Pregame Shootaround 2.14.13: WCC rivals headline slate diehard hoops fans will love

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Game of the Night: No. 5 Gonzaga at Saint Mary’s (11:00 p.m.; ESPN2)

With BYU’s recent struggles the WCC has the look of a two-bid league with the Bulldogs and Gaels being the teams headed to the Big Dance. A Saint Mary’s win would not only go a long way towards making sure that is the case but also put the Gaels in position to win the WCC regular season title.

A key for Randy Bennett’s team: slowing down Kelly Olynyk, who has gone from being hailed as the nation’s most improved player to some national Player of the Year chatter. Brad Waldow has to hold his own in this matchup if the Gaels are to win, and the perimeter battle between Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos and Saint Mary’s Matthew Dellavedova will be worth the price of admission as well.

Who’s Getting Upset? VCU (-11.5) vs. Massachusetts (9:00 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

UMass may have one of the best weapons in the Atlantic 10 when it comes to taking on VCU’s “HAVOC” defense: point guard Chaz Williams. Williams may not be the biggest player on the floor but he’s jet quick with the basketball, and how well he plays will ultimately determine the outcome. UMass has the bodies inside needed to combat VCU’s Juvonte Reddic, led by Terrell Vinson and Raphiael Putney, and if Williams and Freddie Riley take care of the basketball the Minutemen are more than capable of leaving the Siegel Center with a statement victory.

Mid-Major Matchup of the Night: Montana at Weber State (9:05 p.m.)

The Big Sky expanded its conference schedule to 20 games after adding North Dakota and Southern Utah, which works out to put the Grizzlies in position to pull off arguably the greatest season in the history of the league if they get past Weber State in Ogden. Montana’s won 24 straight conference games (regular season), which is a league record, and at 14-0 Wayne Tinkle’s team has a two-game lead on the Wildcats. Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar are one of the best perimeter tandems in the western United States and they’ll have to play at that level in order to knock off Weber State. Scott Bamforth and Kyle Tresnak lead the way for Weber State, who leads the Big Sky in most of the major statistical categories.

Five Things to Watch For

1) The slate on Valentine’s Day also offers up a rematch of the most controversial game of the season thus far, with No. 9 Arizona visiting Colorado. Sabatino Chen’s three-pointer at the end of regulation was waved off, unfairly in the eyes of many, and the Wildcats went on to win 92-83 in overtime. The Wildcats haven’t played their best basketball of late, and Sean Miller needs those young big men to have a greater impact on the action.

2) Big Ten rivals on opposite paths meet in Minneapolis, as Wisconsin looks to stay on track against a reeling Minnesota. Tubby Smith’s team has lost six of its last eight games, and while the Golden Gophers have a decent resume it would be in their best interest to get back to playing as they did for much of the 2012 portion of the year.

3) Two of the best teams in the Summit League, Western Illinois and North Dakota State, meet in Fargo with the Leathernecks leading the Bison by a half-game atop the league standings. NDSU is 10-0 at home this season, and the matchup between WIU’s Terrell Parks and NDSU’s Marshall Bjorklund won’t disappoint.

4) Two of the three teams just a game behind Niagara in the MAAC standings, Canisius and Loyola (MD) meet in Baltimore with the winner likely having the best chance of catching the Purple Eagles. Canisius won the first meeting, 91-79, as all five starters scored in double figures and Jordan Heath accounted for 21 points and 11 rebounds.

5) Will Thursday provide any clarity when it comes to the Pac-12 race? UCLA needs to improve its rebounding if they’re to beat Cal in Berkeley, while in Palo Alto Stanford looks to avoid what would be considered a bad loss against a rejuvenated USC.

The Top 25

No. 5 Gonzaga at Saint Mary’s (11:00 p.m.; ESPN2)

No. 9 Arizona at Colorado (10:00 p.m.; Pac-12 Networks)

St. John’s at No. 12 Louisville (9:00 p.m.; ESPN)

Northwestern at No. 13 Ohio State (7:00 p.m.; BTN)

No. 20 Wisconsin at Minnesota (7:00 p.m.; ESPN)

Other Notable Games 

George Mason at Drexel (7:00 p.m.; CBS Sports Network)

Belmont at Tennessee State (7:00 p.m.; ESPNU)

Davidson at Charleston (7:30 p.m.)

