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AAC Conference Reset: Get caught up on all of the league’s offseason action

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone, and there are a dozen or so truly impactful decisions that are left to be made.

Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season.

The coaching carousel has come to a close.

The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2018-19 season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the AAC over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

PENNY HARDAWAY RETURNS TO SAVE MEMPHIS BASKETBALL: Now that Penny Hardaway has triumphantly made his return to the University of Memphis, the Tigers are going to be one of the country’s most fascinating teams to watch this season.

We know who Penny is. His legacy as a player speaks for itself.

But this Memphis job is perfect for Hardaway because he’s a massive presence in the Memphis basketball community. Having coached many of the city’s elite high school players either through his Team Penny EYBL program, or at Memphis East High School, Hardaway re-established the Tigers’ local recruiting pipeline only days after taking the job. The major question will be how a first-time college coach handles a very young roster.

UCONN TURNS TO DAN HURLEY: Memphis isn’t the only program in the American looking for a revival.

The Huskies are desperate for a return to national relevance after some miserable recent seasons under Kevin Ollie. Now with former Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley at the helm, UConn is hoping that his family’s history of winning comes with him to Storrs.

At least Hurley has senior guard Jalen Adams returning. The rest of the UConn roster has some major questions marks entering 2018-19.

CINCINNATI AND WICHITA STATE HAVE NEW-LOOK ROSTERS: Last season in the American saw a new (and really fun) rivalry develop between Cincinnati and Wichita State. The top two teams in the American played two memorable regular-season contests in which the road team won each time. They were both top-four seeds in the 2018 NCAA tournament.

Now both teams will look very different from last season.

With the loss of Jacob Evans to the NBA draft, the Bearcats have to replace three of their top four scorers as Mick Cronin’s ballclub will have to go back to grinding out wins. The same can be said for Gregg Marshall’s group at Wichita State. That team lost five seniors, Landry Shamet is headed for the NBA draft and Austin Reaves is transferring out of of the program.

Cincinnati and Wichita State won’t have quite the scoring pop that they did last season. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see both teams overachieve with rosters of new players.

FRAN DUNPHY’S SWAN SONG AT TEMPLE: This will be veteran head coach Fran Dunphy’s final season at Temple as he announced in April that Aaron McKie will take the reigns beginning in 2019-20.

Dunphy’s final season with the Owls could either motivate the team to play hard in his honor, or things could quickly fall apart if the team faces early adversity and decides to give up the fight.

Temple typically plays a rigorous non-conference schedule, so we might get some answers to this question early in the season.

(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

WHO’S GONE?

  • LANDRY SHAMET and AUSTIN REAVES, Wichita State: This offseason was going to be tough enough for the Shockers with the loss of five seniors. Now, with Shamet leaving for the NBA, and Reaves becoming a coveted transfer, this Wichita State roster will look completely different next season.
  • SHAKE MILTON, SMU: Brilliant during his junior campaign before a season-ending injury, Milton is heading to The League as well. The Mustangs will surely miss their go-to scorer, as well as Milton’s perimeter-shooting prowess.
  • JACOB EVANS, Cincinnati: A potential first-round pick, Evans departing for the pros means the Bearcats lose three of their top four scorers from last season’s conference title team. Had Evans returned, he could have been the league’s Preseason Player of the Year. Cincinnati will sorely miss his two-way presence on the wing.
  • TERRY LARRIER, UConn: Impressive at times during his first full season in three years, the 6-foot-8 junior forward parlayed his long-awaited health into a shot at the next level. The Huskies could have desperately used some veteran front court help. But you can’t fault Larrier for turning pro after all of his injury issues during college.
  • MELVIN FRAZIER, Tulane: Frazier doesn’t get the national recognition of his AAC peers, but he’s coming off of a strong junior season as Tulane’s best player. Opting for the NBA draft, Frazier is a sleeper who could rise up draft boards over the next several weeks.
(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

WHO’S BACK?

  • JALEN ADAMS, UConn: Receiving a fresh start under Dan Hurley, Adams is a proven scorer who will try to become a more efficient and well-rounded leader during his senior season. Averaging over 38 minutes per game last season, Adams is a warrior who could be poised for a breakout final season.
  • JARREY FOSTER, SMU: While the Mustangs lost Shake Milton, they did receive some positive news with the return of the 6-foot-6 Foster. Coming off of a torn ACL that ended his season in January, Foster tested the NBA draft waters before deciding to come back to Dallas. If rehab goes well, Foster could emerge as SMU’s new leader with the departure of Milton.
  • JEREMIAH MARTIN, Memphis: A bright spot during a tough year for the Tigers, the junior guard is a noted scorer who can also distribute. This season will be interesting for Martin, as he has significantly more talent around him. If Martin can provide leadership and steady production then Memphis could be dangerous.
  • JARRON CUMBERLAND, Cincinnati: With the Bearcats losing so many veteran pieces from last season’s 31-win team, it will be Cumberland’s chance to shine. A streaky scorer who can be inefficient at times, Cumberland will be counted on to score for a team that will really need it next season.
  • TACKO FALL and B.J. TAYLOR, UCF: Arguably the league’s best one-two punch next season, Fall and Taylor are both back for the Knights after an injury-riddled 2017-18 campaigns. The 7-foot-6 Fall is the most unique defensive presence in the country while the 6-foot-2 Taylor is a proven double-figure scorer.

WHO’S COMING?

  • ALEX LOMAX, TYLER HARRIS and ANTWANN JONES, Memphis: We won’t know until November if Penny Hardaway is any good as an on-court tactician. But he’s already shown his worth on the recruiting trail by landing these three top-150 seniors just weeks after taking the job. Lomax is tough as nails, Harris provides a ball-handling presence and Jones is capable of putting up points in a hurry.
  • DEJON JARREAU and BRISON GRISHAM, Houston: Former top-150 prospects who committed to UMass together out of high school, this duo also transferred together to Houston. The rare “package deal” that actually materializes, Jarreau and Grisham should help the Cougars after sitting out last season. The 6-foot-5 Jarreau, in particular, could see the ball in his hands with the departure of Rob Gray.
  • RASHAWN FREDERICKS, Cincinnati: One of the top JUCO players in the country the past two seasons, the 6-foot-6 Fredericks will be asked to produce right away. Averaging a double-double in each of his first two seasons of college, Fredericks is a monster on the offensive glass despite being slightly undersized. Cincinnati is hoping the JUCO All-American helps offset the loss of Gary Clark and Kyle Washington.
  • TARIN SMITH and KASSOUM YAKWE, UConn: The Huskies are hoping this graduate transfer duo can help make them respectable for next season. The 6-foot-2 Smith is the reigning Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year after a solid season at Duquesne. Although injuries have slowed down a once-promising start to his college career, the springy 6-foot-7 Yakwe is a noted rim-protector.
  • AUBREY DAWKINS, UCF: After missing the past two seasons (one due to NCAA transfer rules, another due to a season-ending shoulder injury) the 6-foot-6 wing should give the Knights another credible perimeter threat. The son of head coach Johnny Dawkins, Aubrey spent his first two seasons at Michigan as a rotation wing.

COACHING CHANGES

  • PENNY HARDAWAY, Memphis: Hardaway is going to have some good, young talent to work with during his first season with the Tigers. He’s also a first-time college coach in a league filled with veteran coaches and quality programs. It honestly doesn’t feel out of the realm of possibility that Memphis could either be very good or very bad this season. There are just so many unknowns between Penny’s coaching, a young roster and surging local expectations.
  • DAN HURLEY, UConn: Rhode Island hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 18 years before Hurley led them to back-to-back appearances in the Round of 32. The major question is whether Hurley is a national-championship level coach. Because that’s the expectation at UConn. And the fans will get restless, quickly, if the Huskies don’t start making immediate NCAA tournament appearances.
  • JOE DOOLEY, East Carolina: Heading back to East Carolina for a second stint is Dooley. The first time around, Dooley was the youngest head coach in the country when he took over in 1995 (he was only 29!). Since his first four-year stint with the Pirates, Dooley has seasoned as an assistant under a Hall of Famer (Bill Self at Kansas) while also showing steady progress as a head coach at one of the country’s better mid-major programs (Florida Gulf Coast). The key for Dooley is getting quality talent in the door at a tough place to recruit.
Tacko Fall (Dan Forcella/UCF Athletics)

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-AAC TEAM

JALEN ADAMS, UConn (POY)
JARRON CUMBERLAND, Cincinnati
JEREMIAH MARTIN, Memphis
BJ TAYLOR, UCF
TACKO FALL, UCF

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. UCF: Injuries crushed a promising season for UCF last year as B.J. Taylor, Tacko Fall and Aubrey Dawkins all missed significant time. But the Knights still managed to win 19 games. This team defends at a high level, they have scoring pop and the fanbase is dying for a winner following the undefeated football season.

2. CINCINNATI: Although Cincinnati loses its senior frontcourt and Jacob Evans, they had one of the deepest benches in college basketball last season. Tre Scott and Nysier Brooks should emerge as an intriguing new frontline for the Bearcats. If Jarron Cumberland and Cane Broome can make a leap, while becoming more efficient, Cincinnati should be back in the Big Dance.

3. MEMPHIS: Memphis has a reliable go-to scorer in Jeremiah Martin, returning firepower in Kyvon Davenport and Mike Parks, and some enticing freshmen. They’re also playing under a new head coach facing immense local pressure to return the Tigers to national glory. That journey won’t happen overnight — no matter how many stud freshmen Penny brings in this spring. But Memphis could be very dangerous.

4. HOUSTON: Replacing Rob Gray and Devin Davis will be a major chore, but Kelvin Sampson has plenty of talent at his disposal. Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks should give the Cougars plenty of points while Galen Robinson can handle lead-guard responsibilities. The transfer duo of Jarreau and Grisham will also help, and freshman Nate Hinton is a top-150 prospect and one of the league’s more touted recruits.

5. SMU: Perhaps the league’s biggest question mark (among many), SMU also has to stay healthy following an injury-plagued season. Jarrey Foster pulled his name out of the NBA draft process, so that gives the Mustangs a potential go-to scorer. Jimmy Whitt and Jahmal McMurray are both capable weapons. The frontcourt of sophomore Ethan Chargois and Duquesne transfer Isiaha Mike could be the difference between an NCAA tournament bid and the NIT.

6. WICHITA STATE:This roster won’t be familiar at all. But the Shockers are getting a nice boost from a very big, tough and athletic six-man recruiting class. Wichita State’s defensive intensity should be markedly better. If Markis McDuffie comes back from the NBA draft process, then Wichita State will have a reliable leader to guide this young group.

7. UCONN: Another fascinating team to watch this season, the Huskies could place much higher than this if they’re fully healthy and rolling. Senior guard Jalen Adams might be the league’s best returning player and he gets more help this season in the form of grad transfers (Smith and Yakwe) and healthy teammates (Alterique Gilbert). If Christian Vital returns from the NBA draft process, then the Huskies have a potentially lethal backcourt.

8. TULSA: The Golden Hurricane surprisingly finished fourth in the league last season, as they lose Junior Etou and Corey Henderson. Even with those departures, Tulsa could be a sleeper NCAA tournament team as three starters return, including talented guard Sterling Taplin. And keep an eye on a recruiting class that has some talented players and immediate impact JUCO guys.

9. TEMPLE: Between Fran Dunphy’s final season, and coming off of a disappointing 2017-18, it’s hard to be optimistic about the Owls. If Quinton Rose returns from the NBA draft process, Temple will have one of the best backcourts in the league as he’d join returning senior guard Shizz Alston and sophomore Nate Pierre-Louis.

10. EAST CAROLINA: There are some intriguing pieces to work with for East Carolina this season, including double-figure scorers like Isaac Fleming and Shawn Williams. The Pirates will have to improve their dreadful 30 percent three-point shooting.

11. TULANE: The Green Wave were already a bottom-feeder in the American. Now that Tulane lost Melvin Frazier and Cameron Reynolds, the top two players from last season, they could be in for a long season.

12. USF: Head coach Brian Gregory loses four of his top five players, but David Collins is promising sophomore guard to build around. The Bulls also brought in a recruiting class that has a chance to make an immediate impact.

Spoilers! Baylor tops women’s NCAA field as bracket leaks

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NEW YORK (AP) — Baylor, Notre Dame, Mississippi State and Louisville are the No. 1 seeds in the women’s NCAA Tournament, leading a March Madness field that was revealed early thanks to a production error.

The bracket was mistakenly put out by ESPN hours before the network had scheduled its selection show. ESPN apologized and scrambled to air an early selection show to release the brackets while screenshots of the field were shared across social networks.

“In working with the NCAA to prepare for tonight’s Women’s Selection Special we received the bracket, similar to years past. In the midst of our preparation, the bracket was mistakenly posted on ESPNU,” the network said in a statement. “We deeply regret the error and extend our apology to the NCAA and the women’s basketball community. We will conduct a thorough review of our process to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future.”

In 2016, the men’s bracket was leaked during the selection show, reverberating on Twitter and elsewhere as fans wondered if the picks were accurate.

