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Bracket Breakdown: Can Duke survive the East Region?

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After winning the ACC tournament title, Duke was awarded the No. 1 overall seed in the 2019 NCAA tournament.

They will be joined in the East by Michigan State, who was slotted in as a No. 2 seed in Duke region despite beating Michigan three times, winning the Big Ten regular season title and, on Sunday afternoon, taking home the Big Ten tournament title.

I don’t think there are many places in this bracket where the Selection Committee got it wrong, but I do think that this is one of those places. Is it really worth Michigan State going to the East, where they will play the regionals in Washington D.C., instead of going west, where they would have played the regionals in Anaheim?

Put another way, did a couple hundred miles really make it worth it for the team that beat Michigan three times end up in the same bracket as Duke while Michigan is a No. 2 seed in Gonzaga’s region?

I don’t think so.

Either way, the Spartans actually have a relatively easy draw to the Elite 8 if they can get there.

In fact, I think that you can make the argument that the No. 3-6 seeds in the East are the weakest of any in the tournament.

With that in mind, let’s dive into the breakdown.

THREE STORYLINES

  1. CAN DUKE PUT AN EXCLAMATION POINT ON THE ‘YEAR OF ZION’?: This college basketball season has been completely dominated by Zion Williamson. He has been the best player in the sport since opening night, when he helped Duke light up Kentucky in the Champions Classic. He’s dominated the way college basketball media cover the sport because he is magnetic, a massive brand at 18 years old and a soon-to-be NBA megastar. We’ve seen players like this before. They haven’t always lived up to expectations in March. this is his chance — and Duke’s chance — to prove that it was all worth it.
  2. IS JUSTIN ROBINSON ACTUALLY HEALTHY?: Virginia Tech was a top ten team with arguably the best backcourt in college basketball and a lethal, efficient offensive attack when, on January 30th, Justin Robinson went down with an undisclosed foot injury. On Sunday afternoon, just hours before the Selection Show, both he and Buzz Williams tweeted that the star point guard would be back. If he is healthy, Virginia Tech is really, really dangerous. They are lethal from the perimeter, they control tempo without turning the rock over and they have a pair of dynamic playmakers in Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. They were 17-3 when Robinson got hurt. Without him, they went 7-5.
  3. DOES WILL WADE COACH IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT?: I find it very hard to believe that LSU will allow Will Wade to coach in the NCAA tournament if he does not speak to them first, and I also find it very hard to believe that Wade’s lawyers will allow him to speak with the administration before he is called to testify in April. Without him, LSU melted away a lead to Florida in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament and beat a short-handed Vanderbilt team that completely gave up on this season weeks ago. It’s worth noting here that LSU-Yale will be for all the storylines, as LSU is embroiled in the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball recruiting while Yale is in the middle of the FBI’s investigation in corruption in college admissions. And that’s only the second-juiciest first round matchup in the East Region.

THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State

I just cannot see anyone in the top of the bracket beating this Duke team. And yes, I know that Virginia Tech has already beaten Duke, and that they did it without Justin Robinson. To that I would remind you that Zion Williamson did not play in that game, and Williamson’s skill-set is precisely what Duke needed against Virginia Tech’s offensive game-plan.

As far as Michigan State is concerned, I’m not all that enamored with either No. 3 seed LSU or No. 6 Maryland. The Terps lost by 14 points to Michigan State, and the idea of watching Tremont Waters, Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams try to navigate defending Cassius Winston in a ball-screen is LOL funny. Tom Izzo might have a legitimate gripe about who the No. 1 seed is in his region, but he shouldn’t be too upset about the path he has to a matchup with that No. 1 seed.

THE FINAL FOUR SLEEPER IS … No. 4 Virginia Tech

The truth is this: I think Duke is to the 2019 NCAA Tournament what Villanova was to the 2018 NCAA Tournament. I think there are precious few teams that are going to be capable of beating them this season — Gonzaga is still the only team to do it when they’ve been at full strength — and none of those teams are in this region. That said, if I’m going to bet on someone to do it, it would probably be the Hokies, assuming Justin Robinson is healthy. They’ve already beaten Duke once, and their ability to shoot combined with a hoss in Kerry Blackshear and a pair of NBA-caliber point guards running ball-screens is enough to beat anyone on the right night.

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

HERE ARE YOUR UPSETS

No. 14 YALE over No. 3 LSU: Yale is not built like a normal mid-major team. They have NBA players on their roster, headlined by a potential first round pick in Miye Oni. Jordan Bruner is an atheltic, do-it-all four that picked Yale over Clemson and their point guard, Alex Copeland, was sensational in a win over Harvard on Sunday. If the Elis are making threes and they keep LSU off the glass, this is a game they can win. I also think Yale would be able to beat Maryland, if you’re willing to get crazy.

No. 13 SAINT LOUIS over No. 4 VIRGINIA TECH: Saint Louis has dudes — Hasahn French, Javon Bess, Jordan Goodwin, Tramaine Isabell. They also can really, really defend, and if Virginia Tech doesn’t have Justin Robinson, this is a game that the Billikens can win.

BUT DON’T PICK THIS UPSET

No. 12 LIBERTY over No. 5 MISSISSIPPI STATE: I am not buying this Liberty team as being one that can pull the upset on Mississippi State. The Bulldogs haven’t done much of note this year, but there is talent on that roster. Liberty, to me, is over-seeded as well.

THE STUDS

  • ZION WILLIAMSON and R.J. BARRETT, Duke: They’re likely going to end up being the top two picks in the NBA draft. They are the two most difficult players to matchup with in the sport. They can both end up going for 30 on any given night, sometimes both on the same night.
  • CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State: He has carried Michigan State to a share of the Big Ten regular season title and the Big Ten tournament title. Can he carry them to a Final Four, too?

THE STARS OF MARCH

  • DYLAN WINDLER, Belmont: Ja Morant got all the attention in the Ohio Valley, but Windler was dominant as well. He has a pro basketball career in front of him, and he will be looking to make a statement during the tournament. All eyes will be on him in the First Four, as the Bruins draw Temple.
  • MIYE ONI, Yale: Oni is a potential first round pick, a 6-foot-6 combo-guard that averages 17.6 points, 6.4 boards and 3.6 assists for a dangerous Yale team.
  • HASAHN FRENCH, Saint Louis: French is an absolute monster in the Billiken frontcourt, a lefty that is built like a wrestler and can dominate the paint.

ONE GAME TO WATCH: No. 7 Louisville vs. No. 10 Minnesota

The Pitino Bowl!

Richard Pitino, the son of Rick Pitino, will be squaring off with the Louisville Cardinals, the program that fired Rick just 18 months ago. That is drama.

ONE GAME THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN: No. 11 Belmont vs. No. 14 Yale

I think that both of these teams have the horses to get to the Round of 32. That would require Belmont winning two games — Temple and Maryland — and Yale knocking off the SEC regular season champions, LSU. Most of the country wouldn’t care too much, but the game itself would be worth it.

AND THE WINNER IS …

Duke.

The Blue Devils are the best team in college basketball. They’ll prove it this month.

Women’s Wednesday: Kobe Bryant’s impact on women’s basketball

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“His legacy will live on. You’ll feel Kobe Bryant.”

Dawn Staley’s words ring true as the world continues to mourn the untimely and tragic passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, as well as his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.  

Staley, the head coach for the South Carolina women’s basketball team, is a Hall of Fame coach and player and a three-time Olympic gold medalist. She was also a friend of Kobe’s, growing up in Philadelphia and sharing a gym with him under the watch of the 76ers’ John Lucas. The two also participated in the Olympic games together. 

The Laker legend is known worldwide for his impact on the NBA, with five championship titles, two Finals MVPs, and more.

