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Arizona has plenty of offseason work after tumultuous season

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona went through one of the program’s most tumultuous seasons in 2017-18.

The Wildcats were ensnared in an FBI probe into recruiting before the season started, had a key player go down for a long stretch and were linked to the federal probe a second time late in the year.

Arizona still managed to win the Pac-12 tournament but the culmination of setbacks and distractions took a toll on the Wildcats once the NCAA Tournament started, leading to a surprising first-round exit.

Three players from that team were lost to graduation and three more are headed to the NBA, leaving the Wildcats with plenty of work to do this offseason if they’re going to remain among college basketball’s elite.

“Coming through this period of time isn’t always easy, but coming out on the other side, becoming bigger, stronger and better than ever, learning things and building our program. That’s what you talk about,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said Thursday. “It isn’t just pressing a reset button and doing things completely different. There’s a lot of things we’re very proud of that we wouldn’t change. There are a lot of things we have to improve on and that’s obviously on the leadership.”

Arizona’s last season hit a snag before it started. Assistant coach Emanuel Richardson was among 10 people arrested in September in a federal probe into shady recruiting practices, casting a dark cloud over the Wildcats.

Then Rawle Alkins broke his foot during preseason workouts and missed the first nine games. After an ugly trip to the Bahamas, the Wildcats pulled together and started winning games, remaining in the AP Top 25 most of the season.

Another bombshell dropped just before the Pac-12 tournament, when reports surfaced that Miller had been caught on an FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to lure a recruit to the school. Miller denied the report, kept his job and Arizona marched through the conference tournament, looking like one of the nation’s top teams headed into the NCAA Tournament.

Instead, the Wildcats stumbled in Boise, Idaho, succumbing to a barrage of baskets by Buffalo to lose in the first round.

“The totality of the season, beginning in the fall and getting to the Pac-12 Tournament took a toll on all of us,” Miller said. “I don’t know if we necessarily entered this year’s NCAA Tournament the most excited, eager, ready, happy as we could as a group.”

Dusan Ristic, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Keanu Pinder graduated, then Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Alkins opted to leave early for the NBA.

Arizona appeared to be headed to a rebuilding season with the losses and a recruiting class that fell apart due to the FBI investigation.

The Wildcats lost top point guard Jahvon Quinerly shortly after Richardson’s arrest and Shaquille O’Neal’s son, Shareef, announced he was withdrawing his commitment to Arizona after the second round of allegations hit. Highly touted point guard Brandon Williams followed suit not long after, leaving the Wildcats’ recruiting cupboard bare.

Slowly, Miller started to rebuild his recruiting class, starting with Southern California guard Devonaire Doutrive. Belgian forward Omar Thielemans followed and Williams gave the class a big boost by recommitting to Arizona.

Arizona also will have Duke transfer Chase Jeter, an athletic 6-foot-10 forward who sat out last season, with graduate transfers Justin Coleman (Samford) and Ryan Luther (Pittsburgh).

They’ll join a roster that includes six returning players, led by Dylan Smith, Ira Lee, Brandon Randolph and Emmanuel Akot.

“Most of the teams we’ve had, the younger incoming talent is very important. Many of those guys came in the door ready to go,” Miller said. “Most of the time, the success starts with the returners. They improve from one year to the next, they’re the most experienced, they lead and create our culture for the guys who have never been here before.”

Arizona will have a different look next season from years past. With Kaleb Tarczewski, Ristic and Ayton, the Wildcats featured a big body in the middle to anchor their talented wing players.

In 2018-19, Miller plans to follow the mold created by Villanova coach Jay Wright the past few years by filling his roster with multi-talented, multi-dimensional wing players and guards. Villanova has won two of the past three national championships with a sort of positionless basketball and Arizona will have a similar style.

“The way of playing moving forward for us is to have more wings and guards on the court at the same time, to have more spacing and quick movement,” Miller said. “As you play with more skill and the ball moves and you spread out a little more, you can’t lose that second part, the rebounding.”

Villanova’s NBA exodus proves 2018 title team one of the most talented we’ve seen

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The most interesting conversation to have in regards to Villanova and the reigning champ’s NBA draft exodus is not how good they will be for the 2018-19 season but rather how good they were this past season, and why we never gave them the credit they deserved.

The winner of the 2018 national title was not only one of the best champs we’ve seen in the one-and-done era, but one of the most talented, despite the narrative that surrounded the program.

