Kansas can beat Kentucky — just ask these four favorites

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Upsets are in the NCAA tournament’s DNA. They’re the best part of the first four days and become some of the most memorable moments when they happen in later rounds.

N.C. State over Houston. Villanova tops Georgetown. Duke stuns UNLV. Kansas knocks off Oklahoma. Four examples of a team beating a more talented opponent on college basketball’s biggest stage.

Who says it can’t happen Monday night?

*****

Kansas is a 6-point underdog to Kentucky. That’s not a massive point spread – Duke-Butler in 2010 was higher – but it reflects the Wildcats impressive record (37-2), abundance of talent and consistency all season. No team spent more time atop the polls. Few teams sport better chemistry and balance.

It’s the best Kentucky team John Calipari’s had while coaching in Lexington. Considering the last two years (64-12, two SEC titles, a Final Four, an Elite Eight and eight NBA drafts picks) that’s impressive.

But Kansas isn’t Butler. It’s not N.C. State or Villanova or many of those other teams that pulled off stunning wins in previous years. It has NBA talent and a coach who won this tournament in 2008. The Jayhawks (32-6) entered this tournament as a No. 2 seed and won the Big 12 by two games. If there’s a comparison to previous NCAA tourney teams, it’s much more similar to these four. (Point spreads from armadillosports.)

Kansas, 1988
What happened
: Beat No. 1 Oklahoma, 83-79 in title game.
Point spread: Oklahoma by 8.5
Sound familiar? OU sported future NBA players Mookie Blaylock, Stacey King and Harvey Grant and ran away from pretty much every team in the tournament. Yet the Jayhawks (27-11) played Oklahoma’s style for the half, matching the up-tempo Sooners (35-4) 50-50 at halftime. This year’s Kansas team also loves to run, but conventional thinking is that it’s foolish to try and outrun Kentucky – especially with all of its NBA talent.
Yeah, but … The Sooners had talent, but it’s not close to what this year’s Kentucky group sports. Also, those Sooners liked to run, but didn’t care about defense and could be soft. That doesn’t apply to Kentucky. Also, Kansas had Danny Manning, the nation’s top player. The 2012 top player suits up for Kentucky.
The takeaway: It’s possible to match a more talented opponent in style using personnel that most write off. And Kansas isn’t dwarfed by Kentucky’s talent.

Duke, 1991
What happened
: Beat No. 1 UNLV 79-77 in Final Four.
Point spread: UNLV by 9.5
Sound familiar? The Rebels were that season’s dominant team, entering the game with 34-0 record and boasting the national player of the year (Larry Johnson) who was flanked by two other lottery picks. But the 2nd-seeded Devils (30-7 entering the game) were a 2-seed that won the ACC, had an All-American frontcourt player and a balanced supporting cast that was underrated athletically. Also, Duke was motivated for revenge after getting crushed in the 1990 title game.
Yeah, but … Duke turned out to have just as much NBA talent in Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill as the Rebels did with Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony. We just didn’t know it then. UNLV seemed flustered an surprised when Duke hung with the Rebels. That doesn’t apply to Kentucky. Also, Duke made 51.7 percent of its shots that game. Kansas snapping out of a shooting slump seems unlikely by now.
The takeaway: One of the best examples that a perfect team can stumble, even with elite NBA talent.

Arizona, 1997
What happened
: Beat No. 1 Kentucky 84-79 (OT) in title game
Point spread: Kentucky by 6.5
Sound familiar? Arizona, a 4 seed, was coming off wins against 1 seeds Kansas and North Carolina. This wasn’t Lute OIson’s most talented Wildcats team by a longshot, but it somehow was in the title game, facing a loaded Kentucky team – four future pros – that had the game’s best player in Ron Mercer.
Yeah, but … Kentucky wasn’t exactly the team that rolled to a 35-4 record entering the game. Guard Derek Anderson was out with an injury while its big men could be negated with Arizona’s middling frontcourt. The Wildcats were quicker, just as athletic and hot. The ’12 Kentucky team is perfectly healthy and more balanced.
The takeaway: Randomness happens in the oddest spots. Miles Simon scored 30 vs. the ‘Cats. Could Elijah Johnson produce a similar scoring outburst?

