Need a rooting interest this weekend? Try Thomas Robinson

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In a Final Four of powerhouse programs accustomed to making the NCAA tournament’s final weekend it’s not easy for a casual fan to find a rooting interest. Butler or VCU? Easy to cheer for them.

But when Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State have 49 Final Four appearances combined, most college basketball might just cheer against all four or just watch something else. Who wants to cheer for four Goliaths?

Then again, what if one of the Goliaths has a story that’ll tug at anyone’s heartstrings? Would that sway fans?

Thomas Earl Robinson’s broad shoulders have carried Kansas all season. A unanimous choice for the AP All-American team, he’s also headed for a multi-million deal as a future NBA lottery pick. But it hasn’t been an easy road for Robinson, one of the game’s hardest workers and best players. Not even close.

Not after last season.

Robinson’s sophomore season was beset by personal tragedies. His grandmother died in late December of 2010 and his grandfather died a few weeks later. Then his mother, Lisa, a single mom in her early 40s, died of a heart attack in on January 21. The deaths shook Robinson and his teammates, who could hardly believe so much bad news could come at once. Coach Bill Self called it “the saddest thing I’d ever seen in my whole life.”

His eight-year-old sister, Jayla, was the one who called from Washington D.C. and told Robinson the news.

After burying his mother and rejoining Kansas, Robinson declared his intentions to begin caring for Jayla. That would mean skipping the final two years of college to play in the NBA to provide financial support and being around as much as his NBA schedule would allow.

That didn’t happen. A scholarship was provided to Jayla, who’s still living in D.C. where her father, James Paris is. But he’s a good big brother, protective and worried about what her future holds. And the plan is to start securing that future by heading to the NBA after this season.

From a gut-wrenching story earlier this season from ESPN the Magazine::

“I’m still scared for my little sister,” Thomas says. “I cry and I complain about how it’s not fair for me, but she’s going through way more. She’s 8 years old. She ain’t got the memories that I got with my mom. I just feel like I can’t stop. I got to do something to where I make her so happy that she’ll never have to go through any pain in her life ever. No more bad phone calls. None of us can have any more bad phone calls.”

Basketball and Jayla: That’s about all Thomas thinks about. When Self recently suggested planting a tree in memory of Lisa outside Allen Fieldhouse, a place she never lived to see, Thomas thought it was the quintessential idea. He and Self watched the gardeners dig the hole, and Thomas placed his letter in with the roots. It reads:

Mom,
I guarantee you have no worries about Jayla.
I will make sure everything is okay. I won’t blink.
My promise.

Love,
Earl

Lisa called him Earl. She was the only one.

Robinson’s hardly the only guy to place the NBA on hold – Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger both did the same – but I doubt any player has more weighing on his shoulders than Robinson. His Jayhawks aren’t favored to win the tournament.

But I’m guessing he’ll have a few more fans than normal cheering for him this weekend.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

No. 7 South Carolina upends No. 3 Baylor to advance to the Elite 8

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NEW YORK — It was with a whipping and a whimper that Baylor’s season can to an end on Friday night.

The final two minutes of the game wasn’t actually a game. No. 7 seed South Carolina dished out a 70-50 beatdown that wasn’t in doubt after the Gamecocks used an 18-0 run at the end of the first half to turn a rock fight into statement, and for the final two minutes of the game, the Gamecocks and, eventually, Baylor dribbled out the remaining seconds before joining arms at center court for a postgame prater.

It’s the third straight year that Baylor has been bounced from the NCAA tournament by a team seeded lower than them. In 2015, it was R.J. Hunter’s heroics that knocked his dad off of a stool and sent No. 14 seed Georgia State into the second round of the tournament. In 2016, the Bears fell in the first round to No. 12 seed Yale, prompting one of the most memorable press conference moments in NCAA tournament history.

And on Friday night, it was South Carolina that sent the Bears into offseason hibernation.

It was a disheartening end to a season, a loss that will surely provide fodder for the people that traffic in ‘Scott Drew can’t coach’ jokes, the irony being that the 2016-17 season was definitive proof that Scott Drew is almost certainly better at his job than you are at yours.

“When you coach for a while and you make Elite Eights and Sweet 16, you kind of start taking it for granted that you will always be successful in March,” Drew said. “But it’s a good reminder to be here and know how hard it is.”

No. 1 North Carolina handles No. 4 Butler en route to Elite Eight

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North Carolina, the top seed in the South Region, led by as many as 20 en route to a 92-80 win over No. 4 Butler in the Sweet 16 matchup on Friday night at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.

The Tar Heels were led by 26 points, off 8-of-13 shooting, from junior point guard Joel Berry II. The 6-foot floor general had been hampered by an ankle injury through the first weekend. While he still seemed to favor that same ankle at times, his play was a big improvement on his 3-of-21 shooting through the NCAA Tournament’s first two rounds. Justin Jackson nearly matched Berry’s game-high with 24 points.

Andrew Chrabascz, in the final game of his four-year career at Butler, finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

North Carolina, the last of the ACC’s nine tournament bids, advances to the Elite Eight to face the winner of No. 3 UCLA and No. 2 Kentucky. The Wildcats own a win over North Carolina, defeating the Tar Heels, 103-100, on Dec. 17 behind 47 points from Malik Monk.

Missouri lands No. 1 player in Class of 2017 as Michael Porter Jr. commits

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Missouri and new head coach Cuonzo Martin have landed the No. 1 player in the Class of 2017 a week after he took the job as forward Michael Porter Jr. committed to the Tigers on Friday.

Formerly a Washington commit under now-fired head coach Lorenzo Romar, the 6-foot-9 Porter was released from his Letter of Intent this week and many believed he’d end up back at Missouri.

The Porter family lived in Columbia for many years as two of Michael’s older sisters play for the Missouri women’s team while Michael Porter Sr. was an assistant coach for the women’s team.

When Porter Sr. was hired to Missouri to be an assistant coach on Martin’s staff this week — after losing his assistant coaching job at Washington when Romar was fired — it all but sealed the deal that the Porters would return to Missouri and Michael Jr. would play for the Tigers.

Missouri might not be an NCAA Tournament team next season after struggling to an 8-24 finish and 2-16 record in the SEC. But Porter might be the most productive freshman entering college basketball next season as he has a chance to be dominant in the SEC.

Oklahoma State promotes assistant coach Mike Boynton to head coach

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Oklahoma State has decided to promote assistant coach Mike Boynton to head coach, the school announced on Friday.

Boynton was an assistant with the Cowboys under former head coach Brad Underwood, who left Oklahoma State to take the Illinois job last weekend. Also an assistant coach at Stephen F. Austin, South Carolina, Wofford and Coastal Carolina, Boynton is a native of New York City who played his college ball for the Gamecocks.

The hire of Boynton is surprising since he doesn’t have any head-coaching experience as it follows in the footsteps of Cal promoting assistant coach Wyking Jones earlier in the day. Boynton also notably won the job over broadcaster and former Oklahoma State guard Doug Gottlieb as Gottlieb interviewed for the job but wasn’t selected.

 

Rhode Island junior E.C. Matthews will return to school

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Rhode Island junior guard E.C. Matthews will return to school for his redshirt senior season, the school announced on Friday.

The 6-foot-5 Matthews led the Rams in scoring at 14.9 points per game this past season as he returned from a torn ACL and helped Rhode Island reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.

Besides for being a talented scorer, Matthews is a good overall playmaker for the Rams as he also put up 4.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game.

With Matthews returning, it gives head coach Dan Hurley a huge weapon for next season as Rhode Island returns everyone besides the senior front court of Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson.