East Region Preview: Are Michigan State and Iowa State the two best teams?

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In a move that surprised many when the bracket was announced, it was Virginia and not Michigan that ended up getting the No. 1 seed in the East Region. Did they deserve it? Well, when you win the ACC regular season title outright and back that up with an ACC tournament title, I think you’ve made all the statements that you need to make.

The problem?

Their reward was getting stuck in a bracket with a No. 4 seed that just so happens to be one of the most talented teams in the country and, thanks to the long-awaited arrival of overall team health, peaking as the the tournament begins.

That would be Michigan State. The same Michigan State that’s coached by Tom Izzo. Them’s the breaks.

MORERead through all of our bracket analysis here

Three story lines to watch

  • 1. Can Michigan State’s seniors get a Final Four?: One of the coolest streaks in college basketball is that Tom Izzo has never had a four-year senior graduate without reaching a Final Four. That will end this season if Keith Appling and Adreian Payne cannot get Sparty to North Texas.
  • 2. Does Hilton Magic reach the east coast?: Iowa State has been one of the best teams all season long. Fred Hoiberg is a wizard. The Cyclones are one of the most entertaining teams in the country. Can they ride the wave all the way to the Final Four?
  • 3. Is this where the upsets are?: The consensus on Monday morning will be that the East’s No. 3 and No. 4 seeds are better than their No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. Does that mean that we’ll see Virginia and Villanova falling early?

The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Iowa State

How much fun would that be? I’m not sure that there is a matchup in this entire tournament that I would look forward to more than seeing Tom Izzo match wits with Fred Hoiberg with a trip to the Final Four on the line. We’ve said all season long that the Spartans are a title favorite once they get back to 100%, and I think they proved they are by steamrolling No. 2 seeds Wisconsin and Michigan in the Big Ten tournament. And Iowa State? Well, they just won the tournament of the toughest conference in the country.

MOREEight teams that can win the national title, and why.

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Final Four sleeper: North Carolina

The problem with relying on North Carolina is that you never quite know which North Carolina is going to show up. This is a team that beat the preseason top four teams in the country during the season — including Final Four favorites Michigan State and Louisville — but also lost to the likes of Belmont, UAB and Wake Forest. Here’s the perfect example: they dug themselves a 20-point hole against Pitt in the ACC quarterfinals. They nearly erased that deficit in the final 10 minutes. Good UNC is really good. Bad UNC could lose to No. 11 seed Providence in the Round of 64.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 12 Harvard vs. No. 5 Cincinnati: The Bearcats are one of the toughest, most physical defensive teams in the country. But they can’t score. Harvard is tough and physical as well, loaded with the kind of talent you never see in the Ivy League these days. Slow down Sean Kilpatrick, and the Crimson could land another tournament upset.
  • No. 11 Providence vs. No. 6 North Carolina: Bryce Cotton vs. Marcus Paige. Yes, please.

Matchups to root for

  • No. 7 UConn or No. 10 St. Joseph’s vs. No. 2 Villanova: Take your pick: either two former Big East rivals square off, or we get ‘The Holy War’ in the NCAA tournament. Either way, that will be fun.

The studs you know about

  • Gary Harris, Michigan State: The Spartans are loaded, but for my money, Gary Harris is their best player and their best potential pro.
  • Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: I’ve been trumpeting Kilpatrick for months. He’s had a superb season made all-the-more impressive by the fact he’s the only offensive option on his team.
  • Shabazz Napier, UConn: There aren’t five players in the NCAA tournament I’d rather have with the ball in his hands in a critical moment than Napier. Will he have his Kemba Walker moment?
  • Marcus Paige, North Carolina: Outside of a rough stretch at the start of ACC play, Paige has been one of the best guards in the country this season.

