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Sweet 16 Preview: Biggest questions facing teams in West 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. 

We covered the South here. Next up, the West.

GONZAGA: How will Josh Perkins handle the pressure you know is coming?

I’m getting tired of beating this drum, mostly because ripping an unpaid amateur over and over again for what he does on a basketball court seems unfair.

But when it comes down to it, he is how Gonzaga is going to get to the Final Four. The offense the Zags run, when they’re actually playing in the halfcourt and not flying up and down the floor in transition, is typically ball-screen heavy, and Josh Perkins is the guy that carries that load. For the most part, he has been just terrific this season. It shows up in Gonzaga’s computer metrics, their win over Duke in Maui, the fact that they are currently sitting on a 32-3 record this season.

The problem with Perkins is that he is apt to have some terrible games, and when he has his terrible games, Gonzaga’s offense can go in the tank. Don’t believe me? Go watch Gonzaga’s WCC tournament loss to Saint Mary’s.

That leads me to the West Region, where the Basketball Gods didn’t do Perkins any favors. In the Sweet 16, Gonzaga will be facing off with a Florida State team that does like to pressure in the fullcourt and features a half-dozen guards and wings that are all somewhere around 6-foot-5, 200-plus pounds and super-athletic. Whether it’s Terance Mann, or Trent Forrest, or M.J. Walker, they are going to be hounding Perkins all over the floor for 40 minutes, a method that allowed Florida State to land an upset of Gonzaga last year in this same region and same round.

That’s not all.

Should Gonzaga get past Florida State, they will play the winner of Texas Tech (the nation’s best defense) and Michigan (the nation’s second-best defense), meaning he will draw a matchup against either Matt Mooney or Zavier Simpson, both of whom are just nightmares for opposing point guards to deal with.

Gonzaga can get this done, but it is not going to be easy.

MICHIGAN: Can the Wolverines score enough to get back to the Final Four?

One of the more impressive feats of John Beilein’s career is getting this Michigan team to finish the season as a top 20 offensive in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. Because this group really doesn’t have the dudes to be that good.

Jordan Poole is dangerous, but he’s very streak. Charles Matthews is an elite defender that has struggled to consistently produce big offensive games. Jon Teske has really improved on the defensive end of the floor, but he’s still a guy that shoots just 30 percent from three and has not consistently taken advantage of switches when he gets a guard on him in the post. And as much as I love Zavier Simpson, and as lethal as his running sky-hook can be, he’s not someone that defenses are going to be all that worried about outside of his work in ball-screens.

Iggy Brazdeikis is really their only guy that is something other than limited offensively, but he’s still a freshman that will throw up a dud every now and then.

I know the numbers say that this team is better offensively, but it’s hard for me to buy that. They were a better three-point shooting team last season in the sense that they have more guys you had to worry about. Defenses had to find Mo Wagner at all times. Same with Duncan Robinson and same with Muhammad- Ali Abdur-Rahkman. This year, that spacing just isn’t. That’s part of the reason that Matthews has regressed. It’s part of the reason there are so few driving lanes for Brazdeikis.

At some point you just trust that John Beilein will figure it out, but it is worth mentioning that the tools at his disposal are not going to be as sharp

Texas Tech’s Matt Mooney (AP Photo/Brad Tollefson)

TEXAS TECH: Just how good is Jarrett Culver’s supporting cast?

I don’t have a question about Culver because I know how good he is. I’m not even all that worried about the matchup with Charles Matthews, one of college basketball’s elite wing defenders. Great offense can beat great defense.

The issue with this Tech team is that they can go through some real droughts offensively. In their five regular season losses, they never scored more than 64 points, and in one of those losses they gave up just 58 points and lost by 13.

Some of that was a direct result of Culver trying to carry too heavy of a load this season. There was a while where he tried to do everything for the Red Raiders, and it didn’t work out well. Culver thought he had to carry that load because there isn’t another star on the roster. Matt Mooney, Davide Moretti, Tariq Owens. These are guys that really, really excel in roles, but they aren’t exactly the type to go out and win their matchup regardless of opponent.

