College Hoops Week in Review: Five Thoughts

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Could an injury to Moser actually be a blessing in disguise for UNLV?: Before I get to my line of thinking, I want to emphasize something: this is no way, shape or form a good thing. Miker Moser dislocated his elbow — according to head coach Dave Rice, it was “very dislocated” — in a win at Cal on Sunday night, an injury that didn’t cause a fracture but will force Moser out of the lineup for an extended period of time. Maybe even the rest of the season. Considering this kid’s talent and the fact that he passed up on a chance to enter the NBA Draft after a breakout sophomore campaign, the pain from popping an elbow out of place isn’t the only reason this injury hurts. No one wants to see him sitting on the bench. No one.

But this will make Rice’s decisions easier to make in the near future. You see, Moser is a natural four in today’s college basketball. He’s 6-foot-8, he can rebound and defend in the paint, but he can also step out and knock down a three. Spread the floor offensively and protect the rim defensively. It’s ideal. It’s also a position that is currently being manned by Anthony Bennett, whose 25 points and 13 boards pushed his freshman year averages up to 18.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Khem Birch returns next week, and if he’s as good as the hype says he is — I know we always hear a transfer being forced to sit out is the best player in practice, but sometimes that turns out to be the case — than that means Moser would be forced to the small forward spot.

Because you don’t sit a talent like Mike Moser, even if it means playing him out of position.

With Moser out of the lineup, however, that means that the Chuck Brothers — Bryce Dejean-Jones and Katin Reinhardt — can take up residence on the perimeter with Anthony Marshall manning the point, and while I don’t love that trio being tasked with distributing the ball when the front court is where UNLV’s strength lies, it may end up being a better option that using an out-of-position Moser.

Kansas is on track to become one of the nation’s elite: The thinking about Kansas throughout the preseason was that this would be an elite defensive team that will slowly develop into a very good offensive team as Elijah Johnson learns to be a point guard and Ben McLemore becomes more comfortable in a feature role offensively. Well, the former is true, as Withey has become the nation’s premiere defensive force in the paint, anchoring a defense that currently ranks sixth in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. And McLemore? He’s averaging 16.0 points with an offensive efficiency rating of 116.0 (a really good number) and a usage rate of 25.6% (meaning he’s the focal point offensively). As he becomes a more consistent three-point shooter (he’s currently at 31.4%), those numbers will only improve.

The only thing Kansas is really waiting on is Johnson, or Naadir Tharpe, to learn how to protect the ball offensively. Kansas is going to be right there in the mix all season long, and a 36 point shellacking of Colorado on Saturday is only further evidence of that.

How many teams constitute ‘the nation’s elite’?: Here’s the way I see it right now: Duke and Indiana are the nation’s top two teams as of this moment. It doesn’t really matter how you rank them — I still have IU in the top spot, but if you want to put Duke there because of who they have beaten this season, I have no qualms with that — but those two need to be No. 1 and No. 2. I think Michigan is the third best team in the country, followed very closely by Syracuse at No. 4. The next tier is made up of Louisville, Kansas and Florida.

I consider those seven teams the ‘nation’s elite’. Arizona, Cincinnati, Ohio State, Gonzaga, Missouri, Illinois, Creighton, anyone from the Mountain West — they’re not on that same level.

What does the loss to Illinois tell us about Gonzaga?: I’m torn over this. Illinois was quite impressive in winning at Gonzaga on Saturday night, but just what does a win at Gonzaga mean right now? The Zags have one of the biggest and most versatile front lines in the country, and their back court is loaded with talent and athleticism, but there are two major concerns I have with this group:

  • Kevin Pangos is a terrific player, but he’s not a point guard; he’s a scoring guard that can handle the ball. The only point guard on Gonzaga’s roster is David Stockton, and he turns the ball over far too often and is a defensive liability, especially when he shares the floor with Pangos. And while Pangos is struggling a bit early on this year, he still needs to be on the floor for this team.
  • The Zags are going to have an advantage in the paint in every game, and they certainly had one against a much smaller Illinois team. But they couldn’t get the ball to Elias Harris, Kelly Olynyk or Prmezek Karnowski in the second half against the Illini. Some of that was due to a zone that Illinois was in, but there was also an issue with perimeter players hunting shots. Is this going to be a consistent issue? Because if it is, Gonzaga won’t be playing to their strength.

