2019 NCAA Tournament: Six teams that can win it all

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Now that the 68-team NCAA tournament bracket has been announced, the next step is to attempt to figure out who will cut down the nets April 8 in Minneapolis. While there have been some surprises in the “one and done” era, more often than not the national champion has high-level guard play, at least one NBA-caliber talent and credible experience.

There can be outliers, especially when it comes to the experience factor, but after Duke’s freshman-led team won it all in 2015 the last three champions have been considerably older. Below are six teams that can win the NCAA tournament, a high-seed you should fade and a team seeded fourth or lower that can go on a run.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

DUKE

The top overall seed, the Blue Devils are back to full strength as elite freshman forward Zion Williamson made his return for the ACC tournament. Williamson and classmate R.J. Barrett are in the eyes of more than a few the top two NBA draft-eligible prospects in college basketball. Add in fellow freshmen Tre Jones and Cam Reddish, and Mike Krzyzewski’s team has the high-end talent needed to win six straight over the next three weeks.

As for the supporting cast, the Blue Devils received quality contributions from the likes of Javin DeLaurier, Jordan Goldwire and even Antonio Vrankovic during the ACC tournament. Forward Jack White and guard Alex O’Connell are also part of the rotation, so the bodies are there even with Marques Bolden (knee) out of the lineup. The youth of this team may be a concern for some, but when you have a Hall of Fame head coach like Coach K on the sideline that helps matters.

NORTH CAROLINA

The Tar Heels won 27 games and finished tied atop the ACC standings with Virginia, ranking in the top ten in both adjusted offensive and adjusted defensive efficiency. There’s a good combination of youth and experience, with seniors Luke Maye, Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams working with talented freshman point guard Coby White and sophomore center Garrison Brooks.

The depth is provided by another freshman in Nassir Little, with juniors Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods part of the rotation as well. In addition to the talent and guard play, North Carolina also has a Hall of Fame head coach on its sideline in Roy Williams. Williams has led his alma mater to three national titles, and North Carolina was a one-seed in all three. They’re on the top seed line this time around as well.

GONZAGA

Mark Few’s Bulldogs are questioned by some on a consistent basis, thanks in large part to the fact that they ply their trade in the WCC. But to state that Gonzaga doesn’t have a shot at winning a national title solely because of its conference affiliation would be a mistake; this is a deep, talented roster that still has contributors who two years ago reached the championship game.

Junior forwards Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke have been outstanding, with the former winning WCC Player of the Year honors and the latter being one of college basketball’s best defenders. And if Killian Tillie, who’s had to deal with injuries for much of this season, is able to contribute Gonzaga will have a front court that can match up with any team. The perimeter attack is headlined by senior point guard Josh Perkins and redshirt sophomore Zach Norvell, with guard Geno Crandall and wing Corey Kispert providing additional depth. The Zags have the nation’s most efficient offense by a decent margin, and they’re solid defensively as well.

KENTUCKY

Kentucky is ranked just outside of the top 10 in both adjusted offensive (13th) and adjusted defensive (12th) efficiency, and they go eight deep with talent both on the perimeter and in the paint. Sophomore forward P.J. Washington (14.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg) leads four double-digit scorers, with guards Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson and forward Reid Travis next in line. Ashton Hagans can apply pressure defensively at the point while also being the team’s best distributor on the other end.

Kentucky is young, as it has been most seasons during Calipari’s tenure, but like his best teams there’s some experience mixed in. There’s certainly value in experience this time of year, but talent is key as well. The Midwest bracket projects to be very difficult to navigate, but like top-seed North Carolina the Wildcats are capable of making the run to Minneapolis.

TENNESSEE

Rick Barnes’ Volunteers have wins over two of the teams on this list, as they beat Gonzaga in Phoenix in early December and also won two of their three meetings with Kentucky. Tennessee has depth, talent and experience, with two-time SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and senior forward Admiral Schofield leading the way. Tennessee is deep in the front court, and on the perimeter Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner are the headliners.

Tennessee enters the tournament ranked third in adjusted offensive efficiency, and while this group isn’t elite defensively it’s solid on that end of the floor. Winners of 29 games, the Volunteers should be motivated by the way in which their 2018 season ended (a second-round loss to Loyola University Chicago). At minimum, Tennessee has enough to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 2010.

