Unfair to rush to any judgement on UCLA after Shabazz’s first game

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BROOKLYN – All things considered, Shabazz Muhammad didn’t play too badly in his first game as a collegian.

He finished with 15 points on 5-10 shooting in 25 minutes of action, although a couple of those buckets came in the final minute with the outcome, a 78-70 loss to Georgetown in the semifinals of the Legends Classic, all-but decided. He only grabbed one rebound, which is concerning given his strength and athleticism, and he was no where near the player that he needs to be on the defensive end of the floor. He was a long way from good, and he certainly didn’t come close to the reputation he had built for himself coming into the game.

This wass supposed to be a top three pick, mind you, and top three picks aren’t supposed to look as consistently over-matched as Muhammad did on both ends of the floor tonight.

And Muhammad will tell you the same thing.

“I can get a lot better. I didn’t play well tonight. I didn’t play well on defense,” Muhammad told reporters after the game.

That’s understandable. This was Muhammad’s first college basketball game after spending the past six months dealing with NCAA investigations into his time as a high schooler. He suffered a high-ankle sprain that kept him out for nine weeks over the summer. He didn’t practice with the team before they went to China. He didn’t go with the team to China. The first chance he had to practice was about a month ago, and in that time he’s dealt with a shoulder injury that kept him from being able to play, lift, or work on his conditioning for half that time.

He’s out of shape, out of sync with his teammates and, quite frankly, probably rusty.

And you thought he was going to come in here and look like James Harden did in his first game with the Rockets?

“It was really exciting getting out on the court for the first time,” Muhammad said when asked how he felt about his debut. “Just finally getting the jitters out and getting comfortable playing college basketball for the first time was a good experience.”

“I’m trying to get out here and gel with my teammates for the first time. My first college game, trying to get used to playing with all these players.”

It’s not like Muhammad is a piece getting plugged into an experienced team, either. Kyle Anderson is a freshman. Larry Drew II is a transfer that is playing for the first time in 20 months. Norman Powell is starting for the first time in his college career. Jordan Adams, who has scored at least 20 points in all four games as a collegian, is also a freshman.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Bruins have been dealt a bad hand when it comes to injuries. Muhammad has already dealt with ankle and shoulder issues. Kyle Anderson missed a couple months over the summer after thumb surgery. Tony Parker didn’t play on Monday due to a back issue. Tyler Lamb hasn’t returned to the court yet after getting surgery on his knee.

In other words, Muhammad isn’t the only one that needs to gel on this team.

It’s a group that doesn’t necessarily fit together perfectly with a coach who isn’t necessarily built to handle a team with their strengths. They were shredded defensively by Georgetown’s Princeton-style offense, which is not something you typically see from a Ben Howland-coached team. They looked lost offensively against Georgetown’s zone. They didn’t run the floor well at all. The 16 offensive rebounds they collected were nice, but the 60% Georgetown shot from the floor in the second half wasn’t.

“We are a team that is very young and we got hurt defensively,” Howland said. “They shot 55% from the game, 60% for the second half. Those two stats jump out.”

I spent the preseason doing nothing but send up warning flares that UCLA had dumpster fire potential written all over them.

And while I would love to take this time to revel in the fact that I was, once again, right, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that there were some positives to take out of this game.

First and foremost, Drew looks like a different player than they one that flamed out at North Carolina. He now has 33 assists and just six turnovers in 135 minutes this season. He got in the lane and created, he found shooters on the secondary break, he got the ball to his teammates where they needed it and when they needed it, and, most importantly, he did nothing dumb to hurt them. In the end, that’s all he really needs to do.

The other thing I liked was the way Howland used Anderson in the second half. There’s no question that Anderson is one of the more unique talents in the country, but asking him to be a primary ball-handler at this level is unfair. He’s not going to be blowing by players like Otto Porter and Greg Whittington off the dribble. Where he is effective, however, is as a playmaker out of the high post. When UCLA cut Georgetown’s lead to four in the second half, it’s because Anderson got them easy shot after easy shot against a 2-3 zone.

The Wears are capable up front, Josh Smith and Tony Parker can provide muscle when need be, and Muhammad, Adams and Powell provide as much scoring punch on the wing as you’ll find anywhere in the country.

There are still plenty of pieces that need to fall into place for this group.

But if you’re a UCLA fan, now is not the time to be selling off your season tickets, and judging them too harshly off of their first game with Muhammad in the fold is unfair.

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

Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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Regional Finals – Sunday, March 26

2:20 p.m.,CBS, New York
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Florida (Verne Lundquist, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce)

5:05 p.m., CBS, Memphis
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kentucky (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Steve Alford: ‘I’m very happy at UCLA’

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford was still processing an 86-75 season-ending loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night when he had to answer questions about another blueblood program.

