Pregame Shootaround: Conference play hits full swing

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GAME OF THE DAY: No. 6 Oklahoma State at Kansas State (4 p.m., ESPNU)

This game is much bigger for the No. 6 Cowboys than might appear at face value. Following the loss of starting center Michael Cobbins for the season with an Achilles’ tendon injury, and freshman point guard Stevie Clark was arrested — but not charged — for possession of marijuana during a traffic stop earlier in the week. Will the Cowboys be prepared for a Kansas State team playing really good basketball after the week filled with distractions? The Wildcats have won eight straight and will be hungry to beat a ranked conference opponent in their home building. One thing worth watching: How will Kansas State freshman guard Marcus Foster handle the pressure of facing Marcus Smart?

THE OTHER GAME OF THE DAY: No. 7 Duke at Notre Dame (4 p.m., CBS)

Is this a new and budding ACC basketball rivalry? There were some interesting remarks made in the summer between the programs and this is Notre Dame’s inaugural game as a member of the ACC. Although the Irish have struggled to find themselves since the loss of Jerian Grant, they should be fired up at a chance to face Duke and one of the best players in the country in Jabari Parker. Under Mike Brey, Notre Dame is a fantastic 12-6 against top-10 programs at home and Duke has yet to play a true road game this season.

WHO’S GETTING UPSET? No. 17 Connecticut at SMU (2 p.m., ESPNU)

This wouldn’t be an Earth-shattering upset by any means, but Connecticut is still the ranked team with the major name recognition while SMU is still looking for signature wins under Larry Brown. Both teams enter the day 0-1 in the brand-new American Athletic Conference following UConn’s disappointing loss at Houston and SMU’s loss to Cincinnati, so each team will be hungry to right the ship going forward. It should also be a lot of fun to see SMU point guard Nic Moore — one of the underrated floor generals in all of college basketball — take on UConn’s backcourt.

MID-MAJOR GAME OF THE DAY: Denver at St. Joseph’s, (2 p.m.)

Denver has struggled to a 7-7 start and was one of the favorites in the Summit League, but they’re still trying to figure things out as they travel to visit a good Atlantic 10 opponent in St. Joseph’s. Although the Pioneers have played a difficult schedule, they still have some bad losses on their resume and Chris Udofia needs to find his perimeter shot, as he’s struggled from that area this season. St. Joseph’s, meanwhile, is winners of four straight games and would love to keep that momentum going heading into the grind of the A-10

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW

1) Saturday’s contest between North Carolina Central and Wagner has been canceled due to the storm that meteorologists are calling “Hercules”. This is the third game this week to be canceled or postponed after Iona’s MAAC contest with Quinnipiac was postponed from Thursday to Monday and no makeup has been announced for Friday’s postponed South Dakota State and Buffalo contest. This could be something to watch the next few days with the winter weather getting very bad in some parts of the country.

2) Syracuse also makes its ACC debut on Saturday, as the No. 2 Orange look to become the first power conference team to win its league in the first year of play since Arkansas in 1992. The Orange open ACC play with a home game against Miami.

3) Is an interesting Pac-12 clash in the making when Washington visits No. 1 Arizona? The Huskies are only 9-5, but they were impressive in a road win at Arizona State on Thursday to open the conference season and they would love to pick up the sweep in their trip through Arizona.

4) A couple of interesting Big East games to monitor on Saturday include St. John’s visiting former Big East foe Georgetown while Big East newbies Butler and Xavier collide when the Bulldogs travel to Cincinnati. In each game, the road team is 0-1 and the home team is 1-0 and St. John’s and Butler will look to jumpstart their Big East season with a road win.

5) Pittsburgh travels to North Carolina State in a game that should help dictate how good both teams really are. The Panthers are new in the ACC but travel to Raleigh as a 12-1 team thanks to their light non-conference schedule and they’ll be tested by a Wolfpack team that has won eight of its last nine games against mostly inferior competition.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25:

  • Nebraska at No. 3 Ohio State, 12:00 p.m., BTN
  • No. 5 Michigan State at Indiana, 2:00 p.m., CBS
  • Richmond at No. 12 Florida, 3:00 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 13 Iowa State at Texas Tech, 1:30 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 14 Louisville at Rutgers, 6:00 p.m., CBSSN
  • Cincinnati at No. 18 Memphis, 12:00 p.m., ESPN2
  • Miami of Ohio at No. 23 UMass, 7:00 p.m.
  • Pacific at No. 24 Gonzaga, 8:00 p.m., ROOT
  • Long Beach State at No. 25 Missouri, 5:00 p.m.

