Get ready for the Final Four with these storylines

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Pick a storyline. Any storyline. Odds are this Final Four has it.

There are underdogs, fab freshmen, bluebloods, fantastic coaches and superstars. But the odds are a good place to start. The long odds, that is.

Who knew?
Virginia Commonwealth won five straight games and pulled off the tournament’s biggest upset vs. Kansas Sunday. The chances of those five wins? At least 821:1. (Some were much, much higher.) Yet the 11-seed Rams not only defied those odds, they won four of those five games by double figures.

Compare that to their Final Four opponent, Butler. The 8-seed Bulldogs – in their second straight Final Four – had 100:1 odds of making it this far. As the power conference teams, Kentucky and Connecticut had far better odds. The 4-seed Wildcats were roughly 8:1. The 3-seed Huskies were 13:1.

If it seems like no one saw this coming, you’d be wrong. Two people – out of 5.9 million – did. Well, and the teams still playing. They expected this.

Team snapshots
Kentucky (29-8) is making its 14th Final Four appearance and first since 1998. It’ll be chasing its 8th NCAA title, which is what Big Blue Nation expected of coach John Calipari when he was hired in 2009. In the two seasons since, he’s racked up 64 wins and is 7-1 in the NCAA tournament. They lost five players to the NBA from last year’s Elite Eight team, yet knocked off Ohio State and North Carolina in three days.

UConn (30-9) awaits Kentucky in Saturday’s primetime matchup. It’s the Huskies’ fourth Final Four trip, all since 1999. They’ve won two titles and feature the best player left in the field in junior guard Kemba Walker. They’re the last Big East team remaining – of 11 bids – yet finished tied for ninth during conference play.

VCU (28-11) is here for the first time, and also became the first team to reach the Final Four by winning five games. For that, the Rams can thank their inclusion into the “First Four,” the result of the tournament’s expansion to 68 teams. Since then, the Rams have beaten teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12. They’re the biggest underdog in the field, but aren’t playing like it.

Butler (27-9), which followed up an improbable Final Four run last year with an even more unlikely run this season. The Bulldogs were just 14-9 on Feb. 3 and weren’t even headed for the NIT, let alone the Big Dance. They haven’t lost since (13 straight), though it’s hardly been a cakewalk. Butler won its four NCAA tourney games by 2, 1, 7 and 3 points. That clutch play puts the Bulldogs in elite company, too. It joined Michigan State, Maryland, Kansas, Florida, UCLA and North Carolina as programs that have made back-to-back Final Fours since 2000.

Not the worst ever
The four teams remaining comprise the highest combined seed total (26) since the NCAA began using seeds in 1979. The previous mark was 22 (set in 2000 when two 8 seeds made it). It’s also the first time no team seeded 1 or 2 made the Final Four.

However, the seeds are high, but the teams’ combined records are not the worst. The 2000 Final Four still holds that (ahem) honor.

Forget the re-seeding
You’ll hear chatter about the Final Four games – Kentucky-UConn; VCU-Butler – being the wrong matchups because they feature the two major conference teams and the two mid-majors. Too bad. TV executives might be nervous about the ratings, but that’s how the NCAA tournament goes. Sometimes, you don’t get exactly what you want, but you still enjoy it.

Good vs. Evil (or something like that)
Kentucky-UConn is the marquee matchup because of the programs’ tradition and previous NCAA tournament success. Yet both coaches have had NCAA issues. UConn’s Jim Calhoun was just found guilty for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance. Calipari’s technically never been to a Final Four, though he technically wasn’t cited in those vacated Final Fours at UMass and Memphis.

Contrast that to their counterparts at Butler and VCU and it’s an easy angle to see. Then again, neither Brad Stevens, 34, or Shaka Smart, 33, have been around long enough to do anything other than coach. This is Stevens’ fourth year at Butler and Smart’s second at VCU.

About that “mid-major” label
That’s the de-facto term for any team not playing in the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10 or SEC. (Another measure includes the Mountain West.) Those conferences bring in massive amounts of money because of their football revenue, which is doled out to the basketball teams. Those resources are why the major conferences get most of the NCAA tournament bids. But with three mid-major teams making the Final Four four times  since 2006, the term might need to be redefined. At least for the teams who consistently defy those expectations like Butler, Xavier and Gonzaga.

The freshmen
Who needs ‘em? All four. But mostly Kentucky and UConn.

The Wildcats rely on three – Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. They account for nearly 75 percent of the ‘Cats’ shots. Knight’s been especially handy. Two game-winning shots in four games? Not bad.

