Domantas SabonisHuseyin Caglar/EB/Getty ImagesDomantas Sabonis, a forward from Lithuania, is expected to have a major impact on Gonzaga.
The basketball world continues to grow closer and closer. It’s evident in the nearly 100 international players who played in the NBA this past season. The same can be said for college basketball, as freshmen from around the world will play for American programs next season.

Some were born outside of the United States -- for example, Kentucky recruit Trey Lyles (Canada) and SMU recruit Emmanuel Mudiay (Democratic Republic of the Congo) -- but essentially grew up in the high school and summer basketball system in the U.S. Others are coming here to spend a year or two in high school to make the adjustment to college easier, while some are arriving to play immediately at the college level and must fit in to their new schools on the fly.

In recent seasons, international players have had major impacts on their respective programs. Gonzaga has seen success based around production from individuals including Ronny Turiaf, Elias Harris, Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk. Niels Giffey was a key contributor to national champion UConn this season.

Here are a few players who may have an impact next year and over the next four seasons. The floodgates are open.


Domantas Sabonis | Gonzaga Bulldogs | 6-foot-10 | Lithuania

Sabonis is the son of the great Lithuanian star and former Portland Trail Blazer Arvydas Sabonis, so he was likely very familiar with life in the United States. It is one reason he should have a relatively easy adjustment to Gonzaga and college basketball. The other reason is that he spent the last season playing in the Spanish ACB league, considered by most to be the second-best league in the world behind the NBA.

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Aaron HarrisonJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe return of Aaron Harrison and his brother could make UK a very special team in 2014-15.
While some players -- including Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Marcus Smart -- already have declared for the NBA draft, others are still weighing the decision. Do they leave for the chance at a major payday and a spot on a professional roster? Or do they come back and work to improve their skill set and draft stock?

The answer will likely have a major impact on their respective college programs. Let’s take a look at seven players who could leave and what it would mean for their college teams next season.


Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Kentucky Wildcats

If they stay: If both Andrew and Aaron Harrison come back, the Wildcats will be a legitimate national title contender again and arguably the country’s top preseason team. Kentucky is going to be the squad to beat in the NCAA tournament. You’re talking about the Harrison twins, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Derek Willis (whom no one is even talking about) and Dakari Johnson. Right there in itself is a team that will compete for a national championship.

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Don't let the seed numbers fool you; in Monday night's national championship matchup between the Connecticut Huskies and Kentucky Wildcats, we have two very good teams with distinct strengths and weaknesses that should make for an interesting chess match between the two coaches. Where does each team hold the advantage? Let's take a look at my five biggest keys to victory in Monday's title game.

1. UConn’s defensive game plan

After 13 seasons playing in the NBA for guys such as Chuck Daly, Larry Brown and Don Nelson, Kevin Ollie has a Ph.D. in basketball that he simply could not have earned as an assistant at the college level. The NBA season is timed in dog years compared with the length of a college basketball season, and the games are longer and have many more possessions. The nightly game plans are designed to try to neutralize the best offensive players in the world.

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DeAndre Daniels, Dwight PowellJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesConnecticut is 6-0 this season when forward DeAndre Daniels scores at least 20 points.

It's easy to look at this season’s Final Four teams and pick out the stars: SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin (Florida), All-American guard Shabazz Napier (Connecticut), freshman twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison (Kentucky) and 7-foot stretch forward Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin).

But it will take a total team effort to advance to the national title game. Often it’s a complementary or blend player who is the difference between winning and losing. Other times it’s a particular matchup that a team can take advantage of.

Yes, each of the 2014 Final Four teams need their marquee players to play well. However they also need their X factors to step up under the bright lights. Here are four players who could make the difference Saturday.


Connecticut Huskies

DeAndre Daniels | F | Junior

If Napier is the heart of the Huskies, then Daniels is the soul. He’s a stretch 4 who can shoot the 3-pointer as well as drive from the perimeter. He and Napier have become one of the toughest ball-screen combinations in college basketball. The Huskies are 6-0 when Daniels scores at least 20 points and 6-0 when he makes at least three perimeter baskets.

