College Basketball Talk’s Top 20 Most Improved Players

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Prior to the season, every pundit for every outlet across the country will put together his or her list of players with the potential to have a breakout season.

Which freshmen will have big sophomore seasons? Which seniors will finally get the chance to step into a starring role? What transfers spent their redshirt year transforming their body and perfecting their weaknesses? 

Sometimes, we’re spot on. Other times, we completely whiff. One month into the season, here is a look at this year’s Breakout Stars:

TOP 20 MOST IMPROVED PLAYERS

J.J. Avila, Colorado State: Avila, a transfer from Navy, has been the biggest reason that the Rams haven’t dropped off much this season. He’s averaging 19.5 points and 6.3 boards. Jon Octeus and Daniel Bejarano also could be listed here.

Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico: A solid role player for three years, Bairstow has turned into one of the nation’s best big men. He’s averaging 19.8 points, 7.1 boards and 2.8 assists.

Ron Baker, Wichita State: Ron Baker was a key role player for the Shockers last season. He’s turned into arguably their best player this year, a 6-foot-4 combo-guard averaging 15.3 points, 4.6 boards and 3.6 assists. Scouts that go to watch Cleanthony Early leave raving about Baker.

Cameron Clark and Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Many predicted Buddy Hield to develop into a star this season. He has, but the bigger surprise has been Clark. A top 30 recruit coming out of high school, Clark has turned into an all-Big 12 caliber wing.

Trevor Cooney, Syracuse: Amazing what a bit of confidence will do. Cooney’s averaging 15.3 points, shooting 48.4% from three and averaging 2.8 steals this season after playing last year as a liability.

Kellen Dunham, Butler: Dunham is doing his best to make Butler fans forget about Rotnei Clarke (and Ro Jones and Brad Stevens), averaging 19.1 points and shooting 46.4% from three while taking more than seven-per-game.

Perry Ellis, Kansas: Ellis has been the most consistent offensive option for Kansas this season, leading the team at 14.5 points while grabbing 6.8 boards per game.

source:  Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: Ferrell has become the leader that he needs to be for the Hoosiers to be competitive this season, averaging 17.0 points and 4.0 assists. His numbers take a bit of a hit because of the lack of scorers that Indiana has.

Shaq Goodwin, Memphis: On a team with a stable of perimeter weapons, Goodwin’s emergence has a presence on the block is key for the Tigers. He’s averaging 13.1 points and 6.1 boards as a sophomore this season.

Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: It happens every year. Bo Ryan somehow manages to turn a guy that’s spent a couple years as a big stiff into an all-Big Ten caliber post with three-point range. Kaminsky is averaging 14.6 points, 5.9 boards, 2.1 blocks and shooting 41.1% from three. He went for 43 points in a game earlier this year.

Cady Lalanne, UMass: Lalanne is finally living up to his talent this season, averaging 15.0 points and 10.4 boards as the Minutemen’s best interior presence. His emergence is a major reason why UMass will compete for the Atlantic 10 title.

Jake Layman, Maryland: Layman’s improvement will get lost in the shuffle in Maryland keeps sputtering, but he’s a 6-foot-8 wing that’s averaging 14.4 points and shooting 44.4% from three.

Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas, Michigan: LeVert will get a lot of attention, going from a guy that saw limited minutes to a wing that averages 13.9 points. But Stauskas has made the real jump. He was a spot-up shooter last year. He’s one of the 20 best all-around offensive weapons in college basketball this season.

Codi Miller-McIntyre, Wake Forest: Miller-McIntyre still isn’t as consistent as he’d like to be from the perimeter, but it’s hard to nitpick a kid averaging 17.9 points, 4.4 assists and just 1.5 turnovers.

Marcus Paige, North Carolina: As good as North Carolina’s big men have been in wins over Louisville and Michigan State, it’s been Paige’s emergence as a star — 18.8 ppg, 4.5 apg, 39.2% 3PT — that has kept the Tar Heels afloat without P.J. Hairston.

Lamar Patterson, Pitt: Pitt will compete for the ACC title this year, and Patterson’s improvement in the biggest reason why. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 5.o boards, 5.1 assists and 1.8 steals this year.

Casey Prather, Florida: After three seasons of being a defensive stopper and a glue guy, Prather has turned into a big-time scorer this season, averaging 19.1 points. Yeah, I don’t get it either.

Xavier Thames, San Diego State: No Jamaal Franklin? No Chase Tapley? No problem. Thames has taken over the role of SDSU’s big-shot maker this year.

Other names considered: Devon Collier, Maurice Creek, Justin Jackson, Naz Long, Cameron Wright

NCAA completely misses mark with Oklahoma State’s postseason ban

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The NCAA had a chance to do the right thing on Friday and, in a stunning turn of events, completely missed the mark.

Who saw that one coming?

The punishment that the Committee on Infractions handed down to Oklahoma State on Friday, a one-year postseason ban to go along with scholarship reductions and myriad recruiting sanctions, was wrong and should be utterly terrifying for the other programs that found themselves caught up in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption.

