AP Photo/Juan Antonio Labreche

Western Athletic Conference Preview: Grand Canyon leads the way

Leave a comment

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

Today, we are previewing the WAC.

Life as a provisional Division I member can be difficult. While it’s known that a program will eventually become a full-on member, that four-year period can tend to drag on especially when considering the fact that there’s no chance of playing in the NCAA tournament. That was life for Dan Majerle’s Grand Canyon program, but he and his staff did a good job of preparing the Antelopes for their first season as a full Division I member. That debut season is now here, and GCU has a team capable of making its first NCAA tournament appearance.

The Antelopes will have to account for the loss of leading scorer Dewayne Russell, but there’s more than enough talent left in the cupboard to make a run at the WAC crown. Guard Joshua Braun and forward Keonta Vernon both return, with the former being pegged by many as the preseason favorite for WAC Player of the Year.

Braun averaged 17.5 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last season, shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 41.6 percent from beyond the arc. As for Vernon, the 6-foot-6 senior added 9.3 points and a team-best 7.0 rebounds per contest during his junior season. Other returnees of note include sophomore guard Oscar Frayer, senior guard Shaq Carr and redshirt junior guard Gerard Martin. Add in a talented floor general in Oregon transfer Casey Benson, who’s eligible immediately after being a part of Oregon’s Final Four run last season, and GCU will not lack for options on the perimeter.

The key for Grand Canyon will be who steps forward alongside Vernon in the front court, with redshirt juniors Matt Jackson and Kerwin Smith, and freshmen Roberts Blumberg and Alessandro Lever among the available options.

While GCU is viewed as the favorite, and it’s important to note that the program finished second in the WAC standings each of the last three seasons, the program making its full Division I debut won’t lack for challengers. CSU Bakesrfield, which won the WAC regular season title for the first time in program history last season, and NCAA tournament participant New Mexico State will be heard from as well.

Rod Barnes welcomes back two of the WAC’s top guards in seniors Damiyne Durham and Brent Wrapp, which should help the Roadrunners account for the loss of three of their top four scorers from a season ago. Durham was very productive in the sixth man roles for CSU Bakersfield, averaging 12.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game while averaging 21.2 minutes per game. With Jaylin Airington, Dedrick Basile and Matt Smith moving on more will be asked of Durham, who will need to be a more efficient offensive player as well. Last season, Durham shot just 38.5 percent from the field and 33.9 percent from three with an offensive rating of just 96.5.

As for Wrapp, there really isn’t a way to quantify the leadership he provides by simply using numbers. The senior averaged just 4.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game last season, but his performance in other areas was a big reason why CSU Bakersfield was able to not only win the WAC regular season title but reach the Postseason NIT Final Four. Shon Briggs, Moataz Aly, Fallou Ndoye and James Suber are among the returnees in the front court. The best defensive team in the WAC last season from an efficiency standpoint, the Roadrunners should once again hold their own on that end of the floor. The key when it comes to repeating as WAC champs and making the program’s second NCAA tournament appearance in three seasons will be what improvements the team can make offensively.

As for the aforementioned Aggies, they’ve got a new head coach as Chris Jans was hired to fill the vacancy left by Paul Weir (who’s now at in-state rival New Mexico). The good news for Jans is that he takes over a team that boasts two of the WAC’s best players in redshirt juniors Sidy N’Dir and Eli Chuha. While Chuha started 31 of the 34 games in which he played, averaging 12.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, N’Dir returns to the court after appearing in just nine games due to a foot injury. N’Dir averaged 13.7 points per contest in the nine games he played, and his return is important given the loss of the team’s top two scorers in Ian Baker and Braxton Huggins.

The front court could be the best in the WAC, with Jemerrio Jones averaging 9.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game off the bench and starter Johnathon Wilkins returning as well. To help account for the losses of Baker and Huggins, transfers AJ Harris and Zach Lofton join the fray. While Harris sat out last season after spending one year at Ohio State, Lofton won SWAC Player of the Year after averaging 16.8 points and 3.9 rebounds per game at Texas Southern. While GCU’s Casey Benson may be viewed by some as the WAC’s top newcomer, do not sleep on Lofton.

Utah Valley, which finished the 2016-17 season with a 17-17 record and was the second-best team in the WAC from a defensive efficiency standpoint, will be a factor as well. Mark Pope welcomes back five of the six players who started at least 16 games last season, with guard Jordan Poydras being the lone exception. Junior guard Conner Toolson averaged a team-best 11.9 points per game, with the Wolverines using a balanced offensive attack that featured five players who averaged at least 9.6 points per game. With guards Kenneth Ogbe and Brandon Randolph among the other returnees, don’t be surprised if Utah Valley makes a run at the WAC title.

At this stage, there appears to be a clear line between the top four teams and the bottom half of the WAC. But that doesn’t mean these teams are incapable of turning heads in 2017-18. Seattle, under new head coach Jim Hayford, will look to turn things around after winning just 13 games last season. Center Aaron Menzies, who averaged 12.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, is the lone returnee among the top four scorers from last season.

But the Redhawks have added a host of transfers, with Jordan Hill (Wisconsin), Richaud Gittens (Weber State) and Josh Hearhily (Vermont) all eligible immediately as grad students. Four other transfers, most notably the 2016 Patriot League Rookie of the Year in former American guard Delante Jones, will have to sit out this season.

Kansas City, which won 18 games last season, will have to replace all five starters including guard LaVell Boyd. Sophomore guard Isaiah Ross, who averaged 8.0 points per game as a freshman, is the team’s leading returning scorer. Ross and fellow guards Xavier Bishop and Broderick Robinson are the most likely options to lead the way for the Kangaroos, who will need some front court players to step forward with leading rebounders Darnell Tillman (5.7 rpg) and Kyle Steward (5.3 rpg) having moved on.

UT Rio Grande Valley and Chicago State boast two of the WAC’s top talents. While Lew Hill’s second team at UTRGV will be led by senior Nick Dixon, who averaged 18.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game in earning second team All-WAC honors as a junior, Chicago State will rely upon junior guard Fred Sims Jr. Sims averaged 18.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game a season ago, and like Dixon he was a second-team All-WAC selection.

The key for Kansas City, UTRGV and Chicago State if any are to exceed preseason expectations: improve on defense. All three struggled in that area last season, with Kansas City and UTRGV preferring to play a faster tempo while Chicago State ranked 231st in the country in adjusted tempo per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers.

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

PRESEASON WAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Joshua Braun, Grand Canyon

A two-time first team All-WAC selection, the 6-foot-4 senior guard averaged 17.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game last season. While a quality scorer, Braun is also efficient offensively as he finished his junior campaign with an offensive rating of 119.2.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-WAC TEAM

  • Fred Sims Jr., Chicago State: Sims put up two games of 30 points or more last season, including a 31-point outburst in a loss to Kansas City in the regular season finale.
  • Damiyne Durham, CSU Bakersfield: There weren’t many reserves in college basketball who were more productive than Durham, who has the potential to be a more efficient scorer than he showed as a junior.
  • Nick Dixon, UT Rio Grande Valley: Dixon factored into 31.6 percent of UTRGV’s possession in WAC play last season per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, and he’s capable of dropping big numbers on just about anyone (41 points against Utah Valley in late January).
  • Eli Chuha, New Mexico State: Chuha averaged 12.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game last season, and he’ll have the opportunity to do more offensively with Ian Baker and Braxton Huggins having moved on.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @WAC_Basketball

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Grand Canyon
2. CSU Bakersfield
3. New Mexico State
4. Utah Valley
5. Seattle
6. UT Rio Grande Valley
7. Kansas City
8. Chicago State

VIDEO: Former Michigan athletes Austin Hatch and Abby Cole tie the knot

Duane Burleson/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The life of former Michigan basketball player Austin Hatch has not been without its challenges, as during his pre-college years he survived two separate plane crashes that took the lives of his parents, a stepmother and two siblings.

Hatch’s scholarship offer to Michigan was honored by head coach John Beilein despite the impact that the crashes had on Hatch physically, and Hatch would go on to earn his degree and land a job at the corporate office for Domino’s. This past spring, Hatch was honored during the team’s Senior Day festivities.

By that point Hatch was already engaged to Abby Cole, who played volleyball at Michigan from 2013 to 2016. And over the weekend, the two tied the knot in what was a highly emotional day for all involved. Below is a video of their wedding day, which was chronicled by Derek Postma.

Congratulations and best wishes to Abby and Austin on their marriage.

Arizona lands Cornell forward Stone Gettings for 2019-20 season

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Arizona landed its first addition for the 2019-20 season on Monday, as an Ivy League power forward revealed his intention to join Sean Miller’s program as a graduate student.

6-foot-9 forward Stone Gettings, who averaged 16.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game at Cornell last season, picked Arizona over Stanford and Vanderbilt according to Evan Daniels of 247Sports.com. A second team All-Ivy selection, Gettings is on course to graduate from Cornell in December. Instead of using his final season of eligibility at Cornell, Gettings will sit out this season before playing at Arizona.

Gettings does have a connection to the Arizona program, as one of his high school teammates was former point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright. The addition of Gettings will give Arizona a front court player who can score around the basket and from the perimeter, as he shot nearly 37 percent from beyond the arc last season.

Gettings isn’t the first Ivy League player to make his decision regarding a new school well in advance of his being able to move as a grad transfer, as former Yale point guard Makai Mason took a similar approach. Mason, who missed the entire 2016-17 season with a torn ACL, announced prior to last season that he be joining the Baylor program as a grad transfer for the 2018-19 campaign.

Not counting Gettings, Arizona has four scholarship front court players on its current roster who will have eligibility remaining in 2019-20, in current junior Chase Jeter, sophomores Emmanuel Akot and Ira Lee and freshman Omar Thielemans.

Bill Self: Silvio De Sousa’s eligibility not in jeopardy ‘at this stage’

Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Leave a comment

One of the biggest question marks heading into the 2018-19 season for the Kansas Jayhawks is the eligibility status of Silvio De Sousa.

If you’ve forgotten, a player that is believed to be De Sousa was referenced in a second round of indictments handed by the FBI. In those documents, De Sousa’s guardian is alleged to have asked an Adidas rep for at least $20,000 to repay a rival apparel company for a payment that was made to secure De Sousa’s commitment to another school. Prior to a surprise commitment to Kansas, De Sousa was long considered a Maryland lean. His AAU program and high school team were both sponsored by Under Armour, whose flagship program is Maryland.

According to Kansas head coach Bill Self, at this point De Sousa is still eligible.

“Nobody at this stage has given us any information that he could be in jeopardy at this stage,” Self said.

This is not surprising.

The way that I would expect this to play out is similar to the way it played out for players that were referenced in the indictments that came down last fall. Kansas is going to string this thing along until we get to a point in time close to the start of the season, when they will announce that De Sousa is being held out of competition. It is better for Kansas to bite the bullet and play without De Sousa than it would be for them to risk knowingly suiting up a player that can be retroactively ruled ineligible.

That sucks for De Sousa.

The good news for Kansas, however, is that Udoka Azubuike is back, as is Mitch Lightfoot, while both Dedric and K.J. Lawson will be eligible as they add freshman David McCormack. There is more than enough frontcourt depth to withstand the loss of De Sousa.

VIDEO: The #ShiggyChallenge has reached college hoops with Loyola’s coach showing his skills

Screebngrab via @CoachTHardy
Leave a comment

New Loyola-Maryland head coach Tavaras Hardy became the first college basketball head coach to get in on the Shiggy Challenge, as he posted this video to twitter on Tuesday morning:

What is the #ShiggyChallenge?

It’s the latest viral dance, which started just two weeks ago when an online personality named Shiggy posted himself dancing to Drake’s “In My Feelings” on Instagram:

#Mood : KEKE Do You Love Me ? 😂😂😂 @champagnepapi #DoTheShiggy #InMyFeelings

A post shared by Shoker🃏 (@theshiggyshow) on

From there, it took off, with everyone from Odell Beckham Jr. to James Harden trying to prove themselves capable of taking down the #ShiggyChallenge.

And now Tavaras Hardy is doing it.

The end.

Takeaways from the UAA Challenge: Nico Mannion and Josh Green are must-see, Anthony Edwards tops 2020

Kelly Kline/Under Armour
Leave a comment

EMERSON, Ga. — Although the Peach Jam was huge focal point of the first evaluation period, Under Armour had themselves a solid event with the UAA Challenge just north of Atlanta. With plenty of signature matchups and five-star talents, there were a lot of things to watch during a brief stop there during the first live evaluation period.

