National Championship Game Live Thread

College basketball fans, tonight it all ends. Tonight’s title game should give fans the show they deserve after a wild March Madness Tournament. The hottest team in the nation will square off against the undisputed most talented team in the country.

Destiny vs. Dynasty.

Defense vs. Offense.

I’ll be continuously blogging my thoughts on the game so feel free to follow this channel and enjoy the ride with me! Before we get underway though, here are a few of my pregame thoughts:

  1. Michigan does a fantastic job of running shooters off of the three point line. Those of you who are expecting to see a repeat of Villanova-Kansas will be disappointed. This game should resemble the Villanova-Texas Tech Elite Eight showdown as Michigan’s defense is very similar to Tech’s.
  2. Michigan needs Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to get going early. He was critical in the Big 10 Tournament with his three point shooting and playmaking off of the dribble.
  3. How will Michigan guard Brunson in the post? Simpson gives up three inches to Brunson and has difficulty staying out of foul trouble. Kansas tried to double him, but that did not work as he passed through the double too well.

Under 16 Timeout – 13:56, Michigan 11, Villanova 8

Michigan’s defense is giving Villanova all sorts of problems so far. Coach Beilein has chosen not to double Brunson in the post and stay with the Wildcat shooters on the perimeter instead. Brunson has 4 early points, but the story of the game is Moe Wagner so far. He has 9 of Michigan’s 11 points so far and has scored in the post, off the dribble and behind the arc. Abdur-Rahkman looks locked in early on both sides of the ball though.

Under 12 Timeout – 11:51, Michigan 18, Villanova 14

DiVincenzo knocked down Villanova’s first three pointer of the game. He looks poised to have a big game. However, Michigan’s defense is definitely giving the Wildcats problems early on. They are struggling to find space on the perimeter and all of their shots are being contested. Abdur-Rahkman is forcing the issue early on offense for Michigan. Jordan Poole had a nice and-one off the dribble.

Under 8 Timeout -7:32, Michigan 21, Villanova 18

Villanova keeping plays alive despite not making shots. DiVincenzo’s hustle is paying dividends as Michigan is struggling to contain him on the boards. Jordan Poole has continued to make plays for the Wolverines on the perimeter as he had a nice pick and roll assist to Wagner. There was a bit of a scuffle between Wagner and Paschall as the two big men hit the deck going after a loose ball. Emotions are running high! Michigan’s offense seems to be falling into a little bit of a drought here. Their defense is good enough to keep them in it, but they need to find their rhythm again.

Under 4 Timeout – 3:59, Villanova 30, Michigan 26

Donte DiVincenzo has completely taken over this game. DiVincenzo has 16 of Villanova’s 30 points and is the only player consistently hitting shots. The Wildcats are find their offense by creating second chance opportunities off of hustle plays. Michigan needs to get back into a groove on offense. Abdur-Rahkman has tried to force the issue by taking it to the rim. The Wolverines need more of that moving forward.

Halftime – Villanova 37, Michigan 28

This game is in danger of getting away from the Wolverines. They did a great job of limiting the Wildcats as a whole, but DiVincenzo carried their offense for a solid 10 minutes. DiVincenzo finished the half with 18 points. Wagner started out really hot from the field, but Villanova did a great job of limiting his touches in the second part of the first half. Michigan needs Charles Matthews to find a groove on offense. Matthews is 1-5 with 2 points after scoring 18 against Loyola in the semifinals.

Michigan Timeout – 18:03, Villanova 44, Michigan 30

Hold onto your hats, folks. Villanova is getting ready to blow this game open. Wagner opened up the half with a nice move to the bucket, but Simpson, rather than box out, watched Villanova miss a three. This allowed Bridges to track down the loose ball and finish the second chance shot. Paschall then knocked down a three and blew past Wagner for a layup capping off of a 7-0 run. Michigan needs to get back to the basics and take the ball to the hole and communicate better on defense.

Under 16 Timeout – 15:24, Villanova 48, Michigan 33

This game is close to being over. Michigan’s offense is dead in the water. There is no movement, no confidence and no swagger. Villanova’s defense, the underrated part of their team, is winning them this game right now.

Under 4 Timeout – 3:21, Villanova 74, Michigan 54

Well it’s safe to say that the Villanova Wildcats will win their second national title in three years behind a fantastic performance from Donte DiVincenzo. DiVincenzo currently has 29 points off of the bench. Villanova has not missed a beat with Brunson on the bench with four fouls, which really shows you how talented this Wildcat team is. Villanova has completely rampaged the competition in this NCAA Tournament and that is a testament to how good of a coach Jay Wright is. This is not a knock on Michigan though. Abdur-Rahkman has 19 points and played his heart out. This Wolverine team played with fire and heart from February until now and they have no reason to hang their heads after this game.

Final – Villanova 79, Michigan 62

That’s it! Villanova is your 2018 national champions! Congratulations the Wildcats and Coach Jay Wright!

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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

 

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Previewing Friday’s Sweet Sixteen games

What a difference Thursday and Friday is. Thursday? A rather unpredictable slate of games of teams that weren’t necessarily the experts picks to have moved on. Friday is exactly what most people assumed. Both the one seeds play on Friday and only Syracuse falls in the outlier category when on thursday more than half of the teams are seeded 7th or higher.

With a trip to the Elite Eight on the line Fridays slate of Sweet Sixteen games will be intense battles between historic coaches. Coach K, Bill Self and Jay Wright all headline an impressive friday slate. Who will make it to the Elite Eight and who will get their dreams crushed? Lets take our shot at predicting the unpredictable.

Kansas and Clemson:

Clemson is recently coming off a very strong win against the SEC regular season champions in Auburn. They face a Kansas team under Bill Self that has come on strong as of late and is getting a minutes restriction lift off of Udoka Azubuike. The difference is this game is just that.

While Clemson scores well and is balanced throughout their team, they lack a big man. With Udoka Azubuike on the floor, as well as the emergence of freshman Silvio De Sousa, the Clemson Tigers will have a tough time locking down the paint. As soon as they struggle with that, the lethal shooters on Kansas will get going.

Kansas will win this game 71-62 due to their ability to control the paint as well as the backboards.

West Virginia and Villanova:

Two of the very best college basketball coaches square off in this one. Jay Wright is leading a Villanova team that is looking very good in the NCAA tournament so far and West Virginia is coming off a dominant win against Marshall on Sunday. West Virginia or “Press” Virginia is a difficult team to prep for for some. Marshall had just two days to prep for them and it ended up costing them 18 turnovers which is a season high for them.

The Wildcats are different though. They have two guards in Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVencenzo who have been fantastic all season. They refuse to turn it over or speed up their games. This will be a game that questions if West Virginia can score in bunches offensively to keep up with the number one scoring offense in Villanova.

The best matchup in this game will be Jevon Carter drawing Jalen Brunson. Carter is nothing but productive and seems to make the game go however he and the press dictate. Jalen Brunson is exactly the same type of leader for Villanova. He never gets outside of himself and never does things to hurt their teams chances of winning the game.

Whoever wins that matchup will probably be on the winning side at the end of the 40 minutes. I think Nova takes this one 74-67 due to their tremendous offense and tremendous guards.

Duke and Syracuse:

Mens College basketball

Syracuse and Duke matching up.

Ah the battle of the zones. Duke has been much better offensively throughout this tournament. Instead of letting mediocre teams hang around they are taking big leads early and not looking back.

Syracuse is coming off an upset victory against Michigan State that has people thinking their zone just throws teams all out of sorts. Syracuse has the potential to be a zone killer because well one they practice against it every single day, and two because they have a guy in Marek Dolezaj who makes great decisions at the high post. Syracuse is not a particularly spectacular shooting team and needs Frank Howard and Tyus Battle to step up their scoring.

On the otherside we have a team that could potentially struggle against a good zone. Syracuse is a long zone and could make things tough for Duke. Duke has two tremendous three point shooters in Gary Trent jr and Grayson Allen. After that they don’t shoot it particularly great. Duke will struggle offensively and in turn we will see just how good their defense is.

Duke will win a very close one here. I have Duke winning this one 68-63 in a game that is close almost the whole time. If Syracuse can score well enough, they could even sneak out a huge upset win.

Texas Tech and Purdue:

I can’t imagine Isaac Haas playing in this game which could be a huge loss for the Boilermakers. The Red Raiders have dominated the defensive end all season. The stifle your offense and make you grind out long defensive possessions on the other end. They are effectively exactly what Virgina does. Keenan Evans has been very good scoring the basketball and will need to be in this game.

