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.
Let’s take a look at some of the teams that dominated the storylines in college basketball in the month of December.
Studs: Duke, Tennessee, Nevada, Florida State
Duke Blue Devils
The Duke Blue Devils are 11-1 and haven’t lost since they were defeated by Gonzaga in the finals of the Maui Invitational on Thanksgiving Eve. Since then, Duke has taken down the likes of Indiana and #12 Texas Tech. Zion Williamson has emerged as the star of the team, even though it has three other top-tier freshman in RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones. Williamson has been an absolute beast and has catapulted the Blue Devils back to the top of the polls. He presents a matchup nightmare for almost every team in the country and has been a monster in all phases of the game. Yes, his dunks are highlight worthy on a nightly basis, but the play of the year thus far may have been that he jumped so high to block a shot against Princeton that he hit his head on the backboard. Williamson is averaging 19.8 points, on 65.2-percent from the field, and 9.4 rebounds per game. His efficiency and athletic prowess have NBA scouts drooling. Halfway through the season, Zion is atop the draft board and most teams tanking want to have a shot at him.
The Tennessee Volunteers are a complete college basketball team and are early season favorites to earn back-to-back regular season SEC titles. Tennessee is experienced and tough at every position. Rick Barnes has a pair of frontcourt bruisers in Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams who are dominating forces that can beat you in the post or from deep. Since their lone loss that came in overtime to then #2 Kansas in the NIT Season Tip-Off, in which Williams fouled out, Tennessee has won six consecutive games, including victories over Gonzaga, Memphis, and Wake Forest. The Volunteers have climbed to #3 in the country. After defeating then #1 Gonzaga, a game in which Schofield tallied 30 points and corralled six rebounds, the senior said that his main reason for coming back to school was to become one of Barnes’ favorite players that he ever coached. That’s what college basketball is about. Schofield is averaging 18.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Although Williams, the reigning SEC Player of the Year that is averaging team-highs of 16.6 points and 8.5 boards, may get all the postseason honors, Schofield is the heart of this team that has its eyes set on something bigger than just a conference title.
With only one game, at Utah, left on their non-conference schedule, the Nevada Wolfpack are 12-0 and could be flirting with entering the NCAA Tournament as a one-seed with an undefeated record. Road conference games are always tough in any league, but this could be a bad year for the Mountain West which makes the prospect of an unblemished record for Nevada more reasonable. The Wolfpack have risen to #6 in the nation with wins over BYU, Tulsa, UMass, Loyola-Chicago, USC, then #20 Arizona State, Grand Canyon, and South Dakota State. Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline are leading the team in scoring with 18.8 points per contest apiece. Martin and Caroline also average 5.6 and 9.6 rebounds per game, respectively. Caleb’s twin brother Cody facilitates the offense and has an assist to turnover rate of 3.2:1. Last year, Eric Musselman’s team played Cinderella. This season, Nevada has a target on their back and are poised to make a run even further than they did a year ago.
Florida State Seminoles
After a surprise run to the Elite Eight, the Florida State Seminoles carried that momentum into the 2018-19 season and are off to an 11-1 start, with their lone loss coming against Villanova in the championship game of the Advocare Invitational in November. Florida State has wins over Florida, Tulane, UAB, then #19 LSU, then #19 Purdue, UConn, and St. Louis. With their leading returning scorer, Phil Cofer, missing the first nine games of the season, the Seminoles haven’t skipped a beat and sit at #9 in the AP Poll. Terance Mann leads the Seminoles in scoring and rebounding with 12.3 points and 6.8 boards per contest. Florida State may not be getting the attention it deserves with Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina looming at the top of the ACC, but don’t be surprised to see the Seminoles near the top of the conference standings when all is said and done.
