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Sweet 16 Preview: Biggest questions facing teams in South Region

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The Sweet 16 will kick off on Thursday, and the beautiful thing about the final four rounds of this year’s NCAA tournament is that we are guaranteed to have 15 games that will feature dynamite matchups.

There’s an argument to be made that the top 15 teams in the country are still alive, with the 16th being the hottest team in all of college basketball.

With that in mind, we are going to dive into every team left, region by region, and give you the biggest question that needs to be answered if they are going to have a chance to win the national title. 

First up, the South. 

VIRGINIA: Are they mentally tough enough to win two more games?

Look, this is not going to stop being a thing until Virginia does what they need to do to ensure that it is no longer a thing.

Tony Bennett has had this thing rolling in Charlottesville for six years now. In the previous five NCAA tournament, there were four times that Virginia was a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed. In those seasons, they lost to:

  • No. 4 seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16 in 2014.
  • No. 7 seed Michigan State in the second round in 2015.
  • No. 10 seed Syracuse in the Elite 8 in 2016, when they blew a 15 point lead in the final eight minutes.
  • UMBC.

And at this point, I think that it is pretty evident that this is a mental thing. If the meltdown against UMBC wasn’t enough to tip you off, then the way that Virginia started against Gardner-Webb in the first round this season — digging a 30-16 hole as they played about as scared as a team as good as Virginia can play — should have been all the proof that you needed.

At this point it is not about the opponent to me, not when the other three teams in their region are all beatable.

It’s about Virginia.

And their ability to handle the moment.

TENNESSEE: How good is Tennessee defensively?

Last year, with essentially this same group of guys, Tennessee finished the season as the No. 6 defense in KenPom’s rankings. This year, that is not the case. The Vols are hovering around the top 40 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. They go through stretches where it seems like they are coasting — frankly, this is a thing on both ends of the floor — and where this has been manifesting is with their ability to run teams off of the three-point line.

In Tennessee’s last six games, they have been lit up from the perimeter. They’re 4-2 in that stretch, which includes the two NCAA tournament games where they blew big leads. When Colgate erased a 15 point second half deficit to take the lead in the first round, they shot 15-for-29 from three. Iowa’s comeback was more a result of the Hawkeyes pounding the ball into the paint, where their bigs were able to go one-on-one because Tennessee didn’t want to leave shooters. Auburn shot 15-for-40 from three in their blowout win in the SEC title game.

I say all that to say this: Tennessee, who ranks 207th in defensive three-point percentage, is likely going to have to get through Purdue — who gets 39 percent of their points from beyond the arc this season — and Virginia — who is sixth-nationally in three-point percentage — to get to the Final Four.

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PURDUE: Will we get Good Carsen or Bad Carsen?

The most impressive part about the coaching job that Matt Painter has done this season, the incredible thing about the fact that Purdue won a share of the Big Ten regular season title this year, is that all of this happened while Carsen Edwards was busy operating as a super-high usage and uber-low efficiency player. There were just nine players in college basketball this season that posted a higher usage rate that Edwards — putting that in context, R.J. Barrett wasn’t even all that close — but Edwards finished Big Ten play with an offensive rating of 100.0 (which is not good) while shooting 34 percent from the floor and 30 percent from three. In the four games before exploding for 42 points against Villanova, he shot 26.9 percent from the field. He was 4-for-24 at Indiana. He was 3-for-16 at Nebraska. He was 7-for-35 in two games against Michigan State.

And despite all of that, Purdue still finished the season with the fifth-best offense in the country and the second-best offense in the Big Ten, according to KenPom.

Point being, when Edwards struggles, Purdue is still really good.

But when he gets it going?

When he’s Good Carsen instead of Bad Carsen?

The Boilermakers are downright scary.

Should I mention that Tennessee has really struggled to guard on the perimeter since they lost to Auburn to close the regular season?

OREGON: Just how good are the Ducks?

Oregon might be the hottest team in college basketball right now. They’ve won ten straight games. Eight of those games have been either on the road or on a neutral court. They are in the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed, and they are playing precisely the brand of basketball that Dana Altman has become famous for: A talented lead guard surrounded by three big, athletic wings and one ridiculously athletic rim-protector in the middle.

(Let me take a victory lap here: I said before the season started that Oregon would be better playing Kenny Wooten at the five and not playing Bol Bol, and … well … here we are.)

But they haven’t really beaten anyone all that impressive during this run. Eight of the ten wins in this streak came against Pac-12 competition, and even those they won at Washington and beat Washington by 20 on a neutral court, it’s still a Washington team that lost to Cal. The win over Wisconsin is solid, but it seems silly to get too worked up over beating the fifth-beat team in the Big Ten.

Let me be clear here: I think that Oregon is legit, but there certainly is a possibility that all this success is simply a by-product of kicking the tail of everyone in a bad league and getting hot against a No. 5 seed at the right time.

Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim comment on death of Kobe Bryant and daughter, Gianna

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Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was the head coach of the USA Men’s National team for nearly a decade, and in that time, he won two gold medals with Kobe Bryant.

Bryant, and his daughter Gianna, died on Sunday morning after a helicopter that they were flying in crashed in Calabasas, Cali.

“We have tragically lost one of the greatest sports figures of our time with the passing of Kobe Bryant,” Coach K said. “He was an incredibly gifted person who was universally respected. He was in constant pursuit of doing something special and there will never be a greater warrior in our sport.

“I had the amazing honor of coaching Kobe in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, and I will always remember how much he cherished representing his country in a first-class manner playing the game he so loved. The game of basketball is better today because of Kobe, and he deserves eternal appreciation for that. This is a devastating loss, made even more tragic by the passing of his daughter, Gianna, and all others on board. The entire Krzyzewski family is saddened as we genuinely loved and admired Kobe. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife, Vanessa, their daughters Natalia, Bianka, and Capri, and the families of those involved.”

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim was an assistant on the 2008 Gold Medal winning team, dubbed the Reedem Team. That squad restored the image of USA Basketball after winning bronze medals in the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 World Championships.

“I first saw him in person when he came to the qualifier in ’07 before the Olympic year,” Boeheim told Syracuse.com. “He came in the first day and worked twice as hard as everybody else. He taught all the young players, LeBron and Carmelo and all those guys: ‘This is what you gotta do. You gotta go after this.’

“We lost in the World Championship the year before. And he just showed everybody — this is what you do. And we overpowered everybody in that tournament, then we went to the Olympics and overpowered everybody. When it was a close game against Spain in the finals, he took the ball, made the play to win the game.

“That’s who he was. He set a high standard. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen. Jordan, I didn’t coach, but Jordan was the same. Of all the guys that I’ve ever coached and ever seen, he worked harder than everybody.”

Tom Izzo broke the news of Kobe Bryant’s death to Cassius Winston on live TV

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While the shock and immediacy of Kobe Bryant’s death spread through my network of friends and social media follows like wildfire on Sunday afternoon, one thing I kept thinking about was how many people involved with the game of basketball were actually playing while this was happening.

Take Michigan State and Minnesota, for example. The news of Bryant’s death broke around 2:30 p.m. ET. This game tipped off at 3 p.m. ET. Cassius Winston, Michigan State’s resident all-american, found out about Kobe’s death live on TV after the game came to an end:

 

Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu breaks down during moment of silence honoring Kobe Bryant

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Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu was moved to tears during a pregame moment of silence in honor of Kobe Bryant prior to a rivalry game against Oregon State on Sunday:

Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna died Sunday morning in a place crash that also resulted in the death of one of Gianna’s teammates and a parent.

Ionescu is the best women’s player in the country, recently surpassing Gary Payton for the Pac-12 career assist record, and she has developed a friendship with Kobe Bryant over the years. Gianna, a budding basketball star in her own right, was a huge fan of Sabrina Ionescu’s game, and Kobe Bryant had brought her and her teammates to a number of Oregon games in recent years.

These are the details of the crash, according to our Kurt Helin:

The crash took place in Calabasas, an area about 30 miles northeast of the Staples Center, where Kobe starred as a player for more than a decade. It is not far from the Mamba Academy athletic training center where Kobe was both an owner and an active participant. It was a foggy day in Southern California, which could have contributed to the crash.

The crash killed five people, of which Kobe was one.