Purdue will struggle from the outside even though they have 4-5 guys that shoot it well and Texas tech will win this game 67-60 and absolutely shut down the Boliermakers’ offense.

 

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2018 Sweet 16 thoughts

Thoughts on the 2018 Sweet 16

The 2018 NCAA Tournament has certainly lived up to its billing as March Madness. We have seen No. 16 UMBC stun Virginia, the top seeded team in the tournament. The defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels got steamrolled by No. 7 Texas A&M, who appears to be peaking at the right time. Syracuse also shut down trendy national champion pick Michigan State to continue its unlikely run.

We have witnessed history numerous times this tournament, and it is safe to assume the upsets will not stop. Let’s dive in and take a look at how the chips have fallen in each region and what fans should expect moving forward.

Is No. 5 Kentucky a Final Four Lock?

When the bracket was revealed, it appeared that Kentucky would potentially have to get through Arizona, Virginia and Cincinnati to reach the Final Four. Thanks to the chaos that subsumed the South Region, Kentucky, a No. 5 seed, is the highest ranked team to reach the Sweet 16. Now coach John Calipari needs to defeat No. 9 Kansas State and either No. 7 Nevada or No. 11 Loyola-Chicago to reach San Antonio.

That being said, is Kentucky a lock to make the Final Four?

While they are certainly the heavy favorite, Kentucky is by no means a sure thing to reach San Antonio. However, this Kentucky team is clicking at the right time. In a 95-75 Round of 32 victory over Buffalo, four players scored double-digits. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander anchors the Kentucky offense, having dominated both games in the tournament. In Kentucky’s 78-73 win over Davidson, Gilgeous-Alexander scored 19 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished out seven assists and recorded five steals.

2018 Sweet 16 thoughts

Kevin Knox needs to maintain consistency if Kentucky is to advance. (Photo by Chris Humphrey, SB Nation)

The key for Kentucky to continue its march to San Antonio is the play of both Kevin Knox and Wenyen Gabriel. Knox willed Kentucky past Davidson with 25 points on 50 percent shooting, but only mustered eight points against Buffalo. Meanwhile, Gabriel was a non-factor against Davidson, only scoring one point. But against Buffalo, Gabriel torched the Bulls by scoring 16 points and hauling in 12 rebounds.

Calipari needs these two players to show up on the same day moving forward. Gabriel’s ability to stretch the floor was dearly missed against Davidson, as the Wildcats did not record a single 3-point shot. This will create more space for Knox to work in the middle of the defense. Knox’s specialties are his mid-range shot and ability to get to the free-throw line (he shot 11 free throws against Davidson).

With all of this being said, the remaining three teams in the South all pose unique challenges to Kentucky. Kansas State ranks 20th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. Barry Brown has buoyed Kansas State’s offense in the tournament thus far, scoring 18 points against both Creighton and UMBC.

Kansas State wants to slow down the pace of play and disrupt their opponent’s offensive rhythm. They are a tenacious on-ball defensive squad that is battle-tested thanks to a difficult Big 12 schedule this season. State’s defense held Creighton and UMBC to 33.8 and 29.8 percent shooting from the field respectively. The problem for Kansas State is on the other end of the court. Outside of Brown, State does not have any consistent offensive threats.

Loyola-Chicago and Nevada have each shown that they are unafraid of the spotlight in the tournament. The Ramblers relied on two game-winning shots with under five seconds to play. The Ramblers attack their opponents with a balanced offensive style. No player has scored over 16 points per game thus far in the tournament. Their defense leads into their offense.

Nevada is an explosive offensive team that can get up and down the court quickly. All five of their starters are capable of scoring double-digits. The Achilles heel of the Wolfpack could be their short bench or tendency to come out of the gate sluggish. Nevada needed two big comebacks to defeat both Texas and Cincinnati.

In short, Kentucky needs to play their best basketball moving forward if Calipari wants a chance to raise his second title banner at Kentucky.

Does Defense Win Championships?

The East Regional Sweet 16 features a tantalizing matchup between Villanova and West Virginia. Villanova features a high-flying offensive style that emphasizes the three ball. Meanwhile, West Virginia plays a pressure-oriented defense that is capable of dictating the pace of play.

Villanova has arguably been the most dominant team in the tournament. Mikal Bridges has been nothing short of dominant in both games. In Villanova’s 81-58 demolition of Alabama, Bridges poured in 23 points while shooting 62.5 percent from three.

2018 Sweet 16 thoughts

Donte DiVincenzo may be the key to Villanova’s Final Four chances. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The X-factor for Villanova is the offensive production of Donte DiVincenzo. DiVincenzo scored 18 points and dished out five assists against Alabama. When DiVincenzo’s shot is falling, Jay Wright’s squad becomes nearly unstoppable.

West Virginia comes into the this game after crushing Murray State and Marshall, two vastly overmatched teams. Everyone knew West Virginia’s defense could disrupt any team, but the question was whether they could muster up enough offense to make a run to the Final Four. Luckily for Bob Huggins, his team has averaged 89.5 points per game in the tournament.

Senior point guard Jevon Carter has anchored West Virginia so far, averaging 24.5 points per game. But the reemergence of Teddy Allen (16 points against Murray State), Lamont West (18 points against Marshall) and Esa Ahmad (12 and 10 points respectively) have added another dimension to this Mountaineer team.

Regardless, this showdown will be decided by whether Press Virginia can slow down Villanova’s 3-point offense. West Virginia’s defense wears opposing teams down and completely throws them off balance. West Virginia forced 16 and 18 turnovers against Murray State and Marshall respectively. Granted, there is a large step up in guard play from those two teams to Villanova.

Villanova’s versatile lineup is equipped to handle the relentless West Virginia pressure. Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth, DiVincenzo and Bridges can all handle the ball and push it up the court. The key for teams playing against West Virginia is to not just beat the press, but attack it. Villanova is built similarly to Kansas, a team that beat West Virginia three times this season by attacking the press to score.

The key for West Virginia will be to avoid any prolonged scoring droughts. Even a great defensive team cannot entirely contain an offensive juggernaut like Villanova the whole game. West Virginia does a great job of jumping on teams with their intensity and pressure, but their inability to consistently implement their pressure after scoring tends to be their Achilles heel. Huggins needs Dexter Miles to rediscover his shot from the Big 12 Tournament if West Virginia wants a chance to take down Villanova.

Wild, Wild West

2018 Sweet 16 thoughts

Gonzaga should be the favorite to reach the title game on the left side of the bracket. (Photo by Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

The West Region saw the two top seeds, Xavier and North Carolina, fall hard in the Round of 32. Florida State avenged last season’s Round of 32 demolition at the hands of Xavier with a late-game comeback that catapulted them into the Sweet 16. Texas A&M destroyed the defending national champs from start to finish in a game that was not remotely competitive.

The intriguing aspect of this region is that all four remaining teams have a legitimate shot to make the Final Four. Gonzaga and Michigan, with all their talent, have looked shaky at times throughout the tournament. Texas A&M seems to have rediscovered their form from earlier in the season, and Florida State showed the grit and toughness necessary for a deep tournament run.

Texas A&M showcases a lineup that is long and dangerous offensively. Tyler Davis is a 6-foot-10, 266 pound behemoth who creates mismatches by simply walking onto the court. Davis controls the paint in most games and his efficiency is key for the Aggies.

However, the team that is the most equipped to escape the West, and reach the championship game, is Gonzaga. Gonzaga’s versatility matches up with every team on the left side of the bracket. Zach Norvell has torched teams from behind the arc and Johnathan Williams has bullied opponents in the paint. Josh Perkins brings experience at the point guard position, and we are still waiting for Killian Tillie to erupt from three.

 

Featured image by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America.

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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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A recap of Selection Sunday

Well Selection Sunday has finally hit for college basketball fans. Selection Sunday is when the 68 teams that compete for a National Championship get announced. Whether you were comfortably in like Virginia and North Carolina or had to sweat it out like UCLA and Arizona State the field has officially been set.

Surprises: Arizona State:

Few people thought that Arizona State was going to make the big dance but they managed to do enough to grab an at-large bid. A record of 5-2 against other teams that made the NCAA tournament field was key here.

Although Arizona State has lost some games to lesser opponents they have key wins against Kansas, Kansas State, UCLA and Xavier that were too good to pass up to the selection committee.

Oklahoma:

The committee wasn’t judging the Sooners based on their whole body of work this season. Even worse is they didn’t think that Oklahoma well in the “last four in” category. Oklahoma has won just six games in all of 2018.

