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What’s Wrong With Arizona?: Why the preseason No. 2 team in the country is already in a tailspin

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Arizona is on the verge of making history in the worst kind of way.

The Wildcats entered Thanksgiving week sitting at 3-0 on the season and No. 2 in the AP poll and proceeded to put together the worst week that any team ranked No. 2 in the AP poll has ever produced. The Wildcats went 0-3 in the Battle 4 Atlantis. They lost to an N.C. State team that was picked to finish 12th in the ACC and that lost to Northern Iowa in their next game. They lost to an SMU team that was picked to finish fourth in the AAC and that lost to Northern Iowa in the tournament opener. And, finally, they lost to No. 18 Purdue, which doesn’t seem so bad until you realize that: A) Purdue was in the seventh-place game because they lost to Tennessee and Western Kentucky, and B) that Purdue team beat Arizona by 25 points.

The only way this trip could have been a bigger disaster was if the FBI had walked on the court and arrested Sean Miller, but at least then Miller wouldn’t have had to watch his team get embarrassed. That might not have been a negative.

So we know the what.

But what about the why?

How did a team that common sense told us was one of the nation’s very best and that still features the potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft and a candidate to win the 2018 National Player of the Year award manage to drive off a cliff?

I broke down the tape and spoke to people that scouted Arizona to try and figure it all out.

ARIZONA IS NOT A GOOD DEFENSIVE TEAM

This isn’t exactly breaking news. Giving up 90 points (on 73 possessions) to N.C. State and 89 points (on 69 possessions) to Purdue is a pretty clear indication that there are a number issues that need to be worked out.

The biggest problem that Arizona is facing is with their biggest players. Simply put: Right now, Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic should not be on the floor together. Ayton is a five, and at the college level, he is more or less everything you want out of a five defensively. The height, the length, the athleticism. You want him to be the guy that protects the rim and hedges on ball-screens.

In theory, he also should be able to cover fours, but at this point in his development, he just is not there yet. Ayton is a 19-year old 7-footer. How many times in his life has he had to defend someone on the perimeter? How many times has he had to close-out on a shooter or chase someone like Purdue’s Vince Edwards or SMU’s Ethan Chargois off the three-point line? Two decades ago, Ayton would have been fine covering fours, but the concept of small-ball was quite literally built around the idea of making bigger defenders uncomfortable by pulling them away from the basket.

Watch these clips. In the first, you’ll see Ayton get sucked into the paint, over-helping and leaving Edwards wide open for a three:

Arizona’s pick-and-roll coverage in general has been awful, and there is plenty of blame to spread around. Parker Jackson-Cartwright quite simply is not big enough to be the point of Arizona’s defense. Sean Miller’s best teams came when he had great on-ball defenders in his back court, particularly at the point guard spot. T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kadeem Allen. These guys are NBA-level perimeter defenders, and Jackson-Cartwright just is not.

And he doesn’t get much help, either. Ristic is about as mobile as birch tree, and neither of Arizona’s bigs coming off the bench seem all that adept at defending in space. Even Ayton has his issues in this area. Watch how easy it is to get open threes and layups:

It’s more than just an issue with ball-screens.

Arizona cannot seem to stop anyone from getting into the paint. Allonzo Trier is not a defender, and he’s not on the floor to be. Emmanuel Akot has the potential to be sensational on that end of the floor, but he’s a freshman that was pulled out of high school a year early. Brandon Randolph is another freshman that just isn’t ready. Neither is Alex Barcello. Part of the reason that you saw Dylan Smith start twice in the Bahamas is that he actually defends.

For a team that plays the Pack-Line defense, Arizona has no line and they have no pack. Penetration is too easy. Help is too often non-existent, and when it is, lacking rotations lead to far too many wide open threes:

Watch the last clip in that video again.

That is just atrocious.

