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Can Undefeated Wichita State Win it All?

The Wichita State Shockers have been a juggernaut this season, and they enter the NCAA tournament 34-0. Can they win it all?

Alex Kennedy

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As the clock ran out and their team’s 34th consecutive win was in the books, the Wichita State fans erupted, serenading the Shockers as they walked off of the court.

“UN-DE-FEAT-ED! UN-DE-FEAT-ED! UN-DE-FEAT-ED!”

By winning the Missouri Valley Championship on Sunday, the Shockers became the first team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated since UNLV back in the 1990-91 season. Wichita State went 34-0 this season and emerged as a juggernaut. They dismantled teams, winning their regular season games by an average of 16 points this season, and only one contest was decided by fewer than five points.

While this has been a historic season for the Shockers, the players feel like they have yet to accomplish anything. After advancing to last year’s Final Four and coming just short of beating the eventual champion Louisville Cardinals, Wichita State is determined to win it all this year.

The Shockers aren’t your typical mid-major underdog that might make some noise in the Big Dance. This is one of the best teams in the nation and they’re capable of cutting down the nets in April.

Cleanthony Early, the team’s leading scorer (16 PPG) and rebounder (5.9 RPG), is confident that the Shockers have what it takes to make another deep postseason run.

“Me and my teammates, we’ve been through this before,” Early said. “We went to the Final Four. We have that confidence. This isn’t a new experience for us. It helps. In life, when you’ve been through something, when you’ve done something, you get more comfortable. We act like we’ve done it before, because we have. We have a great work ethic, and we don’t let anything distract us from our goal.”

Everyone on the roster understands that this season means nothing if they aren’t the final team standing in the NCAA tournament. “Not Satisfied” has been the Shockers’ motto since last year, and they’ve brought it back this season.

“It’s been cool, it’s been fun, but we understand that we have more work to do,” Early said of the team’s 34-0 start. “I think it keeps us level headed. We understand that we have more to do right now. I think when I look back on it a couple of years from now, it’ll be cool. But as of right now, it’s just one of those moments that you enjoy, but you get over.

“We just need to stay focused and remember that just because we’re undefeated coming into the tournament, that means absolutely nothing. We need to respect our opponents, go out there and work hard and realize that, hey, this could be our last game, so we need to play our hearts out.”

The Shockers play with a suffocating, physical style that will make them a very tough out. It also helps that they’re bringing back largely the same core from last season. While many teams are adjusting to the Big Dance and trying to calm their nerves, the Shockers know what to expect and are better prepared this time around than they were last year.

“I think we’ve been through more adversity and we have more experiences just within games,” Early said. “We’re ready for anything that’s thrown at us. The kinds of guys that we have, I think we all just pay attention to detail. We all have a certain type of character and ability about us that we understand that we’re good, but we can be better. We are overlooked to a point, and we kind of use that as motivation to fuel the fire.”

The Shockers have a large chip on their shoulder. Even though they’re ranked second in the country and seem to be getting more respect as of late, they still feel like some people don’t take them seriously as a title contender. Some critics have pointed out that Wichita State hasn’t played any tough teams this year, which is something that clearly annoys Early.

“If I remember correctly, we went to the Final Four with pretty much the same team as last year,” Early said, pointing out that the team beat Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State during last year’s postseason run. “We use it as motivation. We have experience, since we were on last year’s team and we’re the key focal points of this year’s team. We’ve also helped the younger guys, all the guys that just came in to follow behind our lead. At the end of the day, we understand what we’ve been through and where we could go. I guess you could say we didn’t play any ‘big-name teams’ this year, but [we did last year] and we know that each game could be won. Anyone could be beat in college basketball if you go out there and play better that day in that game.”

As Wichita State has risen to prominence, Early has also started to get more recognition. The Middletown, N.Y. native was a junior college star at Sullivan County Community College before transferring to Wichita State. The two-time Division III NJCAA Player of the Year was also considering Baylor, Alabama and Missouri among others, when he got stranded at Wichita State during a visit due to Hurricane Irene.

“There were so many things that led to me coming to Wichita State: my visit, meeting the people that were here, my coaches, what [Gregg] Marshall was doing with the program,” Early said. “When I came out to visit, I got here and wanted to stay for a couple more days. You know how visits are only two days? I got to stay out here for like four or five days. Anyone can show you the best time in two days, but when you get to stay here longer, you get to see the real thing. I was impressed. There isn’t much to do out here, so it’s a place where you can focus, but it’s big enough that it’s a city. I don’t think a lot of people know that.”