Oklahoma State faced a single Level I violation. It was an unethical conduct charge levied at former assistant coach Lamont Evans, who accepted at least $18,150 in bribes from financial advisors in exchange for peddling influence over one player from Oklahoma State and one player from South Carolina, where Evans was coaching before accepting a job on Brad Underwood’s staff in the spring of 2016. Evans was also accused of giving Jeffery Carroll $300.

That’s it.

Evans provided no competitive advantage for Oklahoma State, unless you consider the $300 he paid to Carroll — who was already on the roster and suspended for three games as a result — a competitive advantage. Evans was lining his pockets. He was not doing this to benefit the basketball program. Technically speaking, the players Evans claimed to have the power of persuasion over were the victims of the crimes that got him sentenced to three months in prison on federal bribery charges. He steered them to financial advisors that were willing to shell out bribe money. He knew nothing about the people that he was telling these players to invest their money with. One of the men Evans accepted bribes from was Marty Blazer, who sparked this entire investigation to try and avoid prison when he was caught by the SEC embezzling millions of dollars from clients.

That’s where Evans was guiding players who trusted him.

The players were the victims.

Despite that, Oklahoma State was still hit with a one-year postseason ban. Evans has been gone for three years. Carroll has been gone for two. Neither the current head coach — Mike Boynton — or the head coach the violations were committed under — Brad Underwood — were mentioned in the Notice of Allegations.

“There were no recruiting or other major violations on the part of the institution,” Oklahoma State said in a statement in November. “There are no allegations involving current student-athletes or coaching staff.”

None of that mattered to the Committee on Infractions.

They dropped the hammer on Oklahoma State, effectively neutering what was the most anticipated OSU season since Marcus Smart returned for his sophomore year. So much for seeing Cade Cunningham play in the NCAA tournament. Hell, we may not see Cunningham play for Oklahoma State, period. He was offered the chance to join the G League prospect pathway program, reportedly for as much money as Jalen Green. If he’s not going to play meaningful games at Oklahoma State, maybe he reconsiders the offer.

“Whatever the best option is for him we’re going to support 100 percent without any reservations,” Boynton said.

This gets to the core of the problem when it comes to NCAA enforcement: They far too often punish players and coaches for violations that they took no part in. What did Cunningham, or anyone else on Oklahoma State’s roster, have to do with Lamont Evans accepting bribes from a white collar felon that had been flipped by the FBI? How was anyone associated with the Oklahoma State athletic department supposed to prevent one assistant coach from accepting those bribes?

“A postseason ban for a bunch of kids that were 15, 16 years old when a lot of this was going on? It’s completely, completely out of bounds,” Boynton said.

He’s not wrong.

A postseason ban is total overkill.

That is the most infuriating part is that the NCAA was actually able to punish the man responsible. That’s not usually the case. Evans received a 10-year show-cause penalty from the NCAA in addition to a three month jail sentence for pleading guilty. His coaching career is effectively over. He’ll never be a Division I head coach. He’ll never coach at a level where he is able to earn a couple hundred grand as an assistant. The person entirely at fault for this situation had his life blown up.

And Oklahoma State still got a postseason ban despite the fact that, as Larry Parkinson of the Committee on Infractions said, “the institution fully cooperated from the moment they learned about the circumstances.”

That should be a major red flag for everyone else caught up in this investigation.

USC, Arizona and Auburn all had an assistant coach plead guilty to similar charges as Evans. Louisville committed their violations while they were on probation from the last scandal the program was embroiled in. Oklahoma State faced one Level I violation. Kansas faces five, and they’ve made quite clear they aren’t going to be as cooperative.

If the Committee on Infractions has set the bar here, everyone else better be ready to catch the book that gets thrown at them.

Zion Williamson granted stay on improper benefits inquiry

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MIAMI — A Florida appeals court has temporarily granted NBA rookie Zion Williamson’s attempt to block his former marketing agent’s effort to have the ex-Duke star answer questions about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils.

The order Thursday granted Williamson a stay and paused proceedings in the lawsuit from Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford, whose attorneys must respond within 10 days.

That lawsuit filed last summer accused Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. Williamson had filed his own lawsuit a week earlier in North Carolina to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

Ford’s attorneys had submitted questions in filings last month that included whether the New Orleans Pelicans rookie or anyone on his behalf sought or accepted “money, benefits, favors or things of value” to sign with Duke. They sought answers within 30 days to establish facts under oath in the pretrial discovery process.

Attorneys for last year’s No. 1 overall NBA draft pick had argued the questions were “nothing more than a fishing expedition,” but circuit judge David C. Miller denied Williamson’s original stay request Tuesday.

Jeremy Watkins, a spokesman for Williamson attorney Jeffrey Klein, declined to comment to The Associated Press on Thursday night. Larry A. Strauss and Stephen L. Drummond, attorneys on the Prime Sports-Ford legal team, didn’t immediately return emails for comment.

