Ten Questions to Consider: End of Season Edition

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on April 23rd, 2018

With the season now well in the rear view mirror, it’s time to look at the long, hot summer ahead. Here are 10 questions to consider this offseason.

Arizona’s No-Show in the NCAA Tournament Capped Off a Frustrating Season in Tucson (USA Today Images)

  1. What will come of the FBI investigation? The uncertainty of what is still to come from the FBI investigation sits at the forefront of this offseason’s key storylines. The drama that unfolded at Arizona late in the season has created great uncertainty for at least one powerful program, but it is only a matter of time before the college basketball world is dealt another blow in this ongoing saga.
  2. Will the NBA change the one-and-done rule? While the FBI holds the key to one significant component of the college basketball offseason, the NBA is likely to also greatly affect the future of the sport. If the NBA rids itself of the one-and-done rule, top recruits will likely be able to make the jump — somewhere — immediately. At the same time, could college basketball adopt amateurism models similar to those of the Olympics, baseball or hockey? A change to the current system seems imminent.
  3. Which player would have the biggest impact if he pulls out of the NBA Draft? While Villanova’s exalted trio of Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo are the easy picks here, Creighton’s Khyri Thomas would ultimately have the biggest impact. The Bluejays will be without Marcus Foster’s scoring output next season, meaning that a Thomas back in Omaha can fill the role of primary scorer along with being a defensive stalwart — remember that he was the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year last season. The rising senior might be better suited to return to a featured role next season.
  4. Which coach is under the most pressure to succeed heading into next season? Planes flying around Westwood have returned as UCLA’s Steve Alford enters next season in a position where a trip to the Sweet Sixteen might not be enough success to keep his job. Recruiting victories must better translate to regular season and postseason success, beginning in a Pac-12 where the Bruins should be among the preseason favorites with Arizona facing a period of vulnerability. Read the rest of this entry »
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ACC Year in Review: Virginia’s Disappointment Stains Otherwise Strong ACC Season

Posted by Matt Auerbach on April 13th, 2018

For the first time since the 2014 Final Four in Arlington, Texas, the ACC was without representation during the season’s final weekend. Despite that disappointment, the ACC still finished the year rated as the second strongest conference via KenPom, with two of its nine NCAA Tournament entrants — Florida State and Duke — falling just a game short of a trip to San Antonio. That said, ACC regular season and tournament champion Virginia dominated the conference in stupendous fashion, winning the regular season by four games over runner-up Duke in large part thanks to the stingiest defense since the 38-1 Kentucky team in 2015. A convincing three-day run in Brooklyn left little doubt that Virginia was a worthy #1 overall seed heading into the Big Dance. We all know what happened next.

Virginia Became the First #1 Seed to Lose to a #16 Seed (USA Today Images)

  • Biggest Surprise: What happened in Charlotte several weeks ago defied all the laws of common sense and conventional basketball wisdom. The ignominious distinction of becoming the first #1 seed to fall to a #16 will sting the Virginia program for years — perhaps decades — but given the passage of time we can also start to begin to appreciate a tremendous season submarined by an inexplicable 40-minute sample size. And while that upset alone is the exact definition of a surprise, a Cavaliers team that was picked to finish sixth in the preseason laying waste to the entire ACC for three months qualifies as a legitimate surprise on its own right.

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ACC Offseason Storylines to Follow

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on April 11th, 2018

With the 2017-18 season in the books, here are a few ACC storylines to follow over the next several months. 

FBI Investigation / NCAA Action

Last September the college basketball world was rocked by news that the FBI was sticking its nose into the seedy underbelly of the sport’s recruiting practices. Several prominent programs were identified as involved in pay-for-play schemes, with ACC members Louisville and Miami experiencing significant subsequent fallout from those allegations. The Cardinals, for example, fired Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino right before the start of practice, leaving inexperienced assistant coach David Padgett to lead the team to a disappointing NIT berth. Furthermore, the NCAA is expected to eventually revisit its sanctions against the Louisville program from the stripper scandal to determine if more penalties are warranted. At Miami, head coach Jim Larranaga saw his integrity questioned for the first time in his lengthy career, which may have affected his team’s performance on the floor which culminated in a forgettable 0-2 postseason. The greater impact of the FBI probe on the two schools has unquestionably been in recruiting – neither team has yet to sign a newcomer for the 2018-19 campaign, leaving incredibly thin rosters in place heading into this offseason.

