2018 Final Four: Ranking the players left in the NCAA Tournament

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Today, we’re going to rank the top 20 players — the starters on every team in San Antonio — left in the NCAA tournament.

But instead of ranking them solely based on who the best players are we’re going to rank them based on the likelihood that they end up being the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. 

I’m sure this won’t cause any arguments:

1. JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova: Brunson is our National Player of the Year. Of course he’s going to be the best player in the Final Four.

2. DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, Kansas: Graham has not been at his best during this run to the Final Four. The Kansas star has shot just 34 percent from the floor during these four wins, and even when the Jayhawks beat Penn in the first round and he scored 29 points, he did it while shooting 9-for-24 from the floor. Having said all that, Graham has had a phenomenal season, one deserving of first-team all-american honors. If Kansas is going to win it all, Graham is going to have to be terrific.

3. MIKAL BRIDGES, Villanova: The Final Four’s lone lottery pick, Bridges has had a bit of an up-and-down run through the tournament, but we all saw what he is capable of early in the second half against Alabama, when he popped off for 16 points in four minutes. He is also Villanova’s best perimeter defender, and will likely play a leading role in trying to slow down Malik Newman.

4. UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: Doke has been so underrated this season, and his ability to score in the paint has made it just that much easier for the Kansas guards to find space to shoot. The big thing for him is going to be staying out of foul trouble, because every big on Villanova’s roster can step out on the perimeter and knock down an open jumper.

5. MOE WAGNER, Michigan: Wagner has not been at his best during March Madness, but he is Michigan’s most talented player. His ability to step out on the perimeter and play something of the Kevin Pittsnoggle role for the Wolverines opens up John Beilein’s offense. He is going to be a matchup nightmare for Loyola.

(Elsa/Getty Images)

6. OMARI SPELLMAN, Villanova: I was so impressed with Spellman seeing him in person. I thought he was nothing more than a spot-up shooter, but he can protect the rim, he gets out and runs in transition and his ability to put the ball on the floor and go by slower defenders should have Bill Self terrified about keeping Azubuike out of foul trouble.

6a. DONTE DIVINCENZO, Villanova: If he started, this is where I would rank him.

7. MALIK NEWMAN, Kansas: Newman had a bit of an up-and-down season, but he has absolutely caught fire in March and has been the best player for the Jayhawks throughout this tournament and the Big 12 tournament. In the last seven games — all wins, obviously — he’s averaging 21.2 points and shooting 54.9 percent from three. That’s pretty good. Per sources.

8. MUHAMMAD-ALI-ABDUR-RAHKMAN, Michigan: While Zavier Simpson is the guy that gets the credit for being the point guard in Beilein’s offense — because he’s the point guard — it is Abdur-Rahkman that does the heavy-lifting when it comes to being the play-maker and the guy that initiates things on that end. And he has proven that he can take a game over.

9. SVI MYKHAILIUK, Kansas: Everyone wants to talk about the job that Malik Newman did in overtime against Duke, but that game never would have gotten to overtime if Svi had not found a way to muscle up and hold his own against Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter in the paint. And that coming from a guy known as a soft, streaky shooter that didn’t want to defend.

10. CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan: Matthews, along with Simpson, is one of the main reasons that the Wolverines have turned into a defensive stalwart this season. As much as he provides on the offensive end of the floor, his ability to lock down an opponent’s best perimeter defender is a difference-maker.

11. ERIC PASCHALL, Villanova: A freak athlete that can guard just about any position, knock down threes and defend at the rim. He’s a key cog in what Villanova wants to do.

12. ZAVIER SIMPSON, Michigan: The real value of Simpson cannot be found in the numbers that he puts up. What makes him so good and so important to this Michigan team is the way that he can defend. He is spark-plug for a Wolverines team that builds everything they do around that end of the floor.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

13. PHIL BOOTH, Villanova: Booth isn’t flashy, but he is a key cog in that Villanova machine because he does everything. He can handle the ball if needed. He can make open threes. He’s one of their best on-ball defenders. And he’s got the experience – he scored 20 points in a national title game.

14. LAGERALD VICK, Kansas: Early in the season, Vick looked like he might be the second-best player on Kansas. Midway through the year, he was pulled out of the starting lineup because he was mired in a slump. Now? He’s found his shooting stroke and embraced the role that he is being asked to play: knockdown shooter and perimeter defender.

15. DUNCAN ROBINSON, Michigan: I think Robinson is the x-factor for Michigan. The Wolverines have seven losses this season, and in those seven losses, Robinson has averaged 3.0 points. In wins, he’s averaging 10.9 points. X-factor!

16-21. CLAYTON CUSTER, CAMERON KRUTWIG, MARQUES TOWNES, DONTE INGRAM, BEN RICHARDSON and AUNDRE JACKSON, Loyola-Chicago: This might seem like a shot at Loyola-Chicago, but it really isn’t. There’s a reason these guys are playing in the Missouri Valley instead of a bigger league, and with the exception of maybe Clayton Custer, I can’t see them cracking the starting lineup for any of the teams left in the Final Four.

But this Loyola team is not about the individual talents of the players on this roster. That’s not what makes them so good and so fun to watch. The reason they are here in the Final Four is that Porter Moser has himself a group of guys that compliment each other perfectly. They execute offensively and they are connected defensively. They are all the clichés of what a coach wants in a player, and anyone that truly understands how basketball is supposed to be played can appreciate watching this group do what they do best.

 

Former Penn coach allegedly took bribes from potential recruit’s father

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Former Penn head coach Jerome Allen allegedly took bribes from a Miami businessman who wanted his son to get into the school as a “recruited basketball player” — increasing his chances to gain entry to the Ivy League school.

According to a report from Bloomberg’s Michael Smith, David Voreacos and Eben Novy-Williams, Allen was involved with Miami businessman Philip Esformes, who had a son, Morris, who was allegedly recruited by several Ivy League schools. When Philip Esformes was accused of health-care fraud, money laundering, conspiracy and bribery, the government uncovered more than $74,000 in gifts that Esformes gave to Allen in 2013 and 2014.

Allen is identified strictly as “Coach-2” in the indictment that alleges that he took multiple cash payments, paid trips from Philadelphia to Miami, and a private jet trip that included Allen, Esformes and his son. The benefits are alleged to be $74,558 — including three separate wired payments of $15,000, $20,000 and $18,000 to Allen from Esformes.

These alleged incidents took place in 2013 and 2014, when Allen was still head coach at Penn and Morris Esformes was a high school basketball player trying to make it to the Division I level. Esformes was eventually granted admission to Penn as he was allegedly going to be on the basketball team. But Allen was fired before Esformes enrolled at the school. So Esformes went to school at Penn, but he never played for the basketball team. Esformes is currently still a senior at Penn.

Allen has been an assistant coach under Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics since leaving Penn in 2015. He hasn’t been criminally charged for any of these alleged benefits while the NCAA also hasn’t been involved with anything yet.

But this is yet another black eye on college basketball — and this time coming from a prestigious Ivy League institution. It shows that cheating and using leverage happens at all levels of Division I college basketball. Lately, the schools have been paying to get players. This shows there are instances of wealthy people attempting to gain influence through athletics.

This case at Penn is certainly a rare one. Esformes tried to exploit a loophole that would allow his son entry into a great school under the guise that he was a potential Division I-caliber basketball player. And Morris Esformes did end up at Penn — and seems to be doing well. So, this didn’t end poorly for Morris or Allen.

Since Allen is coaching at the NBA level, this likely won’t alter his coaching career, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the NCAA get involved with Penn and Allen going forward.

Elite Class of 2020 point guard to reclassify

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Nico Mannion, a five-star point guard from Arizona, announced on Friday that he will be reclassifying into the Class of 2019.

Mannion was a top 20 player in 2020 but, according to 247 Sports, he will be ranked No. 11 in 2019. The athletic, 6-foot-3 Mannion was long-rumored to be considering a move up a class because of his age. He’ll turn 18 in March of next year, meaning that he’ll arrive on campus the same age as a typical college freshman.

Mannion cut his list to ten schools in June — Duke, Arizona, Villanova, Kansas, USC, UCLA, Oregon, Vanderbilt, Marquette and Utah — but Duke and Arizona appear to be the favorites at this point.

Mannion plays his high school ball for Pinnacle High School in Phoenix and with West Coast Elite on the Under Armour Association circuit. He played for Team USA’s youth ranks, but his mother is Italian and, in June, he was called up to the Italian men’s senior national team, scoring nine points in 29 minutes of a FIBA World Cup Qualifier.

Nebraska to lose junior big man to transfer

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Nebraska’s frontcourt depth took a blow on Thursday as junior big man Jordy Tshimanga informed the program that he will be transferring.

“Jordy called me tonight and asked for his release,” head coach Tim Miles said in a statement that was given to the Lincoln Journal-Star. “The University of Nebraska and our program wish Jordy and his family the best.”

Tshimanga averaged 4.0 points and 4.6 boards in 13 minutes this past season, and a source close to the program told NBC Sports he wasn’t expected to play much more than that this season.

Miles’ has spent the better part of the last two seasons on the hot seat, and this certainly doesn’t make his job easier, but with the talent the Cornhuskers have on their roster, they look like an NCAA tournament team already. They bring back their top four scorers, including former five-star prospect Isaac Copeland and potential first-team all-Big Ten wing James Palmer. With or without Tshimanga, Nebraska has a shot to finish top four in the Big Ten.

North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State part of Las Vegas event

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State and Texas will play in an early season basketball tournament in Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Invitational will include games at campus sites, then the final two rounds on Nov. 22-23 in Las Vegas. North Carolina takes on Texas in one semifinal, and Michigan State faces UCLA in the other.

UNC, UCLA and Michigan State are all top 20 teams in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.

The championship is Nov. 23, and the semifinal losers also play each other that day.

NCAA to study possible effects of widespread legal wagering

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The NCAA plans to study how the expansion of legalized betting could affect college athletics and member schools.

The NCAA announced Thursday it will create a working group of “subject matter experts” to assess areas such as officiating, NCAA rules, federal and state laws, and the use of integrity services. NCAA leadership has already called for federal regulation on sports betting. NCAA rules prohibit sports wagering by athletes and athletic department employees.

The Supreme Court opened the door for states to have legal wagering on sporting events when it struck down a federal ban in May. Schools in some states such as West Virginia, Mississippi and New Jersey are already exploring the possibility of collecting integrity fees in anticipation of legal sports books opening in their states.

“While we certainly respect the Supreme Court’s decision, our position on sports wagering remains,” said Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer. “With this new landscape, we must evolve and expand our long-standing efforts to protect both the integrity of competitions and the well-being of student-athletes.”

The NCAA Board of Governors has already suspended the association’s ban on holding championships in states with legalized sports betting, a policy that only affected Nevada.

“Legalized sports gambling across the country is rather new, but the NCAA and its members have committed significant resources over the years to policy, research and education around sports wagering,” said Joni Comstock, senior vice president of championships and alliances. “With student-athlete well-being as the centerpiece, we will continue to build upon these efforts to assist members as they adapt to legalized sports wagering in their states and regions.”