a minute to go nine days ago in Houston but couldn’t make the plays in the closing seconds to finish off the upset in a 49-44 loss.

“Coach Few has told us all week that this is a great team that could go to the Sweet 16. . We knew what they were capable of and we weren’t taking them lightly and we knew it was going to be a dog fight,” Strawther said.

JERSEY RETIRED

Kelly Olynyk’s No. 13 jersey number was retired in front of a sellout crowd. Olynyk played for Gonzaga from 2009-13 and led the Bulldogs to its first ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament while earning first team AP All-American status as a senior.

“You’re almost speechless,” Olynyk said. “It’s just such an honor, especially with the names that you’re up beside. They’re unbelievable players.”

BIG PICTURE

Kent State: The Golden Flashes lost their third game of the season and their second against a ranked opponent. Kent State has three non-conference games left before beginning Mid-American Conference play at home against Western Michigan.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs bounced back from a one-point loss to No. 12 Baylor last week with the win. All three of Gonzaga’s losses are to teams ranked in the top 12 of the AP Top 25.

UP NEXT:

Kent State: At Cleveland State on Saturday.

Gonzaga: Host in-state rival Washington on Friday.

Preseason No. 1 North Carolina drops out of AP Top 25

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
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Houston and Texas remain firmly entrenched atop The Associated Press men’s college basketball poll, while preseason No. 1 North Carolina has dropped out entirely after a fourth straight loss.

The Cougars earned 37 of 62 first-place votes in the poll, extending the program’s first stay at No. 1 since the “Phi Slama Jama” days in the 1980s for another week. Houston (8-0) beat Norfolk State and Saint Mary’s in its first week at the top.

“I don’t dwell on it,” coach Kelvin Sampson said last week about the No. 1 ranking. “We’re not running around here pushing our chest out, thinking we’re something we’re not.”

The Longhorns received 14 first-place votes. No. 3 Virginia got three votes and No. 4 Purdue got the remaining eight.

Connecticut (9-0) climbed to No. 5, the program’s highest ranking since early in the 2011-12 season. Other than the top five, there are three other teams in the AP Top 25 that entered Monday undefeated (No. 11 Auburn, No. 13 Maryland and No. 23 Mississippi State).

SWIFT FALL

North Carolina is only the sixth team to go from preseason No. 1 to unranked since at least the 1961-62 season, most recently with Michigan State during the 2019-20 season.

Of that group, the Tar Heels had the swiftest exit from the poll to start the season (four weeks) excet for UCLA in 1965-66. The Bruins fell out of the poll after just three weeks back when only 10 teams were ranked.

Ranked No. 18 last week, the Tar Heels (5-4) l ost their fourth straight game over the weekend at Virginia Tech while playing without banged-up big man Armando Bacot. They appeared on a single ballot this week from the 62-member panel that votes on the AP Top 25.

“I told them also that I’m not panicked, I’m not any of that,” coach Hubert Davis said afterward. “I’m convinced we’re going to be a great basketball team by the end of the season.”

Last year’s Tar Heels were on the bubble to even make the NCAA Tournament well into February in Davis’ debut season. They went on a final-month tear all the way to the NCAA championship game before falling to Kansas.

THE TOP TIER

Kansas climbed to No. 6, followed by three Southeastern Conference teams in Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas. For the Volunteers and Crimson Tide, it marked their first appearances inside the top 10 this year. Arizona rounded out the top 10, falling six spots after a loss at Utah.

RISING

No. 13 Maryland had the biggest jump of the week, vaulting nine spots after wins against Louisville and Illinois last week in the Terrapins’ first year under Kevin Willard. That marks the program’s highest ranking since pushing into the top 10 during the 2019-20 season.

Tennessee was next up with a six-spot climb, while No. 11 Auburn rose four spots.

In all, 13 teams climbed from last week.

SLIDING

Creighton had the week’s biggest fall, tumbling 14 spots to No. 21 after losing at Texas and at home to Nebraska last week.

No. 12 Baylor fell six spots after a loss to Marquette, though the Bears responded by beating Gonzaga on Friday in a rematch of the 2021 NCAA championship game won by Baylor.

The Zags, now No. 18, fell four spots to their lowest ranking since checking in at No. 20 on Christmas Day in 2017.

