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2019 NCAA Tournament: Six teams that can win it all

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Now that the 68-team NCAA tournament bracket has been announced, the next step is to attempt to figure out who will cut down the nets April 8 in Minneapolis. While there have been some surprises in the “one and done” era, more often than not the national champion has high-level guard play, at least one NBA-caliber talent and credible experience.

There can be outliers, especially when it comes to the experience factor, but after Duke’s freshman-led team won it all in 2015 the last three champions have been considerably older. Below are six teams that can win the NCAA tournament, a high-seed you should fade and a team seeded fourth or lower that can go on a run.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

DUKE

The top overall seed, the Blue Devils are back to full strength as elite freshman forward Zion Williamson made his return for the ACC tournament. Williamson and classmate R.J. Barrett are in the eyes of more than a few the top two NBA draft-eligible prospects in college basketball. Add in fellow freshmen Tre Jones and Cam Reddish, and Mike Krzyzewski’s team has the high-end talent needed to win six straight over the next three weeks.

As for the supporting cast, the Blue Devils received quality contributions from the likes of Javin DeLaurier, Jordan Goldwire and even Antonio Vrankovic during the ACC tournament. Forward Jack White and guard Alex O’Connell are also part of the rotation, so the bodies are there even with Marques Bolden (knee) out of the lineup. The youth of this team may be a concern for some, but when you have a Hall of Fame head coach like Coach K on the sideline that helps matters.

NORTH CAROLINA

The Tar Heels won 27 games and finished tied atop the ACC standings with Virginia, ranking in the top ten in both adjusted offensive and adjusted defensive efficiency. There’s a good combination of youth and experience, with seniors Luke Maye, Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams working with talented freshman point guard Coby White and sophomore center Garrison Brooks.

The depth is provided by another freshman in Nassir Little, with juniors Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods part of the rotation as well. In addition to the talent and guard play, North Carolina also has a Hall of Fame head coach on its sideline in Roy Williams. Williams has led his alma mater to three national titles, and North Carolina was a one-seed in all three. They’re on the top seed line this time around as well.

GONZAGA

Mark Few’s Bulldogs are questioned by some on a consistent basis, thanks in large part to the fact that they ply their trade in the WCC. But to state that Gonzaga doesn’t have a shot at winning a national title solely because of its conference affiliation would be a mistake; this is a deep, talented roster that still has contributors who two years ago reached the championship game.

Junior forwards Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke have been outstanding, with the former winning WCC Player of the Year honors and the latter being one of college basketball’s best defenders. And if Killian Tillie, who’s had to deal with injuries for much of this season, is able to contribute Gonzaga will have a front court that can match up with any team. The perimeter attack is headlined by senior point guard Josh Perkins and redshirt sophomore Zach Norvell, with guard Geno Crandall and wing Corey Kispert providing additional depth. The Zags have the nation’s most efficient offense by a decent margin, and they’re solid defensively as well.

KENTUCKY

Kentucky is ranked just outside of the top 10 in both adjusted offensive (13th) and adjusted defensive (12th) efficiency, and they go eight deep with talent both on the perimeter and in the paint. Sophomore forward P.J. Washington (14.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg) leads four double-digit scorers, with guards Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson and forward Reid Travis next in line. Ashton Hagans can apply pressure defensively at the point while also being the team’s best distributor on the other end.

Kentucky is young, as it has been most seasons during Calipari’s tenure, but like his best teams there’s some experience mixed in. There’s certainly value in experience this time of year, but talent is key as well. The Midwest bracket projects to be very difficult to navigate, but like top-seed North Carolina the Wildcats are capable of making the run to Minneapolis.

TENNESSEE

Rick Barnes’ Volunteers have wins over two of the teams on this list, as they beat Gonzaga in Phoenix in early December and also won two of their three meetings with Kentucky. Tennessee has depth, talent and experience, with two-time SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and senior forward Admiral Schofield leading the way. Tennessee is deep in the front court, and on the perimeter Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner are the headliners.

Tennessee enters the tournament ranked third in adjusted offensive efficiency, and while this group isn’t elite defensively it’s solid on that end of the floor. Winners of 29 games, the Volunteers should be motivated by the way in which their 2018 season ended (a second-round loss to Loyola University Chicago). At minimum, Tennessee has enough to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 2010.

MICHIGAN

With Michigan State having beaten Michigan three times this season, and the Spartans being one of four teams ranked in the top 10 in both adjusted offensive and adjusted defensive efficiency (Virginia, Duke and North Carolina being the others), some may wonder how the Wolverines are the team listed here. Well it’s all about the path to the Final Four, and Michigan’s road to Minneapolis may be smoother than Michigan State’s.