MOREAll-Americans | Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | Freshman of the Year

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia: The Cavs have been a bit under-the-radar all season long, but Brogdon has been their best player this season and it’s not really all that close.
  • Bryce Cotton, Providence: College basketball’s ironman. He averaged 41.9 minutes in Big East games and carried the Friars to their first tournament in a decade.
  • Jeremy Ingram, North Carolina-Central: Ingram might be the most dangerous scorer in the region. He went for more than 30 points five times and hit for 25 points on six different occasions.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 12 Harvard over No. 5 Cincinnati: The Crimson picked off No. 3 seed New Mexico in the Round of 64 last season, and I think their defense is strong enough that they can land another upset this year. Siyani Chambers is the truth.
  • No. 2 Villanova won’t get out of the first weekend: I don’t know what to make of Villanova this year, but I do know this: their only elite win came against Kansas when the Jayhawks were sputtering and they got blown out by Syracuse and Creighton twice and lost to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • No. 13 Delaware over No. 4 Michigan State: The Blue Hens have three really talented scorers on their perimeter. It’s a shame they are running into this Spartan team.

Feeling like gambling?

  • No. 14 North Carolina-Central vs. No. 3 Iowa State: NCCU is going to have to hope that Iowa State has an off-night, but remember: this team won at N.C. State this season. They’re not a pushover.

CBT Predictions: No one gets in the way of the Michigan State freight train, not even Tony Bennett and his vaunted packline defense.

Calipari signs two-year extension with Kentucky

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Kentucky continues to take care of John Calipari.

The Wildcats coach has received a two-year extension, keeping him under contract in Lexington through the 2024 season, the school announced Wednesday.

The contract will pay Calipari $7.75 million next season and increase to $8 million per season thereafter.

“John has achieved consistent championship-level performance at Kentucky,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “No one in America is better suited for everything that comes with being the coach here. Not only has he attained incredible success on the court, he is also a leader in our community and in college basketball.

“We have been blessed to have him and Ellen here for the last eight years and we are blessed they will continue to call Kentucky home.”

Not only does the deal extend Calipari, but it continues to keep Kentucky competitive with the NBA, which would seem to be the only outlet that would even potentially tempt Calipari away from Kentucky. An NBA franchise would have to make him among the highest-paid coaches in the league to even match Kentucky financially.

Of course, given that Calipari has spurned interest from the league since returning to college in 2000, it seems unlikely that financial considerations would be the lone or heaviest variable in making a decision to move on.

Certainly, Calipari has an excellent thing going at Kentucky as the premier recruiting program in the country that has enjoyed serious success on the court, culminating in a 2012 national title and a 38-0 start to the 2015 season before a loss in the Final Four.

“The last eight years at the University of Kentucky have been a terrific ride,” Calipari said in a statement. “This extension shows our full commitment to each other. I believe this school is the gold standard and I’m so thankful and blessed that this university has given me this opportunity at this point in my career.”

The Wildcats face UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

Louisville’s Mitchell declaring for draft, won’t hire an agent

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Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell is the latest to decide to see what the NBA might offer.

“I have decided to test the waters and not hire an agent!” Mitchell wrote in an Instagram post Wednesday. “I am excited to work out this summer for teams and hopefully participate in the NBA combine! I want it to be clear I have not decided to leave Louisville!”

Mitchell, who is expected to be joined by dozens of players, is taking advantage of new NCAA rules that allow him to work out for teams and attend the NBA draft combine before making a decision on whether to remain in the draft and return to school.

Players have until May 24 to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

Mitchell averaged 15.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a sophomore, shooting 40.8 percent overall and 35.4 percent on 3-point attempts.

The 6-foot-3 guard is projected as a potential first-round pick, but should he return, the Cardinals would project as one of the top teams in the country with nearly the entire core returning from this year’s 25-9 squad.

Moe-mentum: Wagner stands tall for Sweet 16-bound Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Ask Moe Wagner who he looked up to when he was younger, and suddenly the Michigan big man’s fiery demeanor makes a little more sense.

“Kevin Garnett was always my biggest idol, even though our play isn’t really similar. Just the way he brings intensity and energy to his team,” Wagner said. “That always was something that really impressed me.”

Now Wagner is providing his own emotional leadership to a Michigan team that has become one of college basketball’s most remarkable stories this March.

The Wolverines have won six in a row since they were involved in a plane accident on the eve of their Big Ten Tournament opener.

