What to look forward to on this Championship Week Saturday

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I often look most forward to the Saturday of Championship Week. Over Selection Sunday, over the traditional day one of the NCAA Tournament, over the release of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s  holiday performance schedule. So, in theory, I would naturally be elated to light a few candles, curl up with a nice blanket, and cook a pot of tea while an abundance of really important games play themselves out.

I’m kidding about all that soft stuff, but Saturday truly is the reason why Championship Week is the new March Madness. But with the continued parity playing out even in the bracket format, what I’m most looking forward to isn’t as entirely match-up focused as I initially planned. There’s still plenty of storylines teeming to play out this afternoon and evening, so here’s your high-level primer to make sure you know what to look for.

  • Dayton – This might be the first time “looking forward to” and Dayton have been penned together in the same sentence, but the Flyers – traditionally one of the most underachieving programs of the past 10 years – might actually be dancing this season following an upset of rival Xavier yesterday. With talented players like the brothers Chris (Wright and Johnson), it’s about time this crop of players position themselves to join the field of 68.
  • Illinois Fans – Just how can this team falter down the stretch for a second consecutive season? Back in October, on paper these guys looked like an Elite Eight team but here they are with a second consecutive dreadful close to the season, highlighted by yesterday’s blown opportunity against Michigan. Can’t wait to see how Champaign reacts to this mess. Oh wait, they’re already questioning Bruce Weber’s commitment.
  • A Pac 10 game worth watching – Is there a more less exciting BCS conference tournament than this one? After watching roughly 30 seconds of an early round game, ESPN’s Colin Cowherd said the Staples Center  matched the energy level of an insurance convention. That’s not very nice, but so very true. With the finals finally set in place, Arizona-Washington should play out nicely, based on what we’ve already seen from them this season.
  • BYU-SDSU Round III – It’s always been deemed very difficult for a team of similar skill level three times in a season. Heck we saw BYU down nemesis New Mexico, proving just that theory. So now, the Cougars will try to tackle this challenge against the Aztecs,  and its especially important with a fourth No. 1 seed still begging to be taken.
  • Kentucky – You can’t mask the fact that the Georgia Dome physically has zilch in common with Rupp Arena, and the Wildcats were pretty nervous when playing away from Lexington this season. They’re in the semis, and have a real opportunity to distinguish themselves from a fairly mediocre SEC field.
  • That game in the Garden – But you already knew that. And, besides, Dauster is blanketing the coverage.

Former UNC star Phil Ford has surgery for prostate cancer

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina says former point guard Phil Ford has had surgery for prostate cancer.

Team spokesman Steve Kirschner said Wednesday that Ford underwent the procedure Tuesday after he was diagnosed during his annual physical. Dr. Eric Wallen, the UNC physician who is treating Ford, says the cancer was caught early because Ford “has been proactive regarding his health.”

Ford played for Dean Smith in the 1970s and scored 2,290 points, a mark that stood as the school record until Tyler Hansbrough broke it in 2008. Ford also spent 12 seasons as an assistant to Smith after a seven-year NBA career in which he was the rookie of the year in 1979.

Bruce Pearl: ‘Good chance’ Auburn returns four players testing the waters

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Bruce Pearl told reporters on Monday that there is a “good chance” that his Auburn program will return all four of the players that are currently testing the waters of the NBA draft.

“I think there’s a good chance they’re all going to consider coming back,” Pearl said. “There’s a chance they’re all going to come back, but that’s been the case since the beginning.”

“I just feel as we get closer to the deadline and they gather more and more information, I think that chance improves. It would not surprise me, still, to see a couple of them stay in.”

Those four players are Mustapha Heron, Austin Wiley, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Brown was the leading scorer for the Tigers last season, while Heron was arguably their best player and Harper a steady floor general that is the piece that holds everything together. Wiley did not play after he was ruled ineligible as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. If he returns he will be eligible to play the 2018-19 season.

Heron will be the most interesting decision of the four. A former McDonald’s All-American, when he declared for the draft last month, he announced that he intended to sign with an agent. But he has told reporters in the last week that he never actually signed and is still “50-50” on whether or not he will return. He was not invited to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week. Wiley was, but he did not make enough of an impression to earn himself a first round guarantee. Brown and Harper are very unlikely to be drafted, but both juniors will get feedback from NBA teams on what they might need to do to play their way into the league.

