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Arizona easy choice as Pac-12 basketball favorite

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Picking the preseason No. 1 in Pac-12 basketball is easy.

Predicting which teams come next is mostly a roll of the dice.

Arizona was the runaway winner of the media poll at Pac-12 Media Day in San Francisco on Thursday, picking up 31 of the 32 first-place votes. The other first-place nod went to UCLA, prompting Pac-12 Networks analyst Kevin O’Neill to quip on air that the voter “was drunk that day.”

Utah edged Colorado for second place in the balloting. UCLA was fourth, followed by Stanford and Washington.

Arizona is loaded.

The Wildcats return senior point guard T.J. McConnell, junior shooting guard Gabe York, junior center Kaleb Tarczewski, junior forward Brandon Ashley and sophomore wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Add in five eligible newcomers, notably freshman wing Stanley Johnson — arguably the best player to come out of famed Southern California powerhouse Mater Dei — and coach Sean Miller’s primary concern appears to be keeping everybody happy in what he says will be a balanced approach.

“We’re at that point now where, as we start to define roles, it’s important that guys stay within the framework of that role, embrace it and do the very best they can,” Miller said.

Arizona, which reached the NCAA Tournament West regional final last season, is No. 2 in the national preseason coaches poll and is No. 1 in multiple publications, including the Sporting News. No other Pac-12 team will start the season in the coaches’ Top 25.

Arizona State coach Herb Sendek called Arizona the “clear-cut” leader but noted the competitive depth in the league. Last season, one game separated third place from ninth place.

“As for the rest of the league, you could probably put everybody in a hat, shake it up, and have just as good a chance at predicting the order of finish as we are able to do sitting here today,” Sendek said.

“We all know at the end not only will the league standings be close … but beyond that, the games are going to come down to the final possession. So how anybody short of Nostradamus could sit here today and predict like there really is a difference between ninth and 10th or eighth and ninth just is unreasonable.”

Utah appears poised for a breakthrough after finishing 9-9 in the league a season ago. The Utes return every key player, including senior guard Delon Wright, arguably the best player in the Pac-12. He averaged 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting 56.1 percent from the field in his first season out of junior college.

“He’s a classic definition of a stat-sheet stuffer,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak.

“People talked about needing to be stronger. He’s gotten stronger and put on weight. Shooting ability, I have no question in my mind that he’s going to be consistent from the perimeter. Finally, the most important thing is his ability to now be a leader.”

Colorado returns everybody of importance, minus departed point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who missed the last half of last season anyway because of a knee injury. The Buffs will be led by senior guard Askia Booker, junior forward Xavier Johnson and junior forward Josh Scott. Coach Tad Boyle added freshman guard Dominique Collier, who turned down offers from Arizona and Kansas.

“What I love about our team is we have good versatility,” Boyle said. “We have a lot of guys that can guard a lot of positions, play multiple positions. We have good basketball players that have good basketball instincts.”

UCLA lost NBA first-rounders Zach LaVine, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson from a team that went 28-9 and reached the Sweet 16 in Steve Alford’s first season as the Bruins coach. He’ll turn to son Bryce, a sophomore point guard, to emerge from his role as a valuable reserve.

“Bryce has the ability to lead; he has the ability to make people around him better,” Alford said. “He understands ball control, understands what we want to do offensively and defensively. I think he’s a guy that the team will look to for leadership, and that’s going to be a key for us.”

UCLA and everybody else will be trying to prevent Arizona from winning back-to-back regular-season titles while boosting the Pac-12’s mediocre reputation. Cal, Oregon, Arizona State, USC, Washington

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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NCAA News Wire

Wisconsin earns top seed after conference tournament win

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CHICAGO — The Wisconsin Badgers earned a historic NCAA top seed Sunday, but their approach going forward will be strictly business as usual.

Wisconsin (31-3) beat Michigan State 80-69 in overtime in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament title game to complete a championship sweep and were rewarded with the first No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in program history.

