Sweet 16 preview: West Region’s top players, champ

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The details: There are all kinds of intriguing storylines in this region. For starters, there is the potential matchup between Duke and UConn, who have played three times in the tournament, all of which have yielded classic games. There is Sean Miller, who has brought the Arizona program back to national relevancy with a Pac-10 title and a trip to the Sweet 16. Then there is Steve Fisher, the coach that went down with the Fab Five, potentially making his return to the Final Four.

Matchups

No. 2 San Diego State (34-2) vs. No. 3 UConn (28-9)
Time: 7:15 p.m. ET on CBS

No. 1 Duke (32-4) vs. No. 5 Arizona (29-7)
Time: 9:45 p.m. ET on CBS

Team to beat: Duke Blue Devils

I fully expect Kyrie Irving to be close to 100% by the time the Sweet 16 games roll around, meaning that Duke will once again be arguably the most talented team in the country. Kyle Singler was a preseason favorite for national player of the year, Irving was a favorite for national player of the year before he got hurt, and Nolan Smith has emerged as a favorite since Irving was injured. Not many teams can boast that kind of 1-2-3 punch. The problem? Duke’s weakness is on the interior, and the three teams that the Blue Devils can end up facing all have at least one powerful front court presence.

Team with nothing to lose: San Diego State

The Aztecs, despite being the No. 2 seed in the West region, are the underdog heading into the Sweet 16. They play in the Mountain West Conference. They played all of one BCS conference team this season, beating Cal by 20 points. They have a head coach with the reputation of a guy that just rolls the ball out. They were the trendy pick by analysts to get upset in the second round of the dance by Temple. This team has no expectations, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They head into the Sweet 16 playing without pressure.

Players to watch:

  • Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State: Leonard is one of the most entertaining players in the country to watch, and its a shame that he isn’t known on a more national scale. When dreaming up a prototype small forward, you think of Leonard. He’s 6’6″, he’s got long arms, he’s quick and athletic and explosive. He attacks the glass as hard as anyone in the country, but he can also lead the break when need be. By the time he fully develops, he’s the kind of player that can average 15, 10, 5, 2, and 2.
  • Alex Oriakhi, UConn: Kemba Walker is the star. Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith, and Shabazz Napier take turns as his sidekick. But Oriakhi may be the most important player on the roster outside of Walker. He’s really the only strong, interior presence the Huskies have. He defends the rim and is one of the best in the country at battling on the offensive glass.
  • Derrick Williams, Arizona: Like Leonard, Williams is probably a talent that you haven’t seen enough of this season. He’s a versatile, 6’8″ forward that can score from any where on the floor. He’s been good enough this season to warrant consideration as the No. 1 overall pick come June. And he’ll be a nightmare for the Plumlees to cover.
  • Nolan Smith, Duke: I fully expect Kyrie Irving to be back to full strength by the time the Sweet 16 games come around, which puts Smith in an awkward position. Will the senior that has become the team’s leader, star, and is a national player of the year candidate and defending champion be willing to play second fiddle to a freshman with seven games experience?

Coach under pressure: Jim Calhoun

The coach isn’t going to be under pressure as much as the team is. The Big East sent 11 schools to the NCAA Tournament. All but two of them have been eliminated. The other one? No. 11 seed Marquette, playing in the toughest region left. Its too much to say that the fate of the Big East is riding on UConn’s shoulders. But it isn’t too much to say that the Huskies are the conference’s only hope to make the Final Four.

Outcome: Duke is the favorite to reach the Final Four out of this region. But that doesn’t mean that they are going to have an easy road. Derrick Williams will be a matchup nightmare for the Plumlees or Ryan Kelly or Kyle Singler or whoever they end up putting on him. San Diego State’s front line will be even more difficult for Duke to matchup with. Billy White, Kawhi Leonard, and Malcolm Thomas are just that much more physical than Duke’s. Alex Oriakhi is a horse in the paint, and Duke has had issues with players of his ilk this season.

So much of what happens will depend on which Kyrie Irving we see. That said, my money is going to be on the winner of the San Diego State-UConn game.

Tennessee lands impact graduate transfer James Daniel

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Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes earned a commitment from one of the top graduate transfers on the market on Monday when Howard guard James Daniel pledged to the Volunteers.

The 6-foot-0 Daniel was the nation’s leading scorer at 27.1 points per game his junior season in 2015-16. Daniel played in only two games last season as a left ankle injury caused him to have surgery.

