2017 NCAA Tournament: Your bracket’s unsung heroes

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The next three weeks of basketball will see a lot of star performances as we often associate the NCAA Tournament with the biggest and best players.

There are a lot of star players to focus on in this tournament. The freshman class is loaded with one-and-done talent and we have a lot of established seniors like Villanova’s Josh Hart and Kansas’ Frank Mason.

But if a team wants to win six games in a row in this tournament they also need some solid performances from unsung heroes.

Among the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, each team has a role player who will make a huge impact during March. Here’s some important players you should know from some of the main contenders.

RELATED: Printable NCAA Tournament Bracket

Theo Pinson, North Carolina — Back in the North Carolina rotation permanently since early February, the junior guard has been a huge part of the stretch run for the Tar Heels. Not a particularly gifted scorer, Pinson doesn’t need to be one here, as the North Carolina roster has enough bucket-getters.

Instead, Pinson can focus on using his best traits — floor vision, passing, rebounding and outlet passes — to enhance an already potent Tar Heel offense. Acting as a second floor leader, Pinson gobbles up assists by finding Justin Jackson or Joel Berry on the wing while also hitting his big men like Kennedy Meeks in the post. If the jumper is falling at all it makes Pinson that much more valuable.

Amile Jefferson, Duke — A fifth-year senior with worlds of experience in this event, Jefferson is the reliable force in the middle for the Blue Devils. If Jefferson is healthy and out of foul trouble, Duke needs him on the floor as much as possible because he’s a double-double machine who is also a solid positional defender.

Since Duke doesn’t know what they’re going to get from its other big men like Harry Giles, Marques Bolden and Chase Jeter, Jefferson needs to be the consistent rock that is ready to play at least 30 minutes in every game.

Power Rankings 1-68 | Duke deserved a 1 seed | Committee got bubble right

REGIONAL BREAKDOWNS: East | Midwest | South | West

Landen Lucas, Kansas — All of the talk this season has been focused on Player of the Year Frank Mason and the Kansas perimeter but Lucas is the player to keep an eye on for the Jayhawks. The senior center doesn’t have eye-popping numbers or athletic traits but he’s the steady backbone of Kansas on both ends of the floor.

Lucas is capable of putting up double-doubles and being an effective positional post defender. He’s had games of 17 or 18 rebounds this season. With the Jayhawks having a limited bench thanks to injuries, Lucas is a player who needs to stay out of foul trouble so he gives Kansas as good chunk of minutes.

Kadeem Allen, Arizona — The senior guard is the heart-and-soul of Arizona as Allen is valuable on both ends of the floor. A valuable on-the-ball defender who also adds a bit of scoring punch, the Wildcats are at their best when Allen is chipping in a bit of offense.

The last four games when Arizona looked great, Allen scored in double-figures in all four wins and his offense is an added bonus to the other things that he provides. Opposing defenses are going to focus on Allonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen, so Allen has to be one of the guys who is ready to knock down an open shot or fill the lane during a break if Arizona wants to make a Final Four run.

Zach Collins, Gonzaga — Collins has been a huge part of Gonzaga’s success as the freshman big man can give the Bulldogs a huge lift off the bench. More athletic and skilled as a shooter than Przemek Karnowski, Collins has given the Zags a lot of production as a scorer and rebounder and he’ll also protect the rim with the occasional block.

Most McDonald’s All-Americans might have trouble coming off the bench but Collins is uniquely qualified since he backed up two McDonald’s All-American big men (Stephen Zimmerman and Chase Jeter) on his own high school team as a junior. Collins is already used to entering a game cold and making an immediate impact and Gonzaga has greatly benefitted from that this season.

The biggest obstacle with Collins could be foul trouble. A bit jumpy at times, Collins can quickly pick up fouls and be forced to sit. But if Collins is active and on the floor, not a lot of second units can handle what he brings.

