2018 NCAA Tournament: Final Four Sleepers

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So here’s the thing about this year’s bracket: I just don’t love any of the teams that are sitting outside of the top three or four seeds.


And I know that sounds … well, way too much like I’ve watched a thousand games over the course of the last five months, but it’s the truth. 

As much as we want to talk about how unreliable some of the teams at the top of the bracket are, I struggle even more with figuring out who is actually going to beat them. 

Anyway, here is a look at a few teams that aren’t considered a favorite in their region that have the horses to be able to make a run.

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FLORIDA: Easily and unquestionably my favorite darkhorse to make a run in the NCAA tournament simply because Florida is totally immune to what their opponent does. What I mean by that is that they can, at times, look like they would give the Golden State Warriors a run for their money in the Western Conference. At other times, they look like a team that has no business being in the NCAA tournament, let alone as a No. 6 seed.

And good luck trying to figure out when Good Florida will actually make an appearance. You might as well give out expert picks on the lottery. But here’s the thing: When Good Florida does show up, they are so, so, SO good. I honestly think it’s something that is as simple as confidence. They see a couple shots go down, they start playing with a little more energy defensively, suddenly they are getting some cleaner looks in transition and before you know it, Jalen Hudson, Egor Koulechov and KeVaughn Allen cannot miss even when they try. Throw in the presence of a feisty senior point guard in Chris Chiozza, and there is a lot to love about this Florida team.

Just as long as you realize that they are as likely to lose by 25 points in the first round as they are to get to a Final Four, and that there is no in-between.

HOUSTON: The Cougars have been one of the hottest teams in the country over the course of the last month, and if it wasn’t for an errant Rob Gray pass on their final possession of the AAC title game, we may be talking about them as the champions of the AAC tournament. Throw in the coaching chops of Kelvin Sampson and a region that is wide open at the top, and the Cougars could end up being this year’s South Carolina.

TEXAS A&M: Generally speaking, if I’m looking for an underdog that can make a run, I’m looking for teams with great point guard play first and foremost. Texas A&M ain’t that. They lost their starting point guard, Duane Wilson, to an ACL injury after the other two point guards they had hoped would start couldn’t stay out of trouble. What this group does have is a front line that can overpower anybody. Whether or not their guards can actually get those big men the ball is a different story, but if they can, Tyler Davis and Robert Williams can be absolutely dominant in a part of the bracket where there aren’t a lot of big bodies.

NEVADA: The Wolf Pack have struggled a bit since they lost Lindsay Drew to a ruptured achilles a month ago, but this is still a team with ‘dudes’. Jordan Caroline, Caleb Martin and Cody Martin are all capable of putting up 30 points on a given night, and they aren’t afraid of taking — and making — tough shots. Their depth is stretched right now, but there is no question that this group has the talent to be a threat in a region that is fairly open.

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WEST VIRGINIA: Simply put: There is no matchup in college basketball that is worse for West Virginia that Villanova. Press Virginia relies on getting teams rattled and forcing turnovers. Villanova is not going to get rattled. They aren’t going to make mistakes. Jalen Brunson hasn’t been sped up by anyone ever. And when the Wildcats do break that press, they are going to get wide-open threes all game. It’s an awful, awful matchup.

KENTUCKY: Let’s start with this: To beat Virginia, which Kentucky would probably have to do in the Sweet 16, you need to be a team that is patient and disciplined defensively that will be able to make shots from the perimeter on the offensive end of the floor. That ain’t Kentucky.

But I also have my doubts about whether or not the Wildcats can get that far. Let’s ignore the fact that they likely have Arizona and Deandre Ayton in the second round of the tournament and focus, instead, on Davidson. Those Wildcats run an offense that is a nightmare for the veteran teams in the Atlantic 10 to prepare for and play against when they have been in the league together for years. Now imagine you are Kentucky and have two or three days to prepare yourself for that offense?

Now should I mention how good Payton Aldridge and Kellan Grady are?


TEXAS TECH: I am all in on the Texas Tech bandwagon, and I have been for a while. This is UConn 2014 all over again. That UConn team is the only team in the last 16 years to rank outside of the top 25 in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom and win the national title. They won it because it was a weird year with college basketball’s best teams, they were elite defensively and they had this guy named Shabazz Napier who took games over and made big shot after big shot.

Texas Tech is ranked third nationally in defensive efficiency, recently cracked the top 50 in offensive efficiency and has Keenan Evans on the roster, who is way too similar to Napier.

