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Ranking the Top 16 players left in the NCAA tournament

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The first weekend could not have been more thrilling, beginning with Vee Sanford’s runner that sent No. 11 Dayton past No. 6 Ohio State and ending with the dunk show that Aaron Gordon put on for No. 1 Arizona.

In between, we unbelievably only had one true buzzer-beater — Cameron Ridley dispatching No. 10 Arizona State — but we did manage to put together the best day of Round of 64 games ever and the single best college basketball game since Louisville beat Michigan for the 2013 title.

We now have just 16 teams left in the dance. Here is our list of the 16 best players left in the field:

MORECoverage from the first weekend | Sweet 16 Preview | Sweet 16 Power Rankings

1. Russ Smith, Louisville: Smith was not good in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, shooting 6-for-19 from the floor and committing 11 turnovers. The Cardinals will need him to be the guy that was a first team all-american if they are going to get past Kentucky in the Sweet 16.

2. Shabazz Napier, UConn: Napier is not an overwhelming athlete like Nick Johnson and he’s not a domineering presence on the floor like an Adreian Payne, but there may not be a player with more flair for the dramatic than Napier. He takes over in big moments like no one else.

3. DeAndre Kane, Iowa State: Kane went for 24 points, 10 boards and seven assists in Iowa State’s win over North Carolina Sunday. They’ll need more performances like that from him if the Cyclones are going to make it to the Final Four sans Georges Niang.

4. Nik Stauskas, Michigan: Between his ability to shoot and what he’s shown in pick and roll actions, Stauskas is the focal point for the best offensive attack left in the tournament.

5. Adreian Payne, Michigan State: Perhaps the most dominant player left in the tournament when he gets it going, but consistency remains an issue for Payne.

source: Getty Images6. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Johnson is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country and the leading scorer on an Arizona team that can win the national title.

7. Kyle Anderson, UCLA: The dude just puts up numbers: 14.7 points, 8.7 boards, 6.5 assists.

8. Gary Harris, Michigan State: As good as Harris has been this season, he’s shown a penchant for hitting big jumpers this month.

9. Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle may be the most physically overwhelming post player left in the tournament, but I just don’t know how many touches he is going to get on the block.

10. Melvin Ejim, Iowa State: Like Kane, Ejim’s role is all the more important now that Georges Niang is out of the lineup.

11. Scottie Wilbekin, Florida: There may not be a better “closer” in all of college basketball than Scottie Wilbekin. He’s made some ridiculously tough shots seem easy in critical moments late in the season. He’s the most underrated player in college basketball.

12. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: At one point in SDSU’s win over North Dakota State, Thames had 30 points and eight assists and was responsible for 46 of SDSU’s 55 points.

13. Aaron Gordon, Arizona: Gordon is averaging 17.0 points in the first two NCAA tournament games. We know how good he in defensively and in transition, but if he’s going to start knocking down jump shots, he’s going to be too low on this list.

14. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: A relentless rebounder and an abusive dunker. I’m not sure anyone left in the field plays as hard as Harrell does.

15. Jordan Adams, UCLA: As good as Anderson is, Adams is actually their go-to scorer on the offensive end. He’s almost as underrated as Wilbekin.

16. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: Frank the Tank! A 7-footer with three-point range, an array of post moves and the ability to put the ball on the floor and beat slower big men off the dribble is not a common thing to come across.

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)