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Bold Predictions: 12 things that are guaranteed to happen this season

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A new basketball season is upon us, and with that in mind, it is time for us to start making predictions that we are going to regret.

Below, you will find 12 bold predictions that are all guaranteed to happen.

Try and tell us where we’re wrong? You can’t.



VIRGINIA WILL MAKE THE FINAL FOUR

Virginia is Villanova circa November of 2015. The Wildcats at that point in time were a powerhouse in the Big East, having coasted to back-to-back Big East titles before getting dumped in the NCAA tournament during the first weekend. No one thought Villanova was good enough to be a national title team, not with the way that they relied on developing four-year players in the era of one-and-done superstars. Then lo-and-behold, it turns out that those four-year stars actually were NBA players and that it was the randomness of a lose-and-go-home tournament combined with an ill-timed off-night that was the cause of Villanova’s postseason struggles.

Does that sound like the Wahoos to you?

Virginia is coming off of their third ACC regular season title in the last five years. They’ve consistently churned out NBA role players and have two or three more on their roster this season, including a potential lottery pick in De’Andre Hunter. Their tournament losses have been fluky … ish; UMBC whooped their behinds. This is the year UVA gets it done. (Rob Dauster)

GONZAGA WILL WIN THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

Sure, it’s probably not all that bold to declare that a consensus top-five team will win the national title, but Gonzaga seems to be the team that so many people love to not believe in, even after their title game appearance in 2017. The Bulldogs have been knocking on the door for years now, and they’ve got a talented and experienced roster that, to my mind, is built to win at the absolute highest level. Unless they get through their non-conference schedule undefeated, we probably won’t talk that much about them in January and February, but Gonzaga is the best team in the country. They’re cutting nets in Minneapolis. (Travis Hines)

BOL BOL BECOMES THE NATION’S MUST-SEE FRESHMAN

Watching freshman stars has become an annual tradition in college basketball. Since the sport is often dominated by newcomers, who double as the best NBA prospects, it creates a natural curiosity for both hardcore college hoops fans, and casual sports watchers.

Duke’s freshman class is going to draw the majority of the freshmen headlines this season with its star-studded group composed of R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones. It’s one of the most talented recruiting classes of all-time — and I’ve argued the most famous of any incoming recruiting class.

Bol Bol (by Jon Lopez, Nike)

But Oregon center Bol Bol is going to be the freshman that draws the most interest from fans outside of the Duke group. Bol checks two key boxes when it comes to sensationalized national interest: he’s the son of a former NBA player and he possesses a freakish skill level (especially for someone his size). The son of Manute Bol — the tallest player in NBA history — the younger Bol checks in at only 7-foot-3. But Bol has a beautiful perimeter jumper that helps him stretch the floor out to NBA range. In fact, he could be one of the best three-point shooters in the country this season. Bol was 26-for-59 (44 percent) from three-point range in 19 Nike EYBL games his final grassroots season.

Between the blocked shots at the rim, and the ridiculous perimeter shots Bol can make with a defender on him, he’s going to be a ton of fun to watch this season in an otherwise underwhelming Pac-12.

FLORIDA IS THE TEAM RANKED OUTSIDE THE TOP 25 THAT GOES TO THE FINAL FOUR

There are some good possibilities from which to choose, with Marquette, Indiana and last season’s darlings Loyola-Chicago just missing out. But here’s a team to keep an eye on: Florida. The Gators did lose Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov from last year’s squad, but KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson both return as do front court contributors Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone. Also there’s that talented freshman class, led by point guard Andrew Nembhard and off-guard Keyontae Johnson. The Gators may endure some growing pains as Nembhard adjusts to the college level, especially in an SEC that should be really good. But this could very well be a team that, once it gets out of league play and into the NCAA tournament, winds up going on a deep run. (Raphielle Johnson)

TYLER HERRO WILL BE KENTUCKY’S LEADING SCORER

I’ve made this point over and over again during the offseason: Kentucky has a lot of really good basketball players and prospects on their roster, but if there is something they are lacking it is a go-to guy. I’m not convinced P.J. Washington is ready for that role. It’s hard to run offense through a barrel-chested low-post scorer like Reid Travis. Quade Green isn’t the guy, and I’m not ready to say Ashton Hagans or Immanuel Quickley is, either. Keldon Johnson is at his best in a complimentary role.

Enter Herro, a four-star recruit from Wisconsin that is definitively the best shooter on the team. He led the program in scoring during their trip to the Bahamas, and he did so while playing the role in Kentucky’s offense that was played by Jamal Murray, Malik Monk and Kevin Knox before him. It’s not a coincidence his last name is pronounced ‘hero’. (Rob Dauster)

Tyler Herro; Chet White/UK Athletics

NEVADA WILL BE A STAPLE OF HOOPS AFTER DARK AND A #CBBTWITTER DARLING

I’m really high on Eric Musselman’s team. The Wolf Pack’s offense is going to be awesome — they’ve got the preseason top spot in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings — with a group of mostly transfers with something to prove after last season’s run. There are nine scholarship players in their 4th or 5th season in college. Eight of those nine averaged double-figure points the last season they played, either at Nevada or at their previous school. The one who didn’t started at PG last season. And then there’s Jordan Brown, their McDonald’s All-American center.

Plus, it’s west coast hoops, which mean those of us east of the Rockies are going to have super entertaining basketball to watch late at night, which ups the cool factor significantly, in my opinion. I’m all-in on watching Nevada roll all season long. (Travis Hines)

SEC BASKETBALL RETURNS TO BRAZEN MEDIOCRITY

Last year was memorable for SEC basketball. While the league has been inconsistent outside of Kentucky and Florida over the past decade, the rest of the conference stepped up in a major way last season. A record eight SEC teams made the NCAA tournament as the league was one of the toughest top-to-bottom basketball conferences in the country. Instead of another dominant John Calipari-led Kentucky team, the Wildcats faltered enough where Auburn and Tennessee tied atop the regular-season standings.

That likely won’t be the case again this season.

Kentucky has a loaded roster that once again makes them the favorites. Auburn and Tennessee bring back a lot of last season’s rosters — but they’ll also be the hunted now instead of the surprising upstarts. And the rest of the league has been gutted with big losses and injuries. Collin Sexton is gone from Alabama. Missouri has to continue without Michael (NBA) or Jontay Porter (injury). Arkansas and Texas A&M suffered significant roster turnover. The SEC still has a chance to have a significant presence in the NCAA tournament once again. But everything would have to go right with young teams like Vanderbilt and LSU stepping up. I just don’t see eight NCAA tournament bids happening again.

BY FEBRUARY, PROVIDENCE’S ALPHA DIALLO WILL BE LEADING THE BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR RACE

There are some really good preseason candidates, with St. John’s guard Shamorie Ponds being the preseason pick and players such as Villanova’s Eric Paschall and Marquette’s Markus Howard meriting serious discussion as well. But here’s a name that may not be discussed enough: Alpha Diallo, a 6-foot-7 guard who last season was one of the Big East’s most improved players. After averaging 5.7 points and 3.2 rebounds in just over 21 minutes per game as a freshman, Diallo averaged 13.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists in just over 30 minutes per game last season. Look for him to take a significant step forward in 2018-19, with the addition of some talented freshmen and the return of Emmitt Holt helping Diallo lead a team that’s expected to contend in the Big East. (Raphielle Johnson)

MARQUETTE FINISHES NO WORSE THAT SECOND IN THE BIG EAST AND MAKES THE FINAL FOUR

Anyone that reads this space knows how I feel about Marquette this season. They are a team with unlimited potential on the offensive end of the floor — if Markus Howard isn’t the best shooter in the Big East, Sam Hauser is — that couldn’t defend the men’s league team that I play on last season. Well, it just so happens that Steve Wojciechowski brought in two transfers that should help solve some of their defensive problems in Joseph Chartouny and Ed Morrow. Chartouny provides the added bonus of being precisely the kind of point guard that will be able to get Markus Howard off the ball, where he is more effective.

