Bracket Breakdown: Virginia, Tennessee to vie for South Region supremacy

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If you’re a program that is built on identifying under the radar prospects, developing those prospects over four years and then taking a dozen of them and turning them into a team capable of winning titles, the South is for you.

That’s where Virginia resides as the No. 1 seed.

That’s where Tennessee takes up residence as the No. 2 seed.

Purdue is the No. 3 seed, and they’ll likely get No. 6 seed Villanova in the second round. Wisconsin is in this region. I don’t know if Cincinnati and Kansas State truly belong in this conversation, but they are in the South as well.

The South is where you go to get old, it seems.

Let’s dive into the breakdown.

THREE STORYLINES

  1. VIRGINIA IS A NO. 1 SEED AGAIN … : It was a year ago that Virginia humiliated themselves and became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Wahoos are not the No. 1 overall seed this season, but they are a No. 1 seed again. I do not see Gardner-Webb getting it done this year, but I do wonder just how much this is going to play into the heads of this Wahoo team. Can they avoid the distractions that are going to come with the indignity they suffered last season? Because with De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy on the roster, this is the best team that Tony Bennett has ever had.
  2. THIS IS THE LOWEST SEED VILLANOVA HAS GOTTEN SINCE THE BIG EAST SPLIT: Since 2014, when Villanova returned to relevance and the first year that the old Big East turned into the new Big East, Villanova has been a No. 1 seed three times and a No. 2 seed twice. They’ve won two national titles in that time frame, and they’ve won nine of the 12 Big East titles in the last six years. This year, Villanova is younger and, frankly, not as good. That’s why they are the No. 6 seed despite winning the Big East regular season title and the Big East tournament title.
  3. CAN RICK BARNES WIN IN MARCH?: The former Texas coach is no stranger to having teams with some regular season success. But he has not been to the Final Four since T.J. Ford was on his roster in Austin. This will be his best shot. The Vols are absolutely loaded with under-recruited veterans that have a point to prove and an NBA future in front of them. There is no fight that they won’t win on a basketball court.

THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 2 Tennessee

Everyone is going to want to pick this Virginia team to get upset at some point before the Final Four because that is just what the Cavaliers do, and I get it to a point. The style that Virginia plays — limiting possessions as much as possible — makes it so that more things have to go right in order for them to win games against good teams. It makes sense. But it also makes sense that there just aren’t teams in the top half of their bracket that are going to be good enough to beat them.

That said, Tennessee definitely is good enough. I also don’t see them having too much of an issue getting to the Elite 8. Cincinnati is not a good matchup for a Tennessee team that no one is going to out-physical or push around, and Villanova — who I think gets past Purdue — relies on creating mismatches that they will not be able to create against Tennessee. Tennessee vs. UVA with a Final Four berth on the line would be a lot of fun.

THE FINAL FOUR SLEEPER IS … No. 6 seed Villanova

I honestly don’t think there is one in this bracket, at least not one that I love. Oregon has been playing really, really well lately, but they did it by beating up on bad Pac-12 teams. I don’t trust a Wisconsin team whose best player, Ethan Happ, can’t make free throws. Kansas State may or may not have Dean Wade, and even if they have him, I just cannot imagine the Wildcats trying to make shots against UVA. Carsen Edwards is good, but with the way he has been shooting of late, he is hurting Purdue more than he is helping them at times.

(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

HERE ARE YOUR UPSETS

No. 6 VILLANOVA vs. No. 3 PURDUE: Here’s my logic on this game: Purdue gets a ton of their shots directly out of the offense that they run. It’s heavy in ball-screens, has a lot of dribble-handoffs and even more movement and screening. Villanova is going to switch all of that, and Purdue doesn’t have the dudes to be able to create.

No. 12 OREGON over No. 5 WISCONSIN: The Ducks are just loaded with talent and athleticism all over their roster, which is something that Wisconsin lacks a lot of. As good as Ethan Happ has been, I think that Kenny Wooten can take him away. Oregon’s big, athletic wings will be all over Wisconsin’s perimeter players. I have a feeling Oregon will be favored by the time this tips off.

No. 13 UC IRVINE over No. 4 KANSAS STATE: This is contingent upon the status of Dean Wade. If he’s out, keep an eye on Irvine, who is a really good mid-major program.

BUT DON’T PICK THIS UPSET

No. 11 SAINT MARY’S over No. 6 VILLANOVA: I am on the side of trusting Villanova in March, but even when I don’t trust Villanova in March, I do like them against teams that can be taken out of what they do offensively by switching.