Now, if we’re being fair here, they’ve been terrific down the stretch of the season. I’m not sure Moretti has actually missed a shot in February or March, Mooney has grown into the role as a secondary creative outlet, and he’s thriving there. Owens has been awfully effective as a rim-running lob target. The pieces are there, the question is just how “there” they will be against the defenses they are going to be facing this weekend.

FLORIDA STATE: Mfiondu Kabengele is the key that unlocks Florida State, but will he play enough?

For me, the most tilting thing that happens with the way that college basketball coaches use their rotations this season is the way that Leonard Hamilton has opted to use Mfiondu Kabengele.

The 6-foot-10 is not only Florida State’s best player, he is one of the best players in all of college basketball, point blank. We had him ranked at the 16th best player left in the NCAA tournament, and that might be low. He’s averaging better than 13 points this season despite coming off the bench and playing less than 22 minutes a night. He’s a terrific shot-blocker given his length and athleticism — he is, after all, kin to Dikembe Mutumbo. He can rebound the ball. He’s athletic enough to handle his own on the perimeter when Florida State is switching everything 1-through-5; hell, he’s the reason they can do that.

With all due respect to Christ Koumadje, Kabengele is the guy that Florida State needs to have on the floor, particularly now that they are playing against Gonzaga, not the likes of Vermont and Murray State.

New-look Virginia back to work after winning NCAA title

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Tony Bennett’s first offseason as a national champion coach has come with benefits on the recruiting trail. His first season at Virginia after winning the title, however, will bring challenges.

Five players who helped Virginia beat Texas Tech to capture the first basketball title in school history are gone, and that’s four more than expected. Center Jack Salt graduated, and guards De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy declared for the NBA draft. Seldom-used Marco Anthony transferred.

Recruiting was already well underway before the Cavaliers won it all, but Bennett said Wednesday the result “certainly can’t hurt and I think it has helped. It validates a lot of good stuff that’s happened in the past.”

Virginia hopes the spoils of those improvements are evident quickly in incoming freshmen guard Casey Morsell, big men Justin McKoy and Kadin Shedrick and junior college shooting guard Tomas Woldetensae.

Virginia opened its summer practice period on Tuesday, and Bennett said he’s not sure just yet who will be ready to contribute.

“Everyone will have ample opportunity, the newcomers, so to speak,” he said. “To say who, you just don’t know. … There are some opportunities out there. So it’s the returners and we can go down the list of the guys we brought in, but I think they’re excited about the opportunity.

“There’s always a learning curve any time you go from whether it’s high school to college or junior college to college or coming from a redshirt to being eligible. … Going up a level and playing in the ACC, for any of these guys, there’s the challenge of the physicality and the level of talent and the speed.”

Woldetensae, a left-handed shooter, averaged 17.3 points per game and shot 47.6 percent from 3-point range last season at Indian Hills Community College.

“We thought we needed to add some experience and a quality player on the perimeter and when he was mentioned and we did our homework and watched film and all those kinds of things,” he said. “His personality came out as a young man of character and we always start there. He seemed wanting to challenge himself at a very high level.”

The Cavaliers were delighted that Mamadi Diakite decided to come back for his senior year after testing the professional waters. And they added senior transfer Sam Hauser, who averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds last season at Marquette. Hauser will be eligible to practice with the team, but won’t be able to play until 2020-21.

Bennett’s offseason included numerous speaking engagements, recruiting, talking to NBA scouts about his players and some time to decompress.

He also checked an item off his bucket list when, with his father, longtime college coach Dick Bennett, he played Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters. That, he said, “was amazing.”

Now, it’s back to work.

“I’m grateful for the busy-ness of it,” he said of the offseason. “It means something good happened.”

Four-star forward commits to West Virginia

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West Virginia landed a top-75 recruit Thursday night.

Isaiah Cottrell, a 6-foot-9 forward from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, committed to West Virginia’s 2020 recruiting class.

Cottrell picked the Mountaineers overs offers from the likes of Kansas, Washington and Arizona, among others. His father, Brian Lewin, played for West Virginia in the 1990s. The four-star prospect continues a promising recruiting trend for Bob Huggins, who landed a top-40 commit in center Oscar Tshiebwe in the 2019 class.

