Conference Countdown: No. 3 Big East


Pre-Season Awards

Player of the Year: Corey Fisher, Villanova

no secret that Jay Wright runs an offense geared towards back court
players, and with Villanova losing a first team all-american with
Scottie Reynolds’ graduation, Fisher is in line to be the feature
guard. Fisher is a dynamic scorer that can get to the basket, can
finish amongst the trees, and, as he proved this summer,
is a very good three point shooter. He’s a tough kid from the Bronx,
which leaves me with little doubt that he can flourish as a senior
leader for a Nova club with a wealth of young talent.

And a close second goes to: Austin Freeman, Georgetown

be honest, any one of the five players listed below on the Big East’s
first team could slide in here, as the top six players in the league
seem fairly obvious. Freeman is probably the best of that group,
however. At 6’4″, 240 lb, Freeman is built more like a linebacker than
a shooting guard, but for someone his size, he is nimble, mobile, and
athletic. The best aspect of his game is his ability to shoot — when
he gets it going, he is damn near impossible to stop. Ask UConn. Or Louisville.
He needs to improve on his ability to get to the rim — he shot less
than 100 free throws last season — but he has a high basketball IQ and
truly understands what is a good shot and what isn’t. Freeman is the
perfect guard for JT III’s offense, and should thrive this year.

Breakout Star: Kris Joseph, Syracuse

last two years, Joseph has come off the bench, playing a role for a
team that had legitimate stars — Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf, Wes
Johnson, Andy Rautins. But with that talent off to the NBA (or New
Zealand) someone is going to have to fill the void, and Joseph is the
perfect player. At 6’7″, Joseph is athletic enough to be a dangerous
slasher. He can get to the rim, and he can finish once there. He has
the length to be a nightmare defensively in the Syracuse zone. If he
can add a consistent jump shot, then Joseph seems like a safe bet to be
a first round pick whenever he decides to go pro.

All-Conference First Team:

  • POY – Corey Fisher, Villanova, Sr.
  • G – Kemba Walker, UConn, Jr.
  • G – Austin Freeman, Georgetown, Sr.
  • F – Tim Abromaitis, Notre Dame, Sr.
  • F – Kris Joseph, Syracuse, Jr.
  • F – Kevin Jones, West Virginia, Jr.

All-Conference Second Team:

  • G – Chris Wright, Georgetown, Sr.
  • G – Ashton Gibbs, Pitt, Jr.
  • G – Jeremy Hazell, Seton Hall, Sr.
  • F – DJ Kennedy, St. John’s, Sr.
  • F – Jimmy Butler, Marquette, Sr.

Freshman of the Year: Fab Melo, Syracuse

an era of one-and-done basketball, its pretty amazing that in a 16 team
conference, Melo is really the only kid with a chance of being in the
NBA in 2011. The seven-foot Brazilian has a pretty good back to the
basket game for a player his age and is regarded by a few recruiting
outlets as the best center in the class. Playing alongside Rick Jackson
and Joseph, the Orange will have a very good front line.

All-Freshman Team:

  • G – Eric Atkins, Notre Dame
  • G – Vander Blue, Marquette
  • G – Dion Waiters, Syracuse
  • F – Roscoe Smith, UConn
  • F – Nate Lubick, Georgetown

What Happened?:

  • NCAA Sanctions: From a basketball perspective, the biggest story in the Big East this summer was up at UConn. The Huskies received a notice of allegations
    from the NCAA in May, informing them of eight major violations in the
    recruitment of Nate Miles. UConn will find out its final punishment
    from the NCAA in October, but the violations have already cost them two
    assistants — Beau Archibald and Brad Sellers, the son of former Husky
    star Rod Sellers. Jim Calhoun avoided the heavy artillery — getting
    grazed with a citation for “failure to monitor” the program, which is
    ironically what the best coaches need to do to succeed.
  • Coaches:
    The NCAA infractions weren’t the only reason Calhoun was in the news.
    Ailing health, which isn’t helped by the fact that he is nearing 70,
    coupled with the impending NCAA sanctions, a team that is going to need
    some rebuilding, and the fact his contract was up made many believe
    Calhoun would hang ’em up this summer. Wrong. He signed a five-year
    deal instead.

