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.

The Seven Biggest Final Four Storylines

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1. Gonzaga’s chance to win a national title: To me, this is the most fascinating part of the Final Four, and it’s not because Gonzaga needs to win to make the statement that they are an elite college basketball program. I don’t believe that to be true or a fair assessment of what they are right now. The Zags are a perennial top 15 team, they’ve reached 19 straight NCAA tournaments and won in 16 in those 19 dances, they recruit McDonald’s All-Americans that are talented enough to go one-and-done and they currently start an All-American point guard that began his career playing for arch-rival Washington.

They’re doing just fine.

What would make this story so incredible is the rags-to-riches ride that Gonzaga is on. 25 years ago, Gonzaga was thought of as the worst job in the WCC. They don’t have a natural recruiting base — Spokane is basically in Idaho, it ain’t Seattle — and there weren’t facilities in place to set that program apart from any other in the league. They didn’t reach an NCAA tournament until 1995, but by 1999 they were in the Elite 8, they reached the Sweet 16 in back-to-back years after that, and the rest is history. They went from a high school gym to an arena that holds 6,000 people and is a bucket-list destination for all college hoops fans. They went from not having a weight room to chartering flights for recruiting trips.

They went from the bottom of Division I to the pinnacle of the sport. Completing that journey with a national title would only be fitting.

2. North Carolina’s redemption run, Roy Williams one of the greatest ever?: One year ago, North Carolina was on the receiving end of one of the most soul-crushing title game defeats ever. In any sport. To erase a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes against Villanova, hitting a miracle three with 4.7 seconds left to tie the game, only to have it disappear with one Kris Jenkins jumper is brutal.

But the Tar Heels, despite losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, are right back in the Final Four as the favorite to win the title. And if they do win, it may be time to start calling Roy Williams one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all-time. As in top five. Think about it like this: If Roy cuts down the nets again, he’ll have won three national titles in a 12-year span and become one of just six men — John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, Jim Calhoun, Bob Knight — to win that many rings and one of just three to do so in the modern era of college basketball, since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

He’s won eight ACC titles in the last 14 years compared to Coach K’s three. He’s been to five Final Fours in the last 14 years and nine total, the fourth-most of all-time. Most think of Williams as a coach that just rolls the ball out there, but maybe it’s time we starting giving him credit for being one of the greatest to ever do it.

3. Frank Martin has South Carolina in the Final Four: While Gonzaga is the mid-major program in this Final Four, the “outsider” so to speak, the program that doesn’t belong here is South Carolina. The Gamecocks have little to no basketball history to speak. This is just their fifth Final Four since 1974. Prior to this season, they had never won back-to-back games in the NCAA tournament. They lucked into Frank Martin because this was a comfortable landing spot when he wanted out of Kansas State because he didn’t get along with his boss.

And now Martin, who is an underdog in his own right, is just two games away from winning a national title. Who would’ve thought that any of that was possible?

4. West Coast is back!: For the first time since 2008, we have a team from went of the central time zone playing in the Final Four; two, actually. That also means that we may end up getting our first national champion that’s further west than Kansas since Arizona won the title in 1997. Mike Bibby was the point guard of that team. His son was a freshman at South Florida this year. It’s been a while.

5. Dana Altman’s handling of the Oregon rape case: Altman probably should have been fired three years ago. The basics: days before the start of the Pac-12 tournament, three Oregon players — Brandon Austin, Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis — were accused of sexual assault by a female student at the university. Two of those players played in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments, although Altman claimed he did not know details of the investigation — the allegations, the accused, etc. — only that there was an investigation, so he did not suspended his players.

Two months later, the graphic details of the allegations were released in a police report, and the three players were dismissed from the program. It also should be noted here than Austin was brought into the program despite having a previous sexual assault allegation hanging over his head, a fact that Altman also claimed ignorance of.

Altman will be asked about this.

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6. The one-and-done factories aren’t in the Final Four: Duke got bounced in the second round. UCLA and Arizona lost in the Sweet 16. Kentucky and Kansas went out in the Elite 8. Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith Jr. and Jarrett Allen didn’t make the tournament. Miles Bridges and Jonathan Isaac lost in the first weekend and no one thought much of it. Given just how loaded this freshmen class was, i’s a pretty surprising result that there are no one-and-done stars in the Final Four.

There are a couple of freshmen that may have the opportunity to turn pro this spring — Gonzaga’s Zach Collins and North Carolina’s Tony Bradley — but those two played their way into being potential first round picks coming off the bench. They weren’t recruited as one-and-dones.

What does this say about the one-and-done culture?

Probably nothing beyond the fact that Kentucky lost on a buzzer-beater and Kansas played like Kansas State against Oregon. But it is worth noting.

7. Can North Carolina win a title while waiting for the NCAA to rule on them?: This is probably going to end up being the elephant in the room every time that Roy Williams steps up to the podium to speak this week. As you are probably well aware, the UNC athletic department has been mired in a scandal involving fake classes that helped keep athletes eligible for what feels like a decade. Due to legal battles regarding the Notice of Allegations, the case has been pushed back and pushed back and pushed back again. At this point, I think that the sun will burn out and Jim Boeheim will retire before we actually get an answer here.

Here’s the better question: If Williams wins a title this season, will this be his curtain call?

Kentucky fans flood Facebook page of official John Higgins’ company with negative reviews

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Unhappy with how John Higgins performed at his part-time job, Kentucky fans did their best trash him at his full-time gig.

The Facebook page of the referee’s Omaha-based roofing company was flooded by Big Blue Nation with negative comments and reviews after they were displeased with the official’s work in the Wildcats’ Elite Eight loss to North Carolina.

Not only did fans leave obviously fake and vulgar comments on the page, they also deluged it with one-star reviews to drive down its average significantly.

Once again, the Internet is struck by its proportionality problem. What could be considered a silly bit of online pranking by a small minority suddenly turns into an avalanche of nastiness that could do real damage to someone’s life, business and family, given the importance of social media for companies in 2017. It becomes cruel when it reaches a level like this.

When there’s so many general complaints about the state of officiating in college basketball, it’s also not helpful to do something like this to one of the referees generally considered to be one of the country’s best. It’s not exactly a glowing endorsement for prospective future officials to follow the career path if it brings this level of negative attention to you off the court.

Report: North Carolina to miss out on NCAA events through 2022 if HB2 not addressed by Thursday

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North Carolina is in danger of losing out on hosting NCAA events through 2022 if the state does not make changes to HB2, the controversial so-called “bathroom bill” by Thursday afternoon, according to the leader of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance.

“I have confirmed with a contact very close to the NCAA that its deadline for HB2 is 48 hours from now,” Scott Dupree, the head of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, said, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. “If HB2 has not been resolved by that time, the NCAA will have no choice but to move forward without the North Carolina bids.”

“The NCAA has already delayed the bid review process once and has waited as long as it possibly can, and now it must finalize all championship site selections through spring of 2022.”

The NCAA, as it reminded North Carolina last week, is making its determinations on hosts for events from 2018-2022 this week. There was movement last week at the North Carolina statehouse for a compromise on the bill, but that apparently stalled out, the News & Observer reported, though there remain efforts to make progress on a pact.

Should lawmakers not reach an agreement in time, the state’s flagship basketball programs will be without an NCAA tournament home-court advantage that they have often enjoyed. HB2 just this past year moved the first and second rounds out of the state and to South Carolina, where No. 2 seed Duke lost to the seventh-seeded Gamecocks in their home state.

Clearly, there’s much more to consider here than NCAA tournament implications, but it’s another reminder of the economic impact the bill has made in North Carolina. This week, The Associated Press estimated it will cost the state $3.76 billion over a 12-year period.

Baylor’s Freeman to graduate and transfer

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Baylor is losing one of its contributors over the past three seasons.

Al Freeman, a 6-foot-3 guard, will graduate and transfer to another school, the Bears announced Tuesday.

“Al has been a tremendous student-athlete and made great contributions to our program over the last four years, and we’re thrilled that he’s going to complete his degree at Baylor,” Bears coach Scott Drew said in a statement. “He’ll always be part of the Baylor family, and we’ll be rooting for him as he continues his career.”

Freeman, who redshirted his freshman year due to a broken wrist, started 57 games during his career in Waco and averaged 8.6 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. He was a full-time starter as a sophomore, but made just 22 this past season and saw his minutes slashed.

As a graduate transfer, the Charlotte native will be immediately eligible at his next program for his final collegiate season.

Xavier sophomore Edmond Sumner declares for NBA Draft

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Xavier sophomore Edmond Sumner has declared for the NBA Draft and is expected to sign with an agent.

“First let me start by saying these three years at Xavier have been the best of my life,” Sumner said in a statement. “I have certainly been presented with some ups and downs but they have only served to make me a stronger person. This decision was very hard for me because of the love I have for X. After weighing my options with my family, I have decided to enter the 2017 NBA Draft, fulfilling a lifelong dream. I want to thank Coach Mack and the rest of the staff for believing in me and giving me a chance when no one did! I’ll always be grateful for that. Xavier Nation I will always love you!”

Sumner, a 6-foot-6 point guard with dynamic athleticism and first round potential that averaged 15.0 points, but he is coming off of a torn ACL that he suffered in January. He’s likely to be a second round pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

This is a big loss for the Musketeers, but it’s one that they planned for. After his eruption last season, most expected him to put his name in the draft this season.