One year after reaching the national title game Michigan has the pieces needed to duplicate that feat, beginning with point guard Zavier Simpson. Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews provide scoring on the wings, and in the front court Iggy Brazdeikis and Jon Teske have combined to average 24.5 points and 12.0 rebounds per game. John Beilein’s team is ranked second in adjusted defensive efficiency, with the offense currently ranked 18th with regards to efficiency.

THE FAVORITE TO FADE: Virginia

Given Virginia’s lack of a Final Four appearance during this current run of success, this may be a case of grabbing the low-hanging fruit. Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers are healthy, which wasn’t the case last season (De’Andre Hunter’s thumb), and with the additions of Kihei Clark and Braxton Key this group is deeper with Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome leading the way. But until Virginia gets over the hump they’re going to be questioned. Maybe Virginia will do what Villanova did in 2016, escaping the first weekend demons and then going on to win the national title.

THE FOUR-SEED OR LOWER THAT CAN WIN IT ALL: Auburn

Bruce Pearl’s Tigers dodged a bullet in Saturday’s SEC tournament semifinals, beating Florida by three in what was a controversial finish. Auburn left no doubt Sunday however, as it blew out Tennessee and was then given a 5-seed in the Midwest Region. The perimeter tandem of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown is averaging 31.1 points per game, and sophomore forward Chuma Okeke is the leading scorer for a front court that doesn’t lack for depth or athleticism.

Auburn has a tough first round matchup (New Mexico State), but this is a team that can go on a run after being bounced in the second round by Clemson last season.

Kara Lawson hired as new Duke head coach

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Duke announced on Saturday that Kara Lawson, a former Tennessee guard and ESPN commentator, has been hired as the new head coach of the school’s women’s basketball team.

Lawson, 39, had been an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics before accepting the job at Duke, where she will be replacing Joanne McCallie. McCallie announced earlier this month that she would not be returning to the program.

Lawson is the first Black head coach in the program’s history, the second Black head coach hired by an ACC school this offseason and the third Black woman coaching an ACC women’s team. In total, there are five Black head coaches in the league on the women’s side.

Zion’s attorneys: Court filing claiming $400K payment contains fraudulent information

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Attorneys representing Zion Williamson in a lawsuit filed by former his marketing agent Gina Ford have claimed that the allegations set forth in her latest court filing are “fraudulent” and “a desperate and irresponsible attempt to smear Mr. Williamson.”

Ford claimed to have obtain “newly-discovered evidence” regarding her lawsuit against Zion, specifically that the player and his stepfather accepted $400,000 from a marketing agent named Slavko Duric in October of 2018. Zion signed a contract with Ford and her company, Prime Sports Marketing, on April 20, 2019, five days after he declared for the NBA draft. Less than two months later, he backed out of that deal to sign with CAA, the most powerful agency in the business that will also be representing his basketball interests. Ford is suing Williamson for breach of contract.

The outcome of the case hinges on a law in the state of North Carolina known as UAAA — the Uniform Athlete Agent Act — that requires a contract to make it clear to a student-athlete that by signing with an agent, they forfeit their remaining eligibility. This marketing contract did not have that language in it, and Williamson’s lawyers are arguing that this made the contract itself invalid. Ford’s attorneys, on the other hand, are attempting to prove that Zion was actually ineligible at the time, meaning that he was not protected by UAAA, and this evidence is their latest attempt to do it.

Except, according to the attorneys representing Zion Williamson’s family, all of the evidence in the latest filing in this lawsuit is fake.

Included in the exhibits attached to the motion filed by Ford’s lawyers is a statement from a man named Donald Kreiss, who claims that he invested in a company owned by Duric called Maximum Management Group. MMG purportedly had an exclusive marketing agreement with Williamson, the proof being an agreement that was allegedly signed by Williamson, a letter of declaration to repay the $400,000 that was paid in 2018 and a copy of Zion’s driver’s license.

“The alleged ‘agreements’ and driver’s license attached to these papers are fraudulent,” read a statement from Jeffery Klein, Zion’s attorney and obtained by Daniel Wallach of The Athletic. “Neither Mr. Williamson nor his family know these individuals nor had any dealing with them. We had previously alerted Ms. Ford’s lawyers to both this fact and that we had previously reported the documents to law enforcement as forgeries, but they chose to go ahead with another frivolous filing anyway.”

Here is a photo, courtesy of Wallach’s twitter feed, of Zion’s license.

Via @WALLACHLegal

Speaking as someone that bartended on a college campus for a decade, I would not accept this ID. The ‘E’ at the end of LICENSE is not in bold. The last three digits of his zip code are a different font than the first two. There is no shadow behind his ears in the picture, which is the first thing I was taught to look for on an ID I thought was fake. Most conspicuous? His weight is listed as a height and his height is listed as a weight.

Furthermore, Zion’s attorneys claim that Duric is the same man that tried to run a similar scam on Luka Doncic.

