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

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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.

Gardner, No. 3 Virginia rally for 70-68 win at Michigan

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Tony Bennett’s team passed all its tests in the opening month of the season.

Jayden Gardner made a go-ahead jumper with 39.9 seconds left and blocked Jett Howard’s 3-point shot just before the buzzer, allowing No. 3 Virginia to stay undefeated with a 70-68 win over Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night.

The Cavaliers (6-0) won their first true road game against a team that was ranked in the first two polls this season, a little more than a week after beating then-No. 5 Baylor and then-No. 19 Illinois in Las Vegas.

“It got pretty intense in here,” Bennett said.

Virginia trailed by 11 points at halftime, rallied to go ahead with 7:25 left and built a five-point lead that didn’t last.

The Wolverines (5-2) went ahead 66-65 at the 1:42 mark when Hunter Dickinson made one of two free throws.

Michigan missed chances to stay or go ahead when Dickinson missed a hook shot with 1:01 to go and Princeton transfer Jaelin Llewellyn turned the ball over with 16 seconds left.

“Hunter has made that running hook before,” coach Juwan Howard said. “The turnover, yes, down the stretch, it hurt, but overall that’s not the reason we lost the ballgame.

“We could’ve easily put our heads down when they came out in the second half and made a run.”

Reece Beekman, who finished with 18 points, stepped in front of Llewellyn’s pass in the final minute and made one of two free throws.

Virginia’s Armaan Franklin missed two free throws with 5.7 seconds left, giving Michigan a chance to extend or win the game. Howard took a contested shot beyond the 3-point arc on the right wing – near his father, Michigan’s coach – and Gardner came up with the block against the freshman guard while Wolverines coaches and players screamed for a foul call.

It appeared that Gardner got all ball on the block.

Kihei Clark scored 16 points, Gardner had 12, Kadin Shedrick fouled out with 12 points and Ben Vander Plas added 10 for the balanced Cavaliers.

“You need different guys, and that’s what it takes, to make plays offensively and defensively,” Bennett said.

Dickinson scored 23 points, Jett Howard had 11 of his 15 in the first half and Kobe Bufkin added 11 points for Michigan.

“Jett is a gamer, he’s going to compete no matter what,” Juwan Howard said. “He’s loved basketball since he was a little baby boy.

“He’s going to help us win a lot of games this year.”

The Wolverines started slowly, trailing 9-2 in the opening minutes, before Howard scored eight points to lead a 13-2 run. Michigan led 45-34 at halftime when Bufkin made a layup after a steal.

“We can’t be sloppy like that on the defensive end, but we did battle hard in the second half,” Bennett said.

Vander Plas scored nine points during an 11-2 run that put Virginia ahead 65-60. The Cavaliers then went 4 1/2 minutes without a basket before Gardner’s big shot.

THE TAKEAWAY

Virginia: The Cavaliers have their highest ranking since the 2018-19 season – which ended with a national title – and are off to their best start since being 7-0 three years ago. The team continues to honor the memory of three football players who were fatally shot on campus earlier this month, wearing warmup jerseys with their names.

Michigan: Juwan Howard’s team matched up well in its first game against a ranked opponent this season.

“When we come out with the effort like we did today for 40 minutes, I love our chances against any college team in the country,” he said.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Hosts Florida State (1-7) on Saturday.

Michigan: Plays No. 19 Kentucky (5-2) on Sunday in London.

Marquette’s defense overwhelms No. 6 Baylor in 96-70 win

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MILWAUKEE – Marquette has developed a habit under Shaka Smart of saving its top performances for the best opponents on its schedule.

Olivier-Maxence Prosper scored 24 points and Marquette capitalized on a dominant start from its defense to roll past No. 6 Baylor 96-70 on Tuesday night in the Big 12-Big East Battle. This was the highest-ranked team Marquette (6-2) has beaten under Smart and the Golden Eagles improved to to 7-6 against AP Top 25 squads in his tenure.

“Most of the time against these great teams, they don’t have us winning that game,” said David Joplin, who scored 19 points. “We just come out, we want to go out and prove everybody wrong. And that feeling, that chip makes us play so much better.”

Marquette nearly produced its most lopsided victory against a Top 25 team. The Golden Eagles trounced No. 16 Providence 88-56 on Jan. 4 in Smart’s debut season.

“When you go into a game and the game is bigger in the minds of your players than anything else, to me that’s the best recipe for winning,” Smart said. “It should be that way all the time, but human nature sometimes messes with that.”

Marquette’s defense embarrassed a highly regarded Baylor backcourt.

The Golden Eagles raced to a 51-25 halftime lead thanks to a 24-0 edge in points off turnovers. Baylor (5-2) already had a season-high 16 turnovers by halftime.

Baylor entered Tuesday ranked third among Division I teams in assist-turnover margin. The Bears had 20 turnovers and 12 assists against Marquette.

“I didn’t see that coming,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Credit the crowd. Credit them for building momentum. Credit Shaka for having them prepared and how hard they played. At the end of the day, we fed to the fire by turning it over and making some uncharacteristic mistakes.”

Prosper scored 10 points and sank two 3-pointers during a 23-2 run that turned an early 7-2 deficit into a 25-9 advantage. Chase Ross capped the spurt by getting a steal and throwing down a left-handed dunk.

Baylor never cut Marquette’s lead below 22 points in the second half.

Kam Jones had 20 points as Marquette shot 58.3% overall to win its third straight. The Golden Eagles shot 12 of 25 from 3-point range, with Jones going 4 of 7 and Prosper and Joplin each going 3 of 4.

Baylor’s LJ Cryer had 17 of his 19 points, in the second half. Adam Flagler had 16 and Keyonte George added 12 for the Bears.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The Bears shot 48.2% (27 of 56) but had no answers for Marquette’s defense and dug too deep a hole. Baylor rallied from a 25-deficit to force overtime in an NCAA Tournament loss to North Carolina last season, but the Bears never mounted any kind of comeback Tuesday.

Marquette: After losing to Purdue and Mississippi State earlier this season, the Golden Eagles delivered the kind of performance that showed they’re capable of beating anyone. Marquette will try to prove that again when it hosts Wisconsin on Saturday.

BIG 12 VS. BIG EAST

The Big 12-Big East Battle started Tuesday and runs through Sunday. Last season’s Big 12-Big East Battle ended in a 5-5 tie.

HONORING THOMPSON

Marquette came out of its locker room wearing shirts with No. 24 to honor George Thompson, who died in June of complications from diabetes. Thompson played for Marquette from 1967-69, and he was the school’s career scoring leader for 40 years.

Tuesday would have been Thompson’s 75th birthday. A No. 24 banner with Thompson’s name hangs from the Fiserv Forum rafters.

“I really felt like we needed to win tonight to honor George,” Smart said. “If you make it George Thompson Night, you couldn’t lose.”

UP NEXT

Baylor: Faces No. 14 Gonzaga on Friday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Marquette: Hosts Wisconsin on Saturday.

Houston reaches No. 1 in AP poll for first time since 1983

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Make some room, Phi Slama Jama. Another Houston team has reached the top of men’s college basketball.

Nearly four decades after Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon took the Cougars to No. 1, the latest bunch led by Marcus Sasser and star freshman Jarace Walker took over the top spot in the AP Top 25. They received 45 of 63 first-place votes from the national media panel, easily outdistancing second-place Texas and third-place Virginia.

“It’s not like we went online and applied for it and waited for a response back. We’ve been working for this,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team is coming off a Final Four and Elite Eight trip the past two seasons. “But remember, it’s a rental. You don’t own it. You’re just renting it because someday somebody else is going to be No. 1.”

North Carolina had been No. 1 all season, but the Tar Heels lost to Iowa State and in a four-overtime thriller to Alabama at the Phil Knight Invitational to cede the top spot to Houston, which beat Kent State in its only game last week.

The last time the Cougars ascended to No. 1 was the final poll of the 1982-83 season, when “The Glide” and “The Dream” along with coach Guy Lewis were the favorites to win it all. They rolled through the NCAA Tournament before falling to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in an iconic championship game in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“I’ve never been ranked No. 1,” said Sampson, now in his 34th season as a college basketball coach. “We were ranked all 12 years at Oklahoma. I’m sure we were ranked at Indiana. Then we’ve been ranked five or six straight years. We’re used to having a high level of success.”

Texas received eight first-place votes and Virginia received two. Arizona climbed from 14th to fourth after emerging from a stacked field to win the Maui Invitational. Purdue jumped from 24th all the way to fifth and scooped up eight first-place votes after beating West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke at the Phil Knight Legacy tourney.

“Our guys are competitive. They’re fun to coach. They get along. They’re out there playing with purpose and that’s what you have to have,” said Boilermakers coach Matt Painter, whose team was briefly No. 1 about this time last season.

“Early in the season, very few teams play with the purpose collectively,” he said. “I thought our guys played with a purpose.”

Baylor was sixth, Creighton seventh and U Conn climbed from 20th to eighth after beating Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State to win the Phil Knight Invitational. Kansas fell from third to ninth after losing to Tennessee in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, while Indiana rounded out the top 10.

There was a tie for 11th between SEC rivals Alabama and Arkansas with the Volunteers, another conference foe, right behind them. Gonzaga dropped from sixth to 14th, its first time outside the top 10 since Feb. 5, 2018, and Auburn was 15th.

Illinois was next followed by Duke and North Carolina in a tough week for Tobacco Road. The Blue Devils fell from eighth after their 75-56 loss to the Boilermakers.

Kentucky and Michigan State joined UCLA, Maryland, Iowa State, San Diego State and Ohio State in rounding out the poll.

RISING AND FALLING

Purdue made a rare 19-spot jump as the poll underwent a massive shakeup. UConn climbed 12 spots, Arizona moved up 10, Tennessee climbed nine and Alabama seven. On the flip side, the Tar Heels tumbled 17 spots, Duke dropped nine, Gonzaga fell eight and San Diego State fell seven.

IN AND OUT

Despite all the movement, Iowa State was the only newcomer this week, checking in at No. 23 after beating Villanova and North Carolina before falling to UConn. The Cyclones replaced Iowa, which dropped out after a one-week stay following its loss to TCU in the title game of the Emerald Coast Classic.

CONFERENCE WATCH

There are six difference conferences represented in the first seven teams in the poll. The Big Ten leads the way with six in the Top 25 while the SEC has five and the Big 12 has four, though three of them are in the top 10.

South Carolina tops women’s AP Top 25; Stanford, UConn next

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South Carolina remained the unanimous No. 1 choice in The Associated Press women’s poll, as the Gamecocks keep close watch on the foot injury of reigning Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.

The Gamecocks received all 29 first-place votes in the poll, a day after Boston left a game with her injury. Coach Dawn Staley said Boston was “questionable” going forward but added that the “team doctor wasn’t too, too concerned.”

South Carolina’s next game is at home against No. 15 UCLA.

Stanford remained No. 2 after cruising through a tournament in Hawaii. It’s the 618th appearance for Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, tying the late Pat Summitt for most all-time. Summitt’s teams only missed being in the poll 14 times during her Hall of Fame career at Tennessee.

UConn, Ohio State and Indiana rounded out the top five.

The Huskies are one of four Big East teams to be ranked this week as Marquette entered the poll at No. 24. It’s the first time the Big East has four ranked teams since the conference realigned in 2014. The league is 56-14 so far this season, including going 8-2 against ranked teams.

“We’ve been trying to earn a little more respect,” Marquette coach Megan Duffy said of the Big East. “Tried to schedule tougher non-conference (games). ‘Nova’s playing people. Us going to the Bahamas was great. Creighton’s doing what they’ve been doing since last season. Getting some of those quality wins is everything.”

North Carolina moved up two spots to No. 6 after rallying to beat then-No. 5 Iowa State in the Phil Knight tournament. The Cyclones fell to eighth.

The Tar Heels visit the Hoosiers on Tuesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Indiana returns home after winning two games in Las Vegas at a subpar venue that lacked basic necessities.

Notre Dame remained No. 7 while Virginia Tech and Iowa finished off the top 10. At No. 9, Virginia Tech has matched its best ranking ever and is in the top 10 for the first time since 1999.

Tennessee fell out of the poll this week marking the 56th time in the 827-week history of the poll that the Lady Vols weren’t ranked. Kansas State also fell out with Gonzaga moving in at No. 23.

FALLING CARDINALS

Louisville dropped to 18th in the poll this week after falling to South Dakota State in the fifth place game at the Battle 4 Atlantis last week. It’s the Cardinals lowest ranking since Jan. 11, 2016.

Louisville entered the top 10 in the preseason poll in 2017 and hadn’t been out since, a span of 98 consecutive weeks. It was the longest active streak.

“It’s a compliment to the consistency that we built here,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of being ranked in the top 10 for so long. “Obviously are goal would have been to stay in the top 10, but it’s a new team and growing.”

Edey scores 21 as No. 24 Purdue beats No. 8 Duke 75-56

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Zach Edey and No. 24 Purdue shook off a slow start. When No. 8 Duke tried to rally in the second half, the Boilermakers finished strong.

Edey had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Purdue beat Duke 75-56 on Sunday in the championship game of the Phil Knight Legacy men’s tournament.

Fletcher Loyer scored 18 points for Purdue (6-0), and reserve Caleb Furst finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

“I feel like we weren’t getting the looks we wanted early. As we settled into the game, we kept our poise and kept getting the shots that we wanted,” Edey said. “They were making some tough twos at the beginning of the game, shots we’re OK with all season.”

The 7-foot-4 Edey was 7 for 13 from the field and 7 for 8 at the line. He was named tournament MVP.

“They have the most unique player in the country,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said of Edey. “He’s a hard guy to prepare for because there’s nobody else like him.”

Duke (6-2) shot 36.2% (21 for 58) from the field. Tyres Proctor scored 16 points for the Blue Devils. Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach each had 14.

Ethan Morton had a steal and a dunk to help Purdue open a 58-41 lead with 15:37 left in the second half.

Duke countered with an 8-0 run, capped by two foul shots by Dariq Whitehead. But Furst made a layup and a jumper to help hold off the Blue Devils.

A hook by Edey and a 3-pointer by Loyer made it 68-56 with 5:03 remaining.

Duke got off to a 14-7 start before Purdue worked its way back into the game.

“I don’t feel like we came out bad today, but they matched our energy,” Edey said.

A 3-pointer by Brandon Newman pushed the Purdue lead to 46-28. A late run by Duke cut the Boilermakers’ lead to 46-35 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: It looked as if Roach had an issue with his left foot at one point, but he went back into the game. Scheyer said Roach had hurt his toe.

Purdue: Although neither team had great offensive games, Purdue was the better team from range. Purdue made seven 3-pointers to just two for Duke.

UP NEXT

Duke: Hosts Ohio State on Wednesday.

Purdue: Visits Florida State on Wednesday.