West Region Preview: Arizona rules, but chaos could reign

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Every year, there is one region that just obliterates everyone’s bracket, and this season, that region could very well end up being the West. Arizona earned the No. 1 seed, which had been considered a given for weeks. The Wildcats are the best defensive team in the country and have finally found a rhythm on the offensive end without Brandon Ashley.

But after that, the West Region has some serious ‘all hell breaks loose’ potential.

There are three teams in the conference that had climbed into the top ten nationally at one point this season before having their season seemingly fall off a cliff. Oklahoma State lost seven straight games in Big 12 play before righting their ship as Marcus Smart turned back into the player we all fell in love with last season Baylor lost eight of their first ten Big 12 games, but they won nine of their last 11 and made it to the finals of the Big 12 tournament. Oregon lost eight of ten in Pac-12 play but won eight in a row — a streak that came within three one-possession games of being 13 straight — before getting dropped by UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament.

What’s crazier is that all three of those teams drew matchups that could end up vaulting them into the Sweet 16.

Yeah.

Good luck.

MORERead through all of our bracket analysis here

Three story lines to watch

  • 1. Doug McDermott’s chase for his One Shining Moment: McBuckets has had a legendary career that is missing one thing: a deep run in the tournament. I wrote a column on this two weeks ago.
  • 2. Is this the year Bo Ryan makes the Final Four?: Wisconsin’s head coach has had an exemplary career in Madison. He’s never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten in his 13 seasons at the helm, but he has just one Elite 8 and no Final Fours to show for it. This might be his most potent Wisconsin team. Can they break through?
  • 3. Will Scott Drew ever get credit for being a good coach?: He’s usually a punchline, but he did a terrific job turning this season around for the Bears. He’s been to two Elite 8s in the last four tournaments. Can he tap into that tournament magic again?
source: AP
AP

The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 3 Creighton

I’m not going to lie: I’m very high on this Arizona team. When you can defend, you are always going to be in a game and, this season, there is no one near as good as the Wildcats are defensively. The key for them is going to be scoring in transition, as they struggle to get buckets against a set defense. As far as Creighton is concerned, I think they are quite beatable this season simply because so much of what they do relies on their ability to hit threes. On the nights they fall — especially when Ethan Wragge and Jahenns Manigat are hitting — they’re near-unbeatable. When they aren’t falling, they can be beaten by anyone. There’s no one on their side of the bracket that truly strikes fear into me, however, so I’ll ride with McBuckets one last time.

It’s worth noting: this matchup would pit the nation’s best offense against the nation’s best defense as well as the nation’s best scorer (McDermott) against the nation’s best defender (Aaron Gordon).

MOREEight teams that can win the national title.

Final Four sleeper: Oregon Ducks

Like I wrote earlier, the Ducks are three two-point losses away from a 13-game winning streak late in the season. Ever since they started buying-in defensively, things have changed. Oh, and should I mention that Dominic Artis looks like he might have finally broken out of his slump? The Ducks matchup well with everyone on the bottom-half of the bracket and they are arguably the most talented team in the region.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 10 BYU vs. No. 7 Oregon: Both the Ducks and the Cougars like to run. Both score a lot of points. Neither play much defense. That’s always fun.
  • No. 9 Oklahoma State vs. No. 8 Gonzaga: The Pokes were one of the teams that I figured I would be picking to make a run regardless of where they would up, but the Zags are actually a tough matchup for them. Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski are tough to handle inside, and Oklahoma State has neither depth nor size up front. But can Mark Few find a way to slow down Marcus Smart and Markel Brown?

Matchups to root for

  • No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 11 Nebraska: Two in-state rivals with large, passionate fan-bases that just so happened to be having banner years for their programs.
  • No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 1 Arizona: Two defensive powerhouses. Two programs that recruit Southern California as well as anyone. Two large, passionate fan bases. The game is in Anaheim. Gimme.
  • No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 7 Oregon: Creighton is kind of like BYU, only better.

