Get ready for the Final Four with these storylines

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Pick a storyline. Any storyline. Odds are this Final Four has it.

There are underdogs, fab freshmen, bluebloods, fantastic coaches and superstars. But the odds are a good place to start. The long odds, that is.

Who knew?
Virginia Commonwealth won five straight games and pulled off the tournament’s biggest upset vs. Kansas Sunday. The chances of those five wins? At least 821:1. (Some were much, much higher.) Yet the 11-seed Rams not only defied those odds, they won four of those five games by double figures.

Compare that to their Final Four opponent, Butler. The 8-seed Bulldogs – in their second straight Final Four – had 100:1 odds of making it this far. As the power conference teams, Kentucky and Connecticut had far better odds. The 4-seed Wildcats were roughly 8:1. The 3-seed Huskies were 13:1.

If it seems like no one saw this coming, you’d be wrong. Two people – out of 5.9 million – did. Well, and the teams still playing. They expected this.

Team snapshots
Kentucky (29-8) is making its 14th Final Four appearance and first since 1998. It’ll be chasing its 8th NCAA title, which is what Big Blue Nation expected of coach John Calipari when he was hired in 2009. In the two seasons since, he’s racked up 64 wins and is 7-1 in the NCAA tournament. They lost five players to the NBA from last year’s Elite Eight team, yet knocked off Ohio State and North Carolina in three days.

UConn (30-9) awaits Kentucky in Saturday’s primetime matchup. It’s the Huskies’ fourth Final Four trip, all since 1999. They’ve won two titles and feature the best player left in the field in junior guard Kemba Walker. They’re the last Big East team remaining – of 11 bids – yet finished tied for ninth during conference play.

VCU (28-11) is here for the first time, and also became the first team to reach the Final Four by winning five games. For that, the Rams can thank their inclusion into the “First Four,” the result of the tournament’s expansion to 68 teams. Since then, the Rams have beaten teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12. They’re the biggest underdog in the field, but aren’t playing like it.

Butler (27-9), which followed up an improbable Final Four run last year with an even more unlikely run this season. The Bulldogs were just 14-9 on Feb. 3 and weren’t even headed for the NIT, let alone the Big Dance. They haven’t lost since (13 straight), though it’s hardly been a cakewalk. Butler won its four NCAA tourney games by 2, 1, 7 and 3 points. That clutch play puts the Bulldogs in elite company, too. It joined Michigan State, Maryland, Kansas, Florida, UCLA and North Carolina as programs that have made back-to-back Final Fours since 2000.

Not the worst ever
The four teams remaining comprise the highest combined seed total (26) since the NCAA began using seeds in 1979. The previous mark was 22 (set in 2000 when two 8 seeds made it). It’s also the first time no team seeded 1 or 2 made the Final Four.

However, the seeds are high, but the teams’ combined records are not the worst. The 2000 Final Four still holds that (ahem) honor.

Forget the re-seeding
You’ll hear chatter about the Final Four games – Kentucky-UConn; VCU-Butler – being the wrong matchups because they feature the two major conference teams and the two mid-majors. Too bad. TV executives might be nervous about the ratings, but that’s how the NCAA tournament goes. Sometimes, you don’t get exactly what you want, but you still enjoy it.

Good vs. Evil (or something like that)
Kentucky-UConn is the marquee matchup because of the programs’ tradition and previous NCAA tournament success. Yet both coaches have had NCAA issues. UConn’s Jim Calhoun was just found guilty for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance. Calipari’s technically never been to a Final Four, though he technically wasn’t cited in those vacated Final Fours at UMass and Memphis.

Contrast that to their counterparts at Butler and VCU and it’s an easy angle to see. Then again, neither Brad Stevens, 34, or Shaka Smart, 33, have been around long enough to do anything other than coach. This is Stevens’ fourth year at Butler and Smart’s second at VCU.

About that “mid-major” label
That’s the de-facto term for any team not playing in the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10 or SEC. (Another measure includes the Mountain West.) Those conferences bring in massive amounts of money because of their football revenue, which is doled out to the basketball teams. Those resources are why the major conferences get most of the NCAA tournament bids. But with three mid-major teams making the Final Four four times  since 2006, the term might need to be redefined. At least for the teams who consistently defy those expectations like Butler, Xavier and Gonzaga.

The freshmen
Who needs ‘em? All four. But mostly Kentucky and UConn.

The Wildcats rely on three – Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. They account for nearly 75 percent of the ‘Cats’ shots. Knight’s been especially handy. Two game-winning shots in four games? Not bad.

UConn also plays three – Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith. Lamb’s their main scoring option behind star Kemba Walker, while Napier and Smith have played increasingly larger roles as the season’s progressed.

Butler and VCU each only use one, but both played key roles in their Final Four runs. Bulldogs forward Khyle Marshall grabbed seven rebounds and scored 10 points in a win over Florida, while Rams guard Rob Brandenberg got 20 key minutes vs. FSU.

The star
Let’s close with the big one. Knight’s been great, but Walker’s the guy who capable of carrying the Huskies to a title, much like Carmelo Anthony did for Syracuse or Danny Manning did for Kansas. He’s been spectacular – and then some – all season, and just as good the last four games. He’s averaging nearly 27 a game and hitting 44 percent of his shots. He’s unguardable at best, difficult to stop at worst. Kentucky may be the favorite to win, but Walker’s the reason why it’s foolish to count out the Huskies.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Big 12 conference reset: Kansas even stronger after Final Four?

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone, and there are a dozen or so truly impactful decisions that are left to be made.

Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season.

The coaching carousel has come to a close.

The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2018-19 season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the Big 12 over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

THE KANSAS MACHINE: Bill Self had what many considered his worst Kansas team and what the Kansas coach himself admitted was his unlikeliest Big 12 champions – the Jayhawks won not only their 14th-consecutive conference title but advanced all the way to the Final Four. There’s simply little else in this world you can count on more consistently than KU being the best the Big 12 has to offer.

And the Jayhawks may be even better this year. Sure, they lose a sizable chunk of the core that propelled them to San Antonio last season, but one of the reasons the Jayhawks were so vulnerable last year – depth and versatility – is what will make them formidable this year with the best transfer class in the country becoming eligible. Which isn’t even to mention another top recruiting haul. Kansas is a machine – something of a mix between a watch and a wrecking ball.

(David Purdy/Getty Images)

LOOMING DECISIONS: There may be little drama surrounding who is the team to beat heading into the upcoming season, there remains some intrigue as spring turns to summer. Most NBA decisions have been made, but there are some that could swing the balance of power at different spots across the league hierarchy.

The most impactful is probably Udoka Azubuike, the Kansas center who became an integral part of the Jayhawks’ four-out offense last year as the man in the middle keeping defenses honest. The Jayhawks will be able to play different ways this season with an expanded roster, but Azubuike is simply a player most teams don’t have a counter for – he’s a 75.4 percent career shooter from the floor.

Lindell Wigginton’s stay-or-go decision could hold the biggest sway over the future for any team in the league. The 6-foot-2 guard exhibited his athleticism and scoring prowess during his freshman season and is now weighing whether to try to be the first Nova Scotia native to make it in the NBA now or wait a year. If he returns, the Cyclones have four starters back and one of the most dynamic scorers in the conference. If he doesn’t, Iowa State is going to be relying heavily on newcomers to put points on the board.

West Virginia’s success is likely tied to its system, but having Sagaba Konate on the back line swatting away shots sure makes that system a lot better. He’ll be back to school next season. Kansas State should return its whole starting, and though Barry Brown hasn’t made his return official, it’s widely expected.

BRUCE WEBER’S RESURGENCE: On Feb. 25, 2017, Kansas State lost by 30 to an Oklahoma team that would finish ninth in the Big 12. It was the Wildcats’ fifth loss in six games and dropped them to 6-10 in the Big 12. Kansas State faithful, already frustrated by back-to-back missed NCAA tournaments and mass player defections, seemed to have had enough. The drumbeat to part with Weber amplified out of Manhattan.

Now just 15 months later, Weber has been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments and should have his entire roster from an Elite Eight team intact in 2018-19. That is one heckuva turnaround. Weber may not ever get the level of admiration that his predecessor, Frank Martin, got in the Octagon of Doom, but the results – I haven’t even mentioned that split 2013 regular season Big 12 title – speak for themselves and 2019 could scream the loudest.

WHERE DOES OKLAHOMA GO?: There was probably nothing as fun in the first few weeks and months of the 2017-18 season than Trae Young and Oklahoma. The kid who graduated from Norman North High School was doing the best Steph Curry impersonation the sport has seen since, well, Steph Curry became Steph Curry. Young was, inarguably, a sensation as he bombed away from 30 feet, dished out assists by the bundle and had the Sooners cruising.

Then the bottom fell out. Young still ultimately led the country in scoring and assists while the Sooners made the NCAA tournament, but the freshman phenom languished down the stretch while Oklahoma lost nine of their last 11 games. Now, Young is a likely lottery pick and the Sooners got hit with a one-two punch of transfers by Jordan Shepherd and Kameron McGusty. Lon Kruger is one of the country’s best coaches, but things look a little sideways for the Sooners at the moment without a ton of talent on the roster and the stink of last year’s finish still in the air.

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

WHO’S GONE?

  • DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, SVI MYKHAILIUK, LAGERALD VICK and MALIK NEWMAN: These are heavy losses for the Jayhawks to sustain – and they’re still waiting out Azubuike – but they’re uniquely positioned to sustain them like few other teams in the country. It’ll be Graham’s steadiness and leadership that could be missed most.
  • KEENAN EVANS and ZHAIRE SMITH, Texas Tech: Evans was maybe one of the more underrated and overlooked players nationally last season as he averaged 17.6 points and carried the offensive load for the defensive-minded Red Raiders – and he did it down the stretch with a broken toe. He could be one of the hardest players in the conference to replace. Smith was the most electric dunker in the Big 12 – and maybe the country. His upside was just too high to keep him in college for another year. He’s likely headed for the lottery.
  • JEVON CARTER and TEDDY ALLEN, West Virginia: Carter’s production, specifically on the defensive end, is going to be so hard for the Mountaineers to replicate, but it’ll be his presence, his attitude, his aura – he was Press Virginia personified – that make him irreplaceable even for a program that’s entered plug-and-play territory. Allen really became WVU’s go-get-a-bucket guy down the stretch, and given how much they’ve struggled to score in the halfcourt in recent years, his decision to transfer stings.
  • VLADIMIR BRODZIANSKY and KENRICH WILLIAMS, TCU: Brodziansky blossomed into arguably the Big 12’s best big man while Williams was a huge part of the Horned Frogs’ identity offensively. TCU has a lot coming back, but filling these two roster holes will be difficult.
  • JO LUAL-ACUIL and MANU LECOMTE, Baylor: Baylor was resurgent in the second half of the season in no small part thanks to this duo.
  • MO BAMBA and ERIC DAVIS, JR, Texas: Bamba was always destined to be a one-and-done player so Texas was always prepared to bid him farewell this spring and the emergence of Jericho Sims during Bamba’s absence due to a toe injury mitigates the damage. The Longhorns are losing a lottery pick, yes, but they’ve planned for it and have an excellent replacement option. Davis decided to pursue a pro career just a few weeks after he was connected to Christian Dawkins in a Yahoo report.
  • TRAE YOUNG, KAMERON MCGUSTY AND JORDAN SHEPHERD, Oklahoma: Young was the Sooners last year as the country’s leading scorer and assist man – which, depending on your perspective – was either the impetus of the Sooners’ late-season swoon or an indictment of his less-than-capable teammates. That supporting cast will get its chance to prove itself – minus McGusty and Shepherd, who elected to transfer out of the program.
  • JEFFREY CARROLL, Oklahoma State: Carroll was a huge part of Oklahoma State’s surprising competitiveness last season, and his consistency will be missed in Mike Boynton’s second season.
(Elsa/Getty Images)

WHO’S BACK?

