Auburn advanced to the first Final Four in program history with a 77-71 overtime win over No. 2 seed Kentucky on Sunday afternoon in the Midwest Region.
Trailing by five at halftime, the Tigers started the second half on a 12-2 run to take their first lead of the game before a back-and-forth battle ensued the rest of the way. Bryce Brown got hot to keep Auburn in the game with a flurry of second-half points as he almost single-handedly led the Tigers back in the game with 24 points. After going scoreless the first eight minutes, Brown and junior guard Jared Harper (26 points) took over as they combined to score 50 points. Both guards got going after the slow start as Auburn won thanks to the potent duo taking over. After a flurry of three-pointers to score 97 points to beat No. 1 seed North Carolina on Friday, the Wildcats held Auburn to only 7-for-23 three-point shooting on Sunday.
Playing without starting forward Chuma Okeke (torn ACL suffered in Friday’s win), an emotional Auburn was led by its potent perimeter with other players chipping in on both ends. Brown got whatever look he wanted with step-back elbow jumpers while Harper did significant damage going to the rim late in regulation and overtime. Anfernee McLemore also chipped in eight points and five rebounds for the Tigers.
A No. 5 seed, Auburn advances to face No. 1 seed Virginia in next Saturday’s Final Four in Minneapolis. Although the Tigers (30-9) are missing Okeke at this point in the season, they are still a very dangerous team thanks to their balance and potent scoring from the perimeter.
Even though Auburn was a top-ten team earlier this season, nobody expected the Tigers to be playing in next weekend’s Final Four. Struggling early in SEC play, last season’s co-SEC champions looked sluggish at times against average competition. Things changed in the final weeks of the season. Auburn showed flashes of brilliance with four wins in four days at the SEC tournament in Nashville as they maintained the hot streak into the NCAA tournament.
Surviving a first-round comeback scare against No. 12 seed New Mexico State after blowing a double-digit second-half lead, the Tigers have dispatched Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in three straight games — three of the winningest programs in men’s college hoops.
During a season in which Auburn was dealing with issues with the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption, the Tigers have ignored off-the-court issues and late-season losses to players like Okeke to make an unlikely Final Four run. Having head coach Bruce Pearl in the Final Four should make things fun as Auburn can stay with any team left in the field if they continue to force turnovers and get perimeter scoring.
Losing twice to Kentucky during the regular season, Auburn got revenge with a win in the third matchup to reach the sport’s final weekend. On Feb. 23, the Tigers lost 80-53 in Lexington as they were an unranked team trying to figure things out. Since then, Auburn hasn’t lost a game, as they’ve won 12 straight games and enter the Final Four as the hottest team left in the field.
Kentucky (30-7) jumped out to an early 17-7 lead before Auburn fought back to close within two points right before halftime. The Wildcats had chances to push ahead but cold three-point shooting (5-for-21 threes) and shaky free-throw shooting (12-for-21) prevented Kentucky from pulling away.
After not playing in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament with a hard cast on his foot, sophomore P.J. Washington continued a heroic weekend as he finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds against the Tigers.
Washington scored 15 first-half points to carry Kentucky early as he looked unstoppable. After a sluggish start to the second half, Washington became the team’s go-to player in the final minutes. Washington just didn’t have enough consistent offensive help to get to the Final Four from his teammates.
Freshmen guards Keldon Johnson (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Ashton Hagans (10 points) both finished in double-figures, but freshman wing Tyler Herro (seven points, 3-for-11 shooting) struggled to get going after a good game on Friday. Hagans also had seven turnovers as the Wildcats had 14 for the game.
With the Midwest Region losing the No. 1 seed in North Carolina, it looked like a path opened up for Kentucky to make another Final Four run after beating Auburn twice during the season. But as was the case last season, the Wildcats were knocked out by a lower seed before the Final Four, as this loss to Auburn will undoubtedly feel like a major disappointment to close the season.
As is the case in most offseasons, Kentucky will reload with (at least) three more five-star freshmen as Tyrese Maxey, Keion Brooks and wing Kahlil Whitney come in for the Wildcats. Some key pieces like Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and E.J. Montgomery could also return for Kentucky. But facing the loss of players like Washington, Herro and Johnson (along with Reid Travis) could make it tough for the Wildcats to reach this spot again next season. It’ll be interesting to see who else Kentucky will add before we get to fall practice.
Kentucky lands commitments from two more elite prospects
John Calipari is getting his work done early in the 2020 recruiting class, as he added two more commitments over the weekend.
On Thursday, it was Lance Ware, a 6-foot-10 post player from Camden, New Jersey, that announced his commitment. Ware is a top 50 recruit that held offers from the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Miami. The bigger news, however, came on Saturday afternoon, when Terrance Clarke announced that he will be enrolling at Kentucky whenever he ends his high school tenure. Clarke is currently a member of the Class of 2021, but the plan is for him to reclassify and graduate high school this year.
Clarke is a consensus top three player in 2021 – and he may be the No. 1 player in that class, depending on who you ask – and should immediately vault into the top five of the 2020 recruiting class. An athletic, versatile wing that stands 6-foot-6, Clarke is a potential lottery pick given his physical tools and the way that he projects as multi-positional defender with the ability to create off of the dribble. Ware, like Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery before him, projects as the kind of player that will spend 2-3 years in Lexington.
Clarke and Ware join top ten prospect B.J. Boston and another top 50 recruit, Cam’Ron Fletcher, in Kentucky’s 2020 class. That’s three wings in the class with Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney, Dontaie Allen and Keion Brooks currently on campus. Throw Montgomery into the mix, and that’s eight players that fit somewhere into a lineup as a wing or a face-up big man, and it seems rather unlikely that all five of the guys currently at Kentucky will leave the school this offseason. Put another way, this looks like the end of Kentucky’s pursuit of the likes of Jalen Green and Josh Christopher.
Calipari is still recruiting Cade Cunningham despite the fact that many expect Cunningham to end up at Oklahoma State, where Mike Boynton hired his brother Cannen, but Cade has skyrocketed up the recruiting rankings as he has transitioned to playing the point. Kentucky is still in the mix for a handful of other forwards, including Scottie Barnes, Isaiah Todd and Greg Brown.
Tony Bennett turns down raise, signs contract extension
Virginia announced that they have signed head coach Tony Bennett to a contract extension, keeping him under contract through the 2025-26 season.
This is not unexpected. He just won the national title. I think he earned a new deal.
What is unique here, however, is that Bennett turned down a raise. He asked for more money for his assistants and for some cash to be put towards improvements in both his program and the other Virginia sports teams, but he passed on getting more money put into his own bank account.
“[My wife] Laurel and I are in a great spot, and in the past I’ve had increases in my contract,” Bennett said in the news release. “We just feel a great peace about where we’re at, all that’s taken place, and how we feel about this athletic department and this community and this school. I love being at UVA.
“… I have more than enough, and if there are ways that this can help out the athletic department, the other programs and coaches, by not tying up so much [in men’s basketball], that’s my desire.”
That’s the dream scenario right there, being rich enough to turn down more money.
NCAA urges California governor not to sign ‘fair pay’ bill
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The NCAA Board of Governors wants California Gov. Gavin Newsom to reject a new attempt to pay college athletes.
And it is prepared to take the fight to court if necessary.
In a six-paragraph letter released Wednesday, the board urged Newsom not to sign the legislation known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, which would allow college athletes to be paid for the use of their names, likenesses and images. The move comes two days after approval of the measure by the California Assembly, with the state Senate expected to consider the measure later this week.
The board warned that California schools may be declared ineligible for NCAA competition if the bill becomes law because they would have an unfair recruiting advantage.
“We’ve explored how it might impact the association and what it might do. We believe it would inappropriately affect interstate commerce,” Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief operating officer and chief legal officer, told The Associated Press. “It is not intended to be a threat at all. It’s a reflection about the way California is going about this.
“I’m not saying there will never be a day we would consider that (legal action), but it is not meant to be a threat,” Remy said.
The NCAA said the measure would affect more than 24,000 athletes in the nation’s most populous state.
Should the bill pass, Newsom would have 30 days to sign or veto it. If he does nothing, the bill would become law. It would be the first measure of its kind and the outcome is being closely watched as one of the biggest challenges in years to the NCAA’s longstanding and far-reaching model of amateur sports. Over the past decade, that model has come under increasing pressure – and attacks in court – as critics push for big-time college athletics to clear the way for the athletes themselves to benefit financially.
