The Patriot League in the post Mike Muscala and C.J. McCollum era

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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.

It didn’t take long for Bucknell head coach Dave Paulsen to learn that the player he would build two NCAA Tournament teams around was a special player. Similarly, he knew midway through Bucknell’s first game against Lehigh during the 2009-10 season that the best player in Lehigh history should have been playing in a high-major conference.

Paulsen recalled watching Mike Muscala during the July recruiting period in 2008: “He’d catch the ball in traffic and finish with his left hand so seamlessly and effortlessly. Guys just don’t do that regularly. I remember thinking, ‘Man, he’s definitely going to get scooped up by a bigger program and they’ll have him redshirt,'” he told NBCSports.com by phone.

He knew that C.J. McCollum didn’t belong playing at the mid-major level, much less in the Patriot League.

“When C.J. made a move from the perimeter by going hard to the basket, stopped on a dime, and elevated and shot a pull-up jumper from three and made it, I thought, ‘Oh boy, he can make some plays that mid-major players just don’t make.’

Mike Muscala and C.J. McCollum placed their respective programs and the Patriot League in the national spotlight for the better part of their careers. Not since Bucknell and Holy Cross dominated the league from 2005-2007 had the Patriot League garnered as much attention nationally, and even then it was mostly just headlines during March, not throughout the entire season.

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Patriot League Preview)

To review just several of the accolades Muscala and McCollum combined to earn from 2010-2013 both for their schools and individually: Four Patriot League Championships, an NCAA Tournament win, an NIT appearance and win, an Academic All-American (Muscala), finalists for the Senior CLASS Awards and selections in the 2013 NBA Draft.

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It was unprecedented. The Patriot League simply doesn’t turn out players like Muscala and McCollum. Under-recruited, late bloomers, diamonds in the rough — call them whatever you’d like, but the fact is they had the talent to play for any team in America. Like any high-level player, though, they continued to refine their craft, Paulsen explained: “The thing with C.J. and Mike is that they came back every year with another weapon in their arsenal. Both of them were just so driven to be great. They didn’t rest on their laurels and get satisfied.”

Muscala and McCollum have moved onto the next chapter of their careers playing professionally — McCollum with the Portland Trailblazer and Muscala with the Atlanta Hawks, although he is currently playing in Spain — and the same goes for Patriot League basketball. While the league loses two of the best players to ever grace the eight quaint gyms in the league, Paulsen believes they have left their mark in such a way that will benefit the league down the road.

“I think the success they helped bring has enabled us to recruit a really good basketball player who happens to be a really good student that we may not have been in consideration for in the past,” Paulsen said. “In years past, it would have been harder for the player or their parents to think of going to Bucknell to further their basketball career, but now I don’t think there’s any of that; we can go toe-to-toe with anyone on the right kid.”

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

It isn’t just solely due to Muscala and McCollum. Paulsen looks at other strong academic schools who play at the mid-major level as other examples: “A lot of it also has to do going back to 2005 and 2006 with Bucknell beating Kansas and Arkansas, and then you have Cornell making a run and Davidson making a run, and Lehigh and Harvard winning games. If you just look at the last eight to ten years, you have wins from two different schools in the Patriot League and Ivy League. I don’t think ten years ago anyone thought that was a possibility.”

With Muscala and McCollum having graduated, one could argue that the influx of Boston University and Loyola (Maryland) help in taking the Patriot League to that next level. “I am sure our league RPI last year was as good as it’s ever been. But, over the next five years, I bet that the league will be much stronger with adding these two programs. It gives the league more exposure in adding two major markets in Boston and Baltimore,” Paulsen said.

Of course, the addition of Boston University and Loyola makes it that much more challenging to win the league. Selfishly, from a fan’s perspective, having a stronger league top to bottom improves its reputation from a national level, but for the ten coaches in the league it’s all about winning a league championship. “I bet you there’s not one coach in the league that would candidly tell you they’re thrilled to see them join, though. You go from having a one in eight chance to win the league, to a one in ten chance…Boston University and Loyola are very committed to their basketball programs.”

Reverting back to Muscala and McCollum, major programs missed out on these two in a big way, which speaks to the unpredictability of recruiting and how there are a myriad of talented players to play Division I basketball. The underlying message is that there’s no telling who the next Muscala or McCollum is, or where he will end up.

