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2018 NCAA Tournament: Big men that will break your bracket

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There’s a line of thinking that the NCAA tournament is a guard’s game, and there’s ample evidence of its veracity when we look back at runs by Kemba Walker’s UConn, Kris Jenkins and and Josh Hart’s Villanova and Russ Smith’s Louisville in recent years. Don’t, though, forget the big guys. Here’s a list of post presences that could help determine a national champion – and your bracket pool winner.

Marvin Bagley III, Duke: The Blue Devils freshman was the toast of the sport early in the season before being overshadowed by Trae Young, but he’s been consistently great. He’s great around the bucket, good enough from distance to keep defenses honest and rebounds at a high level. He may not be June’s No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, but he ain’t slipping past five, either.

Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic, Arizona: This is about as close to a throwback frontcourt as you’ll see – despite the fact that Ayton fits well enough in the modern game to be a potential No. 1 pick in June. It’s rare that a team can put two seven-footers on the floor and make it work, but Arizona’s pair can make it work. Still, it’s Ayton that fuels this pairing as he’s established himself as a dominant force inside and capable of keeping the Wildcats moving through the bracket.

Michael Porter, Jr., Missouri: Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon held down the fort inside all season long for the Tigers, but they’re now adding Michael Porter, Jr. to the mix – which could either make them fearsome up front or create a rocky fit. It’s one of the big bets of the NCAA tournament that coach Cuonzo Martin is making here. The upside is massive given Porter, Jr.’s talent.

Isaac Haas, Purdue: It’s pretty astounding that the Boilermakers lost Caleb Swanigan, one of the best big men the sport has seen in recent years, and somehow had a better season. Isaac Haas is a big reason why. The 7-foot-2 senior is on the floor more this year without Swanigan now that coach Matt Painer doesn’t have to juggle the two big men, and Haas has upped his production as a result. His size and skill bends the defense like few other players in the country.

Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward, Michigan State: Jackson is the darling of NBA scouts with his modern game while Ward is a more traditional big man – together they make up an incredibly dynamic and productive frontcourt for the Spartans. Ward is the country’s most prolific offensive rebounder and Jackson is one of the top shotblockers in the nation. And both shoot better than 60 percent from the floor.

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Luke Maye, North Carolina: Maye went from a nice story on last year’s national champion Tar Heels to one of the most productive players in the country this year. He’s averaging a double-double of 17.2 points and 10.1 rebounds as his role has exploded from bit player to star for coach Roy Williams.

Killian Tillie, Gonzaga: With all the turnover off last year’s national runners-up, Tillie has seen his role and his production trend way up. He’s one of the most efficient scorers in the country with a true-shooting percentage of 68.2, which is top-10 nationally. He’s not as proficient as a shotblocker and rebounder, but he’s a major problem for defenses.

Udoka Azubuike, Kansas: The Jayhawks’ roster is incredibly dependent on Azubuike given the dearth of other options inside, making his health status one of the more important subplots of the NCAA tournament. The sophomore missed the Big 12 tournament due to a knee injury, but is expected to return to the court this week. His presence inside really facilitates Kansas’ guard-oriented and 3-point heavy approach.

Mike Daum, South Dakota State: The 6-foot-9 Jackrabbit may be the best mid-major player in the tournament. He’s a high-usage player with a 59.5 true shooting percentage and rebounds on the defensive end at a high rate. His athleticism isn’t going to wow anyone, but his ability to score at every level and in unique ways makes him an incredibly tough cover. If South Dakota State turns into this year’s Cinderella, it’ll be Daum who fit them with the glass slipper.

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Angel Delgado, Seton Hall: The 6-foot-10 senior is a double-double machine, averaging 13.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. His prowess on the glass is what separates him from the rest of the big man pack as he’s elite on both the offensive and defensive ends on the floor in that area. He’s not a prolific scorer, but he creates extra shots for the Pirates and limits those extra opportunities for their opponents.

Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, Texas A&M: Another super-sized frontcourt that harkens back to a different era of basketball. Both of these guys are great around the rim, but not threats from the 3-point arc. Williams is a fantastic shotblocker while Davis is a great offensive rebounder.

Mohamed Bamba, Texas: Bamba appears to have healed up from a sprained toe and will try to help the Longhorns escape the first weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012. The 6-foot-11 freshman with an expansive wingspan is one of the most impactful defenders in the country as an elite shotblocker. His offensive game lags behind his defense, but he is capable of causing headaches for opponents on that end as well.

Big 12 Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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While the final standings of the Big 12 may have been predictable, the conference’s tournament is going to be anything but. When a league is projected to get up to 80 percent of its members into the NCAA tournament, “anything is possible” isn’t a cliche or tired slogan, it’s honestly a reality.

Kansas won its 14th-straight Big 12 regular season title, setting the standard for dominance in this recent era, but the Jayhawks did it this season without an overwhelming talent or athletic advantage that has so often been the mark of Bill Self’s teams. In fact, there was a fleeting moment when it looked like the Jayhawks’ streak may come to an end. It was a moment, albeit a silly one.

The story of the Big 12 tournament is that there are legitimately nine teams that conceivably could be the last one standing at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, and the 10th-place team, Iowa State, has been beset by injuries but the Cyclones have won three of the last four Big 12 tournaments, boast a fanbase that invades Kansas City and have three wins over ranked teams themselves.

So the question becomes not only who will win the Big 12 tournament, but how many teams will the league get into the Big Dance? If it’s eight, that will set a record for highest percentage of a conference’s teams earning bids ever. Things may have to break just right – and if they break perfectly maybe we’re talking about nine – that might be the most likely scenario, not just a long-shot one.

It’s the Big 12. Who knows what’s going to happen?

 

THE FAVORITE

Despite having perhaps his weakest and most ill-fitting roster, Bill Self got the Jayhawks on top of the heap once again, even giving them enough leeway that dropping a second game to Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale didn’t hurt them. Kansas may not look like one of heavy national title contenders – despite being in line for a one-seed – in the eyes of most, but there’s pretty convincing argument that this is the most impressive of the Jayhawks’ 14 titles, especially when you consider the strength of the rest of the league

Still, the Jayhawks are vulnerable on a number of fronts. The defense can be beat, they’re 3-point dependent and Self has struggled to motivate some of his players at different times this season, complaining about effort and focus.

They’re the favorite, but not an overwhelming one.

THE CONTENDERS

If Keenan Evans doesn’t get hurt, we very well could be talking about Texas Tech as the team that finally ended Kansas’ reign. After looking like a potential Big 12 player of the year, a toe injury sapped Evans’ ability to the point where a player who was routinely putting up 30 a night suddenly couldn’t even crack double-digits. It’s not surprising the Red Raiders lost four-straight – and a potential conference crown – with Evans on the mend.

Evans, after missing a game against West Virginia, returned over the weekend and got 23 against TCU, signalling he may be ready to go this week and keep Kansas from winning another Big 12 title this season.

The other frontrunner here has to be Bob Huggins and West Virginia. The Mountaineers had a late-January lull, but have otherwise been solid. They don’t make a ton of shots, but here’s betting their style of play can wear down opponents in a game-a-day format.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

It’s easily Oklahoma. Sure, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State could all use a dub, but the Sooners would be toying with an epic and embarrassing collapse if they lose in the first round and somehow find themselves outside the Field of 68. This is a team that spent much of the season’s first two months looking like a Final Four contender while Trae Young carved up the country.

Now the Sooners are hanging on for dear life having lost seven of their last nine and Young looking completely human. They could lose to Oklahoma State on Wednesday and still sneak in, but they’ve got the most to lose should they falter.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

The Sooners’ spot is tenuous while Kansas State and Baylor both have to be thinking that one win in Kansas City ought to get them in the field. Oklahoma State probably will need a couple wins to counteract a non-conference schedule that features a win over Florida State and not a whole lot else. The good news for the Cowboys is it looks like they just might have the Jayhawks’ number should the two teams meet in Thursday’s quarterfinal.

THE SLEEPER

When Jaylen Fisher went down to injury, it was a major blow to TCU, but the Horned Frogs come to KC playing good ball. They fell to Texas Tech in the finale in Lubbock, but had won four-straight before that. Their offense is absolutely elite with plenty of shooters around Vlad Brodziansky, who can step out and stroke it himself. TCU’s defense may be suspect, but the way they can spread you out and fill it up makes them a sneaky pick to be hoisting a trophy Saturday night.

PLAYER TO WATCH

I know you’re probably tired of hearing and reading about him, but no player has more at stake at the Sprint Center than Trae Young. It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t mention his name without quickly comparing him to Steph Curry, and it was just a few weeks back when his lead in the national player of the year race looked insurmountable.

Young’s legacy as a college player will be decided in the next couple weeks. Well, it could be if the Sooners’ season doesn’t end Wednesday night. Whatever struggles Young has had the last few weeks – and he was right when he said he gets guarded like no other player in the country – he can quiet all his critics with one monster month of March.

X-FACTORS

– Teams are going to key on Devonte Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk and surround Udoka Azubuike, so Kansas is going to need to get contributions from Malik Newman. If Newman can provide some pop offensively, Kansas will be in good shape.

– How healthy is Mo Bamba? The Texas freshman is dealing with a toe injury that coach Shaka Smart said makes him questionable heading into play this week. The Longhorns may not need Bamba to get past Iowa State in their opener, but if they have designs on making a serious run this week, they’re going to need their man in the middle. When he’s on his game and playing at his best, he has the ability to completely change the dynamic of a game.

– Try making sense of Baylor. The Bears opened Big 12 play with 2-7 mark before reeling off five-straight to get back in to the NCAA tournament conversation. Now, though, Scott Drew’s team has lost three of its last four. The team that won five straight can win this thing. The team that started and finished the Big 12 slate could easily go out Thursday.

NBC SPORTS BIG 12 HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Devonte Graham, Kansas

COACH OF THE YEAR: Bill Self, Kansas

FIRST TEAM ALL-BIG 12

  • Devonte Graham, Kansas
  • Trae Young, Oklahoma
  • Keenan Evans, Texas Tech
  • Jevon Carter, West Virginia
  • Mohamed Bamba, Texas

SECOND TEAM ALL-BIG 12

  • Dean Wade, Kansas State
  • Sagaba Konate, West Virginia
  • Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas
  • Manu Lecomte, Baylor
  • Barry Brown, Kansas State

Did TCU play the cast from ‘The Office’?

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TCU, on a foreign tour of Australia, picked up a 107-81 victory over the Longhorns on Sunday afternoon at Eagle Stadium in Werribee, Victoria, Australia.

Desmond Bane had 21 points off the bench to lead the Horned Frogs, followed by 19 points and eight assists from Alex Robinson. Redshirt freshman forward Kouat Noi was one-rebound shy of a double-double with 16 points and nine rebounds.

As for the Longhorns, they were led by 28 points, off 10-of-14 shooting, from Jim Halpert. Yes, that Jim Halpert, the prankster paper salesman from the legendary comedy, ‘The Office’.

According to Ben Baby of the Dallas Morning News, the Longhorns did have their names in the official scorer’s book. The statistician improvised, naming each player after a member of the fictional Dunder Mifflin Scranton Branch.

Meredith Palmer, the branch’s Supplier Relations Representative, contributed 17 points and six boards. Michael Scott proved his performance against the warehouse staff in 2005 was an off day and, in fact, he does “typically hit those.”

TCU, a fringe top-25 team entering the 2017-18 season, concludes its trip to Australia on Tuesday against the Knox Raiders at State Basketball Centre in Melbourne.

