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Illinois State’s Dan Muller pleaded for a tougher schedule on Twitter and got it

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Finishing the regular season at 27-6 wasn’t good enough to get Illinois State into last season’s NCAA tournament.

Although the Redbirds shared the Missouri Valley Conference title with Wichita State and split a regular-season series against the nationally-ranked Shockers, the NCAA tournament selection committee left Illinois State in the cold for an at-large bid on Selection Sunday.

The major reason: schools from power conferences continually refuse to schedule quality mid-major opponents like Illinois State. The Redbirds only played TCU from a “Power 5” conference during non-conference play last season. A road loss to the Horned Frogs didn’t do Illinois State much good in the eyes of the committee.

So Illinois State head coach Dan Muller took an interesting approach to generating a more respectable non-conference schedule. Muller took to Twitter and fully utilized his bitmoji game to call out programs from bigger conferences. His goal was to get the NCAA tournament selection committee’s attention with how tough it is for mid-major programs to schedule bigger schools. Muller also hoped the Redbirds could secure a home-and-home series against legitimate, power-conference competition.

“It got a lot of play. I thought it would go national. I didn’t think it would get as big as it got,” Muller said to NBCSports.com. “I got interviews across the country, some TV stuff, and a lot of responses from coaches, friends. A lot of them said it was hilarious. A lot of them said it was great. My point was to emphasize the difficulty in how the selection committee wants schools like us to do [things].”

Muller’s plea quickly went viral. More importantly, Muller’s plea actually worked.

Ole Miss was interested in making a home-and-home deal with the Redbirds. The two programs literally started the series with a very public back-and-forth on Twitter. There was a previous connection between the schools as Torrey Ward had been an assistant coach with both programs. Ward was tragically killed in a plane crash after the 2015 Final Four while he was the associate head coach of the Redbirds.

“It was all public, to be honest. What you saw is how it started,” Muller said of the series. “Rob Bjork, the AD at Ole Miss, tweeted back to me and I hit him back. I’ve known Andy Kennedy for a long time. Obviously there’s a very close acquaintance and friend we’ve got in Torrey Ward — so we had a connection there. That’s why AK wanted to do it. So, we’re grateful and appreciative.”

The two programs started the home-and-home series in Oxford on Saturday as Ward was honored with a video tribute from Ole Miss before the game. Ward’s family was also in attendance — including his mother, ex-wife and two children.

“It was great to see [Ward’s family],” Muller said. “We honored Torrey before the game and I know that was a big part of what Andy wanted to do.”

Besides for the heartwarming gesture in honoring a fallen friend, the game was also beneficial for Illinois State because they earned an overtime win, on the road, against an SEC opponent. Muller’s plan actually worked. The Redbirds have tried to answer the committee this season by playing a top-20 non-conference schedule. Unfortunately, Illinois State isn’t currently in position to earn a potential at-large bid after a sluggish 5-6 start.

But the Valley appears to be wide open now that Wichita State has ascended into the American Athletic Conference. Illinois State has been missing two key members of its rotation for nearly the entire season. Muller is optimistic that the tough non-conference schedule has properly prepared the Redbirds for the conference slate. The race for the Valley’s at-large bid is still going to be tight.

“We’re getting better; we have a lot of talent. We’re building our depth. But we’ve got to be healthy,” Muller said. “If, and when, we’re healthy, I really do think we’ll have a chance to be right there in the end.”

Even if Illinois State falls short of the NCAA tournament this season, Muller has laid the groundwork for another competitive non-conference schedule for next season. Always an aggressive coach when it comes to scheduling, Muller and the Redbirds have some solid opponents like Ole Miss, BYU and Florida Gulf Coast coming to campus next season. Arizona State also called to show interest in a potential home-and-home series with Illinois State. The two programs couldn’t figure out a date to make things work but it served as a reminder that Muller’s tweet was working.

What started as a plea to the NCAA tournament selection committee has turned into an unexpected boon to Illinois State’s scheduling practices. Muller acknowledged that he doesn’t prefer to use Twitter. But Muller might have to bring out his popular bitmoji character more often if it continues to lead to results like this.

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.