Conference Catch-ups: Could the MWC send four dancing?

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Conference play is upon us, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Mountain West Conference Catch-up:

Favorite: San Diego State
We’ve gotten used to this notion but not with the Aztecs up there by themselves. Jamal Franklin has done exactly what’s expected of him (more on him in a bit) and they’ve gotten great shooting from Chase Tapley (15.8 ppg)and improved play from Xavier Thames (10.5 ppg). Though they’ll need to find a reliable post presence — Franklin leads the team in rebounding at the wing spot, with the next-closest being DeShawn Stephens’ 5.2 per — against teams like New Mexico and UNLV, who already have that.

Contenders: UNLV, New Mexico
A lot of those around the game knew UNLV would be here at this point. Mike Moser being injured, at this point, keeps them as a contender, and not the favorite. They’re still getting great production from Anthony Bennett and Anthony Marshall (10.6 ppg, team-leading 5.5 apg). As well as Katin Reinhardt (10.4 ppg). New Mexico made its statement with a comeback win over Davidson, then a win at then-no. 8 Cincinnati. Losing at St. Louis after a horrid first half didn’t help, but this team has been steady otherwise, with the contributions of Kendall Williams (14.9 ppg, 4.7 apg) and Alex Kirk (11.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg) has been improved in the paint.

Biggest Surprise: Wyoming
When a team that was expected to finish in the middle of their conference starts the season 13-0, it’s a surprise. Yes, the schedule has been a variable gigantic cupcake, but the Cowboys did collect a home win over Colorado and went on the road and took down Missouri Valley Conference contender Illinois State, within a four-day span. Now they’ve got to legitimize the hype, with games against San Diego State and UNLV, back-to-back in conference play, twice.

Biggest Disappointment: Fresno State
It’s not so much that they were expected to do great things this season, it’s just that I didn’t see the Bulldogs being this bad. They’re currently 6-7, with three of those wins over non-Division I teams, including the epic failure of a 39-30 victory at UC-Riverside. They also beat San Diego….Community College. They do have victories over UCLA-killer Cal Poly and Long Beach State, but this team is capable of so much more.

Best player: Jamal Franklin, San Diego State (17.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 3.2 apg)
He’s the best player on, for now, the best team. Franklin’s picked right up where he left off last season, pacing the Aztecs in scoring and rebounding while improving his ability to distribute. There are a few other candidates, like UNLV’s Anthony Bennett (more on him later though), New Mexico’s Kendall Williams and Boise State’s Derrick Marks. But for now, it’s still Franklin.

Best freshman: Anthony Bennett, UNLV (19.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.5 bpg)
No brainer, right? If he’s not the best overall player, Bennett is definitely the best freshman in the MWC. He’s stepped right into a spot that the Runnin’ Rebels desperately needed production from, in the post, and has done so as consistently as anyone this season. It’s probably his lone season in college, so Dave Rice better get the most out of him.

Three Predictions
-Four conference teams will be dancing in March
Is this so far-fetched? Nope. Everyone expects San Diego State and UNLV and sees New Mexico as having a better-than-average shot at the NCAA Tournament. But I totally see Wyoming making it. The back-to-back wins over Colorado and Illinois State have me believing, as long as they can stave off the loss of Luke Martinez to a broken hand, at least until he returns, if he does. If not, Colorado State could make it in if they get 2-3 upsets in-conference, which would mean a few wins over SDSU, UNLV and New Mexico.

-Wyoming will finish the season with less than five losses
The Cowboys have already won 12 games, but let’s look at their remaining schedule. They’ve obviously got four games against UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State. I still maintain they’ll take at least three of those six games, probably at home. Then home-and-homes with Boise State and Colorado State, which I believe they’ll sweep. The Cowboys will also sweep the remaining conference games, with or without Martinez. If he comes back early, I fully believe Wyoming will could lose three or less. I believe that much in Larry Shyatt.

-Boise State will spoil someone’s MWC Tournament
Derrick Marks (17.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.4 spg, 88.6-percent free throw shooting) is making a heavy case as the sleeper pick for MWC Player of the Year and should be a first team all-conference member when all is said and done. Anthony Drmic (15.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) has complimented Marks well and as a team the Broncos are shooting 39.8-percent from three-point range. They’ve already got home wins over Creighton and LSU and they’ll get plenty of film on UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico, enough to know how to beat them. I could totally see a run to the conference tournament championship game in their future if the cards fall right.

