• Atlanta - The teams arrived yesterday for the Final Four here in Atlanta and met the press today. All teams were able to conduct workouts today, which were open the public.

    The main story of this Final Four has become Villanova’s quest for a third national title in five seasons and the attempt at validation that a second national title would provide Michigan St.'s Tom Izzon and Kansas coach Bill Self. Meanwhile, Dayton and coach Anthony Grant seem to be along for the ride.

    “I know I’m the odd one here. But that’s fine with me,” said Grant, “Our guys a very confident and have played well all season. I don’t think we’ve ever had a let down. We have a tough task ahead of us on Saturday. But I think we’re up to it.”

    If Dayton is to win its first National Title, it will sure be in large part related to the play of sophomore Obi Toppin, The Flyers’ All-American has already been named the AP player of the year. “It’s new season right now. I’ve had a good year but it’s a team game,” Toppin explained, “We play well together. We know what each other is thinking. We want to bring that first banner back to Dayton.”

    Dayton is the underdog of the Final Four sitting at 6/1 odds. Michigan St. is the betting favorite at 3/1. Kansas and Villanova are at 7/2 and 4/1 respectively. It’s reported that significant money has come in on the Spartans in Las Vegas earlier this week, including a large wager by Golden St. forward Draymond Green. The Michigan St. alum was said to have placed a $3 million bet on his former team, getting 4/1 odds. MSU displaced KU as the betting favorite in this week leading up to the games Saturday. Dayton’s odds haven’t budged, but no one is sleeping on the Flyers.

    “They might be the best team we played all season,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of Dayton. The Jayhawks beat Dayton in the Maui classic in an overtime thriller. “They’re a handful. But then again, I don’t see a team here that isn’t. Villanova is our biggest worry right now.”

    Michigan St. senior Cassius Winston, a second team All-American, agrees with coach Self. “There’s not a team here where you’d say, ‘I’d rather play them’. Everyone is elite.”

    The term “elite” can easily used to describe Villanova. With national titles in 2016 and 2018, the Wildcats have put themselves in a great position to get at third. And Villanova coach Jay Wright knows the significance. “This would be a pretty historical deal if we can pull it off. Since UCLA finished their run, I can’t really think of a team that would have had such a successful five season run – if we could do it,” Wright said.

    One unlikely Villanova supporter is San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner. Wright received a package from Bumgarner bearing a plaque with a special message – “The Drive For Three Of Five.” Bumgarner, of course, was a member of the Giants’ three World Series title winning squads, won in a five year time frame – 2010, 2012, and 2014. The pitcher was quite a basketball player as well, committing to play basketball at North Carolina while in high school. Baseball, obviously, was the right choice for Bumgarner.

    Reached by phone, Bumgarner explained, “I bleed Carolina blue. Nova tore our hearts out in 2016 (beating NC in the national title game). I’ve got a great deal of respect for coach Wright and how he handles his program. It would be pretty cool for them to match our three of five.” Wright and Bumgarner met at a golf outing following that 2016 championship game but hadn’t had any real communication since. “Pretty cool of him to do that,” Wright said, “But I don’t think any of our guys really know who he is.”

    Coach Bill Self, though, doesn’t care for the entire discussion. “Nova beat us in the Elite Eight in '16. I thought we had a real good chance that year. A real good chance. And of course, as Royals fan, Bum isn’t my favorite fellow.” The Giants and Bumgarner beat the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 World Series, with Bumgarner finishing off the Royals in relief in game 7.

    Self, however, said the past is not his focus. Winning now is all that matters. “That’s all we can control is the here and now. This is our moment if we make it our moment,” Self said. That moment though is likely without his star center Udoka Azubuike, who remains sidelined with and injured wrist. “I’ll never say never. We’ll suit the big fella up and put him on the lineup card, but that darned thing is still swollen. We can’t seem to figure out why it’s not loosening up a bit for him.”

    Some in the media speculated that Self was considering a five guard line-up against Villanova to include either senior Isaiah Moss or freshman Tristan Enaruna. When asked, Self replied, “Get real. I have a hard enough time playing four guards. I like my big guys.” For his part, KU’s David McCormack said he was the starter. “Yea, coach T (Kurtis Townsend) said it’s my job.” But the speculation centers around KU’s inability to guard Villanova’s three point shooters in past match-ups. Self said, though, “We play our game. We have to worry about ourselves.”

    Another injured player, MSU’s Xavier Tillman practiced today, recovering from an injured ankle. “Our trainer got me taped up and I’ve been getting treatment. It felt ok today. I’m playing,” Tillman said. Spartans sophomore Aaron Henry missed practice Thursday with a migraine. It is unknowns as to how the condition might impact his availability for Saturday. Henry battled migraines much of his freshman season.

    Spartan’s head coach Tom Izzo agreed and said Tillman would start. Izzo, though, was dealing with a story released today that he “sought out” a potential witness in a 2017 rape allegation involving a former MSU player. Izzo would not comment, saying “Can we just focus on basketball, for the weekend at least? Folks can print whatever they want and all of a sudden, because they chose to write a story, the world stops. I’m not biting.”

    Izzo, instead, focused on his team. “We’re tough. We’re playing our best basketball of the season. I think we have a complete team. But once you get here, anything can happen. There are a lot of variables, a lot of things you can’t control. And in the end, the ball has to go in the hoop. We just need to play relaxed and play with confidence.”

    Playing relaxed seems to be the goal of Villanova coach Wright, as well. Wildcats guard Collin Gillespie, who was a member of the 2018 title winning team, playing 16 minutes in the championship game, said that coach Wright does a good job of relaxing the team, “Yea, he brought in some ping-pong tables last night and we didn’t even talk about the games. It was all ping-pong.” When asked who won, Gillespie joked, “Don’t you know, we’re all winners.”

    All winners here in Atlanta, to be sure, but there will be only one champion.

    #2 Villanova Wildcats will tip off against #1 Kansas Jayhawks at 7:48 pm (CDT) Saturday on CBS in Atlanta. In the first game, the #4 Michigan St. Spartans will play the #1 Dayton Flyers (5:12 pm/CBS). Jim Nance, Grant Hill, and Bill Raftery will be on the call for both games Saturday.

    National basketball writers have offered predictions on the Final Four. Andy Katz hit on all four teams in his pre-Sweet 16 prediction. Katz predicts Villanova to take home the title. Here are the predictions with the title winner is in CAPS -

    -Jay Bilas - KANSAS (Dayton)

    -Jay Williams - VILLANOVA (Michigan St.)

    -Doug Gottlieb - DAYTON (Villanova)

    -Jeff Goodman - DAYTON (Kansas)

    -Pat Forde - VILLANOVA (Dayton)

    -Gary Parrish - KANSAS (Michigan St.)

    -Rob Dauster - DAYTON (Kansas)

    -Eamonn Brennan - MICHIGAN ST. (Kansas)

    -Seth Davis - MICHIGAN ST. (Villanova)

    -Andy Katz - VILLANOVA (Dayton)

    -Mike DeCoursey - KANSAS (Dayton)

    -Jason King - MICHIGAN ST. (Kansas)

  • Very entertaining! Great job!

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