Re-ranking the Sweet 16: Now who are the favorites?

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There are 16 teams left in the NCAA tournament. Every single one of them has had a winning streak of four games this season. To cut down the nets on April 2, all they need to do is put together one last four game winning streak. Who is the most likely to do so?

Sweet 16 Power Rankings

1. Kentucky: The Wildcats are the unquestionable favorite to win the national title. They are the most talented team in the country. There are lottery picks up and down their lineup. And when they are playing with as much intensity and shooting as well as they did on Saturday against Iowa State, they are going to be unbeatable.

The Problem: The Wildcats aren’t always playing that way. Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist have been as inconsistent as you would expect freshmen to be. Terrence Jones is always on the brink of a meltdown. Kentucky should win the national title. They probably should have won in 2010 as well.

2. Michigan State: I’ll avoid the typical “they are coached by Tom Izzo” statements here. The Spartans are the most complete team in the country. They defend, they rebound, they have post scoring, they have perimeter scoring and they have Draymond Green. They do everything well.

The Problem: The Spartans are without Branden Dawson, who tore his ACL on the last day of the regular season. Yes, Michigan State is 5-0 without him, but his void is unmistakable. His ability to defend and rebound at the small forward spot is what made Michigan State so difficult to matchup with.

3. Kansas: Tyshawn Taylor has been as good as any point guard in the country in 2012. Thomas Robinson has been as good as any player in the country all season long. With Jeff Withey defending the rim and Elijah Johnson and Kevin Young turning into meaningful role players, the Jayhawks are as balanced and talented as they have been all season.

The Problem: Inconsistency. The Jayhawks got bailed out by Elijah Johnson’s defining moment as a member of the Kansas program on Sunday night. Taylor is always a threat to turn into a turnover machine. Robinson plays as hard as anyone in the country, but he isn’t as skilled as other big men. Off nights do happen when defenses key on him.

4. Ohio State: Aaron Craft is the most disruptive defensive force this side of Anthony Davis, and his offense is really starting to come around. Deshaun Thomas has been terrific offensively of late, and Jared Sullinger is still Jared Sullinger. Injuries haven’t hit this team yet, which means they are still the same group they were in November.

The Problem: William Buford has not yet broken out of his funk offensively, and while Sullinger is still the best low-post scorer in the country, he’s not been himself recently. It’s a problem for OSU if Craft and Thomas are their two most reliable offensive options.

5. Syracuse: With injuries to other title contenders, the right side of the bracket has suddenly become wide open. Syracuse still is very talented offensively, as guys like Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph are all capable of playing a starring role. James Southerland has become a reliable jumpshooter in the clutch.

The Problem: Rakeem Christmas looked decent against Kansas State, but he can’t replace Fab Melo defensively and he certainly doesn’t solve their rebounding issues. Southerland is not a good defender. If UNC-Asheville can pick apart the 2-3 zone, than somewhere along the line a better team is going to.

6. North Carolina: With or without Kendall Marshall, UNC is still a very talented basketball team. Their front line is as good as anyone in the country. Harrison Barnes is an dangerous scorer on the wing. Reggie Bullock and PJ Hairston have been solid on the wings this year.

The Problem: Stilman White was capable in his minutes backing up Marshall, but now he’s being thrust into a starring role. Will he be able to distribute the ball to UNC’s scorers?

7. Marquette: The Golden Eagles are lethal in transition, and they are as good as anyone in the country at using pressure to increase the tempo of the game to their liking. With Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom on the roster, they have two seniors that are not going to let accept losing. Davante Gardner provides an another look now that he’s healthy.

The Problem: Using Gardner makes Marquette slower and less capable of using the athletes they have on their perimeter, but they’ll need him against teams with bigger bodies inside. The Golden Eagles also have issues with slow starts.

8. Baylor: Baylor is as talented as any team in the country. They have length and athleticism at every position except the two-guard spot, which is occupied by sniper Brady Heslip, who hit nine threes against Colorado in the round of 32. Pierre Jackson is a bulldog at the point.

The Problem: Consistent effort. Consistent defense. It’s that simple. Perry Jones III still seems reluctant to be the kind of player he is capable of being.

9. Louisville: I love their defense and what Peyton Siva has turned into over the last month, but can it last? Will they have enough shooting? Most importantly, will they stay healthy?

10. Indiana: Since switching Victor Oladipo to a more predominant role as a ball handler, the Hoosiers have gotten better defensively and more athletic, but this is still a group that can struggle to get stops. They can score, however, with players like Cody Zeller and Christian Watford.

