No one told Wisconsin they weren’t supposed to be this Final Four’s Team of Destiny

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INDIANAPOLIS — Never in college basketball history have we seen the hype machine reach the levels it did in the six days between the end of the Elite 8 and the start of the Final Four.

Tom Izzo and Coach K squaring off. Kentucky vs. Wisconsin, again. Jahlil Okafor and Karl Towns and Frank Kaminsky. A Final Four in which Bo Ryan can be called the “worst” of the four coaches still working.

And, to cap it off, the seemingly inevitable meeting between Duke and the 39-0 Wildcats on Monday, a battle between the nation’s two most high-profile programs and coaches with nothing but a national title and undefeated season on the line. It’s the matchup that everyone — from casual fans to North Carolina and Louisville — wanted to see, and once Kentucky had completed their second comeback of the night, using a 16-4 run to take a 60-56 lead with five minutes left, it looked like that’s precisely what we were going to get.

Then, those shot clock violations happened.

And Sam Dekker’s three went down.

And, suddenly, Wisconsin had themselves a 71-64 win and a date with Duke with a title on the line.

Press row was abuzz, as every hack with a press pass pounded out words on their keyboard, trying to do justice to what may just end up being the greatest game they ever cover. Kentucky’s pursuit of perfection was the single-biggest story of the 2014-15 season, and all it took was those final five minutes to turn the previously unbeatable Wildcats to 38-and-Done. If the Badgers go on to win on Monday, Saturday’s game will assuredly be mentioned in the same conversation as Duke’s win over then-undefeated UNLV in the 1991 Final Four and Team USA’s win over Russia in hockey in the 1980 Olympics: semifinal wins that no one ever remembers happened in a semifinal.

It’s just … no one actually told Wisconsin they weren’t supposed to be able to win. The Badgers weren’t celebrating the way their fans were. In the locker room after the game, there were plenty of smiles, but that was about it. No dancing. No partying. As assistant coach Greg Gard put it, “no one got Gatorade dumped on them,” because as incredible as that win was, it really didn’t mean anymore to the Badgers than the win over No. 16 Coastal Carolina three weeks ago did. It was just another step in the process of trying to win a national title.

As long as the nets in Lucas Oil Stadium are still dangling off of the rim, the Badgers have not yet accomplished what they set out to do.

“We’ll enjoy it for a little while here tonight, but we know what’s in store on Monday night,” Gard added. “They were pretty quiet [when they got back to the locker room]. They celebrated out on the court because of the moment and the environment.”

“They know. They know we’ve got one more game to accomplish our goal.”

The difference lies in how Wisconsin viewed this Kentucky team. The media, the fans, everyone outside of that Badger locker room, we all saw the Wildcats as this force of nature, this team with more size than most NBA teams and, arguably, more future NBA players than the other three teams in Indianapolis combined. But it was more than that. The Wildcats almost felt like a team of destiny. Not only were they insanely talented, but they were winning — escaping? — each and every time they got tested. Ole Miss couldn’t beat them when they had a shot to win at the end of regulation. Texas A&M couldn’t, either. LSU had them down six late in the second half and missed a three at the buzzer that would have won the game. Georgia had them down late in the second half. Notre Dame was up six with five minutes left.

And every time, Kentucky found a way to win.

It wasn’t so much that Kentucky was unbeatable, it was that the Wildcats, despite their youth and despite the constant, and usually erroneous, criticisms of their head coach’s ability as an in-game tactician, always made the plays they needed to make to get to the next game with a zero on the right side of their record.

40-0 was inevitable.

That’s how the rest of the country saw it, anyway.

But not Wisconsin.

“Obviously, they were undefeated,” Bronson Koenig said, “but we didn’t look at their record or anything like that.”

“We’re not surprised we were in this situation,” Dekker said. “This is something we’ve been talking about since day one this season.”

The Badgers didn’t look across the court and see a juggernaut. What they saw was a team that, a year ago, beat them by a single point thanks to an Aaron Harrison 25-foot three that barely missed being blocked by Josh Gasser.

“What do you mean we’ve done something that nobody’s ever done?” Ryan asked a reporter in response to a question on Saturday night. “It’s a nice feeling to know that you’ve got a chance. A little bit better than Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber. There were times where it was a million-to-one, but not this time.”

This is who Wisconsin is. All week long — all tournament and all season long, really — they’ve become that lovable group of nerds that talk non-stop about Super Smash Bros and FIFA, the guys that went viral because they’re obsessed with the NCAA-provided stenographers. They’ve talked all week long about how they can goof off and joke around and act like your typical frat boys until that ball gets rolled out.

Maybe they just didn’t realize they weren’t supposed to be the team of destiny in this Final Four.

“I’m going to tell a little bit of a story here,” Kaminsky said at the press conference, a story that perfectly sums up who this Badger team is. “I was playing FIFA in the room, you know, we had so much time today, one of my buddies from back home came and we were talking, Alex Flood. He said if I had 20, Sam had 16 or 18, Nigel would have 12, and either Bronson or Josh would add 10 or 12, we would win by seven points, that’s exactly what happened.”

“It’s just too weird not to bring up, how the game ended, how the numbers worked out, it was perfect.”

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

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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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

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
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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.