New Mexico is hoping a change in leadership yields a change in postseason success

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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.

In 2012-13, the New Mexico Lobos put together one of the best seasons in the history of the program, winning 29 games and earning both the Mountain West regular season and tournament titles. The Lobos won the regular season crown by a full two games, going 13-3 in conference play after not receiving a single first-place vote in the preseason poll, a fact made all the more impressive when you consider the MWC was the toughest, most balanced league in the country. Point guard Kendall Williams won Mountain West Player of the Year honors.

But the season ended on a sour note for the Lobos as they were knocked off by Harvard in the NCAA tournament Round of 64.

Just over a week after the defeat Steve Alford accepted the head coaching position at UCLA, leaving many wondering who UNM vice president for athletics Paul Krebs would hire to lead the program. Much to the pleasure of many involved Krebs didn’t have to go far to find his replacement, promoting associate head coach Craig Neal. Neal spent the prior six seasons on Alford’s staff, recruiting many of the players on the roster and being a valuable voice in the Xs-and-Os department. While there are some differences, the hiring of Neal has given the program continuity when upheaval wasn’t needed.

With four starters, including Williams and center Alex Kirk, back for another run, the hope in Albuquerque is that the Lobos will not only remain atop the Mountain West but also enjoy greater success in the NCAA tournament.

“It was a very smooth transition to Coach Neal because he’s been drawing up our plays since I’ve been here, and he’s been an integral part of what we’ve been doing,” Williams said of Neal in an interview with NBC Sports. “He’s taken on more of an executive position in a sense, but in my eyes it’s been really smooth and a lot of the guys feel the same way.”

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Mountain West Preview)

Neal’s move to the head coaching position is one of two major changes New Mexico will have to address as they begin the 2013-14 season, with the other being the departure of guard Tony Snell. After posting averages of 12.5 points, 2.9 assists and 2.6 rebounds, the junior entered the 2013 NBA Draft, where he was a first round selection of the Chicago Bulls. With Snell off to the NBA, the task of accounting for the production lost likely falls upon the shoulders of juniors Hugh Greenwood and Deshawn Delaney. In the case of Delaney, he’s continued to show progress after having to sit out the team’s summer trip to Australia in order to attend summer school.

“He had to stay in summer school so he wasn’t able to go on our trip, which hindered him some,” Neal told NBC Sports. “He’s really starting to pick things up. He was a little behind the ‘8-ball’ because he didn’t get those ten [pre-trip] practices, but he’s done very well. He’s talented, can score and he’s just a great, great kid.”

Delaney was a two-time junior college All-American, averaging 17.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game during his time at Vincennes JC in Indiana, and the feeling is that he has the talent and athleticism needed to make an immediate impact. As for Greenwood he’s been more of a glue guy for the Lobos, and with an improved perimeter shot he’ll look to increase his production (7.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.4 apg) from a season ago. Also factoring into the equation are newcomers like freshman Cullen Neal, the coach’s son who was originally a Saint Mary’s signee before the coaching change at New Mexico.

But ultimately, how productive the backcourt is will fall upon the shoulders of the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year.

“I always work on my body and try to get stronger and more athletic, and I feel really good about where I am [individually] going into the season,” said Williams. “Also improving my leadership skills because we have some new guys and underclassmen to go along with the guys who returned. It was a matter of keeping everyone together and using my experiences to remain positive and lead a really talented group that’s expected to do a lot of things.”

For the season, Williams averaged 13.3 points, 4.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game. But while his individual numbers may not have been on the level of those posted by the likes of SDSU’s Jamaal Franklin and Air Force’s Michael Lyons, Williams’ impact on the Lobos exceeded what can be seen in the box score. If New Mexico is to remain atop the Mountain West that will once again need to be the case, with both player and coach also pointing to consistency as a key for the Lobos in 2013-14.

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

It doesn’t hurt to have a second conference Player of the Year candidate on the roster either, as 7-footer Alex Kirk is back for his junior campaign. After redshirting in 2011-12 due to a back injury Kirk hit the ground running, averaging 12.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest with nine double-doubles. Now another year removed from the herniated disk that required surgery and once again joined in the front court by the improving Cameron Bairstow (9.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Kirk is expected to cement his status as one of the top big men in the Mountain West.

“Alex has to turn into a dominant low-post player as far as I’m concerned,” said Neal. “Getting space offensively where he can catch it on the block and make teams play him and kick it out for shots, and be able to work with his left hand a little bit more. He really worked on that last year and it got to the point where he could go either way, and that’s tough to guard.”

“He’s also shooting the ball well,” continued Neal. “The one thing I’ve really been working on with Alex is agility and moving when he doesn’t have the ball offensively and defensively, because he’s a really good defensive player who has great timing.”

But regardless of what honors teams pick up in league play, the ultimate judge in the eyes of many is what happens in the NCAA tournament. In 13 NCAA tournament appearances, New Mexico has won multiple games just once — that was back in 1974 — so it goes without saying that there’s a strong desire to buck the program’s postseason reputation.