Marquette is one of my favorite picks to win the national title. I may or may not already have some money invested in their eventual march in March. This isn’t even a bold take for me. It’s lukewarm. (Rob Dauster)

Markus Howard (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

WE’RE NOT EVEN CLOSE TO THE END OF THE DRAMA FROM THE FBI INVESTIGATION

The three guilty verdicts last month in the federal government’s case of college basketball corruption didn’t resonate too much, but I just can’t help but feel like there is more here. Whether it’s cooperation or more evidence — i.e. wiretaps, or the fallout from another trial — that come to light, I think we’re going to see something significant that will make the sport rumble. (Travis Hines)

BUFFALO TURNS INTO THE MID-MAJOR DARLING OF THIS SEASON

Everyone is searching for the new Loyola. After the Ramblers made a shocking run to the Final Four out of the Missouri Valley Conference last season, everyone seems to believe that another mid-major will rise and compete with the big boys once again.

A Final Four run for a mid-major isn’t a likely feat. But if I were to bet on one mid-major team having a chance, it would be Buffalo out of the MAC.

Making a national statement with a blowout win over Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season, the Bulls return most of their core group. The senior trio of guard CJ Massinburg, wing Jeremy Harris and big man Nick Perkins is back. All three could be all-league players.

Replacing point guard Wes Clark will be the major question mark for the Bulls. Thankfully for Buffalo, the roster is restocked with a recruiting class that rivals many high-major programs. Shooting guard JeeNathan Williams is a legitimate consensus four-star prospect while point guard Ronald Segu received plenty of national praise. And Buffalo has a lot of chances to pick off the big boys with its stacked non-conference schedule. Don’t be surprised if Buffalo earns some big early-season wins and vaults itself into the bubble conversation.

SAINT JOSEPH’S WILL WIN AT LEAST ONE NCAA TOURNAMENT GAME

Given the fact that Saint Joseph’s lost its top two scorers from a season ago in Shavar Newkirk and James Demery, this certainly qualifies as a bold prediction. While those are two key personnel losses for the Hawks, both Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble and Charlie Brown Jr. are back after missing all of last season due to injury. In 2016-17 Kimble and Brown combined to average 28.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, with Kimble also dishing out 4.5 assists per game. Add those two to three returning starters, and Phil Martelli’s team is considered to be a contender in the Atlantic 10 for good reason. Among the other returnees is sophomore forward Taylor Funk, who was one of the A-10’s best newcomers last season. So I’m going “all in” on Saint Joseph’s…and with just two seniors on the roster the Hawks could be even better in 2019-20. (Raphielle Johnson)

Saturday’s NCAA tournament recap: LSU’s Waters, Purdue’s Edwards and a send-off for Booth, Paschall

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Carsen Edwards, Purdue

Edwards absolutely went off on Saturday night.

He hit four threes in the first five minutes. He hit nine threes on the night. He scored 42 points — the most points anyone has scored in an NCAA tournament game since Gerry McNamara had 43 points for Syracuse against BYU in the first round of the 2004 NCAA tournament. He set the tone for the Boilermakers in a game where they utterly embarrassed Villanova, winning 87-61.

But that’s burying the lede.

Because the real story here is that Carsen Edwards had spent the last month of the season playing like he forgot how to shoot. He was 7-for-23 in the win over Old Dominion. He was 4-for-17 in the Big Ten tournament loss to Minnesota, which was better than the 7-for-31 he shot in a regular season loss to Minnesota. There was a 3-for-16 night, a 4-for-24 night, an 8-for-27 night.

The scary part is that it never really affected the way that Purdue was running their offense.

Which leads me to Saturday night.

Edwards exploded. He looks like he’s back, and despite the fact that he has spent the last third of the season playing a super-high usage, non-existent efficiency role, Purdue still is a top five offensive team, according to KenPom.

The Boilers are starting to look a little scary.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Auburn Tigers

Auburn jumped out to leads of 15-5, 25-9 and 40-20 en route to an 89-75 win over Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Bryce Brown led the way with 25 points, Jared Harper added 18 and the Tigers hit 13 threes in a win that should make everyone take notice. This was dominant.

GAME OF THE DAY: Kentucky 62, Wofford 56

While LSU-Maryland was a thriller with the best ending of the tournament, I actually enjoyed Kentucky’s battle with Wofford more than any other game that happened on Saturday. Here’s our Travis Hines on the game here.

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Tremont Waters, LSU

We had our first game-winner of the NCAA tournament!!!

WTF OF THE DAY: Fletcher Magee, Wofford

Fletcher Magee is the best shooter in the history of college basketball. I feel comfortable saying that because he entered Saturday have hit 43 percent of his threes while shooting more than 10 threes per game. On Saturday, the career-leader in made three-pointers went 0-for-12, becoming the first player in NCAA tournament history to go 0-for-12 from beyond the arc.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga

We’ve known just how good Clarke can be on the defensive end of the floor all season long, but he was the difference for the Zags offensively on a night where no one else was really able to get it going. He put up 36 points on Baylor, shooting 15-for-18 from the floor while added eight boards, five blocks, three assists and two steals.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Murray State

The Racers ran into a better team on Saturday, getting drubbed by 28 points and ending Ja Morant’s run in this tournament before it really got started. And that’s what is disappointing here. It’s not the way they played as much as it was Morant going out without much in the way of drama or excitement. He deserved better.

THREE MORE THINGS TO KNOW

THE END OF A SPECIAL VILLANOVA ERA

With Phil Booth and Eric Paschall seeing their college careers come to a close on Saturday night, we have officially reached the end of one of the most dominant eras in modern college basketball history. Starting in 2013-14, with Ryan Arcidiacono’s sophomore season on the Mainline, Villanova has posted a 191-31 record. In those six seasons, the Wildcats accounted for a total of nine Big East titles — five regular season and four of the tournament variety — to go along with a pair of runs to national titles.

Jay Wright built Villanova into a program that is now mentioned in the same breath as the bluebloods. He’s winning Big East regular season titles despite losing four of his six rotation players to the NBA, two of them unexpectedly. The continuity truly is incredible.

And Booth and Paschall were the end of that era.

Heading into next season, the Wildcats will have just three contributors on the roster that saw action in the 2018 national title game, and only Colin Gillespie, who played just 17 minutes, was really a factor. That’s not to say they won’t be good, because they will be. Jermaine Samuels will be one of college basketball’s breakout stars next year, while a pair of loaded recruiting classes back-to-back has re-upped the level of talent in the program.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Cole Swider, Jahvon Quinerly and Brandon Slater will be valued contributors next season, which is to say nothing of Saddiq Bey, who turned out to be their best freshman this year. Bryan Antoine has one-and-done potential while Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore and Eric Dixon are all talented kids that should thrive playing in Villanova’s program.

The future is very bright for Villanova

But it’s also very different.

Villanova is going to be incredibly young again next season. It may still be another year before Wright is back to being in the national title conversation again. It’s a new era with new players ready to write their own legacy.

And while the ending was anything but storybook, the final chapter has been written.

Phil Booth and Eric Paschall will be missed, and not just in the Philly suburbs.

Bryce Brown, Auburn blitz Kansas to advance to first Sweet 16 in 16 years

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Auburn advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 years as the No. 5 seed Tigers blitzed Kansas for an 89-75 victory on Saturday night in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Region.

Jumping out to a 51-25 halftime advantage behind 9-for-17 three-point shooting in the first half, Auburn seemingly broke the will of the No. 4 seed Jayhawks before the second half even began. After nearly collapsing and blowing a big lead on Thursday in a harrowing one-point win over No. 12 seed New Mexico State, the Tigers made sure not to take their foot off the gas in the second half on Saturday.

One of the tournament’s hottest teams, Auburn (28-9) extended its winning streak to 10 games with a dominant effort on both ends of the floor. Known for its perimeter shooting prowess (13-for-30 on Saturday) and national-best turnover percentage on defense (15 Kansas turnovers), Auburn played to its strengths to cruise into the tournament’s second weekend.

Senior guard Bryce Brown had 17 first-half points as he finished with 25 total to lead the Tigers as he was a red-hot 7-for-11 from three-point territory. Brown also had plenty of help as lead guard Jared Harper (18 points), wing Chuma Okeke (12 points) and forward Anfernee McLemore (10 points) also finished in double-figures.

Following last season’s co-SEC regular-season title, the Tigers were blown out by Clemson in the Round of 32 to stop a promising season short. Things didn’t appear particularly promising at times this season as Auburn went from top-ten team to unranked thanks to a sluggish 2-4 start in the SEC.

But head coach Bruce Pearl and the Tigers have turned things around as a dangerous rotation of veteran players have figured things out during the final weeks of the season. With Auburn firmly entrenched in the middle of the FBI’s college basketball corruption scandal with former assistant coach Chuck Person pleading guilty earlier this month, the Tigers were able to stay focused and reach a level the program has seldom seen.

For Pearl to take a football school into the Sweet 16 shows how far Auburn has come as a basketball program during his five seasons as head coach. One of college basketball’s more underappreciated coaches, Pearl can be associated first-and-foremost for his loud-and-brash approach to generating publicity and gaining the attention of elite recruits. Never afraid of a publicity stunt, the ever-quotable Pearl is a regular when it comes to memorable sound bites and quirky gimmicks. As a coach, he’s now taken three different programs to the Sweet 16 — including a Horizon League team (Milwaukee) and a historically-weak SEC program that doesn’t have consistent basketball success.

Auburn could very well continue to advance this March as they try to make the Elite Eight for only the second time in program history (1986). If Auburn shoots like this, while continuing to force turnovers, they’re going to be a nightmare for any team to play.

The Tigers move on to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003 as this is only the fifth Sweet 16 appearance in program history. The Tigers await the winner of No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 9 seed Washington as they advance to Friday’s Midwest Regional semifinal in Kansas City.

Kansas (26-10) came out flat and never recovered after one of the first round’s most impressive wins over No. 13 seed Northeastern on Thursday. All-American forward Dedric Lawson had another double-double to close a memorable season as he finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds — notching the NCAA tournament’s first back-to-back 25-and-10 games since Blake Griffin did it for Oklahoma. Freshman guards Quentin Grimes (15 points) and Devon Dotson (13 points) along with freshman big man David McCormack (11 points) also finished in double-figures for the Jayhawks. A lackluster defensive effort and cold perimeter shooting hurt Kansas’ ability to rally in the second half as they were 6-for-19 (31 percent) from three-point range on the night.

After many predicted a repeat Final Four appearance for Kansas this preseason following last season’s deep tournament run, things didn’t go according to plan thanks to injuries and other issues. The loss of big man Udoka Azubuike to a season-ending injury was a devastating blow to the Jayhawks’ early hopes as he only played in nine games. Senior Lagerald Vick also left the team in early February and never returned. Without its starting center and best perimeter shooter, Kansas lost the Big 12 regular-season crown for the first time in 14 years as its season officially ends with a second-round exit.

The highly-touted freshman class also didn’t perform up to expectations. Although Dotson was a double-figure scorer and tough defender, Grimes, the team’s most celebrated incoming freshman, failed to meet lofty preseason standards. McCormack also wasn’t ready to replace Azubuike in the middle. Kansas even had to burn the redshirt of promising guard Ochai Agbaji to infuse more athleticism into the Jayhawk backcourt. Transfer rotation players like Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson were inconsistent after the former top-100 recruits sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Entering into a fascinating offseason, for the first time in a long time, Kansas might have more questions than answers. The Jayhawks haven’t slipped too far — the program still has made a national-best 30 straight NCAA tournament appearances. Bill Self’s program is still a perennial top-25 program. A No. 4 seed during a season with so many issues is nothing to scoff at. College basketball’s best home-court advantage isn’t going away.

But the end of the Big 12 title streak means the program has to find a bit of a new identity heading into next season. Kansas will still be one of the Big 12’s hunted programs. The Jayhawks also have to prove they can win away from home. A number of returning players need to get better during the offseason — particularly if Dedric Lawson turns pro. And Kansas doesn’t have a five-star, blue-chip recruit at the current moment to rely on as recruiting has perhaps been slowed by Self’s alleged involvement the FBI’s corruption case.

The future of Self, and Kansas basketball in general, will be one of the subplots to watch this offseason as one of college basketball’s blueblood programs faces a fascinating and uncertain next few months.

Edwards’ 42 points sends Purdue past Villanova, into Sweet 16

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Villanova never had a chance.

