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‘Team Of Destiny?’ Sweet 16-bound Michigan is not a fluke, they are really, really good

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INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan was called a “traditionally white-collar team” by an opposing Big Ten center earlier this season. They’ve also been called the “team of destiny” since a plane crash sparked a run to the Big Ten tournament title.

Label the Wolverines however you want.

But after No. 7 seed Michigan rallied to beat No. 2 seed Louisville, 73-69, during Sunday’s second-round matchup in the Midwest Region, there is only one way to refer to this Wolverine team: really damn good.

Michigan won its seventh consecutive game on Sunday despite senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. finally coming back down to Earth. After averaging 21.0 points, 8.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds over his last six games, Walton struggled to a 3-for-13 shooting day and only 10 points. Thankfully for Walton and Michigan, his Wolverine teammates picked up the slack as sophomore Moe Wagner had the game of his life with 26 points on 11-for-14 shooting. D.J. Wilson also chipped in 17 points, knocking down some key late free throws while also playing steady defense on the interior.

Beating a No. 2 seed like Louisville without Walton playing like the All-Big Ten caliber player that he was this season shows just how strong and balanced head coach John Beilein’s team is at this point in the season. Michigan only knocked down six three-pointers and was out-rebounded by double-digits but they still found a way to beat one of the ACC’s best teams.

Forget the “team of destiny” talk that was attached to Michigan after the scary incident involving the team plane right before the Wolverines won the Big Ten Tournament.

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With an elite floor leader in Walton, veteran wing shooters and a mix of talented and versatile big men, Michigan believes it can continue to win games and make a run in this tournament despite the prevailing, “the Big Ten is down” sentiments.

“We always believed in ourselves, not only from a shooting respect, but also on the defensive end and in the paint as well,” Wagner said. “So, yeah, I’m very happy. I just said that to Coach B, we only shot six threes today and we won. So it’s awesome. We played gritty basketball, and I think we can be proud of that.”

Walton and Zak Irvin are the senior leaders for this Wolverine team but they also have some of the nation’s most versatile big men in Wilson and Wagner.

With Wilson, Wagner and senior Duncan Robinson all being able to play on the interior while also stretching the floor from three-point range, it makes Beilein’s floor-spacing on offense that much more dangerous. When you also factor in how much ground Wilson covers on the defensive end and you can see why the Wolverines have won five straight games against teams who played in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

“There are just so many different guys who can step up on any given night,” Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington said. “We have a group that is ready to play on any night.”

Besides Michigan having a strong core group of players who fit well together on the floor, this team has also been described as being incredibly close throughout the course of the season. Michigan’s incident involving the team plane only enhanced this team’s unique chemistry.

The message of family was hammered home once again before Sunday’s game against Louisville when Michigan assistant coach Billy Donlon opted to motivate the Wolverines in a new way.

After Michigan’s first-round win over Oklahoma State on Friday, Donlon saw a picture of his dad and sister hugging in the stands in a photo taken by David Jablonski of the Dayton Daily News.

Donlon was so touched by his family’s reaction in the photo that he and the Michigan managers spent time this weekend gathering family photos from team parents to hang around the locker room.

“A lot of the talks that we give just come to you,” Donlon said. “[The photo] was my dad and sister… You don’t need any words to describe that. I saw [the photo] and it just hit me like, ‘You guys realize the impact you have on your family’s lives?’

“And the message was just really simple: this is another opportunity to impact the lives of each other and our families. Give a little extra for them.”

Scott Phillips, NBC Sports

Donlon carried the photo of his dad and his sister in his pocket while other family photos of players and coaches were all over the Michigan locker room. There was also a photo of a snarling pitbull mix — which Michigan calls “Toother” — a reminder of when Illinois center Maverick Morgan implied that the Wolverines were soft earlier this season.

When the Wolverines found themselves down by eight points at halftime to Louisville on Sunday, the family photos were there for one more extra slice of motivation to help them get over the second-half hump.

Michigan was finally able to make its move in the second half as Beilein was especially pleased with how the Wolverines didn’t press to get it all back right after halftime.

“A team that isn’t as experienced, that might not have the poise we have, would come back and try to win it all right away,” Beilein said. “We won every four-minute period until we got ahead in the game. And just by playing in those little increments made a big difference.”

After Michigan’s second-half comeback, most of those family photos found their way on the locker-room floor. Beilein sprayed his team with a Super Soaker to change up the team’s new “water celebration” trend and many of the photos fell victim to the euphoric celebration.

Not many people expected Michigan to make it to the Sweet 16 based on how they looked earlier this season. But the Wolverines have bonded together on and off the floor and look like one of the most dangerous teams left in the field.

“We’re just having so much fun right now,” Irvin said. “None of us want this to end.”

Indiana hires Dayton head coach Archie Miller

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Indiana is expected to hire Dayton head coach Archie Miller, the school announced.

The deal will be for seven years, according to The Vertical. Miller had spent the last six seasons as the head coach at Dayton, getting to four straight NCAA tournaments, including the Elite 8 in 2014, while winning the last two Atlantic 10 regular season titles.

Miller had been targeted by seemingly every high major program with an opening since he reached the Elite 8, but similar to Shaka Smart when he left VCU, Miller simply waited for the right job to come long.

Indiana is the right job.

There had been some speculation that Miller wouldn’t want to take Indiana, that his dream job is Ohio State and that the idea of coaching in a fishbowl like Bloomington is not something that would be all that appealing to him. But Indiana is an elite job. It’s the kind of opening that happens once every four or five years, and if Miller had said no to the Hoosiers now, it’s very possible that an opportunity like this wouldn’t come along for years, if ever.

