Column: Don’t Mourn for Pitino

Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino was placed on unpaid leave on Wednesday (with the expectation that he will be fired once his contractually-required 10-day notice expires) after the Cardinals program was among several implicated by an FBI investigation into bribery and corruption in college basketball.

Pitino is a Hall of Fame coach with great on-court success at multiple stops throughout his career, but that has all come to a very blunt ending.

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Louisville head basketball coach Rick Pitino, who was placed on unpaid leave on Wednesday. (Bradjward/Flickr)

Yet there’s no need to mourn for the legacy Pitino has lost, as his impending termination is the end of a long, winding and, to be frank, disgraceful road that got him here.

Yes, Pitino is the only coach to lead two different schools to national championships, winning them in 1996 at Kentucky and 2013 at Louisville.

Yes, he has seven Final Four appearances, and is the only coach to take three schools to the Final Four, also doing so at Providence.

Yes, he has 12 conference tournament championships (one at Boston University, five at Kentucky, six at Louisville), and been to 21 NCAA Tournaments, including 19 of the last 21 years his team was eligible.

Yes, Pitino has 770 collegiate wins, and may have 900 if not for six seasons as an NBA coach with the New York Knicks, who he took to the playoffs twice, and the Boston Celtics.

But with the revelation of the scandal that has brought Pitino’s career to a crashing end, real questions exist about Pitino’s on-court accomplishments, as the legitimacy of his players, their amateur status and their reasons for coming to Louisville (or Kentucky, Providence or Boston University) is now under a black cloud of doubt.

The FBI alleges that the family of a highly-ranked recruit (the overwhelming consensus is that the player, unnamed in the FBI report, is Louisville commit Brian Bowen) agreed to be paid $100,000 by Adidas executives–who were working in conjunction with a Louisville assistant coach–for the recruit play at Louisville. As part of the agreement, the recruit would represent Adidas when he turned professional.

This scandal reaches far beyond Louisville, as 10 individuals, including four Division I assistant coaches, were arrested in the case on Tuesday. But it’s Pitino who has the highest profile of anyone implicated in this case, even as he was not directly named in the FBI report (though he reportedly was listed as “Coach 2”).

Pitino was already suspended for five games this coming season as the result of his program’s previous scandal, in which former assistant coach Andre McGee had paid for the services of prostitutes and strippers for players in the team dormitory.

The program self-imposed a postseason ban for the 2015-16 season, and Pitino was suspended by the NCAA for “lack of institutional control.”

Pitino has also admitted to an extramarital sexual encounter in 2003, in which he impregnated his mistress and paid for her abortion.

In each previous case, Pitino’s job has seemed bulletproof. He downplayed both his affair and the escorts scandal, and claimed ignorance regarding the escorts.

With Pitino’s habitual refusal to accept any responsibility, and the pattern of athletic director Tom Jurich–who was also fired–releasing a passive statement of support (which he’s also done in regards to the football program’s issues), I assumed we would see the same movie this week, and Pitino would be pacing the sidelines of the KFC Yum! Center this winter.

Yet this scandal, which figures to bring down more than just Pitino over the coming months, finally ousted a man who could have, and should have, been out of college basketball years ago.

From purely an on-the-court perspective, Rick Pitino can legitimately say he has had a good career.

But don’t shed a tear for Pitino’s career coming to an end the way it did.

He’s done plenty to deserve this.

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ACC Postseason Power Rankings: North Carolina Wins League’s 14th National Title

After the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the ACC had only one of its nine tournament teams still alive, and some questioned the league’s strength.

Two weeks later, the ACC can boast a national champion for the 14th time (the league will claim 18, but Louisville and Syracuse combined for four before they were in the ACC).

North Carolina has won nearly half of the ACC’s titles, winning their sixth this year, after they were the best and most consistent team throughout the entire season.

Behind the obvious number one choice of the Tar Heels, here is how the rest of the ACC stacks up as the season comes to a close:

1. North Carolina (33-7, 14-4 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Semifinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  National Champions (6-0)
Season High in SOS Rankings: 1, Season Low: 3
The Tar Heels won the regular season title in the nation’s best conference, foreshadowing what they would accomplish in the NCAA Tournament by winning the national title over Gonzaga on Monday.  With his third title (2005, ’09, ’17), Roy Williams passes his mentor, the legendary Dean Smith (national champion in 1982, ’93), and joins Mike Krzyzewski as one of two active coaches with three or more championships.

2. Duke (28-9, 11-7 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Champions (4-0)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 1, Season Low: 7
At the ACC Tournament, Duke became the first team in tournament history to win four games in four days, beating Notre Dame for the title after previously beating Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina.  In the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils were stunned in the second round by South Carolina, although they weren’t the only team the Gamecocks upset on their way to the Final Four.

