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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

College Hoops Contender Series: Villanova takes their shot at going back-to-back

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 04:  Daniel Ochefu #23 of the Villanova Wildcats and Ryan Arcidiacono #15 hoist the trophy after the Villanova Wildcats defeat the North Carolina Tar Heels 77-74 to win the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game at NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers talked about six different Final Four contenders that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the five best teams, the five clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into all five of those teams, breaking down why they can win a national title and why they won’t win a national title.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage |Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Villanova head coach Jay Wright celebrates as he cuts down the net after the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game against North Carolina, Monday, April 4, 2016, in Houston. Villanova won 77-74. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Villanova head coach Jay Wright (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)


WHY THEY CAN WIN: Because they bring back the majority of the roster from a team that stormed through the Big East for a third straight season and went on to win the national title.

Josh Hart, an NBCSports.com preseason first-team all-american, is back. Kris Jenkins, the guy that his the national title-winning three six months ago, is back. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth all return, while Eric Paschall is eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer.

When you put all that together, what you have is a veteran team that has done nothing other than experience winning at an unbelievable level – the seniors on this team are 97-13 in three years with a 48-6 record in the Big East while winning three outright regular season titles, a Big East tournament title and a national title.

Put another way, the Wildcats return better than 70 percent of the scoring and rebounding from last year’s national title team, putting them in the best position to repeat as national champions since Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer all decided to return to Florida and make a run at winning back-to-back titles in 2006-07.

And if the Wildcats can make that happen, it will be a direct result of the versatility that Jay Wright will have on display.

With Daniel Ochefu graduating and Omari Spellman being ruled ineligible, Villanova is going to play a lot of small-ball this season. I wouldn’t be surprised – in fact, I hope it’s the case – if we see Villanova use a Golden State-esque ‘Death Lineup’, where Jenkins plays as their “center” with Hart, Bridges and Paschall on the floor with him. That team would be able to play so many different styles defensively while creating mismatches all over the offensive end of the floor.

For that to work, Hart would have to be a more consistent perimeter shooter while Bridges would need to take a major step forward in his offensive development. We would also need to see Darryl Reynolds prove that he can handle playing 25-30 minutes as the lone big man on the floor for an entire season, something he did adequately in a three-game sample last year.

So there are some things that head coach Jay Wright will have to spend the preseason working out.

But there’s no reason to believe he won’t be able to get that done.

And there’s no reason to believe that Villanova won’t be getting right back to their winning ways.

After all, no one on this roster has ever lost more than five games in a season at Villanova. They don’t know what losing is.

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LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats dunks the ball in the first half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Josh Hart of the Villanova Wildcats (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN: The way I see it, there are three reasons to be concerned about this Villanova team.

The first is the point guard spot. Losing Ryan Arcidiacono is a major blow, one that many fans may not truly appreciate. Arch was a starter from Day 1 for the Wildcats, spending the last four seasons as an extension of Jay Wright on the floor. It’s not a coincidence that Arch’s arrival coincided with the resurgence of Villanova as a nationally relevant program that could win conference championships and national titles. Wright and Arch had such a strong relationship that teammates jokingly referred to them as father and son. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to refer to the last four years as the ‘Arch Era’.

That’s how important he was to this program.

Now, Jalen Brunson is good. I’m not saying that he isn’t. He does have some of the same length and athleticism question marks that Arch had, and there are valid concerns about his ability to consistently make plays against elite defenders because of it, but there shouldn’t be any doubting his basketball savvy, his intelligence on the floor or his ability to lead. One NBA scout told me this summer that Brunson is as intelligent of a prospect, in terms of basketball IQ, as he’s ever evaluated. He should be fine, but going from being a secondary point guard as a freshman to the only point guard on the roster of a national title contender as a sophomore is a major leap to make.

I’m also concerned about whether or not Villanova took advantage of the lack of talent in the college game last season. The 2015-16 season was a weird year. Stars weren’t clustered at programs around the country. The nation’s elite freshmen were spread out at programs like LSU, Cal, Mississippi State and Marquette, and that’s before you consider the fact that the class just wasn’t all that good. The question we had about the Wildcats entering the year was whether or not they would be able to beat teams that were chock-full of elite, NBA-caliber talent, and they didn’t necessarily prove that wrong during their run to the title.

The reason Coach K went from avoiding one-and-done prospects to trying to rebuild his roster every year with elite freshmen is that, in basketball, the team with the best players is going to win the majority of the time. Talent matters more in this sport than just about any other, and when you compare Villanova’s roster to, say, Duke or Kentucky or Kansas, it’s pretty obvious which team has more talent.

That said, I’ll admit I’m picking nits when discussing the issue of Villanova’s talent and, to a point, their point guard question marks.

Villanova's Phil Booth interviews teammate Mikal Bridges (25) in the locker room before a practice session for the NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament Thursday, March 31, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

But there is one major issue with Villanova, and I think even the most rabid Wildcat fan will agree with me: Their front court.

