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Heaven sent: Chat with Sister Jean brightens up Final Four

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Who needs “One Shining Moment” when you’ve got Sister Jean?

The 98-year-old nun who has become the face of this most-inspiring NCAA Tournament held court on Good Friday in one of the best-attended news conferences ever held at the Final Four.

Hundreds of reporters and cameramen jammed in, elbow-to-elbow, in an interview room that would normally draw two dozen journalists for a player.

“I walked by, and I thought it looked like Tom Brady at the Super Bowl,” Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser said.

It was more monumental than that.

This was the No. 1 fan of Moser and the Ramblers — the 11th-seeded team whose magical, miraculous run to the cusp of the title would’ve made for great theater, even without a nun.

Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt has added a completely new, unexpected and, yes, wonderful twist to the proceedings. Her 15-minute Q&A on the eve of Loyola’s game against Michigan illustrated precisely why.

She fielded questions about everything from whether God cares about basketball — “more the NCAA than the NBA” — some light trash talk with former Michigan star Jalen Rose’s 100-year-old grandma — “Somebody said, ‘Maybe you need a pair of boxing gloves’ and I said, ‘Well, we’ll see what happens'” — and what it takes to really have your prayer heard — “God always hears, but maybe He thinks it’s better for us to do the ‘L’ instead of the ‘W,’ and we have to accept that.”

A lot has changed, Sister Jean says, since the Ramblers last made history — back in 1963 when they completed an equally unexpected run by knocking off Cincinnati for the national championship.

“I watched it on a little 11-inch black-and-white TV, and the game was (tape) delayed,” she said. “And then everybody got out of the house and walked down the line on Sheridan Road, men and women together.”

Sister Jean has been on a whirlwind since the Ramblers started this unexpected return to the college basketball promised land.

That this is all happening on Easter weekend makes it that much more hectic. But, as she has shown time and again over the past three weeks, sports and religion really can mix, so long as you keep everything in perspective.

“We’re having a university Mass together on Easter Sunday,” she said. “You know, I said Easter Sunday because we hope to stay, and we’re confident enough we will.”

Sister Jean is far from the only Catholic going for glory at this Final Four. On the other side of the bracket, the Catholic school, Villanova, is represented by Rev. Rob Hagan — aka Father Rob — who told The Associated Press the matchup is “kind of like fighting with your brothers and sisters. We’re all in the same family.”

Michigan coach John Beilein used a question posed to him about Sister Jean to remind folks that he, like the Loyola-Chicago players, is a product of a Jesuit education.

“And I had a priest, not even at my own parish, stop Mass and say, ‘They have Sister Jean, you have everybody here praying for you,'” Beilein said. “It’s been a lot of fun and it’s great.”

Not that this mix of sports and religion is particularly groundbreaking. Players thank God all the time, and more often than not, their prayers and thanks go largely ignored by the mainstream media and the fans.

But college basketball is going through some rough times these days, filled with dirty coaches and agents, payoffs to players and an FBI investigation that has unmasked corruption in many corners of the game.

Change is coming.

Sister Jean’s presence has reminded everyone that the game is about more than slam dunks, busted brackets, big money and the glossy “One Shining Moment” video that wraps things up at the end.

“It’s just cool that everybody in the world knows who she is now, and they’re starting to get to see how cool she is and how amazing she is,” Ramblers guard Clayton Custer said.

On Friday, Sister Jean’s 15 minutes of fame was just that: 15 minutes, and then it was time to move onto the day’s regularly scheduled menu of interviews with coaches and players.

But she was having a grand time.

“I could stay for an hour,” she said.

Spending an hour talking hoops with a nun?

Nary a soul objected.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.