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Pregame shootaround: Monster doubleheader dominates Saturday’s action

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GAME OF THE DAY: No. 8 Villanova at No. 2 Syracuse (2 p.m., CBS)

I mean no disrespect to one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports, but when you have a matchup of two unbeaten, top-10 teams on December 28th, it takes precedence. It should be a good one as No. 8 Villanova (11-0) travels to the Carrier Dome to face No. 2 Syracuse (11-0) in a matchup of old Big East foes. This is a big non-conference tilt that will test each team before conference season and Syracuse is in for its biggest game of the season — so far — after winning the Maui Invitational while Villanova won the Battle 4 Atlantis earlier this season. How will Syracuse’s young backcourt of freshman Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney handle a big game and a big test against Villanova?

THE OTHER GAME OF THE DAY: No. 6 Louisville at No. 18 Kentucky (4 p.m., CBS)

If you’re up for more college hoops after the matchup of unbeatens — and of course you are — then you’ll want to stick around for one of the best rivalries in sports. Although No. 6 Louisville (11-1) and No. 18 Kentucky (9-3) aren’t both in the top ten, they’re still the last two national champions and this is a rivalry game unlike many others. Can Kentucky finally get over the hump and earn a marquee victory heading into SEC play? The young Wildcats have fallen in their previous tests against Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina, but this time, they’ll have Rupp Arena and Big Blue Nation behind them. And how will Louisville handle its most talented opponent so far this season in a big rivalry game on the road? Louisville’s only test this season was against North Carolina, and, like Kentucky, they fell to the Tar Heels as well.

WHO’S GETTING UPSET? No. 25 Missouri at North Carolina State (8 p.m., ESPN2)

North Carolina State (9-2) is playing very well after a bit of a rocky start and sophomore T.J. Warren is playing at an All-American level for the Wolfpack. Today the Wolfpack will host No. 25 Missouri (10-1) after the Tigers are fresh off their loss in the Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois and Missouri could be in for a letdown. Warren is averaging a team-leading 23.9 points and 7.3 rebounds — on 55 percent shooting — and poses a major challenge for Missouri’s defense. The Wolfpack have won seven straight games since the return of 7-foot-1 center Jordan Vandenburg and freshman point guard Anthony “Cat” Barber has also played better much better since the 2-2 start, as he’s registered at least four assists in all seven of those wins. One thing to monitor in this one: How will Missouri handle its first true road game of the season?

MID-MAJOR GAME OF THE DAY: Belmont at Indiana State, (1:05 p.m., ESPN3)

This is an interesting match-up between Ohio Valley contender Belmont (8-5) and Missouri Valley contender Indiana State (8-3), in-part because they already played earlier this season and Belmont won 96-95 at home on November 14th. Since then, Belmont has won at North Carolina, but has lost four of five games and they’ll look to right the ship against a good Indiana State team. The Sycamores have won five of six games entering this rematch and are trending in the opposite direction.

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW

1) How about the matchup between senior guards Chaz Williams and Bryce Cotton in the matchup between No. 23 UMass and Providence? That should be a fun one as Providence (10-2) will look to hand UMass (10-1) its second loss of the season.

2) Duke (9-2) will be in for an interesting non-conference matchup at Cameron Indoor Stadium with 7-3 Eastern Michigan. The Eagles have already traveled to Rupp Arena and faced No. 21 UMass this season and own sold mid-major wins over Green Bay and Cleveland State and won’t be scared to face No. 9 Duke.

3) Wake Forest is off to a solid 10-2 start, but how will they react to their first true road game of the season at Xavier? The Demon Deacons went 1-2 at the Battle 4 Atlantis and would love to pick up a quality road win before ACC play. Xavier, meanwhile, has rebounded nicely with four straight wins after an 0-3 trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis. Although both teams played in the Battle 4 Atlantis, they have yet to play each other.

4) An interesting doubleheader at the Brooklyn Winter Hoops Festival kicks off today as Tulane (7-6) faces Kansas State (8-3) and Boston College (4-8) takes on VCU (10-3). Tulane has lost six of seven and will look for an upset against red-hot Kansas State and their six straight wins, while Boston College hasn’t beaten a Division I opponent in the month of December and will look to rebound against the Rams.

