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Kihei Clark’s heroics lead Virginia past Oregon, into Elite 8

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Thursday night had all the makings of yet another crushing March collapse.

Virginia has been arguably the best regular season program in college basketball over the course of the last six seasons. They’ve won four ACC regular season titles. They’ve been a No. 1 seed four times and a No. 2 seed in a different year. But that has not translated to March success.

In Virginia’s four previous trips to the NCAA tournament where they were a top two seed, they lost to No. 4 seed Michigan State in the 2014 Sweet 16, No. 7 seed Michigan State in the 2015 second round, No. 10 seed Syracuse in the 2018 Elite 8 and, of course, UMBC.

On Thursday night, the Wahoos were facing off with yet another opponents that they should, on paper, be able to dispatch fairly easily. Oregon, the No. 12-seed in the South, needed to win the Pac-12’s automatic bid just to get to the NCAA tournament in the first place, and early in the second half, with Virginia seemingly in control, the wheels started to fall off and the PTSD started to kick in.

There’s 5:30 left in the game. Virginia had just blown an eight point lead, letting the Ducks go on an 18-5 run that turned a 35-27 deficit into a 45-42. All of those struggles that Virginia’s had in tournament’s past, it makes moments like this that much tougher to deal with. The players on this team are human. They, like us, get the ‘oh no, it’s happening again’ thoughts creeping into their minds. Virginia had the game in their control. They let it slip through their fingers. Momentum is firmly on the side of Oregon and all the while, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter are playing like they forgot how to shoot a basketball.

And when they needed it, it was the smallest guy on the court that showed up for Virginia in the biggest moment.

Not 30 seconds after freshman Louis King buried the three to give Oregon their biggest lead of the second half, Kihei Clark — a 5-foot-7 freshman point guard from California — stepped up and buried a three to stem the tide. Two possessions later, it was Clark that found junior Ty Jerome for another three, this one giving Virginia a 48-45 lead that they would never relinquish.

The final score was 53-49. Virginia sent the Pac-12 tournament champions back to Eugene as they advanced to their second Elite 8 under head coach Tony Bennett.

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This is the best team that Bennett has ever had at Virginia, and I don’t think there’s much of an argument against it.

Hunter is unquestionably the most talented player Bennett has ever coached in Charlottesville. Ty Jerome is a killer that is going to spend 10 years playing in the NBA. Guy is one of the very best shooters in America. This frontline has the talent and the versatility to play big, to space the floor, to play small and to be uber-switchable, all based on which of the other four frontcourt pieces are playing.

If Bennett is going to finally end his Final Four-less run, this is the year that it would be the most likely to happen.

But to get over that final hurdle, there was always going to be a night where Virginia had to survive a game they could have, or should have, lost.

Like Duke with UCF, this was probably that night.

Guy finally ended his streak of missing 16 straight threes, but that doesn’t been that he was good on Thursday night. He wasn’t. He shot 4-for-15 from the floor and 2-for-11 from three, missing a handful of wide-open looks and throwing a couple of makeable shots off the backboard. Hunter wasn’t much better. He was 4-for-13 from the floor and 1-for-6 from three, tossing up a couple of the worst misses that you’ll ever see from a 45 percent three-point shooter.

Virginia’s bench was unusable, Louis King was on fire and this looked like the end when Clark made the plays he made. He finished with 12 points and six assists, a massive boost for a team that doesn’t expect to get much of anything out of Clark.

The truth is this: Clark is certainly not a zero — he is a pest defensively, he doesn’t turn the ball over and he has made some threes this year — but I think that it is fair to say that the most valuable thing he does for this team right now is that he allows Jerome to play off the ball, where he’s his most effective. There are no other playable guards in the Virginia rotation. There’s Jerome, there’s Guy and there’s Clark.

Put another way, Tony Bennett was heading into a Sweet 16 matchup thinking about how Clark was going to get his program back to the Elite 8 for the first time since they blew a 15 point lead to Syracuse in the final eight minutes.

But that’s where we are right now.

And if this is the season that finally gets the Final Four monkey off of Virginia’s back, then everyone on that campus is going to have Clark to thank.

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)