The Little Dances: Championship Week Day 7 Preview

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The NCAA Tournament doesn’t get going until March 19, but for the real college hoops fans, the days leading up to Selection Sunday is when the madness really begins. Over the next two weeks teams will fight for the postseason lives. Bubbles will burst and tickets will be punched, and Cinderellas will be born. This is the real March Madness.

(CLICK HERE to browse through all of our conference tournament previews)

Here’s what to watch for on Monday.

Game of the Night: Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary’s
The Gonzaga Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in the nation, but the Gaels are the reigning WCC Tournament Champions. Gonzaga holds two victories over the Saint Mary’s this season, but they still have to bury the memory of their overtime loss to the Gaels in last season’s title game. The Gaels have lost just twice since Christmas, both defeats coming at the hands of their bitter rivals. This is undoubtedly the best west coast rivalry of the past half-decade, and it only gets better when the two teams face-off for the tournament championship.

– Watch this too: Charleston vs. Davidson
The two most prestigious basketball programs in the SoCon lock horns in the postseason tournament championship tonight. These two teams have not faced off in the SoCon championship game since Steph Curry’s freshman campaign in 2007. Davidson is riding a 16-game win streak and has not lost since the second week of January. Charleston will have a tough task in defending Davidson’s dominant frontcourt made up of preseason Player of the Year De’Mon Brooks and recently named 2013 Player of the Year Jake Cohen. Cougars’ big-man Adjehi Baru will need to have a career-night in order to give Charleston a chance at punching their ticket to the Big Dance.

Player to Watch: Nate Wolters, South Dakota State
Well duh. The Jackrabbits’ senior sharpshooter was the only play in the country to score 50+ points in single game this season, when he scored 53 points against the very same IPFW team he faces tonight. In fact, in the two regular season meetings against the Mastadons, Wolters scored a combined 82 points on 27-for-46 shooting. Wolters is in the midst of a “mild cold streak”, having only made more than seven field goals in two of his last six games. But Nate Wolters’ bad days are better than most people’s good days.

Miscellaneous Madness:
Only three times since 2006 has the top seed in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament made it to the championship game. In fact, in the past three years, no seed higher than a No.4-seed has advanced to the tournament championship game. Tee trend continues in 2013, as No. 4-seed Florida International, fresh off their upset over top seed Middle Tennessee, face No. 6-seed Western Kentucky, the defending tournament champions. Last season, the Hilltoppers fired their coach mid-season only to run the tables in the postseason as a No. 8-seed and earn a trip to the Big Dance despite carrying a losing record.

Saturday Schedule:

Colonial Athletic Association Finals
7 p.m. – James Madison (3) vs. Northeastern (1) – NBCSN

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Finals
9 p.m. – Manhattan (6) vs. Iona (4) ESPN2

Mid-American Conference First Round
7 p.m. – Miami-OH (11) vs. Bowling Green State (6)
7 p.m. – Northern Illinois (10) vs. Eastern Michigan (7)
7 p.m. – Central Michigan (9) vs. Buffalo (8)

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference First Round
6:30 p.m. – Maryland-Eastern Shore (13) vs. Savannah State (4)
9 p.m. – South Carolina State (12) vs. Morgan State (5)

Southern Conference Finals
7 p.m. – Charleston (3) vs. Davidson (1) ESPN2

Summit League Semifinals
7 p.m. – IPFW (5) vs. South Dakota State (1)
9:30 p.m. – North Dakota State (3) vs. Western Illinois (2)

Sun Belt Conference Finals
7 p.m. – Western Kentucky (6) vs. Florida International (4) ESPN

West Coast Conference Finals
9 p.m. – Saint Mary’s (2) vs. Gonzaga (1) ESPN

You can find Troy Machir on Twitter at @TroyMachir

Osun Osunniyi picks St. Bonaventure over Syracuse, Georgetown

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St. Bonaventure has made something of a late splash on the recruiting trail.

Osun Osunniyi, a 6-foot-10 from Putnam (Conn.) Science Academy, signed with the Bonnies, the school announced Monday.

It’s a bit of a recruiting coup for coach Mark Schmidt, who won the services of Osunniyi over offers from Syracuse and Georgetown, both of whom hosted the prospect on official visits this spring.

“Osun oozes with potential. His ceiling is extremely high. He has so much God-given ability,” Schmidt said in a statement. “And, he’s a great kid, a character kid who is level-headed. He has a great wingspan, he runs well, he has a natural talent for blocking shots and is a very good rebounder. He can score around the basket.

“Osun wants to get better, like all of our players. We saw how he developed at Putnam, which is a credit to coach Espinosa and the staff there. He’s come a long way to become a kid who was highly recruited. We’re thrilled to have him come to St. Bonaventure.”

Osunniyi, who previously committed to La Salle before taking a prep year, becomes the fourth member of the Bonnies’ 2018 freshman class. He averaged 10 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots per game while Putnam won a national prep championship.

The Bonnies made the NCAA tournament as an 11 seed last year after going 26-8.

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.