Kareem Jamar finally gets a shot at being the star as Montana shoots for a three-peat in the Big Sky

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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.

Kareem Jamar is a native of Southern California. He’s from Venice. He was raised on palm trees and smog and impossible traffic jams. Warm weather is in his blood.

Jamar also played for two powerhouse programs while he was being recruited. Westchester HS is one of the best programs on the west coast, routinely churning out high-major recruits. They won a state title when Jamar was a junior and a senior The Compton Magic AAU program that he was a part of gets as much exposure as anyone.

It begs the question: how did Jamar end up playing his college ball at Montana?

“When Montana called, I had never really heard of it,” Jamar told NBCSports.com. “I didn’t know where it was on the map.”

Head coach Wayne Tinkle and his staff at Montana have developed a system for identifying under-the-radar prospects. Instead of chasing the pipe-dream of luring a top 100 recruit to Missoula, they’ll go after the fourth or fifth guy on a loaded AAU or high school team. They’ll target the glue guy, the kid that is obviously talented enough to earn a scholarship but is willing to blend into the background for the sake of winning.

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

That’s exactly what happened with Jamar. He’s solidly-built, moderately-athletic 6-foot-5 guard that is talented enough to score and unselfish enough to make the right pass instead of force a tough shot. He’s not a layup line scout. He’ll be the best player on the floor, but you won’t realize it until you look at the box score and see his 15 points, six boards and four assists.

Montana was one of just a handful of schools actively recruiting Jamar, and while they were able to get him to make the trek up north, the Grizzlies didn’t get a commitment until the day after the fall signing period. “We were like, ‘that’s never going to come through,'” Montana head coach Wayne Tinkle told NBCSports.com. “He’s going to have a great senior year, everyone’s going to jump on board, and we’re going to miss out.” It didn’t help matters that Jordin Mayes and Dwayne Polee, two highly sought-after recruits, were in the same class as Jamar at Westchester.

But the status quo remained: Westchester won a state title; Jamar was named all-city after averaging 12 points, 5 assists, and 4.5 rebounds; and Montana was the best school to offer him. On the first day of the spring signing period, Tinkle received Jamar’s letter of intent.

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Kareem Jamar’s college career has been pretty close to perfect.

After earning a trip to the CBI as a freshman, Jamar has been one of the best players in the Big Sky the past two years, helping lead the Grizzlies to regular season and tournament titles the past two seasons while being named Big Sky Player of the Year as a junior.

But despite the team success and individual accolades, Jamar has never really generated much attention at Montana. He’s played for three seasons and has never been the program’s leading scorer. He’s spent his basketball life as a supporting actor, but with Will Cherry and Mathias Ward gone and graduated, Jamar is ready for his shot at being ‘the man’.

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

“I’ve been in my brother Will Cherry’s shadow for three years, and he taught me a lot, but I have been in that shadow,” Jamar said. “I’ve proven [myself] in every big game, but [being overlooked] is nothing new. I’ve had that chip on my shoulder all my life. It doesn’t really bother me, but it definitely motivated me.”

Jamar is going to have plenty of chances to prove himself as a senior, as Tinkle is going to build the offense around him.

“Guys like Cherry and Ward, they demanded the ball, for good reason,” Tickle said. “So Jamar’s going to have more opportunities. But the thing about him, he’s so unselfish, he was responsible for a lot of the baskets that those guys got. And others. So he’s going to be the focus of everybody’s defense, but I think our offense, overall, will be a little better because he’s also going to be our main facilitator.”

It’s that versatility that makes Jamar so dangerous. When he has to, he can score 20 or 25 points, taking a game over scoring the basketball. But Jamar’s best asset is his ability to create, which is what makes him so difficult to stop. Opponents can’t double-team him because he’ll get rid of the ball. They can’t send to much help-side defense, because he’ll find the open man. Part of the reason he’s so good at blending in is because he’s so good at making the people around him better.

“I am going to be a little more aggressive. I have to,” Jamar said. “I’m still going to stick to my roots, though.”

That’s a unique skill to have.

And perhaps the best news for Jamar is that the Big Sky has developed a reputation for churning out NBA caliber lead guards. Everyone will remember Damian Lillard, who was named Rookie of the Year after his career at Weber State ended. But did you know that Rodney Stuckey was a product of the league as well? He’s in his seventh season in the NBA, averaging 11.5 points for his career after leaving Eastern Washington.

Jamar is already getting some attention from NBA scouts. They call him a throwback, an old-school player. I’m sure the success of players of his ilk from that league hasn’t hurt matters.

But what matters the most for him right now isn’t the NBA. It isn’t necessarily the chance to prove just how good he actually is.

Jamar wants to make it back to the NCAA tournament. He wants to win a game and erase the memory of back-to-back whippings from Syracuse and Wisconsin.

“The way we lost, it just made us seem like we were on a different level, and as a man and a player, you don’t want to feel that way,” he said, “that someone is that much better than you. They put their shorts on just like you put your shorts on.”

“I just have to prove to them that I can play at that level.”

Christian Vital going back to UConn for junior season

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Dan Hurley is keeping his roster intact at the top.

Christian Vital, UConn’s second-leading scorer a season ago, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, he announced Monday via social media.

“Great Talk Today Coach! Appreciate The Wisdom You Have Let Me In On!” Vital wrote “I Think It’s Time To Get Back To Winning Ways In Storrs! I’m Going To Need That #1 Back ASAP! WE GOT (UNFINISHED) BUSINESS!”

The 6-foot-2 junior-to-be Vital joins Jalen Adams, who was the Huskies’ top-returning scorer, back in Storrs in Hurley’s first year. Vital averaged 14.9 points on 38.3 percent shooting. Adams previously announced he would return to school without declaring for the draft.

The return of UConn’s top two scorers underscores an even bigger trend under Hurley as the Huskies appear to have avoided any major defections from last year’s roster despite the coaching change.

UConn is coming off a 14-18 season that proved to be the last of coach Kevin Ollie’s six years with the Huskies that included a national championship but also back-to-back losing seasons.

Chris Silva returning to South Carolina for senior season

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South Carolina is getting an first-team all-SEC performer back.

Chris Silva, who led the Gamecocks in scoring and rebounding last season, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, the school announced Monday.

“I’m thankful for the experience of going through the draft process,” Silva said in a statement. “I want to thank all of the teams that gave me the opportunity to workout for their organization. I’m excited to announce that I’m returning to South Carolina for my senior season. I can’t wait to get back on the court with my brothers and continue to work on my game.”

The 6-foot-9 Silva, who did not get an NBA draft combine invite, averaged 14.3 points and 8 rebounds per game as a junior.  He shot 46.7 percent from the floor.

“Going through the evaluation process was an unbelievable experience for Chris and us,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said in a statement. “He comes back to a place he loves with some knowledge on some of the things that we have to help him improve on in his efforts to one day fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA.”

In addition to being South Carolina’s leading scorer, he was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season after averaging 1.4 blocks per game. His return to Columbia gives the Gamecocks a potential contender for SEC player of the year in 2018-19.

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.”