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Confident Final Four newcomers Gonzaga and South Carolina focused on limiting distractions

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — After a few days in Arizona, the new car smell of the Final Four still hasn’t worn off for first-time participants Gonzaga and South Carolina.

Both programs are managing the insane pressure of trying to bring home a national championship while the Bulldogs and Gamecocks also try to encompass the magical experience of everything the Final Four festivities have to offer.

The banquets, dinners, media sessions and overall hype surrounding the Final Four dwarfs anything that these players and coaches have ever dealt with. Wide-eyed players and coaches are still figuring out strange Final Four challenges like the shooting backdrop in the cavernous University of Phoenix Stadium or handling all of the random outside distractions.

It can be a daunting task to juggle everything around the Final Four. Gonzaga and South Carolina are managing the best they can. In a Final Four that features three programs who have never been this far in the modern era, at least one of those teams — the Bulldogs or Gamecocks — will be playing for a national championship on Monday night.

“A lot of people that you haven’t talked to in years try to give you advice on what’s going on like they’ve been through it before,” Gonzaga freshman center Zach Collins said. “I mean, we all expected that. I think we’re all really, really good about keeping together in this locker room, focusing on the task at hand.”

Mark Few’s 18-year tenure at Gonzaga has seen the Bulldogs achieve an incredible amount of success considering the program’s West Coast Conference roots. Despite being a perennial NCAA tournament team who has reached the second weekend multiple times, preparing for the Final Four for the first time has involved new challenges for Few and his staff.

The Gonzaga staff spent the week calling other coaches about Final Four preparation while also relying on the guidance of assistant coach Donny Daniels — an assistant on Final Four teams at UCLA and Utah. The varying degrees of answers from other coaches has helped Gonzaga navigate the week.

Gonzaga players were asked to handle everything outside of basketball before Tuesday so that they could focus fully on Saturday’s game but they’re also trying to relish this experience at the same time.

“That’s the thing about athletics: everything is so regimented. Film is at this time and it’s this long. Practice is at this time and it’s this long. We eat breakfast at this time. And for 36 games, essentially everything has been the exact same,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “Then you get here and your schedule really is chopped up. You get five minutes for film here, five minutes for film there. You may have one scheduled [film session] and it may not end up happening. That’s been different for us. But so far the guys have responded to it pretty well.”

Gonzaga’s current roster and coaching staff has far more NCAA tournament experience than South Carolina, but the last few weeks for the Gamecocks have prepared them for everything that is currently happening to them at the Final Four.

Playing the first two rounds in nearby Greenville meant that South Carolina already had to deal with exaggerated off-the-court hype before the 2017 NCAA tournament even tipped. Gamecock fans were just clamoring for the team to earn its first NCAA tournament win since 1973. Things accelerated quickly for South Carolina and its fanbase after they knocked off Duke and advanced to Madison Square Garden for two more wins.

So while the Final Four still has some new wrinkles that the Gamecocks are adjusting to, they’ve already had to deal with a circus-like atmosphere just to reach Glendale. Most of South Carolina’s strategy to limit distractions has to do with making sure that head coach Frank Martin and his staff can handle everything possible to keep the players focused. Players for the Gamecocks maintain that everything has stayed pretty consistent throughout the season as they treat Gonzaga just like every other opponent.

“Honestly, it’s been pretty easy for us. We’re so focused on the game that we have tomorrow,” guard P.J. Dozier said of the week. “I hate to say that everything else doesn’t matter. But we know what we came here to do. We came here to win a national championship and we’re just trying to take it one game at a time.”

Right now, it seems easy for Gonzaga and South Carolina to limit distractions and stay focused for the national semifinals. Historic Final Four runs have a way of instilling confidence in teams that haven’t been there before.

But things also have a tendency to change very quickly once the ball gets tipped. Mistakes are magnified and the pressure of the Final Four can ramp up very quickly.

Gonzaga and South Carolina are both new to this, but one of them is about to play for a title on Monday. And the previous lack of Final Four experience will ultimately mean nothing.

“Experience helps you manage your mindset, your emotions, as you prepare for something. But when the game goes up, everyone’s nervous,” Martin said. “I don’t care how many Final Fours you’ve played in, every time you show up for that game you’re going to be nervous. And anyone who says differently is not telling you the truth. I don’t care how many games you’ve coached. You’re always nervous for the next game on the schedule. It just, it is what it is.”

High school basketball player collapses, dies at AAU event

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James Hampton, a member of Team United and a senior at Liberty Heights, a private high school in Charlotte, collapsed and died during a Nike Elite Youth Basketball League game on Saturday night.

Hampton was 17 years old.

In the second half of a game against Nike Phamily, a Phoenix-based program that is run by the father of Marvin Bagley III, Hampton collapsed to the floor unresponsive. Trainers at the event began CPR on and administered chest compressions. Parademics arrived within 10 minutes, but Hampton could not be revived.

The cause of death has not yet been released, but this is not the first time that Hampton had an issue. Last spring, at an event in the Washington D.C. area, Hampton collapsed on the court and had to be given CPR.

