Burning Questions: Who outside the top 25 can make the Final Four?

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Real, live college basketball games start on Friday, and with all of our glorious preseason content finally finished, this week we will be providing you with water cooler fodder as we roll through a series of Burning Question. You can read them all right here.

First up: Which team outside the AP top 25 can make a run to the Final Four?

The Atlantic 10 pick-em (Troy Machir) Yeah that’s right, I said it. Listen, I know the Big Ten is loaded this year and chalk full of really talented players. But the Atlantic-10 may end up being the deepest conference in the country. Think about it: Temple, St. Joseph’s, Saint Louis, Xavier, VCU, Butler, heck, throw in Dayton a well. By the time the NCAA tournament rolls around, half the A-10 will have already played in a handful of high pressure tournament-like games.  Imagine Xavier playing VCU and Butler back-to-back? That’s like +100 experience. Plus, since not a single A-10 team cracked the AP Top-25, I have a slew of teams to choose from, and I’m confident that any of them are talented enough to make a Final-Four run.

Pittsburgh (Raphielle Johnson): Hear me out. Tray Woodall’s healthy after his injuries essentially left the Panthers without a consistent point guard and sabotaged their 2011-12 season. And the addition of Trey Zeigler on the perimeter gives Pitt a player who can make things happen off the dribble, something the sorely lacked last year. Add in front court depth bolstered by the addition of Steven Adams, and some solid wings in Lamar Patterson and J.J. Moore, and the Panthers have the ability to make their final Big East season a special one. They won’t be picked on the level of a Louisville or Syracuse in the Big East, but why can’t Jamie Dixon’s squad get into the mix with the likes of Cincinnati and Notre Dame? Keep an eye on Pitt as the season progresses.

Butler (Eric Angevine): Rotnei Clarke sports a career 42% three point shooting mark and once scored 51 points in a game. You have no idea how much I wish he had been a Butler Bulldog rather than an Arkansas Razorback in 2011, when the Bulldogs put on a clank-fest in the national title game, scoring just 41 points. His hot hand should make things so much easier for Andrew Smith on the blocks, and create space for Khyle Marshall to further develop his game. Add in plenty of tough non-conference games to season up a strong recruiting class and a spot in a multi-bid league. It’s crazy enough, it just might work.

St. Joseph’s (Daniel Martin): The biggest thing going for St. Joe’s this year is the number of players they have returning. Chemistry has a way of showing itself in March and the Hawks have it. Carl Jones and Langston Galloway together averaged close to 33 points per game last season, making up a backcourt that can hang with most anyone. Add that to a frontcourt that includes 2011-12 A-10 Defensive Player of the Year C.J. Aiken, along with Ronald Roberts and Halil Kancevic and St. Joe’s could be college basketball’s Cinderella team in March.

Kansas State (Rob Dauster): People really must hate Bruce Weber, because that’s the only explanation for why Kansas State finds themselves ranked so low heading into the season. The Wildcats were an eight-seed last season, and outside of Frank Martin’s departure for South Carolina, the only person they lost off of last year’s team was Jamar Samuels. One of the players that returns is Big 12 Player of the Year candidate Rodney McGruder. Two more are talented-but-inconsistent sophomores Angel Rodriguez and Thomas Gipson, and if there’s anything we know, it’s that sophomores tend to iron out those inconsistencies. This is a group being coach by an offensive mind that has already been drilled on how to play defense. Buy low. Trust me.

DiVincenzo to test NBA draft waters

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The Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player is testing the water to see if the NBA will let him have next.

Villanova announced on Thursday that Donte DiVincenzo, who scored a career-high 31 points in the national title game two weeks ago, will declare for the draft but will not hire an agent so as to preserve his collegiate eligibility.

“Donte has consistently improved in his time at Villanova through dedication and a commitment to our core values,” stated Wildcats head coach Jay Wright. “His play this season has created a unique opportunity for him to receive feedback from NBA teams in the draft process. We support Donte fully and our staff will work together with him and his family to help him assess the next step in his basketball career.”