“A simple Google search reveals that Slavko Duric, whose ostensible sports marketing entity has no online presence, purportedly attempted to defraud Luka Doncic … using a scheme in which he forged Doncic’s and his mother’s signatures on a contract,” read a letter, obtained by Wallach. that Williamson’s attorney sent to Ford’s attorney before the motion was filed.

The intrigue into Zion Williamson’s lawsuit is about smearing Duke basketball’s image

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This column was originally published on May 11th of 2020.

The public intrigue into Zion Williamson’s current lawsuit and legal battle has nothing to do with Zion Williamson himself and everything to do with smearing the glossy veneer of the Duke basketball program.

That’s the truth.

The numbers involved in this litigation — reportedly up to $200 million is at stake — will certainly raise some eyebrows, but contract disputes are rarely interesting for anyone that isn’t in law school. That’s what this is. Zion signed a contract with Gina Ford and Prime Sports Marketing on April 20, 2019, five days after he declared for the NBA draft. Less than two months later, he backed out of that deal to sign with CAA, the most powerful agency in the business that will also be representing his basketball interests. Ford is suing Williamson for breach of contract.

The outcome of this civil case is going to hinge on a law in the state of North Carolina known as UAAA — the Uniform Athlete Agent Act — that requires a contract to make it clear to a student-athlete that by signing with an agent, they forfeit their remaining eligibility. This marketing contract did not have that language in it, and Williamson’s lawyers will argue that this made the contract itself invalid.

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(And no, I don’t, for a second, think that Zion was ever returning to Duke. Neither does Ford, or anyone with any common sense. It’s why I wrote this “column” last May, when the rumors of Zion returning to school started rolling through the basketball world. That said, if I was a cynic, I would take a close look at that timeline. Rumors of Zion returning to school just happened to start circulating right around the time that he was trying to find a way out of a marketing contract to sign with a bigger agency? Hmm. Interesting. But I’m not a cynic, so I certainly won’t suggest that it was nothing other than a well-orchestrated PR ploy knowing that this would inevitably end up in the court system one day. Wouldn’t dream of insinuating anything like it.)

Which brings us to Mother’s Day.

That’s when Daniel Wallach of The Athletic first published snippets of the latest Zion Williamson lawsuit that was filed by Ford and her attorneys. Among them were requests for admission that Zion and his family received all kinds of money, benefits and gifts to play at Duke and to induce him to wear Nike and Adidas at different points during his high school career. The legal ploy is simple, really: If Zion or his parents are forced, under oath, to admit that they accepted illegal benefits at any point during his recruitment or while on the roster at Duke, it would mean that he was retroactively ineligible. If he was actually ineligible during his one season in Durham, then the UAAA wouldn’t be relevant. The contract, which, according to Ford’s lawsuit, could only be terminated with cause, would stand and Zion would be on the hook for a lot of money.

At this point, it does not appear that there is much evidence proving that Zion accepted illegal benefits. When asked by Dana O’Neil of The Athletic if they have any proof of wrongdoing, Ford’s attorney said, “We have ideas, opinions and some leads of our own. We are looking for information to support our case. This is what we want to know.” Requests for admission are, essentially, fact-finding missions during discovery in civil cases. Put another way, at this point, these requests are nothing more than proof that Ford’s lawyers have heard the same rumors and read the same court docs that people in basketball circles and on college basketball message boards have.

But no one actually cares about the legalese here, because if they did, they’d realize that Zion is under no obligation to answer, and even if he is somehow forced to, nothing will come of this for a long, long time.

The people that care this case care about catching Coach K in a lie. They care about proving that the holier-than-thou way that Duke carries itself is fraudulent. They care about finding a way to get something — anything — to stick to the program that recruits better than anyone else in an era where recruiting is the Wild, Wild West.

Do you remember when Lance Thomas dropped $30,000 in cash as a down payment for $67,800 in jewelry a year before Thomas and Duke won the 2010 national title? Nothing came of it. Remember when Corey Maggette admitted to receiving payments from Myron Piggie before becoming a member of the team that made it to the 1999 national title game? Nothing came of that, either. Nothing happened when Wendell Carter’s name popped up on expense reports submitted by Christian Dawkins. Nothing happened when Michael Avenatti alleged that Nike paid Marvin Bagley’s family.

All told, there are 13 high-major programs that are dealing with the fallout from the FBI’s investigation into college basketball: Alabama, Arizona, Auburn, Creighton, Kansas, Louisville, LSU, Memphis, N.C. State, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, TCU and USC.

Duke, despite a cloud of smoke surrounding Zion that would make Seth Rogen envious, has been hit with … nada.

The public is looking for their pound of flesh, and nothing would satiate that bloodlust quite like an admission from Zion Williamson in this lawsuit that he was paid to go to Duke.

