Breaking Down the Sweet 16: The X-factor in each game

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We’re down to the Sweet 16, when teams will have more time to study unfamiliar opponents and figure out what needs to be done in order to advance. With that in mind, here are the x-factors for each of the eight Sweet 16 games that will be played later this week.

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EAST REGION

No. 3 Marquette vs. No. 2 Miami: Who makes the plays down the stretch?

Marquette may be the best team in the country when it comes to winning close games. Just ask Butler, who Marquette beat in the round of 32, or Davidson, who watched a team that can’t hit threes makes a flurry of them in the final minute. That said, Miami may have the most clutch player left in the tournament in Shane Larkin. This will be a close game. Who makes the big shots and the big plays down the stretch to win it?

No. 4 Syracuse vs. No. 1 Indiana: Can Indiana play two point guards?

We already told you that the key matchup in this game is going to end up being how Victor Oladipo defends Michael Carter-Williams. It only makes sense that the Hoosiers would matchup that way. MCW is the most important player on the Syracuse roster, and Oladipo is one of the best defenders in the country. But if Oladipo is on MCW, than does that mean that one of Jordy Hulls or Yogi Ferrell is stuck on James Southerland? That can’t happen, which puts Indiana in a tough spot. Can they go 2-3 zone against the Orange to get both of their guards on the floor? Will Will Sheehey or Remy Abell see the majority of the minutes at the three, allowing Indiana to better matchup with the Syracuse size? If Indiana is forced to play bigger, does that hurt how they can execute against the Syracuse 2-3 zone?

WEST REGION

No. 6 Arizona vs. No. 2 Ohio State: Who has to adjust their lineup?

Arizona is as big as anyone in the country, especially at the times where they slide Solomon Hill down to the three and play two of their freshmen bigs together. Ohio State, currently the hottest team in the country, has made their late season run by going small, using Deshaun Thomas, Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross as their front court rotation. Will the Buckeyes be forced to play big, or will Arizona have to play small to matchup with Ohio State?

No. 13 La Salle vs. No. 9 Wichita State: Cleanthony Early

Early is the guy that solves Wichita State’s matchup problem. The Explorers play four guards at once, especially with Steve Zack still injured. Early is the most talented player on the Shockers, a 6-foot-8 forward with perimeter skills. He can defend on the perimeter as well, and while you might not want to stick him on Ramon Galloway, he should be able to hold his own against Sam Mills. If he does, he creates the matchup problem at the other end with his size.

MIDWEST REGION

No. 12 Oregon vs. No. 1 Louisville: Oregon’s defensive execution

We already know about Oregon’s turnover issues against Louisville’s press, but if the Ducks want to avoid facing that press, they need to get stops. When Louisville scores, they smother you. When they don’t, they drop back and defend in the half court. The best press break is a good defense.

No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Duke: Mason Plumlee vs. Derrick Nix

Part of what makes Duke’s offense so effective is that Mason Plumlee can overpower people in the post. If he gets doubled, he’s got four sharp-shooters and capable passers surrounding him that can make teams pay for leaving them open. Plumlee isn’t going to be overpowering Derrick Nix, however. If there is no double team coming, is Duke going to be able to get enough good looks offensively against Michigan State’s defense?

SOUTH REGION

No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 1 Kansas: How does Kansas defend ball-screens?

The way that Iowa State almost pulled off a pair of wins over Kansas is that they were able to pull Jeff Withey away from the rim by engaging the guy that he was guarding in ball-screen actions. While the Cyclones used Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim in pick-and-pop actions, Mitch McGary is as good as anyone in the country at rolling hard to the rim off of a ball-screen. Trey Burke is terrific coming off of a ball-screen as well, and with the number of knockdown shooters that Michigan has on the perimeter, help defense becomes even more risky.

No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast vs. No. 3 Florida: Dunk City

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the way that FGCU beat both San Diego State and Georgetown is that they hung around long enough that, when they went on their big second half run, it just ripped the will out of both teams. Will the Gators allow Dunk City to hang round long enough to do that?

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.

Former UNC star Phil Ford has surgery for prostate cancer

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina says former point guard Phil Ford has had surgery for prostate cancer.

Team spokesman Steve Kirschner said Wednesday that Ford underwent the procedure Tuesday after he was diagnosed during his annual physical. Dr. Eric Wallen, the UNC physician who is treating Ford, says the cancer was caught early because Ford “has been proactive regarding his health.”

Ford played for Dean Smith in the 1970s and scored 2,290 points, a mark that stood as the school record until Tyler Hansbrough broke it in 2008. Ford also spent 12 seasons as an assistant to Smith after a seven-year NBA career in which he was the rookie of the year in 1979.

