Final Four Preview and Predictions

The day has finally arrived! Four teams have a shot to achieve their dream this weekend in San Antonio at the Alamodome. This NCAA Tournament has provided fans with everything they could have wanted. Fans saw the greatest upset in Tournament history when UMBC took out top overall seed Virginia. The lovable Loyola-Chicago Ramblers won over the hearts of the nation with Sister Jean as they will attempt to become the first double-digit seed to win it all.

While the left side of the bracket was pure chaos, the right side was pure chalk. Top-seeded Villanova and Kansas took care of business in the East and Midwest to meet and have a chance to cut down the net in San Antonio. This begs the question: who will move on and meet Monday night and play for ultimate glory? Let’s look at the matchups and find out!

No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago

This game should shape up to a defensive battle. Both the Wolverines and the Ramblers attempt to dictate the pace of play with their defensive pressure. Each offense is capable of lighting up the scoreboard, but each is prone to occasional stagnation.

We all know Marques Townes and Loyola have a flair for the dramatic (AP Photo/John Amis).

It is safe to say that most casual fans in the nation will be pulling for Loyola-Chicago to continue to shock the world tonight. The showdown between Loyola’s offense and Michigan’s defense will decide the winner of the game tonight. Loyola’s offense does a fantastic job of putting a defense on its heels with their ball movement. The Ramblers average 16 assists per game and are the definition of unselfish.

However, these Wolverines might be up to the task of halting Loyola’s highly efficient offense. Michigan sports three of the best on-ball defenders in the country with Zavier Simpson, Charles Matthews and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. These guards are long, athletic and quick laterally. Michigan does a great job of maintaining physicality with their body and hands without picking up fouls.

The key for Michigan is to stay at home against Loyola’s pump fakes. Loyola does a good job at getting their defender in the air since they are such a good jump shooting team. This helps the Ramblers invert the defense as Clayton Custer, Donte Ingram or Marques Townes are all capable of taking their defender off of the dribble and creating plays in the middle of the defense. When the defense collapses Loyola will kick the ball back out and proceed to shoot, take it back in or swing the ball on the perimeter.

Loyola has a way of demoralizing opponents with their use of the shot clock as well. Their ball movement allows them to use all 30 seconds of the clock and get a good look at the rim. The Ramblers, as a team, shoot 50.9 percent from the field. Michigan’s defenders need to work on pressuring the Ramblers and contesting their attempts from the field without fouling.

Moe Wagner needs to have a big game to keep Michigan dancing (Harry How/Getty Images).

On the opposite side of the ball, Moe Wagner figures to cause all sorts of trouble for Coach Porter Moser and this Rambler defense. While the Ramblers are ultra-versatile, they lack the big man who can step out to the perimeter and guard Wagner effectively. Cameron Krutwig has done a masterful job of locking down the paint for Loyola, but he will be in uncharted territory tonight.

Wagner is so dangerous because he not only has the ability to consistently knock down three-pointers but also utilize his lateral quickness and take the ball to the rim. Wagner is two inches taller than Krutwig and 15lbs lighter. If I were Moser, I would not leave Krutwig on an island against Wagner.

Michigan’s offense is very hit or miss. The Wolverines showed the world what they are capable of doing to good teams when their offense is clicking, as they rampaged their way through the Big 10 Tournament. But they have struggled to find the same consistency throughout the Tournament.

Michigan wants to utilize on and off ball screens to free up shooters and create open passing lanes to the basket. Loyola needs to stay disciplined when they face these screens and communicate effectively on their switches. If they fail to do so, Michigan will run them out of the building.

One thing to keep an eye on is free throw shooting down the stretch, Michigan is a notoriously poor free throw shooting team. The Wolverines only shoot 66.2 percent from the line and Loyola will target Simpson (51.1 percent) and Matthews (57.4 percent) near the end of the game. If Michigan cannot put Loyola away, the Ramblers showed the world what they are capable of doing to teams at the buzzer (just ask Miami, Tennessee and Nevada).

Ultimately, this game will be a battle of willpower with defense ruling the day on both ends. Michigan’s defense, despite Loyola’s passing attack, is difficult to break down and Michigan will struggle to get open looks from the outside. In the end, Michigan is still a top 15 team in the nation and has too many weapons on offense to hold down all game. Michigan’s defense will keep Loyola in check.

Prediction: Michigan 66, Loyola 63

No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 1 Kansas

This game should be the exact opposite of Michigan-Loyola. Two blue-bloods with top-5 offenses that play fast-paced should have fans on the edge of their seat from start to finish. This showdown will also feature two Wooden Award finalists going head-to-head with a chance to further cement themselves as legends within their respective programs.

What is interesting about this game is that both teams have a distinct advantage when they are on the offensive end. This does not mean that either team plays poor defense, but that each team presents unique challenges on the offensive end that have troubled defenses all season. For Villanova, it is their positionless versatility. For Kansas, it is their four-guard lineup with a 7-foot, 280lb matchup nightmare in the middle.

Omari Spellman’s versatility is critical for Villanova (Yong Kim/The Daily Inquirer).

Let’s start with Villanova. Coach Jay Wright usually plays six players significant minutes throughout the game. All six of these players can spread the floor, knock down three-pointers and attack the rim in different ways.

The engine of the Wildcat offense is Jalen Brunson. The unique aspect of Brunson’s game is that he can run the offense on the outside or in the paint. Brunson is the best post-up point guard in the nation. He excels at using his strength to back down opponents while using his exceptional court vision to find open teammates if the opposing team brings the double team. Brunson can also attack the rim from the perimeter while consistently knocking down three-pointers and mid-range shots.

Omari Spellman looks to give Kansas problems too. Wright has done a wonderful job with the development of Spellman this season. Spellman, a 6-foot-9, 245lbs freshman, has turned into a dual threat on offense. Spellman has the highest three-point percentage on a Wildcat offense that lives off of the three at 44.6 percent. Spellman does a great job of flexing out to the corner/wing and hitting threes consistently. He presumes to be a huge matchup problem for the Jayhawks.

Throw in potential NBA lottery pick Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall and any opposing defense has serious problems. If Bill Self chooses to remain in man-to-man, Villanova will have a serious height advantage against the Jayhawk four-guard lineup. Self would most likely put Malik Newman, who completely shut down Grayson Allen in the Elite Eight, on Brunson. However, who would guard Spellman? Udoka Azubuike and Silvio De Sousa do not have the lateral quickness to stay with Spellman on the wing. Self could bring in Mitch Lightfoot to shadow Spellman, but look for him to draw up a hybrid zone that is designed to guard the three-point line.

Changing focus to the other side of the ball, Kansas does a great job of decimating opposing teams in transition. Devonte’ Graham has fantastic court vision and touch as a passer when running the break. Kansas’s wings tend to flank out and widen the court while their big men charge down the middle looking for the lob. This gives Graham the option to throw the long lob or hit Malik Newman, LaGerald Vick or Svi Mykhailiuk on the wing where they can either shoot the three, throw the lob or attack the rim.

Graham’s playmaking ability is critical for Kansas on offense. He averages over 7 assists per game and can shoot the rock or take it to the rack. Graham has struggled with his efficiency throughout the Tournament so that bears keeping an eye on.

The duo of Newman and Graham need to light the lamp offensively tonight for Kansas (Getty Images).

The MVP of the entire Tournament to this date is Malik Newman. Newman is an absolute assassin from three and is an underrated defender on the other end. Self likes to run Newman on the baseline off screens to get him open looks from the corner. Newman is capable of creating his own shot off of the dribble as well. If Kansas wants a shot to move on to the title game, they desperately need Newman to score at least 20 points.

Despite all of this, Udoka Azubuike is where Kansas’s advantage lies. There is not a single player on Villanova who can handle Azubuike’s physicality in the paint. “Dok” is the most efficient player on the floor, shooting 77.2 percent from the field. His size allows Graham and Mykhailiuk to throw entry passes over the defense to him as well. Spellman, while a serviceable defender, does not have the strength or size to stop Azubuike. Wright needs to decide whether he will send the double off of a player like Vick or play him straight up.

However, Wright may not even need to decide if Azubuike gets into foul trouble. Azubuike has had extreme difficulty staying out of foul trouble and this limits his playing time severely. Kansas cannot take advantage of this mismatch if Azubuike is on the bench.

Ultimately, look for Self to fall into a creative zone that fixates on defending the perimeter, but this will not stop the Wildcats from putting up big numbers. Kansas will score as well, but Azubuike will fall into foul trouble once again. Villanova’s defense is the reason they slipped by a pesky Texas Tech team in the Elite Eight and that’s the reason they will move on to the title game Monday night as well.

Prediction: Villanova 84, Kansas 79

 

Featured image by WILX.

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Kansas Jayhawks Final Four

Final Four team breakdown: Kansas Jayhawks

The 2018 Final Four has been set. Fans are buzzing and pundits are predicting who will cut down the nets in San Antonio. Throughout this week, I am going to highlight each of the four remaining teams and break down their roster and their chances to win it all. Today, we will be focusing on the Midwest Regional champions: the Kansas Jayhawks. Let’s do this!

offense

This Kansas offense can be described in one word: deadly. These Jayhawks were expected to take a step back after losing reigning Wooden Award winner Frank Mason III, Josh Jackson and Landen Lucas. However, Bill Self proved to the world, once again, that he is a Hall of Fame head coach with the development of Devonte’ Graham, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman and countless others.