Jim Larranaga has to rebuild his reputation as well as Miami’s roster in the wake of the FBI’s investigation into NCAA basketball recruiting. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

After the FBI case was initially made public, the implication was that many more schools and athletes would eventually be caught up in the government’s web of wiretaps, plea bargains and confessions. We didn’t hear any more information from the FBI until this week, however, when the government claimed that at least one member of the N.C. State coaching staff was allegedly involved in a cash payment to the family of Dennis Smith in late 2015. So far, all of the allegations involve schools and players tied to the shoe company Adidas, but if shenanigans related to Nike are also exposed, expect a number of prominent other schools (including ACC heavyweights) to be affected. While we wait on further developments in this expanding case, it’s already worth noting that the credibility of one of the FBI star witnesses as well as the conduct of one of its chief investigators has been called into question. Stay tuned.

Rule Changes – On and off the Court

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Big East Wrap-Up: Lasting Impressions and Early Rankings

Posted by Justin Kundrat on April 11th, 2018

All hail Donte DiVincenzo‘s flurry of baskets that left Michigan fans saying “who is this guy?”

Villanova Celebrates Its Second National Championship in the Last Three Years Last Week (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova has ascended into blue-blood territory. It’s a tired storyline at this point but it’s also probably the biggest one coming out of the NCAA Tournament. Winners of two championships in three years with largely a different set of players means that Jay Wright has officially assembled a dynasty. Villanova has the roster makeup that makes the rest of college basketball envious: dynamic guards that can score at multiple levels; floor-spacing big men who can shoot the three; and sufficient experience together to play cohesive team defense. The best part is that even with some expected early departures pending (Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson?), Villanova’s standing near the top of the national rankings isn’t likely to change, and that’s what makes this program a dynasty.
  • Goodbye, Chris Mack. Another year, another lost Big East coach to a bigger program budget and salary. Last year, it was Chris Holtmann departing Butler for Ohio State (where he excelled). This year it’s Chris Mack who packed his bags for Louisville after a nine-year tenure at Xavier that included five straight NCAA tournament appearances. In his stead is former assistant Travis Steele, promoted from a position he has held since 2008. Steele has already impressively gotten to work, quickly signing two graduate transfers in Zach Hankins (D-II National Player of the Year) and Kyle Castlin (Columbia) while being in the running for many others. On the heels of a massive graduating class in Cincinnati, Steele will have his work cut out for him next season.
  • Hello, Providence backcourt. What Ed Cooley has done with his guards during his tenure at Providence has been nothing short of amazing. From Bryce Cotton to Kris Dunn to Kyron Cartwright, there has never been a dearth of electric, play-making perimeter players on his roster. Now, though, with Cartwright graduating, the question of who is next for the Friars is bubbling up. Early signs pointed to rising sophomore Makai Ashton-Langford, but his limited end-of-season usage and errant decision-making have been confounding. Encouragingly, Cooley is also bringing in two heralded backcourt recruits in David Duke and AJ Reeves, and it’s a safe bet given recent history that at least one of the pair will emerge into the spotlight.

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Big 12 Wrap-Up and Early 2018-19 Outlook

Posted by Brian Goodman on April 10th, 2018

Despite Villanova beating three Big 12 teams in decisive fashion on its way to the national title, the 2017-18 campaign was another strong one for the league. Here are some takeaways from the year that was and a handful of early thoughts on the main storylines as summer draws near.

