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Ten crazy things to expect from March Madness

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All of sports are somewhat unpredictable. If they weren’t, nobody would watch. And most certainly nobody would fill out brackets if the outcome were that easy to determine. Athletes would play sports just to – ugh – stay healthy, and there would be no need for competitive fire or excellence.

So why is March singled out for the sobriquet “Madness”? Let me count the ways.

1. The three-pointers will fall: The three-pointer has become the great equalizer that makes even the lowliest team incredibly dangerous. Can’t entice a 7-foot behemoth to play at a small agricultural college in the sticks? No problem. Get three or four small, quick guys and let them bomb away. Example: Ali Farokhmanesh and Northern Iowa gunned down top seed Kansas in 2010, earning a Sweet 16 berth.

2. Players will forget the rules of basketball: This happens so often in college hoops that it drives NBA fans crazy. In the heat of the moment, 17-22 year olds make mistakes, often drastic mistakes, like shooting an off-balance three-pointer when an easy inside two-pointer would have tied the game. It’s really more situational awareness than ignorance of the rules, but it’s definitely the sort of thing that makes us potato-chip eating spectators shout invective from the couch. The most famous example is Chris Webber calling a timeout Michigan did not have in a 1993 title-game loss to North Carolina.

3. Referees will forget the rules of basketball: Again, nobody’s literally forgetting the rules, but we’ve all seen violations called unevenly. It’s bound to happen again this year. The calls most fraught with danger for a ref are blocking and charging, in which a high-speed collision between two players must be assessed as a foul for one team or the other. Excessive touch-fouls (light contact that is technically a foul, but slows the game down and effects the outcome disproportionately), lane violations and figuring out whether a defensive player made a clean block or committed a goal-tending violation are also matters of national outrage at this time of year.

4. Full-court pressure will cause chaos: If you’re an old-ish guy like me, this brings to mind the “Forty Minutes of Hell” deployed by Nolan Richardson’s Arkansas teams of the 90s. UNLV also tended to play this way in the Tarkanian years. These days, the finest example is practiced by Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams, who rode “Havoc” all the way to the Final Four a couple of years ago, and are a threat to do so again. When the press is on, it’s bewildering to opponents and exciting to watch.

5. Crazy players will light up the screen: Colorful characters can be hard to come by in college hoops. Coaches tend to tamp down the outrageous antics, but some guys are just irrepressible. This year, the guy you need to watch is Marshall Henderson, who absolutely loves being on television, and has become an internet star for trolling opposing fan bases with abandon. Most recently, he did a smarty-pants version of the Gator Chomp in the waning moments of the SEC title game. We may have to rename 2013 “Marsh Madness” if Henderson takes his team on a run.

6. Colorful coaches will say stuff they probably shouldn’t: Only in sports are grown men allowed – nay, encouraged – to act like toddlers. NCAA coaches will stomp, scream, swear and even get physical as the tension ratchets up. And that’s just during the game. Some coaches make headlines by showing off during organized practice sessions, or sounding off from the podium afterward. Quotable coaches abound in this field of 68, with Marquette’s Buzz Williams joining legends like Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino and Bill Self. Heck, even nice guy Tom Crean might give someone a talking-to when he gets his dander up.

7. Games will end on thrilling defensive plays: We talk so much about the buzzer-beaters, which gives short shrift to the guys who put in the extra effort to snuff them out. Think Hakim Warrick laying out and just getting his fingertips on a three-point try to preserve Syracuse’s lone national title in 2003.

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photo courtesy Middle Tennessee State Spirit Teams

8. Mascots will amuse and baffle you: You’ve probably seen the likes of Sparty, Albert E. Gator, and Willie the Wildcat. They’re on constant display during football season. The inclusiveness of the NCAA tournament brings some lesser-known doozies into the public eye. The St. Louis Billiken may frighten children. Wichita State’s Wushock is the meanest bundle of wheat I’ve ever seen. Here, there be Jackrabbits. The pinnacle, though, is Lightning (pictured): the Middle Tennessee State mascot is a blue Pegasus who shoots thunderbolts out of his nose. Top that.

9. Student sections will cut up: Some kids take spring break in Florida, California or South Texas. Others combine the unofficial college holiday with college basketball, with all that entails. Student sections are somewhat corralled in neutral venues, but often, they’re the only thing keeping the whole shebang from becoming a bloodless corporate sponsorship opportunity. Laugh at their chants, signs and attempts to get on television. Relish them.

10. A mystery player will make a star turn: Many, many players are well-kept secrets, known only to college-hoops obsessives like the staff of CollegeBasketballTalk. We get to play the hipster role (“I noticed him when nobody knew who he was”) when those guys get to the tourney and dazzle. Last year, Damian Lillard was socked away at Weber State – now he’s a Rookie of the Year candidate in the NBA. This year, we’ve got our eyes on the likes of Mike Muscala (Bucknell), Nate Wolters (South Dakota State) and Jamaal Franklin (San Diego State). And there may be others lurking, just waiting to show us what we’ve been missing.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

Creighton’s Mo Watson Jr. has a torn ACL

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 25:  Head coach Greg McDermott of the Creighton Bluejays talks with Maurice Watson Jr. #10 during the team's game against the Massachusetts Minutemen during the championship game of the Men Who Speak Up Main Event basketball tournament at MGM Grand Garden Arena on November 25, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Creighton won 97-76.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Mo Watson Jr.’s Creighton career is over.