Surprises: Texas Tech and Ohio State
These four teams were all expected to be good, but two surprise teams thus far are Texas Tech and Ohio State. The Red Raiders and the Buckeyes were surprise teams a year ago and Chris Beard and Chris Holtmann have their teams shocking the college basketball world yet again in 2018-19.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
After making it to the Elite eight a season ago, Texas Tech lost their leading scorer Keenan Evans to graduation and second leading scorer, freshman, Zhaire Smith to the NBA Draft. Their top returning scorer, Jarrett Culver, is the key reason why the Red Raiders are #11 in the country. Culver is averaging 19.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 4.5 assists. Texas Tech has wins over USC, Nebraska, and Memphis and barely lost to Duke at Madison Square Garden a week ago. The Red Raiders have hopes of ending Kansas’ streak of 14 consecutive Big Twelve regular season titles.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State lost do-everything big man Keita Bates-Diop to the NBA Draft and was picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten entering this season. The Buckeyes are now 11-1 and have wins over Cincinnati, Creighton, Minnesota, Illinois, and UCLA—with their lone loss coming to Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in November. Kaleb Wesson is averaging 16.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game to lead Ohio State.
If one thing is for certain it’s that Texas Tech and Ohio State were underrated two years in a row and that Beard and Holtmann are two budding stars in the college basketball coaching circle.
Last season, the Big Twelve rivaled ACC for the title of the toughest conference in the country. Will the Big Twelve be just as good in 2018-19? Another question to ask is can anyone stop Kansas?
Let’s take a look at how the Big Twelve will shake out in 2018-19.
1.) Kansas Jayhawks
The Kansas Jayhawks have sat atop the Big Twelve for the last fourteen years. Expect to see more of the same in 2018-19. Bill Self and the Kansas program was under FBI investigation for the recruitments of Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa. Preston left the University of Kansas after never playing a game and went undrafted, while De Sousa will sit out until the NCAA rules on his eligibility. Despite the looming investigations, the Jayhawks are still the best team in the Big Twelve by far and will share the top spot in the national polls with Kentucky in the preseason. Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick return from a team that made it to the Final Four a year ago. New additions include Memphis transfers Dedric and KJ Lawson and five star point guard Quentin Grimes. With that loaded roster, there is no doubt that Kansas has a great shot at winning the Big Twelve for the fifteenth time in as many years.
2.) West Virginia Mountaineers
Jevon Carter is no longer in Morgantown, but Bob Huggins club will have a chance at challenging Kansas for the conference crown this year. West Virginia has a tremendous returning frontcourt headlined by Sagaba Konate, Esa Ahmad, and Lamont West. The question for Huggy Bear is whether or not he will get consistent guard play in the post-Carter era.
3.) Kansas State Wildcats
The last team in the top tier of the Big Twelve is Kansas State. Bruce Webber and the Wildcats would want nothing more than to dethrone their in-state rivals for the Big Twelve regular season championship. Kansas State made it to the Elite Eight a year ago without their best player Dean Wade who was out with an injury. Wade and Barry Brown return to Manhattan and will look to take the conference by storm.
4.) TCU Horned Frogs
TCU made it to the NCAA Tournament in Jamie Dixon’s second year in Fort Worth, but was upset by Syracuse in the first round. Vladimir Brodziansky and Kenrich Williams departed due to graduation, but a healthy Jaylen Fisher, along with Desmond Bane, Alex Robinson, and Kouat Noi should be enough for the Horned Frogs to make their second consecutive trip to the “Big Dance.”
5.) Texas Longhorns
The Longhorns have produced NBA Draft lottery picks in each of the last two seasons, but have failed to be a force in the Big Twelve and advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in either of those years. Andrew Jones was diagnosed with leukemia in January, but the cancer is in remission and he is set to return at some point this season. Jones, Kerwin Roach budding star Jericho Sims will look to make Texas a factor in the Big Twelve.
6.) Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech was one of the most surprising teams in college basketball last season in Chris Beard’s second year in Lubbock. The Red Raiders will be without the services of Keenan Evans who graduated and Zhaire Smith who declared for the NBA Draft after his freshman campaign. Jarrett Culver will hope to keep Texas Tech relevant in conference play and on the right side of the bubble this year.
7.) Iowa State Cyclones
A year removed from finishing in the basement of the Big Twelve, Iowa State is poised to put themselves in the conversation to be in the middle of the pack in the conference this year. Sophomore guard Lindell Wigginton, Nick Weiler-Babb, Cameron Lard, and Virginia transfer Marial Shayok will make for an exciting combination in Ames this season.
8.) Baylor Bears
Baylor was one of the first four out on Selection Sunday a year ago. Scott Drew will turn to transfers Mario Kegler and Makai Mason to lead his team in 2018-19. The Bears will likely find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble again this year.
