Louisville’s Terry Rozier is ready for his bigger role this season

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Rick Pitino has had a nice run of talented lead guards on his Louisville teams in recent years. Edgar Sosa made way for Preston Knowles who shared a back court with Peyton Siva before Siva’s former running mate, Russ Smith, turned into a First Team All-American this past season. This year, former JuCo Player of the Year Chris Jones returns to carry the torch for the feisty little point guards that Pitino has had so much success coaching.

But none of the five players mentioned above had as much natural talent at Louisville as rising sophomore Terry Rozier, which makes him one of the most intriguing players in the country to keep an eye on as we inch towards the 2014-2015 season. Rozier is not only the best NBA prospect that Pitino has had in his back court in years, but he also just so happens to be the most important player on the Cardinal roster this season.

Let me explain.

Chris Jones is what he is, a talented-but-undersized combo-guard that shoots a little too much and isn’t quite a good enough playmaker. Montrezl Harrell may be the toughest, most aggressive, hardest-working big man in the country, but he still does the overwhelming majority of his damage in the paint and around the rim. In other words, Jones is not going to make up for the offense lost with Smith’s graduation and Harrell isn’t the guy of post player where Pitino can force-feed him the ball in the post.

MORE: Expectations have changed for Nebraska this season.

With three other sophomores and a six-man freshman class devoid of a one-and-done lottery pick on the roster, if Louisville is looking for a game-changing talent, Rozier is their guy.

And to his credit, he’s put in the work to get himself into a position where he can capitalize on that opportunity, as he worked through the invitational camps this summer — Nike’s Point Guard Skills Academy in June, the LeBron James Skills Academy in July, adidas Nations in August — impressing at every step along the way. He was already poised to find his name on just about every Breakout Stars list this preseason, now he’s finding himself mentioned as a potential lottery pick in next June’s draft.

“That’s something that I’m happy I’m a part of and happy to be hearing about,” Rozier told NBCSports this summer. “I don’t really let it get to me much, but I’m happy to take on the challenge. Right now, you hear talk about it but that means nothing if I don’t do anything [this season].”

Rozier was impressive at times for the Cardinals last season, but being stuck behind a guy like Smith on the depth chart has a way of limiting minutes and shots. He averaged 7.0 points, 3.1 boards and 1.8 assists per contest while shooting 37.1% from beyond the arc. He only played 18.9 minutes per game, but in the games where he saw extended action — usually Louisville’s blowout wins — he was impressive. He averaged 14.7 points during one four-game stretch in February, and while that’s not exactly proof that Rozier is destined for the NBA, it is evidence that the talent is there.

The key for Rozier this summer was to continue his growth as a point guard, he said. He may not be listed as the starting point guard for the Cardinals, but Pitino has a habit of playing two leads guards at the same time. In other words, the one and the two are interchangeable in the Louisville attack, meaning that Rozier is going to be spending plenty of time running off of high ball-screens the way Smith did last season and Siva did before him.

RELATED: How does Wichita State build on the best two-year run in program history?

“I learned a lot about [how to run] the pick and roll. That was my goal on what to get better at,” Rozier said. “Just how to read it. I struggle a little bit coming off pick and roll, mainly setting my man up.”

And while Rozier did provide a bit of a coaching lesson on how to play the role of the ball-handler in ball-screen actions — “It’s the first two dribbles that’s the most important dribble when coming off the screen-and-roll,” he said, “one for reading the defense and one for the attack.” — it will be interesting to see how that understanding translates into actual gameplay. Last season, Louisville ran pick-and-rolls on 26.3% of their total offensive possessions, 42nd nationally according to Synergy. That was almost a third of their possessions that came in the half court.

Put simply, Louisville relies heavily on ball-screens, and if Rozier is going to be one of the guys that carries this team, he’s going to have to excel handling the ball in those situations.

Rozier also said that he’ll be looking to play more of a leadership role with this group, which is understandable given the amount of youth and inexperience on the roster, and that learning how to be a veteran voice from Smith and Siva was key.

“They’re always talking,” said Rozier, who played last season with Smith but did a post-graduate year in 2012-2013 and was never actually on the Louisville roster at the same time as Siva. “They still come back to the gym and spend time with me. They’re real good at what they do. They made sure leadership was important.”

Rozier knows that replacing the presence of Smith, both in the locker room and the box score, won’t be easy, but he’s looking forward to the challenge.

“I’m really confident in myself,” he said. “I’m ready to play. I’m ready to do it.”

Like his career, Frank Martin has built South Carolina from the ground up

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NEW YORK — It was after he finished watching South Carolina cut down the Madison Square Garden nets, after he had spent the better part of 30 minutes giving interviews on the court, after he was spotted by the CBS cameras, with a fist raised and tears pooling under his eyes, that the enormity of what he had just witnessed hit Darius Rucker.

“Gosh,” he said to everyone and no one in particular as he left the arena floor and made his way through the bowels of the Garden, “I can’t believe that just happened.”

The ‘that’ that Rucker, South Carolina’s most famous and, quite possibly, biggest fan, was referring to was a 77-70, come-from behind win over No. 4 seed Florida that jettisoned the seventh-seeded Gamecocks through the Elite 8 and into the Final Four. Prior to this season, the Gamecocks hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years. They had been to four NCAA tournaments in the previous 43 seasons, and they had never won back-to-back tournament game.

As in not ever.

“We’re in the Garden, watching the Gamecocks play to go to the Final Four,” Rucker said. “If you’d have told me that ten years ago I’d have told you that you were on crack.”

That’s the program that Frank Martin inherited in 2012, when he left Kansas State following a falling out with his athletic director, John Currie. Like South Carolina, Kansas State was hardly considered a destination job when Martin was at the helm, but he was able to build off of a foundation created by Bob Huggins. Martin had been to four NCAA tournaments in five years with Kansas State when he made the decision to leave. Nothing is more important to Martin than loyalty. “He’s always had a core group of people that he’s counted on,” his agent, Bret Just, said, and Currie was not one of those people.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came during the 2012 NCAA tournament. Kansas State was a No. 8 seed, squaring off with No. 1 seed Syracuse when Martin was informed by Currie that Jamar Samuels, one of his best players, would not be allowed to suit up. The school had stumbled upon information that Samuels had received a wire transfer for $200 from his AAU coach, and he was going to be suspended.

And that was that.

Martin was off to South Carolina.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“It was a situation where we had to go,” associate head coach Matt Figger, who has been with Martin for the last decade, said, and it wasn’t exactly the easiest or smartest decision to leave. Most understood why Martin had to make the change that he made — he was offered a hefty raise and he had the chance to leave a place of employment where he did not get along with his boss — but it wasn’t as if Martin was climbing the ladder. If anything, South Carolina was a step backwards, as Martin took over a program with less pedigree and with a significant building job in front of them.

“I didn’t really know until I got into it. It was a much different deal. It looked easier on the surface than what it really was,” Figger said. “The best players transferred. Bruce Ellington, he’s with the 49ers now, he was the one guy that we could trust and he played football half the year. Couple of the guys that were the holdovers, I don’t think they believed in what our vision was. After a year, some of them left.”

“We had to start this from scratch.”

The process was slow in the early stages. Martin replaced Darrin Horn, who had won just 10 games and finished dead last in the SEC in his final season on campus, and didn’t post a .500 record until his third season in Columbia. Even then, that team went just 17-16. He won 15 SEC games in his first three years combined. After a late season swoon cost South Carolina a shot at the 2016 NCAA tournament, there was speculation that another year without a trip to the Big Dance could spell the end of Martin’s time with the Gamecocks.

“It was hard!” Martin’s wife, Anya, said. “You see he’s losing his hair. It’s all turning white. It was tough in the beginning. I had to ask him a couple of times, ‘Why here?’”

The easy answer is that it wasn’t Kansas State, but the truth is more complicated than that.

Martin is not a man that is afraid of a challenge. He’s not intimidated by a job that isn’t easy to do, not when you come from where he’s come from, when you’ve coached on the path that he has coached.

Martin got his first job when he was 12 years old, working at a Dairy Queen to help his mom pay the bills when his dad walked out on them. His coaching career started a year after he graduated high school, when he was just 19 years old.

“I tore my ACL the year before,” Martin said, “and my high school coach asked me to come help him, because the kids in the neighborhood respected me so much.”

He was nothing more than an assistant with the team at Miami Senior High School, helping out when and where he could, when the head coach of the JV team didn’t show up for work one day. Shakey Rodriguez, a legend in the Miami High School basketball community, told Martin he would be coaching that day, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“By his second season,” Martin’s mother, Lourdes, beaming as she held back tears of joy, said, “he was 22-0.”

Even as Martin was coaching, he was still working on the side, most famously as a bouncer in Miami’s nightclub scene. He needed a degree, so he took night classes at Miami-Dade College before enrolling part-time at FIU. His future was capped if he didn’t graduate.

“He made it out,” she added, holding on to her grandson to steady herself as the moment washed over her. “He had many, many jobs, and then God was up there and blessed him.”

