Lenzelle Smith, Chane Behanan spark Final Four runs

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People are incorrect when they say that it was the play of Kemba Walker that carried UConn from the first day of the Big East tournament to 11 consecutive wins and, eventually, an NCAA Championship.

Kemba was sensational, don’t get me wrong. But he was sensational all season long. He went for 42 points in the second game of the regular season. He scored 90 points as the Huskies ran through the Maui Invitational in the third week of the regular season. There was the triple-double he had against New Hampshire, the game-winners he hit against Villanova and Texas, the 31 points and 10 assists he had against Georgetown.

You get the point.

As good as Kemba was, it was the emergence of Jeremy Lamb as a secondary scorer, Alex Oriakhi as a dominant rebounder and Shabazz Napier as a capable ball-handler that allowed Jim Calhoun to make a run to his third national title.

If we’re going to take anything out of UConn’s run, it’s that simply relying on a star is not enough to get a team to the Final Four. It’s the production of the supporting cast — both expected and unexpected — that is the difference between hanging a Final Four banner and heading home after the tournament’s first weekend.

You needn’t look any further than Saturday night’s Elite Eight action to see it.

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Louisville has one of the weirdest roster compositions you’re ever going to come across.

The Cardinal’s two most important players — Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva — happen to be the fifth- and sixth-leading scorers on the team, respectively. Their two leading scorers — Kyle Kuric and Russ Smith — have gotten more attention this season for the shots they’ve missed than the shots they’ve made.

Perhaps the least-talked about member of Louisville’s team is Chane Behanan, the undersized power forward whose physical, blue-collar presence in the paint is the perfect compliment to Dieng’s ability as a shot-blocker. Behanan, who averages 9.3 ppg and 7.4 rpg, has made a name for himself thanks to his ability to finish around the rim, often times with a powerful dunk in traffic. But he’s far from what you would consider a big-time scoring threat; he scored 17 or more points just three times this season heading into Saturday.

But against the Gators, Behanan did just that, finishing with 17 points and seven boards.

It was more than the number of points he scored, however. It was when he scored them. With the Gators up 11 and less than nine minutes left in the game, Behanan reeled off seven straight points in less than two minutes to get the Cards back within six. With three minutes left in the game — and with Siva on the bench with five fouls — Behanan hit a short jumper in the lane that tied the score for the first time since the 10 minute mark of the first half. With 1:12 left in the game, Behanan hit another short jumper that gave Louisville a 69-68 lead.

Florida wouldn’t score again, and Louisville would advance to the Final Four with a 72-68 win.

“Really wanted the ball, really played terrific down the stretch when we needed him,” Pitino said of Behanan. “Very surprising for a freshman.”

It was more than just Behanan’s offense that changed the course of this game, however. Florida torched Louisville’s zone in the first half, to the tune of 8-for-11 shooting from three. Rick Pitino switched to a man-to-man defense in the second half, but Florida began to expose the mismatches by using whoever  Gorgui Dieng was guarding in a pick-and-roll.

So down the stretch, Pitino had Behanan and Dieng essentially rotate the big man they were guarding, with Dieng protecting the rim and Behanan switching onto whoever set the screen. It was his ability to defend those ball-screens that led to Louisville’s 18-3 run over the final eight minutes of the game.

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Lenzelle Smith, Jr., has been one of the most enigmatic players on the Buckeye roster this season.

Smith had reached double figures just once this season when he exploded for 28 points in a 17-point win over Indiana in January. Three games later, Smith had 17 points in a 15-point win over Michigan. In between those two offensive explosions? Smith had a total of two points.

Seriously.

Two points. In two games.

So heading into this tournament, it really wasn’t a secret that Smith was able to score in bunches. What was unknown, however, was when he was actually going to show up. On the nights that Smith does show up, he makes Ohio State such a different basketball team. We all know about Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft, but with the youth on the rest of the roster and the inconsistency of William Buford this season, finding another source of points has been vital.

On Saturday, Smith was that guy. He finished with 18 points in Ohio State’s 77-70 win over No. 1 seed Syracuse, scoring 16 of those 18 points in the second. Included in that stretch were arguably Ohio State’s two biggest shots of the night. With just under 12 minutes left in the second half, Syracuse had whittled a 10 point lead down to three when Smith buried a 3-pointer. Four minutes later, Syracuse had gotten the lead down to a single point when Smith hit his third triple of the second half.

The Orange would never have the ball with a chance to take the lead the rest of the game.

I guess at this point it would probably be prudent to remind you that Smith knocked heads with Brandon Triche hard enough to split over his right eyebrow, which required three stitches to stop the bleeding.

Smith had hit 25 threes in a row during Ohio State’s shootaround on Saturday, but it took a while to convince head coach Thad Matta that shooting touch had carried over to the game.

“[Smith] had lost his man on defense and given up a three and then came down and threw kind of a wild pass that almost got picked off,” Matta said, “and I was literally saying he doesn’t have it at the moment, let’s get him out and we’ll talk to him.”

“Then he bangs a three, and I’m like, he’s back.”

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Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas combined for 33 points and 16 boards against Syracuse, while Aaron Craft provided his typical, petrifyingly tough on-ball defense.

Gorgui Dieng was only credited with one block while adding eight points and six boards, but he controlled the paint in the second half against Florida. Peyton Siva, before he fouled out, finished with nine points, eight assists and just a single turnover. Russ Smith chipped in with 19.

Chane Behanan and Lenzelle Smith weren’t alone on Saturday night. But they were the difference makers.