The studs you know about

  • Doug McDermott, Creighton: He’s the National Player of the Year for a reason.
  • Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, Oklahoma State: Smart was a Player of the Year candidate entering the season, and he’s been playing like it since he returned from his suspension as he’s cut down on turnovers and displayed much-improved shot selection. But Brown may actually be the best scorer on this team and the best dunker in the country.
  • Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga: He’s been battling turf toe all season long, but if he’s healthy, he’s one of the best lead guards in the country.

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

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette: An NBA prospect from the Sun Belt, Payton is a bigger, athletic point guard that is a terrific defensive player.
  • Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: Kaminsky has turned into one of the nation’s most versatile front court players. He scores in the post, he hits threes and he squares people up on the perimeter.
  • Xavier Thames, San Diego State: The leading scorer for the Aztecs all season long, Thames has made innumerable big shots for SDSU this season.
  • Taylor Braun, North Dakota State: The Summit League Player of the Year is a 6-foot-7 wing that hit a number of huge shots in the league title game.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 7 Oregon over No. 2 Wisconsin: Wisconsin can score this year. They are getting up and down the floor much more than in the past, which fits in well with how the Ducks like to play. And the Badgers struggle against teams with guards that can penetrate.
  • No. 12 North Dakota State over No. 5 Oklahoma: If there is going to be a mid-major team that makes a run in the tournament this season, it’s going to be the Bison. The key? Defending the three-point line. NDSU hasn’t done it well this year, and Oklahoma A) shoots a lot of threes and B) shoots them well.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • No. 9 Oklahoma State over No. 1 Arizona: There are a couple reasons for this: 1) the Pokes don’t have anyone that can handle Kaleb Tarczewski on the block; and 2) Arizona has three of the best defenders in the country, and they match up perfectly with OSU’s best players (Nick Johnson vs. Markel Brown, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson vs. Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon vs. LeBryan Nash).

Feeling like gambling?

  • Pick No. 6 Baylor, No. 7 Oregon or No. 9 Oklahoma State to make a run to the Final Four. They’re talented enough to it.

CBT Predictions: No. 1 Arizona advances after a thrilling win over No. 3 seed Creighton.

Report: Alleged NCAA violations against former UConn coach Kevin Ollie revealed

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Fired former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie allegedly committed multiple NCAA violations that led to his dismissal last spring, according to a report released Wednesday by the Hartford Courant.

Ollie was dismissed from the position after a disappointing 2017-18 campaign as he’s been in a battle with the school over the remaining $10 million on his contract. Since Ollie was fired for just cause, the school is trying to withhold that remaining money as the case will proceed to arbitration. UConn president Susan Herbst upheld the school’s decision to terminate Ollie for just cause on Tuesday as he is still, technically, suspended without pay.

According to documents obtained by The Courant under a Freedom of Information Act request, Ollie and his staff committed multiple violations, including an impermissible phone call between Huskies legend Ray Allen and a recruit. Multiple UConn players were also sent to work with an outside trainer on campus, and later, in Atlanta. Another violation occurred when Ollie shot baskets with recruit James Akinjo during an official visit as the video was posted by Akinjo’s guardian on Twitter. The video was later deleted.

Among the 1,355 pages of documents that The Courant obtained, it includes the NCAA’s transcripts from their investigation as well as UConn’s case to terminate Ollie as head coach.

Perhaps the worst violation includes the alleged involvement of the trainer, as Ollie allegedly had a friendship with Derrek Hamilton. During the 2015-16 season, Hamilton allegedly worked out UConn players after hours during on-campus workouts as well as off-campus workouts. Three players also allegedly traveled to Atlanta to train with Hamilton as the players were fed, transported and housed for free — all of which are NCAA violations.

The NCAA has yet to proceed with any action against UConn as 900 pages of the report were based on the NCAA’s interviews and findings. Former UConn coach Glen Miller was also granted immunity in exchange for his testimony to the NCAA regarding the violations.