    Calhoun had far from the worst summer for coaches
    in the Big East. Rick Pitino let the world — and every single opposing
    student section — know about his 15 second tryst on a restaurant table with one Karen Sypher. Bob Huggins fell, a result of being in Vegas the medicine he took on an empty stomach making him light-headed, and broke seven ribs. Fred Hill was run out of Rutgers, in part because he lost it on the Pittsburgh baseball team’s coaching staff.

    Through all of that, perhaps the worst summer was had by Bobby Gonzalez, who lost his job at Seton Hall, had the entire episode come out in the New York Times, sued he former employer, was unable to receive credentials at the NBA Draft, and then go himself arrested for attempting to steal a $1,400 man-purse satchel.

    the only coach you can actually feel bad for this summer was Norm
    Roberts. All Roberts did was St. John’s program and get his kids to
    play as hard as they could for 40 minutes a game all season long. But
    he couldn’t win, and thus got the axe. The Johnnies dipped into the
    ESPN studios and pulled out Steve Lavin, the former UCLA head coach, to
    make the trip east.

    The four new coaches to the conference:
    Oliver Purnell left Clemson for DePaul; Mike Rice filled in for Hill at
    Rutgers, leaving Robert Morris; Steve Lavin replaced Norm Roberts at
    St. John’s; and Kevin Willard left Iona and took Gonzo’s spot at Seton

  • LOI’s: Three Big East teams made headlines for issues with LOI’s that they had recruits sign. DePaul initially refused to release Walter Pitchford, Jr., from his LOI.
    He signed with Jerry Wainwright, who was at DePaul two coaches ago.
    After appealing both the school and the NCAA, DePaul finally released
    Pitchford. The same thing is currently happening to Joseph Young at Providence, who as of this writing has not yet been granted a release by Providence. At Marquette, DJ Newbill was dropped from his LOI
    when Buzz Williams had the opportunity to bring in former top 100
    recruit Jamil Wilson, a transfer from Oregon. All in all, Big East
    members did not shine bright this summer.
  • Back to Providence: Man oh man, did they have a rough summer.
    Two freshmen kicked out of school for beating up a student. Their star
    Greedy Peterson thrown off the team. Another player arrested.
  • Seton Hall didn’t fare much better:
    Aside from their coach being kicked to the curb, the Pirates had their
    best big man spend nearly a month in the hospital because he collapsed after finishing a workouts and saw Robert “Sticks” Mitchell get arrested for (get this) robbing eight people at gunpoint just two days after being kicked off the team.

What’s Next?

  • Expansion:
    I’ve had enough expansion talk for the summer, which is why I’m putting
    it down here. Despite all the rumors and the doomsday scenarios and the
    possibility of the conference disintegrating (or blowing up to 20,
    depending on who you asked), we are still here, a 16 team college hoops
    behemoth. In the future, who knows if that remains true. Do Syracuse,
    Rutgers, Pitt, and/or UConn go to the Big Ten? Do the Big XII’s
    remnants — including the Kansas schools and Baylor — join the Big
    East? What about Memphis and Central Florida? Who knows. We’ll save
    those discussions for next summer.

Power Rankings:

