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NCAA Midwest: Can undefeated Kentucky be stopped?

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MIDWEST REGION

TOP SEEDS: 1) Kentucky, 2) Kansas, 3) Notre Dame, 4) Maryland

How the Midwest is won: The one certainty on Selection Sunday was Kentucky being tabbed the tournament’s overall top seed.

That never was in jeopardy, like most of the Wildcats’ games this season.

Kentucky capped its captivating campaign by romping through the SEC tournament en route to a 34-0 overall record, becoming just the fourth team to enter the Division I men’s tournament undefeated since Indiana’s run to perfection in 1975-76. The last three, Indiana State (1979), UNLV (1991) and Wichita State (2014).

Those Hoosiers won it all. Can Kentucky?

More than a couple teams could stand in their way.

Second-seeded Kansas, ACC tournament champion and No. 3 seed Notre Dame and fourth-seeded Maryland are obviously the top threats to topple Kentucky.

The Fighting Irish have perhaps the most confidence of anybody, though, having knocked off Duke and North Carolina on consecutive days to claim the ACC tourney title.

Upset Watch: Bobby Hurley hasn’t been to the Big Dance in more than two decades, but he knows what it takes to win when he is there.

Hurley, named the tournament’s MVP in 1992 when he helped Duke win the national title, is heading back as coach of Buffalo after winning 23 games and the MAC tournament title. It’s Buffalo’s first-ever berth in the NCAA tournament, where the 12th-seeded Bulls will try and shock No. 5 West Virginia.

Twelve seeds are 8-4 against No. 5s the past three years.

The 11th-seeded Texas Longhorns were in the perilous position of missing the tournament altogether after compiling a 20-13 record and finishing sixth in the Big 12, but snuck in thanks to playing the 16th toughest schedule in the country. They could get past No. 6 Butler with a strong showing from point guard Isaiah Taylor, who averaged 13 points and 4.6 assists per game.

Get to Know: Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein averaged only 9.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, but the 7-foot junior affected more than his fair share of games with his defensive prowess.

That’s hardly the only Wildcat to watch.

Kentucky guards Aaron Harrison and Devin Booker led the team in scoring at 11.3 and 10.7 points per game, respectively, while forward Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 9.8 points and 6.8 rebounds, teaming with Cauley-Stein to form not only one of the greatest hyphenated tandems in recent memory, but one of the most feared low-post duos in the country.

Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant averaged 16.8 points and 6.6 assists per game, but saved his best for last. Grant scored 24 points and had 10 assists against North Carolina, igniting a 26-3 second-half surge that led the Fighting Irish to the ACC tournament title.

One to see: If seventh-seeded Wichita State can get past Indiana, an intriguing matchup against Kansas looms. Despite an early exit from the MVC tournament, the Shockers boast a core of players who nearly finished off an undefeated season last year. Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton return to the tournament one season after watching their title hopes end in the third round in a gut-wrenching loss to Kentucky.

Luck of the Irish: Notre Dame put together one of the program’s best seasons, finishing with the most regular-season wins (26) in school history. The encore was even better, knocking off both Duke and North Carolina in consecutive days to claim the ACC tourney title. The Fighting Irish have won eight of their last nine games, thanks to sharpshooting from beyond the arc — ranking 18th in the country in 3-point percentage (39.2) — and have perhaps the best shot at beating top-seeded Kentucky.

Numbers, Inc.:

1 — Kansas’ strength of schedule

2 — Coaches Butler has had this season after Brandon Miller took a leave of absence and never returned

78.8 — Notre Dame’s points per game, the most of any team in the region

11 — National titles won by the region’s top two seeds, Kentucky and Kansas

8 — Championships won by Kentucky

6 — Games Kentucky needs to win it all

38 — Years since a team finished a perfect season with a national title

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

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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NCAA News Wire

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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NCAA News Wire

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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