Stephen F. Austin could be a scary team to play in March

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As we get closer to March, Southland leader Stephen F. Austin might be one of the scarier teams a program could potentially face in the NCAA Tournament.

At 25-2 — and 14-0 in the Southland with a three-game lead — the Lumberjacks have won 22 consecutive games and are winning by an average of 13.8 points per game in conference play while playing with a balanced attack.

Stephen F. Austin has five players averaging at least 10 points a game and all five of them shoot at least 31 percent from the three-point line, while four of them are above 33 percent.

But the shocking part about their success? The Lumberjacks are playing under first-year coach Brad Underwood — a longtime assistant at Kansas State and a year at South Carolina under Frank Martin — and lost three seniors that were regular contributors last season.

Underwood credited the team’s unique bond and work ethic for the win streak.

“They’ve been very receptive to listening, very receptive to the work ethic we’ve required and when you have a senior leader who is also your hardest worker, that is a bonus from day one,” Underwood said to College Basketball Talk last week. “And that’s helped with the winning streak. We’ve developed a tough mentality. That’s one of the thing’s I’m most proud of is the road winning streak. These kids have been able to be resilient and tough-minded and this is an extremely hard-working group.”

The senior Underwood is referring to is Desmond Haymon, a 6-foot-3 guard that doubles as the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.9 points per game.

“Just an extremely high-character guy,” Underwood said. “There’s no question that no matter what Desmond does in life he’s going to be successful because he has great character and great passion. He’s not afraid to tell other guys to step up and tell the young guys and challenge them to work.”

Stephen F. Austin’s offensive balance has been great for a first-year coach like Underwood to work with.

“It’s probably helped us more than any one thing. We’re basically a position-less team,” Underwood said of the balance. “My power forward can play the point for us. My five man is our best three-pointer shooter, statistically. They can all pass it, they can all dribble it. It’s probably as good a passing team as I’ve been apart of.”

The defense for the Lumberjacks has also been surprisingly good despite their lack of size. Jacob Parker is the team’s tallest starter at 6-foot-6 and is also the team’s best three-point shooter, but Stephen F. Austin relies on getting heavy pressure on the perimeter.

“One thing I’ve learned from Hugs and learned from Frank (Martin) is on the defensive side of things,” Underwood said of his team’s pressure. “I can’t play backline defense with this team and expect to win. We don’t have the roaming presence in terms of tremendous size. We pressure and we get out and deny. Our point guard Trey Pickney is just as good an on-the-ball defender as I’ve been around and we try to take other team’s first options away.”

With the Lumberjacks on a 22-game winning streak, a potential NCAA Tournament bid has come into question. Stephen F. Austin lost to Texas and East Tennessee State on the season and don’t have any marquee wins over tournament competition. That makes their Southland Conference tournament win vital for a league that is definitely a one-bid league.

“You have to win your (conference) tournament,” Underwood said. “If that means that’s in the cards for us and we’re able to do that, I think we become a team that not a lot of people want to play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In the meantime, we’re not worried about that. This team deserves what we’re getting. All of our fans, and administration should be proud of this winning streak. Winning is hard. We’re a team that is very grounded in terms of our general approach.”

Duke lands Steward, third commitment in the Class of 2020

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Duke landed their third commitment in the Class of 2020 on Wednesday, as Chicago shooting guard D.J. Steward pledged to play his college ball for Coach K.

A high-volume scorer and potent shot-maker, the 6-foot-2 Steward visited Duke over the weekend before committing.

“Me and my family were amazed on our official visit, we loved the principals of Duke, and how united Duke is as a basketball program,” Steward told Rivals.com. “At Duke I will be able to get the best of both worlds; education wise and on the court playing on the biggest stage possible night in and night out.

“I will get to chase my goals and be one step closer to achieving my dream of playing in the NBA. Also I will be able to develop as a person off the court and as a ball player while playing under the most winningest coach in history, Coach K.”

Steward joins five-star forward Jalen Johnson and five-star point guard Jeremy Roach in Duke’s 2020 recruiting class. Johnson is the quintessential small-ball four that we have seen arrive in Durham in recent classes, while Roach appears to be the heir apparent to Tre Jones at the point guard spot. Steward should fit in nicely playing off the ball for the Blue Devils, who can always use some excess shot-making.

Duke is far from done here, as they are in the mix for the likes of Walker Kessler, Ziaire Williams and Henry Coleman.

New York senator the latest to propose bill to abolish amateurism

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A second state now has legislation in the works that would make it legal for college athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness.

Kevin Parker, a New York state senator from Brooklyn, has proposed a bill similar to California’s Fair Pay To Play act, not only giving college athletes the ability to sell their NIL rights but also requiring athletic departments to give a 15 percent share of their annual revenue to the student-athletes. California’s bill, which will go into effect in 2023 if it is signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, would make removing a student-athlete from their scholarship for accepting endorsement money illegal.

