Syracuse entered the ACC Tournament feeling pretty good about their NCAA Tournament chances for the first time since 2013.
Despite being without leading scorer Tyus Battle due a lower back injury, the Orange defeated Pittsburgh, 73-59, in the first round of the ACC Tournament on Wednesday night. Syracuse trailed the Panthers, 36-30, at halftime, but used an 8-0 run with all 8 points scored by Buddy Boeheim to take a 43-39 lead early in the second stanza. The Orange would not relinquish the lead the rest of the way.
After shooting 60-percent from three-point range in the first half, Pittsburgh cooled down and shot just 30.8-percent from deep after the break. Conversely, Syracuse heated up from beyond the arc down the stretch, shooting 54.6-percent from three in the second half.
Jared Wilson-Frame led the Panthers with 24 points, on 8-of-16 from three-point land, and seven rebounds. Sidy N’Dir added 10 points in the losing effort.
Boeheim paced Syracuse with 20 points, on 6-of-13 shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. Elijah Hughes and Frank Howard scored 18 points apiece. Hughes also grabbed four rebounds, dished out three assists, and came away with two steals.
The Orange squared off with Duke in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament on Thursday night. Battle missed his second straight game with a lower back injury. After rallying back from as much as a 17 point deficit in the first half, Syracuse tied the game at 46 on a triple by Boeheim with 13:02 to go. The Blue Devils pulled away down the stretch to win 84-72.
In a turnover plagued affair, Duke outshot the Orange as the Blue Devils shot 53.7-percent from the floor, compared to 48.1-percent shooting for Syracuse.
The real difference in the game was that Duke has the best player in the country and the likely #1 pick in the NBA Draft Zion Williamson. Williamson, who returned after missing five consecutive games with a sprained knee, erupted for 29 points on a perfect 13-of-13 from the floor, 14 rebounds, and five steals. Fellow freshman phenomenon RJ Barrett tallied 23 points, on 8-of-16 from the field, and six rebounds. Freshman point guard Tre Jones finished with 15 points and eight assists.
Howard led the Orange with a career-high 28 points, on 11-of-2o shooting, and three assists. Boeheim poured in 15 points, while Oshae Brissett finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.
Despite the loss, Syracuse entered the NCAA Tournament with a record of 20-13. Howard was named to the ACC Tournament Second Team, while Williamson was named the MVP after Duke won the championship game over Florida State, 73-63, Saturday night.
Battle is expected to return in the NCAA Tournament, but playing without him in the ACC Tournament gave others the opportunity to step up, specifically, Howard and Boeheim.
Player of the Week: Frank Howard
This week’s player of the week for Syracuse was Frank Howard. After a lower leg injury caused him to miss the first four games of the season, Howard did not play to the form he showed he was capable of during his junior campaign. The senior point guard averaged 23 points on 50-percent shooting in Battle’s absence at the ACC Tournament. With Battle back and Howard and Boeheim shooting with confidence, the Orange just might be poised to make another run in the “Big Dance.”
Up Next: The NCAA Tournament vs. #9 Baylor
For the first time since 2013, Syracuse did not have to sweat it out on Selection Sunday. This year, the Orange were firmly in and earned the 8-seed in the West Region. Syracuse will take on the 9-seed Baylor in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tip-off is set for Thursday night at 9:57pm. The game will be seen on truTV. The Bears are 19-13 overall and are coming off an 83-66 loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals. Baylor is led by Tristan Clark who is averaging 14.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
If the Orange were to defeat the Bears, they would take on the winner of the game between the 1-seed Gonzaga and the 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson, who defeated Prairie View in the First Four Tuesday night.
Last season, the SEC sent eight teams to the NCAA Tournament. Will the SEC prove they are a premier basketball conference this year?
Let’s take a look at how the SEC will shake out in 2018-19.
John Calipari brings another highly touted recruiting class to Lexington this season as EJ Montgomery, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, Immanuel Quickly, and Ashton Hagans make their way to campus. PJ Washington returns for his sophomore season and is in the conversation for SEC Player of the Year. The Wildcats landed the top graduate transfer in the country, Reid Travis from Stanford. The combination of youth and experience will make Kentucky the favorite to win the SEC and possibly the National Championship.
After a surprising 2017-18 campaign, reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield return to challenge in the SEC and on a national level in the 2018-19 season. After being upset by Loyola-Chicago in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Volunteers will look to make a deeper run in March this season.
