Blogger Spotlight: Bruins Nation on UCLA, NBA and ’11-’12

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It promises to be an interesting season in Westwood. UCLA’s frontcourt is loaded, its backcourt is untested, there’s some pressure on coach Ben Howland and Arizona is threatening to become a Pac-10 powerhouse. To top it off, two Bruins who were expected to be key parts of next year’s team – Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt – were selected Thursday in the NBA draft. Four months ago, few would’ve predicted that.

So I asked Tyler, one of the many manager/editors at Bruins Nation, to help sort out what’s been a busy few months.

As an added bonus, his Blogger Spotlight also has info on a scholarship the site is offering. Best read on for more.

Click here to read other Blogger Spotlights

Q: Given Ben Howland’s track record — three straight Final Fours, Pac-10 titles, etc — does it seem like the last two seasons really happened? Who saw those speed bumps coming?

A: The three straight Final Fours was always going to be a tough feat to continue. There was no illusion that the Bruins were going to follow up with another immediate run like that, particularly with the immediate loss of players like Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, and the remaining core of those teams soon after. We had thought that the success of those years would keep any bumps to a minimum, but no one that I know saw a depth as low as the 14 win season of just over a year ago coming. Those two seasons are all too real in mind, not just in terms of the (too few) wins and losses, but in teaching lessons that we hope will stay in the minds of coaches, players and those of the greater Bruin Nation in the years to come.

Q: That four-game stretch in November — losses to Villanova, VCU, Kansas, Montana — must’ve brought back many memories of last season’s 14-18 record. But there was a turning point for the 2010-11 squad. Can you pinpoint it?

A: At first, the game at Kansas was looking like it was going to be the turning point – while we reject the concept of ‘moral victories’ at BN, the combination of the talent on display as well as the tenacity showed by that young Bruin team in Lawrence was really encouraging for the fortunes of that season. And then Montana happened. Inconsistency was a key storyline in the early and mid-season; while that victory over BYU – and Malcolm Lee’s defense of Jimmer – showed what the team was capable of at its best, you never knew when that team was going to hit the floor.

In terms of a turning point, a couple of points in the season actually come to mind – 4 games in mid-January at the Oregon schools and back in LA against Cal and Stanford helped steer the team in the right direction after some early struggles in conference play. The real turning point, I think came with an early February homestand against USC and St Johns. As I wrote entering that week, it was a critical stretch for the team’s NCAA tournament goal, and for the program as a whole. After being taken to OT by last place Arizona State, those two games were not only significant in their own right, but as a signal for the rest of the season.

Q: When BYU was earning so much acclaim, how often did you find yourself waving your arms furiously, declaring “Hello! We DID beat those guys!” Or would you rather people underestimate the Bruins (if that’s really possible, given the history and all).

A: The four letters on our uniforms and on Pauley Pavilion’s center court are a representation of the storied history of UCLA Basketball. We never want the players wearing them to be underestimated, and don’t think that opposing coaches or players are overlooking the Bruins in part due to that factor. The lack of wider acknowledgment of the team as BYU went on their tear was certainly in mind, but not that much of an aggravation. At that point in the season, the Bruins needed to win games and put forth a consistent effort form game to game. Without that, the memory of and praise for that afternoon in December would be of little comfort. As it happened, once the Bruins played themselves into the tournament discussion, the team did start getting respect for that win.

Q: So what about next season then? There’s the abundance of frontcourt talent, but some backcourt questions. What’s your take on how Howland will adjust? And who will be missed more among early entrants: Malcolm Lee or Tyler Honeycutt?

A: There has already been a lot of discussion – at Bruins Nation as well as on other UCLA-focused outlets – about how Howland is going to adapt, with particular focus on who is going to play the 3. With Tyler Honeycutt’s departure together with those backcourt questions, there is no easy solution to the question. After a year backing up Malcolm Lee at the off-guard position, moving Tyler Lamb over to the 3 would be a possibility, but shallowness in the backcourt will likely lead Howland to keep him at the 2 as much as possible. Earlier in the Spring, the Bruins brought in DeEnd Parker, a JC All-American out of San Francisco who looks to take some of that free playing time, as well as provide a backstop to Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson at the point.

