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#pounditSaturday, April 10, 2021

Stories by ShaneMcNichol:

5 X-Factor players to watch in the Sweet 16

Marcus Sasser

March Madness is great at creating stars.

The players who rack up points or hit buzzer-beaters become the names we remember for years to come. Deeper down each roster though, there are players acting as unsung heroes and helping their teams survive and advance.

Whether it’s with defense, rebounding, or smart decision-making, the X-factors on every roster have a chance to change the outcome of games up and down the bracket.

These five should be major players during the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.

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5 possible breakout stars for March Madness

Jason Preston

We’ve reached the sweetest time of year for basketball fans. The NCAA Tournament is here! There are a host of fantastic college basketball players ready to make their mark on March Madness history.

Let’s dig in a little deeper and find some of the big names from small schools who could become the talk of the tournament after this weekend.

Jason Preston – Ohio

If you haven’t read about Preston’s journey to Ohio, it’s well worth your time. He scored 2 points per game as a high school senior, enrolled at UCF as a regular student, hit a growth spurt, played on the “C” team at a prep school, earned a scholarship offer from Ohio, and is now first team all-conference and attracting attention from NBA scouts.

Preston dropped 31 points and 8 assists at Illinois earlier this season. Virginia will certainly need to be ready for him.

Cameron Krutwig – Loyola Chicago

When the Ramblers step onto the floor, you probably wouldn’t pick out their best player, unless you remember him from Loyola’s 2018 Final Four run. Krutwig is a mountain of a man, standing 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds. When he was a freshman helping the Ramblers sneak through the bracket, he was relied on for rebounds and post moves.

Now as a senior, he’s one of the craftiest players in the nation and draws comparisons to Nikola Jokic. Krutwig isn’t quick or light on his feet, yet every step is in perfect unison with where he wants to go and where he wants to draw the defense. His footwork and his court vision are second to none in this tournament.

Georgia Tech and Moses Wright will challenge Krutwig, but he and the Ramblers look up to the challenge. The nation’s top ranked defense won’t be an easy out.

Bones Hyland – VCU

For NBA scouts to be interested in a player who measures under 175 pounds, he must have some real skills. Hyland certainly does and is attracting attention in all the right ways. He’s a good shooter and offensive creator, while playing defense like a hungry dog on the other end.

The Selection Committee gave him a great match-up in the first round, pitting Hyland against Oregon star Chris Duarte. It’s one of the most intriguing one-on-one matchups of the first round. It would be disappointing if the second half of that game didn’t slow down and become a back-and-forth between the teams’ two stars.

Tank Hemphill – Drake

Drake’s leading scorer and rebounder hasn’t played since February 10 due to an injury. He’s set to return to the lineup for the Bulldogs in Thursday’s First Four matchup. His presence changes the ceiling for a Drake team still depleted by injury. Point guard Roman Penn will miss the tournament due his season ending injury. Without Hemphill and Penn, Drake was destined to head home early, but if Hemphill plays like a man on a mission, he can carry the Bulldogs a few rounds into the Big Dance.

If we get big performances from guys named “Bones” and “Tank”, March should be quite a month.

Osun Osunniyi – St. Bonaventure

So many of March’s heroes are guards who can hit the stepback three to win the game, for good reason. But some times a big man deserves a little bit of the love. Osunniyi is a game-changing rim protector. He has multiple games with 7 blocks this season and is averaging 2.9 per game. Ask Dayton if Osunniyi is a problem in the paint; he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 blocks against the Flyers.

If St. Bonaventure is going to make a run that extends beyond this weekend, Osunniyi will need to come up big at the biggest time. LSU’s Trendon Watford and Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson are tough assignments, but if he can slow both down, the Bonnies could reach the Sweet 16.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to the Action Network, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, Rotoballer, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

5 teams most likely to win the NCAA Tournament

Mark Few

March Madness is unlike any other sport’s playoff format. Winning six games against six opponents in just three weeks is a unique test that only certain teams are cut out to accomplish.

In this year’s tournament, with COVID protocols and all of the difficulty that has come with them in place, there’s no telling exactly what kind of team is best set up for success. We might be ripe for a Cinderella champion, with chaos descending upon the games in Indianapolis. On the other hand, maybe only the best of the best are prepared for the journey ahead.

These five teams stand out as real contenders to cut down the nets in April.

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Breaking down college basketball’s biggest conference tournaments

Scott Drew

Some of college basketball’s diehards argue that the conference tournaments are more exciting and intriguing than March Madness itself. Take Tuesday’s Horizon League quarterfinals for example. In one day, the same conference saw a buzzer-beating win, an overtime win, a triple-overtime win, and a 24-point comeback in the final six minutes that led to an overtime win.

If the power conferences have anything close to that level of drama up their sleeves, buckle up. The next week and a half could be a doozy. Before those tournaments begin, here is a look at the favorite to win each of them, as well as a team capable of making a surprising run to cut down the nets and earn their league’s automatic berth to the Big Dance.

