Ranking the Sweet 16 games

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A quiet first round of the NCAA tournament gave way to a second round that got just a little too out of control.

Particularly in the East Region.

It’s a bit of a snoozer in Madison Square Garden this weekend. But everywhere else, things are going to get a little crazy for the Sweet 16 and the Elite 8:

8. No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 7 South Carolina (East): With all due respect to South Carolina and Baylor, this game just doesn’t do it for me. The Bears play a grind-it-out style offensively, hammering the ball into Johnathan Motley in the post, that is effective but isn’t exactly the most aesthetically pleasing way to play. And South Carolina? They were a train wreck on the offensive end of the floor for the final month of the regular season before somehow averaging 90.5 points through two games during the first weekend. I’d expect the Gamecocks to come back to earth on that end, but that won’t make them any easier to score against. My advice: bet the under.

7. No. 4 Florida vs. No. 8 Wisconsin (East): The intrigue here is the clash of styles. The Badgers want to slow the pace down, pound the ball into Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ and crash the offensive glass. Florida wants to speed the game up, force some turnovers and get their talented perimeter players into beneficial matchups. Here’s the thing that should worry you as an impartial observer: Florida is the third-best defensive in the country, according to KenPom. Wisconsin is the seventh. Neither of them are in the top 25 in offensive efficiency. This probably won’t be all that pretty.

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6. No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 11 Xavier (West): The story line is more enticing than the game itself. Sean Miller used to be the head coach at Xavier. His assistant was Chris Mack, who is now the head coach at Xavier. They’re still close, neither has been to a Final Four and it’s very possible that whoever wins this game will break that streak. That’s heavy. The game itself, however, is weird. Xavier looked like they were done late in the season, then somehow managed to put together one of the fiercest tail-whippings that we’ve seen in this year’s tournament, a 25-point beatdown of Florida State. The Musketeers are without Myles Davis and Edmond Sumner, who were two of their three most important players entering the season. Can the streak continue?

5. No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 Butler (South): Butler has turned into something of a Cinderella in their region. That’s what happens when you’re the Big East team trying to escape the South, which also includes three of the biggest brands in college athletics. The Bulldogs are no pushover, however, as they swept Villanova and own wins over two Sweet 16 teams — Arizona and Xavier twice. UNC, for my money, is arguably the best team left in the field. They have the horses inside, they are the nation’s best offensive rebounding team and they can rely on Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson to carry them on the perimeter. With Theo Pinson healthy, they also happen to have one of the nation’s best shutdown defenders, who will likely give Kelan Martin fits. This should be a fun one.

4. No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan (Midwest): What I love about this matchup is the way both teams play. Oregon is small-ball through and through with Chris Boucher out of the lineup, running Dillon Brooks out there at the four and spreading the floor as much as they possibly can. Michigan spreads things out as well, but they also happen to have to 6-foot-10 front court players in D.J. Wilson and Mo Wagner who can play out on the perimeter. This is a quintessential John Beilein roster, and ever since the middle of the season, Derrick Walton Jr. hs been as good as any point guard in the country. I think this game comes down to the battle at the four-spot. Does Brooks for Michigan to go small, or can Wilson handle chasing him around?

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3. No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 4 Purdue (Midwest): Let’s start with the obvious here: This is a battle between the two front runners for National Player of the Year. You have everyone’s pick in Frank Mason III, who has been sensational all season long and seems to be the favorite to win the award, and you have Caleb Swanigan, who is putting up Tim Duncan-esque numbers for the Boilermakers. Obviously, those two aren’t going to be guarding each other, and that’s where this game gets even more intriguing. Kansas has one big man on their roster worth his 6-foot-11 frame and that’s Landen Lucas. They play Josh Jackson, who will likely be a two-guard in the NBA, at the four. Purdue has the biggest, most physical front line in the country, and between Swanigan and Isaac Haas, they draw 14.3 fouls per 40 minutes combined. Will Lucas be able to stay on the floor? Will Jackson? This is a more dangerous matchup for Kansas than I think people realize.

2. No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 West Virginia (West): Oh, this is going to be so good. Let’s talk about Press Virginia first. They come at you in waves. They play as hard as anyone, they trap, they foul and they make life difficult for whoever is trying to get the ball over half court. Gonzaga, on the other hand, does not have the most athletic back court. Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins have both had really good years, but both of them tend to struggle against quicker, stronger and more physical players. That’s what West Virginia has in boat loads. That said, the way for West Virginia to get into their press is to score, and, believe it or not, Gonzaga currently has the No. 1 defense in the country, according to KenPom. If they keep the Mountaineers from putting the ball in the basket, they keep them from being able to get that pressure rolling. Gonzaga also has a distinct size advantage inside. Let’s see if that pays off, and let’s see if Mark Few will have a chance to play for his first career Final Four.

1. No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 UCLA (South): Where do I even start? De’Aaron Fox vs. Lonzo Ball? Malik Monk vs. whoever tries to slow him down? A rematch from December’s thriller in Lexington? The Steve Alford-to-Indiana rumors? John Calipari’s return to Memphis? The bottom-line is this: these are two of the four best teams left in the field, both of whom can win a National Title. This is a Final Four-caliber matchup in the Sweet 16. This is the kind of game that you do not want to miss. I’m not sure how else I can put it.

Lonzo Ball says “I’m better than” Markelle Fultz

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Usually, it’s LaVar Ball that makes news for what he says.

His eldest son is now getting in on the business of generating headlines with something other than his play.

