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2018-19 Big 12 Preview: Kansas and everybody else, once again

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big 12 Conference.


Ah, the Big 12. It’s the league that has spent the last five years as the top-rated conference by KenPom, and usually by a wide margin. Seventy percent of its membership made the NCAA tournament last season, with a total of 90 percent playing in the postseason. Its teams won 60 percent of its games against other power conferences. Six players were selected in the NBA draft for the third consecutive year. The league is a running, dribbling, dunking, winning monster.

It also has been singularly, completely and, I’d argue, embarrassingly dominated by a single team for 14 consecutive years.

It’s not Kansas and the Little Nine, but to say the Jayhawks aren’t in a class of their own is sort of like arguing the sun is just another piece of our solar system.

The separation this looks to be significant enough that the annual head-meet-wall exercise of “Who will dethrone Kansas?” seems to be more of a futile exercise than typical.

Kansas is going to win the conference. It’ll be the 15th-consecutive time. They’re going to better than the numerous storied, proud and accomplished programs in the league.

Again.

We’re not far off from an enrolling a freshman class literally not knowing a world without the Jayhawks winning the Big 12. No matter how good the rest of the nine teams in the conference all may be any year, that’s a tough reality to swallow every single year.

Udoka Azubuike (John Weast/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Kansas reaches a singularity

The last half-decade or so of college basketball has produced essentially three paths to competing at the highest levels of the sport. You can accumulate five-star, one-and-done freshmen. Another way is to round up high-level transfers. Then there’s this other way of having players contribute and play for, and hear me out on this, multiple years on the same team and stepping into bigger and bigger roles.

Kansas just said eff it and did all three.

The Jayhawks have a top-five recruiting class featuring five-stars Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson while putting together maybe one of the more fearsome transfer groups ever with Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson and Charlie Moore. Then there’s Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick, both Final Four starters, plus Mitch Lightfoot, back for more. The Jayhawks may not be Duke, they may not be Nevada and they may not be Villanova, but they basically are a mashup of all the best talent-acquisition and roster-building strategies.

It’s easy to see why the rest of the league ends up on its back seeing stars while the Jayhawks pull away the Big 12 trophy every season. Kansas just does it better.

2. Kansas State runs it back

It took something like 500 words to get here, but I’m actually going to discuss – actually even just name – a Big 12 team other than Kansas now.

Let’s head west to Manhattan, where Bruce Weber has his entire team back after a surprise Elite Eight run. It’s a rather astounding turnaround for a coaching tenure that looked cooked in February 2017 when Kansas State had lost eight of 10, looked primed to miss the NCAA tournament for the third-straight year and Weber was under intense pressure.

Dean Wade is a legitimate All-American candidate, Barry Brown isn’t far behind and Xavier Sneed, Carter Diarra and Kamau Stokes are all proven Big 12 difference-makers. The Wildcats are going to have a level of continuity that is exceedingly – maybe entirely – rare in college hoops today. If that stability can keep them strong defensively – they make opponents grind out possessions when they’re not turning them over – and make strides offensively – they ranked outside the top-100 in eFG% last year – then Weber and the Wildcats might have a busy March once again.

Dean Wade (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

3. Is the honeymoon over in Austin?

It took four seasons after an earth-shaking Final Four appearance for a school to pull Shaka Smart away from VCU. Texas fans have to be hoping that’s exactly how long it takes for him to live up to expectations in Austin.

Smart has gotten the Longhorns to two NCAA tournaments in three years, but both resulted in first-round exits. In between those Big Dances in 2016 and 2018, Texas finished dead-last in the Big 12. It’s basically undeniable that Smart’s best season with Texas was on the strength of a roster compiled by a guy run out of town for not winning enough (that guy won an SEC title last year, by the way).

It’s probably not wholly accurate to say Smart is on the hot seat – most Texas fans probably won’t remember they have a basketball team until Tom Herman’s squad stops playing – but given his contract and Texas’ resources, it’s more than fair to expect something better than what he’s delivered in three years. The Longhorns have talent this season despite losing Mo Bamba with Jericho Sims, Matt Coleman, Kerwin Roach and Dylan Osetkowski all back while Andrew Jones continues his valiant battle with leukemia and holds out hope to be back on the floor. There’s also a top-10 recruiting class and Mount. St. Mary’s transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long. That’s probably not a roster that’ll wreak havoc on the Big 12, but it should be good enough to keep fans from fixating on spring football in February.

4. Mountaineer Machine

After two lackluster years to start its Big 12 tenure, West Virginia morphed into Press Virginia and Bob Huggins’ team hasn’t looked back. There have been standout players like Juwan Staten, Jaysean Paige, and Jevon Carter, but the strength has been the system for the Mountaineers. That’ll be put to the test this year again with the loss of Carter, a national defensive player of the year and All-American, but Huggins should once again have the bodies to throw weight around the Big 12.

Sagaba Konate may be the most entertaining defensive player in the whole country. The 6-foot-8 forward has wingspan and vert for days, plus a panache for the dramatic. The guy just seems to love blocking dunks and snatching shots out of mid-air. Esa Ahmad had a breakout sophomore campaign before academic issues upended his season last year, but a return to form is in order and would be a huge boon for the Mountaineers on both ends of the floor. Those are the headliners, but Huggs will again be able to roll out waves of talented and tough dudes that’ll be a menace in the Big 12.

5. Will there be any federal fallout?

Three Big 12 programs have become embroiled to varying degrees in the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball that rocked the sport more than a year ago, reverberated throughout last season and continues to send aftershocks with testimony ongoing in the Southern District of New York.

Brian Bowen Sr. alleged under oath that agent/runner Christian Dawkins told him Texas was willing to “help” with housing if his son, top-30 recruit Brian Jr., joined the Longhorns while Oklahoma State was offering $150,000 in cash, $8,000 for a car and more to buy a house. Cowboys associate head coach Lamont Evans was one of 10 arrested last fall, and was fired by the school.

The potential involvement and rule-breaking by Texas and Oklahoma State is certainly noteworthy and interesting, but the question that hangs over the conference is just how exposed Kansas may be. The Jayhawks are one of adidas’ flagship programs, and the three-stripes are knee-deep in federal investigators. There’s already been testimony that former Jayhawk Billy Preston got money, and there’s also under-oath statements saying that not only did current KU sophomore Silvio De Sousa as well, but that the Angola native previously had signed a pro deal with a Spanish club as well. De Sousa played in the Final Four last season, which would seem to imperil that banner at Allen Fieldhouse, at minimum.

So far, there have been no bombshells of alleged wrongdoing by coach Bill Self and the Jayhawks – especially when judged against a backdrop of fans increasingly caring less about players getting paid – but that possibility seems to be the biggest what-if still out there in a federal case that we’ve learned has spanned more than three years now.

Dedric Lawson (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

There are two fan bases that are indebted to the Lawson family. Really, the entire season of 2018-19 owes them thanks. If it wasn’t for Keelon Lawson getting demoted from assistant by Tubby Smith, Memphis might not have its electrifying alum, Penny Hardaway, at the helm of the program and Kansas might not be a popular preseason No. 1 pick. Those are two of the most interesting storylines this season and a testament to how good Dedric Lawson is.

The 6-foot-9 transfer averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.1 blocks per game as a sophomore for the Tigers, but left his hometown for Lawrence, along with his talented brother K.J., after Smith dumped their dad before getting dumped by Memphis. He now gives Bill Self one of the most productive and versatile players in the country to headline one of the most talented rosters in the country. Must be nice.