It’s too early to write off the Zags, but this loss was a worrisome development given the way the past couple of seasons have gone.

Brandon Triche, the nation’s most prolific starter?: Here’s a cool stat for you: Brandon Triche has started all 115 games of his college career. He’s never missed one and never come off of the bench for one. The record for most starts in a college career was set by Kyle Singler, who started 147 games. Singler came off the bench once as a sophomore, however, which is why former VCU Ram Bradford Burgess holds to current NCAA record for most consecutive starts with 146. Syracuse has played eight games this season, which means that if they can make it to the finals of both the Big East tournament and the NCAA tournament without coming off the bench or missing a game, he’ll be able to break Burgess’ record and tie Singler’s record while setting his record for most career starts without missing a game or coming off the bench in a career.

No other senior in the country has started every single game in his career. The closest is Drew Crawford or Northwestern. He’s currently at 110 career starts, but he came off the bench once as a sophomore. Ohio’s DJ Cooper has started 114 games in his career, but he’s come off of the bench four times. Kenny Boynton has 112 career starts, coming off the bench once in each of his first three seasons. Elias Harris has 108 starts, but he missed a game as a freshman and as a sophomore and came off the bench once as a sophomore.

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

Purdue’s Vince Edwards visits Texas Tech locker room after loss

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In one of the nicer moments of sportsmanship that we’ve seen in the NCAA tournament, Purdue senior Vincent Edwards — after his last game as a college basketball player — paid a visit to the team that ended his Final Four dreams, wishing them good luck throughout the rest of the tournament.

“Go win it,” he told the players in the Red Raider locker room:

An Ode To Jevon Carter: The force behind Press Virginia never got the credit he deserved

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BOSTON — To the public-at-large, the legacy of Jevon Carter comes down to this: He’s been in college for 100 years, and he looks like it because of his hairline.

He’s the Perry Ellis redux.

To everyone in college basketball — from his coaching staff to his program to the teams and players that he has wreaked havoc on — what he did and who he was meant so much more.

Let’s start with this: Jevon Carter knows what his opponent’s are going to try to do better than they do.

“Jevon tells guys on the floor where to go when they don’t know the plays,” said West Virginia assistant coach Ron Everhart, and he’s not referring to his own team. “He sits there and studies their film. He knows their plays better than they do. It’s pretty funny, actually. ‘You go there, and you better get out there, coach is gonna take you out.'”

The opposition is not the only team he coaches up. On the court, in the huddle, in the locker room. He’s always talking, always helping, always leading.

“He always taught me what to do,” said West Virginia’s sophomore center Sagaba Konate, one of the most improved defenders in the country this year. “In the game, in the huddle, he always show what to do. If I’m on the wrong side in a game, he told me be there, go to the other side. At halftime he come up to me, show what I’m supposed to do, swing here, swing here, I’ll throw it to you here. All that kind of stuff.”

And then there’s the way that he’s viewed by the people he chews up, spits out and leaves with nothing but a turnover or a missed shot in the box score.

“None,” Donte Divincenzo, who turned the ball over six times in Villanova’s 90-78 win over West Virginia on Friday night, a win that ended Carter’s career and sent the Mountaineers home in the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season, said when asked if he’s ever faced a better defender. “He’s the best ever.”

“Maybe Briante Weber at VCU,” added Villanova assistant Ashley Howard, the man that was tasked with putting together a scouting report to try and deal with Carter on Friday. “But in recent years? None.”

The quick hands. The lateral movement. The relentlessness. They say shot-blockers can change a game simply because shooters know they’re there, conscious of the fact that they may end up getting a layup put through the back board. It’s not often that you hear ball-handlers say the same about a guy out on the perimeter.

“Even when you get by him, you have that presence right behind you that can get the ball at any point,” Divincenzo said. “We were driving and he was still on our backs, still reaching and still getting his hands on balls.”

“He can have an off game but people still fear him on the defensive end.”

But to really understand what the man they call ‘JC’ has meant to this West Virginia program, you have to go all the way back to the very first moment that head coach Bob Huggins saw Carter play.

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“I was in Orlando in Disney,” Huggy Bear said last week. “Got me a big cup of coffee to watch the 8 am game. He was in the furthest court away that you could be on. I’m trying to drink my coffee and wake up and this guy’s pressing at eight o’clock in the morning. No one else on his team’s pressing. Just him. He’s picking up the ball, pressuring people from end line to end line, and I pick up the phone and call my assistants and say, ‘We’ve got to sign this guy. I don’t know what he does well, but he sure tries to guard.'”

And he’s never stopped.

What you have to understand here is that Carter, as much as anyone, is to credit for West Virginia’s ascendance to being one of the best programs in the Big 12. When Huggins started recruiting Carter, West Virginia was in the midst of a transition that was not going well. In their first season in the Big 12 after leaving the Big East, the Mountaineers finished 13-19 overall, the first time that Huggs had a team finish a season below .500 since 1984-85, his very first year as a Division I head coach. The following year they were better, but their 17-16 mark was the second-most losses that Huggins has ever had in a season as a head coach.

“We were struggling,” Huggins said. “I underestimated the switch from the Big East and how they played in the Big East to the Big 12. We had the wrong kind of guys. We had guys that didn’t love to play.”

JC, and his four-year back court mate Daxter Miles, love to play. They were unheralded prospects that were brought in to replace guys like Eron Harris, who left the program after averaging 17 points as a sophomore, and completely changed the culture of West Virginia basketball.

It helps that their arrival sparked a change in philosophy — Press Virginia was born — but it bears asking: Would Press Virginia have worked without those two making their presence known?

“These two guys are — they’re at the head of that class,” Huggins said. “They work. They work every day in practice. They’re coachable. I’ve never had one complaint about either one of them. I’ve never had one issue with either one of them.”

Culture is a word that gets thrown around a lot in college basketball, sometimes unnecessarily so, but with Miles and, specifically, Carter, it is completely fair and justifiable to say that they changed the culture of West Virginia basketball.

“They’ve come into this situation and basically turned it around,” Everhart said. “Look at where we were four years ago when they got here and look at where we are today. We won 25 games four years in a row and three straight Sweet 16s, and I think that speaks volumes in terms of what they’ve meant to West Virginia basketball and our program, locker room, culture, where we are right now.”

“He’s the guy who really get me to play great defense,” Konate said, “because I never saw JC giving up or get tired. So I say, ‘if he’s doing it, why not me?'”

And that right there says all you need to know about Jevon Carter and the legacy that he will leave.

Bill Self’s least impressive Kansas team is 40 minutes away from the Final Four

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OMAHA, Neb. — Kansas is vulnerable, exploitable and limited. The Jayhawks have no depth, are without a superstar and possess a middling defense.

They are Bill Self’s worst team.

And they have won the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and are a win away from the Final Four.

The Jayhawks shrugged off some late sluggishness to dispatch No. 5 Clemson 80-76 on Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinal at CenturyLink Center to put themselves in the Elite Eight for the third-consecutive year with a date with Duke on Sunday.

This year has often been about what this Kansas team couldn’t do after the losses of Frank Mason and Josh Jackson and then the ineligibility of Billy Preston. Early-season losses to Washington and Arizona State, the latter at the usually impregnable Allen Fieldhouse, were the proof this Kansas team might finally be the one not to win a Big 12 title. Then Texas Tech beat the hell out of them in Lawrence and it looked like the streak was on its way to over.