5) Although Michigan lost Mitch McGary indefinitely due to back surgery, they can’t hang their head for too long, as they’ll face Holy Cross and senior center Dave Dudzinski. Dudzinski is one of the top mid-major big men in the country so far this season as he’s averaging 17.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game on 50 percent shooting from the field and 45 percent shooting from three-point range.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25:

  • Prairie View A&M at No. 4 Wisconsin, 2:00 p.m., ESPNU
  • New Orleans at No. 5 Michigan State, 4:15 p.m., BTN
  • Eastern Washington at No. 15 UConn, 1:00 p.m., ESPN3
  • Jackson State at No. 17 Memphis, 12:00 p.m., ESPNU
  • Georgia at No. 21 Colorado, 10:00 p.m., Pac 12
  • Santa Clara at No. 24 Gonzaga, 8:00 p.m., ESPNU

NOTABLES:

  • Nebraska at Cincinnati, 12:00 p.m., ESPN2
  • Florida International at Georgetown, 12:00 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • UIC vs Illinois, 2:00 p.m., BTN
  • Samford at Marquette, 2:00 p.m., Fox Sports Net
  • Columbia at St. John’s, 2:30 p.m.
  • Harvard at Fordham, 4:00 p.m.
  • Akron at South Carolina, 4:00 p.m., ESPNU
  • BYU at Loyola Marymount, 4:00 p.m.
  • Old Dominion at Richmond, 6:30 p.m., NBCSN
  • Alabama at UCLA, 10:00 p.m., ESPN2

Self pays freshman Jackson a major compliment

Josh Jackson, from Napa, Calif.,, dunks over Nancy Mulkey, from Cypress, Texas, as he competes in the slam dunk contest during the McDonald's All-American Jam Fest, Monday, March 28, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
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Freshman phenom production under Bill Self has been something of a contentious topic. Many fault the coach, who has won one national title and 12-straight Big 12 championships, for not developing one-and-done talent to their fullest potential during their single-season stays in Lawrence. Cliff Alexander and Cheick Diallo are Exhibit 1-A and 1-B for this argument in recent years.

Whatever outside criticism there is (Andrew Wiggins did go No. 1 overall just 2 years ago, after all), Self isn’t shying away from hyping the latest freshman with big expectations to come to KU. When asked who the greatest athlete of all-time is at the school’s annual Tradition Night last week, Self had a simple, if tongue-and-cheek, response.

“I’ll say Josh Jackson,” Self said of the the 6-foot-8 shooting guard ranked No. 1 in his class, according to Lawrence Journal-World.

With others answering with the likes of Michael Jordan and Muhammed Ali, it’s pretty fair to say Self was playing to the crowd with the answer, but it’s still telling that he was willing to deliver such a sound bite, even if it was before a welcoming audience. Self didn’t try to seriously depress expectations for Wiggins, a player Jackson is often compared to, and it looks like he won’t for Jackson as well.

Jackson, though, won’t have the burden Wiggins had as there’s one of the country’s best backcourts in Frank Mason II and Devonte Graham to help shoulder the workload for the Jayhawks.

 

ACC non-commital on HB2 stance

John Swofford
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With North Carolina unwilling to rescind their controversial so-called bathroom bill, the NBA has withdrawn its All-Star Game from the state this year and numerous high-profile music acts have canceled performances as a result.

The ACC is declining to join them with a hard-line, or really any, position.

“We don’t want to damage our league with any premature decisions,” commissioner John Swofford said on The David Glenn Show. “We’ll just see how it plays out.”

The ACC, of course, has quite the presence in the state with North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest all in the Tar Heel State. Swofford’s comments are sure to draw the interest of the LGBT community, which has roundly been critical of the bill, which requires people to use the bathroom which corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate, and has recently been active in college athletics, opposing the Big 12’s potential inclusion of BYU in its expansion plans over concerns of the Church of Latter Day Saints school’s honor code.

North Carolina’s bill has also drawn the eye of the NCAA, which is requiring potential championship sights to provide information on local anti-discrimination laws.

One of the loudest voices in the ACC, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, has come out against the law.

“It’s an embarrassing bill,” Coach K said last month.

The Champions Classic renewed through 2019

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 27: Bill Self head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks claps for his team as they celebrate winning the Big 12 Conference Championship after they defeated Texas Tech Red Raiders 67-58 at Allen Fieldhouse on February 27, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. With the win, Kansas clinched its 12th straight conference championship. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
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The Champions Classic is back, baby!!!

