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MAC Preview: Is the West where the MAC’s power lies?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the MAC.

The MAC is in a strange position entering the 2017-18 season. While the league’s East Division has been the dominating force among the league’s two divisions the past few years this year the West Division, led by Western Michigan, is receiving a bigger share of the preseason buzz.

Speaking of Western Michigan, they became the favorite as soon as senior guard Thomas Wilder opted to pull out of the 2017 NBA Draft. A top-100 player in college basketball this season, Wilder is the runaway favorite for Preseason MAC Player of the Year after leading the MAC in three-point shooting while putting up 19.3 points and 3.8 assists per game. Besides having a pro prospect on the roster, the Broncos have depth on the interior and some promising sophomores to keep tabs on. Centers Seth Dugan and Drake LaMont can be tough to contain and sophomores Brandon Johnson and Reggie Jones both showed flashes of strong play last season.

Staying in the West Division, Ball State is quietly coming off of back-to-back 20-win seasons as head coach James Whitford returns quite a bit of production. Junior guard Tayler Persons is a very strong mid-major floor leader while center Trey Moses and floor spacers like Francis Kiapway and Sean Sellers are back as well.

Buffalo is the preseason favorite for the East Division as they combine talented newcomers with solid veterans. All-league candidate C.J. Massinburg is back for his junior season at guard while forward Nick Perkins should also see a bigger role. The Bulls also received some solid additions with Missouri transfer Wes Clark in the backcourt and highly-touted JUCO prospect Jeremy Harris on the wing. With NCAA tournament experience from the upperclassmen on the roster, it wouldn’t at all be surprising to see Buffalo make another postseason run.

After making a surprising NCAA tournament appearance, Kent State has a chance for another strong season. All-MAC forward Jimmy Hall is gone by MAC Tournament MVP Jaylin Walker is back after a very good sophomore season. To maximize their potential, the Golden Flashes need production from newcomers Akiean Frederick and Jonathan Nwanko in the frontcourt.

Toledo has had a tough time winning close games the past two seasons as the Rockets return junior wing Jaelan Sanford and sophomore center Luke Knapke from the starting lineup. Junior forward Nate Navigato is an intriguing floor spacer and Toledo gets some transfer help from Tre’Shaun Fletcher (Colorado) and Willie Jackson (Missouri).

Losing Jaaron Simmons to Michigan was tough for Ohio but they still have a few starters coming back. Sophomore forward Jason Carter has the upside to be a major factor in the MAC while junior guard Jordan Dartis is one of the league’s best shooters.  Eastern Michigan gets back the league’s top big man in James Thompson IV as the double-double machine is only a junior. The Eagles lost a ton this offseason but senior wing Tim Bond is back and Robert Morris transfer Elijah Minnie is a player to watch in the frontcourt.

Bowling Green remains a young team but they have a lot of returning experience. Sophomore guards Dylan Frye and Rodrick Caldwell gave the Falcons a boost when they were inserted into the starting lineup last season while junior big man Demajeo Wiggins is an all-league threat.  

Hit hard by offseason transfers, Northern Illinois still returns some intriguing, but unproven, players. The frontcourt of juniors Jaylen Key and Levin Bradley could be solid and sophomore guard Eugene German gets backcourt help from JUCO All-American Dante Thorpe.  Akron now has former Illinois coach John Groce at the helm as they have eight newcomers on the roster. Junior guard and double-figure scorer Jimond Ivey returns and Oregon State graduate transfer Malcolm Duvivier should also help.

Despite having the scoring prowess of Marcus Keene last season, Central Michigan still floundered to 6-12 in the MAC as they lose Keene and Braylon Rayson. Sophomore forward David DiLeo and senior forward Cecil Williams could be a solid frontcourt but the Chippewas have to replace a ton of scoring while also improving defensively. Miami gets a new head coach in former Purdue assistant Jack Owens as he takes over a very depleted roster to begin the rebuild. Senior forward Logan McLane is a returning bright spot for the RedHawks.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON MAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Thomas Wilder, Western Michigan

One of the most complete guards in the country, Wilder is back for his senior season as he could be a sleeper pro prospect. Leading the MAC in three-point shooting, Wilder was also third in assist-turnover ratio, fourth in scoring and top-ten in assists and steals. The 6-foot-3 Wilder is capable of big scoring nights but also versatile enough to fill up the box score.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON MAC TEAM

  • James Thompson IV, Eastern Michigan: Averaging a double-double during his freshman and sophomore seasons, this junior big man is one of the more underrated post players in the country.
  • Jaylin Walker, Kent State: Last year’s MAC Tournament MVP was strong down the stretch as he could be in for a big season if he improves his efficiency as a shooter.
  • Tayler Persons, Ball State: A former ASUN Freshman of the Year at Northern Kentucky, Persons lived up to the hype in the MAC, putting up 15.5 points, 4.9 assists and 3.9 boards per game last season.
  • CJ Massinburg, Buffalo: A junior guard with NCAA tournament experience, Massinburg had a great sophomore season as he put up 14.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @HustleBelt

POWER RANKINGS

  1. Western Michigan
  2. Ball State
  3. Buffalo
  4. Kent State
  5. Toledo
  6. Ohio
  7. Eastern Michigan
  8. Bowling Green
  9. Northern Illinois
  10. Akron
  11. Central Michigan
  12. Miami

 

Iowa’s McCaffery says, “I’ve turned programs in” for cheating

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There aren’t a lot of unwritten rules in basketball. One of them, though, is that if a coach breaks a real rule, other coaches don’t speak up. Coaches would seemingly rather lose out on a recruit or transfer rather than turning in one of their own for suspected malfeasance.

Not for Fran McCaffery, though.

The Iowa coach was asked Monday about the FBI investigation into corruption into college hoops, and freely volunteered that he has previously turned other programs in for violations – and that he’ll do it again, if need be.

“I’ve turned programs in and I’ll continue to do that when I know that there’s something going on,” McCaffery said at the program’s media day, according to the Des Moines Register. “But a lot of times you don’t know what’s going on. So can you police yourselves? Only if you know something’s going on. But even then it’s hard for the NCAA to do something.”

Turning in another program for violations is really one of the biggest taboos in the coaching profession. That’s why you get coaches look silly in blocking schools for transfers when tampering is suspected, rather than a coach just reporting tampering.

McCaffery’s tactic, while probably frowned upon by many of his colleagues, is probably the best weapon the NCAA has in combating cheating. If coaches make it clear they won’t tolerate cheating – or that if it occurs, it won’t go unremarked upon – that will go along way in changing a culture and system that the FBI is going to potentially uncover with its wide-ranging investigation that already has resulted in 10 people’s arrest and a Hall of Fame coach’s firing.

“Any time the game is cleaned up,” McCaffery said, “it’s better for all of us.”

Report: Louisville offered $1.5 million settlement to Pitino

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When it became clear that Louisville and Rick Pitino were going to part ways, much of the discussion instantly turned to the more than $40 million left on the coach’s contract.

The school reportedly tried to avoid that whole ordeal Monday, but Pitino apparently wasn’t interested.

Louisville offered to pay $1.5 million to a charity started by Pitino in exchange for his resignation, according to WDRB-TV Louisville. Pitino did not accept and was then fired for cause by the Louisville board.

It’s little surprise to see Pitino reject such an offer with so many more millions on the table should he (almost certainly) begin legal proceedings trying to recoup the cash that Louisville says it doesn’t owe him by firing for cause.

I vehemently reject (the school’s) right to do so ‘for cause,’” Pitino said in an affidavit sent to the school. “I have given no ’cause’ for termination of my contract.”

The firing came on the heels of the latest controversy  to hit Louisville under Pitino’s watch. First came the escort scandal that rocked the program, but now the school is part of the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. Ten people were arrested as part of the probe, including an adidas executive who is alleged to have orchestrated getting $100,000 to the family of a recruit in order to facilitate his commitment to the Cardinals program.

Pitino may be out at Louisville, but with more than $40 million at stake, the school surely hasn’t seen the last of him.

Louisville officially fires Rick Pitino

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Louisville’s Athletic Association has officially fired head coach Rick Pitino nearly three weeks after an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball linked the Hall of Fame head coach and his program to a $100,000 payment from Adidas to a recruit that enrolled at Louisville.

The association, made up of trustees, faculty, student and administrators, oversees Louisville athletics. They voted unanimously to fire Pitino.

Pitino has $44 million in salary remaining on his contract, which extends through the 2026 season. He was with Louisville for 16 seasons.

Pitino had been ‘effectively fired‘ by the university on September 27th, the day after the scandal first broke.

Earlier this summer, Louisville had received their sanctions from the NCAA in a different scandal that enveloped Pitino’s program. In October of 2015, a book was published by an escort named Katina Powell who alleged that a member of Pitino’s staff had paid for strippers and prostitutes for recruits and members of the Louisville team, some of whom were underage. The NCAA’s sanctions, which included vacating the 2012 Final Four and 2013 National Title in addition to Louisville’s self-imposed 2016 postseason ban, were handed down in June, two weeks after a Louisville coach had allegedly helped facilitate a $100,000 payment from Adidas to Brian Bowen’s family and six weeks before another coach would allegedly attempt to do the same for a 2019 prospect.

Kansas’ Self: Adidas case a “dark cloud on our profession’

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas coach Bill Self had come to know James Gatto well over the years, along with just about everyone else involved with the college basketball side of the athletic apparel giant Adidas.

It comes with the territory as one of the company’s flagship schools.

But when Self first heard that Gatto had been swept up in a wide-ranging FBI investigation, centered on Louisville but uncovering corruption elsewhere in college basketball, the Jayhawks’ coach admitted being “very disappointed and disheartened” and likened it to a “dark cloud for our profession.”

Prosecutors have accused the 47-year-old Gatto of conspiring with coaches and others to funnel payments to top prospects and their families to win commitments to play at schools sponsored by Adidas. The idea was that their relationship with Adidas would continue whenever they reached the professional level.

The family of one prospect was allegedly paid $100,000 to commit, according to court documents, and the school was later revealed to be Louisville. The school has since placed coach Rick Pitino on administrative leave while the federal investigation is being resolved. Nine others, including former Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans, have been charged in the case.

Self said during a lengthy interview Friday that the cash payments from Adidas surprised him, but “what is not surprising is third parties’ involvement in recruiting. Everyone should know that.”

“That’s prevalent everywhere,” he said. “There’s nothing illegal about agents talking to kids and their families in ninth and 10th grade. There’s nothing illegal about shoe companies funding AAU programs. That is what’s been encouraged and done, so it shouldn’t be a surprise you could have influence from third parties.”

Kansas officials insist they have not been contacted by the FBI, and the school is not under any sort of investigation. It

Kansas recently reached a 12-year contract extension with Adidas that will ultimately provide the school with $191 million in sponsorship money and apparel. Self suggested the affiliation is being used by rivals on the recruiting trail.

“Whenever in recruiting there is something out there that has been reported, whether it’s reliable or unreliable, total myth, whatever, there’s usually competitors that make sure that information gets to people. Unfortunately, that’s how it works,” Self said. “You can say that’s negative recruiting … but a lot of times the things that are reported are so inaccurate it puts you on the defense.”

The Jayhawks already have commitments from two top-100 prospects in 6-foot-9 forward Silvio de Sousa from Florida’s IMG Academy and 6-10 center David McCormack from Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy.

They are also in the mix for several more top-50 prospects in what could be a crucial class for them.

“I’d be lying,” Self said, “if I told you we hadn’t discussed these issues with kids. And has it hurt us to date? I don’t think it has. But it’s not signing day, either.”

Attorney makes case for Louisville to retain Pitino as coach

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Rick Pitino’s attorney has told the Louisville Athletic Association that it should not fire the coach of the men’s basketball program because his client “could not have known” about activities alleged in a national federal investigation of the sport.

Steve Pence made his case Monday while the ULAA was meeting to discuss whether to fire Pitino nearly three weeks after the school acknowledged the program’s involvement in the investigation. The association board is still meeting and has not announced its decision.

Association, a separate body that oversees Louisville’s sports programs and comprised of trustees, faculty, students and administrators, on Oct. 2 authorized university interim President Greg Postel to begin the process of firing Pitino for cause after Postel placed him on unpaid administrative leave Sept. 27.

Pitino, 65, is not named in court complaints in the federal probe but Postel said in a disciplinary letter that the allegations violated his contract.

Pence has contended that Louisville rushed to judgment and made his case before the board for 45 minutes on Monday.

He said Pitino should be retained and noted, “The coach did not engage in any of this activity, he didn’t know about the activity. I think we made a very compelling case to the board, I think they listened attentively and we’ll just have to wait and see what they say.”

Pitino has coached 16 years with the program, a run that included winning the 2013 NCAA championship but was tarnished by several embarrassing off-court incidents.