Weekend Preview: Iowa-Iowa State highlights a rivalry-heavy weekend slate

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GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 23 Iowa at No. 17 Iowa State, Fri. 9:30 p.m. (all times eastern)

It’s been a while since this in-state rivalry game held as much meaning as it does this season. The Cyclones enter the season as one of the nation’s most surprising teams, a group that Fred Hoiberg has kept quite relevant despite the fact that they’ve lost a number of key pieces over the course of the last couple of seasons. This year, it’s been the arrival of Deandre Kane and the impressive play of guy like Georges Niang, Dustin Hogue and Naz Long that have made the difference.

The Hawkeyes are a different story. They’ve been on the brink of a breakthrough for a couple seasons under Fran McCaffery, and it looks like this is the year that it’s finally happened. Iowa is deep, they are balanced, and they are talented. Most importantly, both teams play a fun style of basketball to watch, which can only mean good things for Friday night’s marquee game.

THE OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 11 Kentucky at No. 18 North Carolina, Sat. 5:15 p.m.

Kentucky’s in trouble, right? As many issues as North Carolina has this season, they’ve knocked off both Louisville and Michigan State already. The Heels can’t handle the likes of Belmont or UAB, but if you entered the season as a Final Four favorite, the last thing you want to do is go up against these Heels.

I’m mostly joking, because I think Kentucky’s size actually nullifies a lot of what North Carolina is going to try to do. The Heels picked up those two wins because of the play of their big guys, specifically Kennedy Meeks, on the interior. What happens when Meeks runs into Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein? What will be interesting to keep an eye on, however, is Kentucky’s defense. They’ve struggled with the pick-and-roll and defensive rebounding the last couple of games.

FIVE MORE TO KEEP AN EYE ON:

  • No. 1 Arizona at Michigan, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: This game had a lot more intrigue before Michigan’s flaws early on this season became so readily apparent. That said, the Wolverines may actually have more individual talent than the Wildcats. Nick Johnson vs. Nik Stauskas will be fun.
  • Tennessee at No. 12 Wichita State, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: A football game on a basketball court. The Vols handed the Shockers their first loss last season, and WSU will look to return the favor.
  • Notre Dame vs. Indiana, Sat. 3:15 p.m.: Interesting contrast of styles here. Notre Dame has a ton of shooters and guard play but lacks the length and athleticism to be tough defensively. Indiana? Well, they’re the exact opposite.
  • St. Mary’s at Boise State, Sat. 6:05 p.m.: Two of the nation’s better under-the-radar teams this season. Both need the win to make a statement and help bolster their league’s non-conference resume. Brad Waldow for St. Mary’s is the truth; he should have a big game.
  • No. 2 Syracuse at St. John’s, Sun. 12:00 p.m.: An old school Big East reunion at the Garden! St. John’s has been a bit of a disappointment this season, and they certainly won’t be more athletic than the Orange.

WHO’S ON UPSET ALERT?

  • Eastern Kentucky at No. 4 Wisconsin, Sat. 1:00 p.m.: I know how good Wisconsin is this season and I know how good they are at home, but EKU is a good team this season.
  • No. 7 Oklahoma State at Louisiana Tech, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: Louisiana Tech likes to pressure, and the knock on Marcus Smart this season is that he has been a bit turnover prone.
  • New Mexico at No. 13 Kansas, Sat. 7:00 p.m.: The Lobos might be getting the Jayhawks at the wrong time, as they’re coming off of two losses, but they matchup well with Bill Self’s team. Keep an eye on Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow.
  • La Salle at No. 10 Villanova, Sun. 2:30 p.m.: Big 5 hoops. Guards on guards on guards. Games like this never seem to disappoint.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1) West Virginia at Marshall, Sat. 7:30 p.m.: The Friends of Coal rivalry is intense. Last year, five players were ejected after a scuffle late in the game. The basketball isn’t great, but games where a fight could break out at any moment are fun. I’d love to see Bob Huggins and Tom Herrion get into a ring.

2) Cincinnati vs. Xavier, Sat. 8:00 p.m.: The Crosstown Shootout, which is no longer called the Crosstown Shootout. Everything I said about the Friends of Coal game could be said about this rivalry. Remember this?

3) North Dakota State at No. 3 Ohio State, Sat. 8:15 p.m.: North Dakota State is good. They just beat Notre Dame at Notre Dame. Taylor Braun and Marshall Bjorklund are legit. Plus, they calmly slop pigs in the middle of the day.

