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Saturday’s Things to Know: Conference titles get decided; Murray State and Ja Morant earn an autobid

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Ja Morant, Murray State

Many consider the sophomore point guard to be among the nation’s best players, but Morant hasn’t received the type of national attention that he got on Saturday night. And the future lottery pick delivered in a big way.

Helping Murray State to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season, Morant pick put up 36 points to go with seven rebounds and three assists as the Racers took down Belmont to earn the autobid in the Ohio Valley Conference.

With some fans tuning in to see Morant play for the first time, he didn’t disappoint, as he displayed the breathtaking playmaking ability and jaw-dropping athleticism that scouts have been raving about. One night after producing the go-ahead three-point play in the OVC semifinals, Morant again put his team on his back and got them back into the Big Dance.

March Madness just got soooo much better knowing that we get at least one more national showcase for Morant.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Michigan State Spartans

On Senior Day at the Breslin Center, if you’re going to kiss the Spartan logo at center court, then you better have the win in-hand before checking out for the final time. Especially when the Big Ten title is on the line and it’s a battle against bitter in-state rival Michigan when both teams are ranked in the top 10.

Michigan State rallied in impressive fashion in the second half to claim a share of the Big Ten title while also preventing the Wolverines from achieving the same with a 75-63 win. Trailing by eight points in the second half after a sluggish first 20 minutes, Michigan State started firing on all cylinders as junior point guard Cassius Winston’s hot stretch ignited a 25-4 Spartans run. After an ice-cold 1-for-8 start to the evening, Winston buried five straight shots to end the game with a team-high 23 points and seven assists.

This Big Ten title is especially impressive for Michigan State because the Spartans did it without Joshua Langford and Nick Ward playing for large stretches of time during the season. Missing two of their top players, and still earning a Big Ten title, speaks to the depth of the Spartans while Hall of Fame head coach Tom Izzo accomplished one of his most impressive feats.

Now the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament, Michigan State is hoping to ease Ward back into the lineup so he can contribute during the NCAA tournament. The phrase “Izzo in March” is usually reserved for the NCAA tournament. But it feels okay to use it here given the extraordinary late-season circumstances.

SATURDAY’S WINNERS

Co-ACC Champions North Carolina and Virginia: The Tar Heels swept the regular-season series with the Blue Devils to claim their share ACC glory as Roy Williams continues to own Coach K in the regular-season ACC title department since taking over the Tar Heels in 2004. Even though North Carolina had some question marks entering this season, most notably at lead guard, they’ve put themselves in position to potentially earn a No. 1 seed with their play this season.

Virginia shook off the historic NCAA tournament loss to No. 16 seed UMBC to earn another ACC title with a win over Louisville as Tony Bennett continue to have the league’s number. Looking stronger, deeper and more dangerous than last season, Virginia is the rare No. 1 seed with a legitimate chip on their shoulder entering the postseason.

Buckle up for a fun ACC tournament next week, as Duke, North Carolina and Virginia all have solid cases to potentially earn No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.

LSU: Playing without head coach Will Wade and freshman starting guard Javonte Smart, the Tigers still took care of business in a big home win over Vanderbilt. The victory gave the Tigers the outright title in the SEC — something few could have predicted entering the 2018-19 season given the strength of Kentucky and Tennessee. The recent Wade/Smart scandal has dominated the headlines and cast a black cloud over young LSU’s surprising season. It’s also easy to forget that the Tigers had to deal with the loss of teammate Wayde Sims in late September as he was tragically killed in a shooting. There’s a very real potential that this SEC championship will eventually get erased from the record books. But for now, LSU deserves to celebrate a special season in which they’ve overcome some incredibly difficult circumstances to become one of the best teams in the country.

Purdue: Splitting the Big Ten regular-season title with Michigan State after a road win at Northwestern, nobody expected head coach Matt Painter and his Boilermakers to have this type of season. With only one returning starter in Carsen Edwards, and with a mostly-new supporting cast, Purdue has been one of the nation’s pleasant surprises this season as Painter deserves National Coach of the Year chatter. In a brutally-tough Big Ten, Purdue seemed to only get better as the season wore along as they proved to be more than just Edwards and his scoring punch.

