Late Night Snacks: Sunday’s Elite 8 matchups set

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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 8 Kentucky 74, No. 4 Louisville 69

How does one pick a game of the night amongst a slate of four superiorly played contests? Each of Friday’s Sweet 16 games could have made this cut, but since John Calipari was able to snap Rick Pitino’s streak — prior to Friday, the Louisville coach was 11-0 in Sweet 16 match-ups — the Kentucky win gets top billing. The game did not start strongly for UK — Calipari said he knew his team would ‘pee down their legs‘ once the ball was tipped — and it appeared like Louisville, fueled by Russ Smith’s dunks, Luke Hancock taking each Wildcat off the dribble, and poor UK perimeter shooting, would make a consecutive Elite 8.

The play of Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson, two of the less hyped UK bigs, helped balance the squad until UK could make its run late in the second half. Johnson scored 15 points and grabbed six boards, and Poythress, in particular, changed the contest’s dynamic — without his defensive intensity, which included forcing a Hancock steal and blocking Smith on an open court attempt, UK likely wouldn’t be playing on Sunday.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

1) No. 7 Connecticut 81, No. 3 Iowa State 76: Until just over two minutes remained in the second half, Connecticut, whose fans packed Madison Square Garden like it was the Big East Tournament and Jim Calhoun was still on the sidelines, was in complete control. At that point, Iowa State was somehow awoken from their game-long stupor and began a too late charge. ISU junior Dustin Hogue put in some serious work, scoring a career-high 34 points (he made 15 out of 19 shots), and DeAndre Daniels was the game’s other DeAndre (as opposed to Kane), splashing the net with crucial jump shots (he finished with 27 points).

2) No. 2 Michigan 73, No. 11 Tennessee 71: When discussing this Sweet 16 tilt years from now, the charging foul on UT’s Jarnell Stokes will be the evergreen moment, while Caris LeVert’s swiping Stokes will be lost as memories fade. The Vols simply could not handle Michigan’s offensive fortitude in the first half, yielding 1.45 points per possession from countless jumpers off flare screens. A combination of tighter defense and careless Michigan turnovers kept this game much closer than the first half would have indicated, and the Wolverines, along with their electric and dynamic scoring, will next face Kentucky.

3) No. 4 Michigan State 80, No. 1 Virginia 78: This game had the feel of being played in a cramped, stuffy sweatbox that only seats a few hundred. It certainly didn’t feel like Madison Square Garden — for much of the second half, fans were standing, refusing to sit for fear of missing the back-and-forth shooting display. The Cavaliers’ pack-line defense was true to form — the duo of Gary Harris and Keith Appling were rendered ineffective, converting just three of eight field goals — but UVa had no match for Branden Dawson, a junior who overpowered (24 points, ten rebounds) the entirety of the Cavs’ frontcourt.

STARRED

1) Branden Dawson, Michigan State: The junior big’s game against Virginia was spectacular, but his play throughout the NCAA tournament is noteworthy: through three games, Dawson is making nearly 60 percent of his twos, grabbing 19 defensive boards, and committing just two turnovers.

2) Alex Poythress, Kentucky: The sophomore only scored six points and grabbed four rebounds against Louisville, but without his defense late in the second half, UK would have likely been the twelfth team on Pitino’s Sweet 16 streak.

3) Jordan Morgan, Michigan : A picture of Morgan was published this week in the Detroit Free-Press, showcasing his transformation from a freshman to senior, and the big looks positively Gaston-esque. That buff physique helped Morgan handle the Vols’ burly interior, and combined with a thorough scouting report, put Morgan in the position to draw the defensive play of the game.

STRUGGLED

1) Willie Cauley-Stein’s ankle: Following the win, Calipari said his center’s ankle injury was “…not a good ankle injury.” It would be very surprising if Cauley-Stein played on Sunday against Michigan, but he could undergo a miraculous turnaround within the next 24 hours.

2) Michigan State’s backcourt: Harris, Appling, and Denzel Valentine combined to make just four field goals against a stout Cavalier defense.

3) Iowa State’s seniors: This isn’t how the Cyclones 2014 season should have ended. After helping to carry the team throughout the year, Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane suffered their worst offensive outing in ’14 — Kane was two of nine from the free throw line (he normally makes 63 percent of his free throws), and Ejim converted just three out of thirteen field goals.

