Weekend Preview: Five storylines to follow

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Kentucky and Louisville, tables turned?: I don’t think there’s really an argument that, right now, Kentucky and Louisville have the fiercest rivalry in the country. Let’s ignore, for a second, that this rivalry has been built across socioeconomic and geographic lines, or that it is a battle for supremacy in the state where college basketball happens to reign king. The Wildcats and the Cardinals were both in the Final Four last season. They compete for the same recruits. They have head coaches that hate each other. There are other rivalries that are full of hatred, but based on the recent history between these two programs, it gets no better than this right now.

The best part, however, is that Louisville has flipped the tables on Kentucky. The Wildcats are the ones coming off of a national title and the ones that can land seemingly any recruit in the country that they set their sights on, but it’s Louisville that is currently top five in the country and Louisville that is considered a real threat to do something more than reach the tournament’s second weekend this season. Kentucky may have had more recent success, but it’s Louisville that is the healthiest program in the state right now.

Let’s see how long that lasts.

Disappointing matchups this weekend: It’s tough to take the luster off of a matchup between Louisville and Kentucky, but one of the things that made this game the most anticipated of the season was that it not only featured a great rivalry, but that great rivalry was a rematch of the Final Four between two teams ranked in the top three. Well, that’s not the case anymore. Kentucky needed to pick up a couple of wins over the last two weeks just to climb back into the bottom of the top 25 poll. Louisville is still a top five team, but I’m not sure how many people consider them the favorite to win the national title anymore.

That’s not the only game this happened to, either. North Carolina’s struggles have made their matchup with UNLV less appealing (although with the way that both teams like to get up and down the floor, I think it will be easy to convince people to tune in). Baylor has fallen off the map after looking like a real contender to Kansas in the Big 12, which means that their trip to Spokane to take on Gonzaga has been dulled. UCLA has won a couple games of late, but their early-season issues have dampened the expectations for their season. Missouri, on the other hand, is still a top ten team, but without Michael Dixon, they aren’t the same kind of national threat.

Missouri Valley action kicks off: While everyone else is excited about the Mountain West race this season, I’m looking forward to seeing the competition in the MVC as much as anything. The action kicks off on Saturday, which Wichita State hosting Northern Iowa playing the featured role.

Last chance to turn around a disappointing non-conference season?: There haven’t been many teams in the country more disappointing that USC this year. The Trojans brought in all kinds of talent on the transfer market and managed to get all of the players they lost last season back and healthy, yet they are still sitting at 4-8 on the season with the New Year right around the corner. The Trojans will have a chance to get themselves headed in the right direction when they host Dayton on Saturday.

USC isn’t the only disappointment looking to right their ship with conference play coming. Memphis will take on a pair of quality mid-major foes in Oral Roberts and Loyola (MD). St. Joe’s will get a chance to notch a solid win when they take on Iona. Even West Virginia will be looking to close out their non-conference schedule with a win over Eastern Kentucky.

Kwamaine Mitchell is back: The best player on St. Louis will return to the lineup on Saturday when the Billikens take on SIU-Edwardsville. St. Louis has been a bit of a disappointment this season, but disappointment is a harsh word when you consider that Mitchell was out of the lineup and the team was trying to adjust to playing under a new coach as the late Ric Majerus could not coach this season. Butler, Temple and VCU and the popular picks to win the league this season. Can Mitchell get St. Louis back into that conversation?

Old Dominion lands former four-star center

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Elbert Robinson came out of high school in 2014 as a borderline top-50 recruit with offers from the likes of Florida, Kansas and Louisville before he ultimately chose to attend LSU.

The 7-foot-1 center, though, never even averaged 10 minutes a game in Baton Rouge and now will be finishing his career as a graduate transfer at Old Dominion, according to multiple reports.

“Old Dominion was perfect for him,” Lawrence Johns, Robinson’s grassroots coach, told the Virginian-Pilot. “I know for a fact that nobody in (Conference USA) is over 7 feet.

“I told him to go there and show people why he was the No. 1 center the year he came out.”

Robinson, who sat out last year for medical reasons, could step right into a major role with the Monarchs, who lost their starting frontcourt this offseason. He averaged 2.1 points and 1.4 rebounds in 6.4 minutes per game last year for the Tigers.

VIDEO: Mixtape for North Carolina-bound Nassir Little

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Nassir Little is one of the most improved players in the high school basketball ranks, going from being a guy that was a borderline five-star prospect to being a potential No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and athleticism to burn, he has all the makings of being one of the switchable wing defenders that are en vogue in the modern era of the NBA.

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.