Midwest Region Preview: Is 4-seed Louisville the favorite?

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The biggest gripe that I saw regarding the release of the bracket was regarding Louisville. How did they end up a No. 4 seed? How could a team that is ranked second on KenPom.com end up being ranked fourth in their region? What is the world coming to?

Whatever.

If I’m a Louisville fan, I’m celebrating tonight. They’re in a pod with a slumping No. 5 seed in Saint Louis and the weakest No. 1 seed in Wichita State, and there’s a possibility that the Cardinals will be able to play — and knock out? — archrival Kentucky in the Sweet 16. So, again, what is the problem here?

If there is any team that has a complaint about the way that the bracket was seeded, it’s the Shockers. NCAA Tournament draws can be unflinchingly cruel, and Wichita State ended up with a worst-case scenario. Their Round of 32 matchup will be against preseason No. 1 Kentucky or Kansas State in St. Louis. Win that, and they’re likely looking at one of the hottest teams in the country in Louisville. If that wasn’t enough, that Sweet 16 game would be held in Indianapolis, a 90-minute drive from Louisville. The undefeated Shockers would be going on the road in the Sweet 16.

And here’s the worst part: they will be crucified if they can’t put together another run to the Final Four. An exit in the Round of 32 will essentially render their 34-0 pre-NCAA tournament record invalid in the court of public opinion.

I don’t root for anyone anymore. I think I’ll be rooting for Wichita State to pull this off, if for no other reason than I want to see their season “justified”.

MORERead through all of our bracket analysis here

Three story lines to watch

  • 1. The Chase for Perfection: Wichita State will be the first team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated since UNLV in 1991. They will try to become the first team to finish the season undefeated since Indiana in 1976. We’re watching history happen before our eyes. Enjoy it.
  • 2. Can Kentucky pull a Fab Five?: People tend to forget that, as freshmen, the Fab Five were a No. 6 seed before making a run to the National Title game. Kentucky is not quite as good as that Michigan team was, but they were a different team in the SEC tournament than they were … all season long? Can that success continue?
  • 3. Is Louisville headed to a third straight Final Four?: For the third straight season, Rick Pitino has his Cardinals streaking at the perfect time. The last two years, Louisville bounced back from a rough stretch in the regular season to win the Big East tournament title and make a run to the Final Four in 2012 and the National Title in 2013. The Cardinals were written off after Chane Behanan was kicked off the team and they lost at home to Memphis, but a run to the American tournament title has the Cards looking like a trendy pick to repeat as champs.
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The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 2 Michigan

I might end up picking Louisville to win the National Title, I think they’re that good. I like Michigan on the other side of the region. To beat the Wolverines, you need the kind of on-ball defenders that can get up into Nik Stauskas and keep him from having a field day in John Beilein’s offense. Neither Texas or Arizona State has a guy like that. Duke does — Tyler Thornton — but this is a different Michigan team than the one that lost at Cameron in December. They’re running much more of their offense through Stauskas, Walton is a different player and Glenn Robinson III finally woke up. And if Thornton is on Stauskas, who tries to slow down Caris LeVert?

MORE: Eight teams that can win the national title.

Final Four sleeper: No. 8 Kentucky

Are the Wildcats really a sleeper? You kind of sacrifice that name when you are the preseason No. 1 team in the country, but after a disappointing season, Kentucky heads into the dance as a No. 8 seed. The good news? They played their best basketball of the season during those three days in Atlanta. ‘The Tweak’ that John Calipari talked about so much was simply getting his team to buy-in to what he wanted. The key is Andrew Harrison at the point. He was terrific during the SEC tournament. He needs to be terrific in the NCAA tournament. If he is, this is still one of the most talented teams in the country.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 11 Iowa vs. No. 11 Tennessee: One of the three play-in games in the Midwest, this should be a doozy. Iowa is, on paper, a Final Four threat, but they’ve really struggled in the last month and a half. Tennessee is, on paper, an NIT team that has somehow turned into one of the hottest teams in the country the last couple of weeks.
  • No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 13 Manhattan: Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello was a walk-on for Rick Pitino at Kentucky and an assistant on his staff at Louisville for six years.

Matchups to root for

  • No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 Kentucky: I don’t need to explain this, do I?
  • No. 3 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan: I would not complain about a rematch. At all. Both the Wolverines and the Blue Devils have top five offenses and sub-100 defenses, according to KenPom. Can you say shootout?

The studs you know about

  • Russ Smith, Louisville: Once known as Russdiculous, Smith has become more of a point guard for Louisville this season while remaining a terror defensively.
  • Jabari Parker, Duke: Arguably the most well-rounded offensive weapon in the country and a potential No. 1 pick in the draft in June.
  • Nik Stauskas, Michigan: The Wolverines turned into a Big Ten champion when John Beilein allowed Stauskas, a 6-foot-6 sharpshooter with bounce, handle, great vision and noticeable attitude, to be the centerpiece of his offense.
  • Julius Randle, Kentucky: Another future top five pick, Randle is a double-double machine.

MORE: All-Americans | Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | Freshman of the Year

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State: You’ve heard the name, but have you seen him play this year? Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early are great, but Van Vleet is their engine.
  • Langston Hall, Mercer: Hall is a big time scorer for the Bears that has a knack for hitting big shots in big moments. He’ll give Duke problems in the first round.
  • T.J. Warren, N.C. State: Everyone in the ACC knows about Warren, but he’s slept-on nationally because the Wolfpack were perceived as an NIT team. He went for 40 points in back-to-back games two weeks ago and is the best scorer in the country not named Doug McDermott.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 11 Tennessee over No. 6 UMass: I’m just not a huge fan of the Minutemen this season, and Tennessee is a tough, veteran team playing their best basketball of the season right now. I’d make the same pick if Iowa beats Tennessee in the play-in game.
  • No. 4 Louisville over No. 1 Wichita State: I like this upset for a couple reasons: Montrezl Harrell will dominate the Shockers up front, the Shockers don’t have anyone that can guard Russ Smith and Louisville’s back court is quick and pesky enough to give Wichita State’s guards problems.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • No. 8 Kentucky or No. 9 Kansas State over No. 1 Wichita State: This pick has nothing to do with matchups. To me, this will be about desire. I’m not sure there is a better motivator in college basketball than WSU’s Gregg Marshall. The Shockers went 34-0 this season, which means they never slipped up against an inferior team. They never sleep-walked through a game and never overlooked an opponent. They’ll be ready, and they won’t be overwhelmed by the moment against either team.

Feeling like gambling?

  • No. 14 Mercer over No. 3 Duke: Duke is a nightmare to try and defend. Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker might be the best 1-2 punch in the conference. But they can be exploited by talented, penetrating guards. Remember, this Mercer team won the Atlantic Sun regular season title over Florida-Gulf Coast last season. They’re good. Can Hall have his C.J. McCollum moment?

CBT Predictions: No. 4 Louisville beats No. 1 Wichita State and No. 2 Michigan en route to their third straight Final Four.

Coach K downplays shoe company involvement as Duke mentioned at trial

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Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski took the opportunity Monday to downplay the breadth of the illicit actions being alleged/revealed/confirmed in testimony over the last two weeks of Brian Bowen Sr. and T.J. Gassnola.

The father of an elite recruit and and adidas consultant, the pair have essentially narrated a roadmap to college basketball’s underground that includes payoffs, cars, deception, hustling and layers upon layers of NCAA violations.

“It’s a blip. It’s not what’s happening,” K said at the Blue Devils’ media day. “We haven’t lost guys because of someone’s shoe. I’m not aware of that.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, and we’ll get to it, but first it’s worth pointing something out. Something that came, ironically enough, to light Monday thanks to court proceedings in Manhattan as part of the Southern District of New York’s college basketball corruption case. Let’s go now to text messages between Gassnola and Kansas coach Bill Self.

Gassnola: “In my mind, it’s KU, Bill Self. Everyone else fall into line. Too (expletive) bad. That’s what’s right for Adidas basketball. And I know I’m right. The more you have lottery picks and you happy. That’s how it should work in my mind.”
Self: “That’s how ur (sic) works. At UNC and Duke.”

So despite K’s handwringing and outright dismissal of shoe companies’ involvement in high-profile recruitments, there is a Hall of Fame, national-championship winning coach at one of the most prominent and storied programs in the history of the sport that, apparently, thinks different.

That seems noteworthy.

Coach K’s whole premise, in fact, ignores the whole point of what, whether he admits it or not, is going on, seemingly, at a wide scale. The idea that Duke may or may not have lost guys because of their shoe affiliation is beside the point. The Blue Devils, you may have heard, are a Nike school. One of the preeminent Nike schools. Another thing you may have heard is that Nike is far and away the predominant player in basketball apparel. The pool of players that Duke could even conceivably miss out on because of shoe affiliation is tiny compared to the amount of high-level prospects that are “Nike guys.”

Let’s also not forget that Nike outfits another pretty influential group in the basketball world. USA Basketball. Which Coach K has essentially headed as the men’s national team coach for the last 10 years where he worked with some of Nike’s most high-profile athletes like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Oh, and Mason Plumlee, who got a spot on the 2014 World Cup team totally because he was one of the best players the United State had to offer and not at all because of his Duke connections.

But I digress.

What we learned today is that the perception nationally that shoe companies, to whatever degree, help their favored schools land top recruits is not one held simply by media blowhards and paranoid fanbases. It’s one a coach of one of those favored schools holds, too. The fact that there have been days of testimony in a federal courtroom that back up that sentiment should matter here, too.

Krzyzewski’s statements are self-serving. He’s not the first one to take this route. That’s fine. It’s his job to win basketball games and protect Duke basketball. Pretending like shoe companies are a non-factor in recruiting is in his best interest as he and his program continue to enroll the best players in the country while wearing a swoosh on every piece of clothing.

It’s not reality, though.

Adidas trial: Texts between Bill Self, T.J. Gassnola revealed

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As the first of three trials stemming from the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball churns towards a finish, Kansas head coach Bill Self and one of his assistants, Kurtis Townsend, have been dragged into the mix thanks to text messages that were provided to the court on Monday.

There has never been a question of whether or not the Kansas program was involved. T.J. Gassnola, a fixer for Adidas that also runs an Adidas-sponsored AAU program, has testified that he paid the mother of former Kansas forward Billy Preston $89,000 and that he was planning on paying the Fenny Falmagne, the guardian of current Jayhawk sophomore Silvio De Sousa, an additional $20,000 to the $2,500 he had already paid, money to payback someone with Under Armour ties that was trying to get De Sousa to go to Maryland.

The defense has not argued otherwise.

Instead, their defense has been that the Kansas coaching staff was aware of, and supportive of, the payments that were being made.

On Monday, they presented text messages to the court between Gassnola and the Kansas coaching staff, the most damning of which came on Sept. 19th, 2017, just days before Kansas — who is supposed to be the victim in this ordeal — announced that they had agreed to a 12-year, $191 million extension on a sponsorship deal with Adidas.

After Gassnola texted Self to thank him for helping get the deal done, Self responded by saying, “Just got to get a couple real guys.”

Gassnola: “In my mind, it’s KU, Bill Self. Everyone else fall into line. Too (expletive) bad. That’s what’s right for Adidas basketball. And I know I’m right. The more you have lottery picks and you happy. That’s how it should work in my mind.”

Self: “That’s how ur (sic) works. At UNC and Duke.”

Gassnola, after acknowledging that it works like this at Kentucky, too: “I promise you I got this. I have never let you down. Except (Deandre). Lol. We will get it right.”

Presumably, this is in reference to Deandre Ayton, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft after one season at Arizona. Earlier in the trial, Gassnola testified that he had paid $15,000 on behalf of Adidas to the family of Ayton while trying to find a house and a job for Ayton’s mother, who is Bahamian. There was a point in time during Ayton’s high school career that he was considered likely to end up at Kansas, and he even told reporters in April of 2016 that Kansas was the only school recruiting him.

When Gassnola was asked if he felt like he let Self down when Ayton picked Arizona, he replied, “I did.”

There is also a text trail between Gassnola and the Kansas staff in the weeks prior to De Sousa’s surprise commitment to the program. From the KC Star:

On Aug. 9. 2017, Gassnola texted KU’s assistant Townsend in a conversation about Fenny Falmagne, the guardian of then-recruit Silvio De Sousa, now a KU sophomore. Gassnola told Townsend, “Hit me when you can,” and Townsend replied, “Coach Self just talked to Fenny. Let me know how it goes.”

Gassnola also texted Self, saying he talked with Falmagne. Self asked “we good” over text, and Gassnola replied “always,” saying this was light work and the ball was in Falmagne’s court now.

That same day, Gassnola texted Self to call him when he had five minutes and he was alone. The two had a five-minute, six-second phone conversation. The call was not wiretapped by the FBI nor played in court.

No. 10 Auburn: How will the reigning SEC champs handle what’s returning?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 10 Auburn.


Auburn, last year, had one of the strangest seasons I can recall in my time covering this sport.

No one, and I mean no one, had the Tigers pegged as a surefire tournament team heading into the season. It’s true that Bruce Pearl was coming off of his best season as the head coach of the Tigers, but that doesn’t mean that Auburn was particularly good. The Tigers went 18-14 in 2016-17 and 7-11 in the SEC, climbing out of 13th place in the SEC for the first time in Pearl’s tenure.

So expectations weren’t particularly high heading into the year, and all of that happened before the bombshell of an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball dropped right as practices were starting.

Suddenly, Auburn and Pearl were thrust into the middle of a massive scandal. Former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested and charged with fraud, part of a bribery scandal where he was paid as much as $91,000 to help funnel money to players on his roster and exert his influence over where they would opt to invest their money once they reached the professional ranks. Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, two of the most talented players on the team, were ruled ineligible — Purifoy will be suspended for the first nine games of the 2018-19 season as well — while five-star prospect E.J. Montgomery eventually decommitted from the program.

And while all of this was happening, Pearl — who already had an NCAA rap sheet thanks to a barbecue and Aaron Craft — was refusing to speak with Auburn’s investigators; the scuttle was that he might not make it to the new year employed.

What did the Tigers do?

Oh, they just went out and won 26 games, took home a share of the SEC regular season title and reached their first NCAA tournament in 15 years despite losing their best frontcourt weapon in February to a grisly dislocated ankle.

It was a remarkable year, one that likely would have resulted in numerous Coach of the Year awards had Pearl, you know, not been on the brink of being fired.

MOREPreseason Top 25 | NBC Sports All-Americans | Preview Schedule

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AUBURN WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

They bring back a number of key pieces from last season’s team, and get a number of key players back that were in street clothes in March.

Let’s start with Anfernee McLemore. He’s not the most well-known player on this team by a longshot, but I think he may be the most important. When he’s healthy, he is the perfect piece to put at the five for the Tigers. He’s only 6-foot-7, but he’s a terrific athlete vertically, he shot 39.1 percent from three last season and he would have led the nation in block percentage had he managed to play enough minutes to qualify. An energetic rim-protector that can rebound the ball and shoot it from distance is exactly what you want in your big man if you are a team that wants to play fast, spread the floor and create mismatches.

McLemore suffered a gruesome injury to his left ankle in mid-February — think Gordon Hayward — and the Tigers fell off a cliff afterwards. They lost to South Carolina the day he was injured. They lost two of their last four regular season games. They lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and after struggling to beat a short-handed Charleston team in the first round, they were dropped by 31 points in the second round by Clemson. McLemore is expected to be back to 100 percent by the time the season. If and when he is, he’ll be back in the starting lineup and the Tigers should be closer to what they were for the majority of last season.

Anfernee McLemore (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The other guy that is critical to the way that this Auburn team wants to play is point guard Jared Harper. He led the team in assists last season and is integral to the way that they run that uptempo offense. He — and Bryce Brown, the best shooter in the program if not the SEC — both declared for the NBA Draft before opting to return to school. Like McLemore, Brown should be healthy to start the season; he was slowed by a shoulder injury down the stretch of last season.

With the gut that makes their offense click bank in the fold and the most important player defensively healthy, the Tigers should be back to their uptempo, high-scoring ways once again.

They also bring back Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

ST LOUIS, MO – MARCH 09: Jared Harper (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games

BUT AUBURN IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The reason that the Tigers were as good as they were last season was due to the fact that they played in an SEC where everyone was just OK.

Look at the teams that finished behind Auburn and Tennessee in the league standings. Florida finished third despite losing 13 games on the season. It took Kentucky four months to figure out who their go-to guy was, and they still managed to finished fourth in the league, tied in the standings with a Missouri team that didn’t have Michael Porter Jr. Texas A&M was a massive disappointment. Alabama finished below .500 in the conference despite having Colin Sexton and one of the nation’s top ten defenses.

The league was deep, there were plenty of teams that were tournament-worthy and winning a league title in a conference that is that balanced is not something that should be overlooked.

That said, looking up and down Auburn’s roster, what is there that is really all that intimidating? I don’t know that they had an NBA player last season, and that was before they lost Mustapha Heron to a transfer.

What made Auburn so good last season was the style they played — super-uptempo, spread out and hard to guard — while doing so with an energy level higher than everyone they played. I’m not sure if there is a coach in the country better at getting a group of guys with a chip on their shoulder to play with that foxhole mentality than Bruce Pearl, and he proved it last season.

Calling Auburn a group try-hards would not be fair, and I truly do believe that playing hard, playing with a motor and playing with the kind of energy that Auburn did is a skill, but at some point, talent in basketball wins out, and Auburn does not have a roster that is as talented as many of the other top teams around the country and in their own league.

Bryce Brown (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

On the court, the key to this season for the Tigers is going to be how they replace the scoring of Mustapha Heron.

While he has hit warts as a player, Heron was certainly capable of being a guy that could get a bucket when Auburn needed a bucket. He finished the season as the team’s leading scorer and popped off for more than 20 points eight times.

And that brings me to what is arguably the bigger question mark for this program moving forward: How will they reincorporate Purifoy and Wiley into the mix?

Like I mentioned earlier, the reason that Auburn had as much success as they did last season was because they had a group of guys that bought into the collective and fit into the way that Pearl wants to play. Wiley is a former five-star recruit that was once projected as a first round pick, but he’s also a lumbering 6-foot-11 center that is over 250 pounds even when he’s in shape. He is the polar opposite of McLemore, and it is hard to figure how a dude like that is going to play in that offense.

The same can be said for Purifoy, who is a talented wing but, again, is not a player that is necessarily the ideal fit for Auburn’s style of play. Can he fill the scoring void left by Heron?

And can Wiley co-exist on a roster that wants to play fast? What happens if McLemore and Chuma Okeke take over the starting roles? How will the program’s chemistry be if Samir Doughty ends up starting over Purifoy?

2018-19 OUTLOOK

I don’t see Auburn winning a second straight SEC regular season title.

Kentucky is absolutely loaded and might be the best team in the country. Tennessee, who won a share of the title last season, returns everyone from that team. They are going to enter the season in the top five of some preseason rankings, and deservedly so. Auburn, as much as they bring back, has more question marks and more risk than any of the other teams sitting at the top of this league.

That said, it’s hard to ignore the success they had last season or the importance McLemore’s return.

The Tigers should make a return trip to the NCAA tournament and they should do so as a top four seed.

They’re good.

But given what they lost — and, in a way, what they’re getting back — I think it’s more likely that the bottom falls out and this group ends up outside the top 25 than they find a way to win the SEC.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Injury bug biting Iowa State as Solomon Young the latest Cyclone to get hurt

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Iowa State has dealt with a lot of injuries and illnesses this preseason as the Cyclones are trying to get healthy with the regular season only weeks away.

The latest Iowa State player to go down is starting center Solomon Young, as the junior is out indefinitely with a groin strain. The 6-foot-8 Young has been a key cog on the interior for the Cyclones the past two seasons as he put up 7.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game as a sophomore last season.

Young is also far from the only key Iowa State player currently dealing with an issue. Veteran forward Zoran Talley just had surgery to repair a broken nose as he’s hoping to return faster than a 4-to-6 week window that doctors gave him. Talley will be required to wear a protective face mask once he’s cleared to return.

Iowa State’s highly-touted freshman class is also trying to overcome illness and injury. Big man George Conditt and guard Tyrese Haliburton are both recovering from mono. Forward Zion Griffin just returned from a knee sprain while wing Talen Horton-Tucker has been in a boot at times during the preseason.

While none of these injuries seem to be for an excessive amount of time, it’s clear that Iowa State just needs to get healthy before they start their season on Nov. 6. With all four freshmen missing some time, it will be vital to make sure they catch up and understand everything before they are thrust into the spotlight.

Texas guard Andrew Jones out with a fractured toe

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Texas junior guard Andrew Jones suffered an unfortunate setback in practice this week as he sustained a fractured toe in his right foot during Thursday’s practice. According to a release from Texas, there is no current timetable for Jones to return from the injury.

The 6-foot-4 Jones is currently in the midst of making a full return to basketball after being diagnosed with leukemia in January. Missing the second half of last season, Jones has made an inspiring comeback to the floor over the last several months as he has been practicing and planning to play with the Longhorns this season. Jones completed his chemotherapy treatments in August.

While it isn’t clear how much Jones could have played this upcoming season, the fractured toe is another setback that will cause the junior guard to miss additional time. The leading scorer for Texas last season at the time of his diagnosis, Jones is a former McDonald’s All-American who was a double-figure scorer during his first two seasons with Texas.