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Michigan is John Beilein’s island of misfit toys

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SAN ANTONIO — Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is at Michigan because of a man he never met.

His name is Dave Rooney. He’s in his mid-70s and spent two decades as a college coach before calling it quits and settling into a career in the real estate business. He lives in Allentown, Pa., the same hometown as Abdur-Rahkman, and hasn’t quite been able to kick his hoops addiction. He spends his free time going to high school games in the Lehigh Valley, and had seen Abdur-Rahkman play plenty.

So when he found out that the local star had yet to pick a school in April after his senior season, he made a call to old friend John Beilein. They became fast friends when Beilein was the head coach at Erie Community College and Rooney was coaching at Buffalo State, and while they had fallen out of touch in the 30-plus years between Rooney’s departure for Slippery Rock and Abdur-Rahkman’s senior night, Beilein had enough respect for Rooney to listen when he told him about the kid no one knew about.

“I was actually running track at the time,” Abdur-Rahkman, who had a handful of offers from low- and mid-major programs, said. He wasn’t really on the radar of most high-major programs. “My [high school] coach said that Coach Beilein was going to call me, and my dad said that Coach Beilein called him. I thought he was just joking around, because that’s the kind of person he is.”

They weren’t joking.

Michigan took a trip out to Allentown to watch Abdur-Rahkman work out. Then they invited the 6-foot-4 combo-guard to campus for an official visit. When he was about to head home, they finally offered him a scholarship.

“I committed on the spot,” Abdur-Rahkman said.

The whole process took roughly three weeks, and Abdur-Rahkman is hardly the only guy on this Michigan team that has an arrival story that is just as random and fortuitous as that.

Take Duncan Robinson, for example.

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He’s a Michigan Man because Joe Dumars got fired as Detroit’s GM. Back in 2014, when the Pistons decided they needed to move on, they reached into the collegiate ranks to pluck Jeff Bower off of Marist’s bench as a replacement. The Red Foxes, in turn, hired a coach from the Division III ranks, tabbing Mike Maker, who had posted a 147-32 record in six seasons as the head coach of Williams College.

That Williams team was coming off of a trip to the Division III national title game that was sparked by the 6-foot-8 Robinson, then only a freshman. You see, he was a late-bloomer, a 5-foot-6 freshman that turned into a 6-foot-5, 160-pound senior. He had a Division II offer from Merrimack College, but that was it.

So he committed to Williams, where he had a great relationship with Maker.

And Maker had his own relationships.

Specifically, he was on West Virginia’s staff with Beilein from 2005-07, the teams that had Kevin Pittsnoggle and Joe Alexander and Johannes Herber — more on him in a second — on them. He knew what that Beilein offense was all about, and he knew that Robinson, who had grown a couple of inches and packed on 20 pounds of muscle, fit that mold to perfection.

So Maker placed a call.

Then Robinson sent along some film.

“I recruited myself a little bit,” he said. “I sent him some stuff, and he watched some film and the way he came back was far more positive than I ever would have expected.”

And after visiting Davidson, and amid interest from a handful of other high-major programs, Robinson picked the Wolverines.

“I know he really took a chance on me,” Robinson said. “It’s something he completely didn’t have to do.”

Back to Herber.

He is the man responsible for getting Mo Wagner to Michigan because he told Wagner to check his spam folder.

The story goes like this: Wagner and Herber both played for Alba Berlin, a club team in Germany, and Herber is the one that tipped Beilein off to this 6-foot-10 forward that could do everything that Beilein asks of his big men. When Beilein set out to recruit Wagner, he reached out of the player through email, but the message ended up in Wagner’s junk folder.

So after waiting for two weeks to hear back, Herber tried to figure out what in the world this kid was doing.

Wagner checked his junk mail.

He saw the message from Beilein.

“Oh,” he thought. “This might be important.”

Michigan was the first big name program that had started to recruit Wagner, and it was going to take a program like Michigan to get the German star to leave his country to play in college.

“I replied,” Wagner said, his trademark grin gracing the dais. “I felt like an idiot not answering right away.”

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Then there’s Zavier Simpson, and his tale might be the most convoluted of them all.

He’s become the sparkplug of a Michigan defense that has carried the Wolverines to the Big Ten tournament title and a trip to the Final Four, although that marriage was never was that seemed destined to happen.

Let’s rewind a few years.

Back in the spring of 2015, Tyus Battle committed to and then decommitted from Michigan, putting Michigan in a spot where they desperately needed a point guard in the Class of 2016. The Wolverines badly wanted to land a commitment from Cassius Winston, but as time drag on, it looked like Winston was going to end up a Spartan. Simpson, whose cousin — Travis Walton — played for Michigan State, also wanted to be a Spartan initially. Then, at one point in his recruitment, he appeared to be a lock to commit to Xavier.

