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

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.