While it might not be the ideal use of the players’ skills, that abundance in the frontcourt – particularly at power forward – is going to force some compromises down the lineup, and may require Howland and his coaches to put their skills in managing the … and egos of a group of confident young athletes to the test. Joshua Smith has the bulk of the minutes locked up, and Anthony Stover showed the the defensive ability and an overall (raw) talent in his redshirt freshman season to claim the reserve spot behind. That leaves four players – (returning starter) Reeves Nelson, Brendan Lane, and UNC transfers David and Travis Wear that are primarily slated at power forward. These guys need somewhere to play, and the in-flux wing spot is the answer. In high school, Nelson showed an ability to nail outside shots that would help him in that transition, but few people that have seen him play at UCLA could swear such a confidence. In a press conference earlier in the Spring, Howland told reporters that David Wear would get some of those vacated minutes at the 3, but a lot can change between April and the start of practices and the coming of the season.

With all that talk about filling the lineup hole left by Tyler Honeycutt, you may be surprised to hear that Malcolm Lee is going to be the more missed of the two, and it isn’t close. While Honeycutt was one of the most talented players in the Pac-10 last year and had the ability to take over a game (as in his 33 point performance at Kansas), he was just as apt to make a mental mistake, a sloppy pass or lay off on a defensive possession or three. As incoming UCLA freshman Norman Powell put it when asked about last spring’s Bruins NCAA exit: “I feel like (Tyler) Honeycutt didn’t perform like he could have. On the defensive end they really needed him on some plays but he seemed lost.” I don’t want to come down too hard on Tyler; his return would have ensured the Bruins as the team to beat in the Pac-12’s debut year, and could certainly have evolved into one of the elite players in the nation. However, we need to look at what they have demonstrated to date, and that is where Malcolm Lee shines, as the heart and soul of last year’s team as well as one of the nation’s premier defensive stoppers.

Q: Speaking of Honeycutt and Lee, Bruins Nation did a recent post on how the NBA views UCLA players. Seems some Bruins often get underrated on draft day, then manage to surprise people in the NBA because of their fundamentals and defense. (Of course, that doesn’t apply to obvious talents like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love.) When will teams learn?

A: I would have hoped that they would have learned this week. As much as fans like to focus on the missteps of their favorite team’s GM and scouts, the fact is that there are some very bright men and women setting up the draft boards and making personnel decisions in the NBA, and these decision-makers are coming to understand the value of how Ben Howland and staff have prepared their players for the next level. As that post closed, “NBA scouts have begun to factor in the success of former Howland players in recent years.” There is a growing sample of Howland players whose pro performance is showing scouts that despite the lack of flashy play and gaudy statistics that UCLA players are very, very good.

Q: Then how do you think Honeycutt and Lee will fare in the pros?

A:That’s a tough one to answer. I would not expect them to have an immediate impact in the league, but Honeycutt has the ability to make an impact. Improving upon his focus will be a major part of reaching that goal, but he is young enough so that such an evolution is not too much of a stretch. Lee has work to do on the offensive end – When he declared for the draft and hired an agent, there was significant concern among members of our site in particular about the weakness of his outside shot, and the effect of the NBA’s labor dispute to his ability to continue to develop and even join a team. With that said, even the worst case would see Lee as a defensive stopper with some offensive ability, a skill set that should keep him in demand for several years, if not a household name.

Q: UCLA’s recent hire of assistant coach Korey McCray seems to have already paid off when Jordan Adams committed Monday. Should we expect to see more and more recruits from around the country flock to Westwood or will UCLA still rely primarily on West Coast players?

A: California and the West Coast has been and will always be the core of UCLA’s recruiting, but Bruin coaches dating back to John Wooden have not shied away from going after high school players throughout the country. The reality is that there has been a lull in elite high school talent on the West Coast in the last 3-4 years, and the program has been a little slow to adapt. Other power schools like Duke, UNC and Kansas are used to recruiting nationally as a necessity of maintaining an elite program; with the historic strength of prep basketball in Los Angeles and greater Southern California, there has not been the same need for UCLA to devote resources to extensively scouting outside the region, resulting in a lack of institutional knowledge in how to manage resources in recruiting those east coast/southern players while not overlooking up-and-comers in our backyard (something that we thought occurred in the last – 2010 incoming – recruiting class).

While Korey McCray’s skill in working with and developing the skills of young players like Dwight Howard will have a direct impact on the team, the reputation that he has developed from his years of work provide a level of credibility with recruits – and their coaches – beyond the mystique, or even the Howland/UCLA Factor, in parts of the country where the other powers have long-established footholds (when is the last time that a major Oak Hill product did not commit to Tobacco Road or Kentucky, anyway?).

