Robert Morris capitalizing on NIT win over Kentucky

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Karvel Anderson celebrates a win over Kentucky (AP)

All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

It was one of the more memorable and heartbreaking games of the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

Robert Morris, coached then by Mike Rice, had No. 2 seed Villanova on the ropes that Thursday afternoon in Providence leading for much of the game only to have the Wildcats eke out a 73-70 win in overtime. Color commentator Bill Raftery summed up the game perfectly following the gut-wrenching loss that left dynamite freshman point guard Karon Abraham motionless on the floor: “They only lost on the scoreboard, Vern.”

Much of the appeal of the NCAA Tournament is watching schools seldom heard of win a game and advance to the next round, and it looked like No. 15 seed Robert Morris was on their way to doing just that. Despite the deflating loss, the Colonials were becoming a household name in the NEC and mid-major basketball.

(MORE: Click here to read NBCSports.com’s NEC Preview)

Fast forward three years and the program is under new leadership with Andy Toole at the helm. While Robert Morris hasn’t been back to the NCAA Tournament since 2010, they’ve been to the postseason and won games two of the past three seasons. Toole would tell you there was already momentum building even before Rice took over as head coach in 2008. It began with Mark Schmidt, the current head coach at St. Bonaventure, the prior season as they went 26-8 and nearly upset Syracuse in the NIT. Up until this point, Robert Morris was buried in obscurity. They hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in nearly 20 years and many didn’t know much about the school and basketball program.

Toole told NBCSports.com by phone: “We were hitting wall after wall after wall in terms of people not knowing what Robert Morris and our basketball team was all about at that point in time. After going to the NCAA Tournament and almost beating Villanova, we started getting call backs; they had a point of reference after seeing us in the NCAA Tournament back to back years. That game legitimized us.”

While the Villanova game may have legitimized Robert Morris, it was their NIT win at home over Kentucky last season that placed them at the forefront of the college basketball world.

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It was the perfect storm for Andy Toole and his program. On the heels of being upset in the NEC tournament by Mount St. Mary’s, Robert Morris was paired with Kentucky — the 2012 NCAA Champions — in the first round of the NIT. Since Rupp Arena was one of the eight venues for the second and third rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky was forced to travel to Moon Township to play Robert Morris at Robert Morris. The game was played on a Tuesday night, which allowed for a nice buffer period in between Selection Sunday and the Thursday games. After their win over Kentucky, the talk all day Wednesday wasn’t about the NCAA Tournament, but rather the NIT. Again, it was the perfect storm.

(CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories)

“This year with the win against Kentucky, that put us on center stage for a few days because of some incredible timing and incredible circumstances. This was another perfect opportunity for people to learn about the program.”

It wasn’t long ago that Robert Morris was struggling to just have conversations with top recruits that they were targeting, but now that conversation is much easier to come by. Toole explained while the recent success and exposure doesn’t always lead to landing top-flight recruits, they are now in contention for them. “It doesn’t guarantee that we’re always going to get the recruits. We still have to do our due diligence to make sure we are targeting the right kids for our school and program, but we are at a starting point that is so much different than it was six years ago.

The exposure Robert Morris has generated on a national level since 2009 has helped to elevate the program to another level and, predictably, that is paying great dividends. Specifically, the geographical footprint that Toole and his staff are now recruiting from has vastly expanded.

“We are recruiting from a much wider geographic area. We were in Florida recruiting and people recognized us. We were recruiting a kid from Kansas and people recognized us. We have a kid on this year’s team (Desjuan Newton) who played junior college in Arizona and is originally from Seattle and he knew about the [Kentucky] game.”

The key now is to sustain the momentum that has been building since 2009, which will be no easy task as the NEC has steadily improved as a league. “You see a lot of young staffs in the NEC who are trying to make names for themselves. They’re really getting out there and recruiting, and maybe not taking the same old thought process of, ‘Well, we’re just a Northeast Conference school, that kids not going to want to come here.’ That’s not the case. I think you see that across the board and why the programs are getting better and better.”

While Toole has continued the momentum his predecessors Schmidt and Rice began, he has yet to win the NEC and advance to the NCAA Tournament. Nearly defeating Villanova in 2010 and beating Kentucky in 2013 may have been steps one and two. The next step is getting back to the NCAA Tournament and winning a game, something Robert Morris hasn’t accomplished in 30 years.

Lawyer: Evidence shows coaches knew of NCAA family payouts

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NEW YORK (AP) — A lawyer for a longtime Adidas employee urged jurors Thursday to use common sense and evidence to conclude college basketball coaches like Bill Self at Kansas and Rick Pitino at Louisville knew shoe companies were paying money to families of elite athletes to steer them to their schools.

