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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.

New-look Virginia back to work after winning NCAA title

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Tony Bennett’s first offseason as a national champion coach has come with benefits on the recruiting trail. His first season at Virginia after winning the title, however, will bring challenges.

Five players who helped Virginia beat Texas Tech to capture the first basketball title in school history are gone, and that’s four more than expected. Center Jack Salt graduated, and guards De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy declared for the NBA draft. Seldom-used Marco Anthony transferred.

Recruiting was already well underway before the Cavaliers won it all, but Bennett said Wednesday the result “certainly can’t hurt and I think it has helped. It validates a lot of good stuff that’s happened in the past.”

Virginia hopes the spoils of those improvements are evident quickly in incoming freshmen guard Casey Morsell, big men Justin McKoy and Kadin Shedrick and junior college shooting guard Tomas Woldetensae.

Virginia opened its summer practice period on Tuesday, and Bennett said he’s not sure just yet who will be ready to contribute.

“Everyone will have ample opportunity, the newcomers, so to speak,” he said. “To say who, you just don’t know. … There are some opportunities out there. So it’s the returners and we can go down the list of the guys we brought in, but I think they’re excited about the opportunity.

“There’s always a learning curve any time you go from whether it’s high school to college or junior college to college or coming from a redshirt to being eligible. … Going up a level and playing in the ACC, for any of these guys, there’s the challenge of the physicality and the level of talent and the speed.”

Woldetensae, a left-handed shooter, averaged 17.3 points per game and shot 47.6 percent from 3-point range last season at Indian Hills Community College.

“We thought we needed to add some experience and a quality player on the perimeter and when he was mentioned and we did our homework and watched film and all those kinds of things,” he said. “His personality came out as a young man of character and we always start there. He seemed wanting to challenge himself at a very high level.”

The Cavaliers were delighted that Mamadi Diakite decided to come back for his senior year after testing the professional waters. And they added senior transfer Sam Hauser, who averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds last season at Marquette. Hauser will be eligible to practice with the team, but won’t be able to play until 2020-21.

Bennett’s offseason included numerous speaking engagements, recruiting, talking to NBA scouts about his players and some time to decompress.

He also checked an item off his bucket list when, with his father, longtime college coach Dick Bennett, he played Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters. That, he said, “was amazing.”

Now, it’s back to work.

“I’m grateful for the busy-ness of it,” he said of the offseason. “It means something good happened.”

Four-star forward commits to West Virginia

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West Virginia landed a top-75 recruit Thursday night.

Isaiah Cottrell, a 6-foot-9 forward from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, committed to West Virginia’s 2020 recruiting class.

Cottrell picked the Mountaineers overs offers from the likes of Kansas, Washington and Arizona, among others. His father, Brian Lewin, played for West Virginia in the 1990s. The four-star prospect continues a promising recruiting trend for Bob Huggins, who landed a top-40 commit in center Oscar Tshiebwe in the 2019 class.

The Mountaineers missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in four years as they slid to 15-21 overall and last in the Big 12 with a 4-14 mark.

John Calipari’s new deal at Kentucky worth $86 million over 10 years

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John Calipari and Kentucky agreed in April to what was described as a “lifetime contract.” Thursday, the exact terms of that deal were disclosed.

The Wildcats coach’s new contract worth $86 million over 10 years.

“I’ve said from day one that this would be the gold standard and it has been for student-athletes and coaches,” Calipari said in a statement released by the school. “As I enter my 11th year, I’m reminded it took me 20 years to get an opportunity to like this. There is no other place I want to be. As I look forward, my mindset is what’s next and how can we be first at it for the young people that we coach.”

Calipari, 60, will likely continue to be a source of speculation for other jobs presuming he keeps things rolling in Lexington as he has for the last 10 years, but what Kentucky is paying him will almost certainly be more than any other program – and potentially NBA franchises – are going to be willing to. Calipari’s success, NBA history and ability to always be central to the broader college basketball conversation means he’ll always be in demand, but it’s hard to picture a situation that could intrigue Calipari enough to leave one of – if not the – best jobs in basketball.

“(Calipari) has added a special chapter to the greatest tradition in college basketball and it’s a chapter we want him to continue writing until the end of his coaching career,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “We are pleased to announce a new contract that will enable him to do exactly that.”

Calipari 305-71 with one national championship, four Final Fours and 26 first-round draft picks in 10 years with the Wildcats. He and Kentucky will likely open the 2019-20 season as one of the frontrunners for the national championship.

Michigan State reports violation for Tom Izzo hosting visit for former high school

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Michigan State self-reported an NCAA rules violation for Tom Izzo hosting Iron Mountain High School for a tour while the team was in town to compete for its first ever state title that weekend.

Izzo unknowingly committed the violation — which only occurred because Iron Mountain was competing in the Breslin Center that weekend — and the Spartans immediately gave notice once they became aware of it. Proud of his alma mater for advancing to Michigan’s final weekend, Izzo was merely taking interest in players and a team connected to his youth. The Iron Mountain program toured the Breslin Center with Izzo and toured Michigan State’s locked room while also watching the Spartans practice before their state semifinal game.

Since it was a special privilege for Iron Mountain, playing in an event there, the Spartans were technically at fault for a violation. The fact that Izzo and Michigan State have to report a violation for this sort of thing is kind of ridiculous since Izzo has a natural connection to the team in question. Although Michigan State likely isn’t going to get hit with any NCAA issues from this, it’s the kind of thing that critics come to question about the NCAA’s rulebook.

Former lacrosse star Pat Spencer commits to Northwestern for basketball

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Northwestern landed a unique graduate transfer on Thursday as Loyola lacrosse star Pat Spencer will spend his final year of college eligibility hooping for the Wildcats, according to Stadium’s Jeff Goodman.

A former high school basketball standout at Boys’ Latin (MD), Spencer was one of the best lacrosse players in the country for the Greyhounds the past four years in college. He was selected in two drafts during the Spring. Spencer was taken first overall in the inaugural PLL College Draft while getting taken seventh overall in the MLL’s Collegiate Draft. Loyola remains in the NCAA tournament as Spencer is playing out his senior season of college.

Spencer is passing up multiple professional lacrosse opportunities to play Big Ten basketball for Northwestern. For a stud athlete in a sport to pass up money to pursue another athletic dream is one of the college basketball’s best things to follow next season.

As if Spencer’s background wasn’t unique enough, he’ll be at a Northwestern team starving for an identity since making the NCAA tournament a few seasons ago. By playing in the Big Ten, Spencer will be thrown against Final Four contenders and potential draft picks, which makes this transition particularly intriguing. It’s a cool story to follow this season as college hoops doesn’t often get athletes from other sports playing in such prominent conferences.

Greg Paulus famously went from Duke point guard to Syracuse quarterback as a graduate transfer, but he was leaving the sport to pursue an opportunity to play football. Spencer choosing basketball over a sure pro shot in lacrosse is an interesting opportunity for him this season. It’ll be interesting to see if he can still contribute anything on the hardwood.

(Ht: Jeff Goodman, Stadium)