Chris Collins is optimistic about the future of Northwestern basketball

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source: AP
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EVANSTON, IL — Northwestern finished 14-19 last season in head coach Chris Collins’ first season at the helm, but you would never tell the Wildcats had a losing record by the way Collins is brimming with enthusiasm over his program.

Although the Big Ten program located in the Chicago suburb of Evanston has a well-documented dry spell when it comes to the NCAA Tournament, Collins is hoping that his pedigree and hard work will pay off, as he sees Northwestern as a place where a winning program can be built.

“I think coming into it I was really excited, but you’re also a little bit nervous because you never really know fully what to expect until you’ve been through it. You live in a place for a year and you really get to know how to build it, and for me, I’m even more excited for our potential to build a competitive program after being here,” Collins told NBCSports.com

At the recent team camp held on Northwestern’s campus, Collins evaluated high school basketball prospects with his staff. His father, former NBA head coach Doug Collins, was also alongside of him through much of the afternoon.

When approached by players, coaches or parents at the camp, Collins maintained the same positive approach about the things that Northwestern has to offer: Big Ten basketball, a top-notch education and being in the near suburbs of one of the biggest basketball markets in the world.

Those selling points, along with Collins’ reputation from Duke and USA Basketball, helped Northwestern land a talented five-man class entering the 2014-15 season and he hopes to keep the ball rolling on the recruiting trail in year two.

“I felt like the response has been even more positive [since the first recruiting class],” Collins said. “People feel like we’re a program on the rise and our future is really bright. We’ve hopefully become an option for players that want to play in our market and be at a school that’s great academically where you can compete against the best every night.”

On paper, Northwestern’s 2013-14 season doesn’t look particularly good. At 6-12, the Wildcats finished tied for 10th in the Big Ten with Penn State, but Collins took over a situation where his team had to adjust from Bill Carmody’s Princeton-style offense while also lacking enough healthy bodies to compete on a day-to-day basis.

But Northwestern still had some impressive wins — including a win at Wisconsin and over Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament — and the team never stopped fighting and playing hard. “Our toughness on the floor; our competitiveness. Those are things that you can carry on each year,” Collins said.

Last season, Collins had only 10 players to work with in practice and this year he has more of a complete roster to work with. That roster will also be adjusted to the way Collins wants to play.

“Last year we only had 10 guys and that’s not a lot of bodies. Now we’re up to 13 guys, I feel like we have more options. The competition level in practice I think is going to go way up,” Collins said. “Coming in last year, even though we had a lot of veteran players, it felt like they were newcomers again. I feel like I have six veterans coming back now that understand things and can really help our young players.”

Collins has seen the positive vibes on the recruiting trail pay off, but now he’s in for another season where he has to play a lot of young players and players that lack Big Ten experience. Although he spent his playing career and much of his college coaching career in the ACC, Collins has a new respect for the Big Ten after spending a season on the bench.

“The thing I’ll say about being in the Big Ten, as much as I respected it coming in, I have even a greater respect for the level of coaching we have in this conference,” Collins said. “There wasn’t a game we played out of 18 games where you didn’t have a well-coached team that was prepared and scouted and have good players and wasn’t ready to play. I think top-to-bottom, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better league in terms of coaching.”

Northwestern will continue to build slowly, as they look to make a postseason appearance under Collins, and the question will always be asked about the Wildcats’ chances to make the NCAA Tournament. Collins realizes that he’ll face the additional pressure of coaching at a school that’s never made an NCAA Tournament appearance despite playing in the Big Ten since 1953 and his goal isn’t just to make one trip to March Madness. Collins wants to regularly take Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament.

“To me, it’s not an “if” it’s a “when.” My goal is not to be a team that makes the NCAA Tournament, my goal is to be a team that consistently makes the NCAA Tournament,” Collins said. “Now, you can’t skip steps, and the first step is getting there for the first time, but I welcome expectations. I come from a situation at Duke where if we lost one game, it’s all that was talked about nationally for about a week. My dad was a pro athlete; eyes have always been on me. I feel like when it comes to expectations, and all of those things, I’m kind of immune to it because I have my own expectations and I hold myself to my own standard — and it’s a high one. So I don’t let that outside influence affect me in any way.”

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.