  • ESA AHMAD, West Virginia: Ahmad had an uneven season after being ineligible for more than the first half of the year, but his talent and toughness is critical for the Mountaineers.
  • JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech: Zhaire Smith’s talent and aerial acrobatics made him the Red Raiders’ most dynamic and promising freshman, but Culver showed a ton of promise averaging 11.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists in his rookie campaign.
  • KANSAS STATE: You could single out Barry Brown or Dean Wade here, but the Wildcats are literally bringing back their whole rotation. A forgiving draw may have helped them to the Elite Eight, but Kansas State has talent, experience and cohesion – quite the triple threat.
  • ALEX ROBINSON, JAYLEN FISHER, DESMOND BANE and KOUAT NOI, TCU: Jamie Dixon may be losing Brodziansky and Williams, but he returns a solid core and gets Fisher back from injury. The Horned Frogs are going to be a competitive threat to the rest of the league now with Dixon getting things rolling at his alma mater
  • DYLAN OSETKOWSKI, JERICHO SIMS, KERWIN ROACH, MATT COLEMAN AND ANDREW JONES, Texas: The Longhorns don’t exactly have star power on this team – at least apparent star power at the moment – but they’ve got guys that have got it done at this level. Andrew Jones missed most of last season after being diagnosed with leukemia, but coach Shaka Smart has spoken this offseason about the hope that Jones will be able to suit up in Austin once again this season – which is great news for reasons well beyond basketball.
  • BRADY MANEK, Oklahoma: Manek certainly wasn’t at the talent level of his classmate Trae Young, but the young big man did show flashes that he at least could one day be counted on to contribute in the Big 12. The Sooners will need more than just glimpses this year.
  • CAMERON LARD and NICK WEILER-BABB, Iowa State: There were times when the 6-foot-9 Lard looked like he was making an assault on the crown of best big man in the Big 12, putting up double-double after double-double while blocking heaps of shots defensively, but his production waned down the stretch as his consistency wilted. Weiler-Babb was a threat to put a triple-double up seemingly every night as a 6-foot-6 point guard until knee tendinitis sidelined him down the stretch.
(Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

WHO’S COMING?

  • DEDRIC LAWSON, K.J. LAWSON, CHARLIE MOORE, QUINTIN GRIMES, DEVON DOTSON AND DAVID MCCORMACK, Kansas: So the Jayhawks have three high-level transfers – including one potential conference player of the year – and a top-five recruiting class featuring two five-star and two four-star prospects. That’s not reloading – that’s switching to a bazooka. Dedric is the headliner, but K.J put up numbers at Memphis and Moore fills a need a point guard. Then there’s Grimes and Dotson, two top-20 guards. It’s good to be Bill Self.
  • COURTNEY RAMEY, GERALD LIDDELL, KAMAKA HEPA and ELIJAH MITROU-LONG, Texas: Shaka Smart didn’t land any Mo Bamba-level recruits, but he’s got a top-10 class with as many as four players capable of being instant-impact contributors. Mitrou-Long, the brother of former Iowa State standout Naz Mitrou-Long, comes to Austin after being a double-digit scorer at Mount St. Mary’s.
  • MICHAEL WEATHERS, Oklahoma State: The 6-foot-2 guard was the MAC freshman of the year after averaging 16.7 points per game at Miami (Ohio).
  • MARIAL SHAYOK, MICHAEL JACOBSON AND TALEN HORTON-TUCKER, Iowa State: Shayok gives the Cyclones versatility and pedigree (having played in the Elite 8 at Virginia) at the wing while Jacobson could be the floor-spacer in the frontcourt Iowa State lacked last year. The ultra-versatile Horton-Tucker is a top-50 prospect who headlines one of the most promising recruiting classes ever assembled in Ames.
  • MATT MOONEY, TARIQ OWENS AND KHAVON MOORE, Texas Tech: Mooney averaged 18.7 points per game last season at South Dakota before becoming one of the most coveted graduate transfers on the market. The 6-foot-8 Moore is a borderline top-50 recruit that Chris Beard will be looking to get production from.
  • MARIO KEGLER AND MAKAI MASON, Baylor: If Baylor is going to get back to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in six years, these two transfers will have to play major parts.

COACHING CHANGES

  • NONE: With seven teams in the NCAA tournament and two top-two NIT seeds in 2017-18, the Big 12 had one of its most successful seasons. That made for a quiet silly season, with all 10 coaches staying put and there really being minimal pressure on nearly all 10 of them this year.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-BIG 12 TEAM

Dedric LAWSON, Kansas (POY)
BARRY BROWN, Kansas State
NICK WEILER-BABB, Iowa State
DEAN WADE, Kansas State
UDOKA AZUBUIKE*, Kansas

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. KANSAS: The Jayhawks are looking for 15 years of supremacy in the Big 12. It’s one of the most amazing accomplishments in the modern era of college hoops.

2. KANSAS STATE: With essentially the whole rotation returning from last year’s Elite Eight team, the Wildcats look to be the strongest contender to their in-state rivals.

3. TCU: The Horned Frogs used to be the laughing stock of the Big 12. Under Jamie Dixon, they have the look of perennial contender.

4. WEST VIRGINIA: The Mountaineers are still going to embrace Bob Huggins’ gruff and tough personality with their Press Virginia style, but losing Jevon Carter is a huge blow to that identity.

