Big 12 Offseason Burning Questions, Part I

Posted by Brian Goodman on April 11th, 2016

In sending three teams to the Sweet Sixteen, two to the Elite Eight and one to the Final Four, the Big 12 put together a solid NCAA Tournament, but it wasn’t enough to put to rest its reputation as a group of postseason underperformers. The 2015-16 campaign wasn’t without its highlights, though. The story of the season nationally was the prevalence of experienced veterans over one-and-done interlopers, and the Big 12 played a key role in that narrative with seniors Buddy Hield, Perry Ellis and Georges Niang leading their teams deep into March. With those three studs (among others) moving on, though, it’s time to examine the burning question that each Big 12 team faces this offseason. Today we review Oklahoma, Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor and TCU.

Oklahoma (29-8, 12-6)

Oklahoma faces a tough rebuild as it loses Big 12 all-time leading scorer and National Player Of The Year Buddy Hield. (David K Purdy/Getty Images)

Oklahoma faces a rebuild as it loses Big 12 scoring king and National Player of the Year Buddy Hield. (David K Purdy/Getty Images)

What will the identity of post-Hield Oklahoma become? Between Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler and Dinjyl Walker, Oklahoma is losing 64 percent of the scoring from last season’s lethal offensive unit. That’s a lot. Though we trust that head coach Lon Kruger will find a way eventually, in the meantime, the Sooners will face a tough road in the wake of heavy roster turnover. Jordan Woodard and Khadeem Lattin are expected back and there are some intriguing newcomers arriving in Kameron McGusty, Christian Doolittle and former Ohio State commitment Austin Grandstaff. But it’s tough to suffer the level of production Oklahoma is losing and still be expected to perform at a level comparable to last season’s Final Four squad. Very few programs in college basketball can reload that quickly.

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What to Make of the Big 12’s NCAA Tournament Performance?

Posted by Chris Stone on April 8th, 2016

Before this season, Villanova was the school that couldn’t get the job done in March. The Wildcats — seemingly always a high seed — had not made it past the round of 32 since 2009 (the last time they were in the Final Four), and for the entirety of this season, they were told that the only thing that mattered was what they accomplished in the season’s final three weeks. It was, as the Big East microsite’s Justin Kundrat put it, Villanova’s most burning question entering the NCAA Tournament. One month, six wins, and a historically dramatic three-pointer later, that criticism disappeared amid the confetti tumbling down to the NRG Stadium floor. Who now fills Villanova’s place as the perennial March underachiever? How about an entire conference — the Big 12 finds itself in a spot similar to where Jay Wright’s team was living. For any number of reasons, it has become the league that consistently delivers impressive regular season results and earns plenty of good to great seeds in the NCAA Tournament, only to generally flame out without making much of an impact on the event’s climactic final weekend.

Oklahoma was the Big 12's final NCAA Tournament casualty this season. (David J. Phillip, AP)

Oklahoma was the Big 12’s final NCAA Tournament casualty this season. (David J. Phillip, AP)

A review of the past 12 NCAA Tournaments — dating back to Bill Self’s first of 12 straight regular season conference titles, and the source of so many “If Kansas wins it every year, how good can it really be?” arguments — illustrates the Big 12’s failings. The league has made the Final Four just three times in that span, with only two schools, Kansas and Oklahoma, navigating their way to the sport’s final weekend. That the Jayhawks’ close loss to Villanova in the Elite Eight this season was followed by a historic 44-point drubbing of the Sooners six days later did not inspire much confidence in the depth of the league. Digging a bit more deeply, conference teams playing their opening round games as the higher seed have compiled a rather uninspiring 37-17 record over that span, which includes six losses to lower seeded teams in the past two years. Put simply, the Big 12 hasn’t delivered at the time of year when everyone in the country is watching. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Villanova 95, #2 Oklahoma 51

Posted by nvr1983 on April 2nd, 2016

RTC is providing wall-to-wall coverage of the NCAA Tournament again this season. Make sure to follow us @rushthecourt throughout Final Four weekend. 

