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Big Ten Conference Reset: Will the conference be better top-to-bottom this year?

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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 Big Ten over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

NBA DRAFT DECISIONS: There are still quite a few players that still have stay-or-go decisions that are left to be made. The most significant of the bunch is Maryland wing Kevin Huerter, a potential first-team all-Big Ten player that might be a mid-to-late first round pick in this year’s NBA Draft if he opts to leave.

But he’s far from the only significant name left on the board. Carsen Edwards has yet to officially decide, and there’s a chance that he could be a first-team all-american should he come back for his junior season. Wisconsin’s return to relevancy hinges on Ethan Happ’s return to campus. Charles Matthews is probably the difference between Michigan being a top 25 team and Michigan having to fight for a bid to the NCAA tournament. Michigan State is still awaiting word on Nick Ward. So much about the conference will be settled out in the coming days.

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ARE THERE ANY ELITE BIG TEN TEAMS THIS SEASON?: The Big Ten’s national title drought in basketball has been well-documented. In the past few years, Michigan and Wisconsin have reached the title game, only to fall short and keep the 18-year titleless streak alive.

This season doesn’t look much better for the Big Ten when it comes to the larger national title picture.

Perennial conference favorites like Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue are all expected to be competitive, top-25 caliber teams. Indiana is quickly rising. Maryland has a lot of intriguing pieces that could make them a team to watch. But none of those teams feel like juggernauts, and almost all of them lost significant pieces from last season.

So the big question remains: does the Big Ten have any elite teams this season? We might not know that answer until a few months into the season (Michigan has a habit of being a late-blooming team). For right now, it’s not looking good.

THE BIG TEN ADDED A LOT OF INTRIGUING FRESHMEN: Although the immediate outlook for the Big Ten might not feel so cheery for this season, the future looks pretty solid.

Thanks to most of the league’s teams recruiting at a solid level this past season, there are a lot of exciting young players entering the Big Ten in 2018-19. Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Maryland all added local, top-50 caliber players who will be asked to contribute immediately. Michigan State, Ohio State and the Hoosiers are programs who brought in deep recruiting classes filled with top-100 prospects.

And that’s not even counting other programs like Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern and Rutgers all adding four-star prospects. It might take a few years to see the payoff from some of these classes. But expect a lot of Big Ten teams to turn to freshmen to produce this season.

NO COACHING CHANGES MEANS UNIQUE STABILITY: After the Big Ten had three new head coaches enter last season (Illinois, Indiana and Ohio State) and two more the year-and-a-half before (Rutgers and Wisconsin) there were no coaching changes among the league’s 14 teams this offseason.

That makes for a unique scenario in which the Big Ten won’t have to prepare for unfamiliar coaches and styles of play.

While there are a few Big Ten coaches on the hot seat entering this season (most notably, Minnesota’s Richard Pitino), there’s a stability throughout the league right now when it comes its basketball programs. That could quickly change next season if certain coaches don’t make postseason appearances. But not many power conferences in the country keep all of the same coaches from year to year.

WHO’S GONE?

  • MILES BRIDGES AND JAREN JACKSON JR., Michigan State: Both Bridges and Jackson are expected to be lottery picks in next month’s 2018 NBA Draft as the Spartans were prepared to lose both of them before the season.
  • MORITZ WAGNER, Michigan: The German big man was a breakout player last season as he helped lead the Wolverines to the title game. Michigan is going to miss Wagner’s inside-outside ability on both ends of the floor.
  • JUSTIN JACKSON, Maryland: Never fully recovering from a torn labrum suffered last summer, the 6-foot-8 Jackson only played 11 games last season before shutting it down. This loss certainly stings for the Terps, but they should already be used to playing without Jackson.
  • KEITA BATES-DIOP, Ohio State: Exploding last season as a redshirt junior, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year was perhaps the most improved player in the nation last season. The Buckeyes will certainly miss Bates-Diop’s unique versatility and scoring prowess.
  • TONY CARR, Penn State: Just as Penn State looked like they were on the verge of a major breakthrough, Carr, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, opted to go pro. But you can’t blame Carr after he became the first player in program history to reach 1,000 points by the end of his sophomore year.
  • COREY SANDERS, Rutgers: A monster at the end of last season during the Big Ten Tournament, the 6-foot-2 Sanders was one of the Big Ten’s most lethal offensive talents. Although Sanders could be reckless and inefficient at times, his undeniable talent helped Rutgers stay competitive against better competition.
(Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

WHO’S BACK?