THE REST OF THE BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • SAGABA KONATE, West Virginia: The rare player who is it is actually exciting to watch play defense, Konate changes games with his work at the rim.
  • DEAN WADE, Kansas State: The 6-foot-10 senior is effective inside and out, which helps keep the Wildcats’ offense from bogging down.
  • QUENTIN GRIMES, Kansas: This is a bet Kansas leans on the Team USA’s MVP at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship at guard.
  • BARRY BROWN, Kansas State: The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 15.9 points per game last season and will be critical in the Wildcats’ quest to backup last year’s Elite Eight season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • LINDELL WIGGINTON, Iowa State
  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas
  • JAYLEN FISHER, TCU
  • MAKAI MASON, Baylor
  • KERWIN ROACH, Texas
Jarrett Culver (Elsa/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith stole the show for Texas Tech’s resurgent season and Elite Eight showing under Chris Beard, but Jarrett Culver was no slouch and figures to step into the void created by those two stars’ departures. He averaged 11.2 points per game and shot 38.2 percent from 3-point range. With a bigger role, he could put up major numbers in Lubbock.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

Aside from Smart for the aforementioned reasons, the Big 12 doesn’t have any coach who is explicitly feeling the heat. So if we dig below the surface (and, yes, stretch some), there are a few things to talk about.

It’s probably worth watching to see what happens with Kansas and the government’s corruption case, but the list of more bulletproof coaches than Bill Self probably isn’t longer than Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams. Mike Boynton was on staff when Oklahoma State was allegedly offering the Bowen family money, and his contract (and short, if surprisingly strong, track record) would make him easily expendable if the Cowboys had to. Steve Prohm went to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, won a Big 12 tournament and got to the Sweet 16 in his first two years with Iowa State but that was exclusively with players Fred Hoiberg brought to Ames, and when the roster turned over last year, the Cyclones sunk to last place. Prohm’s talent pool is much improved and he’s got plenty of goodwill with administration, but if the Cyclones aren’t back to relevance after missing the tournament for the first time since 2011, some impatience could bubble up.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Kansas is once again the Big 12’s best – and maybe only – hope for winning its first national title since 2008, but the league’s depth is once again one of – and maybe the – best in the country.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

The inevitable collision between the Super Slam Swatter Sagaba Konate and Soul-Snatching Slammer Lindell Wigginton.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Dec. 15, Kansas vs. Villanova
  • Jan. 26, Kansas vs. Kentucky
  • Nov. 9, West Virginia vs. Buffalo
  • Nov. 22, Texas vs. North Carolina
  • Dec. 20, Texas Tech vs. Duke
Sagaba Konate (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. KANSAS: Because there simply has been enough written about the Jayhawks in this space, here’s some more to consider about Kansas’ streak.

The last time the Jayhawks shared the Big 12 title: It was 2013, with Kansas State in Bruce Weber’s first season leading the Wildcats and playing the Jayhawks to a draw. Back then, Perry Ellis was a freshman, twerking was a thing people talked about a lot, Ben McLemore looked like a future NBA star, the power went out at the Super Bowl and Jeff Withey shot 100 percent (1-1) from 3-point range.

The last time there was a non-Kansas outright Big 12 winner: It was 2004. Eddie Sutton led Oklahoma State to a a 14-2 mark in the Big 12 and the Final Four. Those were the days when Kansas rolled with a Wayne Simien and Keith Langford 1-2 punch, everyone was quoting ‘Anchorman,’ Jameer Nelson was the national player of the year and MySpace and Facebook began their battle for friends. Which reminds me that ‘Friends’ was still on TV then, too.

2. KANSAS STATE: So I think Kansas State is going to be quite good. I think it’s clear going into the season that they have to be slotted as the second-best team in the Big 12. They’ve got continuity and talent. Stability and skill. Let’s indulge, for a moment, though, that maybe we’ve got them overrated some.

Would everyone be so high on the Wildcats if UMBC accomplish the 16-1 miracle and they instead had to face No. 1 overall seed Virginia? What if Arizona had actually played up to its talent level and gotten by Buffalo and Kentucky, to face Kansas State instead of a good-but-not-great John Calipari team? Kansas State, after all, was ultimately beat by a team that had losses to Milwaukee and Indiana State, although admittedly it was a team was from Chicago that had the backing of a nun, so Loyola could have been on a mission from God.

