Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Sweet 16 Preview: Biggest questions facing teams in East Region

2 Comments

The Sweet 16 will kick off on Thursday, and the beautiful thing about the final four rounds of this year’s NCAA tournament is that we are guaranteed to have 15 games that will feature dynamite matchups.

There’s an argument to be made that the top 15 teams in the country are still alive, with the 16th being the hottest team in all of college basketball.

With that in mind, we are going to dive into every team left, region by region, and give you the biggest question that needs to be answered if they are going to have a chance to win the national title. 

We covered the South here and the West here. Next up? The East.

DUKE: Was UCF a matchup blip or a sign of things to come?

Duke was supposed to lose to UCF.

Everything that needed to happen for the Blue Devils to lose happened. Aubrey Dawkins turned into Kobe Bryant for 40 minutes at the same time that the Knights were able to scheme and execute a defense that specifically and uniquely worked against this Duke team. They stuck 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall — who was technically matched up man-to-man with Tre Jones — directly in front of the rim and dared Duke to beat them from the perimeter.

If Dawkins’ potential game-winning tip rolls a different direction off the rim, or if he happened to catch an alley-oop that was thrown to him with two minutes left, UCF is in the Sweet 16.

They aren’t, and we are left to ponder whether or not that result was strictly a result of the things UCF is uniquely capable of doing or if this Duke team’s inability to shoot from the perimeter means that they are destined to lose before reaching Minneapolis.

And for my money, it’s probably the former.

The way that game played out on Sunday had everything to do with UCF, how well they played and how well they were coached. Virginia Tech, LSU and Michigan State are not going to be able to do the same things that UCF did mostly because they don’t have one of the 40 tallest human beings on the planet available to them.

That doesn’t mean that Duke cannot be beaten.

Virginia Tech already has a win over Duke this season and that came without their best player, Justin Robinson, in the lineup. There aren’t five teams left in the tournament that have more talent than LSU does. Michigan State is Michigan State, and there’s a reason that the month in between February and April is known as Izzo.

Duke is the most talented team in the country that happens to have some exploitable flaws. Just because UCF was able to take advantage of them doesn’t guarantee that anyone else will be able to as well.

MICHIGAN STATE: Will Cassius Winston ever actually get run into the ground?

There is not a player in the country that handles a bigger workload than Cassius Winston does for Michigan State.

He plays a ton of minutes. Michigan State runs him through ball-screens on seemingly every halfcourt possession. Without him, Tom Izzo doesn’t really have anyone that can create for themselves. The truth is that Michigan State is going to go as far as Cassius Winston is going to be able to take them.

And for me, the question that needs to be answered is whether or not Winston has the legs to be able to make that run as far as Michigan State wants to go.

The college basketball season is long. Michigan State started in late September. It’s now late March. Winston has been logging nearly 40 minutes in every big game the Spartans have played. He and his team looked gassed playing 39 minutes against Bradley last Wednesday, likely the hangover from winning three games in three days to take home the Big Ten tournament title.

He’ll need to be ready to go if Michigan State is going to make it to the final weekend of the season.

(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

LSU: Can LSU solve their second half struggles?

Tony Benford has been the acting head coach for LSU for four games now. One of them came against Vanderbilt in the final game of the regular season against a Commodore team that has already quit on the season. In the other three games — against Florida in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Yale and in the second round of the NCAA tournament against Maryland — LSU churned out really, really impressive first half performances before going in the tank in the second half.

Against the Gators, LSU blew a ten point halftime lead and ended up losing in regulation. Against Yale, the Tigers were up by as many as 18 points in the second half before Yale was able to cut the lead to a single possession in the final minute. And against Maryland, LSU led by 15 points with 16 minutes left but still needed a Tremont Waters layup with 1.6 seconds left to earn them the win.

At some point, their inability to close out games — their inconsistency when it comes to making second half adjustments — is going to come back to haunt them, and with, potentially, two Hall of Fame head coaches standing between them and the Final Four, it may happen sooner rather than later.

VIRGINIA TECH: Is Justin Robinson 100%?

This one isn’t difficult to figure out.

With a healthy Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech was a top ten team in January. Without a healthy Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech went 7-5 in February.

What makes him so important to the Hokies is two-fold. For starters, he is their best point guard, they best playmaker and their leader. He thrives in the ball-screen actions that Buzz Williams loves putting him in and he’s also a 40 percent three-point shooter.

But more importantly, Robinson’s return means that Nickeil Alexander-Walker — who is actually the most talented player on this Hokie roster — can play off the ball as a secondary ball-handler, where he is actually the most effective.

Robinson looked great in the second half in Virginia Tech’s win over Liberty.

New-look Virginia back to work after winning NCAA title

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Getty Images
1 Comment

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

Getty Images
2 Comments

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

Getty Images
1 Comment

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)