Canisius at Loyola (MD) (7:30 p.m.)

Western Illinois at North Dakota St. (8:00 p.m.)

Arkansas-Little Rock at Arkansas St. (8:05 p.m.)

UCLA at California (9:00 p.m.; ESPN2)

San Diego at Santa Clara (10:00 p.m.)

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej

Report: Western Kentucky’s Lamonte Bearden staying in 2018 NBA Draft

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Western Kentucky guard Lamonte Bearden will stay in the 2018 NBA Draft after hiring an agent, according to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-3 Bearden just completed his redshirt junior season with the Hilltoppers as he averaged 11.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game. A slippery guard with good size, Bearden shot 47 percent from the field and 82 percent from the charity stripe while also getting in the passing lanes for 1.7 steals per game.

Although Bearden has good size and athleticism at lead guard, his perimeter jumper has been inconsistent during his college career. He was 31 percent from three-point range (a career high) this past season. Starting his college career at Buffalo, Bearden helped lead the Bulls to the NCAA tournament before opting to play in Conference USA for Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers will certainly miss Bearden’s presence in their backcourt as the program has seven new players signed for next season.

USC makes a statement landing Class of 2019 four-star forward Isaiah Mobley

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USC ended a strong week of recruiting with another major statement on Friday afternoon as four-star Class of 2019 forward Isaiah Mobley pledged to the Trojans.

The second major Class of 2019 commitment for USC during the week, the 6-foot-9 power forward joins five-star big man Onyeka Okongwu. The Compton Magic teammates should be able to help replace the loss of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, with Mobley playing the skilled, floor-spacing Boatwright’s role and Okongwu providing the interior energy of Metu.

Having two highly-touted big men commit in the same week is huge for USC. And it looks like the start of even bigger things in a continually-evolving SoCal recruiting war against Pac-12 rival UCLA.

Landing both Mobley and Okongwu is significant for the Trojans for a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, both come from the famous Compton Magic grassroots program that runs on the adidas Gauntlet. While landing AAU teammates from a regional program is common for high-major programs of USC’s stature, the commitments signify that the Trojans are the ones with the biggest pull with the Magic at the current moment.

And the Magic used to get raided by UCLA.

In the past few years, the Bruins signed T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Jaylen Hands and Jalen Hill from the Compton Magic. Now, it’s USC who looks to be in the driver’s seat recruiting the program.

The Trojans aren’t done, either.

Newly-hired USC assistant coach Eric Mobley is the father Isaiah Mobley, as well as five-star Class of 2020 big man Evan Mobley. As Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi noted in his story about Isaiah, “Barring something strange happening, look for the younger Mobley to join his brother and father by committing to USC within the next two weeks.”

That would mean the Trojans would have landed three top-30 caliber big men in the span of a few weeks. That allows the USC coaching staff to recruit other positions extremely hard. Outside of Kentucky, USC has arguably the best future recruiting status of any program in the country.

The Trojans have taken full advantage of UCLA letting go popular assistant coach David Grace. The Bruins are still pulling in top-100 prospects, as evidenced by Grant Sherfield and Jaime Jaquez’s commitments in the Class of 2019, but losing two Magic kids in a week to a rival has to sting.

Considering where USC was last fall with the FBI investigation, who saw this type of recruiting swing coming? Other programs involved in the investigation like Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State have landed solid recruits. They also haven’t pulled in nearly the high-level talent that the Trojans currently have committed.

Even amidst the uncertainty surrounding the FBI investigation, USC is still pulling in elite talent while beating local rivals. It’ll be fascinating to see if the Trojans can continue to recruit at this level as they try to fill out the rest of an important recruiting class.

USF signs Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson

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USF landed a major addition on Friday as the school announced the signing of Oklahoma State transfer guard Zack Dawson.

The 6-foot-3 Dawson is a former consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school as he’ll have to sit out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. A native of the region, Dawson will have three years of eligibility remaining once he’s able to play again.

Dismissed from Oklahoma State on Dec. 14 for violating team rules, Dawson averaged 4.4 points and1.6 assists per contest as he only suited up in five games for the Cowboys. Once Dawson is eligible to play for USF, he gives the Bulls a potentially dynamic backcourt along with rising sophomore guard David Collins.

“We are excited to welcome Zack back home to Florida as a member of the Bulls family,” USF head coach Brian Gregory said in a release. “He is a dynamic and versatile guard who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Zack comes from one of the best high school programs in the state, South Miami High School, so he immediately brings a championship attitude here to the University of South Florida.”

This is a really nice pickup for the Bulls, as they utilized a local transfer to help bolster the roster. Landing top-100 kids out of high school is going to be tough until USF boosts its basketball credibility. But getting a former top-100 player on the transfer market is a solid approach to building the Bulls into a respectable threat.

Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I’m the best player in this draft’

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The more I think about it, the more that Michael Porter Jr. is becoming the most interesting prospect at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.

As a high school senior, he was considered by many to be the top player in the class, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward with a lethal three-point shot, NBA dunk contest athleticism and the versatility to, one day, be a multi-positional defender that would seamlessly fit into fit into the modern NBA.

But his one and only season at Missouri was derailed by back surgery, and that has allowed the rest of the class of 2017 to shine while we have focused on everything else that comes with drafting Porter. The reputation that he had for the majority of his high school career of being soft. The intel that was coming out of Missouri, that he was cocky and arrogant and something of a bad teammate. Questions about whether or not he is truly a wing or a four, more like a more athletic Lauri Markkanen.

When the only thing that we’ve had a chance to see this season is an out-of-shape Porter struggling in postseason games, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his hype train has derailed.

“I know without a doubt that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter told ESPN. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”

And therein lies the conundrum for any team drafting him.

I have little doubt that Porter is going to be able to score and score a lot in the NBA. I think he and Bagley are the safest bets to average 20 points at the NBA level before their rookie contract runs out.

But putting up points and playing on winning basketball teams are not one and the same. For a ten-year stretch after his rookie season, Rudy Gay averaged at least 17.2 points while making the playoffs once during that stretch. Is that what Porter is going to turn into at the next level? Or will be find a way to become the kind of NBA defender his athleticism says he should be and, by the time he signs his first contract extension, end up the player that Paul George is?

The mitigating factor here is that Porter is going to do a fantastic job in every interview he has. He’s an intelligent, charismatic and articulate kid that is going to be able to sell himself. The red flags that he has aren’t going to show when he’s sitting down in front of NBA general managers.

They would have shown up — or been written off — if there was a season’s worth of game-tape available, but there isn’t. What that means is that scouts are going to have to decide whether or not Porter, who by all accounts had a very impressive senior season in high school, is that player or the one that had the reputation for being soft for years before that.

And all of that is going to come after the doctor’s have a chance to examine his back to see if the surgery he underwent fixed what was wrong, or if this is the kind of situation where a recurrence is likely.

The result is the widest range for any player at the top of the draft.

He could sell someone on taking him as a top four pick. He could also slide his way down to the Knicks at No. 9 or the 76ers at No. 10.

Which is what makes him the most interesting prospect at the top of this draft.

P.J. Washington ‘definitely going back to school’ without first round guarantee

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington is one of the handful of players that currently finds themselves in the tenuous position of having their name in the NBA draft pool without having a clear picture of where, exactly, they are going to end up getting picked.

Will they be a late-first round pick? Will he be an early second round pick? Will he even be drafted at all?

Washington told reporters at the NBA combine this week that, if he’s a first round pick, he’ll be heading to the NBA. If he only gets a second round guarantee, he’ll be returning to school.

As we detailed last week, getting selected in the second round does not mean a player is destined to end up being broke his first year out of school. In the last six drafts, only one college player picked in the top ten picks of the second round (31-40) did not receive a guaranteed contract. In the 2017 NBA Draft, every college player selected in the top 50 received a guaranteed deal of at least one year, and Thomas Bryant was the only player whose one-year guaranteed deal was at the league minimum.

That doesn’t mean that Washington should leave Kentucky if he’s going to be a second round pick. If he returns to school, becomes a 42 percent three-point shooter (and can make free throws) and proves that he’s more versatile defensively than he was his year, then he could move up into the first round in a weaker 2019 draft.

It’s a risk for him, financially, to leave after this year if he doesn’t get that first round guarantee. It’s also a risk to return to school, where the best-case scenario isn’t always what happens.

I don’t envy the decision he has to make, but I am glad that Washington will have every chance in the world to be informed about the decision.