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Weekend Preview: Four story lines to follow

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1. The rest of the N.C. State season will be awkward?: Mark Gottfried was fired by the university on Thursday, which didn’t come as a surprise. Smoke was rising, and the Wolfpack were sinking. They were 14-13 and 3-11 in the ACC following a 24-point home loss to North Carolina, which followed a 30-point loss to Wake Forest. The Wolfpack are 13th in a 14 team ACC and have lost six straight since their upset win at Duke.

And all of that came after a 16-17 season in 2015-17.

So no, it wasn’t a surprise that Gottfried was let go by the university. What was mildly surprising, however, was that he and athletic director Debbie Yow agreed that he would be able to coach out the rest of the season, four regular season games and N.C. State’s trip to the NCAA tournament, which means that I now am rooting for one thing and one thing only: N.C. State to make the NCAA tournament.

Seriously.

Think about how awesome that would be.

The lame-duck head coach, the one that’s been to four NCAA tournaments in five-plus years in Raleigh, rallies a group that has the talent to get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament after he already received his pink slip. I feel pretty confident saying that has never happened before in the history of the sport, and I also feel pretty confident saying that it will be make things in Raleigh even more awkward.

Some sportswriters root for the best story. Me? I root for chaos, and how could anything be more chaotic than what would happen at N.C. State if Gottfried gets them back into the NCAA tournament?

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2. The Big Ten title race will see some movement: The way things currently stand, Wisconsin, Maryland and Purdue are all tied for first place in the Big Ten with five games remaining. On Sunday, Wisconsin and Maryland square off, meaning that there will be, at most, two teams in the league of the conference come Monday morning. Purdue gets Michigan State at home in a game that the Spartans badly need if they’re going to get into the NCAA tournament.

The x-factor here? Bronson Koening is not healthy. He played just 15 minutes in the loss at home against Northwestern. He didn’t play in Thursday’s loss at Michigan. Maryland, on the other hand, got 30 points out of Melo Trimble in Wednesday night’s win at Northwestern.

Is it possible that Wisconsin, who led the Big Ten by two full games last Sunday, will be out of first place just one week later?

3. Kansas vs. Baylor: A top five battle between the two teams at the top of the Big 12 standings? Yes, please.

There is a lot to go over with this matchup – we do that here – but there are two specific story lines that need to be tracked in this game. First and foremost is the streak. Kansas, obviously, has won 12 straight Big 12 regular season titles, and they’re currently up two games on Baylor in the Big 12 standings. A win on Saturday would give them the outright Big 12 title barring the kind of collapse we only see out of Iowa.

The other side of it, however, is that Baylor is still fighting for a No. 1 seed, but the Bears have lost three of their last five games – including games against Kansas State and Texas Tech – and are no longer a lock for that top seed line, not with the top of the ACC surging. Beating the Jayhawks would be a nice way to keep themselves as a No. 1 seed while also making the Big 12 race relevant down the stretch of the season.

4. Is Kentucky back in their groove?: Two weeks ago, Kentucky bounced back from a stretch where they lost three out of four games by beating a terrible LSU team at home by seven points, a game where they hemorrhaged 58 points second half points.

That convinced Coach Cal to run through a three-hour practice that focused entirely on the defensive side of the ball, and the response has been two wins in a row, at Alabama and at home over Tennessee. On Saturday, the Wildcats pay a visit to Georgia, who was the only team that Kentucky was able to beat in that four-game stretch. That win came at home, in overtime and as a direct result of Malik Monk going absolutely bonkers in the second half.

The Bulldogs are a better team than their record might indicate. Yante Maten and J.J. Frazier may be the best 1-2 punch in the conference. This game will be the test that lets us know if the Wildcats are back to being the team we saw earlier in the season.

Donald Trump’s response to LaVar Ball: ‘I should’ve left them in jail!’

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I told you this was going to happen.

After LaVar Ball downplayed Donald Trump’s role in bringing home his son, LiAngelo, and the three other UCLA players that were arrested for shoplifting in China last week, Trump responded by taking to twitter and saying that he should have left American citizens in prison in a non-democratic, authoritarian country because they will not personally acknowledge his efforts enough:

Sigh.

Now we await LaVar’s response.

Five-star 2018 recruit Anfernee Simons could test NBA Draft process

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Five-star Class of 2018 guard Anfernee Simons is interested in potentially entering the 2018 NBA Draft.

According to a report from Jonathan Givony of ESPN, the former Louisville commit will likely be eligible to jump to the NBA straight out of high school since he graduated high school last year while turning 19 next June. The 6-foot-4 Simons, considered the No. 16 overall prospect in the Rivals’ Class of 2018 national rankings, is playing a post-grad season at IMG Academy for 2017-18 after reclassifying as a sophomore.

If Simons opts to go pro than college basketball loses a potential star as he’s been shooting up the national rankings over the past year. Simons was committed to the Cardinals since the beginning of his junior year but he opened things up once former head coach Rick Pitino lost his job in a fallout from the FBI investigation on college basketball.

Simons started his season at the National Prep Showcase this weekend as six NBA teams sent people to watch him play, according to Givony’s report.

It’ll be fascinating to see what happens in this situation as Simons hasn’t done much with the recruiting process over the last several months. Now that NBA teams are already watching him play, Simons could follow in Thon Maker’s footsteps and turn pro right away.

LaVar Ball on Trump’s involvement in bringing son home: ‘Who?’

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The war of words none of us wanted is now upon us.

LaVar Ball downplayed the impact that Donald Trump had in ensuring that his son, LiAngelo, along with two other UCLA players were released from custody and returned to the United States following a shoplifting incident on the team’s trip to China.

“Who?” the eldest Ball told ESPN on Friday night when asked about Trump’s involvement. “What was he over there for? Don’t tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out.”

When the players arrived back in Los Angeles, and before they had a chance to speak publicly, Trump had already taken to twitter to complain about the fact that the trio had not yet thanked him. Trump happened to be in China at the same time and, in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he reportedly asked for his counterpart’s help in assuring an expedited legal process.

Trump got the thank you that he so desperately needed when UCLA held a press conference announcing that the three players would be suspended indefinitely, but LaVar was not going to let the President have the last word. And you can bet that Trump is not going to let this be the end of it, either, which means that two men that have risen to prominence through their willingness to say the audacious whenever the spotlight is on them will have the floor.

And unless someone has managed to change the passcode on Trump’s cellphone, you can rest assured that this will not be the end of it.

Bridges perfect from 3, No. 5 Villanova blows out Lafayette

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ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Mikal Bridges set a school record by hitting all six of his 3-point shots and scored a career-high 24 points in No. 5 Villanova’s 104-57 rout of Lafayette on Friday night.

Jalen Brunson added 22 points and hit 4 of 6 3s in another dominant performance by the Wildcats (3-0), who made 16 of 30 from long range.

Three nights after setting a school record with 13 blocked shots in a blowout of Nicholls, the versatile and deep Wildcats showed another strength and overwhelmed the Leopards (0-3).

Led by Bridges’ 4 of 4 long-distance shooting, Villanova hit 11 of its first 14 3s in racing to a 39-16 lead. The Wildcats had a stretch of nine straight baskets being 3s en route to a 56-23 halftime lead.

Matt Klinewski had 16 points and six rebounds for Lafayette, which was 7 of 29 from 3-point range.

Bridges finished 9 of 10 from the field before he sat out the final 10 minutes. The junior bested his previous career-high by one point set Tuesday.

While it was a Villanova home game, it was played about 50 miles from campus at the PPL Center, home of minor league hockey’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms. It was a 20-mile drive for Lafayette, but the Wildcats sure seemed at home.

Villanova spent much of the second half going inside to score. Omari Spellman had 15 points and nine rebounds and Eric Paschall had 14 points and eight boards.

BIG PICTURE

Lafayette: Try as a Patriot League school squaring off against one of the best teams in the nation and watching the opponent shoot like that, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s alma mater never had a chance.

Villanova: The Wildcats have perimeter shooting, depth inside and play good defense. They’ve been dominant against inferior competition, and will finally get tested next week.

SO MANY 3-POINTERS

Bridges surpassed Doug West in 1988 and John Celestand in 1999, each of whom went 5 of 5 from long range. Villanova finished one shy of the school record of 17 3s set against Lehigh on Nov. 27, 2005.

NO LUCK

Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon fell to 0-6 against his alma mater. O’Hanlon still holds the Villanova record for assists in a game with 16 set against Toledo on Feb. 24, 1970.

Only six Division I coaches have been at their schools longer than O’Hanlon, in his 23rd season.

UP NEXT

Lafayette visits Princeton on Wednesday.

Villanova faces Western Kentucky on Wednesday in the first of three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. No. 19 Purdue and No. 3 Arizona are possible opponents the following two days.

Mykhailiuk helps No. 4 Kansas rout South Dakota State, 98-64

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Svi Mykhailiuk scored a career-high 27 points, Lagerald Vick finished with 22 and fourth-ranked Kansas routed Summit League favorite South Dakota State 98-64 on Friday night.

Udoka Azubuike added 17 points and Malik Newman had 13 for the Jayhawks (3-0), who shot 60 percent from the field and didn’t commit a turnover until midway through the second half.

By that point, the Jackrabbits (3-1) were staring at a 30-point deficit.

Mike Daum led South Dakota State with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Tevin King contributed 12 points and David Jenkins Jr. scored 10 off the bench.

Once again without heralded freshman Billy Preston, the Jayhawks were forced to use the same reduced rotation that managed to top seventh-ranked Kentucky on Tuesday night. But their perilous lack of depth became crippling in the first half when Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot picked up two fouls each.

That forced coach Bill Self to use walk-on Clay Young in the post.

The 6-foot-5 senior turned out to be a bright spot, too, keeping the ball moving on offense and handling the 6-9 Daum inside. The Jackrabbits’ leading scorer at more than 21 points per game had eight on 2-for-8 shooting in the first half, when Young spent a good chunk of time covering him.

Nobody could cover Mykhailiuk, though.

The senior from the Ukraine hit his first three shots — the Jayhawks made eight of their first nine — while getting into an easy rhythm. Even on the seemingly rare occasion that his jumper didn’t splash the net, it often rattled around the rim and dropped through to a thunderous ovation.

Several of his baskets came on feeds from Devonte Graham, who didn’t hit a field goal until deep in the second half. He finished with eight points but also had 11 assists and five boards.

PRESTON SITS

Preston went through early warmups but remained on the bench as Kansas investigates an on-campus incident that raised questions about the “financial picture” of the car he was driving. Self declined to discuss the situation other than to say “we’re definitely going to hold him out until we get to the bottom of this.” Self did say he expects a resolution soon.

BIG PICTURE

South Dakota State can recover from its thumping in paradise with a trip to the Cayman Islands Classic up next. But their next trip to the Sunflower State figures to be just as tough: They visit No. 6 Wichita State on Dec. 5.

Kansas cruised despite a shortened lineup again, and help is only a month away. Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe becomes eligible for a trip to Nebraska on Dec. 16, and there is a chance five-star prospect Silvio De Sousa from Florida’s IMG Academy enrolls at the semester break.

UP NEXT

South Dakota State plays Wyoming on Monday in George Town, Cayman Islands.

Kansas continues a four-game home stand against Texas Southern on Tuesday night.