Pitt reaching the Final Four seems inevitable

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The Big East is turning into Pitt’s personal playground. That’s a promising sign for a program dying to get back to the Final Four.

A 57-54 win at Villanova Saturday night gave the Panthers their first win at The Palestra Pavilion 17 years and marked the first time they’ve won 11 of their first 12 Big East games. Not bad for team playing without leading scorer Ashton Gibbs.

“It was fun. A hostile environment, no Ashton Gibbs and we got the win,” said senior Brad Wanamaker, who scored a team-high 21 points, including most of the clutch baskets that usually fall to Gibbs.

That gives Pitt (23-2, 11-1) a sizable lead heading into its final six Big East games. Notre Dame – its one conference loss – is 10-3, while the rest of the league is no better than 8-4. If you’re a believer that the Big East is the nation’s best conference, the fact that Pitt’s running away with the league should be an indicator of what March holds.

For comparison, the 2008-09 Pitt squad that finished 31-5, reached No. 1 in the rankings, nabbed a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance and reached the Elite Eight features tempo-free numbers that are awfully close to this year’s edition. (That Sam Young-DeJuan Blair-Levance Fields team didn’t win the Big East but had stiffer competition in Louisville and UConn.) The offense is slightly worse, but the defense is better.

People have noticed, too.

“I think [this Pitt team] compares to their team in ’09. Their depth, their experience, their veteran guys are awesome,” ‘Nova coach Jay Wright told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook.

Pitt’s detractors love to write them off as a team that thrives in the regular season and falters in March for varying reasons, usually related to their offense. (Because reaching the Final Four is soooo easy.) Yet Cook writes that the more Pitt plays, the tougher it’s gonna be to ignore their Final Four chances.

After all, this is a team that just won at ‘Nova without its leading scorer. That should speak volumes. From Cook’s column:

… I like No. 4 Pitt’s chances as much as any team’s. There is no dominant club this season. No. 1 Ohio State lost Saturday at Wisconsin, the last of the unbeatens to fall. Pitt already has beaten one of the teams ahead of it in the polls — No. 3 Texas.

That Texas win was back in November, before the Longhorns turned into the nation’s nastiest defensive team. But that’s nitpicking given that Pitt’s offense is an incredible blend of talent, depth and impressive rebounding.

And that defense? Ask Jay Wright about it. For one of the few times this year, the Panthers won by shutting down an opposing offense, not by displaying an unstoppable offense.

Offense, defense, depth, talent. Pitt has it all. If this isn’t the year the Panthers return to the Final Four, not sure when it’ll happen.

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

DePaul adds 2018 commit

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Wisconsin guard John Diener has committed to DePaul, his grassroots program announced Wednesday night.

The 6-foot-4 Class of 2018 guard ends his recruitment rather early with offers also from instate schools Green Bay and Milwaukee. He’s known as a shooter and becomes the first commit for Dave Leitao in the 2018 class.

Diener, who plays with the Wisconsin Playground Warriors in the spring and summer, commits to the Blue Demons with them coming off a disappointing campaign, Leitao’s first in Chicago. DePaul went 9-22 overall and 3-15 in the Big East, finishing only ahead of St. John’s.

DePaul has been recruiting the Midwest hard with incoming 2016 recruits from La Lumiere School in Indiana, Sagninow, Mich. and locally in Chicago.

Four-star guard Fisher commits to TCU

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Jamie Dixon’s presence is already being felt in the Big 12 and on the recruiting trail.

TCU received its first commitment of the Dixon era when four-star 2016 point guard Jaylen Fisher announced his decision to join the Horned Frogs on Wednesday.

“Due to how comfortable my family and I are with the coaching staff,” Fisher posted from his Twitter account, “and the emphasis the university has put on making basketball a priority, I’m committing to be a student-athlete at TCU.”

Getting a consensus top-75 prospect, who was once committed to UNLV, is a heck of a coup for being just a couple months on the job. It instantly shows the Frogs are going to be a player for some of the country’s top players, which is a necessity if you have designs on making a move up the ladder of arguably the country’s best league in the Big 12.

Maybe the most gratifying thing for TCU, though, is the reason Fisher publicly stated for making his decision, the school’s “making basketball a priority.” The hoops program has suffered immensely in the Big 12 (while the football program has flourished), winning a total of eight games in their four seasons (including a winless 2014), but the school sank $72 million into renovating its arena, made an aggressive move in firing Trent Johnson and then went out and got its dream candidate, Dixon, an alum. Fisher’s commitment is the first time those moves have shown that commitment to basketball paying off.


Report: Izundu’s San Diego State transfer ban rescinded

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Washington State transfer Valentine Izundu will be visiting San Diego State after all.

Coach Ernie Kent has rescinded his restriction on the 6-foot-10 graduate transfer from visiting the Aztecs, according to a report from the Spokesman-Review, citing an anonymous source. Izundu will also be reportedly visiting Fresno State and UNLV.

Izundu had previously been barred from considering the Aztecs by Kent because of suspcisions of tampering. Izundu vigorously denied that was the case as at the center of the dispute was a trip he made to San Diego for spring break. He publicly said he did not have any contact with the SDSU coaching staff , though he attended an Aztecs NIT game.

Kent, though, appears to have relented, as many coaches who have similarly faces public pressure in such situations before him have. In this era where so much attention is being paid to player rights and welfare, there only seems to be growing public sentiment against programs restricting transfers beyond the absolute bare minimum is rarely going to go over well. It may make things more difficult for coaches and programs, but it’s the deck is largely already stacked in their favor in most every other instance.

Ex-Michigan State player Keith Appling faces weapons charges

Keith Appling
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DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) Authorities say former Michigan State basketball player Keith Appling faces charges including carrying a concealed weapon after he was found in possession of guns and marijuana in suburban Detroit.

The Wayne County prosecutor’s office says 24-year-old Appling was arrested outside a Dearborn club on Sunday night. Club security called police after seeing a man pull a gun from the trunk of a car.

Prosecutors say Appling was in the driver’s seat of the car when police arrived. Officers found a handgun under the driver’s seat, a loaded weapon in the trunk and a small amount of suspected marijuana.

Weapons and marijuana possession charges were announced Wednesday.

The court says he doesn’t have a lawyer on record.

Appling played for the Spartans from 2010-2014 and plays for the NBA’s development league.

UNLV transfer to finish career at Michigan State

UNLV forward Ben Carter, right, celebrates after his team defeated Oregon in an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Las Vegas. UNLV won 80-69. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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Former UNLV center Ben Carter announced on Wednesday that he will be transferring to Michigan State to finish his collegiate career.

Carter, who began his career at Oregon, averaged 8.6 points and 6.0 boards in his one season with UNLV before tearing his ACL in late January. He spent two seasons with the Ducks before transferring to Vegas, which is why he’s eligible immediately for the Spartans.

And that’s the biggest reason that Tom Izzo and company targeted him.

The Spartans lost Deyonta Davis to the NBA Draft after one season, a fact that became an inevitability midway through the year but one that the Spartans didn’t necessarily plan for heading into last season. Carter isn’t going to be an instant impact kind of player, particularly not when he’s coming off of an ACL injury, but he is a big body and a veteran presence on a front line that wasn’t going have much of either.