Perhaps he is a freshman at a school in the Patriot League this year.

Middle Tennessee loses four returnees during the week

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Middle Tennessee has been one of the best mid-major programs in the country over the last few years but now the Blue Raiders will be facing a major rebuild.

With former head coach Kermit Davis taking the Ole Miss job and new head coach Nick McDevitt coming over from UNC Asheville, the program experienced some major roster turnover this week as four returnees left the program.

Earlier in the week, junior guard David Simmons opted to transfer out of Middle Tennessee after he averaged 17.9 minutes per game for the Conference USA regular-season champions last season.

On Friday, the losses continued, as three more players left the team. Rising junior point guard Tyrik Dixon announced his intention to transfer while the program dismissed guard Antwain Johnson and forward Davion Thomas. Dixon was a valuable floor leader for Middle Tennessee the past two seasons while Johnson, a rising senior guard, would have been the team’s returning leading scorer after putting up 10.3 points per game last week.

Since so much of the successful core of the past three seasons is now gone from Middle Tennessee, it will be on McDevitt to bring in new talent to sustain the recent great stretch of play. The Blue Raiders made two Round of 32 appearances in a row before missing the NCAA tournament last season after winning C-USA’s regular season crown.

Now, with Western Kentucky making a power play by bringing in five-star big man Charles Bassey, and the power has shifted very quickly in one of the most competitive mid-major conferences in the country.

Report: One-and-Done rule could be eliminated for 2021 NBA Draft

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The NBA is reportedly exploring the possibility of ending the infamous one-and-done rule that forces many potential professional basketball players to head to college for at least one season.

According to a report from ESPN’s Zach Lowe, citing a league memo sent to NBA teams late this week, the league office is indicating that “eligibility rules” for the NBA draft could change as soon as 2021 or 2022 — but not earlier. The league is currently trying to figure out how the FBI’s investigation into college basketball will play out while also trying to navigate the player development changes that would be needed for high school players to once again potentially enter the NBA. Recently, the NBA has started to allow its teams and front-office personnel to attend elite summer high school events as the Pangos All-American Camp and the NBPA Top 100 Camp both had an NBA presence to watch elite Class of 2019, 2020 and 2021 prospects.

Lowe’s report mentions that the one-and-done rule is not mentioned directly by name, but the NBA is trying to warn its teams before the 2018 NBA Draft. These future changes could be on the horizon and teams need to understand what they are doing with future draft picks in potential trades.

The scenario of a 2021 NBA Draft in which high school players might be eligible is a fascinating subplot for college basketball, and the sport at-large, over these next few years.

As Lowe pointed out in his report, whenever the rule is eventually opened up, it will create one large mega draft in which two elite classes of high school players would be draft-eligible in the same year. With potentially double the lottery-level and first-round talent of a typical NBA draft, it would force a lot of elite college recruits to exam the possibility of reclassifying up in order to get ahead of that mega draft and be in a pool with fewer elite prospects.

It also gives the high school players themselves a unique decision with regard to their potential college futures. If an elite high school prospect is one year away from entering the NBA draft out of school, would some go to college or would they try to go for a postgrad year and follow in the footsteps of players like Thon Maker and Anfernee Simons?

The expanding presence of the NBA’s G-League is also a factor in all of this as salaries for the league are increasing and becoming more respectable — giving high school players a viable professional option in the United States instead of college for one year before moving on to the draft.

There are still way too many moving parts to truly speculate how this will all go down. But at least we know that the NBA appears to be viewing 2021 or 2022 as the potential change to the one-and-done rule. We’ll have to see how elite high school prospects start potentially adjusting to reclassify while colleges also might have to adopt some new and unique recruiting strategies if they rely on one-and-done players to fill out their roster.

Five-star guard Ashton Hagans enrolling at Kentucky after graduating year early

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Kentucky received additional reinforcements for the 2018-19 season on Friday as five-star guard Ashton Hagans graduated high school a year early with the intent to head to Lexington for next season.

The 6-foot-4 Hagans is considered by many recruiting analysts to be a top-ten national prospect in the Class of 2019 as he gives the Wildcats three five-star recruits at lead guard for next season. The Georgia state Player of the Year as a junior this past season, Hagans joins a crowded Kentucky backcourt that includes sophomore Quade Green and fellow incoming freshman and McDonald’s All-American Immanuel Quickley.

While the juggling of minutes is going to be a major storyline for head coach John Calipari this season, the addition of Hagans gives Kentucky even more lineup flexibility than they had before. Because Hagans has good size and defensive ability, he could be used to play alongside the smaller Green, giving the Wildcats a two-guard look that would have more defensive intensity. Playing Quickley and Hagans together would give Kentucky a bigger two-guard lineup that would have a chance to be pretty strong defensively.

And, of course, Calipari could opt to go with some three-guard lineups with other off-guards like Keldon Johnson or Tyler Herro to give Kentucky a tough perimeter attack.

Handling minutes and egos will be something to watch for in Lexington this season, but Calipari has handled this sort of situation with a Final Four appearance before. It’s hard to say if the Wildcats will try to play another platoon type of system like we saw in 2014-15, but if they end up getting graduate transfer forward Reid Travis, they might have the personnel to give it a shot.

Villanova lands late commitment from four-star prospect

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Villanova made a late addition to their 2018 recruiting class on Friday afternoon as they landed a commitment from four-star prospect Saddiq Bey.

Bey was originally committed to N.C. State, but he asked out of his Letter of Intent in mid-May as the Wolfpack ended up over the scholarship limit. The versatile, 6-foot-7 forward is a good fit for the way that Villanova likes to play, as he can guard different positions, plays with the toughness you expect out of a kid from Washington D.C. and is a capable scorer.

Bey is also a product of Sidwell Friends, the same high school that produced former Villanova star Josh Hart.

He will joined a recruiting class that also includes five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, four star prospects Cole Swider and Brandon Slater and Albany grad transfer Joe Cremo.

The news was first reported by 247 Sports.

Marvin Bagley III, a ‘Nike kid’, to sign endorsement deal with Puma

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In a somewhat surprising turn of events, Marvin Bagley III will reportedly sign an endorsement deal with Puma in the NBA.

It’s a five-year deal, according to reports, that will pay Bagley and his family quite a bit of money and will allow them to fund an AAU program for Bagley’s younger brother. That program will be coached by Marvin Bagley Jr., and that gets to the heart of what makes this decision so surprising.

Bagley III has always been considered a “Nike kid”. He played for Nike AAU programs throughout his high school career. The last two years, his father ran the program that he played for, originally called Phoenix Phamily but eventually changed to Nike Phamily. That meant that Nike was able to legally pay Bagley Jr. a significant amount of money to fund that program. Eventually, Bagley would up enrolling at Duke, one of Nike’s flagship college basketball programs.

This is not the way that it is supposed to go for a shoe company like Nike. The reason they spend as much money as they do in the youth ranks is to keep as many kids as possible loyal to the brand. It’s fairly easy to figure out who will end up having a chance at being an NBA player as early as 15 years old, but what’s harder to do is to predict who will actually be able to move product. Did anyone think James Harden or Damian Lillard would be worth a signature shoe? So these shoe companies will spend a relatively small amount of money to fly those kids around the country during their high school years, keep them decked out in their gear and hope that lottery ticket eventually pays off.

What is a couple hundred thousand dollar investment when the payoff is hundreds of millions of dollars in shoe sales? All you need to do is land one Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant to make the math work.

But that isn’t all that the shoe companies are looking for here.

With the amount of money that they have invested in sponsorship deals with these schools, they need to protect that investment. We saw it with Adidas and Louisville. They funneled $100,000 to Brian Bowen, a Nike kid, to get him to an Adidas school not because they thought he would end up being an uber-profitable spokesman but because they needed to protect their investment at the college level.

So while it’s easy to look at this and same that Bagley’s time spent at Duke helped him get a big, fat shoe contract, I think it’s the other way around. He helped Nike — without getting his market value — during his one season at Duke, and what it got him was a shoe contract worth roughly $1 million a year, according to Oregon Live.

Either way, the fact of the matter is that Bagley’s value to these brands is no different now than it was when he was playing for the Blue Devils.

Why is it only now that he’s allowed to cash in on it?