  • JAMES PALMER JR. and ISAAC COPELAND JR., Nebraska: Both of Nebraska’s top two scorers coming back to school is huge if the Huskers hope to make it back to the NCAA tournament. Palmer was a revelation last season as he emerged into one of the league’s best players. Copeland is a former top-30 talent who is starting to show signs of his predicted abilities.
  • BRUNO FERNANDO, Maryland: The promising big man is returning for his sophomore season after flirting with the 2018 NBA Draft. A major impact player in limited minutes, the 6-foot-10 Fernando could take an additional leap if he learns to stay out of foul trouble. If Fernando plays more minutes, he could be a double-double threat every game.

WHO’S COMING?

  • ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana: Langford’s decision to stay home and play for the Hoosiers will be one of the major freshman storylines in college basketball this season. A consensus top-10 national prospect, the 6-foot-5 Langford will be asked to score immediately for Indiana.
  • AYO DOSUNMU, Illinois: Similar to Langford, Dosunmu’s choice to stay in the Land of Lincoln was a big coup for head coach Brad Underwood and Illinois. With an ability to score in bunches, or play a bit on the ball, the 6-foot-5 Dosunmu should see immediate minutes for the Illini.
  • JOE WIESKAMP, Iowa: Another top-50 in-state prospect who is staying home, the 6-foot-6 Wieskamp is one of the most highly-touted Iowa recruits in years. A local legend with over 2,000 career points in high school, the highly-efficient Wieskamp should immediately help the Hawkeyes with his poise and shooting ability.
  • IGNAS BRAZDEIKIS, Michigan: A late-bloomer who had some five-star rankings, the 6-foot-8 Brazdeikis is a gifted left-handed scorer who can make plays from all three levels. Experienced in international competition with the Canadian national team, Brazdeikis could be the latest John Beilein big man to explode.
  • DANIEL OTURU, Minnesota: The springy, 6-foot-9 Oturu is expected to earn immediate playing time in the Minnesota frontcourt after showing promising signs on both ends of the floor. Oturu is also coming off of an April shoulder injury that forced him to have surgery, Oturu is expected to be out all summer.
  • JALEN SMITH, Maryland: A McDonald’s All-American big man, the 6-foot-9 native of Baltimore has a chance to be a major impact for the Terps. Although Smith needs to add weight to compete in the Big Ten, he’ll be aided by the return of Bruno Fernando for his sophomore season.
  • EVAN BOUDREAUX, Purdue: One of the country’s most sought-after grad transfers, Boudreaux will have two years of eligibility remaining after dominating the Ivy League at Dartmouth. A floor-spacing forward who put up 17.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in two years with the Mean Green, Boudreaux should help offset the loss of Vincent Edwards.
  • RYAN TAYLOR AND A.J. TURNER, Northwestern: The Wildcats brought in a pair of wing scorers who should help the offense quite a bit this season. The 6-foot-7 Turner sat out last season after coming from Boston College, as he provides good size and shooting ability on the wing. Formerly at Evansville, the 6-foot-5 Taylor poured in 21.2 points per game last season while shooting 42 percent from three-point land.
(Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-BIG TEN TEAM

CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue (POY)
JAMES PALMER JR., Nebraska
ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin
CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan
KEVIN HUERTER, Maryland

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. MICHIGAN STATE: Although Michigan State fell short of its Final Four aspirations last season, a lot of talent is back for 2018-19. The backcourt of Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford will now be upperclassmen. Bruising big man Nick Ward could also return, giving Michigan State three very experienced double-figure scorers. And head coach Tom Izzo also brought in a deep and talented recruiting class that includes a lot of potential.

