Sweet 16 Preview: Ranking eight games

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The Sweet 16 is going to kick off in less than 36 hours, which means that it is time for us to dive into the matchups and the games themselves.

Here are the eight games that we have on the docket on Thursday and Friday, with an in-depth look at each one, including some analysis on betting lines and how I expect each game to play out.

8. No. 2 DUKE vs. No. 11 SYRACUSE, Friday 9:37 p.m.

  • Line: Duke -11.5
  • O/U: 133.5
  • Projected score: Duke 72.5, Syracuse 61

All the zone! Syracuse has been playing a 2-3 zone for as long as Jim Boeheim has been a surly, bespectacled basketball coach. But now, Duke is doing the same thing! They couldn’t guard anyone when Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter were forced to run around on the perimeter, guarding small fours and switching ball-screens, but now that Duke is in this zone, they can fully take advantage of their size without having to worry about dealing with the mismatches at the other end.

I think Duke runs away with this. For starters, they have better perimeter shooters than they get credit for — both Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. can stroke it — and Bagley and Carter are both skilled and versatile enough to be killers at the high-post. Throw in that Duke is the nation’s best offensive rebounding team and Syracuse gets annihilated on the defensive glass, and I think the Blue Devils roll.

PICKS: Duke and the under. Betting Duke unders has been very profitable of late, mainly because it took a while for the public to catch up to the pace — and defense — that Duke was playing with this zone. And Syracuse? They’re not much different than Virginia, only they play a zone instead of a 2-3 (and win in the tournament … too soon?) so while 133.5 is low, I would still hammer the under here. I think this ends up somewhere around a 75-55 game. When they played in Cameron a month ago, the final score was 60-44 Duke.

7. No. 4 GONZAGA vs. No. 9 FLORIDA STATE, Thursday 10:07 p.m.

  • Line: Gonzaga -5.5
  • O/U: 153.5
  • Projected score: Gonzaga 79.5, Florida State 74

This Florida State team is not like the Florida State teams that you remember from Leonard Hamilton. In the past, Hamilton has seemingly recruited every big body that he can possibly find to pack into the paint and defend like hell while struggling to buy a bucket. This team? They have a slew of talented guards, they love to get out and run in transition and they’ll even play some small-ball.

To be honest, I think that will play into Gonzaga’s hands. The Zags have enough athletic and mobile big men to be able to handle any kind of matchup, particularly when Rui Hachimura is playing the way he has of late. The big question I have is for Josh Perkins and Silas Melson. They were not their best during the first weekend, and if they are not their best Gonzaga is only going to go so far relying on both Rui and Zach Norvell to have career performances.

PICKS: I do think Gonzaga wins, although I don’t love that line. What I do think is a sneaky-good bet is the over. The line is 153.5 while KenPom projects it at 158 points.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

6. No. 5 KENTUCKY vs. No. 9 KANSAS STATE, Thursday 9:37 p.m.

  • Line: Kentucky -5.5
  • O/U: 138.5
  • Projected score: Kentucky 72, Kansas State 66.5

Let’s pretend that Florida game three weeks ago — the one that happened in the regular season finale for the Wildcats — never happened. Erase that from your memory, and the Wildcats have won their last nine games, and many of them in impressive fashion. They’re defending at the same level they’ve guarded all year long, but with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander playing the way that he has over the course of the last two months and Kevin Knox seemingly finding more consistency, I do think that Kentucky is playing as well as anyone left in this tournament not named Villanova or Duke.

The big question here is the health of Dean Wade. He told reporters after the win over UMBC that he would be playing on Thursday night, but we’ll see if that comes to fruition. If he does play, I can’t imagine that he’ll be at 100 percent.

PICKS: If Wade plays at 100 percent, I like Kentucky here. If Wade doesn’t play or is limited, I love Kentucky. I just think the Blue Wildcats are bigger, more athletic and more talented than Kansas State at every position, and that’s not good. Even if they guard Kentucky well, they are going to get killed on the defensive glass.

5. No. 1 KANSAS vs. No. 5 CLEMSON, Friday 7:07 p.m.

  • Line: Kansas -4.5
  • O/U: 143
  • Projected score: Kansas 73.75, Clemson 69.25

I have, not once this season, believed in Clemson. Not once. And every time I don’t believe in them — in the preseason, after Donte Grantham got injured, heading into the NCAA tournament — they do something to make me look like an idiot for not believing in them. So guess what? I’m not believing in them again!

Let me rephrase that. It’s not that I don’t believe in Clemson. I’ll admit it. I messed up. They’re really good; you have to be really good to beat the SEC regular season co-champions by 41 points. But I think that the way to beat Kansas is to be able to beat them up in the paint. Take advantage of the fact that they play Svi Mykhailiuk at the four. Clemson doesn’t really do that, so I think Kansas scoots on by Clemson to face Duke in the Midwest Regional final.

PICKS: Here’s the interesting thing about this game: The line is Kansas -4.5, and the projection on KenPom is Kansas -1. Generally speaking, those are inefficiencies to capitalize on, and it makes me want to take Clemson and the points even though my gut says go the other way. When that happens, I tend to stay away.

4. No. 7 NEVADA vs. No. 11 LOYOLA-CHICAGO, Thursday 7:07 p.m.

  • Line: Nevada -1.5
  • O/U: 143.5
  • Projected score: Nevada 72.5, Loyola-Chicago 71

I think the worst thing that could have happened to Loyola-Chicago was for Nevada to win the way they won the last two games. It basically came down to Eric Musselman having guys on his roster that could makes play and didn’t care what the scoreboard said or the pressure of the moment. And now those dudes are confident.

Loyola is a good, well-coached basketball team. They execute offensively, they shoot the leather off the ball and they clearly have God on their side with Sister Jean. But I would not want to play this Nevada team with the Martin twins, Jordan Caroline and Kendell Stephens in this kind of a rhythm.

PICKS: Give me the Wolf Pack. They were able to make shots on both Texas and Cincinnati, who were two of the very best defensive teams in the country this season. Playing against Loyola, who is a good defensive team in their own right, will feel like every shot is wide-open as a result. I’d lean the under here, but I probably will stay away myself.

3. No. 3 MICHIGAN vs. No. 7 TEXAS A&M, Thursday 7:37 p.m.

  • Line: Michigan -2.5
  • O/U: 136
  • Projected score: Michigan 69.25, Texas A&M 66.75

This is a fascinating contrast in lineup builds. Michigan doesn’t have all that much size inside but is, instead, built on their ability to limit opponent possessions and stifle the ones they do get; they don’t turn the ball over, they don’t give up offensive rebounds and they are the best defensive team left in the tournament according to KenPom. The Aggies are absolutely massive upfront but have had questionable guard play all season long.

Here’s what I think the key will be: Zavier Simpson vs. T.J. Starks. Simpson can erase a point guard from a game, and Starks is a freshman that has been, at times, erasable. Will he be able to get the ball to Big Bob Williams and Tyler Davis where they can be effective? Will Simpson, and Moe Wagner, be able to create enough in John Beilein’s ball-screen offense to score on one of the nation’s top ten defensive teams?

PICKS: I think they will. I think Michigan muddies this game up, their perimeter pressure prevents A&M from getting any kind of rhythm going and they do enough offensively and on the defensive glass to win a rock fight. Michigan and the under.

Keenan Evans (John Weast/Getty Images)

2. No. 2 PURDUE vs. No. 3 TEXAS TECH, Friday 9:57 p.m.

  • Line: Purdue -1.5
  • O/U: 137.5
  • Projected score: Purdue 69.5, Texas Tech 68

What makes this game so interesting to me is that we don’t really know what Matt Painter has up his sleeve. I’m operating under the assumption that Isaac Haas isn’t playing, and that even if he does, we’re looking at a situation where he is out there for limited minutes as a motivation tool more than his usual self. I don’t care how good your brace is, imagine shooting jump-hooks with a broken elbow. I don’t see it.

Painter will have had three or four days to figure out an answer, and my guess is that they use more spread pick-and-rolls, looking to get Haarms rolling with four shooters around him. Texas Tech should actually matchup with that pretty well — I’d be more concerned about them trying to slow down Haas one-on-one on the block — given their athleticism. Hell, I could see them using lineups with Zach Smith at the five quite a bit. They also have the ultimate trump card in Keenan Evans, who has been one of the best closers in college basketball this season.

PICKS: Texas Tech with the points. The Red Raiders are good at chasing teams off of the three-point line, they matchup well with Purdue and they are, according to KenPom, the second-best defensive team left in the tournament. The best — Michigan — beat Purdue pretty handily in the Big Ten tournament title game three weeks ago. If forced to, I’d bet the under here.

1. No. 1 VILLANOVA vs. No. 5 WEST VIRGINIA, Friday 7:27 p.m.

  • Line: Villanova (-5.5)
  • O/U: 152.5
  • Projected score: Villanova 79, West Virginia 73.5

I love Jevon Carter. I have the utmost respect for what Bob Huggins has been able to do with this West Virginia program. While what he does is the polar opposite from what Tony Bennett does at Virginia, the way they do it is not all that dissimilar: They find and recruit players that are going to buy into the program, that fit what they want to do and then, over the course of four or five years, develop them into stars. Some become pros. Most don’t. But they keep winning games.