THE STUDS

  • DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia: For my money, he is the second-best player in college basketball considering the way and who he can guard. And he also happens to be a 6-foot-7 wing that shoots 47 percent from three and can do things like score 26 points on 9-for-11 shooting.
  • GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee: He is just a monster that sets the tone for everything that Tennessee does on both ends of the floor. He’s one of the best post scorers in college hoops and a guy with real three-point range these days, too.
  • ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin: On the one hand, Happ is a college basketball legend in the state of Wisconsin. On the other, he is susceptible to the Hack-a-Happ strategy. That’s a real problem.
  • CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: High-volume gunner that can pop off for 40 but has spent the last month playing wildly inefficient basketball.

THE STARS OF MARCH

  • JORDAN FORD, Saint Mary’s: The Gaels point guard is the second coming of Patty Mills. Maybe faster.
  • MAX HAZZARD, UC Irvine: Hazzard is the best player on the Anteaters, but he’ll have his hands full with a first round date with Barry Brown.

ONE GAME TO WATCH: No. 6 Villanova vs. No. 11 Saint Mary’s

Two well-coached teams that are really good in their league. Two teams that will play a slower brand of basketball but that also will take and can make a lot of threes. Should I remind everyone of Omar Samhan and what he did to Villanova in 2010, too?

ONE GAME THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 2 Tennessee

The Hoos and the Vols are both top five teams. They are both veteran and all-american laden. This is the game we need.

AND THE WINNER IS …

Virginia. They finally get the job done and get to the Final Four.

No. 1 South Carolina tops fifth-ranked UConn 81-77

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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HARTFORD, Conn. – In a rematch of last season’s national championship game, South Carolina came out on top again over UConn thanks to a strong fourth quarter by Aliyah Boston.

Geno Auriemma stepping onto the court to spike a water botte, that helped them, too.

Boston scored 23 of her 26 points in the second half, including 14 in the final period, to help the No. 1 Gamecocks beat the fifth-ranked Huskies 81-77 on Sunday in front of a sellout crowd.

“Aliyah is just relentless, she plays relentlessly although she had a subpar (first half) as far as statistics, she impacted the game,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “She doesn’t get flustered. she knew she didn’t play up to her standards. What does she do? Raise her standard. Bad first half or not she’s going to continue to play.”

While there wasn’t as much on the line as the title game last April, there was a high intensity to it, including Auriemma getting the technical late in the fourth quarter after getting frustrated by the officiating enough to throw the bottle.

“I thought there were a lot of things being overlooked. It was difficult for some of our guys to move out on the floor,” said Auriemma, UConn’s coach. “I didn’t think it was one key play, I just couldn’t keep quiet any longer. It was bad. … Dumb mistake by me. Bad decision.”

The Gamecocks (23-0) have won 29 consecutive games since losing to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament title game last year. They’ve won four of the past five meetings with the Huskies, including a victory in the NCAA championship game last season. That ended UConn’s perfect 11-0 record in title games.

“This was a national championship-like game. I wanted us to feel what it takes to do this,” Staley said.

Now South Carolina finally has a win in Connecticut after winning there before.

South Carolina used its size again to top the Huskies. The 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso and Boston, the reigning AP Player of the Year helped the Gamecocks have a 42-30 advantage on the boards, including grabbing 25 offensive rebounds.

Boston finished with 11 rebounds for the 76th double-double of her career. Cardoso added 17 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

With her team leading by four in the fourth quarter, Boston took over. She scored the next 12 points for South Carolina, two of those came when Auriemma tossed the water onto the court and was charged with the technical foul.

Boston hit the two free throws. She then hit a jumper, a 3-pointer and another basket to give the Gamecocks a double-digit advantage.

“I’m kind of in attack mode. In the second half I made more shots then I did in the first half,” Boston said.

Despite seeing their starting backcourt foul out, the short-handed Huskies (21-3) wouldn’t go away. They whittled the lead down to 80-77 with 10.8 seconds left on Aubrey Griffin’s three-point play.

Raven Johnson hit the first of two free throws a second later and UConn couldn’t convert to close out the game

“They have a lot to feel good about once they get past what it feels like to lose,” Auriemma said. “I feel better at 3 o’clock today then I did at 12 o’clock. I didn’t know how we’d respond. I knew we’d play hard and compete like hell. I didn’t know who was going to make a big play, who was going to get a big rebound, make a big shot. I know now more than I did at noon and I feel better about my team.”