Three Key Takeaways:

Villanova Put Together the Most Dominant Final Four Victory in History (USA Today Images)

Villanova Put Together the Most Dominant Final Four Victory in History (USA Today Images)

  1. This wasn’t going to be a repeat of the December 7 blowout. Any reasonable observer knew not to take too much from Oklahoma’s 23-point win in Pearl Harbor. In that game, Villanova shot an atrocious 4-of-32 from three in a performance that was so bad that even Kobe Bryant would have told them to stop shooting. Tonight they put on a performance that would have made Steph Curry blush. They went 35-0f-49 from the field (71.4%) including 11-of-18 from three (61.1%) while Oklahoma could only muster 19-of-60 (31.7%) and 6-of-27 from three (22.2%). All those numbers led to a record margin of victory in the Final Four (44 points) and the biggest difference in a rematch outcome this millennium (67 points).
  2. Tonight was not Buddy Hield’s night. The RTC NPOY shot only 4-of-12 including 1-of-8 from three-point range for nine quiet points along with just two assists (to his credit he did have seven rebounds). People will point to the dome effect in Houston as a factor, but it’s hard to use that as a crutch when Villanova shot the lights out in the same environment. In the end, this is just what sometimes happens in a single-elimination tournament. Even the best players have bad nights. Unfortunately for Hield, none of the other Sooners stepped up to counter the Wildcats’ performance for the ages. This game shouldn’t (and hopefully doesn’t) diminish what Hield has accomplished in his four years in Norman, nor should it lead to a conversation about the limits of his NBA future. Just take some time to appreciate what he has done for the Oklahoma program and how he conducted himself both on and off the court.
  3. Villanova was relentless. The tenor of the game was a bit unusual. Oklahoma only led for 3:42 with their biggest lead coming just 23 seconds into the game on Hield’s only made three-pointer of the night. After that, it was a series of runs by Villanova that put the game out of reach. The runs weren’t what you saw in some other historic Final Four blowouts like UNLV’s 30-point victory over Duke in 1990; rather, the Wildcats were more methodical in their dismantling of Oklahoma. In the end, Villanova crushed Oklahoma’s spirit, which is not something we expected from such a senior-laden squad.

Star of the Game. Josh Hart. Much like the rest of the Wildcats, Hart was ruthlessly efficient scoring 23 points on 10 of 12 shooting and adding 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals with no turnovers. Hart is Villanova’s star, but was widely overlooked this season when the postseason awards and honors were handed out. Now he may get the last word.

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Buddy Hield Out to Make Norman a Two-Sport Town

Posted by Chris Stone on April 2nd, 2016

Oklahoma isn’t a college that is historically known for basketball. That doesn’t mean that a number of outstanding basketball players and several teams haven’t passed through Norman over the years, but the Sooners are set to play in just the program’s fifth Final Four in history (the most recent was in 2002). They have twice made the national title game (1947 and 1988), but the school has never raised a championship trophy in hoops. Oklahoma is much more commonly known as a football school — the only such entity in this season’s Final Four (North Carolina, Villanova and Syracuse are, without question, basketball schools) — and while the Sooners can lay claim to seven gridiron national titles, Buddy Hield is ready to challenge football’s dominance in the Sooner State this weekend.

Buddy Hield will lead the charge for Oklahoma in the Final Four. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Buddy Hield will lead the charge for Oklahoma in the Final Four. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

What makes this Oklahoma team the one that can cut down the nets in Houston? The short answer is Hield himself, one of the most prolific collegiate scorers in recent memory. The senior guard is the only player since 2009-10 (the first year Basketball Reference began tracking minutes played) to average more than 25.0 PPG and finish the season with a true shooting percentage higher than 65 percent. The long answer is that Oklahoma is a lot more than just the RTC National Player of the Year. The Sooners’ backcourt, comprised of Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard, is one of the best in the country. Both players shoot better than 40 percent from behind the arc and can act as point guards capable of navigating Villanova’s stingy trapping defense. And contrary to popular belief, the Sooners are more than just an offensive show. Oklahoma is also stout on the defensive end where it can flexibly switch one through three on the perimeter and employ the shot-blocking prowess of Khadeem Lattin inside — whose grandfather, incidentally, played on the 1966 Texas Western team that won an NCAA championship.

The last time the Sooners were national title good was in 2008-09 when future #1 pick Blake Griffin was a sophomore. Griffin’s squad lost to the eventual champion, North Carolina, in an Elite Eight game that was generally noncompetitive. This season offers the Sooners a shot at redemption. If they can make it past Villanova this evening, they’ll likely get another shot at the Tar Heels, and this time with a national title on the line. Oklahoma has already become the first school to make both the College Football Playoff and the Final Four in the same season, but Lon Kruger‘s group have a chance to surpass their football counterparts, if only for a weekend. Still, given the folk hero popularity of Hield around Norman, maybe this is the team that could help turn it into a two-sport town.

