2019 NCAA Tournament: Six possible Cinderellas

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For those who are looking to win their NCAA tournament bracket pools, identifying the teams most capable of pulling off an upset can be the difference between a decent bracket and winning the the pool. The 2019 NCAA tournament field has some solid options to choose from, with the formula for those teams over the years generally being the same.

Good guard play is paramount, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a high-level talent capable of putting the team on his back for stretches of time. Here’s a look at six teams capable of not only winning their first game doing even more beyond that point.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

TEMPLE (11-seed, East)

In every year of the First Four, which was established ahead of the 2011 NCAA tournament, at least one at-large winner in Dayton has gone on to win a game in the main bracket. Of course Temple, Belmont, Arizona State and St. John’s will all be aware of this fact, but the better choice for a win in the main bracket may come from the Temple/Belmont matchup.

Why? Because the 6-seed in the East, Maryland, did not finish its regular season in good form and has a habit of both getting off to slow starts and turning the ball over. The pick here is Temple due to a rotation led by guards Shizz Alston Jr. (19.7 ppg, 5.0 apg), Quinton Rose (16.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and Nate Pierre-Louis (13.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg), and the motivation that comes from wanting to send retiring head coach Fran Dunphy out on a positive note should give the Owls a boost as well.

NEW MEXICO STATE (12-seed, Midwest)

The New Mexico State program is one that’s used to taking part in the NCAA tournament. This will be NMSU’s 25th appearance and seventh in the last eight seasons. Chris Jans has a team that has won 30 games this season, and they’ve gotten the job done by committee on the offensive end of the floor. Junior guard Terrell Brown (11.3 ppg) is the lone double-digit scorer, but the Aggies have six players averaging at least 7.5 points per game.

The Aggies don’t shoot particularly well from the perimeter, shooting 33.5% from three on the season, but they’ve made up for this by being one of the best offensive rebounding teams in college basketball (36.8% offensive rebound percentage). And New Mexico State’s opponent, Auburn, has a defensive rebounding percentage of just 69.8%. If Auburn struggles to keep the Aggies off the offensive glass things could get interesting Thursday afternoon in Salt Lake City.

OREGON (12-seed, South)

Dana Altman’s Ducks had to win the Pac-12 tournament in order to reach the NCAA tournament, and they did so by winning four games in as many days. Oregon’s run to the tournament actually began with one of the team’s lowest points of the season, a 90-83 loss at UCLA February 23 in which the Ducks gave up a staggering 62 points in the second half.

From that point forward the Ducks have been downright stingy defensively, as they’ve allowed 61 points or more in just two of the eight games they’ve won since. There’s no shortage of talent on this roster even with Bol Bol suffering a season-ending foot injury during non-conference play, with junior guard Payton Pritchard running the show and forwards Louis King and Paul White also being double-digit scorers. And with Kenny Wooten and Francis Okoro inside, Oregon has the players needed to match up with a Wisconsin team led by senior forward Ethan Happ.

MURRAY STATE (12-seed, West)

High-level guard play is a must in March, and Murray State has a player in sophomore Ja Morant who’s projected to be a lottery pick this June should be forego his remaining eligibility. The sophomore is averaging 24.6 points, 10.0 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game, and he’s an explosive athlete who can score at all three levels.

However, for all the attention Morant receives head coach Matt McMahon isn’t leading a one-man outfit. Three other Racers average double figures, including senior guard Leroy “Shaq” Buchanan, and the team is ranked eighth nationally in field goal percentage. The issue for Murray State is that their first-round opponent, Marquette, has an elite guard of its own (Markus Howard) and the Golden Eagles are deep on the perimeter as well. This sets up to be one of the most entertaining first-round matches.

UC IRVINE (13-seed, South)

With Kansas State senior forward Dean Wade’s status for this game yet to be determined, as he missed the Big 12 tournament with a foot injury, this sets up to be a dangerous game for the Big 12 regular season co-champions. Russell Turner’s Anteaters enter the tournament with a 30-5 record, and they’ve hung their hat on the defensive end for quite some time now.

Opponents are shooting just 38.0% from the field overall, 40.4% from two and 33.2% from three (defensive eFG% of 43.7%). Offensively the Anteaters are led by junior guards Max Hazzard and Evan Leonard, and nine players are averaging between 5.7 (Elston Jones) and 12.5 (Hazzard) points per game. Collin Welp (23 points in the Big West title game) is an effective option off the bench for UC Irvine, which gave Louisville all it wanted back in 2015 before losing by two. This matchup could be just as tight.

OLD DOMINION (14-seed, South)

ODU won the Conference USA regular season and tournament titles, doing so by controlling tempo on offense and limiting their opponents’ quality scoring opportunities on the other end. Guards B.J. Stith, Ahmad Caver and Xavier Green average a combined 43.1 points per game for a team that scores just 66.1 points per on the season.

The Monarchs drew a team in Purdue that’s been considerably better offensively — against tougher competition — and the Boilermakers are comfortable playing a half-court game as well. This may be the longest shot of the six listed here but funny things can happen this time of year, especially in lower-possession games.

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)