Kelly Olynyk

Pregame Shootaround 2.14.13: WCC rivals headline slate diehard hoops fans will love

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Game of the Night: No. 5 Gonzaga at Saint Mary’s (11:00 p.m.; ESPN2)

With BYU’s recent struggles the WCC has the look of a two-bid league with the Bulldogs and Gaels being the teams headed to the Big Dance. A Saint Mary’s win would not only go a long way towards making sure that is the case but also put the Gaels in position to win the WCC regular season title.

A key for Randy Bennett’s team: slowing down Kelly Olynyk, who has gone from being hailed as the nation’s most improved player to some national Player of the Year chatter. Brad Waldow has to hold his own in this matchup if the Gaels are to win, and the perimeter battle between Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos and Saint Mary’s Matthew Dellavedova will be worth the price of admission as well.

Who’s Getting Upset? VCU (-11.5) vs. Massachusetts (9:00 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

UMass may have one of the best weapons in the Atlantic 10 when it comes to taking on VCU’s “HAVOC” defense: point guard Chaz Williams. Williams may not be the biggest player on the floor but he’s jet quick with the basketball, and how well he plays will ultimately determine the outcome. UMass has the bodies inside needed to combat VCU’s Juvonte Reddic, led by Terrell Vinson and Raphiael Putney, and if Williams and Freddie Riley take care of the basketball the Minutemen are more than capable of leaving the Siegel Center with a statement victory.

Mid-Major Matchup of the Night: Montana at Weber State (9:05 p.m.)

The Big Sky expanded its conference schedule to 20 games after adding North Dakota and Southern Utah, which works out to put the Grizzlies in position to pull off arguably the greatest season in the history of the league if they get past Weber State in Ogden. Montana’s won 24 straight conference games (regular season), which is a league record, and at 14-0 Wayne Tinkle’s team has a two-game lead on the Wildcats. Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar are one of the best perimeter tandems in the western United States and they’ll have to play at that level in order to knock off Weber State. Scott Bamforth and Kyle Tresnak lead the way for Weber State, who leads the Big Sky in most of the major statistical categories.

Five Things to Watch For

1) The slate on Valentine’s Day also offers up a rematch of the most controversial game of the season thus far, with No. 9 Arizona visiting Colorado. Sabatino Chen’s three-pointer at the end of regulation was waved off, unfairly in the eyes of many, and the Wildcats went on to win 92-83 in overtime. The Wildcats haven’t played their best basketball of late, and Sean Miller needs those young big men to have a greater impact on the action.

2) Big Ten rivals on opposite paths meet in Minneapolis, as Wisconsin looks to stay on track against a reeling Minnesota. Tubby Smith’s team has lost six of its last eight games, and while the Golden Gophers have a decent resume it would be in their best interest to get back to playing as they did for much of the 2012 portion of the year.

3) Two of the best teams in the Summit League, Western Illinois and North Dakota State, meet in Fargo with the Leathernecks leading the Bison by a half-game atop the league standings. NDSU is 10-0 at home this season, and the matchup between WIU’s Terrell Parks and NDSU’s Marshall Bjorklund won’t disappoint.

4) Two of the three teams just a game behind Niagara in the MAAC standings, Canisius and Loyola (MD) meet in Baltimore with the winner likely having the best chance of catching the Purple Eagles. Canisius won the first meeting, 91-79, as all five starters scored in double figures and Jordan Heath accounted for 21 points and 11 rebounds.

5) Will Thursday provide any clarity when it comes to the Pac-12 race? UCLA needs to improve its rebounding if they’re to beat Cal in Berkeley, while in Palo Alto Stanford looks to avoid what would be considered a bad loss against a rejuvenated USC.

The Top 25

No. 5 Gonzaga at Saint Mary’s (11:00 p.m.; ESPN2)

No. 9 Arizona at Colorado (10:00 p.m.; Pac-12 Networks)

St. John’s at No. 12 Louisville (9:00 p.m.; ESPN)

Northwestern at No. 13 Ohio State (7:00 p.m.; BTN)

No. 20 Wisconsin at Minnesota (7:00 p.m.; ESPN)

Other Notable Games 

George Mason at Drexel (7:00 p.m.; CBS Sports Network)

Belmont at Tennessee State (7:00 p.m.; ESPNU)

Davidson at Charleston (7:30 p.m.)

Canisius at Loyola (MD) (7:30 p.m.)

Western Illinois at North Dakota St. (8:00 p.m.)

Arkansas-Little Rock at Arkansas St. (8:05 p.m.)

UCLA at California (9:00 p.m.; ESPN2)

San Diego at Santa Clara (10:00 p.m.)

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej

Self pays freshman Jackson a major compliment

Josh Jackson, from Napa, Calif.,, dunks over Nancy Mulkey, from Cypress, Texas, as he competes in the slam dunk contest during the McDonald's All-American Jam Fest, Monday, March 28, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
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Freshman phenom production under Bill Self has been something of a contentious topic. Many fault the coach, who has won one national title and 12-straight Big 12 championships, for not developing one-and-done talent to their fullest potential during their single-season stays in Lawrence. Cliff Alexander and Cheick Diallo are Exhibit 1-A and 1-B for this argument in recent years.

Whatever outside criticism there is (Andrew Wiggins did go No. 1 overall just 2 years ago, after all), Self isn’t shying away from hyping the latest freshman with big expectations to come to KU. When asked who the greatest athlete of all-time is at the school’s annual Tradition Night last week, Self had a simple, if tongue-and-cheek, response.

“I’ll say Josh Jackson,” Self said of the the 6-foot-8 shooting guard ranked No. 1 in his class, according to Lawrence Journal-World.

With others answering with the likes of Michael Jordan and Muhammed Ali, it’s pretty fair to say Self was playing to the crowd with the answer, but it’s still telling that he was willing to deliver such a sound bite, even if it was before a welcoming audience. Self didn’t try to seriously depress expectations for Wiggins, a player Jackson is often compared to, and it looks like he won’t for Jackson as well.

Jackson, though, won’t have the burden Wiggins had as there’s one of the country’s best backcourts in Frank Mason II and Devonte Graham to help shoulder the workload for the Jayhawks.

 

ACC non-commital on HB2 stance

John Swofford
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With North Carolina unwilling to rescind their controversial so-called bathroom bill, the NBA has withdrawn its All-Star Game from the state this year and numerous high-profile music acts have canceled performances as a result.

The ACC is declining to join them with a hard-line, or really any, position.

“We don’t want to damage our league with any premature decisions,” commissioner John Swofford said on The David Glenn Show. “We’ll just see how it plays out.”

The ACC, of course, has quite the presence in the state with North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest all in the Tar Heel State. Swofford’s comments are sure to draw the interest of the LGBT community, which has roundly been critical of the bill, which requires people to use the bathroom which corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate, and has recently been active in college athletics, opposing the Big 12’s potential inclusion of BYU in its expansion plans over concerns of the Church of Latter Day Saints school’s honor code.

North Carolina’s bill has also drawn the eye of the NCAA, which is requiring potential championship sights to provide information on local anti-discrimination laws.

One of the loudest voices in the ACC, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, has come out against the law.

“It’s an embarrassing bill,” Coach K said last month.

The Champions Classic renewed through 2019

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 27: Bill Self head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks claps for his team as they celebrate winning the Big 12 Conference Championship after they defeated Texas Tech Red Raiders 67-58 at Allen Fieldhouse on February 27, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. With the win, Kansas clinched its 12th straight conference championship. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
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The Champions Classic is back, baby!!!

On Wednesday, the four schools that participate in the event — Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State — announced that they have signed deals to extend the life of the doubleheader for another three years.

This is terrific news. The Champions Classic is always the best early-season event of the season, an annual double-header that always ends up putting together two of the best non-conference games in packed NBA arenas. This year, it features Duke, the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country, squaring off with Kansas, who is a consensus top three team with the No. 1 freshman in the class, Josh Jackson, on their roster, in one game.

The other game? Kentucky, the third consensus top three team nationally, going up against Tom Izzo and Michigan State, who will be, at worst, a top 15 team in the preseason polls.

So yeah, we’re going to get a pair of sensational basketball games in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15th. MSG also just so happens to be the best arena to watch a great neutral site basketball game.

It’s going to be awesome.

There’s only one possible way to make it better: turn it into a two-day event, with the winners squaring off for the Champions Classic title the following night.

Make it happen.

Anyway, here’s the schedule:

Nov. 14, 2017 (United Center, Chicago)
Kansas vs. Kentucky
Duke vs. Michigan State

Nov. 13, 2018 (Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis)
Michigan State vs. Kansas
Duke vs. Kentucky

Nov. 12, 2019 (Madison Square Garden, New York)
Kansas vs. Duke
Michigan State vs. Kentucky

Hartford makes smart decision to allow ‘Pancake’ Thomas transfer

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Hartford coach John Gallagher, AP Photo
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Another talented graduate transfer has hit the market.

Cleveland ‘Pancake’ Thomas — that’s a helluva name, isn’t it? — has been granted a release by Hartford and will be allowed to transfer to another program for his fifth season.

“Our biggest priority for Cleveland was that he graduate from the University of Hartford with a valuable degree,” Hartford head coach John Gallagher said in a statement released to ESPN after some speculation that Thomas wasn’t going to be given a release. “That happened. Beyond wishing him the very best, we don’t comment on other program’s players. We are very excited about our group and the upcoming season.”

The term “release” is needed here because Thomas, a 6-foot-3 guard who averaged 18.9 points and shot 42.6 percent from three this past season, spent his first two years of eligibility at New Mexico. A graduate transfer exception is granted to any player making their first transfer after receiving an undergraduate degree. But since Pancake had already transferred once, he was only eligible to apply for a graduate transfer waiver, which the school he is leaving must support.

Remember the saga of Todd O’Brien? He tried to leave St. Joseph’s to spend his fifth-year at UAB but made headlines everywhere when Phil Martelli wouldn’t let it happen? That’s because O’Brien had started his career at Bucknell and needed Martelli to support the waiver.

Gallagher could have done the same to Pancake.

He made the right decision not to — Martelli has enough coaching cache to withstand the onslaught on criticism he received, I’m not sure that is true for Gallagher — even if it will result in Thomas playing elsewhere, hence the cold-hearted nature of that statement.

Anyway, Thomas never averaged more than 3.9 points at New Mexico, so while he’s a tantalizing prospect for programs that are dying for perimeter depth and shooting, this isn’t exactly a kid that’s going to launch himself into the NBA Draft’s first round by jumping up to a higher level.

Shawn Forrest named assistant coach for Jankovich at SMU

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 22:  Head coach Larry Brown (L) and associate head coach Tim Jankovich of the Southern Methodist Mustangs look on during the team's game against the Kent State Golden Flashes during the 2015 Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on December 22, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Southern Methodist won 90-74. The game marks Brown's return from a nine-game suspension.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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DALLAS (AP) Shawn Forrest has been named an assistant basketball coach at SMU, his third school since the end of last season.

Mustangs coach Tim Jankovich announced Forrest’s hiring Tuesday.

Forrest spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Western Kentucky before head coach Ray Harper resigned. Forrest was named a UTSA assistant in May, but two weeks later left for Louisiana Tech before the unexpected opening at SMU.

Jankovich was SMU’s associate head coach before the abrupt resignation last month of Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown. Forrest fills the open assistant spot created on the staff when Jankovich was promoted to head coach.

Before Western Kentucky, Forrest was an assistant coach at Louisiana-Lafayette, North Texas, Arkansas State and Florida A&M.