I dunno. Something to think about.

3. WEST VIRGINIA: The Mountaineers’ offense was actually ranked higher than its defense last season on KenPom for the first time of the Press Virginia era. West Virginia really didn’t make a ton of shots but they took care of the ball and hit the offensive glass. Losing Jevon Carter is a blow, no doubt, but the Mountaineers should be able to recreate that success on offense without him. It’s also probably a safe assumption that Bob Huggins won’t let the defense fall off a cliff.

Jaylen Fisher (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

4. TCU: It was pretty obvious in 2016 that the Horned Frogs had pulled off quite the coup when it took Jamie Dixon off Pitt’s hands, but the 1987 TCU graduate has outperformed expectations in a hurry. The Horned Frogs made their first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years last year, and look to have staying power under Dixon.

Vlad Brodziansky made a lot of what TCU did work with his presence in the middle and his loss, along with Kenrich Williams’, will be felt, but Dixon has plenty to work with. Point guard Jaylen Fisher is back after being sidelined with a knee injury to team with Alex Robinson in the backcourt while sharpshooters Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi return to give the Horned Frogs deadly shooters on the outside. The frontcourt could be a question, but TCU is a Big 12 contender.

5. TEXAS: Texas may not have a Jarrett Allen- or Mo Bamba-caliber NBA prospect on its roster this season, but the Longhorns are plenty talented. It wouldn’t shock anyone to see any of Matt Coleman, Dylan Osetkowski, Kerwin Roach and Jericho Sims on all-conference teams come season’s end while Texas also welcomes a top-10 recruiting class and Elijah Mitrou-Long, a Mount St. Mary’s transfer who averaged 15 points per game as a sophomore. Andrew Jones’ long-term health is obviously the chief concern, but if he is able to play, that gives Shaka Smart another highly talented player to deploy.

Smart has gotten Texas to play defense in his three years in Austin, but they’ll need to make strides on the offensive end to finally start competing at the upper echelon of the Big 12, much less the country, which was the expectation when the Longhorns became the team to finally pull Smart from VCU after a long list of schools failed to.

6. IOWA STATE: The Cyclones are going to be much more talented this season as they come off a 13-18 campaign that saw them finish four games behind ninth-place Oklahoma State in the standings, but getting all the pieces to fit could be the trick for coach Steve Prohm.

Lindell Wigginton is a proven scorer and his return after an NBA flirtation was paramount for the Cyclones, but if he wants to play point guard, his likely pro position, what’s that mean for Nick Weiler-Babb, who became a nightly triple-double threat at PG before injuries ended his season? Cameron Lard is a hugely talented big man, but found himself in trouble off the court and spent the summer off-campus at a wellness center. Iowa State will also have to figure out how to integrate transfers Marial Shayok (Virginia) and Michael Jacobson (Nebraska) along with one of the program’s best recruiting classes, headlined by top-50 recruit Talen Horton-Tucker, who the Cyclones think could be a star. There’s also the matter of Iowa State having no proven shooters outside of Wigginton.

If Iowa State can make it all fit together, they could be this year’s rags to riches story, but if things go wobbly, is there enough leadership to keep things steady?

Lindell Wigginton (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

7. TEXAS TECH: It’s going to be difficult for Chris Beard to replace Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith, but if he’s able to do it, it’ll probably be on the strength of graduate transfers. The Red Raiders welcome South Dakota’s Matt Mooney, who averaged 18 points per game in back-to-back seasons for the Coyotes, and St. John’s Tariq Owens, who averaged 8.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game for the Red Storm.

Beard isn’t without returners to lean on, however, with Jarrett Culver expected to take a major role and Norense Odiase back after starting 29 games. An Elite Eight repeat is probably a tall task, but Beard seems to have a formula figured out to keep things rolling in Lubbock.