These alleged violations are a new step in the Ollie case, as the case does not look great for him to receive the remaining $10 million on the contract. Ollie and UConn still have to go through arbitration, but the release of these documents, and alleged violations, is very hurtful to Ollie’s case.

Harvard captain Chris Egi opts for Wall Street instead of pro basketball dreams

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Harvard forward and team captain Chris Egi is opting to skip potential professional basketball options in order to pursue a career on Wall Street.

In a great profile from Michael Grange of Sportsnet Canada, the 6-foot-9 Egi will become an investment analyst at Goldman Sachs after his four-year career with the Crimson ended after this season.

At one point considered a top-100 prospect in his high school Class of 2014, Egi never found consistent footing on the Harvard basketball team as he played sparingly over the course of his four seasons. Injuries and a competitive roster forced Egi to re-evaluate his basketball ambitions as a concussion forced him to miss a lot of his senior season.

“I kind of made an agreement with myself that I’d put it all in for a final shot senior year. But chances were it wasn’t going to be basketball for me unless something great happened,” Egi said in the story.

“[Playing professionally] would be a great experience and part of me wants to do it. But part of me feels like this isn’t the path for me and there are a lot of opportunities here that aren’t about playing basketball and I want to take advantage of those and get started on this new journey.”

While Egi never got stable playing time with Harvard, he could have been an intriguing professional player thanks to his run-and-jump athleticism. Since Egi is also Canadian, he would not have fit under some international league policies that limit the number of American players on certain rosters. If healthy, Egi could have eventually morphed into a serviceable pro after a disappointing college basketball career.

In the classroom at Harvard, however, things were hardly disappointing for Egi. In fact, it appears he might have made the correct decision by going the Wall Street route. Selected to give a commencement speech at Harvard’s underclass graduation late in May, Egi shined as he told his family’s story and personal experiences at the Ivy League school he always dreamed of attending.

As Michael Porter Jr. joins Puma, will brand make splash into college basketball?

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As the 2018 NBA Draft approaches, Puma has made major headlines by signing a handful of lottery picks — including the potential top two picks in Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley.

Puma’s aggressive move to get back into basketball continued on Wednesday afternoon as ESPN’s Nick DePaula reported that Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr. — another likely top-10 pick — will sign a multi-year deal with the apparel company.

Dormant in the basketball business since Vince Carter signed with the brand as a rookie in 1998, Puma has become one of the intriguing subplots of this year’s draft as they attempt to position themselves in a crowded basketball apparel market that includes heavyweights like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.

But while Puma has made a splash by signing three potential top ten picks, and another potential lottery pick in Texas Tech guard Zhaire Smith, the intriguing question becomes what the brand might do at the college and grassroots levels of basketball?

Besides targeting 2018 NBA draft picks, Puma has recently made a strong push as a lifestyle brand by forging partnerships with music icons like Jay-Z and Rihanna. The brand’s soccer division also received a boost when they opted to sign Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku to a roster that already included the likes of Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann. The company also has a longstanding partnership with 11-time Olympic gold medal sprinter Usain Bolt.

So, even outside of professional basketball, Puma is trying to make major moves, while spending major money, over the last several months.

Having star NBA talents signed to apparel deals is one thing. Those same companies often attempt to align with as many college programs and high school programs as possible. Nike, Adidas and Under Armour have also formed their own spring and summer grassroots basketball leagues over the last decade with the EYBL, Adidas Gauntlet and the Under Armour Association.

While Puma is undoubtedly spending enough to be seen by the masses, it’s hard to say if they have the monetary means, or the labor, to make a major push into smaller basketball levels like college and the AAU scene. Multiple basketball and apparel sources speculated to NBCSports.com that Puma’s sudden rise into the NBA doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll want to make the leap into college or high school basketball.

