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Weekend Preview: UCLA-Arizona, Florida-Kentucky headline a wild weekend

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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 5 UCLA at No. 4 Arizona, Sat. 8:15 p.m.: The way things currently stand, it’s very unlikely that the Bruins are going to be able to find a way to win even a share of the Pac-12 regular season title. They are two games behind Arizona in the league standings with just three games left to play. They play at Arizona this weekend, a building the Wildcats have yet to lose in this season, and even if they somehow manage to leave the McKale Center with a ‘W’, they will still need Arizona to lose to Arizona State, Oregon to lose to Oregon State and to sweep the Washington schools in the final week of the season just to be able to share the league title with those two teams.

This is Arizona’s Pac-12 title to lose, and if they can knock off UCLA on Saturday, all they have to do is beat Arizona State to win the title outright.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for UCLA to play for, because the secret here is that whichever of those three teams the NCAA tournament Selection Committee believes has the best overall résumé will very likely end up being the No. 2 seed out west. They’ll play in Sacramento or Salt Lake City the first weekend, followed by a short trip to San Jose for the second weekend before ending up in Phoenix for the Final Four.

That’s the plan at least, but given the committee’s bracketing rules, only one of those three teams can actually be in the West Region. UCLA is the one playing catchup right now, having split with Oregon and losing at home to Arizona. They need to get this one back — and, if all goes according to plan, beat both Oregon and Arizona en route to the Pac-12 tournament title — if they have any hope of poaching that top seed.

So yes, there is quite a bit to play for here.

But that’s not the best part about this game.

The best part is that both Sean Miller and Steve Alford have their programs rolling at the same time, which is not something that has been in the case in the Pac-12 in recent times. UCLA was going to Final Fours under Ben Howland as Arizona was in the midst of their regime change, going from Lute Olsen to Russ Pennell to Sean Miller. When Howland’s program took a dip near the end of his tenure, Arizona rose up to be the league’s resident power while Steve Alford tried to find his footing.

Now?

What we have is a top five matchup between two programs that target the same players — remember, T.J. Leaf was originally committed to Arizona, which prompted Sean Miller to once question in a press conference why anyone would want to go to a program that couldn’t fill Pauley Pavilion — and are battling for west coast supremacy that will be played in primetime with league title and major NCAA tournament implications on the line.

It just doesn’t get any better than that.

  • PREDICTION: UCLA’s been better defensively, but I find it hard to believe that below average defenders have suddenly gotten good. Arizona’s talented perimeter trio of Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier ate up UCLA in the first meeting, as Sean Miller repeatedly targeted and exposed Bryce Alford. I expect that he’ll do it again. Arizona (-3)

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No. 13 Florida at No. 11 Kentucky, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (CBS): This is the SEC title game.

There’s really no question about it, is there?

Florida and Kentucky are clearly the two-best teams in the league. They face off on Saturday afternoon in a position where they are both sitting at 13-2 in the conference, tied for first place with a two-game lead on the rest of the field. Kentucky closes the season with Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. Florida closes the season with Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Those are games that both the Wildcats and the Gators should win.

Kentucky enters Saturday on a bit of a slide. They’ve regained their winning ways since an ugly run a couple of weeks ago. But they’re not exactly impressing in their wins. They barely beat a Georgia team playing without Yante Maten. They struggled to put away an awful Missouri team on the road. This Kentucky team has flaws, and those flaws can be exploited by the Gators.

Florida won the first matchup between these two teams by 22 points, as Malik Monk was never able to get going and Kasey Hill looked like the best player on the floor. Florida’s a tough, physical and aggressive defensive team that does all the things that we’ve waited all year to see Kentucky consistently do.