4) Illinois at No. 15 Oregon, Sat. 9:00 p.m.: Illinois really needs to pick up a marquee victory. For the Ducks, this will be the last time they have to play without Dominic Artis and Ben Carter. It’s also the last chance for Johnathon Loyd to prove he deserves playing time along side — or ahead — of Artis.

5) BYU at Utah, Sat. 10:00 p.m.: More in-state rivalry games. This may be the last time that the Cougars head to Salt Lake for a while.

 

Report: Western Kentucky’s Lamonte Bearden staying in 2018 NBA Draft

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Western Kentucky guard Lamonte Bearden will stay in the 2018 NBA Draft after hiring an agent, according to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-3 Bearden just completed his redshirt junior season with the Hilltoppers as he averaged 11.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game. A slippery guard with good size, Bearden shot 47 percent from the field and 82 percent from the charity stripe while also getting in the passing lanes for 1.7 steals per game.

Although Bearden has good size and athleticism at lead guard, his perimeter jumper has been inconsistent during his college career. He was 31 percent from three-point range (a career high) this past season. Starting his college career at Buffalo, Bearden helped lead the Bulls to the NCAA tournament before opting to play in Conference USA for Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers will certainly miss Bearden’s presence in their backcourt as the program has seven new players signed for next season.

USC makes a statement landing Class of 2019 four-star forward Isaiah Mobley

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USC ended a strong week of recruiting with another major statement on Friday afternoon as four-star Class of 2019 forward Isaiah Mobley pledged to the Trojans.

The second major Class of 2019 commitment for USC during the week, the 6-foot-9 power forward joins five-star big man Onyeka Okongwu. The Compton Magic teammates should be able to help replace the loss of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, with Mobley playing the skilled, floor-spacing Boatwright’s role and Okongwu providing the interior energy of Metu.

Having two highly-touted big men commit in the same week is huge for USC. And it looks like the start of even bigger things in a continually-evolving SoCal recruiting war against Pac-12 rival UCLA.

Landing both Mobley and Okongwu is significant for the Trojans for a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, both come from the famous Compton Magic grassroots program that runs on the adidas Gauntlet. While landing AAU teammates from a regional program is common for high-major programs of USC’s stature, the commitments signify that the Trojans are the ones with the biggest pull with the Magic at the current moment.

And the Magic used to get raided by UCLA.

In the past few years, the Bruins signed T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Jaylen Hands and Jalen Hill from the Compton Magic. Now, it’s USC who looks to be in the driver’s seat recruiting the program.

The Trojans aren’t done, either.

Newly-hired USC assistant coach Eric Mobley is the father Isaiah Mobley, as well as five-star Class of 2020 big man Evan Mobley. As Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi noted in his story about Isaiah, “Barring something strange happening, look for the younger Mobley to join his brother and father by committing to USC within the next two weeks.”

That would mean the Trojans would have landed three top-30 caliber big men in the span of a few weeks. That allows the USC coaching staff to recruit other positions extremely hard. Outside of Kentucky, USC has arguably the best future recruiting status of any program in the country.

The Trojans have taken full advantage of UCLA letting go popular assistant coach David Grace. The Bruins are still pulling in top-100 prospects, as evidenced by Grant Sherfield and Jaime Jaquez’s commitments in the Class of 2019, but losing two Magic kids in a week to a rival has to sting.

Considering where USC was last fall with the FBI investigation, who saw this type of recruiting swing coming? Other programs involved in the investigation like Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State have landed solid recruits. They also haven’t pulled in nearly the high-level talent that the Trojans currently have committed.

Even amidst the uncertainty surrounding the FBI investigation, USC is still pulling in elite talent while beating local rivals. It’ll be fascinating to see if the Trojans can continue to recruit at this level as they try to fill out the rest of an important recruiting class.

USF signs Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson

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USF landed a major addition on Friday as the school announced the signing of Oklahoma State transfer guard Zack Dawson.

The 6-foot-3 Dawson is a former consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school as he’ll have to sit out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. A native of the region, Dawson will have three years of eligibility remaining once he’s able to play again.

Dismissed from Oklahoma State on Dec. 14 for violating team rules, Dawson averaged 4.4 points and1.6 assists per contest as he only suited up in five games for the Cowboys. Once Dawson is eligible to play for USF, he gives the Bulls a potentially dynamic backcourt along with rising sophomore guard David Collins.