This hire is surprising, not because it’s the wrong hire — I think they got this right — but because Indiana actually made the right decision.

The overwhelming sentiment since Tom Crean was fired was that UCLA head coach Steve Alford would be named the next head coach at Indiana because the Hoosiers wanted an “Indiana Guy”. Alford was born in New Castle, he played at IU for Bobby Knight, he won a national title with the program. The goal was to get the Indiana fan base back, a fan base that was so estranged from the program that Indiana had to play an NIT game on the road as a higher seed because they were reportedly afraid of allowing ESPN’s cameras to see the empty seats.

But just because a hire appeases the fans doesn’t make it the right hire.

Miller was the right hire.

If they really want to get the fans back, winning is the best way to do it. Archie is as good of a bet to win at Indiana as anyone.

Elite 8 Preview: Saturday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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So Friday got good.

If Zak Showalter’s game-tying three and subsequent discount double-check wasn’t enough, we had Canyon Barry’s chasedown block and, well, this game-winner from Chris Chiozza.

And all that came after De’Aaron Fox took out what felt like a season’s worth of frustration out on Lonzo Ball.

What is on tap for tonight?

No. 1 GONZAGA (-8) vs. No. 11 XAVIER, 6:09 p.m., TBS: Someone is going to be making their way to the Final Four for the first time on Saturday night, as Xavier’s Chris Mack and Gonzaga’s Mark Few square off for the right to play on the final weekend of the season.

And in a way, this is the perfect Final Four game. Both the Zags and the Musketeers are basketball schools in basketball leagues. They come from outside the power structure and have head coaches that have spurned jobs from within the power structure to remain there. They are built for a run like this, even if they were both overlooked on the way here.

Xavier was obvious. Playing without Edmond Sumner and Myles Davis, the Musketeers just haven’t been the team that they were supposed to be this season. That’s why they lost six straight games in February, but things have turned around in March, as Trevon Bluiett has put the program on his back and willed them to the Elite 8. Gonzaga is the opposite. They went 29-0 to start the season, but they have yet to be accepted as a legitimate title contender by most of the people that watch the games.

My guess on Saturday night is that the Zags make their statement and emphatically get into the Final Four.

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-8)

No. 1 KANSAS (-7) vs.  No. 3 OREGON, 8:49 p.m., TBS: This matchup is a lot tastier on paper than it is likely going to end up being on the floor. As good as Oregon has been this season, they are, essentially, Kansas light. They play two lead guards together and they play small-ball, with a natural wing lined up at the four.

The problem?

The Kansas guys are just better. Josh Jackson is a better player than Dillon Brooks. His length and athleticism should give the Oregon star fits. Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham are better than whatever combination of Payton Pritchard, Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis the Ducks opt to use.

And, for that matter, no team is playing better right now that they Jayhawks, who beat Michigan State by 20, Purdue by 32 and became the first team to score 90 points in their first three NCAA tournament games since 1995. I think that trend continues on Saturday night.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-7)

Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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Regional Finals – Sunday, March 26

2:20 p.m.,CBS, New York
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Florida (Verne Lundquist, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce)

5:05 p.m., CBS, Memphis
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kentucky (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Steve Alford: ‘I’m very happy at UCLA’

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford was still processing an 86-75 season-ending loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night when he had to answer questions about another blueblood program.

Sine the dismal of Tom Crean at Indiana, Alford has been one of the names rumored to be in the mix for the coaching vacancy. A reporter in the press conference in Memphis didn’t even get a chance to finish his question before Alford cut him off and a publicly state that he was happy in Westwood.

“I said it last week, and I’ll reiterate it again even more so, I guess, that I love Los Angeles,” Alford said. “To begin with, it’s a beautiful place, and our family has fallen in love with it. I’ve got two sons now, Kory first and now Bryce, that have graduated. Bryce is done, so he’s graduating from UCLA, so I’ve got two sons that are graduates from there, a daughter that loves the school she’s going to in Thousand Oaks. I’m very happy. I’m at UCLA. I don’t know of a lot of people that are out there wanting to leave UCLA.

“This is a pretty special place. We’ve worked awfully hard. Our staff has worked hard. We’ve got the No. 2 recruiting class coming in next year. We’re opening a brand-new, state-of-the-art, 60-plus million practice facility, Mo Ostin Center, that is going to be spectacular that we’ve worked awfully hard to be a part of that, and I want to see that through, and we’ve got some special kids that are coming to join us.

“I’m very, very happy where I’m at, and hopefully, that’ll continue.”

Alford won a national championship with the Hoosiers in 1987, scoring more than 2,400 points in his career under head coach Bob Knight. He has been with UCLA since 2013, reaching the Sweet 16 in three of his four seasons with the Bruins.

Crean was fired on March 16 after nine season in Bloomington.

Lonzo Ball has officially declared for the 2017 NBA Draft

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Following a season-ending loss in the Sweet 16 of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, UCLA freshman point guard unsurprisingly announced that he will enter the NBA Draft.

“That was my final game for UCLA. I appreciate the fans,” Ball told reporters.

The 6-foot-6 point guard has a strong case to be the No. 1 overall pick. It could be almost too enticing for the Los Angeles Lakers to pass on a Southern Cal product if the ping pong balls fall in their favor. New Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka were in Memphis for Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky.

Ball, in an All-American freshman season with the Bruins, averaged 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and a nation’s best 7.6 assists per game, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 42 percent from three.

He ended his college career with an 86-75 loss to the Wildcats, scoring 10 points, off 4-of-10 shooting, with eight assists.