This isn’t a ‘fluky’ title game, but both Kentucky and UConn are ‘lucky’ to be here

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Amida Brimah has no idea that he’s the reason UConn is playing in the national title game.

A 7-foot center from Ghana by way of Florida, Brimah doesn’t even start for the Huskies. He’s an excellent shot-blocker and has a softer touch around the basket than most folks are willing to admit, but his frame is closer to supermodel than superhuman and, frankly, at this point in his development his impact on a game isn’t much more than being tall and having a soft touch.

And despite that, despite the fact that Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels are all playing the best basketball of their careers in this tournament, Brimah is why Napier is drawing comparisons to Kemba Walker and Daniels is now considered a first round pick.

Because Saint Joseph’s had UConn beaten.

They shredded the Husky defense and forced Napier into his worst game of the postseason. With 45 seconds left of UConn’s opening round win, the Hawks held a three point lead. Napier turned down a ball-screen from Brimah, driving right past DeAndre Bembry and getting all the way to the rim … where he missed.

It wasn’t the first time in his career that Napier missed a critical shot and it certainly won’t be the last, but it was one of the only times this season where Napier couldn’t find a way to make a play when the Huskies really needed one. All the Hawks had to do was get one rebound, and they would have been a string of excitement-sapping free throws from a date with Villanova in the Round of 32.

Instead, all-league senior forward Halil Kanicevic found himself out of position, and as the rebound rolled off the rim, Brimah was able to gather the loose ball, collecting himself before drawing a foul as he hit a little turn around jumper while getting fouled. The three-point play tied up the game. The foul was Kanicevic’s fourth, and when he fouled out with 3:48 left in overtime, the Hawks were all but dead.

So while Boatright’s defense and Daniels’ offensive explosion and Napier’s Kemba-ing will be what gets credited for UConn’s run to their fourth national title game in the last 15 years, if it wasn’t for one play from a freshman center that comes off the bench and has scored eight points in the last four games, UConn would have been spending their spring break back in Storrs.

“People tell me about it, but I don’t think like that,” Brimah said.

FINAL FOUR: National title game primer | All of our Final Four coverage

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Aaron Harrison is well aware that he’s the reason Kentucky is now 40 minutes away from winning title No. 9.

He knows it, his team knows it, the entirety of Big Blue Nation knows it. Unless you’ve spent the last week and a half under a rock, you know it, too.

With 40 seconds left against Louisville, Harrison hit a three to give the Wildcats the lead for good. Two days later, he hit a three against Michigan to put Kentucky into the Final Four. Saturday night? You already know.

John Calipari called him Aaron the Assassin. Alex Poythress said, “He’s got some hangers. He’s got the biggest balls I’ve seen.” Andrew Harrison added, “They’re growing. We’re just glad he has those.” It doesn’t matter what happens on Monday night, Aaron Harrison will go down as a legend in the city of Lexington and Commonwealth of Kentucky. Nine months from now, there will be more Aarons born in Fayette County than ever before. Every kid in the state will spend the entire summer counting down the time in their hand, squaring up an imaginary Josh Gasser, rising, from 25 feet on the left wing and burying a three over the outstretched arms of an invisible Caris LeVert.

“My daughter [Erin] tweeted out she just became my second favorite ‘Aaron,'” Calipari said.

He’s had his One Shining Moment.

Three times.

And to think, the best clutch three-pointer shooter in NCAA tournament history entered the Big Dance shooting a whopping 32.6% from beyond the arc.

“I’m not this genius up here,” Calipari said. “He could have missed that shot or they could have made their shot and then Bo’s sitting up here.”

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It happens like this every year.

Every team that makes a run in the NCAA tournament does so because, at one point or another during the six games they have to win to bring home a trophy, a shot at the end of a game happens to go in or a loose ball just happens to bounce their way.

And that is what makes March Madness great.

That’s why every close game becomes so intense. One play could end a season or send a team off into immortality.

