The Jayhawks look poised to make a long run in the tournament. They've lost just once in the past 11 games and rolled through the Big 12 tournament, routing rival Kansas State in the championship game.
Aside from a three-game losing streak from Feb. 2-9 and a March 9 loss to Baylor, they have played as one of the nation's most dominant teams. Guard Ben McLemore, who could be a top-five pick in the NBA draft, has had a lot to do with that. He's a lethal shooter who can take over games. Seven-foot center Jeff Withey gives Kansas some size and balance inside.
The Hoyas are in the conversation for the national championship because Otto Porter Jr. is in the discussion for national player of the year. The 6-foot-9 sophomore was voted Big East player of the year after averaging 18.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals in conference play. He also ranked among the league leaders in shooting percentage (.498), free-throw shooting (80.7 percent) and 3-point shooting (44.1 percent).
But even when Porter, a projected high-lottery pick in the NBA draft, isn't dominating offensively, he still makes an impact on defense, the main focus for coach John Thompson III. Georgetown ranked among the nation's best in scoring defense (55.7 points per game), field-goal percentage defense (37.7) and 3-point percentage defense (30.2)
Coach Billy Donovan wasn't pleased with the way the Gators stumbled toward the end of the regular season. Florida captured the SEC crown comfortably at 14-4 but dropped three of its last six, losing by six or fewer points each time. Donovan's squad is at its best when it's hitting from beyond the arc and defending the 3-point line.
The Gators led the SEC in both 3-point shooting percentage and 3-point percentage defense, boasting a trio of deep threats in Erik Murphy, Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario. Murphy, a 6-foot-10 senior who was first-team All-SEC, averages a team-best 13 points a game. Boynton and Rosario each average 12 points a game.
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The good news for Michigan: The Wolverines have Trey Burke. The bad news: Sometimes it’s seemed like they’ve only had Trey Burke. An exceptional first half of the season that featured balanced offense and an unexpected (but brief) stint at No. 1 in the nation gave way to a troubling lack of toughness (both physical and mental) that had even ardent fans wondering if a still-young squad has already peaked. Michigan came into conference play with no losses, but the team has dropped six of its last 12.
Burke, a Player of the Year candidate who has gotten better over the season (19.2 ppg), gives Michigan a chance against any opponent, yet his supporting cast has come up short against top Big Ten teams. Tim Hardaway, Jr. (14.8), Glenn Robinson III (10.7) and Mitch McGary (6.2) all have shown flashes of next-level talent. However, all three have also shown indecision late in key conference games. The biggest key for Michigan might be Jordan Morgan, who is one of the few Wolverines able to disrupt the paint. Michigan ranks 156th nationally in rebounding, so a good post team will cause Michigan problems unless shooters like Nik Stauskas get hot. Otherwise it’s Burke and pray for rain.
The Rams surprised everyone by making the Final Four in 2011, but have since proved they were not a one-year wonder. Coach Shaka Smart has stuck with VCU and has built a solid program through his frenetic defensive system. VCU is at its best when it can make shots and get into its stifling full-court press.
The Rams are the nation’s leader in turnover margin at 8.0, two better than second-place Louisville, the tournament's overall No. 1 seed. VCU isn’t very good in its half-court defense, but many times teams don’t have a chance to set up. Before you pick against VCU in this tournament, make sure its opponent can handle the ball well. VCU gets a lot of easy baskets off those turnovers. The Rams are deep with four players averaging double-digit points, led by Treveon Graham’s 15.5 points per game.
The process took longer than fans in Westwood expected, but a talented Bruins squad overcame some early growing pains under coach Ben Howland to capture UCLA's fourth conference regular-season title in eight years. Shabazz Muhammad, the jewel of Rivals.com's No. 2 recruiting class, gradually worked himself into shape to match the preseason hype and average a team-best 18 points per game.
However, the team MVP could be senior point guard Larry Drew II, who provided a steady hand for the Pac-12's top-scoring team (75 points per game). The biggest concerns? Rebounding (UCLA got outboarded over the course of 10 consecutive games from late January to early March) and replacing No. 2 scorer Jordan Adams, who broke his foot in the Pac-12 tourney.
The Aztecs are no longer kings of the Mountain West Conference, finishing fourth after earning a share of the regular-season title the past two years. Improved competition was as much of a factor as SDSU's decline, but clearly coach Steve Fisher doesn't have the depth he once enjoyed, especially up front.
Luckily, he still has guard Jamaal Franklin. Last season's Mountain West player of the year, Franklin, a 6-foot-5 junior who looks NBA-ready, does it all for SDSU, leading the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. Senior guard Chase Tapley, the team's No. 2 scorer, is a capable sidekick. So is junior guard Xavier Thames, who has come back strong from a back injury.
