Four Final Four X-Factors

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You know all about the stars of the Final Four at this point. Shabazz Napier and Julius Randle were all-americans. Scottie Wilbekin was the SEC Player of the Year. Frank Kaminsky is no longer the secret weapon for Wisconsin after he shredded Arizona and star forward Aaron Gordon over the weekend.

Those are going to be the guys that get the most attention and the most spotlight, but here are the four biggest x-factors as we head into the final weekend of the college basketball season:

DeAndre Daniels: Daniels has the talent to be a lottery pick. That’s not me speculating, that’s a fact. He’s 6-foot-9 and athletic with three-point range, the ability to put the ball on the floor and finish above the rim, and the length to be an excellent defender at every level. He absolutely dominated Iowa State in the Sweet 16, playing a major role in UConn’s win on a night where Napier had a (relatively speaking) off-night: 27 points, 10-for-15 shooting, 10 boards, two blocks. But he can also go through stretches where he completely vanishes offensively, and those are the nights that UConn struggles.

Against a powerhouse like Florida, UConn is going to need Daniels playing his best basketball. If I’m Kevin Ollie, I go to him early and often. A motivated DeAndre Daniels could be the difference between celebrating a trip to the Final Four and having a chance to play for the national title.

Wisconsin’s defensive rebounding: Kentucky is the best offensive rebounding team in the country. Part of that is common-sense, as no one in the country — let alone in this Final Four — has the kind of size and athleticism to matchup with Kentucky on the front line. But there’s more to it than that: Kentucky leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom, grabbing 42.5% of their misses.

Wisconsin is a good defensive rebounding team — No. 12 nationally — but that doesn’t mean things are going to be easy against the Wildcats. Wisconsin likes to play three small guards, the biggest of which, Josh Gasser, gives up three inches to the smallest player in Kentucky’s perimeter. Sam Dekker starts at the four, and he’s a 6-foot-7 small forward that will be tasked with blocking out Julius Randle. Nigel Hayes, who plays alongside Kaminsky and Dekker when the Badgers want to go big, may end up being the most important player for Bo Ryan on Saturday.

Kentucky’s three-point shooting: Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and James Young shot a combined 35.1% from three this season. In the NCAA tournament, they have combined to go 22-for-49 from deep, or 44.9%. It’s more than just that, however: in each of their last three wins, the biggest shot of the game — the eventual game-winner — was a three-ball from one of those three. Against Wichita State, Young gave Kentucky the lead for good with a three with just 1:40 left. Against Louisville, it was Aaron Harrison hitting the go-ahead three-pointer with 40 seconds left on the clock. And on Sunday against Michigan, Aaron Harrison hit four threes in the final eight minutes, the last of which came with just 2.3 seconds left on the clock.

Dorian Finney-Smith: UConn has a top ten defense nationally, but if there is a weakness, it is their ability to defend the three-point line. Michael Frazier can shoot the cover off of the ball, and you can bet that the Huskies are going to do everything they can to keep him from showcasing that ability on Saturday night. Scottie Wilbekin is Captain Clutch, meaning that UConn will be expecting him to take and make his open threes. Finney-Smith is the guy that can be a difference-maker. He’s a streaky shooter, a guy that can hit three or four in a row but that also went weeks in between made threes at one point this season. When he’s hitting, he gives the Gators another look in their ball-screen offense with his ability to pick-and-pop.

No. 7 South Carolina upends No. 3 Baylor to advance to the Elite 8

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NEW YORK — It was with a whipping and a whimper that Baylor’s season can to an end on Friday night.

The final two minutes of the game wasn’t actually a game. No. 7 seed South Carolina dished out a 70-50 beatdown that wasn’t in doubt after the Gamecocks used an 18-0 run at the end of the first half to turn a rock fight into statement, and for the final two minutes of the game, the Gamecocks and, eventually, Baylor dribbled out the remaining seconds before joining arms at center court for a postgame prater.