BRACKETS: Cinderellas | Upset Watch | CBT Podcast | Unsung Heroes

Donte DiVincenzo (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova — Sitting on the bench as a redshirt during last season’s Villanova title run, the 6-foot-5 DiVincenzo has a chance to be a big factor for the Wildcats this season as a freshman. Although DiVincenzo’s scoring isn’t a necessity with Villanova already having Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson, if he’s able to knock down a couple of shots he’s the type of streaky shooter who can break open a game.

Multiple times this season the Wildcats have been fueled by scoring surges that were provided in large part by DiVincenzo. If he becomes an additional double-figure scorer then it means Villanova has a great chance at winning since opposing defenses have to spend so much time on other options.

Mangok Mathiang/Anas Mahmoud, Louisville — This two-headed monster gobbles up 40 minutes a game in the middle for the Cardinals as Mathiang and Mahmoud can bring a lot of production in those limited minutes. Because both big men only play around 20 minutes a game, it enables them to play harder for shorter stretches of time and it leads to flurries of positive production.

Mathiang, in particular, has flourished lately as he’s coming off of two double-doubles in his final three games of the season. Don’t count out Mahmoud for a big game, however. The Egyptian had 17 points and 11 rebounds against Duke earlier this season.

Derek Willis, Kentucky — We have another Kentucky team filled with freshman stars and a talented sophomore in Isaiah Briscoe. But outside of Kentucky’s four leading scorers, senior Derek Willis is the most important player for head coach John Calipari during this tournament.

A floor-spacing big man who also shows surprising toughness as a rebounder and shot blocker, if Willis can knock down a few jumpers then it helps Kentucky’s spacing immensely. With De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe being perimeter players with inconsistent jumpers, and Bam Adebayo not having outside range, Willis has to provide that threat of knocking in jumpers.

Rim protection is also a surprising element of Willis that has been especially good lately. Willis has 34 blocked shots (1.0 per game) on the season but 17 of those rejections have come in the last five games.

NCAA committee hears final Louisville appeal as they try to keep title banner

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Louisville had their final day in court on Wednesday as they made a last-ditch appeal to the NCAA Infractions Committee to try and save their 2012 Final Four and 2013 National Title.

Neither Rick Pitino nor Tom Jurich, who were both fired by Louisville in the wake of this fall’s FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball, were in attendance.

An interim president and interim athletic director were present for the University as they tried to push back against the ruling the NCAA came down with this summer. If you’ve forgotten: The Cardinals were hit with a slew of recruiting restrictions, sit on probation and must pay back a bunch of money they won in forfeited NCAA tournament games due to a former staffer’s efforts to provide strippers and sex workers to players and recruits over the course of four years. The vacated wins are the result of players that were retroactively ruled ineligible for receiving what the NCAA is deeming impermissible benefits participating in those games.

Louisville also initially self-imposed violations, including a 2016 postseason ban that was implemented in February of that year.

Jeff Greer of the Louisville Courier-Journal has all the details here, but we know what the story is at this point.

Louisville’s argument is centered around the money. Essentially, they are saying that value of the transactions in question – the amount of money that was spent by former assistant Andre McGee – was small enough that the players involved would have been able to pay back what was owed had the violations been discovered in real time. The NCAA’s argument is even simpler: We’ve never seen something like this, so precedence does not matter in this case.

A final ruling is not expected until at least January.

College Basketball Futures Watch Part I: Alabama through Louisville

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Over the course of the next three days, we at College Basketball Talk will be cruising through the best, the most surprising and the most disappointing teams in college basketball.

As of today, how should we view the 45 most interesting teams in the country based on preseason expectation? 

Are we more confident in them? Less confident? Still unsure?

We used five different labels here to help define how we feel about each of the 45 teams mentioned:

  • Bet The Mortgage
  • Raise
  • Check
  • Fold
  • Get Your Stuff And Go Home

Today, we go through everyone from Alabama to Louisville.

Let’s get into it.

ALABAMA: Fold

Collin Sexton is awesome. He’s fun to watch, he’s efficient and he puts massive pressure on defenses. Still, the Tide may just not have enough to be a true contender in the SEC. Losses to Minnesota, UCF and Arizona suggest that Avery Johnson’s group isn’t strong enough past Sexton. (Travis Hines)

ARIZONA: Raise

It hasn’t been pretty early for Arizona, especially with that 0-3 run in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Yet despite the issues this team needs to address, most notably its defense – especially when DeAndre Ayton and Dusan Ristic are on the court at the same time – Arizona has one of the best 1-2 tandems in Ayton and Allonzo Trier. Ayton’s damn near unstoppable offensively, as he can score inside and out which makes him an absolute handful for just about any team Arizona faces. And for all the talk of Trier’s shot selection last season, he’s been one of the most efficient players in the country. After taking six of his seven shots from three and attempting just two free throws in the win over Texas A&M, Trier managed to earn 16 free throw attempts with just six official shots from the field against Alabama. The return of Rawle Alkins gives Arizona a consistent peripheral offensive option moving forward, and I think Sean Miller will be able to turn this group into an adequate defensive unit. (Raphielle Johnson)

ARIZONA STATE: Raise

I still have questions about the Sun Devils when it comes to their defensive chops, especially with just two front court players who are 6-foot-9 or taller (Vitaliy Shibel and DeQuon Lake) and opponents rebounding just over 30 percent of their misses on the season. But if you have good guard play, and experienced at that, this can cover up a lot of issues in the college game. As their hashtag says the perimeter unit of Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II, Remy Martin and Kodi Justice is #Hard2Guard, and they all play with a chip on their shoulders that Bobby Hurley had during his own playing career. And there aren’t many teams around that have two wins as good as Arizona State’s over Xavier and Kansas on their resume. I believe in this group, and I’ll believe even more if they can improve the defense (and rebounding). (RJ)

Tra Holder (David Becker/Getty Images)

ARKANSAS: Check

The Razorbacks have my attention. They blew out UConn, they beat Minnesota soundly, they handled Oklahoma, they have a talented crop of veteran guards. But they also got smoked at Houston and beaten by North Carolina again. Mike Anderson’s teams have a tendency to be great at home and miserable on the road. Before I make any sweeping proclamations about this Arkansas team, let’s see what they can do on the road during league play. (Rob Dauster)

BAYLOR: Fold

A lot of the Bears’ early-season success has been predicated on a defense that has really kept opponents in check. Is it sustainable though? Baylor is keeping opponents to 29.7 percent from 3-point range and an effective field goal percentage of 44.9. Those would all be the best numbers of a Scott Drew team in recent years – dramatically better than many of his teams. I’m skeptical that Baylor can keep up this pace. (TH)

CINCINNATI: Check

It’s easy to be optimistic about a team with a top-five defense but Cincinnati hasn’t defeated anybody of relevance this season. Losing to Xavier and Florida, the Bearcats’ best win came over Mississippi State this week. Cincinnati can get balanced scoring on certain nights but on others they have to win in rock fights. Let’s see them beat somebody good before we commit more to them. (Scott Phillips)

CREIGHTON: Check

There are things to like about the Bluejays. They have a great offense and own solid wins over Northwestern, Nebraska and UCLA. But Creighton has also fallen to better teams like Baylor and Gonzaga and they’re still the Big East’s fourth best team at this point. Are they truly any kind of contender or just a tournament team? (SP)

Grayson Allen (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

DUKE: Check

So I think I’m the only person covering college basketball that is worried about Duke right now. That might mean I’m an idiot. It might also mean I’m a genius. But here are my concerns, which I laid out in this column in more depth a couple of weeks ago:

  • They don’t play defense all that well. Boston College’s guards looked like all-americans running something as simple as pick-and-rolls every possession.
  • They don’t seem to want to play all that hard until they’re down by 10 points in the second half of a game they shouldn’t be losing.
  • Trevon Duval is talented but he’s not the best decision-maker we’ve seen at the point guard spot. When he goes to the bench, it forces Grayson Allen to play on the ball, which is not his best position.
  • Allen, as a result, has become a streaky shooter that seems to be a little too reliant on the jumper.
  • As a team, Duke is a little too reliant on their jumpers for a team that is not loaded with great shooters.