The offense starts with Graham, a Wooden Award finalist. Graham’s development has been nothing short of incredible this season. Graham entered Kansas as a fringe Division I recruit. He slowly grew into a reliable 3-point shooter, and now he is Self’s top all-around player. Graham has averaged 17.2 points, 7.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game this season.

Kansas Jayhawks Final Four

Malik Newman’s scoring and defense propelled Kansas to San Antonio. (Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo)

The tournament has been a different story for Graham though. Aside from his explosion against Penn with 29 points, six rebounds and six assists, Graham has struggled to score consistently. He has averaged 11.7 points per game on 31 percent shooting, excluding his performance against Penn. But Graham has found other ways to be effective as he has averaged over 6.3 assists per game in the tournament and has made big plays late in games.

The best player for Kansas this tournament has unquestionably been Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman. Newman has developed into Self’s secondary playmaker on offense and his most reliable 3-point shooter. Newman’s ability to rise to the occasion in big moments cannot be overstated as he scored all 13 of Kansas’ points in overtime in their 85-81 win over Duke.

Newman is shooting 44.8 percent from three in the tournament and is averaging 21.8 points per game. His ability hit threes from NBA range and create his own shot off of the dribble results in the ultimate nightmare for the defender that draws him.

After only playing three minutes against Penn, Udoka Azubuike has returned to form after spraining his left MCL before the Big 12 Tournament. Azubuike was the key to Kansas’ win over an underrated Seton Hall team in the Round of 32 as he went toe-to-toe with Angel Delgado. Azubuike’s 7-foot, 280-pound frame helps Kansas control the paint on offense. He is a fantastic finisher in the paint and especially adept at snagging lobs from Graham over the top of the defense.

As a whole, Kansas plays its offense similarly to Villanova. They usually roll out four guards and a center and decimate teams from behind the arc. Three of Self’s four starting guards shoot over 40 percent from 3-point range. Kansas has the ability to shoot most teams out of the game within a span of minutes if they get hot.

However, Kansas is at their most dangerous when they get out on the break. Graham has fantastic court vision and Kansas’ wings and bigs run the floor very well. Not only that, but when Kansas pushes the pace, their shooters tend to widen the court. What this means is that Newman, Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick will sprint out to the opposing corner to await a pass from Graham to either shoot a three or attack the rim. Kansas also loves throwing fast break lobs to either Azubuike or Silvio De Sousa.

However, Kansas can find itself in trouble if or when Azubuike gets into foul trouble. Azubuike has had difficulty staying on the court throughout the season as he seems to always find ways to pick up fouls early in the contest. While De Sousa has proven himself a more than capable reserve, Kansas is a much better team with Azubuike on the court.

defense

Kansas is by far the worst defensive team in San Antonio, and that could be problematic as they face Villanova, the nation’s top offense. The Jayhawks are ranked 40th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.

Kansas tends to stick with their traditional man-to-man defense against most teams. While this group can play at elite levels from time to time, the Jayhawks are prone to falling asleep on defense, especially if they have a lead. Whether it is lazy closeouts or a lack of communication on ball screens, Kansas lacks the full 40 minutes of intensity that is required of a top-notch defense.

Kansas Jayhawks Final Four

Svi Mykhailiuk’s defense against Marvin Bagley sparked the Jayhawks in the Elite Eight. (Photo by Rich Sugg/The Kansas City Star)

Regardless, Bill Self is a mastermind at wiggling Kansas out of supposed defensive disadvantages. Look at their matchup against Duke in the Elite Eight. Kansas faced a monumental size disadvantage going up against Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. Self tasked Mykhailiuk with guarding Bagley (who is three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier) and doubled their bigs off of Trevon Duval, who struggles from the outside. This strategy resulted in Duval having a big game, but Mykhailiuk held Bagley to his worst performance of the tournament and Newman completely shut down Grayson Allen.

Self will have his work cut out for him against Villanova though. Omari Spellman is much more versatile than Azubuike or De Sousa as both of these players are limited from the outside. Both figure to struggle staying with Spellman on the perimeter, which is critical as Spellman shoots 44.6 percent from three.

Self should avoid daring Spellman to beat them from the outside, just ask West Virginia what he is capable of doing. Self’s strategy of doubling off of another player may not work either as all of Villanova’s main rotational players are capable of knocking down outside shots consistently. Based on his recent performance, the most likely candidate would be Phil Booth, but Booth has the potential to light it up from the outside at any time.

Self will need to get creative with his defensive scheming to slow down the versatile Wildcats. Whether this means sitting back in a hybrid zone that is predicated on guarding the 3-point line or trapping at the mid-court line, Kansas will have its work cut out for them.

X-factors

Kansas Jayhawks Final Four

Udoka Azubuike’s ability to stay on the court is key for Kansas. (Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Udoka Azubuike’s fouling: As stated above, Azubuike is a game changer for Kansas. That is, when he is on the court.

In both games that Azubuike played without minute restrictions (Clemson and Duke), he was limited to 25 and 19 minutes respectively due to foul trouble. It is worth noting that Azubuike fouled out of both games. Despite only playing 25 minutes against Clemson, he recorded a double-double, grabbing 11 rebounds and scoring 14 points on 7-for-9 shooting.

There is not a single player that matches up to Azubuike’s physicality remaining in the Final Four. If Azubuike can find a way to stay on the court for over 25 minutes, he will provide Kansas with a serious edge in rebounding and scoring in the paint.

Silvio De Sousa: De Sousa played his first game of the season on Jan. 13. He struggled to find his role until the Big 12 Tournament, where he filled in for the injured Azubuike serviceably. De Sousa’s sound play continued in the NCAA Tournament. He played 26 big minutes against Duke and grabbed 10 rebounds.

If Azubuike gets into early foul trouble, Self will most likely call upon De Sousa to step up and play significant minutes in San Antonio. He will be relied upon to hold his own and control the glass.

conclusion

This was the Kansas team that was not supposed to reach the Final Four. However, Bill Self showed the world how great of a coach he truly is. The Jayhawks have the offensive firepower to outgun any of the remaining opponents outside of Villanova. The key for Kansas will be how they adjust to Villanova’s ultra-versatile lineup with Azubuike or De Sousa on the floor. If Kansas can slip by Villanova, they should be favored to cut down the nets in San Antonio.

 

Featured image by Jamie Squire/Getty Images.

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NBA Draft prospects in the Final Four

The Final Four is finally here after two great weeks of basketball in the NCAA Tournament. While these certainly aren’t the four teams with the best NBA Draft prospects, they have been given a chance to prove themselves on the big stage. NBA scouts will be watching. Here are the top NBA Draft prospects in the Final Four.

Loyola-Chicago Ramblers’ prospects

Clayton Custer, PG

Loyola will likely not have anyone drafted, but rather thrive on good ball movement and defense. Custer is the best player on the team and just won the MVC Player of the Year award. He averages 13.2 points and 4.2 assists per game and has helped get Loyola to the Final Four for the first time since 1963.

Custer is still a long shot to make the NBA, but he has the best chances of anyone on the Ramblers. He is just 6’0″ tall and 175 pounds but has some necessary skills that will help him when being evaluated. He has a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio, which is good considering how much he handles the ball. Custer also can light it up from deep, shooting 45.2% on the year.

He is just a junior and will likely return for his senior year before trying his luck as a professional.

Michigan Wolverines’ prospects

Moritz Wagner, PF/C

NBA Draft prospects in the Final Four

Moritz Wagner (Photo by sportingnews.com)

Wagner is a matchup nightmare in the college game, due to his size, shooting and mobility. He hasn’t had the best NCAA Tournament, other than a 21 point outing against Texas A&M, but is a very talented player nonetheless. Michigan was a trendy pick to reach the Final Four, with Wagner being a major reason for it.

At 6’10” and 210 pounds, Wagner fits the bill as a modern day big man in the NBA.  He has good post moves and shoots 39.6% from three-point land. To help his offensive game, he handles the ball well and can take bigger defenders to the basket. His defense has been good this season, he has a defensive rating of 92.1, but there are some questions on how he will do in that regard against NBA competition, as he isn’t a rim protector.

Most NBA mock drafts have Wagner as a late first or early second-round pick, but he is just a junior and could return to school.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, G

Abdur-Rahkman is a senior combo guard, who is the leader of this Michigan team. Michigan is usually a good offensive team but leaves a little to be desired defensively, but Abdur-Rahkman has helped change the narrative this season.

His on-ball defense is some of the best in the country, as he continually frustrates opponents trying to get to the basket. He picks up a steal a game, which helps solidify him as a good all-around defensive player. He isn’t the best shooter, at 38.8% from three-point range, but hits enough to keep defenders honest. While he can drive to the basket decently well, he needs to be more aggressive on offense at times.

Villanova Wildcats’ prospects

Mikal Bridges, SF

Bridges is a prototypical “3 and D” NBA wing prospect. He has improved every year he has been at Villanova and is now a star. He already has one National Championship under his belt and now can go for another.

