CBB PREVIEW: Villanova eyes continued dominance in underrated Big East

The Big East has consistently been Villanova and everyone else since the Wildcats returned to title contention in 2013-14.

Spoiler alert: That hasn’t changed.

The Wildcats return plenty of talent from last year’s national title-winning team, despite sending four Top-35 picks to the NBA. They won’t be lacking for competition, but they’ll still undoubtedly be the top dogs.

The story to follow, therefore, in the Big East, will be the bevy of question marks that lie from the other nine squads. Between impact freshmen, key transfers and talented upperclassmen on the rise, the Big East will once again be one of basketball’s more intriguing leagues in 2018-19.

PRESEASON BIG EAST RANKINGS

1. VILLANOVA: The Wildcats lost four major pieces from their 2018 National Championship-winning squad. But that’s becoming the norm, right? ‘Nova is still poised to be a Top-10 caliber team, but it’s going to be much more of a project than past years. Between the growth of Eric Paschall and Phil Booth into featured seniors, the addition of Jermaine Samuels and Collin Gillespie into larger roles, and the arrival of guard Joe Cremo from Albany, Villanova will be plenty experienced. Oh, and the Wildcats also add a Top-10 class that features electric point guard Jahvon Quinerly, and a triad of athletic wings in Brandon SlaterCole Swider and Saddiq Bey.

Villanova makes the tournament if the sky doesn’t fall.

2. BUTLER: Butler only lost two pieces of last year’s No. 10 seed. It just so happens that those pieces — Kelan Martin and Tyler Wideman — combined for 30.5 of Butler’s 79 points per game. Without those two, the burden will fall on seniors Paul Jorgensen and Nate Fowler, and juniors Kamar Baldwin and Sean McDermott, to run the show. That quarter combined for 39.3 ppg in a combined 102.7 mpg, so there’s still plenty of experience, spearheaded by Baldwin, whose numbers —15.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.5 spg, 34.0 mpg — speak for themselves. Butler’s frontcourt will be lacking for experience — outside of Fowler the Bulldogs return just 5.5 minutes per game from their bigs – but the addition of four-star freshman forward Bryce Golden will help.

Butler makes the tournament if its inexperienced bigs take a step and add depth behind Nate Fowler.

3. XAVIER: No more Trevon Blueitt. No more J.P. Macura. No more Sean O’Mara, Kaiser Gates or Kerem Kanter. No problem? No, major problem. Xavier won’t be the elite Big East contender it’s been the last few years, and it definitely won’t be a No. 1 seed again. Travis Steele has his work cut out for him as the Musketeers’ new head coach, and his success will be dependent on two forward who combined to play 36.8 minutes per contest last season in Tyrique Jones and Naji Marshall, and a trio of transfers in Kyle Castlin (Columbia), Zach Hankins (Ferris State) and Ryan Welage (San Jose State). Guard Paul Scruggs is Xavier’s only other returner who played more than 10 minutes per game, and he may be thrust into a much larger role with the Musketeers’ lack of experience in the backcourt.

Xavier makes the tournament if its various pieces gel, and generally play to their potential.

4. SETON HALL: I know Jacob Rosenfarb and I are pretty unhappy we’ll never get to see Angel Delgado play in a Seton Hall uniform again. Hall fans probably feel the same about Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington, who, with Delgado, comprised one of the program’s more successful seniors classes. After having two players transferred out of the program and signing nothing but three-star freshman, Seton Hall will be relying on its role-players — and its two returning starters, — to grow up and take this team to its fourth consecutive tourney.

Seton Hall makes the tournament if we don’t spend the season saying, “Man, remember Angel Delgado’s class? Those guys were great.”

5. MARQUETTE: Marquette just missed the tournament last year with one of the game’s most prolific scorers in Markus Howard. A preseason Naismith Award candidate, Howard is back to lead the Golden Eagles, who have become one of the most difficult to predict teams in college basketball. There’s little evidence of success to tell us that Marquette will be good, but between the return of Howard and Sam Hauser in the backcourt, the Golden Eagles won’t struggle to score. After those two, though, there’s not much production returning to Milwaukee. It’ll be interesting to watch the development of bigs like Matt Heldt and Theo John, and whether or note they can complement Marquette’s outstanding backcourt.

Marquette makes the tournament if Markus Howard balls out, but isn’t the only one doing so.

6. ST. JOHN’S: Shamorie Ponds. That’s the guy. When the Johnnies made noise last season, Ponds was the star, dropping 31 on Xavier, 33 on Duke, 26 on Villanova and 44 on Marquette in the span of two weeks. In an earlier contest with Villanova, Ponds poured in 37. He averaged 21.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.3 steals in his sophomore season and will undoubtedly be St. John’s biggest piece this year. Auburn transfer Moustapha Heron will add considerable athleticism, and if he, Marvin Clark and Justin Simon take the next step, the Red Storm could be a very fun team to follow in the middle of the Big East.

St. John’s makes the tournament if Shamorie Ponds isn’t the only scoring option.

7. PROVIDENCE: The Friars’ loss of three of their top four scorers from 2017-18 hurts, but bringing back junior wing Alpha Diallo definitely cushions the blow. Diallo was Providence’s second-leading scorer last season and its leading rebounder with 6.6 boards a night. After Diallo, things get muddier, as Providence has six different players — spearheaded by guard Isaiah Jackson — who each played between 10 and 20 minutes per game last season. Figuring out the rotation will be a difficult task for Ed Cooley, but he’s probably got enough talent to make a run at a sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament.

Providence makes the tournament if it finds a viable go-to scorer and an on-court leader.

8. CREIGHTON: Saying goodbye to Khyri Thomas and Marcus Foster, who alone combined for over 40 percent of the Blue Jays’ production last year, really stings. As a whole, Creighton lost about two-thirds of its scoring, including four of its top six scorers. With a relatively unassuming class of recruits, it’s hard to see the Blue Jays making too much noises this season, and a .500 mark seems pretty reasonable. Returning rotation players Martin Krampelj, Mitch Ballock and Davion Mintz will likely be Creighton’s focus, but it’ll need a step forward from the majority of its team if it wants to compete for anything in 2018-19.

Creighton makes the tournament if things eventually click and the Blue Jays get hot in February.

9. GEORGETOWN: Here’s where we really start to see a drop-off in the Big East; it’s hard to see these last two teams not finishing as Nos. 9 and 10. For the Hoyas, the Patrick Ewing project is on its way where they want it to go; that’s evident in recruits like Josh LeBlance and Mac McClung. But with transfer Omer Yurtseven sitting out the season and Marcus Derrickson inexplicably bolting early for the NBA, it’s going to be on Jesse Govan to try and carry this team, unless guys like Jahvon Blair, Kaleb Johnson and Jamarko Pickett make major strides.

Georgetown makes the tournament if literally everything clicks.

10. DEPAUL: Oh, DePaul. Every year, I want DePaul to be good. I really do. But man, this team catches no breaks. From a team that went 11-20 last year, three of its scholarship players graduated, and three others transferred. On the bright side, the Blue Demons bring back their first- and third-leading scorers as seniors, in Max Strus and Eli Cain, but we’re talking about a team that has nine scholarship players on its active roster, and six who have played Big East basketball before. It’s going to be tough in Chicago. Again.

DePaul makes the tournament if the sky falls on Butler, Xavier and Marquette when it falls on Villanova.

 

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CBB PREVIEW: ACC primed for deepest group yet, has crystal clear top echelon

The ACC has consistently been the best league in basketball since mass conference realignment struck the college athletics landscape in the early half of the 2010s. That’s no secret.

In some years, that dominance has been abundantly clear. In 2015-16, the ACC sent six of its teams to the second week of the NCAA Tournament, before going on to have its members comprise half of the Elite Eight, Final Four and National Championship rounds.

The league didn’t look that great a year ago. It still led the nation in tournament teams, with nine, for the third consecutive season. Aside from Duke’s Elite Eight run and surprise second-weekend trips by No. 9 seed Florida State and No. 11 seed Syracuse, though, the league didn’t make too much noise.

But to this day, the best year of any conference — in terms of top-to-bottom quality — is the 2011 Big East. A quick breakdown:

• All-time record 11 tournament bids
• Not a single one of them had to play a play-in game
• of them were seeded no lower than No. 6
• teams in final AP Top 25, in the Top 15
• 2011 Big East and National Champion Connecticut was the league’s No. 9 Seed

Real quick, for perspective on that last one — last year, the major conference’s No. 9 seeds were as follows: Louisville, St. John’s, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Arizona State and Alabama. None of them won more than one NCAA Tournament game, and argument could be made that none of them deserved to make it.

I don’t agree with that argument on any of the three cases — referring to OU, ASU, and ‘Bama. But it’s been made. It’s been made plenty. 

Continuing…

That edition of the Big East didn’t have major success once late-March rolled around, but the kind of depth — eleven tournament teams — is incredible.

And there’s a chance it will be matched, if not exceeded, by the 2018-19 ACC.

For starters, there are really only three teams in this year’s ACC that are truly elite. Theres really only another three or four that truly feel like likely picks to be playing in March.

But there are 13 — sorry, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech — for which there is a legitimate NCAA Tournament. There’s no way 13 ACC teams make it, because there’s no way 13 ACC teams win at least a bare-minimum eight conference games, but 10 or 11 is still quite possible.

So, let’s take a quick look at each, and how they end up in the NCAA Tournament.

PRESEASON ACC RANKINGS

1. DUKE: You’ve heard enough about Duke. They’ve got some great freshmen. They’re going to be extremely talent. Zion Williamson is the third best player on this team. You can take this to the bank, though — they will not win it all. Think 2014-15 Kentucky, but with a few more than zero losses, because this is the ACC, and that was an SEC that would be mid-major quality without that Wildcats team.

Duke makes the tournament if Durham, North Carolina doesn’t blow up.

2. NORTH CAROLINA: Freshman wing Nassir Little might be the best newcomer in the ACC — if not the country — and Luke Maye might be the best senior. Throw in another five-star freshman (Coby White) and have him join juniors Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson in the backcourt, and you’ve got a classic UNC team.

North Carolina makes the tournament if Chapel Hill, North Carolina also doesn’t blow up.

3. VIRGINIA: Tony Bennett’s got the horses again, and they’ve got a whole lot of people to shut up after last year’s March embarrassment. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome make up one of the best backcourts in the ACC, and get back wing De’Andre Hunter who had a breakout season last year as a redshirt freshman. The Cavaliers didn’t add much, but that core, combined with redshirt senior center Jack Salt, will do damage this season.

Virginia makes the tournament if — I’m not going to say it again, you get the idea.

4. SYRACUSE: Few teams in the country — and none in the ACC — return as much production as Syracuse does. The Orange looked pretty bad at times last year, but had next to no legitimate experience on its roster, and still made the Sweet 16. A talented quintet of newcomers — featuring freshman point guard Jalen Carey and transfer wing Eli Hughes — has the chance to bring the Orange back to an elite level when it joins forces with Tyus Battle, O’Shae Brissett, and the ACC’s only fully-intact starting five.

Syracuse makes the tournament if Tyus Battle and O’Shae Brissett stay healthy.

Notice anything there? The league’s four best coaches — by a long shot — are set to have the league’s four best teams this year. That’s a tantalizing prospect. 

5. VIRGINIA TECH: The Hokies will spend most of the season battling with Syracuse for that last position among the four ACC Tournament double-byes. Virginia Tech has slowly been putting it together in Buzz Williams’ first four seasons in Blacksburg, and this should be his best team yet. The loss of Justin Bibbs is a tough one, but Justin RobinsonChris ClarkeTy Outlaw and Ahmed Hill comprise a four-man senior class ready to go out on a high note. Expect guards Wabissa Bede and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to both take steps forward as sophomores.

Virginia Tech makes the tournament if Justin Robinson shoots like Justin Bibbs.

6. CLEMSON: The world will never get to know what Clemson could have been if talented seniors Gabe DeVoe and Donte Grantham had an entire final season together. The Tigers reached the Sweet 16 in 2017-18 without Grantham, and while Clemson fans would love to have seen him take the team further, the way they performed without him down the stretch is an encouragement. Redshirt senior guards Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell will be Clemson’s go-to scorers, and forward Elijah Davis will be a quality third option, but the Tigers will need a couple of their nine freshmen and sophomores to take a step in order to live up to last year’s raising of the bar.

Clemson makes the tournament if Marcquise Reed takes the next step.

7. FLORIDA STATE: The Seminoles only lost one key piece from a team that stunningly reached the Elite Eight as a No. 9 seed, in guard Braian Angola. As a result, this is the final year for a class of Phil Cofer, Terrence Mann, Christ Koumadje and P.J. Savoy that has seen a decent amount of success in Tallahassee. For how long this core has been intact, we’ve yet to see it truly flourish, so it’s hard to book this team as any kind of contender, but if Florida State’s going to be special any time in the foreseeable future, it’s now.

Florida State makes the tournament if its seniors play like seniors.

8. LOUISVILLE: Last year was rough for the Cardinals. Chris Mack should be able to change that; maybe it’ll take longer than a year, but Louisville should at least take a step or two back to its normal self in 2018-19. For this team, it’ll be all about the grad transfers; the Cardinals ended up with zero signees in the 2018 class, but added Christen Cunningham (Samford), Akoy Agau (SMU) and Khawn Fore (Richmond) as their only seniors with Division I playing experience. This team has the talent, and the coach, but, it’ll take rapid cohesion of three transfers, and a step up from juniors like Ryan McMahon and V.J. King in order for Louisville to make sure it’s dancing.

Louisville makes the tournament if its newcomers don’t play newcomers all season.

9. NC STATE: The Wolf Pack lost plenty from a team that earned a No. 8 seed a year ago. Just from the graduations of Allerik Freeman and Sam Hunt, and Omer Yurtseven’s transfer to Georgetown, NC State lost 43 percent of its 2017-18 scoring. The keys to a return to the dance this season start in the backcourt, with sparky sophomore Braxton Beverly and the leadership of redshirt senior Torin Dorn; the two combined for 23.4 points per game last season. The question marks lie in the frontcourt, as NC State returns a grand total of 0.0 minutes among its big men. The Wolf Pack added three freshmen of 6-foot-7 or taller, and welcome Wyatt Walker, a grad transfer from Samford, but, yeah, the guards are going to have to carry NC State to the tournament.

NC State makes the tournament if its big men grow up (figuratively speaking).

10. MIAMI: With guards Ja’Quan NewtonLonnie Walker IV and Bruce Brown no longer around in Coral Gables, the Hurricanes will be looking to last year’s role-player guards for production this season. Miami’s only returning double-digit scorer will be 6-foot-11 junior forward Dewan Hernandez, but guards Chris Lykes and Dejan Vasiljevic proved plenty in 2017-18 as backups, averaging a combined 18.6 points. The 5-foot-7 Lykes will likely run the point, with Vasiljevic, a sharpshooter who went 41 percent from deep a year ago, playing off the ball. That core trio can certainly keep Miami on the right side of a busy bubble in 2018-19.

Miami makes the tournament if Lykes and Vasiljevic ball out.

11. NOTRE DAME: No more Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell in South Bend. but the Fighting Irish will still have plenty of talent. Notre Dame added four four-stars from the 2018 class, including electric DMV product Prentiss Hubb, who will likely back up Rex Pfleuger and T.J. Gibbs this season. Notre Dame won’t have much experience in the frontcourt, but 6-foot-11 junior John Mooney and 6-foot-8 senior Elijah Burns should be able to hold down the paint if they take the right step forward after coming off the bench last year.

Notre Dame makes the tournament if no one gets injured again… and Pfleuger and Gibbs become the leaders that Farrell and Colson once were.

12. BOSTON COLLEGE: Jerome Robinson and his 20.7 points per game are gone, but junior Ky Bowman has the chance to be one of the ACC’s best guards, and has been pegged as a sneaky All-American candidate. As a sophomore, Bowman averaged 17.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists, while shooting 42 percent from the field. He’s going to be the focus of the Eagle’s offense in 2018-19, but if he explodes this season, and guys like Jordan Chatman and Nik Popovic take the next step, BC could be an outside tournament team.

Ky Bowman makes the tournament if he lives up to the hype.

13. WAKE FOREST: I’m going to be honest, last year was the year for Wake Forest, but the future is bright with a Top-25 recruiting class on its way in. With four of their top-five scorers — Mitchell WilbekinDoral MooreBryant Crawford and Keyshawn Woods all out the door, it’s hard to see the Demon Deacons making much noise in a loaded ACC, but there are still some quality pieces in Winston-Salem, starting with sophomore guard Brandon Childress and five-star freshman wing Jaylen Hoard. If Childress takes a big step, Hoard lives up to expectation, and secondary pieces like Top-100 forward Isaiah Mucius and sophomore guard Chaundee Brown ball out, Wake could be a fun bubble dark horse.

Wake Forest makes the tournament if its freshman go crazy.

14. GEORGIA TECH: The loss of Josh Okogie takes away a lot of what made Georgia Tech competitive last year. The losses of Ben Lammers and Tadric Jackson pretty much take away the rest of it. The Yellow Jackets return one player who averaged more than six points last year, Jose Alvarado (12.1 ppg), and add a decent recruiting class, but other than a couple of upsets and home wins over the ACC’s bottom-tier, it’s hard to see Georgia Tech picking up too many victories in league this season. Kind of like Wake, last year was the year.

Georgia Tech makes the tournament if Josh Okogie comes back to college.

Okay. One more.

A little further down…

Almost there…

15. PITTSBURGH: Pitt hasn’t won a conference regular season game since February 18, 2017. The Panthers lost three of the top four scorers from a team that went 8-24 (0-18 ACC). Jeff Capel, essentially, put on a fire-retardant suit, picked up a fire extinguisher and walked directly into a dumpster engulfed in flames. He’s going to need a little time to put it out.

Pittsburgh makes the tournament if pigs fly.

Sideline Intel Bracketology 2018-19: Preseason Edition

It’s so close, we can almost taste it.

As of the publishing of this edition of Sideline Intel Bracketology, there are only 25 days until the return of college basketball. And for the latter 21 of those days, hoops fans can pass the time with the exciting return of the NBA.

Selection Sunday’s a little further down the road. Try 156 days.

But if there’s anything we know about this beautiful sport, it’s that those days are going to fly. So, strap in. It’s going to be a wild ride.

If you want to look into a crystal ball, though, here’s a good look at what the field might look like on March 17, 2019, if nothing outside of the expected happens. That’s how college basketball works, right?

For now, dig in. College hoops is right around the corner.

Over the course of the weeks leading up to the November 6 tip-off of the 2018-19 college basketball season, keep coming back to this page and following @sidelineintel on twitter for links to extensive preview content. 

~~~

MIDWEST REGIONAL | Kansas City, MO

(Des Moines, Iowa)
No. 1 KANSAS / Big 12
No. 16 RADFORD / Big South vs. No. 16 UC DAVIS / Big West

No. 8
Louisville
No. 9 Xavier

(Seattle, Wash.)
No. 5 Ohio State
No. 12 PENNSYLVANIA / Ivy

No. 4 Virginia Tech
No. 13 SOUTH DAKOTA STATE / Summit

(Jacksonville, Fla.)
No. 6 Butler
No. 11 LOYOLA-CHICAGO / Missouri Valley

No. 3 Tennessee
No. 14 GEORGIA STATE / Sun Belt

(Salt Lake City, Utah)
No. 7 Nebraska
No. 10 Xavier

No. 2 NEVADA / Mountain West
No. 15 UNC GREENSBORO / Southern


EAST REGIONAL | Washington, D.C.

(Columbia, S.C.)
No. 1 DUKE / ACC
No. 16 GRAMBLING STATE / SWAC

Duke and its freshmen are primed to sit atop a miles-deep ACC

No. 8
 Arizona State
No. 9 Indiana

(Salt Lake City, Utah)
No. 5 Florida
No. 12 OLD DOMINION / Conference USA

No. 4 Kansas State
No. 13 MONTANA / Big Sky

(Des Moines, Iowa)
No. 6 OREGON / Pac-12
No. 11 BUFFALO / MAC

No. 3 MICHIGAN STATE / Big Ten
No. 14 NORTHEASTERN / Colonial

(Hartford, Conn.)
No. 7 Florida State
No. 10 Maryland

No. 2 VILLANOVA / Big East
No. 15 BELMONT / Ohio Valley


SOUTH REGIONAL | Louisville, Ky.

(Columbus, Ohio)
No. 1 KENTUCKY / SEC
No. 16 HAMPTON / MEAC vs. No. 16 NORTHERN KENTUCKY / Horizon

No. 8 Houston
No. 9 Xavier

(Tulsa, Okla.)
No. 5 Clemson
No. 12 DAVIDSON / Atlantic 10

No. 4 West Virginia
No. 13 BUCKNELL / Patriot

(Tulsa, Okla.)
No. 6 Purdue
No. 11 USC vs. No. 11 Notre Dame

No. 3 Auburn
No. 14 STEPHEN F. AUSTIN / Southland

(Jacksonville, Fla.)
No. 7 Texas Tech
No. 10 Arizona

No. 2 Virginia
No. 15 FLORIDA GULF COAST / Atlantic Sun


WEST REGIONAL | Anaheim, Calif.

(Seattle, Wash.)
No. 1 GONZAGA / West Coast
No. 16 WAGNER / Northeast

No. 8 
CINCINNATI / American
No. 9 LSU

(Hartford, Conn.)
No. 5 TCU
No. 12 Washington vs. No. 12 Wisconsin

No. 4 Syracuse
No. 13 ALBANY / America East

(Columbus, Ohio)
No. 6 Mississippi State
No. 11 Marquette

No. 3 Michigan
No. 14 IONA / Metro Atlantic

(Seattle, Wash.)
No. 7 UCLA
No. 10 Seton Hall

No. 2 North Carolina
No. 15 NEW MEXICO STATE / WAC


CONFERENCE BREAKDOWN

ACC | 11 | 1 on the bubble | Average Seed: 5.6
Big Ten | 8 | 1 on the bubble | Average Seed: 6.9
SEC | 6 | 3 on the bubble | Average Seed: 4.5
Pac-12
| 6 | 0 on the bubble | Average Seed: 9.0
Big 12 | 5 | 3 on the bubble | Average Seed: 4.2
Big East
| 5 | 1 on the bubble | Average Seed: 7.6 
American | 2 | 1 on the bubble | Average Seed: 8.0


THE BUBBLE

Last Four Byes
Arizona
Xavier
Maryland
Marquette

Last Four In
USC
Notre Dame
Washington
Wisconsin

First Four Out
Vanderbilt
Providence
Oklahoma State
Texas A&M

Next Four Out
Texas
Penn State
Central Florida
Wichita State

Four More
Rhode Island
Baylor
Alabama
Boston College

Outside Shots (Alphabetical):  Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa State, Saint Bonaventure, Saint Mary’s, Saint Joseph’s, Saint John’s, Temple, Tulsa, Wake Forest

Out of 353 Division I college basketball teams, 92 are mentioned on this page. 49 are from Power 5 leagues, with another . Wondering why you can’t find yours? Think yours should be higher, or your rival should be lower? Feel free to start the discussion on twitter @sidelineintel or @Jeff_Griffith21.

Hillcrest Prep Post Graduate Team Reaches End of the Road

As the sun rises over Hillcrest Prep, a handful of players are already in the gym lifting weights or working on their shots. Practice for the post-graduate team starts at 9:45 a.m. sharp every day, but players are often in earlier to hone their skills.

With high school no longer restricting their practice time, basketball has become their no.1 priority. Their job now is to get college basketball programs to notice them because after this, it’s all over.

This is the end of the road.

“This is a last chance for me,” said Emeka Udenyi. “I know I have to play hard every time and make the best of my opportunity.”

Udenyi’s style of play combines his intimidating size, 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, with his surprising grace, and punishes anyone who stand in his way. His smile lights up the room, and his booming voice echoes through the empty gym on an early Monday morning.

His story is not unlike that of many of his teammates. Udenyi was a good high school basketball player, starring on his local team and garnering mild attention and praise locally. But his college offers were lacking.

“I wasn’t getting the interest I really wanted,” said Udenyi. “I still felt like I was kind of slept on.”

Only Western Oregon and Cal State East Bay, two Division II programs, offered Udenyi scholarships. So instead of attending a less than stellar program or enrolling at a junior college, Udenyi utilized the one year of eligibility the NCAA offers high school graduates to try and improve as a player and elicit offers from more elite college programs. He bet big on himself, uprooting from Concord, California to attend Hillcrest to try and obtain that elusive Division I offer.

Other players on the team already had Division I offers when they graduated high school, but believed they were capable of more. Trevon Taylor is a lanky 6-foot-7 swingman with a funky shot that always seems to go in, and arms that stretch for miles. He received an offer from Norfolk State, a low Division I program, but instead decided to attend Hillcrest.

“All my coaches and my family told me if not a high major, I could be a mid-major guy so I just want to get one of those,” said Taylor.

The fundamental problem with a team of this nature is the inherent selfishness that plagues each player. Team success takes a backseat to individual success, because gaudy statistics get you noticed and impressive win-loss records don’t.

The relationship between players is more akin to coworkers than friends, as members of the team come from across the country to play for Hillcrest, stay for a year, and then jettison off to college.

Practices have a distinctly different vibe than that of a regular high school team. They’re more intense, they’re chippier, there’s less joking around and more scowling. There is a sense of desperation that shrouds the gym. Players look like grown men fighting for their lives because in reality, that’s what they are.

“We have a lot players who’s first and only objective is to score the ball,” said part time assistant coach Wayne Smith, whose son is on the team. “You look around at some of the higher levels of basketball and that seems to be all anyone cares about, so naturally it’s how these players think they’re going to get noticed.”

There are serious doubts about whether a program of this nature is beneficial to the players, or merely giving them a vehicle in which to extend their frivolous dreams of stardom.

There are success stories that emerge from teams like this, but they are few and far between. In the end, every player gets told eventually they are no longer good enough to compete at the highest level. For many of the players on this team, that moment is now.

Future Sun Devil Kyree Walker primed for success

Kyree Walker, star sophomore on the Hillcrest Prep basketball team, does everything to the max. Whether it’s running the simplest of drills, to orchestrating plays in a high intensity intra-squad scrimmage, Walker does it all with a fervent passion.

This passion, combined with his otherworldly athleticism and high basketball I.Q. have transformed Walker into one of the best high school prospects in the country. In the latest ESPN class of 2020 rankings, Walker is listed as the No. 14 player in his class. For him, that’s thirteen spots too low.

“They’re trying to rob me,” Walker said with a jovial grin. “This year they’re going to see, I’m coming back for my title as the number one player. I’m ready to become another monster.”

The title Walker is referring to is MaxPreps Freshman of the Year, an accolade he earned while playing for Moreau Catholic High in Hayward, California. Walker averaged 21.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists as a freshman, carrying the team to a 25-10 record en route to a spot in the California Division II title game.

After his freshman season, Walker and his family decided it was time for a change, and moved to Arizona to team up with more elite level prospects at Hillcrest Prep.

“Some people thought I was scared,” Walker said. “But coming to a prep school is all about starting a new life. This is a new life move.”

When watching Hillcrest play, it becomes quickly apparent that Walker is the most talented and important player on a loaded squad that looks to reassert itself as one of the best teams in the country. He’s also the youngest player on the team, yet makes no qualms about his role as leader.

“I have to be a leader on this team, I mean that’s my role,” said Walker. “My coaches told me it doesn’t matter if you’re the youngest you have to lead by example. Be here early, work hard, and push everybody.”

It’s easy to forget he’s still a sophomore. He is so naturally talented, and plays the game with a fluidity usually reserved for men twice his age. He can score with ease, but seems to find true pleasure in setting up his teammates up for easy baskets. Fittingly, when asked what NBA player Kyree is most similar to, his father and assistant coach Khari Walker compared his son to one of the best to ever play the game.

“Magic Johnson,” Khari Walker said. “He’s that level playmaker. For [Kyree] it seems like the speed of the game really slows down as he gets going.”

Walker’s unique brand of basketball has him ideally suited for his next endeavor, college basketball. Although he is only a sophomore, Walker has already committed to Arizona State and the pressure of becoming the next great Sun Devil looms large.

“I’m not scared,” Walker confidently said. “Committing to ASU so early, I’m talking to the coaches already and they’re teaching me new things. I’m also communicating with some of the players on the team and they’re helping me out. [Head Coach] Bobby Hurley is a great coach, he went to Duke and was able to play with a lot of great players. He’s a player-coach. He’s going to be able to teach me some things that Coach Krzyzewski taught him. I really just want to pick his mind and learn about the point guard position.”

The fact that Walker will be able to be around Hurley and his staff for the next three years before even enrolling at ASU will unquestionably improve his game and make his transition to college significantly easier.

“I think it’s great for him to stay so close,” said Hillcrest head coach Howard Thomas. “ASU is able to get eyes on him all the time so they’re coming down here all the time to come watch us. For him, he can build up a really good rapport with their staff which I think for any kid is huge.”

While Walker won’t officially enroll at ASU until the fall of 2019, the belief that he could revitalize the program is already widely held. His future coach is certainly a believer.

“Coach Hurley told me we’re going to play around you, start a team around you,” said Walker. “That sounded really good to me, and I know that when the time comes, I’ll be ready.”

 

Coming to America: The Incredible Story of Alireza Shafiei

Alireza Shafiei, better known as Ali by his teammates and coaches, doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the typical elite basketball prospect. He’s relatively short, coming in a little under six feet tall, he’s built more like a linebacker than a point guard, and he was born and raised in Iran.

On a Hillcrest Prep team littered with incredible athletes with almost superhuman abilities, Ali more closely resembles your average high school basketball player. Yet watch him play and all questions on how he is part of this team, much less actually get play time are answered. He plays defense like a rabid dog, typically guarding his opposition the full ninety four feet of the court. He invades his matchup’s personal space with aplomb, nestling himself right underneath the chin of his typically taller opponent. And if that wasn’t enough, he never shuts up. Sometimes it’s words, other times it’s just incoherent noises coming out of Ali’s mouth. Regardless, it is always loud and it is always right in somebody’s ear.

He seems to take special pleasure in guarding players who have been granted the incredible God-given gifts he was not. Kyree Walker is Hillcrest’s best player and is one of the top sophomores in the country. When the end of practice rolls around and scrimmages begin to take place, Ali always seems to finagle his way into guarding the 6’6 Walker, despite the sizeable difference in height and talent. While Kyree often bests Ali in their duels, they are not as one sided as one may assume. Ali gets the better of Kyree more times than Walker would probably like to admit, and his efforts have not gone unnoticed.

Coach Howard Thomas rarely played Ali in the first few games of the season, but has quickly grown to rely on the tenacious point guard for key minutes off the bench.

“He really just brings so much energy,” said Thomas. “He’s had several games where we’ve injected him when we’re a little sluggish and he immediately just comes in and is this Energizer Bunny. He gets the other guys so hyped up.”

Ali’s journey to America was not an easy one. To call the relationship between Ali’s home country of Iran and the United States tense would be an understatement, and it was only worsened by the emergence and eventual victory of President Donald Trump. Iran was one of the six Muslim-majority countries President Trump banned immigrants from. While thankfully the ruling was shot down months before Ali was planning on moving to the States, it was not the most welcoming of gestures. Anti-American sentiments were already present within Iran, as the country has boycotted over 200 American products. Regardless, Ali was determined to make his way to the United States, and despite the odds he was going to try and make his dream a reality.

“It was really hard,” said Ali, referring to the immigration process. “Everybody back home told me it would be impossible to get a visa, but I went and applied and for some reason they gave me one. It was a miracle.”

Hillcrest Prep provided a basketball oasis for Ali. Through a system of international scouting and friendly working relationships between coaches, Hillcrest is able to find top international prospects and bring them to Phoenix. Bringing international players to Phoenix is more than just a basketball decision though. The likelihood of Ali and players like him getting into top universities, through basketball or just purely academics, has skyrocketed now that they are in the states.

“My goal for now is to get into a good school,” said Ali. “If possible, I’d like to play basketball in college and then who knows. Why not the NBA?”

If Ali were to make the NBA, he would join Hamed Haddadi as the only two Iranian players to ever suit up for an NBA team. While it is clearly not a huge emphasis in Iran to produce NBA-caliber players, Ali believes the style of basketball played in Iran compared to that of America’s limits the possibilities of any players emerging from his home country.

“Here in America, there is a much bigger emphasis on scoring and being selfish,” said Ali. “Everybody is looking to create for themselves. In Iran, we played for each other. We passed the ball a lot more and played more team basketball.”

Overall though, Ali reports the transition from Iran to the United States has been a good one. When asked what he misses most, his answer is his family without hesitation. He says he rarely talks to them due to the time change, which makes it even harder. It’s not exactly clear if his parents fully comprehend his decision to come to America to play basketball, but he says they support him none-the-less.

Culturally, Ali reports a relatively quick and seamless assimilation. While his English isn’t perfect, it can be kind of broken at times, it is still incredibly impressive for someone who came to this country in September. He laughs off the idea of any sort of language barrier, reminding me that Iranian school children are taught English from a very young age. Yet there are still some things in America that manage to surprise even someone as confident and comfortable as Ali. When asked what his favorite new food is, he has to think for a while but eventually comes up with an answer of Mexican food. He proceeds to go on a long and poetic spiel about the beautiful intricacies of the first taco he ever enjoyed, how the way the meats and cheeses and spices came together it was unlike anything he had experienced back home. While it is obvious Ali pines to see his home and his family again, he also makes it readily apparent that he is adjusting better than anyone could’ve expected.

Of the four international players currently on Hillcrest’s roster, Ali is certainly one of the more vocal and outgoing. He seems to have a unique and genuine connection with seemingly every player. Off the court, his teammates appear to take pleasure in educating Ali in the ways of the American teen. Every first brings a new round of excitement and laughter for all.

“For the other guys, learning about where Ali is from is always comedy,” says Thomas. “For him, so many things are new like hot dogs, music, girls, all that stuff is brand new to him and we’re just not used to that. I remember the first time he had macaroni and cheese. Those are like huge deals to him. For us, it’s just comedy watching how he gets so excited for stuff that’s so routine for the rest of us. It’s always funny with Ali, because we never know what’s new to him. Every time we’re with him and we do something and it’s the first time for him we have a great time. He’s like a kid in a candy store. It’s funny, but I also know it’s a great experience for him.”

The perspective a player like Ali can provide for his Hillcrest teammates is immeasurable, and despite his impressive talents on the court his affect may be more heavily felt off of it. He is usually calm and collected, but when he needs to be he can be jovial and gregarious. He is one of the more liked players on the team, and at times can provide leadership for a team that is sometimes lacking. While he may not realize his own importance, he does comprehend just how good Hillcrest can be and speaks excitedly about their potential this season.

“This is a really, really fun team,” says Ali, who is almost giddy with excitement. “There are so many really good guys, it’s really great. This team won it all last year, and I think we can do it again.”

Two Kids in a Trench Coat Episode 8

Jacob, Ryan and Josh recap a crazy week three in the NFL where the Browns picked up their first win in over 600 days, the Titans picked up a nice third win of the season and the Patriots lost to the Lions. Jacob and Ryan give out their weekly awards and their ‘must watch games’ for week four.

Intro: 00:0000:10

Week Three Thursday Night Football: 00:1503:45

Week Three Sunday: 04:0048:00

Week Three Monday Night Football: 48:0550:31

Week Three Awards: 51:0056:25

Week Four Preview: 56:301:08:53

NFL Notes: Week 3

What looked like a “meh” week of football ended up being the opposite. Games we thought were locks were far from it, and we finally got to see Baker Mayfield. On top of that, there were SO MANY bad decisions made. The roughing the passer penalty still sucks.

Here’s a look at a weird week of storylines.

Personal Foul, Touching the Passer

This has become a recurring theme, but there’s still something new to add on to it every week. Clay Matthews was flagged again. That isn’t new. What is new is the increased injury risk to pass rushers making attempts to decrease injury risk to quarterbacks. That was a weird sentence.

Miami Dolphins defensive lineman William Hayes suffered a torn ACL while trying to avoid putting his body weight on Derek Carr. Hopefully the league sees this and realizes the new rules benefit nobody, and pose risks much greater than a 15 yard penalty.

The Bills beat the Vikings. Yes, really.

It wasn’t some lucky bounce last-second win either. Buffalo dominated the Vikings all day en route to a 27-6 victory. Minnesota didn’t score until late in the fourth quarter.  It was a pretty embarrassing performance.

Meanwhile, Josh Allen, who had been nothing short of abysmal threw for nearly 200 yards with a touchdown an no picks. He tacked on another two touchdowns on the ground, AND he hurdled a guy.

The Patriots lost to the Lions. Yes, really.

The newly acquired Josh Gordon was inactive on Sunday night.

Quick side note — Why was this the Sunday night game? I know it was Matt Patricia vs. Bill Belichick, but who thought this was the best game of Week 3?

Anyway, the Patriots might have wanted Gordon to suit up. Instead, they relied their run game, which was not great.

Perhaps more concerning was the predictability of the Patriot offense. Rookie running back Sony Michel played a season-high 23 offensive snaps, just under half of New England’s total. He touched the ball on 65 percent of those snaps, totaling 49 yards from scrimmage. The Lions might be bad, but the Patriots made it easy for them. This seems like poor game planning, but the Patriots don’t do that. Until now, I guess.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but it is not time to panic. Tom Brady is still their quarterback.

Houston, you have a problem

If you remember, I picked Bill O’brien to win Coach of the Year. I didn’t expect him to really do any of the work, though. I just though the Texans would be good and he’d win. Think of Jason Garrett in 2016. He didn’t do anything, but the turnaround earned him the award.

Bill O’brien might be doing too much. A team with as much talent as the Texans should not start 0-3. Blaine Gabbert and Eli Manning, handed them two of those losses, with the latter being a home game. Most of their problems can be traced to O’brien. It’s been a season of poor planning for crappy offenses and not letting Deshaun Watson play to his potential.

Raiders can’t hang

Soon after Jon Gruden said a good pass-rusher was hard to find (yikes), the Raiders blew their third second half lead in as many games. They have yet to score points in the fourth quarter. They came close on Sunday, with a chance to take a lead late in the game. Alas, they did not and Carr threw an interception in the red zone. A few plays later, Albert Wilson iced the game with a long touchdown reception.

You’re in, rookie

Going into Week 3, the only quarterbacks drafted in the first round not to see regular season action were Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen. Both of them played this week, but the situations were very different.

Mayfield came in mid-way through the second quarter on Thursday night when Tyrod Taylor left the game, and led the Browns to a comeback win over the Jets. It was pretty fun to watch.

The Cardinals were down two with four minutes left, and THAT’S when they decided to put Rosen in the game. I’m all for rookies gaining experience, but making his debut on a potential game winning drive seems like a poor choice. Rosen proceeded to throw an interception, and the Cardinals lost. It wasn’t that fun to watch.

Mike Trout Must Leave to be the GOAT

As Mike Trout approaches the end of his contract he faces a choice. He can stay in Anaheim, where the weather is warm and be guaranteed a big pay day once a year for the rest of his playing days. Or he could look at the state of the Angels and the state of the AL West. Houston is currently defending their world series title and Oakland might beat out the Yankees for the top wild card spot. And the Angels? They are battling it out with the Rangers to avoid the cellar of their top-heavy division.

Everyone knows Trout is the best player in baseball, so by that logic Trout knows he is the best player in baseball. When you know you are the best player in baseball two things come to mind.

  • I need to stay the best player in baseball for as long as I can.
  • I want to be the greatest player of all time.

Unlike basketball, football or hockey, baseball’s GOAT is up to much debate. Some say it belongs to the Babe, others claim it’s Wille Mays and then there are those who point to Ted Williams, Honus Wagner and the plethora of other players who litter baseball’s hall of fame.

Trout is in a rare position where he can align baseball with the three other major North American sports and allow fans to point to one man as the greatest to ever grace the game. If Trout plays his cards right and continues to build his illustrious career, he could be baseball’s GOAT.

But he must leave the Angels to do so.

Among just pure dominance and greatness, the one thing that Tom Brady, Lebron James and Wayne Gretzky all have in common is winning. For Gretzky it is his four Stanley Cups. For Brady it is his five super bowls and streak of nine straight division titles. For Lebron it is his three rings and promise to the league over the last seven years that he would be playing in the NBA Finals.

If Trout wants to be the best he not only has to play at a great level, he must play at a great level against great competition while succeeding on the biggest stage for an extended period of time. As a Los Angeles Angel, that is not a possibility. Over the past seven years, the Angels have proved their inability to manage and build a successful sports organization. Trout should take note of this and realize there is no reason any of this will change.

Sure, Shohei Ohtani is going to be good, maybe even great. But he and Trout can’t win a championship by themselves. They need a bunch of home-grown talent, and a couple of key free agents to have a shot in this league.

Once Trout has the chance to walk out of that home clubhouse in Angel Stadium for a final time in September (and yes I mean September) of 2020 he should not look back. He should take his time, say his thank you’s and goodbye’s. But he should not reconsider signing with the Angels.

It would be a shame to see a potential GOAT never be mentioned in that conversation because his team could not support him with good, winning seasons. Trout needs to realize this and sign to a team with a future next winter.

His options are spread across the country whether that be in the Northeast with New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Or if he wants to try the south and be a Brave or an Astro. He could go to the heartland and play in Cleveland or Chicago. And he could stay in the west with Colorado or Seattle.

Any hey, if he really likes LA that much, just sign with the Dodgers.

But whatever you do Mike, please, don’t be an Angel.

NFL Notes: Week 2

A little while ago you saw my predictions for the 2018 season. Through two weeks, some of those look pretty good, and some look pretty bad. After this week, a couple surprising 2-0 teams emerged. There are also a fair amount of 0-2 teams. Since 2002, when the current playoff system was implemented, only about 10.5% of 0-2 have made the postseason. That’s a cool fact, but there was some much cooler stuff that happened in Week 2. Let’s take a gander.

FitzMagic

Not a lot of people know this, but Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard. The 35-year-old quarterback threw for 402 yards and four touchdowns against the defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. This was his second straight 400 yard performance, giving him over 800 yards, 8 passing touchdowns, and another rushing touchdown so far. DeSean Jackson, who caught a 75-yard TD on the first play from scrimmage, has already expressed his desire for Fitzpatrick to remain the starter after Jameis Winston’s suspension is up. I’d have to agree with him.

The seemingly new “FitzMagic” name caught the attention of another NFL player who shares a name with the quarterback. Miami Dolphins safety Minkah Fitzpatrick filed a trademark application for “FitzMagic.” He picked up the nickname in high school, and it appears he wants it back.

Mahomes Goes Mad

Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t the only QB slinging large quantities of touchdowns. First year starter Patrick Mahomes has 10 through two weeks so far. That includes six in Week 2 against the Steelers. Consider yourself lucky if you have him on your fantasy team. The kid is a stud. The Chiefs were lucky to have Mahomes, as the defense allowed a taped together Ben Roethlisberger to throw for 450 yards and three touchdowns of his own.

Are the Saints okay?

The Saints dropped their season opener to Tampa Bay, and struggled mightily against the Browns in Week 2. Both of these games were at home. New Orleans really should be 0-2, but [now former] Cleveland kicker Zane Gonzalez missed four kicks, costing eight points. It was a three point game. Sean Payton and company can thank Gonzalez for their Week 2 win, but they should probably get it together soon.

The Rodgers Rule

Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone last season, and the particular play sparked the creation of new and questionable rules for sacking a quarterback. The pass-rusher is no longer allowed to bring his weight down on the quarterback. If he does do this, it results in a roughing the passer penalty on what should be a routine tackle. Quarterbacks deserve some protection, but the NFL needs to acknowledge that they are also football players who run the same risk as everyone else on the field.

Moving on. You might think the Packers supported this new rule, considering why it was made. I doubt that’s the case anymore. Green Bay picked off Kirk Cousins late in the fourth quarter, which should have sealed the win. But, Clay Matthews was flagged for bringing his weight down on Cousins — the correct call. Cousins took the Vikings down the field, scored a touchdown, and tied the game on a two point conversion. The score never changed after that and the game ended in a 29-29 tie.

Irony.