MICHIGAN

With Michigan State having beaten Michigan three times this season, and the Spartans being one of four teams ranked in the top 10 in both adjusted offensive and adjusted defensive efficiency (Virginia, Duke and North Carolina being the others), some may wonder how the Wolverines are the team listed here. Well it’s all about the path to the Final Four, and Michigan’s road to Minneapolis may be smoother than Michigan State’s.

One year after reaching the national title game Michigan has the pieces needed to duplicate that feat, beginning with point guard Zavier Simpson. Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews provide scoring on the wings, and in the front court Iggy Brazdeikis and Jon Teske have combined to average 24.5 points and 12.0 rebounds per game. John Beilein’s team is ranked second in adjusted defensive efficiency, with the offense currently ranked 18th with regards to efficiency.

THE FAVORITE TO FADE: Virginia

Given Virginia’s lack of a Final Four appearance during this current run of success, this may be a case of grabbing the low-hanging fruit. Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers are healthy, which wasn’t the case last season (De’Andre Hunter’s thumb), and with the additions of Kihei Clark and Braxton Key this group is deeper with Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome leading the way. But until Virginia gets over the hump they’re going to be questioned. Maybe Virginia will do what Villanova did in 2016, escaping the first weekend demons and then going on to win the national title.

THE FOUR-SEED OR LOWER THAT CAN WIN IT ALL: Auburn

Bruce Pearl’s Tigers dodged a bullet in Saturday’s SEC tournament semifinals, beating Florida by three in what was a controversial finish. Auburn left no doubt Sunday however, as it blew out Tennessee and was then given a 5-seed in the Midwest Region. The perimeter tandem of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown is averaging 31.1 points per game, and sophomore forward Chuma Okeke is the leading scorer for a front court that doesn’t lack for depth or athleticism.

Auburn has a tough first round matchup (New Mexico State), but this is a team that can go on a run after being bounced in the second round by Clemson last season.

Northwestern beats No. 20 Michigan State in Big Ten opener

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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.

Miles, No. 7 Notre Dame women beat No. 3 UConn; Fudd hurt

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Olivia Miles had 21 points and eight rebounds for No. 7 Notre Dame, and UConn star Azzi Fudd suffered a knee injury in a collision with a teammate, as the Fighting Irish handed the third-ranked Huskies their first loss of the season, 74-60 on Sunday.

“I think she’ll be all right,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said afterwards of Fudd, who went into the day averaging 24.0 points, but finished scoreless on two shots over 13 minutes.

Fudd exited in the final minute of the first quarter after teammate Aaliyah Edwards fell on her. She returned midway through the second period to play four hobbled minutes, but sat the rest of the way as a precaution, according to Auriemma.

Maddy Westbeld had a season-high 17 points and nine rebounds for Notre Dame (7-1), which bounced back from a 74-72 loss to No. 20 Maryland three days earlier.

“I think Thursday’s loss really fueled us today,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “We learned a lot from that game. We have incredible scorers on our team, a lot of balance offensively, but it’s our defense that’s gonna win games, so that was our focus the last 48 hours. (The players) took the challenge and came out and played with heart and defensive intensity. I feel like if we can play that way, we can beat anyone in the country.”

Notre Dame shot 56% from the field while limiting the Huskies to 37%.

“We played very badly (Thursday), but we were still two points away,” Miles said, “so it’s kind of scary what we can do when we play really well.”

Led by Miles, the Irish roared to a 41-24 lead by intermission, outscoring the Huskies 30-11 over the final 11 minutes of the first half.

Miles scored 13 of Notre Dame’s 18 first-quarter points, going 6 of 7 from the field. Westbeld provided her scoring punch after averaging 5.2 points over her previous five outings.

Lou Lopez Senechal led UConn (6-1) with 21 points. Edwards added 14.

“We didn’t win the rebound battle and that hurt us,” said Auriemma, whose club was outboarded 39-26 and outscored in the paint. 46-16. “We just didn’t have enough scoring on the court and enough people playing at a real high level to get enough buckets when we needed them.”

The Huskies got as close at 49-44 at the 3:44 mark of the third quarter, but the Irish stretched their lead back to as high as 70-53 at the midway mark of the fourth period.