At this point, every relevant Villanova player has announced what their intention is for the NBA draft. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are heading to the NBA. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are returning to school, and barring a shock decision to transfer or to declare for the draft, both Collin Gillispie and Jermaine Samuels will be as well.

That leaves Divincenzo and Omari Spellman, both of whom have declared for the draft without signing with an agent.

What those two decide to do could end up determining who college basketball’s best is next season, and there is no easy answer here for either of them.

We’ve been over this with Spellman already. At 6-foot-9, Spellman is already an elite shooter for someone his size. He’s also down to a svelte 245 pounds, which has turned him into a much more impressive athlete than he was when he first arrived on the Main Line. He’s more explosive. He’s a better shot-blocker and rebounder. He’s much better at attacking closeouts. As it stands, he’s got a shot to be a late first round pick should he remain in the draft.

The same can be said for DiVincenzo, a 6-foot-5 off-guard that is a streaky scorer with range and athleticism that can operate in ball-screens actions. He’s coming off one of the most impressive performances that we’ve seen in a national title game ever, which means that the memory that everyone is going to have of DiVincenzo is of him raining threes, blocking players at the rim and winking into the crowd.

But that’s not what NBA scouts are going to necessarily remember of him.

Villanova might not have been appointment viewing for people that wanted to see the next crop of superstars play, but they were on every NBA team’s list of teams that they needed to see. That’s what happens when there are five potential pros on the roster, including a top ten pick in Bridges and the National Player of the Year in Brunson.

Put another way, NBA personnel are very, very familiar with DiVincenzo. They know that he is a streaky scorer that can go off for 20 points in a half or 30 points in a game. They know that he is a plus athlete that can guard different positions despite the fact that his wingspan is all that massive. They also know he is a guy who doesn’t always make great decisions and can really struggle when he has to handle the ball against pressure.

Like Spellman, DiVincenzo is a borderline first round pick that is more likely to end up being snatched up in the early-to-mid second round if they remain in the draft.

The question they need to ask themselves is whether or not they feel that where they get selection could be drastically altered by returning to school, and I do think there is some reason to believe that to be the case. For starters, there are places where both players can improve to become more highly-regarded prospects, but I think what would be more relevant is that, if they both do return, we could be looking at a situation where both are preseason all-americans for a preseason top three team.

Hell, I don’t think it’s out of the question that DiVincenzo will be a Preseason National Player of the Year candidate, Spellman a preseason first-team all-american and Villanova the preseason No. 1 team in the country.

And if that is the case, one would assume that DiVincenzo — like Bridges and Josh Hart before him — could put together the kind of season that would see him shoot up draft boards. The same with Spellman.

But what’s more relevant for this space is that with both of those players in the fold, Villanova would once again be a national title contender and the overwhelming favorite to win a down-Big East conference.

Without them?

Villanova will be looking at having a rotation that includes three sophomores and three freshmen, which is not close to the ideal for Jay Wright. They’ll still be good, but we won’t be talking about them as a team that can win a title, at least not at the start of the season.

There is no hyperbole when I say that what DiVincenzo and Spellman decide to do will drastically alter the landscape of college basketball for the 2018-19 season.

Paschall, Booth to return for senior seasons with Villanova

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Villanova announced on Thursday morning that both Phil Booth and Eric Paschall will be returning for their senior seasons with the Wildcats.

“Phil and Eric are two of the cornerstone leaders of our team,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “Each of them is widely respected by their teammates, not just for their talent, but for the kind of young men they are. We are thrilled that they will help lead our team again as seniors.”

Booth, a 6-foot-3 guard, is a redshirt senior from Maryland that averaged 10 points and 3.2 boards this past season despite dealing with a broken bone in his shooting hand that held him out of the lineup for seven games during Big East play. Paschall is a 6-foot-6 wing that started 38 games and averaged 10.6 points and 5.3 boards this past season, his second with Villanova after transferring into the program from Fordham.

There was some question that Paschall could end up declaring for the NBA draft. He is a redshirt junior and, given his athleticism, defensive versatility and ability to knock down threes, he would be an intriguing second round prospect and a potential role player at the NBA level. His return is big, because he is the piece that allows Villanova to be able to switch 1-through-4 without much worry, and he’ll allow sophomore Jermaine Samuels and incoming freshman Cole Swider to have another year before they are relied upon as heavily as they would be without him.

