Markel Starks is out to prove people wrong for overlooking him, Georgetown this year

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source: AP
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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — McDonough Memorial Gymnasium is a relic, a 2,500 seat “arena” that was built on Georgetown’s campus back in the early 1950s. Complete with bleacher seating and a row of doors 20 feet from the baseline, McDonough harkens back to the days before anyone on the Hilltop had heard of John Thompson Jr. or Hoya Paranoia. The gym feels much more like a place to catch a high school game than a Big East contest.

These days, McDonough is generally reserved for volleyball and women’s basketball while the men play across town at the Verizon Center, but it’s still where John Thompson III hosts practice. And it’s still where Georgetown raises banners. When you walk into McDonough and look up at the rafters on your right, you’ll those banners, commemorating trips to the NCAA tournament.

And nothing else.

Since the Hoyas made the 2007 Final Four, Georgetown has gone 2-5 in the NCAA tournament, failing to make it past the first weekend in each of their trips. Making matters worse is the fact that the Hoyas have lost to a team with a double-digit seed in each of those tournament trips: No. 10 Davidson in 2008, No. 14 Ohio in 2010, No. 11 VCU in 2011, No. 11 N.C. State in 2012. It culminated this past season with Georgetown’s most embarrassing loss yet, a whooping at the hands of No. 15 Florida-Gulf Coast, an upset that Georgetown has spent all offseason hearing about.

Being the reason a Cinderella becomes the biggest story in sports is not pleasant.

Gaining a reputation as the trendy upset pick in March is not a legacy to boast about.

(MORE: Check out the NBCSports.com Big East Preview. Where does Georgetown rank?)

“I’m sick of looking up at those banners, not having any letters under it,” said senior point guard Markel Starks. “I have high expectations, not only for myself, but for this team. Every day I have to come in here and look up there, and there’s nothing there. So for me, as a leader of this team, it’s heartbreaking.”

It’s a trend that Starks, who was named to the Preseason All-Big East team, has spent all offseason stewing over. He’ll be a senior this season. His college basketball career is over this spring, and the last thing he wants is for his career to come to a close with yet another upset early in the tournament.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Starks said. “I’ve had fun, through the good and the bad, and I want this senior year to be a good one. But when I think of guys that I really looked up to, the guys that came before me: Roy Hibbert, out in the second round. Chris Wright, out in the first round. Not to take anything away from their career, but I want to leave a legacy. I want to leave on a positive note.”

“Deep in the Big Dance. That’s what it’s about.”

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Georgetown is known for the big men they produce. Under the elder Thompson, those bigs were hall of famers like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. Under JT3, we’ve seem names like Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, Greg Monroe and Otto Porter work their way into the first round of the NBA Draft. Even Henry Sims managed to play his way onto an NBA roster.

The Hoyas may have another in their midst this season, as UCLA transfer Josh Smith has been granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA. He’ll be playing on Friday, when the Hoyas take on Oregon at Camp Humphreys in South Korea, which gives JT3 an all-american caliber talent in the post if Smith is capable of playing 25 minutes a night.

The big men get most of the attention because of their success at the professional level, but for the Hoyas, it’s just as important for them to have excellent guard play as it is for them to have NBA players in the post. Think about the best Hoyas teams in recent seasons: Hibbert and Green had Jonathon Wallace. Monroe had Chris Wright and Austin Freeman. Sims had Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson.

That’s the role that Starks will play, and he’s talented enough to thrive as one of Georgetown’s primary offensive weapons.

Hell, if you ask him, he may tell you that he’s the best point guard in the country.

“It’s an honor, but I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s humbling. I feel like I had an outstanding year,” Starks said of receiving all-Big East honors and being named to the Cousy Watch list. “I want to win that award. It’s one of my goals. I haven’t received a lot of the other point guard accolades that I think I should have. I’m ready to check some names off this year. People need to know who I am.”

Starks made sure to run down the public relations checklist, saying that he didn’t want to take anything away from other talented point guards in the Big East and across the country, but having a conversation with him, it’s quite clear that he truly does have the confidence that he can go up against — and outplay — any point guard in the country. The fact that he more than held his own at the Kyrie Irving Point Guard Skills Academy back in June only solidified that believe.

At that camp, Starks went up against the likes of Kevin Pangos, Jahii Carson, Shabazz Napier, Semaj Christon, Justin Cobbs and even Irving. I was there for part of it. Starks more than belonged on that court; there were times that he thrived.

“Those guys deserve all the accolades that they get. But I can play, too. I can really play, too,” he said. “At times, you may not be able to see everything that I can do, but at the camps, I feel like that I outplayed a lot of the guys that get top level accolades. I’ll see some of those guys this year, and that’s where I want to do my talking.”

But it was a conversation with one of those point guards that has really kept things in perspective for Starks. He had a chance to talk with Aaron Craft, the Ohio State point guard that makes up for what he lacks in physical tools and natural scoring ability with leadership, toughness and defensive.

Most importantly, Starks said, Craft’s teams have played deep into March. He’s made a Sweet 16, a Final Four and an Elite 8, and could very well make it that far once again this season.

“Craft gets a lot of [press] because he’s a winner,” Starks said. “He’s a flat-out winner.”

Starks wants to prove that he belongs in the same conversation as the best point guards in the country. He wants to make people look silly for overlooking him. He wants to make us regret not including him on this list of top 20 point guards. He wants to put up the points and hand out the assists and throw the no-look passes and be the big man on campus.