Early grew up studying a wide range of players, from “Michael Jordan to Scottie Pippen to Tracy McGrady to Skip 2 My Lou.” These days, he says he has been compared to players like Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. While Early is obviously focused on Wichita State’s season right now, he does believe he has what it takes to play in the NBA and is hoping to prove that in the near future.

“I have played with a lot of professional basketball players that are in the NBA, guys that went to the NBA recently or are supposedly going to the NBA this year, and I’ve always competed with them at a level to where I knew I was good and knew I could potentially make it there,” Early said. “It was just a matter of getting that exposure and being seen and just working my butt off. I just believed that I had to get so good that they can’t ignore you, you know what I mean? I feel like my game can translate to the NBA because I always know that I’m going to work hard to improve on anything I need to improve on.”

Selection Sunday is on March 16, and Wichita State will likely be a No. 1 seed in the tournament. It remains to be seen if they can make history and finish this season undefeated, but they certainly have a shot. If the Shockers win the national title, they would join the Baylor women of 2012-13 as the only Division I teams in NCAA history to go 40-0.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA

College Basketball Has A Money Problem, But No Solution

The FBI confirmed that college basketball has a big money problem. But it won’t go away until NCAA fixes their rules.

Dennis Chambers

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College basketball saw its world rocked on Tuesday when the FBI made a two-year long investigation into the illegal paying of amateur players public for all the world to see.

Ten people total were arrested and charged with fraud and corruption. Those men included active assistant coaches from Auburn, USC, Arizona, and Oklahoma State, along with a prominent executive from Adidas.

All the FBI did this week was confirm what was potentially the worst kept secret in college sports: that high-profile high school athletes receive under-the-table benefits to attend certain schools and keep certain relationships with shoe companies, agents, financial planners, etc. once they make their jump to the NBA.

As the curtain is pulled back on the backdoor dealings of the grassroots basketball scene and the public receives more confirmation about how some of these basketball powerhouse schools continuously get the best of the best, surely there will be more professional casualties. Already this probe has cost a Hall of Fame coach his job, as the University of Louisville announced Wednesday that Rick Pitino would be suspended from his duties. Pitino’s attorney later released in a statement that the coach “has, in effect, been fired.”

With the massive involvement the FBI seems to have in this matter, the smart guess would be to assume that Pitino isn’t the only prominent coach that will fall victim to this case. On Tuesday, Adidas executive Jim Gatto was arrested in the initial sweep by the authorities, making all of the schools with an Adidas sponsorship immediately look suspect. Just one day later, the FBI issued a subpoena to employees of Nike’s EYBL grassroots division, which runs their AAU basketball circuit.

These initial offenders appear to be the tip of the iceberg. Common sense would suggest that since the long arm of the law is now involved in how certain recruits make their college decisions things will certainly change. However, until the NCAA finds a better way to compensate their student-athletes, don’t hold your breath.

Yes, this is going to be a long and excruciating process for the NCAA. Once certain people involved are facing federal agents and the likes of jail time, they will turn over more information, dragging others down with them. For a while, maybe the recruiting process will get back to operating more organically. But in a multi-billion dollar business like college basketball, money will find its way back in.

Each year there are more than a few top prospects who come from families that are in need of assistance. That player, despite being just a kid, can be viewed as the family’s ticket out of their difficult situation. Those realities are what makes this entire scandal somewhat understandable. That certainly isn’t advocacy for cheating, but when you take into account the financial status of a high-profile player and his family, coupled with the impending millions that a university is set to make off of that individual, with no effective legal payout from the NCAA heading their way it almost makes the cause just.

Certainly, though, rules and laws were breached by these individuals and they will face the consequences as a result. The list of those involved will grow, and the pointed finger at who to blame will swing wildly in the direction of many. But until the conversation is had as to why this truly happening, nothing will ever change permanently for the better.

According to Forbes, Louisville’s team value in 2016 stood at $45.4 million, with their 2015 revenue reaching $45.8 million. Those are eye-popping numbers for a basketball team that doesn’t have to pay its players. An organization can only be as successful as its employees. So, while Louisville continues to be one of the nation’s top basketball programs as a result of their high-tier talent, their payout to these athletes reaches only to the price of tuition and room and board. Most of the players that help keep elite team’s like Louisville relevant don’t stay for more than a year or two.

In the documents released by the FBI, Gatto, agent Christian Dawkins and financial advisor Munish Sood are named directly as helping provide funding to a particular player.

The statement reads that Gatto, Sood, and Dawkins “conspired to illicitly funnel approximately $100,000 from company-1 to the family of Player-10, an All-American high school basketball player; to assist one or more coaches at University-6, a school sponsored by Company-1, and to further ensure that Player-6 ultimately retained the services of Dawkins and Sood and signed with Company-1 upon entering the NBA.”

