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2017 NCAA Tournament: Darkhorse Final Four Threats in your bracket

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For the most part, I think that we all mostly wants the same thing to happen in the NCAA tournament: The first weekend should be rife with upsets, Cinderellas and little guys sticking it to the big guys.

The second weekend, however, should be very different.

Once we get past the madness of the first two days of the dance, you should be rooting for the chalk, because that means that in the biggest games of the year we have the best teams in the country facing off. It’s fun to see FGCU or Middle Tennessee State win a game, but in the Elite 8, I want to see Duke playing Virginia, or Kentucky playing North Carolina, or Arizona taking on Gonzaga. I want a Final Four chock full of blue bloods and lottery picks and the best teams in the country.

The best Final Four I ever covered was in 2015, when 38-0 Kentucky advanced with Wisconsin, Duke and Michigan State. The worst? When No. 3 seed UConn won it all in a final weekend that included No. 4 seed Kentucky, No. 8 seed Butler and No. 11 seed VCU.

I want the former. Here are the teams that could make the latter happen:

No. 6 seed SMU: The Mustangs are probably the best team in the country that you have yet to see play. They aren’t all that deep, but their top six can matchup with just about any. Semi Ojeleye is the name to know, a muscular 6-foot-7 athlete that plays a small-ball four role for Tim Jankovich. He and point guard Shake Milton are both likely to get drafted, while Sterling Moore has a shot of sticking in the NBA and Ben Moore and Jarrey Foster are really good role players at this level. They defend, they are balanced and they are really well-coached. It’s not a fluke that SMU won the AAC regular season and tournament title this season.

The question with this team is whether or not they can knock off the elite teams in the country. We haven’t really seen them get the chance yet. I think they matchup very well with Baylor in the second round, and any potential matchups with Duke and Villanova are favorable because they can trot out a lineup that can matchup with the smaller looks those two give. Running through the east is going to be a nightmare, but I do think the Mustangs have the horses to make it happen.

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

REGIONAL BREAKDOWNS: East | Midwest | South | West

No. 5 seed Notre Dame or No. 4 seed West Virginia: The winner of a potential second round game between the Fighting Irish and the Mountaineers seems like a pretty good bet to get to the Final Four this season. For starters, I think both of these teams matchup well with Gonzaga. The Irish spread the floor with shooters and have a point guard that thrives in ball-screen actions, which is one of the best ways to beat the Zags and their slow-footed, 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski, and a power forward in Bonzie Colson that thrives on the block.

And once the Irish get to the Elite 8, anything can happen. Notre Dame has terrific point guard play, they are lethal from beyond the arc and they are very well coached. They don’t have the same level of talent as Florida State or Arizona at the bottom of the bracket, but that hasn’t stopped this Irish program from reaching back-to-back Elite 8s.

West Virginia, like Notre Dame, is a team that I think can get past Gonzaga for the same reason I think the Irish can: the matchup. As good as Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins are, they aren’t the most athletic pair of guards. The concern with them is what happens when they go up against a back court that’s tough, physical and athletic and pressures them for 94 feet. That’s what West Virginia does, and if they Mountaineers can get past the Zags, they will be facing a team that had to play just 48 hours earlier and had one day to prepare for a style that is totally different from the style that most teams play.

No. 10 seed Wichita State: Is Wichita State good enough to get to the Final Four? In a vacuum, yes. Of course they are. They rank in the top ten on KenPom, meaning that the metric that most believe is the most accurate in determining who the best teams in the country are, and they’ve been obliterating teams since the holidays. The biggest concern with Wichita State making a run to the Final Four? They may have to beat Kentucky, UCLA and North Carolina to get there, to say nothing of having to dispatch a good Dayton team in the first round just to advance. I wouldn’t put it past Gregg Marshall to get there. He’s that good and his team is that good. But it’ll be one of the greatest NCAA tournament runs in history if it happens.

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

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No. 7 seed Saint Mary’s: The Gaels, like SMU and Wichita State, are probably better than their seeding. SMC is an elite offensive team that doesn’t make mistakes, has shooters all over the floor and lines up with a center in Jock Landale that is as good as anyone at scoring on the block. I think they can get past VCU, which would give them a shot at Arizona in the second round. Do you think the Gaels would just at the chance to gets a fourth shot at Gonzaga in the Elite 8?

No. 5 seed Iowa State: Is there a hotter team in college basketball right now than the Cyclones? Ever since they moved Solomon Young into the starting lineup, they’ve been running through everyone. Monte’ Morris is playing great, Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas are on fire and Deonte Burton looks like Draymond Green. They finished tied for second in the loaded Big 12, they won the Big 12 tournament and they are the only team since 2013 to win in Phog Allen Fieldhouse. A potential Sweet 16 date with the Jayhawks looms on the horizon, but the rest of that region seems awfully beatable.

NTSB cites mechanical issue in Michigan plane incident

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YPSILANTI TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) A preliminary investigation into the runway accident involving a plane carrying the Michigan men’s basketball team cites a mechanical problem.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday issued an update about the March 8 crash at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti Township, near the Ann Arbor school. The aborted takeoff caused extensive damage to the aircraft but only one minor injury during evacuation.

The report does not list a likely cause of the incident, but it says flight data recorder shows the right elevator – the primary mechanism controlling an airplane’s pitch – didn’t move during the attempted takeoff.

The plane carrying 109 passengers and seven crew members skidded 1,000 feet past the runway. The team was headed to Washington, D.C., for the Big Ten Tournament. They flew the next day and won the tournament and are now in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Butler, Purdue use true grit to get programs into Sweet 16

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Coach Matt Painter kept believing in his team even as he watched Purdue fritter away a 19-point lead.

He did, after all, recruit these players to excel in tough times. And he did spend two years using the lessons from consecutive overtime losses in the NCAA Tournament to show his team what it took to survive in March.

So when the Boilermakers steadied themselves, retook the lead and reached their first Sweet 16 in seven years, Painter wasn’t surprised. He simply knew the Boilermakers, finally, were tough enough.

“No question, having that grit back after not having it for a couple of years helps,” Painter said. “We put a lot of skill on the court, but we also have guys who are competitive.”

Painter, after all, grew up a fan of former Hoosiers coach Bob Knight, went on to play for Gene Keady and then served on Keady’s staff briefly before succeeding his former coach.

Experience has taught Painter just how delicate it can be to find the proper balance.

After finishing last in the Big Ten in 2013-14 with guys who were content to rely more on their athleticism than mental toughness, Painter changed course.

He brought in gritty overachievers who embraced old-school principles built on effort and led Purdue to its first outright conference title since 1996. Nothing reinforced those beliefs more than last weekend’s comeback against Iowa State.

“Leads are blown throughout March Madness, which is all about close games. I always tell the guys, `If it’s not a blowout, then it is a close game,”‘ junior forward Vince Edwards said Monday. “We have learned to be able to take a run – like Iowa State’s – and be able to withstand it.”

The best teams always do, which is why fourth-seeded Purdue will now face top-seeded Kansas (30-4) in one of Thursday night’s Midwest Regional semifinal games .

Finding players who are the right fit is a challenge for every coach and program.

At Butler, it’s a tradition that has been passed down through nearly a half-dozen coaches over a span of two decades. Former coach and current athletic director Barry Collier started the process by turning the Bulldogs from perennial also-ran into a regular conference contender and NCAA Tourney hopeful.

Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter kept the momentum going before taking other jobs, and Brad Stevens perfected the script as the Bulldogs posted consecutive national runner-up finishes.

Things didn’t always go smoothly. Fans still remember watching the Bulldogs blow an upset against Florida in the 2000 tourney and the inexplicable 2002 tourney snub.

Eventually, though, those painful moments gave way to a litany of program-defining memories.

Against Louisville in the 2003 tourney, a teammate handed his dry shoes to the late Joel Cornette so Cornette could help close out an upset against Louisville in 2003. In the 2010 title game, junior center Matt Howard had the foresight to set a pick and give Gordon Hayward a clean look on his half-court heave that just missed.

The next year, Howard managed to draw a foul in the waning seconds against Pittsburgh to keep Butler’s postseason run alive.

“The stories are unbelievable,” point guard Tyler Lewis said. “That was a special group because they really made the community believe Butler was not just some small school. Butler was a school you didn’t mess around with.”

Stevens and his predecessors moved the school up the pecking order by recruiting late-bloomers or players who were often overlooked by bigger schools. They asked them to play selflessly, a style that defines The Butler Way.

While that philosophy worked well in the Horizon League and the Atlantic 10, Chris Holtmann needed to make some adjustments to thrive in the stronger Big East. Holtmann has recruited better athletes and is looking for more physical players, but the same basic philosophy hasn’t changed.

“I think it (toughness) has been valued here at a really high level, from those who came before me,” Holtmann said. “I just hope I’m doing my job to carry it on.”

The good news is he hasn’t had do too much.

Here, players like leading scorer Kelan Martin don’t complain about coming off the bench if asked. Grad transfers like Avery Woodson and Kethan Savage are both happy to help any way they can in their first and only NCAA appearance.

And it will be that way again when fourth-seeded Butler (25-8) tries to upset top-seeded North Carolina (29-7) in the South Region on Friday night.

“What makes us so tough is that we believe in each other,” said Lewis, who started his career at North Carolina State. “It’s an honor putting on this Butler uniform because it reminds us of what the guys did that came before us.”