But the reason that Press Virginia works is that their defensive identity speeds opponents up and forces them to make mistakes. No one is speeding Jalen Brunson up. No one is going to rattle him. Villanova doesn’t make mistakes. They don’t turn the ball over. But they do make a ton of threes, and what I’m picturing in my head is Jay Wright’s club breaking this West Virginia pressure with relative ease and getting open three after open three at the other end.

PICKS: I think Villanova covers fairly easily. The question here is whether or not you think West Virginia is going to keep their press on for the whole game. If they don’t — if they settle into a half-court defense or play a token, full-court man-to-man — then Villanova sometimes takes the air out of the ball. I’d bet the over, but I’m not entirely confident in that.

Memphis to recruit in style with new souped-up van

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Traveling during live recruiting periods isn’t the most enjoyable process for college basketball coaches, with many having to work their way through airports and car rental lines in order to keep tabs on players they’re recruiting. For the programs at the top of the sport a private plane may be available, which certainly helps.

In the case of Penny Hardaway’s Memphis program, the coaching staff will be hitting the road in style as he showed off a new, souped-up van via his Twitter account Tuesday afternoon.

Notice the “One Cent” logo in the headrests, making it clear whose van it is and what Hardaway’s accomplished in the game of basketball as a player. For those too young to be intimately familiar with his playing career, Hardaway’s work with the Bluff City Legends (named Team Penny when he was in charge) on the Nike EYBL circuit and at Memphis East HS will likely register.

Since Hardaway’s hiring he and his staff, which includes assistants Tony Madlock and two-time NBA champion Mike Miller, have made Memphis a player on the recruiting trail. Will the van reel in top prospects? Maybe, maybe not. But there’s no denying the fact that Hardaway and his staff have already managed to connect in a way that the prior coaching staff was unable to.

Now we wait for the anonymous complaint from another athletic department to the NCAA about Hardaway and Memphis having this van, because that’s generally the way in which these things work.

NABC sends out talking points ahead of Rice Commission announcement

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Wednesday morning the NCAA will announced the recommendations of the Rice Commission, which is headed by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. The commission was formed in the aftermath of the FBI’s September arrest of ten individuals in connection with an investigation into corruption and bribes in college basketball recruiting back, with the stated goal being to introduce reforms that would “clean up” the sport.

NBC Sports obtained an email the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) sent out to its members in preparation for Wednesday’s announcement. In the email, the NABC provided “talking points” while also encouraging coaches to support the Rice Commission’s findings — whether they agree with them or not.

“In short, it is imperative that the Commission’s recommendations be met with unequivocal support from each of us. The NABC Board of Directors affirmed the necessity of this unified response on a conference call earlier today,” the statement sent out by the NABC read.

The key talking points are:

  • Change was necessary, and we knew change was coming. As coaches on the front lines, we are uniquely positioned to offer valuable insight as the Commission’s recommendations progress through the legislative process;
  • As coaches, we are committed to working with the NCAA in evaluating the recommendations and will provide appropriate input as legislation is drafted;
  • We are appreciative of the Commission’s efforts to address necessary change, and for welcoming the input of the NABC.

The Rice Commission’s recommendations are highly anticipated in college basketball circles, and it remains to be seen just how quickly the NCAA would go about implementing them. One topic that’s bound to be discussed is the “one and done” player, but it once again must be noted that this is something controlled by the NBA and its Players Association (via the collective bargaining agreement). There’s also the connection with shoe companies, which became an even bigger point of conversation in the aftermath of the FBI arrest.

Hearing what coaches have to say about the Rice Commission’s findings would have been interesting. But with the NABC looking to present a unified front, there may not be much to take from what the coaches say in the aftermath of Wednesday’s announcement.

Kansas made no written report of its athletics review

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — The University of Kansas did not produce any written reports of an independent examination of its athletics department amid a federal investigation of corruption in college basketball because an external report wasn’t necessary, Chancellor Douglas Girod said.

The university review came before Kansas was named earlier this month as one of the schools where a former Adidas representative allegedly arranged payments to parents of athletes to ensure the athletes committed to the schools.

Girold said Monday he was given verbal briefings after last fall’s review but he didn’t receive any written reports. The university’s review was prompted by an Oct. 11 memo from the NCAA requiring Division I basketball programs to examine their men’s basketball programs “for possible NCAA rules violations, including violations related to offers, inducements, agents, extra benefits, and other similar issues.”

On April 13, Girod said in a statement that he had “complete confidence” that the athletics department had followed all rules.

“We didn’t feel the need to release an external report,” Girod said. “What we needed to be sure of is that we are comfortable and confident in the way our team operates and in meeting any and every requirement necessary.”

When The Lawrence Journal-World filed an open records request seeking all written reports related to the review Kansas officials said no such records exist. The newspaper said without a written report it was difficult to determine what the university examined and what methods were used.

Kansas hired an outside law firm but said the firm only provided assistance on technical matters.

