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Weekend Preview: We’ve reached the oversaturation point of early-season exempt events

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Typically, I use these Weekend Previews to discuss the best games of the weekend, but this weekend, there just aren’t any games that are actually worth talking about.

So I’m going to go on a rant instead.

We’ve officially reached the point of over-saturation when it comes to the early-season exempt events.

This is the second weekend of the college basketball season and we’re right in the middle of what should be one of the better weeks of college hoops. The Gavitt Games are happening, the Champions Classic more or less lived up to the hype and, starting on Thursday, we dove head first into tropical locale tournament season.

Except … these events all suck.

The Charleston Classic started on Thursday. Auburn beat Indiana State to advance and take on Temple, who dispatched Old Dominion. The winner of that game will take on the winner of Clemson and Hofstra, because Hofstra upset Dayton in the first round. There are four mid-major teams in the Charleston Classic, and none of the high-major teams look like they will be tournament-bound.

The Puerto Rico tip-off is even worse. It features teams from the Missouri Valley, Conference USA, the Sun Belt and the SoCon. The best team in the event is either an Iowa State team that lost to Milwaukee at home by double-digits, a Tulsa team that lost to Lamar at home, a South Carolina team that got picked off in the first round of the event or Boise State, who wasn’t picked to be in the top two of the Mountain West.

It won’t get any better when the Paradise Jam starts today. The three best teams in that event are Houston, Colorado and Wake Forest and features an opening round game between Mercer and Liberty.

There are also a number of events in the Northeast this weekend and next week. I live an hour from New York City and I won’t be making the trek up to any of the games at the Garden or the Barclays Center until next Saturday, and these are what are supposed to be big games being held there for the next eight days. I cover this sport for a living, but I’d rather watch on TV and spend time with my son than go see Pitt play Penn State or Texas Tech square off with Boston College.

Even the Maui Invitational isn’t all that intriguing. Cal is down. VCU is down. Michigan and Marquette have struggled early. LSU is intriguing but only in the sense that they appear to not be a train-wreck this year. If Notre Dame doesn’t play Wichita State in the final, that tournament will not feature a single must-see game.

Now granted, much of this is due to the fact that Nike pulled 14 power programs out of the exempt event rotation for the PK80, and I’ll admit, that event should be fun. But man, it was such a buzzkill when I realized that the 16-team event was really just two eight-team tournaments.

It makes sense – you can’t have conference rivals facing off in the same tournament – but it just never clicked for me.

Which brings me back around to the larger point that I wanted to make: Can we start doing away with some of these events and play marquee non-conference games on campus again? On Thursday night, we got a chance to see No. 15 Xavier pay a visit to Wisconsin for the Gavitt Games, and it was everything that we love about college basketball. Two elite programs featuring an all-american facing off in front of a raucous crowd that spent the entire second half letting J.P. Macura know that they think he is an a******. Ethan Happ, the best post player in the country, according to Chris Mack, got pissed about not getting a couple of foul calls and proceeded to will Wisconsin back into the game only to see Trevon Bluiett bury two dagger threes in a minute stretch to put the game away.

After hitting those threes, Bluiett proceeded to shush the crowd. A minute later, after throwing down an alley-ooo to put Xavier up 12 with just seconds left on the clock, Macura proceeded to do the Gator Chomp over and over and over at the Wisconsin student section to remind them of who knocked the Badgers out of last year’s NCAA tournament.

That was awesome!

Yes, Macura was a little over the top, and yes, the Wisconsin fans probably earned Macura’s trolling, but everything about that game was what makes college basketball great.

And it was a game between the No. 15 team in America and an unranked Wisconsin program. It wasn’t even a marquee matchup. The environment at the Champions Classic rivaled that – there really is nothing better than having an arena packed with fan bases from both teams playing – but when those neutral site games don’t feature blue blood programs or teams with large alumni bases in the city or fans that are willing to spend the money to travel, it’s boring. Virginia Tech got upset by Saint Louis at Madison Square Garden last night and I’m pretty sure I could have put my son to sleep while sitting behind the basket.

So this is my plea to the NCAA tournament Selection Committee: Make it obvious just how much you value quality road wins in non-conference play. Make them so valuable that programs simply cannot afford not to play them. Make Xavier’s win at Wisconsin on Thursday night worth at least a seed line even if Wisconsin ends up being a bubble team.

That’s the only way we’re going to get teams to play great games on campus in the fall.

2018 NCAA Tournament: Azubuike’s presence huge as No. 1 Kansas holds off No. 8 Seton Hall

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It turns out Kansas is a whole heck of a lot better when Udoka Azubuike is in the floor.

Who knew?

The sophomore center returned Saturday for extended minutes after being limited with a knee injury to help the No. 1 Jayhawks to a 83-79 win over No. 8 Seton Hall to earn a spot in the Sweet 16.

Azubuike had 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, but the strongest stat in his column was his plus-minus. When he was on the floor, Kansas bested the Pirates by 21 points. When he was off, the Jayhawks got outscored by 17, and there is noise in that number as Seton Hall continued to put them on the foul line in the last minute with Azubuike on the bench.

The 7-footer’s importance to Kansas has been apparent all season, but it was even starker against the Pirates, whose Angel Delgado feasted when Azubuike wasn’t on the floor.  Seton Hall’s double-double machine finished with 24 points and 23 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to power the Pirates into next week. Neither was Khadeen Carrington’s 28 points, all but two of which came after halftime.

Azubuike’s critical role for Kansas is three-fold. First, he’s very talented. Second, he makes the four-out offense possible. Third, the drop-off behind him – apologies to Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa – is rather significant.

Kansas, which got 28 points from Malik Newman, has to play a very specific way offensively with guard-heavy roster. The Jayhawks have to get up a ton of 3s, and they’ve got to make a bunch of them. Without Azubuike in the middle drawing attention and making it difficult for defenders to stay hugged-up on shooters on the perimeter, the architecture of the offense can crumble in on itself.

Azubuike certainly isn’t a perfect or dominant player, but he rebounds well, blocks shots and makes about three-quarters of his shots. Which, of course, means he fits his role perfectly for maybe the most vulnerable Kansas team in Bill Self’s tenure. The Jayhawks’ margin for error, at least at this juncture against the competition they’re going to see in Omaha, is pretty small. Deviate from the plan and things can get away from them quickly. Duke and Michigan State, Kansas’ presumptive opponents in the Elite Eight, will punish them for any missteps or holes in their gameplan.

Azubuike is the linchpin. When he’s in place, things hold together. When he’s not, there’s trouble.

No. 11-seed Loyola-Chicago beats No. 3 Tennessee to advance to Sweet 16

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Cinderella is headed to the Sweet 16!

For the second time in this tournament, trailing 62-61 on the final possession of the game, Loyola-Chicago has won.

On Thursday, the Ramblers got the benefit of a missed Lonnie Walker free throw and a game-winning three from Donte Ingram to beat No. 6-seed Miami, 64-62.

On Saturday, the situation was almost the same — the Ramblers had the ball with 10.5 seconds left on the clock — but the execution was different.

Clayton Custer hit a jumper with 3.6 seconds left to answer Grant Williams’ and-one and send Loyola-Chicago to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

In the immortal words of Gus Johnson, the slipper still fits:

Loyola was in control of this game for the majority of the second half and led by eight points at the under-four time out, but a pair of threes from Tennessee set up Williams’ and-one on Tennessee’s final possession. Jordan Bone had a shot to win the game at the buzzer that bounced off the back of the rim.

Aundre Jackson led the Ramblers 16 points off the bench as No. 11-seed Loyola landed their second upset of the weekend, beating No. 3-seed Tennessee, 63-62, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Those 16 points that Jackson scored were the most that any Loyola player scored in either of their games this weekend. The 10 shots that Jackson took in the first round win over No. 3-seed Miami was the only time in those two games that a Rambler player had double-digit field goal attempts. They held Miami and Tennessee to a combined 116 points.

I say all that to say this: Loyola is not a typical Cinderella team. They don’t have some superstar scorer that carried them to this point in the tournament, like a Jairus Lyles from UMBC or a Jon Elmore from Marshall. They’re not a high-scoring team or a team that just-so-happened to catch fire from three at the right time. What they are is a smart, tough and extremely well-coached group that is everything you think of when you picture Missouri Valley basketball.

They aren’t going to give up penetration defensively. They are going to pound the defensive glass. They aren’t going to commit silly turnovers or take dumb shots. They’ll run their offense and trust that whatever their coach calls is going to get them the shot they need to get.

They will not beat themselves, and if you are going to beat them, you’re going to work for every possession.