Four Arizona players make defensive mistakes on one possession:

  1. Keanu Pinder gets beaten on a straight-line drive all the way to the rim.
  2. Instead of cutting off Edwards’ drive and forcing a kick0ut, Trier, who was out of position as it is, takes a lazy swipe at the ball.
  3. Ayton — who, to his credit, is trying like hell to do the right thing by fronting the post and not letting a 7-foot-3 Isaac Haas duck-in — is pinned on the wrong side of Haas, completely eliminating him as a rim protector.
  4. Jackson-Cartwright doesn’t get to the charge spot and instead stays connected to Nojel Eastern, who is 1-for-4 from three in seven games this season.
  5. I’m being kind to Dylan Smith, because he’s hugging Carsen Edwards in the weak-side corner. If Ayton is able get around Haas and challenge that shot, Edwards has a dump-off to Haas for a dunk because Smith didn’t rotate down.

The proper way of playing Pack-Line defense is the exact opposite of everything that happens on this possession with the exception of what Pinder did. He’s a power forward trying to guard an all-league wing. The expectation is that he gets beat off the bounce, and at the very least, Pinder does his job and forces Edwards middle. But Trier isn’t there to cut off the drive, Ayton isn’t there to block the shot an Jackson-Cartwright isn’t there to take the charge.

So Pinder is the one left looking bad when the guys on his team are the ones that didn’t do their job, either.

And, if you go watch the tape, you’ll see that’s hardly an isolated incident.

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THERE ARE SOME ISSUES ON THE OFFENSIVE SIDE OF THE BALL AS WELL

The biggest problem that Arizona has is at the point guard spot. Jackson-Cartwright just isn’t the kind of offensive weapon that opposing defenses are going to worry about. When you have to deal with Ayton in the paint and you have to try and keep Trier from going for 30 points, you are perfectly OK with Jackson-Cartwright being the one that tries to beat you. The same can be said for Barcello and Smith.

Jackson-Cartwright is a good shooter, but he doesn’t shoot a lot of them. He’s a capable creator off the dribble. He would be fine as a back-up point guard, but when coupled with the issues that he has on the defensive end of the floor, he’s a liability for this team in a position where they lack depth to begin with.

Then there is the issue of who is Arizona’s best weapon offensively. Ayton is quite clearly the most talented player on the roster, but Trier has emerged as the go-to guy. That could, in theory, create some issues, but as long as Ayton gets his touches and the offense runs through him, this probably isn’t all that big of a deal; I’m not sure how many better scorers there are in the country than Trier, and in a late-clock situation, he’s the guy that should have the ball in his hands.

Frankly, I think anyone blaming the offense for what happened in the Bahamas can’t see the forest for the trees.

Trying to navigate egos and shots around Trier and Ayton is a good problem to have. Any questions about offensive balance will be answered assuming that Rawle Alkins is cleared to play when he’s healthy. Determining roles and minutes and rotations are things that most teams have to work through during non-conference play. They clearly must shoot the ball better than they did in this event. They have room to improve.

But at the end of the day, Arizona is still putting up points.

They just can’t stop anyone.

Sean Miller (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

ABOUT THAT FBI INVESTIGATION …

I don’t think that’s playing too much of a role in how the Arizona players are performing once they actually get out onto the court.

But I think it would be naïve to say that it isn’t affecting the team in some way.

It starts with the coaching staff. Book Richardson is no longer there, which means that the guy that recruited so many of these kids to Tucson, the man that presumably had the best relationship with them on the staff, is gone. The dynamic within a team is that head coaches are the ones to break a player down and assistant coaches build them back up. Miller has never exactly been known as Mr. Congeniality and that was before the stress of the last two months started weighing on him, and now the guy that helped smooth things over is gone? Not ideal.

In Book’s place, Austin Carroll has been asked to step into an on-court role for the first time in his career from a staffer position. Then Mark Phelps was suspended for five days earlier this year.

Sean Miller might not be in trouble yet, but I’m sure he’s had plenty on his mind over the course of the last two months. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that Miller is probably a sociopath if he’s not distracted by the fact that his right-hand man, his assistant for the last 11 years, was facing years in jail over federal criminal charges. If Book decided to talk, he would have all the goods on anything Miller has done outside NCAA rules.