Daniels has improved his commitment to rebounding. In Connecticut's win against the Gators, he made the biggest play of the game by tapping the ball back and enabling Napier to hit the game winner. Daniels is averaging just under eight rebounds a contest over his past six games.

As he did in their first matchup, Daniels must do a strong job guarding Dorian Finney-Smith. But the Florida forward is a different player now. It’ll be important for Daniels to keep him off the glass and contain him on drives, slips to the basket and when he pops in the Gators' ball-screen motion.


Florida Gators

Dorian Finney-Smith | F | Sophomore

Billy Donovan's Gators are as connected as any team in the country. Their roles are well defined, embraced and championed. They rarely get out of their personality and work each possession as a separate entity. They play the same way when behind as they do when ahead. The one player who could impact the outcome of the game is Finney-Smith. He's an instinctive offensive and defensive rebounder. He averages a team-best 6.7 boards in just 25.8 minutes a game.

Defensively Finney-Smith does an excellent job in the Gators' press. He anticipates well and is quick enough to recover when the ball is thrown ahead. In the half court, Finney-Smith will be responsible for containing Connecticut X factor Daniels.

Offensively it’s important for Finney-Smith to shoot the ball confidently. If he makes jumpers, the Huskies won’t be able to shrink the court and take away post feeding angles as they did against Michigan State.


Wisconsin Badgers

Sam Dekker | F | Sophomore

Everyone talks about Kaminsky being a tough matchup for Kentucky, however I feel Dekker is just as difficult to contain. He’s a hybrid forward who needs to play well for Wisconsin to win. Dekker not only does a very good job of moving up the floor, but due to the Badgers running competitive lanes, he could be running to the rim or to the trail. How he fares against Kentucky’s Julius Randle (and vice versa) could be the difference Saturday.


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Sean Miller and Fred HoibergGetty ImagesSean Miller and Fred Hoiberg have both had integral roles in getting their teams to the Sweet 16.
The No. 1 job description of a college basketball coach is “crisis management coordinator,” no matter what their record is. They are paid big money at this time of the season to handle the adversity that inevitably comes with the territory.

Every coach in the Sweet 16 has had great success this season, but in almost every case, has still dealt with challenges throughout the season and in the NCAA tournament. So it’s time to point out some of the individual coaching jobs well done in overcoming adversity to get their teams where they are this weekend.


Best adjustment to critical injury(s): Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State Cyclones

Stretch forward Georges Niang's foot injury in Iowa State’s win over North Carolina Central seemed to spell doom for the Cyclones against North Carolina on Sunday. Niang, arguably one of the tournament’s most difficult matchups, would typically be hard to replace. However, Hoiberg’s strength has always been in adjusting his offense to his players’ strengths.

More pressure was put on production from DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim, two prolific scorers, and they delivered. The pair of seniors combined for 43 points in the win against the Tar Heels. Hoiberg also turned sophomore guard Naz Long loose at the end of the season, and the coach’s confidence has been rewarded with timely shot-making. This includes Long making a clutch 3-pointer to tie the game against the Tar Heels in the final minute.

Hoiberg has had the magical touch all season, but it was never more evident than it was this past weekend.

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Rondae Hollis-JeffersonJeff Gross/Getty ImagesRondae Hollis-Jefferson and the Wildcats have been impressive in two tourney victories.
There’s no doubt there have been a lot of top-notch performances so far in the NCAA tournament. Brackets across America were ruined when teams including Dayton, Stephen F. Austin and Mercer upset higher-seeded favorites. Other popular national title picks faced little to no trouble getting through the initial weekend.

As we head toward an intriguing set of Sweet 16 games, which four teams have impressed me the most so far? And can those teams sustain it? Let's take a look.



Baylor Bears

NCAA tournament wins: Nebraska, Creighton
Sweet 16 opponent: Wisconsin

Baylor was extremely impressive this past weekend. Its 1-1-3 zone distorted passing lanes and it was able to get deflections. The Bears force opponents to take contested 3s or tough 2s. They do a great job protecting the front of the rim and stopping you from getting to the basket. Their ability to rebound the ball on both ends enables them to limit opponents to one shot, as well as get extra possessions and easy scoring opportunities.