“He just fell down on the floor,” Team United director Jacoby Davis told the Charlotte Observer. “He had seizures a year ago and I remember (one of the Team United coaches) telling me that, ‘I saw his eyes rolling back in his head.’ I ran on the court thinking he was having a seizure. A trainer came over and said he didn’t know what was wrong. Another trainer checked his pulse. He said he didn’t have a pulse. It got crazy after that.”

RIP James Hampton.

Nevada’s Jordan Caroline pulls out of 2018 NBA Draft

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Jordan Caroline has opted to pull his name out of the 2018 NBA Draft as he will return to Nevada for his senior season, he announced on Saturday.

The 6-foot-7 Caroline put together a strong season for the Wolf Pack as he averaged 17.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game as Nevada made the Sweet 16 behind one of the most talented offenses in the country.

Caroline’s return is a huge boost for Nevada as they still await the NBA draft decisions of Caleb and Cody Martin.

Currently ranked No. 17 in the NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25 (without the Martin twins), the Wolf Pack will still have a ton of talent around Caroline next season. Five-star freshman center Jordan Brown recently committed to Nevada. The program also a number of talented transfers entering the mix, including Tre’Shawn Thomas, Nisre Zouzoua and Ehab Amin.

If the Martin twins return to school (and that is a big if) then Nevada could have a potentially elite offense next season. But even if the Martin twins go pro, Nevada should still be the favorite in the Mountain West and a threat to once again make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Dewan Huell returning to Miami for junior season

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Miami received some positive news on Saturday afternoon as the school announced the return of forward Dewan Huell for his junior season.

After testing the NBA draft waters without an agent, the 6-foot-11 Huell will be back for the Hurricanes. Starting all 32 games for the program last season, Huell averaged 11.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting 57 percent from the floor.

“After getting feedback from NBA teams and talking it over with my family and coaches, I would like to announce that I will be returning to Miami for my junior season,” Huell said in the release. “I’m really excited to get back to work with my brothers so we can accomplish more than ever during the 2018-19 season.”

A former McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school, Huell’s return gives the Hurricanes stability in the front court for next season as he’ll play with other returning players like Sam Waardenburg and Ebuka Izundu. With Miami losing both Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown early to the 2018 NBA Draft, Huell could be expected to provide more offensive production as a junior.

Bruce Weber receives contract extension at Kansas State

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Kansas State and head coach Bruce Weber have agreed to a two-year contract extension, according to a release from the school.

After leading the Wildcats to a surprising Elite Eight appearance in March, Weber will be the head coach at Kansas State through the 2022-23 season, which gives him another five seasons to work with. Weber will be paid $2.5 million in 2018-19 and he’ll receive a $100,000 increase to his salary in each remaining contract year.

Weber had already signed a two-year extension in August 2017, but this move gives the veteran head coach more job security (and positive recruiting perception) for the next few seasons.

“We are very fortunate to have not only such an outstanding basketball coach but also a man in Coach Weber who conducts his program with integrity and class and is widely respected across the nation,” Kansas State Director of Athletics Gene Taylor said. “Certainly last season was one of the most memorable postseason runs in our program’s history, and we are excited for next season and the years ahead under Coach Weber’s leadership.”

With Kansas State returning most of its roster from last season, including the return of guard Barry Brown from the 2018 NBA Draft process, expectations are sky-high for Weber and the Wildcats this season. Currently ranked as the No. 8 team in the NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25, Kansas State’s veteran club could give Kansas a serious run for a Big 12 regular season title this season.

Northwestern loses incoming freshman point guard

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Northwestern and incoming freshman point guard Jordan Lathon are parting ways. The 6-foot-4 Lathon was viewed as a potential candidate to replace Bryant McIntosh at lead guard for the Wildcats this season, but Northwestern has reportedly revoked his offer of admission and basketball scholarship.

It is unclear why Lathon was unable to be admitted into Northwestern, but the school’s VP for University Relations, Alan Cubbage, gave a statement to Inside NU’s Davis Rich and Caleb Friedman.

“Northwestern University has revoked its offers of admission and an athletic scholarship for Jordan Lathon, a recruit for the Northwestern men’s basketball team,” the statement said. “Out of respect for the privacy of the student, the University will have no further public comment.”

Lathon later acknowledged the situation in a tweet explaining to fans that he will no longer be attending Northwestern.

While it is unclear why Lathon and Northwestern are parting ways, other high-major programs are already very interested in bringing in Lathon for next season. Oklahoma State immediately jumped in with a scholarship offer. There is also speculation that Lathon, a native of Grandview, Missouri, could also hear from the in-state Tigers as well.

It’ll be interesting to see where Lathon lands, and how this also affects Northwestern’s point guard situation. The loss of a four-year starter like McIntosh will be tough to fill, especially since Lathon was committed to Northwestern since last June. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Wildcats and head coach Chris Collins seek out a veteran point guard graduate transfer to try and get some immediate help.