  1. Villanova:
    While the Wildcats do lose all-american Scottie Reynolds, Jay Wright’s
    club (as always) will be more than fine in the back court. Corey
    Fisher, fresh off an alleged 105 point performance in a Bronx summer
    league, and Maalik Wayns will be as dynamic as any back court in the
    country and should be able to thrive in Scottie’s absence. Corey Stokes
    is still going to be a lights out shooter. Dominic Cheek and James
    Bell, who is out indefinitely with stress fractures, will be dangerous
    on the wings. Up front, the five-man rotation of Antonio Pena, Mouph
    Yarou, Isaiah Armwood, Maurice Sutton, and JayVaughn Pinkston gives
    Villanova a very deep, very talented roster for the upcoming season.
    The Wildcats should compete for the Big East title and, depending on
    how well some players develop (Armwood, Cheek, Wayns, Yarou) and how
    good a couple of freshmen are (Bell, Pinkston), Nova could very well
    make a run at the Final Four.
  2. Pitt:
    The Panthers were the surprise of the Big East last season, finishing
    tied for second in the conference, and the majority of their roster is
    coming back this season. Pitt has almost reached the level of a
    Wisconsin — no matter who is on their roster, this is a team that is
    disciplined and well coached to the point that they are always going to
    be competitive. As always, expect a gritty, defensive-minded team from
    the Panthers. An already solid back court of Ashton Gibbs, Brad
    Wanamaker, and Travon Woodall will be bolstered by the addition of
    freshmen Isaiah Epps, JJ Moore, and Cameron Wright, as well as Lamar
    Patterson finally getting healthy. Gilbert Brown, who missed the first
    half of last season due to academic issues, will be back at the small
    forward spot. Brown had an inconsistent season in 2010, but showed
    flashes of some serious potential. Gary McGhee and Nasir Robinson, who
    will miss the first 10 or so games, will bolster the front line, but
    the real x-factor on this team is going to be sophomore Dante Taylor.
    Taylor was one of the most highly touted recruits last year, but it
    took him a while to adjust to the Big East. If Taylor can live up to
    his promise, Pitt is a potential Final Four team. If not, this is still
    a club that will be competing for a league title.
  3. Syracuse:
    It is easy to look at the Orange and think that, with the players they
    lost (Wes Johnson, Andy Rautins, Arinze Onuaku), they will be down next
    season. Well, they might not win a Big East title, but they certainly
    will be in the mix atop the conference standings. Brandon Triche and
    Scoop Jardine will anchor the back court, with freshman Dion Waiters
    providing an offensive spark as an off-guard. Kris Joseph should
    blossom into a dangerous weapon as a slasher on the wing, and if he can
    add some strength and a jumper this summer, could very well be in the
    running as a first-team all-Big East selection. Rick Jackson will be
    paired with Fab Melo, who Boeheim has been raving about (he raved about
    Wes Johnson last summer, and look how that turned out), in the front
    court. With guys like CJ Fair, Mookie Jones, and James Southerland
    providing minutes off the bench, there is no doubt Syracuse will be a
    good team. How good — borderline top 25 or a potential Big East champ
    — remains to be seen.
  4. Georgetown:
    Georgetown only lost one player form last season, but it just so
    happens that one player was Greg Monroe. Without Monroe, the Hoyas are
    going to rely heavily on their loaded back court of Chris Wright, Jason
    Clark, and Austin Freeman, which very well could turn out to be the
    best in the conference. Throw Hollis Thompson into the mix on the
    perimeter, and the Hoyas have a back court that rivals Duke’s for the
    best in the country. Julian Vaughn is a solid power forward, and with
    Henry Sims returning and freshmen Nate Lubick and Moses Abraham coming
    in, there is some potential up front. This is a deeper group with a
    different roster makeup than we are used to seeing JT III have. The
    Hoyas are a tournament team and should compete for a top four spot in
    the league, especially if one of the big men can become a high post
    passing threat.
  5. West Virginia:
    Expect the Mountaineers to have a bit of a different makeup next
    season. Three of the five players from their all small forward line-up
    are gone — Da’Sean Butler, Wellington Smith, and Devin Ebanks. Whereas
    the ‘Eers were seemingly short of point guards last season, they will
    be flush this year. Joe Mazzulla may never be a real shooting threat
    again, but he is a bulldog and a true leader. His ailing shoulder
    should be as healthy as it ever will be. Truck Bryant, who dealt with
    some injuries and inconsistencies after a good freshman year, is also
    back. Noah Cottrill, one of the better point guard recruits in the
    class of 2010, is built in the same mold but should immediately be the
    best shooter of the three. The interesting question for Bob Huggins is
    going to be what happens on the perimeter. Casey Mitchell, who just
    returned from a suspension for violation of team rules, and Dalton
    Pepper were both touted as shooters and scorers coming into Morgantown,
    but neither really lived up to the hype last season. The front court
    will be fine for WVU. Kevin Jones is a star-in-the-wings at the power
    forward spot, while Deniz Kilicli should fare much better this season
    without having to serve a 20 game suspension. With guys like John
    Flowers, Cam Thoroughman, Danny Jennings, and freshman Kevin Noreen —
    who may end up being the best scorer of the bunch — Huggy Bear has
    plenty of options up front. WVU loses a lot defensively or on the
    offensive glass this season, and since they aren’t loaded on the
    offensive end, for WVU to make the tournament their bigs are going to
    need to find a way to replace the production of Ebanks, Smith, and
  6. Marquette:
