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Looking at the top big men in the 2014 NCAA Tournament

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PREVIEWSEast Region South Region | Midwest Region West Region

A presence in the paint can go a long way this time of year. Look no further than last year’s national title game. Gorgui Dieng manned the frontline for national champion Louisville. In the title game the Cardinals topped Michigan, which had freshman center Mitch McGary emerge as the tournament’s breakout star. 

Here’s a look at 12 of the most important wing forwards in the 2014 NCAA Tournament:

MORELead Guards | Off-Guards | Wing Forwards

Adreian Payne, Michigan State — One of three key players for Michigan State who dealt with injuries this season, but we’ve seen how dangerous Sparty can be when healthy. Payne averaged 15.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the field and stretching out the opposing frontcourts, hitting 42 percent of his threes. He and Keith Appling will try and keep Tom Izzo’s streak of seniors reaching the Final Four alive.

Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico — The Lobos won the Mountain West Conference Tournament and a big reason to their success this season has been Bairstow’s improvement. He went from 9.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game as a junior to 20.3 and 7.4 a night as a senior, and can be tough to defend on the block. With Bairstow, fellow big man Alex Kirk and 2013 Mountain West Player of the Year, Kendall Williams, it isn’t crazier to think New Mexico could reach the Elite 8.

Montrezl Harrell, Louisville — There were big expectations from Harrell to go from role player to star and the sophomore forward has not disappointed. He’s recorded five double-doubles in Louisville’s last 11 games and is posting averages of 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. In the Midwest Region, you won’t find many bigs as physical as Harrell. Teams like Wichita State and Duke could have trouble stopping him inside.

Frank Kaminksy, Wisconsin — This is a different offensive team than Wisconsin has had in the past. A main reason for that is the emergence of Kaminsky. The junior center only logged a little over 10 minutes a game for the Badgers last season, but this year he’s given them a versatile frontcourt option. He can score down low, and he can stretch the defense with deep shooting. Will he help the Wisconsin offensive attack get Bo Ryan to his first Final Four?

Patric Young, Florida — While he won’t necessarily intimidate anyone with his offensive skill set, he’s is a force down low on defense in a big frontline for the Gators. The SEC Defensive Player of the Year is one of the best post defenders in the country with the size and foot speed to gain position on the block and in the paint. Florida has a roster where players know their roles. Young is no exception.

MORE: Eight teams that will win it all Eight teams that won’t win it all

James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina — The Tar Heels have been hot and cold this season, and enter the tournament with two straight losses with a matchup against a Providence riding the momentum of a Big East Tournament championship. When Marcus Paige and McAdoo, who is averaging 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, are on, North Carolina is a sleeper in the East Region.

Sam Dower, Gonzaga — Marcus Smart has played well since returning from suspension, but Oklahoma State is in for a challenge in the Round of 64. Without Michael Cobbins, the Pokes will have a disadvantage inside against Gonzaga’s Sam Dower. After averaging 15.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 59 percent from the field, the Zags forward could be in for a huge first game of the NCAA tournament.

Cory Jefferson, Baylor — Take away the Big 12 Tournament loss to Iowa State and Jefferson had a string of really good games, posting three straight double-doubles. He and Isaiah Austin are playing well together for a team that dug itself in the conference basement earlier this season. Jefferson and the Bears can bust some brackets with their size on the frontline.

Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee — The Volunteers haven’t even reached the Round of 64 as they take on Iowa in the First Four on Wednesday. The junior forward could be a big reason why Tennessee could advance to play UMass. Stokes is averaging a double-double per game and can control the defensive glass against the Hawkeyes.

Joel Embiid, Kansas* — He entered Lawrence with a high ceiling, which quickly turned into the projected top overall draft pick in 2014. However, Embiid has been sidelined with a back injury, putting Kansas’ title hopes in question. Embiid went for 18 points, six rebound and blocked four shots against New Mexico in the regular season back in December. That’s a potential Round of 32 game and without him in the lineup, the Lobo frontline (mentioned above) could send the Jayhawks home early.

THE BAMBA: Mohamed Bamba’s mind is as bright as his hoops future

Mohamed Bamba, Jon Lopez/Nike
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LOS ANGELES — Fresh off of the gold medal he won in the U18 FIBA Americas tournament in Chile, Mohamed Bamba returned to the states and headed almost directly to Los Angeles to attend the Nike Skills Academy.

Attend. Not participate, at least not during the first day and a half of the camp.

He wasn’t alone in this decision. His USA Basketball teammates Michael Porter Jr., Trae Young and Hamidou Diallo also sat out parts or all of the first day. They had gone from Peach Jam in Augusta to the national team training camp in Houston to Chile, where they played five games in five days. A day off on the first Monday after the end of the July Live Period is almost necessary with the schedule that some of the nation’s elite high school prospects play.

But Bamba’s decision wasn’t strictly based on trying to catch up on rest.

He had left his soles in Valdivia.

“I have flat feet,” Bamba told NBCSports.com on Tuesday as he launched into the saga of his shoes, and because of those flat feet — and an ankle injury he suffered in the spring — the 7-foot Bamba has to wear specially made inserts in the sole of his shoes when he plays. When you’re that tall and your feet are that big, you’re not exactly buying those inserts off the rack.

During the tournament in Chile, Bamba became something of a sensation because his last name happens to be the name of a Mexican folk song, ‘La Bamba,’ made internationally famous by Richie Valens. The fans would go crazy every time he made a play. They made signs for him. They tabbed him as a third-party candidate for the people that don’t want to see Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the White House.

Bamba loved it, so much so that, when the tournament ended, he gave his shoes — soles and all — to a young Chilean boy who had become his biggest fan.

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NBCSports.com, courtesy Mohamed Bamba

It wasn’t until he got back to the hotel that he realized his mistake. He was able to track the kid down on social media and got one of the soles back that night, but the other shoe had been taken by someone else. By the time they found that person, it was too late. Bamba was going to have to wait to get his soles shipped back to him in the States. He won’t get them until he’s home in New York, which means that his time on the courts in a modified airplane hangar at the Hawthorne Airport was dictated by how effectively the training staff could replicate his soles with athletic tape.

All because he got excited and gave his shoes to a fan.

It was a pretty dumb thing to do for a kid who is decidedly not dumb.

———

Mohamed Bamba is among the elite of the elite in the Class of 2017. He’s a consensus top four prospect in the class, a kid that has a very real chance to be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. He’s no where near a finished product yet, but his ability to change the game on the defensive end of the floor is special.

“He’s a dinosaur, man,” is how one coach of a top-25 program described Bamba, and it’s a pretty apt comparison. He’s 7-foot in shoes and soles with a wingspan that has been measured at 7-foot-9.5 and a standing reach of 9-foot-6. Those numbers are unheard of, and given his knack for blocking and changing shots at the rim, it’s not hard to look at him and see a guy that can one day influence a game the same way Rudy Gobert or Hassan Whiteside can defensively.

The offensive end of the floor is where Bamba is still very much a work in progress. His post game is somewhere between ineffective and developing, but that will come as the 210-pound Bamba adds some weight and strength. He’s not a guy that you want shooting a lot of jumpers, but his stroke and soft touch are impressive enough that it’s fairly easy to project him as a guy that will consistently make perimeter shots one day. He’s not as fluid or as mobile as some of the more offensive-minded bigs you’ll come across, but he’s not uncoordinated, either.

He’s never going to be Karl Towns or Anthony Davis, but if his ceiling is Rudy Gobert with a jump shot, that’s something that will make him very attractive to a lot of NBA teams.

Bamba knows this.

He also knows, like the rest of the basketball-watching world, that the salaries NBA players are getting these days are massive. It’s very much within the realm of possibility that Bamba could earn nine figures in NBA paychecks by the time it’s all said and done. Bamba’s smart — there’s a reason that Duke and Harvard (yes, Harvard) are two of the schools that are highest on the list of schools chasing him — smart enough to know what he doesn’t know, including the ins and outs of the NBA salary cap and salary structures. Why is every max contract worth a different amount of money? Why was it a popular refrain to say that Kevin Durant left money on the table when he signed with the Golden State Warriors?

FIBA
FIBA

And that’s why Bamba ponied up the money to head to Boston and attend the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference, a weekend-long festival of sports nerds that are interested in things beyond how many points someone scored in a game. Bamba attended a presentation breaking down the best way to defend pick-and-rolls, sat in on a session analyzing how an NBA front office works and, fittingly enough, learned about predictive injury analytics and injury prevention.

“I had never thought about efficiency before,” Bamba said. “In high school it’s about how many points you score, not how many shots it takes or possessions it takes.”

‘Student-athlete’ is something of a tongue-in-cheek term in this day and age given the inherent unfairness of amateurism in the NCAA, but Bamba is as much a student as he is an athlete. He’s got an inquisitive nature, a desire to learn. His trip to MIT started as a joke about him being a dork, but once he found out what it was he became intrigued. So he went. He’s been studying up on speeches that he attended in the months since he left Boston, learning more and more about NBA contracts and how players can manage their money. “If you’re going to be an multi-million dollar investment, you should know why and how it works,” he said.

