Key storylines during Championship Week

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THE HEALTH (AND RETURN?) OF ZION WILLIAMSON

College basketball’s best player, and most popular star, is supposed to make his return in Charlotte this week.

Missing the final five full games of the regular season with a knee injury suffered during the first North Carolina game, Williamson is supposed to get some minutes for this week to help get him back into game shape for the NCAA tournament.

The bizarre nature of the injury (an exploding shoe!) and Duke’s status as national-title contenders add even more fuel to this story as it’s sure to be the biggest thing in college hoops this week. If Williamson comes back and looks healthy, many fans are going to pick the Blue Devils to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

But if Williamson doesn’t look fully healthy, or at least close to the dominant force that won him numerous Player of the Year honors (including NBC), then it’s only going to raise more questions than answers. The Blue Devils need the old Williamson to return so they can potentially earn a No. 1 seed and make a Final Four push. We won’t know for sure how Williamson looks until he’s officially back.

THE HEALTH OF KEY PLAYERS ON TITLE CONTENDERS

Zion Williamson isn’t the only injured player to check in on this week. Plenty of title contenders and bubble teams have stars who might return this week in preparation for the Big Dance.

The Big Ten conference tournament has some injury subplots to follow as Michigan State big man Nick Ward (hand), the team’s second-leading scorer, is expected back during the week. Michigan’s Charles Matthews (ankle) has also been out the past few weeks as the Wolverines would love to get their two-way wing back into the rotation.

In the Big 12, top seed Kansas State looks like they’ll have to play without star senior forward Dean Wade (foot) as he suffered an injury in the regular-season finale win over Oklahoma. Baylor star guard Makai Mason (foot) is questionable to play this week for the Bears.

If those players return, it’ll be worth noting how they might fit in during the NCAA tournament. Will there be minutes restrictions? A new role perhaps? These four players, in particular, could shift their team’s entire seasons with their comebacks.

WHICH POWER CONFERENCE JOBS OPEN UP

The most unfortunate past of this week is that we’re seeing the final run of some coaches who are likely moving on to different jobs.

Texas A&M has already reportedly moved on from head coach Billy Kennedy as this will be his final week with the team. There has been rampant speculation regarding the future of Arizona head coach Sean Miller after the long-time Wildcat head coach gave an emotional speech to Arizona fans during the team’s regular-season finale.

Nebraska players have already been making public comments about playing hard for Tim Miles as he’s potentially coaching his final games with the Huskers. Danny Manning might have already coached his final game at Wake Forest as the Demon Deacons were eliminated from the ACC tournament on Tuesday.

And that’s not even getting into LSU’s Will Wade (more on the Tigers below) and the uncertainty regarding that whole program.

WHAT HAPPENS WITH LSU GIVEN THE SCANDAL THEY’RE EMBROILED IN?

The most fascinating individual team to watch during conference tournaments might be LSU. After shockingly winning the SEC’s outright title with a young team this season, the Tigers are facing a major scandal as they enter the conference tournament this week.

After allegedly discussing illegal payments for recruits on a wiretap with known runner Christian Dawkins, LSU suspended head coach Will Wade indefinitely — an unprecedented step for a team with real Final Four aspirations right before the postseason. Besides for the controversial decision to sideline Wade, starting freshman guard Javonte Smart was also held out of the team’s regular-season finale against Vanderbilt since his name was allegedly brought up in that wiretapped conversation.

It means LSU is likely going to have to play the postseason without its head coach and one of its top players. The Tigers will still be a dangerous team. Tremont Waters is one of the country’s best floor generals and LSU hits the offensive glass at a very high level. But what is the true ceiling of this team if they’re dealing with all of this controversy?

WHO GETS A NO. 1 SEED?

One of the most important topics during conference tournament week is setting the final No. 1 seeds. While many believe Virginia and Gonzaga have already solidified spots on the No. 1 line — even with Gonzaga’s dreadful performance in a WCC title game loss to Saint Mary’s on Tuesday night — the final two spots still feel like they’re up for grabs.

North Carolina and Kentucky recently grabbed No. 1 seeds in the latest NBC Sports Bracketology. Others like Duke, LSU, Michigan State and Tennessee could all make a move depending on performance this week. If someone like North Carolina or Kentucky falters — particularly head-to-head against North Carolina or LSU/Tennessee — then it could make things very interesting for the committee.

BID THIEVERY

On Tuesday, I went over 13 dangerous teams with the potential of taking a spot from a bubble team.

In an ideal bubble world, all of the bubble teams would win all of the bubble games they need. Teams with mediocre regular seasons would never make a deep run. Traditional one-bid leagues with at-large-quality teams like Buffalo in the MAC would always win their conference tournaments.

None of those things will go according to the plan.

We already saw Saint Mary’s steal a bid from a bubble team by earning the WCC’s autobid on Tuesday night, and there will surely be more stolen bids by the time we reach Selection Sunday.

THE ONLY WEEK THIS SEASON THE PAC-12 WILL BE WATCHABLE

Championship Week is the only time this season the Pac-12 will be worth paying attention to.

After a dreadful regular season in which the league might have played itself into a one-bid league, you could not blame college basketball fans for calling it a night and going to bed before these games started.

That all changes this week with the autobid on the line.

Since the Pac-12 has been so bad and wide open, it wouldn’t be shocking to see anyone take this title. Oregon just ran past league-leading Washington on the road to end the Pac-12 regular season. Arizona State — the league’s only other at-large contender — has been shaky throughout conference play. The caliber of ball won’t be as good as the other “power” conference. But with the exception of maybe the Big East, no other conference tournament from that tier will be so wide open.

IS ANYONE IN THE BIG EAST ACTUALLY GOOD?

Madison Square Garden will be another place to track this week.

Although Villanova won the Big East regular-season title outright over Marquette, those top two teams in the conference are struggling as we enter the postseason. The Wildcats have lost four of their last six games. The Golden Eagles have generously done everything in their power to single-handedly keep the Big East’s bubble teams afloat by dropping four straight games.

Even though DePaul is a No. 10 seed, they’re an over .500 team for the first time in 12 years entering this event with a star in Max Strus who can go for 40 on any night. There are multiple bubble teams (Creighton, St. John’s) who likely need to win multiple games to feel safe on Sunday. Seton Hall and Xavier are both getting hot at the right time.

Any team in the field could conceivably win this thing and it wouldn’t come as a that big of a surprise. The Big East beat each other up all season. It could make for another memorable week at MSG.

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior center Tamari Key will miss the rest of this season because of blood clots in her lungs, coach Kellie Harper said.

Doctors found the issue during testing. Key is expected to make a full recovery after treatment from University of Tennessee doctors, Harper said, adding that her sole concern is Key getting the medical care she needs to heal and return to full strength.

Key missed the first game of her career in a win Tuesday night over Chattanooga after playing her first 99.

“This is much bigger than basketball. We are so grateful that this medical condition was caught,” Harper said in a statement. “Our entire program will be right beside Tamari during this process and welcomes prayers and positive thoughts from Lady Vol Nation and beyond.”

The Lady Vols opened the season ranked fifth but currently are 5-5.

The 6-foot-6 Key from Cary, North Carolina, currently is Tennessee’s third-leading scorer averaging 8.4 points a game and averaged 4.2 rebounds per game. She started all 34 games as the Lady Vols reached their first Sweet 16 since 2016 last season and set the school record with 119 blocked shots.

Key had 18 blocks this season and 295 for her career, five away from becoming the eighth woman to reach that mark in Southeastern Conference history.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan State snaps 2-game skid

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats Boston College 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.