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It’s far too early to rule on Duke’s Austin Rivers

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There’s one thing that needs to be made clear: Duke’s Austin Rivers is a very skilled basketball player.

You don’t become the number one-ranked player in the nation, get named a McDonald’s All-American, and become the ACC’s Freshman of the Week in your first seven days on the job if you’re not skilled.

And following Rivers’ performance in the first two rounds of the Maui Invitational, games in which he averaged 19 points in two Blue Devil victories, the 6’4” freshman guard has become an interesting case study in how the flashiness and athleticism of a high school star can mesh with the controlled, calculated system of head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Through the first six games of Rivers’ college career, his straight statline looks good: 15.1 points, 2.5 assists per game. It’s a deeper look, though, and a dissection of what doesn’t show up in the box score that reveals the struggles of this Florida native.

Take a look: he had five turnovers in Duke’s 77-76 win over Belmont. He shot 1/7 from the field against Michigan State. It took him 15 shots to get his 18 points against Tennessee and another 14 shots to get 20 points against Michigan.

The flashes of brilliance that have shown themselves in Rivers’ first six games have been tempered by some harsh freshman realities that, many times, plague star freshman guards.

Rivers is undoubtedly Duke’s best weapon to attack off the dribble, slashing to the basket, collapsing the defense, and getting to the free throw line.

But for every hopstep into the lane that ends with a shifty layup at the basket, Rivers has a rushed, out-of-control floater that leads to a run-out and easy points for the opponent.

From high school, his strong handle and quickness have translated. He can still get by defenders and get into the lane. What Rivers still needs to understand is twofold: 1) there are big men who will step up to defend in the paint 2) there are other viable options on the floor who can be relied on to score the basketball, those whose names are not “Austin Rivers.”

With outside threats in Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, along with the Plumlee brothers and Ryan Kelly inside, Rivers’ ability to find the open man after he gets into the paint will mark his growth and maturity during his freshman year.

As his ill-advised and forced shots decrease, his lightning-quick first step and deceptive moves in the lane will become more effective, as defenses will have to compensate for his court vision.

In the first half of Duke’s win over Tennessee in Maui, Rivers drove into the lane and came to a jump stop. Defenders converged and he found Mason Plumlee for an alley-oop slam. Well done.

Not two possessions later, he drove into the lane, spun, and threw a hard layup off the glass that led to a run-out and transition points for the Volunteers. Freshman mistake.

The struggles are partly amplified by Coach K’s system at Duke.

Rivers is accustomed to a fast-paced, one-on-one style game, where defenses are spread out in transition and he can wreak havoc.

Krzyzewski’s system slows everything down, manufactures shots, and is devoid of the flashiness Rivers typically brings.

Take a look at recent Duke point guards: Nolan Smith, Kyrie Irving, and even Rivers’ classmate from 2011, Quinn Cook.

What do they all have in common? None are exceptionally athletic, but they fit well into Duke’s system and, within it, have and will thrive.

Rivers is different.

Would he have been more immediately effective at North Carolina or Kansas, two other schools he was considering? Perhaps.

But Rivers’ time at Duke could prove to be a blessing in disguise, as growing his game in the half-court is like a tough medicine to swallow; something that may be difficult to adjust to in the short-term, but beneficial in the long run.

To his credit, he has the overwhelming confidence to work through difficult stretches, so long as it doesn’t become his downfall.

After the aforementioned out-of-control layup against Tennessee, Rivers came back with two rise-and-fire, no-doubter three-pointers, part of his 11 first-half points, and 18 total, for the game.

There will be overreactions on both sides. Some will call him overrated. Some will venture to call him the best Duke guard since Jay Williams.

Both, for now, are unproven.

For now.

Kansas forward arrested on suspicion of battery

Douglas County Sheriff
Douglas County Sheriff
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Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. was charged today with one count of battery.

According to a press release sent out by the Douglas County district attorney’s office, police received a call around 1 a.m. from a woman who said that “her boyfriend had struck her and pushed her down stairs during an argument.”

The DA also included a note in the statement that, essentially, said the only reason Bragg wasn’t charged with domestic violence – he was initially arrested on suspicion of domestic battery – was due to a technicality. Since the couple is only dating and not married, under Kansas law, the assault does not constitute domestic violence.

Battery is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison.

Bragg, who was still in custody until an appearance in court on Friday afternoon, was held on bond of $500. Bragg plead not guilty.

“We are still trying to gather information,” head coach Bill Self told The Star. “But it is a charge which we take very seriously.”

Bragg is a 6-foot-8 sophomore that lost his spot in the starting lineup earlier this year. He is averaging 7.8 points and 5.3 boards in 16 minutes. No. 3 Kansas hosts Nebraska on Saturday.

St. John’s to lose center to transfer

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 13: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats has his shot blocked by Yankuba Sima #35 of the St. John's Red Storm at the Wells Fargo Center on February 13, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Villanova won 73-63. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
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Yankuba Sima will transfer out of the St. John’s program, the school announced on Friday.

“I want to thank the coaching staff and the administration for all of their support since I arrived at St. John’s,” said Sima. “I enjoyed my experience at St. John’s, but right now I feel it is best for me to explore options that will be a better fit for me as I work toward my goals.”

“We wish Yankuba the best of luck,” said head coach Chris Mullin. “I know this wasn’t an easy decision for him, but we respect and understand it. He’s a good basketball player and a good person with a bright future ahead.”

Sima started 26 of the 34 games he played with the Johnnies, including eight starts this season. He was averaging 6.0 points and 3.5 boards this year.

Frank Martin comments on Sindarius Thornwell suspension

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26:  Sindarius Thornwell #0 of the South Carolina Gamecocks drives to the basket defended by Tyler Lydon #20 of the Syracuse Orange in the second half during the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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South Carolina head coach Frank Martin commented on Sindarius Thornwell’s suspension during his call-in show on Thursday.

Thornwell, who was the leading scorer for the 8-0 No. 19 Gamecocks, was suspended indefinitely last Sunday. Martin has yet to provide a reason for the suspension.

“He’s been with us at practice, he’ll travel with us, he’s excited about our team, his role on the team,” he said, according to South Carolina’s 247 site. “Sindarius is one of my favorite guys I’ve ever come across. He messed up and it is what it is. He’s like a son to me. He messed up and he’s owned up to his mess up.”

“Outside of that, I’m not going to get into anything else. He has my full support. Our job is to prepare our team to play, we don’t prepare individual players to play. It’s no different to someone rolling an ankle. We’re down because of a bad decision. We’ll be fine.”

Thornwell is averaging 18.7 points, 6.0 boards and 4.1 assists. The Gamecocks play Seton Hall in New York City on Monday night.

UCF star point guard out indefinitely with thumb injury

STORRS, CT - JANUARY 22: B.J. Taylor #1 of the Central Florida Knights carries the ball up the court in front of Ryan Boatright #11 of the Connecticut Huskies in the first half during the game at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion on January 22, 2015 in Storrs, Connecticut.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Sophomore guard B.J. Taylor is out indefinitely after suffering a hand injury, UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins confirmed at a press conference earlier today.

According to a report from 247 Sports’ UCF site, the injury is a broken thumb, which was suffered in Saturday’s win over UMass.

Taylor is not expected to miss the rest of the season but will be out for an extended amount of time. He missed all of 2015-16 season dealing with a foot injury.

On the season, Taylor, a 6-foot-2 point guard, was having an all-AAC caliber season, averaging 17.0 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 boards.

Weekend Preview: Villanova tested by Notre Dame, bounce-backs for Xavier, Butler

Notre Dame's Steve Vasturia (32), Bonzie Colson (35) and V.J. Beachem (3) talk during the second half of a first-round men's college basketball game against Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 18, 2016, in New York. Notre Dame won 70-63. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 23 Notre Dame, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: This is a fascinating matchup for a couple of reasons. For starters, this is the first real test that undefeated Notre Dame is going to be getting this season. We honestly have no idea how good the Irish actually are, and you wouldn’t be alone in needing to see a team starting Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson prove it before buying in.

But we also haven’t see Villanova tested in a while, either. They won at Purdue earlier this season and, since then, have more-or-less coasted to their undefeated mark. This will not only be a nice gauge game for Villanova, but it will also be a chance for them to pad an NCAA tournament résumé that will need to be strong for them to get a No. 1 seed this year.

The other part of this that’s fascinating? Both of these teams play small ball. There are going to be times on Saturday where 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson is playing center and being guarded by 6-foot-5 Kris Jenkins, who will be at center for the Wildcats.

No. 22 Cincinnati at No. 16 Butler, Sat. 4:30 p.m.: Butler could really use this win. Coming off of a road loss to Indiana State during the week, the Bulldogs will be playing back in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. But here’s the thing: Cincinnati could really use this win as well, and that Bearcat program already owns a road win over Iowa State.

