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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.

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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.”

N.C. State adds grad transfer Sam Hunt

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N.C. State added its fourth transfer this offseason. Like ex-Baylor guard Al Freeman, the latest one is eligible to play next season.

Sam Hunt, a double-digit scorer the past two seasons at North Carolina A&T, officially enrolled at North Carolina State on Monday morning.

“Sam is a great young man and will bring much needed depth to our backcourt,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said in a statement. “I want guys who are excited about being a part of our program and Sam really wants to be here.

“Sam is a combo guard that can space the floor with his ability to shoot the basketball. He is a good fit for the system and will bring a wealth of experience to our roster.”

Hunt, the 6-foot-2 guard, averaged 12.7 points per game last season, a dip from the 15.4 points per game he posted for the Aggies as a redshirt sophomore.

Hunt joins a roster that lost its three leading scorers from a season ago, one that ended 15-17 (4-14 ACC). Dennis Smith Jr. is a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Maverick Rowan also pursued a professional career and Terry Henderson was denied an additional year from the NCAA.

The Wolf Pack bring back forwards Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven as well as Torin Dorn.

Keatts, who took over the program after leading UNC Wilmington to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, has already built for the future. UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce, 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game for the Seahawks, has followed him to Raleigh. Utah transfer Devon Daniels committed to the Wolf Pack the same day as Bryce. Both will have to sit out next season due to NCAA transfer rules. Bryce will have two years of eligibility while Daniels will have three.

LaVar Ball stars in an uncomfortably entertaining segment on WWE’s Raw

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LaVar Ball’s statements and antics over this past year always seemed better suited a professional wrestling ring.

It was only natural that the patriarch of the Ball family — and the head of the Big Baller Brand — made an appearance on WWE’s Monday Night Raw at the Staples Center for an awkwardly entertaining segment with WWE Intercontinental Champion The Miz.

With sons, Lonzo — in his first appearance in the Staples Center as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers — and LaMelo looking on, LaVar was the center of attention. When The Miz mentioned something about a partnership between the two, the scripted interview went south. It resulted in LaVar saying nonsensical things like, “There’s only two dudes better than me, and I’m both of ’em!” before later taking off his shirt. When Dean Ambrose, a WWE superstar feuding with The Miz came out on to the ramp, LaVar didn’t quite grasp the concept that that was his cue to stop talking.

This segment was somehow entertaining and cringeworthy at the same time.

Now that Lonzo is beginning his NBA career, maybe it’s time LaVar try something different. A manager in the WWE may just be his true calling. He’s certainly had plenty of practice.

Maryland lands commitment from five-star 2018 forward

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Maryland added to its 2018 recruiting class with its second commit, the newest addition being a five-star in-state product.

Jalen Smith, a 6-foot-9 forward from Baltimore powerhouse Mount St. Joseph, committed to the Terrapins, making the announcement on Twitter.

“I believe that I can academically and athletically achieve my goals at home through my commitment to the University of Maryland … Go Terps,” he tweeted as part of a long passage.

Smith is listed as the No. 13 overall recruit in the Class of 2013 by Rivals. He joins four-star swingman Aaron Wiggins in Mark Turgeon’s current recruiting class.

Playing for Team Takeover on the Nike EYBL circuit, Smith is averaging 10.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game.

Recent grad’s joyride reportedly did $100,000 of damages to Mizzou Arena

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A recent graduate and temporary employee of the University of Missouri took an early morning joy ride that reportedly could rack up around $100,000 to Mizzou Arena.

According to Dave Mater of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nathaniel J. Contant, 23, who graduated from the school in December 2016, drove his Volkswagen Passat through a gate and eventually on to the floor of the 15,000-seat on-campus arena.

At 7:15 a.m. Sunday, MU police were dispatched to Mizzou Arena for a report of property damage. Officers determined that around 4 a.m., the suspect drove his vehicle through a closed gate on the south side of the arena. He ran through a garage door and drove into a dock area where he damaged several golf carts that were stored in the area. He also drove his car onto the basketball court. The man couldn’t leave through the area he used to enter the building, so he drove through the arena’s press gate.

Contant, unsurprisingly, is no longer an employee of the university. He’s being charged with second-degree burglary and first-degree property damage, both of which are felonies. He was released on a $4,500 bond.

The motive for this early-morning joyride remains unclear.

Despite the hype surrounding the upcoming Mizzou season — one that includes the debut of new head coach Cuonzo Martin and the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft Michael Porter, Jr. — Twitter users couldn’t help but poke fun at the dismal recent history the Tigers have had.

(h/t Kansas City Star)

Vance Jackson transfers to New Mexico

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With more than a handful of departures this offseason, New Mexico is set to have a new-look roster for the 2017-18 season. On Monday, Paul Weir, now at the helm of the program, landed a player who should make an impact in the three remaining seasons of eligibility he has left.

Vance Jackson, who spent this past season at UConn, decided to make the move from Storrs to Albuquerque, picking the Lobos over Rutgers, San Diego State, TCU, and Washington.

The 6-foot-8 rising sophomore will have to sit out next year due to NCAA transfer rules before resuming his collegiate career in the fall of 2018.

“The coaches — they trust in me,” Jackson told Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal last month during his official campus visit. “We’re on the same page. They see a vision.”

Weir, who led New Mexico State this past season to a NCAA Tournament appearance in his one and only season as head coach, succeeded Craig Neal in April.

This offseason has been headlined by transfers, though, those mostly were about players leaving the program. Jackson is the second transfer to land at UNM with Akron’s Antino Jackson electing to use his final season of eligibility with the Lobos. Antino Jackson is a graduate transfer, allowing him to play immediately next season.

Vance Jackson, who was rated as the No. 80 overall player in the Class of 2016 by Rivals, averaged 8.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game while shooting just under 40 percent from three for the Huskies as a freshman.