11. Cincinnati: The Bearcats are aggressive defensively and surround big man Yancy Gates with a myriad of shooters. But on nights the shots are off, the Bearcats can be in trouble.

12. Wisconsin: I love Jordan Taylor, but this is not junior year Jordan Taylor. And it’s not junior year Jordan Taylor’s supporting cast.

13. Florida: Florida has enough talent and scoring ability to beat anyone in the country on the right night. Do you have faith that they’ll be able to put it all together for four straight games? I don’t.

14. Xavier: Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons can be as good as any back court in the country, particularly Holloway, who is a killer in big situations. Kenny Frease can be a beast on the block. But all three can also be horrible on any given night.

15. NC State: The Wolfpack have won over a lot of people in the last two games with their stellar front court play. But they will have to go through Kansas and UNC before getting to the Final Four. That’s tough.

16. Ohio: I love DJ Cooper. He’s sensational. Ohio’s a great story. But their road ends sooner rather than later.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Report: Western Kentucky’s Lamonte Bearden staying in 2018 NBA Draft

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Western Kentucky guard Lamonte Bearden will stay in the 2018 NBA Draft after hiring an agent, according to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-3 Bearden just completed his redshirt junior season with the Hilltoppers as he averaged 11.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game. A slippery guard with good size, Bearden shot 47 percent from the field and 82 percent from the charity stripe while also getting in the passing lanes for 1.7 steals per game.

Although Bearden has good size and athleticism at lead guard, his perimeter jumper has been inconsistent during his college career. He was 31 percent from three-point range (a career high) this past season. Starting his college career at Buffalo, Bearden helped lead the Bulls to the NCAA tournament before opting to play in Conference USA for Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers will certainly miss Bearden’s presence in their backcourt as the program has seven new players signed for next season.

USC makes a statement landing Class of 2019 four-star forward Isaiah Mobley

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USC ended a strong week of recruiting with another major statement on Friday afternoon as four-star Class of 2019 forward Isaiah Mobley pledged to the Trojans.

The second major Class of 2019 commitment for USC during the week, the 6-foot-9 power forward joins five-star big man Onyeka Okongwu. The Compton Magic teammates should be able to help replace the loss of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, with Mobley playing the skilled, floor-spacing Boatwright’s role and Okongwu providing the interior energy of Metu.

Having two highly-touted big men commit in the same week is huge for USC. And it looks like the start of even bigger things in a continually-evolving SoCal recruiting war against Pac-12 rival UCLA.

Landing both Mobley and Okongwu is significant for the Trojans for a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, both come from the famous Compton Magic grassroots program that runs on the adidas Gauntlet. While landing AAU teammates from a regional program is common for high-major programs of USC’s stature, the commitments signify that the Trojans are the ones with the biggest pull with the Magic at the current moment.

And the Magic used to get raided by UCLA.

In the past few years, the Bruins signed T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Jaylen Hands and Jalen Hill from the Compton Magic. Now, it’s USC who looks to be in the driver’s seat recruiting the program.

The Trojans aren’t done, either.

Newly-hired USC assistant coach Eric Mobley is the father Isaiah Mobley, as well as five-star Class of 2020 big man Evan Mobley. As Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi noted in his story about Isaiah, “Barring something strange happening, look for the younger Mobley to join his brother and father by committing to USC within the next two weeks.”

That would mean the Trojans would have landed three top-30 caliber big men in the span of a few weeks. That allows the USC coaching staff to recruit other positions extremely hard. Outside of Kentucky, USC has arguably the best future recruiting status of any program in the country.

The Trojans have taken full advantage of UCLA letting go popular assistant coach David Grace. The Bruins are still pulling in top-100 prospects, as evidenced by Grant Sherfield and Jaime Jaquez’s commitments in the Class of 2019, but losing two Magic kids in a week to a rival has to sting.

Considering where USC was last fall with the FBI investigation, who saw this type of recruiting swing coming? Other programs involved in the investigation like Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State have landed solid recruits. They also haven’t pulled in nearly the high-level talent that the Trojans currently have committed.

Even amidst the uncertainty surrounding the FBI investigation, USC is still pulling in elite talent while beating local rivals. It’ll be fascinating to see if the Trojans can continue to recruit at this level as they try to fill out the rest of an important recruiting class.

USF signs Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson

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USF landed a major addition on Friday as the school announced the signing of Oklahoma State transfer guard Zack Dawson.

The 6-foot-3 Dawson is a former consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school as he’ll have to sit out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. A native of the region, Dawson will have three years of eligibility remaining once he’s able to play again.

