South Region Preview: Can anyone stop the Florida Gators?

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No surprise here as Florida got the No. 1 overall seed and took the top line in the South Region, setting them up for a path through Orlando and Memphis on the way to North Texas.

Here’s the other thing: the way the bracket breaks down is as favorable for Florida as it is for any No. 1 seed in the bracket. The shouldn’t be pushed by Spencer Dinwiddie-less Colorado or a Pitt team that has beaten exactly one quality team this season, they matchup as will with UCLA as they do any team in the country, Syracuse hasn’t played well in a month and a half and Kansas may not make it out of the first weekend without Joel Embiid in the lineup.

It’s not a cakewalk — it never is at this time of year — but when you combine the fact that Florida is the best team in the country with being coached by a guy that’s what two titles and took a team led by Kenny Boynton to the Elite 8 the past three seasons, and what you get is a Final Four favorite and a serious National Title contender.

MORERead through all of our bracket analysis here

Three story lines to watch

  • 1. Joel Embiid’s back: Kansas’ star center and a future top three draft pick, Embiid missed the last two games of the regular season and the Big 12 tournament with a stress fracture in his spine. He’s not expected to play in the first weekend of the tournament, either. Are the Jayhawks a contender without him?
  • 2. Will Syracuse ever be back?: The Orange won their first 25 games of the season. Since then, they’ve lost five of their last seven and while their offense has completely stalled. Is this as simple as the Orange being in a slump — they’re playing like their confidence is completely shot — or is their identity that of a horrid offensive basketball team?
  • 3. Will UCLA’s defense be enough to make a run?: This Bruin team is as talented and entertaining as any in Westwood since Steve Lavin was still slicking his hair back. Kyle Anderson, the 6-foot-9 point guard nicknamed Slo-mo, is the engine that makes their uptempo offense run. But in order for the Bruins to make a run, they need their defense to play the way it did during the Pac-12 tournament.

The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 1 Florida vs. No. 2 Kansas

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There are going to be a lot of people picking No. 7 seed New Mexico to upset Kansas in the Round of 32, and I’ll be honest, I might end up doing the same once I officially fill out my bracket. New Mexico is playing as well as they have all season long, their offense is built around a pair of talented, physical veteran post players in Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk, and Kansas, who hasn’t played defense in a couple of weeks, will likely be without Joel Embiid. But it’s worth noting that Stanford actually matches up very will with the Lobos in the Round of 64, and Kansas is still coached by Bill Self and will still feature a trio of first round picks, including potential No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins.

MOREEight teams that can win the national title.

Final Four sleeper: New Mexico

Back to the Lobos, there are three names that you really need to know with this group: Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams. Bairstow is the best post-scorer in the country, a behemoth on the block that is the nation’s single-most improved player. Kirk is a pick-and-pop seven-footer with some size and the ability to block shots. Williams is the reigning MWC Player of the Year and is having a better season this year despite barely being in contention for the award. He takes, and makes, a lot of big shots.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 12 Stephen F. Austin vs. No. 5 VCU: Talk about an intriguing clash of styles. VCU runs their ‘Havoc’ pressure defense, hounding their opponents for 94 feet for 40 minutes. SFA? They played more of a half-court style, but they pressure on the wings and jump passing lanes. Both rank top three nationally in defensive turnover percentage.
  • No. 11 Dayton vs. No. 6 Ohio State: A little in-state rivalry? Dayton’s Jordan Sibert vs. the team he transferred away from. Thad Matta can’t duck Archie Miller now.

Matchups to root for

  • No. 1 Florida vs. No. 2 Kansas: Arguably the two best coaches in college basketball. The best team, a senior laden group without much NBA potential, vs. a team with possibly the top two picks in the NBA Draft. Just hope Embiid is healthy for it.

The studs you know about

  • Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: He’s been overanalyzed, but remember: he’s the leading scorer, third-leading rebounder and best perimeter defender on a top five team.
  • Jordan Adams, UCLA: Anderson gets all the publicity for the Bruins, but Jordan Adams was the team’s leading scorer this season.
  • Scottie Wilbekin, Florida: He’s terrific in the pick-and-roll and a killer in crunch-time. He’s the go-to guy for Florida at the end of games.

MOREAll-Americans | Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | Freshman of the Year

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico: I’m telling you, he’s a beast now. You’ll see.
  • David Brown, Western Michigan: Brown is the leading scorer for WMU and a guy good enough to carry WMU to a Round of 64 win.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 7 New Mexico over No. 2 Kansas: Here’s the thinking: without Embiid, the Jayhawks can’t stop Bairstow and Kirk inside, and Deshawn Delaney is athletic enough to keep Wiggins in check. Crazier things have happens.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • Anyone over No. 1 Florida: They are the best team in the country and they don’t have an exploitable flaw. You have to go out and outplay them on both ends, and that’s not happening in this region.

Feeling like gambling?

  • No. 14 Western Michigan over No. 3 Syracuse: The Broncos are a tough matchup, they have a star guard and they can get to the free throw line, but to beat the Orange they’ll have to protect the ball and score in the lane. That will be tough, but hey, the Orange are sputtering enough offensively that you never know what will happen.

CBT Predictions: No. 1 Florida rolls

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.