Peyton Siva

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_

Four-star PG Jaylen Fisher de-commits from UNLV

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Coaching changes can wreak havoc on a program’s recruiting class, and that’s been the case for UNLV thanks to the tumultuous nature of their search for a new head coach. Thursday evening one prospect who remained committed to the Mountain West program throughout the process that ultimately led to Marvin Menzies landing the job announced that he’s decided to reopen his recruitment.

Four-star point guard Jaylen Fisher, ranked 55th in the Class of 2016 by Rivals.com, announced via social media that he’s decided to de-commit from UNLV.

“I was very much looking forward to the opportunity to be a Rebel this year,” Fisher wrote. “But there have been a lot of changes with the program since I committed to UNLV; changes that have made me reconsider whether UNLV is still a good fit for me. So with that in mind and after much consideration with my family, I have decided it’s best that I reopen my recruitment.”

Fisher’s decision leaves wing Justin Jackson as the lone member of UNLV’s 2016 class at this point, with Jackson telling Scout.com in early April that he was undecided as to whether or not he’d reopen his recruitment. The school’s search for a coach began in January when they parted ways with Dave Rice, promoting Todd Simon in an interim role.

After deciding not to retain Simon, who’s now the head coach at Southern Utah, UNLV hired former Little Rock head coach Chris Beard…who left for Texas Tech less than two weeks later. UNLV landed Menzies, who they passed over for Beard, and he’s got a lot of work to do to field a roster that will be competitive in the Mountain West next season.

As for Fisher, the Arlington, Tennessee native should be a popular prospect with his decision to reopen things. And with Memphis losing former commit Charlie Moore, the Tigers are in need of help at the point. The question now is whether or not new head coach Tubby Smith will look to reach out to Fisher.

h/t Memphis Commercial-Appeal

NCAA rule change that impacts Memphis coaching staff now official

Memphis forward Dedric Lawson (1) goes up for a shot between Connecticut forward Shonn Miller (32) and guard Daniel Hamilton, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the finals of the American Athletic Conference men's tournament in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, March 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
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One of the more popular topics in college basketball in recent weeks was the status of Memphis assistant coach Keelon Lawson and sons Dedric and K.J. in the aftermath of the school hiring Tubby Smith. Would Smith keep the elder Lawson on staff as an assistant, thus in all likelihood ensuring that Dedric and K.J. would return as well? Would he let go or attempt to reassign Keelon, and as a result risk losing two players from an already limited roster?

Ultimately Smith decided to reassign Keelon to a non-coaching position, making him director of player development. And with the NCAA having a rule that those with a connection to a prospective student-athlete had to serve in a coaching capacity for the player’s first two seasons, the question was whether or not Memphis would need a waiver to pull off the move.

Luckily for Memphis the NCAA was looking into an alteration of the rule, and on Thursday with the NCAA not taking action on Proposal 2015-30 the change became official.

Under the new rule a coach’s two years on staff would begin immediately upon his arrival. In the case of Lawson this is key as he spent a year on former Memphis head coach Josh Pastner’s staff before Dedric and K.J. enrolled. With the two-year requirement ruled to be served under the new proposal, Smith could reassign Keelon Lawson without having to ask the NCAA for a waiver.

The next step as far as Memphis is concerned is Dedric, who ultimately entered his name into the NBA Draft pool (without an agent), withdrawing and returning to school for his sophomore season. As a freshman Dedric was the best freshman in the American Athletic Conference, averaging 15.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game for the Tigers. DraftExpress.com currently ranks him 28th amongst college freshmen, which makes him no sure thing to be drafted should he decide to stay in the draft.

At the very least the next month should result in Dedric receiving constructive feedback from NBA scouts and executives that he can use to improve next season.

K.J. played in just ten games last season due to a lingering Achilles tendon issue, averaging 8.8 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. The hope is that K.J. will be granted a medical redshirt for last season, thus preserving a year of eligibility.

Chattanooga men’s hoop coach McCall gets 2-year extension

Chattanooga head coach Matt McCall directs his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State, Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) Chattanooga men’s basketball coach Matt McCall has received a two-year contract extension after leading the Mocs to an NCAA Tournament appearance in his debut season.

The school announced the extension Thursday. McCall’s contract now runs through the 2021-22 season.

Chattanooga went 29-6 last season to set a school record for victories. The Mocs captured their first Southern Conference regular-season title since 1994 and also won the league’s postseason tournament to earn their first NCAA bid since 2009.

Indiana beat Chattanooga 99-74 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Athletic director David Blackburn said in a statement, “We had great confidence in who we hired a year ago, and that never wavered. This is in recognition of him and his staff’s great work in equipping our student-athletes for success.”

Jim Valvano’s title-winning N.C. State team to finally get White House visit

FILE - In this April 5, 1983, file photo, North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano embraces sophomore forward Lorenzo Charles moments after Charles had dunked a shot to give North Carolina State the win over Houston in the national championship game at the Final Four of the NCAA college basketball tournament in Albuquerque, N.M. (AP Photo/Leonard Ignelzi, File)
(AP Photo/Leonard Ignelzi, File)
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The N.C. State men’s basketball team never got invited to the White House after they won the 1983 National Title.

It wasn’t a tradition in those days. They spoke with President Ronald Reagan, but they did so from the confines of a television studio in Raleigh. It’s commonplace now to see title winners from all sports making their way to the Oval Office to shake hands with our nation’s leader, but back then, the funding and invitation weren’t always available.

And that never say right with the guys on that team. Since Lorenzo Charles, whose memorable dunk was the title-winning bucket, passed away in 2011, that team has had a reunion every spring, and the topic of going to the White House to celebrate the win always came up. That inspired Thurl Bailey, who was the No. 7 pick of the 1983 NBA Draft, and his friend, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, to write letters to President Obama requesting that the ’83 iteration of the Wolfpack get their White House visit.

“As definitive as a National Championship sounds, as an athlete there always seems to be unfinished business,” Bailey told N.C. State’s website. “You’re always looking for the next challenge, the next opportunity. This was it for me.  If I could get this done, it would be yet another story for me and the other members of that team to be able to pass along to our kids, grandkids and generations after that.”

Bailey’s efforts proved successful.

On Thursday, N.C. State announced that President Obama had not only received the letters, but he has issued a May 9th invitation for that 1983 team to visit him in Washington, D.C., meaning that Bailey, Dereck Whittenburg and the rest of that 1983 title-winning team will finally get to meet the Commander-in-Chief.

“The joy and the euphoria of winning a national title against all odds, as well as the pain and devastation of losing members of that family, are important parts of who I am,” Bailey said. “Contacting President Obama was one piece of our incredible journey that had eluded us for far too long.”

Los Angeles to host new college basketball doubleheader

Arizona coach Sean Miller reacts to a foul call during the first half of Arizona's NCAA college basketball game against UCLA, Friday, Feb 12, 2016, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) A new men’s basketball doubleheader will be played in Los Angeles featuring Arizona, BYU, Gonzaga and Southern California.

The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Wednesday announced the one-day event, to be played at Staples Center on Dec. 3.

The Wildcats will play the Zags and the Cougars will face the Trojans.

Tickets will go on sale May 4. Game times and television broadcast information will be announced later.