2011-12 Missouri Valley Preview: Is this Creighton’s year?

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AWARDS

Player of the Year: Doug McDermott, So., Creighton

Picking between McDermott and Missouri State’s Kyle Weems for the Valley’s preseason player of the year award is, more or less, a coin flip, but I’m going with McDermott here. He’s coming off a freshman season where he led the Bluejays in scoring (14.9 ppg) and rebounding (7.2 rpg), earned first-team all-league honors and made the USA’s U-19 team. While his stint as an international competitor didn’t quite go as planned — the States lost to Russia in the quarterfinals — McDermott did have quite a bit of individual success, averaging 11.3 ppg and 6.8 rpg. Don’t be surprised to see McDermott’s name pop-up on a few preseason all-american teams. The Valley is going to be strong this season, but in league’s like this the Player of the Year usually ends up being the best player on one of the best teams.

And a close second goes to…: Kyle Weems, Sr., Missouri State

Like I said, the preseason Player of the Year award is a toss-up between Weems and McDermott, and the fact that I have Weems behind McDermott should not be taken as an insult. The Missouri State star is primed for a big season. He averaged 16.0 ppg and 6.9 rpg on a team with one of the shortest benches in the country a year ago. Weems is the only starter that returns, meaning that he will be asked to carry an even bigger load next season. At 6’6″, Weems is big and strong enough to score around the basket against smaller opponents, but he is at his best when he plays the four spot. He can rebound on the defensive end of the floor and is a matchup nightmare for opposing power forwards with his ability to shoot the ball and score from the perimeter. Its difficult to envision a scenario where his efficiency doesn’t decline next year — he’ll be the focal point of every defensive gameplan — but he’ll also be shouldering a heavier burden. If he can carry the Bears into contention for the Valley title, there is no reason that he can’t win Player of the Year when things are all said and done.

Breakout Star: Dyricus Simms-Edwards, Jr., Bradley

Simms-Edwards averaged modest numbers as a sophomore, putting up 10.5 ppg, 3.5 apg, and 3.3 rpg. As the lone returnee among the Braves top five scorers, however, Simms-Edwards is going to be counted on to have a big year in 2011-2012. And based on the way that he finished last season, there is no reason to believe that he can’t capitalize on the increased number of shots he will get. The 6’2″ guard averaged 16.1 ppg, 4.5 apg, and 5.5 rpg over his last five games, and that was with Andrew Warren — the MVC’s scoring champ — still on the roster. If he can improve on the 28.2% he shot from beyond the arc, Simms-Edwards could end up being one of the best guards in the conference. His late-season improvement combined with the potential return of Taylor Brown to the lineup is a reason for Bradley fans to be optimistic heading into the fall.

All-Conference First-Team:

– POY: Doug McDermott, So., Creighton
– G: Antoine Young, Sr., Creighton
– G: Colt Ryan, Jr., Evansville
– F: Toure’ Murry, Sr., Wichita State
– F: Kyle Weems, Sr., Missouri State
– C: Gregory Echinique, Sr., Creighton

All-Conference Second-Team:

– G: Jake Odum, So., Indiana State
– G: Anthony James, Jr., Northern Iowa
– F: Mamadou Seck, Sr., Southern Illinois
– F: Jackie Carmichael, Jr., Illinois State
– C: Garrett Stutz, Sr., Wichita State

Four summer storylines

– Talent transferring out?: The Missouri Valley is the epitome of a mid-major league. Its a balanced conference that features quality teams built around the program. The league champs aren’t the teams that can bring in the most one-and-done recruits, its the generally the program that developed their players the best over a three or four year period. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t high-major players in the league, which is something that a lot of bigger schools are figuring out. The by-product of that — and the roster attrition of bigger programs — is bigger schools go fishing for players looking to get a second shot at the bright lights.

Three Valley players were involved in the transfer tango this off-season. The biggest name was probably Kyle Weems. The reigning Valley Player of the Year, Weems was not only the lone returning starter on a team that also lost their head coach, he had already finished his undergraduate work at Missouri State, meaning that he was free to transfer without having to sit out a season. Luckily for the Bears, Weems made the decision to remain with the program. The same cannot be said for Bradley’s Sam Maniscalco, who decided to leave the Braves program this offseason. He’ll suit up for Bruce Weber at Illinois next year. Perhaps the most interesting transfer decision was made by Drake’s Rayvonte Rice. After a dominant freshman campaign, the 6’4″ wing had a number of high-major suitors. But Rice stayed loyal to the Bulldogs and will remain with the program for at least another season.

– Coaching changes, buyouts and lawsuits: There were a couple of coaching changes in the Valley this offseason. The most notable was Paul Lusk taking over the Valley champs after Cuonzo Martin left Missouri State to replace Bruce Pearl at Tennessee, but the most interesting involved Bradley. The Braves fired Jim Les, replacing him with Geno Ford and, in the process, found themselves in the middle of two different lawsuits. The first was filed by Kent State, whonamed Bradley in their suit against Ford. Kent State is trying to get Ford to pay the $1.2 million buyout that he owes — $300,000 for each of the four years left on his contract. Les, on the other hand, is suing Bradley, who he says owes him money after firing him with three-years left on his seven-year contract.

– Creighton overseas: The Bluejays made a splash in international hoops this summer. First, it was Doug McDermott, who was a standout on the USA’s U-19 team. While the team underperformed, finshing in fifth-place following a quarterfinal loss to Russia, McDermott was terrific. He averaged 11.3 ppg and 6.8 rpg on the trip. Then there is Gregory Echenique, who played with Venezuela as his home country tried to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games. Finally, Creighton took a trip to the Bahamas, winning all four of their exhibitions handily.

– Northern Iowa’s program getting cut?: The Iowa state budget cuts have hit all of the universities hard, but due to UNI’s reliance on state funding — thanks to a high percentage of in-state students — the Panthers have been hit the hardest. They already had their baseball program get the axe and are now in danger of losing their athletics programs, as well as a number of academic programs. Here’s to hoping that the school can figure out a solution that doesn’t involve eliminating the possibility of reliving the Ali Farokhmanesh-sparked Sweet 16 run.

Four storylines heading into the season

– Will Taylor Brown play?: As a sophomore in 2009-2010, Brown was one of the best players on the Braves roster, averaging 13.5 ppg and 6.9 rpg as a 6’6″ forward. But he was forced to sit out last season after to undergo cardiac testing. Whether or not he will play this season is still up in the air — remember, when dealing with cardiac issues, the answers are never definite. As of September 21st, Brown was cleared for all basketball related activities.

“We welcome Taylor back to the court” said first-year Bradley head coach Geno Ford. “He has been through a difficult experience and we are happy that he is able to rejoin his teammates on the floor and compete for Bradley.”

The next question is just how good he can be. His cardiac testing had to occur after a three month rest period, which means that not only was he sitting out games, but he was sitting out practice as well. How long will it take him to work his way back into game shape? If he returns to his sophomore year form, Brown will form a nice 1-2 punch with junior guard Dyricus Simms-Edwards.

– The Interlude dance: Please, let this tradition continue:

– Rebuilding programs: Southern Illinois was a Valley powerhouse in the mid-00’s. They made the NCAA Tournament every year from 2002-2007, winning five MVC regular season titles and one MVC Tournament title during that stretch. Since then, SIU has gone 57-66 overall and 30-42 in the Valley. Northern Iowa is on the verge of a similar collapse. After reaching the 2010 Sweet 16, the Panthers struggled after Lucas O’Rear’s career ended when he broke his ankle, finished in the middle the MVC and then lost one of the best point guards in the history of their program in Kwadzo Ahelegbe. It will be a task for Ben Jacobson to replace the leadership those two provided. Illinois State suffered a similar drop-off in 2010-2011. After finishing in the top three and making the NIT in each of Tim Jankovich’s first three seasons, the Redbirds struggled with injuries and offensive execution as they finished last in the conference. Can any of these programs turn it around in 2011-2012?

– How good is Creighton?: With all due respect to Wichita State, Missouri State and Indiana State, I’m of the opinion this conference is Creighton’s to lose. They have the best player, the best point guard and the quite possibly the best big man as well. They also have a deep bench with a number of quality role players and shooters. The question, in my mind, is just how good this team can be. Are they top 25 good? Quite possibly, particularly if Doug McDermott has the kind of season that some are predicting. Are they good enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament? Well, they don’t have much margin for error. Their non-conference schedule isn’t overly impressive — a home game against Northwestern and roadies at UAB and SDSU are the highlights — which means that they probably will want to win the Valley to feel safe on Selection Sunday. Can they make it past the first weekend? Should they get to the tournament, I don’t think Creighton is a team that I would want to play. They have not only had a year together to gel under Greg McDermott, but they experienced some postseason success last season, making the finals of the CBI.

