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Sweet 16 Breakdowns: How the West will be won

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The West Region saw three of the top four seeds survive with only No. 3 Florida State getting knocked out by No. 11 Xavier early.

While some might feel like a rematch between No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 seed Arizona is inevitable, it would not be wise to count out No 4 seed West Virginia and head coach Bob Huggins?

Here’s what each team in the West has to do to make it to Glendale.

No. 1 GONZAGA

How they can get to the Final Four: There’s a reason Gonzaga started this season 29-0. As one of only two teams in the country that rates in the top 12 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency on KenPom, the Bulldogs are one of the most complete teams in the country.

Scoff as Gonzaga’s inability to get to the Final Four in the past at your own peril because this is perhaps the deepest and best team that Mark Few has had during his tenure.

With a tight-knit, eight-man rotation that can throw some different looks at you, Gonzaga is led by an All-American point guard in Nigel Williams-Goss while former starting lead guard Josh Perkins adds additional backcourt stability as a ball handler and shooter. Another lethal shooter in Cal graduate transfer Jordan Matthews also starts on the wing for the ‘Zags while the front-court is an intriguing four-man rotation that is hard to wear down.

Senior Przemek Karnowski is one of the country’s most unique big men while Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams is a nice compliment and double-figure scorer.

Gonzaga’s bench also features an experienced guard in Silas Melson and a double-figure scorer in McDonald’s All-American big man Zach Collins–who has quietly been one of the best freshmen in the nation. Another freshman, Killian Tillie, gives the Bulldogs additional athleticism on the inside if they need to go to a quicker lineup.

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Why they won’t get to the Final Four: Gonzaga might have won a lot of games this season but they haven’t exactly been dependable in late-game situations. Part of this is because the Bulldogs really weren’t tested all that often in the regular season — especially once the non-conference portion of the schedule was done.

But Gonzaga had some concerning meltdowns against BYU in its only regular-season loss, as well as in the second round against Northwestern. Credit the Zags for rallying together and holding off the Wildcats to advance to the Sweet 16 but the second half of that game also showed that Gonzaga is susceptible to giving up double-digit leads.

Facing a team like West Virginia who can turn you over very quickly in their Sweet 16 matchup, that could be something to watch for even if Gonzaga holds a second-half lead.

Besides for the shaky play in tight games, Gonzaga hasn’t shot the ball particularly well during the 2017 NCAA Tournament as they’re only 12-for-46 (26 percent) from three-point range in its two wins.

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No. 2 ARIZONA

How they can get to the Final Four: Playing some of the best ball of any team in the country right now, the Wildcats were impressive in winning the Pac-12 Tournament before advancing to the Sweet 16 with wins over North Dakota and Saint Mary’s.

Now the Wildcats avoid a potentially tough matchup with a long and athletic Florida State team to face a hot No. 11 seed in Xavier.

Since sophomore guard and leading scorer Allonzo Trier returned to the lineup after his suspension, Arizona has looked like one of the best teams in the country as Trier being back on the floor has made things a lot easier for the other Wildcats.

Freshman big man Lauri Markkanen is the NCAA Tournament’s most unique weapon because he’s a 7-footer who is a truly elite perimeter shooter at 43 percent from three-point range and he’s also Arizona’s best player on the glass.

Two more talented freshmen roam the Arizona backcourt as Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons are both capable of making plays while point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright is content to distribute to the team’s many weapons. Senior Kadeem Allen is one of the better perimeter defenders left in the field while the Wildcats have a solid rotation of big men besides Markkanen between Dusan Ristic, Chance Comanche and Keanu Pinder.

This team doesn’t have many weaknesses and they’re top 25 in KenPom in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. It’s easy to see why many believed they could reach the Final Four near home in Glendale.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: While Arizona might be one of the most complete teams left in the field they also lost to No. 1 seed Gonzaga earlier this season on a neutral floor. Granted, the Wildcats were still without Trier at that point, but the main takeaway from the regular-season clash is that the Zags will know what to expect from everyone else on the roster while also having the confidence of knowing that they beat them.

Perimeter shooting might be the key for Arizona to reach the Final Four. The Wildcats are shooting 39.6 percent from three-point range this season but they were only 1-for-8 from three-point range in the first loss to Gonzaga. Since the Bulldogs do such a good job of taking away the three (No. 6 in defending the three at 30.0 percent), Arizona is going to have to work harder to get free for clean perimeter looks.

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No. 4 WEST VIRGINIA

How they can get to the Final Four: “Press Virginia” is in the Sweet 16 after getting past Bucknell and Notre Dame over the first two rounds. The pillar of this Bob Huggins-coached group is the team’s ultra-aggressive full-court trap, which is No. 1 in the country in turnover percentage on defense at 27.7 percent.

With a long and athletic rotation that throws a lot of different players at you, West Virginia comes at teams in waves and wears them down for easy buckets.

Besides an ability to get easy buckets off of turnovers, the Mountaineers are better than expected in the half court on offense. Junior guard Jevon Carter is a standout perimeter defender but he’s also a crafty scorer who hit shots or distribute.

Since the Mountaineers have 10 players averaging at least 10.9 minutes per game they don’t have a lot of individuals putting up big numbers but West Virginia is relentless the entire game and almost never lets up on defense.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: If a team can beat West Virginia’s press consistently then they have a chance to score plenty of easy buckets.

The Mountaineers might be effective at turning other teams over but it is also a risky defense that can allow for a lot of good transition looks and mounting foul trouble. Teams who have reached this point in the tournament generally have decent guard play so it will be intriguing to see how Gonzaga has prepared to handle West Virginia’s press.

Beating the press is the obvious solution to getting past West Virginia but this team can also be shaky at times on offense in half-court situations. With not a lot of players who can create for themselves, West Virginia runs some ugly possessions as they were No. 110 in effective field goal percentage this season. Also a mediocre team at the line, West Virginia only shoots 68.3 percent from the free-throw line as a team.

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No. 11 XAVIER

How they can get to the Final Four: Not many pegged that Xavier would be in the Sweet 16, especially when they went a month with its only wins coming against DePaul. But things have improved dramatically for the Musketeers in the last few weeks as they’ve finally appeared comfortable since the loss of star sophomore guard Edmond Sumner.

Even though Xavier is a double-digit seed, they shouldn’t be counted out by any means since they have some dangerous pieces. Junior Trevon Bluiett is one of the hottest players in the field as he’s 8-for-15 from three-point range in two games while totaling 50 points.

If junior J.P. Macura gets going as a second major scorer to compliment Bluiett then Xavier becomes even more dangerous. Macura is the type of player who can heat up and easily go for 20-plus points.

Besides Bluiett and Macura’s ability to pop off from the perimeter, Xavier has been getting strong performances from role guys during the tournament. Reserve big man Sean O’Mara has scored in double-figures in both games for the Musketeers while others like Kaiser Gates and Tyrique Jones have also been picking up their play.

Gates, in particular, has been another big shot-maker from the perimeter during the tournament and he’s given Xavier more spacing while also contributing on the glass.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: Xavier has been to four Sweet 16s in the last eight years under head coach Chris Mack but they’ve never advanced past this round in three previous tries with him as coach.

Not that that has much to do with how this current roster has reached this point, but history isn’t exactly on Xavier’s side against No. 2 seed Arizona.

Besides for history, let’s be honest: Xavier was really struggling for the final month of the season. Without Sumner they still have a shaky point guard situation and the team’s offense can sputter at times if they aren’t hitting shots. Also expecting role players like O’Mara and Gates to continue to play like this might not be sustainable for Xavier.

It’s been a nice run for Xavier to reach this point but they would be one of the most unlikely Final Four teams in modern college basketball if they made it to Glendale.

Joel Berry II’s touching encounter with a grieving fan

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When you are the starting point guard at North Carolina and a preseason All-American coming off of a season where your team won the national title while you won the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award, getting recognized in Chapel Hill comes with the territory.

Joel Berry II should expect it when he goes out to eat.

What Berry wasn’t expecting, however, was that simply being recognized could profoundly affect the life of one of his fans.

Berry shared the story with UNC’s in-house media arm, GoHeels.com. He was at breakfast with his girlfriend when he noticed two women eyeballing him. As it turns out, those two women were the mothers of two boys that had been best friends. One of the boys had moved to Oregon and, in February, died in an car accident. His name was Rob McKiver, and Berry was his favorite player on his favorite team.

MORE: Joel Berry II, fake tattoos and a family’s loving gesture

From GoHeels.com:

That’s why Carol Freedman and Myra McVicker sat in their booth that May morning with tears trickling down their cheeks. Freedman ultimately sent Berry a heartfelt email. She relayed the story of the McVicker family and then explained why the two women had been so closely watching Berry. “Your presence that Saturday, that morning when we could have met anywhere, at any other day or time, reaffirms our belief that those loved ones who leave this Earth are still with us if we look and listen,” she wrote. “In death, Rob let his mother know that his love for her is stronger than ever.”

The email deeply touched Berry, who wrote back that same day.