9.) Oklahoma State Cowboys
Despite finishing below .500 in conference play a season ago, Oklahoma State swept the season series with Kansas. The Cowboys will probably find themselves near the bottom of the Big Twelve this season after losing Jeffrey Carroll and a host of others to the transfer market.
10.) Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma rode the Trae Young train wherever it led in 2017-18. The freshman point guard electrified the college basketball scene and led the nation in points and assists before being chosen fifth overall in the NBA Draft. Brady Manek and transfers Aaron Calixte and Miles Reynolds will try and keep the Sooners out of the cellar of the conference this year.
With the season behind us, let’s dive in and take a look at the five best players in college basketball this season who earned the right to be called All-Americans.
Jalen Brunson, G, Villanova
Jalen Brunson was the Player of the Year in college basketball, so naturally he is a First Team All-American. The junior guard served as the floor general of the nation’s best team and eventual National Champion, Villanova. Brunson averaged 18.9 points and 4.6 assists per game and shot 52.1% from the floor and 40.8% from three. He posed a tough match-up for opposing defenses as he could shoot the three, take it to the hole, post-up and be a threat in the mid-range. After the Wildcats defeated Michigan in the National Championship game, Brunson decided to forego his senior season and enter the NBA Draft, where he is projected as a late first round or early second round pick. He has etched his name in Villanova lore as he was a starter on two National Championship teams in three years.
Trae Young, G, Oklahoma
When Trae Young decided to stay home in Norman, Oklahoma and play for the Sooners rather that head off to Kentucky, very few people predicted that he would have the success he did in his only year in college. Young became the first player ever to lead the nation in both scoring and assists. The freshman scored 27.4 points per game and dished out 8.8 assists per game, leading Oklahoma to the NCAA Tournament where they fell in the first round to Rhode Island in overtime. Oklahoma relied on Young’s scoring and play-making. Although his numbers dipped toward the end of the season, he shot 42.2% from the floor and 36% from three. Young’s NBA Draft stock improved more than any other player in the country as he is now projected to be a top-ten pick in the NBA Draft.
Devonte’ Graham, G, Kansas
Devonte’ Graham’s decision to return to Lawrence for his senior season was a good one as the guard led his team to the Final Four for the first time since 2012 where they lost to Villanova. Graham led Kansas in scoring with 17.3 points per game on 40% shooting from the floor and 40.6% from beyond the arc. The senior point guard also corralled 4 rebounds and 7.2 assists per contest. After graduation, Graham will likely be chosen in the NBA Draft—he is projected to be an early second round selection.
Marvin Bagley III, F, Duke
The reclassification of Duke’s Marvin Bagley III was one of the biggest stories in college basketball heading into the 2017-18 season. Bagley III certainly did not disappoint as he led the nation’s most talented team in both scoring and rebounding. He also won ACC Player and Rookie of the Year honors, despite missing four games during conference play due to injury. The freshman averaged 21 points and 11.1 rebounds per game and led the Blue Devils to the Elite Eight where they lost to Kansas. The big man shot 61.4% from the floor and was a beast on the offensive glass. Bagley III will likely be a top five pick in this year’s NBA Draft. If he can improve his shooting from distance and his defense, he has all the ability to be an impact player at the next level.
Deandre Ayton, F, Arizona
Arizona’s Deandre Ayton rounds out the 2018 First Team All-American selections. Ayton is a physically imposing big man that shined in his one year in the Desert as he picked up both Pac-12 Rookie and Player of the Year honors. The freshman big man led the Wildcats to the Pac-12 Regular Season and Tournament Championships before getting upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Buffalo as he posted a double-double per contest at 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds. Ayton shot 61.2% from the floor during his freshman campaign. He is projected to be a top-three pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Scouts will hope that Ayton can develop a jumper and improve his shot blocking ability in order to become an elite NBA player.
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 first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was a wild one—filled with historic upsets and late game heroics. Let’s take a look at the Sweet Sixteen and who will advance to the Final Four in San Antonio.