2. MARYLAND: If Kevin Huerter returns to school (a major “if” given his NBA Draft combine performance) then the Terps could be a major team to watch for next season. Anthony Cowan is back at point. The frontcourt returns Bruno Fernando while adding Jalen Smith and transfer Schneider Herard. Sophomore guard Darryl Morsell should continue to improve while three four-star prospects (Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala and Serrel Smith) have been added on the perimeter. The Terps are balanced and potentially deep.

3. MICHIGAN: The Wolverines have peaked at the right time the past two seasons as the 2018-19 team has plenty to like. If Charles Matthews comes back, then he could emerge as one of the league’s best players after he was outstanding during the final month of the season. Isaiah Livers, Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole and Jon Teske also return after they all earned at least double-figure minutes last season. And Michigan brings in a loaded five-man recruiting class that includes three four-star prospects and a five-star prospect, Brazdeikis, who should help fill the void left by Moe Wagner.

4. INDIANA: Expectations are rising quickly in Bloomington after head coach Archie Miller brought in a loaded recruiting class to go along with an intriguing young roster. Forward Juwan Morgan developed into an all-league player. Others like Justin Smith and Aljami Durham showed promising signs. And the frontcourt should get a healthy De’Ron Davis and redshirt big man Race Thompson. The five-man freshman class could dictate the ceiling of this team. If Langford can handle the immense pressure he’ll face, then the Hoosiers should be fine.

5. PURDUE: Losing four starters is going to be tough to replace, but if Carsen Edwards returns, he might be the league’s Player of the Year. Around Edwards, the Boilermakers will have to have some solid role guys like Nojel Eastern, Ryan Cline and Matt Haarms step up. Boudreaux should help immediately in the frontcourt as well. Purdue also has some talented four-star freshmen, including in-state guard Eric Hunter, who could contribute.

6. NEBRASKA: During a breakthrough, 22-win season, the Huskers went back to the postseason while building on a foundation for this season. With Palmer, Copeland, point guard Glynn Watson Jr. and Isaiah Roby all returning, this is the year for Nebraska to make a leap into the NCAA tournament. But how will the Huskers handle legitimate expectations? Will Nebraska be able to beat quality competition? They’ll be one of the hunted teams in the league this season. Ask Minnesota and Northwestern how that went for them last season.

7. OHIO STATE: Perhaps the biggest surprise in the country last season, head coach Chris Holtmann took a limited rotation and turned them into a top-25 program. Losing Bates-Diop and his production will hurt, but the Buckeyes have some solid returning starters like point guard C.J. Jackson and big man Kaleb Wesson. With a solid recruiting class, and a quality grad transfer in guard Keyshawn Woods (Wake Forest) Ohio State will be a fascinating team.

8. WISCONSIN: One of the youngest teams in the country last season, Wisconsin should see a number of players make a leap this season. If Ethan Happ returns, the Badgers have a go-to player and consistent double-double threat. The development of promising freshman guard Brad Davison will also be something to watch.

9. IOWA: Defense is going to be the major thing to watch with the Hawkeyes. While this roster has been together for multiple seasons, and can really put up points, the Hawkeyes were one of the worst power-conference defenses in the nation last season. If Fran McCaffery’s ballclub can get more stops, they have the offensive firepower to compete with most teams in the conference.

10. PENN STATE: The NIT champions were gutted by the early departure of Carr, but the Nittany Lions still have plenty of talent coming back. Penn State will have to replace its backcourt of Carr and senior Shep Garner, but Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens are a more-than-capable frontcourt. The development of players like Josh Reaves will be key.

11. NORTHWESTERN: After a massively disappointing season, Northwestern is also hoping to bounce back. Losing seniors like Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey hurts, but the Wildcats get most of the frontcourt back along with two talented wing transfers. Finding stability at point to replace McIntosh might be the key to Northwestern’s entire outlook.

12. MINNESOTA: The talent is in place for a Minnesota revival, but a bizarre second-half collapse leaves the Golden Gophers with more questions than answers. Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey are proven Big Ten players. But the frontcourt needs Oturu to play well and Isaiah Washington needs to be steady at point.