Co-Big 12 Champions Texas Tech and Kansas State: Who could have predicted these two winning the Big 12 championship? While Kansas State was a preseason top-10 team in the eyes of some following last season’s Elite Eight appearance, Texas Tech is another included on the list of most surprising teams in the country. The Red Raiders overcame the loss of six of their top eight scorers as head coach Chris Beard basically put an entirely new rotation on the floor from his own Elite Eight appearance last season. The national focus has drifted mostly towards Kansas losing its 14-year Big 12 regular-season title streak. Not enough credit has been given to Kansas State and Texas Tech both overcoming slow conference starts to bring home a league title.

Seton Hall: The Pirates had the best week of any bubble team in the country, and frankly, there doesn’t feel like a close second place. Earning back-to-back Q1 wins over Marquette and Villanova, the top two teams in the Big East, Seton Hall essentially punched its ticket into the NCAA tournament by grabbing two more monster wins during the final week of the regular season. Myles Powell is playing with a ton of confidence right now and the Pirates will be a fascinating team to follow at Madison Square Garden during the Big East tournament.

Temple: A home win over UCF could be the final ingredient in getting the Owls into the NCAA tournament. In head coach Fran Dunphy’s final season on the sidelines, Temple is hoping to be the fourth team from the American to make it into the Big Dance. During a season where many bubble teams are hovering near .500, while drawing the ire of college hoops diehards, it’s hard not to root for a story where a respected veteran coach leads his team into the field.

Villanova (even in a loss): Suffering a disappointing road loss at Seton Hall, the Wildcats still got lucky enough to win the Big East title, outright, thanks to Marquette’s shocking home loss to Georgetown. Even though Villanova struggled down the stretch this season — losing five of their last eight games — they still captured a conference title during an up-and-down season. Earning a No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament was an added bonus as Villanova tries to figure things out before the NCAA tournament.

SATURDAY’S LOSERS

Marquette: This recent stretch will haunt Marquette fans for years to come. Losing four straight games to close out the regular season, the Golden Eagles blew a shot at the Big East regular-season title on numerous occasions. As noted above, Villanova lost five of its final eight games. That allowed Marquette every opportunity to stay in the race. None of those chances were more apparent than Saturday. After the Wildcats fell to Seton Hall to begin the afternoon slate of games, Marquette took the floor at home against Georgetown knowing that they could win and earn a share of the Big East championship. And just like the previous three games, Marquette faltered in the final minutes to blow another winnable game. The Golden Eagles have been pitiful late in games over the last two weeks as they’re suddenly in a freefall heading into MSG for the Big East tournament. On the bright side, Marquette has single-handedly kept the Big East’s bubble teams afloat by gifting recent wins to Creighton, Seton Hall and now Georgetown.

Tennessee: Entering Saturday, the Vols were given a chance to be co-SEC champions with LSU. Tennessee squandered those circumstances with a road loss at Auburn to start the afternoon. Although it’s never easy to win at Auburn now that Bruce Pearl and the Tigers have that place rocking, Tennessee has to be kicking themselves knowing that they could have won the league in back-to-back seasons.

Loyola: We won’t be seeing Loyola and Sister Jean in the 2019 NCAA tournament following last season’s memorable Final Four run. The top-seeded Ramblers were upset by Bradley in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament on Saturday as Loyola’s two Conference Players of the Year, Clayton Custer and Marques Townes, were held to only 17 points combined on 7-for-27 shooting.

South Dakota State and Mike Daum: One of college basketball’s all-time greats will not be playing in the 2019 NCAA tournament as No. 1 seed South Dakota State shockingly fell to No. 8 seed Western Illinois in the Summit League tournament quarterfinals. Making an NCAA tournament appearance the past three seasons, it will feel bizarre not to have Daum and the Jackrabbits in the Big Dance during his final college season. Daum finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds in the loss as he only attempted 10 field goals on the night (making five).

FINAL THOUGHT

In looking over the power conference champions decided on Saturday, it’s crazy to think about how quickly things changed in college basketball throughout the course of this regular season. Let’s do a brief rundown in a bullet format to make things easier.

