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College Basketballs X-Factors: Cheick Diallo, Thomas Bryant and many more

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Here are 12 things to keep a close eye on this year, as they are the x-factors that could eventually end up shaping the college hoops season:

Cheick Diallo’s eligibility

This is the most obvious one, right? Not only is Diallo — who is still waiting to be cleared by the NCAA due to issues with his high school transcript — a top ten recruit on a top five team, but he’s the one piece that the talented and deep Jayhawks are missing. They’ve got the quality guard play, they’ve got weapons on the wing and they have both big bodies and versatile scorers in their front court. What they don’t have, however, is a player that can do the things that Diallo excels at. Diallo is raw. He doesn’t have Jahlil Okafor’s post game or Henry Ellenson’s face-up game. He’s not a guy that Bill Self can isolate 1-on-1 and expect positive results; that’s what Perry Ellis and Carlton Bragg are for.

[MORE: Top 100 players | CBT Top 25]

But Diallo is 6-foot-9, athletic and aggressive. He’ll run the floor in transition. He’ll play tough, physical defense. He’ll block shots and attack the glass on both ends. He brings an edge, an effort level and a toughness that the Jayhawks have been missing for a few years now. He’s everything that Cliff Alexander was supposed to be last season, and his presence would put Kansas in the conversation as the best team in the country.

Thomas Bryant’s defense

A couple of stats for you from last season. Indiana was ninth nationally in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. They were 214th in overall defensive efficiency, 224th in effective field goal percentage defense, 330th in defensive turnover percentage, 188th in defensive rebound percentage, 283rd in in two-point field goal defense and 251st in block percentage. That’s a really long-winded way of saying that IU could light it up offensively last season and, at the same time, would have let me get 20 against them.

Enter Bryant, a 6-foot-10 McDonald’s All-American known for his motor, his defense and his ability to get on the glass. He’s not going to solve all of Indiana’s defensive issues — their perimeter is a sieve — but he will help erase shots at the rim and clean up the glass defensively. For perspective: Duke earned a No. 1 seed entering the tournament with an elite offense and a defense that ranked in the 60s. Notre Dame reached the Elite 8 with the nation’s second-best offense and a defensive efficiency that ranked 102nd.

Michigan’s health

Michigan’s perimeter attack is absolutely loaded. Caris LeVert could end up being an all-american this season. Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin are both all-Big Ten-caliber talents. They also all have dealt with serious injuries in 2015. LeVert broke his foot for the second time in a 10 month span midway through last season. Walton saw his season ruined by a sprained toe that limited him for two months before he finally shut it down in late-January. Irvin had offseason back surgery. Even with the front court question marks, Michigan looks like a top 20 team entering the season. That’s assuming their three best players can make it through the next five months without getting hurt.

RELATED: NBCSports All-Americans | Best Freshman | Breakout Stars

Cal’s Jaylen Brown as Draymond Green

Cuonzo Martin has it rolling out in Berkeley right now, putting together the most talented team that he’s ever had as a head coach. The Bears are loaded with perimeter talent, and while they have five-star freshman Ivan Rabb at center, they are limited with front court depth. Enter freshman Jaylen Brown, a top three player in the class. He’s a physical, 6-foot-7 wing that has the athleticism and versatility to play a number of different roles, similar to another Bay Area combo-forward: Draymond Green’s. Green’s ability to defend fours, rebound and stretch the floor offensively is a major reason why Golden State has become the best team in the NBA. If Brown can find success playing the same way this season, Cal may be looking at a Pac-12 title come March.

North Carolina’s point guard play

Perhaps the real question here is whether Marcus Paige can actually stay healthy once he returns from his broken hand, but assuming he does, the key for UNC is to be able to move him off the ball with a point guard that can hit open threes. Joel Berry II may be the best fit. The ideal role for Paige this season would be to play off the ball in transition and on the ball at the end of a clock, meaning that Berry will be asked to handle the point in transition situations while spacing the floor when Paige has the ball in his hands in the half court. If he can do that, the Tar Heels become a much more dangerous team offensively.

Marshall Plumlee as … Brian Zoubek?

This Duke team reminds me quite a bit of the 2010 team that won the national title. Question marks at the point, off-guards handling the ball, future first round pick on a wing and a front line rotation that had yet to be established. Midway through the season, Zoubek, a former McDonald’s All-American that failed to live up to his hype for three and a half years, suddenly turned into a force of nature in the paint, blocking shots and dominating the glass on both ends. His emergence turned Duke into a team that could win the title. Could Plumlee have the same impact as a senior as Zoubek did? If this Duke team is missing anything, it’s a veteran anchor in the paint.