Imagine trying to do your job with that in the back of your mind.

Those are the men that are tasked with getting this Arizona team prepared to play. Scouting reports, game-plans and, frankly, simply teaching the principles of their offense and defense to a bunch of freshmen. It would make sense if the players aren’t getting coached up the way that they have in the past, especially when you consider that the big offseason change Miller made on his staff was to bring in Lorenzo Romar, whose Washington teams were known for their inability to even pretend to play defense.

To me, that’s where you see the effects of the FBI investigation. Arizona has not been coached the way that they need to be coached.

SO IS IT FIXABLE?

I think it is, but only to a point.

I don’t think that Trier is ever going to be a plus-defender. I don’t think that Jackson-Cartwright or Ristic will ever be plus-defenders. If and when Alkins makes his return, I don’t think that he’s ever going to be a plus-defender.

Miller can put together the best defensive scheme in the history of basketball and it’s only going to be so good when the players executing that defense just aren’t all that good.

But that doesn’t mean that this team can’t win games. They can. I don’t think a Pac-12 title is out of the question given just how questionable that conference has looked through three weeks. And I don’t think that a trip to the Final Four is a lost cause, either. How many times will Arizona take the floor this season in a game where they don’t have the two best players?

Play Ayton at the five. Get Akot to a point where he is actually able to contribute positive minutes. Utilize Pinder and Ira Lee at the four. Get these guys to learn how the Pack-Line defense actually works.

The truth is that Arizona is probably not the second-best team in the country. But you don’t have to be the second-best team in the country to win the things they want to win. They just have to be the best team in the Pac-12 and get hot for three weeks in March.

They can still do that.

Sean Miller will have his work cut out for him now, but there is still a lot of season left to play.

Saturday’s NCAA tournament recap: LSU’s Waters, Purdue’s Edwards and a send-off for Booth, Paschall

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Carsen Edwards, Purdue

Edwards absolutely went off on Saturday night.

He hit four threes in the first five minutes. He hit nine threes on the night. He scored 42 points — the most points anyone has scored in an NCAA tournament game since Gerry McNamara had 43 points for Syracuse against BYU in the first round of the 2004 NCAA tournament. He set the tone for the Boilermakers in a game where they utterly embarrassed Villanova, winning 87-61.

But that’s burying the lede.

Because the real story here is that Carsen Edwards had spent the last month of the season playing like he forgot how to shoot. He was 7-for-23 in the win over Old Dominion. He was 4-for-17 in the Big Ten tournament loss to Minnesota, which was better than the 7-for-31 he shot in a regular season loss to Minnesota. There was a 3-for-16 night, a 4-for-24 night, an 8-for-27 night.

The scary part is that it never really affected the way that Purdue was running their offense.

Which leads me to Saturday night.

Edwards exploded. He looks like he’s back, and despite the fact that he has spent the last third of the season playing a super-high usage, non-existent efficiency role, Purdue still is a top five offensive team, according to KenPom.

The Boilers are starting to look a little scary.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Auburn Tigers

Auburn jumped out to leads of 15-5, 25-9 and 40-20 en route to an 89-75 win over Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Bryce Brown led the way with 25 points, Jared Harper added 18 and the Tigers hit 13 threes in a win that should make everyone take notice. This was dominant.

GAME OF THE DAY: Kentucky 62, Wofford 56

While LSU-Maryland was a thriller with the best ending of the tournament, I actually enjoyed Kentucky’s battle with Wofford more than any other game that happened on Saturday. Here’s our Travis Hines on the game here.

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Tremont Waters, LSU

We had our first game-winner of the NCAA tournament!!!