  • A few weeks into the season, Duke going undefeated was a legitimate storyline that people were discussing. Flash forward a few months later and North Carolina and Virginia split the ACC crown.
  • Listed as the preseason No. 1 team and national title favorite by many pundits, Kansas faltered and saw its dominant 14-year reign in the Big 12 come to an end. Kansas State started the Big 12 season 0-2 and Texas Tech was 4-3. Both of those teams pulled it together and shared the league title.
  • Within the last month, two top-10 tilts between Kentucky and Tennessee dominated the SEC headlines. LSU snuck in the back door to claim the SEC title over both of them. Outright.
  • Villanova was left for dead during nonconference play with losses to Furman and Penn. St. John’s and Marquette became trendy picks to win the Big East as conference play started. The Wildcats prevailed and still ended up gaining the Big East title.
  • And the Big Ten focused on Michigan’s early-season dominance only to see the Wolverines relinquish the league crown to rival Michigan State and Purdue. The Spartans lost arguably two of their top three players for most of conference season and still won while Purdue replaced four starters and became one of the nation’s biggest overachievers.

I guess the main point in all of this is that college basketball’s 2018-19 season has been absolutely insane — and that’s only touching on five major conferences to get to my point. That doesn’t even include the Pac-12’s historically awful season, Houston emerging as a legitimate top-10 team, and a point guard from Murray State being called the second best prospect in the upcoming NBA Draft only behind a dude who has been compared to LeBron.

Good luck predicting what’s going to happen over the final month of this zany season. All of the drama and surprises will be a ton of fun to watch.

The Monday Overreaction podcast: Florida stinks, Tennessee doesn’t, George Papas is a legend

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We are back for another rendition of the Monday Overreactions podcast. Rob Dauster was joined by Bobby Reagan to walk through everything that happened in college basketball in the last 72 hours, including an impressive win for UConn over Florida, a dominant performance for Washington over Tennessee and Vermont’s upset win at St. John’s. They also talk through the atrocious flopping rule and how it cost Xavier as well as Monmouth’s George Papas, who set the college basketball world on fire with the most ridiculous garbage dunk of all-time.

College Basketball Top 25 Power Rankings: Duke back to No. 1 as the top reshuffles

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This week’s Top 25 is tough to put together because so many of the top teams in the country keep on losing.

The No. 1 team in the country lost at home to Evansville. That’s really all you need to know at this point. But since they had beaten the previous No. 1 team in the country in Michigan State, it makes trying to decipher the top of the sport just that much more difficult.

To be frank, I think this is going to end up being one of those seasons where there is never truly a “No. 1 team.” It’s the kind of season where there 15 teams that feel like they are good enough to be a “top ten team,” so to speak, but none of those 15 feel like they are good enough to be a “top three team.”

Put another way, there are a whole bunch of teams that feel like they are somewhere between pretty good and very good and no one that feels like they are remotely close to unbeatable.

We’ll see if that ends up being the way that everything plays out.

But for now, I think that it’s fair to say that you can have the top 10-12 teams in any order this week and it would be tough to argue against it.

So with that in mind, here is the Week 2 version of the NBC Sports Top 25:

1. DUKE (4-0, Last Week: 3)
2. LOUISVILLE (4-0, 2)
3. MICHIGAN STATE (2-1, 4)
4. KANSAS (2-1, 5)
5. KENTUCKY (2-1, 1)
6. GONZAGA (4-0, 6)
7. OHIO STATE (3-0, 24)
8. MARYLAND (3-0, 8)
9. VIRGINIA (3-0, 9)
10. TEXAS TECH (3-0, 10)
11. OREGON (4-0, 11)
12. ARIZONA (4-0, 14)
13. NORTH CAROLINA (3-0, 13)
14. SETON HALL (3-1, 12)
15. UTAH STATE (4-0, 15)
16. VILLANOVA (2-1, 6)
17. XAVIER (4-0, 17)
18. TENNESSEE (3-0, 23)
19. AUBURN (4-0, 22)
20. MEMPHIS (3-1, 20)
21. TEXAS (4-0, 25)
22. WASHINGTON (2-1, 21)
23. VCU (4-0, NR)
24. LSU (2-1, 18)
25. BAYLOR (2-1, NR)

NEW ADDITIONS: No. 23 VCU, No. 25 BAYLOR
DROPPED OUT: No. 16 SAINT MARY’S, No. 19 FLORIDA

No. 15 Florida falls to UConn 62-59 on the road

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STORRS, Conn. — Christian Vital scored 15 points and made a key steal at the end of the game as UConn upset No. 15 Florida 62-59 on Sunday.

