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Arizona lands Kentucky transfer Jemarl Baker

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Arizona landed a notable transfer on Tuesday night as former Kentucky guard Jemarl Baker Jr. announced his commitment to the Pac-12 program on Twitter.

A former four-star prospect who never earned consistent minutes with Kentucky, Baker opted to head West as the California native should become a key piece for Arizona once he’s eligible. After missing his freshman season with a season-ending knee injury, Baker returned to Kentucky’s rotation for the 2018-19 season as he averaged 2.3 points per game in 9.1 minutes per contest.

Known as a perimeter threat, Baker never consistently found his shooting touch for Kentucky last season as he only shot 31 percent from three-point range. Baker will have to sit out the 2019-2020 season due to NCAA transfer rules, but given his knee injury, he should have three seasons of eligibility remaining if he petitions the NCAA for the extra year.

While Baker couldn’t establish himself at arguably the deepest program in America, playing at Arizona could be a better fit as he’ll have a year to acclimate with the new Wildcats before taking the floor.

Bucknell’s Nate Sestina becomes Kentucky’s latest grad-transfer addition

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After a breakout redshirt junior year, Bucknell’s Nate Sestina is headed to the big time.

The forward from Emporium, Penn. will graduate transfer to Kentucky and finish his career with the Wildcats next season, he announced Thursday.

“It’s been an amazing ride from Emporium to Bucknell and everywhere in between, and it’s surreal to think my college basketball career isn’t over yet,” Sestina wrote on social media. “I’m humbled to get started with @KentuckyMBB! Need to thank God, my family, my coaches, teammates and @UKCoachCalipari #BBN”

Sestina follows in the footsteps of Reid Travis, who finished his career in Lexington this past season after spending four years with Stanford. Sestina, though, gives Kentucky something Travis couldn’t – a floor spacer in the post.

The 6-foot-9 forward shot 38 percent on over 100 3-point attempts last season as he averaged 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. He shot 80.5 percent from the free-throw line and 53.6 percent from the floor overall. It was a major step forward after Sestina averaged just 6.5 points in 14.9 minutes per game the previous season. He redshirted the 2015-16 season after undergoing shoulder surgery.

He’ll also provide what Travis did for John Calipari – a veteran and experienced voice on the floor and in the locker room for what figures to be, as is every season, a young Kentucky team.

Final Four is set after memorable Elite Eight

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The 2019 Final Four is set for next weekend in Minneapolis as the second weekend of the NCAA tournament was a memorable one.

After four memorable Elite Eight games, No. 1 seed Virginia will face No. 5 seed Auburn in one national semifinal with No. 2 seed Michigan State battling No. 3 seed Texas Tech in the other Final Four game on Saturday.

Falling in last season’s NCAA tournament to No. 16 seed UMBC, the Cavaliers figured things out to make the Final Four with a memorable overtime win in the South Region over No. 3 seed Purdue. Despite 42 points from Boilermaker junior guard Carsen Edwards, Virginia outlasted his 10 three-pointers with a flurry of their own from Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. And with the team needing a buzzer-beating bucket just to force overtime, big man Mamadi Diakite came through.

Virginia’s win will go down as one of the better Elite Eight games of the decade as Edwards became a March hero while the Cavaliers finally overcame some NCAA tournament demons.

Also winning an overtime game in the Midwest Region was No. 5 seed Auburn as they outlasted SEC rival Kentucky. Playing without Sweet 16 star Chuma Okeke, who suffered a torn ACL on Friday, the Tigers rallied in the second half to beat the Wildcats behind Bryce Brown and Jared Harper to make their first Final Four in school history. The Wildcats’ great season ends behind a strong game from P.J. Washington as he overcame a foot injury last week to end a memorable sophomore season with 28 points and 13 rebounds.

Texas Tech advanced to its first Final Four in school history as well with a win over No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Saturday. In a close Elite Eight matchup in the West Region, the Red Raiders held off the Bulldogs with shot-making from Jarrett Culver and Matt Mooney while Gonzaga was held to 7-for-26 three-point shooting. Rui Hachimura (22 points) and Brandon Clarke (18 points) both had strong games while Josh Perkins (16 points) committed a late out-of-bounds foul that sealed the game for the Red Raiders.

The final Elite Eight thriller saw No. 2 seed Michigan State outlast No. 1 seed Duke in the East Region. Cassius Winston (20 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks) and Xavier Tillman (19 points, nine rebounds) both had big games for the Spartans as they limited turnovers to shock the No. 1 overall seed. The loss likely ends the college career of freshmen Zion Williamson (24 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks, three steals) and R.J. Barrett (21 points, six assists) as the Blue Devils fall short of the Final Four when many considered them a title favorite.

Between the four great games, two overtime thrillers, a buzzer-beater to force overtime and some big star performances, this makes a strong case for the best Elite Eight ever. We had a jaw-dropping Edwards performance in a losing effort, two blueblood programs (Duke and Kentucky) getting upset in close games and the final college game of the sport’s biggest star of the decade (Zion).

And that doesn’t even include Auburn and Texas Tech making the first Final Four in school history, Izzo’s finest coaching job and Winston’s heroics and Goins’ big shot. Virginia overcoming a shaky reputation and the Tigers overcoming the loss of Okeke to injury.

The first weekend might have been mostly chalk. The second weekend of the 2019 NCAA tournament was a great one as it culminated in memorable Elite Eight games and stars coming through in the clutch. It’s led to some unexpected Final Four matchups, but at least college hoops fans have plenty to talk about this week after some ridiculous games.

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.

Auburn’s Chuma Okeke lost to ACL tear

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Auburn will be without Chuma Okeke the rest of its postseason run after the sophomore suffered an ACL tear Friday in the Tigers’ win over North Carolina.

“He worked so hard, spent so much time in the gym and making sure his body is right,” Auburn’s Bryce Brown said Saturday. “It’s our jobs to pick him up, lift him up, encourage him, and all we want to do at this point is go out there and play for him. We’re going to use it at motivation. Hopefully we can do this for our boy.”

The 6-foot-8 forward leads the Tigers, who will face Kentucky in the Elite 8 on Sunday, in rebounds and steals.

“I felt like he’s our most valuable player for our team,” Jared Harper said, “all the things that he’s able to do in the court, guard 1 through 5, be able to smooth from perimeter, score inside and just do all those things. I know we’re going to get that production of all those things he did from all of us it’s going to take all of us, not just one single person.”

Okeke was third on Auburn with 12 points per game. He scored a team-high 14 in the Tigers’ last matchup with Kentucky during the SEC regular season.

“I think the minute Chuma hit the floor (Friday) and started pounding his fist on the ground, that was no sprain,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “I think the reaction from all the guys is really unfair because he’s such a great kid and such a hard worker, so humble, but he’s got a big dream. Players like Chuma give teams courage and confidence. We’re going to miss him tomorrow because we’re going to be — we’re going to have tough matchups. We lost every single matchup we had against Kentucky in Lexington, everyone from the bench to the players.

“But Chuma always give us a chance to win that matchup. So now he’s going to be out for awhile. He’s got to rehab and that’s what God’s plan was. He’s going to handle it. But we’re all sad and heartbroken for him. There was no celebrating in our locker room last night because of his injury. At the same time, there’s no time to celebrate. We’re looking at a tip in about 20 hours against probably the best team in the country right now.”

Kentucky’s PJ Washington plays through foot injury in gutsy Sweet 16 performance

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Kentucky advanced past Houston to make the Elite Eight on Friday night as sophomore forward PJ Washington was a huge reason the Wildcats rallied to win.

Missing the NCAA tournament’s first weekend with his foot in a hard cast, Washington came off the bench on Friday night as he scored 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting. Washington also added a huge block late in the game with the Wildcats trailing by two in the final minute. On a night where Kentucky’s offense struggled to produce quality looks, Washington’s ability to score on the block was vital for the Wildcats to escape with another win.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari said in the postgame interview that Washington didn’t go through the team’s shootaround on Friday as he was a game-time decision. Washington said his foot didn’t have much feeling after Friday’s win as his status remains uncertain for Sunday’s Elite Eight game with Auburn.

“It’s feeling good. I don’t feel no pain right now. A lot of adrenaline. It’s probably going to be hurting later so I’m going to go home and get some treatment. And get ready for the next game,” Washington said after Friday’s win.

If Washington is healthy enough to play, and give this kind of effort, then he’ll likely try to give it a go against the Tigers in the Elite Eight. Although Washington isn’t as springy as normal, he still did an effective job of letting his skills do the work in the post as he got position on the block and went to work against Houston. Kentucky’s best player in the Wildcats’ blowout win over Auburn in late February, Kentucky probably needs Washington to play, and be somewhat effective, if they want to reach another Final Four.

Washington and the Wildcats will be facing a hot Auburn team riding an 11-game winning streak as the Tigers look like a different team since the loss to Kentucky in Lexington.