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Northwestern’s ‘historic’ NCAA tourney berth delights one of its rare ex-NBA players

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Evan Eschmeyer cherishes his six years at Northwestern in the 1990s. The last 25 years were filled with plenty of basketball-related pain, too.

There was nothing but joy as the 6-foot-11 Eschmeyer watched the NCAA Tournament Selection Show from his Colorado home on Sunday evening.

Northwestern made the NCAA Tournament field for the first time, ending a 78-year drought, the longest wait for any major conference school to join the Big Dance.

“It was historic, no other word for it,” he said by phone Monday. “A great deal of pride.”

No one player is associated with the Northwestern program’s history of futility more than Eschmeyer, who spent six years in Evanston in the 1990s. The Wildcats went 59-109 from 1993-99, including 19-85 in Big Ten play.

A rare top recruit to wear the Wildcats uniform, Eschmeyer is Northwestern’s only All-America team selection in the last 50 years and the only player drafted into the NBA in the last 40 years who played exclusively at the school.

In high school, Eschmeyer said his finalist list of schools included Notre Dame, Xavier, Michigan State and Purdue, all programs with NCAA Tournament histories.

“I wanted the highest-level education I could get, combined with the highest-level basketball,” the Western Ohio native said. “Northwestern was it. Today, that’s still the case.”

Eschmeyer also sought to reverse the program’s curse.

“I’m going to take these guys to the tournament, first year, go pro in two,” Eschmeyer said. “I was very arrogant.”

The pain started his freshman year. A broken foot kept Eschmeyer out those first two seasons.

Several doctors told him he’d never play again. He received a rare two medical redshirt years, making his college basketball stint the better half of a decade.

Eschmeyer led a Northwestern team that had won five games in 1994-95 to a 15-14 record in his last season. But that was only good enough for an NIT berth.

Eschmeyer grew up trying every which way to get out of school early in March to watch opening-round games. He filled out brackets for as long as he can remember. Even while at Northwestern, stuck in Evanston watching friends play across the country.

To this day. His 10-year-old twins registered for email accounts to enter bracket contests online starting a few years ago.

“It hurts that I never played,” he said. “It’s one of those few things that I have to live with as far as regrets for the rest of my life.”

In 1999, the New Jersey Nets took Eschmeyer with the 34th pick in the NBA Draft. But chronic knee problems forced him out of professional basketball after four seasons and five surgeries.

Eschmeyer remembers a nadir, feeling like somebody shot him in the leg warming up for a 2003 playoff game with the Dallas Mavericks. He received a cortisone shot solely for the purpose of propping him up should he need to enter the game later to foul somebody.

A doctor — from Northwestern – later told Eschmeyer that if he wanted to be able to play with his future kids, he needed to give up basketball.

Eschmeyer said he hasn’t played in an organized game since. Only in the last year has he played one-on-one with one of his 10-year-olds.

“I miss it daily,” he said. “Every day.”

Eschmeyer has lived in Colorado the last five years with his wife, former Northwestern player Kristina Divjak, and their three children.

He put that Northwestern education to good use. Eschmeyer is a CFO of a telecommunications development company, among other assets.

“Kind of a boring sort-of financial investor lifestyle,” he said, though his passions include hunting, hiking and teaching archery to area kids. The kind of pursuits that lead Midwesterners to the Rocky Mountains.

Eschmeyer’s basketball memories are mostly boxed up, but he is proud of one photo in his office. It’s of the center diving for a loose ball with his teammates.

Eschmeyer said he would gladly trade his personal success at Northwestern, which boosted his NBA Draft potential, to have played in the NCAA Tournament. But only if his teammates remained the same.

“It’s a special place where kids still stay for four years,” he said. “It’s a family. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

Eschmeyer is also proud of Northwestern coach Chris Collins. Eschmeyer said he actually hosted Collins on an unofficial recruiting trip to Evanston in the early ‘90s, even though Collins is one year older.

Collins, a McDonald’s All-American high school player, chose Duke, enrolling there after the Blue Devils won back-to-back national championships.

“It was definitely an uphill battle for Northwestern versus Duke,” Eschmeyer said, “but we got him out for a visit.”

The coach brought Eschmeyer back this season to speak to the team after a win over Iowa on Jan. 15.

“[Collins] made some very kind comments about what I had done when I was there, and just the history of the program,” said Eschmeyer, who tried to attend about two games per year. “I think that, from comments he made and the rest of the staff has made, it was important for them to build some sense of family around the program.”

Eschmeyer empathized with the current players carrying the weight of the program’s history.

“I don’t want to say they’ve been playing tournament games for the last four weeks, but there’s been a high level of pressure on them,” he said. “Everyone’s been counting games. Everyone’s been doing the math every time. That’s tough for anybody, especially when you’re 19.”

Eschmeyer has carried some of the burden, too. He hates being remembered as the star of a team that never made the tournament.

“Now [junior point guard] Bryant McIntosh will get phone calls instead of me,” Eschmeyer said, laughing. “It’s not that I don’t like a little attention once in a while, but no one likes attention for negative reasons, right? I will be very happy to pass being the last guy to be X, Y, Z to some young blood that has better things in their bios for what they accomplished at Northwestern.”

Eschmeyer spent the first day after the bracket announcement on message threads with friends and former players firming up travel arrangements.

Eighth-seeded Northwestern will play No. 9 Vanderbilt in Salt Lake City on Thursday. If it wins, No. 1 seed Gonzaga likely looms Sunday.

Eschmeyer will be in the crowd, perhaps the tallest person in the building wearing purple. His bracket will be filled out with Northwestern winning it all.

“There will be a sense of nostalgia,” Eschmeyer said. “I’ll be with a lot of old friends enjoying the moment.”

Elite Class of 2020 point guard to reclassify

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Nico Mannion, a five-star point guard from Arizona, announced on Friday that he will be reclassifying into the Class of 2019.

Mannion was a top 20 player in 2020 but, according to 247 Sports, he will be ranked No. 11 in 2019. The athletic, 6-foot-3 Mannion was long-rumored to be considering a move up a class because of his age. He’ll turn 18 in March of next year, meaning that he’ll arrive on campus the same age as a typical college freshman.

Mannion cut his list to ten schools in June — Duke, Arizona, Villanova, Kansas, USC, UCLA, Oregon, Vanderbilt, Marquette and Utah — but Duke and Arizona appear to be the favorites at this point.

Mannion plays his high school ball for Pinnacle High School in Phoenix and with West Coast Elite on the Under Armour Association circuit. He played for Team USA’s youth ranks, but his mother is Italian and, in June, he was called up to the Italian men’s senior national team, scoring nine points in 29 minutes of a FIBA World Cup Qualifier.

Nebraska to lose junior big man to transfer

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Nebraska’s frontcourt depth took a blow on Thursday as junior big man Jordy Tshimanga informed the program that he will be transferring.

“Jordy called me tonight and asked for his release,” head coach Tim Miles said in a statement that was given to the Lincoln Journal-Star. “The University of Nebraska and our program wish Jordy and his family the best.”

Tshimanga averaged 4.0 points and 4.6 boards in 13 minutes this past season, and a source close to the program told NBC Sports he wasn’t expected to play much more than that this season.

Miles’ has spent the better part of the last two seasons on the hot seat, and this certainly doesn’t make his job easier, but with the talent the Cornhuskers have on their roster, they look like an NCAA tournament team already. They bring back their top four scorers, including former five-star prospect Isaac Copeland and potential first-team all-Big Ten wing James Palmer. With or without Tshimanga, Nebraska has a shot to finish top four in the Big Ten.

North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State part of Las Vegas event

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State and Texas will play in an early season basketball tournament in Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Invitational will include games at campus sites, then the final two rounds on Nov. 22-23 in Las Vegas. North Carolina takes on Texas in one semifinal, and Michigan State faces UCLA in the other.

UNC, UCLA and Michigan State are all top 20 teams in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.

The championship is Nov. 23, and the semifinal losers also play each other that day.

NCAA to study possible effects of widespread legal wagering

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The NCAA plans to study how the expansion of legalized betting could affect college athletics and member schools.

The NCAA announced Thursday it will create a working group of “subject matter experts” to assess areas such as officiating, NCAA rules, federal and state laws, and the use of integrity services. NCAA leadership has already called for federal regulation on sports betting. NCAA rules prohibit sports wagering by athletes and athletic department employees.

The Supreme Court opened the door for states to have legal wagering on sporting events when it struck down a federal ban in May. Schools in some states such as West Virginia, Mississippi and New Jersey are already exploring the possibility of collecting integrity fees in anticipation of legal sports books opening in their states.

“While we certainly respect the Supreme Court’s decision, our position on sports wagering remains,” said Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer. “With this new landscape, we must evolve and expand our long-standing efforts to protect both the integrity of competitions and the well-being of student-athletes.”

The NCAA Board of Governors has already suspended the association’s ban on holding championships in states with legalized sports betting, a policy that only affected Nevada.

“Legalized sports gambling across the country is rather new, but the NCAA and its members have committed significant resources over the years to policy, research and education around sports wagering,” said Joni Comstock, senior vice president of championships and alliances. “With student-athlete well-being as the centerpiece, we will continue to build upon these efforts to assist members as they adapt to legalized sports wagering in their states and regions.”

Arizona releases non-conference schedule

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A trip to Maui, a home date against Baylor and trips to UConn and Alabama highlight Arizona’s non-conference schedule, which the school released Thursday, this season.

Despite losing nearly the entirety of last year’s talented-but-troubled group, Sean Miller still scheduled aggressively. The first test will come the week of Thanksgiving in Hawaii at the Maui Invitational. It’s an extremely competitive field with Duke, Auburn, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Illinois, San Diego State and Xavier. The bracket for the event has yet to be released.

The Wildcats travel to Storrs to face UConn in Dan Hurley’s first season on Dec. 2, and then a week later visit Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

The marquee home game will be Saturday, Dec. 16, when Scott Drew and Baylor come to Tucson.

Here’s the full schedule:

Day Date Opponent Location

Sunday Nov. 11 Cal Poly Tucson, Ariz.

Wednesday Nov. 14 UTEP Tucson, Ariz.

Monday Nov. 19 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Tuesday Nov. 20 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Wednesday Nov. 21 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Wednesday Nov. 28 Texas Southern Tucson, Ariz.

Sunday Dec. 2 at UConn Hartford, Conn.

Thursday Dec. 6 Utah Valley Tucson, Ariz.

Sunday Dec. 9 at Alabama Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Saturday Dec. 15 Baylor Tucson, Ariz.

Wednesday Dec. 19 Montana Tucson, Ariz.

Saturday Dec. 22 UC Davis Tucson, Ariz.