Is Ryan Anderson Arizona’s best player?

Who is going to be Arizona’s leading scorer this season? Who is going to start at the point? Will Kaleb Tarzewski keep the starting center role over Dusan Ristic? Who gets minutes at the two? There are so many questions to be answered with an Arizona team that lost four starters this offseason, but the key may end up being just how good Anderson ends up being. He was productive despite his limited athleticism during his time at Boston College and sat out last season as a transfer. Now he’s a redshirt senior at a new program that has yet to play a game for a team that was relevant nationally. If he’s truly a 15-point, eight-rebound kind of guy, Arizona will have a real chance to win a Pac-12 title. If he’s not, who knows.

Kentucky’s role players

Specifically, I’m talking about Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress. Poythress has been snake-bit throughout his career with the Wildcats, being asked to play out of position as a three and tearing an ACL. He’s a senior now and will finally have a chance to thrive as a purely effort guy at the four. That’s his best role. And as for Lee, he’s impressed in his limited minutes over the last two years, but playing well for spurts and proving to be a worthy starter on a team with national title aspirations are two very different things.

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Charles Matthews and Isaiah Briscoe can also be lumped in here as well. Matthews has earned a rep for being a gritty, athletic wing defender that will fit will along side Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray quite nicely. If the newly-slimmed down Isaiah Briscoe can embrace that role as well, it will make UK just that much more dangerous. I’m not as high on Briscoe as some others, but I love the idea of him being the fourth option in an offense.

MORE: Top leads guards | Top off guards | Top Wings | Top Bigs

Can Marial Shayok replace Justin Anderson?

Virginia returns quite a bit this season, namely all-american Malcolm Brogdon and head coach Tony Bennett, but the public is undervaluing just how much they’re losing. Darion Atkins was an elite front court defender, one that will be tough to replace. But more notable is the loss of Anderson, who left a year early for the NBA. Anderson was the best shooter and perimeter defender on UVA’s roster last season, and when he broke his thumb it changed the Cavs from a title contender to just another good team susceptible to getting picked off in the Round of 32. Sophomore Marial Shayok, as well as senior Evan Nolte, will be tasked with replacing him this season. They were not consistent in that role last year.

Rasheed Sulaimon the role player: Sulaimon was, more or less, kicked off of Duke because he struggled with the idea of buying into a role for the Blue Devils. They got awesome after he left. He’s going to be asked to do the same thing with the Terps. Will he be OK with being the fourth, and sometimes the fifth, options on the offensive end of the floor? Is he truly volunteering to come off the bench? If he is, he’s such a weapon for Mark Turgeon.

Purdue’s shooting

Purdue’s front line is awesome. A.J. Hammons, when he’s dialed in, is as dominant at the five spot as anyone in the country, Isaac Haas looked really good in spurts last season and Caleb Swanigan may actually be the best of the three. Throw in guys like Vince Edwards and Rapheal Davis, and the Boilermakers are going to be able to overpower just about anyone in college basketball this season. The issue is going to be spacing. Is Swanigan skilled enough on the perimeter to create space for Hammons to operate, or will that force the freshman to play a role where he has less of an impact? Can Edwards and Davis shoot well enough from the perimeter to space the floor, or will Painter be forced to play guys like Ryan Cline and Kendall Stephens more minutes? How effective will Johnny Hill be? If it all comes together, Purdue has Final Four potential.

Rodney Bullock and Ben Bentil replacing ‘Buckets’

The toughest job Ed Cooley will have this season is replacing LaDontae ‘Buckets’ Henton. Kris Dunn may be the best player in college basketball, but if he doesn’t get any help from his supporting cast, what is the ceiling for this team? Fifth in the Big East? The Round of 32? Bentil was very good in spurts at the end of last season and Bullock enters this year with all the hype. Dunn needs them to be good if he’s going to make any real impact this season.

