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.

Thursday’s Three Things To Know: Nebraska, Saint Mary’s land big upsets

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Thursday nights are slow in the college basketball world, but that doesn’t me we don’t have stuff to talk about.

Here are the three things you need to know about.

1. TIM MILES IS WELL ON HIS WAY TO SAVING HIS JOB

One of the most underdiscussed storylines of the college basketball season to date is that the coaches that entered the year on the hot seat are winning.

Clemson’s Brad Brownell might get back to the NCAA tournament. Bruce Pearl has made people at Auburn forget – briefly – about the internal investigation into the FBI allegations against the program. Even Jim Christian looks like he’s going to force BC to give him more time.

But Tim Miles might be the best example of this. After a flurry of transfers in the offseason and a change in athletic director, things looked pretty bleak for Miles. But he now has his Nebraska team sitting in a position where they are at least in the conversation for the bubble at beating No. 23 Michigan at home by 20 points.

The Huskers are not quite there yet. Monday’s game at No. 22 Ohio State is huge because it is the last ranked team on Nebraska’s schedule.

But that’s a ways off.

As of now, Nebraska fans can enjoy the fact that they’re 14-7 on the season and 5-3 in the Big Ten.

2. SAINT MARY’S WON THE MOST IMPORTANT GAME OF THEIR SEASON

Jock Landale went off for 26 points, 12 boards and three assists as Saint Mary’s extended their winning streak to 13 games and put themselves in a position where making a run at an NCAA tournament bid looks likely.

Our Travis Hines has a column up on this game here.

3. VIRGINIA CONTINUES TO LOOK LIKE THE BEST TEAM IN THE ACC

The Wahoos went into Atlanta and beat down Georgia Tech, 64-48, on Thursday night.

The most impressive thing about this season for Virginia isn’t that they are winning these games or that they are playing great defense or whatever. It’s that all of these wins they are collecting are impressive.

Georgia Tech never looked like they were really in this one, and the Yellow Jackets have been playing better of late and were at home. They beat N.C. State by 17. They handled North Carolina fairly easily. They embarrassed Virginia Tech on the road.

Virginia is really, really good, and the truth is that they are probably a year away from being their best selves.

CBT Podcast: Wichita State’s a mess, Trae Young’s struggles, Jamion Christian on transfers

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Rob Dauster was joined on Friday by Jamion Christian, the head coach of Mount St. Mary’s, for an enlightening and honest discussion about college basketball and transfers. There is a push to get transfers to be allowed to be immediately eligible, a push that many believe will have drastic, negative effects on coaches like Jamion. The two talk for 30 minutes about the ramifications of changing the rules before Rob is joined by Reags from the Fundamentally Sound podcast to go over the what happened to Trae Young, what happened to Wichita State’s defense and the weekend’s biggest games.

OPEN: Jamion Christian interview

30:22: Trae Young’s offensive issues

44:50: Does Wichita State have the most pressing defensive worries?

52:45: Weekend preview and picks ATS

Craft Beer Of The Week: Stone Xocoveza

Hunter scores 17 points, No. 2 Virginia beats Ga Tech 64-48

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ATLANTA (AP) — Virginia got off to a sluggish start offensively.

Fortunately for the Cavaliers, their defense never takes a night off.

De’Andre Hunter came off the bench to score 17 points and No. 2 Virginia turned in another defensive masterpiece Thursday, stretching its winning streak to nine in a row with a 64-48 victory over Georgia Tech.

The Cavaliers (17-1, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) limited Georgia Tech to 40.5 percent shooting and forced 18 turnovers, leading to 16 points.

“The defense held us in there until we got a little rhythm and hit some shots,” coach Tony Bennett said. “We were stingy to score against. That always carries you on the road.”

Virginia snapped a four-game winning streak for the Yellow Jackets (10-8, 3-2).

After making the first basket of the game, Georgia Tech quickly got an idea of what kind of night it would be. The Jackets missed their next eight shots and turned it over four times before Josh Okogie finally broke a nearly eight-minute scoreless drought with a dunk off a backdoor pass.

Virginia shot just 40 percent in the first half but still led 28-19 at the break.

Georgia Tech never got any closer the rest of the way.

“They’re just a very disciplined team offensively and defensively,” Yellow Jackets center Ben Lammers said. “That makes it very difficult. You can’t make a mistake or you’ll pay for it.”