Kansas was no match for Villanova’s three-point barrage, but the Big 12 still enjoyed a successful postseason. (Bob Donnan/USA Today)

  • The league began the process of rehabilitating its March reputation. After some disappointing results in the last few NCAA Tournaments, the Big 12 took a step forward this year in sending four teams to the Sweet Sixteen, three teams to the Elite Eight and one to the Final Four. Perhaps most notable was Kansas State‘s head-turning voyage to the Elite Eight, which put Bruce Weber on steadier ground from a job security perspective entering next season. We also watched Texas Tech break into the second weekend with star guard Keenan Evans playing on a broken toe, and West Virginia gave Villanova the toughest game of the Wildcats’ championship run. The league’s national perception won’t change significantly until a team other than Kansas makes the Final Four, but Villanova’s victory over the Jayhawks became easier to swallow when they cut down the nets last Monday night in San Antonio. All told, the conference logged one of its best postseason runs in recent years.
  • What will Kansas do with its last scholarship? When the buzzer sounded on their national semifinal loss to Villanova, the Jayhawks were already one over the scholarship limit for the 2018-19 season. That potential dilemma, however, worked itself out when Malik Newman and Lagerald Vick both opted to forgo their remaining eligibility and pursue professional careers. With one scholarship now available, fans can expect Kansas to ramp up its pursuit of five-star wing Romeo Langford to round out its roster, but the Jayhawks will likely be the preseason #1 team in the country regardless of what happens on that front. If Langford signs elsewhere, Kansas could scour the graduate transfer market for some outside shooting to pick up some of the slack left by Newman and Vick as well as the graduations of Svi Mykhailiuk and Devonte’ Graham. In that light, bringing in a proven three-point threat from the existing market seems to make good sense unless Udoka Azubuike surprises the college basketball world by declaring and staying in the 2018 NBA Draft.

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Big Ten Wrap-Up: Lasting Impressions and an Early Top Five

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 6th, 2018

Has Donte DiVincenzo stop hitting shots yet? Okay, good. Now that Monday is behind us, let’s take a moment to reflect on the season that was and look ahead to 2018-19.

Michigan had another year to remember. (PHOTO BY AP/DAVID J. PHILLIP)

  • Michigan is an elite basketball program. Before John Beilein took over in Ann Arbor in 2007, Michigan hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1998, a nine-year drought that made the historically great football school seem like just that — a football school. But that’s changed. Since the drought ended in 2009, Beilein has led the Wolverines to eight NCAA Tournaments, including finishes in the Sweet Sixteen (2017), Elite Eight (2016), and twice in the National Championship game (2013, 2018). After years of mediocrity, Michigan basketball now represents offensive efficiency, outstanding player development and clutch play in March. This season, Beilein — always considered an offensive mastermind — took an unproven collection of talent and won big with his defense, suggesting that the 65-year old coach is still evolving both as a tactician (he recently moved away from the 1-3-1 zone) and manager: His hiring of Illinois State assistant Luke Yaklich as “defensive coordinator” was crucial to the Wolverines’ run. With a decade of excellence under its belt and plenty of talent returning next season, Michigan has firmly established itself among the Big Ten’s elite programs.
  • This season will forever sting for Michigan State and Purdue fans. Michigan State went 30-5 and won the outright regular season Big Ten championship. Purdue finished at 30-7, at one point winning 19 straight games. And yet, this season will probably leave a bad taste in both programs’ mouths for some time. For the Spartans, 2017-18 was a Final-Four-or-bust kind of year, with the return of Miles Bridges alongside future NBA lottery pick Jaren Jackson ostensibly giving Tom Izzo his best chance at a National Championship from a talent perspective since 2000. Instead, a season of offensive inconsistency led to an offensively-inept loss to Syracuse in the Round of 32. For the Boilermakers, bad luck prevailed when 7’2″ center Isaac Haas fractured his elbow in the First Round against Cal State Fullerton, his absence proving too much for Purdue to overcome against Texas Tech in the Sweet Sixteen. On paper, both seasons appear successful. In actuality, postseason disappointment will likely overshadow their 60 combined wins.

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Way Too Early 2018-19 ACC Rankings

Posted by Mick McDonald on April 6th, 2018

This season may have just wrapped up, but we are always looking forward to next season. Here’s a much too early look at how the ACC may shake out in 2018-19.

