Four dark horse Final Four teams

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As evidenced by the brackets filled out by the CBT writers, there are just a handful of teams with a reasonable expectation to make the Final Four in this year’s tournament. Arizona, Florida, Louisville, and Michigan State (with one selection of Wichita State) headline the group, but despite this unintentionally uniformed thinking, could there be an outlier, or two, that end up playing until April’s first weekend? We examine the four teams that could possibly keep dancing.

No. 7 Oregon — West

At one point, the Ducks were among the nation’s hottest teams, but a midseason swoon — Oregon won just two games over the course of the month (losing eight contests) — subsequently sidelined Dana Altman’s squad. The team finished league play strongly, posting wins over Arizona and UCLA, and have been propelled by their offensive efficiency rating — 1.16 points per possession — which ranks twelfth nationally. Oregon was fortunately seeded amongst teams whose defense is, at best, optional.

Other than Nebraska, no other team in San Antonio or Milwaukee holds opponents under one point per possession, catnip to Joseph Young (52 percent of his twos, 41.6 percent of his threes) and the other offensively proficient Ducks. Oregon already has an advantage even before the tournament tips — UO played its first-round opponent, BYU, during its non-conference slate, and the Cougars will be playing without arguably the best player (Kyle Collinsworth). If Dana Altman’s squad emerges in the Elite Eight, a potential match-up is Arizona looms, a team UO already split with during Pac-12 play (their lone loss to the Wildcats was by two points).

No. 4 UCLA — South

UCLA has likely the least chance of this quartet to make the Final Four, but that is why the Bruins are a dark horse! It is unclear whether Steve Alford’s team will even escape their first, or second, round games, but if they do manage to leap-frog their initial region, one filled with swipe-happy, ball-pressuring defenses, a match-up versus Florida will determine UCLA’s NCAA livelihood. The Bruins’ unique offense, one that starts with an iso problem in Kyle Anderson, continue with the Wear twins (both dilemmas for opposing bigs), and ends with one of the Pac-12’s most improved players, Norman Powell, is a defensive nightmare — i.e. in the Pac-12 final, against Arizona, the Bruins scored north of 1.40 PPP — and even though the Gators’ defense is stingy, the team hasn’t faced an offense as explosive as the one showcased in Westwood.

MORE8 teams that can win it all  |  8 that won’t  |  TV times  |  Bracket contest

No. 11 Tennessee — Midwest
The toughest region in this year’s bracket, the consensus picks to reach Arlington are Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan, or Duke, BUT there is another team that could completely bust the bracket and win four games — Tennessee. Cuonzo Martin’s team has twelve losses, but eleven of those defeats were within single digits (two of those losses came on buzzer-beaters to Texas A&M). The Vols have an offensive and defensive efficiency rate that both rank within Ken Pomeroy’s top 25, and UT is able to withstand their low shooting percentages by grabbing a high rate of their misses (nearly 40 percent, fifth nationally). Mercer has become a trendy upset pick to beat Duke — this is one of the weakest Blue Devil defenses in the KenPom era (since 2002-03) — and should the Vols get past (likely) Michigan, the squad is familiar with one of their potential Elite Eight match-ups — UT faced the Shockers during their non-conference slate and only lost by nine.

No. 7 New Mexico — South

We keep telling ourselves that the Lobos won’t desert us like last year. That first-round, premature exit thanks to Harvard can’t possibly happen again. The Mountain West team is too experienced, and much more efficient from within the arc (51.8 percent, as compared to 46.1 percent in ’13), to suffer another early exit, and the selection committee did Craig Neal’s squad a solid by setting up a potential match-up with Kansas, a team with a frontcourt that may miss Joel Embiid, or Ohio State, a squad that is backcourt-heavy. Should they advance to play either of those teams, the odds have to favor the Lobos, but first they need to beat to Stanford, which is certainly no easy task.

Top 2018 recruit R.J. Barrett names final five schools

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A top player in 2018 is down to five schools.

R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-6 guard out of Monteverde Academy in Florida, announced Wednesday he’ll consider Arizona, Duke, Michigan, Oregon and Kentucky as his college destination.

Barrett is among those in the mix for the top spot in his class now with Marvin Bagley III reclassifying to 2017 this week and committing to Duke. He starred in Canada’s run to a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championships this summer, dropping 38 points on Team USA in a shocking semifinals win for the Canadians, who went on to defeat Italy in the finals. He averaged 21.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.6 rebounds per game during the event.

The schools to make the cut for certainly are of little surprise. They’re among the biggest brands in basketball and have been among the recruiting elites for years.

Barrett was originally part of the 2019 class, but decided to reclassify earlier this summer.”Really, it’s been a thought of mine for the last year,” Barrett wrote for USA TODAY, “but I wanted to wait and see how the season would go and how school would go and when everything went well it became more and more real so I made the decision to go ahead and do it.

“I’m right on track to graduate in 2018 and academically everything is great.”

 

Big Ten reveals conference schedule with early-December games

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We knew it was coming, but seeing it in black-and-white is still plenty jarring.
The Big Ten is going to play conference games in early December.

The league announced its full conference schedule Wednesday, unveiling 14 first-week-of-December games ahead of nearly a month-long hiatus before Big Ten play picks up again in January.

It’s a move that was forced after the Big Ten decided it needed to expand its east coast presence after its expansion to Rutgers and Maryland, and will be playing its conference tournament on the eastern seaboard for the second-consecutive year, this time at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

The problem with MSG is that the Big East hosts its annual conference tournament there, meaning the B1G will have to play its tournament a week early, March 1-4. That means a week less of January, February and March for the conference to play its 18 league games. Thus the early December start. NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster broke down the situation in even more detail – and bite – last spring here.

Every team in the league will play both a home and a road game during that league’s first week, a soft opening if you will. Whether teams like the change or not will likely come down to circumstance  – what players they have injured or suspended, what players their opponents have injured or suspended and any other host of issues, but it’s hard to believe with all things being equal, Big Ten coaches will like this move. They’re playing extremely meaningful league games less than three weeks into the season with other conferences getting nearly 2 months of preparation before facing their toughest slate of games.

The B1G, though, will have more favorable and interesting games – even if they’re programmed against college football championship games (including their own) – that week than any other conference can boast, which likely means some nice TV ratings. Given why this change is being made, that’s probably the priority anyway.

South Carolina adds Maine grad-transfer Myers

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South Carolina is adding some immediate help in its follow-up season to a Final Four run.

Wesley Myers, a graduate transfer from Maine, is joining the Gamecocks’ program, according to FanRag Sports’ Jon Rothstein.

The 6-foot-2 guard gives Frank Martin’s team an instant infusion of scoring as they look to replace SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier. Myers 16.9 points per game last year on 43.7 percent shooting, including a 34.3 percent mark from 3-point range.

He’s the second grad-transfer Martin has picked up this offseason, joining Florida Atlantic’s Frank Booker. The pair should help ease the transition from last year’s success to a much less experienced team that returns just a pair of starters.

Myers, though, doesn’t arrive in Columbia without some notable history.

Last year, after transferring to Maine from Niagara, was suspended after an altercation with a teammate, according to reports. He and teammate Marko Pirovic argued over locker room music, and the alleged ensuing altercation left Pirovic with a broken jaw, according to reports. Three other Maine players were suspended after telling a team athletic trainer that Pirovic had injured himself in a fall in the shower. Pirovic declined to press charges.

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett: ‘We believe in diversity and unity to its fullest extent’

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Virginia’s Tony Bennett finally spoke out on last weekend’s clash between white supremacists protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and counter-protesters that resulted in the deaths of a 32-year old woman named Heather Heyer and two police officers involved in a helicopter crash:

Bennett does not exactly take a hard-line stance — the message is more about healing within the community and how much he loves his current hometown than it is about condemning what happened — but he does say “we believe in diversity and unity to its fullest extent.”

Kyle Guy, a sophomore on the Virginia roster, had this to say on Sunday:

UNC academic case finally reaches NCAA infractions hearing

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — It has taken more than two years for North Carolina to appear before an NCAA infractions committee panel since initially being charged with five top-level violations amid its long-running academic scandal.

The two-day hearing begins Wednesday in Nashville, Tennessee. The panel will ultimately determine whether the school faces penalties that could include fines, probation or vacated wins and championships, making this a major step toward resolution in an oft-delayed case filled with starts, stops and twice-rewritten charges.

“The hearing stage, no matter what size of a case, it’s a big deal to any university,” said Michael L. Buckner, a Florida-based attorney who has worked on infractions cases. “I’ve been a part of what you’d consider small cases, I’ve been a part of one of the largest cases. And trust me: The client feels the same anxiousness and apprehension no matter what size of a case it is.

“But I can definitely imagine with North Carolina, this is definitely a momentous occasion.”

The charges include lack of institutional control in a case tied to irregular courses in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. The case is an offshoot of a 2010 football probe, with the NCAA reopening an investigation in summer 2014, filing charges in May 2015, revising them in April 2016 and then again in December.

The panel, which would typically issue a ruling weeks to months later, is chaired by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey and includes former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

UNC’s representatives were seen arriving for the closed-door hearing at a Nashville hotel Wednesday morning. The contingent included athletic director Bubba Cunningham, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, football coach Larry Fedora and women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell. Jan Boxill and Deborah Crowder, two former UNC employees charged individually in the case, were also seen with their attorneys.

None of the coaches are charged with a violation. But football and men’s basketball are referenced in a broad-based improper benefits charge tied to athlete access to the irregular courses, while women’s basketball is tied to a charge focused on a former professor and academic counselor providing improper assistance on assignments.

Fedora wasn’t working at UNC during the time in question.

“There’s nothing that I can add to what happened before I ever got here,” Fedora said last week. “But I’m there for support. I think me being there is important — not only for the NCAA but the university — that it shows compliance is important to me and our program.”

The focus is independent study-style courses misidentified as lecture classes that didn’t meet and required a research paper or two for typically high grades. In a 2014 investigation, former U.S. Justice Department official Keorneth Wainstein estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes making up roughly half the enrollments.

The NCAA has said UNC used those courses to help keep athletes eligible.

UNC has challenged the NCAA’s jurisdiction, saying its accreditation agency — which sanctioned the school with a year of probation — was the proper authority. In a May filing , the school stated it “fundamentally believes that the matters at issue here were of an academic nature” and don’t involve NCAA bylaws.

The NCAA enforcement staff countered in a July filing: “The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA’s business.”

UNC has argued non-athletes had access to the courses and athletes didn’t receive special treatment. It has also challenged Wainstein’s estimate of athlete enrollments, saying Wainstein counted athletes who were no longer team members and putting the figure at less than 30 percent.

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