Tyler Polley also scored 15 points and Josh Carlton added 13 for the Huskies (2-1) who led by five points at halftime and never trailed after intermission.

A layup by Florida’s Keyontae Johnson with just over a minute to go cut the lead to 60-59, but those would be the last points the Gators scored.

Vital hit two free throws with 17 seconds left and Florida had a chance to tie. But Alterique Gilbert tipped the ball out of Johnson’s hands and Vital grabbed it and dribbled away, securing the win.

Kerry Blackshear Jr. had 15 points and eight rebounds for Florida (2-2), falling two boards shy of a fourth straight double-double. But he fouled out with 4:37 left in the game and his team trailing 53-49.

Andrew Nembhard scored Florida’s next four points, including a 3-pointer that brought the Gators within a point at 54-53.

Blackshear scored the game’s first two baskets, but the Gators made just four of their first 13 attempts from the floor.

But UConn had a tougher start, going without a basket for the first six minutes.

Vital got the UConn crowd into the game with a 3-pointer, a dunk and a jumper on consecutive trips down the court that gave the Huskies an 11-6 lead.

The Huskies held Florida to two Blackshear free throws over the final 4:17 of the first half and led 25-20 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

The loss ends a rough seven days for the Gators. Florida was No. 6 coming into the season but lost to Florida State a week ago and beat Towson by just six points on Thursday. The Gators offense came into the game averaging just 63.7 points per game, while giving up 60.7.

UConn: Highly touted freshman guard James Bouknight has finished serving his three-game suspension following his arrest on charges including evading police in a September car accident. Bouknight, who is due in court on Monday, is expected to suit up for the Huskies in this week’s Charleston Classic, where it’s possible the Huskies could again face either Saint Joseph’s or Florida, depending on how the early rounds pan out.

UP NEXT

Florida: The Gators face Saint Joseph’s in the Charleston Classic on Thursday.

UConn: The Huskies also travel to Charleston and face Buffalo in the first round of the tournament on Thursday.

Seton Hall placed on probation for three years for transfer tampering

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SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. — The NCAA has placed the men’s basketball program at Seton Hall on probation for three years, taken away a scholarship for the 2020-21 academic year and limited recruiting in each of the next two seasons as part of a negotiated resolution of a transfer tampering case started in 2016.

Under terms of the agreement announced Friday, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard was given a two-game suspension he has already served, and his former assistant and current Saint Peter’s University head coach Shaheen Holloway received a four-game suspension that has two games remaining.

Seton Hall, which is currently ranked No. 12 and dropped a 76-73 decision to No. 3 Michigan State on Thursday night, remains eligible for the NCAA tournament.

The NCAA also announced Friday Seton Hall has been fined $5,000 plus 1% of the men’s basketball budget and had its scholarships reduced to a maximum of 12 in 2020-21. Willard will have to attend an NCAA rules seminar in 2020 and the program will have a two-week ban on recruiting communication this academic year and next.

Holloway, who was Willard’s assistant at Seton Hall in 2016, is prohibited from all recruiting communication for six weeks during the 2019-20 academic year. He also is required to attend a rules seminar in each of the next two years.

The case centers around current Seton Hall forward Taurean Thompson, who transferred from Syracuse to Seton Hall in August 2017.

During the investigation, the NCAA learned Holloway had approximately 243 impermissible contacts with the prospect’s mother from Nov. 16, 2016, through Aug. 28, 2017, while the prospect was enrolled at his initial institution.

The NCAA said Holloway and the prospect’s mother had 154 phone calls without written permission from the prospect’s athletic director. After Thompson informed his original university of his intent to transfer and requested permission to contact Seton Hall, the university denied the request. After the request was denied, Holloway still had 87 impermissible calls with the prospect’s mother.

Willard, who has taken Seton Hall to the past four NCAA tournaments, was penalized for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance within his program. He admitted to not taking adequate steps to report or stop the calls when he found out about them.

According to the agreement, Holloway did not report the calls with the prospect’s mother because they involved a personal relationship outside of the prospect and basketball, and he believed the communications were permissible.

“Seton Hall University, in conjunction with the NCAA, recently concluded a review of an infraction within our men’s basketball program,” Seton Hall said in a statement Friday afternoon. “Our department was proactive in our review and fully cooperated with the NCAA enforcement staff. While the violation was inadvertent, it was nonetheless against NCAA bylaws, and for that we take full responsibility.”

