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Sweet 16 Breakdowns: How the South will be won

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This is where you want to be this weekend.

Beyond the fact that Beale Street is awesome and the ribs in the city are amazing, Memphis will be playing host to the three of the biggest brands in college basketball, three of the four best teams left in the tournament and what is, by a good margin, the best regional left. 

Let’s take a deeper look at it.

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA

How they can get to the Final Four: The most important thing for the Tar Heels is going to be making sure that Joel Berry II is healthy and playing well. It’s not a secret that this team goes as Berry goes, and he’s not been good through the first two games of the NCAA tournament. He was 1-for-8 from the floor against Texas Southern in the opener and went 2-for-13 from the field as the Tar Heels found themselves unexpectedly in a dogfight with Arkansas in the second round of the tournament.

Berry turned an ankle in UNC’s first round game, and that may have hampered him against the Razorbacks, so, in theory, he should be healthy and ready to for the Sweet 16. Whether or not he makes shots in a different story.

The other part of this, for UNC at least, is that they are going to need their front court to be dominant. The Tar Heels are going to have an advantage in the paint in just about every game they play the rest of the season. Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley are big, physical and skilled, and all three can score in the post and crash the glass extremely hard. There is a reason that this team leads the nation in offensive rebounding this season, and all three of the teams that join them in the South Region are significantly smaller on the front line. Kentucky plays either Derek Willis or Wenyen Gabriel at the four. UCLA plays T.J. Leaf and, at times, Lonzo Ball at the four. Andrew Chrabacsz is good, but he shouldn’t keep Isaiah Hicks from getting to the glass.

That’s where UNC has their advantage.

The one other note to make about UNC: Theo Pinson is a terrific defender. At 6-foot-6 and as athletic as he is, putting him on Kelan Martin, Lonzo Ball or Malik Monk should help keep those three from getting into the kind of rhythm they can get into.

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

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Why they won’t get to the Final Four: Generally speaking, North Carolina doesn’t really have awful games. They have a floor that is higher than just about anyone’s floor in the country this season. That’s what tends to happen when you’re a team built around post touches and offensive rebounds.

But the ceiling for the Tar Heels isn’t as high as the ceiling for UCLA or the ceiling for Kentucky. To me, there isn’t a team in the country that can beat the Bruins when the Bruins play their best. And based on what happened back in December, it’s pretty clear that Kentucky’s best is better than North Carolina’s best; I’m not sure the Tar Heels could have played better than they did when Malik Monk scored 47 points in a 103-102 win over the Tar Heels.

The addition of Theo Pinson helps. I don’t think Monk gets 47 in that game if Pinson plays, and his presence should help keep the best players on all three potential opponents from going crazy. But the bottom line is this: there is a very realistic scenario in which North Carolina can play well and still find themselves on the wrong end of the scoreline in the Elite 8.

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No. 2 KENTUCKY

How they can get to the Final Four: The obvious answer here is Malik Monk, and yeah. That’s hard to disagree with. He’s proven time and again this season that, when he gets into a rhythm, he can carry Kentucky as far as he’s willing to take them. When he sees a couple shots go through the rim, it’s time for Kentucky to feed him until he burps.

But the ‘Oh, please let Malik Monk have a good game’ strategy is far from ideal because, quite simply, he’s not going to go crazy in four consecutive games against good teams with good defenders and good coaches. That’s a big ask, and that’s why the Wildcats are going to go as far as De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo take them. Adebayo has been awesome over the course of the last five or six weeks, as he’s finally seeming to come into his own as a punishing, overpowering low-post presence. He has five double-doubles in his last nine games, and two more games where he was one rebound short of a double-double.

And Fox?

He’s still turning the ball over a bit more than John Calipari would probably prefer, but his quickness and explosiveness are unquestionably back, and he looks as confident and capable, particularly in crunch time, as he did early in the season.