Devonte Graham was a poor imitation of Mason.  Svi Mykhailiuk was too timid and inconsistent. Udoka Azubuike was foul-prone and unproven. The supporting cast was a rung or two lower than a team with national-championship aspirations could carry.

Those problems are real. Those issues are troublesome. Those deficiencies are critical.

In spite of it all, Kansas won the Big 12 by two games, ripped through the conference tournament and are on the doorstep of playing for a national championship.

Bill Self’s worst team has a chance to be the country’s best.

“I’m so proud of our team because I think of all the teams that we’ve had here, this would be the team that everyone would have thought would not be in this game,” Self said Friday. “And so, hey, we’re in this game. We’ve got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio.

“You prepare the whole year to play in this game. So I think we’ll play with no what-ifs. I think we’ll let it go. I think we’ll be as loose as we can be and still you’ve got to make shots.

“I’d like nothing more than to take my team this year to San Antonio and let them experience what the best of the best is in college basketball.”

The key to Kansas’ season has been embracing its shortcomings. Azubuike is the only big they’ve got that can give them both scoring and defense consistently. It’s a 180 for a program that’s featured Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich, the Morris Twins and Jeff Withey. Kansas almost always plays through its bigs. This year, they’re playing around one.

“I never played like this,” Self said. “It just goes against the grain from the teams that we’ve had in the past, but these guys have figured it out. They’ve learned how to play through it, and we’ve had unbelievable guard play and unbelievable leadership from our vets, and had some guys have some outstanding seasons.

“There’s less margin for error but these guys have certainly rallied around that.”

Kansas’ shooting is why they’re in the Elite Eight. The Jayhawks are 10th nationally with a 40.5 3-point shooting percentage. It’s Azubuiike, though, that makes so many of those good looks possible. The man makes 77.5 percent of his shots from the floor. That demands defensive attention. And that means defenders aren’t shadowing shooters.

“He’s a guy we can throw the ball into and he can go get a basket,” Malik Newman, who had a team-high 17 points Friday, said. “I think his passing is underrated. That’s another big key for him. When we’re able to throw it in and the defense collapses on him, he is able to kick it out and find an open shooter.

“It just opens up the whole game for us.”

It’s opened up a whole world of possibility for Kansas and a world of hurt for their opponents.

“Most teams have somebody that you can kind of scratch off,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell mused. “So one of the reasons they’re so hard to guard is they’ve got a center that scores if he catches it deep, and he’s bigger than everybody on the floor so he does get position. And then you’ve got guards that can all make shots and drive by you and they play with great spacing.”

Now, Kansas isn’t full of slouches. Graham was the Big 12 player of the year, Azubuike’s talent was apparent even if it was raw before injury robbed him of a freshman year. Mykhailiuk is all-Big 12 while Malik Newman and LaGerald Vick were heralded prospects. Still, there’s not a lottery pick among them. No Andrew Wiggins or Ben McLemore or Josh Jackson. The fit is strange and the depth is zilch.

All that has eroded Kansas’ wiggle room for mistakes, but when they operate within their comfort zone, it can make for great offense. The first two minutes of the second half when the Jayhawks hit back-to-back 3s was a thing of beauty, ball movement and shot making. It was the blueprint for a buzzsaw.

Maybe Self’s worst team is pretty damn good.

Keenan Evans closes strong (again) as Texas Tech advances past Purdue to Elite Eight

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BOSTON — Second Half Keenan struck again on Friday night.

Keenan Evans scored 12 of his 16 points and handed out three of his four assists in the final 10 minutes of the game as No. 3-seed Texas Tech held off No. 2-seed Purdue, 78-65. Zach Smith and Justin Gray paced Tech early, combining for 26 points that helped the Red Raiders build a lead that reached as high as nine before Evans went into takeover mode. Zhaire Smith added 13 points of his own, while the Red Raiders forced 17 Purdue turnovers.

