A strange season of college basketball reached the height of weirdness Thursday night in Tucson, Ariz.
Arizona coach Sean Miller entered the area around the court to a standing ovation, just hours after emphatically denying an ESPN report that he had discussed a $100,000 payment with a key figure in the FBI college basketball investigation to secure the services of star freshman Deandre Ayton.
In addition, the Wildcats welcomed back to the lineup junior guard Allonzo Trier, who had missed the previous two games after a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug but was cleared by the NCAA on appeal. Trier went on to score 18 points in Arizona’s 75-67 win over Stanford.
Oh yes, Ayton played, too, contributing 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Earlier Thursday, Miller denied ever speaking with Christian Dawkins, a runner for former NBA agent Andy Miller, about providing money for Ayton to attend Arizona.
“I cannot remain silent on media reports that have impugned the reputation of me, the university, and sullied the name of a tremendous young man” in Ayton, he said. “Any reporting to the contrary is inaccurate, false and defamatory.”
Miller missed last Saturday’s game after the ESPN report came out Feb. 23 and also did not attend three days of practice, leading to reports he might be fired. But he coached Thursday night after receiving statements of support from university president Robert Robbins and the Arizona board of regents.
Miller called the standing ovation “very, very emotional” and “something I’ll never, ever forget.” He said his focus will now turn to his team. How focused he will be with reports swirling about him and Ayton’s recruitment remains to be seen.
Pondering the bubble
With nine days remaining before Selection Sunday, most teams on the NCAA bubble have one final weekend to make an impression before heading into their conference tournaments.
Checking with the bracketologists, both ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBSSports’ Jerry Palm have three common teams on their “last four in” lists: Louisville, Texas and Providence. The Cardinals were 0.9 seconds away from a signature win over No. 1 Virginia on Thursday night but lost on a buzzer beater and must bounce back at North Carolina State.
The Longhorns will get West Virginia at home Saturday, and a win there would impress. The Friars will host St. John’s.
Other games with major tournament implications are Clemson at Syracuse, UCLA at Southern California and Oregon at Washington. Marquette also can help itself out at home against Creighton.
And let’s not forget about Oklahoma, which has dropped seven of its last eight going into Friday night’s game at home against Iowa State. A tenuous hold on an NCAA bid might get shaky should the Sooners lose to the Cyclones, who trail every other team in the Big 12 by at least two games.
Recalling his mentor
If his Loyola Chicago Ramblers can make it successfully through this weekend’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament and earn their first NCAA berth since 1985, coach Porter Moser will look at the contacts on his cell phone and tap the entry for Rick Majerus.
He won’t hook up. Majerus died of heart failure in December 2012. But that’s how much of an impact he made on Moser, who was on his staff at St. Louis before moving on to Loyola.
“I know the number’s disconnected, but it’s symbolic,” Moser told the Chicago Tribune’s Shannon Ryan, our former Inquirer colleague.
Moser, who called Majerus “the genius,” said of his former boss, “It’s hard to quantify all the things I got from him. I made the most of four years with him as a friends and a coach.”
The Ramblers improved to 26-5 on the season following their MVC quarterfinal win Friday over Northern iowa.
Officials of the Big East and the Atlantic Ten will have a lot to do once Saturday’s action is over, where tiebreakers will have to be implemented to decide the pairings for next week’s conference tournaments.
The Big East has Creighton, Seton Hall, Butler, Providence and Marquette fighting for seeds three through seven, and No. 7 will have to play a game opening night on Wednesday. Based on the results, Seton Hall could drop from a tie for fourth to seventh.
A three-way tie exists in the A-10 for fourth place and the final double-bye in the tournament. St. Joseph’s is part of that 9-8 deadlock but the Hawks must defeat La Salle and hope that St. Louis and George Mason lose their games. Five teams could finish tied for fourth at 9-9 and the Hawks would not gain a No. 4 seed in that scenario.
Expatriates of the week
It was a quite a week for Philadelphia players knocking down buzzer-beating shots. Miami senior guard Ja’Quan Newton (Neumann-Goretti) took two steps over halfcourt Tuesday and fired in a three-pointer – only his fifth of the season – that gave the Hurricanes a 91-88 road win over North Carolina. Redshirt freshman guard De’Andre Hunter (Friends’ Central) of Virginia banked home a 28-footer Thursday to beat the horn and give the Cavaliers a 67-66 victory at Louisville. “My first game-winner ever, it’s crazy,” Hunter said.
Games of the week
Clemson at Syracuse, Saturday at 2 p.m., ACC Network: The Orange have lost three straight, but it was their latest defeat – 85-70 at Boston College – that finds their NCAA hopes on life support. The Tigers still have a shot at grabbing a share of second place in the ACC.
South Carolina at Auburn, Saturday at 3:30 p.m., SEC Network: The Tigers looked to have the No. 1 seed in the SEC tournament all but locked up but back-to-back road losses have them needing a win against the Gamecocks, who defeated them two weeks ago, to gain it.
North Carolina at Duke, Saturday at 8:15 p.m., ESPN: The Blue Devils not only would like to avenge an earlier loss to their Tobacco Road rivals but also would love to be put on a waiting list of sorts for a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed if one of the current ones should falter.
UCLA at Southern California, Saturday at 10:15 p.m., ESPN: The 250th all-time meeting between the intra-city rivals is one of the most important of recent years as each team tries to find a more secure spot on the NCAA tournament bubble heading into the Pac-12 tournament.
Cincinnati at Wichita State, Sunday at noon, CBS3: The Shockers broke Cincinnati’s 39-game home court win streak two weeks ago, and another win makes them AAC co-champions with a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. A Bearcats’ victory gives them the league title outright.
Player to watch
Joel Berry II, North Carolina, G, 6-0, 195, Sr., Apopka, Fla.
Berry, the most outstanding player of last year’s Final Four for the national champion Tar Heels, leads the team in scoring (18.2 points per game) and in three-point baskets (79). He matched a career-high with 31 points in Wednesday’s loss to Miami and now stands 16th on the program’s all-time list with 1,723 points, having passed players like Wayne Ellington and Billy Cunningham in the Miami game. Berry also is shooting a team-best 87.6 percent from the free-throw line.