Rodney Hood’s development as a redshirt spurred by every other team’s best player?

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Rodney Hood did not want to sit out last season.

No athlete ever wants to put their playing career on hold, but the frustration was two-fold for Hood. The former five-star recruit left Mississippi State after one forgettable season playing for Rick Stansbury, alongside the likes of Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost.

Hood was good-but-not-great in his one year in Starkville, but the Bulldogs were a train-wreck. They missed the NCAA tournament for the second straight season while their issues off the court were more troublesome than the problems they had on it. Stansbury “retired” after the season, so Hood left.

He picked Duke over Ohio State, among others, but since transferring after the coach that recruited parts way with the program doesn’t qualify a player for a hardship waiver, Hood was forced to redshirt last season. He could practice with the team, but he wasn’t allowed to play. He wasn’t even allowed to travel, a fact that was made problematic by the lack of cable in the Duke dorm rooms. Hood was forced to watch road games in the locker room or at a Buffalo Wild Wings.

It’s not an easy process, particularly when it seems like every single relevant transfer is able to find a way to get a waiver to play immediately.

The irony, however, is that spending a year away from the game may have been the best thing that could have happened to Hood. Since he wasn’t able to play, Hood threw himself into workouts, living in the gym.

“I’d go to practice, participated, went hard, tried to help the team out as much as I can,” Hood told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. “Then later on that night I would come back and shoot that night. Then when the team went on the road, I would get in the gym and work out, go watch the game, and then go work out more.”

“I would lift on gamedays, just stay in the weight room every time the team was away or before a game, I had to get stronger.”

And he did.

Hood said he’s up to 212 pounds from 195 when he first got to Durham. “All good weight,” he says, the kind that hasn’t cut into his athleticism.

But the weight was only the half of it. Hood spent quite a bit of time doing skill work as well. He’s a more consistent shooter, he developed his handle, he’s gotten better at getting all the way to the rim, he better understands Duke’s defensive principles. The biggest difference in Hood’s game, however, may end up being his aggressiveness.

The only way to improve a skill is through repetition, and the ability to be aggressive and assertive on a basketball court is a skill. You can learn it. You can develop it. And that’s exactly what Hood was forced to do last season. Every single day in practice, the Duke coaching staff used Hood as an opponent’s best player, whether it be a point guard, like Virginia Tech’s Erick Green or Shane Larkin, or a big man, like Creighton’s Doug McDermott.

“I think at times he was reserved in his freshman year at Mississippi State, so when you’re put into the character of another team’s best player, you have to get into a new mindset, one that’s very aggressive and assertive,” associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “That’s what we need him to be this year for our team. Getting out of the old habits, or getting into a new character, I think can be very beneficial for a player. That’s why I think that, a lot of times, a redshirt year for a college kid is very good. I certainly feel like it was very productive for Rodney.”

Hood loved his role in practice. He embraced it. He was the focal point offensively every time he stepped on that practice. Nothing he did could ever be considered a bad shot. That’s a great way to develop confidence in a player, for him to learn how to do different things on a basketball court. You have a lot more freedom to make a move you’ve been working on individually when you’re not worried about one mistake getting you yanked off the court.

“It’s like playing with free money,” he said.

It also allowed Hood to work on his all-around game. He was forced to learn how to handle the ball against pressure. He had to figure out how to drive and score when help defense was always one dribble away. He had to practice being aggressive even when a defense was built around stopping him. “It’s hard to score when everybody is focused on you,” Hood said.

As a result, Hood not only developed as a player, he developed a confidence in his ability, a belief in himself that he’s capable of doing all of these different things on a basketball court. The coaching staff can put him in different positions on the floor and be confident that he’ll be able to be effective.

And when you consider that Hood will be the second-most versatile player on the Duke roster to freshman Jabari Parker, it creates a situation where the Blue Devils will be able to put lineups on the floor that are very difficult to matchup with.

Hood’s just happy that those matchups will come outside of practice this season.

“I’m looking forward to everything,” he said. “The rivalries, playing against other great players and the best teams in the nation. The ACC is going to be great this year, and I’m looking forward to that challenge.”

Like his career, Frank Martin has built South Carolina from the ground up

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NEW YORK — It was after he finished watching South Carolina cut down the Madison Square Garden nets, after he had spent the better part of 30 minutes giving interviews on the court, after he was spotted by the CBS cameras, with a fist raised and tears pooling under his eyes, that the enormity of what he had just witnessed hit Darius Rucker.

“Gosh,” he said to everyone and no one in particular as he left the arena floor and made his way through the bowels of the Garden, “I can’t believe that just happened.”

The ‘that’ that Rucker, South Carolina’s most famous and, quite possibly, biggest fan, was referring to was a 77-70, come-from behind win over No. 4 seed Florida that jettisoned the seventh-seeded Gamecocks through the Elite 8 and into the Final Four. Prior to this season, the Gamecocks hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years. They had been to four NCAA tournaments in the previous 43 seasons, and they had never won back-to-back tournament game.

As in not ever.

“We’re in the Garden, watching the Gamecocks play to go to the Final Four,” Rucker said. “If you’d have told me that ten years ago I’d have told you that you were on crack.”

That’s the program that Frank Martin inherited in 2012, when he left Kansas State following a falling out with his athletic director, John Currie. Like South Carolina, Kansas State was hardly considered a destination job when Martin was at the helm, but he was able to build off of a foundation created by Bob Huggins. Martin had been to four NCAA tournaments in five years with Kansas State when he made the decision to leave. Nothing is more important to Martin than loyalty. “He’s always had a core group of people that he’s counted on,” his agent, Bret Just, said, and Currie was not one of those people.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came during the 2012 NCAA tournament. Kansas State was a No. 8 seed, squaring off with No. 1 seed Syracuse when Martin was informed by Currie that Jamar Samuels, one of his best players, would not be allowed to suit up. The school had stumbled upon information that Samuels had received a wire transfer for $200 from his AAU coach, and he was going to be suspended.

And that was that.

Martin was off to South Carolina.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“It was a situation where we had to go,” associate head coach Matt Figger, who has been with Martin for the last decade, said, and it wasn’t exactly the easiest or smartest decision to leave. Most understood why Martin had to make the change that he made — he was offered a hefty raise and he had the chance to leave a place of employment where he did not get along with his boss — but it wasn’t as if Martin was climbing the ladder. If anything, South Carolina was a step backwards, as Martin took over a program with less pedigree and with a significant building job in front of them.

“I didn’t really know until I got into it. It was a much different deal. It looked easier on the surface than what it really was,” Figger said. “The best players transferred. Bruce Ellington, he’s with the 49ers now, he was the one guy that we could trust and he played football half the year. Couple of the guys that were the holdovers, I don’t think they believed in what our vision was. After a year, some of them left.”

“We had to start this from scratch.”

The process was slow in the early stages. Martin replaced Darrin Horn, who had won just 10 games and finished dead last in the SEC in his final season on campus, and didn’t post a .500 record until his third season in Columbia. Even then, that team went just 17-16. He won 15 SEC games in his first three years combined. After a late season swoon cost South Carolina a shot at the 2016 NCAA tournament, there was speculation that another year without a trip to the Big Dance could spell the end of Martin’s time with the Gamecocks.

“It was hard!” Martin’s wife, Anya, said. “You see he’s losing his hair. It’s all turning white. It was tough in the beginning. I had to ask him a couple of times, ‘Why here?’”

The easy answer is that it wasn’t Kansas State, but the truth is more complicated than that.

Martin is not a man that is afraid of a challenge. He’s not intimidated by a job that isn’t easy to do, not when you come from where he’s come from, when you’ve coached on the path that he has coached.

Martin got his first job when he was 12 years old, working at a Dairy Queen to help his mom pay the bills when his dad walked out on them. His coaching career started a year after he graduated high school, when he was just 19 years old.

“I tore my ACL the year before,” Martin said, “and my high school coach asked me to come help him, because the kids in the neighborhood respected me so much.”

He was nothing more than an assistant with the team at Miami Senior High School, helping out when and where he could, when the head coach of the JV team didn’t show up for work one day. Shakey Rodriguez, a legend in the Miami High School basketball community, told Martin he would be coaching that day, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“By his second season,” Martin’s mother, Lourdes, beaming as she held back tears of joy, said, “he was 22-0.”

Even as Martin was coaching, he was still working on the side, most famously as a bouncer in Miami’s nightclub scene. He needed a degree, so he took night classes at Miami-Dade College before enrolling part-time at FIU. His future was capped if he didn’t graduate.

“He made it out,” she added, holding on to her grandson to steady herself as the moment washed over her. “He had many, many jobs, and then God was up there and blessed him.”

