ATLANTA — Sitting on a chair in his locker in the far corner of Wichita State’s locker room, Ron Baker must have been thankful that he wasn’t claustrophobic. He was surrounded by reporters — print, TV, internet — from across the country, blockaded by a swarm of video cameras, bright lights, recorders and iPhones that were shoved in his face for 25 minutes. Baker was peppered with questions, the topics ranging everywhere from playing against Russ Smith to his hometown in Kansas to … what the Easter holiday means for someone of Catholic faith.
He was asked what Easter means to him.
At the Final Four.
And Baker handled it all like a pro, calmly, intelligently and succinctly answering every question he was asked, mixing in enough small-town, Midwestern charm to win over reporters and blind them to the fact that the majority of what he said was typical press conference generality. If you didn’t know any better, you never would have guessed that Baker was a redshirt freshmen at a school that didn’t win a league title in the Missouri Valley who opted to walk-on for a year instead of go to Junior College or accept a Division II scholarship.
“My AAU coach was at Coffeyville [CC in Kansas] at the time, and that was my second option if Wichita State didn’t give me the opportunity to pay my first year,” Baker said.
“It’s definitely overwhelming. If I looked back two years ago and you told me I’d be sitting here, I’d probably call you crazy. It’s been a good trip for me and my family and everybody back home. They’re extremely excited.”
And why shouldn’t they be? Towns like Scott City, KS, population 3,800, don’t often send players to the Final Four. But it’s those small-town roots that make Baker’s path to this stage all the more impressive. His high school graduating class was 55 kids. Scott City has two stop lights. The reason he wasn’t recruited by bigger schools? They didn’t know about him. So imagine where he would be if his family had never moved to Scott City from Utica, KS.
“It’s about 50 miles northeast of Scott City,” Baker said. “Population about 280 people.”
The best part about this Wichita State team is that Baker may not even have the best story.
Carl Hall, their 24 year old starting power forward, suffers from a heart condition known as neurocardiogenic syncope. He’s passed out three times on the court, and that forced him away from the game. Instead of chasing his dream, Hall was working the graveyard shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., at a lighting company. He painted light-bulbs for 12 bucks-an-hour before going to school during the day and, finally, taking a nap at night before heading back to the factory.
“I wouldn’t recommend that job to anybody,” Hall said. “It was just a hot, nasty job. I tell them every day to stay in school and do they work.”
That lasted for two years. Finally, doctors told Hall that his medication had started to work and he would be able to resume playing the game he loved. He wound up at Wichita State after going to a JuCo, but it was still difficult for him to resume. On the one hand, he had to learn to trust his heart again. “Once you pass out you,” Hall told reporters in LA, “you don’t want to go through that situation again.” That made it difficult for him to get in shape, and Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall found it difficult to push Hall.
That’s understandable. He once watched a kid he was recruiting die on the court during a game due to a heart condition. When you see that happen once, it makes it a lot harder to convince yourself it’s worthwhile to push a kid beyond his limit.
But Hall persevered, averaging 22.3 minutes as a sixth-man as a junior and more than 28 minutes per game asa senior.
“I remember like yesterday telling one of the workers that I wanted to start playing basketball, try to pursue my dream, try to play in March Madness one day,” Hall said.
Hall’s here, and if that wasn’t enough, he’ll be playing a car ride from his hometown of Cochran, GA. “I grew up an hour and a half from here,” he said, “and I’ve never been to the Dome.”
It’s the stories of guys like Hall and Baker that make the Shockers so likeable. Wichita State — a No. 9 seed, a team that couldn’t win a title this season in the Missouri Valley, a team with losses to Indiana State and Southern Illinois and got swept by Evansville — wasn’t supposed to beat Gonzaga and Ohio State and make it to Atlanta. Ron Baker and Carl Hall aren’t supposed to be recognizable names. They’re not supposed to be giving interview after interview to the biggest media outlets in the country.
And those two are not alone.
Malcolm Armstead has played at three different colleges during his career. After leaving Oregon as a junior, he redshirted and worked at a car dealership part-time to pay his tuition. “Sometimes I had to leave practice to go to work to be able to make money,” Armstead said. Cleanthony Early played at Division III Sullivan Community College before heading to Wichita. Ehimen Orukpe is from Lagos, Nigeria, by way of Three Rivers Community College. Kadeem Coleby is a transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette that is from the Bahamas. Chadrack Lufile and Nick Wiggins are from Canada, and Wiggins making the Final Four isn’t even the biggest story in his family. He’s the older brother of the nation’s No. 1 prospect, Andrew Wiggins.
The Shockers embody the underdog story, Marshall’s Merry Band of Misfits. And somehow, despite having a locker room full of pieces that didn’t fit somewhere else, the Shockers have made it work.
“A lot of people probably think I wouldn’t fit in with these guys,” Baker said with a laugh. “There’s a bunch of crazy men on this team.”
The craziest part is that they are now someplace no one ever thought they would be: 24 hours away from playing in the Final Four.
The NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline came and went on Sunday night, meaning there are now roughly 60 college players that have signed with an agent and another 100 or so that have declared for the draft while retaining their college eligibility. Who were the winners? Who were the losers? Who has the most on the line? Sam Vecenie of the Game Theory podcast joined Rob Dauster to talk through all of it. The rundown:
OPEN: What do NBA teams value in players these days?
10:00: Villanova has more on the line during this testing the water process than anyone
19:00: Just how important was De’Andre Hunter’s decision to return to Virginia
25:25: Gonzaga getting Rui and Killian Tillie back makes them a title favorite
32:10: Nevada has a top ten season on the line with the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline
36:15: #RANTALERT – The decision to turn pro is so much more complicated than “is he a first round pick”
48:30: Rapid fire: Maryland, Kansas, Syracuse, Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan. What do they have on the line?
North Carolina’s Luke Maye declaring for NBA draft without hiring agent
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina junior Luke Maye has declared for the NBA draft but isn’t hiring an agent.
The 6-foot-8 forward was a third-team Associated Press All-American after averaging 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds. He was named the Atlantic Coast Conference’s most improved player after increasing his scoring average by 11.4 points from his sophomore to junior seasons.
Coach Roy Williams says in a statement that it’s ”a great opportunity” for Maye to work out for NBA teams and get feedback on what to improve in his game.
The deadline for college players to declare early for the draft was Sunday night. Players who don’t hire an agent can maintain their college eligibility as long as they withdraw by May 30, which is 10 days after the NBA draft combine.
The most important players for Gonzaga heading into the 2018-19 season will have an offseason dedicated to rehabilitation.
Josh Perkins, Gonzaga’s starting point guard, underwent surgery on Friday to repair a shoulder that he injured back in December. According to the Spokesman-Review, Perkins expects to be healthy and ready to play by the start of next season.
Perkins averaged 12.3 points and 5.3 assists during the 2017-18 season despite playing through those shoulder issues. After December’s win over Washington, a game in which Perkins left wincing in pain and clutching his shoulders, Perkins said “Just popped out a little bit. It’s not very strong right now, but everything is good.”
For my money, Perkins is the player that is going to be the x-factor for the Zags next season. They have a terrific front court with Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie returning, and with the likes of Zach Norvell and Corey Kispert back, there is plenty of talent on the wings. Perkins, the senior point guard, is the blue that is going to be needed to hold it all together.
Gonzaga is a top five team heading into next year. They have national title aspirations. Perkins might end up being the guy that determines whether they live up to those goals or get knocked out of the field in the Sweet 16.
Book titled ‘The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino’ set to be published in September
There is another book coming out about Rick Pitino, but this one does not seem to be one that will make the former Louisville head coach all that excited.
Written by Michael Sokolove, the author of two books that were written with John Calipari, “The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino” is a story about the scandals that have rocked college basketball over the course of the last seven months.
The book, according to a promotional materials sent out by publisher Penguin Random House, is meant to take down the scam of amateurism in big time college athletics, something that people reading this space have heard me rant on and on about. Pitino is the central figure in this story, as the one coach that has actually lost his job and, potentially, seen his career derailed as a result of the revelations in the FBI’s investigation.
If this line from the press release doesn’t sell it, I’m not sure what will: “A Shakespearean drama of greed and desperation involving some of the biggest characters in the arena of sports, ‘The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino’ will be the definitive chronicle of this scandal and its broader echoes.”
The date the book is scheduled to be published is Sept. 25th, 2018, which is the day before the one-year anniversary of the FBI dropping their bombshell investigation.
The deadline to declare for the NBA draft has come and gone, which means we’re now waiting for the next deadline: When underclassmen have to pull their name out of the NBA draft if they are testing the waters.
That day is May 30th.
It is a full five weeks away, after the NBA draft combine and nearly a month before the draft itself.
So there is a long way to go with this process.
But as things stand today, here is a list of all the players that have signed with an agent and that are testing the waters.
There are more than 150 players on that list. So to help you parse it all down, here are the most influential Should-I-Stay-Or-Should-I-Go decisions that are going to be made over the course of the next five weeks.
OMARI SPELLMAN and DONTE DIVINCENZO, Villanova
Villanova already lost a pair of juniors to the NBA draft as both Mikal Bridges, a potential top ten pick, and Jalen Brunson, last year’s reigning National Player of the Year, declared for the draft and signed with an agent.
Eric Paschall and Phil Booth both opted to return to school for their redshirt senior seasons where, along with returnees Jermaine Samuels, Collin Gillispie and Dhamir Cosby-Rountree and a recruiting class that is as good as any that Jay Wright had landed in his time on the Main Line, has Villanova’s program in a great place for the future.
And frankly, even with just that group of guys, the Wildcats are likely still going to enter the season as the favorite to win the Big East once again, although that might say more about the Big East than it does about Villanova.
But if they get Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman back, we could be looking at a situation where this is once again the best team in college basketball.
Let’s start with DiVincenzo, since I think he’s the more likely of the two to return. On the one hand, he might end up being a preseason first-team all-american if he makes the choice to play for Jay Wright for another season, and as such, he’ll likely end up taking over the lion’s share of Villanova’s offense as a result. But more importantly, at least when it comes to the draft, is that DiVincenzo still has some things that he can improve on that would make him a more palatable first round pick. As dynamic as he was this season, Divincenzo has always been a streaky scorer, a mixed bag as a decision-maker and a questionable ball-handler. Those are things that can be improved upon and, with a weaker draft coming up in 2019, the kind of thing that might be able to sneak him into the lottery.
Spellman is a different story. He’s something of a finished product in terms of an NBA prospect. There are things that he can improve on — his post game, for one, and his ability to drive left, another — but the weight loss that he went through in his two seasons as a part of the Villanova program is what turned him into an NBA player. Given his size, his ability to shoot from three, the way he attacks close-outs and the fact that he can protect the rim and rebound the ball now that he’s shed 50 pounds, there is likely a spot for him in an NBA rotation somewhere. And while DiVincenzo can improve where he’s picked by coming back, I think Spellman is always going to find himself in that range of being a late first rounder or an early second rounder.
As it stands, Villanova is currently the No. 2 overall team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25. With both players officially back, I’ll have to think long and hard about whether or not they should be No. 1.
CALEB MARTIN, CODY MARTIN and JORDAN CAROLINE, Nevada
Should Nevada get all three of these guys back for another season, the Wolf Pack are going to enter the 2018-19 season as a preseason top ten team.
But are they going to get all three of these guys back?
That, at this point, is a major question mark for one, simple reason: They are all staring down the barrel of a redshirt senior season, meaning that it will be the fifth year that the three — all of whom transferred into Nevada — will be in college. If they already have their degree, and they are all turning 23 years old in the next year, is a shot at making the Final Four enough incentive to return to school?
For Caroline it might be. As talented as he is, I’m not sure that he gets drafted if he turns pro. Both Martin twins have an actual chance to end up hearing their name called on draft night — Caleb as one of the best shot-makers in college basketball and Cody as a 3-and-D role player — but it would be as second round picks. If all three are gone, then I think we’re talking about Nevada as a team that is going to have to battle just to make the NCAA tournament.
KEVIN HUERTER and BRUNO FERNANDO, Maryland
There are so many teams in the Big Ten with so much on the line over the course of the next five weeks, but I’m not sure anyone has more at stake than Maryland, who is still waiting to hear what Huerter and Fernando are going to do.
Let’s pretend, for a second, that both return to school. Huerter — a 6-foot-7 wing that averaged 14.6 points and shot 42 percent from three — joins Anthony Cowan and Darryl Morsell to give the Terps one of the better backcourts in college basketball while Fernando, a native of Angola, would be in line for a breakout sophomore campaign. Throw in a recruiting class that includes transfer Schnider Herard and five-star Jalen Smith up front and promising four-star wings like Eric Ayala, Serrel Smith and Aaron Wiggins, and there is something here for Mark Turgeon to work with.
It’s why Maryland is a top 20 team in our preseason rankings.
But Huerter has some second round appeal this season given his size, length and shooting ability while Fernando, who had some impressive moments as a freshman, is tangentially linked to the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption. Fernando and Kansas freshman Silvio De Sousa as childhood friends that both have the same American guardian. That guardian allegedly received a payout of at least $20,000 to get De Sousa out from under payments he already received from a rival apparel company when he committed to Kansas; De Sousa, who played for Under Armour sponsored high school and AAU teams, was considered a near-lock to head to Maryland, who is Under Armour’s flagship program.
Without those two, Anthony Cowan will take on the role of Melo Trimble, trying to carry the load for the Terps, and I’m not sure he’s cut out for it the way that Trimble was.
CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue
Edwards might end up being the best lead guard in college basketball next season. I would not be surprised to see him end up as a consensus preseason first-team all-american should he end up coming back to school, and if he does, I think Purdue is a borderline top 25 team that will be back in the NCAA tournament. Without him, however, and the Boilermakers will have to replace five starters on a team that really didn’t have much in the way of quality depth. Edwards is the difference between Purdue being a good team and Purdue being in a total rebuild.
ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin
Wisconsin just finished the worst season the program has had in two decades, snapping a 19-year NCAA tournament streak and a 16-year run of top four finishes in the Big Ten. And yet, I feel good about where this team is headed. Much of that, as I noted in this column, has to do with the promising crop of youngsters and the way that they finished last season despite being injured and, you know, young. But much more of it had to do with the idea that Happ, an all-american in 2016-17 and a preseason all-american heading into last season, would be back for his senior year. He is the anchor for this group on both ends of the floor.
JAMES PALMER JR. and ISAAC COPELAND, Nebraska
Palmer was one of the best players in the Big Ten last season, quietly putting together an incredible year that not enough people paid attention to. Copeland had his best season as a collegian last year, and the two of them, the two leading scorers for a team that tied for fourth in the Big Ten last year, are the reason why Nebraska looks like they have a shot to be even better next year. They are a borderline top 25 team that should get Tim Miles back to the NCAA tournament. They are also both transfers that might opt to turn professional with a degree in hand, and if that were to happen, the Cornhuskers are going to be heading back into rebuilding mode.
CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan
Michigan is the team that I’ve gotten the most pushback on for leaving out of the NBC Sports preseason top 25. I have them out right now because I’m not convinced that Matthews returns to school and, when combined with losing their two best offensive weapons — Mo Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman — to graduation, would leave Michigan very young and without the kind of offensive firepower that they had this year. Matthews coming back would change that outlook and make the Wolverines more of a finished product than they are without him. Matthews, individually, would be a potential all-american — and top 20 picks — if he were to return and show off an ability to shoot more consistently from three.
BRYCE BROWN, JARED HARPER, and AUSTIN WILEY, Auburn
I’m honestly not sure what to do with Auburn here. They are already losing Mustapha Heron to the draft, and it is hard for me to justify to myself ranking the Tigers in the top 15 of the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. They’ll be there so long as they get all three of these players back. If they decide to enter the draft, Auburn will look a lot more like they did in the first three years of Bruce Pearl’s tenure.
KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton
Thomas has a chance to have a nice NBA career. He only stands 6-foot-3, but his 6-foot-11 wingspan combined with the fact that he makes better than 40 percent of his threes makes him an intriguing 3-and-D prospect. I do think there’s a chance that he’ll be a first round pick this year should he opt to declare for the draft, and that should make his return to Creighton all that much more important. The Bluejays already lost Marcus Foster, and losing Thomas — who is the one elite defender on a roster that is built for space, pace and scoring — would be another major blow. With him in the fold and the return of a young core of Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock and Jacob Epperson, the Bluejays suddenly look like the second-best team in the Big East.
UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas
Azubuike is on this list now because of the fact that Kansas will, more likely than not, be without the services of Silvio De Sousa following the latest reveal in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption. If Azubuike opts to remain in the draft, that means that the five-spot in the Kansas lineup will be manned by Mitch Lightfoot and freshman David McCormack. The reason that Azubuike is so low on this list is that, without him, I would fully expect Kansas to play a smaller, more versatile lineup, and that might actually make them more difficult to matchup with. Put another way, losing Azubuike would have a bigger impact on how Kansas plays instead of how good they actually end up being.
TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse
Battle is a borderline first round pick, a guy that could go anywhere between the 20s and the 40s, depending on which NBA organizations fall in love with him. If he’s back, Syracuse has to be thought of as a potential tournament team because, you know, they were this year without all that much around him. If he’s gone, things could get ugly.
MARCQUISE REED and SHELTON MITCHELL, Clemson
Clemson’s two best players down the stretch of the season, Reed and Mitchell back on campus would likely make the Tigers a tournament team for a second straight season. If they end up leaving school, then Brad Brownell is going to be happy that they were able to relieve the pressure on his him with a trip to the Sweet 16 this past tournament.