Q: That all leads to the elephant in the room, right? If the Bruins struggle next year and the coaching staff fails to adjust, how much heat will be on Howland? I’m of the opinion that he’s earned major leeway — three straight Final Fours — but he IS held to a higher standard at UCLA. Rightly so, I’d say.

A: Coach Howland certainly earned a lot of leeway with Bruin fans with the success of the 2006-07-08 Final Four campaigns. With that said, that 14-18 year consumed a great deal of that leeway; that season was the program’s 5th losing season since World War II – 3 of those leading to the head coach being fired, with the remaining year being Howland’s first in Westwood. In past decades, for better or worse, UCLA coaches were terminated after much better team performances. It is true that there is a higher standard for the Men’s Basketball coach at UCLA than at near any other school in the nation. I believe there is also an understanding that bad things happen, and that season was a collection of bad things – recruiting misses, player development and even coaching. The important thing is to see that Howland learned from that down period and can recover, and never repeat a year like that again.

Last season saw a path for Howland and the program to bounce back from the depths of that lost year, as long as the program follows along that path through the next couple of years, in terms of increasing competitiveness on the court and recruiting well (with Jordan Adams being a strong start to this cycle) for the near-future, he will be fine. If he struggles and falls off that path, and serious questions arise about the state and future of the program, we won’t shy away from applying some of that heat. We certainly won’t be the only ones holding a match. I am confident though that Coach Howland will be just fine though; he has the track record of success and the ability to teach young men how to play the game, and has made coaching and recruiting decisions that bode well for the future.

Your raising the topic of adjustments by the UCLA coaching staff goes back to a topic of discussion dating back a couple of years at Bruins Nation. A point raised repeatedly in the ’09 season, but broached as far back as the Final Four years was an apparent inability or unwillingness for Coach Howland to adjust to certain personnel circumstances. In 2009, it was the inability of the team to play Howland’s trademark man-defense. To his credit, he did eventually work in some zone defense which, while not part of his normal bag of tricks was needed to salvage any sort of result from the team down the stretch. Last season, when super-freshman center Joshua Smith was being neutralized by early and often foul calls, Howland made a pair of changes to Smith’s deployment; starting him off the bench, but logging starter’s minutes was a simple, but successful way to keep Smith in games later. The more significant adaptation was to stop Smith from performing the normal Howland big man task of going outside and hedging on D, which had led to many weak fouls called on the big guy. Adaptations like these, as well as some recent changes to his staff are a demonstration of Howland’s ability to adjust – if not quite as quickly as we might like.

Q: Sean Miller’s rebuilt Arizona in a hurry. Lorenzo Romar’s Washington team is consistently strong. Other Pac-10 programs like Oregon, Cal and Stanford are rising fast. This is good for UCLA, right? More attention for the conference means its biggest basketball stars get a chance to garner even more attention than normal, correct?

A: It does not hurt to have more of a national light shining on the Pac-10 (soon to be Pac-12). As much as the improvement in fortunes in our conference-mates helps draw focus out west, having the avenues for people throughout the nation to actually watch our games is as much of a necessity for the stars of the conference, Bruin or otherwise to get the attention they deserve. After a long period where it looked like the powers that be in the Pac-10 simply didn’t get the importance of leveraging mass media, the Pac-12 under Larry Scott’s leadership really gets it. The massive TV and media rights deal that he negotiated with Fox and ESPN is the big feather in his – and our cap, but even smaller but overlooked changes like allowing networks to reverse-mirror regionally televised games worked to get the (then) Pac-10 brand on more TV’s and in front of more eyes.

Q: How many contributors do you have at Bruins Nation? It’s an absurd amount compared to some other SB Nation blogs. I would assume it bodes well for the site’s future.

A: We have a total of 13 editors and writers on the masthead, though a couple of these folks are on long-term hiatus from writing for the site. That, of course does not reflect the countless members of the community that have joined the blog and contributed over the past 6 years, whether in discussion or writing their own posts for the site. In terms of the official contributors, it is a large number, but not out of line in terms of the other high-traffic college blogs on SB Nation. Being that we do all have regular jobs and careers to balance with writing for the site, the large number of contributors really does help with keeping new content flowing on the blog – if one of our writers goes on vacation, and a couple of others have major projects at work, the rest of us can keep things going without much issue. It really does help us in keeping the site going on into the future.

