All posts by John Parker

Mitchell Robinson’s departure drastically changes Western Kentucky’s outlook

Mitchell Robinson, a Consensus Top 10 recruit in the class of 2017, announced on Sunday that he would withdraw from Western Kentucky University and focus on preparation for the 2018 NBA Draft. Robinson’s decision brings an end to one of the most bizarre recruiting sagas in recent years. 

Robinson initially committed to play for Texas A&M in 2015. He backed out following the 2015-16 season, shortly after assistant coach Rick Stansbury left to become the head coach at Western Kentucky. Initial buzz suggested Robinson would wind up at another power conference program, but he opted to follow Stansbury to WKU in June of 2016. The decision Stansbury made in adding Robinson’s mentor Shammond Williams to the Hilltoppers’ coaching staff likely didn’t hurt his recruiting pitch.

The Hilltoppers seemingly made their recruiting coup official when the 222 pound 7-footer signed his letter of intent during the early signing period in 2017, but the story was far from over. Shammond Williams resigned from his coaching position in July, and Robinson was released from his Letter of Intent less than a month later. 

Uncertainty about his 2017-18 eligibility after he started classes at Western Kentucky took most potential suitors out of the running for her services. Robinson visited perennial powerhouse Kansas and local programs LSU and the University of New Orleans, a member of the Southland Conference, before reaffirming his commitment to WKU

During this stretch Western Kentucky fans got another bit of great news when leading scorer and rebounder Justin Johnson announced he would return to the Hilltopper basketball team after flirting with the idea of playing football for the fall semester of his senior year. Johnson averaged 14.5 points and 9.4 rebounds as a junior. Putting him next to a strong one-and-done candidate center would’ve given the Hilltoppers a front court that mid-majors can’t dream of.

There’s no doubt that Robinson, who currently projects as late first round pick on in the wake of his departure from WKU, would’ve been a serious game changer for the Hilltoppers. His NBA size and athleticism combined with his skills on defense and in transition would’ve made him a nightmare matchup in a conference where tweener forwards dominate the post. 

The timing of Robinson’s arrival at Western Kentucky would’ve been beneficial to the Hilltoppers’ chances at a potential Conference USA title despite the fact that he’s joining a roster that finished 7th in the C-USA in 2017. Middle Tennessee State, which advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in each of its last two seasons, lost 2017 C-USA Player of the Year JaCorey Williams and Second Team All-Conference USA performer Reggie Upshaw to graduation. 2017 C-USA runner up Louisiana Tech lost its star forward Eric McCree to the Miami Heat. 

While Western Kentucky suffered significant losses to graduation, there was still optimism for a big jump in the conference standings. The combination of Robinson and proven double-double machine Johnson would have allowed the team to absolutely overwhelm many conference opponents in the post by preventing overmatched opposition from consistently double teaming either player. It wouldn’t have taken much for Stansbury to build around that front court and put together a roster that would finish near the top of the C-USA. From there, a conference tournament upset or two isn’t out of the question and Western Kentucky could’ve been a strong candidate to find its way to the NCAA Tournament. 

Now it seems that those hopes are all but out the window. Johnson’s stats will likely see a significant jump as much of last year’s supporting cast graduated, but what will be good for his individual numbers won’t be so good for the team’s win total. The Hilltoppers will likely finish somewhere in the muddled middle of Conference USA, and you should’t expect a return to the NCAA Tournament unless Stansbury can channel his inner Ray Harper.

Email John and or follow him on Twitter @jjparker084.

Photo by: Western Kentucky Hilltopper Athletics

Recruits top priority for new Milwaukee Panther head coach Pat Baldwin

The Milwaukee Panthers named Northwestern assistant Pat Baldwin to be its head men’s basketball coach on Tuesday. Baldwin is considered an excellent recruiter and a key to Northwestern’s 2016 NCAA Tournament bid, the first in program history. He replaces LaVall Jordan, who left Milwaukee after one season to become the head coach at his alma mater Butler.

Baldwin steps into an unusual situation in Milwaukee. The late hiring of Chris Holtmann at Ohio State, and as a result the very late hiring of Jordan at Butler, was unusual enough as is. The fact that Jordan posted a 11-24 record in his only season at Milwaukee before heading to the Big East made it even more bizarre. Despite replacing a coach who left for greener pastures, expectations shouldn’t be particularly high for Baldwin early in his tenure.

As is frequently the case during coaching changes, Baldwin’s biggest task out of the gate will be to retain members of the incoming recruiting class. Dylan Alderson, who helped bring Clarkston High School a Michigan Class A State Championship as a senior, is considered the prize recruit of Milwaukee’s recruiting class. To this point, he hasn’t said anything definitive either way about his plans for the future.

Unlike former Butler-commit Kyle Young — a composite Top 100 recruit who left for Ohio State when Chris Holtmann departed — it’s unlikely that Milwaukee has a recruit that will follow LaVall Jordan to the Big East. Despite even the high praise for Alderson, the jump from Milwaukee to Butler is a lot bigger now than it was in the not-so-distant past when the two schools were together in the Horizon League. 

If Milwaukee is going to lose a recruit, it would most likely be to another school the Panthers were recruiting against previously. While losing a coach in June causes a number of logistical problems for a program, it can make holding onto recruits simpler. In that regard, time could be on Milwaukee’s side when it comes to holding together this year’s recruiting class. At this point, most schools’ rosters are set and there simply isn’t enough time or roster availability for most kids to reopen recruitment.

If Baldwin is able to keep all of Jordan’s recruits in Milwaukee, he could be in for a pleasantly surprising debut as a head coach. The Panthers lose just one starter and one reserve from 2016-17 while bringing in what looks to be a very promising four-man recruiting class and 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman Zac Saddler.

Early projections still have Milwaukee near the bottom of conference for the upcoming season, which is understandable given the team’s eight regular season wins and its 10th place finish in the Horizon League last year. Still, there could be reason for optimism in Milwaukee. 

The Panthers had one of the youngest teams in the nation and possessed very little front court depth. While an injury to Valparaiso star Alec Peters undoubtedly helped, Milwaukee came together at the end of the season on its way to an unexpected Horizon League Tournament Championship Game. If the Panthers can build off of the late-season success, they could make one of the bigger jumps in the league standings in 2017-18. 

The development of returning players and addition of five newcomers could put Pat Baldwin’s Milwaukee team in a position to finish near the middle of the table in the Horizon League. While that might not seem like a big deal, especially for a school that was in the running to be bumped up to the Missouri Valley Conference this offseason. But the Panthers will once again have an incredibly young roster. Forward Brett Prahl is the only scholarship senior, leaving the door open for another potential jump in 2018-19.

Email John and or follow him on Twitter @jjparker084.

Photo by: Milwaukee Panthers Athletics

UT Arlington sitting pretty after beating No. 12 Saint Mary’s

UT Arlington went on the road and topped no. 12 Saint Mary’s 65-51 on Thursday night, securing its first ever victory over a Top 25 team. UTA entered the night 0-28 all-time against members of the AP Top 25. The win comes just 10 days after the Mavericks pulled off another first by heading to Austin and earning their first ever win over Texas.

Preseason Sun Belt Player of the Year Kevin Hervey led the team with 15 points and 7 rebounds in the victory. Erick Neal, who joined Hervey as a preaseason First Team All-Sun Belt honoree, added 13 points and eight assists and Kaelon Wilson chipped in 10 points on 4-for 5 shooting from the bench.

Being on the road wasn’t the only similarity to the Texas game. Just like the game 10 days before, UT Arlington won in very convincing fashion. The Mavericks took a 36-23 lead into halftime and never looked back. UTA’s lead ballooned out as big as 50-30 before a small Saint Mary’s run closed the gap to 13. UT Arlington dramatically outplayed its ranked opponent on both sides of the ball. The Mavs shot 49 percent from the field while holding the Gaels to 31.4 percent shooting, well below its 53 percent shooting mark for the season.

While early season losses to Minnesota, Florida Gulf Coast and Arkansas were tough to swallow at the time; a part of that was because the Texas and Saint Mary’s games were considered likely losses. Minnesota’s surprising start and the upset victories have UTA’s prospects of living up to preseason hype looking much more promising.

With the win, UT Arlington improves to 8-3. After a grueling non-conference schedule to date, the Mavericks should be favored in nearly every game for the rest of the season. The team has remaining non-conference matchups with Bradley and Loyola Marymount, as well as its Sun Belt schedule. UTA currently sits 67 spots higher than its closest remaining competitor in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.

Of course, UTA fans are more than aware of how easily even a single injury can derail a team’s season. The Mavs were off to a 13-3 start with wins over Ohio State and Memphis when Hervey tore his ACL last year. His injury was a brutal blow to UT Arlington, which went 11-8 to close out the once promising campaign. Early season at-large hopes were eventually replaced with a College Insider Tournament berth and second round exit.

At its current pace, UT Arlington would likely be about a 13-seed as the Sun Belt’s NCAA Tournament automatic qualifier. Facing a seemingly similar caliber opponent to Saint Mary’s in much less hostile territory, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine the Mavericks making noise in March.

Email John and or follow him on Twitter @jjparker084.

Photo by: UT Arlington Athletics

Connecticut beats Loyola Marymount, avoids disaster

Preseason No. 18 Connecticut finally earned a win — but lost a key player — on Thursday night.  The Huskies squeaked out a 65-62 win at Loyola Marymount to move to 1-2, but promising freshman Alterique Gilbert’s status for the Maui Invitational is uncertain after he separated his shoulder. The close result after two losses to small-conference schools will do little to instill confidence among UConn faithful, particularly after Gilbert’s injury.

The Huskies’ first two losses of the season were a 67-58 thumping by a Wagner team picked to finish second in the Northeastern Conference and a 64-61 loss to Northeastern, the projected seventh place finishers in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll. It’s the first time Connecticut started the season 0-2 since 1968.

The Huskies entered the season with high expectations. Gilbert and VCU transfer Terry Larrier joining a lineup that featured returning starters Rodney Purvis and Jalen Adams seemed like a recipe for success on a UConn team that is used to great backcourt play. Obviously, expectations aren’t being met.

Through three games, the newcomers are holding up their end of the bargain for Connecticut. Larrier leads the team with 16.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 47.5 percent from the field. Gilbert entered the night averaging 11.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.0 steals per game with a 4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

It’s Purvis, the team’s leading scorer last year with 12.8 points per game, who is struggling out of the gate. He’s averaging just 5.7 points per game on 28 percent shooting this season. Without Gilbert or a consistent offensive threat in the post, Purvis will need to pick up his game dramatically for the Huskies to recover from the ugly start.

Despite being just three seasons removed from a national championship, continued sloppy play could cost Head Coach Kevin Ollie his job. After being ineligible for the NCAA Tournament in Ollie’s first year due to APR issues, Connecticut won the 2014 National Championship. Since then, the team has fallen off quickly.

The Huskies missed the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and bowed out quietly to 1-seed Kansas in 2016. Even during UConn’s title run, inconsistent play during the regular season was a concern. The Huskies finished in a three-way tie for third place in the American Athletic Conference and earned a 7-seed. With the difficult start, it’s easy to imagine another season without an NCAA Tournament berth. If that happens, don’t be surprised if Ollie is shown the door.

Still, there is hope for Connecticut. Rodney Purvis has proven himself to be better than what we’ve seen this season. If he’s able to find his rhythm, the team should bounce back from its early struggles. Connecticut probably won’t meet preseason expectations, but could still be in the mix for an at-large bid. From there, Ollie is likely only an NCAA Tournament win or two away from some more job security.

It’s not the likeliest scenario, and Gilbert’s injury could cost the team some resume-boosting wins. Still, with improved play from Purvis a UConn resurgence is far from impossible. While head scratching regular season losses are frustrating, Ollie’s Huskies know that all you need is a spot in the field to make a run.

Email John and or follow him on Twitter @jjparker084.

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Could UT Arlington give the Sun Belt another Cinderella?

In 2015, RJ Hunter lifted 14-seed Georgia State over Baylor with an incredible last-second 3-pointer. Last year, Josh Hagins delivered late-game heroics to lead 12-seed Little Rock to a double overtime win over Purdue. This year, UT Arlington looks poised to become the Sun Belt’s third straight team to shock the nation in March.

To those unfamiliar with the conference the Mavericks might seem like an odd pick to be preseason favorite, much less a potential Cinderella. UTA finished last season third in the Sun Belt at 13-7, four games behind a Little Rock team that returns all but three players from last year’s 31-win team. The third place finish was UT Arlington’s best since joining the Sun Belt in 2013.

A closer look shows that the potential for a dominant Sun Belt run and an NCAA Tournament win is definitely there. Last season the Mavericks jumped out to a 13-3 start with wins at Memphis and Ohio State and an overtime loss at Texas. UTA was neck-and-neck with eventual Cinderella Little Rock and boasted an RPI as high as 27.

A big part of the team’s hot start was the emergence of forward Kevin Hervey. Hervey exploded onto the scene as a sophomore, averaging 18.1 points and 9.8 rebounds through UT Arlington’s first 16 games. He carried a much smaller part of the scoring load as a freshman, averaging just 7.1 points to go along with 6.0 rebounds per game.

UTA’s season changed during practice prior to a matchup with Sun Belt foe Arkansas State. Hervey tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Adjusting to his absence proved difficult for UT Arlington. The team lost four of its first five games after his injury and fell from a potential NCAA Tournament at-large candidate to an eventual College Insider Tournament participant. Losing such an important part of the team made the gap between Little Rock and the rest of the conference seem larger than it would have been if he’d been healthy.

Despite the injury Hervey was tabbed as the Sun Belt’s preseason Player of the Year. If he can return to form, the Mavericks could be as good as the team that cruised through the first half of last season. In addition to getting its star back, UTA returns a veteran team that loses just two players that saw more than 10 minutes of action per game last year.

In a way, Hervey’s injury could be a blessing in disguise. UT Arlington’s odds of making the tournament were probably worse last season than they will be this year.  A second dominant Sun Belt team, a weak conference and a selection committee that didn’t seem impressed by small conference teams would’ve made a tough road to March Madness. Even if the Mavericks missed the Big Dance, a gaudy win total and a high seed in the NIT would’ve made head coach Scott Cross an appealing prospect on the coaching carousel. Now, the team has some continuity and a seemingly easier path to the Big Dance.

Another silver lining of Hervey’s injury is that UT Arlington had to learn how to win without him. After the initial struggles, the Mavericks finished the season strong. The team went 9-2 to close out the regular season after the 1-4 start post-injury. While much of the responsibility of replacing Hervey went to the now graduated Kennedy Eubanks, the team should be better prepared if its go-to guy misses time this year.

Hervey and UT Arlington will have a number of opportunities to prove that they have what it takes to be the Sun Belt’s next Cinderella. The Mavericks travel to preseason Top 25 teams Texas and Saint Mary’s, power conference programs Arkansas and Minnesota, and projected Atlantic Sun champion Florida Gulf Coast during non-conference play.

Email John and or follow him on Twitter @jjparker084.

Photo by UT Arlington Athletics/Sharon Ellman