Another team that surprised the college basketball world a year ago was the Auburn Tigers. Bruce Pearl returns Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Brown will be joined by Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy who missed the entire season a year ago serving suspensions for violating NCAA rules. The Tigers will look to make it to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since they lost to eventual National Champion, Syracuse, in 2003.
4.)Mississippi State Bulldogs
Ben Howland will look to get his fourth program to the “Big Dance” as he returns a core nucleus from a team that lost to Penn State in the semifinals of the NIT a year ago. If Mississippi State can get to the NCAA Tournament, it will likely be due to the performance of Quinndary Weatherspoon. The Bulldogs will need to shoot better from beyond the arc as well.
As one of the best programs in the SEC, Florida cannot be left out of the conversation when discussing the top teams in the league. The Gators return Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen to a team that lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament a year ago. The biggest questions for Florida are frontcourt production and freshman point guard Andrew Nembhard taking over for Chris Chiozza.
Will Wade’s team underwent tragedy this offseason when junior Wayde Sims was fatally shot in September. You can never predict how a team will react to an incident like this, but the Tigers are talented enough to make a run to the top of the SEC and back to the NCAA Tournament this year. Sophomore Tremont Waters and freshman Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams will look to guide them there.
Vanderbilt could be the most improved team in the SEC this year. Freshman Darius Garland and transfers Matt Ryan and Yanni Wetzell will look to make the Commodores relevant in the SEC once again.
8.)Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama will be without the services of 2018 NBA Draft lottery pick Collin Sexton this year, but Avery Johnson will rely on returners Donta Hall and John Petty, along with Texas transfer Tevin Mack to get them on the right side of the bubble and back in the NCAA Tournament for back-to-back years.
Daniel Gafford decided to return to Fayetteville for his sophomore season. No other returner averaged more than four points per game a year ago. Gafford has a chance to elevate his NBA Draft stock. A lack of supporting cast could keep the Razorbacks on the wrong side of the bubble this year.
Missouri suffered a huge blow to its NCAA Tournament aspirations when sophomore forward Jontay Porter tore his right ACL and MCL in a scrimmage against Southern Illinois on Sunday. It will be difficult for the Tigers to make it back to the “Big Dance” in Porter’s absence. The Tigers will need to improve from deep to have any chance of surviving the SEC.
After a tumultuous 2017-18 season that ended with a surprising trip to the Sweet Sixteen, Texas A&M has a new look this season. Robert Williams and Tyler Davis declared for the NBA Draft after last season. With their departure, the Aggies will not be as dominant in the frontcourt. Guards Admon Gilder and TJ Starks are the new faces of the program. Texas A&M may struggle to remain relevant in the SEC this year though.
It will be a rebuilding year for Tom Crean and company in Athens. The Bulldogs will try to replace Yante Maten, one of the best players in program history. The team lacks star power and will most likely be a bottom dweller in the SEC this season.
13.)South Carolina Gamecocks
Two years removed from an appearance in the Final Four, Frank Martin is in search of production on the perimeter to surround big man Chris Silva. If the Gamecocks are unable to generate backcourt production, they will miss out on the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.
14.)Ole Miss Rebels
Kermit Davis takes over for Andy Kennedy in Oxford. Ole Miss only won five conference games a year ago and the Rebels will use this year as a rebuilding year.
If you’re like me, you’re probably feeling a little empty not having any college basketball to look forward to this weekend. Let’s take a step back to remember the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
This year’s “Big Dance” featured an upset for the ages, a Cinderella run that made a nun an international sensation, buzzer beaters, the agony of defeat and, most importantly, the best team won it all.
The National Champs: Villanova
Jay Wright did it. Two National Championships in three years. Villanova has become the program to beat in college basketball. The Wildcats dominated in March as they won all of their games in the NCAA Tournament by double-digits. Wright joined an exclusive club by cutting down the nets for the second time in his career as he joined Coach K and Roy Williams as the only active coaches to win multiple championships. National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges will likely forego their senior seasons and enter the NBA Draft, but Coach Wright will bring back three starters, Phil Booth, Eric Paschall, and Omari Spellman, and Donte DiVincenzo, who came off the bench and scored 31 points in the title game on Monday. The Wildcats have been the most dominant program over the last five years and with Wright at the helm, there is a culture of winning in Philadelphia. Villanova will be back next year to defend their title and create a dynasty.
