A college hoops cheat sheet for NFL fans now tuning in

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Greetings NFL fans! Your hoops season starts now.

Now that Eli Manning managed to outplay Tom Brady in yet another tense, tight Giants-Patriots Super Bowl, maybe you’re ready to take a pigskin sabbatical for a few months and enjoy some hoops. But we all know the NBA really isn’t worth watching until the playoffs begin, so why not focus on the college game for the next, oh, 50 days or so?

It’s a good week for it, too. Duke and Carolina play, Kentucky faces SEC rival Florida, two dynamite mid-major showdowns are later this week and Saturday’s loaded with sweet games.

Here’s your primer.

There is no dominant team*
Which is to say no team from a BCS league is unbeaten. That seems to be the lone qualification for many pundits to determine a dominant team.

source: AP

Too bad. Because Kentucky and Ohio State are awfully close. The Wildcats (23-1) Buckeyes (20-3) are 1-2 in the polls and pretty much every respectable rating system (Kenpom, Massey, LRMC, Sagarin), though Ohio State claims top honors in three of those. (Do me a favor and ignore the RPI.)

Syracuse is deeper and awfully good. UNC and Missouri are right there. But Kentucky and Ohio State are the top two and should be playing on that first Monday in April. Sure, we could’ve said that about the Buckeyes and Kansas last season, but neither came all that close. Could be the same again this year. But if you’re looking for two teams to start eyeing for your bracket, it’s these two.

So what’s wrong with Syracuse?
Nothing. You probably noticed that the Orange are 23-1. Maybe you heard that they won their first 20 games and are ruling the Big East. Both are true. And now that ‘Cuse has shot-blocking stud Fab Melo back in the lineup, they’ll be even better. Picking against the Orange was a meme earlier this season. It’s lingered a little, mostly because Melo missed three games. But pick against Jim Boeheim’s team at your own risk. (Also, this whole mess has nothing to do with how the team’s played.)

But there is one unbeaten team out there!
That’s Murray State, which is 23-0 and hasn’t been beating up chumps.

source: AP

The Racers have handled Memphis, Southern Miss (don’t laugh, the Golden Eagles lead C-USA) and Dayton. They’re not on the same level as the likes of St. Joe’s – the last mid-major to make a run like this – but they have an elite player in guard Isaiah Canaan and loads of experience. They’re Sweet 16 material and maybe more.

Any other surprise teams?
Plenty. Indiana (18-6) was the talk of college hoops until a recent cold streak. Missouri, Michigan State and Georgetown have emerged as Top 10 teams. Florida State’s atop the ACC, St. Louis is in the A-10 mix and Virginia’s gonna end its Big Dance drought. Teams like Iowa State (17-6), West Virginia (16-8), Notre Dame (15-8) and BYU (20-6) won’t win league titles, but are playing better than expected. Yet the biggest surprise of all may be San Diego State (20-3), which lost four starters but hasn’t missed a beat.

Teams who’ve stunk it up
Texas A&M (12-10) was picked to win the Big 12. Not happening. UCLA (13-10) had enough talent to take the Pac-12, but kicked off its best player (Reeves Nelson) in December. UConn (15-7) has lost six of its last nine and coach Jim Calhoun is on a medical leave of absence. And until Pitt reeled off four straight wins, the Panthers (15-9) ranked as the most surprising dud of the season.

Actually, the entire Pac-12 is bad
As in it might just place one team in the NCAA tournament, which is absurd.

source: AP

There’s no debate it’s the worst BCS conference, but the Mountain West, Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley all boast better teams at the top and better overall depth. Cal (18-6, 8-3) should be the league’s saving grace, but the Bears can’t seem to put together consistent performances. Washington (Put it this way: Colorado might win the league crown. That’s stunning.

And the Big Ten? It’s the best
Yes, there are the occasionally wretched games (gloss over this result), but those are the exception, not the rule. Ohio State gives the conference an elite team, while Michigan State’s a Final Four contender. Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin are Sweet 16-caliber teams, while Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota and Northwestern — yes, Northwestern! — could all go dancing. That’s nine out of 12 in March. Not bad.

There’s no Jimmer, but these guys can play
Kansas’ Thomas Robinson is the nation’s best defensive rebounder and the driving force behind the Jayhawks’ Big 12 title hopes.

source: Getty Images

Jared Sullinger is his usual spectacular self for Ohio State. Anthony Davis is re-writing freshman records at Kentucky and Marcus Denmon’s busy shooting his way into player of the year consideration. Weber State’s Damian Lillard leads the nation in scoring. But Creighton’s Doug McDermott may be having the best season of all. He’s making 51 percent of his 3s, taking the bulk of the Jays’ shots and rebounds at a rate befitting of beefy power forwards.

