College Hoops Team of the Week: UCLA Bruins

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Team of the Week: UCLA

UCLA struggled through the early parts of the season. There was the loss to Cal Poly. There were the struggles in their marquee matchups. There was out of shape Shabazz Muhammad. There were the transfers and the freshmen wanting more playing. There were the massive question marks on the defensive end of the floor. There was the speculation that Ben Howland’s job could be on the line. But on Friday night, the Bruins eased the minds, for now, of the fans in Westwood as they knocked of then-No. 7 Missouri in overtime in Pauley Pavilion, 97-94.

It’s a win that has a chance to be season-changing for the Bruins. This is not the same kind of UCLA team that we are used to seeing under Howland. They are never going to be good defensively. They can, however, score points in bunches with a lethal transition attack. It’s nice to see Howland embracing their strengths. This doesn’t mean that UCLA is back amongst the elite — they are really, really bad defensively (especially against the pick-and-roll) and Missouri has some issues of their own — but this was a statement win for the Bruins. It’s too early to write this team off, not with the amount of talent that they have on the roster.

Seven more teams deserving of a shoutout:

Arizona: Is it time to start taking Arizona seriously as one of the nation’s elite teams? They are 12-0 for the first time since 1987-1988, currently own wins over Florida and San Diego State and are only going to get better as their trio of freshmen bigs continue to improve. I’m still concerned about Mark Lyons at the point, but guys like Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and Nick Johnson have stepped up as facilitators while Lyons has proven capable of taking, and making, big shots in big moments. And in the end, that’s why Sean Miller brought him in.

Harvard: The best news for Harvard wasn’t the fact that they went into Berkeley on Saturday evening and left with a win over Cal. That’s impressive, even if this Cal team isn’t necessarily one of the Pac-12’s elite. The Crimson weren’t supposed to be great this year, not with Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry sitting the season. No, the best news wasn’t that an Ivy League team went into a Pac-12 team’s house and won, it’s that they were able to do so when their stud freshman, point guard Siyani Chambers, shot 2-15 from the floor.

Louisville: The Cardinals got the win that they desperately needed aginst Kentucky on Saturday. Big Blue has dominated that rivalry in recent years. They had won the four matchups since John Calipari arrived in Lexington, including last season in the Final Four, and are coming off of a national title. With Louisville looking like a national title favorite and the Wildcats struggling this year, a loss by Louisville could have been crushing for the fan base.

New Mexico: The Lobos bounced back from a tough home loss to South Dakota State by going into Cincinnati and knocking the Bearcats from the ranks of the unbeaten, earning themselves a marquee win to hang their hat on this season.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels picked up a much-needed victory on Saturday when they knocked off visiting UNLV 79-73. UNC has been underwhelming this season, and given the fact that they were missing their second-leading scorer in Reggie Bullock, few gave the Heels a chance in this one. But the Heels ended up dominating the Rebels in the first half, hanging on down the stretch when Dave Rice’s club made a run.

Valparaiso: The Crusaders went into Murray and knocked off Isaiah Canaan’s Racer squad. Ryan Broekhoff led the way with 18 points and eight boards.

Wichita State: The Shockers are crippled by injuries right now, which includes leading scorer and rebounder Carl Hall, but they still managed to smackdown league rival Northern Iowa on Sunday.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Final Four Preview: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 7 South Carolina

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The first game of this weekend’s Final Four will feature the two outsiders that have crashed the final weekend of the college basketball season: No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 7 seed South Carolina. 

This is the first Final Four for both Frank Martin and Mark Few, meaning one of the two will be playing for a national title on Monday night.

Here is everything you need to know about the Final Four opener:

WHEN: Saturday April 1st, 6:09 p.m.

BETTING LINE: Gonzaga (-6.5)

THREE KEY MATCHUPS

1. Who checks Sindarius Thornwell?: Thornwell has been the best player in the NCAA tournament to date, and it’s really not all that close. He’s not only the leading scorer in the NCAA tournament to date at 25.7 points, but he’s also been a lockdown defender for the Gamecocks.