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Marcus SmartAP Photo/Sue OgrockiIn a big game, Marcus Smart knows how to carry the load.
Earlier this month, I ranked my top five point guards under pressure: Shabazz Napier, Marcus Paige, Tyler Ennis, Fred VanVleet and Xavier Thames. With the NCAA tournament underway, I would still keep that group as the nation’s best, but there are five more names I'd add to form my top 10.

What other floor leaders do I want with the ball in their hands in a close game? Let’s take a look.

Note: All stats before start of NCAA tournament.


1. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State Cowboys
Key stats: 17.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 2.8 steals per game

He has found his game again after a three-game suspension. Smart is a matchup nightmare for nearly any team in the NCAA tournament because he’s big and physical and can get into the lane. Most importantly, though, he makes his teammates better. One example is guard/forward Le'Bryan Nash, who has improved in nearly every offensive category thanks to Smart.

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Billy DonovanAP Photo/Seth WenigCould a lack of perimeter shooters and post depth knock out Billy Donovan and the Gators?
Teams seeded on the 1- and 2-lines in the 2014 NCAA tournament earned those spots for a reason. Each program had top-notch records against both conference and nonconference foes, and got the job done on both ends of the floor. All eight have the potential to win a national title.

But that doesn’t mean they are unbeatable, and none are without flaws. What is the biggest Achilles' heel for each heading into the tournament, and which teams could exploit those flaws? Let’s take a look.


No. 1 seeds


Florida Gators
Biggest weaknesses: Limited perimeter threats, post depth
Potential mismatch: UCLA Bruins (33.1 points per game in the paint)

The Gators have limited volume 3-point shooters. Scottie Wilbekin has emerged as a confident shooter and Dorian Finney-Smith is a capable shooter, but I wouldn’t call them volume 3-point shooters. The team’s lone threat is Michael Frazier II, who hits 45.5 percent of his long-distance attempts.


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Xavier ThamesTommy LaPorte/Icon SMIXavier Thames, averaging 16.6 points, has led San Diego State to a 25-3 record.
In recent seasons we’ve seen teams like Wichita State, Butler and VCU come out of smaller conferences and make runs to the Final Four. On the way, each school defeated supposed giants and proved that teams don’t necessarily need to be a household name to compete for a national title.

This season Wichita State is 31-0 and a likely No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Saint Louis, San Diego State and New Mexico have enough talent and depth to go far. Which players have led them to this point? Let’s take a look at the top individuals from nonmajor conferences.


1. Xavier Thames | G | San Diego State Aztecs
Key stats: 16.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.6 steals per game

Thames is a big, physical ball guard. He’s a play-starter but he also has the ability to get into the lane and score. He can get to the rim, has a middle game and can shoot from 3-point range, where he hits 40.5 percent of his attempts. Thames is a very strong on-ball defender and he sets the tone for San Diego State. If Winston Shepard is the pulse of the Aztecs, Thames is the heart.

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NapierJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesConnecticut point guard Shabazz Napier knows what to do with the ball late in games.
When March rolls around, the best teams usually feature a firm hand on the wheel: a point guard who can handle the exponentially increasing pressure that comes with the postseason and a one-loss-and-out format. To preview the upcoming conference tournaments and the Big Dance to come, I've ranked my top five point guards under pressure, putting a special emphasis on their performance in late-game and overtime situations. And the list begins in Storrs, Conn.


Shabazz Napier, Connecticut Huskies
Stats in the clutch (last five minutes of second half/OT with the score within five points):
1.13 points per play, 5 assists, 2 turnovers

Napier has been one of the best players in college basketball this season. He has to do so many things for UConn, accounting for more than 40 percent of the Huskies' points thus far. He's also the team's best defender. However, what I like about him the most is his ability to come through when the game is on the line.

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Dorian Finney-Smith Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesDorian Finney-Smith is averaging 13.9 points and 10.9 rebounds per 40 minutes this season.
Although it’s crucial to have a talented and efficient starting lineup in college basketball, it’s almost as important to boast depth. Bench players are integral pieces in a quest for a national title. Who will fill the void when someone gets in foul trouble? Who will provide a spark if the team gets in an offensive rut?

