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Six sleeper Sweet 16 teams

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source: AP
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We all remember the Cinderella stories from March Madness. The George Masons, Hamptons, and Northern Iowas, these are the teams that can ease a smile out of the most hardened and jaded NCAA antagonist. We love the NCAA tournament because these sleeper squads make the postseason seem democratic.

The selection committee, sequestered in various hotel suites, is the sporting equivalent of the Wizard of Oz, but Cinderellas level the field, and we’ve listed the six teams, all higher than a seven seed, that have the potential to make the tournament’s second weekend.

SOUTH REGION

No. 13 Tulsa (vs. No. 4 UCLA; then either No. 5 VCU/No. 12 Stephen F. Austin): A first-round match-up against UCLA, a team that rendered the vaunted Arizona defense toothless, appears catastrophically poor for Danny Manning’s squad, but the Golden Hurricane is also a sound defensive squad, one that forces turnovers at a pretty rapid rate (20.4 percent). The team also keeps opponents off the glass, and UCLA isn’t known for securing additional possessions. Should Tulsa advance to the round of 32, the team also matches well with either VCU or Stephen F. Austin.

A large percentage of Tulsa’ scoring comes from the free throw line, and the Lumberjacks foul quite frequently (52.5 percent defensive free throw rate). VCU defends ferociously and shoots a fair number of threes, but since the Rams will likely miss guard Melvin Johnson, VCU will be without their most efficient perimeter option (39.5 percent). Tulsa can withstand VCU’s trademark ball pressure because the Golden Hurricane have a sticky handle in the midst of ball hawks (16.6 turnover rate, ranked within Ken Pomeroy’s top sixty).

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No. 14 Western Michigan (vs. No. 3 Syracuse; then either No. 6 Ohio State/No. 11 Dayton): America should be ready to meet Shayne Whittington, Western Michigan’s 6-foot-11 center. The big makes 55.9 percent of his twos, and while WMU hasn’t played Syracuse during the past two seasons, the Broncos have faced a very similar defense. During WMU’s four games against Eastern Michigan, a team coached by ex-Cuse assistant Rob Murphy and one which uses a 2-3 zone, Whittington made 53 percent of his attempts within the arc.

Both of their second round opponents aren’t great at defending the interior — Ohio State and Dayton allow teams to make close to 50 percent of those shots — which is a bonus for a Western Michigan team which is one of the best at converting their twos, ranking twelfth nationally. The other two Broncos who use a high percentage of WMU’s attempts, David Brown and Connar Tava, are efficient up to 19 feet from the basket.

EAST REGION

No. 9 George Washington (vs. No. 8 Memphis; then either No. 1 Virginia/No. 16 Coastal Carolina): Memphis is not a good match-up for the defensive-oriented Colonials. The Tigers turn the ball over on nearly 20 percent of their possessions (that’s bad), don’t get to the free throw line (not great), and are a poor perimeter shooting team (another box checked) — all attributes which are pluses on George Washington’s defensive resume.

Assuming the second round tilt is against Virginia, Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense would be an interesting test for the Colonials. The return of Kethan Savage (and if he can play meaningful minutes) and the emergence of Nemanja Mikic are both crucial for a Sweet 16 birth. Lacking the presence of another perimeter threat, opponents could concentrate solely on Mikic last season, but the addition of Maurice Creek has helped boost Mikic’s clear looks.

No. 10 Saint Joseph’s (vs. No. 7 Connecticut; then either No. 2 Villanova/No. 15 Milwaukee): St. Joe’s Langston Galloway is coming off a torrid shooting performance in the Atlantic 10 tournament, but the team’s frontcourt will be the focus against UConn. Halil Kanacevic, Ronald Roberts, and DeAndre Bembry should take advantage of the foul-prone Husky bigs — DeAndre Daniels is the only forward who plays substantial minutes and does not accumulate more than six or more fouls per 40 minutes (an issue for both Amida Brimah and Philip Nolan). The likelier second-round game will be against Villanova, and the ensuing Holy War rematch, one dominated by the Wildcats earlier this season, could be a classic.

