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2017-18 Season Preview: Programs on the Rise, Decline

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Beginning in September and running up until November 10th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

College basketball is a zero sum game. For every winner, there’s a loser. For every ascendent program, there’s a descending one. Here, you’ll find five programs on their way up, and five headed the other way.

PROGRAMS ON THE RISE

Wichita State: At first glance, it wouldn’t appear that there’s a lot of room to move up for the Shockers given all they’ve accomplished over the last five years (five NCAA tournaments, an undefeated regular season and a Final Four being the highlights), but Wichita State remains on the come-up. The move from the Missouri Valley Conference, which after the defection of Creighton became destined for one-bid league status, to the American isn’t a radical move, but it’s an important one. It keeps the Shockers insulated against a bad conference tournament showing by upping their chances for quality RPI wins and will keep them in the national conversation throughout the winter months – rather than just as Selection Sunday approaches. Plus, every spring that passes with Marshall still in south central Kansas is further evidence that he’s not leaving unless the best of jobs comes along. Oh, and he’s got a top-10 team this year. The Shockers are solidifying themselves among the nation’s elite.

Alabama: The Tide have been pretty mediocre in Avery Johnson’s first two seasons as a college coach, going 37-30 overall and 18-18 in SEC play. This year, though, Alabama looks like a top-25 team after Johnson reeled in a top-10 recruiting class, headlined by potential lottery pick Collin Sexton along with top-100 prospects John Petty and Alex Reese. Alabama looks like it’s becoming a player on the national recruiting stage, and it’s setting up to make Tuscaloosa an interesting place for hoops.

Texas: The Longhorns shouldn’t be on a list like this given the money that their athletic department operates with and the fertile recruiting grounds within driving distance of Austin, but after things languished in the final years of Rick Barnes’ tenure and then cratered with an 11-22 season in Shaka Smart’s second year, it’s exactly where Texas is. Things are looking up, though, as Smart looks to be gaining a footing in the program, recruiting the likes Mohamed Bamba, Matt Coleman and the rest of a five-man 2017 recruiting class made up of top-100 players. Texas is back on its way to being Texas, which is to say a national power.

Northwestern: After going 0-for-program history, the Wildcats finally broke through with an NCAA tournament appearance last year, even winning a game before bowing out to Gonzaga on the Bulldogs’ way to the national championship game. They’re even in better position this year to make a run with nearly everyone from last year’s team returning, plus coach Chris Collins looks to be setting the program up for success in the future, having already secured commitments from two four-star recruits in 2018. Northwestern, much like their north side Chicago baseball neighbors, are finally selling something more than hope.

Ohio State: As much success as Thad Matta had in Columbus, it’s inarguable that the Buckeyes ran into tough times in the last few years, missing back-to-back NCAA tournaments and seeing a heralded recruiting class all transfer out of town. Matta’s one of the game’s best, but a move to Chris Holtmann helps secure the future for Ohio State. Holtmann helped Butler transition from the A-10 to the Big East without the Bulldogs ceding any ground. He’s an excellent fit from just about every perspective, and makes Ohio State’s return to the top of the Big Ten seem likely.

PROGRAMS ON THE DECLINE

Louisville: This one’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Tuesday’s federal charges that apparently claimed that the Cardinals landed five-star prospect Brian Bowen courtesy of $100,000 payable to his family from adidas would make this “on the decline” designation fit by itself. Coupled with the fact Louisville hasn’t even made it yet through the NCAA appeals process for its prostitution scandal, yeah, this ain’t going in the right direction for the Cardinals. It’s hard to see how legendary coach Rick Pitino makes it through this with a job, and how the athletic department as a whole makes it through well enough to keep the basketball program among the country’s elite without a significant – and lengthy – hit.

Syracuse: Yeah, the Orange made the Final Four in 2016, but they did it after sneaking into the field after a 9-9 ACC season. On the years sandwiching that Final Four, Syracuse missed the tournament. Jim Boeheim’s 2017 recruiting class didn’t have a top-100 player in it and the Orange only have two of their top-seven scorers back from last year. Syracuse does have a top-25 commit in 2018, but there’s a lot of work to do in upstate New York.

