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College Basketball Catchup: College football’s title game is done, so here’s all you need for hoops season

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Now that Clemson has knocked off Alabama to win the 2017 National Title, college football is officially over and college basketball can now take center stage on campuses around the country.

And look, I get it. Football is a big deal, there are only so many free hours we have in a week and, until the bowl games are over and done with, they’ll take center stage. I can forgive you for your trespasses … as long as you’re now turning into college hoops.

I’m not just saying that as a college hoops fan, either. This is the most exciting season of college basketball in a long, long time. Duke is super-talented and a mess at the same time. UCLA is awesome and as entertaining as anyone this side of the Warriors. Kentucky is loaded with the most enjoyable back court I can remember watching. Kansas is loaded but playing in a league where Baylor is the No. 1 team in the country. North Carolina can beat anyone, but the ACC is so good they can also lose at Georgia Tech. Gonzaga hasn’t lost yet. Villanova can repeat. 

There’s so much happening.

To help you get ready for the final three months of the basketball season, we’re here to get you caught up on everything that has happened and prep you for that is about to happen.

So without further ado … :

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Duke Blue Devils drives the ball up the court against the Florida Gators in the second half during the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden on December 6, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Jayson Tatum (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING WE’VE LEARNED THIS SEASON?

Rob Dauster: Duke is not the team that we thought they were going to be this season. That could change – when completely healthy, I would still argue that this group more talented than the Kentucky team that started the year 38-0 – but through two months, we’ve seen Duke play with all five members of their ideal starting lineup just twice in 17 games while losing Coach K to back surgery and dealing with another tripping incident involving Grayson Allen. Throw in the issues they’ve had defensively and sharing the ball, and this Duke team has had the look of a Ferrari that can’t get out of second gear.

Scott Phillips: There are no clear-cut favorites at this point in the season. Things are really wide open. There are really good veteran teams like Villanova and there are really good freshmen-laden teams like Kentucky. But they are all beatable teams with flaws. I’m excited to see how the rest of the season unfolds.

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Terrence Payne: That is this is an opening act to a March Madness for the ages. How many good games have we seen so far: Duke-Kansas, Kentucky-UCLA, Kentucky-North Carolina, Kansas-Indiana. And those are just the blue bloods. Hell, did you see what Nevada just did?! As Scott mentioned above, there are no clear-cut favorites. Add in a number of talented mid-major programs, and this could make for a memorable NCAA Tournament.

Travis Hines: It may not be the most important thing about this but it is the most important thing from this season: Scott Drew is a good coach. Baylor probably isn’t the best team in the country, but they might be. That’s a testament to Drew, who is the most ridiculed coach in the sport. This season is proving that his prior success was no fluke or the product solely of high-level recruiting.

WACO, TX - DECEMBER 21: Head coach Scott Drew of the Baylor Bears leads the Baylor Bears against the Texas Southern Tigers at Ferrell Center on December 21, 2016 in Waco, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Scott Drew (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST STORYLINE MOVING FORWARD?

Rob Dauster: It is not going to be the story that gets the most coverage, but the single biggest storyline over the next three months is whether or not Villanova will be able to repeat as National Champions. Through the first two months of the season, they’ve looked the part of a national title contender. Josh Hart has been better than expected, the Wildcats are just as unguardable as they were a year ago and they are still waiting for Phil Booth to be the guy that he was last season. It’s been a decade since anyone has repeated, and it may be another ten years before we see a team that’s able to mount another challenge as serious as this one.

Scott Phillips: How does Duke handle all of the drama and injuries to become the team we all believed we’d see? With the Grayson Allen issues and Coach K’s surgery there are some new twists to a team that was already acclimating freshmen in late because of injuries. Will this team rally together to win a ridiculous ACC and become the national title favorite we all saw before the season?

Terrence Payne: It may not be the biggest storyline, but I feel like it’s getting no attention when, at this point, it should be picking up steam: Can Gonzaga pull off an undefeated regular season? The Zags are 15-0 and are one of the more balanced teams in the nation with guard play led by Nigel Williams-Goss and the frontcourt being anchored by Przemek Karnowski. They have two tough tests against No. 21 Saint Mary’s (the first of two meetings slated for Saturday), and sure, the Bulldogs aren’t safe from having an off night, but outside of a road trip to Moraga they’ll be favored to win the rest of their games this season.

Travis Hines: It’s not ideal but it’s not arguable that Grayson Allen is it. And I don’t mean Duke at large. It’s Allen, and the saga of how his season unfolds after his third tripping incident. It would be better if we could focus on Gonzaga or the other of the sport’s best teams but it’s the drama surrounding Allen.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins reacts after making a three-point basket against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Lonzo Ball (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO THE MOST OVER THE NEXT MONTH?

Rob Dauster: Can I say everything? Is that OK? Because more than anything, I’m just fired up for what is going to be an awesome stretch run for college basketball.

But if I had to pick a specific storyline, I’m going with the Baylor Bears and whether or not they can actually mount a challenge to Kansas in the Big 12 regular season title race. The Jayhawks have won 12 straight, but this Baylor team is legit and currently ranked No. 1 in the country.

Scott Phillips: I’m really excited to see the ceiling for Lonzo Ball and UCLA because the way they play can draw a lot of eyeballs in March. If casual fans (and coaches) see how good this uptempo Bruins offense can be then I hope that college basketball will shake some old labels because UCLA is awesome to watch.

Terrence Payne: How the ACC unfolds. We knew going in that this league would be stacked, pegging 12 teams as possible NCAA Tournament at-large bids. But Wake Forest is better than we thought, Georgia Tech and Boston College aren’t pushovers either, and that’s the bottom of the conference. With six ranked teams (Virginia Tech and Clemson both receiving votes in the latest poll) and the uncertainty surrounding heavy preseason favorite Duke, the ACC has an endless amount of outcomes.

Travis Hines: I really am excited to see if Gonzaga can finish the year undefeated. The schedule means they’ll be tested but I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility they’ll make it unscathed. How cool would it be if Mark Few’s first Final Four came in an undefeated season?

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 27: Nigel Williams-Goss #5 and Josh Perkins #13 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrate a victory over the Iowa State Cyclones at HP Field House on November 27, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

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.