Ivy League calls off fall sports due to outbreak

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The Ivy League on Wednesday became the first Division I conference to say it will not play sports this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, a person with knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press. The league left open the possibility of moving some seasons to the spring if the outbreak is better controlled by then.

The decision was described to the AP by a person speaking on the condition of anonymity in advance of the official announcement.

Although the coalition of eight academically elite schools does not grant athletic scholarships or compete for an NCAA football championship, the move could have ripple effects throughout the big business of college sports. Football players in the Power Five conferences have already begun workouts for a season that starts on Aug. 29, even as their schools weigh whether to open their campuses to students or continue classes remotely.

The Ivy decision affects not just football but everything before Jan. 1, including soccer, field hockey, volleyball and cross country, as well as the nonconference portion of the basketball season.

Power Five conferences told The Associated Press on Wednesday that they were still considering their options. But it was the Ivy League’s March 10 decision to scuttle its postseason basketball tournament that preceded a cascade of cancellations that eventually enveloped all major college and professional sports.

“What’s happening in other conferences is clearly a reflection of what’s happening nationally and any decisions are made within that context,” said Dr. Chris Kratochvil, the chair of the Big Ten’s infectious disease task force, adding that there is no “hard deadline” for a decision.

“Clearly, regardless of what happens in the fall, sports are coming back eventually,” he said. “So we want to make sure that whenever that time (is) right to return to competition, that we have the infrastructure and the recommendations in place to be able to do so safely for the student-athletes, staff, coaches, fans, students.”

Ivy League schools are spread across seven Northeastern states that, as of mid-July, have seen some success at controlling the COVID-19 outbreak. But most of those states still ban large gatherings; under the Massachusetts reopening plan, Harvard would not be allowed to have fans in the stands until a vaccine is developed.

Harvard has already announced that all classes for both semesters will be held virtually; dorms will be open only to freshmen and seniors. Yale said it would limit its dorms to 60% capacity and said most classes would be conducted remotely. Princeton will also do most of its teaching online, with dorms at half capacity.

Coaches 4 Change: Siena’s Carmen Maciariello spearheads social justice initiative

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Carmen Maciariello found himself in the same place so many of us did in the days after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis.

Devastated by what he was seeing. Motivated to find a way to use his platform as the head coach at Siena College to enact change. Struggling with how, as he puts it, “a white head coach from privilege at a school in New York,” can have real, honest, open dialogue with his majority-Black roster.

So he picked up the phone. He called Louis Orr, his former college coach and now an assistant coach at Georgetown. He called his closest friends in the coaching business. He called his advisor, Brad Konerman, an entrepreneur who connected him with a couple of talented website designers. By early June, 25 like-minded people from all walks of life were on a zoom call.

“I’ve never been pulled over and feared for my life for not using my blinker,” Maciariello, who is white, told me. “We had those conversations. How are we talking to our teams about that? What are we doing with the police? How can we help our young people navigate through these tough times?”

That’s how Coaches 4 Change was born.

Maciariello has grand plans for the organization. On a zoom call with nearly all of the 43 coaches that have committed to the group to date, he said he wants “to try to change the world. Let’s not think small, we’ve gotta think big with this.” He is not lacking for ambition.

But Maciariello also understands that something like this has to start small and it has to start locally. It’s why he limited the first group of invitees to coaches that are “doing this for the right reasons.”

“I didn’t want to have a donate link and bring in coaches that felt like, ‘I donated money, I did my part supporting it,” he said. “It was about the time commitment and the vision. We have to focus on one thing first.”

That first thing?

Voting.

C4C developed a sleek, interactive website to help educate young people about social injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement, things as basic as the difference between systemic and systematic racism and Jackie Robinson’s impact on sports. But the site also provides users with all of the information necessary to vote in this year’s elections, information on what makes voting so important in a democracy and — most importantly — a tutorial for how a person in every state can register to vote, where their polling stations are and whether or not they are eligible for mail-in voting. Their website also has a ‘Keep Learning‘ page that links to all documentaries, podcasts, audiobooks and literary resources available on all streaming platforms, including content for children.

C4C has partnered with Vote.org with a goal of “100 percent voter registration for all college athletes” regardless of the sport they play, Maciariello said.

Currently, the only coaches involved with C4C are men’s college basketball coaches, but that will change. They are in the process of reaching out to counterparts on the women’s side, and will eventually invite staff members from other sports as well. One of the barriers to entry to become a member will be ensuring that every player on a coach’s team is registered to vote.

Eventually, Maciariello envisions C4C developing community outreach initiatives. He wants the members of C4C to connect with their campus communities and put together voter registration drives for students. He wants to eventually connect with lawmakers and work on changing legislation that helps systemic racism continue to exist.

No one ever said he wasn’t ambitious.

But he knows he has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is this platform.

“I want to engage people in issues,” he said. “Educate them, empower them to change, encourage them to grow and evolve.”