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Xavier clinches an NCAA tournament bid as head coach Chris Mack goes rogue

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NEW YORK — Chris Mack went rogue.

That’s the only way to explain why, with 39 seconds left and a 57-56 lead, Mack picked Kamar Baldwin, Butler’s best free throw shooter on the season, to shoot two. Kethan Savage had just been fouled going to the rim, but a hard fall directly on the small of his back forced Savage to the sideline.

That meant that Xavier was allowed to pick one of the other four players on the floor to shoot the free throws.

There was Kelan Martin, a 77.4 percent free throw shooter, and Andrew Chrabacsz, a 75.0 percent free throw shooter. Then there was center Nate Fowler, a sophomore center who stands 6-foot-11 and shoots 76.9 percent from the line, but he’s only been to the charity stripe 39 times this season and averages under 12 minutes a night.

Fowler would have been the savvy pick.

Xavier’s staff, however, recommended everyone except Kamar Baldwin, Butler’s best free throw shooter this season. And that’s precisely who Mack went with. Like I said, he went rogue, but it was a savvier decision than you may realize. A freshman playing in his first Big East tournament game, and he hadn’t shot a free throw all night?

It worked.

Baldwin went 1-for-2 from the line, and on the ensuing possession, a Trevon Bluiett jumper gave the Musketeers the lead for good. Xavier would go on to win 62-57, a win that should end all the speculation about whether or not the Musketeers are an NCAA tournament team. Xavier entered Thursday having lost six of their last nine games. Those three wins — their only three wins since Feb. 4th — all came against DePaul. Overall, the Musketeers were 5-9 since their star point guard, Edmond Sumner, went down with a torn ACL.

That was enough to raise the question: Is this truly a tournament team?

“We have competitive guys,” Mack said. “They understand what’s at stake. I don’t know how you can’t. [It’s] 2017. Everywhere we go, guys have their phones up to their noses. So I’m sure they’re snapchatting, but at the same time they’re probably checking twitter and seeing the bottom line. We’re aware of all that stuff.”

The answer, in all likelihood, was that Xavier probably had done enough to earn an at-large bid even if they had lost on Thursday, but getting that monkey off their back will make Selection Sunday just that much less stressful.

It also puts the Musketeers in position to make a real run at the Big East title.

They’ll play the winner of Creighton-Providence in the semifinals on Friday night, and neither of those teams are imposing. A win there and a trip to the title game — likely against Villanova — wouldn’t be a bad thing for this group. Even without Edmond Sumner, Xavier is a talented team. They’re physically tough, but not so much mentally. Leadership has been an issue for this group. When this going gets tough, they’ve had a tendency to fold.

The opposite was true on Thursday.

The Musketeers won a game as a scrappy underdog, which is exactly the kind of program they’ve been during their most successful March runs.

And Thursday’s win gives them a chance to do it again this year.


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!”