NOTABLES:

  • Georgia Tech at Maryland, 2:00 p.m., ESPN3
  • Cornell at St. Bonaventure, 2:00 p.m., NBCSN
  • Penn State at Illinois, 2:15 p.m., BTN
  • Creighton at Seton Hall, 3:00 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • Virginia at Florida State, 5:00 p.m., ESPN2
  • Yale at Saint Louis, 5:30 p.m., NBCSN
  • Oklahoma at Texas, 8:00 p.m., Longhorn Network
  • Dayton at Ole Miss, 8:00 p.m., ESPN3

Texas Tech forward Zach Smith returns to school after withdrawing from NBA Draft

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Texas Tech forward Zach Smith will return for his senior season, the school confirmed on Monday.

The 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most intriguing athletes in college basketball as he’s been a double-figure scorer for the Red Raiders the past two seasons. As a junior, Smith put up 12.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as he shot 50 percent from the field.

Three-point shooting was something that Smith improved dramatically last season as he increased it to 39 percent in a small sample size. If Smith can continue to show that he’s a perimeter shooting threat then he could be an ideal three-and-d candidate at the pro level.

By returning to Texas Tech, Smith gives head coach Chris Beard a potential all-league candidate who should be counted on to be a double-double threat next season.

 

Missouri lands five-star forward Jontay Porter

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Missouri has another member of the Porter family in the fold as forward Jontay Porter officially committed to the Tigers on Monday night.

Following in the footsteps of older brother Michael Porter Jr., and father Michael Porter Sr., Jontay is currently a member of the Class of 2018 who is rumored to be reclassifying to the Class of 2017.

A 6-foot-10 forward who was recently elevated to five-star status on Rivals.com, Porter is having a monster spring in the Nike EYBL with MoKan Elite. Porter has been one of the best players in the league, as he’s putting up 18.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

If Jontay is able to join Missouri next season then he gives the Tigers another intriguing piece to play alongside his brother Michael, who is good enough to be a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although Jontay isn’t the go-to player that his brother is, he could be a very effective SEC role player early in his career, as his ability to rebound and stretch the floor makes him an extremely intriguing piece on the floor.

Kevin Stallings is a tone-deaf clown

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Pitt guard Cameron Johnson is the most coveted transfer in college basketball this offseason.

The 6-foot-8 Johnson is coming off of a strong campaign with the Panthers in which he put up 11.9 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.

Not only is Johnson a proven double-figure scorer in a league like the ACC, but he’s eligible to play right away thanks to his graduation from Pitt. Johnson graduating from school in three years and missing one season due to injury also makes him the rare graduate transfer who has two seasons of eligibility remaining. So, not only can Johnson come in and make an immediate impact, but he’s also able to stay for another year after.

This sort of thing almost never happens, let alone with a 6-foot-8 shooter that could sway the national title race.

It’s why blueblood programs like Kentucky and UCLA are in hot pursuit of Johnson. It’s why another ACC school, reigning national champion North Carolina, is also intrigued by Johnson being on the market.

Except Johnson won’t be allowed to attend North Carolina, or any other school in the ACC, without first sitting out a season and losing one season of eligibility. At least that’s how things currently stand thanks to Pitt’s power over Johnson — despite Johnson graduating from the school and having no more formal educational ties to the school.

Here’s what Pitt said on the matter in a release to the News-Observer.

“Cameron Johnson and his father were informed of our policy as well as the appeals process when they elected to seek to transfer. They went through our transfer appeals process and were granted permission to contact ACC schools; however, the committee upheld the policy to limit immediate eligibility within the conference.

If Cameron were to transfer within the ACC, he would be eligible to receive financial aid immediately but would have to sit out a year of competition due to standard NCAA transfer regulations. Throughout this process, we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings had a peculiar interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was published about two weeks ago. During the interview, of which the full transcript was made public, Stallings went in-depth about Johnson’s transfer and the current state of college basketball. Stallings also made remarks about how the media holds programs accountable for trying to bully certain players.

Here’s a small sample of what Stallings had to say.

“But the unexpected departures are the things that are becoming more common than uncommon in college basketball. You have guys constantly trying to transfer up. You have guys going pro that have never played a minute of college basketball after they’ve sat out a year at a school. You have guys asking out of their letters of intent with frequency. We’re dealing in a landscape in college basketball right now that is as probably as difficult and peculiar as it’s ever been. It used to be if a kid signed his letter of intent and he wanted out of it, you had to play a year of junior-college ball to get out of it.

“The media didn’t basically force institutions to let people break a binding agreement. It’s kind of interesting now the media tries to put so much pressure on programs, whether it be athletic directors or coaches, saying ‘Well, the coaches can move.’ Well, hey, guess what? I’ve got a great big buyout in my deal that prevents me from moving. I’ve got something in my contract saying I can’t go to another league school. It’s not as easy for coaches to go. That’s everyone’s rationale — ‘Well, the coaches can leave.’ We’re dealing in an environment right now that is as fluid as it’s ever been. It’s just where we’re at in the whole thing with the unexpected departures.”

Stallings makes some sound points–particularly about coaches having buyouts and the general perception of coaching changes in basketball.

But Kevin Stallings mostly sounds like a tone-deaf clown here.

Nobody is going to feel sorry for a millionaire coach who willingly makes the decision to change jobs.

Nobody.

Especially if that same millionaire is comparing a choice to change jobs to the transfer decisions of unpaid student-athletes. It’s even more laughable now that Stallings is holding power over an unpaid student-athlete from going to play at another school because of purely basketball reasons.

Pitt and Stallings need to do the right thing and release Johnson to play at any school right away because Johnson has already done everything he needs to do to appease the program.

Things changed dramatically for Johnson during his three years at Pitt. He became one of the ACC’s better players and earned his degree. Johnson held up his end of the bargain when he signed his Letter of Intent.  Now Johnson just wants the chance improve his basketball future by playing with one of the nation’s elite programs.

Stallings can blame the current state of college basketball, the media, or whoever he wants for Johnson’s transfer from Pitt.

But Stallings also has to realize that he’s going to be the one who looks stupid if he continues to leave these restrictions in place for Johnson. Stallings already has a history of this sort of thing when he placed transfer restrictions on former player Sheldon Jeter. If Stallings continues to uphold transfer restrictions on Johnson, then he’s going to gain a permanent reputation in recruiting during a time when players continue to gain more freedom over their basketball futures.

If Johnson does happen to go to an ACC school like North Carolina, it’s not as if Pitt has any sort of competitive roster that is going to be fighting the Tar Heels for league supremacy during the next two seasons.

Stallings and Pitt need to just bite the bullet, let Johnson have his freedom, and hope it doesn’t come back to hurt them for one or two seasons in ACC play.

It surely beats the alternative of being labeled a head coach who limits player freedom after six players left Pitt during a single offseason. That type of burn lasts a lot longer than two years.

Presbyterian hires Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns as new head coach

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Presbyterian finally has its new head coach as the program is set to hire Wofford assistant coach Dustin Kerns, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Kerns has been an assistant at Wofford for the past seven years during his second stint with the program. Also spending six seasons as an assistant coach at Santa Clara, the Tennessee native is getting his first shot at running his own program.

Finishing last in the Big South last season at 5-25 and 1-17 in conference play, Presbyterian is trying to rebuild after head coach Gregg Nibert resigned in April. Nibert was the head coach of the Blue Hens for 28 seasons, so Kerns is going to be a completely fresh start for the program.

Tennessee lands impact graduate transfer James Daniel

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Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes earned a commitment from one of the top graduate transfers on the market on Monday when Howard guard James Daniel pledged to the Volunteers.

The 6-foot-0 Daniel was the nation’s leading scorer at 27.1 points per game his junior season in 2015-16. Daniel played in only two games last season as a left ankle injury caused him to have surgery.

With nearly 2,000 career points to his name, Daniel gives Tennessee an additional perimeter scorer who should come in and make an immediate impact right away. While Howard has low shooting percentages and a high usage rate during his time at Howard, it’ll be interesting to see how the year off and more talented teammates will alter his game.

If Howard can be a more efficient scorer in his final season, then he has a chance to be one of the better players for the Volunteers this season.