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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.

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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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Kentucky routs Arkansas for SEC tourney title

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — No. 1-ranked Kentucky will take a perfect 34-0 record into the NCAA Tournament this week after thrashing Arkansas 78-63 in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game Sunday at Bridgestone Arena.

The conference tournament title is the 28th for Kentucky, meaning the Wildcats have won more than half of the 55 tournaments.

“This team has a lot of dog in it,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Good, hard fought game. Arkansas is a ranked team, but we kind of did our thing.”

Junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who was named tournament MVP, paced Kentucky with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. It was his first double-double since the Columbia game on Dec. 10.

Cauley-Stein was joined on the all-tournament team by twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison of Kentucky, Michael Qualls of Arkansas and K.T. Harrell of Auburn.

Andrew Harrison, a sophomore guard, scored 15 points. Twin brother Aaron Harrison had 11 points and six assists. Freshman guard Tyler Ulis added eight points and six assists.

Guard Michael Qualls topped No. 21 Arkansas (26-8) with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Forward Bobby Portis had 13 points.

“Our guys came out and scratched and clawed,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “But at the end, I thought their depth and size were hard to overcome. If a team is going to beat them, you’ve got to make shots as well as match their energy.”

The finals pitted the top two seeds in Kentucky and Arkansas, but the Wildcats wasted little time proving that winning the regular season by five games was no fluke. Kentucky roared out to an 8-0 lead within the first two minutes, forcing Anderson to call an early timeout. Point guard Andrew Harrison scored six of the eight on a pair of 3-pointers.

“If the other team is angry, mad, hateful, jealous, the physiology of that is real close to fear,” Calipari said. “When a team comes in that way, if you can just play and that thing turns into fear, you separate yourself. Joy, the love of playing, always beats angry, mean, hateful, jealous.”

Arkansas managed to score five unanswered points after the break and eventually tied the game at 10-10 on a 3-pointer by Portis. The SEC player of the year had missed 16 of his previous 17 shots in the tournament before the basket.

The game was tied 19-19 with 10:18 to play in the first half when Kentucky caught fire, scoring 16 points in 5:05 for a 35-23 lead. Aaron Harrison scored six points during the 16-4 run on a pair of 3-pointers. He also assisted on two dunks by Cauley-Stein and a basket in the paint by sophomore center Dakari Johnson. Freshman center Karl-Anthony Towns accounted for the remaining four points.

All six Kentucky field goals during the run were accompanied by an assist, including three by Aaron Harrison. At the time, Kentucky was shooting 59 percent (13 of 22), including 5 of 6 on three-pointers.

Kentucky went on to expand the lead to 16 points by halftime, 41-25, meaning the Wildcats outscored Arkansas 22-6 over the final 10:18 of the first half.

Cauley-Stein led the way in the first half with eight points and eight rebounds. Aaron Harrison added eight points and six assists. Andrew Harrison scored six points.

Kentucky shots 51.9 percent in the first half, and 12 of the 14 baskets came via assists. The Wildcats were 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.

Arkansas, which never led, shot just 29 percent in the first half. Portis topped the Razorbacks with seven points. Arkansas had just two assists and five turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

In the second half, Arkansas managed to trim Kentucky’s lead from 16 to nine at 48-39 at the 11:55 mark. During that time, Towns picked up his fourth personal foul with 14:07 to play.

“We cut it to nine points in the second half, but we couldn’t get over the hump,” Anderson said.

From that point forward the two teams battled mostly to a draw before Kentucky pulled away late in the half.

Kentucky pushed the lead back 18 points at 6:10 thanks to an 11-2 run.

Kentucky’s largest lead of the game was 21 points, which came with 2:41 to play.

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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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