Minnesota exposed Indiana as a flawed team

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BLOOMINGTON, IN – Indiana fans are going to want to chalk up the Hoosier’s 77-74 loss to Minnesota, who was previously winless in Big Ten play, to having an off day.

They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Indiana did have an off day. Coming off of a game at Penn State where they shot 16-24 from beyond the arc, the Hoosier’s pedestrian 4-18 performance provides a stark contrast.

But frankly, any team is going to win when they shoot 16-24 from three. The fact Penn State was able to make the Hoosiers work down the stretch is fairly amazing. And it also should have provided Hoosier fans with the forewarning they needed that this is a team that would be vulnerable on nights when the shots don’t drop. As they say, you live by the three, you die by the three.

“The easiest thing to do in the world is to be sky-high when you’re making shots,” Indiana head coach Tom Crean said after the game. “The hardest thing to understand is how committed you need to be to the game of defense and rebounding when you’re not.”

“We lost this game on the defensive end. The shooting obviously wasn’t good, but we lost this game on the defensive end.”

Therein lies the problem for Indiana.

The Hoosiers have plenty of offensive firepower in their lineup. Cody Zeller has proven to be the kind of program-changing recruit that the Indiana faithful had hoped he would be when he picked the Hoosiers over Butler and North Carolina. He’s a terrific low-post scorer and arguably the best big man in the country when it comes to running the floor from offense to defense.

And he’s not alone. Christian Watford is the perfect four to compliment Zeller, a perimeter oriented scorer that can spread the floor and give the big fella room to operate. Jordy Hulls is an underrated offensive option and a lights-out shooter. Verdell Jones, Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo provide athleticism and aggressiveness on the wing while Matt Roth has proven capable of getting hot on the perimeter.

But for all of that offensive talent, Indiana lacks the kind of toughness that will allow them to survive when they are struggling to score.

As Tom Crean put it a dozen times during his post game press conference, the Hoosiers didn’t have an edge.

“We weren’t playing on edge the way that we have,” he said. “That may sound like a buzz word, but those are real. They practice hard and they prepare and all those things, but you’ve gotta have an edge.”

But the issue is more than just playing with an “edge”.

The issue is that Indiana is an inherently flawed basketball team, and the issues all lie on the defensive end of the floor.

For starters, this is not a group that is going to lock down the way that title contenders have to. For all of the ability that Hulls has offensively, he’s not a very good defender. He’s not all that big, he’s not all that quick and he’s not all that strong, especially when it comes to fighting through screens. But he’s also far and away the best point guard that Crean has at his disposal, which means that the Hoosiers, to be at their most effective offensively, need him on the floor.

Hulls isn’t alone in his struggles on that end of the floor. Far too often, Indiana simply fails to execute defensively as a team.

“It starts with our lack of awareness defensively,” Crean said. “Communication, weak side, ball side, challenging shots, block outs. The awareness never got where it needed to be until the end of the game. I said it to them all week, its a step they gotta take.”

“Teams that take the next step totally get that defense is what comes first in every situation. Defense creates the offense, defense creates more opportunities, defense creates the fast break. The best teams gain confidence from their defense, not the other way around.”

The other thing this group is missing is a bruiser in the paint. If Watford doesn’t deserve to be called soft, than he is dangerously close to the ledge. For all that Zeller gives the Hoosiers when he is on the floor, he’s a freshman that still needs a good 15-20 pounds of muscle added to his frame. Older, stronger post players are going to be able to push him around.

That was evident down the stretch against Minnesota, and its what cost Indiana the game. The Gophers had 16 offensive rebounds on the game, but nine of them came in the final 6:41. The reason Indiana wasn’t able to come back wasn’t because Minnesota continued to get good looks from the field; they didn’t.

The Gophers shot 50% from the field in the first half, hit 6-13 from beyond the arc and get whatever shot they wanted offensively. In the second half, that wasn’t true. Minnesota got a couple of good looks early in the half, but Indiana’s defense unquestionably tightened up down the stretch.

The problem was that after forcing the Gophers into a tough shot, they couldn’t finish the possession. Minnesota got second and third shots, and they capitalized on those opportunities. Simply put: Indiana’s struggles on the defensive glass hindered their ability to string together stops.

“Its deflating to give up that many offensive rebounds,” Zeller said.

The good news for Indiana fans is that this is still an inexperienced team. They aren’t necessarily young in this day and age of college basketball, but this is really the first time that any of the kids in this program have experienced success at the collegiate level. Think about it: prior to this season, the Hoosiers had been irrelevant on a national scale since Crean took over. The mindset of the 19 and 20 year olds on the roster will, eventually, become one that assumes they will be able to win simply by stepping foot onto the court. That gets magnified when every single Hoosier fan had all but assumed that this group was destined for the Final Four.

At some point, complacency is bound to set in. Winning — and understanding that continued success comes with consistent effort — is a skill, and its one that comes with a learning curve.