The star point guard for the Blue Jays had an MRI on Tuesday to determine the damage suffered in his left knee, and it revealed a torn ACL. Watson entered Monday’s game at Xavier averaging 13.4 points and a nation’s-best 8.8 assists on the season. He was the engine that made Creighton’s high-octane offense work.

“Devastated for [him],” head coach Greg McDermott said. “His impact on our program has been incredible. His leadership will continue to be vital to our success.”

With Watson, who was having an all-american season and was seventh in our Player of the Year Power Rankings as of Tuesday, Creighton was a team with Final Four upside. Their defense was a concern, but their ability to score in transition and to get easy looks from three – both of which were largely due to the ability of Watson – ensured that teams were going to have to score in the 80s to beat them.

Without Watson, Creighton was able to hang on to beat Xavier in Cincinnati, but it’s unclear what the future will hold. Isaiah Zierdan replaced Watson at the point down the stretch, and Greg McDermott does have a number of talented guards on his roster, but that doesn’t do much to mitigate was is a devastating loss for this team.

Watson released a statement on twitter on Tuesday:

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Mason, Hart, Lonzo. Who ya got?

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1. Frank Mason III, Kansas
2. Josh Hart, Villanova
3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: At this point in the year, I feel pretty comfortable making the guarantee that the National Player of the year is going to be one of these three players for three reasons:

  1. All three of them are not just an important piece but the critical component to their team’s success.
  2. The team’s that they play on could very well be the three best teams in college basketball, and I’ve always been of the mindset that winning matters when it comes to Player of the Year and all-american honors.
  3. Their numbers alone are good enough to get them into the conversation even if they didn’t happen to be the best player on one of the best teams in the country.

Frankly, the more that I think about it, labeling this a two-horse race was probably wrong. I’ve had Lonzo Ball third in these rankings for more or less the entire season, but there’s always been a gap between him and the two guys slotted above. Ball’s numbers are ridiculous – 14.6 points, 8.0 assists, 5.5 boards, 1.8 steals, 2.3 turnovers – but it’s what he’s done to that UCLA team that I’ve under-valued. Ball is a talent, and so is T.J. Leaf, but on paper, the difference between this team and last year’s team shouldn’t be as stark as going from a 15-17 season to a year where they are a buzzer-beating three at Oregon away from being undefeated on Jan. 17th. Ball’s presence did that.

The other difference?

I have Frank Mason III as the current leader for the award. Part of that is because Josh Hart has had a couple of bad games in a row and Mason, in the three games since we last convened here, led comebacks at Oklahoma and against Oklahoma State before guiding Kansas to a win at Iowa State. But there is also an argument to be made that Josh Hart has been somewhat figured out in league play. Teams can key in on him and he isn’t quite to the point where he has a response. Big 12 opponents haven’t been able to do that against Kansas.

That, however, is the definition of picking nits, but that’s what we have to do to differentiate these three at this point.

Because when the chips are down, those three players, at this point in the season, have all been sensational, and I would have no issue with someone picking either of the three to win the award.

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4. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: In Purdue’s only game last week, Swanigan had “just” 17 points and eight boards, but he had a late turnover, missed a critical, point-black shot with less than a minute left and then watched a ball bounce out of bounds that was ruled – probably incorrectly – to be off of Purdue. It wasn’t the greatest finish we’ve seen out of a player this year.

5. Luke Kennard, Duke: In the first 14 games of the season, Luke Kennard averaged 13.9 shots per night and consistently churned out enough terrific performances that he deservedly has been the only Duke player considered for a spot on all-american teams all season long. In the last four games, however, Kennard is averaging just 9.8 shots, which can be attributed to a couple of different things. I don’t think the issue is defenses being more focused in on stopping him, mainly because I think the issue is Jayson Tatum.

Tatum has led the Blue Devils in field goal attempts in six of the last seven games. His usage rate (the percentage of possessions that end with him while he’s on the floor) is 27.8 on the season despite posting an offensive rating of 105.1, meaning he scores 1.051 points-per-possession. In the last seven games, he’s only had an offensive rating better than 109 in home games against Georgia Tech and Boston College.

Kennard, on the season, has an offensive rating of 133.5, which is third nationally for players that with a usage rate above 20, but his usage rate is stuck at 21.7. In other words, the numbers back up what our eyes have been telling us – that Duke’s offensive isn’t as good when the offense flows through Tatum instead of Kennard.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07: De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

6. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox is the most important player on Kentucky, and I don’t understand people that argue otherwise. Malik Monk can win games with his ability to score, but Fox ‘s ability to defend and to turn defense into offense is why the Wildcats are in a position for Monk to win games with his scoring alone.