  • PREDICTION: Kentucky is a better team at home mainly because Monk is a better scorer at home. Kentucky (-3)
LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 9 Baylor at Iowa State, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN): These two teams couldn’t be more different. Until the last three weeks, Baylor has been one of the best and most consistent teams in the country, playing slowing, grinding out stops and pounding the ball into the paint. Iowa State? They’ve been inconsistent until the last four games, they like to run-and-gun, they have no interior depth and they are at their best when they’re banging threes. Will Hilton Magic win out? PREDICTION: Iowa State (-1)
  • No. 12 West Virginia at TCU, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN): This is a win that TCU might have to win if they want to be in the NCAA tournament this season, and it’s a game that may be winnable. The Mountaineers have looked great against Kansas and Baylor this season, but they’ve looked beatable against some of the lesser teams in the conference. PREDICTION: West Virginia (-6)
  • No. 23 Creighton at No. 2 Villanova, Sat. 3:00 p.m. (FOX): For just the third time this season, Villanova will be playing a game coming off of a loss. Creighton has put together some promising performances since Mo Watson’s injury, but I think that they are going to run into the buzzsaw that is angry Villanova. PREDICTION: Villanova (-10)
  • Syracuse at No. 7 Louisville, Sun. 2:00 p.m. (CBS): The Orange are coming off of thrilling, buzzer-beating win over Duke on Wednesday night. That got them onto the right side of the bubble … for now. If they want to lock up a bid to the tournament, win this game. It won’t be easy, not when Rick Pitino was clearly upset about the way his team performed at North Carolina. PREDICTION: Syracuse (+13)
  • No. 22 Butler at Xavier, Sun. 3:30 p.m. (FS1): Butler just finished off their sweep of Villanova on Wednesday night, setting themselves up to make a run at a top three seed in the NCAA tournament if they can win out. Xavier has been reeling of late, as they’ve struggled to adjust to the loss of Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett. This is a win that the Musketeers badly need to get. PREDICTION: Butler (-1)

NEXT ONE? Hoops phenom at 13 has college offer, NBA height

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Emoni Bates walks out a front door of Clague Middle School with just inches to spare.

A wide smile tops his 6-foot-7, extra-lean frame. He’s holding a seventh-grade honor society certificate in his right hand. His braces gleam in the afternoon sun.

Meet the best 13-year-old basketball player in America, according to some recruiting services. One of his highlight reels on YouTube has been viewed about 1 million times.

“I don’t really pay attention to it,” Emoni insists in a voice just louder than a whisper, “because if I pay attention to it, it’s just going to get to my head.

“And I don’t want it to get to my head. I just want to play basketball.”

He’s got the pedigree.

Emoni’s father, E.J. Bates, has been around the game most of his life. He picked greens and baled hay as a kid in nearby Milan, Michigan, then developed into a smooth-shooting guard. But he didn’t take school seriously until it was too late. Instead of playing for a basketball power like Kansas and maybe even in the NBA, E.J. wound up going to Kentucky Wesleyan and settling for pro hoops in Switzerland.

E.J. is determined to make sure his son doesn’t make the same mistake. The academics are a sign of that. House rules bar Emoni from picking up a basketball until his homework is done.

Yet E.J. knows when kids are this good this early, distractions roll in like waves. Already, it seems, lots of people want a piece of Emoni. Prep, private and public high school coaches are lining up. Colleges have him on their radar. DePaul took it a step further, offering Emoni a scholarship in late August. Two other much-touted players in the Class of 2022 — Amari Bailey of Illinois and Skyy Clark of California — also have offers from DePaul.

E.J. knows the shoe company bird dogs and other hustlers looking to buy favors are lurking, too. So he and wife Edith, who works for the Red Cross, keep their inner circle very tight.

“I’m his coach to keep the snakes away,” Bates says, sitting on one of Clague’s concrete benches. “We’re not for sale.”

The Bates family has agreed to provide The Associated Press with a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the life of one of the most coveted basketball prospects in the country for at least the next five years. The periodic series will include video, photos, audio and text updates to track his progress.

Will Emoni stay near his current home to attend a public high school? Or will he take his next step at a private school like Detroit Country Day, like Michigan native Chris Webber?

Will he follow the footsteps of Marvin Bagley III and other five-star prospects, reclassifying to finish high school in three years? Bagley did to play college ball at Duke this coming season — and potentially to get a jump on a pro future.

Will E.J. and Emoni emulate the father-son team of LaVar and Lonzo Ball, grabbing headlines while hawking their own brand at every turn?

