Recruiting rundown: Chris Thomas on unconventional path

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It’s not hyperbole to say that 6-5 guard Chris Thomas is one of the largest basketball talents to come out of Denver, Colo., in at least a decade. The lengthy athlete has unbelievable bounce, a flair for making a remarkable play, and a defense-stretching long-range shooting ability. Thomas is all but unstoppable in transition due to his fiery burst. All of those traits put Thomas, a high school junior as of last week, as comfortably among the top-10 most talented players in the 2013 class.

The flip side of Thomas was that he never actually showcased his talents in the Mile High City as a high schooler, as he attended but never played at Montbello (Colo.) as the first of several stops prior to his recent decision. His route, in terms of schools attended, includes stops in Maryland and Arizona, until he arrived at South Kent School (Conn.) at the start of this school year. Also, Thomas may have led last summer’s circuit in technical fouls and verbal outbursts during games, if such statistics were ever kept.

After reports went out last week that Thomas had left South Kent School, he was expected to turn up at a prep school in North Carolina. That didn’t happen, and now Thomas has left high school basketball and enrolled at Chipola JC (Fla.), a strong junior college basketball program. Thomas was a member of the 2012 class prior to reclassifying to the 2013 class, so the move isn’t as drastic as it may sound. Then again, with a mid-year enrollee, Jarnell Stokes, excelling for Tennessee, this has clearly been an interesting and in some ways unprecedented time in the world of college basketball recruiting.

Recent NCAA crackdowns on prep schools and fly-by-night basketball academies have closed some past loopholes that a well-traveled player like Thomas potentially could have exploited, and the chance of student-athletes making up for lost time in the classroom has greatly diminished from what could have occurred in the past.

After trying a variety of academic options, junior college seems unconventional but a potentially good option for a player who faced significant eligibility challenges. Thomas is expected to be solely a student for this term at Chipola JC, and begin as a member of the basketball team for the 2012-2013 season. New NCAA rules require posting a 2.5 GPA in order to be eligible as a junior college transfer, according to legislation passed in October.

There is another option to monitor, though.

Assuming Thomas can harness his massive talent level, he would be one year removed from the graduation date of his original high school class after his first season at Chipola JC. At that point, he could potentially consider the option of professional basketball. Chris Thomas has the game and physical gifts of an NBA shooting guard, but other departments of his development lag far behind. If he can get it together at Chipola, Thomas may eventually harness his world of potential. For what it’s worth, Thomas was at one time considered a lock to go to Arizona, and later considered schools such as Kentucky, Xavier, and others.

Amile Jefferson decision coming soon, is Duke making up lost ground?
Amile Jefferson of Friends Central (Penn.) is one of only a few prizes left among frontcourt stars in the 2012 class. A college decision could come in the next week or so, according to his father, Malcolm Musgrove, who told Adam Zagoria of that regarding his son’s decision, “I’m thinking by the end of January he will know.”

While on the surface, the top-25 prospect’s list includes Duke, NC State, Ohio State, Kentucky and Villanova, it is Duke that is gaining the most buzz among prognosticators. The Blue Devils are trying to add a quality frontline player alongside their sole early signing period score, Texas shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon.

At this point, the 6-8 forward seems to be most strongly considering Triangle rivals Duke and NC State, and would be a welcome addition for either program. Duke is putting on the full court pressure, with Coach K making an appearance at a recent game. Still, it remains to be seen if NC State can break through for an amazing fourth top-100 player in coach Mark Gottfried’s first recruiting class at the school.

Expected 2013 pledge Derek Willis comes through for Kentucky
In this space last week, the “smart money” was placed on 6-9 power forward Derek Willis, a high school junior from Bullitt East (Ky.) committing to the Wildcats as their first pledge in the 2013 class, and that came through, as expected.

While Kentucky is far from done in the 2012 recruiting cycle, and is expected to land multiple prospects going forward, Willis is a solid start to the 2013 class as a top-50 prospect in his own right. He’s a one-time Purdue recruit that was said to have seriously considered the Boilermakers the second time around, before going with Kentucky.

During his press conference, Willis cited a “great relationship” with Kentucky coach John Calipari as a reason for picking the Wildcats. He’s a face up power forward that can shoot and stretch defenses. His skill level is solid, but he needs physical maturation to make an impact as a freshman in two years.

