Chris Covatta/Getty Images

Most influential testing the water decisions

Leave a comment

The deadline to declare for the NBA draft has come and gone, which means we’re now waiting for the next deadline: When underclassmen have to pull their name out of the NBA draft if they are testing the waters.

That day is May 30th.

It is two weeks away, after the NBA draft combine and nearly three weeks before the draft itself.

So there is still a ways to go with this process.

But as things stand today, on the even of the combine, here are the players that will have the biggest impact on next season..

More than 150 players on declared for the draft.

To help you parse it all down, here are the most influential Should-I-Stay-Or-Should-I-Go decisions that are going to be made over the course of the next two weeks.

OMARI SPELLMAN and DONTE DIVINCENZO, Villanova

Villanova already lost a pair of juniors to the NBA draft as both Mikal Bridges, a potential top ten pick, and Jalen Brunson, last year’s reigning National Player of the Year, declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Eric Paschall and Phil Booth both opted to return to school for their redshirt senior seasons where, along with returnees Jermaine Samuels, Collin Gillispie and Dhamir Cosby-Rountree and a recruiting class that is as good as any that Jay Wright had landed in his time on the Main Line, has Villanova’s program in a great place for the future.

And frankly, even with just that group of guys, the Wildcats are likely still going to enter the season as the favorite to win the Big East once again, although that might say more about the Big East than it does about Villanova.

But if they get Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman back, we could be looking at a situation where this is once again the best team in college basketball.

(Elsa/Getty Images)

Let’s start with DiVincenzo, since I think he’s the more likely of the two to return. On the one hand, he might end up being a preseason first-team all-american if he makes the choice to play for Jay Wright for another season, and as such, he’ll likely end up taking over the lion’s share of Villanova’s offense as a result. But more importantly, at least when it comes to the draft, is that DiVincenzo still has some things that he can improve on that would make him a more palatable first round pick. As dynamic as he was this season, Divincenzo has always been a streaky scorer, a mixed bag as a decision-maker and a questionable ball-handler. Those are things that can be improved upon and, with a weaker draft coming up in 2019, the kind of thing that might be able to sneak him into the lottery.

One concerning note: Villanova landed a commitment from grad transfer Joe Cremo. That’s not exactly a promising sign for DiVincenzo, as Cremo more or less plays the same position as him, a spot that Villanova does have depth.

Spellman is a different story. He’s something of a finished product in terms of an NBA prospect. There are things that he can improve on — his post game, for one, and his ability to drive left, another — but the weight loss that he went through in his two seasons as a part of the Villanova program is what turned him into an NBA player. Given his size, his ability to shoot from three, the way he attacks close-outs and the fact that he can protect the rim and rebound the ball now that he’s shed 50 pounds, there is likely a spot for him in an NBA rotation somewhere. And while DiVincenzo can improve where he’s picked by coming back, I think Spellman is always going to find himself in that range of being a late first rounder or an early second rounder.

The catch, however, is that I think Spellman’s return might be more important to Villanova as a team. His skillset is what brings everything together and makes that Villanova offense so difficult to guard.

As it stands, Villanova is currently the No. 2 overall team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25. With both players officially back, I’ll have to think long and hard about whether or not they should be No. 1.

(Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

CALEB MARTIN, CODY MARTIN and JORDAN CAROLINE, Nevada

Should Nevada get all three of these guys back for another season, the Wolf Pack are going to enter the 2018-19 season as a preseason top ten team.

But are they going to get all three of these guys back?

That, at this point, is a major question mark for one, simple reason: After landing commitments from a pair of grad transfers and top 15 recruit Jordan Brown, Eric Musselman currently has a roster with 15 players set to receive scholarships. That’s two over the limit.

All three of these guys are all staring down the barrel of a redshirt senior season, meaning that it will be the fifth year that the three — all of whom transferred into Nevada — will be in college. If they already have their degree, and they are all turning 23 years old in the next year, is a shot at making the Final Four enough incentive to return to school?

For Caroline it might be. As talented as he is, I’m not sure that he gets drafted if he turns pro. Both Martin twins have an actual chance to end up hearing their name called on draft night — Caleb as one of the best shot-makers in college basketball and Cody as a 3-and-D role player — but it would be as second round picks. As we noted last week, that’s not a deterrent from landing a guaranteed deal, and for kids that are on the wrong side of the development curve, starting to earn money might be an attractive option.

If all three are gone, then I think we’re talking about Nevada as a team that is going to be in the back end of the top 25. With all three, the Wolf Pack will probably be the best Mountain West team we’ve seen since Jimmer and Kawhi were tearing the conference up eight years ago.