But the reason Thornwell is going to be such a problem for Gonzaga is ability on the offensive end of the floor. At 6-foot-5 with long arms and the physicality of a nose tackle, Thornwell can bully guards in the paint. But you can’t guard him with a bigger defender because he is, after all, a guard. He’ll blow by them or shoot a three over them when given space.

Gonzaga doesn’t really have an answer for a guy like that. None of their guards are taller than 6-foot-4. Few put Johnathan Williams III on Trevon Bluiett in the Elite 8 and he slowed down the Xavier star, but Xavier trots out a small-ball line with Bluiett at the four. Thornwell will, at times, play the four for South Carolina, but the Gamecocks start two bigs. The easy answer is to double Thornwell on the catch, as South Carolina’s bigs, Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar, are non-shooters, which is why I expect South Carolina will eventually be forced to play small.

2. Can Gonzaga’s guards do anything against that South Carolina defense?: South Carolina and West Virginia play different defenses — WVU presses 94 feet while South Carolina plays half-court man-to-man or a 2-3 zone — but the point or their defenses are essentially the same: They want to force you out of the sets you want to run and make your playmakers try to beat their defenders one-on-one.

And the Mountaineers were totally successful. Nigel Williams-Goss was awful — 2-for-10 shooting five turnovers — and Josh Perkins was invisible, and the game became a rugby match, which is exactly how WVU and SC want to play. Offensively, Gonzaga is a similar team to Baylor in the sense that their guards aren’t great at creating off the dribble against players that are more physical and more athletic than them and they are at their best when they run offense through the post.

Baylor’s guards couldn’t do anything against South Carolina, and they lost by 20. Gonzaga’s guards are significantly better — Williams-Goss is an All-American — but if they struggle the way they did against West Virginia, Gonzaga might be in trouble.

3. Who wins the battle of the front courts?: Like I said earlier, Gonzaga’s offense is at its best when they are getting the rock to Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Williams III in the post. As tough as South Carolina’s front court is, they are going to be at a serious size disadvantage against Mount Poland and JW3, and that’s to say nothing of Zach Collins, a McDonald’s All-American and a potential one-and-done prospect. If Gonzaga can force South Carolina to play big — with Thornwell at the three instead of at the four — they’ll have a much better shot at winning this game.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

THE BEST STORY LINE: Both of these teams are programs that probably shouldn’t be in the Final Four.

And I don’t mean that as an insult.

Gonzaga, 25 years ago, was one of the worst programs in the WCC, but they’ve managed to hold on to a potential Hall of Famer in Mark Few for 18 years, and it’s paid off. They’re now a top 15 college basketball program in the Final Four. And South Carolina is a place with almost no basketball history to speak of. This is their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance since 1974. Prior to their upset of Duke in the second round of the tournament, South Carolina had never won back-to-back NCAA tournament games.

It doesn’t matter who wins.

It’s incredible that one of these two teams will be playing for a national title on Monday night.

CBT PREDICTION: I like South Carolina (+6.5). I don’t know if the Gamecocks can win this game, but I do think that they will be able to keep it close in a low-scoring game as Sindarius Thornwell as another big game and their defense keeps them in the mix.

Report: Referee that worked Kentucky’s Elite 8 loss receives death threats

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Yesterday, we told you about the Kentucky fans that were flooding the FaceBook page of a referee with negative — and obviously fake — reviews and comments, torpedoing his company’s star rating on the site.

As our Travis Hines wrote, “What could be considered a silly bit of online pranking by a small minority suddenly turns into an avalanche of nastiness that could do real damage to someone’s life, business and family, given the importance of social media for companies in 2017. It becomes cruel when it reaches a level like this.”

This story took a darker turn on Wednesday morning, as ESPN reporting that the referee has received harassing phone calls at both his home and his business while also receiving death threats.

From ESPN:

Sources said the phones at Higgins’ home and business, also known as Rooferees, have been “ringing off the hook” since the game, with angry Kentucky fans calling to complain and some even going so far as to make death threats.

Come on, people.

