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Final Four field boasts tough defenses, veteran lineups

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Final Four features tough defenses, a surging team that hasn’t lost in five weeks and one Hall of Fame coach.

Virginia, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Auburn earned their trips to Minneapolis for this weekend’s national semifinals by emerging from regions filled with high seeds. The Cavaliers are the last top seed, while the Spartans, Red Raiders and Tigers ousted the other No. 1s in the regional rounds.

Here’s a look at each team:

VIRGINIA

The Cavaliers were in the top six of the AP Top 25 all year while winning a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

Their defense tests even the best offenses by clogging the paint to turn away penetration. And while running a clock-controlling offense, the Cavaliers are more efficient (123 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom) with their limited possessions than ever under Tony Bennett.

Veterans like Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome (or Mamadi Diakite, judging by his overtime-forcing shot in the Elite Eight against Purdue) can hit tough shots for a team that finally has its Final Four breakthrough.

WHY THEY WON’T

If the Cavaliers struggle for stops, the pressure increases on an offense prone to droughts, even on the best of nights.

They hit just enough outside shots to survive Purdue’s Carsen Edwards scoring 42 points Saturday. But in Virginia’s loss to Florida State in the ACC Tournament, the Cavaliers went six second-half minutes without a basket and couldn’t catch up as the hot-shooting Seminoles took control.

MICHIGAN STATE

The Spartans, a No. 2 NCAA seed after winning the Big Ten Tournament, pushed past No. 1 overall seed Duke in a tense regional final.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

The Spartans have veteran confidence from winning 14 of 15 games and join Virginia in the top 10 of KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency rankings.

Big Ten player of the year Cassius Winston is a masterful floor leader (20 points, 10 assists against Duke), and is complemented by Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman (19 points against Duke) inside.

Michigan State also has the experience edge on the sideline, too. This is Hall of Famer Tom Izzo’s eighth Final Four compared to the other three coaches making their debuts.

WHY THEY WON’T

While the Spartans took care of the ball in the regionals, they ranked among the nation’s worst in turnover margin this season.

Michigan State isn’t particularly deep after several injuries, notably losing guard Joshua Langford (season-ending foot injury). And Ward has yet to crack double figures since returning from a five-game absence following a hand injury.

TEXAS TECH

The Red Raiders went from unranked in the preseason to reaching their first Final Four as a No. 3 seed.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

Simply: Defense and Jarrett Culver.

The Red Raiders, who have won 13 of 14, lead KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings (84.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). They were dominant against Northern Kentucky, Buffalo and Michigan in the tournament, then held top-seeded Gonzaga — KenPom’s No. 1 offense — in check.

Texas Tech is allowing 37 percent shooting while averaging nearly 17 points off turnovers in the tournament.

As for Culver, the 6-foot-6 sophomore and Big 12 player of the year is averaging 21.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in the tournament, exceeding his season averages.

WHY THEY WON’T

Defenses will focus on Culver, who carries a big load by taking 176 more shots and 93 more free throws than the next-closest teammates.

The Red Raiders also aren’t great on the boards. They’ve largely navigated around that problem after being outrebounded in nearly half their games (17 of 36), though the problem surfaced in five of six losses.

AUBURN

The Tigers have had a wild ride from seventh nationally in December to unranked and now surging to their first Final Four. They’ve also had significant off-court issues, including a federal corruption case that led to a guilty plea for former assistant Chuck Person and the suspension of assistant Ira Bowman amid allegations he was involved in a bribery scheme during his time at Penn.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

The fifth-seeded Tigers are playing with free-flowing confidence after 12 straight wins, including against Tennessee (twice), Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky. And they can bury 3s in bunches behind upperclassmen Bryce Brown (16.0 points) and Jared Harper (15.4).

The Tigers are at their best when harassing opponents into mistakes, taking a 33-14 edge in points off turnovers in two regional wins.

WHY THEY WON’T

They lean on 3-pointers, with the romps against Kansas and UNC coming on difficult-to-sustain efficiency (30 of 67, 44.8 percent) that could make them particularly vulnerable on an off night.

Auburn also took a big hit with the loss of sophomore Chuma Okeke (12 points, 6.8 rebounds) to a serious knee injury. Okeke provided a lift by sitting behind the team bench Sunday against Kentucky. His production will be difficult to replace.

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)