The Sweet 16 will kick off on Thursday, and the beautiful thing about the final four rounds of this year’s NCAA tournament is that we are guaranteed to have 15 games that will feature dynamite matchups.
There’s an argument to be made that the top 15 teams in the country are still alive, with the 16th being the hottest team in all of college basketball.
With that in mind, we are going to dive into every team left, region by region, and give you the biggest question that needs to be answered if they are going to have a chance to win the national title.
First up, the South.
VIRGINIA: Are they mentally tough enough to win two more games?
Look, this is not going to stop being a thing until Virginia does what they need to do to ensure that it is no longer a thing.
Tony Bennett has had this thing rolling in Charlottesville for six years now. In the previous five NCAA tournament, there were four times that Virginia was a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed. In those seasons, they lost to:
No. 4 seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16 in 2014.
No. 7 seed Michigan State in the second round in 2015.
No. 10 seed Syracuse in the Elite 8 in 2016, when they blew a 15 point lead in the final eight minutes.
And at this point, I think that it is pretty evident that this is a mental thing. If the meltdown against UMBC wasn’t enough to tip you off, then the way that Virginia started against Gardner-Webb in the first round this season — digging a 30-16 hole as they played about as scared as a team as good as Virginia can play — should have been all the proof that you needed.
At this point it is not about the opponent to me, not when the other three teams in their region are all beatable.
It’s about Virginia.
And their ability to handle the moment.
TENNESSEE: How good is Tennessee defensively?
Last year, with essentially this same group of guys, Tennessee finished the season as the No. 6 defense in KenPom’s rankings. This year, that is not the case. The Vols are hovering around the top 40 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. They go through stretches where it seems like they are coasting — frankly, this is a thing on both ends of the floor — and where this has been manifesting is with their ability to run teams off of the three-point line.
In Tennessee’s last six games, they have been lit up from the perimeter. They’re 4-2 in that stretch, which includes the two NCAA tournament games where they blew big leads. When Colgate erased a 15 point second half deficit to take the lead in the first round, they shot 15-for-29 from three. Iowa’s comeback was more a result of the Hawkeyes pounding the ball into the paint, where their bigs were able to go one-on-one because Tennessee didn’t want to leave shooters. Auburn shot 15-for-40 from three in their blowout win in the SEC title game.
I say all that to say this: Tennessee, who ranks 207th in defensive three-point percentage, is likely going to have to get through Purdue — who gets 39 percent of their points from beyond the arc this season — and Virginia — who is sixth-nationally in three-point percentage — to get to the Final Four.
PURDUE: Will we get Good Carsen or Bad Carsen?
The most impressive part about the coaching job that Matt Painter has done this season, the incredible thing about the fact that Purdue won a share of the Big Ten regular season title this year, is that all of this happened while Carsen Edwards was busy operating as a super-high usage and uber-low efficiency player. There were just nine players in college basketball this season that posted a higher usage rate that Edwards — putting that in context, R.J. Barrett wasn’t even all that close — but Edwards finished Big Ten play with an offensive rating of 100.0 (which is not good) while shooting 34 percent from the floor and 30 percent from three. In the four games before exploding for 42 points against Villanova, he shot 26.9 percent from the field. He was 4-for-24 at Indiana. He was 3-for-16 at Nebraska. He was 7-for-35 in two games against Michigan State.
And despite all of that, Purdue still finished the season with the fifth-best offense in the country and the second-best offense in the Big Ten, according to KenPom.
Point being, when Edwards struggles, Purdue is still really good.
But when he gets it going?
When he’s Good Carsen instead of Bad Carsen?
The Boilermakers are downright scary.
Should I mention that Tennessee has really struggled to guard on the perimeter since they lost to Auburn to close the regular season?
OREGON: Just how good are the Ducks?
Oregon might be the hottest team in college basketball right now. They’ve won ten straight games. Eight of those games have been either on the road or on a neutral court. They are in the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed, and they are playing precisely the brand of basketball that Dana Altman has become famous for: A talented lead guard surrounded by three big, athletic wings and one ridiculously athletic rim-protector in the middle.
(Let me take a victory lap here: I said before the season started that Oregon would be better playing Kenny Wooten at the five and not playing Bol Bol, and … well … here we are.)