3. Louisville (25-9, 12-6 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (0-1)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 1, Season Low: 6
After losing their ACC Tournament opener to Duke, the Cardinals lost a back-and-forth second round battle in the NCAA Tournament to Michigan, who was one of the hottest teams in the NCAA field until their eventual loss to Oregon.  The postseason performances of the Cardinals did not match the strength of their season overall, although postseason results are often how a season is measured.

4. Florida State (26-9, 12-6 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Semifinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 3, Season Low: 5
The Seminoles were a great team, but had some inconsistency, which bit them in a blowout loss to Xavier in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.  Despite being arguably Leonard Hamilton’s best team in Tallahassee, the ‘Noles missed an opportunity to have Hamilton’s best March result.

5. Notre Dame (26-10, 12-6 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Runners-up (2-1)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 2, Season Low: 9
The Irish reached the finals of the ACC Tournament for the second time in the last three years, falling to Duke, before surviving a NCAA first round scare against Princeton then losing to West Virginia.  Mike Brey has a knack for overachieving teams, and this year was no different–I picked them ninth in the league in November.

6. Virginia (23-11, 11-7 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 2, Season Low: 6
After a quarterfinal loss to Notre Dame in Brooklyn, the Cavaliers reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but scored just 39 points in a 26-point loss to Florida.  Virginia’s success under Tony Bennett has come by winning low-scoring defensive struggles, but scoring just 39 in an NCAA Tournament will never get a team where they want to go.

7. Virginia Tech (22-11, 10-8 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
Season High: 6, Season Low: 8
This season has to be considered a success for Buzz Williams’ Hokies, who reached their first NCAA Tournament since 2007 and second since 1996.  They weren’t the only team knocked out by Wisconsin, as the Badgers also beat top overall seed Villanova in the next round.

8. Wake Forest (19-14, 9-9 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  First Four (0-1)
Season High: 8, Season Low: 13
Danny Manning’s rebuild in Winston-Salem reached the NCAA Tournament a year quicker than many expected.  Down the stretch of the season, and in both postseason tournaments, the Deacon defense was an issue; that, along with whether or not First Team All-ACC forward John Collins returns, are the biggest questions heading into next year, as the Deacs should continue improving.

9. Miami (21-12, 10-8 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
Season High: 9, Season Low: 12
The Hurricanes reached the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five years, marking only the second such stretch in school history.  Jim Larranaga had tough coaching matchups in the postseason:  after beating Jim Boeheim in Brooklyn, the Hurricanes lost to Roy Williams in Brooklyn and Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament.

10. Georgia Tech (21-16, 8-10 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
NIT:  Runners-up (4-1)
Season High: 9, Season Low: 15
An ACC Tournament loss to Pittsburgh nailed the Yellow Jackets’ NCAA coffin shut, but the Yellow Jackets took advantage of their NIT opportunity by reaching the final, where they lost to TCU.  This season still has to be considered a success for Josh Pashner in his first season in Atlanta–the team was picked last in the ACC by many, including me.

11. Clemson (17-16, 6-12 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
NIT:  First Round (0-1)
Season High: 7, Season Low: 12
Clemson hung around the NCAA bubble deep into the season despite a mediocre record because of a very difficult schedule.  But in the end, the Tigers just didn’t win enough to make The Dance.  After losing to eventual ACC champ Duke in Brooklyn, the Tigers were upset by Oakland in their NIT opener, ending their season.

12. Syracuse (19-15, 10-8 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (0-1)
NIT:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 8, Season Low: 13
The Orange didn’t have a good postseason, losing to Miami in the ACC Tournament, scantly missing the NCAA Tournament, then losing to Ole Miss in the second round of the NIT.  And yet, their postseason won’t even be most remembered for those results, but instead for the war of words between Jim Boeheim and the city of Greensboro.  C’mon, Jim.

13. Pittsburgh (16-17, 4-14 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Postseason:  none
Season High: 4, Season Low: 14
After some guy named Chris Stiles picked this veteran team to finish fourth in the ACC, the Panthers were the biggest underachiever in the country this season, winning just four ACC games.  But hey, with their first round win over Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament, they ensured the Yellow Jackets wouldn’t go to the NCAA Tournament either.

14.  NC State (15-17, 4-14 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
Postseason:  none
Season High: 7, Season Low: 15
The Wolfpack also underachieved, with a roster including future NBA lottery pick Dennis Smith.  They did something they hadn’t done since 1995, beating Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but after Mark Gottfried was fired Feb. 13, the Wolfpack uneventfully played out the string.  Kevin Keatts, coming off back-to-back NCAA bids at UNC Wilmington, will take over in Raliegh.

15. Boston College (9-23, 2-16 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
Postseason:  none
Season High: 14, Season Low: 15
The last several years have been a struggle for the Eagles, so much so that their 2-16 conference record is actually an improvement.  However, ending the season on a 15-game losing streak still leaves a bitter taste in their mouths entering the offseason.

Fast Five: Sentimental Favorites in the Sweet 16

As the NCAA Tournament enters its second weekend, certain teams always seem to capture the hearts of fans, many of whom are looking for another rooting interest after their own team has been eliminated.

This year there are not necessarily any “Cinderella” teams, but there are still a fair share of teams who can be sentimental favorites as the Sweet 16 begins tonight.

Honorable Mention:  Arizona (32-4, 2-seed, West Region)
Sweet 16:  Tonight vs. #11 Xavier, 10:09 pm ET, TBS

It’s odd to include a traditional power like Arizona on this list (that’s why they’re an honorable mention), but a potential Wildcats run to the title has its share of storylines, considering the Final Four is in Phoenix, and Arizona is celebrating the 20th anniversary of their last national title in 1997.

Honorable Mention:  Whoever is playing UCLA
Sweet 16:  Friday vs. #2 Kentucky, 9:39 pm ET, CBS

The sports social media world keeps buzzing over the crazy things Lavar Ball, the father of Bruins point guard Lonzo Ball, has said.  I’m all for parents being involved in their kids’ lives and athletic careers, but Lavar Ball is completely over the top, considering at this point he’s making headlines on almost a daily basis.  If UCLA loses, maybe he’ll shut up–at least until his other two sons are playing college basketball in the near future.

5.  Gonzaga (34-1, 1-seed, West Region)
Sweet 16:  Tonight vs. #4 West Virginia, 7:39 pm ET, TBS

It’s strange to put a team on this list who is a 1-seed, and has participated in every NCAA Tournament since 1999.  However, the Bulldogs are still the little brother to fellow 1-seeds North Carolina and Kansas, and many aren’t even favoring the Zags to win the regional, since they may face Arizona in the regional final.  To even get there, they face a tough matchup with 4-seed West Virginia in tonight’s regional semifinal.

Gonzaga reaching the Final Four would be a feel-good story because they have come close but fallen short in their previous tournament runs.  Mark Few has led the Bulldogs to eight Sweet 16 appearances and two Elite Eights (1999, 2015), but have yet to reach the Final Four, despite having one of the most consistent programs in the nation.

The Zags play in the West Regional in San Jose, and the Final Four is in Phoenix, should they reach it; both locations should allow their fans to join them.

4.  Butler (25-8, 4-seed, South Region)
Sweet 16:  Friday vs. #1 North Carolina, 7:09 pm ET, CBS

The Bulldogs have been the sentimental favorite before–they were back-to-back national runners-up in 2010-11, losing national finals to Duke and UConn–and now they return to the list seeded higher than either of those years (Butler was a 5-seed in 2010 and an 8-seed in 2011), as they make their first Sweet 16 appearance since the 2011 run.

But despite their recent success, the Bulldogs are still far and away the least accomplished team in the South Regional, which also includes North Carolina, who Butler meets Friday night, as well as Kentucky and UCLA.  Those three schools have combined for 24 national championships and 54 Final Four appearances.

Few expect Butler to make any noise in Memphis, but the Bulldogs program has been in this situation before.

3.  Xavier (23-13, 11-seed, West Region)
Sweet 16:  Tonight vs. #2 Arizona, 7:39 pm ET, TBS

The Musketeers are on this list at the lowest-remaining seed.  Xavier has reached the Elite Eight twice, in 2004 and 2008, but has lost in the Sweet 16 four times since that 2008 appearance.

Xavier, who has been a near-perennial NCAA Tournament team for the last two decades, has had tough luck losing good coaches to jobs at bigger programs:  Skip Prosser (Wake Forest), Thad Matta (Ohio State) and Sean Miller (Arizona).

Now current Xavier coach Chris Mack will face former coach Miller in the Sweet 16.  Miller, who was coach the last time Xavier reached the Elite Eight, left in 2009 to succeed Hall of Famer Lute Olson at Arizona.

This will be a tough test for Xavier; the Wildcats are one of the favorites to win it all, and the game is in San Jose, which should give Arizona a crowd advantage.  Even if Xavier wins tonight, the Gonzaga-West Virginia winner would be no easier of an opponent on Saturday.

2.  Michigan (26-11, 7-seed, Midwest Region)
Sweet 16:  Tonight vs. #3 Oregon, 7:09 pm ET, CBS

On Wednesday, March 8, as the Wolverines were departing Ann Arbor to head to Washington D.C. for the Big Ten Tournament, their team plane (with the team, coaches, family members, band and cheerleaders aboard) skidded off the end of the runway due to high winds.  Miraculously, no one was injured in the accident.

Michigan flew to Washington early the next morning to play their noon opener in the Big Ten Tournament, where they wore practice uniforms since their game jerseys were on the crashed plane.  The Wolverines beat Illinois comfortably that Thursday, before beating Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin to remarkably win the conference title.