Aaliyah Edwards led UConn with 25 points.

UConn got off to a solid start, outscoring South Carolina 25-14 in the opening period. Lou Lopez Senechal capped the strong start, hitting a running 3-pointer just before the buzzer.

South Carolina asserted its size in the second quarter with Cardoso scoring 11 points in the period. Her putback with just under 10 seconds left tied the game at 34 heading into the half.

TIP-INS:

UConn is 8-10 against No. 1 teams all time. … The Huskies are still missing guards Azzi Fudd (knee), Caroline Ducharme (concussion) as well as Paige Bueckers (knee) and Ice Brady (knee), who are both out for the season. … Many former UConn players were in the crowd including Sue Bird, Jen Rizzotti, and Napheesa Collier sitting a few rows behind the Huskies bench. … South Carolina has gone 41-6 against ranked teams since the start of the 2019-20 season.

DEPTH:

The Gamecocks reserves outscored UConn’s 37-0. The Huskies only had eight healthy players.

UP NEXT:

South Carolina: visits Auburn on Thursday before a showdown with No. 3 LSU on Feb. 12

UConn: visits Marquette on Wednesday.

No. 16 Duke tops No. 9 Notre Dame 57-52 for 1st place in ACC

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Celeste Taylor scored 14 points and No. 16 Duke came from behind for a 57-52 victory at No. 9 Notre Dame on Sunday to move into first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Trailing for most of the game’s first 28 minutes, the Blue Devils (20-3, 10-2 ACC) took the lead for good in the final minutes of the third quarter to knock off the Fighting Irish (18-4, 9-3) before a sellout crowd of 9,149 at Purcell Pavilion.

A jumper by Jordyn Oliver put Duke ahead 45-44 with 1:20 left in the third quarter and the visitors never trailed after that.

“I’m proud of my players for finishing the game,” Duke coach Kara Lawson said.

Duke led 48-46 going into the fourth quarter after trailing Notre Dame by as many as five points in the third quarter. A steal by Elizabeth Balogun in the final 15 seconds helped seal the win.

A 13-4 run helped Notre Dame take its biggest lead of the first half for either team at 31-23. The Irish led 31-25 at halftime.

“We fell short, but you know it’s a part of our growth,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “It’s part of our journey.”

Taylor scored 10 points for Duke in the second half. Balogun and Shayeann Day-Wilson finished with 9 points apiece and Taya Corosdale and Oliver had 8 each.

Maddy Westbeld, playing all 40 minutes, led Notre Dame with 15 points, Sonia Citron scored 14 and Olivia Miles added 11.

“She’s one of the best players in the country,” Lawson said of Miles, who logged just over 31 minutes. “We didn’t have to go against her for a quarter of the game.”

COLD SHOOTING

Neither team shot well in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame made just 2 of 13 shots from the floor and Duke was 3 of 13.

“We just talked about staying disciplined defensively and making it hard,” Lawson said. “I though we challenged shots.”

Ivey also addressed that stretch of the game.

“Some of those opportunities were in transition and we didn’t get a chance to capitalize,” she said. “We did a good job of finding the open person, we just didn’t nail the shots.”

SUPERB SUBS

Led by Corosdale and Oliver, Duke enjoyed a 21-4 edge in reserve scoring.

“I’m really proud of my players off the bench,” Lawson said. “Jordyn Oliver was really good.

“We needed to have that depth in scoring. Not only did they score but they were efficient from the field.”

The Blue Devils’ bench shot 9 of 15.

SHORT-HANDED IRISH

Notre Dame graduate student Dara Mabrey was lost for the season in the Jan. 22 game against Virginia.

Lauren Ebo, a 6-foot-4 graduate student, has missed the last three games with a lower-body injury.

“Ebo does a great job of being a precence on the block with her size and ability to rebound and play post defense,” Ivey said. “She’s been working really hard (at rehabilitation).

“It’s kind of day to day.”

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Irish fell out of a first-place tie with Duke in the ACC standings.

Duke: The Blue Devils are now alone atop the conference standings.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: The Irish meet Pitt in two of the next four contests – on Thursday in South Bend and on Sunday, Feb. 19 at Pittsburgh.

Duke: The only regular-season meeting between the Blue Devils and Boston College is Thursday at Boston.

Colorado State sorry for ‘Russia’ chant at Ukrainian player

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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FORT COLLINS, Colo. – Colorado State has apologized for a group of fans who chanted “Russia” at a player on an opposing team who is from Ukraine during Saturday’s game.