That’s been the natural progression of the other apparel companies who have made a major mark in basketball, as those brands value the long-term relationships and local credibility that comes with having top-notch college and high school players wearing their product.

Maybe Puma doesn’t see things that way as they try to align themselves with star professional players. And for all of the talk of Nike having long-term relationships with Ayton, Bagley and Porter, all three of them jumped at the chance to make the most money with the new(ish) kids on the block. Money will still be the ultimate factor in a lot of athletes signing with apparel companies.

If Puma does decide to enter the college athletics arms race, it would certainly make for a fascinating apparel company to enter the mix. Since Puma has credibility in sports like golf, tennis, soccer and track and field they could also make a splash signing larger schools to long-term apparel deals that go across all sports.

But it remains to be seen what Puma’s long-term goal is after signing four strong draft prospects. Puma is off to a great start re-entering basketball, but we have no idea what kind of end-goal they have in mind. Or if that even involves college basketball.

Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis commits to Kentucky

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Reid Travis announced on Wednesday morning that he will be committing to Kentucky.

Travis had spent the past four seasons at Stanford, where he averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 boards and, when healthy, had been one of the best big men in the Pac-12 for the better part of three seasons.

But injuries had taken a toll on the 6-foot-8, 250 pound forward. He played just eight games his sophomore season due to a stress reaction in his left leg, for which he was given a medical redshirt for. In total, Travis missed 35 games in four years with the Cardinal.

Travis is a terrific rebounder and a low-post scorer that will immediately provide a Kentucky team with plenty of perimeter talent with an anchor in the paint. Travis will be the only scholarship player on the roster with more than one season of experience.

If there is a concern here, it’s that Travis and fellow forward P.J. Washington play a similar style. Both are somewhat undersized bigs that do most of their damage in the paint, and neither are known for their ability to be a rim protector or to stretch the floor. Spacing, once again, is going to be an issue for this Kentucky team, even with all the perimeter talent that is on the roster.

But there is a ton of perimeter talent. Ashton Hagans, Kelden Johnson, Immanuel Quickley, Tyler Herro, Quade Green. Kentucky is not short on pieces, but like we seem to say every season, the key to unlocking that talent is finding a way for all those pieces to fit together. It’s not perfect, but this is certainly a more balanced roster than Kentucky had a year ago, and if anyone has earned the faith that he can find a way to make it work, it’s John Calipari.

From Spokane to Serbia, Nigel Williams-Goss sees NBA dreams take a detour

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The Grobari was the most shocking part.

After two seasons playing in the Pac-12 and two years at Gonzaga, where The Kennel is renowned as one of the best student sections in college basketball, Nigel Williams-Goss was still not prepared for what he was going to encounter playing for KK Partizan, a Serbian club in Belgrade, one of the few European cities that is as crazy about basketball as they are soccer.

Grobari is what the Partizan fans call themselves — as in, “I’m Grobari” — and they support both Partizan’s basketball and soccer teams. Rabidly. When they behave, they’re called Ultras. When they don’t, which is fairly often, they’re referred to as Hooligans.

“I’ve see the flares being lit in the gym,” Williams-Goss told NBC Sports in a wide-ranging interview last month. “I’ve had times where I had to cover my head with a towel because the fans start throwing lighters and coins because they disagree with a call.”

“I remember one time we were playing a team and as they were warming up, our fans just threw like 100 rolls of toilet paper so they couldn’t warm up. They kept having to sweep off the toilet paper, and then they would throw rolls again.”

That is where Williams-Goss, coming off of a first-team All-American season for a team that lost in the national title game, spent his first season as a professional, wearing the badge of the highest college player selected in the 2017 NBA Draft that did not get a guaranteed contract or wind up as a two-way player for the organization that drafted him.



There may not be a better example of just how hard it is to sign one of the 510 available NBA contracts than Williams-Goss.