WTF OF THE DAY: Fletcher Magee, Wofford

Fletcher Magee is the best shooter in the history of college basketball. I feel comfortable saying that because he entered Saturday have hit 43 percent of his threes while shooting more than 10 threes per game. On Saturday, the career-leader in made three-pointers went 0-for-12, becoming the first player in NCAA tournament history to go 0-for-12 from beyond the arc.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga

We’ve known just how good Clarke can be on the defensive end of the floor all season long, but he was the difference for the Zags offensively on a night where no one else was really able to get it going. He put up 36 points on Baylor, shooting 15-for-18 from the floor while added eight boards, five blocks, three assists and two steals.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Murray State

The Racers ran into a better team on Saturday, getting drubbed by 28 points and ending Ja Morant’s run in this tournament before it really got started. And that’s what is disappointing here. It’s not the way they played as much as it was Morant going out without much in the way of drama or excitement. He deserved better.

THREE MORE THINGS TO KNOW

THE END OF A SPECIAL VILLANOVA ERA

With Phil Booth and Eric Paschall seeing their college careers come to a close on Saturday night, we have officially reached the end of one of the most dominant eras in modern college basketball history. Starting in 2013-14, with Ryan Arcidiacono’s sophomore season on the Mainline, Villanova has posted a 191-31 record. In those six seasons, the Wildcats accounted for a total of nine Big East titles — five regular season and four of the tournament variety — to go along with a pair of runs to national titles.

Jay Wright built Villanova into a program that is now mentioned in the same breath as the bluebloods. He’s winning Big East regular season titles despite losing four of his six rotation players to the NBA, two of them unexpectedly. The continuity truly is incredible.

And Booth and Paschall were the end of that era.

Heading into next season, the Wildcats will have just three contributors on the roster that saw action in the 2018 national title game, and only Colin Gillespie, who played just 17 minutes, was really a factor. That’s not to say they won’t be good, because they will be. Jermaine Samuels will be one of college basketball’s breakout stars next year, while a pair of loaded recruiting classes back-to-back has re-upped the level of talent in the program.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Cole Swider, Jahvon Quinerly and Brandon Slater will be valued contributors next season, which is to say nothing of Saddiq Bey, who turned out to be their best freshman this year. Bryan Antoine has one-and-done potential while Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore and Eric Dixon are all talented kids that should thrive playing in Villanova’s program.

The future is very bright for Villanova

But it’s also very different.

Villanova is going to be incredibly young again next season. It may still be another year before Wright is back to being in the national title conversation again. It’s a new era with new players ready to write their own legacy.

And while the ending was anything but storybook, the final chapter has been written.

Phil Booth and Eric Paschall will be missed, and not just in the Philly suburbs.

Bryce Brown, Auburn blitz Kansas to advance to first Sweet 16 in 16 years

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Auburn advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 years as the No. 5 seed Tigers blitzed Kansas for an 89-75 victory on Saturday night in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Region.

Jumping out to a 51-25 halftime advantage behind 9-for-17 three-point shooting in the first half, Auburn seemingly broke the will of the No. 4 seed Jayhawks before the second half even began. After nearly collapsing and blowing a big lead on Thursday in a harrowing one-point win over No. 12 seed New Mexico State, the Tigers made sure not to take their foot off the gas in the second half on Saturday.

One of the tournament’s hottest teams, Auburn (28-9) extended its winning streak to 10 games with a dominant effort on both ends of the floor. Known for its perimeter shooting prowess (13-for-30 on Saturday) and national-best turnover percentage on defense (15 Kansas turnovers), Auburn played to its strengths to cruise into the tournament’s second weekend.

Senior guard Bryce Brown had 17 first-half points as he finished with 25 total to lead the Tigers as he was a red-hot 7-for-11 from three-point territory. Brown also had plenty of help as lead guard Jared Harper (18 points), wing Chuma Okeke (12 points) and forward Anfernee McLemore (10 points) also finished in double-figures.

Following last season’s co-SEC regular-season title, the Tigers were blown out by Clemson in the Round of 32 to stop a promising season short. Things didn’t appear particularly promising at times this season as Auburn went from top-ten team to unranked thanks to a sluggish 2-4 start in the SEC.

But head coach Bruce Pearl and the Tigers have turned things around as a dangerous rotation of veteran players have figured things out during the final weeks of the season. With Auburn firmly entrenched in the middle of the FBI’s college basketball corruption scandal with former assistant coach Chuck Person pleading guilty earlier this month, the Tigers were able to stay focused and reach a level the program has seldom seen.

For Pearl to take a football school into the Sweet 16 shows how far Auburn has come as a basketball program during his five seasons as head coach. One of college basketball’s more underappreciated coaches, Pearl can be associated first-and-foremost for his loud-and-brash approach to generating publicity and gaining the attention of elite recruits. Never afraid of a publicity stunt, the ever-quotable Pearl is a regular when it comes to memorable sound bites and quirky gimmicks. As a coach, he’s now taken three different programs to the Sweet 16 — including a Horizon League team (Milwaukee) and a historically-weak SEC program that doesn’t have consistent basketball success.

Auburn could very well continue to advance this March as they try to make the Elite Eight for only the second time in program history (1986). If Auburn shoots like this, while continuing to force turnovers, they’re going to be a nightmare for any team to play.

The Tigers move on to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003 as this is only the fifth Sweet 16 appearance in program history. The Tigers await the winner of No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 9 seed Washington as they advance to Friday’s Midwest Regional semifinal in Kansas City.

Kansas (26-10) came out flat and never recovered after one of the first round’s most impressive wins over No. 13 seed Northeastern on Thursday. All-American forward Dedric Lawson had another double-double to close a memorable season as he finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds — notching the NCAA tournament’s first back-to-back 25-and-10 games since Blake Griffin did it for Oklahoma. Freshman guards Quentin Grimes (15 points) and Devon Dotson (13 points) along with freshman big man David McCormack (11 points) also finished in double-figures for the Jayhawks. A lackluster defensive effort and cold perimeter shooting hurt Kansas’ ability to rally in the second half as they were 6-for-19 (31 percent) from three-point range on the night.

After many predicted a repeat Final Four appearance for Kansas this preseason following last season’s deep tournament run, things didn’t go according to plan thanks to injuries and other issues. The loss of big man Udoka Azubuike to a season-ending injury was a devastating blow to the Jayhawks’ early hopes as he only played in nine games. Senior Lagerald Vick also left the team in early February and never returned. Without its starting center and best perimeter shooter, Kansas lost the Big 12 regular-season crown for the first time in 14 years as its season officially ends with a second-round exit.

The highly-touted freshman class also didn’t perform up to expectations. Although Dotson was a double-figure scorer and tough defender, Grimes, the team’s most celebrated incoming freshman, failed to meet lofty preseason standards. McCormack also wasn’t ready to replace Azubuike in the middle. Kansas even had to burn the redshirt of promising guard Ochai Agbaji to infuse more athleticism into the Jayhawk backcourt. Transfer rotation players like Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson were inconsistent after the former top-100 recruits sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Entering into a fascinating offseason, for the first time in a long time, Kansas might have more questions than answers. The Jayhawks haven’t slipped too far — the program still has made a national-best 30 straight NCAA tournament appearances. Bill Self’s program is still a perennial top-25 program. A No. 4 seed during a season with so many issues is nothing to scoff at. College basketball’s best home-court advantage isn’t going away.

But the end of the Big 12 title streak means the program has to find a bit of a new identity heading into next season. Kansas will still be one of the Big 12’s hunted programs. The Jayhawks also have to prove they can win away from home. A number of returning players need to get better during the offseason — particularly if Dedric Lawson turns pro. And Kansas doesn’t have a five-star, blue-chip recruit at the current moment to rely on as recruiting has perhaps been slowed by Self’s alleged involvement the FBI’s corruption case.

The future of Self, and Kansas basketball in general, will be one of the subplots to watch this offseason as one of college basketball’s blueblood programs faces a fascinating and uncertain next few months.

Edwards’ 42 points sends Purdue past Villanova, into Sweet 16

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Villanova never had a chance.

Carsen Edwards hit four threes in the first five minutes, finished with nine for the game and poured in 42 points as No. 3-seed Purdue thoroughly embarrassed the No. 6-seed Wildcats, 87-61, on Saturday night in front of a pro-Villanova crowd in Hartford.