    Don’t be surprised if you see predictions that the Golden Eagles will
    be down this season. Yes, they lost Lazar Hayward. Yes, Mo Acker and
    David Cubillan graduated. But, as we should come to expect from the
    Golden Eagles these days, Marquette will have on of the the best back
    courts in the conference come season’s end. Darius Johnson-Odom is one
    of the best shooters in the country, and will get quite a few more
    looks with Lazar Hayward in the NBA. Junior Cadougan is a bulldog at
    the point and should be much improved now that he is healthy. Vander
    Blue is a consensus top 40 recruit that is athletic, attacks the rim,
    and plays a tough, aggressive brand of basketball. Marquette also
    returns the streaky Dwight Buycks. The Golden Eagles are going to be
    thin up front, which means they need Jimmy Butler to continue to
    develop for his senior year. Keep an eye on Juco transfer Jae Crowder
    as well. Marquette is once again going to have a short bench and play
    small ball, but with that back court, they will be able to compete.
  7. Seton Hall:
    Seton Hall is the x-factor in the Big East this season. They got rid of
    Bobby Gonzalez. They have a very good back court. Jeremy Hazell, who
    may be the best returning scorer in the conference, returns for his
    senior season. He’ll play along side Jordan Theodore, an underrated
    point guard who will get a chance to be the ‘man’ with Eugene Harvey’s
    graduation. Keon Lawrence (the talented but enigmatic Missouri
    transfer), Jamel Jackson (a streaky shooter who hit 12 threes in a game
    last season), and freshman Fuquan Edwin should all see significant
    minutes. Eniel Polynice, the Ole Miss transfer, will be eligible
    immediately and could sneak into the Pirate starting line up. At 6’5″,
    Polynice is more of a defender, a slasher, and a creator and should
    really complement Hazell well. Up front, Seton Hall is going to be thin
    even if Herb Pope is cleared. If he’s not, Jeff Robinson, who pulled
    his name out of the NBA Draft, and Ferrakhan Hall will be the only
    returnees on a young, inexperienced front line. If Pope, who averaged a
    double-double last season, returns, Seton Hall has all the pieces they
    need to make a run at a spot in the top four of the league. The
    question is whether new head coach Kevin Willard can fit all those
    pieces together. Hazell doesn’t understand the concept of team
    basketball or what a good shot is. Pope was ejected from the NIT last
    year for punching a Texas Tech player below the belt. Four players have
    transferred in from different colleges. This is a talented group, but
    if there is no chemistry, it could be another disappointing season.
  8. Notre Dame:
    The Fighting Irish have their work cut out for them this season, as
    they will be losing Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson. Mike Brey’s club
    will count heavily on their front line next season, which is headlined
    by last season’s second-leading scorer Tim Abromaitis. Scott Martin, a
    Purdue transfer who tore his acl before the season started, will be
    back after sitting out the past two years. One guy I expect to have a
    big season is Carleton Scott, a senior that nearly left the program
    before finding a groove as he moved into the starting lineup when Gody
    got injured. Ty Nash and Jack Cooley complete the front line rotation.
    In the back court, its going to be Ben Hansbrough and a lot of
    inexperience. After Hansbrough, the Irish return just 30 games played
    of experience with Joey Brooks and Tom Kopko combined, and add three
    freshman to the mix. Eric Atkins, a freshman point guard, should see
    time immediately and is probably the best of that group. Notre Dame
    made a run to the NCAA Tournament last season by changing their style,
    slowing the pace, and becoming a defensively oriented group. Will there
    be more of the same this season?
  9. St. John’s:
    St. John’s is in a good position for new head coach Steve Lavin as the
    Johnnies are loaded with seniors. Ten, to be exact, with eight expected
    to see significant minutes in the Johnnies rotation. This group isn’t
    just experienced, either, they are fairly talented as well. DJ Kennedy
    is as underrated as anyone in the league, averaging 15 points, 6
    boards, and 3 assists last year. Dwight Hardy (who can heat up as
    quickly as anyone in the league, save Jeremy Hazell), Paris Horne, and
    Malik Boothe make up the rest of the Johnnies back court. Anthony
    Mason, Jr., graduated, but with Justin Brownlee, Sean Evans, Justin
    Burrell, and Rob Thomas all returning, Lavin will have a lot of big,
    athletic bodies at his disposal. The x-factor may end up being freshman
    Dwayne Polee, a 6’7″ bean pole with athleticism for days. Norm Roberts
    had his flaws as a coach, but one thing he got his club to do was to
    play all out for 40 minutes. If Lavin can get this group to defend and
    hit the glass, they have the experience, the depth, and a legitimate
    first-team all-conference player. This is the year for St. John’s to
    make a run at the tournament. When this class leaves, it may be a while
    before they are back in the mix.
  10. UConn:
    The Huskies once again lost a ton of talent, as Jerome Dyson, Stanley
    Robinson, and Gavin Edwards all graduated from a team that disappointed
    many fans in Connecticut. Returning is Kemba Walker, the Huskies
    lightening quick point guard, as well as big man Alex Oriakhi, who had
    a solid, if unspectacular, freshman campaign. But beyond that, UConn
    has no proven or reliable pieces returning. Jamal Coombs-McDaniel was
    inconsistent. Charles Okwandu haven’t lived up to expectations and Ater
    Majok left school to sign a pro contract. Donnell Beverly is a solid
    back court player, but is not a starter in the Big East. Calhoun was
    able to land Roscoe Smith, a very highly regarded wing that should be
    able to take over for Robinson. The other two freshman — Jeremy Lamb
