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2017 NCAA Tournament: Rankings the bracket’s best 68 players

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The NCAA tournament kicks off in earnest on Thursday afternoon, and in honor of the 68 teams in the event, here are the 68 best players that you will see step on the floor this week:

  1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: I don’t think there’s a player in the country I want taking a big shot more than I want Frank Mason III taking a big shot. He’s the heart and soul of Kansas, and he averaged 20 points and five assists this year.
  2. Josh Hart, Villanova: There isn’t all that much about Hart’s game that’s pretty — his game-winning bucket in the Big East quarterfinals, an and-one layup off of an offensive rebound sums him up — but he is so good, and so important to Villanova, in what he does.
  3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: Ball’s numbers speak for themselves, but it has been his impact on the Bruins team that has made the difference. His unselfishness has been contagious.
  4. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Swanigan is the best low-post player in the country, and it’s not all that close. He might have been No. 1 on this list if he was better defensively and didn’t turn the ball over so much.
  5. Jayson Tatum, Duke: There is not a better isolation scorer in college hoops than Tatum, and that works perfectly with these Blue Devils, as their late-game offense is, more or less, the Blue Devil stars taking turns going one-on-one.
  6. Josh Jackson, Kansas: I think there’s a very valid argument to make that Jackson is actually the best player on Kansas and not Frank Mason III. He scores it, he defends, he can play the four in this new Kansas small-ball lineup. I think, in ten years, he’ll be the most successful NBA player from this draft class.
  7. Luke Kennard, Duke: Kennard was the deserving all-american on Duke’s roster. He’s become such a good scorer, and his ability to create space with his footwork, jab series and ability to read screens is so much fun to watch.
  8. Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: Morris lived up to his hype as a point guard this season, averaging 16.3 points and finished the season with a 5.7:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
  9. Dillon Brooks, Oregon: The Ducks are going to need a big performance out of Brooks this month if they’re going to have a chance to make a run, as their starting center is out with a torn ACL. He already has three game-winners to his name this season.
  10. Justin Jackson, North Carolina: Jackson has developed into arguably the best scoring wing in college basketball this season. He’s been the anchor for what is one of the most balanced offensive attacks in college hoops.
  11. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: When Fox is playing at his best, I think he is Kentucky’s best and most important player, between his ability to defend on the ball and what he can do to create in the half court.
  12. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: Happ is the best defensive big man in college basketball and he’s also a quality low-post scorer. My concern with him is his free throw shooting. It takes him out of play down the stretch of close games.
  13. Johnathan Motley, Baylor: Motley has been the best play for Baylor all season long, and he’s absolutely capable of dominating a game in the post.
  14. Malik Monk, Kentucky: Monk is tough to rank here. He can literally beat anyone all by himself when he gets it going, but he can also shoot Kentucky out of a game when he’s not playing well.
  15. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: North Carolina goes as Joel Berry II goes. We saw that in the ACC semifinals, when he got into foul trouble and UNC blew a 13-point lead in the final 13 minutes.
  16. Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame: Colson is guaranteed to be a fan favorite. He averaged 17 points and 10 boards in the ACC this season despite standing just 6-foot-5.
  17. Donovan Mitchell, Louisville: Mitchell can be absolutely dominant at times. But he’s not a great shooter, which is why he has performances like the 3-for-14 night he had against Duke.
  18. Allonzo Trier, Arizona: Trier has been terrific for Arizona down the stretch of the season. His addition gave their perimeter attack a bit of consistency. He may not be their most talented player, but he’s certainly been their best player.
  19. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: What Goss has done this season has been underrated by many. He’s been Gonzaga’s best player and a guy that has made some huge plays for them in close games.
  20. Miles Bridges, Michigan State: Bridges has consistently been a bright spot for Michigan State in a season where the Spartans have seemingly had everything go against them. You’ll want to see him dunk, too.
  21. Semi Ojeleye, SMU: Ojeleye may be the most underrated player in this field. He’s played his way into being a first round pick on a team that went 30-4 and won dual-AAC titles. Ever heard of him?
  22. Johnathan Isaac, Florida State: Isaac might be higher on this list if he actually realized that he was one of the best players in the country.
  23. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: A 7-footers that shoots it better than 43 percent from three? I can dig it.
  24. Angel Delgado, Seton Hall: With all due respect to Caleb Swanigan, Delgado is probably the best rebounder in the country. He’s averaging 15.3 points and 13.1 boards this season.
  25. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: Oklahoma State is the most efficient offense in the country, largely because of just how good Evans has been this season.
  26. Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Thornwell is an elite defender that is impossible to keep out of the paint. South Carolina needs him to put together massive games to have any kind of a chance to advance.
