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Northwestern’s ‘historic’ NCAA tourney berth delights one of its rare ex-NBA players

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Evan Eschmeyer cherishes his six years at Northwestern in the 1990s. The last 25 years were filled with plenty of basketball-related pain, too.

There was nothing but joy as the 6-foot-11 Eschmeyer watched the NCAA Tournament Selection Show from his Colorado home on Sunday evening.

Northwestern made the NCAA Tournament field for the first time, ending a 78-year drought, the longest wait for any major conference school to join the Big Dance.

“It was historic, no other word for it,” he said by phone Monday. “A great deal of pride.”

No one player is associated with the Northwestern program’s history of futility more than Eschmeyer, who spent six years in Evanston in the 1990s. The Wildcats went 59-109 from 1993-99, including 19-85 in Big Ten play.

A rare top recruit to wear the Wildcats uniform, Eschmeyer is Northwestern’s only All-America team selection in the last 50 years and the only player drafted into the NBA in the last 40 years who played exclusively at the school.

In high school, Eschmeyer said his finalist list of schools included Notre Dame, Xavier, Michigan State and Purdue, all programs with NCAA Tournament histories.

“I wanted the highest-level education I could get, combined with the highest-level basketball,” the Western Ohio native said. “Northwestern was it. Today, that’s still the case.”

Eschmeyer also sought to reverse the program’s curse.

“I’m going to take these guys to the tournament, first year, go pro in two,” Eschmeyer said. “I was very arrogant.”

The pain started his freshman year. A broken foot kept Eschmeyer out those first two seasons.

Several doctors told him he’d never play again. He received a rare two medical redshirt years, making his college basketball stint the better half of a decade.

Eschmeyer led a Northwestern team that had won five games in 1994-95 to a 15-14 record in his last season. But that was only good enough for an NIT berth.

Eschmeyer grew up trying every which way to get out of school early in March to watch opening-round games. He filled out brackets for as long as he can remember. Even while at Northwestern, stuck in Evanston watching friends play across the country.

To this day. His 10-year-old twins registered for email accounts to enter bracket contests online starting a few years ago.

“It hurts that I never played,” he said. “It’s one of those few things that I have to live with as far as regrets for the rest of my life.”

In 1999, the New Jersey Nets took Eschmeyer with the 34th pick in the NBA Draft. But chronic knee problems forced him out of professional basketball after four seasons and five surgeries.

Eschmeyer remembers a nadir, feeling like somebody shot him in the leg warming up for a 2003 playoff game with the Dallas Mavericks. He received a cortisone shot solely for the purpose of propping him up should he need to enter the game later to foul somebody.

A doctor — from Northwestern – later told Eschmeyer that if he wanted to be able to play with his future kids, he needed to give up basketball.

Eschmeyer said he hasn’t played in an organized game since. Only in the last year has he played one-on-one with one of his 10-year-olds.

“I miss it daily,” he said. “Every day.”

Eschmeyer has lived in Colorado the last five years with his wife, former Northwestern player Kristina Divjak, and their three children.

He put that Northwestern education to good use. Eschmeyer is a CFO of a telecommunications development company, among other assets.

“Kind of a boring sort-of financial investor lifestyle,” he said, though his passions include hunting, hiking and teaching archery to area kids. The kind of pursuits that lead Midwesterners to the Rocky Mountains.

Eschmeyer’s basketball memories are mostly boxed up, but he is proud of one photo in his office. It’s of the center diving for a loose ball with his teammates.

Eschmeyer said he would gladly trade his personal success at Northwestern, which boosted his NBA Draft potential, to have played in the NCAA Tournament. But only if his teammates remained the same.

“It’s a special place where kids still stay for four years,” he said. “It’s a family. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

Eschmeyer is also proud of Northwestern coach Chris Collins. Eschmeyer said he actually hosted Collins on an unofficial recruiting trip to Evanston in the early ‘90s, even though Collins is one year older.

Collins, a McDonald’s All-American high school player, chose Duke, enrolling there after the Blue Devils won back-to-back national championships.

“It was definitely an uphill battle for Northwestern versus Duke,” Eschmeyer said, “but we got him out for a visit.”

The coach brought Eschmeyer back this season to speak to the team after a win over Iowa on Jan. 15.

“[Collins] made some very kind comments about what I had done when I was there, and just the history of the program,” said Eschmeyer, who tried to attend about two games per year. “I think that, from comments he made and the rest of the staff has made, it was important for them to build some sense of family around the program.”

Eschmeyer empathized with the current players carrying the weight of the program’s history.

“I don’t want to say they’ve been playing tournament games for the last four weeks, but there’s been a high level of pressure on them,” he said. “Everyone’s been counting games. Everyone’s been doing the math every time. That’s tough for anybody, especially when you’re 19.”

Eschmeyer has carried some of the burden, too. He hates being remembered as the star of a team that never made the tournament.

“Now [junior point guard] Bryant McIntosh will get phone calls instead of me,” Eschmeyer said, laughing. “It’s not that I don’t like a little attention once in a while, but no one likes attention for negative reasons, right? I will be very happy to pass being the last guy to be X, Y, Z to some young blood that has better things in their bios for what they accomplished at Northwestern.”

Eschmeyer spent the first day after the bracket announcement on message threads with friends and former players firming up travel arrangements.

Eighth-seeded Northwestern will play No. 9 Vanderbilt in Salt Lake City on Thursday. If it wins, No. 1 seed Gonzaga likely looms Sunday.

Eschmeyer will be in the crowd, perhaps the tallest person in the building wearing purple. His bracket will be filled out with Northwestern winning it all.

“There will be a sense of nostalgia,” Eschmeyer said. “I’ll be with a lot of old friends enjoying the moment.”

Seven identified after threats made against referee John Higgins following Kentucky Elite Eight loss

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College basketball referee John Higgins received threats to his home and business in late March after some controversial calls in North Carolina’s win over Kentucky in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Seven people have now been identified for making threats against Higgins, according to an Associated Press report. The FBI’s Omaha, Nebraska field office said that information on the seven people will be referred to authorities in their jurisdictions.

An investigation over the last few months helped find the culprits, as the Omaha-based Higgins received emails, phone calls and voicemails to his personal home and roofing company following Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament departure. Wildcat head coach John Calipari might have ignited some of the anger in Kentucky fans by criticizing the officiating following the North Carolina loss.

“Based on the investigation’s findings, our office has determined that no local charges will be filed and that pursuit of any criminal charges would be best served by deferring to authorities in the appropriate jurisdictions,” Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said in a statement to The Associated Press. “The length of the investigation was drawn out due in part to the large volume of potential evidence requiring analysis, and the multi-jurisdictional issues arising from the multiple states in which the communications originated.”

Polikov also said that at least two media outlets were exposing and promoting Higgins’ contact information.

“This information has been referred to the Federal Communications Commission for further investigation of the potential violations related to applicable federal communications regulations,” Polikov said.

Higgins received about 3,000 phone calls at his office in the two days following the game. Sheriff’s investigator Matt Barrall told the AP that an estimated 75 percent of the calls were from Kentucky area codes.

The roofing business that Higgins owns was also flooded with bad online reviews and negative star ratings, causing his Google rating to fall while also forcing Higgins to take down the Facebook page for his business.

Beilein still upbeat after Michigan loses another to NBA

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — For a major program, Michigan is a somewhat unlikely candidate for this kind of NBA-induced attrition.

The Wolverines have fielded some very good teams under John Beilein, but they haven’t been relying on prospects expected to jump to the pros as soon as they can.

“We’re not depending all our success on one-and-dones,” Beilein said. “Given that, our numbers right now are extraordinary.”

Beilein was referring to the number of players Michigan has sent to the NBA, particularly as early entrees. The Wolverines lost D.J. Wilson to the draft this offseason with two years of eligibility remaining, and now they’ll go through the familiar process of trying to replace a key player who turned pro.

The most significant early exodus occurred in 2013 and 2014, when Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all went pro before their eligibility was up. Michigan won a lot of games with those players, reaching the Final Four and Elite Eight those two years, but their development made them attractive to NBA teams and shortened their college careers.

Wilson’s rise followed a similar pattern. He averaged only 2.7 points per game in 2015-16, and then increased to 11.0 this past season and became Michigan’s leading rebounder. His efforts helped Michigan win the Big Ten Tournament and reach the Sweet 16, and now he’s off to the NBA draft. The entire sequence of events would have seemed highly improbable a year ago.

The Wolverines won’t receive much sympathy from their Big Ten opponents, especially since Michigan will still have big man Moe Wagner, who tested the NBA waters but ultimately decided to stay in school. The 6-foot-11 Wagner averaged 12.1 points last season and shot 39.5 percent from 3-point range, showing huge improvement in much the same way Wilson did.

After losing senior point guard Derrick Walton, it will be interesting to see how Michigan’s offense operates if Wagner becomes even more of a focal point. When Beilein was at West Virginia, the Mountaineers achieved success behind center Kevin Pittsnogle, whose skill set and 3-point shooting ability was at least somewhat similar to Wagner’s.

“We’re not going to put him in that category yet,” Beilein said. “Let’s just say, having a big man who can shoot the ball like that changes a lot of things.”

Michigan was also able to add a new point guard recently in Jaaron Simmons, a graduate transfer from Ohio. Simmons is eligible immediately in 2017-18 and will move up from the Mid-American Conference to the Big Ten.

“A lot of the mid-majors are having this happen to them, and I don’t like it at all, but the fact is if Jaaron doesn’t come here, he ends up probably somewhere else in the Big Ten,” Beilein said. “He’s just fundamentally so sound. He’ll be here this summer. Just as a person, I just wanted to coach the kid after spending an hour with him — just the leadership, the desire to win.”

Simmons could help the Wolverines withstand the loss of Walton, and Beilein indicated he could serve as a bit of a mentor to players like point guard Xavier Simpson, who is entering his sophomore season.

“We went all-in with (Simmons), knowing we had that scholarship,” Beilein said. “We felt that was a huge need for us, is to just have a little bit more experience in the backcourt next year.”

Follow Noah Trister on Twitter @noahtrister

LaVar Ball having ‘zero’ interaction with UCLA team bodes well for next season

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With the NBA Draft looming in less than a month, the biggest talking point has been just how much of an impact LaVar Ball is going to have on his son, Lonzo’s, NBA career.

It’s a question worth asking given the, ahem, outspoken nature of the eldest Ball.

But in the collegiate ranks, that’s a question that’s been asked about UCLA regarding next season. While Lonzo and LaMelo, who is finishing up his sophomore season in high school, are the stars that get the majority of the attention, there is another Ball brother that will be enrolling at UCLA next season: LiAngelo.

LaVar has already said that he expect Gelo to be a one-and-done player, which may not jibe with how good Gelo actually is. He’s not Lonzo and he’s not LaMelo. He’s not a dynamic athlete or a lead guard. He’s a 6-foot-5, 200 pound shooter with limitless range but limited upside. There’s a reason Rivals ranks him as a three-star prospect.

What’s going to happen when UCLA, a top 15 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25, doesn’t give Gelo Lonzo-esque minutes or shots next season? How will LaVar handle it if his second son is coming off the bench for the Bruins?

Steve Alford doesn’t seem concerned about it, telling a reporter from the LA Times that LaVar was “never at practice, never called me” and was around the team “zero.”

“I think all parents probably should know that moving on to the collegiate level anyway,” Alford said. “It’s not high school, it’s not AAU. Your son’s on scholarship; your son’s at UCLA getting an incredible opportunity academically and athletically.

“Playing time, shots, that kind of stuff — we don’t entertain some of those phone calls anyway. I never had any issues at all with LaVar.”

It will be interesting to see if that continues next season.

The Bruins have a chance to be pretty good. Maybe not quite as good as last season, maybe not a Pac-12 title favorite or even the best team in LA — USC is loaded — but I wouldn’t be shocked to see them end up as a top four seed in the NCAA tournament with Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh returning and Jaylen Hands headlining the recruiting class.

Will LaVar be able to handle UCLA’s success if it comes at the expense of his son’s?

NCAA: Former USF assistant provided extra benefits, lied to NCAA investigators

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The NCAA has alleged that former South Florida assistant coach Oliver Antigua provided roughly $500 in impermissible benefits and initially lied to NCAA investigators about it, according to the Tampa Bay Times, who obtained the NCAA’s summary disposition report.

Oliver Antigua is the younger brother of Orlando Antigua, who was the head coach at USF until he was fired in January. Now an assistant on Brad Underwood’s staff at Oklahoma State, Orlando was not alleged to have committed an NCAA violation in the report.

Oliver is alleged to have provided the extra benefits to two student-athletes while they were being tutored by the sister-in-law of Gerald Gillion, a special assistant to Orlando who resigned last fall, four months after Oliver did. USF has already self-imposed a $5,000 and reduced their scholarships from 13 to 12, according to the report.

“The University of South Florida and the NCAA continue to work together to resolve the inquiry into violations of NCAA bylaws and university standards by a USF intercollegiate athletic program,” according to a statement released by the school. “USF anticipates having a final resolution with the NCAA sometime this fall. Until the process concludes and the matter is fully resolved, USF cannot provide further comment.”

Villanova lands four-star 2018 guard

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Villanova added its first recruit in the Class of 2018 on Wednesday night.

Jay Wright and his staff landed a verbal commitment from Paul VI Catholic High School’s Brandon Slater, a four-star guard by Rivals as the No. 42 overall prospect in the rising senior class.

The 6-foot-5 Slater announced his decision via Twitter.

Slater, according to Jeff Borzello of ESPN, picked the Wildcats over Maryland, Miami, South Carolina, and Virginia.

He is currently playing the Nike EYBL with Team Takeover, the same grassroots program that produced current Villanova guard Phil Booth.