Preview: No. 4 Louisville meets No. 19 Syracuse for Big East championship

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Louisville and Syracuse meet Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The winner is the final Big East champion as we’ve come to know it and will earn an automatic bid. The loser will follow along into the NCAA tournament with an at-large. But both, perhaps more importantly in the historical context of things, will eventually end up in the ACC. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was less-than-optimistic Friday night on the topic of realignment.

“This has got nothing to do with basketball. This is about football,” he said. “It’s where everything is going. Just wait a few more years. Everybody will be gone.”

So let’s try not to think of this Big East championship as an ACC preview, as tough as that may be, because we’ve got a Big East champion to crown. Check out the preview below:

Coaches

Both Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim have been woven into the fabric of the Big East tournament and both have taken time to lament the fall of the conference that helped define their two careers. Win or lose, the postgame press conferences will likely be a dominated by comments about the league itself, the venue in Manhattan, and the tradition of this conference. Louisville guard Peyton Siva cited Pitino’s love of Madison Square Garden as one of the reasons he enjoys bringing his team to play there. Saturday there will be a Big East champion, but it will also be the end of an era.

Advantage: Draw

Guards

Much of what will dictate Louisville’s success in March is how well the backcourt combo of Siva and Russ Smith plays. If Friday night’s semifinal against Syracuse is any indication, the Cardinals could make a run. Siva is coming alive in the same way he did last season at this time, as an efficient and productive guard capable of leading a team to the Final Four. Smith chipped in as well with 20 points.

Michael Carter-Williams struggled against the mix of defenses Georgetown rolled out Friday night in the semifinal, shooting 1-of-7 from the floor and turning the ball over six times. Brandon Triche was an efficient 4-of-7 from the field for 13 points, but needs to pick up his aggressiveness and maintain his confidence for the Orange.

Advantage: Louisville

Forwards

James Southerland is having a historic run in this year’s Big East tournament from behind the three-point line. He has made 16 shots from long range so far, tying the conference tournament record held by former Syracuse guard and current Syracuse assistant Gerry McNamara. Southerland’s ability to stretch the floor is the most important part of his game, as it allows Carter-Williams and Triche to have more space, as well as more room for fellow forward C.J. Fair. Fair did not play well Friday, going 3-of-16 from the floor, but Boeheim still spoke glowingly about him in the postgame press conference.

Louisville’s Luke Hancock takes on the same role for the Cardinals as Southerland has for Syracuse. He stretches the floor and hits big shots when they need it, including 3-of-3 from three-point range Friday night in the win over Notre Dame. Chane Behanan hasn’t scored in double figures since Feb. 27 and more production from him could never hurt.

Advantage: Syracuse

Centers

Gorgui Dieng has developed and refined his game noticeably from last season to this season. Previously making his impression solely on the defensive end, Dieng is now more versatile offensively and is an option as a facilitator for other scorers on the floor. And, oh yeah, he can still block shots.

Baye Keita played 41 minutes Friday night against Georgetown and did what Syracuse needed him to do. He also had one of his best offensive outputs in a while, tripling his season scoring average with 13 points and adding eight rebounds. Rakeem Christmas played just four minutes and Boeheim said after the game he was “sleeping” for much of Friday’s win.

Advantage: Louisville

Prediction

When Louisville’s guards are playing like this, they are tough to beat. Siva and Smith, with Hancock hitting shots from the outside and Dieng locking down the interior, don’t allow for the opponent to exploit too many weaknesses. As simple as it sounds, it will likely come down to the team that is consistently hitting shots. Syracuse did that in the first half against Georgetown Friday and built a nine-point lead. They didn’t do it in the second half and allowed the Hoyas to climb back into it.

Louisville will need to disrupt Carter-Williams with a mix of defensive rotations and force him to turn the ball over. Doing that not only works to make Southerland a non-factor, but will help the Cardinals get out in transition. Siva has not played well in either of his matchups this year with Syracuse, which turned out to be one win and one loss. They’ll need him tonight to win the Big East championship.

Final Score: Louisville 64, Syracuse 60

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

N.C. State adds grad transfer Sam Hunt

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N.C. State added its fourth transfer this offseason. Like ex-Baylor guard Al Freeman, the latest one is eligible to play next season.

Sam Hunt, a double-digit scorer the past two seasons at North Carolina A&T, officially enrolled at North Carolina State on Monday morning.

“Sam is a great young man and will bring much needed depth to our backcourt,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said in a statement. “I want guys who are excited about being a part of our program and Sam really wants to be here.

“Sam is a combo guard that can space the floor with his ability to shoot the basketball. He is a good fit for the system and will bring a wealth of experience to our roster.”

Hunt, the 6-foot-2 guard, averaged 12.7 points per game last season, a dip from the 15.4 points per game he posted for the Aggies as a redshirt sophomore.

Hunt joins a roster that lost its three leading scorers from a season ago, one that ended 15-17 (4-14 ACC). Dennis Smith Jr. is a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Maverick Rowan also pursued a professional career and Terry Henderson was denied an additional year from the NCAA.

