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.

Duke is No. 1 in the Preseason Coaches Poll once again

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The first Coaches Poll of the season was released on Thursday as Duke is the No. 1 team for the second consecutive season. Despite overhauling the roster with new freshmen talent, the Blue Devils received 20 first-place votes while Michigan State, Arizona and Florida also drew first-place consideration.

The top five isn’t too much of a surprise, although Florida getting a No. 1 vote while finishing at No. 7 in the poll is a bit puzzling. For a mid-major team, Oakland also received a considerable amount of votes just outside of the top 25.

  1. Duke (20 first place votes)
  2. Michigan State (9)
  3. Kansas
  4. Kentucky
  5. Arizona (2)
  6. Villanova
  7. Florida (1)
  8. Wichita State
  9. North Carolina
  10. West Virginia
  11. USC
  12. Miami
  13. Cincinnati
  14. Notre Dame
  15. Minnesota
  16. Louisville
  17. Xavier
  18. UCLA
  19. Gonzaga
  20. Northwestern
  21. Purdue
  22. St. Mary’s
  23. Seton Hall
  24. Baylor
  25. Alabama

Others receiving votes: Texas A&M 76; Virginia 57; Butler 43; Missouri 35; TCU 32; Rhode Island 31; Providence 21; Wisconsin 21; Maryland 20; Oakland 19; Oklahoma 19; Michigan 13; Texas 13; Virginia Tech 12; Oregon 12; Southern Methodist 6; Creighton 6; Georgia 3; Georgia Tech 3; Harvard 2; Arkansas 2; Florida State 1; South Carolina 1; Nevada 1.

SoCon Preview: Can Furman take over an unpredictable league?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SoCon.

The SoCon has been one of the most unpredictable conferences in college hoops over the last several years. Last season saw a three-way tie for first place in the regular season and the conference saw its third unique NCAA tournament representative in three years. This season should be wild as well as the SoCon has many of the nation’s elite three-point shooters returning.

Furman has a new head coach as Bob Richey was promoted to take over for Niko Medved (Drake) as he inherits a strong roster that won 23 games and tied for first last season. Four starters return for the Paladins, including senior guard and reigning SoCon Player of the Year Devin Sibley along with double-figure scorer Daniel Fowler. If Furman can get more interior help for its guard-heavy team then they could be the team to beat.

Returning the top seven scorers from a 20-win team, Samford has a lot of positive momentum in head coach Scott Padgett’s third season. Senior Demetrius Denzel-Dyson is one of the league’s most versatile talents as he’s joined by three more returning double-figure scorers. UNC Greensboro loses some firepower from a 25-win NIT team but junior sharpshooter Francis Alonso returns along with a good amount of interior depth. Replacing point guard Diante Baldwin could be key.

Five senior starters are back for Mercer including the dynamic backcourt duo of Ria’n Holland and Jordan Strawberry. Small forward Demetre Rivers also returns along with the frontcourt of Desmond Ringer and Stephon Jelks. The Bears have a lot of size but they need to improve defensively. East Tennessee State was the league’s autobid last season but the Buccaneers lose six dynamic seniors from that group. Guard Desonta Bradford is the team’s only returning double-figure scorer while junior college transfer forward Jeromy Rodriguez has a lot of hype as a scorer.

Wofford could be an intriguing team to watch as junior scorer Fletcher Magee leads the backcourt. Junior forward Cameron Jackson also returns as the Terriers have the personnel to either play a perimeter-oriented attack or more of a traditional lineup. Good news for Western Carolina as all five starters are back from last season’s team. But the Catamounts struggled to a 9-win season as the offense only shot 39 percent from the floor. Haboubacar Mutombo, nephew of Dikembe Mutombo, headlines the returning core.

