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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.

Monte’ Morris, Jalen Brunson among the top performers at Nike Skills Academy

LOS ANGELES, CA. JULY 25, 2016. The Academy. Jalen Brunson #6 of Villanova dribbles. (Mandatory photo credit: Jon Lopez/Nike).
Jon Lopez/Nike
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LOS ANGELES — I spent the last three days in California watching some of the best college players in the country work out and scrimmage at the Nike Skills Academy. Here are five players that stood out:

Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: The way that the games at the Nike Skills Academy were set up was pretty standard pickup basketball rules. Games were seven minutes long, winners stay on. On Monday night and Wednesday night during the scrimmages, the team that Morris was on went on a long winning streak, and on both nights, he was the best player on the floor for that team. College basketball fans know what Morris can do by now, as do NBA scouts. But he nonetheless impressed this week, and it wasn’t just his change-of-speed or playmaking ability. On the final night of the camp, everyone in the gym was gassed. Six of the 20 or so college kids at the camp were sitting out with “injuries” sustained during grueling three-a-day workouts. Morris? He played through the cramps and the dead legs. During the final session, when he was asked by camp director Miles Simon if he was tired, Morris simply answered “I’m not telling you that” and went out and won upwards of 10 games in a row.

Chris Boucher, Oregon: Boucher played with a ton of confidence all week long, doing all of the things that we’ve come to expect out of Canada’s surprising star forward. His length is ridiculous and he spent much of the week swatting shots at the rim, a terrific skill to have when he’s hitting threes the way that he did in the Hawthorne hangar. Boucher is going to be a very, very valuable piece for the Ducks, but his impact is going to be somewhat limited because he’s still just as skinny as ever.

LOS ANGELES, CA. JULY 25, 2016. The Academy. Chris Boucher #17 of Oregon dunks. (Mandatory photo credit: Jon Lopez/Nike).
Chris Boucher (Jon Lopez/Nike).

Jalen Brunson, Villanova: Brunson is a basketball savant, the kind of player that sees the game a step ahead of everyone else. He had a rough start on Monday night, but throughout the week was consistently creating open looks for teammates that, in many cases, he had never played with before. On the final night of the camp, Brunson had a fun little battle with Jordan McRae, a former Tennessee Vol that has bounced around the NBA the last two years. After McRae bodied Brunson in the post, Brunson answered with a nifty, driving layup before forcing a McRae turnover and shaking him at the other end to hit a game-winning, step-back jumper. I’m not sure if Brunson has the athleticism to end up being an NBA player, but I wasn’t sure that T.J. McConnell or Fred VanVleet had enough athleticism, either.

Jonathan Motley, Baylor: Boucher was the most impressive front court prospect in the camp, but Motley was probably the best front court player in Los Angeles this week. Motley has always been somewhat underrated because of the way he is used at Baylor, but he should be in line for a huge year for the Bears. He showed off a better-than-I-realized low-post repertoire and even knocked down a couple of perimeter shots.

Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart spent much of the week as Morris’ teammate, doing just as much as the Iowa State point guard to ensure that his team was always winning. So while I’m about to hit him with a couple of criticisms, understand that it comes with the caveat that he was awesome this week. Hart’s jumper went in at a really good clip, but his stroke is still weird enough — and his bad misses are still bad enough — that concerns about his ability to consistently make NBA threes are more than valid. The other issue? He has a penchant for make some headache-inducing plays that make you wonder just what in the world he saw that made him think that was a good idea.

NOTABLES

  • On the first night of the camp, the gym was flooded with NBA guys coming through to get in a workout and some high-level pick-up. At one points, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson, Jordan Clarkson and Devin Booker were all on the same team. They lost to a a squad led by Morris, Hart and Alec Peters.
  • Speaking of Peters, the Valparaiso star played very well all week. I’m convinced that, had he opted to be a grad transfer and leave Valpo, he would have been an impact player at just about any program in the country. If it all comes together for him next season, he’ll have a chance to put up ridiculous numbers.
  • Jaron Blossomgame of Clemson was impressive all week and threw down the best dunk that I saw during the camp. He could’ve turned pro this offseason and ended up getting picked in the second round while earning some guaranteed money. But he opted to return, in part to prove that he’s more than just a capable shooter. He did not do that the last three days.
  • Michigan State’s Miles Bridges is stupid athletic. He’s ridiculous. I’m not sure he’s a human. There are going to be a couple of Big Ten opponents that get utterly embarrassed by him this year. But … beyond the dunks, I’m just not sure how he is going to be able to score at that level.
  • Illinois forward Malcolm Hill might be the most underrated player in the country. The 6-foot-8 forward is what we call a bucket-getter. He’ll probably lead the Big Ten in scoring this season.
  • Edmond Sumner of Xavier has continued to fill out his body. He told me he was up to 185 pounds earlier this summer and that he’ll hopefully be over 190 by the time the season starts. When he committed Xavier he was on the wrong side of 150 pounds. Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey also looks like he’s spent some time in the weight room. One scout said it looks like he’s put on a good 20 pounds since he’s been in Eugene.
LOS ANGELES, CA. JULY 25, 2016. The Academy. Miles Bridges #18 of Michigan State dunks. (Mandatory photo credit: Jon Lopez/Nike).
Miles Bridges (Jon Lopez/Nike).