Another project that the Bruins Nation editors have come up with to help the blog keep growing into the future, which we introduced to our community last week is the Bruins Nation Scholarship. For a touch of background, the front page writers – myself included – have never drawn from the ad revenue derived from the site. We have decided to take a chunk of that money and award a pair of scholarships, one for a current UCLA undergraduate student, and a second to a recent alumni, to members of the BN community who we think can contribute to the site. Ideally, we will end up with a group of fresh writers that will lead to an ever-brighter future for Bruins Nation. At least, we can give a couple of young writers a chance to hone their skills and have their voices heard.

Q: I skipped Greek mythology and writing in college. What’s with all the monikers?

A: The Greek names are a tradition among the site editors, and are a homage to the Greeks of Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad that fought the Trojan War. You can probably figure out the significance from there…

Q: How long have you been blogging? And how much longer do you think you’ll continue?

A: I have been blogging on the main page at Bruins Nation for about a year and a half, but have been posting (full posts as well as commenting) at the site for five years now, as a way to keep my passion for UCLA going as well as to serve as a welcome distraction from law school.  Working with a large pool of talented bloggers has to help with this – in that I don’t feel the pressure to always have to write, or to have something to say – but right now, I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.

More of Tyler’s writing can be read here. He’s also on Twitter is @bruinhoo. Follow the whole blog @BruinNation.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Xavier sophomore Edmond Sumner declares for NBA Draft

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Xavier sophomore Edmond Sumner has declared for the NBA Draft and is expected to sign with an agent.

“First let me start by saying these three years at Xavier have been the best of my life,” Sumner said in a statement. “I have certainly been presented with some ups and downs but they have only served to make me a stronger person. This decision was very hard for me because of the love I have for X. After weighing my options with my family, I have decided to enter the 2017 NBA Draft, fulfilling a lifelong dream. I want to thank Coach Mack and the rest of the staff for believing in me and giving me a chance when no one did! I’ll always be grateful for that. Xavier Nation I will always love you!”

Sumner, a 6-foot-6 point guard with dynamic athleticism and first round potential that averaged 15.0 points, but he is coming off of a torn ACL that he suffered in January. He’s likely to be a second round pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

This is a big loss for the Musketeers, but it’s one that they planned for. After his eruption last season, most expected him to put his name in the draft this season.

Duke freshman Harry Giles III declares for NBA Draft

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Harry Giles III has declared for the NBA Draft after playing just one season at Duke.

“Playing in the NBA has been my goal for as long as I can remember, and I’m so excited to take the next step in that journey,” Giles said. “My time at Duke has been a dream come true. I’ve built so many strong relationships here and I have so many people to thank, from my teammates and coaches to our medical staff and strength coach. I can’t understate how proud I am to be part of the Duke Basketball program forever.”

Giles played in 26 games for the Blue Devils. He started six games and averaged 3.9 points and 3.8 rebounds, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story with Giles. At one point considered to be the best player in the loaded Class of 2016, Giles has dealt with a pair of devastating knee injuries already. He underwent a third surgery right before the start of the season and never seemed like he was fully able to get back to being the player he was when he was in high school.

This is the right decision for Giles to make, as there is still some uncertainty regarding the health of his knees. Were his struggles due to the fact that he was tossed right into the middle of a college basketball season after having sat out for 14 straight months, or was this simply a result of knees that no longer allow him to be the player that he used to be?

He might still end up being a first round pick this year. At the very least, he’s make some guaranteed money if he can get into a camp. Maybe returning to school could have helped vault him into the lottery in 2018, but another year like this year would’ve firebombed his draft stock.

“With his uplifting personality and love for the game, Harry Giles has been a joy to coach,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He is only beginning to scratch the surface of how good he can be on the basketball court. Harry has an exciting NBA future ahead of him and we are here to fully support him as a member of our brotherhood.”

I know I’m not alone when I say I hope that Giles gets healthy and succeeds in the NBA.

Frank Mason III, Lonzo Ball headline AP All-American teams

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Frank Mason III was a last-minute recruit for Kansas. He turned into the Jayhawks’ latest All-American.

The senior guard was the only unanimous selection to the 2016-17 AP All-America team Tuesday, receiving all first-team votes from the same 65-member national media panel that selects the weekly AP Top 25.

