ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Ask Moe Wagner who he looked up to when he was younger, and suddenly the Michigan big man’s fiery demeanor makes a little more sense.
“Kevin Garnett was always my biggest idol, even though our play isn’t really similar. Just the way he brings intensity and energy to his team,” Wagner said. “That always was something that really impressed me.”
Now Wagner is providing his own emotional leadership to a Michigan team that has become one of college basketball’s most remarkable stories this March.
The Wolverines have won six in a row since they were involved in a plane accident on the eve of their Big Ten Tournament opener.
After winning that conference tourney, they opened the NCAAs with victories against Oklahoma State and Louisville – with Wagner scoring 26 points in the win over Louisville that sent Michigan to the Sweet 16.
The 19-year-old Wagner is in his second season with the Wolverines. He showed some promise in 2015-16, but averaged only 8.6 minutes a game as a freshman. He’s been a starter the whole way this season, teaming up with D.J. Wilson to give Michigan some unexpected production in the frontcourt.
The Wolverines entered the season with high hopes thanks to the presence of seniors Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin.
The 6-foot-11 Wagner has made them even tougher to defend. The sophomore from Berlin is averaging 12.2 points a game, and unlike Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan – two of Michigan’s top big men of the recent past – Wagner is a threat from beyond the arc. He’s made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2016-17, putting even more pressure on opposing teams.
An expressive player on the court, Wagner admits he’s still learning how to keep his emotions under control.
Coach John Beilein says Wagner can be hard on himself, but he has an upbeat attitude the Wolverines can appreciate.
“I don’t want to rob him of his energy and his passion,” Beilein said. “If you heard him in timeouts – I mean, he is really into it. And it’s encouraging things he’s saying.”
The key for Wagner is to stay on the court. He’s been whistled for 100 fouls this season – no other Michigan player has more than 80 – and he picked up two in the first 3:11 when the Wolverines faced Oklahoma State in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday. Wagner played only 14 minutes in that frenetic game, which Michigan won 92-91 .
Against Louisville in the round of 32 , Wagner went 11 of 14 from the field and kept his poise after being called for his second foul late in the first half.
“He’s always just been an excited guy – play hard and play with a lot of passion,” Walton said. “I don’t think anything has changed. I think he’s just channeling it a little better.”
The seventh-seeded Wolverines face third-seeded Oregon on Thursday night in a regional semifinal. Michigan has won seven in a row, a streak that began with the team’s last game of the regular season.
What happened next is well documented. The day before its opening game in the conference tournament, Michigan’s plane slid off the runway .
There were no serious injuries, and the Wolverines arrived in time to play. Then they won four games in four days to take the title.
Now, Michigan is two victories away from an improbable Final Four appearance. If the Wolverines actually make it that far, Wagner will be a big reason why – and he’ll probably be as excited as anyone.
“One of my youth coaches actually used to say that I was somebody who, like, sees the basketball court as a stage and really enjoys it,” Wagner said. “Last year, I started to understand what that actually means, and kind of embraced that this year. That’s just me. I really love it. I really enjoy it.”
Ivan Rabb announced on Wednesday that he will be declaring for the NBA Draft and foregoing his final two seasons with California.
“I want to thank everybody for their support,” Rabb said in a statement. “Since the day I committed to Cal, the love from Bay Area fans was overwhelming. I could genuinely tell that people really appreciated seeing me come to Cal and succeed and do well. Haas Pavilion will always hold a special place in my heart, and I won’t forget how incredible it felt to be “Oakland’s Own” as I ran onto the court in front of my friends, family and team.”
As a sophomore, Rabb averaged 14.0 points and 10.5 boards. He’s projected as a mid-to-late first round pick in the draft a year after making the decision to return to school as a projected lottery pick last season.
Duke’s Jayson Tatum will declare for the NBA Draft and hire an agent, the program announced on Wednesday.
Tatum is a projected top five pick in the NBA Draft. He averaged 16.8 points playing the role of small-ball four for the Blue Devils this season after missing the first month of the season with a foot injury.
“I have absolutely loved coaching Jayson Tatum,” Coach K said in a statement. “His skill set and work ethic will make him a star in the NBA. Whichever team selects him will be getting a humble, thoughtful and talented young man whom we are proud to call a member of the Duke basketball brotherhood.”
Tatum was the most talented player on the Blue Devils this season, but it was an up and down year for Duke as a whole. They were predicted by just about everyone to win the national title back in the preseason, but they eventually bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the second round.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
No. 1 seed Tar Heels aiming to remain dominant on the boards
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina coach Roy Williams has made it clear to his players for years.
When that ball goes up, the Tar Heels had better put a body on someone to box out or work to get inside position and tap a missed shot back up on the glass. And those wing players, well, they need to run in and chase down rebounds or risk earning a seat alongside their Hall of Fame coach.
That relentless approach made the Tar Heels the nation’s best rebounding team and helped them earn a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament’s South Region. It’s a key reason why they’re still alive, too, after surviving a scare to reach the Sweet 16 and face Butler on Friday in Memphis, Tennessee.
“It’s part of our job,” junior swingman Theo Pinson said. “It’s what we’re taught to do, and we need to do it.”
And no team has been this good at it in years.
North Carolina (29-7) leads the country in rebounding margin at plus-13.1, the highest average by a Division I team since Michigan State outrebounded opponents by more than 15 a game during a Final Four season in 2001. It touches everything the Tar Heels do, from snatching down a miss to secure a defensive stop, to the outlet pass that kickstarts their fast-paced offense and ultimately the work on the offensive boards that gives them extra chances around the rim.