But then Xavier accepted a commitment from another point guard in the class, Quentin Goodin, who many viewed as Michigan’s second choice should they lose out on the race to get Winston. That left them in a bind: Keep chasing Winston even if there’s no guarantee they’ll land him, or start looking for other options.

They went with Plan B, and that ended up being Simpson. He committed in September, but after a tough freshman campaign, the Wolverines brought in a grad transfer from Ohio, Jaaron Simmons, and another freshman point guard, Eli Brooks. Simpson began the year as a starter but eventually lost out on that starting spot before he found his rhythm.

Simpson, along with assistant coach Luke Yaklich, are the two people generally credited with turning around Michigan defensively this season, and Yaklich has a story that’s fascinating in its own right.

We discussed Yaklich at length earlier this month. He’s Michigan’s defensive coordinator and in his first-year with the program after leaving Illinois State.

But he’s also just five years removed from teaching social studies as a high school coach in Illinois. His path to Illinois State is fascinating in and of itself — as documented by CBS Sports, he accepted the job, then turned down the job, then accepted it again — but perhaps the most telling part of this entire story is that Yaklich was hired by Beilein having never met the man before his interview.

The way this works in most coaching circles is that you hire from within your network. You get a job, you know who you want on staff, you know the work they’ve done and how they coach and how they recruit and whether or not you can handle spending the long, dreary hours on the road recruiting together. You hire your friends, basically.

Beilein bucked that trend.

He not only hired Yaklich, but he also hired Deandre Haynes off of that Illinois State staff, another move that is entirely uncommon.

And the results couldn’t be better.

This is who Beilein is at his core. He, too, was a teacher before matriculating into the coaching ranks. He never worked the system to get ahead. He started out as a high school coach. He won there and then got a job at a community college. From there, he coached at a Division III school, a Division II school, Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia before ending up in Ann Arbor.

He is the outlier.

And it only makes sense that he is the guy that has found the other outliers and turned them into a team that is just two wins away from cutting down the nets on the final night of the college basketball season.

“He looks for pieces that fit together,” Robinson says. “He doesn’t necessarily recruit five stars. We do, but he mostly looks for guys that will get stuff done for him and will buy into what we’re doing here. That’s what we’re all about, building a culture that will last and grow over time.”

Former Penn coach allegedly took bribes from potential recruit’s father

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Former Penn head coach Jerome Allen allegedly took bribes from a Miami businessman who wanted his son to get into the school as a “recruited basketball player” — increasing his chances to gain entry to the Ivy League school.

According to a report from Bloomberg’s Michael Smith, David Voreacos and Eben Novy-Williams, Allen was involved with Miami businessman Philip Esformes, who had a son, Morris, who was allegedly recruited by several Ivy League schools. When Philip Esformes was accused of health-care fraud, money laundering, conspiracy and bribery, the government uncovered more than $74,000 in gifts that Esformes gave to Allen in 2013 and 2014.

Allen is identified strictly as “Coach-2” in the indictment that alleges that he took multiple cash payments, paid trips from Philadelphia to Miami, and a private jet trip that included Allen, Esformes and his son. The benefits are alleged to be $74,558 — including three separate wired payments of $15,000, $20,000 and $18,000 to Allen from Esformes.

These alleged incidents took place in 2013 and 2014, when Allen was still head coach at Penn and Morris Esformes was a high school basketball player trying to make it to the Division I level. Esformes was eventually granted admission to Penn as he was allegedly going to be on the basketball team. But Allen was fired before Esformes enrolled at the school. So Esformes went to school at Penn, but he never played for the basketball team. Esformes is currently still a senior at Penn.

Allen has been an assistant coach under Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics since leaving Penn in 2015. He hasn’t been criminally charged for any of these alleged benefits while the NCAA also hasn’t been involved with anything yet.

But this is yet another black eye on college basketball — and this time coming from a prestigious Ivy League institution. It shows that cheating and using leverage happens at all levels of Division I college basketball. Lately, the schools have been paying to get players. This shows there are instances of wealthy people attempting to gain influence through athletics.

This case at Penn is certainly a rare one. Esformes tried to exploit a loophole that would allow his son entry into a great school under the guise that he was a potential Division I-caliber basketball player. And Morris Esformes did end up at Penn — and seems to be doing well. So, this didn’t end poorly for Morris or Allen.

Since Allen is coaching at the NBA level, this likely won’t alter his coaching career, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the NCAA get involved with Penn and Allen going forward.

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.”