Oklahoma State and Memphis both have statements to make tonight

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Michael Dixon (Getty Image) and Marcus Smart (AP photo)

Since it doesn’t involve freshmen destined to be top five picks and since it’s not being dubbed the single greatest basketball event ever held outside the month of March, but Tuesday night will feature one of the most intriguing matchups of the young season.

The No. 11 Memphis Tigers are headed to Stillwater to take on No. 7 Oklahoma State.

In and of itself, that’s enough for me to tell each and every one of you college basketball fans that you need to tune in. When two top ten (well, top 11, but close enough) teams take the court, you watch. It’s that simple.

But there’s so much more going on here, enough that I’d say there is just as much intrigue and just as many storylines heading into this game as there were for either of the matchups in the Champions Classic.

Let’s start with Memphis, who will be playing their first meaningful game with Michael Dixon as a member of their team. If you’ve forgotten, Dixon was suspended from Missouri before playing a game last season as a result of a couple of accusations of sexual assault. He was never charged, however, and Pastner brought him in for his senior season. When the NCAA granted him a waiver, Memphis was given a gift: one of the best all-around guards in the country.

Dixon brings a level of toughness and a brand of leadership that Pastner’s back court really hasn’t had before. And with Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford joining him, the Tigers all of a sudden have one of the most formidable back courts in the country. Add in the likes of Shaq Goodwin, Austin Nichols, and the rest of Pastner’s latest loaded recruiting class, and there is as much hype and potential on this Memphis roster as there as ever been.

Which is what makes this game so important.

For as many games as Pastner has won, for as many talented recruits as he has brought in, Pastner really doesn’t have anything to show for it. He’s won one NCAA tournament game. That came against St. Mary’s in the Round of 64, when the Gaels had to win a play-in just to get that far. At the time, the Gaels were ranked 25th in the Coaches Poll — and unranked in the AP poll — so not only is Pastner’s only NCAA tournament win, but it would also count as his only win against a ranked team.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that Memphis has won a lot of games during Pastner’s tenure, but they’ve yet to do anything of substance. They’ve yet to make a statement. They’ve yet to have that win that makes you say, ‘Damn, maybe this team is better than I thought.’

Methinks going into Gallagher-Iba and beating the Pokes would suffice.

But that’s not going to be an easy thing to do.

Let’s gloss over, for a second, the fact that Oklahoma State is a top ten team and a legitimate contender for the Big 12 title this season. You don’t need me up on my high-horse trying to tell you that Travis Ford’s club is really talented this season, and that winning on a really talented team’s home court is not an easy thing to do.

What I may need to do is remind you that Oklahoma State has a kid on their roster named Marcus Smart, a guy that could have been the No. 1 pick in the draft had he left as a freshman. A kid that is as competitive as anyone in the country. A kid that is coming off of an all-american season and has been completely overlooked in regards to the Player of the Year race and the conversation for the No. 1 pick in the draft.

This is his moment.

This is his chance to prove to the nation — to show the folks that have been discussing Andrew Wiggins vs. Jabari Parker and Julius Randle vs. Aaron Gordon — that they’ve overlooked someone.

He’ll be ready to play. You better believe that.

Put it all together, and what you get is a game in mid-November between two of the top 11 teams in the country where both programs have quite a bit to play for.

That’s not something that happens often.

Top 2018 recruit R.J. Barrett names final five schools

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A top player in 2018 is down to five schools.

R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-6 guard out of Monteverde Academy in Florida, announced Wednesday he’ll consider Arizona, Duke, Michigan, Oregon and Kentucky as his college destination.

Barrett is among those in the mix for the top spot in his class now with Marvin Bagley III reclassifying to 2017 this week and committing to Duke. He starred in Canada’s run to a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championships this summer, dropping 38 points on Team USA in a shocking semifinals win for the Canadians, who went on to defeat Italy in the finals. He averaged 21.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.6 rebounds per game during the event.

The schools to make the cut for certainly are of little surprise. They’re among the biggest brands in basketball and have been among the recruiting elites for years.

Barrett was originally part of the 2019 class, but decided to reclassify earlier this summer.”Really, it’s been a thought of mine for the last year,” Barrett wrote for USA TODAY, “but I wanted to wait and see how the season would go and how school would go and when everything went well it became more and more real so I made the decision to go ahead and do it.

“I’m right on track to graduate in 2018 and academically everything is great.”

 

Big Ten reveals conference schedule with early-December games

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We knew it was coming, but seeing it in black-and-white is still plenty jarring.
The Big Ten is going to play conference games in early December.

The league announced its full conference schedule Wednesday, unveiling 14 first-week-of-December games ahead of nearly a month-long hiatus before Big Ten play picks up again in January.

It’s a move that was forced after the Big Ten decided it needed to expand its east coast presence after its expansion to Rutgers and Maryland, and will be playing its conference tournament on the eastern seaboard for the second-consecutive year, this time at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

The problem with MSG is that the Big East hosts its annual conference tournament there, meaning the B1G will have to play its tournament a week early, March 1-4. That means a week less of January, February and March for the conference to play its 18 league games. Thus the early December start. NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster broke down the situation in even more detail – and bite – last spring here.