His defense and shooting ability have put Bridges in a good position to be a lottery pick. His defensive rating has actually gotten worse every year he has been at Villanova, but Bridges now guards the opponent’s best perimeter player. His length, at 6’7″ really helps him contest shots. He shoots the three well too, at 43.6%, but needs to work on getting to the basket more off the dribble. Bridges will also need to add some muscle to match-up with some of the elite small forwards in the NBA.

Bridges is the best draft prospect left in the NCAA Tournament and will have to prove it for Villanova to win the title.

Jalen Brunson, PG

Brunson has won some national Player of the Year awards and is the best point guard in college basketball. The junior was also a part of the 2016 Villanova team that won the title but now gets a chance to get one where he is a major contributor.

He has decent size for a point guard at 6’3″ and 290 pounds. When watching Brunson, it is easy to see that he has done a lot of reps in order to hone his craft. This season he averages 19.2 points and 4.6 assists per game. He only turns it over 1.8 times per game, showing he values the ball. He can shoot from deep, drive to the basket, pass and even post up. Brunson will need to play better defense at the next level.

Most mock drafts have Brunson as a late first or early second-round pick, but he may elect to go back to school for his senior season.

Kansas Jayhawks’ Prospects

Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, SG

Mykhailiuk is just 20 years old, but is already a senior. He went to Kansas when he was just 17 and is another player that has been given the time to get better.

If this were a really concise article, the reasons for Mykhailiuk the reason he’d be considered a draft prospect would be: Height and shooting ability. He is 6’8″ and is known primarily as a three-point shooter. With Kansas’ lack of size this year, he has been able to prove he can rebound and defend against bigger players as well.

He is a senior, who will be looked at late in the first round or early in the second.

NBA Draft Prospects in the Final Four

Devonte’ Graham (rockchalktalk.com)

Devonte’ Graham, PG

Graham has waited his turn to be the point guard behind Frank Mason. His patience has paid off, as he has led the Jayhawks to the Final Four, which is not something they have done since 2012.

He’s 6’2″ and 175 pounds, which is good enough to play point guard in the NBA. He is a great defender and protects the ball well on his end, with 1.8 turnovers per game. He averages 17.2 points and 4.1 assists per game. His defense has always been good, but his offense has had to develop. His three-point shooting could be a little better, but he has done a decent job of hitting from deep.

Graham too is a senior and will be likely selected in the second round of the 2018 NBA Draft.

*Udoka Azabuike and Malik Newman are also NBA Draft prospects, but will likely come back to school for another year. 

 

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The player you need to know from each team in the 2018 NCAA Tournament

With the NCAA Tournament looming, some players will blossom into stardom. Who they are is dependent on how far they can carry their team. Every team has one, if not more, players to keep an eye on. What players could have a huge impact in the Tournament?

South Regional

1. Virginia Cavaliers- Kyle Guy, G

Kyle Guy is not only the leading scorer on the number one overall seed, he made the All-ACC First Team. If the Cavaliers are able to make it to the Final Four, Guy will play a huge part in it.

16. UMBC Retrievers- Jairus Lyles, G

Lyles made headlines when he mad the game-winning shot in the AEC Tournament Final against Vermont to send the Retrievers to the big dance. The truth is he has been scoring at a high rate for thee years now at UMBC with over 20 points per game this season.

8. Creighton Bluejays- Marcus Foster, G

Well Foster’s name will be mentioned a lot in the first round because he is good and because he started off his career at Kansas State, who the Bluejays are playing. He averages 20.3 points per game and will be looking to pour it on his former school.

9. Kansas State Wildcats- Barry Brown, G

Both Barry Brown and Dean Wade are expected to play after sustaining injuries in the last few weeks. Brown is a floor general, who averages 16 points and 3.4 assists per game. He also called a team practice on a team off day to correct some problems, which helps his reputation as a coach on the floor.

5. Kentucky Wildcats- Kevin Knox, F

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was also in contention here, but Knox is the x-factor and the player who will likely be drafted the highest. At times the Wildcats go as Knox goes. He is the teams leading scorer at 15.6 points per game.

12. Davidson Wildcats- Peyton Aldridge, F

Another tough call here, as Kellan Grady is a great freshman, but Aldridge is a senior who is averaging 21.5 points per game. If Davidson can upset Kentucky, he and Grady will be why.

Players you need to know in the 2018 NCAA Tournament

DeAndre Ayton (Photo by sportingnews.com)

4. Arizona Wildcats- DeAndre Ayton, C

This one was not as tough to pick. Ayton is a generational talent at center and is peaking at the right time of the season with his 32 points a piece in the last two rounds of the Pac-12 Tournament. He averages 20.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game and should get a touch every time down the floor for the Wildcats.

13. Buffalo Bulls- C.J. Massinburg, G

Buffalo has a lot of solid players, but Massinburg is the teams leading scorer and rebounder with 16.9 and 7.4 per game respectively. The rebounding numbers are especially impressive for a guard.

6. Miami Hurricanes- Lonnie Walker IV, G

Walker has a chance to be a one and done player and has showed potential. While he has been inconsistent at times, if Miami makes a run, it’ll likely mean he is playing well.

11. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers- Clayton Custer, G

The junior leads the team in both points (13.4) and assists (4.3) per game. Loyola is a trendy upset pick and if they make a “Cinderella run”, Custer will have the ball in his hands the most.

3. Tennessee Volunteers- Grant Williams, F

Williams is an undersized forward, but he is tough and plays hard. He was rewarded with the SEC Player of the Year award for averaging 15.3 points and six rebounds per game.

14. Wright State Raiders- Grant Benzinger, G

At some point during the game they will mention that Grant’s dad Todd was a World Series champion for the Cincinnati Reds in 1990, but the real story is: Grant can play. The guard averages 14.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game and exploded for 31 points in a big game against Northern Kentucky.

7. Nevada Wolfpack- Caleb Martin, F

Martin and his twin, Cody, may be remembered for their time at N.C. State, but they have both done well at Nevada this season. Caleb is averaging 19.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.

10. Texas Longhorns- Mo Bamba, C

Bamba missed the Big 12 Tournament with an injury, but said he is 100% now. He was one of the most coveted recruits in this past year’s recruiting class and is one of the best rim protectors in college basketball.

2. Cincinnati Bearcats- Gary Clark, F

The Bearcats are having their best season in recent memory and have one of the program’s greatest players as a senior. Clark won the AAC Player of the Year this season and leads the team in scoring and rebounding.

15. Georgia State Panthers- D’Marcus Simonds, G

Simonds is only a sophomore, but averages 21.1 points per game. He scored 27 in the Sun Belt Tournament Final, but will have a tough time scoring against a good Cincinnati team in round one.

West Regional

Players to watch in the 2018 NCAA Tournament

Trevon Bluiett (Photo by wcpo.com)

1. Xavier Musketeers- Trevon Bluiett, G

Bluiett had a good tournament run last year with Xavier, when they were an 11 seed. For his senior campaign he has averaged 19.5 points per game. If he plays up to his potential every game, the Musketeers could be heading to their first Final Four in school history.

16. (Play-in) NC Central Eagles- Raasean Davis, C

Davis averages 15 points and eight rebounds per game this season and helped lead NC Central on a crazy MEAC Tournament run to secure the auto-bid.

16. (Play-in) Texas Southern Tigers- Demontrae Jefferson, G

Jefferson does a little bit of everything for the Tigers with 23.5 points, three rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.

8. Missouri Tigers- Michael Porter Jr., F

Porter Jr. only played for a few seconds before sitting out most of the season with a back injury. The talented freshman came back for the SEC Tournament, but was rusty. With some more time, he can shake off the rust and show everyone why he was such a coveted recruit.

9. Florida State Seminoles- Terance Mann, G

He went cold in the ACC Tournament, but Mann is Florida State’s leading scorer with 13.2 points per game. Hopefully he can find his stroke again for the NCAA Tournament.

5. Ohio State Buckeyes- Keita Bates-Diop, F

Bates-Diop was one of the most improved players in the country this season under new coach Chris Holtmann. He’s averaging 19.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game and is tough to guard.

12. South Dakota Jackrabbits- Mike Daum, F

Daum has been in the last two NCAA Tournaments with the Jackrabbits, but has not yet secured a win. The junior averages 23.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game and is an inside-out threat.

4. Gonzaga Bulldogs- Killian Tillie, F

The Bulldogs have several good players, but Tillie is heating up at the right time. He’s scored over 20 points per game in each of the last three games. During that span he hit 13 of 14 three point shots.

13. UNC Greensboro- Francis Alonso, G

Alonso is from Malaga, Spain and averages 15.6 points per game. He has represented the Spanish National Team in FIBA competitions for the under 20 ranks.

6. Houston Cougars- Rob Gray, G

Houston has had a great season and Gray is the team leader. He had a turnover at the end of the AAC Tournament Championship game, which made him look as if he was physically sick. The 6’1″ guard averages 18.5 points per game and will want to make up for his mistake.

11. San Diego State Aztecs- Trey Kell, G

The senior only averages 10.4 points per game, but exploded for 28 against New Mexico in the MWC Tournament Championship. He is taking less shots than in years past, but is shooting more efficiently.