The Citadel should continue to play fast as double-figure scorers like junior forward Zane Najdawi and sophomore gunner Preston Parks return.  New head coach Lamont Paris comes from Wisconsin to Chattanooga, and he doesn’t have any starters coming back from a 19-win team. Junior big man Makinde London showed promise as a role player last season for the Mocs. VMI lost its top three scorers from a young roster. Senior forward Armani Branch is the team’s only returning starter.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON SOCON PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Devin Sibley, Furman

The reigning SoCon Player of the Year, the 6-foot-2 Sibley was a big-time scorer for Furman last season. Putting up 17.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, Sibley’s efficiency stood out. Shooting 52 percent from the floor and 44 percent from three-point range, Sibley rarely takes a bad shot.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SOCON TEAM

  • Ria’n Holland, Mercer: With 11 20-point games last season, this 6-foot, 152-pound senior is small but he packs a powerful scoring punch.
  • Francis Alonso, UNC Greensboro: A lethal perimeter shooter, the 6-foot-3 junior hit 102 triples at a 46 percent clip last season while putting up 14.9 points per game.
  • Demetrius Denzel-Dyson, Samford: Capable of playing multiple spots, the 6-foot-5 senior averaged 16.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 46 percent from three-point.
  • Fletcher Magee, Wofford: The 6-foot-4 junior averaged 18.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per game last season while shooting 42 percent from three-point range and 89 percent from the free-throw line.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SoConSports

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. Furman
  2. Samford
  3. UNC Greensboro
  4. Mercer
  5. ETSU
  6. Wofford
  7. Western Carolina
  8. Chattanooga
  9. The Citadel
  10. VMI

Colorado State’s Eustachy says Paul Weir has ‘worst job in the country’ at New Mexico

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New Mexico coach Paul Weir just landed his new job in April but Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy already believes that Weir has, “the worst job in the country.”

Speaking to reporters, including the Albuquerque Journal’s Geoff Grammer, at Mountain West preseason media day in Las Vegas on Wednesday, the outspoken Eustachy criticized Weir’s lack of pay at New Mexico for the amount of pressure he is dealing with.

“I think he’s got the worst job in the country,” Eustachy said of Weir. “I just told him that. It doesn’t pay enough. If I got paid $5 million, I’d take all that crap that you get in Albuquerque, but he doesn’t make enough money. But that place is different, as you know. It’s a different beast.”

As noted by Grammer, Eustachy once called the New Mexico job one of the best in the sport before previous head coach, and Eustachy’s friend, Craig “Noodles” Neal took the job. But after Neal’s exit from the Lobos and the way the New Mexico fanbase soured on Craig’s son, Cullen, Eustachy has taken a different course. He believes Weir isn’t making nearly enough money to deal with that kind of potential hostility.

“It’s a great job if you’re making $2 million, what they were going to give Steve Alford, but what they pay (Weir), no,” Eustachy said.

Alford is now at UCLA after leaving New Mexico in the spring of 2013. Before he ultimately went to the Bruins, Alford signed a 10-year term sheet with New Mexico for around $1.8 million per year. Before his recent firing, Neal had elevated his contract to $950,000 annually after making $750,000 in his first season. Weir will only make $625,000 to coach his first season in New Mexico after signing a six-year deal.

Eustachy believes New Mexico has one of the great fanbases in college basketball but the group will also turn quickly if things start to go wrong.

“You might get one mulligan in that town, and that’s before you do the press conference,” Eustachy said of New Mexico fans. “You know how that town works. I think it’s great on one end. Name them? You’ve got Lexington, Kentucky, you’ve got Syracuse, N.Y., you’ve got Duke, and New Mexico is in that 10. … And the jobs you name that are going in that 10, those guys are making $8 million and Noodles was making ($950,000). To succeed there, with the expectations that come with it, it’s rare to survive that thing. You know that.

“Can you imagine Alford, if he was still making $2 million and he had a couple bad years there, what it would do? And it’s neat that they’re that much into it, but there’s got to be something else besides basketball in Albuquerque because it is a religion there.”

Some strong words from Eustachy in this as he takes small jabs at the New Mexico fanbase while criticizing their administration for being cheap. It’s admirable that Eustachy is advocating more pay for one of his colleagues but you have to wonder if doing this in a very public way is the best course of action.

Now when Colorado State travels to New Mexico on Jan. 27, there will be a lot of pressure on Eustachy, and his players, in what could be a hostile road environment. That’s a Saturday night game to keep an eye on later this season.

Rick Pitino maintains he had ‘no knowledge’ of Louisville recruiting scandal in TV interview

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Former Louisville head coach Rick Pitino continues to publicly maintain his innocence in the FBI probe that has rocked college basketball. The recently fired Pitino, in a televised interview with ESPN’s Jay Bilas on Wednesday night, declared that he had “no knowledge” of any alleged payments that might have gone from Louisville to McDonald’s All-American recruit Brian Bowen, currently a freshman at the school.

In the interview with Bilas, Pitino stated that he passed a voluntary lie detector test in which he was asked about the Bowen situation and the involvement of Adidas. While Pitino told Bilas that he takes “full responsibility” for the hiring and vetting of his staff members, he still finds all of this hard to believe as he is maintaining his full innocence.

“I was asked two questions,” Pitino said of the lie detector test. “And I said, ‘I want you to ask me if any other recruits in my tenure were ever given anything.’ And he [the polygraph examiner] said, ‘That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here for: Did you have any knowledge of the Bowen family getting any money? Did you have any knowledge of an Adidas transaction?’

“I answered ‘absolutely not’ on both questions and passed the lie detector test. So I had no knowledge of any of this.”

Louisville was not named directly in the FBI report that led to the arrest of 10, but the university has confirmed that they are a part of the probe. After being placed on unpaid administrative leave in late September, the Louisville athletic board opted to fire Pitino “for cause” earlier this week while athletic director Tom Jurich was also fired on Wednesday.

Pitino said that Louisville rushed to judgment with all of this as he believes the other schools involved in the probe are doing more to collect information before jumping to conclusions. When Pitino was asked to resign by Louisville officials, he told Bilas he refused, in-part because he wanted a full investigation to play out.

“I said, ‘Absolutely not,'” Pitino said of his resignation. “I said, ‘Let’s get the facts out here before we rush anything. We were sitting on a great team. We’re sitting on a great recruiting class. Let’s calm down a little bit here.'”

“This is your life,” Pitino said. “This is your passion and you don’t want your life taken and pulled away from you. I think all these other people reacted the right way, whether it’s at Auburn, Arizona, USC and Oklahoma [State]. … They’re collecting all the facts, seeing what’s going on. There’s only been one school that rushed to judgment and took the coach away from these players and that’s Louisville.”

Pitino also took the interesting stance of publicly defending Bowen, the recruit who has been at the center of Louisville’s involvement in the FBI investigation. It was alleged that Bowen’s family was funneled $100,000 to help facilitate his move to Louisville.

“I have no factual information on the statement I’m going to make right now: I don’t believe Brian Bowen knew a single thing about this,” Pitino said to Bilas. “I’m totally of the belief that the mom knew nothing about this because of the text message she sent me. Brian Bowen is a terrific young man.

“He fell into our lap in recruiting. Obviously, now with the circumstances behind it, there’s more to it than meets the eye. But I believe Brian Bowen chose the University of Louisville because he loved the visit, he loved his future teammates and he wanted to play for me. I don’t think he’s involved in this in any way. Now, am I being naive? I don’t know. I just believe in that young man.”

Obviously, there is a lot to take in with this interview, especially since Pitino continues to publicly state his case while nearly everyone else involved has stayed quiet. It’s hard to say if any of these statements will come back to haunt him but speaking up for Bowen’s innocence is another risky move that might have been better left unsaid.

(H/t: ESPN)

Big Ten approves 20-game conference schedule for men’s basketball

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The Big Ten approved changes to the future of conference basketball scheduling on Thursday morning as men’s basketball will now feature 20 conference games per season.

Beginning with the 2018-19 season, the Big Ten will now have 20 league games instead of 18 in men’s basketball as the format means that more in-state rivalries will be played twice a season.

According to a release from the conference, the new format for men’s basketball will feature teams playing seven opponents twice and six teams once (three home, three away) during each conference season. The Big Ten’s three in-state rivalries (Illinois/Northwestern, Indiana/Purdue and Michigan/Michigan State) will all be guaranteed two matchups every year while the new 20-game format also allows for a “regional component” that should increase the frequency of games among teams in similar areas.

After the Big Ten scheduled all three of their in-state rivalries to play only one time each during the 2017-18 season, this is probably the right move in terms of conference scheduling. While playing more than half of your season games against conference opponents isn’t entirely ideal, with a 14-team league, the Big Ten had to make a tough decision and they chose to protect their internal rivalries. I’m sure the fanbases of those programs would prefer a home-and-home with a heated rival as opposed to another non-conference clash that could be underwhelming.

The Big Ten also made changes to the women’s basketball schedule on Thursday as that conference schedule will be bumped up to 18 games per season.