EIGHT MORE X-FACTORS

  • Utah’s point guard: Who replaces Delon Wright? Can Lorenzo Banum or Isaiah Wright take advantage of Jakob Poeltl’s ability as a roll man in ball-screen actions? Delon made his teammates better. Does that mean we’re overrating them this year?
  • Kelan Martin, Butler: Martin was promising as a freshman and should have a good sophomore season. But can his ability on the offensive end help make up for the loss of Kameron Woods’ ability on the defensive end of the floor?
  • Texas freshmen: We know how good Isaiah Taylor is and we know how deep the Texas front line is. But if Kerwin Roach, Tevin Mack and Eric Davis can live up to the early hype, the Longhorns could end up being a top 25 team.
  • Kuran Iverson: The Rams are the most talented team in the Atlantic 10, but talent doesn’t always win out at this level. Iverson, a 6-foot-9 wing, was at one point the No. 1 player in his high school class. He’s that skilled. If he accepts his role on this team, they can be scary.
  • Josh Perkins at the point: Gonzaga’s front line is huge, but people are forgetting that they are losing two four-year starters in the back court. In steps Perkins, who missed most of his freshman season with a broken jaw. Kevin Pangos left big shoes to fill.
  • Georgetown’s big men: The Hoyas lost Josh Smith and Mikael Hopkins to graduation and Akoy Agau to a torn ACL. They’ve got the perimeter weapons and a handful of versatile four-men. But who plays the five — the Roy Hibbert, Henry Sims role — on this team, arguably the most important spot in JT III’s offense?
  • Rashard Kelly’s development: We know how good Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet are but we don’t know how good Wichita State’s front line is going to be. Kelly, 6-foot-7 forward that had promising flashes as a freshman, is the guy some have pegged to take on a bigger role. Can he be that third option?

Kevin Knox’s father: ‘I’ve never met Christian Dawkins’

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The father of Kevin Knox spoke with SEC Country on Friday morning and told the outlet that he has never met Christian Dawkins or Andy Miller.

Knox is one of the players that was mentioned in the documents disclosed by Yahoo Sports on Friday morning detailing the way that former NBA agent Andy Miller recruited players to his agency. Knox is mentioned in the report as either him or a family member having a meal with Christian Dawkins. The evidence is an expense report that Dawkins filed with Miller in oder to get reimbursed.

“Obviously the investigation is still going on, but the only comment I can say is I’ve never met Christian Dawkins before or Andy Miller, and if they sat next to me at the grocery store, I wouldn’t know who they were,” Kevin Knox Sr. told SEC Country. “Out of respect for the NCAA investigation and the University of Kentucky investigation into this, I’d just say that I’ve never met Christian Dawkins or Andy Miller before and leave it at that.”

He also added that he expected his son to play against Missouri on Saturday night.

Kentucky has not yet commented on the report. Mark Emmert, however, has.

Report: Miles Bridges, Wendell Carter, Kevin Knox among players receiving benefits in FBI documents

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Yahoo Sports released a devastating report on Friday morning detailing some of the exact expenditures and impermissible benefits provided listed on records that were obtained by the FBI from the offices of former agent Andy Miller.

Among them?

Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, Duke’s Wendell Carter, Alabama’s Collin Sexton and Kentucky’s Kevin Knox, just to name a few. Past college stars like Dennis Smith Jr., Bam Adebayo and Markelle Fultz are also listed in the spreadsheets and documents obtained by Yahoo.

The report — and I encourage you to read it — details the elaborate payment, loan and recruitment strategy by Andy Miller’s agency, which includes outright payments to players, cash advances to parents, dinners that were paid for and plane tickets and travel that was provided to players and families.

Here’s the catch: What was provided to the biggest names currently in college is not all that great. Bridges’ mom allegedly received $400, according to an expense report filed by Dawkins, while Bridges’ parents had a meal with Dawkins listed at $70.05. Carter, Knox and Sexton are all tied to this by meals that families members had with Dawkins that the former Miller associate paid for.

Whether or not the players will be deemed ineligible is yet to be determine. The dollar value of the benefits listed in these documents is small enough that paying the money back might be enough to get their eligibility restored now even if it does mean that games they’ve played in previously will end up vacated.

There is also the argument that can be made that Dawkins is lying in these expense reports. In a business with as much cash flying around as this, is it too much of a stretch to assume that Dawkins had dinner with some friends or a girlfriend and passed the receipt off as a work expense?

It’s too early to tell what exactly will result from all of this.

But remember how we tried to tell you in September that this thing goes deep?

Well, here you go.

Bracketology: How high can North Carolina climb?

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On Monday, North Carolina passed Michigan State and Purdue on the Seed List (UNC is No. 7 overall).  Wednesday, the Tar Heels backed up their route of Louisville by winning another road game at Syracuse.  That’s six straight ACC victories – all but two of which are against teams in today’s bracket.  Carolina now has 10 Quadrant 1 wins, which ties the Tar Heels with Kansas for the most in that category (by a two-win margin).  Which brings us to this question: How high can Carolina climb?

