Sweet 16 Power Rankings: Who are the best teams left in the field?

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The first weekend could not have been more thrilling, beginning with Vee Sanford’s runner that sent No. 11 Dayton past No. 6 Ohio State and ending with the dunk show that Aaron Gordon put on for No. 1 Arizona.

In between, we unbelievably only had one true buzzer-beater — Cameron Ridley dispatching No. 10 Arizona State — but we did manage to put together the best day of Round of 64 games ever and the single best college basketball game since Louisville beat Michigan for the 2013 title.

We now have just 16 teams left in the dance. Here they are, ranked:

MORECoverage from the first weekend of the tournament | Sweet 16 Preview

1. Florida: The Gators were not as aesthetically dominating as some of the other teams left in the field, but when you combine the strength and versatility of Billy Donovan’s defense with Scottie Wilbekin’s ability to close out games down the stretch, the Gators are going to be a very, very difficult team to beat.

2. Michigan State: The Spartans were dominant for about 70 of the 80 minutes of the first weekend of the tournament. For the other ten, they allowed Harvard to erase an 18 point deficit and take the lead late in the second half. Consistency will be key, but when the Spartans are focused and at their best, there may not be a more dangerous team left.

3. Virginia: When Virginia’s defense is clicking, you just don’t get good looks at the rim. Period. The key for Tony Bennett’s club is on the offensive end, and when they can execute the way they did against Memphis, they’re tough. That game between the Cavs and the Spartans on Friday night will be a doozy.

4. Arizona: The Wildcats have the most blowout potential of anyone left in the field. When they can speed you up and force turnovers, they embarrass people. Force them into a half court game, however, and they can be beaten. Quality guard play is key.

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5. Louisville: The Cards didn’t play near their best against Manhattan or Saint Louis and still managed to win their pod. They’ll have their work cut out for them against Kentucky on Friday night. Russ Smith is going to have to play better than he did over the weekend.

6. Kentucky: The biggest x-factor left. They looked like a national title contender on Sunday, which came just 22 days after Kentucky lost in ugly fashion at South Carolina. If they play like they did against Wichita State for the rest of the tournament and the Wildcats might cut down the nets, yet I wouldn’t be all that surprised if Louisville beat them by 20.

7. Michigan: Duke’s lost opened things up for the Wolverines, but Tennessee actually matches up well with them. Michigan can be beaten by teams with powerful front lines and/or with a little guard that can bother Nik Stauskas. Tennessee has both.

8. Wisconsin: The Badgers were impressive in their come-from-behind win over Oregon, but now they’ll draw arguably the hottest team left in the tournament.

9. Baylor: The Bears are streaking. They ran both Nebraska and Creighton off the court after winning nine of their last 11 entering the tournament. As much criticism as Scott Drew gets, a tweak in their zone — hugging shooters, daring penetrators to try to score over Isaiah Austin in the lane — was the difference against the Bluejays.

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10. Tennessee: Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae are going to get the attention, but Josh Richardson’s emergence as a tertiary scorer has been huge. He averaged 19.3 points in Tennessee’s three tournament games.

11. UCLA: Of everyone left in the dance, UCLA is the one team I have the most trouble evaluating. They can score and they are as talented on the perimeter as anyone left in the tournament. But how good is their front line? And can they defend at this level against elite competition?

12. Iowa State: The Cyclones would have been much higher on this list if Georges Niang hadn’t broken his foot. He created so many matchup problems for Fred Hoiberg’s club. I’m not sure Iowa State can bet Virginia or Michigan State without him.

13. UConn: You can never count out a team with Shabazz Napier on it, but there are two things that worry me about the Huskies: the status of Napier’s shin/lower leg/ankle/whatever it is he injured on Saturday night, and the inconsistency of DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright.

14. San Diego State: The Aztecs are as good as anyone left in the field on the defensive end of the floor, but they have trouble scoring the ball outside of Xavier Thames. It’s probably not a good thing that they’re running into Arizona on Thursday.

15. Stanford: The Cardinal have a massive, deep front line, but their lack of a point guard and turnover issues are a concern when compared to some of the elite defenses still dancing.

16. Dayton: The Flyers are simply at a talent deficit compared to everyone else left in the tournament. But they were at a talent deficit against Ohio State and Syracuse, and they’ll draw Stanford with a chance to get to the Elite 8. Archie!

New-look Virginia back to work after winning NCAA title

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Tony Bennett’s first offseason as a national champion coach has come with benefits on the recruiting trail. His first season at Virginia after winning the title, however, will bring challenges.

Five players who helped Virginia beat Texas Tech to capture the first basketball title in school history are gone, and that’s four more than expected. Center Jack Salt graduated, and guards De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy declared for the NBA draft. Seldom-used Marco Anthony transferred.

Recruiting was already well underway before the Cavaliers won it all, but Bennett said Wednesday the result “certainly can’t hurt and I think it has helped. It validates a lot of good stuff that’s happened in the past.”

Virginia hopes the spoils of those improvements are evident quickly in incoming freshmen guard Casey Morsell, big men Justin McKoy and Kadin Shedrick and junior college shooting guard Tomas Woldetensae.

Virginia opened its summer practice period on Tuesday, and Bennett said he’s not sure just yet who will be ready to contribute.

“Everyone will have ample opportunity, the newcomers, so to speak,” he said. “To say who, you just don’t know. … There are some opportunities out there. So it’s the returners and we can go down the list of the guys we brought in, but I think they’re excited about the opportunity.

“There’s always a learning curve any time you go from whether it’s high school to college or junior college to college or coming from a redshirt to being eligible. … Going up a level and playing in the ACC, for any of these guys, there’s the challenge of the physicality and the level of talent and the speed.”

