Weekend Preview: Four games featuring two ranked teams this weekend

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GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 14 Kentucky at No. 3 Florida, Sat. 9:00 p.m.

Here’s Kentucky’s chance to prove themselves. Here’s their chance to say that they are more than just a talented group of wimps. Florida is as good of a defensive team as you are going to find in the country, largely because they are so versatile in how they can defend. They’ll press. They’ll man. They’ll zone, playing 2-3 or a 1-3-1. They have size. They have tough on-ball defenders in the back court. They have versatile forwards that allow them to switch ball-screens.

Florida is legit. How will Kentucky handle that? They lost at Arkansas. They got beat up at LSU in a game where they could never truly answer the punches the Tigers were throwing. They came much closer to losing at Auburn that Kentucky ever should. Any chance of winning a league title will be on the line here. How will the Wildcats respond?

THE OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 6 Villanova at No. 18 Creighton, Sun. 5:00 p.m.

Villanova has one loss in Big East play this season. It came at home in truly embarrassing fashion, and it came against Creighton. They were down 20 after seven minutes. They were down 40 in the second half, rallying to make it “respectable” when the buzzer sounded. Not only will Villanova have something to prove, they’re going to basically be playing for total control of the Big East regular season crown. A win would give them a two-game lead with less than a month left in the season.

FIVE MORE TO KEEP AN EYE ON:

  • No. 21 Wisconsin at No. 15 Michigan, Sun. 1:00 p.m.: Wisconsin has now won three in a row to get back on track, but this will be one of two remaining challenges they have this season. Can they stop Nik Stauskas? Michigan won the first matchup in Madison.
  • No. 20 Memphis at No. 24 UConn, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: Memphis lost the last time these two teams tangled in Memphis. Deandre Daniels is the x-factor for UConn, but watching Shabazz Napier deal with Mike Dixon and Joe Jackson will be fun.
  • No. 25 Pitt at North Carolina, Sat. 1:00 p.m.: This is the last chance that Pitt is going to have before the ACC tournament to land a quality win. They need a quality win.
  • VCU at No. 12 Saint Louis, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: The two best teams in the Atlantic 10? Two of the top ten defenses in the country? It’s probably not going to be pretty. But it will be good. VCU needs a win if they want any chance of winning the A-10 regular season title.
  • Maryland at No. 8 Duke, Sat. 6:00 p.m.: This will be the last time in the foreseeable future that these two teams will square off. In the early 2000’s, this was one of the best rivalries in all of college basketball.

WHO’S GETTING UPSET?:

  • No. 2 Arizona at Arizona State, Fri. 9:00 p.m.: Arizona is a different team when they don’t have Brandon Ashley on the floor, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a worse team. Arizona State will be healthy this game, and they badly need the win.
  • No. 16 Iowa at Penn State, Sat. 1:00 p.m.: Penn State is a thorn in the Big Ten’s side this season. Are they scrappy enough to pull out a win against Iowa at home?
  • No. 17 Virginia at Clemson, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: Clemson and Virginia are both grind-it-out teams built around their defense. This may not be a high-scoring game, and that’s better for the Tigers. They’re looking to secure positioning as an at-large candidate.
  • West Virginia at No. 19 Texas, Sat. 8:00 p.m.: West Virginia has been one of the most surprising teams in the country. If Jonathan Holmes doesn’t play for Texas, the Mountaineers have a shot. Juwan Staten is the best player in the country you haven’t heard of.
  • No. 22 Ohio State at Illinois, Sat. 8:00 p.m.: Ohio State will matchup well with Illinois, but the Illini are a desperate team with something to prove. A loss would all-but guarantee them an NIT trip.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1) There are a pair of good, off-the-radar games in the Big 12 this weekend. Kansas State will visit Baylor in a game that the Bears have to win, while Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will renew the Bedlam Rivalry without Marcus Smart’s participation.

2) Both of the nation’s undefeated teams will be playing games that they should win this weekend. No. 4 Wichita State will be at Evansville on Sun at 5:00 p.m. while N.C. State will visit No. 1 Syracuse on Saturday 3:00 p.m.

3) Texas Tech  has been playing much better of late, winning three in a row and beating both of the Oklahoma schools in the last week. They’re at No. 11 Iowa State on Saturday at 1:45 p.m.

4) TCU at No. 7 Kansas wouldn’t normally be a must watch game, but Joel Embiid’s health will be something to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.

5) Key Bubble Games:

  • Southern Miss at Middle Tennessee State, Sat. 2:00 p.m.
  • UMass at George Washington, Sat. 2:00 p.m.
  • Cal at Washington, Sat. 3:00 p.m.
  • Xavier at Marquette, Sat. 4:00 p.m.
  • Tennessee at Missouri, Sat. 4:00 p.m.
  • Ole Miss at Georgia, Sat. 4:00 p.m.
  • LSU at Arkansas, Sat. 5:00 p.m.
  • BYU at Saint Mary’s, Sat. 8:00 p.m.
  • Minnesota at Northwestern, Sun. 6:00 p.m.
  • Georgetown at St. John’s, Sun. 7:00 p.m.

Wichita State getting more national respect with non-conference scheduling

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Wichita State is starting to gain more national respect with regards to its non-conference schedule.

Since moving to the American Athletic Conference this spring, the Shockers have not only gained the benefit of being in a multi-bid league every year, but they’re also getting better teams to play them outside of conference play.

According to a report from Paul Suellentrop of the Wichita Eagle, the Shockers now have non-conference games scheduled with Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State this season. With Wichita State also playing in the Maui Invitational, it gives the Shockers plenty of opportunities to schedule quality opponents and improve its NCAA tournament seeding. And that’s before Wichita State starts conference play.

Although Wichita State was getting invited regularly to prestigious non-conference tournaments such as Maui or the Battle 4 Atlantis, they were having a tough time getting certain schools to book home-and-home series. The Baylor series signifies a small, but significant, change to how Wichita State might be able to do things now.

USC forward Bennie Boatwright returning for junior year

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USC has a chance to be really good next season as forward Bennie Boatwright announced that he’s returning for his junior season.

The 6-foot-10 forward put up 15.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range as his return means that the Trojans should be a major contender in the Pac-12 next season. Elijah Stewart also announced this week that he is returning as USC could start Jordan McLaughlin, De’Anthony Melton, Stewart, Boatwright and Chimezie Metu next season.

With Duke transfer Derryck Thornton Jr. also becoming eligible and McDonald’s All-American guard Charles O’Bannon Jr. entering the program, the Trojans are a potential top-10 team.

Following decommitment, four-star recruit makes eye-opening remarks about Ohio State

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Ohio State lost a four-star recruit on Wednesday when in-state Class of 2018 wing Darius Bazley opted to open up his recruitment.

As a rising senior who is just finishing his junior season of high school, Bazley’s decommitment isn’t going to immediately hurt the Buckeyes next season. But the 6-foot-7 wing’s comments about why he opted to open up his recruitment are pretty jarring.

In a story with Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch, Bazley opened up about why he decommitted from Ohio State. Bazley’s eye-opening remarks include how the Buckeyes might not get him ideal NBA exposure and how Ohio State might miss the NCAA tournament in his freshman year.

“I was excited when I first got the offer,” Bazley said to Jardy. “Ohio State is still a great place. It’s nothing against the school or anything, but my one ultimate goal is to get to the NBA and I just didn’t feel as confident as I did when I first committed that Ohio State was one of those schools that could get me there. At the end of the day I’ve got to perform no matter where I go, but I think there’s other schools out there that could put me on a bigger stage and in a better position to show those NBA scouts when I get to college what I can do.”

Bazley also didn’t appear to be pleased at the recruiting class coming into Ohio State for the Class of 2017, which is the class that is coming in this season. Remember, Bazley is a Class of 2018 recruit who still has to finish his senior season.

“Ohio State, they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year,” Bazley said to Jardy. “They didn’t even make the NIT, which is unfortunate, but I looked into the recruits they have coming into next year, they didn’t look too good for the future. So I felt like when my class came in, yeah, we would’ve been OK, but good enough to make the tournament? I don’t know. I just felt as if I was to de-commit, actually take my time, figure everything out it would just be a lot better.”

Ohio State was once one of the major destinations for one-and-done players a decade ago so these remarks are very surprising. D’Angelo Russell was a top-five pick in the NBA Draft only two years ago, and while the Buckeyes might not be as successful in recent years as they once were, they still get plenty of national exposure with regards to producing NBA talent.

The NCAA tournament comments might carry some more weight though. The Buckeyes have missed the NCAA tournament in two consecutive seasons and things are also looking difficult for them to reach the Big Dance for next season. If Bazley wants to play in the NCAA tournament, then I could understand him wanting to open things up and explore more options.

Still, you don’t often see a player make comments like this about a school after decommitting–especially a program with as much national exposure as Ohio State. Bazley is likely going to face some heat for his remarks, but if those are his true feelings about a future life decision, then he should explore what else is out there.

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.