Power Rankings

1. Creighton: The Bluejays kicked off a new era in 2010-2011, one that will likely be dominated by McDermott’s. Greg, the father, left Iowa State to return to the MVC where he cut his teeth with Northern Iowa and made three straight NCAA Tournaments in the middle of the decade. He brought along with him Doug, his son, who was originally signed to play at … Northern Iowa. The younger McDermott turned out to be a star, averaging 14.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg and shooting 40.5% from beyond the arc while making both the MVC’s first team and the USA U-19 team.

The Bluejays had a decent 2010-2011 campaign as they tried to blend together a number of new pieces. McDermott wasn’t the lone newcomer in the front, as Creighton also added Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique. The 6’9″, 275 lb Venezuelan came on strong during Creighton’s run to the title series of the CBI. With McDermott a potential all-american, the Bluejays will have the best frontline in the conference especially if Ethan Wragge, who started by the end of his freshman season, can comeback from the foot injury that sidelined him for all but nine games as a sophomore. The back court should be a strength as well. Antoine Young will be one of the best point guards in the conference — on both sides of the ball, as he did as good of a job de-Jimmering BYU as anyone in the country last season. Junior Josh Jones and sophomore Jahenns Manigat both showed flashes of being quality scorers in the MVC as well. Throw in redshirt freshman center Will Artino, Gonzaga transfer Grant Gibbs in the back court and a quartet of incoming freshmen, and McDermott has as deep of a roster as anyone in the conference. He’ll be looking to increase Creighton’s aggressiveness on both ends of the floor, so don’t be surprised to see the Bluejays return to the top of the Valley this season.

2. Wichita State: Its tough to know whether to call Wichita State’s 2010-2011 season a success. Winning the NIT after finishing a game out of first place in the Valley is far from what you would consider a disappointment. That said, the Shockers have to be kicking themselves over how close they came to doing so much more. After blowing their Maui opener against UConn, the Shockers proceeded to lose four games at home in February and March. One of those games was a one point loss to VCU. Another came against Southern Illinois. And despite all of that, Wichita State was still in the conversation for an at-large berth come tournament time. What could have been …

Wichita State should be able to compete for an MVC title next season based on their back court alone. Its headlined by a trio of talented and unselfish seniors that buy into what Gregg Marshall is selling. Joe Ragland is the point guard, David Kyles is the shooter, and Toure’ Murry is the play-maker and the slasher. All three are capable of producing big games, but they also all understand their role within the team. Junior Demetric Williams showed flashes of promise last season, but he will be battling for bench minutes with freshmen Evan Wessel and Tekele Cotton. Where the Shockers have question marks is along their front line. Garrett Stutz, their seven-foot senior center, returns. He is going to need to increase his productivity to make up for JT Durley’s scoring and Gabe Blair’s rebounding and physicality inside. The undersized Ben Smith will be back, although he tends to spend more on his time on the perimeter. Beyond that, Marshall is going to have a lot of fresh faces manning the paint, but the most interesting may actually be a freshman. Jake White is a face-up four that had some legitimate high-major interest.

3. Indiana State: After nearly a decade of mediocrity, the Sycamores became the surprise champs of the Missouri Valley last season. Despite a couple of significant hiccups during the season — a brutal non-conference stretch and a five-game losing streak during conference play — Larry Bird’s alma mater ran through Arch Madness as the three-seed before losing to Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. With quite a bit of talent returning, Indiana State will have a real shot at making a second consecutive tournament appearance.

The Sycamores will be an interesting team to keep an eye on next season. While they do lose two key back court pieces – starter Aaron Carter and senior leader Jake Kelly — they bring back everyone else, including a fairly deep back court. Dwayne Lathan is the name that most will recognize. An extremely athletic, 6’3″ guard, Lathan — who averaged 12.9 ppg as a sophomore and 10.6 ppg as a junior — struggled a bit after returning from an injury that sidelined him for a week in the middle of the season. Part of the reason for those struggles, however, was the emergence of Jake Odum. A redshirt freshman that grew up in ISU’s backyard, Odum became a leader for the Sycamores, carrying them to a five game winning streak to close out MVC play before their tournament run. Once Odum and Lathan get on the same page, Indiana State will have a dangerous back court. Expect Jordan Printy and Steve McWhorter to provide minutes off the bench. The key for the Sycamores will be up front, where they are a bit undersized. Carl Richard is a tough combo-forward, but he’s only 6’5″ and can get overmatched in the paint. Center Myles Walker, a senior JuCo transfer, improved throughout the season and should be a key contributor this year. RJ Mahurin and Jake Kitchell both have had an offseason to get stronger, but the x-factor could end up being freshman Justin Gant. Gant, another Terre Haute native, is a face-up four that had some strong Big Ten interest.

4. Evansville: After a disastrous 2009-2010 campaign that saw the Purple Aces win just nine games and go 3-15 in the Valley, Evansville put together a solid season a year ago. Led by star guard Colt Ryan, the Aces finished 15-14 overall, 9-9 in the league and had wins at Butler and again UT-San Antonio, the SWAC champion. The biggest issue for Marty Simmons’ club? The road. The Purple Aces went just 3-12 away from home last season, including a couple of embarrassing losses late in the season.

This season, however, Evansville will be interesting to keep an eye on. They return three starters and their top four scorers, including Ryan, who averaged 15.7 ppg as a sophomore and scored more than 20 points nine times, including two 30 point outbursts. After spending the past two seasons as a young team, that youth has finally matured — Evansville has three seniors and five juniors on the roster. Simmons will have plenty of pieces in his perimeter rotation. Seniors Kenneth Harris and Denver Holmes, juniors Ned Cox and Lewis Jones, and sophomore Jordan Jahr will all see time this season. Keep an eye on Troy Taylor as well, as he averaged 2.3 apg in just 14.4 mpg as a sophomore. The issue Evansville is going to have is in the front court. The only returnee taller than 6’6″ is 6’8″ senior Matt Peeler, who played a whopping 70 minutes last year. Simmons does bring in three front court players as freshmen, but regardless of level, relying on freshmen in your frontcourt is not necessarily a recipe for success. Harris, and to a lesser extent Holmes, both play bigger than their size, but at under 6’6″, it will be tough for them to deal with front courts like Creighton’s.

5. Missouri State: Depending on how you look at it, Missouri State’s 2010-2011 campaign was both an overwhelming success and a tremendous disappointment. On the one hand, Cuonzo Martin completed the rebuilding process, taking what was a 3-15 in his first season and turning them into league champions in just three years while returning league Player of the Year Kyle Weems for the 2011-2012 season. The bad news? Not only did Martin depart for the greener pastures of Tennessee, but the four other players that started around Weems all graduated. Weems will have a big season, but new head coach Paul Lusk is going to have to build a completely new team around him — the Bears had one of the shortest benches in the country last season.

As we said, this team will be built around Kyle Weems. Weems in the quintessential Valley combo-forward — big enough to score over a smaller defender, perimeter savvy to bury a three or dribble by a slower power forward. He’ll have a big year as a senior, even when defenses key in on him. The question is going to be Weems’ supporting cast. Lusk will more or less have four players at his disposal that can be considers “returners”, or players that were in Martin’s rotation. The guy to keep an eye on is Caleb Patterson. A seven-footer that is pretty skilled offensively, Patterson is going to need to get tougher and more physical in the paint — he averaged just 2.2 rpg as a junior and it cost him some playing time. Isaiah Rhines should also contribute up front, but keep an eye on freshmen Christian Kirk and Andrew Wilson. Kirk should be able to contribute significant minutes immediately. The back court is more of a question mark. Sophomore Nathan Scheer should start. He’s a heady player that defends, doesn’t commit turnovers, and showed an improved scoring touch late in the season. Keith Pickens, who started 17 games as a freshman in 2009-2010, will be back as well, but he’s battled knee injuries throughout his career, missing the entire 2010-2011 season. Beyond that, there are minutes to be earned here. Corey Copeland played about five minutes a game as a freshman, but he could be pushed by freshman Dorrian Williams and JuCo transfers Anthony Downing and Jarmar Gulley. Depending on how the new members of the rotation develop, the Bears should finish in the top half of the conference.

