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Thursday’s Things To Know: AAC stays tied, Lagerald Vick steps aside and Pac-12 troubles magnify

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There weren’t many surprising results from the top-25 teams in action across the country on Thursday night, but there was significant news from both Kansas and Gonzaga (Killian Tillie can’t catch a break) while the AAC gets a dream matchup Sunday and the Pac-12 continues to be a nightmare. Here’s what you need to know”:

HOUSTON AND CINCINNATI BOTH WIN ROAD TESTS

It could have been an interesting night in the American. No. 12 Houston and No. 25 Cincinnati, both sporting matching one-loss conference records, were on the road against potentially tricky opponents in UCF and Memphis, respectively. It would have been easy to envision one losing, adding some tension into the league race or having them both taking Ls, injecting chaos into a league that’s been pretty orderly.

Both, though, won and continued to separate themselves from the rest of the conference and setup a monster showdown Sunday.

The Cougars had no trouble with the Knights, claiming a 77-68 victory, while the Bearcats held off the Tigers, 69-64.

Corey Davis, Jr.  had a big game for Houston, going for 26 points, five assists and three rebounds It was Jarron Cumberland unsurprisingly starring for Cincy with 17 points, six assists and six rebounds in a game the Bearcats had to really compete down the stretch to finally finish off.

Now, let’s talk about this weekend.

The first matchup between the two AAC frontrunners comes Sunday, with the Bearcats visiting Houston in what should be one of the marquee games of the weekend and the first of two bouts between these two teams.

It’ll be an interesting matchup with neither team sporting elite offenses, but strong defenses and deliberates paces. Cincy’s best bet will likely be to try to turn defense into offense as it has been solid in creating turnovers while that’s one of the areas the Houston offense hasn’t excelled. The way for most teams to attack Mick Cronin’s defense is at the 3-point line, but that’s not the strength of the Cougars, who instead rely on their offensive rebounding and the fact they don’t really have to score that much with how good their defense has been.

KANSAS LOSES A STARTER

It was just last week I used this space to muse about the vulnerability of Kansas’ Big 12 title streak. Sure, things looked less than great for the Jayhawks, but we’d seen that plenty over the course of the last 14 years only to then see Bill Self’s team ultimately on top of the conference standings.

But now it feels like bad is getting increasingly worse for the Jayhawks.

The school announced Thursday that starting guard Lagerald Vick will be taking a leave of absence from the team to deal with personal issues while his mother told the Kansas City Star he was needed back home in Memphis “for a couple weeks.”

Vick has been wildly inconsistent this season – and his playing time has been lately as well – but he’s a player that the Jayhawks are going to sorely miss for however long his absence runs. The margin of error for Kansas was already shrinking with a 6-4 league record and Iowa State, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Baylor all looking like threats, and now losing a player like Vick, even with his flaws, only tightens that window. Dedric Lawson is now likely to see even more aggressive double teams with Kansas’ best 3-point threat off the floor and no clear player capable of replacing his 45.5 percent shooting from deep. It’s more than just losing a starter for Kansas, it’s losing a player that was providing a skill that Kansas has in short supply and allows its best player – Lawson – to be better.

Maybe Self figures this out or maybe Vick’s time away is short, but with the cascading bad news for Kansas, it feels like things are more likely to get worse than better.

THE PAC-12 IS REALLY TRYING TO BE A ONE-BID LEAGUE

Yes, it’s easy to pile on the Pac-12 for being awful this season. Sure, it’s probably been covered plenty this year that the league is down, even by its recent pedestrian standards.

But, I mean, c’mon. The conference just never seems to help itself.

Washington stayed perfect by beating Arizona in Tucson while Arizona State took a HORRIBLE loss at home to Washington State.

The Wildcats have now lost four-straight and five of their last six while Arizona State loss 91-70 to a Cougars team that was 8-14 overall and 1-8 in the Pac-12 in its home gym. I repeat, the Sun Devils lost by 21 POINTS to a team that previously had only managed to WIN A SINGLE GAME IN A HISTORICALLY TERRIBLE CONFERENCE. Bobby Hurley’s squad ain’t lookin’ so good right now.

Neither is the Pac-12, which continues to flirt with being a one-bid league.

Be sure to read Bubble Banter to get the in-depth look at what Thursday night meant, not only to the Pac-12, but the rest of the country trying to position itself heading into the regular season’s final month.

Jarron Cumberland scores 17 to lead No. 25 Cincinnati past Memphis

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In the end, Cincinnati’s toughness — and leading scorer Jarron Cumberland recovering from a poor shooting night — helped the No. 25 Bearcats extend their winning streak to eight games.

Cumberland scored 17 points and keyed a late rally as the Bearcats defeated Memphis 69-64 on Thursday night.

“We weren’t able to get it done,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said, adding: “They were down in the second half, and they kept fighting and scrapping like we knew they would and we didn’t meet the challenge.”

Justin Jenifer scored 14 and Tre Scott finished with 13 points and nine rebounds as Cincinnati (20-3, 9-1 American Athletic Conference), which moved into the Top 25 this week, used a second-half rally to overcome a double-digit deficit.

“We didn’t come in not locked in and not focused, but we needed to pick up the pace,” Jenifer said. “.That was the main piece to our win today, was our defense.”

The Bearcats struggled with poor shooting and the pace of the game early. The Memphis lead reached 11 early in the second half before Cincinnati found its rhythm and began chipping into the advantage.

“We’re still learning how hard you have to play to win a game like this,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “We played harder as the game went on.”

That change in momentum came in the second half. Cincinnati struggled in the first, making only one of its last 15 shots in the half. That helped Memphis build a 35-29 lead at the break.

The lead would stretch to 11 early in the second half and Memphis still was up 44-34 with about 15 minutes to go. That was when Cincinnati began chipping away at the lead. A 12-2 run fueled by a defense that forced four Memphis turnovers, brought the Bearcats even at 46-all near the midway point of the second.

After the lead swayed back and forth, Cumberland, who struggled earlier, made the difference.

Memphis had pulled within 58-55 with 2 1/2 minutes left, when Cumberland scored the next nine Bearcat points to provide a buffer Memphis couldn’t overcome in the closing minute.

“It helps to have a great player to put the ball in the basket late in games,” Cronin said. “Jarron Cumberland is a great player.”

Jeremiah Martin led Memphis (13-10, 5-5) with 26 points, converting 8 of 14 from 3-point range. Kyvon Davenort added 12 points and 10 rebounds, while Mike Parks Jr. finished with 11 points.

Martin, who had 41 second-half points in the Tigers loss at South Florida last weekend, tried to keep pace with Cumberland, scoring eight points down the stretch, but it wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid their third-straight loss.

And Hardaway again, pointed to the difference in toughness at the end — Cincinnati had it; his team didn’t.

“It’s hard to do,” Hardaway said when asked how to develop tougher players. “You’ve kind of got to have it in you. That’s a product of what (the Bearcats) do. They recruit those guys.”

He added that Cronin is in his 13th season as Cincinnati coach. “He’s kind of found his system and his rhythm on players. As far as our players, there’s no way you can put toughness inside someone. You just have to go out there and battle.”

BIG PICTURE

Cincinnati: The Bearcats survived a poor shooting night (39.7 percent) to keep their winning streak alive and secure their national ranking. Cincinnati won the boards 38-32, including 14 from the offensive glass, leading to 12 second-chance points.

Memphis: The Tigers, who have played well at home this year, got off to a fast start and stayed close even during the second-half Cincinnati rally. They had controlled Cumberland until the game’s latter stages, but couldn’t stop him in the final minutes.

UP NEXT

Cincinnati: Visit Houston on Sunday afternoon

Memphis: Host UConn on Sunday afternoon.

Penny Hardaway: “A little jealousy from a lot of these coaches around the country”

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Memphis is having a relatively mediocre and less-than-noteworthy season isn’t stopping Penny Hardaway from making news.

Last month, it was going after Tennessee’s Rick Barnes. Now, it’s coaches all around the country.

“I’m getting used to this as a coach because it’s a little jealousy from a lot of these coaches around the country,” Hardaway said Monday, per The Associated Press. “I do understand that because we are NBA players trying to come back, and we didn’t have any experience as college coaches. So we didn’t quote, unquote, ‘Pay our dues.’ So the coaches and their so-called boys that are in the media they’re going to always throw jabs at us.”

The remarks come after former Houston coach Tom Penders took issue with Hardaway saying his Tigers could play with any team in the country after they beat UCF this weekend, according to Geoff Calkins of the Daily Memphian. Memphis is now 13-7 overall and 5-2 in the AAC with losses to Temple and Houston.

“Woah! Beat Houston before you make such a statement,” Penders tweeted. “Houston would be a much better measuring stick. What is UCF’s March Madness record? I love Penny but he just put a target on his own back if Memphis doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament. Be happy about a nice home win!”

It’s a relatively mild statement, but that didn’t really stop Hardaway from essentially going scorched-earth with his response.

“For sure, I definitely feel like there’s a target on my back,” Hardaway said. “There’s a lot of people that don’t want me to succeed because it’s going to look like an NBA guy came back with no experience and won so of course I relish in that.”

Hardaway may be overstating the situation some given Memphis hasn’t actually done a lot of winning yet in his first season at the helm, but it’s hard not to believe that sentiment does exist to some extent. Guys who grind at outposts and lower levels all around the country trying to get a job half as good as Memphis probably don’t love seeing a high school coach (who happens to be an NBA icon, but no matter) swoop in and get a plum gig. The fact that he can get a player like five-star recruit James Wiseman probably makes the bigger names in the sport take notice, too.

The more notable thing here, though, is simply the fact Hardaway isn’t shying away from the spotlight or controversy. Nor should he. If people don’t like that he got the Memphis job, that’s their issue. Being an NBA all-star and a player in the high school and grassroots circuit means you don’t have to go the traditional route. It’s probably fair to say conventional rules don’t apply if Chris Rock voices your alter ego, either. Them’s the breaks, fellas.

Ultimately, Hardaway is going to be judged by his results. We saw it at Iowa State with Fred Hoiberg, who had no coaching experience and wound up on an NBA bench five years later after a Sweet 16 and two Big 12 tournament titles. We’ve seen mixed results at St. John’s with Chris Mullin, and we’ll see at Georgetown with Patrick Ewing (though he certainly paid his dues on NBA benches for years).

The bottom line here is that Hardaway isn’t going to shy away from anything or anyone. That’s something you’re afforded when you’re a legend at your school and had the NBA career Hardaway put together. Who knows if it’ll eventually make Memphis into the winner he wants, but it sure has been entertaining to start. Imagine if they actually start winning some games. Doesn’t feel like Hardaway will need Rock to voice his trash talk for this second career.

AAC Reset: Cincinnati, Houston, UCF established as frontrunners

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?

What is still left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the American Athletic Conference.

MIDSEASON AAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: B.J. Taylor, UCF

The 6-foot-2 guard has bounced back from injury brilliantly, averaging 17.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 40.9 percent from the floor, 39.3 percent from 3 and 81.3 percent from the free-throw line. He needs to be more consistent (that 2-for-10 against Alabama stands out), but he’s an electric scorer that will make the Knights go.

THE ALL AAC FIRST TEAM

  • B.J. TAYLOR, UCF
  • MARKIS MCDUFFIE, WICHITA STATE: The senior has rediscovered his all-conference form after a disastrous sophomore season, even if the Shockers aren’t winning at that level. He’s averaging 18.8 points while shooting 42.3 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from 3. He’s also grabbing 5.1 rebounds per game.
  • JARRON CUMBERLAND, CINCINNATI: The best player on the league’s best team, Cumberland is putting up a career-best 16.2 points while shooting a scintillating 47.1 percent from distance.
  • SHIZZ ALSTON, TEMPLE: The conference’s top scorer at 19.3 per game, Alston has helped Temple to a surprise 10-2 record in Fran Dunphy’s final season at the helm.
  • COREY DAVIS, HOUSTON: The 6-foot-1 senior is averaging 15.3 points in efficient manner, shooting 34.7 percent from 3 and 94.3 percent from the line. He’s also putting up 3.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Cincinnati, Houston, UCF
  • NIT: UConn, SMU, Temple
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Memphis, Wichita State, Tulsa, ECU, South Florida, Tulane
(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. THREE AT THE TOP

This isn’t so much something we’ve learned as has been confirmed through the season’s first two months. It seems pretty apparent that Cincinnati, Houston and UCF are the class of the conference, sporting a combined record 34-4. All three teams are in the KenPom top-40 while the rest of the league is outside the top-70.

