Final Four field boasts tough defenses, veteran lineups

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Final Four features tough defenses, a surging team that hasn’t lost in five weeks and one Hall of Fame coach.

Virginia, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Auburn earned their trips to Minneapolis for this weekend’s national semifinals by emerging from regions filled with high seeds. The Cavaliers are the last top seed, while the Spartans, Red Raiders and Tigers ousted the other No. 1s in the regional rounds.

Here’s a look at each team:

VIRGINIA

The Cavaliers were in the top six of the AP Top 25 all year while winning a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

Their defense tests even the best offenses by clogging the paint to turn away penetration. And while running a clock-controlling offense, the Cavaliers are more efficient (123 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom) with their limited possessions than ever under Tony Bennett.

Veterans like Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome (or Mamadi Diakite, judging by his overtime-forcing shot in the Elite Eight against Purdue) can hit tough shots for a team that finally has its Final Four breakthrough.

WHY THEY WON’T

If the Cavaliers struggle for stops, the pressure increases on an offense prone to droughts, even on the best of nights.

They hit just enough outside shots to survive Purdue’s Carsen Edwards scoring 42 points Saturday. But in Virginia’s loss to Florida State in the ACC Tournament, the Cavaliers went six second-half minutes without a basket and couldn’t catch up as the hot-shooting Seminoles took control.

MICHIGAN STATE

The Spartans, a No. 2 NCAA seed after winning the Big Ten Tournament, pushed past No. 1 overall seed Duke in a tense regional final.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

The Spartans have veteran confidence from winning 14 of 15 games and join Virginia in the top 10 of KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency rankings.

Big Ten player of the year Cassius Winston is a masterful floor leader (20 points, 10 assists against Duke), and is complemented by Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman (19 points against Duke) inside.

Michigan State also has the experience edge on the sideline, too. This is Hall of Famer Tom Izzo’s eighth Final Four compared to the other three coaches making their debuts.

WHY THEY WON’T

While the Spartans took care of the ball in the regionals, they ranked among the nation’s worst in turnover margin this season.

Michigan State isn’t particularly deep after several injuries, notably losing guard Joshua Langford (season-ending foot injury). And Ward has yet to crack double figures since returning from a five-game absence following a hand injury.

TEXAS TECH

The Red Raiders went from unranked in the preseason to reaching their first Final Four as a No. 3 seed.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

Simply: Defense and Jarrett Culver.

The Red Raiders, who have won 13 of 14, lead KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings (84.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). They were dominant against Northern Kentucky, Buffalo and Michigan in the tournament, then held top-seeded Gonzaga — KenPom’s No. 1 offense — in check.

Texas Tech is allowing 37 percent shooting while averaging nearly 17 points off turnovers in the tournament.

As for Culver, the 6-foot-6 sophomore and Big 12 player of the year is averaging 21.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in the tournament, exceeding his season averages.

WHY THEY WON’T

Defenses will focus on Culver, who carries a big load by taking 176 more shots and 93 more free throws than the next-closest teammates.

The Red Raiders also aren’t great on the boards. They’ve largely navigated around that problem after being outrebounded in nearly half their games (17 of 36), though the problem surfaced in five of six losses.

AUBURN

The Tigers have had a wild ride from seventh nationally in December to unranked and now surging to their first Final Four. They’ve also had significant off-court issues, including a federal corruption case that led to a guilty plea for former assistant Chuck Person and the suspension of assistant Ira Bowman amid allegations he was involved in a bribery scheme during his time at Penn.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

The fifth-seeded Tigers are playing with free-flowing confidence after 12 straight wins, including against Tennessee (twice), Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky. And they can bury 3s in bunches behind upperclassmen Bryce Brown (16.0 points) and Jared Harper (15.4).

The Tigers are at their best when harassing opponents into mistakes, taking a 33-14 edge in points off turnovers in two regional wins.

WHY THEY WON’T

They lean on 3-pointers, with the romps against Kansas and UNC coming on difficult-to-sustain efficiency (30 of 67, 44.8 percent) that could make them particularly vulnerable on an off night.

Auburn also took a big hit with the loss of sophomore Chuma Okeke (12 points, 6.8 rebounds) to a serious knee injury. Okeke provided a lift by sitting behind the team bench Sunday against Kentucky. His production will be difficult to replace.

Boum, Jones lead No. 13 Xavier over No. 19 UConn, 82-79

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STORRS, Conn. – Souley Boum scored 21 points, Colby Jones added 20 and No. 13 Xavier went on the road and held off No. 19 Connecticut 82-79 Wednesday night.

The win was the 13th in 14 games for the Musketeers (17-4, 9-1 Big East) and it gave them a season sweep over the struggling Huskies (16-6, 5-6).

Jack Nunge had 12 points and Jerome Hunter added 11 for Xavier, which led by 17 in the first half and 39-24 at halftime.

Jordan Hawkins scored 26 of his 28 points in the second half for UConn, leading a comeback that fell just short.

Tristen Newton added 23 points for the Huskies, who won their first 14 games this season but have dropped six of eight since.

The Musketeers never trailed but had to withstand UConn runs that cut the lead to a single point four times in the second half.

A three-point play from Hawkins made it 78-77 with 2:40 left. But a second-chance layup from Nunge put the lead at 80-77 just over a minute later.

Newton was fouled with two seconds left by Desmond Claude, but his apparent attempt to miss his second free throw went into the basket.

Boum then hit two free throws at the other end, and Newton’s final attempt from just beyond halfcourt was well short.

