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Johnny Dawkins Changing Culture at UCF

Coach Johnny Dawkins has revitalized the UCF basketball program, writes Cody Taylor.

Cody Taylor

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In his first year on the job, Johnny Dawkins has helped revitalize the UCF men’s basketball program. Given where the program was just one year ago today, the team’s success this season seems even more impressive.

Head coach Donnie Jones was fired last March after guiding the Knights to a 12-18 record during the 2015-16 season. They had struggled for much of the season and finished by dropping 12 out of their last 14 games. Although injuries were partly to blame for the inconsistent play, the school decided a change was necessary.

Two weeks after letting Jones go, Dawkins was named the team’s new head coach. Dawkins played for four years at Duke and played nine years in the NBA. He was most recently the head coach at Stanford and compiled a 156-115 overall record during his eight years on campus.

As the Knights are set to take on Illinois State Monday night in the second round of the NIT, Dawkins appears to have started to change the culture around the basketball program. Many were unsure of what to expect during his first year on the job, but it’s safe to say that he has answered any questions about how he’d do.

The Knights finished the season with a 21-11 record and are coming off of a win over Colorado in the first round of the NIT last Wednesday. It’s the first postseason berth for the Knights in five years, and the win marked the Knights’ first in the postseason NIT or NCAA Tournament in program history.

“Every program and every team has a beginning and so we’re having our beginning,” Dawkins said. “These things that we’re doing, whether it’s in the conference tournament or whether it’s now in the postseason NIT, [are] all the things that I think will help develop our culture – things that we want to have that will be meaningful for our program. You have to accomplish these things, you have to have signature wins like this in order to move forward and fortunately these guys have had a few this year.”

Regardless of what happens Monday against Illinois State, UCF is in a much better place than it was a year ago. Now at 22-11 on the season, UCF has matched its most wins in a season since 2004-05 when they won 24 games en route to an Atlantic Sun Championship. The team’s 11-7 record in American Athletic Conference play was the best ever in the American.

In addition, they have racked up some impressive wins over the course of the season. Back on February 4, the Knights picked up just their second win all-time versus Memphis. Then, they defeated No. 15 Cincinnati on February 26 for their fourth win all-time versus a ranked opponent and first since defeating No. 4 UConn in 2011.

The Knights also had a memorable performance against No. 3 Villanova at the beginning of the season. Although they lost the game by 10 points, they were able to keep up with the defending national champions for most of that game.

Wednesday night’s rare win over a PAC-12 team was the culmination of hard work for the Knights, and advancing deeper into the NIT would go a long way in helping build for the future.

“It would be great for us because there are only going to be a handful of teams that finish this season with a win,” point guard B.J. Taylor said. “We’ve got a chance to finish the season off with a championship. It’s not the tournament we wanted to be in, but we can’t dwell on the past. We’ve got to move on. We definitely want to send the seniors out the right way.”

A big factor in UCF’s improvement this season has been defense. UCF has one of the best defenses in the nation, holding opponents to 36.4 percent shooting from the field, which ranked No. 1 in the country. In addition, they rank sixth in the country, allowing just 61 points per game, and rank 16th in the country in defending the three-point shot.

A big part of the team’s success on the defensive side of the ball has been sophomore center Tacko Fall. Standing at 7-foot-6, Fall is the team’s anchor on defense and was named the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Fall averaged 11.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game this season.

While the team still has at least one more game to play in the NIT, it’s clear that this season could prove to be the turning point for a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2005.

If you would have told Dawkins and the rest of the team at the beginning of the season that they would make the NIT after what the program has been through in the past few seasons, they likely would have taken it.

But now, it’s obvious they have their sights set on even higher aspirations.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Five Of The Draft Combine’s Biggest Underdogs

The NBA Draft Combine stands as many potential draftees’ best chance to impress franchises, but there are plenty of second-round stories worth following this week as well.

Ben Nadeau

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Every spring, college basketball’s top athletes are invited to the NBA Draft Combine to exhibit their wide-reaching skill sets. Not only does this afford front offices the opportunity to measure, interview and watch scrimmages, but it gives potential draftees a better idea of where they may be selected. While much of the attention has fallen squarely on the likes of Michael Porter Jr., Mohamed Bamba and other likely high lottery picks, their draft status is not in question.

Both experts and fans alike could put together a decent look at composing a lottery mock draft at this point — but there’s still some major intrigue in those second-round fringe players. Late-round picks won’t always net a team the next Isaiah Thomas or Manu Ginobili, but rotation-worthy assets are certainly out there each and every year. With that in mind, let’s take a look at five deep cut underdogs that will compete at this week’s NBA Draft Combine.

Theo Pinson, North Carolina

The Tarheels’ hard-working senior originally missed the cut but received a better-late-than-never invite early this week, according to Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania. Pinson, who started 13 games for the eventual national champions in 2016-17, is fresh off his best-ever collegiate season. Racking up 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists on 47.3 percent from the floor, Pinson was a huge reason why UNC entered tournament play as a No. 2 seed back in March.

Pinson uses his athleticism and strong physical tools to hound the opposition and his 6-foot-6 frame and 6-foot-11 wingspan made him a defensive stopper at times. Although he may project as a potential 3-and-D player, Pinson only shot 22.6 percent from three-point range in 2017-18 — so that’ll need work. But even if Pinson were to go undrafted, exhibiting his NBA-ready skills during workouts this week could land him a summer league fling at the very least.

While the 22-year-old should have been included on the first list, Pinson will get his chance to prove himself outside of private workouts after all. For some, that’s all it takes.

Ray Spalding, Louisville

That massive sigh of relief you just heard comes from Louisville’s Ray Spalding, who has also collected a late invite. Very early last month, Spalding announced he’d be hiring an agent — thus making him ineligible to return for his senior year no matter what — so this fortunate turn may end up being a game-changer for the 6-foot-10 forward. Again, like Pinson, Spalding’s athleticism and defensive potential could pave the road for a second-round flier.

Over three years, Spalding improved in each successive season with the Cardinals but he truly outdid himself in 2017-18. The 21-year-old doubled his previous scoring output, led the team in rebounds and shot 54.3 percent from the floor over 34 starts for Louisville. While his steady tally of 12.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.7 blocks per game may not make him a can’t-miss prospect, he has earned his spot in Chicago this week.

Should Spalding impress front offices, his stock could rise between now and draft night in June.

Billy Preston, International

Coming out of high school, Billy Preston was widely regarded as one of Kansas’ top prospects — but he ended up never playing in a regular season game. Following a series of small vehicle-related issues, head coach Bill Self began holding Preston out of games as the program investigated how and why he got his car. After a few months without an answer — and a total of zero minutes played for Preston — he signed with KK Igokea, a professional club in Bosnia. There, things didn’t get much better and Preston played in only three ABA League games before returning home.

Preston is a former McDonald’s All-American that finished his high school career at the famous Oak Hill Academy (Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, etc) by averaging 15.3 points and 9.2 rebounds. As far as prospects go, Preston absolutely has first-round talent and ESPN ranked him as the 18th-best player in his class. But after sitting out for the better part of a year, what will NBA franchises see in him? Nobody knows where Preston will end up and predictions range from the second-round to undrafted right now.

This invite, however, stands as a remarkable opportunity for Preston to showcase the innate potential that’s been hidden for so long.

Kostas Antetokounmpo, Dayton

Without question, we all know why Kostas Antetokounmpo was invited to the NBA Draft Combine — and that’s perfectly OK, too. After his brother — Giannis, of course — slipped to No. 15 overall in 2013 before turning into a perennial MVP candidate overnight, the rest of his family is obviously going to get attention. The oldest Antetokounmpo brother, Thanasis, went to the Knicks at No. 51 overall in 2014 and flamed out in America after just one season, so Kostas would be another late selection in all likelihood.

Antetokounmpo, 20, averaged a paltry 5.2 points and 2.9 rebounds over just 15 minutes a game for a disappointing Dayton squad. Naturally, Antetokounmpo is built like both of his siblings — he’s tall, athletic and owns a massive wingspan of his own. But even if Antetokounmpo’s eventual ceiling slots him in somewhere between Giannis and Thanasis, that would be worth a second round roll of the dice, undoubtedly.

The sample size is unfortunately small, but he did manage to shoot 65 percent on two-pointers in 2017-18 and that’s a worthwhile start. Still, Antetokounmpo would have to really impress at the NBA Draft Combine to have a chance of sticking around past the draft-eligible deadline on May 30. The best guess here is that this high-upside prospect will end up back at Dayton this fall — but who could fault front offices for wanting to watch this royal NBA bloodline up close?

Brian Bowen, South Carolina

Similarly to Preston, the case of Brian Bowen may be ripe for a second-round home run swing as well. The former McDonald’s All-American had originally enrolled at Louisville before finding himself at the center of the Rick Pitino scandal in September. Although Bowen was cleared a few months later, Louisville announced that Bowen would not play or practice for the team in 2017-18. Shortly thereafter, Bowen enrolled with the South Carolina Gamecocks, where he’s still waiting to be reinstated by the NCAA.

As of today, he’s still not learned of his future eligibility, so unsurprisingly, Bowen intends to test the waters despite never playing a collegiate game. To outsiders, his invite may come as a surprise but Bowen is definitely talented. He averaged 22 points per game as a high school senior and was ranked as ESPN’s 14th-best prospect. At 6-foot-7, Bowen presently projects as a second-round pick — but with his standing for the 2018-19 still in the hands of the NCAA, he’ll likely have to make a tough decision before the deadline.

Obviously, Bowen, 19, will do whatever is best for a career currently on hold — but a killer combine showing could make that choice a whole lot easier.

If you tune into the NBA Draft Combine this week, it’ll be difficult to look away from the pool’s best and brightest, but don’t forget to keep an eye on the underdogs. Between four-year seniors and freshman that haven’t played in a single game, there are plenty of compelling stories to watch as the workouts unfold over the next month.

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March Madness

NBA Daily: Five Tournament-Tested Prospects Worth Watching

With the NCAA Tournament in the rearview mirror, here are five tournament-tested prospects worth keeping an eye on.

Ben Nadeau

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After nearly a month of relentless basketball, the NCAA Tournament is finally in our rearview mirrors — which means all the focus has turned to the upcoming draft process. While many of this class’ top prospects have already been identified, everything outside the lottery largely remains a mystery at this time. However, many on-the-bubble candidates stepped up during their respective tournament runs. From leading the way in the tournament final to sparking an unexpected run to the Elite Eight and everything in between, these players have all made themselves interesting options headed into some of the key spring months.

Jevon Carter, West Virginia

West Virginia’s strong tournament run ended in the Sweet 16 at the hands of the eventual champions, but senior Jevon Carter thoroughly proved that he’s a prospect to watch. Carter racked up six and five-steal games against Murray State and Marshall, respectively, to open up the tournament, and that wasn’t all. Over those two contests, Carter finished with a total of 49 points and 13 assists, even hitting on 5-of-8 attempts from deep. Beyond being named to the Consensus All-American Second-Team this spring, Carter has taken home back-to-back NABC Defensive Player of the Year honors as well.

His calling card is absolutely tenacious perimeter defense, but the West Virginia star is no slouch offensively. Carter averaged 17.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game on 39.3 percent from three-point range during the 2017-18 season — so what’s not to love? He’ll be 23 years old by the time his rookie season rolls around, but the Mountaineer’s lengthy award resume and impressive tournament set him up mightily moving forward. As an experienced, hard-nosed defender with a steady three-point shot — not dissimilar to Malcolm Brogdon in recent years — Carter could be a steal this June.

Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler has Carter slotted in at No. 29 overall in his most recent mock draft.

Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova

Of course, the man of the hour was bound to make an appearance on this list. Although it may appear as if Donte DiVincenzo came out of nowhere, Wildcats fans have watched him torch opposing defenses for quite some time. DiVincenzo markedly improved in each of his three seasons at Villanova, and he currently holds an average of 13.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game on 40.1 percent from three-point range. He’s been overshadowed thus far by recent draftee Josh Hart and the newly-minted College National Player of the Year, Jalen Brunson, but DiVincenzo stole the show against Michigan.

DiVincenzo dropped 31 points on 5-of-7 from three-point range, part of a red-hot second half run that buried the Wolverines for good. As the reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year, DiVincenzo is no stranger to these types of nights — but if he wasn’t on draft radars yet, he definitely is now. The Wildcats’ streaky shooter has the size and athleticism to bother opposing teams should he take his impressive run into next month’s combine.

But the program’s continuity is what earned Villanova two national championships in three years, so DiVincenzo remains a compelling candidate to return for his senior season. With Brunson heading to the NBA, DiVincenzo could-be the go-to star on another talented roster — that alone may be too tempting to pass up. Either way, DiVincenzo has outgrown his playful “Michael Jordan of Delaware” moniker, but this may just be the beginning for another standout Villanova prospect.

Tony Carr, Penn State

If you’ve not yet heard of Tony Carr, you will soon. Trae Young and Collin Sexton have earned high remarks all year, but Carr is a point guard to watch out for — just ask the entire NIT field.

As Penn State’s featured guard, the 6-foot-5 scoring machine helped the Nittany Lions take home their second NIT crown in the last decade. During Penn State’s title-clinching blowout of Utah, Carr registered a near-triple-double with 15 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds. If that wasn’t enough, Carr led his fourth-seeded squad past Mississippi State the round prior after tallying 21/5/6 — more or less cementing his already intriguing draft status.

But unlike most younger players, Carr has already stated his intention to sign with an agent ahead of the draft. This decision would eliminate the possibility of Carr returning to Penn State should the next month go awry — but his confidence is at an all-time high. At a recent press conference, Carr noted that most of the current draft projections have him going somewhere in the mid-to-late first or early second round — and it’s not hard to see why. In 2017-18, Carr averaged 19.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and five assists on 43.3 percent from three-point range — contributions that would earn him a well-deserved spot on the All-Big Ten First-Team.

In one of the cooler subplots of the season, Carr led Penn State to three consecutive wins against Top 25-ranked Ohio State over the span of five weeks, flat-out dominating with 27.6 points per game. For franchises that need an explosive guard but don’t have the means to grab one of the studded lottery picks, Carr should be a hot commodity further down the draft board.

Keenan Evans, Texas Tech

As of late, it’s been Zhaire Smith quickly rising toward the lottery conversation — but don’t sleep on Keenan Evans, Texas Tech’s top scorer. After averaging 17.6 points and 3.2 assists in 2017-18, Evans was named to the All-American Consensus Second-Team alongside the aforementioned Carter and likely lottery selection Miles Bridges. When Evans scored 20 or more points, the Red Raiders went 13-1 — but when he scored fewer than 10, that record drops to just 1-4. Like Carter, Texas Tech’s tournament ended against Villanova — but Evans’ recent play will keep him on front office radars nonetheless.

Prior to their Elite Eight loss to the Wildcats, Evans took down 23, 22, 16-point efforts against SF Austin, Florida and Purdue, even outscoring Smith on all three occasions to boot. Best of all, Evans showed promise from three-point range, a skill he’ll no doubt need at the next level. During the regular season, Evans converted on just 32 percent of his looks from deep. But over that three-game tournament run, the prospect hit on five of his nine attempts (55.5 percent). A small sample size, surely, but it’s always noteworthy when prospects show progress on the game’s biggest stage. Evans is a senior, so he’ll look to build momentum during the upcoming combine — but he has a knack for scoring, something that professional benches will always scour the class for.

Tyus Battle, Syracuse

Last but not least, there’s Tyus Battle, a 6-foot-6 sophomore-year guard that propelled a surprise Syracuse Orange team into the Sweet 16. After leading Division-I with a tireless 39 minutes per game, Battle was on the floor for every minute of Syracuse’s play-in victory over Arizona State. In fact, Battle didn’t miss a single second of the Orange’s four tournament games — making the scorer extremely well-tested already. Battle can get going in a flash and notably recorded 29 points on 6-for-11 from downtown in a mid-December win over Georgetown. More recently, of course, were Battle’s 19 points and five assists in their tournament-ending loss to Duke.

As of now, Battle has not yet announced if he’ll test the NBA waters — but nobody would blame him for gauging interest after his stellar season. Battle averaged 19.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game as Syracuse’s go-to scorer and playmaker. Due to his high offensive usage, Battle’s field goal (39.9) and three-point (32.3) percentages aren’t where they need to be quite yet — but there’s plenty else to like here. Battle will likely be deployable in many flexible roles at the next level and his defense — albeit not often highlighted given Syracuse’s zone defense — shows promise as well.

Of note, Kyler currently has Battle going with the No. 22 overall pick. A formidable combine performance could shoot Battle into draft contention — so keep an eye on him.

With the NBA Draft Combine set to take place on May 16, expect many of these tournament-tested prospects to continue rising upward. For seniors like Carter and Evans — or those who will sign with an agent like Carr — they’re entering a crucial portion of their basketball journey. Present commodities like DiVincenzo and Battle will likely stick their toes in the water — but they’ll always have the option to head back to promising programs. Either way, these five players are certainly worth watching as their quest to play at the next level begins anew.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Trae Young Looks To Be Next Up

Oklahoma’s Trae Young is taking college basketball by storm, and drawing comparisons to All-Star point guards.

Dennis Chambers

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When basketball fans glance across the college landscape to find the next wave of talent they expect to dominate the sport, they check in on the usual spots.

Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan State, Kansas and UCLA are among the culprits. Norman, Oklahoma, and the Sooners, though? Well, they’re not a destination that comes to mind very often when debating what young player is in position to take the reins at the next level.

Until now, that is. Meet Trae Young.

Young is Oklahoma’s freshman point guard. He’s 6-foot-2, isn’t overly muscular, and operates up and down the court with a smoothness that’s eerily similar to the guy who plays the same position out in the Bay Area.

How he looks isn’t the only thing that draws comparisons from Young to Steph Curry. Look at the numbers, and the obscene production the 19-year-old point guard is putting up. At the moment, Young leads the entire country in points per game (28.7) and assists (10.4). Young has reached the 30-point plateau four times in eleven games, including his 43-point outburst against Oregon. He’s scored 29 points on two occasions, and twice more reached 28 points.

Young’s picture-perfect shooting form and effortless release from beyond the arc are what makes this teenager so lethal. But he’s not just a one-trick pony. On Dec. 20 against Northwestern State, Young tied the NCAA record with a 22-assist performance (to go along with his 26 points). It was the first time in 20 years a player had reached 20 points and 20 assists in the same game. In six of Young’s first 11 collegiate games, he’s reached double-digit assists.

The invigoration of Young into the Oklahoma offense has Lon Kruger’s 11-20 team from a year ago at 10-1 and ranked No. 17 in the country heading into Big 12 Conference play. Make no mistake about it, that’s large, if not wholly, because of the freshman point guard.

How exactly did the Sooners land a superstar player of this caliber, though?

Well, they almost didn’t.

Young’s college choice came down to his hometown Sooners (he attended Norman North High School right down the road) and typical blue-blood powerhouse Kansas. Even with the commitment of a five-star point guard, few, if any, saw this type of impact from Young right away.

Ranking No. 23 on ESPN’s Top 100 for the class of 2017, Young was behind three other point guards: Trevon Duval (Duke), Collin Sexton (Alabama) and Jaylen Hands (UCLA).

Expecting the supernova level star Young has become almost immediately would’ve been a bit overzealous in any prediction. But that’s what makes college basketball the marvel that it is. Young has looked like the best player in the country, on a team where, at just 19 years old, he is considered “the man,” and without the usual supporting cast that players get at Duke and Kentucky.

After a 31-point, 12-assist performance against Northwestern on Friday, opposing head coach Chris Collins couldn’t do anything but rave about the teenager that dominated his team.

“With how deep he can shoot it from, you have to extend out on him, and then it just opens the floor,” Collins said. “He does a great job. He changes speeds well and he is shifty. And so the moment you are kind of a little off balance, he does a great job getting into your body and kind of playing off your movements. He’s got incredible vision. I always knew he was an incredible scorer. But the one thing I think he is underrated is his ability to pass. I thought he made some great passes and found guys.”

While the comparisons between Young and Curry are obvious, Collins offered up his own version of the mold he believes Young is fitting into.

“I had the opportunity to coach Kyrie Irving at the same age, and he was similar like that before he got hurt,” Collins said about Young. “There was just a maturity to his game that he had. He knew how to change speeds. He looked like a veteran from day one and that’s how Trae is out there. He plays at his pace. He knows where he wants to go.

Ironically, 11 games were all Irving got to play at Duke during his freshman season, and he still managed to be drafted first overall. Young may have a bit more competition than Irving did come next June for the draft’s top spot, but just over a month into his rookie campaign in college, Young is looking every bit of the best player in the entire nation.

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