THE BAMBA: Mohamed Bamba’s mind is as bright as his hoops future

Mohamed Bamba, Jon Lopez/Nike
Jon Lopez, Nike
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LOS ANGELES — Fresh off of the gold medal he won in the U18 FIBA Americas tournament in Chile, Mohamed Bamba returned to the states and headed almost directly to Los Angeles to attend the Nike Skills Academy.

Attend. Not participate, at least not during the first day and a half of the camp.

He wasn’t alone in this decision. His USA Basketball teammates Michael Porter Jr., Trae Young and Hamidou Diallo also sat out parts or all of the first day. They had gone from Peach Jam in Augusta to the national team training camp in Houston to Chile, where they played five games in five days. A day off on the first Monday after the end of the July Live Period is almost necessary with the schedule that some of the nation’s elite high school prospects play.

But Bamba’s decision wasn’t strictly based on trying to catch up on rest.

He had left his soles in Valdivia.

“I have flat feet,” Bamba told NBCSports.com on Tuesday as he launched into the saga of his shoes, and because of those flat feet — and an ankle injury he suffered in the spring — the 7-foot Bamba has to wear specially made inserts in the sole of his shoes when he plays. When you’re that tall and your feet are that big, you’re not exactly buying those inserts off the rack.

During the tournament in Chile, Bamba became something of a sensation because his last name happens to be the name of a Mexican folk song, ‘La Bamba,’ made internationally famous by Richie Valens. The fans would go crazy every time he made a play. They made signs for him. They tabbed him as a third-party candidate for the people that don’t want to see Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the White House.

Bamba loved it, so much so that, when the tournament ended, he gave his shoes — soles and all — to a young Chilean boy who had become his biggest fan.

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NBCSports.com, courtesy Mohamed Bamba

It wasn’t until he got back to the hotel that he realized his mistake. He was able to track the kid down on social media and got one of the soles back that night, but the other shoe had been taken by someone else. By the time they found that person, it was too late. Bamba was going to have to wait to get his soles shipped back to him in the States. He won’t get them until he’s home in New York, which means that his time on the courts in a modified airplane hangar at the Hawthorne Airport was dictated by how effectively the training staff could replicate his soles with athletic tape.

All because he got excited and gave his shoes to a fan.

It was a pretty dumb thing to do for a kid who is decidedly not dumb.

———

Mohamed Bamba is among the elite of the elite in the Class of 2017. He’s a consensus top four prospect in the class, a kid that has a very real chance to be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. He’s no where near a finished product yet, but his ability to change the game on the defensive end of the floor is special.

“He’s a dinosaur, man,” is how one coach of a top-25 program described Bamba, and it’s a pretty apt comparison. He’s 7-foot in shoes and soles with a wingspan that has been measured at 7-foot-9.5 and a standing reach of 9-foot-6. Those numbers are unheard of, and given his knack for blocking and changing shots at the rim, it’s not hard to look at him and see a guy that can one day influence a game the same way Rudy Gobert or Hassan Whiteside can defensively.

The offensive end of the floor is where Bamba is still very much a work in progress. His post game is somewhere between ineffective and developing, but that will come as the 210-pound Bamba adds some weight and strength. He’s not a guy that you want shooting a lot of jumpers, but his stroke and soft touch are impressive enough that it’s fairly easy to project him as a guy that will consistently make perimeter shots one day. He’s not as fluid or as mobile as some of the more offensive-minded bigs you’ll come across, but he’s not uncoordinated, either.

He’s never going to be Karl Towns or Anthony Davis, but if his ceiling is Rudy Gobert with a jump shot, that’s something that will make him very attractive to a lot of NBA teams.

Bamba knows this.

He also knows, like the rest of the basketball-watching world, that the salaries NBA players are getting these days are massive. It’s very much within the realm of possibility that Bamba could earn nine figures in NBA paychecks by the time it’s all said and done. Bamba’s smart — there’s a reason that Duke and Harvard (yes, Harvard) are two of the schools that are highest on the list of schools chasing him — smart enough to know what he doesn’t know, including the ins and outs of the NBA salary cap and salary structures. Why is every max contract worth a different amount of money? Why was it a popular refrain to say that Kevin Durant left money on the table when he signed with the Golden State Warriors?