Let’s start with the obvious: There were essentially six guys that played the majority of the minutes in Villanova’s rotation last season: Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall and Phil Booth, and while none of them elicit the kind of awe that comes with someone like Deandre Ayton or Anthony Davis, each and every one of them is a long way from the overlooked and under-recruited they were portrayed as.

Two of those six — Brunson and Spellman — were McDonald’s All-Americans and five-star prospects coming out of high school, and neither of them were in their first season on campus. Brunson was a junior while Spellman was a redshirt freshman. Bridges was a four-star prospect in the Class of 2014, ranked 81st by 247 sports with offers to programs like Florida, Xavier, Seton Hall and Virginia Tech. He was ranked six spots behind Booth in the class, who held offers from Georgetown, Maryland, Indiana and Xavier. DiVincenzo, like Bridges and Booth, was a four-star recruit ranked in the top 100 with offers to programs like Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt.

Paschall is the only guy from that group that wasn’t highly recruited coming out of high school, but after torching Atlantic 10 opponents as a freshman at Fordham, he picked Villanova over Kansas, Florida and Providence.

Everyone knew who they were. Many of the nation’s best programs wanted them.

What’s more is that each and every one of those players grew and developed within the Villanova program. Brunson was the National Player of the Year in 2018. Mikal Bridges was an all-american. DiVincenzo was the Final Four MOP despite coming off of the bench for that team. There is a very real chance that, on June 21st, the four players that declared for the draft will hear their names called in the first round; it would be surprising if any of the four made it past the top 40.

That doesn’t include Paschall — who, for my money, will be drafted next season and have an NBA career — or Booth — who scored 20 points in the title game when Villanova cut down the nets in 2016.

This wasn’t a roster made up of the cast of Hoosiers. Wright didn’t win a title with a bunch of walk-ons.

Villanova had dudes.

And those dudes, for the entirety of the 2017-18 season, were the best team in college basketball. When they were at full strength last season, they lost two games. One of those losses came at Butler, by eight points, on a night where the Bulldogs shot 15-for-22 from three. The other came at Creighton, in overtime, on a night where the Bluejays shot 12-for-29 from three. Both Paschall and Booth missed the loss to St. John’s. Booth missed the loss at Providence while it was Paschall’s first game back from a concussion.

Villanova did all that while posting the single-most efficient offense in KenPom’s database, scoring 1.227 points-per-possession, more than Lonzo Ball’s UCLA team, Frank Kaminsky’s Wisconsin teams and Doug McDermott’s Creighton teams.

Wright deserves all the credit in the world for identifying players that fit in with the culture that he wanted to build at Villanova, for convincing them to enroll at Villanova despite the fact that it might take them a year or two before they see the floor and then developing them into players that reached their full potential.

The point isn’t to minimize the job that he did; rather, it’s time that we need to start truly giving him the respect he deserves.

Villanova’s 2018 team was one of the greatest that we’ve ever seen because they played together, they bought in and, over time, they developed into a team chock-full of NBA talent.

And the proof will come when, in three weeks, four of them hear Adam Silver call their names.

CBT Podcast: Burner Twitters and NBA Draft Deadline Day

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The deadline for underclassmen testing the waters of the NBA draft to return to school came and went on Wednesday night, and to break down all the winners and losers from decision day Rob Dauster was joined by Sports Illustrated’s NBA draft expert Jeremy Woo. They worked through all the theories on Bryan Colangelo’s inability to control his family’s social media activity as well as what Tyus Battle’s return means, how much the Big Ten hierarchy changed in the last 24 hours and why we have never given Villanova enough credit for just how good they were.

The rundown:

OPEN: Burner accounts and Syracuse basketball

10:00: How will these decisions affect Kentucky’s team?

15:10: Kevin Huerter is gone and that’s a brutal blow for Maryland.

19:30: Everyone else in the Big Ten got good news.

24:50: Nevada is loaded with the Martin twins back in the mix.

29:05: Villanova theories, why they were underrated and what their prospects are without Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman.

The Winners: Which college basketball teams got helped the most by NBA draft early entries

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The NCAA’s deadline for players that are testing the waters came and went at 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday night.

These are the programs that were the biggest winners. 

The biggest losers can be found here

THE BIGGEST WINNERS

GONZAGA

Mark Few will once again have a team that is going to contend for a national title this season, as the Bulldogs returned their two most important pieces in the front court in Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura.

The Zags were going to be good without them, but with that pair in the mix, Gonzaga has a real case to be the No. 1 team in the country heading into the preseason. They also return Zach Norvell, Josh Perkins and Corey Kispert while adding transfer Brandon Clarke. That is a very good core, but the reason they are going to be among the nation’s elite is because of that front court.

Tillie and Rui are both terrific athletes that will create mismatches and space the floor, and Rui has a real chance to develop into a top ten pick next season. This will be Gonzaga’s best team since … well, since they made the national title game in 2017.

VIRGINIA

The ‘Hoos are coming off an utter embarrassment at the hands of No. 16-seed UMBC in the NCAA tournament, but the good news is that they are going to once again have a team that will be in the mix for an ACC regular season title and a top three seed.

That is because they got De’Andre Hunter back. It’s his versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season. Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

With Hunter, Virginia has some depth issues but still looks like a top ten team on paper.

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NEVADA

The Wolf Pack couldn’t stop adding pieces to their roster during the spring.

Not only did Eric Musselman clean up on the recruiting trail, adding Jordan Brown and a pair of grad transfers, but he managed to get both Caleb and Cody Martin to return to school along with Jordan Caroline. Those could end up being three of the five players on the preseason all-Mountain West team, and with those three back in the fold, Nevada — coming off of a run to the Sweet 16 — has enough talent on their roster to legitimately be considered a threat to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

This is the best MWC team since Kawhi and Jimmer were burning that conference to the ground. It’s a good time to live in Reno.

WHOEVER LANDS REID TRAVIS

The Stanford grad transfer immediately became the most important player in the college basketball news cycle when he announced that he will be returning to school but leaving the Cardinal program. A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 boards, he’s a player that has been linked to both Kentucky and Villanova, two programs that got hit hard during the draft process and could use some interior depth. It’s not crazy to think that where he ends up going will become the favorite to win the 2019 national title.

SYRACUSE

The Orange were a weird team last season. They played a plodding pace and won because they could absolutely lock up defensively and they had Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett to carry them offensively. Brissett announced that he will be returning to school back in April, but Battle waited until just a couple of hours before the deadline to make it official.

And it’s Battle that is the key. Syracuse should have a little more shooting this season that they did last year with Buddy Boeheim in the mix, but this is still a group that is going to rely quite a bit on Battle to create points for them. He is the difference between the back-end of the preseason top 25 and a .500 season.

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THE BIG TEN

Other than Maryland, was there a Big Ten team that didn’t get good news when it came time for players that were testing the waters to make their decisions?

  • Michigan will not be losing their three best scorers now that Charles Matthews is returning to school. They’ll be a preseason top 25 team when the polls are released.
  • Purdue not only returned Nojel Eastern, but they bring back Carsen Edwards, who could end being a preseason first-team all-american.
  • Ethan Happ returns to anchor a Wisconsin program that seems to be on the verge of a resurgence.
  • Indiana not only landed Romeo Langford, but they brought back Juwan Morgan, who is the perfect player for an Archie Miller-coached team.
  • Nebraska looks like a tournament team with both James Palmer and Isaac Copeland back in the mix.
  • Iowa brought back both Tyler Cook and Isaiah Moss.
  • Michigan State lost Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson, but they did get Nick Ward back.

I think the Spartans will be the best team in the Big Ten next season, but I’m not all that confident in that. What I do know is that there are going to be six or seven teams that can compete for the league title, and that with all these players coming back, there is going to be much more depth in the conference this season.

THE SEC

The SEC also brought seemingly everyone that was on the fence back, which means that the conference, as a whole, is going to be loaded at the top with plenty of depth. Hell, the SEC might just be the best league in college basketball next season look at this:

  • Arkansas got perhaps the biggest gift as Daniel Gafford, a potential lottery pick, opted to return for his sophomore season.
  • Auburn lost Mustapha Heron but brought back Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy and will enter the season as a top 15 team.
  • Tennessee brings back Admiral Schofield and looks like they might push to be a No. 1 seed.
  • Missouri lost Michael Porter Jr. but they bring back his brother Jontay.
  • Tremont Waters is back at LSU, making them a top 25 team.
  • Mississippi State had four players declare and four players opt to return to school. They will be a top 15 team.
  • Florida got Jalen Hudson back for his fifth-year.
  • Even Kentucky, who lost a handful of key pieces, brought back P.J Washington and Quade Green and still might add Reid Travis.

There is a lot to like about the SEC next year.

UCLA

The deadline couldn’t have gone much better for the Bruins, as they returned all three of the players that declared for the draft not named Aaron Holiday: Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands and Cody Riley. Steve Alford has a roster that is talented enough that it should win the Pac-12 next season. We’ll see if the Bruins can live up to the expectations.

