Conference Catch-ups: Creighton is still on top, but the MVC is strong

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Missouri Valley Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Creighton

The Bluejays were the league favorite heading into the season, and despite the loss of Josh Jones to a heart condition, Creighton remains the MVC’s top team two months into the season. Doug McDermott has been as good as advertised, but the biggest reason that Creighton keeps climbing in the rankings is that the coach’s son has a slew of talented role players surrounding him. Gregory Echenique is a hoss in the block, Grant Gibbs may lead the most fundamental player in the country and Austin Chatman has done well to help fill the void left by Antoine Young.

The biggest improvement for Creighton is on the defensive end of the floor. Last year, they were 178th in the country in defensive efficiency. This year they are 32nd.

Contenders: Wichita State looked like they might actually be the best team in the conference earlier this month, but a rash of injuries means that we won’t be seeing the Shockers at full strength until halfway through league play. Illinois State has been quite impressive as Jackie Carmichael is asserting himself as a potential NBA draft pick. Northern Iowa has played one of the toughest schedules in the country, but they finally picked up a quality win by beating St. Mary’s.

Biggest Surprise: Indiana State

The Sycamores weren’t exactly supposed to be down this season — not with Jake Odum, arguably the league’s best point guard, teaming up with Gonzaga transfer Manny Arop — but I don’t think many people expected to became a sleeper to finish in the top three. But that’s exactly where they stand after a terrific performance in the Diamond Head Classic during Christmas break. ISU knocked off Ole Miss in overtime in their opener and, after losing by seven to San Diego State, followed that up win an overtime win against Miami. Throw in the game last month when the Sycamores came from 15 own to force OT against New Mexico, and a trip to Terre Haute is not going to be easy this season.

Biggest Disappointment: Missouri State

This is a bit unfair, as the Bears were expected to finish at the very bottom of the MVC this year and that’s currently where they are situated. And given the success of the rest of the league, Missouri State is really the only team that has been disappointing this year.. But the depths of their struggle this season is unnerving. MSU still has not beaten a Division I team this season. Their two wins are over Philander Smith and Malone University. They already have a loss to Alabama A&M. Yuck.

Player of the Year: Doug McDermott, Creighton

There really isn’t much contemplation that goes into this choice. McDermott got off to a slow start this season, but ever since Creighton went out of Las Vegas for a tournament over Thanksgiving, he’s been playing like the uber-efficient stretch-four we all know and love.

Best Freshman: Kaza Keane, Illinois State

Keane is currently second in the Missouri Valley in assists, which is nice and will almost make you forget about the fact that the 6-foot-1 point guard from Ontario is averaging just 3.5 points on the season. That may actually be a positive sign for Keane, however. When you are a freshman and you have scorers like Jackie Carmichael and Tyler Brown on the floor with you, you give up the rock.

Three Predictions:

  • Creighton goes farther in the NCAA tournament than they do in the MVC tournament. The Valley is as strong at the top — and, for that matter, as deep — as it has been in a long time. And if there is anything that we know about Arch Madness, it’s that bringing home the MVC’s automatic bid is really tough to do for the tournament favorite. Creighton’s improved defense will carry them to the second weekend of the big dance, but don’t be surprised if they get picked off in the first round of the conference tournament by a team playing for their postseason lives.
  • The MVC gets at least three bids to the tournament. It’s all going to depend on whether or not those four teams can separate themselves from the rest of the pack — which will be hard to do given how few easy games there will be in conference play — but thanks to some of the non-conference performances by the top teams in the MVC, their league RPI is currently sitting at ninth. That’s a good thing.
  • Missouri State wins three league games. I don’t care how poorly they have played this season. This is the Valley, and the road in the Valley is not a friendly place. Missouri State will pick a couple people off.

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Creighton*
2. Illinois State*
3. Wichita State*
4. Northern Iowa
5. Indiana State
6. Bradley
7. Evansville
8. Southern Illinois
9. Drake
10. Missouri State

Indiana hires Dayton head coach Archie Miller

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Indiana is expected to hire Dayton head coach Archie Miller, the school announced.

The deal will be for seven years, according to The Vertical. Miller had spent the last six seasons as the head coach at Dayton, getting to four straight NCAA tournaments, including the Elite 8 in 2014, while winning the last two Atlantic 10 regular season titles.

Miller had been targeted by seemingly every high major program with an opening since he reached the Elite 8, but similar to Shaka Smart when he left VCU, Miller simply waited for the right job to come long.

Indiana is the right job.

There had been some speculation that Miller wouldn’t want to take Indiana, that his dream job is Ohio State and that the idea of coaching in a fishbowl like Bloomington is not something that would be all that appealing to him. But Indiana is an elite job. It’s the kind of opening that happens once every four or five years, and if Miller had said no to the Hoosiers now, it’s very possible that an opportunity like this wouldn’t come along for years, if ever.

This hire is surprising, not because it’s the wrong hire — I think they got this right — but because Indiana actually made the right decision.

The overwhelming sentiment since Tom Crean was fired was that UCLA head coach Steve Alford would be named the next head coach at Indiana because the Hoosiers wanted an “Indiana Guy”. Alford was born in New Castle, he played at IU for Bobby Knight, he won a national title with the program. The goal was to get the Indiana fan base back, a fan base that was so estranged from the program that Indiana had to play an NIT game on the road as a higher seed because they were reportedly afraid of allowing ESPN’s cameras to see the empty seats.

But just because a hire appeases the fans doesn’t make it the right hire.

Miller was the right hire.

If they really want to get the fans back, winning is the best way to do it. Archie is as good of a bet to win at Indiana as anyone.

Elite 8 Preview: Saturday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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So Friday got good.

If Zak Showalter’s game-tying three and subsequent discount double-check wasn’t enough, we had Canyon Barry’s chasedown block and, well, this game-winner from Chris Chiozza.

And all that came after De’Aaron Fox took out what felt like a season’s worth of frustration out on Lonzo Ball.

What is on tap for tonight?

No. 1 GONZAGA (-8) vs. No. 11 XAVIER, 6:09 p.m., TBS: Someone is going to be making their way to the Final Four for the first time on Saturday night, as Xavier’s Chris Mack and Gonzaga’s Mark Few square off for the right to play on the final weekend of the season.

And in a way, this is the perfect Final Four game. Both the Zags and the Musketeers are basketball schools in basketball leagues. They come from outside the power structure and have head coaches that have spurned jobs from within the power structure to remain there. They are built for a run like this, even if they were both overlooked on the way here.

Xavier was obvious. Playing without Edmond Sumner and Myles Davis, the Musketeers just haven’t been the team that they were supposed to be this season. That’s why they lost six straight games in February, but things have turned around in March, as Trevon Bluiett has put the program on his back and willed them to the Elite 8. Gonzaga is the opposite. They went 29-0 to start the season, but they have yet to be accepted as a legitimate title contender by most of the people that watch the games.

My guess on Saturday night is that the Zags make their statement and emphatically get into the Final Four.

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-8)

No. 1 KANSAS (-7) vs.  No. 3 OREGON, 8:49 p.m., TBS: This matchup is a lot tastier on paper than it is likely going to end up being on the floor. As good as Oregon has been this season, they are, essentially, Kansas light. They play two lead guards together and they play small-ball, with a natural wing lined up at the four.

The problem?

The Kansas guys are just better. Josh Jackson is a better player than Dillon Brooks. His length and athleticism should give the Oregon star fits. Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham are better than whatever combination of Payton Pritchard, Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis the Ducks opt to use.

And, for that matter, no team is playing better right now that they Jayhawks, who beat Michigan State by 20, Purdue by 32 and became the first team to score 90 points in their first three NCAA tournament games since 1995. I think that trend continues on Saturday night.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-7)

Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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Regional Finals – Sunday, March 26

2:20 p.m.,CBS, New York
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Florida (Verne Lundquist, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce)

5:05 p.m., CBS, Memphis
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kentucky (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Steve Alford: ‘I’m very happy at UCLA’

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford was still processing an 86-75 season-ending loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night when he had to answer questions about another blueblood program.

Sine the dismal of Tom Crean at Indiana, Alford has been one of the names rumored to be in the mix for the coaching vacancy. A reporter in the press conference in Memphis didn’t even get a chance to finish his question before Alford cut him off and a publicly state that he was happy in Westwood.

“I said it last week, and I’ll reiterate it again even more so, I guess, that I love Los Angeles,” Alford said. “To begin with, it’s a beautiful place, and our family has fallen in love with it. I’ve got two sons now, Kory first and now Bryce, that have graduated. Bryce is done, so he’s graduating from UCLA, so I’ve got two sons that are graduates from there, a daughter that loves the school she’s going to in Thousand Oaks. I’m very happy. I’m at UCLA. I don’t know of a lot of people that are out there wanting to leave UCLA.

“This is a pretty special place. We’ve worked awfully hard. Our staff has worked hard. We’ve got the No. 2 recruiting class coming in next year. We’re opening a brand-new, state-of-the-art, 60-plus million practice facility, Mo Ostin Center, that is going to be spectacular that we’ve worked awfully hard to be a part of that, and I want to see that through, and we’ve got some special kids that are coming to join us.

“I’m very, very happy where I’m at, and hopefully, that’ll continue.”

Alford won a national championship with the Hoosiers in 1987, scoring more than 2,400 points in his career under head coach Bob Knight. He has been with UCLA since 2013, reaching the Sweet 16 in three of his four seasons with the Bruins.

Crean was fired on March 16 after nine season in Bloomington.

Lonzo Ball has officially declared for the 2017 NBA Draft

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Following a season-ending loss in the Sweet 16 of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, UCLA freshman point guard unsurprisingly announced that he will enter the NBA Draft.

“That was my final game for UCLA. I appreciate the fans,” Ball told reporters.

The 6-foot-6 point guard has a strong case to be the No. 1 overall pick. It could be almost too enticing for the Los Angeles Lakers to pass on a Southern Cal product if the ping pong balls fall in their favor. New Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka were in Memphis for Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky.

Ball, in an All-American freshman season with the Bruins, averaged 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and a nation’s best 7.6 assists per game, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 42 percent from three.

He ended his college career with an 86-75 loss to the Wildcats, scoring 10 points, off 4-of-10 shooting, with eight assists.