Xavier jumped out to a 9-0 lead as UConn missed its first nine shots.

A 3-pointer from Zach Freemantle gave the Musketeers their first double-digit lead at 20-9, and another from Jones pushed it to 35-18.

BIG PICTURE

Xavier: The Musketeers lead the Big East, and the win over UConn was their ninth conference victory this season, eclipsing their total from last season.

UConn: The Huskies came in with a 17-game winning streak at Gampel Pavilion dating to February 2021. They fell to 1-4 against the four teams in front of them in the Big East standings. The lone win came at Gampel against Creighton.

UP NEXT

Xavier: The Musketeers continue their road trip with a visit to Creighton on Saturday.

UConn: Doesn’t play again until next Tuesday, when the Huskies visit DePaul.

No. 12 Iowa State holds on to beat No. 5 Kansas State 80-76

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AMES, Iowa – Jaren Holmes matched his season high with 23 points as No. 12 Iowa State held on to beat No. 5 Kansas State 80-76 on Tuesday night.

The Cyclones (15-4, 6-2 Big 12) moved into a three-way tie atop the conference standings with the Wildcats and Texas.

Gabe Kalscheur added 19 points for Iowa State. Osun Osunniyi finished with 16.

Markquis Nowell led Kansas State (17-3, 6-2) with 23 points.

A 3-pointer from Holmes gave Iowa State a 59-49 advantage with 8:12 remaining. Kansas State responded with a 10-1 run to trim the margin to 60-59.

Caleb Grill’s 3-pointer steadied the Cyclones and pushed the lead back to 63-59 with five minutes left.

Free throws by Osunniyi, Grill and Holmes sealed the victory in the final 24 seconds.

The first half featured eight lead changes and ended with Kansas State up 33-31.

A 3-pointer by Kalscheur ignited an early 9-0 run for the Cyclones and helped them build a 19-14 lead. Iowa State made just one of nine 3-point tries in the first 20 minutes.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State was trying to extend its best start to a season since 1961-62.

Iowa State improved to 11-0 at home. The Cyclones have not lost back-to-back games this season.

UP NEXT

Kansas State hosts Florida on Saturday as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

Iowa State travels to Missouri on Saturday.

Georgetown snaps 29-game conference losing streak

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WASHINGTON – Primo Spears scored 21 points and Georgetown snapped a 29-game conference losing streak with an 81-76 victory over DePaul on Tuesday night.

Georgetown (6-15, 1-9) won its first Big East game since March 13, 2021, ending the longest skid in the history of the conference. The Hoyas also ended a 10-game losing streak this season.

Spears also contributed six assists for the Hoyas. Akok Akok scored 12 points and added six rebounds and four blocks and Brandon Murray recorded 12 points.

Umoja Gibson led the Blue Demons (9-12, 3-7) in scoring, finishing with 24 points, four assists and three steals. Javan Johnson added 13 points.

Spears scored nine points in the first half and Georgetown went into the break trailing 37-36. Georgetown used a 10-0 run in the second half to build a 12-point lead at 75-63 with 1:39 remaining.

Nance scores 21 as North Carolina survives Syracuse, 72-68

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Pete Nance scored 21 points, capped by a dunk with 19 seconds left that put North Carolina in front for good as the Tar Heels pulled out a hard-fought, 72-68 battle with Syracuse on Tuesday night.

Joe Girard hit from beyond the arc to put Syracuse up, 68-66 with 1:28 left, but after Nance hit the first of two free throws to get North Carolina within one, he missed the second free throw and in the scramble to gather in the rebound, the ball caromed toward the end line and Girard dove to save it. Instead, he flicked the ball right to Nance, who dunked for the lead.

Judah Mintz tried to drive the lane for a go-ahead layup but was called for an offensive foul that was upgraded to a flagrant foul. North Carolina took possession and Caleb Love converted three straight free throws to put the game away.

Armando Bacot scored 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds with four assists for North Carolina (15-6, 7-3 Atlantic Coast Conference). Love finished with 15 points and five assists.

Girard hit 4 of 9 from beyond the arc and finished with 18 points to lead Syracuse (13-8, 6-4). Mintz scored 17 points and had three steals and Chris Bell hit 3 of 5 from deep and finished with 15 points.

North Carolina has a week off before playing host to Pitt on Feb. 1. Syracuse plays at Virginia Tech on Saturday.

Green Bay fires Will Ryan after 11th straight loss

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Green Bay fired Will Ryan three days after the Phoenix suffered their 11th consecutive loss.

Ryan, the son of former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, posted a 15-61 record in 2 1/2 seasons. Freddie Owens, who had been an assistant coach on Ryan’s staff, will be interim head coach for the rest of the season.

“UW-Green Bay is committed to continuing its legacy as an outstanding Division I athletics program in the future, and Phoenix men’s basketball needs to help lead the way as we work to elevate all of our programs and be a shining light for this region and beyond,” athletic director Josh Moon said in a news release announcing the move.

Moon thanked Ryan and his family for their contributions to the program and said that “we wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”

Stadium first reported Ryan’s firing.

Green Bay dropped to 2-19 overall and 1-9 in the Horizon League with a 72-38 home loss to Robert Morris.

Ryan was hired by Green Bay after going 14-13 in his lone season as the head coach at Division II program Wheeling (West Virginia). Green Bay went 8-17 in Ryan’s debut season and finished 5-25 last year.

Ryan had taken over for Linc Darner, who went 92-80 and posted a winning record in four of his five seasons.