Rick Pitino, Russ Smith

Weekend Preview: Kentucky-Louisville highlights a solid slate

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Game of the Weekend: Sat. 4:00 p.m.: Kentucky at No. 4 Louisville (CBS)

It may not be the battle of top five teams that we expected it to be heading into the season, but that doesn’t take any of the excitement away from the battle for bluegrass supremacy.

Louisville enters this game playing as well as they have all season long. Their lone loss to Duke seems like it was an eternity ago, and given the success the Blue Devils have had this season, relatively insignificant as well. The Cardinals have one of the best back courts in the country in Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, and while their front line has played well over the course of the last month, Rick Pitino’s club will get a big boost on Saturday afternoon as Gorgui Dieng has been cleared to play. I’m sure he would have liked to have gotten Dieng in a game or two before throwing him into the biggest game of the regular season for the Cardinals, but having Gorgui is much better than, well, not having Gorgui.

While Louisville is beginning to hit their stride, Kentucky is still enduring some growing pains. As much talent as the Wildcats have on their roster, John Calipari looks like he is still figuring out how to get all that talent to fit together. The good news? Ryan Harrow is coming off of the best game of his collegiate career. The bad news? He now has to deal with one of the peskiest defensive back courts in the country.

And that right there is going to be what determines the outcome of this game. Can Kentucky’s back court handle the pressure that will inevitably be thrown at them by Louisville’s guards? Will Harrow’s confidence survive Smith’s quick hands? Can Archie Goodwin be patient enough in half court sets? If they can, than Kentucky might have a chance to upset the Cards.

Six more games to watch this weekend

  • Fri. 8:00 p.m.: Baylor at No. 13 Gonzaga (ESPN2): So how good is Baylor? They won in Lexington, yes. But they also lost at home to Charleston and Northwestern at home. And isn’t this the same question we always end up asking about Scott Drew’s teams? Pierre Jackson is going to be a nightmare matchup for either Kevin Pangos or David Stockton, but the real question is going to be how Baylor handles Gonzaga’s physicality up front.
  • Fri. 10:00 p.m.: No. 7 Missouri at UCLA (ESPN2): UCLA looks like they are finally starting to hit their stride this season as their three stud freshmen all played their best games of the year the last time the Bruins took the floor. But Ben Howland’s team will have their work cut out for them with the Tigers, who have the kind of size and physicality that could give the Bruins problems. The key? Who wins the battle of the backboards. Missouri crashes the offensive glass as hard as anyone. Can the Bruins keep them from getting those second chance points?
  • Sat. 2:00 p.m.: No. 20 UNLV at North Carolina (ESPN2): North Carolina will get a chance for some revenge against UNLV after the Rebels knocked them off of their No. 1 perch last season with a win in Vegas. And for UNC, that’s something that they definitely need at this point: a statement win. Something that tells the country that this season will be different than 2009-2010. Because right now, the Heels don’t look like a serious contender for the ACC title, let alone a national title.
  • Sat. 3:00 p.m.: Valparaiso at Murray State (ESPN3): One of the best mid-major matchups of the season. Valpo is the favorite in the Horizon, while Murray State looks like they picked up where they left off last season. Isaiah Canaan looks like an all-american again, and Stacy Wilson has proven to be terrific this year. The best matchup, however, will end up being Ed Daniel squaring off with Valpo’s front line of Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk.
  • Sat. 6:00 p.m.: Xavier at Tennessee (ESPNU): Xavier has one of the best freshman in the country in Semaj Christon, but where they will end up having issues with Tennessee is along with Vols front line. Does Chris Mack have anyone capable of hanging with Jarnell Stokes in the paint?

And the mid-majors?:

  • Fri. 7:00 p.m.: Iona at St. Joe’s
  • Fri. 7:30 p.m.: Bucknell at Loyola (MD)
  • Sat. 8:00 p.m.: North Texas at Western Kentucky
  • Sat. 8:00 p.m.: South Dakota State at North Dakota State

Malik Newman to return to school, considering transfer

Mississippi State guard Malik Newman (14) dribbles past a Northern Colorado player during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
http://espn.go.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/15712769/mississippi-state-malik-newman-withdraw-draft-transfer
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Malik Newman will withdraw his name from consideration and return to school for his sophomore season.

Newman was a top 10 recruit in the Class of 2015, a high-scoring combo-guard that opted to stay home and play for Mississippi State instead of enroll at one of the blue bloods that was recruiting him. He averaged 11.3 points as a freshman, but it was a largely disappointing season as he spent the year off of the national radar playing inefficient basketball.

Put another way, the fourth-leading scorer on a 14-17 SEC team isn’t exactly a lock for the lottery.

But here’s the catch: he may not be returning to Mississippi State, as Newman is considering a transfer, according to a report from ESPN. That report quotes a source close to the situation saying “unhappy with his role and how he was utilized.”

It will be interesting to see what happens from here. Newman would have to sit out a year if he transferred to another Division I program, and for a kid that thought he was destined to be a one-and-done star, locking himself into a three-year college career would be an odd move.

Whitehead to stay in NBA Draft

Seton Hall guard Isaiah Whitehead (15) shoots past Xavier forward Sean O'Mara (54) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
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Seton Hall sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead has signed with an agent and will remain in the NBA Draft, according to multiple reports.

Whitehead averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game last season for Seton Hall, which went 25-9 and reached the NCAA tournament. He likely projects as a second-round pick with a bit of a shaky shot, but a high usage and assist rates. His strong finish to the season likely lifted him on some draft boards, but his inefficiency will cap his ceiling in June’s draft.

The loss is significant for the Pirates as Whitehead was so much of their offense, but they’ll bring back Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado and Ismael Sanogo. It’s a group that will miss Whitehead’s playmaking, but is still a solid enough foundation that Seton Hall will still likely be competitive in the Big East and vying for another NCAA tournament berth.

Hart returning for Villanova’s title defense

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Villanova’s title defense just got a whole lot stouter.

Josh Hart, the leading scorer of the Wildcats’ national championship team, will return for his senior season, he announced on Twitter.

The decision for Hart to return is a major boost for Villanova in its quest to become the first back-to-back champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007. Hart, a 6-foot-5 guard,  averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent from 3-point range.

Most draft pundits had him pegged as a potential end-of-the-first-round pick in next month’s draft though he could have certainly slid into the second should he had decided to forego his senior season. Instead, Hart will be a potential first-team All-American exhausting his eligibility in Philadelphia.

The 2016-17 season is taking shape nicely, and Hart returning to Villanova only increases the strength of the field at the top. Title game hero Kris Jenkins as well as Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges are also back for the defending champs while the super recruiting classes of Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State, Kansas’ returning core along with Josh Jackson and a solid group of teams including North Carolina, Arizona, Louisville and Wisconsin make for an intriguing upper-tier of teams that could very well make for a top-heavy season following last year’s free for all.

College basketball isn’t the NFL. Parity doesn’t equal strength and quality, and when the sport has a handful high-quality teams, it is at its best. It’s looking like that is a possibility for the 2016-17 campaign.

UConn duo returning to school

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Connecticut may have lost its 6-foot-7 wing scorer but it is keeping its defensive stalwart and leading scorer.

Center Amida Brimah and guard Rodney Purvis have withdrawn their names from NBA Draft consideration and will return to the Huskies for another year, the school announced Tuesday.

The decisions from Brimah, a 7-foot center, and Purvis, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, help soften the blow dealt by Daniel Hamilton’s decision to sign with an agent and leave school despite having some shaky draft stock. The Huskies may not open the season as a top-25 team, but they won’t be far behind and will be one of the AAC’s favorites, along with Cincinnati.

Brimah averaged 6.5 points per game last year, but blocked 2.7 shots per game. He missed 11 games last season with a broken finger. Purvis registered 12.8 points per game while shooting 43.4 percent from the floor.

Neither Brimah or Purvis were among those invited to this month’s NBA Draft combine nor were either expected to be drafted should they have kept their names in the draft.

Gonzaga’s Karnowski returning for fifth year

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The man in the middle is returning to Gonzaga.

Przemek Karnowski will return to the Bulldogs for his final year after a medical redshirt waiver was granted allowing him a fifth season in Spokane, the school announced Tuesday.

“I’m excited to be coming back,” Karnowski said in a statement. “After talking with the coaches, my parents and the team, I decided this was the best decision for me. I still have a ways to go with my rehab, but I’m staying positive about the upcoming season.”

The 7-foot-1 Karnowski, a Poland native, would have, at minimum, had professional opportunities overseas, but instead will return to play for the Bulldogs once more after a back injury limited him to five games last season. He averaged 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as a junior in 2014-15.

With Karnowski returning along with  Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, Gonzaga coach Mark Few will be having newcomers Nigel Williams-Goss, Zach Norvell, Johnathan Williams II and Zach Collins joining an experienced and talented group.

Gonzaga (shocker) will be the West Coast Conference favorite once more, but the Bulldogs will also be fielding a team that should open the season in most everyone’s top-15.