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Previewing Championship Week: What to expect from mid-major conference tournaments

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Championship Week kicks off in earnest tonight. Here are the eight story lines from the mid-major ranks to follow over the course of the next 12 days. 

1. Can Gonzaga get to Selection Sunday with just one loss?: Because at this point, that’s probably the only way the Zags can get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Barring something fluky happening over the course of the next 12 days, Kansas, Villanova and North Carolina have pretty much locked up their spots on the top line of the bracket in the Midwest, East and South, respectively.

But the West has yet to be won.

As of today, the Zags are probably the leaders for that spot, but what you have to remember is that the winner of the Pac-12 tournament, if it is Arizona, Oregon or UCLA, could very well add two more top 10 wins to their profile during that run. Let’s say it ends up being UCLA that wins the tournament, and they beat both Oregon and Arizona to cut down those nets. That would give them five top ten wins on the season — only one of which came at home — with wins at Arizona and Kentucky. In total, they would have at least 13 top 100 wins and their only three losses on the season would be at Oregon, at USC and Arizona at home.

I’m all for Gonzaga getting a No. 1 seed. I don’t think I could give Gonzaga a No. 1 seed over that résumé even if they do have a 32-1 record.

2. Will the Missouri Valley be a two-bid league?: This one of our only hopes for an at-large bid coming out of the mid-major ranks, and regardless of who wins the league’s automatic bid — Wichita State or Illinois State — there is going to be some controversy on Selection Sunday.

The Shockers are 27-4 on the season. If they lose in the final of the MVC tournament to Illinois State, they’ll be 29-5 on the year with no sub-50 RPI losses. They rank No. 10 on KenPom, which is largely considered the best site for determining how good teams are, and they have a roster laden with top 100 prospects and coached by one of the best in the business in Gregg Marshall. Logic suggests they should be in the tournament.

The problem, however, is that they have just one RPI top 75 win on the season, and that win came against Illinois State. The Redbirds are in an even worse situation, as they have three sub-100 losses and just one top 85 win which … came against Wichita State. Logic only gets you so far when you don’t have the results to back it up.

One, if not both, of those teams are going to be sweating out Selection Sunday, hoping that they see their names called. And frankly, given the decisions the Selection Committee has made in past seasons and the value they gave big wins during the bracket reveal on Feb. 11th, I’m not sure we’ll see both teams in the tournament this season.

3. First Ivy league tournament: For the first time ever, the Ivy League will be determining their league’s automatic bid by holding a tournament. They were previously the only conference that still awarded their bid to the winner of the league’s regular season title. The tournament will take place on March 11th and 12th at the Palestra in Philly, and it will be a four-team event.

And if you are Princeton, this terrifies you. The Tigers are currently sitting at 12-0 in the conference standings, all alone with a two-game lead with just two regular season games left. But, depending on how things shake out during the final week of the season, there is a good chance that Princeton will have to play a first round Ivy League tournament game against Penn … on Penn’s home floor.

That would be a hell of a way to lose out on an NCAA tournament bid.

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4. Will Middle Tennessee State be back in the dance?: The Blue Raiders orchestrated one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament last season, knocking off the popular pick to win the national title in No. 2 Michigan State in the first round. Kermit Davis brought back a team good enough to make a run against this season, highlighted by the fact that his group has beaten UNC Wilmington on a neutral, Vanderbilt at home and won at Ole Miss and at Belmont. The problem they have is that three of their four losses are considered bad losses, and one of them — at UTEP — only recently climbed inside the RPI top 250. If they don’t win the CUSA tournament title they’ll add another sub-100 loss into that equation.

After what this team did in last year’s tournament, it would be a shame if they missed out on doing it again. But if they don’t get their league’s automatic bid, they may have to watch the likes of TCU or Georgia Tech play in the tournament during their off days in the NIT.

5. Which dominant mid-majors lose in league tournament?: Middle Tennessee and Princeton are the two easiest to identify, but they aren’t the only teams that have stormed to a conference regular season title and will not have to play a tournament to prove their league record is worthy of a tournament bid. Vermont went 16-0 in the America East and gets to host every game of the league tournament on their home floor, but that’s hardly a guarantee. UNC Wilmington won the CAA and earned the league’s automatic bid last season, but it won’t be easy to defend their title in that league tournament. UT-Arlington owns, at worst, a share of the Sun Belt title and a win at Saint Mary’s, but they’re anything but a lock for the tournament. Belmont won the OVC by a full five games while Monmouth won the MAAC by four and Bucknell won the Patriot League by three. Akron, at 13-3, is the only team in the MAC with less than six league losses.