“It’s about equity,” Parker told ESPN. “These young people are adding their skill, talent and labor to these universities.

“You don’t need the shortcuts and the end-arounds because now we’re providing some real support for these student-athletes.”

New York joins the growing list of organizations that are pushing back against the NCAA’s rules on amateurism. South Carolina, Maryland, Colorado and Washington have had legislators discuss whether or not to make similar changes to the law, while Congressmen from North Carolina and Connecticut have made pushes at the federal level. Democratic Presidential candidate Anrew Yang has blasted the NCAA over their amateurism rules, while just last week, NBA agents made public the fact that they will be refusing to register for the NCAA’s proposed certification process.

Rick Pitino, Louisville settle lawsuit

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 19: Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals looks on in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 19, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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The University of Louisville and former head coach Rick Pitino have reached a joint agreement to drop their lawsuits against each other.

The two sides “have mutually agreed to dismiss their legal claims against each other, designate his departure as a resignation and move forward,” according to a joint statement that was released by the University and Pitino. Pitino will not be paid any money as a result of this settlement, but he departure will now be classified as a resignation, effective Oct. 3rd, 2017.

Pitino had sued Louisville for somewhere around $40 million.

“For 17 years, Coach Pitino ran a program that combined excellence on the court with a commitment to the program’s student-athletes, their academic achievement, and their futures in and out of basketball,” the state said. “Nevertheless, there were NCAA infractions during his term which led to serious consequences for the university. Although these infractions may not have occurred at Pitino’s direction or with his knowledge, the problems leading to NCAA infractions happened under his leadership. We thank Coach Pitino for his years of service to the University of Louisville basketball program and wish him well.”

“Today I move on to a new chapter in my life,” a statement from Pitino reads. “Against my lawyer’s advice, I’m dropping my lawsuit with ULAA. I am very proud of the many accomplishments my teams achieved at Louisville. I’m so thankful and honored to coach such dedicated athletes. I’m also disappointed in how it ended. But as head coach I am held responsible for the actions of all team members. I still have so much passion for the game and so many goals I want to achieve. From this day forward I start my climb.”

Kentucky lands commitments from two more elite prospects

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John Calipari is getting his work done early in the 2020 recruiting class, as he added two more commitments over the weekend.

On Thursday, it was Lance Ware, a 6-foot-10 post player from Camden, New Jersey, that announced his commitment. Ware is a top 50 recruit that held offers from the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Miami. The bigger news, however, came on Saturday afternoon, when Terrance Clarke announced that he will be enrolling at Kentucky whenever he ends his high school tenure. Clarke is currently a member of the Class of 2021, but the plan is for him to reclassify and graduate high school this year.

Clarke is a consensus top three player in 2021 – and he may be the No. 1 player in that class, depending on who you ask – and should immediately vault into the top five of the 2020 recruiting class. An athletic, versatile wing that stands 6-foot-6, Clarke is a potential lottery pick given his physical tools and the way that he projects as multi-positional defender with the ability to create off of the dribble. Ware, like Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery before him, projects as the kind of player that will spend 2-3 years in Lexington.

Clarke and Ware join top ten prospect B.J. Boston and another top 50 recruit, Cam’Ron Fletcher, in Kentucky’s 2020 class. That’s three wings in the class with Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney, Dontaie Allen and Keion Brooks currently on campus. Throw Montgomery into the mix, and that’s eight players that fit somewhere into a lineup as a wing or a face-up big man, and it seems rather unlikely that all five of the guys currently at Kentucky will leave the school this offseason. Put another way, this looks like the end of Kentucky’s pursuit of the likes of Jalen Green and Josh Christopher.

Calipari is still recruiting Cade Cunningham despite the fact that many expect Cunningham to end up at Oklahoma State, where Mike Boynton hired his brother Cannen, but Cade has skyrocketed up the recruiting rankings as he has transitioned to playing the point. Kentucky is still in the mix for a handful of other forwards, including Scottie Barnes, Isaiah Todd and Greg Brown.

Tony Bennett turns down raise, signs contract extension

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Virginia announced that they have signed head coach Tony Bennett to a contract extension, keeping him under contract through the 2025-26 season.

This is not unexpected. He just won the national title. I think he earned a new deal.

What is unique here, however, is that Bennett turned down a raise. He asked for more money for his assistants and for some cash to be put towards improvements in both his program and the other Virginia sports teams, but he passed on getting more money put into his own bank account.

“[My wife] Laurel and I are in a great spot, and in the past I’ve had increases in my contract,” Bennett said in the news release. “We just feel a great peace about where we’re at, all that’s taken place, and how we feel about this athletic department and this community and this school. I love being at UVA.

“… I have more than enough, and if there are ways that this can help out the athletic department, the other programs and coaches, by not tying up so much [in men’s basketball], that’s my desire.”

That’s the dream scenario right there, being rich enough to turn down more money.