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Weekend Preview: The five biggest story lines this weekend

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The biggest story line of the weekend is No. 2 Kansas paying a visit to No. 4 Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.

We all know that.

We talked all about it on the podcast (here) and in a preview of the game (here).

Beyond that, here are five story lines to track this weekend:

1. Which Duke team is going to show up on Saturday?: As it stands, No. 17 Duke is currently 15-5 overall, but just 3-4 in the ACC. They’ve lost all three of their road games in league play and are coming off of a dreadfully disappointing performance in a home loss to N.C. State on Monday. We detailed what is going wrong with the Blue Devils here, and it’s worth noting that things have gotten bad enough for Duke that Coach K revoked locker room access and has banned the team from wearing clothing with a Duke logo on it.

Which leads us to Saturday.

Duke heads down the road to take on Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons are not all that good this year, but they are usually a tough out in their building, frankly, Duke has done nothing in the last six weeks to make us believe they can go on the road anywhere and come out with a win. Duke’s ceiling this season is still as high as anyone’s ceiling, and every game is going to be a test. Are they getting closer to reaching that ceiling, or is this team still not good?

2. The Big Ten bubble picture is heating up: Northwestern is the most under-reported story in college basketball this season. A program that has never – EVER – made the NCAA tournament is currently sitting at 17-4 overall with a 6-2 record in the Big Ten and a very, very good chance at ending that drought this March. Indiana? They are probably the most over-reported story in the conference, a flawed team whose expectations grew out of control with a pair of early-season wins and whose is now trying to find their way through league play and into the tournament without the services of O.G. Anunoby.

Think about that, for a second. Indiana plays at Northwestern on Saturday, and the Hoosiers probably need this win more than Northwestern does.

That’s not the only Big Ten game with heavy bubble implications.

Michigan’s visit to Michigan State will matter as well. Both of those teams seemed destined to sweat it out on Selection Sunday, although the Spartans and Tom Izzo may be in more trouble than John Beilein’s Wolverines. So Michigan State and Indiana, the two flagship program in the conference, desperately need to win games against Michigan and Northwestern.

What is going on?

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3. Will Gonzaga be No. 1?: The Zags are the nation’s lone undefeated team, and with No. 1 Villanova, No. 2 Kansas and No. 4 Kentucky all losing on Tuesday, there’s a good chance the the Bulldogs could find themselves climb to No. 1 in the country if they can find a way to avoid losing to 5-15 Pepperdine on Saturday.

And if they can get through the weekend without a loss to their name, it’s very likely that, barring a loss at Saint Mary’s in February, the Zags are going to head into the conference tournaments undefeated. And if they get to the conference tournaments undefeated, they’ll be the No. 1 team in the country for the rest of the year and lock themselves into the No. 1 seed out west.

I don’t want to get into a debate about whether or not that should happen (it should, and if you think otherwise you’re probably dumb), I’m just saying that it’s a thing that will happen.

4. Can Georgia Tech land another upset?: I’m not sure Josh Pastner deserves to be in the National Coach of the Year discussion. He may not even deserve to be in the ACC Coach of the Year discussion, at least not yet. But it’s inarguable that he is doing a fantastic job with this Yellow Jacket team. They were picked to finish 14th in the ACC this season, yet entering this weekend, they are sitting at 4-4 in league play – a half-game ahead of Duke – with wins over North Carolina, Florida State, N.C. State and Clemson. No. 14 Notre Dame is terrific, good enough to win the ACC regular season title, but they are coming off of a loss at home to No. 12 Virginia.

5. So was that N.C. State win at Duke a fluke or nah?: The Wolfpack have been bad this season, but on Monday night, they went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and beat the Blue Devils thanks to 32 points and six assists from Dennis Smith Jr. That’s a terrific win for the program’s bragging rights in the state of North Carolina, but beating Duke sounds better in real life than it looks on paper at the moment. That’s what makes Saturday’s visit to the Yum! Center interesting.

N.C. State has been bad on the road this year. Louisville is tough in their building. But the Cardinals will be without their top two points guards, who are both battling injury. This is N.C. State’s chance to make up for losing to Boston College and Georgia Tech.

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 23:  Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack drives in for a dunk as time expires during their win against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 23, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. North Carolina State won 84-82.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Dennis Smith Jr. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

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.