Conference Catchup: Michigan, Indiana headline a loaded Big Ten

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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 Big Ten Conference Catchup:

Favorites: Michigan and Indiana

At this point, it’s almost impossible to delineate between the Hoosiers and the Wolverines. They are unquestionably two of the top five teams in the country — alongside Duke, Louisville and Kansas (sorry, Syracuse and Arizona) — but, for the same reason that it’s tough to pick a title favorite out of that group, it’s tough to make a choice between the Hoosiers and the Wolverines. Both teams do things well. Both teams do some things poorly. Both teams have an all-american anchoring a roster full of talented role players, but neither team has the kind of talent that sets them apart from the rest of the pack.

Gun to my head, I’m picking Michigan to win the conference. Trey Burke has been that good, they have the kind of athleticism and versatility that is perfect in John Beilein’s system, and I think Indiana’s been bolstered by a weak non-conference resume. Then again, the Hoosiers are actually defending this season and have the nation’s best low-post scorer. Bottom-line: the season finale will be played between these two teams — March 10th at Michigan — and could end up being the best game of the year.

Contenders: I have a tough time seeing anyone other than Michigan or Indiana winning the league, but that’s not because of a lack of quality teams. Ohio State and Michigan State are probably going to end up being the Big Ten’s two biggest challengers, but based on the way that Illinois and Minnesota have played this season, it is impossible to count either team out.

Biggest Surprise: Brandon Paul, Illinois

We expected that Minnesota would be competitive this season, and while I doubt that anyone actually thought they could be a top 15 team at the turn of the year, their success is much less of a surprise than that of Illinois. The Illini look like they have fully bought into what John Groce is selling. A number of their wins have been less-than-impressive, but at the end of the day, a win is a win. Paul, however, has been a revelation. After spending three years as a guy with worlds of potential that was unable to put all the pieces together, Paul is playing like an all-american. He’s become deadly in the pick-and-roll and a much more consistent shooter. The problem? He’s so important to this team than they can struggle when he’s not playing well.

Biggest Disappointment: Purdue

We knew there was going to be a gap between the tournament hopefuls and the rest of the Big Ten, but I don’t think that anyone predicted that the Boilermakers would essentially be written off as a tournament team before December came to a close. Matt Painter’s club has dealt with some injury issues this season and their back court hasn’t progressed like many had expected.

Player of the Year: Trey Burke, Michigan

I’m going with Burke in what is probably the tightest player of the year race in the country. There’s no shortage of talent in the Big Ten this season, but Burke has been the best because of his ability to score and create based on what his team needs at the time. He gets his talented teammates involved early and turns into an assassin down the stretch. His numbers — 17.8 points, 7.4 assists, 1.9 turnovers, 53.6/75.7/38.3 shooting splits — aren’t to shabby either.

Best Freshman: Nik Stauskas, Michigan

No one really talked about Stauskas coming into the season, but he’s absolutely been the best freshman in the Big Ten. The kid simply doesn’t miss when he gets his feet set (he’s shooting 39-69, or 56.5%, from three) but he’s also capable of putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim, defending and rebounding for a player his size. He’s Zak Novak, only more talented, bigger, and a much better athlete.

Three Predictions

  • The Big Ten gets eight bids to the big dance. I’m not one to bet against Wisconsin. No one should be. Iowa is a young team that is only going to get better. And given how many good teams there are in the league and how many chances both the Badgers and the Hawkeyes are going to have to notch quality (marquee?) wins, I think their resume ends up being strong enough.
  • Shannon Scott becomes Ohio State’s best playmaker by the end of the year. I love Aaron Craft as much as anyone, but Scott is more dynamic and more talented. On a team that needs offensive support for Deshaun Thomas, Scott is a valuable option.
  • Tom Izzo’s team struggles in March. Branden Dawson hasn’t made a jump this season. Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix have been inconsistent. I’m not convinced Keith Appling and Gary Harris will be able to carry this team offensively. Will Izzo’s Magic March touch wear off again this season?

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Indiana*
2. Michigan*
3. Michigan State*
4. Ohio State*
5. Minnesota*
6. Illinois*
7. Wisconsin*
8. Iowa
9. Purdue
10. Northwestern
11. Nebraska
12. Penn State

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

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.

VIDEO: Florida’s Chris Chiozza beats Wisconsin at the buzzer

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — So you didn’t think the NCAA Tournament had enough excitement this year?

Wisconsin and Florida solved that problem for you.

The Badgers started things, as they erased a 12-point deficit in the final 4:15 to force overtime, a stretch that included an 8-0 run at the end of regulation that was capped by a Zak Showalter running three with 2.5 seconds left on the clock to tie the game at 72.

Wisconsin jumped out to a lead in overtime, but the combination of an inability to make free throws and and this epic chasedown block from Canyon Barry left the door open for the Gators, who eventually won the game on this running three from Chris Chiozza:

What.

A.

Game.

If we get a better one than this, I just hope I’m courtside for it.

KeVaughn Allen led the way for the Gators with 35 points, and no one else on the Gators scored more than eight points, but it didn’t matter. The Gators are still headed to the Elite 8, and Mike White will have a chance to play for the right to go to the Final Four in his first NCAA Tournaments.

Replacing a legend like Billy Donovan was never going to be easy, but White is doing an admirable job.

The other subplot here: With the win, Florida becomes the third member of the SEC in the Elite 8, and with a regional final against South Carolina on Sunday afternoon, it guarantees that there will be at least one SEC team in the Final Four.

While there were celebrations in the Florida locker room, Wisconsin’s was one of devastation.

The Badgers started four seniors, including tournament stalwarts Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, who played in their 17th career NCAA Tournament games.

Hayes had 22 points, but he’s going to be haunted by the free throws he missed. He was 7-for-14 from the line on the night, including four missed freebies in overtime. The end was similarly heart-breaking for Koenig, as he was a non-factor in overtime due to an injury he suffered on the possession before Showalter’s game-tying three.

Both of them are going to spend years thinking ‘What if?’ That’s how the NCAA Tournament works.

Everyone leaves in tears, either because they’re cutting down the nets at the Final Four or because their season — their career — just came to an end.

Hayes and Koenig were no different.

VIDEO: Canyon Barry saves Florida with epic chase down block

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Florida’s Canyon Berry had the best chase down block since LeBron James in the 2016 NBA Finals.

It kept Wisconsin’s lead at two points and gave the Gators a chance to tie and, eventually, win the game.

Look at this: