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Weekend Preview: Duke-North Carolina, plus four tickets getting punched

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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 17 Duke at No. 5 North Carolina, Sat. 8:15 p.m. (ESPN): The biggest game of the night lost a bit of its luster when Duke dropped back-to-back road games last week. The Blue Devils bounced back this week with a win over No. 15 Florida State, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Tar Heels can now win an outright ACC regular season title even if they lose this game.

But it’s Duke-North Carolina.

That rivalry game is always going to be terrific, and this should be no different. The Tar Heels currently sit a game up on Notre Dame in the ACC regular season standings. A win locks them into the outright ACC regular season title, the eighth regular season title that Roy Williams has won in the last 13 seasons, but there should be little doubt that Duke, who is still playing for seeding in both postseason tournaments, would love to be able to say that they swept UNC in a year they won the ACC title.

And Duke has a real shot at this thing. The key is going to be the matchup at the four spot, where Duke’s Jayson Tatum is going to go up against Isaiah Hicks. Duke wants to play small-ball. North Carolina wants to play big. If Tatum can find a way to hold his own in the post and keep whoever he’s guarding from getting to the offensive glass, the Blue Devils will be in a really good spot. He did it when these two met in Cameron Indoor Stadium, but that came on a day where Isaiah Hicks was not in the lineup.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (-7)

FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

No. 24 Iowa State at No. 10 West Virginia, Fri. 7:00 p.m.: The Cyclones, who have been one of the hottest teams in the Big 12 and are now sitting all alone in second place in the Big 12, will pay a visit to Morgantown, which has not been a fun place for ranked teams to visit this season. Monte’ Morris has 68 assists and just six turnovers in his last 10 games. Will that last against WVU’s pressure? PREDICTION: Iowa State (+8)

No. 19 Notre Dame at No. 8 Louisville, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: Surprisingly enough, Notre Dame is currently sitting all alone in second place in the ACC standings as of today. Louisville, however, is coming off of a confounding loss at Wake Forest and are not an easy team to beat in the KFC Yum! Center. PREDICTION: Louisville (-8)

No. 25 Miami at No. 15 Florida State, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ACCN): There is a lot on the line in terms of seeding in this game, for both the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament. Miami has been one of the hot teams in the ACC in recent weeks. PREDICTION: Florida State (-7)

No. 1 Kansas at Oklahoma State, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN): The Jayhawks have already clinched the outright Big 12 title and, in all likelihood, a No. 1 seed in the tournament. What do they have to play for? Not enough to keep them from needing to come back from 12 down in the second half to beat Oklahoma. PREDICTION: Oklahoma State (-1)

Tournament Finals: There are going to be four automatic bids earned this weekend. It starts on Saturday night in the Ohio Valley Conference, while Sunday features the Atlantic Sun, the Big Sky and the Missouri Valley title games. The race for the MVC title may be the most interesting, as both Wichita State and Illinois State are looking to get themselves off of the bubble by earning that automatic bid.

Duke is No. 1 in the Preseason Coaches Poll once again

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The first Coaches Poll of the season was released on Thursday as Duke is the No. 1 team for the second consecutive season. Despite overhauling the roster with new freshmen talent, the Blue Devils received 20 first-place votes while Michigan State, Arizona and Florida also drew first-place consideration.

The top five isn’t too much of a surprise, although Florida getting a No. 1 vote while finishing at No. 7 in the poll is a bit puzzling. For a mid-major team, Oakland also received a considerable amount of votes just outside of the top 25.

  1. Duke (20 first place votes)
  2. Michigan State (9)
  3. Kansas
  4. Kentucky
  5. Arizona (2)
  6. Villanova
  7. Florida (1)
  8. Wichita State
  9. North Carolina
  10. West Virginia
  11. USC
  12. Miami
  13. Cincinnati
  14. Notre Dame
  15. Minnesota
  16. Louisville
  17. Xavier
  18. UCLA
  19. Gonzaga
  20. Northwestern
  21. Purdue
  22. St. Mary’s
  23. Seton Hall
  24. Baylor
  25. Alabama

Others receiving votes: Texas A&M 76; Virginia 57; Butler 43; Missouri 35; TCU 32; Rhode Island 31; Providence 21; Wisconsin 21; Maryland 20; Oakland 19; Oklahoma 19; Michigan 13; Texas 13; Virginia Tech 12; Oregon 12; Southern Methodist 6; Creighton 6; Georgia 3; Georgia Tech 3; Harvard 2; Arkansas 2; Florida State 1; South Carolina 1; Nevada 1.

SoCon Preview: Can Furman take over an unpredictable league?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SoCon.

The SoCon has been one of the most unpredictable conferences in college hoops over the last several years. Last season saw a three-way tie for first place in the regular season and the conference saw its third unique NCAA tournament representative in three years. This season should be wild as well as the SoCon has many of the nation’s elite three-point shooters returning.

Furman has a new head coach as Bob Richey was promoted to take over for Niko Medved (Drake) as he inherits a strong roster that won 23 games and tied for first last season. Four starters return for the Paladins, including senior guard and reigning SoCon Player of the Year Devin Sibley along with double-figure scorer Daniel Fowler. If Furman can get more interior help for its guard-heavy team then they could be the team to beat.

Returning the top seven scorers from a 20-win team, Samford has a lot of positive momentum in head coach Scott Padgett’s third season. Senior Demetrius Denzel-Dyson is one of the league’s most versatile talents as he’s joined by three more returning double-figure scorers. UNC Greensboro loses some firepower from a 25-win NIT team but junior sharpshooter Francis Alonso returns along with a good amount of interior depth. Replacing point guard Diante Baldwin could be key.

Five senior starters are back for Mercer including the dynamic backcourt duo of Ria’n Holland and Jordan Strawberry. Small forward Demetre Rivers also returns along with the frontcourt of Desmond Ringer and Stephon Jelks. The Bears have a lot of size but they need to improve defensively. East Tennessee State was the league’s autobid last season but the Buccaneers lose six dynamic seniors from that group. Guard Desonta Bradford is the team’s only returning double-figure scorer while junior college transfer forward Jeromy Rodriguez has a lot of hype as a scorer.

Wofford could be an intriguing team to watch as junior scorer Fletcher Magee leads the backcourt. Junior forward Cameron Jackson also returns as the Terriers have the personnel to either play a perimeter-oriented attack or more of a traditional lineup. Good news for Western Carolina as all five starters are back from last season’s team. But the Catamounts struggled to a 9-win season as the offense only shot 39 percent from the floor. Haboubacar Mutombo, nephew of Dikembe Mutombo, headlines the returning core.

The Citadel should continue to play fast as double-figure scorers like junior forward Zane Najdawi and sophomore gunner Preston Parks return.  New head coach Lamont Paris comes from Wisconsin to Chattanooga, and he doesn’t have any starters coming back from a 19-win team. Junior big man Makinde London showed promise as a role player last season for the Mocs. VMI lost its top three scorers from a young roster. Senior forward Armani Branch is the team’s only returning starter.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON SOCON PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Devin Sibley, Furman

The reigning SoCon Player of the Year, the 6-foot-2 Sibley was a big-time scorer for Furman last season. Putting up 17.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, Sibley’s efficiency stood out. Shooting 52 percent from the floor and 44 percent from three-point range, Sibley rarely takes a bad shot.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SOCON TEAM

  • Ria’n Holland, Mercer: With 11 20-point games last season, this 6-foot, 152-pound senior is small but he packs a powerful scoring punch.
  • Francis Alonso, UNC Greensboro: A lethal perimeter shooter, the 6-foot-3 junior hit 102 triples at a 46 percent clip last season while putting up 14.9 points per game.
  • Demetrius Denzel-Dyson, Samford: Capable of playing multiple spots, the 6-foot-5 senior averaged 16.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 46 percent from three-point.
  • Fletcher Magee, Wofford: The 6-foot-4 junior averaged 18.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per game last season while shooting 42 percent from three-point range and 89 percent from the free-throw line.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SoConSports

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. Furman
  2. Samford
  3. UNC Greensboro
  4. Mercer
  5. ETSU
  6. Wofford
  7. Western Carolina
  8. Chattanooga
  9. The Citadel
  10. VMI

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.