Utah State’s Max Shulga is from Kyiv and was shooting free throws when TV cameras picked up the chant from the student section during the game in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Russia invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago.

“On behalf of Colorado State, we apologize to the student-athlete and Utah State. This is a violation of our steadfast belief in the Mountain West Sportsmanship Policy and University Principles of Community,” Colorado State said in a statement.

“Every participant, student, and fan should feel welcomed in our venues, and for something like this to have occurred is unacceptable at Colorado State.”

Utah State beat CSU 88-79.

Duke edges North Carolina 63-57 behind Roach, Lively

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
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DURHAM, N.C. — Jeremy Roach scored 20 points, Dereck Lively II had career highs of eight blocks and 14 rebounds and Duke defeated North Carolina 63-57.

Kyle Filipowski added 14 points and Tyrese Proctor 11 for the Blue Devils (17-6, 8-4 ACC), who won their third straight and beat the Tar Heels (15-8, 7-5) for the first time in three meetings, including in last year’s Final Four in the NCAA Tournament.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot had 14 points and 10 rebounds for his 63rd career double-double, extending his own program record, Leaky Black had 13 points and 10 rebounds, Caleb Love added 12 points and RJ Davis 11.

Roach scored eight of Duke’s final 10 points, including the last four after Lively’s tiebreaking dunk with 1:35 to go. North Carolina missed its last five shots, including a trio of 3-point tries in the final minute.

The Blue Devils’ six-point winning margin matched their largest lead.

Neither team reached 40% shooting but Duke outscored North Carolina 20-2 off fast breaks and was 11 of 15 at the free-throw line to only 2 of 3 for the Tar Heels.

The stat sheet was fairly even at halftime when Duke led 33-32 except for one telling stat, a 16-0 advantage for the Blue Devils on fast-break points as they scored repeatedly off transition.

A 14-5 run erased a seven-point North Carolina lead — the Tar Heels’ largest — and put Duke in front 26-24 with just under four minutes left in the half. A Proctor 3-pointer broke the fourth tie before Bacot cut it to the one-point margin at the break. Bacot had 12 points in the first half. Roach had 10.

The game matched two men who played in this rivalry and are now leading the programs they played for: first-year Duke coach Jon Scheyer and Hubert Davis, in his second year for North Carolina.

The teams will meet again in their regular-season finale at Chapel Hill on March 4. Duke plays at No. 23 Miami on Monday. North Carolina is at Wake Forest on Tuesday.

No. 13 Iowa State rolls past eighth-ranked Kansas 68-53

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
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AMES, Iowa – Jaren Holmes scored all 15 of his points in the second half as No. 13 Iowa State rolled past No. 8 Kansas 68-53 on Saturday.

Osun Osunniyi added 13 for the Cyclones (16-6, 7-3 Big 12), who stayed within at least a game of front-running Texas in the conference standings. Tamin Lipsey added eight rebounds and 10 assists.

“Today, we came out and played desperate,” Holmes said.

Jalen Wilson led the Jayhawks (18-5, 6-4) with 26 points for his sixth straight game with at least 20. No other Kansas player had more than 8 points.

“It’s not a formula for success for us,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “We need balance from our starting five. If one guy feels like he’s got to go do it all on his own, it crashes the offense.”

The Cyclones led for all but 1:14 of the game, building a 34-16 scoring edge in the paint. Kansas struggled early, making just two of their first 10 shots and committing 11 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

Iowa State shot 46% for the game.

“From the beginning, we gave them some easy buckets,” Wilson said. “That’s something we’ve struggled with (defensively) … the easiest way to get comfortable is easy buckets, layups, stuff like that.”

Iowa State was up 33-21 at the break.

Holmes missed all four shots in the first half, but after getting sick at halftime, he helped the Cyclones stretched the lead to 42-31 early in the second half with a 3-pointer and layup.

“I felt a little nauseous the whole day,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with some sickness over the past week and a half.”

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The Jayhawks dropped to 3-4 during a stretch in which six of its seven opponents were ranked. The lone unranked foe was Kentucky. … Kansas committed a season-high 20 turnovers Saturday. … The loss to Iowa State was Self’s first in five meetings with second-year Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger.

Iowa State: Improved to 12-0 at home this season and 5-0 in the Big 12. It was also the Cyclones’ fifth win over a top-10 opponent in the past two seasons.

UP NEXT

Kansas: Hosts No. 10 Texas on Monday.

Iowa State: Travels to West Virginia on Wednesday.