Carsen Edwards hit four threes in the first five minutes, finished with nine for the game and poured in 42 points as No. 3-seed Purdue thoroughly embarrassed the No. 6-seed Wildcats, 87-61, on Saturday night in front of a pro-Villanova crowd in Hartford.

Villanova — the reigning national champions and the Big East regular season and tournament champions — trailed 59-24 at one point six minutes into the second half. To put the beatdown into perspective, chew on this: At halftime, Purdue had missed 17 shots, 10 offensive rebounds and nine three-pointers. Put another way, they made more threes in a half of basketball than Villanova grabbed defensive rebounds.

And that was before Purdue opened up the second half with a 16-0 run.

In hindsight, this result should not have come as much of a surprise. Purdue is the higher seeded team. They won a share of the Big Ten title, a league that entered Saturday 7-1 in the NCAA tournament, and their computer numbers told us all season long that this team was one of the nation’s elite even if they didn’t necessarily pass the eye test.

So my bad, KenPom.

I promise never to question you again.

The bigger story here, however, is just how miserable this year’s Big East actually turned out to be.

Villanova won the Big East, but it never felt like they actually were trying to win. They lost five of their last eight regular season games and only managed to take home the league title because Marquette, the only other team in the league that we thought was any good, lost their last four games. That same Marquette team was run out of the first round by Murray State, who looked every bit the part of a mid-major in their loss to Florida State on Saturday.

There’s more.

Villanova beat Seton Hall in the Big East tournament title game, and the Pirates got drubbed by 16 points by Wofford in the first round. The only other Big East team to get into the tournament was St. John’s, and they got smoked in a play-in game by an Arizona State team that proceeded to lose to Buffalo by 17.

I think we can safely say that no one in the Big East was actually all that good.

Big East fans will explain this away by saying that there were no nights off in the league, that anyone could beat anyone on any given night. And that’s true! DePaul, Butler and Providence finished tied for the basement, and they were all 7-11 in conference play. Butler, at 16-17 overall, was the only Big East team to finished the season under .500.

So yes, the league was balanced.

But is that because the teams at the bottom of the conference were that much better, or because Villanova, Marquette and everyone else that were thought were good … weren’t?

At the risk of playing both sides here, the answer is probably all of the above.

But none of that truly matters.

Because facts are facts, and the fact of the matter is that this Villanova blow-out puts to bed what was a disappointing season for the league that churned out two of the last three national champs.

Michigan State runs by Big Ten rival Minnesota to advance to Sweet 16

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Michigan State jumped out to a big early lead and maintained a comfortable cushion from there in dispatching Big Ten rival Minnesota, 70-50, in the NCAA tournament’s East Region on Saturday.

Winners of seven straight games, No. 2 seed Michigan State (30-6) started out 5-for-5 from the floor with five different players scoring as it was a precursor to how Saturday’s game would unfold. Dominating on the interior, the Spartans destroyed Minnesota on the glass (45 to 18) while getting balanced scoring from their veteran roster.

Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston led the Spartans with 13 points and nine assists as his personal 7-0 run lifted the Spartans back into blowout territory after an early 8-0 Minnesota second-half run cut Michigan State’s lead to single digits.

Sophomore big man Xavier Tillman led Michigan State in scoring with 14 points while Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid, Nick Ward and Aaron Henry all had nine points each.

Advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since a Final Four run in 2015, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo and his players deserve a tremendous amount of credit for reaching the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. For the past three seasons, the Spartans have fallen short of lofty expectations as rosters with NBA draft picks (Denzel Valentine, Deyonta Davis, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr.) didn’t come to play in March. Remarkably, this was the longest stretch of Izzo’s Hall-of-Fame career at Michigan State without making it to the tournament’s second weekend.

With a roster gutted with injuries to veterans like Joshua Langford and Kyle Ahrens this season, Michigan State reverted back to classic Spartans basketball as they’re one of the most tough and cohesive teams in the country. Even without bonafide pro talent, Michigan State still has an All-American floor general in Winston and a bevy of great role players who know what to do on both ends of the floor.

Michigan State will need to clean up some turnover issues (22 against Minnesota) if they want to advance. But the Spartans look like they’re in strong shape in most other ways heading into next week as they advance to face No. 3 seed LSU in a Friday Sweet 16 clash in Washington D.C.