Oh, and it’s a weird year for the best teams in the country.

This is destined to happen.

Ole Miss is expected to announce in the coming days that they will be hiring Middle Tennessee State head coach Kermit Davis to replace Andy Kennedy.

Davis will continue to coach the Blue Raiders throughout their NIT run, according to 247 Sports.

Davis has been with Middle Tennessee for the past 16 seasons, helping to build the program into one of the strongest at the mid-major level. The Blue Raiders had won a game in the NCAA in each of the last two seasons prior to getting snubbed for an at-large bid this year. MTSU has won five regular season titles in the last seven seasons. Davis was the youngest head coach in America when he got his first job at Idaho in 1988. Two years later, he was hired by Texas A&M. He lasted for one season before getting fired and slapped with a two-year show-cause for allegedly paying a “talent scout” from New York City and a player named Tony Scott to get that player to transfer from Syracuse to A&M.

There’s no question that Davis is a terrific coach.

The question is just how different he is from Kennedy. The knock on Kennedy in recent reasons is that he wasn’t able to recruit the high-end, five-star talent and that he spent too much time mixing it up with JuCo prospects that were good enough to keep the Rebels relevant but not good enough to turn them into SEC title contenders. That’s Davis’ bread and butter.

It will interesting to see

Tuesday’s First Four matchup between East Region 11-seeds St. Bonaventure and UCLA was considered by some to be the top matchup of the tournament’s first two days, due in large part to the perimeter matchup. With the Bonnies being led by Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley, and UCLA having it’s own perimeter stud in Aaron Holiday, it was easy to see why there was so much anticipation.

But in the end Courtney Stockard, who missed the Atlantic 10 semifinal loss to Davidson with a hamstring injury, stole the show in leading the Bonnies to the 65-58 victory.

With the win, the program’s first NCAA tournament victory since 1970, the Bonnies advance to face 6-seed Florida Thursday in Dallas.

On a night that saw both Adams and Mobley struggle offensively, Stockard stepped forward to score 26 points to lead the way. Playing with two big men for much of the game, UCLA struggled to match up with Stockard at the four. Stockard’s effort helped the Bonnies pull out the victory despite Mobley (14 points) and Adams (eight points) combining to shoot 6-for-28 from the field.

And with LaDarien Griffin chipping in with ten points off the bench, the Bonnies had all the production they needed.

UCLA got off to a hot start, jumping out to a 14-7 lead with Holiday either scoring or assisting on 13 of those points. But St. Bonaventure would switch things up defensively, with head coach Mark Schmidt employing multiple zone looks in an attempt to slow things down. The move worked, as UCLA was careless with the basketball and would finish the game with 20 turnovers.

St. Bonaventure, which turned the ball over just six times, converted UCLA’s miscues into 30 points. Holiday was responsible for 10 of those turnovers, and he lost his poise late with some key mistakes before fouling out with 20 points and seven assists. Price Ali added 13 points and Kris Wilkes ten for UCLA, but Thomas Welsh shot just 1-for-5 from the field and finished with two points to go along with 15 rebounds.

St. Bonaventure will need to be sharper offensively if they’re to have a chance of beating Florida. But in taking care of UCLA, this group of Bonnies has accomplished something the program hadn’t done since Bob Lanier was in uniform.

The 2018 NCAA tournament began Tuesday night in Dayton, with 16-seeds LIU Brooklyn and Radford kicking things off in the First Four. Radford, which rode its defense to the Big South tournament title by holding their opponents to an average of 52.3 points per game, found a way to limit LIU Brooklyn’s Joel Hernandez. Radford took away both Hernandez and the Blackbirds’ three-point shooting, and the end result was a 71-61 victory.

The win is Radford’s first-ever NCAA tournament victory, and the team’s reward is a date with East Region top seed Villanova on Thursday in Pittsburgh.

Hernandez, who scored 32 points in LIU’s win at Wagner in the NEC title game, shot 3-for-11 from the field and scored just eight points on the night. But the bigger issue for LIU Brooklyn was its perimeter shooting, as Derek Kellogg’s squad went through lengthy stretches in which it settled for perimeter shots instead of attacking the Radford defense.

The Blackbirds shot just 7-for-26 from three, which was a major factor in the team making just 38 percent of its shots from the field.

