Five mid-majors who can throw your bracket into chaos

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A hearty welcome to those of you just now joining the rest of us in following college basketball now that football season has ended. We’ll be running a series of posts to get all you football fans caught up on the season at-large. To read through them all, click here.

Every March there seems to be a mid-major program that goes from being a team heard of by few to being a national darling. Here are five teams, all of whom will likely need to win their respective conference’s automatic bid, to keep an eye on as we get closer to the month of March.

1) Belmont (19-4, 10-0 OVC) 

After reaching the NCAA tournament as winners of the Atlantic Sun the Bruins have made themselves right at home in the OVC. Guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson are combining to average 32.6 points per game, and senior forward Trevor Noack (12.5 ppg) has raised his scoring average more than ten points from last season.

Rick Byrd’s team, which has wins over Stanford and Middle Tennessee to its credit, isn’t as deep as last season’s outfit but with an eight-man rotation the Bruins are deep enough. Belmont’s an efficient group offensively (ranking 15th nationally in offensive efficiency and 8th in field goal percentage), and when combining this with their experience at key positions this is a team that can win in the NCAA tournament.

2) Akron (17-4, 8-0 MAC) 

The nation’s hottest team, the Akron Zips have won 13 straight games and are the lone undefeated team in MAC play. Leading the way are 7-footer Zeke Marshall and 6-7 forward Demetrius Treadwell, with five other players averaging between 5.8 and 9.9 points per game. The Zips are one of the nation’s most efficient offenses, ranking 28th in efficiency according to statsheet.com and that front court tandem of Marshall and Treadwell can give opponents fits in the paint. The key for Akron in March may be point guard Alex Abreu however, because when he’s under control and properly balances getting his own shots with putting teammates in the best position to be effective Akron is a handful.

3) Middle Tennessee (20-4, 12-1 Sun Belt) 

Kermit Davis’ Blue Raiders won 25 regular season games last season but a loss in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt tournament resulted in a trip to the NIT. So while their resume this season includes a win over Ole Miss (Middle Tennessee has lost to both Belmont and Akron), that experience and the fact that they have just three RPI Top 100 victories should keep this group motivated to grab the Sun Belt’s automatic bid.

Senior guard Marcos Knight is the lone Blue Raider averaging double figures but five others average between six and nine points per game, and this is a group that gets after it defensively. Middle Tennessee leads the Sun Belt in field goal and three-point percentage defense and they force 16.5 turnovers per game as well. If a team with shaky ball-handling draws the Blue Raiders come March, look out.

4) Bucknell (19-4, 6-1 Patriot) 

Dave Paulsen’s Bison are led by one of the best big men in the country in 6-10 senior Mike Muscala, who is currently averaging 19.0 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game (he leads the team in each category). Muscala is one of four Bucknell starters averaging double figures, and the Bison lead the Patriot League in field goal percentage.

The Bison have also performed well defensively, limiting opponents to 37.4% shooting (ranking 11th nationally), something they accomplish more with positioning as opposed to pressuring opponents into turnovers (opponents are averaging just 9.3 turnovers per game). Bucknell’s lone conference loss came to Lehigh (who won at Bucknell twice last season), so there’s no guarantee that we’ll see the Bison in the NCAA tournament. But if they can make it the Bison are capable of causing some trouble.

5) Montana (16-4, 12-0 Big Sky)

The Grizzlies had to navigate much of their non-conference slate without the services of senior guard Will Cherry due to a broken foot. But with the reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year back in the fold Montana has the best tandem in the conference in Cherry and junior Kareem Jamar. Inside senior Mathias Ward averages a team-high 15.2 points per game, with the versatile Jamar being the team’s best rebounder.

With a two-game lead over Weber State the Grizzlies are in good position to grab home court for the conference tournament, something that served them well in getting to the NCAA tournament last season. With Cherry out other players gained valuable experience, and that could work out in Montana’s favor at the end of the year.

