Tray Woodall, Jabarie Hinds

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.

Monte’ Morris, Jalen Brunson among the top performers at Nike Skills Academy

LOS ANGELES, CA. JULY 25, 2016. The Academy. Jalen Brunson #6 of Villanova dribbles. (Mandatory photo credit: Jon Lopez/Nike).
Jon Lopez/Nike
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LOS ANGELES — I spent the last three days in California watching some of the best college players in the country work out and scrimmage at the Nike Skills Academy. Here are five players that stood out:

Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: The way that the games at the Nike Skills Academy were set up was pretty standard pickup basketball rules. Games were seven minutes long, winners stay on. On Monday night and Wednesday night during the scrimmages, the team that Morris was on went on a long winning streak, and on both nights, he was the best player on the floor for that team. College basketball fans know what Morris can do by now, as do NBA scouts. But he nonetheless impressed this week, and it wasn’t just his change-of-speed or playmaking ability. On the final night of the camp, everyone in the gym was gassed. Six of the 20 or so college kids at the camp were sitting out with “injuries” sustained during grueling three-a-day workouts. Morris? He played through the cramps and the dead legs. During the final session, when he was asked by camp director Miles Simon if he was tired, Morris simply answered “I’m not telling you that” and went out and won upwards of 10 games in a row.

Chris Boucher, Oregon: Boucher played with a ton of confidence all week long, doing all of the things that we’ve come to expect out of Canada’s surprising star forward. His length is ridiculous and he spent much of the week swatting shots at the rim, a terrific skill to have when he’s hitting threes the way that he did in the Hawthorne hangar. Boucher is going to be a very, very valuable piece for the Ducks, but his impact is going to be somewhat limited because he’s still just as skinny as ever.

LOS ANGELES, CA. JULY 25, 2016. The Academy. Chris Boucher #17 of Oregon dunks. (Mandatory photo credit: Jon Lopez/Nike).
Chris Boucher (Jon Lopez/Nike).

Jalen Brunson, Villanova: Brunson is a basketball savant, the kind of player that sees the game a step ahead of everyone else. He had a rough start on Monday night, but throughout the week was consistently creating open looks for teammates that, in many cases, he had never played with before. On the final night of the camp, Brunson had a fun little battle with Jordan McRae, a former Tennessee Vol that has bounced around the NBA the last two years. After McRae bodied Brunson in the post, Brunson answered with a nifty, driving layup before forcing a McRae turnover and shaking him at the other end to hit a game-winning, step-back jumper. I’m not sure if Brunson has the athleticism to end up being an NBA player, but I wasn’t sure that T.J. McConnell or Fred VanVleet had enough athleticism, either.

Jonathan Motley, Baylor: Boucher was the most impressive front court prospect in the camp, but Motley was probably the best front court player in Los Angeles this week. Motley has always been somewhat underrated because of the way he is used at Baylor, but he should be in line for a huge year for the Bears. He showed off a better-than-I-realized low-post repertoire and even knocked down a couple of perimeter shots.

Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart spent much of the week as Morris’ teammate, doing just as much as the Iowa State point guard to ensure that his team was always winning. So while I’m about to hit him with a couple of criticisms, understand that it comes with the caveat that he was awesome this week. Hart’s jumper went in at a really good clip, but his stroke is still weird enough — and his bad misses are still bad enough — that concerns about his ability to consistently make NBA threes are more than valid. The other issue? He has a penchant for make some headache-inducing plays that make you wonder just what in the world he saw that made him think that was a good idea.

NOTABLES

  • On the first night of the camp, the gym was flooded with NBA guys coming through to get in a workout and some high-level pick-up. At one points, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson, Jordan Clarkson and Devin Booker were all on the same team. They lost to a a squad led by Morris, Hart and Alec Peters.
  • Speaking of Peters, the Valparaiso star played very well all week. I’m convinced that, had he opted to be a grad transfer and leave Valpo, he would have been an impact player at just about any program in the country. If it all comes together for him next season, he’ll have a chance to put up ridiculous numbers.
  • Jaron Blossomgame of Clemson was impressive all week and threw down the best dunk that I saw during the camp. He could’ve turned pro this offseason and ended up getting picked in the second round while earning some guaranteed money. But he opted to return, in part to prove that he’s more than just a capable shooter. He did not do that the last three days.
  • Michigan State’s Miles Bridges is stupid athletic. He’s ridiculous. I’m not sure he’s a human. There are going to be a couple of Big Ten opponents that get utterly embarrassed by him this year. But … beyond the dunks, I’m just not sure how he is going to be able to score at that level.
  • Illinois forward Malcolm Hill might be the most underrated player in the country. The 6-foot-8 forward is what we call a bucket-getter. He’ll probably lead the Big Ten in scoring this season.
  • Edmond Sumner of Xavier has continued to fill out his body. He told me he was up to 185 pounds earlier this summer and that he’ll hopefully be over 190 by the time the season starts. When he committed Xavier he was on the wrong side of 150 pounds. Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey also looks like he’s spent some time in the weight room. One scout said it looks like he’s put on a good 20 pounds since he’s been in Eugene.
LOS ANGELES, CA. JULY 25, 2016. The Academy. Miles Bridges #18 of Michigan State dunks. (Mandatory photo credit: Jon Lopez/Nike).
Miles Bridges (Jon Lopez/Nike).

