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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.

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.