8. BAYLOR: It’s going to be a rebuilding season in Waco for coach Scott Drew, who narrowly missed guiding the Bears to their fifth-straight NCAA tournament appearance last year with a 19-15 overall record and 8-10 Big 12 mark. Drew is experiencing heavy losses from that team, namely Manu Lecomte, Jo Lual-Acuil and T.J. Maston.

There will still be experience at Drew’s disposal, though, with Jake Lindsey, Tristan Clark, King McClure and Mark Vital all back after starting at least 14 games each, though none were huge contributors. The most fascinating pieces for Drew are transfers Mario Kegler (Mississippi State) and Makai Mason (Yale), who hasn’t played in essentially two years due to injury.

9. OKLAHOMA: Lon Kruger is one of the best coaches to do it, but he could be in for a long season with the Trae Young Show moving on after one year. Sure, it turned out to be a bumpy ride with Young, a lottery pick to Atlanta, last season, but you could never count the Sooners out with him on the floor.

It’s not going to be as difficult to bet against the Sooners this year as they return the bulk of the supporting cast from last year that seemed incapable of supporting Young. Maybe that singular style of play was just too hard to adapt to, but it’s difficult to see how Oklahoma is better this season than last.

10. OKLAHOMA STATE: Mike Boynton’s team was the surprise of the Big 12 last year as they won 21 games with a roster few in the Big 12 would have envied. That roster, though, lost basically all its best pieces and there aren’t much in the way of immediate reinforcements on their way. The Cowboys will try to hang their hats on defense, and if they’re able to parlay that into a season similar to last, it’ll be perhaps as big a surprise as their two wins against Kansas last year.

Lawyer: Evidence shows coaches knew of NCAA family payouts

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NEW YORK (AP) — A lawyer for a longtime Adidas employee urged jurors Thursday to use common sense and evidence to conclude college basketball coaches like Bill Self at Kansas and Rick Pitino at Louisville knew shoe companies were paying money to families of elite athletes to steer them to their schools.

Attorney Michael Schachter, representing Adidas sports marketing manager James “Jim” Gatto, cited testimony and evidence that emerged during the fraud conspiracy trial of Gatto, aspiring sports agent Christopher Dawkins and Merl Code, a former Adidas consultant.

“Ladies and gentlemen, what help do you think a coach thought Jim Gatto was going to provide in persuading a kid to go to their college?” he asked. “Jim works for a shoe company. He is not a guidance counselor. Kids don’t turn to him for assistance in where they should go to college.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Diskant, who has portrayed the schools and sometimes their coaches as victims of the defendants, said in a closing statement that coaches were not “running rampant.”

“Nothing can be further from the truth,” the prosecutor said, highlighting protocols in place at schools to ensure compliance with NCAA rules.

He said the defendants hid payments from coaches, knowing they would be fired if they facilitated payouts to players’ families.

“Does that mean that some of the coaches didn’t break the rules? No, it’s possible they did,” Diskant said.

The prosecutor noted that there was no mention of money in two voice messages Gatto left for Pitino. He also cited evidence that Dawkins, speaking of a financial payout, told the Bowen family: “I would never tell Rick anything like this because I don’t want to put him in jeopardy.”

Schachter told jurors that the government’s star witness — former Adidas consultant Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola — lied when he testified that he was concealing from universities the fact that cash was being paid to the families of top recruits.

He cited Gassnola’s testimony about a North Carolina State assistant coach. Gassnola, who pleaded guilty to criminal charges and cooperated with prosecutors, told jurors that he delivered cash in 2015 to Coach Orlando Early, who planned to give it to a personal trainer for highly touted point guard Dennis Smith Jr. so it could be relayed to the athlete’s family.

Schachter said evidence shows that Self “knew of and asked for a payment to be made to Silvio De Sousa’s handler.”

The lawyer added: “More than that, Coach Self requested just that kind of help that Mr. Gassnola arranged as a condition for Coach Self to permit Adidas to continue their sponsorship agreement with the University of Kansas.”

