After nearly transferring, ‘Cuse’s Waiters thriving off the bench

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NEW YORK – There was a while back in April where it seemed like Dion Waiters was all but out the door.

Waiters didn’t play as much as he wanted to as a freshman. Coming in as a top 30 recruit nationally, Waiters expected to make an immediate impact as a freshman. But with Syracuse returning a veteran back court, Waiters was relegated to the bench. It didn’t sit well with him, and his attitude affected his play. He still managed to have an impact off the bench — he averaged 6.6 ppg in just over 16 mpg, taking 24.4% of his team’s shots while he was on the floor — but with Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche both back this season, Waiters had to decide whether or not he would be comfortable spending another season in the role of the sparkplug off the bench.

“I thought about it,” Waiters said after the game when asked whether he truly intended to transfer this summer.

But Waiters never did end up transferring. While the conversations he had with head coach Jim Boeheim eased his concerns about playing time — Waiters said they had a number of conversations over the summer and “got a better relationship with each other” — it was a conversation with his mother, Monique Brown, that convinced him that Syracuse was where he wanted to be.

“She said she never raised a quitter. That’s something that stuck with me,” Waiters said. “She said don’t let them win. Just don’t let them win, don’t give up. Just work hard and show them that this is something that you’ve done your entire life. This summer I worked hard, I was in the gym every day.”

“That’s what motivated me.”

That motivation, that hard work that Waiters put in over the summer — he said he was in the gym three and four times a day — is paying off in a big way. Coming into Wednesday, Waiters was tied for the team lead in scoring at 13.8 ppg and was second in assists at 3.5 apg while reducing his number of turnovers.

And while Waiters got off to a slow start in the Orange’s 69-58 win over Virginia Tech in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT, he was the difference maker in the second half. Waiters played a huge role in the game-changing, 17-3 run that turned a 42-39 deficit into a 56-45 lead. First, he found Brandon Triche in the corner for a three. He followed that up on the next possession by driving and dumping the ball off to CJ Fair for a dunk.

After Fair hit a three on the next possession, Waiters reeled off nine straight points. He hit a three from the wing and an 18-footer on the following possession. He followed that up with a layup in transition and another jumper to build the 11 point lead. Three possessions later, after Tech had cut the lead to five, Waiters found Fair for another layup and then got a dunk in transition off of a steal from Triche, pushing the lead back to nine with just over three minutes left.

“Right now we need Dion to come off the bench and be confident because we’re going to need them in big games,” Jardine said.

To his credit, Waiters has embraced his role this season. Instead of being concerned with what his stat line looks like in the box score, he’s worried about the team’s record. Instead of fretting over who is in the starting lineup, he’s focused on how successful this group can be this season and how far they can go in March.

“I was kind of selfish last year,” Waiters said. “Not starting, all the little things instead of me just knowing that we got a great group of guys here. If we were all on the same page last year, we probably could have gotten the job done.”

“We gotta work together. We’re going to have a great team this year and I can’t be the only one that’s unhappy.”

But that success that Waiters has had may end up creating a tricky situation for Boeheim to handle. Jardine played just 20 minutes against Virginia Tech. He was parked in the seat next to Boeheim for the entirety of the stretch run as Waiters spurred the Orange to Friday’s final. As good as Jardine and Triche are, Waiters may be the most talented back court player that Boeheim has at his disposal.

The key to the season is going to be how Boeheim is able to manage the egos on this team. He legitimately has six starters on his roster, and every game one of those guys are going to be riding pine in the most important minutes of the game. If he opts to go three guards, that means that either he will have Kris Joseph, the star of this group and a guy that had 20 points and 10 boards in Syracuse’s first game against real competition, sitting on the bench or playing out of position at the four. If he opts to play Fair, than one of the three back court players will be on the bench.

Too much talent is a better problem to have than not enough talent, but its a tricky balance keeping everyone happy with their playing time.

To the credit of the players, it seems like everyone is buying in at this point.

