NCAA

March Madness 2018: Darkhorse picks to make the Final Four

March Madness 2018: Darkhorse picks to make the Final Four

Every NCAA Tournament, everyone is looking for that prime Final Four pick that no one else has on their bracket.

If you get that one surprise team that no one saw coming, you are the odds on favorite to win your bracket challenge, tournament pool, etc.

Identifying that team is easier said than done. When it gets down to the nitty gritty, it is hard to pick against the No. 1 or No. 2 seeds in the region. That is especially the case this season.

But as history has shown us, there will be one team not with a one or a two next to their name when there are only four teams remaining and the calendar turns to April.

Outside of the No. 1 seeds, of course No. 2 Duke, No. 2 North Carolina, No. 3 Michigan State, No. 4 Gonzaga are all going to get some support. But that is easy, that is not going to win a bracket pool. You have to think out of the box and hope that someone carries the weight.

Look at the past handful of national champions and the Final Four teams with them. There are a couple of things they have in common: a talented backcourt and a multi-dimensional defense. The teams listed below, that no one is talking about all fall into these two categories.

READ ALSO: NINE MOST LIKELY FIRST ROUND UPSETS

Darkhorse NCAA Tournament Teams to Make the Final Four

No. 7 Rhode Island Rams (25-7, 15-3 Atlantic 10)

Notable Wins: Seton Hall, Providence, St. Bonaventure
Player to Watch: Jared Terrell (17.2 ppg, 44 FG%, 42 3pt FG%)
Final Four Path: Midwest; No. 10 Oklahoma, No. 2 Duke, No. 3 Michigan State, No. 1 Kansas

Looking at the Rams’ Final Four path, the committee did not give the Atlantic 10 regular season champions any favors. The Midwest Region as a whole is a brute and the team that gets out will either be gassed or primed to finish the journey.

For Rhode Island, they tout what John Rothestein has tabbed the best backcourt in the entire country. Their top four guards could easily play and start on any high-major program, and one actually did.  Senior Stanford Robinson played two years at Indiana before moving to Rhode Island. And he is not even their best option at the guard position.

Seniors Jared Terrell and E.C. Matthews are the go-to scorers and together score 30 points a contest. Point guard Jeff Dowtin has 10 points a contest himself, while averaging 5.5 assists per game.

Almost the entire Rams roster has been here before. Last season they were two minutes away from a Sweet 16 appearance. The only guy who wasn’t, freshman Fatts Russell (best name of the tournament) brings a fire off of the bench.

This year they went a stretch where they won 16 games in a row. Their defense, which can play man-to-man, matchup zone, and a two-three zone quite effectively, kept teams to under 68 points throughout the season.

Before an end of season rut against the best teams in the Atlantic 10, they were in line for a No. 5, borderline No. 4 seed. Losing three of their last five dropped them down a peg. They have a tough path, but if there is anyone that can get through that gauntlet it’s the Rhody Rams.  

RELATED: FULL FIRST ROUND TV SCHEDULE

No. 3 Texas Tech Red Raiders (24-9, 11-7 Big 12)

Notable Wins: @ Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma
Player to Watch: Keenan Evans (17.5 ppg, 48 FG%)
Final Four Path: East; No. 14 Stephen F. Austin, No. 6 Florida, No. 2 Purdue, No. 1 Villanova

As a No. 3 seed, it is hard to label Texas Tech as a ‘darkhorse’ to make the Final Four, but it will be rare to see many picking them to get out of this region.

Partly this is due to a four game losing streak two weeks before the regular season was about to end. It dropped the Red Raiders from a contender in the Big 12, and borderline No. 1 seed, to a No. 3, and in some people’s minds should have dropped a little further.

This season they established themselves in arguably the best conference of all of college basketball. A program defining win at the Allen Fieldhouse showed how good this team can really be. However, with a rough Big 12 schedule there is only so much you can withstand as they tailed off toward the end of the year.

They have a great mix of veteran seniors and exuberant, talented youth. Often, that is a recipe for success for the blue bloods that are playing on the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Seniors Keenan Evans and Zach Smith were both on the Red Raiders when they got bounced in the first round of the tournament in 2016. Back again, the guard-forward, one-two punch can roll through any team that has to rely on man-to-man defense. With freshman guards Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver, who together shoot 41 percent from three-point land starting alongside them, it is a tough team to matchup against.
Another defensive group that can rotate out of man, they held teams to 65 points per game on the season.

