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2018 Final Four Preview: No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 1 Kansas

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The Final Four nightcap is probably the best game, on paper, that we have left in this tournament.

No. 1-seed Villanova, the best program of the last five years, taking on No. 1-seed Kansas, the most successful program in the last decade-and-a-half.

We have two all-american point guards. We have two centers that can change a game. We have all the guards. All of them. We have shooters on shooters on shooters. Buckle up.

Here is everything you need to know about the Final Four’s second game:

THREE KEY MATCHUPS

1. JALEN BRUNSON VS. DEVONTE’ GRAHAM: These are the two best point guards in American.

Flat out.

And they will be going head-to-head on Saturday night.

Brunson’s game is different than Graham’s. He’s incredibly savvy. He understands how to use shot-fakes and change-of-pace to his advantage. He posts people up. He’s an unbelievable passer. Perhaps his best attribute is his ability to feel a game out. He can take over when he needs to take over. When his teammates are cooking, he gets them the ball in spots that they can cook.

Where he does struggle a bit is on the defensive end of the floor, which is not going to be ideal when facing off with Graham, who has struggled during this tournament. He’s an explosive scorer and a willing and capable passer that is at his best when he can get to his jumpshot, and it is going to be thrilling to see him go up against Brunson.

2. OMARI SPELLMAN VS. UDOKA AZUBUIKE: While the best matchup is at the point, the matchup that could end up determining the winner of this game will be in the paint.

Azubuike and Spellman are both terrific players, and couldn’t play the five any more differently. Azubuike is a hoss in every sense of the word. He’s huge — 6-foot-10, 280 pounds — and far more athletic than someone that size should be. He has long arms and finishes everything around the rim with a dunk that looks like it is going to tear down the back board. He can score with his back-to-the-basket, but he is at his best when he can stay around five-feet from the rim.

Spellman?

He might actually be Villanova’s best shooter. He spaces the floor for the Wildcats. He can also attack a close-out, which puts Azubuike in a nightmare spot. How in the world is he going to deal with someone that wants to run around on the perimeter?

For my money, this game is going to be won by whoever wins that battle, which likely means it is going to be won by whoever can get the other big man in foul trouble first.

3. WHO GUARDS MALIK NEWMAN?: There has not been a hotter player in the NCAA tournament than Malik Newman, who is averaging 22.7 points in seven games in March. He had 32 points the last time that Kansas took the floor, scoring all 13 of their points in an overtime win over Duke.

Villanova has a number of really good perimeter defenders, and I fully expect the Wildcats to do plenty of switching throughout Saturday night’s game. That means that everyone — Brunson, and Mikal Bridges, and Phil Booth, and Donte DiVincenzo, even someone like Eric Paschall — will get a crack at him.

And slowing Newman down may actually be the secret to ending this Kansas run.

(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

THE BEST STORY LINE

There are quite a few here to talk about. Jay Wright is one of the founders of small-ball in the college ranks. Bill Self is one of the last people in the sport to truly embrace going away from two big men, but he’s been forced to do it because of roster limitations the last two years. There is a lack of bigs everywhere. In an era of one-and-done players, this game is defined by a pair of point Gods, one a senior and the other that’s felt like a senior in each of his three seasons.

But for my money, the best story line here is going to be Udoka Azubuike and his mom. Azubuike came to America when he was 13 years old, and as documented in a story on Bleacher Report this week, his life growing up in Nigeria was incomprehensibly difficult. Azubuike’s mother is coming to San Antonio to see him play for the first time.

Ever.

That’s the best part of Saturday night.

You’ll never convince me otherwise.

AND THE WINNER WILL BE …

Villanova. They are just too good and too difficult to matchup with. I think Spellman, in the end will get the best of Azubuike.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.”