Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Shaka Smart’s coaching tree is thriving as his Texas tenure is slow to start

Leave a comment

As Isaac Vann grabbed the final rebound of the night, corralling a loose ball after Matt Coleman’s would-be game-winning three went in and then came back out, Texas head coach Shaka Smart was already heading to the other end of the Erwin Center.

He embraced with VCU coach Mike Rhoades, a dear friend and former assistant. He shook hands with a roster full of Rams, only one of whom, fifth-year senior Michael Gilmore, knew him as anything other than the man that used to coach their program.

The anguish was already imprinted on his face, as the coach that four years ago was tasked with making Texas basketball great again had to choke down another three-game losing streak, the second straight that came at home against a coach that had once called Smart boss. Last Friday, Smart had to go in front of reporters and explain why he had lost to Radford and Mike Jones, the first of six former assistants that have left his staff to take a Division I head coaching job. On Wednesday, he had to explain why a season that just two weeks ago looked so promising had come back to earth so quickly.

On Nov. 23rd, 24 hours after the Longhorns landed a Thanksgiving Day win over North Carolina in which they scored 92 points, Texas had opened up a 25-6 lead on Michigan State. The offensive issues that have plagued Texas from the start of Smart’s tenure were no where to be found, Kerwin Roach looked like a guy heading for the first round of the NBA Draft and the talk of the basketball world was, for a moment, that he had figured it out.

And just that quickly, the moment was gone. Texas would lose by 10 to Michigan State. They would follow that up with the back-to-back losses to Radford and VCU, and here we are, wondering whether or not Texas made the right decision to replace Rick Barnes, who won the SEC with Tennessee last year.

That, however, is not the most interesting question to ask here.

Smart is 41 years old. He has six former assistants that are currently Division I head coaches — Jones, Rhoades, LSU’s Will Wade, Siena’s Jamion Christian, UNC Asheville’s Mike Morrell and FIU’s Jeremy Ballard. That’s the same number as Bill Self, who has won the Big 12 for 14-straight seasons. That’s one more than Billy Donovan and two more than both Tom Izzo and Jay Wright. That’s one less than Mike Krzyzewski and Thad Matta.

How has a man that is at least a decade younger than all six of those national-title winning Hall of Famers managed to churn out head coaches at such a high rate?

And why has his staff become so popular for athletic directors looking to hire a basketball coach?


(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Mike Ellis knew it was only going to be a matter of time. The associate athletic director at VCU, who spent 13 years as an assistant coach at the school, was aware Auburn’s overtures were not the last that Jeff Capel was going to hear. Eventually, he was going to move on to bigger and better things. Eventually, he was going to need to be replaced, and Ellis knew that he needed to be prepared for that day.

So during the 2004 July live period in Las Vegas, he called up a number of administrators he knew would be on the hunt for new coaching blood and invited 33 of the nation’s best-qualified assistant coaches to the Mirage for an informal reception to be held at Villa No. 7.

It was a hit.

“It allowed them to see these coaches in a different setting than they would in a regular interview,” Ellis told NBC Sports. Before long, the event was being held at Nike’s campus in Portland with a guest list that only included the best up-and-coming assistant coaches at Nike-affiliated schools.

It was where, in 2007, then-VCU athletic director Norwood Teague first met a 29-year old Clemson assistant coach named Shaka Smart. Two years later, when Anthony Grant — who was hired to replace the Oklahoma-bound Capel in 2006 — left for Alabama, Teague knew who to call.

Smart by then had been hired by Billy Donovan at Florida.

Teague offered the job to Smart, then 31, and the rest is history.

The event they met at would go on to be named The Villa 7 Consortium.


(Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

We’re now into the fourth year of Smart’s tenure at Texas, and he has yet to get that thing going the way many expected him to.

For four years, he was the hottest name on the coaching carousel. He took a program that played in the CAA from the First Four to the Final Four when he was 33 years old. He then shepherded that program from the CAA to the Atlantic 10 without missing a beat. The Rams were a mainstay in the top 25 in the four years Smart was with the program after the Final Four. He reached the NCAA tournament in his last five seasons in Richmond, the last three as a member of the Atlantic 10. It’s no wonder that brands like UCLA, Marquette and N.C. State came calling.

Smart finally settled on taking the Texas job, but the success has not translated. If he gets things turned around this season he’ll make the tournament for the third time in four years in Austin, but he has yet to win a tournament game with Texas; he hasn’t made it out of the first round since 2013 and has not gotten back to the Sweet 16 since the Final Four run.

The crux of the issue has been on the offensive side of the ball, where Texas finished 177th and 89th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric the last two seasons — they are 99th this season as of this writing — and people in and around college basketball have varying opinions on why that is the case.

Part of it is well beyond Smart’s control. After going 20-13 in his first season in Austin, Smart watched as point guard Isaiah Taylor opted to skip his final year of eligibility to head to the professional ranks. Instead of having a borderline All-American running the show, Smart was left with a talented crop of youngsters that lacked leadership, a natural point guard and an ability to create offense in the halfcourt. It was always going to be a rebuilding year.

The following season, Texas reached the NCAA tournament as Mo Bamba anchored one of the nation’s best defenses, but the program was once again limited offensively due to circumstances beyond Smart’s control: Andrew Jones, their starting point guard and a potential NBA draft pick, was diagnosed with leukemia 10 games into the season and roughly a month after breaking his wrist.

For the second straight season, a team that was already limited offensively was forced to play out the year with a freshman starting at the point.

That’s not the end of it, either. In his second year on the job, Tevin Mack, his leading scorer at the time, left the program 15 games into the season. The following season, Jones was the team’s leading scorer when he was diagnosed. That’s not easy to rebound from.

This year, however, hasn’t been much different. Matt Coleman has struggled. Kerwin Roach put together one of the best single-game performances of the season in the win over North Carolina but has been somewhere between a mess and a disaster in the six other games he’s suited up. The Longhorns have scored 0.835 points-per-possession in the last two games, both of which came at home against teams that rank outside the top 100 on KenPom.

“He is offensively challenged,” one high major coach said of Smart after watching the Longhorns in the last week.

Mohamed Bamba (Chris Covatta/Getty Images)

And that leads me to the other issue that Smart has had at Texas: The players don’t stay around long enough.

Talk to anyone that was in or around Smart’s VCU program, and they will tell you that the crux of his success was that his roster was made up of tough, overlooked kids playing with a chip on their shoulder and willing to run through a wall for Smart because they knew Smart would run through a wall for them.

“One of the things at VCU that coach would harp on us to look for was competitive spirit,” Mike Morrell said. Now the head coach at UNC Asheville, Morrell spent more time working for Smart’s than anyone. He was a GA at Clemson when Smart was an assistant, and he spent seven years on staff at VCU and Texas as everything from a DOBO to a full-time assistant. “Competitiveness and enthusiasm are things that are important to him, and that was most evident at VCU.”

This was a priority for Smart.

And it showed up in the way the program played.

We all know about ‘Havoc’, the name that gets associated with the pressing defense that Smart employed at VCU. But listen to the people that worked for him at VCU, and Havoc was about more than just a 1-2-1-1 press.

“Havoc was a lifestyle,” Morrell said. “Havoc was a culture. It was a mentality that those guys had every day, and that was a direct, direct product of Coach Smart.”

And he was able to build that culture, that lifestyle, because he was able to spend four or five years with the guys he brought into the program. While Smart made his mark by finding the players no one else believed to be good enough, there was still top talent on the roster. Three of guys from those VCU teams are still hanging around the NBA — Troy Daniels, Briante Weber and Treveon Graham — and even more are cashing paychecks while playing overseas.

But their success wasn’t the result of simply having better basketball players than their opponents.

It was a direct result of Smart’s greatest strength as a coach, the thing he does better than just about anyone in college basketball, the part of his program that is the priority: His ability to build relationships and connect with the people that he works with every day.


(Chris Covatta/Getty Images)

Depending on who you ask, The Villa 7 Consortium was either a great way for athletic directors and young up-and-coming assistants to connect, or it was Nike’s way to push certain coaching candidates that they had close ties with to the front of the line.

The truth is somewhere in the middle — yes, Nike favored their guys, but they also created a venue for coaches like Smart, or Buzz Williams, or Kevin Keatts to be able to sell themselves to employers.

