Re-ranking the Sweet 16: Now who are the favorites?

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There are 16 teams left in the NCAA tournament. Every single one of them has had a winning streak of four games this season. To cut down the nets on April 2, all they need to do is put together one last four game winning streak. Who is the most likely to do so?

Sweet 16 Power Rankings

1. Kentucky: The Wildcats are the unquestionable favorite to win the national title. They are the most talented team in the country. There are lottery picks up and down their lineup. And when they are playing with as much intensity and shooting as well as they did on Saturday against Iowa State, they are going to be unbeatable.

The Problem: The Wildcats aren’t always playing that way. Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist have been as inconsistent as you would expect freshmen to be. Terrence Jones is always on the brink of a meltdown. Kentucky should win the national title. They probably should have won in 2010 as well.

2. Michigan State: I’ll avoid the typical “they are coached by Tom Izzo” statements here. The Spartans are the most complete team in the country. They defend, they rebound, they have post scoring, they have perimeter scoring and they have Draymond Green. They do everything well.

The Problem: The Spartans are without Branden Dawson, who tore his ACL on the last day of the regular season. Yes, Michigan State is 5-0 without him, but his void is unmistakable. His ability to defend and rebound at the small forward spot is what made Michigan State so difficult to matchup with.

3. Kansas: Tyshawn Taylor has been as good as any point guard in the country in 2012. Thomas Robinson has been as good as any player in the country all season long. With Jeff Withey defending the rim and Elijah Johnson and Kevin Young turning into meaningful role players, the Jayhawks are as balanced and talented as they have been all season.

The Problem: Inconsistency. The Jayhawks got bailed out by Elijah Johnson’s defining moment as a member of the Kansas program on Sunday night. Taylor is always a threat to turn into a turnover machine. Robinson plays as hard as anyone in the country, but he isn’t as skilled as other big men. Off nights do happen when defenses key on him.

4. Ohio State: Aaron Craft is the most disruptive defensive force this side of Anthony Davis, and his offense is really starting to come around. Deshaun Thomas has been terrific offensively of late, and Jared Sullinger is still Jared Sullinger. Injuries haven’t hit this team yet, which means they are still the same group they were in November.

The Problem: William Buford has not yet broken out of his funk offensively, and while Sullinger is still the best low-post scorer in the country, he’s not been himself recently. It’s a problem for OSU if Craft and Thomas are their two most reliable offensive options.

5. Syracuse: With injuries to other title contenders, the right side of the bracket has suddenly become wide open. Syracuse still is very talented offensively, as guys like Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph are all capable of playing a starring role. James Southerland has become a reliable jumpshooter in the clutch.

The Problem: Rakeem Christmas looked decent against Kansas State, but he can’t replace Fab Melo defensively and he certainly doesn’t solve their rebounding issues. Southerland is not a good defender. If UNC-Asheville can pick apart the 2-3 zone, than somewhere along the line a better team is going to.

6. North Carolina: With or without Kendall Marshall, UNC is still a very talented basketball team. Their front line is as good as anyone in the country. Harrison Barnes is an dangerous scorer on the wing. Reggie Bullock and PJ Hairston have been solid on the wings this year.

The Problem: Stilman White was capable in his minutes backing up Marshall, but now he’s being thrust into a starring role. Will he be able to distribute the ball to UNC’s scorers?

7. Marquette: The Golden Eagles are lethal in transition, and they are as good as anyone in the country at using pressure to increase the tempo of the game to their liking. With Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom on the roster, they have two seniors that are not going to let accept losing. Davante Gardner provides an another look now that he’s healthy.

The Problem: Using Gardner makes Marquette slower and less capable of using the athletes they have on their perimeter, but they’ll need him against teams with bigger bodies inside. The Golden Eagles also have issues with slow starts.

8. Baylor: Baylor is as talented as any team in the country. They have length and athleticism at every position except the two-guard spot, which is occupied by sniper Brady Heslip, who hit nine threes against Colorado in the round of 32. Pierre Jackson is a bulldog at the point.

The Problem: Consistent effort. Consistent defense. It’s that simple. Perry Jones III still seems reluctant to be the kind of player he is capable of being.

9. Louisville: I love their defense and what Peyton Siva has turned into over the last month, but can it last? Will they have enough shooting? Most importantly, will they stay healthy?

10. Indiana: Since switching Victor Oladipo to a more predominant role as a ball handler, the Hoosiers have gotten better defensively and more athletic, but this is still a group that can struggle to get stops. They can score, however, with players like Cody Zeller and Christian Watford.

11. Cincinnati: The Bearcats are aggressive defensively and surround big man Yancy Gates with a myriad of shooters. But on nights the shots are off, the Bearcats can be in trouble.

12. Wisconsin: I love Jordan Taylor, but this is not junior year Jordan Taylor. And it’s not junior year Jordan Taylor’s supporting cast.

13. Florida: Florida has enough talent and scoring ability to beat anyone in the country on the right night. Do you have faith that they’ll be able to put it all together for four straight games? I don’t.

14. Xavier: Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons can be as good as any back court in the country, particularly Holloway, who is a killer in big situations. Kenny Frease can be a beast on the block. But all three can also be horrible on any given night.

15. NC State: The Wolfpack have won over a lot of people in the last two games with their stellar front court play. But they will have to go through Kansas and UNC before getting to the Final Four. That’s tough.

16. Ohio: I love DJ Cooper. He’s sensational. Ohio’s a great story. But their road ends sooner rather than later.

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

D-League salaries, two-way contracts increase NBA Draft early entries

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Yesterday, I wrote a piece about how it’s dumb to criticize players for entering the NBA Draft without costing themselves their collegiate eligibility when the NCAA’s new NBA Draft rules are specifically designed for said players to be able to do that.

In that column, I mentioned that D-League salaries are on the rise and that the NBA’s new CBA instituted something called “two-way contracts,” and I wanted a chance to elaborate and clarify a couple of the points that I made.

Let’s start with the “two-way contracts,” which NBA teams each get two of. They are essentially a retainer that those teams can place on younger players they want to be the 16th and 17th men on their roster, holding their rights as they bounce between the D-League — where they will likely spend the majority of the year — and the NBA. The catch is that those players have to have less than three years service as a professional, and the point of it is to provide a financial incentive for younger players with the potential to reach the NBA to remain stateside while allowing those NBA teams to develop them.

That financial incentive is fairly large, as well: Two-way players will make between $250,000-$275,000.

That means there are an extra 60 jobs this season that will pay players with less than three years of professional basketball experience a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

That’s not a bad starting salary.

The other point that I wanted to address is the rising D-League salaries which, technically, will not be rising. There are still going to be Tier A and Tier B players, who make $26,000 and $20,000 respectively. But the NBA has something called affiliate players, which each of the now-25 NBA teams with a D-League affiliate can pay up to $50,000 for training camp. NBA teams are allowed a maximum of four affiliate players, who will still make their $26,000 salary from their D-League team.

In other words, that’s 100 more jobs available in the United States where a professional basketball player can make $76,000, and that’s before you consider that the five NBA teams that do not yet have a D-League affiliate will still have to play players to get them into training camp.

That $76,000 is not a life-changing amount of money. Neither is the $250,000 that a two-way contract will pay. But it’s a pretty damn good paycheck to make for an entry-level job into the industry that you always dreamed of being in.

Athletes have an unbelievably small window where they can capitalize monetarily on their gifts.

If a 21-year old sophomore decides that he wants to continue to develop his game and chasing his NBA dream by making $76,000 as a D-League player, is that really all that crazy?

After all, 135 of the 450 players, or 30 percent of the roster spots, on NBA’s opening night were taken by guys that had spent time in the D-League.

There’s more than one way to make a dream come true.

A record $439 million was bet on basketball in March in Las Vegas

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The month of March was quite friendly to Las Vegas.

According to ESPN, more money was bet on basketball during the month of March than in any month in the state’s regulated sports betting history.

And while the numbers produced by Las Vegas books don’t separate college and professional basketball betting, the money coming in on college hoops is pretty clear: $439 million was bet on basketball in March, more than double the $213 million bet on the sport in February.

It was profitable, too.

Those Vegas books kept more than $40 million dollars of the money that was gambled on basketball, which shattered the previous record of roughly $28 million in winnings.

Gonzaga lands their first post-Final Four commitment

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Gonzaga capitalized on their run to the national title game by landing a commitment from French point guard Joel Ayayi, who announced the news on twitter.

Ayayi is an interesting long-term prospect, according to Draft Express. He has the size and the frame to eventually be a significant contributor in the college game, but he’s raw. His handle needs work, as does his ability to create off the dribble and find teammates off of the bounce.

That said, he’s 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan and the ability to shoot it from the perimeter, and if Gonzaga can do anything, it’s develop players that enter their program.

VIDEO: Zion Williamson, top three prospect in 2018, breaks defender’s ankles

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Zion Williamson, one of the most sought-after recruits in college basketball, had himself a highlight-worthy moment at the Adidas Gauntlet event in Dallas over the weekend, breaking a defender’s ankles before hitting a three.

Illinois lands important commitment from four-star Class of 2017 guard Mark Smith

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Illinois landed a very important Class of 2017 commitment on Wednesday as guard Mark Smith pledged to the Illini.

The 6-foot-4 Smith was previously a Missouri commit for baseball, but some issues with his arm caused him to look back into basketball last summer. A native of Edwardsville, in the St. Louis metro area, Smith came out of nowhere to win the Illinois Mr. Basketball award as a senior this season as he averaged 21.9 points, 8.4 assists and 8.2 rebounds while becoming a consensus national top-100 prospect.

Rivals rates Smith as the No. 52 overall prospect in the Class of 2017 as he could come in and earn immediate minutes at Illinois next season at either guard spot.

This is a very important commitment for head coach Brad Underwood and the Illini as the new head coach was able to hold off some elite programs like Kentucky and Michigan State for Smith’s services.