Midwest Region Preview: Is 4-seed Louisville the favorite?

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The biggest gripe that I saw regarding the release of the bracket was regarding Louisville. How did they end up a No. 4 seed? How could a team that is ranked second on KenPom.com end up being ranked fourth in their region? What is the world coming to?

Whatever.

If I’m a Louisville fan, I’m celebrating tonight. They’re in a pod with a slumping No. 5 seed in Saint Louis and the weakest No. 1 seed in Wichita State, and there’s a possibility that the Cardinals will be able to play — and knock out? — archrival Kentucky in the Sweet 16. So, again, what is the problem here?

If there is any team that has a complaint about the way that the bracket was seeded, it’s the Shockers. NCAA Tournament draws can be unflinchingly cruel, and Wichita State ended up with a worst-case scenario. Their Round of 32 matchup will be against preseason No. 1 Kentucky or Kansas State in St. Louis. Win that, and they’re likely looking at one of the hottest teams in the country in Louisville. If that wasn’t enough, that Sweet 16 game would be held in Indianapolis, a 90-minute drive from Louisville. The undefeated Shockers would be going on the road in the Sweet 16.

And here’s the worst part: they will be crucified if they can’t put together another run to the Final Four. An exit in the Round of 32 will essentially render their 34-0 pre-NCAA tournament record invalid in the court of public opinion.

I don’t root for anyone anymore. I think I’ll be rooting for Wichita State to pull this off, if for no other reason than I want to see their season “justified”.

MORERead through all of our bracket analysis here

Three story lines to watch

  • 1. The Chase for Perfection: Wichita State will be the first team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated since UNLV in 1991. They will try to become the first team to finish the season undefeated since Indiana in 1976. We’re watching history happen before our eyes. Enjoy it.
  • 2. Can Kentucky pull a Fab Five?: People tend to forget that, as freshmen, the Fab Five were a No. 6 seed before making a run to the National Title game. Kentucky is not quite as good as that Michigan team was, but they were a different team in the SEC tournament than they were … all season long? Can that success continue?
  • 3. Is Louisville headed to a third straight Final Four?: For the third straight season, Rick Pitino has his Cardinals streaking at the perfect time. The last two years, Louisville bounced back from a rough stretch in the regular season to win the Big East tournament title and make a run to the Final Four in 2012 and the National Title in 2013. The Cardinals were written off after Chane Behanan was kicked off the team and they lost at home to Memphis, but a run to the American tournament title has the Cards looking like a trendy pick to repeat as champs.
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The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 2 Michigan

I might end up picking Louisville to win the National Title, I think they’re that good. I like Michigan on the other side of the region. To beat the Wolverines, you need the kind of on-ball defenders that can get up into Nik Stauskas and keep him from having a field day in John Beilein’s offense. Neither Texas or Arizona State has a guy like that. Duke does — Tyler Thornton — but this is a different Michigan team than the one that lost at Cameron in December. They’re running much more of their offense through Stauskas, Walton is a different player and Glenn Robinson III finally woke up. And if Thornton is on Stauskas, who tries to slow down Caris LeVert?

MORE: Eight teams that can win the national title.

Final Four sleeper: No. 8 Kentucky

Are the Wildcats really a sleeper? You kind of sacrifice that name when you are the preseason No. 1 team in the country, but after a disappointing season, Kentucky heads into the dance as a No. 8 seed. The good news? They played their best basketball of the season during those three days in Atlanta. ‘The Tweak’ that John Calipari talked about so much was simply getting his team to buy-in to what he wanted. The key is Andrew Harrison at the point. He was terrific during the SEC tournament. He needs to be terrific in the NCAA tournament. If he is, this is still one of the most talented teams in the country.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 11 Iowa vs. No. 11 Tennessee: One of the three play-in games in the Midwest, this should be a doozy. Iowa is, on paper, a Final Four threat, but they’ve really struggled in the last month and a half. Tennessee is, on paper, an NIT team that has somehow turned into one of the hottest teams in the country the last couple of weeks.
  • No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 13 Manhattan: Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello was a walk-on for Rick Pitino at Kentucky and an assistant on his staff at Louisville for six years.

Matchups to root for

  • No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 Kentucky: I don’t need to explain this, do I?
  • No. 3 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan: I would not complain about a rematch. At all. Both the Wolverines and the Blue Devils have top five offenses and sub-100 defenses, according to KenPom. Can you say shootout?

The studs you know about

  • Russ Smith, Louisville: Once known as Russdiculous, Smith has become more of a point guard for Louisville this season while remaining a terror defensively.
  • Jabari Parker, Duke: Arguably the most well-rounded offensive weapon in the country and a potential No. 1 pick in the draft in June.
  • Nik Stauskas, Michigan: The Wolverines turned into a Big Ten champion when John Beilein allowed Stauskas, a 6-foot-6 sharpshooter with bounce, handle, great vision and noticeable attitude, to be the centerpiece of his offense.
  • Julius Randle, Kentucky: Another future top five pick, Randle is a double-double machine.

MORE: All-Americans | Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | Freshman of the Year

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State: You’ve heard the name, but have you seen him play this year? Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early are great, but Van Vleet is their engine.
  • Langston Hall, Mercer: Hall is a big time scorer for the Bears that has a knack for hitting big shots in big moments. He’ll give Duke problems in the first round.
  • T.J. Warren, N.C. State: Everyone in the ACC knows about Warren, but he’s slept-on nationally because the Wolfpack were perceived as an NIT team. He went for 40 points in back-to-back games two weeks ago and is the best scorer in the country not named Doug McDermott.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 11 Tennessee over No. 6 UMass: I’m just not a huge fan of the Minutemen this season, and Tennessee is a tough, veteran team playing their best basketball of the season right now. I’d make the same pick if Iowa beats Tennessee in the play-in game.
  • No. 4 Louisville over No. 1 Wichita State: I like this upset for a couple reasons: Montrezl Harrell will dominate the Shockers up front, the Shockers don’t have anyone that can guard Russ Smith and Louisville’s back court is quick and pesky enough to give Wichita State’s guards problems.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • No. 8 Kentucky or No. 9 Kansas State over No. 1 Wichita State: This pick has nothing to do with matchups. To me, this will be about desire. I’m not sure there is a better motivator in college basketball than WSU’s Gregg Marshall. The Shockers went 34-0 this season, which means they never slipped up against an inferior team. They never sleep-walked through a game and never overlooked an opponent. They’ll be ready, and they won’t be overwhelmed by the moment against either team.

Feeling like gambling?

  • No. 14 Mercer over No. 3 Duke: Duke is a nightmare to try and defend. Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker might be the best 1-2 punch in the conference. But they can be exploited by talented, penetrating guards. Remember, this Mercer team won the Atlantic Sun regular season title over Florida-Gulf Coast last season. They’re good. Can Hall have his C.J. McCollum moment?

CBT Predictions: No. 4 Louisville beats No. 1 Wichita State and No. 2 Michigan en route to their third straight Final Four.

Vanderbilt lands five-star forward Simi Shittu

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Vanderbilt continues to build a monster recruiting class under head coach Bryce Drew as five-star 2018 forward Simi Shittu pledged to the Commodores on Wednesday.

The second five-star commitment for Vanderbilt in the Class of 2018, Shittu joins top point guard prospect Darius Garland to form one of the best freshman combinations in the country for next season. The Commodores also have a top-150 forward in Aaron Nesmith.

The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Shittu is coming off of a monster summer in which he became a major problem and top-ten recruit. The No. 8 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2018 recruiting rankings, Shittu is a huge get and an instant starter for Vanderbilt next season.

By landing prospects like Garland and Shittu, Drew is also becoming a major player in a short amount of time as a high-major coach. Always a noted recruiter at the mid-major level at Valparaiso, now Vanderbilt is seeing Drew’s hiring workout as he’s bringing top talent to the program.

If Drew can continue to recruit like this then Vanderbilt could be in position to be in the top half of the SEC as the league has seen some of its rebuilds go poorly over the last few years.

Kansas still without freshman Billy Preston

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Kansas freshman Billy Preston has yet to make his debut for the Jayhawks and it appears he’ll have to wait a bit longer before that happens.

Head coach Bill Self met with media earlier this week to discuss the Preston situation, saying that nothing has changed about his status quite yet. Preston was previously suspended for violating a team rule when he missed the game against Tennessee State. Before Preston was set to debut against Kentucky in the Champions Classic he was also withheld from the contest after the revelation that Preston had been in a single-vehicle accident the previous weekend.

“I have actually been out, until I just pulled back in, so as of this morning, there was no movement. The last time you guys asked me was Friday and so you don’t work on Saturday or Sunday, so there is nothing new on that situation,” Self said.

“Sure, I’m worried,” Self also added. “I’m concerned and I do think that it can work itself, based on what I’ve been told. I also think that it obviously hadn’t happened yet.”

It’s uncertain when the next step in any of this will play out but Self doesn’t appear to be too concerned over it. Kansas has won without Preston so far but they could definitely use his size, scoring punch and overall depth to a team that isn’t very deep right now.

A matchup nightmare, Preston could help the Jayhawk offense while also giving Udoka Azubuike additional help on the glass and protecting the rim.

(H/t: Jesse Newell, Kansas City Star)

Brian Bowen not allowed to play at Louisville

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Louisville announced on Wednesday that freshman wing Brian Bowen will not be allowed to play at the school. The former McDonald’s All-American will be allowed to remain on scholarship but he can’t participate in any team activities.

Bowen was tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball this fall as an adidas company executive is alleged to have been part of a scheme to deliver $100,000 to Bowen’s family, according to court documents.

Bowen hired attorney Jason Setchen to fight the case and seek reinstatement as Setchen had experience dealing with college basketball scandals before. When DeQuan Jones was suspended from Miami after the Nevin Shapiro case in 2011, Setchen helped Jones re-gain his eligibility as Miami.

With this case, Bowen was not allowed back at Louisville as the school has fired head coach Rick Pitino and most of his previous staff. Athletic Director Tom Jurich also lost his job, so the Cardinals are definitely cleaning house and trying to detach themselves from anyone involved.

It will be interesting to see what Bowen opts to do in light of this news. He’s talented enough that other schools could want him, if he’s eligible, but he’s also a former five-star prospect who could have pro aspirations. But since Bowen won’t be playing this season, he also hasn’t had a chance to spotlight his game to potential pro suitors.

 

President Trump fires back at LaVar Ball on Twitter

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The never-ending war of words between President Donald Trump and LaVar Ball escalated to another level on Wednesday morning.

Starting his early-morning tweets with some messages aimed at Ball, President Trump continued to double down on his insistence that he helped play a role in the safe return of three UCLA players arrested in China for shoplifting. LiAngelo Ball, LaVar’s middle son, was one of the three players involved in the international incident as fellow Bruins Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were also arrested. The trio returned to the United States last week after UCLA left China without them following a win over Georgia Tech in the Pac-12 China Game.

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LaVar has drawn the ire of President Trump for downplaying the President’s role in the return of the UCLA trio as Ball maintains that others had more to do with the release. All three UCLA players publicly thanked President Trump and the United States government during their return press conference on Nov. 15. The three players remain suspended indefinitely from all activities with the men’s basketball team.

In an interview with CNN earlier this week, LaVar was critical of Trump’s role in the whole ordeal while also questioning why the President would spend so much time bothering for a thank you from the father of one of those arrested.

No. 22 Baylor comes from 12 down to beat Creighton

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It was another rough night for the Scott Drew Can’t Coach crowd.

No. 22 Baylor got 15 points apiece from Jo Lual-Acuil and Terry Maston and closed the game on a 37-19 run as they knocked off Creighton, 65-59, in the title game of the Hall Of Fame Classic in Kansas City.

King McClure led the way for the Bears with 19 points, picking up the pieces for Manu Lecomte, who struggled to deal with the defense of Khyri Thomas.

Creighton jumped out to a 33-24 lead at the break and extended it to 40-28 with 18 minutes left in the game, but that’s when Baylor turned the game around. A couple of tweaks to the way that they played their zone coupled with the Bluejays missing some shots that they were capable of making led to the comeback. Instead of simply writing another ‘See, I told you Scott Drew can coach’ column, I figured it would make more sense to show exactly what I mean when I say that.

Creighton had a smart, simple game-plan offensively on Tuesday night. Get the ball into the paint, whether it was via dribble penetration or finding one of their big guys near the foul line or at the short corner, and then find a shooter on the perimeter, a cutter going to the rim or, simply, score from 8-10 feet out. That’s the best way to beat a zone, especially a zone that has the amount of length and athleticism that Baylor’s does. Notice in the clip below how extended Baylor’s guards are and, as a result, the space it creates:

Once Baylor got down by 12, their game-plan changed. Instead of extending, their defense became more compact. What is usually something of a 1-1-3 zone turned into more of a 2-3, with the focus seemingly being cutting off penetration. Baylor dared Creighton to let Ronnie Harrell be the guy that beat them, and it worked. The result was that the open threes dried up, and the jumpers that Creighton shot in down the stretch were much more contested than the looks they were getting earlier in the game:

That’s coaching right there.

Game-planning is a part of coaching. Player development is, too, as is recruiting. But making in-game adjustments like that, figuring out how a team is beating you, devising a way to stop them from doing that and getting your players to execute those adjustments is arguably the most important part of being a coach.

Here’s another example of what I mean.

Khyri Thomas might be the best on-ball defender in college basketball, and I don’t say that lightly. He essentially eliminated Manu Lecomte from the game. He is to point guards what Darrelle Revis was to No. 1 receivers. Whoever he is guarding is on Khyri Island.

Lecomte is typically Baylor’s closer, but Drew ran actions that allowed Lecomte to be a facilitator and a decoy, taking Khyri out of the play and taking advantage of matchups he thought his guys could win. That involved running a double-high ball-screen, which confused Harrell and Martin Krampelj defensively a couple of times, and resulted in a high-low action between Maston and Lual-Acuil on a number of possessions down the stretch.

But then there was also this set he drew up, using McClure as the ball-handler in that double-high ball-screen and while putting Lecomte in the same side corner. McClure refused the ball-screen, drove straight at the gap where Thomas was not going to help off Lecomte and got a bucket out of it:

That’s coaching!

And I’m not trying to say McDermott got out-coached here. His game-plan worked. Drew’s adjustment turned out to be just a bit better.

But Creighton also has players that can make the tough shots that they were forced into in the second half. If two more of them go down – if the Bluejays shoot 37.5 percent from the floor instead of 34.4 percent, if they go 7-for-30 from three instead of 5-for-30 – then they probably win this game.

Sometimes that’s how basketball works.

It’s why you always hear coaches refer to it as a ‘make or miss game’.

The larger takeaway from this game should be this: Both Baylor and Creighton are good teams. Both landed good non-conference wins during this event. Both are likely headed to the NCAA tournament.

And both took part in a fun, tactical battle between head coaches on Tuesday night that one of them had to lose.