Yes you read that right, they have a 7-9 record against other teams that made it into this years field but have been trending in the wrong direction of late. Like Arizona State, a team that was once a top 10 team mid-season fell off drastically and almost missed out on one of the 32 at-large bids.

Syracuse:

This ones just completely shocking. I really did not think that Syracuse did enough to make the NCAA tournament. They were 5-9 against the field this season and had some “quadrant 3” or even worse loses. They did not fair well against the bottom of the ACC and finished 9-12 overall in conference, which includes conference tournament play.

The Fives and Sixes:

(KUhoops.com).

Notoriously a spot where there are a plethora of upsets the five and six seeds are locked in. One of the best match ups has to be Clemson and New Mexico State. New Mexico State is 2-0 against this year’s tournament teams.

They have back to back wins this season against Miami and Davidson and are 27-5 this season. They are lead by Zach Lofton ad have five guys that average eight or more points this season. The Aggies have some senior leadership and have the ability to shut down the incredible backcourt of Gabe DeVoe and Marcquise Reed.

Another solid matchup is West Virginia and Murray State. Now both these teams have very fast paced games which make this game interesting. West Virginia is the better team at forcing turnovers but Murray State both scores and allows less points. I think this game will be closer than many think and if Jonathan Stark, who averages just under 22 points per game shows up to play, this could be a big 5-12 upset.

The One seed with the toughest road:

This falls to either Villanova or Kansas. Even though Kansas has both Duke and Michigan State in their bracket they only have to play one of them in the Elite Eight.

With the best seeds in their bracket they would have to face Penn, Seton Hall, Auburn and then Duke. Auburn has slumped lately, Seton Hall they match up well against and then Duke will ideally be a toss up depending on the health of Udoka Azubuike.

Ultimately Virginia got rewarded this season by getting a gauntlet for a bracket. Seeds 2-8 have all been ranked at least once this season. They draw the SEC champion in Kentucky, SEC runner up in Tennessee, AAC champion in Cincinnati and a team that they have seen twice already this season in Miami. A team that has dominated all season will get tested throughout each game if they wish to win the National Championship.

Outside the top 2 seeds:

Michigan is blazing hot and comes in as a three seed. They fall in a region with North Carolina and Xavier who are all built similarly. They typically play with four guards who can handle the ball and play with one big. Ultimately teams clicking at the right time are dangerous in March.

This is one of the best brackets in recent memory. Lots of good matchups throughout the tournament as well as many teams who can win on any given day. The NCAA tournament is set and the Madness is set to begin.

Hitting your stride at the right time can lead to a deep NCAA tournament run. If you don’t believe me? You can ask Kemba Walker.

 

Featured image from Basketballscores.com.

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2018 Big East Tournament preview

The Big East Tournament is back! College basketball fans received a glimpse of the madness to come during the Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Now, the insanity that is conference title week is about to get underway. The Big East was one of the most competitive conferences in the country this season.

Who will emerge as the champion when the chips fall? Let’s take a look and find out.

overview

Xavier won its first ever regular season Big East title, securing the number one seed in the tournament. Villanova, although they swept Xavier in the regular season, fell to the number two seed due to a slippage of play down the stretch. Both of these teams are projected number one seeds in the NCAA Tournament and are the heavy favorites to go head-to-head in the title game.

The next five teams in the Big East conference are fairly even in regards to record. Seton Hall, Creighton and Providence all sit at 10-8 while Butler and Marquette ended up at 9-9 Big East records. The egalitarian nature of the Big East conference resulted in numerous back-and-forth match-ups and unpredictable upsets.

Georgetown, St. John’s and DePaul make up the bottom of the conference. The Hoyas and the Red Storm each showed flashes of competitiveness throughout the season, with Georgetown losing to Xavier in overtime and St. John’s toppling Villanova at the Pavilion.

The favorites

2018 Big East Tournament Preview

Trevon Blueitt helped Xavier capture its first Big East regular season title (Rob Carr/Getty Images).

Ever since the creation of the new Big East, the conversation has started and ended with Villanova. Coach Jay Wright’s squad has been blowing opponents out of the building all season long. Wooden Award favorite Jalen Brunson has steered Villanova through injuries to be in a position to lock up a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament once again with a strong showing in the Big East Tournament. With Phil Booth returning from a fractured hand, the Wildcats are in prime position to defend their 2017 Big East Tournament title.