Notre Dame ended a seven-game head-to-head losing streak against UConn in regular-season play, prevailing for the first time since a triple-overtime decision in March 2013.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies faced a top-10 opponent for the fourth time this season, but this one was their first true road game. If Fudd’s injury doesn’t turn out to be serious, UConn ought to still have a chance to do what it’s done for decades: craft a resume that will make them a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Notre Dame: The Irish, coming back from that loss at the buzzer to Maryland, showed that Thursday’s outcome may just be a blip on their promising season. Notre Dame matched last season’s win over No. 3 North Carolina State for the highest-ranked team it has beaten in its third year under Ivey.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies host Princeton on Thursday before visiting Maryland next Sunday.

Notre Dame: The Irish have a couple apparent mismatches coming up as they visit Lafayette (2-7) on Thursday and host Merrimack (1-6) on Saturday.

Brink leads No. 2 Stanford women over No. 23 Gonzaga 84-63

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STANFORD, Calif. – Gonzaga may be rolling out an injury-depleted roster, but the Bulldogs nevertheless left a lasting impression on their West Coast rival in Stanford.

And that leads the Cardinal to wonder if the two power programs might meet again on college basketball’s biggest stage come March.

“This is a team that is a Top-25 team,” Hall of Fame Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I think if we can do it, they’re going to be in Seattle (for the NCAA Tournament).”

Cameron Brink had 14 points and a season-high 16 rebounds and Brooke Demetre made a career-high five 3s and scored 17 points, leading second-ranked Stanford past No. 23 Gonzaga 84-63 on Sunday.

The Cardinal (10-1) have now won five straight games after falling to top-ranked South Carolina in overtime on Nov. 20.

“I kind of call Brooke my secret weapon,” VanDerveer said. “She is a really special young lady, and when you have both Cam out there and Brooke, it’s a two-headed monster.”

“She has one of the highest releases I’ve ever seen, one of the quickest releases,” Brink said of Demetre. “She can shoot it, and we’ve always had confidence in her.”

Hannah Jump hit four 3s and scored 14 points, and Haley Jones had 12 points for Stanford.

Short-handed Gonzaga (7-2), limited to seven players because of illness and injuries, had won three in a row.

The Zags kept the pressure on Stanford early in the game, thanks to a 20-point first half from Kaylynne Truong.

Truong shot 4 of 9 from deep and finished with a career-high 22 points.

Brynna Maxwell contributed 19 points. Yvonne Ejim, Gonzaga’s leading scorer, was held to two points in the first three quarters but added six points in the fourth.

“We try to focus on a leading scorer and try to limit them,” VanDerveer said. “But you can’t just focus on (Ejim) because they’ve got Truong, they’ve got Maxwell. . I think we did a much better job (on defense) in the second half.”

STAT OF THE GAME

The Cardinal were able to pull away due to a strong game from beyond the arc, making 15 3-pointers on 15 of 28 (53.6%) shooting. A season-high eight different Stanford players made a 3, led by Demetre’s five and Jump’s four.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: Lost its fourth straight in the series with Stanford and dropped to 1-7 on the Cardinal’s home floor. The Zags haven’t won any matchups since a 79-73 victory at home on Dec. 2, 2018. … Despite playing short-handed, Gonzaga did not yield an easy win to its higher-ranked opponent, trailing by just one point after the first quarter before fading in the second half.

Stanford: Held a 37-23 rebounding advantage. … This win marked the beginning of a crucial stretch in the Cardinal’s season. Stanford’s next two games come against Tennessee – receiving votes in The Associated Press Top 25 poll – and No. 13 Creighton, followed by the start of Pac-12 Conference play against rival California on Dec. 23.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs return to McCarthey Athletic Center to start a five-game homestand, starting with a Tuesday matchup vs. Queens University of Charlotte.

Stanford: After a two-week break for final exams, the Cardinal will continue their seven-game homestand vs. Tennessee on Dec. 18.

Top-ranked Houston grinds out 53-48 win over Saint Mary’s

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FORT WORTH, Texas – J’Wan Roberts scored 15 points, Marcus Sasser added 13 and top-ranked Houston held on to beat Saint Mary’s 53-48 on Saturday night.

The Cougars (8-0) won twice in their first week as the No. 1 team since the final poll of the 1982-83 regular season, when Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon led high-flying Phi Slama Jama.

Logan Johnson scored 17 points and Aidan Mahaney had 14 for the Gaels (6-3), who lost their third in a row following a 6-0 start.