The brawl, and its aftermath
Xavier and Cincinnati play one of the game’s truly heated rivalries. This season’s got out of hand, though. Words were said, tempers flared and the ensuing brawl was as significant as it was nasty. Yet, it’s been Xavier, the team that dished fewer harsh suspensions to its stars, that’s struggled, while Cincinnati (16-7) adjusted to life without center Yancy Gates. Neither is going to make the Final Four. Both can wonder what might’ve been.

Keep an eye on these bracket busters
Wichita State, New Mexico, St. Mary’s, Belmont, Long Beach State, Harvard, and UNLV are all non-BCS schools who’ll almost certainly be in the big dance. Some will earn decent seeds. All are capable of reaching the Sweet 16. But if you want schools who’ll probably be seeded 8 or higher but could wreck your bracket, keep an Iona, Akron and those pesky CAA schools – VCU, ODU and George Mason. Surely you recognize those schools.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

ACC coaches back idea of all D-I teams in 2021 NCAA tourney

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

RALEIGH, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball coaches are pushing the idea of having next year’s NCAA Tournament include all eligible teams in Division I.

Numerous league schools and coaches released statements Wednesday after the coaches held their weekly call to discuss the proposal, which was first reported by Stadium. There are 357 Division I programs in the country, with NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham saying 346 of those are eligible to play in next year’s tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the ACC coaches are “united in strongly pursuing this” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament days before the field of 68 was set to be revealed. Multiple coaches said creating an everybody-gets-in format would be an incentive for schools as they create the safest conditions possible for returning to play.

“This is not a regular season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative. Most importantly, an all-inclusive postseason tournament will allow a unique and unprecedented opportunity for every team and every student-athlete to compete for a national championship.”

Durham declined comment specifically on the proposal in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the Division I oversight committees for men’s and women’s basketball planned to announce by mid-September plans for whether the season and preseason practice would start on time or require a delay due to the pandemic.

Louisville coach Chris Mack said the proposal would provide flexibility during the season without mandating a number of nonconference or conference games to be played. And the league has already experienced that scheduling challenge with football and other fall sports.

The ACC announced in July that it would have each football team play 10 league games – including the addition of Notre Dame as a football member this year – and one nonconference game to be played in the home state of the member school. Those schedules were released in early August, slightly more than a month before Thursday’s UAB-Miami game kicks off the season.

“This is a time to think differently,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, adding: “After all these players have been through, what better way to reward them than the opportunity to compete in an unprecedented version of the most exciting event in sports.”

College basketball floats idea of bubbles for safe season

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The NBA bubble has held. So has the NHL’s double bubble. The WNBA and MLS, no leaks.

In this unprecedented landscape of sports in a pandemic world, one indisputable fact has emerged: bubbles work.

Thousands of tests, minimal to no positive COVID-19 test results.

So as the NCAA gets set announce its plans for the 2020-21 college basketball season, there are clear precedents and blueprints in place should it decide to go the bubble route.

“It’s certainly viable,” said Mark Starsiak, vice president of sports at Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency, “From a basketball standpoint, I think we can follow those models.”

The college football restart has been scattershot. The season has already started, yet 53 FBS schools have the pads and helmets hanging on hooks while waiting for better pandemic news.

A much more unified plan is in place for the college basketball season.

The NCAA is hoping to start the season in late November/early December, with a vote by the Division I council expected Sept. 16.

A partnership between the Pac-12 and Quidel Corp. to potentially do daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes should help smooth a return to the court.

The question then becomes: What’s the best way to safely play basketball again?

Bubbles may be the answer.

While bubble football would be next to impossible logistically, basketball could fit nicely.

The travel parties are much smaller and college basketball already has plenty of multiple-team events, from holiday and conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Add the effective safety measures of the pro leagues, find suitable sites and bubble basketball could work.

The NCAA is already looking at it, reportedly filing a trademark for the phrase “Battle in the Bubble.” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said there have been preliminary talks for bubble basketball at the Mohegan Sun resort.

“The idea of a bubble would be a really good idea, just to isolate all the teams who want to play against each other in that bubble and keep things safe, keep away from the public and keep us in our own area where we’re able to play the game the right way and safely,” Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, Jr. said.

A big key will be finding the right places to bubble.

The NBA has the ideal setup at Disney World, but college basketball might be better suited to follow the NHL’s lead.