The answer, of course, depends on these next two weeks.  But given their strong schedule and depth of quality wins, a No. 1 seed isn’t out of the question if the Tar Heels beat Duke (again) to close the regular season and/or win the ACC tournament.

Overall, several ACC teams benefitted today by the confusing state of the SEC.  The middle of the bracket is littered with SEC teams who ebb and flow like the tides of the ocean.  These next two weeks will be important for them, too.

With another full weekend ahead, here’s where we stand …

UPDATED: February 23, 2018

FIRST FOUR PAIRINGS – Dayton (First Round)

  • Baylor vs. Washington | Midwest Region
  • Texas vs. LSU West Region
  • SOUTHERN vs. SAVANNAH ST | South Region
  • FL GULF COAST vs. NICHOLLS | East Region

BRACKET PROJECTION

SOUTH Atlanta    EAST – Boston                               
Charlotte Pittsburgh
1) VIRGINIA 1) VILLANOVA
16) SOUTHERN / SAVANNAH ST 16) FL GULF CST / NICHOLLS
8) Alabama 8) Miami-FL
9) Creighton 9) Florida
San Diego Boise
5) Ohio State 5) Kentucky
12) LOUISIANA 12) St. Bonaventure
4) West Virginia 4) GONZAGA
13) E. TENNESSEE ST 13) VERMONT
Dallas Wichita
6) Florida State 6) Virginia Tech
11) Saint Mary’s 11) MIDDLE TENNESSEE
3) Texas Tech 3) CINCINNATI
14) CHARLESTON 14) BUCKNELL
Detroit Nashville
7) Arizona State 7) Butler
10) Providence 10) Kansas State
2) MICHIGAN STATE 2) North Carolina
15) WRIGHT STATE 15) WAGNER
WEST – Los Angeles MIDWEST – Omaha
Wichita Detroit
1) KANSAS 1) Xavier
16) PENNSYLVANIA 16) UNC-ASHEVILLE
8) Seton Hall 8) Arkansas
9) Texas AM 9) TCU
Boise Dallas
5) Clemson 5) Michigan
12) NEW MEXICO ST 12) LOYOLA (CHI)
4) Wichita State 4) Tennessee
13) SOUTH DAKOTA ST 13) MURRAY STATE
San Diego Pittsburgh
6) Houston 6) RHODE ISLAND
11) LSU / Texas 11) Baylor / Washington
3) ARIZONA 3) Purdue
14) RIDER 14) BUFFALO
Nashville Charlotte
7) NC State 7) Missouri
10) NEVADA 10) Oklahoma
2) AUBURN 2) Duke
15) UC-IRVINE 15) MONTANA

NOTES on the BRACKET: Virginia is the No. 1 overall seed – followed by Villanova, Xavier, and Kansas

Last Four Byes (at large): Kansas State, Providence, Saint Mary’s, St. Bonaventure

Last Four IN (at large): Baylor, Texas, LSU, Washington

First Four OUT (at large): Marquette, Syracuse, USC, Utah

Next four teams OUT (at large): UCLA, Mississippi State, Louisville, Georgia

Breakdown by Conference …

SEC (9): AUBURN, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Texas AM, LSU

ACC (8): VIRGINIA, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson, Florida State, Miami-FL, Virginia Tech, NC State

BIG 12 (8): TEXAS TECH, Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, TCU, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas

Big East (6): VILLANOVA, Xavier, Butler, Seton Hall, Creighton, Providence

Big 10 (4): MICHIGAN STATE, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan

Pac 12 (3): ARIZONA, Arizona State, Washington

American (3): CINCINNATI, Wichita State, Houston

Atlantic 10 (2): RHODE ISLAND, St. Bonaventure

West Coast (2): GONZAGA, Saint Mary’s

Mountain West (1): NEVADA

ONE BID LEAGUES: Loyola-Chicago (MVC), Rider (MAAC), Middle Tennessee (C-USA), Louisiana (SBELT), Pennsylvania (IVY), Montana (BSKY), Wright State (HORIZON), Nicholls (SLND), East Tennessee State (STHN), UC-Santa Barbara (BWEST), Buffalo (MAC), Florida Gulf Coast (ASUN), Murray State (OVC), Charleston (CAA), UNC-Asheville (BSO), Savannah State (MEAC), South Dakota State (SUM), New Mexico State (WAC), Vermont (AEAST), Bucknell (PAT), Wagner (NEC), Southern (SWAC)

Bracketing principles: read them for yourself at http://www.ncaa.com.

Medical clearance brings difficult decision for Michael Porter, Jr.