The Runners-Up: Michigan
Michigan was the hottest team in the country entering the NCAA Tournament and rode their streak all the way to Championship Monday where they ran into the buzz saw that was Villanova. Mo Wagner’s decision to return to Ann Arbor paid dividends as he led his squad back to the National Championship game for the first time since 2013. John Beilein had the best defensive squad of his career that gave opponents fits throughout the month of March. The run to San Antonio almost didn’t happen as the Wolverines needed a buzzer beater by freshman Jordan Poole to get past Houston in the second round and led to one of the best celebrations of the Tournament. Wagner and seniors Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson will depart, but Michigan will be back with a talented recruiting class next season.
We witnessed history in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. For the first time in history, a 16-seed upset a 1-seed in the first round. Many had hinted at the fact that an Ivy League school, Penn, presented the best chance for a 16-seed to take down a 1-seed in their match-up with Kansas. When that didn’t happen on the first Thursday of the Tournament, many thought we would have to wait at a chance for history until next year. Enter Jairius Lyles and the UMBC Retrievers. In the final set of first round contests, UMBC took the world by storm—both on the court and on Twitter. The Retrievers stayed with Virginia and did not back down when the game was tied at 21 at halftime. UMBC outscored the #1 overall seeed 53-33 in the second half, busting pretty much every bracket filled out this year as the Cavaliers were a favorite to win it all. The three point shooting and defense by the Retrievers sent Kyle Guy and the rest of the Virginia team home crying as the first #1 to lose to a 16-seed in NCAA Tournament history. Tony Bennett was without a key piece, De’Andre Hunter, that Friday night in Charlotte. Maybe this would not have happened with him in the lineup, but Bennett will have to wait another year for a chance at the Final Four.
K-State to the Elite Eight
Kansas State got past Creighton in the first round and instead of having to face Virginia, they were up against Cinderella UMBC in the second round. The Wildcats dispatched the Retrievers and then took down Kentucky in Atlanta to make the Elite Eight for the first time since 2018. More impressively, Kansas State made their run without the services of their leading scorer, Dean Wade, who suffered a foot injury in the Big 12 Tournament. Although they were unable to get past Loyola-Chicago and make the Final Four, the Wildcats may have saved Bruce Weber’s job.
Buffalo Beats Zona
Buffalo knocked out Arizona in the first round. The Wildcats were a favorite to make a run to the Final Four, but an impressive shooting performance and stout defense by the Bulls made for an early exit for Sean Miller’s team. With the outcome of the FBI investigation still unknown, the future of Arizona basketball is uncertain as they will lose Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier, and Rawle Alkins to the NBA and Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic to graduation.
Sister Jean and Loyola-Chicago
Loyola-Chicago became the fourth 11-seed to make the Final Four and in doing so, their Team Chaplain Sister Jean became an international sensation at 98 years young. Donte Ingram’s buzzer beater to beat Miami was one of the highlights of the first round, but the Ramblers proved they weren’t done yet. They took down the 3-seeed Tennessee on a jumper in the waning seconds by Clayton Custer. Marques Townes’ dagger was enough to beat Nevada and advance to the Elite Eight where they blew out Kansas State. Their run came to an end with a loss to Michigan in the Final Four, but the Missouri Valley Champs took the world by storm in the month of March.
Nevada led for only 1:56 of its first two games of the NCAA Tournament, but managed to make the Sweet Sixteen. The Wolfpack trailed Texas by 14 points in the second half, but came back to win in overtime to advance to the Round of 32. There, Nevada erased a 22 point Cincinnati lead and came back to eliminate the second seeded Bearcats from the “Big Dance.” The Wolfpack lost to Loyola-Chicago in the Sweet Sixteen, but they will return most of their core from this year’s team and could be a top ten team next season.
Florida State to the Elite Eight
Many were saying that Florida State was the worst at-large team to receive an NCAA Tournament bid this year. The Seminoles proved the haters wrong and took down Missouri in the first round before they pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the Tournament, knocking off top-seeded Xavier in the second round to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Florida State’s run would not end there, as they took down a Gonzaga team without Killian Tillie. The Seminoles ended their season just short of the Final Four as they fell 58-54 to Michigan. If nothing else, they proved they belonged.