  27. T.J. Leaf, UCLA: Leaf is an athletic and talented stretch four with three-point range. He’d be much higher on this list if he was a better defender.
  28. Derrick Walton, Michigan: Walton was the best point guard in the Big Ten this season, and one of the best in the country over the course of the last month of the season.
  29. Amile Jefferson, Duke: Jefferson isn’t all that big, but his ability as a positional defender and rebounder anchors Duke’s interior, and he’s developed into an annoyingly crafty and efficient scorer in the post.
  30. Jalen Brunson, Villanova: The love affair the nation has with Josh Hart has left Brunson has a criminally underrated.
  31. Bam Adebayo, Kentucky: Adebayo took a while to get fully adjusted to the college game, but he’s averaged 15 points, 10 boards and two blocks his last seven games.
  32. Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble had a good, not great, season, but there’s no one else in college basketball I’d rather have with the ball in their hands in the final 15 seconds than Melo.
  33. Jevon Carter, West Virginia: Jevon Carter averages 14 points, four boards and four assists and is one of West Virgnia’s best perimeter defenders.
  34. Aaron Holiday, UCLA: Holiday is the most valuable Bruin not named Lonzo Ball. He’s the team’s best perimeter defender and a guy that can play any spot on the perimeter.
  35. Grayson Allen, Duke: When he’s at his best, Allen is top ten on this list. When he’s at his worst, he doesn’t belong on this list.
  36. Justin Patton, Creighton: Patton is a phenomenal talent, but his impact is somewhat limited without Mo Watson on the floor.
  37. Mike Daum, South Dakota State: Daum is the best mid-major player in the tournament. He was the nation’s second-leading scorer this season and went for 51 points in a game earlier this year.
  38. Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s: Landale is a land-warrior of a big man and a low-post monster.
  39. Marcus Foster, Creighton: Foster is one of the best wing scorers in college basketball.
  40. Trevon Bluiett, Xavier: Bluiett has the ability to take over games, but he’s been inconsistent this season and battled some injury.
  41. Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga: Karnowski has some limitations defensively, but his importance to Gonzaga offensively is undervalued.
  42. Wesley Iwundu, Kansas State: Wesley Iwundu is the Jimmy Butler of college hoops.
  43. Davon Reed, Miami: The names people know on Miami are JaQuan Newton and Bruce Brown. Davon Reed is probably Miami’s best player.
  44. Charles Cooke, Dayton: Cooke has a shot to get to the NBA as a 6-foot-5 defender with three-point range.
  45. EC Matthews, Rhode Island: Matthews was thought of as an NBA guy after his freshman season. After a torn ACL he looks like he’s getting back to being that guy.
  46. Landry Shamet, Wichita State: Shamet has the unenviable task of trying to replace Fred VanVleet this season.
  47. Markus Howard, Marquette: Howard is Marquette’s leading scorer despite playing just 21 minutes a night. He also shoots 54.9 percent from three while taking nearly five per night.
  48. JaCorey Williams, Middle Tennessee State: Williams is the best player on the best mid-major team in the field.
  49. Kelan Martin, Butler: Martin can be streaky, but when he’s at his best, he is as good of a scorer as there is this side of Malik Monk.
  50. Jordan Bell, Oregon: Bell may be the best defensive front court player in the tournament.
  51. Zach LeDay, Virginia Tech: Seth Allen is the guy that’s made the big shots for Virginia Tech, but LeDay is their best player.
  52. Luke Kornet, Vanderbilt: Kornet is a 7-footer with three-point range and the second-leading scorer for Vandy.
  53. KeVaughn Allen, Florida: Florida is a team that is better as a whole than the sum of their parts, and Allen is their most important part.
  54. Devonte’ Graham, Kansas: Graham is the best back court defender for the Jayhawks, are probably their best spot-up shooter.
  55. Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin: Koenig has made as many clutch shots as anyone this season.
  56. Marcus Marshall, Nevada: Cam Oliver gets all the hype, but Marshall is the best player on Nevada.
  57. Matt Farrell, Notre Dame: Farrell has followed in the footsteps of Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson as Notre Dame’s next great point guard.
  58. Keon Johnson, Winthrop: Johnson averaged better than 20 points despite standing 5-foot-7 on a good day.
  59. London Perrantes, Virginia: Perrantes is as steady of a point guard presence as their is in college hoops.
  60. Dwayne Bacon, Florida State: Bacon is the second-best player on Florida State and a potential first round pick in 2017.
  61. Jordan McLaughlin, USC: USC plays as Dunk City West because of the way that McLaughlin controls the game.
  62. Nate Mason, Minnesota: Mason might be the best point guard that you haven’t seen play this season.
  63. Sterling Brown, SMU: Brown is an NBA prospect and the second-best player on the Mustangs.
  64. Jacob Evans, Cincinnati: Cincinnati finally has an offense that can let them win games with their defense. Evans is a major reason why.
  65. Naz Long, Iowa State: Getting Long back to playing his best is one of the big reasons the Cyclones made a run late in the season.
  66. Deng Adel, Louisville: Adel started the season out slowly, but he’s been terrific down the stretch of the year.
  67. Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall: Carrington turned into one of the best perimeter scorers in the Big East by the end of the year.
  68. Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky: Briscoe is overrated as an NBA prospect, but he’s so underrated as a college basketball player.

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