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2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown East Region: Villanova is the No. 1 overall seed

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THREE STORYLINES TO WATCH

  1. Will Villanova repeat as National Champs?: They sure look like they are ready to do so. In fact, I think Villanova’s title defense is probably the biggest story in the sport as we head into the start of the tournament, and yet, it doesn’t feel that way, does it? They have the star in Josh Hart, they have point guard play, they are well-coached, they have veterans at every spot on the floor. The Wildcats certainly have the talent on the roster to make a run at this.
  2. After winning the ACC tournament, does Duke have another run in them?: Like Villanova, Duke just finished up putting together a run to a title in a league tournament that was played in the Big Apple, cutting down the nets at the Barclays Center just a few hours after Villanova did so in the Garden. The Blue Devils have put it all together here late in the season, shaking off all the injuries, suspensions, surgeries, everything to look like a team that almost always has three of the four best players on the floor.
  3. Is there anyone in the East that can beat those two?: For my money, there are four favorites as we head into this tournament: Kansas in the Midwest, North Carolina in the South and then Duke and Villanova in the East. In fact, I think that it’s just about a lock that these two are going to be playing in the Garden on Sunday night, going head to head in what should be an unbelievable atmosphere for the right to play in the Final Four. Can anyone in the region beat them? Wisconsin over Villanova in the second round is somewhat worrisome, but I don’t think that Florida without John Egbunu or Virginia given their inability to score will give the Wildcats a run. As for Duke, their biggest test before the Elite 8 will probably end up being SMU. None of those teams really worry me.

REGIONAL BREAKDOWNS: East | Midwest | South | West

THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … ?: No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 2 Duke

Like I said earlier, I just cannot see anyone else in this region beating either of these two teams, not when they play the way that they’ve been playing this past week.

FINAL FOUR SLEEPER: No. 6 seed SMU

The Mustangs are better than anyone is giving them credit for this season. They’re currently sitting at 11th in KenPom’s rankings, and they handled Cincinnati fairly easily in the last two games those two teams played. Semi Ojeleye is a monster, and he’s a former Duke player. I fully expect the Mustangs to get past Baylor and into the second weekend, which would pit Ojeleye against his former team playing a role that Duke knows so well these days: the small-ball four.

RELATED: Printable NCAA Tournament Bracket

Via @MarchMadness

UPSETS THAT CAN HAPPEN

  • No. 13 East Tennessee State over No. 4 Florida: I really like the team that Steve Forbes has put together. He has high-major talent on that roster and a star guard in T.J. Cromer. The Gators have looked vulnerable without John Egbunu in the paint.
  • No. 6 SMU over No. 3 Baylor: This is one of the easier picks for SMU. I just flat out think that SMU is a better basketball team, as Baylor has been reeling over the course of the last month of the season.
  • No. 8 Wisconsin over No. 1 Villanova: This one is worrisome to me. The Badgers love working the ball through their posts, Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes, and if there is a weakness to Villanova’s team, it’s their ability to defend big guys.

UPSETS THAT WON’T HAPPEN

  • No. 12 UNCW over No. 5 Virginia: The Seahawks, who are a very, very good basketball team heading into their second straight NCAA tournament, got a terrible draw against UVA. UNCW wants to push tempo, force turnovers, shoot threes and create chaos. Virginia does not let that happen when they play.

FEEL LIKE GAMBLING?: No. 7 South Carolina to the Sweet 16

The Gamecocks will be playing in Greenville, S.C., and have one of the nation’s toughest defenses. They are physical, they are strong and they are old, which is exactly the kind of thing that could give Duke trouble in the second round. That said, I’m not sure they get past Marquette and I don’t know if they can score enough points to give either of those two teams a fight.

RELATED: Power Rankings 1-68 | Duke deserved a No. 1 seed | Committee got bubble right

THE STUDS YOU KNOW ABOUT

  • Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum and Grayson Allen, Duke: To me, these three are almost always going to be three of the four best players on the floor at any given time.
  • Josh Hart, Villanova: There’s nothing flashy about Hart’s game. He’s just a grinder, a junkyard dog that gets every loose ball and pounds the offensive glass and that is good enough to put up 29 points in the Big East title game.

