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Bryce Brown, Auburn blitz Kansas to advance to first Sweet 16 in 16 years

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Auburn advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 years as the No. 5 seed Tigers blitzed Kansas for an 89-75 victory on Saturday night in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Region.

Jumping out to a 51-25 halftime advantage behind 9-for-17 three-point shooting in the first half, Auburn seemingly broke the will of the No. 4 seed Jayhawks before the second half even began. After nearly collapsing and blowing a big lead on Thursday in a harrowing one-point win over No. 12 seed New Mexico State, the Tigers made sure not to take their foot off the gas in the second half on Saturday.

One of the tournament’s hottest teams, Auburn (28-9) extended its winning streak to 10 games with a dominant effort on both ends of the floor. Known for its perimeter shooting prowess (13-for-30 on Saturday) and national-best turnover percentage on defense (15 Kansas turnovers), Auburn played to its strengths to cruise into the tournament’s second weekend.

Senior guard Bryce Brown had 17 first-half points as he finished with 25 total to lead the Tigers as he was a red-hot 7-for-11 from three-point territory. Brown also had plenty of help as lead guard Jared Harper (18 points), wing Chuma Okeke (12 points) and forward Anfernee McLemore (10 points) also finished in double-figures.

Following last season’s co-SEC regular-season title, the Tigers were blown out by Clemson in the Round of 32 to stop a promising season short. Things didn’t appear particularly promising at times this season as Auburn went from top-ten team to unranked thanks to a sluggish 2-4 start in the SEC.

But head coach Bruce Pearl and the Tigers have turned things around as a dangerous rotation of veteran players have figured things out during the final weeks of the season. With Auburn firmly entrenched in the middle of the FBI’s college basketball corruption scandal with former assistant coach Chuck Person pleading guilty earlier this month, the Tigers were able to stay focused and reach a level the program has seldom seen.

For Pearl to take a football school into the Sweet 16 shows how far Auburn has come as a basketball program during his five seasons as head coach. One of college basketball’s more underappreciated coaches, Pearl can be associated first-and-foremost for his loud-and-brash approach to generating publicity and gaining the attention of elite recruits. Never afraid of a publicity stunt, the ever-quotable Pearl is a regular when it comes to memorable sound bites and quirky gimmicks. As a coach, he’s now taken three different programs to the Sweet 16 — including a Horizon League team (Milwaukee) and a historically-weak SEC program that doesn’t have consistent basketball success.

Auburn could very well continue to advance this March as they try to make the Elite Eight for only the second time in program history (1986). If Auburn shoots like this, while continuing to force turnovers, they’re going to be a nightmare for any team to play.

The Tigers move on to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003 as this is only the fifth Sweet 16 appearance in program history. The Tigers await the winner of No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 9 seed Washington as they advance to Friday’s Midwest Regional semifinal in Kansas City.

Kansas (26-10) came out flat and never recovered after one of the first round’s most impressive wins over No. 13 seed Northeastern on Thursday. All-American forward Dedric Lawson had another double-double to close a memorable season as he finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds — notching the NCAA tournament’s first back-to-back 25-and-10 games since Blake Griffin did it for Oklahoma. Freshman guards Quentin Grimes (15 points) and Devon Dotson (13 points) along with freshman big man David McCormack (11 points) also finished in double-figures for the Jayhawks. A lackluster defensive effort and cold perimeter shooting hurt Kansas’ ability to rally in the second half as they were 6-for-19 (31 percent) from three-point range on the night.

After many predicted a repeat Final Four appearance for Kansas this preseason following last season’s deep tournament run, things didn’t go according to plan thanks to injuries and other issues. The loss of big man Udoka Azubuike to a season-ending injury was a devastating blow to the Jayhawks’ early hopes as he only played in nine games. Senior Lagerald Vick also left the team in early February and never returned. Without its starting center and best perimeter shooter, Kansas lost the Big 12 regular-season crown for the first time in 14 years as its season officially ends with a second-round exit.

The highly-touted freshman class also didn’t perform up to expectations. Although Dotson was a double-figure scorer and tough defender, Grimes, the team’s most celebrated incoming freshman, failed to meet lofty preseason standards. McCormack also wasn’t ready to replace Azubuike in the middle. Kansas even had to burn the redshirt of promising guard Ochai Agbaji to infuse more athleticism into the Jayhawk backcourt. Transfer rotation players like Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson were inconsistent after the former top-100 recruits sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Entering into a fascinating offseason, for the first time in a long time, Kansas might have more questions than answers. The Jayhawks haven’t slipped too far — the program still has made a national-best 30 straight NCAA tournament appearances. Bill Self’s program is still a perennial top-25 program. A No. 4 seed during a season with so many issues is nothing to scoff at. College basketball’s best home-court advantage isn’t going away.

But the end of the Big 12 title streak means the program has to find a bit of a new identity heading into next season. Kansas will still be one of the Big 12’s hunted programs. The Jayhawks also have to prove they can win away from home. A number of returning players need to get better during the offseason — particularly if Dedric Lawson turns pro. And Kansas doesn’t have a five-star, blue-chip recruit at the current moment to rely on as recruiting has perhaps been slowed by Self’s alleged involvement the FBI’s corruption case.

The future of Self, and Kansas basketball in general, will be one of the subplots to watch this offseason as one of college basketball’s blueblood programs faces a fascinating and uncertain next few months.

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.