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Sweet 16 Preview: Biggest questions facing teams in Midwest Region

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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, the West here and the East here. Last up, we have the Midwest.

NORTH CAROLINA: So about Nassir Little …

At this point, we just about know everything that North Carolina has to offer.

Coby White is going to spend his evenings attacking in transition as quickly as he is physically capable of doing. Cam Johnson is going to shoot and shoot and shoot. Luke Maye may not be having his best season as a Tar Heel, but he’s struggling and still averaging 14.9 points and 10.6 boards while pulling defenses out of the lane because of the threat of his ability to shoot. We know what Kenny Williams is. We know what Garrison Brooks is. We know all about UNC’s bench … for the most part.

The guy that has been the enigma all season long has been Nassir Little, but over the course of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, he played his best back-to-back games of the season, averaging 19.5 points. Now if we’re being fair, part of that production was a by-product of the matchup. Iona wanted to run and Washington played a zone. Both of those styles are exploitable for a super-athletic 6-foot-7 forward who plays in an impressive motor.

The matchup against Auburn is similarly beneficial for Little, and I don’t think it’s crazy to say that Little getting into a rhythm for the last two weeks of the season totally changes what UNC’s ceiling can be.

KENTUCKY: What’s up with P.J. Washington?

I’ve made this point before, and I’ll make it again right here: The reason that Kentucky went from being a team that had the potential to be a top six team in America to actually being a top six team in America came during the six-week stretch where P.J. Washington turned into a monster.

And in case you haven’t heard, Washington spent the first weekend of the tournament in a cast. Not a soft cast. Not a boot. Not even an elaborate brace. An actual hard cast:

Screengrab via CBS

P.J. added some fuel to the fire on Wednesday when he posted a video clip of himself walking without the cast on, which is not entirely unexpected, but the question still remains: Just how healthy is he? Going from needing a hard cast for an injury on your foot to playing at the level required to be a contributor for a team battling the likes of Houston, North Carolina and Auburn in a matter of days is a big ask.

And if he’s not totally healthy, is it worth it to risk further injury for a kid with lottery pick potential?

And if it is, will be capable of performing up to the level that we have come to expect?

We won’t actually have answers to any of these questions until the games tip off on Friday night.

HOUSTON: Are the Cougars good enough to beat the big boys?

Before I dive into this fully, let me just say this: The Cougars are a really good basketball team. Kelvin Sampson is a really good coach. It’s not a fluke that they are sitting here at 33-3 in the Sweet 16.

That said, they haven’t exactly played the toughest schedule. They beat LSU at home by six points earlier this season, but that is far and away their best win. Knocking off Oregon when Oregon was still bad is not all that impressive. Sweeping Cincinnati and picking off UCF in Orlando is solid, but neither of those teams made it out of the first weekend of the tournament. What else have they done that would ‘wow’ you? Beating Utah State? Or Ohio State?

My point isn’t to say that Houston can’t go out and win two games against the teams that are left in the Midwest Region, rather that we have yet to see them do it.

And part of my concern is that the level of talent on this Houston roster just isn’t commensurate with the rest of the teams in their section of the bracket. Houston doesn’t have a pro on their roster. They have a slew of really good, tough, veteran guards, but is that going to be enough when Kentucky has a bunch of first round picks manning their perimeter? As good as Houston’s frontcourt as a whole has been, this is still a group where the whole is much great than the sum of the parts. Will that be enough against Kentucky when Kentucky is firing on all cylinders?

AUBURN: What happens when the transition game isn’t their best option?

The way that Auburn wants to play under head coach Bruce Pearl is not all that dissimilar from what Shaka Smart was trying to do at VCU during the Havoc years. They are going to pressure teams, they are going to gamble for steals, they are going to sacrifice from second chance points for leak-outs and they are going to do everything they can to turn defense into offense.

Auburn leads the nation in defensive turnover percentage and steal percentage. They play at one of the fastest tempos in the sport. Their goal is to get a stop, get out in transition and get a quick three up from the likes of Bryce Brown, Jared Harper or Malik Dunbar.

But what happens when Auburn is forced out of their transition game?

Or, as is the case against North Carolina, playing as fast as possible is not necessarily the optimal way to play?

Can Auburn win a game where they have to rely on executing in the halfcourt?

Because that may end up being this case this weekend.

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)