Michigan State got a National Player of the Year candidate back and Arizona got an all-american candidate, making both preseason top five teams. Travis Hines joins me to break that down, then John Martin of 92.9 FM ESPN in Memphis joins me to talk about the Lawson family, Tubby Smith and the disaster in Memphis.
Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino accepts job at St. John’s
NEW YORK – Rick Pitino is back in the Big East Conference.
St. John’s hired the Hall of Fame coach Monday to boost a storied program that’s been mired in mediocrity for much of this century.
The school announced the move on Twitter, and Pitino is expected to be formally introduced during a news conference Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
Following a successful run at nearby mid-major Iona, the 70-year-old Pitino was plucked away to replace Mike Anderson, fired March 10 after four seasons in charge of the Red Storm without making the NCAA Tournament.
Reports quickly surfaced that indicated St. John’s planned to target Pitino, who grew up on Long Island not far from the school’s Queens campus in New York City.
Pitino has been to seven Final Fours and won a pair of NCAA championships, one each at Kentucky (1996) and Louisville (2013).
He was dismissed at Louisville in 2017 after an FBI investigation into college basketball corruption led to allegations of NCAA violations. It was the third scandal, professional and personal, in an eight-year period with the Cardinals – but Pitino was eventually exonerated in the FBI-related case.
Pitino has been coaching college basketball so long that he was on the opposing bench with Big East rival Providence when St. John’s was a national power in the mid-1980s under Lou Carnesecca.
Now, he’s tasked with invigorating a Red Storm squad that hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game – or even reached the Big East semifinals – since 2000. The school has made only three NCAA appearances over the past two decades, the most recent coming in 2019 under Chris Mullin.
During that time, through several conference reconfigurations, St. John’s has fallen behind Big East foes with similar profiles such as Villanova, Providence and Seton Hall.
The Red Storm went 18-15 during a turbulent 2022-23 season, including 7-13 in Big East play to finish eighth in the conference standings. They blew a 14-point lead against sixth-ranked and top-seeded Marquette in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals, ending the season with a 72-70 loss in overtime that left Anderson with a 68-56 record at St. John’s.
Pitino has a .740 winning percentage in 34 full seasons as a college basketball coach. He has guided five schools to the NCAA Tournament, including Boston University (1983) and Iona (2021, 2023).
He took a surprising Providence team on a memorable run to the 1987 Final Four, but the 2013 national title Pitino won at Louisville (then in the Big East) was later vacated by the NCAA after an investigation found that an assistant coach paid escorts and exotic dancers to entertain players and recruits in campus dorms.
After two years coaching in Greece, he got the job at Iona – a small, private Catholic school located in New Rochelle, just north of New York City.
Pitino went 64-22 in three years with the Gaels, guiding them to two regular-season titles in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances. Seeded 13th this year, they led No. 4 seed UConn at halftime before getting knocked out in the first round with an 87-63 loss that snapped a 14-game winning streak.
Pitino posted tweets thanking Iona administrators and “all those people who touched our lives.”
“To my players, the last three years. All I can say is you know how much I love you,” he tweeted. “Follow up, I’m not sad it ended. I’m so grateful it happened.”
Leading up to Iona’s NCAA Tournament game, Pitino said he hoped he can coach for 12 more years.
“But I’ll take six or seven,” he said.
He said it would take “a special place” for him to consider leaving Iona, but he also spoke about how much he admired St. John’s president, the Rev. Brian Shanley, who previously worked at Providence.
Pitino had two stints in the NBA, one with the New York Knicks that featured a division title and a failed stretch with the Boston Celtics that didn’t produce a playoff appearance.
But in college, he endured only one losing season (13-14 at BU in 1980-81).
And now, at a time when Hall of Fame coaching contemporaries like Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim have reached the end of their road, Pitino is going strong and getting new jobs.
St. John’s has the ninth-most wins among Division I teams, with 90 winning seasons in its 116-year basketball history.
The school has reached two Final Fours (1952, 1985) and won the NIT a record six times – including back-to-back crowns in the 1940s when that event was still often considered the country’s premier postseason tournament.
Georgetown hires Providence’s Ed Cooley as basketball coach
WASHINGTON – Ed Cooley is the new men’s basketball coach at Georgetown, hired away from Big East rival Providence in the hopes of rebuilding a once-proud program that dropped to new lows under former star player Patrick Ewing.
Georgetown announced the move on Monday, after Providence issued a news release saying that Cooley had resigned.
“I plan on hitting the ground running, getting to work on the court and cultivating relationships in and around the District,” Cooley said in a statement released by his new employer. “Accepting this opportunity with Georgetown is not a decision I took lightly.”
He leaves the Friars with a 242-153 record after 12 years and seven March Madness appearances with a total of three wins in the tournament; the highlight was a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2022. His team went 21-12 this season, closing with four consecutive losses, including in the first round of the Big East Tournament against Connecticut and the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Kentucky.
“Coach Cooley is a mentor to young men, and a consistent winner with an impressive body of work,” Georgetown athletic director Lee Reed said. “His previous experience gives him an understanding of our Jesuit values and I am confident that he is the coach to return our program to prominence within the Big East and nationally.”
Cooley’s name was linked to the Georgetown job even as Providence’s season was still in progress, and so he was asked after the 61-53 defeat against Kentucky on Friday whether he would be returning. The initial reply: “Next question.”
When a follow-up query came about whether there was a chance that was his last game with the Friars, Cooley avoided a direct answer.
“There’s all kinds of rumors and speculation, and I know you guys are trying to do your job. I get it,” said Cooley, whose daughter is a student at Georgetown. “But after a game like this, I just think it’s fair to talk about our players. I think it’s fair to talk about the game.”
The Hoyas will be the 53-year-old Cooley’s third team as a college head coach; before Providence, he was at Fairfield for five seasons. He is the first Georgetown head coach in about a half-century without a direct tie to the late John Thompson Jr., who took the job in 1972, was in charge of the team when Ewing was a player, then was succeeded by assistant Craig Esherick, who was followed by Thompson’s son, John III, who gave way to Ewing.
Ewing was fired on March 9 after going 75-109 in six seasons, 13-50 over the past two. Georgetown made only one March Madness appearance in that time, bowing out in the first round in 2021.
It was quite a difficult stretch for Ewing and the school he led to a national championship in 1984 and helped make two other runs to the title game.
His last two contests in charge at his alma mater were a pair of losses by a combined 72 points, one to close the regular season against Creighton and one in the Big East Tournament against Villanova.
Florida Atlantic ends Fairleigh Dickinson’s run for Sweet 16
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Fairleigh Dickinson came up just a little short this time.
Johnell Davis scored 29 points, Alijah Martin added 14 and Florida Atlantic ended underdog FDU’s magical March by outlasting the No. 16 seed 78-70 on Sunday night in the NCAA Tournament.
The ninth-seeded Owls (33-3) needed everything they had to put away the Knights (21-16), the nation’s smallest team and a surprise winner Friday night over 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey and top-seeded Purdue in just the second 16-over-1 upset in tournament history.
It will be FAU, not FDU, which will play Tennessee in the East Region semifinals on Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“It’s a nice place,” Davis said of the world’s most famous arena. “But we’ve still got to go in and put the work in as every other gym.”
Davis certainly put in the work against FDU, finishing with 12 rebounds, five assists and five steals in 34 minutes.
The Knights couldn’t come up with an encore after eliminating Purdue, but not before fighting to the finish.
When their tourney ended, first-year coach Tobin Anderson and FDU’s players walked across the floor of Nationwide Arena to thank their fans, most of whom never expected to spend five days in Ohio watching their team make history.
Demetre Roberts scored 20 points and Sean Moore had 14 for FDU, which didn’t even win the Northeast Conference tournament before becoming an NCAA team that won’t soon be forgotten. The Knights followed up a win in the play-in game at Dayton by ousting the Big Ten champion Boilermakers and taking FAU to the wire.
“We always talk about 6-0 runs, we were one 6-0 run away from the Sweet 16,” Anderson said. “We went toe to toe with a top-five team in the country, and this team is a top 25 team in the country. We went toe to toe the last few days with two great teams and didn’t back down, didn’t go away.
“We’re not just happy to be here.”
FAU, which edged Memphis on Friday for the school’s first NCAA tourney win, finally took control late in the second half of a game that was played at high speeds and at times looked more like a playground pickup game.
FDU was still within 67-64 when Davis fought for a rebound and made a put-back. After Roberts missed a long 3, FAU’s Bryan Greenlee knocked down a 3-pointer and the Owls pushed their lead to 10.
The Knights got within 76-70, and still had a chance when Greenlee missed two free throws. But Roberts, FDU’s lightning-quick 5-foot-8 guard, misfired on a layup, and the graduate student who followed Anderson to FDU from Division II St. Thomas Aquinas began to untuck his jersey, knowing his tournament was over.
Anderson, who turned around a program that went 4-22 a year ago, told his players not to foul and let the final seconds run off.
But FAU’s Martin tried and missed a 360-degree dunk, leading to an awkward exchange and tense postgame handshake between Anderson and Owls coach Dusty May.
“I apologized to him for that but also reminded him we’re the adults,” May said. “We’ve got to fix that behavior. It’s part of the game. I apologized to him.”
FDU came up short in its bid to become the first No. 16 to win twice in the tournament. The same thing happened to UMBC five years ago. After shocking No. 1 overall seed Virginia, the Retrievers lost to Kansas State in the second round.
Strikingly similar in their playing styles on the floor, there was also a commonality between the fan bases as “F-D-U” chants from one side of the court were met with cries of “F-A-U” from the other as the teams traded baskets.
May was proud of his team’s composure and ability to perform when it felt like the world was in FDU’s corner.
“We never felt like we were a Cinderella team,” said May, who got his hoops start as a student manager at Indiana under coach Bob Knight. “We went into an SEC school and won and have been in some very tough environments.
“But obviously when you’re playing FDU and they’re on the run they’re on, they’re easy to root for.”
For Anderson and the Knights, the tournament is over. The memories will carry them.
“Last year, we were 4-22,” he said, “and we’re right there to go to the Sweet 16. If that’s not one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my life or anybody else has seen, that’s crazy. So every part of this I’ll remember forever and they will too.”
FAU: The Owls will carry a nine-game winning streak into their matchup against the fourth-seeded Volunteers, who took out Duke on Saturday. FAU does have some experience against SEC schools this season, losing at Ole Miss and winning at Florida.
FDU: The Knights seemingly came out of nowhere to become the tourney’s biggest story. Anderson said he and his assistant coaches have already heard from players interested in joining them in Teaneck, New Jersey.
Michigan State outlasts Marquette; Izzo back to Sweet 16
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Tom Izzo leaned on star guard and native New Yorker Tyson Walker to get Michigan State to Madison Square Garden for the Sweet 16.
Walker, a fourth-year player who grew up in Westbury on Long Island, delivered against Marquette in March Madness on Sunday night, scoring 23 points and punctuating Michigan State’s 69-60 victory with a steal and his first ever collegiate dunk late in the game.
And Walker wants to make sure his 68-year-old, Hall of Fame coach has a quintessential Big Apple experience.
“It means everything,” said Walker, who played two years at Northeastern before transferring to Michigan State. “Just growing up, seeing everything, playing at the Garden. Just to make those shots, look over see my dad, see how excited he was. That means everything. And I just owe Coach some pizza now. And a cab ride.”
Joey Hauser – a Marquette transfer – had 14 points and A.J. Hoggard had 13 as seventh-seeded Michigan State (21-12) took over in the last three minutes. The Spartans advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in four years and will play third-seeded Kansas State in the East Region semifinals on Thursday.
“I’ve been in Elite Eight games; I’ve been in the Final Four – that was as intense and tough a game as I’ve been in my career,” Izzo said. “And a lot of credit goes to Marquette and (coach) Shaka (Smart) and how they played, too.”
Izzo reached his 15th regional semifinal and won his record 16th March Madness game with a lower-seeded team – one more than Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, who retired after this season.
This one was particularly meaningful. Izzo became the face of a grieving school where three students were killed in a campus shooting on Feb. 13.
“It’s been a long year,” an emotional Izzo said in a courtside interview. “I’m just happy for our guys.”
Olivier-Maxence Prosper led second-seeded Marquette (29-7) with 16 points and Kam Jones had 14 points, including three 3-pointers, for the Big East champions.
Michigan State led by as many as 12 in the first half, but Ben Gold and Prosper made back-to-back 3-pointers to help the Golden Eagles close within 33-28 at halftime.
Prosper hit two more 3s in the first minute of the second half to give Marquette its first lead of the day. Michigan State grabbed back the lead with an 8-0 run and didn’t relinquish it.
Back-to-back baskets in the paint by Hoggard and then Walker, both times as the shot clock expired, gave the Spartans a 60-55 lead with 2:20 left. Mady Sissoko then blocked shots on consecutive Marquette possessions, and Walker had a steal followed by a game-sealing dunk with 39 seconds left.
Marquette’s nine-game winning streak ended, concluding a season in which the Golden Eagles exceeded expectations under coach Smart, who has referred to Izzo as a mentor.
Michigan State, meanwhile, finished fourth in the Big Ten but appears to be improving at the right time.
“We’ve still got some dancing to do,” Izzo said. “And we’re going to New York. I couldn’t be more excited for Tyson and even A.J., being a Philly guy.
“After watching the tournament, it doesn’t matter who we play, when we play, where we play, or how, it’s going to be a hell of a game. And I’m looking forward to it.”
Marquette: Coming off their first Big East Tournament title, the Golden Eagles dominated Vermont in the first round of March Madness, but Michigan State was a much tougher opponent. The Golden Eagles committed 11 of their 16 turnovers in the second half, and those giveaways led to 19 Spartans points.
“I thought (Michigan State) played with great aggressiveness, particularly early in the game and at the very end of the game,” Smart said. “And those two the stretches were the difference in the outcome of the game.”
Michigan State: The Spartans came out of their shooting funk after the halfway point of the second half and pulled away. They made 15 of their 17 free throws after halftime.
Tyler Kolek, the Big East Player of the Year, injured his thumb when he caught it on the jersey of a Vermont player in the opening round Friday night.
He finished that game with eight points. He wasn’t much of a factor against Michigan State, either, scoring seven points, losing six turnovers and committing four fouls.
Kolek insisted the thumb “wasn’t an issue at all.”
“Just trying to be out there for my team and command the game. And I didn’t do that today,” he said.
Michigan State’s next opponent, Kansas State, is making its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2018 and first under coach Jerome Tang.
Sanogo, UConn pull away from Saint Mary’s, into Sweet 16
ALBANY, N.Y. – UConn decided to return to its roots five years ago, hiring a former Big East guard as coach and then a couple years later returning to the conference where it became a national power.
Now the Huskies are back in the Sweet 16, looking like the beasts of the Big East again.
Adama Sanogo scored 24 points and Jordan Hawkins delivered from the 3-point line in the second half as UConn pulled away from Saint Mary’s for a 70-55 win on Sunday that put the Huskies in the Sweet 16 for the first time in nine years.
No. 4 seed UConn (27-8) advanced to the West Regional in Las Vegas on Thursday. Next up is eighth-seeded Arkansas, which knocked off No. 1 seed Kansas.
For the second straight game, the Huskies buried an opponent after playing a close first half. UConn outscored Iona and Saint Mary’s by a combined 86-49 in the second half in Albany this weekend.
“Eventually our depth, elite rebounding, top-20 defense, top-five offense, with the depth, I think we’re able to break some teams,” said UConn coach Dan Hurley, a former Seton Hall guard from New Jersey who was hired in 2018.
The Huskies last played in the second weekend of the tournament in 2014, when they won the most recent – and most surprising – of four national titles in a 15-year span. The first three of those titles came as a member of the Big East under coach Jim Calhoun, and all went through the West Region.
That last championship run came as a member of the American Athletic Conference, the league birthed from the Big East’s football-basketball breakup in 2013.
UConn went with the football schools and played seven years in the AAC, where its football program floundered while its vaunted men’s basketball team slipped into irrelevance.
With Hurley in charge, it has risen again, taking another step after being one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament the past two years at a place that never lost its lofty standards.
“I think in the first and even second round of tournaments, it’s more of a burden to play at UConn than it is an advantage,” Hurley said of the pressure.
These Huskies were up to the challenge.
Sanogo followed his 29-point game in the Huskies’ NCAA tourney opener with another powerful and efficient performance in the paint. The 245-pound junior was 11 for 16 from the floor and grabbed eight rebounds, dominating a big-man matchup with Mitchell Saxen (six points, three rebounds and four fouls).
Saint Mary’s (27-8) of the West Coast Conference failed to get out of the first weekend of the tournament for the second straight season as a No. 5 seed.
Aidan Mahaney and Logan Johnson each scored nine for the Gaels, who played the final 25 minutes without third-leading scorer Alex Ducas. The senior left with a back injury, coach Randy Bennett said.
“It’s not all on that. But it did affect our offensive efficiency, and I feel terrible for him,” Bennett said.
UConn used a 14-2 spurt, highlighted by a 3 from Hawkins with 11:28 left in the second half, to go up 51-40.
Hawkins had been scoreless to that point, but he added another 3 coming off a screen moments later to make it 56-45, and the “Let’s Go Huskies!” chants started to reverberate throughout MVP Arena.
“It felt great hitting those shots,” Hawkins said. “Finally found a rhythm.”
Hawkins wasn’t done, making back-to-back 3s to make it 62-47 with 6:38 left. He finished with 12 points.
Meanwhile, the Huskies defense was clamping down on the Gaels, who were held under 60 points for just the fourth time this season.
“We started to turn the ball over a little bit more, which led to them hitting some shots in transition, which really opened up the game for them,” Johnson said.
Saint Mary’s: The Gaels, who have become Gonzaga’s closest rival in the WCC, have reached the Sweet 16 just once in program history in 2010.
“People always say, ‘Hey, get to the next level,’” said Bennett, who is in his 22nd season as Gaels coach. “We’ve been a five seed the last two years, and both years we’ve run into a really good team. Last year was UCLA.”
UConn: The Huskies go nine deep, which allows Hurley to keep his players fresh. Sanogo scored 53 points in 51 minutes in two games, with 7-foot-2 Donovan Clingan providing 25 solid minutes off the bench.
“We have so many guys we can go to,” said Andre Jackson, who was playing close to his hometown of Amsterdam.
UConn: The Huskies are 3-1 all-time against Arkansas.