Sweet 16 Preview: The x-factor in each game this week

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Jahlil Okafor vs. Jakob Poeltl: Anyone that has seen No. 1 Duke play this season will tell you that slowing down Jahlil Okafor is a prerequisite to beating the Blue Devils, and after watching Okafor single-handily demolish San Diego State’s formidable defense last weekend, it’s hard to imagine freshman Jakob Poeltl having a real shot at slowing down Okafor. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Dallin Bachynski is probably the better option defensively, given his strength.

That said, I’m not sure either player is going to be able to take Okafor away, which creates an interesting dilemma for Larry Krystkowiak. Where Okafor truly struggles is on the defensive end of the floor, particularly in ball-screen actions. Poeltl may not be all that advanced offensively, but he is mobile, has great hands and works well with Delon Wright in the pick-and-roll. Utah’s best chance to beat Duke may be using Poeltl and hoping that, A) he can hold his own defensively, and B) he can take advantage of Okafor defensive struggles on the other end of the floor.

READ MORE: Sweet 16 Power Rankings | Which are the best Sweet 16 matchups?

Kyle Wiltjer vs. Kevon Looney: Kyle Wiltjer is such an incredibly important piece in what Gonzaga wants to do on the offensive end of the floor. Not only does his shooting ability create a ton of space for drivers and post touches, but he’s excellent in high-low actions with Przemek Karnowski and Domas Sabonis and even better working with Kevin Pangos in the pick-and-roll. It’s not an accident that he is Mark Few’s best scorer.

That said, Wiltjer can be a liability on the defensive end of the floor, which is where UCLA may end up having an advantage. Kevon Looney is arguably UCLA’s most talented player, an athletic combo-forward that averages 11.6 points and 9.2 boards and shoots 43.1 percent from three. Wiltjer will likely be matched up with Looney. Will he be able to keep Looney off of the offensive glass? Will he keep him from going off for 20 points? If Looney’s healthy — he’s been playing with a mask since fracturing a bone in his face during the Pac-12 tournament — he’s the kind of player that can force Wiltjer to the bench, and that makes the Zags a much different team. In the first matchup between these two teams, Wiltjer had 24 points in 30 minutes, shooting 9-for-13 from the floor while Looney went for 14 points, eight boards and four assists in 36 minutes.

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Kentucky’s defensive rebounding: All anyone has talked about regarding the matchup between No. 1 Kentucky and No. 5 West Virginia has been the Mountaineer press. Can they force the Harrison twins and Tyler Ulis to turn the ball over enough to keep the game close? And while that will always be a major factor in any game that West Virginia plays, the other key is going to be how well the Wildcats can rebound the ball. Kentucky ranks 191st in defensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom.com, while West Virginia is No. 6 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. For West Virginia to have any shot at beating the Wildcats, they’re going to need to get easy baskets off of turnovers and second chances.

J.P. Tokoto vs. Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes: The biggest weakness for Wisconsin on the defensive end of the floor is a quick, versatile slasher at the small forward spot, a kid — like, say, Maryland’s Dez Wells — that can take advantage of being guarded by the slower Sam Dekker and/or Nigel Hayes. Tokoto fits that bill. Where Wisconsin generally takes advantage is the mismatch at the other end, as there are very few wings that are strong enough to be able to handle either of those two in the post.

Who guards Jerian Grant?: The perimeter battle between Notre Dame and Wichita State is going to be phenomenal, but the key is going to end up being who Gregg Marshall decides to put on Grant. The best matchup may end up being Tekele Cotton, who is Wichita State’s premier on-ball defender. What the Irish do so well is allow Grant to make plays off the dribble in isolation or in ball-screen actions, drawing help and finding open shooters. Cotton’s ability defensively could help keep Grant out of the lane, but the question then becomes who slows down Demetrius Jackson? Jackson is one of the quickest players left in the tournament, and if he’s defended by either Fred VanVleet or Ron Baker, he should have an advantage off the dribble.

Which N.C. State team shows up?: The Wolfpack needed a collapse from LSU just to get past the opening round of the tournament. Then they went out and soundly beat No. 1 Villanova. The only reason that makes sense is because this is what N.C. State has done all season long. They lost to Wake Forest, at Boston College and to Wofford while beating Duke and winning at Louisville and North Carolina. I know. I don’t get it.

The Wolfpack have the pieces to win this game and get to the Elite 8, but it all depends on whether or not they come to play. The key will be their back court, where Cat Barber and Trevor Lacey are better than Terry Rozier and Quentin Snider.

Matt Stainbrook vs. Arizona’s front line: Dee Davis is going to have his work cut out for him trying to slow down T.J. McConnell defensively, but to me, the key to this game will be how effective Stainbrook is against the bigger Wildcats. Stainbrook is a skilled passer and scorer in the post, a guy that the Musketeers can run their offense through. And given how good Arizona is defensively, that’s critical. Can he hold his own defensively and on the glass?