While his resume is endless, Staley also remembers “The Black Mamba” for the father he was to four daughters, and the impact he had on women’s basketball. 

“Kobe was like no other when it came to supporting women’s basketball,” Staley expressed.

“He single-handedly took women’s basketball to another level by showing up at the games, by giving interviews and expressing what he felt was in his heart about women’s basketball. Once you’re able to see women’s basketball in that light, it helps grow the game, especially when it’s someone as powerful as Kobe Bryant, and as thoughtful, as detailed, as he was.”

Staley stressed the impact that Gianna’s love of the game had on her father being a fierce advocate for women’s basketball, saying, “I think Kobe would have been like this in whatever his daughters chose to have a passion about.”

“He thought long term and expressed things that no other professional men’s basketball player would ever say, that there are players in the WNBA that could play in the NBA,” the Gamecocks coach explained. “Kobe saw what he was instilling in his daughter. He probably wanted to say those things about Gigi… that she could one day play in the NBA.” 

After his retirement, Kobe could be found sitting courtside with his daughter, affectionately nicknamed “Gigi,” but he could also be found coaching at Mamba Sports Academy, where he was the head coach for Gigi’s team, the Los Angeles Lady Mambas.

Gigi dreamed of playing for UConn, and frequently went to Husky games with her dad. The pair also championed other top women’s programs, such as Oregon. 

“If you look at every single player that he has touched — Sabrina Ionescu, or the entire Oregon women’s basketball team,” Staley said, with emotion evident in her voice. “You look at UConn. Gigi wanted to go to UConn, she was fascinated with what accomplishments and traditions UConn stood for. We feel [her loss], there is a big void.”

Kobe’s passion for basketball, paired with the love he had for Gigi, has left many thinking that he would have become more involved in the WNBA in years to come. 

“I think women’s basketball would’ve grown to the point where Kobe would’ve put more of his money into it, because I know he put money into the Mamba Academy,” Staley said. “I’m sure he eventually would’ve gotten around to maybe even buying a team or buying into the league in some form or fashion.”

The devastating helicopter crash that took nine lives — including two other young girls, GiGi’s teammates, taken far too early — reminds us all of the fragility of life, and how quickly it can be taken away from us. 

In the wake of this tragedy, people are turning towards love and one another. 

Timelines are flooded with stories and anecdotes about Kobe, his relationship with his wife, Vanessa, and four daughters. Buildings and memorials all over the country are lit up in purple and gold, while tributes for the all-star pour in from as far away as the Philippines. 

Kobe has left a lasting legacy, one that Staley won’t forget.

“I hope with several of the NBA players, when they speak on keeping Kobe’s legacy alive, they will bring the women’s game along with it.

“Because that’s what Kobe Bryant was doing.”

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

UConn faced off against the U.S. national team on Monday night, putting up impressive show but ultimately falling short of an upset in a 79-64 loss. Fiver former Huskies dressed for the national team’s exhibition game.

Alongside many NBA teams, UConn and Team USA took honorary shot clock violations to start the game as a tribute to Kobe Bryant. 

The Huskies set up a stunning memorial for the late Gianna Bryant, who dreamt of playing for UConn one day, on their bench:

– The top teams in the county took care of business this weekend, with not a single ranked team upset by a lower-ranked team on Saturday or Sunday. 

– South Carolina maintained its No. 1 spot atop the polls, with 26 first-place votes from the AP panel, after an 88-53 rout of Georgia on Sunday. Baylor is No. 2 once again as well. 

– The rest of the top-10 reflects the talent among the top teams, with UConn and Oregon swapping spots as Oregon notched two back-to-back wins over rival Oregon State to take No. 3 in the rankings from the Huskies. The Ducks beat the Beavers 76-64 on Friday, outscoring Oregon State 45-29 in the first half, and then again on Sunday, 66-57.

When asked about her mentor and friend Kobe Bryant after the game, Sabrina Ionescu replied that “this season’s for him”:

Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu continued on her record-breaking rampage, toppling Gary Payton’s passing record as the all-time leader for Pac-12’s men and women’s assists. She is now No. 7 on the women’s career assists list.

– In another in-state rivalry, then-No. 18 Arizona secured the 59-53 upset over then-No. 16 Arizona State. The Wildcats jumped up to No. 16 while the Sun Devils dropped to 19.

– No. 7 N.C. State continues to impress with a 76-68 win over rival North Carolina. 

– And in the Play Of The Week: Anna Makurat goes behind the back to Christyn Williams for the layup in STYLE:

“I trust the SEC office will do the right thing,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes says after bump from official

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Tennessee 63-58 loss to Texas A&M wasn’t without some controversy.

In the final seconds of the game, official Mike Nance appeared to bump into Vols coach Rick Barnes, who was standing stationary on the sideline, and the two exchanged words.

“I really have a lot of confidence in the SEC office that they are going to look at that,” Barnes said after the game about the incident, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. “I believe they will look at this game and take it apart. I just think they will do that. That shouldn’t happen in any way shape or form. I would like to say what I want to say, but I won’t because I trust the SEC office will do the right thing.”

Nance was headed to the monitor to review a call when the bump occurred, and Nance appeared to ask Barnes if the coach initiated the contact.

“Coach (Bob) Knight told me a long time ago that in a game officials are going to miss seven to nine or 10, 11, 12 calls,” Barnes said. “He kept going up every year. He said, ‘You just hope things aren’t egregious at any point in time.'”

Coach K screams at Duke fans, defending Jeff Capel

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In one of the stranger things that we’ve seen in college basketball this season, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski went off on the Cameron Crazies for what he believed was a shot they were taking at former Duke player Jeff Capel.

The crazies were chanting, “Jeff Capel sit with us.” Coach K thought he heard something else.

Check out the video:

After the game, Coach K acknowledged that he misheard what the fans said, adding that he will apologize for the mishap.

“I made a mistake,” he said. “But I’d rather make a mistake for the protection of my guy.

“I love Jeff. I erred on that side. I just hope the ACC doesn’t fine me like they did [Mike] Brey.”

He ended the back and forth with this: “Jeff can sit with me anytime.”

 

Tuesday’s Things to Know: Villanova gears up for big stretch, Auburn wins ugly in 2OT and Rutgers keeps rolling

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The headliner of Tuesday night was Virginia regaining an NCAA tournament pulse with a win over No. 5 Florida State, but there were plenty of other developments on the bubble across the country.  Here’s what else you need to know:

1. Villanova runs streak to seven ahead of grueling stretch

Jay Wright’s team had little trouble winning its seventh-straight Tuesday with a 79-59 victory at Madison Square Garden over St. John’s. Saddiq Bey was brilliant, scoring 23 points on 8 of 14 shooting, including 5 of 9 from deep. Collin Gillespie was equally great, going for 17 points, 13 boards and six assists while Jeremiah Robinson-Early had 13 points and 14 rebounds. Cole Swider and Justin Moore both had 11 to put all five Wildcat starters in double-figures to help offset the absence of the injured Jermaine Samuels.

The victory, while unremarkable given St. John’s mediocrity, keeps momentum for Villanova heading into a huge stretch that very well could decide the Big East. They’ve got Creighton at home Saturday before a trip to No. 16 Butler and then back-to-back home games against No. 10 Seton Hall and Marquette, which handed the ‘Cats their lone conference loss this season.

How Villanova emerges from this four-game stretch – and subsequently what the Big East landscape looks like – will likely be determined by a couple of things. If the ‘Cats are going to make it through in the conference driver’s seat, it’ll probably because Villanova’s defense proves for real. The Cats’ defense this season on the whole has been fine, ranking 60th nationally on KenPom, but it’s been the best in the Big East during conference play. They’ve been stingier both inside and outside the arc while improving on the glass. They’ve kept opponents from launching a lot of 3s and have mostly kept them off the line.