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Michael Porter, Jr. came to an antiquated situation in a very modern way.

The 6-foot-11 phenom signed up to play for his father at his hometown university.

And Missouri really is more than just the hometown university for Porter — it’s home. His aunt has coached two of his sisters on the Tigers’ women’s team. His younger brother, one of his seven siblings, is also on the roster. After hitting rock-bottom in the Kim Anderson era, Missouri was getting its prodigal son and savior all in the same package.

Nevermind it came after his family moved to Seattle as his father was hired as an assistant by Lorenzo Romar in Washington, no doubt in part because of the long-standing relationship between the two men but also because Porter, Jr. is possibly a generational talent. And forget that his father’s next job came from Cuonzo Martin at Missouri.

In the end, Porter, Jr. began the season playing for his father and with his brother, a five-star center who reclassified in order to join the Tigers, undoubtedly envisioning a magical season alongside his family in his hometown in the pursuit of a national championship.

It’s not Hoosiers, but it ain’t far off.

The season hasn’t exactly worked out that way, and after Porter, Jr. found himself in a nostalgic role by following a contemporary path, in order to live out that he’ll have to turn his back on current-day — somewhat cynical — common sense logic to get one last chance at it.

After sitting out the whole season due to a back injury and with a week left in the regular season, Porter, Jr. has been cleared to return to basketball activities, seemingly setting up the decision on whether to give college basketball one last chance or simply sit out to preserve his best chance to make the most money in the NBA.

Essentially, it boils down to this: Is the added risk to the potential of hundreds of millions of dollars Porter, Jr. could make in the NBA worth the reward of an NCAA tournament run playing alongside his brother with his father on the bench at the university that in some ways has defined his family?

How much is that one chance of collegiate glory worth?

The simple answer for most in 2018 is not enough to justify playing.

Porter, Jr. probably can’t move the needle on his draft stock by playing. Could he possibly be good enough in just a couple weeks after months on the shelf to move ahead of Deandre Ayton? Luka Doncic? Mo Bamba or Marvin Bagley III? Maybe, but is going first or second that much of a difference than going fifth or sixth when the real money comes on his second and third contracts? Or his shoe deal?

Were he to injure himself — especially if it was an aggravation of the back injury or a foot issue — teams might have memories of Greg Oden flash before their eyes. Is there a team willing to risk a Joel Embiid-like injury profile in the first seven slots of a draft this strong?

On the other hand, Porter, Jr. is going to be drafted no matter what potentially happens after his potential return. I can’t imagine even in the most catastrophic of scenarios where he slips outside the top-half of the first round. He’ll make millions of dollars, and that’s the worst-case scenario. Playing, if he’s fully healthy, only adds some risk.

Is that added percent — or two or five or 15 — acceptable when weighed against the unique opportunity that generations of basketball players have dreamed of and never even been given chance to fulfill?

Charging headlong into a chance to win a title — and Missouri very well could be a title contender in a year like this year with a healthy Porter, Jr. — for your school, community and family has to be a tantalizingly tempting choice. Even if it doesn’t come with a paycheck.

It’s chasing a storybook ending over limiting future financial risk.

How to adjudicate those two choices is up to Porter, Jr.

It’s a choice he gets to make. Does he try to have it all or play it safe? Is the lure of shared family success stronger than that of financial security and better long-term viability?

Playing for free has a cost. Is Porter, Jr. willing to pay it?

NCAA president Mark Emmert on Yahoo report: ‘Systematic failures … must be fixed’

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NCAA president Mark Emmert released a statement on Friday morning in response to the allegations that were made in a bombshell report from Yahoo Sports.

Yahoo obtained documents detailing the recruitment methods that former NBA agent Andy Miller and an employee, Christian Dawkins, used to chase potential clients. Payments as high as $73,000 are detailed and current athletes like Duke’s Wendell Carter, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, Kentucky’s Kevin Knox and Alabama’s Collin Sexton are all listed in those documents.

“These allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America,” Emmert’s statement read. “Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports. They are an affront to all those who play by the rules.”

“Following the Southern District of New York’s indictments last year, the NCAA Board of Governors and I formed the independent Commission on College Basketball, chaired by Condoleezza Rice, to provide recommendations on how to clean up the sport. With these latest allegations, it’s clear this work is more important now than ever. The Board and I are completely committed to making transformational changes to the game and ensuring all involved in college basketball do so with integrity.”

“We also will continue to cooperate with the efforts of federal prosecutors to identify and punish the unscrupulous parties seeking to exploit the system through criminal acts.”