3. Michigan Wolverines- Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, G

Mo Wagner was also in contention, but Abdur-Rahkman is coming off of a good Big Ten Tournamen, where he scored 21, 15 and 15 in three games. He is also a very good defender, which will be needed to shut down opponent’s best wing players.

14. Montana Grizzlies- Ahmaad Rorie, G

Montana has a do-it-all guard in Rorie, who averages 17.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. Rorie spent a year at Oregon before transferring to Montana and gets to the free throw line frequently.

7. Texas A&M Aggies- Robert Williams, F

Williams is the fourth leading scorer at 10.3 points per game, but is the difference-maker for the Aggies. He is the team’s best draft prospect, but has a questionable motor. If he plays hard, the Aggies can go on a run this March.

10. Providence Friars- Kyron Cartwright, G

While he is just the team’s third leading scorer, he proved that when he’s on, Providence can beat anyone. He averaged 15.7 points per game in the Big East Tournament and is looking good heading into the NCAA Tournament.

2. North Carolina Tarheels- Theo Pinson, F

Joel Berry and Luke Maye are both quality names, but Pinson does a little bit of everything for North Carolina. He averages 10.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game and could be the key to a long tournament run for the Tar Heels.

15. Lipscomb Bisons- Garrison Mathews, G

Mathews averages 22.1 points per game for Lipscomb after averaging over 20 points per game last year. He is averagine 28.3 points per game over the last three games.

East Regional

players to know in the 2018 NCAA Tournament

Jalen Brunson (Photo by draftexpress.com)

1. Villanova Wildcats- Jalen Brunson, G

Mikal Bridges is also an option, but Brunson is in contention for Player of the Year. He scores and assists at a high rate and is an absolute floor general. He gained a lot of good experience when Villanova won the championship two seasons ago.

16. (Play-in) Radford Highlanders- Carlik Jones, G

Jones is the second leading scorer, but hit the game-winning shot in their conference tournament to get them into the NCAA Tournament.

16. (Play-in) LIU-Brooklyn- Joel Hernandez, G

Hernandez scores 20.9 points per game and is coming off a 32 point outing at Wagner to secure the automatic bid for the NEC.

8. Virginia Tech Hokies- Justin Robinson, G

Virginia Tech is a good offensive team and Robinson is their leading scorer and assist man with 13.8 and 5.6 respectively.

9. Alabama Crimson Tide- Collin Sexton, G

Another one of the most heralded recruits in the freshman class, Sexton is peaking at the right time. He averages 19 points per game and gets to the foul line a staggering 7.5 times per contest.

5. West Virginia Mountaineers- Jevon Carter, G

Carter is not only their leading scorer at 17 points per game, but is also their best defender. He helps make West Virginia into “Press Virginia”.

12. Murray State Racers- Jonathan Stark, G

The Munford, Tennessee product averages 21.8 points per game and scored 21 against Auburn in December. The game gave the Tigers a scare as the result was 81-77 in favor of Auburn.

4. Wichita State Shockers- Landry Shamet, G

Shamet leads the team in both scoring and assists. He has been around for a few years and can set his team up for a deep tournament run.

13. Marshall Thundering Herd- Jon Elmore, G

Talk about a guy who can do it all. Elmore averages 22.8 points, six rebounds and 6.9 assists per game. The last player to average 28/6/6 in college basketball? Evan Turner.

6. Florida Gators- Chris Chiozza, G

Chiozza hit the big shot for Florida in last year’s NCAA Tournament to beat Wisconsin and is back for more. He scores and passes well for the Gators.

11. (Play-in) St. Bonaventure Bonnies- Jaylen Adams, G

While he doesn’t get a lot of publicity, Adams produces at a high rate. He averages 19.8 points and 5.4 assists per game. The senior has been at St. Bonaventure has become an all-around offensive threat.

11. (Play-in) UCLA Bruins- Aaron Holiday, G

Aaron is the little brother of former UCLA standout, Jrue Holiday, who now plays for the New Orleans Pelicans. Aaron is a good player in his own right who averages over 20 points and five assists per game.

3. Texas Tech Red Raiders- Keenan Evans, G

Evans has been the catalyst for a quick turnaround at Texas Tech. He averages 17.1 points per game and plays good defense for the Red Raiders.

14. Stephen F. Austin- Kevon Harris, G

He is the second leading scorer on the team, but Harris pulls down a lot of rebounds and shoots a scorching 43.2% from deep.

7. Arkansas Razorbacks- Daniel Gafford, F

The senior guards for the Razorbacks are great, but Gafford can help take the team to the next level. The freshman has shown flashes of being great, but still averages 11.9 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.

10. Butler Bulldogs- Kelan Martin, F

Martin has gotten better every year at Butler, but has really taken his game to the next level this season, as he is averaging 20.8 points per game.

2. Purdue Boilermakers- Vincent Edwards, F

Edwards is the choice for Purdue because of his versatility. The 6’8″ forward can play on the inside or on the outside and is tough to guard.

15. Cal State Fullerton Titans- Kyle Allman, G

He is shooting 43% from deep and takes 3.2 three point field goals per game. The Titans will need to get the best shooter on their team open for threes for a chance to knock off Purdue.

Midwest Regional

1. Kansas Jayhawks- Devonte’ Graham, G

Graham was the Big 12’s Player of the Year and has patiently waited to take over point guard duties from Frank Mason. He averages 17.5 points and 7.5 assists per game.

16. Penn Quakers- AJ Brodeur, F

In the Ivy League Tournament, Brodeur scored 25 against Yale and 16 against Harvard. He shoots 54.6% from the field and scores, rebounds and assists at a high rate.

8. Seton Hall Pirates- Desi Rodriguez, F

The senior has improved every year at Seton Hall and now is one of the best players in the Big East. He averages 17.8 points per game, but also helps out with rebounding duties.

9. N.C. State Wolfpack- Omer Yurtseven, C

The seven footer from Turkey is not easy to guard. He can shoot from the outside, as well as do damage on the inside. If the Wolfpack go far in the big dance, he will have to play well.

5. Clemson Tigers- Marcquise Reed, G

Donte Grantham, likely would have been the pick here, but Reed picked up the slack in his absence. He leads the team in points and assists, but also is one of the best rebounders on the team.

12. New Mexico State Aggies- Zach Lofton, G

Lofton is one of the best scorers in the country at 19.8 points per game. New Mexico State is a trendy upset pick and if they are to win their first round matchup with Clemson, Lofton will have to produce.

4. Auburn Tigers- Bryce Brown, G

While he is just the second leading scorer, when Brown shoots efficiently, Auburn does better. The Tigers aren’t deep, so Brown will need to play big and stay out of foul trouble.

13. College of Charleston Cougars- Joe Chealey, G

He is second on the team in points scored, second in rebounds and first in assists per game. Chealey is one of three big scorers on the Cougars, who can help get the job done.

6. TCU Horned Frogs- Alex Robinson, G

The Texas A&M transfer has been huge for the Horned Frogs, especially after the loss of Jaylen Fisher to injury. He scores 9.8 points and dishes out 6.1 assists per game.

11. (Play-in) Arizona State Sun Devils- Tra Holder, G

Holder has been a star for years at Arizona State and now gets to display this on the big stage. He and Arizona State have been slumping the last half of the season, so he has to pick it up.

11. (Play-in) Syracuse Orange- Tyus Battle, G

Battle is the best player for the Orange by far and is the reason Syracuse was able to make the tournament. He is only a sophomore, so this may not be the last fans see of Battle in the NCAA Tournament.

players to know in the 2018 NCAA Tournament

Miles Bridges (Photo by draftexpress.com)

3. Michigan State Spartans- Miles Bridges, F

Spartans fans were elated when Bridges decided to come back for his sophomore season. He is the best player on the team and one of the best in the country.

14. Bucknell Bison- Zach Thomas, F

He nearly averages 20 and 10 for Bucknell and can even stretch the floor with his three point shooting. He was cold the last two games of the Patriot League Tournament and will want to be at his best for the NCAA Tournament.

7. Rhode Island Rams- Jared Terrell, G

Terrell is a good defender and leads the team in scoring, which is aided by his great three point shooting. He will need to play well for the Rams to advance.

10. Oklahoma Sooners- Trae Young, G

Oklahoma has the only player in the history of college basketball to lead the nation in both points and assists per game. Trae Young is just a freshman and does turn the ball over at a high rate, but if he’s on, Oklahoma is tough to beat.

2. Duke Blue Devils- Marvin Bagley III, F

Bagley is a future NBA star who leads the team in points and rebounding. With his size and skill, there aren’t too many players who could guard him.

15. Iona Gaels- Rickey McGill, G

In his last three games McGill has only scored 12 points, but the game before that against Rider he poured in 40. Getting him the ball will be a priority for Iona.

 

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2018 NCAA Bracket regional analysis and Final Four picks

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The after Selection Sunday is utter madness and insanity. Pundits are declaring their final four picks and fans are frantically researching to try to find that one sleeper team that is poised for a run. Now I’m not saying I am an expert or anything, simply an average Joe who nailed three of the Final Four teams, the title game match-up and the champion last season.

What I am saying is if you want to know the ins and outs of each region and the eventual regional champ, keep reading below. Let’s get to it!