His amateur career was as decorated as anyone in recent memory. After becoming the first, and still only, player to spend four seasons as a member of Findlay Prep’s basketball program, where he won two national titles, Williams-Goss was named a McDonald’s All-American and played in the Jordan Brand All-American game. He won a gold medal with USA Basketball playing for the U19s. He spent two all-Pac-12 seasons at Washington before transferring to Gonzaga, where he led the Zags to a nearly-undefeated regular season, a No. 1 ranking for the majority of the year and a trip to the national title game. He was named a first-team All-American for his troubles, becoming one of just five players in Division I history to be named an academic All-American and a first-team All-American.

After that national title game loss, after completing an undergraduate degree in Psychology and starting in on a masters in Organizational Leadership, Williams-Goss left school with a year of eligibility still on the table.

He was selected by the Utah Jazz with the 55th pick.

His lifelong dream of hearing his name called during the NBA draft had come true. The reward was being forced to fight for a roster spot on a team with three established NBA point guards and Donovan Mitchell, a lottery pick that turned into the best player in the draft class.

“That was an emotional night for me,” Williams-Goss said. “Because I know that I did everything I could possibly do to put myself in a better position than that.”

“I had proven myself every step of the way. For me, it was weird, because [NBA teams] had seen [me] perform at a high level on the biggest stages my entire career, and then to fall that far in the draft and watch guys that were nowhere near as accomplished as I was get picked in front of me was really tough.”

He had to face reality: The NBA draft is all about potential — some combination of youth, athletic ability and physical tools — and shooting. Williams-Goss was a redshirt junior when he left school and 23 years old before the season started. He’s a below-average athlete by the standards that come with being an NBA point guard, and in four years he shot 33.1 percent from three on nearly 300 attempts.

That combination is far from ideal, but a death knell for his NBA dreams it is not.

Because the Utah Jazz still want him, or at least they are not yet ready to dispose of him. He wasn’t relegated to Europe as much as he was placed there, a draft-and-stash prospect. He’s stayed in regular contact with people in the Jazz front office and, after winning an MVP award and a tournament title in February, he was sent a care package from Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsay. According to a source with knowledge of the situation, the Jazz brass believed that spending a year overseas would benefit Williams-Goss more than if he had remained stateside as a G League player or on a two-way contract.

So after playing in the NBA summer league, Williams-Goss was faced with a decision: Accept an invite to training camp, where the Jazz had one roster spot available and four point guards on the roster, or get his passport ready. He met face-to-face with Lindsay and talked through all of his options, and all parties agreed that it was best to head to Europe.

“In my first year as a professional, it was important that I continue to develop and further my growth,” Williams-Goss said.

To do that, he needed to play.


Via Partizan

Partizan is one of the most storied clubs in all of European basketball.

A powerhouse in Serbia, Partizan has sent the likes of Vlade Divac, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nikola Peković and Jan Vesely to the NBA, and they’ve won more trophies than any other club in Serbia: 21 Serbian League championships, 14 Serbian Cups, six Adriatic League titles and the 1992 EuroLeague title, the most prestigious of the bunch.

But prior to Williams-Goss’ arrival in Belgrade, Partizan had been stumbling. It had been four years since the Black And Whites had won one of the four competitions they play in annually, an eternity for the Grobari. To make matters worse, their failures in the Adriatic League, which features teams from the seven countries that previously made up Yugoslavia and is considered one of the very best in the world outside of the NBA, coincided with archrival Red Star-Belgrade was representing Serbia in the EuroLeague, basketball’s equivalent to soccer’s Champions League; Luka Doncic was recently named the EuroLeague MVP.

And, as it would turn out, Williams-Goss would become the savior Partizan was looking for.

Despite beginning the year playing for a coach that spoke no English while playing abroad for the first time in his life on a team that was, and still is, in financial disarray, the Gonzaga product still managed to put together a masterful season, averaging 16.9 points and 6.8 assists across all competitions.

