Bracket Breakdown: Gonzaga headlines a loaded West Region

NCAA
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Gonzaga found themselves sitting pretty as the No. 1 seed out west despite the fact that managed to find a way to get a draw where seemingly every matchup is a bad one.

In the second round, a Gonzaga team that struggles to shoot the ball from the perimeter is looking at the winner of two teams that play zone. In the Sweet 16, they’re string down another date with Florida State, who is as athletic up and down their lineup as anyone in the country and, if you remember, sent Gonzaga home last season in the Sweet 16. In the Elite 8, a matchup with either Michigan or Texas Tech could lead to Josh Perkins going face to face with one of the best on-ball defenders in college basketball in Zavier Simpson or Matt Mooney.

The luck of the draw was not ideal for the region where the mid-majors will flourish.

Think about it: Not only did the committee slot Buffalo, Murray State and Vermont out west, they put them in a region where Gonzaga is the No. 1 seed and Nevada is the No. 7 seed. These may not be the biggest draws for TV, but there sure are going to be some fun matchups.

Let’s dive into the West Region.

THREE STORYLINES

  1. CAN MARK FEW FINALLY WIN A NATIONAL TITLE? CAN JOHN BEILEIN?: The job that Mark Few has done building Gonzaga into one of the biggest national brands is all of college basketball is nothing short of spectacular. In 2017, he finally legitimized the success to the final few stragglers by taking the Zags to the national title game. This group, with Killian Tillie back and contributing, is probably his best team to date. Is this the year that he finally breaks through? What about John Beilein? He has his own fascinating story of reaching the highest of heights in the college coaching profession. He started as a Division III coach in upstate New York and just kept climbing the ladder. Now he has Michigan as nationally relevant as they have ever been. The only thing either of these men are missing is to cut down the nets on the last night of the season. Is this year the year?
  2. WILL UCLA BE COURTING CHRIS BEARD WHILE HE’S OUT WEST?: Beard has become one of the biggest names in all of college coaching by building Texas Tech into a national power that helped to end the run of 14 straight regular season titles by the Kansas Jayhawks. He is a superstar coach in the making, one that is going to be in high demand from bigger programs, and UCLA — who fired Steve Alford in December — certainly qualifies as that. He’ll be coaching out in Anaheim during the regionals. Bruin fans will get an up close and personal look at one of the potential UCLA targets to fill their opening.
  3. CAN JA MORANT LAST MORE THAN ONE DAY?: Morant is not Zion Williamson, but he is still a tremendously talented and athletic player. Murray State drew Marquette in the first round, setting up a game that could turn into a scoring battle between Morant and Markus Howard. Morant is so much fun to watch. The fact that we are going to lose him or Howard in the first round is a bummer.

THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 3 Texas Tech

I think that Florida State picks off Gonzaga again this season. The Seminoles are so much bigger and more athletic that Gonzaga is, especially on the perimeter, and I think that will become a problem, especially when Leonard Hamilton opts to throw on their press. Josh Perkins has his issues as a ball-handler against pressure and as a player in big games, and that matchup would qualify as both. The return of Tillie should help, but this is just a brutal matchup for the Zags with a team that, over the course of the last two months, has played like a top ten teams.

As far as Texas Tech is concerned, I just think they are better than Michigan. Both teams are built a similar way, with their defense being their calling card and their offense coming and going. The Red Raiders have been awesome of late, closing out the regular season strong before a loss to West Virginia in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament, while Michigan has been terrific when they haven’t been forced to play Michigan State. Texas Tech will have the best player in Jarrett Culver. They shoot it better. They have more perimeter playmakers. It’s not ideal for the Aggies.

(John Weast/Getty Images)

THE FINAL FOUR SLEEPER IS … No. 7 Nevada

Since Florida State has already been mentioned, I’ll go with Nevada here. The Wolf Pack have a roster full of seniors and redshirt seniors, and this is what they have been waiting for. I’m not convinced that some of their struggles this season were an issue of motivation, and with everything to play for, Caleb and Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline are going to prove something to NBA scouts in attendance. We already saw them get to one Sweet 16 with a win over Michigan.