NCAA rules prohibit athletes from profiting off their athletic skills. The organization, however, has recently begun considering rules changes to loosen those restrictions, though NCAA President Mark Emmert – and the board again on Wednesday – insist that players cannot be paid or become the equivalent of a university employee. Formal recommendations are expected to be made at the board’s October meeting.
It appears there is an appetite for significant changes.
Board members met with the working group studying these issues in August but neither Remy nor board member Denis McDonough would discuss specific proposals.
“The rules that we operate under, many of which date to 1975, may not be suitable for us in 2021 with the challenges and opportunities student-athletes face,” said McDonough, the White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama. “So we are and have been taking a very close look at how we can modernize those rules. We’re hoping the state of California would recognize that modernizing those rules for student-athletes across the country is the best way to do that.”
Supporters think those changes are already overdue and believe California’s elected officials should act now.
“The NCAA’s assertions are purposefully misleading,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association. “The 9th Circuit upheld a ruling concluding that the NCAA’s ban on player name, image, and likeness compensation does not bring forth a level playing field. The Big 12 commissioner stated competitive equity is `largely an illusion.’
“NCAA amateurism is a fraud. It’s a $14 billion a year industry with millionaire coaches. An NCAA ban on California colleges would amount to an illegal group boycott that would violate federal and California antitrust laws.”
The NCAA believes the California measure would violate the federal Commerce Clause and may not withstand a legal challenge; Remy cited a previous case in California in which the state tried to inhibit the NCAA from enforcing its rules. The NCAA won that case.
Should the measure pass, Remy said, the NCAA would penalize the schools, not individual athletes.
“There are two parts to this and part of this is the membership and that includes the California schools,” Remy said. “Schools and universities agree to comply with the rules of (NCAA) membership and there are a set of eligibility criteria that go along with being member institution. The California schools have consented to that criterion. So in that context it would be the schools that would directly impacted.”
Road To Redemption: How Virginia went from losing to 16 seed to winning title
Over the course of the next month, we will be taking a look at some of the most memorable and important things that happened during the 2018-19 season and what kind of impact those moments are going to have on the 2019-20 season.
We’ll start with the obvious: Those Virginia Cavaliers.
Without question, the single best and most memorable moment from the 2018-19 college basketball season was The Redemption.
Less than 13 months removed from suffering what will go down as the most humiliating and demoralizing defeat in the history of college basketball – if not sports, period – Virginia went out and won the Whole. Damn. Thing.
And oh buddy, was it a roller coaster ride.
In the opening round, in their first game against a No. 16 seed since they became the first team to lose to a No. 16 seed, Virginia dug themselves a 14 point first half hole against Gardner-Webb before pulling their collective heads out of their, ahem, keisters and rolling to a win. The ‘Hoos handled Oklahoma with relative ease in the second round to advance to the second weekend, where that postseason roller coaster ride got an injection of Dominic Toretto’s NoS.
In the Sweet 16 against Oregon, Kihei Clark ended an 18-5 Duck run by burying a three and, two possessions later, finding Ty Jerome for another triple, giving UVA a lead that they would never surrender after they blew a lead they shouldn’t have lost. Virginia’s Elite Eight win will go down as one of the best NCAA tournament games of the decade. UVA survived Carsen Edwards going Super Saiyan while lighting up college basketball’s best defender in De’Andre Hunter for 42 points, and they did so thanks in very large part to one of the best and most instinctual plays you’ll ever see a college kid make:
Again, it was Clark coming to the rescue, as Virginia found a way to not only beat Purdue, but cover a 4.5 point spread in the overtime period.
Not that I’m still bitter or anything.
That brings us to the Final Four, the first of Tony Bennett’s illustrious career, where those Wahoos did their very best to make everyone believe they had not left their inner choke artist behind. Thanks to a couple of bone-headed fouls by Ty Jerome followed Auburn’s Bryce Brown making a pair of critical three-balls, Virginia blew a 57-47 lead in all of 3:16. In the blink of an eye, they found themselves down 61-57 with 17 seconds left after a pair of Anfernee McLemore free throws.
This time, it was Kyle Guy coming to the rescue. He buried a three with nine seconds left to cut the lead to one, and after Jared Harper missed one of two free throws, Guy was – controversially, but correctly – fouled while shooting a three with just 0.6 seconds on the clock. He would step to the line and swish not one, not two, but all three free throws, sending Virginia to the national title game, where they would face off with Texas Tech, a matchup that was billed as the worst national title game of all-time.