What everyone seems to agree on, however, is that VCU’s association with Villa 7 impacted the perception of the coaches on that staff. An assistant coach working at the school that created one of the premier networking events in the business had to know what they were doing when it comes to hiring assistants, right? Add to that the fact that VCU has been one of the best basketball programs outside the power conferences since Capel arrived in 2002, and it only made sense that athletic directors would be looking to that staff to make hires. It’s not a coincidence that all nine assistant coaches that worked at VCU from 2007-2014 are Division I head coach at this very moment. That doesn’t even count Smart, Capel or Anthony Grant.

But there’s more to it than that.

Because the hires that Smart has made weren’t simply based off of who the hot name was at Villa 7.

On his first staff at VCU, he reached down to the Division III ranks to hire Rhoades, who had spent a decade as the head coach of a powerhouse Randolph-Macon program. He was hired after the two missed the 2009 Final Four games as they talked their way through a dinner in Detroit. When Jones took the Radford job, Smart was coming off of a trip to the Final Four and could have hired just about anyone. He looked 45 minutes down I-95 and hired Jamion Christian, who began his coaching career at Division III Emory & Henry, off of William & Mary’s staff. In nine months, Christian was the head coach at his alma mater, Mt. St. Mary’s. He was never a part of the Villa 7 program. Neither was Morrell.

“I played Division III,” Smart told me in July. He had just finished up a search for Morrell’s replacement on his staff at Texas, hiring Neill Berry away from Iowa State. “I never put a whole lot of stock into what level a guy is coming from. One thing that has been, not frustrating, but humbling, I know that there is some guy out there in Division II or Division III, or high school even, that would be perfect. I just don’t know who he is. The thing is, as I get older, I get a little bit further away from knowing who all those young guys are. So it gets harder.”

Shaka Smart with Joey Rodriguez in 2011 (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Like every coach in the country, Smart keeps a list of the good, young assistants. He also keeps a list of everything that is important to him in an assistant. He has it written on a notecard. He keeps a picture of that notecard on his phone. And while he opted not to show me what was on the list, he did say that there were about ten responsibilities that he prioritized in an assistant, and that none of them were more important than the ability to build relationships.

He wants to hire well-rounded people. He wants coaches that understand how to run offense, that know how a press works, that have the recruiting connections that will get players while being capable of making proper evaluations, understanding which of those players will fit in his program. He makes a point of having everyone on his staff have a hand in every aspect of running a program.

“I remember vividly in practice him not [running] every single drill,” said Joey Rodriguez, the starting point guard of Smart’s Final Four team. “Every coach is really involved, and he gives them time to handle what’s going on in practice. He splits up scouts to all his assistants and does what they believe.”

Coaches, like players, need to be developed, and Smart gives them a chance to grow on his staff.

But none of that was as important as “spending time.” That’s a term that Smart learned while working under Keith Dambrot at Akron. Dambrot was something of a screamer in those days, the kind of coach that would break players down in practice. After every practice, he required his assistant coaches to spend at least 10 minutes in the locker room with the players, helping to build them back up. Except they weren’t in there to talk about basketball. They were there to talk about everything else. Girlfriends, schoolwork, family problems, life goals.

“I don’t do that the way he does, because I think that the locker room needs to be their space most of the time, but just the concept of spending time with guys, I got that from Keith,” Smart said.

It worked.

Christian said that one of his first days on the job, he walked into the gym 45 minutes after a practice and saw Smart sitting on the floor at center court talking with Dareus Theus. Rodriguez was blown away at how Smart was able to bring the team closer together even though he had just joined the program. During that first summer, Rodriguez said the gym that they would work out in didn’t have air conditioning, but that didn’t stop the entire team from showing up during individuals.

Mike Rhoades (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

“Our whole team was there hanging out, watching the workouts,” he said. “You don’t really see that a lot. We’d be there for four straight hours, watching our friends work out, talking, chilling, supporting.”

“Everyone says they want to foster a family atmosphere,” Rodriguez added. “He really does it.”

The family atmosphere wasn’t just within the program.

Few cities have embraced the culture of a college basketball program the way that the city of Richmond embraced VCU and Havoc.