My guess is that at least five of the nine teams that I just mentioned will lose in their league tournament, meaning that the NCAA tournament will feature a team that isn’t the best team from at least five mid-major leagues.

Is this really the best way to do things?

6. Just how healthy is Alec Peters?: The star scorer for Valparaiso, Peters was an NBC Sports preseason all-american, but between a couple of bad league losses and a surge from Oakland late in the year, the Crusaders have reached a point where they are not in position to receive an at-large bid to the Big Dance. But he’s currently dealing with a stress reaction in his foot, and while he’s expected to play in the Horizon League tournament, it’s difficult to know just how healthy he is. Peters is good enough to lead Valpo to a win as a No. 13 or No. 14 seed, and it would be a shame to see him miss out on the Big Dance.

7. Keep an eye on these mid-major stars, who may be the March darlings this year: The name that everyone knows is Marcus Keene, who is averaging 29.7 points and 5.0 assists for Central Michigan this season. He’d be thrilling to watch go up against, say, Malik Monk and Kentucky in a first round game.

Or what about South Dakota State’s Mike Daum? The sophomore big man has a 50-point game to his name already this season. Montana State’s Tyler Hall has gone for 40 once and 30 more times this season. North Florida’s Dallas Moore is one of the best point guards you’ve never seen play.

Someone, from somewhere, is going to step up and make themselves a star in March. The fun is watching it all play out.

8. Which coach earns themselves a bigger job?: The easiest way to move up the ranks of the coaching industry is to get your team to an NCAA tournament and to get a win in that NCAA tournament.

Who are the guys that might be able to parlay postseason success into a bigger job? UNC Wilmington’s Kevin Keatts is a hot name. He’s a former Rick Pitino assistant that coached in the prep school ranks before he made the jump to Division I. He’s turned the Seahawks into the flagship program of the CAA in just three years. MTSU’s Kermit Davis will also likely have some big-name suitors, as the stench of NCAA violations from nearly three decades ago are starting to wear away. Illinois State’s Dan Muller will likely being getting phone calls.

Chattanooga’s Matt McCall and ETSU’s Steve Forbes were hot names entering the season, but Furman’s Niko Medved went out and won himself a share of the SoCon regular season title. Vermont’s John Becker may have a chance to make a move, while Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey, Princeton’s Mitch Henderson, UT-Arlington’s Scott Cross and Monmouth’s King Rice all have their name mentioned with bigger openings.

Two more names to keep an eye on: UNC Asheville’s Nick McDevitt, who has kept that program at the top of the Big South despite losing two star freshmen to transfer to Louisville and Arizona last season, and Mount St. Mary’s Jamion Christian, who led the Mount to a NEC title. Both of those coaches are alums of the program they are currently coaching at.

Colorado State’s Eustachy says Paul Weir has ‘worst job in the country’ at New Mexico

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New Mexico coach Paul Weir just landed his new job in April but Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy already believes that Weir has, “the worst job in the country.”

Speaking to reporters, including the Albuquerque Journal’s Geoff Grammer, at Mountain West preseason media day in Las Vegas on Wednesday, the outspoken Eustachy criticized Weir’s lack of pay at New Mexico for the amount of pressure he is dealing with.

“I think he’s got the worst job in the country,” Eustachy said of Weir. “I just told him that. It doesn’t pay enough. If I got paid $5 million, I’d take all that crap that you get in Albuquerque, but he doesn’t make enough money. But that place is different, as you know. It’s a different beast.”

As noted by Grammer, Eustachy once called the New Mexico job one of the best in the sport before previous head coach, and Eustachy’s friend, Craig “Noodles” Neal took the job. But after Neal’s exit from the Lobos and the way the New Mexico fanbase soured on Craig’s son, Cullen, Eustachy has taken a different course. He believes Weir isn’t making nearly enough money to deal with that kind of potential hostility.

“It’s a great job if you’re making $2 million, what they were going to give Steve Alford, but what they pay (Weir), no,” Eustachy said.

