Rob Dauster

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Illinois fires head coach John Groce

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Illinois has fired head coach John Groce.

Groce went 95-75 in five seasons with the Illini, posting a 37-53 record in Big Ten play during that time frame. Groce reached the NCAA tournament in 2013, but he had failed to return to the dance in the last four years.

“I want to thank John Groce and his staff for their tireless efforts over these past five years,” Illinois AD Josh Whitman said in a statement released by the university. “Under his leadership, regrettably, we were not able to sustain the level of competitive excellence that we expect at the University of Illinois.”

Groce is a good coach. He had success at Ohio before getting to Illinois, and a lot of smart people thought that he had a chance to be successful. It just didn’t work out, and even with a late run this year, losses to Rutgers in the season finale and Michigan in the Big Ten tournament opener did them in.

Illinois is going to be a job that is pursued by a lot of people. Due to its proximity to Chicago and St. Louis, havens of high school talent, and given the passionate fan base, it may be the best job currently on the market. It will also be interesting to see what happens with the recruiting class that Groce brought in, which includes five-star big man Jeremiah Tilmon and talented guard Trent Frazier.

The name that is going to be associated with this opening the the most will be Cuonzo Martin. He’s a midwest guy that played in the Big Ten and thrived at Missouri State prior to going to Tennessee. He should be able to recruit St. Louis given his connections to the city and, if he makes the right hire, should be able to get Chicago kids into the program as well.

It may end up coming down to a bidding war between the Illini and Missouri for Martin. If Illinois ends up on the losing end of that, or if Martin opts to stay in Berkeley instead of leaving Cal, there are a number of other interesting names that will be tied to the job.

The first two names that Illinois should call are Tim Jankovich at SMU and Dan Muller at Illinois State. Muller just led the Redbirds to a 28-win season and a 17-1 mark in the Missouri Valley. He spent time on staff at Vanderbilt and has experience recruiting at that level. Jankovich, who is currently the head coach at SMU, led the Mustangs to an AAC regular season title despite playing with a six-man rotation and coaching a team that he didn’t take over until mid-July, when Larry Brown abruptly retired. Before going to SMU, Jankovich was head coach at Illinois State.

Baylor head coach Scott Drew is an interesting name to keep in mind here as well, as is current St. Louis and former Oklahoma State head coach Travis Ford. Drew may be in the market to make a move away from Baylor given the year that he’s had and the current issues with the Baylor brand, and Ford already has two elite recruits committed to the Billikens that are from the city of St. Louis.

De’Aaron Fox scores 28 as Kentucky advances to SEC final

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De’Aaron Fox is back.

It seemed like it yesterday, when Kentucky knocked off Georgia to get to the semifinals of the SEC tournament, and it’s official this afternoon, as Kentucky’s star point guard scored 19 of his 28 points in the second half of a hard-fought, 79-74 win over No. 5 seed Alabama to get to the finals of the SEC tournament.

The critical stretch came midway late in the half, when Fox scored nine straight points as Alabama’s defense was able to bog down Kentucky offensively. It finally created some separation for the Wildcats, who had been unable to pull away from the Tide all afternoon.

It’s also worth noting that Kentucky’s Malik Monk shook off his struggles as well. Monk, who has scored more than 20 points in a half six times this season and went for 47 points in a game in December, had scored all of eight points in his last two games. He had two points on 1-for-7 shooting on Friday, but Saturday saw Monk drop 20, shoot 6-for-14 from three and knock down a pair of threes.

This isn’t exactly breaking news here, but Kentucky’s back court is as good as any back court in the country … when they play well.

Those are the two guys that are going to give them a chance to make a run this month.

And regardless of whether or not the Wildcats bring home the SEC tournament trophy tomorrow afternoon, it looks like those two are back to being a dominant force.

For a program that bases the success of a season on whether or not they get to the Final Four and win a national title, that’s a very, very good sign.

VIDEO: Steve Alford, Sean Miller in war of words over Miller’s vengeful late timeout

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Let’s go back to two weeks ago, when UCLA went into the McKale Center and knocked off Arizona in the second-to-last week of the regular season.

After a pair of free throws put UCLA up 77-72 with two seconds left, Alford called a timeout to set his defense. Miller was not happy about it, and with 0.9 seconds left in last night’s 86-75 win over the Bruins, he made sure to whistle for a timeout.

The two exchanged niceties in the handshake line after the game:

Miller was asked about it after the game, and this is what he had to say:

“I just wanted to make sure our guys had poise with one second left in this game.”

That is so petty and so awesome and everything that rivalries at this level should be about.

And rest assured, this is a rivalry. The two marquee programs in the west coast conference who do battle over kids in Southern California like — oh, I don’t know — UCLA forward and former Arizona commit T.J. Leaf.