With a favorable portion of the draw, the Red Raiders are in a cake-walk to the Sweet 16. Throw-in an upset or two and they are in the Final Four.

MORE: COMPETE FOR PRIZES IN OUR BRACKET CHALLENGE

No. 5 West Virginia (24-10, 11-7 Big 12)

Notable Wins: Virginia, Texas Tech, TCU
Player to Watch: Jevon Carter (17.0 ppg, 6.6 apg, 2.9 spg)
Final Four Path: East; No. 12 Murray State, No. 4 Wichita State, No. 1 Villanova, No. 2 Purdue

A Bob Huggins team that has a great defense and outstanding guards, sound familiar? Every year, the Mountaineers are a tricky team to figure out how far they will go in the big dance. They haven’t been to the Final Four since 2010, but in two of the last three seasons they made it to the Elite Eight.

Led by a player that feels like is on his seventh season with the team, Jevon Carter, it has been quite the up-and-down rollercoaster for West Virginia.

On one hand, the Mountaineers were one of two teams to beat Virginia throughout the entire college basketball season. West Virginia finished third in the uber-competitive Big 12 and was never really blown out a contest all year.

On the other hand, the Mountaineers picked up 10 losses in the 2017-18 season. Nine of those ten losses were to teams playing in the tournament.

This season they held opponents to 69 points a game with their tight-knit two-three zone. Good enough to match the Cavaliers’ historic group. They force teams to 16 turnovers, one of the best marks in the NCAA

Like the Red Raiders they have a good balance of veterans and youth. All of their starters though were on the Elite Eight team that lost to Gonzaga a season ago.

RELATED: NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP ODDS

No. 6 Houston (26-7, 14-4 AAC)

Notable Wins: Providence, Wichita State (twice)
Player to Watch: Rob Gray (18.5 ppg, 4.5 apg, 45 FG%)
Final Four Path: West; No. 11 San Diego State, No. 3 Michigan, No. 2 North Carolina, No. 1 Xavier

Of the four teams on this list, Houston is the wildcard. They are playing in the wide-open West Region and have not fully proven how good they can be in 2018.

This is their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2010, their second since 1992.

Experience for the Cougars come from back-to-back NIT first round exits. Their starting line-up consists of two seniors and three juniors. They have a deep bench with a pair of seniors as well.

They typically start the game with a three guard, two forward set but quickly turn to their bench and spread out defenses with four guards. Four players average 10 points a game, all behind redshirt senior Rob Gray with 18.5.

Their scoring defense is 65 points a game, another group near the top of all of college basketball. They hold opponents to 40 percent shooting from the field and pride themselves on steals and blocks.

There are two questionable losses on their schedule, losing to Drexel in the first week and falling to Tulane in the middle of conference play. However, they are one of the hottest teams in the country winning 10 of their last 12. Falling to Cincinnati on the second-to-last possession of the AAC Championship, the Cougars have moved themselves from the bubble to a Sweet 16 favorite. Their one road block is North Carolina, which it does not appear they match-up well against. They will probably need one upset to go their way from other teams in their region.

 

Click here to join NBC Sports Washington’s NCAA Tournament Bracket Challenge and compete against Tony Massenburg and Walt Williams for a chance to win big.

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WANT MORE COLLEGE HOOPS? Join @TroyMachir for the March Only podcast, a month-long podcast with some of the best and brightest minds in college basketball. Subscribe on iTunes and listen below.

What you need to know about the unprecedented NCAA basketball rules changes

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USA TODAY Sports

What you need to know about the unprecedented NCAA basketball rules changes

On Wednesday afternoon, the NCAA made a major announcement some twenty years in the making.

The NCAA announced plans to take major action to clean up and reorganize the college basketball recruiting and draft structure, on the platform of promoting integrity and strengthening accountability.

The unveiling of the action plan is in response to the suggestions made by the Condoleezza Rice-led Commission on Basketball, a governing body of 14 educators, government officials and former administrators whose goal was to address and find solutions to the major fundamental issues plaguing college basketball. 