THE DEADLINE WAS GOOD TO THEM

  • KANSAS: The Jayhawks were always going to be really good, but getting Udoka Azubuike back means they’ll have arguably the best low-post presence in the country next season.
  • NORTH CAROLINA: The Tar Heels probably weren’t really in jeopardy of losing Luke Maye to the NBA, but he did declare and he did return to school. UNC will be a top ten team next season.
  • WEST VIRGINIA: The Mountaineers got both Esa Ahmad and Sagaba Konate back, meaning that it will be that much easier for them to weather the storm of losing Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles.
  • CLEMSON: The Tigers are once again going to be a top 25 team with both Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed pulling out of the draft.
  • WASHINGTON: With Noah Dickerson back, are the Huskies the favorite to win the Pac-12 this season?
  • SAN DIEGO STATE: Jalen McDaniels came on strong late in the season and should be a star for the Aztecs in 2018-19.
  • ST. JOHN’S: Getting Shamorie Ponds back was a good thing. Adding Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron for the 2018-19 season would be a great thing.

Kansas gets center Udoka Azubuike back from NBA draft

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Kansas announced on Wednesday that starting center Udoka Azubuike will be withdrawing from the NBA draft and returning to school for his junior season.

“I received good feedback from many sources around the NBA over the last month but in the end, after discussing with my family and coaches, we decided it would be in my best interest to return to Kansas for my junior year,” said Azubuike. “I want to thank the people in the NBA who gave me this opportunity.  I believe it was an important step as I chase my dream to play basketball at the highest level. I’m looking forward to next season and can’t wait to get to work with my teammates. Rock Chalk!”

Azubuike is a 7-foot center that averaged 13.0 points and 7.0 boards as a sophomore, but in an era where versatility and stretchability is becoming more and more coveted out of front court pieces, Azubuike is a paint-locked big that was a liability at the foul line, let alone from beyond the arc.

Back at Kansas, however, he bolsters a loaded front line for a team that currently holds the No. 1 ranking in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.

“We’re all very excited about Udoka making the decision to return for his junior year,” said head coach Bill Self. “We supported him declaring and investigating, which I think was a smart move. It was certainly a move that was handled exactly as the rule was intended. He wanted to find out more information on what the NBA franchises thought of him and he was able to accomplish that in many ways. The feedback that he got and that we received was that he’s definitely improved and NBA personnel think very favorably of him. He certainly performed well at the Combine, but the information he received led him to the decision to return to school.”

Villanova’s Omari Spellman to remain in NBA draft

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Villanova big man Omari Spellman will sign with an agent and remain in the NBA draft, forgoing his final three seasons of eligibility.

Spellman, a 6-foot-9, 245 pound stretch five, made the announcement on his Instagram page on Wednesday afternoon. He is expected to be taken in the late first or early second round.

Like Donte DiVincenzo, who announced on Tuesday that he will remain in the NBA draft as well, Spellman played his way into being an potential first round pick with a strong performance in the NBA draft combine.

But unlike DiVincenzo, Spellman is a piece where Villanova does not exactly have the horses to make up for his loss. Don’t get me wrong, losing DiVincenzo was a blow — there was a chance he could have been the preseason national player of the year — but Villanova has players that can fill his void. Albany grad transfer Joe Cremo is going to be a contributor at the Big East level. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall will be able to shoulder a heavier load offensively. Jermaine Samuels has the potential to be a star for the Wildcats one day, perhaps even next season.

Jay Wright does not have that luxury.

A 6-foot-9 big man that totally changed his body when he arrived on campus at Villanova after getting ruled ineligible for his freshman season by the NCAA, Spellman proceeded to drop nearly 50 pounds of fat from his frame. He’s now a chiseled 245 pounds, and, at the end of his redshirt freshman season, far more explosive than anyone thought he would be. He isn’t a great shot-blocker but he was effective enough at the college level. He’s a good rebounder as well, and given his high body-fat content — he had the highest number at the combine — there is still room for him to streamline his body even more.

Spellman’s real skill is his ability to play on the perimeter. He shot 43.3 percent from three this season, and he’s skilled and coordinated enough to be able to put the ball on the floor and attack a closeout. His ability to play on the perimeter offensively and defend the paint on the defensive end was what brought everything together for Villanova. He was their connector. There is no more valuable combination of skills in basketball at this point than being able to defend the rim on one end and space the floor on the other.

That’s not going to be easy to replace, and it’s the biggest reason why Villanova has slid to No. 5 in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.