NCAA

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.

UNC women’s coach Hatchell resigns after findings from program review

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell had built a Hall of Fame career over more than three decades with the Tar Heels, including a national championship and becoming the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time winningest coach.

That tenure ended with her resignation after a program review found concerns over “racially insensitive” comments and pressuring players to compete through medical issues.

The school announced the 67-year-old Hatchell’s resignation late Thursday, along with findings from that external review conducted this month by a Charlotte-based law firm. Among the issues: a “breakdown of connectivity” between Hatchell and the players after 28 interviews of current players and program personnel.

The was enough to end Hatchell’s time in Chapel Hill, which began in 1986.

“The university commissioned a review of our women’s basketball program, which found issues that led us to conclude that the program needed to be taken in a new direction,” athletics director Bubba Cunningham said in a statement. “It is in the best interests of our university and student-athletes for us to do so. Coach Hatchell agrees, and she offered her resignation today. I accepted it.”

Hatchell — who has 1,023 victories, with 751 coming in 33 seasons at UNC along with the 1994 NCAA title — and her coaching staff had been on paid administrative leave since April 1. At the time, UNC announced the review amid player concerns to “assess the culture” of the program.

“The university will always hold a special place in my heart,” Hatchell said in a statement. “The game of basketball has given me so much, but now it is time for me to step away.”

In its release, UNC said the review found “widespread support” among three areas of concern, including the Hatchell-players connection.

The first centered on the racially insensitive comments, compounded by her failure to respond “in a timely or appropriate manner” when confronted by players or staff.

“The review concluded that Hatchell is not viewed as a racist,” the school said, “but her comments and subsequent response caused many in the program to believe she lacked awareness and appreciation for the effect her remarks had on those who heard them.”

Regarding injury concerns, the review reported frustration from players and medical staff with Hatchell’s “perceived and undue influence,” though medical staffers “did not surrender to pressure to clear players” before they were ready.

Wade Smith, Hatchell’s attorney, had defended her earlier this month by saying players had misconstrued comments she made as racist and that she wouldn’t try to force someone to play without medical clearance. That came after The Washington Post, citing unnamed parents of players, said complaints had been made about inappropriate racial comments and players being pushed to play while injured.

In a statement to The Associated Press at the time, Smith said Hatchell “does not have a racist bone in her body” and “cares deeply about (players’) health and well-being.”

Hatchell, who reached 1,000 wins in 2017, trailed only Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma in women’s Division I career victories. But there had been difficulties in recent years.

She missed the 2013-14 season while battling leukemia and undergoing chemotherapy. The program also spent several seasons under the shadow of the school’s multi-year NCAA academic case dealing with irregular courses featuring significant athlete enrollments across numerous sports, a case that reached a no-penalty conclusion in October 2017.

UNC returned to the NCAA Tournament this year for the first time since 2015 after upsets of top-ranked Notre Dame and No. 7 North Carolina State on the road, though her contract was set to expire after next season.

Hatchell said she will still support the school, including raising money for UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and advocating for gender equity issues.

“While this is a bittersweet day, my faith remains strong,” Hatchell said. “After the fight of my life with leukemia, I count every day as a blessing.”

St. John’s expected to hire Mike Anderson

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The coaching search St. John’s started earlier this month is coming to an end, and its finality looks to be as bizarre as the process.

The Red Storm are expected to hire former Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, a source confirmed to NBC Sports. Roger Rubin of Newsday was first to report the development.

Anderson has a perfectly respectable resume after eight years with the Razorbacks and five at Missouri over the last decade-plus, but his history doesn’t suggest why he’s a great fit at St. John’s, a smaller private school in New York City rather than two large public institutions in college towns. New York City is also considerably more northeast than both Fayetteville and Columbia.

St. John’s swung big in a way that made sense when it hired Chris Mullin four years ago. There were question marks given his lack of college experience, but given his status as a Red Storm legend and NBA pedigree – both as a player and executive – you could connect the dots to success, even if Mullin ultimately couldn’t do it himself.