March Madness 2017: Big 12 Tournament Preview, Bracket and Conference Postseason Awards

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Big 12 Player of the Year: Frank Mason III, Kansas

Mason’s play this season makes him the no-brainer conference player of the year and perhaps the frontrunner for the national award. He’s averaging 20.5 points, 5.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 48.8 percent from the field and a sizzling 49.3 percent from 3-point range for the potential No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

Big 12 Coach of the Year: Bill Self, Kansas

There was a temptation to reward Brad Underwood for Oklahoma State’s turnaround, but it’s impossible not to recognize Self leading his program not only to a 13th-straight conference title, but doing it by four games in the country’s toughest league. Kansas may have the top talent in the league year in and year out, but Self’s presence on the sideline guarantees it comes together year in and year out. This season was no exception.

First-Team All-Big 12:

  • Frank Mason III, Kansas (POY)
  • Monte Morris, Iowa State: The nation’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio is as consistent an elite presence on the floor as there is in the country.
  • Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: The most dynamic and important piece of the country’s best offense, Evans averaged 18.7 points per game.
  • Josh Jackson, Kansas: Mason is Kansas’ MVP, but Jackson is the Jayhawks’ most difficult matchup and is a likely top-five NBA draft pick.
  • Johnathan Motley, Baylor: The big man doubled his rebounding output this season to average a double-double of 17.5 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Second Team All-Big 12:

  • Jevon Carter, West Virginia
  • Jeffrey Carroll, Oklahoma State
  • Devonte Graham, Kansas
  • Deonte Burton, Iowa State
  • Jo Lual-Acuil, Baylor

RELATED: Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | NBC Sports All-Americans

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The thought was coming into the year that the Big 12 would be down this season, but for the fourth-straight year it ranked as the country’s best conference by KenPom. Another thing that didn’t change was Kansas winning the league, making it 13 in a row for the Jayhawks. The league isn’t going to send a huge number to the NCAA tournament this season, but make no mistake, the conference’s round-robin schedule was a grind, making it all the more impressive Kansas cleared the league by four games.

The Bracket

When: March 8-11

Where: Sprint Center; Kansas City, Mo.

Final: Saturday, March 11, 6 p.m.

Favorite: Kansas

The Jayhawks are clearly the class of the Big 12, winning the conference by its largest margin since 2010. Kansas isn’t invulnerable at the Sprint Center, as the rest of the league has more than enough firepower to threaten them, but there’s no argument that makes anyone else the favorite.

And if they lose?: West Virginia

The Mountaineers should have swept Kansas this year. They rocked them in Morgantown, but blew a late lead in spectacular fashion in Lawrence later in the season. Their Press Virginia style seems to seriously bother the Jayhawks, and it could make for a raucous title game.

MORGANTOWN, WV - JANUARY 24: Head coach Bob Huggins of the West Virginia Mountaineers reacts to a call in the second half during the game against the Kansas Jayhawks at WVU Coliseum on January 24, 2017 in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
Bob Huggins (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Other Contenders:

  • Baylor: The Bears went 2-4 against the top-four of the conference, but their length and the talent of Johnathan Motley makes them an intriguing matchup
  • Iowa State: The Cyclones have won six of their last seven and three members of their core — Monte Morris, Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas — who have won two Big 12 tournament titles in their career. They’ve also have claimed wins against each of the other top teams in the league this year.

Sleeper: Oklahoma State

The Cowboys opened the Big 12 slate with six-straight losses, but then won nine of 10 before ending the season with losses to Iowa State and Kansas. Their defense is porous, but their top-ranked KenPom offense, led by point guard Jawun Evans, makes them a legitimate threat to reel off three wins in three days.

The Bubble Dwellers: One

  • Kansas State: Most projections have the Wildcats just on the bad side of the field of 68 line, which means they’ll probably have to score a win against Baylor in the quarterfinals to move the needle. Depending on what happens around the rest of the country, that one more win could be enough to earn a berth.