Oklahoma State: There’s a lot to this one. Let’s start with the fact that Lamont Evans was one of the four assistants charged Tuesday as part of the FBI corruption investigation. Evans was hired in 2016 by Brad Underwood and then promoted to associate head coach by current head man Mike Boynton, Jr. this spring. So that’s not good. In more traditional trouble, the Cowboys have developed a reputation for being cheap on hoops. While mega-donor T.Boone Pickens lavishes the Oklahoma State football program, hoops is languishing. Underwood left reportedly due to feeling unappreciated financially (he was making about $1 million), and instead of going out and making a statement hire, they just elevated Boynton from assistant to head coach for the same annual salary as Underwood. So just a year after a universally praised move of hiring Underwood, Oklahoma State finds itself with an unproven coach, a damaging reputation for hoops prioritization and a part of perhaps the biggest scandal in college basketball in a generation or two. Not great.

Connecticut: Since winning the 2014 national championship, Kevin Ollie’s program has missed the NCAA tournament twice in three years. Last year, the Huskies lost the last four games of the regular season to end things with a thud. Their 2017 recruiting class didn’t feature a top-150 recruit, and it’s not a foregone conclusion that they’ll finish in the top-half of the American this year. Things are not trending in the right direction in Storrs.

Cal: The Bears opted for continuity when they elevated Wyking Jones from assistant to head coach after Cuonzo Martin skedaddled to Missouri. What’s continuing, though, isn’t all that pretty. Cal made just one NCAA tournament in three years under Martin, and this year it looks as though the Bears may finish in the cellar of the Pac-12. They do already have two top-100 recruits in the fold for 2018, but the immediate future looks difficult in Berkeley.

Christian Vital going back to UConn for junior season

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Dan Hurley is keeping his roster intact at the top.

Christian Vital, UConn’s second-leading scorer a season ago, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, he announced Monday via social media.

“Great Talk Today Coach! Appreciate The Wisdom You Have Let Me In On!” Vital wrote “I Think It’s Time To Get Back To Winning Ways In Storrs! I’m Going To Need That #1 Back ASAP! WE GOT (UNFINISHED) BUSINESS!”

The 6-foot-2 junior-to-be Vital joins Jalen Adams, who was the Huskies’ top-returning scorer, back in Storrs in Hurley’s first year. Vital averaged 14.9 points on 38.3 percent shooting. Adams previously announced he would return to school without declaring for the draft.

The return of UConn’s top two scorers underscores an even bigger trend under Hurley as the Huskies appear to have avoided any major defections from last year’s roster despite the coaching change.

UConn is coming off a 14-18 season that proved to be the last of coach Kevin Ollie’s six years with the Huskies that included a national championship but also back-to-back losing seasons.

Chris Silva returning to South Carolina for senior season

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South Carolina is getting an first-team all-SEC performer back.

Chris Silva, who led the Gamecocks in scoring and rebounding last season, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, the school announced Monday.

“I’m thankful for the experience of going through the draft process,” Silva said in a statement. “I want to thank all of the teams that gave me the opportunity to workout for their organization. I’m excited to announce that I’m returning to South Carolina for my senior season. I can’t wait to get back on the court with my brothers and continue to work on my game.”

The 6-foot-9 Silva, who did not get an NBA draft combine invite, averaged 14.3 points and 8 rebounds per game as a junior.  He shot 46.7 percent from the floor.

“Going through the evaluation process was an unbelievable experience for Chris and us,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said in a statement. “He comes back to a place he loves with some knowledge on some of the things that we have to help him improve on in his efforts to one day fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA.”

In addition to being South Carolina’s leading scorer, he was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season after averaging 1.4 blocks per game. His return to Columbia gives the Gamecocks a potential contender for SEC player of the year in 2018-19.

Kansas fires athletic director Sheahon Zenger

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Kansas has fired athletic director Sheahon Zenger, effective immediately, citing a lack of progress in key areas within the athletic department.

“Sheahon has been a loyal Jayhawk, and our athletics department has improved in many areas under his leadership,” Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod wrote in an email to KU faculty and staff. “But athletics continues to face a number of challenges, and progress in key areas has been elusive. To achieve the level of success we need and expect, I have determined a change in leadership is necessary.”