College basketball needs more stuff like this.

Here are Steve Alford’s thoughts on the timeout:

Ten tournament tickets get punched on Saturday

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There will be ten automatic bids to the NCAA tournament handed out today, from the America East’s 11 a.m. tip-off in Burlington, Vermont, to the 11:30 p.m. tip between UC Davis and UC Irvine in Anaheim.

The most interesting of the ten games, at least for the bubble teams around the country, will be the Conference USA final between Marshall and Middle Tennessee State. Kermit Davis’ Blue Raiders are probably going to be in the NCAA tournament regardless of whether or not they win or lose on Saturday, meaning that Marshall — who is coached by Dan D’antoni — is the prototypical bid thief.

If Marshall wins, someone — maybe USC, maybe Illinois State, maybe Kansas State, maybe Wake Forest — will find themselves heading to the NIT.

Marshall isn’t the only big thief out there right now.

Everyone in the Atlantic 10 not named VCU probably fits into that category as well. Richmond, who plays VCU in the A-10 semis at 3:30 p.m., is not getting an at-large bid, and neither is Davidson, who faces off with Rhode Island at 1 p.m. The Rams are an interesting case themselves. They are right on the bubble’s cut-line, but they won’t be able to land the wins they need to jump past the rest of the teams at the bottom of the at-large pool.

Here is today’s automatic bid schedule:

Albany at Vermont, 11:00 a.m.
Norfolk State vs. North Carolina Central, 1:00 p.m.
Colorado State vs. Nevada, 6:00 p.m.
Alcorn State vs. Texas Southern, 6:15 p.m.
Kent State vs. Akron, 7:30 p.m.
Marshall vs. Middle Tennessee, 8:30 p.m.
Weber State vs. North Dakota, 8:30 p.m.
Texas A&M-CC vs. New Orleans, 9:30 p.m.
New Mexico State vs. CSU Bakersfield, 11:00 p.m.
UC Davis vs. UC Irvine, 11:30 p.m.

No. 7 Arizona beats No. 3 UCLA 86-75 in Pac-12 semifinals

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LAS VEGAS (AP) A spot in the championship game secure, Arizona coach Sean Miller called a timeout with 0.9 seconds left against UCLA, threw the ball onto the floor and began shouting in the face of Kadeem Allen.

Miller said it was to give the senior guard his due and make sure his team was poised at the end the game. His actions showed there might have been a little more to it following a celebration by the Bruins two weeks ago in Tucson.

Lauri Markkanen scored 29 points, Allonzo Trier added 20 and No. 7 Arizona shot its way to an emotional 86-75 win over No. 3 UCLA on Friday night in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals.

“We learned from UCLA in that game, making sure your team is poised when they called that timeout,” Miller said. “We wanted to do the same thing, make sure our team was poised moving forward.”

UCLA lost to Arizona at home early in the season and returned the favor at McKale Center with a 77-72 victory on Feb. 25. Coach Steve Alford called a timeout with a second left in that game and it apparently riled up the Wildcats, who were hoping for a rematch after advancing to the tournament semifinals.

Arizona (29-4) made the most of it, advancing to Saturday’s title game against No. 5 Oregon. The co-Pac-12 champion Wildcats shot 50 percent and made 10 of 20 from 3-point range in front of a rowdy crowd that made T-Mobile Arena feel like McKale Center west.

“I guess they were upset when I called timeout at their place,” Alford said. “We made two free throws and I didn’t mean disrespect at all. It put us up five and I wanted to set my defense. We hadn’t won there, so I didn’t want anything goofy to happen. Apparently he thought we were being disrespectful and that was his way of getting back at us.”

UCLA (29-4) won the game in Tucson by outscoring the Wildcats 20-4 on second-chance points. Arizona shored up its rebounding issues and hounded the Bruins into one miss after another.

UCLA shot 4 of 25 from 3-point range, with Lonzo Ball and Bryce Alford combining for 13 points on 2-for-16 shooting from beyond the arc.

Isaac Hamilton led UCLA with 20 points and TJ Leaf had 15 before fouling out.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well,” Alford said. “We missed a lot of open looks that we normally make.”

The Bruins and Wildcats played two entertaining games during the regular season, each winning on the road.

The first half of the rubber match between Pac-12 powers was an entertaining mix of athletic plays, superb defensive stretches, followed by runs of fantastic offense.

Arizona had the last burst, taking a 41-35 lead into halftime after making 7 of 13 from 3-point range while the Bruins went 2 for 12.

Ball struggled with foul trouble in the quarterfinals against USC and wasn’t much of a factor in the first half, with as many turnovers (four) as points and assists combined.

Arizona continued to hit shots as UCLA continued to clank, stretching the lead to 63-48 as the decibel level in T-Mobile Arena continued to rise.

The Bruins tried to make runs , but couldn’t get shots to consistently fall to make up enough ground, allowing the Wildcats to get a little payback.

“Never been prouder of a group of kids,” Miller said. “We lost a tough game at home in our last game and I think it really stuck with these guys and motivated them to be better. We had the opportunity and we took advantage of it.”

BIG PICTURE

Arizona can look unstoppable when it’s making perimeter shots and playing defense, which it did against UCLA.

The Bruins had been playing solid defense recently, but struggled to stop the Wildcats and couldn’t outscore them.

MARKKANEN ON THE MARK

Markkanen went through a shooting slump in February, but has found his stroke in Las Vegas.

The Finnish 7-footer went 4 for 10 from 3-point range against UCLA and is 8 of 17 in two games of the tournament.

UP NEXT

Arizona faces top-seeded Oregon in Saturday night’s title game.

UCLA should still get a high NCAA Tournament seed.

We finally got a glimpse of the real Harry Giles III, but will it last?

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BROOKLYN — In practice, it comes in spurts.

Behind closed doors, Harry Giles III, who was the best high school basketball player in his class before dealing with a pair of devastating knee injuries and a third surgery just this past September, show flashes of being the player that he was. But it isn’t consistent, and it hasn’t translating to gameday.

Giles, who one veteran scout told ESPN was the best prospect he’d ever seen as a freshman prior to his first torn ACL, has been anything but for the Blue Devils this season.

But on Friday night, as the Blue Devils squared off with arch-rival North Carolina in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, we all saw it. In a pivotal stretch during a nationally-televised game in the throes of March, Giles put together the three best possessions that he’s played to date. It started with a block, one of four that Giles had on the night, that turned into an alley-oop at the other end of the court after he sprinted to beat Tony Bradley down the floor. Back at the defensive end, Giles batted away an entry pass and dove on the floor to create a turnover, which led to a Duke bucket at the other end of the floor. On the very next possession, he grabbed a defensive rebound in the middle of UNC’s pair of dominant big men — Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks — and by the time it was all said and done, the Blue Devils had a 77-70 lead that UNC would never recover from.

The Blue Devils would go on to win 93-83 after trailing by 13 in the second half.

“One of the big reasons we won today is because of that incredible stretch he had,” Jayson Tatum. “It’s all effort. That’s what we needed today. I have the utmost faith in him that he’ll do that the rest of the way. ”

Tatum knows everything that Giles has been through. Not just this season, but since the injuries started. Tatum and Giles are best friends. They planned this season together at Duke. It’s not a mistake that they are on the same team in college, which means that Tatum knows better than just about anyone what Giles has dealt with in his short career. It also makes seeing Giles finally have his break-through just that much better.

“We have the utmost confidence him, especially I do,” Tatum said. “But I think for him it’s just believing in himself that he can do that. Mentally, it’s tough for him.”

“Confidence, mental things,” Giles said of why it’s taken him this long to come back around. “A lot of it is mental. My body is good.”

The Duke staff had just about given up on seeing this from Giles. They haven’t quit working with him, and they haven’t stopped hoping that the star is in there somewhere, but they had reached the point where they had just about accepted the fact that Giles was simply going to be a fill-in, a guy who are the minutes that Amile Jefferson couldn’t play, whether it be a result of fouls, fatigue or injury.

They weren’t expecting this, a performance that isn’t done justice by a stat-line of six points, seven boards and four blocks.

For Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, the issue wasn’t just Giles’ confidence. It was how he was playing.

“You’re the most enthusiastic kid I’ve ever been around, and you’re not bringing your enthusiasm,” Coach K said. “That was never hurt. But I think you’re not using it. Just be enthusiastic and see what happens, and I think he’s done that. Instead of being methodical and trying to think about everything, he’s been more athletic.”

Part of it was an adjustment to a new role, one where Giles is coming off the bench and playing 15 minutes instead of starting and starring. Grayson Allen has helped him with that.

“You might feel like a role player, but you’re not,” Allen recalled telling Giles. “You’re extremely talented, and when you get out there, act like it. Don’t be shy. Don’t be trying to play into a role. Do what you can do.”

“Put in 40 minutes of effort in 15 minutes,” Giles said.

How this turns out is unclear.

At the end of the day, Giles played just 15 minutes and was truly dominant for just three possessions in those 15 minutes.

Was this a change in the player or a blip on the radar?

The answer to that question may very well determine Duke’s ceiling.

“I hope,” Tatum said, “we haven’t reached our ceiling yet.”