Midwest Region Preview: Is 4-seed Louisville the favorite?

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The biggest gripe that I saw regarding the release of the bracket was regarding Louisville. How did they end up a No. 4 seed? How could a team that is ranked second on KenPom.com end up being ranked fourth in their region? What is the world coming to?

Whatever.

If I’m a Louisville fan, I’m celebrating tonight. They’re in a pod with a slumping No. 5 seed in Saint Louis and the weakest No. 1 seed in Wichita State, and there’s a possibility that the Cardinals will be able to play — and knock out? — archrival Kentucky in the Sweet 16. So, again, what is the problem here?

If there is any team that has a complaint about the way that the bracket was seeded, it’s the Shockers. NCAA Tournament draws can be unflinchingly cruel, and Wichita State ended up with a worst-case scenario. Their Round of 32 matchup will be against preseason No. 1 Kentucky or Kansas State in St. Louis. Win that, and they’re likely looking at one of the hottest teams in the country in Louisville. If that wasn’t enough, that Sweet 16 game would be held in Indianapolis, a 90-minute drive from Louisville. The undefeated Shockers would be going on the road in the Sweet 16.

And here’s the worst part: they will be crucified if they can’t put together another run to the Final Four. An exit in the Round of 32 will essentially render their 34-0 pre-NCAA tournament record invalid in the court of public opinion.

I don’t root for anyone anymore. I think I’ll be rooting for Wichita State to pull this off, if for no other reason than I want to see their season “justified”.

MORERead through all of our bracket analysis here

Three story lines to watch

  • 1. The Chase for Perfection: Wichita State will be the first team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated since UNLV in 1991. They will try to become the first team to finish the season undefeated since Indiana in 1976. We’re watching history happen before our eyes. Enjoy it.
  • 2. Can Kentucky pull a Fab Five?: People tend to forget that, as freshmen, the Fab Five were a No. 6 seed before making a run to the National Title game. Kentucky is not quite as good as that Michigan team was, but they were a different team in the SEC tournament than they were … all season long? Can that success continue?
  • 3. Is Louisville headed to a third straight Final Four?: For the third straight season, Rick Pitino has his Cardinals streaking at the perfect time. The last two years, Louisville bounced back from a rough stretch in the regular season to win the Big East tournament title and make a run to the Final Four in 2012 and the National Title in 2013. The Cardinals were written off after Chane Behanan was kicked off the team and they lost at home to Memphis, but a run to the American tournament title has the Cards looking like a trendy pick to repeat as champs.
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The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 2 Michigan

I might end up picking Louisville to win the National Title, I think they’re that good. I like Michigan on the other side of the region. To beat the Wolverines, you need the kind of on-ball defenders that can get up into Nik Stauskas and keep him from having a field day in John Beilein’s offense. Neither Texas or Arizona State has a guy like that. Duke does — Tyler Thornton — but this is a different Michigan team than the one that lost at Cameron in December. They’re running much more of their offense through Stauskas, Walton is a different player and Glenn Robinson III finally woke up. And if Thornton is on Stauskas, who tries to slow down Caris LeVert?

MORE: Eight teams that can win the national title.

Final Four sleeper: No. 8 Kentucky

Are the Wildcats really a sleeper? You kind of sacrifice that name when you are the preseason No. 1 team in the country, but after a disappointing season, Kentucky heads into the dance as a No. 8 seed. The good news? They played their best basketball of the season during those three days in Atlanta. ‘The Tweak’ that John Calipari talked about so much was simply getting his team to buy-in to what he wanted. The key is Andrew Harrison at the point. He was terrific during the SEC tournament. He needs to be terrific in the NCAA tournament. If he is, this is still one of the most talented teams in the country.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 11 Iowa vs. No. 11 Tennessee: One of the three play-in games in the Midwest, this should be a doozy. Iowa is, on paper, a Final Four threat, but they’ve really struggled in the last month and a half. Tennessee is, on paper, an NIT team that has somehow turned into one of the hottest teams in the country the last couple of weeks.
  • No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 13 Manhattan: Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello was a walk-on for Rick Pitino at Kentucky and an assistant on his staff at Louisville for six years.