No one knows.

E.J. says all options are on the table. But he won’t be loud, unlike LaVar Ball in the lead-up to his son Lonzo being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I don’t have to brag about what we’re doing,” E.J. says. “I let other people do all the talking about how good Emoni is because word of mouth is the best advertising there is.”

A POTENTIAL STAR IS BORN

Emoni James-Wayne Bates was born Jan. 28, 2004, at the University of Michigan hospital. He was on the light side — 6 pounds, 7 ounces — and a little long at 21 inches. Just over a year later, Emoni slept with his head cradled in his left arm and his right wrapped around a black and red basketball. A cherished photo was made.

“He would always sleep with the ball,” his father recalls, holding a framed picture in his Ypsilanti, Michigan, home. “If the ball wasn’t around, he would cry about the ball. Even to this day, he has a mini-ball he keeps with him, which is crazy to me.”

There were more hints. During a second visit to the doctor, E.J., who is 6-foot-4, and Edith, 5-9, asked how tall their son might grow.

“He was off the charts,” E.J. laughs, “so they couldn’t tell us.”

Emoni has shot up 7 inches in the last two years. He’s tall enough right now to play shooting guard at any level. He handles the ball like a point guard and launches 3-pointers like a savvy veteran. He can create his own shot like a wing or drive the lane and dish off to a teammate like another rail-thin former prodigy, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant.

But adding weight and muscle is an ongoing challenge. He weighs just 155 pounds — not heavy or strong enough to play a dominating inside game that would complement his fluid perimeter skills.

“We try to stuff him full of food at night and hope it sticks,” E.J. sighs.

TEEN CELEBRITY

The Adidas Invitational in Fishers, Indiana, attracts some of the Midwest’s top seventh-grade AAU teams. Inside Best Choice Fieldhouse, talk centers on whether the Bates Fundamentals squad starring Emoni and coached by E.J. can live up to the hype.

“They’ve been hearing a lot about him,” says Bernetta Kelly, watching her son’s Peoria Area Elite team take its shot.

Bates Fundamentals wins 95-44 and Kelly understands why. She approaches Emoni and asks for a photo with her son and his team.

“I’ve seen the best players from Pittsburgh to Vegas the last four years, and he’s been the best in his class,” Peoria coach Zach Martin says. “I told the guys, ‘There are not many times you will be able to say you played an NBA player, but you just did.'”

After another lopsided victory in the two-day tournament won easily by Bates Fundamentals, Emoni walks off the court. A younger competitor darts out of his team’s pregame layup line to slap his hand. Moments later, the excitement follows Emoni out the door.

“Hey, that’s him,” a young boy entering the facility says to teammates.

How does a 10-year-old from Fort Wayne, Indiana, know who Bates is?

“YouTube,” he says.

Duh.

The highlight reel posted last summer had nearly 1 million views before Emoni walked into the doors at Clague for the first time as an eighth-grader. Several other videos have racked up 500,000-plus views in less than one year.

By the spring of 2018, the suspense about where he plans to attend high school may be its own mini-drama. Then a few years later: Which college?

E.J. and Edith hardly need reminding that’s still a long way off. As good as the recruiting services have become at projecting stars, it’s easy to forget the object of all that attention is still just 13. At times, the recruiting experts simply miss.

“It’s always a crap shoot,” E.J. says. “You don’t know what life will deal you. You never know what can happen with injuries, the loss of motivation or pressure getting to be too much.”

Yet fans of two college basketball powers with the inside track can already start thinking about the fall of 2021, when Bates can officially sign a scholarship offer. In quiet moments, Emoni sometimes does, too.

Asked about his favorite programs, the soft-spoken kid doesn’t hesitate to name the early front-runners.

“Michigan State and Kentucky,” Emoni says.

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Follow the series: https://www.apnews.com/tag/TheKid

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Follow Larry Lage at http://twitter.com/larrylage

NCAA punishes Pacific men’s basketball for violations

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STOCKTON, Calif. (AP) — The men’s basketball team at Pacific has been punished by the NCAA for academic and recruiting violations under former coach Ron Verlin.

