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2019 NCAA Tournament: The guards you need to know

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The saying goes, it’s guards that win games in the NCAA tournament, and the history is there to back it up. Whether it’s a point guard making his teammates better (Tyus Jones, Duke) or dominating play (Kemba Walker, UConn). There will be a whole host of guards, some we know and some we don’t, that’ll make a huge difference over the next month.

Here we’ll take a look at a group that maybe aren’t quite as well known as the country’s absolute top-tier. So you won’t find R.J. Barrett or Cassius Winston or Carsen Edwards or Ja Morant here. You will, however, find a group that can make or break a bracket.

Markus Howard, Marquette

It’s a bit surprising that Howard hasn’t broken through as a major star in college basketball given he’s a 5-foot-11, sweet-shooting guard who absolutely fills it up. He’s a high-volume guy with one of the highest usage rates in the country while still shooting 40.8 percent from 3-point range en route to averaging 25 points per game. Howard is certainly no secret to those who follow college basketball closely, but given how celebrated 3-point shooters are in this day and age, Howard, truly one of the country’s elite in that department, seems broadly under-appreciated. His shooting is potent enough to put the Golden Eagles on a run, even if they’re entering the tournament on a downward trajectory.

Josh Perkins, Gonzaga

There have been plenty of questions about Perkins on these pages but he’s largely answered the bell this season for the Zags. He’s averaged 11 points with an assist-to-turnover ratio great than 3:1. He’s shooting 36.8 percent from 3-point range. He’s run the point for one of the best and most successful teams in the country. But…there are still a couple of red flags. Perkins had four turnovers and was 4 of 14 (0-3 from 3) in the Zags’ loss in the WCC title game to St. Mary’s, and in Gonzaga’s last loss before that, all the way back in December, he had six turnovers against North Carolina. He had nine assists in a loss to Tennessee, but was also 0-6 from the field. There might be some that say Killian Tillie is Gonzaga’s x-factor, but with how good they are already in the frontcourt, I still think Perkins remains the guy that can swing the pendulum the most in either direction for the West’s No. 1 seed.

Sam Merrill, Utah State

Merrill has been the best player you haven’t heard of this season. He’s averaging 21.2 points, 4.2 assists and 4.0 boards for a Utah State team that won the Mountain West tournament. He’s averaging 27.2 points over the last five games, in which the Aggies beat Nevada to lock up an at-large bid and then rolled through the field to win their league’s automatic bid. He’s terrific.

Lindell Wigginton, Iowa State

An foot injury sidelined Wigginton for most of November and December, and the former five-star prospect has been coming off the bench for an up-and-down Iowa State team since returning. A year after being the Cyclones’ best and perhaps only scoring option, Wigginton now finds himself a part of a more balanced attack that actually features another player – Virginia transfer Marial Shayok – more than him. Still, he’s a 38 percent 3-point shooter with high-level athleticism, and his ability to score in bunches could be the catalyst that keeps the Cyclones hot after their Big 12 tournament championship.

Fletcher Magee, Wofford

The Terrier senior has a chance to become a Big Dance darling thanks to his 41.3 percent shooting from 3-point range and his prowess for big-scoring games ( he’s averaged 20-plus for two years). Wofford became something of a national novelty as they cracked the Top 25 for the first time in school history, but here’s guessing Magee shows why the Terriers weren’t just a collecting wins in the Southern Conference – they’re actually a serious threat over the next few weeks.

Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s

If St. John’s is going to storm out of the First Four and make a dent in coach Chris Mullin’s first NCAA tournament with his alma mater, Ponds is going to be what’s powering it. The 6-foot-1 Brooklyn native is averaging just under 20 ppg with 5.2 assists and 2.6 steals per game as well. Ponds is a threat to go for 30-plus every time he steps on the floor.

C.J. Massinburg, Buffalo

It’s hard to live up to the hype when you drop 43 in an overtime win at West Virginia in the season’s first week, but the Bulls’ senior has been really good all season. Massinburg is a statsheet stuffer with 18.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3 assists per game while shooting nearly 40 percent from 3 and 46.4 percent overall. It’s not going to be surprising at all to see Buffalo outperform its six seed with its senior guard leading the way.

BJ Taylor, UCF

The Orlando native has starred for the hometown Knights as they’ve secured their first NCAA tournament berth since 2005.  The 6-foot-2 guard is averaging 16 points and 3.3 assists per game. He converts at a 36.8 percent clip from 3-point range.

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.