It’s something athletic directors tried to mimic. When Will Wade was hired by Chattanooga, he created ‘Chaos.’ Christian did the same at Mt. St. Mary’s, coining the term ‘Mayhem.’ Neither slogan took off, but the basketball programs did. Wade twice finished second in the SoCon and, within two years, had built up enough of a resume to get the VCU job when Smart left. He went to two straight NCAA tournaments — and won a regular season conference title with the Rams, something Smart has never done in his coaching career — before getting scooped up by LSU in 2017.

Christian never had a losing record in NEC play in six seasons at his alma mater. He made two NCAA tournaments in a four-year span and was hired by Siena this spring. Rhoades dragged the Rice basketball program out of the gutter, won 23 games in 2016-17 and was hired by VCU to replace Wade. Jones was in danger of losing his job at one point, but he reached the 2018 NCAA tournament and has now beaten both Texas and Notre Dame on the road this season.

Smart may not be having the success that he would like in Austin, but the coaches that have been hired off of his staff have unquestionably been successful. Morrell and Ballard were just hired this spring, but of the other four, three have already moved on to bigger and better jobs.


Shaka Smart coaches Andrew Jones(Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

So where does this leave Smart and the Texas program?

He’s in a tough spot.

The way that he needs to recruit at Texas is to land four- and five-star prospects. He’s done that. He brought in Jarrett Allen. He brought in Andrew Jones. He landed Matt Coleman and Mo Bamba. He beat out the likes of Kentucky for Jaxson Hayes.

The problem, however, is that those players don’t end up staying around all that long. His core coaching philosophy, the thing that he does better than anyone else, is to connect with his players, to get them to play harder than anyone that they face. That works at VCU, where his best recruits are going to be in town for four years. It’s not quite as simple at Texas, where the guys that are there for four years haven’t proven to be talented or consistent enough; where the guys that are good enough turn pro after a year or two.

There’s still plenty of time for Smart to get this thing turned around at Texas, to show that he can make it work at that level.

What has become abundantly clear, however, is that the way he runs his program, the way he teaches the people on his staff to coach, can thrive at the lower levels of the sport.

And that isn’t going to change.

No. 13-seed UC Irvine pulls off upset of No. 4-seed Kansas State

AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Leave a comment

And the Anteaters go marching on.

Max Hazzard hit five threes, including a critical three with less than two minutes left on the clock to give UC Irvine a five-point lead, and scored 19 points to lead the No. 13-seed to the first real upset of the NCAA tournament.

Evan Leonard added 19 points, six boards, four assists and four steals, making four free throws to ice the game in the final 20 seconds, as No. 4-seed Kansas State went down, 70-64.

Kansas State entered this game as the co-Big 12 champion, but they were playing without their star, Dean Wade, who is dealing with foot issues that cost him the Big 12 tournament as well. His absence hurt. He is the best shooter, the best passer and the best player for the Wildcats, and his absence contributed to Kansas State’s 38.6 percent shooting now and an 8-for-27 performance from three.

But that should not take any of the credit away from Irvine. Remember, Kansas State reached the Elite 8 last season with Wade playing.

The credit belongs to Russell Turner, his game plan and the way his team executed it. Turner is a former Standford assistant that had a shot at getting the Cal job when the Bears hired Wyking Jones. He’s won four of the last six Big West regular season titles and advanced to the NCAA tournament twice in his five year tenure.

Jarrett Culver’s big game leads No. 3 Texas Tech past No. 14 Northern Kentucky

Getty Images
Leave a comment

All-American Jarrett Culver had a monster outing as No. 3 seed Texas Tech cruised to a 72-57 win over No. 14 seed Northern Kentucky during a Friday afternoon NCAA tournament first-round game in the West Region.

Finishing with 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, Culver was efficient and dominant for the Red Raiders as they opened up the game in the second half. Only a 30-26 lead for Texas Tech at the break, the Red Raiders clamped down and used the offense of Culver and it’s No. 1 overall defense to break the game open.

The Big 12 Player of the Year had one of the best individual games of any player in the first round as he was 10-for-17 from the floor and 3-for-5 from three-point range. Big man Tariq Owens also finished in double-figures for Texas Tech with 12 points while Davide Moretti added 10 points.

