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Meyers Leonard had a tougher life than we thought

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Meyers Leonard had a bit of a breakout season as a sophomore.

He increased his production to averages of 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds from 2.1 points and 1.2 boards as a freshman. While it would be difficult to consider Leonard’s season disappointing at face value, the bottom line is that the year was far from ideal. Illinois lost 12 of their last 14 games, a slide Leonard was unable to turnaround, and the enduring image of the Illini seven-footer was him in tears on the bench during a 23 point loss to Nebraska.

The enduring image you should have of Leonard is a different picture of him in tears:

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This picture was taken when Bailey Leonard, Meyers’ brother, surprised him at a practice. Bailey has served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and Meyers had no idea that he was home.

The fact that the Leonards did not have an easy life growing up is not a secret. It has been widely reported that they were poor, that their father died when they were eight and six, respectively, and that their mother had a back injury that made it impossible for her to work.

But I’m not sure we knew the extent of their struggles until John Canzano, who covers Meyers’ new team, the Trailblazers, wrote this column on the new draft pick:

“There were times we really didn’t have anything,” Bailey said. “I remember Meyers frequently going to eat at other people’s houses because we may not have had enough food. I remember kids saying things like, ‘You can’t play with us because you’re poor.’ And I remember mixing and matching the few clothes we had because we were trying to make it look like we didn’t wear the same stuff to school every day.”

They lost their father. They lost their home to foreclosure. Their mother struggled with a back injury that was so debilitating she couldn’t sit through a basketball game. “I attended every one of Meyers’ games when I was a junior and senior,” Bailey said. “I knew that’s what he wanted. He needed someone there and our mom couldn’t do it. Her medicine kept her down a lot. After our dad passed away, people looked at us as different.”

The Leonard family found a place to live, but they had no furniture, limited running water and no electricity. They had a small battery-powered television that got three channels, they had blankets, and they had each other.

Said Bailey: “The three of us just slept on the living-room floor together.”

Leonard is an easy kid to root for.

Knowing where he comes from, the struggles his mother was having and the fact that he played last season while his brother was in Afghanistan should give you a different view of Leonard’s sophomore season.

Imagine what he’ll be able to do when he no longer has to worry about his family.

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

Duke knocks off No. 13 Louisville in first game of critical four-game stretch

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Grayson Allen scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half and Brandon Ingram added 18 points, 10 boards and four assists as Duke picked up a critical win over No. 13 Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday night, 72-65.

A call this a critical win for the Blue Devils because it kicks off what may be the most important two-week stretch of Duke’s schedule This weekend, the Blue Devils square off with No. 9 Virginia. Next Wednesday, they’re at the Dean Dome to take on No. 7 North Carolina. Four days after that, they head to the Bluegrass State to pay a visit to Louisville.

 

With the way that Duke has been struggling on the defensive end of the floor without Amile Jefferson, that’s a stretch that could derail Duke’s season; entering Monday, all four of those games were losable. But a four-game winning streak — or even going 3-1 in that stretch — could completely change the tenor of what has been a fairly disappointing year for the defending champs, and that’s before they get Jefferson back to 100 percent.

And the difference was defensively, at least in the first half.

I’ve written in this space a number of times about how opponents know what they’re going to get from Duke defensively. Coach K, traditionally, plays half court man-to-man defense, switching every exchange — ball-screen, off-ball pick or simply when two players run by one another — that doesn’t involve the center. In recent years, he’s played some zone in situations where he defense has struggled or, like this season, when he doesn’t have the depth to risk foul trouble. We’ve even seen some 2-2-1 pressure from him of late.

But on Monday night, Duke played straight man-to-man for much of the game, and in the first half, it seemed to fluster the Cardinals. They scored just 24 points in the first 20 minutes, and while Louisville did find a way to break Duke down defensively in the second half — they shot better than 55 percent from the floor after the break — but part of the reason Duke was able to win this game was the lead they built. After a three from Allen opened scoring in the second half, the Blue Devils were up by 14, and while Louisville made a run down the stretch, they could never get control of the game.

Duke is becoming appointment viewing for basketball nerds like me that pay too much attention to X’s-and-O’s to see what kind of wrinkle Coach K is going to put in to try and compensate defensively, so I’m not sure that this performance sticks. But it is worth noting that this was the first time in eight games the Blue Devils gave up less than 1.0 PPP, and the first time since Dec. 19th they did so against an NCAA tournament-caliber team.

As far as Louisville is concerned, you have to tip your hat to those kids. They played their hearts out and fought back from a big deficit in one of the toughest places in the country to play. They did all that three days after their school ripped their hearts out with an NCAA tournament ban for this season.

So good for them. You never know how a team is going to react to something like that, but the Cardinal players showed that they have some serious fight in them.

Iowa State’s starting center Jameel McKay remains suspended

Iowa State forward Jameel McKay celebrates on the court at the end of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 82-77. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Steve Prohm announced on Monday that starting center Jameel McKay will not be in the lineup on Wednesday when the Cyclones take on Texas Tech.

“He’ll practice today because I want him in practice,” Prohm said, “but game-wise, he’s suspended.”

McKay did not make the trip to Stillwater with the team on Saturday, where Iowa State beat Oklahoma State, 64-59. Prohm has not gotten into specifics regarding the cause of McKay’s suspension, but it’s reportedly an issue with the way he has been practicing. McKay is dealing with a nagging knee injury, which may play a role in the situation as well.

“My hope is he’ll be with us on Saturday,” Prohm said.