Let’s take a look at the nation’s best sixth men and what they mean for their respective programs.


1. Dorian Finney-Smith | F | Florida Gators

Finney-Smith adds a different dimension to No. 1 Florida. He can come off the bench and play the 3 or the 4 and is a sneaky offensive rebounder and ball mover. Although he’s not an exceptional long-range shooter, he has the ability to hit a 3-pointer when needed.

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Xavier ThamesJayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsSan Diego State guard Xavier Thames is averaging 17.7 points per game this season.
When Steve Fisher took over at San Diego State in 1999, the school simply had a basketball team. Now it boasts one of the best programs in the West. It has one of the elite home-court advantages in the nation and a tremendous sense of ownership from both its student body and community.

Fisher and his staff have done a great job evaluating and recruiting tough, hard-nosed players who defend and rebound. This season’s No. 6 Aztecs are no different from the recent Kawhi Leonard and Jamaal Franklin teams, and they are once again poised to receive a high seed and make a run in the NCAA tournament.

Up next for the 22-2 Aztecs will be a tough test against Utah State on Tuesday night (11 ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN). What can the Aggies expect to face?

Here's an examination of SDSU's key strengths followed by a breakdown of its roster and NCAA tourney outlook.

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Can Pitt make a deep tourney run? 

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Jamie DixonMaddie Meyer/Getty ImagesJamie Dixon has led Pittsburgh to a 20-4 record and the No. 25 overall ranking.
The No. 25 Pittsburgh Panthers survived a less-than-inspired performance against Virginia Tech last week to set up a huge home game on Wednesday versus No. 1 Syracuse. This is a Panthers program that has been one of the most consistent in college basketball over the past 13 seasons, having won 338 total games and reached the NCAA tournament 11 times over that span.

Jaime Dixon’s squad is all about its culture. Pitt is a physical defensive team that plays in gaps, contests shots and rebounds. Offensively, the Panthers have picked up the pace this season, though they are still a methodical bunch that has great shot discipline. Moreover, they are an excellent passing team that rarely turns the ball over.

Can Pittsburgh make a deep run in the NCAA tournament or will it leave the field early? The following makes a case for both scenarios, along with my thoughts on how they'll actually fare.
 

Why Pittsburgh could go far

Offensive efficiency

The Panthers rarely beat themselves. They are one of the best passing teams in the country, as evidenced by their 63.8 assist-to-field-goal-made percentage (the sixth-best in the nation). Pittsburgh also has a 1.57 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is the seventh-best rate in college basketball. This is a byproduct of playing with skilled, mature, high-IQ and low- risk players who understand the system in place.

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How did Texas get its mojo back? 

February, 11, 2014
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Rick BarnesWilliam Purnell/Icon SMIRick Barnes' strategic recruiting has Texas back in the Top 25 with the nation's eighth-youngest team.
It’s hard to imagine that a coach who had taken a basketball program to 14 straight NCAA tournaments, 13 straight 20-win seasons and three straight Sweet 16s (five overall), coaching two National Players of the Year in that time, could get so dumb.

But that was the consensus after last season’s 16-18 Longhorns debacle. In fact, Rick Barnes’ team was picked to finish eighth in the Big 12’s 2013-14 preseason poll.

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Rodney HoodLance King/Getty ImagesRodney Hood is averaging 16.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game for the Blue Devils.
There are millions of reasons why players transfer each season. Whether it's playing time, distance from home, philosophical differences with the coach or just getting a fresh start in a new program, it happens with regularity.

When a player does transfer and has to sit out the season mandated by the NCAA, what does he do to improve his game so that he can make an impact on his new team? And when that player is stepping up a level in competition, how do his skills translate?

Here are six standout transfers who not only used last season to greatly improve, but also have made their respective teams stronger in the process.


Rodney Hood, Duke Blue Devils

Previous team: Mississippi State Bulldogs
Key improvement: Becoming a go-to scorer


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