“This is by far the greatest email I have ever received,” Berry wrote. “I got goosebumps reading this letter and had to share it with my mom and dad. When telling my mom, she cried with joy knowing her son had impacted someone in that way. Each morning, I always tell myself, ‘Something good is going to happen today,’ and as I read that email, I said to myself, ‘This is more than something good. This is a life changer and I will always remember this.'”

I wrote about Berry and his family after UNC won the national title. I found him to be a likeable young man and someone who is very easy to root for, unless, of course, you live in Durham.

I guess I’m not the only one that feels that way.

Tommy Hawkins, first black all-american at Notre Dame, dead at 80 years old

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tommy Hawkins, the first black basketball player to earn All-America honors at Notre Dame and who played for the Los Angeles Lakers during a 10-year NBA career, died Wednesday. He was 80.

Hawkins died in his sleep at home in Malibu, son Kevin told The Associated Press. He had been in good health and had lay down to rest, his oldest son said.

Hawkins graduated from Notre Dame in 1959 after playing three years on the basketball team. He had 1,318 career rebounds for the longest-standing record in Fighting Irish history. He was named to the school’s All-Century team in 2004 and inducted into its Ring of Honor in 2015. He led the Irish to a 44-13 record over his last two seasons, including an Elite Eight berth in the 1958 NCAA Tournament.

“He loved Notre Dame with every fiber of his being,” said Kevin Hawkins, who followed in his father’s footsteps and played basketball for the Irish before graduating in 1981. “He said Notre Dame did so much for him and grew him up to become the man that he would become.”

Hawkins became close with Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh, who served from 1952-87. Hesburgh was supportive when Hawkins was dating a white woman from nearby Saint Mary’s College and they were turned away from a South Bend restaurant that wouldn’t allow the interracial couple to dine, Kevin Hawkins said.

“That act led Father Hesburgh to ban Notre Dame (students) from eating there until my father got a public apology,” Kevin Hawkins said by phone from his home in South Bend. “Notre Dame walked the talk when you talk about civil rights. That meant the world to him.”

Kevin Hawkins said his father’s basketball teammate and future NFL Hall of Famer Paul Hornung led Hawkins back to the restaurant to secure the apology.

Kevin Hawkins said he spoke to his father almost daily and they had recently discussed last weekend’s civil unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Hawkins was selected by the Minneapolis Lakers with the third pick in the first round of the 1959 NBA draft. He played one season in Minnesota before moving with the team to Los Angeles. He went on to play six seasons for the Lakers, averaging 9.0 points and 5.7 rebounds in 454 games.

The 6-foot-5 forward also played for the Cincinnati Royals from 1962-66. Hawkins recorded 6,672 points and 4,607 rebounds in his pro career.

“He was and will always be part of the Lakers family,” team CEO and majority owner Jeanie Buss said. “His baritone voice and easy demeanor made him a favorite of the fans and media, as well as everyone who had the honor of calling him a friend.”

Hawkins’ influence continued beyond his playing days. As a player representative, he had a key role in establishing the first collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union and the NBA.

Born Thomas Jerome Hawkins on Dec. 22, 1936, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he moved to Chicago with his mother and aunt as a child. He starred at the city’s Parker High, now Robeson High, before being recruited by Notre Dame.

Kevin Hawkins recalled his father as a man with interests that ranged from poetry to jazz to sports. He self-published a book of poetry and Hawkins was in the midst of writing a memoir on his basketball career when he died.

“My father was a person who didn’t want to be defined as a jock or an ex-player,” Kevin Hawkins said. “He was an eclectic man. He had stories about everything from Notre Dame to the NBA to broadcasting.”

Hawkins enjoyed friendships with Alabama football coach Bear Bryant; UCLA basketball coach John Wooden; Southern California football coach John McKay; and artist LeRoy Neiman.

“You think about a man who grew up in the projects of Chicago that had done all these things in his life,” Kevin Hawkins said. “He called himself a cosmic functionary. That was his big deal. It made us all cringe, but he just loved it. He was a man of the world and a man of the people.”

Hawkins’ gregarious personality was on full display as master of ceremonies for the John R. Wooden Award presentation for over 30 years before he passed on his MC duties in 2011. He was co-national chairman of the award that honors the nation’s top male and female college basketball players.

Hawkins was hired in 1987 by then-Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley to be vice president of communications and he worked for the team until 2004.

“In life we are fortunate to know many people and Tommy was one person I always looked forward to seeing and being with,” said O’Malley, who sold the team in 1998. “He did an extraordinary job for the Dodgers as vice president, and his friendship will be missed by his family and many admirers.”

The Dodgers had a moment of silence for Hawkins before their game against the White Sox on Wednesday night.

Before joining the Dodgers, Hawkins worked in radio and television in Southern California, including stints with KNBC-TV and KABC radio.