“I love the kid and I think he knows how I feel about him, but I’ve never been more proud — not that he’s won a postseason award — but he’s done everything that he’s supposed to do,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “He’s been a great teammate, he’s been tough as nails, he’s worked his butt off, he’s loved by everyone in the academic departments, graduated, and to see him reap these benefits after putting in so much time is an unbelievable honor.”

The rest of the All-America team includes guards Josh Hart of Villanova and Lonzo Ball of UCLA, plus forwards Caleb Swanigan of Purdue and Justin Jackson of North Carolina. Votes were based on the regular season and conference tournaments.

Mason averaged 20.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists while shooting 48.7 percent from 3-point range.

“My goals were always just to be successful as a team, do whatever I can do to make sure we’re successful and really change it at the defensive end and get after it,” Mason said. “Yeah, that’s pretty cool to see my name alongside those great KU players, it means a lot to me, but nothing would be possible without my teammates and coaching staff.”

Mason is the first All-American from Kansas since Thomas Robinson in 2012.

Hart, a senior who was key to Villanova’s 2016 national championship, averaged 18.9 points and 6.5 rebounds for the Wildcats. He received 62 first-team votes.

“It was definitely a goal,” Hart said of the All-America recognition. “Now that it happened, it’s humbling. A great honor. I’ve got to thank everyone that voted for me.”

Coach Jay Wright called Hart “the perfect combination of talent, hard work, intelligence and humility.”

“He never let any single year’s accomplishment deter him from getting better,” Wright said. “I think he’s one of the most complete basketball players in the country.”

The sophomore Swanigan led the nation with 26 double-doubles and was the only player in Division I to average 18 points (18.5) and 12 rebounds (12.6) while shooting 53.4 percent, 43.1 percent on 3s.

“He’s a very knowledgeable guy, now he’s been through it in terms of experience, understanding scouting reports and those types of things,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “He really gets it. I think he really separated himself from a lot of people with the consistent play.”

Ball, who has already declared for the NBA draft, took the country by storm as a freshman. He averaged 14.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.9 assists while putting UCLA back on the national map in a hurry. He received 54 first-team votes.

Coach Steve Alford called Ball “very deserving of the recognition.”

“He’s been special for us all year,” Alford said. “He’s been an incredible teammate, and everything that he’s done has been contagious throughout our team.”

The last All-American from UCLA was freshman Kevin Love in 2008.

Jackson, who received 24 first-team votes, helped lead the Tar Heels to a second straight Final Four. The junior averaged 18.1 points and 4.6 rebounds this season.

“He’s a better player overall,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “He’s better defensively, better rebounder, he can score the basket and he’s just had a year for us.

“He’s been the leader of our team on the court, on the stat sheet. I couldn’t be happier for him because he’s really got it the old-fashioned way,” Williams said. “He’s worked, he’s put in the sweat.”

Nigel Williams-Goss of Gonzaga led the second team and was joined by fellow juniors Dillon Brooks of Oregon and Johnathan Motley of Baylor, sophomore Luke Kennard of Duke and freshman Malik Monk of Kentucky.

The third team included freshmen Josh Jackson of Kansas, Markelle Fultz of Washington and Lauri Markkanen of Arizona, junior Bonzie Colson of Notre Dame and sophomore Ethan Happ of Wisconsin.

There has been at least one unanimous All-America pick the last four seasons.

First Team

· Frank Mason III, Kansas, 5-11, 190, senior: 20.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 5.1 apg, 48.7 3-pt fg pct, 36.2 minutes (65 first-place votes, 325 points).

· Josh Hart, Villanova, 6-5½, 215, senior: 18.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.1 apg, 50.8 fg pct, 40.7 3-pt fg pct, 1.6 steals (62, 319).

· Caleb Swanigan, Purdue, 6-9, 250, sophomore: 18.5 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 2.9 apg, 53.4 fg pct, 43.1 3-pt fg pct (61, 308).

· Lonzo Ball, UCLA, 6-6, 190, freshman: 14.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 7.9 apg, 54.4 fg pct, 41.0 3-pt fg pct, 2.0 steals (54, 296).

· Justin Jackson, North Carolina, 6-8, 210, junior: 18.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.7 apg (24, 223).

Second Team

· Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga, 6-3, 195, junior: 16.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.8 apg, 52.1 fg pct, 91.0 ft pct, 1.8 steals (13, 191).

· Luke Kennard, Duke, 6-6, 202, sophomore: 20.1 ppg, 5.3 pg, 2.5 apg, 44.3 3-pt fg pct, 84.9 ft pct (10, 189).