The No. 1 Lady Bears are the top team in the Greensboro Regional while defending champion Notre Dame is the first choice in Chicago. Mississippi State is the No. 1 team in the Portland Regional, where Oregon is the second seed. Louisville is the top choice in the Albany Regional, where No. 2 UConn potentially awaits.

“We’re thrilled to have the season we’ve had. We played an outstanding schedule. At the end of the day, I thought we might be going to Albany as 1 or 2,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “It’s really great to be a 1 seed and we know there’s a lot of work in front of us.”

Walz won’t coach the Cardinals’ opening game against Robert Morris as he will be serving a one-game suspension for using profane language toward NCAA officials during the Final Four last year. The veteran coach said he expects to have the support of the UConn fans if his team reaches the Sweet 16 and plays in upstate New York. Maryland is the No. 3 seed in Albany and Oregon State is the 4.

“If we’re fortunate to get that far I’m confident that half of the UConn fans will be wearing Louisville gear and they won’t know who to cheer for,” Walz said, laughing.

It’s the first time since 2006 that the Huskies aren’t a No. 1 seed. UConn will try to continue its record Final Four run, looking to advance that far for the 12th consecutive year.

Tennessee sneaked in to the field as an 11. The Lady Vols have been in every NCAA Tournament since the first one in 1982.

“We felt Tennessee and other teams in our last four in had significant wins,” NCAA selection committee chair Rhonda Lundin Bennett said. “That went into determining they were an at-large selection.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Abilene Christian, Bethune-Cookman and Towson all are making their first NCAA tournament appearances.

The women’s tournament begins Friday. The Final Four takes place in Tampa, Florida, on April 5, with the championship game two days later.

Other top seeds in Greensboro are No. 2 Iowa, No. 3 N.C. State and No. 4 South Carolina. The Gamecocks will play the first two rounds in Charlotte as the men’s NCAA Tournament is being played on South Carolina’s home court.

Mississippi State and Oregon will be joined by Syracuse and Miami as host teams in the Portland Regional.

The Fighting Irish will potentially play their first two games at home before only having to drive 90 minutes to Chicago for the regional. Other top teams in the Irish’s region are Stanford, Iowa State and Texas A&M.

The ACC leads the way with eight teams in the field while the SEC has seven. The Pac-12 and Big Ten each have six teams.

NCAA

Made for TV NCAAs: Louisville-Minnesota hits Pitino intrigue

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Richard Pitino sat calmly in the middle of the room, his eager players flanking him and his restless children in front of him on the floor, as the teams with NCAA Tournament bids flashed on a big screen.

There went Louisville, an awfully familiar name.

Next came Minnesota, his current team.

Pitino simply smiled, fully and immediately aware of the extra intrigue created by the selection committee with this East Region matchup of No. 7 and 10 seeds.

The madness of March has been built on all those low-major upsets and buzzer-beating swishes that bust up the office-pool brackets, but some of the must-see TV each year is arranged before the opening tip.

The Louisville-Minnesota game is one of those predetermined talkers, pitting Pitino and the Gophers against the storied program that fired his father, Rick Pitino, prior to the 2017-18 season in response to the federal investigation into a nationwide college basketball bribery and corruption case. Richard Pitino served two stints as an assistant with the Cardinals under his dad, who has been coaching a professional team in Greece this season .

“Has he talked about Louisville the last two years? Yeah, he has, not in the most positive light,” Pitino said. “It’s not going to be about me. I’m not going to be, ‘Oh, it’s revenge,’ or anything like that. It’s about our players. It’s about this program.”

The Gophers will go to the NCAA Tournament for a second time in six seasons under Pitino.

“We know he’s been there a long time, his dad’s been there, but we can’t make it all about the Pitino family,” senior shooting guard Dupree McBrayer said. “This is a team game.”

The Cardinals and Gophers were sent to Des Moines, Iowa, where they’ll face off on Thursday with a late morning tipoff. That was far from the only assignment made by the committee that carried a dimension beyond the matchups on the court, of course.

Buffalo will get a fresh look at its first opponent when Arizona State plays St. John’s in one of the play-in games on Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio. If Arizona State wins the right to face Buffalo on Friday afternoon in Tulsa, Oklahoma, well, Bulls coach Nate Oats sure won’t be surprised. Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley just so happened to be his boss, before Hurley left for Arizona State and Oats was promoted by Buffalo.

As the final quarter of the bracket, the West Region, was revealed, Oats had an inkling his Bulls, the No. 6 seed, would wind up next to the Sun Devils.

“You think it was a coincidence? Yeah, me neither. It’s TV,” said Oats, who was trading text messages with Hurley’s brother, Danny, during the selection show.

After Hurley directed Buffalo’s first NCAA Tournament berth in 2015, Oats has now steered the Bulls to three in four years.

“Coach Hurley gave me my shot. I pull for him,” Oats said. “We talk a lot. Emotionally, it’s not going to be fun. For his sake, I hope they get the win.”

If UCF, the No. 9 seed in the East Region, can beat No. 8 VCU, coach Johnny Dawkins will be subject to the same type of mixed emotions. The second-round pairing for the Knights would probably be Duke, provided the No. 1 overall seed takes care of North Carolina Central or North Dakota State. Dawkins both played for and coached under Blue Devils maven Mike Krzyzewski.

The coaches are a major part of the story in March, but they’ll always be on the bench. The players are the true stars of the show, and there are no greater individual standouts than Marquette’s Markus Howard and Murray State’s Ja Morant. Well, guess what? They’re scheduled to play each other right away, too.

Marquette is the No. 5 seed in the West, facing No. 12 Murray State in Hartford, Connecticut, on Thursday afternoon. Nobody in the tournament has scored more this season than the 5-foot-11 Howard (sixth in the country with an average of 25.0 points per game) and the 6-foot-3 Morant (eighth with 24.6 points per game). The sophomore Morant, a dynamic dunker, also leads the nation with an average of 10.0 assists per game. The junior Howard hit the 45-point mark three times.

Let’s go back to Minnesota for a moment, too. If the Gophers beat Louisville, there will likely be an even more familiar foe waiting for them in the next game: Michigan State. The No. 2 seed Spartans play No. 15 Bradley to start. That potential Michigan State-Minnesota matchup would be a big deal for the Big Ten even if not in the rest of the country.

Such an intraconference matchup on the first weekend is a rarity. In 2011, when the Big East sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament out of what was then a 16-team league, there were two all-Big East games in the second round: Cincinnati-Connecticut and Syracuse-Marquette.

According to David Worlock, the NCAA’s director of media coordination and statistics, the committee tries to avoid such matchups if possible. Tournament principles state that teams who played only once during the season can meet as early as the second round, and this season the Spartans and Gophers only met once. If two teams played twice, they’re allowed to meet as early as the regional semifinals. If they met three times, they couldn’t match up until the regional finals.

NCAA Tournament 2019: College basketball national title futures

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All futures courtesy DraftKings Sportsbook.

TEAM TITLE FINAL FOUR
 1. Duke 9/4 11/20
 1. Gonzaga 23/4 3/2
 1. North Carolina 15/2 2/1
 1. Virginia 7/1 6/4
 2. Kentucky 13/1 11/4
 2. Michigan 20/1 11/4
 2. Michigan State 17/1 4/1
 2. Tennessee 17/1 3/1
 3. Houston 40/1 5/1
 3. LSU 50/1 10/1
 3. Purdue 33/1 5/1
 3. Texas Tech 30/1 11/2
 4. Florida State 40/1 6/1
 4. Kansas 60/1 9/1
 4. Kansas State 60/1 10/1
 4. Virginia Tech 30/1 14/1
 5. Auburn 45/1 10/1
 5. Marquette 80/1 15/1
 5. Mississippi State 100/1 20/1
 5. Wisconsin 150/1 40/1
 6. Buffalo 100/1 15/1
 6. Iowa State 50/1 8/1
 6. Maryland 150/1 25/1
 6. Villanova 33/1 8/1
 7. Cincinnati 100/1 15/1
 7. Louisville 80/1 15/1
 7. Nevada 60/1 20/1
 7. Wofford 100/1 15/1
 8. Ole Miss 250/1 30/1
 8. Syracuse 150/1 40/1
 8. Utah State 150/1 20/1
 8. VCU 200/1 50/1
 9. Baylor 250/1 70/1
 9. Central Florida 200/1 50/1
 9. Oklahoma 200/1 50/1
 9. Washington 250/1 50/1
 10. Florida 200/1 70/1
 10. Iowa 200/1 50/1
 10. Minnesota 300/1 60/1
 10. Seton Hall 300/1 50/1
 11. Arizona State 300/1 100/1
 11. Belmont 350/1 40/1
 11. Saint Mary’s 250/1 40/1
 11. St. John’s 350/1 100/1
 11. Temple 500/1 70/1
 11. Ohio State 250/1 50/1
 12. New Mexico State 250/1 60/1
 12. Liberty 350/1 100/1
 12. Murray State 250/1 100/1
 12. Oregon 250/1 30/1
 13. Northeastern 350/1 80/1
 13. UC Irvine 350/1 70/1
 13. Saint Louis 500/1 80/1
 13. Vermont 500/1 100/1
 14. Yale 500/1 80/1
 14. Georgia State 500/1 80/1
 14. Northern Kentucky 500/1 100/1
 14. Old Dominion 500/1 80/1
 15. Bradley 500/1 100/1
 15. Montana 500/1 100/1
 15. Abilene Christian 1000/1 200/1
 15. Colgate 1000/1 200/1
 16. Iona 1000/1 200/1
 16. Gardner-Webb 1000/1 200/1
 16. Prairie View A&M 1000/1 200/1
 16. North Dakota State 1000/1 200/1
 16. NC Central 1000/1 200/1
 16. Fairleigh Dickinson 1000/1 200/1

NCAA tournament first round betting lines, odds and spreads

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Here are the betting lines, totals and spreads for every first round NCAA tournament matchup.

TUESDAY, 3/19

6:40 p.m.: No. 16 FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON (-1.5) vs. No. 16 PRAIRIE VIEW A&M, 150

9:10 p.m.: No. 11 BELMONT (-3.5) vs. No. 11 TEMPLE, 155.5

WEDNESDAY, 3/20

6:40 p.m.: No. 16 NORTH DAKOTA STATE (-5) vs. No. 16 NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL, 134.5

9:10 p.m.: No. 11 ARIZONA STATE (-1) vs. No. 11 ST. JOHN’S, 152

THURSDAY, 3/21

12:15 p.m.: No. 7 LOUISVILLE (-5) vs. No. 10 MINNESOTA, 136

12:40 p.m.: No. 3 LSU (-7.5 vs. No. 14 YALE, 160.5

1:30 p.m.: No. 5 AUBURN (-7) vs. No. 12 NEW MEXICO STATE, 142.5

2:00 p.m.: No. 4 FLORIDA STATE (-10.5) vs. No. 13 VERMONT, 133.5

2:45 p.m.: No. 2 MICHIGAN STATE (-18) vs. No. 15 BRADLEY, 133.5

4:00 p.m.: No. 4 KANSAS (-8.5) vs. No. 13 NORTHEASTERN, 145.5

4:30 p.m.: No. 5 MARQUETTE (-4) vs. No. 12 MURRAY STATE, 149.5

6:50 p.m.: No. 7 NEVADA (-2) vs. No. 10 FLORIDA, 133

7:10 p.m.: No. 2 KENTUCKY (-21.5) vs. No. 15 ABILENE CHRISTIAN, 132

7:20 p.m.: No. 6 VILLANOVA (-6) vs. No. 11 SAINT MARY’S, 130

9:20 p.m.: No. 2 MICHIGAN (-16) vs. No. 15 MONTANA, 131

9:40 p.m.: No. 7 WOFFORD (-3) vs. No. 10 SETON HALL, 142.5

9:50 p.m.: No. 3 PURDUE (-12) vs. No. 14 OLD DOMINION, 128.5

9:57 p.m.: No. 8 SYRACUSE (-2) vs. No. 9 BAYLOR, 132.5

FRIDAY, 3/22

12:15 p.m.: No. 7 CINCINNATI (-3.5) vs. No. 10 IOWA, 139

12:40 p.m.: No. 9 OLE MISS (-2) vs. No. 8 OKLAHOMA, 143.5

1:30 p.m.: No. 3 TEXAS TECH (-14) vs. No. 14 NORTHERN KENTUCKY

2:00 p.m.: No. 6 KANSAS STATE (-5.5) vs. No. 11 UC IRVINE, 119.5

2:45 p.m.: No. 2 TENNESSEE (-17.5) vs. No. 15 COLGATE, 151

3:10 p.m.: No. 1 VIRGINIA (-23.5) vs. No. 16 GARDNER-WEBB, 130.5

4:30 p.m.: No. 5 WISCONSIN (-1) vs. No. 12 OREGON

6:50 p.m.: No. 8 UTAH STATE (-3.5) vs. No. 9 WASHINGTON, 134

7:20 p.m.: No. 3 HOUSTON (-11.5) vs. No. 14 GEORGIA STATE, 142

7:27 p.m. No. 5 MISSISSIPPI STATE (-7.5) vs. No. 12 LIBERTY, 136.5

9:20 p.m.: No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-24) vs. No. 16 IONA, 167

9:40 p.m.: No. 8 VCU (-1) vs. No. 9 UCF, 127

9:50 p.m.: No. 6 IOWA STATE (-6) vs. No. 11 OHIO STATE, 140.5

No. 4 VIRGINIA TECH (-9.5) vs. No. 13 SAINT LOUIS, 125.5

2019 NCAA Tournament: The case against the title contenders

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All that you are going to hear about this week is how good this team is, why that team can make a Final Four and how those guys are going to win a national title.

That’s not what this space is for.

Here, we’re going to spend some time discussing the other side of the coin. 

This is the case against the national title contenders.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

DUKE

As weird as it sounds, Duke is the heavy favorite to win this year’s national title the same way that Villanova was the heavy favorite to win last year’s title, but the Blue Devils are also the easiest team to project out a loss for. That’s because they are, frankly, a horrible jump-shooting team. Duke ranks 338th nationally in three-point percentage, making a measly 30.2 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Cam Reddish is supposed to be their floor-spacer and he’s shooting 32.7 percent from beyond the arc, which is actually the highest number of all the freshmen on the roster. Tre Jones is under 25 percent from three. Jack White, an alleged shooter who missed 28 straight threes at one point this season, is at 28.4 percent. There are just two players on the roster that make more than a third of their threes: Alex O’Connell, who has not even shot 75 threes this season because of how limited his minutes end up being, and Justin Robinson, a walk-on that doesn’t play.

Now, to be clear, keeping Duke from getting to the basket whenever they want is a lot easier said than done, and part of what makes them so dangerous is that they are absolutely lethal in transition. They don’t need to be effective running halfcourt offense because they get so many points on the break and on second-chance points. But they are eventually going to run into someone that isn’t going to turn the ball over, that can keep them out of transition and does just enough defensively to force the Blue Devils to rely on the three-ball.

Who that is, I don’t know. But the 2010 Kentucky team that featured John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson shot 33.1 percent from three, and we all thought that team has major issues from beyond the arc. They lost in the Elite 8 on a night they went 4-for-32 from three. Will that happen to Duke too?

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: A healthy Virginia Tech is dangerous, but I think a matchup with Texas Tech in the Final Four does Duke in.

NORTH CAROLINA

The biggest thing standing between North Carolina and a run to the Final Four is the region that they were put in. The Midwest is a tough play to be. If seeds hold — which is no guarantee — they will be playing Kansas in Kansas City in the Sweet 16. They also have to travel twice as far to get to the Sprint Center as No. 2 seed Kentucky or No. 3 seed Houston, and Iowa State fans already consider that building to be Hilton Coliseum South.

So that’s not ideal.

But that, to me, is not the biggest concern that I have with the Tar Heels. It’s the inconsistency of Coby White. North Carolina’s offense is so heavily based on the way that a point guard can play, especially in a year where they don’t really have a guy that can be a creator outside of him. White is a freshman and a volume scorer, meaning that everything about him is inherently streaky. So while that gives them a ceiling to be just about anyone in the field on the right night, it allows means that an Auburn team whose press is working or a North Carolina team that can harass White and run Cam Johnson off the three-point line will have a real shot at a win.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Whoever they get in the Elite 8 — Kentucky, Houston or Iowa State — is going to be dangerous.

VIRGINIA

I’m just going to get this out of the way now: Yes, I think what happened last season might have some lasting effects on Virginia mentally. No, I don’t think they’re going to lose in the first round of the tournament again, but I do wonder how they are going to be able to handle someone making a run on them with five minutes left in the game.

Beyond that, there are two real concerns with this group. Let’s start with the pace of play. They average the fewest number of possessions in the sport which opens them up to upsets. Think about it like doing a study with a small sample size. There’s a reason that scientists want to get to a certain number when doing an experiment or that pollsters need a certain amount of people to get a correct feel for public opinion. That’s because variance can skew things in a small sample size. The same happens in basketball. It’s easier to hang with Virginia in a 60 possession game than it is to hang with Duke, or UNC, or Gonzaga in an 80 possession game.

I’m also worried about the athleticism factor, and it’s not because of Kyle Guy or Ty Jerome. Those guys tend are usually just fine against bigger and more athletic defenders. I know they lost to Florida State in the ACC tournament semifinals, but they also humiliated Florida State in a game earlier this season. Jerome didn’t seem to have any problem carving up Duke in either of the two games they have played this year. The concern for me is Tony Bennett’s infatuation with Kihei Clark. The fact that he is playing 25 minutes a night is concerning to me. He’s not good enough defensively — yes, he’s a pest on the ball, but he’s also 5-foot-7 — to make up for the lack of an impact he has offensively.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: I can see Virginia losing to Tennessee in the Elite 8, but watch out for that Sweet 16 matchup with Oregon, too.

GONZAGA

With Killian Tillie back in the rotation and, seemingly, healthy, I’m not super-worried about the depth of their frontcourt or whether or not they will be able to space the floor. I’m also not all that worried about some of the issues that the Zags have on the defensive end of the floor. Brandon Clarke makes a lot of mistakes disappear, and you only have to be so good defensively when you score the way Gonzaga scores. For context, in 2009, North Carolina, like this Gonzaga team, was No. 1 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and they entered the tournament 39th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Gonzaga is 16th. They’re fine.

My concern is Josh Perkins. He has been terrific this season, and there are smart people that will tell you that he has been Gonzaga’s most important player this year. The reason that is a concern for me is that he has not proven to be 100 percent reliable, and we saw that come to fruition in the WCC title game against Saint Mary’s. Perkins had arguably his worst game of the season, and the Zags had inarguably their worst performance of the year.

When your most important player is a guy that has proven to have off-nights the way Josh Perkins has off-nights, you are just one game away from flaming out of the NCAA tournament.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: I think potential matchups with Syracuse and Florida State are just awful draws for the Zags.

MICHIGAN STATE

I have no idea how Tom Izzo is doing it, but he just took a team that starts Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins as the No. 2 and No. 3 offensive options to a Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

And look, I love Cassius Winston. He is a sensational player that can take over games and a joy to watch if you appreciate someone that can run a pick-and-roll. But the burden that he is going to carry for this team is heavy, and the way the bracket unfolded, the Spartans seem fairly likely to see teams they’ve played this season in the second round and in the Sweet 16. You have to think that at some point Winston’s load will become too much to bear.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Can you see Cassius Winston beating Duke?

TENNESSEE

When we recorded the ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ podcast above last month, the concern that both Brian Snow and I had with Tennessee was whether or not their guards were good enough to win big games. Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner have proven that they can be OK against some of the biggest games of the season.

I’m not worried about the Vols offensively.

I’m worried about them defensively.

They’ve been lit up by Auburn twice in the last eight days. They couldn’t guard LSU in a loss in which the Tigers did not have Tremont Waters available. Kentucky has done whatever they wanted offensive against Tennessee in two of the three games they’ve played. This is basically the same team that was a top ten defense last year. What happened?

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Tennessee’s offense is built around making two-pointers, and Virginia’s defense is designed to take that away.

KENTUCKY

The big question for me with this Kentucky team is pretty simple: Are they good enough?

I know, I know, I know. Let me talk this through. Kentucky turned into a top seven team in January when P.J. Washington turned into a superhuman, and as he came back to earth, so did Kentucky. Can he put together a three-week stretch where he is that guy in March? And if he doesn’t, who picks up the slack? Reid Travis has been useful in certain matchups and has looked like a guy that put up massive numbers against a bunch of soft Pac-12 frontlines in others. Tyler Herro has looked like a first round pick at times, and so had Keldon Johnson. They’ve also looked like freshmen in some big games and big moments. And while Ashton Hagans is a terrific player with a bright future, he’s also a point guard that gambles a bit too much defensively and cannot shoot on the offensive end of the floor.

Put another way, Kentucky has a ceiling when their best players are all playing at their best. But more than any of the other top six teams — Duke, UNC, Gonzaga, UVA and Tennessee — I can see the Wildcats having a floor-game at the wrong time.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: They’ve already lost to Seton Hall once this year, but the dangerous matchup to be is a potential showdown with Iowa State in the Sweet 16.

MICHIGAN

The Wolverines just have too many players that are liabilities offensively. Zavier Simpson does not have to be guarded all that tightly. Jon Teske has his moments, but he goes through stretches where he isn’t really a threat. Charles Matthews was really good last year in the NCAA tournament, but that came at a time when he was playing the four in a lineup that featured knockdown jump-shooters at three spots on the floor, including at the five.

That spacing isn’t there this year, and that is why the Wolverines can see their offense get bogged down for long stretches. If that happens in the NCAA tournament against someone like Texas Tech, they could be in real trouble.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Texas Tech is a dangerous team for Michigan to draw in the Sweet 16.