Saturday’s Pregame Shootaround: More auto bids decided as conference tourney play keeps rolling

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GAME OF THE NIGHT: UCLA vs. No. 4 Arizona, 5:30 p.m.

While the schedule in the Pac-12 this season only allowed for one game between UCLA (24-8, 12-6) and No. 4 Arizona — the league’s two best teams — the Bruins will get a chance at revenge on Saturday in Las Vegas when they play the Wildcats (30-3, 15-3) for the Pac-12 Tournament title. The Bruins cruised to wins over Oregon and Stanford to get to Arizona and their offense is really rolling right now. Arizona, meanwhile, had big wins of its own against Utah and Colorado. The league’s best offense (UCLA) faces the league’s best defense (Arizona) for a title and both teams are playing well and winning by double-digits so far in the tournament.

THE OTHER GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 22 Michigan State vs. No. 12 Wisconsin, 4:05 p.m.,

Can Sparty get revenge after their two-point loss in Madison earlier this season on February 9th? Michigan State (24-8, 12-6) certainly hopes so and although Michigan State won’t be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, they’ll still be one of the most dangerous teams in the field, if they’re healthy. Wisconsin (26-6, 12-6) actually is playing for a No. 1 seed and the Badgers might have fallen at Nebraska last weekend, but Bo Ryan’s team has still won nine out of its last 10 entering Saturday’s Big Ten Conference Tournament semifinal.

THE OTHER OTHER GAME OF THE NIGHT No. 20 New Mexico vs. No. 8 San Diego St., 6:00 p.m., CBSSN

This should be a good rubber match for the Mountain West Tournament title as these teams have played each other twice in the last few weeks. New Mexico (26-6, 15-3) took down San Diego State (29-3, 16-2) at home on February 22nd, but the Aztecs returned the favor with a March 8th home win. San Diego State has won six straight games since losing to New Mexico on the road while the Lobos are winners of eight of their last nine games with the only loss coming to the Aztecs.

WHO’S GETTING UPSET?: Baylor vs. No 16 Iowa State, 9:00 p.m., ESPN

Would you wanna face Scott Drew’s team right? After Friday’s 86-69 throttling of Texas, Baylor (24-10, 9-9) has won six consecutive games and they’ll be looking for a Big 12 Tournament title with a win over Iowa State. The Bears beat the Cyclones, 74-61, earlier in the month on March 4th, so Baylor has had the recent upper-hand on Iowa State (25-7, 11-7) and they’re offense is firing on all cylinders lately. Baylor has shot 50 percent from the three-point line the last two wins over Oklahoma and Texas, so if they’re shooting well from the perimeter they’ll keep the winning streak alive.

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW

1) Interested to see how North Carolina State (21-12, 9-9) and No. 21 UConn (26-7, 12-6) fair in their respective Saturday games after suffering blowout losses to their opponents earlier this season. The Wolfpack lost, 95-60, at No. 7 Duke (25-7, 13-5) on January 18th, while UConn was swept by No. 5 Louisville (28-5, 15-3), including an 81-48 dismantling last weekend. Can N.C. State bounce back to make it to the ACC Tournament finals and can UConn make a game of the AAC Tournament title game?

2) Should be a fun rubber match in the Big East Championship at Madison Square Garden as Providence (22-11, 10-8) takes on No. 14 Creighton (26-6, 14-4). These teams each won at home in the regular season, including Doug McDermott’s jaw-dropping 45-point display last week in a home win over the Friars. This is Providence’s first trip to the Big East title game since 1994, but do the Friars have enough in the tank thanks to their six-player rotation?

3) While No. 1 Florida (30-2, 18-0) will be looking for its third win over the year against Tennessee (21-11, 11-7), will Kentucky continue to look like a dangerous threat in its SEC Tournament semifinal game against Georgia (19-12, 12-6)? The Wildcats (23-9, 12-6) looked great in their Friday quarterfinal win over LSU and Kentucky looks like they have their confidence back, but will it sustain?

4) Before the SWAC Tournament got underway at the Toyota Center this week there were concerns that the conference title game might be overrun by any of the four SWAC teams that were deemed ineligible for the NCAA Tournament, but still allowed to enter the conference tournament. Thankfully, that won’t be the case when Texas Southern (18-14, 12-6) takes on Prairie View A&M (11-22, 6-12) in a battle of two teams that are eligible for the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers will be the heavy favorite and they’re led by Aaric Murray, a senior post, who has transferred out of LaSalle and West Virginia during his well-traveled college career. Murray averages 21.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game this season.