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Final Four Previews: Oklahoma/Villanova Will Win If…

Posted by Brian Goodman & Tommy Lemoine on April 1st, 2016

We’re a little more than 24 hours from the Final Four, so it’s time to break down the upcoming games by determining what it will take for each team to win. Let’s start with the early battle between Oklahoma and Villanova, tipping off at 6:09 PM ET on Saturday evening. RTC’s Brian Goodman (Oklahoma) and Tommy Lemoine (Villanova) with the honors.

Oklahoma Will Win If…

Buddy Hield and the Sooners look to reverse the trend of poor shooting at the spacious NRG Stadium. (Getty Images)

Buddy Hield and the Sooners look to reverse the trend of poor-shooting teams at spacious NRG Stadium. (Getty Images)

  • It overcomes NRG Stadium’s reputation as a challenging shooting environment. Though the sample size isn’t overwhelming, teams have historically shot below their averages in the expansive confines of this year’s Final Four venue (as detailed last year by Ken Pomeroy and expanded upon earlier this week by Yahoo!‘s Jeff Eisenberg). The Sooners and Wildcats are notoriously reliant on jump-shooting, but what you may not know is just how eerily similar the two teams are in this fashion. Per hoop-math.com, 67.4 percent of Villanova’s field goal attempts this season have come away from the rim, and Oklahoma is just below the Wildcats in that category at 67.2 percent. Though it’s hardly earth-shattering, sometimes these things are simple: Whichever team solves the puzzle of performing well in spite of a tougher shooting environment will prevail, and with three Sooner regulars connecting from long range at rates of 42 percent or better, Oklahoma should have the slight edge.
  • It wins the battle of the interior. Should both teams struggle to find the range at NRG Stadium, inside play will become much more important to the outcome, and Oklahoma will have to answer some questions there. Ryan Spangler logged 10 points and eight rebounds against Texas A&M, but he hasn’t had a very good NCAA Tournament otherwise. The same can be said for rim-protector Khadeem Lattin, who went for 10 points and a pair of blocks against the Aggies, but has blocked just four shots in the Sooners’ other three tourney games. Though he’s technically a guard, freshman Christian James, a Houston native who emerged with a pair of quality outings in Anaheim, may be called upon to help inside as the Sooners look to best Daniel Ochefu and Kris Jenkins.

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2015-16 RTC National Player of the Year: Buddy Hield

Posted by Walker Carey on April 1st, 2016

This college basketball season was the “year of the senior.” Seniors like Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, North Carolina’s Brice Johnson, Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff, Kansas’ Perry Ellis, and Iowa State’s Georges Niang were all yesterday named to the RTC All-America Teams. They each put together amazing seasons in lifting their teams to outstanding regular season success and NCAA Tournament berths. As excellent as those players were, however, there was one senior who stood out among the pack. That player is Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield. In this era of the one-and-done superstar, it might be cynical to view a senior winning the National Player of the Year award as something approaching a career achievement award. But while Hield put together a successful first three seasons in Norman, he saved his best for last this year. The dynamic shooting guard averaged an incredible 25.4 points per game while shooting 50.4 percent from the field and a very impressive 46.5 percent from three. In an offense completely centered around Hield’s explosive offensive skills, Oklahoma averaged a robust 80.4 points per game.

Buddy Hield is the 2015-16 RTC Player of the Year  (Getty Images)

Buddy Hield is the 2015-16 RTC Player of the Year (Getty Images)

Hield put together many sensational games this season, but two performances in particular come to mind as the most memorable. In a January 4 epic triple-overtime Big 12 battle between Oklahoma and Kansas, the casual college basketball fan became acquainted with Hield’s heroics. The All-American finished the evening in Allen Fieldhouse with a career-high 46 points on 13-of-23 shooting, along with eight rebounds and seven assists. It was such an amazing effort that Kansas fans gave Hield a standing ovation, and one that will be remembered in Norman and around the college basketball world for years to come. The other memorably outstanding performance came in the Elite Eight when Hield’s star power led the Sooners past #1 seed Oregon and into the program’s first Final Four in 14 years. The senior contributed 37 points on 13-of-20 shooting and 8-of-13 from behind the three-point line. Oklahoma will face a staunch test when it takes on Villanova in the Final Four Saturday night, but it would be unwise to discount the Sooners’ chances of advancing whenever a star like Hield is involved.

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The RTC Interview Series: One on One With Ernie Johnson

Posted by Chris Stone on March 30th, 2016

RTC interviews one on one

Turner Sports‘ Ernie Johnson is perhaps best known for his role mediating the rambunctious crew on TNT’s Inside the NBA, but this weekend he will host TBS’s coverage of the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four and National Championship. With the event just days away, we had an opportunity to sit down with Johnson to discuss the NCAA Tournament’s first championship on cable, the differences between preparing for the NBA and March Madness, and what advice he has for sports media hopefuls.

Rush the Court: As a longtime employee and icon for Turner, can you give us your thoughts on what it means to have this level of coverage for such a huge event in the college basketball world?

Ernie Johnson: Well, first of all, let’s go with longtime employee and you can hold off on the icon. It means a lot to all of us. It really does. I’ve been there since 1989. I’ve seen this company grow in ways we never thought and then have properties that I didn’t know we’d be covering. We were all excited when we signed the deal with CBS to team up on this for a long time and we knew somewhere down the road this would happen, but now that it’s here, it is very special. It’s certainly a point of pride for all of us that when you want to watch the games Saturday and on Monday night, you’ll be watching it on TBS. Turner’s got the championship game in the NCAA Tournament. We are pumped about that.

ernie johnson 1

Ernie Johnson will host studio coverage of the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four this weekend. (Credit: CSE)

Rush the Court: You also have the Team Streams as well, right?

Johnson: Yeah. They’re going to have the homer broadcasts, for lack of a better word. My hope is that everybody gets that stream, but I know that not everybody will because somebody will think, “OK, let’s watch the game on TNT,” and expect to hear Jim Nantz and Grant Hill and Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson on there and they’re going to get somebody that yells and they’re going to be cheering like mad for Villanova and they’re from Oklahoma and they’re ticked. It happened last year, too. We had people on social media going nuts saying, “What are these guys doing? Why don’t they just wave their pom-poms?” Hey, you’re watching the wrong channel. So really, right down the middle, the standard broadcast, TBS. If you’re anywhere but TBS and you’re watching the game, you’re going to hear some cheerleading.

Rush the Court: As we head into the Final Four, we’ve had a couple of weeks to get used to March Madness, so we were curious what storylines you are most interested in now that we’re down to just four teams.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Oklahoma Sooners

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on March 29th, 2016

Now that the Final Four is set, our writers have put together a fact sheet on each of the four teams still remaining. Next, Oklahoma. 

How Oklahoma Got Here

Oklahoma Celebrates Its First Final Four in 12 Years (USA Today Images)

Oklahoma Celebrates Its First Final Four in 12 Years (USA Today Images)

West Region Champions. After sleepwalking for the better part of the afternoon in their opener against Cal State Bakersfield, the Sooners found themselves down a single point with 15 minutes remaining. From there, a familiar story played out – one that would be repeated often on Oklahoma’s run to Houston: Buddy Hield took over. In the remainder of the game, Hield threw in 16 of his game-high 27 points to drag his team to the second round. From there it was a repeat performance, as Hield went off for a 29-point second half against VCU, including 22 points in the final 11 minutes after the Rams had come back from 13 down to tie the game. A Sweet Sixteen victory over Texas A&M allowed Hield to “only” go for 17 points (along with 10 boards in his sole double-double of the season) in a game that was never particularly close. But Buddy bounced back in a big way, scorching Oregon for 37 phenomenal points (including eight threes) to earn the Sooners’ first trip to the Final Four since 2002.

The Coach

Lon Kruger. This is Kruger’s 30th season of coaching a Division I basketball program. He started at Texas-Pan American in 1982, taking the independent program to a 20-win season in his fourth year. After getting hired by Kansas State in 1986, he brought on a little-known coach named Dana Altman from Moberly Area Community College — someone who happened to have a kid named Mitch Richmond on his team. The future Hall of Famer followed Altman to Manhattan and the Wildcats subsequently went to an Elite Eight in Richmond’s senior season. A coaching star was officially born. Kansas State went to the NCAAs in all four seasons Kruger spent in Manhattan, and he turned that run into a coaching upgrade at Florida in 1990. In his fourth season with the Gators, Kruger took Andrew DeClercq, Dan Cross and Craig Brown to the 1994 Final Four, the only other time he made it to his sport’s final weekend. Since then, Kruger spent time at Illinois, the Atlanta Hawks and UNLV, before settling in Norman five seasons ago. He’s taken five Division I teams to the NCAA Tournament, four to the Sweet Sixteen, three to the Elite Eight, and now two to the Final Four.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Oklahoma 80, #1 Oregon 68

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 26th, 2016

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCEastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCSouthregion and @RTCWestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Buddy Hield Looked Like a Champion Today (USA Today Images)

Buddy Hield Looked Like a Champion Today (USA Today Images)

  1. Sure, Buddy’s Great, But There’s More. Don’t worry, we’re going to get to your National Player of the Year favorite, Buddy Hield, and his 37 points, in a moment. But there is so much more to Oklahoma than just a star shooter dropping threes in from 25 feet out. This is a complete team. The Sooners have at times this year had trouble on the glass at both end of the floor. Today, the entire team chipped in to help the relatively thin frontcourt compile a significant advantage on the glass, grabbing 42 percent of the available offensive rebounds. Freshman Christian James again provided a big spark from the wing, grabbing 10 boards of his own to aid the effort. Then there’s Hield’s backcourt mates Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard. They’re not as offensively explosive or as flashy as their more famous running mate, but both are highly efficient and always in control. While Hield definitely has the ability to carry the team for long stretches of time, there are more reasons than he that the Sooners are Final Four-bound.
  2. Oregon First Half Out of Sorts. Oregon wasn’t going to win with Buddy Hield playing so well regardless, but the Ducks didn’t do themselves any favors either. They seemed tentative throughout the first half, always a step late to loose balls. They had at least four mindless turnovers. They left points at the free throw line. And three-point shots just weren’t falling. Some of those struggles were certainly caused by the Sooners, who pressured the Ducks at the top of the key and took ball-handlers like Casey Benson, Tyler Dorsey and Dillon Brooks out of their rhythm. But after playing fast and loose against Duke on Thursday night, the Ducks couldn’t bring the same level of energy in this one. They gave up 15 second-chance points and 12 points off turnovers, building up an 18-point halftime deficit that they never had a realistic chance to erase.
  3. Three-Point Shooting and Dunks. In the first half, the Sooners put on an offensive clinic, scoring 1.33 points per possession by hitting threes and getting easy looks at the rim. Of their 36 first half field goal attempts, 14 came from three while an equal number came at the bucket. Oregon adjusted somewaht in the second half through better energy and help defense, limiting the Sooners to just three point-blank looks in the second half. The difference was apparent in the Sooners’ production, as they dipped to just 0.97 PPP in the second half. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking news, but preventing the Sooners from getting easy looks at the rim goes a long way towards limiting their oft-prolific offense.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Oklahoma 77, #3 Texas A&M 63

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 24th, 2016

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCEastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCSouthregion and @RTCWestregion

Three Key Takeaways.

Buddy Hield Led His Team to Its First Elite Eight Since 2009 (USA Today Images)

Buddy Hield and Friends Move On to Oklahoma’s First Elite Eight Since 2009 (USA Today Images)

  1. Buddy Ball. When you’ve got a National Player of the Year candidate like Buddy Hield involved, one of the big questions going into a game is always how the opponent plans to slow him down. Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy opted to put his best defender, Alex Caruso, on Hield from the opening tip in an effort to deny him the ball. In implementing this strategy, however, it took Caruso — a defender effective at coming off his man and providing help defense — out of his normal role. This opened up the rest of the Oklahoma offense to take advantage of a distracted Aggies’ defense to find driving lanes and easy looks around the hoop. Hield didn’t exactly have his normally explosive offensive night, but the attention the Aggies paid him left a distinct mark on the rest of the game.
  2. A&M Mis-Step and Adjustment. Early in the first half, Texas A&M had the good fortune of knocking a few early threes down. This turned out to be a short-term blessing and a long-term curse. Following the discovery of that fool’s gold, the Aggies spent the remainder of the first half relying unsuccessfully on jumpshots, leading to an extended drought that allowed Oklahoma to build a lead. Over the last 14 possessions of the first half, A&M turned it over six times, missed three threes, clanked five two-point jumpers and only made one layup and one jumper — turning a game that was tied 18-all into an overwhelming 45-25 deficit at the half. A&M adjusted, however, by pounding it inside either via the post-up game (specifically freshman Tyler Davis) or the drive early in the second half. That proved much more successful, but its inability to hit free throws (11-of-22 in second half) was the ultimate killer. Of interest going forward is that this is an area that Oklahoma could potentially be taken advantage of in the next week-plus.
  3. Scrappy Sooners. Perhaps the popular conception of this Sooners team is a fun-loving bunch of three-point bombers. While there’s some truth to the notion, there’s also a little bit of junkyard dog in this team as well. Despite statistics telling the story of a team that struggles to clean the glass, the Sooners today paid special mind to it and fought the bigger A&M team almost to a draw there. Even superstar Hield grabbed 10 boards on his way to his first double-double of the season. More to the point, though, is that the Sooners were consistently first to a number of loose balls in order to add extra possessions.

