Conference Catch-ups: Despite realignment, Big East will be competitive

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Missouri Valley Conference Catchup:

Favorite: No. 3 Louisville

Russ Smith has matured his game and is turning into a go-to scorer. Yes, he still takes a lot of shots and it wouldn’t hurt to shoot better than 43 percent from the field, but he is beginning to take better shots and, along with Peyton Siva, makes up one of the nation’s toughest backcourts.

Contenders:

Syracuse

The Orange suffered their first loss of the season to Temple, due in large part to the Owls’ ability to force Michael Carter-Williams away from distributing and into scoring the ball. Once he gets back to facilitating the offense, Syracuse will keep running like a well-oiled machine.

Cincinnati

They climbed as high as 8th in the national polls before a loss to New Mexico. That will likely be as high as they get all season, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a legitimate Sweet 16 contender. Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright are dangerous.

Pittsburgh

The backcourt duo of James Robinson and Tray Woodall is proving to be a good one. Talib Zanna’s development has helped to solidify the Panthers’ inside presence. They don’t turn the ball over much, which will help in Big East play.

Notre Dame

Jack Cooley picked up where he left off last season and is averaging a double-double of 15.2 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. Combine that with consistent guard play from Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins and the Irish are in business.

Georgetown

Yes, we saw an abysmal offensive performance in the Hoyas’ ugly win over Tennessee early in the year, but we should see the Georgetown team we saw in Brooklyn as the year progresses. Otto Porter continues to be the do-everything guy who makes it all work.

Biggest Surprise: Connecticut

A mass exodus of talent from Storrs, a new coach, and a postseason ban should have been enough to sink the Huskies, but Kevin Ollie has gotten his team on the same page and off to a 10-2 start. Ollie was rewarded with a five-year deal worth close to $7 million, which can only help his comfort within the program, giving him some job security.

Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright have proven to be a formidable combo in the backcourt, averaging 16.8 and 16.1 points per game, respectively. DeAndre Daniels has doubled his minutes this season and responded with production, putting up 10.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game.

The true test of Connecticut’s resolve might come as early as mid-January, when the Huskies face No. 21 Notre Dame, then No. 4 Louisville, then No. 24 Pittsburgh in the span of a week.

Biggest Disappointment: Providence

Let me say first that it’s not Providence’s fault. They lost Ricky Ledo to an NCAA ruling at the beginning of the season. Kris Dunn and Vincent Council just recently got into the rotation after working through injury. They’re still 8-4, despite those road blocks, in a conference that has done well overall in the non-conference. Ed Cooley is building a contender at Providence, though. With his presence on the recruiting trail and what he has been able to do with the assets he already has, the Friars are on the upswing in the long-term.

Player of the Year: Jack Cooley, Notre Dame

Cooley is averaging a double-double of 15.2 points and 11.3 rebounds. He’s been comparable to Mason Plumlee of Duke so far, which is saying something. If Notre Dame wants to make a run in March, he’s going to be the guy who gets them there.

Also of Note: Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse), Russ Smith (Louisville), Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati), Otto Porter (Georgetown)

Best Freshman: Chris Obekpa, St. John’s

Obekpa leads not only freshman but the entire nation in blocks with 5.3 per game. He has changed the complexion of Steve Lavin’s defense, allowing the Red Storm to take more chances on the perimeter because Obekpa is around the rim to block shots. He adds a solid 4.3 points and 5.3 rebounds, as well.

Also of note: James Robinson (Pittsburgh), Omar Calhoun (Connecticut), Ryan Arcidiacono (Villanova)

Three Predictions:

1. Notre Dame will end up as the conference’s fourth best team. Cincinnati and Georgetown are ahead of the Irish right now, but Cooley, Grant, and Atkins shouldn’t be discounted.

2. Connecticut will finish as an NCAA tournament-worthy team, though they can’t qualify. Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier make up one of the strongest backcourts in the conference and Omar Calhoun is emerging as a legitimate option in only his freshman season.

3. Otto Porter will make himself a lottery pick by the end of the year. The same Michael Kidd-Gilchrist worked his way to the top of the draft by being a lot of different things well, Porter will do the same to a lesser extent.

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. No. 4 Louisville *
2. No. 7 Syracuse *
3. No. 8 Cincinnati *
4. No. 21 Notre Dame *
5. No. 18 Georgetown *
6. No. 24 Pittsburgh *
7. Connecticut
8. Marquette *
9. South Florida
10. Villanova
11. Seton Hall
12. Rutgers
13. St. John’s
14. DePaul
15. Providence

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

John Calipari lobbies for change in one-and-done rule to help athletes

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Kentucky head coach John Calipari is hoping the one-and-done rule changes so that athletes have more rights.

In a revealing interview with Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Calipari went into great detail about his thoughts behind a rule that many believe he has exploited greatly to his benefit over the last 10 years. Even though the Wildcats and Calipari have figured out the one-and-done rule to their advantage, the Hall of Fame coach still wants the rule to be abolished.

“Kids should be able to go (to the NBA) out of high school. That’s not our deal. That’s between the NBA and the Players Association,” Calipari said Friday. “Don’t put restrictions on kids.”

Calipari told Engel that he met with the NBPA last week in the hopes of the organization creating a combine for worthy high school juniors with pro potential. Calipari also wants agents more involved with high school kids.

“The players and the families need to know – here are the ones who should be thinking about the NBA, and here are the ones who should not,” Calipari said. “That’s why you need a combine.”

“If they want to go out of high school, go. If they want to go to college and then leave, let them leave when they want to leave. Why would we force a kid to stay? ‘Well – it’s good for the game?’ It’s about these kids and their families. Because let me tell you, if we (abolish one-and-done), the kids that do come to college will stay for two to three years.”