Villanova — the reigning national champions and the Big East regular season and tournament champions — trailed 59-24 at one point six minutes into the second half. To put the beatdown into perspective, chew on this: At halftime, Purdue had missed 17 shots, 10 offensive rebounds and nine three-pointers. Put another way, they made more threes in a half of basketball than Villanova grabbed defensive rebounds.

And that was before Purdue opened up the second half with a 16-0 run.

In hindsight, this result should not have come as much of a surprise. Purdue is the higher seeded team. They won a share of the Big Ten title, a league that entered Saturday 7-1 in the NCAA tournament, and their computer numbers told us all season long that this team was one of the nation’s elite even if they didn’t necessarily pass the eye test.

So my bad, KenPom.

I promise never to question you again.

The bigger story here, however, is just how miserable this year’s Big East actually turned out to be.

Villanova won the Big East, but it never felt like they actually were trying to win. They lost five of their last eight regular season games and only managed to take home the league title because Marquette, the only other team in the league that we thought was any good, lost their last four games. That same Marquette team was run out of the first round by Murray State, who looked every bit the part of a mid-major in their loss to Florida State on Saturday.

There’s more.

Villanova beat Seton Hall in the Big East tournament title game, and the Pirates got drubbed by 16 points by Wofford in the first round. The only other Big East team to get into the tournament was St. John’s, and they got smoked in a play-in game by an Arizona State team that proceeded to lose to Buffalo by 17.

I think we can safely say that no one in the Big East was actually all that good.

Big East fans will explain this away by saying that there were no nights off in the league, that anyone could beat anyone on any given night. And that’s true! DePaul, Butler and Providence finished tied for the basement, and they were all 7-11 in conference play. Butler, at 16-17 overall, was the only Big East team to finished the season under .500.

So yes, the league was balanced.

But is that because the teams at the bottom of the conference were that much better, or because Villanova, Marquette and everyone else that were thought were good … weren’t?

At the risk of playing both sides here, the answer is probably all of the above.

But none of that truly matters.

Because facts are facts, and the fact of the matter is that this Villanova blow-out puts to bed what was a disappointing season for the league that churned out two of the last three national champs.

Michigan State runs by Big Ten rival Minnesota to advance to Sweet 16

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Michigan State jumped out to a big early lead and maintained a comfortable cushion from there in dispatching Big Ten rival Minnesota, 70-50, in the NCAA tournament’s East Region on Saturday.

Winners of seven straight games, No. 2 seed Michigan State (30-6) started out 5-for-5 from the floor with five different players scoring as it was a precursor to how Saturday’s game would unfold. Dominating on the interior, the Spartans destroyed Minnesota on the glass (45 to 18) while getting balanced scoring from their veteran roster.

Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston led the Spartans with 13 points and nine assists as his personal 7-0 run lifted the Spartans back into blowout territory after an early 8-0 Minnesota second-half run cut Michigan State’s lead to single digits.

Sophomore big man Xavier Tillman led Michigan State in scoring with 14 points while Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid, Nick Ward and Aaron Henry all had nine points each.

Advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since a Final Four run in 2015, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo and his players deserve a tremendous amount of credit for reaching the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. For the past three seasons, the Spartans have fallen short of lofty expectations as rosters with NBA draft picks (Denzel Valentine, Deyonta Davis, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr.) didn’t come to play in March. Remarkably, this was the longest stretch of Izzo’s Hall-of-Fame career at Michigan State without making it to the tournament’s second weekend.

With a roster gutted with injuries to veterans like Joshua Langford and Kyle Ahrens this season, Michigan State reverted back to classic Spartans basketball as they’re one of the most tough and cohesive teams in the country. Even without bonafide pro talent, Michigan State still has an All-American floor general in Winston and a bevy of great role players who know what to do on both ends of the floor.

Michigan State will need to clean up some turnover issues (22 against Minnesota) if they want to advance. But the Spartans look like they’re in strong shape in most other ways heading into next week as they advance to face No. 3 seed LSU in a Friday Sweet 16 clash in Washington D.C.

