Can we fix the First Four next season? Please?

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I’ll be honest — I hate the idea of play-in games.

You have five months and 30-some odd games to “play-in” to the tournament. Getting a bonus game because you weren’t quite good enough makes no sense. This is big time, Division I college basketball. Its not CYO. We shouldn’t give everyone a trophy for participating.

That said, I’m a realest. I know that as the tournament generates more and more revenue, its going to get bigger and bigger. I can accept the First Four, but if we are going to have it, we might as well get it right.

(Before I rant about the play-in games, let me first rant about, well, the name of the play-in games. The rant before the rant, if you will.

Calling the four games that occur in Dayton this week the first round is, frankly, stupid. Everyone knows that they are play-in games. Why? Because no one that is participating in an NCAA Tournament pool is forced to pick a winner, the same way that no one was forced to pick a winner last season when there was just one play-in game. I can throw a bunch of Purina Puppy Chow into a bowl, dress it up nice, and call if beef tips from Oklahoma Joe’s, but is anyone going to believe it. Why? Because the overwhelming majority of us aren’t that stupid.

Call the games the First Four. Refer to them as play-in games. No one believes the tournament was structured so that 60 teams could get a “first round bye”.)

The 16 seeds should not be forced to participate in the play-in games.

UNC-Asheville and Arkansas-Little Rock played a great game in the First Four opener on Tuesday night. Asheville came back from 11 down in the second half, got a game-tying three from Matt Dickey with just 10.5 seconds left, and eventually won in overtime. It was dramatic, it was fun, it was everything that March Madness is about.

But no one is going to be talking about that game tomorrow.

What everyone is going to be talking about is the snoozer between Clemson and UAB, where the Tigers obliterated a Blazer team that did not look like they belonged in the Big Dance. You’ll see columns bashing the selection process or Conference USA. You’ll hear radio show hosts wax poetic about how Colorado or Alabama or Virginia Tech deserved to get in over them.

What is the sense of forcing a team that earned their way into the tournament to, once again, earn the right to participate in the main event? Regardless of how good the game is, it will be overshadowed by whatever happens in the second, more meaningful-to-the-masses, game.

I can’t be the only one that thinks seeing Marquette playing Missouri or Georgia playing Michigan State would have drawn more eyeballs and more interest that UNCA and UALR. Hell, those games would have made Clemson-UAB look insignificant.

And frankly, Marquette, Missouri, Georgia, and Michigan State were more deserving of having their week blown up than UNCA or UALR.

I understand the argument that regular season conference champions should get the automatic bids. Its the best determinant of who is the best team in a conference. I also understand the sentiment there should be no automatic bids. The NCAA Tournament is supposed to be the 68 best teams in the country, right? There is no way you can tell me that UNCA is better than, say, Seton Hall or Washington State.

But based on the way the current rules are set up, the way you earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament is by winning your conference tournament.

UNCA and UALR both did that.

Marquette, Missouri, Georgia, and Michigan State all backed into the NCAA Tournament, relying on the strength of their conference and the quality of their losses to get in. I think it is safe to say that based on preseason expectations and talent level, all four of those teams had a disappointing seasons.

UNC-Asheville and Arkansas-Little Rock — and UT-San Antonio and Alabama State — won the right, based on our rules, to play in the NCAA Tournament.

And we should let them do just that.

Not schlep them off to Dayton to have their numbers cut in half.

Have the big boys square off for the right to get a shot at a four or five seed.

They are more deserving and will draw more eyeballs.

Isn’t that what the NCAA is about?

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

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

Saul Young/News Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior center Tamari Key will miss the rest of this season because of blood clots in her lungs, coach Kellie Harper said.

Doctors found the issue during testing. Key is expected to make a full recovery after treatment from University of Tennessee doctors, Harper said, adding that her sole concern is Key getting the medical care she needs to heal and return to full strength.

Key missed the first game of her career in a win Tuesday night over Chattanooga after playing her first 99.

“This is much bigger than basketball. We are so grateful that this medical condition was caught,” Harper said in a statement. “Our entire program will be right beside Tamari during this process and welcomes prayers and positive thoughts from Lady Vol Nation and beyond.”

The Lady Vols opened the season ranked fifth but currently are 5-5.

The 6-foot-6 Key from Cary, North Carolina, currently is Tennessee’s third-leading scorer averaging 8.4 points a game and averaged 4.2 rebounds per game. She started all 34 games as the Lady Vols reached their first Sweet 16 since 2016 last season and set the school record with 119 blocked shots.

Key had 18 blocks this season and 295 for her career, five away from becoming the eighth woman to reach that mark in Southeastern Conference history.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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Saul Young/USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan State snaps 2-game skid

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Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats Boston College 73-58

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Erica Denhoff/Getty Images
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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.