Wright’s team is going to be fine offensively, even if they haven’t been elite in Big East play yet. If the defense holds up, the ‘Cats are going to be sitting pretty come March.

2. No. 17 Auburn comes from behind to win in 2OT

Things were looking pretty dire for Auburn. The Tigers narrowly avoided a third loss in four games over the weekend when they blew a big lead to a sub-.500 Iowa State team, and then they fell behind by 19 in the second half Tuesday at Ole Miss.

It turned out to be nothing to be worried about, unless you were on your couch hoping to watch good overtime basketball.

The Tigers narrowly escaped, 83-82, against the Rebels, overcoming a huge deficit and mistakes of their own making that could have negated their comeback but instead will be footnotes.

Auburn shot 56 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point range in the second half to mount its comeback while Ole Miss shot just 33 percent. They nearly gave the game away, though, after taking a two-point lead in the final seconds of overtime. The Tigers missed a jumper that would have put them up four with 25 seconds left, but the shot missed and they inexplicably fouled on the rebound to allow Ole Miss to tie the game with 22 seconds left on free throws. After a missed 3 in a tie game by Danjel Purifoy, Ole Miss gave Auburn a gift it just wouldn’t accept. Devontae Shuler’s inbounds pass under the basket with 2 seconds left went astray and was headed out of bounds, which would have resulted in no time coming off the clock and Auburn getting the ball on the baseline, but Isaac Okoro, for some reason, grabbed the ball, waited a second and called timeout. Samir Doughty’s forthcoming 3 out of the huddle as time expired miss to send things to 2OT.

Ole Miss led by as many as four in overtime, but Auburn took the lead with 1:41 left. The two teams traded missed opportunities for the remainder of the game, leaving the Tigers with a win.

College basketball: Not always pretty, but rarely boring.

3. Rutgers continues to build its case

It’s been 29 years since Rutgers last made the NCAA tournament. It’s been 13 since the Scarlet Knights even finished above .500 in a season. Both those streaks seem incredibly likely to fall in just a handful of weeks.

Rutgers ran its overall record to 16-5 and its Big Ten mark to 7-3 with a 70-63 victory Tuesday at home against Purdue.

Steve Pikiell’s team is building a bulletproof resume after losses to St. Bonaventure and Pittsburgh in the first month of the season made it seem as the status quo would be very much in place in Piscataway this winter. Since then, the only three losses Rutgers have taken have all been on the road to high-quality opponents, with Michigan State, Illinois and Iowa the only teams able to get the best of them.

Rutgers is doing it o the strength of a top-10 defense that overcomes an offense that can be clunky at times, especially at the 3-point line. Defense as stout as the Scarlet Knights are playing, though, makes up for a lot of deficiencies on the other end.

Bubble Banter: Virginia, Mississippi State the biggest winners of the night

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It was a wild night on the bubble on Tuesday night, as 12 teams with their NCAA tournament hopes still up in the air were in action.

A full bubble watch breakdown can be found here. Here are tonight’s winners and losers:

WINNERS

VIRGINIA (NET: 58, NBC: Off the bubble): It is impossible to overstate just how big a win over Florida State (15) for a Virginia team that entered the night without a top 50 win to their name. They had one Quad 1 win on their resume — at Syracuse (64) — to go along with wins over Virginia Tech (50) at home and Arizona State (56) on a neutral floor. That’s it. When combined with a pair of Quad 3 losses — South Carolina (89) at home and at Boston College (153) — there’s a reason that the Wahoos were completely out of the NCAA tournament picture entering the day.

