Associated Press

Mid-majors capable of wrecking some brackets

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It never fails.

Every March some plucky underdog seemingly comes out of nowhere to pull off an upset in the NCAA tournament, wrecking brackets across the country in the process. The key word in that sentence is “seemingly,” because each year there are teams that show signs throughout the season that they’re capable of winning once in the NCAA tournament.

Below are ten programs capable of pulling off an upset in the NCAA tournament as we approach the start of the 2015-16 campaign.

1. UAB: Jerod Haase’s Blazers pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2015 NCAA tournament, as they sent home three-seed and trendy Final Four pick Iowa State in the round of 64. All five starters from that team have returned, including two players in forward William Lee and guard Nick Norton who ranked among the top freshmen in Conference USA a season ago and conference tournament MVP Robert Brown. Reigning C-USA Sixth Man of the Year Chris Cokley anchors a deep and experienced bench. And with Brown being the Blazers’ lone senior, they could be at the top of this list in 2016-17 as well.

2. Valparaiso: The Crusaders narrowly missed out on an upset back in March, falling by just three points to four-seed Maryland. Vashil Fernandez receiving his fourth season of eligibility means that head coach Bryce Drew can call upon one of the top front court tandems around, pairing Fernandez with junior Alec Peters. Peters was a first team all-Horizon League selection last season, with Fernandez being the Defensive Player of the Year. In total ten of the eleven players who scored a point for Valparaiso last season are back, with guards Tevonn Walker and Darien Walker and wing E. Victor Nickerson among those contributors.

3. Stephen F. Austin: Brad Underwood’s first two seasons at SFA have produced consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and the Lumberjacks have enough experience and talent to push that streak to three. Five seniors led by reigning Southland Conference Player of the Year Thomas Walkup have seen a lot in their college careers, including a wild win over VCU in the 2014 NCAA tournament. A group that was good on both ends of the floor (they ranked fifth in defensive turnover percentage, too) and won 29 of their final 30 games a season ago should pick up right where they left off in March.

4. Belmont: Like the three teams ahead of them on this list Rick Byrd’s Bruins reached the NCAA tournament a season ago, where they ran into a tough matchup in Virginia’s pack line defense. However it should be noted that Belmont scored 67 points in that loss, a mark met or surpassed by Virginia opponents just four times in 2014-15. Four starters from that team are back in Nashville, led by the OVC’s best player in senior guard Craig Bradshaw and the nation’s field goal percentage champion Evan Bradds (68.8 percent). The Bruins are highly efficient offensively, and that could make life difficult for an opponent unfamiliar with their style/personnel.

5. Old Dominion: Jeff Jones’ Monarchs fell short of their goal of an NCAA tournament bid a season ago, but they didn’t sulk once in the Postseason NIT. Trey Freeman and company reached the semifinals of that event, and the postseason experience should serve this group well. Freeman’s one of the best players in Conference USA, and in total ODU welcomes back three starters and four of their top six scorers. East Carolina transfer Brandan Stith pairs up with leading rebounder Denzell Taylor to help ODU account for the loss of Jonathan Arledge and Richard Ross from their front court, and this is a group that can be dangerous in a one-and-done scenario.

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Old Dominion’s Trey Freeman (AP Photo)

6. UC Irvine: The prohibitive favorites in the Big West, Russell Turner’s Anteaters had eventual Elite Eight participant Louisville on the ropes back in March. UC Irvine fell by just two points on that day, and many of the key contributors from that team have returned for another run at the NCAA tournament. That includes experienced guards Alex Young and Luke Nelson, wing Dominque Dunning and a front court with some serious size led by 7-foot-6 junior Mamadou Ndiaye. While UC Irvine isn’t an explosive offensive team, their defense is what makes them such a tough matchup for team not used to their style and personnel.

7. Iona: There’s no denying the fact that Tim Cluess’ Gaels are going to score points. Last season Iona averaged 79.5 points per game, and from an adjusted tempo standpoint only 11 teams played faster. Iona does have to account for the loss of MAAC Player of the Year David Laury, but four of the team’s top five scorers from a season ago are back led by high-scoring guards A.J. English and Shadrac Casimir. The key for Iona, especially in the MAAC tournament where they’ve fallen to rival Manhattan in each of the last two title games, will be their commitment on the defensive end. As we saw with Eastern Washington in March, being able to score doesn’t mean much if you can’t get stops.