13. ILLINOIS: Last season was difficult for Illinois. And it won’t get easier after the early exits of frontcourt starters Leron Black (pro) and Michael Finke (Grand Canyon). Dosunmu’s addition certainly helps, but the Illini are a very young team without any proven frontcourt talents. Underwood is known for turnarounds, but he needs more talent on the roster to make that happen.

14. RUTGERS: The loss of point guard Corey Sanders will sting, but head coach Steve Pikiell has some intriguing young pieces to work with — particularly in the backcourt. This will be sophomore Geo Baker’s team now, and freshman guards like Montez Mathis and Ron Harper Jr. are also expected to contribute. The frontcourt will be a major question mark.

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.

2019 NCAA Tournament: Must-see opening round matchups

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The 2019 NCAA tournament features a lot of enticing first-round matchups filled with upset potential. But only a handful of the 32 first round games should be appointment television. Some games have incredible star power, others have soap-opera-level storylines and a few more are just intriguing games that should be close.

Here’s a look at seven must-see opening-round matchups as you’ll want to make these games the center of your attention when they come on.

1. No. 5 seed Marquette vs. No. 12 seed Murray State, Thursday, 4:30 p.m., Hartford

Markus Howard vs. Ja Morant in the first round is a major gift from the NCAA tournament Gods.

Both All-American point guards are electric to watch. You could even argue that besides for Zion Williamson, that they are the two most fun-to-watch players in all of college basketball. Marquette’s Howard is a noted perimeter shooter who can heat up quickly enough to drop 50 in a game or 40 in a half. Murray State’s Morant is more of a downhill driver and athlete who throws down vicious dunks with insane athleticism. Morant has elevated into a potential top-three NBA draft pick, as this will be a major national showcase for his draft stock as well.

The entertainment value of that lead-guard matchup alone is worth the price of admission. But this overall game should also be a really fun No. 5/No. 12 matchup. Marquette has struggled down the stretch as they’ve lost five out of six games. Murray State has won 11 straight games as they enter this field as one of the hotter teams.

2. No. 7 seed Louisville vs. No. 10 seed Minnesota, Thursday, 12:15 p.m., Des Moines

Are there any direct flights from Greece to Des Moines? That’s probably doubtful. But let’s face it, Louisville vs. a Pitino is an amazing first-round subplot.

It’s hard to say if Rick is going to try to attend this game while he’s busy coaching pro ball in Greece, but he’ll certainly be supporting his son Richard go against his former employer. Louisville and new head coach Chris Mack could not have been pleased when they saw this draw.

Rick Pitino is not only suing Louisville for wrongful termination, but he recruited and coached most of the current players on the Cardinals roster. Minnesota is going to get as many helpful tips from Rick can give to his son as that subplot alone makes this game a must-watch.

3. No. 5 seed Wisconsin vs. No. 12 seed Oregon, Friday, 4:30 p.m., San Jose

Matchups between No. 5 and No. 12 seeds are already fun to watch but this one is particularly intriguing because of the Big Ten/Pac-12 dynamic.

Wisconsin has been one of the Big Ten’s better teams this season in an insanely deep league. Oregon emerged late to win the Pac-12 conference tournament to sneak into the field with the autobid. The Ducks have been underwhelming this season — particularly after the loss of freshman star big man Bol Bol. It’s also important to remember that Oregon has the talent to compete with Wisconsin as freshman Louis King has grown more comfortable since joining the lineup.

The coaching matchup between Wisconsin’s Greg Gard and Oregon’s Dana Altman will also be a fun chess match for basketball junkies as they are two of the most highly-regarded coaches in the entire field.

4. No. 6 seed Buffalo vs. No. 11 seed Arizona State or St. John’s, Friday, 4:00 p.m., Tulsa

This game has the potential to be the Bobby Hurley Bowl as the Arizona State head coach left Buffalo to join the Sun Devils three years ago. Even if Arizona State falls to St. John’s in Wednesday’s First Four game in Dayton, this game should be wildly entertaining.

All three of these programs aren’t afraid to push the tempo as this should be some of the more aesthetically-pleasing basketball for casual fans during the first round. There’s also the strange role reversal of mid-major Buffalo being the favored No. 6 seed while the No. 11 seeds will be underdogs hailing from power conferences.