UConn also plays three – Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith. Lamb’s their main scoring option behind star Kemba Walker, while Napier and Smith have played increasingly larger roles as the season’s progressed.

Butler and VCU each only use one, but both played key roles in their Final Four runs. Bulldogs forward Khyle Marshall grabbed seven rebounds and scored 10 points in a win over Florida, while Rams guard Rob Brandenberg got 20 key minutes vs. FSU.

The star
Let’s close with the big one. Knight’s been great, but Walker’s the guy who capable of carrying the Huskies to a title, much like Carmelo Anthony did for Syracuse or Danny Manning did for Kansas. He’s been spectacular – and then some – all season, and just as good the last four games. He’s averaging nearly 27 a game and hitting 44 percent of his shots. He’s unguardable at best, difficult to stop at worst. Kentucky may be the favorite to win, but Walker’s the reason why it’s foolish to count out the Huskies.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

2017 NBA Draft Early Entry List: Who is staying and who is going?

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RETURNING TO SCHOOL

Jalen Adams, UConn
Grayson Allen, Duke (story)
Tyus Battle, Syracuse
Marques Bolden, Duke
Mikal Bridges (story)
Miles Bridges, Michigan State (story)
Bruce Brown, Miami
Jalen Brunson (story)
Jeffery Carroll, Oklahoma State (story)
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Devonte’ Graham, Kansas (story)
E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island
Shake Milton, SMU
Chimezie Metu, USC
Allonzo Trier, Arizona (story)
Robert Williams, Texas A&M (story)

DECLARING, SIGNING WITH AN AGENT

Jarrett Allen, Texas (story)
Ike Anigbogu, UCLA (story)
O.G. Anunoby, Indiana (story)
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State (story)
Lonzo Ball, UCLA (story)
Jordan Bell, Oregon (story)
Antonio Blakeney, LSU (story)
John Collins, Wake Forest
Zach Collins, Gonzaga (story)
Tyler Dorsey, Oregon (story)
P.J. Dozier, South Carolina (story)
Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State (story)
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky (story)
Markelle Fultz, Washington (story)
Harry Giles III, Duke (story)
Isaac Humphries, Kentucky (story)
Jonathan Isaac, Florida State (story)
Justin Jackson, North Carolina (story)
Luke Kennard, Duke (story)
T.J. Leaf, UCLA (story)
Tyler Lydon, Syracuse (story)
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona (story)
Malik Monk, Kentucky (story)
Austin Nichols, Virginia
Justin Patton, Creighton (story)
L.J. Peak, Georgetown
Ivan Rabb, California (story)
Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State
Devin Robinson, Florida
Kobi Simmons, Arizona (story)
Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State (story)
Edmond Sumner, Xavier (story)
Jayson Tatum, Duke (story)
Melo Trimble, Maryland (story)
Tevonn Walker, Valparaiso
Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga (story)

DECLARING WITHOUT AN AGENT

Shaqquan Aaron, USC
Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure
Bam Adebayo, Kentucky (story)
Deng Adel, Louisville
Jashaun Agosto, LIU-Brooklyn
Rawle Alkins, Arizona
Mark Alstork, Wright State
Jaylen Barford, Arkansas
James Blackmon, Indiana
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
Tony Bradley, North Carolina
Dillon Brooks, Oregon
Thomas Bryant, Indiana (story)
Rodney Bullock, Providence
Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
Jeffery Carroll, Oklahoma State
Jason Chartouny, Fordham
Donte Clark, UMass (story)
Chance Comanche, Arizona
Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky (story)
Vince Edwards, Purdue
John Egbunu, Florida
Jon Elmore, Marshall
Obi Enechionyia, Temple
Drew Eubanks, Oregon State
Tacko Fall, UCF
Brandon Goodwin, FGCU
Isaac Haas, Purdue
Aaron Holiday, UCLA
Chandler Hutchinson, Boise State
Frank Jackson, Duke (story)
B.J. Johnson, La Salle
Darin Johnson, CSUN
Jaylen Johnson, Louisville
Robert Johnson, Indiana
Andrew Jones, Texas
Kerem Kanter, Green Bay
Marcus Keene, Central Michigan
Braxton Key, Alabama
Kyle Kuzma, Utah
William Lee, UAB
Daryl Macon, Arkansas
Yante Maten, Georgia
Markis McDuffie, Wichita State
MiKyle McIntosh, Illinois State
Donovan Mitchell, Louisville
Eric Mika, BYU
Johnathan Motley, Baylor (story)
Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas (story)
Semi Ojeleye, SMU
Cam Oliver, Nevada
Randy Onwuasor, Southern Utah
Maverick Rowan, N.C. State
Corey Sanders, Rutgers
Jaaron Simmons, Ohio
Jaren Sina, George Washington
Elijah Stewart, USC
Caleb Swanigan (story)
Stevie Thompson, Oregon State
Trevor Thompson, Ohio State
Mo Wagner, Michigan
Thomas Welsh, UCLA
Thomas Wilder, Western Michigan
D.J. Wilson, Michigan
Omer Yurtseven, N.C. State