The recommendations the NCAA will implement is as follows (You can read the entire plan right here):

Recruiting and Draft Changes:

— College basketball players will be able to participate in the NBA Draft and return to school if undrafted, pending further action from the NBA and NBPA.

— Division I programs will be required to pay for tuition, fees, and books for men's and women's college basketball player who leave school and return to the same school to earn their degree.

— High school basketball recruits and college players tabbed as "Elite" by USA Basketball will be allowed agent representation if the agent is NCAA-certified.

— High school basketball recruits will be allowed to make more frequent campus visits paid for by the school. The visits will be allowed to take place at the start of the summer before their junior year.

— Four open days in April will be added to the Spring recruiting calendar.

— College coaches will be allowed to attend recruiting events during the last two weekends in June, pending approval from the National High School Federations.

— College coaches will also be allowed to attend an additional weekend event in July as well as the NBPA Top 100 camp in June. 

What does it mean?

Well for starters, the NCAA is only allowing high school seniors what have been deemed "elite" by USA Basketball will be allowed to hire agents. What about someone like R.J. Barrett, Duke-bound No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2018? Barrett is a native of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, and despite playing high school basketball for Montverde Academy in Florida, is not part of the USA Basketball program. Therefore, under the new NCAA rule, the top high school recruit would not be able to sign an agent because he does not participate with USA Basketball. 

The NCAA's implementations are a step in the right direction but still are yet to lack real substance. 

The high school players deemed "elite" enough to hire agents are unlikely to ever play in college, and the college players deemed "elite" enough to hire agents are historically unlikely to return to school. What this means is that the news of players being able to hire agents is more noise than signal.

Allowing undrafted players to return to school is an incredible change that is both pro-athlete and pro-education. But in only allowing that to players who attend the NBA Combine undercuts the rule change in totality. In most cases, players who attend the NBA Combine but go undrafted get an opportunity to participate in the NBA Summer League. 

In fact, if the rules were in place for the 2018 NBA Draft, only six of the players who went undrafted would be able to return to school: Arizona's Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier, Duke's Trevon Duval, Kansas' Malik Newman, UNLV's Brandon McCoy, and former Louisville commit Brian Bowen. 

More window-dressing, less real change.

NCAA Enforcement Changes:

— Administrators charged with investigating and resolving NCAA cases can accept established information from courts of law, government agency, an accrediting body or university-authorized commissions. 

— Schools and the NCAA will be allowed to work together toward a resolution on matters, reducing legal fees and minimizing drawn-out disputes.

— The NCAA intends to impose stronger penalties, including longer postseason bans, longer head coach suspension and increased recruiting restrictions. 

— The NCAA will appoint two independent groups to oversee the investigation and resolution of cases defined as "complex." Multiple parties will be able to request that a case is deemed "complex."

— Athletic administrators, as well as school presidents and chancellor, will be contractually obligated to comply with any investigation into their program or athletic department.

What does it mean?

This biggest revelation is that the NCAA is opening itself up to working with outside agencies to establish information. In short, the NCAA will be able to use information gathered by an entity like the FBI for a case without having to do the investigating itself.

This is a major step in the right direction for the NCAA but also provides the governing body with great power.

In addition, the NCAA will force the school administrators to "commit contractually to full cooperation in the investigations and infractions process."

What this means is that the NCAA is attempting to implement the power of subpoena, by proxy. That is a major step toward the NCAA wielding great power in investigations and enforcement.

The Wednesday news has the potential to be an industry-changer, but there is a cadre of unresolved issues and questions that went unanswered.

If you were hoping the NCAA rectified its past mistakes and turned the model of amateur athletics on its head, you will have to keep the faith. 

Yes, the changes being implemented are good for the sport. But nothing the NCAA announced will eliminate the widespread college basketball issues exposed by the FBI investigation. 

Ohio State's Meyer put on leave, investigation opened

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USA Today Sports Images

Ohio State's Meyer put on leave, investigation opened

Urban Meyer's job appears to be in jeopardy.

