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.

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.