And they are just as much the reason the Buckeyes and the Cardinals are still playing as anyone.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Miller Time: Indiana coach cashes in with $24 million deal

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — New Indiana coach Archie Miller will make $24 million under his seven-year deal — and potentially even more in bonuses.

Miller accepted the job in March, but the athletic department didn’t announce details of the contract until Tuesday.

He will receive a base salary of $550,000 per year and $1 million in deferred income each season. Miller also will receive an additional $1.85 million in outside marketing and promotional income — and will get a $50,000 per year raise each year through March 2024.

Miller can earn a $250,000 bonus for winning a national championship. He can earn an additional $125,000 for a Big Ten regular-season title, reaching the Final Four and producing multiyear Academic Progress Rate scores over 950.

Utah, BYU rivalry back on after one-year hiatus

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The BYU-Utah annual rivalry series will be back on this season after taking a one-year hiatus last year.

For just the second time since 1909, the Utes and the Cougars did not play in 2016-17 after Utah head coach Larry Kyrstkowiak asked for a one-year cooling off period stemming from an intense and emotional game against BYU in 2015-16. In that game, then-freshman Nick Emery was ejected as a result of this punch that he threw:

The last time those two teams did not play was due to World War II.

The game will be played at BYU on Dec. 16th.

Utah will also play Utah State this season, the first time that they have played the Aggies since 2011.

 

California bans state-funded travel to eight states; does it affect college hoops?

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A new California law could end up causing a headache for the sports teams for public universities in the state.

Because of recently-added laws that are perceived as discriminatory against the LGBT community, California has now banned travel to eight states: Texas, Alabama, Kentucky and South Dakota join a list that already includes Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee.

The law states that contracts that were signed before Jan. 1st, 2017, are exempted and can be fulfilled, but there’s not guarantee that will be the case in the future.

“Moving forward, the athletic department will not schedule future games in states that fail to meet the standards established by the new law,” a UCLA spokesman told the Sacramento Bee. That said, the university does not use state funding for travel sports teams as it currently stands, and the goal of the law to avoid “spending taxpayer dollars in states that discriminate,” according to California’s Attorney General.

On the college basketball side of things, the biggest question mark here is whether or not this law will prevent teams from playing in the NCAA tournament if they are sent to a site in one of those eight states. Next season alone, there are first weekend sites in Kansas, Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee, not to mention the Final Four taking place in San Antonio. The location for many of those events were determined prior to January 1st.

“We are generally not going to deny student-athletes the opportunity to compete in the postseason,” a UCLA spokesman told NBC Sports.

The next question then becomes whether or not regular season travel will be allowed. Earlier this year, Cal dropped out of talks with Kansas about a potential home-and-home series due to this law, and if regular season travel is not allowed, it would mean that Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisville and Wichita State, along with Kansas, are not allowed to be visited by California public schools that need state funding to travel. A request for a clarification on the legality of college sports teams traveling to those states has been filed with the Attorney General by Fresno State, whose football team is headed to Alabama for a game this year.

Travel for recruiting is also a question that needs to be answered, but at the highest level of the sport, that is typically funded by boosters.

N.C. State adds grad transfer Sam Hunt

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N.C. State added its fourth transfer this offseason. Like ex-Baylor guard Al Freeman, the latest one is eligible to play next season.

Sam Hunt, a double-digit scorer the past two seasons at North Carolina A&T, officially enrolled at North Carolina State on Monday morning.

“Sam is a great young man and will bring much needed depth to our backcourt,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said in a statement. “I want guys who are excited about being a part of our program and Sam really wants to be here.

“Sam is a combo guard that can space the floor with his ability to shoot the basketball. He is a good fit for the system and will bring a wealth of experience to our roster.”

Hunt, the 6-foot-2 guard, averaged 12.7 points per game last season, a dip from the 15.4 points per game he posted for the Aggies as a redshirt sophomore.

Hunt joins a roster that lost its three leading scorers from a season ago, one that ended 15-17 (4-14 ACC). Dennis Smith Jr. is a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Maverick Rowan also pursued a professional career and Terry Henderson was denied an additional year from the NCAA.

The Wolf Pack bring back forwards Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven as well as Torin Dorn.

Keatts, who took over the program after leading UNC Wilmington to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, has already built for the future. UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce, 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game for the Seahawks, has followed him to Raleigh. Utah transfer Devon Daniels committed to the Wolf Pack the same day as Bryce. Both will have to sit out next season due to NCAA transfer rules. Bryce will have two years of eligibility while Daniels will have three.

LaVar Ball stars in an uncomfortably entertaining segment on WWE’s Raw

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LaVar Ball’s statements and antics over this past year always seemed better suited a professional wrestling ring.

It was only natural that the patriarch of the Ball family — and the head of the Big Baller Brand — made an appearance on WWE’s Monday Night Raw at the Staples Center for an awkwardly entertaining segment with WWE Intercontinental Champion The Miz.

With sons, Lonzo — in his first appearance in the Staples Center as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers — and LaMelo looking on, LaVar was the center of attention. When The Miz mentioned something about a partnership between the two, the scripted interview went south. It resulted in LaVar saying nonsensical things like, “There’s only two dudes better than me, and I’m both of ’em!” before later taking off his shirt. When Dean Ambrose, a WWE superstar feuding with The Miz came out on to the ramp, LaVar didn’t quite grasp the concept that that was his cue to stop talking.

This segment was somehow entertaining and cringeworthy at the same time.

Now that Lonzo is beginning his NBA career, maybe it’s time LaVar try something different. A manager in the WWE may just be his true calling. He’s certainly had plenty of practice.