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Weekend Preview: The five biggest story lines this weekend

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The biggest story line of the weekend is No. 2 Kansas paying a visit to No. 4 Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.

We all know that.

We talked all about it on the podcast (here) and in a preview of the game (here).

Beyond that, here are five story lines to track this weekend:

1. Which Duke team is going to show up on Saturday?: As it stands, No. 17 Duke is currently 15-5 overall, but just 3-4 in the ACC. They’ve lost all three of their road games in league play and are coming off of a dreadfully disappointing performance in a home loss to N.C. State on Monday. We detailed what is going wrong with the Blue Devils here, and it’s worth noting that things have gotten bad enough for Duke that Coach K revoked locker room access and has banned the team from wearing clothing with a Duke logo on it.

Which leads us to Saturday.

Duke heads down the road to take on Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons are not all that good this year, but they are usually a tough out in their building, frankly, Duke has done nothing in the last six weeks to make us believe they can go on the road anywhere and come out with a win. Duke’s ceiling this season is still as high as anyone’s ceiling, and every game is going to be a test. Are they getting closer to reaching that ceiling, or is this team still not good?

2. The Big Ten bubble picture is heating up: Northwestern is the most under-reported story in college basketball this season. A program that has never – EVER – made the NCAA tournament is currently sitting at 17-4 overall with a 6-2 record in the Big Ten and a very, very good chance at ending that drought this March. Indiana? They are probably the most over-reported story in the conference, a flawed team whose expectations grew out of control with a pair of early-season wins and whose is now trying to find their way through league play and into the tournament without the services of O.G. Anunoby.

Think about that, for a second. Indiana plays at Northwestern on Saturday, and the Hoosiers probably need this win more than Northwestern does.

That’s not the only Big Ten game with heavy bubble implications.

Michigan’s visit to Michigan State will matter as well. Both of those teams seemed destined to sweat it out on Selection Sunday, although the Spartans and Tom Izzo may be in more trouble than John Beilein’s Wolverines. So Michigan State and Indiana, the two flagship program in the conference, desperately need to win games against Michigan and Northwestern.

What is going on?

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3. Will Gonzaga be No. 1?: The Zags are the nation’s lone undefeated team, and with No. 1 Villanova, No. 2 Kansas and No. 4 Kentucky all losing on Tuesday, there’s a good chance the the Bulldogs could find themselves climb to No. 1 in the country if they can find a way to avoid losing to 5-15 Pepperdine on Saturday.

And if they can get through the weekend without a loss to their name, it’s very likely that, barring a loss at Saint Mary’s in February, the Zags are going to head into the conference tournaments undefeated. And if they get to the conference tournaments undefeated, they’ll be the No. 1 team in the country for the rest of the year and lock themselves into the No. 1 seed out west.

I don’t want to get into a debate about whether or not that should happen (it should, and if you think otherwise you’re probably dumb), I’m just saying that it’s a thing that will happen.

4. Can Georgia Tech land another upset?: I’m not sure Josh Pastner deserves to be in the National Coach of the Year discussion. He may not even deserve to be in the ACC Coach of the Year discussion, at least not yet. But it’s inarguable that he is doing a fantastic job with this Yellow Jacket team. They were picked to finish 14th in the ACC this season, yet entering this weekend, they are sitting at 4-4 in league play – a half-game ahead of Duke – with wins over North Carolina, Florida State, N.C. State and Clemson. No. 14 Notre Dame is terrific, good enough to win the ACC regular season title, but they are coming off of a loss at home to No. 12 Virginia.

5. So was that N.C. State win at Duke a fluke or nah?: The Wolfpack have been bad this season, but on Monday night, they went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and beat the Blue Devils thanks to 32 points and six assists from Dennis Smith Jr. That’s a terrific win for the program’s bragging rights in the state of North Carolina, but beating Duke sounds better in real life than it looks on paper at the moment. That’s what makes Saturday’s visit to the Yum! Center interesting.

N.C. State has been bad on the road this year. Louisville is tough in their building. But the Cardinals will be without their top two points guards, who are both battling injury. This is N.C. State’s chance to make up for losing to Boston College and Georgia Tech.

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 23:  Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack drives in for a dunk as time expires during their win against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 23, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. North Carolina State won 84-82.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Dennis Smith Jr. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Indiana hires Dayton head coach Archie Miller

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Indiana is expected to hire Dayton head coach Archie Miller, the school announced.

The deal will be for seven years, according to The Vertical. Miller had spent the last six seasons as the head coach at Dayton, getting to four straight NCAA tournaments, including the Elite 8 in 2014, while winning the last two Atlantic 10 regular season titles.

Miller had been targeted by seemingly every high major program with an opening since he reached the Elite 8, but similar to Shaka Smart when he left VCU, Miller simply waited for the right job to come long.

Indiana is the right job.

There had been some speculation that Miller wouldn’t want to take Indiana, that his dream job is Ohio State and that the idea of coaching in a fishbowl like Bloomington is not something that would be all that appealing to him. But Indiana is an elite job. It’s the kind of opening that happens once every four or five years, and if Miller had said no to the Hoosiers now, it’s very possible that an opportunity like this wouldn’t come along for years, if ever.

This hire is surprising, not because it’s the wrong hire — I think they got this right — but because Indiana actually made the right decision.

