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.

Seven identified after threats made against referee John Higgins following Kentucky Elite Eight loss

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College basketball referee John Higgins received threats to his home and business in late March after some controversial calls in North Carolina’s win over Kentucky in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Seven people have now been identified for making threats against Higgins, according to an Associated Press report. The FBI’s Omaha, Nebraska field office said that information on the seven people will be referred to authorities in their jurisdictions.

An investigation over the last few months helped find the culprits, as the Omaha-based Higgins received emails, phone calls and voicemails to his personal home and roofing company following Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament departure. Wildcat head coach John Calipari might have ignited some of the anger in Kentucky fans by criticizing the officiating following the North Carolina loss.

“Based on the investigation’s findings, our office has determined that no local charges will be filed and that pursuit of any criminal charges would be best served by deferring to authorities in the appropriate jurisdictions,” Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said in a statement to The Associated Press. “The length of the investigation was drawn out due in part to the large volume of potential evidence requiring analysis, and the multi-jurisdictional issues arising from the multiple states in which the communications originated.”

Polikov also said that at least two media outlets were exposing and promoting Higgins’ contact information.

“This information has been referred to the Federal Communications Commission for further investigation of the potential violations related to applicable federal communications regulations,” Polikov said.

Higgins received about 3,000 phone calls at his office in the two days following the game. Sheriff’s investigator Matt Barrall told the AP that an estimated 75 percent of the calls were from Kentucky area codes.

The roofing business that Higgins owns was also flooded with bad online reviews and negative star ratings, causing his Google rating to fall while also forcing Higgins to take down the Facebook page for his business.

Beilein still upbeat after Michigan loses another to NBA

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — For a major program, Michigan is a somewhat unlikely candidate for this kind of NBA-induced attrition.

The Wolverines have fielded some very good teams under John Beilein, but they haven’t been relying on prospects expected to jump to the pros as soon as they can.

“We’re not depending all our success on one-and-dones,” Beilein said. “Given that, our numbers right now are extraordinary.”

Beilein was referring to the number of players Michigan has sent to the NBA, particularly as early entrees. The Wolverines lost D.J. Wilson to the draft this offseason with two years of eligibility remaining, and now they’ll go through the familiar process of trying to replace a key player who turned pro.

The most significant early exodus occurred in 2013 and 2014, when Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all went pro before their eligibility was up. Michigan won a lot of games with those players, reaching the Final Four and Elite Eight those two years, but their development made them attractive to NBA teams and shortened their college careers.

Wilson’s rise followed a similar pattern. He averaged only 2.7 points per game in 2015-16, and then increased to 11.0 this past season and became Michigan’s leading rebounder. His efforts helped Michigan win the Big Ten Tournament and reach the Sweet 16, and now he’s off to the NBA draft. The entire sequence of events would have seemed highly improbable a year ago.

The Wolverines won’t receive much sympathy from their Big Ten opponents, especially since Michigan will still have big man Moe Wagner, who tested the NBA waters but ultimately decided to stay in school. The 6-foot-11 Wagner averaged 12.1 points last season and shot 39.5 percent from 3-point range, showing huge improvement in much the same way Wilson did.

After losing senior point guard Derrick Walton, it will be interesting to see how Michigan’s offense operates if Wagner becomes even more of a focal point. When Beilein was at West Virginia, the Mountaineers achieved success behind center Kevin Pittsnogle, whose skill set and 3-point shooting ability was at least somewhat similar to Wagner’s.

“We’re not going to put him in that category yet,” Beilein said. “Let’s just say, having a big man who can shoot the ball like that changes a lot of things.”

Michigan was also able to add a new point guard recently in Jaaron Simmons, a graduate transfer from Ohio. Simmons is eligible immediately in 2017-18 and will move up from the Mid-American Conference to the Big Ten.

“A lot of the mid-majors are having this happen to them, and I don’t like it at all, but the fact is if Jaaron doesn’t come here, he ends up probably somewhere else in the Big Ten,” Beilein said. “He’s just fundamentally so sound. He’ll be here this summer. Just as a person, I just wanted to coach the kid after spending an hour with him — just the leadership, the desire to win.”

Simmons could help the Wolverines withstand the loss of Walton, and Beilein indicated he could serve as a bit of a mentor to players like point guard Xavier Simpson, who is entering his sophomore season.

“We went all-in with (Simmons), knowing we had that scholarship,” Beilein said. “We felt that was a huge need for us, is to just have a little bit more experience in the backcourt next year.”

Follow Noah Trister on Twitter @noahtrister

LaVar Ball having ‘zero’ interaction with UCLA team bodes well for next season

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With the NBA Draft looming in less than a month, the biggest talking point has been just how much of an impact LaVar Ball is going to have on his son, Lonzo’s, NBA career.

It’s a question worth asking given the, ahem, outspoken nature of the eldest Ball.

But in the collegiate ranks, that’s a question that’s been asked about UCLA regarding next season. While Lonzo and LaMelo, who is finishing up his sophomore season in high school, are the stars that get the majority of the attention, there is another Ball brother that will be enrolling at UCLA next season: LiAngelo.

LaVar has already said that he expect Gelo to be a one-and-done player, which may not jibe with how good Gelo actually is. He’s not Lonzo and he’s not LaMelo. He’s not a dynamic athlete or a lead guard. He’s a 6-foot-5, 200 pound shooter with limitless range but limited upside. There’s a reason Rivals ranks him as a three-star prospect.

What’s going to happen when UCLA, a top 15 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25, doesn’t give Gelo Lonzo-esque minutes or shots next season? How will LaVar handle it if his second son is coming off the bench for the Bruins?

Steve Alford doesn’t seem concerned about it, telling a reporter from the LA Times that LaVar was “never at practice, never called me” and was around the team “zero.”

“I think all parents probably should know that moving on to the collegiate level anyway,” Alford said. “It’s not high school, it’s not AAU. Your son’s on scholarship; your son’s at UCLA getting an incredible opportunity academically and athletically.

“Playing time, shots, that kind of stuff — we don’t entertain some of those phone calls anyway. I never had any issues at all with LaVar.”

It will be interesting to see if that continues next season.

The Bruins have a chance to be pretty good. Maybe not quite as good as last season, maybe not a Pac-12 title favorite or even the best team in LA — USC is loaded — but I wouldn’t be shocked to see them end up as a top four seed in the NCAA tournament with Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh returning and Jaylen Hands headlining the recruiting class.

Will LaVar be able to handle UCLA’s success if it comes at the expense of his son’s?

NCAA: Former USF assistant provided extra benefits, lied to NCAA investigators

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The NCAA has alleged that former South Florida assistant coach Oliver Antigua provided roughly $500 in impermissible benefits and initially lied to NCAA investigators about it, according to the Tampa Bay Times, who obtained the NCAA’s summary disposition report.

Oliver Antigua is the younger brother of Orlando Antigua, who was the head coach at USF until he was fired in January. Now an assistant on Brad Underwood’s staff at Oklahoma State, Orlando was not alleged to have committed an NCAA violation in the report.

Oliver is alleged to have provided the extra benefits to two student-athletes while they were being tutored by the sister-in-law of Gerald Gillion, a special assistant to Orlando who resigned last fall, four months after Oliver did. USF has already self-imposed a $5,000 and reduced their scholarships from 13 to 12, according to the report.

“The University of South Florida and the NCAA continue to work together to resolve the inquiry into violations of NCAA bylaws and university standards by a USF intercollegiate athletic program,” according to a statement released by the school. “USF anticipates having a final resolution with the NCAA sometime this fall. Until the process concludes and the matter is fully resolved, USF cannot provide further comment.”

Villanova lands four-star 2018 guard

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Villanova added its first recruit in the Class of 2018 on Wednesday night.

Jay Wright and his staff landed a verbal commitment from Paul VI Catholic High School’s Brandon Slater, a four-star guard by Rivals as the No. 42 overall prospect in the rising senior class.

The 6-foot-5 Slater announced his decision via Twitter.

Slater, according to Jeff Borzello of ESPN, picked the Wildcats over Maryland, Miami, South Carolina, and Virginia.

He is currently playing the Nike EYBL with Team Takeover, the same grassroots program that produced current Villanova guard Phil Booth.