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Travis Steele knows Xavier’s next goal: Reach Final Four

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CINCINNATI — Travis Steele knows the clear expectation as Xavier’s next basketball coach.

“It’s the elephant that’s in the room: Go where Xavier has never gone in the NCAA Tournament,” Steele said.

The Musketeers have never reached a Final Four. They had their best chance this season, when they were ranked No. 3 in the AP Top 25 — a school record — and won their first Big East regular-season title. They got a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, only to lose in the second round to Florida State.

Coach Chris Mack headed to Louisville a few days later. Steele — who was the top assistant under Mack — was hired over the weekend as the school’s 18th head coach, given a higher bar than any of the others.

“There is one final hurdle,” athletics director Greg Christopher said Wednesday while introducing Steele as head coach. “We’ve never been to a Final Four, never won a national championship.”

Xavier decided its best chance was to stick with a formula that has brought the basketball program this far. The Musketeers were inundated with interest from candidates at other schools. They chose to stay in-house, providing continuity to a program that become nationally prominent.

Xavier has become adept at grooming its next head coach on the staff and then letting them take the school another step higher — a process that school president the Rev. Michael Graham called a “signature element” to the program. Xavier has grown from a mid-major program in the 1980s through a succession of coaches: Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean Miller and Mack.

It was no surprise that Steele — who was hired by Miller and has been Mack’s assistant for the last nine seasons — was considered the best choice.

“This is not something we do very often here at Xavier,” Graham said, referring to coaching changes. “But when we do it, we do it really, really well.”

Steele essentially clinched the job during his formal interview on Friday when he spoke in detail about his plans for getting Xavier to a place where it is considered a Final Four program. The Musketeers reached the Elite Eight for the third time in 2016-17.

“Every coach has made Xavier a better place than it was before,” Steele said. “That’s a huge responsibility on my shoulders.”

Unlike Mack, who grew up in Cincinnati and played for the Musketeers, Steele didn’t have any direct ties to the school until Miller hired him in 2008 as director of basketball operations. His brother, John Groce, also is a former Xavier assistant coach and currently the head coach at Akron.

As Mack’s top assistant, Steele was involved in recruiting and designing the offense that was one of the best in the country. Steele said Wednesday there won’t be many schematic changes in how the Musketeers play, but he’ll emphasize defense as he puts together next season’s team.

The Musketeers lose four seniors — Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Sean O’Mara and Kerem Kanter — and look to be more of a guard-driven team at the outset next season. Their defense had lapses last season that allowed other teams to put together big runs. Xavier let a 12-point lead slip away in the second half of its loss to Florida State.

Steele said he’s already heard from Xavier fans about it.

“They think our defense needs to improve,” he said, grinning.

Several returning players met with the athletics director during the coaching search and lobbied for Steele to get the job.

“We got coach Steele, and that’s what we wanted,” point guard Quentin Goodin said. “I want to play for a coach I’m comfortable with. He’s really energetic. He’s got a lot of leadership. He’s one of those coaches who knows what he’s talking about. He’ll be straight with you.

“Him being here and helping us grown as players and people — that’s what I feel made him the best choice.”

Minnesota adds Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis

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Minnesota has added some depth for the future.

The Golden Gophers received a pledge from Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis over the weekend, giving him a guard with two seasons of eligibility remaining starting in 2019-20.

Willis will sit out the upcoming season under NCAA transfer rules.

The 6-foot-4 guard played a limited role in two seasons in Nashville, never averaging more than 18. 5 minutes or 5.2 points per game. He scored in double figures in three games as a sophomore.

Willis was a top-150 prospect in the Class of 2016 coming out of Fayetteville, Ark. with offers from the likes of Tulsa, Rice and Dayton. Vandy and Minnesota were his two high-major offers.

After being ranked in the top-15, Minnesota was beset by injury and suspensions last season as they limped to the finish line in a 15-17 season that featured losses in 12 of its last 13 games.

Richard Pitino still has two available scholarships for the 2018-19 campaign.

Report: Quade Green returning to Kentucky

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John Calipari just landed a critical recruit for 2018-19, and he was already on the roster.

Quade Green, who averaged 25 minutes per game last season, is returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season, his mother told the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday.

Given that six Wildcat players have entered the draft (Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hami Diallo are signing with agents), getting the 6-foot point guard back for a second season is a massive deal for Calipari and Co. The Wildcats have always been at their best under Calipari with returning players as the cornerstones of the roster with talented one-and-dones providing the extra boost. Getting one such returner at the point guard position is even more critical.

Green, who came to Kentucky as a five-star recruit last year, averaged 9.3 points and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and a respectable 37.1 percent from 3-point range, an area where Kentucky continually needs help.

With Green back in the fold, Kentucky will now await the decisions of PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt, who are all going through the pre-draft process without hiring agents, which will potentially allow them to return to school and bolster a Kentucky roster has the look of a top-five team.

CBT Podcast: NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline: Winners, losers and who has the most on the line?

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The NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline came and went on Sunday night, meaning there are now roughly 60 college players that have signed with an agent and another 100 or so that have declared for the draft while retaining their college eligibility. Who were the winners? Who were the losers? Who has the most on the line? Sam Vecenie of the Game Theory podcast joined Rob Dauster to talk through all of it. The rundown:

OPEN: What do NBA teams value in players these days?

10:00: Villanova has more on the line during this testing the water process than anyone

19:00: Just how important was De’Andre Hunter’s decision to return to Virginia

25:25: Gonzaga getting Rui and Killian Tillie back makes them a title favorite

32:10: Nevada has a top ten season on the line with the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline

36:15: #RANTALERT – The decision to turn pro is so much more complicated than “is he a first round pick”

48:30: Rapid fire: Maryland, Kansas, Syracuse, Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan. What do they have on the line?

North Carolina’s Luke Maye declaring for NBA draft without hiring agent

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina junior Luke Maye has declared for the NBA draft but isn’t hiring an agent.

The 6-foot-8 forward was a third-team Associated Press All-American after averaging 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds. He was named the Atlantic Coast Conference’s most improved player after increasing his scoring average by 11.4 points from his sophomore to junior seasons.

Coach Roy Williams says in a statement that it’s ”a great opportunity” for Maye to work out for NBA teams and get feedback on what to improve in his game.

The deadline for college players to declare early for the draft was Sunday night. Players who don’t hire an agent can maintain their college eligibility as long as they withdraw by May 30, which is 10 days after the NBA draft combine.

Gonzaga star undergoes surgery on his shoulder

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The most important players for Gonzaga heading into the 2018-19 season will have an offseason dedicated to rehabilitation.

Josh Perkins, Gonzaga’s starting point guard, underwent surgery on Friday to repair a shoulder that he injured back in December. According to the Spokesman-Review, Perkins expects to be healthy and ready to play by the start of next season.

Perkins averaged 12.3 points and 5.3 assists during the 2017-18 season despite playing through those shoulder issues. After December’s win over Washington, a game in which Perkins left wincing in pain and clutching his shoulders, Perkins said “Just popped out a little bit. It’s not very strong right now, but everything is good.”

For my money, Perkins is the player that is going to be the x-factor for the Zags next season. They have a terrific front court with Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie returning, and with the likes of Zach Norvell and Corey Kispert back, there is plenty of talent on the wings. Perkins, the senior point guard, is the blue that is going to be needed to hold it all together.

Gonzaga is a top five team heading into next year. They have national title aspirations. Perkins might end up being the guy that determines whether they live up to those goals or get knocked out of the field in the Sweet 16.