All this because you didn’t like the calls a ref made in a game where the 18-year olds who play basketball in your favorite school’s jersey lost?

The overwhelming majority of Big Blue Nation are good folks that love their ‘Cats and own too many articles of clothing that are Kentucky blue. But as with every fan base, the vocal minority of idiots ruins the fun for everyone.

The Seven Biggest Final Four Storylines

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1. Gonzaga’s chance to win a national title: To me, this is the most fascinating part of the Final Four, and it’s not because Gonzaga needs to win to make the statement that they are an elite college basketball program. I don’t believe that to be true or a fair assessment of what they are right now. The Zags are a perennial top 15 team, they’ve reached 19 straight NCAA tournaments and won in 16 in those 19 dances, they recruit McDonald’s All-Americans that are talented enough to go one-and-done and they currently start an All-American point guard that began his career playing for arch-rival Washington.

They’re doing just fine.

What would make this story so incredible is the rags-to-riches ride that Gonzaga is on. 25 years ago, Gonzaga was thought of as the worst job in the WCC. They don’t have a natural recruiting base — Spokane is basically in Idaho, it ain’t Seattle — and there weren’t facilities in place to set that program apart from any other in the league. They didn’t reach an NCAA tournament until 1995, but by 1999 they were in the Elite 8, they reached the Sweet 16 in back-to-back years after that, and the rest is history. They went from a high school gym to an arena that holds 6,000 people and is a bucket-list destination for all college hoops fans. They went from not having a weight room to chartering flights for recruiting trips.

They went from the bottom of Division I to the pinnacle of the sport. Completing that journey with a national title would only be fitting.

2. North Carolina’s redemption run, Roy Williams one of the greatest ever?: One year ago, North Carolina was on the receiving end of one of the most soul-crushing title game defeats ever. In any sport. To erase a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes against Villanova, hitting a miracle three with 4.7 seconds left to tie the game, only to have it disappear with one Kris Jenkins jumper is brutal.

But the Tar Heels, despite losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, are right back in the Final Four as the favorite to win the title. And if they do win, it may be time to start calling Roy Williams one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all-time. As in top five. Think about it like this: If Roy cuts down the nets again, he’ll have won three national titles in a 12-year span and become one of just six men — John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, Jim Calhoun, Bob Knight — to win that many rings and one of just three to do so in the modern era of college basketball, since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

He’s won eight ACC titles in the last 14 years compared to Coach K’s three. He’s been to five Final Fours in the last 14 years and nine total, the fourth-most of all-time. Most think of Williams as a coach that just rolls the ball out there, but maybe it’s time we starting giving him credit for being one of the greatest to ever do it.

3. Frank Martin has South Carolina in the Final Four: While Gonzaga is the mid-major program in this Final Four, the “outsider” so to speak, the program that doesn’t belong here is South Carolina. The Gamecocks have little to no basketball history to speak. This is just their fifth NCAA Tournament since 1974. Prior to this season, they had never won back-to-back games in the NCAA tournament. They lucked into Frank Martin because this was a comfortable landing spot when he wanted out of Kansas State because he didn’t get along with his boss.

And now Martin, who is an underdog in his own right, is just two games away from winning a national title. Who would’ve thought that any of that was possible?

4. West Coast is back!: For the first time since 2008, we have a team from went of the central time zone playing in the Final Four; two, actually. That also means that we may end up getting our first national champion that’s further west than Kansas since Arizona won the title in 1997. Mike Bibby was the point guard of that team. His son was a freshman at South Florida this year. It’s been a while.

5. Dana Altman’s handling of the Oregon rape case: Altman probably should have been fired three years ago. The basics: days before the start of the Pac-12 tournament, three Oregon players — Brandon Austin, Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis — were accused of sexual assault by a female student at the university. Two of those players played in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments, although Altman claimed he did not know details of the investigation — the allegations, the accused, etc. — only that there was an investigation, so he did not suspended his players.

Two months later, the graphic details of the allegations were released in a police report, and the three players were dismissed from the program. It also should be noted here than Austin was brought into the program despite having a previous sexual assault allegation hanging over his head, a fact that Altman also claimed ignorance of.