With nearly 2,000 career points to his name, Daniel gives Tennessee an additional perimeter scorer who should come in and make an immediate impact right away. While Howard has low shooting percentages and a high usage rate during his time at Howard, it’ll be interesting to see how the year off and more talented teammates will alter his game.

If Howard can be a more efficient scorer in his final season, then he has a chance to be one of the better players for the Volunteers this season.

Two workouts this week could alter Caleb Swanigan’s NBA Draft decision

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Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan has the most important decision among any college basketball player who could return next season from the 2017 NBA Draft process. If Swanigan comes back for his junior season, he’s the frontrunner for National Player of the Year. More importantly, Purdue would have a serious chance to repeat as Big Ten regular season champions, especially if Vince Edwards also returns from the same draft process.

Wednesday night is the decision deadline for players to return to college basketball for next season and Swanigan will use two more workouts scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday to help decide his future. According to multiple reports, Swanigan will workout for the Orlando Magic on Tuesday and the New York Knicks on Wednesday.

Tuesday’s workout with the Magic will also reportedly involve Cal big man Ivan Rabb — an important workout for Swanigan since Rabb is listed ahead of Swanigan on a lot of popular mock drafts. The Magic own three picks between No. 25 and No. 35 — which is listed slightly above the No. 40 slot that Draft Express has Swanigan listed. So if Swanigan has a good workout against Rabb for the Magic, then he could get himself some sort of guarantee from a Magic team that desperately needs talent and has a lot of picks in that range.

The Knicks also have Swanigan scheduled for a Wednesday workout as they own the No. 44 overall pick in the second round. Again, the Knicks are a team in win-now mode with current stars like Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis openly feuding with the team’s front-office, so it wouldn’t be out of the question for Swanigan to land some sort of guarantee from New York in the second round.

Of course, guarantees for draft night are nice to have, but things can change quickly on draft night. Swanigan has to consider all of the information he is receiving before he makes his decision on Wednesday. But if Swanigan has two strong workouts and gets the information that he’s looking for this week, then he could easily bolt for a potential guaranteed contract.

Angel Delgado’s return to Seton Hall makes Pirates Big East contender

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Seton Hall got huge news on Monday when Angel Delgado announced that he would be returning to school for his senior season.

“I am coming back to school for my senior year,” Delgado said in a statement on Monday. “It’s very important to my family and me that I finish what I started. This was a difficult decision that took time and patience. Coming back feels just right.”

Delgado, a 6-foot-10 forward from the Dominican Republic, averaged 15.1 points and 13.2 boards last season for the Pirates. He was one of the best big men in the country over the last six weeks of the season.

And his return should bring about one of the best years that Seton Hall basketball has had in a long time.

The Pirates are loaded with talent, tough and, most importantly, old players, from Delgado to Khadeen Carrington to Ishmael Sanogo to Desi Rodriguez. They are going to be a nightmare to run offense against, and they may just be the best team in the Big East not named Villanova. Delgado should end up being a preseason all-american.

Seton Hall is currently ranked No. 17 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

Texas to return Andrew Jones for sophomore season

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Texas got another boost on Monday as former five-star recruit Andrew Jones announced that he will be returning to school for his sophomore season.

“I’ve matured and learned a lot through this process,” Jones said in a statement released on twitter. “I enjoyed the experience and opportunity that I had to be able to participate in the combine and team workouts.

“Time to go work out with my teammates. Hungry and Humble.”

This comes on the heels of Texas landing a commitment from a top five prospect in Mo Bamba. With all those pieces in the fold, including a recruiting class that features four more top 100 prospects, the Longhorns look like they are on track to be a borderline preseason top 25 team and heading back to the NCAA tournament.

This could end up being a narrative-changing year for Texas.

West Virginia returns potential Big 12 Player of the Year in Jevon Carter

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West Virginia got some great news on Monday as Jevon Carter announced that he will be returning to the Mountaineers for his senior year.

“I’m excited about coming back to West Virginia and playing with my teammates for my senior season,” he said. “The entire NBA process was a great experience for me and to gain valuable feedback that I can use to prepare for the future.”

This is massive for the Mountaineers. Not only is Carter the team’s leading scorer at 13.5 points, but he is a three-time all-Big 12 Defensive Team member and led West Virginia in minutes played last season. He’ll be a favorite to win Big 12 Player of the Year, with Devonte’ Graham of Kansas.