As good as Booth is at the college level, he’s not likely to end up being an NBA player. The concern is that, like Mikal Bridges and Paschall, is he was a senior from an education perspective, meaning that he could have earned his degree and moved on to the professional ranks. He will be an important veteran presence on the floor, and the kind of program piece that will help bridge the gap between last season’s title-winning team and the next crop of youngsters on the roster.

Arizona lands Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther

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Arizona landed a key addition for its frontcourt on Wednesday as Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther pledged to the Wildcats.

The 6-foot-9 Luther is expected to receive a hardship waiver that would give him immediate eligibility, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com, as Arizona gets some much-needed help up front.

Playing in 10 games last season before a stress reaction in his right foot ended the season, Luther averaged 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for the Panthers. In his final game of the season, Luther went for 13 points and 12 rebounds in a Pitt loss to West Virginia. Luther shot 45 percent from the field and is a noted perimeter threat as he was 38 percent from behind the three-point line.

Luther hasn’t logged heavy minutes as a contributor through a full season. Mostly a role player at Pitt until last season, Luther was the team’s most productive player when he was on the floor. But that production also didn’t come during ACC play and through the course of a full season.

Thankfully at a program like Arizona, Luther should have a bit more help around him. He could be a nice addition to the Wildcats, particularly if he rebounds and spaces the floor in the frontcourt as he did at Pitt. Arizona needed someone like Luther to provide more stability after losing players like Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic.

In the last few weeks, Arizona has rebounded nicely to land three commitments for next season — including freshmen Devonaire Doutrive and Omar Thielemans. The group isn’t as heralded as some past Arizona recruiting efforts. Given where the Wildcats were in recruiting a few weeks ago, however, this isn’t a bad turnaround.

TCU extends Jamie Dixon’s contract by two more years

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TCU has given head coach Jamie Dixon a two-year contract extension through the 2023-24 season, according to a release from the school.

Dixon took the Horned Frogs to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years this season as he’s done a great job of turning around his alma mater. The release also notes that TCU had the highest average attendance in program history this season. Fans are also taking notice of a revitalized team.

With back-to-back 20-win seasons and postseason appearances, Dixon and TCU have a lot of positive momentum going on right now. The two-year extension for Dixon should help a bit in recruiting when it comes to overall stability, as well, as he’s been able to attract some quality talent so far.

Report: Kevin Ollie claims UConn violated rights with firing

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Fired former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie is claiming that the school violated his constitutional rights during his departure.

Ollie sent a letter to UConn school president Susan Herbst which was obtained by ESPN’s Myron Medcalf in a report released on Wednesday. Ollie’s lawyers are claiming the school proceeded with his firing before giving Ollie a proper chance to contest his termination — which was guaranteed in his contract and also the collective bargaining agreement with the University of Connecticut’s branch of the American Association of University Professors. Ollie was fired, with cause, in late March as the school mentioned an NCAA inquiry as the reason why. According to Medcalf’s report, the NCAA has not sent a notice of allegations to the school.

Ollie’s union membership includes thousands of faculty members around the country as the collective bargaining agreement demands a hearing process before any employee can be terminated for allegations of serious misconduct. Ollie claims he didn’t receive a letter he was supposed to get to begin the termination process.

“From our review of the facts and circumstances relating to Coach Ollie’s employment status, it is apparent that the University of Connecticut has already violated [Coach Ollie’s] rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by subverting Coach Ollie’s opportunity to respond to charges and evidence in a meaningful way in advance of the decision to terminate his employment,” said the letter dated April 3.

“The public record, action taken, and authorized communications by representatives of the University of Connecticut, demonstrate that the decision to terminate Coach Ollie has already been made and therefore the University of Connecticut has effectively negated Coach Ollie’s property right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

This letter to UConn likely begins a long legal battle to try to get an eight-figure payout back as Ollie is going to do everything he can to clear his name.