Kentucky’s daunting task of a title-or-bust is ‘unavoidable’

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Even for Kentucky, this was a rare season.

The Wildcats won 30 games in the regular season, rolled through the SEC regular season with a 16-0 mark and spent 10 weeks atop the polls. Freshman center Anthony Davis is the front-runner for national player of the year and coach John Calipari’s scooped up a few honors of his own.

Maybe that’s why Sunday’s loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final rankled Big Blue Nation a bit. Losing for the first time in 24 games – not since Dec. 10 – as the NCAA tournament looms is hardly the way to begin a quest for what’s really the only acceptable ending in the Bluegrass State this season.

“This year, anything short of a national title would be seen as a disappointment among the Big Blue Nation,” says Glenn Logan, managing editor of A Sea of Blue, a popular Kentucky blog.” That’s probably unfair considering the overall youth of this team, but when you go out and win 30 games in the regular season, I think stratospheric expectations are reasonable and frankly, unavoidable.”

It’s title or bust. It’s that simple.

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This is the most talented team Kentucky has seen since the 1996 team that featured nine future NBA players, dominated throughout the season and finished 34-2. It didn’t have anyone with Davis’ incredible talent, but John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader says it was “deeper and meaner.”

Clay knows his Kentucky hoops, too. He’s been at the Herald-Leader the last 30 years and a columnist since 2000. He says this year’s team is better than the 2009-10 version that featured John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, two lottery picks who helped UK win 35 games. It’s better than the 2002-03 “Suffocats” who boasted a 16-0 SEC record. Davis and wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could be the top two picks in the 2012 NBA draft. Sophomore Terrence Jones is also a lottery pick.

When you roll out those superlatives, sky-high expectations will follow. Luckily for Kentucky, Calipari knows this.

The loss to Vanderbilt provides the perfect motivational tool because it humbles and focuses the players at once. Plus, it’s easier to shrug off the media attention as hype.

“[Calipari] thought we were getting full of ourselves,” senior Darius Miller told the Louisville Courier-Journal after the loss. “This kind of brought us back to reality, that we can be beat. I felt like we knew that from the beginning. He might’ve been right, though. There were times we went back on film and it kind of looked that way.”

That’s how one must approach a single-game elimination tournament. Even dominant teams can fall short of the Final Four – Kansas and Ohio State last year – let alone not cut down the nets. That’s a prospect that Kentucky doesn’t even want to consider.

“We’re taking every team serious,” freshman point guard Marquis Teague told the paper. “We’re not really worried about that loss anymore. We’ve got something bigger on our minds now.”

Music to the ears of Big Blue Nation.

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So, what will it take to cut down the nets in New Orleans?

Kentucky’s road to the Final Four is rated by both Ken Pomeroy and Luke Winn as the easiest among any of the one seeds. And if simply making the final weekend is half chore, that’s a start. Navigating the likes of Iowa State/UConn, then Wichita State and probably Baylor should be manageable. The Wildcats (32-2) possess significant size and skill advantages against all of those teams except perhaps Baylor. (The Bears’ frontcourt is tall, but usually soft.)

Those last two games are tricky. UConn negated Kentucky’s 3-point shooting last season thanks to a nasty defense (and maybe some ‘Cat nerves). This year’s squad boasts a slightly better offense despite shooting slightly worse from beyond the arc. It’s not as one-dimensional.

There’s no real weaknesses. Thus, the high expectations among the fans. They can almost taste this title, which would be Kentucky’s eighth.

Expectations aren’t like this every season. “I can remember many years when Kentucky fans were, or would have been, pretty happy with a Final Four — like last year, for example,” Logan says. But this is a special group. That’s been evident all season, whether it’s been during wins against North Carolina or beating Florida by 20.

Combine that with the time since the Wildcats’ last championship – 1998, an eternity in Kentucky – and it creates a fever pitch.

Mostly. Clay says the all-or-nothing question misses the mark ever so slightly.

“I don’t know that it will be seen as a failure, but it will be a tremendous heartbreak. Kentucky fans all but live — no, they do live — for that eighth banner,” he says. “To have a team they think is more than capable of winning it all, to go through the SEC undefeated, to lose the conference tourney final and still be ranked No. 1, to be the overall No. 1 seed, and then not win it would be excruciating.”

A Final Four won’t cut it. Only a title will do.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Wichita State getting more national respect with non-conference scheduling

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Wichita State is starting to gain more national respect with regards to its non-conference schedule.

Since moving to the American Athletic Conference this spring, the Shockers have not only gained the benefit of being in a multi-bid league every year, but they’re also getting better teams to play them outside of conference play.

According to a report from Paul Suellentrop of the Wichita Eagle, the Shockers now have non-conference games scheduled with Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State this season. With Wichita State also playing in the Maui Invitational, it gives the Shockers plenty of opportunities to schedule quality opponents and improve its NCAA tournament seeding. And that’s before Wichita State starts conference play.

Although Wichita State was getting invited regularly to prestigious non-conference tournaments such as Maui or the Battle 4 Atlantis, they were having a tough time getting certain schools to book home-and-home series. The Baylor series signifies a small, but significant, change to how Wichita State might be able to do things now.

USC forward Bennie Boatwright returning for junior year

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USC has a chance to be really good next season as forward Bennie Boatwright announced that he’s returning for his junior season.

The 6-foot-10 forward put up 15.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range as his return means that the Trojans should be a major contender in the Pac-12 next season. Elijah Stewart also announced this week that he is returning as USC could start Jordan McLaughlin, De’Anthony Melton, Stewart, Boatwright and Chimezie Metu next season.

