Freeze Frame: Neutralizing Kentucky’s Big Men

Posted by Brian Joyce on April 2nd, 2015

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Thirty-eight teams have taken their best shots at Kentucky this season but none have come away with a victory. Last Saturday night, Notre Dame became “another test” for coach John Calipari’s team en route to its fourth Final Four in the last five years. Much has been made over nothing regarding Calipari’s postgame comments following the 68-66 win (the guy just moved to 38-0 on his way to another Final Four; what do you expect him to say when asked questions about the Irish?), but while the Cats have had a few games that were as closely contested, none were more meaningful.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

Notre Dame’s defense last Saturday night was nothing particularly special. The Irish played with great toughness on that end of the floor, but so did every SEC team the Wildcats faced during the regular season. Notre Dame’s offense, however, was a completely different story. The Wildcats’ defense had only allowed five teams to score above a point per possession against it all season long, and Mike Brey’s team moved directly to the top of the list with its 1.16 PPP performance. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze the three ways in which the Irish were able to neutralize Kentucky’s big men and do something that few other teams have been able to consistently do: score.

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McDonald’s All-American Game: A Big 12 Viewer’s Guide

Posted by Chris Stone on April 1st, 2015

Tonight the 38th Annual McDonald’s All-American Game will take place at the United Center in Chicago. Twenty-four of the top high school players in the country will showcase their skills in front of a national audience in what is one of the few opportunities for fans to catch a glimpse of next year’s class of recruits. Over the past few days, the players have been competing in practices against one another ahead of tonight’s showdown. With a number of players either committed to or still considering Big 12 schools, we felt that it would be a good idea to quickly profile those players to keep an eye on tonight as you tune into the game. All rankings from Scout.com.

Committed Players

Carlton Bragg has committed to Kansas. (Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports)

Carlton Bragg has committed to Kansas. (Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports)

This year’s class of All-Americans includes two players who have already committed to Big 12 schools.

Uncommitted Players

Jaylen Brown Has Kansas on His Short List (FreeP.com)

Jaylen Brown Has Kansas on His Short List (FreeP.com)

The 2015 McDonald’s All-American Game also features a number of uncommitted prospects who plan to sign with schools in the coming weeks. Many of these players are considering Big 12 institutions, with Kansas on the lists of just about all of them. Here is a quick rundown of each McDonald’s All-American prospect who is still considering a Big 12 school next season.

  • No. 1 Jaylen Brown, Wheeler High School (GA). Brown is a 6’7″ small forward who has spent the week speaking highly of Kentucky’s program while also saying that academics will help guide his decisionDespite having the skill set to make the jump, Brown may not be a typical one-and-done prospect. He’s got NBA size and athleticism but needs to spend time working on his jump shot to truly become an effective player at the next level. Kansas is the lone Big 12 school that remains on this prospect’s list.
  • No. 5 Ivan Rabb, Bishop O’Dowd High School (CA). It would be a big surprise to see Ivan Rabb in the Big 12 next season. Kansas is currently the only Big 12 school that remains on his list, but Rabb appears headed to California. He’s another versatile big man who showed off his shooting touch recently by hitting the game-winning free throws in overtime of California’s state championship game.
  • No. 8 Malik Newman, Callaway High School (MS). Newman has made his plan clear that he intends to spend as little time in college as possible. He’s considering six schools, including Kansas. Newman is a combo guard who has spent quite a bit of time running the point during practices this week, so keep an eye on how much he plays the position during tonight’s game.
  • No. 9 Stephen Zimmerman, Bishop Gorman High School (NV). Zimmerman is an almost seven-footer from Las Vegas who has also been open about his desire to get to the NBA as soon as possible. Hometown school UNLV appears to be the favorite over Kansas and some other bluebloods like Kentucky and UCLA. Zimmerman obviously has the size to develop into an impressive post presence over time. He’ll get a chance to show off some of that development this evening.
  • No. 10 Cheick Diallo, Our Savior New American School (NY). Diallo is perhaps one of the more interesting players on the uncommitted list. He’s being recruited by both Kansas and Iowa State but the Cyclones’ lead recruiter on Diallo is headed to St. John’s next season. He is a high energy big man who impressed observers during Tuesday’s practice, according to Rivals’ Eric Bossi, by showcasing his ability to block shots and collect rebounds on the defensive end while hustling to finish dunks on the other.
  • No. 13 Brandon Ingram, Kinston High School (NC). Ingram is another Kansas prospect. The 6’8″ forward spent most of Tuesday’s practice engaged in trash talk with Jaylen Brown. He backed it up with an impressive scoring ability that has RivalsEric Bossi calling him the “biggest revelation” of this week.
  • No. 33 Thomas Bryant, Huntington Prep (WV). Bryant is also considering Kansas but he hasn’t yet visited the school. He is a physical 6’10” center who has impressed with his play on the block during practices this week.

While obviously not all of these players will end up in the Big 12 next season, it is likely that one or more will choose a school in the conference. Tonight’s McDonald’s All-American Game should give fans a chance to see what each of them has to offer.

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The Non-Kentucky SEC Postseason Review

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 1st, 2015

Only one of the SEC’s eight postseason teams is still playing, and you may have heard of them a time or two over the weekend. For the other seven schools, the season is now over. Let’s take a look at whether they met, exceeded or fell short of their postseason expectations.

Jarvis Summers and the Rebels stormed back against BYU, but couldn't find the same shooting touch against Xavier (espn.com).

Jarvis Summers and the Rebels stormed back against BYU, but couldn’t find the same shooting touch against Xavier. (Getty)

Three That Exceeded Expectations

  • #11 Ole Miss (beat #11 BYU in the NCAA First Four; lost to #6 Xavier in the Second Round). The Rebels’ magical second-half outburst to beat BYU in Dayton was a real treat and it gave Andy Kennedy just his second NCAA Tournament win at Ole Miss. That alone has to qualify the Rebels’ postseason journey as a success, especially since the team had lost four of five to end the season and had to be feeling fortunate just to be there. It’s a shame M.J. Rhett has used all of his eligibility since his inside/outside game was instrumental in the First Four comeback and was one of the few players to perform well against the Musketeers.
  • #6 Alabama (beat #3 Illinois in the NIT First Round; lost to #2 Miami (FL) in NIT Second Round). The Tide’s underwhelming season ultimately cost Anthony Grant his job, but for the team to stick together to win at least one game just days afterward is impressive. There’s also no shame in losing to a Miami team that had several big wins this year and ended up reaching the NIT Semifinals in New York. The big question now is whether the gobs of money Alabama has reportedly thrown at Gregg Marshall will be enough to lure him to Tuscaloosa.
  • #5 Vanderbilt (beat #4 St. Mary’s in the NIT First Round; beat South Dakota State in the NIT Second Round, lost to Stanford in the NIT Quarterfinals): The Commodores looked primed for a run in the SEC Tournament but were knocked out in their opener against Tennessee. A run eventually came in the NIT, however, and the future appears bright for Kevin Stallings’ club. Vanderbilt opened with a road win in Moraga and fought to the bitter end against Stanford in Palo Alto. The Commodores’ are certainly pleased with this week’s news that Damian Jones intends to return. Stallings will pair him with a stockpile of sophomore guards (Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Shelton Mitchell, Wade Baldwin IV) that will keep Vanderbilt competitive.

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Evaluating Texas’ Top Three Candidates

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 31st, 2015

The head coaching job at Texas hasn’t been vacant for two whole days, but the search is already sending shockwaves throughout the college basketball landscape. Now, the top candidates for the gig had been rumored as successors even before athletic director Steve Patterson let Rick Barnes go on Sunday, and nothing has really changed since then, so none of the names are exactly surprising. But now that the wheels are actually moving, things could get real in a hurry. Here’s a quick rundown of the three coaches most likely to take the reins in Austin.

Say, that orange tie looks pretty good on Shaka. (sportsillustrated.com)

Say, that orange tie looks pretty good on Shaka… (sportsillustrated.com)

  1. Shaka Smart, VCU – Smart’s teams at VCU have turned heads ever since he led the Rams to the Final Four in 2011. While Smart hasn’t returned to the second weekend, much less the third, since that memorable run, that doesn’t make the 37-year old any less viable of a candidate. While some have doubts about his lack of experience as a head coach at a high-major program, he spent time on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida and has successfully leveraged his track record, youth and enthusiasm to land commitments from some of the top prospects in the country. And he’s done it at a school with a fraction of Texas’ recruiting budget. Smart has notoriously rejected offers from plenty of high-major programs to stay at VCU, but turning down a top-10 job in terms of resources and access would be much tougher for him to do. Read the rest of this entry »
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Texas and Rick Barnes Finally Part Ways

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 28th, 2015

Rick Barnes‘ last four seasons with Texas were a rollercoaster ride. After failing to win an NCAA Tournament game in consecutive seasons for the first time in his 17-year tenure, Barnes reformed the team in 2013 without once-promising recruits Sheldon McClellan, Myck Kabongo, Julien Lewis, Jaylen Bond and Ioannis Papapetrou. His remaining players took him off the hot seat, riding stifling interior defense to a surprise third-place finish in the Big 12 and a thrilling NCAA Tournament win over Arizona State before bowing out to Michigan in the Round of 32. You probably know what happened next, but to bring you up to speed, the Longhorns came into this season as the leading candidate to knock Kansas from its conference perch, but injuries, inconsistent offense and lax perimeter defense kept the team from meeting expectations.

Rick Barnes brought unprecedented levels of success to Texas, but rocky seasons and early NCAA Tournament flameouts finally caught up to him. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Rick Barnes brought unprecedented levels of success to Texas, but rocky seasons and early NCAA Tournament flameouts finally caught up to him. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Texas finished with a losing record in the Big 12 for the second time in three years, and while they had a chance to redeem themselves in the NCAA Tournament last week, they petered out in an uninspiring loss to Butler. On Thursday night reports emerged that athletic director Steve Patterson gave Barnes an ultimatum: Replace your staff or I’ll replace you. Barnes wouldn’t acquiesce to those demands, and now the two parties going their separate ways.

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How Can Michigan State Keep Things Rolling Against Oklahoma?

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 27th, 2015

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Michigan State has made yet another Sweet Sixteen appearance under Tom Izzo and it did so by surprising a very good Virginia team in the Third Round. The Spartans are now 6-2 since March 1, with both losses coming at the hands of Wisconsin. With the two highest seeds now removed from the East Region, it’s looking like another Final Four run for Coach Tom Izzo is a realistic possibility. But first things first. Tonight the Spartans will have to get through an Oklahoma team with the sixth-best defensive efficiency in college baskeball. Here are several ways for Sparty to get the job done and advance to the Elite Eight.

Branden Dawson needs to continue to be a factor for Michigan State to advance Friday night.  (Al Goldis/AP)

Branden Dawson needs to remain a factor for Michigan State to advance. (Al Goldis/AP)

  • Bryn Forbes > Frank Booker: Both teams have a sniper coming off the bench who can swing things simply by knocking down outside shots. Forbes has been more consistent, as he led the Big Ten in eFG (60.0%) and shot 43.0 percent from behind the three-point line on the season. Booker has only shot 31.3 percent from behind the arc, but he’s been hot since mid-February in making six of 12 attempts in Oklahoma’s two NCAA Tournament wins. Forbes needs to enter the game and be more of a factor than Booker here. If he can make shots and give Michigan State another scoring option outside of Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice on the perimeter, the Spartans have the tools to offset Oklahoma’s stellar defense.
  • Keep Spangler off the Glass: Ryan Spangler would be a perfect fit as a Spartan. He’s physical and he crashes the boards with a zeal that many players under Tom Izzo have exhibited. Unfortunately, he plays for Oklahoma. This means that Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello need to do their best in preventing the junior banger from notching his 15th double-figure rebounding game tonight. Spangler and TaShawn Thomas cannot be the tougher duo here, and the two Michigan State post players have the ability to make Oklahoma pay for surrounding their inside pair with three guards.

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Coaches We Hope Stick Around… But Won’t Blame If They Don’t

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 26th, 2015

Ah, late March – the most worrisome time of year. There will be firings, hirings and anxiety over whether several beloved mid-major coaches finally make the leap. Nothing like the smell of pink slips and greenbacks in the morning. With the carousel already fully in motion, let’s take look at a few of the most highly-coveted O26 coaches out there and why they should stay put… but why we also won’t blame them if they leave. [Note: We don’t include Shaka Smart on this list because we hope he’s entering Mark Few O26 lifer-status.]

Gregg Marshall – Wichita State

Here's to hoping Gregg Marshall is a lifer. (David Eulitt / Kansas City Star)

Here’s to hoping Gregg Marshall is a lifer. (David Eulitt/Kansas City Star)

  • He should stay! You know what Wichita State has that Alabama doesn’t (besides Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, of course)? A Final Four banner. Better yet, two Final Four banners. In fact, the Shockers probably have a better basketball program than the Crimson Tide from top to bottom – history, community support, momentum, etc. – and they don’t fall far behind in terms of compensation, either; Marshall’s base salary is $1.85 million this year, not including incentives. The eighth-year head coach has already led his team to a #1 seed, a Final Four appearance and a Sweet Sixteen, accomplishments he’s sure to build on next season if VanVleet and Baker stick around. Plus, how would he “Play Angry” at a power program? That ethos depends on perceived disrespect and thrives on an underdog mentality, which I’m not sure he could manufacture at a revenue mill like Alabama or Texas.
  • Why we wouldn’t blame him… If someone backed up the Brinks truck and said, “Just give me a price,” how would you react? At some point – regardless of landing spot – the monetary offer becomes too eye-poppingly good to pass up. According to CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish, Alabama is willing to offer Marshall “in excess of $3 million per year,” which would put him among the very highest-paid coaches in the game. If the Texas job opens up, the ‘Horns might offer something similar. That’s serious money and both schools’ available resources can back that up.

Steve Prohm – Murray State

  • He should stay! Cameron Payne – one of the best point guards in college hoops – is only a sophomore. Sharpshooters Jeffery Moss (11.1 PPG) and Justin Seymour (45% 3FG) are also set to return next season. Prohm, who has gone 104-29 since taking over in 2012, should continue winning big for the foreseeable future. Murray State’s fan base is among the strongest at the mid-major level, and the 36-year-old coach signed an extension through 2018 just last summer. Stick around, Steve!

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Bill Self’s One-And-Done Experience: Success Or Failure?

Posted by Chris Stone on March 26th, 2015

For the second straight season, Kansas was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the Third Round. The early exits have begun to wear on one of the nation’s most passionate fan bases as the Jayhawks have been eliminated prior to the Sweet Sixteen in five of Self’s 12 seasons in Lawrence. The most recent, vocal criticism of Self relates to his recruitment of potential one-and-done players. Self’s two best teams did not feature the standard-bearers for the elite in college basketball these days. The 2008 Jayhawks won the national championship with only one freshman, Cole Aldrich, playing in more than 20 percent of the team’s minutes. The 2012 team that lost to Kentucky in the championship game had only one freshman, Naadir Tharpe, who played in more than 10 percent of the team’s available minutes. That narrative, though, paints an incomplete picture of Self’s experience with one-and-done talent.

Bill Self is being questioned after another early exit from the NCAA Tournament. (Photo credit: AP Photo).

Bill Self is Wondering What Went Wrong After Another Early Exit (AP)

Talent is indispensable in college basketball and one-and-done players are the epitome of talent. They have program-changing potential and their inclusion in a rotation certainly doesn’t hurt teams seeking deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. This year’s Sweet Sixteen provides great support to that notion. Most notably, Arizona (Stanley Johnson), Duke (Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow), Kentucky (Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, and Trey Lyles) and Utah (Jakob Poeltl) all have at least one freshman likely to be in June’s NBA Draft playing a significant role for their team. Read the rest of this entry »

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Five Keys For Wisconsin Against North Carolina Tonight

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 26th, 2015

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Lost in the anticipation of a Wisconsin vs. Arizona rematch in the Elite Eight is the fact that the Badgers still have to get there by beating a North Carolina unit that has played its best ball of the season since the calendar turned to March. While the Badgers are favored to win the game, it won’t be an walk in the park for a number of reasons. Here’s are five ways that Bo Ryan’s squad can keep things rolling against the Tar Heels in Los Angeles.

Bronson Koenig needs to help Wisconsin control the tempo if they want to beat North Carolina.  (AP)

Bronson Koenig needs to help Wisconsin control the tempo if they want to beat North Carolina. (AP)

  1. Control the Tempo: North Carolina likes to push the ball upcourt and get easy baskets in transition. They don’t necessarily do so by forcing a bunch of turnovers; rather, the Heels like to grab the ball off of either a make or a miss and run their patented secondary break. Wisconsin doesn’t get sped up too often but the Badgers still need to ensure that this remains a half-court game rather than a track meet. The days are gone when Wisconsin cannot keep up with the Tar Heels athletically, but it still doesn’t make sense to try to run with them. Half-court execution and good shot selection will win the day; the leadership and facilitation of Bronson Koenig and Traevon Jackson (assuming he plays) will be the keys here.
  2. Win the Battle of the Boards: Wisconsin ranks fourth in the nation in defensive rebounding while North Carolina comes in fifth on the offensive glass. Roy Williams may be without its leader in this department with Kennedy Meeks and his 12.9 percent offensive rebounding rate potentially sidelined with a knee injury, but backup Isaiah Hicks (11.3%) is no slouch here either. Without anyone who can shoot consistently from deep, the Tar Heels’ best offense on many possessions is just to hit the boards. If the Badgers control the glass tonight, they can force a bunch of one-possession trips from the Heels and effectively shut down their offense. Read the rest of this entry »
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How Will Traevon Jackson’s Return Impact the Badgers?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 26th, 2015

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There isn’t much stopping Wisconsin’s offensive stride right now. The Badgers won the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships by averaging a whopping 1.21 points per possession despite playing the last 17 games of the season without senior point guard Traevon Jackson, who broke his foot on January 11. Some observers thought that the injury would set the Badgers back on both ends of the court but Wisconsin instead has held strong with its only loss since coming at Maryland. Sophomore replacement Bronson Koenig has done a terrific job of running the offense by hanging on to the ball, distributing it in the right spots and shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc.

Traevon Jackson's confidence to take big shots during the final minutes of key games will be needed over the Sweet 16 weekend of Wisconsin.

Traevon Jackson’s confidence to take big shots for Wisconsin during the final minutes of key games will be needed in the Sweet Sixteen and possibly beyond. (Getty)

Jackson said yesterday that he has confidence in his foot and he is “100 percent” ready to play against North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen. With two more wins needed to reach the program’s second consecutive Final Four, it is an intriguing dilemma for Bo Ryan to determine how many minutes Jackson should play. The argument against inserting him completely back into the rotation is that the move could disturb the seamless rhythm of what has been an offensive juggernaut. The argument for playing him is that he was the starter of last season’s Final Four squad and it’s not as if the Badgers were doing poorly before he was injured (15-1 with the sole loss coming to Duke). Ryan will definitely play his senior point guard some minutes tonight, but the question is how much and in what spots? The reason that this is a particularly difficult decision for the head coach is because Koenig has been a more effective player than Jackson.

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ACC Must End Final Four Drought to Claim Best Conference Status

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 25th, 2015

With a record-tying five schools in the Sweet Sixteen, the ACC has received a lot of praise this week as this year’s best conference. There’s no doubt that tying the 2009 Big East with the most teams to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament is quite an impressive feat. But it’s also not totally unexpected either, considering that the league placed five teams among the top four seed-lines of the bracket. The only real surprise is that the ACC’s regular season champion, Virginia, is not among the quintet still playing, replaced instead by #8 seed N.C.State (which knocked off #1 seed Villanova). There are many different metrics that are used to rank leagues: overall average team rankings (RPI, KenPom); head-to-head results between the major conferences; NCAA Performance (teams in the Big Dance, total wins, Sweet Sixteen schools, Final Four teams, Championships); and combinations of them all. And while the ACC has historically outperformed every other conference in most if not all of those categories, the league has slid in what we feel are the most important areas — Final Four appearances and national championships — over the last nine years.

35 Years

The table above shows how well the ACC has done over the past 35 years in getting to the Final Four and winning the National Championship. We used 1980 as the starting point in our analysis because that was the first truly “open” tournament. Up until 1975, only conference champions were invited to the NCAA Tournament, and for the next five years (1975-79), the maximum number of teams allowed from a single league was limited to two. In addition to results from actual conference membership at the time, just for fun, we also added results from a current league affiliation perspective. For example, in the current membership column, the ACC loses Maryland’s two Final Four appearances but gains the many earned by Syracuse and Louisville as members of the Big East and other leagues. Now let’s look at just how far the ACC has fallen in recent NCAA Tournaments, starting with the first 26 years of the open tournament era.

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Unlikely Yet Capable, Oklahoma and West Virginia Look to Carry Big 12 Flag

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 25th, 2015

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Let’s rewind to last Thursday morning. If I had told you that the Big 12 would send just two of its seven NCAA Tournament teams to the Sweet Sixteen, you’d probably feel let down. Conference members have struggled to make many deep runs over the last 10 years, and while it didn’t appear that there was a national title contender among the group this season, there were plenty of teams that were good enough to survive the first weekend. A flawed Kansas team had scrapped and defended its way to an 11th straight conference crown. Iowa State had shown great resilience in erasing one double-figure lead after another on its way to a Big 12 Tournament title. Scott Drew’s Baylor team was arguably better than the one that went to the Sweet Sixteen last season.

Can the new-look Mountaineers help the Big 12 save face? (Greg Bartram/USA TODAY Sports)

Can the new-look Mountaineers help the Big 12 save face? (Greg Bartram/USA TODAY Sports)

As we all now know, none of those three promising teams are still standing, and the also-rans of the bunch — Oklahoma State and Texas — fizzled out as well. That leaves us with Oklahoma and West Virginia as the Big 12’s two survivors. While the Sooners and Mountaineers are very good teams led by two of the most experienced and successful coaches in the game, their presence in the Sweet Sixteen still feels like a bit of a surprise. Oklahoma’s ability to play great defense while utilizing an uptempo attack is impressive, but there were plenty of reasons to be suspicious of the Sooners. They played poorly in two losses to downtrodden Kansas State, struggled to find consistency against competitive teams away from Norman, and their composure fell under increased scrutiny after they coughed up a pair of big leads to the Cyclones. While similar criticisms can be made of other teams still playing (see: UCLA), you would have a good case if you wanted to remain skeptical on Lon Kruger‘s team. Read the rest of this entry »

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