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No. 5 Florida snaps losing streak, beats No. 17 Cincinnati

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NEWARK — Calling Florida desperate was probably too strong.

The Gators, who entered the week ranked No. 5 in the country, had lost three straight prior to their date with No. 17 Cincinnati in the Never Forget Classic. They had blown a 17-point lead in the final 10 minutes against then-No. 1 Duke. Then they lost by 17 points at home to arch-rival Florida State two days before they handed Loyola-Chicago their best win of the year – decade? – by allowing the Ramblers to waltz into the O-Dome and leave with a win.

Florida was on the verge of a crisis that was nipped in the bud on Saturday. The Gators got 21 points from Egor Koulechov while Chris Chiozza added 15 points and six assists, including the final six points of the game, as the Gators knocked off No. 17 Cincinnati, 66-60.

“We grew up a little bit tonight,” head coach Mike White said. “That’s the most amount of toughness we’ve shown.”

Toughness.

That was a common theme in Florida’s press conference. That’s what the Gators attributed their recent run of bad form. Toughness, or a lack of it, and not just the physical variety. Yes, they struggled to get the stops they needed to get on the defensive side of the ball, but they also struggled to run their offense the way it’s supposed to be run. They struggled to make shots they typically make. They settled for difficult shots instead of making the right pass for an easier look.

Most importantly, they failed to let the past be the past. Having a short memory is a gift for an athlete, and the Gators didn’t have the mental toughness to forget.

Or so they say.

“To be honest, a part of our shooting struggles has been overthinking,” White said. Florida entered Monday night’s matchup with the Seminoles shooting 46 percent from three while attempting 25 threes a night. In their two losses this week, Florida was 8-for-44 (18 percent) from three, including a horrid 2-for-19 performance against Loyola.

On Saturday, the Gators knocked down 6-of-15 threes they shot, and only attempted a single three in the first 10 minutes of the game.

“We just have so many people on the offensive end that can put the ball in the basket,” Chiozza said, and the majority of those players are at their best when they can operate in isolation. Koulechov, Jalen Hudson, KeVaughn Allen. Those guys are tough-shot makers, but the problem with being a tough-shot maker is that, by definition, tough-shots are not easy to make. Particularly when you’re struggling. “We talked about trying to get a good shot every possession. We have guys that can make tough shots, but we don’t want to have to rely on that. We really focused on not taking anything tough tonight, get the ball flowing around again. Moving the ball, getting great shots.”

“I thought tonight was more of a happy medium,” White added, and the benefits of that was that the Gators woke up on the defensive end.

The fact of the matter is that this is never going to be a great defensive team. They play four guards and they lack elite individual defenders at certain positions. This isn’t like last year’s Florida team, which was the second-best defense in the country, according to KenPom. They don’t have to be great, however, not with how explosive they can be offensively.

They just need to be active.

Intense.

Tough.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do defensively,” White said, but that wasn’t the story on Saturday. Florida tried a few different looks, doubling Cincinnati’s bigs – Gary Clark and Kyle Washington were both held to just eight field goals attempts – and trying to fluster Cincinnati, and it worked. Florida forced 21 turnovers on a night where Cincinnati had just four assists.

“I thought we were really scrappy, flying around,” White said. “I thought our rotations were really good, we got our hands on a bunch of passes.”

And that may be more promising than the improved three-point shooting.

As the saying goes, live by the three, die by the three, and Florida, at two different times this past week, died by the three. On Saturday, they beat the No. 17 team in the country, but for a team that averaged 11.5 made threes for the season’s first six games, they didn’t have to live by them.

Florida got enough good shots. They got enough rebounds. They got enough stops. They were tough enough, and that is a great sign moving forward.

This is not a top five team. They’re probably not a top ten team. But they are a team that can beat anyone in the country on their night, and they proved on Saturday that it doesn’t necessarily have to be their night for them to play with one of the best.

“It’s been a tough week for us, that’s not secret,” Koulechov said. “I thought we were really soft this past week, but we took a step forward today with that against a tough team.”

Christian Vital going back to UConn for junior season

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Dan Hurley is keeping his roster intact at the top.

Christian Vital, UConn’s second-leading scorer a season ago, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, he announced Monday via social media.

“Great Talk Today Coach! Appreciate The Wisdom You Have Let Me In On!” Vital wrote “I Think It’s Time To Get Back To Winning Ways In Storrs! I’m Going To Need That #1 Back ASAP! WE GOT (UNFINISHED) BUSINESS!”

The 6-foot-2 junior-to-be Vital joins Jalen Adams, who was the Huskies’ top-returning scorer, back in Storrs in Hurley’s first year. Vital averaged 14.9 points on 38.3 percent shooting. Adams previously announced he would return to school without declaring for the draft.

The return of UConn’s top two scorers underscores an even bigger trend under Hurley as the Huskies appear to have avoided any major defections from last year’s roster despite the coaching change.

UConn is coming off a 14-18 season that proved to be the last of coach Kevin Ollie’s six years with the Huskies that included a national championship but also back-to-back losing seasons.

Chris Silva returning to South Carolina for senior season

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South Carolina is getting an first-team all-SEC performer back.

Chris Silva, who led the Gamecocks in scoring and rebounding last season, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, the school announced Monday.

“I’m thankful for the experience of going through the draft process,” Silva said in a statement. “I want to thank all of the teams that gave me the opportunity to workout for their organization. I’m excited to announce that I’m returning to South Carolina for my senior season. I can’t wait to get back on the court with my brothers and continue to work on my game.”

The 6-foot-9 Silva, who did not get an NBA draft combine invite, averaged 14.3 points and 8 rebounds per game as a junior.  He shot 46.7 percent from the floor.

“Going through the evaluation process was an unbelievable experience for Chris and us,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said in a statement. “He comes back to a place he loves with some knowledge on some of the things that we have to help him improve on in his efforts to one day fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA.”

In addition to being South Carolina’s leading scorer, he was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season after averaging 1.4 blocks per game. His return to Columbia gives the Gamecocks a potential contender for SEC player of the year in 2018-19.

Kansas fires athletic director Sheahon Zenger

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Kansas has fired athletic director Sheahon Zenger, effective immediately, citing a lack of progress in key areas within the athletic department.

“Sheahon has been a loyal Jayhawk, and our athletics department has improved in many areas under his leadership,” Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod wrote in an email to KU faculty and staff. “But athletics continues to face a number of challenges, and progress in key areas has been elusive. To achieve the level of success we need and expect, I have determined a change in leadership is necessary.”

Zenger had been in the role of AD since 2011.

The issue, of course, is not the play of the Kansas basketball program. The Jayhawks have won every Big 12 regular season title since 2004, and head coach Bill Self has taken the program to two Final Fours since Zenger was hired.

The football team is still a disaster, but one can’t help but wonder whether or not the real issue at hand here is Kansas’ getting tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball.

The Jayhawks were not mentioned in the initial indictments that were handed down, but Kansas was a central figure in the superseding indictments that were dropped after the national title game. The mother of Billy Preston, who did not play for the Jayhawks this season, was alleged to have been funneled $90,000 by Adidas, while Silvio De Sousa’s status is currently in question after the FBI alleged his guardian was paid at least $20,000 to help offset money that the family had already accepted from a rival shoe company.

All of that came in the aftermath of dealing with Cheick Diallo and Cliff Alexander, both of whom had their one season in Lawrence reduced due to off the court issues.

“Since becoming chancellor, I have spent countless hours with higher education peers and Jayhawks to hear their perspective on KU,” Girod wrote. “A common thread in these conversations is that, as a major public university with national aspirations, we must continue to strive for excellence in all areas — including athletics. As I have said many times, a successful athletics department is inextricably linked to our broader mission as a flagship research university.”

Louisville, ex-AD Tom Jurich reach $4.5M settlement

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The University of Louisville has reached a $4.5 million settlement with former athletic director Tom Jurich, who was fired in the wake of a national federal corruption investigation of college basketball.

Jurich disputed his Oct. 18 firing for cause after nearly 20 years as AD and had considered suing the school. The University of Louisville Athletic Association and Board of Trustees on Friday approved the settlement. Jurich’s employment ended “without cause” as a result of his resignation, also described in the settlement as “retirement.”

He’ll also receive another $2.6 million in accrued employment benefits, along with home game tickets and parking for Louisville football and basketball for 20 years.

An audit of the University of Louisville Foundation released last June showed that Jurich averaged annual compensation of more than $2.76 million from 2010-16, including more than $5.35 million in 2016.

Then-interim president Greg Postel had placed Jurich on paid administrative leave in September after the school’s acknowledgement of its involvement in the investigation. Trustees voted 10-3 to fire Jurich, two days after the ULAA unanimously fired Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.

The former AD said in a joint statement that he “spent the better part of my career” working with dedicated athletes, coaches and staff to elevate Louisville. He added, “I am proud of what we accomplished, which is well documented.”

Jurich’s legal team had stressed that the ex-AD did nothing illegal and hadn’t violated NCAA rules.

Trustee chairman J. David Grissom said in the statement that “Everyone is pleased that this matter has been successfully resolved. All parties can move forward to begin the next chapter.”

Jurich played a major role in Louisville’s success on the field and how the school handled issues off it. He led the school’s 2014 entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference and oversaw numerous program and facility upgrades, including a $63 million expansion of the football stadium due for completion by fall.

He also hired several successful coaches including Pitino, who guided the Cardinals to the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship. Louisville ultimately vacated that title in February as part of NCAA penalties for a sex scandal after an escort’s book allegations that former basketball staffer Andre McGee hired her and other dancers to strip and have sex with players and recruits.

Pitino has filed a $38.7 million federal lawsuit against Louisville, alleging breach of contract.

Georgia Tech’s Okogie to sign with agent

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Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie, one of the big winners from this past weekend’s NBA combine, announced on Monday that he will be signing with an agent and remaining in the NBA Draft.

The 6-foot-4 Okogie finished his sophomore season averaged 18.5 points and shooting 38.4 percent from three. The numbers he posted during the athletic testing at the combine, as well as his 7-foot wingspan, makes Okogie an ideal 3-and-D wing at the NBA level.

“Josh is a tremendous young man and an excellent student-athlete,” said head coach Josh Pastner. “He has set a tremendous example, making the Dean’s List this past semester, and deserves a lot of credit for making himself a much better player over the course of his two years here. We will miss him in our program in many respects, from his performance on the court to the energy he plays with and brought to our team. We fully support his decision to take this next step, and wish him all the best.”