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Northwestern looks to build on first run to NCAA tournament

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EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — Finally free of that NCAA Tournament albatross, Northwestern comes into the season with something else hovering over the team.

That would be high expectations.

“It’s something that we’ve never encountered and we’re excited to see how we’ll handle that attention,” star guard Bryant McIntosh said.

The school that hosted the first Final Four finally got to experience an NCAA appearance last season. And with most of their top players back, the Wildcats are out to show that was no aberration. While challenging for the Big Ten championship might be a stretch, Northwestern comes into its fifth season under coach Chris Collins with an experienced roster and an appetite for more.

“What happened was great,” Collins said. “It was a great experience, a great group of guys that accomplished a lot. But now, it’s a new journey. It’s a new team. Guys have gotten better.”

The Wildcats have most of their key players back from a team that won 24 games and squeezed past Vanderbilt in their first NCAA appearance. A six-point loss to eventual runner-up Gonzaga that featured a big comeback by Northwestern and a crushing technical on Collins after the officials missed a goaltend by the Zags ended that run.

But the standards are higher than ever for Northwestern. The school rewarded Collins, extending his contract through the 2024-25 season.

Some things to know as the Wildcats try to make it back-to-back NCAA appearances, starting with the season opener against Loyola (Md.) on Nov. 10:

TEMPORARY HOME

Collins hopes the crowds that started to fill Welsh-Ryan Arena late last season will make the trip to Allstate Arena in Rosemont. The Wildcats will be playing home games about 15 miles from campus while their arena undergoes a major renovation. The school is replacing wooden bleachers with chair-back seats, updating audio and video systems, adding premium seating and widening concourses as part of a $110 million overhaul of the arena. Work is scheduled to be completed next fall. For now, the building is basically a shell with steel beams exposed and busted-open exterior walls. A $20 million facility for men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball and other programs that will be built inside an existing adjacent building is expected to open in late 2018 or 2019.

“Every time I drive past there or walk past it, it’s kind of surreal to see what’s going on — but exciting at the same time because what we have coming is going to be a program changer in terms of the resources, the facilities,” said Collins, a Chicago-area native. “(It’s) something that I know was a long time coming. We’re really excited about the end result.”

SCORERS RETURN

The Wildcats have their top five scorers back from last season, and they have a pair of preseason all-Big Ten guards in McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey. They were one-two in scoring for Northwestern last year, averaging 14.8 and 14.1 points, respectively. McIntosh also averaged 5.2 assists to tie for the Big Ten lead.

FORWARD THINKING

The Wildcats are also well-stocked up front, led by forward Vic Law. The Wildcats’ third-leading scoring and second-leading rebounder, he made the Big Ten’s all-defensive team. Dererk Pardon is also back after ranking second in the conference in field goal percentage (.611), fourth in blocks (1.8 per game) and seventh in rebounding (8.0 rpg).

HE’S BACK

Northwestern could get a boost with forward Aaron Falzon back from a season-ending knee injury. He played in just three games a year ago after a promising freshman season. Falzon hit 63 3-pointers two years ago — the second most by a Northwestern freshman.

“It was definitely a different experience for me watching the guys out there,” Falzon said. “But I think it helped me. It helped me mature. The game slowed down a little bit because I got to watch from the sidelines a little bit more. It was an interesting experience.”

ON TAP

The Wildcats will play three games in six days during a busy early-season stretch, when they visit Georgia Tech (Nov. 28), host Illinois (Dec. 1) and play at Purdue (Dec. 3). They also have non-conference games against Creighton at home (Nov. 15), Texas Tech or Boston College in Uncasville, Conn. (Nov. 19) and at Oklahoma (Dec. 22).

Report: Pilot involved in last year’s Michigan crash went against protocol, saved lives doing so

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The pilot of the plane that was scheduled to carry the Michigan basketball team from Detroit to Washington D.C. for the 2017 Big Ten tournament broke protocol by aborting takeoff and, in the process, potentially saved the lives of everyone on board the plane.

Here’s what happened, according to a transcript of the cockpit recorder that was obtained by The Detroit News: The mechanism that an airplane uses to take-off is called an elevator, and one of the two elevators on the plane that the Michigan team was on was stuck in a position that would not have allowed the plane to get into the air the way it needed to.

By the time the pilot of the plane realized this, the plane was already past the speed that would have allowed them to abort the takeoff without damaging the plane. Generally speaking, when that happens, the protocol is to get into the air and then find a way to land safely. The pilot on this flight slammed on the brakes, reverse-thrusted the engines and hoped for the best.

What eventually happened was that the plane skidded to a stop off of the back-end of the runway, leaving the people on board with bumps, bruises, scratches and, in the case of Derrick Walton Jr., stitches in his leg.

The alternative?

Well, we don’t have to think about that.

Because the pilot of that plane, Mark Radloff, went against what he was taught to do.

I’d suggest you read the entire story here. It’s wild and frightening.

Ohio State basketball reportedly hit with recruiting violations

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The Ohio State men’s basketball program has been hit with some of the stupidest recruiting violations I’ve ever heard of.

According to a report from The Lantern, three basketball recruits and one football recruit were on campus on September 9th and, during the visit, took a trip to the set of ESPN Gameday, which was in town for the Ohio State-Oklahoma football game.

During that trip to set, the recruits all met former Ohio State players Kirk Herbstreit, who works for ESPN, and Eddie George, who was a guest picker that day, as well as two other ESPN personalities. Recruits are allowed to meet former players on their visit to campus. They aren’t, however, allowed to meet with the media, and since ESPN’s Gameday staff is considered to be media, Ohio State technically committed a recruiting violation.

Now this is where things get a little bit messy.

According to the story from the Lantern, the football staff self-reported the violation, ended their recruitment of the football player involved and suspended the staff member responsible for the violation for one game. The basketball program, however, very likely landed commitments from two of the recruits. While Ohio State will not confirm which players were specifically involved, reports from the websites that track these things list just three players — USC commit Elijah Weaver and two Ohio State commits, JaeDon Lee and Luther Muhammad — as being on a visit that weekend.

As a result, the NCAA has reportedly ruled the three basketball players ineligible pending an appeal — which, I would bet the naming rights of my second-born son on, they will win even if it costs them a game or two — while ruling that Scoonie Penn, who coordinated the violation, to be suspended for a game.

All because the recruits had a chance to visit the set of College Gameday and got a chance to meet some ESPN TV personalities who probably could not have cared less about the kids they were meeting.

Cal makes key hire with addition of David Grace

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It didn’t take long for a Pac-12 rival to capitalize on the mistake that Steve Alford made.

Just three days after he was controversially, in the eyes of UCLA fans, fired by Alford, UCLA’s recruiting guru David Grace found a new home in Berkeley as he was hired to be a part of Wyking Jones’ staff at Cal.

Grace is an ace recruiter in every sense of the word. A former member of the Air Force, Grace started his coaching career working with 12 year olds in the Boo Williams program in Virginia. After getting transferred to a base in Phoenix, he coached an affiliate of the Compton Magic as well as a state title winning high school team before jumping to college and, eventually, Oregon State, where he reeled in talents like Jared Cunningham, Roberto Nelson and Eric Moreland.

Grace then headed to LA, where he was the lead recruiter for a number of the elite pieces that Steve Alford has coached over the course of the last five seasons.

Which brings me to Cal.

Grace is a terrific recruiter, but particularly when it comes to kids from southern California. He should, in theory, help Wyking Jones start to funnel off some of the talent that heads to Westwood and make them Golden Bears.

I don’t want to overstate this move or to say that it will shift the balance of power in the conference. It is going to take quite a bit of time for Jones to be able to find a way to get Cal out of the hole that they currently find themselves in, but landing a recruiter the likes of Grace will certainly help ensure that Cal ends up relevant sooner rather than later.

Wichita State to lose second player to transfer

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Already staring down the barrel of a rebuilding year, Wichita State is now losing a projected starter next season to transfer.

Austin Reaves, who played through a banged up shoulder to start 11 games and average 8.1 points while shooting 42.5 percent from three, has asked for and was given his release to transfer out of the program on Thursday. Reaves is the second scholarship player to ask for a transfer this offseason, joining C.J. Keyser in leaving.

This is a brutal blow for a Wichita State team that is already reeling from the graduation of six seniors and the loss of star point guard Landry Shamet to the NBA draft. As it currently stands, just four scholarship players return for Wichita State next season: Markis McDuffie, Samajae Haynes-Jones, Asbjorn Midtgaard and Rod Brown.

DiVincenzo to test NBA draft waters

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The Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player is testing the water to see if the NBA will let him have next.

Villanova announced on Thursday that Donte DiVincenzo, who scored a career-high 31 points in the national title game two weeks ago, will declare for the draft but will not hire an agent so as to preserve his collegiate eligibility.

“Donte has consistently improved in his time at Villanova through dedication and a commitment to our core values,” stated Wildcats head coach Jay Wright. “His play this season has created a unique opportunity for him to receive feedback from NBA teams in the draft process. We support Donte fully and our staff will work together with him and his family to help him assess the next step in his basketball career.”

At this point, every relevant Villanova player has announced what their intention is for the NBA draft. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are heading to the NBA. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are returning to school, and barring a shock decision to transfer or to declare for the draft, both Collin Gillispie and Jermaine Samuels will be as well.

That leaves Divincenzo and Omari Spellman, both of whom have declared for the draft without signing with an agent.

What those two decide to do could end up determining who college basketball’s best is next season, and there is no easy answer here for either of them.

We’ve been over this with Spellman already. At 6-foot-9, Spellman is already an elite shooter for someone his size. He’s also down to a svelte 245 pounds, which has turned him into a much more impressive athlete than he was when he first arrived on the Main Line. He’s more explosive. He’s a better shot-blocker and rebounder. He’s much better at attacking closeouts. As it stands, he’s got a shot to be a late first round pick should he remain in the draft.

The same can be said for DiVincenzo, a 6-foot-5 off-guard that is a streaky scorer with range and athleticism that can operate in ball-screens actions. He’s coming off one of the most impressive performances that we’ve seen in a national title game ever, which means that the memory that everyone is going to have of DiVincenzo is of him raining threes, blocking players at the rim and winking into the crowd.

But that’s not what NBA scouts are going to necessarily remember of him.

Villanova might not have been appointment viewing for people that wanted to see the next crop of superstars play, but they were on every NBA team’s list of teams that they needed to see. That’s what happens when there are five potential pros on the roster, including a top ten pick in Bridges and the National Player of the Year in Brunson.

Put another way, NBA personnel are very, very familiar with DiVincenzo. They know that he is a streaky scorer that can go off for 20 points in a half or 30 points in a game. They know that he is a plus athlete that can guard different positions despite the fact that his wingspan is all that massive. They also know he is a guy who doesn’t always make great decisions and can really struggle when he has to handle the ball against pressure.

Like Spellman, DiVincenzo is a borderline first round pick that is more likely to end up being snatched up in the early-to-mid second round if they remain in the draft.

The question they need to ask themselves is whether or not they feel that where they get selection could be drastically altered by returning to school, and I do think there is some reason to believe that to be the case. For starters, there are places where both players can improve to become more highly-regarded prospects, but I think what would be more relevant is that, if they both do return, we could be looking at a situation where both are preseason all-americans for a preseason top three team.

Hell, I don’t think it’s out of the question that DiVincenzo will be a Preseason National Player of the Year candidate, Spellman a preseason first-team all-american and Villanova the preseason No. 1 team in the country.

And if that is the case, one would assume that DiVincenzo — like Bridges and Josh Hart before him — could put together the kind of season that would see him shoot up draft boards. The same with Spellman.

But what’s more relevant for this space is that with both of those players in the fold, Villanova would once again be a national title contender and the overwhelming favorite to win a down-Big East conference.

Without them?

Villanova will be looking at having a rotation that includes three sophomores and three freshmen, which is not close to the ideal for Jay Wright. They’ll still be good, but we won’t be talking about them as a team that can win a title, at least not at the start of the season.

There is no hyperbole when I say that what DiVincenzo and Spellman decide to do will drastically alter the landscape of college basketball for the 2018-19 season.