2018 Final Four: The seven story lines you need to know this weekend

1 Comment

1. WILL THE NATIONAL CHAMPION BE A ‘CLEAN’ PROGRAM?

The best part about the 2018 NCAA tournament has been that the insanity has allowed us to stop focusing on the fact that the 2017-18 season was one dominated by all the wrong headlines.

From the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball to the arrest of four assistant coaches in September to Rick Pitino’s firing days later to the players that were barred from competition this season to allegations that Michigan State and Tom Izzo covered up sexual assaults in the basketball to the reports from Yahoo and ESPN that the likes of Deandre Ayton and Miles Bridges had been implicated in the FBI’s investigation, it has been bad headline after bad headline.

And I didn’t even mention that three UCLA players, including LiAngelo Ball, were arrested in China in November, an incident that led to Donald Trump and LaVar Ball having a war of words on twitter and network news.

It’s been such a relief talking about 16-seeds beating 1-seeds and Sister Jean’s appearance in the Final Four, I cannot even tell you, and if Karma is a thing, it probably played a role in the likes of Arizona, Auburn, USC, Louisville and every other program that was mixed up in the FBI’s investigation having their season end earlier that expected.

But that leads me to the next question: Are we sure that all of the teams in the Final Four are clean?

I’ll never say never — in this day and age, I’m not going to vouch for anyone, not in this climate — but I would be fairly surprised if shoe companies were funneling players to Loyola-Chicago. In the eyes of most coaches in the business, John Beilein is presumed to be clean, to run his program without skirting NCAA rules, and Jay Wright is right there as well; most kinds that are looking to get big payouts for playing in college aren’t the kind of kids that are willingly going to programs where they’ll redshirt and spend four or five years in college.

Kansas?

Well, that’s a bit of a different deal. as one coach said to NBC Sports after last month’s bombshell reports from Yahoo and ESPN, “Bill Self is bulletproof.” He’s recruited one-and-done kids for years. He’s one of the flagship programs for Adidas, who had two executives arrested in the FBI’s sweep in September. And remember, their top recruit this season — Billy Preston — never actually suited up. This is has been one of the biggest topics of discussion in coaching circles for the last six months.

And it begs the question: In five years, is the NCAA still going to recognize this run to the Final Four?

(Elsa/Getty Images)

2. IS VILLANOVA THE BEST PROGRAM IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL TODAY?

Since the Wildcats made the move to the new Big East prior to the 2013-14 season, this is what they’ve managed to accomplish:

Entering this weekend, they have a 163-21 record, meaning they’ve averaged 32.6 wins and 4.2 losses during that span. They have a 77-13 record in Big East play, which includes four Big East regular season titles and this year’s second-place finish. They’ve won three of the last five Big East tournament titles. They won the 2016 national title and are the favorite to cut down the nets in San Antonio this season.

Who has been better than that?

Let’s start with the teams that have won a national title: UConn has been a train-wreck since winning in 2014, and even if you want to go back to 2013, Louisville would not be in that conversation, either. Duke won the 2015 national title but they have not won an ACC regular season title since 2010.

North Carolina is probably the only team that is in the conversation. They won the 2017 national title and reached the 2016 national title game, losing to Villanova. They’ve also won just two ACC regular season titles — Virginia actually has three of the last five to their name — and just one ACC tournament title. In three of the last five years, they’ve lost double-figure games and finished third-or-lower in the ACC.

The argument that the ACC is better than the Big East does have some merit, but it’s also worth pointing out that the Big East has been a top three league in the country the last four season, according to KenPom, and that they play a true round-robin conference schedule.

I say all that to say this: Win or lose, Villanova is college basketball’s best program.

Which means this may not even be a story line. Just a fact.

3. WHEN DOES CINDERELLA’S DANCE END?

Loyola-Chicago is just the fourth No. 11-seed to reach the Final Four, following in the footsteps of LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011. None of those teams won a game in the Final Four. In fact, no team seeded lower than a No. 8-seed has ever won a game in the Final Four. Villanova won two in 1985, when they became the lowest-seed to win the national title, which UConn has been the beneficiary of the other two No. 8-seeds to win a game: Butler in 2011 and Kentucky in 2014.

The Ramblers have more than proven themselves at this point, and if they can find a way to beat a Michigan team that probably should have lost to No. 6-seed Houston in the second round, they’ll do something that’s never been done in the history of the sport.

This run still has some legs left in it.

4. AT WHAT POINT DO WE UNIRONICALLY CALL MICHIGAN A BASKETBALL SCHOOL?

The Michigan football program has not won a national title since 1997. They haven’t even won a Big Ten title since 2004.

Michigan basketball?

They won the Big Ten regular season title in 2012 and 2014. They won the Big Ten tournament title in 2017 and 2018. They’re back in the Final Four after getting to the national title game in 2013, and they made the Elite Eight in 2014 and the Sweet 16 in 2017.

I say all that to say this: Michigan is a basketball school now. Sorry, Jim Harbaugh.

(Elsa/Getty Images)

5. THE  POWER OF SMALL-BALL IS BACK

Villanova and Michigan have been at the forefront of the small-ball movement in college basketball. Jay Wright started it all the way back in 2005, when Curtis Sumpter tore his ACL prior to a Sweet 16 game against soon-to-be national champion North Carolina, and then re-tore the ACL before the 2006 season. Villanova spent the year playing with Allan Ray, Randy Foye, Mike Nardi and Kyle Lowry on the floor together, and that’s before you consider that Sumpter was, himself, a mismatch four.

Michigan? John Beilein? He’s the guy that made runs in the tournament at West Virginia while playing Kevin Pittsnoggle, three-point bomber, at the five. He is small-ball personified. Even Bill Self, the man that was known for years as one of two legendary coaches that refused to make the change to small-ball, is playing with four guards again this season.

6. THE ONE-AND-DONE FACTORIES AREN’T IN THE FINAL FOUR … AGAIN

Duke didn’t make the Final Four. Arizona didn’t make the Final Four. Kentucky didn’t make the Final Four. UCLA didn’t make the Final Four. None of the teams known for getting one-and-done players in every year advanced this far in the tournament, and there probably aren’t any one-and-done players in this year’s final weekend of college hoops.

We’ve been over that, though. It’s the nature of the beast that is the NCAA tournament. Let’s move on.

7. IS SATURDAY THE NATIONAL TITLE GAME?

Probably.

I’m sorry, Michigan and Loyola-Chicago fans, but Villanova and Kansas are the two-best teams left. That doesn’t mean that the winner of Saturday’s Villanova-Kansas nightcap doesn’t have a chance of losing to whoever they will face on Monday night, but it does mean that they will be the heavy-favorite.

Put another way, no matter how this thing plays out and no matter who plays in the national title game, I will be picking the team on the right side of the bracket to beat the team on the left side of the bracket.

Sorry.

Former Penn coach allegedly took bribes from potential recruit’s father

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Former Penn head coach Jerome Allen allegedly took bribes from a Miami businessman who wanted his son to get into the school as a “recruited basketball player” — increasing his chances to gain entry to the Ivy League school.

According to a report from Bloomberg’s Michael Smith, David Voreacos and Eben Novy-Williams, Allen was involved with Miami businessman Philip Esformes, who had a son, Morris, who was allegedly recruited by several Ivy League schools. When Philip Esformes was accused of health-care fraud, money laundering, conspiracy and bribery, the government uncovered more than $74,000 in gifts that Esformes gave to Allen in 2013 and 2014.

Allen is identified strictly as “Coach-2” in the indictment that alleges that he took multiple cash payments, paid trips from Philadelphia to Miami, and a private jet trip that included Allen, Esformes and his son. The benefits are alleged to be $74,558 — including three separate wired payments of $15,000, $20,000 and $18,000 to Allen from Esformes.

These alleged incidents took place in 2013 and 2014, when Allen was still head coach at Penn and Morris Esformes was a high school basketball player trying to make it to the Division I level. Esformes was eventually granted admission to Penn as he was allegedly going to be on the basketball team. But Allen was fired before Esformes enrolled at the school. So Esformes went to school at Penn, but he never played for the basketball team. Esformes is currently still a senior at Penn.

Allen has been an assistant coach under Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics since leaving Penn in 2015. He hasn’t been criminally charged for any of these alleged benefits while the NCAA also hasn’t been involved with anything yet.

But this is yet another black eye on college basketball — and this time coming from a prestigious Ivy League institution. It shows that cheating and using leverage happens at all levels of Division I college basketball. Lately, the schools have been paying to get players. This shows there are instances of wealthy people attempting to gain influence through athletics.

This case at Penn is certainly a rare one. Esformes tried to exploit a loophole that would allow his son entry into a great school under the guise that he was a potential Division I-caliber basketball player. And Morris Esformes did end up at Penn — and seems to be doing well. So, this didn’t end poorly for Morris or Allen.

Since Allen is coaching at the NBA level, this likely won’t alter his coaching career, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the NCAA get involved with Penn and Allen going forward.

Elite Class of 2020 point guard to reclassify

Leave a comment

Nico Mannion, a five-star point guard from Arizona, announced on Friday that he will be reclassifying into the Class of 2019.

Mannion was a top 20 player in 2020 but, according to 247 Sports, he will be ranked No. 11 in 2019. The athletic, 6-foot-3 Mannion was long-rumored to be considering a move up a class because of his age. He’ll turn 18 in March of next year, meaning that he’ll arrive on campus the same age as a typical college freshman.

Mannion cut his list to ten schools in June — Duke, Arizona, Villanova, Kansas, USC, UCLA, Oregon, Vanderbilt, Marquette and Utah — but Duke and Arizona appear to be the favorites at this point.

Mannion plays his high school ball for Pinnacle High School in Phoenix and with West Coast Elite on the Under Armour Association circuit. He played for Team USA’s youth ranks, but his mother is Italian and, in June, he was called up to the Italian men’s senior national team, scoring nine points in 29 minutes of a FIBA World Cup Qualifier.

Nebraska to lose junior big man to transfer

Ed Zurga/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Nebraska’s frontcourt depth took a blow on Thursday as junior big man Jordy Tshimanga informed the program that he will be transferring.

“Jordy called me tonight and asked for his release,” head coach Tim Miles said in a statement that was given to the Lincoln Journal-Star. “The University of Nebraska and our program wish Jordy and his family the best.”

Tshimanga averaged 4.0 points and 4.6 boards in 13 minutes this past season, and a source close to the program told NBC Sports he wasn’t expected to play much more than that this season.

Miles’ has spent the better part of the last two seasons on the hot seat, and this certainly doesn’t make his job easier, but with the talent the Cornhuskers have on their roster, they look like an NCAA tournament team already. They bring back their top four scorers, including former five-star prospect Isaac Copeland and potential first-team all-Big Ten wing James Palmer. With or without Tshimanga, Nebraska has a shot to finish top four in the Big Ten.

North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State part of Las Vegas event

Al Bello/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LAS VEGAS (AP) — North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State and Texas will play in an early season basketball tournament in Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Invitational will include games at campus sites, then the final two rounds on Nov. 22-23 in Las Vegas. North Carolina takes on Texas in one semifinal, and Michigan State faces UCLA in the other.

UNC, UCLA and Michigan State are all top 20 teams in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.

The championship is Nov. 23, and the semifinal losers also play each other that day.

NCAA to study possible effects of widespread legal wagering

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The NCAA plans to study how the expansion of legalized betting could affect college athletics and member schools.

The NCAA announced Thursday it will create a working group of “subject matter experts” to assess areas such as officiating, NCAA rules, federal and state laws, and the use of integrity services. NCAA leadership has already called for federal regulation on sports betting. NCAA rules prohibit sports wagering by athletes and athletic department employees.

The Supreme Court opened the door for states to have legal wagering on sporting events when it struck down a federal ban in May. Schools in some states such as West Virginia, Mississippi and New Jersey are already exploring the possibility of collecting integrity fees in anticipation of legal sports books opening in their states.

“While we certainly respect the Supreme Court’s decision, our position on sports wagering remains,” said Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer. “With this new landscape, we must evolve and expand our long-standing efforts to protect both the integrity of competitions and the well-being of student-athletes.”

The NCAA Board of Governors has already suspended the association’s ban on holding championships in states with legalized sports betting, a policy that only affected Nevada.

“Legalized sports gambling across the country is rather new, but the NCAA and its members have committed significant resources over the years to policy, research and education around sports wagering,” said Joni Comstock, senior vice president of championships and alliances. “With student-athlete well-being as the centerpiece, we will continue to build upon these efforts to assist members as they adapt to legalized sports wagering in their states and regions.”