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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.

VIDEO: LaVar Ball gets female ref replaced after threatening to pull team from court

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A female referee was removed from a Big Ballers game after LaVar Ball threatened to pull his team from the court for the second time in a week.

The referee called Ball for a technical foul, which sparked the confrontation, but both Ball and an adidas rep told ESPN’s Jeff Borzello that the reason the ref was pulled was because she and Ball had a previous issue:

Before the game was over, Ball would receive a second technical foul and the game was eventually called with two minutes left and Big Ballers losing by 10.

Western Kentucky’s five-star recruit Mitchell Robinson has left campus

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The soap opera that has been Mitchell Robinson’s tenure at Western Kentucky took another on Friday, as the five-star center and top ten prospect in the Class of 2017 has reportedly left campus.

Robinson was a massive coup for Rick Stansbury when he committed to and signed for the Hilltoppers, but it has been non-stop drama since then. Less than two weeks after his commitment, Robinson tweeted that he would be decommitting from WKU before immediately deleting the tweet and claiming that his account was hacked. Robinson did not attend the first session of summer school on campus, and he was in class in the second summer school session and reportedly practicing with the team this month for a trip to Costa Rica, but he cleaned out his dorm room and left the campus last night.

Part of the reason that Robinson opted to go to Western Kentucky was that his godfather, former UNC star Shammond Williams, was an assistant coach on the staff. Williams left the program on July 3rd, and ever since then there have been questions surrounding where Robinson will play this season. There have been rumors that he will be heading overseas for a year before entering the 2018 NBA Draft, and there is also the potential that Robinson could end up transferring to a different college.

The question, however, is whether or not Robinson will be able to transfer and play immediately without sitting out a year since he enrolled in summer school.

Robinson is a 7-foot center and a terrific defensive prospect that is projected as a first round pick next year. If he does get a waiver to transfer, he immediately becomes the best available talent on the market, along with Marvin Bagley III, who is considering reclassifying.

Virginia, Seton Hall, Rhode Island, Vandy in NIT Tip-Off

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NEW YORK (AP) — Virginia and Vanderbilt will meet in one semifinal of the NIT Preseason Tip-Off on Thanksgiving Day at Barclays Center.

Rhode Island and Seton Hall face off in the other semifinal with the winners meeting on Friday, Nov. 24.

This is the third straight year the Tip-Off has been held at Barclays Center. Eventual NCAA champion Villanova won the event in 2015. All games will be televised on ESPNU.

Non-bracketed teams in the NIT Season Tip-Off who will play games at campus sites are: Austin Peay, Fairleigh Dickinson, Monmouth, Oakland City and UNC Asheville.

Miles Bridges explain why he returned to Michigan State

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Miles Bridges changed the landscape of the 2017-18 college basketball season on April 13.

The Michigan State forward spurned the NBA for another year in East Lansing. The decision not only meant that Bridges was a frontrunner for national player of the year, but solidified the Spartans as a national title contender.

But Bridges’ choice to return was still puzzling to many. The 6-foot-7 forward was projected as a lottery pick. Bridges explained his decision to Mike Decourcy of Sporting News in a story published on Thursday.

“He says, ‘You know what, Coach? I want to get better. I don’t want to be in the D-League. I’ve got buddies that are, and I just want to make sure when I go, I’m ready,’ ” Izzo recalled to Sporting News. “I looked at him and I said, ‘Done deal.’ For me, that was a done deal. It was a reasonable, sensible argument.”

Agents, friends, reporters, scouts, acquaintances, fans, strangers and family members — oh and, as we said, coaches — all had one opinion about how Bridges should spend the next year of his life. Miles had another, opposing, viewpoint.

Bridges told Decourcy that support came from his teammates, many of whom were returning to the team as well. Assuming the backcourt of Cassius Winston and Josh Langford make a leap forward, as well as incoming freshman Jaren Jackson providing an immediate impact, the Spartans’ title hopes could become a reality.

Bridges averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 boards, 2.1 assists and 1.5 blocks as a freshman at Michigan State. He’s rated as the No. 5 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft by DraftExpress.

Four conferences sign on to basketball officiating alliance

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Four more Division I conferences will join a men’s basketball officiating alliance formed last year by the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big East, the Atlantic 10 and Colonial Athletic Association.

The Big South, the Ivy League, the Northeast and the Patriot League are joining ahead of the 2017-18 season, according to announcements from the leagues Thursday. The alliance launched last summer for conferences to work together on officiating matters and enhance training, development, recruitment, retention and feedback for officials.

John Cahill, the Big East’s supervisor of officials, and Bryan Kersey, the ACC’s coordinator of men’s basketball officiating, will continue to lead the alliance operations.

ACC commissioner John Swofford says the new additions to the alliance “provide an even greater opportunity to build chemistry and quality” across the officiating ranks.