All posts by Alec Kwait

Bright Future Ahead for a Pair of AAC Foes

Last season was a year of great triumph for both the Memphis Tigers and Houston Cougars college football programs. While Memphis’ season ended in bitter fashion with a 31-10 Birmingham Bowl loss to Auburn and the departure of first-round NFL draft pick Paxton Lynch, the Cougars carried their regular season momentum into the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl by upsetting ACC powerhouse Florida State 38-24.

The two American Athletic Conference rivals finished the season with a combined record of 22-5, which included a 35-34 home victory for Houston in their lone head-to-head matchup. The future is bright for both schools, but for drastically different reasons.

Firstly, the Memphis Tigers will begin the new season with a pair of fresh faces leading the way. On December 3, the Tigers replaced departed coach Justin Fuente, who took the head coaching position at Virginia Tech, with Mike Norvell, who most recently served as the offensive coordinator at Arizona State. In addition to the change at head coach, the Tigers were in desperate need of a new face at quarterback with the departure of Paxton Lynch, currently of the Denver Broncos.

Norvell was able to deliver with the acquisition of third-ranked junior college quarterback Riley Ferguson, who signed with the Tigers just weeks after Norvell’s hiring. Ferguson averaged nearly 327 passing yards per game last season for Coffeyville Community College in North Carolina. Memphis will begin the season on the first Saturday of September against Southeast Missouri State of the Ohio Valley Conference.

While Memphis looks to begin a new chapter in its history with a pair of fresh faces, the Houston Cougars will look to build off of last season’s historic run with Heisman Trophy hopeful Greg Ward, Jr. leading the way for Tom Herman’s high-octane offensive attack. The Cougars remained in the national championship picture a season ago until their lone loss of last season, which came at the hands of conference rival Connecticut in their third to last contest of the year.

Despite the departures of running back Kenneth Farrow and wide receiver Demarcus Ayers to the NFL, the Cougars will undoubtedly possess one of the most prolific offenses in the nation with Greg Ward Jr. leading the way and Tom Herman continuing to add to his already impressive coaching resume.

Houston will begin its new campaign in a showdown with Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma Sooners on September 3. American Athletic Conference fans will have to wait until the final week of the season to see the to see the Cougars battle the Tigers in what should be a game with conference championship implications.

E-mail Alec at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @alec_kwait

Image: Flickr/Lindsey Turner

Improving the NBA Draft Process for Everyone Involved

The NBA Draft process has been the subject of great debate over recent years, as many feel the rules set in place by the NCAA make the lives of players and coaches more difficult than they need to be. The current rules state that a player is allowed to enter the draft after one year of collegiate basketball or professional basketball overseas.

One recent adaptation to the rules state that a player is allowed to return to school after declaring for the draft if that player decides to not immediately hire an agent. Additionally, the NCAA passed a rule that allows players ten days to decide if they wish to remain in the draft after taking part in the NBA Draft combine. These recent changes to the rules are a step in the right direction as a player can return to school if they feel their draft stock can be improved after inquiring and participating in the combine.

While the NCAA’s recent rule changes benefit the players and their families, more could be done to help make this life changing decision as seamless and nerve preserving as possible. Acclaimed college basketball writer and analyst Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports proposed the following rule amendments that not only help the players and their families, but college coaches as well. While not all of Davis’ proposals will see the light of day, they are all thoughtful and helpful suggestions that benefit everyone involved in the arduous process that is the NBA Draft. 

First, extending the withdraw date until after the draft could greatly improve the college game. That way, players who did not hear their name called could opt to return to school, given they are in decent enough academic standing. This could be especially useful in smaller conferences where players often end up playing overseas due to being unable to realize their NBA dreams. In addition, most coaches are not able to fill the thirteen available scholarships, which makes extending the withdraw date a legitimate benefactor for everyone involved.

Secondly, not allowing for draft prospects to compete against one another in an organized setting prior to the draft is counterintuitive. Pre-draft workouts are routinely conducted at an extremely slow pace, plus it fails to judge a player’s ability to execute in high pressure situations. While some might consider this unnecessary, getting a sense of how the draft prospects compete against one another is not only valuable to the players, but draft scouts as well as it can give greater insight than individual workout. In addition to this, there is no harm in allowing for players to receive a small compensation for these exhibition games. Given that paid internships are usually explored by college students during their undergraduate careers, NBA Draft prospects should be allowed the same opportunity. 

Thirdly, allowing for players to formally interact with agents could allow for regulations to be placed on a practice that already exists despite its illegality. Agents are typically seen as sources of violation in the eyes of the NCAA. If the NCAA was to work alongside agents in educating players and their families about the business nature of the game, the draftees would be better off as they would be provided with a formal education as to how the business of basketball operates.  

While the NCAA might oppose some of the rule changes suggested, each change would not only benefit the players and their families, but the NCAA as well. The NCAA working in conjunction with agents and players would drastically improve the college game, something any fan of collegiate sports can get behind.

Email Alec at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @alec_kwait.

Image via Flickr/Brent Soderberg

Big 12 Expansion Could Mean Realignment in the AAC

Heading into the 2015 season, there was a lot to be excited about for fans of the University of Memphis football program. Quarterbacked by eventual first round NFL draft pick Paxton Lynch, the Tigers got off to a blistering start, beginning the year with eight straight victories, including one against the then thirteenth ranked Ole Miss Rebels. Despite the hot start, the Tigers fizzled down the stretch, losing four of their last five contests, including a Birmingham Bowl loss to Auburn in what many proclaimed to be Paxton Lynch’s worst game of his terrific Memphis career. One reason many speculate as to why this game went so poorly is the departure of head coach Justin Fuentes, who replaced Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech. Fuentes’ record of 26-23 turned the program around, as their combined record was 5-31 in the four years before Fuentes’ hiring. Memphis replaced Fuentes with Mike Norvell, who served as the offensive coordinator for Arizona State for the last four seasons.

One of the losses the Tigers suffered last season was to conference rival Houston, who enjoyed a fantastic 13-1 campaign under first-year head coach and former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman. The Cougars possessed one of the most potent offensive attacks in the country, suffering only one loss on the season to Connecticut. Led by junior dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward, the Cougars averaged over forty points per game en route to their 13-1 record. Their season ended on a storybook note, as the Cougars soundly defeated ACC powerhouse Florida State 38-24 in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.

With the recent success of American Athletic Conference programs such as Houston and Memphis, the Big 12 has taken notice and shown interest in adding the schools to its conference. This follows a recent trend in college athletics, where members of a “Power Five” conference look to add schools from other conferences.  The interest is mutual, as on February 24, University of Memphis president David Rudd wrote a letter to president Gordon Gee of West Virginia, David Boren of Oklahoma, and Ken Starr of Baylor that stated Memphis will make an investment of $500 million on both academic and athletic facilities. Enclosed in his plan, Rudd included a statement from FedEx chairman Fred Smith who voiced his support of the potential move to the Big 12. Smith also stated that FedEx would be interested in sponsoring a Big 12 championship game, something the conference is currently without as a result of conference realignment.

Realignment is not a new concept to the American Athletic Conference. Originally, the AAC was derived from the Big East Conference, who’s split in 2013 led to the formation of the modern day AAC. While losing Memphis and Houston would most likely not spell doom for the AAC, the recent success of both programs on the gridiron has raised the eyebrows of many, including West Virginia president Gordon Gee.

Gee has also expressed interested in exploring the possibility of adding the University of Houston to the Big 12, as Gee is one of three Big 12 presidents on the committee designed to consider possible conference realignment. Despite the Big 12’s interest in Memphis and Houston, they have also reached out to the University of Central Florida and Colorado State University about possibly joining the conference. While no decision is imminent, Big 12 presidents and athletic directors will congregate to discuss various topics including expansion on May 31 in Irving, Texas.

Email Alec at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @alec_kwait.

Image via Wikipedia

The State of Next Year’s Union: College Basketball Edition

At the conclusion of each and every collegiate basketball season, a group of writers, pundits, and experts gather to formulate a preseason list ranking next year’s top college basketball teams. Multiple factors determine how the teams are ranked even before they conduct offseason workouts.

Firstly, as a result of the “one and done” rule, landing the nation’s most prized high school players is a necessary step for those programs ranked at the top of preseason polls. While upperclassmen oftentimes provide a significant locker room presence, incoming freshmen are held in higher regards by pundits, especially those who are seen as a potentially leaving school after one season in hopes of realizing an NBA dream. Quite frequently, programs that land multiple top twenty recruits benefit from a favorable preseason ranking. This trend continues as many believe as a result of monster recruiting classes from Duke and Kentucky. Many believe the Blue Devils and Wildcats are destined for a promising season next year.

Domination on the recruiting trail is not a new concept to either Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari. Both have built their respective programs into national brands, something that can be best accomplished by convincing the nation’s best high school players that their university is the right fit for them. This year, Duke landed the number one overall player in the country, Harry Giles, who played for Oak Hill Academy, the number three player in the country Jayson Tatum, and the number ten player Frank Jackson. While the Blue Devils landed what many believe to be the top two picks in next summer’s NBA Draft in Giles and Tatum, the Wildcats scored on five of the top twenty-four incoming freshmen in the country, according to ESPN. In addition to this, the number sixteen player in the nation Marques Bolden, will choose between the Blue Devils and Wildcats, adding to an already loaded group of incoming talent.

While it will be fairly safe to assume the Blue Devils and Wildcats will benefit greatly from the influx of new players, gaining commitments from top recruits does not guarantee immediate success. While coaches spend countless hours trying to convince players to join their respective program, championships are not won on the recruiting trail. To win a national championship, a program must not only buy into what the coaching staff preaches, but the upperclassmen of the team must lead by both voice and example.

Despite the “one and done” rule limiting the number of talented upperclassmen men’s basketball players, more and more athletes might begin to stay multiple years given the recent success of NBA players such as Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Damien Lillard, Kemba Walker, Kawhi Leonard, and others, who all played at least two seasons of collegiate basketball. In fact, NBA commissioner Adam Silver stated in 2014 that he believes the NCAA should institute a rule that states athletes must stay at least two years in school before declaring for the NBA draft. While this proposal might take some time to gain traction, college players should be taking note that additional developmental time in college can be useful given the right situation.

Despite the recent push by many to institute a two years of college rule for NBA draft hopefuls, there is a probable chance that Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum indeed become the first two selections in next summer’s draft after playing one season of college ball each. However, as recent history has shown us, spending time in a developmental setting learning from a driven coaching staff can not only help a player’s on court game, but off court life as well.

While it is enticing for pundits to predict games that will take place a year from now, getting caught up in the preseason rankings can be dangerous as teams oftentimes underachieve, especially early in the season when the feeling out process is still taking place. Expectations are not always met and some teams overachieve. Winning an NCAA championship is a journey that takes an entire puzzle being put together by those attempting it.

E-mail Alec at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @alec_kwait.

Photo courtesy: Flickr/Bryan Horowitz

Good For College Basketball: Grayson Allen Returning to Duke

As the Villanova Wildcats cut down the nets in Houston for their first NCAA Men’s Basketball championship since 1985, a number of college basketball pundits reflected on the season in a negative light. While this college basketball season did not feature a team nearly as dominant as last year’s Kentucky team, the balance throughout the tournament field presented the opportunity for a tremendous tournament. However, with the exception the first few days of days, and the national championship game, close contests were few and far between. This raises the question that some pundits have raised; has college basketball lost some of its appeal?

While lifelong college basketball fans will always hold the tournament near and dear to their hearts, the casual sports fan might hold a different opinion regarding the Big Dance. One significant reason this might be case is the increased number of “one and dones” that elect to leave college after one season in hopes of capitalizing on a lifelong NBA dream. Despite a number of these players being ready for NBA play at younger ages, this trend has had an extremely negative impact on the college game. A greater emphasis has been put on recruiting, with player development being placed on the backburner, as the nation’s best young players all have one eye on the NBA before stepping foot onto a college campus.

As the number of one and dones continues to rise each and every year, one player from Duke University went against the grain by announcing that he will be returning to Duke for his third season of college basketball.

Grayson Allen became a household name for fans of college basketball after surprising the Wisconsin Badgers with 16 points of the bench in last year’s National Championship game en route to Duke’s fifth championship in school history. While the Blue Devils were burned by the departures of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones, Allen was able to assert his dominance this season, leading Duke in scoring, assists, and steals. As this year came to a close in the Sweet Sixteen, Allen was left with a major decision to make regarding his future. Would he forgo his final two seasons at Duke in hopes of making an immediate impact in the NBA, or would he show loyalty to school and head coach that gave him the platform to showcase his tantalizing craft?

While there was little debate as to what Duke teammate Brandon Ingram would decide as he is projected as a top three pick, Allen’s case was more on the ambiguous side. Allen was projected by many as a late first round pick with the potential to slide into the second round. With this in mind, Allen recently announced his plans to stay at Duke for his junior season.

With Allen’s decision to stay at Duke, the Blue Devils are poised for another championship run as incoming freshmen Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, and Frank Jackson will provide Coach Krzyzewski’s team with another monster recruiting class. Combine the talented incoming freshmen with the veteran leadership of Allen and Amile Jefferson, and Duke has one of the most talented teams in the country going into next season.

Not only is Allen’s decision great for Duke and fans of their program, but is is terrific for college basketball as a whole. Through his stellar play and minor on court tripping instances, the media labeled Allen as the next white Duke villain. Allen has found himself amongst the likes of Christian Laettner, Steve Wojciechowski, and JJ Redick in the minds of almost every media personality. With Allen staying at Duke for at least one more year, this storyline has the potential to dominate the college basketball world. While from afar college basketball may have seemed dull to the average fan this season, next year should prove to be much more enthralling and narrative driven.

E-mail Alec at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @alec_kwait.

Photo: Duke University Athletics

Vegas 16 Tournament Recap

While the NCAA Tournament is the goal for every college basketball team heading into the season, not every program is fortunate enough to qualify for the Big Dance. Traditionally, teams that did not earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament only had the NIT as a possible way of gaining postseason experience. However in recent years, other tournaments such as the CBI and CIT have been organized, allowing for more programs to experience postseason play. Postseason tournament play can be a useful way to end the season for any team, giving their respective university national exposure.

This season, the inaugural “Vegas 16” was added to the postseason schedule. While the original goal for the selection committee was to have sixteen teams participate in the tournament, they were only able to receive accepted invitations from eight. One reason why this might be the case is the tournament’s location, the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. Taking a group of Division I college basketball players could be seen as a risk for a program given the distractions Las Vegas, more specifically the famous Las Vegas “Strip” of mammoth hotels, casinos, and nightclubs, has to offer. Nonetheless, the tournament would continue despite the large number of declined invitations.

The teams featured in the tournament’s bracket were Old Dominion, Tennessee Tech, UC Santa Barbara, Northern Illinois, Oakland, Towson, Louisiana Tech, and East Tennessee State. The first round games were sparsely attended, as a majority of Las Vegas patrons were interested in gambling on sporting events occurring that night.

The semifinals saw Old Dominion topping UC Santa Barbara, 64-49 behind a stellar 26 point performance from senior guard Aaron Bacote. In the second semifinal game, senior guard Kay Felder propelled Oakland past East Tennessee State by recording a triple-double. Felder scored 29 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and dished out an equal amount of assists. The Golden Grizzlies also received a terrific shooting effort from senior Max Hooper, who poured in 28 points and shot 8-11 from behind the arc. Ge’Lawn Guyn led the Buccaneers with 18.

This set the stage for a championship game of Old Dominion vs. Oakland, which took place Wednesday night. The championship game of the inaugural “Vegas 16” was without a doubt the most enthralling game of the tournament. Old Dominion was able to withstand a second half surge by the Golden Grizzlies, en route to a 68-67 nailbiter of a win. Senior guard Trey Freeman led the way for the Monarchs, racking up 24 points in his final game in a Monarchs’ uniform. Freeman ranked thirteenth in the country in points per game this season, with 22. Once again, Kay Felder led Oakland with 24 points. However, fellow senior Percy Gibson, who added 13 points, was the only other Golden Grizzly to score in double figures.

Old Dominion brings home the first ever “Vegas 16” tournament title to a newly realigned Conference USA that thoroughly enjoyed conference champion Middle Tennessee’s historic first round upset of Michigan State. Old Dominion finished in fourth place in Conference USA play, posting a 12-6 record, while sporting an overall mark of 25-13. While the “Vegas 16” is far from the NCAA Tournament, seeing two senior-led teams like Oakland and Old Dominion battle for a championship was an exciting way to end each teams’ respective seasons.

Email Alec at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @alec_kwait.

Alford Takes Blame for Bruins’ Lackluster Season

It’s not very often that the head coach of a college basketball program returns contract money to the university, but that is exactly what UCLA men’s basketball coach Steve Alford did after a disappointing 15-17 season. In an open letter written by Alford dedicated to fans of the UCLA program, he announced his intentions by stating, “At the end of the day, year three was clearly not up to UCLA standards. My coaching staff and I fell short not only of our own expectations, but the expectations of athletic director Dan Guerrero, the Chancellor and you, our fans…As a coaching staff, we intend to earn that extension back.” Alford’s announcement was made shortly after multiple banners were seen flying through campus calling for Alford’s removal from the program.

It was not all bad for the a Bruins team that defeated then first ranked Kentucky on December 3rd, and earned an impressive road victory at Gonzaga December 12th. Despite gaining momentum during the non-conference portion of the schedule, the Bruins were a disappointing 6-12 in Pac-12 play. Junior and Los Angeles native Isaac Hamilton led the Bruins in scoring on the year, contributing nearly 17 points per game. UCLA also received key contributions from Sophomore big man Thomas Welsh, and the son of head coach Steve Alford, Bryce Alford who will also be returning for his final go-around as a Bruin next season.

Conference play proved to be too daunting of a task for this years’ UCLA team, as the Bruins were only able to pick up one win against a ranked Pac-12 team. The lone victory came against then-seventh ranked Arizona 87-84 on January 7th. However, inconsistency was a major theme for UCLA this season, as bad losses against Washington State and Stanford combined with a much improved Pac-12 spelled doom for the year’s version of the UCLA Bruins.

Despite the lackluster regular season, the Bruins, like all Division I programs, had the chance to make a run in their conference tournament and steal and a bid to the NCAA tournament. This dream came to a crashing halt, as the Bruins received a thrashing at the hands of bitter crosstown rival USC 95-71 in the first round of the Pac-12 Conference Tournament. With their final loss of the season, the Bruins finished a disappointing 0-3 against their hated rival for the first time since 1954.

Alford and his coaching staff originally received a contract extension through the 2020-2021 season after taking the school to the Sweet Sixteen a year ago for the first time since 2008. However, help should be on the way for the Bruins as five star recruits Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf are both committed to UCLA as well as four of the top five scorers on the team have at least one year of eligibility left.

Despite this year’s struggles, the Bruins still remain one of the most appealing destinations for a potential recruit. Not only are the Bruins able to sell the beautiful city of Los Angeles, but they are also able to harp on their rich history which includes eleven national championships. While it is extremely refreshing to see a coach take direct responsibility for the lack of his team’s success, the Bruins should be back in the NCAA Tournament field in no time.

Email Alec at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @alec_kwait.

Photo: SD Dirk/Flickr.

CIT Tournament Round 1 Recap

Believe it or not, there is college basketball to be played outside of the NCAA Tournament. For those who finish the year on the wrong side of the bubble, the National Invitation Tournament, College Insider Tournament, and College Basketball Invitational provide many mid-major and Power 5 schools the opportunity to gain some well deserved momentum going into next season.

On the other hand, programs that finish the season amidst internal turmoil might have mixed feelings about appearing in a tournament other than the big dance. Regardless, there are games to be played and money to be had, as the College Insider Tournament gives 26 mid-major programs the chance to hoist a trophy at the end of the year, as a selection committee that is headlined by ex collegiate basketball standouts turned football stars Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson picks what teams qualify for the field.

First round action of the CIT kicked off Monday with two exciting games that both were decided in the final moments. Jackson State was able to upend Sam Houston State on the road, 81-77, in overtime. Grand Canyon improved to 26-6 on the year when they defeated South Carolina State, 78-74, behind five double figure scorers. The two will face off in a second round contest that will take place on March 17th.

Play resumed on Tuesday with three more intense first round contests. Coastal Carolina upended Mercer, 65-57 behind 18 points from junior guard Elijah Wilson. Furman was able to defeat Louisiana-Monroe on a buzzer-beating putback from sophomore Daniel Fowler. The most intense game of the first round also took place on Tuesday when Ball State pulled off the upset over Tennessee State on the road, 78-73 in two overtimes, for the Cardinals first postseason victory in fourteen years. Sophomore guard Jeremie Tyler led the way for the Cardinals with 25 points and 5 rebounds.

A majority of first round games took place on Wednesday, as New Hampshire picked up a win over Fairfield, 77-62, Texas-Arlington topped Savannah State, 75-69 and Boston University advanced with a close victory over Fordham, 69-66, New Jersey Institute of Technology got by Army, 79-65, Columbia shined in a decisive 86-54 win over Norfolk State behind four double-digit scoring efforts, and Tennessee-Martin squeaked by Central Michigan, 76-73, to close out the early games. The night cap saw Louisiana-Lafayette pull the upset over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in dominant fashion, 96-72, and UC Irvine avoid the upset in a thrilling overtime victory over North Dakota, 89-86.

Round two will tip off Thursday, and go through March 20th.

While it may be easy to overlook the CIT and other postseason tournaments like it as the NCAA Tournament gets a lion’s share of media coverage, there’s even more great basketball to fill the cravings of hardwood junkies across the country.

Email Alec at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @alec_kwait.

Image via Vimeo