Martin would go from the high school ranks to Northeastern, taking a paycut just to get his foot in the door. He spent four years as an assistant and met his wife — “My wife turned me down seven times to go out on a date,” he said. “Seven. Seven. And the day she made the mistake of going out on a date with me, I never let her go.” — before moving on to Cincinnati, where he joined forces with Bob Huggins, spending two seasons with the Bearcats before following Huggins to Kansas State. He replaced Huggins as Kansas State’s head coach a year after joining the program and just seven years after he joined the collegiate coaching ranks. He would take the Wildcats to more NCAA tournaments in his five seasons at the helm than they had been to in the previous two decades combined.

“Frank’s never steered away from a challenge as long as I’ve known him,” Anya said. “He’s overcome any obstacle in his way, just ‘I’m going to make it work.'”

“He’s a builder,” Just said.

And he’s done just that at South Carolina.

“I’m happy as any mom could be,” Lourdes said. “Speechless, but not all the way. I have to talk to him about my air ticket.”

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Martin spoke many times about the dream of leading this team to this moment, but he didn’t always believe that the dream of taking the Gamecocks to the Final Four was a realistic possibility.

“When we beat Duke, Frank said ‘Why not us?’” Figgers said, a motto that had become something of a rallying cry for the Gamecocks during the East Regional. “That’s the first time we really talked about [winning a title].”

The team and the coaching staff weren’t the only ones that never really gave this possibility much thought. College basketball at large — the fans, the media, opposing coaches — all had the same thought: “South Carolina in the Final Four? The same team that put up 86 points in four overtimes against Alabama? Lulz.”

They showed us.

Over and over again.

South Carolina’s star guard Sindarius Thornwell, who was named Most Outstanding Player in the East Region, mentioned in every press conference this weekend that no one paid attention to or respected the program prior to this run. Martin ranted earlier this year about the lack of local media coverage his team gets, particularly when they play on the road.

At this point in the season, most players get burned out of the media attention they get, answering the same questions over and over and over again.

I don’t blame them.

On Sunday evening, after spending 25 minutes up on the dais for a postgame press conference, Thornwell was finally en route back to the locker room to celebrate with his team when he was pulled aside by a television reporter that needed just a couple more minutes of his time.

Thornwell, decked out in a East Regional Champs shirt and hat with the remnants of a net dangling around his neck, didn’t mind.

“You gotta talk a lot,” Thornwell said, “when you win.”

Drake hires Furman’s Niko Medved to be new head coach

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Drake has hired Furman head coach Niko Medved to the same position, the school announced on Sunday.

The 43-year-old Medved has led the Paladins to back-to-back CIT appearances as he’s been the head coach there for four seasons. Also an assistant coach at Minnesota and Colorado State, Medved is a noted recruiter.

“I am ecstatic about the opportunity to be the next men’s basketball coach at Drake University,” Medved said in the release. “Drake University’s tremendous reputation partnered with its strong leadership and the thriving Des Moines community make this a special place.  I was born and raised in the Midwest and have so many strong roots in this part of the country.  My family and I can’t wait to get started.”

Medved was named the Southern Conference’s 2017 Coach of the Year for helping lead Furman to the regular-season title in the league.

The Bulldogs are coming off a last-place finish in the Missouri Valley Conference as former head coach Ray Giacoletti was relieved of his duties in January. Drake only has one NCAA Tournament appearance since 1971 (coming in 2008) as the Bulldogs have struggled to remain relevant in a tough league.

VIDEO: North Carolina and Roy Williams dance in locker room after advancing to Final Four

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Watching Roy Williams dance never gets old.

The North Carolina head coach is taking his team back to the Final Four next weekend after the Tar Heels outlasted Kentucky in a thrilling South Regional final.

North Carolina is making its 20th appearance in the Final Four as they are going for the second consecutive season.

2017 NCAA Tournament Final Four schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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National Semifinals– Saturday, April 1

6:09 p.m. EST, CBS, Glendale
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Approximately 40 minutes after conclusion of first game, CBS, Glendale
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 3 Oregon (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

VIDEO: The insane final 10 seconds of North Carolina’s win over Kentucky

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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North Carolina and Kentucky ended in legendary fashion on Sunday.

After freshman Malik Monk buried a heavily-contested three-pointer to tie the game at 73-all for Kentucky with under 10 seconds left the Tar Heels didn’t use a timeout as Theo Pinson found forward Luke Maye for the game-winning jumper.

These 10 seconds will go down as one of the greatest finishes in NCAA Tournament history.