THE STUDS YOU’LL FIND OUT ABOUT

  • Semi Ojeleye, SMU: He’s got a chance to be a first round pick this June, and I don’t know if anyone knows his name. He’s a powerfully athletic, 6-foot-8 combo-forward that allows SMU to play four-around-one when they need to.
  • T.J. Cromer, ETSU: Cromer averaged better than 19 points per game this season, and he’s got enough ability to be the guy that carries a mid-major team to the Sweet 16.
  • C.J. Bryce, UNCW: Just a sophomore, the 6-foot-5 Bryce is averaging 17 points as a two-guard in Keatts’ system. You have to think that, if Keatts jumps at a bigger job after the tournament, Bryce might be a guy that follows him there.

BEST OPENING ROUND MATCHUP: No. 5 Virginia vs. No. 12 UNCW

It may not be the most aesthetically-pleasing game, but the contrast in styles between these two programs is just so fascinating, and it brings up an interesting debate I had over the weekend: If you are a mid-major program trying to land an upset, do you want to go up against a team that plays a totally different style from you and hope that the matchup works, or do you want to take on a team that plays similarly but just has better athletes and players? If it’s the former, should I be re-thinking my take on UNCW in this game?

MATCHUPS TO ROOT FOR: No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 2 Duke

That is a game that is good enough to be for the national title, and we might get it in the Elite 8 in the best building to watch a neutral site game between two teams that really turn out fans in NYC. This needs to happen.

CBT PREDICTION: Picking a winner in that game is so hard to do, but I think I lean Duke. Talent wins out at the end of the day.

Texas Tech forward Zach Smith returns to school after withdrawing from NBA Draft

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Texas Tech forward Zach Smith will return for his senior season, the school confirmed on Monday.

The 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most intriguing athletes in college basketball as he’s been a double-figure scorer for the Red Raiders the past two seasons. As a junior, Smith put up 12.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as he shot 50 percent from the field.

Three-point shooting was something that Smith improved dramatically last season as he increased it to 39 percent in a small sample size. If Smith can continue to show that he’s a perimeter shooting threat then he could be an ideal three-and-d candidate at the pro level.

By returning to Texas Tech, Smith gives head coach Chris Beard a potential all-league candidate who should be counted on to be a double-double threat next season.

 

Missouri lands five-star forward Jontay Porter

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Missouri has another member of the Porter family in the fold as forward Jontay Porter officially committed to the Tigers on Monday night.

Following in the footsteps of older brother Michael Porter Jr., and father Michael Porter Sr., Jontay is currently a member of the Class of 2018 who is rumored to be reclassifying to the Class of 2017.

A 6-foot-10 forward who was recently elevated to five-star status on Rivals.com, Porter is having a monster spring in the Nike EYBL with MoKan Elite. Porter has been one of the best players in the league, as he’s putting up 18.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

If Jontay is able to join Missouri next season then he gives the Tigers another intriguing piece to play alongside his brother Michael, who is good enough to be a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although Jontay isn’t the go-to player that his brother is, he could be a very effective SEC role player early in his career, as his ability to rebound and stretch the floor makes him an extremely intriguing piece on the floor.

Kevin Stallings is a tone-deaf clown

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Pitt guard Cameron Johnson is the most coveted transfer in college basketball this offseason.

The 6-foot-8 Johnson is coming off of a strong campaign with the Panthers in which he put up 11.9 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.

Not only is Johnson a proven double-figure scorer in a league like the ACC, but he’s eligible to play right away thanks to his graduation from Pitt. Johnson graduating from school in three years and missing one season due to injury also makes him the rare graduate transfer who has two seasons of eligibility remaining. So, not only can Johnson come in and make an immediate impact, but he’s also able to stay for another year after.

This sort of thing almost never happens, let alone with a 6-foot-8 shooter that could sway the national title race.

It’s why blueblood programs like Kentucky and UCLA are in hot pursuit of Johnson. It’s why another ACC school, reigning national champion North Carolina, is also intrigued by Johnson being on the market.

Except Johnson won’t be allowed to attend North Carolina, or any other school in the ACC, without first sitting out a season and losing one season of eligibility. At least that’s how things currently stand thanks to Pitt’s power over Johnson — despite Johnson graduating from the school and having no more formal educational ties to the school.

Here’s what Pitt said on the matter in a release to the News-Observer.

“Cameron Johnson and his father were informed of our policy as well as the appeals process when they elected to seek to transfer. They went through our transfer appeals process and were granted permission to contact ACC schools; however, the committee upheld the policy to limit immediate eligibility within the conference.

If Cameron were to transfer within the ACC, he would be eligible to receive financial aid immediately but would have to sit out a year of competition due to standard NCAA transfer regulations. Throughout this process, we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings had a peculiar interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was published about two weeks ago. During the interview, of which the full transcript was made public, Stallings went in-depth about Johnson’s transfer and the current state of college basketball. Stallings also made remarks about how the media holds programs accountable for trying to bully certain players.

Here’s a small sample of what Stallings had to say.

“But the unexpected departures are the things that are becoming more common than uncommon in college basketball. You have guys constantly trying to transfer up. You have guys going pro that have never played a minute of college basketball after they’ve sat out a year at a school. You have guys asking out of their letters of intent with frequency. We’re dealing in a landscape in college basketball right now that is as probably as difficult and peculiar as it’s ever been. It used to be if a kid signed his letter of intent and he wanted out of it, you had to play a year of junior-college ball to get out of it.

“The media didn’t basically force institutions to let people break a binding agreement. It’s kind of interesting now the media tries to put so much pressure on programs, whether it be athletic directors or coaches, saying ‘Well, the coaches can move.’ Well, hey, guess what? I’ve got a great big buyout in my deal that prevents me from moving. I’ve got something in my contract saying I can’t go to another league school. It’s not as easy for coaches to go. That’s everyone’s rationale — ‘Well, the coaches can leave.’ We’re dealing in an environment right now that is as fluid as it’s ever been. It’s just where we’re at in the whole thing with the unexpected departures.”

Stallings makes some sound points–particularly about coaches having buyouts and the general perception of coaching changes in basketball.

But Kevin Stallings mostly sounds like a tone-deaf clown here.

Nobody is going to feel sorry for a millionaire coach who willingly makes the decision to change jobs.

Nobody.

Especially if that same millionaire is comparing a choice to change jobs to the transfer decisions of unpaid student-athletes. It’s even more laughable now that Stallings is holding power over an unpaid student-athlete from going to play at another school because of purely basketball reasons.

Pitt and Stallings need to do the right thing and release Johnson to play at any school right away because Johnson has already done everything he needs to do to appease the program.

Things changed dramatically for Johnson during his three years at Pitt. He became one of the ACC’s better players and earned his degree. Johnson held up his end of the bargain when he signed his Letter of Intent.  Now Johnson just wants the chance improve his basketball future by playing with one of the nation’s elite programs.

Stallings can blame the current state of college basketball, the media, or whoever he wants for Johnson’s transfer from Pitt.

But Stallings also has to realize that he’s going to be the one who looks stupid if he continues to leave these restrictions in place for Johnson. Stallings already has a history of this sort of thing when he placed transfer restrictions on former player Sheldon Jeter. If Stallings continues to uphold transfer restrictions on Johnson, then he’s going to gain a permanent reputation in recruiting during a time when players continue to gain more freedom over their basketball futures.

If Johnson does happen to go to an ACC school like North Carolina, it’s not as if Pitt has any sort of competitive roster that is going to be fighting the Tar Heels for league supremacy during the next two seasons.

Stallings and Pitt need to just bite the bullet, let Johnson have his freedom, and hope it doesn’t come back to hurt them for one or two seasons in ACC play.

It surely beats the alternative of being labeled a head coach who limits player freedom after six players left Pitt during a single offseason. That type of burn lasts a lot longer than two years.

Presbyterian hires Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns as new head coach

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Presbyterian finally has its new head coach as the program is set to hire Wofford assistant coach Dustin Kerns, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Kerns has been an assistant at Wofford for the past seven years during his second stint with the program. Also spending six seasons as an assistant coach at Santa Clara, the Tennessee native is getting his first shot at running his own program.

Finishing last in the Big South last season at 5-25 and 1-17 in conference play, Presbyterian is trying to rebuild after head coach Gregg Nibert resigned in April. Nibert was the head coach of the Blue Hens for 28 seasons, so Kerns is going to be a completely fresh start for the program.

Tennessee lands impact graduate transfer James Daniel

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Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes earned a commitment from one of the top graduate transfers on the market on Monday when Howard guard James Daniel pledged to the Volunteers.

The 6-foot-0 Daniel was the nation’s leading scorer at 27.1 points per game his junior season in 2015-16. Daniel played in only two games last season as a left ankle injury caused him to have surgery.

With nearly 2,000 career points to his name, Daniel gives Tennessee an additional perimeter scorer who should come in and make an immediate impact right away. While Howard has low shooting percentages and a high usage rate during his time at Howard, it’ll be interesting to see how the year off and more talented teammates will alter his game.

If Howard can be a more efficient scorer in his final season, then he has a chance to be one of the better players for the Volunteers this season.