5. TEXAS: If Shaka Smart can’t keep the Longhorns in the upper half of the Big 12, there may be some questions in Austin about his long-term viability there. With this roster, though, Texas should be able to accomplish that feat.

6. TEXAS TECH: Keenan Evans is irreplaceable and Zhaire Smith is unmatchable, but the Red Raiders look to have a persona about them under Chris Beard. There’s also certainly no dearth of talent.

7. IOWA STATE: Lindell Wigginton’s decision to return to Ames or stay in the draft is a huge fork in the road for the Cyclones. If he stays, he’s the high-volume scorer everything revolves around. Should he leave, the Cyclones have a lot of interesting pieces but no proven star power and a lot of new faces.

8. BAYLOR: Scott Drew is seemingly at his best when the least is expected of his Bears, so this could be a significant under-slotting, but Baylor will be quite reliant on players that are at some level unknown at this level.

9. OKLAHOMA STATE: Mike Boynton’s team exceedingly overachieved in Year 1 of his tenure, but some early departures and an uninspiring recruiting class means they probably slip in Year 2.

10. OKLAHOMA: Trae Young was the Sooners last year, and his teammates often looked unable to keep up. With no Young and no big-time replacements, it could be a long season for the Sooners.

West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate returns to school

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The nation’s most entertaining shot-blocker is back for another season.

Sagaba Konate, a 6-foot-9 center from Mali, will return to school for his junior season to anchor West Virginia’s defense for yet another season, according to ESPN.

Konate declared for the draft and went through the combine, and while his shot-blocking and intensity shined through there as it did throughout the season, he’s more of a mid-to-late second round pick than he is a first rounder at this point.

As a sophomore, Konate averaged 10.8 points, 7.6 boards and 3.2 blocks. He also shot 79 percent from the free throw line.

So let’s sit back and enjoy what we get to see for another year:

Luke Maye to return to North Carolina for senior season

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Here’s something I never thought I’d say: Luke Maye is returning to North Carolina for his senior season, meaning that the Tar Heels will have their preseason National Player of the Year candidate back in the fold.

Who saw that coming?

“I have had a great experience learning from the NBA process and growing as a basketball player during the past couple weeks,” Maye wrote on Instagram. “I would like to thank my family, friends, coaches and teammates for all of their support. Through this process, I have decided that I am going to comeback to school to improve as a player and finish my college career. I am looking forward to the opportunities and challenges that I will face and there is no better group to do it with than my teammates and the Carolina family! Time to finish the right way with two of the best players and leaders that I know! Let’s finish our legacy the right way!”

Maye, who averaged 16.9 points and 10.1 boards as a junior, declared for the draft last month, but he did not get invited to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week. The 6-foot-9 forward is a stretch four that will fit perfectly at the four for the Tar Heels this season, with Nassir Little, Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams on the perimeter and a trio of sophomore bigs to handle the five.

Getting Maye back was key, but expected. UNC reaching their ceiling this season will depend on whether or not their point guard play is up to par. With Jalek Felton gone and Joel Berry II graduated, that is going to come down to whether or not Seventh Woods can handle the lead guard role or if Coby White can step in and start as a freshman.

Old Dominion lands former four-star center

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Elbert Robinson came out of high school in 2014 as a borderline top-50 recruit with offers from the likes of Florida, Kansas and Louisville before he ultimately chose to attend LSU.

The 7-foot-1 center, though, never even averaged 10 minutes a game in Baton Rouge and now will be finishing his career as a graduate transfer at Old Dominion, according to multiple reports.

“Old Dominion was perfect for him,” Lawrence Johns, Robinson’s grassroots coach, told the Virginian-Pilot. “I know for a fact that nobody in (Conference USA) is over 7 feet.

“I told him to go there and show people why he was the No. 1 center the year he came out.”

Robinson, who sat out last year for medical reasons, could step right into a major role with the Monarchs, who lost their starting frontcourt this offseason. He averaged 2.1 points and 1.4 rebounds in 6.4 minutes per game last year for the Tigers.

VIDEO: Mixtape for North Carolina-bound Nassir Little

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Nassir Little is one of the most improved players in the high school basketball ranks, going from being a guy that was a borderline five-star prospect to being a potential No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and athleticism to burn, he has all the makings of being one of the switchable wing defenders that are en vogue in the modern era of the NBA.