Connecticut, 1999
What happened: Beat No. 1 Duke77-74 in title game
Point spread
: Duke by 9.5
Sound familiar? The Devils entered the game as massive favorites, sported four players who would be lottery picks in the 1999 NBA draft (and another in Shane Battier two years later) and spent the season trouncing teams with a lethal inside-outside game. Elton Brand was player of the year. Trajan Langdon the deadly outside shooter. Etc, etc. But UConn had a lottery pick of its own (Rip Hamilton), a fearless point guard and an underrated big man. Seriously, this sounds like the 2012 title game.
Yeah, but UConn was a tad better than Kansas. The Huskies were a 1 seed, had lost just two games and had a lock-down defender in Ricky Moore. Plus, ’99 Duke wasn’t nearly as athletic as 2012 Kentucky. Also, Kansas would love to be in the offensive groove those Huskies were.
The takeaway: Don’t overlook a balanced, disciplined team when facing a bevy of future draft picks.

*****
Kentucky’s the better team. It’s shown as much all season and during the tournament. Kansas has about 15 different thing it needs to do to win the game, starting with stopping the Wildcats’ transition baskets and ensuring center Jeff Withey is free to block shots whenever possible to throw off the Wildcats’ post players.

You’ll probably see Kansas occasionally use a zone, force Kentucky to defend for long stretches by being patient on offense and try to get the ‘Cats out of their comfort zone. The Jayhawks will be physical. They’ll be dogged and determined.

If it’s close, that means Kansas has a chance. And that’s a chance at history.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

4-star center commits to Purdue

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With Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas entering their senior seasons, adding front court options in the 2018 class was something that Purdue needed to do. Purdue added its second front court commitment in the 2018 class Tuesday evening, as four-star center Emmanuel Dowuona reportedly made his pledge. News of Dowuona’s commitment was first reported by the Lafayette Journal & Courier.

Dowuona, a 6-foot-11 big man who attends Westwood Christian School in Miami, joins fellow four-star prospect Trevion Williams in Purdue’s 2018 class to date.

Dowuona’s commitment comes just days before he was reportedly to visit Tennessee. Among the other programs to have offered Duwuona were Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami and UConn.

Dowuona played for the Team Breakdown program on the Under Armour Association circuit during the summer, averaging 7.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 59.3 percent from the field. While still a bit raw offensively, the native of Ghana provides value as a defender and rebounder. Dowuona is joining a program that during Painter’s tenure as head coach has done a good job of developing big men.

Dowuona and the aforementioned Williams will look to compete for playing time in 2018-19 alongside current redshirt junior Jacquil Taylor and 7-foot-3 redshirt freshman center Matt Haarms.

Dayton freshman Toppin ineligible for 2017-18 season

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Dayton announced Tuesday afternoon that one of the program’s incoming freshmen will not be eligible to compete this season. 6-foot-8 forward Obadiah Toppin has been ruled by the NCAA to have not met initial eligibility requirements, and he will have to sit out the 2017-18 season as a result.

Toppin will be allowed to remain a member of the team and participate in practices, and he will have four seasons of eligibility remaining beginning with the 2018-19 season. While the NCAA’s decision leaves the Flyers short a front court option in head coach Anthony Grant’s first season at the helm, it did not come as a surprise.

“We knew this was a possible scenario for Obi early on in the recruiting process,” Grant said in the release. “And if it came to pass, we saw this as a chance for him to utilize this year acclimate as a student and enhance his strength and skill as an academic redshirt. This is a great opportunity for Obi to develop as a player and student over the next 12 months, and prepare himself for a very successful college career.”

Toppin, who averaged 17 points and eight rebounds per game at Mt. Zion Academy last season, is one of five freshmen who have joined the program. Matej Svoboda and Jordan Pierce will look to earn minutes alongside returnees Josh Cunningham and Xeyrius Williams, and the same can be said for redshirt freshman Kostas Antetokounmpo.

Toppin being declared ineligible is the third hit Dayton has taken to its front court this offseason. Ryan Mikesell, who played in 32 games last season, will redshirt after undergoing two hip surgeries. And Sam Miller, who was also part of the team’s front court rotation last season, was suspended from school for the fall semester after he was arrested during the summer.

Four-star forward commits to Ohio State

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Ohio State is on the board with regards to the 2018 recruiting class, as Chris Holtmann’s program received a much-needed verbal commitment from four-star forward Jaedon LeDee. The 6-foot-9 Houston native announced his decision via his Twitter account Tuesday afternoon.

In receiving a verbal commitment from LeDee, Ohio State beat out California, Houston, Iowa State, LSU, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and UCLA. The Buckeyes hosted LeDee for his official visit the weekend of September 9, which coincided with the football team’s matchup with Oklahoma. Originally scheduled to visit Cal this past weekend, LeDee instead visited Texas A&M.

