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2019 NCAA tournament: Re-ranking Sweet 16 teams

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The first weekend of the NCAA tournament has come to a close, which means that it is time to re-rank the 16 teams left in the field. 

This ranking is the undisputed, inarguable way that these teams should be ranked. 

1. DUKE

Duke probably should be out of the NCAA tournament right now. They were not the better team on Sunday night. UCF was. But, it seems, that Johnny Dawkins did something to piss off the Basketball Gods, because they were not looking out for him.

As a result, Duke is in the Sweet 16, and if you think that I am going to back off the take that the Blue Devils are the best team in college basketball, you’re nuts. I think the UCF game had more to do with matchup than anything else — UCF is uniquely suited to beating this Duke team — and I’m not convinced the rest of the country has the horses to do what the Knights did.

Only time will tell if that is a foolish take.

2. VIRGINIA

Virginia shook off a slow start against Gardner-Webb and make their way to the Sweet 16 in relatively comfortable fashion. With the way the draw broke down, Virginia actually has the easiest path to the Final Four if, for no other reason, they are the only team that doesn’t have to face a top five seed in the Sweet 16. They just draw the Pac-12 tournament champion Oregon Ducks, who have won ten straight games, the last eight of which came in road or neutral court venues.

Did I mention that this Sweet 16 is going to be amazing?

3. GONZAGA

It’s crazy to think that we’re just a week removed from everyone questioning just how good Gonzaga is after they lost to Saint Mary’s in the title game of the WCC tournament. It’s also crazier to think that Gonzaga is the No. 1-seed that faced the least game pressure in getting to the Sweet 16. They were the only top seed that did not play like they had their feet stuck in quicksand in their opening round game, and while Baylor made some noise in the second half, there was never any real threat that the Zags would lose.

Oh, and should I mention that Brandon Clarke has finally proven himself to the nation at large? The 36 points, eight boards, five blocks, three assists and two steals he had against Baylor was arguably the most impressive performance of the first weekend.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

4. NORTH CAROLINA

The Tar Heels continued to roll this weekend, knocking off Iona and Washington to get to the Sweet 16. Coby White has continued to play well as Luke Maye and Cam Johnson have been just as good as advertised, but the difference maker for UNC is Nassir Little. He played his best back-to-back games in the first weekend of the tournament, averaging 19.5 points in the two wins, and now the Tar Heels head into a matchup against a high-flying, spread-you-out Auburn team that sets the table for Little to have an another monster game.

5. TEXAS TECH

I am, admittedly, higher than I maybe should be on this Texas Tech team, but in my defense, that’s because I think the world of Chris Beard as a head coach and Jarrett Culver as a go-to guy. The Red Raiders are one of the nation’s elite defenses, and with the way they have been shooting the ball over the course of the last eight weeks, they can hang with just about anyone. Throw in the fact that they were the top seed that was challenged the least in the first weekend, and my love affair with Texas Tech is still in full force.

6. TENNESSEE

I’m not really sure what to make of the Vols at this point.

On the one hand, this is a group that has been a top eight team all season long. They have an all-american in Grant Williams that played like an all-american this weekend as well as a future NBA wing in Admiral Schofield who played like a future NBA wing. That’s all good!

But they also blew two massive leads against two overmatched teams. So while it is promising that they were able to avoid a complete capitulation against Colgate and Iowa, it sure is a concern that Tennessee has not put together a full 40 minutes yet in this event, and that this is coming after that embarrassing loss to Auburn in the SEC title game.

7. MICHIGAN

Every time I watch Michigan play I wonder just how in the world they are going to be able to score enough points to win. Then they start playing defense, Zavier Simpson starts making hook shots and before you know it, they’re up 40-28 with 12 minutes left and a comeback seems impossible. Watching the Michigan buzzsaw take on the Texas Tech buzzsaw this week is going to be tremendous theater.

8. FLORIDA STATE

I’ve come full circle on Florida State this season. I thought they were one of the most overrated teams in the country heading into the year, and at this point I think that they are probably the most underseeded team in the field. Part of it is just how disruptive their defense can be, with the number of switchable athletes they have on the roster. Part of it is the emergence of Terance Mann as the heart and soul of this group. And perhaps the biggest part of it is Mfiondu Kabengele, who has developed into one of the best players in this tournament even if Leonard Hamilton refuses to use him in the starting lineup.

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9. AUBURN

Easily the most volatile team in the tournament from game to game and possession to possession. They probably should have lost to New Mexico State in the first round of the tournament, and they followed that up by absolutely drilling Kansas. When they get into a rhythm, when their defense is creating offense and they are hitting their threes, they can run anyone off the floor.

Including North Carolina.

10. HOUSTON

I don’t know if the Cougars have enough to be able to make a run to the Final Four, but I do know that they are as well-coached and as disciplined as anyone left in this event. The way that they move and rotate on the defensive end of the floor is so impressive, and their quarter of guards — Corey Davis Jr., Armoni Brooks, Galen Robinson, Dejon Jarreau — are really dangerous. Getting Kentucky with a banged up P.J. Washington is a nice little break, too.

11. MICHIGAN STATE

The Spartans are the one team this season that just keep performing at a ridiculously high level despite the fact that they don’t necessarily have the roster pieces that justify how good they have been. So while part of me says, “this is why you trust Izzo,” another part of me is waiting for the exhaustion to kick in and the lack of depth to kick in. How long can Cassius Winston carry a team on his back?

12. VIRGINIA TECH

When Justin Robinson was fully healthy in January, Virginia Tech was a top ten basketball team. When he was gone, they went 7-5 and stumbled their way into a No. 4 seed. Now that he’s back, is he healthy enough to make the Hokies a top ten caliber team again? I’m not sold on that yet, not when he spent quite a bit of time in the first weekend hobbling around on a foot that looked like it still hurt.

13. KENTUCKY

Can anyone give me a definitive answer on the status of P.J. Washington?

Anyone?

Because he has been Kentucky’s best player this season. When the Wildcats made the jump from being a team that we thought had a chance to be great into being a team that actually was great, it was when Washington turned into a superhuman. He was the best player in college hoops for a five-week stretch. That’s when Kentucky became a real title contender.

And he was in a cast — not a walking boot, a cast — this past weekend.

Maybe Cal is telling the truth when he says that this was more precautionary than anything else. At the very least, I’m skeptical, and even if that is the truth, are we sure that Washington will be 100 percent if the cast does come off for Friday’s game against Houston?

With a healthy P.J. Washington, Kentucky slots in right behind Tennessee on this list for me. Without him, they need to prove to me they can win it all.

14. PURDUE

We saw just how good can be when Carsen Edwards has a ceiling game on Saturday night. He went for 42 points and the Boilermakers beat Villanova by 26. We also saw that Purdue is beatable when Edwards has what has become an all to typical performance for him: He went 7-for-23 from the floor in the first round and Purdue because Old Dominion by just 13 points, which wasn’t enough for a cover in a lot of places.

15. LSU

If we’re talking about talent, I’m not sure there are four teams with more than LSU has on their roster You can see how good they are when they jump out to massive leads on anyone they come across. LSU’s problem is they haven’t been able to respond to halftime adjustments that their opponents make, case-in-point being their inability to solve Maryland’s junk 1-2-2 zone in the second round. If Tremont Waters doesn’t bail them out with a tough, game-winning bucket in the second round, we might be talking about Maryland in this space instead.

16. OREGON

Here’s the crazy thing about Oregon being ranked 16th on this list: I think you can make an argument that the Ducks, who were a preseason top 15 teams, are right about in that same range right now. Louis King has been balling of late. Kenny Wooten has gone full Jordan Bell on us. Payton Pritchard has had his star turn in this tournament. There is plenty of talent on this roster, and the Ducks have found a way to make it all fit together. They’ve won 10 straight games now, and sure have looked like a team that can threaten Virginia in the next round.

Women’s Wednesday: Kobe Bryant’s impact on women’s basketball

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“His legacy will live on. You’ll feel Kobe Bryant.”