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

KEVIN HUERTER and BRUNO FERNANDO, Maryland

There are so many teams in the Big Ten with so much on the line over the course of the next five weeks, but I’m not sure anyone has more at stake than Maryland, who is still waiting to hear what Huerter and Fernando are going to do.

Let’s pretend, for a second, that both return to school. Huerter — a 6-foot-7 wing that averaged 14.6 points and shot 42 percent from three — joins Anthony Cowan and Darryl Morsell to give the Terps one of the better backcourts in college basketball while Fernando, a native of Angola, would be in line for a breakout sophomore campaign. Throw in a recruiting class that includes transfer Schnider Herard and five-star Jalen Smith up front and promising four-star wings like Eric Ayala, Serrel Smith and Aaron Wiggins, and there is something here for Mark Turgeon to work with.

It’s why Maryland is a top 20 team in our preseason rankings.

But Huerter has some second round appeal this season given his size, length and shooting ability while Fernando, who had some impressive moments as a freshman, is tangentially linked to the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption. Fernando and Kansas freshman Silvio De Sousa as childhood friends that both have the same American guardian. That guardian allegedly received a payout of at least $20,000 to get De Sousa out from under payments he already received from a rival apparel company when he committed to Kansas; De Sousa, who played for Under Armour sponsored high school and AAU teams, was considered a near-lock to head to Maryland, who is Under Armour’s flagship program.

Without those two, Anthony Cowan will take on the role of Melo Trimble, trying to carry the load for the Terps, and I’m not sure he’s cut out for it the way that Trimble was.

(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue

Edwards might end up being the best lead guard in college basketball next season. I would not be surprised to see him end up as a consensus preseason first-team all-american should he end up coming back to school, and if he does, I think Purdue is a borderline top 25 team that will be back in the NCAA tournament. Without him, however, and the Boilermakers will have to replace five starters on a team that really didn’t have much in the way of quality depth. Edwards is the difference between Purdue being a good team and Purdue being in a total rebuild.

ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

Wisconsin just finished the worst season the program has had in two decades, snapping a 19-year NCAA tournament streak and a 16-year run of top four finishes in the Big Ten. And yet, I feel good about where this team is headed. Much of that, as I noted in this column, has to do with the promising crop of youngsters and the way that they finished last season despite being injured and, you know, young. But much more of it had to do with the idea that Happ, an all-american in 2016-17 and a preseason all-american heading into last season, would be back for his senior year. He is the anchor for this group on both ends of the floor.

JAMES PALMER JR. and ISAAC COPELAND, Nebraska

Palmer was one of the best players in the Big Ten last season, quietly putting together an incredible year that not enough people paid attention to. Copeland had his best season as a collegian last year, and the two of them, the two leading scorers for a team that tied for fourth in the Big Ten last year, are the reason why Nebraska looks like they have a shot to be even better next year. They are a borderline top 25 team that should get Tim Miles back to the NCAA tournament. They are also both transfers that might opt to turn professional with a degree in hand, and if that were to happen, the Cornhuskers are going to be heading back into rebuilding mode.

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan

Michigan is the team that I’ve gotten the most pushback on for leaving out of the NBC Sports preseason top 25. I have them out right now because I’m not convinced that Matthews returns to school and, when combined with losing their two best offensive weapons — Mo Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman — to graduation, would leave Michigan very young and without the kind of offensive firepower that they had this year. Matthews coming back would change that outlook and make the Wolverines more of a finished product than they are without him. Matthews, individually, would be a potential all-american — and top 20 picks — if he were to return and show off an ability to shoot more consistently from three.

MUSTAPHA HERON, BRYCE BROWN, JARED HARPER, and AUSTIN WILEY, Auburn

I’m honestly not sure what to do with Auburn here. It appeared initially that Mustapha Heron would be signing with an agent, but he has told reporters recently that he has not yet signed those papers and is considering returning to school. Without him, it is hard for me to justify to myself ranking the Tigers in the top 15 of the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 even with the success they had last season. When it’s all said and done, they’ll probably be there so long as they get the other three guys back. But if Heron does come back? There would be a case to make for him as a top ten player in the sport next, and the Tigers could legitimately be a preseason top five team and the favorite in an SEC that will include a pair of other top ten teams — Kentucky and Tennessee. And I haven’t even mentioned anything about the FBI yet. There is a lot going on down in Auburn this offseason.

UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas

Azubuike is on this list now because of the fact that Kansas will, more likely than not, be without the services of Silvio De Sousa following the latest reveal in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption. If Azubuike opts to remain in the draft, that means that the five-spot in the Kansas lineup will be manned by Mitch Lightfoot and freshman David McCormack. The reason that Azubuike is so low on this list is that, without him, I would fully expect Kansas to play a smaller, more versatile lineup, and that might actually make them more difficult to matchup with. Put another way, losing Azubuike would have a bigger impact on how Kansas plays instead of how good they actually end up being.

TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse

Battle is a borderline first round pick, a guy that could go anywhere between the 20s and the 40s, depending on which NBA organizations fall in love with him. If he’s back, Syracuse has to be thought of as a potential tournament team because, you know, they were this year without all that much around him. If he’s gone, things could get ugly.

Tennessee survives scare from No. 15-seed Colgate

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Tennessee survived a scare from No. 15 seed Colgate as the Volunteers claimed a 77-70 win on Friday afternoon in a South Region NCAA tournament first-round game in Columbus.

The Volunteers led by 12 at the half and by as many as 14 points in the second half before Colgate responded with a furious push to take a 52-50 lead with under 12 minutes left. But Tennessee responded with scoring from a variety of sources to regain the advantage and close out the game.

Admiral Schofield (19 points) buried back-to-back three-pointers when it was a one-possession game to put this game out of reach for Tennessee. Jordan Bone (16 points), Jordan Bowden (14 points) and Lamonte Turner (13 points) also finished in double-figures while All-American Grant Williams (nine points, eight rebounds) had a quiet game.

Playing most of Friday without leading scorer and Patriot League Player of the Year Rapolas Ivanauskas (vision issues; 0 points, 0-for-4 shooting), Colgate (24-11) gave Tennessee a legitimate scare during its first NCAA tournament appearance in 23 years. Conference tournament title-game hero Jordan Burns had another great day shooting from the perimeter as he finished with 32 points on 8-for-13 three-point shooting.

Colgate was 15-for-29 from distance as a team on Friday as treys kept them in the game. Junior forward Will Rayman (10 points) and freshman guard Tucker Richardson (10 points) also finished in double-figures for the Raiders.

Tennessee advances to face No. 10 seed Iowa on Sunday in a second-round matchup in Columbus. The Vols will need to play much better in order to get past Iowa as the Hawkeyes used hot second-half shooting to get past No. 7 seed Cincinnati.

Williams had an off-day and wasn’t putting up his normal production, but it’s a positive sign for Tennessee that its guards all stepped up to contribute double-figures.

No. 13-seed UC Irvine pulls off upset of No. 4-seed Kansas State

AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Leave a comment

And the Anteaters go marching on.

Max Hazzard hit five threes, including a critical three with less than two minutes left on the clock to give UC Irvine a five-point lead, and scored 19 points to lead the No. 13-seed to the first real upset of the NCAA tournament.

Evan Leonard added 19 points, six boards, four assists and four steals, making four free throws to ice the game in the final 20 seconds, as No. 4-seed Kansas State went down, 70-64.

Kansas State entered this game as the co-Big 12 champion, but they were playing without their star, Dean Wade, who is dealing with foot issues that cost him the Big 12 tournament as well. His absence hurt. He is the best shooter, the best passer and the best player for the Wildcats, and his absence contributed to Kansas State’s 38.6 percent shooting now and an 8-for-27 performance from three.

But that should not take any of the credit away from Irvine. Remember, Kansas State reached the Elite 8 last season with Wade playing.

The credit belongs to Russell Turner, his game plan and the way his team executed it. Turner is a former Standford assistant that had a shot at getting the Cal job when the Bears hired Wyking Jones. He’s won four of the last six Big West regular season titles and advanced to the NCAA tournament twice in his five year tenure. This is the kind of performance that will make him an in-demand coach during the carousel this season, and he should have been all along.

But that’s neither here nor there.

The truth is that this Irvine team is really, really good. They take away the paint, they are as good defensively as any high-major that you’ll find and they have the size to match up with anyone. They are going to be a tough out for whoever wins tonight’s Wisconsin-Oregon first round battle.

Jarrett Culver’s big game leads No. 3 Texas Tech past No. 14 Northern Kentucky

Getty Images
Leave a comment

All-American Jarrett Culver had a monster outing as No. 3 seed Texas Tech cruised to a 72-57 win over No. 14 seed Northern Kentucky during a Friday afternoon NCAA tournament first-round game in the West Region.

Finishing with 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, Culver was efficient and dominant for the Red Raiders as they opened up the game in the second half. Only a 30-26 lead for Texas Tech at the break, the Red Raiders clamped down and used the offense of Culver and it’s No. 1 overall defense to break the game open.

The Big 12 Player of the Year had one of the best individual games of any player in the first round as he was 10-for-17 from the floor and 3-for-5 from three-point range. Big man Tariq Owens also finished in double-figures for Texas Tech with 12 points while Davide Moretti added 10 points.