Like Arch, I don’t think the value that Daniel Ochefu provided this team can be shown in a box score. His size allowed him to defend opposing bigs in the post and act as a rim protector when Villanova’s perimeter defenders pressured or gambled for steals. His ability to score on the block kept defenses honest and allowed him to work as a pressure release for the Villanova guards; 1-on-1 on the block, and Ochefu was probably going to draw a foul or get two points.

Villanova probably didn’t have that guy heading into the season, and they certainly don’t now that Omari Spellman is being forced to redshirt.

That leaves Darryl Reynolds, who is something of an enigma. He’s spent the last three seasons being little more than a guy that spelled Ochefu or played when he had fouls. But in three games where Ochefu was injured last season, Reynolds was good, averaging 9.0 points and 10.6 boards. I don’t know that he’ll ever be the low-post presence that Ochefu was, but if guys like Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall take a step forward in their development on the offensive end, Villanova may not need him to be.

PREDICTION: With all due respect to Xavier, a team that has the talent to be a top ten team and make a Final Four, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Villanova is the heavy-favorite to win the Big East for the fourth straight season.

The Wildcats will be a consensus preseason top five team, and there will be rankings where they end up as high as No. 2 in the country. It’s almost as if Villanova is playing with house money this season. They shed their early-exit demons with last year’s national title, they got Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins back for another season and they have a team that is good enough to get to a Final Four and make a run at being the first team to repeat in a decade.

I hope Villanova fans can appreciate what they’re going to be able to watch this season.

A ride like this doesn’t happen all that often.

CBT Podcast: Louisville’s Notice of Allegations, breaking down elite freshmen

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In the latest episode of the NBCSports.com College Basketball Talk podcast, I’m joined by Sam Vecenie of the Sporting News to talk about the Notice of Allegations that the NCAA handed down to Louisville as well as taking a deep dive into the freshmen class and some of the elite NBA Draft prospects.

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Audioboom or anywhere else that podcasts are given away for free.

If you enjoy what you hear on this podcast, please rate and review the podcast, as it will help us reach more listeners.

Thanks for listening!

Kennesaw State misses dunk, yet still makes shot

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Jordan Jones will not score a more impressive bucket all season. Probably for the rest of his career. And that’s not being harsh. That’s just how ridiculous the three-second clip below is.

The Kennesaw State junior forward went up for a windmill dunk, back-ironed the attempt with so much force — and at the right angle — that it went in a different hoop along the sideline.

The 6-foot-8 Jones averaged 3.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game for the Owls last season.

Report: One-and-done rule to stay in new CBA

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 23:  Ben Simmons poses with Commissioner Adam Silver after being drafted first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 23, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Last month, the NBA and NBA Players’ Association reportedly began discussing a new collective bargaining agreement.

On Thursday night, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports’ The Vertical reported that a “deal was within sight” as the two sides have moved closer and closer in negotiations.

One of the consistent issues over the years has been one-and-done rule, which was instituted during the 2005 negotiations, requiring a prospective draftee to be 19 years old and be one year removed from his high school graduating class.

According to Wojnarowski, the one-and-done rule will remain intact in the new CBA agreement.

Since taking over the league in February 2014, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had made increasing the age limit to 20 years old a priority. So, this reported news is clearly a comprise on the side of himself and the owners; a group of 30 executives who would rather have another year of scouting and information on a prospect rather than taking a potential gamble on a teenager in the first round.

For college basketball, things remain relatively the same. Some players will go for the money, whether pundits like it or not — remember, every early entry should be viewed on a case-by-case basis. But recent rule changes have benefited college players. Pushing the deadline back saw tons and tons of players declare for the 2016 NBA Draft, which left many coaches in precautions situations as they sweated over what next year’s roster was going to look like. But it was beneficial to the players, providing them a thorough process of interviews, workouts and, in some cases, a spot in the NBA Draft Combine. This gave them the resources and insight to make informed opinions about their future, whether that is finding out that their stock is likely at its highest, or getting the proper critiques on what they need to improve upon before turning pro.

The NBA and NBPA each have the ability to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement on Dec. 15, but Wojnarowski reports that a deal is expected to be in place by then.

Eustachy to remain with Colorado St. through 2020-21 season

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 13:  Head Coach Larry Eustachy of the Colorado State Rams calls to his team during a semifinal game of the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament against the San Diego State Aztecs at the Thomas & Mack Center on March 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
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FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) Colorado State extended basketball coach Larry Eustachy’s contract Thursday through the 2020-21 season, adding a year to his existing deal.

Eustachy enters the season 11 wins away from 500 for his Division I career.

The 60-year-old Eustachy took over at Colorado State in 2012. He’s 87-48 with the Rams, including an NCAA Tournament appearance during his first season in charge.

Athletic director Joe Parker says he’s “excited about what the future holds for this program over the remainder of his coaching time here.”

As part of his agreement, Eustachy has bonuses for winning 20 games ($40,000), taking the Mountain West Conference championship ($100,000) and earning an NCAA Tournament bid ($200,000).

He’s led five programs to 24-plus-win seasons: CSU, Southern Miss, Iowa State, Utah State and Idaho.