Sine the dismal of Tom Crean at Indiana, Alford has been one of the names rumored to be in the mix for the coaching vacancy. A reporter in the press conference in Memphis didn’t even get a chance to finish his question before Alford cut him off and a publicly state that he was happy in Westwood.

“I said it last week, and I’ll reiterate it again even more so, I guess, that I love Los Angeles,” Alford said. “To begin with, it’s a beautiful place, and our family has fallen in love with it. I’ve got two sons now, Kory first and now Bryce, that have graduated. Bryce is done, so he’s graduating from UCLA, so I’ve got two sons that are graduates from there, a daughter that loves the school she’s going to in Thousand Oaks. I’m very happy. I’m at UCLA. I don’t know of a lot of people that are out there wanting to leave UCLA.

“This is a pretty special place. We’ve worked awfully hard. Our staff has worked hard. We’ve got the No. 2 recruiting class coming in next year. We’re opening a brand-new, state-of-the-art, 60-plus million practice facility, Mo Ostin Center, that is going to be spectacular that we’ve worked awfully hard to be a part of that, and I want to see that through, and we’ve got some special kids that are coming to join us.

“I’m very, very happy where I’m at, and hopefully, that’ll continue.”

Alford won a national championship with the Hoosiers in 1987, scoring more than 2,400 points in his career under head coach Bob Knight. He has been with UCLA since 2013, reaching the Sweet 16 in three of his four seasons with the Bruins.

Crean was fired on March 16 after nine season in Bloomington.

Lonzo Ball has officially declared for the 2017 NBA Draft

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Following a season-ending loss in the Sweet 16 of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, UCLA freshman point guard unsurprisingly announced that he will enter the NBA Draft.

“That was my final game for UCLA. I appreciate the fans,” Ball told reporters.

The 6-foot-6 point guard has a strong case to be the No. 1 overall pick. It could be almost too enticing for the Los Angeles Lakers to pass on a Southern Cal product if the ping pong balls fall in their favor. New Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka were in Memphis for Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky.

Ball, in an All-American freshman season with the Bruins, averaged 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and a nation’s best 7.6 assists per game, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 42 percent from three.

He ended his college career with an 86-75 loss to the Wildcats, scoring 10 points, off 4-of-10 shooting, with eight assists.

VIDEO: Florida’s Chris Chiozza beats Wisconsin at the buzzer

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NEW YORK — So you didn’t think the NCAA Tournament had enough excitement this year?

Wisconsin and Florida solved that problem for you.

The Badgers started things, as they erased a 12-point deficit in the final 4:15 to force overtime, a stretch that included an 8-0 run at the end of regulation that was capped by a Zak Showalter running three with 2.5 seconds left on the clock to tie the game at 72.

Wisconsin jumped out to a lead in overtime, but the combination of an inability to make free throws and and this epic chasedown block from Canyon Barry left the door open for the Gators, who eventually won the game on this running three from Chris Chiozza:

What.

A.

Game.

If we get a better one than this, I just hope I’m courtside for it.

KeVaughn Allen led the way for the Gators with 35 points, and no one else on the Gators scored more than eight points, but it didn’t matter. The Gators are still headed to the Elite 8, and Mike White will have a chance to play for the right to go to the Final Four in his first NCAA Tournaments.

Replacing a legend like Billy Donovan was never going to be easy, but White is doing an admirable job.

The other subplot here: With the win, Florida becomes the third member of the SEC in the Elite 8, and with a regional final against South Carolina on Sunday afternoon, it guarantees that there will be at least one SEC team in the Final Four.

While there were celebrations in the Florida locker room, Wisconsin’s was one of devastation.

The Badgers started four seniors, including tournament stalwarts Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, who played in their 17th career NCAA Tournament games.

Hayes had 22 points, but he’s going to be haunted by the free throws he missed. He was 7-for-14 from the line on the night, including four missed freebies in overtime. The end was similarly heart-breaking for Koenig, as he was a non-factor in overtime due to an injury he suffered on the possession before Showalter’s game-tying three.

Both of them are going to spend years thinking ‘What if?’ That’s how the NCAA Tournament works.

Everyone leaves in tears, either because they’re cutting down the nets at the Final Four or because their season — their career — just came to an end.

Hayes and Koenig were no different.

VIDEO: Canyon Barry saves Florida with epic chase down block

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Florida’s Canyon Berry had the best chase down block since LeBron James in the 2016 NBA Finals.

It kept Wisconsin’s lead at two points and gave the Gators a chance to tie and, eventually, win the game.

Look at this: