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Best Bets: Bettor’s guide to Thursday’s NCAA tournament games

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At 9 p.m. the day before every NCAA tournament game day, we will be releasing our Best Bets column, breaking down every single game in the tournament that day.

Odds courtesy DraftKings Sportsbook.

12:15 p.m.: No. 7 LOUISVILLE vs. No. 10 MINNESOTA, CBS

  • LINE: Louisville (-5)
  • TOTAL: 136
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Louisville 70.5, Minnesota 65.5
  • KENPOM: Louisville 71, Minnesota 66

The Pitino Bowl!!!

For those that don’t get it, Louisville fired Rick Pitino 18 months ago. His son, Richard, is the head coach at Minnesota. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be the case that Rick will be flying home from Greece to be at the game, which does take away some of the revenge factor if you like to take a ride down Narrative Street.

There are two problems here for Minnesota. For starters, they do not shoot the ball all that well. Just 28.8 percent of their field goal attempts come from beyond the arc (346th nationally) and they shoot it at just 32.1 percent from three. Louisville runs the Pack-Line, which is a defense designed to cut off penetration and force perimeter jumpers. The other problem that then arises is that Minnesota’s point guard situation is a mess. Isaiah Washington hasn’t really panned out, so Amir Coffey and Dupree MacBrayer are running the show. That’s sub-optimal.

Jordan Murphy is an absolute monster in the paint, and Daniel Oturu is quite promising, but this seems like the kind of matchup and the likes of Malik Williams will be up for and one of those two will have to guard either Sutton or Jordan Nwora.

PICK: I think Louisville is the better team and I think that their style of play matches up really well with Minnesota. The only concern that I have is that Louisville has melted away so many covers because of what they do at the end of games. They’d be a top 10ish team if basketball games ended at the under four timeout. Will we see them collapse again in the tournament? That worry is probably enough to keep me away from this line.

12:40 p.m.: No. 3 LSU vs. No. 14 YALE, TruTV

  • LINE: LSU (-7.5)
  • TOTAL: 157
  • IMPLIED SCORE: LSU 82.25, Yale 74.75
  • KENPOM: LSU 85, Yale 76

I am all in on the Elis taking down the Tigers on Thursday afternoon.

The biggest reason for this is that LSU is playing without their head coach. Will Wade has been held out by LSU after he refused to speak with the administration following the reports that he was caught on a wiretap by the FBI discussing a payment for a player. That’s big, because Wade is a terrific coach that is terrific when it comes to make in-game adjustments, and I do think there is something to the idea of substitute teacher syndrome setting in.

But beyond that, I just believe in this Yale team. They got dudes. Miye Oni is going to be an NBA draft pick, potentially a first rounder, as a 6-foot-6 combo-guard. Jordan Bruner is a do-it-all, 6-foot-9 forward that should be playing in the SEC, not the Ivy League. Alex Copeland proved that he can take a game over at the point. I also think it’s important to note that LSU does a lot of their damage on the offensive glass, and while Yale is going to be physically outmatched against LSU, they are top 25 nationally in defensive rebounding percentage.

There’s talent on Yale, they matchup well with LSU and the Tigers will be missing their coach. I like it when the dots connect.

PICK: I think I lean towards taking the money line instead of just Yale on the points, especially since we can still get it at (+260).

1:30 p.m.: No. 5 AUBURN vs. No. 12 NEW MEXICO STATE, TNT

  • LINE: Auburn (-6)
  • TOTAL: 144.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Auburn 75.25, New Mexico State 69.25
  • KENPOM: Auburn 75, New Mexico State 69

I love New Mexico State in theory. They’re tough, they’re old, they play hard and they won 30 games behind a really, really good coach in Chris Jans. I don’t love this matchup, however. Auburn’s got dudes. Jared Harper is one of the most underrated point guards in the country, Bryce Brown can take over any game on any day and Chuma Okeke — who is a little nicked up — and Anfernee McLemore are both really useful pieces for the way Bruce Pearl wants to play.

They’re also absolutely rolling right now. In the last 12 days, they’ve beaten Tennessee twice, once by 20 points on a neutral floor.

PICK: I just don’t think NMSU has the horses to run with Auburn on Thursday, not when Pearl is going to have those kids ready to run through three brick walls.

(Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

2:00 p.m.: No. 4 FLORIDA STATE vs. No. 13 VERMONT, TBS

  • LINE: Florida State (-9)
  • TOTAL: 133.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Florida State 71.25, Vermont 62.25
  • KENPOM: Florida State 72, Vermont 63

Before the bracket was released, Vermont was one of the mid-majors that I really wanted to pick to win. After the bracket was released, I cannot say the same thing. The Catamounts are not all that big or long or that athletic. Florida State is all of those things, and they go two-deep at every position with players that are all of those things. It’s just the worst possible matchup that Vermont could have drawn as a No. 13 seed.

PICK: I think Florida State wins by about 15 points, and this line is moving in the opposite direction. I’ll keep letting it move.

2:45 p.m.: No. 2 MICHIGAN STATE vs. No. 15 BRADLEY, CBS

  • LINE: Michigan State (-18.5)
  • TOTAL: 133.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan State 76, Bradley 57.5
  • KENPOM: Michigan State 78, Bradley 57

I want no part of betting this game. Michigan State has been banged up all season long. In the Big Ten tournament, Tom Izzo pulled his starters against Ohio State in the quarterfinals with three minutes left, and they promptly gave up a 12-0 run that blew an easy cover. If you guys want to sweat out Tom Izzo trying to steal a few extra minutes of rest for his point guard that has been an absolute workhorse this season, be my guest. I’ll be betting elsewhere.