Northern Kentucky (26-9) stayed in the game for a half thanks to the hot shooting of junior guard Tyler Sharpe as he finished with 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting. The Norse couldn’t generate much consistent offense outside of Sharpe, however, as Northern Kentucky shot 5-for-21 from the three-point line. Horizon League Player of the Year Drew McDonald was held to only five points on 2-for-12 shooting as he struggled to get going. Dantez Wilson (11 points) was the only other double-figure scorer for the Norse.

The Red Raiders advance to face either No. 6 seed Buffalo or No. 11 seed Arizona State in Tulsa on Sunday.

Oklahoma advances past Ole Miss in rout

AP Photo/Sean Rayford
Leave a comment

Rashard Odomes and Christian James both popped off for 20 points and Kristian Doolittle added 19 points, 14 boards and five assists as No. 9-seed Oklahoma blew out No. 8-seed Ole Miss, 95-72, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The Sooners, with the win, will advance to face No. 1-seed Virginia as long as Virginia can get past Gardner-Webb in the first round.

This was something of a cathartic win for an Oklahoma team that was among the handful of at-large invites that had thoroughly mediocre performances in league play. The Sooners opened the Big 12 season with eight losses in their first 11 games and finished with a 7-11 record in the conference.

One game samples really should not determine whether or not a body of work merited inclusion in an event like that, but it’s hard to see the performance that this team — and the Big 12 as a whole — put together thus far in the event and think the committee was wrong to add a sub-.500 team from the Big 12 to the field.

It’s also a sign for what this Oklahoma program is and can be under Lon Kruger.

It’s difficult to compare things like this year over year, but it is certainly interesting to note than not only did Oklahoma get a better seed this year than they did last year, with Trae Young on the roster, but they advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, which is something they did not do with Trae.

That’s not to say that the team is better without him — frankly, I think that’s a silly argument to make. Guys are a year older and a year better, which matters, and I think that the 7-11 mark in Big 12 play says more than the result of a one-game knockout tournament.

It is, however, important to note that Kruger has this thing to the point that they can lose a guy that is now averaging 18.5 points and 7.8 assists in the NBA and still be good enough to get a bid and win a game.

No. 10 Iowa rallies past No. 7 Cincinnati

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Iowa rallied from a slow start to get past No. 7 seed Cincinnati with a 79-72 win on Friday in a South Region NCAA tournament game in Columbus.

Cincinnati generated an early 18-5 lead in the first half as they fed off of the Bearcat-friendly Columbus crowd only to see the No. 10-seed Hawkeyes get hot in the second half.

Things turned in Iowa’s favor about midway through the first half when the Hawkeyes started working the ball more inside. Behind sophomore big man Luka Garza (20 points, 8-for-11 shooting), the Hawkeyes were able to establish an inside presence while opening up the team’s perimeter-shooting options.

In the second half, freshman Joe Wieskamp (19 points) and the Hawkeyes started to make an abundance of threes as they finished 11-for-22 (50 percent) from the perimeter — including a blistering 7-for-10 mark in the second half. Junior guard Jordan Bohannon also tallied 13 points while Nicholas Baer added 10 points as Iowa outscored Cincinnati 48-36 in the second half.

Using the hot shooting of senior point guard Justin Jenifer (19 points), Cincinnati appeared to be completely in the driver’s seat in the first half. But once Iowa started responding with a flurry of second-half threes, the Bearcats struggled to play from behind in the final minutes. Jarron Cumberland (18 points) didn’t get rolling as a scorer until the second half while big man Nysier Brooks (11 points) fouled out with a few minutes left. Tre Scott also finished with 10 points on the afternoon for the Bearcats. Cincinnati struggled to match Iowa’s hot perimeter shooting as they were 6-for-27 from three-point range (24 percent) on the day.

This is a great comeback win for Iowa, as they overcame the bad start by working to take better shots. Forcing a lot of early looks, once the Hawkeyes started getting Garza comfortable on the block, it opened up looks for their shooters. It’s also notable that junior forward Tyler Cook, one of Iowa’s best players, was limited to only five points on 1-for-9 shooting.

Iowa was playing sluggish basketball the final three weeks of the regular season. Friday’s second half was a reminder of how dangerous the Hawkeyes can be if they are hitting shots. And for Iowa to rally when Cook was playing this poorly is yet another positive sign that the Hawkeyes are not to be taken lightly going forward.

