Final Four fans flock to dome in return of open practices

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW ORLEANS — Wearing Duke and North Carolina gear, a family with split loyalties lined up outside the Superdome a little after 9 a.m. Friday, nearly an hour before fans were allowed in the stadium for open practices at the Final Four.

The moment they entered the stadium, 14-year-old Brody Owen, wearing a white Tar Heels jersey, ran ahead into the concourse and down the long staircase of the court-level stands to the first few rows behind the bench, where he saved seats for other family members.

Before long, several thousand fans – many wearing gear from all four semifinal teams, and some in business attire who had strolled over from nearby office towers during lunch – filled the vast lower-level stands behind the benches.

The open practices, which were free and held without attendance restrictions, marked the beginning of full fan participation in Final Four activities for the first time since the 2019 NCAA Tournament – the last before the COVID-19 pandemic.

And this year’s open practices had an added curiosity factor; it was one of the last chances to see Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski – who’ll retire as the NCAA’s all-time leader in victories this season – directing the Blue Devils in person.

The practices didn’t begin until late morning, starting with Villanova, followed by Kansas, North Carolina and finally Duke. But Duke fans Denise and Steve Simpson, their daughter, Stephanie Owen (a UNC fan), and grandchildren Kylee Hartupee and Brody Owen were happy to sit through two practices before the teams they really came to see took the floor.

“We brought our granddaughter for her high school graduation; she’d never seen Coach K because of COVID,” said Denise Simpson, referring to Hartupee, 17, who was wearing a Duke jersey. “We decided this was as good as it was going to get.”

Steve and Denise Simpson are college basketball junkies from St. Louis who’ve long rooted for Missouri, but transformed into ardent Duke supporters when Chris Carrawell, who is also from St. Louis, played for the Blue Devils in the late 1990s.

But Stephanie, who played youth basketball, loved Michael Jordan. Although she was too young to remember his college career, he was the reason she developed an enduring affinity for the Tar Heels.

Her son followed suit, and Stephanie Owen said they were well aware that the Superdome was also the place where Jordan made a game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA finals “that changed him from Mike to Michael.”

They all came to New Orleans without tickets because they knew that with pandemic restrictions being recently lifted in New Orleans, they’d at least get to see the open practice and check out the Fan Fest in the nearby convention center.

“It’s so fan friendly,” Denise Simpson said. “This is phenomenal. If you can’t get to a game, this is the very next best thing. You get to see them come out and shoot around and just have fun.”

An while they’d been waiting in line, they found tickets for Saturday night’s semifinals. They’ll be sitting together when Duke and UNC clash for the first time in an NCAA Tournament in the second semifinal game.

“I love them,” Denise Simpson said of Stephanie and Brody Owen, “Even if they have bad taste.”

HOMETOWN FAVORITE

Villanova guard Caleb Daniels grew up in New Orleans and is getting a lot of attention – and local support – as he tries to lead the Wildcats to a title in the stadium where his family came for Saints games or Bayou Classic festivities such as the “Battle of the Bands.”

For Daniels’ parents, Roland and Connie, this is a whole new way to enjoy the hulking, downtown stadium that’s been a regular part of their lives.

Now their son will be competing on the elevated court built at the center of 70,000-plus seats ringing the action on three levels.

“He’s on stage where he’s part of what’s going on,” Roland Daniels said after Villanova’s open practice in the dome. “To have everybody from New Orleans to support him. It’s a huge deal.”

Caleb Daniels played at St. Augustine High School, where NFL and former LSU stars Leonard Fournette and Tyrann Mathieu played football.

He started his college career at Tulane before transferring.

Growing up in New Orleans Daniels liked to eat local staples like red beans and rice, seafood gumbo, fried shrimp po’boys dressed and wedding cake-flavored snowballs.

Just not lately.

His parents noted their son is serious now about his goal to keep his body fat close to 5%. So, he hasn’t been eating any of that on this “business trip” home.

“Maybe when he comes back for Easter break, he might treat himself,” Connie Daniels said.

ALL-STAR GAME

Kentucky coach John Calipari was sitting near the sidelines during the college all-star game after attending the award ceremony for AP Player of the Year and Wildcats rebounding leader Oscar Tshiebwe.

Calipari was there to watch Kentucky guard Davion Mintz, who scored seven points for the West Squad that lost 115-103 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches Reese’s Division I All-Star game, held in the Superdome after the four open practices.

High-scorers in the game for the East squad were UConn guard Tyrese Martin with 22 points, Buffalo forward Jeenathan Williams with 18, George Mason forward D’Shawn Schwartz with 15, Richmond forward Grant Golden with 14 and UConn guard R.J. Cole with 13 points.

New Orleans guard Derek St. Hilaire led the West squad with 16 points, Michigan State forward Gabe Brown added 14 points, while West Virginia guard Taz Sherman, Kansas State guard Mark Smith and Cal State Fullerton forward E.J. Anosike each scored 13.

Smith also grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds.

Daniels’ parents were escorted down to the floor for practice and received hugs from Villanova players and coaches.

They said they’ve also been receiving many calls and messages from well-wishers from across the city and especially at Caleb Daniels’ high school, St. Augustine – the same school where NFL and former LSU stars Leonard Fournette and Tyrann Mathieu played football.

They’ve even heard from old acquaintances at Tulane, where Daniels played under former coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. before transferring.

“They’re excited for him,” Connie Daniels said. “The fan base was sorry to lose him, but they were still cheering for him.”

When Daniels was growing up in New Orleans, he liked to eat local staples like red beans and rice, seafood gumbo, fried shrimp po’boys dressed with hot sauce from Parran’s (a French Creole word for ‘godfather”), and snowballs, made of fine shaved ice infused with sweet liquid flavors, but softer and smoother than the snow cones found in much of America. He would get the wedding cake flavor with vanilla soft serve ice cream mixed in.

His parents noted, however, that Daniels is very serious now about his goal to keep his body fat close to 5%. So, he hasn’t been eating any of that on this “business trip” to his hometown.

“Maybe when he comes back for Easter break, he might treat himself,” Connie Daniels said.

Biden celebrates LSU women’s and UConn men’s basketball teams at separate White House events

Jack Gruber / USA TODAY NETWORK
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WASHINGTON – All of the past drama and sore feelings associated with Louisiana State’s invitation to the White House were seemingly forgotten or set aside Friday as President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed the championship women’s basketball team to the mansion with smiles, hugs and lavish praise all around.

The visit had once appeared in jeopardy after Jill Biden suggested that the losing Iowa team be invited, too. But none of that was mentioned as both Bidens heralded the players for their performance and the way they have helped advance women’s sports.

“Folks, we witnessed history,” the president said. “In this team, we saw hope, we saw pride and we saw purpose. It matters.”

The ceremony was halted for about 10 minutes after forward Sa’Myah Smith appeared to collapse as she and her teammates stood behind Biden. A wheelchair was brought in and coach Kim Mulkey assured the audience that Smith was fine.

LSU said in a statement that Smith felt overheated, nauseous and thought she might faint. She was evaluated by LSU and White House medical staff and was later able to rejoin the team. “She is feeling well, in good spirits, and will undergo further evaluation once back in Baton Rouge,” the LSU statement said.

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, Biden said, more than half of all college students are women, and there are now 10 times more female athletes in college and high school. He said most sports stories are still about men, and that that needs to change.

Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs and activities.

“Folks, we need to support women sports, not just during the championship run but during the entire year,” President Biden said.

After the Tigers beat Iowa for the NCAA title in April in a game the first lady attended, she caused an uproar by suggesting that the Hawkeyes also come to the White House.

LSU star Angel Reese called the idea “A JOKE” and said she would prefer to visit with former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, instead. The LSU team largely is Black, while Iowa’s top player, Caitlin Clark, is white, as are most of her teammates.

Nothing came of Jill Biden’s idea and the White House only invited the Tigers. Reese ultimately said she would not skip the White House visit. She and co-captain Emily Ward presented team jerseys bearing the number “46” to Biden and the first lady. Hugs were exchanged.

Jill Biden also lavished praise on the team, saying the players showed “what it means to be a champion.”

“In this room, I see the absolute best of the best,” she said, adding that watching them play was “pure magic.”

“Every basket was pure joy and I kept thinking about how far women’s sports have come,” the first lady added, noting that she grew up before Title IX was passed. “We’ve made so much progress and we still have so much more work to do.”

The president added that “the way in which women’s sports has come along is just incredible. It’s really neat to see, since I’ve got four granddaughters.”

After Smith was helped to a wheelchair, Mulkey told the audience the player was OK.

“As you can see, we leave our mark where we go,” Mulkey joked. “Sa’Myah is fine. She’s kind of, right now, embarrassed.”

A few members of Congress and Biden aides past and present with Louisiana roots dropped what they were doing to attend the East Room event, including White House budget director Shalanda Young. Young is in the thick of negotiations with House Republicans to reach a deal by the middle of next week to stave off what would be a globally calamitous U.S. financial default if the U.S. can no longer borrow the money it needs to pay its bills.

