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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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Creighton’s Mo Watson Jr. has a torn ACL

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 25:  Head coach Greg McDermott of the Creighton Bluejays talks with Maurice Watson Jr. #10 during the team's game against the Massachusetts Minutemen during the championship game of the Men Who Speak Up Main Event basketball tournament at MGM Grand Garden Arena on November 25, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Creighton won 97-76.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Mo Watson Jr.’s Creighton career is over.

The star point guard for the Blue Jays had an MRI on Tuesday to determine the damage suffered in his left knee, and it revealed a torn ACL. Watson entered Monday’s game at Xavier averaging 13.4 points and a nation’s-best 8.8 assists on the season. He was the engine that made Creighton’s high-octane offense work.

“Devastated for [him],” head coach Greg McDermott said. “His impact on our program has been incredible. His leadership will continue to be vital to our success.”

With Watson, who was having an all-american season and was seventh in our Player of the Year Power Rankings as of Tuesday, Creighton was a team with Final Four upside. Their defense was a concern, but their ability to score in transition and to get easy looks from three – both of which were largely due to the ability of Watson – ensured that teams were going to have to score in the 80s to beat them.

Without Watson, Creighton was able to hang on to beat Xavier in Cincinnati, but it’s unclear what the future will hold. Isaiah Zierdan replaced Watson at the point down the stretch, and Greg McDermott does have a number of talented guards on his roster, but that doesn’t do much to mitigate was is a devastating loss for this team.

Watson released a statement on twitter on Tuesday:

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Mason, Hart, Lonzo. Who ya got?

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1. Frank Mason III, Kansas
2. Josh Hart, Villanova
3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: At this point in the year, I feel pretty comfortable making the guarantee that the National Player of the year is going to be one of these three players for three reasons:

  1. All three of them are not just an important piece but the critical component to their team’s success.
  2. The team’s that they play on could very well be the three best teams in college basketball, and I’ve always been of the mindset that winning matters when it comes to Player of the Year and all-american honors.
  3. Their numbers alone are good enough to get them into the conversation even if they didn’t happen to be the best player on one of the best teams in the country.

Frankly, the more that I think about it, labeling this a two-horse race was probably wrong. I’ve had Lonzo Ball third in these rankings for more or less the entire season, but there’s always been a gap between him and the two guys slotted above. Ball’s numbers are ridiculous – 14.6 points, 8.0 assists, 5.5 boards, 1.8 steals, 2.3 turnovers – but it’s what he’s done to that UCLA team that I’ve under-valued. Ball is a talent, and so is T.J. Leaf, but on paper, the difference between this team and last year’s team shouldn’t be as stark as going from a 15-17 season to a year where they are a buzzer-beating three at Oregon away from being undefeated on Jan. 17th. Ball’s presence did that.

The other difference?

I have Frank Mason III as the current leader for the award. Part of that is because Josh Hart has had a couple of bad games in a row and Mason, in the three games since we last convened here, led comebacks at Oklahoma and against Oklahoma State before guiding Kansas to a win at Iowa State. But there is also an argument to be made that Josh Hart has been somewhat figured out in league play. Teams can key in on him and he isn’t quite to the point where he has a response. Big 12 opponents haven’t been able to do that against Kansas.

That, however, is the definition of picking nits, but that’s what we have to do to differentiate these three at this point.

Because when the chips are down, those three players, at this point in the season, have all been sensational, and I would have no issue with someone picking either of the three to win the award.

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4. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: In Purdue’s only game last week, Swanigan had “just” 17 points and eight boards, but he had a late turnover, missed a critical, point-black shot with less than a minute left and then watched a ball bounce out of bounds that was ruled – probably incorrectly – to be off of Purdue. It wasn’t the greatest finish we’ve seen out of a player this year.

5. Luke Kennard, Duke: In the first 14 games of the season, Luke Kennard averaged 13.9 shots per night and consistently churned out enough terrific performances that he deservedly has been the only Duke player considered for a spot on all-american teams all season long. In the last four games, however, Kennard is averaging just 9.8 shots, which can be attributed to a couple of different things. I don’t think the issue is defenses being more focused in on stopping him, mainly because I think the issue is Jayson Tatum.

Tatum has led the Blue Devils in field goal attempts in six of the last seven games. His usage rate (the percentage of possessions that end with him while he’s on the floor) is 27.8 on the season despite posting an offensive rating of 105.1, meaning he scores 1.051 points-per-possession. In the last seven games, he’s only had an offensive rating better than 109 in home games against Georgia Tech and Boston College.

Kennard, on the season, has an offensive rating of 133.5, which is third nationally for players that with a usage rate above 20, but his usage rate is stuck at 21.7. In other words, the numbers back up what our eyes have been telling us – that Duke’s offensive isn’t as good when the offense flows through Tatum instead of Kennard.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07: De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

6. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox is the most important player on Kentucky, and I don’t understand people that argue otherwise. Malik Monk can win games with his ability to score, but Fox ‘s ability to defend and to turn defense into offense is why the Wildcats are in a position for Monk to win games with his scoring alone.

7. Mo Watson Jr., Creighton: It looks like Creighton dodged a bullet on Monday. There has yet to be an official diagnosis, but what initially to be a non-contact knee injury for Watson, it appears that there is no ligament damage. A torn meniscus will not be an easy thing to recover from, but a bone bruise would be. Here’s to hoping he’s OK, but Watson is the engine that makes Creighton’s high-powered offense run.

(UPDATE: Watson’s career is over. He tore his ACL.)

8. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Berry has been fantastic this season, and there’s a very strong argument to be made that he’s the ACC’s Player of the Year as of today. He is everything we wanted Marcus Paige to be over the course of the last two seasons.

9. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss has been terrific this season, and I’m not sure how many people have noticed. After posting 19 points and six assists in a 23-point win over No. 21 Saint Mary’s, he’s averaging 15.2 points, 5.8 boards, 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals with shooting splits of 49.5/41.1/89.5. This is the best Gonzaga team Mark Few has ever had, and Williams-Goss is the best player on the roster.

10. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Luke Kennard is third nationally in offensive rating for players with a usage rate that’s better than 20. No. 1 on that list? Lauri Markkanen, who is quietly having a terrific season for the Wildcats.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Malik Monk, Kentucky
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
Markelle Fultz, Washington
Josh Jackson, Kansas
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
Justin Jackson, North Carolina
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Melo Trimble, Maryland

Lauri Markkanen, Arizona Athletics
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona Athletics

CBT Podcast: Luke Winn joins to talk Kansas and their unorthodox backcourt

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 03:  Devonte' Graham #4 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrates with Frank Mason III #0 after making a three-pointer during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Allen Fieldhouse on December 3, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn, Mr. Power Rankings himself, joined the podcast this week to talk about something other than the Power Rankings.

Luke wrote a long feature on Kansas’ back court of Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham, a serendipitous pairing of former mid-major recruits that have turned into arguably the nation’s best pair of guards and the next great two-point guard back court. You can read that story here. You can listen to the podcast below.

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VIDEO: Mark Gottfried on Sunday’s N.C. State performance: ‘It’s embarrasing’

CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 29: Head coach Mark Gottfried of the North Carolina State Wolfpack reacts during the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at State Farm Center on November 29, 2016 in Champaign, Illinois. Illinois defeated North Carolina State 88-74. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Mark Gottfried is probably the happiest man in the world that his N.C. State team played – and lost – a home game against Georgia Tech on Sunday night, overlapping with the end of the thrilling Green Bay-Dallas NFC Playoff game.

No one was talking about it.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Joe Giglio of the News & Observer was there and, like he did after last weekend’s loss at Boston College, he took Gottfried to task for his team’s performance.

The biggest issue? Gottfried’s nonchalance at the way that a team with the talent to finish in the top six of the ACC and get to a Final Four is playing. The Wolfpack should not be sitting at 1-4 in the ACC having already played BC and Georgia Tech. Gottfried told the media after on the loss to Boston College that his team “got better,” which was as laughable then as it is now.

On Sunday night, he certainly did not try and view his team through rose-colored glasses:

That’s about as mad and emotional as you’ll see Gottfried get.

And he’s got every right to be mad, because the Wolfpack – who count a future top five pick, another future first rounder and at least three more guys that will get a shot on NBA Summer League teams – currently sit at the bottom of the ACC standings and third-to-last in KenPom’s ACC rankings.

The biggest issue is on the defensive end of the floor, which Gottfried made so clear Sunday.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said. “We’ve got to decide if we want to play some defense. I can talk about it for 2 hours every day at practice, at some point, they better make a decision. Right now, we struggle to guard anybody.”

The numbers back it up. N.C. State is dead last in the ACC in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and the only high-major programs that are worse than them defensively are Michigan, Washington State, DePaul, LSU, Washington and Arizona State. The Wolfpack are by far the most talented team out of that group, and probably the most athletic as well. They should be good defensively, but, if you talk to coaches in the league and NBA scouts that have watched that team play, the most consistent knock on them is, simply, that they don’t play hard.

And that may be more worrying than any of the results the Wolfpack have posted this season.

“I don’t want to paint the picture that I walk in there every night, even after a loss, it’s Pollyanna inside my locker room,” Gottfried said. “I think it’s time they understand, they need to understand. I can coddle them, I can baby them, but they have to take ownership.”

VIDEO: Roy Williams gets customized shoes from Michael Jordan

CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 16:  Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels is presented with a gift as he celebrates after his 800th career victory with a 85-68 win over the Syracuse Orange at the Dean Smith Center on January 16, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Roy Williams became the second-fastest coach to get to 800 career wins last night, and to honor him, UNC did things like put together a video presentation, give him a jersey with the number 800 and bring him to the center of the Dean Dome floor to get cheered by everyone in attendance.

But it was Michael Jordan whose gift floored everyone.

Literally.

Because MJ got Ol’ Roy a pair of customized shoes, and it just about killed Brandon Robinson:

Here’s a closer look at those kicks: