Weekend Preview: Gonzaga and Illinois highlight Saturday’s action

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Game of the Weekend: Sat. 10:00 pm: No. 13 Illinois at No. 10 Gonzaga (ESPN2)

The consensus heading into this season was that this could end up being the best Gonzaga team that we’ve seen in a few years, and through the first month of the season, the Zags have done nothing but confirm that line of thinking. After going into Pullman and beating Washington State in a thriller on Wednesday night, the Zags are sitting at 9-0 with a title in the Old Spice Classic under their belt.

But Illinois, the Maui champ, is 9-0 as well. Their situation is quite a bit different, however. The Illini didn’t have much in the way of expectation in the preseason, but seeing them have success isn’t that much of a surprise in hindsight. They have quite a bit of talent on the roster, and their poor record last season was as much a result of them quitting as it was an issue of whether they were good enough. With John Groce at the helm, might Illinois be able to turn their fortunes around?

Through nine games, that answer is yes. But that answer has also been given with close wins over mediocre opponents and a dominating run through the Maui that consisted of wins over USC, Chaminade and Butler. The Illini haven’t been tested yet, and they’ll get that in the form of Gonzaga.

Mark Few’s club is balanced, talented and deep. Most importantly, for this game, they have a ton of size up front. Illinois is loaded with good shooters, but their biggest player — Tyler Griffey — averages the fewest rebounds of any starter. Led by Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson, the Illini are going to be able to win some games they shouldn’t win on nights they get hot, but we’ll find out on Saturday night two things: a) how they play on the road, and b) if they can handle a team with size in the paint.

Five more games that you have to watch:

  • Sat. 12:00 pm: Arkansas at No. 3 Michigan (CBS): Michigan and Arkansas have contrasting styles — the Hogs like to get up and down the floor at a breakneck pace while Michigan is known for their more conservative, half court tempo — which makes this an intriguing matchup for hoop heads as it is. Throw in the fact that Michigan looks like they’re in the conversation with Duke and Indiana for the best team in the country and that Arkansas looks like they could end up being a top three team in the SEC, and the matchup gets even juicier. Trey Burke and BJ Young could end up being first-team all-americans together.
  • Sat. 2:00 pm: Colorado at No. 9 Kansas (ESPN2): This is easily the second best game of the weekend. After looking complacent in their first week as a ranked team, Colorado bounced back with a dominating win over rival Colorado State. The Rams are good, but they are no where near the same kind of team as Kansas. The Buffaloes might be good enough to win the Pac-12, which will mean that this old Big 12 rivalry (which was never really a rivalry since Colorado was never really good) should be quite entertaining. This game also features the best individual matchup of the weekend: Spencer Dinwiddie and Ben McLemore.
  • Sat. 6:00 pm: Wisconsin at Marquette (ESPN2): Todd Mayo’s academic issues and Josh Gasser’s ACL have taken some of the luster off of what is one of the best rivalries in all of college basketball. Both of these teams should still make the tournament, and while there will be quite a bit of talent on the floor, both Bo Ryan and Buzz Williams are still trying to figure out how all of their pieces fit together. Expect a battle.
  • Sat. 9:00 pm: Valparaiso at No. 18 New Mexico: Valpo reminds me a bit of Davidson. They have a couple of talented, versatile big men in Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wjik and a slew of experience up and down their roster. Davidson gave the Lobos all kinds of trouble at the Pit earlier this season. I think Valpo will keep things interesting as well.
  • Sat. 10:30 pm: No. 14 Minnesota at USC (Pac-12): The Trojans have talent on their roster. I don’t think anyone will deny that fact. But a month into the season, they look to be much closer to the team that won just six games last season than to a team capable of making a run at an NCAA tournament bid. Minnesota, on the other hand, has been really good for the first month, and they’ve done it without Trevor Mbakwe at full strength.

And the mid-majors?:

  • Sat. 2:00 pm: Drexel at Princeton
  • Sat. 2:00 pm: Indiana State at Morehead State
  • Sat. 3:05 pm: Murray State at Evansville (ESPN3)
  • Sat. 6:00 pm: Northern Iowa at George Mason (NBCSports)
  • Sun. 4:00 pm: Kent State at Xavier

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Wichita State getting more national respect with non-conference scheduling

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Wichita State is starting to gain more national respect with regards to its non-conference schedule.

Since moving to the American Athletic Conference this spring, the Shockers have not only gained the benefit of being in a multi-bid league every year, but they’re also getting better teams to play them outside of conference play.

According to a report from Paul Suellentrop of the Wichita Eagle, the Shockers now have non-conference games scheduled with Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State this season. With Wichita State also playing in the Maui Invitational, it gives the Shockers plenty of opportunities to schedule quality opponents and improve its NCAA tournament seeding. And that’s before Wichita State starts conference play.

Although Wichita State was getting invited regularly to prestigious non-conference tournaments such as Maui or the Battle 4 Atlantis, they were having a tough time getting certain schools to book home-and-home series. The Baylor series signifies a small, but significant, change to how Wichita State might be able to do things now.

USC forward Bennie Boatwright returning for junior year

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USC has a chance to be really good next season as forward Bennie Boatwright announced that he’s returning for his junior season.

The 6-foot-10 forward put up 15.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range as his return means that the Trojans should be a major contender in the Pac-12 next season. Elijah Stewart also announced this week that he is returning as USC could start Jordan McLaughlin, De’Anthony Melton, Stewart, Boatwright and Chimezie Metu next season.

