Not even Wofford’s coach saw them becoming the Southern Conference’s best program

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Wofford guard Karl Cochran (Getty Images)

For years, the Southern Conference has been considered one of the strongest mid-major conferences in the country.

The reason for that, more than anything, was the presence of Davidson at the top of the conference. Regardless of how good the Wildcats have been, ever since Steph Curry burst onto the scene, first leading Davidson to within a 3-pointer of the Final Four and then playing his way into the top 10 of the NBA Draft, the Wildcats have been a default pick as one of the nation’s best mid-major teams.

That’s no longer the case, however, as Davidson has made the move to the Atlantic 10 for this season. Elon, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern followed the Wildcats out the door, which mattered less for the basketball side of things than last season’s departure of the College of Charleston.

The news isn’t all bad for the league. VMI won 24 games last season and will be rejoining the conference after spending time in the Big South. East Tennessee State and Mercer, two quality basketball programs that are well-funded and well-supported, join the conference as well. And that’s before mentioning that Will Wade has turned Chattanooga into the epicenter of ‘Chaos’. Perhaps the best news for the SoCon is that the Wofford Terriers are currently the best program in the conference, which, for those of you that aren’t fluent in South Carolina basketball, is quite surprising.

That’s not me being mean, either.

Wofford’s head coach Mike Young will tell you the same thing, and he would know. He’s been with the program since 1989. He’s been the head coach since 2002. He knows the program better than anyone else in the entire world.

“Not a chance in hell,” Young said when I asked him if he ever thought the Terriers would be in this spot, and he wasn’t done driving the point home, either. “Nope. Not. A chance. In hell.”

And there’s a reason for that.

You see, when Young first joined the Wofford staff, he was joining a program that was making the transition from the NAIA to the NCAA. Division II, that is. It was almost a decade until the Terriers would move up to the highest level of college sports, but it would still take another 13 seasons before Wofford would make their first NCAA tournament.

That was in 2010.

And here we are in 2014, and the Terriers have won three of the last five automatic bids, own a pair of regular season titles during that stretch and will enter this season as the favorite to make the Big Dance once again.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that was attainable,” Young said. “But here we are. We’ve done it and we’ve it the right way and continue to do it the right way, and that’s a special feeling.”

The example that Young gives when he talks about doing things “the right way” is Aerris Smith, a senior on last year’s NCAA tournament team that just so happened to be the only holdover from the group that made the 2011 tournament. That didn’t mean he played much, however, as Smith had the kind of knee issues that would have forced him to sit out if his future was in professional basketball. He needed microfracture surgery, the procedure that helped turn Amare Stoudamire and Greg Oden into a shell of themselves.

But Smith couldn’t do anymore damage to himself by playing and putting off the surgery, so he put off the surgery, swam six mornings a week at the Y to stay in shape, sat out every single practice of his senior season and gave Young the seven or eight minutes a night off the bench that he knew the team needed to help them win.

By the time the regular season was over, Smith knew that he had had enough. He would play out the SoCon tournament and then get the surgery, regardless of how the Terriers did.

“He came into my office and, very matter of factly, no emotion, said, ‘Coach, I can’t do it anymore. I’m having trouble sleeping now. I’ve got to get this thing taken care of,'” Young said, pausing to keep compose himself. “I get emotional thinking about it.”

You know the rest of the story. Wofford won the automatic bid, and Smith announced that his career was over in a powerful, emotional postgame interview.

Smith is gone, coaching high school ball back in his native Charlotte, but everyone else on the Terrier roster is back this season. That includes nine of the 10 players on the Wofford roster that started at least five games last year.

Karl Cochran, who averaged 15.7 points and 3.0 assists, will likely enter the season as the SoCon Player of the Year even though he may not be the most valuable player on the roster. That title goes to Les Skinner, Young says, an undersized power forward that averaged 11.1 points and 8.5 boards through sheer determination.

“He’s the straw that stirs our drink,” Young says. “He doesn’t get the notoriety and accolades that some others may get, but we’re not nearly as good without him.”

Skinner and Cochran are both seniors, which means that, regardless of how this season plays out, Wofford will have some pieces to replace next season. But Spencer Collins, a 6-foot-4 guard that was the team’s second-leading scorer last year, has started every game in his first two seasons on campus. And according to Young, the team’s two most improved players — sophomore Jaylen Allen and junior Justin Gordon — both have a long time left in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Wofford is a basketball power right now.

No one, quite literally, saw that coming.

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

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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

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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

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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.