“Its different for all of them. We don’t have a lot of guys that come form winning back grounds,” Crean said. “So when you start to win, and things change around you, your mindset can’t change. They gotta learn and they gotta grow through that. You know this is new to them. As coaches, we’ve won before. We’ve been ranked. We’ve gone on the road and won. We’ve been to the Final Four. They haven’t.”

“When you’re going through that, the No. 1 thing is to stay committed to that improvement and never lose that edge.”

We can debate all day and night what, in particular, that “edge” is.

But what is indisputable is that the Hoosiers have major question marks that need to be answered.

When the Hoosiers are hitting their shots, they can hang with and beat anyone in the country, especially if that game is getting played in Assembly Hall. But if they don’t learn how to defend and they don’t get more physical under the basket, than this won’t be the only time that the Hoosiers end up on the wrong end of the score against a team they should be.

Even in Assembly Hall.

DiVincenzo to test NBA draft waters

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The Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player is testing the water to see if the NBA will let him have next.

Villanova announced on Thursday that Donte DiVincenzo, who scored a career-high 31 points in the national title game two weeks ago, will declare for the draft but will not hire an agent so as to preserve his collegiate eligibility.

“Donte has consistently improved in his time at Villanova through dedication and a commitment to our core values,” stated Wildcats head coach Jay Wright. “His play this season has created a unique opportunity for him to receive feedback from NBA teams in the draft process. We support Donte fully and our staff will work together with him and his family to help him assess the next step in his basketball career.”

At this point, every relevant Villanova player has announced what their intention is for the NBA draft. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are heading to the NBA. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are returning to school, and barring a shock decision to transfer or to declare for the draft, both Collin Gillispie and Jermaine Samuels will be as well.

That leaves Divincenzo and Omari Spellman, both of whom have declared for the draft without signing with an agent.

What those two decide to do could end up determining who college basketball’s best is next season, and there is no easy answer here for either of them.

We’ve been over this with Spellman already. At 6-foot-9, Spellman is already an elite shooter for someone his size. He’s also down to a svelte 245 pounds, which has turned him into a much more impressive athlete than he was when he first arrived on the Main Line. He’s more explosive. He’s a better shot-blocker and rebounder. He’s much better at attacking closeouts. As it stands, he’s got a shot to be a late first round pick should he remain in the draft.

The same can be said for DiVincenzo, a 6-foot-5 off-guard that is a streaky scorer with range and athleticism that can operate in ball-screens actions. He’s coming off one of the most impressive performances that we’ve seen in a national title game ever, which means that the memory that everyone is going to have of DiVincenzo is of him raining threes, blocking players at the rim and winking into the crowd.

But that’s not what NBA scouts are going to necessarily remember of him.

Villanova might not have been appointment viewing for people that wanted to see the next crop of superstars play, but they were on every NBA team’s list of teams that they needed to see. That’s what happens when there are five potential pros on the roster, including a top ten pick in Bridges and the National Player of the Year in Brunson.

Put another way, NBA personnel are very, very familiar with DiVincenzo. They know that he is a streaky scorer that can go off for 20 points in a half or 30 points in a game. They know that he is a plus athlete that can guard different positions despite the fact that his wingspan is all that massive. They also know he is a guy who doesn’t always make great decisions and can really struggle when he has to handle the ball against pressure.

Like Spellman, DiVincenzo is a borderline first round pick that is more likely to end up being snatched up in the early-to-mid second round if they remain in the draft.

The question they need to ask themselves is whether or not they feel that where they get selection could be drastically altered by returning to school, and I do think there is some reason to believe that to be the case. For starters, there are places where both players can improve to become more highly-regarded prospects, but I think what would be more relevant is that, if they both do return, we could be looking at a situation where both are preseason all-americans for a preseason top three team.

Hell, I don’t think it’s out of the question that DiVincenzo will be a Preseason National Player of the Year candidate, Spellman a preseason first-team all-american and Villanova the preseason No. 1 team in the country.

And if that is the case, one would assume that DiVincenzo — like Bridges and Josh Hart before him — could put together the kind of season that would see him shoot up draft boards. The same with Spellman.

But what’s more relevant for this space is that with both of those players in the fold, Villanova would once again be a national title contender and the overwhelming favorite to win a down-Big East conference.

Without them?

Villanova will be looking at having a rotation that includes three sophomores and three freshmen, which is not close to the ideal for Jay Wright. They’ll still be good, but we won’t be talking about them as a team that can win a title, at least not at the start of the season.

There is no hyperbole when I say that what DiVincenzo and Spellman decide to do will drastically alter the landscape of college basketball for the 2018-19 season.

Paschall, Booth to return for senior seasons with Villanova

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Villanova announced on Thursday morning that both Phil Booth and Eric Paschall will be returning for their senior seasons with the Wildcats.