· Malik Monk, Kentucky, 6-3, 200, freshman: 20.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.4 apg, 40.3 3-pt fg pct (7, 165).

· Dillon Brooks, Oregon, 6-7, 225, junior: 16.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.7 apg, 51.3 fg pct, 41.4 3-pt fg pct, 1.2 steals, 24.0 minutes (15, 152).

· Johnathan Motley, Baylor, 6-10, 230, junior: 17.3 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 2.4 apg, 51.7 fg pct (4, 143).

Third Team

· Josh Jackson, Kansas, 6-8, 207, freshman: 16.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.1 apg, 51.1 fg pct, 1.1 blocks, 1.7 steals (1, 96).

· Markelle Fultz, Washington, 6-4, 195, freshman: 23.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.9 apg, 41.3 3-pt fg pct, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks, 35.7 minutes (3, 74).

· Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame, 6-5, 225, junior: 17.5 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 52.3 fg pct, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals (1, 70).

· Ethan Happ, Wisconsin, 6-10, 232, sophomore: 13.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 2.8 apg, 58.2 fg pct, 1.1 blocks, 1.9 steals (1, 66).

· Lauri Markkanen, Arizona, 7-0, 230, freshman: 15.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 43.2 3-pt fg pct, 82.4 ft pct (1, 50).

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)

Ian Baker, New Mexico State; Trae Bell-Haynes, Vermont; Evan Bradds, Belmont; Gian Clavell, Colorado State; T.J. Cline, Richmond; Patrick Cole, N.C. Central; Mike Daum, South Dakota State; Angel Delgado, Seton Hall; Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State; Nana Foulland, Bucknell; De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky; Jerome Frink, LIU Brooklyn; Kevin Hervey, Texas-Arlington; Isaiah Johnson, Akron; Keon Johnson, Winthrop; Peter Jok, Iowa; Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga; Marcus Keene, Central Michigan; Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s; TJ Leaf, UCLA; Paris Lee, Illinois State; Zach Lofton, Texas Southern; Donovan Mitchell, Louisville; Dallas Moore, North Florida; Monte Morris, Iowa State; Luke Nelson, UC Irvine; Semi Ojeleye, SMU; Alec Peters, Valparaiso; Justin Robinson, Monmouth; Devin Sibley, Furman; Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State; Erik Thomas, New Orleans; Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina; Melo Trimble, Maryland; Spencer Weisz, Princeton; Jacob Wiley, Eastern Washington; JaCorey Williams, Middle Tennessee; T.J. Williams, Northeastern.

N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr. will declare for the NBA Draft

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Dennis Smith Jr. announced on Tuesday that he will be declaring for the NBA Draft.

“I would like to announce my decision to declare for the 2017 NBA Draft,” said Smith on ESPN’s SportsCenter telecast Tuesday morning. “I believed I had a good chance (to turn pro) when I entered college. It was definitely an attainable dream for me and I knew I would chase it with all of my might. It meant a lot for me (to play at NC State). I’ve been a State fan my entire life, as well as my family, so it was definitely a dream come true to play in the red and white. I have the utmost respect for everybody I was there with. I’m thankful for the opportunity.”

Smith averaged 18.1 points, 6.2 assists and 4.6 boards as a freshman this season.

This decision is not a surprise, as Smith was considered a potential top five pick in the NBA Draft.

2017 Final Four: Rankings the starters left in the NCAA Tournament

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Today, we’re going to rank the top 20 players left in the NCAA tournament.

But instead of ranking them solely based on who the best players are we’re going to rank them based on the likelihood that they end up being the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. 

I’m sure this won’t cause any arguments:

1. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: For my money, Berry is the most important player on North Carolina. Justin Jackson deservedly was named ACC Player of the Year, and if anyone from UNC finds their way onto an all-american team, it’s going to be him. But UNC goes as Berry goes. When he is at his best, the Tar Heels are at their best, and the Tar Heels are going to need to be at their best if they are going to run through Oregon and whoever comes out of the left side of the bracket. I know he’s got a bum ankle right now, but I fully expect him to be ready to play come Saturday.

2. Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga: When Gonzaga played West Virginia last week, the Zags had to run their offense through Karnowski because the pressure on their back court was too much for the guards to handle. While South Carolina doesn’t play the same kind of pressing defense that West Virginia does, the goal is the same: They want to overplay everything and take you out of what you want to do offensively. What that means is that there should be some space in the lane for Karnowski to operate.

