Jim Boeheim

How Jim Boeheim helped launch the careers of Rick Pitino and John Beilein

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ATLANTA — On Saturday afternoon, John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines will take the floor against Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange in one of the more intriguing and unexpected Final Four matchups in recent memory.

Syracuse lost seven of their last 12 regular season games. Michigan lost five of their last 10. Both programs were written off by just about everyone outside of the locker rooms at the Carrier Dome and Crisler Arena. And yet, here they are, preparing to play on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome, 80 minutes of basketball away from winning a national title.

The biggest irony of all is that Beilein, one of the most well-respected coaching minds in the country, may not be here if it wasn’t for his opponent on Saturday.

Beilein’s back story has been well-documented. A descendant of the family that Saving Private Ryan was based on and a member of a noted coaching family in Western New York, Beilein began his career as a high school coach before moving on up to the Community College ranks. That was in 1978, two years after Boeheim took over at Syracuse. Beilein spent four years at Erie CC before jumping to Nazareth for a season before landing what he believed to be a big break when he was offered a job by Division II LeMoyne.

And that’s where his career started to stagnate.

A couple different Division I jobs in the area opened up during that time. Beilein applied for and was passed over each time. Finally, when Canisius came open in 1992, Beilein he was hired, but it wasn’t without some help. A call from Boeheim certainly helped move things along.

“He assisted me a great deal in actually getting my first Division I job,” Beilein said on Wednesday.

At Canisius, Beilein had five successful seasons which led to being hired by Richmond and, eventually, West Virginia. Boeheim had a hand in that as well, convincing West Virginia’s athletic director to offer the job to Beilein even though that meant that he would have to count Beilein as a conference foe. It was Beilein’s postseason success with the Mountaineers — an Elite 8 run in 2005 and a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2006 — that played a major role in Michigan giving him the job in 2007.

And while it may have taken him six years, Beilein has turned the Wolverines into a national title contender.

But Beilein isn’t the only coach that Boeheim helped mentor.

Back in 1976, when Boeheim first got the Syracuse job, he needed to hire a coaching staff. As legend has it, Boeheim called Pitino down to the lobby of his hotel in New York City on Pitino’s wedding night, convincing him to take a job as an assistant immediately so that Pitino could get out on the road and land a recruit named Louis Orr.

But here’s where it gets interesting: Pitino was hired in large part due to his association with five-star basketball and the recruits that he would be able to bring in as a result. That wasn’t the only reason that Pitino was hired, however.

“[Boehiem] wanted to play more man-to-man defense,” Pitino said. “He was under Roy Danforth, who was strictly zone. Back then we played a lot of man-to-man. I was fortunate, I got to learn the zone.”

He sure was fortunate.

Pitino’s Louisville teams mix-up their defensive looks quite a bit. They press, they play man-to-man, they play 2-3 zone, sometimes they play all three on a single possession. But what he’s known for right now — the defense that has carried him to back-to-back Final Four — is that 2-3 zone.

The defense that he learned in his two seasons on the Syracuse bench.

Pitino and Beilein are both terrific basketball minds. They would have had success in this business with or without Boeheim’s help.

But it’s interesting to think that Boeheim could end up beating not one, but two of the young coaches that he mentored in their younger days.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Arkansas hoping for more backcourt depth and stronger press in 2016-17

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 27: Dusty Hannahs #3 of the Arkansas Razorbacks drives to the basket against Michael Humphrey #10 of the Stanford Cardinal  at Barclays Center on November 27, 2015 in Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Arkansas is coming off of a disappointing 16-16 season in which they missed the postseason.

The Razorbacks lost two key guards in Anthlon Bell and Jabril Durham — who both exhausted their eligibility — but they’re hoping a couple of additions will bolster the depth of their backcourt and make their trademark press stronger.

In a story from Tom Murphy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Razorbacks are excited about the possibilities of their new backcourt.

Although Arkansas lost two talented seniors and a transfer in Jimmy Whitt, they return Dusty Hannahs, Manny Watkins and Anton Beard while also getting two of the best junior college guards in the country. Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon come in highly touted for next season and both junior college guards garnered a lot of praise from their play last season.

With Arkansas also bringing in some freshman guards like C.J. Jones and RJ Glasper, head coach Mike Anderson is hoping to have enough bodies to play fast and use his press. The team appears to be optimistic as well.

“I think we’ll have a lot more toughness at the guard position, and depth,” Watkins said to Murphy. “We’ve got a lot of guys. When we’re pressing and stuff, we’ve got bodies we can bring in.”

Arkansas also returns an SEC Player of the Year candidate in big man Moses Kingsley and they could be an intriguing team to track this season if Barford and Macon are as good as advertised. They’ll certainly have more bodies to throw at opposing guards and that should help Arkansas play faster than they did last season.

College career over for Nevada’s Hallice Cooke due to heart issue

DENVER, CO - MARCH 19:  Hallice Cooke #3 of the Iowa State Cyclones celebrates after hitting a three pointer in the second half against the Arkansas Little Rock Trojans during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Pepsi Center on March 19, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
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The college basketball career of Nevada guard Hallice Cooke is over, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

The 6-foot-3 native of New Jersey will stay with the program as a volunteer assistant as a heart issue will force Cooke to end his career prematurely.

