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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.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.