6. Northern Iowa: After the initial growing pains of integrating players into new roles, Northern Iowa appeared to have found their stride midway through conference play. Sitting at 9-3 after reeling off eight straight wins, the Panthers season essentially ended when Lucas O’Rear broke his ankle in early February. A team known for their defensive toughness lost their leader. Throw in the graduation of Kwadzo Ahelegbe, a four-year starter and defensive hawk at the point, and Ben Jacobson is looking at a bit of a rebuilding year in 2011-2012.

There are some pieces left on the roster, however. Forward Jake Koch, the younger brother of former MVC Player of the Year Adam Koch, had a couple of big games for the Panthers, including a 34 point outburst against Bradley, but he was too inconsistent as a sophomore and had a habit of disappearing in big games. If the Panthers are going to compete atop the league, Koch is going to have to become a more reliable scoring presence. The rest of the front court rotation is still to be determined. Austin Pehl is their biggest body at 6’10”, 245 lb, but the redshirt junior has yet to show the physicality inside that O’Rear and Jordan Egleseder had the last few years. Sophomore Chip Rank, redshirt freshman Nate Buss and true freshman Seth Tuttle will have a chance to earn their way into the rotation as well. In the back court, the key is going to be replacing Ahelegbe, which won’t be easy. Junior Anthony James was the breakout star of this Panther team last season. He averaged 12.4 ppg as a sophomore, but at 6’0″, he created just 25 assists all year. Senior Johnny Moran has been a consistent role player throughout his career, and I’m sure Jacobson would like to see him become more assertive this season. The same can be said for junior Marc Sonnen. Don’t be surprised if freshmen point guards Deon Mitchell and JeVon Lyle compete for minutes at the lead guard spot as well. The Panthers will compete, but expect the team — usually known as a defensive juggernaut — to struggle until they find players willing to fill the roles Ahelegbe and O’Rear played defensively.

7. Drake: The Bulldogs struggled to rebuild last season, winning just 13 regular season games and finishing 7-11 in league play. After an ugly start, that included 40-plus point losses to Iowa State and St. John’s in November and a 3-8 start to MVC play, the Bulldogs erased all the momentum gained from a 5-2 stretch in February by getting drubbed by Bradley in both of their last two games. It was a young roster for head coach Mark Phelps, led by star freshman Rayvonte Rice. Rice navigated through the recruiting pitches he received throughout the offseason to return to Drake for his sophomore season, but an arrest for shoplifting in early September with teammate Kurt Alexander put a damper that enthusiasm. Both are currently suspended indefinitely.

The good news is that the Bulldogs return essentially their entire team. Seven of their top eight scorers return, and that doesn’t include senior Frank Wiseler (Ed. Note: Wiseler has recently decided to leave the team and end his basketball career) and redshirt freshman Karl Madison, Drake’s two best point guards that both suffered season-ending injuries. Having a true point guard to run the team should be an immediate boost to an offensive that finished eighth in the conference in terms of efficiency. Kurt Alexander, an off-guard that helped handle point guard duties last year, will be back as well. Its easy to say that the development of Rice, who averaged 13.8 ppg and 4.8 rpg as a freshman, is the key for the Bulldogs this season. As a powerful shooting guard (or undersized small forward), he has the kind of the ability that you can build a Valley program around so long as he develops better shot selection. But where Drake will have their season made is in the front court. Can juniors Seth VanDeest (if he’s not out for the season with a torn labrum), Aaron Hawley and Jordan Clarke and senior Kraidon Woods battle with some of the better front lines in the league? Will junior Ben Simons continue to develop as a dangerous inside-outside threat?

8. Bradley: Bradley heads into this season with a much different look and set of expectations than last season. Last year, they were expected to compete for a spot near the top of the league. But that was before Sam Maniscalco ended his season after six games, applying for a medical red-shirt and eventually transferring to Illinois for his senior season. That was also before Taylor Brown was diagnosed with a heart condition. He sat out last year and may not be ready to play this year. And while Andrew Warren had a career year as a senior — averaging 18.8 ppg to lead the league — it wasn’t enough to get Bradley out of last place. Ultimately, head coach Jim Les was fired (and sued the school), leading to Bradley bringing in Geno Ford from Kent State.

