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Auburn advances to first Final Four with overtime win over Kentucky

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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.

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)