With Duke transfer Derryck Thornton Jr. also becoming eligible and McDonald’s All-American guard Charles O’Bannon Jr. entering the program, the Trojans are a potential top-10 team.

Following decommitment, four-star recruit makes eye-opening remarks about Ohio State

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Ohio State lost a four-star recruit on Wednesday when in-state Class of 2018 wing Darius Bazley opted to open up his recruitment.

As a rising senior who is just finishing his junior season of high school, Bazley’s decommitment isn’t going to immediately hurt the Buckeyes next season. But the 6-foot-7 wing’s comments about why he opted to open up his recruitment are pretty jarring.

In a story with Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch, Bazley opened up about why he decommitted from Ohio State. Bazley’s eye-opening remarks include how the Buckeyes might not get him ideal NBA exposure and how Ohio State might miss the NCAA tournament in his freshman year.

“I was excited when I first got the offer,” Bazley said to Jardy. “Ohio State is still a great place. It’s nothing against the school or anything, but my one ultimate goal is to get to the NBA and I just didn’t feel as confident as I did when I first committed that Ohio State was one of those schools that could get me there. At the end of the day I’ve got to perform no matter where I go, but I think there’s other schools out there that could put me on a bigger stage and in a better position to show those NBA scouts when I get to college what I can do.”

Bazley also didn’t appear to be pleased at the recruiting class coming into Ohio State for the Class of 2017, which is the class that is coming in this season. Remember, Bazley is a Class of 2018 recruit who still has to finish his senior season.

“Ohio State, they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year,” Bazley said to Jardy. “They didn’t even make the NIT, which is unfortunate, but I looked into the recruits they have coming into next year, they didn’t look too good for the future. So I felt like when my class came in, yeah, we would’ve been OK, but good enough to make the tournament? I don’t know. I just felt as if I was to de-commit, actually take my time, figure everything out it would just be a lot better.”

Ohio State was once one of the major destinations for one-and-done players a decade ago so these remarks are very surprising. D’Angelo Russell was a top-five pick in the NBA Draft only two years ago, and while the Buckeyes might not be as successful in recent years as they once were, they still get plenty of national exposure with regards to producing NBA talent.

The NCAA tournament comments might carry some more weight though. The Buckeyes have missed the NCAA tournament in two consecutive seasons and things are also looking difficult for them to reach the Big Dance for next season. If Bazley wants to play in the NCAA tournament, then I could understand him wanting to open things up and explore more options.

Still, you don’t often see a player make comments like this about a school after decommitting–especially a program with as much national exposure as Ohio State. Bazley is likely going to face some heat for his remarks, but if those are his true feelings about a future life decision, then he should explore what else is out there.

Nevada gets transfer commitment from Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman

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Nevada continues to build its roster through transfers as the Wolf Pack added Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman on Thursday.

The 6-foot-7 Thurman will have to sit out one season before playing his senior season but he is coming off of a very good campaign for the Mavericks. The versatile forward put up 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent from the field.

One of the Summit League’s better players the last two seasons, Thurman should be a solid rotation forward for Nevada as he has a chance to be a breakout player with one more year of development. If Thurman can improve his 25 percent three-point shooting then he could be a major factor for Nevada.

D-League salaries, two-way contracts increase NBA Draft early entries

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Yesterday, I wrote a piece about how it’s dumb to criticize players for entering the NBA Draft without costing themselves their collegiate eligibility when the NCAA’s new NBA Draft rules are specifically designed for said players to be able to do that.

In that column, I mentioned that D-League salaries are on the rise and that the NBA’s new CBA instituted something called “two-way contracts,” and I wanted a chance to elaborate and clarify a couple of the points that I made.

Let’s start with the “two-way contracts,” which NBA teams each get two of. They are essentially a retainer that those teams can place on younger players they want to be the 16th and 17th men on their roster, holding their rights as they bounce between the D-League — where they will likely spend the majority of the year — and the NBA. The catch is that those players have to have less than three years service as a professional, and the point of it is to provide a financial incentive for younger players with the potential to reach the NBA to remain stateside while allowing those NBA teams to develop them.

That financial incentive is fairly large, as well: Two-way players will make $75,000 guaranteed and will be able to make up to $275,000, depending on the amount of time they spend with the NBA team.

That means there are an extra 60 jobs this season that can end up paying players with less than three years of professional basketball experience upwards of a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

That’s not a bad starting salary.

The other point that I wanted to address is the rising D-League salaries which, technically, will not be rising. There are still going to be Tier A and Tier B players, who make $26,000 and $20,000 respectively. But the NBA has something called affiliate players, which each of the now-25 NBA teams with a D-League affiliate can pay up to $50,000 for training camp. NBA teams are allowed a maximum of four affiliate players, who will still make their $26,000 salary from their D-League team.

In other words, that’s 100 more jobs available in the United States where a professional basketball player can make $76,000, and that’s before you consider that the five NBA teams that do not yet have a D-League affiliate will still have to play players to get them into training camp.

That $76,000 is not a life-changing amount of money. Neither is the $275,000 that a two-way contract can pay. But it’s a pretty damn good paycheck to make for an entry-level job into the industry that you always dreamed of being in.

Athletes have an unbelievably small window where they can capitalize monetarily on their gifts.

If a 21-year old sophomore decides that he wants to continue to develop his game and chase his NBA dream by making $76,000 as a D-League player, is that really all that crazy?

After all, 135 of the 450 players, or 30 percent of the roster spots, on NBA’s opening night were taken by guys that had spent time in the D-League.

There’s more than one way to make a dream come true.