Other teams to consider: Davidson, Detroit, Lehigh, Louisiana Tech, North Dakota State, Valparaiso and Weber State. 

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

Iowa’s McCaffery says, “I’ve turned programs in” for cheating

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There aren’t a lot of unwritten rules in basketball. One of them, though, is that if a coach breaks a real rule, other coaches don’t speak up. Coaches would seemingly rather lose out on a recruit or transfer rather than turning in one of their own for suspected malfeasance.

Not for Fran McCaffery, though.

The Iowa coach was asked Monday about the FBI investigation into corruption into college hoops, and freely volunteered that he has previously turned other programs in for violations – and that he’ll do it again, if need be.

“I’ve turned programs in and I’ll continue to do that when I know that there’s something going on,” McCaffery said at the program’s media day, according to the Des Moines Register. “But a lot of times you don’t know what’s going on. So can you police yourselves? Only if you know something’s going on. But even then it’s hard for the NCAA to do something.”

Turning in another program for violations is really one of the biggest taboos in the coaching profession. That’s why you get coaches look silly in blocking schools for transfers when tampering is suspected, rather than a coach just reporting tampering.

McCaffery’s tactic, while probably frowned upon by many of his colleagues, is probably the best weapon the NCAA has in combating cheating. If coaches make it clear they won’t tolerate cheating – or that if it occurs, it won’t go unremarked upon – that will go along way in changing a culture and system that the FBI is going to potentially uncover with its wide-ranging investigation that already has resulted in 10 people’s arrest and a Hall of Fame coach’s firing.

“Any time the game is cleaned up,” McCaffery said, “it’s better for all of us.”

Report: Louisville offered $1.5 million settlement to Pitino

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When it became clear that Louisville and Rick Pitino were going to part ways, much of the discussion instantly turned to the more than $40 million left on the coach’s contract.

The school reportedly tried to avoid that whole ordeal Monday, but Pitino apparently wasn’t interested.

Louisville offered to pay $1.5 million to a charity started by Pitino in exchange for his resignation, according to WDRB-TV Louisville. Pitino did not accept and was then fired for cause by the Louisville board.

It’s little surprise to see Pitino reject such an offer with so many more millions on the table should he (almost certainly) begin legal proceedings trying to recoup the cash that Louisville says it doesn’t owe him by firing for cause.

I vehemently reject (the school’s) right to do so ‘for cause,’” Pitino said in an affidavit sent to the school. “I have given no ’cause’ for termination of my contract.”

The firing came on the heels of the latest controversy  to hit Louisville under Pitino’s watch. First came the escort scandal that rocked the program, but now the school is part of the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. Ten people were arrested as part of the probe, including an adidas executive who is alleged to have orchestrated getting $100,000 to the family of a recruit in order to facilitate his commitment to the Cardinals program.

Pitino may be out at Louisville, but with more than $40 million at stake, the school surely hasn’t seen the last of him.

Louisville officially fires Rick Pitino

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Louisville’s Athletic Association has officially fired head coach Rick Pitino nearly three weeks after an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball linked the Hall of Fame head coach and his program to a $100,000 payment from Adidas to a recruit that enrolled at Louisville.

The association, made up of trustees, faculty, student and administrators, oversees Louisville athletics. They voted unanimously to fire Pitino.

Pitino has $44 million in salary remaining on his contract, which extends through the 2026 season. He was with Louisville for 16 seasons.

Pitino had been ‘effectively fired‘ by the university on September 27th, the day after the scandal first broke.

Earlier this summer, Louisville had received their sanctions from the NCAA in a different scandal that enveloped Pitino’s program. In October of 2015, a book was published by an escort named Katina Powell who alleged that a member of Pitino’s staff had paid for strippers and prostitutes for recruits and members of the Louisville team, some of whom were underage. The NCAA’s sanctions, which included vacating the 2012 Final Four and 2013 National Title in addition to Louisville’s self-imposed 2016 postseason ban, were handed down in June, two weeks after a Louisville coach had allegedly helped facilitate a $100,000 payment from Adidas to Brian Bowen’s family and six weeks before another coach would allegedly attempt to do the same for a 2019 prospect.

Kansas’ Self: Adidas case a “dark cloud on our profession’

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas coach Bill Self had come to know James Gatto well over the years, along with just about everyone else involved with the college basketball side of the athletic apparel giant Adidas.

It comes with the territory as one of the company’s flagship schools.

But when Self first heard that Gatto had been swept up in a wide-ranging FBI investigation, centered on Louisville but uncovering corruption elsewhere in college basketball, the Jayhawks’ coach admitted being “very disappointed and disheartened” and likened it to a “dark cloud for our profession.”

Prosecutors have accused the 47-year-old Gatto of conspiring with coaches and others to funnel payments to top prospects and their families to win commitments to play at schools sponsored by Adidas. The idea was that their relationship with Adidas would continue whenever they reached the professional level.

The family of one prospect was allegedly paid $100,000 to commit, according to court documents, and the school was later revealed to be Louisville. The school has since placed coach Rick Pitino on administrative leave while the federal investigation is being resolved. Nine others, including former Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans, have been charged in the case.

Self said during a lengthy interview Friday that the cash payments from Adidas surprised him, but “what is not surprising is third parties’ involvement in recruiting. Everyone should know that.”

“That’s prevalent everywhere,” he said. “There’s nothing illegal about agents talking to kids and their families in ninth and 10th grade. There’s nothing illegal about shoe companies funding AAU programs. That is what’s been encouraged and done, so it shouldn’t be a surprise you could have influence from third parties.”

Kansas officials insist they have not been contacted by the FBI, and the school is not under any sort of investigation. It

Kansas recently reached a 12-year contract extension with Adidas that will ultimately provide the school with $191 million in sponsorship money and apparel. Self suggested the affiliation is being used by rivals on the recruiting trail.

“Whenever in recruiting there is something out there that has been reported, whether it’s reliable or unreliable, total myth, whatever, there’s usually competitors that make sure that information gets to people. Unfortunately, that’s how it works,” Self said. “You can say that’s negative recruiting … but a lot of times the things that are reported are so inaccurate it puts you on the defense.”

The Jayhawks already have commitments from two top-100 prospects in 6-foot-9 forward Silvio de Sousa from Florida’s IMG Academy and 6-10 center David McCormack from Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy.

They are also in the mix for several more top-50 prospects in what could be a crucial class for them.

“I’d be lying,” Self said, “if I told you we hadn’t discussed these issues with kids. And has it hurt us to date? I don’t think it has. But it’s not signing day, either.”

Attorney makes case for Louisville to retain Pitino as coach

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Rick Pitino’s attorney has told the Louisville Athletic Association that it should not fire the coach of the men’s basketball program because his client “could not have known” about activities alleged in a national federal investigation of the sport.

Steve Pence made his case Monday while the ULAA was meeting to discuss whether to fire Pitino nearly three weeks after the school acknowledged the program’s involvement in the investigation. The association board is still meeting and has not announced its decision.

Association, a separate body that oversees Louisville’s sports programs and comprised of trustees, faculty, students and administrators, on Oct. 2 authorized university interim President Greg Postel to begin the process of firing Pitino for cause after Postel placed him on unpaid administrative leave Sept. 27.

Pitino, 65, is not named in court complaints in the federal probe but Postel said in a disciplinary letter that the allegations violated his contract.

Pence has contended that Louisville rushed to judgment and made his case before the board for 45 minutes on Monday.

He said Pitino should be retained and noted, “The coach did not engage in any of this activity, he didn’t know about the activity. I think we made a very compelling case to the board, I think they listened attentively and we’ll just have to wait and see what they say.”

Pitino has coached 16 years with the program, a run that included winning the 2013 NCAA championship but was tarnished by several embarrassing off-court incidents.