After starting their NCAA Tournament with a 92-91 win over Oklahoma State, the Wolverines upset 2-seed Louisville on Sunday (and became a further sentimental favorite by knocking the scandalous Louisville athletic department out of the field), advancing to their third Sweet 16 in five years.

Since the accident, the Wolverines have seemed to play more loosely, and have no doubt played better than before.  Tonight, they face an Oregon team that lost its best player, forward Chris Boucher, in the Pac-12 Tournament.  Should the Wolverines advance to the Elite Eight, they would either encounter a Big Ten title game rematch against Purdue or a rematch of their classic 2013 comeback win over Kansas in the Sweet 16.

Sure, the Michigan program has had tremendous success in the past–the Wolverines have reached five Final Fours, including 2013, and won the 1989 national title–but the story of this team in their run to the Sweet 16 has been incredible.  Now, as they face an uphill climb as the lowest seed in the Midwest Regional, the Wolverines will try to continue to play out this movie-like scenario and write their Hollywood ending.

1.  South Carolina (24-10, 7-seed, East Region)
Sweet 16:  Friday vs. #3 Baylor, 7:29 pm ET, TBS

Sure, the Gamecocks happen to be a team I pull for, but that’s not why they are at the top of this list.

The Gamecocks are a sentimental favorite because of their program’s history (or, really, a lack thereof).  This tournament marks just the ninth appearance in the NCAA Tournament for the program, and the first since 2004, after the Gamecocks were snubbed from the field last year.  Before last year’s NIT bid, the program had just one winning season since 2006.

After a first round win over Marquette–their first NCAA Tournament win in 44 years–the Gamecocks shocked the world and beat Duke 88-81, eliminating one of the biggest favorites to win the national title.

Beating Duke is enough by itself to make the Gamecocks a sentimental favorite for some, but especially when the win got South Carolina to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1973.  Now, the Gamecocks face Baylor (you know, that school that turned a blind eye to sexual assaults committed by student-athletes) as they try to reach their first Elite Eight in program history.

The East Region, at Madison Square Garden in New York, is wide open:  3-seed Baylor is the top remaining seed, and 4-seed Florida meets 8-seed Wisconsin (who beat 1-seed Villanova) in the other regional semifinal.  South Carolina, led by SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell (21.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.9 APG), have arguably the best player on any team in the East Region.

South Carolina is trying to complete a unique trifecta for its state:  Coastal Carolina won the baseball national championship in June and Clemson won the football title in January.  Schools from one state have not held all three titles simultaneously since 1975.

 

 

Sweet 16 Schedule (all times ET)

Midwest Region (Thursday, Kansas City)
#3 Oregon vs. #7 Michigan, 7:09 p.m., CBS
#1 Kansas vs. #4 Purdue, appr. 9:39 p.m., CBS

West Region (Thursday, San Jose)
#1 Gonzaga vs. #4 West Virginia, 7:39 p.m., TBS
#2 Arizona vs. #11 Xavier, appr. 10:09 p.m., TBS

South Regional (Friday, Memphis)
#1 North Carolina vs. #4 Butler, 7:09 p.m., CBS
#2 Kentucky vs. #3 UCLA, appr. 9:39 p.m., CBS

East Regional (Friday, New York)
#3 Baylor vs. #7 South Carolina, 7:29 p.m., TBS
#4 Florida vs. #8 Wisconsin, appr. 9:59 p.m., TBS

It’s March

It’s March.

A month synonymous with the stunning upsets, startling buzzer-beaters, and scintillating battles that make up the NCAA Tournament.

March was the goal for 351 teams when practice began in October, and games in November.  Just 68 accomplished their goal of making it here, while the dreams of the rest ended in agony and heartbreak.

For each it is the consummation of a season’s-long effort, whether they are here for the 57th time, like Kentucky, or the first, like Northern Kentucky.

For the fortunate field of 68 who accomplished their goal of being alive come March, their goal now shifts to still being alive come April, and becoming one of the four to earn a fateful trip to Phoenix.

The journey there will require skill, determination, and perseverance in each individual contest to achieve victory, as the number of those still alive quickly dwindles.

The goal for each contest is to survive and advance.  The goal for this thrilling three weeks is to be the only one still surviving and claim the crown of a championship.

It’s March.

It’s madness.

Fast Five: Double-Digit Seed Sleepers to Reach the Sweet 16

As the first round of the NCAA Tournament gets underway, everyone tries to pick the big upset or two, in an attempt to say “I called it!” if it actually happens.

But in this year’s bracket, there are multiple teams with double-digit seeds who have a realistic chance at winning not just one, but two games, and advancing to the Sweet 16.

These Cinderellas haven’t just been invited to The Big Dance; they may still be on the dance floor when the tournament enters its second weekend.

While I did not pick all of these teams in my bracket (in fact, I only picked one to advance to the Sweet 16), they are the teams that have the best opportunity to make a run through the first two rounds, based on both matchups and their own abilities.

