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Confident Final Four newcomers Gonzaga and South Carolina focused on limiting distractions

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — After a few days in Arizona, the new car smell of the Final Four still hasn’t worn off for first-time participants Gonzaga and South Carolina.

Both programs are managing the insane pressure of trying to bring home a national championship while the Bulldogs and Gamecocks also try to encompass the magical experience of everything the Final Four festivities have to offer.

The banquets, dinners, media sessions and overall hype surrounding the Final Four dwarfs anything that these players and coaches have ever dealt with. Wide-eyed players and coaches are still figuring out strange Final Four challenges like the shooting backdrop in the cavernous University of Phoenix Stadium or handling all of the random outside distractions.

It can be a daunting task to juggle everything around the Final Four. Gonzaga and South Carolina are managing the best they can. In a Final Four that features three programs who have never been this far in the modern era, at least one of those teams — the Bulldogs or Gamecocks — will be playing for a national championship on Monday night.

“A lot of people that you haven’t talked to in years try to give you advice on what’s going on like they’ve been through it before,” Gonzaga freshman center Zach Collins said. “I mean, we all expected that. I think we’re all really, really good about keeping together in this locker room, focusing on the task at hand.”

Mark Few’s 18-year tenure at Gonzaga has seen the Bulldogs achieve an incredible amount of success considering the program’s West Coast Conference roots. Despite being a perennial NCAA tournament team who has reached the second weekend multiple times, preparing for the Final Four for the first time has involved new challenges for Few and his staff.

The Gonzaga staff spent the week calling other coaches about Final Four preparation while also relying on the guidance of assistant coach Donny Daniels — an assistant on Final Four teams at UCLA and Utah. The varying degrees of answers from other coaches has helped Gonzaga navigate the week.

Gonzaga players were asked to handle everything outside of basketball before Tuesday so that they could focus fully on Saturday’s game but they’re also trying to relish this experience at the same time.

“That’s the thing about athletics: everything is so regimented. Film is at this time and it’s this long. Practice is at this time and it’s this long. We eat breakfast at this time. And for 36 games, essentially everything has been the exact same,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “Then you get here and your schedule really is chopped up. You get five minutes for film here, five minutes for film there. You may have one scheduled [film session] and it may not end up happening. That’s been different for us. But so far the guys have responded to it pretty well.”

Gonzaga’s current roster and coaching staff has far more NCAA tournament experience than South Carolina, but the last few weeks for the Gamecocks have prepared them for everything that is currently happening to them at the Final Four.

Playing the first two rounds in nearby Greenville meant that South Carolina already had to deal with exaggerated off-the-court hype before the 2017 NCAA tournament even tipped. Gamecock fans were just clamoring for the team to earn its first NCAA tournament win since 1973. Things accelerated quickly for South Carolina and its fanbase after they knocked off Duke and advanced to Madison Square Garden for two more wins.

So while the Final Four still has some new wrinkles that the Gamecocks are adjusting to, they’ve already had to deal with a circus-like atmosphere just to reach Glendale. Most of South Carolina’s strategy to limit distractions has to do with making sure that head coach Frank Martin and his staff can handle everything possible to keep the players focused. Players for the Gamecocks maintain that everything has stayed pretty consistent throughout the season as they treat Gonzaga just like every other opponent.

“Honestly, it’s been pretty easy for us. We’re so focused on the game that we have tomorrow,” guard P.J. Dozier said of the week. “I hate to say that everything else doesn’t matter. But we know what we came here to do. We came here to win a national championship and we’re just trying to take it one game at a time.”

Right now, it seems easy for Gonzaga and South Carolina to limit distractions and stay focused for the national semifinals. Historic Final Four runs have a way of instilling confidence in teams that haven’t been there before.

But things also have a tendency to change very quickly once the ball gets tipped. Mistakes are magnified and the pressure of the Final Four can ramp up very quickly.

Gonzaga and South Carolina are both new to this, but one of them is about to play for a title on Monday. And the previous lack of Final Four experience will ultimately mean nothing.

“Experience helps you manage your mindset, your emotions, as you prepare for something. But when the game goes up, everyone’s nervous,” Martin said. “I don’t care how many Final Fours you’ve played in, every time you show up for that game you’re going to be nervous. And anyone who says differently is not telling you the truth. I don’t care how many games you’ve coached. You’re always nervous for the next game on the schedule. It just, it is what it is.”

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.

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.