After winning that conference tourney, they opened the NCAAs with victories against Oklahoma State and Louisville – with Wagner scoring 26 points in the win over Louisville that sent Michigan to the Sweet 16.

The 19-year-old Wagner is in his second season with the Wolverines. He showed some promise in 2015-16, but averaged only 8.6 minutes a game as a freshman. He’s been a starter the whole way this season, teaming up with D.J. Wilson to give Michigan some unexpected production in the frontcourt.

The Wolverines entered the season with high hopes thanks to the presence of seniors Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin.

The 6-foot-11 Wagner has made them even tougher to defend. The sophomore from Berlin is averaging 12.2 points a game, and unlike Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan – two of Michigan’s top big men of the recent past – Wagner is a threat from beyond the arc. He’s made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2016-17, putting even more pressure on opposing teams.

An expressive player on the court, Wagner admits he’s still learning how to keep his emotions under control.

Coach John Beilein says Wagner can be hard on himself, but he has an upbeat attitude the Wolverines can appreciate.

“I don’t want to rob him of his energy and his passion,” Beilein said. “If you heard him in timeouts – I mean, he is really into it. And it’s encouraging things he’s saying.”

The key for Wagner is to stay on the court. He’s been whistled for 100 fouls this season – no other Michigan player has more than 80 – and he picked up two in the first 3:11 when the Wolverines faced Oklahoma State in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday. Wagner played only 14 minutes in that frenetic game, which Michigan won 92-91 .

Against Louisville in the round of 32 , Wagner went 11 of 14 from the field and kept his poise after being called for his second foul late in the first half.

“He’s always just been an excited guy – play hard and play with a lot of passion,” Walton said. “I don’t think anything has changed. I think he’s just channeling it a little better.”

The seventh-seeded Wolverines face third-seeded Oregon on Thursday night in a regional semifinal. Michigan has won seven in a row, a streak that began with the team’s last game of the regular season.

What happened next is well documented. The day before its opening game in the conference tournament, Michigan’s plane slid off the runway .

There were no serious injuries, and the Wolverines arrived in time to play. Then they won four games in four days to take the title.

Now, Michigan is two victories away from an improbable Final Four appearance. If the Wolverines actually make it that far, Wagner will be a big reason why – and he’ll probably be as excited as anyone.

“One of my youth coaches actually used to say that I was somebody who, like, sees the basketball court as a stage and really enjoys it,” Wagner said. “Last year, I started to understand what that actually means, and kind of embraced that this year. That’s just me. I really love it. I really enjoy it.”

 

California’s Ivan Rabb declares for the NBA Draft

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Ivan Rabb announced on Wednesday that he will be declaring for the NBA Draft and foregoing his final two seasons with California.

“I want to thank everybody for their support,” Rabb said in a statement. “Since the day I committed to Cal, the love from Bay Area fans was overwhelming. I could genuinely tell that people really appreciated seeing me come to Cal and succeed and do well. Haas Pavilion will always hold a special place in my heart, and I won’t forget how incredible it felt to be “Oakland’s Own” as I ran onto the court in front of my friends, family and team.”

As a sophomore, Rabb averaged 14.0 points and 10.5 boards. He’s projected as a mid-to-late first round pick in the draft a year after making the decision to return to school as a projected lottery pick last season.

Duke’s Jayson Tatum declares for the NBA Draft

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Duke’s Jayson Tatum will declare for the NBA Draft and hire an agent, the program announced on Wednesday.

Tatum is a projected top five pick in the NBA Draft. He averaged 16.8 points playing the role of small-ball four for the Blue Devils this season after missing the first month of the season with a foot injury.

“I have absolutely loved coaching Jayson Tatum,” Coach K said in a statement. “His skill set and work ethic will make him a star in the NBA. Whichever team selects him will be getting a humble, thoughtful and talented young man whom we are proud to call a member of the Duke basketball brotherhood.”

Tatum was the most talented player on the Blue Devils this season, but it was an up and down year for Duke as a whole. They were predicted by just about everyone to win the national title back in the preseason, but they eventually bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the second round.