It’s not a coincidence that, as those two have come back into form, Kentucky now has the nation’s longest active win streak.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: There are a lot of easy answers to give here. Maybe Malik Monk falls back in love with contested jumpers and goes 3-for-20 in a loss. Maybe Kentucky forgets to play through Bam Adebayo, or maybe De’Aaron Fox becomes a turnover machine.

That’s all possible.

But you know what?

It’s also very possible that Kentucky can play really, really well throughout the second weekend of the tournament and still find themselves on the wrong side of a score line. You can play well and lose to UCLA. You can play well and lose to North Carolina. Hell, Butler has two wins over Villanova and a win over Arizona this season. They’re in the toughest region in the Sweet 16, and only one of the four teams in Memphis can make it out.

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No. 3 UCLA

How they can get to the Final Four: By shooting the grip off the ball.

The bottom line is this: When UCLA’s offense is firing on all cylinders, no one is slowing them down. Ask Cincinnati. The Bearcats have a top 15 defense nationally, and for 15 minutes in the second half on Sunday night, UCLA made them look like a CYO team.

And rest assured, UCLA can do that against anyone. They won a game in Rupp Arena when they gave up 92 points on a night where Lonzo Ball played like he was shaving points in the first ten minutes. They’ve hit 19 threes in a game. Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford, T.J. Leaf and Aaron Holiday can all pop off for 25 minutes on a given night, and Ball is about as good as it gets when it comes to making big shots in big moments.

There really isn’t all that much else to add about the Bruins.

There are no secrets about what they’re going to do. The question is if your team has the ability to stop it.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: The defensive side of the ball. It’s not a secret. We all know the facts here. UCLA is not always a good defensive team. Some of it is effort — it’s not exactly breaking news that they have a habit of not giving effort defensively when they don’t have to — and some of it is the simple fact that their key players are just not all that good defensively. Bryce Alford get’s targeted by opposing coaches. Isaac Hamilton isn’t a great defender, neither is T.J. Leaf.

In the Sweet 16 matchup, I’d expect Ball to spend most of his time on Fox while Holiday and Hamilton chase around Monk; I’m not sure Steve Alford wants to burn out Ball’s legs by having him run around nine screens every possession. But that then leaves Bryce Alford on Isaiah Briscoe, which is a matchup that Briscoe should be able to take full advantage of. In a potential Elite 8 game against North Carolina, the Bruins are going to have to trust Leaf to be able to keep one of Hicks or Meeks off of the offensive glass. That’s a tough ask.

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

No. 4 BUTLER

How they can get to the Final Four: The simple answer is finding a way to get stops. Butler is sitting in a region with three of the nation’s 13-best offenses, according to KenPom, and frankly, I think that the way that Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox are currently playing means that Kentucky’s spot as the nation’s 13th-most efficient offensive attack is probably underrated.

Seriously, think about this.

To get to the Final Four, Butler is going to have to find a way to beat a North Carolina team that leads the nation in offensive rebounding with three front court players bigger and better than their biggest and best, and that’s after they find a way to keep Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson front going off. Then and only then can we talk about what they’re going to do about Lonzo Ball and that high-octane UCLA offense or how they’re going to try and chase Malik Monk off of the three-point line.

There’s a very real argument to make that Butler is in a region with the three best teams left in the tournament. They’ve proven they’re good enough to get something like this done, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: The simple fact of the matter here is that Butler is totally outclassed in terms of talent by the other three teams in this region. Kentucky and UCLA have future NBA first round picks up and down their roster. North Carolina has a couple, and they’re flanked by a half-dozen former four- and five-star prospects playing for a Hall of Fame head coach.

Butler?

They feel like a Cinderella in this league, even through they are a No. 4 seed from the Big East that swept Villanova, beat Arizona and knocked off Xavier twice. I don’t think anyone is really expecting all that much out of Butler this weekend, and if you know anything about the history of that program, that’s usually when they’re at their most dangerous.

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.