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.

Final Four Preview: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 3 Oregon

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The nightcap on Saturday should be a thrilling matchup between the two big dogs left in the tournament.

It’s something of a weird matchup: North Carolina wants to play fast but pounds the ball inside while Oregon is going to try and keep the tempo at a reasonable pace.

Here’s a look at the second game at this year’s Final Four:

WHEN: Saturday April 1st, 8:49 p.m.

BETTING LINE: North Carolina (-5)

THREE KEY MATCHUPS

1. Does North Carolina make Oregon go big or will Oregon force UNC to play small?: Without Chris Boucher available, Oregon has gone full-time to a small-ball look, playing Dillon Brooks at the four. North Carolina is never, ever going to play small-ball, as Roy Williams is one of the last remaining coaches that still plays two big men almost regardless of the situation. It’s part of the reason that the Tar Heels are the nation’s best offensive rebounding team.

Something is going to have to give. Maybe it’s Isaiah Hicks, the guy that will likely be tasked with chasing around Brooks for UNC and who has developed quite the habit of getting into foul trouble. Maybe Dana Altman will be forced to play Kavell Bigby-Williams and Jordan Bell together to keep the Tar Heels for controlling the paint. Hell, Bell could very well end up looking like Ben Wallace once again and control the paint all on his own.

However it plays out, I can see this matchup being what changes things one way or the other.

2. How do the Tar Heels deal with Oregon’s switching defenses?: The Ducks used a number of different looks against Kansas to take the Jayhawks out of a rhythm offensively. They played some man and they played some matchup zone, and it helped keep Josh Jackson and Devonte’ Graham from finding any kind of a rhythm on the perimeter. I don’t think it’s a hot take to say that more than anything, it was Kansas missing shots they normally make that cost them in the second half, and Oregon’s ability to change defenses and keep them off balance played a major role in that.

So how does North Carolina deal with those different looks? They’re fall less reliant on the three ball than Kansas is, and their size might be able to nullify Bell’s presence on the interior. It will also be interesting to see how the Ducks deal with Justin Jackson on that end, as they don’t really have a player on the roster than can handle his height (6-foot-8), ability to put the ball on the floor and shooting touch.

3. Is Joel Berry II or Tyler Dorsey better?: Justin Jackson is North Carolina’s best player and was deservedly named an all-american for the Tar Heels this season, but North Carolina goes as Joel Berry II goes. He rolled his ankle in UNC’s first round win over Texas Southern and shot 3-for-21 in two games during the first weekend, one of which was a near-upset at the hands of Arkansas. When he was back near 100 percent, he had 26 points on 8-for-13 shooting in a beatdown of No. 4 seed Butler in the Sweet 16.

Berry has a favorable matchup in the back court on Saturday, likely drawing freshman point guard Payton Pritchard when Oregon goes man-t0-man, and if he’s healthy, he should be able to take advantage of that. The problem? Berry rolled his other ankle against Kentucky on Sunday. He’ll have six days to get back to being himself, because the Tar Heels are going to need him.

Along those same lines, Brooks has been Oregon’s best player for two years, but Tyler Dorsey is playing as well as anyone in the country right now. When he’s putting up 24 points a night, Oregon is a different — a better — team. I expect that he’ll have to deal with Theo Pinson, who is UNC’s best perimeter defender and, at 6-foot-6, will have a size advantage on Dorsey.

Odds are pretty good at this point that one of those two is going to have a big game.

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

THE BEST STORY LINE: Everything about this North Carolina run is fascinating, so take your pick here:

  • The Tar Heels, just a year removed from a brutal, heart-breaking, soul-crushing loss at the buzzer to Villanova are back in the Final Four as the favorite to win the national title.
  • For the second straight year, the Tar Heels are in the Final Four with the weight of an NCAA investigation looming over them. The NCAA’s ruling on the academic scandal involving the athletic department keeps getting pushed back, which means that we’ll be hearing from plenty of people that UNC shouldn’t even be allowed to be eligible for this tournament. Trust me. It’ll be a thing.
  • If North Carolina does win, where does Roy Williams rank among the greatest coaches of all-time? He’ll be one of just six with three national titles.

