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Weekend Preview: Breaking down Saturday’s loaded slate

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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 7 Duke at No. 14 Louisville, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN)

The most interesting matchup of the day might not end up being all that exciting of a game. Louisville is a smothering defensive team, one not so much built on forcing turnovers like past teams were, but a team built on making it tough to run offense and forcing you to take bad shots. This is a problem for the Blue Devils, because they are a team without a point guard at the moment. Grayson Allen is doing the job pretty well, but he’s a playmaker built to attack, not a guy that is a natural facilitator.

And then there is the issue of Duke’s defense. It’s not very good. At all. That’s good news for a Louisville team that struggles to score at times. Then consider that Duke’s best interior defender and defensive rebounder, Amile Jefferson, is not expected to play, and the No. 13 team in offensive rebounding percentage should have a field day pushing around Harry Giles III and Marques Bolden.

But here’s the most important thing to remember: In 2015, Duke was in the midst of a similar crisis of identity. They had just lost at N.C. State and been blown out at home by Miami. They were 2-2 in the ACC and everyone in the world was questioning whether a team with Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow actually deserved the hype they had entering the season and whether they were actually tough enough to defend at the ACC level. Their next game was at Louisville, a top ten team that looked the part of an ACC title contender, and Duke smoked them. They were up 32-20 at the half. They pushed that lead to 20 in the second half.

The Blue Devils, if you recall, won the national title that year.

  • PREDICTION: The biggest difference between 2015 and 2017? Coach K is not on the bench this year. I’ll take Louisville (-4).
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25: Dwayne Bacon #4 of the Florida State Seminoles drives to the basket against the Illinois Fighting Illiniin the second half during the consolation game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center on November 25, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Dwayne Bacon (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

No. 9 Florida State at No. 11 North Carolina, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)

The Seminoles are one of just two undefeated teams in the ACC as of today, and their schedule has been anything but fluff. They won at Virginia, which is not an easy thing to do or as impressive as their 16 point win over Duke on Tuesday night. This is probably the best team that Leonard Hamilton has ever had in Tallahassee, and if they can somehow manage to land a win at North Carolina on Saturday, it will be time to call them the favorite to win the league.

But the Tar Heels are not going to roll over easy. This is a team that has been as impressive as anyone in the country when they’re playing at full health against teams not named Georgia Tech. Justin Jackson vs. Dwayne Bacon may be the best individual matchup that we get on Saturday.

  • PREDICTION: I do think that UNC wins this game, but I don’t think that Florida State gets run out of the gym. Seminoles (+7.5) is pretty tasty.

No. 15 Xavier at No. 12 Butler, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (FS1)

It’s hard to know which of these two teams need this win more. Xavier hasn’t done anything yet this season to warrant their rankings – we’ll get into that later on in this column, I promise – while Butler has one of the weirder résumés in the sport. The Bulldogs have beaten Villanova, Arizona, Cincinnati, Indiana and won at Utah. They’ve also lost to Indiana State and St. John’s and got obliterated by Creighton on Wednesday night. Both of these teams really, really need a win to get things headed in the right direction.

  • PREDICTION: Butler’s three losses all have something in common: they came on the road. Xavier? They lost by 15 at Baylor, at Colorado and by 25 at Villanova. Butler (-4.5).

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No. 21 Saint Mary’s at No. 5 Gonzaga, Sat. 10:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

You’re going to have to stay up late to watch this one, but who are we kidding. It’s a Saturday night. You’re going to be up late anyway, so it will be worth your time to check out one of the most underappreciated rivalries in the country getting played in one of the best atmospheres you’ll find in sports anywhere. And should I mention that both of these teams are pretty freakin’ good this season? I know we say this every year, but I think this is finally the team that gets Mark Few to the Final Four, while Randy Bennett has a talented, veteran group built around point guard Emmett Naar and potential all-american big man Jock Landale.

  • PREDICTION: You don’t win at Gonzaga, and you don’t hang with Gonzaga in the Kennel. Zags (-6).

FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 19 Virginia at Clemson, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ACC Network): After losing to Georgia Tech during the week, Clemson is digging themselves a hole they may not be able to get out of. The good news? The ACC is strong enough they’ll have plenty of chances. Prediction: Clemson (+2.5)
  • No. 20 Notre Dame at Virginia Tech, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ACC Network): The Fighting Irish have developed quite a reputation winning close games this season. They’re 4-0 in the ACC and all four wins are by single-digits. Prediction: Notre Dame (+2.5)
  • No. 1 Baylor at No. 25 Kansas State, Sat. 4:30 p.m. (ESPNU): No team in college basketball has had worse luck in conference play. They lost at Kansas because Svi Mykhailiuk cannot travel and they lost at Texas Tech when the referees swallowed their whistles. Prediction: I liked Kansas State (+1), and I think KSU wins, but I don’t love the Wildcats (-2)
  • No. 4 UCLA at Utah, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (Pac-12): Utah is coming off of a 20-point win over No. 25 USC on Thursday night. UCLA will play their second game at elevation in three days. Prediction: (UCLA (-5)
  • Wichita State at Illinois State, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPN2): Two 5-0 teams in the Missouri Valley square off on Saturday night. Prediction: Wichita State (-2.5)
CHAPEL HILL, NC - DECEMBER 11: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after a play during their game against the Tennessee Volunteers at Dean Smith Center on December 11, 2016 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Justin Jackson (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

