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Pac-12 Tournament: Are we overlooking Arizona right now?

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It was February 1st when it looked like Arizona’s season was changed.

Early in the first half of a loss at Cal — the Wildcats’ first loss of the season — starting power forward Brandon Ashley broke a bone in his foot and was lost for the season. That came after Arizona won a dogfight at Stanford and before Sean Miller’s club sandwiched a two-point win over Oregon and an overtime win at Utah with a double-overtime loss at Arizona State.

During that three-week stretch, the only time that the Wildcats scored more than 67 points came when they pounded Oregon State in Tucson.

The Wildcats looked lost. Their offense had stalled enough that it didn’t matter how tenacious their defense was. Arizona, once considered to be the best team in the country, didn’t look like a Final Four contender.

Fast forward to the middle of March, and anyone that had doubted the Wildcats looks silly.

Because after a 63-43 evisceration of Colorado, that came a day after the Wildcats pounded Utah into oblivion with a 71-39 win, the Wildcats will head into the Pac-12 tournament title game playing arguably the best basketball of anyone in the country, and that could very well include both Florida and Wichita State.

Doesn’t it feel like they’re flying under the radar?

Maybe it’s because we know what they are. Maybe it’s because so many other teams that were considered contenders — Syracuse, Kansas, Michigan State — have serious question marks as we enter the last weekend before the NCAA tournament begins. Maybe it’s because all anyone wanted to talk about for the last three weeks was whether or not Wichita State actually deserves to be in the same conversation as the Arizonas and the Floridas of the world. Maybe it’s they actually as a No. 1 seed locked up while the likes of Villanova, Michigan and Wisconsin are battling it out for that last spot on the top line.

Whatever the case is, this is your wake-up call.

Arizona is as good as, if not better than, they were when they were the nation’s No. 1 team.

Because, as crazy as it sounds, their defense has actually gotten better.

Aaron Gordon may be the best defender in the country. He’s big enough to guard fours and quick enough to stay in front of point guards. He can block a shot and rebound in traffic with anyone, and he can pick a point guard’s pocket. He’s a nightmare at the top of a press and he’s the prototype when it comes to big men that can defend the pick-and-roll. He’s a perfect fit in Arizona’s pack-line defense …

And there’s a valid argument to make that he’s the third-best defender on this Arizona team.

Seriously.

That’s how good Nick Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are.

And while being forced to play Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson together has hurt Arizona’s half-court offense, putting three athletes like that on the floor together makes Arizona very good in transition, which is something that Miller has made a point to emphasize in recent weeks.

So be forewarned.

They may not have the same level of hype as they did three months ago, but this Arizona team is more-than-capable of winning a national title.

Don’t be fooled when you fill out your bracket.

Southern Conference to keep championships in North Carolina

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) The Southern Conference will keep four league championships in North Carolina despite the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference withdrawing championships because of the state law restricting the rights of LGBT people.

The league said it will honor commitments for these tournaments: men’s soccer in Greensboro, men’s and women’s basketball in Asheville and men’s golf in Pinehurst.

“We don’t want to punish the local host communities by pulling the championships out of the state this year,” Commissioner John Iamarino said Friday. “That point did resonate with presidents and chancellors.”

The league said in a statement its presidents and chancellors “reaffirmed their resolute opposition to legislation that discriminates against any individual.”

Iamarino said his conference was prepared for criticism in light of the NCAA and ACC decisions over the North Carolina’s law, which excludes gender identity and sexual orientation from local and statewide antidiscrimination protections. It also requires transgender people to use restrooms at schools and government buildings corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates.

HB2 was signed into law this year by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who has defended it as a commonsense safety and security measure.

The Southern Conference is headquartered in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Its 10 schools – Citadel, Chattanooga, East Tennessee, Furman, Mercer, UNC Greensboro, Samford, VMI, Western Carolina and Wofford – are in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

The decision on the championships came after two conference calls among league leaders.

“While not unanimous, we found enough common ground to get to this point,” Iamarino said.

He said the league was influenced by the North Carolina host communities, all urging the conference to hold its events as planned. In Asheville, Iamarino said he met with about 30 people, including some from the LGBT community, who promised to fight the HB2 law but wanted the basketball tournaments to remain.

Iamarino said the venues involved are privately controlled and the league is confident of there will be an inclusive atmosphere at the events. The men’s golf event will be held at Pinehurst Country Club and the basketball at a neutral site in Asheville.

The soccer will be played on the Greensboro campus.

Earlier this month, the NCAA removed seven championships from North Carolina, including first- and second-round games of the men’s basketball tournament scheduled for Greensboro. The ACC soon followed suit, pulling 10 of its championships from the state, including the football title game that was scheduled for Charlotte.

The ACC on Thursday relocated the football game to Orlando, Florida.

Iamarino said Southern Conference presidents and chancellors will meet in May to see if more action is necessary. He said there’s concern similar laws could extend beyond North Carolina.

