TOURNAMENT TIME

NCAA Midwest Region preview: Duke will be tough to beat

Mike Krzyzewski gives Duke a big edge. Tim Bello/Getty Images

THE TOP 4 SEEDS

Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, Auburn

WHO SHOULD WIN 

Duke

Duke has a lot of the things you look for in a champion. They have a great coach, they have more freshman talent than anyone in the country, and they have a senior guard to hold it all together. They are the only team in the country that finished in the top 10 of both adjusted offense (3rd) and adjusted defense (7th). They have been even tougher to score on since switching to a zone at the end of the season. They also have a head to head win over Michigan State.

IF NOT THEM

Michigan State

Sparty doesn’t draw a cakewalk in the first round, as Bucknell is going to give them a run for their money, but they do get to play their first two games in Detroit. The Spartans have two superior talents in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson, and both guys are still getting better. Bridges came back to play for a title, and he will not be short on motivation. If the last few weeks are an indicator, Jackson will be a feature of the offense, and will likely see some time at center. Tom Izzo also gives the Spartans an edge that most teams don’t have. 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Marvin Bagley, III- Duke

Arguably the best player in the country, Bagley will hope to turn a deep tournament run into an audition for NBA scouts. He averaged 21.1 PPG and 11.5 RPG while shooting 61% from the floor. The ACC player of the year turns 19 on Wednesday, but already has the on-floor IQ of a veteran. He is incredibly athletic for a big man, and will create matchup problems in every round. 

Devonte’ Graham- Kansas

Graham has established himself as one of the best clutch players in the country, not just this year but over his entire career. The senior averaged 17.3 PPG and 7.5 assists to lead the Jayhawks to a 1 seed. The Big XII player of the year came up big in the conference championship game, scoring 18 to go along with his 13 assists and only two turnovers. 

Trae Young- Oklahoma

If Young had not faded down the stretch, the Sooners wouldn’t have been such a controversial inclusion to the tournament. He struggled down the stretch, but his early season was so outstanding that he still led the country in scoring (27.4 PPG) and assists (8.8 APG). He has to control the turnovers and needs to shoot a better percentage for Oklahoma to have a chance, but he can dominate a game on any given night. 

BEST FIRST ROUND MATCHUP 

Rhode Island vs. Oklahoma

This is an interesting style matchup, as Lon Kruger’s Sooners will look to push the pace against the much more methodical Rams. Oklahoma lives and dies with Trae Young, and he will be the focal point of the Rams’ physical backcourt, but junior guard Christian James will be counted on to pick up any slack. Rhode Island’s Stanford Robinson is a lockdown defender and the matchup between he and Young could determine who wins this game. Jeff Dowtin and Jared Terrell will look to provide the backcourt offense for Rhode Island, while E.C. Matthews will provide matchup problems for the Sooners down low. The Rams looked unstoppable early in the season and cooled late, while the Sooners limp into the tournament after a hot start. 

UPSET THREAT

New Mexico State

The Aggies are not a great offensive team, but their defense is good enough to keep them in any game. They rank 14th in the country in adjusted defense. They have won six straight going into the tournament by an average of 16 points per game. They also have a special player in Zach Lofton. Lofton is 25 years old, and won the SWAC Player of the Year last season at Texas Southern. He averaged 19.8 PPG and if he can get hot from 3, New Mexico State is a serious contender to pull off the upset. 
 

Ed Oliver skips bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft. Houston Cougar Football Facebook

The regular season is over for Houston football, but a lot has occurred since last week. Let’s take a look at what to expect for UH:

The Armed Forces Bowl

Houston (8-4, 5-3 in AAC) will face Army (9-2) at Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas on Dec. 22. The Black Knights are ranked No. 22 in the Top 25 AP Poll, mostly due to their prolific triple option rushing attack which ranks third in the nation. They are on a seven game winning streak since losing to Oklahoma. The Big 12 Conference Champion struggled at home against Army, but would later win in overtime. Army averages 300 yards per game on the ground this year, making them the third team (Navy, Memphis, Army) that Houston will face that is ranked within the top five in rushing. The matchup is not good for a depleted Houston defense. The Black Knights will play Navy this weekend, a conference foe of the Cougars who has had a terrible season. Army vs Navy will be the only college football game this weekend, where you can get a sneak peak of what to expect if you haven’t seen the Black Knights play all season. Plus, the uniforms for this game are always pretty cool.

King vs Milton

Houston comes into this bowl game with their heads hung low after what most consider to be a disappointing season. Injuries, most notably those to D’Eriq King and Ed Oliver, sidetracked the Cougars from heading into the AAC Championship game after Memphis blew them out in Week 13. King and UCF QB McKenzie Milton were both nominated for AAC Offensive Player of the Year, of which Milton took home for a second straight season. Milton humbly gave King an honorable mention by saying, “Shout out to D’Eriq King who is just as, if not, more deserving of this honor. Promise we’ll both be back better than ever!” King played only 11 games, where he reached 50 total touchdowns, 14 of which came from the ground, threw for 2,982 passing yards, and rushed for 674 yards.

Ed Oliver Denies Bowl Game

The All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver decided to sit out his final bowl game to begin preparing for the NFL draft. He announced his decision via twitter where he thanked the University of Houston, the coaching staff, and his teammates. He finished by saying, “To all the fans, thank you for your relentless support. Forever I will be a Coog!” Oliver’s decision came about a week after he publicly announced that he will be playing in whatever bowl UH was assigned, even after he had to be benched for tweaking his knee in Week 13 vs Memphis. He missed four games this season after suffering from an uncalled chop block against Navy. In his three years in Houston, Oliver accounted for 193 total total tackles, 54 of which were tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, 14 passes defended, six forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and one blocked kick. He was the first underclassmen to win the Outland Trophy in 2017, which is awarded to the best college interior lineman. This season, Oliver won AAC Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Coaching Changes/Extensions

Houston still doesn’t have a defensive coordinator. Mark D’Onofrio was fired after the Memphis game for managing one of the worst defenses in college football, and also one of the worst defenses in the history of the program. The UH defense allowed a total of 412 points, being the fifth most allowed points in a season in school history, while also allowing 5,862 total yards. It seems like Houston is in no rush in finding a replacement.

Kendal Briles accepted a contract extension from UH after interviewing with Texas State for the head coaching job vacancy. He was also widely considered for a SEC offensive coordinator position of which was not disclosed by sources. The new three-year deal is worth $2.1 million, making Briles one of the highest paid assistants in the nation. Offensive line coach Randy Clements also enjoyed a new three-year extension. Consider both a package deal. The Houston offense averaged 46.4 points per game, rushed for 2991 yards, and passed for 3611 yards, making it one of the best offenses in the nation.

AAC Bowl Matchups

Armed Forces Bowl- Houston vs Army

Military Bowl- Cincinnati vs Virginia Tech

Gasparilla Bowl- USF vs Marshall

Birmingham Bowl- Memphis vs Wake Forest

Independence Bowl- Temple vs Duke

Cure Bowl- Tulane vs Louisiana Lafayette

Most Notable AAC Bowl Matchup

Fiesta Bowl- UCF vs LSU

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