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Rebuilding at Michigan State? Don’t tell Tom Izzo

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It’s easy to call this a rebuilding season for Michigan State.

After all, the program graduated two high-profile players after last season: Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers played prominent roles for four seasons in East Lansing and led the Spartans to two Final Fours. Not only are they gone this season, but MSU fell far short of expectations last year—the team was favored to contend for a national championship and instead barely qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

Considering that the 2011-12 Spartans still carry the weight of last season’s disappointment, and that they don’t have Lucas and Summers to lead them, Michigan State is likely to take a step back, right?

Tom Izzo doesn’t agree. He knows this season’s rotation isn’t yet proven, but he likes the amount of talent and depth on hand. He also thinks that this team will benefit from strong chemistry and leadership—Mateen Cleaves-like leadership, in fact, and while that comparison puts plenty of pressure on senior forward Draymond Green, it also speaks to how highly Izzo thinks of Green.

You get the sense that Izzo likes this team, and that he thinks if some things break his way this season might not just exceed fans’ tempered expectations—it could shatter them. Below, Izzo explains why this could be a special and surprising season in East Lansing.

Q: What’s your sense of your team heading into this season? What’s possible for this group?

Tom Izzo: We’ve got a lot of unknowns. I like the unknowns. Is [Derrick] Nix going to keep the weight off? He looks great right now. Adreian Payne is someone we think is going to have a chance to be one of the better big men we’ve had. He had shoulder surgery at the end of high school and missed six or seven months [before his freshman season], and so this will really be like his first year. Russell Byrd, a guy who would be one of our best shooters, he had a stress fracture [before his freshman season in 2010-11] that just never healed in 14 months, but now it looks like it’s healed. So I’m excited, but all those things are question marks.

I think we’ve got a lot of positives. We’ve got [freshman] Branden Dawson, who I think has got a chance to be a star. I think we’ve got a couple of great players in [Keith] Appling and Dawson and Payne, and Draymond Green, Up front we also have and Nix and Alex Gauna.

[In the backcourt], we brought a transfer in, Brandon Wood [from Valparaiso], who I think is going to help us. And I think [freshman point guard] Travis Trice will help us immediately.

So I think we’ve got depth. It’s just not depth that I’m [confident] of, because so many of those guys are coming off of either injures or a redshirt, or the one transfer. So you don’t quite sleep as good, especially with the schedule we’ve got.

But it’s exciting because I think our team chemistry is even better [than in 2010-11], and I think we’ve worked awfully hard in the off-season. I’m really excited for all the chances and opportunities we’ve got. We’ve had teams like this in the past that people would write off, and then later we’re right in there as contenders, and we’ve done very well in those years. I’m hoping this will be one of those teams.

Q: Is Draymond Green the kind of leader who can help propel this team to have one of those special seasons?

Tom Izzo: Yeah, I think he’s going to be that leader—the kind of leader that Travis Walton was in 2009 when we went to the Final Four with a team that nobody thought could do it. And even though it’s hard to match what Cleaves did back in 2000, I think Green has a chance to be that kind of leader.

Last year, we had some good players, but we just didn’t have the right chemistry, I didn’t feel, and we didn’t have the leadership that I think you need. When you win 19 or 20 games, you make the NCAA Tournament. But what I’m talking about is when you make deep runs in the Tournament—you need big-time leadership for that. And I think with Green we’ve got a big-time leader.

Q: Mateen Cleaves was a transcendent leader for a couple of seasons; it’s a little surprising to hear you say you had a leadership void last season, considering you think so highly of Green’s leadership—and he was a junior on that team. Do you think Green didn’t assert himself out of deference to last season’s seniors? 

Tom Izzo: I think so. We had a weird deal with [Kalin] Lucas and [Durrell] Summers. Lucas had an Achilles’ injury, and he really missed six months. It took up until January for him to really get back on track with that Achilles. So for a lot of last season—and this is not to make excuses—but I think there were legitimate reasons why we never seemed in sync. Some of it was our fault—some of it was chemistry and some of it was performance—but some of it was also due to injuries and situations that we had no control over.

Put that together and you have a season that none of us feel good about. But when you have a bad season and you still win almost 20 games and you go the NCAA Tournament, that’s not all bad, either.

Q: One last question about the Big Ten newbie. What do you expect from Nebraska this season? How difficult will it be for Nebraska to adjust to the Big Ten? 

Tom Izzo: I think it’s going to be hard on them and hard on us. [Doc Sadler] is a very, very good coach, and nobody in our league has been [to Lincoln recently]. I was there a lot of years ago, but it’s never easy to do that—to go into a new environment, a new situation.

I think [Sadler] is a very good coach, and he thinks he’s going to have a decent team. Everybody looks at Nebraska and just thinks about football, but Doc has done a great job for them down there, and he’s tough to play against.

He’s a very defensive-minded coach. [Because of Nebraska’s defense], you can play good and win by five, play great and win by six, or play average and lose. And that’s a problem.

So yeah, they’re going to have an adjustment—but so are we.

Steve Hendershot is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @stevehendershot

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Villanova’s Jenkins to return for senior season

Villanova forward Kris Jenkins (2) reacts to play against North Carolina during the second half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 4, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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After briefly taking part in the NBA Draft evaluation process, Villanova forward Kris Jenkins announced Monday night that he’s decided to withdraw and return to school for his senior year. Jenkins, whose three-pointer as time expired gave the Wildcats the win over North Carolina in the national title game, announced the news via Twitter.

2015-16 was a breakout season for Jenkins, who moved into the starting lineup and averaged 13.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. The 6-foot-6 forward shot 45.9 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from beyond the arc, and with starters Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu graduating he’ll have even more opportunities to produce next season.

Jenkins’ decision to return leaves wing Josh Hart as the lone Wildcats going through the early entry process at this time. Hart was a first team All-Big East selection as a junior, and his return would be the final piece to the puzzle for a team that many expect to be a national title contender in 2016-17.

Jenkins and Hart wouldn’t be the only returnees who had a part in the national title run, with guards Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth, wing Mikal Bridges and forward Darryl Reynolds back as well. To that group Villanova adds Fordham transfer Eric Paschall and a recruiting class anchored by Omari Spellman and Dylan Painter with Donte DiVincenzo and Tim Delaney available after being hampered by injuries last season.

Delaney missed all of last year after undergoing surgical procedures on his hips, and DiVincenzo played a total of 74 minutes over the first nine games before having to sit due to a broken foot.

Florida State guard Rathan-Mayes to return for junior season

Florida State guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes (22) drives past Notre Dame guard Rex Pflueger, left, for a score in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)
AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser
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With their top three scorers from last season all deciding to declare for the NBA Draft, Florida State was facing the possibility of having to rebuild their backcourt ahead of the 2016-17 season. However two of those three have decided to return to Tallahassee, with rising junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes announcing on Monday that he will be back in school.

Rathan-Mayes joins rising sophomore Dwayne Bacon in returning to play another season for head coach Leonard Hamilton, with Malik Beasley hiring representation and remaining in the draft.

Rathan-Mayes had more scoring help last season and as a result was able to concentrate more on the distribution aspects of the point guard position, as he averaged 11.8 points and 4.4 assists per contest. With the return of Rathan-Mayes and Bacon, Florida State will have two of its top three scorers from last season back on campus.

The Seminoles did lose some veteran players, most notably guard Devon Bookert and center Boris Bojanovsky, but the returnees and a recruiting class led by McDonald’s All-American forward Jonathan Isaac means that they won’t lack for options next season.

Auburn lands third transfer within the last week

Auburn guard T.J. Dunans (4) and coach Bruce Pearl celebrate a 75-74 win over UAB in an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala.  (Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP)
Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP
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After receiving commitments from former Purdue/Houston guard Ronnie Johnson and former Presbyterian forward DeSean Murray, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl continued to load up on the transfer market Monday. Forward LaRon Smith, who was named MEAC Defensive Player of the Year at Bethune-Cookman last season, announced that he will use his final season of eligibility at the SEC program.

Like Smith, Johnson will also be eligible to compete immediately for the Tigers while Murray will have to sit out next season before having two years of eligibility remaining.

The 6-foot-8 Smith played two seasons at Georgia State before transferring to Bethune-Cookman, where he averaged 7.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per contest in 2015-16. Smith played just over 25 minutes per game for the Wildcats, shooting 58.5 percent from the field.

Smith reached double figures in scoring in four of the Wildcats’ final seven games, including a 20-point, 11-rebound, three-block outing in an overtime win over North Carolina A&T. He joins a front court in need of depth following the departures of the likes of Cinmeon Bowers and Tyler Harris, with Horace Spencer, Trayvon Reed and incoming freshman Anfernee McLemore also competing for minutes in 2016-17.

SMU lands former Arkansas guard Jimmy Whitt

Arkansas guard Jimmy Whitt (24) leaps for a layup past Tennessee guard Shembari Phillips (25) during an NCAA college basketball game in Knoxville, Tenn., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. Arkansas won 75-65. (Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP
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With a five-member recruiting class set to arrive on campus this summer, SMU added a talented transfer Monday afternoon. Jimmy Whitt, who played his freshman season at Arkansas, committed to join Larry Brown’s program. Whitt, a 6-foot-4 guard from Columbia, Missouri, will have three seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out the 2016-17 campaign.

As a freshman at Arkansas, Whitt averaged 6.1 points and 1.7 rebounds in just over 17 minutes of action per game. He reached double figures in scoring nine time, with the high being a 15-point outing in a blowout win over Missouri in mid-January. Whitt produced a stretch of four consecutive games in double figures during non-conference play, but he struggled to maintain that consistency against SEC competition.

At SMU he’ll join a perimeter rotation that will lose rising senior Sterling Brown following the 2016-17 season. Among those who will have eligibility remaining when Whitt becomes eligible are Ben Emelogu, Shake Milton, Jarrey Foster and incoming freshmen Tom Wilson and Dashawn McDowell.

 

Boise State assistant named head coach at Northern Colorado

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Courtesy UNCBears.com
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GREELEY, Colo. (AP) Jeff Linder is the new basketball coach at Northern Colorado. He spent the last six seasons at Boise State, where he was associate head coach for the Broncos since 2013-14.

Linder replaces B.J. Hill, who was fired last month amid an NCAA investigation into allegations of violations in the program.

University President Kay Norton and Athletic Director Darren Dunn announced Linder’s hiring Sunday.

Linder played high school ball in Lafayette, Colorado, and college ball at Mesa State and Western Colorado State. He began his coaching career under Colorado head coach Ricardo Patton.

In a statement, Linder said, “I look forward to returning home to the state of Colorado and continuing to build this program into something everyone can be proud of.”

Hill was 86-98 in six seasons at UNC.