Texas A&M Takes Down the Tar Heels
In a season filled with ups and downs, Texas A&M’s NCAA Tournament run proved to be just that. The Aggies battled through injuries and suspensions to earn a 7-seed in the “Big Dance,” but drew the 10-seed Providence, who was one of the hottest teams entering the Tournament. Texas A&M ended the Friars’ season and went on to the Round of 32 where they pummeled North Carolina. In a poetic end to their tumultuous season, the Aggies were crushed by Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen. With Tyler Davis and Robert Williams both declaring for the NBA Draft, it will be interesting to see what the future looks like in College Station.
Marshall Shocks Wichita State
In a year where there were no 12-5 upsets, the 13-seeds stole the show. Buffalo beat Arizona and Marshall knocked off Wichita State. Jon Elmore’s sharp-shooting led the Thundering Herd past the Shockers and into the second round where they were ousted by in-state rival West Virginia, but an upset win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament is definitely something that Marshall, who finished fourth in Conference USA, should be proud of.
The 2-3 Zone Did it Again
Syracuse snuck into the NCAA Tournament as the last team to make the field, but the Orange were not satisfied with only receiving a bid. Jim Boeheim’s patented 2-3 zone puzzled opponents as Syracuse defeated Arizona State, TCU, and Michigan State, three teams averaging over 80 points a game to less than 60 on their way to the Sweet Sixteen. Their run was cut short as they fell 69-65 to Duke, but the NCAA Tournament run put a positive ending on a season where the Orange remained on the Bubble to the very end. If leading scorer Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett return, Syracuse could be poised to make another run in next year’s Tournament. Darius Bazley’s decision to decommit from the Orange and enter the G-League was unfortunate and leaves the team’s status for next season more uncertain, but Jalen Carey, Buddy Boeheim, and East Carolina-transfer Elijah Hughes will provide more depth at he guard position for next year’s team.
Game of the Tournament: Duke vs. Kansas—Elite Eight
The line in “One Shining Moment”—In the blinking of an eye that moment’s gone, couldn’t be more of a reality for the Duke Blue Devils as Grayson Allen’s potential game-winning rolled off the rim and out at the end of regulation. Kansas’ Malik Newman scored all 13 of the Jayhawks’ points in the overtime period to punch their ticket to San Antonio where they lost to eventual champion Villanova in the Final Four. Both Duke and Kansas will be title favorites heading into next season. Coach K and the Blue Devils have adopted the one-and-done strategy. The 2018-19 roster will look completely different for Duke. All five are their starters from this season’s team will be first round draft picks. Duke has the top recruiting class in the country next season as they welcome four of the top fifteen recruits in the country, including all of the top three recruits, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish, to Durham next fall. Tre Jones, the 12th ranked recruit and younger brother of 2015 Final four Most Outstanding Player, Tyus Jones, who also played at Duke, will also join the squad. Kansas is the way-too-early preseason #1 with Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick returning. The Jayhawks have a pair of five-star guards coming to Lawrence in the fall: Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes. Bill Self will also add Memphis-transfers K.J. Lawson and Dedric Lawson and Cal-transfer Charlie Moore, all of which will be eligible to play next season.
The Road Begins Now
The 2017-18 season has come and gone and it was surely a wild one. Congratulations to the Villanova Wildcats who reign superior this year. The Road to the 2019 Final Four in Minneapolis begins now.
The NCAA Tournament is upon us. Let’s take a look at the East Region. The one seed in the East, Villanova, will look to cut down the nets in Boston on their way to the Final Four in San Antonio. However, there are 17 other teams looking to do the same thing. Here’s what to watch for.
Upset Pick: #13 Marshall over #4 Wichita State
Marshall enters the NCAA Tournament winners of their last four games, including Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky, and champions of C-USA. Dan D’Antoni, brother of Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, has his team ready to pull off an upset over Wichita State, who, once upon a time, played Cinderella in their own right. The Thundering Herd has two players, Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks, who are averaging more than 20 points per game and average 84.3 total points per game. Wichita State was once one of my picks for the Final Four, but the Shockers enter the “Big Dance” having lost two of their last three games to Cincinnati and Houston—the only other teams in the American Athletic Conference to make the Tournament. Wichita State has not been the defensive team it has been in recent years. The Shockers give up 71.3 points per game. If they cannot stop Elmore and Burks, they will be in trouble in San Diego.
Sleeper: Alabama Crimson Tide
As a nine seed in the East, Alabama is my pick to be a sleeper in this region. Collin Sexton is the type of player that could be this year’s Kemba Walker. Sexton dropped 27 points, including a buzzer beater in their second round win over Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament and 31 points on Auburn in the quarterfinals before the Crimson Tide fell in the semifinals to Kentucky. If Alabama can get past Virginia Tech in the first round, the Crimson Tide, led by Sexton, will present a tough test for Villanova on their path to the Final Four in the second round.
Pick to Win the East Region: Villanova Wildcats
I expect chalk to prevail in the East Region and the one seed Villanova to defeat the two seed Purdue in the Elite Eight, allowing them to advance to the Final Four in San Antonio. Villanova has two of the best players in college basketball this season—Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, who combine for 37.4 points per game. Specifically, Bridges is on a tear, and averaging 22.7 points and 5 rebounds per game at Madison Square Garden where he won the Big East Tournament MVP. The supporting cast of Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth, Omari Spellman, and Eric Paschall combines for 45 points per contest. Villanova, who ranks first in the nation in offensive efficiency, is my pick to win the East Region.
SEC Tournament: March 7-March 11, Scottrade Center, St. Louis, MO
The SEC will host their 2018 men’s basketball conference tournament at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. The Tourney will feature seven teams destined for a run in the NCAA Tournament and three teams fighting to build their resume for an at-large bid or to secure an automatic bid.
Auburn (25-6,13-5) will be hungry to take home both the SEC Regular Season and Tournament Championships after not having a single player in the SEC First Team. Bryce Brown and Jared Harper were both relegated to the All-SEC Second Team. Auburn will look to hang onto a three seed in the NCAA Tournament with a strong showing in St. Louis. Auburn will begin its quest for an SEC postseason championship when the play the winner of the eight seed Texas A&M and the nine seed Alabama Friday at 1pm.
My pick to win the SEC Tournament is the Tennessee Volunteers. Tennessee (23-7, 13-5) has been the most consistent team in the SEC all year. Led by SEC Player of the Year, Grant Williams, and All-SEC Second Team performer Admiral Schofield, the Volunteers will look to hold onto a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament and the chance to play their first weekend games in Nashville. As the second seed in the SEC Tournament, Rick Barnes’ team will be hungry to claim a conference postseason title. Tennessee will begin its run in March with the winner of the game between 7-seeded Mississippi State and 10-seeded LSU on Friday at 7pm.
Florida (20-11, 11-7) looked to be a team destined for the Final Four early on this season, but found their way closer to the bubble in late February. After winning at home against Kentucky in the regular season finale, the Gators look to be headed to the NCAA Tournament thanks to the leadership of All-SEC First Teamer Chris Chiozza. Florida will open against the winner of the 6-seed Arkansas and the 11-seed South Carolina on Friday at 9pm.
Kentucky (21-10, 10-8) struggled at times during the regular season, but as Coach Calipari’s team’s usually do, the Wildcats are peaking at the right time headed into March Madness. Co-SEC Rookie of the Year Kevin Knox will look to lead the Wildcats to a deep run in the “Big Dance” and that starts with continuing their momentum in the conference tournament. Kentucky will face the winner of the 5-seed Missouri and the 12-seed Georgia on Friday at 3pm.
Missouri (20-11, 10-8) is the most intriguing story of the SEC Tournament. Michael Porter Jr., the top recruit in the Class of 2017, will return to action Thursday for the first time after injuring his back two minutes into his college career. It will be interesting to see how he fits in with his teammates, including All-SEC First Team selection, Canisius transfer Kassius Robertson, who earned the five seed in the SEC Tourney and are destined for a bid in the NCAA Tournament. The goal for Porter Jr. is to be productive and stay healthy as he is touted to be a top five pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Missouri will take on the 12-seed Georgia, who defeated Vanderbilt in a play-in game on Wednesday night, on Thursday at 3pm.
Arkansas, led by All-SEC First Team member Jaylen Barford, will look to improve their NCAA Tournament seeding with a strong showing at the Scottrade Center. The Razorbacks are 21-10 overall, 10-8 in the SEC and will open against the 11-seed South Carolina, who defeated Ole Miss in a play-in game Wednesday night, on Thursday at 9pm.
Texas A&M battled through injuries and suspensions to key players to finish eighth in the league and in position to earn an at-large bid to the “Big Dance.” The Aggies, led by All-SEC First Team performer Tyler Davis, are talented enough to make noise in both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. Texas A&M is 20-11 overall, 9-9 in league play and will open against Alabama on Thursday at 1pm.
On the Bubble: Alabama, Mississippi State, Georgia
Alabama, led by co-SEC Rookie of the Year Collin Sexton, is on the wrong side of the bubble as of the inception of the SEC Tournament. The Crimson Tide will likely need to make a run to the semifinals of the conference tournament and pick up wins over the eight seed Texas A&M (Thursday at 1pm.) and top seeded Auburn to earn an at-large bid. Any slip-ups before that and Alabama will be destined for the NIT.
Mississippi State has the 212th ranked non-conference strength of schedule and did not do enough in conference play to be in the conversation for an at-large bid. The Bulldogs will likely need to win the SEC Tournament to play their way into the field of 68. The journey begins against LSU Thursday at 7pm.
The same is true for Georgia, who is led by All-SEC First Teamer Yante Maten. The Bulldogs will look to win five games in five days to make their way to the NCAA Tournament after struggling throughout the majority of the conference schedule. Georgia picked up a win over Vanderbilt in a play-in game Wednesday night.
Here’s a look at this week’s winners and losers and Saturday’s premier match-up.
Winner: Michigan Wolverines
The Michigan Wolverines (23-7, 12-5 Big Ten) are winners of four consecutive games. Most recently, Michigan defeated their arch rival, #8 Ohio State, 74-62 and held the Buckeyes best player and potential All-American forward Keita Bates-Diop to 5-of-17 shooting. The Wolverines followed that up with a win at Penn State, 72-63. Mo Wagner is leading Michigan in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 14.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. The Wolverines are ranked 17th in the nation and are in fourth place in the Big Ten. Due to the earlier than normal conference tournament, Michigan wraps up their regular season when they travel to College Park, MD to take on the Terps at noon on Saturday. A win at Maryland combined with a strong showing at Madison Square Garden in the Big Ten Tournament could land the Wolverines amongst the top four seed lines come March. A four seed could allow Michigan to play in Detroit during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament—setting them up for a deep run in the “Big Dance.”
Loser: Florida Gators
The Florida Gators (17-11, 8-7 SEC) were a top ten team at this season’s inception, but has slid out of the top 25 and onto the bubble. Florida has now lost three straight games, including bad losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt before falling 62-57 to #19 Tennessee on the road. The road does not get any easier for the Gators as their final three games of the regular season feature games against teams that should be headed toward the NCAA Tournament: Saturday at 8:30pm home versus #12 Auburn, at Alabama, and home against Kentucky. If Florida continues their recent slide into the SEC Tournament, the Gators could be on the outside looking in come March. With four players averaging double figures in scoring, (Jalen Hudson, Egor Koulechov, Chris Chiozza, and KeVaughn Allen) Florida has a balanced offensive attack and, has held opponent to 69.9 points per game, defensively. I still think that Florida is a tournament team, but they will need to prove they are worthy of a bid down the stretch.
Premier Match-Up: #8 Kansas at #6 Texas Tech (4:15pm ESPN)
Kansas and Texas Tech enter Saturday’s showdown with an eye on the Big 12 title. The Jayhawks hold a one game lead in the standings, but the Red Raiders won the first meeting between the two teams. Texas Tech will look to tie the standings with a win to give them the chance to snag the program’s first conference regular season title since it won the Southwest Conference title in 1996. If the Red Raiders were to do so outright, they would prevent Kansas from winning their 14th consecutive Big 12 Regular Season Championship. Texas Tech will need a big performance from Keenan Evans, who was playing at an All-American level prior to suffering a toe injury in last Saturday’s loss to Baylor. Evans was just 1-of-7 from the field for just 2 points in Wednesday’s loss to Oklahoma State. Texas Tech will look to protect home court and go a perfect 17-0 at home with a win on Saturday.
Kansas enters the contest winners of their last three games over Iowa State, #20 West Virginia, and, most recently, a 104-74 drubbing of Trae Young and Oklahoma on Monday. A Jayhawks win over the Red Raiders would clinch at least a share of the Big 12 Regular Season crown for the 14th straight season—which would give them the record for most consecutive conference championships. They are currently tied with UCLA (1967-1979). Senior guard Devonte’ Graham is making his push into the conversation for National Player of the Year honors as he is averaging 17.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 7.2 assists per game. Kansas will look to continue their impressive play late, add another Big 12 title, and make their case for a tenth straight season as a one or two seed in the NCAA Tournament. Look for history to repeat itself and for Kansas to win both the game and the conference championship.
Non-conference games in late January? Here’s a quick look at the premier match-ups in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Saturday.
Baylor Bears at #20 Florida Gators—Noon, ESPN
Baylor enters Saturday in need of a win as they are 12-8 overall, having lost their last two games at #5 Kansas and home against Kansas State. A non-conference win on the road against a ranked opponent in Florida could serve them well if they hope to climb onto the good side of the bubble come March. Manu Lecomte will need to have a big game if the Bears plan on upsetting the Gators on Saturday. Lecomte leads Baylor in scoring at 16.6 points per game. Florida has had a rollercoaster of a season, but enters the Big 12/SEC Challenge at 14-6, having won six of their last eight games. After beating then #18 Kentucky, the Gators lost a midweek home game to South Carolina. If Florida is to come away with a win over Baylor on Saturday, it will likely be due to the play of their senior leader Chris Chiozza who is one of the most valuable players in the SEC. Chiozza is averaging 12.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 6.2 assists per game. Look for Florida to shoot their way past Baylor at home.
Florida 77, Baylor 66
#12 Oklahoma Sooners at Alabama Crimson Tide—2:15, ESPN
Trae Young leads Oklahoma into Tuscaloosa fresh off a home win over #5 Kansas on Monday. The Sooners (15-4) will look to grab a non-conference win on the road in pursuit of a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Young, the nation’s leading scorer and assist man (averaging 30.3 points and 9.6 assists per game), will put his skills to the test against Alabama’s Collin Sexton (averaging 18.5 points per game) who is also projected to be a top ten pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Protecting home court will be key for Alabama (13-7) as they look to secure a signature win and land on the right side of the bubble come tournament time. Look for the Sooners led by Young to outlast Sexton and the Crimson Tide on the road.
Oklahoma 81, Alabama 73
Texas A&M Aggies at #5 Kansas Jayhawks—4:30, ESPN
Texas A&M returns to Lawrence to take on Kansas for the first time since they were Big 12 opponents. The Aggies are one of the most disappointing and unpredictable teams in college basketball this season. At 13-7, Texas A&M is in need of a key win to push them to into the field come March. With five players averaging double figures, the Aggies have a balanced offensive attack and are talented enough to come away with a win at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. If Texas A&M is able to pull off the upset, it will likely be due to their strength inside. Tyler Davis is averaging 14.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, while Robert Williams, a possible lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft, is averaging 10.4 and 9.9 rebounds per game. The Aggies need to feed their big men in the post and hope to get Kansas’ only post threat Udoka Azubuike in foul trouble. Kansas will look to counter Texas A&M’s inside scoring with a barrage of three pointers. The Jayhawks live and die by the three. If Kansas wins, they will look for big games from senior leaders Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk who are averaging 17.8 and 16.5 points per game, respectively. I expect this to be the closest game of the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
Kansas 74, Texas A&M 71
Kentucky Wildcats at #7 West Virginia Mountaineers—7, ESPN
After losing at home to Florida last Saturday, Kentucky (15-5) fell out of the rankings for the first time since 2014. The young Wildcats responded with a win over Mississippi State on Tuesday night and will look to pull off an upset of #7 West Virginia in Morgantown on Saturday night. Kentucky has struggled to take care of the ball so far this season. The Wildcats average 14 turnovers per game. Kentucky’s guards will need to be prepared to face West Virginia’s full court press in a hostile environment. Kevin Knox (averaging 14.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game) has been inconsistent this year, but the Wildcats need him to have a good game if they hope to win. On the other hand, West Virginia (16-4) has lost three of their last four games. The Mountaineers will look to turn it around against Kentucky. The Mountaineers balanced attack, led by Jevon Carter, will need to focus on stronger shot selection to take down the Wildcats. Look for West Virginia’s full court press and a raucous home court crowd to come up with a victory at home.
West Virginia 71, Kentucky 65
My picks for the rest of the games in the Big 12/SEC Challenge:
#14 TEXAS TECH at South Carolina
Ole Miss at TEXAS
Georgia at KANSAS STATE
#22 TENNESSEE at Iowa State
TCU at Vanderbilt
Oklahoma State at ARKANSAS
Projected winners in BOLD
Based on these projections, my pick is for the Big 12 to win the 2018 Big 12/SEC Challenge 7-3.