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    W.N.B.A. Draft: Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard Goes No. 1 to Dream

    Howard, a senior guard, was the top pick after Atlanta made a deal with the Washington Mystics to move up in the draft.The Atlanta Dream, looking for a versatile player to help rebuild their roster, selected guard Rhyne Howard from the University of Kentucky as the No. 1 pick in the W.N.B.A. draft on Monday at Spring Studios in New York.Ahead of the draft, Dream General Manager Dan Padover said the team was looking for a player who brought “fresh energy and sparks something underneath our franchise.”The Indiana Fever selected NaLyssa Smith, a senior forward from Baylor University, with the No. 2 overall pick. At No. 3, the Washington Mystics chose Shakira Austin, a center from the University of Mississippi.Howard said she planned to bring to the Dream the same “competitive spirit” she had with Kentucky, where she made sure to stay “calm, cool and collected.”“I think that’s what really helped me to become successful, and I just really want to have an impact on the team,” Howard said, adding that she will “continue to make everyone better” in Atlanta.There is very little Howard can’t do. She is in the top 10 of almost every statistical category at Kentucky, and has scored the second-most points in program history for women and men. Last month, Howard led Kentucky to its first Southeastern Conference tournament title since 1982 when the team handed South Carolina, the 2022 national champion, its second and final loss of the season. Howard, who is from Chattanooga, Tenn., finished her senior year at Kentucky averaging 20.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.Kentucky, a No. 6 seed in this year’s N.C.A.A. Division I women’s basketball tournament, lost to No. 11 Princeton in the round of 64. But Howard’s career at Kentucky has helped draw attention to the women’s basketball program at a university best known for its powerhouse men’s team.“I’m very versatile, so whatever position I’m playing, I like to match for those positions,” Howard said.The Washington Mystics, who traded the No. 1 pick to the Atlanta Dream, used the third overall pick to select Shakira Austin, a center from the University of Mississippi.Adam Hunger/Associated PressTo be able to select her, the Dream shook up the draft last week by acquiring the No. 1 pick in a trade with the Washington Mystics. In return, the Mystics received the Dream’s No. 3 and No. 14 overall picks. The Mystics also have the right to swap first-round picks in the 2023 draft, which is expected to draw deep talent from around the country.Atlanta finished last season 8-24, the second-worst record in the W.N.B.A., and has missed the playoffs for the past three seasons. Adding Howard to the Dream’s roster immediately bolsters their perimeter game, which should help after the team traded guard Chennedy Carter to the Los Angeles Sparks in the off-season.“Some drafts are top-heavy; some are deep,” Padover said. “This one is probably the most deep more than anything.” He added that this year’s draft offered the best talent since 2018 or 2019.The Liberty selected Nyara Sabally, a 6-foot-5 forward from University of Oregon, at No. 5 overall. Sabally, who is from Berlin, scored a career high 31 points in Oregon’s final game of the season, a first-round loss in the N.C.A.A. tournament. She averaged 15.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in the 2021-22 season.“It’s amazing to be drafted by New York. It’s very surreal,” said Sabally, who joins the league two years after Dallas drafted her sister and college teammate, Satou. “I love that women’s basketball is growing and people recognize it, especially in such a big city like New York. I’m just happy that I get to play on a team like that.”Nyara Sabally, a 6-foot-5 forward from the University of Oregon, was the first pick for the Liberty, at No. 5 overall.Adam Hunger/Associated PressNyara Sabally averaged 15.4 points per game for Oregon during the 2021-22 season.Wade Payne/Associated PressThis year, 108 college players renounced their remaining N.C.A.A. eligibility to be considered for the draft, more than double than in 2021. International players and those who are no longer eligible to play in the N.C.A.A. will also be considered. But the chances of getting a spot on a roster are slim: There are 36 draft slots for the W.N.B.A.’s 12 teams, which have just 12 roster spots each. With only 144 roster spots in all, many players and fans are calling for bigger rosters and more teams, wishes the W.N.B.A. has resisted.One reason for the increase in college-eligible draft prospects may be the pandemic. College athletes are normally eligible to play four seasons over the course of five years. After the pandemic disrupted schedules, the N.C.A.A. added a special bonus year of eligibility for any athlete who lost playing time during the 2019-20 season.Should they not make it to the W.N.B.A. this year and still have a season of eligibility, athletes can return to their college (assuming there is still a place for them on the roster).Julie Roe Lach, the commissioner of the Horizon League, said this year’s draft class mimics the parity seen in the 2022 N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament, which saw six double-digit-seeded teams make it to the round of 16. None of the three top draft picks advanced beyond the round of 16.“You’ve got some of the names you would expect to see, but we’re seeing more schools with players that look like strong draft prospects,” she said. “That speaks to the increase of talent we’re seeing across the country of these great women basketball players.”Kierstan Bell, a guard from Florida Gulf Coast University, was drafted No. 11 overall by the Las Vegas Aces.Adam Hunger/Associated PressW.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert opened the draft by acknowledging Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who has been held in Russia since mid-February on drug charges that could carry a sentence of up to 10 years if she is convicted. “Getting her home is a top priority,” Engelbert said.This was the first in-person draft since 2019, and players and guests did not hold back from celebrating. Colorful pantsuits, rhinestone jackets and plenty of high heels and sneakers alike filled the TriBeCa event space. The Hall of Famers Dawn Staley, the South Carolina head coach, and Lisa Leslie posed with draft prospects before the ESPN coverage began. Oregon’s Sedona Prince lived up to her TikTok fame and was capturing scenes throughout the night.The draft capped a weekend of W.N.B.A. events across New York City, including shoot-arounds at neighborhood playgrounds and a visit to one of the city’s top sneaker shops. As the W.N.B.A. tries to increase its visibility, the league got the strongest New York City boost of all: The Empire State Building lit up Monday night in orange, the signature color of the W.N.B.A.The 2022 season starts May 6 with eight teams in action, including the reigning champion Chicago Sky. More

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    Are Super Seniors the Secret to N.C.A.A. Tournament Success?

    A number of the most successful teams in the 2022 tournaments feature athletes who are older than their N.B.A. counterparts.If this year’s N.C.A.A. basketball tournaments look a little bigger — a little older — your eyes are not deceiving you.Call it a silver lining of the pandemic.Before the pandemic intervened, college students had five years to complete four seasons of play. For various reasons — among them injuries, one-time transfers or competition waivers — athletes were always able to find ways to extend their eligibility. But after the pandemic eliminated many conference tournaments and the entire 2020 national tournament, the N.C.A.A. added a special bonus year: Any athlete who lost playing time during the 2019-20 season could extend their college career by a full season.Now, every team heading into the Final Four this weekend, both in the men’s and women’s tournaments, will include players who have taken advantage of this option.The additional season was meant to even the playing field, but some rosters are more stacked with super seniors and graduate students than others, and the trickle-down effect may linger for years.“I don’t think there’s any question that any of us in college athletics would see the benefits of a more experienced squad,” said Tom Burnett, the commissioner of the Southland Conference and the chairman of the Division I men’s basketball selection committee.A handful of athletes this year are older than their N.B.A. counterparts. Just look at Kansas. Last Friday against Providence, Mitch Lightfoot, 24, a veteran bench player and sixth-year student, had four blocks, and Remy Martin, a 23-year-old Arizona State transfer, came off the bench to lead the Jayhawks in scoring with 23 points. Both wouldn’t have returned to college if not for the pandemic, Coach Bill Self said last weekend, adding, “I actually think Mitch is the best he’s been.”Jalen Coleman-Lands, a super senior guard for Kansas, is 25. So is Devin Booker, who is in his seventh season with the Phoenix Suns.And there are more seasons remaining. “If you look at just our starters, those starters have eligibility left,” Self said. “Even though we’re an old team, they technically could all come back next year.”Self noted that Providence also had a handful players who were playing past the standard eligibility period.“If they didn’t have those four cats, they would look a lot different,” Self said. “If we didn’t have Remy, we’d look a lot different. If Villanova didn’t have Gillespie, they’d look a lot different.”Villanova guard Collin Gillespie averages 15.6 points per game. He won the Big East Conference Player of the Year Award for a second consecutive season.Scott Wachter/USA Today Sports, via ReutersCollin Gillespie, a 22-year-old guard, is the youngest of the three Villanova graduate students playing this weekend.But, parity concerns aside, Self said the bonus year had contributed to the “great quality of ball this year.”That was the case in the Horizon League, where Macee Williams, 23, a super senior center for Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, won her third straight league Player of the Year Award in the 2020-21 season. She chose to come back for the 2021-22 season — her fifth year — and once again won the award.“That’s an example of how our women’s basketball programs really capitalized on that opportunity,” said Julie Roe Lach, the commissioner of the Horizon League.I.U.P.U.I., a No. 13 seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament, lost by only 6 points in the first round to No. 4 Oklahoma.Depending on who you ask, the additional year of eligibility can be viewed as a glass half-full, half-empty issue. It allows college athletes to reclaim their lost year of play, and a bigger, older team can mean an extra layer of cohesiveness.“Once athletes are upperclassmen, there’s a certain maturity that comes with leading the team and handling the pressure once you are in those end-of-season moments,” Roe Lach said, adding that “younger students and their teammates can benefit from their senior leadership.”But some officials are worried about the long-term effect padded rosters will have on recruiting. If athletes choose to use their extra year of eligibility, that could limit spots for fresh faces.“A lot of us are asking that question: Are the opportunities still there for high school student-athletes?” Burnett said.Macee Williams, right, returned to I.U.P.U.I. for a fifth season and won her fourth Horizon League Player of the Year Award.Mitch Alcala/Associated PressThat’s exactly what worries Adam Berkowitz, the associate executive director of New Heights Youth, a sports-based youth development nonprofit in New York. The additional season of eligibility added to an already complex system in light of the N.C.A.A.’s 2021 decision to eliminate the rule that had required athletes to sit out a season upon transferring, which had the effect of “doubling and tripling” the number of players in the transfer pool, Berkowitz said.Both those factors have created a “changed landscape” when it comes to college recruiting, he added, resulting in an all-out “scramble.”“Last year was the most difficult year I’ve ever experienced placing students at schools,” said Berkowitz, who has worked with transfer students for 20 years. “If you have an offer on the table, you have to strongly consider it, because it otherwise may not be there.”As a result, Berkowitz said, students are increasingly feeling “under-recruited” and opting to attend lower-ranked schools, both in Division I and Division II, before attempting to transfer. Berkowitz said that when he spoke to college coaches last year, many were not even looking at high school students, preferring to turn to the transfer portal and then junior colleges.Berkowitz said he anticipated this being the case for several more years, as athletes’ option to play an extra year lingers. High school sophomores will be the first class not affected by the change.“It’s just logjam at a lot of places,” he said. “If 200 guys are taking their fifth year, that’s 200 fewer spots for high school graduates.”Mitch Smith More

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    Louisville Clinches the Last Spot in the Final Four

    The Cardinals, playing in their fourth straight regional final, became the third No. 1 seed to reach the national semifinals by beating No. 3-seeded Michigan.WICHITA, Kan. — Olivia Cochran sat most of the first half with foul trouble. She reacted incredulously when what she thought was a clean block was whistled as a foul, and she played the final five minutes of Monday night’s game knowing that one miscue would foul her out for good.But when No. 1-seeded Louisville needed her most, when its offensive stars could not get free, Cochran, the team’s defensive anchor, broke through a stubborn Michigan defense for three layups in the final three minutes to send the Cardinals to the Final Four, defeating Michigan, a No. 3 seed, 62-50.Louisville knew the rematch would not be as easy as the teams’ game in December, when the Cardinals blew out Michigan by 22 points at home. They knew Michigan would better cope with the pressure defense, and that they would have to win a dogfight.Louisville’s Emily Engstler had 16 rebounds and six steals.Andy Lyons/Getty Images“We can look at it for things that went well for us, but it’s March,” Louisville’s star guard, Hailey Van Lith, said before the game.It is indeed March, and what unfolded at Intrust Bank Arena on Monday night before a largely pro-Louisville crowd was a dogfight, one that played out much closer this time around, yet still ended in a Louisville victory.The Cardinals were led by Van Lith, who scored 22 points, and Chelsie Hall, who tied a season-high with 15 points, mostly coming from behind the 3-point arc.Michigan had the ball down just 2 points, 52-50, when Laila Phelia committed an offensive foul. “52-50, with the ball,” said Kim Barnes Arico, Michigan’s coach. “I’m going to have nightmares about that for the next eight months until we play again.”The next few possessions would prove decisive. Louisville’s Emily Engstler found a cutting Cochran with just under three minutes left to take a 4-point lead. Michigan thought it was about to have a 3-point play, but Naz Hillmon was called for an offensive foul on Cochran as her layup went through the rim. Cochran scored a nice driving basket on the next possession after beating the press, and the Louisville defense shut down Michigan the rest of the way.“That look was there the whole fourth quarter and we couldn’t deliver it to her,” Van Lith said of Cochran’s layups. “We were rushing and letting their pressure speed us up.”Louisville led by as many as 9 points in the third quarter, but every time the Cardinals came close to putting the game away, Michigan found a way to draw closer, usually at the free throw line. Michigan shot 11 more free throws than Louisville.Monday night’s matchup was between teams that, on paper at least, had many similarities. Both teams try to cause chaos with intense pressing. In Hillmon and Engstler, both are led by rangy, defense-first forwards who could be selected in the first round of next month’s W.N.B.A. draft. And both have coaches, in Barnes Arico and Jeff Walz, who make clear that they are hard on their players and tell them blunt truths, but who also seem to be loved by their players.Players and coaches on both teams tried to downplay the importance of that December game, but Barnes Arico conceded that Louisville’s defensive intensity was probably the highest her team had faced all season. In the four months since that game, Michigan often practiced how to combat the double- and triple-teams Hillmon, an All-American last season, commanded.“That’s become a staple in our practice plan because they really kind of went at her and tried to take her out of the game plan,” Barnes Arico said.Michigan forward Naz Hillmon, center, had a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds on Monday despite Louisville’s defensive efforts.Jeff Roberson/Associated PressLouisville’s pressure once again flustered Michigan, as each Wolverines starter turned the ball over at least three times. But Michigan did not melt down like it did in Louisville in December. Hillmon lived at the free throw line, scoring 10 of her 18 points there, and Phelia and Maddie Nolan took some of the offensive load on the perimeter. Michigan also outrebounded Louisville, though it helped that Cochran played only 20 minutes.Engstler was as advertised on defense for Louisville, pulling down 16 rebounds and nabbing six steals as she led the press. “It seemed like every big play they made, she was involved in,” Barnes Arico said. But Engstler struggled offensively, shooting 1 of 9 from the field and 0 of 5 from 3-point range as she mostly settled for outside jumpers.Louisville was the last team to punch its ticket to the Final Four, where it will face South Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed, which has lost just twice this season and just beat Creighton by 30. The other side of the bracket will see Stanford play Connecticut. The national semifinals will be played on Friday in Minneapolis. The final is on Sunday.Louisville’s Final Four appearance is its first since 2018, when it lost to the eventual runner-up Mississippi State. Michigan’s appearance in the round of 8 was the first time the team had ever advanced that far. More

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    St. Peter’s Defeats Kentucky in Basketball

    The small Jesuit university in Jersey City is in high spirits after eliminating Kentucky, a basketball blue blood, from the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament.JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Farouk Sow, a junior at St. Peter’s University, was walking down a set of stairs from the university bridge running across John F. Kennedy Boulevard here on Friday morning when he spotted a blue “ABC 7 Eyewitness News” van on the street. Nearby, a video screen on a wall flashed an image of four members of the school’s men’s basketball team celebrating and holding a blue “March Madness” sign.Spotting a St. Peter’s classmate, senior Stephanie Radakovic, at the bottom of the stairs, Sow said with pride of the men’s basketball team, “They put us on the map.”Sow was referring to St. Peter’s gigantic upset of Kentucky in the first round of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament Thursday night in Indianapolis. It marked just the 10th time in tournament history that a No. 15 seed had upset a 2 seed.“It makes us feel good, because this is a small school, everybody knows everybody,” Sow told a reporter. “We weren’t known for sports. The fact that we beat Kentucky put us on the map. Basically, a small school beat a big school.”Kentucky has about 32,000 students, St. Peter’s approximately 2,300. Kentucky has won eight N.C.A.A. championships; St. Peter’s had never won an N.C.A.A. Tournament game before Thursday. St. Peter’s men’s basketball coach Shaheen Holloway made $266,344 in 2019; Kentucky head coach John Calipari’s base salary is $8.5 million. St. Peter’s basketball revenue was $1.6 million in 2019-20, while Kentucky’s was $29.3 million.Hence the news trucks and reporters descending on the tiny Jesuit university composed largely of red brick buildings in the heart of Jersey City. Chartered in 1872 and originally named St. Peter’s College, the school occupies a 30-acre campus just two miles west of New York City. The student body is 66 percent Black or Hispanic, and many who attend are first-generation college students.Raven Cordner, adviser to forward Hassan Drame, left, and forward KC Ndefo, at the university on Friday.Brian Fraser for The New York TimesEmpty mannequins in the campus bookstore.Brian Fraser for The New York TimesOn Thursday night, Radakovic, a senior on the women’s soccer team, was one of about 240 students in the “Sky Room” of the university student center watching the game on a big screen. There was pizza, popcorn, drinks, a cake, inflatable games, basketball hoops and other entertainment for the students cheering on the Peacocks. The school’s social media account is using the hashtag #StrutUp in honor of the Peacocks.“Everyone was freaking out. It was crazy,” Radakovic said. “There were a bunch of chairs set up, and at the end of the game, nobody was sitting on the chairs. Everybody was standing up.”Olyvia Smith, a junior outfielder on the school’s softball team and the girlfriend of junior guard Doug Edert, was also at the watch party.Dive Deeper Into the N.C.A.A. TournamentsA Catalyst for Change: A viral video by Oregon’s Sedona Prince led to a gender equity review in college basketball. Did the fixes go far enough?​​Throwback Big Men: In an era that prioritizes 3-pointers, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe and Illinois’s Kofi Cockburn are reminders of what the game used to be.Returning to the Big Stage: After years away from the tournament, these women’s teams made history before taking the floor.A Scout at Heart: Omar Minaya, a former Mets general manager, is a proud dad at Providence games. But he’s also watching for pro talent.“It was an unbelievable feeling. I felt like we were there with them the entire time,” Smith said.The 6-foot-2 Edert, a Nutley, N.J., native who played at the nearby powerhouse Bergen Catholic High School, scored 20 points against Kentucky, hitting a key basket to send the game to overtime, and was a perfect 8-of-8 from the line. He has become a fan favorite on social media in part because of the mustache he has grown in recent weeks.He chose St. Peter’s over offers from Fairleigh Dickinson, Wagner and New Hampshire. Daryl Banks III, the star guard who scored 27 points in the Kentucky game, also chose St. Peter’s over Wagner. Neither was the main option on his high school team or the McDonald’s All-American type that Kentucky routinely recruits.The Peacocks’ trophy case.Brian Fraser for The New York TimesBut neither would trade places with the Kentucky players right now.“Our school supports us so much,” Edert said. “We are a little school, and it’s awesome to put us on the map.”After the game, Edert called Smith to share the moment.“He was just so excited, it was awesome,” she said.Smith is aware that most people — even some who live in New Jersey — don’t know much about St. Peter’s.So, what does she want people to know about the school?“All of our athletic programs are definitely up-and-coming, and we have a lot of teams that are making a comeback right now,” Smith said. “I think this is huge, and I think that this brings a lot of energy to all the teams. We can all compete, and we can all be there with those other teams.”As of about noon on Friday, the St. Peter’s bookstore, which is undergoing renovation, had sold $2,500 worth of St. Peter’s T-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies to Jersey City residents and alums.“Oh, yeah, that’s a lot for us,” said Kristyna Stukeo, who manages the bookstore.This wasn’t St. Peter’s first win over basketball royalty. In 1968, long before the internet made players like Edert famous, the Peacocks beat Duke in the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament. Tom Mac Mahon, who scored 902 points in his career at St. Peter’s and was one of the stars of that team, later became the chief executive and chairman of LabCorp and served as the chair of the board of trustees at his alma mater. He donated $5 million to help support the creation of the Run Baby Run Arena, which opened this season and where the Peacocks played an intense defensive style that made life tough on opponents.“St. Peter’s is good, and they’re also good defensively,” a somewhat dazed Calipari said in a television interview during the game.St. Peter’s success may not be enough to keep Holloway, 45, around as the coach. His is a hot name on the coaching carousel, and if Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard leaves for another job (he has been linked to Maryland), Holloway, who starred at Seton Hall and was an associate head coach under Willard, would be a natural fit. Iona coach Rick Pitino, who coached against Holloway in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, said Seton Hall “shouldn’t even make another call.”A student walks through the St. Peter’s University campus.Stefan Jeremiah/Associated PressMeantime, Edert and his teammates are focused on facing No. 7 Murray State — a team based in Kentucky that has won 21 straight games — in the second round on Saturday in Indianapolis.And the mustachioed maverick won’t be shaving anytime soon.“He’s not changing anything until this tournament is over,” Smith said. “I can tell you that.” More

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    After Hiatuses, These Teams Are Back in the NCAA Women’s Tournament

    Some teams — like Illinois State and Massachusetts — will have already made history before taking the floor.The N.C.A.A. basketball tournaments always represent the chance to make history.Some teams have already done that before taking the floor.Massachusetts, a No. 12 seed in the women’s bracket, set a program record with 26 wins en route to making its first tournament in 24 years.UMass, the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament champion, will face No. 5 Notre Dame in Oklahoma. Coach Tory Verdi took over in 2016, when the Minutewomen weren’t exactly a high-profile program.But make no mistake; the Minutewomen aren’t just happy to be in the tournament. They want to shake up the field.“I feel like all of us really step up to that challenge, like the bigger the stage, the better we play,” Sam Breen, a graduate forward and the A-10 player of the year, said this week.Breen leads a group that has witnessed the program’s rebuilding, and one which includes Sydney Taylor and Destiney Philoxy, who were both second-team all-conference.Here are four more teams looking to create a new tournament narrative after years away from the biggest stage.HowardKaiya Creek, right, and Howard reached the tournament for the first time since 2001 and beat Incarnate Word in the First Four.Sean Rayford/Associated PressOn Wednesday, Howard made history twice in the same game: By defeating No. 16 seed Incarnate Word, 55-51, in South Carolina, the Bison won the first women’s First Four game.It was also Howard’s first tournament victory — ever.The Bison (21-9) made the field by winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament final, avenging their loss to North Carolina A&T in the championship game last season. Top-seeded Howard handled No. 2 Norfolk State, 61-44.So, for the first time in 21 years, the Bison are part of the N.C.A.A. tournament, and they already have a win under their belt thanks to a 15-point double-double from Brooklyn Fort-Davis.Their reward? A date on Friday with No. 1 seed South Carolina, one of the favorites in the field.FairfieldFairfield Coach Joe Frager is hoping to lead the Stags on a deep tournament run in his final season.Matt Rourke/Associated PressFairfield Coach Joe Frager knew this season would be his last.In October, ahead of his 15th season with the Stags, he said he would step away at the end of the year, citing his health.Frager has led postseason runs before: His Southern Connecticut State squad won the 2007 N.C.A.A. Division II championship in 2007, his last year there before he went to Fairfield.Under his predecessor, Dianne Nolan, the Stags earned an at-large bid to the 2001 N.C.A.A. tournament.They hadn’t been back since.“This has been a special season due to the efforts of our coaching staff and players,” Frager said. “This group has been focused and goal-oriented from beginning to end, and that speaks volumes about the leadership provided by our seniors. Right now, I am very much in the moment. I’m sure after some time passes, I’ll be able to savor the memories of this great season.”Fairfield (25-6) defeated Manhattan to take the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament championship and earn an automatic qualifier. The Stags are led by the senior forward Lou Lopez-Senechal, who scored 24 points in the conference title game. They’ll play Texas, a No. 2 seed and the Big 12 Conference tournament champion, on Friday.Nevada-Las VegasU.N.L.V.’s Essence Booker scored 25 points in the Mountain West Conference tournament championship game.Rick Bowmer/Associated PressU.N.L.V. (26-6) hasn’t been to the tournament since 2002. A win over Colorado State in the Mountain West Conference tournament championship game put it back there 20 years later.As a No. 13 seed, U.N.L.V. has an immediate challenge on Saturday night in the form of No. 4 seed Arizona, which lost to Stanford in last year’s title game.Coach Lindy La Rocque took over the program in 2021, and a year later has it back on college basketball’s biggest stage.U.N.L.V. averages 75.6 points per game, its most since 2009-10. The team is led by Essence Booker, who was named the Mountain West tournament’s most valuable player after dropping 25 points in the championship game.Texas at ArlingtonStarr Jacobs, the Sun Belt Conference player of the year, has played only a single Division I season.After transferring from Temple College, a junior college in Texas, she became the first U.T.A. player to average more than 20 points per game. She also led U.T.A. (20-7) to its first tournament appearance in 15 years.As a No. 14 seed, the team will face third-seeded Iowa State on Friday night. It will be the program’s last time representing the Sun Belt, as the university will join the Western Athletic Conference next season.Before then, though, U.T.A. wants to show its star power — or rather, Starr power.Illinois StateThe Redbirds, the Missouri Valley Conference tournament champions, have won a single N.C.A.A. tournament game, in 1989. They haven’t even had the chance since 2008.No. 15 seeded Illinois State (19-13) will play on Friday against No. 2 seed Iowa, the Big Ten tournament champion and one of the most dynamic and high-profile teams of the N.C.A.A. tournament.The Redbirds are 1-5 in the N.C.A.A. tournament, and it won’t be easy to beat the Caitlin Clark-led Hawkeyes.Juliunn Redmond leads the Redbirds in scoring with 17.6 points per game, while the all-conference forward DeAnna Wilson has tallied eight double-doubles this season.LongwoodLongwood’s Kyla McMakin, right, leads the Lancers in scoring. Longwood beat Campbell in the Big South tournament title game.Rusty Jones/Associated PressWhen Longwood takes the court Thursday night in Raleigh, N.C., it will have been more than a decade in the making.The No. 16-seeded Lancers, who completed their transition to Division I in the 2007-8 season, struggled through years of losing seasons before making the tournament. Just three seasons ago, they finished 3-27.Now, behind the Big South Conference player of the year Akila Smith, who is tied for third in Division I in blocks with Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee, the Lancers (21-11) will get a chance in a play-in game against Mount St. Mary’s. A win on Thursday would earn them a date with No. 1 North Carolina State. More

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    Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia Is Cloaked in Silence

    Those close to Griner have said little publicly since the W.N.B.A. star was detained in Russia on Feb. 17 on drug charges. Their approach has parallels with other efforts to release Americans held overseas.The detention of the W.N.B.A. star Brittney Griner in Russia on drug charges has left her supporters searching for a road map to a resolution in what could be an especially dangerous situation during the war in Ukraine.An exact parallel is hard to come by, but a situation nearly five years ago, in which three U.C.L.A. basketball players were accused of crimes while in China, blended sports, international diplomacy and a desire for secrecy in a way that echoes Griner’s situation as efforts to bring her home continue quietly.“It is an extremely sensitive situation,” said Representative Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas, who said he was working with the State Department to have Griner released. He added, “What we’re trying to do now, of course, is be helpful and not do anything that’ll place Brittney in any kind of danger or make her situation worse.”Griner’s attorney in Russia contacted the U.S. Embassy shortly after she was detained on Feb. 17, Allred said, after Russian Federal Customs Service officials said they had found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. Allred said the Russian authorities have denied the State Department’s request that consular officials meet with Griner.“It’s already a violation of international norms and the way these things are handled when they happen to Americans abroad,” Allred said.Griner, 31, a center for the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury, is said to be facing up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the drug charges. Many W.N.B.A. players supplement their salaries by playing internationally during the off-season. Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2014. Those close to her, and officials from the W.N.B.A. and its players’ union, have said little about Griner’s situation beyond that they support her and hope to have her return home safely.The length of her detention so far is not unusual given the charges, said Tom Firestone, an attorney at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, who was the resident legal adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow while working for the Justice Department. Russia’s customs service said in a statement on Saturday that it had opened a criminal case into the large-scale transportation of drugs.“Russia has not had liberalization in its cannabis laws the same way we have in the United States,” Firestone said.Russian prosecutors have two months to conduct a preliminary investigation and build a case, but can receive extensions beyond that, Firestone said. Getting out on bail is difficult for people charged with narcotics offenses, and will be especially so for Griner since she is not a Russian citizen, Firestone said.“They should get consular access certainly,” Firestone said. “When an American is arrested overseas the first source of assistance from the U.S. government is the consulate at the U.S. Embassy.”What role, if any, UMMC Ekaterinburg is playing in Griner’s case is unknown, but local ties can be crucial in situations like these, as they were for the three U.C.L.A. basketball players, LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, who were detained in China for shoplifting in November 2017 before a preseason game.From left, Cody Riley, LiAngelo Ball and Jalen Hill were accused of shoplifting while on a trip to China in 2017 with the U.C.L.A. men’s basketball team.Lucy Nicholson/Reuters“We were in Hangzhou, the headquarters of Alibaba, who was our host for the tournament, and they had a deep and nuanced appreciation for the local laws, customs,” said Larry Scott, who was then the commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference. He added, “And it was important to take guidance from them in addition to working with U.S. government officials and others.”Ball, Hill and Riley were in custody for less than a day before being released on bail. They returned to the United States about a week later and apologized publicly for the theft.Ball, who is the brother of the N.B.A. players Lonzo and LaMelo Ball, was the most well-known of the three U.C.L.A. players. “I’d like to start off by saying sorry for stealing from the stores in China,” LiAngelo Ball said at a news conference after returning to the United States. “I’m a young man, but it’s not an excuse for making a really stupid decision.”Scott also said the remorse shown by the players was instrumental in their being allowed to return swiftly. “They were apologetic for it and expressed that,” he said. “There’s an element of saving face involved for local authorities to understand foreigners coming in respect local laws and the local culture.”It is unclear whether Griner had drugs in her luggage, and American officials have repeatedly accused Russia of detaining U.S. citizens for specious reasons. But those close to Griner appear to be following one of the strategies employed by those surrounding Ball, Hill and Riley in 2017: creating as little public noise as possible.Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to KnowCard 1 of 4On the ground. More

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    Across Town, Tony Bland Is Adjusting to a Different World

    Bland, a former U.S.C. assistant coach arrested in 2017 as part of an F.B.I. investigation, is now coaching at a Los Angeles-area high school. He still hopes he can return to the college level.PLAYA DEL REY, Calif. — In an alternate universe, Tony Bland might have been a world away on Tuesday night, on the sideline at the University of Southern California’s sold-out Galen Center, coaching the home team in a nationally televised, high-stakes men’s basketball game against Arizona.Instead, Bland was in a well-worn high school gym about 20 miles away with the St. Bernard High School boys basketball team in a state playoff game.He is trying his best to, as he says, plant himself where his feet are, to think about where he is and not stew about what he once had — a college career that had him on the fast track to possibly becoming a head coach.Still, the reminders are hard to miss: After St. Bernard dispatched feisty Long Beach Poly, 52-40, Bland was congratulated by Wyking Jones, a University of Washington assistant recruiting one of his players. In the stands was the U.C.L.A. assistant Rod Palmer, whose son Joshua is a freshman at St. Bernard. One of his team’s leaders is Jason Hart Jr., whose father was on the U.S.C. coaching staff with Bland and now coaches in the N.B.A.’s G League.The triggers are particularly strong in March, when college basketball takes center stage in the American sports landscape and deep N.C.A.A. tournament runs, like U.S.C.’s to last year’s regional final, can be springboards for coaches with aspirations.“It’s the competitive itch,” Bland said. “The what if? Ascending the college coaching ranks to maybe soon be a head coach. How I would have done it. I remember when I used to do this. It’s the whole thing.”Everything changed for Bland on Sept. 26, 2017, when armed federal agents — their weapons drawn — stormed into his hotel room in Tampa, Fla., and arrested Bland as part of a nationwide college basketball corruption scandal. Bland was one of 10 people arrested that day as a result of an investigation that targeted some of the nation’s most prominent programs and that federal prosecutors boasted would expose the sport’s shady underbelly.“We have your playbook,” the F.B.I.’s William Sweeney thundered, sending a chill through the college basketball world when he added that the investigation, which had been fortified by wiretaps, was ongoing.Now, some four and a half years later, it has long been clear how empty those overinflated proclamations have been. (The same can be said for the breathless exclamations that a sea change in the sport was at hand.)The N.C.A.A. has done little more than slap a few schools on the wrist, and Rick Pitino is the only head coach who was fired in 2017 — a result less of his culpability than that the investigation was the latest in a string of embarrassing incidents during his tenure at Louisville. (Pitino now coaches Iona).Federal authorities fought in court in 2019 to keep Louisiana State Coach Will Wade off the witness stand. Wade is in his fifth year at L.S.U.Jeff Blake/USA Today Sports, via ReutersAnd the Feds, rather than exposing top college coaches, went lengths to shield them. They fought in court in 2019 to keep Louisiana State’s Will Wade, Arizona’s Sean Miller — who was fired last year — and other coaches off the witness stand. They also fought to keep an undercover agent from testifying, the reasons for which became clear last week: An F.B.I. agent pleaded guilty to gambling with $13,500 in government money at a Las Vegas casino in late July 2017, dates and circumstances that coincide with the sting operation that nabbed Bland and others.So, the head coaches who were accused in court of having known about — or even having facilitated — payments to players have almost all continued to collect million-dollar salaries, and business has proceeded as usual. (Arizona, Auburn and Kansas — all implicated in the scheme — are ranked second, fifth and sixth, respectively, in this week’s Associated Press poll.)“If anyone thinks that there is such a thing as a clean big-time program, they need to wake up and smell the donkey” manure, wrote Merl Code, a former shoe company employee, in his recently published book, “Black Market: An Insider’s Journey Into the High-Stakes World of College Basketball,” using an expletive. “Somewhere along the line, even the so-called cleanest of programs has some dirt if you look close enough.”Code, like Christian Dawkins, an aspiring agent, was sentenced to prison for his role in shunting money to top high school prospects and/or their families — a practice that has long been against N.C.A.A. rules, but one that has looked far less illicit as schools have made millions off the backs of an unpaid, largely Black labor force.(Code said Pitino and Kansas Coach Bill Self knew about payments he facilitated to players; both have denied any involvement.)Lamont Evans, Emanuel Richardson and Chuck Person were all fired from their assistant coach roles for accepting bribes.USA Today Sports, via ReutersThe case has only underscored the racial dynamic that is coming under greater scrutiny in major college sports: Coaches and top administrators, most of them white, enriching themselves thanks to the athletes, largely Black, who power their team’s success. All but one of the nine people who have been convicted or pleaded guilty in the corruption case are Black.Chuck Person (Auburn), Emanuel Richardson (Arizona), Lamont Evans (South Carolina and Oklahoma State), Preston Murphy (Creighton), Corey Barker (Texas Christian and New Mexico State) and Bland were all fired as assistants for accepting bribes. Murphy and Barker were not charged with crimes because they had returned the bribes.All have also been hit with show-cause penalties ranging from two years to 10, meaning that any college that wants to hire them has to explain to the N.C.A.A. why it wants to do so.The penalties effectively serve as a ban, and so many of the coaches are working as trainers, running workouts and camps for anyone who will pay them. Bland seems to be the only one coaching at a school.“I’m not saying these guys did anything wrong,” Bland said of the head coaches. “But what the assistant coaches went down for, I don’t know if they anticipated something more coming from it. I don’t know if there was supposed to be a Part B. This whole scheme and TV and bust for that? I don’t understand it.”Bland pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery — accepting $4,100 from Dawkins to steer players to a financial adviser — and received two years probation.Bland said he accepted only $2,100 from Dawkins, a friend for about a decade who told him to enjoy a night out in Las Vegas as a thanks for meeting with the financial adviser. He said, though, that he had little choice but to accept the plea deal because, if his case went to trial, it would be lumped in with those of four other defendants. “It was a business decision,” said Bland, who said he was so traumatized by the arrest that he couldn’t sleep in a hotel room. “I had to protect my family.”Bland, 42, said his wife urged him to think beyond basketball and reminded him that he had much to offer, but a few decades ago, the game is what carried him from South Los Angeles to Westchester High, the powerhouse public school that’s just around the bend from St. Bernard. A state championship helped earn him a scholarship to Syracuse and San Diego State.Bland felt at home in those same Los Angeles gyms when he returned to recruit one of the nation’s most fertile talent grounds, first as an assistant at San Diego State and then at U.S.C. He volunteered at St. Bernard, then took over as coach before last season.“We had a team, but he’s building a program,” said Jamie Mark, the athletic director, who had spent most of her career working for a sports agency. “And I think Tony likes the idea of building something.”The opportunity to coach has meant something for Bland, too. He has not given up hope of returning to the college game and one day being a head coach. “The people in college basketball understand my situation,” he said, later adding that his former boss at U.S.C., Andy Enfield, remains one of his biggest supporters. (Enfield is recruiting one of Bland’s best players, Tyler Rolison, a junior guard.)But he also knows there is more to the equation. A college coach is going to have to sell his athletic director on hiring Bland, and the athletic director will have to explain it to the university president. And so, with two more years left on his show-cause penalty, Bland said he knew better than to look too far down the road — or even across town.“This right here,” Bland said Tuesday night, sitting on the bleachers of a nearly empty gym, “has been helping to rehabilitate my soul.” More

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    N.C.A.A. Tournament: South Carolina Is Locked at No. 1 Ahead of Shuffling

    The Gamecocks have only one loss, but parity across the Power 5 leagues, especially the Big Ten and Big 12, should make for intense jockeying ahead of the tournament.As the spring approaches, women’s college basketball is inching closer and closer to a symbolic milestone. It’s one many people might never have noticed, and one that won’t have any impact on the quality or intensity of games.But for the first time since its debut 40 years ago, the N.C.A.A. Division I women’s basketball tournament will be officially called “March Madness” — the popular term that, until last fall, the N.C.A.A. had technically reserved exclusively for the men’s tournament.The start of the first official women’s March Madness is just a few weeks away. Many of the teams at the top of the heap are familiar, yet plenty of questions remain.Can anyone — besides Missouri, which managed to hand South Carolina a loss, by a single point — challenge the Gamecocks? Will Connecticut, long the front-runner, emerge in the postseason after its worst regular season in recent memory? Will the reigning champions, Stanford, earn longtime coach Tara VanDerveer her first repeat?As the regular season draws to a close, here’s what we know — and what’s next.Aliyah Boston is the front-runner for player of the year.Aliyah Boston has recorded 20 consecutive double-doubles, breaking a Southeastern Conference record set by Sylvia Fowles.Tracy Glantz/The State, via Associated PressSouth Carolina has been the top-ranked team in The Associated Press poll since the preseason thanks in large part to the efforts of the 6-foot-5 junior forward Aliyah Boston. Despite being the focus of every opposing team’s defense and getting persistently double-teamed by their most physical players as she fights to get in the paint, Boston has been nearly unstoppable. She leads the nation in win shares, according to Her Hoop Stats, and has recorded a double-double in points and rebounds in 20 consecutive games, breaking a Southeastern Conference record set by the highly decorated W.N.B.A. star Sylvia Fowles at Louisiana State.A top recruit out of high school, Boston has been a contender for national honors since she was a freshman. Last year, though, her stellar sophomore season was overshadowed by the prolific scoring and preternatural talent of Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers, whose national player of the year awards as a freshman were unprecedented.This year, Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, who in January became the first Division I player to record back-to-back 30-point triple-doubles, has drawn some attention away from Boston’s dominance — and that of her own team. Clark’s gaudy point totals and splashy hot streaks — she’s hit at least four 3-pointers seven times this season — make for irresistible highlight reels and have sparked conversation about her place in the player of the year race.Boston, though, has the numbers with 16.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, and South Carolina (26-1, 14-1 Southeastern Conference) has the wins.“It’s hard for me to imagine not having her and her contributions in so many different areas outside of the stat sheet,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley told reporters last week. “She’s a communicator, she’s a captain, she’s a leader, she’s a great teammate, she’s a great competitor on top of the stats.”Some top seeds could have a particularly tough road to the Final Four.With Paige Bueckers, second from left, set to return from an injury, UConn could have a more complete team and a quasi-home-court advantage during the N.C.A.A. tournament. Jessica Hill/Associated PressBarring a massive upset loss in the SEC tournament, the Gamecocks appear to be firmly in control of the top overall seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament. They’re better poised than ever to win Staley’s second national championship, with the South Carolina faithful — who have posted Division I’s best home attendance since 2015 — ready to pack the stands should they end up in the Greensboro, N.C., region.The most recent top-16 reveal from the N.C.A.A. Division I Women’s Basketball Committee, on Feb. 10, projected that the rest of the No. 1 line would fill out with familiar faces. After losing to South Carolina in December, Stanford (23-3, 14-0 Pac-12 Conference) has cruised through conference play with relative ease — only Arizona, its championship game foe last season, and Oregon stand as other Pac-12 teams ranked in The Associated Press poll.The Cardinal are currently projected as the No. 2 overall seed. That would likely place them in the Spokane, Wash., region, close to home and with limited upset potential.With the third and fourth overall seeds, the action is concentrated in the Atlantic Coast Conference. North Carolina State (25-3, 16-1) and Louisville, who have both been top seeds in recent tournaments, are neck and neck. The third-ranked Wolfpack are holding onto a narrow edge over the fourth-ranked Cardinals (24-3, 15-2) in the conference. One will likely play in the Wichita, Kan., regional, and one in the Bridgeport, Conn., regional.What both of those teams are hoping to avoid is something of a perfect storm brewing in Bridgeport. If UConn, projected as a No. 3 seed, is assigned to Bridgeport, either North Carolina State or Louisville — which has already beaten the Huskies once this year — could face what will essentially be a fervent home crowd at a purportedly neutral site.But even if UConn (20-5, 14-1 Big East Conference) winds up in Wichita, it will likely be playing with its healthiest team since the start of the season. Bueckers, who was sidelined after suffering a tibial plateau fracture and a lateral meniscus tear in her left knee on Dec. 5, is expected to return to the court on Friday against St. John’s.The Big 12 and Big Ten are deeper than ever.Caitlin Clark, left, had 32 points in a win over Rutgers on Thursday. Clark has gotten some national player of the year consideration along with Boston. Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesThis season’s parity has been remarkable, especially across the Power 5 conferences, where upsets have kept even the top teams from going on cruise control. Nowhere has that been more apparent than in the Big Ten and the Big 12, which are crowding the national rankings and positioned for exciting conference tournaments.In the Big Ten, where Maryland has won five of the past seven tournaments, the top teams — No. 6 Michigan, No. 17 Ohio State, No. 21 Iowa, and No. 13 Maryland — are separated by just a win or two, and their position is still changing by the day. Seven of the league’s teams are projected by ESPN to make the N.C.A.A. tournament, a group that now includes Northwestern, which fought to a double-overtime win over Michigan this month.In the Big 12, Baylor’s grip on the conference has been even tighter: The Bears have won nine of the past 10 tournaments. Yet right now, the fifth-ranked Bears (22-5, 12-3) are fighting for the top spot with No. 9 Iowa State.Close at their heels are No. 20 Oklahoma, which is second in the country in points per game with 84.9; No. 11 Texas, which managed one of the N.C.A.A. tournament’s biggest upsets last year by knocking off Maryland in the round of 16; and Kansas, which is in the mix despite landing 10th in the conference’s preseason poll.The last week of the regular season will be a tightly contested window into March.Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith, left, scored 13 points in a win Thursday against Pittsburgh. Van Lith leads the fourth-ranked Cardinals in scoring.Rebecca Droke/Associated PressThe final matchups of the regular season should offer some intrigue as teams jockey for seeding in conference tournaments and the national tournament.On Friday night, an overperforming No. 10 Indiana (19-6, 11-4) faces an underperforming Maryland at home (8 p.m. Eastern time, Big Ten Network).The Hoosiers beat Maryland in January, and now are just one win behind the Terrapins in a crowded field at the top of the Big Ten. If Maryland wins, there’s a chance it’ll be able to eke out its fourth-straight regular-season conference title and the top seed in the Big Ten tournament; if it loses, it’ll fall to the middle of the pack.On Sunday, Louisville and North Carolina State will each close the regular season against ranked opponents whom they have already beaten. The Cardinals will face No. 14 Notre Dame (noon, ESPN2), and the Wolfpack will take on No. 23 Virginia Tech (6 p.m., ACC Network). An upset loss for either team could take them out of the top four overall seeds and create a steeper road toward the A.C.C. title.In the Southeastern Conference, South Carolina’s stranglehold on the top spot has quieted some of its usual competitors. But new-look Louisiana State has sneaked into the top 10 for the first time in 13 years with Kim Mulkey at the helm, and is looking to make a run in the N.C.A.A. tournament despite not having qualified since 2018.On Sunday, the eighth-ranked Tigers will play No. 16 Tennessee (2 p.m., ESPN2), a team that started strong but has been bullied recently, losing four of six — albeit to a difficult group of opponents that included Connecticut and South Carolina — before winning Thursday.Mulkey’s former team, Baylor, is hardly languishing in her absence, though. The Bears will play Iowa State on Monday (7 p.m., ESPN2), with NaLyssa Smith, one of the best players in the country, center stage as she tries to pull the Bears atop the Big 12. More