Power Rankings  (*-NCAA Tournament team)
1.) San Diego State *
2.) UNLV *
3.) New Mexico *
4.) Wyoming *
5.) Colorado State
6.) Boise State
7.) Nevada
8.) Air Force
9.) Fresno State

Kansas fires athletic director Sheahon Zenger

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Kansas has fired athletic director Sheahon Zenger, effective immediately, citing a lack of progress in key areas within the athletic department.

“Sheahon has been a loyal Jayhawk, and our athletics department has improved in many areas under his leadership,” Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod wrote in an email to KU faculty and staff. “But athletics continues to face a number of challenges, and progress in key areas has been elusive. To achieve the level of success we need and expect, I have determined a change in leadership is necessary.”

Zenger had been in the role of AD since 2011.

The issue, of course, is not the play of the Kansas basketball program. The Jayhawks have won every Big 12 regular season title since 2004, and head coach Bill Self has taken the program to two Final Fours since Zenger was hired.

The football team is still a disaster, but one can’t help but wonder whether or not the real issue at hand here is Kansas’ getting tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball.

The Jayhawks were not mentioned in the initial indictments that were handed down, but Kansas was a central figure in the superseding indictments that were dropped after the national title game. The mother of Billy Preston, who did not play for the Jayhawks this season, was alleged to have been funneled $90,000 by Adidas, while Silvio De Sousa’s status is currently in question after the FBI alleged his guardian was paid at least $20,000 to help offset money that the family had already accepted from a rival shoe company.

All of that came in the aftermath of dealing with Cheick Diallo and Cliff Alexander, both of whom had their one season in Lawrence reduced due to off the court issues.

“Since becoming chancellor, I have spent countless hours with higher education peers and Jayhawks to hear their perspective on KU,” Girod wrote. “A common thread in these conversations is that, as a major public university with national aspirations, we must continue to strive for excellence in all areas — including athletics. As I have said many times, a successful athletics department is inextricably linked to our broader mission as a flagship research university.”

Louisville, ex-AD Tom Jurich reach $4.5M settlement

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The University of Louisville has reached a $4.5 million settlement with former athletic director Tom Jurich, who was fired in the wake of a national federal corruption investigation of college basketball.

Jurich disputed his Oct. 18 firing for cause after nearly 20 years as AD and had considered suing the school. The University of Louisville Athletic Association and Board of Trustees on Friday approved the settlement. Jurich’s employment ended “without cause” as a result of his resignation, also described in the settlement as “retirement.”

He’ll also receive another $2.6 million in accrued employment benefits, along with home game tickets and parking for Louisville football and basketball for 20 years.

An audit of the University of Louisville Foundation released last June showed that Jurich averaged annual compensation of more than $2.76 million from 2010-16, including more than $5.35 million in 2016.

Then-interim president Greg Postel had placed Jurich on paid administrative leave in September after the school’s acknowledgement of its involvement in the investigation. Trustees voted 10-3 to fire Jurich, two days after the ULAA unanimously fired Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.

The former AD said in a joint statement that he “spent the better part of my career” working with dedicated athletes, coaches and staff to elevate Louisville. He added, “I am proud of what we accomplished, which is well documented.”

Jurich’s legal team had stressed that the ex-AD did nothing illegal and hadn’t violated NCAA rules.

Trustee chairman J. David Grissom said in the statement that “Everyone is pleased that this matter has been successfully resolved. All parties can move forward to begin the next chapter.”

Jurich played a major role in Louisville’s success on the field and how the school handled issues off it. He led the school’s 2014 entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference and oversaw numerous program and facility upgrades, including a $63 million expansion of the football stadium due for completion by fall.

He also hired several successful coaches including Pitino, who guided the Cardinals to the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship. Louisville ultimately vacated that title in February as part of NCAA penalties for a sex scandal after an escort’s book allegations that former basketball staffer Andre McGee hired her and other dancers to strip and have sex with players and recruits.

Pitino has filed a $38.7 million federal lawsuit against Louisville, alleging breach of contract.

Georgia Tech’s Okogie to sign with agent

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Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie, one of the big winners from this past weekend’s NBA combine, announced on Monday that he will be signing with an agent and remaining in the NBA Draft.

The 6-foot-4 Okogie finished his sophomore season averaged 18.5 points and shooting 38.4 percent from three. The numbers he posted during the athletic testing at the combine, as well as his 7-foot wingspan, makes Okogie an ideal 3-and-D wing at the NBA level.

“Josh is a tremendous young man and an excellent student-athlete,” said head coach Josh Pastner. “He has set a tremendous example, making the Dean’s List this past semester, and deserves a lot of credit for making himself a much better player over the course of his two years here. We will miss him in our program in many respects, from his performance on the court to the energy he plays with and brought to our team. We fully support his decision to take this next step, and wish him all the best.”

Testing The Waters: Donte DiVincenzo, Kevin Huerter star at NBA Draft Combine

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The fact of the matter is that for all the pomp and circumstance, the NBA Combine is, essentially, about getting face-to-face interviews with these prospects while also landing definitive results for height, length, athletic testing and medicals.

Those results, when they pop, can help — or hurt — a player’s standing.

That said, there is still plenty that can be taken away from the 5-on-5 games that are played.

For players from smaller schools, it’s a chance to prove themselves against a higher level of competition. Think Larry Nance Jr., who wound up as a first round pick out of Wyoming.

For players that are stuck in a rigid system in college, the combine is a chance to show what they can do when they are no longer reined in. Kyle Kuzma is the perfect example of this.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the players that are still testing the waters and how they performed in Chicago this week.

WINNERS

DONTE DIVINCENZO, So., Villanova: The star of the national title game did not disappoint at the combine, in either the 5-on-5 play or in the athletic testing. Let’s start with the latter, where DiVincenzo registered a 42″ max vertical — tops at this year’s combine — and a 34.5″ standstill vertical to go along with a top five time in the lane agility drill. His size and length (6-foot-4.5 with a 6-foot-6 wingspan) is a bit of a concern, but DiVincenzo’s effort stood out during the games. The competitiveness and toughness is there, as is the shot-making ability. Already trending towards being a late first round pick, DiVincenzo probably solidified his standing at the combine. At this point I would be very surprised if he opted to return to school for his junior year.

KEVIN HUERTER, So., Maryland: We’ve been talking about Huerter as an under-the-radar prospect this spring, and he showcased why at the combine. Posting solid athletic testing numbers (he was top ten is all of the sprint drills and measured out at a 38″ max vert), Huerter proved himself to be a 6-foot-7 shot-making wing with an impressive feel; the 3.4 assists his averaged this season wasn’t a fluke. There’s a real chance that Huerter would be a late-first round pick should be stay in the draft, but there is a growing sentiment in NBA circles that he may want to return to school to try and play his way into the lottery of the weaker 2019 draft. If he adds strengths and proves himself to be an above-average Big Ten defender, that’s not an impossibility.

JOSH OKOGIE, So., Georgia Tech: We didn’t even mention Okogie when discussing which players had the most on the line heading into the combine, and that was clearly a mistake. Okogie may have proven himself worthy of an early-second round pick, if not late-first. The 6-foot-4.5 wing measured out at a 7-foot wingspan and finished with the fastest sprint time and the second-fastest shuttle run. A member of John Calipari’s Team USA U-19 team last summer, Okogie showcased his impressive defensive versatility during the combine games which, when combined with the 38 percent shooting from deep (173 attempts) in his two seasons in Atlanta, makes him an intriguing 3-and-D prospect in a league where defensively versatile wings that can space the floor are in high demand.

It’s probably worth noting here that Huerter won’t turn 20 until August 27th and Okogie won’t turn 20 until September 1st. DiVincenzo is 19 months older than him. Hell, both of them are younger than Mo Bamba, Deandre Ayton and Michael Porter Jr. That’s a massive amount of time on the development curve.

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LOSERS

CODY and CALEB MARTIN, Nevada: For both Martin twins, the combine made it looks like their incredible season with the Wolf Pack had more to do with the Mountain West than their future as NBA players. Caleb — the scorer — could not find a rhythm on that end while Cody — the jack-of-all-trades — didn’t exactly appear to be great at anything. The twins turn 23 in September, just received their degrees and Nevada would have 15 scholarship players if they return. They seem to be out the door, although that does not mean they’re headed for the NBA.

TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse: Physically, Battle tested out well, measuring nearly 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan and solid athletic testing numbers. But that was never the worry with Battle. His issue is that he was an inefficient, high-volume scorer that played predominantly with the ball in his hands at Syracuse. He needed to prove that he could a) play off the ball and b) shoot better than what his numbers were with the Orange. He did neither, and while I’m not sure he necessarily hurt himself, he did not play his way into the first round. If he remains in the draft, he’ll likely end up a second round pick.

BRIAN BOWEN, South Carolina: Bowen did not appear to be a draftable player during the games at the combine, which is more or less what we thought of him prior to sitting out the 2017-18 season after he was caught up in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. This is a nightmare scenario for him. He has until May 30th to decide if he should just get started on a pro career, whatever level that ends up being at, or returning to school and hoping the NCAA will clear him.

JARRED VANDERBILT, Kentucky: Vanderbilt pulled out of the combine prior to the start, which might have more to do with his health and controlling the flow of information over his medical testing than anything else. For a player that has had a myriad of lower left leg injuries over the years — he missed the first 17 games and the final six games of his freshman season, as well as much of the summer prior to his senior season in high school — he’s going to have a difficult decision to make in regards to turning pro. He’s not a first rounder, but just how long is his athletic career going to be given these health issues?

(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

THEY ARE WHAT WE THOUGHT THEY WERE

CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: Edwards was a late addition to the combine as other players dropped out. He’s more of a scorer than he is a point guard at this stage, and some of his struggles offensively at the combine showed that. He could use another year where he’ll be asked to do it all for Purdue offensively.

OMARI SPELLMAN, Villanova: We know what Spellman is. He’s a 6-foot-9 center with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and a lethal three-point shooting stroke. We also know that he’s lost nearly 50 pounds since he was in high school. At the combine, Spellman checked in at 253 pounds with 13.75 percent body fat, still managing to post a 35.5″ max vertical at that weight. Put another way, there is still improvement that can be made on his body and, in theory, his athleticism. That keeps teams interested, but he certainly didn’t play his way into being a first rounder.

BRUNO FERNANDO, Maryland: Fernando proved himself a very large human (6-foot-9.75, 7-foot-4.25) but beyond that, his instincts as a basketball players were not quite there. In an NBA era where paint-locked big men are becoming useless, Fernando seems to fall into that category. If anything, what may keep him in the draft is his guardian’s connection to Kansas big Silvio De Sousa and the FBI investigation into college basketball.

UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: His 7-foot-7 wingspan is enough to make NBA GMs salivate, but that may be the only NBA-ready skill that the big fella has. He’s a non-shooter — career 40.6 percent from the free throw line — and his inability to defend on the perimeter was exposed by Villanova in the Final Four. He’s a late-second round pick at best.

SAGABA KONATE, West Virginia: The passion and the energy that Konate played with all season long was on full display at the combine as well. He’s a big, burly 6-foot-7.25 shot-blocker with a 7-foot wingspan and a better-than-you-think shooting stroke, but he didn’t do much to prove himself as more than a second round pick.

P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky: Physically, Washington doesn’t profile all that different that Spellman, who is slightly taller with a slightly longer wingspan and 30 extra pounds of weight he can stand to lose. The difference? Spellman is a very good shooter. The was time we saw Washington, who shot 5-for-21 from three as a freshman, he was missing 12 of his 20 free throws in a 61-58 loss to Kansas State in the Sweet 16. He’s already said he wants a first round guarantee to remain in the draft, and if teams didn’t rate him as a first rounder prior to the combine, I’m not sure anything happened that would change their minds.

JAYLEN HANDS and KRIS WILKES, UCLA: The most notable thing that happed with these two at the combine was that Hands, ironically enough, finished with the smallest hands at the event. He did, however, show some point guard instinct and fight defensively. There’s no guarantee he gets drafted, and the same can be same for Wilkes, who at least fits the profile of a versatile wing. Their decision essentially comes down to whether or not they think playing another year for Steve Alford will actually help their chances of getting into the first round in 2019.

Texas A&M loses third underclassmen to pro ranks

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Texas A&M left us wanting more throughout the 2017-18 season, as a team with enough talent to win the SEC title lost 13 games and finished 9-9 in league play, somehow salvaging the memory of the year with a trip to the Sweet 16.

And after a third starter opted to sign with an agent this week, it appears as if the run the Aggies made will be the last, at least for the time being.

Tyler Davis, who led the Aggies in scoring (14.9 ppg) and was second in rebounding (8.9 rpg), will sign with an agent, he told The Undefeated. He’ll follow Robert Williams and D.J. Hogg as underclassmen leaving school, while seniors Duane Wilson and Tony Trocha-Morelos graduate. Williams is the only one of that group that is expected to be drafted on June 21st.

What that means is that Billy Kennedy’s window as an SEC contender has slammed shut.

Texas A&M only returns two of their top eight from what was quite possibly the most disappointing team in college basketball this side of Arizona. They currently have just nine scholarship players on the roster, including just three front court pieces. One, Josh Nebo, is a transfer from an NEC program, while the other two combined to play in 15 games last season.

This team is going to go as far as T.J. Starks, Admon Gilder and Savion Flagg carry them, and in an SEC that could quite possibly begin the year with five top 25 teams — four of which are in the NBC Sports top 15 — it’s hard to imagine that core doing much.

It’s unfortunate that the one team that Kennedy put together with a chance to make some noise never actually found a way to get going.