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Michigan wins second-straight Big Ten tournament title


NEW YORK — John Beilein did it again.

For the second time in as many season, a Beilein-coached Michigan team went from early-season afterthought to late-season contender as they rolled through the Big Ten tournament and to their second straight title.

On Sunday afternoon, as thousands of Michigan fans turned Madison Square Garden turned into Crisler Center East, the Wolverines rode Mo Wagner’s hot hand to a 75-66 win over Purdue, their first win against the Boilermakers in three games this season. Wagner scored 10 of his 17 points during an early second half surge that pushed a five-point halftime lead as high as 15 points.

Jon Teske scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half, but the star of this game for Michigan was, in truth, Zavier Simpson. He was tasked with doing the heavy-lifting against Purdue star Carsen Edwards, who finished with just 12 points on 4-for-17 shooting. But more important was Simpson’s work running Michigan’s ball-screen offense. Purdue struggles defending ball-screens as it is, and Simpsons ability to get downhill and create off the bounce in those actions is why the Wolverines were able to take control of this one early on. His stat-line — ten points, five boards and five assists — does not do justice to his importance in this game.

This is the second straight season where Beilein has turned Michigan from a team with major question marks throughout the season into one of college basketball’s hottest teams and a legitimate threat to make a run deep into the NCAA tournament. Last year, after losing six of their first ten Big 10 games and finishing the regular season squarely on the bubble with a 20-11 record and a 10-8 mark in the league, Michigan won the Big Ten tournament, upset No. 2 Louisville in the second round of the NCAA tournament and came within a missed-Derrick Walton jumper of upsetting No. 3 seed Oregon and getting a shot at No. 1 seed Kansas for the right to go to the Final Four.

That run hinged on the growth of Walton from a maddeningly-inconsistent talent into one of the best point guards in the country over the final two months of the season.

The turning point in this season for the Wolverines was when Simpson took over the starting point guard role, which was not something that ever appeared to be a guarantee. The point is the most important position in Beilein’s offense, and there were some very real questions about whether or not there was anyone on this roster that was capable of playing the role in the way that Michigan needed.

Beilein recruited grad transfer Jaaron Simmons from Ohio to take over that role as Simpson went through his growing pains, but Simmons could not win the job. He’s taken a DNP-CD in eight games this year. Freshman Eli Brooks briefly took over the starting role during the team’s trip to the Maui Invitational, but but that didn’t last, either. Eventually, Simpson took that starting spot over, starting right after the Wolverines blew a 20-point lead to nemesis Ohio State in a loss in early December.

Michigan has also grown into one of college basketball’s best defensive teams. As it currently stands, they are ranked sixth in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which is a far cry from what we usually expect out of Beilein’s teams. Even his Final Four team in 2013 was ranked outside the top 60 in defensive efficiency prior to the start of the NCAA tournament.

With the way this group is defending, and with a point guard in place this season, Michigan once again is poised to be a trendy pick to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

And with a coach who has consistently proven to be one of college basketball’s best in tournament settings, there’s no reason they can’t get to San Antonio for the season’s final weekend.

Late run sparks Villanova past West Virginia, into Elite Eight

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BOSTON — It is always just a matter of time before the avalanche comes.

And when it does, you better hope that lead you have is big enough to withstand what’s coming.

For No. 5-seed West Virginia, it was not. With 11 minutes left on Friday night in Boston’s TD Garden, the Mountaineers led 60-54 and had seemingly wrestled control of the game from the No. 1-seed in the East Region. Less than five minutes later, after the Wildcats hit four of their next five threes, Villanova had taken a 76-66 lead by going on a 22-6 run, and West Virginia was never able to recover.

Jalen Brunson led the way for the top-seeded Wildcats with 27 points and four assists while Omari Spellman finished with 18 points, eight boards and three blocks and Mikal Bridges chipped in with 16 points despite playing relatively poorly — by his standards — on Friday.

With a 90-78 win, Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight and a date with the winner of tonight’s game No. 2 Purdue-No. 3 Texas Tech.

That’s the way that it works with this Villanova team. Armed with the most potent, high-volume three-point shooting attack in college basketball — maybe in the history of college basketball — fans of their opponents are just waiting for the inevitable.

On Friday night, Villanova shot 13-for-24 from three, which is damned-impressive and exactly what we expect at the same time, but the game was won during that five-minute surge when West Virginia just didn’t have an answer.

