2019 NCAA Tournament: Must-see opening round matchups

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The 2019 NCAA tournament features a lot of enticing first-round matchups filled with upset potential. But only a handful of the 32 first round games should be appointment television. Some games have incredible star power, others have soap-opera-level storylines and a few more are just intriguing games that should be close.

Here’s a look at seven must-see opening-round matchups as you’ll want to make these games the center of your attention when they come on.

1. No. 5 seed Marquette vs. No. 12 seed Murray State, Thursday, 4:30 p.m., Hartford

Markus Howard vs. Ja Morant in the first round is a major gift from the NCAA tournament Gods.

Both All-American point guards are electric to watch. You could even argue that besides for Zion Williamson, that they are the two most fun-to-watch players in all of college basketball. Marquette’s Howard is a noted perimeter shooter who can heat up quickly enough to drop 50 in a game or 40 in a half. Murray State’s Morant is more of a downhill driver and athlete who throws down vicious dunks with insane athleticism. Morant has elevated into a potential top-three NBA draft pick, as this will be a major national showcase for his draft stock as well.

The entertainment value of that lead-guard matchup alone is worth the price of admission. But this overall game should also be a really fun No. 5/No. 12 matchup. Marquette has struggled down the stretch as they’ve lost five out of six games. Murray State has won 11 straight games as they enter this field as one of the hotter teams.

2. No. 7 seed Louisville vs. No. 10 seed Minnesota, Thursday, 12:15 p.m., Des Moines

Are there any direct flights from Greece to Des Moines? That’s probably doubtful. But let’s face it, Louisville vs. a Pitino is an amazing first-round subplot.

It’s hard to say if Rick is going to try to attend this game while he’s busy coaching pro ball in Greece, but he’ll certainly be supporting his son Richard go against his former employer. Louisville and new head coach Chris Mack could not have been pleased when they saw this draw.

Rick Pitino is not only suing Louisville for wrongful termination, but he recruited and coached most of the current players on the Cardinals roster. Minnesota is going to get as many helpful tips from Rick can give to his son as that subplot alone makes this game a must-watch.

3. No. 5 seed Wisconsin vs. No. 12 seed Oregon, Friday, 4:30 p.m., San Jose

Matchups between No. 5 and No. 12 seeds are already fun to watch but this one is particularly intriguing because of the Big Ten/Pac-12 dynamic.

Wisconsin has been one of the Big Ten’s better teams this season in an insanely deep league. Oregon emerged late to win the Pac-12 conference tournament to sneak into the field with the autobid. The Ducks have been underwhelming this season — particularly after the loss of freshman star big man Bol Bol. It’s also important to remember that Oregon has the talent to compete with Wisconsin as freshman Louis King has grown more comfortable since joining the lineup.

The coaching matchup between Wisconsin’s Greg Gard and Oregon’s Dana Altman will also be a fun chess match for basketball junkies as they are two of the most highly-regarded coaches in the entire field.

4. No. 6 seed Buffalo vs. No. 11 seed Arizona State or St. John’s, Friday, 4:00 p.m., Tulsa

This game has the potential to be the Bobby Hurley Bowl as the Arizona State head coach left Buffalo to join the Sun Devils three years ago. Even if Arizona State falls to St. John’s in Wednesday’s First Four game in Dayton, this game should be wildly entertaining.

All three of these programs aren’t afraid to push the tempo as this should be some of the more aesthetically-pleasing basketball for casual fans during the first round. There’s also the strange role reversal of mid-major Buffalo being the favored No. 6 seed while the No. 11 seeds will be underdogs hailing from power conferences.

And the Bulls are legitimately really good. They already knocked off No. 4 seed Arizona last season, so they’ll be experienced and hungry enough to make a potential run this season. Arizona State has an athletic and explosive freshman in guard Luguentz Dort while St. John’s junior guard Shamorie Ponds is one of the more potent scorers in the country.

5. No. 7 seed Wofford vs. No. 10 seed Seton Hall, Thursday, 9:50 p.m., Columbia

Yet another mid-major team in a higher seed than a power conference team. Wofford is a ton of fun to watch thanks to senior guard Fletcher Magee and his potent three-point shooting. The Terriers will let it fly in this one as they were the second-best three-point shooting team in the country this season. Wofford has also won 20 consecutive games as they’re arguably the hottest team entering the NCAA tournament.

Seton Hall has figured things out just in time for the Big Dance as guard Myles Powell is one of the hotter individual players in the country. The Pirates have won four of their last five games entering the tournament with the only loss coming to Villanova during a controversial Big East title game. With strong guard play and both teams trending in positive directions, this has the makings of a memorable battle.

6. No. 8 seed Utah State vs. No. 9 seed Washington, Friday, 6:50 p.m., Columbus

This is one of those dream matchups we probably wouldn’t see in the regular season. A top Pac-12 program facing a very credible Mountain West team usually doesn’t happen because it’s generally a no-win situation for the Pac-12 school.

But we get to see it here in the first round as perhaps the best No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup. Utah State probably would have made the Field of 68 as an at-large but they took the safer route of just winning the Mountain West autobid instead. Junior guard Sam Merrill is also one of the field’s most underrated individual scorers as he’s putting up 21.2 points per game.

Washington gets a chance to show the Pac-12 was entirely pathetic this season by advancing to the Round of 32. The Huskies struggled late in the season in two losses against Oregon, so it’ll be interesting to see how Washington fares against another NCAA tournament-caliber team. A win here would be huge for the Mountain West when it comes to bragging rights.

7. No. 7 seed Cincinnati vs. No. 10 seed Iowa, Friday, 12:15 p.m., Columbus

This game should already be unique because it’s a clash of styles between the traditionally slow and rugged Bearcats against the more offensive-minded Hawkeyes. It should also be relatively close game compared to many first-round matchups.

But the antics on the sidelines between Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin and Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery will be worth watching — particularly since this is the first game on the schedule on Friday. The last time McCaffery was in Columbus, he cursed out Big Ten officials during an ugly Iowa loss at Ohio State that led to a two-game suspension.

Cincinnati was gifted an in-state game in this matchup and it could make for some explosive McCaffery quotes in the postgame presser if things don’t go his way.

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.