Despite loss, Texas A&M remains contender in murky Big 12

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NEW YORK — When Texas A&M junior forward Khris Middleton went down with a torn right meniscus during his team’s season-opening 81-59 victory over Liberty, the Aggies’ early-season Big 12 title hopes took a hit, as well.

And on Thursday night, Mississippi State showed them just how difficult it would be to keep those title hopes afloat in Middleton’s absence, jumping out to a 31-9 lead, including five-of-five shooting from 3-point range, and sinking the Aggies, 69-60, at Madison Square Garden.

Texas A&M brought the game to within single digits at the half, but Mississippi State never really relinquished control, ballooning the lead back to 14 a few minutes into the second half. The Bulldogs fended off a second-half run that cut the lead to eight, 60-52, but senior guard Dee Bost’s three-pointer put the game out of reach for good.

Bost led the way for the Bulldogs, with 20 points and three assists.

The loss highlights where the Aggies could struggle in the upcoming three-to-four weeks that Middleton recovers, in pursuit of their seventh-straight NCAA tournament appearance.

Middleton’s 14 points and five rebounds helped to pace Texas A&M last season.

In a decade dominated by Kansas, who has won at least a share of nine of the last 10 regular season Big 12 crowns, shifting tides in Lawrence and lingering questions about Baylor put Billy Kennedy’s Aggies squarely in the discussion.

Bill Self and the Jayhawks has already lost Josh Selby, Markieff and Marcus Morris to the NBA Draft, before news came down in October that highly-touted recruits Jamari Traylor and Ben McLemore were ruled ineligible by the NCAA.

That leaves the majority of duties falling to oft-criticized point guard Tyshawn Taylor and big man Thomas Robinson to anchor a team that is used to reloading every season.

Kansas had a difficult time matching up against the athleticism of Kentucky on Tuesday night, allowing the Wildcats to storm out of the gate in the second half, ultimately falling, 75-65.

A&M’s in-state rival, Baylor, is still awaiting forward Perry Jones III’s return, as he continues to serve his suspension for taking impermissible benefits.

Without Jones III in the lineup, Baylor looks more like a collection of superb athletes than a well-rounded basketball team. Twenty points and six rebounds from star freshman Quincy Miller helped the Bears to a 77-67 win over San Diego State on Tuesday.

Teams like Missouri and Iowa State, with all of their variables, could shake things up, and this is where opportunity comes for the Aggies.

With the lack of a standout and the potential for equity than we have not seen in the past, the Aggies just may emerge from the dust cloud with a Big 12 title.

While Middleton continues to recover, it will be important for forward Elston Turner, who had 13 points and two rebounds against Mississippi State, and company to bat down the hatches as the non-conference storm blows by.

This was the only real test before SEC play begins, with Alcorn State, Sam Houston State, and Louisiana-Monroe among those on their schedule, before a Dec. 17showdown with No. 8 Florida.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter: @DanielJMartin_

Villanova lands four-star 2018 guard

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Villanova added its first recruit in the Class of 2018 on Wednesday night.

Jay Wright and his staff landed a verbal commitment from Paul VI Catholic High School’s Brandon Slater, a four-star guard by Rivals as the No. 42 overall prospect in the rising senior class.

The 6-foot-5 Slater announced his decision via Twitter.

Slater, according to Jeff Borzello of ESPN, picked the Wildcats over Maryland, Miami, South Carolina, and Virginia.

He is currently playing the Nike EYBL with Team Takeover, the same grassroots program that produced current Villanova guard Phil Booth.

Comic-Con forces Providence to play at Alumni Hall for home opener

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Providence will play its first game at Alumni Hall, the on-campus facility, for the first time in 35 years this fall.

The Friars unveiled their 2017-18 non-conference schedule on Thursday afternoon. The team’s home opener will play either Houston Baptist or Belmont in Mullaney Gym inside Alumni Hall.

According to Kevin McNamara of the Providence Journal, the reason for that is a schedule conflict at Providence’s home arena, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, in downtown Providence. A Comic-Con convention is scheduled Nov. 10-12. As McNamara notes, it’s a busy part of the season for The Dunk. The arena also is home to the Providence Bruins, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Boston Bruins, and by mid-November, their season is in full swing.

The Friars haven’t played at Alumni Hall since 1972, the same year the Dunkin’ Donuts Center was opened. In the three decades since Providence last played a regular season game there, the facility has gone under necessary renovations, as you could imagine. Even with added seats, Mullaney Gym can host a maximum of 1,549. That’s a fraction of what The Dunk’s capacity of 12,400.

Providence will return to its downtown home on Nov. 13, hosting Minnesota as part of the Gavitt Games. The Golden Gophers will likely be a top-20 team to open the season. The Friars, who bring back every notable player from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, is a fringe top-25 team.

Jalen Coleman-Lands to transfer out of Illinois

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The already-thin Illinois roster got thinner on Thursday afternoon.

Evan Daniels of Scout.com reported that sophomore guard Jalen Coleman-Lands has requested and received his release from the program. He will have to sit out next season but will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Coleman-Lands was a top-40 recruit in the Class of 2015, according to Rivals. He becomes the second player from that recruiting class this month to exit the school. Reserve guard D.J. Williams elected to transfer on May 8. With Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett, two incoming recruits, both previously reopened their recruitments following John Groce’s firing.

Even with the addition of Wright State graduate transfer Mark Alstork, who officially joined the Fighting Illini on Wednesday, Illinois is left with only nine scholarship players as of right now.

Coleman-Lands’ production dipped from his freshman campaign, ending the 2016-17 season averaging 8.0 points and 2.3 rebounds per game, shooting 38 percent from three.

One destination that will likely be rumored will be nearby DePaul. Coleman-Lands played for new DePaul assistant coach Shane Heirman at prep school powerhouse La Lumiere School. Heriman quickly tapped into that prep pipeline, helping secure a commitment from La Lumiere from five-star 2019 point guard Tyger Campbell earlier this month.

Coleman-Lands had taken official visits to Notre Dame and UNLV before committing to the Illini in September 2014.

North Carolina releases response to latest NCAA Notice of Allegations

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North Carolina is still trying to convince the NCAA that their investigation into the paper classes given by the university’s African-American Studies Department is not, in fact, an NCAA matter.

On Thursday afternoon, the University released their response to the NCAA’s third iteration of the Notice of Allegations, and the core argument in that response is that the school’s “inadequate academic oversight” does not fall under the jurisdiction of the NCAA’s bylaws. In other words, North Carolina is arguing that a rogue professor creating fake classes is not an NCAA issue. It’s a school issue.

What’s more, North Carolina is also arguing that athletes taking these classes should not be classified as an extra benefit because they were available to the entire student body.

“No special arrangements were made for student-athletes in violation of NCAA extra-benefit legislation,” the response reads. “Student-athletes were not treated differently than other students who took the Courses.”

“The public narrative for the last six years, popularized by media accounts, is that Department of Athletics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took advantage of ‘fake classes’ in the Department of African and African-American Studies to keep student-athletes eligible. That narrative is wrong and contradicted by the facts in the record.”

The NCAA’s allegations center around the idea that UNC’s athletes, most notably members of the football and men’s and women’s basketball teams, were guided to the fake classes within that department in order to keep their GPAs high enough to remain eligible. The classes in question had a disproportionate percentage of athletes.

A hearing in front of the Committee on Infractions is expected to take place at some point this summer.

No indictment for escort, staffer in Louisville sex scandal

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A grand jury declined to indict an escort and former Louisville men’s basketball staffer in a sex scandal that engulfed the program.

The Jefferson County grand jury decided Thursday there wasn’t enough evidence for charges of prostitution and unlawful transactions with a minor against Katina Powell and Andre McGee.

Powell wrote in a book published in 2015 that McGee hired her to provide dancers to perform sex acts for Cardinal recruits and players from 2010-2014.

The announcement by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office comes as the school awaits discipline in early June by the NCAA after an investigation.

Louisville has imposed its own penalties, including a postseason ban in 2015-16 and reductions in scholarships and recruiting visits by coaches.