8. Evansville: The Purple Aces have one of the better inside/out combinations around in high-scoring guard D.J. Balentine and forward/center Egidijus Mockevicius, who combined to average 32.6 points per game in 2014-15. That tandem helped lead Marty Simmons’ team to the CIT championship, and with all five starters back expectations are high for the Purple Aces. They’re in position to challenge preseason Missouri Valley favorite Wichita State, and given their talent and experience should Evansville reach the NCAA tournament they can cause trouble.

9. Central Michigan: Keno Davis’ Chippewas won 23 games and a MAC West Division title last season with an offense that shot the ball well and took good care of it too. All five starters, led by guard Chris Fowler and forward John Simons, are back on campus which should allow them to hit the ground running in 2015-16. The key for this group will be to get better on the defensive end of the floor (MAC foes shot nearly 54 percent from two), as they ranked 11th in field goal percentage defense, seventh in three-point percentage defense and ninth in effective field goal percentage defense (conference games only).

10. Louisiana: The biggest reason for the Ragin’ Cajuns’ inclusion on this list is the fact that they’ve got a likely pro in Shawn Long in their front court. The 6-foot-11 senior is the preseason pick for Sun Belt Player of the Year, coming off of a junior campaign in which he averaged 16.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. All five starters are back for head coach Bob Marlin, and while the Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t reach the NCAA tournament they did play in the CIT (losing to Evansville in the quarters) so there is some postseason experience to call upon.

Five others to keep in mind: Hofstra, Columbia, North Florida, Stony Brook, Pepperdine

Matt Haarms decides to leave Purdue, enter transfer portal

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue center Matt Haarms has entered the transfer portal and intends to play his final college season at another school, coach Matt Painter announced Monday.

The slim, 7-foot-3 Haarms was one of the Big Ten’s top defenders and played a key role during the Boilermakers’ 2019 NCAA Tournament run, when he replaced injured center Isaac Haas in the starting lineup.

But Haarms lost the starting job following a hip injury in December and wound up averaging 8.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2 blocks per game while shooting 52.4% from the field.

He finished fourth on Purdue’s career list for blocks with 210.

Louisville’s Nwora enters NBA draft after All-America season

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville forward Jordan Nwora has announced on social media that he will enter the NBA draft.

Nwora was selected to The Associated Press All-America third team as a junior. His decision to turn pro was expected after limited participation in last year’s NBA combine because of a knee injury. He returned to the Cardinals and was named Atlantic Coast Conference preseason player of the year before going on to average 18 points and 7.7 rebounds per game while shooting 44% from the field. The 6-foot-7 Nwora was named to the AP’s All-ACC first team.

The Buffalo, New York, native said on his verified Twitter account that the abrupt end to the season was “heartbreaking and awful” because he believed No. 14 Louisville (24-7) was ready to win the NCAA championship. But he noted that community health and safety should be the priority because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nwora called Cardinal teammates and coaches his family in his post and added, “I will proudly represent Louisville wherever I go.”

Florida guard Scottie Lewis returning for sophomore season

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida guard Scottie Lewis, one of the Southeastern Conference’s top defenders, is returning for his sophomore season.

Lewis made the announcement Monday via social media by saying “we have some unfinished business.”

“My dream of playing in the NBA is still a top priority, but my heart is in Gainesville!” he added. “I am excited for the journey that lies ahead. My story hasn’t even started, and trust me the best is yet to come!”

A McDonald’s All-American in high school, the 6-foot-5 Lewis had been considered a one-and-done prospect when he arrived in Gainesville last summer. But his defensive prowess overshadowed his offensive skills for much of his first collegiate season.

The New Jersey native averaged 8.5 points and 3.6 rebounds to go along with a team-leading 36 blocks. He was second on the team with 36 steals.

He was at his best in SEC play, averaging 9.2 points and shooting 43.6% from 3-point range. He scored a career-high 19 points in the team’s regular-season finale against Kentucky. The postseason was canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Gators (19-12, 11-7 SEC) now await word on a pair of sophomores: point guard Andrew Nembhard and versatile forward Keyontae Johnson.

Nembhard entered the NBA draft last year before withdrawing his name and returning for a second season. Johnson led Florida in scoring this season, averaging 14 points, and was second on the team with 7.1 rebounds. He also led the team with 38 steals.

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Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey declares for the NBA draft

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Kentucky freshman Tyrese Maxey announced on Monday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft and forgoing his final three seasons in college.

Maxey is projected as a lottery pick after averaging 14 points, 4.3 boards and 3.2 assists for the Wildcats this past season. He burst onto the college basketball scene on the first night of the season when he went for 26 points in a win over No. 1 Michigan State during the Champions Classic, and while he was not quite capable of keeping up that pace throughout the season, he did enough to prove himself as a quality pro prospect.

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Taking a risk on Tyrese Maxey high in the 2020 NBA Draft means betting on the fact that his 29 percent three-point shooting as a freshman had more to do with adjusting to the college level than it does his actual shooting ability. Coming through high school, Maxey had the reputation for being a big-time scorer because of his ability to make deep jumpers off the bounce and because of the way that he can finish around the rim with a variety of floaters and layups.

And while he would show flashes of being the dominant scorer Kentucky needed him to be, the Wildcats late-season surge was a direct result of Immanuel Quickley’s improvement, not Maxey finding consistency. We spent the entire season saying “just wait until Maxey finds his stroke” and he never really did. He needs to be able to make that shot because the rest of his game is somewhat limited. He’s not a natural creator, he’s wired to score more than anything else, and he certainly isn’t an elite athlete by NBA combo-guard standards, although he is a pretty good on-ball defender. He’s also a worker, and by all accounts a great kid and competitor. I think there’s a real chance his ceiling is as a second-unit scorer, but if it all comes together I can see him putting together a career on par with Lou Williams.

Mike Tirico to host NBC Sports’ new daily sports talk show ‘Lunch Talk Live’

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A new daily sports talk shot called Lunch Talk Live will debut on NBCSN at noon ET on Monday, April 6th.

The show will feature Mike Tirico joined like by special guests every single day, including a lineup of NBC Sports’ on-air personalities, current and former athletes and prominent people in sports media.

The show will focus on how the sports world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, providing a platform for intelligent discussion on the state of sports and how we, as a society, are adapting to living in this challenging time. the goal is to detail personal stories of how different people from across the sports industry are functioning in the day-to-day.

“In these challenging times, we are all missing sports and the people who make sports memories,” said Tirico. “Hopefully, we can bring a midday connection with some of them to help fill the void.”

“We’re excited to bring viewers fresh programming every day with unique, topical conversations from prominent individuals in all corners of sports,” said Sam Flood, the Executive Producer & President of Production for NBC Sports. “This will be a daily lunch date to share sports and stories we miss during these unique times.”

The show will be an hour long. It will air on weekdays at Noon ET on NBCSN and will be streaming on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. Additionally, content will also be provided on the NBC Sports’ YouTube channel as well as other social media platforms.

All episodes of the show will be hosted remotely.

Here is the schedule for the week:

Monday 4/6

12:00p- Justin Leonard // Peter King
12:15p- Cris Collinsworth & Dale Earnhardt Jr
12:30p- Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski
12:40p- Seahawks QB Russell Wilson
12:50p- Jeff Burton & Steve Letarte

Tuesday 4/7

12:15p- Rebecca Lowe & Kathryn Tappen
12:30p- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman
12:40p- NASCAR Driver Denny Hamlin

Wednesday 4/8

12:15p- Al Michaels & Doc Emrick
12:30p- PGA Golfer Justin Thomas
12:50p- Kyle Petty & Dale Jarrett

Thursday 4/9

12:50p- Keith Jones & Eddie Olczyk

Friday 4/10

12:15p- Michele Tafoya & tbd
12:40p- Dan Hicks & Paul Azinger
12:50p- Robbie Mustoe & Robbie Earle