Altman will be asked about this.

(Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

6. The one-and-done factories aren’t in the Final Four: Duke got bounced in the second round. UCLA and Arizona lost in the Sweet 16. Kentucky and Kansas went out in the Elite 8. Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith Jr. and Jarrett Allen didn’t make the tournament. Miles Bridges and Jonathan Isaac lost in the first weekend and no one thought much of it. Given just how loaded this freshmen class was, i’s a pretty surprising result that there are no one-and-done stars in the Final Four.

There are a couple of freshmen that may have the opportunity to turn pro this spring — Gonzaga’s Zach Collins and North Carolina’s Tony Bradley — but those two played their way into being potential first round picks coming off the bench. They weren’t recruited as one-and-dones.

What does this say about the one-and-done culture?

Probably nothing beyond the fact that Kentucky lost on a buzzer-beater and Kansas played like Kansas State against Oregon. But it is worth noting.

7. Can North Carolina win a title while waiting for the NCAA to rule on them?: This is probably going to end up being the elephant in the room every time that Roy Williams steps up to the podium to speak this week. As you are probably well aware, the UNC athletic department has been mired in a scandal involving fake classes that helped keep athletes eligible for what feels like a decade. Due to legal battles regarding the Notice of Allegations, the case has been pushed back and pushed back and pushed back again. At this point, I think that the sun will burn out and Jim Boeheim will retire before we actually get an answer here.

Here’s the better question: If Williams wins a title this season, will this be his curtain call?

Kentucky fans flood Facebook page of official John Higgins’ company with negative reviews

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Unhappy with how John Higgins performed at his part-time job, Kentucky fans did their best trash him at his full-time gig.

The Facebook page of the referee’s Omaha-based roofing company was flooded by Big Blue Nation with negative comments and reviews after they were displeased with the official’s work in the Wildcats’ Elite Eight loss to North Carolina.

Not only did fans leave obviously fake and vulgar comments on the page, they also deluged it with one-star reviews to drive down its average significantly.

Once again, the Internet is struck by its proportionality problem. What could be considered a silly bit of online pranking by a small minority suddenly turns into an avalanche of nastiness that could do real damage to someone’s life, business and family, given the importance of social media for companies in 2017. It becomes cruel when it reaches a level like this.

When there’s so many general complaints about the state of officiating in college basketball, it’s also not helpful to do something like this to one of the referees generally considered to be one of the country’s best. It’s not exactly a glowing endorsement for prospective future officials to follow the career path if it brings this level of negative attention to you off the court.

Report: North Carolina to miss out on NCAA events through 2022 if HB2 not addressed by Thursday

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North Carolina is in danger of losing out on hosting NCAA events through 2022 if the state does not make changes to HB2, the controversial so-called “bathroom bill” by Thursday afternoon, according to the leader of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance.

“I have confirmed with a contact very close to the NCAA that its deadline for HB2 is 48 hours from now,” Scott Dupree, the head of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, said, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. “If HB2 has not been resolved by that time, the NCAA will have no choice but to move forward without the North Carolina bids.”

“The NCAA has already delayed the bid review process once and has waited as long as it possibly can, and now it must finalize all championship site selections through spring of 2022.”

The NCAA, as it reminded North Carolina last week, is making its determinations on hosts for events from 2018-2022 this week. There was movement last week at the North Carolina statehouse for a compromise on the bill, but that apparently stalled out, the News & Observer reported, though there remain efforts to make progress on a pact.

Should lawmakers not reach an agreement in time, the state’s flagship basketball programs will be without an NCAA tournament home-court advantage that they have often enjoyed. HB2 just this past year moved the first and second rounds out of the state and to South Carolina, where No. 2 seed Duke lost to the seventh-seeded Gamecocks in their home state.

Clearly, there’s much more to consider here than NCAA tournament implications, but it’s another reminder of the economic impact the bill has made in North Carolina. This week, The Associated Press estimated it will cost the state $3.76 billion over a 12-year period.