The overwhelming sentiment since Tom Crean was fired was that UCLA head coach Steve Alford would be named the next head coach at Indiana because the Hoosiers wanted an “Indiana Guy”. Alford was born in New Castle, he played at IU for Bobby Knight, he won a national title with the program. The goal was to get the Indiana fan base back, a fan base that was so estranged from the program that Indiana had to play an NIT game on the road as a higher seed because they were reportedly afraid of allowing ESPN’s cameras to see the empty seats.

But just because a hire appeases the fans doesn’t make it the right hire.

Miller was the right hire.

If they really want to get the fans back, winning is the best way to do it. Archie is as good of a bet to win at Indiana as anyone.

Elite 8 Preview: Saturday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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So Friday got good.

If Zak Showalter’s game-tying three and subsequent discount double-check wasn’t enough, we had Canyon Barry’s chasedown block and, well, this game-winner from Chris Chiozza.

And all that came after De’Aaron Fox took out what felt like a season’s worth of frustration out on Lonzo Ball.

What is on tap for tonight?

No. 1 GONZAGA (-8) vs. No. 11 XAVIER, 6:09 p.m., TBS: Someone is going to be making their way to the Final Four for the first time on Saturday night, as Xavier’s Chris Mack and Gonzaga’s Mark Few square off for the right to play on the final weekend of the season.

And in a way, this is the perfect Final Four game. Both the Zags and the Musketeers are basketball schools in basketball leagues. They come from outside the power structure and have head coaches that have spurned jobs from within the power structure to remain there. They are built for a run like this, even if they were both overlooked on the way here.

Xavier was obvious. Playing without Edmond Sumner and Myles Davis, the Musketeers just haven’t been the team that they were supposed to be this season. That’s why they lost six straight games in February, but things have turned around in March, as Trevon Bluiett has put the program on his back and willed them to the Elite 8. Gonzaga is the opposite. They went 29-0 to start the season, but they have yet to be accepted as a legitimate title contender by most of the people that watch the games.

My guess on Saturday night is that the Zags make their statement and emphatically get into the Final Four.

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-8)

No. 1 KANSAS (-7) vs.  No. 3 OREGON, 8:49 p.m., TBS: This matchup is a lot tastier on paper than it is likely going to end up being on the floor. As good as Oregon has been this season, they are, essentially, Kansas light. They play two lead guards together and they play small-ball, with a natural wing lined up at the four.

The problem?

The Kansas guys are just better. Josh Jackson is a better player than Dillon Brooks. His length and athleticism should give the Oregon star fits. Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham are better than whatever combination of Payton Pritchard, Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis the Ducks opt to use.

And, for that matter, no team is playing better right now that they Jayhawks, who beat Michigan State by 20, Purdue by 32 and became the first team to score 90 points in their first three NCAA tournament games since 1995. I think that trend continues on Saturday night.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-7)

Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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Regional Finals – Sunday, March 26

2:20 p.m.,CBS, New York
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Florida (Verne Lundquist, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce)

5:05 p.m., CBS, Memphis
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kentucky (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Steve Alford: ‘I’m very happy at UCLA’

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford was still processing an 86-75 season-ending loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night when he had to answer questions about another blueblood program.

Sine the dismal of Tom Crean at Indiana, Alford has been one of the names rumored to be in the mix for the coaching vacancy. A reporter in the press conference in Memphis didn’t even get a chance to finish his question before Alford cut him off and a publicly state that he was happy in Westwood.

“I said it last week, and I’ll reiterate it again even more so, I guess, that I love Los Angeles,” Alford said. “To begin with, it’s a beautiful place, and our family has fallen in love with it. I’ve got two sons now, Kory first and now Bryce, that have graduated. Bryce is done, so he’s graduating from UCLA, so I’ve got two sons that are graduates from there, a daughter that loves the school she’s going to in Thousand Oaks. I’m very happy. I’m at UCLA. I don’t know of a lot of people that are out there wanting to leave UCLA.

“This is a pretty special place. We’ve worked awfully hard. Our staff has worked hard. We’ve got the No. 2 recruiting class coming in next year. We’re opening a brand-new, state-of-the-art, 60-plus million practice facility, Mo Ostin Center, that is going to be spectacular that we’ve worked awfully hard to be a part of that, and I want to see that through, and we’ve got some special kids that are coming to join us.

“I’m very, very happy where I’m at, and hopefully, that’ll continue.”

Alford won a national championship with the Hoosiers in 1987, scoring more than 2,400 points in his career under head coach Bob Knight. He has been with UCLA since 2013, reaching the Sweet 16 in three of his four seasons with the Bruins.

Crean was fired on March 16 after nine season in Bloomington.

Lonzo Ball has officially declared for the 2017 NBA Draft

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Following a season-ending loss in the Sweet 16 of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, UCLA freshman point guard unsurprisingly announced that he will enter the NBA Draft.

“That was my final game for UCLA. I appreciate the fans,” Ball told reporters.

The 6-foot-6 point guard has a strong case to be the No. 1 overall pick. It could be almost too enticing for the Los Angeles Lakers to pass on a Southern Cal product if the ping pong balls fall in their favor. New Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka were in Memphis for Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky.

Ball, in an All-American freshman season with the Bruins, averaged 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and a nation’s best 7.6 assists per game, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 42 percent from three.

He ended his college career with an 86-75 loss to the Wildcats, scoring 10 points, off 4-of-10 shooting, with eight assists.