    an Shabazz Napier — are top 100 recruits that will replace Darius
    Smith and Jamaal Trice, last year’s duo of top 100 freshman that
    transferred out. UConn has some solid pieces in Walker, Oriakhi, and
    Smith, but unless some depth and balance develops, the Huskies are
    looking at another disappointing year.
  11. Louisville:
    Now that they are past the trial of the century in Kentucky, the
    Cardinals now actually have a college basketball season to prepare for.
    And preparing for it is going to be tougher than you think. Gone are
    starters Edgar Sosa, Jerry Smith, and Reginald Delk. Gone is their rock
    in the post, as Samardo Samuels went pro to support his family. For
    those scoring at home, that means that Louisville will be losing their
    top three scorers and four players that started at least 26 games.
    Then, consider that Roburt Sallie was not allowed to transfer in from
    Memphis, Justin Coleman did not get cleared, and Jared Swopshire and
    Russ Smith are injured. At least they were allowed to bring in freshman
    Gorgui Deng. That’s tough to overcome when you aren’t bringing in
    Kentucky’s recruiting class. That said, there is still talent on this
    roster. Terrence Jennings and Jared Swopshire have all sorts of
    potential on the front line, Peyton Siva — as well as Preston Knowles
    — should be able to showcase his ability in a featured role in the
    back court. And with guys like Kyle Kuric, Mike Marra, and Raheem
    Buckles, there are capable role players who have shown flashes of
    potential. Louisville will need to catch a few breaks to make the
  12. South Florida:
    The Bulls are going to have a big time front court this season.
    Augustus Gilchrist, when healthy (he missed about half the season last
    year), is an absolute force in the paint. Jarrid Famous is 6’11”, 240
    lb, athletic, and has shoulders as broad as Dwight Howard’s. Stan Heath
    also has two more-than-adequate backups in Toarlyn Fitzpatrick and Ron
    Anderson, who is now eligible after transferring in from Kansas State.
    The issue for the Bulls is going to be in the back court. Dominique
    Jones, Chris Howard, and Mike Mercer are all gone, which means that the
    Bulls lost over 40 ppg and their three best creators. Remember, this is
    a team that struggled to score at times last season. In two Big East
    tournament games, the only three the Bulls hit came from a walk-on in
    garbage time. Anthony Crater, the Ohio State transfer, is the only
    returner in the back court that played any kind of significant minutes.
    Beyond Crater, there are a couple walk-ons, a couple JuCo transfers,
    and a couple freshmen. USF may be able to make a run at a finish in the
    top half of the league and, possibly, a trip to the NCAA Tournament if
    they can become a staunch defensive team and find someone that can
    score and create in their back court. That is a very big “if”, however.
  13. Cincinnati:
    The Bearcats are going to be in trouble next season. With Deonta Vaughn
    graduating and Lance Stephenson off to the NBA Draft, Mick Cronin is
    going to be left without any real perimeter scoring threats. Point
    guard Cashmere Wright, a top 100 recruit in 2008 that tore his acl
    before playing a game, will be counted on heavily to be a playmaker.
    Cinci does have a big front line, headlined by potential all-Big East
    center Yancy Gates, and with the number of big, strong wings they have,
    Cronin is going to need to rely on his club’s rebounding and defensive
    toughness, because they certainly will struggle to score this season.
  14. Providence:
    The Friars have had a disastrous offseason. They lost assistant coach
    Pat Skerry, which cost them a top 100 recruit in Naadir Tharpe. They
    saw their best player, Greedy Peterson, get booted out of school along
    with freshmen Johnnie Lacy and James Still. Then, Kadeem Batts, a
    redshirt freshman, was arrested outside a club. All this happened while
    Joseph Young has been trying to get out of his letter of intent so he
    can attend college closer to an ailing aunt. Currently, 12 of the 15
    players listed on the Providence roster are underclassmen, including
    nine freshmen. There are a couple of bright spots for the Friars.
    Senior Marshon Brooks is an underrated scorer as an off-guard, and
    sophomores Bilal Dixon, Vincent Council, and Duke Mondy showed flashes
    of potential during the season, but don’t expect much out of Keno
    Davis’ club this year.
  15. Rutgers:
    There was quite a bit of turnover in Piscataway this summer. Gone is
    Fred Hill, replaced by Mike Rice, who nearly led 15th seeded Robert
    Morris to an upset of Villanova in the NCAA Tournament. Mike Rosario
    and Gregory Echenique, the Scarlet Knights’ two best scorers,
    transferred to Florida and Creighton, respectively. Hamady Ndiaye
    graduated. What’s left? Well, sophomore Dane Miller was a unanimous
    selection to the Big East’s all-rookie team. Jonathon Mitchell, who
    averaged 11.8 ppg and 6.1 rpg, returns for his senior season. But
    beyond that, there isn’t much talent on this roster, and this freshman
    class isn’t going to be coming to the rescue. The future is bright with
    new head coach Mike Rice recruiting like a maniac, but this year will
    be another long season for Rutgers, even if they do get Kadeem Jack
    midway through the year.
  16. DePaul:
    DePaul is not going anywhere this season. Gone is Mac Kowshal. Gone is
    Will Walker. How bad has it gotten for the Blue Demons? The most noise
    they made this summer was when they refused to release Walter
    Pitchford, Jr., from his LOI, and when they were able to land a visit
    — not a commitment, simply a visit — from Chicago native Anthony
    Davis. DePaul was able to land Cleveland Melvin, who was originally a
    UConn commit, however most believe him to be a stretch for the Big
    East. Oliver Purnell was known for his hot starts to a season at
    Clemson. The Big East may not be as friendly.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit

Houston-Miami matchup a battle for respect

Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
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Top-seeded Houston is in the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament, but the Cougars don’t feel they receive the proper respect.

Heading into the second weekend of the tournament, that feeling lingers despite the Cougars being just one victory away from their third straight Elite Eight appearance.

“A lot of people were pushing for us to lose,” Houston guard Tramon Mark said. “They didn’t believe we were a real 1 seed because of the conference (American Athletic) we play in. But I think we’re one of the best teams in the country still, and we proved it.”

The Cougars (33-3) look to take the next step when they battle fifth-seeded Miami (27-7) on Friday night in Midwest Region play in Kansas City, Mo.

Houston spent the entire season near the top of the national rankings and surely isn’t a surprise Sweet 16 participant.

“I put ourselves in a whole different category,” forward J’Wan Roberts said. “I don’t compare us to other teams. We just stick to what we do, and it shows. Other No. 1 teams got beat, but we didn’t.”

The Cougars and Alabama are the No. 1 seeds still playing. Purdue lost in the opening round and Kansas fell in the second.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson tries to simplify the approach during March Madness.

“We’ve been here many times in the final 16,” Sampson said. “The next 40 minutes are going to be big. We’ve got to find a way to get the next 40 minutes, and then we’ll move on from there. If not, it’s over.”

Star guard Marcus Sasser (groin) is still gimpy despite scoring 22 points in Saturday’s 81-64 win over Auburn. On Thursday, Sasser proclaimed he will be “around 90 percent” for the game. Teammate Jamal Shead (knee) said he is 100 percent recovered.