He’s in business and marketing classes at the Westtown School now, and he says that regardless of how long it takes him to declare for the NBA Draft, he will be getting his degree. But when asked by a reporter if he’s preparing himself, on the chance that he goes one-and-done, to test out of intro classes and take more advanced courses as a freshman, Bamba admitted it was the rare topic he had no knowledge of.

“I’ve never thought about that,” he said.

“But I’m going to look into it now.”

Mohamed Bamba, Jon Lopez/Nike
Mohamed Bamba, USA Basketball

Top-25 guard trims list to six

Trae Young , Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images
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One of the top points guards in the Class of 2017 has trimmed his list of potential collegiate destinations to six.

Trae Young, a consensus top-25 recruit, listed Texas Tech, Kansas, Oklahoma, Washington, Oklahoma State and Kentucky as the schools he is considering as he readies to begin his senior year of high school.

The list of the 6-foot-2 point guard is largely provincial as it includes Oklahoma, whose campus is just minutes away from Young’s Norman North High School, and fellow in-state school Oklahoma. Another pair of Big 12 schools make the list in powerhouse Kansas and the Red Raiders, whose first-year coach, Chris Beard, has spent the bulk of his career working in Texas. Texas Tech is also Young’s father’s alma mater. Washington has been on a role sending its players to the pros and recently received the commitment of top-five 2017 recruit Michael Porter, Jr.

Kentucky, of course, needs no explanation as to its attractiveness to high-level players.

Top-100 guard commits to Xavier

Chris Mack has Xavier back in the Sweet 16 (AP Photo)
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Xavier has added a top-100 prospect into its 2017 recruiting class Wednesday.

Elias Harden, a shooting guard from Georgia, pledged to the Musketeers via social media to become the second member of Chris Mack’s next class.

“The recruiting process was not EASY AT ALL,” Harden wrote on Twitter. “I wanna thank all the coaches that took time to recruit me.

“WIth that being said I will continue my academic and athletic career at Xavier University.”

The 6-foot-6 guard is ranked 92nd overall by 247Sports and had offers from Auburn, Maryland, Texas Tech and Ole Miss. He joins Jared Ridder, a Missouri guard, as part of the 2017 Xavier class.

The Musketeers return the bulk of last year’s 28-6 team that narrowly missed out on the Sweet 16.

Clemson recruit to enroll early

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Clemson will get a four-star recruit on campus a year earlier than it expected, though his on-court debut for the Tigers will remain on schedule.

A.J. Oliver, a guard from South Carolina, will enroll early at Clemson and redshirt this upcoming season, he announced via social media Wednesday.

“I woke up this morning and realized that the greatest opportunity for me is to enroll early into Clemson,” he wrote on Twitter. “I will redshirt a year & start my college career early.”

Oliver, whose mother is the head women’s basketball coach at Clemson, was a consensus top-100 player in the class of 2017 who committed to the Tigers last December. Texas Tech and the College of Charleston were involved before his commitment.

A three-star shooting guard, Scott Spencer of Virginia, was previously the only member coach Brad Brownell’s 2016 class. While Oliver’s decision to redshirt will keep him off the court for the 2016-17 season, he’ll have spent a full season in the Tiger program before making his debut in 2017

The cupboard isn’t bare in 2017 for the Tigers due to Oliver’s reclassification because Clemson received a commitment from power forward Malik Williams, a consensus top-150 player, earlier Wednesday.

Kentucky used Calipari-Chaney fight in media training

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Kentucky held some media training sessions yesterday, and one of the topics that head coach John Calipari used to make a point was … his blow-up with John Chaney. The moment was captured on SnapChat by a trio of Kentucky newcomers.

You remember that incident. Chaney, then the head coach at Temple, and Cal, who was coaching Atlantic 10 rival UMass at the time, nearly came to blows over the way that Cal handled officials during the game. Before the video below picks up, the two shared this exchange:

“Could I say this to you, please?” Chaney said, before the video above picks up. “You’ve got a good ball club. But what you did with the officials out there is wrong, and I don’t want to be a party to that. You understand?”

Cal responded: “You weren’t out there, Coach. You don’t have any idea.”

Chaney fired back: “You got a game given to you by officials right here with G.W. on three bad calls, O.K.? Then you send your kids out there pushing and shoving. You had the best officiating you could ever get here. And for you to ride them, I don’t want to be a party to that.”

And that led to “I’ll kill you”:

(h/t KSR)