WEST REGION

No. 11 Nebraska (vs. No. 6 Baylor; then either No. 3 Creighton/No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette): Even though Nebraska isn’t an offensive juggernaut, Baylor’s defense provides large gaps for point production — only one other at-large squad had a worse defensive efficiency rate than Scott Drew’s team (North Carolina State). Even though Elfrid Payton and Shawn Long pose a potential threat, Creighton should emerge from that first-round tilt. Nebraska was embarrassed by the Bluejays earlier this season, but this is a much different Huskers squad (for starters, Deverell Biggs is no longer bogarting shots) and the emergence of Terran Petteway is a match-up problem for CU.

MIDWEST REGION

No. 14 Mercer (vs. No. 3 Duke; then either No. 6 Massachusetts/No. 11 Iowa/No. 11 Tennessee): Mercer is the epitome of a Giant Killer. The Bears shoot a high percentage both within and beyond the arc, and those attempts are spread amongst a handful of players, each of whom either make a plethora of twos or threes (Bud Thomas and Anthony White, however, make both). There is an offensive balance to this team — no one Bear truly dominates touches — which could be an problem for a Duke team possessing some defensive issues.

Duke traditionally defends the three-point arc well, but two-point field goals are easy to achieve. Unfortunately for Mike Krzyzsewski, this is an even weaker defensive team than the one which lost to Lehigh in the 2012 tournament. Iowa and UMass also have suspect defenses, and while Tennessee is defined by their stingy leanings, the Vols don’t force many turnovers. Against a team that doesn’t miss often, a failure to pressure the ball and simply allow them to run their offense could prove disastrous.

White decides to return to Nebraska

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Nebraska’s second-leading scorer from last season will return for his senior season as Andrew White III announced Wednesday he will withdraw his name from the NBA Draft.

“I felt good about the pre-draft process, White said in a statement released by Nebraska. “It was encouraging, and I gained as much ground as anyone throughout the process. I wanted one more year to fine tune my game and put myself in better position for the NBA next summer.  

“I want to thank the teams who invited me their in-house workouts, and Nebraska for supporting me during this process.  It has been very helpful in gathering information in preparation for my future Thank you to everyone who has been following my progress throughout the spring and being understanding and supportive, as I evaluated whether to turn pro or return for my senior year.”

White, a Kansas transfer, tallied 16.6 points per game last season while shooting 48.1 percent from the floor and 41.2 percent from 3-point range. He also pulled down 5.9 rebounds per game.

“We are excited to have Andrew remain with our program,” coach Tim Miles said. “This has been a valuable time for him, as he has tested his skills against some of the best competition and received very important insight from key NBA personnel.  

“We look forward to continuing to help Andrew’s development to improve his NBA profile even more than he already has done through this process.  I believe next year could be our most complete team with a great opportunity for success in the Big Ten and NCAA tournament, I’m happy Andrew will be with us to go out and prove it.”

The news is certainly welcome for the Cornhuskers and Miles, who will be under pressure to show improvement after back-to-back disappointing seasons following an NCAA tournament appearance in 2014. Shavon Shields, last year’s leading scorer, has exhausted his eligibility and the Huskers will need White to help fill the void.

Trimble coming back to Terps

Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)
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Melo Trimble is returning to Maryland.

The Terrapin guard will be back to for his junior season in College Park, according to multiple reports.

Trimble went from freshman first-rounder to question mark after a rough end to his sophomore season for Maryland in which his points per game, shooting percentage (both overall and from 3-point range) and rebounding dipped from his first season. Only his assists per game showed any sort of improvement. He waited until the last possible day to announce his intentions to return to school, but really his options were limited after seeing his production drop.

His decision to come back to school gives him a shot to restore his draft stock while Maryland gets its floor general back to help ease the transition from last year’s Sweet 16 squad that lost Diamond Stone, Rasheed Sulaimon and Jake Layman. The Terps might not be a sure-fire top-25 team with Trimble back, but their NCAA tournament chances are now significantly higher.

Nevada lands Martin twins

Caleb Martin, Jordan Roper
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Eric Musselman keeps adding reinforcements to his roster. For the 2017-18 season.