CBT PREDICTION: North Carolina (-5)

Final Four Preview: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 7 South Carolina

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The first game of this weekend’s Final Four will feature the two outsiders that have crashed the final weekend of the college basketball season: No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 7 seed South Carolina. 

This is the first Final Four for both Frank Martin and Mark Few, meaning one of the two will be playing for a national title on Monday night.

Here is everything you need to know about the Final Four opener:

WHEN: Saturday April 1st, 6:09 p.m.

BETTING LINE: Gonzaga (-6.5)

THREE KEY MATCHUPS

1. Who checks Sindarius Thornwell?: Thornwell has been the best player in the NCAA tournament to date, and it’s really not all that close. He’s not only the leading scorer in the NCAA tournament to date at 25.7 points, but he’s also been a lockdown defender for the Gamecocks.

But the reason Thornwell is going to be such a problem for Gonzaga is ability on the offensive end of the floor. At 6-foot-5 with long arms and the physicality of a nose tackle, Thornwell can bully guards in the paint. But you can’t guard him with a bigger defender because he is, after all, a guard. He’ll blow by them or shoot a three over them when given space.

Gonzaga doesn’t really have an answer for a guy like that. None of their guards are taller than 6-foot-4. Few put Johnathan Williams III on Trevon Bluiett in the Elite 8 and he slowed down the Xavier star, but Xavier trots out a small-ball line with Bluiett at the four. Thornwell will, at times, play the four for South Carolina, but the Gamecocks start two bigs. The easy answer is to double Thornwell on the catch, as South Carolina’s bigs, Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar, are non-shooters, which is why I expect South Carolina will eventually be forced to play small.

2. Can Gonzaga’s guards do anything against that South Carolina defense?: South Carolina and West Virginia play different defenses — WVU presses 94 feet while South Carolina plays half-court man-to-man or a 2-3 zone — but the point or their defenses are essentially the same: They want to force you out of the sets you want to run and make your playmakers try to beat their defenders one-on-one.

And the Mountaineers were totally successful. Nigel Williams-Goss was awful — 2-for-10 shooting five turnovers — and Josh Perkins was invisible, and the game became a rugby match, which is exactly how WVU and SC want to play. Offensively, Gonzaga is a similar team to Baylor in the sense that their guards aren’t great at creating off the dribble against players that are more physical and more athletic than them and they are at their best when they run offense through the post.

Baylor’s guards couldn’t do anything against South Carolina, and they lost by 20. Gonzaga’s guards are significantly better — Williams-Goss is an All-American — but if they struggle the way they did against West Virginia, Gonzaga might be in trouble.

3. Who wins the battle of the front courts?: Like I said earlier, Gonzaga’s offense is at its best when they are getting the rock to Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Williams III in the post. As tough as South Carolina’s front court is, they are going to be at a serious size disadvantage against Mount Poland and JW3, and that’s to say nothing of Zach Collins, a McDonald’s All-American and a potential one-and-done prospect. If Gonzaga can force South Carolina to play big — with Thornwell at the three instead of at the four — they’ll have a much better shot at winning this game.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

THE BEST STORY LINE: Both of these teams are programs that probably shouldn’t be in the Final Four.

And I don’t mean that as an insult.

Gonzaga, 25 years ago, was one of the worst programs in the WCC, but they’ve managed to hold on to a potential Hall of Famer in Mark Few for 18 years, and it’s paid off. They’re now a top 15 college basketball program in the Final Four. And South Carolina is a place with almost no basketball history to speak of. This is their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance since 1974. Prior to their upset of Duke in the second round of the tournament, South Carolina had never won back-to-back NCAA tournament games.

It doesn’t matter who wins.

It’s incredible that one of these two teams will be playing for a national title on Monday night.

CBT PREDICTION: I like South Carolina (+6.5). I don’t know if the Gamecocks can win this game, but I do think that they will be able to keep it close in a low-scoring game as Sindarius Thornwell as another big game and their defense keeps them in the mix.

Report: Referee that worked Kentucky’s Elite 8 loss receives death threats

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Yesterday, we told you about the Kentucky fans that were flooding the FaceBook page of a referee with negative — and obviously fake — reviews and comments, torpedoing his company’s star rating on the site.

As our Travis Hines wrote, “What could be considered a silly bit of online pranking by a small minority suddenly turns into an avalanche of nastiness that could do real damage to someone’s life, business and family, given the importance of social media for companies in 2017. It becomes cruel when it reaches a level like this.”

This story took a darker turn on Wednesday morning, as ESPN reporting that the referee has received harassing phone calls at both his home and his business while also receiving death threats.

From ESPN:

Sources said the phones at Higgins’ home and business, also known as Rooferees, have been “ringing off the hook” since the game, with angry Kentucky fans calling to complain and some even going so far as to make death threats.

Come on, people.

All this because you didn’t like the calls a ref made in a game where the 18-year olds who play basketball in your favorite school’s jersey lost?

The overwhelming majority of Big Blue Nation are good folks that love their ‘Cats and own too many articles of clothing that are Kentucky blue. But as with every fan base, the vocal minority of idiots ruins the fun for everyone.

The Seven Biggest Final Four Storylines

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1. Gonzaga’s chance to win a national title: To me, this is the most fascinating part of the Final Four, and it’s not because Gonzaga needs to win to make the statement that they are an elite college basketball program. I don’t believe that to be true or a fair assessment of what they are right now. The Zags are a perennial top 15 team, they’ve reached 19 straight NCAA tournaments and won in 16 in those 19 dances, they recruit McDonald’s All-Americans that are talented enough to go one-and-done and they currently start an All-American point guard that began his career playing for arch-rival Washington.

They’re doing just fine.

What would make this story so incredible is the rags-to-riches ride that Gonzaga is on. 25 years ago, Gonzaga was thought of as the worst job in the WCC. They don’t have a natural recruiting base — Spokane is basically in Idaho, it ain’t Seattle — and there weren’t facilities in place to set that program apart from any other in the league. They didn’t reach an NCAA tournament until 1995, but by 1999 they were in the Elite 8, they reached the Sweet 16 in back-to-back years after that, and the rest is history. They went from a high school gym to an arena that holds 6,000 people and is a bucket-list destination for all college hoops fans. They went from not having a weight room to chartering flights for recruiting trips.

They went from the bottom of Division I to the pinnacle of the sport. Completing that journey with a national title would only be fitting.

2. North Carolina’s redemption run, Roy Williams one of the greatest ever?: One year ago, North Carolina was on the receiving end of one of the most soul-crushing title game defeats ever. In any sport. To erase a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes against Villanova, hitting a miracle three with 4.7 seconds left to tie the game, only to have it disappear with one Kris Jenkins jumper is brutal.

But the Tar Heels, despite losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, are right back in the Final Four as the favorite to win the title. And if they do win, it may be time to start calling Roy Williams one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all-time. As in top five. Think about it like this: If Roy cuts down the nets again, he’ll have won three national titles in a 12-year span and become one of just six men — John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, Jim Calhoun, Bob Knight — to win that many rings and one of just three to do so in the modern era of college basketball, since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

He’s won eight ACC titles in the last 14 years compared to Coach K’s three. He’s been to five Final Fours in the last 14 years and nine total, the fourth-most of all-time. Most think of Williams as a coach that just rolls the ball out there, but maybe it’s time we starting giving him credit for being one of the greatest to ever do it.