Auburn is coming off of a year where they shared the SEC regular season title with Tennessee, but they struggled down the stretch of the season after Anfernee McLemore suffered a gruesome ankle injury. As it stands, under the assumption that Heron and Wiley are gone, we currently have the Tigers ranked as a top 15 team in the country in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

With Heron and Wiley back, however, Auburn will have the pieces to make a case as one of college basketball’s five best teams next season.

Forward Lance Thomas transferring from Louisville

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With Anas Mahmoud out of eligibility and Ray Spalding having made the decision to enter the 2018 NBA Draft, new Louisville head coach Chris Mack had some holes to fill in the front court ahead of his first season at the helm. There’s now another departure to account for, as it was announced Tuesday afternoon that 6-foot-8 forward Lance Thomas has decided to transfer.

Thomas, who will have three seasons of eligibility remaining at his next school, appeared in 12 games for the Cardinals last season and averaged 2.2 points and 1.3 rebounds in 4.2 minutes per game.

Losing Thomas may not appear to be a big deal based upon his production as a freshman. But, given the combination of player departures and misses on the recruiting trail this spring it can also be argued that Louisville is not in a position where it can afford any more personnel losses.

Louisville is now down to four scholarship players in the front court, wings V.J. King and Jordan Nwora and forwards Malik Williams and Steven Enoch, with Enoch eligible after sitting out last season after transferring in from UConn.

Williams made 12 starts as a freshman, averaging 3.8 points and 2.4 rebounds in 10.6 minutes per game, with King averaging 8.6 points per game and Nwora 5.7 points per game. Enoch played in 29 games at UConn during the 2016-17 season, averaging 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per appearance.

Four-star wing Romeo Weems commits to DePaul

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DePaul landed its first verbal commitment in the Class of 2019 Tuesday afternoon, as four-star small forward Romeo Weems announced that he will be a Blue Demon. Weems, who attends New Haven HS in New Haven, Michigan, picked DePaul over Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Oregon and is considered by most major scouting services to be a Top 50 prospect in the 2019 graduating class.

The 6-foot-6 Weems plays his grassroots basketball for The Family on the Nike EYBL circuit, averaging 15.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this spring. Weems also has experience playing for USA Basketball, as he was part of the Under-16 team that won the FIBA Americas U16 title last year. Weems will also be part of the training camp from which the Under-17 team will be selected next month in preparation for this summer’s FIBA Under-17 World Championships.

DePaul managing to land a commitment from a prospect of Weems’ caliber, a versatile wing who can defend multiple positions while also being productive offensively, could be the shot in the arm that Dave Leitao’s program so desperately needs if they’re to improve their standing within the Big East.

Since making the move from Conference USA in 2005, DePaul has finished above .500 in a season just once (20-14 in 2006-07) with that also being the only time in which the Blue Demons finished above .500 in Big East play (9-7). Since Leitao, who led DePaul to its most recent NCAA tournament in 2005, returned for his second stint at the school the Blue Demons have gone 29-65.

Getting out of Allstate Arena and moving to the new Wintrust Arena ahead of last season was an important move for the DePaul program, but it’s been clear that the rebuild won’t be a “quick fix.” Bringing in a talent of Weems’ caliber should help DePaul moving forward, with the key now being to recruit well enough to ensure that the talented wing has ample help when he arrives on campus next year.

Among the players currently on the roster who will have eligibility remaining in 2019 are guards Devin Gage and Justin Roberts and wing Darious Hall, who will sit out the 2018-19 season after transferring to DePaul from Arkansas. Hall appeared in 35 games for the Razorbacks this past season, averaging 5.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in just under 15 minutes per game.

Big East Conference Reset: Perennial powers must reload

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone, and there are a dozen or so truly impactful decisions that are left to be made.

Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season.

The coaching carousel has come to a close.

The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2018-19 season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the Big East over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

REMAINING DECISIONS: Most of the decisions have been made and have been for some time, but there are a number of outstanding calls to be made by some underclassmen mulling a pro future or a return to school. Some are big enough to factor in significantly on what 2018-19 looks like in the Big East.

With Donte Divincenzo likely gone, Omari Spellman’s stay-or-go quandry is probably the biggest among them, not just because the 6-foot-9 center averaged 10.9 points, 8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, but because the defending national champs are already getting hit hard by early entries. Spellman returning could be an important anchor as Villanova looks to bridge eras. He’s the connecting piece for this Villanova program.

Spellman isn’t the only one waiting out the NBA’s May 30 deadline, however, as St. John’s guard Shamorie Ponds, DePaul wing Max Strus and Georgetown center Jessie Govan remain testing the waters as major pieces to both their respective teams should they elect to return to campus.

HOW DOES VILLANOVA RELOAD?: Villanova is slated to lose at least two (potentially three) starters, one of whom was the national player of the year and another a likely lottery pick, plus the guy that scored 31 points off the bench in the national title game. That’s enough for most programs to hit the reset button without shame – two titles in three years is pretty good, after all. Villanova, though? Not Villanova.

If Spellman returns, he’ll be joined by two other national-title game starters in Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, back for the Wildcats along with a highly-regarded recruiting class highlighted by five-star guard Jahvon Quinerly and sniper Cole Swider. Villanova might not start the season as high as we initially tabbed them (No. 2) with DiVencenzo expected to stay in the draft, but they’re still going to have plenty of talent – and experience – on the roster.

HOMECOMINGS GONE AWRY: The homecoming for Chris Mullin to his alma mater St. John’s hasn’t gone exactly according to plan. The Red Storm have posted three-straight losing seasons and are 12-42 in Big East play. There have been signs of life, namely wins over Duke and Villanova last year, but the big picture results just haven’t been the improvement that was envisioned when Mullin returned to Queens in 2015. Given his legend status, Mullin has some leeway in which to operate, but the production is going to have to have to show some upward trajectory.

Dave Leitao’s second stint at DePaul has been an uninspiring one. Leitao, who left DePaul for Virginia before returning in 2015, has posted three-straight losing seasons in which getting to 11 wins last year actually signified an improvement. The team was young a year ago, but the talent level doesn’t suggest the Blue Demons are going to rocket up the Big East standings.

(Elsa/Getty Images)

WHO’S GONE?

  • JALEN BRUNSON, MIKAL BRIDGES and DONTE DIVENCENZO, Villanova: After winning its second national title in three years, Villanova was prepared to lose Brunson and Bridges, but DiVencenzo’s expected decision to stay in the draft wasn’t as predictable. Those are three huge pieces for the Wildcats, who are still awaiting the draft decision of Omari Spellman. Jay Wright may have things rolling in Philly, but that’s a massive trio – or potentially quartet – to lose and not miss too many steps.
  • MARCUS FOSTER and KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton: Marcus Foster was the better-known half of Creighton’s dynamic duo, but Thomas was just as important to the Bluejays success. The 6-foot-3 junior elected to forego his final season of eligibility after averaging 15.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists while becoming a lock-down defender. His departure makes is a significant blow to the Bluejays.
  • SETON HALL’S SENIORS: Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez and Ishmael Sanogo were the core of a Seton Hall team that was the best we’ve seen from Kevin Willard to date.
  • ANDREW ROWSEY, Marquette: The 5-foot-9 dynamo was one of the most entertaining scorers in the conference last season.
  • KAISER GATES, Xavier: The Musketeers were hit hard this offseason. Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura and Chris Mack are all gone. But they also lose Gates, a junior who averaged 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game who was expected to play a much bigger role this season.
  • MARCUS DERRICKSON, Georgetown: The Hoyas’ 6-foot-7 forward elected to go pro following a junior season in which he averaged 15.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
  • KASSOUM YAKWE, St. John’s: After a promising freshman season, Yakwe’s production dipped in each of the last two years before he decided to transfer to UConn this offseason.
(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

WHO’S BACK?

  • MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette: A second-team all-Big East selection, Howard returns to Milwaukee for his junior season as a potential player of the year in the conference. He put up 20.4 points per game on 46.4 percent shooting from the floor and 40.4 percent from 3-point range
  • KAMAR BALDWIN, Butler: The Bulldogs guard will carry a heavy load this season, but after averaging 15.7 points per game as a sophomore, he’s proven he can fill it up with the best of them in the conference.
  • MITCHELL BALLOCK, Creighton: After having a reserve role as a freshman, Ballock figures to move into a much more significant spot for a new-look Bluejays team. He averaged just 7.3 points per game, but the 22 points he put on UCLA in November suggests he could be a big-time scorer.
  • MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall: The 6-foot-2 guard is coming off a sophomore season in which he averaged 15.5. He’ll be asked to do even more this season with Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado no longer on the roster. If he can be a little more efficient, he’s looking like a potential all-conference performer.
  • ALPHA DIALLO and EMMITT HOLT, Providence: Diallo had a breakout sophomore campaign in which he went from a five-point scorer to a 13-point scorer. He shot 46.6 percent from the floor and also grabbed 6.6 rebounds per game. Holt, meanwhile, missed the 2017-18 season due to injury. He averaged 12.5 points as a sophomore after transferring from Indiana.

WHO’S COMING?

  • JAHVON QUINERLY, COLE SWIDER and BRANDON SLATE, Villanova: The Wildcats may have suffered some significant losses to the pro ranks, but they’ll benefit from a highly-regarded group of incoming freshman. Quinerly is the headliner as a top-30 prospect Jay Wright undoubtedly looks at as the future of the point guard position for his program. Swider and Slate are both top-50 prospects with big futures ahead of them.
  • DAVID DUKE and A.J. REEVES, Providence: Ed Cooley has taken the Friars to five-straight NCAA tournaments and looks to have the talent to keep Providence viable in the top half of the Big East for the foreseeable future with Duke and Reeves, a pair of top-50 guards, coming into the program.
  • JAMES AKINJO, Georgetown: Previously a UConn pledge, Akinjo flipped to Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas after Kevin Ollie’s ouster. He gives Georgetown the gem of a solid four-man recruiting class
  • KYLE CASTLIN, Xavier: The Columbia graduate transfer averaged 10.5 points whiles hooting 49.6 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from distance. He gives Travis Steele talent and experience when both will be paramount in his first season at the helm in Cincinnati.
  • JOSEPH CHARTOUNY, Marquette: The 6-foot-3 guard averaged double figures in scoring in each of his three seasons with Fordham before deciding to grad transfer to the Golden Eagles.
  • QUINCY MCKNIGHT, Seton Hall: The Sacred Heart transfer sat out last season as a transfer, but he provides the Pirates with firepower. He averaged 18.9 points as a sophomore.

COACHING CHANGES

  • TRAVIS STEELE, Xavier: When Chris Mack left his alma mater to take the reins at Louisville, Steele was the natural successor. He was initially hired at X by Sean Miller and then spent nine years on Mack’s staff, going to NCAA tournaments and making a name for himself as one of the country’s top recruiters. Xavier has turned into a Midwestern power in no small part because it’s made smart hiring decisions, and Steele looks to be cut from the same cloth that made Miller and Mack prolific winners.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-BIG EAST TEAM

MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette (POY)
SHAMORIE PONDS*, St. John’s
OMARI SPELLMAN*, Villanova
JESSIE GOVAN*, Georgetown
MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

AP Photo/John Minchillo

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. VILLANOVA: The losses the Wildcats sustained were more than just significant, but the talent and culture remains intact in Philadelphia. Omari Spellman’s decision looms large, but a strong recruiting class – plus Jay Wright – keeps ‘Nova on top.

2. XAVIER: Another bet on culture, Xavier is another program that lost a ton, but by keeping some level of continuity by promoting Travis Steele, the Musketeers may not slip as far as you’d normally expect considering their losses. Steele has his work cut out for him, but the pieces are there to be competitive.

3. PROVIDENCE: Kyron Cartwright and Rodney Bullock are two huge names to lose, but Alpha Diallo and Emmitt Holt should be enough to carry the offensive load.

4. CREIGHTON: Greg McDermott reinvented his program the last few years, going from being among the country’s slowest-paced teams to one of the quickest. WIth the losses of Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas, this will likely be the third chapter of his time in Omaha following this back-to-back NCAA tournaments and the Dougie McBuckets era before that.

5. SETON HALL: The Pirates will hang their hats on getting a lot of production from Myles Powell and Quincy McKnight to overcome the losses of Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez.

6. GEORGETOWN: Jessie Govan’s decision to stay or go will have a big impact on the Hoyas’ future, but Patrick Ewing’s return to to D.C. looks to be headed in the right direction.

7. BUTLER: How Kamar Baldwin goes, the Bulldogs are likely to follow. He’s going to have a ton of offensive responsibility if Butler is going to get back to the NCAA tournament in LaVall Jordan’s second season.

8. MARQUETTE: The Golden Eagles are 1-for-4 in NCAA tournament seasons under Steve Wojciechowski, and his fifth season looks to be an uphill battle to improve that percentage.

9. ST. JOHN’S: If Shamorie Ponds returns, it’s not hard to see the Red Storm outperforming this prediction. If he doesn’t, it could be another difficult year for Mullin and Co.

10. DEPAUL: The Blue Demons have three-straight losing seasons in Dave Leitao’s second go-round, and it looks as though a fourth is likely.