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Oregon-UCLA Preview: Bruins looking for validation, Ducks seeking case for No. 1

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On the other side of the country, one of the oldest and most storied college basketball rivalries will likely dominate the evening. When Duke and North Carolina get together, it grabs eyeballs and sucks a lot of oxygen out of the room.

Don’t forget about tonight’s nightcap, though.

UCLA and Oregon may not have the rivalry bonafides of their Tobacco Road counterparts, but they do lay claim to one of the best games of this season. The rematch tonight in Pauley Pavilion promises to be just as intriguing.

It wasn’t so long ago the Bruins were the darlings of college basketball, with Lonzo Ball’s play at point guard reinvigorating the program thanks to an offensive style that’s both beautiful and devastating as they won their first 13 games of the season.

That loss to the Ducks to end December didn’t do much to take the shine off, especially after UCLA ripped off six-straight wins after it, but back-to-back losses to Arizona and USC at the end of January pushed the Bruins’ fatal flaw to the forefront.

They can’t defend.

Oregon doesn’t bring an intimidating offense to the table, but with a defense that borders on elite, it’s an easier issue to hide. UCLA has to be brilliant on offense to beat good teams. The Ducks just have to do their thing on defense and keep things from breaking down on the other end.

The hardest cover for UCLA is, of course, Dillon Brooks. The junior had 23 points and four assists and a game-winning 3-pointer in the first matchup of the season, and, since an injury scare last month, has looked as solid as ever. He’s 16 of 24 combined in the last two games in which he’s averaged 22.5 points.

This is a game in which really UCLA has anything to prove.

Any doubts about the Ducks after they got pounded by Colorado went away when they thrashed Arizona last weekend. Oregon is exactly as good as we think they are, which is to say very, very good.

The Bruins, though? We know they can fill it up. We know Ball and T.J. Leath are dynamic freshmen and that the rest of the roster has a ton of talented offensive players. We don’t know how well the one-sided formula can work against top-tier teams, however.

UCLA has two options going forward. Either its offense has to operate at the extreme high level of its capability, with its output at capacity every night, or it has to find a way to defend a little. They don’t have to be great. Being average when your offense is awesome can be good enough.

Of course, the Pac-12 race is going to be greatly impacted by tonight’s result. If UCLA wants any chance of sticking in the thick of things, it’s a must-win. The Bruins are already two games back of the Ducks and Wildcats, and can’t fall another game back and expect to make it up before the Pac-12 tournament.

It’s paramount for Oregon, too, as it still has trips to USC and Cal on the docket while Arizona has a much more forgiving schedule. Its most difficult road game is at Arizona State to finish the regular season and the Wildcats get UCLA at home.

Gonzaga has the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the west, but Oregon could lay claim to No. 1 elsewhere if things break right throughout the rest of the country. To those ends, a win in Westwood would be a nice addition to the resume. For UCLA, though, a win over Oregon could be a signal that, despite their deficiencies, the game’s about getting buckets and there’s few who get them like the Bruins.

Prediction: Other than the blip in Boulder, Oregon has spent the last two-plus months playing really good basketball. The fact that they can do that on both ends of the floor means they’re the pick here (+4.5).

Lonzo Ball says “I’m better than” Markelle Fultz

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Usually, it’s LaVar Ball that makes news for what he says.

His eldest son is now getting in on the business of generating headlines with something other than his play.

The UCLA star, who said he’ll enter the draft after just one season with the Bruins, claimed he’s the better prospect than Washington freshman Markelle Fultz, who many have pegged as the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

“Markelle’s a great player,” Ball said, according to ESPN, “but I feel I’m better than him,” “I think I can lead a team better than him. Obviously he’s a great scorer — he’s a great player, so I’m not taking that away from him.”

Not exactly inflammatory stuff – like saying you could have beaten Michael Jordan, that you want a $1 billion apparel deal or a number of things his father has said – bu Ball is certainly projecting confidence. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s quite a bit of money – and pride – at stake with the draft, and Ball put up a season worthy of comparison to Fultz, who had great numbers but played for an abysmal Washington team. Ball, on the other had, had strong numbers while leading UCLA to the Sweet 16.

Both are going to go at the top of a draft that’s stocked full of promising point guards. Which player goes before the other remains to be seen, but it’s likely public pronouncements aren’t going to affect the draft order.

 

UMass hires McCall away from Chattanooga

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UMass has found, once more, the man to take over its basketball program.

