No. 3 Gonzaga: Zags better than team that reached title game?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 3 Gonzaga.


You would think that, being just 18 months removed from playing in the national title game as a No. 1 seed with a 37-1 record entering the final night of the 2016-17 season, Gonzaga would no longer have to justify where they are ranked in the preseason.

Because that was always the knock on Mark Few’s program, right?

They made that one run to the Elite 8 in 1999. Great. But in the first 17 seasons after Few took over for Dan Monson, he only managed to get the Zags passed the Sweet 16 once, and that was in 2015 when they only needed to dispatch No. 11-seed UCLA to get to the Elite 8. Before Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins helped carry the Zags to within six points of a national title, every single year that Gonzaga popped up ranked high in the preseason top 25, the hate would come out.

“The Zags are always overrated.”

“The media loves Gonzaga, but they’re always overrated because they beat up on bad WCC teams.”

“You’re an idiot if you actually think Gonzaga is better than [insert random high-major program ranked below them].”

I thought that line of thinking was done and dusted after everyone saw the Zags, who most experts believed was the best team in the country entering the 2017 NCAA tournament, played for a chance to cut down the nets in Glendale, but alas, that’s not true.

There are still plenty of people that believe Gonzaga being ranked in the top five is a disgrace to rankings, the sports of college basketball and life in general, which is why it gives me great pleasure to make this statement: Gonzaga is not only a consensus preseason top five once again, but they have the best frontcourt in all of college basketball and may just be the best team in the country.

Again.

Is this the year Mark Few can finally shut everyone up for good?

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GONZAGA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

It is impossible to look at the frontline of the Zags and not come away impressed.

The name that you need to know is Rui Hachimura. A Japanese international of Beninese decent, Hachimura has been one of the best young players in FIBA World Cup qualifying after a season where he averaged just 11.2 points but really came on strong down the stretch. At 6-foot-8 and checking in at 230 pounds, Rui is a terrific athlete with the kind of length and body control that makes him an excellent finisher around the basket. His perimeter game is where the development is going to have to occur, but he shot 79.5 percent from the charity stripe on 132 attempts as a sophomore. The range will come.

He’ll be flanked by Killian Tillie, a French international that grew up with a background in volleyball. A terrific athlete that shot 47.9 percent from three, Tillie had one stretch late in the year where he made 22 of 26 threes over seven-game stretch, including 13 straight threes during the WCC tournament.

Rui Hachimura (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

That duo is the ideal pairing in a frontcourt, and the athleticism — and coaching — is there to help make up for the fact that the Zags are losing their best defender in Johnathan Williams III.

Most college basketball fans will know those names, however.

The name they won’t know is Brandon Clarke, a redshirt junior that spent last season sitting out after transferring into Gonzaga from San Jose State. At 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, he profiles as the best defensive presence on this team and, given the athletic ability of Rui and Tillie, should allow the Zags to play the three forwards together.

Mark Few does not necessarily have a reputation for being an elite defensive coach, but the staff does a terrific job of teaching their big men how to defend — particularly developing their ability to stay vertical when challenging shots around the rim — and whileI don’t think that this year will be a repeat of 2017, when they were the nation’s No. 1 defense according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, I do expect Gonzaga to be very, very good on that end of the floor.

RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games

BUT GONZAGA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

Their backcourt is still somewhat unproven, as is their depth.

Zach Norvell Jr. put together some big games as a redshirt freshman last season, not the least of which was a 28-point outburst against Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. There was one stretch early in the season where he scored at least 17 points in six out of seven games, including a three-game stretch where he cracked 20 points against Creighton, Villanova and Washington back-to-back-to-back.

He was streaky at times, but he was also a freshman. I expect big things out of him this year.

The rest of their backcourt has more question marks.

Let’s start with Corey Kispert, a sophomore that will be looking to takeover the minutes vacated by Silas Melson. The 6-foot-6 wing started last season as a starter, logging a ton of minutes in games against Florida and Texas in the PK-80, but a sprained ankle seemed to hamper him all season long. Assuming he is healthy — and that the crux of his midseason struggles was the ankle and not, you know, his ability — he should fit in fine as a glue-guy at the three for this group. He defends, he can make threes and he is athletic enough to throw down a tip-dunk in traffic.

Then there is Geno Crandall, a grad transfer from North Dakota that was brought into the program to be a backup point guard to Josh Perkins but that profiles more as a scorer off the bench than anything else. The concern with Crandall is that he did not actually complete his undergraduate degree from North Dakota until mid-October, meaning that he is behind by a few weeks learning Gonzaga’s system, terminology, defensive assignments and how to play with the players on the roster.

That’s an issue because, reading the tea leaves, it’s pretty easy to determine that Crandall was brought in since Joel Ayayi and Greg Foster still need another season or two to be ready to contribute major minutes off the bench.

All that said, the biggest concern, at least for me, is Josh Perkins.

Josh Perkins (Harry How/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

In a vacuum, Perkins is fine.

He’ll lead Gonzaga to a WCC title. They’ll end up as a high seed in the NCAA tournament. They’ll win 25 or 30 games. He’s good enough, and the pieces around him will be great enough, that it won’t have that much of an impact.

But at this point, is that enough for the Zags? They’ve been to a national title game. They’ve been a No. 1 seed. Anything short of a Final Four this year will probably be looked at as a disappointment, and to get to a Final Four, Gonzaga is going to have to beat the best teams in the country.

And my issue is whether or not Perkins, who averaged 12.3 points and 5.1 assists as a redshirt junior, can be as effective as he needs to be against the best teams in the country. Can he create against the best point guards in the sport? Is he improved as a decision-maker? Is he the leader on the floor that, say, Nigel Williams-Goss was?

If he is, then the Zags are a good bet to get back to the national title game.

But based on what I’ve seen out of him over the course of the last four seasons, I am not convinced that he is.

And if there is a reason to wonder whether or not Gonzaga can live up to the lofty goals they enter the season with, that is it.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The criticism that Gonzaga is going to face come Selection Sunday is always going to center around the WCC schedule they have to play as a member of the league.

By the time that the nation at-large starts paying attention to college basketball, Gonzaga is more or less done playing games that actually matter. It is what it is. There’s a reason that Gonzaga made a push to try and get into the Mountain West this offseason, and there’s a reason that Mark Few is working to get the WCC league schedule reduced from 18 to 16 games.

But understand this: While you are not paying attention, the Zags are going to play a non-conference schedule that will be as tough as anyone’s. They play Texas A&M, a game that looked much tougher when it was scheduled than it does as of today. They play in the Maui Invitational, where they will get either Arizona or Iowa State in the second round and, basketball gods willing, Duke in the tournament’s title game. They play at Creighton. They play Washington, who might be the best team in the Pac-12 this season. They play Tennessee in Phoenix. They play at North Carolina.

We are going to know everything we need to know about the Zags by Dec. 15th, and while a Final Four run is never a given — that’s the beauty of March Madness — I would be shocked if Gonzaga doesn’t enter WCC play leaving no doubt as to whether or not they are one of the top four teams in college basketball.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 4 Duke
No. 5 Villanova
No. 6 Nevada
No. 7 Tennessee
No. 8 Virginia
No. 9 North Carolina
No. 10 Auburn
No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Vandy stuns No. 6 Tennessee on Lawrence’s buzzer-beating 3

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Vanderbilt Commodores and coach Jerry Stackhouse finally experienced the thrill of a big upset inside the Southeastern Conference’s oldest gym.

The Commodores had struggled for so long with crowds dwindling that the old Memorial Gym magic seemed gone.

Not Wednesday night.

Tyrin Lawrence knocked down a 3-pointer from the right corner at the buzzer as the Commodores snapped an 11-game skid against its in-state rival by upsetting sixth-ranked Tennessee 66-65 Wednesday night.

Stackhouse called Lawrence’s shot the biggest of his tenure and maybe his favorite spanning both his own playing career in the NBA and now coaching career.

“We finally experienced it, the Memorial Magic we were looking for,” Stackhouse said. “Unbelievable game, unbelievable effort. Guys never quit. Didn’t look great there for a minute, but we just kept battling.”

Students rushed the court and joined the Commodores in celebrating easily the program’s biggest win in nearly 11 years. Then the Commodores (12-12, 5-6) celebrated by running along the courtside slapping high-fives.

Tennessee (19-5, 8-2) had every chance to finish off the win after Olivier Nkamhoua’s 15-foot jumper with 50 seconds left put the Vols up 65-63 lead. Liam Robbins missed a turnaround jumper with 27 seconds for Vanderbilt, and Zakai Zeigler grabbed the rebound.

Vols freshman Julian Phillips had a chance to dunk in the final seconds but kept dribbling to force another Vanderbilt foul.

“I am not sure what was going through his head there,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I don’t think he will ever make that mistake again.”

Vanderbilt had to foul five times to finally send Santiago Vescovi to the line with 8 seconds left.

He missed the first shot, and Lawrence grabbed the rebound. Stackhouse took a timeout with 4 seconds to go to set up the final play, and Ezra Manjon drove to the basket before passing out to Lawrence in the corner for the winning bucket.

“It felt great,” said Lawrence, who Stackhouse benched for an ugly loss to No. 4 Alabama last week. “It’s the stuff we dream about as kids just in the back yard counting down `3, 2, 1.’ Glad I was able to hit the game winner.”

Lawrence finished with a team-high 19 points. Robbins added 14 and nine rebounds, and Jordan Wright had 12.

Vescovi and Tyreke Key each had 14 to lead Tennessee. Olivier Nkamhoua and Julian Phillips added 10 apiece.

Tennessee led 34-32 at halftime setting up a thrilling finish in a game that featured 15 lead changes and nine ties.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee was shooting well over 55% before hitting the kind of scoring drought that usually plagues the Vols in their losses. The Vols went 4:27 without a bucket as Vandy scored six straight to stay close. The nation’s best 3-point defense, which had been holding opponents to 21.9% shooting outside the arc, also gave up a season-high 10 3s with Lawrence’s game-winner the last.

Vanderbilt improved to 100-259 all-time against Top 25 opponents, and the Commodores improved to 2-3 this season. They now are 4-16 against ranked opponents under Stackhouse. … Lawrence’s game-winning shot was Vandy’s first made bucket since the 3:44 mark.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The road is turning into a challenging issue for the Volunteers with a second straight loss away from home, and this won’t help them stay in the Top 10.

DID IT COUNT?

Stackhouse tapped a play used by Dwane Casey when the Vandy coach worked with him in the NBA in Toronto. Stackhouse added some wrinkles with Manjon driving toward the basket where the Vols collapsed on him before whipping the pass down the baseline to Lawrence.

While everyone celebrated the shot, Stackhouse asked the scorekeeper if it counted. They didn’t know.

“Then (official) Tony Greene came over and he said it was good. `We’re gonna look at it, but it was good.’ I can’t contain myself. I hugged Tony Greene,” Stackhouse said with a big smile.

UP NEXT

Tennessee hosts Missouri on Saturday night.

Vanderbilt visits Florida.

Hepburn scores 19, Wisconsin tops Penn State 79-74 in OT

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Chucky Hepburn scored 19 points and Connor Essegian added 18, the two combining for nine of Wisconsin’s 11 3-pointers in a 79-74 overtime victory over Penn State on Wednesday night.

After a layup by Max Klesmit gave Wisconsin a 76-72 lead with 44 seconds remaining in overtime, Penn State’s Camren Wynter missed a 3-pointer and the Badgers closed out the victory at the free-throw line.

Hepburn made 5 of 9 3-pointers and Essegian 4 of 7 for the Badgers, who were 11 of 24 from 3-point distance. Tyler Wahl had 16 points, eight assists and six rebounds for Wisconsin (14-9, 6-7 Big Ten) and Steven Crowl added 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists.

Jalen Pickett, who earlier this week was named one of 10 finalists for the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award, had 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (14-10, 5-8). Seth Lundy added 14 points, nine rebounds and three steals, making 4 of 8 3-pointers. Camren Wynter scored 15 points and Andrew Funk 10.

With 59 seconds left in regulation and the score tied at 65, Essegian forced a turnover by Wynter. Wisconsin called timeout with 44 seconds remaining, setting up a 3-pointer by Hepburn. Lundy hit a tying 3-pointer with 23 seconds left and Wisconsin played for the last shot but did not score.

In beating Penn State for the fifth consecutive time, Wisconsin swept the season series and handed the Nittany Lions their second home loss in 13 games. Wisconsin had lost seven of nine previous games coming in.

Wisconsin plays at Nebraska on Saturday, the same day that Penn State plays at Maryland.

UConn women lose 2nd straight game for 1st time since 1993

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MILWAUKEE – UConn coach Geno Auriemma could sense from the start of the night that something was off about his team.

By the time the evening ended, the Huskies were staring at their first losing streak in three decades, ending one of the most remarkable achievements in college basketball history.

Chloe Marotta had 19 points and Jordan King added 18 as Marquette defeated UConn 59-52 on Wednesday. The Huskies, who were playing three nights after an 81-77 home loss to No. 1 South Carolina, dropped consecutive games for the first time since March 1993.

“When people read that stat and they look back, that is a fairy-tale stat,” Auriemma said. “And all fairy tales – they don’t always come true – but everything has an end. So this ended here at Marquette.”

Marquette (16-8, 9-6 Big East) beat UConn (21-4, 13-1) for the first time in 17 meetings.

The Golden Eagles had led UConn early in the fourth quarter at home last season before fading down the stretch and losing 72-58.

This time, the Golden Eagles closed the deal, holding the Huskies to their lowest point total of the season.

“We came into a huddle and we were at the media timeout in the fourth quarter, and I was like, `We were here last year. I’m not watching film on how we lost in the last five minutes,’ ” King said. “You have to put 40 minutes of basketball together. For us, I felt we did that.”

Marquette coach Megan Duffy, who played at Notre Dame from 2002-06, became just the third person ever to beat an Auriemma-coached UConn team as both a player and a coach. The others are South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and Villanova’s Denise Dillon.

“In some ways, I’m speechless,” Duffy said. “The next emotion is I’m just incredibly proud of these women and what they did tonight – a historic win for Marquette women’s basketball. We knew we were up against a buzzsaw with Connecticut losing on Sunday.”

Dorka Juhasz led UConn with 15 points. Aubrey Griffin and Lou Lopez Senechal added 12 points each.

After missing eight of its first nine shots, Marquette went on a 21-2 spurt over an eight-minute stretch to turn an 8-2 deficit into a 23-10 advantage. The Golden Eagles never trailed again, though UConn briefly tied the game in the third quarter.

King started the momentum shift by scoring 10 straight points on her own, including a pair of 3-pointers.

“I think that just completely and totally deflated us,” Auriemma said. “After the week that we’ve had – after the 10 days, two weeks, whatever – we just, I think mentally, all of us … I think we just checked out. It was a major struggle because they were so locked in, their team, in what they wanted to do.”

UConn tied the game at 31 on an Aaliyah Edwards basket with 6:10 left in the period. Marquette regained the lead 21 seconds later on Marotta’s 3-pointer and carried a 39-38 edge into the final quarter.

Marquette gradually built the lead in the final period and got ahead 51-44 on a Marotta jumper with 1:35 left. UConn made its last charge by cutting the margin to 51-47 on a Juhasz 3-pointer with 1:20 remaining.

After Marquette initially struggled to get the ball inbounds and had to call a timeout, the Golden Eagles beat the press and got the ball to Emily La Chapell for a layup with 1:15 remaining.

That started a 6-0 run that put the game out of reach.

“I said this to them in the locker room,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know if it was residue from Sunday, whether something in practice yesterday, something on the trip over, but there was a collective something different about today.”

BIG PICTURE

UConn: Even after the Huskies dug themselves such a deep hole in the first half, UConn had reason to believe it could put this game away by dominating the fourth quarter, just as it had in last season’s game at Marquette. It didn’t happen. Azzi Fudd, who scored 24 points and sparked that fourth-quarter surge in last season’s game at Marquette, hasn’t played since injuring her right knee Jan. 15 against Georgetown.

Marquette: The Golden Eagles are on the NCAA Tournament bubble, so this game was huge for their postseason hopes. Marquette now must make sure it doesn’t have any letdowns the rest of the season.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

UConn moved up a spot in the poll after losing a close game to South Carolina. The Huskies figure to fall out of the top five now.

HISTORIC LOSS

The Huskies had been 74-0 after losing games since they lost the consecutive games in 1993 to Providence in the Big East Tournament semifinals and Louisville in the NCAA Mideast Regional first-round game.

UP NEXT

UConn: At Georgetown on Saturday.

Marquette: At Providence on Feb. 15.

Gardner, Beekman lift No. 8 Virginia past No. 22 N.C. State

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Virginia coach Tony Bennett had a simple message for his team after a poor defensive performance in a loss at Virginia Tech.

“Talk is cheap. Do it. Show us, to our players, to us as a staff, show up, work in practice, step to between the lines and don’t lose yourself in anything but what your job is,” Bennett said he told his players and assistants in the two days of practice since the 74-68 loss.

The team clearly got the message.

