The beauty of No. 6 Louisville vs. No. 18 Kentucky is the unpredictability

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Two months ago, the Battle of the Bluegrass that will take place on Saturday afternoon was the single-most highly-anticipated game of the college basketball season.

Two of the nation’s top three teams — the last two national champions — squaring off in a game that just-so-happens to be the most intense rivalry in the sport these days? It’s should come as no surprise, then, that the entire state of Kentucky and every college hoops media member circled this date on their calendar the second that we knew what the date was.

But thanks to some early season struggles, No. 6 Louisville’s visit to No. 18 Kentucky isn’t even the best game on Saturday afternoon. That title goes to the battle of the undefeateds between No. 2 Syracuse and No. 8 Villanova.

That doesn’t mean that we won’t be looking forward to that 4:00 p.m. tipoff on Saturday.

Quite the opposite, actually.

In fact, what makes the game so intriguing is the unknown. This is not an exaggeration: There is nothing that could happen in this game that would surprise me, save for Willie Cauley-Stein hitting 10 threes or Chane Behanan hitting all his free throws.

Louisville is one of the best teams in the country. They are currently sitting at No. 1 in KenPom’s rankings, posting the nation’s most efficient offense while slotting in fifth in defensive efficiency. They do what every Rick Pitino team has done: press, force turnovers, rely on the playmaking ability of their back court. The Cardinals are legit, and it would shock no one if they went into Rupp and beat the Wildcats.

But part of the reason for that is that Kentucky has not been themselves thus far this season. Or maybe they have and we just expected too much. John Calipari has a group that has now lost to the three marquee opponents they have played by a total of 13 points. All three of those losses came on the road or on a neutral court. In all three games, there was one part of Kentucky’s performance that cost them the win.

In other words, the talent on this roster is evident. Getting that talent to play together has been a tougher task that Cal expected.

Is this the game that they finally breakthrough?

Because at the end of the day, neither Kentucky nor Louisville has an elite victory this season. The Cards lost to North Carolina in fairly ugly fashion, getting worked over at Mohegan Sun back in November. Both teams really need this win, not just to right their ship and get their season headed in the right direction. And it’s not just to earn bragging rights in the Commonwealth for the next 12 months.

It’s to ease the fears of a slow start. Doubts are creeping in on both sides of the rivalry, and a loss on Saturday will only escalate those doubts.

So who gets the win?

Well, there are two keys to this game the way I see it.

First and foremost, the Harrison twins are going to have to be able to handle Louisville’s pressure. They cannot turn the ball over and give the Cardinals easy run outs. Kentucky’s biggest knock is on the defensive end of the floor, and they last thing they need to do is allow the Cards to get run out after run out after run out. Protect the ball, maximize possessions offensively and eliminate those easy buckets. Sounds easy, right?

The other key to the game will be the battle of the front courts. Julius Randle is as good as anyone in the country at drawing fouls and getting opposing bigs into foul trouble. Louisville has some bigs that can hold their own against Randle in the post, but those kids — Montrezl Harrell, Chane Behanan, Mangok Mathiang, Stephen Van Treese — have a bad habit of getting into foul trouble.

Kentucky-Louisville has lost some of its luster from the preseason, but this is still must-see TV.

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.

A record $439 million was bet on basketball in March in Las Vegas

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The month of March was quite friendly to Las Vegas.

According to ESPN, more money was bet on basketball during the month of March than in any month in the state’s regulated sports betting history.

And while the numbers produced by Las Vegas books don’t separate college and professional basketball betting, the money coming in on college hoops is pretty clear: $439 million was bet on basketball in March, more than double the $213 million bet on the sport in February.

It was profitable, too.

Those Vegas books kept more than $40 million dollars of the money that was gambled on basketball, which shattered the previous record of roughly $28 million in winnings.

Gonzaga lands their first post-Final Four commitment

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Gonzaga capitalized on their run to the national title game by landing a commitment from French point guard Joel Ayayi, who announced the news on twitter.

Ayayi is an interesting long-term prospect, according to Draft Express. He has the size and the frame to eventually be a significant contributor in the college game, but he’s raw. His handle needs work, as does his ability to create off the dribble and find teammates off of the bounce.

That said, he’s 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan and the ability to shoot it from the perimeter, and if Gonzaga can do anything, it’s develop players that enter their program.

VIDEO: Zion Williamson, top three prospect in 2018, breaks defender’s ankles

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Zion Williamson, one of the most sought-after recruits in college basketball, had himself a highlight-worthy moment at the Adidas Gauntlet event in Dallas over the weekend, breaking a defender’s ankles before hitting a three.