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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.

New-look Virginia back to work after winning NCAA title

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Tony Bennett’s first offseason as a national champion coach has come with benefits on the recruiting trail. His first season at Virginia after winning the title, however, will bring challenges.

Five players who helped Virginia beat Texas Tech to capture the first basketball title in school history are gone, and that’s four more than expected. Center Jack Salt graduated, and guards De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy declared for the NBA draft. Seldom-used Marco Anthony transferred.

Recruiting was already well underway before the Cavaliers won it all, but Bennett said Wednesday the result “certainly can’t hurt and I think it has helped. It validates a lot of good stuff that’s happened in the past.”

Virginia hopes the spoils of those improvements are evident quickly in incoming freshmen guard Casey Morsell, big men Justin McKoy and Kadin Shedrick and junior college shooting guard Tomas Woldetensae.

Virginia opened its summer practice period on Tuesday, and Bennett said he’s not sure just yet who will be ready to contribute.

“Everyone will have ample opportunity, the newcomers, so to speak,” he said. “To say who, you just don’t know. … There are some opportunities out there. So it’s the returners and we can go down the list of the guys we brought in, but I think they’re excited about the opportunity.

“There’s always a learning curve any time you go from whether it’s high school to college or junior college to college or coming from a redshirt to being eligible. … Going up a level and playing in the ACC, for any of these guys, there’s the challenge of the physicality and the level of talent and the speed.”

Woldetensae, a left-handed shooter, averaged 17.3 points per game and shot 47.6 percent from 3-point range last season at Indian Hills Community College.

“We thought we needed to add some experience and a quality player on the perimeter and when he was mentioned and we did our homework and watched film and all those kinds of things,” he said. “His personality came out as a young man of character and we always start there. He seemed wanting to challenge himself at a very high level.”

The Cavaliers were delighted that Mamadi Diakite decided to come back for his senior year after testing the professional waters. And they added senior transfer Sam Hauser, who averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds last season at Marquette. Hauser will be eligible to practice with the team, but won’t be able to play until 2020-21.

Bennett’s offseason included numerous speaking engagements, recruiting, talking to NBA scouts about his players and some time to decompress.

He also checked an item off his bucket list when, with his father, longtime college coach Dick Bennett, he played Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters. That, he said, “was amazing.”

Now, it’s back to work.

“I’m grateful for the busy-ness of it,” he said of the offseason. “It means something good happened.”

Four-star forward commits to West Virginia

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West Virginia landed a top-75 recruit Thursday night.

Isaiah Cottrell, a 6-foot-9 forward from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, committed to West Virginia’s 2020 recruiting class.

Cottrell picked the Mountaineers overs offers from the likes of Kansas, Washington and Arizona, among others. His father, Brian Lewin, played for West Virginia in the 1990s. The four-star prospect continues a promising recruiting trend for Bob Huggins, who landed a top-40 commit in center Oscar Tshiebwe in the 2019 class.

The Mountaineers missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in four years as they slid to 15-21 overall and last in the Big 12 with a 4-14 mark.

John Calipari’s new deal at Kentucky worth $86 million over 10 years

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John Calipari and Kentucky agreed in April to what was described as a “lifetime contract.” Thursday, the exact terms of that deal were disclosed.

The Wildcats coach’s new contract worth $86 million over 10 years.

“I’ve said from day one that this would be the gold standard and it has been for student-athletes and coaches,” Calipari said in a statement released by the school. “As I enter my 11th year, I’m reminded it took me 20 years to get an opportunity to like this. There is no other place I want to be. As I look forward, my mindset is what’s next and how can we be first at it for the young people that we coach.”

Calipari, 60, will likely continue to be a source of speculation for other jobs presuming he keeps things rolling in Lexington as he has for the last 10 years, but what Kentucky is paying him will almost certainly be more than any other program – and potentially NBA franchises – are going to be willing to. Calipari’s success, NBA history and ability to always be central to the broader college basketball conversation means he’ll always be in demand, but it’s hard to picture a situation that could intrigue Calipari enough to leave one of – if not the – best jobs in basketball.

“(Calipari) has added a special chapter to the greatest tradition in college basketball and it’s a chapter we want him to continue writing until the end of his coaching career,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “We are pleased to announce a new contract that will enable him to do exactly that.”

Calipari 305-71 with one national championship, four Final Fours and 26 first-round draft picks in 10 years with the Wildcats. He and Kentucky will likely open the 2019-20 season as one of the frontrunners for the national championship.

Michigan State reports violation for Tom Izzo hosting visit for former high school

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Michigan State self-reported an NCAA rules violation for Tom Izzo hosting Iron Mountain High School for a tour while the team was in town to compete for its first ever state title that weekend.

Izzo unknowingly committed the violation — which only occurred because Iron Mountain was competing in the Breslin Center that weekend — and the Spartans immediately gave notice once they became aware of it. Proud of his alma mater for advancing to Michigan’s final weekend, Izzo was merely taking interest in players and a team connected to his youth. The Iron Mountain program toured the Breslin Center with Izzo and toured Michigan State’s locked room while also watching the Spartans practice before their state semifinal game.

Since it was a special privilege for Iron Mountain, playing in an event there, the Spartans were technically at fault for a violation. The fact that Izzo and Michigan State have to report a violation for this sort of thing is kind of ridiculous since Izzo has a natural connection to the team in question. Although Michigan State likely isn’t going to get hit with any NCAA issues from this, it’s the kind of thing that critics come to question about the NCAA’s rulebook.

Former lacrosse star Pat Spencer commits to Northwestern for basketball

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Northwestern landed a unique graduate transfer on Thursday as Loyola lacrosse star Pat Spencer will spend his final year of college eligibility hooping for the Wildcats, according to Stadium’s Jeff Goodman.

A former high school basketball standout at Boys’ Latin (MD), Spencer was one of the best lacrosse players in the country for the Greyhounds the past four years in college. He was selected in two drafts during the Spring. Spencer was taken first overall in the inaugural PLL College Draft while getting taken seventh overall in the MLL’s Collegiate Draft. Loyola remains in the NCAA tournament as Spencer is playing out his senior season of college.

Spencer is passing up multiple professional lacrosse opportunities to play Big Ten basketball for Northwestern. For a stud athlete in a sport to pass up money to pursue another athletic dream is one of the college basketball’s best things to follow next season.

As if Spencer’s background wasn’t unique enough, he’ll be at a Northwestern team starving for an identity since making the NCAA tournament a few seasons ago. By playing in the Big Ten, Spencer will be thrown against Final Four contenders and potential draft picks, which makes this transition particularly intriguing. It’s a cool story to follow this season as college hoops doesn’t often get athletes from other sports playing in such prominent conferences.

Greg Paulus famously went from Duke point guard to Syracuse quarterback as a graduate transfer, but he was leaving the sport to pursue an opportunity to play football. Spencer choosing basketball over a sure pro shot in lacrosse is an interesting opportunity for him this season. It’ll be interesting to see if he can still contribute anything on the hardwood.

(Ht: Jeff Goodman, Stadium)