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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.

Anthony Grant to replace Archie Miller at Dayton

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Dayton has hired Anthony Grant to replace Archie Miller as head coach, the program announced on Thursday.

“Anthony Grant is a proven winner with the highest integrity,” Athletic Director Neil Sullivan said. “He has successful experience in coaching, recruiting and playing basketball at an elite level. I welcome Anthony to our staff and look forward to partnering with him as we continue to aggressively pursue graduating student-athletes, winning conference championships and advancing in the NCAA tournament. He is absolutely the right coach.”

Grant is a Dayton alum. He spent 12 years as Billy Donovan’s assistant coach before finally landing a head coaching gig at VCU. After three seasons with the Rams, he took over at Alabama, where he was fired in 2015.

Grant has spent the last two years with Donovan as an assistant with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“I am honored and humbled to be the head coach at the University of Dayton,” Grant said. “It’s a great responsibility to take over at an institution that is so well-respected. Anyone you talk to in college basketball would say our program is a successful one, but the potential is here for so much more.”

North Carolina ‘repeals’ HB2 to satisfy NCAA, anti-LGBTQ discrimination remains legal

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Late on Wednesday night, literally hours before an NCAA-imposed deadline that would have prevented the state of North Carolina from hosting any and all NCAA tournament events until at least 2022, the lawmakers in the state announced that they have reached an agreement to repeal House Bill 2, a discriminatory law that is commonly known as the bathroom bill.

The question now is whether or not this repeal will be enough to satisfy the NCAA, who was one of a handful of businesses that pulled out of the state due to HB2. According to the AP, more than $3.7 billion in revenue will be lost over the next decade as a result.

The issue with HB2 isn’t just that it makes it illegal for transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify as. That gets the headlines, but the real damage done by this law is that it curbs legal protections for the LGBTQ community by banning local governments from passing laws to make discrimination illegal for at least three years.

From the New York Times:

Gay rights advocates were harshly critical of the bill. Cathryn Oakley, senior legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, said that the compromise would leave lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people with no statewide anti-discrimination ordinance and no ability to seek such protections from local government for a number of years.

“What that means for the L.G.B.T. community is that we continue to be boxed out of nondiscrimination protections,” she said.

Chris Sgro, executive director of the gay rights group Equality North Carolina, said that the proposal “keeps North Carolina as the only state in the country obsessed with where trans people use the restroom through law.”

From the Charlotte Observer:

“The rumored HB2 ‘deal’ does nothing more than double-down on discrimination and would ensure North Carolina remains the worst state in the nation for LGBTQ people,” HRC President Chad Griffin said in a statement. “The consequences of this hateful law will only continue without full repeal of HB2. Sellouts cave under pressure. Leaders fight for what’s right.”

The NCAA had pulled first and second round games from Greensboro for this year’s tournament, instead allowing Greenville, South Carolina, to host the games. That’s significant because the NCAA, in 2002, pulled all events from that state because they flew the confederate flag on the statehouse grounds. The flag came down in 2015, and the NCAA rewarded the state with games; it’s hard not to see that as a statement to North Carolina.

In this year’s tournament, No. 2 seed Duke lost a game to No. 7 seed South Carolina in a game that was played in South Carolina instead of in North Carolina. The location wasn’t the only reason Duke lost that game, but you’ll have trouble convincing me that quasi-home court environment didn’t play a role.

Report: Texas’ Jones to test NBA possibility

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Both of Texas’ McDonald’s All-Americans from its 2016 class will test the NBA waters.

Andrew Jones will declare for the draft, but will not hire an agent, according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-4 guard joins Jarrett Allen, the Longhorns’ star center, in utilizing the rule change that became available to players last year in which they can declare, workout for teams, attend the NBA combine and still return to school.

Jones averaged 11.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game as a freshman. He shot 42.5 percent from the field overall and 32.8 percent from 3-point range.

Allen seems the likelier candidate to remain in the draft as a potential lottery pick, but Jones came to Austin with similar one-and-done possibilities given his status as one of the class’ top recruits.

Texas, of course, is hoping both return, not just because they’re both big talents, but because incoming and highly-touted recruit Matt Coleman fills the major hole in last year’s lineup – point guard. If the three of them can share the floor together, Year 3 of the Shaka Smart era will be much more interesting.

Morrow announces transfer from Nebraska

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Nebraska was once again hit with a surprising and damaging transfer.

Ed Morrow, Jr., who led the Huskers in rebounding last year, announced his intention to transfer, the school announced Wednesday.

“I support Ed in his decision to transfer schools and wish him well,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said in a statement. “We appreciate his hard work over the last two years. Although I am disappointed, we will continue to recruit young men who are committed to our mission of building Nebraska Basketball with a culture of success in all areas…life, school and winning basketball at its highest level.”

The 6-foot-7 sophomore’s departure is a major hit to the Huskers, who are coming off a 12-19 year in which Miles’ job security was called into question. It almost assuredly will be again this year as Nebraska hasn’t been able to build on its 2014 NCAA tournament appearance, instead putting together three-straight losing seasons.

Morrow’s decision is surprising not only given he’d been a productive member of the team – averaging 9.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game – but because he was born in Nebraska before attending high school in Chicago and both his parents were Nebraska student-athletes his father winning a national title on the football team in 1994 and his mother an all-Big Eight performer on the basketball team.

“I want to say thank you to my teammates, coaches, the fans and the University of Nebraska athletics department for giving me the opportunity to play Division I basketball,” Morrow said in a statement. “It is hard to leave home, and Nebraska is my home. I was born and raised here, it is my parents’ alma mater, and I have a lot of friends here. But sometimes you have to venture out to pursue dreams and aspirations in a career. This is a sacrifice I have to make to better myself.”

Morrow’s transfer comes a year after Andrew White surprised Nebraska with his decision to graduate and transfer to Syracuse, which no doubt impacted the Huskers’ poor 2016-17 record.

Miles was on the hot seat at the end of last season and will assuredly begin this season there as well. A roster hit like Morrow won’t do much to help him improve the situation. Nebraska does, however, have three starters returning while Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland is eligible, as is Miami (Fla.) transfer James Palmer, Jr.

Lonzo Ball says “I’m better than” Markelle Fultz

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Usually, it’s LaVar Ball that makes news for what he says.

His eldest son is now getting in on the business of generating headlines with something other than his play.

The UCLA star, who said he’ll enter the draft after just one season with the Bruins, claimed he’s the better prospect than Washington freshman Markelle Fultz, who many have pegged as the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

“Markelle’s a great player,” Ball said, according to ESPN, “but I feel I’m better than him,” “I think I can lead a team better than him. Obviously he’s a great scorer — he’s a great player, so I’m not taking that away from him.”

Not exactly inflammatory stuff – like saying you could have beaten Michael Jordan, that you want a $1 billion apparel deal or a number of things his father has said – bu Ball is certainly projecting confidence. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s quite a bit of money – and pride – at stake with the draft, and Ball put up a season worthy of comparison to Fultz, who had great numbers but played for an abysmal Washington team. Ball, on the other had, had strong numbers while leading UCLA to the Sweet 16.

Both are going to go at the top of a draft that’s stocked full of promising point guards. Which player goes before the other remains to be seen, but it’s likely public pronouncements aren’t going to affect the draft order.