South Region Preview: Can anyone stop the Florida Gators?

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No surprise here as Florida got the No. 1 overall seed and took the top line in the South Region, setting them up for a path through Orlando and Memphis on the way to North Texas.

Here’s the other thing: the way the bracket breaks down is as favorable for Florida as it is for any No. 1 seed in the bracket. The shouldn’t be pushed by Spencer Dinwiddie-less Colorado or a Pitt team that has beaten exactly one quality team this season, they matchup as will with UCLA as they do any team in the country, Syracuse hasn’t played well in a month and a half and Kansas may not make it out of the first weekend without Joel Embiid in the lineup.

It’s not a cakewalk — it never is at this time of year — but when you combine the fact that Florida is the best team in the country with being coached by a guy that’s what two titles and took a team led by Kenny Boynton to the Elite 8 the past three seasons, and what you get is a Final Four favorite and a serious National Title contender.

MORERead through all of our bracket analysis here

Three story lines to watch

  • 1. Joel Embiid’s back: Kansas’ star center and a future top three draft pick, Embiid missed the last two games of the regular season and the Big 12 tournament with a stress fracture in his spine. He’s not expected to play in the first weekend of the tournament, either. Are the Jayhawks a contender without him?
  • 2. Will Syracuse ever be back?: The Orange won their first 25 games of the season. Since then, they’ve lost five of their last seven and while their offense has completely stalled. Is this as simple as the Orange being in a slump — they’re playing like their confidence is completely shot — or is their identity that of a horrid offensive basketball team?
  • 3. Will UCLA’s defense be enough to make a run?: This Bruin team is as talented and entertaining as any in Westwood since Steve Lavin was still slicking his hair back. Kyle Anderson, the 6-foot-9 point guard nicknamed Slo-mo, is the engine that makes their uptempo offense run. But in order for the Bruins to make a run, they need their defense to play the way it did during the Pac-12 tournament.

The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 1 Florida vs. No. 2 Kansas

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There are going to be a lot of people picking No. 7 seed New Mexico to upset Kansas in the Round of 32, and I’ll be honest, I might end up doing the same once I officially fill out my bracket. New Mexico is playing as well as they have all season long, their offense is built around a pair of talented, physical veteran post players in Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk, and Kansas, who hasn’t played defense in a couple of weeks, will likely be without Joel Embiid. But it’s worth noting that Stanford actually matches up very will with the Lobos in the Round of 64, and Kansas is still coached by Bill Self and will still feature a trio of first round picks, including potential No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins.

MOREEight teams that can win the national title.

Final Four sleeper: New Mexico

Back to the Lobos, there are three names that you really need to know with this group: Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams. Bairstow is the best post-scorer in the country, a behemoth on the block that is the nation’s single-most improved player. Kirk is a pick-and-pop seven-footer with some size and the ability to block shots. Williams is the reigning MWC Player of the Year and is having a better season this year despite barely being in contention for the award. He takes, and makes, a lot of big shots.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 12 Stephen F. Austin vs. No. 5 VCU: Talk about an intriguing clash of styles. VCU runs their ‘Havoc’ pressure defense, hounding their opponents for 94 feet for 40 minutes. SFA? They played more of a half-court style, but they pressure on the wings and jump passing lanes. Both rank top three nationally in defensive turnover percentage.
  • No. 11 Dayton vs. No. 6 Ohio State: A little in-state rivalry? Dayton’s Jordan Sibert vs. the team he transferred away from. Thad Matta can’t duck Archie Miller now.

Matchups to root for

  • No. 1 Florida vs. No. 2 Kansas: Arguably the two best coaches in college basketball. The best team, a senior laden group without much NBA potential, vs. a team with possibly the top two picks in the NBA Draft. Just hope Embiid is healthy for it.

The studs you know about

  • Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: He’s been overanalyzed, but remember: he’s the leading scorer, third-leading rebounder and best perimeter defender on a top five team.
  • Jordan Adams, UCLA: Anderson gets all the publicity for the Bruins, but Jordan Adams was the team’s leading scorer this season.
  • Scottie Wilbekin, Florida: He’s terrific in the pick-and-roll and a killer in crunch-time. He’s the go-to guy for Florida at the end of games.

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

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico: I’m telling you, he’s a beast now. You’ll see.
  • David Brown, Western Michigan: Brown is the leading scorer for WMU and a guy good enough to carry WMU to a Round of 64 win.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 7 New Mexico over No. 2 Kansas: Here’s the thinking: without Embiid, the Jayhawks can’t stop Bairstow and Kirk inside, and Deshawn Delaney is athletic enough to keep Wiggins in check. Crazier things have happens.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • Anyone over No. 1 Florida: They are the best team in the country and they don’t have an exploitable flaw. You have to go out and outplay them on both ends, and that’s not happening in this region.

Feeling like gambling?

  • No. 14 Western Michigan over No. 3 Syracuse: The Broncos are a tough matchup, they have a star guard and they can get to the free throw line, but to beat the Orange they’ll have to protect the ball and score in the lane. That will be tough, but hey, the Orange are sputtering enough offensively that you never know what will happen.

CBT Predictions: No. 1 Florida rolls

Crash survivor Austin Hatch back in LA with Michigan hoops

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Austin Hatch finished high school less than two miles from Staples Center, playing basketball at Loyola High and golfing throughout the warm California winter four years ago.

But he mostly spent his one year in Los Angeles simply learning how to live again after surviving the second tragic plane crash of his young life, a crash that killed his father and stepmother.

When Michigan’s run to the Sweet Sixteen brought Hatch back to downtown LA this week, he was grateful for the chance to see his uncle, his extended family and his Loyola coach, Jamal Adams. They all plan to be in the stands Thursday when Michigan faces Texas A&M, with Hatch helping the Wolverines from his spot on the bench.

“It was only a year of my life, but it was a big year of my life,” Hatch said Wednesday before going through a workout with his teammates. “It was the year that prepared me for Michigan. Great people out here. I was very, very blessed to be a part of it.”

Hatch scored one point in his Michigan playing career, which ended in 2015. He is a student assistant coach now, watching the Wolverines in a suit and tie — except on Senior Day last month, when he suited up and received a stirring ovation at Crisler Center.

With the Wolverines needing only two wins in LA to reach the Final Four, Hatch is grateful to play any small role in their success.

“Obviously what I contribute to the team doesn’t show up in the stat sheet,” Hatch said. “But the fact that I’ve been able to add something has given me a sense of fulfillment, if you will. I couldn’t control what happened to me, but I knew I could control how I responded to it. And I think that given the circumstances, I’ve done my best to make the most of it. I know all my teammates appreciate that.”

Hatch’s impact has been immeasurable on the Michigan program and coach John Beilein, who lived up to his scholarship commitment to the promising prospect from Fort Wayne, Indiana, after the June 2011 crash that left him in a coma for weeks. Hatch had already survived a 2003 crash in which his mother, brother and sister died.

Given the traumatic circumstances in which he arrived on the West Coast, his return is a reminder of his resilience. Hatch healed during his year in Los Angeles — and he relished the chance to hit the links in January while Michigan was buried under snow.

“In hindsight, I’m really glad I was here,” Hatch said. “It broadened my horizons a little bit. I’m from the Midwest. I’m from Fort Wayne, a small town. Now I’m in Ann Arbor, which is relatively small in comparison to LA. It was good to come out here and experience a different way of life.”

While his time with the Wolverines will end soon, Hatch isn’t slowing down. He is getting married to former Michigan volleyball player Abby Cole in the summer, and he’ll explore a career in business while deciding what he wants to do next.

But first, he’s hoping for two more weeks of hoops ending in a national title.

“My chapter at Michigan has been incredible,” Hatch said. “I wouldn’t change anything about it. I have no regrets. There’s nothing I wish I would have done. Everyone here has invested so much in me, and I’ve really done my best to show my appreciation by working hard.”

CBT Podcast: 2018 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview, Picks and Predictions

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Sam Vecenie of the Athletic and the Game Theory podcast stopped by to chat with Rob Dauster about the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament. The two went through each of the eight Sweet 16 matchups, detailing how each one of those eight games projects to play out and going over which lines — spread and over-unders — they like.

Dan Hurley will accept UConn head coaching position

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Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley will be the next head coach at UConn, replacing the 2014 national title winner, Kevin Ollie.

Hurley will be signing a six-year deal, according to multiple reports, that could be valued as much as $18 million. Hurley picked UConn over Pitt, who had also offered him a similar amount of money.

Hurley turned the Rhode Island program around during his six-year tenure, capped off with a pair of seasons where the Rams won a game in the NCAA tournament. UConn, which is one of the best jobs but has not been one of the best teams in the AAC in recent years, should be a place where he can continue to recruit talent. Under Ollie, the Huskies have been able to get players. The issue has been the performance and development of those players once they get to campus.

The Huskies finished 14-18 this past season.

Dan Hurley is the son of New Jersey high school coaching legend Bob Hurley and the brother of former Duke guard and current Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley.

VIDEOS: Villanova team bus stuck on icy roads trying to leave campus

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Villanova’s road to the Sweet 16 hit its roughest patch yet on Wednesday as the team attempted to leave campus for the team’s flight to Boston.

Since the Philadelphia area has been slammed with a snowstorm, the Wildcat team bus had issues leaving to get to the team’s chartered flight.

A struggle between team bus and ice ensued. The bus was delayed by 30 minutes before finally being able to leave.

Villanova continues its NCAA tournament journey on Friday when the No. 1 seed Wildcats play No. 5 seed West Virginia in Boston.

Wake Forest guard Keyshawn Woods to transfer or go pro after graduation

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Wake Forest will be down a key player next season as the school announced that guard Keyshawn Woods will either transfer or go pro after graduation.

The 6-foot-3 Woods was the team’s second-leading scorer this season as he put up 11.9 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. Woods shot 43 percent from the floor and 37 percent from three-point range for the 2017-18 campaign.

Also a key member of last season’s NCAA tournament team for the Demon Deacons, Woods transferred to Wake Forest after spending his first season at Charlotte.

“I appreciate the opportunity that Coach Manning gave me to be a part of this program and to graduate from this great university,” said Woods in the release. “I am proud that I was able to help the coaches change the culture of the program and build a foundation for the future.”

The loss of Woods won’t be easy for Wake Forest, but the team is scheduled to return some talented guards like Bryant Crawford and Brandon Childress next season. Incoming freshmen like Jaime Lewis and Sharone Wright Jr. are also signed to add to the perimeter depth.