“You’ve heard me say that a prospect came in one time and said, `I didn’t realize there was an 11th commandment: Thou shalt box out,”‘ Williams said in January. “But that’s the way I treat the game.”
This year’s Tar Heels lack the kind of dominant rebounder they had in Associated Press All-American Brice Johnson, who averaged 17.0 points and 10.4 rebounds during the Tar Heels’ run to last year’s NCAA championship game.
Six-foot-10 senior Kennedy Meeks leads UNC at 9.1 rebounds per game, but UNC gets plenty of production through its lineup; 6-9 senior Isaiah Hicks (5.7) and 6-11 freshman Tony Bradley Jr. (5.3) work inside, while the team’s perimeter length shows up with the 6-6 Pinson (4.4) and 6-8 Justin Jackson (4.7).
“I told them, gave them (Louisville coach) Rick Pitino’s old line about `Those guys aren’t walking back in that door,”‘ Williams said of losing Johnson and four-year starter Marcus Paige.
“So we started emphasizing it the first day: we’ve got to get rebounding from five people on the defensive boards. You hear us on the bench if sit close enough, all the time we’re screaming: `You’ve got to get to the boards.”‘
UNC’s work on the offensive glass stands out in particular, with Pitino noting in February that it was “an offense unto itself” and was “probably just as potent as anything they do.”
Consider: the Tar Heels lead the country in KenPom.com’s offensive rebounding percentage – a measure of possible offensive rebounds collected – at 42.2 percent. And that means the Tar Heels get roughly seven more shots per game than their opponents.
The Tar Heels have frustrated Williams at times by repeatedly batting the ball around on the glass – “all those volleyball times,” he called it – but failing to convert around the rim as efficiently as he would like.
Still, the Tar Heels average 17.6 second-chance points per game, roughly nine more than opponents. That includes Sunday, when Meeks tipped in Joel Berry II’s final-minute heave onto the backboard during a 12-0 game-closing run to rally past Arkansas 72-65 after flirting with a stunningly early exit.
“It’s a little different shooting the ball and not really feeling like, `We’re not going to get an offensive rebound,”‘ Jackson said. “But shooting the ball and knowing, `OK, we might have a chance of getting another possession or whatever,’ it gives you a little more confidence whenever you shoot it.
“For us, we have to continue to get on the offensive glass and try to dominate as much as possible in that area.”
No one has to tell Butler coach Chris Holtmann about the importance of slowing the Tar Heels on the boards. His Bulldogs (25-8) were outrebounded in their last three games before the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re going to have to rebound better because they rebound so well,” Holtmann said. “I think they’re the best offensive rebounding team in 10 years.”
Dorsey living up to X-Factor reputation in the Big Dance
Tyler Dorsey provided a preview of his tournament success in early February when the Ducks hosted then-No. 5 Arizona.
The sophomore scored 23 points, including six 3-pointers, and the Ducks routed the Wildcats 85-58. Oregon’s 16 total 3-pointers in that game were its most since opening Matthew Knight Arena in 2011.
After the victory, Dillon Brooks summed up his teammate: “Tyler’s the X-factor on our team.”
Dorsey is solidifying his reputation in the NCAA Tournament. On Sunday, he had 27 points on 9-of-10 shooting as third-seeded Oregon rallied to beat No. 11 Rhode Island 75-72 in Sacramento, California.
Dorsey hit two clutch 3-pointers, including a contested go-ahead 3 from atop the arc with 38.4 seconds to play.
“I was joking with him, `Nine for 10, how the heck did you miss that one shot?”‘ coach Dana Altman said.
The victory sent the Ducks (31-5) through to the Sweet 16 for the second straight season and third time in the past five years. They’ll face seventh-seeded Michigan on Thursday in Kansas City, Missouri.
The Wolverines (26-11) rallied to knock out second-seeded Louisville 73-69 on Sunday to earn their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2014.
The team that emerges will face the winner of Thursday’s later game between top-seeded Kansas and No. 4 Purdue at the Sprint Center.
Dorsey has been building toward this moment. He’s averaged 23.6 points in the last five games, stringing together five straight 20-point games for the first time this season.
“It’s just my teammates. They’ve been finding me, and all I’ve been doing is spotting up and making the simple play and the right play, the right basketball play,” Dorsey said. “Like coach always says, keep my focus first on defense and rebounding and the offense, let it come. That’s all I’ve been doing these last couple games, and my teammates have been having confidence in me and I’ve been knocking down the shots.”
In Oregon’s opening game against No. 14 seed Iona, Dorsey scored 24 points to lead four players in double figures for a 93-77 victory. Fourteen of his points came in the opening half.
Last season, the Ducks won a school-record 31 games while claiming the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles. They earned a first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2007.
Dorsey, who hails from Pasadena, California, averaged 13.4 points and 4.3 rebounds in 35 starts as a freshman. Overall this season, he’s averaging 14 points and 3.4 rebounds.
The Ducks earned a share the Pac-12 regular season title with Arizona this year, then lost by three points to the Wildcats in the conference tournament final. Oregon was stunned when senior big man Chris Boucher tore his left ACL in the semifinals.
Albeit in a different role, Dorsey has been able to pick up some of the slack.
“He’s a player. That scorer mentality I want him to have, but defense and rebounding, when he focuses on those two, he becomes a special player. He becomes really special,” Altman said. “I think that’s part of the reason why he’s exploded here lately, is that he’s been a complete player.”