John Calipari

Weekend Preview: The most important story lines as CBB kicks off

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So about this new Kentucky team…

There are a myriad of intriguing and important story lines surrounding the headline game of the Barclays Center Classic between No. 3 Kentucky and Maryland. It’s the first college basketball game to be played in Jay-Z’s new arena. (I don’t care if it’s not ‘technically’ Jay-Z’s arena.) It’s the first game that Maryland will play with Dez Wells, who was surprisingly cleared to play on Wednesday. It’s the first game the two teams will play after Kentucky beat out the Terps for the Harrison Twins. It’s the launch of Maryland’s relevancy under Mark Turgeon. The reigning national champs. Nerlens Noel’s first game. The list goes on and on and on.

But for me, the most intriguing part of this game will be seeing just how Kentucky’s rotation is built. Coach Cal will find a way to make this team work well together, but I’m struggling to figure out a way that can happen. The best shooter on the team is a power forward, Kyle Wiltjer, who can’t defend and who is the fourth-best front court player on the roster. Getting the five best players on the floor requires using two seven-foot centers, Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein, together while playing a combo-forward, Alex Poythress, at the three. Ryan Harrow isn’t at the same level as the likes of Derrick Rose and John Wall, and may not be on the same level as Marquis Teague. How will they all mesh?

Five more story lines to follow:

  • I’m on a boat: After last year’s inaugural Carrier Classic, there are three games that will be played on the decks of an aircraft carrier this Friday. How long will this gimmick last? Look, I’m all for supporting our troops, but basketball wasn’t meant to be played outside unless it’s the middle of the summer and there is a blacktop involved. Last season, Michigan State and North Carolina were two of the best teams in the country, and they put together a fairly ugly game to watch. As picturesque as the games are, it’s not exactly great basketball that will be played. How long will it be before the novelty wears off?
  • No one can see Tony Mitchell vs. Doug McDermott: The best individual matchup of the weekend will take place in the mid-major ranks, as an all-american will be squaring off with a future lottery pick. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that both of these teams could feasibly be playing during the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. But when they tip at 8:05 p.m. in Omaha on Friday night, the only people that will be able to see the game are the folks in the stadium and those that pay for the live-stream on Creighton’s website. I’m not here trying to pass around blame, but I will say that it’s a bummer it won’t be on TV anywhere.
  • UConn kicks off their season of irrelevance: Kevin Ollie is coaching for a contract. That’s essentially what this season comes down to. He’s not officially an interim coach replacing the legendary Jim Calhoun, but he may as well be; he’s working with a one-year contract. Will he be able to get a young UConn team with a talented back court to play well enough to earn an extension?
  • The new Pauley Pavilion opens: After spending last season playing all over Southern California, UCLA returns to their newly-renovated digs at 11:00 p.m. on Friday night to take on a good Indiana State team. And not only will it be our first glimpse at the new arena, it will be our first chance to see one of the nation’s most enigmatic teams. Is Josh Smith in shape? Can Kyle Anderson be a point guard? Will the Bruins, without Shabazz Muhammad, come close to living up to their lofty preseason expectations?
  • Steve Masiello takes Manhattan into Louisville: Former Cardinal assistant Steve Masiello takes his MAAC-favorite Manhattan Jaspers into the KFC Yum! Center to take on national title favorite Louisville. Will his boys be able to put up a fight? Is Louisville going to be able to iron out their offensive issues?

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

Battle 4 Atlantis title proves Syracuse will be relevant this season

rad Horrigan/The Courant via AP
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Michael Gbinije scored 20 points and Trevor Cooney added 15 points and five assists as Syracuse left the Bahamas with a title, beating No. 25 Texas A&M 74-67 in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

I guess it’s time to start taking the Orange seriously.

There’s a lot to like about this group. Gbinije and Cooney are both fifth-year seniors that not only understand how to operate at the top of the 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim runs, but they both have developed into versatile offensive weapons. Cooney was known as nothing more than a jump-shooter when he arrived up north, but he’s now averaging 3.5 assists on the season.

And Gbinije?

He has been one of the best players in the country through the first two weeks of the season. Through six games, he’s averaged 19.7 points, 4.2 assists, 3.0 boards and 2.8 steals while shooting 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Freshman Malachi Richardson, who had 16 points in the win over A&M, has scored double-figures in all six games this season while another freshman, Tyler Lydon, was against terrific on Friday, finishing with 13 points and eight boards. He’s now shooting 58.8 percent from beyond the arc this season.

And that’s where this team is going to do the majority of their damage this season.

Through six games, they’re shooting 41.1 percent from beyond the arc. In the three wins in the Bahamas, the Orange knocked were 34-for-73 from beyond the arc, a 46.5 percent clip. The question isn’t whether or not that rate can continue — four of the six players that saw action on Friday are dangerous three-point shooters while the other two, Tyler Roberson  and DaJuan Coleman, aren’t going to be shooting threes — but what happens on the nights where the threes aren’t going down.

There are going to be nights where they shoot 5-for-25 instead of 11-for-25. Will they have enough firepower then? Will their defense be good enough? Will guys like Roberson and Coleman be able to supply a scoring punch? Will Cooney, Gbinije and Richardson attack the paint instead of settling for jumpers?

Because at the very least, these three games in the Bahamas have proven that the Orange are going to be relevant this season, even in the loaded ACC. Whether that means they’re going to push for a top four finish or simply end the year as a tournament team remains to be seen, but this much is clear: Jim Boeheim has himself a squad Upstate.

No. 10 Gonzaga outlasts No. 18 UConn despite late offensive struggles

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No. 10 Gonzaga survived a furious rally from No. 18 UConn to win the third place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis, 73-70.

The Zags were up by as much as 21 points early in the second half, leading 48-27, but UConn slowly chipped away at the lead. Kyle Wiltjer led four players in double-figures with 17 points while Eric McClellan added 15 points, making a number of key plays in the second half when it looked like the Zags were in danger of giving away the lead.

As good as Gonzaga looked in the first 22 minutes of this game — and they looked really, really good — the second half exposed the concerns that many had with this group entering the season. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., who both shot around 40 percent from beyond the arc and started for four years, graduated, meaning that Gonzaga’s point guard situation is, more or less, Josh Perkins.

Perkins was terrific in the second half of a loss to Texas A&M on Thursday. He played 17 foul-plagued minutes against UConn. When UConn’s defense ratcheted up during the second half, Gonzaga struggled finding a way to consistently get good shots on the offensive end. Part of that was due to ineffective point guard play and part of it was a result of not really having anyone on the offensive end that can create a look on their own. As skilled as Wiltjer is, his impact can be limited when pick-and-pop actions aren’t working and he’s getting doubled in the post.

Perkins is talented, but this is essentially his first season of college basketball; he was a medical redshirt last season after breaking his jaw last November. There are going to be ups-and-downs, and that’s problematic on a team where he is essentially the only point guard on the roster.

The good news?

Gonzaga beat a good UConn team on a day when their best players struggled in crunch-time. It was McClellan and Kyle Dranginis that made the big plays down the stretch, not the big names on the Gonzaga roster.