Bruce Pearl: ‘Good chance’ Auburn returns four players testing the waters

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Bruce Pearl told reporters on Monday that there is a “good chance” that his Auburn program will return all four of the players that are currently testing the waters of the NBA draft.

“I think there’s a good chance they’re all going to consider coming back,” Pearl said. “There’s a chance they’re all going to come back, but that’s been the case since the beginning.”

“I just feel as we get closer to the deadline and they gather more and more information, I think that chance improves. It would not surprise me, still, to see a couple of them stay in.”

Those four players are Mustapha Heron, Austin Wiley, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Brown was the leading scorer for the Tigers last season, while Heron was arguably their best player and Harper a steady floor general that is the piece that holds everything together. Wiley did not play after he was ruled ineligible as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. If he returns he will be eligible to play the 2018-19 season.

Heron will be the most interesting decision of the four. A former McDonald’s All-American, when he declared for the draft last month, he announced that he intended to sign with an agent. But he has told reporters in the last week that he never actually signed and is still “50-50” on whether or not he will return. He was not invited to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week. Wiley was, but he did not make enough of an impression to earn himself a first round guarantee. Brown and Harper are very unlikely to be drafted, but both juniors will get feedback from NBA teams on what they might need to do to play their way into the league.

Auburn is coming off of a year where they shared the SEC regular season title with Tennessee, but they struggled down the stretch of the season after Anfernee McLemore suffered a gruesome ankle injury. As it stands, under the assumption that Heron and Wiley are gone, we currently have the Tigers ranked as a top 15 team in the country in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

With Heron and Wiley back, however, Auburn will have the pieces to make a case as one of college basketball’s five best teams next season.

Forward Lance Thomas transferring from Louisville

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With Anas Mahmoud out of eligibility and Ray Spalding having made the decision to enter the 2018 NBA Draft, new Louisville head coach Chris Mack had some holes to fill in the front court ahead of his first season at the helm. There’s now another departure to account for, as it was announced Tuesday afternoon that 6-foot-8 forward Lance Thomas has decided to transfer.

Thomas, who will have three seasons of eligibility remaining at his next school, appeared in 12 games for the Cardinals last season and averaged 2.2 points and 1.3 rebounds in 4.2 minutes per game.

Losing Thomas may not appear to be a big deal based upon his production as a freshman. But, given the combination of player departures and misses on the recruiting trail this spring it can also be argued that Louisville is not in a position where it can afford any more personnel losses.

Louisville is now down to four scholarship players in the front court, wings V.J. King and Jordan Nwora and forwards Malik Williams and Steven Enoch, with Enoch eligible after sitting out last season after transferring in from UConn.

Williams made 12 starts as a freshman, averaging 3.8 points and 2.4 rebounds in 10.6 minutes per game, with King averaging 8.6 points per game and Nwora 5.7 points per game. Enoch played in 29 games at UConn during the 2016-17 season, averaging 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per appearance.

Four-star wing Romeo Weems commits to DePaul

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DePaul landed its first verbal commitment in the Class of 2019 Tuesday afternoon, as four-star small forward Romeo Weems announced that he will be a Blue Demon. Weems, who attends New Haven HS in New Haven, Michigan, picked DePaul over Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Oregon and is considered by most major scouting services to be a Top 50 prospect in the 2019 graduating class.

The 6-foot-6 Weems plays his grassroots basketball for The Family on the Nike EYBL circuit, averaging 15.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this spring. Weems also has experience playing for USA Basketball, as he was part of the Under-16 team that won the FIBA Americas U16 title last year. Weems will also be part of the training camp from which the Under-17 team will be selected next month in preparation for this summer’s FIBA Under-17 World Championships.

DePaul managing to land a commitment from a prospect of Weems’ caliber, a versatile wing who can defend multiple positions while also being productive offensively, could be the shot in the arm that Dave Leitao’s program so desperately needs if they’re to improve their standing within the Big East.

Since making the move from Conference USA in 2005, DePaul has finished above .500 in a season just once (20-14 in 2006-07) with that also being the only time in which the Blue Demons finished above .500 in Big East play (9-7). Since Leitao, who led DePaul to its most recent NCAA tournament in 2005, returned for his second stint at the school the Blue Demons have gone 29-65.

Getting out of Allstate Arena and moving to the new Wintrust Arena ahead of last season was an important move for the DePaul program, but it’s been clear that the rebuild won’t be a “quick fix.” Bringing in a talent of Weems’ caliber should help DePaul moving forward, with the key now being to recruit well enough to ensure that the talented wing has ample help when he arrives on campus next year.

Among the players currently on the roster who will have eligibility remaining in 2019 are guards Devin Gage and Justin Roberts and wing Darious Hall, who will sit out the 2018-19 season after transferring to DePaul from Arkansas. Hall appeared in 35 games for the Razorbacks this past season, averaging 5.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in just under 15 minutes per game.