Kentucky has ‘a chance to be special’

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I don’t think there is any question who is the most talented team in the country.

It’s Kentucky. When they put it all together, this team is an absolute joy to watch and nightmare to play against. They have size up and down their lineup. They are loaded with athletes. They run the floor. They have shooters that spread the floor and finishers around the rim. They have a point guard that is able to get those guys the ball. Maybe the best measure of just how good this team is is Kyle Wiltjer. He’s a top 20 freshman and he can’t sniff the court this season.

There’s was a stretch of last night’s game where I closed my computer, I put my phone down and I just watched Kentucky play. I sat back and I admired what this team is capable of. They are that good.

The problem?

That Kentucky team only showed up for second half of last night’s game. In the first half, Kentucky looked like a completely different team. They turned the ball over 12 times, six of them coming from their freshman point guard Marquis Teague, and shot just 38.5% from the floor. The problem was offensive execution — far too often, the dribble-drive motion offense that John Calipari preaches broke down into his players trying to go one-on-one.

“We broke off every play,” Calipari said. “I told them after the game that what I’m going to have to start doing is that is you break off a play, you’re coming out. You think its ok that you’re supposed to go right and you go left because you feel like it, you’re coming out.”

“Everybody walked into that game today and they were going to do their own thing, and they did it.”

Its no secret that the key to winning at the collegiate level is recruiting, the ability to identify talented players and bring them into the program. But talent alone doesn’t win games. That’s why Butler was able to make it to the last two national title games. Its why Memphis finished fourth in Conference USA last season. Its why the 2010-11 Kentucky team was able to make the Final Four and not the much-more talented 2009-2010 Kentucky team.

“Everybody thinks talent wins,” Calipari said. “No. Talented players that play together win.”

“The message I gave them yesterday was ‘we don’t compete with each other’. We compete with the other team. We push each other and we challenge each other, but we complete each other. We all do what we do and we play off one another and we complete the team. We don’t compete with each other.”

That’s not the only issue that this Kentucky team has. This is a young group. Of the eight players that played last night, four were freshmen and two were sophomores. The two seniors on the roster? They both came off the bench. Its not difficult to foresee composure being a problem from this group.

Two incidents stuck out last night. In the first half, Teague just absolutely melted down. Six turnovers is way too high for a point guard, and Teague had that number in the first half. He was over-penetrating, he was throwing bad passes and he was getting himself caught in the air without anywhere to go with the ball. With every mistake, Teague tried harder to make up for it. Coach Cal even moved Teague to the off-guard spot, allowing Doron Lamb to handle the ball, but that didn’t make much of a difference. Teague’s disastrous first half was a major reason Kentucky found themselves down. The Wildcats were lucky that performance came against Kansas and not North Carolina; they could have dug a hole too deep to get out of.

Teague isn’t the first Calipari point guard to deal with these issues, however. Brandon Knight had the same problem at the start of last season. John Wall did as well, although he was able to mask his turnover problem by hitting game-winner after game-winner.

Then midway through the second half, Terrence Jones was knocked to the ground by Thomas Robinson, who regained his balance by straddling Jones. Instead of stepping to the side, Robinson walked over Jones, similar to the way Scottie Pippen walked over Patrick Ewing in the 1992 NBA Playoffs. Jones’ reaction was to get up and try and get into Robinson’s face. He wasn’t alone, as the rest of his team rushed over and started some pushing and shoving.

While somewhat justified — I probably would have done the same thing if I were him — the incident shined a light on another potential issue for the Wildcats: composure. What’s going to happen if Jones catches an inadvertent elbow from John Henson? What happens if Kidd-Gilchrist, who was the most vocal when the two teams came together last night, gets knocked into the scorer’s table by Chane Behanan? How will the Wildcats react? Will it take them out of their game? Will a punch get thrown?

When Terrence Jones — a kid who sulked his way out of the lottery at the end of last year, preens after every made shot and walked away from a car accident to avoid the punishment — is the leader for a young team, having concerns about composure and handling adversity is certainly warranted.