“I’m sure it will sink in,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “What we need right now is to get these guys back (home). We have class tomorrow, some of these guys have tests, they’ve got midterms this week. So it will be business as usual for our student-athletes.”

But players like forward Frank Kaminsky, the Big Ten tournament most outstanding player, are pretty pumped up.

“It’s awesome,” Kaminsky said. “First No. 1 seed in program history. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself, but we have a lot of goals and aspirations in the NCAA Tournament. So we’re going to prepare for our first game and be ready we tip the ball up.”

No. 6 ranked Wisconsin, the league’s regular-season champion, claimed the Big Ten’s automatic NCAA berth with the overtime win at the United Center and meets No. 16 Coastal Carolina (24-9) in Friday’s West Region opener in Omaha, Neb.

The overtime outcome was the first in Big Ten tournament history.

Michigan State (23-11) is also tourney bound with a No. 7 seed in the East Region. The Spartans will face Georgia, which is the 10th seed, on Friday in Charlotte, N.C.

Ryan was initially at a loss for words after the Badgers’ dramatic come-from-behind win.

“I’m speechless and that’s hard to do,” he said. “It was the fight in this group, and to do what they did when it seemed like Michigan State couldn’t do anything wrong. I just hope we have something left in us come NCAA Tournament time.”

The Badgers rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit and back into contention late in the game. They then scored 11 unanswered points in overtime behind seven points form forward Nigel Hayes.

Hayes closed with a game-high 25 points and was 12-for-12 from the free throw line. Kaminsky had 19, guard Bronson Koenig finished with 18 while reserve forward Duje Dukan added 11.

Michigan State, making its third title game appearance in four years, was led by forward Branden Dawson and guard Denzel Valentine with 16 apiece while reserve guard Bryn Forbes had 10.

“I thought we played one of the greatest games we’ve ever played for 32, 32 and one-half minutes or 35, 36 minutes,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “And then we made a couple of mistakes and they made a couple of great shots and that’s the way the game goes.”

Wisconsin trailed 57-46 in the second half when Koenig launched a comeback with a 3-pointer and added another with 4:19 left to give the Badgers a temporary 60-59 lead.

“We were down eleven and they thought they had it in the bag,” Koenig said. “But I kept reminding my teammates that we were never going to give up.”

Guard Lourawls Nairn’s 3-pointer then put Michigan State up 62-60 as the teams exchanged leads three times and tied four times. The last in regulation came on Koenig’s two free throws for a 69-69 deadlock.

A potential game-winning shot by Dawson rolled in and out as regulation time expired.

In the first half, Michigan State outscored Wisconsin 10-5 in the final 3:25 for a 32-31 halftime lead after a half that saw with seven lead changes and five ties. The Spartans opened a 32-28 lead after a turnover by Koenig and a rebound put back by forward Marvin Clark with 25 seconds showing. But Wisconsin narrowed the deficit to 32-31 as Kaminsky hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.

It was the Badger’s fifth successful shot from beyond the arc in the half. Wisconsin ended 13-of-26 (50 percent) on 3-point shooting for the game.

NOTES: Sunday’s game was tied 13 times and had 14 lead changes. … The Badgers claimed a 68-61 win in March in the long regular season meeting behind F Frank Kaminsky’s season-high 31 points. … The Badgers’ two previous Big Ten tournament titles came in wins over Illinois in 2004 and 2008. … Wisconsin’s 31 wins match an all-time

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SMU outmuscles Connecticut to take AAC title

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HARTFORD, Conn. — After a crushing omission from the NCAA Tournament last season, the 20th-ranked Southern Methodist Mustangs didn’t have any worries during this year’s Selection Show. They are dancing for the first time since 1993.

SMU’s deep and talented frontcourt frustrated the Connecticut Huskies on both ends of the floor, paving the way for the team’s first conference title in 27 years with a 62-54 win in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Sunday.