Xavier is Villanova’s primary threat to defending their championship. Even though Xavier won the Big East regular season championship, Villanova drubbed the Musketeers twice during the regular season in convincing fashion.

Xavier is led by senior All-Big East first team guard Trevon Blueitt. Blueitt averaged 19.4 points on 45.2 percent shooting per game this season. Streaky shooting plagues Blueitt at times, but when he is on, Blueitt is near impossible to slow down. Surrounded by a strong supporting cast that includes Quentin Goodin, J.P. Macura and Naji Marshall, it is now or never for the Musketeers.

The darkhorse: Seton Hall

2018 Big East Tournament Preview

Angel Delgado and Myles Powell have Seton Hall primed for a Tournament run (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images).

While Seton Hall is a three seed in this tournament, they have the same record as the four and five seeds. There is also such a drop off between the top two teams record-wise that anyone aside from Xavier and Villanova has to be considered a darkhorse.

Seton Hall is an appealing choice because Coach Kevin Willard always brings out the best of his team during the Big East Tournament. Willard led his team to a Big East Tournament win in 2016 and nearly toppled Villanova in the semifinals last season.

The Pirates, after falling into a four-game losing streak, are peaking at the right time. They have won four of their last five games with their lone loss being a 69-68 overtime defeat at the hands of Villanova. Seniors Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado are capable of taking over any game with their physical style of play. Rodriguez and Delgado average 18.1 and 15.6 points per game respectively. Delagdo also averages 11.6 rebounds per contest.

Khadeen Carrington’s play-making abilities (four and a half assists per game) and Myles Powell’s outside shooting further enhance the offensive capabilities of this Seton Hall team.

The Champion: Villanova

2018 Big East Tournament Preview

Jalen Brunson should propel Villanova to their second straight Big East title (Laurence Kesterson/AP Photo).

If the bracket holds true, Villanova will face an explosive offense in Marquette and then Seton Hall. The Wildcats outgunned Marquette twice this season as they are capable of beating the Golden Eagles at their own game: high volume scoring. Villanova-Seton Hall Big East tournament slugfests are becoming something of a tradition nowadays. The pesky Pirates will push Villanova, but the Wildcats’ experience, solid guard play and crafty defending will be too much for the Pirates to handle.

And then there is Xavier. Although Xavier won the Big East title during the regular season, they will fall to the Wildcats for a third time this season in the title game of the Big East Tournament. No team will be strong enough to derail the inevitable: Villanova-Xavier Round Three. However, the Musketeers’ signature 1-3-1 plays right into Villanova’s strength: three-point shooting. In Villanova’s 95-79 win at Xavier, the Wildcats shot 47.1 percent from beyond the arc.

The x-factor for this Villanova team will be Donte DiVincenzo’s offensive production. If DiVincenzo can find his stroke during this tournament, Villanova will be close to unbeatable. DiVincenzo has been prone to shooting slumps, but when he is on point, his offensive versatility shines through as defenders have to respect his shot.

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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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Big East Conference basketball

Big East bottom feeders show signs of life

As college basketball inches closer towards postseason play, the Big East may be the most intriguing conference in the nation. Villanova has dropped two of its last three games, allowing Xavier to increase its lead. However, two teams sitting in the cellar of the conference have put the remaining conference members on notice with their play as of late.

St. John’s, previously winless in Big East play, has won its last four games. They knocked off then-No. 4 Duke and then-No. 1 Villanova in back-to-back games before defeating Marquette and squeaking past DePaul. Coach Chris Mullin has his team flying high and playing with a high level of confidence.

Meanwhile, the Georgetown Hoyas pushed No. 4 Xavier to its limit in a crushing 96-91 overtime loss. The Hoyas failed to close out the Providence Friars in a 73-69 loss due to a controversial foul call with under five seconds to play. Coach Patrick Ewing’s squad responded with convincing victories over Seton Hall and Butler.

The recent increase of competitiveness in St. John’s and Georgetown certainly raises the parity of play in the Big East down the stretch. The race to avoid falling into the seventh seed and face the prospect of playing St. John’s in the opening round of the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden has opposing coaches nervous. Let’s examine the factors that have allowed both of these teams to secure noticeable upsets of late.

St. John’s: Dominant Guard Play

Big East Conference basketball

Sophomore guard Shamorie Ponds silences Villanova. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

During the resurgence of St. John’s, sophomore guard Shamorie Ponds has been unstoppable. During the Red Storm’s four-game winning streak, Ponds has averaged 32.3 points, five assists and 2.3 steals per game.

After sophomore guard Marcus Lovett was ruled out for the season with a left knee injury, Mullin called on Ponds to carry the load even more so than before.

Ponds has always been a talented scorer off the dribble, but he has worked to involve his teammates more during this stretch. To couple this, Ponds has notched up his defensive intensity, harassing opposing guards all night.

Mullin typically rolls out a six-man rotation each game. As a result, Ponds has played all 40 minutes in every game during the Johnnies’ four-game winning streak. Fans of the Red Storm have to be slightly concerned about Ponds developing fatigue come postseason play as his playing rate is not sustainable.

Georgetown: A Big One-Two Punch

Big East Conference basketball

Junior forward Marcus Derrickson celebrates after nailing a game-winning three against Seton Hall. (Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo)

Back in November of 2017, Ewing told the media that if Georgetown was going to remain competitive come Big East play, they needed a big season from junior center Jessie Govan. Govan, while having some ups and downs in Big East play, has largely lived up to the hype. Govan has been a reliable rock in the Hoyas offense, averaging 16.7 points while shooting 50.2 percent and grabbing 10 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.

However, the player who has brought Georgetown to the next level this season has not been Govan, but junior forward Marcus Derrickson. Derrickson has been the go-to player in the clutch all season, nailing two game-winning 3-pointers from NBA range against St. John’s and Seton Hall. Derrickson served as the offensive catalyst in Georgetown’s 87-83 upset at Butler, scoring 27 points while shooting 84.6 percent.

Govan and Derrickson arguably form the most formidable one-two punch on the block in the Big East. Georgetown has had difficulty in some games properly utilizing both of them as opponents have effectively doubled both big men, forcing the Hoyas into turnovers.

However, Ewing has seen more production from his guards, in particular graduate transfer Trey Dickerson, who scored 18 points off the bench against Butler. This newfound scoring threat has forced opponents off the double, allowing Derrickson and Govan to feast on single coverage.

St. John’s: Scoring by Committee

Outside of Ponds, Mullin lacks a consistent scoring option, which could prove problematic come postseason play. However, the Red Storm have survived by getting key contributions from different players night in and night out based on matchups.

In its 81-77 win over Duke, St. John’s saw senior guard Bashir Ahmed and junior forward Tariq Owens score 19 and 17 points respectively. Ponds and Owens capitalized on Duke’s porous interior defense while Ahmed shot 75 percent from 3-point range.

However, in St. John’s upset win at Villanova, Owens and Ahmed remained relatively quiet on the offensive end. Instead, sophomore guard Justin Simon poured in 16 points along with 10 rebounds and seven assists.

While effective, this playing style can be dangerous at times. In St. John’s 86-78 victory over Marquette, the Red Storm required a herculean effort from Ponds to escape with a win. Ponds accounted for more than half of their points with 44. The only other player to reach double-digit scoring for Mullin’s crew was Simon, who scored 16 again. This shows that if opponents are able to limit scoring production outside of Ponds, the Johnnies will have difficulty creating offense in the half-court.

Georgetown: The Kids are Growing Up

Looking beyond Govan and Derrickson, the key to this Hoyas team might be freshmen Jamorko Pickett and Jahvon Blair. Pickett was Ewing’s prized recruit this past season after backing out from his commitment to Ole Miss. Early in the season, both freshmen struggled with shot selection and limiting turnovers.

As the season has progressed, both freshmen have progressively increased their level of play. Blair sparked the Hoyas offense in Georgetown’s overtime loss against Xavier, scoring 19 points and shooting 50 percent from 3-point range. Blair only turned the ball over twice in this contest.

Pickett has become more comfortable utilizing his 6-foot-7 frame to shoot over defenders and alter shots on defense. Pickett scored 18 points and blocked two shots in Georgetown’s 83-80 win over Seton Hall.

While Ewing has seen encouraging steps of growth from both players, Blair and Pickett are still freshmen, which means that struggles will not magically disappear. Blair’s shot has seemingly been flat the past two outings, resulting in him forcing shots outside and taking contested attempts off of wild drives to the hoop.

Pickett still has difficulty taking defenders off of the dribble, which is something that Butler took advantage of. Pickett ended up turning the ball over five times in that contest.

 

Featured image by Wendell Cruz/Finish First Photos.

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NCAA preliminary bracket winners and losers

Winners and losers from the NCAA preliminary bracket

The NCAA Tournament selection committee, for the second straight year, revealed who the top 16 seeds would be if the season ended this past Saturday. The committee deemed Virginia as the top seed of the Tournament despite its home loss to Virginia Tech. Villanova, Purdue and Xavier rounded out the remaining No. 1 seeds.

South: 1. Virginia, 2. Cincinnati, 3. Michigan State and 4. Tennessee.

East: 1. Villanova, 2. Duke, 3. Texas Tech and 4. Ohio State.

West: 1. Purdue, 2. Kansas, 3. North Carolina and 4. Arizona.

Midwest: 1. Xavier, 2. Auburn, 3. Clemson and 4. Oklahoma.

Let’s take a look at who the winners and losers of the committee’s judgement were this year.

Winner: Cincinnati

NCAA preliminary bracket winners and losers

Junior guard Jacob Evans III looks to lead the Cincinnati Bearcats to a strong finish. (Photo by Laurence Kesterson/AP).

The Bearcats are sitting at 23-2 and in first place in the American Athletic Conference. While this record is impressive, Cincinnati has played a weak schedule thus far.

The Bearcats dropped both of their premier non-conference matchups against Xavier and Florida back in December. They defeated UCLA, Temple and Houston, but none of those teams are considered legitimate contenders come March.

The fact that the committee already has Cincinnati as a No. 2 seed shows that they are high on the Bearcats moving forward. Coach Mick Cronin’s squad has a huge opportunity to further bolster its stock with upcoming matchups against Wichita State and Houston.

If Cincinnati can continue its winning ways and another No. 1 team crumbles down the stretch (possibly either Villanova or Xavier), the Bearcats could steal a No. 1 seed in the tournament.

Loser: Texas tech

The Red Raiders are poised to capture their first Big 12 regular season championship ever, yet they are only ranked as a No. 3 seed. Coach Chris Beard probably feels somewhat disrespected by this choice, and he has every right to feel that way. The Big 12 is the deepest conference in college basketball this season, sporting four teams in the AP top 25 rankings and three in the top 16 above.

Texas Tech sports an impressive 9-3 Big 12 record that includes a one-point victory over West Virginia (back when the Mountaineers were No. 2 in the nation) and a 12-point win at Kansas. What hurt the Red Raiders was their weak non-conference schedule (their only impressive victory coming against Nevada) coupled with a stretch of Big 12 conference play where they lost three of four.

Regardless of their spot at the moment, Beard’s upstart team has ample opportunities to move up to a No. 2 seed and possibly even a No. 1 if they win out. However, this is easier said than done as Tech has rematches against Kansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia lined up in the future.

WINNER: THE BIG EAST

While the Big East only has two teams in the top 16, those two teams each captured a No. 1 seed. Villanova and Xavier have slowly developed a fun rivalry this season and have a highly anticipated rematch in Ohio slated for this Saturday. Even more important is that both squads have a significant chance to maintain their spot in the tournament over the next few weeks, especially if Xavier can knock off Villanova this weekend.

The revamped Big East has failed to live up the hype and intensity of the old school conference that featured schools like Syracuse, Louisville, UConn, Pittsburgh and Georgetown. However, the Big East has been fairly competitive this season, both in and out of conference.

Competitive teams will not return the Big East to its former glory, but sending two teams into the tournament this season would be a significant step.

LOSER: THE PAC-12

Last season, the conference of champions (as Bill Walton would put it) had three teams vying for top seeds in the tournament at this point in the season. The season resulted in Arizona, Oregon and UCLA going to the Sweet 16 and Oregon making it to the Final Four.

This season has been much less kind to the Pac-12. Arizona entered the season as a national champion contender with top recruit Deandre Ayton coming to town. Coach Sean Miller also hauled in three other top 100 recruits per ESPN in Ira Lee, Emmanuel Akot and Brandon Randolph. Now the Wildcats might be the most disappointing team in the nation up to this point.

Neither UCLA or Oregon have the depth or firepower compared to their respective teams last season. USC entered the season as a dark horse contender for the Final Four, but have seemingly failed to recover from the offseason’s FBI investigation. Needless to say, Arizona is the Pac-12’s best shot at back-to-back Final Four appearances.

 

Featured image by Stan Szeto/USA Today Sports

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