Clear as day, the NCAA’s biggest problem is written in black and white by the FBI. These companies and agents know that players are more than willing to take money (truthfully, who wouldn’t?). When a player or player’s family recognizes their worth in a market that doesn’t let them cash in on it, their recruiting process becomes marred with wink-wink agreements from the schools that are recruiting said player, and ultimately the decision is made to attend whichever school is willing to bend the rules the most.

On Tuesday, the world saw for certain that this time the rules were bent to their breaking point. Dark days are ahead for college basketball during this scandal, but until the NCAA develops a reasonable way to compensate their athletes, the problem will never fully disappear.

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NBA

Is Lauri Markkanen Finland’s Dirk Nowitzki?

Draft prospect Lauri Markkanen talks to Michael Scotto about preparing for the draft and his NBA prospects.

Michael Scotto

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Not many 20-year-olds have drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki and have an opportunity to be a basketball ambassador for an entire nation. Lauri Markkanen is not your average 20-year-old.

“First of all, it’s an honor to be compared to him,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “It’s probably not fair to him to have some young guy compared to a Hall of Fame player and champion. We have similarities because of the height, being from Europe and shooting. But I have a long way to go before I’m in the same category as him. Hopefully, I can get there one day.”

Markkanen, a 7-foot prospect from Finland, shot 49 percent from the field, 42 percent from downtown and 84 percent from the foul line in his freshman season at Arizona. Nowitzki has shot 47 percent from the field, 38 percent from downtown and 88 percent from the foul line in his 19-year career.

A few weeks ago, video footage surfaced of Markkanen draining 18 straight 3-pointers from the corner.

“He has the most ready NBA skill of any player in the NBA draft,” a Western Conference executive told Basketball Insiders. “He’s the best shooter coming into the draft in my opinion. That’s one skill you can rely on.”

Markkanen isn’t just a standstill shooter. He’s lethal in pick-and-pop sets, and can move off the ball and attack off the dribble.

“He has a lot of similarities to a guy like Ryan Anderson,” another Western Conference executive told Basketball Insiders. “I think later in the season he showed more versatility to his game. He’s shown that he has more to his offensive package with his ability to post up, which will only get better as he gets stronger. He has a good enough handle to create space and is tall enough where his shot will be hard to contest.”

As the league emphasizes floor spacing more than ever before, Markkanen could be a matchup nightmare in small ball lineups.

“He’s an excellent shooter with range for his size,” an Eastern Conference scout told Basketball Insiders. “He knows how to play and has good overall fundamentals. Center will be his best position as a stretch-five. He has deceptive mobility. He’s a below the rim player, not a rim protector, nor a top rebounder now.”

While Markkanen’s shooting ability is unquestioned, he believes other areas of his game are underrated.

“I think I am the best shooter in this class,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “I think my ceiling as a rebounder and defender is higher than people may think. And my work ethic is something I take a lot of pride in, which will help elevate my game.”

Scouts and executives believe Markkanen will need to improve his lateral quickness to compete better on the defensive end at the NBA level. He will also have to get stronger to fight for rebounding position in the post, but that’s a natural progression for any rookie coming into the league.

Unlike most foreign players, Markkanen skipped an important adjustment. He came overseas and got a chance to adjust to lifestyle on and off the court in the States while attending the University of Arizona.

“As a player, the physicality of the game and the pace was different and took some getting used to,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “Otherwise, the adjustment was not that bad. As a student, there was more work than back home, but it was not too difficult to me.”

While Markkanen enjoyed his time at Arizona and is looking forward to NBA life as a rookie in the States, he believes he can eventually help grow the game of basketball back home in Finland.

“That is one of my biggest goals,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “Hopefully my story can inspire more kids back home to learn the game and enjoy it. I look forward to many future projects back home and hopefully continued success of the national team program.”

Markkanen’s father, Pekka, played for Kansas and was a member of the Finland National Team. At 15 years old, Markkanen made his Second Division debut for BC Jyvaskyla. At Helsinki Basketball Academy, Hanno Mottola – one of two all-time Finnish NBA players – was one of Markkanen’s coaches, as DraftExpress noted. Markkanen’s international debut for the Finland U-18 National Team came at the 2015 FIBA Europe U-18 Championship. A year later, Markkanen was the top scorer in the 2016 FIBA Europe U-20 Championship, averaging 24.9 points per game, and participated in the NIKE Hoops Summit.