On Wednesday, the four schools that participate in the event — Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State — announced that they have signed deals to extend the life of the doubleheader for another three years.

This is terrific news. The Champions Classic is always the best early-season event of the season, an annual double-header that always ends up putting together two of the best non-conference games in packed NBA arenas. This year, it features Duke, the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country, squaring off with Kansas, who is a consensus top three team with the No. 1 freshman in the class, Josh Jackson, on their roster, in one game.

The other game? Kentucky, the third consensus top three team nationally, going up against Tom Izzo and Michigan State, who will be, at worst, a top 15 team in the preseason polls.

So yeah, we’re going to get a pair of sensational basketball games in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15th. MSG also just so happens to be the best arena to watch a great neutral site basketball game.

It’s going to be awesome.

There’s only one possible way to make it better: turn it into a two-day event, with the winners squaring off for the Champions Classic title the following night.

Make it happen.

Anyway, here’s the schedule:

Nov. 14, 2017 (United Center, Chicago)
Kansas vs. Kentucky
Duke vs. Michigan State

Nov. 13, 2018 (Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis)
Michigan State vs. Kansas
Duke vs. Kentucky

Nov. 12, 2019 (Madison Square Garden, New York)
Kansas vs. Duke
Michigan State vs. Kentucky

Hartford makes smart decision to allow ‘Pancake’ Thomas transfer

AP Photo
Hartford coach John Gallagher, AP Photo
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Another talented graduate transfer has hit the market.

Cleveland ‘Pancake’ Thomas — that’s a helluva name, isn’t it? — has been granted a release by Hartford and will be allowed to transfer to another program for his fifth season.

“Our biggest priority for Cleveland was that he graduate from the University of Hartford with a valuable degree,” Hartford head coach John Gallagher said in a statement released to ESPN after some speculation that Thomas wasn’t going to be given a release. “That happened. Beyond wishing him the very best, we don’t comment on other program’s players. We are very excited about our group and the upcoming season.”

The term “release” is needed here because Thomas, a 6-foot-3 guard who averaged 18.9 points and shot 42.6 percent from three this past season, spent his first two years of eligibility at New Mexico. A graduate transfer exception is granted to any player making their first transfer after receiving an undergraduate degree. But since Pancake had already transferred once, he was only eligible to apply for a graduate transfer waiver, which the school he is leaving must support.

Remember the saga of Todd O’Brien? He tried to leave St. Joseph’s to spend his fifth-year at UAB but made headlines everywhere when Phil Martelli wouldn’t let it happen? That’s because O’Brien had started his career at Bucknell and needed Martelli to support the waiver.

Gallagher could have done the same to Pancake.

He made the right decision not to — Martelli has enough coaching cache to withstand the onslaught on criticism he received, I’m not sure that is true for Gallagher — even if it will result in Thomas playing elsewhere, hence the cold-hearted nature of that statement.

Anyway, Thomas never averaged more than 3.9 points at New Mexico, so while he’s a tantalizing prospect for programs that are dying for perimeter depth and shooting, this isn’t exactly a kid that’s going to launch himself into the NBA Draft’s first round by jumping up to a higher level.

Shawn Forrest named assistant coach for Jankovich at SMU

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 22:  Head coach Larry Brown (L) and associate head coach Tim Jankovich of the Southern Methodist Mustangs look on during the team's game against the Kent State Golden Flashes during the 2015 Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on December 22, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Southern Methodist won 90-74. The game marks Brown's return from a nine-game suspension.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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DALLAS (AP) Shawn Forrest has been named an assistant basketball coach at SMU, his third school since the end of last season.

Mustangs coach Tim Jankovich announced Forrest’s hiring Tuesday.

Forrest spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Western Kentucky before head coach Ray Harper resigned. Forrest was named a UTSA assistant in May, but two weeks later left for Louisiana Tech before the unexpected opening at SMU.

Jankovich was SMU’s associate head coach before the abrupt resignation last month of Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown. Forrest fills the open assistant spot created on the staff when Jankovich was promoted to head coach.

Before Western Kentucky, Forrest was an assistant coach at Louisiana-Lafayette, North Texas, Arkansas State and Florida A&M.