Dawn Staley’s words ring true as the world continues to mourn the untimely and tragic passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, as well as his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.  

Staley, the head coach for the South Carolina women’s basketball team, is a Hall of Fame coach and player and a three-time Olympic gold medalist. She was also a friend of Kobe’s, growing up in Philadelphia and sharing a gym with him under the watch of the 76ers’ John Lucas. The two also participated in the Olympic games together. 

The Laker legend is known worldwide for his impact on the NBA, with five championship titles, two Finals MVPs, and more.

While his resume is endless, Staley also remembers “The Black Mamba” for the father he was to four daughters, and the impact he had on women’s basketball. 

“Kobe was like no other when it came to supporting women’s basketball,” Staley expressed.

“He single-handedly took women’s basketball to another level by showing up at the games, by giving interviews and expressing what he felt was in his heart about women’s basketball. Once you’re able to see women’s basketball in that light, it helps grow the game, especially when it’s someone as powerful as Kobe Bryant, and as thoughtful, as detailed, as he was.”

Staley stressed the impact that Gianna’s love of the game had on her father being a fierce advocate for women’s basketball, saying, “I think Kobe would have been like this in whatever his daughters chose to have a passion about.”

“He thought long term and expressed things that no other professional men’s basketball player would ever say, that there are players in the WNBA that could play in the NBA,” the Gamecocks coach explained. “Kobe saw what he was instilling in his daughter. He probably wanted to say those things about Gigi… that she could one day play in the NBA.” 

After his retirement, Kobe could be found sitting courtside with his daughter, affectionately nicknamed “Gigi,” but he could also be found coaching at Mamba Sports Academy, where he was the head coach for Gigi’s team, the Los Angeles Lady Mambas.

Gigi dreamed of playing for UConn, and the pair frequently went to Husky games together, as well as championed other top women’s programs, such as Oregon. 

“If you look at every single player that he has touched — Sabrina Ionescu, or the entire Oregon women’s basketball team,” Staley said, with emotion evident in her voice. “You look at UConn. Gigi wanted to go to UConn, she was fascinated with what accomplishments and traditions UConn stood for. We feel [her loss], there is a big void.”

Kobe’s passion for basketball, paired with the love he had for Gigi, has left many thinking that he would have become more involved in the WNBA in years to come. 

“I think women’s basketball would’ve grown to the point where Kobe would’ve put more of his money into it, because I know he put money into the Mamba Academy,” Staley said. “I’m sure he eventually would’ve gotten around to maybe even buying a team or buying into the league in some form or fashion.”

The devastating helicopter crash that took nine lives — including two other young girls, GiGi’s teammates, taken far too early — reminds us all of the fragility of life, and how quickly it can be taken away from us. 

In the wake of this tragedy, people are turning towards love and one another. 

Timelines are flooded with stories and anecdotes about Kobe, his relationship with his wife, Vanessa, and four daughters. Buildings and memorials all over the country are lit up in purple and gold, while tributes for the all-star pour in from as far away as the Philippines. 

Kobe has left a lasting legacy, one that Staley won’t forget.

“I hope with several of the NBA players, when they speak on keeping Kobe’s legacy alive, they will bring the women’s game along with it.

“Because that’s what Kobe Bryant was doing.”

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

UConn faced off against the U.S. national team on Monday night, putting up impressive show but ultimately falling short of an upset in a 79-64 loss. Fiver former Huskies dressed for the national team’s exhibition game.

Alongside many NBA teams, UConn and Team USA took honorary shot clock violations to start the game as a tribute to Kobe Bryant. 

The Huskies set up a stunning memorial for the late Gianna Bryant, who dreamt of playing for UConn one day, on their bench:

– The top teams in the county took care of business this weekend, with not a single ranked team upset by a lower-ranked team on Saturday or Sunday. 

– South Carolina maintained its No. 1 spot atop the polls, with 26 first-place votes from the AP panel, after an 88-53 rout of Georgia on Sunday. Baylor is No. 2 once again as well. 