Matchups to root for

  • No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 Kentucky: I don’t need to explain this, do I?
  • No. 3 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan: I would not complain about a rematch. At all. Both the Wolverines and the Blue Devils have top five offenses and sub-100 defenses, according to KenPom. Can you say shootout?

The studs you know about

  • Russ Smith, Louisville: Once known as Russdiculous, Smith has become more of a point guard for Louisville this season while remaining a terror defensively.
  • Jabari Parker, Duke: Arguably the most well-rounded offensive weapon in the country and a potential No. 1 pick in the draft in June.
  • Nik Stauskas, Michigan: The Wolverines turned into a Big Ten champion when John Beilein allowed Stauskas, a 6-foot-6 sharpshooter with bounce, handle, great vision and noticeable attitude, to be the centerpiece of his offense.
  • Julius Randle, Kentucky: Another future top five pick, Randle is a double-double machine.

MORE: All-Americans | Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | Freshman of the Year

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State: You’ve heard the name, but have you seen him play this year? Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early are great, but Van Vleet is their engine.
  • Langston Hall, Mercer: Hall is a big time scorer for the Bears that has a knack for hitting big shots in big moments. He’ll give Duke problems in the first round.
  • T.J. Warren, N.C. State: Everyone in the ACC knows about Warren, but he’s slept-on nationally because the Wolfpack were perceived as an NIT team. He went for 40 points in back-to-back games two weeks ago and is the best scorer in the country not named Doug McDermott.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 11 Tennessee over No. 6 UMass: I’m just not a huge fan of the Minutemen this season, and Tennessee is a tough, veteran team playing their best basketball of the season right now. I’d make the same pick if Iowa beats Tennessee in the play-in game.
  • No. 4 Louisville over No. 1 Wichita State: I like this upset for a couple reasons: Montrezl Harrell will dominate the Shockers up front, the Shockers don’t have anyone that can guard Russ Smith and Louisville’s back court is quick and pesky enough to give Wichita State’s guards problems.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • No. 8 Kentucky or No. 9 Kansas State over No. 1 Wichita State: This pick has nothing to do with matchups. To me, this will be about desire. I’m not sure there is a better motivator in college basketball than WSU’s Gregg Marshall. The Shockers went 34-0 this season, which means they never slipped up against an inferior team. They never sleep-walked through a game and never overlooked an opponent. They’ll be ready, and they won’t be overwhelmed by the moment against either team.

Feeling like gambling?

  • No. 14 Mercer over No. 3 Duke: Duke is a nightmare to try and defend. Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker might be the best 1-2 punch in the conference. But they can be exploited by talented, penetrating guards. Remember, this Mercer team won the Atlantic Sun regular season title over Florida-Gulf Coast last season. They’re good. Can Hall have his C.J. McCollum moment?

CBT Predictions: No. 4 Louisville beats No. 1 Wichita State and No. 2 Michigan en route to their third straight Final Four.

Pac-12 loosens intra-conference transfer rule

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The Pac-12 approved a measure Monday that will lighten restrictions on players that want to transfer to schools within the conference.

Players who now make an intra-conference transfer will no longer be subject to an immediate loss of a season of eligibility, the conference announced.

“This rule change removes one of the last remaining penalties associated with transferring between Conference schools,” the league said in a press release, “and is designed to provide student-athletes with a similar experience to any other student who decides to transfer.”

The league also has passed rules to beef up its non-conference schedule as programs will be required to a non-conference five-year trailing average of opponents’ NET ranking must be 175 or less, no participation in road buy games, no regular season games against non-Division I opponents and no road games versus a non-conference opponent with a five-year trailing average of 200 NET. Those requirements, along with the move to a 20-game conference schedule, come in response to continued struggles by the league in basketball, with last season seeing the league flirt with being a one-bid NCAA tournament conference. Ultimately, its league champion, Washington, received a No. 9 seed with Oregon getting a 12 and Arizona State an 11 and a First Four invitation.

 

Kenny Wooten writes he won’t return to Oregon

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Kenny Wooten took to Instagram on Monday to discuss his future.

“I know I’ve waited a very long time to answer this question,” Wooten wrote in response to a question from a fan, “but I will not be coming back for year 3.”