Calipari also has plenty of thoughts on the NBA G-League and how the league could potentially help young athletes with an education fund if they choose to turn pro directly out of high school. Regardless of what happens with the NBPA and the one-and-done rule, Calipari also said that his program would be fine — regardless of the rules.

Given that Calipari has operated on a different recruiting plane than everyone else in college basketball (with the exception of a few other bluebloods like Duke and Kansas) the last several years, it’s always notable when he gives his thoughts on the overall landscape of basketball.

But is Calipari actually lobbying for this? Or is this yet another way for Calipari to mold quotes into a recruiting pitch for elite players? Ultimately, it’s up to the NBPA to decide how the rules will be for future pros.

Report: NCAA allows Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale to compete on Dancing with the Stars

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After a memorable March Madness run that included two game-winning jumpers in the Final Four and an eventual national title, Notre Dame junior guard Arike Ogunbowale became a breakout national star.

Ogunbowale already appeared on Ellen while meeting her basketball idol, Kobe Bryant. Now, Ogunbowale will get the rare opportunity to appear on Dancing with the Stars — which the NCAA will allow even though Ogunbowale is still a rising senior who is scheduled to return to school next season.

Dancing with the Stars compensates its contestants and also has a prize for the winner. Under NCAA Bylaw 12.4.1, college athletes cannot be compensated based on their athletic abilities.

But the NCAA is arguing that Ogunbowale’s appearance on the show is “unrelated to her basketball abilities,” according to a statement they released regarding the decision. According to a report from Jacob Bogage of the Washington Post, the NCAA is also limiting Ogunbowale’s visibility for the show’s promotional tools.

From the Washington Post report:

The NCAA has placed restrictions on Ogunbowale that limit her involvement with the show and her potential to build her brand. She is not allowed to appear in promotional materials for the show, including commercials, according to the NCAA’s statement. She didn’t join other contestants during a group appearance on “Good Morning America” last week. Show handicappers have already wondered whether the NCAA’s limits will hurt her chances.

And the NCAA could turn down future requests by arguing that Ogunbowale is not endorsing “Dancing with the Stars” by appearing on the program, but instead is participating in a “personal growth experience” by learning how to ballroom dance, said Barbara Osborne, a professor of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina.

This is a slippery slope for the NCAA to take with this. Ogunbowale is, quite clearly, a famous basketball player. She’s on Dancing with the Stars because of her basketball abilities. The NCAA arguing anything else is just silly and embarrassing. The NCAA is also trying its best to uphold its argument about amateurism in the only way they know how.

But could this also could be a sign that the NCAA is perhaps open to the potential of allowing athletes to profit off of themselves in the future? The NCAA is currently handling a number of different court cases regarding amateurism, so it’s hard to say where all of this might go until the legal process starts to clear up.

Either way, this should be a fun experience for Ogunbowale while providing great national exposure for herself and women’s basketball. Ogunbowale might not be technically allowed to build her own brand during the show, but she’ll be gaining tons of new exposure for her basketball future — regardless of what the NCAA says in a statement.

Memphis center Karim Sameh Azab diagnosed with leukemia

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Memphis center Karim Sameh Azab announced on Saturday that he’s been battling leukemia lymphoma.

The 6-foot-11 big man from Egypt has been receiving medical treatment since the beginning of April as he took to Twitter to announce his current status.

Sameh Azab played in 15 games this season for the Tigers as he saw action for 84 total minutes. The reserve big man was a late addition in former head coach Tubby Smith’s first recruiting class at Memphis as he didn’t quality to play during his first season.

“Karim has my full support and the support of our whole team,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said in a statement earlier this month. “While we appreciate the support of the Tiger family in this matter, we would also like to protect the privacy of Karim and his family.”

South Dakota State’s Mike Daum declares for 2018 NBA Draft without an agent

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South Dakota State big man Mike Daum will enter the 2018 NBA Draft without an agent, he announced on Friday.

The 6-foot-9 redshirt junior has been a mid-major draft darling the past few seasons as Daum was one of the most productive players in the country last season. Putting up 23.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, Daum shot 46 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range during the season.

With his size and unique floor-spacing ability, Daum is going to be an interesting player to track during the NBA draft process. Teams are always looking for big men who can space the floor, and if Daum shoots well in workouts, he could wind up staying in the draft.

If Daum returns to South Dakota State, then he once again makes them a major NCAA tournament contender after the Jackrabbits won the Summit League last season.

Marquette lands Fordham grad transfer Joseph Chartouny

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Marquette pulled in a quality graduate transfer commitment on Friday as Fordham guard Joseph Chartouny pledged to the Golden Eagles.

The 6-foot-3 Chartouny was a three-year starter for the Rams as he should help offset the loss of guard Andrew Rowsey to graduation. While Chartouny isn’t nearly the perimeter threat that Rowsey was, he should be able to help significantly on the defensive end for Marquette. Chartouny put up 12.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.3 steals per game last season as he was one of the more productive all-around players in the Atlantic 10.

One of the nation’s leaders in steals the past three seasons, Chartouny has much better size to play alongside Markus Howard in the Marquette backcourt than Rowsey (5-foot-11) had. Since Howard is also 5-foot-11, Chartouny can now guard the bigger and more athletic perimeter matchup as Marquette tries to improve its porous defense from last season.

Marquette still has an open scholarship for next season as they’ve been investigating other transfer options to bolster the roster. Returning most of last season’s roster, the expectation will be for the Golden Eagles to make it back to the NCAA tournament next season.