The NCAA said Wednesday that Verlin failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance when he violated academic misconduct and recruiting rules to get prospects eligible. He also failed to monitor his coaches and violated NCAA ethics rules when he encouraged others to give false information during the investigation.

The baseball program was also cited because former coach Ed Sprague impermissibly provided an athletic training student with a $16,000 scholarship to help with the housing costs of two baseball student-athletes, including her brother.

Penalties for the school include two years of probation, recruiting and scholarship reductions, a $5,000 fine and a vacation of all games in which ineligible athletes participated.

Memphis lands commitment from 2018 center Connor Vanover

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Memphis picked up its first commitment in the Class of 2018 on Wednesday night as unique center prospect Connor Vanover announced his decision on Twitter.

At 7-foot-2, Vanover brings elite size to the interior for the Tigers and he’s also skilled enough that he was a 43 percent three-point shooter during his stint playing with Pro Skills in the Nike EYBL this spring. Although Vanover needs to add strength and athleticism to adapt to the college level, he simply has size that you can’t teach. Pair that size with an intriguing perimeter jumper and it’ll be interesting to see how head coach Tubby Smith is able to develop Vanover the next few years.

A three-star prospect according to Rivals, Vanover averaged 9.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game during the spring. Originally from Arkansas, Vanover is spending his senior season of high school ball at prep school powerhouse Findlay Prep.

Bill Self unsure of how long he will continue to coach

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Kansas head coach Bill Self is one of the most decorated college basketball coaches of all time.

Recently inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this month, Self has won a record 13 consecutive Big 12 regular-season championships while also claiming a national title for the Jayhawks during his storied career.

But while most legendary coaches in contemporary college basketball have stayed around to coach well into their late 60s or early 70s, the 54-year-old Self doesn’t necessarily see his career playing out that way.

Speaking with ESPN.com reporter Myron Medcalf on Wednesday, Self acknowledged that he’s thinking about potentially retiring once his next contract ends after the 2021-22 season. With five more years left on his current deal, that would mean that Self would be retiring before he would even turn 60.

“I’ve said all along that if I could go to my late 50s, that’d be good for me,” Self said to Medcalf. “Now that I’m getting close to my late 50s, I’m like, ‘Well…’ but my contract runs until I’m 59, so I’ve got five more years left. I definitely want to do that. Then whatever happens after that I’d be happy with whatever. But I don’t want to [coach too late].”

While Hall of Fame coaches like Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (72 years old), Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (70 years old) and North Carolina’s Roy Williams (67 years old) are showing no signs of slowing down, Self acknowledged to Medcalf that coach, and specifically recruiting, has started to take its toll on him.

“With recruiting the way that it is, it just wears you down,” Self said to Medcalf.

With Kansas pursuing so many potential one-and-done prospects over the past few seasons, it means that Self usually has to recruit sizable recruiting classes

Self is certainly entitled to do what he wants with his career and his life but it would be a shame to see one of the game’s greats hang it up at that point in his career. Potentially retiring at that age means that Self won’t chase 1,000 wins or any additional longevity records

Ohio State lands second pledge in two days with 2018 guard Duane Washington

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Ohio State stayed hot on the recruiting trail on Wednesday as the Buckeyes landed a commitment from Class of 2018 guard Duane Washington.

The 6-foot-3 Washington is the second commitment for Ohio State and new head coach Chris Holtmann in the last two days after four-star forward Jaedon LeDee pledged to the Buckeyes on Tuesday.

One of the better shooters in the Class of 2018, Washington averaged 14.9 points per game on tremendous shooting splits (48% FG, 87% FT, 45% 3PT) playing with The Family in the Nike EYBL this spring. A Michigan native who now resides in California, Washington gives Ohio State a much-needed guard commitment in the Class of 2018.

With the Buckeyes needing to fill a lot of scholarships due to roster turnover, Washington is a solid start to their perimeter class. While Washington isn’t likely to play point guard, he can play multiple perimeter spots and should be a solid addition to the Buckeye rotation.