HERE ARE YOUR UPSETS

No. 4 FLORIDA STATE over No. 1 GONZAGA: I discussed this earlier, but I don’t trust Josh Perkins against teams like Florida State, and I think that is going to prove to be the right take.

BUT DON’T PICK THIS UPSET

No. 12 MURRAY STATE over No. 5 MARQUETTE: I know everyone is going to want to fall in love with Ja Morant and take him to carry the Racers to the Sweet 16, but I just don’t see it. For starters, Marquette has a defender at the rim in Theo John that is going to make it very difficult for Morant to start dunking on everyone. I also think that the lack of talent around Morant means that Marquette can hide Howard defensively, and the lack of height and size is going to allow the Hausers to create mismatchs all over the floor. Marquette is the pick here.

THE STUDS

  • JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech: Culver is the life-blood of this Texas Tech team. So much of what they do offensively ends with Culver in some kind of an action, trying to make a play. For my money he is clearly a first-team all-american.
  • JA MORANT, Murray State: Morant is a monster. We all know this by now.
  • MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette: The single-most dangerous scorer left in the tournament. He may end up being a first-team all-american, and he has popped off for at least 45 points three times this season.
  • RUI HACHIMURA and BRANDON CLARKE, Gonzaga: It’s difficult to pick who was actually the best out of these two big men. Clarke is the better defender and finisher offensively. Hachimura is a better shooter and the more likely to be able to create for himself. Both are top 20 picks.

THE STARS OF MARCH

  • ANTHONY LAMB, Vermont: Lamb is Georges Niang. He’s an undersized four that has three-point range on his stroke and a crafty low post game. He’s a bucket.
  • C.J. MASSINBURG, Buffalo: We all know how good Massinburg can be when he gets it going. The Bulls got 43 points out of him in a win in Morgantown earlier this year.

ONE GAME TO WATCH

No. 6 BUFFALO vs. No. 11 ARIZONA STATE/ST. JOHN’S: The Bulls will take on the winner of Arizona State-St. John’s, who face off in the First Four. Every potential game in this section of the bracket promises to be up and down affair.

ONE GAME THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN

I would 100 percent be here for Texas Tech and Michigan squaring up in the Sweet 16. Two of the toughest teams that you are going to find playing for the right to get to the Elite 8 in a game that may not crack the 50s? I love it.

AND THE WINNER IS …

I have Texas Tech knocking off Florida State and getting to the Final Four.

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

Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports
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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

Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports
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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.

Rutgers beats No. 10 Indiana for sixth straight time, 63-48

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
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PISCATAWAY, N.J. – With the clock winding down in the final minutes, Rutgers fans didn’t hesitate in letting No. 10 Indiana how they felt about the Hoosiers’ rating.

Chants of “Who’s Your Daddy” and “Overrated” were shouted with glee at the Indiana bench after the team was knocked from the unbeaten ranks.

Make no mistake, Rutgers (6-2, 1-0 Big Ten) owns Indiana (7-1, 0-1) on the basketball floor these days.

Freshman guard Derek Simpson scored 10 straight points in a game-deciding run and Rutgers beat Indiana for the sixth time in a row and ninth time in 10 meetings, 63-48 on Saturday.

“As far as Indiana goes, I feel we just know the focus of this team,” said Rutgers senior Caleb McConnell, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds. “It gives us an advantage because we had beaten them five times in a row. We went in trying to execute our game plan and we did it again.”

Simpson scored all 14 of his points in the second half as Rutgers made coach Mike Woodson’s first visit to “The Banks” unpleasant.

“We got to make shots from the perimeter,” said Woodson, whose team shot 30.4% from the field, including 6 of 21 from long range. “But we just got out-toughed tonight. I thought, I mean, from the beginning to the end, I mean, we couldn’t rebound the basketball with him. I thought that was the difference in the ballgame and that was the cushion that they needed.”

Miller Kopp scored a season-high 21 points for Indiana . Star forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, who faced a packed in defense, was held to 13 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out late.

Jackson-Davis said Indiana just didn’t play well.

“I don’t necessarily say that it’s a bad matchup for us because I think defensively we’re still good,” he said. “But at the same time, our offense just wasn’t clicking tonight.”