FIVE STORY LINES TO KEEP AN EYE ON

1. We’re going to have a much clearer picture of the ACC hierarchy after Saturday: The way I see it, there are five teams that can legitimately win the ACC regular season title right now: No. 7 Duke, No. 9 Florida State, No. 11 North Carolina, No. 14 Louisville and No. 20 Notre Dame. On Saturday, Duke plays at Louisville and Florida State plays at North Carolina.

If Florida State wins at UNC, it may be time to pencil the Seminoles in as the outright ACC title favorites. They would have wins at Virginia and at North Carolina under their belt with a 16-point home win over Duke as well. The loser of the Duke-Louisville game, then, would likely be out of the running for a regular season title already. That would be loss No. 3 for either team.

2. Just how long will Gonzaga remain undefeated?: There is just one undefeated team left in college basketball today, and that is Gonzaga. And like the run Wichita State made during the 2013-14 season (and, frankly, like Kentucky the following season) the Bulldogs play in a conference where running the table is very possible. It’s not going to be easy, as every gym Gonzaga will walk into will be rocking as they play in their opponent’s Super Bowl, but the Bulldogs will be the heavy favorite in essentially every game they play the rest of the season.

Except for when they square off with Saint Mary’s, a top 20 team in their own right. The Bulldogs host the Gaels on Saturday night. They visit Moraga on Feb. 11th. If the Zags are going to have their undefeated run ended before March, it will probably happen in one of those two games.

3. Does Baylor avoid losing two in a row as the No. 1 team in the country?: The feel-good story of the season came crashing back to earth on Tuesday, as Baylor, then-undefeated and No. 1 for the first time in program history, went into Morgantown and got absolutely mollywhopped by No. 10 West Virginia. The Bears turned the ball over 29 times and, frankly, we made to look like an overmatched buy-game opponent instead of a legitimate contender to the Big 12 title. That came after Baylor struggled to dispatch Iowa State and Oklahoma State at home.

This weekend, the Bears head right back out on the road, playing at a Kansas State team that is better than you probably realize. The Wildcats would’ve had a chance to beat Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse had someone called Svi Mykhailiuk for a travel on the final play. They also would’ve beaten Texas Tech on the road if the referees in Lubbock hadn’t swallowed their whistles. Bruce Weber has himself a squad, and going into the Octagon of Doom is not an easy task for anyone.

Here’s the catch – if Baylor really is going to be a Big 12 title contender, if they are going to push a Kansas team that hasn’t been anywhere other than the top of the conference standings for the last dozen years, they have to do things like bounce-back from getting whooped to beat a good team on the road. That’s what conference champions do.

Can Baylor do it?

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins brings the ball up the court against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UCLA won 86-73. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Lonzo Ball (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

4. UCLA is going to be tested by Utah: The nicest thing that Colorado ever did for UCLA was to let them get a relatively easy win on Thursday night, because that means that the Bruins didn’t have to burn through their legs playing at altitude when they have to make the trip to Salt Lake City to face off with the Utes 48 hours later.

And, it should be noted, that Utah is much better now than they were a month ago. On Thursday night, they smoked No. 25 USC, a win that propelled them to 3-1 in the league. Their only loss came at Arizona, who is a game ahead of the pace. The difference came when Sedrick Barefield and David Collette were able to get eligible in December, meaning that the Utes now have depth and balance and a response when teams are able to slow down Kyle Kuzma and Lorenzo Bonam. This game will be the chance Utah needs to prove themselves a threat in the league race.

5. What has Xavier done to make us believe they should be ranked where they are?: The Musketeers entered the season as a top 10-15 team, depending on where it is you go to get your college basketball team rankings. They’re currently ranked 15th, but what have they done this season to justify that ranking? A neutral court win over Clemson back in November? Because since then, they’ve lost at Baylor, they’ve lost at Colorado and they got smoked at Villanova. None of the wins they’ve landed since then are worth much of anything. On Saturday, they play at Butler. We’re halfway through the season, and there’s nothing on the Musketeers résumé to prove to us that this is a team that’s good.

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 20: Edmond Sumner #4 of the Xavier Musketeers reacts after a play in the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 20, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Edmond Sumner (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

VIDEO: LaVar Ball gets female ref replaced after threatening to pull team from court

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A female referee was removed from a Big Ballers game after LaVar Ball threatened to pull his team from the court for the second time in a week.

The referee called Ball for a technical foul, which sparked the confrontation, but both Ball and an adidas rep told ESPN’s Jeff Borzello that the reason the ref was pulled was because she and Ball had a previous issue:

Before the game was over, Ball would receive a second technical foul and the game was eventually called with two minutes left and Big Ballers losing by 10.

Western Kentucky’s five-star recruit Mitchell Robinson has left campus

McDonalds All-American game
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The soap opera that has been Mitchell Robinson’s tenure at Western Kentucky took another on Friday, as the five-star center and top ten prospect in the Class of 2017 has reportedly left campus.

Robinson was a massive coup for Rick Stansbury when he committed to and signed for the Hilltoppers, but it has been non-stop drama since then. Less than two weeks after his commitment, Robinson tweeted that he would be decommitting from WKU before immediately deleting the tweet and claiming that his account was hacked. Robinson did not attend the first session of summer school on campus, and he was in class in the second summer school session and reportedly practicing with the team this month for a trip to Costa Rica, but he cleaned out his dorm room and left the campus last night.

Part of the reason that Robinson opted to go to Western Kentucky was that his godfather, former UNC star Shammond Williams, was an assistant coach on the staff. Williams left the program on July 3rd, and ever since then there have been questions surrounding where Robinson will play this season. There have been rumors that he will be heading overseas for a year before entering the 2018 NBA Draft, and there is also the potential that Robinson could end up transferring to a different college.

The question, however, is whether or not Robinson will be able to transfer and play immediately without sitting out a year since he enrolled in summer school.

Robinson is a 7-foot center and a terrific defensive prospect that is projected as a first round pick next year. If he does get a waiver to transfer, he immediately becomes the best available talent on the market, along with Marvin Bagley III, who is considering reclassifying.

Virginia, Seton Hall, Rhode Island, Vandy in NIT Tip-Off

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NEW YORK (AP) — Virginia and Vanderbilt will meet in one semifinal of the NIT Preseason Tip-Off on Thanksgiving Day at Barclays Center.

Rhode Island and Seton Hall face off in the other semifinal with the winners meeting on Friday, Nov. 24.

This is the third straight year the Tip-Off has been held at Barclays Center. Eventual NCAA champion Villanova won the event in 2015. All games will be televised on ESPNU.

Non-bracketed teams in the NIT Season Tip-Off who will play games at campus sites are: Austin Peay, Fairleigh Dickinson, Monmouth, Oakland City and UNC Asheville.

Miles Bridges explain why he returned to Michigan State

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Miles Bridges changed the landscape of the 2017-18 college basketball season on April 13.

The Michigan State forward spurned the NBA for another year in East Lansing. The decision not only meant that Bridges was a frontrunner for national player of the year, but solidified the Spartans as a national title contender.

But Bridges’ choice to return was still puzzling to many. The 6-foot-7 forward was projected as a lottery pick. Bridges explained his decision to Mike Decourcy of Sporting News in a story published on Thursday.

“He says, ‘You know what, Coach? I want to get better. I don’t want to be in the D-League. I’ve got buddies that are, and I just want to make sure when I go, I’m ready,’ ” Izzo recalled to Sporting News. “I looked at him and I said, ‘Done deal.’ For me, that was a done deal. It was a reasonable, sensible argument.”

Agents, friends, reporters, scouts, acquaintances, fans, strangers and family members — oh and, as we said, coaches — all had one opinion about how Bridges should spend the next year of his life. Miles had another, opposing, viewpoint.

Bridges told Decourcy that support came from his teammates, many of whom were returning to the team as well. Assuming the backcourt of Cassius Winston and Josh Langford make a leap forward, as well as incoming freshman Jaren Jackson providing an immediate impact, the Spartans’ title hopes could become a reality.

Bridges averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 boards, 2.1 assists and 1.5 blocks as a freshman at Michigan State. He’s rated as the No. 5 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft by DraftExpress.

Four conferences sign on to basketball officiating alliance

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Four more Division I conferences will join a men’s basketball officiating alliance formed last year by the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big East, the Atlantic 10 and Colonial Athletic Association.

The Big South, the Ivy League, the Northeast and the Patriot League are joining ahead of the 2017-18 season, according to announcements from the leagues Thursday. The alliance launched last summer for conferences to work together on officiating matters and enhance training, development, recruitment, retention and feedback for officials.

John Cahill, the Big East’s supervisor of officials, and Bryan Kersey, the ACC’s coordinator of men’s basketball officiating, will continue to lead the alliance operations.

ACC commissioner John Swofford says the new additions to the alliance “provide an even greater opportunity to build chemistry and quality” across the officiating ranks.