He is survived by his second wife, Layla, and their daughter Neda; his first wife, Dori, and their children Kevin, Karel, Traci and David; seven grandchildren; and a great grandchild.

The family will likely hold a public memorial at a future date, Kevin Hawkins said.

Brad Underwood pokes fun at his version of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’

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On Thursday afternoon, Brad Underwood, the new head coach of Illinois, was invited to Wrigley Field to throw out the first pitch and sing ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ during the seventh inning stretch.

While the ceremonial first pitch went well, his rendition of the ballpark classic did not go as smoothly.

Underwood was at least able to poke fun at his vocals following his performance.

“I’d rather coach naked than sing in front of 40,000,” Underwood said afterward. “There’s a reason my wife won’t let me sing in church.”

Underwood took over Illinois in mid-March following a one-year stint at Oklahoma State. He had previously led Stephen F. Austin to three NCAA Tournament appearances in as many seasons.

 

AAC plan men’s basketball tourney at new Texas arena in ’20

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The American Athletic Conference will hold its men’s basketball tournament in a new arena in North Texas in 2020.

AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco announced Wednesday that Dickies Arena in Fort Worth has been selected to host the tournament for three years, starting in March 2020. That is only four months after the facility is scheduled to open.

On the same day of a groundbreaking ceremony for the 14,000-seat arena last April, the NCAA announced that first- and second-round games of the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament would be held there. The NCAA women’s gymnastics championships are scheduled there from 2020-22.

The closest AAC school to the new arena is SMU, with its campus in Dallas about 40 miles away.

Orlando will host the 2018 AAC tournament, which moves to Memphis in 2019.

After hearing, UNC now awaits NCAA ruling in academic case

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North Carolina has wrapped up a two-day hearing with an NCAA infractions committee panel that will decide whether the school faces penalties tied to its multi-year academic scandal.

Now the case goes into yet another holding pattern.

School officials spent much of Wednesday in a closed-door meeting with committee members in Nashville, Tennessee. They returned Thursday morning for a second session lasting about 4½ hours with the panel that will determine whether UNC faces penalties such as fines, probation or vacated wins and championships.

NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn confirmed the hearing was complete but both sides were mum afterward.

Osburn didn’t comment further because the panel must deliberate before issuing a ruling, which typically comes weeks to months after a hearing. UNC athletics spokesman Steve Kirschner said the school wouldn’t have any comments about the hearing either.

Getting through the hearing process was a major step toward resolution in a delay-filled case tied to irregular courses, though there’s still the potential for the case to linger beyond a ruling if UNC decides to appeal or pursue legal action. The school faces five top-level charges, including lack of institutional control.

The focus is independent study-style courses in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. The courses were misidentified as lecture classes that didn’t meet and required a research paper or two for typically high grades.

In a 2014 investigation, former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes making up roughly half the enrollments.

The NCAA has said UNC used those courses to help keep athletes eligible.

The case grew as an offshoot of a 2010 probe of the football program that resulted in sanctions in March 2012. The NCAA reopened an investigation in summer 2014, filed charges in a May 2015, revised them in April 2016 and then again in December.

Most notably, the NCAA originally treated some of the academic issues as improper benefits by saying athletes received access to the courses and other assistance generally unavailable to non-athletes. The NCAA removed that charge in the second Notice of Allegations (NOA), then revamped and re-inserted it into the third NOA.

UNC has challenged the NCAA’s jurisdiction, saying its accreditation agency — which sanctioned the school with a year of probation — was the proper authority and that the NCAA was overreaching in what should be an academic matter .

The NCAA enforcement staff countered in a July filing: “The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA’s business.”

UNC has argued non-athletes had access to the courses and athletes didn’t receive special treatment. It has also challenged Wainstein’s estimate of athlete enrollments, saying Wainstein counted athletes who were no longer team members and putting the figure at less than 30 percent.

UNC chancellor Carol Folt, athletic director Bubba Cunningham, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams and women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell attended both hearing days. Football coach Larry Fedora, who wasn’t at UNC at the time in question, attended Wednesday’s session.

None of the coaches are charged with a violation. But football and men’s basketball are referenced in the broad-based improper benefits charge tied to athlete access to the irregular courses, while women’s basketball is tied to a charge focused on a former professor and academic counselor Jan Boxill providing improper assistance on assignments.

Boxill and Deborah Crowder, who is also charged individually in the case, attended Wednesday with their attorneys but didn’t return Thursday. Crowder is a former AFAM office administrator who enrolled students, distributed assignments and graded many of the papers in irregular courses.

The infractions panel is chaired by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey and includes former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.