The win was coach Steve Pikiell’s 14th over a ranked team since taking over a struggling Rutgers’ program in 2016-17. As usual, defense was at the center of its win.

The Hoosiers’ point total was a season low. They were averaging 87.1 points and were coming off a win over North Carolina.

Indiana played poorly in the first half in falling behind 31-24. The Hoosiers opened the final 20 minutes with a 13-4 spurt, taking two-point leads on baskets by Xavier Johnson and Kopp.

McConnell hit a 3-pointer to put Rutgers ahead for good and then Simpson took over, hitting a layup, a jumper, a 3-pointer and a big scoop shot for a 47-37 lead. His final point in the run came when Johnson hit him in the face in the offensive zone and a flagrant foul was eventually called. He made 1 of 2 free throws.

“I still have have much more to do and I am going to keep working and we’re going to keep working as a team,” Simpson said. “It was a fun game, and it really got loud. My ears are still ringing right now.”

MULCAHY RETURNS

Rutgers senior starting guard Paul Mulcahy returned to the lineup after missing four games with a shoulder injury. He came off the bench early in the first half and played almost 24 minutes, scoring six points and handing out four assists.

MISSING

Indiana starting guard Jalen Hood-Schifino did not play because of a back problem. He was averaging 8.7 points. Starting forward Race Thompson, who was averaging 7.3 points, was scoreless on 0 for 4 shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Indiana: This was poor performance by the Hoosiers. They are bound to take a tumble.

Rutgers: This was a big win for Rutgers, which was coming off a road loss at Miami. They are 6-0 at home.

UP NEXT

Indiana: Conference home opener against Nebraska on Wednesday.

Rutgers: At No. 25 Ohio State on Thursday.

Flagler, No. 6 Baylor rally late, top No. 14 Gonzaga 64-63

Baylor vs. Gonzaga
USA Today
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — In a rematch of the 2021 national championship game, Adam Flagler hit a pair of 3s as No. 6 Baylor scored the final eight points to rally past No. 14 Gonzaga 64-63 Friday night.

Gonzaga’s Rasir Bolton missed a wild, driving layup try at the buzzer.

Two seasons ago, Baylor beat the then-undefeated Zags 86-70 to win its first title. This time, the Bears didn’t take the lead for good until Jalen Bridges made two free throws with 16 seconds left.

“Adam is a great leader, but no one knew he wasn’t feeling well today,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “To be honest, some players wouldn’t have played. He played through the pain and left it all out on the court. As a coach, I appreciate that.”

The Bears (6-2) trailed 63-56 before Flagler hit a 3-pointer with 1:33 left. Flagler’s 3 with just over a minute to play cut Baylor’s deficit to 63-62.

After a Gonzaga shot clock violation, Flagler’s 3-point attempt for the lead was off the mark, but Bridges was fouled by Drew Timme on the rebound attempt. Bridges hit two foul shots to put Baylor ahead.

The Zags (5-3) had a final chance when Bolton caught an inbounds pass near his own foul line with 4.6 seconds remaining. He drove the lane, but his off-balance shot went high off the glass and missed as the buzzer sounded.

“We took two balls down hill and tried to make plays at the rim. At that point in the game, those are tough,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “It’s very disappointing. They made plays, man.”

Freshman Keyonte George had 18 points and seven rebounds for Baylor. Flagler had 11 points and Langston Love added 10.

“I trust my work. I was able to knock them down,” George said. “My teammates believe in me each and every day. They give me that confidence in a big game to make big shots like that.”

Malchi Smith scored 16 points for Gonzaga. Anton Watson added a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Timme had nine points.

Baylor led by as many as 12 in the first half before Gonzaga closed to five at the break.

Watson’s basket put Gonzaga ahead 41-40. From there, the teams swapped leads over the next 13 minutes as the second half featured two ties and 14 lead changes.

A thunderous dunk from Smith gave Gonzaga its seven-point lead with under two minutes to go.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The win was a big rebound for Baylor after its 26-point loss to Marquette earlier in the week. The loss was the Bears’ most lopsided since they fell to Kansas 82-56 in 2007

Gonzaga: After opening the season ranked No. 2 in the AP preseason poll, the Zags have now lost two of three.