Sweet 16 Preview: Thursday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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The Sweet 16 kicks off on Thursday night, and the games are going to be terrific.

Oregon-Michigan should be thrilling, Gonzaga-West Virginia is a fascinating contrast of styles and Kansas-Purdue features arguably the two best players in college basketball.

Oh, and then there’s Arizona-Xavier, with Sean Miller and Chris Mack doing battle.

For an in-depth look at each region, check these out:

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan (-1.5), 7:09 p.m. (CBS): So this run that Michigan on, is it a fluke?

Frankly, I don’t think that it is. Derrick Walton has been awesome for the better part of two months while Michigan’s perimeter shooters have always been shooters and the duo of D.J. Wilson and Mo Wagner are legit. I honestly do not believe that the Wolverines are a team of destiny after the plane crash. They are just really good and a perfect roster for John Beilein to tinker with.

That’s why they’re favored on Thursday night. But here’s the thing … Oregon is pretty good themselves. Dillon Brooks is going to be guarded by a big man, which should be a matchup that Brooks can take advantage of, and Tyler Dorsey has been playing terrific basketball since the start of the Pac-12 tournament.

If you like small-ball, spread-the-court basketball, you’ll love this game.

PREDICTION: Michigan (-1.5)

No. 1 Gonzaga (-3) vs. No. 4 West Virginia, 7:39 p.m. (TBS): On paper, I think Gonzaga should win this game. They have a good back court in Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins, a pair of talented point guards that have won a lot of games in their career. Gonzaga is also the best defensive team in the country. So if they don’t turn the ball over against West Virginia’s press and they make it difficult for West Virginia to score in the half court and get into their press, they should be able to win this thing, right?

Well, maybe not.

My concern with Gonzaga is game-pressure. They didn’t handle it well down the stretch against BYU in their one loss of the season, and I’m not convinced that they win that second round game against Northwestern if the officials don’t blow the goaltending call. How are they going to handle an endless wave of Mountaineers in their face?

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-3)

No. 1 Kansas (-5) vs. No. 4 Purdue, 9:39 p.m. (CBS): More than any other game this weekend, I’m fascinated to see how these two teams decide to try and play each other. Kansas has, essentially, one big man that Bill Self can trust, and he’s going up against a Player of the Year candidate in Caleb Swanigan and one of the best big men in the country at drawing fouls in Isaac Haas. Will Self double-team Swanigan knowing that Purdue may be more effective offensively when Swanigan can find shooters out of the double-team, or will he risk Lucas getting in foul trouble by trying to guard Swanigan one-on-one?

Then, at the other end of the floor, how will Purdue deal with the Kansas back court? Frank Mason III, the NBC Sports National Player of the Year, and Devonte’ Graham are a nightmare for anyone to deal with, let alone a team that struggles against penetrating guards and that lacks rim protection. It should be a fascinating coaching battle.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-5)

No. 2 Arizona (-7.5) vs. No. 11 Xavier, 10:09 p.m. (TBS): On paper, Arizona should be able to handle a Xavier team that doesn’t have Edmond Sumner or Myles Davis. That said, as we all know, Chris Mack and Sean Miller are very close and used to work together. Mack knows everything that Miller is going to do and vice versa. I think this game will be a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair that comes down to the final minutes.

PREDICTION: Xavier (+7.5)

Shayok and Reuter transferring from Virginia

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Virginia announced the departure of two players Wednesday.

Marial Shayok and Jarred Reuter will both transfer out of the program, the school said.

“Marial and Jarred informed me today that they are leaving the Virginia basketball program and are looking to transfer to other schools,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said in a statement released by the school. “I thank Marial and Jarred for their hard work and contributions to our program, and wish them success in the future.”

Shayok, a a 6-foot-5 junior, played 20.9 minutes per game last season for the Cavaliers, averaging 8.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting 44.5 percent from the floor. The Ottawa native started 23 games in three seasons with Virginia.

Reuter played a minimal role for the Cavaliers, averaging just 10.8 minutes and 3.8 rebounds per game.

Wake’s Collins declares for NBA draft without hiring agent

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) Wake Forest’s John Collins is entering the NBA draft but will not hire an agent and is keeping open the option of returning to school for his junior season.

In a statement Wednesday announcing the decision, Collins said he wants “to make an informed decision about what is best for my future.”

Collins is a 6-foot-10 forward who as a sophomore blossomed into one of the best big men in the Atlantic Coast Conference and was voted to the Associated Press all-ACC team.

He averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds, putting together a string of 12 consecutive 20-point games late in the season.

His progression was a big reason why the Demon Deacons earned their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. Kansas State beat Wake Forest in the First Four.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org