 

Honorable Mention:  Marquette (19-12, #10 seed, East)

Marquette’s draw is tough, against South Carolina in the Palmetto State, then potentially against Duke, but consider this:  South Carolina has lost five of seven and hasn’t won a tournament game since 1973, while Golden Eagles coach Steve Wojciechowski was an assistant under Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, and teams led by Coach K proteges tend to play well against Duke.

5. Florida Gulf Coast (26-7, #14 seed, West)

I know they’re a 14-seed, but this wouldn’t be fun without one really low seed on the list.

In 2013, FGCU captured the nation’s hearts with an improbable run to the Sweet 16, upsetting 2-seed Georgetown and 7-seed San Diego State, advancing further than any 15-seed in tournament history.  Here’s the thing:  this team is actually better.

The 2013 Eagles actually didn’t win the Atlantic Sun regular season title, but won the league tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament.  This year, FGCU did win the regular season title with a 12-2 league record, and the team is 19-2 since Dec. 17, including seven straight wins.  The 2013 team, nicknamed “Dunk City,” had 148 dunks, but this year’s edition has 157, while this year’s team also has two more wins entering the tournament than the 2013 Eagles did.

They have their work cut out for them against Florida State, the 3-seed in the West Region, but while the Seminoles have had a great year with some really big wins, they also have been slightly inconsistent.  The ‘Noles are an impressive 7-3 against the Top 25, but have four losses against teams that missed the NCAA Tournament.  The game is in Orlando, so both teams will have a large fan turnout.

Looking ahead to a potential second round matchup, the Florida State-FGCU victor will face either 6-seed Maryland or 11-seed Xavier, and either will be beatable.  Maryland enters the tournament having lost four of their last six, while Xavier lost six straight from Feb. 11 to Mar. 1 after point guard Edmond Sumner was lost for the season with an injury.

4. Vermont (29-5, #13 seed, Midwest)

The hottest team no one is talking about entering the tournament is Vermont, who has the nation’s longest winning streak at 21 games.

The champions of the America East Conference, the Catamounts have not lost a game since Dec. 21, and three of their five losses on the season came to fellow tournament teams.

Purdue is the regular season champion of the Big Ten, although this has been a “down year” for the historically strong conference, and the Boilermakers were one-and-done in the Big Ten Tournament.  Purdue also has a knack for inability to finish games in the tournament; the last two years they have blown big leads late to lose in overtime in the first round.

For a team to stop Purdue (34th in nation with 80.1 PPG), they need a good defense, and Vermont has it (61.6 PPG allowed is 11th nationally).  One would imagine Vermont will have to overcome adversity to beat a team like Purdue, but that will be no problem for coach John Becker–before Vermont, he coached at Galludet, the nation’s leading university for the deaf.

5-seed Iowa State, the Big 12 Tournament champions, are a possible matchup for Vermont in the second round, although a potential defeat of the Cyclones by 12-seed Nevada is a trendy first round upset pick; such an upset would set up a second round matchup of two double-digit seeds should Vermont beat Purdue.

3. UNC Wilmington (29-5, #12 seed, East)

The regular season and tournament champions of the Colonial Athletic Association enter the NCAA Tournament having won 18 of their last 21.  Last year as a 13-seed, the Seahawks played 4-seed Duke close, losing 93-85 after leading at halftime, and this year they will play 5-seed Virginia in the first round.

When people think Virginia, they think defense, and rightfully so:  the Cavaliers allow a national-best 55.6 PPG.  However, the Seahawks have the offense to match, ranking 10th nationally at 85.2 PPG.  Devontae Cacok is shooting 79.9 percent from the field, a mark that is over five points better than the existing NCAA single-season record.

Virginia has, at least theoretically, underachieved in the last three tournaments as a 1- or 2-seed, and they have also lost their last three tournament games when they were a 5-seed or lower.  The Virginia-UNCW game will tip at 12:40 pm ET this afternoon, and early afternoon games have a knack for producing upsets.

The winner of Virginia-UNCW will face the winner of Florida-East Tennessee State in the second round.  While 4-seed Florida would be a tough matchup for the Seahawks (as they would be for anyone else in the field), it is within the realm of possibility that East Tennessee State could upset the Gators, as the Buccaneers are dangerous with four senior starters.  Either way, UNC Wilmington has the tools to potentially compete with either team and threaten to make the Sweet 16.

2. Middle Tennessee State (30-4, #12 seed, South)

Last year, Middle Tennessee State pulled off arguably the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history, shocking 2-seed Michigan State 90-81.  Even after three players from that team graduated, this year’s Blue Raiders are even better, winning the C-USA regular season title (last year’s team did not), then backing it up with the league tournament title.

The Blue Raiders have won 20 of their last 21, led by four seniors and three players averaging at least 14.5 PPG (JaCorey Williams, Giddy Potts, Reggie Upshaw).  The Blue Raiders rank 11th nationally in field goal percentage; their first round opponent of Minnesota ranks 213th.

Minnesota is 24-9, but has lost two of their last three, and a five-game losing streak in January is a dark spot on their resume.  The Golden Gophers are coached by Richard Pitino, the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino (the pair are becoming the first father-son duo to coach in the same NCAA Tournament, although they cannot meet until the Final Four).

Minnesota is over-seeded, at least in my opinion, while Middle Tennessee State is under-seeded; as a result, even though this is a 5-vs-12 game as seedings go, ESPN’s BPI gives Middle Tennessee State a 46 percent chance to win.  That’s the fourth highest percentage for any double-digit seed, and by far the highest for any team seeded 12 or worse.

As far as a potential second round matchup, the Minnesota-MTSU winner will face the winner of Butler and Winthrop.  Butler is a heavy favorite, and is responsible for two of Villanova’s three losses, but have shown they are beatable with a trio of “bad losses.”  Winthrop is a heavy underdog, but may have the best player on the floor on Thursday in Keon Johnson, a 5-foot-7 guard who scores 22.5 PPG.

1. Rhode Island (24-9, #11 seed, Midwest)

Rhode Island enters their first NCAA appearance in 18 years with wins in eight straight games and 12 of their last 14, having played their way onto the tournament bubble, then off of it by winning the Atlantic-10 Tournament (and automatic NCAA bid).  The Rams are looking to repeat the success of the last time they were an 11-seed:  in 1988, they went to the Sweet 16.

The Rams’ first round opponent is Creighton.  The Blue Jays started the season hot, but are just 8-7 since losing guard Maurice Watson Jr. for the year, with half of those wins coming against the bottom three teams in the Big East.

An intriguing individual matchup to watch is on the inside, between Creighton’s Justin Patton and Rhode Island’s Hassan Martin.  Patton has a decided height advantage (7-foot to 6-foot-7), but Martin plays bigger than his height and has led the A-10 in blocked shots four straight seasons.

Creighton is a 61 percent favorite in ESPN’s BPI, and just a 2-point betting favorite, despite the 6-vs-11 seeding of the matchup.

In the second round, the Rams could potentially meet Oregon or Iona.  Oregon is without post-man Chris Boucher, who blew his knee in the Pac-12 Tournament and dealt a big blow to Oregon’s chances at a deep run.  The Ducks won the first NCAA Tournament in 1939, but haven’t been back to the Final Four since.

14-seed Iona is capable of upsetting Oregon if leading scorer Jordan Washington (17.9 PPG) can stay on the floor; he averages just 21.7 minutes per game.  Whether Oregon or Iona wins, the potential second-round matchup would play to Rhode Island’s favor.

 

 

NCAA Tournament

East Region
#1 Villanova vs. #16 Mount St. Mary’s (Thursday, Buffalo)
#8 Wisconsin vs. #9 Virginia Tech (Thursday, Buffalo)
#4 Florida vs. #13 East Tennessee State (Thursday, Orlando)
#5 Virginia vs. #12 UNC Wilmington (Thursday, Orlando)
#3 Baylor vs. #14 New Mexico State (Friday, Tulsa)
#6 SMU vs. #11 USC (Friday, Tulsa)
#2 Duke vs. #15 Troy (Friday, Greenville)
#7 South Carolina vs. #10 Marquette (Friday, Greenville)

West Regional
#1 Gonzaga vs. #16 South Dakota State (Thursday, Salt Lake City)
#8 Northwestern vs. #9 Vanderbilt (Thursday, Salt Lake City)
#4 West Virginia vs. #13 Bucknell (Thursday, Buffalo)
#5 Notre Dame vs. #12 Princeton (Thursday, Buffalo)
#3 Florida State vs. #14 Florida Gulf Coast (Thursday, Orlando)
#6 Maryland vs. #11 Xavier (Thursday, Orlando)
#2 Arizona vs. #15 North Dakota (Thursday, Salt Lake City)
#7 Saint Mary’s vs. #10 VCU (Thursday, Salt Lake City)

Midwest Region
#1 Kansas vs. #16 UC Davis (Friday, Tulsa)
#8 Miami (Fla.) vs. #9 Michigan State (Friday, Tulsa)
#4 Purdue vs. #13 Vermont (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#5 Iowa State vs. #12 Nevada (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#3 Oregon vs. #14 Iona (Friday, Sacramento)
#6 Creighton vs. #11 Rhode Island (Friday, Sacremento)
#2 Louisville vs. #15 Jacksonville State (Friday, Indianapolis)
#7 Michigan vs. #10 Oklahoma State (Friday, Indianapolis)

South Region
#1 North Carolina vs. #16 Texas Southern (Friday, Greenville)
#8 Arkansas vs. #9 Seton Hall (Friday, Greenville)
#4 Butler vs. #13 Winthrop (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#5 Minnesota vs. #12 Middle Tennessee (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#3 UCLA vs. #14 Kent State (Friday, Sacremento)
#6 Cincinnati vs. #11 Kansas State (Friday, Sacremento)
#2 Kentucky vs. #15 Northern Kentucky (Friday, Indianapolis)
#7 Dayton vs. #10 Wichita State (Friday, Indianapolis)

 

Tournament Tweeting: Duke Wins Their 20th ACC Tournament Title

Duke used a clutch, efficient and balanced offensive attack to beat Notre Dame, 75-69, and win their first ACC Tournament since 2011 and their 20th in program history, extending a tournament record.