The last gasp for the home team essentially came in the closing seconds of the first half. It looked as though the Jackets would go to the locker room on a bit of a high after Curtis Haywood hit his second 3-pointer from far beyond the stripe, closing the gap to 24-19.

But Hunter got free in the corner and knocked down a trey with 0.1 seconds left in the half, turning it into a four-point play when Abdoulaye Gueye foolishly went for the block and sent the Virginia player sprawling to the court .

The free throw gave the Cavaliers their biggest lead of the opening period.

“That’s definitely not the way you want to end a half,” Lammers said. “We were on a little bit of a roll. It’s definitely a bit of a downer for our team. I think it helped their momentum.”

Virginia steadily pulled away over the final 20 minutes, dominating the inside for a 44-20 edge on points in the paint. Ty Jerome added 12 points, while Devon Hall and Kyle Guy had 11 apiece.

Tadric Jackson led Georgia Tech with 14 points. No one else was in double figures.

BIG PICTURE

Virginia: The Cavaliers held an opponent under 50 points for the eighth time this season. They came into the night allowing the fewest points of any Division I team, and actually improved on their 52.9 average. That helped to cover for a tough night from 3-point range on which the Cavs connected on just 3 of 13 attempts.

Georgia Tech: Okogie, averaging 18.8 points per game, struggled to get open and finished with just nine points on 3-of-8 shooting. But coach Josh Pastner is especially concerned about Lammers, who attempted only five shots, made one and finished with four points. “We’ve got to get more out of him offensively,” Pastner said. “When you’re not scoring, it sucks the life out of you.”

WILKINS STEPS UP

The Cavaliers switched things up a bit against Lammers, turning to Isaiah Wilkins to handle the bulk of the defensive duties.

When the teams met last season , 6-foot-10 Jack Salt limited Lammers to seven points on 3-of-12 shooting.

This time, it was the 6-foot-7 Wilkins — the stepson of former Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins — making life miserable for Georgia Tech’s big man.

“He played to his personality,” Bennett said. “He’s such a giver. He thinks help. He thinks cover for teammates. He knows how to anticipate. If you can find that, it’s worth its weight in gold for a defensive player.”

PACKED PAVILION

It was an especially disappointing performance for the Yellow Jackets, considering it came before their first sellout of the season at 8,600-seat McCamish Pavilion.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Plays its second straight ACC road game at Wake Forest on Sunday.

Georgia Tech: Faces a short turnaround before traveling to Chapel Hill on Saturday for another game against a ranked opponent, No. 15 North Carolina.

Palmer scores 19, leads Huskers in 72-52 rout of Michigan

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — James Palmer Jr. scored 19 points, Isaiah Roby had a career-high 14 and Nebraska beat No. 23 Michigan 72-52 on Thursday night for its first win over the Wolverines since joining the Big Ten.

Nebraska (14-7, 5-3), which needed Palmer’s 3-pointer to beat last-place Illinois 64-63 on Monday, led 32-21 at the half and never let Michigan get closer than 10 points in the last 17 minutes.

Michigan (16-5, 5-3), which had won nine of its last 10, suffered its most lopsided loss of the season and had a season-low for points. Charles Matthews had 15 points for the Wolverines, who shot 37.5 percent from the floor and a season-low 22.2 percent (4 of 18) on 3-pointers.

The Wolverines had come in 8-0 against the Huskers since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011-12, and they had won 10 straight in the series.

In the final regular-season game last year, Michigan won 93-57 in Lincoln, the Huskers’ most lopsided home loss in program history. Michigan set the arena record for points by an opponent and matched the arena record with 14 made 13-pointers in that game.

Nebraska was in total control this time.

The Huskers played strong defense on the perimeter and forced nine of Michigan’s 12 turnovers the first 20 minutes. Roby, Duby Okeke and Jordy Tshimanga rendered Moritz Wagner a non-factor.

Wagner, who scored 27 points last Saturday against Michigan State and had reached double figures in all but two games, missed his only shot of the half. He finished with a season-low two points, his only basket coming on a dunk early in the second half.

Roby had two dunks and another basket during an 18-4 run that turned Nebraska’s 12-10 deficit into a 28-16 lead. The Wolverines went scoreless for more than 6 minutes and without a field goal for 7½ as the Huskers broke things open. The Wolverines missed 14 of their last 16 shots of the half.

