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Physical transformation of Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall has Villanova on brink of title

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SAN ANTONIO — We were all thinking it.

John Beilein said it.

“This is the Golden State Warriors here,” the Michigan head coach said, one day after watching Villanova set a record for the most three-pointers made in a Final Four game and one day before his team will be tasked with trying to stop that avalanche from coming. “This is Draymond Green-type of thing where your [big] guys can shoot it, they can pass it, they can do everything.”

The big guys that Beilein is referring to are Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall, and they are what makes Villanova impossible to slow down.

I know Villanova has Jalen Brunson, and yes, he is the superstar, the National Player of the Year that can break your team’s spirit without breaking a sweat or cracking a smile. When he wants to take a game over, he is taking that game over.

“If he was the only one out there, you could do some things [defensively],” Beilein said.

He’s not.

Mikal Bridges is a potential lottery pick on the wing. Donte DiVincenzo probably has an NBA career in his future as well, and Phil Booth has proven to be a more than adequate role player as a redshirt junior.

But Spellman and Paschall are the difference-makers. They are the guys that create the mismatches, the players that force opposing big men to make a decision: Either they are going to chase their front court counterparts around on the perimeter, leaving space for guards to penetrate without any rim protection, or they are going to help and pray that their rotations are fast enough that one of Villanova’s half-dozen three-point snipers doesn’t get a wide-open look.

Neither option works.

And what makes them truly special is that neither of them will be overpowered or a liability defensively. Paschall is one of the most explosive leapers in the country, and at 6-foot-6 with long arms and the ability to move his feet, he’s the prototype of a switchable wing. Spellman is a beast, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound behemoth that has, in this tournament, really shown off his athleticism, shot-blocking and strength inside.

The most impressive part?

Both of them were fat when they arrived at Villanova.


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To truly appreciate where Omari Spellman is in his life right now you have to understand just how difficult it was for him when he arrived at Villanova less than two years ago.

At the time, Spellman was a balloon. He was right around 300 pounds, a five-star prospect that had all kinds of potential buried underneath his 25 percent body-fat. Spellman knew that, eventually, he would have to get himself into shape, but what he didn’t know was just how much time he was going to have to do it during his first year on campus.

Spellman had to redshirt his first year on campus. The NCAA ruled that he was a fifth-year player coming out of high school, that he didn’t get his core credit completed within the required window of time because they determined that his high school clock had started when he repeated the eighth-grade.

Villanova appealed the ruling, but the NCAA wasn’t hearing it.

“Coach called me into his office, and he just sat me down,” Spellman said. “‘The appeal came up. You’re not going to be able to play.’ I just broke down. It was hard, but we talked about it, and once I calmed down we could only move forward.”

“They told me you can’t be successful at any level past high school at 300 pounds,” Spellman added. “They told me, ‘Beyond basketball, how do you want to be able to interact with your children, and your children’s children?’ That really hit home for me, because I don’t want to be unhealthy for the rest of my life. It’s something I really took pride in.”

What moving forward meant was a blessing in disguise, and music to the ears of Strength & Conditioning coach John Shackleton, or Shack.

He’d have a full year to work with Spellman without having to worry about the inconvenience of a basketball game.

The key with Spellman came down to discipline. He had no understanding, or desire, to eat well. Gummi bears by the bag. Fried foods. Fast food. “I wasn’t eating because I was hungry,” Spellman said. “It tasted good.”

Shack’s job isn’t just to be the S&C coach. He’s also a nutrition coach, which is different from being a dietician or a nutritionist because his goal wasn’t to simply give Spellman the foods that he needed to be eating. He was teaching him how to be a healthier person. Shack and Spellman would stroll the aisles of Whole Foods, the coach teaching his student what was good for him and why the bad stuff was bad. He would go to restaurants and show Spellman how he could find something on the menu that he enjoyed eating without breaking his diet. He would task Villanova’s grad assistants with going to Sweetgreen — think Chipotle but salads instead of burritos — and have him drop them off at Spellman’s class five minutes before Spellman showed up.

“Everything with him was clockwork,” Shack said. “I knew if he didn’t eat for a while, he’d end up eating some s*** because he’d be starving.”

And when the results started to kick in, that’s when Spellman realized the power of being in shape. “He’s addicted to the grind,” teammate Donte DiVincenzo, himself a redshirt, said. Now, when Spellman goes out to eat on his own, he’ll take pictures of the plates, sending them to Shack — “Is this approved?” — instead of posting them to Instagram.

All told, Spellman lost about 45 pounds while adding muscle, explosiveness and quickness to his game that he never had before.

Paschall’s transformation wasn’t as drastic as Spellman’s.

The 6-foot-6 forward transferred to Villanova from Fordham after his head coach was fired, but he was injured at the end of that year and disenfranchised with where the program was headed.

“I got lazy,” Paschall said, and his weight jumped up close to 270 pounds. He had 16 percent body fat. More than anything, he had let himself go; the dad-bod physique may be what’s trendy these days, but it’s not exactly ideal for a basketball player whose skillset is built around his athleticism.

Like Spellman, Paschall was going to have to sit out a year once he arrived at Villanova, and once again, Shack was able to get his hooks into a player that needed to change his body.

Paschall’s situation was also a little bit different than Spellman’s. The weight came off once he started working out again — he says he’s down to 245 pounds with 6 percent body fat — but his issue was in the mechanics. He never was properly taught the movements he is supposed to make while working out, and that manifested itself in weak stabilizing muscles. “He couldn’t even squat or lunge properly,” but he still had a 40-inch vertical when he showed up to campus.

The plan with Paschall started at the very basic level. He would put the player in front of a mirror so he could see how goofy and awkward he looked doing movements like air-squats or lunges. He put him in a bicram yoga class to help develop his core and strengthen his stabilizers. He helped him perfect the details, and the results have been impressive. Paschall is a physical specimen.

And those transformations have transformed this Villanova team into what they are: A juggernaut that is impossible to matchup with.

They no longer have mismatches, not with their front line down 75 pounds.

“It helps the most on the defensive end, trying to stay in front of guys, blocking shots and moving laterally,” Spellman said of the weight loss. “It just helps all around to not have that weight. It would be like you going to play basketball but before you go out on the court, they put a 45 pound bookbag on you. It just makes it harder.”

Spellman lost weight, but he’s proud of where he has grown: as a person, as a man, as an adult. On a roster full of players more than happy to provide the media with canned responses highlighting all the buzz-words involved with Villanova basketball, Spellman is a breath of fresh air. He’s thoughtful, he’s introspective, he’s open and honest, particularly when he’s discussing himself and his weight loss. He’s taken up poetry in his spare time, and he told ESPN he’s working on writing a novel.

Which is why it’s very easy to believe him when he says things like this:

“It was a blessing in disguise. At the time it was hard for me to understand. It was definitely difficult for me to look at it as a positiive, but coach talked to me about having a great attitude and using our mantra as motivation. I just tried to make the best of it and mature as a person, and it’s definitely helped my game.”

“I had to go through a lot of ups and downs last year to fully understand that this is where I needed to be. If I would have played last year, I wouldn’t have been as meticulous and as disciplined. I would have had an OK year, but I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

And where he is, where Paschall is, now is the reason Villanova is one win away from another national title.

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.