Here are some things to watch with the UAA, when they’ll be the focal point during the third live evaluation week as they host the UAA Finals in Las Vegas next week.

NICO MANNION AND JOSH GREEN aRE THE BEST 1-2 PUNCH IN THE UAA

Over the last few years, the duo of Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis have built a big reputation in the UAA. Deservedly so. But, over the next few weeks, the West Coast Elite duo of point guard Nico Mannion and Josh Green will be more fun to watch.

While the duo of Antoine and Lewis could end up being better long-term prospects (that’s a debate for another time), the duo of Mannion and Green have a unique chemistry playing with each other that Antoine and Lewis can lack at times since they play such similar positions.

Both Mannion and Green made major waves this weekend in the UAA Challenge.

Confirming to NBCSports.com that he intends to reclassify into the Class of 2019 from the Class of 2020, Mannion looked like he was ready to make the leap into college hoops. Second in the event in assists per game, Mannion had 38 of them over a six-game span (6.3 per game) and only had four turnovers in 164 minutes of action.

Also shooting 59 percent from the field and 83 percent from the free-throw line on his way to 15.8 points per contest, Mannion was incredibly efficient. He showed court savvy, athleticism and a solid perimeter jumper. Mannion has Arizona, Duke, Kansas, Marquette, Oregon and USC hard after him as he will be an intriguing point guard to watch during July.

Green, a 6-foot-6 two-way wing, was also incredibly efficient as he shot 71 percent from the field and 60 percent from three-point range on his way to 18.0 points, 3.1 assists and 2.4 rebounds per game. With four or more assists in four games, Green has natural floor vision and passing ability to go along with his scoring prowess. After showcasing a shaky perimeter jumper at times in the past, Green has worked with a trainer the past few months to become more consistent from deep. Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA, USC and Villanova are some of the schools that Green mentioned to NBCSports.com as being in the mix.

Both Green and Mannion are already five-star prospects. It’ll just be interesting to see them close out the live period the next two weeks because they have a chance to make some major noise.

ANTHONY EDWARDS HAS A CHANCE TO BE 2020’S BEST

The Class of 2019 doesn’t have a lot of star power in terms of No. 1 quality players — my colleague Rob Dauster went over that yesterday — but there seem to be a few worthy contenders in the Class of 2020.

Among them includes 6-foot-5 shooting guard Anthony Edwards. The Atlanta native was one of the must-see players of the first evaluation period. Playing in a high-profile matchup against five-star 2020 guard Jaden Springer, Edwards displayed a natural scoring ability thanks to his ridiculous athleticism and acumen for putting the ball in the basket; he’s what hoopheads will call a “bucket-getter”.

Although his jumper wasn’t falling from three-point range (5-for-22), Edwards still shot 57 percent from the field while putting up 22.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game during the weekend.

Displaying more vision and passing ability with his Atlanta Xpress team than in the camp setting, Edwards looked like a more complete guard at the UAA Challenge. He also defended to the tune of an event-leading 2.4 steals per game as Edwards has long arms and a quick first step to jump into passing lanes.

There is plenty of competition for the top spot in 2020, but Edwards is going to be among the major contenders with his summer play.

JEREMIAH EARL-ROBINSON IS AS PRODUCTIVE AS ANYONE IN THE CLASS

This summer has seen Jeremiah Robinson-Earl produce everywhere he has played. The 6-foot-8 Class of 2019 forward helped the USA U18 team win a gold medal while also leading the UAA Challenge in rebounds the first week of July.

A double-double machine who is improving his perimeter skill, Robinson-Earl is a hard-playing and intriguing combo forward who should join a high-level college rotation immediately. He has great secondary leaping ability that enables him to be a menace on the offensive glass as he’s particularly adept at putbacks.

If Robinson-Early can show an improved perimeter jumper and an ability to attack off the dribble, then he’ll have a chance to be a top-ten player in the class. He has the motor and production to rise if he fixes his flaws and he’ll have plenty of time to be a showcase player at IMG Academy next season.

Kansas is a perceived favorite with Robinson-Earl, as Bill Self coached him on the U18 team over the past several weeks before the live period. North Carolina and Arizona are among some other schools also trying to stay in the mix for Robinson-Earl as they try to pry him away from the Midwest.