In a wide-open MAAC an unexpected challenger emerged this weekend

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The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is expected to have a wide-open race for its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Teams such as defending tournament champion Loyola (MD), Manhattan and Fairfield return key players from last season and there’s also the question of whether or not Iona’s talented newcomers can mesh in time to impact the league race.

But it a conference many felt had as many as six teams capable of winning the conference, a team few discussed in the offseason sits atop the standings with a 2-0 conference record after this weekend.

Canisius, bolstered by the arrival of head coach Jim Baron and son Billy, is now 6-1 on the season after their 94-82 win over Marist on Sunday afternoon. Harold Washington led the way with 25 points (6-of-11 3PT) and Baron added 16 points and 11 assists for the Golden Griffins, who pushed their win streak to three ahead of a game at No. 4 Syracuse next Saturday.

Canisius made 17 of their 36 three-pointers, assisted on 23 of their 30 field goals and out-rebounded Marist 47-29 (19 offensive rebounds).

With the win the Golden Griffins surpassed their win total from last season (five), when they won just five games before Tom Parrotta was relieved of his duties. Some of the names, such as Washington, Alshawn Hymes and Chris Manhertz (18 rebounds today), remain the same but Canisius is yielding far better results in 2012-13.

Offensively Jim Baron’s team was shooting 45.3% from the field entering Sunday’s tilt, an improvement of some five percentage points from last season, and they’re getting to the foul line at a much better clip than in 2011-12.

Adding Billy Baron, who averaged 13.0 points and 2.6 assists per game at Rhode Island last season, to the fold certainly helped Canisius in regards to turning things around. Baron’s currently averaging 18.0 points and 5.6 assists, leading the team in both categories.

And outside of allowing 82 points to the Red Foxes Canisius has improved on the defensive end as well, as they’re forcing more than 16 turnovers per game. As a result of the strides taken on both ends of the floor Canisius picked up road wins this weekend over Fairfield and Marist after going winless on the road in MAAC play last year.

The question now is whether or not the Golden Griffins can pick up where they left off when conference play resumes next month. Canisius has finished seventh or worse in the MAAC in four of the last five seasons, and given the number of teams capable of winning the conference the race will likely go down to the wire.

Nothing of consequence is won in December, but given recent history it’s safe to say that Canisius fans will relish this 2-0 start.

Photo credit: Canisius College

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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Regional Finals – Sunday, March 26

2:20 p.m.,CBS, New York
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Florida (Verne Lundquist, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce)

5:05 p.m., CBS, Memphis
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kentucky (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Steve Alford: ‘I’m very happy at UCLA’

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford was still processing an 86-75 season-ending loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night when he had to answer questions about another blueblood program.

Sine the dismal of Tom Crean at Indiana, Alford has been one of the names rumored to be in the mix for the coaching vacancy. A reporter in the press conference in Memphis didn’t even get a chance to finish his question before Alford cut him off and a publicly state that he was happy in Westwood.

“I said it last week, and I’ll reiterate it again even more so, I guess, that I love Los Angeles,” Alford said. “To begin with, it’s a beautiful place, and our family has fallen in love with it. I’ve got two sons now, Kory first and now Bryce, that have graduated. Bryce is done, so he’s graduating from UCLA, so I’ve got two sons that are graduates from there, a daughter that loves the school she’s going to in Thousand Oaks. I’m very happy. I’m at UCLA. I don’t know of a lot of people that are out there wanting to leave UCLA.

“This is a pretty special place. We’ve worked awfully hard. Our staff has worked hard. We’ve got the No. 2 recruiting class coming in next year. We’re opening a brand-new, state-of-the-art, 60-plus million practice facility, Mo Ostin Center, that is going to be spectacular that we’ve worked awfully hard to be a part of that, and I want to see that through, and we’ve got some special kids that are coming to join us.

“I’m very, very happy where I’m at, and hopefully, that’ll continue.”

Alford won a national championship with the Hoosiers in 1987, scoring more than 2,400 points in his career under head coach Bob Knight. He has been with UCLA since 2013, reaching the Sweet 16 in three of his four seasons with the Bruins.

Crean was fired on March 16 after nine season in Bloomington.

Lonzo Ball has officially declared for the 2017 NBA Draft

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Following a season-ending loss in the Sweet 16 of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, UCLA freshman point guard unsurprisingly announced that he will enter the NBA Draft.

“That was my final game for UCLA. I appreciate the fans,” Ball told reporters.

The 6-foot-6 point guard has a strong case to be the No. 1 overall pick. It could be almost too enticing for the Los Angeles Lakers to pass on a Southern Cal product if the ping pong balls fall in their favor. New Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka were in Memphis for Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky.

Ball, in an All-American freshman season with the Bruins, averaged 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and a nation’s best 7.6 assists per game, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 42 percent from three.

He ended his college career with an 86-75 loss to the Wildcats, scoring 10 points, off 4-of-10 shooting, with eight assists.

VIDEO: Florida’s Chris Chiozza beats Wisconsin at the buzzer

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — So you didn’t think the NCAA Tournament had enough excitement this year?

Wisconsin and Florida solved that problem for you.

The Badgers started things, as they erased a 12-point deficit in the final 4:15 to force overtime, a stretch that included an 8-0 run at the end of regulation that was capped by a Zak Showalter running three with 2.5 seconds left on the clock to tie the game at 72.

Wisconsin jumped out to a lead in overtime, but the combination of an inability to make free throws and and this epic chasedown block from Canyon Barry left the door open for the Gators, who eventually won the game on this running three from Chris Chiozza:

What.

A.

Game.

If we get a better one than this, I just hope I’m courtside for it.

KeVaughn Allen led the way for the Gators with 35 points, and no one else on the Gators scored more than eight points, but it didn’t matter. The Gators are still headed to the Elite 8, and Mike White will have a chance to play for the right to go to the Final Four in his first NCAA Tournaments.

Replacing a legend like Billy Donovan was never going to be easy, but White is doing an admirable job.

The other subplot here: With the win, Florida becomes the third member of the SEC in the Elite 8, and with a regional final against South Carolina on Sunday afternoon, it guarantees that there will be at least one SEC team in the Final Four.

While there were celebrations in the Florida locker room, Wisconsin’s was one of devastation.

The Badgers started four seniors, including tournament stalwarts Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, who played in their 17th career NCAA Tournament games.

Hayes had 22 points, but he’s going to be haunted by the free throws he missed. He was 7-for-14 from the line on the night, including four missed freebies in overtime. The end was similarly heart-breaking for Koenig, as he was a non-factor in overtime due to an injury he suffered on the possession before Showalter’s game-tying three.

Both of them are going to spend years thinking ‘What if?’ That’s how the NCAA Tournament works.

Everyone leaves in tears, either because they’re cutting down the nets at the Final Four or because their season — their career — just came to an end.

Hayes and Koenig were no different.

VIDEO: Canyon Barry saves Florida with epic chase down block

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Florida’s Canyon Berry had the best chase down block since LeBron James in the 2016 NBA Finals.

It kept Wisconsin’s lead at two points and gave the Gators a chance to tie and, eventually, win the game.

Look at this: