Isaiah Hicks, the unlikely hero, leads North Carolina to title-game win

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — The coldest man in college basketball was the hero on Monday night.

North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks had missed 15 of the first 17 shots that he took in the Final Four. He made the last four, including a basket with 25 seconds left on the clock to give North Carolina a 68-65 lead. One possession earlier, with 1:25 left in the game, Gonzaga’s star point guard and all-american Nigel Williams-Goss rolled his right ankle. On the ensuing possession, after the Zags used a time out, he missed a pull-up jumper and after Hicks bucket, Williams-Goss had a shot blocked by Kennedy Meeks. On the previous two possessions, Williams-Goss had scored.

North Carolina would go on to win 71-65, earning a national title almost a year to the day after they had their hearts broken by Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating, title-winning three.

“It felt like last game I was trying and nothing was going in. Everybody was saying I was frustrated; thought I was frustrated and everything,” Hicks said. “But I really wanted it. It’s all about the next thing. And tonight I just really wanted to get after it.”

The story of the game ended up being the referees. There were 43 fouls called on the night, 26 of them coming in the second half. Both teams were in the bonus with 14 minutes left in the second half, a half where there were 23 fouls called in the first 15 minutes and every big man on the floor played their way into foul trouble. It took all the rhythm out of the game and played a pretty big role in why neither team was able to find a groove offensively. At one point, with seven minutes left in the half, the two teams had combined to shoot 11-for-42 from the floor.

“It’s a very difficult game to call. I’m sitting over there, I’m not thinking the officials are doing a terrible job. I swear to goodness, that’s not what I’m thinking. I’m thinking our offense stinks,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said. “I mean, serious. I told them don’t worry about what the referee is doing, he missed a call, but, my God, we missed four free throws in a row, missed layups. So we were at fault just as much as anybody else.”

Hicks changed the game in the second half. He had spent the first 60 minutes of the Final Four playing abysmal basketball, shooting 2-for-17 from the floor while shooting with the kind of confidence that Karl Malone with have. Three minutes into the second half, he committed an awful turnover that ended an 8-0 North Carolina run and set the Zags up for an 8-0 run of their own, a surge that ended what felt like a game-changing swing of momentum at the start of the second half.

But Hicks finally found the rhythm down the stretch. He had three huge buckets midway through the half, a stretch where North Carolina’s offense went ice cold, and scored the bucket to put the Tar Heels up three with 25 seconds left.

“Isaiah made, I think, I don’t have the stat — I have a stat sheet but I don’t have play-by-play. Things have been swirling around,” Williams said. “But, I think Isaiah made two big baskets in the last three minutes. And I think that that was just a youngster willing the ball in the hole, because he had stunk it up for the last couple of weeks most of the time.”

Josh Perkins was averaging 5.2 points and shooting 34.8 percent from the floor in the first five games of the NCAA tournament, but his play buoyed Gonzaga in the first half, scoring 13 points — more than he’s scored in any game since Feb. 23rd, a total he eclipsed just twice since Christmas — and helping Gonzaga jump out to an early nine-point lead, but the Zags, overall, did not play all that well in the first 20 minutes. They entered the break up just 35-32 despite the fact that Berry and Jackson combined to shoot just 5-for-16 from the floor; Jackson was 0-for-6 from three.

As a team, the Tar Heels posted their second-worst shooting first half of the season at 30.6 percent; the loser was their blowout loss at Miami in February.

“26-for-73, you’re not going to win many games; 57 percent from the free-throw line you’re not going to win many games,” Jackson said. “But those last three minutes I think we made plays that ended up calling the game. And for us we’re just happy we came out on top, and this is an amazing feeling.”

North Carolina did, however, win the battle of the big men in the first half, as both Karnowski and Collins picked up two fouls in the first 20 minutes. Karnowski went 0-for-4 in the half, turning the ball over three times, while Collins lasted all of eight minutes before getting into foul trouble. Meeks, fresh off his 25-point, 14-rebound performance against Oregon in the Final Four, had just four points and five boards and Hicks’ struggles continued, as he went 1-for-5 in the half, but getting the Gonzaga bigs out of the game is what opened up the offensive glass and allowed UNC to get back into the game. The Tar Heels had three offensive boards in the first 16 minutes; they had five in the final four and took the lead back within the first 30 seconds of the second half.

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averaged 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.

Report: Nike, Adidas and Under Armour all pass on sponsoring Lonzo Ball

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Lonzo Ball will enter his rookie season in the NBA without a sponsorship deal from Nike, Adidas or Under Armour, only his family’s Big Baller Brand apparel.

That, according to a report from ESPN, is due to his father LaVar’s insistence that Lonzo not sign with one of the three major apparel companies unless they opted to sign a licensing deal for Big Baller Brand merchandise instead of outfitting Lonzo with their own gear.

“We’ve said from the beginning, we aren’t looking for an endorsement deal,” LaVar told ESPN. “We’re looking for co-branding, a true partner. But they’re not ready for that because they’re not used to that model. But hey, the taxi industry wasn’t ready for Uber, either.”

LaVar had been representing his son in the negotiations, and is now expected to reach out to other shoe brands, including Chinese apparel companies like Li-Nang.

Big Baller Brand is a startup apparel company launched by LaVar Ball. They sell t-shirts, sweatshirts and hats, with most of their products costing at least $50.

Lonzo declared for the NBA Draft after an all-american season that saw him and the UCLA Bruins flame out of the NCAA tournament in the Sweet 16. UCLA lost to Kentucky in that game, and Lonzo had a quiet night while his point guard counterpart, De’Aaron Fox, went off for 39 points.

Lonzo is a likely top three pick in the NBA Draft and, potentially, could still end up going No. 1. He has two younger brothers as well. LiAngelo will be a freshman with the Bruins next season while LaMelo just finished his sophomore season in high school. Both will attend UCLA.