Alford is now at UCLA after leaving New Mexico in the spring of 2013. Before he ultimately went to the Bruins, Alford signed a 10-year term sheet with New Mexico for around $1.8 million per year. Before his recent firing, Neal had elevated his contract to $950,000 annually after making $750,000 in his first season. Weir will only make $625,000 to coach his first season in New Mexico after signing a six-year deal.

Eustachy believes New Mexico has one of the great fanbases in college basketball but the group will also turn quickly if things start to go wrong.

“You might get one mulligan in that town, and that’s before you do the press conference,” Eustachy said of New Mexico fans. “You know how that town works. I think it’s great on one end. Name them? You’ve got Lexington, Kentucky, you’ve got Syracuse, N.Y., you’ve got Duke, and New Mexico is in that 10. … And the jobs you name that are going in that 10, those guys are making $8 million and Noodles was making ($950,000). To succeed there, with the expectations that come with it, it’s rare to survive that thing. You know that.

“Can you imagine Alford, if he was still making $2 million and he had a couple bad years there, what it would do? And it’s neat that they’re that much into it, but there’s got to be something else besides basketball in Albuquerque because it is a religion there.”

Some strong words from Eustachy in this as he takes small jabs at the New Mexico fanbase while criticizing their administration for being cheap. It’s admirable that Eustachy is advocating more pay for one of his colleagues but you have to wonder if doing this in a very public way is the best course of action.

Now when Colorado State travels to New Mexico on Jan. 27, there will be a lot of pressure on Eustachy, and his players, in what could be a hostile road environment. That’s a Saturday night game to keep an eye on later this season.

Rick Pitino maintains he had ‘no knowledge’ of Louisville recruiting scandal in TV interview

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Former Louisville head coach Rick Pitino continues to publicly maintain his innocence in the FBI probe that has rocked college basketball. The recently fired Pitino, in a televised interview with ESPN’s Jay Bilas on Wednesday night, declared that he had “no knowledge” of any alleged payments that might have gone from Louisville to McDonald’s All-American recruit Brian Bowen, currently a freshman at the school.

In the interview with Bilas, Pitino stated that he passed a voluntary lie detector test in which he was asked about the Bowen situation and the involvement of Adidas. While Pitino told Bilas that he takes “full responsibility” for the hiring and vetting of his staff members, he still finds all of this hard to believe as he is maintaining his full innocence.

“I was asked two questions,” Pitino said of the lie detector test. “And I said, ‘I want you to ask me if any other recruits in my tenure were ever given anything.’ And he [the polygraph examiner] said, ‘That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here for: Did you have any knowledge of the Bowen family getting any money? Did you have any knowledge of an Adidas transaction?’

“I answered ‘absolutely not’ on both questions and passed the lie detector test. So I had no knowledge of any of this.”

Louisville was not named directly in the FBI report that led to the arrest of 10, but the university has confirmed that they are a part of the probe. After being placed on unpaid administrative leave in late September, the Louisville athletic board opted to fire Pitino “for cause” earlier this week while athletic director Tom Jurich was also fired on Wednesday.

Pitino said that Louisville rushed to judgment with all of this as he believes the other schools involved in the probe are doing more to collect information before jumping to conclusions. When Pitino was asked to resign by Louisville officials, he told Bilas he refused, in-part because he wanted a full investigation to play out.

“I said, ‘Absolutely not,'” Pitino said of his resignation. “I said, ‘Let’s get the facts out here before we rush anything. We were sitting on a great team. We’re sitting on a great recruiting class. Let’s calm down a little bit here.'”

“This is your life,” Pitino said. “This is your passion and you don’t want your life taken and pulled away from you. I think all these other people reacted the right way, whether it’s at Auburn, Arizona, USC and Oklahoma [State]. … They’re collecting all the facts, seeing what’s going on. There’s only been one school that rushed to judgment and took the coach away from these players and that’s Louisville.”

Pitino also took the interesting stance of publicly defending Bowen, the recruit who has been at the center of Louisville’s involvement in the FBI investigation. It was alleged that Bowen’s family was funneled $100,000 to help facilitate his move to Louisville.

“I have no factual information on the statement I’m going to make right now: I don’t believe Brian Bowen knew a single thing about this,” Pitino said to Bilas. “I’m totally of the belief that the mom knew nothing about this because of the text message she sent me. Brian Bowen is a terrific young man.