How far could Kansas have made it in 2010 if Ali Farokhmanesh hadn’t hit that three? The comparisons between Napier and Kemba Walker would me much more difficult to make if Arizona’s Jamelle Horne hit an open look from three at the end of their Elite 8 matchup in 2011. Florida doesn’t win a title in 2006 without Corey Brewer’s falling down three-point play against Georgetown in the Sweet 16. I could go on and on and on, but you get my point.

You have to be really, really good to win a national title. Great, even.

But you can’t bring home a ring with a lot of luck, too.

Texas Tech forward Zach Smith returns to school after withdrawing from NBA Draft

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Texas Tech forward Zach Smith will return for his senior season, the school confirmed on Monday.

The 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most intriguing athletes in college basketball as he’s been a double-figure scorer for the Red Raiders the past two seasons. As a junior, Smith put up 12.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as he shot 50 percent from the field.

Three-point shooting was something that Smith improved dramatically last season as he increased it to 39 percent in a small sample size. If Smith can continue to show that he’s a perimeter shooting threat then he could be an ideal three-and-d candidate at the pro level.

By returning to Texas Tech, Smith gives head coach Chris Beard a potential all-league candidate who should be counted on to be a double-double threat next season.

 

Missouri lands five-star forward Jontay Porter

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Missouri has another member of the Porter family in the fold as forward Jontay Porter officially committed to the Tigers on Monday night.

Following in the footsteps of older brother Michael Porter Jr., and father Michael Porter Sr., Jontay is currently a member of the Class of 2018 who is rumored to be reclassifying to the Class of 2017.

A 6-foot-10 forward who was recently elevated to five-star status on Rivals.com, Porter is having a monster spring in the Nike EYBL with MoKan Elite. Porter has been one of the best players in the league, as he’s putting up 18.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

If Jontay is able to join Missouri next season then he gives the Tigers another intriguing piece to play alongside his brother Michael, who is good enough to be a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although Jontay isn’t the go-to player that his brother is, he could be a very effective SEC role player early in his career, as his ability to rebound and stretch the floor makes him an extremely intriguing piece on the floor.

Kevin Stallings is a tone-deaf clown

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Pitt guard Cameron Johnson is the most coveted transfer in college basketball this offseason.

The 6-foot-8 Johnson is coming off of a strong campaign with the Panthers in which he put up 11.9 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.

Not only is Johnson a proven double-figure scorer in a league like the ACC, but he’s eligible to play right away thanks to his graduation from Pitt. Johnson graduating from school in three years and missing one season due to injury also makes him the rare graduate transfer who has two seasons of eligibility remaining. So, not only can Johnson come in and make an immediate impact, but he’s also able to stay for another year after.

This sort of thing almost never happens, let alone with a 6-foot-8 shooter that could sway the national title race.

It’s why blueblood programs like Kentucky and UCLA are in hot pursuit of Johnson. It’s why another ACC school, reigning national champion North Carolina, is also intrigued by Johnson being on the market.

Except Johnson won’t be allowed to attend North Carolina, or any other school in the ACC, without first sitting out a season and losing one season of eligibility. At least that’s how things currently stand thanks to Pitt’s power over Johnson — despite Johnson graduating from the school and having no more formal educational ties to the school.

Here’s what Pitt said on the matter in a release to the News-Observer.

“Cameron Johnson and his father were informed of our policy as well as the appeals process when they elected to seek to transfer. They went through our transfer appeals process and were granted permission to contact ACC schools; however, the committee upheld the policy to limit immediate eligibility within the conference.

If Cameron were to transfer within the ACC, he would be eligible to receive financial aid immediately but would have to sit out a year of competition due to standard NCAA transfer regulations. Throughout this process, we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings had a peculiar interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was published about two weeks ago. During the interview, of which the full transcript was made public, Stallings went in-depth about Johnson’s transfer and the current state of college basketball. Stallings also made remarks about how the media holds programs accountable for trying to bully certain players.

Here’s a small sample of what Stallings had to say.

