CBT Roundtable: Most Important Player heading into the NCAA tournament

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In today’s Roundtable, we will each make a pick as to who is the most important player in the National Title race.

Rob Dauster: This pick is easy: Keith Appling.

I’ve been saying it all season long. If Michigan State can get healthy, they’re going to enter the NCAA tournament as one of, if not the favorite to win the national title. Gary Harris is over the ankle issues tht plagued him earlier in the season. Adreian Payne’s foot has gotten better. Travis Trice and Matt Costello have gotten past what ails them. Even Branden Dawson is on the verge of returning from his broken hand.

The one guy that Tom Izzo is waiting on is Appling. He injured his wrist in a hard fall back in December against North Carolina, and it hasn’t been right since then. That was two and a half months ago. He even sat out three games at one point. So the question is: will Appling ever get healthy? Will he ever be the guy that looked like an All-American back in November? Because when he plays that way, it makes the Spartans that much better. He was their closer, their facilitator, finally living up to the billing he’s had since he came out of high school.

If he can get back there, the Spartans will have a great shot to cut down the nets in North Texas. If he can’t, well, they’re still going to be a contender, but as we have seen all season long, they won’t be the same team.

Raphielle Johnson: No. 5 Kansas has steadily emerged as one of the favorites to win the national title, with the growth of freshmen Joel Embiid, Wayne Selden and Andrew Wiggins being one reason why. But if the Jayhawks are to win a national title there’s another, more experienced player who holds the keys. That would be point guard Naadir Tharpe, who’s currently averaging 9.0 points and 5.1 assists per game. Back in November more than a few folks (myself included) questioned whether or not the Jayhawks would be better off with freshman Frank Mason at the point, especially when considering how he played down in the Bahamas. But as the season’s progressed it’s clear that Tharpe is the player best suited to run the show.

When Tharpe plays well he’s both distributing the basketball and scoring in an efficient manner, which makes the Jayhawks an even tougher team to defend. And in many of Kansas’ six losses Tharpe hasn’t played at the level he’s displayed for most of the season. In those games he’s averaged 6.0 points and 4.8 assists per game, shooting 37.2% from the field with his performance at Kansas State (13 points, ten assists) being the best of the bunch. Kansas has the talent needed to make a deep run, but they can’t win six straight if Tharpe isn’t at his best.

Scott Phillips: For me, it has to be Duke’s Jabari Parker. Doug McDermott is the Player of the Year, but does anybody actually believe Creighton has a chance to win a title? Duke does have a chance at a title and a lot of that will have to do with the play of Parker.

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The focus for many will obviously be on Jabari’s offensive capabilities — and whether he can consistently score at a high level over a potential six-game stretch — but what about on the defensive end of things? Parker has to be able to score and rebound during the tournament while also having to face some of the best interior players in college basketball as a defender.

Is Parker up to the challenge? That remains to be seen, but as a lifelong Chicagoan, I watched Parker and Simeon win four consecutive Class 4A state championships in Illinois and you just didn’t bet against that dude when it came time for tournament play.

Obviously, the stakes, the level of play and the overall talent is much higher at the collegiate level, but Parker is a proven winner and will be a huge factor if Duke can make a Final Four run.

Terrence Payne: The former No. 1 team in the nation stumbled with back-to-back losses to Boston College and Duke last week. In those defeats, Tyler Ennis shot a combined 8-for-27 from the field. And while he still protected the ball — 12 assists to four turnovers — Duke was able to limit his effectiveness on the offensive end in the Blue Devils’ 66-60 win on Saturday.

What’s interesting about those pair of losses is that Syracuse had opportunities to win, and remain unbeaten. BC took Cuse to overtime, before pulling off the three-point upset win. The odds weren’t in the Orange’s favor with 10 seconds to go against Duke, but it was still only a one-possession game before Jim Boeheim became an Internet meme with his first career ejection.