The Four Kill4s Arrive in Durham With Much Fanfare

  1. Duke. We’ll see if Gary Trent returns, but either way, it’s another loaded freshman class that will make the Blue Devils the most talented team in college basketball. RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson are the top three players in the class of 2018 and will be joined by the top-rated point guard, Tre Jones.
  2. Virginia. The Cavaliers lose Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins but return their starting backcourt of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, plus ACC Sixth Man of the Year De’Andre Hunter. Look for Mamadi Diakite to continue a long line of athletic bigs who flourish in Tony Bennett’s system.
  3. North Carolina. Joel Berry and Theo Pinson are gone, but the Tar Heels return Luke Maye in addition to Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams. Roy Williams is also bringing in his best recruiting class in years, with point guard Coby White and wing Nassir Little set to arrive. The improvement of sophomore big men Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley and Brandon Huffman will be important to watch.
  4. Virginia Tech. Buzz Williams loses just Justin Bibbs and Devon Wilson from this year’s squad, and he will return a senior-laden backcourt with Ahmed Hill and potential All-ACC player Justin Robinson. Chris Clarke and Kerry Blackshear, Jr. are versatile bigs who can hit shots from the outside. Last year’s freshmen class also has the potential to break out, especially Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Read the rest of this entry »
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Rushed Reactions: #1 Villanova 79, #3 Michigan 62

Posted by rtmsf on April 3rd, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish.

Five Key Takeaways.

Villanova Won Its Second National Title in Three Years (USA Today Images)

  1. Villanova Won the National Title Without All-American Performances From Its All-Americans. NPOY Jalen Brunson and All-American Mikal Bridges have been outstanding all season long, but Michigan managed to give both of them trouble during the key stretches of tonight’s game — essentially, the first half. As Michigan came out swinging haymakers led by the early charge of Moritz Wagner, Brunson and Bridges’ shots that normally drop were rimming out. The pair combined for just 11 first half points on 5-of-14 shooting that included only one three-pointer in six attempts. Luckily for Villanova, a secret weapon came off Jay Wright‘s bench to pick up the slack (more on Donte DiVincenzo below). That gave the Wildcats the cushion they needed heading into the break, allowing for Bridges to join DiVincenzo’s coming-out party in the second half to the tune of 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Brunson finished with nine points and two assists on the evening, but that shows just how balanced Villanova was this year — The NPOY had a rough night and his team still won a title game by 17 points.
  2. Rather, the Michael Jordan of Delaware Stepped Up. To most of America watching tonight, the rise of Donte DiVincenzo to log 31 points and five rebounds on 10-of-15 shooting (5-of-7 3FG) must have seemed like another Grayson Allen moment, where a talented but relatively unknown bench player came out of nowhere to lead his team to the National Championship. The truth, however, is a little more nuanced this time around. Despite being an unheralded recruit out of Wilmington, Delaware (where else?), three years ago, Wright admitted after the game that DiVincenzo was plenty good enough to be his starter on the wing. The wrinkle in the redshirt sophomore coming off the bench is that he still played starter’s minutes (72.5%) this season and logged five games of 20 or more points. He was obviously a key cog all year long, and given Michigan’s defense was so keyed on stopping Brunson and Bridges, DiVincenzo had his chance to step up and he met the call with full throttle.
  3. Jay Wright Joins Select Company. Not even the most optimistic Villanova fan could have seen this coming a little over two years ago. Jay Wright had experienced so many disappointing NCAA Tournaments since his last run to the Final Four in 2009 that there were some grumblings in Philadelphia about him keeping his job. Two years forward and now Wright is one of only 15 coaches in NCAA history (and two active) to hold more than one National Championship. That he did it with two distinct teams with some overlap perhaps makes it even more impressive. Wright’s 2016 team was certainly outstanding, but it wasn’t a #1 seed nor did it win the Big East Tournament. This group won everything possible — Big East regular season; Big East Tournament; NCAA Tournament — and it did so by demolishing every team in its path during the postseason. Over nine games in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments, the Wildcats won each by an average of 17.7 points per game. Wright is a wonderful narrative in what can happen if a school gives the right coach time to find his own niche and growth curve after some early disappointments.
  4. Historical Perspective. Not many schools can lay claim to winning two National Championships in a three-year window, and most of those schools won back-to-back titles with largely the same cores. The Kentucky teams of 1996-98 won a pair of titles with vastly different teams (and head coaches). UCLA bookended its 10-in-12 years run of the 1960s and 1970s with similar 2-in-3 successes. Kentucky’s original dynasty had a similar in the early 1950s. But that’s it. What Wright has done at a school that was often considered a second-class Big East citizen behind the likes of Syracuse, UConn and Georgetown is simply phenomenal. Villanova now has more championships than the Orange and Hoyas combined, and is only one behind the Huskies. Conference realignment has hurt a lot of programs in varying ways (hey, Pitt), but perhaps the biggest basketball success story has as a result of all the league movement has occurred right on the Main Line in Philadelphia.
  5. Basketball Schools Doing Basketball Things. People can quibble about which schools are most closely defined as basketball schools or football schools (and they do), but it’s really not that hard to determine in almost every case. The key question is which sport the fan base tends to most identify with, which in part fuels support and expectations for success in that sport, working in a continuous feedback loop. Villanova defines itself by its basketball program. Michigan — while very successful in both major collegiate sports — most assuredly defines itself on the gridiron. With Villanova’s second title in the last three years tonight, basketball schools have won the last 11 championships and 22 of the last 24 titles. The lone exception during that period was Florida’s back-to-back run in 2006-07. There are plenty of reasons for this kind of run that involves resources, coaching, motivation and luck, but the fact remains that the football schools as a general rule haven’t been able to break through the plexiglass ceiling just yet.