Branden Dawson vs. Tashawn Thomas: Dawson is and always well be Michigan State’s x-factor. He’s a perfect power forward at the college level, one that can routinely post double-doubles when he motor is running. The problem? That motor isn’t always running. He’ll be matched up against Thomas, who is Oklahoma’s best low-post scorer. The Sooners have made a habit of isolating Thomas on the block with a shooter throwing him an entry pass. Can Dawson keep Thomas from getting into a rhythm offensively?

UCLA guard Jaylen Clark declares for NBA draft

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES – UCLA guard Jaylen Clark has declared for the NBA draft, weeks after a leg injury forced him out of the season’s final six games.

The junior from Riverside, California, announced his plans on his Instagram account Wednesday.

“Thank you to UCLA and coach (Mick) Cronin for believing in me,” Clark’s post read. “I’d like to announce that I am declaring for the 2023 draft.”

Clark didn’t indicate whether he would hire an agent ahead of the June 22 draft or retain his remaining eligibility. He has until May 31 to withdraw and be able to return to Westwood.

He suffered a lower right leg injury in the regular-season finale against Arizona on March 4. Clark averaged 13 points and six rebounds while starting 29 of 30 games. He led the Pac-12 in total steals with 78, tying for third all-time in single-season steals for the Bruins.

He was a second team All-Pac-12 selection, was named the league’s defensive player of the year and made its five-man All-Defensive Team.

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Penn State hires VCU’s Rhoades as men’s basketball coach

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Penn State hired VCU’s Mike Rhoades on Wednesday as its men’s basketball coach, bringing in the Pennsylvania native to take over a program coming off its first NCAA Tournament appearance in more than a decade.

The Penn State board of trustees approved a seven-year deal worth $25.9 million for Rhoades, who is from Mahanoy City in eastern Pennsylvania.

Just a few hours after Rhoades was named at Penn State, VCU hired Utah State coach Ryan Odom to replace Rhoades.

Rhoades replaces Micah Shrewsberry, who was hired away by Notre Dame last week.

Shrewsberry, an Indiana native, was at Penn State for two seasons. The Nittany Lions went 23-14 this season, reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 and won an NCAA game for the first time since 2001.

Rhoades, 50, was 129-61 in six seasons at VCU, including three NCAA Tournament bids. He also spent three seasons at Rice, going 23-12 in the final year with the Owls before returning to VCU.

He was an assistant at the Richmond, Virginia, school from 2009-14 under then-head coach Shaka Smart.

Odom was 44-25 at Utah State in two seasons, with an NCAA Tournament appearance this season.

He previously spent five seasons at Maryland-Baltimore County, going 97-60. In 2018, Odom’s UMBC team became the first No. 16 seed to upset a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament when it beat Virginia.

Temple hires Penn State assistant Fisher to replace McKie

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA – Temple named Penn State assistant Adam Fisher just its fifth coach since 1973 on Wednesday.

Fisher’s goal will be to turn around a program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2019.

Fisher replaces Aaron McKie, who was transferred out of the coaching job earlier this month after four seasons and a 52-56 overall record with no tournament berths. McKie is now a special advisor to the athletic department.

Fisher takes over a team in flux with six players in the transfer portal. Temple has yet to find any steady success in the American Athletic Conference.

Fisher spent eight years as an assistant with Miami before he joined Micah Shrewsberry’s staff last season at Penn State. Shrewsberry has since moved on to Notre Dame.

“I am confident we have found the right person to lead Temple men’s basketball,” athletic director Arthur Johnson said. “We look forward to welcoming coach Fisher to the Temple community and returning to the NCAA Tournament under his leadership.”

Fisher also worked as a graduate manager at Villanova under Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright from 2007-09.

The Owls have traditionally given their coaches significant time on the bench, though McKie’s tenure was the shortest since Ernest Messikomer from 1939-42. The next five coaches all lasted at least 10 seasons, notably Hall of Fame coach John Chaney’s tenure from 1982-2006.

Cal hires Mark Madsen as basketball coach

Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

BERKELEY, Calif. – California is hiring a former Stanford star to revive its struggling basketball program.

The Golden Bears announced Wednesday that Mark Madsen was signed to replace the fired Mark Fox following the worst season in school history.

“We conducted an exhaustive search, and one name kept rising to the top – and that’s Mark Madsen,” athletic director Jim Knowlton said. “Mark is a person of high character, high energy, high intensity, and he’s done it the right way. He’s intense. He’s passionate. He loves his student-athletes, and he loves competing. We want an ambassador for this program who is going to make us proud and develop our young men – both on and off the court. I am absolutely thrilled that Mark will lead our program into the future.”

Madsen played at Stanford under Mike Montgomery, who later coached at Cal, from 1996 to 2000 and helped the Cardinal reach the Final Four in 1998.

After a nine-year playing career in the NBA that featured two titles as a backup on the Lakers in 2001-02, Madsen went into coaching.

He spent time in the NBA’s developmental league and a year at Stanford before spending five seasons on the Lakers staff.

Madsen then was hired in 2019 to take over Utah Valley. He posted a 70-51 record in four years with a 28-9 mark this season before losing on Tuesday night in the NIT semifinals to UAB.

