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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.”


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.

VIDEO: Bill Simmons talks Ben Simmons on DP Show

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Ben Simmons will likely be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, and possibly end up with the Celtics, making Boston sports junkie Bill Simmons very happy. Bill jokes about sharing a last name with a future NBA star.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR POWER RANKINGS: Kris Dunn still tops a strong list

Kris Dunn, D'Angelo Harrison
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1. Kris Dunn, Providence: I had Kris Dunn as the Preseason Player of the Year, and while he probably hasn’t been the best player in the country through four games — he hasn’t yet had a statement game on national television — he is averaging 18.8 points, 7.8 boards, 6.8 assists and 5.3 steals.

And while his shooting splits are down from a season ago, he only has eight turnovers through four games. I’m not going to drop my guy when he does that just because he hasn’t gotten into the meat of his schedule yet. No way.

I’ve charted the four games that Dunn has played to determine how much of Providence’s offensive runs through him, a stat I’m going to call, for lack of a better word, possessions “ended”.

When he’s on the floor, how many of Providence’s possessions ended with Dunn shooting, getting to the free throw line, turning the ball over, assisting on a bucket, assisting on free throws or assisting on a missed shot.

Through four games, 62.6 percent of Providence’s offense runs through Dunn, which is an insanely high number and a reason that his efficiency, and shooting percentages, are going to be lower than ideal.

Defenses know this.

Illinois had all five defenders in the paint trying to stop Dunn’s ball-screen actions:

(Screengrab via Synergy)
(Screengrab via Synergy)

His defender went over the screen while the man guarding the screener stayed with Dunn. The weak-side defender is in the lane helping on Ben Bentil’s role to the rim while the strong-side defender is helping on Dunn’s drive. Here’s video of the entire action:

2. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine is almost averaging a triple-double this season. Seriously. He’s at 15.3 points, 9.8 assists and 9.0 boards through four games. That won’t last, but we can celebrate it while it does. He also is the own of the most impressive performance of the young season, going for 29 points, 12 boards and 12 assists in MSU’s come-from-behind win over Kansas in the Champions Classic.

And just to put Dunn’s numbers in perspective, Valentine “ended” 60.6 percent of Michigan State’s possessions against Kansas.

3. Ben Simmons, LSU: Since we keep talking about whether or not Ben Simmons is overrated, I think this is worth mentioning: He’s currently the leading rebounder in college basketball, averaging 14.5 boards to go along with his 19.3 points, 5.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.0 blocks. Oh, and he has just six turnovers in four games.

I’m not going to sit here trying to convince he’s not a great player. He is. Unquestionably. But there are a few things you need to understand when analysts and scouts try to temper the comparisons to LeBron James.

MORE: Transcendent? Overhyped? The shame is if Ben Simmons is irrevelant

Simmons spends a lot of time at the five for LSU, meaning that he is quite often guarded by guys like Luke Fischer, a 7-footer that doesn’t have a prayer of trying to slow down a player that big and that skilled in transition or in a half court setting:

He’s also a terrific passer, one that is so skilled at making defenses pay when the help defenders are too focused on him. Look at Traci Carter when Simmons throws this lob:

(Image via ESPN)
(Screengrab via ESPN)

That’s a direct result of the mismatches that he gets at the college level.

There are layers to this, too. The numbers you don’t hear with Simmons: he hasn’t even attempted a three-pointer this season. Through his first three games, he only shot five jump shots and missed all five. (Synergy’s logs haven’t been updated with last night’s games yet.) He’s shooting 81 percent from the line, so the stroke is there, but it has yet to manifest itself as part of his offensive repertoire.

Put it all together: NBA teams have guys that are big enough and quick enough to guard Simmons — especially if he doesn’t become a consistent shooter from the NBA three-point line — and while his passing ability rivals LeBron’s, he’s not as quick, explosive or athletic.

In simpler terms, Simmons won’t be exploiting mismatches in the NBA the way he can in college, and defenses won’t have to sellout to slow him down. That’s why I would rather see him compared to Lamar Odom, who, by the way, averaged 13.3 points, 8.4 boards and 3.7 assists in a 15-year career that produced two NBA titles and an appearance on a U.S. Olympic team.

He was damn good.

Comparing him to Odom is a compliment.

4. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky: The latest argument that seems to be clogging by mentions is whether or not Ulis or Dunn is the best point guard in the country. My take: Dunn is the best player in the country while Ulis is the best point guard in the country. While the two technically play the same position, the role they play is entirely different. Ulis is a facilitator, a pure point guard. Dunn is the prototype new-age lead guard, a guy built in the mold of Russell Westbrook, John Wall and MVP-era Derrick Rose.

Ulis has been OK in three of Kentucky’s four games, but his performance in the win over Duke — 18 points, six assists, four rebounds, two steals, no turnovers — is what got him this high on this list.

5. Grayson Allen, Duke: Allen has been unbelievable in four of the five games he’s played this season, including back-to-back 30-burgers as the Blue Devils beat VCU and Georgetown in the 2K Classic. Even with that putrid performance against Kentucky, his numbers look like this: 24.4 ppg, 4.4 rg, 3.2 apg and shooting splits of 52.2/53.6/89.7.

6. Tyrone Wallace, Cal: Only one player in college basketball averaged more than 20 points, five boards and five assists last season. This year, Wallace is averaging 20.3 points, 5.8 boards and 5.3 assists for a Cal team that could end up winning the Pac-12. He’ll climb this list if his numbers look as good when the competition gets tougher.

7. Sheldon McClellan, Miami: Picking a player on Miami for this spot was tough, but I decided to go with McClellan for a couple of reason. One: He’s Miami’s leading scorer at 17.4 points. Two: his shooting splits are outrageous (61.7/52.4/94.7) meaning his efficiency numbers are outrageous as well. Three: he’s the guy on that Miami roster that, if I was an opposing coach, I would build a game-plan around stopping.

8. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Hield was a first-team all-american entering the season and has scored 54 points in two games this year. He went for 30 in a win at Memphis. Not bad.

9. Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga: Kyle Wiltjer was the guy that was on all the preseason all-american lists, but through two (And a half? Does Pitt still count?) games this season, Sabonis has been Gonzaga’s best player. He’s averaging 20.5 points and 10.5 boards, scoring on post-ups and offensive boards and shooting a robust 82.6 percent from the floor.

10. Evan Bradds, Belmont: There are a number of guys deserving consideration for this spot — Demetrius Jackson, Melo Trimble, Shaq Harrison, Josh Hart — but I’m going to give Bradds a little love here. Through five games, he’s averaging 21.3 points, 8.6 boards and 2.4 assists while shooting 76.2 percent from the floor. He had 24 points and nine rebounds in Belmont’s win at Marquette and, in his last two games, is averaging 29 points and 10 boards while shooting 27-for-28 from the field. A run like that can’t last, but while he’s in the middle of it, we’re going acknowledge it.