The president, who wore a necktie in the shade of LSU’s purple, said Young, who grew up in Baton Rouge, told him, “I’m leaving the talks to be here.” Rep. Garret Graves, one of the House GOP negotiators, also attended.

Biden closed sports Friday by changing to a blue tie and welcoming the UConn’s men’s championship team for its own celebration. The Huskies won their fifth national title by defeating San Diego State, 76-59, in April.

“Congratulations to the whole UConn nation,” he said.

Marquette’s Prosper says he will stay in draft rather than returning to school

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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MILWAUKEE — Olivier-Maxence Prosper announced he is keeping his name under NBA draft consideration rather than returning to Marquette.

The 6-foot-8 forward announced his decision.

“Thank you Marquette nation, my coaches, my teammates and support staff for embracing me from day one,” Prosper said in an Instagram post. “My time at Marquette has been incredible. With that being said, I will remain in the 2023 NBA Draft. I’m excited for what comes next. On to the next chapter…”

Prosper had announced last month he was entering the draft. He still could have returned to school and maintained his college eligibility by withdrawing from the draft by May 31. Prosper’s announcement indicates he instead is going ahead with his plans to turn pro.

Prosper averaged 12.5 points and 4.7 rebounds last season while helping Marquette go 29-7 and win the Big East’s regular-season and tournament titles. Marquette’s season ended with a 69-60 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

He played two seasons at Marquette after transferring from Clemson, where he spent one season.

Kansas’ Kevin McCullar Jr. returning for last season of eligibility

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Kevin McCullar Jr. said that he will return to Kansas for his final year of eligibility, likely rounding out a roster that could make the Jayhawks the preseason No. 1 next season.

McCullar transferred from Texas Tech to Kansas for last season, when he started 33 of 34 games and averaged 10.7 points and 7.0 rebounds. He was also among the nation’s leaders in steals, and along with being selected to the Big 12’s all-defensive team, the 6-foot-6 forward was a semifinalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award.

“To be able to play in front of the best fans in the country; to play for the best coach in the nation, I truly believe we have the pieces to hang another banner in the Phog,” McCullar said in announcing his return.

Along with McCullar, the Jayhawks return starters Dajuan Harris Jr. and K.J. Adams from a team that went 28–8, won the Big 12 regular-season title and was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to Arkansas in the second round.

Perhaps more importantly, the Jayhawks landed Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson, widely considered the best player in the portal, to anchor a lineup that was missing a true big man. They also grabbed former five-star prospect Arterio Morris, who left Texas, and Towson’s Nick Timberlake, who emerged last season as one of the best 3-point shooters in the country.

The Jayhawks also have an elite recruiting class arriving that is headlined by five-star recruit Elmarko Jackson.

McCullar declared for the draft but, after getting feedback from scouts, decided to return. He was a redshirt senior last season, but he has another year of eligibility because part of his career was played during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a big day for Kansas basketball,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “Kevin is not only a terrific player but a terrific teammate. He fit in so well in year one and we’re excited about what he’ll do with our program from a leadership standpoint.”

Clemson leading scorer Hall withdraws from NBA draft, returns to Tigers

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Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports
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CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson leading scorer PJ Hall is returning to college after withdrawing from the NBA draft on Thursday.

The 6-foot-10 forward took part in the NBA combine and posted his decision to put off the pros on social media.

Hall led the Tigers with 15.3 points per game this past season. He also led the Tigers with 37 blocks, along with 5.7 rebounds. Hall helped Clemson finish third in the Atlantic Coast Conference while posting a program-record 14 league wins.

Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Hall gained experience from going through the NBA’s combine that will help the team next season. “I’m counting on him and others to help lead a very talented group,” he said.

Hall was named to the all-ACC third team last season as the Tigers went 23-10.

George Washington adopts new name ‘Revolutionaries’ to replace ‘Colonials’

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WASHINGTON — George Washington University’s sports teams will now be known as the Revolutionaries, the school announced.

Revolutionaries replaces Colonials, which had been GW’s name since 1926. Officials made the decision last year to drop the old name after determining it no longer unified the community.

GW said 8,000 different names were suggested and 47,000 points of feedback made during the 12-month process. Revolutionaries won out over the other final choices of Ambassadors, Blue Fog and Sentinels.

“I am very grateful for the active engagement of our community throughout the development of the new moniker,” president Mark S. Wrighton said. “This process was truly driven by our students, faculty, staff and alumni, and the result is a moniker that broadly reflects our community – and our distinguished and distinguishable GW spirit.”

George the mascot will stay and a new logo developed soon for the Revolutionaries name that takes effect for the 2023-24 school year. The university is part of the Atlantic 10 Conference.