Billikens’ journey to the Final Four begins with 17-point victory over Charlotte

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NEW YORK – March is the month where the elite teams identify themselves.

The top spot in the Atlantic-10 Conference changed hands numerous times this season, with VCU, Butler and even Charlotte atop the conference standings at one point.

But nobody remembers who No. 1 was in December. A team is judged based on what they do late in the season, when the games matter most.

But for the Saint Louis Billikens, all they have done since the games started to matter is win 14 of the past 17, with two losses coming in overtime.. The Billikens continued their winning ways on Friday, defeating Charlotte 72-55 in the Atlantic-10 Quarterfinals at The Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Saint Louis not only looked like the most complete team in the Atlantic-10, but also like a team that can compete for a spot in the Final Four.

That’s right. I said it.

This team has experience, cohesion, confidence and talent.

Saint Louis’ greatest strength is roster depth.. The late Rick Majerus did a masterful job putting together a dynamic team with players who each bring a unique skill set to table. Enter Dwayne Evans, the Billikens’ multi-purpose who led the way with 25 points and 9 rebounds on Thursday afternoon in win over the 49ers.

Evans has been the team’s steadiest hand since the beginning of February, scoring in double figures in each of the last 14 games.

But Saint Louis isn’t a one man show. In fact, the Billikens’s top five scorers are separated by just 3.1ppg, six Billikens average 7.4ppg or more, and four Billikens average at least 10ppg. Saint Louis has sure-handed guards, efficient shooters, versatile big-men, and a strong supporting cast.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys who are really good three‑point shooters,” said Evans following the quarterfinal win.

“You have to cover them and leave the inside open. So we kind of played in and out.”

On Friday against Charlotte, Saint Louis got a total team effort. Senior forward Cody Ellis scored 13 points to go along with Evans’ standout performance. They got steady play from forward Rob Loe, who finished with seven points, four rebounds, four assists and one block. Senior guard Kwamain Mitchell also added seven points, three rebounds, four assists and four steals. Both Loe and Mitchell had spot performances on Friday, but either one of them could easily take the lead next game. Coach Jim Crews echoed these sentiments following the win.

“I think we got the win kind of like we usually do. It comes from all kinds of different‑‑ I mean, we get a little from the defense, a little inside. We don’t shoot the ball that well from three. It seemed like we get threes at the right time, get to the line‑‑ I mean, we have a lot of different ways. I don’t know if we’re really, really good at any of them, but we’re good at a lot of them. The same thing with the players. They just‑‑ this guy, this game or next game or these three guys or those four guys. That’s kind of the beauty of our team.

That’s the beauty of this team. The Billikins don’t have to rely on one player. That stems from the team’s strong chemistry and experience. The Billikens embody the same characteristic that many of Rick Majerus’ famous Utah teams
from the mid-90s carried: integrity and a high level of character. The Billikens don’t get rattled easily.

“Teams are going to make runs on us all the time”, said guard Mike McCall Jr., who finished with nine points and four assists.

“We just need to go on to the next play and try to make a run ourselves.”

They are a top-50 team in both offensive and defensive turnover percentage. All eight of the Billikens’ primary players are upperclassmen. This is not a team filled with players that need the ball. This is not a team with fiery personalities, and Jim Crews likes that.

“I think we’ve got a bunch of guys that are leaders, but we don’t have one or two guys that kind of stand on top of the mountain top and say whatever needs to be said. We don’t have those type of personalities. So everything has kind of peaked with us. They don’t get real excited. They don’t get real down. They just kind of keep plugging away. That’s a great trait that they have.”

Are there more talented teams in the country than Saint Louis? Yes, there certainly are. But many of those “elite” teams don’t have the intangibles necessary to survive the long postseason trek.

Saint Louis does.

They have the proper personnel and all the tools necessary to make the steep climb to the top of the college hoops mountain.

You can contact Troy Machir on Twitter at @TroyMachir

South Carolina fans raise money to send “Gamecock Jesus” to Final Four

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South Carolina fans are sending one of their most recognizable compatriots to represent them this weekend.

Gamecock Jesus is heading to the Final Four.

South Carolina super fan Carlton Thompson is following the Gamecocks to Glendale as his fellow fans have raised over $7,500 to send the man known as “Gamecock Jesus” to Arizona for the team’s Final Four meeting with Gonzaga on Saturday night.

Thompson’s long hair, beard and presence at South Carolina games, even in lean times, earned him his nickname and apparently a following fervent enough to foot the bill for quite the trip.

“I’ve always dreamed it would be like this,” Thompson said last week about fan support at Gamecock games to the Post and Courier. “For years and years, it was so sparse with the crowds at the games. But once they started winning, the crowds started coming.”

Thompson is a 63-year-old VA hospital nurse, and has been attending South Carolina games for nearly 50 years.

Maryland’s Melo Trimble declares for the NBA Draft

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Melo Trimble’s career as a Maryland Terrapin is coming to an end. The junior guard is declaring for the NBA Draft and will sign with an agent.