The 2013-14 season represents a new era in New Mexico basketball, and while the comfort level remains the same under Craig Neal the hope is that these Lobos will be able to go where they’ve been unable to in recent years.

Grand Canyon earns two more high-major transfers

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Grand Canyon has done a great job of attracting high-major transfers as the program landed two more former Big Ten players this week.

Forward Michael Finke, a former Illinois big man, will join the program as a graduate transfer while former Northwestern guard Isiah Brown also committed to the Antelopes.

Michael Finke made 50 career starts for the Illini, as he joins younger brother Tim Finke on the Grand Canyon roster. The floor-spacing big man could help Grand Canyon on offense if he shoots like he did a few seasons back as he could be a valuable addition to the rotation. Finke put up 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game at Illinois last season.

Brown, who just finished his sophomore season as Northwestern, will have to sit out next season before getting two more years of eligibility. The duo of Brown and Finke join Washington transfer Carlos Johnson (also sitting out next season) as high-major transfers that head coach Dan Majerle and his staff have pulled in this offseason.

Last season at Northwestern, Brown averaged 3.9 points per game after his minutes dipped a bit.

With Grand Canyon making a major push towards an NCAA tournament, these are the types of moves that could pay off the next few seasons for an emerging mid-major program.

Nebraska lands Robert Morris transfer Dachon Burke

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Nebraska landed a coveted transfer on Thursday as former Robert Morris guard Dachon Burke pledged to the Cornhuskers during an official visit, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

The 6-foot-4 Burke will have to sit out next season due to NCAA transfer regulations before getting two more seasons of eligibility. Burke averaged 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game last season for the Colonials in a breakout sophomore campaign. Also putting up 2.1 steals per game, Burke should be a major contributor for Nebraska when he becomes eligible.

Nebraska was able to pull in Burke even though he was coveted by other high-major programs as he’s a solid addition for the program. If Burke can improve his perimeter shooting (33 percent last season from three-point range) then he could be a major weapon for the Huskers.

 

Report: Arizona State adds 7-foot-1 center

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Height has been something of an issue in recent years for Bobby Hurley and Arizona State. The Sun Devils took a step to remedy that Thursday.

Uros Plavsic, a 7-foot-1 center from Serbia has signed with Arizona State to become the fourth member of the program’s 2018 recruiting class, according to a report from 247 Sports’ Evan Daniels.

Plavsic, who is attending high school in Tennessee, originally committed to Cleveland State, but backed off that commitment last month before visiting Tempe this week.

“It was a great experience,” Plavsic told Scout. “They really took good care of me these past few days. Their campus is so, so big. The people here are nice. I met two guys I really liked and were important for a basketball team. Their facilities are crazy. Everything is in the same area.”

The Sun Devils ranked in the bottom half of the country in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage last year while ranking 265th in average height, according to KenPom.

“They were short the past two seasons,” he said about Arizona State. “They really needed a big guy and they can use me inside or can pass outside. They really need a big guy and I think I can help them out a lot next season.”

 

NCAA begins work of implementing complex basketball reforms

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The most difficult part of the NCAA’s attempt to clean up college basketball begins now.

Hours after former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presented the Commission on College Basketball’s sweeping recommendations for reforming a sport weighed down by corruption, NCAA leaders set in motion the process for turning those ideas into reality.

The NCAA Board of Governors, a group of 16 university presidents and the association’s highest ranking body, unanimously endorsed all the commission’s recommendations Wednesday. Now it’s up to various subcommittees, working groups and college administrators to dig into a mountain of work over the next three months as the NCAA attempts to change NBA draft rules, create a new enforcement body, toughen penalties for rules violations, revamp summer recruiting and certify agents. All while trying to get buy-in from organizations that might not be motivated to help.

“It’s going to be a challenge to say the least,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said. “This is a pace of decision making that the association’s really never done on this kind of scale before.”

The Division I Council, comprised mostly of athletic directors and headed by Miami AD Blake James, has the job of turning the recommendations into rules. That requires feedback from schools, then council votes with some conference votes counting more heavily than others. Each proposal then goes to the Board of Directors, where a majority vote is needed to send it to the Board of Governors for final approval.

It’s a winding path — crossing 351 Division I schools with varied priorities and concerns — and requiring consensus building and compromise for measures to pass. NCAA rule changes can sometimes take a full calendar year to sort out.

“We’ve got to make sure we don’t let the good fall victim to the perfect here,” Emmert said. “Nobody believes we’re going to get everything perfect the first time through.”

The independent commission Rice led released a much-anticipated and detailed 60-page report , seven months after the group was formed in response to a federal corruption investigation that rocked college basketball. Ten people, including some assistant coaches, have been charged in a bribery and kickback scheme , and high-profile programs such as Arizona, Louisville and Kansas have been tied to possible NCAA violations.

“They believe the college basketball enterprise is worth saving,” Rice told the AP of commission members in an interview before addressing NCAA leaders. “We believe there’s a lot of work to do in that regard. That the state of the game is not very strong. We had to be bold in our recommendations.”

The proposals were wide-ranging, falling mostly into five categories: NBA draft rules, specifically the league’s 19-year-old age limit that has led to so-called one-and-done college players; non-scholastic basketball such as AAU leagues and summer recruiting events; the relationship between players and agents; relationships with apparel companies; and NCAA enforcement.

“Some people like some of (the recommendations) more than others, which is human nature, but as a board we’re unanimous in the endorsement and the acceptance of these recommendations for the NCAA,” said Minnesota President Eric Kaler, chairman of the Division I Board of Directors.

It’s not yet clear how the governing body would pay for some of the proposals, though the NCAA reported revenues of more than $1 billion dollars for fiscal year 2017 in its most recent financial disclosures.

The commission offered harsh assessments of toothless NCAA enforcement, as well as the shady summer basketball circuit that brings together agents, apparel companies and coaches looking to profit on teenage prodigies. It called the environment surrounding hoops “a toxic mix of perverse incentives to cheat,” and said responsibility for the current mess goes all the way up to university presidents.

It also defended the NCAA’s amateurism model, saying paying players a salary isn’t the answer.

“The goal should not be to turn college basketball into another professional league,” the commission wrote in its report.

The commission did leave open the possibility that college athletes could earn money off their names, images and likenesses , but decided not to commit on the subject while the courts are still weighing in.

Rice called the crisis in college basketball “first and foremost a problem of failed accountability and lax responsibility.”

ONE-AND-DONE

The commission emphasized the need for elite players to have more options when choosing between college and professional basketball, and to separate the two tracks.

The commission called for the NBA and its players association to change rules requiring players to be at least 19 years old and a year removed from graduating high school to be draft eligible. The one-and-done rule was implemented in 2006, despite the success of straight-from-high-school stars such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett.

“I’m confident they are going to be very supportive,” Emmert said of the NBA and NBAPA.

The NBA and players union praised the recommendations on enforcement and expressed concerns about youth basketball. On draft eligibility rules, however, there was no commitment.

“The NBA and NBPA will continue to assess them in order to promote the best interests of players and the game,” they said.

The commission did, however, say if the NBA and NBPA refuse to change their rules in time for the next basketball season, it would reconvene and consider other options for the NCAA, such as making freshmen ineligible or locking a scholarship for three or four years if the recipient leaves a program after a single year.

“One-and-done has to go one way or another,” Rice told the AP.

ENFORCEMENT

The commission recommended harsher penalties for rule-breakers and that the NCAA outsource the investigation and adjudication of the most serious infractions cases. Level I violations would be punishable with up to a five-year postseason ban and the forfeiture of all postseason revenue for the time of the ban. That could be worth tens of millions to major conference schools. By comparison, recent Level I infractions cases involving Louisville and Syracuse basketball resulted in postseason bans of one year.

Instead of show cause orders, which are meant to limit a coach’s ability to work in college sports after breaking NCAA rules, the report called for lifetime bans.

“The rewards of success, athletic success, have become very great. The deterrents sometimes aren’t as effective as they need to be. What we want are deterrents that really impact an institution,” said Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins, who was a member of the Rice commission.

AGENTS

The commission proposed the NCAA create a program for certifying agents , and make them accessible to players from high school through their college careers.

AAU AND SUMMER LEAGUES

The NCAA, with support from the NBA and USA Basketball, should run its own recruiting events for prospects during the summer , the commission said, and take a more serious approach to certifying events it does not control.

APPAREL COMPANIES

The commission also called for greater financial transparency from shoe and apparel companies such as Nike, Under Armour and Adidas. These companies have extensive financial relationships with colleges and coaches worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and Adidas had two former executives charged by federal prosecutors in New York in the corruption case.

 

ODU graduate transfer Trey Porter headed to Nevada

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Nevada is adding an immediate impact big to its roster.

The Wolf Pack received the commitment of Old Dominion graduate transfer Trey Porter, they announced Wednesday.

The 6-foot-10 Porter averaged 13.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.3 blocks for ODU last season. He announced his decision to finish his career elsewhere last month.

“We are so excited about Trey Porter joining our Nevada Family,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said in a statement. “Trey is an incredible athlete, has tremendous length, and has huge upside. He is a great rebounder who can score the ball in the post and face up. He has phenomenal speed for his size and will really fit in our uptempo style on both ends of the floor.”

Porter, who began his career at George Mason, shot 58.8 percent from the field last season and registered four double-doubles.

“I am very excited about the opportunity to play at a program like Nevada,” Porter said in a statement. “As soon as I stepped on campus, I could tell how invested the coaching staff, program, and university were to my success and how I would fit in with the team. I am ready to get back to Reno and get to work on next season.”

Nevada upset Cincinnati and Texas in the NCAA tournament last season to reach the Sweet 16. They finished 29-8 overall. The Wolf Pack have uncertainty with their roster with Jordan Caroline, Caleb Martin and Cody Martin all testing the NBA draft waters.