Once again, the injustice that is the NLI comes to light

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If you haven’t yet been convinced that signing a National Letter of Intent is the wrong course of action for a high school recruit, Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton provides you with yet another piece of evidence of the NLI program’s worthlessness.

As you no doubt know, Bruce Pearl has been fired as Tennessee’s basketball coach. The two players that he signed in the Class of 2011 — Chris Jones and Kevin Ware, both top 100 guards — have requested to receive a release from their Letters of Intent.

And to both, the answer Hamilton gave was essentially the same — wait it out, and see what you think of the new coach we hire.

In all honesty, there is nothing wrong with this approach. In fact, if it was my kid in this situation, I would probably give him the same advice.

I’m not a fool. I know that at this level of basketball, you sign with the coach, not the school. You sign because you like their offensive style of play, not their english department. You pick a coach based on how he develops players at your position, not whether the school can get you a position on Wall Street or with a prestigious law firm.

But it is late March already. Both Jones and Ware signed with Tennessee back in November. The late signing period is in mid-to-late May. While the players may have signed on with Pearl, there had to be something else — something about the University of Tennessee or the town of Knoxville or their future teammates — that Jones and Ware enjoyed. If there was nothing to like about a school beyond the basketball coach, is that really going to be the place that a 17 year old high school senior decides he wants to spend the next 1-4 years of his life?

So, yes, I would tell my son or daughter that they should give Tennessee’s new head coach a chance.

But I would also tell them that they need to start thinking about a back up plan.

And therein lies the problem.

If Jones and Ware are not released from their NLI, they cannot explore other options. They cannot begin to build a contingency plan should Hamilton opt to hire a coach that either Jones or Ware does not like. As of today, there are less than two months left for these two kids to make a decision about college, and that time frame is only going to get shorter.

To make matters more complicated, coaching searches are not easy. Coaching searches where a school’s expectations for their next coach vastly overestimates the position’s can be downright impossible, to the point that it is almost painful to follow. Look at Oregon last season. They tried to woo everyone from Brad Stevens to Tom Izzo, Jamie Dixon to Mark Turgeon.

And based on the list of targets floated by Tennessee, they may face the same problems finding a new head coach. There is nothing wrong with swinging for the fences as long as you understand that strikeouts come with the territory.

Oregon struck out so often that it took them 37 days to find a new head coach.

37 days from now is April 30th, which means that if the Tennessee coaching search is anything like the Oregon coaching search, Jones and Ware will have less than three weeks to decide whether or not they like the new coach that Hamilton hires. If the answer is no, that means the two high school seniors will have a couple of weeks to find a new school that a) they want to attend, b) has scholarships available, and c) is a good fit for their personality, skill set, and position.

I don’t want to see that. I don’t want to see a kid forced into a situation in college he’s not comfortable with. And I would hope that Tennessee fans would agree with me.

I don’t think it will come to that. Maybe I’m too trusting in the goodwill of humanity, but I think that both Jones and Ware will, if they still desire, be released from their NLI. Because that’s the way it generally works with a coaching change. The folks that are left will try to convince you to stay, but if their best sales pitch still falls on deaf ears, they let you go.

The problem?

All the power lies in the school’s hands.

The University of Tennessee should not be able to wield this much control over the future of two recruits. If Mike Hamilton wanted too, he could refuse to release Jones and Ware from the NLI’s, which would force them to sit out a season and lose a year’s worth of eligibility if they didn’t attend Tennessee. That is precisely what happened to Joseph Young, who signed with Providence but decided that he wanted to go to Houston, this year.

And while the school can prevent a recruit from attending somewhere else without punishment, they can also cut the player loose without punishment. Look at the plight of DJ Newbill from last season. He signed an NLI with Marquette, but once Jamil Wilson made it clear that he wanted to transfer out of Oregon and to Marquette, the former top 100 recruit needed a scholarship. And it was Newbill that was on the chopping block. He landed on his feet at Southern Mississippi, but Newbill is a Philly kid. I doubt playing in Conference USA is the same as playing in the Big East.

NLI’s hold no benefit to the players, but precious few players realize this.

They are contractually binding agreements that put the power in the school’s hands.

And you don’t have to sign them.

Ask Brandon Knight. He signed a financial aid agreement, which forced Kentucky to commit to him while still allowing Knight to be able to leave should unforeseen circumstances arise.

Maybe one day this blog will have enough influence to convince every high school hooper to follow Knight’s lead.