– The rest of the top-10 reflects the talent among the top teams, with UConn and Oregon swapping spots as Oregon notched two back-to-back wins over rival Oregon State to take No. 3 in the rankings from the Huskies. The Ducks beat the Beavers 76-64 on Friday, outscoring Oregon State 45-29 in the first half, and then again on Sunday, 66-57.

When asked about her mentor and friend Kobe Bryant after the game, Sabrina Ionescu replied that “this season’s for him”:

Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu continued on her record-breaking rampage, toppling Gary Payton’s passing record as the all-time leader for Pac-12’s men and women’s assists. She is now No. 7 on the women’s career assists list.

– In another in-state rivalry, then-No. 18 Arizona secured the 59-53 upset over then-No. 16 Arizona State. The Wildcats jumped up to No. 16 while the Sun Devils dropped to 19.

– No. 7 N.C. State continues to impress with a 76-68 win over rival North Carolina. 

– And in the Play Of The Week: Anna Makurat goes behind the back to Christyn Williams for the layup in STYLE:

“I trust the SEC office will do the right thing,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes says after bump from official

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Tennessee 63-58 loss to Texas A&M wasn’t without some controversy.

In the final seconds of the game, official Mike Nance appeared to bump into Vols coach Rick Barnes, who was standing stationary on the sideline, and the two exchanged words.

“I really have a lot of confidence in the SEC office that they are going to look at that,” Barnes said after the game about the incident, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. “I believe they will look at this game and take it apart. I just think they will do that. That shouldn’t happen in any way shape or form. I would like to say what I want to say, but I won’t because I trust the SEC office will do the right thing.”

Nance was headed to the monitor to review a call when the bump occurred, and Nance appeared to ask Barnes if the coach initiated the contact.

“Coach (Bob) Knight told me a long time ago that in a game officials are going to miss seven to nine or 10, 11, 12 calls,” Barnes said. “He kept going up every year. He said, ‘You just hope things aren’t egregious at any point in time.'”

Coach K screams at Duke fans, defending Jeff Capel

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In one of the stranger things that we’ve seen in college basketball this season, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski went off on the Cameron Crazies for what he believed was a shot they were taking at former Duke player Jeff Capel.

The crazies were chanting, “Jeff Capel sit with us.” Coach K thought he heard something else.

Check out the video:

After the game, Coach K acknowledged that he misheard what the fans said, adding that he will apologize for the mishap.

“I made a mistake,” he said. “But I’d rather make a mistake for the protection of my guy.

“I love Jeff. I erred on that side. I just hope the ACC doesn’t fine me like they did [Mike] Brey.”

He ended the back and forth with this: “Jeff can sit with me anytime.”

 

Tuesday’s Things to Know: Villanova gears up for big stretch, Auburn wins ugly in 2OT and Rutgers keeps rolling

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The headliner of Tuesday night was Virginia regaining an NCAA tournament pulse with a win over No. 5 Florida State, but there were plenty of other developments on the bubble across the country.  Here’s what else you need to know:

1. Villanova runs streak to seven ahead of grueling stretch

Jay Wright’s team had little trouble winning its seventh-straight Tuesday with a 79-59 victory at Madison Square Garden over St. John’s. Saddiq Bey was brilliant, scoring 23 points on 8 of 14 shooting, including 5 of 9 from deep. Collin Gillespie was equally great, going for 17 points, 13 boards and six assists while Jeremiah Robinson-Early had 13 points and 14 rebounds. Cole Swider and Justin Moore both had 11 to put all five Wildcat starters in double-figures to help offset the absence of the injured Jermaine Samuels.

The victory, while unremarkable given St. John’s mediocrity, keeps momentum for Villanova heading into a huge stretch that very well could decide the Big East. They’ve got Creighton at home Saturday before a trip to No. 16 Butler and then back-to-back home games against No. 10 Seton Hall and Marquette, which handed the ‘Cats their lone conference loss this season.