5) Besides the SWAC Tournament final, there are a number of autobids being decided today:

  • America East: Albany (17-14, 9-7) vs. Stony Brook (23-9, 13-3), 11:30 a.m.
  • Conference USA: Tulsa (20-12, 13-3) vs. Louisiana Tech (27-6, 13-3), 11:35 a.m.
  • MEAC: Morgan State (15-15, 11-5) vs. North Carolina Central (27-5, 15-1), 6:00 p.m.
  • MAC: Toledo (27-5, 14-4) vs. Western Michigan (22-9, 14-4), 6:30 p.m.
  • Big Sky: North Dakota (17-15, 12-8) vs. Weber State (18-11, 14-6), 8:00 p.m.
  • Southland: Sam Houston (23-9, 13-5) vs. Stephen F. Austin (30-2, 18-0), 8:30 p.m.
  • WAC: Idaho (16-17, 7-9) vs. New Mexico State (25-9, 12-4), 10:00 p.m.
  • Big West: Cal Poly (12-19, 6-10) vs. Cal State Northridge (17-17, 7-10), 10:30 p.m.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25:

    • Pittsburgh vs. No. 6 Virginia, 1:00 p.m.
    • No. 24 Ohio State vs. No. 8 Michigan, 1:40 p.m.
    • George Washington vs No. 23 VCU, 4:00 p.m.

Texas Tech forward Zach Smith returns to school after withdrawing from NBA Draft

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Texas Tech forward Zach Smith will return for his senior season, the school confirmed on Monday.

The 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most intriguing athletes in college basketball as he’s been a double-figure scorer for the Red Raiders the past two seasons. As a junior, Smith put up 12.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as he shot 50 percent from the field.

Three-point shooting was something that Smith improved dramatically last season as he increased it to 39 percent in a small sample size. If Smith can continue to show that he’s a perimeter shooting threat then he could be an ideal three-and-d candidate at the pro level.

By returning to Texas Tech, Smith gives head coach Chris Beard a potential all-league candidate who should be counted on to be a double-double threat next season.

 

Missouri lands five-star forward Jontay Porter

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Missouri has another member of the Porter family in the fold as forward Jontay Porter officially committed to the Tigers on Monday night.

Following in the footsteps of older brother Michael Porter Jr., and father Michael Porter Sr., Jontay is currently a member of the Class of 2018 who is rumored to be reclassifying to the Class of 2017.

A 6-foot-10 forward who was recently elevated to five-star status on Rivals.com, Porter is having a monster spring in the Nike EYBL with MoKan Elite. Porter has been one of the best players in the league, as he’s putting up 18.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

If Jontay is able to join Missouri next season then he gives the Tigers another intriguing piece to play alongside his brother Michael, who is good enough to be a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although Jontay isn’t the go-to player that his brother is, he could be a very effective SEC role player early in his career, as his ability to rebound and stretch the floor makes him an extremely intriguing piece on the floor.

Kevin Stallings is a tone-deaf clown

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Pitt guard Cameron Johnson is the most coveted transfer in college basketball this offseason.

The 6-foot-8 Johnson is coming off of a strong campaign with the Panthers in which he put up 11.9 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.

Not only is Johnson a proven double-figure scorer in a league like the ACC, but he’s eligible to play right away thanks to his graduation from Pitt. Johnson graduating from school in three years and missing one season due to injury also makes him the rare graduate transfer who has two seasons of eligibility remaining. So, not only can Johnson come in and make an immediate impact, but he’s also able to stay for another year after.

This sort of thing almost never happens, let alone with a 6-foot-8 shooter that could sway the national title race.

It’s why blueblood programs like Kentucky and UCLA are in hot pursuit of Johnson. It’s why another ACC school, reigning national champion North Carolina, is also intrigued by Johnson being on the market.

Except Johnson won’t be allowed to attend North Carolina, or any other school in the ACC, without first sitting out a season and losing one season of eligibility. At least that’s how things currently stand thanks to Pitt’s power over Johnson — despite Johnson graduating from the school and having no more formal educational ties to the school.

Here’s what Pitt said on the matter in a release to the News-Observer.

“Cameron Johnson and his father were informed of our policy as well as the appeals process when they elected to seek to transfer. They went through our transfer appeals process and were granted permission to contact ACC schools; however, the committee upheld the policy to limit immediate eligibility within the conference.

If Cameron were to transfer within the ACC, he would be eligible to receive financial aid immediately but would have to sit out a year of competition due to standard NCAA transfer regulations. Throughout this process, we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings had a peculiar interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was published about two weeks ago. During the interview, of which the full transcript was made public, Stallings went in-depth about Johnson’s transfer and the current state of college basketball. Stallings also made remarks about how the media holds programs accountable for trying to bully certain players.

Here’s a small sample of what Stallings had to say.

“But the unexpected departures are the things that are becoming more common than uncommon in college basketball. You have guys constantly trying to transfer up. You have guys going pro that have never played a minute of college basketball after they’ve sat out a year at a school. You have guys asking out of their letters of intent with frequency. We’re dealing in a landscape in college basketball right now that is as probably as difficult and peculiar as it’s ever been. It used to be if a kid signed his letter of intent and he wanted out of it, you had to play a year of junior-college ball to get out of it.

“The media didn’t basically force institutions to let people break a binding agreement. It’s kind of interesting now the media tries to put so much pressure on programs, whether it be athletic directors or coaches, saying ‘Well, the coaches can move.’ Well, hey, guess what? I’ve got a great big buyout in my deal that prevents me from moving. I’ve got something in my contract saying I can’t go to another league school. It’s not as easy for coaches to go. That’s everyone’s rationale — ‘Well, the coaches can leave.’ We’re dealing in an environment right now that is as fluid as it’s ever been. It’s just where we’re at in the whole thing with the unexpected departures.”

Stallings makes some sound points–particularly about coaches having buyouts and the general perception of coaching changes in basketball.

But Kevin Stallings mostly sounds like a tone-deaf clown here.

Nobody is going to feel sorry for a millionaire coach who willingly makes the decision to change jobs.

Nobody.

Especially if that same millionaire is comparing a choice to change jobs to the transfer decisions of unpaid student-athletes. It’s even more laughable now that Stallings is holding power over an unpaid student-athlete from going to play at another school because of purely basketball reasons.

Pitt and Stallings need to do the right thing and release Johnson to play at any school right away because Johnson has already done everything he needs to do to appease the program.

Things changed dramatically for Johnson during his three years at Pitt. He became one of the ACC’s better players and earned his degree. Johnson held up his end of the bargain when he signed his Letter of Intent.  Now Johnson just wants the chance improve his basketball future by playing with one of the nation’s elite programs.

Stallings can blame the current state of college basketball, the media, or whoever he wants for Johnson’s transfer from Pitt.

But Stallings also has to realize that he’s going to be the one who looks stupid if he continues to leave these restrictions in place for Johnson. Stallings already has a history of this sort of thing when he placed transfer restrictions on former player Sheldon Jeter. If Stallings continues to uphold transfer restrictions on Johnson, then he’s going to gain a permanent reputation in recruiting during a time when players continue to gain more freedom over their basketball futures.

If Johnson does happen to go to an ACC school like North Carolina, it’s not as if Pitt has any sort of competitive roster that is going to be fighting the Tar Heels for league supremacy during the next two seasons.

Stallings and Pitt need to just bite the bullet, let Johnson have his freedom, and hope it doesn’t come back to hurt them for one or two seasons in ACC play.

It surely beats the alternative of being labeled a head coach who limits player freedom after six players left Pitt during a single offseason. That type of burn lasts a lot longer than two years.

Presbyterian hires Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns as new head coach

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Presbyterian finally has its new head coach as the program is set to hire Wofford assistant coach Dustin Kerns, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Kerns has been an assistant at Wofford for the past seven years during his second stint with the program. Also spending six seasons as an assistant coach at Santa Clara, the Tennessee native is getting his first shot at running his own program.

Finishing last in the Big South last season at 5-25 and 1-17 in conference play, Presbyterian is trying to rebuild after head coach Gregg Nibert resigned in April. Nibert was the head coach of the Blue Hens for 28 seasons, so Kerns is going to be a completely fresh start for the program.

Tennessee lands impact graduate transfer James Daniel

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Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes earned a commitment from one of the top graduate transfers on the market on Monday when Howard guard James Daniel pledged to the Volunteers.

The 6-foot-0 Daniel was the nation’s leading scorer at 27.1 points per game his junior season in 2015-16. Daniel played in only two games last season as a left ankle injury caused him to have surgery.

With nearly 2,000 career points to his name, Daniel gives Tennessee an additional perimeter scorer who should come in and make an immediate impact right away. While Howard has low shooting percentages and a high usage rate during his time at Howard, it’ll be interesting to see how the year off and more talented teammates will alter his game.

If Howard can be a more efficient scorer in his final season, then he has a chance to be one of the better players for the Volunteers this season.