The Blue Devils shot a season-high 61 percent from the floor (31-51), including hot shooting performances from Jayson Tatum (7-11), Frank Jackson (4-6) and Amile Jefferson (7-8).  Defensively, Duke held Notre Dame to 40 percent (27-67), and 24 percent from three (6-25).

Tatum led Duke with 19 points and eight rebounds, with Luke Kennard adding 16 and Jefferson netting 14.  Grayson Allen scored 10 points with four assists.

Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson, who played much of the second half favoring an ankle injury, led all players with 29 points and nine rebounds.  V.J. Beachem scored 15 for the Irish and Matt Farrell scored 13 with seven assists.  But despite Colson’s MVP-caliber performance, Duke outscored Notre Dame 44-32 in the paint and blocked the Irish five times.

Duke dominated the opening half, leading as big as 31-22, although an 8-0 Notre Dame run in the final two minutes pulled the Irish within two before Allen beat the buzzer to give Duke a 38-34 halftime edge.

Notre Dame came out firing in the second half to take a 56-48 lead with 11:35 left.  Duke responded with a 10-1 run to take a 58-57 lead with 7:08 remaining, and after a back-and-forth stretch over the next few minutes, Colson tied the game at 65-65 on a three with 2:27 left.

Duke answered, taking the lead on a free throw by Tatum, adding to the lead on Tatum’s layup on the next possession, the stretching the lead to 71-67 with 0:48 left on a clutch three by Matt Jones, his only made shot of the game.  After a Beachem dunk got the Irish within two, a Tatum dunk made it 73-69, before single free throws by Tatum and Kennard put the game away.

The win for Duke avenged losses in the last two ACC Tournaments to Notre Dame, led by former Duke assistant Mike Brey.

Duke becomes the first team to win four games in four days to win the ACC Tournament, and is the first 5-seed to ever win the event.  Their 20th title is the second most in any conference tournament, behind only Kentucky (29 SEC titles).

The title is the 14th in the ACC Tournament for coach Mike Krzyzewski, passing Dean Smith for the most all-time in the same tournament in which he passed Smith for the most wins in ACC Tournament play; Krzyzewski is now a remarkable 61-22 in ACC Tournament play.  Legendary Duke broadcaster Bob Harris, who is in his 41st season and is retiring at season’s end, called his 17th ACC Tournament championship by the Blue Devils.

Duke (27-8) now awaits their NCAA Tournament fate as the ACC’s automatic qualifier, and some pundits suggest their ACC title may be enough to earn the Blue Devils a 1-seed, although a 2-seed is more likely.  The Blue Devils will almost certainly begin their tournament run in Greenville, S.C.  Notre Dame (25-9) is also a lock for an NCAA at-large berth, with the field and pairings set to be announced Sunday at 5:30 p.m.

 

 

Tweets from throughout the game:

 

 

All-Tournament Team

My Ballot:
MVP:  Notre Dame F Bonzie Colson
First Team:  Colson, Duke G Jayson Tatum, Duke G Luke Kennard, Notre Dame G Matt Ferrell, North Carolina F Isaiah Hicks
Second Team:  Duke G Grayson Allen, Notre Dame G Steve Vasturia, Virginia Tech C Zach LeDay, North Carolina F Kennedy Meeks, Clemson F Jaron Blossomgame

Media Selections:
MVP:  Duke G Luke Kennard
First Team:  Kennard, Duke G Jayson Tatum, Notre Dame F Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame G Matt Farrell, North Carolina F Isaiah Hicks
Second Team:  Duke G Grayson Allen, Duke G Frank Jackson, Duke F Amile Jefferson, Notre Dame G Steve Vasturia, Virginia Tech C Zach LeDay

 

 

Play of the Tournament

Greg McClinton, 80-foot buzzer-beater to end first half for Wake Forest, Second Round vs. Virginia Tech

 

 

For what it’s worth….
My ACC Tournament Record:  9-5

First Round
Record:  2-1
Second Round Record:  3-1
Quarterfinals Record:  3-1
Semifinals Record:  1-1
Championship Game: 0-1

 

2017 ACC Tournament

Championship Game
#5 Duke 75, #3 Notre Dame 69

Semifinals
#5 Duke 93, #1 North Carolina 83
#3 Notre Dame 77, #2 Notre Dame 73

Quarterfinals
#1 North Carolina 78, #9 Miami 53
#5 Duke 81, #4 Louisville 77
#2 Florida State 74, #7 Virginia Tech 68
#3 Notre Dame 71, #6 Virginia 58

Second Round
#9 Miami 62, #8 Syracuse 57
#5 Duke 79, #12 Clemson 72
#7 Virginia Tech 99, #10 Wake Forest 90
#6 Virginia 75, #14 Pittsburgh 63

First Round
#12 Clemson 75, #13 NC State 61

#10 Wake Forest 92, #15 Boston College 78
#14 Pittsburgh 61, #11 Georgia Tech 59

Tournament Tweeting: ACC Semifinals Recap and Championship Preview

Semifinals Recap

First, some general tweets about the tournament:

 

 

#5 Duke 93, #1 North Carolina 83

For 26 minutes, North Carolina looked invincible, leading Duke 61-48 with 13:53 to play.  But after Joel Berry II went to the bench with four fouls, Duke held a 45-22 advantage for the duration of the game, including a 15-2 run over the next 3:18, to come from behind and stun their rivals to advance to the ACC championship.

In the second half, Duke shot 59 percent (13-22), while North Carolina shot 29 percent (12-42).  For the game, Duke was 59 percent from three (10-17), including five triples from Grayson Allen, while North Carolina shot 23 percent (5-22).  Both teams shot well from the foul line, but Duke attempted 19 more free throws (Duke 33-37, North Carolina 14-18).

Duke’s Jayson Tatum led all scorers with 24 points and co-led the Blue Devils with seven rebounds.  Luke Kennard scored 20, including a 10-10 night at the free throw line, while Allen scored 18 with five assists and Frank Jackson scored 15.  Harry Giles was a force defensively, with seven rebounds, four blocks and one steal in 15 minutes.

North Carolina, who outscored Duke 50-26 in the paint and outrebounded the Blue Devils 43-32, was led by their big men inside.  Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks co-led the Tar Heels with 19 points each, and Meeks grabbed 12 rebounds.  In the backcourt, ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson (6-22 from the floor) scored 16, while Berry scored 10 and Theo Pinson dished out eight assists.

In possibly the most intense rivalry in college sports, the Blue Devils won their second game in three meetings this season, and won their sixth straight ACC Tournament meeting with the Tar Heels.

Duke (26-8) advances to Saturday’s final, where they will try to become the first team to win four games in four days to win the ACC Tournament, and the first 5-seed to ever win the ACC Tournament in its 64-year history.  North Carolina (27-7) will await their NCAA Tournament seeding, where there is a strong possibility the Tar Heels will be one of the four top seeds, and it is almost certain they will play their first two games in Greenville, S.C.

 

Tweets from throughout the game:

 

 

#3 Notre Dame 77, #2 Florida State 73

Notre Dame was efficient from three and took advantage of Florida State’s mistakes to defeat the Seminoles and advance to the final.  While the final margin was just four points, the Irish led comfortably from the late stages of the first half through the second half before withstanding a late Seminole surge.

The Irish made 13 threes, shooting 48 percent from distance (13-27), while holding the Seminoles to 33 percent from three (5-15), and none over the game’s first 26:36.  Notre Dame scored 21 points off 18 Florida State turnovers, while the Irish only committed nine.  Florida State held a 41-23 rebounding edge, with Jonathan Isaac tying a tournament high with 15.

Steve Vasturia and Bonzie Colson led the Irish with 18 points, and Matt Farrell scored 15 with six assists, while Matt Ryan scored 11 off the bench; both Farrell and Ryan hit three triples.

Notre Dame led 42-26 at halftime, and led by as many as 18 early in the second half, before an 11-3 run by Florida State made the game closer late, but Colson and Rex Pflueger put the game away at the free throw line.

Notre Dame (25-8) advances to the championship game against Duke, as the Irish try to win their second title in three years after never previously winning a conference tournament in school history.  Florida State (25-8) will await their NCAA Tournament matchup, and is likely to play their first two NCAA games in Orlando.

 

Tweets from throughout the game:

 

 

Championship Preview

 

#3 Notre Dame (25-8, 12-6) vs. #5 Duke (26-8, 11-7)
9:00 pm ET, ESPN/ACC Network
Stiles on Sports ACC Ranking:  Notre Dame- 6th, Duke- 5th
AP Poll:  Notre Dame- 22nd, Duke- 14th
Regular Season:  Jan. 30 in South Bend:  Duke 84, Notre Dame 74

 

For commentary throughout the ACC Tournament and most major sporting events, follow me on Twitter:  @cstiles24

 

For what it’s worth….
My ACC Tournament Record:  9-4

First Round
Record:  2-1
Second Round Record:  3-1
Quarterfinals Record:  3-1
Semifinals Record:  1-1