It’s the third straight year that Baylor has been bounced from the NCAA tournament by a team seeded lower than them. In 2015, it was R.J. Hunter’s heroics that knocked his dad off of a stool and sent No. 14 seed Georgia State into the second round of the tournament. In 2016, the Bears fell in the first round to No. 12 seed Yale, prompting one of the most memorable press conference moments in NCAA tournament history.

And on Friday night, it was South Carolina that sent the Bears into offseason hibernation.

It was a disheartening end to a season, a loss that will surely provide fodder for the people that traffic in ‘Scott Drew can’t coach’ jokes, the irony being that the 2016-17 season was definitive proof that Scott Drew is almost certainly better at his job than you are at yours.

“When you coach for a while and you make Elite Eights and Sweet 16, you kind of start taking it for granted that you will always be successful in March,” Drew said. “But it’s a good reminder to be here and know how hard it is.”

No. 1 North Carolina handles No. 4 Butler en route to Elite Eight

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North Carolina, the top seed in the South Region, led by as many as 20 en route to a 92-80 win over No. 4 Butler in the Sweet 16 matchup on Friday night at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.

The Tar Heels were led by 26 points, off 8-of-13 shooting, from junior point guard Joel Berry II. The 6-foot floor general had been hampered by an ankle injury through the first weekend. While he still seemed to favor that same ankle at times, his play was a big improvement on his 3-of-21 shooting through the NCAA Tournament’s first two rounds. Justin Jackson nearly matched Berry’s game-high with 24 points.

Andrew Chrabascz, in the final game of his four-year career at Butler, finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

North Carolina, the last of the ACC’s nine tournament bids, advances to the Elite Eight to face the winner of No. 3 UCLA and No. 2 Kentucky. The Wildcats own a win over North Carolina, defeating the Tar Heels, 103-100, on Dec. 17 behind 47 points from Malik Monk.

Missouri lands No. 1 player in Class of 2017 as Michael Porter Jr. commits

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Missouri and new head coach Cuonzo Martin have landed the No. 1 player in the Class of 2017 a week after he took the job as forward Michael Porter Jr. committed to the Tigers on Friday.

Formerly a Washington commit under now-fired head coach Lorenzo Romar, the 6-foot-9 Porter was released from his Letter of Intent this week and many believed he’d end up back at Missouri.

The Porter family lived in Columbia for many years as two of Michael’s older sisters play for the Missouri women’s team while Michael Porter Sr. was an assistant coach for the women’s team.

When Porter Sr. was hired to Missouri to be an assistant coach on Martin’s staff this week — after losing his assistant coaching job at Washington when Romar was fired — it all but sealed the deal that the Porters would return to Missouri and Michael Jr. would play for the Tigers.

Missouri might not be an NCAA Tournament team next season after struggling to an 8-24 finish and 2-16 record in the SEC. But Porter might be the most productive freshman entering college basketball next season as he has a chance to be dominant in the SEC.

Oklahoma State promotes assistant coach Mike Boynton to head coach

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Oklahoma State has decided to promote assistant coach Mike Boynton to head coach, the school announced on Friday.

Boynton was an assistant with the Cowboys under former head coach Brad Underwood, who left Oklahoma State to take the Illinois job last weekend. Also an assistant coach at Stephen F. Austin, South Carolina, Wofford and Coastal Carolina, Boynton is a native of New York City who played his college ball for the Gamecocks.

The hire of Boynton is surprising since he doesn’t have any head-coaching experience as it follows in the footsteps of Cal promoting assistant coach Wyking Jones earlier in the day. Boynton also notably won the job over broadcaster and former Oklahoma State guard Doug Gottlieb as Gottlieb interviewed for the job but wasn’t selected.

 

Rhode Island junior E.C. Matthews will return to school

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Rhode Island junior guard E.C. Matthews will return to school for his redshirt senior season, the school announced on Friday.

The 6-foot-5 Matthews led the Rams in scoring at 14.9 points per game this past season as he returned from a torn ACL and helped Rhode Island reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.

Besides for being a talented scorer, Matthews is a good overall playmaker for the Rams as he also put up 4.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game.

With Matthews returning, it gives head coach Dan Hurley a huge weapon for next season as Rhode Island returns everyone besides the senior front court of Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson.