Need a rooting interest this weekend? Try Thomas Robinson

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In a Final Four of powerhouse programs accustomed to making the NCAA tournament’s final weekend it’s not easy for a casual fan to find a rooting interest. Butler or VCU? Easy to cheer for them.

But when Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State have 49 Final Four appearances combined, most college basketball might just cheer against all four or just watch something else. Who wants to cheer for four Goliaths?

Then again, what if one of the Goliaths has a story that’ll tug at anyone’s heartstrings? Would that sway fans?

Thomas Earl Robinson’s broad shoulders have carried Kansas all season. A unanimous choice for the AP All-American team, he’s also headed for a multi-million deal as a future NBA lottery pick. But it hasn’t been an easy road for Robinson, one of the game’s hardest workers and best players. Not even close.

Not after last season.

Robinson’s sophomore season was beset by personal tragedies. His grandmother died in late December of 2010 and his grandfather died a few weeks later. Then his mother, Lisa, a single mom in her early 40s, died of a heart attack in on January 21. The deaths shook Robinson and his teammates, who could hardly believe so much bad news could come at once. Coach Bill Self called it “the saddest thing I’d ever seen in my whole life.”

His eight-year-old sister, Jayla, was the one who called from Washington D.C. and told Robinson the news.

After burying his mother and rejoining Kansas, Robinson declared his intentions to begin caring for Jayla. That would mean skipping the final two years of college to play in the NBA to provide financial support and being around as much as his NBA schedule would allow.

That didn’t happen. A scholarship was provided to Jayla, who’s still living in D.C. where her father, James Paris is. But he’s a good big brother, protective and worried about what her future holds. And the plan is to start securing that future by heading to the NBA after this season.

From a gut-wrenching story earlier this season from ESPN the Magazine::

“I’m still scared for my little sister,” Thomas says. “I cry and I complain about how it’s not fair for me, but she’s going through way more. She’s 8 years old. She ain’t got the memories that I got with my mom. I just feel like I can’t stop. I got to do something to where I make her so happy that she’ll never have to go through any pain in her life ever. No more bad phone calls. None of us can have any more bad phone calls.”

Basketball and Jayla: That’s about all Thomas thinks about. When Self recently suggested planting a tree in memory of Lisa outside Allen Fieldhouse, a place she never lived to see, Thomas thought it was the quintessential idea. He and Self watched the gardeners dig the hole, and Thomas placed his letter in with the roots. It reads:

Mom,
I guarantee you have no worries about Jayla.
I will make sure everything is okay. I won’t blink.
My promise.

Love,
Earl

Lisa called him Earl. She was the only one.

Robinson’s hardly the only guy to place the NBA on hold – Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger both did the same – but I doubt any player has more weighing on his shoulders than Robinson. His Jayhawks aren’t favored to win the tournament.

But I’m guessing he’ll have a few more fans than normal cheering for him this weekend.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

IUPUI to become Horizon League’s 10th member

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The Horizon League officially announced this week that IUPUI will be replacing Valparaiso as the league’s 10th member. Valpo left to replace Wichita State in the Missouri Valley.

“We are excited to welcome IUPUI to the Horizon League family,” Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone said. “The Jaguars bring us tremendous competitive potential, particularly in men’s basketball, along with an engaged and energized city. Their addition solidifies our broad community partnerships in Indianapolis and is the right school at the right time.”

IUPUI — which stands for Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis — has been a member of the Summit League, which will be left with eight teams now that the Jaguars have departed. They’ve made it to one NCAA tournament, back in 2003, and have been a full-fledged member of Division I for 19 years. That was the year before NBA point guard George Hill enrolled. Current head coach Jason Gardner has been there for three years but has yet to record a winning season; IUPUI has not been over .500 since 2011, when Ron Hunter was still the head coach.

“We are excited about engaging with the other Horizon League member institutions to enhance the overall competitiveness of the league,” said IUPUI Director of Athletics Dr. Roderick Perry. “As an institution and athletics department, our mission, vision, and core values align closely with the Horizon League. This is an important step forward in the life of our athletics department.”

Former Louisville standout Chris Jones shot in Memphis

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Former Louisville point guard Chris Jones was shot while playing basketball in his native Memphis on Tuesday night.

According to a report from FOX 13 in Memphis, shortly after 11 p.m. shots rang out on in Halle Park after an altercation on the court. Two people were taken to the hospital, one with a head injury stemming from a fight. The other was Jones, who was shot in the leg twice, according to the Courier-Journal. His injuries are not life-threatening and he has already been released from the hospital, according to Steve Forbes, his former Junior College coach.

Jones played at Melrose High in Memphis before spending two years at Northwest Florida Junior College and two more seasons at Louisville.

This past year, he spent time playing professionally in Greece and in France, although he played just a grand total of three games in the two leagues.

Perhaps the craziest part about this story is that Jones was shot on a court that is next to a police station. This is a screengrab from FOX 13’s live shot from the basketball courts, and you can see the police cars in the station’s parking lot in the back ground:

Preaching patience, new Pitt AD says hoops program “a complete rebuild”

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Things did not go particularly well for Kevin Stallings in his first year at Pitt. The program, which essentially pushed Jamie Dixon out the door for being consistently good but not often enough great, struggled, going 16-17 overall and 4-14 in the ACC, just two games out of the cellar.

On top of that, six players prematurely left the program this spring.

Not great, especially when you’ve got a new boss that didn’t hire you, as is the case for Stallings with new Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke, who came aboard in March. In her first meeting with Stallings, Lyke asked a rather blunt question.

“Do you want to be here?” according to the Beaver County Times.

Stallings answered that he did, and his new athletic director would appear to be willing to give her predecessor’s hire time to reclaim and rebuild the program.

“It’s a steep climb, if you will,” Lyke said. “It’s not something that’s going to come easy and it takes an incredible amount of work.”

Stallings’ personal reputation took a significant amount of damage this spring when he attempted to block Cameron Johnson from an intra-ACC transfer to North Carolina. NBC Sports’ Scott Phillips called him a “town-deaf clown” in his attempt to keep Johnson from being a Tar Heel, a position he later relinquished, allowing Johnson to head to Chapel Hill.

Losing Johnson certainly won’t help Stallings and the Panthers recover from the difficult first season. Pitt didn’t hit any grand-slams in recruiting but is adding four-star guard Marcus Carr in its 2017 class.

The immediate outlook doesn’t look particularly bright, but Pitt appears to be positioning itself to exhibit some patience.

“If you look at the team, it is a complete rebuild,” Lyke said. “So I do think that (Stallings) is going to need a little time to develop it.

“But, we’ve got to be headed in the right direction. There’s some things that have got to get better and noticeable improvements. I’ve already seen those things start to happen.”

 

Miller Time: Indiana coach cashes in with $24 million deal

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — New Indiana coach Archie Miller will make $24 million under his seven-year deal — and potentially even more in bonuses.

Miller accepted the job in March, but the athletic department didn’t announce details of the contract until Tuesday.

He will receive a base salary of $550,000 per year and $1 million in deferred income each season. Miller also will receive an additional $1.85 million in outside marketing and promotional income — and will get a $50,000 per year raise each year through March 2024.

Miller can earn a $250,000 bonus for winning a national championship. He can earn an additional $125,000 for a Big Ten regular-season title, reaching the Final Four and producing multiyear Academic Progress Rate scores over 950.

Utah, BYU rivalry back on after one-year hiatus

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The BYU-Utah annual rivalry series will be back on this season after taking a one-year hiatus last year.

For just the second time since 1909, the Utes and the Cougars did not play in 2016-17 after Utah head coach Larry Kyrstkowiak asked for a one-year cooling off period stemming from an intense and emotional game against BYU in 2015-16. In that game, then-freshman Nick Emery was ejected as a result of this punch that he threw:

The last time those two teams did not play was due to World War II.

The game will be played at BYU on Dec. 16th.

Utah will also play Utah State this season, the first time that they have played the Aggies since 2011.