Jabari Parker dazzles national audience, but still a step behind Andrew Wiggins

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CHICAGO — Jabari Parker seemed distracted as he wandered the nearly empty United Center hallway to the team bus after Duke’s 94-83 loss to Kansas in the second game of Tuesday night’s State Farm Champions Classic.

You could hardly blame Parker for seeming out of it. The 6-foot-9 freshman phenom created a national buzz on Tuesday night by scoring 27 points while hauling down nine rebounds in the first major game of his college career — and second college game overall — and it came in his hometown of Chicago against No. 5 Kansas and the projected No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Andrew Wiggins.

Wiggins vs. Parker has been a hot topic of discussion since the two were elite high school prospects and Tuesday gave the duo a chance for a clash on a national stage.

While Wiggins spent much of the first half in foul trouble, Parker started out hot, knocking down 6-of-10 field goals and 4-of-5 three-pointers in the first half on his way to 19 points by the break. But in the second half, Parker was clearly a bit tired and the Jayhawks threw multiple bodies at him to try to stop him, including Wiggins for a few possessions.

Parker finished 9-for-18 from the field and 4-for-7 from three-point range in 33 minutes before fouling out with 1:16 left to play. Wiggins tallied 22 points and eight rebounds in 25 minutes but also earned the victory for his team.

The talk of Wiggins vs. Parker — and their future status as likely top NBA draft picks — dominated the headlines before, during and after a game that still featured two top-five teams and numerous other McDonald’s All-Americans, but Wiggins and Parker belong to college basketball for at least the next few months and the only thing that really mattered to them was Kansas beating Duke in a hard-fought, early-season game.

“Our names on our jerseys don’t say ‘Parker’ and ‘Wiggins’ it says ‘Kansas’ and ‘Duke,'” Wiggins said after the game. “At the end of the day, one team is going to win, not one player.”

A four-time Illinois Class 4A state champion at Simeon Career Academy on the Southside of Chicago, Parker isn’t accustomed to losing and clearly felt the emotion of the big night in his hometown. As the Blue Devils waited to take the United Center floor before the game, Parker stood in the tunnel with his teammates as Magic Johnson walked by and gave Duke some words of encouragement.

Clearly, this wasn’t your typical November college hoops battle.

“I think it’s remarkable that a kid that’s 18 can come in here during his second game…. in his hometown and playing against Kansas and he was sensational,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Imagine the emotion that you use? He wasn’t just worn out towards the end because of the way the game was played, I think he was emotioned out. He was terrific and that’s how you grow. I thought he handled everything well.”

As an undersized team facing Kansas’ length and athleticism on the interior, Duke also counted on Parker to defend in the post — something Jabari is getting used to at the college level — and he also paced the Blue Devils with nine rebounds.

“(Jabari) did a good job; they’re tough in the post. That’s what they’ve done the entire time that Bill has been there, is really strong low-post play,” Krzyzewski said of Parker’s post defense. “I think Jabari wore them down a little bit too. It’s how you punch; it’s how you counter. I thought Jabari did a great job.”

Both teams downplayed the individual matchup of Wiggins and Parker in favor of Duke versus Kansas, but with an estimated 70-plus NBA people in attendance at the United Center and the buzz of basketball fans across the country fixated on the matchup of the freshman phenoms, its hard not to focus on Wiggins vs. Parker as the night’s major storyline.

As Wiggins raced down the open floor for a dunk that put the Jayhawks ahead 87-81 with 1:16 left, Parker was the one to foul him on the play giving chase and was disqualified from the game with his fifth foul.

The play symbolized what America learned after Tuesday’s Champions Classic: Wiggins is still a half-step ahead of Parker for now, but the battle is much closer than many people had anticipated.

The sold-out United Center’s frenzied atmosphere made the Champions Classic feel a bit like March, but there are still four more months until we find out any real answers to the “Wiggins vs. Parker” debate.

If Tuesday night’s matchup was any indication, college basketball fans are going to have a lot of fun figuring out the answer.

DiVincenzo to test NBA draft waters

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The Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player is testing the water to see if the NBA will let him have next.

Villanova announced on Thursday that Donte DiVincenzo, who scored a career-high 31 points in the national title game two weeks ago, will declare for the draft but will not hire an agent so as to preserve his collegiate eligibility.

“Donte has consistently improved in his time at Villanova through dedication and a commitment to our core values,” stated Wildcats head coach Jay Wright. “His play this season has created a unique opportunity for him to receive feedback from NBA teams in the draft process. We support Donte fully and our staff will work together with him and his family to help him assess the next step in his basketball career.”

At this point, every relevant Villanova player has announced what their intention is for the NBA draft. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are heading to the NBA. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are returning to school, and barring a shock decision to transfer or to declare for the draft, both Collin Gillispie and Jermaine Samuels will be as well.

That leaves Divincenzo and Omari Spellman, both of whom have declared for the draft without signing with an agent.

What those two decide to do could end up determining who college basketball’s best is next season, and there is no easy answer here for either of them.

We’ve been over this with Spellman already. At 6-foot-9, Spellman is already an elite shooter for someone his size. He’s also down to a svelte 245 pounds, which has turned him into a much more impressive athlete than he was when he first arrived on the Main Line. He’s more explosive. He’s a better shot-blocker and rebounder. He’s much better at attacking closeouts. As it stands, he’s got a shot to be a late first round pick should he remain in the draft.

The same can be said for DiVincenzo, a 6-foot-5 off-guard that is a streaky scorer with range and athleticism that can operate in ball-screens actions. He’s coming off one of the most impressive performances that we’ve seen in a national title game ever, which means that the memory that everyone is going to have of DiVincenzo is of him raining threes, blocking players at the rim and winking into the crowd.

But that’s not what NBA scouts are going to necessarily remember of him.

Villanova might not have been appointment viewing for people that wanted to see the next crop of superstars play, but they were on every NBA team’s list of teams that they needed to see. That’s what happens when there are five potential pros on the roster, including a top ten pick in Bridges and the National Player of the Year in Brunson.

Put another way, NBA personnel are very, very familiar with DiVincenzo. They know that he is a streaky scorer that can go off for 20 points in a half or 30 points in a game. They know that he is a plus athlete that can guard different positions despite the fact that his wingspan is all that massive. They also know he is a guy who doesn’t always make great decisions and can really struggle when he has to handle the ball against pressure.

Like Spellman, DiVincenzo is a borderline first round pick that is more likely to end up being snatched up in the early-to-mid second round if they remain in the draft.

The question they need to ask themselves is whether or not they feel that where they get selection could be drastically altered by returning to school, and I do think there is some reason to believe that to be the case. For starters, there are places where both players can improve to become more highly-regarded prospects, but I think what would be more relevant is that, if they both do return, we could be looking at a situation where both are preseason all-americans for a preseason top three team.

Hell, I don’t think it’s out of the question that DiVincenzo will be a Preseason National Player of the Year candidate, Spellman a preseason first-team all-american and Villanova the preseason No. 1 team in the country.

And if that is the case, one would assume that DiVincenzo — like Bridges and Josh Hart before him — could put together the kind of season that would see him shoot up draft boards. The same with Spellman.

But what’s more relevant for this space is that with both of those players in the fold, Villanova would once again be a national title contender and the overwhelming favorite to win a down-Big East conference.

Without them?

Villanova will be looking at having a rotation that includes three sophomores and three freshmen, which is not close to the ideal for Jay Wright. They’ll still be good, but we won’t be talking about them as a team that can win a title, at least not at the start of the season.

There is no hyperbole when I say that what DiVincenzo and Spellman decide to do will drastically alter the landscape of college basketball for the 2018-19 season.

Paschall, Booth to return for senior seasons with Villanova

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Villanova announced on Thursday morning that both Phil Booth and Eric Paschall will be returning for their senior seasons with the Wildcats.

“Phil and Eric are two of the cornerstone leaders of our team,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “Each of them is widely respected by their teammates, not just for their talent, but for the kind of young men they are. We are thrilled that they will help lead our team again as seniors.”

Booth, a 6-foot-3 guard, is a redshirt senior from Maryland that averaged 10 points and 3.2 boards this past season despite dealing with a broken bone in his shooting hand that held him out of the lineup for seven games during Big East play. Paschall is a 6-foot-6 wing that started 38 games and averaged 10.6 points and 5.3 boards this past season, his second with Villanova after transferring into the program from Fordham.

There was some question that Paschall could end up declaring for the NBA draft. He is a redshirt junior and, given his athleticism, defensive versatility and ability to knock down threes, he would be an intriguing second round prospect and a potential role player at the NBA level. His return is big, because he is the piece that allows Villanova to be able to switch 1-through-4 without much worry, and he’ll allow sophomore Jermaine Samuels and incoming freshman Cole Swider to have another year before they are relied upon as heavily as they would be without him.

As good as Booth is at the college level, he’s not likely to end up being an NBA player. The concern is that, like Mikal Bridges and Paschall, is he was a senior from an education perspective, meaning that he could have earned his degree and moved on to the professional ranks. He will be an important veteran presence on the floor, and the kind of program piece that will help bridge the gap between last season’s title-winning team and the next crop of youngsters on the roster.

Arizona lands Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther

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Arizona landed a key addition for its frontcourt on Wednesday as Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther pledged to the Wildcats.

The 6-foot-9 Luther is expected to receive a hardship waiver that would give him immediate eligibility, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com, as Arizona gets some much-needed help up front.

Playing in 10 games last season before a stress reaction in his right foot ended the season, Luther averaged 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for the Panthers. In his final game of the season, Luther went for 13 points and 12 rebounds in a Pitt loss to West Virginia. Luther shot 45 percent from the field and is a noted perimeter threat as he was 38 percent from behind the three-point line.

Luther hasn’t logged heavy minutes as a contributor through a full season. Mostly a role player at Pitt until last season, Luther was the team’s most productive player when he was on the floor. But that production also didn’t come during ACC play and through the course of a full season.

Thankfully at a program like Arizona, Luther should have a bit more help around him. He could be a nice addition to the Wildcats, particularly if he rebounds and spaces the floor in the frontcourt as he did at Pitt. Arizona needed someone like Luther to provide more stability after losing players like Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic.

In the last few weeks, Arizona has rebounded nicely to land three commitments for next season — including freshmen Devonaire Doutrive and Omar Thielemans. The group isn’t as heralded as some past Arizona recruiting efforts. Given where the Wildcats were in recruiting a few weeks ago, however, this isn’t a bad turnaround.

TCU extends Jamie Dixon’s contract by two more years

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TCU has given head coach Jamie Dixon a two-year contract extension through the 2023-24 season, according to a release from the school.

Dixon took the Horned Frogs to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years this season as he’s done a great job of turning around his alma mater. The release also notes that TCU had the highest average attendance in program history this season. Fans are also taking notice of a revitalized team.

With back-to-back 20-win seasons and postseason appearances, Dixon and TCU have a lot of positive momentum going on right now. The two-year extension for Dixon should help a bit in recruiting when it comes to overall stability, as well, as he’s been able to attract some quality talent so far.

Report: Kevin Ollie claims UConn violated rights with firing

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Fired former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie is claiming that the school violated his constitutional rights during his departure.

Ollie sent a letter to UConn school president Susan Herbst which was obtained by ESPN’s Myron Medcalf in a report released on Wednesday. Ollie’s lawyers are claiming the school proceeded with his firing before giving Ollie a proper chance to contest his termination — which was guaranteed in his contract and also the collective bargaining agreement with the University of Connecticut’s branch of the American Association of University Professors. Ollie was fired, with cause, in late March as the school mentioned an NCAA inquiry as the reason why. According to Medcalf’s report, the NCAA has not sent a notice of allegations to the school.

Ollie’s union membership includes thousands of faculty members around the country as the collective bargaining agreement demands a hearing process before any employee can be terminated for allegations of serious misconduct. Ollie claims he didn’t receive a letter he was supposed to get to begin the termination process.

“From our review of the facts and circumstances relating to Coach Ollie’s employment status, it is apparent that the University of Connecticut has already violated [Coach Ollie’s] rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by subverting Coach Ollie’s opportunity to respond to charges and evidence in a meaningful way in advance of the decision to terminate his employment,” said the letter dated April 3.

“The public record, action taken, and authorized communications by representatives of the University of Connecticut, demonstrate that the decision to terminate Coach Ollie has already been made and therefore the University of Connecticut has effectively negated Coach Ollie’s property right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

This letter to UConn likely begins a long legal battle to try to get an eight-figure payout back as Ollie is going to do everything he can to clear his name.