STAR WATCH

Timme began the night leading the Bulldogs in scoring at 20 points per game. He was hampered by foul trouble against Baylor and got his first field goal with six minutes remaining. He fouled out with 16 seconds to play.

REMATCH PLAYERS

Four players on the floor Friday night had significant minutes in the championship game two years ago including Flagler, Timme and Watson, along with Baylor’s Flo Thamba.

UP NEXT

Baylor: The Bears return home to host Tarleton on Tuesday before playing Washington State on Sunday in Dallas for the Pac 12 Coast-to-Coast Challenge.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs return to Spokane for three straight beginning Monday when they face Kent State for the first time in school history.

Carr scores 19, No. 2 Texas beats No. 7 Creighton 72-67

Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports
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AUSTIN, Texas – Texas had pressured Creighton’s shooters into a miserable night, only to watch a late flurry of 3-pointers start swishing.

An 11-point Longhorns lead was down to three.

That hardly rattled Marcus Carr and the second-ranked Longhorns, who stepped up with big late shots of their own and steady free-throw shooting to secure another impressive early-season victory, 72-67 over the seventh-ranked Bluejays on Thursday night.

Carr scored 19 points and made two free throws with 10 seconds left as Texas held off Creighton’s furious late-game rally.

Creighton struggled through a wretched 3-point shooting night, but pulled within 62-59 thanks in part to five points in a row by Baylor Scheierman. Carr’s baseline jumper and an easy layup by Tyrese Hunter when Creighton lost him on an inbound pass with 46 seconds left stretched the Longhorns’ lead again.

That didn’t quite close the door on Creighton, which got two more 3-pointers from Scheierman, who had missed his first nine attempts. That forced Texas to finish it from the free-throw line behind Carr and Brock Cunningham. Cunningham’s two free throws with 4 seconds left were his only points of the game.

“There’s going to be a bunch of times one of us has to go down there and knock down a bunch of free throws,” Carr said. “We talk about it all the time.”

The matchup was part of the Big 12-Big East Battle and Texas earned its second win over a top-10 opponent in its new arena. The Longhorns (6-0) beat then-No. 2 Gonzaga on Nov. 16 and have their highest ranking since they were No. 1 during the 2009-2010 season.

“I don’t think we’ve proven anything,” Texas coach Chris Beard said. “We’re just a team that’s trying to get better.”

Hunter scored 15 points for Texas.

Ryan Kalkbrenner had 20 points and 13 rebounds for Creighton (6-2), and Ryan Nembhard scored 17 points. The Bluejays were 4 of 27 on 3-pointers.

Scheierman, a 44% shooter from beyond the arc this season, made three 3s in a row late. His off-balance shot from the right corner over a defender pulled the Bluejays within 68-65 with 11.4 seconds left.

Scheierman finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

“The reality is you are gonna have nights,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “It just happens. We don’t ever want him to stop shooting.”

BIG PICTURE

Creighton: Kalkbrenner was all but unstoppable on a 9-of-10 shooting night for the Bluejays, who kept launching from long range instead of looking for their 7-foot-1 center.

Texas: The Longhorns couldn’t force their usual numbers of turnovers and fast-break points, but were exceptionally clean with the ball on offense. Texas had just three turnovers that Creighton turned into three points.

FORMER TEAMMATES

Texas senior forward Christian Bishop played three seasons at Creighton before transferring prior to last season. He finished with six points and four rebounds in 16 minutes.

“We understood what this game was, not just for our team but for Christian,” Carr said.

TIRED TEAM

McDermott suggested his team maybe just wore out. The Bluejays went 2-1 in the Maui Invitational last week and then played their first game of the season on an opponent’s home court.

“Three games in three days against ranked teams (in Hawaii) and then to come in here,” McDermott said. “That’s a lot to ask of my team.”

UP NEXT

Creighton hosts in-state rival Nebraska on Sunday.

Texas plays No. 16 Illinois in New York City on Dec. 6 in the Jimmy V Classic.