3. Justin Jackson, North Carolina: Jackson is UNC’s all-american, and he’s played like it through the first two weekends, averaging 19.8 points and 4.3 assists through four games. He was also tasked with chasing around Malik Monk during Sunday’s showdown with Kentucky, and did a good job with it. Will he draw the assignment of slowing down Tyler Dorsey?

4. Dillon Brooks, Oregon: Brooks, believe it or not, has been the third-best player on Oregon through the tournament. Jordan Bell has turned into Ben Wallace and I’m not sure that Tyler Dorsey has actually missed a shot yet, but I’m going with Brooks here because I think that if the Ducks are going to win a title, it’s going to be him that is the star. North Carolina, Gonzaga and South Carolina all use lineups that feature two bigs while Brooks plays a small-ball four role for the Ducks. If Oregon is going to win the national title, it’s going to be because Brooks forces whoever Oregon is playing to go small to matchup with him.

5. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss is the all-american for the Zags, but he played what may have been his worst game as a collegian against West Virginia in the Sweet 16. He was 2-for-10 from the floor with five turnovers and a pair of offensive fouls. South Carolina, like West Virginia, plays a defense that dares guards to make plays against them, and I just don’t think that Williams-Goss is athletic enough to make plays against them. Can he be the Final Four MOP if he doesn’t play well in Gonzaga’s first game?

6. Tyler Dorsey, Oregon: No one has shot the ball better than Dorsey during the month of March. He’s yet to score fewer than 20 points in a game since the start of the Pac-12 tournament and has a game-winner and countless daggers during that time frame. How long will this run last? He has to miss eventually, right?

7. Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Thornwell has been the best player in the tournament over the course of the last two weeks, averaging 25.7 points, which leads all scorers, and playing stout defense. South Carolina would not be anywhere near the Final Four if it wasn’t for Thornwell and they have almost no chance of winning the National Title if he doesn’t play well. That said, I have him seventh on this list for one, simple reason: South Carolina is the ‘Cinderella’ in this Final Four. They have to win it for Thornwell to be named MOP.

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

8. Johnathan Williams III, Gonzaga: Williams has probably been Gonzaga’s best player in the tournament. At the very least, he’s been their most consistent.

9. Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina: Hicks is going to have a chance to be a game-changer for North Carolina against Oregon, as he’ll likely go head to head with a smaller Oregon defender. Meeks was terrific for UNC against Kentucky, grabbing 17 rebounds. He’ll have his work cut out for him against Bell on Saturday.

10. Jordan Bell, Oregon: Bell was absolutely dominant on the defensive end of the floor against Kansas and Landen Lucas. If he can do the same thing to North Carolina’s front line, he’ll be in the mix for Final Four MOP.

11. Jordan Mathews, Gonzaga: Mathews has turned into Gonzaga’s big shot maker turning this tournament. He hit a number of big threes, including the game-winner, against West Virginia.

12. Theo Pinson, North Carolina: Pinson is UNC’s secondary playmaker and their best perimeter defender. He’s going to be called into action quite a bit with the likes of Tyler Dorsey, Dillon Brooks, Sindarius Thornwell and Nigel Williams-Goss in this Final Four.

13. Luke Maye, North Carolina: He was the South Regional MOP. He deserves mention here as much as anyone else on UNC even if he does come off the bench.

 (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

14. Josh Perkins, Gonzaga: If Williams-Goss struggles against South Carolina the way he did against West Virgina, Perkins is going to be asked to play a bigger role as a secondary ball-handler.

15. Dylan Ennis, Oregon
16. Payton Pritchard, Oregon: Both Ennis and Pritchard have had big games for Oregon this season, and if defenses can slow down Brooks and Dorsey, there are the guys that are going to be asked to carry the load for the Ducks.

17-20. P.J. Dozier, Chris Silva, Maik Kotsar and Duane Notice, South Carolina: This is not a shot at these four kids. All four were terrific in the regional. Dozier and Silva made huge plays in the second half against Florida, Kotsar made the game-clinching jumper and Notice has played sensational on-ball defense all tournament long.

But this isn’t a ranking of the best players. It’s a ranking of the most likely to win Final Four MOP. That gets given to the best player on the team that wins the national title, and I just don’t see any feasible way that South Carolina can win a national title without Thornwell doing what he’s been doing for the last two weeks.