Zenger had been in the role of AD since 2011.

The issue, of course, is not the play of the Kansas basketball program. The Jayhawks have won every Big 12 regular season title since 2004, and head coach Bill Self has taken the program to two Final Fours since Zenger was hired.

The football team is still a disaster, but one can’t help but wonder whether or not the real issue at hand here is Kansas’ getting tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball.

The Jayhawks were not mentioned in the initial indictments that were handed down, but Kansas was a central figure in the superseding indictments that were dropped after the national title game. The mother of Billy Preston, who did not play for the Jayhawks this season, was alleged to have been funneled $90,000 by Adidas, while Silvio De Sousa’s status is currently in question after the FBI alleged his guardian was paid at least $20,000 to help offset money that the family had already accepted from a rival shoe company.

All of that came in the aftermath of dealing with Cheick Diallo and Cliff Alexander, both of whom had their one season in Lawrence reduced due to off the court issues.

“Since becoming chancellor, I have spent countless hours with higher education peers and Jayhawks to hear their perspective on KU,” Girod wrote. “A common thread in these conversations is that, as a major public university with national aspirations, we must continue to strive for excellence in all areas — including athletics. As I have said many times, a successful athletics department is inextricably linked to our broader mission as a flagship research university.”

Louisville, ex-AD Tom Jurich reach $4.5M settlement

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The University of Louisville has reached a $4.5 million settlement with former athletic director Tom Jurich, who was fired in the wake of a national federal corruption investigation of college basketball.

Jurich disputed his Oct. 18 firing for cause after nearly 20 years as AD and had considered suing the school. The University of Louisville Athletic Association and Board of Trustees on Friday approved the settlement. Jurich’s employment ended “without cause” as a result of his resignation, also described in the settlement as “retirement.”

He’ll also receive another $2.6 million in accrued employment benefits, along with home game tickets and parking for Louisville football and basketball for 20 years.

An audit of the University of Louisville Foundation released last June showed that Jurich averaged annual compensation of more than $2.76 million from 2010-16, including more than $5.35 million in 2016.

Then-interim president Greg Postel had placed Jurich on paid administrative leave in September after the school’s acknowledgement of its involvement in the investigation. Trustees voted 10-3 to fire Jurich, two days after the ULAA unanimously fired Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.

The former AD said in a joint statement that he “spent the better part of my career” working with dedicated athletes, coaches and staff to elevate Louisville. He added, “I am proud of what we accomplished, which is well documented.”

Jurich’s legal team had stressed that the ex-AD did nothing illegal and hadn’t violated NCAA rules.

Trustee chairman J. David Grissom said in the statement that “Everyone is pleased that this matter has been successfully resolved. All parties can move forward to begin the next chapter.”

Jurich played a major role in Louisville’s success on the field and how the school handled issues off it. He led the school’s 2014 entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference and oversaw numerous program and facility upgrades, including a $63 million expansion of the football stadium due for completion by fall.

He also hired several successful coaches including Pitino, who guided the Cardinals to the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship. Louisville ultimately vacated that title in February as part of NCAA penalties for a sex scandal after an escort’s book allegations that former basketball staffer Andre McGee hired her and other dancers to strip and have sex with players and recruits.

Pitino has filed a $38.7 million federal lawsuit against Louisville, alleging breach of contract.

Georgia Tech’s Okogie to sign with agent

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Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie, one of the big winners from this past weekend’s NBA combine, announced on Monday that he will be signing with an agent and remaining in the NBA Draft.

The 6-foot-4 Okogie finished his sophomore season averaged 18.5 points and shooting 38.4 percent from three. The numbers he posted during the athletic testing at the combine, as well as his 7-foot wingspan, makes Okogie an ideal 3-and-D wing at the NBA level.

“Josh is a tremendous young man and an excellent student-athlete,” said head coach Josh Pastner. “He has set a tremendous example, making the Dean’s List this past semester, and deserves a lot of credit for making himself a much better player over the course of his two years here. We will miss him in our program in many respects, from his performance on the court to the energy he plays with and brought to our team. We fully support his decision to take this next step, and wish him all the best.”