Every athlete does.

But he also knows that will only get you so far if you can’t win when it counts.

“Doesn’t matter what you do individually, if you’re not winning?” Starks said. “You have to win ball-games. On the big stage. I can sit here and ramble on, but I gotta do it in the big lights. It’s not just big games during the season, it’s in the dance.”

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

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No. 4 FLORIDA (-3) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 2:20 p.m., CBS: If you’re a fan of uptempo, wide-open basketball, of teams running beautiful offensive sets, spreading the floor and using the three-point line like it should be used, this game probably is not going to be for you.

This is going to be as physical and as tough as any game you watched all season long. Both the Gamecocks and the Gators are top five teams in defensive efficiency, and both of them get out and pressure defensively, Florida in the full court and South Carolina in the half court. They shun shooters for the toughest athletes on their roster. They pride themselves in being tougher, both mentally and physically, than whoever they end up playing.

And they think that a game played in the 50s is beautiful basketball.

So bet the under if you can.

But the pick I like is Florida here. Their ability to defend is going to make it very difficult for South Carolina’s offensive renaissance to continue, and their guards will be able to make the plays offensively that South Carolina dares you to make.

PREDICTION: Florida (-3)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-2.5) vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 5:05 p.m. CBS: This is the rematch we all wanted, right?

Ever since that day three months ago, when Kentucky got 47 points from Malik Monk in a 103-102 win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, I don’t think there is a soul in the country that would have told you otherwise.

There are two major differences between these two teams now and those two teams then. The biggest is the presence of Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender. Pinson has dealt foot injuries all season long, and when these two got together in December, he was not yet healthy enough to play. I assume that he will draw the assignment of Malik Monk, chasing around the man that had definitively been Kentucky’s most dangerous scorer. Pinson will make life more difficult for Monk than it was the first time around.

But is he going to spend the entire game on him?

Because after De’Aaron Fox’s 39-point outburst against UCLA on Friday night, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Pinson may be better suited to taking on the task of keeping Fox from getting into the paint. Whatever Roy Williams opts to do, the bottom line is pretty simple — if he needs to find a way to keep Kentucky’s back court in check.

The other difference between now and then is that Bam Adebayo has been playing up to his potential for the past six weeks. He was solid earlier in the year. He can be dominant at times now, and that is going to be critical for the Wildcats, who are going to be outsized by a significant margin by UNC’s front line. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and they are one of the only elite teams that thrives playing two bigs at the same time. In other words, one of Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis are going to have to deal with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley. That’s a matchup that favors UNC, which is why Aebayo is going to have to play up to his size.

In the end, I think Pinson’s presence and North Carolina’s size advantage will be too much.

But if Fox and Monk play their game, they can carry Kentucky a long, long way.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (2.5)

Lawrence Police Department trolls Bill Self following Elite Eight loss

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Kansas had its season ended with a 74-60 loss to No. 3 seed Oregon.

The Jayhawks were the top seed in the South region. They were playing a de facto at the Sprint Center, which is 40 miles away from the school’s campus. As you can imagine, fans in Lawrence were likely unhappy, especially since it’s the second year in a row KU has been bounced one-game shy of the Final Four.

The Lawrence Police Department, while prepping for potential riots, couldn’t help tweeting a joke at the future Hall of Famer’s expense.

Bill Self’s teams have been eliminated seven times in the Elite Eight during his tenure at Kansas. He’s led the Jayhawks to a pair of Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2008.

Kansas finished the season 31-5.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

The slogan of the NCAA Tournament is “The Road to the Final Four”.

Outside of Duke, the runaway preseason favorite, and it’s months-long narrative of “Is Duke back?”, you could make the case there wasn’t a Final Four contender with a journey filled with more ups and downs than Oregon.

Weeks following a season-ending loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, Oregon learned that both Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey would return to school for the next season. In July, Dylan Ennis was granted a sixth-year of eligibility. With Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell returning, and Payton Pritchard joining the program, the Ducks were an easy choice for a preseason Final Four pick.

Brooks’ offseason foot surgery — and the recovery that followed — raised concern about whether or not Oregon could fully reach its preseason potential, entering conference play without a notable win. Brooks’ Pac-12 Player of the Year season put to rest the status of his foot, leading the Ducks to a 16-2 Pac-12 record.

Hours before Oregon was set to battle with Arizona, it was announced that Chris Boucher had torn his ACL and would be out for the remainder of the season. Not only could this have played a role in the team’s seeding by the selection committee, but Boucher offered more than rim protection, as he helped space the floor given his ability to step out and shoot from the perimeter.

After fending off a good fight from Iona, the Ducks looked to be part of a Rhode Island’s magical postseason run. Tyler Dorsey ended that. In the Sweet 16, Oregon was matchup with Michigan, dubbed as the team of destiny. Bell and Dorsey, Oregon’s two tournament stars, stepped up in critical moments once again. Slated as an underdog for the second straight game, Oregon proved its Final Four worth by handing Kansas its worst tournament defeat of the Bill Self era in a regional final game that was played 40 miles away from the KU campus.

“I’m happy for our team,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said following the game. “I’m happy for, as I mentioned, our university and our state. It’s been a long time coming and now we just need to go continue to play well.”

For Oregon, its road to the Final Four has come full circle.