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Weekend Preview: Duke-North Carolina highlights a loaded weekend of March hoops

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By far the biggest game of the weekend will happen down on Tobacco Road, where No. 5 Duke will host No. 9 North Carolina as the Blue Devils look to get a measure of revenge on the Tar Heels for last month’s loss in Chapel Hill.

The difference now, however, is that Duke has fully gone over to the dark side: They play zone.

All the time.

It’s still something that is difficult for me to wrap my mind around, but it has changed the trajectory of Duke’s season. Suddenly, they are able to defend at an elite level, which means that we are now talking about a team that could very well be college basketball’s best.

UNC will be their biggest test since making the change, however, and it may truly be the first time that Duke actually faces off with a team that is capable of breaking down that zone. Because here’s the thing about this UNC team: They may not be the best that Roy Williams has ever had, but on paper, they sure do look like a group that can compete against a 2-3 zone.

They have more shooting around their perimeter than they have had in just about in season in recent memory. They also have a pair of players that can get into the high-post and make a play in Theo Pinson and Luke Maye. I still have no idea how they are going to be able to hang with Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter in the paint, but they did just fine with that when they played the first time.

To be frank, losses this week by both teams may have hindered the chances that this game would be a playoff for a No. 1 seed, but I do think this is the kind of test that we needed to see both teams have. Are they truly Final Four contenders, or have they just gotten hot feasting on the dregs of the ACC?

WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO WATCH?

  • THE BIG TEN TOURNAMENT: The semifinals will be held on Saturday afternoon and the title game will take place on Sunday. It should be a fun couple of days in the Garden.
  • FOUR AUTOMATIC BIDS WILL BE EARNED: The Ohio Valley will hand out their league’s automatic bid on Saturday night while the Missouri Valley, the Big South and the Atlantic Sun will determine their NCAA Tournament participant on Sunday.
  • No. 23 KENTUCKY at FLORIDA (-4), Sat. 12:00 p.m.: Kentucky has been playing their best basketball of the season of late, and the lineup that they’ve been using to do so should be able to matchup with Florida’s four-guard look. I know it’s on the road, but if you can actually get Kentucky (+4), take it. Pick: Kentucky (+4)
  • No. 10 CINCINNATI (-2) at No. 11 WICHITA STATE, Sun. 12:00 p.m.: This is exactly how the AAC wanted it to play out. The two best teams in the conference playing for the conference title on the final day of the regular season. Cincinnati’s been the best team in the league, but Wichita State’s playing better of late and is finally getting something out of Markis McDuffie. Give me the points and the home team. Pick: Wichita State (+2)

VIDEO: No. 1 Virginia survives, wins on banked-in buzzer-beater

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Louisville may have just wiped away their NCAA tournament hopes in the most unfathomable way possible.

After leading No. 1 Virginia by as many as 13 points in the second half, the Cardinals still led 66-62 with six seconds left after a pair of free throws from Darius Perry. On the ensuing possession, they fouled Ty Jerome shooting a three. He made the first two, but on the third free throw, Virginia committed a lane violation. Louisville took the ball out of bounds but no one told Deng Adel that he could not run the baseline.

Turnover.

Virginia ball.

Then this happened:

Virginia wins, 67-66.

This loss is an absolute killer for the Cardinals. It was about as well as you can expect to see them play this season. Deng Adel got into the lane whenever he wanted to, Quentin Snider made some big threes and, most importantly, Louisville’s defense came to play. This should have been their marquee win, the one that earned David Padgett a trip to the NCAA tournament as a an interim head coach.

They still might get there, but they now have that much more work to do.

But to me, the story here is less about Louisville than it is about Virginia.

The Cavaliers are the No. 1 team in the country, and for those that rank teams based on résumé and body of work, there really isn’t much of an argument to be made against that. They are all-but locked into a No. 1 seed, and even with another loss or two UVA looks like they will end up being the No. 1 overall seed. They’re ranked No. 1 on KenPom in large part due to the fact that their defense is operating at nearly-unprecedented levels.

But I have my doubts about their ability to make a run in the Dance, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

The problem?