Syracuse has gotten itself into a lot of close calls this season, and Ennis has been a key reason why the Orange have been able to prevail in many of those outcomes. Obviously the buzzer-beater against Pitt stands out, but it’s more so his decision-making and his poise down the stretch with the game in the balance. Entering that game against Pitt two weeks ago, Ennis had yet to commit a turnover in the last five minutes of a game.

Though, Ennis struggled from the field in the late stages against BC, typically a time where he flourishes. It was likely just a bump in the road in an otherwise impressive freshman campaign. A season which could end in Arlington for the Orange, if Ennis continues to thrive under pressure.

Matt Giles: Scottie Wilbekin is the reason why Florida’s offense is ranked fifteenth nationally. The junior guard, who is also arguably the team’s best on-ball defender, is no scoring slouch – 38 percent from beyond the arc – and his ability to create for the other Gators makes the team a favorite to reach the first weekend of April. Casey Prather can convert off the bounce, but the rest of the squad requires help to boost their scoring average.

The majority of Florida’s offense, when not in transition, is spent either spotting up or using pick and rolls, and Wilbekin is skilled at simultaneously understanding defensive spacing and how to best position his teammates to score. Nearly a quarter of UF’s offensive possessions are jumpers, and of those, 79 percent come from three, so Wilbekin’s passing acumen – per Hoop-Math.com, only 35 other teams are more dependent on an assist for a three point attempt than Billy Donovan’s squad – is crucial if Florida is to remain offensively efficient and avoid lulls, like during the second half against Vanderbilt.

Michael Frazier II, Patric Young, and Dorian Finney-Smith – three Gators whose percentage of shots taken is more than 20 percent – all are talented on offense, but without their point guard to position them in a perfect scoring opportunity, Florida likely wouldn’t be mentioned in any 2014 national title conversation.

VIDEO: Frank Martin’s touching tribute to his mother will melt your heart

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Frank Martin advanced to the Final Four for the first time in his career on Sunday afternoon, and the South Carolina head coach — who has blazed an unlikely trail to the pinnacle of the college basketball world — thanked the most important person to his success in the most beautiful way imaginable afterwards.

VIDEO: Luke Maye gets standing ovation in class after game-winning shot

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You want to talk dedication to ones studies?

How about this: Luke Maye, just 13 hours after hitting a game-winning shot to beat Kentucky in the Elite 8, got a standing ovation in his Business 101 class at 8 a.m. on Monday morning.

Check out the video:

Luke, you’re a celebrity now. Going to an 8 a.m. class after your weekend heroics is iffy at best, but if you’re going to do it, we need you to start dressing a little better than this.

VIDEO: De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo inconsolable after Elite 8 loss

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Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox, the two freshmen on Kentucky’s roster that aren’t Malik Monk, were sitting next to each other in the locker room following Kentucky’s loss to North Carolina on Sunday night, and the Wildcat stars were inconsolable.

As weird as this may sound, and as tough as that video is to watch at times, I love it. The problem with one-and-done kids is that it, at times, feels like they’re mercenaries, that they are players that are strictly in college because they have to be, because they can’t make millions in the NBA yet.

Fox and Adebayo certainly do fall into that category, but it doesn’t come with the typical shortcomings.

They clearly care about their school, about their teammates and about that loss.

I’ve grown cynical, I guess, and while I’ll readily admit that video was too tough for me to watch in its entirety, it is refreshing to see just how much they care.

Even if they are only making a seven month stop over in Lexington.

VIDEO: Kentucky, UNC fans react to insane finish to Elite 8 game

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The finish last night between No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Kentucky was one of the greatest and most exhilarating endings to a basketball that we’ve seen in the NCAA tournament.

It was capped by Luke Maye answering Malik Monk’s jumper with a jumper of his own, sending the Tar Heels to the Final Four for the second straight season.

That’s a roller coaster of emotions to go through in 10 seconds, and perhaps no one embodies that more than the dude in the No. 11 jersey here:

(Does anyone know him? Can we confirm he’s OK?)

Anyway, that emotion was nothing compared to what the Kentucky team went through. De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo were inconsolable in the locker room after the game:

North Carolina fans, however, were just a little bit happier:

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.”