SMU earned a No. 6 seed and will face No. 11 UCLA in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Charlotte, N.C.

“This is big for all of us,” said senior guard Ryan Manuel, “not just the seniors but it’s as big for SMU as a school, as a basketball program. When coach (Larry) Brown got here, he wanted us to put it back on the map, and I think we made great strides in that.”

UConn (20-14), the defending national champion, came into the AAC tournament needing four wins in four days just to return to the NCAA Tournament. After falling just short of their goal, the Huskies are headed to the National Invitation Tournament.

“It’s postseason play,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “If it’s NIT or NCAA, they’re going to learn from it and they’re going to come back better from it. I’m still coaching them the way I coach them, they’re still going to play the way they’re going to play.”

SMU (27-6) was expected to receive an at-large bid if it lost Sunday, but the victory guaranteed it a spot in the NCAA Tournament field after being one of the final teams left out last season.

“Last year at this time was about as disappointing as it could get,” Brown said. “Fortunately we’ve got another opportunity, and didn’t have to get anybody to decide whether we’re worthy or not.”

As it had all weekend long, it was SMU’s frontcourt that anchored the win.

The conference’s Sixth Man of the Year, Markus Kennedy, capped off a strong weekend by leading his team with 14 points, one of four Mustangs players in double figures. He earned the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player for his efforts. The 6-foot-10 junior and his fellow forwards helped SMU to a 43-30 advantage on the glass, with sophomore Sterling Brown pulling in 12 rebounds to lead the team.

Sophomore guard Rodney Purvis had 29 points and was the only UConn player in double figures in scoring.

“I was trying to be aggressive and take what the defense gave me,” he said.

For a while, it appeared this game would not be close. The SMU zone defense that Connecticut had carved up for 81 points just two weeks prior locked things down this time around, and the Mustangs took a 33-19 advantage into halftime by holding UConn to 5-of-24 shooting (20.8 percent) from the floor over the opening 20 minutes.

The Huskies, who made more than 53 percent from the floor and knocked down nine 3-pointers in that win, were just 2 of 13 from beyond the arc in that first half.

Usual leading scorer Ryan Boatright would manage just seven points on 1-of-12 shooting for the game.

“I’m just disappointed in my play,” he said. “I missed a lot of shots that should be easy knock-down shots for me. I didn’t show up and be the player I know I can be, I can be better than that. But my teammates fought, they played a tremendous game.”

UConn made it a game in the second half by doing similar things on the defensive end, thanks in large part to the presence of sophomore Amida Brimah. The 7-foot center, limited to just four first-half minutes because of foul trouble, played the entire second half, blocking seven shots during that time and altering numerous others.

The Huskies were able to get within five points with just over three minutes to play, but the Mustangs would hold on.

“He’s a shot blocker, so it made it a little difficult,” Manuel said about the difference Brimah made in the second half. “UConn, they have a tradition of coming back, and we knew they weren’t going to go down with a fight, so for us to stand there as a team and get the

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Alabama fires head coach Grant

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Alabama fired head basketball coach Anthony Grant on Sunday after six seasons.

The Crimson Tide struggled over the final two months of the season, finishing 18-14 and tied for eighth in the Southeastern Conference.

Grant, 48, won at least 20 games three times and made an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012. His Alabama teams went 117-85, including two NIT appearances (2011 and 2013). He came to Alabama from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he went 76-25 and made two NCAA Tournament appearances.

“This has been a very difficult decision, as I have the highest respect for Anthony as a coach, as a molder of young men, and as a person,” Alabama athletic director Bill Battle said in a statement. “Anthony is a man of impeccable character who has been an excellent representative of our program. He has made tremendous contributions to our program and we always will be grateful for his efforts. Anthony, his wife Chris, and their children have been tremendous assets to our University and our community.

“In this business we are ultimately judged by wins and losses on the court and, for a variety of reasons, we haven’t made satisfactory progress in that area.”

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