Virginia just doesn’t have anyone that scares an opponent offensively. Kyle Guy is a talented shooter, but when he’s running off of screens he’s really only a threat to catch-and-shoot. He’s not Joe Harris. He’s not Malcolm Brogdon. Devon Hall can play that role, but I don’t think he’s consistently aggressive enough. De’Andre Hunter is Virginia’s best longterm prospect but he’s not quite ready enough to dominate at this level. Ty Jerome makes a lot of big shots, but he also loves settling for 26-footers in crunch time.

Look at the four possessions that Virginia had on Thursday night after they tied the game at 58. This is what happened:

  • Jerome turns the ball over trying to hand-off to Hall.
  • Hunter gets whistled for a charge.
  • Jerome drives into traffic and gets bailed out on a foul call.
  • Guy drives the ball into traffic and does not.

For me, the concern with this Virginia is really that simple. And it really scares me if they happen to run into a team that is just good enough on the defensive end of the floor.

A team like Louisville.

The Cardinals are not what they have been in the past. They are not one of college basketball’s elite defenses like they were so often under Rick Pitino. But they are a top 20 defense on KenPom, one that can do enough to slow down a team that doesn’t have anyone that sniffs the National Player of the Year conversation.

Virginia fans are going to get this twisted, so let me be perfectly clear: The Wahoos are a top five basketball team in college basketball this season.

But their lack of a go-to scorer makes it difficult for me to see them winning four games in a row in March, let alone making a run to the national title.

Bubble Banter: Can Louisville get a much-needed win over Virginia?

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Wednesday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE (RPI: 21, KenPom: 38, NBC seed: 11): The Blue Raiders added another Quadrant 2 win on Thursday night, beating Western Kentucky at home by 18 points. MTSU is putting together a pretty impressive profile. They have three Quadrant 1 wins and are 5-4 against the top two Quadrants. Their Quadrant 3 loss is to, quite literally, the best team in the country that can be a Quadrant 3 opponent: Belmont, who is 76th in the RPI, just above the cut-off. If they beat Marshall on Saturday and lose to either Old Dominion or Western Kentucky in the Conference USA tournament, they’ll have a chance.

ARIZONA STATE (RPI: 41, KenPom: 39, NBC seed: 9): It’s hard to believe that Arizona State, who was a team that many had slotted as the No. 1 team in the country a few months ago, snapped a three-game losing streak to salvage a chance at finishing the Pac-12 season above .500. Beating Cal on Thursday night should probably be enough to get them a bid.

WASHINGTON (RPI: 47, KenPom: 94, NBC seed: Play-in game): It was more difficult that it should have been, but the Huskies found a way to avoid losing to Oregon State at home. I’m still in the camp that says they need to win at least two more games — Oregon over the weekend and their first round game in the Pac-12 tournament — to get into the dance.

LOSERS

LOUISVILLE (RPI: 41, KenPom: 32, NBC seed: Play-in game): If Louisville ends up on the wrong side of the bubble on Selection Sunday, at least we’ll know the exact reason why. On Thursday night, the Cardinals suffered one of the most inexplicable losses that I have ever seen in a college basketball game, managing to lose a game they led by four points with 0.9 seconds left. The good news is that they still have three Quadrant 1 wins (at Florida State, at Notre Dame, at Virginia Tech). The bad news is they haven’t beaten a single top 30 KenPom team this season and are 4-11 against the top two Quadrants. This was the difference-maker. Now they have to win at N.C. State on Saturday.

WESTERN KENTUCKY (RPI: 51, KenPom: 58, NBC seed: Out): With a win over Purdue on a neutral floor back in November, Western Kentucky had to at least be in the conversation if they had found a way to win at Middle Tennessee State on Thursday. They did not win at Middle Tennessee State on Thursday.

Sean Miller denies ESPN report, states that he ‘looks forward’ to coaching Arizona

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Sean Miller announced on Thursday at a press conference in the McKale Center that he is ‘looking forward’ to returning to coach Arizona this season.

“I look forward to coaching this outstanding team as we look to capture a Pac-12 championship this week,” he said.

Miller did not coach on Saturday night in Arizona’s loss at Oregon. Ayton, however, was allowed to remain with the team and play in the game.

On Friday night, a report was published that stated Miller was caught on a wiretap by the FBI discussing with Christian Dawkins, a runner for ex-NBA agent Andy Miller, a $100,000 payment that was to be made to secure the services of Deandre Ayton, the top recruit in the Class of 2017 and an all-american this season that may end up being the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

In his statement, Miller was emphatic in his denial of that report.