Mark scored a career-high 26 points against Auburn.

The Hurricanes are in the Sweet 16 in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history. Last season, they reached the Elite Eight before being routed 76-50 by eventual national champion Kansas.

Star guard Isaiah Wong said it is a great era for the Hurricanes, who are just two victories away from matching the school record.

“It’s just an honor being part of this program, with the history we have,” Wong said. “We have a great team this year and last year too, and I feel like it’s great to see how we came up.

“My first year we wasn’t as good, but for the last two years, we’re going to the Sweet 16, and last year the Elite Eight.”

Still, guard Jordan Miller said that Miami also doesn’t receive the level of respect it should.

“I wouldn’t say underappreciated, but at the end of the day, all we can do is just come out and win basketball games,” Miller said. “I feel like winning a game in itself is a way to get recognition. We’re going to the Sweet 16. That’s a lot of recognition. We don’t necessarily care about what the media says.”

Wong averages a team-best 16.1 points and Miller is right behind at 15.1 Nijel Pack and Norchad Omier both average 13.4 points with the latter collecting a team-leading 10.1 rebounds per game.

Omier grabbed 17 rebounds in Sunday’s 85-69 victory over Indiana. That was a program record for boards in an NCAA Tournament game, surpassing the 14 he collected two nights earlier in a 63-56 victory over Drake.

“If I’m being honest, I really don’t know,” Omier said of his success. “I just like playing with my teammates. They always motivate me to go do what I love to do, and I love rebounding.”

Wong scored 27 points against Indiana.

Miami guard Wooga Poplar, who injured his back against Indiana, has yet to be cleared but will be in the starting lineup if he can play.

Houston holds a 9-5 series edge over Miami but the schools haven’t met in 52 years.

The winner faces either second-seeded Texas or third-seeded Xavier in Sunday’s regional final.

Punch thrown following Bowling Green-Memphis WNIT game

Chris Day/The Commercial Appeal / USA TODAY NETWORK

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio – A confrontation between two players in the postgame handshake line following Bowling Green’s win over Memphis on Thursday night in the Women’s NIT has been referred to campus police.

As the teams walked toward center court following Bowling Green’s 73-60 win in the Round of 16 game, Memphis’ Jamirah Shutes stopped to talk with Falcons’ player Elissa Brett. After a short conversation, Shutes appears to throw a punch at Brett’s face. Brett fell toward the scorer’s table and onto the sideline.

There was no immediate word about what caused the confrontation or if any player was seriously injured.

Bowling Green said in a statement that the incident is in the hands of the campus police.

“The incident that took place following tonight’s home WNIT game has been turned over to the BGSU Police Department,” the school said. “Bowling Green State University Athletics does not make comments about active police investigations. Our priority is with the health, safety and support of our student-athletes.”

Bowling Green coach Robyn Fralich didn’t directly comment on the incident after the game, saying only that they were “figuring all those things out,” as far as what happened in the handshake line.

Memphis’ office of sports information didn’t immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper reported that Shutes, who leads the Tigers in scoring, took an elbow to her face with 24 seconds left in the opening quarter and played just eight minutes in the first half. She returned to start the second half.

Shutes, a fifth-year player who finished with 13 points in her final game with the Tigers, was a second-team All-AAC selection this season.

Brett scored 15 points in the win.

South Carolina’s leading scorer Jackson heads to NBA draft

Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina leading scorer Gregory “GG” Jackson II said Friday that he’s entering the NBA draft after one season in college.

The 6-foot-9 freshman said on Instagram Live that his year in college with the Gamecocks helped him mature.

“Now, I’m declaring for the NBA draft, just like that,” he said.

Jackson, 18, is projected as a mid-first round selection.

He started 29 of 32 games for the 11-21 Gamecocks, averaging a team-high 15.4 points a game. He also led South Carolina with 26 blocks and 24 steals.

Jackson, from Columbia, was rated the No. 1 college prospect in 2023. But he reclassified to join his hometown team and first-year coach Lamont Paris.

Gonzaga beats UCLA 79-76 in Sweet 16 on Julian Strawther’s late 3-pointer

Gonzaga's Malachi Smith
USA Today
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LAS VEGAS — Gonzaga and UCLA played one NCAA Tournament game that left the Zags’ star player bawling, and another game that stunned the Bruins.

