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.

Calipari signs two-year extension with Kentucky

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Kentucky continues to take care of John Calipari.

The Wildcats coach has received a two-year extension, keeping him under contract in Lexington through the 2024 season, the school announced Wednesday.

The contract will pay Calipari $7.75 million next season and increase to $8 million per season thereafter.

“John has achieved consistent championship-level performance at Kentucky,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “No one in America is better suited for everything that comes with being the coach here. Not only has he attained incredible success on the court, he is also a leader in our community and in college basketball.

“We have been blessed to have him and Ellen here for the last eight years and we are blessed they will continue to call Kentucky home.”

Not only does the deal extend Calipari, but it continues to keep Kentucky competitive with the NBA, which would seem to be the only outlet that would even potentially tempt Calipari away from Kentucky. An NBA franchise would have to make him among the highest-paid coaches in the league to even match Kentucky financially.

Of course, given that Calipari has spurned interest from the league since returning to college in 2000, it seems unlikely that financial considerations would be the lone or heaviest variable in making a decision to move on.

Certainly, Calipari has an excellent thing going at Kentucky as the premier recruiting program in the country that has enjoyed serious success on the court, culminating in a 2012 national title and a 38-0 start to the 2015 season before a loss in the Final Four.

“The last eight years at the University of Kentucky have been a terrific ride,” Calipari said in a statement. “This extension shows our full commitment to each other. I believe this school is the gold standard and I’m so thankful and blessed that this university has given me this opportunity at this point in my career.”

The Wildcats face UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

Louisville’s Mitchell declaring for draft, won’t hire an agent

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Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell is the latest to decide to see what the NBA might offer.

“I have decided to test the waters and not hire an agent!” Mitchell wrote in an Instagram post Wednesday. “I am excited to work out this summer for teams and hopefully participate in the NBA combine! I want it to be clear I have not decided to leave Louisville!”

Mitchell, who is expected to be joined by dozens of players, is taking advantage of new NCAA rules that allow him to work out for teams and attend the NBA draft combine before making a decision on whether to remain in the draft and return to school.

Players have until May 24 to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

Mitchell averaged 15.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a sophomore, shooting 40.8 percent overall and 35.4 percent on 3-point attempts.

The 6-foot-3 guard is projected as a potential first-round pick, but should he return, the Cardinals would project as one of the top teams in the country with nearly the entire core returning from this year’s 25-9 squad.

Moe-mentum: Wagner stands tall for Sweet 16-bound Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Ask Moe Wagner who he looked up to when he was younger, and suddenly the Michigan big man’s fiery demeanor makes a little more sense.

“Kevin Garnett was always my biggest idol, even though our play isn’t really similar. Just the way he brings intensity and energy to his team,” Wagner said. “That always was something that really impressed me.”

Now Wagner is providing his own emotional leadership to a Michigan team that has become one of college basketball’s most remarkable stories this March.

The Wolverines have won six in a row since they were involved in a plane accident on the eve of their Big Ten Tournament opener.

After winning that conference tourney, they opened the NCAAs with victories against Oklahoma State and Louisville – with Wagner scoring 26 points in the win over Louisville that sent Michigan to the Sweet 16.

The 19-year-old Wagner is in his second season with the Wolverines. He showed some promise in 2015-16, but averaged only 8.6 minutes a game as a freshman. He’s been a starter the whole way this season, teaming up with D.J. Wilson to give Michigan some unexpected production in the frontcourt.

The Wolverines entered the season with high hopes thanks to the presence of seniors Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin.

The 6-foot-11 Wagner has made them even tougher to defend. The sophomore from Berlin is averaging 12.2 points a game, and unlike Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan – two of Michigan’s top big men of the recent past – Wagner is a threat from beyond the arc. He’s made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2016-17, putting even more pressure on opposing teams.

An expressive player on the court, Wagner admits he’s still learning how to keep his emotions under control.

Coach John Beilein says Wagner can be hard on himself, but he has an upbeat attitude the Wolverines can appreciate.

“I don’t want to rob him of his energy and his passion,” Beilein said. “If you heard him in timeouts – I mean, he is really into it. And it’s encouraging things he’s saying.”

The key for Wagner is to stay on the court. He’s been whistled for 100 fouls this season – no other Michigan player has more than 80 – and he picked up two in the first 3:11 when the Wolverines faced Oklahoma State in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday. Wagner played only 14 minutes in that frenetic game, which Michigan won 92-91 .

Against Louisville in the round of 32 , Wagner went 11 of 14 from the field and kept his poise after being called for his second foul late in the first half.

“He’s always just been an excited guy – play hard and play with a lot of passion,” Walton said. “I don’t think anything has changed. I think he’s just channeling it a little better.”

The seventh-seeded Wolverines face third-seeded Oregon on Thursday night in a regional semifinal. Michigan has won seven in a row, a streak that began with the team’s last game of the regular season.

What happened next is well documented. The day before its opening game in the conference tournament, Michigan’s plane slid off the runway .

There were no serious injuries, and the Wolverines arrived in time to play. Then they won four games in four days to take the title.

Now, Michigan is two victories away from an improbable Final Four appearance. If the Wolverines actually make it that far, Wagner will be a big reason why – and he’ll probably be as excited as anyone.

“One of my youth coaches actually used to say that I was somebody who, like, sees the basketball court as a stage and really enjoys it,” Wagner said. “Last year, I started to understand what that actually means, and kind of embraced that this year. That’s just me. I really love it. I really enjoy it.”

 

California’s Ivan Rabb declares for the NBA Draft

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Ivan Rabb announced on Wednesday that he will be declaring for the NBA Draft and foregoing his final two seasons with California.

“I want to thank everybody for their support,” Rabb said in a statement. “Since the day I committed to Cal, the love from Bay Area fans was overwhelming. I could genuinely tell that people really appreciated seeing me come to Cal and succeed and do well. Haas Pavilion will always hold a special place in my heart, and I won’t forget how incredible it felt to be “Oakland’s Own” as I ran onto the court in front of my friends, family and team.”

As a sophomore, Rabb averaged 14.0 points and 10.5 boards. He’s projected as a mid-to-late first round pick in the draft a year after making the decision to return to school as a projected lottery pick last season.

Duke’s Jayson Tatum declares for the NBA Draft

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Duke’s Jayson Tatum will declare for the NBA Draft and hire an agent, the program announced on Wednesday.

Tatum is a projected top five pick in the NBA Draft. He averaged 16.8 points playing the role of small-ball four for the Blue Devils this season after missing the first month of the season with a foot injury.

“I have absolutely loved coaching Jayson Tatum,” Coach K said in a statement. “His skill set and work ethic will make him a star in the NBA. Whichever team selects him will be getting a humble, thoughtful and talented young man whom we are proud to call a member of the Duke basketball brotherhood.”

Tatum was the most talented player on the Blue Devils this season, but it was an up and down year for Duke as a whole. They were predicted by just about everyone to win the national title back in the preseason, but they eventually bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the second round.