No. 5 Duke holds Syracuse to 44 points as winning streak extends to five

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Marvin Bagley III returned to the Duke lineup on Saturday night and poured in a team-high 19 points in 31 minutes as the No. 6 Blue Devils knocked off Syracuse in Cameron Indoor, 60-44, despite shooting just 2-for-18 from three on the night.

Bagley looked healthy. He didn’t look too out of shape. He added seven boards and he made 8-of-9 field goals and, after a slow start, looked like the guy that we’ve become accustomed to seeing in a Duke uniform.

And that’s important.

As good as Duke has played in the last two weeks without Bagley, they are just not the same basketball team without him. He’s a freak, an alien, a talent unlike just about any other in the sport this season. But it is also key to note that the reason that Duke thrived without Bagley is that Grayson Allen took over the lead guard role and found a rhythm while the Blue Devils excelled playing exclusively a zone defense.

Which is why the most important takeaway from Saturday night is that Duke was awesome defensively. Again. Syracuse scored just 44 points, the fewest that Duke has allowed in an ACC game since giving up 40 points to Clemson in January of 2013, and notched just .657 points-per-possession. That is the best performance Duke has had defensively in this recent run of five games.

During this winning streak, the Blue Devils have allowed just 0.837 PPP, which would be the best in the country if they did it over the course of an entire season. For comparison’s sake, Virginia is second nationally in defensive PPP at 0.86.

Duke used Bagley as a wing in their 2-3 zone. They used him in lineups that included two other bigs — Carter and Bolden as well as Carter and DeLaurier. They played him at the top of their 1-2-2 three-quarter court press. He was active and engaged and a positive influence on that end of the floor; that hasn’t always been the case with him.

That’s another good sign.

As is the fact that Allen finished with six assists and just one turnover. He didn’t shoot the ball well — he was just 3-for-9 from the field and missed all six of his threes — but no one on Duke did. That might just be the result of playing Syracuse; the Orange are rated as college basketball’s 10th best defense on KenPom.

When Duke plays the way that they did on Saturday — the way that they have over the last two weeks — they are the best team in college basketball.

No. 1 Virginia cruises past Pitt, secures outright ACC title

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PITTSBURGH — No. 1 Virginia allowed just seven points in the first half and secured the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference title outright with a 66-37 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Freshman guard De’Andre Hunter came off the bench to lead the Cavaliers (26-2, 14-1 ACC) with 14 points in a game that didn’t take big offensive efforts from Virginia’s regulars. Of the five starters, only guard Ty Jerome exceeded his season average with 13 points.

The game was never competitive, as Virginia started on an 8-0 run and Pitt didn’t make a field goal until Jared Wilson-Frame hit a 3-pointer at the midway point of the first half.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett rested most of his regulars in the second half. Reserve Nigel Johnson added 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting.

Parker Stewart led Pitt (8-22, 0-17) with 12 points, all on 3-pointers. Pitt had next to no presence inside. The Panthers were outscored 28-8 in the paint and out-rebounded 36-24. Seven of Pitt’s 11 made field goals were from beyond the arc.

BIG PICTURE

Virginia: The Cavaliers got a big scare when leading scorer Kyle Guy left the game and headed to the locker room about three minutes into the second half. Guy returned to the bench but did not re-enter the game. He finished with three points in 19 minutes.

Pitt: The first-half performance was historically bad in several ways. Pitt’s 4.5 percent shooting from the floor was the lowest field-goal percentage in a half for the team, breaking the mark of 12.5 percent set against Rutgers in 2012. It was Pitt’s fewest points scored in a half since 1952.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Will visit Louisville on Thursday. The Cavaliers have beaten the Cardinals in five straight meetings.

Pittsburgh: Finishes its season at Notre Dame on Wednesday. Pitt has already been assured of finishing in last place in the ACC.

DeVoe’s 25 leads No. 15 Clemson to 75-67 win over Georgia Tech

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CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson coach Brad Brownell drew up the first play of Saturday’s game to get an open 3-pointer for Gabe DeVoe, partly as a way to thank the senior for four good years.

It also served as a catalyst for the 15th-ranked Tigers as they ended a three-game losing streak.

DeVoe scored 25 points, making four of his seven 3-pointers, to lead Clemson (21-7, 10-6 Atlantic Coast) to a 75-67 win over Georgia Tech.

Shelton Mitchell returned after missing two games for the Tigers, and his presence helped DeVoe get his stroke back. Mitchell added 14 points and took away some of the defensive pressure on DeVoe, who had shot 2 of 14 on 3s in the past two games.

“His speed in transition really opens up the offense a lot — allows me to get easy looks,” DeVoe said.