7. Mo Watson Jr., Creighton: It looks like Creighton dodged a bullet on Monday. There has yet to be an official diagnosis, but what initially to be a non-contact knee injury for Watson, it appears that there is no ligament damage. A torn meniscus will not be an easy thing to recover from, but a bone bruise would be. Here’s to hoping he’s OK, but Watson is the engine that makes Creighton’s high-powered offense run.

(UPDATE: Watson’s career is over. He tore his ACL.)

8. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Berry has been fantastic this season, and there’s a very strong argument to be made that he’s the ACC’s Player of the Year as of today. He is everything we wanted Marcus Paige to be over the course of the last two seasons.

9. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss has been terrific this season, and I’m not sure how many people have noticed. After posting 19 points and six assists in a 23-point win over No. 21 Saint Mary’s, he’s averaging 15.2 points, 5.8 boards, 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals with shooting splits of 49.5/41.1/89.5. This is the best Gonzaga team Mark Few has ever had, and Williams-Goss is the best player on the roster.

10. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Luke Kennard is third nationally in offensive rating for players with a usage rate that’s better than 20. No. 1 on that list? Lauri Markkanen, who is quietly having a terrific season for the Wildcats.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Malik Monk, Kentucky
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
Markelle Fultz, Washington
Josh Jackson, Kansas
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
Justin Jackson, North Carolina
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Melo Trimble, Maryland

Lauri Markkanen, Arizona Athletics
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona Athletics

CBT Podcast: Luke Winn joins to talk Kansas and their unorthodox backcourt

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 03:  Devonte' Graham #4 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrates with Frank Mason III #0 after making a three-pointer during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Allen Fieldhouse on December 3, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn, Mr. Power Rankings himself, joined the podcast this week to talk about something other than the Power Rankings.

Luke wrote a long feature on Kansas’ back court of Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham, a serendipitous pairing of former mid-major recruits that have turned into arguably the nation’s best pair of guards and the next great two-point guard back court. You can read that story here. You can listen to the podcast below.

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VIDEO: Mark Gottfried on Sunday’s N.C. State performance: ‘It’s embarrasing’

CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 29: Head coach Mark Gottfried of the North Carolina State Wolfpack reacts during the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at State Farm Center on November 29, 2016 in Champaign, Illinois. Illinois defeated North Carolina State 88-74. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Mark Gottfried is probably the happiest man in the world that his N.C. State team played – and lost – a home game against Georgia Tech on Sunday night, overlapping with the end of the thrilling Green Bay-Dallas NFC Playoff game.

No one was talking about it.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Joe Giglio of the News & Observer was there and, like he did after last weekend’s loss at Boston College, he took Gottfried to task for his team’s performance.

The biggest issue? Gottfried’s nonchalance at the way that a team with the talent to finish in the top six of the ACC and get to a Final Four is playing. The Wolfpack should not be sitting at 1-4 in the ACC having already played BC and Georgia Tech. Gottfried told the media after on the loss to Boston College that his team “got better,” which was as laughable then as it is now.

On Sunday night, he certainly did not try and view his team through rose-colored glasses:

That’s about as mad and emotional as you’ll see Gottfried get.

And he’s got every right to be mad, because the Wolfpack – who count a future top five pick, another future first rounder and at least three more guys that will get a shot on NBA Summer League teams – currently sit at the bottom of the ACC standings and third-to-last in KenPom’s ACC rankings.

The biggest issue is on the defensive end of the floor, which Gottfried made so clear Sunday.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said. “We’ve got to decide if we want to play some defense. I can talk about it for 2 hours every day at practice, at some point, they better make a decision. Right now, we struggle to guard anybody.”

The numbers back it up. N.C. State is dead last in the ACC in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and the only high-major programs that are worse than them defensively are Michigan, Washington State, DePaul, LSU, Washington and Arizona State. The Wolfpack are by far the most talented team out of that group, and probably the most athletic as well. They should be good defensively, but, if you talk to coaches in the league and NBA scouts that have watched that team play, the most consistent knock on them is, simply, that they don’t play hard.

And that may be more worrying than any of the results the Wolfpack have posted this season.

“I don’t want to paint the picture that I walk in there every night, even after a loss, it’s Pollyanna inside my locker room,” Gottfried said. “I think it’s time they understand, they need to understand. I can coddle them, I can baby them, but they have to take ownership.”

VIDEO: Roy Williams gets customized shoes from Michael Jordan

CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 16:  Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels is presented with a gift as he celebrates after his 800th career victory with a 85-68 win over the Syracuse Orange at the Dean Smith Center on January 16, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Roy Williams became the second-fastest coach to get to 800 career wins last night, and to honor him, UNC did things like put together a video presentation, give him a jersey with the number 800 and bring him to the center of the Dean Dome floor to get cheered by everyone in attendance.

But it was Michael Jordan whose gift floored everyone.

Literally.

Because MJ got Ol’ Roy a pair of customized shoes, and it just about killed Brandon Robinson:

Here’s a closer look at those kicks: