Dan Hurley

Danny Hurley has Rhode Island heading in the right direction

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Danny Hurley knew that he’d have an uphill battle when he took over for Jim Baron at Rhode Island.

Forget, for a second, the fact that the Rams are coming off of a season where they managed to win just seven games, because that would just be too obvious. Maybe the fact that he’s coaching a team that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since people were still concerned about Y2K is a good indicator. Or how about the fact that the Rams only bring back four players from last year’s rotation — which managed to win just seven games, remember — two of whom missed a combined 30 games. Should I even mention that Hurley has just eight scholarship players eligible this season?

An empty cupboard at a program a long way from having relevant basketball tradition is hardly an ideal situation.

“Right now we’re not a good team,” Hurley said after his team lost to No. 4 Ohio State 69-58 in the semifinals of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off. “We’re transitioning to try and become one.”

Moral victories aren’t the kind of wins that Hurley is used to collecting. But at this point in the program’s development, they are going to be in greater supply, and on Saturday night, Hurley’s team notched a definitive moral victory. The Rams outplayed Ohio State in the first half, and if it wasn’t for three ugly possessions in the final 1:30 of the half that led to a 7-0 Buckeye run, URI would have gone into the break with the lead.

In the second half, every time it looked like Ohio State was ready to pull away, the Rams had an answer. Mike Powell hit back-to-back threes with one second left on the shot clock to help erase an eight point lead early in the half. When OSU pushed the lead to 14 later in the half, the Rams responded with an 8-2 spurt to keep in striking distance. URI was completely overmatched and out-talented, but that didn’t keep them from fighting and scrapping and playing like they believed they deserved to win.

It’s not much, but it’s something. And coming off of a 19 point loss to lowly Virginia Tech and a 12 point loss to Kyle O’Quinn-less Norfolk State, this kind of performance a step in the right direction.

“We understand, the coaches and everyone involved in the program understand, the challenges that we’re facing in our first year here,” Hurley said. “All this does for us is strengthen our resolve to find a way to succeed.”

Hurley has pedigree. He won (a lot) as a high school coach at St. Benedict’s in New Jersey. He would have won a lot at his last stop — Wagner College — if he had been there for more than just two years. His father is Hall of Fame St. Anthony’s High School head coach Bob Hurley. His brother, an assistant on his staff, is Bobby Hurley, the former all-american point guard at Duke.

Losing won’t last long for Rhody.

“Obviously with his track record, he’s going to do a great job,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. “I think it’s a great set up. With his background, he’s going to get great players up there. I think he’s got the right approach with what he’s doing.”

“With the way they played tonight, I think he might get there a little bit quicker than he thought he would.”

Help is on the way. Rhode Island has three transfers sitting out this season that could play a lot of minutes for the Rams this year — Gil Biruta from Rutgers, DeShon Minnis from Texas Tech and Jarelle Reischel from Rice. He’s also got a quality recruiting class coming in, with 6-foot-6 forward Hassan Martin and EC Matthews, a top 50 scoring guard from Detroit, joining the mix.

If the Rams can continue to play with the effort and determination that they did on Saturday with next season’s talent infusion, they’ll make some serious noise in the Atlantic 10.

How hard did they play on Saturday?

The large contingent of Rhode Island fans that made the 45 minute drive to Mohegan Sun Arena gave the Rams a standing ovation as they left the court.

“It felt good,” sophomore point guard Mike Powell said, “but I wish they were cheering because we won.”

It’ll come.

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

Hart returning for Villanova’s title defense

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Villanova’s title defense just got a whole lot stouter.

Josh Hart, the leading scorer of the Wildcats’ national championship team, will return for his senior season, he announced on Twitter.

The decision for Hart to return is a major boost for Villanova in its quest to become the first back-to-back champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007. Hart, a 6-foot-5 guard,  averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent from 3-point range.

Most draft pundits had him pegged as a potential end-of-the-first-round pick in next month’s draft though he could have certainly slid into the second should he had decided to forego his senior season. Instead, Hart will be a potential first-team All-American exhausting his eligibility in Philadelphia.

The 2016-17 season is taking shape nicely, and Hart returning to Villanova only increases the strength of the field at the top. Title game hero Kris Jenkins as well as Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges are also back for the defending champs while the super recruiting classes of Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State, Kansas’ returning core along with Josh Jackson and a solid group of teams including North Carolina, Arizona, Louisville and Wisconsin make for an intriguing upper-tier of teams that could very well make for a top-heavy season following last year’s free for all.

College basketball isn’t the NFL. Parity doesn’t equal strength and quality, and when the sport has a handful high-quality teams, it is at its best. It’s looking like that is a possibility for the 2016-17 campaign.

UConn duo returning to school

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Connecticut may have lost its 6-foot-7 wing scorer but it is keeping its defensive stalwart and leading scorer.

Center Amida Brimah and guard Rodney Purvis have withdrawn their names from NBA Draft consideration and will return to the Huskies for another year, the school announced Tuesday.

The decisions from Brimah, a 7-foot center, and Purvis, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, help soften the blow dealt by Daniel Hamilton’s decision to sign with an agent and leave school despite having some shaky draft stock. The Huskies may not open the season as a top-25 team, but they won’t be far behind and will be one of the AAC’s favorites, along with Cincinnati.

Brimah averaged 6.5 points per game last year, but blocked 2.7 shots per game. He missed 11 games last season with a broken finger. Purvis registered 12.8 points per game while shooting 43.4 percent from the floor.

Neither Brimah or Purvis were among those invited to this month’s NBA Draft combine nor were either expected to be drafted should they have kept their names in the draft.

Gonzaga’s Karnowski returning for fifth year

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The man in the middle is returning to Gonzaga.

Przemek Karnowski will return to the Bulldogs for his final year after a medical redshirt waiver was granted allowing him a fifth season in Spokane, the school announced Tuesday.

“I’m excited to be coming back,” Karnowski said in a statement. “After talking with the coaches, my parents and the team, I decided this was the best decision for me. I still have a ways to go with my rehab, but I’m staying positive about the upcoming season.”

The 7-foot-1 Karnowski, a Poland native, would have, at minimum, had professional opportunities overseas, but instead will return to play for the Bulldogs once more after a back injury limited him to five games last season. He averaged 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as a junior in 2014-15.

With Karnowski returning along with  Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, Gonzaga coach Mark Few will be having newcomers Nigel Williams-Goss, Zach Norvell, Johnathan Williams II and Zach Collins joining an experienced and talented group.

Gonzaga (shocker) will be the West Coast Conference favorite once more, but the Bulldogs will also be fielding a team that should open the season in most everyone’s top-15.

Michigan St. at Duke highlights ACC/Big Ten Challenge

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A matchup in Durham of likely top-10 teams is the headliner of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, whose schedule was released Tuesday.

Michigan State, expected to open the season in the top-10, and Duke, the presumptive preseason No. 1, will meet Tuesday, Nov. 29, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the most intriguing contest of the 14-game event.

The Spartans are losing Denzel Valentin, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello, but the recruiting class of Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward is one of coach Tom Izzo’s best and has Michigan State positioned as one of the Big Ten’s favorites.

Izzo’s recruiting class, though, pales in comparison to what coach Mike Krzyzewski is bringing to the Blue Devils, with Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden, Frank Jackson and Javin DeLaurier in their 2016 class, which is why, when paired with the likes of Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson and Luke Kennard, make Duke nearly everyone’s No. 1 heading into next season.

Krzyzewski is 9-1 all-time against Izzo’s Spartans.

Among the other highlights of the conference competition is Syracuse at Wisconsin (Nov. 29) Pittsburgh at Maryland (Nov. 29), Purdue at Louisville (Nov. 30) and Ohio State at Virginia (Nov. 30).  

Monday, Nov. 28

Minnesota at Florida State

Wake Forest at Northwestern

Tuesday, Nov. 29

Syracuse at Wisconsin

Michigan State at Duke

Pittsburgh at Maryland

Iowa at Notre Dame

Georgia Tech at Penn State

N.C. State at Illinois

 

Wednesday, Nov. 30

Purdue at Louisville

North Carolina at Indiana

Ohio State at Virginia

Virginia Tech at Michigan

Rutgers at Miami (Fla.)

Nebraska at Clemson

 

Hayes returning to Wisconsin for senior season

Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes celebrates with fans after an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, in Iowa City, Iowa. Wisconsin won 67-59. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Wisconsin has cemented itself as one of the teams to beat in the Big Ten for the 2016-17 season.

Forward Nigel Hayes, the Badgers’ leading scorer and assist man, is withdrawing his name from NBA Draft consideration to return to Madison for his senior season, he told the Wisconsin State Journal on Tuesday evening.

Hayes declared for the draft last month, but did not hire an agent, taking advantage of new NCAA legislation that allowed him to attend the NBA Draft combine and workout for pro franchises. He was largely regarded as a fringe first-round prospect by draft observers.

His decision is a major boon for Greg Gard, who may have the Big Ten’s best team in his first full season at the helm after taking over for Bo Ryan in the middle of last season. Wisconsin had a major turnaround under Gard, which ultimately resulted in him moving from interim to full time. The Badgers were 7-5 when Ryan stepped down, but recovered by going 13-4 to end the season and make the Sweet 16. 

Now, the entirety of that team, headlined by Hayes, is returning for another year and almost assuredly will be a top-15 (or better) preseason pick. Michigan State will welcome in a dynamite recruiting class that features five-stars Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston, and Indiana should remain strong, but the Badgers, with some players having the experience of  playing in two Final Fours, could very well have the best roster on paper with its blend of talent and experience. Whichever team is pegged as the favorite, the top of the Big Ten is shaping up to be a fantastic race.