Houston was the favorite to win it all in the second of three consecutive trips to the Final Four nearly 40 years ago, but lost to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in one of the iconic championship games.

Coach Kelvin Sampson’s first top-ranked team is coming off trips to the Final Four and Elite Eight the past two seasons.

For the third straight year, the postseason path will start at Dickie’s Arena, where Sampson likes to bring his team during the regular season as prep for the American Athletic Conference tourney.

This victory in the Battleground 2k22 series improved the Cougars to 9-0 in the arena near downtown Fort Worth, where they have won AAC tournament titles each of the past two years.

Saint Mary’s whittled a 12-point deficit to a single possession when Mahaney hit a 3, and he made it a three-point game again at 46-43 with another from long range.

Roberts answered by backing down for a short jump hook before Sasser converted a three-point play to put the Cougars up 51-43.

Houston broke a 17-all tie with a 14-3 run to finish the first half, with Saint Mary’s going 1 of 11 from the field in that stretch against the vaunted Cougars defense. Both teams shot 37%.

BIG PICTURE

Saint Mary’s: Facing the No. 1 team isn’t foreign to the Gaels, who play in the West Coast Conference with Gonzaga. St. Mary’s is 2-7 against the Zags when they have the top ranking, with one of the victories coming last season.

Houston: The Cougars had no trouble in their debut with the No. 1 ranking, blowing out Norfolk State 100-52 at home Tuesday. A disciplined and tournament-tested opponent for the second game was just the threat Sampson’s club figured it could be.

UP NEXT

Saint Mary’s: Missouri State at home Wednesday.

Houston: North Florida at home Tuesday.

Clowney, No. 11 Alabama recover to beat South Dakota St

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Freshman Noah Clowney’s breakout game – 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists and a steal – helped No. 11 Alabama recover from blowing a 20-point lead and beat South Dakota State 78-65 on Saturday night.

Clowney shot 8 of 17, including 5 of 12 on 3s, in his highest-scoring game of the season.

“We’ve encouraged him to shoot it, I’m glad he did,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “His senior year of high school, he started out pretty poorly from 3 then shot it 40% after that, so I kind of referenced that.”

Alabama (7-1) led 37-17 with 6 1/2 minutes left in the first half. South Dakota State (3-6) rallied to go ahead 51-50 on Alex Arians’ 3-pointer with 11 1/2 minutes remaining.

Nimari Burnett’s foul shot a minute later put the Crimson Tide ahead for good at 54-53. Alabama used a 9-0 run to pull away.

Mark Sears scored 19 points and Brandon Miller had 16 points and nine rebounds for the Crimson Tide

Alabama made 14 of its first 26 shots to build a big lead before it slipped away.

“I’m not going to call them mature, we still have some room to grow,” Oats said. “Our guys have to understand, no matter who we’re playing, even if their record isn’t great, they’re Division I basketball players, they’re good teams. Last year, we had issues with this going down the road.”

Charlie Easley and Arians each scored 17 points for the Jackrabbits. Zeke Mayo added 12 points and Matt Dentlinger contributed nine rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Sears continues to be a force at home for Alabama. In Alabama’s last three home games – wins over Liberty, Jacksonville State and South Dakota State – he has scored 22, 18 and 19 points, making at least three 3-pointers in all three games. Alabama’s next home game comes against a Memphis team that already has two wins over SEC competition.

SECOND HALF SPRING

South Dakota State coach Eric Henderson noticed that in Alabama’s first two home games, Longwood and Liberty both trailed by fewer than 10 points at halftime before losing by 21 and 36 points, respectively. He viewed the first five minutes of the second half as critical in both instances, seeing an Alabama team using the home environment to its advantage.

Henderson stressed to his team that it had to win those five minutes to have a chance. Down 42-35 at the break, it did, and ultimately took the lead.

“They really increase the pressure, they try to play a little faster, they get downhill and they really spray it,” Henderson said. “I thought we were getting some 50-50 balls, I thought we were playing with some confidence. There’s been a lot of schools to come in here and have a good first half and it ends up being a 30- or 40-point game.”

UP NEXT

South Dakota State stays on the road to face Montana on Tuesday.

Alabama takes a weeklong break before its second game against the current No. 1 team in the nation, this time a road game against Houston on Saturday. The Crimson Tide beat former No. 1 North Carolina in its first shot at the top-ranked team, winning 103-101 in four overtimes on Nov. 27.