But most importantly, he was the MVP of the Korać Cup — the Serbian League’s equivalent of a conference tournament — as Partizan won their first trophy in four years by defeating the reigning evil empire, Red Star, in the finals.

Williams-Goss had 23 points and seven assists in the title game. He had become a sensation in Belgrade, living up to the burden that came with the All-American tag. The Grobari knew who he was before he showed up in their city. With notoriety comes expectation, and Williams-Goss handled it better than anyone could have asked for.

“There was a lot of pressure on my shoulders from fans even though I was a rookie,” he said. Partizan has always had a reputation for being a place that young talents can go to shine, and Williams-Goss was the latest — and the rare American — to be burdened with that honor. “The success of a season is determined by how many trophies you can rack up in a year, because it’s not like college or the NBA where there’s only one final trophy. There’s a lot of different leagues. Not having a single trophy for almost four years, and then to do it this year with such a young group being led by an American rookie, was special.”

And he wasn’t kidding.

One afternoon, before the season had come to an end and Williams-Goss had returned to the states, he was walking past a cafe on a Belgrade street when he was recognized. Three of the employees of that cafe came sprinting out and grabbed Williams-Goss before he was out of sight.

“They made me come in and made me a cake with my number on it,” he said.

That’s one way to say thank you.


Courtesy Nigel Williams-Goss

Williams-Goss has some options heading into the summer.

The word is out about how well he adjusted to playing European basketball, and EuroLeague suitors have already come calling. There’s a market for him in Europe, one where he should be able to double what was reported to be a $130,000 salary; keep in mind, for most European teams, the salary they pay is take home money. They’ll cover things like rent, travel and even taxes.

As good as that sounds, the dream isn’t to play in the EuroLeague.

The dream is the NBA, and the Utah Jazz still own the rights to Williams-Goss. Mitchell isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and Rubio still has another year on his contract. Exum and Neto are both at the end of their rookie contracts, and while the expectation is that the Jazz will try to sign Exum to a longer deal — he’s been a very effective piece when his body doesn’t fail him — should Williams-Goss head to training camp with the Jazz, he’d likely be competing with Neto for a spot.

If he makes the team, great. If he’s cut, suddenly he’s a free agent and available for other NBA teams to sign, but that comes with a significant amount of risk as well. European teams typically make their signings earlier in the calendar than that, which would make the market for Williams-Goss abroad smaller and, potentially, less lucrative.

He’s going to have some decisions to make, that much is certain.

But this is not a situation where he is going to be choosing between eight-figure deals and deciding which NBA city he wants to live. No matter how you slice it, Williams-Goss is a fringe NBA player right now despite the fact that the former Burger Boy and first-team All-American just finished an outstanding rookie campaign for one of the most storied clubs in Europe.

He knows first-hand just how hard it is to get to the NBA, which is why he was so frustrated seeing how many players without any chance of getting drafted announced their intentions to test the waters of the NBA draft this spring.

“If you know that you’re not that you’re really on that cusp and it is just for feedback, I don’t understand the point of announcing,” he said. “To me, it just looks like you’re doing it for the attention and for the non-basketball knowing peers and other people to think, ‘Aww man, this guy that we know is close to going to the NBA.'”

“There’s 60 picks,” he added, “but the game is international. There’s 60 picks for kids all over the world. It’s definitely one of the toughest jobs to get. But people know how tough it is, which is why this opportunity of announcing they can test the waters kind of gives them a feeling that they can show other people that they’re closer to that reality than they might actually.”

Williams-Goss was one of those kids three years ago. When he left Washington, he had the chance to put his name into the draft but declined. He knew he wasn’t ready. After two more years at Gonzaga, completing his degree and jump-starting his work on a masters, it was time.

“I’ve put myself in a great position moving forward,” Williams-Goss said, “whether that’s the NBA or an opportunity to move up in Europe.”

Hopefully, wherever he lands, he won’t have batteries being thrown at his head.