In all, four teams slid from last week.

STATUS QUO

Beyond the top three, No. 25 Ohio State remained in place after a tough loss at No. 15 Duke last week.

WELCOME

No. 23 Mississippi State and No. 24 TCU were the new additions to the poll, with the Bulldogs (8-0) earning their first AP Top 25 ranking under first-year coach Chris Jans since January 2019.

The Horned Frogs were ranked 14th and 15th, respectively, in the first two polls before falling out for two weeks.

FAREWELL (FOR NOW)

In addition to UNC, Michigan State (No. 20) fell out after losses to Notre Dame and Northwestern.

CONFERENCE WATCH

The SEC led the way with six ranked teams, including No. 16 Kentucky. The Big Ten and Big 12 each had five ranked teams, followed by two each for the Atlantic Coast, Pac-12 and Big East conferences.

The American Athletic, West Coast and Mountain West conferences each had one.

Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer tops women’s AP Top 25 appearances

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer stands atop The Associated Press women’s basketball poll with the most appearances all time, breaking a tie with the late Pat Summitt.

VanDerveer’s Cardinal remained No. 2 behind top-ranked South Carolina, giving her 619 weeks with one of her teams in the AP Top 25: 592 weeks with Stanford and 27 with Ohio State when she was in charge of that program. Summitt’s 618 weeks in the poll all came with Tennessee.

The Hall of Fame coach downplayed the achievement.

“Fortunate to be here for 36 years. We have great players and have been successful,” VanDerveer said. “I don’t pay attention to (records). People bring it up and I’m like `OK, great.”‘

Louisville fell out of the Top 25 for the first time since 2016, a span of 127 weeks. That was the fifth longest active streak. The Cardinals (5-4) started the season ranked seventh and have struggled to find consistency this year, dropping their last two games to Ohio State and Middle Tennessee.

They are the third preseason top 10 team to fall out of the poll, joining Texas (this week) and Tennessee (last week). Before this year, only 10 preseason top 10 teams had fallen out of the rankings at some point during the year since the AP Top 25 became a writers’ poll in 1994-95.

Even more rare has been a preseason top five school dropping out. Only five teams had done that prior to this year and none before January. Tennessee was the last to do it, starting the 2015-16 season at No. 4 before falling out of the rankings Feb. 22.

Now Texas and Tennessee are both out before the New Year.

“Two factors are at play here. One of them is more parity with more good teams,” said Rebecca Lobo, the former UConn star, ESPN analyst and Top 25 voter. “The other factor at play is the transfer portal. I think those three teams all have multiple players who start who weren’t in their program a year ago. It’s a reflection that you can’t just assemble teams and right away expect them to be good. I think all those teams will in the poll by the end of the season.”

Ohio State moved up to No. 3 after, the Buckeyes’ best ranking since Nov. 30, 2009, when they also were third. Indiana and Notre Dame round out the top five.

UConn fell three spots to sixth with Virginia Tech seventh, the best ranking ever for the school. North Carolina and N.C. State were tied in eighth and Iowa State is 10th.

RANKED RAZORBACKS

Arkansas (10-0) vaulted into the poll at No. 21. The Razorbacks have a difficult month ahead with games against No. 18 Creighton and a tournament in San Diego that has Oregon, South Florida and Ohio State.

“I do think we know a lot about our team,” Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors said.

He was also happy his team made the poll as every sports team on campus that has played this year has been ranked, including football, men’s basketball, soccer and cross country.

“We didn’t want to be the team that stops that streak,” he said..

FALLING LOUISVILLE

The Cardinals had been ranked ever week since Jan. 11, 2016. That was the same season they started the year at No. 8 before falling out on Nov. 30, the earliest a top 10 team had fallen out of the poll until last week. Things got better for Louisville as the Cardinals finished that regular season 24-6 and went 15-1 in the ACC.

HISTORIC WEEK

With Louisville, Texas and Tennessee all out of the Top 25, it marks only the second time in the poll’s history that none of those three teams were ranked. The only other time was the first-ever poll in 1976.

COMING AND GOING

Oklahoma and Kansas State also returned to the Top 25 this week, coming in at No. 23 and No. 24. Marquette dropped out after losing to Seton Hall.

Northwestern beats No. 20 Michigan State in Big Ten opener

Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK
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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.