Among those three, you could argue that Houston and Cincinnati may be a smidge ahead of the Knights as the Cougars and Bearcats both have good wins and no bad losses, something UCF can’t say with a loss to FAU on the resume and a home win against a so-so Alabama team leading the win docket. Still, the Knights belong in this trio given the strength of the roster and only one hiccup.

It’s almost assured that the league champion will emerge from this group of three, and it’s probably likely that the trio will comprise the entirety of the conference’s NCAA tournament bids.

2. PENNY HARDAWAY MAKES THINGS INTERESTING

Memphis hasn’t been particularly successful on the floor in the first year of the Penny era, with South Dakota State its best win and with losses to Charleston and Oklahoma State, but there have been more than a few moments that make the Tigers’ hire of their star alum already an absolute winner.

First off, Hardaway landed five-star recruit James Wiseman in the 2019 class, giving the Tigers not only a monster recruit, but one who hails from Memphis as well. Succeeding with kids from the city – five-star kids or otherwise – is a huge part of the Memphis job, and one Hardaway looked ready to immediately excel in and he has. Not just with Wiseman, but with Tyler Harris, who is having a splendid freshman season. Then there’s the feud with Rick Barnes, who I don’t think has ever been in a feud of any type in his life, but found Hardaway cursing him out after Barnes’ Tennessee team beat the Tigers in a rivalry game. Bringing a little juice to that matchup is a heck of a lot of fun.

Maybe most importantly, though, Memphis fans are flocking back to games. The Tigers are averaging nearly 15,000 fans per home game after averaging just over 6,000 per game in Tubby Smith’s last season. Memphis basketball – despite not yet winning a bunch of games – matters. That was half the battle, one Penny is winning in a major way.

3. WICHITA STATE IS WHAT WE THOUGHT THEY’D BE

You could have talked yourself into Wichita State this past offseason, banking on a Markis McDuffie return to form and Gregg Marshall just bending reality to his whim to keep the Shockers near the top of the AAC and in the NCAA tournament. It looks like you would have been kidding yourself, though.

The Shockers appear to be taking the step back that looked all but inevitable after losing the likes of Landry Shamet, Connor Frankamp and Shaw Morris off last year’s team. Now, the Shockers haven’t hit rock bottom – they’ve got wins against Providence and Baylor – but losses to Louisiana Tech, Davidson, Alabama and VCU makes it seem all the more likely that this isn’t going to be a caliber of team Wichita State has become accustomed to fielding during its seven-year NCAA tournament streak, which appears destined to end this spring.

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THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. HOW LONG CAN HOUSTON STAY PERFECT?

Kelvin Sampson’s team hasn’t exactly had a murderer’s row schedule, but the Cougars are 13-0 heading into AAC play. That’s undefeated, for those of you keeping score at home. Their next toughest tests come at Temple (KenPom 74) on Jan. 9 and at SMU (89) on Jan. 16. If they make it through those two games, they very well could be blemish-free heading into an interesting three-game stretch to begin February at UCF, vs. Cincinnati and at UConn.

No one is expecting Houston to run the table, but given the meh-ness of their non-conference schedule and the blah-ness of the AAC at large, they’re going to need to rely heavily on simple win accumulation to boost their NCAA tournament resume and seed line. Getting to February undefeated would help that, for those keeping score at home.

2. THE HURLEY REBUILD AT UCONN

Spirits seem to be high in Storrs, where the hometown Huskies sit 8-4 in the first two months of the Dan Hurley era. UConn is playing respectable basketball and hope seems to be in the air, a welcome change after what looked to be a miserable finish to Kevin Ollie’s tenure, which still has an ugly cloud over the university. So, that’s an improvement.

UConn probably isn’t all that good, though. At least not right now. The Huskies’ did beat Syracuse on a neutral, but beyond that, they’ve lost every game of consequence on their schedule. Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert are playing well, and that might be enough to score a few AAC victories to keep everyone happy while Hurle continues the rebuild.