“Let me be very, very clear: I have never discussed with Christian Dawkins paying Deandre Ayton to attend the University of Arizona,” he said. “Anything reporting to the contrary is inaccurate, false and defamatory.”

“There was no such conversation.”

Miller did, however, concede that he was asked about a potential deal to pay a player to attend the university, but that the deal never occurred.

“The one time someone suggested to me paying a player to come to the University of Arizona, I never agreed to it. It never happened and that player never came to Arizona,” Miller said.

He did not elaborate on who that player was, but connecting the dots it would appear to be Brian Bowen. The number mentioned in the ESPN report involving Deandre Ayton is the same number that Louisville agree to pay Bowen. Dawkins was involved with Bowen’s recruitment and, at one point, many believed that Bowen would eventually end up at Arizona.

An attorney for the Ayton family released a statement vociferously denying that Ayton or anyone associated with him received payment to influence his decision to enroll at Arizona. In the days following ESPN’s initial report, questions began to mount regarding the timeline presented in the story and whether or not it made sense that Dawkins would have influence in Ayton’s recruitment.

ESPN has since issued two officials corrections regarding the timeline they presented in the initial report.

Fast Family: How Chris Holtmann rebuilt a winning culture in nine months at Ohio State

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Three days after Thad Matta was fired by Ohio State on a Monday morning in early June, two days after the then-Butler head coach was first approached about making the move to Columbus and less than 12 hours after Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith flew to Omaha in what appeared to be an attempt to hire Greg McDermott away from Creighton, Chris Holtmann sat in a Motel 6 in Dayton and said yes.

It was a Thursday, and as the sun rose that morning, Holtmann was told that Smith wanted to meet. Dayton is roughly halfway between Columbus and Indianapolis, and by the time you were finishing up your second cup of coffee, Holtmann was finalizing the particulars on what was a difficult, career-altering decision.

And it was in that moment that he knew the first thing that he had to do as Ohio State head coach.

Before looking for a place to live in Columbus, before meeting with the press or changing the header on his twitter account, Holtmann had to get in front of his new team.

He knew what his new team was going through because he knew what it felt like for him to have to tell the players in the Hinkle Fieldhouse locker rooms that he wasn’t coming back. He loved those guys the way that the players on the Ohio State roster loved Matta. Summer isn’t supposed to be a time of upheaval in college basketball, and yet on the first day of summer session classes, the Buckeyes found out that the man that had brought them to Columbus was not coming back. After four days of rumors flying out of all corners of the internet, a name was finally settled on.

But they didn’t know Holtmann just like Holtmann didn’t know them.

So that was the first step.

“I snuck over here before the press conference,” Holtmann said. Keep the media out of it. No press conferences. No cameras. Just a coach and his team. “Put our minds, and put our players’ minds, at ease. They were restless, it’s the middle of the summer and they had heard all these different names and they were without a coach. They loved Thad and his coaching staff, they loved those guys. It wasn’t like they weren’t disappointed.”

They were anxious.

Holtmann was, too.

Walking into a room with nine or ten guys that are looking to you as the leader of their basketball future is not an easy. “You just try to tell them this is who I am, this is what I feel like we are going to do,” Holtmann said. “Then I asked them to give me some of their thoughts, and they did. We had a meal together.”

“He wanted to let them know, ‘I’m here with you guys,'” assistant coach Terry Johnson said. “‘I want to be here. You want to be here. This is the way we should do things. I want to get to know you guys and I want you to get to know me.’ He asked for their input. ‘Why did this happen?’ They were on the inside, and he took their input, wrote it down, had thoughts about it, and took it to heart.”

It worked.

Keita Bates-Diop (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

“I will always remember that meeting,” Keita Bates-Diop, one of Ohio State’s veteran leaders, the Big Ten Player of the Year and a likely first round pick whenever he does decide to head to the NBA, said. “We were only there for a few hours. He came in and talked to us immediately. He wanted to make sure he saw us and we saw him. He was open, honest. The effort that he made to meet his new guys [stood out].”

“His personality, I see within that,” Bates-Diop added. “The effort to make that plane ride out here, to meet us, it stuck with us and stuck with a lot of the guys.”

Talk to anyone that knows Holtmann and you’ll hear the same things over and over again. He’s authentic. He’s genuine. Down to earth. Introverted. A guy that would be as happy coaching JV as he would be coaching Ohio State.

“He is who he is, one of the most humble guys that I’ve been around,” Johnson said.

Players gravitate to that, particularly given the priority that Holtmann puts on relationships within his program. He doesn’t want his players to be a name on his roster. He doesn’t want his coaching staff to be his employees. He wants them to be a part of his family. That’s why he’s living in a house that isn’t 10 minutes from Ohio State’s campus. That’s why one of his first purchases in the new home was a PS4 and all the necessary games — FIFA, Madden, NBA 2K. He wants his players to feel comfortable coming over and hanging out. He wants to know the wives and children of his assistant coaches, and he wants them to know his players.

That’s what made him so successful at Butler, and it’s what made his decision to leave that program so difficult.

Holtmann was the coach that took that Bulldogs program over in October of 2014, when Brandon Miller took a leave of absence from which he’s never returned. He was the head coach of that program as it was rocked by tragedy after tragedy. Former player Andrew Smith passed away at the age of 25 after a long and public battle with cancer. A month later, Emerson Kampen, a member of Holtmann’s coaching staff, lost his six-month old son to Leigh’s Disease. Another former player, Joel Cornette, died at the age of 35 just just six months after that.

For a man that prides himself on building relationships, leaving a program where those relationships were so strong and built out of overcoming such emotionally devastating moments was not easy.

But the success that he had was evidence that his style of coaching worked. In Holtmann’s three years at Butler, the Bulldogs went 70-31 overall with a 34-20 mark in the Big East. They never won fewer than 22 games in a season, won at least a game in three straight NCAA tournaments and only once finished lower than second in the league; a fourth-place finish in 2016. That was despite taking over a team that went 4-14 in their first season in the Big East the year before he was named the interim coach.

If he was going to replicate that success with the Buckeyes, Holtmann knew that he was going to have to build that same kind of family atmosphere.

But it wasn’t going to be easy, not with the way that the calendar fell.

Holtmann was officially introduced as Ohio State head coach on June 12th, exactly one month before he and his coaching staff would spend three straight weeks on the road for the July Live Period.

Jae’Sean Tate (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

“You’re trying to establish these relationships, then you’re gone and you feel like you had to start over when you got back,” Holtmann said, and he was doing all of that while trying to trim the fat off of his new roster while bringing in pieces to fill those holes. Freshmen Musa Jallow and Kyle Young committed to Ohio State after Holtmann arrived. He needed guard depth so he added former Michigan walk-on Andrew Dakich, who was ready to enroll at Quinnipiac as a grad transfer. Meanwhile, players that did not fit into the culture that Holtmann wanted to build did not return to the program.

“It did take a while,” Beita-Diop said. “It wasn’t overnight.”

“In the beginning we had to build a chemistry and connection with the coaching staff, and then four or five new guys when the semester started. We had to build that.”

And the way to do that?

Well, it was actually pretty simple: Spend time together.

Holtmann had the team over to his house all the time, whether it was for a big sporting event — the McGregor-Mayweather fight, an NBA game, the Super Bowl — to something as simple as a team function during a big recruiting weekend. Eating lunch with a player. A one-on-one meeting in the basketball offices to learn about a player’s family.

And it’s not just the relationships between the players and the coaches. The team has grown together, too. They’ll spend more time hanging out after practice or on off-days. They went, as a group, to a Kendrick Lamar concert on campus in August. They enjoy being around each other. The friendships aren’t forced.

It wasn’t the easiest road to get here, but here they are.

Ohio State lost by 27 points to Gonzaga on Thanksgiving Day and blew double-digit second half leads to Butler and Clemson in the next six days — but they got through it. Beating Wisconsin by 25 points in the Kohl Center and erasing a 20-point deficit at home against Michigan during the Big Ten’s opening weekend in December helped, as did a stretch where the Buckeyes won 13 out of 14 games, including a nine-game winning streak to start Big Ten play.

Nine months after he secretly flew into Columbus to meet his new team, Holtmann’s Ohio State team is the No. 2 seed in this year’s Big Ten tournament and a potential top four seed when the NCAA tournament bracket is released in 10 days.

And all from a team where the greatest coach in the program’s history was fired because they weren’t going to be good enough.

WCC Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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I’m always torn in regards to the WCC tournament.