“This could be a long-term issue,” he said.

Iamarino said he’s also concerned the schools against keeping the championships in North Carolina might take their own actions, perhaps boycotting the league events played there.

“It’s a real concern,” he said. “We’ll continue to communicate and prepare for everything.”

Report: Virginia Tech forward Blackshear still recovering from offseason foot surgery

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 10: Kerry Blackshear Jr. #24 of the Virginia Tech Hokies and Kamari Murphy #21 of the Miami Hurricanes go for a rebound in the second half during the quarterfinals of the 2016 ACC Basketball Tournament Verizon Center on March 10, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Virginia Tech sophomore forward Kerry Blackshear will miss the start of training camp as he continues to recover from offseason foot surgery, according to a report from Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The 6-foot-10 Blackshear played in all 35 games for the Hokies last season as he battled through the foot injury to average 6.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. According to Barber’s report, Blackshear had surgery on his right foot five days after the 2015-16 season ended, but he’s still wearing a walking boot to help recover. There has been no timetable given for Blackshear’s return.

Blackshear will be a key piece for a Virginia Tech team that is a bit thin up front this season. Freshman Khadim Sy can provide some minutes up front, but he’s inexperienced and center Nick Fullard has to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. Getting a healthy Blackshear will be a key storyline for a Virginia Tech team that many will have in the preseason top 25.

Indiana roster dealing with handful of injuries as practice begins

BLOOMINGTON, IN - NOVEMBER 20:  A general view of  the SMU Mustangs game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Assembly Hall on November 20, 2014 in Bloomington, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Indiana has been hit with the injury buy a bit during the start of practice and it doesn’t only involved the recent announcement of knee surgery for senior Collin Hartman.

According to a report from the Indiana Daily Student the Hoosiers are also dealing with a knee injury for junior college transfer forward Freddie McSwain and sophomore Juwan Morgan hasn’t been cleared for practice yet after offseason shoulder surgery.

The 6-foot-6 McSwain had a knee injury flare up when he came to Indiana and had surgery to clean it up. Crean told the Indiana Daily Student that McSwain was still a few weeks from returning.

That means Indiana has to find early practice minutes to replace Hartman, Morgan and McSwain up front which gives more reps to players like O.G. Anunoby and freshman big man De’Ron Davis.

Since Anunoby and Davis both dealt with some offseason injuries and guard Robert Johnson was recently cleared to return, Hoosiers head coach Tom Crean is remaining cautious during the early part of practice this season. Crean also has to monitor the return of starting guard James Blackmon Jr. after he missed most of last season with a torn ACL.

“We would have already practiced this morning and they would be ready to go tonight, if this were a year ago,” Crean said in the report. “We have to tailor make this thing. We can’t be in too much of a rush with these guys.”

Obviously, the frontcourt injuries are something to keep an eye on for Indiana during the early part of the season. None of the three injuries seem severe, but Hartman’s timetable to return hasn’t been listed and McSwain and Morgan are missing valuable early time in practice.

It’ll be interesting to see if this helps younger players like Anunoby and Davis get more acquainted with the first team early on since both could have an impact this season.

Texas lands four-star Class of 2017 guard Jase Febres

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Texas and head coach Shaka Smart continue to recruit at a high level, especially in the state of Texas, as the Longhorns landed a commitment from Class of 2017 four-star guard Jase Febres on Friday night.

The 6-foot-5 Febres is considered the No. 63 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2017 rankings as he burst on the national radar this summer with some strong shooting performances. Febres shot over 40 percent from three-point range during the month of July after battling through injury during the spring. Besides owning good size for a wing shooter, Febres also takes pride in defending and he can rebound a bit from the wing as well.

Febres is going to have to improve his overall offensive package if a defense plays him off the three-point line, but he has upside as a three-and-D guy with the Longhorns.

The Class of 2017 is starting to round into shape for Texas as Febres joins four-star power forward Jericho Sims and four-star forward Royce Hamm. Since taking over the Texas job, Smart has done a great job of keeping local talent home as he now has five four- and five-star prospects from the state in the last two classes.

 

VIDEO: Kentucky fans get married in the ticket line for Big Blue Madness

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Kentucky fans have unique ways of making their annual Big Blue Madness event the most chaotic tip-off event of the season. While Big Blue Nation is waiting in line for tickets to this year’s festivities in Tent City, one couple decided to go the extra mile.

After securing the first spot in line for tickets, Ray Branham and Vicki Harvey opted to get married. According to a post from Drew Franklin of Kentucky Sports Radio, the couple had already been talking about tying the knot, but decided to make the move once they had the top spot in line. As you can see by the wedding video, it was a very Kentucky-themed ceremony as the duo got married in front of friends and other Kentucky fans.

I can’t say I’m surprised two Kentucky fans decided to get married in line for something like Big Blue Madness and this (unplanned) wedding gives this year’s event something unique that we will always remember.