Martin would go from the high school ranks to Northeastern, taking a paycut just to get his foot in the door. He spent four years as an assistant and met his wife — “My wife turned me down seven times to go out on a date,” he said. “Seven. Seven. And the day she made the mistake of going out on a date with me, I never let her go.” — before moving on to Cincinnati, where he joined forces with Bob Huggins, spending two seasons with the Bearcats before following Huggins to Kansas State. He replaced Huggins as Kansas State’s head coach a year after joining the program and just seven years after he joined the collegiate coaching ranks. He would take the Wildcats to more NCAA tournaments in his five seasons at the helm than they had been to in the previous two decades combined.

“Frank’s never steered away from a challenge as long as I’ve known him,” Anya said. “He’s overcome any obstacle in his way, just ‘I’m going to make it work.'”

“He’s a builder,” Just said.

And he’s done just that at South Carolina.

“I’m happy as any mom could be,” Lourdes said. “Speechless, but not all the way. I have to talk to him about my air ticket.”

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Martin spoke many times about the dream of leading this team to this moment, but he didn’t always believe that the dream of taking the Gamecocks to the Final Four was a realistic possibility.

“When we beat Duke, Frank said ‘Why not us?’” Figgers said, a motto that had become something of a rallying cry for the Gamecocks during the East Regional. “That’s the first time we really talked about [winning a title].”

The team and the coaching staff weren’t the only ones that never really gave this possibility much thought. College basketball at large — the fans, the media, opposing coaches — all had the same thought: “South Carolina in the Final Four? The same team that put up 86 points in four overtimes against Alabama? Lulz.”

They showed us.

Over and over again.

South Carolina’s star guard Sindarius Thornwell, who was named Most Outstanding Player in the East Region, mentioned in every press conference this weekend that no one paid attention to or respected the program prior to this run. Martin ranted earlier this year about the lack of local media coverage his team gets, particularly when they play on the road.

At this point in the season, most players get burned out of the media attention they get, answering the same questions over and over and over again.

I don’t blame them.

On Sunday evening, after spending 25 minutes up on the dais for a postgame press conference, Thornwell was finally en route back to the locker room to celebrate with his team when he was pulled aside by a television reporter that needed just a couple more minutes of his time.

Thornwell, decked out in a East Regional Champs shirt and hat with the remnants of a net dangling around his neck, didn’t mind.

“You gotta talk a lot,” Thornwell said, “when you win.”

Drake hires Furman’s Niko Medved to be new head coach

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Drake has hired Furman head coach Niko Medved to the same position, the school announced on Sunday.

The 43-year-old Medved has led the Paladins to back-to-back CIT appearances as he’s been the head coach there for four seasons. Also an assistant coach at Minnesota and Colorado State, Medved is a noted recruiter.

“I am ecstatic about the opportunity to be the next men’s basketball coach at Drake University,” Medved said in the release. “Drake University’s tremendous reputation partnered with its strong leadership and the thriving Des Moines community make this a special place.  I was born and raised in the Midwest and have so many strong roots in this part of the country.  My family and I can’t wait to get started.”

Medved was named the Southern Conference’s 2017 Coach of the Year for helping lead Furman to the regular-season title in the league.

The Bulldogs are coming off a last-place finish in the Missouri Valley Conference as former head coach Ray Giacoletti was relieved of his duties in January. Drake only has one NCAA Tournament appearance since 1971 (coming in 2008) as the Bulldogs have struggled to remain relevant in a tough league.

VIDEO: North Carolina and Roy Williams dance in locker room after advancing to Final Four

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Watching Roy Williams dance never gets old.

The North Carolina head coach is taking his team back to the Final Four next weekend after the Tar Heels outlasted Kentucky in a thrilling South Regional final.

North Carolina is making its 20th appearance in the Final Four as they are going for the second consecutive season.

2017 NCAA Tournament Final Four schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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National Semifinals– Saturday, April 1

6:09 p.m. EST, CBS, Glendale
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Approximately 40 minutes after conclusion of first game, CBS, Glendale
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 3 Oregon (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

VIDEO: The insane final 10 seconds of North Carolina’s win over Kentucky

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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North Carolina and Kentucky ended in legendary fashion on Sunday.

After freshman Malik Monk buried a heavily-contested three-pointer to tie the game at 73-all for Kentucky with under 10 seconds left the Tar Heels didn’t use a timeout as Theo Pinson found forward Luke Maye for the game-winning jumper.

These 10 seconds will go down as one of the greatest finishes in NCAA Tournament history.