On the one hand, upsets in events like this are what makes March great. Everyone loves seeing that No. 9 seed knock off the league’s regular season champ en route to a surprise trip to the finals.

On the other hand, everyone in the WCC not named Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s or BYU is just not that good, and that’s concerning and has been a concern for years.

Which is part of the reason that Gonzaga and BYU would consider leaving the conference for the Mountain West, a league with more basketball pedigree. The question that would be most interesting for me is whether or not that would be a good thing for the West Coast Conference as a whole. On the one hand, losing one of college basketball’s top 15 programs is going to hurt. But on the other hand, it’s not possible for anyone else to win in that league. It’s been more than a decade since a head coach has left the WCC without getting fired or resigning. Any job you can get in that conference is a dead-end job because Mark Few, Dave Rose and Randy Bennett aren’t, or haven’t, left.

If the programs at the bottom of the league could start hiring better coaches because coaches know they’d have a chance to use that job as a stepping stone, it would, in theory, create a space for another Saint Mary’s to be born.

Whatever the case is, that’s something that will be worth monitoring in the coming months and years.

THE FAVORITE

Can you call anyone other than Gonzaga a favorite for anything in the WCC? At this point, I’m not sure that you can.

I have a take on Gonzaga that I haven’t had a chance to eschew anywhere else, so I’m going to use this space to talk about it: The success that the Zags have had this season, where they are a top ten team on KenPom, is a more telling indicator of the strength of that program than getting to the Final Four a season ago was.

Anyone with any basketball sense knew that Gonzaga was good enough to be a Final Four team before the actually became a Final Four team. Weird things happen in a one-game, knockout tournament — things like blowing 17 point leads to UCLA or 14 point leads to Wichita State — which is why I think earning a No. 1 seed is more of a sign of program strength than getting to the Final Four. VCU, LSU, George Mason. They’ve all been to a Final Four since Gonzaga became Gonzaga. Before last season, which program would you say was better?

But the Zags lost so much off of last year’s team. Not only did they lose a pair of key seniors, but both Zach Collins and Nigel Williams-Goss left earlier than expected. And even with all those departures, Gonzaga is still a top ten team thanks to the fact that they had talents like Killian Tillie, Rui Hachimura and Zach Norvell biding their time.

Personally, I didn’t need any convincing, but if you did, you shouldn’t anymore.

THE CONTENDERS

The only two teams that I think have a real shot at picking off Gonzaga are Saint Mary’s and BYU. We all know that the Gaels are good at this point, and they probably have the best player in the league on their roster in Jock Landale. But BYU is really talented as well. Elijah Bryant and Yoeli Childs have made names for themselves this year, and the Cougars should be considered in the mix to win this thing.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

Saint Mary’s, and it’s not really all that close. The Gaels have played just two Quadrant 1 games, and both of them were Gonzaga. They beat the Zags on the road and then got smoked by them in Moraga. They’ve only played three more Quadrant 2 games, and they have two Quadrant 3 losses. The conversation will not be that cut and dry when the Selection Committee convenes next week, but the Gaels can certainly not afford a bad loss before the final.

THE SLEEPER

Before Lamont Smith’s arrest and subsequent suspension, I would have said San Diego. Now, I think the teams to keep an eye on are Pacific and San Francisco. USF is the only team to pick off either Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s this season, while Damon Stoudamire has Pacific playing really well given everything that is going on within that program.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Jock Landale of Saint Mary’s is the best player in the conference, but the best NBA prospect could very well be Rui Hachimura from Gonzaga. He’s a 6-foot-9 Beninese-Japanese forward with all the physical tools you could ask for and a sense for the game that is picking up as the season moves along. He’s also the guy that Saint Mary’s has proven to have no idea how to guard.

NBC SPORTS’ BIG TEN POSTSEASON AWARDS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s

COACH OF THE YEAR: Mark Few, Gonzaga

FIRST TEAM ALL-WCC

  • Emmett Naar, Saint Mary’s
  • Elijah Bryant, BYU
  • Jonathan Williams III, Gonzaga
  • Killian Tillie, Gonzaga
  • Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s

SECOND TEAM ALL-WCC

  • Josh Perkins, Gonzaga
  • Frankie Ferrari, San Francisco
  • K.J. Feagin, Santa Clara
  • Isaiah Pineiro, San Diego
  • Yoeli Childs, BYU