But they haven’t really beaten anyone all that impressive during this run. Eight of the ten wins in this streak came against Pac-12 competition, and even those they won at Washington and beat Washington by 20 on a neutral court, it’s still a Washington team that lost to Cal. The win over Wisconsin is solid, but it seems silly to get too worked up over beating the fifth-beat team in the Big Ten.
Let me be clear here: I think that Oregon is legit, but there certainly is a possibility that all this success is simply a by-product of kicking the tail of everyone in a bad league and getting hot against a No. 5 seed at the right time.
Kansas landed another piece for the upcoming season on Tuesday night as guard Dajuan Harris pledged to the Jayhawks on Twitter.
Previously a member of the Class of 2020, Harris will reclassify and join Kansas for next season. The 6-foot-1 point guard is coming off of a strong Nike Peach Jam in which he helped MoKan Elite to the event’s title with a big week. A recent Kansas offer right before the July Live Evaluation Period, Harris averaged 7.1 assists per game while playing great defense throughout the event.
The Jayhawks adding Harris to the Class of 2019 means they have five members in the group — headlined by four-star prospects Jalen Wilson and Tristan Enaruna while three-star recruits Christian Braun and Isaac McBride are also involved. While Kansas struggled to land its usual five-star talents in this recruiting class, they’ve rebounded nicely with three commitments this spring to help fill out a veteran roster that is hoping to recapture Big 12 glory.
Kansas has plenty young players to build with the next few seasons as it’ll be interesting to see how this new five-man class shapes up. Wilson and Enaruna are expected to contribute, but the rest of the group, including Harris, is a bit of a wild card in terms of producing right away.
The grad transfer market is still in full swing, but for the most part, we know what the meaningful parts for the majority of the teams around the country will be.
That means that it is time to start talking about what is coming instead of what was.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at key personnel changes, the impact of the coaching carousel and the most important storylines heading into the 2019-20 season for each of college basketball’s top seven conferences.
Today, we are talking Atlantic 10
KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES
THE LEAGUE WILL BE MUCH, MUCH BETTER THIS SEASON: The Atlantic 10 got lucky last season. There was one team in the league worthy of an at-large bid – VCU – and that team lost in the conference tournament. That’s the only reason they ended up as a two-bid league instead of a one-bid league.
This year should be different. VCU and Davidson are both sitting in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. Dayton isn’t all that far behind them. Rhode Island and Richmond both bring back essentially all of the pieces that mattered last season. The top of the league is as strong as it has been in a while, and I think there’s a real chance that we’re talking about the conference getting three or four bids to the NCAA tournament this season.
That, of course, all depends on what happens during non-conference play. Last year it was hideous for the league, and that left them in a position where the computer numbers were ugly and there was no way to add quality wins for the teams that needed quality wins. The bottom of the conference should be just as bad this season, but with three teams at the top worthy of top 25 consideration combined with a much stronger middle, there’s reason to be hopeful.
VCU AND DAVIDSON FIGHTING FOR FIRST PLACE: I think you can go either way when it comes to who is the favorite to win the league, but I don’t think you can pick anyone other than VCU or Davidson. They finished 1-2 in the Atlantic 10 last season and, combined, they lost three players from their rotations. VCU graduated a third-string center and lost a guy who lost his spot in the rotation to a freshman while, hopefully, getting Marcus Evans back to the peak of his powers; more on him later. Davidson brings back their top six, including one of the best backcourts in all of college basketball in Kellan Grady and Jon-Axel Gudmundsson. It will be a fun race between the two programs that couldn’t play more contrasting styles.
WILL DAYTON’S TALENT COME TOGETHER?: On paper, Dayton is right there with Davidson and VCU. They lose Josh Cunningham, but with the rest of their rotation – including a bonafide pro in Obi Toppin – returning and four sit-out transfers entering the fold, there is more than enough talent, depth and experience on the roster. The reason I have them a notch below the favorites is because I want to see how all the pieces come together. They can certainly win the league, but managing minutes and egos is going to be the toughest part of Anthony Grant’s job this season.
THE BATTLE FOR FOURTH: Best I can tell, there are going to be at least three – if not more – teams fighting for that spot. Rhode Island seems to make the most sense, given just how much they bring back, while Richmond is the sleeper that all the coaches in the conference are talking about. I also think it is worth noting that St. Bonaventure will be better than some believe given that they managed to find a way to keep Mark Schmidt in Olean for another season.
But I also think that it’s possible that a team like La Salle, or George Mason, or Saint Louis can pop up and surprise some people. There’s depth in the conference that wasn’t necessarily there a year ago.
CAN CHRIS MOONEY GO FROM ALMOST-FIRED TO NCAA TOURNAMENT?: Richmond is going to be the most interesting team in the league. There are big-money boosters that have spent the last year or two trying to get Chris Mooney fired. Someone even put up a #FireMooney billboard on I-95 in the city. The irony here is that Mooney may have his best team since the 2011 team that reached the Sweet 16. Grant Golden is arguably the best big man in the league while Jacob Gilyard was a second-team all-Atlantic 10 player last year. Nathan Cayo is back and, perhaps most importantly, Richmond’s best wing scorer Nick Sherrod should be healthy again. Throw in Wagner transfer Blake Francis, and there are a lot of pieces on this roster.
We’ll see if Mooney can make it all fit together, but this team is certainly good enough, on paper, to win 12 conference games.
PHIL MARTELLI, St. Joseph’s: An Atlantic 10 and Philadelphia institution is gone. After 34 years at the school and 24 seasons as the head coach of the Hawks, Phil Martelli was fired this spring. He landed on his feet – as an assistant coach on Juwan Howard’s staff at Michigan – but St. Joe’s is going to have to completely rebuild. As of right now, there are seven scholarship players on the roster.
JAVON BESS, Saint Louis: Bess was the best defender in the Atlantic 10 last season, the anchor for what was the best defense in the league. He also doubled as the best scorer and shooter on the roster of a Billiken team that struggled to score. This is a big, big loss for a team coming off an NCAA tournament trip.
JOSH CUNNINGHAM, Dayton: The Flyers will have more than enough talent to replace Cunningham, but losing an all-league senior that was capable of going for 20-10 on any given night is never ideal.
COURTNEY STOCKARD, St. Bonaventure: Stockard took a step forward as a senior, helping the Bonnies to remain top four in the league despite losing Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley. He was a deserving first-team all-league player last season.
OTIS LIVINGSTON, George Mason: The Patriots are going to have to change the way they play this season with Livingston gone. He was one of the best lead guards in the league for the last four years and the guy that allowed Dave Paulsen to run offense without worrying about what happens at the end of a shot clock.
ERIC WILLIAMS, Duquesne: The Dukes bring everyone else back, and Keith Dambrot has the respect of every coach in the league, but Williams was their best player. Losing him is a hard way to make up ground in a league where the top five teams all bring everyone back.
EVERYONE, VCU: Well, that’s technically not true. Michael Gilmore, a backup center, graduated and Sean Mobley, who started to lose minutes by the end of the year, transferred. So there are some changes. But all of the truly important pieces – star guard Marcus Evans, De’Riante Jenkins, Marcus Santos-Silva, Issac Vann, Vince Williams, etc. – are back, and they’re joined by a really good recruiting class. They’re old, they’re experienced, they’re deep, they’re talented and they were a No. 8 seed last season. This is a preseason top 25 team.
EVERYONE, Davidson: Last season, Kellan Grady was the guy we all thought would be the best player in the Atlantic 10 after a sterling freshman season got him on the radar of the NBA. Despite being banged up, Grady averaged 17.3 points as a sophomore … and his teammate, Jon-Axel Gudmundsson, won Atlantic 10 Player of the Year. Both of them are back, along with the rest of Bob McKillop’s top six from a team that went 24-10 last season.
EVERYONE, Rhode Island: The Rams bring back their top four scorers, including Fatts Russell, Cyril Langevine and Jeff Dowtin, and the only player they lose from their rotation averaged just 5.7 points. There is a lot of reason to like this group.
OBI TOPPIN, Dayton: One coach told me that Toppin is not only clearly the most talented player in the league, he is the only guy in the conference that is a surefire pro. A late-bloomer, he hasn’t stopped improving throughout his career and should be in line for a major breakout season.
NICK SHERROD, Richmond: Grant Golden, Jacob Gilyard and Nathan Cayo are the bigger names and they all return, but Sherrod is the guy that coaches in the league believe is the difference-maker. He’s a big-time shooter and scorer on the wing that they were missing after he went down with a knee injury.
KYLE LOFTON and OSUN OSUNNIYI, St. Bonaventure: Losing Stockard is going to hurt, but sophomores Lofton and Osunniyi are going to be very, very good for a long time in this league. One coach told me he thought Lofton was “the best freshman I’ve seen in the Atlantic 1 in a while, you would never have guessed he was a freshman” based on the way he played and his poised.
JORDAN GOODWIN and HASAHN FRENCH, Saint Louis: Goodwin is a do-it-all wing and French might be the best, and certainly is the most powerful, big man in the conference.
DAYTON’S TRANSFERS: The Flyers had four players sitting out as transfers last season — Ibi Watson (Michigan), Jordy Tshimanga (Nebraska), Rodney Chatman (Chattanooga) and Chase Johnson (Florida). With Jalen Crutcher and Toppin both returning, the Flyers have as much talent on paper as anyone.
SCOTT SPENCER, La Salle: A transfer from Clemson, Spencer should fit perfectly in Ashley Howard’s system and give the Explorers a bit of a scoring pop to help offset the loss of Pookie Powell.
BLAKE FRANCIS, Richmond: The transfer from Wagner averaged 17 points before sitting out this past season.
WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-ATLANTIC 10 TEAM
MARCUS EVANS, VCU (Preseason Player of the Year)
KELLAN GRADY, Davidson
JON-AXEL GUDMUNDSSON, Davidson
OBI TOPPIN, Dayton
GRANT GOLDEN, Richmond
WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS
1. VCU: We’ve talked plenty about the Rams at this point, but I think their ceiling is still going to be determined by what they get out of Marcus Evans. Their star point guard has suffered an injury to each of his achilles since transferring to VCU from Rice. He rehabbed his entire sit-out season, and then spent last summer rehabbing the second injury. Somehow, he hasn’t lost any of his explosiveness and still managed to average 13.6 points and 3.2 assists last year. I spoke with him back in February, and Evans told me he was excited about this offseason because it was the first time he would have a chance to spend the summer getting better instead of getting healthy. He’s my pick to be the 2020 Player of the Year in the Atlantic 10.
2. DAVIDSON: This Davidson team has a chance to be the best group Bob McKillop has coached since the Stephen Curry days. A healthy Kellan Grady combined with Jon Axel Gudmundsson will give the Flyers one of the best backcourts in the country. They’re going to be experienced, and Luka Brajkovic and Luke Frampton should both take a significant step forward as sophomores. Brajkovic was one of the best bigs in the league as a freshman. As always, their ceiling will be determined by just how good their defense will be, but on paper this group looks like a tournament team.
3. DAYTON: It’s easier to bet on VCU and Davidson as league champs because we know what they are, but keep in mind that the Flyers return the majority of their rotation from a team that went 21-12 overall and 13-5 in the league last season, and that among the players they return is future draft pick Obi Toppin. Oh, and they also add four sit-out transfers, three of whom came from high-major schools. It’s going to be a fun three-team race.
4. RHODE ISLAND: The Rams certainly have the talent to be relevant in the Atlantic 10 race, but with essentially the same team, they went .500 in the league last season and finished four games behind third-place Dayton. How are they making up all that ground when the teams above them return everyone?
5. RICHMOND: Every coach I’ve spoken to believes that the Spiders are the x-factor in the league race this year. For starters, bringing back Grant Golden and Jacob Gilyard gives them one of the best 1-2 combinations in the league. Bringing back Nick Sherrod’s size and scoring on the wing will be important, and Nathan Cayo was underrated league-wide. Throw in Wagner transfer Blake Francis, and this should be the most improved team in the conference.
6. ST. BONAVENTURE: Mark Schmidt lost Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley before last season and still managed to churn out an 18-win season and a fourth-place finish in the A-10, so we shouldn’t be all that worried about them after losing four of their top six, including Courtney Stockard. They have one of the best homecourt advantages in the league, Schmidt will find a way to get the best out of his roster and sophomores Kyle Lofton and Osun Osunniyi are ready for bigger roles.
7. LA SALLE: I love this La Salle group. They should have more talent and depth this year, and you know they are always going to play hard. They’ve had a year under Ashley Howard, and what we saw as the season progressed was that this team played together much better than La Salle did under John Giannini. Keep an eye on sophomore Jack Clark.
8. GEORGE MASON: They’re going to have to play differently without Otis Livingston running the show, but Justin Kier is a going to have a chance to become a star in the league. Throw in sophomore Jordan Miller and a healthy Goanar Mar, and there are some pieces for Dave Paulsen here.
9. SAINT LOUIS: The Billikens were built on their defense last season and couldn’t score. They lost their best defender and best scorer in Javon Bess. I like Jordan Goodwin, I love Hasahn French and I think Fred Thatch is in line for a big sophomore season, but I need to see it from this group.
10. DUQUESNE: Coaches in the league have faith that Keith Dambrot will be able to find a way to make it work this year, and there are some pieces returning – notably Sincere Carey – but losing Eric Williams is big. He was their best player.
11. UMASS: The Minutemen have some talent and they bring in a good recruiting class, but I am going to need to see Matt McCall win there before I buy in. Keep an eye on freshman Tre Mitchell.
12. GEORGE WASHINGTON: Jamion Christian should be able to get the most out of this roster, and they’ll play a fun style that will see them bombing away from three, but it will take him a few years to get the kind of talent in the program he needs to make a run at the top of the league.
13. FORDHAM: Fordham won three Atlantic 10 games last season and lose their best player, Nick Honor.
14. ST. JOSEPH’S: Best I can tell, St. Joe’s currently has seven scholarship players on the roster, one of whom is a former walk-on. The post-Martelli era is going to have a rough start.
Dallion Johnson, a 6-foot-2 guard out of Maryland, has pledged to coach Pat Chambers and the Nittany Lions, he announced Monday.
“Excited to announce my commitment to Penn State University!!” Johnson wrote on social media. “Thanks to God, my family, friends, teammates & coaches for believing in me. Thrilled to join the Penn State family under the coaching of Pat Chambers and staff.”
Excited to announce my commitment to Penn State University!! Thanks to God, my family, friends, teammates & coaches for believing in me. Thrilled to join the Penn State family under the coaching of Pat Chambers and staff. #WeAre#ClimbWithUs ‼️⚪️🔵 pic.twitter.com/k4556Ed7y6
Johnson committed to Penn State over the likes of Davidson, Richmond and UMass, among others which had offered. He is rated as a three-star prospect.
The Nittany Lions, which had the 12th-ranked recruiting class in 2019 according to 247Sports, went 14-18 overall and 7-13 in conference play, missing the NCAA tournament for the eighth-straight time under Chambers.
Glenn Robinson III shares hilarious story about new teammate Draymond Green
“I got a funny story about him from the first time I had ever talked to Draymond — actually was through a text. So, I was sitting in a summer class getting ready for my freshman year of college at Michigan.
“And I think Draymond was back and he was playing some open gyms up at Michigan State. And all of a sudden I get a text message from an unknown number and it goes, ‘Hey, you need to get up to Michigan State and come join these open gym games right now. It’s Day Day.’
“And I’m like, ‘Who? Who is Day Day? Who is this crazy dude texting me?’ Somebody cussing me out on text messages (laughter). And on the fly he’s like, ‘It’s Draymond. Get up here now.’
“First time I ever talked to him he was already yelling at me.”
That sounds like Draymond Green.
Binghamton sophomore Anyichie, 19, drowned Sunday night
Calistus Anyichie, a rising sophomore forward at Binghamton, drowned on Sunday.
He was 19 years old.
“There are no words,” Binghamton head coach Tommy Dempsey said. “There is no blueprint for how to deal with such a painful loss. We all loved Calistus so much. He was such a special young man. We are devastated.”
“A talented young person has been tragically taken from us,” said President Harvey Stenger. “This is a heartbreaking loss for our community. We will do all that we can to be there for his family, for the team and everyone who knew Calistus.”
Anyichie’s body was found down a 15-foot bank in Upper Buttermilk State Park on Sunday evening, after the Ithaca Fire Department responded to calls of an unconscious man in the water.