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The Big 12’s Road to the Final Four

Posted by Chris Stone on March 24th, 2016

The opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament was a mixed bag for college basketball’s toughest conference. Although three Big 12 teams — Iowa State, Kansas and Oklahoma — advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, the other four invitees headed home after the first weekend. Baylor, Texas and West Virginia were all upset by double-digit seeds, while Texas Tech was knocked off by higher-seeded (but favored) Butler. Still, this is the first time since 2009 that the Big 12 has produced as many as three Sweet Sixteen teams and each has a legitimate chance to make the Final Four in Houston. Let’s take a look at how they can get there.

Buddy Hield is the key to Oklahoma's Final Four potential. (Getty Images)

Buddy Hield is the key to Oklahoma’s Final Four potential. (Getty Images)

  • Iowa State – The Cyclones have the most difficult task ahead. Virginia is currently the top-ranked team in the KenPom ratings and represent a stylistic nightmare for an Iowa State team that prefers to get up and down the floor. Virginia has not played a single game with more than 70 possessions this season, while only about a third of the Cyclones’ contests have fallen below that mark. Iowa State will have to rely on its highly efficient offense — especially senior All-American Georges Niang  to produce enough points to get past the Cavaliers. If Steve Prohm’s team can make it to the Elite Eight, they’ll face one of two teams in Gonzaga or Syracuse with good but not great defenses. In either matchup, Iowa State would likely be favored to advance to Houston. The key game for the Cyclones comes Friday night.

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NCAA Regional Reset: West Region

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on March 21st, 2016

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCEastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCSouthregion and @RTCWestregion.

New Favorite:  #2 Oklahoma. We previously had Oregon as the favorite here,  but we’re going to switch it up and go with the Sooners instead because it is starting to look like Buddy Hield is going to drag his team to Houston and a possible national title one way or the other. There’s reason to be fearful of the Sooners’ chances, though, as they’ve been pressured by a pair of double-digit seeds. In this region, with the top four seeds still alive, would anybody be surprised if anybody made its way to Houston?

Buddy Was Just Doing Buddy Things to Get to the Sweet Sixteen (USA Today Images)

Buddy Was Just Doing Buddy Things to Get to the Sweet Sixteen (USA Today Images)

Horse of Darkness: #3 Texas A&M. This team was dead. Ceased to be. Expired and gone to meet it’s maker. Shuffled off the mortal coil, and all that. And yet somehow, the Aggies pulled off their best Lazarus impression and miraculously moved on to the Sweet Sixteen. Sometimes, miracles like these in early rounds are springboards to national titles: Witness Tyus Edney 21 years ago. Sometimes, it just extends the inevitable a little longer. For about 39 minutes and 22 seconds on Sunday night, A&M was getting run out of the Tourney by Northern Iowa. But somehow, some way, they survived. Will it be a springboard to bigger and better things or is it a sign of an inherent weakness? Poised veterans Alex Caruso and Anthony Collins have been solid, but leading scorers Danuel House and Jalen Jones will need to be more consistent to keep advancing.

Biggest Surprise (1st Weekend): Everything Having to Do With Northern Iowa. At this point, we should just offer up a standing invitation to any halfway decent Northern Iowa team to join the NCAA Tournament, because you just know we are going to be treated to a classic one way or another. The Panthers’ opening round game against Texas was absolutely insane. It wasn’t just the final 10 seconds worth of an Isaiah Taylor game-tying floater and the Paul Jesperson game-winning half-court heave; the whole game was amazing. Those final 10 seconds immediately vaulted up into the top tier of NCAA moments ever. And then Sunday night? Northern Iowa, much to its chagrin, may have topped that one by its involvement in an even more memorable game (for completely different reasons). In any March Madness epic, there is always the transposition of the elation of the winner and the heartbreak of the loser. In a 48-hour span, Northern Iowa felt both ends about as shockingly as possible.

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