The East Region—TD Garden, Boston, MA, March 23 & 25
The East Region is the chalkiest regional left as the top three seeds, Villanova, Purdue, and Texas Tech, all advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. The 5-seed West Virginia will join them in Boston after they knocked out 13-seed Marshall who upset 4th seeded Wichita State in the first round on Friday. All four teams have a legitimate chance to punch their ticket to the Final Four in San Antonio.
#5 West Virginia vs. #1 Villanova, Friday, 7:27pm., TBS
Aside from their senior leader Jevon Carter, West Virginia struggled mightily shooting the ball during the regular season, but the Mountaineers have dominated the offensive glass so far in the Tournament. Led by Sagaba Konate, West Virginia has pulled down 29 offensive boards over their first two games. The dominance on the glass has allowed the Mountaineers to shoot better than 50% from the floor in the “Big Dance” and put up, on average, 89.5 points per game in the first weekend. Carter versus Jalen Brunson is the best point guard match-up in the Sweet Sixteen. If Carter and West Virginia can speed up Brunson and Villanova and force turnovers and lead to easy transition baskets, the Mountaineers have a chance to pull off an upset and make it to the Elite Eight.
Villanova steamrolled Radford and Alabama in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. With Virginia out, the Wildcats have emerged as the team to beat. Villanova’s offense seems unstoppable—the Wildcats are shooting 53% from two and 46% from three in their first two games in the Dance. As good as that is, that’s right on par with their shooting numbers during the regular season, only now, the trio of Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Donte DiVincenzo is shooting a greater volume of threes than they had throughout the first four months of the season. Expect the Wildcats to handle West Virginia’s press and emerge victorious on Friday night.
Villanova 84, West Virginia 78
#3 Texas Tech vs. #2 Purdue, Friday, 9:57pm., TBS
Texas Tech arrives in Boston after taking care of Stephen F. Austin in the first round and surviving a scare from Florida in the second round. The Red Raiders have themselves in the Sweet Sixteen thanks to their defensive performance. Texas Tech held the Lumberjacks and the Gators to 0.93 points per possession in Dallas last weekend, giving them a chance to muster up enough points to win the game. Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith have emerged as stars of the Tournament thus far. There are pros and cons for the Red Raiders who will be facing Purdue, a team that will likely be without their 7-foot-2” center Isaac Haas. Texas Tech doesn’t have a 7-footer of their own to defend Haas in the post, but if the Boilermakers elect to go small and shoot a barrage of threes, things could get ugly for the Red Raiders.
Despite losing Haas in their opening round win over Cal State Fulerton, Purdue overcame Butler’s 60% shooting performance from inside the arc to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Although the engineers on campus in West Lafayette, Indiana have been tasked with trying to design a brace for Haas’ elbow that meets NCAA standards, it is unlikely that the Boilermakers will have their big man this weekend. Purdue will need to rely on Carsen Edwards, Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias, and P.J. Thompson to pick up the slack on the offensive end. Matt Maarms (and his perfectly groomed hair) will need to be a factor in limiting Texas Tech’s offensive threats inside the paint. Look for Purdue to get hot from three and advance to the Elite Eight in a close one.
Purdue 71, Texas Tech 70
Winner of the East Region: Villanova
Unlike the South and the West, the East Region has been immune to upsets so far and I expect that to continue at the TD Garden this weekend. Jay Wright will have his team ready to get back to the Final Four in search of the program’s second National Championship in three years.
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.
Big 12 Tournament: March 7-March 10, Sprint Center, Kansas City, MO
The Big 12 will host their 2018 men’s basketball conference tournament at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. The Tourney will feature six 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.
Kansas (24-7, 13-5) enters the Big 12 Tournament as the one seed after securing their 14th consecutive Big 12 Regular Season title. A loss in the regular season finale at Oklahoma State has the Jayhawks’ hopes of being on the top seed line in the NCAA Tournament in jeopardy. Kansas may need to cut down the nets in Kansas City to hang on to a one seed depending on what happens in the rest of the conference tournaments. Led by Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham, All-Big 12 Second Team selection Svi Mykhailiuk, and All-Big 12 Third Team performer Udoka Azubuike, the Jayhawks will look to assert their dominance over the rest of the conference. Kansas will open on Thursday against the winner of the eight-seed Oklahoma State and the nine-seed Oklahoma at 2:30pm.