3. Frank Martin has South Carolina in the Final Four: While Gonzaga is the mid-major program in this Final Four, the “outsider” so to speak, the program that doesn’t belong here is South Carolina. The Gamecocks have little to no basketball history to speak. This is just their fifth NCAA Tournament since 1974. Prior to this season, they had never won back-to-back games in the NCAA tournament. They lucked into Frank Martin because this was a comfortable landing spot when he wanted out of Kansas State because he didn’t get along with his boss.

And now Martin, who is an underdog in his own right, is just two games away from winning a national title. Who would’ve thought that any of that was possible?

4. West Coast is back!: For the first time since 2008, we have a team from went of the central time zone playing in the Final Four; two, actually. That also means that we may end up getting our first national champion that’s further west than Kansas since Arizona won the title in 1997. Mike Bibby was the point guard of that team. His son was a freshman at South Florida this year. It’s been a while.

5. Dana Altman’s handling of the Oregon rape case: Altman probably should have been fired three years ago. The basics: days before the start of the Pac-12 tournament, three Oregon players — Brandon Austin, Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis — were accused of sexual assault by a female student at the university. Two of those players played in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments, although Altman claimed he did not know details of the investigation — the allegations, the accused, etc. — only that there was an investigation, so he did not suspended his players.

Two months later, the graphic details of the allegations were released in a police report, and the three players were dismissed from the program. It also should be noted here than Austin was brought into the program despite having a previous sexual assault allegation hanging over his head, a fact that Altman also claimed ignorance of.

Altman will be asked about this.

(Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

6. The one-and-done factories aren’t in the Final Four: Duke got bounced in the second round. UCLA and Arizona lost in the Sweet 16. Kentucky and Kansas went out in the Elite 8. Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith Jr. and Jarrett Allen didn’t make the tournament. Miles Bridges and Jonathan Isaac lost in the first weekend and no one thought much of it. Given just how loaded this freshmen class was, i’s a pretty surprising result that there are no one-and-done stars in the Final Four.

There are a couple of freshmen that may have the opportunity to turn pro this spring — Gonzaga’s Zach Collins and North Carolina’s Tony Bradley — but those two played their way into being potential first round picks coming off the bench. They weren’t recruited as one-and-dones.

What does this say about the one-and-done culture?

Probably nothing beyond the fact that Kentucky lost on a buzzer-beater and Kansas played like Kansas State against Oregon. But it is worth noting.

7. Can North Carolina win a title while waiting for the NCAA to rule on them?: This is probably going to end up being the elephant in the room every time that Roy Williams steps up to the podium to speak this week. As you are probably well aware, the UNC athletic department has been mired in a scandal involving fake classes that helped keep athletes eligible for what feels like a decade. Due to legal battles regarding the Notice of Allegations, the case has been pushed back and pushed back and pushed back again. At this point, I think that the sun will burn out and Jim Boeheim will retire before we actually get an answer here.

Here’s the better question: If Williams wins a title this season, will this be his curtain call?

Kentucky fans flood Facebook page of official John Higgins’ company with negative reviews

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Unhappy with how John Higgins performed at his part-time job, Kentucky fans did their best trash him at his full-time gig.

The Facebook page of the referee’s Omaha-based roofing company was flooded by Big Blue Nation with negative comments and reviews after they were displeased with the official’s work in the Wildcats’ Elite Eight loss to North Carolina.

Not only did fans leave obviously fake and vulgar comments on the page, they also deluged it with one-star reviews to drive down its average significantly.

Once again, the Internet is struck by its proportionality problem. What could be considered a silly bit of online pranking by a small minority suddenly turns into an avalanche of nastiness that could do real damage to someone’s life, business and family, given the importance of social media for companies in 2017. It becomes cruel when it reaches a level like this.

When there’s so many general complaints about the state of officiating in college basketball, it’s also not helpful to do something like this to one of the referees generally considered to be one of the country’s best. It’s not exactly a glowing endorsement for prospective future officials to follow the career path if it brings this level of negative attention to you off the court.