“As a player, the kid dominated at the junior level,” a Western Conference executive told Basketball Insiders. “In big games, he stepped up. He led Arizona to an incredible record.”

Arizona won the Pac-12 Tournament and was a No. 2 seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament. Markkanen led all freshmen in offensive rating (134.1) and made as many 3-pointers as any 7-footer in college since 2000, as DraftExpress noted. As a result, Markkanen was named a member of the Pac-12 First Team. Arizona eventually lost 73-71 against No. 11 Xavier in the West Regional Semifinal.

While Markkanen hopes to become a role model for children in Finland and inspire them to play the game, he has other goals in mind before hanging up his sneakers down the road.

“Winning an NBA championship, winning an Olympic medal and being an All-Star,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders.

Markkanen’s journey will begin Thursday night at the NBA Draft, where colleague Steve Kyler and I both have him going to Minnesota with the seventh pick in our latest mock draft.

However, the Timberwolves may trade their pick for an established veteran or as part of a package to acquire Jimmy Butler. With the uncertainty of the draft in mind, why should any team select him?

“I think I am unique as a player,” Markkanen replied. “I am a very hard worker and give everything on the court. I am going to do everything in my power to help my team win.”

While becoming the next Nowitzki is the ceiling for Markkanen’s career, becoming a basketball ambassador and role model for young children in Finland could be Markkanen’s greatest accomplishment by the time he hangs up his sneakers.

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NBA

Six NBA Draft Sleepers

These six players have the chance to become a franchise’s next diamond in the rough, writes Dennis Chambers.

Dennis Chambers

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Every year the NBA Draft signifies an opportunity for franchises around the league to bring in the next player to help shape their team.

The teams at the top of the draft are usually down on their luck — excluding the Boston Celtics this season who, performed trade wizardry in 2013 and wound up with the top pick in this June’s draft. Clubs with top-end draft picks have the chance to bring in a player that they hope turns into an eventual franchise cornerstone.

As the draft unfolds throughout the night, however, teams will often be on the search for an under the radar talent who can come in and make an impact sooner rather than later. Usually, these players will have a few years of collegiate seasoning under their belts — an attribute that, for better or for worse, keeps productive amateur players from being selected higher — and as a result can operate with more poise and effective impact for a team looking to contend past the regular season.

Last June the Milwaukee Bucks selected Malcolm Brogdon with the No. 36 pick. Despite being an accomplished player at the University of Virginia, at 23-years-old Brogdon wasn’t considered an elite draft prospect due to his age.

Regardless of concerns, Brogdon ripped off a successful rookie campaign and averaged 10.2 points and 4.2 assists through 26 minutes a game, all while shooting 40 percent from downtown.

As a result, Brogdon became an integral part of Milwaukee’s playoff run that saw them take the Toronto Raptors to a six-game series. Along with postseason success, Brogdon was also named a finalist for the Rookie of the Year award. All in all, the Bucks’ second-round selection proved to buck trends and become a diamond in the rough.

With this year’s installment of the draft quickly approaching, let’s take a look at some players who are candidates to become next season’s Brogdon.

Sindarius Thornwell

After playing four seasons at South Carolina, Thornwell established himself as a legitimate two-way player, culminating with a Final Four run during this past NCAA tournament.

During his senior campaign, Thornwell was named SEC Player of the Year and averaged 21.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. But the defensive end of the ball is truly where he began to stake his claim as a legitimate pro prospect. Turning in an 89.3 defensive rating and being a thorn (no pun intended) in the side of guards like Duke’s Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard in the second round of the NCAA tournament elevated Thornwell’s draft stock for this year.

Currently projected on DraftExpress to be taken 57th overall, Thornwell can be a candidate to step in right away and provide viable wing defense for a ball club. He also shot 39 percent from three-point land last season, so his shot certainly has the chance to develop into a reliable stroke from NBA-range and make him potentially one of the coveted “3-and-D” players that draw attention in today’s league.

Josh Hart

When it comes to accomplished players in college basketball, few fit the bill better than Josh Hart.

Throughout his career at Villanova, Hart racked up numerous accolades. From Sixth Man of the Year to Big East Player of the Year, to Big East Champion, to National Champion, Hart nearly did it all at the college ranks.

Next up, he’ll be looking to take his championship pedigree and poise to the next level in hopes of using his savvy play to become effective.

At 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Hart is a legitimate off-ball guard and possesses the defensive skill to disrupt opposing wing players. Hart also demonstrated superb efficiency at the collegiate level, partly as a result of learning under one the nation’s premier coaches in Jay Wright, shooting over 50 percent for his career. His decision making should translate well to the next level.

Mocked at No. 54 on DraftExpress, Hart could be a player that is viewed in a few years as one of the draft’s best value picks if he can translate his defensive capabilities and experienced decision making to the professional level.

Jordan Bell

Jordan Bell really helped his case during this past season’s NCAA tournament, just like Thornwell.

During Oregon’s run to the Final Four, Bell averaged a double-double of 12.6 points and 13.2 rebounds per game as well as tallying three blocks per contest. The low-post prospect really displayed his motor going for rebounds and defending at a high level when the lights were shining their brightest.

A knock on Bell, however, is his size and shooting. At 6-foot-9 Bell isn’t small by any means, but his lack of outside shooting (just 3-of-16 from downtown over the course of three seasons) really pigeonholes him into a low-post role in a league that is asking their forwards to develop more of a shooting stroke at an increasing rate.

But a motor like Bell’s is a good attribute to have for a player that feeds down low. At the same rate, Bell looks to translate as the type of player who will hustle down the loose ball and fight for second chance opportunities as they arise, and those qualities usually have a place in the NBA.

Currently projected as the No. 35 pick by DraftExpress, Bell could develop himself into an impact player for a club in the second round should he extend his shooting range just a bit outside the paint.

Harry Giles

Harry Giles’ talent is hard to keep under the radar, and barring a couple of knee injuries in high school, the former top player in the 2016 recruiting class would probably be projected as a top-5 pick in this June’s draft.

But that isn’t the reality Giles will face on draft night. Instead, the freakishly athletic forward will be hoping a team in the second half of the first round takes a flier on a kid who didn’t look like his high school phenom self during his lone season at Duke.

However, should Giles’ bill of health stay clean and his game that had scouts buzzing during his high school AAU circuits return, he could wind up being the steal of the draft.

While the numbers for Giles’ freshman season are wildly underwhelming at just 3.9 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, he wasn’t given a very heavy workload as he was still mending his knee back to full strength as the season went on.

Recently, Giles proclaimed his health was “100 percent” and that he would be ready to go for next season.

Should Giles take a tumble in the first round and is snatched up by a team who isn’t looking to apply the pressure of him being a lottery selection, Giles may have the best chance to succeed in the league out of any of this year’s elite talents.

Derrick White

Derrick White finds himself in a peculiar position for an NBA draft prospect. Once a Division II player at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, White eventually moved on to the big leagues to play in Boulder after two standout seasons.

At 6-foot-5 White possesses the skills and size to be a combo-guard at the next level. He averaged 18.1 points per game while shooting nearly 40 percent from deep during his lone year at the University of Colorado. Along with scoring in bunches, White also dished out a team-leading 4.4 assists per game.

He checks in at 22-years-old on draft night and will turn 23 in early July. Along with his advanced age for a draft prospect, White only has one season of production at a Division I level. Despite his clear production in the PAC-12, it still is a relatively small sample size for a player that doesn’t have the benefit of being just 19 years old.

Projected as a fringe first-round pick, currently No. 33 on DraftExpress, White will look to bring some solid backcourt skills to whichever team drafts him. Should that team be at the end of round one, White should have the chance to sit on an experienced club that won’t be asking the world of him while his skills develop.

From Division II basketball all the way to the NBA, White looks poised to be a productive player at the world’s highest level of competition.

Frank Jackson

The second Duke product on the list, Frank Jackson cemented his draft status after a stellar showing at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago back in May.

After displaying an array of scoring and decision-making skills in the five-on-five scrimmage portion of the camp, Jackson blew NBA personnel away with his 42-inch vertical leap.

Just 19-years-old, Jackson endured an up and down year at Duke that saw him average just 10.9 points per game on a roster that had a few other guards with more experience. However, he did manage to shoot 39 percent from beyond the arc. That shooting stroke coupled with his athleticism should have teams chomping at the bit to bring Jackson on board.

After a solid combine, Jackson suffered an injury to his foot that required surgery, and he isn’t expected to be back in action until July. That timeline would make Jackson questionable to participate in Summer League, a valuable learning experience for rookies.

That development, along with his lack of earth-shattering production at Duke, could cause Jackson to slip a bit in this month’s draft. DraftExpress currently has Jackson as the No. 39 pick. But, once heralded as a premier prospect in his freshman class, Jackson seems to have all the tools necessary to succeed in a league that thrives off shooting and athleticism.

With father time on Jackson’s side and the absence of pressure a 19-year-old athletic freak usually faces from the NBA Draft, the guard should have every opportunity to become a valuable player at the next level.

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