The Mountaineers missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in four years as they slid to 15-21 overall and last in the Big 12 with a 4-14 mark.

John Calipari’s new deal at Kentucky worth $86 million over 10 years

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John Calipari and Kentucky agreed in April to what was described as a “lifetime contract.” Thursday, the exact terms of that deal were disclosed.

The Wildcats coach’s new contract worth $86 million over 10 years.

“I’ve said from day one that this would be the gold standard and it has been for student-athletes and coaches,” Calipari said in a statement released by the school. “As I enter my 11th year, I’m reminded it took me 20 years to get an opportunity to like this. There is no other place I want to be. As I look forward, my mindset is what’s next and how can we be first at it for the young people that we coach.”

Calipari, 60, will likely continue to be a source of speculation for other jobs presuming he keeps things rolling in Lexington as he has for the last 10 years, but what Kentucky is paying him will almost certainly be more than any other program – and potentially NBA franchises – are going to be willing to. Calipari’s success, NBA history and ability to always be central to the broader college basketball conversation means he’ll always be in demand, but it’s hard to picture a situation that could intrigue Calipari enough to leave one of – if not the – best jobs in basketball.

“(Calipari) has added a special chapter to the greatest tradition in college basketball and it’s a chapter we want him to continue writing until the end of his coaching career,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “We are pleased to announce a new contract that will enable him to do exactly that.”

Calipari 305-71 with one national championship, four Final Fours and 26 first-round draft picks in 10 years with the Wildcats. He and Kentucky will likely open the 2019-20 season as one of the frontrunners for the national championship.

Michigan State reports violation for Tom Izzo hosting visit for former high school

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Michigan State self-reported an NCAA rules violation for Tom Izzo hosting Iron Mountain High School for a tour while the team was in town to compete for its first ever state title that weekend.

Izzo unknowingly committed the violation — which only occurred because Iron Mountain was competing in the Breslin Center that weekend — and the Spartans immediately gave notice once they became aware of it. Proud of his alma mater for advancing to Michigan’s final weekend, Izzo was merely taking interest in players and a team connected to his youth. The Iron Mountain program toured the Breslin Center with Izzo and toured Michigan State’s locked room while also watching the Spartans practice before their state semifinal game.

Since it was a special privilege for Iron Mountain, playing in an event there, the Spartans were technically at fault for a violation. The fact that Izzo and Michigan State have to report a violation for this sort of thing is kind of ridiculous since Izzo has a natural connection to the team in question. Although Michigan State likely isn’t going to get hit with any NCAA issues from this, it’s the kind of thing that critics come to question about the NCAA’s rulebook.

Former lacrosse star Pat Spencer commits to Northwestern for basketball

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Northwestern landed a unique graduate transfer on Thursday as Loyola lacrosse star Pat Spencer will spend his final year of college eligibility hooping for the Wildcats, according to Stadium’s Jeff Goodman.

A former high school basketball standout at Boys’ Latin (MD), Spencer was one of the best lacrosse players in the country for the Greyhounds the past four years in college. He was selected in two drafts during the Spring. Spencer was taken first overall in the inaugural PLL College Draft while getting taken seventh overall in the MLL’s Collegiate Draft. Loyola remains in the NCAA tournament as Spencer is playing out his senior season of college.

Spencer is passing up multiple professional lacrosse opportunities to play Big Ten basketball for Northwestern. For a stud athlete in a sport to pass up money to pursue another athletic dream is one of the college basketball’s best things to follow next season.

As if Spencer’s background wasn’t unique enough, he’ll be at a Northwestern team starving for an identity since making the NCAA tournament a few seasons ago. By playing in the Big Ten, Spencer will be thrown against Final Four contenders and potential draft picks, which makes this transition particularly intriguing. It’s a cool story to follow this season as college hoops doesn’t often get athletes from other sports playing in such prominent conferences.

Greg Paulus famously went from Duke point guard to Syracuse quarterback as a graduate transfer, but he was leaving the sport to pursue an opportunity to play football. Spencer choosing basketball over a sure pro shot in lacrosse is an interesting opportunity for him this season. It’ll be interesting to see if he can still contribute anything on the hardwood.

(Ht: Jeff Goodman, Stadium)