Dayton freshman Toppin ineligible for 2017-18 season

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Dayton announced Tuesday afternoon that one of the program’s incoming freshmen will not be eligible to compete this season. 6-foot-8 forward Obadiah Toppin has been ruled by the NCAA to have not met initial eligibility requirements, and he will have to sit out the 2017-18 season as a result.

Toppin will be allowed to remain a member of the team and participate in practices, and he will have four seasons of eligibility remaining beginning with the 2018-19 season. While the NCAA’s decision leaves the Flyers short a front court option in head coach Anthony Grant’s first season at the helm, it did not come as a surprise.

“We knew this was a possible scenario for Obi early on in the recruiting process,” Grant said in the release. “And if it came to pass, we saw this as a chance for him to utilize this year acclimate as a student and enhance his strength and skill as an academic redshirt. This is a great opportunity for Obi to develop as a player and student over the next 12 months, and prepare himself for a very successful college career.”

Toppin, who averaged 17 points and eight rebounds per game at Mt. Zion Academy last season, is one of five freshmen who have joined the program. Matej Svoboda and Jordan Pierce will look to earn minutes alongside returnees Josh Cunningham and Xeyrius Williams, and the same can be said for redshirt freshman Kostas Antetokounmpo.

Toppin being declared ineligible is the third hit Dayton has taken to its front court this offseason. Ryan Mikesell, who played in 32 games last season, will redshirt after undergoing two hip surgeries. And Sam Miller, who was also part of the team’s front court rotation last season, was suspended from school for the fall semester after he was arrested during the summer.

Four-star forward commits to Ohio State

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Ohio State is on the board with regards to the 2018 recruiting class, as Chris Holtmann’s program received a much-needed verbal commitment from four-star forward Jaedon LeDee. The 6-foot-9 Houston native announced his decision via his Twitter account Tuesday afternoon.

In receiving a verbal commitment from LeDee, Ohio State beat out California, Houston, Iowa State, LSU, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and UCLA. The Buckeyes hosted LeDee for his official visit the weekend of September 9, which coincided with the football team’s matchup with Oklahoma. Originally scheduled to visit Cal this past weekend, LeDee instead visited Texas A&M.

With LeDee’s commitment to Ohio State, visits to LSU (September 30) and UCLA (October 6) are likely off the board.

Currently attending the Kincaid School, LeDee played for the Texas PRO grassroots program on the adidas Uprising circuit this summer. The four-star prospect will likely be a combo forward for Ohio State, playing either the three or the four depending on the matchup.

With Jae’Sean Tate beginning his senior season and Keita Bates-Diop being a redshirt junior, Ohio State had a need to address in the front court. In landing a verbal pledge from Jaedon LeDee, the Buckeyes have done just that.

Among the front court players who will have eligibility remaining beyond the 2017-18 season are Bates-Diop, current sophomores Micah Potter and Andre Wesson, and freshmen Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young.

The Pac-12 is foolish for scheduling Arizona-UCLA once during the regular season

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Last month, I wrote about one of the more troubling trends in college basketball: Teams steering away from playing the games that fans are going to care about the most.

It was the result of Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing stating publicly that he was “not thinking about Maryland” after the rivalry between the DMV’s two most well-known programs went by the wayside.

Ewing isn’t the only coach that is culpable here. Kansas and Missouri don’t play. Kansas and Wichita State don’t play, either. Duke and Maryland don’t play. Ohio State doesn’t play Cincinnati, Xavier or Dayton. It goes on and on.

But the blame can no longer only be given to the coaches that schedule to protect themselves and/or their program.

The conferences deserve some criticism as well. Take, for instance, the Pac-12, who released their schedule recently after deciding that Arizona, a contender for the preseason No. 1 team in the country, should only play UCLA and USC, the only two teams that have a realistic chance of upending the Wildcats for the Pac-12 crown, once apiece.

Not only that, but the games will be played in Tucson, an incredible advantage for Sean Miller’s club as they pursue the league’s regular season title.

Look, I get it. There are 12 teams in the league and there is an 18-game schedule. Each team in the league is going to play four of their 11 league foes just once. It’s simple math. But the answer should never, ever be to schedule the Arizona schools and the Southern California schools just once.

