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Southland Preview: Stephen F. Austin returns as heavy favorite

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Southland.

The Southland has turned into a league in which its Stephen F. Austin and everybody else. This isn’t to insult a league which features some talented teams and players, but the Lumberjacks have won three consecutive regular-season titles, have three consecutive players of the year and own a dominating 35-1 mark in league play over the last two seasons.

This season, Stephen F. Austin looks to once again be one of the better mid-major programs in the country as head coach Brad Underwood returns Southland Player of the Year Thomas Walkup and three other starters. While the versatile Walkup will be the team’s main catalyst, standout defender Trey Pinkney returns along with talented sophomore guard Ty Charles. The Lumberjacks have lost some talented players from back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances but when you go 61-8 over two seasons and win a tournament game, you land some talented recruits. With more size and depth, Underwood might actually have his most talented team in three seasons.

Although Stephen F. Austin is the favorite, Northwestern State returns the highest-scoring duo in Division I basketball from last season as both senior guard Jalan West and junior guard Zeek Woodley return. The Demons were the highest scoring team in the country last season, as they averaged 84 points per game, but their scoring defense ranked dead last as they allowed 83 points per game. If Northwestern State can get a bit better on the defensive end, they could compete with Stephen F. Austin, but that remains a giant question mark heading into the season.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is coming off of a solid season which saw them finish 20-14 with a second round appearance in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Do-it-all guard John Jordan has exhausted his eligibility but junior forward Rashawn Thomas is an all-league candidate and he’s flanked by a very experienced roster that includes eight seniors. Head coach Willis Wilson got his team to really defend last season and they’re hoping for more of the same in 2015-16. It will be a new-look Sam Houston State as the team loses four starters, including Defensive Player of the Year Michael Holyfield. Senior guard Paul Baxter is the team’s lone returning starter and the Bearkats will rely on a deep recruiting class that features six junior college players.

Opening some eyes last season was Incarnate Word, who picked up road wins at Nebraska and UMKC before going a respectable 10-8 in league play. All-league candidate Kyle Hittle is back to lead the Cardinals and sophomore guard Jontrell Walker had some big games before an ankle injury slowed him down. Incarnate Word is still in the third year of a four-year transition phase from Division II to Division I but making last season’s CollegeInsider.com Tournament is a great step for the program. Lamar loses its top three scorers, but head coach Tic Price led a remarkable turnaround last season that saw the Cardinals finish .500 (15-15, 9-9) after only winning seven games the previous two seasons. The top three scorers might be history, but the rest of the rotation returns, including promising freshman point guard Kevin Booze.

Houston Baptist returns eight rotation players from last season, including talented senior guard Anthony Odunsi and junior forward Colter Lasher. Turnovers were a huge issue for the Huskies last season, so if a recruiting class filled with perimeter options can help in that category, Ron Cottrell’s team could be in good shape. If Nicholls State can improve its woeful perimeter shooting, they return nearly the entire roster from a team that went 7-11 in league play. Senior guard T.J. Carpenter and junior forward Ja’Dante’ Frye are both double-digit scorers who return for the Colonels.

With three double-digit scorers returning in junior guard Christavious Gill, senior forward Kevin Hill and junior guard Nate Frye, New Orleans can certainly put the ball in the basket, they just have to get better on the defensive end. The Privateers allowed opposing teams to shoot 48 percent against them last season, good for 342 out of 345 Division I teams. Southeastern Louisiana returns some scoring in guards Zay Jackson and Joshua Filmore but a lot of question marks fill the rest of Jay Ladner’s roster. If Leroy Fludd, the NCJAA Division I National Tournament MVP is as good as advertised, the Lions might be able to finish in the league’s top half.

Showing some life at the end of conference play was McNeese State, who closed the Southland season nicely after a 1-6 start. Only two starters and the entire bench are back from that group, but head coach Dave Simmons had his group playing hard and playing good ball in the late weeks. Abilene Christian is still two years from full Division I status and they’ve struggled to win league games. The Wildcats only have one conference road win in two seasons, but return four of its top six rotation players from last season. Central Arkansas played eight freshman last season and still have a very young team. Southland Freshman of the Year Jordan Howard is back but the Bears had the worst field-goal percentage defense of any team in the country last season, allowing opponents to shoot 49.6 percent from the field.

 

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Stephen F. Austin has completely dominated our league and they’ve done a great job of reloading in problem areas through recruiting.”
  • Sleeper: “You saw Incarnate Word go into Nebraska and win last season; they have no fear. Ken has a lot of pieces back and Kyle Hittle is a problem.”
  • Star to watch: “Thomas Walkup is the deserving Player of the Year on the league’s best team, but I think the average basketball fan would be blown away by how talented Jalan West is.”

PRESEASON SOUTHLAND PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Thomas Walkup, Stephen F. Austin

The senior is the reigning Southland Player of the Year and also made the league’s All-Defensive team last year, so this is a pretty obvious choice. Walkup is a solid all-around contributor for the Lumberjacks as he led the team in points, rebounds, steals and field goal percentage last season. Although his 3-point percentage dipped a little as a junior, Walkup is still a threat to score from many places on the floor and he’s also a very good distributor, averaging 3.7 assists per game.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SOUTHLAND TEAM:

  • Jalan West, Northwestern State: One half of the nation’s highest-scoring duo last season, West averaged 7.7 assists per game to go along with his stellar 20 points per game. Besides being an offensive force, West is a three-time conference All-Defense selection.
  • Zeek Woodley, Northwestern State: The Robin to Jalan West’s Batman, the junior averaged 22 points and 5 rebounds per game last season. The 6-foot-2 guard also shot a ridiculous 56 percent from the line while also shooting 39 percent from 3-point range.
  • Kyle Hittle, Incarnate Word: The senior had a very efficient junior season shooting the ball as he put up great splits (49% FG, 75% FT, 41% 3PT) while averaging 15.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
  • Rashawn Thomas, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi: A second-team All-Southland selection a season ago, this is now Thomas’ team after the departure of talented guard John Jordan. Thomas put up 13.3 points, 7.7 rebounds per game as a sophomore.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SouthlandSports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Stephen F. Austin
2. Northwestern State
3. Texas A&M CC
4. Sam Houston State
5. Incarnate Word
6. Lamar
7. Houston Baptist
8. Nicholls State
9. New Orleans
10. Southeastern Louisiana
11. McNeese State
12. Abilene Christian
13. Central Arkansas

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.