And with that, Texas Tech will to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since … ever.

This is uncharted territory for for the Red Raider program that has never been to an Elite Eight and will be playing for their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

“To build a program there has to be a lot of firsts so myself and Keenan have only been together for two years, so we’ve never been to the Elite Eight in two years,” Beard said. “That’s more accurate.”

It’s also fitting, really.

Because it more or less sums up what makes this Texas Tech program so interesting.

On a night where their three-leading scorers never really got going, the Red Raiders advanced on the stretch of two things: Their defense, and the fact that they can stay in a game on the nights when their best players don’t play their best.

With just over 10 minutes left in the game, when Purdue was getting ready to make one final run at advancing to the Elite Eight, is when Evans took over. And there’s no question about it: He closed out this game. Everything that the Red Raiders got on the offensive end of the floor came through Evans down the stretch, even the stuff that doesn’t show up in the score book; for example, the Red Raiders executed a pick-and-roll to perfection with three minutes left, but the lob that Evans threw to Zach Smith ended up as a missed dunk that Zhaire Smith was able to put right back in. Evans doesn’t get the assist, but he made that bucket possible.

I saw all that to say this: With 10 minutes left, the three leading scorers in the Tech program — Evans, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver — were a combined 4-for-16 from the floor with just 11 points.

And Texas Tech held a 50-41 lead. If Evans is Texas Tech’s closer, this was a save that he earned with a three-run lead.

“It’s our identity,” Beard said. “We have a lot of faith in our whole roster, we use a lot of different guys and tonight was fitting. That is the way we have played all year.”

If that doesn’t sum up Chris Beard’s program, I don’t know what does.

No. 2 Duke goes inside to defeat No. 11 Syracuse

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OMAHA, Neb. — Second-seeded Duke made just 5 of its 26 3-point attempts against No. 11 Syracuse on Friday in the two ACC programs’ Sweet 16 matchup.

So the Blue Devils just went inside.

Marvin Bagley III and Wendel Carter, Jr. both had big games to help the Blue Devils outlast the Orange, 69-65, to put themselves in the Elite Eight on Sunday against top-seeded Kansas.

“This was a heck of a game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought both teams played their hearts out. A great game to win, a really difficult game to lose, because Syracuse played such winning basketball.”

While Duke couldn’t beat the zone that took Syracuse from the First Four to the second weekend with its outside shooting, its two big underclassmen provided plenty of production. Bagley had 22 points and eight rebounds while Carter added 14 points and 12 boards.

“It was a hard fought game. We knew they were going to compete every second of the game,” Bagley said, “and we just tried to compete as well. We had a little point in the game where we started turning it over, and things weren’t going our way, but we stayed tough mentally and we finished it out.”

Bagley was on the receiving end of a number of lobs behind the Syracuse zone that helped the Duke offense stay out in front.

“We practiced it all week,” Bagley said. “We try to look for different things and different ways to score against that zone, and we did a great job at that and got the win.”

Tyus Battle had 19 points to lead the Orange. Oshae Brissett added 15 points and seven boards while Marek Dolezaj had 13 points.

Syracuse shot 53.8 percent from the floor in the second half while Duke shot 36.4 percent (and 11.1 percent from distance), but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Orange’s 16 turnovers or Duke’s 17 second-chance points.

Grayson Allen had 15 points and eight assists for Duke. The Blue Devils had 32 points in the paint.

Duke will now turn its attention to the Jayhawks, who defeated Clemson earlier Friday to make it to their third-straight Elite Eight. The game will tipoff Sunday at 5:05 p.m. (ET).

“We just got to come out ready to play from the beginning,” Bagley said. “We were kind of slacking in this game. I think we’ll be ready for that game. Everybody’s going to be up. We should be coming out strong.”