The reasoning is simple: Arizona and UCLA are the two biggest brands in the league. When they play it will draw more interest than when any other two teams in the conference play, and that’s something the conference should be trying to capitalize on. It takes a lot to convince anyone on the east coast to stay up to watch a Pac-12 basketball game. I cover this sport for a living and I have a hard time making it all the way through a 10 p.m. ET tip. When a two-year old is going to be screaming at me to make breakfast at 6:30 a.m., do I really want to stay up to watch Arizona blow out Washington or UCLA to beat up on Cal?

The Pac-12 should do everything they can to ensure that Arizona and UCLA play twice every season.

That is even more true this year. Arizona might be the best team in the country and they might have the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft on their roster in Deandre Ayton. UCLA is a top 15 team that just so happens to have Liangelo Ball, the worst of the three Ball brothers and potentially the last one to matriculate through the college ranks. The seemingly inevitable LaVar Ball blow-up is something we all will be watching patiently to see.

Should I mention the simmering hatred between Sean Miller and Steve Alford as they continually compete for the best prospects on the west coast?

And that’s before you factor in that USC is the second-best team in the league, and anyone that UCLA plays twice, USC will also play twice.

I’ll be sure to watch a number of Oregon games this season, and I think that Stanford, Oregon State and Colorado all have the pieces to sneak up on some people this year. I’ll be sure to check in on them a couple times as well.

But the games that I’ll have circled on my calendar, the games I’ll be excited about watching, are between Arizona, UCLA and USC.

By scheduling the Arizona schools and the Southern California schools just once during the regular season, the Pac-12 cost themselves a third of that inventory.

That doesn’t seems like the smartest way to run a business conference.

But hey, if conference realignment and the development of conference-only networks taught us anything, it’s that major college athletics are all about competitive balance over those advertising dollars.

Vanderbilt lands commitment from Aaron Nesmith

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Vanderbilt landed their first commitment in the Class of 2018 with four-star wing Aaron Nesmith.

Nesmith is a native of South Carolina, and the Commodores beat out South Carolina for his services. At 6-foot-6, Nesmith is the kind of defensive presence and athlete that Vandy will need to replace Jeff Roberson, who will be graduating this season.

This is a critical class for Bryce Drew, who is squarely in the mix for five-star guards Darius Garland and Romeo Langford. Nesmith isn’t on that level, but he will be a nice piece for Vandy for four years.

Svi Mykhailiuk drops 20 pounds, makes weird Kansas roster even weirder

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Kansas is a weird team this season.

They’re talented, they’re probably going to win the Big 12 again and I fully expect them to be in the national title picture come March, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re … weird.

25 percent of their scholarship players are transfers sitting out the year. That doesn’t include Sam Cunliffe, who won’t be eligible until December. So that’s unusual, as is the fact that Bill Self, a coach that had steadfastly remained dedicated to playing two big men together despite the gradual shift to small-ball, has three big men on his roster in total.

One of those three is Mitch Lightfoot, which means that there are just two big men on the roster that a potential Final Four team should feel comfortable having as a major part of their rotation. That would be sophomore Udoka Azubuike and freshman Billy Preston.

That makes it seem pretty clear that the Jayhawks will be going with another small-ball look, just as they did last season, right? But they don’t really have a piece to replace Josh Jackson, who was a perfect fit as a college four in a small-ball lineup. He was a natural wing that was athletic enough to block shots and tough enough to battle bigs on the glass.

So who plays that role this season?

Some thought it could be Svi Mykhailiuk, the 20-year old Ukranian senior, but he’s never really been that guy. Oh, and he just so happened to lose 20 pounds this offseason.

“I’m trying to stay light-weight this year, so it’s going to help me a lot,” Mykhailiuk told the Kansas City Star. “I feel like I’m faster with the light weight. I’m more athletic. It just helps me overall in the game.”

Which means … what, exactly?

Losing 20 pounds isn’t exactly going to help a player that has some question marks about his toughness and physicality battle with college fours in the paint. Does it mean he’ll be playing more on the wing? If so, who plays at the four? Will LaGerald Vick — all six feet, five inches and 175 pounds — be playing in the Josh Jackson role?

Or is Self going to use Preston as his new Perry Ellis, hoping that this five-star freshman becomes what his last five-star four-man — Carlton Bragg — never could?

My guess is that it will likely end up being all of the above, depending on matchups.

But it doesn’t make the Jayhawks’ weird roster any clearer.