Sweet 16 Preview: Breaking down what’s left of the Midwest Region

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The Midwest Region is the bracket that makes the least amount of sense as we head into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. No. 11 seed Gonzaga steamrolled Seton Hall and Utah to get this far, while No. 10 Syracuse dispatched Dayton and then took care of a Middle Tennessee State team that knocked off tourney favorite Michigan State.

No one outside of Murfreesboro was happier about MTSU’s win than Virginia. The Wahoos had lost to the lower-seeded Spartans in the last two tournaments, and it looked like they were headed down that road again. Now, they look like the favorites to get out of the region. Here is the full Midwest preview:

KEY STORYLINES

  1. Is this the year that Tony Bennett’s system finally pays off?: If you include the two wins that the Cavaliers landed last weekend, Bennett now has five NCAA tournament wins in seven seasons in Charlottesville. The past two tournaments, he got knocked out in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed and the second round as a No. 2 seed. That system that he’s become so well-known for hasn’t exactly produced tournament results, but the draw he got this season couldn’t possibly be any better. Get past Iowa State and he’ll be playing a double-digit seed for the right to get to Houston.
  2. Depth, depth, depth, depth, depth: That’s unequivocally this biggest issue for Iowa State, right? They play seven guys, and while there are six of them that get the majority of the minutes, legs isn’t really the biggest issue here. It’s the number of fouls. The only big man they have in that rotation is Jameel McKay. Virginia loves to throw the ball into Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey in the post. Gonzaga, if they face off with the Cyclones in the Elite 8, has Domas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer. Can McKay be a defensive presence and avoid fouling out for the fourth time in the last 11 games?
  3. Can a double-digit seed actually get to the Final Four?: There are two in the Midwest, and they’ll be playing each other in the Sweet 16, meaning that we’ll have at least one double-digit seed with a Final Four berth on the line on Sunday. Can Syracuse or Gonzaga pull it off?
Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon (15) and forward Anthony Gill (13) cheer their team during the second half against Georgia Tech in an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference men's tournament, in Washington on Thursday, March 10, 2016. Virginia defeated Georgia Tech 72-52. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon (15) and forward Anthony Gill (13) (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

WHY THEY’LL GET TO THE FINAL FOUR

No. 1 Virginia: The Cavaliers are the best team in the region and they have the best player in the region. No one in college basketball can do the things that Malcolm Brogdon can do. He can take over a game offensively — he’s the best in college hoops when it comes to reading screens off the ball — and he’s capable of totally shutting down just about any opponent that’s not a true center. He’s locked up everyone from star point guards to Duke’s Brandon Ingram to Butler’s Andrew Chrabascz. When will he get a crack at Georges Niang?

No. 4 Iowa State: The Cyclones have the ability to be absolutely lethal offensively. Monte’ Morris and Georges Niang are flat out studs. They can take over a game offensively and carry Iowa State to a win individually. And that’s before you factor in the likes of Matt Thomas, Abdel Nader and Deonte Burton, all of whom are capable of going off for 20 points on any given night. When the Cyclones get it rolling offensively, they’re very difficult to stop.

The Cyclones also matchup really well with Virginia’s defense; the things they do well are what you have to do to be able to beat the Pack-Line. They can hit threes over the top of it, they have a talented four-man that can create a mismatch and they play in transition, which would let them get down the floor before UVA can set their defense.

No. 10 Syracuse: The 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim has made famous is not an ideal matchup for the Zags given their issues in the back court this season. Can they avoid turnovers? Will they make enough shots to create space for Sabonis in the paint? And if the Orange can get to the Elite 8, all they have to do is win one game to get to the Final Four.

No. 11 Gonzaga: The Zags arguably have the best front line left in college basketball. Kyle Wiltjer is a nightmare to try and cover on the perimeter for opposing big men, and he’s not even the best big man on the roster. Domas Sabonis is. And while their guard play has been inconsistent, it doesn’t necessarily have to be all that great for them to advance. That’s the luxury of having a front line that can go for a combined 55 points and 25 boards without surprising anyone.

Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis, front, drives past Utah forward Jakob Poeltl during the first half of a second-round men's college basketball game Saturday, March 19, 2016, in the NCAA Tournament in Denver. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

BUT THIS IS WHY THEY WON’T

No. 11 Gonzaga: The resurgence that Gonzaga has made in the last three weeks has been the result of much-improved back court play. Eric McClellan has scored more than 20 points in three of the last five games, while Josh Perkins is finally starting to show some of he’s able to do as a former top 50 prospect. When those two play well — when they hit jumpers and avoid turnovers — the Zags are dangerous. But if the only time that they’ve played that well has been recently. Will they stay hot, or will they regress back to the mean.

No. 10 Syracuse: The only thing that Syracuse doesn’t do well defensively is rebound the ball. They’re one of the 15 worst teams in the country when it comes to corralling an opponents’ missed shots. The Zags have one of the best rebounders in the country in Domas Sabonis, and it’s not outlandish to think he could get 10 offensive rebounds. The Orange also rely heavily on shooting threes, and like Oklahoma, they’re one off-night away from getting smacked around.

No. 4 Iowa State: I hate to belabor the point, but Iowa State’s front court depth is a real issue. Virginia has one of the most underrated front courts in the country — Anthony Gill is a nightmare to try and guard while Mike Tobey is a 7-footer that has NBA-level low-post moves — and we all know how good Gonzaga’s big men are.

No. 1 Virginia: Slowing down the tempo plays into the hands of a team trying to land the upset. It’s simple math. The fewer possessions that are played, the more likely it is that the lesser team can keep a game close. Virginia is the slowest team in college basketball. Literally. 351st.

THE X-FACTORS

  • Malcolm Brogdon vs. Georges Niang: The most fascinating part of the most interesting Sweet 16 matchup is going to be this particular one-on-one battle. Brogdon can shut anyone down that doesn’t play the five. He did it against Brandon Ingram. He did it against Andrew Chrabascz of Butler. He’s not going to keep Niang scoreless, but at some point he’s probably going to have to be the guy tasked with guarding him. When does that happen, and how successful will Brogdon be? That could be the difference in the game, and for my money, the winner of that game will be the team that is headed to the Final Four.
  • Eric McClellan and Josh Perkins: We touched on it a little bit earlier, but the difference between this Gonzaga team and the Gonzaga team that we had seen for much of the season has been the play of McClellan and Perkins. When they’re offensive threats, Gonzaga is a far more dangerous team.
  • Tyler Lydon, Syracuse: Lydon is the guy that makes Syracuse hard to guard. He can play the five for the Orange because of his length, but he’s also a sniper from three. The one issue? His ability on the glass. He weighs roughly 78 pounds. If he can hold his own on the defensive glass, the Orange might have a shot of getting out of the region.

CBT PREDICTION: Virginia cuts down the nets in Chicago.

No. 6 UConn star Azzi Fudd out 3-6 weeks with knee injury

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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STORRS, Conn. — Sixth-ranked UConn’s top scorer, Azzi Fudd, is expected to be out three to six weeks because of a right knee injury she suffered during her team’s weekend loss to No. 5 Notre Dame, a university athletic spokesperson said.

The sophomore guard was injured in the first half of the game when a teammate collided into her. She returned midway through the second period to play four hobbled minutes, but sat the rest of the way.

“I think she’ll be all right,” coach Geno Auriemma said afterward.

Fudd entered the game averaging 24.0 points but finished scoreless on two shots over 13 minutes in the team’s first loss of the season.

The athletic spokesperson didn’t specify the type of knee injury Fudd sustained.

She underwent evaluation and an MRI confirmed the injury, the spokesperson said.

The Huskies host Princeton next.

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 basketball team in connection with last month’s fatal shooting of a student from a rival university.

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

“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 until Monday, 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

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
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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.