“But the unexpected departures are the things that are becoming more common than uncommon in college basketball. You have guys constantly trying to transfer up. You have guys going pro that have never played a minute of college basketball after they’ve sat out a year at a school. You have guys asking out of their letters of intent with frequency. We’re dealing in a landscape in college basketball right now that is as probably as difficult and peculiar as it’s ever been. It used to be if a kid signed his letter of intent and he wanted out of it, you had to play a year of junior-college ball to get out of it.

“The media didn’t basically force institutions to let people break a binding agreement. It’s kind of interesting now the media tries to put so much pressure on programs, whether it be athletic directors or coaches, saying ‘Well, the coaches can move.’ Well, hey, guess what? I’ve got a great big buyout in my deal that prevents me from moving. I’ve got something in my contract saying I can’t go to another league school. It’s not as easy for coaches to go. That’s everyone’s rationale — ‘Well, the coaches can leave.’ We’re dealing in an environment right now that is as fluid as it’s ever been. It’s just where we’re at in the whole thing with the unexpected departures.”

Stallings makes some sound points–particularly about coaches having buyouts and the general perception of coaching changes in basketball.

But Kevin Stallings mostly sounds like a tone-deaf clown here.

Nobody is going to feel sorry for a millionaire coach who willingly makes the decision to change jobs.

Nobody.

Especially if that same millionaire is comparing a choice to change jobs to the transfer decisions of unpaid student-athletes. It’s even more laughable now that Stallings is holding power over an unpaid student-athlete from going to play at another school because of purely basketball reasons.

Pitt and Stallings need to do the right thing and release Johnson to play at any school right away because Johnson has already done everything he needs to do to appease the program.

Things changed dramatically for Johnson during his three years at Pitt. He became one of the ACC’s better players and earned his degree. Johnson held up his end of the bargain when he signed his Letter of Intent.  Now Johnson just wants the chance improve his basketball future by playing with one of the nation’s elite programs.

Stallings can blame the current state of college basketball, the media, or whoever he wants for Johnson’s transfer from Pitt.

But Stallings also has to realize that he’s going to be the one who looks stupid if he continues to leave these restrictions in place for Johnson. Stallings already has a history of this sort of thing when he placed transfer restrictions on former player Sheldon Jeter. If Stallings continues to uphold transfer restrictions on Johnson, then he’s going to gain a permanent reputation in recruiting during a time when players continue to gain more freedom over their basketball futures.

If Johnson does happen to go to an ACC school like North Carolina, it’s not as if Pitt has any sort of competitive roster that is going to be fighting the Tar Heels for league supremacy during the next two seasons.

Stallings and Pitt need to just bite the bullet, let Johnson have his freedom, and hope it doesn’t come back to hurt them for one or two seasons in ACC play.

It surely beats the alternative of being labeled a head coach who limits player freedom after six players left Pitt during a single offseason. That type of burn lasts a lot longer than two years.

Presbyterian hires Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns as new head coach

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Presbyterian finally has its new head coach as the program is set to hire Wofford assistant coach Dustin Kerns, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Kerns has been an assistant at Wofford for the past seven years during his second stint with the program. Also spending six seasons as an assistant coach at Santa Clara, the Tennessee native is getting his first shot at running his own program.

Finishing last in the Big South last season at 5-25 and 1-17 in conference play, Presbyterian is trying to rebuild after head coach Gregg Nibert resigned in April. Nibert was the head coach of the Blue Hens for 28 seasons, so Kerns is going to be a completely fresh start for the program.

Tennessee lands impact graduate transfer James Daniel

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Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes earned a commitment from one of the top graduate transfers on the market on Monday when Howard guard James Daniel pledged to the Volunteers.

The 6-foot-0 Daniel was the nation’s leading scorer at 27.1 points per game his junior season in 2015-16. Daniel played in only two games last season as a left ankle injury caused him to have surgery.

With nearly 2,000 career points to his name, Daniel gives Tennessee an additional perimeter scorer who should come in and make an immediate impact right away. While Howard has low shooting percentages and a high usage rate during his time at Howard, it’ll be interesting to see how the year off and more talented teammates will alter his game.

If Howard can be a more efficient scorer in his final season, then he has a chance to be one of the better players for the Volunteers this season.