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5 college basketball bubble teams in need of a big win

Coach K Mike Krzyzewski

March 1 is right around the corner and plenty of college basketball teams are starting to feel the heat. Despite the strangest season we’ve ever see, with games moved, canceled, and heavily affected by COVID-19, the selection committee will still need to sort through varied resumés to build a 68-team bracket.

This will surely be the most difficult season for the committee to sort out, given the varying number of games played and players available for many teams. It could make the stretch run of the regular season, with recency bias in full affect, the most crucial piece of the season.

With that in mind, here are five teams in need of big wins over the next few weeks before conference tournaments begin.

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5 mid-major teams poised for Cinderella runs in March Madness

Porter Moser

Much of this college basketball season has focused on the typical blue-blood programs. That is the case every year, yet this year there has been a different reason for all the media attention paid to the usual suspects. Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Michigan State, and Kentucky are each having their worst season in recent memory.

While there’s plenty to dissect in those situations, that discourse has taken away from another key element of college hoops. This season is littered with mid-major programs fully prepared to make an impact in March. Gonzaga is undefeated and atop the rankings. Houston is highly-ranked with just two losses to its name.

Deeper into the college basketball rankings, there are programs preparing for their Cinderella runs. I’ve culled five of those teams below, with apologies to the group sitting atop the Atlantic-10. St. Bonaventure, Saint Louis, VCU, and Richmond are all capable of winning games in the Big Dance, but it’s unclear which of them will be able to earn a bid to the tournament.

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5 best performing freshmen in college basketball

Cade Cunningham

This might be the most difficult year for a freshman to assimilate into the college basketball environment. Teams are stopping and starting with COVID concerns. Games are being postponed and rescheduled. Everything has become uncertain and unidentifiable.

Despite that, there is a crop of freshmen succeeding across Division I, in a variety of roles. Some of those players will be one-and-done prospects off to the NBA, while others are building a foundation for a fantastic college career.

These five names have jumped out as the best first year performers in college hoops this season.

5. Evan Mobley, USC

No freshman has been more hot-and-cold that USC’s Evan Mobley. On some nights, the 7-footer looks like a future NBA All-Star and one of college basketball’s most mind-blowing talents. That was on full display in a 19-point, 13-rebound, 6-block night at Arizona State. That wasn’t his only 6-block game or his only 13-rebound outing, either. On some nights, he pops off the screen.

In other games, he disappears. In a home game against Utah, Mobley didn’t attempt a shot from the floor in 31 minutes. He shot 5-14 with 5 turnovers against Colorado. He had just 11 points against a Cal Baptist team he should have dominated and managed only 3 rebounds in 30 minutes against Washington State.

If the Trojan coaching staff can kick Mobley’s motor on for the month of March, he could make USC a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.

4. Hunter Dickinson, Michigan

There may not be a more efficient player in the nation than Michigan’s freshman center. The 7-foot Maryland native leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, and 2-point shooting percentage. He’s making 70 percent of his looks inside the arc, on nearly nine such attempts per game.

While the Wolverines are still on pause due to a school wide athletics shutdown, they remain in the hunt for the Big Ten title and a top seed in March. Dickinson has been the steadiest piece of Juwan Howard’s roster and gives Michigan a real chance to fight its way to the Final Four.

3. Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

There’s really no competition in the race to be the top pick in June’s NBA Draft. It’s Cunningham’s spot to lose, no matter which team is pulling the trigger with the first selection. The 6-foot-8 freshman functionally acts as Oklahoma State’s point guard and runs the entire Cowboy offense. He is averaging 18.2 points, 3.8 assists, and 6.2 rebounds this season, shooting 47 percent from the field, and 39 percent from long range.

Cunningham is the most difficult matchup in the nation, too tall to be stopped by a guard, and far too quick and agile for a big man to stop.

2. Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga

Suggs has ridden a bit of a roller coaster already in his debut season at the college level. When he burst on the scene in November, he looked like a candidate for National Player of the Year and was the main reason Gonzaga separated itself as the best team in college basketball. As teams have scouted Suggs and adjusted to his style of play, things have changed.

Suggs was a force when he first stepped on the court, attacking all over the offensive end of the floor, including from outside the arc. He made over 55 percent of his long-range attempts in his first five games. His shooting has cooled off considerably; he’s made just 23 percent of his threes in his ten most recent games.

Suggs has not let that shooting dip mire his entire game. He’s still using his athleticism to affect the game. Offensively, he penetrates defenses with a strong first step and gets downhill, opening up passing lanes for teammates. On the defensive end, Suggs is a pest, nabbing more than two steals per game in January.

He may not be Gonzaga’s best player or go-to-guy, but Suggs raises the Zags ceiling. His athleticism is a weapon that nearly no college team is prepared to handle.

1. Sharife Cooper, Auburn

Auburn was a very mediocre team to start the season. Over the Tigers’ first 11 games, Auburn was 6-5, with only one win over a top-100 team, per KenPom. When freshman Sharife Cooper was ruled eligible by the NCAA, Auburn’s outlook totally shifted. He’s been more than a sparkplug. Cooper has fully overhauled everything Auburn does offensively. If he had enough minutes to qualify for statistics, he’d lead the nation in usage rate, assist rate, and assists per game while scoring 21.3 points per game.