Woldetensae, a left-handed shooter, averaged 17.3 points per game and shot 47.6 percent from 3-point range last season at Indian Hills Community College.

“We thought we needed to add some experience and a quality player on the perimeter and when he was mentioned and we did our homework and watched film and all those kinds of things,” he said. “His personality came out as a young man of character and we always start there. He seemed wanting to challenge himself at a very high level.”

The Cavaliers were delighted that Mamadi Diakite decided to come back for his senior year after testing the professional waters. And they added senior transfer Sam Hauser, who averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds last season at Marquette. Hauser will be eligible to practice with the team, but won’t be able to play until 2020-21.

Bennett’s offseason included numerous speaking engagements, recruiting, talking to NBA scouts about his players and some time to decompress.

He also checked an item off his bucket list when, with his father, longtime college coach Dick Bennett, he played Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters. That, he said, “was amazing.”

Now, it’s back to work.

“I’m grateful for the busy-ness of it,” he said of the offseason. “It means something good happened.”

Four-star forward commits to West Virginia

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West Virginia landed a top-75 recruit Thursday night.

Isaiah Cottrell, a 6-foot-9 forward from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, committed to West Virginia’s 2020 recruiting class.

Cottrell picked the Mountaineers overs offers from the likes of Kansas, Washington and Arizona, among others. His father, Brian Lewin, played for West Virginia in the 1990s. The four-star prospect continues a promising recruiting trend for Bob Huggins, who landed a top-40 commit in center Oscar Tshiebwe in the 2019 class.

The Mountaineers missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in four years as they slid to 15-21 overall and last in the Big 12 with a 4-14 mark.

John Calipari’s new deal at Kentucky worth $86 million over 10 years

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John Calipari and Kentucky agreed in April to what was described as a “lifetime contract.” Thursday, the exact terms of that deal were disclosed.

The Wildcats coach’s new contract worth $86 million over 10 years.

“I’ve said from day one that this would be the gold standard and it has been for student-athletes and coaches,” Calipari said in a statement released by the school. “As I enter my 11th year, I’m reminded it took me 20 years to get an opportunity to like this. There is no other place I want to be. As I look forward, my mindset is what’s next and how can we be first at it for the young people that we coach.”

Calipari, 60, will likely continue to be a source of speculation for other jobs presuming he keeps things rolling in Lexington as he has for the last 10 years, but what Kentucky is paying him will almost certainly be more than any other program – and potentially NBA franchises – are going to be willing to. Calipari’s success, NBA history and ability to always be central to the broader college basketball conversation means he’ll always be in demand, but it’s hard to picture a situation that could intrigue Calipari enough to leave one of – if not the – best jobs in basketball.

“(Calipari) has added a special chapter to the greatest tradition in college basketball and it’s a chapter we want him to continue writing until the end of his coaching career,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “We are pleased to announce a new contract that will enable him to do exactly that.”

Calipari 305-71 with one national championship, four Final Fours and 26 first-round draft picks in 10 years with the Wildcats. He and Kentucky will likely open the 2019-20 season as one of the frontrunners for the national championship.

Michigan State reports violation for Tom Izzo hosting visit for former high school

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Michigan State self-reported an NCAA rules violation for Tom Izzo hosting Iron Mountain High School for a tour while the team was in town to compete for its first ever state title that weekend.

Izzo unknowingly committed the violation — which only occurred because Iron Mountain was competing in the Breslin Center that weekend — and the Spartans immediately gave notice once they became aware of it. Proud of his alma mater for advancing to Michigan’s final weekend, Izzo was merely taking interest in players and a team connected to his youth. The Iron Mountain program toured the Breslin Center with Izzo and toured Michigan State’s locked room while also watching the Spartans practice before their state semifinal game.

Since it was a special privilege for Iron Mountain, playing in an event there, the Spartans were technically at fault for a violation. The fact that Izzo and Michigan State have to report a violation for this sort of thing is kind of ridiculous since Izzo has a natural connection to the team in question. Although Michigan State likely isn’t going to get hit with any NCAA issues from this, it’s the kind of thing that critics come to question about the NCAA’s rulebook.

Former lacrosse star Pat Spencer commits to Northwestern for basketball

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Northwestern landed a unique graduate transfer on Thursday as Loyola lacrosse star Pat Spencer will spend his final year of college eligibility hooping for the Wildcats, according to Stadium’s Jeff Goodman.

A former high school basketball standout at Boys’ Latin (MD), Spencer was one of the best lacrosse players in the country for the Greyhounds the past four years in college. He was selected in two drafts during the Spring. Spencer was taken first overall in the inaugural PLL College Draft while getting taken seventh overall in the MLL’s Collegiate Draft. Loyola remains in the NCAA tournament as Spencer is playing out his senior season of college.

Spencer is passing up multiple professional lacrosse opportunities to play Big Ten basketball for Northwestern. For a stud athlete in a sport to pass up money to pursue another athletic dream is one of the college basketball’s best things to follow next season.

As if Spencer’s background wasn’t unique enough, he’ll be at a Northwestern team starving for an identity since making the NCAA tournament a few seasons ago. By playing in the Big Ten, Spencer will be thrown against Final Four contenders and potential draft picks, which makes this transition particularly intriguing. It’s a cool story to follow this season as college hoops doesn’t often get athletes from other sports playing in such prominent conferences.

Greg Paulus famously went from Duke point guard to Syracuse quarterback as a graduate transfer, but he was leaving the sport to pursue an opportunity to play football. Spencer choosing basketball over a sure pro shot in lacrosse is an interesting opportunity for him this season. It’ll be interesting to see if he can still contribute anything on the hardwood.

(Ht: Jeff Goodman, Stadium)