CBT Roundtable: The NCAA Tournament’s biggest surprise heading into the Sweet 16

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The Sweet 16 kicks off tomorrow night with the South and West Region action beginning. Before we begin clipping the field down to the Final Four, we asked our stable of writers what they find most surprising heading into the tournament’s second weekend:

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Raphielle Johnson: Full disclosure, I picked Baylor to reach the Sweet 16. I thought they matched up well with the Bluejays due to their length ans athleticism in the front court, but to win by 30? Even in prior losses this season when they didn’t hit threes, Creighton at least had a fighting chance. That wasn’t the case Sunday, with Baylor doing a very good job of identifying scorers and making sure those players were out of their comfort zones. The Bears have been hot, but the way in which they won stood out to me.

Rob Dauster: Kentucky finally put it all together. We’ve been waiting four months for the Wildcats to have the kind of performance they did when they handed No. 1 Wichita State their first loss since last season’s Final Four. The Harrison twins played like NBA-caliber guards, James Young hit a handful of big shots and Julius Randle went all-Julius Randle, finishing with 15 points, 10 boards and six assists. If this continues, if Kentucky can bring that kind of an effort for two more weeks, they can win a national title.

Three weeks ago, Kentucky lost to South Carolina. That’s wild to think about.

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Matt Giles: Tennessee’s offense has looked unstoppable these past three games. Weeks after chatter emerged regarding the possibility of a coaching change in Knoxville, coach Cuonzo Martin has revitalized this already proficient offense. The Vols have never been a team to rely on three-point shooting, and true to form, the team is only taking one-third of their field goals from deep (and making just 22 percent), but UT’s scoring within the arc has completely overwhelmed their tourney opponents. The squad is converting a whopping 63 percent of their two-point field goals (posting an offensive efficiency rating of 1.26 points per possession), and when UT doesn’t connect from the field, they’re getting fouled: the team’s free throw rate is 53 percent, which means that UT has been wildly successful putting pressure on opponents and getting to the stripe (where the Vols are making 83 percent of their free throws). Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae, both nationally known, have played well, but the Vol to watch, should the team beat Michigan and then either Louisville or Kentucky, is Josh Richardson — the wing has taken 19 twos and made 90 percent of those attempts.

Terrence Payne: The bottom half of the South Region is the biggest surprise of the NCAA tournament so far, as its Elite 8 matchup is between No. 11 seed Dayton and No. 10 seed Stanford. The Flyers earned one of the final at-large bids, and made it to Memphis with an upset win over in-state opponent Ohio State, followed by another narrow victory over Syracuse. Stanford has had an equally surprising run to the Sweet 16. The Cardinal began the tournament against New Mexico, pegged as the dark horse to come out of the South. After sending the Lobos home early, the Cardinal sent Kansas (without Joel Embiid) back to Lawrence with a great defensive effort. Johnny Dawkins began the season on the hot seat. Fast forward five months later, and he’s got his Cardinal one win away from a berth in the Elite 8.

Scott Phillips: I fully believed that Kansas was susceptible to a Round of 32 loss without Joel Embiid — why can’t I quit you, New Mexico? — but I never expected Stanford to be the team to do it. I was in St. Louis on Sunday for the upset and the Cardinal were incredibly impressive, especially on the defensive end. To beat No. 2 seed Kansas without knocking down a three-pointer just shows how good of a game plan Johnny Dawkins had for his team and how well the entire team executed that plan despite going cold from the outside. If Stanford continues to defend like that, their shooting will only improve and their length and physicality could make them a dangerous potential Final Four team.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.