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.

Ohio State grabs five-star 2019 point guard D.J. Carton

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Ohio State landed one of the biggest commitments so far this summer on Saturday as five-star Class of 2019 point guard D.J. Carton pledged to the Buckeyes.

The 5-foot-11 Carton burst onto the national recruiting scene this spring as he went from a relative unknown into a five-star prospect. Although Carton doesn’t play on a major shoe-company circuit he impressed national scouts and college coaches with his play during the April live evaluation period with Quad Cities Elite — the same program that produced quality college players like Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ and Montana State’s Tyler Hall.

An explosive athlete who can play above the rim, Carton showed a high amount of upside during the USA Basketball U18 tryouts in June as he competed against many of the top players in his class.

Ohio State is landing a key piece at an opportune time as they now have a lead guard of the future to help build around. Carton is only the third five-star prospect to commit from the Class of 2019 so far, as he’s the No. 17 overall prospect in the Rivals national rankings. Carton joins in-state four-star wing Alonzo Gaffney in the Buckeyes’ 2019 recruiting class as Ohio State has the makings of a potential top 10 recruiting class.

With where Ohio State was last summer, with head coach Chris Holtmann taking the job in June and the roster lacking scholarship players, the Buckeyes have had a monster turnaround in the last 14 months. Ohio State now, once again, looks like a scary team when it comes to recruiting as they should be a major factor for some elite prospects.

Alabama lands four-star wing Juwan Gary

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Alabama added a quality wing to its Class of 2019 recruiting haul on Friday as four-star Juwan Gary pledged to the Crimson Tide.

The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Gary has been a known national prospect since his freshman season as the South Carolina native is an athletic two-way wing who thrives in the open court. Although Gary still needs to polish up his jumper, he has the potential to be an impact player in the SEC, especially if Alabama gets him going in transition.

Gary joins four-star forward Diante Smith in the Crimson Tide recruiting class in 2019 as now head coach Avery Johnson and his staff can focus more of their efforts on adding to a potentially strong class. Pulling Gary out of South Carolina — especially in light of recent NCAA tournament success from in-state programs like South Carolina and Clemson — is an impressive recruiting win for Alabama.

Former UCLA guard Billy Knight was facing child molestation charges before suicide

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Former UCLA guard Billy Knight, who took his own life earlier this week, was arrested in June for sexually abusing a nine-year old girl, according to court documents that were obtained by The Mercury News.

The alleged assaults occurred in April of 2017 and Knight was reportedly arrested in Arizona in June. He was being charged with two counts of sexual conduct with a minor, two counts of sexual abuse, and two counts of molestation of a child.

Knight posted a video to YouTube prior to his death saying that he had lived a life of “sin”.

Jalek Felton signs pro contract in Europe

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Jalek Felton’s college basketball career is over.

The former North Carolina point guard has signed a pro contract with Olimpija Lubiana, a club team in Slovenia, they announced.

“I’m happy to join a club like Petrol Olimpija,” Felton said in a statement. “This is a club with a rich tradition, where many NBA players have begun their careers. For me, this is a big step. I know that this will be a great challenge for me and I am ready to go there and work. My agent told me that Olimpija will play in various competitions and that makes me all the more pleased. Playing in such competitions with Olympia in Europe will prepare me for playing in the NBA. The city looks nice and I heard that basketball there is a religion, so this will be an interesting experience.”

Felton, the nephew of former UNC guard Ray Felton, was a five-star prospect that played in 22 games as a freshman with the Tar Heels. But he was suspended from the program in January and, in March, withdrew from school.

He averaged just 2.9 points in his one season in Chapel Hill.

Creighton lands local 2019 commit

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Omaha isn’t exactly thought of as a high school basketball hot bed, but Creighton has had success mining its hometown for talent in recent years, most notably in recent NBA draft picks Justin Patton and Khyri Thomas.

The Bluejays went back to the well Thursday by securing the commitment of Shereef Mitchell, a 6-foot guard from local Burke High School, he announced via social media.

“Being a kid from Omaha you dream of playing for Creighton and in front of the hotown fans,” Mitchell wrote. “That is something I want to do  and I don’t want to turn that opportunity down.

“I can’t wait to play in front of my family, friends and the best fans in the world!”

Burke was offered by Greg McDermott’s staff just earlier this week, adding to a list of offers that included Bradley, Loyola Chicago and South Dakota State.

Burke recently graduated from his Omaha high school, but will reclassify to 2019 after spending a season with Sunrise Christian in Wichita, Kan.

“I really feel like I will be a way better player than what I am right now after my year at Sunrise,” Mitchell told the Omaha World-Herald. “I think I could have a shot at being an impact player right away and possibly starting after a year there.”

Burke averaged 24.6 points and 3.8 assists per game as a high school senior, earning state player of the year honors in the process. He’s hoping to extend the line of Omaha products to thrive at Creighton.

“I’m a kid from Omaha, and getting an offer from Creighton is something kids dream of and it would be hard for me to pass up,” Mitchell told the World-Herald. “Seeing players like Khyri Thomas and Justin Patton, two kids from (Omaha public schools) that are in the NBA, it gives you hope that you can do the same thing.”