Jayden Gardner scored 18 points, Reece Beekman added 15 and No. 8 Virginia cooled off red-hot No. 22 North Carolina State 63-50 on Tuesday night.

“We had a great two days before State, you know, preparation and just diving in,” Gardner said. “It’s just this is the time of the season we need to lock in and you know, we’re playing for something. … We’re trying to win a championship.”

The Cavaliers (18-4, 10-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) handed the Wolfpack (19-6, 9-5) their second loss in 10 games and moved into a share of first place in the conference with Clemson and Pittsburgh.

The Wolfpack arrived leading the ACC with an average of 79.6 points and were 19-2 when scoring at least 70, but became the 38th consecutive league opponent held below 70 points at John Paul Jones Arena.

“Obviously, as I watched the Virginia Tech game and knew that those guys dropped the game and, you know, any time you’re going to play a very good defensive team on their home floor, you know you’re going to get that energy,” North Carolina State coach Kevin Keatts said.

Terquavion Smith led N.C. State with 19 points and Casey Morsell, who spent his first two seasons at Virginia and was jeered nearly every time he touched the ball in his first game back, had 18 points before fouling out in the final minute.

Jarkel Joiner, the Wolfpack’s No. 2 scorer at 16.2 points per game, missed 12 of his 14 shots and scored five points. D.J. Burns Jr. (eight points) was the only other Wolfpack player to score.

Reserve forward Kadin Shedrick, who did not play in Virginia’s loss at Virginia Tech on Saturday, had 10 points and six rebounds for the Cavaliers.

Virginia scored the first six points of the second half to open its largest lead at 40-20, but the Wolfpack began whittling away, fueled by a 12-6 burst in which Smith and Morsell each hit a pair of 3-pointers.

“In the past, we’ve been able to control the tempo and to get those guys to play a little bit faster and even turn them over,” said Keatts, whose team had won three of the last four meetings. “But we couldn’t.”

N.C. State twice closed within nine points but got no closer. Morsell’s 3 made it 55-46 with 3:46 to play, but Beekman made a free throw and then took a no-look pass from Kihei Clark for an easy backdoor layup.

Virginia closed the first half on an 8-2 run to lead 34-20 at the break. The Wolfpack missed 10 straight shots before Burns scored just before the half.

BIG PICTURE

N.C. State: The Wolfpack got scoring from just three players – Smith with nine points, Morsell with seven and Burns with four – in the opening half. They shot 25.8% with Smith going 4 for 13 and Joiner 0 for 6. … Burns picked up his third personal foul less than a minute into the second half after getting the ball stolen by Beekman. He stayed in the game and drew his fourth foul on a drive by Clark with 16:03 left.

Virginia: Beekman started the game ranking first in the ACC in assist/turnover ratio (3.0) and third in assists (5.1). He had four assists and one turnover. Clark started first in assists (6.0) and second in assist/turnover ratio (2.8). He had six assists and three turnovers.

UP NEXT

N.C. State: At Boston College on Saturday.

Virginia: Hosts Duke on Saturday.

Michigan St. rallies to win after giving up lead to Maryland

Maryland v Michigan State
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EAST LANSING, Mich. – Joey Hauser scored 20 points and Tyson Walker had 17 and Michigan State rallied after scoring the game’s first 15 points to beat Maryland 63-58 on Tuesday.

A.J. Hoggard had 10 rebounds and eight assists for Michigan State.

Jahmir Young scored 17 points for Maryland, Hakim Hart 12, Julian Reese 11 and Donta Scott 10 for the Terrapins.

The Spartans (15-9, 7-6 Big Ten) used an 8-0 run in which Walker made a layup and 3-pointer wrapped around a 3 from Jaden Akins for a 52-48 lead with 7:44 remaining and Michigan State led for the remainder.

The Terrapins erupted for a 12-0 run in less than three minutes in the second half turning a 38-26 deficit into a 38-all tie. Young and Hart posted back-to-back three-point plays, and Hart’s 3-pointer with 13:01 knotted it at 38. Prior to that 3, Hart was 3-for-last-27 shooting from beyond the arc. Maryland finished shooting 3 of 22 from distance.

Michigan State started the game with a 15-0 run and led 31-22 at halftime. Coming off an 81-46 win over Maryland (16-8, 7-6 Big Ten) on Saturday, the Terrapins have yet to win back-to-back contests in almost three years.

The Terrapins host Penn State on Saturday. Michigan State travels to play Ohio State on Sunday.