Kobe was 41. He and his wife Vanessa have four daughters. Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna was aboard the helicopter with Kobe (they were on their way to one of her basketball games, along with a fellow teammate of Gianna’s and her parent).

 

Saturday’s Things To Know: Kentucky survives, Ayo Dosunmu’s on a tear, Roy and Huggs reach milestones

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It was actually a relatively slow day for a Saturday in late-January in college hoops, but there is still plenty to discuss. Here are the ten things that you need to know:

1. No. 15 KENTUCKY KNOCKED OFF No. 18 TEXAS TECH

Nick Richards went for 25 points, 14 boards and four blocks and Immanuel Quickley chipped in with 21 points of his own as Kentucky went into Lubbock and knocked off the Red Raiders in overtime. A full breakdown of that game can be found here.

2. TEXAS TECH IS IN REAL BUBBLE TROUBLE

I’m not sure people realize just how little their is on Texas Tech’s resume right now. They beat Louisville (11) on a neutral court. They beat Iowa State (70) at home. They beat Oklahoma State (83) at home. They won at Kansas State (89). Combined, that’s one Quad 1, two Quad 2 and a Quad 3 win. They have eight wins against sub-200 teams and have lost to seven Quad 1 opponents, including Kentucky (23) at home on Saturday. The Red Raiders will have plenty of chances to build on their profile — they get West Virginia (7) at home and play at Kansas (3) next week alone — but there is no doubt that this team has to start winning some games against teams that are not horrific.

3. AYO DOSUNMU CONTINUED HIS TEAR

In case you haven’t noticed, No. 21 Illinois is the hottest team in the Big Ten, sitting all alone in first-place in the conference standings and Ayo Dosunmu — who scored 27 points and hit the game-winner at Michigan today — has been the best player in the Big Ten this month. More on the Illini and their star here.

4. ROY WILLIAMS PASSED DEAN SMITH ON THE ALL-TIME WINS LIST

It’s ironic when you think about it: North Carolina was in the midst of their first five-game losing streak since 2003, and it just so happened to come after Williams had tied Smith on the all-time wins list. He finally broke the streak on Saturday, blowing out Miami, 94-71, to win his 880th game as a head coach. It is, quite literally, the first win for the Tar Heels in 2020.

5. BOB HUGGINS PASSED ADOLPH RUPP ON THE ALL-TIME WINS LIST

No. 14 West Virginia blew out Missouri in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge to give Huggy Bear is 876th career win, good for seventh on the all-time list, one better than Adolph Rupp, the legendary Kentucky head coach.

6. No. 1 BAYLOR UPSET UNRANKED FLORIDA

This might sound ridiculous, but if you subscribe to the theory that any underdog that wins a game is an upset happening, then No. 1 Baylor going into the O-Dome and knocking off Florida is, technically, an upset. The Gators entered the game as 2.5 point favorites, jumped out to a big league and then proceeded to watch as the nation’s best team proved that they are, in fact, the nation’s best team.

We have spent the majority of this season explaining away the reasons why there isn’t an elite team in college basketball, but I’m beginning to think that there’s a chance Baylor could be that team. They’re never going to be the darlings of the metrics and they don’t have much NBA talent, but they are so balanced, so effective in crunch time and elite on the defensive end of the floor.

7. MEMPHIS BLEW AN 11-POINT LEAD IN THE FINAL SIX MINUTES

This one was hard to do.

The Tigers were up 70-59 with less than six minutes remaining in the game and then never scored again. They would give up a 15-0 run in that stretch and go on to lose, 74-70, at home to an SMU team that is not very good. Penny Hardaway’s team has found themselves in a bad, bad spot this season.

8. ARIZONA BLEW A 22-POINT LEAD

The No. 22 Wildcats led Arizona State in Tempe by 22 points in the first half. With 1:40 left before the break, they were ahead 43-24. At halftime, they were up 43-30. With 16:30 left on the clock, the Sun Devils had cut that lead to 43-40, and after Alonzo Verge scored with 10 seconds remaining, the Sun Devils had a 66-65 lead and went on to win by that score.

The importance of this win for Bobby Hurley’s club cannot be overstated.

9. SAN FRANCISCO WORKED THEIR FOULING MAGIC AGAIN

Last weekend, San Francisco fouled a ball-handler at the end of the first half in order to get the ball back. It was a sneaky bit of math that gave the Dons an extra two points on their lead heading into the break.