The Tigers ended the game on a 29-14 run after leading scorer Josh Okogie picked up his fourth foul for the Yellow Jackets (11-18, 4-12) with 11:44 to go.

Georgia Tech missed 11 of its last 12 shots and turned the ball over four times in the final seven minutes to lose their seventh straight game and 11th of 12.

The Yellow Jackets shot 50 percent (9-of-18) on 3-pointers — their best outing of the ACC season — but missed 13 layups, including four while Clemson went on a 14-0 run that turned a 61-55 deficit with 5:43 to go into a 69-61 lead in the final minute.

“We don’t have any margin for error to miss the layups we missed,” Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Clemson led by as much as 10 early in the first half but allowed Georgia Tech to rally. The Yellow Jackets took a 58-47 lead with 10:28 left in the game.

“We were ready to play. We were sharp,” Brownell said. “But we also wanted it to be easy once we had that lead.”

DeVoe’s 25 matched the career high he set on Jan. 28 in a 72-70 win at Georgia Tech. His final basket Saturday came as he dribbled for about 20 seconds at half court as the clock went under a minute and then buried a 25-footer as the shot clock wound down.

SNAKE-BITTEN YELLOW JACKETS

Pastner described his team as snake-bitten twice after the game. He was talking about missed shots that rolled out, but also some calls that left three of his starters with four fouls for the final five minutes in a rotation that goes just seven deep because of injuries.

Okogie scored 22 points and hit his first eight shots, but missed his last four field goals in the final 17 minutes of the game as his fouls mounted.

Pastner wanted to look at video of the fouls. He thought the second foul on Okogie could have been a block and the third a jump ball. But the fourth on a DeVoe drive was the killer, the coach said.

“Whether he fouled him or not, he’s got to be smarter. I’d rather just let the guy score at that point. We need you in the game. You can’t even get yourself into a gray area,” Pastner said.

TIRED TIGERS

Brownell said starters Marcquise Reed and David Skara looked a step slow.

“I’ve got to really evaluate this the next couple of days. We’re not going to win as a tired team. Our guys have really put in a lot of effort,” Brownell said. “We just looked a little spent.”

BIG PICTURE

Clemson: The Tigers are trying to hang onto something rare for them — a bye into the ACC quarterfinals by finishing in the top four in the standings. With the win, Clemson is guaranteed to be at least tied for fourth place with two games to go. In the 12 seasons since the ACC expanded beyond nine teams, Clemson has started the tournament in the quarterfinals just twice, in 2008 and 2011.

Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets are locked in to play the first day of the ACC tournament, meaning they will need to win five games in five days. Also, without a miraculous season-ending tournament run, the Yellow Jackets will have their eighth losing record in the past 13 seasons.

Bubble Banter: There will be some NCAA tournament bids determined today

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Saturday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

LOUISVILLE (RPI: 39, KenPom: 32, NBC seed: Next four out): The Cardinals landed a big, big win on Saturday afternoon as they went into Virginia Tech and picked up a win. It’s their third Quadrant 1 win and the 19-10 Cards now have a 5-10 record against the top two Quadrants. I still think Louisville needs to win at least two more games. Next week, they play Virginia at home and at N.C. State before the ACC tournament commences.

TEXAS (RPI: 51, KenPom: 43, NBC seed: Play-in game): Texas landed a massive win on Saturday at home against Oklahoma State for one, simple reason: Losing to the Pokes would have been a disaster. Texas is 5-9 against Quadrant 1 opponents and they have eight wins against the top two quadrants with no bad losses. But they are 17-12 on the season and 7-9 in the Big 12 with games left at Kansas and at home against West Virginia. They could not afford to add a Quadrant 3 loss to their profile. As it stands, I think they are in if they beat West Virginia and win their first game in the Big 12 tournament.

PROVIDENCE (RPI: 43, KenPom: 71, NBC seed: 10): The Friars avoided what could have been a disastrous loss by handing on to beat Georgetown in Washington D.C. on Saturday. The Friars had lost two in a row — at Butler and Seton Hall at home — and play at Xavier on Wednesday, meaning that they would be staring a four-game losing streak in the face had they lost at Georgetown. As it stands, Providence is 3-7 against Quadrant 1, which includes home wins over Xavier and Villanova, but they’ve also lost two Quadrant 3 and one Quadrant 4 games.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (RPI: 56, KenPom: 50, NBC seed: Next four out): The Bulldogs continue to creep closer to the bubble, but their biggest issue at this point is that they only have one win that can truly be looked at as a good win: at Texas A&M. MSU has a second Quadrant 1 win, but it is at South Carolina, who is 73rd in the RPI. They really need to beat Tennessee at home on Tuesday.