VIDEO: Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall with mammoth dunks for Villanova

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Villanova took the lead on West Virginia and turned the tide of momentum with a pair of emphatic dunks in transition.

It started with Omari Spellman, who had an unbelievable sequence, spiking a shot into the floor before throwing down a put-back dunk all over a defender:

A couple of possessions later, Eric Paschall finally did the impossible.

He dunked on Sagaba Konate:

I am having way too much fun at this game.

No. 1 Kansas into Elite Eight with win over No. 5 Clemson

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OMAHA, Neb. — Once Kansas found its stride, Clemson had little chance of keeping pace – even after a late stumble.

The No. 1 Jayhawks ran away from the No. 5 Tigers with a second-half flurry that powered them to a 80-76 victory Friday night at CenturyLink Center to put them in the Elite Eight on Sunday against either Duke or Syracuse.

Kansas moves on to the Midwest Region final on the back of a second-half offense that Clemson had nearly no success in slowing until the final minutes, when the Tigers turned a 20-point laugher into  a six-point nail-biter.

Malik Newman paced Kansas with 17 points while Devonte Graham 16 and Udoka Azubuike 14 and 11 rebounds.

Clemson got 31 points from senior Gabe DeVoe, but there just wasn’t enough help around him for the Tigers to keep things competitive after the Jayhawks hit them with three-consecutive 3s in the opening minutes of the second half to open up a 20-point lead.

Clemson was already hanging on by a threat after it shot just 35.7 percent from the floor and committed eight turnovers. DeVoe’s 12 first-half points kept the Tigers afloat, but they never enjoyed a lead before halftime.

The Jayhawks, meanwhile, had five players  score at least six points in the first half, including 10 from Azubuike, Their usual strengths – 3-point shooting (4 of 13) and Devonte Graham (1 of 7) – were absent in the first half, but Clemson was unable to take advantage as Kansas continued to get quality looks inside and stops on defense.

The Jayhawks previously played Syracuse in December, beating the Orange by 16 on a neutral floor in Miami. They haven’t faced the Blue Devils, though they have already shared a building with them once this year in the Champion’s Classic. Kansas topped Kentucky, 65-61, while Duke defeated Michigan State, 88-81, that November night in Chicago.

VIDEO: Mikal Bridges tries to dunk on Sagaba Konate, gets denied

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There really is nothing better in this world than seeing someone who is typically a great dunker take flight to try and dunk on Sagaba Konate of West Virginia, because it never, EVER ends well for the dunker.

See: Bridges, Mikal:

Auburn AD Greene gives Bruce Pearl a vote of confidence

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Speaking publicly for the first time about head coach Bruce Pearl, new Auburn athletic director gave his embattled head coach a vote of confidence.

Greene was on an in-house podcast produced with the voice of Auburn sports, and was asked about Pearl’s standing in a pod that lasted less than five minutes and felt more like a press release than anything else.

“He’s been a tremendous blessing for the Auburn family,” Greene said. “The FBI investigation is a long process. We’re going through that process to make sure that we, as a university, are doing what it is that we’re supposed to do to comply. Coach Pearl has been excellent in that regard and I look forward to continuing to work with him as we continue to do the very best to support he, his staff and the student athletes of Auburn University.”

This is the first time since former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested that a member of the Auburn athletic department had spoken so positively about Pearl. In the fall, Auburn’s president Steven Leath lamented Pearl’s lack of cooperation in the investigation, but just last week released a statement saying Pearl is “working with university officials as part of our due diligence.” Pearl said after his team’s 84-53 loss to Clemson in the second round of the NCAA tournament that he would like to return.

There has been speculation that Pearl’s job was in jeopardy ever since Auburn was mixed up in the FBI’s complaint. Two players were forced to sit out this entire season after the FBI alleged they had received money funneled through Person from a runner for an agent and a financial advisor.

“One of the challenges that we have facing the industry is college basketball,” Greene said. “We want to make sure we work incredibly hard to clean up the game, to make it as pure as it can possibly be so that our student-athletes can enjoy the intercollegiate athletic experience. one of the things that we have to keep in mind is that the state of college basketball is not in a good place right now and I’m a little bit disappointed that auburn is involved in that, but that doesn’t take away from the excellent job that Coach Pearl has done.”