Presumably that means that Wooten means to continue to pursue a professional career after declaring for the NBA draft after his sophomore season. He competed at the G-Leage Elite minicamp last week in Chicago along with a host of other draft hopefuls.

The 6-foot-9 California native averaged 6.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game while shooting 58.9 percent from the field. At the moment, it’s likely that Wooten would have to pursue a path to the NBA that includes the G-League.

Wooten makes it a loss of seven players from last year’s Sweet 16 squad for coach Dana Altman, who also saw Bol Bol and Louis King go to the draft. Payton Pritchard Jr., who averaged nearly 13 points per game as a junior, has also declared, but has not indicated if he plans to stay in or return to school.

Five-star forward Trendon Watford commits to LSU

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Whatever issues have dogged LSU coach Will Wade over the last few months, they aren’t enough to keep him from landing another five-star recruit.

Trendon Watford, a top-25 forward in 2019, committed to Wade and the Tigers in an Monday afternoon announcement.

“It’s the trust,” he said of his pick of the Tigers, according to AL.com, “the trust I have with those coaches and them helping me reach my potential.”

Watford said he had been leaning towards heading to Baton Rouge, but retreated from that stance when Wade was suspended by LSU after reports surfaced about federal wiretaps featuring Wade discussing making a “strong-ass offer” for a recruit. Former Arizona assistant Book Richardson was also on wiretap discussing Wade, recruit Naz Reid and $300,000. Ultimately, though, LSU has stood by him as it reinstated him from suspension.

“When all that was going on it was definitely a pause in my recruitment,” Watford told 247Sports. “Before that I was going to commit to LSU during the McDonald’s game and that happened so we postponed. He still contacted me throughout that time and would tell me what was up. When he got reinstated they got pushed back to the top.”

Ultimately, the Tigers are landing one of the top players that were left on the board this spring, a 6-foot-9 forward that was also considering Alabama, Memphis and Indiana, where his brother Christian played. He joins James Bishop, a top-150 guard from Maryland, and junior college transfer guard Charles Manning in Wade’s 2019 class. It would also seem there is little immediate concern, at least by Watford, that the NCAA might soon find wrongdoing that was suggested by the evidence and testimony to come out the federal investigation into college hoops.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with what Nassir Little said about North Carolina at the combine

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One of the storylines that has popped up since the NBA draft combine came to an end last week has centered around a couple of things that potential top ten pick and former North Carolina Tar Heel Nassir Little said.

Before we dive into it, here is what the actual quote was, courtesy of our own Scott Phillips:

“Hesitancy. Not being sure of what I wanted to do at UNC,” Little said when he was asked why he thinks he struggled more in college than he did in the high school ranks. “The coaching staff didn’t really understand exactly what my role was early on, especially in the offense, (which) created a lot of hesitancy which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

Then we he was asked to elaborate on whether or not being unsure of his role contributed to his hesitancy, Little said, “Just kind of being unsure, playing out of position, created some confusion on the court which caused me to be hesitant.”

Little has taken some criticism for this, and, to be frank, this can be read as something of a criticism of the coaching staff. Without context, one can infer that Little is passing the buck and pinning the blame for his struggles on his coaches.

But the context here matters, and it changes the tone of what he is trying to say.

Let me start with this: Little says that he would not jump straight from high school to the NBA even if he had the chance to do it all over again.

“It was a struggle statistically,” he said, “but on the court I developed, my body developed and became more mature in the weight room there, learning about the game, playing against actual defense – in high school there is no help, you beat your guy, you’re going to get a dunk. Going to college exposes you to what’s helpful for the NBA.”

That doesn’t sound like someone who is bitter that an inability to crack the starting lineup at North Carolina cost him some draft spots.

To me, it sounds like a guy who realized that he didn’t know what he didn’t know before he arrived in Chapel Hill.

The thing about Little is that he was always just a weird fit for North Carolina’s system and the way that Roy Williams wants to play.

In this day and age, basketball is becoming more and more about versatility and your ability to play multiple positions. Think about Giannis Antetokounmpo bringing the ball up the floor for the Bucks or the job that Draymond Green does for Golden State. Little is such an attractive prospect because he has the size, strength and athleticism to be able to guard multiple different positions — which you cannot teach — while having the upside of still needing to learn how to do pretty much everything better offensively.