“Having grown up in the area, I have always admired Cal as an institution and as an athletic program, with so many of my teachers, coaches and friends impressive Cal graduates,” Madsen said. “We will win with young men who have elite academic and athletic talent and who will represent Cal with pride.”

Madsen is the third prominent coach to flip sides in recent years in the Bay Area rivalry between Cal and Stanford. The Cardinal hired former Cal quarterback Troy Taylor to take over the football program last season and Bears women’s basketball coach Charmin Smith played and coached as an assistant at Stanford.

Madsen is faced with a tough task, taking over a program that went 3-29 under Fox and set a school record for most losses and worst winning percentage in a season.

Cal went 38-87 during Fox’s tenure, ending his final season on a 16-game losing streak. Fox’s .304 winning percentage ranking second worst in school history to predecessor Wyking Jones’ 16-47 mark (.254) in the two seasons before Fox arrived.

The Bears haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2016 and haven’t won a game in the tournament since 2013 under Montgomery.

Adding to the issues for Fox was the complete lack of interest in the program. Cal’s home attendance averaged just 2,155 this season for the lowest mark among any team in the Power 5 or Big East. That’s down from an average of 9,307 per game in Cuonzo Martin’s last season in 2016-17 and from 5,627 the year before Fox arrived.

Cal had the worst winning percentage among any school in the six major conferences during Fox’s tenure. The Bears also were the lowest-scoring team (62.4 points per game) in all Division I under Fox and had the worst scoring margin of any major conference team under Fox.

Brea Beal’s defense lifts South Carolina to Final Four


COLUMBIA, S.C. – Brea Beal is not just South Carolina’s X factor in one of the country’s best defenses but also a four-year lesson in sacrifice and reinvention that may add a second straight NCAA title to her resume.

Beal is generally third when most think of the landmark recruiting class from 2019 led by heralded All-American Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke. But she could have the most critical role at the Final Four, most likely checking Iowa’s All-American Caitlin Clark in the national semifinals.

The Gamecocks (36-0) face the Hawkeyes (30-6) in the second game in Dallas on Friday night, with the winner playing LSU or Virginia Tech for the national title on Sunday.

Beal, who has started 136 of 137 games in her four seasons, and her senior teammates have racked up championships in their time. They have won three Southeastern Conference Tournament titles, have been to three straight Final Fours and are chasing their second NCAA crown.

Beal takes on the opponent’s best player and, more times than not, limits her effectiveness – a role that took Beal time to embrace.

“It definitely came with some hardship, but throughout time I just walked into it,” she said at the Greenville 1 Regional last weekend.

It wasn’t a path Beal envisioned after a celebrated prep career. She was a three-time Illinois Ms. Basketball from Rock Island High School, averaging 20 or more points a game her final three seasons. Beal joined Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings as the only players in the state to earn that award as a sophomore.

Beal expected to make the offensive impact that Boston and Cooke have had with the Gamecocks.

“It’s not necessarily something I was like, ‘I’m this defender, I’m the best defender,’” Beal said. “It came naturally, just as well as offensively, it’s just something you’ve got to be patient and just accept as time goes.”

Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley sees Beal’s value as more than what she does on the court. Beal, overlooked sometimes behind Boston and Cooke, didn’t look to transfer in the portal era or complain about her scoring. She has kept her head down, Staley said, and made herself an indispensable part of the undefeated defending national champions.

“It took her time to just really relax and see where she can find spots to be effective,” Staley said. “Now that she’s a senior, she sees it.”

Clark, the Iowa star, would have to be one of Beal’s most difficult assignments. Clark had a triple-double – 41 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds – in the Hawkeyes’ 97-83 victory over Louisville to reach their first Final Four in 30 years.

Clark is not one-dimensional – “I pride myself in doing a lot of different things for this team,” she said – and Beal understands it will take a team effort to slow her down.

South Carolina has relied on its defense throughout Beal’s time and this year’s run is no different. The Gamecocks lead the country in blocks and rebound margin, are second in field-goal percentage defense and are third in points allowed.

Cooke believes it’s Beal’s defensive focus that has all the Gamecocks looking to raise their intensity on that side of their game. “She’s the one that taught us how to play defense,” Cooke said. “Especially me. Just watching her and the things she does definitely wore off on me.”

Cooke’s offense may be elevating Beal’s game as of late. Beal has scored in double digits in eight games this season, seven of those since the start of February. She had 10 points in a 59-43 win over UCLA in the Sweet 16 and 16 in an 86-75 victory over Maryland in the Elite Eight.

Once considered the most likely of the 2019 freshmen class to play an extra season, the dual threat has been rising in WNBA mock drafts. ESPN.com has projected her getting called seventh in next month’s draft, going to the Indiana Fever in the first round.

Beal isn’t worried about her pro prospects or savoring all she’s accomplished. She only wants to finish her college career with another championship moment – and that means dialing up the defense.

“We’re a defensively minded team,” she said. “When we come to this part of the season, we definitely need our defense from every single individual.”