“Its about accepting your role and playing to the best of your ability,” Jardine said. “I’m just trying to be as efficient as possible and get us into our offense and try not to make o mistakes. My biggest thing tonight is I didn’t have any turnovers, so that’s a big thing, I’m a point guard.”

“We’re trying to win games.”

Waiters reiterated the same point.

“I’m getting used to it,” he said of his role off the bench. “But I just know that we got a great group of guys here and I don’t want to mess that up. I’m just going to play my role, play my part and do what I’ve got to do to try and win a national championship.”

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

Texas Tech forward Zach Smith returns to school after withdrawing from NBA Draft

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Texas Tech forward Zach Smith will return for his senior season, the school confirmed on Monday.

The 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most intriguing athletes in college basketball as he’s been a double-figure scorer for the Red Raiders the past two seasons. As a junior, Smith put up 12.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as he shot 50 percent from the field.

Three-point shooting was something that Smith improved dramatically last season as he increased it to 39 percent in a small sample size. If Smith can continue to show that he’s a perimeter shooting threat then he could be an ideal three-and-d candidate at the pro level.

By returning to Texas Tech, Smith gives head coach Chris Beard a potential all-league candidate who should be counted on to be a double-double threat next season.

 

Missouri lands five-star forward Jontay Porter

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Missouri has another member of the Porter family in the fold as forward Jontay Porter officially committed to the Tigers on Monday night.

Following in the footsteps of older brother Michael Porter Jr., and father Michael Porter Sr., Jontay is currently a member of the Class of 2018 who is rumored to be reclassifying to the Class of 2017.

A 6-foot-10 forward who was recently elevated to five-star status on Rivals.com, Porter is having a monster spring in the Nike EYBL with MoKan Elite. Porter has been one of the best players in the league, as he’s putting up 18.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

If Jontay is able to join Missouri next season then he gives the Tigers another intriguing piece to play alongside his brother Michael, who is good enough to be a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although Jontay isn’t the go-to player that his brother is, he could be a very effective SEC role player early in his career, as his ability to rebound and stretch the floor makes him an extremely intriguing piece on the floor.

Kevin Stallings is a tone-deaf clown

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Pitt guard Cameron Johnson is the most coveted transfer in college basketball this offseason.

The 6-foot-8 Johnson is coming off of a strong campaign with the Panthers in which he put up 11.9 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.

Not only is Johnson a proven double-figure scorer in a league like the ACC, but he’s eligible to play right away thanks to his graduation from Pitt. Johnson graduating from school in three years and missing one season due to injury also makes him the rare graduate transfer who has two seasons of eligibility remaining. So, not only can Johnson come in and make an immediate impact, but he’s also able to stay for another year after.

This sort of thing almost never happens, let alone with a 6-foot-8 shooter that could sway the national title race.

It’s why blueblood programs like Kentucky and UCLA are in hot pursuit of Johnson. It’s why another ACC school, reigning national champion North Carolina, is also intrigued by Johnson being on the market.

Except Johnson won’t be allowed to attend North Carolina, or any other school in the ACC, without first sitting out a season and losing one season of eligibility. At least that’s how things currently stand thanks to Pitt’s power over Johnson — despite Johnson graduating from the school and having no more formal educational ties to the school.

Here’s what Pitt said on the matter in a release to the News-Observer.

“Cameron Johnson and his father were informed of our policy as well as the appeals process when they elected to seek to transfer. They went through our transfer appeals process and were granted permission to contact ACC schools; however, the committee upheld the policy to limit immediate eligibility within the conference.

If Cameron were to transfer within the ACC, he would be eligible to receive financial aid immediately but would have to sit out a year of competition due to standard NCAA transfer regulations. Throughout this process, we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings had a peculiar interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was published about two weeks ago. During the interview, of which the full transcript was made public, Stallings went in-depth about Johnson’s transfer and the current state of college basketball. Stallings also made remarks about how the media holds programs accountable for trying to bully certain players.

Here’s a small sample of what Stallings had to say.

“But the unexpected departures are the things that are becoming more common than uncommon in college basketball. You have guys constantly trying to transfer up. You have guys going pro that have never played a minute of college basketball after they’ve sat out a year at a school. You have guys asking out of their letters of intent with frequency. We’re dealing in a landscape in college basketball right now that is as probably as difficult and peculiar as it’s ever been. It used to be if a kid signed his letter of intent and he wanted out of it, you had to play a year of junior-college ball to get out of it.

“The media didn’t basically force institutions to let people break a binding agreement. It’s kind of interesting now the media tries to put so much pressure on programs, whether it be athletic directors or coaches, saying ‘Well, the coaches can move.’ Well, hey, guess what? I’ve got a great big buyout in my deal that prevents me from moving. I’ve got something in my contract saying I can’t go to another league school. It’s not as easy for coaches to go. That’s everyone’s rationale — ‘Well, the coaches can leave.’ We’re dealing in an environment right now that is as fluid as it’s ever been. It’s just where we’re at in the whole thing with the unexpected departures.”

Stallings makes some sound points–particularly about coaches having buyouts and the general perception of coaching changes in basketball.

But Kevin Stallings mostly sounds like a tone-deaf clown here.

Nobody is going to feel sorry for a millionaire coach who willingly makes the decision to change jobs.

Nobody.

Especially if that same millionaire is comparing a choice to change jobs to the transfer decisions of unpaid student-athletes. It’s even more laughable now that Stallings is holding power over an unpaid student-athlete from going to play at another school because of purely basketball reasons.

Pitt and Stallings need to do the right thing and release Johnson to play at any school right away because Johnson has already done everything he needs to do to appease the program.

Things changed dramatically for Johnson during his three years at Pitt. He became one of the ACC’s better players and earned his degree. Johnson held up his end of the bargain when he signed his Letter of Intent.  Now Johnson just wants the chance improve his basketball future by playing with one of the nation’s elite programs.

Stallings can blame the current state of college basketball, the media, or whoever he wants for Johnson’s transfer from Pitt.

But Stallings also has to realize that he’s going to be the one who looks stupid if he continues to leave these restrictions in place for Johnson. Stallings already has a history of this sort of thing when he placed transfer restrictions on former player Sheldon Jeter. If Stallings continues to uphold transfer restrictions on Johnson, then he’s going to gain a permanent reputation in recruiting during a time when players continue to gain more freedom over their basketball futures.

If Johnson does happen to go to an ACC school like North Carolina, it’s not as if Pitt has any sort of competitive roster that is going to be fighting the Tar Heels for league supremacy during the next two seasons.

Stallings and Pitt need to just bite the bullet, let Johnson have his freedom, and hope it doesn’t come back to hurt them for one or two seasons in ACC play.

It surely beats the alternative of being labeled a head coach who limits player freedom after six players left Pitt during a single offseason. That type of burn lasts a lot longer than two years.

Presbyterian hires Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns as new head coach

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Presbyterian finally has its new head coach as the program is set to hire Wofford assistant coach Dustin Kerns, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Kerns has been an assistant at Wofford for the past seven years during his second stint with the program. Also spending six seasons as an assistant coach at Santa Clara, the Tennessee native is getting his first shot at running his own program.

Finishing last in the Big South last season at 5-25 and 1-17 in conference play, Presbyterian is trying to rebuild after head coach Gregg Nibert resigned in April. Nibert was the head coach of the Blue Hens for 28 seasons, so Kerns is going to be a completely fresh start for the program.

Tennessee lands impact graduate transfer James Daniel

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Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes earned a commitment from one of the top graduate transfers on the market on Monday when Howard guard James Daniel pledged to the Volunteers.

The 6-foot-0 Daniel was the nation’s leading scorer at 27.1 points per game his junior season in 2015-16. Daniel played in only two games last season as a left ankle injury caused him to have surgery.

With nearly 2,000 career points to his name, Daniel gives Tennessee an additional perimeter scorer who should come in and make an immediate impact right away. While Howard has low shooting percentages and a high usage rate during his time at Howard, it’ll be interesting to see how the year off and more talented teammates will alter his game.

If Howard can be a more efficient scorer in his final season, then he has a chance to be one of the better players for the Volunteers this season.