Dismissed from Oklahoma State on Dec. 14 for violating team rules, Dawson averaged 4.4 points and1.6 assists per contest as he only suited up in five games for the Cowboys. Once Dawson is eligible to play for USF, he gives the Bulls a potentially dynamic backcourt along with rising sophomore guard David Collins.

“We are excited to welcome Zack back home to Florida as a member of the Bulls family,” USF head coach Brian Gregory said in a release. “He is a dynamic and versatile guard who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Zack comes from one of the best high school programs in the state, South Miami High School, so he immediately brings a championship attitude here to the University of South Florida.”

This is a really nice pickup for the Bulls, as they utilized a local transfer to help bolster the roster. Landing top-100 kids out of high school is going to be tough until USF boosts its basketball credibility. But getting a former top-100 player on the transfer market is a solid approach to building the Bulls into a respectable threat.

Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I’m the best player in this draft’

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The more I think about it, the more that Michael Porter Jr. is becoming the most interesting prospect at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.

As a high school senior, he was considered by many to be the top player in the class, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward with a lethal three-point shot, NBA dunk contest athleticism and the versatility to, one day, be a multi-positional defender that would seamlessly fit into fit into the modern NBA.

But his one and only season at Missouri was derailed by back surgery, and that has allowed the rest of the class of 2017 to shine while we have focused on everything else that comes with drafting Porter. The reputation that he had for the majority of his high school career of being soft. The intel that was coming out of Missouri, that he was cocky and arrogant and something of a bad teammate. Questions about whether or not he is truly a wing or a four, more like a more athletic Lauri Markkanen.

When the only thing that we’ve had a chance to see this season is an out-of-shape Porter struggling in postseason games, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his hype train has derailed.

“I know without a doubt that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter told ESPN. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”

And therein lies the conundrum for any team drafting him.

I have little doubt that Porter is going to be able to score and score a lot in the NBA. I think he and Bagley are the safest bets to average 20 points at the NBA level before their rookie contract runs out.

But putting up points and playing on winning basketball teams are not one and the same. For a ten-year stretch after his rookie season, Rudy Gay averaged at least 17.2 points while making the playoffs once during that stretch. Is that what Porter is going to turn into at the next level? Or will be find a way to become the kind of NBA defender his athleticism says he should be and, by the time he signs his first contract extension, end up the player that Paul George is?

The mitigating factor here is that Porter is going to do a fantastic job in every interview he has. He’s an intelligent, charismatic and articulate kid that is going to be able to sell himself. The red flags that he has aren’t going to show when he’s sitting down in front of NBA general managers.

They would have shown up — or been written off — if there was a season’s worth of game-tape available, but there isn’t. What that means is that scouts are going to have to decide whether or not Porter, who by all accounts had a very impressive senior season in high school, is that player or the one that had the reputation for being soft for years before that.

And all of that is going to come after the doctor’s have a chance to examine his back to see if the surgery he underwent fixed what was wrong, or if this is the kind of situation where a recurrence is likely.

The result is the widest range for any player at the top of the draft.

He could sell someone on taking him as a top four pick. He could also slide his way down to the Knicks at No. 9 or the 76ers at No. 10.

Which is what makes him the most interesting prospect at the top of this draft.

P.J. Washington ‘definitely going back to school’ without first round guarantee

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington is one of the handful of players that currently finds themselves in the tenuous position of having their name in the NBA draft pool without having a clear picture of where, exactly, they are going to end up getting picked.

Will they be a late-first round pick? Will he be an early second round pick? Will he even be drafted at all?

Washington told reporters at the NBA combine this week that, if he’s a first round pick, he’ll be heading to the NBA. If he only gets a second round guarantee, he’ll be returning to school.

As we detailed last week, getting selected in the second round does not mean a player is destined to end up being broke his first year out of school. In the last six drafts, only one college player picked in the top ten picks of the second round (31-40) did not receive a guaranteed contract. In the 2017 NBA Draft, every college player selected in the top 50 received a guaranteed deal of at least one year, and Thomas Bryant was the only player whose one-year guaranteed deal was at the league minimum.

That doesn’t mean that Washington should leave Kentucky if he’s going to be a second round pick. If he returns to school, becomes a 42 percent three-point shooter (and can make free throws) and proves that he’s more versatile defensively than he was his year, then he could move up into the first round in a weaker 2019 draft.

It’s a risk for him, financially, to leave after this year if he doesn’t get that first round guarantee. It’s also a risk to return to school, where the best-case scenario isn’t always what happens.

I don’t envy the decision he has to make, but I am glad that Washington will have every chance in the world to be informed about the decision.