North Carolina’s offense is not one that preaches versatility. The positions are quite rigid. Williams wants two bigs on the floor that are true bigs. He wants two wings on the floor that are going to be able to get out in transition and make threes on the wing. He wants a point guard that can lead the break. Where Little’s versatility makes him an intriguing prospect at the highest level, he’s relegated to being something of a tweener for a coach that is just two years removed from his third national title.

So when Little says “the coaching staff didn’t really understand exactly what my role was,” he’s not blaming them.

He’s just speaking the truth.

When he says that created a “hesitancy” in him, of course it did. If you walked into a new job tomorrow, and your boss never really gives you clear and concise instructions on what he expects you to do, are you going to be at your very best right away, or will it take you some time to adjust?

Roy Williams is one of the best to ever coach college basketball, and one of his biggest strengths is the ability to find and recruit players that fit into his system. Coby White is the perfect example. Don’t be surprised when Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot have us saying the same thing next season.

Little is not one of those players that fit perfectly into what Williams wanted to do, but as far as I can tell, this was the closest that we came to hearing Little complain about it. He accepted his role, he got better throughout the year and he had some of his best games in big moments — the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, the Florida State game at home, the Virginia Tech game in January.

Maybe I’m reading this entirely wrong, but to me, Little doesn’t come off as bitter or angry, he sounds like a mature, self-aware kid that was honestly answering questions about his one season in college.

Javonte Smart’s decision to return to LSU could complicate things next season

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Javonte Smart announced over the weekend that he will be withdrawing from the NBA draft and returning to LSU for his sophomore season.

Smart is a 6-foot-4 point guard and a former four-star recruit that averaged 11.1 points, 3.3 boards and 2.4 assists as a freshman. He was one of six Tigers — along with Naz Reid, Tremont Waters, Skylar Mays, Marlon Taylor and Emmitt Williams — to declare for the draft. None of the other five have announced a decision yet.

In a vacuum, this is obviously a good thing for an LSU program that has quite a bit up in the air right now.

But there is more to this story than a solid freshman returning to school for his sophomore season, because Smart found himself smack in the middle of the controversy involving the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball. In March, Yahoo Sports reported that LSU head coach Will Wade was caught on a wire tap discussing with Christian Dawkins, an ex-runner for a former NBA agent that has been convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison as a result of this scandal, a “strong-ass” offer that he made to one of Smart’s handlers.

“I was thinking last night on this Smart thing,” Wade reportedly said in the conversation on wiretap with Dawkins. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m [expletive] tired of dealing with the thing. Like I’m just [expletive] sick of dealing with the [expletive]. Like, this should not be that [expletive] complicated.”

“Dude,” Wade continued to Dawkins, referring to the third party involved in the recruitment. “I went to him with a [expletive] strong-ass offer about a month ago. [Expletive] strong.

“The problem was, I know why he didn’t take it now, it was [expletive] tilted toward the family a little bit. It was tilted toward taking care of the mom, taking care of the kid. Like it was tilted towards that. Now I know for a fact he didn’t explain everything to the mom. I know now, he didn’t get enough of the piece of the pie in the deal.”

Smart was suspended for the final game of the regular season, but he was reinstated prior to the start of the SEC tournament. Will Wade was suspended at the same time, but he was not reinstated until last month.

This might end up being problematic, for Wade, for Smart and, potentially, for LSU. Smart returning to school means that the NCAA can now exert influence over him. They will be investigating everything that has popped up as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption, from what was discussed at trial to the things that were reported separately in the media. I have very little doubt that LSU is going to be one of the programs that gets investigated, and since he is back in college, the NCAA will once again be able to hold power over him.

They can call him in to be interviewed. If he does not tell the truth in that interview, he can be suspended. If he does tell the truth, just how much of a headache is that going to be for the coaching staff and the program as a whole?

I don’t have the answer to that question, and based on LSU’s decision to reinstate Smart in March, they must either believe that the player did not know anything about that “strong-ass offer” or that the story is inaccurate in some way.

Either way, Smart’s decision to come back to school is going to complicate things, even if it makes the team better.