Ford will have his work cut out for him early on in his tenure. In addition to losing Maniscalco and Warren, Dodie Dunson graduated and Will Egolf, a fifth-year senior center, tore his acl in early June — the second time he suffered that injury in his right knee. There are some pieces for the Braves. Junior guard Dyricus Simms-Edwards really came on at the end of the season, averaging 16.1 ppg over the last ten games. Sophomores Walt Lemon, a 6’3″ guard, and Jordan Prosser, a 6’9″ forward, both showed flashes of impressive potential. Throw in the addition of some talented freshmen — forwards Shayok Shayok and Devon Hodges, guards Jalen Crawford and Donivine Stewart, and slender seven-footer Nate Wells (who has already put on 20 pounds of muscle) — and Ford does have some talent to work with. But the key is Brown, who averaged 13.5 ppg and 6.9 rpg in 2009-2010. If he is cleared, Bradley has a shot to finish in the top half of the league. If not, Braves fans will have to wait a season. Whatever the case, the future is bright.

9. Illinois State: Tim Jankovich had his worst season as the head man of Illinois State in 2010-2011. After finishing in the top three of the MVC and earning a trip to the NIT in each of his first three seasons, Jankovich lost his top three scorers heading into last season. Simply put, the Redbirds could not score. Only one player on the roster — Austin Hill — averaged double figures (10.6 ppg), and he graduated. ISU also had major issues at the point guard position. Kenyon Smith was in and out of the lineup with injuries and Anthony Cousin had 67 assists to 56 turnovers. Not exactly what you look for out of your primary ball-handler.

The good news for Jankovich is that he still has Jackie Carmichael and John Wilkins. Carmichael, a 6’9″ rising junior, is a talented-if-inconsistent post threat. While he averaged 9.8 ppg and 5.4 rpg as a sophomore, he had a couple of big games — 22 points vs. South Dakota, 22 points and eight boards at Missouri State, and 43 points and 30 rebounds in his last two games against Bradley. Wilkins, who is also 6’9″, is more of a perimeter player that, along with Carmichael, could form a nice inside-outside attack along the front line. With redshirt sophomore Jon Ekey and redshirt freshman Threloff also in the mix, Illinois State has some potential up front. The issue will be the back court. Who is going to create? Will Hill be more effective off the ball? Just how good are freshmen Nic Moore (PG) and Johnny Hill (SG)? Those are a lot of questions to be answered in one back court.

10. Southern Illinois: Chris Lowery is probably regretting his decision not to cash in on the Saluki’s success early in his tenure. Since taking SIU to three straight NCAA Tournaments and the 2007 Sweet 16 — which earned him a multi-million dollar, seven-year contract — Lowery has lost 15 or more games four straight years, suffering through losing seasons the last three. The problem? Lowery’s teams have gotten away from the grind-it-out defensive mindset that netted them tournament trips and he’s brought in too many players that have opted to leave the program. The latest example was Gene Teague, Lowery’s starting center who didn’t finished the season with the team and is now at Seton Hall.

Things don’t look to be getting much better next season for Lowery. In addition to losing Teague, Carlton Fay — the MVC’s third-leading scorer — graduated while Mykel Cleveland and Troy Long were both run off the team following a mid-season suspension. Diamond Taylor was also suspended indefinitely at the start of the month. That said, Lowery does have a couple of solid pieces to build around. Mamadou Seck is a live-bodied, 6’7″ forward that averaged 10.1 ppg and 8.1 rpg as a junior. Another senior, Justin Bocot, battled injuries all year but really came on strong late in the season. Throw in Kendal Brown-Surles, a junior guard that proved to be a threat from the perimeter as a sophomore, and Lowery certainly does not have a bare cupboard. Sophomore big man Davante Drinkard will also be counted on to produce inside this season. He was overmatched as a rookie. The rest of the roster will be made up of freshmen and JuCo transfers. Expect another finish in the bottom half of the league.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Elite 8 Preview: Sunday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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No. 4 FLORIDA (-3) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 2:20 p.m., CBS: If you’re a fan of uptempo, wide-open basketball, of teams running beautiful offensive sets, spreading the floor and using the three-point line like it should be used, this game probably is not going to be for you.

This is going to be as physical and as tough as any game you watched all season long. Both the Gamecocks and the Gators are top five teams in defensive efficiency, and both of them get out and pressure defensively, Florida in the full court and South Carolina in the half court. They shun shooters for the toughest athletes on their roster. They pride themselves in being tougher, both mentally and physically, than whoever they end up playing.

And they think that a game played in the 50s is beautiful basketball.

So bet the under if you can.

But the pick I like is Florida here. Their ability to defend is going to make it very difficult for South Carolina’s offensive renaissance to continue, and their guards will be able to make the plays offensively that South Carolina dares you to make.

PREDICTION: Florida (-3)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-2.5) vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 5:05 p.m. CBS: This is the rematch we all wanted, right?

Ever since that day three months ago, when Kentucky got 47 points from Malik Monk in a 103-102 win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, I don’t think there is a soul in the country that would have told you otherwise.

There are two major differences between these two teams now and those two teams then. The biggest is the presence of Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender. Pinson has dealt foot injuries all season long, and when these two got together in December, he was not yet healthy enough to play. I assume that he will draw the assignment of Malik Monk, chasing around the man that had definitively been Kentucky’s most dangerous scorer. Pinson will make life more difficult for Monk than it was the first time around.

But is he going to spend the entire game on him?

Because after De’Aaron Fox’s 39-point outburst against UCLA on Friday night, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Pinson may be better suited to taking on the task of keeping Fox from getting into the paint. Whatever Roy Williams opts to do, the bottom line is pretty simple — if he needs to find a way to keep Kentucky’s back court in check.

The other difference between now and then is that Bam Adebayo has been playing up to his potential for the past six weeks. He was solid earlier in the year. He can be dominant at times now, and that is going to be critical for the Wildcats, who are going to be outsized by a significant margin by UNC’s front line. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and they are one of the only elite teams that thrives playing two bigs at the same time. In other words, one of Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis are going to have to deal with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley. That’s a matchup that favors UNC, which is why Aebayo is going to have to play up to his size.

In the end, I think Pinson’s presence and North Carolina’s size advantage will be too much.

But if Fox and Monk play their game, they can carry Kentucky a long, long way.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (2.5)

Lawrence Police Department trolls Bill Self following Elite Eight loss

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Kansas had its season ended with a 74-60 loss to No. 3 seed Oregon.

The Jayhawks were the top seed in the South region. They were playing a de facto at the Sprint Center, which is 40 miles away from the school’s campus. As you can imagine, fans in Lawrence were likely unhappy, especially since it’s the second year in a row KU has been bounced one-game shy of the Final Four.

The Lawrence Police Department, while prepping for potential riots, couldn’t help tweeting a joke at the future Hall of Famer’s expense.

Bill Self’s teams have been eliminated seven times in the Elite Eight during his tenure at Kansas. He’s led the Jayhawks to a pair of Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2008.

Kansas finished the season 31-5.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

The slogan of the NCAA Tournament is “The Road to the Final Four”.

Outside of Duke, the runaway preseason favorite, and it’s months-long narrative of “Is Duke back?”, you could make the case there wasn’t a Final Four contender with a journey filled with more ups and downs than Oregon.

Weeks following a season-ending loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, Oregon learned that both Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey would return to school for the next season. In July, Dylan Ennis was granted a sixth-year of eligibility. With Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell returning, and Payton Pritchard joining the program, the Ducks were an easy choice for a preseason Final Four pick.

Brooks’ offseason foot surgery — and the recovery that followed — raised concern about whether or not Oregon could fully reach its preseason potential, entering conference play without a notable win. Brooks’ Pac-12 Player of the Year season put to rest the status of his foot, leading the Ducks to a 16-2 Pac-12 record.

Hours before Oregon was set to battle with Arizona, it was announced that Chris Boucher had torn his ACL and would be out for the remainder of the season. Not only could this have played a role in the team’s seeding by the selection committee, but Boucher offered more than rim protection, as he helped space the floor given his ability to step out and shoot from the perimeter.

After fending off a good fight from Iona, the Ducks looked to be part of a Rhode Island’s magical postseason run. Tyler Dorsey ended that. In the Sweet 16, Oregon was matchup with Michigan, dubbed as the team of destiny. Bell and Dorsey, Oregon’s two tournament stars, stepped up in critical moments once again. Slated as an underdog for the second straight game, Oregon proved its Final Four worth by handing Kansas its worst tournament defeat of the Bill Self era in a regional final game that was played 40 miles away from the KU campus.

“I’m happy for our team,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said following the game. “I’m happy for, as I mentioned, our university and our state. It’s been a long time coming and now we just need to go continue to play well.”

For Oregon, its road to the Final Four has come full circle.