The Tar Heels are playing their best basketball of the season. The reason: Roy Williams' switch to a four-guard lineup. After a blowout loss at Miami, Williams inserted 6-foot-5 sophomore P.J. Hairston into the starting lineup at the four spot, and, while the move went against Williams' basketball beliefs, the UNC offense found its rhythm with sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo, junior guard Reggie Bullock, senior guard Dexter Strickland and freshman guard Marcus Paige. McAdoo and Bullock, both All-Atlantic Coast Conference second-team selections, average 14 points a game.
Villanova has been inconsistent most of the season, but it can play with the best. The Wildcats have victories over Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette and Georgetown on their résumé.
Sophomore forward JayVaughn Pinkston leads Villanova with 13.1 points a game. Senior center Mouphtaou Yarou is a space-eater at 6-foot-10, 255 pounds. He's averaging 9.7 points and 7.8 rebounds a game. Don't expect the Wildcats to win any shootouts. They rank 161st in the country with 67.8 points a game and are shooting just 41.5 percent, ranking them 262nd in the nation.
The Sooners enter the tournament with three losses in their past five games and 0-5 against top-25 teams on the season. Six-foot-8 senior forward Romero Osby gives Oklahoma a steady presence while averaging 15.7 points and seven rebounds, but the Sooners have struggled to find much rhythm offensively of late.
In their past two losses (to TCU and Iowa State), the Sooners have made just 3 of 34 3-pointers. Steven Pledger, Je'lon Hornbeak and Buddy Hield went a combined 2 for 24 on triples during those two games. That will have to change if OU wants to advance.
The Gophers can thank the Big Ten's well-deserved reputation for their entry into the tournament. Despite losing 11 of their past 16 games, they're going dancing because of the strength of their schedule.
Sophomore guard Andre Hollins leads Minnesota with 13.9 points a game and is one of the conference's best shooters, making nearly 40 percent of his 3-point attempts. Senior forward Trevor Mbakwe gives the Gophers a presence inside with 10 points and 8.7 rebounds a game.
Just before the MAC tourney got underway, the Zips were victims of a colossal bomb. Their starting point guard, Alex Abreu, who averaged 6.0 assists per game, was suspended indefinitely. As a result, most wrote off Akron, but it stayed the course and persevered, beating Ohio to earn the automatic berth.
Without their offensive facilitator in the NCAAs, the Zips' good fortune may not continue. Even with Abreu on the floor, Akron struggled with turnovers for much of the season. It also shot a deplorable 33.4 percent beyond the arc. Additionally horrendous at the free-throw line, it must execute at a high level defensively if it has any shot of surviving and advancing. Don't bank on it.
Nate Wolters is one of the most underappreciated players in the country. Nineteen times this season he's scored 20 points or more, including a 53-point explosion against IUPU Fort Wayne in early February.
As a whole, South Dakota State is an offensive machine that is effective from three-point land, shooting nearly 40 percent from the outside. The Jackrabbits also protect the basketball, rarely committing turnovers. This experienced bunch is a true Cinderella-in-the-making and scored one of the finest road wins of the season, shocking New Mexico at the Pit in December. They lag defensively, giving up 1.03 points per possession, but have enough offensive firepower to overcome their flaws.
For Southland favorite Stephen F. Austin, the Demons proved to be its worst nightmare, stealing the automatic bid with a two-point victory. Northwestern St. is ordinary across the board. It ranks 180th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and 133rd in effective field-goal percentage offense.
Collectively, the Demons shoot a ghastly 31.8 percent from long distance, one of the lowest outputs of any team in the Dance. The one area State excels in is the paint. Forwards DeQuan Hicks and James Hulbin have combined for nearly five offensive rebounds per game. The Demons, who nearly knocked off Oklahoma in Norman back in November, may scare a heavy favorite in the opening round, but advancing, is a long shot.
Still in their infancy as a Division I program, the Eagles soared into the tournament after just six years at college basketball’s highest level, by winning the Atlantic Sun tournament. Gulf Coast is an aggressive defensive team that exerts pressure with speed and trapping schemes.
It's forced turnovers on 22.3 percent of opponent possessions this season. Self-inflicted wounds and shoddy exterior shooting have plagued the Eagles at times, but they should hang tough against a high seed. Bernard Thompson and Brett Comer are an effective backcourt duo, and the Eagles own one of best non-conference wins of the season, a victory at Miami. Goliath beware.
Guess who’s back? The Hilltoppers are in Bracketville for the fourth time in six years. Sans a single quality win and sporting a .500 regular-season conference record, this season’s version of Western Kentucky pales in comparison to the school's recent 25-plus win teams.
Plagued by turnovers and uninspired defensive, the ‘Toppers offer little substance in most categories. George Fant, however, is a solid rebounder, totaling nearly seven per game, and guard T.J. Price averages 15.3 points per game. Still, the Hilltoppers will likely get flattened in short order.
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