How Villanova emerges from this four-game stretch – and subsequently what the Big East landscape looks like – will likely be determined by a couple of things. If the ‘Cats are going to make it through in the conference driver’s seat, it’ll probably because Villanova’s defense proves for real. The Cats’ defense this season on the whole has been fine, ranking 60th nationally on KenPom, but it’s been the best in the Big East during conference play. They’ve been stingier both inside and outside the arc while improving on the glass. They’ve kept opponents from launching a lot of 3s and have mostly kept them off the line.

Wright’s team is going to be fine offensively, even if they haven’t been elite in Big East play yet. If the defense holds up, the ‘Cats are going to be sitting pretty come March.

2. No. 17 Auburn comes from behind to win in 2OT

Things were looking pretty dire for Auburn. The Tigers narrowly avoided a third loss in four games over the weekend when they blew a big lead to a sub-.500 Iowa State team, and then they fell behind by 19 in the second half Tuesday at Ole Miss.

It turned out to be nothing to be worried about, unless you were on your couch hoping to watch good overtime basketball.

The Tigers narrowly escaped, 83-82, against the Rebels, overcoming a huge deficit and mistakes of their own making that could have negated their comeback but instead will be footnotes.

Auburn shot 56 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point range in the second half to mount its comeback while Ole Miss shot just 33 percent. They nearly gave the game away, though, after taking a two-point lead in the final seconds of overtime. The Tigers missed a jumper that would have put them up four with 25 seconds left, but the shot missed and they inexplicably fouled on the rebound to allow Ole Miss to tie the game with 22 seconds left on free throws. After a missed 3 in a tie game by Danjel Purifoy, Ole Miss gave Auburn a gift it just wouldn’t accept. Devontae Shuler’s inbounds pass under the basket with 2 seconds left went astray and was headed out of bounds, which would have resulted in no time coming off the clock and Auburn getting the ball on the baseline, but Isaac Okoro, for some reason, grabbed the ball, waited a second and called timeout. Samir Doughty’s forthcoming 3 out of the huddle as time expired miss to send things to 2OT.

Ole Miss led by as many as four in overtime, but Auburn took the lead with 1:41 left. The two teams traded missed opportunities for the remainder of the game, leaving the Tigers with a win.

College basketball: Not always pretty, but rarely boring.

3. Rutgers continues to build its case

It’s been 29 years since Rutgers last made the NCAA tournament. It’s been 13 since the Scarlet Knights even finished above .500 in a season. Both those streaks seem incredibly likely to fall in just a handful of weeks.

Rutgers ran its overall record to 16-5 and its Big Ten mark to 7-3 with a 70-63 victory Tuesday at home against Purdue.

Steve Pikiell’s team is building a bulletproof resume after losses to St. Bonaventure and Pittsburgh in the first month of the season made it seem as the status quo would be very much in place in Piscataway this winter. Since then, the only three losses Rutgers have taken have all been on the road to high-quality opponents, with Michigan State, Illinois and Iowa the only teams able to get the best of them.

Rutgers is doing it o the strength of a top-10 defense that overcomes an offense that can be clunky at times, especially at the 3-point line. Defense as stout as the Scarlet Knights are playing, though, makes up for a lot of deficiencies on the other end.

Bubble Banter: Virginia, Mississippi State the biggest winners of the night

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It was a wild night on the bubble on Tuesday night, as 12 teams with their NCAA tournament hopes still up in the air were in action.

A full bubble watch breakdown can be found here. Here are tonight’s winners and losers:

WINNERS

VIRGINIA (NET: 58, NBC: Off the bubble): It is impossible to overstate just how big a win over Florida State (15) for a Virginia team that entered the night without a top 50 win to their name. They had one Quad 1 win on their resume — at Syracuse (64) — to go along with wins over Virginia Tech (50) at home and Arizona State (56) on a neutral floor. That’s it. When combined with a pair of Quad 3 losses — South Carolina (89) at home and at Boston College (153) — there’s a reason that the Wahoos were completely out of the NCAA tournament picture entering the day.

