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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Kentucky, Duke, Arizona comment on player eligibility amidst FBI scandal

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On Saturday night, Kentucky won their third straight game over an opponent that will be in next month’s NCAA tournament. They were led by freshman Kevin Knox, who finished with 21 points just 36 hours after his name appeared in a report by Yahoo Sports in connection with a runner that was tied to disgraced NBA agent Andy Miller.

“I’m not here to talk about that,” Knox said in response to questions regarding the runner, Christian Dawkins, or the story that Yahoo published.

“That was all the university dealing with it,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said, adding that he did not discuss the matter with Knox. “I wasn’t involved in any way. But I felt good about it.”

“I was sure I would be able to play this whole week,” Knox told reporters. “I wasn’t really focused on none of that. I let Kentucky handle it.

“I just focused on me, focused on my game, and let them handle it. I slept well at night knowing I was going to be able to play.”

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski went a step further, detailing precisely how he found out about the report and how Wendell Carter’s parents were involved. Carter’s mother called him while he was walking his dog and told him what was in the story. According to Coach K, Wendell’s parents went to break bread with Dawkins, but Wendell’s father did not like him and left immediately while Wendell’s mother stayed to be polite. She said she did not have anything to eat.

“It wasn’t a distraction because I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Carter told reporters after going for 16 points, 10 boards, four steals, four assists and two blocks in a win over Syracuse. “My family didn’t do anything wrong. No one around me did anything wrong. I knew I was going to play. Once I got out on the court, it was all good. It felt good.”

“We are very comfortable with where we are on this,” Coach K said. “We don’t feel like we are taking any chances with this. We very confident about this particular thing.”

Alabama told ESPN that any connection that Collin Sexton had to Dawkins or the Yahoo story was dealt with during his one-game suspension at the start of the season.

“We reviewed i, and after we reviewed it, we made the decision that Collin was going to be available for us,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. “That’s the extent of it.”

Meanwhile, Arizona lost at Oregon after Sean Miller was replaced by Lorenzo Romar as head coach for the night. Romar offered no answers as to whether or not Miller, who was reportedly caught on a fire tap talking about a $100,000 payment to Deandre Ayton, will return to the program anytime soon because, as he put it, “I don’t know.” Romar was unable to even answer if he would be coaching practice on Sunday.

Troubled No. 14 Arizona loses 98-93 to Oregon

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EUGENE, Ore. — No. 14 Arizona played without coach Sean Miller and lost 98-93 to Oregon in overtime at the end of a difficult Saturday for the troubled Wildcats program.

Miller sat out a day after ESPN reported he was heard on an FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to current Wildcats freshman Deandre Ayton. The Wildcats also were without guard Allonzo Trier, who tested positive for the same banned substance that cost him 19 games last season.

“I believe it is in the best interest of our team that I not coach the game tonight,” Miller said in a statement. “I continue to fully support the university’s efforts to fully investigate this matter and am confident that I will be vindicated.”

The school did not specify why Miller didn’t coach against Oregon or if he will sit out any other games.

Ayton had 28 points and 16 rebounds for Arizona (22-7, 12-4 Pac-12), and Rawle Alkins added 24 points.

Oregon (19-10, 9-7) used a stellar performance at the line and a balanced attack to pick up its second straight win. Elijah Brown scored 22 of his season-high 30 points after halftime. MiKyle McIntosh added 20 points, including a key 3-pointer with 1:02 left.

Brown made 15 of 17 free-throw attempts as the Ducks connected on 20 of 24 foul shots overall. The work at the line helped them over a 58.6 shooting percentage and a 35-30 rebounding edge for the Wildcats.

Arizona also committed 17 turnovers.

Dylan Smith’s 3-pointer for the Wildcats tied it at 83 with 22 seconds left. Oregon’s Payton Pritchard missed a driving layup with 2 seconds remaining, sending the game into overtime.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona’s immediate future isn’t clear beyond its last two games of the regular season at McKale Center. The Wildcats can clinch a share of the Pac-12 title with one more win.

Oregon push for relevance in the postseason discussion got a boost by beating the Wildcats, though the Ducks’ only route to NCAA Tournament may rest with winning the conference tournament in Las Vegas next month. Oregon closes on the road against the Washington schools.

Saturday College Basketball Recap: Bagley’s back, Miller’s gone, and Kansas got 14

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PLAYER OF THE DAY

It should have been Deandre Ayton.

He spent the first 30 minutes of No. 14 Arizona’s date with Oregon absolutely dominating the Ducks. He had 17 points, 11 boards and two blocks in the first half. He finished with 28 points, 17 boards and four blocks. But he didn’t score in the last five minutes of regulation and he didn’t get a shot in overtime until he shot a three with 15 seconds left as Arizona lost 98-90 at Oregon.

Which is why Elijah Brown is the Player of the Day. He finished with 30 points in the win.

It’s worth noting here that Arizona’s day was so much more than just a basketball game. Sean Miller did not coach the team in Oregon. We don’t even know if he was in Oregon. Ayton had to release a statement to say he was not involved in anything that had appeared in recent reports. Oh, and in case you’ve forgotten, Allonzo Trier is still not eligible after he tested positive for another banned substance.

THE REST OF SATURDAY’S STARS

  • WENDELL CARTER, Duke: Marvin Bagley was back, but Carter still posted this line: 16 points, 10 boards, four assists, four steals and two blocks. And he anchored the paint in a game where Duke allowed an ACC team to score 44 points. Not bad.
  • KEVAUGHN ALLEN, Florida: It feels like Allen has been in a season-long slump, but the junior guard, coming off the bench, went for 24 points and made two critical threes down the stretch as the Gators knocked off No. 12 Auburn in Gainesville.
  • MARKIS MCDUFFIE, Wichita State: We’ve been waiting for him to show up, and he did on Saturday at SMU. He went for a season-high 26 points to lead the Shockers to a win on the road and keep them in the mix for an AAC regular season title.
  • KEVIN KNOX, Kentucky: Knox finished with 21 points as Kentucky won their third-straight game over an NCAA tournament team by double-digits. They beat Missouri by 22 points.

BUBBLE BANTER: Everything that happened on the cut-line

TEAM OF THE DAY

No. 8 Kansas knocked off No. 6 Texas Tech, 74-72, to clinch at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title. And it begs the question: Is this the best coaching job that Bill Self has ever done?

They lost Billy Preston. They have absolutely no depth, particularly in the front court. They had to bring a recruit into the program a semester early to make sure there were more than two front court players on the team. They lack toughness. They play small-ball without a small-ball four. They lost three games in Allen Fieldhouse, two of them by double-figures.

And they might win the toughest league in the country by two full games.

GAME OF THE DAY

Creighton knocked off No. 3 Villanova, 89-83, in an overtime thriller on Saturday afternoon.

Marcus Foster led the way for the Bluejays with 28 points while Khyri Thomas finished with 24 points, but Jacob Epperson was the revelation, finishing 12 points, five boards and two blocks in a season-high 23 minutes.

Villanova led by eight points late in regulation before Creighton, who had been inching closer to the bubble after struggling down the stretch in the last couple of weeks, all-but ensured that they will be dancing.

WTF???? OF THE DAY

Pitt had absolutely no chance to win at home against No. 1 Virginia tonight.

I’m dead serious.

No chance, according to ESPN’s win probably graph. Look at this. It is 100 percent real:

ESPN win probability graph

That’s what happens when you shoot 1-for-22 through an entire half of basketball, scoring a full seven points. They were down 30-7 at the break. They lost 66-37. What an embarrassment.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

No. 6 Gonzaga put six players into double-figures as they went into the Marriott Center and knocked off BYU, 79-65. The Zags won a share of the WCC title as a result, splitting the title with No. 22 Saint Mary’s, who de-pantsed Santa Clara. Can we get a Round 3 in the WCC tournament final?

Jevon Carter became the first major-conference player in NCAA history to record more than 1,500 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists and 300 steals in a career as No. 21 West Virginia beat Iowa State.

Trae Young is back. He had 27 points and hit six threes as Oklahoma snapped a six-game losing streak.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman finished with 28 points, eight boards, seven assists, two blocks and a steal as No. 21 Michigan mollywhopped Maryland. They were up 54-24. On the road. Ouch.

Gabe DeVoe scored 25 points as No. 15 Clemson erased a halftime deficit to knock off Georgia Tech, 75-67, at home.

Admiral Schofield finished with 25 points as No. 19 Tennessee knocked off Ole Miss in Oxford, 73-65, to move to within a game of first place in the SEC.

Young’s 27 help Oklahoma top Kansas State, end 6-game skid

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NORMAN, Okla. — Trae Young’s entertaining act wasn’t translating into wins for Oklahoma, and desperation had set in.

Finally, a more collective effort helped the Sooners snap their six-game losing skid. Young scored 28 points, his teammates chipped in, and Oklahoma topped Kansas State 86-77 on Saturday.

Young, the freshman point guard who leads the nation in scoring, was coming off a season-low 11 points in a loss to Kansas earlier in the week. He bounced back with a smart floor game — he made 7 of 10 shots from the field, including 6 of 9 3-pointers, and added seven assists.

Christian James scored 15 points and Brady Manek and Jamuni McNeace each added 10 for the Sooners (17-11, 7-9 Big 12), who shot 53 percent from the field.

“I talked to them and told them that I felt like our season was on the line,” James said. “We needed this. We came out and competed, and that showed tonight.”

Oklahoma hadn’t won since Jan. 30 and had dropped two straight at home.

“When you haven’t won in a while, it’s tough to stay plugged in and keep the right frame of mind,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “Happy for the guys. Proud of the way they made shots and got some stops and did the things they needed to do to get one in the right column.”

Kansas State handled Young in the first meeting and forced him into 12 turnovers as the Wildcats rolled past the Sooners 87-69 on Jan. 16. In the rematch, Young had five turnovers, though two came well after the Sooners had the game in hand. Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said Young’s efficiency was the difference.

“Normally, he’s got 21 shots or whatever it is,” Weber said. “He still turned it over a few times, but he made shots and then made plays for them.”

Barry Brown scored 28 points and Dean Wade added 15 points and 11 rebounds for Kansas State (20-9, 9-7). The Wildcats made just 4 of 21 3-pointers.

Young matched his 11-point total from the Kansas game in the first eight minutes against Kansas State. He hit a 3-pointer late in the first half to close out an 18-point first half and give the Sooners a 43-35 lead at the break.

James scored in close and was fouled, and he made the free throw to put the Sooners up 52-38 with 15:45 remaining. Young hit a deep 3-pointer to put the Sooners up 55-40, and it looked like Oklahoma might cruise.

Kansas State worked its way back into the game and cut its deficit to 63-56. A 3-pointer and a short floater by Manek helped put the Sooners up 10. Another three by Young made it 71-59 with just under six minutes left, and the Sooners remained in control from there.

Kruger said he could sense a different approach from the start.

“General focus and the sense of urgency,” he said. “The awareness that we are running out of games and you got to line up and play better. I thought we played with that focus and that awareness throughout the game.”

BIG PICTURE

Oklahoma: The Sooners desperately needed this one to strengthen its NCAA Tournament resume. Though the Sooners have numerous quality wins, the losing streak was enough to raise questions.

Kansas State: The Wildcats were getting votes for the Top 25, but probably won’t get there with this loss. Overall, a road loss to a solid team likely won’t hurt the Wildcats’ NCAA hopes.

STAT LINES

Oklahoma shot 62 percent in the second half to maintain control of the game. The Sooners made 16 of 26 field goals and 4 of 10 3-pointers after the break.

QUOTABLE

Weber, on why Young shouldn’t be Big 12 Player of the Year: “To me, the Big 12 player of the year should be from the people who win the league. That’s just me. You know winning is what dictates who should be the Big 12 player of the year. But that is my opinion. Everyone has different opinions.”

No. 6 Gonzaga earns WCC title with 79-65 win over BYU

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PROVO, Utah — Johnathan Williams scored 16 points, and No. 6 Gonzaga clinched another West Coast Conference championship with a 79-65 victory over BYU on Saturday night.

The Bulldogs (27-4, 17-1) have won at least a share of 18 of the past 19 regular-season conference championships, including each of the past six seasons.

Zach Norvell Jr. had 15 points and five rebounds for Gonzaga, which got off to a fast start and also played well right after halftime.

Yoeli Childs led BYU (22-9, 11-7) with 19 points and eight rebounds. Elijah Bryant overcame a cold start to contribute 16 points, four rebounds, and three assists.

Gonzaga started the game with 10 straight field goals on its way to a 23-10 lead. BYU closed to 43-38 at the break, but the Bulldogs outscored the Cougars 32-18 over the first 16:30 of the second half.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: Leads 13-6 in the all-time series against BYU, including four straight wins in Provo.

BYU: Is set for the No. 3 seed for the WCC tournament.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs earn some time off before playing the winner of the Loyola Marymount-Portland game in the WCC tourney.

BYU: The Cougars also are off before beginning play in the conference tournament.