Maybe I’m reading too much into a young team going through some growing pains, but considering that Duke is, quite literally, the favorite to win the title in Vegas, let’s wait before we put any more money in the middle. (RD)

FLORIDA: Raise

The Gators had their issues last week. They lost at home to in-state rival Florida State. They lost at home to Loyola-Chicago. That came after they blew a 17-point lead to Duke. None of those things are a good look for a top five team, and they took a hit in public perception as a result. I think that reaction may have swung the pendulum too far. They showed an impressive amount of toughness in their win over Cincinnati, and I have faith that Mike White will be able to figure this thing out. Plus, John Egbunu’s return is looming. This isn’t a top five team, but they’re better than being a borderline top 25 team. (RD)

FLORIDA STATE: Raise

A surprising 9-0 start has Florida State in the top 25 after they smoked Florida on the road. Food for thought: Everyone freaked out about Arizona State’s 10-point win on the road against a top five team, so why didn’t they freak out about the Seminole’s 17-point win on the road against a top five team? Junior Terance Mann has breakout potential in the ACC and Braian Angola can put up numbers across the board. This team is intriguing. (SP)

GONZAGA: Bet The Mortgage

Despite having a lot of holes to fill from last year’s national runner-up team the Bulldogs are off to an 8-2 start with the only losses coming against Florida (in double overtime) and Villanova. Josh Perkins has done a good job of running the show, the perimeter rotation has both athleticism and talent, and the front court doesn’t lack for bodies with Johnathan Williams III leading the way. Player such as Perkins, Williams, Killian Tillie and Silas Melson were part of last season’s rotation so this isn’t an inexperienced team by any stretch; they’ve simply got a decent number of players who are getting used to more significant roles than what they had in the past. Add in the presence of Mark Few, and Gonzaga has what it takes to once again play deep into the NCAA tournament. (RJ)

IOWA STATE: Check

Steve Prohm’s team had a brutal start to the season, losing at Missouri and at home to Milwaukee, but a move to put Nick Weiler-Babb at point guard has energized the Cyclones and has them on a seven-game winning streak. Still, none of those seven wins are against impressive opponents. They topped Boise State without Chandler Hutchison on a neutral and a spiraling Iowa team at home. We just don’t know enough yet about the Cyclones to see which way their season will go. (TH)

KANSAS: Raise

The Jayhawks have lost back-to-back games, but they’re still immensely talented and coached by Bill Self. Kansas’ roster was always flawed, but it’s not something that can’t be overcome with some tweaks – and the potential arrival of Silvio De Sousa next semester. Kansas remains the team to beat in the Big 12, and the reinforcements are (hopefully, in the case of Billy Preston) on the way. (TH)

Devonte’ Graham, Kevin Knox (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

KENTUCKY: Raise

Frankly, I still have no idea what to make of this Kentucky team. They haven’t really been tested beyond playing Kansas, and that Kansas team, as it would turn out, is not as good as we thought they were. They are still flawed – having one point guard that can score but can’t guard and another that can guard but can’t score is going to be endlessly frustrating – but they are also flying totally under the radar right now. If we’ve learned anything through the first month of the season, it’s that no one outside of Michigan State and Villanova appear to actually be great. There is no third-best team in the country right now, best that I can tell. So why can’t it be Kentucky? (RD)

LOUISVILLE: Fold

Prior to the season, reasonable minds could disagree about the status of the Louisville program in the post-Pitino era. There still was talent on the roster, and that talent was old enough that, in theory, they could coach themselves. But that hasn’t exactly worked out. Shockingly, replacing one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all-time with a 32-year old interim in his first season as a head coach is not easy. Louisville will probably make the NCAA tournament still, but I can’t see them being a contender for much of anything this season. Cut your losses now. (RD)

 

No. 25 Cincinnati sends Mississippi State to 1st loss 65-50

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (AP) — No. 25 Cincinnati had plummeted to the fringe of the rankings and needed a confidence boost. The Bearcats got it against a previously unbeaten team.

Jacob Evans III had 24 points and eight rebounds as Cincinnati recovered from its back-to-back losses and handed Mississippi State its first defeat, 65-50 on Tuesday night.

The Bearcats (8-2) were coming off losses to crosstown rival Xavier and Florida that dropped them from No. 11. They ended the slump with a solid defensive showing against the Southeastern Conference’s last unbeaten team, blocking 11 shots.

“We needed to get this win for us to build our confidence and get this thing back on track,” Evans said.

Mississippi State (8-1) was off to its best start since 2003-04. The Bulldogs struggled to make shots in their first game against a ranked team. They missed 10 straight in the first half and 14 in a row in the second as Cincinnati blew open a close game.

“I think we took a multitude of things away from them,” said Kyle Washington, who added 16 points. “We knew what we wanted to do on defense. We were locked in on how they played well as a team. We just wanted to take all of that away.”

Aric Holman matched his career high with 18 points and had 10 rebounds for Mississippi State, which shot a season-low 30 percent from the field. The Bulldogs weren’t ready for Cincinnati’s defense.

“We lost the game tonight because of our inability to attack that zone,” coach Ben Howland said. “We were standing way too much, not enough ball movement, not enough cutting and getting the ball inside.”

Cincinnati has won 31 straight home games , the longest streak in the nation. The Bearcats are playing this season at BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky University while their on-campus arena is renovated. They went 18-0 at Fifth Third Arena last season.

BIG PICTURE

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs can’t get that breakthrough win against a ranked team. They have dropped 18 in a row against teams in the Top 25. Their last such win was 67-57 over Arizona on Nov. 18, 2011.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats’ offense was stymied during the losses to Xavier and Florida. Cincinnati shot 41 percent from the field against Mississippi State but scored 22 points off 14 Bulldogs turnovers.

“This was a defensive victory, no question about it,” coach Mick Cronin said. “We’re still searching on offense a little bit at times.”

DRY SPELLS

Mississippi State went nearly 7 minutes without a field goal in the first half, managing only one free throw, as Cincinnati took control. The Bulldogs’ 14 straight misses in the second half helped Cincinnati pull ahead by 19 points. The Bulldogs shot 45 percent or better in their eight wins, including four games at 50 percent or better.

FIRST TRIP

It was the first road game for Mississippi State, which was picked to finish 12th in the SEC preseason poll. Howland figured it will help get the Bulldogs ready for conference play.

“Cincinnati is like an upper-echelon SEC team, so it’s very similar,” Howland said.

QUOTE OF THE GAME

Cronin on the back-to-back losses: “I was just concerned about the guys’ confidence level. It’s hard to shield them from the social media and the outside world. Young people live in that world, and I’m sure the sky was falling in that world because we lost a few games.”

UP NEXT

Mississippi State plays at UT Martin on Saturday.

Cincinnati plays UCLA at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, a rematch against the team that knocked the Bearcats out of the NCAA Tournament 79-67 in the second round last season.

POSTERIZED: Jericho Sims throws down dunk on Duncan Robinson

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Playing without leading scorer Andrew Jones, who’s out of the lineup after suffering a fractured wrist, Texas got off to a slow start in the first half of its game against Michigan Tuesday night.

Freshman forward Jericho Sims did his best to provide a spark, as the 6-foot-9 Minnesota native rose above Michigan’s Duncan Robinson to throw down a vicious alley-oop dunk.

Sims has a couple inches on Robinson in the height department, and the running start Sims managed to get rolling to the basket didn’t help Robinson’s chances of stopping the dunk either.

Delgado keys No. 15 Seton Hall over Saint Peter’s

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SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (AP) — After playing solid defense in a win over Virginia Commonwealth last Saturday, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard knew that his 15th-ranked Pirates had to keep up the pressure against old-time New Jersey rival Saint Peter’s.

“I thought if we could get them a little out of a rhythm, we’d be in good shape,” Willard said after his team held the Peacocks to just one field goal among their first 12 shots in an easy 84-61 win at the old Walsh Gym on the campus of Seton Hall.

“We played a little zone to make it difficult for them to shoot,” Willard said. “I loved the way we came out and played defensively.”

The Pirates’ stifling defense enabled them to take an 8-0 lead and cruise from that point on. Seton Hall managed to push Saint Peter’s farther and farther away from the basket with every possession.

“It was the same intensity that we had against VCU,” Willard said.

“Saint Peter’s likes to be able to run their own stuff and we didn’t let them do it,” said senior forward Angel Delgado, who scored a game-high 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, the 57th time in his career that Delgado has registered double figures in both categories. “We pressed. We played zone. They couldn’t run anything.”

“I think we set the tone defensively,” said senior Desi Rodriguez, who continued his fine play with 17 points. “We were able to close out, defend their shots and we were able to make some runs.”

Khadeen Carrington added 11 points and five assists, as Seton Hall (9-1) raced out to an early lead and never looked back, winning for the 20th time in the last 21 meetings against the Peacocks (4-5).

Davauhnte Turner scored 13 points and Nick Griffin had nine to pace Saint Peter’s.

After Elijah Gonzales drained a 3-pointer to pull the Peacocks within 35-23, the Pirates scored the last seven points of the first half, capped by a layup by Delgado with 42 seconds remaining, giving Seton Hall a commanding 42-23 halftime lead. Rodriguez paced the Pirates with 11 first-half points.

Seton Hall scored the first four points after the break to take a 46-23 lead.

Freshman Myles Cale nailed a long 3-pointer, then threw down a monstrous windmill dunk off a steal to push the lead to 61-38, causing Saint Peter’s to call another timeout with 10:29 left.

Seton Hall held a commanding 43-27 advantage on the boards.

Saint Peter’s coach John Dunne came away impressed with the Pirates.

“We had Terry Dehere (Seton Hall’s all-time leading scorer) in for a practice and I said to him that this was the best Seton Hall team since he was there,” Dunne said. “I don’t get overly impressed by watching other teams, but I’m impressed with these guys. They have all the pieces. They play unselfishly and share the ball. They’re legit. It wasn’t like we lost to a bad team. We just got stopped by them from the start.”

OLD-TIME RIVALRY

It was the 88th meeting between the New Jersey rivals, dating to 1931-32. Seton Hall leads the all-time series 64-24 and has won 20 of the last 21 meetings. Saint Peter’s lone win in recent years came in 2013, winning 83-80 in overtime. The programs met every year since the 1949-50 season before taking a one-year hiatus last year.

SENIOR LEADERSHIP

The Pirates are the only Division I team to have three players who have scored 1,000 or more points during their career and all three (Rodriguez, Delgado and Carrington) all reached double figures Tuesday night.

FAMILIAR TERRITORY

Dunne was an assistant coach at Seton Hall from 2001 through 2006 under then-head coach Louis Orr.

DOUBLE TROUBLE

It was the 57th time in Delgado’s Seton Hall career that he collected double figures in points and rebounds, the top figure in the nation. Delgado led the nation in rebounding last season, grabbing 13.1 per game. Delgado is the only active Division I player with more than 1,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds.

NATIONAL RANKING

The Pirates’ No. 15 ranking in the latest AP Poll is the highest for the program since Jan. 9, 2001.

THE BIG PICTURE

Seton Hall: Tuesday night marked Seton Hall’s 26th consecutive win against non-conference teams at home. The Pirates improved to 422-142 inside Walsh Gym on the Seton Hall campus. Seton Hall plays its home games at the Prudential Center in Newark.

Saint Peter’s : The young Peacocks return only one key player, graduate student Nick Griffin, from the team that won 23 games and captured the CollegeInsider.com Tournament championship last year. Fellow graduate student Nnamdi Enechionya was also a member of that team that tied the school record for wins in a season.

UP NEXT: The Pirates travel down the New Jersey Turnpike to take on state rival Rutgers in Piscataway on Saturday in the Garden State Hardwood Classic.

The Peacocks stay on the road and head to LIU Brooklyn on Sunday at the Barclays Center.