And the Bulls are legitimately really good. They already knocked off No. 4 seed Arizona last season, so they’ll be experienced and hungry enough to make a potential run this season. Arizona State has an athletic and explosive freshman in guard Luguentz Dort while St. John’s junior guard Shamorie Ponds is one of the more potent scorers in the country.

5. No. 7 seed Wofford vs. No. 10 seed Seton Hall, Thursday, 9:50 p.m., Columbia

Yet another mid-major team in a higher seed than a power conference team. Wofford is a ton of fun to watch thanks to senior guard Fletcher Magee and his potent three-point shooting. The Terriers will let it fly in this one as they were the second-best three-point shooting team in the country this season. Wofford has also won 20 consecutive games as they’re arguably the hottest team entering the NCAA tournament.

Seton Hall has figured things out just in time for the Big Dance as guard Myles Powell is one of the hotter individual players in the country. The Pirates have won four of their last five games entering the tournament with the only loss coming to Villanova during a controversial Big East title game. With strong guard play and both teams trending in positive directions, this has the makings of a memorable battle.

6. No. 8 seed Utah State vs. No. 9 seed Washington, Friday, 6:50 p.m., Columbus

This is one of those dream matchups we probably wouldn’t see in the regular season. A top Pac-12 program facing a very credible Mountain West team usually doesn’t happen because it’s generally a no-win situation for the Pac-12 school.

But we get to see it here in the first round as perhaps the best No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup. Utah State probably would have made the Field of 68 as an at-large but they took the safer route of just winning the Mountain West autobid instead. Junior guard Sam Merrill is also one of the field’s most underrated individual scorers as he’s putting up 21.2 points per game.

Washington gets a chance to show the Pac-12 was entirely pathetic this season by advancing to the Round of 32. The Huskies struggled late in the season in two losses against Oregon, so it’ll be interesting to see how Washington fares against another NCAA tournament-caliber team. A win here would be huge for the Mountain West when it comes to bragging rights.

7. No. 7 seed Cincinnati vs. No. 10 seed Iowa, Friday, 12:15 p.m., Columbus

This game should already be unique because it’s a clash of styles between the traditionally slow and rugged Bearcats against the more offensive-minded Hawkeyes. It should also be relatively close game compared to many first-round matchups.

But the antics on the sidelines between Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin and Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery will be worth watching — particularly since this is the first game on the schedule on Friday. The last time McCaffery was in Columbus, he cursed out Big Ten officials during an ugly Iowa loss at Ohio State that led to a two-game suspension.

Cincinnati was gifted an in-state game in this matchup and it could make for some explosive McCaffery quotes in the postgame presser if things don’t go his way.

CBT’s guide to running a perfect 2019 NCAA Tournament bracket pool

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Whether it’s your office, your family, favorite bar or that random email list you got on a decade ago, you’ve got all kinds of options to jump into an NCAA tournament pool or 12 this week. Not all tourney pools are created equal, though. Some go off without a hitch, others are annoying and some are downright train wrecks. 

Since the CBT staff has been in dozens of different NCAA Tournament pools over the years, we decided to help guide you in the right direction on the ways to make your pool the best that it can be.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

WHAT SHOULD YOU PLAY FOR? 

Sure, “money” is the obvious and correct answer here, but not every question has only one right response. Also, I’d argue money isn’t the best answer here. It is simply “stakes.”

But money is the easiest so let’s start with that.

Whether it’s $5, $10, $20 or $500 an entry, putting some dough in the pot keeps everyone interesting. Depending on your audience – are they college basketball junkies or have never heard of Coach K – you’ll want to adjust the buy-in accordingly. If it’s an office pool, keeping the entry low might entice the less-enthusiastic to get involved without too much pain. If it’s your ball-crazy group of friends, maybe up the ante a little. Your friendships can handle taking each other’s money, promise.

Here’s the deal, though. Stakes don’t have to be money. Yeah, you can have some sort of prize – maybe a parking space at work or you get to be first in line to the Easter brunch with your family – but the more interesting direction here is a punishment. At least if you’re into seeing your friends and family humiliated.

Finish last in your pool? You get to stand at busy intersection holding a sign that says “MY TITLE PICK WAS THE ONLY ONE SEED TO EVER LOSE TO A 16.” Or you’ve got to name your fantasy football team in the fall after the winner. That’s why CBT editor Rob Dauster’s squad was named “Hines Is The Best” last year (don’t fact check me on this). Something that makes the worst bracketeer feel bad is really the only rule here. Winning money is great, but being able to laugh at your loved ones and dearest friends is better, right?

This can be a component of any pool. The NCAA tournament has winners and losers. Your bracket pool should, too.

WHAT SHOULD THE SCORING SYSTEM BE? 

There’s a couple of ways to go here.

If you want to add weight to picking the games that mean the most in the broader college basketball landscape – ie the Final Four and title game – then go this way:

First Round: 1 point

Second Round: 2 points

Sweet 16: 4 points

Elite Eight: 8 points

Final Four: 16 points

Title Game: 32 points

If you want to de-emphasize the later rounds a little bit – but still obviously give them their due – go here to make the difference between picking a first-round game and a national champion a little less dramatic.

Round of 64: 1 point

Round of 32: 2 points

Sweet 16: 3 points

Elite Eight: 4 points

Final Four: 5 points

Title Game: 6 points

SHOULD YOU ALLOW PEOPLE TO BUY-IN WITH MULTIPLE BRACKETS?

If you’re playing for money, yes. Now, it’s incredibly annoying to here people brag about how they picked that 15-seed over a 2 in one of their 37 brackets as if that’s some major accomplishment, but if they’re going to pony up the entry fee for each one of those, it’s worth listening to. Nod, curse them internally and take their money.

But if you’re playing for a prize and/or a punishment – and I’m really stressing the latter here – stick to one bracket.

HOW SHOULD YOU SEND THE INITIAL EMAIL/WELCOME LETTER? 

Again, know your audience here.

If you’re running your office pool, maybe stick to the basics. Deadlines, rules, stakes and pleasantries. Maybe save the inside jokes and savage personal attacks for a pool your friends or annoying in-laws are in. I mean, have the rules and stuff in that one too, but feel free to let some digs in. You’re only joking anyway, right?

One thing to stress in every opening letter is how to pay up. There are so many options now between digital payments directly to the administrator or a company that will hold the money for you, that you should never, ever have to touch a personal check. Yes, they still make those, and Bob in accounts receivable will absolutely make you deal with that outdated piece of paper unless you tell him otherwise.

Also, be crystal clear about the scoring system and payouts. That way when someone comes back to complain about something – and someone will absolutely complain about something – you can point to the initial letter and not have to argue about whether or not finishing 11th in the pool should get any cash.

2019 NCAA Tournament: Expert bracket picks

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Here are the brackets from the four College Basketball Talk experts, as well as the bracket that was produced on the ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ bracket breakdown podcast.

For full bracket analysis, listen to the podcast or read through the following breakdowns.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

ROB DAUSTER

‘WHY YOUR TEAM SUCKS’ BRACKET

SCOTT PHILLIPS

TRAVIS HINES

RAPHIELLE JOHNSON

2019 NCAA Tournament: Six possible Cinderellas

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For those who are looking to win their NCAA tournament bracket pools, identifying the teams most capable of pulling off an upset can be the difference between a decent bracket and winning the the pool. The 2019 NCAA tournament field has some solid options to choose from, with the formula for those teams over the years generally being the same.

Good guard play is paramount, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a high-level talent capable of putting the team on his back for stretches of time. Here’s a look at six teams capable of not only winning their first game doing even more beyond that point.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

TEMPLE (11-seed, East)

In every year of the First Four, which was established ahead of the 2011 NCAA tournament, at least one at-large winner in Dayton has gone on to win a game in the main bracket. Of course Temple, Belmont, Arizona State and St. John’s will all be aware of this fact, but the better choice for a win in the main bracket may come from the Temple/Belmont matchup.

Why? Because the 6-seed in the East, Maryland, did not finish its regular season in good form and has a habit of both getting off to slow starts and turning the ball over. The pick here is Temple due to a rotation led by guards Shizz Alston Jr. (19.7 ppg, 5.0 apg), Quinton Rose (16.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and Nate Pierre-Louis (13.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg), and the motivation that comes from wanting to send retiring head coach Fran Dunphy out on a positive note should give the Owls a boost as well.

NEW MEXICO STATE (12-seed, Midwest)

The New Mexico State program is one that’s used to taking part in the NCAA tournament. This will be NMSU’s 25th appearance and seventh in the last eight seasons. Chris Jans has a team that has won 30 games this season, and they’ve gotten the job done by committee on the offensive end of the floor. Junior guard Terrell Brown (11.3 ppg) is the lone double-digit scorer, but the Aggies have six players averaging at least 7.5 points per game.

The Aggies don’t shoot particularly well from the perimeter, shooting 33.5% from three on the season, but they’ve made up for this by being one of the best offensive rebounding teams in college basketball (36.8% offensive rebound percentage). And New Mexico State’s opponent, Auburn, has a defensive rebounding percentage of just 69.8%. If Auburn struggles to keep the Aggies off the offensive glass things could get interesting Thursday afternoon in Salt Lake City.

OREGON (12-seed, South)

Dana Altman’s Ducks had to win the Pac-12 tournament in order to reach the NCAA tournament, and they did so by winning four games in as many days. Oregon’s run to the tournament actually began with one of the team’s lowest points of the season, a 90-83 loss at UCLA February 23 in which the Ducks gave up a staggering 62 points in the second half.

From that point forward the Ducks have been downright stingy defensively, as they’ve allowed 61 points or more in just two of the eight games they’ve won since. There’s no shortage of talent on this roster even with Bol Bol suffering a season-ending foot injury during non-conference play, with junior guard Payton Pritchard running the show and forwards Louis King and Paul White also being double-digit scorers. And with Kenny Wooten and Francis Okoro inside, Oregon has the players needed to match up with a Wisconsin team led by senior forward Ethan Happ.

MURRAY STATE (12-seed, West)

High-level guard play is a must in March, and Murray State has a player in sophomore Ja Morant who’s projected to be a lottery pick this June should be forego his remaining eligibility. The sophomore is averaging 24.6 points, 10.0 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game, and he’s an explosive athlete who can score at all three levels.

However, for all the attention Morant receives head coach Matt McMahon isn’t leading a one-man outfit. Three other Racers average double figures, including senior guard Leroy Buchanan, and the team is ranked eighth nationally in field goal percentage. The issue for Murray State is that their first-round opponent, Marquette, has an elite guard of its own (Markus Howard) and the Golden Eagles are deep on the perimeter as well. This sets up to be one of the most entertaining first-round matches.

UC IRVINE (13-seed, South)

With Kansas State senior forward Dean Wade’s status for this game yet to be determined, as he missed the Big 12 tournament with a foot injury, this sets up to be a dangerous game for the Big 12 regular season co-champions. Russell Turner’s Anteaters enter the tournament with a 30-5 record, and they’ve hung their hat on the defensive end for quite some time now.

Opponents are shooting just 38.0% from the field overall, 40.4% from two and 33.2% from three (defensive eFG% of 43.7%). Offensively the Anteaters are led by junior guards Max Hazzard and Evan Leonard, and nine players are averaging between 5.7 (Elston Jones) and 12.5 (Hazzard) points per game. Collin Welp (23 points in the Big West title game) is an effective option off the bench for UC Irvine, which gave Louisville all it wanted back in 2015 before losing by two. This matchup could be just as tight.

OLD DOMINION (14-seed, South)

ODU won the Conference USA regular season and tournament titles, doing so by controlling tempo on offense and limiting their opponents’ quality scoring opportunities on the other end. Guards B.J. Stith, Ahmad Caver and Xavier Green average a combined 43.1 points per game for a team that scores just 66.1 points per on the season.

The Monarchs drew a team in Purdue that’s been considerably better offensively — against tougher competition — and the Boilermakers are comfortable playing a half-court game as well. This may be the longest shot of the six listed here but funny things can happen this time of year, especially in lower-possession games.