YET TO DECIDE

Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Mikal Bridges, Villanova
Jacob Evans, Cincinnati
Matthew Fisher-Davis, Vanderbilt
Jessie Govan, Georgetown
Donta Hall, Alabama
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
D.J. Hogg, Texas A&M
Justin Jackson, Maryland
V.J. King, Louisville
Dedric Lawson, Memphis
Anas Mahmoud, Louisville
De’Anthony Melton, USC
Theo Pinson, North Carolina
Jerome Robinson, Boston College

Kentucky freshman Hamidou Diallo declares for NBA Draft

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Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo is declaring for the NBA Draft, although he is not signing with an agent to retain his collegiate eligibility.

Diallo was originally a member of the Class of 2017, but he spent half of last season at a prep school and enrolled at Kentucky in January as a redshirt. Being a year removed from his high school graduation and 19 years old, he is allowed to declare for the draft.

“When I decided to enroll in school in January, my plan was to come to Kentucky to work on my game and to focus on school,” Diallo said. “At the end of the season, I knew I wanted to see where I was in the draft process and go through that so I could get a proper evaluation.”

“That plan hasn’t changed and that’s why I am declaring for the NBA Draft. I want to see where my game is and explore my options.”

Diallo, a top ten player in the class, is as explosive of an athlete as you are going to find. He should be an elite defender, but he will be drafted based mostly on his potential offensively.

Since Diallo is not signing with an agent, he will be able to return to school without penalty. He’s currently projected as a late second round pick in the 2018 draft, but he’s likely a second round pick in a deeper draft this year.

Reports: Duke’s Frank Jackson to declare for draft

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Frank Jackson will declare for the draft but will not be signing with an agent, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Previous reports had indicated that Jackson “planned” to return to school, and that still may end up proving true. But the combination of Trevon Duval potentially enrolling at Duke combined with the fact that there is zero downside to going through the draft process, it makes sense for Jackson to declare.

Jackson averaged 10.9 points and shot 39.5 percent from three. He’s projected as a mid-first round pick in 2018 by Draft Express, but at 6-foot-3, he’s too small to play the two in the NBA and has yet to prove he can be a point guard.

Jackson is the fourth Duke player to declare, following Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles III and Luke Kennard. All three signed with an agent. Grayson Allen and Marques Bolden are both returning to school.

VIDEO: Top 2018 recruits Zion Williamson and Romeo Langford go head-to-head at adidas

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This weekend is the first live evaluation period of the spring recruiting calendar as college coaches from all over the country are scouting (and babysitting) the top recruits in the Class of 2018 and 2019.

Friday night the adidas Gauntlet in Dallas opened with a marquee matchup of two star players as five-star forward Zion Williamson and five-star guard Romeo Langford went head-to-head in what should be one of the best games of the spring.

Most scouting services have Williamson and Langford as the No. 2 and No. 3 overall prospects in the Class of 2018 as the duo didn’t disappoint in front of the huge crowd in Fort Worth.

Williamson helped his team to a win with 26 points and seven rebounds while Langford had 28 points, four rebounds and four assists. You’ll be hearing plenty about both of these guys over the next few months as both are still wide open in the recruting process.

(H/t: Ball is Life)

Report: Coppin State hires Juan Dixon as new head coach

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Coppin State has hired former Maryland star guard Juan Dixon to be its next head coach, according to a report from Don Markus of the Baltimore Sun.

The 38-year-old Dixon is best known for leading Maryland to the 2002 national championship as he was the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four that year. Now Dixon will have a chance to lead a Division I program for the first time.

Dixon spent seven years in the NBA and also played professionally in Europe before joining the Maryland coaching staff in 2013 as a special assistant to head coach Mark Turgeon. Not retained by Maryland after the 2015-16 season, Dixon took the head coaching job for the women’s team at the University of the District of Columbia last season as the Division II program finished only  3-25.

Coppin State finished last season with an 8-24 record after losing its first 12 games of the season. While Dixon will generate some positive local buzz given his background, he’s going to have an uphill battle trying to rebuild that program.