Mark Few (AP Photo)

West Coast Conference Catchup: Gonzaga has top 10 talent

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Half of the West Coast Conference qualified for a postseason play this past season with Gonzaga and BYU returning to the NCAA tournament field. Heading into next year, the focus will once again be on Gonzaga. The Bulldogs were one-victory shy of a 30-win season, though, a blowout loss in the Round of 32 and a lack of marquee wins gave critics more than enough ammunition to label the 2013-2014 season as a disappointment.

However, the Zags could find themselves in the top 10 when the preseason is poll is released. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. anchor a back court joined by USC graduate transfer Byron Wesley. Przemek Karnowski had a breakout sophomore season with newcomers such as Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and Arvydas Sabonis’ son, Domantas, filling out the frontline.

RELATEDRead through all of our Conference Catchups here

Gonzaga has also beefed up its non-conference schedule with matchups on the road against Arizona and UCLA to go along with a highly-anticipated non-conference tilt with SMU, as part of the 24-hour marathon.

While Gonzaga is the clear-cut favorite, the rest of the conference is far less certain. BYU has questions to address, as the Cougars look to make a fourth tournament appearance in five seasons. San Francisco has plenty of returners, but will the loss of several top scorers keep the Dons from surpassing BYU in the standings? Saint Mary’s adds new pieces around its all-conference forward, Pepperdine has some talent and Portland could be the darkhorse with a long list of players coming back.

THREE UP

Gonzaga: The conference’s powerhouse is in for a big 2014-2015 season. Gonzaga has returning talent, adds two impact transfers and welcomes in a recruiting class that includes a pair of four-star commits. Even before Mark Few landed Wesley late last week, his team was projected as a top 20 team.

Portland: The Pilots lost five straight games to end this past season, but did pick up a huge conference win over Gonzaga a month prior to the losing skid. Portland is bringing back most of its rotation, including leading scorer Kevin Bailey and 6-foot-11 big man Thomas van der Mars.

San Francisco: Cole Dickerson, the team’s top scorer, exhausted his eligibility, and last month lost second leading scorer Avry Holmes to transfer. On paper that looks bad, but Rex Walters can combat those losses with core pieces left at his disposal. Kruize Pinkins, Mark Tollefson, Tim Derksen and Matt Glover all logged an average of more than 25 minutes per game last season. In the case of Derksen and Glover, they’ll have the opportunity to step up and fill a void as Holmes did when Cody Doolin left the program after four games.

THREE DOWN

BYU: Tyler Haws is back on campus, giving the Cougars one of the nation’s top scorers. However, guard Matt Carlino transferred to Marquette for his final season, center Eric Mika has left for his LDS mission and Kyle Collingsworth is recovering from an ACL tear he suffered in March. BYU brings in several transfers and adds Jordan Chatman, who has returned from his mission.

Saint Mary’s: The Gaels could very well take a step back this upcoming season. Stephen Holt is gone, leaving the back court in the hands of Kerry Carter and two eligible transfers. Brad Waldow does return on the frontline for the Saint Mary’s.

Loyola Marymount: The Lions are coming off a last place finish, and despite the return of Evan Payne it likely won’t get much better in the first year under Mike Dunlap. Anthony Ireland has graduated, and Gabe Levin, who along with Payne made was named to All-WCC freshmen team, transferred out after the season. Also, four-star commit Elijah Stewart was released from his National Letter of Intent. Long-term, LMU is on the upswing, you just might not see it this season.

FIVE NEW FACES

Kyle Wiltjer and Byron Wesley, Gonzaga: The former Kentucky Wildcat joins Przemek Karnowski in the front court while the ex-USC Trojan gives the Zags a scoring option on the wing. Wiltjer is a former McDonald’s All American and a member of Kentucky’s National Title team. Wesley averaged 17.8 points per game as a junior.

Mike Dunlap, Loyola Marymount: Not a new face to LMU, as the alum is returning to the school he played at and served as assistant for five years. He last coached the Charlotte Bobcats during the 2012-2013 season, and was let go after one year . His previous stops as an assistant include Arizona, Oregon, Iowa and St. John’s.

Chase Fischer, BYU: During his sophomore season with Wake Forest in 2012-2013, he shot 42 percent from behind the arc. The transfer guard resumes his career this season in the back court with Tyler Haws. Jamal Aytes can be another impact transfer when he becomes eligible after the fall semester.