3:10 p.m: No. 6 MARYLAND vs. No. 11 BELMONT, TruTV

  • LINE: Maryland (-4)
  • TOTAL: 147.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Maryland 75.75, Belmont 71.75
  • KENPOM: Maryland 76, Belmont 72

I didn’t think that Belmont would be able to deal with the guards on Temple, and I feel the same way about the Bruins and Maryland. But I’m even more concerned about what Belmont will do with Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith, who are first round picks that have just not gotten to the NBA yet. That line seems a little bit low as well, which is why I’m leaning towards Maryland here.

PICK: Nick Muszynski looked really good against Temple. He’s going to have his work cut out for him against Maryland’s bigs, which is why I will be on Maryland (-4) here.

4:00 p.m.: No. 4 KANSAS vs. No. 13 NORTHEASTERN, TNT

  • LINE: Kansas (-6.5)
  • TOTAL: 142.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kansas 74.5, Northeastern 68
  • KENPOM: Kansas 76, Northeastern 68

Kansas is not the Kansas we are used to seeing. They start four freshmen this year, and while two of them are five-star — one of whom has not exactly played like a five-star this year — the other two are the Jayhawks third-string center and a guy that was supposed to redshirt this season. I also think Kansas is overseeded relative to the team they have now based on some non-conference wins they earned with Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick healthy.

Northeastern is a really, really well-coached team that doesn’t beat themselves. They don’t turn the ball over, they shoot it well from three, they control tempo, they don’t give up second chance points and they have a couple of high-level shot-makers, namely Vasa Pusica. The Huskies are dangerous.

PICK: Clearly, I think Northeastern is the play, but again, the money line is +235. I like it better before the line moved, but it’s still good value.

(Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

4:30 p.m.: No. 5 MARQUETTE vs. No. 12 MURRAY STATE, TBS

  • LINE: Marquette (-4)
  • TOTAL: 149.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Marquette 76.75, Murray State 72.25
  • KENPOM: Marquette 76, Murray State 72

I just cannot seed the Racers getting this done against Marquette. For starters, I think that the Golden Eagles will be able to hide Markus Howard defensively on one of Murray State’s non-Ja Morant wings. Then, I think that Sacar Anim will be able to go a good enough job on Morant that it will keep him from having one of his 40 point nights. And finally, I think Theo John’s presence at the rim will help prevent Morant from having an absolute blow-up game.

And that’s just on the defensive end of the floor. I think that the Hauser twins are going to be able to get whatever they want against small Murray State defenders.

PICK: I didn’t necessarily envision myself going all-in on Marquette in the first round, but here we are. Marquette (-4) seems low for the matchup.

6:50 p.m.: No. 7 NEVADA vs. No. 10 FLORIDA, TNT

  • LINE: Nevada (-2)
  • TOTAL: 132.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Nevada 67.25, Florida 65.25
  • KENPOM: Nevada 67, Florida 66

This bet is pretty easy for me. Nevada is old, they made a run in the NCAA tournament last year and their season has felt like they were coasting and waiting for the chance to prove themselves on the biggest stage again. Well, here we are.

The Wolf Pack — led by fifth-year seniors Caleb Martin, Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline — more or less run an offense that identifies matchups and allows their studs to go and try to win that matchup. Florida’s roster is made up of freshmen and inconsistent seniors. They also like to press a bit and that often leaves them cross-matched on the defensive end, with bigs guarding smalls and vice versa. Imagine a point guard trying to stop Jordan Caroline. Good luck.

PICK: Nevada (-2) is one of my favorite bets of the first weekend.

7:10 p.m.: No. 2 KENTUCKY vs. No. 15 ABILENE CHRISTIAN, CBS

  • LINE: Kentucky (-22.5)
  • TOTAL: 132
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kentucky 77.25, Abilene Christian 54.75
  • KENPOM: Kentucky 75, Abilene Christian 59

P.J. Washington has been in a walking boot since Sunday. For my money he is Kentucky’s best and most important player. Are we sure that he is actually healthy? Are we sure that Cal is going to play him a full compliment of minutes? Can Kentucky cover even if Washington doesn’t play or only sees the floor for a limited stretch?

Those are too many questions for me. I’ll fade this game.

7:20 p.m.: No. 6 VILLANOVA vs. No. 11 SAINT MARY’S, TBS

  • LINE: Villanova (-4.5)
  • TOTAL: 130.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Villanova 67.5, Saint Mary’s 63
  • KENPOM: Villanova 66, Saint Mary’s 65

This is the game that I have gone back and forth the most. The spread opened at six, which was an insanely high number considering that KenPom had this line at Villanova (-1). That makes me think Saint Mary’s. But the Gaels also run a lot of ball-screen stuff and get their shots within their offense, which is something that Villanova can take away with the way they switch. That makes me think Villanova.

This is the kicker, however: Villanova shoots 53.5 percent of their field goal attempts from three, which is the third-highest rate nationally. Saint Mary’s game-plans to run teams off of the three-point line, as just 31.4 percent of the field goal attempts against them are threes, which is the ninth-lowest number nationally, and teams have shot just 31.8 percent from three.

PICK: As Saint Mary’s has gotten hot over the last six weeks, their defense has really kicked up a notch, culminating in holding Gonzaga to 47 points in the WCC tournament final last Tuesday. I think it’s also worth noting that both SMC and Nova play really, really slowly. So not only do I like the Gaels here, I think that the under is a solid play as well.

7:27 p.m.: No. 1 GONZAGA vs. No. 16 FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON, TruTV

  • LINE: Gonzaga (-26.5)
  • TOTAL: 152.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Gonzaga 89.5, Fairleigh Dickinson 63
  • KENPOM: Gonzaga 90, Fairleigh Dickinson 65

You can criticize Gonzaga for a lot of things, but one thing they have done pretty consistently is to blow the doors off of their overmatched opponents. Fairleigh Dickinson is overmatched. They are 207th in KenPom this season. Gonzaga has played nine games against sub-200 KenPom opponents, and they’ve won those nine games by an average of 37.2 points. That number jumps to 43.5 points against the six sub-200 teams they played in the non-conference.

Should I mention that Fairleigh Dickinson played on Tuesday and had to travel tonight from Dayton to Salt Lake City to play at elevation?

PICK: Gonzaga (-26.5) is the play.

9:20 p.m.: No. 2 MICHIGAN vs. No. 15 MONTANA, TNT

  • LINE: Michigan (-15.5)
  • TOTAL: 131
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan 72.75, Montana 57.25
  • KENPOM: Michigan 74, Montana 57

This line has been moving as much as any line in the first weekend. It’s down to Michigan (-15.5) at the time of this writing, and I don’t think that it is crazy to say that it is going to move another point. Michigan and Montana played in the first round of the tournament last season. It was ugly as hell, but Michigan found a way to win by 14. The score? 61-47.

PICK: That’s where I think the edge is in this matchup. I think Michigan uglies this game up again. The under seems like the play here.

9:40 p.m.: No. 7 WOFFORD vs. No. 10 SETON HALL, CBS

  • LINE: Wofford (-2.5)
  • TOTAL: 143.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Wofford 73, Seton Hall 70.5
  • KENPOM: Wofford 74, Seton Hall 69

It’s a battle of the heat-check all-stars, as Wofford’s Fletcher Magee goes up against Seton Hall’s Myles Powell. As a team, the Terriers are as three-point heavy as anyone. They shoot 41.6 percent from three and more than 40 percent of their points come from beyond the arc, 17th nationally. Seton Hall is not great when it comes to running opponents off of the three-point line, but they do have some long and athletic defenders on the roster. Quincy McKnight and Myles Cale will both get a shots at Fletcher Magee.

I also think it’s important to note that Wofford has more than just Magee. Cameron Jackson is a terrific mid-major big man that is going to have a chance to prove his mettle against a power conference for. Nathan Hoover was the star of Wofford’s two biggest wins — the win at South Carolina by 20 points and the SoCon title game — and Storm Murphy is named Storm.

PICK: The question you have to ask here is just how many points will it take for you to bet on the more athletic team? For me, I think it’s more than Seton Hall (+2.5). This line has already been moving towards Seton Hall, and I think I’m going to wait it out and see how low it will go before I bet on Wofford.

9:50 p.m.: No. 3 PURDUE vs. No. 14 OLD DOMINION, TBS

  • LINE: Purdue (-13)
  • TOTAL: 127
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Purdue 70, Old Dominion 57
  • KENPOM: Purdue 72, Old Dominion 59

I think that Purdue is probably the play here, simply because I don’t think that Old Dominion is going to have an easy time scoring. The Monarchs are just a bad, bad team on the offensive end of the floor, and while Purdue isn’t great defensively, they should be good enough to make life hell for ODU. I do think that this game and this spread is going to come down to whether or not Purdue hits shots, and I think they will be able to get it going a little bit.

PICK: If I’m going to bet this game, I am going to bet the Purdue side. What worries me, however, is this has the feel of a game that is played in the high 50s or low 60s, and 13 points is a lot of points in a game that is that low scoring. The under might be the play, but with the total at 127, I think I’ll probably just fade this game.

9:57 p.m.: No. 8 SYRACUSE vs. No. 9 BAYLOR, TruTV

  • LINE: Syracuse (-2)
  • TOTAL: 133
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Syracuse 67.5, Baylor 65.5
  • KENPOM: Syracuse 67, Baylor 66

Two teams that play zone, two teams that don’t shoot it all that well or run great offense, two teams with coaches that seem to find a way to make it work regardless of who is on their roster. Two things that are worth noting: Syracuse is really good at forcing turnovers while Baylor is pretty sloppy, but they are really bad at getting defensive rebounder and Baylor ranks second nationally is offensive rebounding percentage.

PICK: If I bet this, I’ll probably bet Syracuse simply because Jim Boeheim just finds a way to get it done in March seemingly every year this days.

Jay Wright on double-duty with Villanova, USA Basketball

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Jay Wright immediately accepted a chance to be an assistant coach with USA Basketball for this year’s World Cup.

And then he checked his calendar.

Villanova students are headed back to school this week — while the Villanova men’s basketball coach will be halfway around the world for the next month or so. It has been, and will continue being, a major schedule challenge for Wright as he’s tasked with both helping USA Basketball win a gold medal while his players are on campus getting ready to start their seasons.

“It was a snap ‘yes.’ That’s the problem,” Wright said. “And then after you think about it, you’re like, ‘wow.’ Only then do you realize what you’re missing at home.”

To be clear, Wright said this is a problem only half-seriously.

Logistical matters weren’t going to keep him from being part of the staff of assistants that include Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce — all working under USA Basketball head men’s coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

“This is basketball heaven,” Wright said.

It’s not uncommon for college coaches like Wright to be part of the USA Basketball mix, which can collide with college calendars. At the most recent World Cup in 2014, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was the head coach and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim was one of the assistants — and that tournament ended in mid-September.

But at this tournament, which starts Aug. 31 in China with the Americans playing their first game against the Czech Republic a day later, Wright is the only college coach on the U.S. roster. Popovich, Kerr and Pierce all have some time before their ‘real’ teams start practice. Wright doesn’t have that luxury.

“He’s kind of doing double-duty right now,” Popovich said. “He’s keeping touch with his kids, and obviously doing a great job with the USA team. But he hasn’t forgotten about his Villanova guys.”

To make this work, Wright rearranged Villanova’s summer schedule, everything from player workouts to coaching meetings. He was able to do his usual gamut of recruiting, but his usual start-of-semester matters like meeting with parents and having newcomers get acclimated now will fall on his staff of assistants until he returns.

“You don’t say no to this,” Wright said.

The Americans needed a 17-hour flight from Los Angeles before arriving in Melbourne, Australia, where they resumed practice on Monday. They’ll play three games in Australia, the first of those coming on Thursday, before heading to China next week.

“Longest flight I’ve been on, but I’m happy to be here,” Boston’s Jayson Tatum said.

Popovich believes in a style of coaching where everyone gets a chance to argue all parts of the game — a participatory approach, like he uses in San Antonio. Wright is primarily helping with the U.S. defensive schemes, but he also gets his opportunity to offer suggestions for the offensive plans. And he’s usually one of the last coaches still working on the floor after practice, running groups through shooting drills.

“We’re meeting in the morning, watching film, meeting with the team, practicing, going back, watching film, then watching film with the team,” Wright said. “And then we all go to dinner, but all we talk about at dinner is basketball.”

Wright guided Villanova to national championships in 2016 and 2018. Over the last four seasons, only Gonzaga has won more games than the Villanova — the Bulldogs have 130 wins, the Wildcats 129. And he has plenty of USA Basketball experience, like a gold medal as coach at the 2005 World University Games and a select team coach before the 2010 World Cup and 2016 Olympic runs by the senior national team.

Despite his experience, Wright notes that being around coaches like Popovich, Kerr and Pierce for umpteen hours a day has been a basketball education.

“It’s such an incredible opportunity,” Wright said. “We’re only a couple weeks in and I’ve already learned so much that I can bring back to our team. It’s incredible. Honestly, I feel like I’ve grown in two weeks as a coach, as a leader, more than I have in the last 10 years.”

Pounding Nails: Mick Cronin’s plan to recast UCLA from blue-blood to blue collar

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Four months into his tenure, the players that he inherited as the new UCLA head coach have yet to experience a vintage Mick Cronin blowup.

They’ve seen them, mind you.

They pull up the YouTube videos on their phones. It’s something that the staff and the players laugh about it. But watching Mt. Cronin erupt on Ted Valentine, J.P. Macura or whoever Rob is is very different than experiencing first-hand the wrath of a man who once missed a season because he, quite literally, blew a gasket.

“I can tell it’s there,” Chris Smith, a junior wing and one of the elder statesmen on this UCLA roster. “We’ve seen snippets of it in practice.”

“He will get fiery,” added freshman Jaime Jaquez, “but he’s being patient.”

And there’s a reason for that.

(Which I’ll get to.)

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After 13 seasons as the head coach at Cincinnati, after rebuilding the Bearcats from the ground up, Cronin left the city where he was born to become the tenth man in the last 44 years tasked with getting UCLA basketball back to where it was under John Wooden. The hire did not come with a ton of fanfare; in fact, Cronin was, at best, UCLA’s fourth choice. They wanted Jamie Dixon, but they couldn’t negotiate their way around his buyout. The same can be said for Rick Barnes, who publicly stated that he would be the head coach of the Bruins right now if the program had ponied up enough. UCLA chased John Calipari, and while it’s obvious that Coach Cal was using them to get a raise out of Kentucky, the Bruins believed there was a real chance they could get a deal done.

The fact that Cronin was not UCLA’s first choice had nothing to do with the level of success he achieved with the Bearcats. There are six programs in college basketball that have been to the NCAA tournament the past nine seasons. Cincinnati is one of them. Michigan State, Gonzaga, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas are the other five. Cronin is the only coach on that list that isn’t either in the Hall of Fame today or a lead pipe lock to be inducted in the very near future.

“A program like UCLA, winning is expected,” redshirt senior Prince Ali said. “He’s bringing that pedigree.”

Out of context, that level of consistency is remarkable.

In context, it’s even more impressive.

(I promise, I’m getting to the point.)

Remember, when Cronin took the Cincinnati job, it was at the height of the Big East’s powers in hoops. When he was hired, he had just two players on the roster, one of which was Connor Barwin, a walk-on recruited from the football team and a future NFL player. In his third season, the Big East had three No. 1 seeds in the tournament and a Final Four appearance. The first year Cincinnati reached the Big Dance, they were one of 11 schools from the conference to get a bid.

Making Cincinnati matter in a conference that was that strong was no easy task.

And that success was borne out of the one thing that, as it stands, is nowhere to be found in Westwood.

(We’ve arrived.)

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Cronin developed a specific brand for his Cincinnati program. They were tough. They were physical. They were going to grind you down defensively. They were going to win the battle of the boards. They were going to play that open stance defense.

More importantly, the players on the roster knew what to expect. They had been recruited by the Cincinnati staff. Those relationships would often last six years, from the time Cronin could start recruiting them as juniors in high school through their senior season in college. They went to Cincinnati because they wanted to be coached the way Cronin coaches, because they thought they could thrive playing the way Cronin’s teams play. They picked Cincinnati for a reason.

More importantly, they knew everything that was expected of them. There was a familiarity built off of roster continuity that allowed the program, in a sense, to run itself.

Now? In LA?

“Everyone is new,” Cronin told me last week. “New to me and me to them.”

Cronin knows there is going to be a learning curve with this group. The players have to figure out what they are being asked to do. They have to learn an entirely new terminology. They have to learn Cronin’s teaching style while he has to figure out the best way to get through to them. As he put it, “listening is overrated. It’s listen, learn and apply. The way [my players] learn and apply is going to determine our rate of improvement,” and it’s his job to figure out the best way for them to learn, and the easiest way for them to apply.

And then there is the elephant in the room. The players have to be reprogrammed to play a style that hasn’t been prevalent in Pauley Pavilion for at least a decade.

Cronin wouldn’t comment on what UCLA was before he arrived – “I cannot speak to anything that’s happened here prior because I wasn’t here.” – but I certainly can.

During his nine year NCAA tournament run, the Bearcats were, on average, ranked 15th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. The only season in which they ranked outside the top 22 in defensive efficiency was last year, when they “only” ranked 28th. UCLA, on the other hand, has ranked outside the top 100 in KenPom’s defensive ratings for three of the last four years. They haven’t finished in the top 30 since 2008, when Ben Howland was still getting the Bruins to Final Fours.

Put another way, Cronin is not only the new coach walking in the door, he’s the guy asking a roster full of players to play a way they’ve never been asked to play before.

That takes time.

And if he comes at them screaming like a madman every time they make a mistake, he’ll lose them.

He knows that.

“Being a college basketball coach is like being a starting pitcher,” Cronin said. “You have to change pitches. You’re pitching the whole game. You can’t throw fastballs every day.”

“You can’t get after people if they don’t believe or trust what you’re doing is real,” said assistant coach Darren Savino, who has been with Cronin for a decade, and that as much as anything else has been the focus of the first four months of the Cronin Era.

Cronin has taken a fairly unusual approach. There haven’t been team trips to the bowling alley. He hasn’t taken UCLA on any wilderness retreats or hired any Navy SEALS to come in and grind his players to a pulp with 5:30 a.m. workouts.

“I believe guys need to have a life and when it’s time to work, you work,” Cronin said. “I’m not into the corny stuff.”

I asked him to elaborate on that.

Prince Ali (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

“Showing up to your kid’s game is not being a parent. Taking your guys bowling is not being a coach or developing bonds,” he said. “After practice, the guys all go around saying ‘good work today,’ but during practice they make faces when a guy makes a mistake or doesn’t throw them the ball. Anyone can walk around saying good job, but what about when we’re competing?

“College basketball is 80 percent culture and how hard you compete. Do you care for each other? How do you interact? As a coach, you have to make it mandatory to play unselfish, play for each other and treat each other right.

“I can get after you as a coach. You don’t need to get on his ass because I will do that. You need to lift him up. My line is simple: ‘Your job is to worry about the team and helping each other. My job is to worry about you.'”

“I’ve felt the switch in culture. Everyone knows the whole idea is intensity and passion,” Smith said. “I’ve felt his presence in the gym, in practice. We’re going 100 percent in every drill. I can already see what the difference is going to be.”

“It’s great so far because there’s no stat sheet yet,” Cronin added with a chuckle.

UCLA lost their three leading scorers from last season in Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes and Moses Brown, but there is more than enough talent on this roster for Cronin to get to the 10th straight NCAA tournament. Ali was a top 30 prospect nationally coming out of high school. There are three four-star recruits returning on the wing – Smith, Jules Bernard and David Singleton – and two coming back to school in the frontcourt. Jaquez is a local kid and a freshman that made his debut playing for the Mexican national team this summer, and both Tyger Campbell and Shareef O’Neal will be able to play this year after missing their freshman seasons.

Put another way, the problem with the UCLA program the last few years hasn’t been talent. In fact, the Bruins are deep enough that Cronin is actually concerned about making sure he finds enough minutes for everyone that deserves minutes.

The problem last season was simple, really. There was a lack of desire to play defense, there were too many guys playing for their draft stock instead of their teammates and there was a coaching staff that didn’t – or couldn’t – hold players accountable; Steve Alford was fired on Dec. 31st, and interim head coach Murry Bartow was nothing more than a substitute teacher.

Changing that mindset, slowly but surely, has been Cronin’s mission, and he knows that the process is far from complete.

“When you start to build a house, it’s a bunch of boards and nail,” he said. “You have to start pounding nails. You can’t look at it as a bunch of wood and a bunch of nails. You have to get up every day and start pounding nails, and eventually, you have a house.”

College Basketball 2019-2020 Preseason Top 25

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There is so much that is going to happen between now and the time that next season starts that it almost seems foolish to publish a preseason top 25 today.

