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Travis Steele knows Xavier’s next goal: Reach Final Four

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CINCINNATI — Travis Steele knows the clear expectation as Xavier’s next basketball coach.

“It’s the elephant that’s in the room: Go where Xavier has never gone in the NCAA Tournament,” Steele said.

The Musketeers have never reached a Final Four. They had their best chance this season, when they were ranked No. 3 in the AP Top 25 — a school record — and won their first Big East regular-season title. They got a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, only to lose in the second round to Florida State.

Coach Chris Mack headed to Louisville a few days later. Steele — who was the top assistant under Mack — was hired over the weekend as the school’s 18th head coach, given a higher bar than any of the others.

“There is one final hurdle,” athletics director Greg Christopher said Wednesday while introducing Steele as head coach. “We’ve never been to a Final Four, never won a national championship.”

Xavier decided its best chance was to stick with a formula that has brought the basketball program this far. The Musketeers were inundated with interest from candidates at other schools. They chose to stay in-house, providing continuity to a program that become nationally prominent.

Xavier has become adept at grooming its next head coach on the staff and then letting them take the school another step higher — a process that school president the Rev. Michael Graham called a “signature element” to the program. Xavier has grown from a mid-major program in the 1980s through a succession of coaches: Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean Miller and Mack.

It was no surprise that Steele — who was hired by Miller and has been Mack’s assistant for the last nine seasons — was considered the best choice.

“This is not something we do very often here at Xavier,” Graham said, referring to coaching changes. “But when we do it, we do it really, really well.”

Steele essentially clinched the job during his formal interview on Friday when he spoke in detail about his plans for getting Xavier to a place where it is considered a Final Four program. The Musketeers reached the Elite Eight for the third time in 2016-17.

“Every coach has made Xavier a better place than it was before,” Steele said. “That’s a huge responsibility on my shoulders.”

Unlike Mack, who grew up in Cincinnati and played for the Musketeers, Steele didn’t have any direct ties to the school until Miller hired him in 2008 as director of basketball operations. His brother, John Groce, also is a former Xavier assistant coach and currently the head coach at Akron.

As Mack’s top assistant, Steele was involved in recruiting and designing the offense that was one of the best in the country. Steele said Wednesday there won’t be many schematic changes in how the Musketeers play, but he’ll emphasize defense as he puts together next season’s team.

The Musketeers lose four seniors — Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Sean O’Mara and Kerem Kanter — and look to be more of a guard-driven team at the outset next season. Their defense had lapses last season that allowed other teams to put together big runs. Xavier let a 12-point lead slip away in the second half of its loss to Florida State.

Steele said he’s already heard from Xavier fans about it.

“They think our defense needs to improve,” he said, grinning.

Several returning players met with the athletics director during the coaching search and lobbied for Steele to get the job.

“We got coach Steele, and that’s what we wanted,” point guard Quentin Goodin said. “I want to play for a coach I’m comfortable with. He’s really energetic. He’s got a lot of leadership. He’s one of those coaches who knows what he’s talking about. He’ll be straight with you.

“Him being here and helping us grown as players and people — that’s what I feel made him the best choice.”

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.”