DePaul adds “Nugget” as third recruit for next year
After a weekend official visit to campus, multiple outlets are reporting that Green Valley (Nev.) guard Durrell “Nugget” McDonald has committed to join the Blue Demons for next year. McDonald is a high-scoring, slender backcourt prospect capable of playing in either guard slot. McDonald hails from the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, Nev., so he’ll have to adapt to a climate change in college.

McDonald is the third member of DePaul’s recruiting class for next season. He joins undersized, but effective, forward DeJuan Marrero and shooting specialist wing Jodan Price. Given the late stage in the recruiting cycle, McDonald could be a solid addition for DePaul. His athleticism and versatility gives DePaul hopes for solid upside.

Kellon Hassenstab runs Follow him on Twitter @hoopniks.

ACC coaches back idea of all D-I teams in 2021 NCAA tourney

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball coaches are pushing the idea of having next year’s NCAA Tournament include all eligible teams in Division I.

Numerous league schools and coaches released statements Wednesday after the coaches held their weekly call to discuss the proposal, which was first reported by Stadium. There are 357 Division I programs in the country, with NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham saying 346 of those are eligible to play in next year’s tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the ACC coaches are “united in strongly pursuing this” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament days before the field of 68 was set to be revealed. Multiple coaches said creating an everybody-gets-in format would be an incentive for schools as they create the safest conditions possible for returning to play.

“This is not a regular season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative. Most importantly, an all-inclusive postseason tournament will allow a unique and unprecedented opportunity for every team and every student-athlete to compete for a national championship.”

Durham declined comment specifically on the proposal in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the Division I oversight committees for men’s and women’s basketball planned to announce by mid-September plans for whether the season and preseason practice would start on time or require a delay due to the pandemic.

Louisville coach Chris Mack said the proposal would provide flexibility during the season without mandating a number of nonconference or conference games to be played. And the league has already experienced that scheduling challenge with football and other fall sports.

The ACC announced in July that it would have each football team play 10 league games – including the addition of Notre Dame as a football member this year – and one nonconference game to be played in the home state of the member school. Those schedules were released in early August, slightly more than a month before Thursday’s UAB-Miami game kicks off the season.

“This is a time to think differently,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, adding: “After all these players have been through, what better way to reward them than the opportunity to compete in an unprecedented version of the most exciting event in sports.”

College basketball floats idea of bubbles for safe season

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The NBA bubble has held. So has the NHL’s double bubble. The WNBA and MLS, no leaks.

In this unprecedented landscape of sports in a pandemic world, one indisputable fact has emerged: bubbles work.

Thousands of tests, minimal to no positive COVID-19 test results.

So as the NCAA gets set announce its plans for the 2020-21 college basketball season, there are clear precedents and blueprints in place should it decide to go the bubble route.

“It’s certainly viable,” said Mark Starsiak, vice president of sports at Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency, “From a basketball standpoint, I think we can follow those models.”

The college football restart has been scattershot. The season has already started, yet 53 FBS schools have the pads and helmets hanging on hooks while waiting for better pandemic news.

A much more unified plan is in place for the college basketball season.

The NCAA is hoping to start the season in late November/early December, with a vote by the Division I council expected Sept. 16.

A partnership between the Pac-12 and Quidel Corp. to potentially do daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes should help smooth a return to the court.

The question then becomes: What’s the best way to safely play basketball again?

Bubbles may be the answer.

While bubble football would be next to impossible logistically, basketball could fit nicely.

The travel parties are much smaller and college basketball already has plenty of multiple-team events, from holiday and conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Add the effective safety measures of the pro leagues, find suitable sites and bubble basketball could work.

The NCAA is already looking at it, reportedly filing a trademark for the phrase “Battle in the Bubble.” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said there have been preliminary talks for bubble basketball at the Mohegan Sun resort.

“The idea of a bubble would be a really good idea, just to isolate all the teams who want to play against each other in that bubble and keep things safe, keep away from the public and keep us in our own area where we’re able to play the game the right way and safely,” Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, Jr. said.

A big key will be finding the right places to bubble.

The NBA has the ideal setup at Disney World, but college basketball might be better suited to follow the NHL’s lead.

Hockey’s two bubbles – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta – cordoned off areas enclosing the arena and several nearby hotels. All personnel entering are tested and strict protocols are in place for vendors delivering food and packages into the bubbles.

Similar bubbles for college basketball could be set up at smaller resorts, cities with arenas and hotels nearby, or Division II or III schools with arenas not being used during the pandemic.

The NCAA could set up pods of multiple nonconference teams, conference tournaments could be held in similar fashion and so could the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, basketball bubbles could pop up all over the country.

“Maybe do it for maybe a week or two at a time, playing a certain amount of games and getting retested after you come back or something like that,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “It’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Pulling off a college basketball bubble, however, comes with a caveat.

NCAA players are considered students, so academics would have to be part of the equation.

Division I players are already accustomed to doing school work on the road and the majority take primarily online classes. To make the bubbles work, socially distant space would have to be carved out for the players to take their classes and study.

The programs may also have to rethink the size of their traveling parties.

“Discussions about the right amount of tutors or academic staff would need to take place,” said Starsiak, who has operated high-level sports and entertainment events for 15 years. ”

You have to look at, do we need three managers this time around? No, probably not. Do you take two and have a tutor or an academic come with us? Yeah, I think you could. I think there’s a way to kind of combine both things to have some live, in-person resources.”

The NCAA is going to do everything possible to have a basketball season.

The pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament last spring and the NCAA collected $270 million in cancellation insurance instead of the $1 billion TV payout it normally gets. A second straight year without March Madness could be devastating.

Bubbles may be the way to go.

‘Father of the Final Four’ Tom Jernestedt dies at 75

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INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Jernstedt, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame for his contributions to college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, has died. He was 75.

The NCAA said Sunday Jernstedt died this weekend.

Nicknamed “Father of the Final Four,” Jernstedt has widely been credited with transforming the NCAA Tournament into the billion-dollar March Madness it has become today.

“A decade after his departure from the NCAA, Tom Jernstedt’s fingertips remain visible during March Madness and the Final Four,” NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “His innovation and superb ability to develop relationships turned a basketball tournament into a three-week phenomenon that became a global event.”

A former back-up quarterback, Jernstedt worked his first Final Four in 1973 and helped push the growth of the NCAA Tournament from 25 teams to the 68, anything-can-happen bonanza held every spring.

Jernstedt helped the NCAA increase its television contract from just over $1 million to more than $10 billion when he left in 2011. He served as president of USA Basketball, was a member of the College Football Selection committee and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2017.

“Tom Jernstedt was a humble and unsung steward of the game,” John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Under his direction, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament grew into a phenomenon that brings college basketball fans together on a global scale. He will forever be remembered as the Father of the Final Four and one of the most respected leaders in basketball.”

Jernstedt established himself as a team leader despite being a backup quarterback at Oregon from 1964-66 and went on to serve as the Ducks’ events manager. He joined the NCAA in 1972 and spent 38 years with the organization.

“Tom served as a friend and mentor to countless people in and around collegiate athletics, and I’m proud to be among that vast group of people,” Gavitt said. “His legacy within the NCAA and its membership, and his impact on the sport of college basketball, is eternal. We extend our deepest condolences to Tom’s family.”

Aztecs extend Brian Dutcher’s contract 3 years through 2026

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SAN DIEGO — San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher has signed a three-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season.

Dutcher signed the deal following one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Aztecs went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular-season title and were expected to be a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They opened the season 26-0 and were the nation’s last undefeated team.

“Having spent more than 20 years at San Diego State University I understand what a special place this is,” Dutcher said in a statement Friday. “I am humbled and honored to continue to represent SDSU and Aztec Basketball as its head coach.”

Dutcher is 73-26 in three seasons, the most victories by an Aztecs coach in his first three seasons. He spent 18 seasons as Steve Fisher’s top assistant, including six as associate head coach/head coach in waiting. He took over as head coach after Fisher retired following the 2016-17 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Before that, he spent 10 seasons with Fisher at Michigan. In Dutcher’s first season with the Wolverines, Fisher was promoted to interim head coach on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship.

Indiana halts all voluntary workouts

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Indiana has halted all voluntary workouts indefinitely for its men’s basketball, field hockey, men’s soccer and wrestling teams after 14 participants tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

The Hoosiers did not identify which teams recorded the positive tests. The football team, like other Big Ten programs, is not playing this fall. Indiana said 63 positives have been reported from more than 1,400 tests of athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“Our athletic program is following strict protocols during these unprecedented times and we strongly support our medical staff as we try and mitigate this issue,” men’s basketball coach Archie Miller said.