Musselman and Nevada received commitments from N.C. State transfers and twin brothers Caleb and Cody Martin, according to multiple reports.

That brings Nevada’s sit-out transfer count for this upcoming season to four with Hallice Cooke (Iowa State) and Kendall Stephens (Purdue) already in the fold. Under NCAA transfer rules, the quartet will have to sit out the upcoming season before being eligible in 2017-18.

Caleb averaged 11.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists while shooting 36 percent from deep while Cody put up 6.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists, shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc.

The timing of having four sit-out transfers works well for the Wolf Pack given that two of the team’s three leading scorers from last year, D.J. Fenner (a senior) and Cameron Oliver (a sophomore), return while senior transfers Marcus Marshall (Missouri State) becomes eligible. Having those four experienced transfers begin playing in 2017-18 while all but two players from this upcoming team slated to return makes Nevada an interesting team, a year from now.

Louisville big man heading to NBA Draft

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After a day of mixed messages, Louisville’s Chinanu Onuaku finally made it official.

He’s staying in the NBA Draft.

“After talking to my family and going through the NBA process,” Onuaku wrote in an Instagram post, “me and my family have decided that it would be best for me to keep my name in the draft.”

The day started out with Cardinals coach Rick Pitino telling multiple media outlets that the 6-foot-10 sophomore would remain in the draft after he declared last month without an agent and attended the draft combine. Onuaku, though, appeared to at least mildly refute that with an Instagram post that said his decision wouldn’t come until later Wednesday evening. Which it did, confirming Pitino’s words.

The confusion may have been frustrating for observers, but Onuaku’s social media presence no doubt has benefited from the bizarre day.

Onuaku averaged 9.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.6 assists in 24.6 minutes per game last season, making his per-40 numbers, a metric NBA teams like to take into consideration, nothing short of fantastic. He also shot a not-so-shabby 62.0 percent from the floor. His size, athleticism and ability to score around the basket (he’s taken one 3-pointer in two seasons) make him a potential first-round selection in next month’s draft.

The 19-year-old Onuaku underwent a procedure on his heart last week due to Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. It has been described as a minor procedure that will not affect his ability to play long-term or work out with teams leading up to the draft.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, should be able to absorb Onuaku’s loss seemlessly as they return the bulk of last year’s team that went 23-8 and was ranked 10th in KenPom, but was banned from the postseason as a result of the Katina Powell bombshell. Newcomers Tony Hicks (Penn transfer) and V.J. King (consensus top-30 recruit) will also make for solid additions.

Swanigan staying for sophomore season

Purdue's Vince Edwards (12), Purdue's Caleb Swanigan (50) and Purdue's A.J. Hammons (20) celebrate during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against the Illinois in the quarterfinals at the Big Ten Conference tournament, Friday, March 11, 2016, in Indianapolis. Purdue won 89-58. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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Purdue will once again be rolling out a formidable frontcourt in the 2016-17 season.

Boilermaker big man Caleb Swanigan is withdrawing from the NBA Draft to return to West Lafayette for his sophomore season, the school announced Wednesday.

The NBA is right there and always will be,” Swanigan said in the school’s press release, “but you always have to have patience and do what’s best for you.”

Purdue is losing 7-foot senior A.J. Hammons, but will be once again teaming Swanigan with Isaac Haas (7-2) and Vince Edwards (6-8) that will allow them to roll out a supersized lineup that is sure to be a difficult one to face off against.

The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Swanigan, who likely would have landed as a second-round pick, averaged 10.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists and was a finalist for the Wayman Tisdale Award for the country’s top freshman.

“We are excited that (Swanigan) has withdrawn from the NBA Draft and will return to Purdue,” head coach said Matt Painter in a statement released by the school. “He has the potential to make a huge jump from his freshman season and will be a big part of what we do next year. He received great experience going through this process and will use the feedback he received to make him a more diverse player.”

Purdue is probably a rung down from Michigan State and Wisconsin at the top of the league, but the return of Swanigan pulls them closer to competing at the top of the league next season.