This hire, however, doesn’t make much sense. Anderson just got fired for not progressing enough with Arkansas, a place he spent 17 years at under Nolan Richardson prior to becoming a head coach himself. He had serious legacy there, but it wasn’t enough to overcome just three NCAA tournament appearances and no Sweet 16s in eight years.

That’s the guy that is now, with no clear ties to either the Big East or St. John’s, going to reinvigorate the Red Storm program? Anderson might do it, I guess, but his selection only highlights what a botched search this has been. Bobby Hurley, Porter Moser, Ryan Odom and Tim Cluess all reportedly spurned interest, and it’s about as inarguable as inarguable gets that St. John’s should be a slam-dunk better job than Loyola Chicago, UMBC and Iona, while Hurley is the type of guy an athletic department goes out and gets done if it wants to show it really means business.

Instead, St. John’s search falls to Anderson, who probably won’t win the press conference and didn’t win enough at Arkansas.

Ayo Dosunmu returning to Illinois for sophomore season

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Wins have been few and far between in two seasons for Brad Underwood at Illinois, which makes Thursday’s victory all the more important.

The Illini got a major April boost with Ayo Dosunmu announcing he would return to Champaign for his senior season rather than heading to the professional ranks.

“I stayed home to help coach Underwood turn the Illinois program around,” Dosunmu said in a video released on social media. “We tasted some success, but we didn’t dance. And Illinois has to dance.

“We are building. We will be better. I will be better, and that starts now.”

Dosunmu averaged 13.8 points, 4 rebounds and 3.3 assists during his freshman campaign, which led to speculation he might be off to the pros, leaving Illinois without its most dynamic scorer and playmaker heading into a critical third season for Underwood, who is 26-39 overall and 11-27 in the Big Ten the last two years. Instead, he’ll be returning giving Illinois a second season with an intriguing young core that will likely be a trendy pick to make a significant jump up the B1G standings next winter.

Oklahoma State lands commitment from top-150 guard Chris Harris Jr.

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Oklahoma State is adding another top-150 piece to its 2019 recruiting class as Chris Harris Jr., a guard from Texas, pledged to the Cowboys on Thursday

“I will be committing to Oklahoma State University,” Harris announced via a video on social media.

The consensus three-star recruit picks Mike Boynton’s program over offers from the likes of Texas A&M, Baylor, Kansas State and Georgia Tech. The 6-foot-3 guard visited Stillwater officially late last month. He previously was headed to the Aggies, but was released from his National Letter of Intent after Billy Kennedy was fired in College Station.

His commitment gives Oklahoma State what is increasingly looking like a major recruiting class for Boynton, who has largely exceeded expectations during his short tenure with the Cowboys. Boynton has already secured commitments from top-75 wing Marcus Watson of Georgia and top-125 guard Avery Anderson III as well as three-stars Kalib Boone and Keylan Boone.

 

Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver declaring for draft

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Jarrett Culver made a reality Thursday what appeared inevitable. The Texas Tech sophomore is heading to the NBA.

The projected top-10 pick declared his intentions to enter the drat at a press conference in his native Lubbock just over a week after leading the Red Raiders to the national championship game.

“I will be declaring for the 2019 NBA draft,” Culver said to applause in a standing-room only crowd full of supporters.

It’s little surprise to see Culver become the second early-entry player under third-year coach Chris Beard after Zhaire Smith went one-and-done to the first-round last year. The 6-foot-5 Culver averaged 18.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game last year while being named the Big 12 player of the year as Texas Tech split the regular-season conference title with Kansas State to put a stop to Kansas’ 14-year reign atop the league.

He could be picked in the top-three of the draft while the top-10 seems assured. He’s a proven scorer and two-way player, though NBA teams will have questions about his athleticism and 3-point shot.

His departure also means a huge reload is in order for Beard and Co., but that was the case coming off an Elite Eight trip in 2017, which Texas Tech followed up with a near-national championship earlier this month.