And to be honest, I’m not sure that a win over a top 20 team at home is really going to change all that much. But with just three more games against the top of the ACC left on their schedule, this was an opportunity that could not slip through their fingers.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (NET: 48, NBC: Off the bubble): The Bulldogs added a critical road win on Tuesday night, going into Gainesville and knocking off Florida (37). It’s the second Quad 1 win in six days for Mississippi State, who needs to add some pop to the top of a resume that includes a pair of Quad 3 losses. This will help.

MICHIGAN (NET: 35, NBC: 10): Michigan entered Tuesday night having lost four games in a row and five of their last six and were playing without Isaiah Livers and Zavier Simpson at Nebraska (158). They could not lost this game. They did not.

RHODE ISLAND (NET: 47, NBC: First four out): Rhode Island is in a spot where they probably cannot afford to take a loss to anyone other than Dayton (5), who they play twice, the rest of the season. On Tuesday night, the Rams beat George Mason. Next up: VCU (39) on Friday night.

UTAH STATE (NET: 62, NBC: Off the bubble): Utah State absolutely could not lose at Wyoming (299) on Tuesday, and they didn’t. The Aggies have neutral site wins over LSU (25) and Florida (37), which is enough to keep them in this discussion despite road losses at Boise State (102), UNLV (130) and Air Force (184). They make the trip to Viejas Arena to take on San Diego State (2) on Saturday, and that feels like a must-win for Utah State at this point.

LOSERS

TENNESSEE (NET: 55, NBC: Next four out): The Vols took a loss that they just could not afford to take on Tuesday, falling to a bad Texas A&M (149) at home. It’s their first Quad 3 loss, meaning that now half of their eight losses are outside the Quad 1 level. With just two Quad 1 wins, neither of which came against a top 35 opponent, Tennessee is backing themselves into a corner. The good news? They still play eight Quad 1 games, and that doesn’t include Florida at home. The Vols can survive this if they get hot.

SYRACUSE (NET: 64, NBC: Off the bubble): The Orange saw their five game winning streak come to an end on Tuesday as they fell at Clemson (81). This is not a terrible loss, but for a team that is already trying to make up ground on the field, these are the kind of losses that really hurt.

RICHMOND (NET: 54, NBC: First four out): Tuesday’s visit to the Siegel Center was Richmond’s last shot at getting a Quad 1 win dueing the regular season. They lost to VCU (39) by 17 points. For my money, the Spiders’ at-large hopes are more or less dead.

ST. JOHN’S (NET: 67, NBC: 10): The Johnnies lost for the seventh time in their last nine games when Villanova (14) waltzed into MSG and beat the Red Storm by 20. That’s not ideal. St. John’s is still in the mix because of wins over West Virginia (7) and Arizona (10), the latter of which came on a neutral court. But with road games left against Villanova, Seton Hall (12) and Butler (9), Mike Anderson’s club has backed themselves into a corner.

PURDUE (NET: 36, NBC: Next four out): The Boilermakers dropped to 11-10 on the season with a 70-63 loss at Rutgers (23) on Tuesday night. That means Purdue has dropped five of their last seven games. They’re 2-7 against Quad 1 opponents with a 29 point win over Michigan State (8), but there are a lot of losses on their resume already and the Big Ten is a bear.

VIRGINIA TECH (NET: 50, NBC: First four out): The Hokies did themselves no favors by losing at Miami (106) on Tuesday night. In the last three days, they’ve suffered their two worst losses of the season. The Hokies also have a non-conference SOS that ranks 341st, which eliminates much of their margin for error. The good news? They still have pair of Quad 1 wins — including Michigan State (10) on a neutral — and four of their five Quad 1 and 2 wins came away from home. It’s not all bad.

GEORGETOWN (NET: 52, NBC: Next four out): The Hoyas lost their third straight game on Tuesday night and have now dropped six of their last eight. Making things worse is that they were up by 13 points on Butler (9) late in the first half. This was their best chance to land an elite win this season. They still get Villanova (14) and Seton Hall (12) at home, but the biggest issue with Georgetown’s tournament chances is that they are trending in the wrong direction with just seven scholarship players.