The Wolf Pack bring back forwards Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven as well as Torin Dorn.

Keatts, who took over the program after leading UNC Wilmington to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, has already built for the future. UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce, 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game for the Seahawks, has followed him to Raleigh. Utah transfer Devon Daniels committed to the Wolf Pack the same day as Bryce. Both will have to sit out next season due to NCAA transfer rules. Bryce will have two years of eligibility while Daniels will have three.

LaVar Ball stars in an uncomfortably entertaining segment on WWE’s Raw

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LaVar Ball’s statements and antics over this past year always seemed better suited a professional wrestling ring.

It was only natural that the patriarch of the Ball family — and the head of the Big Baller Brand — made an appearance on WWE’s Monday Night Raw at the Staples Center for an awkwardly entertaining segment with WWE Intercontinental Champion The Miz.

With sons, Lonzo — in his first appearance in the Staples Center as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers — and LaMelo looking on, LaVar was the center of attention. When The Miz mentioned something about a partnership between the two, the scripted interview went south. It resulted in LaVar saying nonsensical things like, “There’s only two dudes better than me, and I’m both of ’em!” before later taking off his shirt. When Dean Ambrose, a WWE superstar feuding with The Miz came out on to the ramp, LaVar didn’t quite grasp the concept that that was his cue to stop talking.

This segment was somehow entertaining and cringeworthy at the same time.

Now that Lonzo is beginning his NBA career, maybe it’s time LaVar try something different. A manager in the WWE may just be his true calling. He’s certainly had plenty of practice.

Maryland lands commitment from five-star 2018 forward

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Maryland added to its 2018 recruiting class with its second commit, the newest addition being a five-star in-state product.

Jalen Smith, a 6-foot-9 forward from Baltimore powerhouse Mount St. Joseph, committed to the Terrapins, making the announcement on Twitter.

“I believe that I can academically and athletically achieve my goals at home through my commitment to the University of Maryland … Go Terps,” he tweeted as part of a long passage.

Smith is listed as the No. 13 overall recruit in the Class of 2013 by Rivals. He joins four-star swingman Aaron Wiggins in Mark Turgeon’s current recruiting class.

Playing for Team Takeover on the Nike EYBL circuit, Smith is averaging 10.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game.

Recent grad’s joyride reportedly did $100,000 of damages to Mizzou Arena

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A recent graduate and temporary employee of the University of Missouri took an early morning joy ride that reportedly could rack up around $100,000 to Mizzou Arena.

According to Dave Mater of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nathaniel J. Contant, 23, who graduated from the school in December 2016, drove his Volkswagen Passat through a gate and eventually on to the floor of the 15,000-seat on-campus arena.

At 7:15 a.m. Sunday, MU police were dispatched to Mizzou Arena for a report of property damage. Officers determined that around 4 a.m., the suspect drove his vehicle through a closed gate on the south side of the arena. He ran through a garage door and drove into a dock area where he damaged several golf carts that were stored in the area. He also drove his car onto the basketball court. The man couldn’t leave through the area he used to enter the building, so he drove through the arena’s press gate.

Contant, unsurprisingly, is no longer an employee of the university. He’s being charged with second-degree burglary and first-degree property damage, both of which are felonies. He was released on a $4,500 bond.

The motive for this early-morning joyride remains unclear.

Despite the hype surrounding the upcoming Mizzou season — one that includes the debut of new head coach Cuonzo Martin and the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft Michael Porter, Jr. — Twitter users couldn’t help but poke fun at the dismal recent history the Tigers have had.

(h/t Kansas City Star)

Vance Jackson transfers to New Mexico

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With more than a handful of departures this offseason, New Mexico is set to have a new-look roster for the 2017-18 season. On Monday, Paul Weir, now at the helm of the program, landed a player who should make an impact in the three remaining seasons of eligibility he has left.

Vance Jackson, who spent this past season at UConn, decided to make the move from Storrs to Albuquerque, picking the Lobos over Rutgers, San Diego State, TCU, and Washington.

The 6-foot-8 rising sophomore will have to sit out next year due to NCAA transfer rules before resuming his collegiate career in the fall of 2018.

“The coaches — they trust in me,” Jackson told Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal last month during his official campus visit. “We’re on the same page. They see a vision.”

Weir, who led New Mexico State this past season to a NCAA Tournament appearance in his one and only season as head coach, succeeded Craig Neal in April.

This offseason has been headlined by transfers, though, those mostly were about players leaving the program. Jackson is the second transfer to land at UNM with Akron’s Antino Jackson electing to use his final season of eligibility with the Lobos. Antino Jackson is a graduate transfer, allowing him to play immediately next season.

Vance Jackson, who was rated as the No. 80 overall player in the Class of 2016 by Rivals, averaged 8.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game while shooting just under 40 percent from three for the Huskies as a freshman.