And it’s worked.

Loyola will advance to Atlanta where they will face the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 2 Cincinnati and No. 7 Nevada. With Buffalo losing and either No. 10-seed Butler or No. 11-seed Syracuse counting as anything close to a mid-major, Loyola, Marshall and UMBC are the only true Cinderella teams left in the tournament. The 16th-seeded UMBC Retrievers, who became the first No. 16 seed to get to the second round of the tournament after a Friday night win over top overall seed Virginia, take on No. 9-seed Kansas State on Sunday while No. 13-seed Marshall gets a date with in-state an rival, No. 5 West Virginia.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander paces No. 5 Kentucky past No. 13 Buffalo

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Its deficit cut to five, Buffalo zipped down the floor in transition. The ball found Jeremy Harris, who stepped into his 3-point shot attempt and let it fly as the crowd in Boise was ready to blow the roof off Taco Bell Arena, hopeful they’d have the chance to will the Bulls to an upset of Kentucky. The shot barrelled toward the basket, carrying Buffalo’s Sweet 16 dreams with it.

The ball, along with control of the game, clanged off the rim and bounced into Kentucky’s hands.

The No. 5 Wildcats turned away No. 13 Buffalo, 95-75, on Saturday to advance to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.

Buffalo got 26 points from Wes Clark and 18 from CJ Massinburg, and made the Wildcats sweat deep into the second round until things spiraled away from them. Making just 7 of 31 shots from 3-point range and your opponent shooting 56.3 percent from the floor is no recipe for an upset.

Even with a rough shooting day, Buffalo threatened Kentucky time and again, but at every turn, the Wildcats had Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The 6-foot-6 freshman was simply spectacular, scoring 27 points on 10 of 12 shooting. He added six rebounds and six assists for good measure.

Gilgeous-Alexander was an unsolvable problem for Buffalo. The Bulls were never able to find a way to corral or deny him. He just got what he wanted when he wanted it, and what he wanted was buckets. Lots of them.

Inconsistency has been the pock on Gilgeous-Alexander’s rookie campaign, but in recent weeks he’s found his groove. He’s scored in double-digits in nine-straight games. He’s either made shots or gotten to the free-throw line. Sometimes both.

For a Kentucky team without a dominant player, Gilgeous-Alexander’s emergence as a go-to and consistent scorer is huge. The Wildcats are going to have an athletic advantage in almost every game they play. If they’ve got a guy other than Kevin Knox they can count on for 15-plus, that’s going to take a lot of pressure off an offense that doesn’t have the benefit of much in the way of shooting.

The path for Kentucky to the Elite 8 looks incredibly navigable after Virginia’s stunning and historic loss Friday to UMBC. The Wildcats will have to beat a nine or 16 seed to be just 40 minutes from another Final Four.

If Gilgeous-Alexander can continue to be the offensive weapon he’s turned into over the last month, San Antonio may very well be hosting Big Blue Nation in April.

VIDEO: Buffalo’s Nick Perkins posterizes Kevin Knox

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Buffalo and Kentucky are locked in an entertaining battle on Saturday afternoon, and while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been completely dominant, the play of the day comes courtesy of the Bulls.

After Kentucky pushed their lead to 10 points with less than nine minutes left, Nick Perkins — who is known for as a three-point shooter than anything else — dunked on Kentucky’s soon-to-be lottery pick, Kevin Knox, emphatically:

Bettor wins $16,000 on UMBC wager

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The whole country became UMBC fans throughout Saturday night as the Retrievers attempted – and ultimately pulled off – the first-ever 16-over-1 upset in the NCAA tournament against Virginia.

There may have been one person at The Venetian in Las Vegas cheering a little more than most, though. They had a little more on the line. The moneyline, to be exact. 

One bettor won $16,000 on a $800 wager that UMBC would beat the Cavaliers, which is exactly what they did, 74-54, in Charlotte.

While the bet paid off this time and it makes for an all-time story, it’s probably best not to make this your betting strategy. If you would have bet 800 bucks on every 16 seed every year, you would have been $108,000 in the hole before getting your Retriever payout and riding a rough 135-bet losing streak. Can’t win without buying a ticket, though, right?

And it’s not like that the person who just cashed a $16,000 check cares about that at the moment. Also no word on how they’re betting UMBC against Kansas State, either. The Wildcats are 10.5-point favorites, if you were wondering.