16 things to know about the Sweet 16

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1. The South Region is where you want to be this weekend: Because it doesn’t get much better than this. Three of the teams in the regional — North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA — are among the favorites left in the field to win the national title. The No. 3 seed, UCLA, has already beaten the No. 2 seed, Kentucky, who currently owns a win over the No. 1 seed, North Carolina, all while the No. 4 seed, Butler, owns two wins over Villanova and three wins over teams left in the Sweet 16.

That’s before you consider that FedExForum is going to be absolutely brimming in blue — Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA. The only people happier than writers heading to Memphis this weekend are the bar owners on Beale Street. Stock up on Miller Lites.

2. North Carolina, by the way, is the only rep left from the ACC: The ACC was supposed to be one of the best conferences in the history of college basketball this season and, well, that didn’t really go the way we all through it would. The league went 7-8 in the first weekend of the tournament, and those eight losses came by an average of 13.9 points. Three of the four top four seeds that lost in first weekend were ACC members. Of the 10 games that were decided by 20 or more points, three involved ACC teams losing. Four involved No. 16 seeds losing. Even UNC needed a late run to survive Arkansas.

3. Kentucky-UCLA is as good of a Sweet 16 matchup as we’re ever going to see: How often do we get two legitimate national title contenders squaring off in the Sweet 16? (Answer: Not often.) But this matchup has so much more to it than just a pair of college basketball’s biggest brands squaring off. We get Lonzo Ball vs. De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. We get a rematch of one of the best games of college basketball’s regular season. We get a thrilling battle between a pair of high-octane offenses that want to get out in transition. And we get what could potentially be Steve Alford’s last game as the head coach at UCLA.

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

4. Butler is back to being Cinderella, it seems: The Bulldogs are now members of the Big East and without question one of the better basketball programs in the sport, but when you’re the fourth wheel in a region where three blue-bloods are headed, it’s hard not to be thought of as the plucky upstart. And to be frank, I don’t think Butler minds all that much. Hell, I think they enjoy being the team no one is worried about. I’m sure Chris Holtmann wouldn’t mind if North Carolina overlooked them and focused on the winner of Kentucky-UCLA.

5. Oh, and should I mention that John Calipari is heading back to Memphis?: Coach Cal was once the head coach at Memphis, and when he left for Kentucky back in the spring of 2009, it didn’t end all that well between him and the Tigers. The people in that city are still bitter. The good news? The average Memphis fan will probably be more than happy to sell their tickets for five times face value to a Kentucky or UNC fan thirsty to get into the building.

6. The four best teams are on the right side of the bracket: For my money, three of the four best teams left in the NCAA tournament are in the South Region. The fourth on that list? Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest. In other words, if seeds hold, the winner of UCLA-Kentucky is going to have to beat the best three teams in the event just to get to the national title game.

7. Frank Mason III vs. Caleb Swanigan for all the Player of the Year votes: I think Kansas gets out of the Midwest Region, but their toughest test is coming in the Sweet 16. Purdue has a massive front line, one that is led by Caleb Swanigan, who is putting up numbers that would make you believe that Tim Duncan has been reincarnated. They won’t go head-to-head in this game, but it is worth noting that Mason and Swanigan are the two favorites to win National Player of the Year. Most seem to favor Mason, although if Swanigan continues to do what he did against Iowa State in a pair of wins this weekend, that sentiment may change.

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8. You really should spend some time watching this Michigan team play: The Wolverines are really, really good. And they’re fun to watch. They have a star point guard in Derrick Walton Jr. They surround him with guards that can really shoot it, and they put him on the floor with a pair of mobile big men that can step out and knock down a three. This team is John Beilein at his finest.

9. The Big Ten, overall, availed themselves well: While the ACC was considered the best conference in the country this season, the Big Ten was lampooned for much of the year for their overall mediocrity. But here we are in the Sweet 16 and no conference in the country has more teams left in the field than the Big Ten’s three. Two of those three, Wisconsin (Villanova) and Michigan (Louisville), sent top four seeded teams home.

10. So did the Pac-12: We all knew there was a top three in that conference, and each of those three teams won two games and reached the Sweet 16. The fourth team in the tournament from the Pac-12 was USC, who lost a thriller to Baylor on Sunday but who managed to win a pair of games last week, including a comeback from 17 points down in the second half of the play-in game. Overall, the Pac-12 is 8-1 in the tournament.