“He fell into our lap in recruiting. Obviously, now with the circumstances behind it, there’s more to it than meets the eye. But I believe Brian Bowen chose the University of Louisville because he loved the visit, he loved his future teammates and he wanted to play for me. I don’t think he’s involved in this in any way. Now, am I being naive? I don’t know. I just believe in that young man.”

Obviously, there is a lot to take in with this interview, especially since Pitino continues to publicly state his case while nearly everyone else involved has stayed quiet. It’s hard to say if any of these statements will come back to haunt him but speaking up for Bowen’s innocence is another risky move that might have been better left unsaid.

(H/t: ESPN)

Big Ten approves 20-game conference schedule for men’s basketball

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The Big Ten approved changes to the future of conference basketball scheduling on Thursday morning as men’s basketball will now feature 20 conference games per season.

Beginning with the 2018-19 season, the Big Ten will now have 20 league games instead of 18 in men’s basketball as the format means that more in-state rivalries will be played twice a season.

According to a release from the conference, the new format for men’s basketball will feature teams playing seven opponents twice and six teams once (three home, three away) during each conference season. The Big Ten’s three in-state rivalries (Illinois/Northwestern, Indiana/Purdue and Michigan/Michigan State) will all be guaranteed two matchups every year while the new 20-game format also allows for a “regional component” that should increase the frequency of games among teams in similar areas.

After the Big Ten scheduled all three of their in-state rivalries to play only one time each during the 2017-18 season, this is probably the right move in terms of conference scheduling. While playing more than half of your season games against conference opponents isn’t entirely ideal, with a 14-team league, the Big Ten had to make a tough decision and they chose to protect their internal rivalries. I’m sure the fanbases of those programs would prefer a home-and-home with a heated rival as opposed to another non-conference clash that could be underwhelming.

The Big Ten also made changes to the women’s basketball schedule on Thursday as that conference schedule will be bumped up to 18 games per season.

College Hoops Contender Series: Duke is the most talented team in the country … sound familiar?

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Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers and talked about six different Final Four contenders – Louisville, West Virginia, Villanova, Wichita State, USC and Miami – that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the four or five best teams, the clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into five of those teams.

What makes them good enough to win a national title?

But why won’t they win a national title?

After deep dives into Kentucky, Kansas, Arizona and Michigan State, we finish it up with the Duke Blue Devils.

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Grayson Allen (Chet Strange/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WILL WIN

Duke is the most talented team in college basketball.

Forget, for a second, how old these kids are, the way that the roster fits together or whether or not there is enough shooting on this team to keep the floor spaced.

When talking purely about talent, Duke is step above anyone else in the sport.

It starts with Marvin Bagley III, who may just end up being the National Player of the Year and the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

And then there is Grayson Allen. Love him or hate him, these three things are facts:

  1. Allen was a second-team all-american as a sophomore.
  2. Prior to his junior season, a year that Allen spent battling foot and ankle injuries, he was picked by the majority of the outlets that do these things as the Preseason National Player of the Year.
  3. He’s healthy now.

There’s more.

Trevon Duval, a projected lottery pick, is the top-ranked point guard in the Class of 2017. Wendell Carter, who is also projected to go in the lottery, was the top power forward in the class until Bagley joined the class. Gary Trent Jr., another potential first round pick, was the second-best shooting guard in the class. Off the bench, there is former five-star recruit Marques Bolden along with a trio of former four-star prospects.

Mike Krzyzewski has won national titles with less.

And if games were played on paper, he would probably win a national title this season.

But, as we learned last season with this very same Duke team, the games are not played on paper.

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Marvin Bagley III (Reagan Lunn/Duke Athletics)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

The biggest question mark, the one that has made it so difficult for so many teams in the one-and-done era to win with a roster based entirely on freshmen, is just how much youth is on this roster.

Four of the five starters are going to be freshmen. The four bench players that seemed destined to fill out the rotation are either freshmen or sophomores that barely saw any action as freshmen. The only true veteran on the roster is Grayson Allen, and if we’ve learned anything over the course of his collegiate career, it’s that there are valid reasons to wonder whether he is the kind of leader that the Blue Devils will need.

And, as always, there are going to be questions about role allocation, particularly on a roster with this much talent on it. Marques Bolden wasn’t thrilled about coming off the bench last season, contemplated a transfer this offseason and then returned to Duke thinking that he would be the starting center for the Blue Devils this year. Wendell Carter committed to Duke under the pretense that he would be slotted in as the four in Duke’s lineup, allowing him to play away from the basket more than on the block.