With LeDee’s commitment to Ohio State, visits to LSU (September 30) and UCLA (October 6) are likely off the board.

Currently attending the Kincaid School, LeDee played for the Texas PRO grassroots program on the adidas Uprising circuit this summer. The four-star prospect will likely be a combo forward for Ohio State, playing either the three or the four depending on the matchup.

With Jae’Sean Tate beginning his senior season and Keita Bates-Diop being a redshirt junior, Ohio State had a need to address in the front court. In landing a verbal pledge from Jaedon LeDee, the Buckeyes have done just that.

Among the front court players who will have eligibility remaining beyond the 2017-18 season are Bates-Diop, current sophomores Micah Potter and Andre Wesson, and freshmen Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young.

The Pac-12 is foolish for scheduling Arizona-UCLA once during the regular season

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Last month, I wrote about one of the more troubling trends in college basketball: Teams steering away from playing the games that fans are going to care about the most.

It was the result of Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing stating publicly that he was “not thinking about Maryland” after the rivalry between the DMV’s two most well-known programs went by the wayside.

Ewing isn’t the only coach that is culpable here. Kansas and Missouri don’t play. Kansas and Wichita State don’t play, either. Duke and Maryland don’t play. Ohio State doesn’t play Cincinnati, Xavier or Dayton. It goes on and on.

But the blame can no longer only be given to the coaches that schedule to protect themselves and/or their program.

The conferences deserve some criticism as well. Take, for instance, the Pac-12, who released their schedule recently after deciding that Arizona, a contender for the preseason No. 1 team in the country, should only play UCLA and USC, the only two teams that have a realistic chance of upending the Wildcats for the Pac-12 crown, once apiece.

Not only that, but the games will be played in Tucson, an incredible advantage for Sean Miller’s club as they pursue the league’s regular season title.

Look, I get it. There are 12 teams in the league and there is an 18-game schedule. Each team in the league is going to play four of their 11 league foes just once. It’s simple math. But the answer should never, ever be to schedule the Arizona schools and the Southern California schools just once.

The reasoning is simple: Arizona and UCLA are the two biggest brands in the league. When they play it will draw more interest than when any other two teams in the conference play, and that’s something the conference should be trying to capitalize on. It takes a lot to convince anyone on the east coast to stay up to watch a Pac-12 basketball game. I cover this sport for a living and I have a hard time making it all the way through a 10 p.m. ET tip. When a two-year old is going to be screaming at me to make breakfast at 6:30 a.m., do I really want to stay up to watch Arizona blow out Washington or UCLA to beat up on Cal?

The Pac-12 should do everything they can to ensure that Arizona and UCLA play twice every season.

That is even more true this year. Arizona might be the best team in the country and they might have the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft on their roster in Deandre Ayton. UCLA is a top 15 team that just so happens to have Liangelo Ball, the worst of the three Ball brothers and potentially the last one to matriculate through the college ranks. The seemingly inevitable LaVar Ball blow-up is something we all will be watching patiently to see.

Should I mention the simmering hatred between Sean Miller and Steve Alford as they continually compete for the best prospects on the west coast?

And that’s before you factor in that USC is the second-best team in the league, and anyone that UCLA plays twice, USC will also play twice.

I’ll be sure to watch a number of Oregon games this season, and I think that Stanford, Oregon State and Colorado all have the pieces to sneak up on some people this year. I’ll be sure to check in on them a couple times as well.

But the games that I’ll have circled on my calendar, the games I’ll be excited about watching, are between Arizona, UCLA and USC.

By scheduling the Arizona schools and the Southern California schools just once during the regular season, the Pac-12 cost themselves a third of that inventory.

That doesn’t seems like the smartest way to run a business conference.

But hey, if conference realignment and the development of conference-only networks taught us anything, it’s that major college athletics are all about competitive balance over those advertising dollars.

Vanderbilt lands commitment from Aaron Nesmith

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Vanderbilt landed their first commitment in the Class of 2018 with four-star wing Aaron Nesmith.

Nesmith is a native of South Carolina, and the Commodores beat out South Carolina for his services. At 6-foot-6, Nesmith is the kind of defensive presence and athlete that Vandy will need to replace Jeff Roberson, who will be graduating this season.

This is a critical class for Bryce Drew, who is squarely in the mix for five-star guards Darius Garland and Romeo Langford. Nesmith isn’t on that level, but he will be a nice piece for Vandy for four years.