Ohio State placed Meyer, one of the most successful coaches in college football history, on paid administrative leave Wednesday while it investigates claims that his wife knew about allegations of domestic violence against an assistant coach years before the staff member was fired last week.

Courtney Smith gave an interview to Stadium and provided text messages to former ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy between her and Shelley Meyer in 2015 and with the wives of other Buckeyes coaches. Courtney Smith also provided threatening texts she said came from her ex-husband, former Ohio State assistant Zach Smith.

"Shelley said she was going to have to tell Urban," Courtney Smith told Stadium. "I said: `That's fine, you should tell Urban.'"

Zach Smith was fired last week after an Ohio court granted a domestic violence protective order to Courtney Smith.

Meyer is heading into his seventh season at Ohio State, where he is 73-8 with a national title in 2014 and two Big Ten Conference championships. Shelley Meyer is a registered nurse and is employed as an instructor at Ohio State. Both Meyer and his wife could be in violation of Ohio State's Title IX sexual misconduct policy on reporting allegations of domestic violence against university employees.

Violation of university's policy could result in Meyer being fired with cause by the university, according to provisions placed in his contract when it was extended by two years in April. The new deal runs through 2022 and increases Meyer's salary to $7.6 million in 2018, with annual six percent raises for the bulk of his compensation.

Hours after Courtney Smith's interview was posted online Wednesday, Ohio State announced in a short news release it was conducting an investigation into the allegations and Meyer was being placed on leave.

Offensive coordinator Ryan Day will serve as acting head coach for the Buckeyes, expected to be one of the top teams in the nation again this season. Ohio State's first preseason practice is scheduled for Friday. The season starts Sept. 1 with a game against Oregon State in Columbus, Ohio.

Meyer said in a statement he and athletic director Gene Smith agreed that his being on leave was best for the investigation.

"This allows the team to conduct training camp with minimal distraction. I eagerly look forward to the resolution of this matter." Meyer said.

Zach Smith was charged in May with misdemeanor criminal trespass. At the time of the charge, Zach Smith's attorney said Courtney Smith had accused him of driving to her apartment after she told him they would meet elsewhere so he could drop off their son. Zach Smith pleaded not guilty last month. A hearing has been scheduled for Friday.

Zach Smith was also accused of aggravated battery on his then-pregnant wife in 2009 while he was a graduate assistant on Meyer's staff at Florida. The charge was dropped because of insufficient evidence. Urban Meyer brought Smith, the grandson of late Buckeyes coach Earle Bruce, to Ohio State in 2012. Meyer worked for Bruce and considers him a mentor.

Two police reports filed in 2015 in Ohio's Powell County, after the Smiths separated in June of that year, accused Zach Smith of abuse. Charges were never filed.

At Big Ten media days, Meyer said he knew of the incident in 2009 and that he and Shelley Meyer addressed it with the Smiths. He was also asked about the 2015 incident alleged by Courtney Smith.

"I can't say it didn't happen because I wasn't there," he replied. "I was never told about anything and nothing ever came to light. I've never had a conversation about it. I know nothing about it. First I heard about that was last night. No, and I asked some people back at the office to call and say what happened and they came back and said they know nothing about it."

The Smiths divorced in 2016.

Meyer is on the short list of most accomplished coaches in college football history, with three national championships and an .851 winning percentage in 16 seasons at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and now Ohio State, the team he grew up rooting for in Northeast Ohio.

Meyer won national championships with Florida in 2006 and '08, but his teams also had more than two dozen players get into trouble with the law. He resigned twice at Florida, citing health reasons. First in 2009 season after the Gators lost the Southeastern Conference championship game while trying to repeat as national champs. He changed his mind soon after and coached another season. The Gators went 8-5 and this time he stepped down for good.

Meyer was out of coaching for a season, but was hired by Ohio State in November 2011 to replace Jim Tressel, who was fired before that season for lying to the NCAA and University of about rules violation committed by some of his players.

Since returning to coaching, Meyer's program has been one of the most dominant in college football and his players and coaches have mostly stayed out of major trouble.

Meyer did face some criticism in 2013 for allowing running back Carlos Hyde to return to the team after he was charged with striking a woman in a bar. The case was dropped by police when the woman chose not to pursue charges, but Hyde was suspended three games by Ohio State.