Raheem Appleby hopes to lead Louisiana Tech from WAC to C-USA

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Louisiana Tech Athletics

All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

Transitioning to a new league is a big storyline with a number of high-major programs but at the mid-major level, an interesting transition is occurring with Louisiana Tech going from the WAC to Conference USA.

The Bulldogs are led by Raheem Appleby, a 6-foot-4 junior guard, and a lot of experience, and they return nine out of their top 10 and nine upperclassmen from a 27-7 (16-2) team that won an NIT game.

Conference USA is radically different now with four teams — Memphis, Houston, Central Florida, SMU — leaving for the formation of the AAC and a staggering eight new teams entering the fray from four different conferences.

With an impressive season and all of that experience returning, Louisiana Tech is the leading candidate to take over Conference USA in its first season in the league.

“Across the board we’ve made subtle improvements,” Bulldogs head coach Michael White said. “I expect our seniors to finish out with a strong season.”

The third-year head coach will be led on the floor by Appleby, who averaged 14.9 points per game last season, but shot the ball 35 percent of the available shots he could take — eighth in the country — and his three-point percentage dipped to 30 percent after 40 percent shooting as a freshman.

CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Conference USA Conference Preview

As a junior, Appleby is focused less on hunting his own shot and more about higher-percentage play.

“I’m trying to set up teammates more because I know I can score so I’m trying to find them more to make it easier on the team,” Appleby said to NBC Sports.

“He’s really stepped up in terms of his leadership; he’s become more vocal,” White said of Appleby. “He’s become a much better passer and since he’s been a focal point in a lot of team’s scouting reports, how to find the best places to attack on the floor.”

The goal throughout the program, and echoed by each player and coach at Louisiana Tech is one message: NCAA Tournament.

White told NBCSports.com that the NCAA Tournament is the only thing the team worked towards.

“Our goal is to go to the NCAA Tournament as it has been all three years since we’ve been here,” White said. “This, I think, is our best chance and we had a heck of a run last season but didn’t finish the way we would have liked. We have nine out of top ten back and nine upperclassmen, so we have high expectations for ourselves. We do everything within our power every single day to go to the NCAA Tournament.”

That message was echoed to Appleby and the players very clearly as well.

“The goal is the NCAA Tournament, that’s the goal from day one,” Appleby said, nearly echoing White’s statements. “We were just so close last year. We want to get there and not fall short like last year.”

The program hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and the focus for the current players and coaches isn’t on the program’s past but in what it could create by its play this season.

CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories

White said a culture has developed at Louisiana Tech where guys work in the gym.

“We spend a ton of time in the the gym, and we continue to challenge our guys being in the gym and working to achieve our ultimate goal, but we are more adjusted,” White said. “Our veterans have played two years and are used to the pace and we’ll continue to learn how to shoot. I think as deep as we were last year, we’re even deeper this year and that will allow our fresh legs to come into play when it equates to shooting the basketball as well.”

Appleby likes being with an experienced group that can now focus on getting better on things in practice since most are on the same page.

“It just makes it so coach doesn’t have to say as much anymore,” Appleby said. “When practice is going on he doesn’t have to teach as much and you have a team that’s basically prepared to play.”

As a coach, it also allows White to work on some areas of improvement or put in some new wrinkles to the playbook thanks to so much experience returning.

“It just allows us to show off in some areas and improve in a lot of little areas and add some nuances offensively and defensively because we’re so used to our base,” White said. “And as we’ve been a team that’s struggled to shoot it at times, we can spend some more time working on shooting the basketball.”

Louisiana Tech will have questions with shooting and the lack of post scoring, but they’re experienced and have won a lot of games as they enter the new-look Conference USA. Appleby isn’t worried about the changes in the competition, but he’s focused on the Bulldogs getting better.

“I’m not sure what to expect (entering Conference USA),” Appleby said. “I expect some bigger and stronger basketball but I expect us to be the same way.”

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.