“They think they’re in Orlando,” Calipari said, referring to where the AAU national tournament is held, “and they’ve got another game tomorrow morning and one that afternoon.”

“Now they’re talking to the other team, you can’t do that here. You want to talk, but you want to talk to your team. They’re young. They don’t know better.”

There is one common thread in all of the criticisms about Kentucky: youth. This team is young. They are freshmen and sophomores. They will learn. They’ll understand that at this level of basketball, the game isn’t all 1-on-1. They’ll learn how to fit into an offense and how to play a role on defense. They’ll learn what is a good shot and what is a bad shot. They’ll learn how to walk away from a confrontation.

And with the amount of talent that this group has on their roster, if they learn it by the end of this year, watch out.

“I don’t want to say that [this is my most talented team] because I’ve had some pretty good teams,” Cal said, “but this team has a chance to be special.”

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Top 2018 recruit R.J. Barrett names final five schools

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A top player in 2018 is down to five schools.

R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-6 guard out of Monteverde Academy in Florida, announced Wednesday he’ll consider Arizona, Duke, Michigan, Oregon and Kentucky as his college destination.

Barrett is among those in the mix for the top spot in his class now with Marvin Bagley III reclassifying to 2017 this week and committing to Duke. He starred in Canada’s run to a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championships this summer, dropping 38 points on Team USA in a shocking semifinals win for the Canadians, who went on to defeat Italy in the finals. He averaged 21.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.6 rebounds per game during the event.

The schools to make the cut for certainly are of little surprise. They’re among the biggest brands in basketball and have been among the recruiting elites for years.

Barrett was originally part of the 2019 class, but decided to reclassify earlier this summer.”Really, it’s been a thought of mine for the last year,” Barrett wrote for USA TODAY, “but I wanted to wait and see how the season would go and how school would go and when everything went well it became more and more real so I made the decision to go ahead and do it.

“I’m right on track to graduate in 2018 and academically everything is great.”

 

Big Ten reveals conference schedule with early-December games

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We knew it was coming, but seeing it in black-and-white is still plenty jarring.
The Big Ten is going to play conference games in early December.

The league announced its full conference schedule Wednesday, unveiling 14 first-week-of-December games ahead of nearly a month-long hiatus before Big Ten play picks up again in January.

It’s a move that was forced after the Big Ten decided it needed to expand its east coast presence after its expansion to Rutgers and Maryland, and will be playing its conference tournament on the eastern seaboard for the second-consecutive year, this time at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

The problem with MSG is that the Big East hosts its annual conference tournament there, meaning the B1G will have to play its tournament a week early, March 1-4. That means a week less of January, February and March for the conference to play its 18 league games. Thus the early December start. NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster broke down the situation in even more detail – and bite – last spring here.

Every team in the league will play both a home and a road game during that league’s first week, a soft opening if you will. Whether teams like the change or not will likely come down to circumstance  – what players they have injured or suspended, what players their opponents have injured or suspended and any other host of issues, but it’s hard to believe with all things being equal, Big Ten coaches will like this move. They’re playing extremely meaningful league games less than three weeks into the season with other conferences getting nearly 2 months of preparation before facing their toughest slate of games.

The B1G, though, will have more favorable and interesting games – even if they’re programmed against college football championship games (including their own) – that week than any other conference can boast, which likely means some nice TV ratings. Given why this change is being made, that’s probably the priority anyway.

South Carolina adds Maine grad-transfer Myers

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South Carolina is adding some immediate help in its follow-up season to a Final Four run.

Wesley Myers, a graduate transfer from Maine, is joining the Gamecocks’ program, according to FanRag Sports’ Jon Rothstein.

The 6-foot-2 guard gives Frank Martin’s team an instant infusion of scoring as they look to replace SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier. Myers 16.9 points per game last year on 43.7 percent shooting, including a 34.3 percent mark from 3-point range.

He’s the second grad-transfer Martin has picked up this offseason, joining Florida Atlantic’s Frank Booker. The pair should help ease the transition from last year’s success to a much less experienced team that returns just a pair of starters.

Myers, though, doesn’t arrive in Columbia without some notable history.

Last year, after transferring to Maine from Niagara, was suspended after an altercation with a teammate, according to reports. He and teammate Marko Pirovic argued over locker room music, and the alleged ensuing altercation left Pirovic with a broken jaw, according to reports. Three other Maine players were suspended after telling a team athletic trainer that Pirovic had injured himself in a fall in the shower. Pirovic declined to press charges.

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett: ‘We believe in diversity and unity to its fullest extent’

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Virginia’s Tony Bennett finally spoke out on last weekend’s clash between white supremacists protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and counter-protesters that resulted in the deaths of a 32-year old woman named Heather Heyer and two police officers involved in a helicopter crash:

Bennett does not exactly take a hard-line stance — the message is more about healing within the community and how much he loves his current hometown than it is about condemning what happened — but he does say “we believe in diversity and unity to its fullest extent.”

Kyle Guy, a sophomore on the Virginia roster, had this to say on Sunday:

UNC academic case finally reaches NCAA infractions hearing

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — It has taken more than two years for North Carolina to appear before an NCAA infractions committee panel since initially being charged with five top-level violations amid its long-running academic scandal.

The two-day hearing begins Wednesday in Nashville, Tennessee. The panel will ultimately determine whether the school faces penalties that could include fines, probation or vacated wins and championships, making this a major step toward resolution in an oft-delayed case filled with starts, stops and twice-rewritten charges.

“The hearing stage, no matter what size of a case, it’s a big deal to any university,” said Michael L. Buckner, a Florida-based attorney who has worked on infractions cases. “I’ve been a part of what you’d consider small cases, I’ve been a part of one of the largest cases. And trust me: The client feels the same anxiousness and apprehension no matter what size of a case it is.

“But I can definitely imagine with North Carolina, this is definitely a momentous occasion.”

The charges include lack of institutional control in a case tied to irregular courses in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. The case is an offshoot of a 2010 football probe, with the NCAA reopening an investigation in summer 2014, filing charges in May 2015, revising them in April 2016 and then again in December.

The panel, which would typically issue a ruling weeks to months later, is chaired by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey and includes former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

UNC’s representatives were seen arriving for the closed-door hearing at a Nashville hotel Wednesday morning. The contingent included athletic director Bubba Cunningham, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, football coach Larry Fedora and women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell. Jan Boxill and Deborah Crowder, two former UNC employees charged individually in the case, were also seen with their attorneys.

None of the coaches are charged with a violation. But football and men’s basketball are referenced in a broad-based improper benefits charge tied to athlete access to the irregular courses, while women’s basketball is tied to a charge focused on a former professor and academic counselor providing improper assistance on assignments.

Fedora wasn’t working at UNC during the time in question.

“There’s nothing that I can add to what happened before I ever got here,” Fedora said last week. “But I’m there for support. I think me being there is important — not only for the NCAA but the university — that it shows compliance is important to me and our program.”

The focus is independent study-style courses misidentified as lecture classes that didn’t meet and required a research paper or two for typically high grades. In a 2014 investigation, former U.S. Justice Department official Keorneth Wainstein estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes making up roughly half the enrollments.

The NCAA has said UNC used those courses to help keep athletes eligible.

UNC has challenged the NCAA’s jurisdiction, saying its accreditation agency — which sanctioned the school with a year of probation — was the proper authority. In a May filing , the school stated it “fundamentally believes that the matters at issue here were of an academic nature” and don’t involve NCAA bylaws.

The NCAA enforcement staff countered in a July filing: “The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA’s business.”

UNC has argued non-athletes had access to the courses and athletes didn’t receive special treatment. It has also challenged Wainstein’s estimate of athlete enrollments, saying Wainstein counted athletes who were no longer team members and putting the figure at less than 30 percent.

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