Attorney Michael Schachter, representing Adidas sports marketing manager James “Jim” Gatto, cited testimony and evidence that emerged during the fraud conspiracy trial of Gatto, aspiring sports agent Christopher Dawkins and Merl Code, a former Adidas consultant.

“Ladies and gentlemen, what help do you think a coach thought Jim Gatto was going to provide in persuading a kid to go to their college?” he asked. “Jim works for a shoe company. He is not a guidance counselor. Kids don’t turn to him for assistance in where they should go to college.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Diskant, who has portrayed the schools and sometimes their coaches as victims of the defendants, said in a closing statement that coaches were not “running rampant.”

“Nothing can be further from the truth,” the prosecutor said, highlighting protocols in place at schools to ensure compliance with NCAA rules.

He said the defendants hid payments from coaches, knowing they would be fired if they facilitated payouts to players’ families.

“Does that mean that some of the coaches didn’t break the rules? No, it’s possible they did,” Diskant said.

The prosecutor noted that there was no mention of money in two voice messages Gatto left for Pitino. He also cited evidence that Dawkins, speaking of a financial payout, told the Bowen family: “I would never tell Rick anything like this because I don’t want to put him in jeopardy.”

Schachter told jurors that the government’s star witness — former Adidas consultant Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola — lied when he testified that he was concealing from universities the fact that cash was being paid to the families of top recruits.

He cited Gassnola’s testimony about a North Carolina State assistant coach. Gassnola, who pleaded guilty to criminal charges and cooperated with prosecutors, told jurors that he delivered cash in 2015 to Coach Orlando Early, who planned to give it to a personal trainer for highly touted point guard Dennis Smith Jr. so it could be relayed to the athlete’s family.

Schachter said evidence shows that Self “knew of and asked for a payment to be made to Silvio De Sousa’s handler.”

The lawyer added: “More than that, Coach Self requested just that kind of help that Mr. Gassnola arranged as a condition for Coach Self to permit Adidas to continue their sponsorship agreement with the University of Kansas.”

Schachter also cited a conversation his client had in late May 2017 with Pitino, saying it occurred just after Code told Gatto that he needed money for the family of Louisville recruit Brian Bowen Jr. because the University of Oregon, a Nike school, had made an “astronomical offer” to recruit him.

Schachter said Gatto wanted to be sure Pitino wanted Bowen before he spent his employer’s money.

“Why, precisely, would Louisville’s head coach think that a shoe company representative wants to speak with him about a player?” Schachter asked. “Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that the only explanation that makes any sense is that Coach Pitino knows exactly why Jim is calling to discuss a player.”

Bowen committed to Louisville on June 1, 2017, though he never played for the school. He now plays professionally in Australia. Pitino, a legendary coach, was never accused of a crime but was fired amid the investigation’s fallout.

North Carolina State announced last year that Early and the school’s head coach were leaving the program months before the corruption case became public.

Smith played one year at NC State. He now plays for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.

De Sousa is a sophomore at Kansas.

The jury is likely to start deliberations Monday.

Watch list for Malone award released

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It’s watchlist season, y’all.

The latest preseason inventory comes from the Malone Award, given to the country’s top power forward, which features 20 names.

Kentucky has a pair of players with P.J. Washington and Stanford transfer Reid Travis while the mid-major ranks are represented by South Dakota State’s Mike Daum, Northern Kentucky’s Drew McDonald and UNCW’s Devontae Cacok.

Duke freshman sensation Zion Williamson is also on the list as is senior All-American candidates Dean Wade of Kansas State and Luke Maye of North Carolina. SEC player of the year Grant Williams also makes the cut.

“We are privileged to annually present an award bearing the name of Karl Malone, a truly gifted player and an exemplary teammate,” John L. Doleva, President and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “The young men on the watch list for this, and other awards in the Naismith Starting 5, should be extremely proud, and we look forward to watching them compete throughout the upcoming season.”

The list will be cut to 10 in February, then to five and finally awarded to the honoree in April. Players not named in the initial 20 can also work their way into consideration.

Arizona’s Deandre Ayton won last year, Johnathan Motley of Baylor in 2017 and Georges Niang of Iowa State in 2016.

2019 Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award Candidates
Yoeli Childs, BYU
Zion Williamson, Duke
Juwan Morgan, Indiana
Dedric Lawson, Kansas
Dean Wade, Kansas St
Reid Travis, Kentucky
P.J. Washington, Kentucky
Jordan Murphy, Minnesota
Jordan Brown, Nevada
Luke Maye, North Carolina
Drew McDonald, Northern Kentucky
Chris Silva, South Carolina
Mike Daum, South Dakota State
Grant Williams, Tennessee
Devontae Cacok, UNCW
Bennie Boatwright, USC
Simisola Shittu, Vanderbilt
Eric Paschall, Villanova
Noah Dickerson, Washington
Sagaba Konate, West Virginia

SEC banking on some veteran stars – even Kentucky

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Kentucky’s PJ Washington says coach John Calipari has “chilled out” at practice leading up to the season.

It doesn’t take as much yelling from coaches when you have a little seasoning and maturity on the roster, qualities that the Wildcats and other top Southeastern Conference teams are banking on to match — or even better — the league’s strong 2017-18 season. Calipari says he hasn’t had to raise his voice yet in practice.

“Last year it was pretty much every day but this year he’s kind of chilled out a little bit,” Washington said Wednesday at SEC media day. “We have experience obviously.”

Seriously? No yelling?

“I’m shocked, too,” Washington said. “He’s usually screaming every five seconds. Now, he’s just stopping practice and trying to teach young guys what to do.”

It helps when they’re not all young guys. Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis , a two-time All-Pac-12 performer, brought a wealth of experience to the lineup.

There are plenty of highly touted freshmen in Lexington and around the league, of course. But a number of standouts returned, too, including reigning SEC player of the year Grant Williams at Tennessee, Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford, Auburn’s Jared Harper, Florida’s Jalen Hudson and LSU’s Tremont Waters.

The SEC proved its back as a basketball power last season, sending a record eight teams to the NCAA Tournament. Optimism abounds again going into this season, with coaches not being shy about trumpeting the league’s strength.

“The league top to bottom has probably never been stronger,” Calipari said. “Top-heavy, too. Crazy.”

Added Mississippi State’s Ben Howland: “I can’t say enough about our league. This league is going to be so good this year. As good as it was last year, this year’s group is going to be even better.”

LSU coach Will Wade said last year there were a number of good teams, and now there are some that can be “elite.”

Plenty of players explored entering the NBA draft after last season but opted to return.

Tennessee and Auburn shared the SEC regular season title and return most of their top players. The Volunteers return all five starters and are led by Williams and senior Admiral Schofield. That experience prompts Howland to proclaim: “There’s no doubt they’re the team to beat in our conference.”

Auburn lost leading scorer Mustapha Heron, who transferred to St. John’s. Harper and Bryce Brown returned while center Austin Wiley and forward Danjel Purifoy are back after being ineligible last season.

“Austin is as big, as strong, as fast and as mobile as any big guy in the country,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, whose team is no longer undersized.

Wiley is recovering from a foot injury that could sideline him early in the season. Purifoy is still ineligible for the first nine games.

The Tigers snapped a 15-year NCAA Tournament drought last season.

Then there’s Kentucky. Washington, Quade Green and Nick Richards are among the returnees.

Travis is the Wildcats’ only preseason first-team All-SEC pick.

The Wildcats are the preseason league favorites — as usual. But teams like Tennessee and Auburn are potential preseason top 10 teams, too.

For all the returning veterans, there’s also a strong wave of incoming talent.

Kentucky brought in the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class with four five-star recruits, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.

LSU was ranked No. 4, led by five-star forwards Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams, and teams like Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Florida also had highly rated classes. The Gators (Andrew Nembhard) and Commodores (Darius Garland) both signed five-star point guards.

“I think we have some really good incoming freshmen and I think we have some terrific veterans that have had a big impact on the league,” Calipari said. “The teams that won the league last year have most of their players back.

“We finally have a couple of returning players. It’s been awhile.”

7-foot-2 freshman Brown brings height to Bruins

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — UCLA has its tallest team under coach Steve Alford, and it added another inch after the summer thanks to the continued growth of Moses Brown.

Brown, a 7-foot-2 center from New York, said he grew an inch since his arrival on the UCLA campus. People have noticed, and he’ll be a star attraction in Westwood this season.

“A lot of people want to take pictures of me,” Brown said. “Every time I walk in class, the first person they see is me. The teacher always wants to pick on me, ‘Hey, how tall are you?’ So then I introduce myself in front of the class. It’s pretty cool. You meet a lot of new people.”

And then, of course, there are the people who just take selfies with Brown in the background. He sees them as he’s walking by.

“I pose a lot,” Brown said while flashing a peace sign.

Freshman guard David Singleton made it his personal mission to show Brown the beaches on the West Coast are better than those on the East Coast. Singleton, a 6-foot-4 guard who played at Bishop Montgomery High School in Los Angeles, said they went to the Santa Monica Pier, Huntington Beach, Venice and more in the summer.

“We went to Huntington Beach for Fourth of July and everyone was coming up to us and everyone was breaking their necks,” Singleton said.

Brown, who is wearing No. 1, said the biggest change for him has been his offseason weightlifting program. He’s ready to get his college career started and to try to help UCLA improve from its 21-12 season a year ago.

“I just want to get with all my guys. I want to build a relationship with my teammates,” Brown said. “We have a lot of chemistry.”

Brown weighs 250 pounds and said he’s excited that in college, he gets fed after practice. UCLA will be feeding him the ball when he’s on the court as he will present constant mismatches.

“Moses at 7-2 presents a lot of good problems,” Alford said. “Being 7-2 and length, really runs the floor well and for a guy that big, how he handles the ball and those types of things inside has been very impressive. He gives us a shot-blocker, which, to be honest with you we really haven’t had an elite shot-blocker since we’ve been here. I think he is that.”

His stature is even an eye-opener for his frontcourt teammates.

“I have to break my neck to see Moses, which usually does not happen to me,” said sophomore guard Chris Smith, who is 6-9. “When I stand next to him, to look in his eyes, I have to look up. I’ve never had to do that before.”

G League unveils plan to intercept one-and-done players before the NCAA

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The G League announced on Thursday an initiative that is a direct response to the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball and the Rice Commission on College Basketball that stemmed from it.

Beginning in the summer of 2019, the G League plans to launch a venture that would offer $125,000 “select contracts” to certain high school prospects that are 18 years old but not yet eligible for the NBA draft. This is a direct effort to challenge the NCAA’s monopoly on elite basketball talent during the one year between the end of their high school career and their draft eligibility.

“We appreciate the NBA’s decision to provide additional opportunities for those who would like to pursue their dream of playing professionally,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “The NCAA recently implemented significant reforms to support student-athlete success, including more flexibility when deciding whether to play professionally.”

“Obtaining a college education continues to provide unmatched preparation for success in life for the majority of student-athletes and remains an excellent path to professional sports for many. However, this change provides another option for those who would prefer not to attend college but want to directly pursue professional basketball.”

There are some moving parts here. How many select contracts will be offered? What is the criteria for a player to be eligible to receive one? How will those teams be dispersed throughout the G League?

But the intent is clear. The Rice Commission challenged the NBA to create an alternate path to the NBA for kids that want to get paid by the pros, and this is it.

The effect that it will have on college hoops will be interesting to follow.

Without question, this is a path that any player that is offered one of these select contracts should consider and evaluate. $125,000 is a lot of money, as is the potential to land endorsement deals. Getting a chance to work with professional coaches and professional organizations would help as hell, to say nothing of the money that these players would be able to earn legally — from shoe companies, from agents, from financial advisors — during their high school days. Adidas will be able to pay the next Brian Bowen directly without having to worry about jeopardizing his eligibility of landing one of their executives in federal prison.

But that path may not end up being the ideal route for a high school graduate to follow.

I’ve written plenty of words over the years about how and why college basketball is almost always going to be the best option for an elite high school recruit, whether or not he gets paid, and whether or not the money he does receive is legal. (You can read that here.) College basketball players, particularly the star players, deserve more than they get, but that doesn’t mean that they don’tlead a pretty good life.

They do.

And it is certainly a better life than flying commercial, riding buses and playing in front of tens of fans in cold gyms with games televised on YouTube streams.

That’s the G League.

The G League is also full of grown men that are, themselves, former five-star prospects fighting for their shot at a paycheck. Walking into that as an 18-year old that has never spent a second in a college strength and conditioning program and is just weeks removed from having their bed made by their mother is not exactly the best way for a kid to market himself to NBA teams. There’s a reason that Darius Bazely is spending the next year training on his own instead of playing in the G League. He’d get worked over.

And that’s before we consider what shoe companies want.

The reason that Adidas was willing to pay $100,000 to the family of Brian Bowen to get him to go to Louisville was that he would be on national television wearing Louisville gear. It was, more or less, an endorsement. It is good for Adidas to have Louisville — and Kansas, and Indiana, and every other program branded by the three stripes — to be good at basketball. Is that money going to be there for these kids if they are playing for the Reno Bighorns instead of the Kansas Jayhawks? Or will they be more apt to invest it in the next-best player available in the college ranks?

And, perhaps more importantly, will that endorsement money be as big when these kids haven’t spent a full season playing on national television every single night? Without the hype that comes with being a star in March Madness?

There is a lot that is going to play out in this regard over the ten months, when this will go into effect.

And the ripples throughout the sport of college basketball will be just as interesting to follow.