With Cooper running the show offensively, Auburn has shifted from a team that plays at a standard pace to the fastest team in college basketball. He attacks the paint with lightning quickness, using high level court vision to exploit the holes in a defense. Even against No. 2 Baylor, Cooper had his worst game to date and posted 15 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists.

Unfortunately, Auburn self-imposed a postseason ban this season, meaning Cooper won’t be able to shake things up in March Madness. Thankfully, he’s flying up NBA Draft boards and should bring some excitement to the next level as soon as next year.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to the Action Network, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, Rotoballer, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

Analysis: Why these four college basketball blue blood programs are struggling

John Calipari

This college basketball season has been unlike any other in recent memory, especially for some of the premier, blue blood programs. The best, most accomplished program in each of college basketball’s top four conferences are having their worst season in recent years.

The door has opened for dormant programs and smaller names to compete for conference titles and top seeds, with the usual suspects in those positions left swimming upstream. In some cases, this has meant a speed bump that needs to be ironed out to set up a tournament run. For others, the tournament is slowly fading from their grasp.

Here is how four of America’s most notable and successful basketball programs have struggled, and what needs to happen for a turnaround.

Kentucky (5-10, 4-4 in SEC)

Since John Calipari took over the Kentucky program in the 2009-10 season, his teams have suffered a three-game losing streak just three times. Two of those were this season, including a six-game skid that left Big Blue Nation catatonic with a 1-6 record to start the year.

Calipari is once again trying to assimilate a team of newcomers on the fly, with returning players accounting for just 4.3 percent of last year’s minutes. That’s low, even for Calipari. It’s his lowest mark at Kentucky and only the second time he’s been below 10 percent – the other coming in 2013, Cal’s only time missing the Big Dance in Lexington.

This young, gelling team has just been lost offensively. Kentucky’s two lead guars, Devin Askew and Terrence Clark, are both turning the ball over more than a quarter of the time they “use” an offensive possession. Top prospect Brandon Boston has been worse, statistically placing among the least efficient players in the sport. He’s made just 9 of his 50 attempts outside the arc (18 percent) and hasn’t been stellar when driving either.

For Kentucky to turn things around, the freshmen will need to grow up fast or take a backseat to transfers like Olivier Sarr, Davion Mintz, and Jacob Toppin.

Michigan State (8-4, 2-4 in Big Ten)

Sparty has lost more than six conference games just once in the last ten years and has not missed the NCAA Tournament since 1997. Those marks could both be in play for Michigan State this season. The Spartans are just 2-4 in conference play. Home losses to Northwestern and Purdue are red flags for this team.

Michigan State’s biggest issue has been atypical for a Tom Izzo team. While the Spartans lead the nation in assist rate (dishing a dime on more than 70 percent of their field goals), they have struggled with turnovers. No Big Ten team is allowing opposing defenses to rack up steals more than the Spartans. Dead ball turnovers are one problem, but Tom Izzo himself coined the term “turnovers for touchdowns” in recent years when harping on the problems with live ball turnovers. Opposing teams are getting into transition and sneaking easy buckets against a deep, talented Michigan State team.

Duke (5-5, 3-3 in ACC)

It’s also troubling for Michigan State’s tournament resumé that the best win in Sparty’s pocket is a road victory over an unimpressive Duke team. The Blue Devils lost three straight road ACC games to fall to just 3-3 in the conference.

Coach K’s team is the fifth least experienced roster in all of college basketball, and it has shown in Duke’s penchant for making mistakes and lack of aggressiveness. The Blue Devils rank 337th in free throw rate, out of the 347 Division teams in play this season. On top of that, Duke is allowing the highest free throw rate in the ACC on the defensive end. In six conference contests, Duke is 56-83 at the line, compared to 91-125 for its opponents.

That is a massive chasm to make up, which Duke has failed to do. With turnover prone guards and shooters in a collective slump, the Blue Devils need to make adjustments to build a tournament worthy resumé.

Kansas (10-5, 4-4 in Big XII)

The Jayhawks are the best team on this list, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions in Lawrence after three straight road losses. Since 2004, Kansas has won or shared all but one Big XII regular season title. This year, the Jayhawks’ chances at a title is in as much jeopardy as it ever has been, with the Jayhawks sitting at 4-4 in conference play, 3.5 games behind undefeated Baylor.

Kansas’ problems don’t have any obvious answers hiding on Bill Self’s roster. With Devon Dotson gone to the NBA, Self’s plan to have Marcus Garrett shift to the point guard role has been clunky. His reliance on center David McCormack has also been called into question of late. At times, McCormack’s scoring on the block has been Kansas’ most reliable chance to spark its offense. In other, more frequent times, that overreliance has been a black hole. Self has flirted with playing no big men in favor of five perimeter players to spread out the offense. Until McCormack can play more dependably, Self may have to commit to small ball to open up scoring chances for his talented guards.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to the Action Network, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, Rotoballer, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.