With Duke transfer Derryck Thornton Jr. also becoming eligible and McDonald’s All-American guard Charles O’Bannon Jr. entering the program, the Trojans are a potential top-10 team.

Following decommitment, four-star recruit makes eye-opening remarks about Ohio State

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Ohio State lost a four-star recruit on Wednesday when in-state Class of 2018 wing Darius Bazley opted to open up his recruitment.

As a rising senior who is just finishing his junior season of high school, Bazley’s decommitment isn’t going to immediately hurt the Buckeyes next season. But the 6-foot-7 wing’s comments about why he opted to open up his recruitment are pretty jarring.

In a story with Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch, Bazley opened up about why he decommitted from Ohio State. Bazley’s eye-opening remarks include how the Buckeyes might not get him ideal NBA exposure and how Ohio State might miss the NCAA tournament in his freshman year.

“I was excited when I first got the offer,” Bazley said to Jardy. “Ohio State is still a great place. It’s nothing against the school or anything, but my one ultimate goal is to get to the NBA and I just didn’t feel as confident as I did when I first committed that Ohio State was one of those schools that could get me there. At the end of the day I’ve got to perform no matter where I go, but I think there’s other schools out there that could put me on a bigger stage and in a better position to show those NBA scouts when I get to college what I can do.”

Bazley also didn’t appear to be pleased at the recruiting class coming into Ohio State for the Class of 2017, which is the class that is coming in this season. Remember, Bazley is a Class of 2018 recruit who still has to finish his senior season.

“Ohio State, they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year,” Bazley said to Jardy. “They didn’t even make the NIT, which is unfortunate, but I looked into the recruits they have coming into next year, they didn’t look too good for the future. So I felt like when my class came in, yeah, we would’ve been OK, but good enough to make the tournament? I don’t know. I just felt as if I was to de-commit, actually take my time, figure everything out it would just be a lot better.”

Ohio State was once one of the major destinations for one-and-done players a decade ago so these remarks are very surprising. D’Angelo Russell was a top-five pick in the NBA Draft only two years ago, and while the Buckeyes might not be as successful in recent years as they once were, they still get plenty of national exposure with regards to producing NBA talent.

The NCAA tournament comments might carry some more weight though. The Buckeyes have missed the NCAA tournament in two consecutive seasons and things are also looking difficult for them to reach the Big Dance for next season. If Bazley wants to play in the NCAA tournament, then I could understand him wanting to open things up and explore more options.

Still, you don’t often see a player make comments like this about a school after decommitting–especially a program with as much national exposure as Ohio State. Bazley is likely going to face some heat for his remarks, but if those are his true feelings about a future life decision, then he should explore what else is out there.

Nevada gets transfer commitment from Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman

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Nevada continues to build its roster through transfers as the Wolf Pack added Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman on Thursday.

The 6-foot-7 Thurman will have to sit out one season before playing his senior season but he is coming off of a very good campaign for the Mavericks. The versatile forward put up 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent from the field.

One of the Summit League’s better players the last two seasons, Thurman should be a solid rotation forward for Nevada as he has a chance to be a breakout player with one more year of development. If Thurman can improve his 25 percent three-point shooting then he could be a major factor for Nevada.

D-League salaries, two-way contracts increase NBA Draft early entries

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Yesterday, I wrote a piece about how it’s dumb to criticize players for entering the NBA Draft without costing themselves their collegiate eligibility when the NCAA’s new NBA Draft rules are specifically designed for said players to be able to do that.

In that column, I mentioned that D-League salaries are on the rise and that the NBA’s new CBA instituted something called “two-way contracts,” and I wanted a chance to elaborate and clarify a couple of the points that I made.

Let’s start with the “two-way contracts,” which NBA teams each get two of. They are essentially a retainer that those teams can place on younger players they want to be the 16th and 17th men on their roster, holding their rights as they bounce between the D-League — where they will likely spend the majority of the year — and the NBA. The catch is that those players have to have less than three years service as a professional, and the point of it is to provide a financial incentive for younger players with the potential to reach the NBA to remain stateside while allowing those NBA teams to develop them.

That financial incentive is fairly large, as well: Two-way players will make $75,000 guaranteed and will be able to make up to $275,000, depending on the amount of time they spend with the NBA team.

That means there are an extra 60 jobs this season that can end up paying players with less than three years of professional basketball experience upwards of a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

That’s not a bad starting salary.

The other point that I wanted to address is the rising D-League salaries which, technically, will not be rising. There are still going to be Tier A and Tier B players, who make $26,000 and $20,000 respectively. But the NBA has something called affiliate players, which each of the now-25 NBA teams with a D-League affiliate can pay up to $50,000 for training camp. NBA teams are allowed a maximum of four affiliate players, who will still make their $26,000 salary from their D-League team.

In other words, that’s 100 more jobs available in the United States where a professional basketball player can make $76,000, and that’s before you consider that the five NBA teams that do not yet have a D-League affiliate will still have to play players to get them into training camp.

That $76,000 is not a life-changing amount of money. Neither is the $275,000 that a two-way contract can pay. But it’s a pretty damn good paycheck to make for an entry-level job into the industry that you always dreamed of being in.

Athletes have an unbelievably small window where they can capitalize monetarily on their gifts.

If a 21-year old sophomore decides that he wants to continue to develop his game and chase his NBA dream by making $76,000 as a D-League player, is that really all that crazy?

After all, 135 of the 450 players, or 30 percent of the roster spots, on NBA’s opening night were taken by guys that had spent time in the D-League.

There’s more than one way to make a dream come true.