Add another to the list. Maybe the maddest one in March yet.

Julian Strawther hit a 3-pointer with 7.2 seconds left to answer a 3-pointer by UCLA’s Amari Bailey, lifting Gonzaga to a wild 79-76 win over UCLA Thursday night in the Sweet 16.

“It’s moments like that you can’t make up,” said Strawther, a Las Vegas native. “Those are literally the moments you dream of. To even make a shot like that in March Madness and just to be back home in Vegas is like the cherry on top.”

The Bruins (31-6), the West Region’s No. 2 seed, stormed back from an eight-point deficit in the final 1:05 and took a 76-75 lead on Bailey’s 3-pointer with 12.2 seconds left.

The Zags (31-5) brought the ball up the floor and Strawther stepped into a 3-pointer after a drop pass from Hunter Sallis, sending Gonzaga fans to their feet.

“As soon as it came off, it looked like it was on line,” Strawther said.

The Zags still had to sweat it out.

Gonzaga’s Malachi Smith stole the ball from UCLA’s Tyger Campbell, but Strawther only hit 1 of 2 free throws at the other end, giving the Bruins a chance.

Campbell’s 3-pointer at the buzzer hit the back of the rim, sending the Zags rushing off the bench and into the Elite Eight against UConn on Saturday while leaving the Bruins disappointed again.

“Every game, try not to get too high, try not to get too low,” said UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez, who had 29 points and 11 rebounds. “He hit a big shot and we lost.”

Strawther’s shot was reminiscent of the one Villanova’s Kris Jenkins made off a drop pass to clinch the 2016 national championship – a shot that came after North Carolina’s Marcus Paige hit an off-balance 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left.

There’s a reason it looked familiar.

“That’s Jay Wright’s play that he used in Villanova-Carolina, the championship,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “That’s what we call it. He makes it all the time.”

It also is the latest chapter in what’s become the best West Coast rivalry in college basketball.

UCLA got the better of the teams’ first NCAA Tournament go-around, rallying from 17 points down to send the Zags out of the 2006 bracket and star Adam Morrison to the floor crying.

Jalen Suggs crushed the Bruins the last time, hitting a running 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Zags to the 2021 national championship game.

“I can’t even describe what he did. It’s crazy,” Gonzaga’s Drew Timme said of Strawther’s game-winner. “It’s just like that Jalen shot, man.”

Timme had 36 points for his record 10th NCAA Tournament game with 20 points.

The flurry of a finish started off more like a prize fight, each team taking its turn landing blows in a game of wild swings.

UCLA led by 13 at the half, but went on an 11-minute field goal drought as Gonzaga went up by 10 with 2:40 left. The Bruins took their rally turn and retook the lead, but left Gonzaga with too much time on the clock.

“We should have been tighter on Strawther,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “We were the whole game. We just weren’t on that play. If we were tighter then he couldn’t have looped behind.”

Timme kept Gonzaga in it during UCLA’s torrid first half and Gonzaga’s porous first-half defense tightened in the second, giving them a seven-point lead with 53 seconds left.

Jaquez brought the Bruins back in his final college game.

The Pac-12 player of the year scored on a three-point play and a layup to cut it 74-71 with 45 seconds left. Timme then missed two free throws, setting up Bailey’s shot.

Thankfully for the Zags, Strawther was on the mark with his long 3-pointer and Campbell was off the mark on his, sending Gonzaga to the Elite Eight for the fifth time under Few.

Florida Atlantic makes first Elite Eight, bounces Tennessee

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Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK — Florida Atlantic, playing in just its second NCAA Tournament, moved within a victory of the Final Four by using a second-half push led by Michael Forrest to beat fourth-seeded Tennessee 62-55 on Thursday night.

The ninth-seeded Owls (34-3) will play third-seeded Kansas State in the East Region final at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

Even before the tournament started, this was the unquestionably the greatest season in FAU history. Now it the Owls are one of the biggest stories in all of sports.

Johnell Davis led the Owls with 15 points and Forrest finished with 11, eight in a crucial second-half run where FAU took control.

The Volunteers (25-11), who were looking for just the second Elite Eight appearance in program history, shot just 33% – including 6 of 23 from 3-point range. Josiah-Jordan James and Jonas Aidoo scored 10 points apiece.


The Owls have never played Kansas State.