NCAA

Bracket Breakdown: North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas give Midwest its blue bloods

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If you want bluebloods, I know where to find them.

The Midwest.

Three of the most storied programs in the history of college basketball sit in the Midwest this year. North Carolina is the No. 1 seed. Kentucky is the No. 2 seed. Kansas is the No. 4 seed. If all four of them can make it to Kansas City, the Sprint Center will be the toughest ticket in sports during the second weekend of the event.

And that’s not all.

Because Houston, who stormed through the American this season, is also in the Midwest, as is SEC tournament champion Auburn and Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State.

Without a doubt, this is the toughest region in the bracket.

Let’s dive into the Midwest breakdown.

THREE STORYLINES

  1. NORTH CAROLINA GOT A SWEET 16 ROAD GAME?: The Tar Heels are the No. 1 seed in the region, and the reward for that is that they get sent to the Midwest to play their regional in Kansas City. If seeds hold, they will be forced to face-off with Kansas in Kansas City in the Sweet 16. If they win that, then they’ll likely end up with: A) Kentucky, which is half the distance from Kansas City; B) Houston, which is actually located in the Midwest; or C) Iowa State, who has a fanbase that considers the Sprint Center Hilton Coliseum South. That’s tough.
  2. MIGHT THIS BE THE END OF BILL SELF AT KANSAS?: There have been seemingly unending rumors that are linking Bill Self to a move out of the college ranks thanks to this FBI investigation into college basketball and the association that his Kansas program has with it. If Self was ever going to jump to the NBA, this seems like it would be a good time to make the move. Get out of town before the NCAA shows up to vacate something.
  3. DID KENTUCKY PEAK TOO SOON?: The Wildcats spend the month of January steamrolling anyone that got in their way. They’ve struggled a bit since then, and while the only losses that they have taken during that span came against LSU and Tennessee, Kentucky was not at their best in a couple of other wins. They are going to need a dominant P.J. Washington to show up, and Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson making shots would probably be a good thing as well.

THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kentucky

It’s weird: in the bracket that has the most blueblood programs in it, I feel the least confident about two of those bluebloods battling it out for the right to get to the Final Four. That’s because the rest of the region is really strong. I think that Auburn is a dangerous team that can force turnovers and get on three-point shooting runs with the best of them. Iowa State is a matchup nightmare with a ceiling as high as anyone’s on the right day. Even North Carolina and Kentucky have proven to have a certain level of inconsistency in recent years, and there may be a reason for that: Both UNC and UK start a freshman point guard.

THE FINAL FOUR SLEEPER IS … No. 5 Auburn or No. 6 Iowa State

I really do think both of these teams are dangerous enough to get to the Final Four, but I, for one, will not have the guts to take either one of them.

Because they both have the ability to lose in the first round of the tournament.

Auburn can put up points in a hurry. They love to press, they love to force turnovers, they lose to run and gun, and they love to put up threes. We saw against Tennessee in the SEC title game just how dangerous they can be when they are firing on all cylinders.

Iowa State, however, is a better bet to make a run. They have four play-making wins on their roster, flanking a couple of talented and productive big men. They can really shoot it, they are a nightmare to try to defend, and — after seemingly falling off of a cliff late in the regular season — a player’s only meeting before the Big 12 tournament turned this ship around.

(Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

HERE ARE YOUR UPSETS

No. 13 NORTHEASTERN vs. No. 4 KANSAS: Kansas starts four freshmen. One is their third string center. One was supposed to be a redshirt this season. Northeastern? They’re built like a mid-major winner: They shoot the cover off the ball, they don’t turn the rock over, they don’t give up offensive boards, and they control tempo. Upset city.

No. 6 IOWA STATE to the Elite 8: Every time that I get on the Iowa State bandwagon, the Cyclones turnaround and completely implode. That’s not going to happen this time because I am decidedly no on the Iowa State bandwagon, I’m just picking them to go to the Elite 8. There’s a very big difference.

BUT DON’T PICK THIS UPSET

No. 12 NEW MEXICO STATE vs. No. 5 AUBURN: I want to love this NMSU team, but I can’t. I don’t think they have the horses to play with this Auburn team when Bruce Pearl gets them fired up and ready to play.

THE STUDS

  • CAM JOHNSON, North Carolina: Every one loves Coby White and Nassir Little, but it’s Johnson that has been their best player this season.
  • DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas: Lawson has been the one consistently bright spot for the Jayhawks this season, posting double-doubles seemingly every single night.
  • MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall: Powell is as explosive of a scorer as you’ll find in this year’s NCAA tournament. He can go for 25 in any given half.
  • P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky: When Washington plays at his best, when he’s a 20-and-10 guy, the Wildcats are at their best.

THE STARS OF MARCH

  • FLETCHER MAGEE, Wofford: He is going to set the career record for threes made in a career if he makes three in the tournament. He shoots a ton and has the ultimate green light.
  • D’MARCUS SIMONDS, Georgia State: He called his shot in the Sun Belt conference tournament, guaranteeing a win. If he calls his shot to beat No. 3 seed Houston, we need to be on it.
  • SAM MERRILL, Utah State: Neemias Queta is the guy with NBA potential that has folks buzzing, but Merrill is Utah State’s best player.

ONE GAME TO WATCH: No. 7 Wofford vs. No. 10 Seton Hall

Fletcher Magee is must-see TV. Myles Powell is must-see TV. When they are trading three-point haymakers in a knockout game, the only excuse for not watching is a coma.

ONE GAME THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 5 Auburn

These two teams want to run and gun as much as anyone in the sport right now, and the best part of seeing them face off would be that both rosters are capable of making all of those threes they fired. This game could get played in the 90s. That would be fun.

AND THE WINNER IS …

North Carolina.

I know it’s pretty corny to pick yet another No. 1 seed from the ACC to the Final Four, but I think that this Carolina team can get the job done.

Duke lands commitment from five-star forward Matthew Hurt

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For the fourth time in the last five years, Duke is tapping into that Minnesota pipeline to mine talent.

Following in the footsteps of Tyus Jones, Gary Trent Jr. and Tre Jones, Matthew Hurt, a 6-foot-9 forward and a top ten prospect in the Class of 2019, announced on Friday that he will be playing his college ball for the Blue Devils.

Hurt ultimately picked Duke over Kansas, but he was also pursued by the likes of Kentucky, North Carolina and Minnesota. He joins Vernon Carey, Wendell Moore and Boogie Ellis in Duke’s 2019 recruiting class.

Hurt is the perfect compliment to Carey, a powerhouse low-post force, and Moore, who is a talented wing. He has size and is extremely skilled, with the ability to stretch the floor out to 25 feet and the potential to be a dangerous face-up scorer, both in the mid-post and on the perimeter. He needs to get stronger and tougher, but that will come with time. As it stands, he’s the piece to the puzzle that Duke needed to add.

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.