Sweet 16 Preview: The 16 best players left in the NCAA tournament, plus 16 more

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We’re kicking off our preview coverage of the Sweet 16 today with a ranking of the 16 teams left in the NCAA tournament to get you primed for the second weekend.

If you’re not ready to let the first weekend go, trust me, I hear you.

It was wild. You relive the eight buzzer-beaters we saw or the 13 craziest moments we experienced.

And when you’re ready to move on, go check out our Sweet 16 Power Rankings and the Sweet 16 Things You Need To Know. Then continue reading here.

1. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Think about this for a second: In the second round of the NCAA tournament, Buddy Hield scored 36 points. That’s pretty incredible, right? Well, 29 of those points came in the second half, which is an insane number for anyone to score in one half of a college basketball game. But it gets better: Hield scored 26 of Oklahoma’s final 31 points as No. 10 seed VCU was doing everything they could do to try and erase a 13-point half time deficit. They even took the lead at one point, which is why it is safe for us to say Hield literally put the Sooners on his back and dragged them to the Sweet 16.

That’s absurd, what he was able to do. How come we aren’t talking about it more?

2. Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia: Brogdon can go into star mode and take over a game offensively. Maybe he didn’t do it on Saturday, but he’s done time and again this season. Where Brogdon really makes a difference is on the defensive end of the floor. He can, when needed, totally shut down an opponent’s best player, whether it’s a point guard or, in the case of Butler’s Andrew Chrabascz, a power forward. So, Georges Niang, are you ready for Friday night?

3. Brice Johnson, North Carolina: The best big man left in the tournament. Johnson is averaging a double-double this season, but he’s made tremendous strides on the defensive end of the floor in the last three weeks. And it’s that improvement defensively that has changed this Tar Heel team.

4. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: Ferrell has been phenomenal for Indiana this season, as he carried the team through a stretch where a group of young guys were learning new roles and figuring out how they can impact a game at this level. And he’s still capable of that. But it’s worth noting that, now, the Hoosiers supporting cast is playing at a level where he doesn’t always have to dominate. That’s why there is a real chance that Indiana can beat North Carolina on Friday night.
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5. Grayson Allen, Duke: There seems to be a national push-back against Grayson Allen right now, given the hate that comes with being white and a star at Duke (and, of course, the tripping). But what’s worth remembering is that Allen is a “star at Duke”. He’s the biggest reason why a team with no depth, a single post player that Coach K trusts and a single point guard — an inconsistent freshman, at that — on the roster is in the Sweet 16.

6. Josh Hart, Villanova: Criminally underrated. That’s the best way to describe Hart, whose ability to rebound and defend multiple positions allows Kris Jenkins to be somewhat hidden defensively. He’s always been tough as nails, though, but now that he’s actually scoring at a consistent rate as well? Look out. I judge how much people know about basketball based on what they think of Hart as a player.

7. Georges Niang, Iowa State: There may not be a more versatile or dangerous 1-on-1 scorer in the country than Niang. Like Allen, he’s carrying a team that has so many roster flaws they really shouldn’t be in the position that they are in right now. He’s not underrated at this point, but he may be under-appreciated.

8. Domas Sabonis, Gonzaga: There’s an argument to be made that Sabonis is the best big man left in this tournament. I think that title still belongs to Brice Johnson, but Sabonis isn’t that far behind. He’s a nightmare to deal with in the paint because of his strength, his physicality and his ability to work through contact. That, and he might be the toughest player in the sport.

9. Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: Niang is the most recognizable name on the Cyclones, but there’s an argument to be made that Morris is their best player. The dynamic point guard doesn’t turn the ball over and gives Steve Prohm two dynamic, borderline unstoppable players on his perimeter.

10. Brandon Ingram, Duke: Ingram’s really flourished since he was asked to take over the small forward role for the Blue Devils. His matchup with Oregon is going to be really interesting and telling, because Oregon has the athletes at the four spot to matchup with him.

Brandon Ingram
(AP Photo/Ted Richardson)

11. Perry Ellis, Kansas: I initially had Ellis lower on this list than 11th, which should tell you something about Kansas: They’re the best team left in the tournament but their best player is Perry Ellis? The thing that makes the Jayhawks so good is that they don’t have a star, because a punch does the most damage  when you don’t know where it’s coming from.

12. Dillon Brooks, Oregon: This may actually be too low for him. Brooks is one of the guys that lets Oregon play a small-ball style. He’s their leading scorer and their go-to guy in big moments, be he’ll be tested defensively against Duke.

13. Sheldon McClellan, Miami: Like Hart, McClellan is really underrated. He’s a terrific athlete that can score at all three levels as well as create his own shot with the bounce. He’s the guy in that Miami back court where you know what you’re going to get on a nightly basis.

14. Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame: Jackson is the engine that makes Notre Dame’s offense tick, much the way that Jerian Grant was Notre Dame’s engine last season.

15. Melo Trimble, Maryland: I loved Trimble last season, and in the preseason, and early this season. But he’s been such a disappointment the last month or so. Is the real Melo going to show up for the Sweet 16 and Kansas?

16. Danuel House, Texas A&M: He’s the kind of guy that can score 18 points in the final 11 minutes and change of a double-overtime win against Northern Iowa. He’s also the guy that scored exactly zero points in the first 35 minutes of that game.

AND HERE ARE 16 MORE GUYS THAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

17. Marcus Paige, North Carolina
18. Frank Mason, Kansas
19. Isaiah Cousins, Oklahoma
20. Anthony Gill, Virginia
21. Zach Auguste, Notre Dame
22. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
23. Chris Boucher, Oregon
24. Troy Williams, Indiana
25. Angel Rodriguez, Miami
26. Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
27. Michael Gbinije, Syracuse
28. Elgin Cook, Oregon
29. Thomas Bryant, Indiana
30. Kris Jenkins, Villanova
31. Jalen Jones, Texas A&M
32. London Perrantes, Virginia

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.