Cooke started his career at Oregon State before transferring to Iowa State and eventually ending up at Nevada. During the 2015-16 season, Cooke was a role player for the Cyclones as he averaged 10 minutes per game off the bench.

Obviously it’s unfortunate to see someone’s career end early, but it’s also good that Cooke is still going to be involved with the game as an assistant. This could be the type of thing where Cooke eventually ends up coaching in college basketball and it’ll be interesting to see if he tries to stay in the game and get serious about coaching.

N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr. fully recovered, ready to go

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Kelly Kline/adidas
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Dennis Smith Jr. sure looks ready.

North Carolina State’s prized freshman point guard is pushing through a workout in the practice gym on a hot July afternoon, and there’s no sign of the knee injury that defined his past year.

He’s sprinting along the baseline to bury a catch-and-shoot corner 3-pointer. He’s dribbling between chairs and stutter-stepping his way to a pull-up jumper. He’s launching himself at the rim for a dunk off the dribble.

“I don’t expect to be rusty at all,” Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I was feeling kind of nervous at one point, but I went in and did a workout and then I was thinking, `I’m putting in all this work so all the nervousness should be out of my mind.’ I had no reason to be timid.

“I just have to go out there and perform, no excuses.”

A lot has happened for Smith in 12 months. The Fayetteville native suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament in a game during the Adidas Nations event featuring top prospects. He had surgery, picked N.C. State, graduated from high school early and enrolled in college in January to rehab and learn the Wolfpack’s system before his debut later this year.

Tuesday marks one year since the injury for the 6-foot-3 Smith, ranked by ESPN as the nation’s No. 1 point guard when he signed last fall.

“We’ve tried to be real conservative with him as far as not letting him do too much too fast,” coach Mark Gottfried said. “At his age, he can’t wait. He’s dying to play every day.”

Smith started earning his leadership role as soon as he arrived in Raleigh, pointing out instructions to teammates or calling them to the gym for extra work even though he couldn’t play. He figures that time observing from the sideline has prepared him to replace high-scoring floor leader Anthony “Cat” Barber.

“I feel like I’ve gotten smarter, definitely,” Smith said. “I see the game totally different now. I read pick-and-roll easier. I feel like I’ve gotten more sound on defense because I understand angles better.”

The physical work to get back has been tougher.

Roughly a year ago, Smith was lying in a bed after surgery trying to stay positive. He asked trainer Ja-Rell Bailey to bring him some free weights for upper-body exercises even if he couldn’t do much else, an example of why Bailey described Smith as “a man determined.”

Smith’s father said the rehab emphasized building leg strength to protect and stabilize the injured knee, something his son said he will keep doing in both legs for years to come. Smith’s work has helped him go from 180 pounds to a college-ready 192-pound frame.

“He’s got his bounce back, so he can dunk and everything,” Dennis Smith Sr. said. “But what Junior has got, God gave it to him. . A lot of times you run into kids who are built off of hype because they do a fancy move or have a good game. Junior ain’t hype. He’s the real deal.”

Regardless, Gottfried expects Smith to have “a learning curve.”

“For me,” he said, “I think what you see in November is going to be much different than what you see in January.”

The Wolfpack will look much different, too, after missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five seasons. N.C. State welcomes Scout.com’s No. 6-ranked recruiting class that includes five-star Turkish big man Omer Yurtseven. Senior guard Terry Henderson returns from an ankle injury that sidelined him 7 minutes into last season. Charlotte transfer and former Conference USA freshman of the year Torin Dorn Jr. will play after sitting out last year.

Still, Smith is the guy stirring the most buzz for Wolfpack fans – something he has no trouble embracing.

“I really don’t feel that pressure though,” Smith said. “I feel like if you come in and you expect to play well, then you should have those expectations of people talking. It’s just playing basketball to me. I’ve been doing it my whole life.”

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Washington lands commitment from Mamoudou Diarra

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For the second time this summer, Washington has landed a commitment from a forward in the Class of 2017.

On Friday, it was Mamoudou Diarra that pledged his future to Lorenzo Romar. Diarra is a 6-foot-8 combo-forward that is currently unranked by Rivals but was targeted by a number high major program.

Washington landed a commitment from Michael Porter Jr. earlier this summer, and given Porter’s standing as the potential No. 1 player in the class, the Huskies will be in the mix for the best crop of freshmen in the country in 2017-18. Romar has also landed commitments from four-star guard Jaylen Nowell and three-star guard Blake Harris.

RELATED: How the Michael Porter Package Deal came to fruition

Diarra played his high school basketball in St. Louis.

Xavier lands second top 100 commitment in 2017

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Xavier landed a key commitment on Friday morning in Naji Marshall, one of the Musketeers’ top targets in the Class of 2017.

Marshall is a la 6-foot-5 wing from Washington D.C. that is currently ranked 62nd in the 2017 class by Rivals. He’s a scorer that has shown off a versatile offensive game, averaging better than three assists on the Under Armour Association circuit.

This is the third commitment from head coach Chris Mack in the class and the second top 100 player to pledge to the Musketeers. Marshall picked Xavier over Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Rhode Island and Virginia Tech, among other.