A matchup between Big Ten and SEC regular-season champions, that game should feature some fun individual matchups to look forward to. At point guard, Winston and the Tigers’ Tremont Waters (LSU’s hero against Maryland) are both All-American-caliber players. And the matchup of LSU’s Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams banging against the Spartans’ Ward and Tillman on the interior should be a fascinating frontcourt battle.

Minnesota (22-14) struggled to generate consistent offense without a healthy Jordan Murphy — reverting back to poor perimeter shooting (2-for-22 from three) after Thursday’s outlier shooting performance in a win over No. 7 seed Louisville. Murphy, a senior forward and double-double machine, played only four minutes in the first half and went scoreless before exiting until the game’s final moments with back spasms. In a touching March moment, Murphy returned to the floor for a possession with the game out of hand to receive one final curtain call as he never missed a practice or game during his four-year career at Minnesota.

Without Murphy’s consistency, the Golden Gophers only had three players score in the first half as they had a difficult time figuring out Michigan State’s stingy defense. Amir Coffey led Minnesota with 27 points as he was the only members of the Gophers able to generate his own looks. After 24 points against the Cardinals on Thursday, freshman shooter Gabe Kalscheur didn’t register a field goal as he finished with two points. Point guard Isaiah Washington was Minnesota’s only other double-figure scorer with 11 points.

Following last season’s immensely disappointing 15-17 season, Minnesota and head coach Richard Pitino deserves a lot of credit for bouncing back with a Round of 32 appearance. Some preseason polls had Minnesota finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten, with Pitino on many “Hot Seat” lists, as the Golden Gophers defied critics with a strong comeback season.

The loss of Murphy and guard Dupree McBrayer will hurt, but if Coffey returns, Minnesota will have a go-to player and some intriguing guys around him. Freshmen Daniel Oturu and Kalscheur are both double-figure scorers and other role guys like Michael Hurt and Washington could also return. If Minnesota can add another impact recruit or grad transfer, they could be in the mix for another NCAA tournament appearance in 2020.

The rare inter-conference matchup in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Spartans and Golden Gophers played because of the Big Ten’s high number of tourney bids coupled with the selection committee’s relaxed policy if conference foes only play once during the regular season. The Spartans handily beat the Gophers at home on Feb. 9 with a 79-55 win earlier this season.

Clarke’s 36 points leads Gonzaga past Baylor

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The debate over who Gonzaga’s best player is has raged throughout the season.

Some will say that it is Rui Hachimura, the team’s leading scorer and the biggest star on the roster. Others will tell you that it is point guard Josh Perkins, the maestro of the program’s ball-screen heavy offense.

The truth, however, has probably always been that Mark Few’s best player is the best defender in all of college basketball: Brandon Clarke.

What’s inarguable is that Clarke was the best player on the floor for the Zags in their 83-71 second round win over No. 9-seed Baylor. The 6-foot-9 forward went for 36 points on a ridiculous 15-for-18 shooting performance, adding seven boards, three assists, two steals and five blocks to his stat line for good measure. He became the first player to post 30 points and five blocks in a game since former No. 1 pick Joe Smith did it for Maryland nearly a quarter century ago.

Clarke’s story should be celebrated.

A no-name recruit coming out of high school, he had one offer: San Jose State, which is one of the worst programs in all of college basketball. That’s in part because he didn’t grow into his 6-foot-7 frame until he was a senior in high school. He is one of the twitchiest athletes that you’ll find in college basketball this side of Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, but he told reporters that he couldn’t dunk until he was 16 years old and a junior in high school.

He spent two seasons there, putting up numbers and developing his body — he added 30 pounds and five inches to his vertical — before transferring to Gonzaga, where he improved his shooting stroke to the point that he is now a guy that is going to end up being a top 20 pick in the NBA draft this season.

While the 36 points on Saturday will be the talking point, Clarke’s value is on the defensive end of the floor, where he is a rim-protector and a switchable defender for a team that doesn’t have a ton of great individual defenders on it.

He’s the difference-maker for Gonzaga.

And he proved as much on Saturday night.