A matchup between Big Ten and SEC regular-season champions, that game should feature some fun individual matchups to look forward to. At point guard, Winston and the Tigers’ Tremont Waters (LSU’s hero against Maryland) are both All-American-caliber players. And the matchup of LSU’s Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams banging against the Spartans’ Ward and Tillman on the interior should be a fascinating frontcourt battle.

Minnesota (22-14) struggled to generate consistent offense without a healthy Jordan Murphy — reverting back to poor perimeter shooting (2-for-22 from three) after Thursday’s outlier shooting performance in a win over No. 7 seed Louisville. Murphy, a senior forward and double-double machine, played only four minutes in the first half and went scoreless before exiting until the game’s final moments with back spasms. In a touching March moment, Murphy returned to the floor for a possession with the game out of hand to receive one final curtain call as he never missed a practice or game during his four-year career at Minnesota.

Without Murphy’s consistency, the Golden Gophers only had three players score in the first half as they had a difficult time figuring out Michigan State’s stingy defense. Amir Coffey led Minnesota with 27 points as he was the only members of the Gophers able to generate his own looks. After 24 points against the Cardinals on Thursday, freshman shooter Gabe Kalscheur didn’t register a field goal as he finished with two points. Point guard Isaiah Washington was Minnesota’s only other double-figure scorer with 11 points.

Following last season’s immensely disappointing 15-17 season, Minnesota and head coach Richard Pitino deserves a lot of credit for bouncing back with a Round of 32 appearance. Some preseason polls had Minnesota finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten, with Pitino on many “Hot Seat” lists, as the Golden Gophers defied critics with a strong comeback season.

The loss of Murphy and guard Dupree McBrayer will hurt, but if Coffey returns, Minnesota will have a go-to player and some intriguing guys around him. Freshmen Daniel Oturu and Kalscheur are both double-figure scorers and other role guys like Michael Hurt and Washington could also return. If Minnesota can add another impact recruit or grad transfer, they could be in the mix for another NCAA tournament appearance in 2020.

The rare inter-conference matchup in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Spartans and Golden Gophers played because of the Big Ten’s high number of tourney bids coupled with the selection committee’s relaxed policy if conference foes only play once during the regular season. The Spartans handily beat the Gophers at home on Feb. 9 with a 79-55 win earlier this season.

Clarke’s 36 points leads Gonzaga past Baylor

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The debate over who Gonzaga’s best player is has raged throughout the season.

Some will say that it is Rui Hachimura, the team’s leading scorer and the biggest star on the roster. Others will tell you that it is point guard Josh Perkins, the maestro of the program’s ball-screen heavy offense.

The truth, however, has probably always been that Mark Few’s best player is the best defender in all of college basketball: Brandon Clarke.

What’s inarguable is that Clarke was the best player on the floor for the Zags in their 83-71 second round win over No. 9-seed Baylor. The 6-foot-9 forward went for 36 points on a ridiculous 15-for-18 shooting performance, adding seven boards, three assists, two steals and five blocks to his stat line for good measure. He became the first player to post 30 points and five blocks in a game since former No. 1 pick Joe Smith did it for Maryland nearly a quarter century ago.

Clarke’s story should be celebrated.

A no-name recruit coming out of high school, he had one offer: San Jose State, which is one of the worst programs in all of college basketball. That’s in part because he didn’t grow into his 6-foot-7 frame until he was a senior in high school. He is one of the twitchiest athletes that you’ll find in college basketball this side of Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, but he told reporters that he couldn’t dunk until he was 16 years old and a junior in high school.

He spent two seasons there, putting up numbers and developing his body — he added 30 pounds and five inches to his vertical — before transferring to Gonzaga, where he improved his shooting stroke to the point that he is now a guy that is going to end up being a top 20 pick in the NBA draft this season.

While the 36 points on Saturday will be the talking point, Clarke’s value is on the defensive end of the floor, where he is a rim-protector and a switchable defender for a team that doesn’t have a ton of great individual defenders on it.

He’s the difference-maker for Gonzaga.

And he proved as much on Saturday night.