The Minutemen have reached an agreement with Chattanooga coach Matt McCall, the school announce Wednesday

“The tradition and resources that are in place not only make this one of the best basketball jobs in the Atlantic 10 Conference,” McCall said in a statement released by the school, “but one of the best jobs in the country. We couldn’t be more excited about becoming part of the UMass family and look forward to building upon the rich tradition that has been established here in the past.”

In McCall’s two years at Chattanooga, the Mocs to the NCAA tournament in 2016 and a 19-12 record this year that featured five-straight losses to end the season.

The move will take McCall out of the southeast for the first time in his career as he previously served as at Florida and Florida Atlantic before getting his first head coaching job at Chattanooga.

McCall wasn’t the Minutemen’s first choice to replace Derek Kellogg after three-straight lackluster seasons. Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey had agreed to take the job before a last-minute about-face that saw him return to the Eagles program just before his introductory press conference was scheduled to begin.

“Matt is a rising star in college basketball coaching who has been a key piece of three successful programs in his career,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement. “He has earned a reputation as a relentless worker, a great teammate and colleague and a confident leader of young men.

“Matt has worked with some of the most respected coaches and administrators in the country, who loudly sing his praises. Coach McCall’s appointment begins an exciting new chapter for our tradition-rich men’s basketball program at UMass.”

Despite being the second choice, McCall’s reputation in the coaching industry makes him a strong hire, having worked under Mike Jarvis and Billy Donovan. He took over at Chattanooga for Will Wade, and brought the Mocs to a 29-6 record and a  12-seed in the NCAA tournament in 2016.

UMass went to just one NCAA tournament under Kellogg (in 2014) during his nine seasons leading the Minutemen.

VIDEO: Frank Martin’s sideline demeanor as a high school coach

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South Carolina coach Frank Martin has the reputation of being rather, shall we say, intense on the sidelines during games.

The coach has a stare that seemingly could bore a hole through his players when they do something that doesn’t reach his level of expectation. Martin’s demeanor, though, didn’t just come into form once he hit the college ranks.

He was plenty intense on high school sidelines as well.

Martin won three titles while at Miami Senior in the mid-1990s, coaching the likes of future pros Steve Blake and Udonis Haslem. Now having reached his first career Final Four, that sideline persona has put him on the precipice of winning yet another championship, this time at the collegiate level.

South Carolina fans raise money to send “Gamecock Jesus” to Final Four

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South Carolina fans are sending one of their most recognizable compatriots to represent them this weekend.

Gamecock Jesus is heading to the Final Four.

South Carolina super fan Carlton Thompson is following the Gamecocks to Glendale as his fellow fans have raised over $7,500 to send the man known as “Gamecock Jesus” to Arizona for the team’s Final Four meeting with Gonzaga on Saturday night.

Thompson’s long hair, beard and presence at South Carolina games, even in lean times, earned him his nickname and apparently a following fervent enough to foot the bill for quite the trip.

“I’ve always dreamed it would be like this,” Thompson said last week about fan support at Gamecock games to the Post and Courier. “For years and years, it was so sparse with the crowds at the games. But once they started winning, the crowds started coming.”

Thompson is a 63-year-old VA hospital nurse, and has been attending South Carolina games for nearly 50 years.

Maryland’s Melo Trimble declares for the NBA Draft

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Melo Trimble’s career as a Maryland Terrapin is coming to an end. The junior guard is declaring for the NBA Draft and will sign with an agent.

“I am confident and excited to pursue an opportunity to play in the NBA,” Trimble said in a release. “I am proud of what my teammates and I were able to accomplish these past three seasons at Maryland. I developed many great relationships and friendships and together we able to create some very special moments for Maryland basketball. I want to thank Coach Turgeon for all of his support. He always believed in me. He challenged me and really helped in the development of my overall game. I am a more complete basketball player because of Coach Turgeon and the coaching staff. To stay at home and attend the University of Maryland is the best decision that I ever made and it was truly special to play in front of my family, friends and our amazing fans. Maryland will always be home.”

There was no better winner in college basketball the last three years than Melo. He changed the trajectory of Mark Turgeon’s program, winning 79 games in three years and ending his career 30-8 in games decided by six points or less. As a junior, Trimble and the Terps earned a No. 6 seed to the NCAA tournament, but they lost in the first round to Xavier. It was the only time in Trimble’s career that he didn’t reach the Sweet 16.

“Melo Trimble is a winner,” Mark Turgeon said on twitter. “Humble, hard-working, dedicated. Words can’t express what he’s done for our program. Always #StayMelo!”