Texas Tech (23-8, 11-7) proved that, though they were a surprise in the non-conference, they are here to stay. The Red Raiders gave Kansas a run for their Regular Season title this year, but came up just short. Texas Tech, led by All-Big 12 First Team member, Keenan Evans, will look to hold onto a top four seed in the “Big Dance,” and a chance to play their opening weekend games in Dallas. The Red Raiders may be looking at a chance at revenge in the championship game on Saturday. Texas Tech will open on Thursday against the winner of 7-seeded Texas and 10-seeded Iowa State at 7pm.
West Virginia continues to be a perennial face at the top of the conference. The Mountaineers are 22-9, 11-7 in the Big 12, and have been in one of the nation’s best teams all year. Led by Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jevon Carter and co-Big 12 Defensive Team mate Sagaba Konate, West Virginia attacks its opponents on defense and allows nothing easy. The Mountaineers have struggled offensively when they fall behind late in games, but their defense always gives them a chance. West Virginia is a legitimate contender to win the Big 12 Tournament. The Mountaineers will open against the six seed Baylor on Thursday at 9pm.
TCU is 21-10, 9-9 in conference play, and well on their way to the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 1998. The Horned Frogs will look to improve their seeding with a win over Kansas State at the Sprint Center. Jamie Dixon has his alma mater rising to prominence in basketball behind the play of his senior leaders Kenrich Williams and Vladimir Brodziansky, who represent TCU on the Big 12’s Second and Third teams, respectively. The Horned Frogs will open against the four seed Kansas State on Thursday at 12:30pm.
Baylor looked lost and completely off the bubble following a loss to Florida in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. The Bears responded with wins over Kansas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma down the stretch and seem to now be a lock for the Dance at 18-13 overall, 8-10 in the Big 12. A win over West Virginia would certainly cement Baylor’s chance for an at-large bid. All-Big 12 Second teamer Manu Lacomte and All-Big 12 Third Team selection Jo Lual-Acuil, Jr. will look to do exactly that against the third seeded Mountaineers on Thursday at 9pm.
Oklahoma, behind the brilliance of All-Big 12 First Team selection, Trae Young, solidified their NCAA Tournament standing early in the conference schedule. Despite Young’s (and the team’s) struggles down the stretch, the Sooners should still feel good about their chances to hear their name called on selection Sunday. Oklahoma will look to take down their in-state rival eighth seeded Oklahoma State when they tip-off the Big 12 Tournament against each other on Wednesday at 7pm.
On the Bubble: Kansas State, Texas, Oklahoma State
Kansas State is on the good side of the bubble, sitting among the last four byes on most early projections of the NCAA Tournament field. A win over TCU would solidify their chance to be one of the 68 teams vying for a National Championship. Led by All-Big 12 First Team selection Dean Wade and All-Big 12 Second Teamer Barry Brown, Jr., the Wildcats may have their chance to upset the rival Jayhawks in the semis which could catapult their seeding come Selection Sunday. But first, K-State will have their hand full with the fifth seeded Horned Frogs on Thursday at 12:30pm.
Texas, despite losing their second leading scorer, Andrew Jones, for the rest of the season as he battles leukemia, is squarely on the bubble as one of the last four in as they enter Kansas City. With freshman phenom and All-Big 12 Second Team selection, Mohamed Bamba, uncertain for opening round tilt with Iowa State, the Longhorns will need to avoid a bad loss that could pop their bubble. Texas will look to follow up their big win over West Virginia in the last game of the regular season with a win over Texas Tech if they can get by the Cyclones on Wednesday at 9pm.
Oklahoma State has the most work to do of the three bubble teams that will take to the Sprint Center this week. After beating Kansas in the regular season finale, the Cowboys will look to follow that up with a deep run in this week’s Big 12 Tournament. All-Big-12 Third Team member Jeffrey Carroll will look to lead his team to an at-large bid to the Dance. As one of the first four teams out, Oklahoma State has a chance to beat Kansas for the second time in a week if they can defeat Oklahoma in Bedlam in Kansas City on Wednesday at 7pm.
Here’s a look at the 2018 Big 12 Tournament Bracket:
Semis: Kansas def. Kansas State, West Virginia def. Texas Tech
Final: Kansas defeats West Virginia in the title game.
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.