And to be honest, I’m not sure that a win over a top 20 team at home is really going to change all that much. But with just three more games against the top of the ACC left on their schedule, this was an opportunity that could not slip through their fingers.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (NET: 48, NBC: Off the bubble): The Bulldogs added a critical road win on Tuesday night, going into Gainesville and knocking off Florida (37). It’s the second Quad 1 win in six days for Mississippi State, who needs to add some pop to the top of a resume that includes a pair of Quad 3 losses. This will help.

MICHIGAN (NET: 35, NBC: 10): Michigan entered Tuesday night having lost four games in a row and five of their last six and were playing without Isaiah Livers and Zavier Simpson at Nebraska (158). They could not lost this game. They did not.

RHODE ISLAND (NET: 47, NBC: First four out): Rhode Island is in a spot where they probably cannot afford to take a loss to anyone other than Dayton (5), who they play twice, the rest of the season. On Tuesday night, the Rams beat George Mason. Next up: VCU (39) on Friday night.

UTAH STATE (NET: 62, NBC: Off the bubble): Utah State absolutely could not lose at Wyoming (299) on Tuesday, and they didn’t. The Aggies have neutral site wins over LSU (25) and Florida (37), which is enough to keep them in this discussion despite road losses at Boise State (102), UNLV (130) and Air Force (184). They make the trip to Viejas Arena to take on San Diego State (2) on Saturday, and that feels like a must-win for Utah State at this point.

LOSERS

TENNESSEE (NET: 55, NBC: Next four out): The Vols took a loss that they just could not afford to take on Tuesday, falling to a bad Texas A&M (149) at home. It’s their first Quad 3 loss, meaning that now half of their eight losses are outside the Quad 1 level. With just two Quad 1 wins, neither of which came against a top 35 opponent, Tennessee is backing themselves into a corner. The good news? They still play eight Quad 1 games, and that doesn’t include Florida at home. The Vols can survive this if they get hot.

SYRACUSE (NET: 64, NBC: Off the bubble): The Orange saw their five game winning streak come to an end on Tuesday as they fell at Clemson (81). This is not a terrible loss, but for a team that is already trying to make up ground on the field, these are the kind of losses that really hurt.

RICHMOND (NET: 54, NBC: First four out): Tuesday’s visit to the Siegel Center was Richmond’s last shot at getting a Quad 1 win dueing the regular season. They lost to VCU (39) by 17 points. For my money, the Spiders’ at-large hopes are more or less dead.

ST. JOHN’S (NET: 67, NBC: 10): The Johnnies lost for the seventh time in their last nine games when Villanova (14) waltzed into MSG and beat the Red Storm by 20. That’s not ideal. St. John’s is still in the mix because of wins over West Virginia (7) and Arizona (10), the latter of which came on a neutral court. But with road games left against Villanova, Seton Hall (12) and Butler (9), Mike Anderson’s club has backed themselves into a corner.

PURDUE (NET: 36, NBC: Next four out): The Boilermakers dropped to 11-10 on the season with a 70-63 loss at Rutgers (23) on Tuesday night. That means Purdue has dropped five of their last seven games. They’re 2-7 against Quad 1 opponents with a 29 point win over Michigan State (8), but there are a lot of losses on their resume already and the Big Ten is a bear.

VIRGINIA TECH (NET: 50, NBC: First four out): The Hokies did themselves no favors by losing at Miami (106) on Tuesday night. In the last three days, they’ve suffered their two worst losses of the season. The Hokies also have a non-conference SOS that ranks 341st, which eliminates much of their margin for error. The good news? They still have pair of Quad 1 wins — including Michigan State (10) on a neutral — and four of their five Quad 1 and 2 wins came away from home. It’s not all bad.

GEORGETOWN (NET: 52, NBC: Next four out): The Hoyas lost their third straight game on Tuesday night and have now dropped six of their last eight. Making things worse is that they were up by 13 points on Butler (9) late in the first half. This was their best chance to land an elite win this season. They still get Villanova (14) and Seton Hall (12) at home, but the biggest issue with Georgetown’s tournament chances is that they are trending in the wrong direction with just seven scholarship players.