Girod said Monday the examination reviewed several records to determine whether there is anything the university should be concerned about and found nothing.

The latest federal indictment in the wider investigation alleges that a former Adidas executive paid a mother and a guardian of two basketball players at least $130,000 to ensure they would play for the Jayhawks. No Kansas officials were implicated.

“We have gone back to look at anything we have access to, and we can’t find any evidence of that,” Girod said. “But we don’t have access to everything. That is all we really can do — make sure that on our side of the house we are doing everything appropriately and properly.”

Milwaukee to lose top three scorers to transfer

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Milwaukee announced this week that the three leading scorers off of last season’s fifth-place Horizon League team have been given their release to transfer out of the program.

Jeremiah Bell (14.1 ppg) and Brock Stull (13.4 ppg), both junior guards, as well as sophomore forward Bryce Nze (10.3 ppg) will all pursue other opportunities, which is trouble for a program with a coach that just finished his first season and a roster that finished below .500 on the season.

“Our staff wishes this group of players nothing but the best,” coach Pat Baldwin said in the statement. “We never like to see players leave, but each student-athlete has a unique set of circumstances and feels what is best for them is somewhere else. As they all wish to pursue options at the high-major level, we do want to thank them for their contributions to the Milwaukee basketball program.”

Commission to unveil ideas to fix college basketball’s woes

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — College basketball played an entire season amid a federal corruption investigation that magnified long-simmering troubles within the sport, from shady agent dealings to concerns over athletes who’d rather go straight to the pros.

Now it’s time to hear new ideas on how to fix the complex, wide-ranging problems.

On Wednesday morning, the commission headed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will present its proposed reforms to university presidents of the NCAA Board of Governors and the Division I Board of Directors at the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. And that starts what could be a complicated process in getting changes adopted and implemented for next season.

“I expect the proposals will be strong,” NCAA president Mark Emmert told The Associated Press. “They’ll certainly break with the status quo. That’s their charge and their mission. That’s what we need.

“I think it’s going to be a very good day for college sports,” he said.

That would be welcome, considering there has been no shortage of bad days in recent months.

The Commission on College Basketball formed in October , a few weeks after federal prosecutors announced they had charged 10 men — including assistant coaches at Arizona, Auburn, USC and Oklahoma State along with a top Adidas executive — in a fraud and bribery scandal.

The case involves hundreds of thousands of dollars in alleged bribes and kickbacks designed to influence recruits on choosing a school, agent or apparel company. And it has entangled schools such as Kansas, North Carolina State , Louisville and Miami , among others, though prosecutors withdrew a criminal complaint in Feburary against one of the defendants, a youth hoops program director.

Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford said that case has put college sports in the position of reacting instead of proactively heading off yet-to-emerge problems.

“Sometimes unfortunately that’s what it takes,” Swofford told the AP. “You’d like to think that collectively the basketball world could’ve seen this coming and had the foresight to get out ahead of it. But that’s not reality. Organizations and people, we all sometimes need wake-up calls. And I see this as a wake-up call, and therefore an opportunity.”

One the Rice commission wants to seize.

It was charged with finding ways to reform and modernize rules, including looking at the NCAA’s relationship with the NBA, youth leagues, apparel companies and agents. It was also set to review an enforcement process that frequently takes years to resolve complicated cases of potentially major rules violations.

The commission features several prominent names in the sport, including former NBA stars Grant Hill and David Robinson, former Georgetown coach John Thompson III, retired college coach Mike Montgomery and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.

“The stage is set, certainly, given what’s happened with law enforcement and what we’ve seen in media reports around men’s basketball at the collegiate level,” Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey told the AP. “You involve Condoleezza Rice because you want an impactful outcome.”

After Rice presents Wednesday morning, the boards will meet to consider adopting the commission’s recommendations, either fully or in part. The next stop would be the Division I Council, a group mostly made up of athletic directors, to craft legislation for implementation.

Emmert said the council is already forming subgroups to deal with the targeted areas the commission is expected to address, with the goal of having legislation ready to be presented by August in time for next season.

Swofford, for one, said he’d prefer to end the one-and-done model of top NBA prospects arriving in college for one-year pit stops before turning professional, though that would also take agreement from the NBA. Swofford prefers a model similar to baseball by allowing high schoolers to go straight to the pros but require players who enter college to spend two years there.

He’d also like to see the NBA-run G League become a stronger developmental option for athletes who don’t want to come to college, a path recently chosen by former Syracuse recruit and McDonald’s All-American Darius Bazley.

Regardless, Swofford said, changes must be broad-based because “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet here” to fix everything. And he expects the commission to offer “substantive” findings.

“If we can’t react to something like this in a way that brings significant improvement to the system and to what we’re doing, shame on us,” Swofford said.