“Phil and Eric are two of the cornerstone leaders of our team,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “Each of them is widely respected by their teammates, not just for their talent, but for the kind of young men they are. We are thrilled that they will help lead our team again as seniors.”

Booth, a 6-foot-3 guard, is a redshirt senior from Maryland that averaged 10 points and 3.2 boards this past season despite dealing with a broken bone in his shooting hand that held him out of the lineup for seven games during Big East play. Paschall is a 6-foot-6 wing that started 38 games and averaged 10.6 points and 5.3 boards this past season, his second with Villanova after transferring into the program from Fordham.

There was some question that Paschall could end up declaring for the NBA draft. He is a redshirt junior and, given his athleticism, defensive versatility and ability to knock down threes, he would be an intriguing second round prospect and a potential role player at the NBA level. His return is big, because he is the piece that allows Villanova to be able to switch 1-through-4 without much worry, and he’ll allow sophomore Jermaine Samuels and incoming freshman Cole Swider to have another year before they are relied upon as heavily as they would be without him.

As good as Booth is at the college level, he’s not likely to end up being an NBA player. The concern is that, like Mikal Bridges and Paschall, is he was a senior from an education perspective, meaning that he could have earned his degree and moved on to the professional ranks. He will be an important veteran presence on the floor, and the kind of program piece that will help bridge the gap between last season’s title-winning team and the next crop of youngsters on the roster.

Arizona lands Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther

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Arizona landed a key addition for its frontcourt on Wednesday as Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther pledged to the Wildcats.

The 6-foot-9 Luther is expected to receive a hardship waiver that would give him immediate eligibility, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com, as Arizona gets some much-needed help up front.

Playing in 10 games last season before a stress reaction in his right foot ended the season, Luther averaged 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for the Panthers. In his final game of the season, Luther went for 13 points and 12 rebounds in a Pitt loss to West Virginia. Luther shot 45 percent from the field and is a noted perimeter threat as he was 38 percent from behind the three-point line.

Luther hasn’t logged heavy minutes as a contributor through a full season. Mostly a role player at Pitt until last season, Luther was the team’s most productive player when he was on the floor. But that production also didn’t come during ACC play and through the course of a full season.

Thankfully at a program like Arizona, Luther should have a bit more help around him. He could be a nice addition to the Wildcats, particularly if he rebounds and spaces the floor in the frontcourt as he did at Pitt. Arizona needed someone like Luther to provide more stability after losing players like Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic.

In the last few weeks, Arizona has rebounded nicely to land three commitments for next season — including freshmen Devonaire Doutrive and Omar Thielemans. The group isn’t as heralded as some past Arizona recruiting efforts. Given where the Wildcats were in recruiting a few weeks ago, however, this isn’t a bad turnaround.

TCU extends Jamie Dixon’s contract by two more years

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TCU has given head coach Jamie Dixon a two-year contract extension through the 2023-24 season, according to a release from the school.

Dixon took the Horned Frogs to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years this season as he’s done a great job of turning around his alma mater. The release also notes that TCU had the highest average attendance in program history this season. Fans are also taking notice of a revitalized team.

With back-to-back 20-win seasons and postseason appearances, Dixon and TCU have a lot of positive momentum going on right now. The two-year extension for Dixon should help a bit in recruiting when it comes to overall stability, as well, as he’s been able to attract some quality talent so far.

Report: Kevin Ollie claims UConn violated rights with firing

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Fired former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie is claiming that the school violated his constitutional rights during his departure.

Ollie sent a letter to UConn school president Susan Herbst which was obtained by ESPN’s Myron Medcalf in a report released on Wednesday. Ollie’s lawyers are claiming the school proceeded with his firing before giving Ollie a proper chance to contest his termination — which was guaranteed in his contract and also the collective bargaining agreement with the University of Connecticut’s branch of the American Association of University Professors. Ollie was fired, with cause, in late March as the school mentioned an NCAA inquiry as the reason why. According to Medcalf’s report, the NCAA has not sent a notice of allegations to the school.

Ollie’s union membership includes thousands of faculty members around the country as the collective bargaining agreement demands a hearing process before any employee can be terminated for allegations of serious misconduct. Ollie claims he didn’t receive a letter he was supposed to get to begin the termination process.

“From our review of the facts and circumstances relating to Coach Ollie’s employment status, it is apparent that the University of Connecticut has already violated [Coach Ollie’s] rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by subverting Coach Ollie’s opportunity to respond to charges and evidence in a meaningful way in advance of the decision to terminate his employment,” said the letter dated April 3.

“The public record, action taken, and authorized communications by representatives of the University of Connecticut, demonstrate that the decision to terminate Coach Ollie has already been made and therefore the University of Connecticut has effectively negated Coach Ollie’s property right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

This letter to UConn likely begins a long legal battle to try to get an eight-figure payout back as Ollie is going to do everything he can to clear his name.