And that prediction turned out very, very wrong.
It took a while to get going, but by the time the final ten minutes rolled around, the battle between the two best defenses in all of college basketball was as intense and as physical as any game this year. We knew that was coming. What we didn’t know was that it would be the offenses for both those programs that would take over, as the shot-making and execution in the second half reached a level we rarely see in the college game. That said, Virginia again blew a double-digit second half lead, getting to overtime when Jerome found Hunter in the corner for a game-tying three with 12 seconds left:
Virginia would take the lead in the extra frame on another Hunter three with 2:10 remaining, pulling away to win 85-77 and cut down the nets for the first time in program history.
It was a wild ride, one that ended the opportunity for the dummies out there to criticize Tony Bennett’s coaching acumen because of a couple of fluky, unlucky tournament results.
But for my money, what made the turnaround so memorable – and what truly cemented Bennett’s standing as arguably the best in the game today – has everything to do with how Virginia changed the way they play after UMBC.
Before we get into the changes that Virginia actually made, I think it is important to put into context what actually happened in that loss to UMBC.
As Hunter has been quick to remind his teammates – over and over again – he did not play in Virginia’s loss to UMBC. He fractured his wrist before the start of the tournament, and the hole that he left in the lineup was drastically bigger than his 6-foot-7 frame. You see, Hunter was the guy that made Virginia matchup proof. He was the best, most versatile defender in all of college basketball as a sophomore. When Virginia won at North Carolina earlier this year, Hunter was, at different points throughout the game, matched up on lottery pick point guard Coby White, lottery pick wing Cameron Johnson and All-American power forward Luke Maye.
That’s who Hunter was as a freshman, too.
He was and is a monster defensively.
Back to UMBC, the America East champs had a team that, in 2018, played a lineup with four guards and often had five players on the perimeter. It would not have been an issue to throw Hunter on any of them, especially since he was good enough offensively to be able to take complete advantage of that matchup on the other end of the floor. He was, after all, the No. 4 pick in June’s draft. He would have been a mid-first round pick had he left a year earlier.
But without Hunter on the floor, Bennett ran into a problem: He needed to play two bigs because of the offense that he ran, but none of Jack Salt, Isaiah Wilkins or Mamadi Diakite were going to be able to duplicate what Hunter could do. They couldn’t stay with those little UMBC guards, and they weren’t good enough offensively to take advantage of the mismatch on the offensive end. When UVA went small, it just meant that Nigel Johnson had to play more and, well, that was not ideal.
Now, look. Hunter’s absence is not a valid excuse for this loss. Virginia was still a much, much better team even without their best player. They played their worst game on a night where UMBC absolutely caught lightning in a bottle. It got into their heads. Jairus Lyles played the game of his life. UMBC ran away with the win. Weird things happen when college kids play sports. What can I say.
But Hunter’s absence and the slight matchup advantage that gave UMBC over UVA certainly played a major role in how this game played out, and I think it is fair to say that this game would have been much closer, and, in all likelihood, had a different result, with Hunter on the floor.
Here’s the proof.
These two clips are the same play. In the first example, Jerome finds Hunter for a game-tying three in the national title game. In the second example, Jerome finds Wilkins, who is not a shooter and the play results in yet another missed three in Virginia’s loss to UMBC:
“That situation made me take a look at a lot of things,” Bennett told me during last year’s Final Four. “From a basketball standpoint, that was such a pivotal moment.”
As I reported then, what Bennett did was reach out to former Wisconsin Badger Kirk Penney, a man he calls “a little brother to me.” Penney had played in the NBA and all over Europe before finishing out his career in New Zealand, so Bennett asked him, “In all your experiences, did you run any stuff that opens up the court more?”
Turns out, Penney had.
He knew exactly what Bennett needed.
You see, Bennett had spent the majority of his time in Charlottesville running the Blocker-Mover offense that his father created. That offense is fairly simple – there are three perimeter players on the floor, the “movers”, that continuously run off of screens that are set by the two bigs, the “blockers”:
But as effective as Virginia has been running Blocker-Mover in the past, running that offense with his 2018-19 roster makeup didn’t make sense. And again, this was because of De’Andre Hunter.
Hunter was the prototype college four. At 6-foot-7 and a strong 225 pounds, he’s big enough to guards fours while simultaneously taking advantage of them with his ability to shoot and beat slower defenders with straight-line drives. But he was also far and away the most talented player on the Virginia roster, and running Blocker-Mover would put Bennett in a position where he was forced to either play Hunter in a role where he was predominantly a screener or put him in a position where he was going to be defended by college threes doing something – specifically, running off of pindowns and flare screens – that is not his forte.
Enter Penney, who helped Virginia install a Ball-Screen Continuity offense, what Virginia called their “Flow Continuity.”
Again, the concept of this offense is fairly simple. The goal is to get open-side ball-screens, which just means having a big screening for a guard on one side of the floor with three players – preferably shooters – spacing on the opposite side. If nothing comes of the first ball-screen, the offense is designed for the ball to end up in a second ball-screen with the sides of the floor reversed. It’s run until a they get a shot, hence “continuity.”
It’s easier to show it than to explain it:
This is not something that Virginia has ever really run before this season.
Which brings me back to that game-tying three in the national title game.
While it’s not exactly the continuity ball-screen, it is a high-ball screen for Jerome. He did what he does so well: He got into the paint, he drew defenders and he found the guy everyone forgot about.
Now, one of the reasons that this worked so well for Virginia is that they had the players to execute it. Hunter was the best basketball player not named Zion Williamson in college basketball last season. Jerome was as good as anyone as the handler in a ball-screen, and he also happens to be an elite shooter that can run off of screens just as effectively. Guy was one of the very best shooters in the country. Clark is a defensive menace that allowed Jerome to move off the ball when necessary.
That changes next year.
Hunter, Jerome and Guy are all on NBA rosters. They will be replaced by Braxton Key, Tomas Woldetensae, Kody Stattman and Clark. Clark proved himself to be much better than I ever gave him credit for last season, but being effective in last year’s role and taking over full-time point guard duties for an All-American like Jerome are two very different things. Woldetensae and Stattman can both shoot, but they are not the shooters that Guy was. And most important, Key is a good player and can play the same position that Hunter played, but he’s not the player that Hunter was. If Hunter is Kraft Mac and Cheese, Key is whatever brand they carry at Aldi.
That puts Bennett in a tough position this season.
Because he doesn’t really have the guards to run his flow continuity offense as effectively as he did last year, but the guys that project as his starting bigs – Jay Huff and Diakite – fit a ball-screen heavy offense better than they do the Blocker-Mover. Huff is 7-foot-1 with ridiculous length, and he shot 14-for-31 from three this past season. He’s more or less the perfect five for ball-screen actions because he can catch a lob as a roll-man as effectively as he can bury a three when he picks-and-pops. Diakite can make threes as well, and he’s even more effective as a roll-man.
So I really don’t know what Virginia is going to look like next season.
Like Villanova last year, they are not exactly built to withstand that many critical pieces leaving with eligibility remaining.
My best guess? We see a lot of lineups with Key, Diakite and Huff on the floor at the same time as Bennett figures out exactly how he is going to be able to work in a guy like Woldetensae, who has never been asked to defend near the level he will have to defend with Virginia, and how he can effectively use Clark.
But I certainly expect Bennett to figure something out.
That’s just what he does.
The ‘Hoos will have some growing pains, and asking them to compete with Duke, Louisville and even North Carolina in what appears to be a three-horse race for the ACC title is tough, but I’d be shocked if they enter the NCAA tournament as anything other than a top four seed.
Boston College guard Wynston Tabbs to miss season due to knee surgery
Boston College sophomore guard Wynston Tabbs will miss the entirety of the 2019-20 as he will undergo surgery on his left knee, the school announced on Wednesday.
This is an injury that has been plaguing Tabbs since last season, when he averaged 13.9 points but played in just 15 games.
“While I won’t be able to play this season, I know that it is a temporary setback and I will be back stronger than ever before,” Tabbs said in a press release from the school. “I want to thank my family, the Boston College Basketball program, and all our fans for their continued support. I’ve overcome obstacles before in my life and will work tirelessly to overcome this one. I am built for this.”
Tabbs has all-ACC potential and was going to be counted on to help fill the void left by Ky Bowman.