3. CAN A FOURTH TEAM SNEAK INTO THE DANCE?

For a team other than Houston, Cincinnati or UCF to make the NCAA tournament, it’s probably going to take a magical run through the conference tournament, which is hosted by Memphis at the FedEx forum this year, if you’re looking for a real juicy storyline.

Other than that, though, there doesn’t really seem to be a path. No one has done enough in the non-conference to really put themselves in a strong position, and the conference just doesn’t appear to have enough opportunities to win games that move the needle. If it’s going to happen, though, it’ll likely need to be UConn, SMU or Temple really surprising and notching a whole host of victories – including a few against that top trio.

(Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. CINCY TAKES THE TITLE

Houston may be undefeated, but Mick Cronin’s team looks to be the best the AAC has to offer. The Bearcats’ two losses both came to Power 5 teams, the first a season-opening home loss to Ohio State and the second in Starkville to Mississippi State. Neither of those give any indication other than the Bearcats aren’t quite a top-25 team.

Cincinnati looks to have another borderline-elite defense, which is constructed from the inside out, with opponents struggling to score around the basket while the Bearcats are also generating a host of turnovers. The offense isn’t quite as strong, but Jarron Cumberland can help cover up some deficiencies.

2. THE NATION REMEMBERS TACKO FALL

The UCF big man became of national interest early in his career simply by the fact that he stands 7-foot-6 and has a great name, but injuries – and playing in the AAC – had him fade into the background some.

Expect that to change, with UCF having legit talent that will make the Knights an AAC contender and an interesting team to watch – if you can stomach their slow pace. The big man is sporting a 14.6 block percentage at the moment. There are few players that can impact a game defensively like he can – and nearly none are as interesting to watch given his height.

3. PENNY WILL GENERATE MORE HEADLINES

Maybe he won’t tell another coach to get the “@*&! out of here” but here’s guessing the Memphis coach will continue to make things interesting, even if wins aren’t expected to come in bunches next year. It’s clear after having an All-Star NBA career and then being a big fish in high school basketball, he’s not too concerned about the decorum that keeps so many head coaches from being truly interesting characters. Bless him for it.

2018 College Hoops Year In Review: The 12 most memorable moments from the last year

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College basketball had a lot of memorable happenings during 2018 as on-court drama and off-court changes led to a lot of major headlines for the sport. The FBI’s investigation and trials about corruption in college hoops cast a light on some of the sport’s big issues while the NCAA tournament featured a monster upset and some great runs from new and old characters.

Here are some of the major things to remember in 2018 from college basketball as the sport will surely have more on some of these storylines in the upcoming year.

Here are the 12 best dunks from the last 12 months

And here are the 10 best games from 2018.

1. No. 16 seed UMBC shocks No. 1 seed Virginia in the NCAA tournament

When we look back on 2018, it will always be associated with one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports. Many believed a No. 16 seed would never take down a No. 1 seed.

And it happened. And it happened in blowout fashion to a team that rolled through a great ACC.

The stunning UMBC win was enhanced by a national audience that kept slowly tuning in as the realization set in that crazy history was happening. Time seemed to stop. Twitter went ballistic. UMBC helped seize the moment by going on a social media run that enhanced their exploding national reputation.

Some questioned Tony Bennett’s style of play. Others made jokes on Virginia’s behalf that will likely continue for decades. Unless No. 16 upsets over No. 1 seeds become more common — or Virginia wins a national title — the Cavaliers will forever be associated with this game.

2. Villanova captures its second national title in three years by beating Michigan

Etching its name into the blueblood equation with a second national championship in three seasons, Villanova marched its way through the 2018 NCAA tournament with a dominating effort. The Wildcats culminated their efforts with a big win over Michigan in the title game.

Although Villanova’s 2018 title wasn’t as exciting as the buzzer-beating win in 2016, this group will be remembered for its incredible group of veteran talent. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo helped the Wildcats win multiple national titles before all three left school with eligibility remaining to become NBA draft picks. Omari Spellman quickly developed into a draft pick of his own after a redshirt year and only one season with the team.

The 2018 title team spoke to Villanova’s ability to develop talent and bring elite groups together despite losing key pieces from a title team two seasons before.

(Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

3. Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale knocks down back-to-back game-winners during women’s Final Four

The women’s Final Four had better games than the men’s side this year. Ogunbowale’s heroics were a huge reason why.

The junior guard buried the game-winning jumper to eliminate previously-unbeaten UConn in the semifinals. Then she one-upped that by hitting another game-winning jumper in the national title game to give the Irish the win over Mississippi State.

For her Final Four MOP efforts, Ogunbowale appeared on Ellen and met Kobe Bryant. She also made national headlines, once again, when Ogunbowale was allowed by the NCAA to compete on Dancing With the Stars. Ogunbowale placed seventh in the competition. She’s currently in her senior season for the top-five Irish as Ogunbowale recently passed 2,000 points for her college career.

4. No. 1 Kansas beats No. 2 Duke in overtime during the Elite Eight

Since the Final Four didn’t produce many memorable individual moments, this clash of bluebloods was probably the game of the 2018 NCAA tournament.

The Jayhawks had huge performances from Malik Newman and Svi Mykhailiuk as they reached the Final Four for the first time since 2012. Although Duke had tons of one-and-done freshman talent — led by Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter Jr. and Gary Trent Jr. — this game also served as the final time Grayson Allen took the floor in a Blue Devil uniform.

Ultimately, it had a thrilling regulation finish with two Hall of Fame coaches, many memorable college players and a trip to the Final Four on the line.

5. The national emergence of Loyola (Chicago) and Sister Jean during a Cinderella run

College basketball has increasingly become a sport of blueblood programs and elite players. Which is why Loyola captured the nation’s attention as the fun underdog during an improbable run to the 2018 Final Four.

The Missouri Valley Conference champions hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1985. But the No. 11 seed Ramblers showed a special ability to win in tight games thanks in-part to a tremendous, unselfish veteran core and Sister Jean, the school’s 98-year-old nun who became a national sensation.

Loyola won its opening-round game against No. 6 seed Miami on a Donte Ingram three-pointer and followed that up with back-to-back one-point wins over No. 3 seed Tennessee and No. 7 seed Nevada. After dispatching No. 9 seed Kansas State by double digits in the Elite Eight, Loyola became just the fifth double-digit seed to make the Final Four.

The Ramblers lost to Michigan in the national semifinals, but they made a huge imprint on college hoops. Head coach Porter Moser earned well-deserved praise and a contract extension. Recruiting has picked up at Loyola.

And Sister Jean got a bobblehead, her own signature shoes, became friends with Charles Barkley and got recruited by the Atlanta Falcons before throwing out the first pitch at Wrigley Field.

Nobody had a better 2018 than Sister Jean.

6. Michigan’s Jordan Poole knocks out Houston with buzzer-beater to fuel Wolverine Final Four push

The 2018 NCAA tournament didn’t have many true buzzer-beaters. Which is part of what made Michigan’s win over Houston so special. Jordan Poole’s loooong three-pointer gave the Wolverines a one-point win. It also gave Michigan a huge jolt of confidence as they ended up in the title game against Villanova.

7. Memphis brings back Penny Hardaway as he eventually lands five-star center James Wiseman

Coaching carousel movement always has some big names. Chris Mack went from Xavier to Louisville. UConn nabbed Rhode Island’s Dan Hurley and Jeff Capel upgraded from Duke assistant to Pitt head coach.

None of those hirings made as much of a national splash as Penny Hardaway replacing Tubby Smith at Memphis. Revitalizing a hungry fanbase right away, Hardaway has taken local Memphis high school connections and used them to immediately bring in local talent.

While Memphis isn’t a juggernaut this season, they’ve improved enough to have the city excited. Perhaps more importantly, the Tigers have a recruiting class to be reckoned with. This is especially true after Penny went toe-to-toe with John Calipari and Kentucky and ended up with local top-three center James Wiseman.

Memphis currently has a top-ten recruiting class with the potential to add more. Hardaway is going to be fun to watch as he tries to restore Memphis into a national powerhouse.

8. Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett usher in new Duke superteam during Champions Classic blowout over Kentucky

The 2018-19 season opened with a bang this season as the Champions Classic ushered in the first day of the season. And in front of a national audience, Duke freshmen Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett put on a show in a Blue Devil blowout win over the Wildcats.

Potentially the top two players in the Player of the Year race and the 2019 NBA Draft, these two superstar freshman had some monster plays as the Blue Devils ran past the Wildcats in a matchup of preseason top-five teams. Duke was so good that some questioned if they would go undefeated (they ultimately lost to Gonzaga at Maui).

Even if Duke lost to another top-five team, they’re a major national title contender. Williamson and Barrett continue to put up huge highlights nearly every game.

9. The first FBI college basketball trial verdict is delivered

Late October saw the first verdict in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption. Adidas executives James Gatto and Merl Code and former runner Christian Dawkins were all found guilty on conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Sentencing takes place in March 2019 as appeals will likely take place.

While the guilty counts were always likely to happen, the trial did get interesting at certain points when some took the witness stand. Former five-star recruit Brian Bowen’s father testified about some of the alleged offers he received for his son while former Adidas AAU coach and runner T.J. Gassnola also revealed some intriguing details. Some big-name programs and players like Kansas and Arizona’s Deandre Ayton ended up being named during testimony.

We’ll hear a lot more about the college basketball corruptions cases in 2019 as two more trials are supposed to happen in February and April. Former college coaches and others remain heavily involved as more information could be revealed if a plea agreement isn’t reached before trial.

(Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)

10. Texas guard Andrew Jones returns to action following leukemia diagnosis

A very sad story turned into an uplifting one as Texas guard Andrew Jones continued a remarkable fight against leukemia.

Announced publicly on Jan. 10, Jones left the Longhorns to start chemotherapy as he spent the spring and summer recovering and working to get better. Along the way, Jones had encouraging signs of recovery, including his first dunk, practicing with Texas again, and finally entering his first game competition in November.

Jones played in two games early in the 2018-19 season and hasn’t appeared in a game since mid-November as he’s leaving the team for several weeks to continue treatment.

11. Buffalo smashes Arizona in NCAA tournament first-round upset to end a bizarre March for the Wildcats

Arizona had a truly bizarre final month to the season in 2017-18 as they had numerous highs and lows. The ride finally ended when No. 13 seed Buffalo completely ran the Wildcats out of the tournament with a stunning first round blowout.

But before one of the biggest upsets of the first round, Arizona looked like a potential national title contender after rolling through the Pac-12 Tournament after head coach Sean Miller’s triumphant return following reports that he was on potential wiretaps talking about payments star center Deandre Ayton.

Miller has remained on the Arizona sidelines since returning as Wildcat recruiting recovered nicely with multiple five-star prospects committed in the Class of 2019.

12. The Commission on College Basketball speaks

One of the responses to the FBI’s investigation into college basketball involved the formation of the Commission on College Basketball.

Headed by Condoleezza Rice, the Commission finally delivered its recommendations in late April, as they addressed many of the hot topics in the sport. Recruiting, shoe companies, agents, the one-and-done rule, the NBA Draft and summer basketball events were just some of the things touched on when the Commission dropped its findings and proposals.

The basketball world responded with deserved skepticism, as many of the changes called for other governing bodies outside of the NCAA to change rules to accommodate what’s best for college basketball. Amateurism was also one of the topics that wasn’t touched on. While the recruiting calendar has seen some changes in June and July, there haven’t been a lot of sweeping changes yet to other areas of the game.

Checking in on 2018’s biggest college basketball coaching hires

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We are now nearly two months into the college basketball season, with non-conference play just about done and the league schedule coming up on the horizon.

With that in mind, it is a perfect time to check in on how some of the biggest coaching hires around the country are doing. 

CHRIS MACK, Louisville

It’s hard to argue with the work Mack has done early on this season. The Cardinals are sitting at 9-3 on the season. They’ve knocked off Michigan State in overtime, a marquee win that is going to be at the top of their NCAA tournament resume three months from now. They won at Seton Hall, a pleasant surprise out of the Big East that could end up getting to the NCAA tournament. Their three losses have come against Tennessee, Marquette and at Indiana, all of whom are on track to go dancing; Tennessee and Marquette could win their league.

Mack could very well get this group to the NCAA tournament, and that’s to say nothing of just how good his recruiting class is coming in next season. Louisville fans are going to be very, very happy with this hire.