Hockey’s two bubbles – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta – cordoned off areas enclosing the arena and several nearby hotels. All personnel entering are tested and strict protocols are in place for vendors delivering food and packages into the bubbles.

Similar bubbles for college basketball could be set up at smaller resorts, cities with arenas and hotels nearby, or Division II or III schools with arenas not being used during the pandemic.

The NCAA could set up pods of multiple nonconference teams, conference tournaments could be held in similar fashion and so could the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, basketball bubbles could pop up all over the country.

“Maybe do it for maybe a week or two at a time, playing a certain amount of games and getting retested after you come back or something like that,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “It’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Pulling off a college basketball bubble, however, comes with a caveat.

NCAA players are considered students, so academics would have to be part of the equation.

Division I players are already accustomed to doing school work on the road and the majority take primarily online classes. To make the bubbles work, socially distant space would have to be carved out for the players to take their classes and study.

The programs may also have to rethink the size of their traveling parties.

“Discussions about the right amount of tutors or academic staff would need to take place,” said Starsiak, who has operated high-level sports and entertainment events for 15 years. ”

You have to look at, do we need three managers this time around? No, probably not. Do you take two and have a tutor or an academic come with us? Yeah, I think you could. I think there’s a way to kind of combine both things to have some live, in-person resources.”

The NCAA is going to do everything possible to have a basketball season.

The pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament last spring and the NCAA collected $270 million in cancellation insurance instead of the $1 billion TV payout it normally gets. A second straight year without March Madness could be devastating.

Bubbles may be the way to go.

‘Father of the Final Four’ Tom Jernestedt dies at 75

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INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Jernstedt, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame for his contributions to college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, has died. He was 75.

The NCAA said Sunday Jernstedt died this weekend.

Nicknamed “Father of the Final Four,” Jernstedt has widely been credited with transforming the NCAA Tournament into the billion-dollar March Madness it has become today.

“A decade after his departure from the NCAA, Tom Jernstedt’s fingertips remain visible during March Madness and the Final Four,” NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “His innovation and superb ability to develop relationships turned a basketball tournament into a three-week phenomenon that became a global event.”

A former back-up quarterback, Jernstedt worked his first Final Four in 1973 and helped push the growth of the NCAA Tournament from 25 teams to the 68, anything-can-happen bonanza held every spring.

Jernstedt helped the NCAA increase its television contract from just over $1 million to more than $10 billion when he left in 2011. He served as president of USA Basketball, was a member of the College Football Selection committee and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2017.

“Tom Jernstedt was a humble and unsung steward of the game,” John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Under his direction, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament grew into a phenomenon that brings college basketball fans together on a global scale. He will forever be remembered as the Father of the Final Four and one of the most respected leaders in basketball.”

Jernstedt established himself as a team leader despite being a backup quarterback at Oregon from 1964-66 and went on to serve as the Ducks’ events manager. He joined the NCAA in 1972 and spent 38 years with the organization.

“Tom served as a friend and mentor to countless people in and around collegiate athletics, and I’m proud to be among that vast group of people,” Gavitt said. “His legacy within the NCAA and its membership, and his impact on the sport of college basketball, is eternal. We extend our deepest condolences to Tom’s family.”

Aztecs extend Brian Dutcher’s contract 3 years through 2026

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

SAN DIEGO — San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher has signed a three-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season.

Dutcher signed the deal following one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Aztecs went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular-season title and were expected to be a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They opened the season 26-0 and were the nation’s last undefeated team.

“Having spent more than 20 years at San Diego State University I understand what a special place this is,” Dutcher said in a statement Friday. “I am humbled and honored to continue to represent SDSU and Aztec Basketball as its head coach.”

Dutcher is 73-26 in three seasons, the most victories by an Aztecs coach in his first three seasons. He spent 18 seasons as Steve Fisher’s top assistant, including six as associate head coach/head coach in waiting. He took over as head coach after Fisher retired following the 2016-17 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Before that, he spent 10 seasons with Fisher at Michigan. In Dutcher’s first season with the Wolverines, Fisher was promoted to interim head coach on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship.

Indiana halts all voluntary workouts

Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar

Indiana has halted all voluntary workouts indefinitely for its men’s basketball, field hockey, men’s soccer and wrestling teams after 14 participants tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

The Hoosiers did not identify which teams recorded the positive tests. The football team, like other Big Ten programs, is not playing this fall. Indiana said 63 positives have been reported from more than 1,400 tests of athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“Our athletic program is following strict protocols during these unprecedented times and we strongly support our medical staff as we try and mitigate this issue,” men’s basketball coach Archie Miller said.