(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

11. Sean Miller will be squaring off with his former assistant Chris Mack for the second time in three years: In 2009, Miller left Xavier to become the head coach at Arizona, a no-brainer move for a coach taking over a program with pedigree that can win a national title every single season. Mack, then an assistant for Miller, took over for him and has led the Musketeers to new heights, thriving as a contender in the Big East conference.

12. The winner will play for their first-ever trip to the Final Four, possibly against Mark Few: It’s never easy to play against a former colleague, not when those former colleagues are as close as Miller and Mack are. Added into that conversation is the fact that neither coach has ever reached the Final Four. Miller is widely thought of arguably the best coach in the country that has never made a Final Four, and when he finally does, Mack will move his way closer to the top of that list.

Also on that list? Gonzaga’s Mark Few. The Zags are in the West Region along with Xavier and Arizona, and it would be fascinating to see them square off for the right to get to the final weekend of the season.

13. One of those four head coaches will be making their first Final Four: That’s not the only region where a battle for a first trip to the Final Four will be brewing. In the East, Wisconsin’s Greg Gard, Florida’s Mike White, Baylor’s Scott Drew and South Carolina’s Frank Martin are all looking to make their first trip to the Final Four as well.

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

14. Good luck trying to re-sell those East Region tickets: Look at the teams in that East Region. Now remember that they are going to be playing in Madison Square Garden this weekend. Now think about the people that sell tickets on the secondary markets — scalpers, stubhub, seatgeek — that thought they were buying tickets for Duke-Villanova in the Garden. They are not going to be making nearly as much money as they thought they would be.

15. No one had a more unlikely or improbable run than South Carolina: I need more space to explain all of the reasons why, but I really do think that Frank Martin leading South Carolina to back-to-back NCAA tournament wins for the first time in program history is one of the most incredible things we’ve seen in the tournament in a long time.

16. No one has had more postseason success than Wisconsin’s seniors: Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have never been ousted in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. They made a Final Four as freshmen. They played in the national title game as sophomores. They made the Sweet 16 last year. They’re in the Sweet 16 this year. The next time they take the court will be their 17th career NCAA Tournament game, the most in the country.

(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

USC forward Bennie Boatwright returning for junior year

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USC has a chance to be really good next season as forward Bennie Boatwright announced that he’s returning for his junior season.

The 6-foot-10 forward put up 15.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range as his return means that the Trojans should be a major contender in the Pac-12 next season. Elijah Stewart also announced this week that he is returning as USC could start Jordan McLaughlin, De’Anthony Melton, Stewart, Boatwright and Chimezie Metu next season.

With Duke transfer Derryck Thornton Jr. also becoming eligible and McDonald’s All-American guard Charles O’Bannon Jr. entering the program, the Trojans are a potential top-10 team.

Following decommitment, four-star recruit makes eye-opening remarks about Ohio State

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Ohio State lost a four-star recruit on Wednesday when in-state Class of 2018 wing Darius Bazley opted to open up his recruitment.

As a rising senior who is just finishing his junior season of high school, Bazley’s decommitment isn’t going to immediately hurt the Buckeyes next season. But the 6-foot-7 wing’s comments about why he opted to open up his recruitment are pretty jarring.

In a story with Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch, Bazley opened up about why he decommitted from Ohio State. Bazley’s eye-opening remarks include how the Buckeyes might not get him ideal NBA exposure and how Ohio State might miss the NCAA tournament in his freshman year.

“I was excited when I first got the offer,” Bazley said to Jardy. “Ohio State is still a great place. It’s nothing against the school or anything, but my one ultimate goal is to get to the NBA and I just didn’t feel as confident as I did when I first committed that Ohio State was one of those schools that could get me there. At the end of the day I’ve got to perform no matter where I go, but I think there’s other schools out there that could put me on a bigger stage and in a better position to show those NBA scouts when I get to college what I can do.”

Bazley also didn’t appear to be pleased at the recruiting class coming into Ohio State for the Class of 2017, which is the class that is coming in this season. Remember, Bazley is a Class of 2018 recruit who still has to finish his senior season.

“Ohio State, they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year,” Bazley said to Jardy. “They didn’t even make the NIT, which is unfortunate, but I looked into the recruits they have coming into next year, they didn’t look too good for the future. So I felt like when my class came in, yeah, we would’ve been OK, but good enough to make the tournament? I don’t know. I just felt as if I was to de-commit, actually take my time, figure everything out it would just be a lot better.”