But we’re doing it anyway!

A couple of notes: Who is going to head to the NBA is very much in the air right now. There are still a number of freshmen that have yet to announce where they are playing their college ball. The transfer market has barely heated up. For decisions that are up in the air, you’ll see an asterisk next to their name. We’re making predictions on what certain players will do and ranking based off of them. 

So with all that said, here is the preseason top 25.

1. MICHIGAN STATE

  • WHO’S GONE: Matt McQuaid, Kenny Goins, Nick Ward
  • WHO’S BACK: Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman, Joshua Langford, Aaron Henry, Kyle Ahrens, Gabe Brown, Foster Loyer, Marcus Bingham, Thomas Kithier
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Rocket Watts, Malik Hall, Julius Marble
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Kyle Ahrens, Aaron Henry, Xavier Tillman

2. KENTUCKY

  • WHO’S GONE: P.J. Washington, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, Reid Travis
  • WHO’S BACK: E.J. Montgomery, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickly, Nick Richards
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Kahlil Whitney, Tyrese Maxey, Keion Brooks, Johnny Juzang, Dontaie Allen, Nate Sestina
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Tyrese Maxey, Ashton Hagans, Kahlil Whitney, Keion Brooks, E.J. Montgomery

3. DUKE

  • WHO’S GONE: Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Marques Bolden
  • WHO’S BACK: Tre Jones, Alex O’Connell, Jack White, Javin DeLaurier, Jordan Goldwire, Joey Baker
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Vernon Carey, Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt, Cassius Stanley
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Tre Jones, Alex O’Connell, Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt, Vernon Carey

4. KANSAS

  • WHO’S GONE: Lagerald Vick, Dedric Lawson, Quintin Grimes, K.J. Lawson, Charlie Moore
  • WHO’S BACK: Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji, Udoka Azubuike, Marcus Garrett, Silvio De Sousa, Mitch Lightfoot, David McCormack
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Isaiah Moss, Jalen Wilson, Tristan Enaruna, Isaac McBride, Christian Braun
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Devon Dotson, Isaiah Moss, Ochai Agbaji, Silvio De Sousa, Udoka Azubuike

5. VILLANOVA

  • WHO’S GONE: Eric Paschall, Phil Booth, Jahvon Quinerly
  • WHO’S BACK: Jermaine Samuels, Cole Swider, Saddiq Bey, Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Rountree, Brandon Slater
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Bryan Antoine, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore, Eric Dixon
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Collin Gillespie, Bryan Antoine, Saddiq Bey, Jermaine Samuels, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl

6. LOUISVILLE

  • WHO’S GONE: Christen Cunningham, Khwan Fore, Akoy Agau
  • WHO’S BACK: Jordan Nwora, Dwayne Sutton, Ryan McMahon, Steve Enoch, Malik Williams, Darius Perry
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Samuell Williamson, Jaelyn Withers, Josh Nickelberry, Fresh Kimble, David Johnson, Aidan Igiehom, Quinn Slazinski
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Fresh Kimble, Samuell Williamson, Dwayne Sutton, Jordan Nwora, Malik Williams

7. MARYLAND

  • WHO’S GONE: Bruno Fernando
  • WHO’S BACK: Anthony Cowan, Jalen Smith, Serrel Smith Jr., Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Ricky Lindo, Darryl Morsell
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Chol Marial, Makhi Mitchell, Makhel Mitchell, Donta Scott
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Anthony Cowan, Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Ricky Lindo, Jalen Smith

8. VIRGINIA

  • WHO’S GONE: De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Jack Salt
  • WHO’S BACK: Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, Kihei Clark
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Casey Morsell, Tomas Woldetensae, Kadin Shedrick, Justin McKoy
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Kihei Clark, Casey Morsell, Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff

9. TEXAS TECH

  • WHO’S GONE: Jarrett Culver, Matt Mooney, Tariq Owens, Brandone Francis, Norense Odiase, Khavon Moore
  • WHO’S BACK: Chris Beard, Davide Moretti, Kyler Edwards, Deshawn Corprew, Andrei Savrasov
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Jahmius Ramsey, Chris Clarke, T.J. Holyfield, Kevin McCullar, Russel Tchewa, Terrence Shannon
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Jahmius Ramsey, Davide Moretti, Deshawn Corprew, T.J. Holyfield, Chris Clarke

10. FLORIDA

  • WHO’S GONE: KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson, Kevarrius Hayes, Keith Stone, DeAundre Ballard
  • WHO’S BACK: Noah Locke, Andrew Nembhard, Keyontae Johnson, Dontay Bassett, Isaiah Stokes
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Kerry Blackshear Jr., Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, Omar Payne, Jason Jitoboh
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, Scottie Lewis, Keyontae Johnson, Kerry Blackshear Jr.

11. GONZAGA

  • WHO’S GONE: Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell, Geno Crandall, Jeremy Jones
  • WHO’S BACK: Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev, Corey Kispert
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Admon Gilder, Drew Timme, Oumar Ballo, Ryan Woolridge, Brock Ravet, Anton Watson, Martynas Arlauskas, Pavel Zahkarov
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Ryan Woolridge, Admon Gilder, Corey Kispert, Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev

12. SETON HALL

  • WHO’S GONE: Michael Nzei
  • WHO’S BACK: Myles Powell, Myles Cale, Quincy McKnight, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Ikey Obiagu
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Tyrese Samuel
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Quincy McKnight, Myles Powell, Myles Cale, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Ikey Obiagu

13. NORTH CAROLINA

  • WHO’S GONE: Coby White, Nassir Little, Luke Maye, Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams, Seventh Woods
  • WHO’S BACK: Leaky Black, Garrison Brooks, Brandon Robinson
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Cole Anthony, Armando Bacot, Jeremiah Francis, Anthony Harris, Christian Keeling, Justin Pierce
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Cole Anthony, Leaky Black, Brandon Robinson, Armando Bacot, Garrison Brooks

14. UTAH STATE

  • WHO’S GONE: Quinn Taylor
  • WHO’S BACK: Sam Merrill, Neemias Queta, Diogo Brito, Brock Miller, Abel Porter
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Alphonso Anderson, Liam McChesney, Sean Bairstow
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Diogo Brito, Abel Porter, Sam Merrill, Brock Miller, Neemias Queta

15. OREGON

  • WHO’S GONE: Paul White, Louis King, Ehab Amin, Kenny Wooten, Bol Bol, Victor Bailey
  • WHO’S BACK: Payton Pritchard, Will Richardson, Francis Okoro
  • WHO’S COMING IN: N’Faly Dante, C.J. Walker, Anthony Mathis, Shakur Juiston, Addison Patterson, Chris Duarte, Lok Wur, Chandler Lawson
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Payton Pritchard, Chris Duarte, Anthony Mathis, C.J. Walker, Shakur Juiston

16. ARIZONA

  • WHO’S GONE: Justin Coleman, Ryan Luther, Brandon Randolph
  • WHO’S BACK: Dylan Smith, Chase Jeter, Brandon Williams, Alex Barcello, Ira Lee
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Max Hazzard, Terry Armstrong, Christian Koloko, Zeke Nnaji, Stone Gettings
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Max Hazzard, Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Ira Lee, Chase Jeter

17. SAINT MARY’S

  • WHO’S GONE: Jordan Hunter
  • WHO’S BACK: Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts, Tommy Kuhse, Tanner Krebs, Dan Fotu, Jock Perry
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Alex Ducas, Kyle Bowen
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Jordan Ford, Tommy Kuhse, Tanner Krebs, Malik Fitts, Jock Perry

18. XAVIER

  • WHO’S GONE: Ryan Welage, Zach Hankins, Kyle Castlin, Elias Harden
  • WHO’S BACK: Quentin Goodin, Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs, Tyrique Jones
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Kyky Tandy, Dahmir Bishop, Zach Freemantle, Jason Carter, Daniel Ramsey, Dieonte Miles
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Quentin Goodin, Paul Scruggs, Naji Marshall, Jason Carter, Tyrique Jones

19. LSU

  • WHO’S GONE: Tremont Waters, Naz Reid, Kavell-Bigby Williams
  • WHO’S BACK: Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Emmitt Williams, Marlon Taylor, Darius Days
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Trendon Watford, James Bishop
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Marlon Taylor, Trendon Watford, Emmitt Williams

20. BAYLOR

  • WHO’S GONE: King McClure, Makai Mason, Jake Lindsey
  • WHO’S BACK: Tristan Clark, Mario Kegler, Jared Butler, Devonte Bandoo, Mark Vital, Freddie Gillespie, Matthew Mayer
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Jordan Turner, MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler, Mark Vital, Mario Kegler, Tristan Clark

21. MEMPHIS

  • WHO’S GONE: Jeremiah Martin, Kyvon Davenport, Mike Parks Jr., Raynere Thornton, Kareem Brewton, Antwann Jones Jr.
  • WHO’S BACK: Tyler Harris, Alex Lomax, Isaiah Maurice
  • WHO’S COMING IN: James Wiseman, D.J. Jeffries, Lester Quinones, Malcolm Dandridge, Damian Baugh, Lance Thomas, Precious Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Tyler Harris, Boogie Ellis, D.J. Jeffries, Precious Achiuwa, James Wiseman

22. AUBURN

  • WHO’S GONE: Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Malik Dunbar, Horace Spencer, Chuma Okeke
  • WHO’S BACK: Samir Doughty, J’Von McCormick, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore, Austin Wiley
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Isaac Okoro, Tyrell Jones, Jaylin Williams, Babatunde Akingbola, Allen Flanigan, Jamal Johnson
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: J’Von McCormick, Samir Doughty, Danjel Purifoy, Isaac Okoro, Anfernee McLemore

23. TENNESSEE

  • WHO’S GONE: Admiral Schofield, Kyle Alexander, Jordan Bone, Grant Williams, Derrick Walker Jr, D.J. Burns
  • WHO’S BACK: Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Yves Pons., John Fulkerson, Jalen Johnson
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Josiah James, Drew Pember, Olivier Nkamoua, Davonte Gaines
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Josiah James, Yves Pons, John Fulkerson

24. VCU

  • WHO’S GONE: Michael Gilmore
  • WHO’S BACK: Marcus Evans, Isaac Vann, Deriante Jenkins, Marcus Santos-Silva, Vince Williams, Mike’L Simms, P.J. Byrd, Malik Crawford
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Jarren McAlister
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Marcus Evans, Isaac Vann, Vince Williams, Deriante Jenkins, Marcus Santos-Silva

25. OHIO STATE

  • WHO’S GONE: C.J. Jackson, Keyshawn Woods
  • WHO’S BACK: Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson, Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington, Kyle Young, Justin Aherns, Musa Jallow, Jaedon LeDee
  • WHO’S COMING IN: D.J. Carton, Alonzo Gaffney, EJ Liddel, Ibrahima Diallo, CJ Walker
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: C.J. Walker, Duane Washington Jr., Luther Muhammad, Andre Wesson, Kaleb Wesson

JUST MISSED

DAVIDSON

  • WHO’S GONE: Nathan Ekwu, Dusan Kovacevic
  • WHO’S BACK: Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundson, Luka Brajkovic, Luke Frampton, Kishawn Pritchett, Carter Collins, David Czerapowicz, Bates Jones
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Hyunjung Lee, David Kristensen
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundson, Luke Frampton, Kishawn Pritchett, Luka Brajkovic

CREIGHTON

  • WHO’S GONE: Sam Froling, Kaleb Joseph, Connor Cashaw
  • WHO’S BACK: Davion Mintz, Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock, Jacob Epperson, Damien Jefferson, Marcus Zegarowski
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Shereef Mitchell
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Davion Mintz, Marcus Zegarowski, Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock, Jacob Epperson

WASHINGTON

  • WHO’S GONE: Jaylen Nowell, Noah Dickerson, Matisse Thybulle, David Crisp, Dominic Green
  • WHO’S BACK: Nahziah Carter, Hameir Wright, Sam Timmins, Jamal Bey
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Isaiah Stewart, Jaden McDaniels, Quade Green, Marcus Tsohonis, RaeQuan Battle
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Quade Green, Nahziah Carter, Hameir Wright, Jaden McDaniels, Isaiah Stewart

COLORADO

  • WHO’S GONE: Namon Wright
  • WHO’S BACK: McKinley Wright IV, Tyler Bey, D’shawn Schwartz, Lucas Siewert, Evan Battey, Shane Gatling, Daylen Kountz
  • WHO’S COMING IN: No one
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: McKinley Wright IV, Shane Gatling, Tyler Bey, D’Shawn Schwartz, Lucas Siewert

MARQUETTE

  • WHO’S GONE: Sam Hauser, Joey Hauser, Joseph Chartouny
  • WHO’S BACK: Markus Howard, Theo John, Sacar Anim, Ed Morrow, Jamal Cain
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Koby McEwen, Symir Torrence, Jayce Johnson
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Markus Howard, Koby McEwen, Sacar Anim, Brendan Bailey, Theo John

Ex-Michigan State star Mateen Cleaves acquitted in sex assault case

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FLINT, Mich. — A jury acquitted former Michigan State basketball star Mateen Cleaves Tuesday on charges alleging he sexually assaulted a woman in a motel room four years ago.

The verdict announced in a Genesee County courtroom in Cleaves’ hometown of Flint came after a nearly-two week trial that included the testimony of the Mount Morris woman, who told jurors that she had wanted to leave the motel room but Cleaves continued to force himself on her.

Evidence against Cleaves included a video that prosecutors contended showed the woman pulling away from Cleaves. Prosecutors argued she tried twice to escape from the motel room.

Cleaves did not testify. One of his attorneys, Frank Manley, said Cleaves had consensual sex with the woman who was in the motel room “of her own free will” after a charity golf tournament and visit to a bar. Cleaves’ attorneys told jurors that the woman lied about what happened because she felt guilty about cheating on her boyfriend.

The 41-year-old Cleaves was acquitted on all charges, including unlawful imprisonment and assault with intent to commit criminal sexual penetration. He had faced a maximum of 15 years in prison had he been convicted.

Cleaves has long denied the allegations, saying in a March 2016 tweet that he was “innocent and the allegations are without merit.”

The trial itself came after a long legal battle that started in late 2016 when a district judge dismissed the charges, saying that there were a number of factors that suggested “something else was going on” between Cleaves and the woman.

But in 2017, the charges were reinstated after the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office filed an appeal that contended the judge had abused her “discretion of power” in dismissing the charges. Then last year, the Michigan Supreme Court refused to review that decision, clearing the way for the trial.

Cleaves is a revered figure in Michigan, an integral part of a Michigan State team that won the national championship in 2000 before his six-year NBA career.

And on Tuesday, sitting in a courtroom was another reminder of that team: Coach Tom Izzo. Izzo told The Detroit News that he did not know the details about the allegations against his former star player but wanted to be in the courtroom to support Cleaves as he would “any of my guys.”

Mick Cronin lands first five-star recruit at UCLA

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Less than 24 hours after cutting his list to five schools, five-star point guard Daishen Nix committed to UCLA.

Nix is a 6-foot-5 point guard from Alaska that’s currently playing his high school ball in Las Vegas. He’s known for his court vision and elite basketball IQ with a developing jumper and a feel for the game that cannot be taught. He ranks as a top 15 prospect, according to 247 Sports.

He was Mick Cronin’s top target at the point guard spot, and Cronin landed him. That’s notable, because one of the concerns that people had about UCLA’s decision to hire Cronin was whether or not a coach known for his toughness, his intensity and his team’s propensity for being defense first would adjust to playing at California’s flagship program, where tempo is a must and defense has been, for the last half-decade, optional.

And while it remains to be seen how the team and program will adjust to his coaching style – I will have a story coming on that later this week – at the very least, Cronin has proven that he can dip his toe in the west coast recruiting waters and get a player that he prioritized.