Schachter also cited a conversation his client had in late May 2017 with Pitino, saying it occurred just after Code told Gatto that he needed money for the family of Louisville recruit Brian Bowen Jr. because the University of Oregon, a Nike school, had made an “astronomical offer” to recruit him.

Schachter said Gatto wanted to be sure Pitino wanted Bowen before he spent his employer’s money.

“Why, precisely, would Louisville’s head coach think that a shoe company representative wants to speak with him about a player?” Schachter asked. “Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that the only explanation that makes any sense is that Coach Pitino knows exactly why Jim is calling to discuss a player.”

Bowen committed to Louisville on June 1, 2017, though he never played for the school. He now plays professionally in Australia. Pitino, a legendary coach, was never accused of a crime but was fired amid the investigation’s fallout.

North Carolina State announced last year that Early and the school’s head coach were leaving the program months before the corruption case became public.

Smith played one year at NC State. He now plays for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.

De Sousa is a sophomore at Kansas.

The jury is likely to start deliberations Monday.

Watch list for Malone award released

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It’s watchlist season, y’all.

The latest preseason inventory comes from the Malone Award, given to the country’s top power forward, which features 20 names.

Kentucky has a pair of players with P.J. Washington and Stanford transfer Reid Travis while the mid-major ranks are represented by South Dakota State’s Mike Daum, Northern Kentucky’s Drew McDonald and UNCW’s Devontae Cacok.

Duke freshman sensation Zion Williamson is also on the list as is senior All-American candidates Dean Wade of Kansas State and Luke Maye of North Carolina. SEC player of the year Grant Williams also makes the cut.

“We are privileged to annually present an award bearing the name of Karl Malone, a truly gifted player and an exemplary teammate,” John L. Doleva, President and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “The young men on the watch list for this, and other awards in the Naismith Starting 5, should be extremely proud, and we look forward to watching them compete throughout the upcoming season.”

The list will be cut to 10 in February, then to five and finally awarded to the honoree in April. Players not named in the initial 20 can also work their way into consideration.

Arizona’s Deandre Ayton won last year, Johnathan Motley of Baylor in 2017 and Georges Niang of Iowa State in 2016.

2019 Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award Candidates
Yoeli Childs, BYU
Zion Williamson, Duke
Juwan Morgan, Indiana
Dedric Lawson, Kansas
Dean Wade, Kansas St
Reid Travis, Kentucky
P.J. Washington, Kentucky
Jordan Murphy, Minnesota
Jordan Brown, Nevada
Luke Maye, North Carolina
Drew McDonald, Northern Kentucky
Chris Silva, South Carolina
Mike Daum, South Dakota State
Grant Williams, Tennessee
Devontae Cacok, UNCW
Bennie Boatwright, USC
Simisola Shittu, Vanderbilt
Eric Paschall, Villanova
Noah Dickerson, Washington
Sagaba Konate, West Virginia

SEC banking on some veteran stars – even Kentucky

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Kentucky’s PJ Washington says coach John Calipari has “chilled out” at practice leading up to the season.

It doesn’t take as much yelling from coaches when you have a little seasoning and maturity on the roster, qualities that the Wildcats and other top Southeastern Conference teams are banking on to match — or even better — the league’s strong 2017-18 season. Calipari says he hasn’t had to raise his voice yet in practice.

“Last year it was pretty much every day but this year he’s kind of chilled out a little bit,” Washington said Wednesday at SEC media day. “We have experience obviously.”

Seriously? No yelling?

“I’m shocked, too,” Washington said. “He’s usually screaming every five seconds. Now, he’s just stopping practice and trying to teach young guys what to do.”

It helps when they’re not all young guys. Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis , a two-time All-Pac-12 performer, brought a wealth of experience to the lineup.

There are plenty of highly touted freshmen in Lexington and around the league, of course. But a number of standouts returned, too, including reigning SEC player of the year Grant Williams at Tennessee, Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford, Auburn’s Jared Harper, Florida’s Jalen Hudson and LSU’s Tremont Waters.

The SEC proved its back as a basketball power last season, sending a record eight teams to the NCAA Tournament. Optimism abounds again going into this season, with coaches not being shy about trumpeting the league’s strength.

“The league top to bottom has probably never been stronger,” Calipari said. “Top-heavy, too. Crazy.”

Added Mississippi State’s Ben Howland: “I can’t say enough about our league. This league is going to be so good this year. As good as it was last year, this year’s group is going to be even better.”

LSU coach Will Wade said last year there were a number of good teams, and now there are some that can be “elite.”

Plenty of players explored entering the NBA draft after last season but opted to return.

Tennessee and Auburn shared the SEC regular season title and return most of their top players. The Volunteers return all five starters and are led by Williams and senior Admiral Schofield. That experience prompts Howland to proclaim: “There’s no doubt they’re the team to beat in our conference.”

Auburn lost leading scorer Mustapha Heron, who transferred to St. John’s. Harper and Bryce Brown returned while center Austin Wiley and forward Danjel Purifoy are back after being ineligible last season.

“Austin is as big, as strong, as fast and as mobile as any big guy in the country,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, whose team is no longer undersized.

Wiley is recovering from a foot injury that could sideline him early in the season. Purifoy is still ineligible for the first nine games.

The Tigers snapped a 15-year NCAA Tournament drought last season.

Then there’s Kentucky. Washington, Quade Green and Nick Richards are among the returnees.

Travis is the Wildcats’ only preseason first-team All-SEC pick.

The Wildcats are the preseason league favorites — as usual. But teams like Tennessee and Auburn are potential preseason top 10 teams, too.

For all the returning veterans, there’s also a strong wave of incoming talent.

Kentucky brought in the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class with four five-star recruits, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.

LSU was ranked No. 4, led by five-star forwards Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams, and teams like Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Florida also had highly rated classes. The Gators (Andrew Nembhard) and Commodores (Darius Garland) both signed five-star point guards.

“I think we have some really good incoming freshmen and I think we have some terrific veterans that have had a big impact on the league,” Calipari said. “The teams that won the league last year have most of their players back.

“We finally have a couple of returning players. It’s been awhile.”

7-foot-2 freshman Brown brings height to Bruins

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — UCLA has its tallest team under coach Steve Alford, and it added another inch after the summer thanks to the continued growth of Moses Brown.

Brown, a 7-foot-2 center from New York, said he grew an inch since his arrival on the UCLA campus. People have noticed, and he’ll be a star attraction in Westwood this season.

“A lot of people want to take pictures of me,” Brown said. “Every time I walk in class, the first person they see is me. The teacher always wants to pick on me, ‘Hey, how tall are you?’ So then I introduce myself in front of the class. It’s pretty cool. You meet a lot of new people.”

And then, of course, there are the people who just take selfies with Brown in the background. He sees them as he’s walking by.

“I pose a lot,” Brown said while flashing a peace sign.

Freshman guard David Singleton made it his personal mission to show Brown the beaches on the West Coast are better than those on the East Coast. Singleton, a 6-foot-4 guard who played at Bishop Montgomery High School in Los Angeles, said they went to the Santa Monica Pier, Huntington Beach, Venice and more in the summer.

“We went to Huntington Beach for Fourth of July and everyone was coming up to us and everyone was breaking their necks,” Singleton said.

Brown, who is wearing No. 1, said the biggest change for him has been his offseason weightlifting program. He’s ready to get his college career started and to try to help UCLA improve from its 21-12 season a year ago.

“I just want to get with all my guys. I want to build a relationship with my teammates,” Brown said. “We have a lot of chemistry.”

Brown weighs 250 pounds and said he’s excited that in college, he gets fed after practice. UCLA will be feeding him the ball when he’s on the court as he will present constant mismatches.

“Moses at 7-2 presents a lot of good problems,” Alford said. “Being 7-2 and length, really runs the floor well and for a guy that big, how he handles the ball and those types of things inside has been very impressive. He gives us a shot-blocker, which, to be honest with you we really haven’t had an elite shot-blocker since we’ve been here. I think he is that.”

His stature is even an eye-opener for his frontcourt teammates.

“I have to break my neck to see Moses, which usually does not happen to me,” said sophomore guard Chris Smith, who is 6-9. “When I stand next to him, to look in his eyes, I have to look up. I’ve never had to do that before.”

G League unveils plan to intercept one-and-done players before the NCAA

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The G League announced on Thursday an initiative that is a direct response to the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball and the Rice Commission on College Basketball that stemmed from it.

Beginning in the summer of 2019, the G League plans to launch a venture that would offer $125,000 “select contracts” to certain high school prospects that are 18 years old but not yet eligible for the NBA draft. This is a direct effort to challenge the NCAA’s monopoly on elite basketball talent during the one year between the end of their high school career and their draft eligibility.

“We appreciate the NBA’s decision to provide additional opportunities for those who would like to pursue their dream of playing professionally,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “The NCAA recently implemented significant reforms to support student-athlete success, including more flexibility when deciding whether to play professionally.”

“Obtaining a college education continues to provide unmatched preparation for success in life for the majority of student-athletes and remains an excellent path to professional sports for many. However, this change provides another option for those who would prefer not to attend college but want to directly pursue professional basketball.”

There are some moving parts here. How many select contracts will be offered? What is the criteria for a player to be eligible to receive one? How will those teams be dispersed throughout the G League?

But the intent is clear. The Rice Commission challenged the NBA to create an alternate path to the NBA for kids that want to get paid by the pros, and this is it.

The effect that it will have on college hoops will be interesting to follow.

Without question, this is a path that any player that is offered one of these select contracts should consider and evaluate. $125,000 is a lot of money, as is the potential to land endorsement deals. Getting a chance to work with professional coaches and professional organizations would help as hell, to say nothing of the money that these players would be able to earn legally — from shoe companies, from agents, from financial advisors — during their high school days. Adidas will be able to pay the next Brian Bowen directly without having to worry about jeopardizing his eligibility of landing one of their executives in federal prison.

But that path may not end up being the ideal route for a high school graduate to follow.

I’ve written plenty of words over the years about how and why college basketball is almost always going to be the best option for an elite high school recruit, whether or not he gets paid, and whether or not the money he does receive is legal. (You can read that here.) College basketball players, particularly the star players, deserve more than they get, but that doesn’t mean that they don’tlead a pretty good life.

They do.

And it is certainly a better life than flying commercial, riding buses and playing in front of tens of fans in cold gyms with games televised on YouTube streams.

That’s the G League.

The G League is also full of grown men that are, themselves, former five-star prospects fighting for their shot at a paycheck. Walking into that as an 18-year old that has never spent a second in a college strength and conditioning program and is just weeks removed from having their bed made by their mother is not exactly the best way for a kid to market himself to NBA teams. There’s a reason that Darius Bazely is spending the next year training on his own instead of playing in the G League. He’d get worked over.

And that’s before we consider what shoe companies want.

The reason that Adidas was willing to pay $100,000 to the family of Brian Bowen to get him to go to Louisville was that he would be on national television wearing Louisville gear. It was, more or less, an endorsement. It is good for Adidas to have Louisville — and Kansas, and Indiana, and every other program branded by the three stripes — to be good at basketball. Is that money going to be there for these kids if they are playing for the Reno Bighorns instead of the Kansas Jayhawks? Or will they be more apt to invest it in the next-best player available in the college ranks?

And, perhaps more importantly, will that endorsement money be as big when these kids haven’t spent a full season playing on national television every single night? Without the hype that comes with being a star in March Madness?

There is a lot that is going to play out in this regard over the ten months, when this will go into effect.

And the ripples throughout the sport of college basketball will be just as interesting to follow.