The case was processed through the new negotiated resolution process. The process was used instead of a formal hearing or summary disposition because the university, the head coach, the former associate head coach and the enforcement staff agreed on the violations and the penalties.

The Division I Committee on Infractions reviewed the case to determine whether the resolution was in the best interests of the NCAA and whether the agreed-upon penalties were reasonable.

Holloway is in his second season at Saint Peter’s. He will miss games against Providence on Saturday and Wagner on Wednesday. His first game will be against St. Francis, New York, on Nov. 30.

Quinones, Achiuwa send No. 13 Memphis past Alcorn St 102-56

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Despite playing their first game without heralded recruit James Wiseman, the No. 13 Memphis Tigers had little trouble with Alcorn State.

That’s what happens when you have the top recruiting class in the nation.

Freshman Lester Quinones had 21 points and 10 rebounds and fellow freshman Precious Achiuwa added 20 points Saturday, sending No. 13 Memphis to a 102-56 romp over Alcorn State.

Wiseman was sidelined because of eligibility issues, but Memphis hardly missed him in bouncing back from its first defeat of the season, an 82-74 loss to Oregon on Tuesday night.

“His presence is huge. Seven-footer in the paint. His dominance obviously wasn’t felt,” Quinones said of not having the 7-foot-1 Wiseman. “I feel like other guys stepped up.”

“We understand James is not playing right now,” Achiuwa added, “which hurts the team in a way because he’s a big part of the team. But this is an opportunity for other guys to play.”

DJ Jeffries finished with 15 points and Tyler Harris and Lance Thomas added 11 each for Memphis (3-1). Isaiah Attles led Alcorn State (1-3) with 13 points while Troymain Crosby had 10.

Wiseman was declared ineligible because Memphis coach Penny Hardaway helped with the family’s moving expenses from Nashville to Memphis two years ago when Hardaway was coach at East High School. Wiseman’s status is in limbo while the NCAA considers disciplinary action.

“We don’t want to change too much because we know he’s going to be back earlier than later,” Hardaway said after moving Achiuwa into the center spot vacated by Wiseman. “The guys can just slide over. They already understand the rotations. They understand the offensive side and the defensive side of what we want. We’re not going to change too much.”

Alcorn State’s zone initially took Memphis out of any flow, the Tigers choosing long passes across the top of the defense and struggling to get the ball inside. That kept the Braves in the game near the midway point of the first half.

The Memphis defense eventually put pressure on the Braves, leading to 16 Alcorn State turnovers in the half. Memphis put together a 24-3 run to close the half and carry a 52-24 lead into the break. The lead would swell to 53 in the second half.

“We didn’t follow the game plan,” Braves coach Montez Robinson said. “I thought if we followed the game plan – which we did in the first four-to-five minutes of the game – and stuck to that, it may have been a different outcome. Not knowing what the outcome would be, but it would have been different.

“It wouldn’t have been a 40-to-50-point game.”

BIG PICTURE

Alcorn State: The Braves did well in staying with Memphis for a while even with the Tigers employing a fullcourt press. But the Memphis defense proved intimidating, and the Braves began overpassing inside. That led to way too many turnovers — 26 for the game.

Memphis: Without Wiseman, Memphis relied on Achiuwa inside. While his 20 points and eight rebounds were impressive, his 8 of 20 from the free throw line was a detraction. Still, overall, that wasn’t a factor as Memphis controlled the final 30 minutes of the game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Certainly, a rout over the Braves, who haven’t beaten a non-conference Division I team since the 2012-13 season, is not going to enhance the Tigers’ ranking. The potential impact will come from last Tuesday’s loss to Oregon in Portland.

FOUL SHOOTING WOES

Achiuwa’s foul shooting stood out enough that even the freshman forward noticed it on the stat sheet before the postgame press conference. “I’m probably one of the few dudes that can get to the free throw line at will,” he said. “My physicality and the way I play. …I’ve just got to knock them down in the game. That just tells me I have to work on that. There’s room for improvement.”

LAST WORD

“The sky’s the limit for those guys. They’re young so they’re going to continue to get better, continue to grow. – Alcorn State coach Montez Robinson on No. 13 Memphis.

UP NEXT

Memphis: Hosts Arkansas-Little Rock on Wednesday.