The UCLA star, who said he’ll enter the draft after just one season with the Bruins, claimed he’s the better prospect than Washington freshman Markelle Fultz, who many have pegged as the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

“Markelle’s a great player,” Ball said, according to ESPN, “but I feel I’m better than him,” “I think I can lead a team better than him. Obviously he’s a great scorer — he’s a great player, so I’m not taking that away from him.”

Not exactly inflammatory stuff – like saying you could have beaten Michael Jordan, that you want a $1 billion apparel deal or a number of things his father has said – bu Ball is certainly projecting confidence. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s quite a bit of money – and pride – at stake with the draft, and Ball put up a season worthy of comparison to Fultz, who had great numbers but played for an abysmal Washington team. Ball, on the other had, had strong numbers while leading UCLA to the Sweet 16.

Both are going to go at the top of a draft that’s stocked full of promising point guards. Which player goes before the other remains to be seen, but it’s likely public pronouncements aren’t going to affect the draft order.

 

UMass hires McCall away from Chattanooga

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UMass has found, once more, the man to take over its basketball program.

The Minutemen have reached an agreement with Chattanooga coach Matt McCall, the school announce Wednesday

“The tradition and resources that are in place not only make this one of the best basketball jobs in the Atlantic 10 Conference,” McCall said in a statement released by the school, “but one of the best jobs in the country. We couldn’t be more excited about becoming part of the UMass family and look forward to building upon the rich tradition that has been established here in the past.”

In McCall’s two years at Chattanooga, the Mocs to the NCAA tournament in 2016 and a 19-12 record this year that featured five-straight losses to end the season.

The move will take McCall out of the southeast for the first time in his career as he previously served as at Florida and Florida Atlantic before getting his first head coaching job at Chattanooga.

McCall wasn’t the Minutemen’s first choice to replace Derek Kellogg after three-straight lackluster seasons. Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey had agreed to take the job before a last-minute about-face that saw him return to the Eagles program just before his introductory press conference was scheduled to begin.

“Matt is a rising star in college basketball coaching who has been a key piece of three successful programs in his career,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement. “He has earned a reputation as a relentless worker, a great teammate and colleague and a confident leader of young men.

“Matt has worked with some of the most respected coaches and administrators in the country, who loudly sing his praises. Coach McCall’s appointment begins an exciting new chapter for our tradition-rich men’s basketball program at UMass.”

Despite being the second choice, McCall’s reputation in the coaching industry makes him a strong hire, having worked under Mike Jarvis and Billy Donovan. He took over at Chattanooga for Will Wade, and brought the Mocs to a 29-6 record and a  12-seed in the NCAA tournament in 2016.

UMass went to just one NCAA tournament under Kellogg (in 2014) during his nine seasons leading the Minutemen.

VIDEO: Frank Martin’s sideline demeanor as a high school coach

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South Carolina coach Frank Martin has the reputation of being rather, shall we say, intense on the sidelines during games.

The coach has a stare that seemingly could bore a hole through his players when they do something that doesn’t reach his level of expectation. Martin’s demeanor, though, didn’t just come into form once he hit the college ranks.

He was plenty intense on high school sidelines as well.

Martin won three titles while at Miami Senior in the mid-1990s, coaching the likes of future pros Steve Blake and Udonis Haslem. Now having reached his first career Final Four, that sideline persona has put him on the precipice of winning yet another championship, this time at the collegiate level.

South Carolina fans raise money to send “Gamecock Jesus” to Final Four

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South Carolina fans are sending one of their most recognizable compatriots to represent them this weekend.

Gamecock Jesus is heading to the Final Four.

South Carolina super fan Carlton Thompson is following the Gamecocks to Glendale as his fellow fans have raised over $7,500 to send the man known as “Gamecock Jesus” to Arizona for the team’s Final Four meeting with Gonzaga on Saturday night.

Thompson’s long hair, beard and presence at South Carolina games, even in lean times, earned him his nickname and apparently a following fervent enough to foot the bill for quite the trip.

“I’ve always dreamed it would be like this,” Thompson said last week about fan support at Gamecock games to the Post and Courier. “For years and years, it was so sparse with the crowds at the games. But once they started winning, the crowds started coming.”

Thompson is a 63-year-old VA hospital nurse, and has been attending South Carolina games for nearly 50 years.

Maryland’s Melo Trimble declares for the NBA Draft

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Melo Trimble’s career as a Maryland Terrapin is coming to an end. The junior guard is declaring for the NBA Draft and will sign with an agent.

“I am confident and excited to pursue an opportunity to play in the NBA,” Trimble said in a release. “I am proud of what my teammates and I were able to accomplish these past three seasons at Maryland. I developed many great relationships and friendships and together we able to create some very special moments for Maryland basketball. I want to thank Coach Turgeon for all of his support. He always believed in me. He challenged me and really helped in the development of my overall game. I am a more complete basketball player because of Coach Turgeon and the coaching staff. To stay at home and attend the University of Maryland is the best decision that I ever made and it was truly special to play in front of my family, friends and our amazing fans. Maryland will always be home.”

There was no better winner in college basketball the last three years than Melo. He changed the trajectory of Mark Turgeon’s program, winning 79 games in three years and ending his career 30-8 in games decided by six points or less. As a junior, Trimble and the Terps earned a No. 6 seed to the NCAA tournament, but they lost in the first round to Xavier. It was the only time in Trimble’s career that he didn’t reach the Sweet 16.

“Melo Trimble is a winner,” Mark Turgeon said on twitter. “Humble, hard-working, dedicated. Words can’t express what he’s done for our program. Always #StayMelo!”