Every team in the league will play both a home and a road game during that league’s first week, a soft opening if you will. Whether teams like the change or not will likely come down to circumstance  – what players they have injured or suspended, what players their opponents have injured or suspended and any other host of issues, but it’s hard to believe with all things being equal, Big Ten coaches will like this move. They’re playing extremely meaningful league games less than three weeks into the season with other conferences getting nearly 2 months of preparation before facing their toughest slate of games.

The B1G, though, will have more favorable and interesting games – even if they’re programmed against college football championship games (including their own) – that week than any other conference can boast, which likely means some nice TV ratings. Given why this change is being made, that’s probably the priority anyway.

South Carolina adds Maine grad-transfer Myers

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South Carolina is adding some immediate help in its follow-up season to a Final Four run.

Wesley Myers, a graduate transfer from Maine, is joining the Gamecocks’ program, according to FanRag Sports’ Jon Rothstein.

The 6-foot-2 guard gives Frank Martin’s team an instant infusion of scoring as they look to replace SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier. Myers 16.9 points per game last year on 43.7 percent shooting, including a 34.3 percent mark from 3-point range.

He’s the second grad-transfer Martin has picked up this offseason, joining Florida Atlantic’s Frank Booker. The pair should help ease the transition from last year’s success to a much less experienced team that returns just a pair of starters.

Myers, though, doesn’t arrive in Columbia without some notable history.

Last year, after transferring to Maine from Niagara, was suspended after an altercation with a teammate, according to reports. He and teammate Marko Pirovic argued over locker room music, and the alleged ensuing altercation left Pirovic with a broken jaw, according to reports. Three other Maine players were suspended after telling a team athletic trainer that Pirovic had injured himself in a fall in the shower. Pirovic declined to press charges.

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett: ‘We believe in diversity and unity to its fullest extent’

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Virginia’s Tony Bennett finally spoke out on last weekend’s clash between white supremacists protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and counter-protesters that resulted in the deaths of a 32-year old woman named Heather Heyer and two police officers involved in a helicopter crash:

Bennett does not exactly take a hard-line stance — the message is more about healing within the community and how much he loves his current hometown than it is about condemning what happened — but he does say “we believe in diversity and unity to its fullest extent.”

Kyle Guy, a sophomore on the Virginia roster, had this to say on Sunday:

UNC academic case finally reaches NCAA infractions hearing

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — It has taken more than two years for North Carolina to appear before an NCAA infractions committee panel since initially being charged with five top-level violations amid its long-running academic scandal.

The two-day hearing begins Wednesday in Nashville, Tennessee. The panel will ultimately determine whether the school faces penalties that could include fines, probation or vacated wins and championships, making this a major step toward resolution in an oft-delayed case filled with starts, stops and twice-rewritten charges.

“The hearing stage, no matter what size of a case, it’s a big deal to any university,” said Michael L. Buckner, a Florida-based attorney who has worked on infractions cases. “I’ve been a part of what you’d consider small cases, I’ve been a part of one of the largest cases. And trust me: The client feels the same anxiousness and apprehension no matter what size of a case it is.

“But I can definitely imagine with North Carolina, this is definitely a momentous occasion.”

The charges include lack of institutional control in a case tied to irregular courses in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. The case is an offshoot of a 2010 football probe, with the NCAA reopening an investigation in summer 2014, filing charges in May 2015, revising them in April 2016 and then again in December.

The panel, which would typically issue a ruling weeks to months later, is chaired by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey and includes former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

UNC’s representatives were seen arriving for the closed-door hearing at a Nashville hotel Wednesday morning. The contingent included athletic director Bubba Cunningham, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, football coach Larry Fedora and women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell. Jan Boxill and Deborah Crowder, two former UNC employees charged individually in the case, were also seen with their attorneys.

None of the coaches are charged with a violation. But football and men’s basketball are referenced in a broad-based improper benefits charge tied to athlete access to the irregular courses, while women’s basketball is tied to a charge focused on a former professor and academic counselor providing improper assistance on assignments.

Fedora wasn’t working at UNC during the time in question.

“There’s nothing that I can add to what happened before I ever got here,” Fedora said last week. “But I’m there for support. I think me being there is important — not only for the NCAA but the university — that it shows compliance is important to me and our program.”

The focus is independent study-style courses misidentified as lecture classes that didn’t meet and required a research paper or two for typically high grades. In a 2014 investigation, former U.S. Justice Department official Keorneth Wainstein estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes making up roughly half the enrollments.

The NCAA has said UNC used those courses to help keep athletes eligible.

UNC has challenged the NCAA’s jurisdiction, saying its accreditation agency — which sanctioned the school with a year of probation — was the proper authority. In a May filing , the school stated it “fundamentally believes that the matters at issue here were of an academic nature” and don’t involve NCAA bylaws.

The NCAA enforcement staff countered in a July filing: “The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA’s business.”

UNC has argued non-athletes had access to the courses and athletes didn’t receive special treatment. It has also challenged Wainstein’s estimate of athlete enrollments, saying Wainstein counted athletes who were no longer team members and putting the figure at less than 30 percent.

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