The Huskers built the lead to 21 with less than 5 minutes to play.

Tshimanga, who missed the last two games for personal reasons, entered the game in the middle of the first half. The first time he touched the ball, he passed to Roby for a dunk.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: Though the Wolverines have owned Nebraska, Pinnacle Bank Arena is a tough place to play, and they might have been out of gas after an emotional win over Michigan State and having to rally to beat Maryland 68-67 on Monday.

Nebraska: This was a crucial win for a team that has hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. Michigan came into the game No. 30 in the RPI; no other opponent Nebraska has beaten is in the top 50. Another big opportunity comes Monday when the Huskers visit Ohio State (No. 18 RPI).

UP NEXT

Michigan hosts Rutgers on Sunday.

Nebraska visits No. 22 Ohio State on Monday.

St. Mary’s gets critical NCAA tourney resume win over No. 13 Gonzaga

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No one should probably get too worked about about one game in mid-January.

First of all, it’s one game. Forty minutes of small sample size randomness that could very well mean next to nothing.

Second, there is still nearly two months of regular season to play. What seems important now very well could fade to irrelevance come mid-March. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to attach much meaning to one game between two teams well ahead of when the stakes are actually clear.

Unless you’re St. Mary’s and you’re at Gonzaga.

Then, you can get hyped.

The Gaels finally delivered a resume-boosting win this season by dispatching the 13th-ranked Bulldogs, 74-71, in Spokane to invigorate a season that seemed destined to end with plenty of wins but few – if any – that really mattered.

Yeah, it’s one game. Yeah, it’s mid-January. Yeah, a lot can happen between now and Selection Sunday to render this moot. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

But make no mistake about it, St. Mary’s beating Gonzaga at The Kennell is a monumental victory for Randy Bennett’s team when the Gaels lacked even a notable one before it.

St. Mary’s non-conference schedule has become a tired topic, but it is absolutely why they find themselves in such a high-stake game just a couple weeks after New Year’s. It’s also perhaps maybe less their fault than ever. Bennett can’t be faulted for Cal being awful and Dayton being down. Those should be solid wins. But they aren’t. Then there’s the loss to Washington State. That should have been an opportunity for a good win. Instead it’s become a blight on their resume with the Cougars unable to compete in the anemic Pac 12.The one true chance for a meaningful win came against Georgia, and the Bulldogs nipped them in OT.

Beyond that, there’s a lot of wins on the resume for the Gaels, but not a lot of substance. Beating up a couple times each the likes of Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Santa Clara doesn’t exactly move the needle.

That’s what made Thursday night so incredibly critical for St. Mary’s, and, if we’re being honest, for college basketball. The Gaels are absolutely one of the 68 best teams in the country. Conservatively, I’d say somewhere around the top 30. The NCAA tournament simply would have been worse off without them.

They showed why against Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs looked poised to pull away on numerous occasions, leading by as many as nine in the second half, but the Gaels wouldn’t let them gain comfortable separation. There was always an answer.

At least there was always Jock Landale.

The 6-foot-11 senior brought his All-American stuff to Spokane, going for 26 points on 12 of 15 shooting while also posting 12 rebounds and three assists. There’s not much flash to Landale’s game, but his fundamentals do the work for him. He established great position early and just went to work, abusing Gonzaga’s frontline time and again.

Landale is one of the most efficient offensive players in the country while simultaneously being one of its better rebounders. That’s a dude who in his senior year needs to be in the NCAA tournament. I won’t hear arguments to the contrary.

This win doesn’t guarantee a spot for the Gaels, obviously. They can’t afford a major slip-up, and another win against the Zags would go a long way, but it at least puts them in a tenable position with more than six weeks until March.

It’s the cruel reality of life in the WCC. Whether it would have won or lost Thursday night, St. Mary’s clearly established itself as a peer to Gonzaga, a team whom no one wonders about its NCAA tournament viability. St. Mary’s is right there with them. If they would have lost, it may not have mattered. The W-L, the RPI and the resume just wouldn’t have enough evidence to support what was so readily apparent to anyone watching.

They did win, though.

Sure, it’s still only one game. Sure, it’s still early. Sure, plenty can still go wrong.

Sure beats the alternative, though.