On Saturday against BYU, Todd Golden drew up something similar. With 22 seconds left in the game and the Dons clinging to a 79-77 lead, he had his team intentionally foul Yoeli Childs, BYU’s star center who just so happens to be a 60 percent free throw shooter and coming off of a broken finger. The reasoning was simple: Since BYU was in the one-and-one, Childs shooting free throws meant that A) BYU’s xPPP for that possessions was 0.96, lower than the average possession for a team that had scored 77 points in 39 minutes and shot 15-for-27 from three on the night. If he made both, USF had a chance to win on the final possession. If he missed one, BYU’s best rebounder was shooting the free throws. Turns out, he missed the first, and USF hung on to win, 83-82.

10. SAMUELL WILLIAMSON MAY HAVE HAD HIS BREAKOUT GAME

Last weekend, it was freshman David Johnson that had his breakout game for No. 6 Louisville. He went for 19 points and seven boards as the Cardinals went into Cameron and beat Duke. This weekend, it was fellow freshman Williamson, who scored 14 points for the Cards as they blew out Clemson in the Yum! Center. Is this the start of his star turn?

No. 1 Baylor smothers Florida 72-61, 16th straight win

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — MaCio Teague and Devonte Bandoo scored 16 points apiece and No. 1 Baylor extended its winning steak to 16 with a 72-61 victory over Florida in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Saturday night.

The Bears improved to 6-1 in the annual inter-conference series – the best record of any team in either conference – and themselves another week atop The Associated Press poll.

Baylor also gave the Big 12 an even split (5-5) in the daylong series.

The Bears (17-1) overcame an eight-point deficit early and led by 19 points in the second half before Florida mounted a minor rally. The Gators (12-7) had a chance to make it a single-digit game with a little more than 7 minutes to play, but they missed the front end of three consecutive one-and-ones. Kerry Blackshear Jr. misfired twice on back-to-back possessions and then Noah Locke did the same seconds later.

What could have been an eight-point game was still a comfortable lead for the Bears.

Florida eventually managed to whittle Baylor’s lead to 10 on Andrew Nembhard’s driving layup with 2:40 remaining. But the Bears answered on the other end thanks to their 13th offensive rebound, which led to two free throws for Bandoo.

Davion Mitchell finished with 11 points and six assists for Baylor, which was a slight underdog entering the game. Jared Butler chipped in 10 points.

Baylor’s length, athleticism and defensive prowess posed problems all night for Florida, which shot 44% from the field and 23.5% from 3-point range.

The Gators fell to 2-17 against the No. 1 team, including 10 consecutive losses.

Keyontae Johnson led Florida with 20 points. Nembhard added 16 points and eight assists, but he missed more shots (8) than he made (6), including all four 3-pointers. The Gators missed 13 of 17 from behind the arc.

Baylor took control of the game with a 13-2 run to close the first half, turning a tie game into a double-digit lead. The Bears hit six 3-pointers in the opening 20 minutes – twice as many as Florida – and had seven offensive rebounds.

They got help from an unlikely source. Bandoo, who averages 7.5 points off the benched, scored 11 in the opening half on 4 of 6 shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The Bears matched their best 18-game start in school history. They also started 17-1 in 2011-12 and 2016-17. They landed No. 3 seeds in the NCAA Tournament after those regular seasons and were eliminated both times by SEC teams (Kentucky in ’12, South Carolina in `17).

Florida: The Gators appeared to be taking strides while beating then-No. 4 Auburn last Saturday and nearly stunning LSU on the road earlier this week. But the team’s offensive woes returned against Baylor – no surprise given the Bears are one of the best defenses in the nation.

STILL HOBBLING

Florida forward Dontay Bassett missed his second consecutive game with a calf injury. Bassett averages 1.3 points and 2.1 rebounds.

UP NEXT

Baylor: Returns to Big 12 action and plays at Iowa State on Wednesday night. The Bears have won three of the last four in the series, but lost to the Cyclones in the conference tournament last March.

Florida: Returns to SEC play and hosts Mississippi State on Tuesday night. The Gators lost to the Bulldogs last year to end an eight-game winning streak in the series.