Ed Polite Jr. and Carlik Jones both posted double-doubles to the way for the Highlanders, with Polite tallying 13 points and 12 rebounds and Jones adding 12 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. Travis Fields Jr. added 13 points off the bench, with ten coming in the second half. Fields’ three-pointer with 3:28 remaining gave Radford a 64-59 lead, and the Blackbirds would get no closer from that point on.

LIU Brooklyn, which was unable to get the tempo in its favor, was led offensively by Jashaun Agosto with 16 points. Raiquan Clark added 14 points and Julian Batts 13 to go along with eight rebounds.

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Miles Bridges can soar for slams, dribble to set up shots and make 3-pointers from all angles.

He can also drift, defer and drive his coach crazy.

Michigan State’s Tom Izzo has been privately and publicly prodding Bridges to do more with the ball, going as far as saying he needs to be more of a jerk on the court and more selfish.

“As we keep saying to him all year long, ‘Just be more aggressive,’” Izzo said Tuesday .

Bridges, though, pushes back at times.

“I can’t do it without my teammates,” he said softly.

The third-seeded Spartans will need Bridges to play like a star at times in the NCAA Tournament to improve their chances of chasing the school’s third national championship. His first opportunity is Thursday night against 14th-seeded Bucknell in Detroit. And the 6-foot-7 forward knows it.

“I definitely don’t want to go home after all the work we put in,” Bridges said. “I’m going to have to take over games.”

Bridges didn’t take his first opportunity to make millions in the NBA after his freshman season, choosing to chase a priceless championship in college.

“This is the top opportunity that I wanted when I came back,” he said. “I wanted to win a national championship. Now that it’s here, I’m just going to have to play. I can’t talk anymore. I have to go out there and win it.”

When Bridges scores a few more points than his average, the Spartans win.

He scored 20 points 11 times this season, and helped his team win each of those games as part of the school-record 28 victories in the regular season.

The All-Big Ten and preseason All-America player leads the team with nearly 17 points per game, ranks second with almost seven rebounds and is third with just under three assists. He led the Spartans to their first Big Ten outright championship since 2009 as one of four players in the nation with his averages in points, rebounds and assists along with almost one block per game.

Bridges averaged 20 points and eight-plus rebounds in two NCAA Tournament games last year on a team without much experience, depth or size that beat Miami by 20 points and lost to Kansas by 20.

Less than a month later, Bridges did what few potential lottery picks do and stayed in college.

“I got some unfinished business here,” Bridges said last year at the foot of the school’s Sparty statue. “I want to stay .”

The signature moment of this season, so far at least, was making a game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds against Purdue.

“I just wanted to make memories with my teammates and that’s what I’ve done this year,” he said.

The low point for Bridges was being briefly ineligible, two days before the final game of the regular season at Wisconsin. Earlier that week, Yahoo! Sports published expense reports listing a $70 lunch with Bridges’ parents and a $400 cash advance to his mother. The school denied the allegations in the report, but later announced its compliance office discovered an NCAA violation because Bridges’ family had dinner with an agent last winter without his knowledge. That finding made the sophomore star ineligible for about a day before the NCAA reinstated him. Bridges had to donate $40 to a charity of his choice as a condition of the reinstatement process.

“No great story comes without trials and tribulations,” Bridges said.

Bridges and his teammates had a chance to clear their minds and relax their bodies last week, idling between the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. They went to see “Hamilton” in Chicago, practiced at the Bulls’ facility and saw the NBA team play.

“Everybody, like our seniors, starts thinking the end is near so you have to deal with all those things,” Izzo said. “In Miles’ case, who knows when the end will be? But I think he’s handled everything pretty well.”


More AP college basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Three days before it begins NCAA tournament play against UMBC, top overall seed Virginia received some bad news regarding a key contributor.

Redshirt freshman forward De’Andre Hunter, who won the ACC Sixth Man of the Year award, will miss the NCAA tournament due to a broken left wrist. Hunter suffered the injury during the ACC tournament, and according to the school he’ll be sidelined for 10-12 weeks after undergoing surgery on March 19.

To say the least, this is a significant blow for a team with national title hopes to absorb.

Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per game, emerging as a highly valuable front court reserve for Tony Bennett. In three ACC tournament games Hunter averaged 10.3 points and 3.7 rebounds in 19.3 minutes per game, shooting 52.9 percent from the field.

With Hunter no longer available, fellow reserve Mamadi Diakite is one player who is now of even greater importance for the Cavaliers moving forward. Diakite, a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, is averaging 5.3 points and 3.0 rebounds in 15.4 minutes per game this season.

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