“I am confident and excited to pursue an opportunity to play in the NBA,” Trimble said in a release. “I am proud of what my teammates and I were able to accomplish these past three seasons at Maryland. I developed many great relationships and friendships and together we able to create some very special moments for Maryland basketball. I want to thank Coach Turgeon for all of his support. He always believed in me. He challenged me and really helped in the development of my overall game. I am a more complete basketball player because of Coach Turgeon and the coaching staff. To stay at home and attend the University of Maryland is the best decision that I ever made and it was truly special to play in front of my family, friends and our amazing fans. Maryland will always be home.”

There was no better winner in college basketball the last three years than Melo. He changed the trajectory of Mark Turgeon’s program, winning 79 games in three years and ending his career 30-8 in games decided by six points or less. As a junior, Trimble and the Terps earned a No. 6 seed to the NCAA tournament, but they lost in the first round to Xavier. It was the only time in Trimble’s career that he didn’t reach the Sweet 16.

“Melo Trimble is a winner,” Mark Turgeon said on twitter. “Humble, hard-working, dedicated. Words can’t express what he’s done for our program. Always #StayMelo!”

Final Four Preview: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 3 Oregon

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The nightcap on Saturday should be a thrilling matchup between the two big dogs left in the tournament.

It’s something of a weird matchup: North Carolina wants to play fast but pounds the ball inside while Oregon is going to try and keep the tempo at a reasonable pace.

Here’s a look at the second game at this year’s Final Four:

WHEN: Saturday April 1st, 8:49 p.m.

BETTING LINE: North Carolina (-5)

THREE KEY MATCHUPS

1. Does North Carolina make Oregon go big or will Oregon force UNC to play small?: Without Chris Boucher available, Oregon has gone full-time to a small-ball look, playing Dillon Brooks at the four. North Carolina is never, ever going to play small-ball, as Roy Williams is one of the last remaining coaches that still plays two big men almost regardless of the situation. It’s part of the reason that the Tar Heels are the nation’s best offensive rebounding team.

Something is going to have to give. Maybe it’s Isaiah Hicks, the guy that will likely be tasked with chasing around Brooks for UNC and who has developed quite the habit of getting into foul trouble. Maybe Dana Altman will be forced to play Kavell Bigby-Williams and Jordan Bell together to keep the Tar Heels for controlling the paint. Hell, Bell could very well end up looking like Ben Wallace once again and control the paint all on his own.

However it plays out, I can see this matchup being what changes things one way or the other.

2. How do the Tar Heels deal with Oregon’s switching defenses?: The Ducks used a number of different looks against Kansas to take the Jayhawks out of a rhythm offensively. They played some man and they played some matchup zone, and it helped keep Josh Jackson and Devonte’ Graham from finding any kind of a rhythm on the perimeter. I don’t think it’s a hot take to say that more than anything, it was Kansas missing shots they normally make that cost them in the second half, and Oregon’s ability to change defenses and keep them off balance played a major role in that.

So how does North Carolina deal with those different looks? They’re fall less reliant on the three ball than Kansas is, and their size might be able to nullify Bell’s presence on the interior. It will also be interesting to see how the Ducks deal with Justin Jackson on that end, as they don’t really have a player on the roster than can handle his height (6-foot-8), ability to put the ball on the floor and shooting touch.

3. Is Joel Berry II or Tyler Dorsey better?: Justin Jackson is North Carolina’s best player and was deservedly named an all-american for the Tar Heels this season, but North Carolina goes as Joel Berry II goes. He rolled his ankle in UNC’s first round win over Texas Southern and shot 3-for-21 in two games during the first weekend, one of which was a near-upset at the hands of Arkansas. When he was back near 100 percent, he had 26 points on 8-for-13 shooting in a beatdown of No. 4 seed Butler in the Sweet 16.

Berry has a favorable matchup in the back court on Saturday, likely drawing freshman point guard Payton Pritchard when Oregon goes man-t0-man, and if he’s healthy, he should be able to take advantage of that. The problem? Berry rolled his other ankle against Kentucky on Sunday. He’ll have six days to get back to being himself, because the Tar Heels are going to need him.

Along those same lines, Brooks has been Oregon’s best player for two years, but Tyler Dorsey is playing as well as anyone in the country right now. When he’s putting up 24 points a night, Oregon is a different — a better — team. I expect that he’ll have to deal with Theo Pinson, who is UNC’s best perimeter defender and, at 6-foot-6, will have a size advantage on Dorsey.

Odds are pretty good at this point that one of those two is going to have a big game.

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THE BEST STORY LINE: Everything about this North Carolina run is fascinating, so take your pick here:

  • The Tar Heels, just a year removed from a brutal, heart-breaking, soul-crushing loss at the buzzer to Villanova are back in the Final Four as the favorite to win the national title.
  • For the second straight year, the Tar Heels are in the Final Four with the weight of an NCAA investigation looming over them. The NCAA’s ruling on the academic scandal involving the athletic department keeps getting pushed back, which means that we’ll be hearing from plenty of people that UNC shouldn’t even be allowed to be eligible for this tournament. Trust me. It’ll be a thing.
  • If North Carolina does win, where does Roy Williams rank among the greatest coaches of all-time? He’ll be one of just six with three national titles.

CBT PREDICTION: North Carolina (-5)

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.