Then Marvin Bagley III decided he would be going to Duke.

Suddenly, those plans have changed.

Carter and Bolden are going to be competing for the right to start at center for the Blue Devils, because Bagley will be starting at the four. He is a perfect fit there. Not only can he step out and play on the perimeter, allowing Duke to continue using the four-around-one offense that has been so effective in each of the last four years, but he’ll make them infinitely better defensively than they were with Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram or Jabari Parker in that role.

What that means is that either Bolden or Carter is going to be playing a different role than they expected this season; hell, they both might end up there.

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Wendell Carter (Reagan Lunn/Duke Athletics)

And that’s before you consider the shots that Bagley is going to get.

There were already going to be players sacrificing shots somewhere on this roster, whether it was Grayson Allen, Gary Trent or Trevon Duval, and I fully expect Bagley to now end up as Duke’s leading scorer.

Someone is going to have to make a sacrifice, and it’s not always easy to get guys to think that is a good idea.

But the biggest question mark facing the Blue Devils this season is the same question mark they’ve dealt with over the course of the last two years: Does Duke have the point guard they need on their roster?

On the one hand, the answer is pretty obvious. Duval is a potential lottery pick. He’s the top point guard in the Class of 2017 and one of the top five prospects in a class that has at least three guys every NBA team is going to be tanking to try and draft. He’s 6-foot-3, he’s incredibly athletic and he’s a talent when he can get going downhill, attacking the rim.

On paper, that’s a tremendous addition.

The problem is that Duval is a score-first slasher with an unreliable jumper on a team that is going to have some issues spacing the floor and is crying out for a facilitator at the point. This team needs Tyus Jones, and what they added is Derrick Rose. That could end up being a good thing — Rose was the No. 1 pick after he averaged 14.9 points, 4.7 assists and 4.5 boards while shooting 34 percent from three for a Memphis team that would have won the national title if he could make free throws. But that Rose’s team. Chris Douglas-Roberts may have been the leading scorer and Joey Dorsey may have been the heart and soul of the group, but what they did was built around what Rose was able to do with the ball in his hands.

Duval may play like Rose, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be as good as Rose.

And if he doesn’t have an offense suited to his skill set, it’s fair to wonder just how valuable he will be in that position.

What Duke needs from their point guard is a player that can get them into an offense, distribute the ball and make a play when the shot clock is winding down. Frank Jackson wasn’t that guy. Derryck Thornton wasn’t that guy.

Is Duval?


Trevon Duval (Reagan Lunn/Duke Athletics)

PREDICTION

Duke is going to be very good, just like they were last season.

I know people don’t want to hear that, but the fact of the matter is that Duke finished last year as the ACC tournament champion, earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament with a valid argument to be the fourth No. 1 seed despite having a roller coaster of a season that involved four of their stars and their Hall of Fame head coach miss significant time with injuries.

At the very least, this season will be a smoother ride because I’m not sure it’s possible for a season to be more difficult than the one Duke had in 2016-17.

So what will that turn into?

I think it’s as simple as this: If Trevon Duval turns into a top 15 point guard in the sport, then I think the Blue Devils win the ACC regular season title and enter the NCAA tournament as one of, if not the favorite to win the whole thing. They’re better defensively than they’ve been in some time, and they should be able to overwhelm teams with their talent.

But if Duval struggles, if Duke spends the season trying to figure out an answer to their point guard situation, then I would not be surprised to see a repeat of last season — questionable losses sprinkled in amongst impressive wins, inconsistency night-to-night and a number of people willing to overlook it and pick Duke to win the national title on Selection Sunday anyway.

Arizona State lands four-star guard Luguentz Dort

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Arizona State landed a huge commitment on Wednesday night as four-star guard Lugentz Dort pledged to the Sun Devils.

The second commitment for Arizona State in the Class of 2018 in less than a week, the 6-foot-3 Dort is a big-time athlete on the perimeter as he selected the Sun Devils over his other finalists of Baylor and Oregon. Dort took official visits to all three schools during the process.

One of the better shooting guards in the 2018 class, Dort is a physically-imposing guard who should be ready to immediately contribute in the Pac-12.

Dort joins Finnish shooting guard Elias Valtonen in the Arizona State Class of 2018 recruiting haul.