With Iowa’s win, the Big Ten now moves to 6-0 in the 2019 NCAA tournament after a 5-0 start on Thursday. Iowa advances to face the winner of No. 2 seed Tennessee and No. 15 seed Colgate on Sunday in Columbus.

Best Bets: The Bettor’s Guide to Saturday’s NCAA tournament games

Getty Images
Leave a comment

12:10 p.m.: No. 3 LSU vs. No. 6 Maryland, CBS

  • LINE: LSU (-2)
  • TOTAL: 147
  • IMPLIED SCORE: LSU 74.5, Maryland 72.5
  • KENPOM: LSU 74, Maryland 73

If you love watching soon-to-be NBA big men do battle in the paint, this is the matchup for you. Naz Reid, Kavell Bigby-Williams and Emmitt Williams facing off with Bruno Fernando, Jalen Smith and Ricky Lindo. Buckle up!

I think I lean towards the Maryland side here. The Terps have the size and athleticism on the wings to be able to handle Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart, their big men should be able to keep LSU’s frontcourt in check and Tremont Waters is a pest, I do think Anthony Cowan will be able to avoid the live-ball turnovers that are killers.

PICK: This is a toss-up and a fascinating matchup between two teams with very similar roster constructions. That said, my money here will be on Mark Turgeon, who isn’t exactly the best coach in the world but who should be able to find a way to get it done against Tony Benford, LSU’s interim head coach. This is where it’s worth nothing that LSU blew a big lead in the second half against Florida in the SEC tournament quarterfinals before nearly blowing a bigger lead to Yale in the first round. Thats the difference-maker for me.

2:40 p.m.: No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 7 Wofford, CBS

  • LINE: Kentucky (-5.5)
  • TOTAL: 138.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kentucky 72, Wofford 66.5
  • KENPOM: Kentucky 72, Wofford 68

P.J. Washington will not be playing in this one, which is a problem for the Wildcats if this is a longterm injury but not necessarily one that I think will cost them against Wofford. The key here is going to be Kentucky’s ability to chase Wofford’s shooters around screens and how well they deal with Cameron Jackson in the paint. I think that Tyler Herro, Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson will be able to keep Fletcher Magee, Storm Murphy and Nathan Hoover from going absolutely bonkers. Jackson is not all that dissimilar from Grant Williams in terms of the way he does his job, and Travis did a good job keeping Williams in check when they played.

PICK: I do like the Kentucky side here, although I don’t feel great about it. We’ll see if that line continues to climb, and maybe that would change things.

5:15 p.m.: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 10 Florida, CBS

  • LINE: Michigan (-7)
  • TOTAL: 120
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan 63.5, Florida 56.5
  • KENPOM: Michigan 63, Florida 56

I fully expect this to end up being one of the ugliest games of the tournament. Both teams have top 15 defenses, and Florida has guys that can guard the likes of Jordan Poole and Ignas Brazdeikis. I think this game plays out as a possession-by-possession battle played in the 50s that ends up being a one or two possession game in the final minute.

PICK: I don’t know if Florida will win this game, but seven points is a lot of points in a game that should be as slow and low-scoring as this game will be.

6:10 p.m.: No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 12 Murray State, TNT

  • LINE: Florida State (-5)
  • TOTAL: 143
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Florida State 74, Murray State 69
  • KENPOM: Florida State 74, Murray State 69

This is so tough. On the one hand, Florida State should have the bodies to be able to keep Ja Morant in check. They have a roster full of length and athleticism on the perimeter and they are a top 15 defense nationally. They are going to do a lot of switching, but that shouldn’t matter as Leonard Hamilton has built a team that is designed to defend like that. The matchup, to me, screams Florida State, especially at just (-5).

But my heart?

My heart says that Ja Morant is about to go on a Stephen Curry-esque run. He’s going to be an NBA superstar, and while we saw what he can do as a creator on Thursday, we have not yet seen just how dangerous he can be as a scorer. I want the Ja Morant ride to last.

PICK: My head says Florida State (-5). My heart says go along for the Racer ride. So I’ll probably just take the over.

7:10 p.m.: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Baylor, TBS

  • LINE: Gonzaga (-12.5)
  • TOTAL: 148
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Gonzaga 80.25, Baylor 67.75
  • KENPOM: Gonzaga 81, Baylor 69

I think Killian Tillie is the important piece in this matchup. He’s such a good shooter, an underrated passer and the piece that should allow Gonzaga’s offense to get unclogged against this Baylor zone. In three games back since returning from his second foot injury of the season, he’s averaging 10.3 points in just 15 minutes per game, shooting 6-for-7 from three and 80 percent from the floor.

PICK: The Bears getting 12.5 points is a lot of points for a team that is going to be able to get only the offensive glass. The biggest issue for Baylor this year is that they turn the ball over like crazy, and Gonzaga has not been all that good at forcing turnovers this season. I think I lean Gonzaga, but I won’t bet it myself unless the line moves towards the Zags.

7:45 p.m.: No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 10 Minnesota, CBS

  • LINE: Michigan State (-10)
  • TOTAL: 141.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan State 75.75, Minnesota 65.75
  • KENPOM: Michigan State 77, Minnesota 67

Minnesota was not great this season. They are playing a wing at the point guard spot because Isaiah Washington has been a mess. They only go five deep at this point, and they were able to run over Louisville because the one guy that can make threes on their roster made a bunch of threes.

Michigan State beat Minnesota by 24 points the one time that they played this season, but they are a team that relies almost entirely on Cassius Winston running ball-screens, and Minnesota has been pretty good defending ball-screens this season.

PICK: With the spread at (-10), I think I would lean towards taking Minnesota. That’s a lot of points. But I think my favorite bet in this game is actually the under. Michigan State looked gassed in the first round after playing three games in three days during their run to the Big Ten tournament title. Minnesota is basically running out a five-man rotation these days. Legs will catch up with them eventually.

8:40 p.m.: No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 6 Villanova, TNT

  • LINE: Purdue (-3.5)
  • TOTAL: 137
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Purdue 70.25, Villanova 66.75
  • KENPOM: Purdue 72, Villanova 67

This is my favorite bet of the Saturday slate. The defense that Villanova runs is pretty simple: They switch everything, 1-through-5, because it forces you out of the offense that you want to run. They dare teams to beat them 1-on-1, betting that their players are good enough to defend a cross-match regardless of opponent.

The problem for Purdue here is that, like Saint Mary’s, so much of what they get offensively comes out of the sets and actions they run. Put another way, Matt Painter doesn’t have all that many guys on his roster that can efficiently create for themselves in isolation. That includes Carsen Edwards, who is a tough-shot taker but, in the last month, has not exactly been a tough-shot maker.

The other part of this that makes me lean towards Villanova is that Villanova shoots more than 53 percent of their field goal attempts from three, and Purdue has not made running teams off the three-point line a priority this year.

PICK: If you are going to give me the defending national champs plus the points, I’ll take it. Villanova, if you’re tracking at home, has won 24 straight neutral court games. They win in knockout settings.

9:40 p.m.: No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 5 Auburn, TBS

  • LINE: PK
  • TOTAL: 147.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kansas 73.75, Auburn 73.75
  • KENPOM: Auburn 75, Kansas 74

This is tough because Auburn is just so up-and-down while Kansas has looked downright bad for the last month until they faced Northeastern and suddenly turned into Kansas again.

What Auburn wants to do is to is to turn defense into offense. They are going to gamble — for steals, for blocks, for leak-outs — and look to get quick threes in transition once they get possession. For 33 minutes, it worked against New Mexico State. Twice in the last two weeks it worked for 40 minutes against Tennessee. Kansas has been turnover prone this season, particularly their ball-handlers, but they have cleaned that up in recent weeks. Devon Dotson, for example, had a turnover rate higher than 20 percent entering the Big 12 tournament and has committed just three turnovers in the last four games.

PICK: The matchup is going to get won based on how well Kansas protects the ball and how well they defend in transition — they finished the year in the 51st percentile nationally. It’s worth nothing that the Jayhawks struggled with West Virginia once this season but handled them easily on two different occasions in the last three weeks.

I think I will probably stay away, personally, but when it comes down to it, I think Auburn is the better team with the better players.