Weekend Preview: Five storylines to follow

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Kentucky and Louisville, tables turned?: I don’t think there’s really an argument that, right now, Kentucky and Louisville have the fiercest rivalry in the country. Let’s ignore, for a second, that this rivalry has been built across socioeconomic and geographic lines, or that it is a battle for supremacy in the state where college basketball happens to reign king. The Wildcats and the Cardinals were both in the Final Four last season. They compete for the same recruits. They have head coaches that hate each other. There are other rivalries that are full of hatred, but based on the recent history between these two programs, it gets no better than this right now.

The best part, however, is that Louisville has flipped the tables on Kentucky. The Wildcats are the ones coming off of a national title and the ones that can land seemingly any recruit in the country that they set their sights on, but it’s Louisville that is currently top five in the country and Louisville that is considered a real threat to do something more than reach the tournament’s second weekend this season. Kentucky may have had more recent success, but it’s Louisville that is the healthiest program in the state right now.

Let’s see how long that lasts.

Disappointing matchups this weekend: It’s tough to take the luster off of a matchup between Louisville and Kentucky, but one of the things that made this game the most anticipated of the season was that it not only featured a great rivalry, but that great rivalry was a rematch of the Final Four between two teams ranked in the top three. Well, that’s not the case anymore. Kentucky needed to pick up a couple of wins over the last two weeks just to climb back into the bottom of the top 25 poll. Louisville is still a top five team, but I’m not sure how many people consider them the favorite to win the national title anymore.

That’s not the only game this happened to, either. North Carolina’s struggles have made their matchup with UNLV less appealing (although with the way that both teams like to get up and down the floor, I think it will be easy to convince people to tune in). Baylor has fallen off the map after looking like a real contender to Kansas in the Big 12, which means that their trip to Spokane to take on Gonzaga has been dulled. UCLA has won a couple games of late, but their early-season issues have dampened the expectations for their season. Missouri, on the other hand, is still a top ten team, but without Michael Dixon, they aren’t the same kind of national threat.

Missouri Valley action kicks off: While everyone else is excited about the Mountain West race this season, I’m looking forward to seeing the competition in the MVC as much as anything. The action kicks off on Saturday, which Wichita State hosting Northern Iowa playing the featured role.

Last chance to turn around a disappointing non-conference season?: There haven’t been many teams in the country more disappointing that USC this year. The Trojans brought in all kinds of talent on the transfer market and managed to get all of the players they lost last season back and healthy, yet they are still sitting at 4-8 on the season with the New Year right around the corner. The Trojans will have a chance to get themselves headed in the right direction when they host Dayton on Saturday.

USC isn’t the only disappointment looking to right their ship with conference play coming. Memphis will take on a pair of quality mid-major foes in Oral Roberts and Loyola (MD). St. Joe’s will get a chance to notch a solid win when they take on Iona. Even West Virginia will be looking to close out their non-conference schedule with a win over Eastern Kentucky.

Kwamaine Mitchell is back: The best player on St. Louis will return to the lineup on Saturday when the Billikens take on SIU-Edwardsville. St. Louis has been a bit of a disappointment this season, but disappointment is a harsh word when you consider that Mitchell was out of the lineup and the team was trying to adjust to playing under a new coach as the late Ric Majerus could not coach this season. Butler, Temple and VCU and the popular picks to win the league this season. Can Mitchell get St. Louis back into that conversation?

Grand Canyon lands Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson

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Grand Canyon landed an important piece for its NCAA tournament push on Saturday night as Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson pledged to the Antelopes.

The 6-foot-3 Benson will be eligible right away as spent the past three seasons with the Ducks as a key reserve guard, helping Oregon to multiple deep NCAA tournament runs. Benson picked Grand Canyon over Wisconsin for his final season of college basketball as Benson’s brother, T.J., is an assistant coach with the Antelopes.

Benson shot 40 percent from three-point range last season while also being a steady ball handler over the course of his career at Oregon as he has only 81 career turnovers in over 2,600 career minutes with the Ducks. While Benson wasn’t asked to score a lot for a loaded Oregon team that featured multiple bucket-getters, he could be asked to do more at Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon is eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time next season as the addition of Benson gives them an experienced guard who should be more of a factor in the WAC. The Antelopes are coming off of a 22-9 season in which they finished 11-3 in conference play.

With great facilities and a quickly-growing fan base, head coach Dan Majerle has the potential makings of a perennial mid-major conference contender if he continues to recruit well to Grand Canyon.

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averagedΒ 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.