Aaron Harrison hit the critical shot, but don’t ignore Alex Poythress’ contributions

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ARLINGTON, Texas — With 5.7 seconds remaining Saturday night Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison added another critical shot to his NCAA tournament resume, hitting the three-pointer that gave the Wildcats the 74-73 win over No. 2 Wisconsin. Harrison didn’t shoot particularly well, making three of his eight attempts on the night, but he made the big one and as a result Kentucky will play for a national title for the second time in three years.

But if not for a player who could best be described as enigmatic over his two seasons in Lexington, there’s a chance that John Calipari’s team isn’t in this spot.

Alex Poythress has been, at times, a maddening player to observe. While the physical tools are there, as evidenced by his being a McDonald’s All-American out of high school, the “fire” needed to be a dominant player isn’t always present. However during the NCAA tournament Poythress has been a key reserve for Kentucky, and that was once again the case in the second half against Wisconsin.

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Poythress scored six points and grabbed three rebounds in the second half, finishing the game with eight points and seven rebounds. The numbers by themselves aren’t particularly impressive, but the combination of production and activity helped Kentucky get in position to win the game in the final seconds. After being an inconsistent player for much of the season, Poythress has stepped forward during the NCAA tournament.

“I think one, Marcus Lee kind of woke him up,” Calipari said of Poythress following the win. “Like, ‘if Marcus Lee can do that, I can do that.’ Everyone on this team is waiting for him to break out like he did and like he is now.”

In five NCAA tournament games Poythress hasn’t received a high number of scoring opportunities, and that isn’t a surprise given the fact that he’s averaging 5.9 points per game on the season. But he’s done well with the opportunities he’s earned during the tournament, shooting 13-for-17 from the field (he hasn’t missed a shot since the Wichita State game) and averaging 6.2 points and 3.6 rebounds per contest.

“He’s in the best shape of his life,” Calipari noted. “Mentally, he’s in a great place mentally. He’s playing fearless and he’s just almost reckless, which is great for him because of his athleticism. I texted him before because I had a bunch of my friends say he’s going to have a big game. I texted him, ‘this is what they’re saying, man, I love you.’

“He said, ‘I love you, coach, let’s go have some fun.’ And he went out there and played great.”

Much has been made about whatever “tweaks” Calipari has executed over the last month, with many wondering what exactly those “tweaks” are. But for all the conversation about that aspect of Kentucky’s turnaround, the fact of the matter is that multiple players who struggled at various points in the season are now stepping forward and playing with confidence. Both Harrisons entered the SEC tournament struggling offensively, Lee rarely played and Poythress was inconsistent in the aggression he was playing with.

That all has changed, with a better understanding of what’s expected of them individually helping the team reach the game many expected them play in back in October. The journey certainly hasn’t been as smooth as anticipated, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that a team full of underclassmen would hit some bumps in the road.

Ultimately what matters is how a team responds. After struggling with the next step at times this season, Kentucky’s done a far better job of dealing with tough situations in March and as a result they’re one win away from the program’s ninth national title. And Poythress’ career to date has been a microcosm of this, and over the last three weeks he’s done a better job of simply competing. With that being the case, a sophomore who many felt capable of flipping the switch has played a valuable role in Kentucky’s late-season run.

Indiana hires Dayton head coach Archie Miller

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Indiana is expected to hire Dayton head coach Archie Miller, the school announced.

The deal will be for seven years, according to The Vertical. Miller had spent the last six seasons as the head coach at Dayton, getting to four straight NCAA tournaments, including the Elite 8 in 2014, while winning the last two Atlantic 10 regular season titles.

Miller had been targeted by seemingly every high major program with an opening since he reached the Elite 8, but similar to Shaka Smart when he left VCU, Miller simply waited for the right job to come long.

Indiana is the right job.

There had been some speculation that Miller wouldn’t want to take Indiana, that his dream job is Ohio State and that the idea of coaching in a fishbowl like Bloomington is not something that would be all that appealing to him. But Indiana is an elite job. It’s the kind of opening that happens once every four or five years, and if Miller had said no to the Hoosiers now, it’s very possible that an opportunity like this wouldn’t come along for years, if ever.

This hire is surprising, not because it’s the wrong hire — I think they got this right — but because Indiana actually made the right decision.

The overwhelming sentiment since Tom Crean was fired was that UCLA head coach Steve Alford would be named the next head coach at Indiana because the Hoosiers wanted an “Indiana Guy”. Alford was born in New Castle, he played at IU for Bobby Knight, he won a national title with the program. The goal was to get the Indiana fan base back, a fan base that was so estranged from the program that Indiana had to play an NIT game on the road as a higher seed because they were reportedly afraid of allowing ESPN’s cameras to see the empty seats.

But just because a hire appeases the fans doesn’t make it the right hire.

Miller was the right hire.

