Creighton/Saint Mary’s headlines Ramada Bracketbusters event

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The Ramada Bracketbusters event is one that’s had its fair share of detractors in recent years, and this will be the final season of the event. While the event did help mid-major programs from a scheduling standpoint there was also the feeling that Bracketbusters became a bit too bloated, and the games tended to serve more as an elimination game than anything.

But regardless of how fans may feel about the event there are some very important games on the slate. Here are the five most important games on the Ramada Bracketbusters schedule.

1) Creighton at Saint Mary’s (Saturday, 6:00 p.m. on ESPN) 

Without a doubt this is the marquee game of the event, with both teams in position to greatly benefit from a victory. Creighton is probably a safe bet to get to the NCAA tournament as an at-large barring collapse, but one can never be too sure. Doug McDermott gets the national attention but the Bluejays don’t lack for weapons on the offensive end of the floor.

As for Saint Mary’s, with their best non-conference victory coming at the expense of Harvard the Gaels need this one. Matthew Dellavedova and company may get a third shot at Gonzaga in the WCC tournament title game, and between now and that possible March 11 date this is the best opportunity for Saint Mary’s to improve their resume.

2) North Dakota State at Akron (Friday, 7:00 p.m. on ESPN2) 

North Dakota State isn’t in the running for an at-large berth, ans with Taylor Braun out with a broken foot the goal for the Bison is to have him back in time for the Summit League tournament. As for Akron, Keith Dambrot’s team has won 17 straight games and they’ve got realistic hopes of receiving an at-large bid should they not win the MAC tournament.

Zeke Marshall is one of the best front court players in the event, and overall the Zips have the depth and experience needed to make waves in the NCAA tournament. This is a big five-day stretch for Akron, who visits Ohio on Wednesday night in a critical MAC battle, and they can help themselves from a seeding standpoint with two wins.

3) Detroit at Wichita State (Saturday, 4:00 p.m. on ESPN2) 

Currently leading the Missouri Valley race Wichita State is in good position to grab an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament should they need one. Detroit on the other hand will need to win the Horizon League’s automatic bid, as they did last season, if they’re to reach the Big Dance. Ray McCallum Jr. leads the way for a Detroit attack that’s both experienced and explosive, with multiple players capable of going off for 30+ points on any given night. Gregg Marshall’s Shockers will need to defend at the level that they have for much of the season, and they don’t lack for experience either. It will be interesting to see how Detroit deals with one of the loudest environments in college basketball.

4) Ohio at Belmont (Saturday, 10:00 p.m. on ESPN2) 

The best point guard matchup in Bracketbusters may be the one between South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters and Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan, but this one isn’t too shabby either. Ohio’s D.J. Cooper takes on Belmont’s Kerron Johnson, with both players being just as good when it comes to scoring as they are setting up their teammates.

Both the Bobcats and Bruins have multiple offensive weapons, and both have been very good defensively when it comes to forcing turnovers. A win for either team would be a valuable Top 100 victory, which can only help from a seeding standpoint should either (or both) reach the NCAA tournament.

5) Stephen F. Austin at Long Beach State (Friday, 9:00 p.m. on ESPNU)  

While the Southland-leading Lumberjacks do have an impressive 22-3 record it’s important to note two things: four of those wins came over non-Division I opponents (which makes them 18-3 for selection committee evaluation purposes) and they have an overall strength of schedule that ranks 313th according to warrennolan.com. With that in mind, Danny Kaspar’s team can definitely use a win at Long Beach State to help their seeding prospects.

The 49ers played a brutal non-conference schedule without key transfers Tony Freeland and Keala King, and the combination of those two with Mike Caffey and James Ennis will make things difficult for a Stephen F. Austin team allowing just 49.7 points per game.

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Christian Vital going back to UConn for junior season

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Dan Hurley is keeping his roster intact at the top.

Christian Vital, UConn’s second-leading scorer a season ago, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, he announced Monday via social media.

“Great Talk Today Coach! Appreciate The Wisdom You Have Let Me In On!” Vital wrote “I Think It’s Time To Get Back To Winning Ways In Storrs! I’m Going To Need That #1 Back ASAP! WE GOT (UNFINISHED) BUSINESS!”

The 6-foot-2 junior-to-be Vital joins Jalen Adams, who was the Huskies’ top-returning scorer, back in Storrs in Hurley’s first year. Vital averaged 14.9 points on 38.3 percent shooting. Adams previously announced he would return to school without declaring for the draft.

The return of UConn’s top two scorers underscores an even bigger trend under Hurley as the Huskies appear to have avoided any major defections from last year’s roster despite the coaching change.

UConn is coming off a 14-18 season that proved to be the last of coach Kevin Ollie’s six years with the Huskies that included a national championship but also back-to-back losing seasons.

Chris Silva returning to South Carolina for senior season

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South Carolina is getting an first-team all-SEC performer back.

Chris Silva, who led the Gamecocks in scoring and rebounding last season, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, the school announced Monday.

“I’m thankful for the experience of going through the draft process,” Silva said in a statement. “I want to thank all of the teams that gave me the opportunity to workout for their organization. I’m excited to announce that I’m returning to South Carolina for my senior season. I can’t wait to get back on the court with my brothers and continue to work on my game.”

The 6-foot-9 Silva, who did not get an NBA draft combine invite, averaged 14.3 points and 8 rebounds per game as a junior.  He shot 46.7 percent from the floor.

“Going through the evaluation process was an unbelievable experience for Chris and us,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said in a statement. “He comes back to a place he loves with some knowledge on some of the things that we have to help him improve on in his efforts to one day fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA.”

In addition to being South Carolina’s leading scorer, he was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season after averaging 1.4 blocks per game. His return to Columbia gives the Gamecocks a potential contender for SEC player of the year in 2018-19.

Kansas fires athletic director Sheahon Zenger

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Kansas has fired athletic director Sheahon Zenger, effective immediately, citing a lack of progress in key areas within the athletic department.

“Sheahon has been a loyal Jayhawk, and our athletics department has improved in many areas under his leadership,” Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod wrote in an email to KU faculty and staff. “But athletics continues to face a number of challenges, and progress in key areas has been elusive. To achieve the level of success we need and expect, I have determined a change in leadership is necessary.”

Zenger had been in the role of AD since 2011.

The issue, of course, is not the play of the Kansas basketball program. The Jayhawks have won every Big 12 regular season title since 2004, and head coach Bill Self has taken the program to two Final Fours since Zenger was hired.

The football team is still a disaster, but one can’t help but wonder whether or not the real issue at hand here is Kansas’ getting tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball.

The Jayhawks were not mentioned in the initial indictments that were handed down, but Kansas was a central figure in the superseding indictments that were dropped after the national title game. The mother of Billy Preston, who did not play for the Jayhawks this season, was alleged to have been funneled $90,000 by Adidas, while Silvio De Sousa’s status is currently in question after the FBI alleged his guardian was paid at least $20,000 to help offset money that the family had already accepted from a rival shoe company.

All of that came in the aftermath of dealing with Cheick Diallo and Cliff Alexander, both of whom had their one season in Lawrence reduced due to off the court issues.

“Since becoming chancellor, I have spent countless hours with higher education peers and Jayhawks to hear their perspective on KU,” Girod wrote. “A common thread in these conversations is that, as a major public university with national aspirations, we must continue to strive for excellence in all areas — including athletics. As I have said many times, a successful athletics department is inextricably linked to our broader mission as a flagship research university.”

Louisville, ex-AD Tom Jurich reach $4.5M settlement

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The University of Louisville has reached a $4.5 million settlement with former athletic director Tom Jurich, who was fired in the wake of a national federal corruption investigation of college basketball.

Jurich disputed his Oct. 18 firing for cause after nearly 20 years as AD and had considered suing the school. The University of Louisville Athletic Association and Board of Trustees on Friday approved the settlement. Jurich’s employment ended “without cause” as a result of his resignation, also described in the settlement as “retirement.”

He’ll also receive another $2.6 million in accrued employment benefits, along with home game tickets and parking for Louisville football and basketball for 20 years.

An audit of the University of Louisville Foundation released last June showed that Jurich averaged annual compensation of more than $2.76 million from 2010-16, including more than $5.35 million in 2016.

Then-interim president Greg Postel had placed Jurich on paid administrative leave in September after the school’s acknowledgement of its involvement in the investigation. Trustees voted 10-3 to fire Jurich, two days after the ULAA unanimously fired Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.

The former AD said in a joint statement that he “spent the better part of my career” working with dedicated athletes, coaches and staff to elevate Louisville. He added, “I am proud of what we accomplished, which is well documented.”

Jurich’s legal team had stressed that the ex-AD did nothing illegal and hadn’t violated NCAA rules.

Trustee chairman J. David Grissom said in the statement that “Everyone is pleased that this matter has been successfully resolved. All parties can move forward to begin the next chapter.”

Jurich played a major role in Louisville’s success on the field and how the school handled issues off it. He led the school’s 2014 entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference and oversaw numerous program and facility upgrades, including a $63 million expansion of the football stadium due for completion by fall.

He also hired several successful coaches including Pitino, who guided the Cardinals to the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship. Louisville ultimately vacated that title in February as part of NCAA penalties for a sex scandal after an escort’s book allegations that former basketball staffer Andre McGee hired her and other dancers to strip and have sex with players and recruits.

Pitino has filed a $38.7 million federal lawsuit against Louisville, alleging breach of contract.

Georgia Tech’s Okogie to sign with agent

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Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie, one of the big winners from this past weekend’s NBA combine, announced on Monday that he will be signing with an agent and remaining in the NBA Draft.

The 6-foot-4 Okogie finished his sophomore season averaged 18.5 points and shooting 38.4 percent from three. The numbers he posted during the athletic testing at the combine, as well as his 7-foot wingspan, makes Okogie an ideal 3-and-D wing at the NBA level.

“Josh is a tremendous young man and an excellent student-athlete,” said head coach Josh Pastner. “He has set a tremendous example, making the Dean’s List this past semester, and deserves a lot of credit for making himself a much better player over the course of his two years here. We will miss him in our program in many respects, from his performance on the court to the energy he plays with and brought to our team. We fully support his decision to take this next step, and wish him all the best.”