Northern Kentucky (26-9) stayed in the game for a half thanks to the hot shooting of junior guard Tyler Sharpe as he finished with 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting. The Norse couldn’t generate much consistent offense outside of Sharpe, however, as Northern Kentucky shot 5-for-21 from the three-point line. Horizon League Player of the Year Drew McDonald was held to only five points on 2-for-12 shooting as he struggled to get going. Dantez Wilson (11 points) was the only other double-figure scorer for the Norse.

The Red Raiders advance to face either No. 6 seed Buffalo or No. 11 seed Arizona State in Tulsa on Sunday.

Oklahoma advances past Ole Miss in rout

AP Photo/Sean Rayford
Leave a comment

Rashard Odomes and Christian James both popped off for 20 points and Kristian Doolittle added 19 points, 14 boards and five assists as No. 9-seed Oklahoma blew out No. 8-seed Ole Miss, 95-72, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The Sooners, with the win, will advance to face No. 1-seed Virginia as long as Virginia can get past Gardner-Webb in the first round.

This was something of a cathartic win for an Oklahoma team that was among the handful of at-large invites that had thoroughly mediocre performances in league play. The Sooners opened the Big 12 season with eight losses in their first 11 games and finished with a 7-11 record in the conference.

One game samples really should not determine whether or not a body of work merited inclusion in an event like that, but it’s hard to see the performance that this team — and the Big 12 as a whole — put together thus far in the event and think the committee was wrong to add a sub-.500 team from the Big 12 to the field.

It’s also a sign for what this Oklahoma program is and can be under Lon Kruger.

It’s difficult to compare things like this year over year, but it is certainly interesting to note than not only did Oklahoma get a better seed this year than they did last year, with Trae Young on the roster, but they advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, which is something they did not do with Trae.

That’s not to say that the team is better without him — frankly, I think that’s a silly argument to make. Guys are a year older and a year better, which matters, and I think that the 7-11 mark in Big 12 play says more than the result of a one-game knockout tournament.

It is, however, important to note that Kruger has this thing to the point that they can lose a guy that is now averaging 18.5 points and 7.8 assists in the NBA and still be good enough to get a bid and win a game.

No. 10 Iowa rallies past No. 7 Cincinnati

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Iowa rallied from a slow start to get past No. 7 seed Cincinnati with a 79-72 win on Friday in a South Region NCAA tournament game in Columbus.

Cincinnati generated an early 18-5 lead in the first half as they fed off of the Bearcat-friendly Columbus crowd only to see the No. 10-seed Hawkeyes get hot in the second half.

Things turned in Iowa’s favor about midway through the first half when the Hawkeyes started working the ball more inside. Behind sophomore big man Luka Garza (20 points, 8-for-11 shooting), the Hawkeyes were able to establish an inside presence while opening up the team’s perimeter-shooting options.

In the second half, freshman Joe Wieskamp (19 points) and the Hawkeyes started to make an abundance of threes as they finished 11-for-22 (50 percent) from the perimeter — including a blistering 7-for-10 mark in the second half. Junior guard Jordan Bohannon also tallied 13 points while Nicholas Baer added 10 points as Iowa outscored Cincinnati 48-36 in the second half.

Using the hot shooting of senior point guard Justin Jenifer (19 points), Cincinnati appeared to be completely in the driver’s seat in the first half. But once Iowa started responding with a flurry of second-half threes, the Bearcats struggled to play from behind in the final minutes. Jarron Cumberland (18 points) didn’t get rolling as a scorer until the second half while big man Nysier Brooks (11 points) fouled out with a few minutes left. Tre Scott also finished with 10 points on the afternoon for the Bearcats. Cincinnati struggled to match Iowa’s hot perimeter shooting as they were 6-for-27 from three-point range (24 percent) on the day.

This is a great comeback win for Iowa, as they overcame the bad start by working to take better shots. Forcing a lot of early looks, once the Hawkeyes started getting Garza comfortable on the block, it opened up looks for their shooters. It’s also notable that junior forward Tyler Cook, one of Iowa’s best players, was limited to only five points on 1-for-9 shooting.

Iowa was playing sluggish basketball the final three weeks of the regular season. Friday’s second half was a reminder of how dangerous the Hawkeyes can be if they are hitting shots. And for Iowa to rally when Cook was playing this poorly is yet another positive sign that the Hawkeyes are not to be taken lightly going forward.

With Iowa’s win, the Big Ten now moves to 6-0 in the 2019 NCAA tournament after a 5-0 start on Thursday. Iowa advances to face the winner of No. 2 seed Tennessee and No. 15 seed Colgate on Sunday in Columbus.