If they really want to get the fans back, winning is the best way to do it. Archie is as good of a bet to win at Indiana as anyone.

Elite 8 Preview: Saturday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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So Friday got good.

If Zak Showalter’s game-tying three and subsequent discount double-check wasn’t enough, we had Canyon Barry’s chasedown block and, well, this game-winner from Chris Chiozza.

And all that came after De’Aaron Fox took out what felt like a season’s worth of frustration out on Lonzo Ball.

What is on tap for tonight?

No. 1 GONZAGA (-8) vs. No. 11 XAVIER, 6:09 p.m., TBS: Someone is going to be making their way to the Final Four for the first time on Saturday night, as Xavier’s Chris Mack and Gonzaga’s Mark Few square off for the right to play on the final weekend of the season.

And in a way, this is the perfect Final Four game. Both the Zags and the Musketeers are basketball schools in basketball leagues. They come from outside the power structure and have head coaches that have spurned jobs from within the power structure to remain there. They are built for a run like this, even if they were both overlooked on the way here.

Xavier was obvious. Playing without Edmond Sumner and Myles Davis, the Musketeers just haven’t been the team that they were supposed to be this season. That’s why they lost six straight games in February, but things have turned around in March, as Trevon Bluiett has put the program on his back and willed them to the Elite 8. Gonzaga is the opposite. They went 29-0 to start the season, but they have yet to be accepted as a legitimate title contender by most of the people that watch the games.

My guess on Saturday night is that the Zags make their statement and emphatically get into the Final Four.

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-8)

No. 1 KANSAS (-7) vs.  No. 3 OREGON, 8:49 p.m., TBS: This matchup is a lot tastier on paper than it is likely going to end up being on the floor. As good as Oregon has been this season, they are, essentially, Kansas light. They play two lead guards together and they play small-ball, with a natural wing lined up at the four.

The problem?

The Kansas guys are just better. Josh Jackson is a better player than Dillon Brooks. His length and athleticism should give the Oregon star fits. Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham are better than whatever combination of Payton Pritchard, Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis the Ducks opt to use.

And, for that matter, no team is playing better right now that they Jayhawks, who beat Michigan State by 20, Purdue by 32 and became the first team to score 90 points in their first three NCAA tournament games since 1995. I think that trend continues on Saturday night.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-7)

Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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Regional Finals – Sunday, March 26

2:20 p.m.,CBS, New York
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Florida (Verne Lundquist, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce)

5:05 p.m., CBS, Memphis
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kentucky (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Steve Alford: ‘I’m very happy at UCLA’

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford was still processing an 86-75 season-ending loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night when he had to answer questions about another blueblood program.

Sine the dismal of Tom Crean at Indiana, Alford has been one of the names rumored to be in the mix for the coaching vacancy. A reporter in the press conference in Memphis didn’t even get a chance to finish his question before Alford cut him off and a publicly state that he was happy in Westwood.

“I said it last week, and I’ll reiterate it again even more so, I guess, that I love Los Angeles,” Alford said. “To begin with, it’s a beautiful place, and our family has fallen in love with it. I’ve got two sons now, Kory first and now Bryce, that have graduated. Bryce is done, so he’s graduating from UCLA, so I’ve got two sons that are graduates from there, a daughter that loves the school she’s going to in Thousand Oaks. I’m very happy. I’m at UCLA. I don’t know of a lot of people that are out there wanting to leave UCLA.

“This is a pretty special place. We’ve worked awfully hard. Our staff has worked hard. We’ve got the No. 2 recruiting class coming in next year. We’re opening a brand-new, state-of-the-art, 60-plus million practice facility, Mo Ostin Center, that is going to be spectacular that we’ve worked awfully hard to be a part of that, and I want to see that through, and we’ve got some special kids that are coming to join us.

“I’m very, very happy where I’m at, and hopefully, that’ll continue.”

Alford won a national championship with the Hoosiers in 1987, scoring more than 2,400 points in his career under head coach Bob Knight. He has been with UCLA since 2013, reaching the Sweet 16 in three of his four seasons with the Bruins.

Crean was fired on March 16 after nine season in Bloomington.

Lonzo Ball has officially declared for the 2017 NBA Draft

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Following a season-ending loss in the Sweet 16 of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, UCLA freshman point guard unsurprisingly announced that he will enter the NBA Draft.

“That was my final game for UCLA. I appreciate the fans,” Ball told reporters.

The 6-foot-6 point guard has a strong case to be the No. 1 overall pick. It could be almost too enticing for the Los Angeles Lakers to pass on a Southern Cal product if the ping pong balls fall in their favor. New Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka were in Memphis for Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky.

Ball, in an All-American freshman season with the Bruins, averaged 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and a nation’s best 7.6 assists per game, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 42 percent from three.

He ended his college career with an 86-75 loss to the Wildcats, scoring 10 points, off 4-of-10 shooting, with eight assists.