Player of the Game. Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova. DiVincenzo produced one of the best championship game performances in modern college basketball history tonight, dropping 31 points, five rebounds and three assists on 10-of-15 shooting. He also nailed five back-breaking threes (in seven attempts), two of which came in succession when Villanova earned the lead for good and wrested control of the game away from Michigan. Per the NCAA, DiVincenzo’s effort represented just the sixth time in the last 40 years when a player in the title game has topped the 30-point barrier. That he did so from the bench makes it even more impressive.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Villanova 95, #1 Kansas 79

Posted by rtmsf on April 1st, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish.

Three Key Takeaways.

Villanova Advances to the Title Game for the Second Time in Three Years (USA Today Images)

  1. Three-llanova. It was 9-2 before most people had even started their mid-session hot dog. 14-4 by the first TV timeout. 22-4 seven minutes into the game. And everyone in the building, including Kansas head coach Bill Self, knew it was over. Villanova was simply too good to blow an 18-point lead, even if 80 percent of the game was still to come. At that point in the game, Villanova had already nailed six threes, but the Wildcats were far from done. Over the course of the next 13 minutes, Villanova dropped another seven threes, totaling a Final Four record-tying 13 in the first half alone. The Wildcats did so on 26 attempts (50%), effectively eschewing its patented drive game in favor of a number of long-range heat checks that dropped. Furthermore, Villanova only attempted seven two-point field goals for the half and took zero foul shots. All of this goes to show that Jay Wright‘s team was absolutely scorching, feeling it and playing to their hot hands. It was a first half performance for the ages and Kansas never really had a chance after the opening few minutes. Going into the break down 15 points, the Jayhawks never saw a single-figure deficit again.
  2. Villanova is on the Cusp of Greatness. Win a single National Championship at any school in America and you drink for free in the area for the rest of your life. But the truth is that there have been a number of one-hit wonder championship teams that are generally forgotten beyond their localities. If Villanova cuts down the nets on Monday night in San Antonio, however, Wright’s program will ascend to greatness. Three-year runs that include a trio of 30-win seasons and two banners don’t exactly grow on trees. In fact, only Kentucky from 1996-98 can make that claim in the modern era. For a program that doesn’t pile up all of the elite recruits but rather cultivates and grows the ones it gets, this run is nothing short of astonishing. There is still another game to be played, of course, and Michigan is a worthy and capable opponent, but all signs point to Villanova achieving something that perhaps only Wright and his closest supporters saw coming three years ago.
  3. Kansas Did Its Job For America. Bill Self alluded to this after the game, but given the number of issues that Kansas has faced this season — from losing Billy Preston to running a four-guard set — the Jayhawks have nothing of which to be ashamed. Beating a loaded Duke team in overtime of the Elite Eight is what this team will be remembered for, and even though the Kansas program plays for banners, it will be a very nice memory for the Jayhawks and the rest of America for years to come. We made light of Self having his “least impressive team” ever — which is still hogwash, but it certainly had more weaknesses than most of his teams over the last decade in Lawrence. That said, Kansas will continue to recruit great players; Self will continue to coach ’em up; and Kansas will continue to get to Final Fours. Eventually he’s going to win another one of these tournaments.

Player of the Game. Eric Paschall, Villanova. Take your pick on the Villanova roster for this award, but it’s yours when you drop 24 points in 29 minutes with only one missed shot on the entire evening. Paschall is one of the lesser-known players among the Wildcats’ regulars but he was All-American level tonight, draining a couple of threes for eight points in the first half and effectively ensuring Kansas would not make a run with 16 more points in the second stanza.

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Michigan 69, #11 Loyola (Chicago) 57

Posted by rtmsf on March 31st, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish.

Three Key Takeaways.

Michigan Heads to the National Championship Game for the Second Time in John Beilein’s Career (USA Today Images)

  1. Loyola’s First Half Was a Microcosm of Its Run. Neither team came out of the gates hot, but Michigan at least was able to get a few things going well enough to jump out to an early 12-4 lead. It was fool’s gold. The Wolverines were being baited into three-pointers from the wrong players (e.g., Zavier Simpson) and they were depending too much on Moe Wagner to bail them out with offensive putbacks (typically not a strength of his). Needless to say, it didn’t last. Loyola started chipping away at the lead and eventually found its groove to make a 25-10 run throughout the rest of the first half, building a seven-point lead that the Ramblers took with them into the break. John Beilein noted after the game that it was the Ramblers’ defense — keyed by ball-screen switching and interesting looks — that really bothered the Wolverines in the first half. Just like the previous four teams that Loyola had vanquished.
  2. Michigan Eventually Responded in Kind. When Loyola hit a layup with 12 minutes remaining to go back up by nine points while Michigan continued to look flummoxed on the other end, it seemed as if this actually might happen. Then a pair of threes sandwiching a layup led to an 8-2 run for the Wolverines, but that was only the precursor to the much larger tidal wave 24-10 run that was coming. By the time Loyola recovered from a Michigan barrage fueled by tired legs, turnovers and even more putbacks (led by Wagner), Sister Jean’s Easter goose was cooked. The Wolverines have won several different ways through this tournament — three-point shooting, defense, offensive rebounding, turnovers — but the point is that they keep on winning. John Beilein is probably the most underrated coach in college basketball, and he has his team poised to win a championship that nobody saw coming a month ago.
  3. What a Run It Was. A #11 seed that beat an ACC team, an SEC team, the Mountain West regular season champion and a Big 12 team in succession doesn’t come around very often. Throwing in a certifiable national sensation like Sister Jean and her uplifting messages (and fandom!) couldn’t have made for a better story in these otherwise trying times. Porter Moser has had a middling career to this point but sometimes all it takes is a special team to lift a coach up and give him the opportunity he deserves. And while Loyola may have to regroup for another 50 years before its next trip to the sports final weekend, college basketball remains better for the chance it provides schools like the urban Jesuit school from Chicago to achieve its own One Shining Moment.

Player of the Game. Moe Wagner, Michigan. The German import had the game of his life on the sport’s biggest stage, going for 24 points and 15 rebounds in a diverse floor game that often propped up the Wolverines when they needed something to go in the basket. His production in the Final Four has only been equaled by Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon.

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