Ohio State was once one of the major destinations for one-and-done players a decade ago so these remarks are very surprising. D’Angelo Russell was a top-five pick in the NBA Draft only two years ago, and while the Buckeyes might not be as successful in recent years as they once were, they still get plenty of national exposure with regards to producing NBA talent.

The NCAA tournament comments might carry some more weight though. The Buckeyes have missed the NCAA tournament in two consecutive seasons and things are also looking difficult for them to reach the Big Dance for next season. If Bazley wants to play in the NCAA tournament, then I could understand him wanting to open things up and explore more options.

Still, you don’t often see a player make comments like this about a school after decommitting–especially a program with as much national exposure as Ohio State. Bazley is likely going to face some heat for his remarks, but if those are his true feelings about a future life decision, then he should explore what else is out there.

Nevada gets transfer commitment from Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman

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Nevada continues to build its roster through transfers as the Wolf Pack added Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman on Thursday.

The 6-foot-7 Thurman will have to sit out one season before playing his senior season but he is coming off of a very good campaign for the Mavericks. The versatile forward put up 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent from the field.

One of the Summit League’s better players the last two seasons, Thurman should be a solid rotation forward for Nevada as he has a chance to be a breakout player with one more year of development. If Thurman can improve his 25 percent three-point shooting then he could be a major factor for Nevada.

D-League salaries, two-way contracts increase NBA Draft early entries

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Yesterday, I wrote a piece about how it’s dumb to criticize players for entering the NBA Draft without costing themselves their collegiate eligibility when the NCAA’s new NBA Draft rules are specifically designed for said players to be able to do that.

In that column, I mentioned that D-League salaries are on the rise and that the NBA’s new CBA instituted something called “two-way contracts,” and I wanted a chance to elaborate and clarify a couple of the points that I made.

Let’s start with the “two-way contracts,” which NBA teams each get two of. They are essentially a retainer that those teams can place on younger players they want to be the 16th and 17th men on their roster, holding their rights as they bounce between the D-League — where they will likely spend the majority of the year — and the NBA. The catch is that those players have to have less than three years service as a professional, and the point of it is to provide a financial incentive for younger players with the potential to reach the NBA to remain stateside while allowing those NBA teams to develop them.

That financial incentive is fairly large, as well: Two-way players will make $75,000 guaranteed and will be able to make up to $275,000, depending on the amount of time they spend with the NBA team.

That means there are an extra 60 jobs this season that can end up paying players with less than three years of professional basketball experience upwards of a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

That’s not a bad starting salary.

The other point that I wanted to address is the rising D-League salaries which, technically, will not be rising. There are still going to be Tier A and Tier B players, who make $26,000 and $20,000 respectively. But the NBA has something called affiliate players, which each of the now-25 NBA teams with a D-League affiliate can pay up to $50,000 for training camp. NBA teams are allowed a maximum of four affiliate players, who will still make their $26,000 salary from their D-League team.

In other words, that’s 100 more jobs available in the United States where a professional basketball player can make $76,000, and that’s before you consider that the five NBA teams that do not yet have a D-League affiliate will still have to play players to get them into training camp.

That $76,000 is not a life-changing amount of money. Neither is the $275,000 that a two-way contract can pay. But it’s a pretty damn good paycheck to make for an entry-level job into the industry that you always dreamed of being in.

Athletes have an unbelievably small window where they can capitalize monetarily on their gifts.

If a 21-year old sophomore decides that he wants to continue to develop his game and chase his NBA dream by making $76,000 as a D-League player, is that really all that crazy?

After all, 135 of the 450 players, or 30 percent of the roster spots, on NBA’s opening night were taken by guys that had spent time in the D-League.

There’s more than one way to make a dream come true.

A record $439 million was bet on basketball in March in Las Vegas

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The month of March was quite friendly to Las Vegas.

According to ESPN, more money was bet on basketball during the month of March than in any month in the state’s regulated sports betting history.

And while the numbers produced by Las Vegas books don’t separate college and professional basketball betting, the money coming in on college hoops is pretty clear: $439 million was bet on basketball in March, more than double the $213 million bet on the sport in February.

It was profitable, too.

Those Vegas books kept more than $40 million dollars of the money that was gambled on basketball, which shattered the previous record of roughly $28 million in winnings.