FIBA
FIBA

And that’s why Bamba ponied up the money to head to Boston and attend the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference, a weekend-long festival of sports nerds that are interested in things beyond how many points someone scored in a game. Bamba attended a presentation breaking down the best way to defend pick-and-rolls, sat in on a session analyzing how an NBA front office works and, fittingly enough, learned about predictive injury analytics and injury prevention.

“I had never thought about efficiency before,” Bamba said. “In high school it’s about how many points you score, not how many shots it takes or possessions it takes.”

‘Student-athlete’ is something of a tongue-in-cheek term in this day and age given the inherent unfairness of amateurism in the NCAA, but Bamba is as much a student as he is an athlete. He’s got an inquisitive nature, a desire to learn. His trip to MIT started as a joke about him being a dork, but once he found out what it was he became intrigued. So he went. He’s been studying up on speeches that he attended in the months since he left Boston, learning more and more about NBA contracts and how players can manage their money. “If you’re going to be an multi-million dollar investment, you should know why and how it works,” he said.

He’s in business and marketing classes at the Westtown School now, and he says that regardless of how long it takes him to declare for the NBA Draft, he will be getting his degree. But when asked by a reporter if he’s preparing himself, on the chance that he goes one-and-done, to test out of intro classes and take more advanced courses as a freshman, Bamba admitted it was the rare topic he had no knowledge of.

“I’ve never thought about that,” he said.

“But I’m going to look into it now.”

Mohamed Bamba, Jon Lopez/Nike
Mohamed Bamba, USA Basketball

Top-25 guard trims list to six

Trae Young , Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images
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One of the top points guards in the Class of 2017 has trimmed his list of potential collegiate destinations to six.

Trae Young, a consensus top-25 recruit, listed Texas Tech, Kansas, Oklahoma, Washington, Oklahoma State and Kentucky as the schools he is considering as he readies to begin his senior year of high school.

The list of the 6-foot-2 point guard is largely provincial as it includes Oklahoma, whose campus is just minutes away from Young’s Norman North High School, and fellow in-state school Oklahoma. Another pair of Big 12 schools make the list in powerhouse Kansas and the Red Raiders, whose first-year coach, Chris Beard, has spent the bulk of his career working in Texas. Texas Tech is also Young’s father’s alma mater. Washington has been on a role sending its players to the pros and recently received the commitment of top-five 2017 recruit Michael Porter, Jr.

Kentucky, of course, needs no explanation as to its attractiveness to high-level players.

Top-100 guard commits to Xavier

Chris Mack has Xavier back in the Sweet 16 (AP Photo)
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Xavier has added a top-100 prospect into its 2017 recruiting class Wednesday.

Elias Harden, a shooting guard from Georgia, pledged to the Musketeers via social media to become the second member of Chris Mack’s next class.

“The recruiting process was not EASY AT ALL,” Harden wrote on Twitter. “I wanna thank all the coaches that took time to recruit me.

“WIth that being said I will continue my academic and athletic career at Xavier University.”

The 6-foot-6 guard is ranked 92nd overall by 247Sports and had offers from Auburn, Maryland, Texas Tech and Ole Miss. He joins Jared Ridder, a Missouri guard, as part of the 2017 Xavier class.

The Musketeers return the bulk of last year’s 28-6 team that narrowly missed out on the Sweet 16.

Clemson recruit to enroll early

Brad Brownell
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Clemson will get a four-star recruit on campus a year earlier than it expected, though his on-court debut for the Tigers will remain on schedule.

A.J. Oliver, a guard from South Carolina, will enroll early at Clemson and redshirt this upcoming season, he announced via social media Wednesday.

“I woke up this morning and realized that the greatest opportunity for me is to enroll early into Clemson,” he wrote on Twitter. “I will redshirt a year & start my college career early.”

Oliver, whose mother is the head women’s basketball coach at Clemson, was a consensus top-100 player in the class of 2017 who committed to the Tigers last December. Texas Tech and the College of Charleston were involved before his commitment.

A three-star shooting guard, Scott Spencer of Virginia, was previously the only member coach Brad Brownell’s 2016 class. While Oliver’s decision to redshirt will keep him off the court for the 2016-17 season, he’ll have spent a full season in the Tiger program before making his debut in 2017

The cupboard isn’t bare in 2017 for the Tigers due to Oliver’s reclassification because Clemson received a commitment from power forward Malik Williams, a consensus top-150 player, earlier Wednesday.