Oklahoma State banned from 2021 NCAA Tournament

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The NCAA announced on Friday that Oklahoma State has been given a one-year postseason ban, effective for the 2020-21 college basketball season, due to violations that were uncovered during the FBI’s investigation into college basketball.

In addition to the one-year postseason ban, Mike Boynton’s staff has been hit with a reduction of three scholarships over the course of the next three seasons and a handful of recruiting sanctions, including reductions on the number of official and unofficial visits as well as in-person recruiting days.

The program will be on probation for the next three years.

Former assistant coach Lamont Evans, the coach that accepted as much as $22,000 in bribes from two financial advisors, was given a 10-year show-cause penalty due to a Level I unethical conduct charge. Evans was one of the ten men that was arrested in September of 2017 as a result of the FBI’s investigation, and was caught accepting bribes while on staff at South Carolina as well. He served three months in prison in 2019.

Boynton was not charged in the investigation and did not take over the program until 2017, after Brad Underwood left for Illinois. He had been an assistant with the program since 2016, working with Evans for a year before getting the head coaching gig.

These sanctions are particularly bad for Oklahoma State because of what they have coming in next season: Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 recruit in the 2020 class. This is the year that Boynton was supposed to be able to change the narrative and the fortunes of the program. Instead, he will not be able to play in the NCAA tournament, and will have to deal with an even tougher road on the recruiting trail as a result.

NCAA sets new schedule for early draft entrants to withdraw

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The NCAA has set a new schedule for early entrants to the NBA draft to withdraw and return to school.

The NCAA announced Thursday that it would give players until 10 days after the NBA scouting combine or Aug. 3, whichever comes earlier. This comes three weeks after the NCAA postponed its deadline, which was originally scheduled to fall on Wednesday.

That June 3 deadline was set to come 10 days after the completion of the combine, but the NBA postponed the combine amid the coronavirus pandemic and has yet to announce a new date.

In a statement, the NCAA said the Division I Men’s Basketball Oversight Committee worked with the National Association of Basketball Coaches on the new timeline and “believes this is the most equitable alternative available in these unprecedented circumstances.”

“This provides the utmost flexibility to student-athletes testing the waters to make the most informed decision about their future during this uncertain time,” NCAA Senior Vice President for Basketball Dan Gavitt said in the statement.

Texas State coach Danny Kaspar accused of making racist remarks by former players

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Texas State head coach Danny Kaspar used racially charged language and created an atmosphere of insensitivity within his program, according to two former players.

Jaylen Shead, a former point guard for the Bobcats, tweeted on Thursday that Kaspar repeatedly made racially-tinged comments at his players, the majority of whom were black.

“I could overlook the way he disregarded the rules and our health,” Shead said in the tweet. “But I could not turn away from the many racially insensitive things that were said to me and other teammates.”

Shead alleged that Kaspar:

  • Once told one of Shead’s teammates to “chase that chicken” to get him to run a suicide faster.
  • Told Shead that he was “running like the cops are behind him” when Shead won a sprint.
  • Told a black player that had a 2.2 GPA that he would be “working at Popeye’s.”
  • When he was unhappy with how hard his team was working, he said “if a brown man with a turbin and AK-47 walked in, I bet y’all would run as fast as you could.”
  • Threatened a player from Europe that he would be deported since the “a lot of the boosters/alumni here are Trump supporters.”

“There is no embellishment in what he said,” Shead’s former teammate, Alex Peacock, told ESPN, adding that he witnessed every one of the interactions.

Perhaps the most controversial statement Kaspar is alleged to have made is threatening to used the n-word if he kept hearing his players use the n-word.

Kaspar accepted the Texas State job in the spring of 2013. He had previously been the head coach at Stephen F. Austin for 13 seasons. Shead began his career at Cal Poly before transferring to Texas State. He left for his final season of eligibility to play for Washington State.

This is not the first time that Kaspar has been involved in an allegation involving the race of his players. In a 2013 lawsuit filed by former Texas State player Basil Brown against the school and Kaspar, among many others, and obtained by NBC Sports, Brown alleges that on at least three occasions, he heard Kaspar tell black teammates that, “you wouldn’t run from the cops in [their hometown] like that.”

Less than two months after Kaspar accepted the Texas State job, he took away Brown’s scholarship for the 2013-14 season and gave it to a white player because, according to the lawsuit, “Reid Koenen happens to be white and [Brown] is black and white players are slower than black players because of race.” The lawsuit added that “race [was] a determining factor” in allocating scholarships.

Brown goes on to allege that Kaspar “scolded” him at a team workout for outplaying Koenen, allegedly saying, “Basil is picking on the slow white boy.” When Kaspar eventually pulled Brown’s scholarship, Brown alleged that the coach told him that he failed to beat out Koenen because, “Reid is a slow white boy and I’m not going to fault him for that.”

The lawsuit was eventually dismissed because it was “too speculative to show that Kaspar removed Brown from the team because he was black.”

Texas State’s athletic director released a statement calling the allegations “deeply troubling” while announcing that the school is launching a formal investigation of Kaspar.