SETON HALL (RPI: 21, KenPom: 31, NBC seed: 8): Seton Hall stumbled their way onto the bubble by losing four straight to start February, but they’re rebounded with three straight wins. Surviving a postponed game at Providence might have been what put the Pirates in the Dance. I think they are a lock with one more win.

TEXAS A&M (RPI: 25, KenPom: 31, NBC seed: 9): The Aggies snapped a three-game losing streak by going into Vanderbilt and getting a win. The biggest issue for the Aggies right now is that it is hard to project how the committee is going to value their roster. They’ve had more suspensions and injuries than anyone I can remember. I think it would behoove them to win out in the regular season. That would get them to 20-11 overall and 9-9 in the SEC.

USC (RPI: 29, KenPom: 51, NBC seed: First four out): USC has now won four straight games after sweeping the mountain schools this week. The loss to Princeton could be a killer for them — there are not many bubble teams with a Quadrant 4 loss to their name — but the Trojans were without two rotation players in that game. They are now 7-8 against the top two Quadrants. The biggest issue for USC at this point is that they just don’t have much in the way of quality wins. Beating Utah is just their second Quadrant 1 win because New Mexico State, who USC beat in the title game of the Diamond Head Classic, fell out of the top 50. A win over Middle Tennessee State on a neutral is their only other Quadrant 1 win.

WASHINGTON (RPI: 51, KenPom: 96, NBC seed: Last four in): Washington avoided disaster by beating Cal on Saturday. They’ll need to do the same next week against Oregon State and Oregon. If they can do that, the Huskies will have a shot. They are 3-3 against Quadrant 1 opponents but they also have two Quadrant 3 losses to their name. That win over Kansas in Kansas City looks better and better.

MIAMI (RPI: 28, KenPom: 39, NBC seed: 8): The Hurricanes overcame a late deficit to knock off Boston College at home, which is big considering that Miami had been sliding of slide. Before this week, they had lost three straight games and are now 20-8 on the season. They are 4-4 against Quadrant 1 with a Quadrant 3 loss, and it is worth noting that they don’t really have any great wins: Middle Tennessee on a neutral, at N.C. State, at Virginia Tech, at Notre Dame. I think they’re closer to the bubble than you might think.

TCU (RPI: 20, KenPom: 21, NBC seed: 9): The Horned Frogs have just about punched their ticket. A win over Baylor today was yet another good win. They now have four Quadrant 1 and four Quadrant 2 wins without a single loss outside the top two Quadrants. If they lose out it will be interesting, so I would say they need one more win to lock up a bid.

LOSERS

VIRGINIA TECH (RPI: 56, KenPom: 35, NBC seed: 9): Virginia Tech is still in a pretty good spot, but they certainly didn’t help themselves by losing at home against Louisville. The good thing for the Hokies is that they are 4-6 against Quadrant 1 with the single-best win in college basketball this season — a win at Virginia. But a non-conference SOS in the 320s and a Quadrant 3 loss puts them in a more difficult position than you would think. If they beat Duke at home or win at Miami next week, they’ll be fine no matter what happens in the ACC tournament. If they lose both, then it gets interesting.

LSU (RPI: 75, KenPom: 63, NBC seed: Play-in game): The Tigers had their two-game winning streak snapped at Georgia on Saturday. On the one hand, that’s a Quadrant 1 loss. It doesn’t exactly hurt them. On the other hand, for a team that is already on the margins — they are 16-12 overall and 7-9 in the SEC with a Quadrant 3 loss — any quality win they can add is important. I think they need to win at least three more games to really feel comfortable.

BAYLOR (RPI: 58, KenPom: 38, NBC seed: Play-in game): The Bears lost their second straight game on Saturday, falling to 16-12 overall and 7-9 in the Big 12. They are in a tough spot now. They have four Quadrant 1 wins but they are just 4-10 in those Quadrant 1 games. All 12 of their losses, however, are “good” losses, and they still play Oklahoma at home and Kansas State on the road before the Big 12 tournament. I don’t think they can get a big with 14 losses, so I think they need to win two more during the regular season and maybe another one in the Big 12 tournament.

UTAH (RPI: 49, KenPom: 59, NBC seed: First four out): Utah had a chance to play their way into the conversation if they had won out during the regular season and maybe won a game or two in the Pac-12 tournament. I guess there is still a chance, but for my money, the Utes should plan on winning the automatic bid for the Pac-12 if they want to go dancing.

MARQUETTE (RPI: 64, KenPom: 52, NBC seed: First four out): Marquette took their worst loss of the season on Saturday afternoon, going into Chicago and losing at DePaul, the first Quadrant 3 loss for the Golden Eagles. They are now 16-12 on the season and 7-9 in the Big East with just four Quadrant 1 wins. I don’t think the dream is dead yet, but the biggest issue Marquette currently faces is that they cannot help themselves without winning a game or two in the Big East tournament.

SMU (RPI: 94, KenPom: 75, NBC seed: Out): I’m only mentioning SMU here because I think it’s worth nothing that they’ve lost six of their last seven while Shake Milton has been out with a broken hand. At 16-13 overall and 6-10 in the American, it may not matter. But they did win by 23 points at Wichita State with him healthy. It’s at least worth being aware of.

YET TO PLAY

ALABAMA
KANSAS STATE
OKLAHOMA
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
ST. BONAVENTURE
FLORIDA

No. 8 Kansas clinches 14th straight Big 12 regular season championship with win at No. 6 Texas Tech

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The streak is still alive.

Devonte’ Graham scored 26 points and made two critical, tough shots in the final minute as No. 8 Kansas clinched a share of the Big 12 title by going into Lubbock and knocking off a shorthanded No. 6 Texas Tech, 74-72.

Svi Mykhailiuk added 21 points for the Jayhawks, who put to rest all the concern that this would be the year that the streak came to an end with a week left in the regular season.

If there was ever going to be a season where the streak came to an end, this looked like it would be the one. Just two weeks ago, after Kansas lost by 16 points at Baylor on the same day that Texas Tech beat Kansas State by 20 in Manhattan, Texas Tech say in the driver’s seat. They were a game up on the Jayhawks with six to play and a home game against Kansas left on the schedule. For a team that was, at the time, ranked in the top six on KenPom, that was a dream scenario, one that was set aflame by an unfortunate case of turf toe.

Keenan Evans, a front runner for Big 12 Player of the Year and by far the best offensive weapon on the Texas Tech roster, landed funny late in the first half of a game at Baylor a week ago Saturday, slamming his toe into the court and severely hobbling himself. He did not play in the second half at Baylor. He did play in the last two games, 56 minutes combined, but he was not the Keenan Evans Big 12 fans have come to know and hate. He shot 2-for-13 from the floor and missed all seven of his threes. He scored eight total points.

The Red Raiders, as you might imagine, lost all three of those games.

And with it, any chance of ending the Jayhawks’ streak and, in turn, becoming one of the best college basketball stories this decade.

All is certainly not lost for Chris Beard’s club.

For starters, Zach Smith is back. You may not know that name because he is a glue guy for a team that is not exactly a blueblood, but he’s one of the most important pieces on that roster. He’s a freak of an athlete at 6-foot-8, a guy that can provide Beard with versatility defensively and energy on the offensive glass. There were people around that program that would tell you the reason they took a swoon early in league play was that Smith got injured.

With him back in the mix, Texas Tech is only going to get stronger defensively, and they are already one of the nation’s five-best defenses. They are not, however, great offensively, which typically would be a concern. The numbers bear it out: It is far more difficult to win a title being an elite defensive team that is just good on the offensive end of the floor than vice versa, but what makes me believe in the Red Raiders is Evans. If anyone can pull a Shabazz or a Kemba in this year’s tournament, it’s a (healthy) Evans.

So don’t stop believing, Lubbock.

As far as Kansas is concerned, what else is there to say about this team by now?

The Big 12 is the best conference in college basketball.

The best.

I’m not sure there is really a way to dispute that.

And this iteration of the Jayhawks? They’re not great, at least not when it comes to the way we typically view a Kansas team. They lost Billy Preston to an eligibility issue. They had to enroll Silvio De Sousa a semester early just so they have more than two front court players on their roster. They don’t have anything close to a small-ball four on the roster. They’ve lost in Phog Allen Fieldhouse three times this season, twice by double-digits. Malik Newman has had stretches where he’s been terrible. Same with Lagerald Vick. Marcus Garrett and Mitch Lightfoot took some time to get acclimated to the minutes they were being asked to play.

Despite all of that, Kansas, with two games left in the regular season, has already clinched a share of the conference regular season title.

And as long as they don’t get swept by Oklahoma State at home and at Texas in the final week of the season, they will win yet another outright Big 12 regular season title.

This may very well be the best coaching performance of Bill Self’s career.