South Region

The South region starts and ends with the most dominant team in college basketball this season: Virginia. The two-loss Cavaliers steamrolled their way to an ACC regular season and tournament championship. Coach Tony Bennett’s crew, buoyed by their impenetrable pack line defense, led the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. Virginia forces opponents into contested looks better than anyone in the nation and rarely gives up transition buckets.

With that being said, Bennett will not have a cake walk to San Antonio this season. Assuming Virginia can make it into the Sweet Sixteen, they will most likely draw either No. 4 Arizona or No. 5 Kentucky. Both teams are peaking at the right moment as they each won their respective conference tournament championships.

Arizona seems to be a trendy pick in this region. Anchored by DeAndre Ayton, who is arguably the nation’s best player at the moment, the Wildcats dismantled opponents in the second half during the PAC-12 Tournament. Ayton scored 32 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in Arizona’s 75-61 victory over USC in the PAC-12 title game. Ayton is nearly unguardable when he receives the ball in the post and Coach Sean Miller will look to exploit this advantage nearly every possession.

The bottom half of the bracket features more defensive teams in Cincinnati, Tennessee, Miami and Texas. A potential upset pick could be Loyola-Chicago over Miami. Miami will be without Bruce Brown Jr. for the length of the Tournament after sustaining a foot injury. Brown’s injury weakens Miami’s offensive consistency as he averaged 11.4 points per game, one of only three players to do so for the Hurricanes.

This may be Tony Bennett’s best shot at reaching a Final Four (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports).

Cincinnati has ranked highly on basically every metric available, but has played relatively weak teams throughout the season. The Bearcats nonconference schedule featured numerous mid-major teams aside from Xavier and Florida (both of whom defeated Cincinnati). Cincinnati is a great defensive team, but is prone to stagnation on the offensive end.

When it is all said and done, I believe the Sweet Sixteen match-up between Arizona and Virginia will decide who comes out of this region. Arizona was a preseason favorite to reach San Antonio and compete for a national title, but they have failed to live up to expectations. That game will feature a battle of the pack line defenses (Arizona plays this style as well) and while the Wildcats have more talent, I’m riding with the team whose defense has not been solved yet.

Add in the fact that people are riding Arizona based on the fact that they won the PAC-12 in a season where only three teams reached the big dance (and the other two needed a play-in game to make it). Arizona’s defense is shaky and their guards struggle to consistenty feature Ayton in the offense. Give me a Cavalier team that dismantled the ACC this season.

West Region

Here is where things get tricky. Xavier, the fourth number one seed in the Tournament this season, is by far the weakest top seed in the Tournament this season. According to KenPom, the Musketeers were the ninth luckiest team in the nation this season. Pundits make Trevon Blueitt out to be the next coming of Kemba Walker, but Blueitt has been prone to shooting slumps throughout the season.

Blueitt has averaged 19.5 points per game this season on 44.2 percent shooting from the field and 42.3 percent from three. However, in Xavier’s 75-72 Big East semifinal overtime loss to Providence, Blueitt was limited to 13 points on 14 percent shooting from the field. Xavier has the offensive firepower to survive the first weekend if Blueitt has an off-game, but after that, the Musketeers need Blueitt to be on to make it to San Antonio.

With that being said, watch out for the No. 4 Gonzaga Bulldogs. This Gonzaga team may not have the hype of last year’s squad that lost to UNC in the national title, but these Bulldogs have even more versatility than that team. This team is long, athletic and well-rounded. Johnathan Williams lead the Zags with 13.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, but sophomore Rui Hachimura is the key for the Zags this year. If Hachimura can provide consistent low-post scoring and rebounding, the Zags will be a tough out.

Killian Tillie is poised for stardom in the big dance (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review).

The bottom half of this region has explosive potential. Headlined by the defending national champion North Carolina and scorching hot Michigan. North Carolina looked shaky throughout the year, but behind the offensive development of Theo Pinson, the Tar Heels look poised to make some noise once again.

Michigan roared its way to back-to-back Big Ten Tournament titles behind its defense. This is easily the best defensive team of the John Beilein era and the Wolverines are looking to take care of unfinished business this year. Avoiding foul trouble and free throw shooting are weaknesses for Michigan though. Star center Moe Wagner is prone to early fouls. If opponents can force him onto the bench early, Michigan will lose a serious offensive weapon.

Both Michigan and UNC should draw difficult Round of 32 opponents. UNC could be dealing with a dangerous Providence team that knocked off Xavier and pushed Villanova to overtime in the Big East Tournament. Michigan will either play a Houston team that defeated Wichita State and lost to Cincinnati by one point in the AAC title game or a streaking San Diego State.

When it’s all said and done, expect the top four seed to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. In a rematch of last year’s Western Regional Elite Eight, Gonzaga will eliminate Xavier behind strong performances from Killian Tillie, Zach Norvell and Williams. Michigan’s defensive pressure will force UNC out of its comfort zone on offense and Wagner will outduel Luke Maye to send the Wolverines to the Elite Eight.

I like Gonzaga to sneak by Michigan in the Elite Eight behind a strong game from Killian Tillie, who will force Wagner into foul trouble. Gonzaga has the length to handle ball screens and switching assignments. Tillie is versatile enough to check Wagner on the perimeter as well. The Zags will ride him back to the Final Four.

East REgion

Villanova has run college basketball for the past three seasons. Coach Jay Wright’s player development is nothing short of extraordinary, as he has turned Jalen Brunson into the frontrunner for the Wooden Award and Mikal Bridges into a lottery pick candidate.

This Wildcat team has the capability to run you off the court. They are relentless and disciplined and force you to play the full 40 minutes if you want to send them home with a loss. If Villanova has one weakness, it is that they are heavily reliant on the three ball. Six players on this team shoot over 38 percent from three, but this style of play lacks consistency at times.

When Villanova’s three pointers are not falling, this team can be beaten. In Villanova’s 76-71 loss to Providence in the regular season, the Wildcats only shot 15 percent from three. In their 89-83 overtime loss to Creighton, Villanova took 39 three pointers and only made 12. If Villanova struggles from behind the arc against any of the top teams in this region, watch out.

West Virginia is Villanova’s biggest threat in the top half of this region. The Mountaineers have looked dominant at times this season behind the play of senior guard Jevon Carter. West Virginia’s press defense can be difficult to prepare for in short notice and in single elimination tournaments. Press Virginia feasts on tired legs.

However, West Virginia’s defense can be susceptible to transition buckets if the opposing to team looks to score while breaking the press. That’s a big reason West Virginia struggled to contain Kansas in their three meetings. Villanova has the offensive capability to capitalize on offense after beating the press.

The bottom of the bracket is headlined by Texas Tech and Purdue. Purdue has had an extra week off after the Big Ten Tournament and was one of the hottest teams in the nation for most of the season. Purdue, much like Villanova, feasts off the three ball with the likes of Carsen Edwards and Vincent Edwards.

Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges can send the Wildcats to their second Final Four in three seasons (Joe Robbins/Getty Images).

Texas Tech suffocates teams with their half court defense. Their versatility allows them to switch through ball screens and guard multiple positions. Keenan Evans appears to be returning to normalcy after his turf toe injury later in the season. Tech’s offense can stagnate at times and relies on Evans’s play-making ability to bail them out. If the Red Raiders want to make some noise, they will need Zhaire Smith, Jared Culver and Tommy Hamilton to step up on offense.

A darkhorse in this region could be the Arkansas Razorbacks. Arkansas rolls out two incredibly talented guards in Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon. Barford and Macon average 18 and 16.9 points per game respectively while each shooting 43 percent from three. Daniel Gafford, who stands a 6-foot-11, can go toe-to-toe with Purdue’s Isaac Haas if they end up squaring off in the Round of 32.

When it comes down to it, I expect mostly chalk as Villanova will square off against West Virginia and Purdue will take on Texas Tech. Villanova-West Virginia is set up to be an absolute war as Press Virginia will have some early success against the Wildcats. I was tempted to go with the Mountaineers, but the big question is whether they can get enough offense to catapult them into the next round. I don’t think so.

Purdue-Texas Tech is clash of styles. Tech is a defensive juggernaut and Purdue can score with the best of them. Purdue’s biggest weakness is defending the pick and roll, as Haas struggles with lateral quickness on the perimeter. Look for Tech to utilize high ball screens to scramble Purdue’s defense and have some success. Tech will advance in a nail-biter.

Tech will look to slow down the pace against Villanova in the Elite Eight, work their defense through off-ball screens and run the Wildcats off of the three point line. However, Tech’s offense will stall during the final ten minutes of the game and Mikal “Big Shot” Bridges will send the Wildcats to the Final Four with his clutch play down the stretch.

Midwest Region

The Midwest is most certainly the region of death. At the one spot, we have Kansas led by Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham. Graham’s development has been nothing short of breathtaking. Graham has anchored this Jayhawk unit by scoring 17.3 points and dishing out 7.5 assists per game. Graham has the ability to lead Coach Bill Self past the Elite Eight this season.

There are two big factors for this Kansas squad. The first lies in the health of Udoka Azubuike. Azubuike sprained his left MCL in practice before the Big 12 Tournament. Azubuike has been a dominant force in the paint for the Jayhawks, averaging 13.7 points on 77.4 percent shooting and grabbing 7.1 rebounds. Silvio De Sousa, Azubuike’s replacement, showed Self that he can provide strong rebounding and post scoring off of the bench. De Sousa torched West Virginia in the Big 12 title game with 16 points and 10 rebounds.

Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman’s offensive consistency is critical as well. Newman lit the lamp throughout the Big 12 Tournament from beyond the arc, relieving Svi Mykhailiuk and Graham of some of the offensive burden. Newman averaged 24 points throughout the Big 12 Tournament. If Newman continues this hotstreak, watch out.

Duke and Michigan State appear to be on a crash course for a Sweet Sixteen clash. Michigan State has been the most popular pick to emerge out of this region. Michigan State is a deep team that has a dangerous front court in Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward. Miles Bridges runs the show in East Lansing, averaging 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Bridges is an incredible athlete, but struggles to create off of the dribble against press defense and falls in love with his jump shot from time to time.

Duke’s season turned around ever since Coach K implemented the 2-3 zone. According to KenPom, Duke is ranked seventh in the nation in defensive efficiency, a stunning turnaround for a team that was putrid on the defensive end early on. Duke can score with any team in the nation most nights. Duke’s frontcourt, featuring ACC Player of the Year Marvin Bagley and lottery pick Wendell Carter, is a fearsome duo that can be difficult to slow down. Grayson Allen is a marksman from deep, too.

Malik Newman’s offensive consistency is key for Kansas (Shane Keyser/The Kansas City Star).

Duke bowed out of the ACC Tournament with an ugly loss to UNC 74-69. Many people expected Duke to storm past an inferior Tar Heel team (including myself). Theo Pinson and Luke Maye shredded Duke’s 2-3 zone by finding the soft spot in the middle. If Duke runs into a team that solves the 2-3, they could be going home early.

The team most susceptible to an upset in this region is Auburn. Auburn squares off against an underrated Charleston team. Auburn got outclassed by Collin Sexton and Alabama in the SEC quarterfinals. The Tigers got outscored by 28 points in the second half and looked atrocious on defense. If Auburn’s three pointers are not falling, don’t be surprised if they bow out early.

My Sweet Sixteen consists of Kansas-Clemson and Duke-MSU. Kansas will squeak by a tough match-up against either NC State or Seton Hall (I have NC State in my bracket) and then breeze through an outmatched Clemson to Self’s third straight Elite Eight.

Duke-Michigan State could be one of the best games of the Tournament and will have a Final Four atmosphere to it. Fun fact: Tom Izzo is a mere 1-11 against Coach K during his career. This game feels like a toss-up, but I’m sending Duke to the Elite Eight. Duke has faced superior competition all year and has more talent. Michigan State will look to attack the 2-3 utilizing Jaren Jackson, so look out for him to have a big game. Duke will get hot from three and ride Bagley to the Elite Eight.

The ride will end their for the Blue Devils. It seems that pundits across America have implicitly agreed to send the winner of Duke-MSU to the Final Four. Kansas has the tools to shred Duke’s 2-3 zone. Look for Self to work the zone inside-out with either Legerald Vick or Mykhailiuk manning the high post. Newman, Graham and Mykhailiuk are three point assassins and could light Duke up from beyond the arc. De Sousa will be the X-factor and will contain Bagley enough to send Self to an unlikely Final Four.

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2018 Big 12 Tournament preview

2018 Big 12 Tournament preview

The Big 12 is arguably the nation’s toughest conference from top to bottom. The conference featured some of college basketball’s most compelling stories. From Oklahoma’s star Trae Young, who captivated the nation from the get-go, to Texas Tech’s basketball resurrection, the Big 12 proved to be the top conference in the country.

With that in mind, the Big 12 Tournament will not disappoint. So who will hoist the trophy at the end? Let’s look at the contenders and find out.

overview

Kansas continued one of college basketball’s most impressive streaks by winning the Big 12 regular season title for the 14th straight season. However, this year was similar to a roller coaster ride for coach Bill Self. Kansas was in a precarious situation for most of the season, dropping games at Allen Fieldhouse at an alarming rate. But nevertheless, senior Devonte’ Graham carried them late in the season to another championship.

Both Texas Tech and West Virginia each threatened Kansas throughout the season numerous times, with the Red Raiders actually beating Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. The Mountaineers pushed Kansas to the edge both times they played, but collapsed late both times.

The remaining teams in the conference all experience their respective ups and downs, but no team fell harder than Oklahoma. The flashy playing style of Trae Young, who averaged 27.5 points, 8.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game, originally stunned the conference as a whole. However, as teams slowly began implementing hard double-teams on Young and forcing other players on OU to beat them, the Sooners’ lack of other consistent scoring options became clearer.

favorites

2018 Big 12 Tournament preview

Devonte’ Graham’s development keyed Kansas’ Big 12 regular season title. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images).

The Big 12 starts and ends with the Kansas Jayhawks. Graham, the Big 12 Player of the Year, averaged 17.6 points and 7.2 assists per game this season. Graham flashed the ability to take over games with his versatile offensive playing style.

Svi Mykhailiuk, once purely a three point shooter, has developed into a nice inside-out offensive threat. Mykhailiuk averaged 15.3 points and shot 45.1 percent from 3-point range on the season.

Texas Tech, if not for Keenan Evans’ turf toe, could have slayed Kansas this season. The Red Raiders defeated the Jayhawks 85-73 at Allen Fieldhouse earlier this season, but fell at home 74-72. Texas Tech’s defense has launched themselves into this position. Collectively, they ball-switch better than any team in the nation.

Their season, however, took a turn for the worse when star point guard Keenan Evans developed turf toe. This, along with a slew of other injuries, derailed the Red Raiders and led to a four-game losing streak.

Evans averaged 17.4 points and 3.3 assists per game this season. These numbers would have been higher if the turf toe did not affect his play to the degree that it did. If Evans did not sustain that injury, the Red Raiders easily could have ended Kansas’s Big 12 regular season title streak.

West Virginia, once ranked No. 2 in the nation, has been prone to late-game collapses all season. Bob Huggins’ famous “Press Virginia” defense has sputtered in the second half of many big games, and that has allowed opposing teams to climb back from large deficits. Regardless, the Mountaineers are a senior-heavy squad led by point guard Jevon Carter. Carter averaged 17.0 points, 6.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game this season.

The Darkhorse: TCU

2018 Big 12 Tournament preview

Vladimir Brodziansky has TCU primed for a run in the Big 12 Tournament. (Photo by Tony Gutierrez/AP Photo).

TCU’s season appeared to be over when Jaylen Fisher was ruled out indefinitely with a knee injury. However, after struggling through inconsistent play for most of the second half of the season, Jamie Dixon’s squad roped off a four-game win streak before losing to Texas Tech by four points to end the season.

These four wins could represent a sign of things to come for the Horned Frogs. Controlling the glass and limiting second-chance opportunities is key for TCU.

During their four-game winning streak, the Horned Frogs won the rebounding battle every single game. Without Fisher leading the way on offense, TCU needs to limit the opposition’s opportunities for second-chance points since TCU’s baskets do not come as easily.

The Horned Frogs are led by Vladimir Brodziansky, a 6-foot-10 senior forward who averaged 15.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. He anchors the paint on both offense and defense, as he shoots an efficient 57.7 percent from the field.

The Champion: Texas Tech

2018 Big 12 Tournament preview

Keenan Evans could carry Texas Tech to a Big 12 championship. (Photo by AP Photo/Brad Tollefson).

If the bracket holds up, the Red Raiders will take on in-state rival Texas. This is not an easy matchup as Texas has given top teams in the Big 12 fits all season. However, Tech should be able to ride its strong defense and opportune scoring to a matchup against West Virginia. In a battle of top defenses, Tech’s ability to limit their own turnovers should win the day.

They would then take on Kansas in the rubber match. One could make the argument that if Evans was healthy for their game at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders would have emerged victorious. Tech is a bad matchup for Kansas as their switching limits Kansas’ ability to create open looks from the 3-point line for Mykhailiuk.

Evans will build off of his strong game against TCU, where scored 23 points on 54.5 percent shooting and led Chris Beard’s crew to a title while winning Most Outstanding Player in the process.

 

 

 

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Unmasking contenders and pretenders of college basketball

As college basketball enters the final week of regular season play, teams on the bubble are scrambling to enhance their resumes and prove to the selection committee that they are worthy of a Tournament bid. Meanwhile, teams at the top of their respective conference are simply focused on winning out and capturing a Conference Tournament championship title.

Conference tournament week is simply a preview to the utter madness of the NCAA Tournament, but how reliable is it in showing the fans which teams are real contenders and pretenders?

Let’s look at last year for example. Heading into the Tournament, no team in the nation was as hot as Duke. The Blue Devils steamrolled their way to an ACC Conference Tournament title and were viewed as heavy favorites by fans to make a Final Four. However, Coach K’s squad bowed out of the Tournament after a shocking upset at the hands of a South Carolina team that looked dead in the water after losing its first game in the SEC Tournament against Alabama.

The moral of story is that while Conference Tournaments create a lot of headlines before the NCAA Tournament, it is not a fool proof way to understand which teams are true contenders heading into the the big dance. Let’s unmask the real contenders and pretenders of the college basketball universe as the regular season comes to a conclusion.

CONTENDER: VILLANOVA

Coach Jay Wright’s crew silenced the doubters in their 95-79 demolition of Big East rival Xavier. Xavier Coach Chris Mack assigned his best defender in Naji Marshall to shadow Jalen Brunson from start to finish. He dared other Wildcats to step up and beat them instead. The end result was the best team in the Big East flexing its offensive muscle power.

Projected lottery pick Mikal Bridges burned the Musketeer defense all night, loading the box score with 25 points on 66.67 percent shooting. Sophomore Donte DiVincenzo stepped up and showcased his ability to run the offense. DiVincenzo nearly recorded a triple double with 21 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.

While Brunson is the unquestioned star of this team, DiVincenzo’s consistent offensive production may be the X-factor for Villanova in their quest to return to the Final Four. In Villanova’s 76-71 loss to Providence, DiVincenzo struggled from the field, only connecting on 30 percent of his shots, scoring six points and turning the ball over three times.

After Phil Booth fractured his right hand earlier in the season, Wright had to force freshman Collin Gillespie into more game action earlier than he would have preferred. Gillespie’s production and efficiency have seen exceptional improvement over the past week. In Villanova’s past four games, Gillespie has averaged 9.25 points while shooting 65 percent.

If Villanova can limit turnovers, they accumulated 19 in their loss to Providence, and receive consistent scoring production from DiVincenzo and Gillespie, expect to see the Wildcats make some noise come mid-March.

PRETENDER: XAVIER

Unmasking Contenders and Pretenders of College Basketball

Trevon Blueitt and Xavier have encountered a number of lucky breaks this season (Logan Bowles/USA Today Sports).

Xavier has accumulated numerous victories over quadrant one and two opponents throughout the season. However, their play has been incredibly inconsistent throughout the season as they have struggled against lower quality opponents throughout the season. In Xavier’s 96-91 overtime victory over Georgetown, the Musketeers required a four-point play with under 20 seconds to play to send the game into overtime.

Coach Chris Mack’s squad required help from the officials in their 72-71 win at Creighton. Sophomore point guard Quentin Goodin was fouled attempting a shot with 0.3 seconds remaining. There was contact on the play, but the call was questionable given the context of the play.

To add to this, KenPom ranks Xavier as the fourth luckiest team in the nation with a score of +.129.

Xavier’s offense has been synonymous of a roller coaster ride all season. The Musketeers are heavily reliant on senior forward Trevon Blueitt to provide consistent, high volume production. However, Blueitt has been prone to shooting slumps and inefficiencies. In their 72-71 victory over Creighton, Blueitt was shut down all game, only scoring six points on 33.3 percent shooting. This was a game Creighton should have won and they provided a blueprint to take down Mack’s team.

Xavier’s porous defense could prove to be their downfall come March though. In their biggest game of the season, Xavier allowed Villanova to shoot 60.3 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from three point range. This stems from poor defensive close-outs and communication on switching.

CONTENDER: Texas Tech

Coach Chris Beard has Red Raider nation buzzing with optimism. Texas Tech as the opportunity to not only capture its first Big 12 regular season title in school history, but also make some noise once mid-March comes around.

Tech sports one of the most dominant defenses in the nation. Ranked third in adjusted defense by KenPom, Beard has completely altered the culture and playing style of this Red Raider team. Beard prefers to utilize a pack line defense, but also focuses on crisp player rotation and communication. This forces opponents into poor shot selection and passing decisions.

Their offense runs through star point guard Keenan Evans. Evans is averaging 18.2 points on 48.4 percent shooting, 3.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game. In Tech’s 59-57 loss to Baylor, Evans was sidelined the entire second half with a toe injury. The Red Raiders’ defense kept them in the game, but they had no offensive flow at the end of the game without Evans to handle the rock. Evans is listed as day-to-day, which should be a relief for Tech fans as their match-up with Kansas is on the horizon.

Evans has the defense and the team make-up in place to take on a role similar Kemba Walker this March and lead the surprising Red Raiders to the promised land.

PRETENDER: KANSAS

Unmasking Contenders and Pretenders of College Basketball

Kansas needs Devonte’ Graham to stay hot if they want to go far in March (Nick Krug/Lawrence Journal-World).

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has moved Kansas back up to a No. 1 seed after the Jayhawks defeated West Virginia 77-69 at Allen Fieldhouse. However, Coach Bill Self’s crew required a 19-3 run to end the game to take down West Virginia. There were times during this game where Kansas did not look like they belonged on the same court as their Big 12 counterpart, as West Virginia dictated pace and dominated the offensive end of the court.

This Kansas team lacks the explosive offensive firepower that Coach Bill Self is used to having. The senior tandem of Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk lead the Jayhawks in scoring this season with 17.4 and 15.3 per game respectively. However, much of this scoring is reliant upon outside shooting, in particular the three ball. This ability allows Kansas to pick apart a zone defense, as shown by their 76-60 win over Syracuse.

However, when the three ball is not falling, the Jayhawks’ offense can fall prone to stagnation. Mykhailiuk struggles in taking defenders off the dribble, Graham is a volume scorer who only shoots at 39.8 percent and Udoka Azubuike has difficulty handling double teams down low.

If Kansas falls into a shooting slump against a team that plays strong defense, they could find themselves packing up and heading home early in March.

 

Featured image by Charles Fox/Philly Inquirer).

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Takeaways from the Championship Classic

The Championship Classic delivered in full effect on Tuesday night with some amazing games and reminded us that college basketball is back! Duke handled Michigan St. and Kansas edged out Kentucky in two close and extremely entertaining games.

Duke Is The Clear #1:

After losing number one ranked freshman star Marvin Bagley early in the first half to an eye injury. Duke was without their best player for essentially the entire game. It was going to be an uphill battle for the Blue Devils.

Duke had to lean on their backcourt for the rest of the game and Grayson Allen and Trevon Duval picked up the slack to carry Duke to a 88-81 victory.

Image result for grayson allen from three

(BallDurham.com)

Grayson Allen was controlling the pace of the game the entire time and his shot from three was something to marvel at. He ended up with 7-11 shooting from beyond the arc and was perfect on free throws hitting 8-8. Duval and Allen had amazing chemistry in the backcourt slinging the ball around to the open man every chance they got.

Duval struggled from three point land going 0-4, but that was the only thing he struggled in against Michigan State. Duval stuffed the stat sheet finishing the night with 10 assists, six steals, three rebounds and 17 points.

Marvin Bagley’s injury does not seem to be serious and he is scheduled to play against Southern University on Friday as long as the eye irritation is down. It’s not like they need him to beat the Southern Jaguars anyway so it wouldn’t be surprising if they end up sitting him just to be cautious.

If this game is any indication how the season is going to unfold then look for Duke to remain the number one team for the entire year. If they can play the way they did on Tuesday and add a healthy Marvin Bagley thats the scariest team in college basketball by far.

 

Kansas In The Clutch:

Kansas had a back and forth game with Kentucky on Tuesday night and it was close down until the final few possessions. It was a classic between two programs who know each other so well, with 12 lead changes and 10 ties in the 65-61 Kansas victory. The biggest factor was Kentucky’s inability to hold on to the ball turning it over 18 times and letting Kansas grab 18 offensive rebounds to their 10.

 

Image result for Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk devonte graham

(KUsports.com)

The world of college basketball is primarily dominated by one and done freshman, but it was the seniors Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Devonte’ Graham who propelled Kansas to victory against the Wildcats.

Mykhailiuk finished with 17 points on the night even though he struggled from the field shooting 7-18 and 3-10 from three. It was his effort late in the game that really made a difference for his team.

it was a one point game going into the final two minutes and the Jayhawks outscored Kentuckey seven to four and stepped up their defense when it mattered most.

Graham iced the game with eight seconds left hitting both of his free throws putting them up by four points to seal the deal. After his atrocious shooting throughout the game going 3-14 he had to have felt the pressure in the closing seconds but gained his composure and won the game.

Kansas is going to need to step up drastically step up their shooting if they intend to keep up with the Blue Devils this year but this win is a huge momentum boost for Bill Self and his squad.

Overall the Championship Classic was great and adds some more fuel to the fire for this college basketball season. It’s looking like a great year for college basketball.

 

Featured Photo By Bleacher Report

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NBA prospects to watch in the 2017 Champions Classic

The Champions Classic is loaded with NBA talent every year because of the level of teams in the event. Every year Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State get together to play in an early season event to signify to everyone that basketball is back. Here are the top NBA prospects to watch in the 2017 Champions Classic:

Duke Prospects

Marvin Bagley, PF, Fr.

NBA prospects in the champions Classic

Marvin Bagley (Photo by bleacherreport.com)

Bagley is a generational talent that will likely be in the running to be the number one overall pick. He can do a little bit of everything and is leading Duke in scoring. He is averaging 24.5 points and 10 rebounds per game on the young season. One thing he can work on is his passing, as he continually will not find the open man and will rather put up heavily contested shots. The good thing for him is that he is good enough to make most of his shots, 65.7%, even when being double teamed.

Projected draft range: Top three pick

Wendell Carter Jr., PF/C, Fr.

Carter is only averaging 10 points and 6.5 rebounds, but there is so much talent on the Duke roster that stats aren’t the deciding factor for being a great prospect. He has been the rim protector for the Blue Devils so far with six blocks in two games. Carter was the fifth ranked prospect in the 2017 class according to ESPN.

Projected draft range: Top 10 pick

Trevon Duval, PG, Fr.

The number one point guard in the recruiting class was Trevon Duval. He is averaging a double-double in the first two games with points and assists. He averages 11.5 points and 10 assists per game. Duval has shown the ability to drive and score or dish the ball out, but needs to show he can knock down outside shots in order to keep defenses honest.

Projected draft range: Lottery pick-late first round pick

Gary Trent, SG, Fr.

Trent can be an x-factor for this Duke team this season. He is a good wing player, that with his outside shooting, can take some pressure off of Bagley. In the first two games he has already made seven threes on 13 attempts. His length can make him a good defender, but he will be tested by Michigan State on the defensive end.

Projected draft range: Lottery pick-late first round pick

Grayson Allen, SG, Sr.

Yes, Allen is still considered to be drafted in the NBA Draft. He gets a lot of criticism due to his attitude problems, but he is a solid player that has learned how to best play in his role every year at Duke. He is the second leading scorer so far, averaging 20 points a game. He has been the Blue Devils’ best shooter so far this season and, like Trent, can take pressure off of other players by knocking down shots. He has made 10 three pointers in 15 attempts.

Projected draft range: Late first round pick-early second round pick

Michigan State Prospects

Miles Bridges, SF, So.

Nba draft prospects in the champions classic

Miles Bridges (Photo by draftexpress.com)

Bridges surprised a lot of people by deciding to return to school after a great freshman season. He does everything for Michigan State from scoring to rebounding. His athleticism is crazy, and it can be seen in some of his highlight reel dunks. If he can knock down outside shots and limit turnovers, he is a complete player. Bridges will be one of the best college players this season and will get consideration for Player of the Year to go along with being considered a top prospect.

Projected draft range: Lottery pick

Jaren Jackson Jr., PF, Fr.

The Spartans have a lot of good inside players this season, but Jackson got the starting nod in Michigan State’s season opener. He had 13 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots against North Florida and he looks poised for bigger things. Jackson was also able to knock down nine of 10 free throws, which is a nice skill to have, being that he will be fouled a lot this year.

Projected draft range: Lottery pick

Cassius Winston, PG, So.

Winston is one of the best passers in college basketball. He makes plays and shows off his high basketball IQ in the process. Not only can he drive to the basket, he can also knock down outside shots. Winston is not the most sought after prospect right now, but with continued good play, NBA executives will start to fall in love with him.

Projected draft range: Second round pick-undrafted free agent

Kansas Prospects

Billy Preston, PF, Fr.

NBA draft prospects in the champions Classic

Billy Preston (Photo by kuhoops.com)

Unfortunately, the world has yet to see Preston on the college level yet, as he was suspended from the season opener for missing curfew and class. That is a little concerning, but overall not a big deal. He was the 18th ranked recruit by ESPN and will be asked to be one of the few legitimate inside players for the Jayhawks.

Projected draft range: Late first round pick-early second round

Legarald Vick, SG, Jr.

Vick has crazy athleticism from the wing. He has been getting significant minutes the last few years at Kansas, despite a crowded backcourt. If Vick can add some muscle and have a good season as one of the lead guys on the Jayhawks’ roster he can get drafted.

Projected draft range: Second round pick-undrafted free agent

Devonte’ Graham, PG, Sr.

Now that Frank Mason is gone, Graham is tasked with running the offense. He is a little undersized for the NBA, but has a lot of desirable qualities. Graham is a great defender and has the ability to play on ball and off of it. He has shown that he can create for his teammates so far this season with 12 assists in one game. Graham can also shoot from deep, with a career percentage of 41% on three point shots.

Projected draft range: Second round pick-undrafted free agent

Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, SG/SF, Sr.

Svi has gotten an increased role every year at Kansas. He is intriguing to NBA people because of his length and shooting ability. Svi is a 38% three point shooter and at his size, he is a tough matchup. This season he can really prove he is worth an NBA draft pick with his added minutes.

Projected draft range: Second round pick-undrafted free agent

Udoka Azubuike, C, So.

Azubuike’s year ended early last season due to a wrist injury, but now he is back and healthy. He has great length at seven feet tall and is strictly an inside player. With a changing NBA game, where good inside players are devalued, Azubuike has to expand his game. He is still worthy of a draft pick if he plays well.

Projected draft range: Second round pick-undrafted free agent

Kentucky prospects

Kevin Knox, PF/SF, Fr.

NBA draft prospects in the champions classic

Kevin Knox (Photo by seccountry.com)

NBA executives will love Knox because of his athleticism and face up game. He can dribble, shoot and rebound. Knox does need to shoot more efficiently, as in two games he has below a 30% field goal percentage. He will get good experience playing on the perimeter at Kentucky, but needs to start knocking down outside shots to make him the ultra-versatile player that will be drafted really early.

Projected draft range: Lottery pick

Hamidou Diallo, SG, Fr.

Diallo is one of the most athletic players in the draft class. He has been the best player for Kentucky so far. While he can get to the basket almost at will, he does have some areas of his game he needs to improve. These areas include outside shooting, shot selection and on-ball defending. The athleticism is good enough to get him drafted highly, but if he can improve in other areas, he can move up draft boards.

Projected draft range: Lottery pick-late first round pick

Nick Richards, C, Fr.

Richards is a former volleyball player, whose skills in that sport should help him at Kentucky. He had three blocks against Utah Valley in the opener. Richards can rebound and defend, which is nice, but he will have to show a vastly improved offensive game if he wants to be selected early on in the draft.

Projected draft range: First round pick

P.J. Washington, SF/PF, Fr.

In his first game Washington did not look good, but was great in the second game of the season. He has an inside-out game, that will pique the interest of NBA teams. Knocking down outside shots will drastically improve his draft status.

Projected draft range: Late first round pick-early second round pick

*Jarred Vanderbilt will not play in the event due to a foot injury, but is likely going to be drafted as well.

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College basketball Tuesday

Previewing the first Tuesday of college basketball

College basketball is back and not a moment too soon. The first Tuesday of the season has four of the top five teams in the country squaring off. Many see the Duke and Michigan State game as a possible National Championship preview.

The second game features Kentucky and Kansas, who are almost always title contenders. All four of these teams are looking at this season as a championship or bust.

Duke and Michigan State

This first matchup is the one that everyone wants to see. Coach K’s Duke Blue Devils take on Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans in Chicago on Tuesday night. This is a matchup between the two best college basketball teams as of right now. This features two of the greatest coaches that college basketball has to offer, as well as four of the best players in college basketball this season.

College basketball Tuesday

Tom Izzo (Photo from Sportingnews.com)

Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley are all players who are on the Wooden watch list. More than likely, two of them will matchup against each other head-to-head. Both Bridges and Allen have been stars throughout their college careers, and Bagley and Jackson come in as some of the hottest freshmen in the sport. Bridges and Bagley will probably draw a matchup in which everyone wants to see on opening night.

Ultimately, this will be a battle of youth (and Allen) against the strong Spartan sophomore class. Duke has the best freshman class, maybe in the history of college basketball. However, Michigan State is getting Jaren Jackson as well as bringing back their entire sophomore class that was one of the best recruiting classes last season.

This also spotlights a great coaching matchup. Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo are two tremendous coaches. Even though the season just started, I’m sure there are still sets they want to run and matchups they are looking to exploit.

I think that Michigan State comes out with a seven-point win here. Duke is extremely young and has only gotten to mesh for two games. The majority of Michigan State’s players were together last season, so they are more familiar with each other. Duke hasn’t experienced a game like this yet as a whole.

Either way, this will be a very entertaining game, and one that many of us college basketball fans are looking to see come early April.

Kansas and Kentucky

This is another great game. Kansas and Kentucky are always in the hunt for a National Championship every year. This season is no different. Both teams are extremely young and look to be led in different ways.

Kansas is led by Devonte’ Graham and Lagerald Vick, who are both returning guards. Both can shoot the basketball and are versatile defenders.

Kentucky doesn’t really have a ton of experience. They bring back Wenyen Gabriel, but are extremely young from a production category. They have been led by freshman guard Hamidou Diallo and don’t have a single senior on their roster. Kentucky’s youth probably doesn’t surprise you if you’ve watched them the last several seasons, but they are young and talented.

I think this one is similar to the first game. Kentucky always seems to struggle right out of the gates just enough for every analyst to say that they aren’t a team that will mesh well, and then they turn it on in mid-February and make some serious noise in March. I think this Kentucky team as of now lacks a leader, and that’s the only thing separating Kentucky from the other teams.

In the end, I have the Jayhawks over big blue by 11. Why double digits? I really think that the key to winning in college basketball is having multiple scorers and strong guard play. At this point, Kansas for a fact has that. Kentucky does as well, but it’s not as certain. Kentucky’s guards are also freshmen who don’t have big game experience. Devonte’ Graham, their primary ball handler, has dealt with power conference guards for the past few seasons.

Experience trumps youth to start the season almost always, and I think this season is more the same.

 

Featured Image from USAtoday.com.

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