THE BAMBA: Mohamed Bamba’s mind is as bright as his hoops future

Mohamed Bamba, Jon Lopez/Nike
Jon Lopez, Nike
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LOS ANGELES — Fresh off of the gold medal he won in the U18 FIBA Americas tournament in Chile, Mohamed Bamba returned to the states and headed almost directly to Los Angeles to attend the Nike Skills Academy.

Attend. Not participate, at least not during the first day and a half of the camp.

He wasn’t alone in this decision. His USA Basketball teammates Michael Porter Jr., Trae Young and Hamidou Diallo also sat out parts or all of the first day. They had gone from Peach Jam in Augusta to the national team training camp in Houston to Chile, where they played five games in five days. A day off on the first Monday after the end of the July Live Period is almost necessary with the schedule that some of the nation’s elite high school prospects play.

But Bamba’s decision wasn’t strictly based on trying to catch up on rest.

He had left his soles in Valdivia.

“I have flat feet,” Bamba told NBCSports.com on Tuesday as he launched into the saga of his shoes, and because of those flat feet — and an ankle injury he suffered in the spring — the 7-foot Bamba has to wear specially made inserts in the sole of his shoes when he plays. When you’re that tall and your feet are that big, you’re not exactly buying those inserts off the rack.

During the tournament in Chile, Bamba became something of a sensation because his last name happens to be the name of a Mexican folk song, ‘La Bamba,’ made internationally famous by Richie Valens. The fans would go crazy every time he made a play. They made signs for him. They tabbed him as a third-party candidate for the people that don’t want to see Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the White House.

Bamba loved it, so much so that, when the tournament ended, he gave his shoes — soles and all — to a young Chilean boy who had become his biggest fan.

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NBCSports.com, courtesy Mohamed Bamba

It wasn’t until he got back to the hotel that he realized his mistake. He was able to track the kid down on social media and got one of the soles back that night, but the other shoe had been taken by someone else. By the time they found that person, it was too late. Bamba was going to have to wait to get his soles shipped back to him in the States. He won’t get them until he’s home in New York, which means that his time on the courts in a modified airplane hangar at the Hawthorne Airport was dictated by how effectively the training staff could replicate his soles with athletic tape.

All because he got excited and gave his shoes to a fan.

It was a pretty dumb thing to do for a kid who is decidedly not dumb.

———

Mohamed Bamba is among the elite of the elite in the Class of 2017. He’s a consensus top four prospect in the class, a kid that has a very real chance to be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. He’s no where near a finished product yet, but his ability to change the game on the defensive end of the floor is special.

“He’s a dinosaur, man,” is how one coach of a top-25 program described Bamba, and it’s a pretty apt comparison. He’s 7-foot in shoes and soles with a wingspan that has been measured at 7-foot-9.5 and a standing reach of 9-foot-6. Those numbers are unheard of, and given his knack for blocking and changing shots at the rim, it’s not hard to look at him and see a guy that can one day influence a game the same way Rudy Gobert or Hassan Whiteside can defensively.

The offensive end of the floor is where Bamba is still very much a work in progress. His post game is somewhere between ineffective and developing, but that will come as the 210-pound Bamba adds some weight and strength. He’s not a guy that you want shooting a lot of jumpers, but his stroke and soft touch are impressive enough that it’s fairly easy to project him as a guy that will consistently make perimeter shots one day. He’s not as fluid or as mobile as some of the more offensive-minded bigs you’ll come across, but he’s not uncoordinated, either.

He’s never going to be Karl Towns or Anthony Davis, but if his ceiling is Rudy Gobert with a jump shot, that’s something that will make him very attractive to a lot of NBA teams.

Bamba knows this.

He also knows, like the rest of the basketball-watching world, that the salaries NBA players are getting these days are massive. It’s very much within the realm of possibility that Bamba could earn nine figures in NBA paychecks by the time it’s all said and done. Bamba’s smart — there’s a reason that Duke and Harvard (yes, Harvard) are two of the schools that are highest on the list of schools chasing him — smart enough to know what he doesn’t know, including the ins and outs of the NBA salary cap and salary structures. Why is every max contract worth a different amount of money? Why was it a popular refrain to say that Kevin Durant left money on the table when he signed with the Golden State Warriors?

FIBA
FIBA

And that’s why Bamba ponied up the money to head to Boston and attend the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference, a weekend-long festival of sports nerds that are interested in things beyond how many points someone scored in a game. Bamba attended a presentation breaking down the best way to defend pick-and-rolls, sat in on a session analyzing how an NBA front office works and, fittingly enough, learned about predictive injury analytics and injury prevention.

“I had never thought about efficiency before,” Bamba said. “In high school it’s about how many points you score, not how many shots it takes or possessions it takes.”

‘Student-athlete’ is something of a tongue-in-cheek term in this day and age given the inherent unfairness of amateurism in the NCAA, but Bamba is as much a student as he is an athlete. He’s got an inquisitive nature, a desire to learn. His trip to MIT started as a joke about him being a dork, but once he found out what it was he became intrigued. So he went. He’s been studying up on speeches that he attended in the months since he left Boston, learning more and more about NBA contracts and how players can manage their money. “If you’re going to be an multi-million dollar investment, you should know why and how it works,” he said.

He’s in business and marketing classes at the Westtown School now, and he says that regardless of how long it takes him to declare for the NBA Draft, he will be getting his degree. But when asked by a reporter if he’s preparing himself, on the chance that he goes one-and-done, to test out of intro classes and take more advanced courses as a freshman, Bamba admitted it was the rare topic he had no knowledge of.

“I’ve never thought about that,” he said.

“But I’m going to look into it now.”

Mohamed Bamba, Jon Lopez/Nike
Mohamed Bamba, USA Basketball

Top-25 guard trims list to six

Trae Young , Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images
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One of the top points guards in the Class of 2017 has trimmed his list of potential collegiate destinations to six.

Trae Young, a consensus top-25 recruit, listed Texas Tech, Kansas, Oklahoma, Washington, Oklahoma State and Kentucky as the schools he is considering as he readies to begin his senior year of high school.

The list of the 6-foot-2 point guard is largely provincial as it includes Oklahoma, whose campus is just minutes away from Young’s Norman North High School, and fellow in-state school Oklahoma. Another pair of Big 12 schools make the list in powerhouse Kansas and the Red Raiders, whose first-year coach, Chris Beard, has spent the bulk of his career working in Texas. Texas Tech is also Young’s father’s alma mater. Washington has been on a role sending its players to the pros and recently received the commitment of top-five 2017 recruit Michael Porter, Jr.

Kentucky, of course, needs no explanation as to its attractiveness to high-level players.

Top-100 guard commits to Xavier

Chris Mack has Xavier back in the Sweet 16 (AP Photo)
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Xavier has added a top-100 prospect into its 2017 recruiting class Wednesday.

Elias Harden, a shooting guard from Georgia, pledged to the Musketeers via social media to become the second member of Chris Mack’s next class.

“The recruiting process was not EASY AT ALL,” Harden wrote on Twitter. “I wanna thank all the coaches that took time to recruit me.

“WIth that being said I will continue my academic and athletic career at Xavier University.”

The 6-foot-6 guard is ranked 92nd overall by 247Sports and had offers from Auburn, Maryland, Texas Tech and Ole Miss. He joins Jared Ridder, a Missouri guard, as part of the 2017 Xavier class.

The Musketeers return the bulk of last year’s 28-6 team that narrowly missed out on the Sweet 16.

Clemson recruit to enroll early

Brad Brownell
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Clemson will get a four-star recruit on campus a year earlier than it expected, though his on-court debut for the Tigers will remain on schedule.

A.J. Oliver, a guard from South Carolina, will enroll early at Clemson and redshirt this upcoming season, he announced via social media Wednesday.

“I woke up this morning and realized that the greatest opportunity for me is to enroll early into Clemson,” he wrote on Twitter. “I will redshirt a year & start my college career early.”

Oliver, whose mother is the head women’s basketball coach at Clemson, was a consensus top-100 player in the class of 2017 who committed to the Tigers last December. Texas Tech and the College of Charleston were involved before his commitment.

A three-star shooting guard, Scott Spencer of Virginia, was previously the only member coach Brad Brownell’s 2016 class. While Oliver’s decision to redshirt will keep him off the court for the 2016-17 season, he’ll have spent a full season in the Tiger program before making his debut in 2017

The cupboard isn’t bare in 2017 for the Tigers due to Oliver’s reclassification because Clemson received a commitment from power forward Malik Williams, a consensus top-150 player, earlier Wednesday.