Defining moment of the season: Kansas erasing a 14-point deficit in the final three minutes at home against West Virginia. This is Peak Phog Allen.

CBT Prediction: Kansas

TCU’s former top scorer leaves program

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After seeing his playing time and production decrease under a new staff, TCU junior Malique Trent has left the program, the school announced Tuesday.

“We wish Malique the best of luck and thank him for his contributions to the TCU program,” Horned Frogs coach Jamie Dixon said, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Trent was the Frogs’ top returning scorer after he posted 11.6 points per game last season, but has been marginalized in the rotation under Dixon, who replaced Trent Johnson last spring. Trent went from 28.4 minutes per game last year and making 27 starts, to 12.3 minutes and three starts this year. He was averaging just 3.8 points per game and shooting 35.7 percent from the floor.

The 6-foot-2 guard joined the program last year after a stint in junior college. Dixon has been employing freshmen Jaylen Fisher and Desmond Bane frequently in the backcourt while Trent played double-digit minutes just once in the last month and did not see the floor last week against Kansas.

The Horned Frogs, who are 11-2 overall and 0-1 in the Big 12, face Oklahoma at home Tuesday night.

Team of the Week: UCLA Bruins

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We may not see a better win all season long than what UCLA did on Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena, at least not in the eyes of the selection committee.

And that’s before you consider how talented Kentucky is, how well they have been playing this season and the fact that UCLA was playing their first road game of the season against them in front of 23,000 screaming members of Big Blue Nation.

With all that in mind, really consider what the Bruins did on Saturday, overcoming a sluggish start and an early Kentucky run to more-or-less manhandle the Wildcats for a solid 25 minutes. UCLA was up double-figures for the majority of the second half and would have won by that amount if it wasn’t for a late flurry of buckets from Kentucky.

And they did all of that despite the fact that Lonzo Ball really only played about 20 good minutes on Saturday. T.J. Leaf was terrific, Ike Anigbogu opened quite a few eyes and Aaron Holiday completely changed the course of the game when he entered in the first half.

It was a team effort, one that proved a point to everyone: This UCLA team is here to stay.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Five Takeaways

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - DECEMBER 03: Jevon Carter #2 of the West Virginia Mountaineers dribbles the ball against London Perrantes #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the first half during a game at John Paul Jones Arena on December 3, 2016 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Jevon Carter (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • West Virginia: The Mountaineers certainly made a statement on Saturday, as they went into Charlottesville and knocked off No. 6 Virginia. They did so despite not having anyone on the roster score more than 11 points and while forcing just 14 turnovers. West Virginia really needed this win after falling against Temple earlier in the season.
  • Indiana: The Hoosiers landed their second elite win of the season as they knocked off No. 3 North Carolina in Assembly Hall on Wednesday night. This comes three weeks after they beat Kansas on a neutral court, giving them the best pair of wins in the country. The bad news? O.G. Anunoby sprained his ankle and will have to miss some time, but that’s neither here nor there. That injury isn’t going to take either of those wins off the board.
  • Middle Tennessee State: Kermit Davis may have a better team this season than the one that he had last season, when the Blue Raiders beat No. 2 seed Michigan State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The Blue Raiders obliterated Ole Miss on the road on Wednesday, following that up with a win at South Alabama.
  • Illinois: Coming off of a three-game losing streak that seemingly had Illinois fans ready to fire John Groce on the spot, Malcolm Hill and the Illini responded with a pair of quality wins. They knocked off Dennis Smith Jr. and N.C. State on Tuesday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and followed that up by beating VCU, 64-46.
  • TCU: The Horned Frogs are one of just two teams in the Big 12 that remain undefeated after a 2-0 week. TCU not only knocked off potential No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz at the Washington Huskies for the second straight time, they also manhandled a good Arkansas State team, 77-54. Jamie Dixon and company will head to SMU and raucous Moody Coliseum on Wednesday. We’ll know more about them by then.