“We are excited to welcome Zack back home to Florida as a member of the Bulls family,” USF head coach Brian Gregory said in a release. “He is a dynamic and versatile guard who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Zack comes from one of the best high school programs in the state, South Miami High School, so he immediately brings a championship attitude here to the University of South Florida.”

This is a really nice pickup for the Bulls, as they utilized a local transfer to help bolster the roster. Landing top-100 kids out of high school is going to be tough until USF boosts its basketball credibility. But getting a former top-100 player on the transfer market is a solid approach to building the Bulls into a respectable threat.

Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I’m the best player in this draft’

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The more I think about it, the more that Michael Porter Jr. is becoming the most interesting prospect at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.

As a high school senior, he was considered by many to be the top player in the class, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward with a lethal three-point shot, NBA dunk contest athleticism and the versatility to, one day, be a multi-positional defender that would seamlessly fit into fit into the modern NBA.

But his one and only season at Missouri was derailed by back surgery, and that has allowed the rest of the class of 2017 to shine while we have focused on everything else that comes with drafting Porter. The reputation that he had for the majority of his high school career of being soft. The intel that was coming out of Missouri, that he was cocky and arrogant and something of a bad teammate. Questions about whether or not he is truly a wing or a four, more like a more athletic Lauri Markkanen.

When the only thing that we’ve had a chance to see this season is an out-of-shape Porter struggling in postseason games, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his hype train has derailed.

“I know without a doubt that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter told ESPN. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”

And therein lies the conundrum for any team drafting him.

I have little doubt that Porter is going to be able to score and score a lot in the NBA. I think he and Bagley are the safest bets to average 20 points at the NBA level before their rookie contract runs out.

But putting up points and playing on winning basketball teams are not one and the same. For a ten-year stretch after his rookie season, Rudy Gay averaged at least 17.2 points while making the playoffs once during that stretch. Is that what Porter is going to turn into at the next level? Or will be find a way to become the kind of NBA defender his athleticism says he should be and, by the time he signs his first contract extension, end up the player that Paul George is?

The mitigating factor here is that Porter is going to do a fantastic job in every interview he has. He’s an intelligent, charismatic and articulate kid that is going to be able to sell himself. The red flags that he has aren’t going to show when he’s sitting down in front of NBA general managers.

They would have shown up — or been written off — if there was a season’s worth of game-tape available, but there isn’t. What that means is that scouts are going to have to decide whether or not Porter, who by all accounts had a very impressive senior season in high school, is that player or the one that had the reputation for being soft for years before that.

And all of that is going to come after the doctor’s have a chance to examine his back to see if the surgery he underwent fixed what was wrong, or if this is the kind of situation where a recurrence is likely.

The result is the widest range for any player at the top of the draft.

He could sell someone on taking him as a top four pick. He could also slide his way down to the Knicks at No. 9 or the 76ers at No. 10.

Which is what makes him the most interesting prospect at the top of this draft.

P.J. Washington ‘definitely going back to school’ without first round guarantee

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington is one of the handful of players that currently finds themselves in the tenuous position of having their name in the NBA draft pool without having a clear picture of where, exactly, they are going to end up getting picked.

Will they be a late-first round pick? Will he be an early second round pick? Will he even be drafted at all?

Washington told reporters at the NBA combine this week that, if he’s a first round pick, he’ll be heading to the NBA. If he only gets a second round guarantee, he’ll be returning to school.

As we detailed last week, getting selected in the second round does not mean a player is destined to end up being broke his first year out of school. In the last six drafts, only one college player picked in the top ten picks of the second round (31-40) did not receive a guaranteed contract. In the 2017 NBA Draft, every college player selected in the top 50 received a guaranteed deal of at least one year, and Thomas Bryant was the only player whose one-year guaranteed deal was at the league minimum.

That doesn’t mean that Washington should leave Kentucky if he’s going to be a second round pick. If he returns to school, becomes a 42 percent three-point shooter (and can make free throws) and proves that he’s more versatile defensively than he was his year, then he could move up into the first round in a weaker 2019 draft.

It’s a risk for him, financially, to leave after this year if he doesn’t get that first round guarantee. It’s also a risk to return to school, where the best-case scenario isn’t always what happens.

I don’t envy the decision he has to make, but I am glad that Washington will have every chance in the world to be informed about the decision.