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.

Kara Lawson hired as new Duke head coach

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Duke announced on Saturday that Kara Lawson, a former Tennessee guard and ESPN commentator, has been hired as the new head coach of the school’s women’s basketball team.

Lawson, 39, had been an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics before accepting the job at Duke, where she will be replacing Joanne McCallie. McCallie announced earlier this month that she would not be returning to the program.

Lawson is the first Black head coach in the program’s history, the second Black head coach hired by an ACC school this offseason and the third Black woman coaching an ACC women’s team. In total, there are five Black head coaches in the league on the women’s side.

Zion’s attorneys: Court filing claiming $400K payment contains fraudulent information

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Attorneys representing Zion Williamson in a lawsuit filed by former his marketing agent Gina Ford have claimed that the allegations set forth in her latest court filing are “fraudulent” and “a desperate and irresponsible attempt to smear Mr. Williamson.”

Ford claimed to have obtain “newly-discovered evidence” regarding her lawsuit against Zion, specifically that the player and his stepfather accepted $400,000 from a marketing agent named Slavko Duric in October of 2018. Zion signed a contract with Ford and her company, Prime Sports Marketing, on April 20, 2019, five days after he declared for the NBA draft. Less than two months later, he backed out of that deal to sign with CAA, the most powerful agency in the business that will also be representing his basketball interests. Ford is suing Williamson for breach of contract.

The outcome of the case hinges on a law in the state of North Carolina known as UAAA — the Uniform Athlete Agent Act — that requires a contract to make it clear to a student-athlete that by signing with an agent, they forfeit their remaining eligibility. This marketing contract did not have that language in it, and Williamson’s lawyers are arguing that this made the contract itself invalid. Ford’s attorneys, on the other hand, are attempting to prove that Zion was actually ineligible at the time, meaning that he was not protected by UAAA, and this evidence is their latest attempt to do it.

Except, according to the attorneys representing Zion Williamson’s family, all of the evidence in the latest filing in this lawsuit is fake.

Included in the exhibits attached to the motion filed by Ford’s lawyers is a statement from a man named Donald Kreiss, who claims that he invested in a company owned by Duric called Maximum Management Group. MMG purportedly had an exclusive marketing agreement with Williamson, the proof being an agreement that was allegedly signed by Williamson, a letter of declaration to repay the $400,000 that was paid in 2018 and a copy of Zion’s driver’s license.

“The alleged ‘agreements’ and driver’s license attached to these papers are fraudulent,” read a statement from Jeffery Klein, Zion’s attorney and obtained by Daniel Wallach of The Athletic. “Neither Mr. Williamson nor his family know these individuals nor had any dealing with them. We had previously alerted Ms. Ford’s lawyers to both this fact and that we had previously reported the documents to law enforcement as forgeries, but they chose to go ahead with another frivolous filing anyway.”

Here is a photo, courtesy of Wallach’s twitter feed, of Zion’s license.

Via @WALLACHLegal

Speaking as someone that bartended on a college campus for a decade, I would not accept this ID. The ‘E’ at the end of LICENSE is not in bold. The last three digits of his zip code are a different font than the first two. There is no shadow behind his ears in the picture, which is the first thing I was taught to look for on an ID I thought was fake. Most conspicuous? His weight is listed as a height and his height is listed as a weight.

Furthermore, Zion’s attorneys claim that Duric is the same man that tried to run a similar scam on Luka Doncic.

“A simple Google search reveals that Slavko Duric, whose ostensible sports marketing entity has no online presence, purportedly attempted to defraud Luka Doncic … using a scheme in which he forged Doncic’s and his mother’s signatures on a contract,” read a letter, obtained by Wallach. that Williamson’s attorney sent to Ford’s attorney before the motion was filed.

The intrigue into Zion Williamson’s lawsuit is about smearing Duke basketball’s image

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This column was originally published on May 11th of 2020.

The public intrigue into Zion Williamson’s current lawsuit and legal battle has nothing to do with Zion Williamson himself and everything to do with smearing the glossy veneer of the Duke basketball program.

That’s the truth.

The numbers involved in this litigation — reportedly up to $200 million is at stake — will certainly raise some eyebrows, but contract disputes are rarely interesting for anyone that isn’t in law school. That’s what this is. Zion signed a contract with Gina Ford and Prime Sports Marketing on April 20, 2019, five days after he declared for the NBA draft. Less than two months later, he backed out of that deal to sign with CAA, the most powerful agency in the business that will also be representing his basketball interests. Ford is suing Williamson for breach of contract.

The outcome of this civil case is going to hinge on a law in the state of North Carolina known as UAAA — the Uniform Athlete Agent Act — that requires a contract to make it clear to a student-athlete that by signing with an agent, they forfeit their remaining eligibility. This marketing contract did not have that language in it, and Williamson’s lawyers will argue that this made the contract itself invalid.

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(And no, I don’t, for a second, think that Zion was ever returning to Duke. Neither does Ford, or anyone with any common sense. It’s why I wrote this “column” last May, when the rumors of Zion returning to school started rolling through the basketball world. That said, if I was a cynic, I would take a close look at that timeline. Rumors of Zion returning to school just happened to start circulating right around the time that he was trying to find a way out of a marketing contract to sign with a bigger agency? Hmm. Interesting. But I’m not a cynic, so I certainly won’t suggest that it was nothing other than a well-orchestrated PR ploy knowing that this would inevitably end up in the court system one day. Wouldn’t dream of insinuating anything like it.)

Which brings us to Mother’s Day.

That’s when Daniel Wallach of The Athletic first published snippets of the latest Zion Williamson lawsuit that was filed by Ford and her attorneys. Among them were requests for admission that Zion and his family received all kinds of money, benefits and gifts to play at Duke and to induce him to wear Nike and Adidas at different points during his high school career. The legal ploy is simple, really: If Zion or his parents are forced, under oath, to admit that they accepted illegal benefits at any point during his recruitment or while on the roster at Duke, it would mean that he was retroactively ineligible. If he was actually ineligible during his one season in Durham, then the UAAA wouldn’t be relevant. The contract, which, according to Ford’s lawsuit, could only be terminated with cause, would stand and Zion would be on the hook for a lot of money.

At this point, it does not appear that there is much evidence proving that Zion accepted illegal benefits. When asked by Dana O’Neil of The Athletic if they have any proof of wrongdoing, Ford’s attorney said, “We have ideas, opinions and some leads of our own. We are looking for information to support our case. This is what we want to know.” Requests for admission are, essentially, fact-finding missions during discovery in civil cases. Put another way, at this point, these requests are nothing more than proof that Ford’s lawyers have heard the same rumors and read the same court docs that people in basketball circles and on college basketball message boards have.

But no one actually cares about the legalese here, because if they did, they’d realize that Zion is under no obligation to answer, and even if he is somehow forced to, nothing will come of this for a long, long time.

The people that care this case care about catching Coach K in a lie. They care about proving that the holier-than-thou way that Duke carries itself is fraudulent. They care about finding a way to get something — anything — to stick to the program that recruits better than anyone else in an era where recruiting is the Wild, Wild West.

Do you remember when Lance Thomas dropped $30,000 in cash as a down payment for $67,800 in jewelry a year before Thomas and Duke won the 2010 national title? Nothing came of it. Remember when Corey Maggette admitted to receiving payments from Myron Piggie before becoming a member of the team that made it to the 1999 national title game? Nothing came of that, either. Nothing happened when Wendell Carter’s name popped up on expense reports submitted by Christian Dawkins. Nothing happened when Michael Avenatti alleged that Nike paid Marvin Bagley’s family.

All told, there are 13 high-major programs that are dealing with the fallout from the FBI’s investigation into college basketball: Alabama, Arizona, Auburn, Creighton, Kansas, Louisville, LSU, Memphis, N.C. State, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, TCU and USC.

Duke, despite a cloud of smoke surrounding Zion that would make Seth Rogen envious, has been hit with … nada.

The public is looking for their pound of flesh, and nothing would satiate that bloodlust quite like an admission from Zion Williamson in this lawsuit that he was paid to go to Duke.

Ivy League calls off fall sports due to outbreak

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The Ivy League on Wednesday became the first Division I conference to say it will not play sports this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, a person with knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press. The league left open the possibility of moving some seasons to the spring if the outbreak is better controlled by then.

The decision was described to the AP by a person speaking on the condition of anonymity in advance of the official announcement.

Although the coalition of eight academically elite schools does not grant athletic scholarships or compete for an NCAA football championship, the move could have ripple effects throughout the big business of college sports. Football players in the Power Five conferences have already begun workouts for a season that starts on Aug. 29, even as their schools weigh whether to open their campuses to students or continue classes remotely.

The Ivy decision affects not just football but everything before Jan. 1, including soccer, field hockey, volleyball and cross country, as well as the nonconference portion of the basketball season.

Power Five conferences told The Associated Press on Wednesday that they were still considering their options. But it was the Ivy League’s March 10 decision to scuttle its postseason basketball tournament that preceded a cascade of cancellations that eventually enveloped all major college and professional sports.

“What’s happening in other conferences is clearly a reflection of what’s happening nationally and any decisions are made within that context,” said Dr. Chris Kratochvil, the chair of the Big Ten’s infectious disease task force, adding that there is no “hard deadline” for a decision.

“Clearly, regardless of what happens in the fall, sports are coming back eventually,” he said. “So we want to make sure that whenever that time (is) right to return to competition, that we have the infrastructure and the recommendations in place to be able to do so safely for the student-athletes, staff, coaches, fans, students.”

Ivy League schools are spread across seven Northeastern states that, as of mid-July, have seen some success at controlling the COVID-19 outbreak. But most of those states still ban large gatherings; under the Massachusetts reopening plan, Harvard would not be allowed to have fans in the stands until a vaccine is developed.

Harvard has already announced that all classes for both semesters will be held virtually; dorms will be open only to freshmen and seniors. Yale said it would limit its dorms to 60% capacity and said most classes would be conducted remotely. Princeton will also do most of its teaching online, with dorms at half capacity.

Coaches 4 Change: Siena’s Carmen Maciariello spearheads social justice initiative

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Carmen Maciariello found himself in the same place so many of us did in the days after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis.

Devastated by what he was seeing. Motivated to find a way to use his platform as the head coach at Siena College to enact change. Struggling with how, as he puts it, “a white head coach from privilege at a school in New York,” can have real, honest, open dialogue with his majority-Black roster.

So he picked up the phone. He called Louis Orr, his former college coach and now an assistant coach at Georgetown. He called his closest friends in the coaching business. He called his advisor, Brad Konerman, an entrepreneur who connected him with a couple of talented website designers. By early June, 25 like-minded people from all walks of life were on a zoom call.

“I’ve never been pulled over and feared for my life for not using my blinker,” Maciariello, who is white, told me. “We had those conversations. How are we talking to our teams about that? What are we doing with the police? How can we help our young people navigate through these tough times?”

That’s how Coaches 4 Change was born.

Maciariello has grand plans for the organization. On a zoom call with nearly all of the 43 coaches that have committed to the group to date, he said he wants “to try to change the world. Let’s not think small, we’ve gotta think big with this.” He is not lacking for ambition.

But Maciariello also understands that something like this has to start small and it has to start locally. It’s why he limited the first group of invitees to coaches that are “doing this for the right reasons.”

“I didn’t want to have a donate link and bring in coaches that felt like, ‘I donated money, I did my part supporting it,” he said. “It was about the time commitment and the vision. We have to focus on one thing first.”

That first thing?

Voting.

C4C developed a sleek, interactive website to help educate young people about social injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement, things as basic as the difference between systemic and systematic racism and Jackie Robinson’s impact on sports. But the site also provides users with all of the information necessary to vote in this year’s elections, information on what makes voting so important in a democracy and — most importantly — a tutorial for how a person in every state can register to vote, where their polling stations are and whether or not they are eligible for mail-in voting. Their website also has a ‘Keep Learning‘ page that links to all documentaries, podcasts, audiobooks and literary resources available on all streaming platforms, including content for children.

C4C has partnered with Vote.org with a goal of “100 percent voter registration for all college athletes” regardless of the sport they play, Maciariello said.

Currently, the only coaches involved with C4C are men’s college basketball coaches, but that will change. They are in the process of reaching out to counterparts on the women’s side, and will eventually invite staff members from other sports as well. One of the barriers to entry to become a member will be ensuring that every player on a coach’s team is registered to vote.

Eventually, Maciariello envisions C4C developing community outreach initiatives. He wants the members of C4C to connect with their campus communities and put together voter registration drives for students. He wants to eventually connect with lawmakers and work on changing legislation that helps systemic racism continue to exist.

No one ever said he wasn’t ambitious.

But he knows he has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is this platform.

“I want to engage people in issues,” he said. “Educate them, empower them to change, encourage them to grow and evolve.”