The matchup here will be intriguing as well. Butler plays a more open, run-and-gun style than they did under Brad Stevens. Tyler Lewis is a show-man in transition, as is Kamar Baldwin, and getting Kelan Martin spotting up or attacking a close out is always a good coaching maneuver. Cincinnati is tough and big and physical. They try to wear you down. They pound the glass. They really, really defend. How does Butler handle it?

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FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 17 Wisconsin at Marquette, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: In one of the more under-appreciated rivalries in college basketball, Marquette will be looking to land a marquee win to bolster the non-conference portion of their NCAA tournament résumé. Will
    Nigel Hayes continue to play like an all-american?
  • Utah at No. 13 Xavier, Sat. 5:30 p.m.: The Musketeers have lost back-to-back games and are really struggling to shoot the ball from the perimeter. Utah has struggled this season as they have a young roster waiting on a pair of transfers to get eligible.
  • Michigan at No. 2 UCLA, Sat. 8:00 p.m.: UCLA is now a week removed from their win over then-No. 1 Kentucky in Rupp Arena. This will be the first time they see the floor since then. Michigan had the look of a tournament team earlier in the season, but they’ve lost a pair of winnable games in recent weeks.
  • Hofstra vs. No. 6 Kentucky, Sun. 3:00 p.m.: The Wildcats will square off with Hofstra on Sunday, a game that is only really notable because it will be played in the Barclays Center.
  • No. 21 Florida at Florida State, Sun. 4:00 p.m.: The Gators looked the part of an NCAA tournament team when they lost to Duke in New York City on Tuesday. Florida State is more talented, however, but it’s difficult to trust them. This will be a big win for whoever gets it.

FIVE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Kentucky’s perimeter shooting is officially a concern: The Wildcats are currently shooting 32.2 percent from beyond the arc, which is 254th nationally. The only real threat they have from three in their starting lineup is Malik Monk, and he’s streaky. They can play Derek Willis at the four, but Willis is such a step-down on the defensive end of the floor from Wenyen Gabriel that it may not end up being a net-positive to play him, not when the Wildcats rely so heavily on their defense to create offense in transition.

I’m not sure what the answer is. I’m not even sure there is an answer. This is just what Coach Cal has to work with this season. Can they improve? Probably. The great thing about being a bad shooting team is that shooting is the easiest thing to develop. Teams without size can’t get bigger. Teams without athleticism can’t get more athletic. The only problem? There are just four months left of the season. How much better can Kentucky really get?

One thing worth noting here: The 2010 Kentucky team, the one with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, the one that lost in the Elite 8 because of their shooting issues, finished the season making 33.1 percent of their threes.

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)

2. Let’s see if Notre Dame is for real: The Fighting Irish are one of nine undefeated teams left in college basketball, but as good as they have been this season, Mike Brey’s club still hasn’t really beaten anyone. The Colorado win looks better after the Buffaloes beat Xavier. Beating Fort Wayne, the team that upset Indiana, is good. Northwestern and Iowa are Big Ten teams.

But none of those four wins – none of Notre Dame’s nine wins – have come against a team we know will be in the NCAA tournament. We know Villanova will be, and the interesting thing about this matchup is how well the two teams matchup, particularly up front. Neither the Irish nor the Wildcats have much size inside. If Notre Dame can pull off the upset, it will be time to start talking about them much more.

3. UCLA’s first action since the win at Kentucky: The last time that we saw the Bruins take the court they put up 97 points on Kentucky in Rupp Arena. That’s pretty good. It’s also an easy way to get a big head, especially for a team that has so many freshmen on the roster. UCLA will face off with Michigan at home on Saturday. It will be interesting to see how they come out early on in this one.

4. Bounce-back chances for Big East programs: No. 13 Xavier has lost two games in a row now, both of them coming on the road. They were felled at No. 4 Baylor before getting dropped at Colorado on Wednesday. The Musketeers will host Utah, a winnable game that could help them find a rhythm shooting the ball.

No. 16 Butler is coming off of a loss of their home, having been upset at Indiana State by the Sycamores. The Bulldogs will have a bigger test than the Musketeers, as they host a top 25 team in No. 22 Cincinnati.

5. Jonathan Isaac’s health, Florida State’s tournament hopes?: Isaac is the forgotten top ten pick. He’s been terrific this season and has a chance to play his way into the top ten if he continues doing what he’s been doing, but he’s missed the last two games with a hip injury. This is an important game for the Seminoles, as they host Florida this weekend. Will Isaac be available?