Aaron Bright, Saint Mary’s: The graduate transfer rule will allow the former Stanford guard to finish his career without interruption at Saint Mary’s. Bright was the 2012 postseason NIT MVP. He and former Golden Gopher Joe Coleman will be additions to the Gaels back court.

Domantas Sabonis and Josh Perkins, Gonzaga: The two four-star recruits headline a strong recruiting class to add to the returning talent Gonzaga has next season. Sabonis, son of the Hall of Famer Arvydas, is 6-foot-10 power forward who should make an impact on the offensive end. Perkins will add depth to a senior-laden perimeter.

Way-Too-Early Power Rankings

1. Gonzaga
2. San Francisco
3. BYU
4. Portland
5. Saint Mary’s
6. Pepperdine
7. Santa Clara
8. San Diego
9. Loyola Marymount
10. Pacific

The Champions Classic renewed through 2019

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 27: Bill Self head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks claps for his team as they celebrate winning the Big 12 Conference Championship after they defeated Texas Tech Red Raiders 67-58 at Allen Fieldhouse on February 27, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. With the win, Kansas clinched its 12th straight conference championship. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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The Champions Classic is back, baby!!!

On Wednesday, the four schools that participate in the event — Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State — announced that they have signed deals to extend the life of the doubleheader for another three years.

This is terrific news. The Champions Classic is always the best early-season event of the season, an annual double-header that always ends up putting together two of the best non-conference games in packed NBA arenas. This year, it features Duke, the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country, squaring off with Kansas, who is a consensus top three team with the No. 1 freshman in the class, Josh Jackson, on their roster, in one game.

The other game? Kentucky, the third consensus top three team nationally, going up against Tom Izzo and Michigan State, who will be, at worst, a top 15 team in the preseason polls.

So yeah, we’re going to get a pair of sensational basketball games in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15th. MSG also just so happens to be the best arena to watch a great neutral site basketball game.

It’s going to be awesome.

There’s only one possible way to make it better: turn it into a two-day event, with the winners squaring off for the Champions Classic title the following night.

Make it happen.

Anyway, here’s the schedule:

Nov. 14, 2017 (United Center, Chicago)
Kansas vs. Kentucky
Duke vs. Michigan State

Nov. 13, 2018 (Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis)
Michigan State vs. Kansas
Duke vs. Kentucky

Nov. 12, 2019 (Madison Square Garden, New York)
Kansas vs. Duke
Michigan State vs. Kentucky

Hartford makes smart decision to allow ‘Pancake’ Thomas transfer

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Hartford coach John Gallagher, AP Photo
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Another talented graduate transfer has hit the market.

Cleveland ‘Pancake’ Thomas — that’s a helluva name, isn’t it? — has been granted a release by Hartford and will be allowed to transfer to another program for his fifth season.

“Our biggest priority for Cleveland was that he graduate from the University of Hartford with a valuable degree,” Hartford head coach John Gallagher said in a statement released to ESPN after some speculation that Thomas wasn’t going to be given a release. “That happened. Beyond wishing him the very best, we don’t comment on other program’s players. We are very excited about our group and the upcoming season.”

The term “release” is needed here because Thomas, a 6-foot-3 guard who averaged 18.9 points and shot 42.6 percent from three this past season, spent his first two years of eligibility at New Mexico. A graduate transfer exception is granted to any player making their first transfer after receiving an undergraduate degree. But since Pancake had already transferred once, he was only eligible to apply for a graduate transfer waiver, which the school he is leaving must support.

Remember the saga of Todd O’Brien? He tried to leave St. Joseph’s to spend his fifth-year at UAB but made headlines everywhere when Phil Martelli wouldn’t let it happen? That’s because O’Brien had started his career at Bucknell and needed Martelli to support the waiver.

Gallagher could have done the same to Pancake.

He made the right decision not to — Martelli has enough coaching cache to withstand the onslaught on criticism he received, I’m not sure that is true for Gallagher — even if it will result in Thomas playing elsewhere, hence the cold-hearted nature of that statement.

Anyway, Thomas never averaged more than 3.9 points at New Mexico, so while he’s a tantalizing prospect for programs that are dying for perimeter depth and shooting, this isn’t exactly a kid that’s going to launch himself into the NBA Draft’s first round by jumping up to a higher level.

Shawn Forrest named assistant coach for Jankovich at SMU

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 22:  Head coach Larry Brown (L) and associate head coach Tim Jankovich of the Southern Methodist Mustangs look on during the team's game against the Kent State Golden Flashes during the 2015 Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on December 22, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Southern Methodist won 90-74. The game marks Brown's return from a nine-game suspension.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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DALLAS (AP) Shawn Forrest has been named an assistant basketball coach at SMU, his third school since the end of last season.

Mustangs coach Tim Jankovich announced Forrest’s hiring Tuesday.

Forrest spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Western Kentucky before head coach Ray Harper resigned. Forrest was named a UTSA assistant in May, but two weeks later left for Louisiana Tech before the unexpected opening at SMU.

Jankovich was SMU’s associate head coach before the abrupt resignation last month of Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown. Forrest fills the open assistant spot created on the staff when Jankovich was promoted to head coach.

Before Western Kentucky, Forrest was an assistant coach at Louisiana-Lafayette, North Texas, Arkansas State and Florida A&M.

Jim Boeheim’s Melo comments are evidence of why athletes hate the media

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21:  Carmelo Anthony #15 of the United States poses with Team USA assistant coach Jim Boeheim after defeating Serbia in the Men's Gold medal game on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim has a habit of creating headlines that are not all that flattering, to himself or to the people that he’s commenting on, which is why it wasn’t much of a surprise that a quote he gave to Mike Waters of the Syracuse Post-Standard has been making the rounds this week.

The quote in question?

“He’s unlikely to win an NBA title,” Boeheim said of his former star and now three-time Olympic champion Carmelo Anthony. “He’s never been on a team that even had a remote chance of winning an NBA title.”

That sounds bad, doesn’t it?

But … I mean, he’s right, isn’t he?

Melo is 32 years old and title-less. He’s been to the conference finals once and gotten out of the first round of the playoffs just twice, and now he’s on the downside of his career. Athletes don’t get better as they exit their early 30s unless they’re taking whatever it was that turned Barry Bonds into a cyborg. Adding the remnants of Derrick Rose and a 31 year old Joakim Noah is helpful, but unless those contracts can teleport the Knicks back to 2011, Rose will be the only person calling this group a Super Team.

So yeah, Boeheim is right. You probably think so, too. Melo is probably never going to win an NBA title unless he finds a way to get to the Cavs.

But here’s the thing: focusing on that one line totally ignores the point that Boeheim was making in the interview. As always, context is critical, and if you read the story that Waters wrote, it’s pretty obvious the message that Boeheim was trying to get across. Melo is not going to leave a legacy in the NBA beyond being a guy that got a lot of buckets. It just didn’t work out for him that way. Ask Karl Malone how that feels.

But by going to Rio for the 2016 Olympics, by becoming the first men’s basketball player to win three Olympic gold medals, Melo did solidify himself a legacy.

He’s the most accomplished and, arguably, the best player that Team USA has ever had. That’s not going to make up for the rings that are missing on his fingers, but it does cement his place in the history of the game.

That was Boeheim’s point, and it was a salient, intelligent point, one that complimented Melo for the success that he had in international play.

But if you scroll through your favorite blogs and see that headline, it looks like he was taking a shot at the player that brought him his only national title.

And given how twisted that quote has gotten, is it any wonder why athletes and coaches hate the media?

UPDATE (1:30 p.m.): Boeheim has weighed in:

Oregon wins their opener on Spanish tour

Oregon forward Elgin Cook, from left, forward Dillon Brooks and guard Tyler Dorsey react after a play against Washington during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinal round of the Pac-12 men's tournament Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Las Vegas. Oregon won 83-77. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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Oregon won the opener of their tour in Spain 109-88 on Tuesday night, as the Ducks knocked off a team of all-stars in Madrid.

Tyler Dorsey had 19 points to lead the Ducks while Kavell Bigby-Williams and Dylan Ennis, who is coming off of a season derailed by foot injuries, both added 16 points. Chris Boucher, who was terrific at the Nike Skills Academy in July, had 12 points.

While Ennis’ health was noteworthy, it is also worth pointing out that Oregon’s star Dillon Brooks did not play on Monday and will not be playing on the trip. I know this because, in every photo posted by the official Oregon team accounts, Brooks is in a chair with a boot on his left foot.

The rising junior, a potential all-american, had surgery on the foot earlier this month.