UC Irvine aiming for first NCAA tournament appearance as a Division I member

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source: AP
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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.

In the first two seasons of Russell Turner’s tenure at UC Irvine the Anteaters took their lumps, winning a total of 25 games and finishing no better than sixth in the Big West (six league victories in each season). But things changed for the Anteaters in 2012-13, as head coach Russell Turner’s team won 21 games (11 in Big West play) and made the program’s first postseason appearance since 2002.

Two of those victories came at the expense of Big West regular season champion Long Beach State, with the Anteaters knocking off the 49ers in the semifinals of the Big West tournament. UC Irvine fell in the title game to Pacific, ending their hopes of reaching the NCAA tournament and resulting in a trip to the CollegeInsider.com tournament.

Despite the graduation of Adam Folker, Daman Starring and Michael Wilder expectations are high for UC Irvine entering the 2013-14 season, with the prevailing feeling being that the Anteaters have the combination of returnees and newcomers needed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time as a Division I member.

“Last season we played as a team, and we had [great] chemistry on and off the court,” said junior forward Will Davis II in an interview with NBC Sports when asked what the difference was last season compared to the season prior. “We did many things together to improve our team bonding, and I feel like everyone had the same goals to be as good as possible, push each other in practice and do our best to win every game.”

One area where the improvement was evident in 2012-13 was defensively, with the Anteaters limiting opponents to a Big West-best 38.7% shooting from the field, an improvement of nearly three percentage points from the season prior (41.5%). Davis II was a big reason why UC Irvine improved in that department, with his 2.4 blocks per game leading the Big West and resulting in the 6-foot-8 forward winning Big West Defensive Player of the Year honors.

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Davis II saw a decent amount of playing time at the center position, but that may change some given how much size the Anteaters have inside. UC Irvine has three 7-footers, including freshmen Mamadou Ndiaye (7-foot-5) and Giannis Dimakopoulos (7-foot-2) and sophomore Conor Clifford (7-foot-0), and two 6-foot-10 centers in John Ryan and Mike Best. That size could result in Davis II playing the majority of his minutes at the four, which will likely benefit the Anteaters.

“I can guard some,” said Davis II. “For example, if we play zone I’ll guard a wing instead of being the center in the zone. It just takes a little bit of the load off my back as I won’t be the lone big man and have to guard the five every night.”

But even with the many big men at Turner’s disposal, he’s got some solid perimeter players as well. UC Irvine adds New Mexico transfer Dominique Dunning and freshman Luke Nelson, who was named England’s Under-18 Player of the Year in 2013 and averaged 19 points per game during this summer’s Under-19 European Championships. They’ll join two returnees in senior Chris McNealy and sophomore Alex Young who should be in the running for all-conference honors this season.

The 6-foot-4 McNealy is the lone senior on the roster, and the most experienced player in the Big West this season (2,243 minutes) was a productive sixth man (9.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg) for the Anteaters last season. As for Young, the 6-foot-1 guard is both the present and the future of the UC Irvine program. As a freshman Young started 29 games and posted averages of 9.2 points, 3.9 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game, sharing Big West Freshman of the Year honors with Hawaii forward Isaac Fotu.

With a year of experience under his belt, Young has the skill needed to cement his standing as one of the conference’s best players.

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“He’s progressed a lot. He’s taken on a leadership role since he’s our returning point guard, so he’s been very vocal,” said Davis II of Young. “He’s been putting in a lot of work outside of practice as well.”

Leaders stepping up is something to keep an eye on as the season wears on, with the Anteaters losing three in the form of Starring, Folker and Wilder. Starring was the team’s leading scorer last season, averaging 12.9 ppg on a balanced squad that had just one player averaging double figures. The 6-foot-9 Folker averaged 9.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game playing alongside Davis II inside and Wilder, the man who was known by the casual observer for his hairstyle, was also one of the Big West’s most versatile players (8.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.0 apg).

Players such as McNealy, Davis II and Young will need to grab the reins and be the leaders the Anteaters need if they’re to be the Big West contender many expect them to be.

Given the amount of success that Long Beach State has enjoyed of late, winning at least a share of the last three Big West titles, dethroning the 49ers won’t be an easy task despite their having to account for the graduation of Big West Player of the Year James Ennis. But even with that being the case the rest of the Big West will concede nothing, with UC Irvine being among the teams taking a run at the throne.

Tennessee beats Duke to commitment for five-star prospect

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Tennessee’s Rick Barnes is up to his old recruiting tricks.

The man that brought the likes of Kevin Durant and T.J. Ford to Texas, the coach that is currently the reigning SEC regular season championship, has gotten things going in the Class of 2019 as five-star guard Josiah James committed to Tennessee on Wednesday.

James picked the Vols over Clemson and Duke. He visited Tennessee the first weekend of September and took a trip to Clemson last weekend before cancelling his visit to Duke and announcing his commitment.

A top 15 prospect in the Class of 2019, James is a 6-foot-6 left-handed combo-guard. He’s more of a smooth athlete than he is super-explosive, but he has a strong frame that can absorb contact, the vision to create for teammates and the tools to be a switchable and versatile defensive piece. He needs to get more skilled — he’s not a great shooter, and while he is a good passer and creator, his handle could stand to get better if he truly wants to be a lead guard — but the potential is there for James to blossom into a first round pick one day.

James is the third commitment for Tennessee in the Class of 2019, joining a pair of three-star forwards in Drew Pember and Davonte Gaines.

This has been an incredible 12-month stretch for Barnes.

In his third season as the head coach of Tennessee, he took the Vols to a share of the SEC regular season title with a team that didn’t have a single player on the roster that was a top 100 prospect in high school. Everyone of significance from that team returned to the program, meaning that Barnes now has a preseason top 10 team heading into the 2018-19 season.

And now he’s beating out the likes of Duke and Michigan State for a five-star, potential one-and-done player?

Impressive.

Washington lands second 2019 verbal commitment

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With three of its four seniors heading into the 2018-19 season being perimeter players, Washington has some holes to address in its 2019 recruiting class. Thus far Mike Hopkins and his staff have done just that, with both of the program’s commits to date being perimeter players.

The second verbal commitment was received Tuesday afternoon, as three-star combo guard Marcus Tsohonis announced that he will be a Husky. Tsohonis, a Jefferson HS (Portland, Oregon) product who played his grassroots basketball for Seattle Rotary Elite on the Nike EYBL circuit, joins four-star wing RaeQuan Battle in Washington’s 2019 class to date.

The 6-foot-4 Tsohonis, who can play on or off the ball, held offers from multiple Pac-12 programs but ultimately made the decision to make the trek north from Portland to Seattle for his collegiate career. His verbal commitment comes on the heels of an official visit to Washington that was taken this past weekend.

As noted above Washington will loose some key contributors on the perimeter after the upcoming season, with David Crisp, Mathysse Thybulle and Dominic Green all entering their final season of eligibility (big man Noah Dickerson is also a senior). The additions of Tsohonis and Battle should help Washington when it comes to filling those holes and continuing to build upon the foundation laid during Hopkins’ first season at the helm.

Four-star guard becomes LSU’s first 2019 commit

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Expected to be a factor both within the SEC and nationally this season, these are good times for the LSU men’s basketball program. Head coach Will Wade and his staff received more good news Tuesday, as 6-foot-2 combo guard James Bishop (Baltimore, Maryland/Mount St. Joseph HS) announced that he will be a Tiger next season.

Bishop, considered to be one of the top scoring guards in the class, is LSU’s first 2019 verbal commitment. Bishop’s pledge comes just over a week after his official visit to LSU, and just days after a visit to St. John’s. LSU beat out St. John’s, NC State, Marquette and VCU in the race for the Baltimore product, and given the Tigers’ current roster this is an important commitment.

LSU’s 2018 recruiting class is considered to be one of the nation’s best, with point guard Javonte Smart being one of the five-star prospects in that quintet (forwards Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams being the others). Add in sophomore Tremont Waters, who’s coming off of an outstanding freshman season, and LSU could be in a position next summer where its top two lead guards are at the very least testing the NBA draft waters.

Landing Bishop gives LSU another talented option, and some cover should the program lose either Waters or Smart — or both — in 2019.

Calhoun officially named head coach at DIII St. Joseph

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WEST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Jim Calhoun has officially been named the head coach at Division III University of Saint Joseph in Connecticut.

The Hall of Famer had already announced he would be taking the job and has been working for a year to establish a men’s basketball program at the small Catholic university, which was an all-women’s school until this school year.

Calhoun also has continued to serve in an advisory role at UConn, where he served as coach for 26 seasons and led the Huskies to three of their four national titles before retiring in 2012.

The 76-year-old will return to the sidelines with a career record of 873-380 when the Blue Jays open the season on Nov. 9 against William Paterson University.

That game will be played at Trinity College in Hartford, which has a gym that seats about 2,200 people, about 1,000 more than the gymnasium at Saint Joseph.

Oregon State announces addition of transfer Payton Dastrup

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Tuesday afternoon Oregon State announced that former BYU power forward Payton Dastrup has joined the program as a transfer. Dastrup, who averaged 3.3 points and 1.8 rebounds in just under eight minutes per game last season, has two seasons of eligibility remaining. Oregon State will file a waiver on his behalf in hopes that Dastrup will be granted immediate eligibility.

Should the waiver request be denied, Dastrup will not be eligible to play until the 2019-20 season. For Oregon State’s sake, even with Dastrup’s career numbers he would fill a need for a team that bid farewell to its best big man during the spring.

Drew Eubanks’ decision to turn pro left a noticeable hole in Oregon State’s interior rotation, with senior Gligorije Rakocevic and junior Ben Kone being the most experienced returnees. Those two combined to average 3.1 points and 3.5 rebounds per game in 2017-18, with Rakocevic averaging 10.6 minutes per game in 27 appearances off the bench.

In addition to those two the Beavers add three scholarship newcomers to the mix this season in junior college transfer Kylor Kelley and freshmen Warren Washington and Jack Wilson. Dastrup has the ability to step away from the basket, which would give Oregon State a little versatility in the interior to go along with a perimeter/wing rotation led by Tres Tinkle, Stephen Thompson Jr. and Ethan Thompson.