DAN HURLEY, UConn

In UConn’s third game of the season, the Huskies went into Madison Square Garden and knocked off then-No. 15 Syracuse. That was awesome. Since then, they’ve gotten smoked by Iowa and Villanova, lost at home to a mediocre Arizona and dropped a game in New Jersey to a really good Florida State. The 9-4 start is better than what was expected, but it’s also been something of a mixed bag.

That said, UConn is playing a new, more entertaining brand of basketball. Hurley has reinvigorated the fanbase. He’s recruiting his tail off. UConn is probably headed to the NIT, but I don’t think UConn fans are going to complain.

PENNY HARDAWAY, Memphis

The Tigers are 7-5 on the season, which is just about where we thought they would be heading into the year even if it is somewhat disappointing. The Tigers had a chance to knock off LSU on the road, Charleston and Texas Tech on a neutral court and whiffed.

But this isn’t the year that really matters, not when Penny has a young team that is going to be stocked with local talent — James Wiseman anyone? — in the coming years. The thing that matters is that he is selling out FedEx Forum again, and that’s not something that happened in recent seasons under Tubby Smith.

TOM CREAN, Georgia

Crean’s Bulldogs have not been great, but they have probably been better than what their record is. Their first three losses come on the road or neutral floors against good teams. They were up 18 points at home against Arizona State before they lost that game. They are coming off of a win at Georgia Tech, which is more about bragging rights than a resume, but a win is a win is a win. It will take time, but the early returns could certainly be worse.

JEFF CAPEL, Pitt

The Panthers haven’t really done anything this season besides land a win over Saint Louis on a neutral court. They lost at Iowa and at West Virginia. They lost to Niagara. Their two best wins are against Atlantic 10 teams. But coming off of a winless ACC season, they are 9-3 on the season. It’s hard to complain too much about that.

TRAVIS STEELE, Xavier

Steele has finished his first non-conference season, and it certainly could have been worse. The Musketeers beat just about every team they were supposed to beat, including a win over Illinois on a neutral floor. The problem is they didn’t really beat anyone of note and lost all five games against teams with a shot at an at-large — Wisconsin, Auburn, San Diego State, Cincinnati and Missouri. The silver lining is that all five of those losses came away from the Cintas Center.

KERMIT DAVIS, Ole Miss

Are the Rebels a team that we need to keep an eye on? They are currently sitting with a 9-2 record and just one non-conference game left on their schedule. They’ve beaten Baylor on a neutral, won at Illinois State and picked off a good San Diego team. Their only two losses came at Butler and against Cincinnati on a neutral court.

BEST OF THE REST

For the most part, taking over a new job is never going to be an easy endeavor. There’s usually a reason the jobs open up in the first place, and it’s not normally because the coach that was there the previous season was hired by a bigger school.

Here are four names off the beaten path that are excelling in their first year at a new program.

DARIAN DEVRIES, Drake: Devries walked into a pretty good situation. He took over for Niko Medved, a notorious program builder that was in charge for just one year before taking Colorado State, and has thrived. Drake is 10-2 on the season after wins over a pair of good teams in New Mexico State and San Diego in the Las Vegas Classic. With the Missouri Valley wide open this season, the Bulldogs are a team to keep an eye on.

JUSTIN HUTSON, Fresno State: We all thought that San Diego State would be the threat to Nevada in the Mountain — and they might be — but on paper, Fresno State is one of the two teams (we’ll get to the other in a second) that looks capable of picking off the conference’s headliner. The Bulldogs are 9-2 on the season with wins over Cal, Northwestern and Weber State, and they are still missing their best player, Deshon Taylor.

SAM SCHOLL, San Diego: Things were going better for the Toreros if they had pulled off the overtime win against Drake on Sunday night, but they couldn’t get it done. They’re now 10-4 on the season, but their first three losses came against Washington, Ole Miss and Oregon.

CRAIG SMITH, Utah State: The Aggies are the other Mountain West team that we need to keep an eye on. Off to a 9-3 start under Craig Smith, USU has a nice win over Saint Mary’s and a good mid-major foe in UC Irvine. There was a chance that the Aggies could earn an at-large bid, but they whiffed on chances against Arizona State, BYU and Houston.