Conference Catch-ups: Creighton is still on top, but the MVC is strong

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Missouri Valley Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Creighton

The Bluejays were the league favorite heading into the season, and despite the loss of Josh Jones to a heart condition, Creighton remains the MVC’s top team two months into the season. Doug McDermott has been as good as advertised, but the biggest reason that Creighton keeps climbing in the rankings is that the coach’s son has a slew of talented role players surrounding him. Gregory Echenique is a hoss in the block, Grant Gibbs may lead the most fundamental player in the country and Austin Chatman has done well to help fill the void left by Antoine Young.

The biggest improvement for Creighton is on the defensive end of the floor. Last year, they were 178th in the country in defensive efficiency. This year they are 32nd.

Contenders: Wichita State looked like they might actually be the best team in the conference earlier this month, but a rash of injuries means that we won’t be seeing the Shockers at full strength until halfway through league play. Illinois State has been quite impressive as Jackie Carmichael is asserting himself as a potential NBA draft pick. Northern Iowa has played one of the toughest schedules in the country, but they finally picked up a quality win by beating St. Mary’s.

Biggest Surprise: Indiana State

The Sycamores weren’t exactly supposed to be down this season — not with Jake Odum, arguably the league’s best point guard, teaming up with Gonzaga transfer Manny Arop — but I don’t think many people expected to became a sleeper to finish in the top three. But that’s exactly where they stand after a terrific performance in the Diamond Head Classic during Christmas break. ISU knocked off Ole Miss in overtime in their opener and, after losing by seven to San Diego State, followed that up win an overtime win against Miami. Throw in the game last month when the Sycamores came from 15 own to force OT against New Mexico, and a trip to Terre Haute is not going to be easy this season.

Biggest Disappointment: Missouri State

This is a bit unfair, as the Bears were expected to finish at the very bottom of the MVC this year and that’s currently where they are situated. And given the success of the rest of the league, Missouri State is really the only team that has been disappointing this year.. But the depths of their struggle this season is unnerving. MSU still has not beaten a Division I team this season. Their two wins are over Philander Smith and Malone University. They already have a loss to Alabama A&M. Yuck.

Player of the Year: Doug McDermott, Creighton

There really isn’t much contemplation that goes into this choice. McDermott got off to a slow start this season, but ever since Creighton went out of Las Vegas for a tournament over Thanksgiving, he’s been playing like the uber-efficient stretch-four we all know and love.

Best Freshman: Kaza Keane, Illinois State

Keane is currently second in the Missouri Valley in assists, which is nice and will almost make you forget about the fact that the 6-foot-1 point guard from Ontario is averaging just 3.5 points on the season. That may actually be a positive sign for Keane, however. When you are a freshman and you have scorers like Jackie Carmichael and Tyler Brown on the floor with you, you give up the rock.

Three Predictions:

  • Creighton goes farther in the NCAA tournament than they do in the MVC tournament. The Valley is as strong at the top — and, for that matter, as deep — as it has been in a long time. And if there is anything that we know about Arch Madness, it’s that bringing home the MVC’s automatic bid is really tough to do for the tournament favorite. Creighton’s improved defense will carry them to the second weekend of the big dance, but don’t be surprised if they get picked off in the first round of the conference tournament by a team playing for their postseason lives.
  • The MVC gets at least three bids to the tournament. It’s all going to depend on whether or not those four teams can separate themselves from the rest of the pack — which will be hard to do given how few easy games there will be in conference play — but thanks to some of the non-conference performances by the top teams in the MVC, their league RPI is currently sitting at ninth. That’s a good thing.
  • Missouri State wins three league games. I don’t care how poorly they have played this season. This is the Valley, and the road in the Valley is not a friendly place. Missouri State will pick a couple people off.

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Creighton*
2. Illinois State*
3. Wichita State*
4. Northern Iowa
5. Indiana State
6. Bradley
7. Evansville
8. Southern Illinois
9. Drake
10. Missouri State

Report: Texas’ Jones to test NBA possibility

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Both of Texas’ McDonald’s All-Americans from its 2016 class will test the NBA waters.

Andrew Jones will declare for the draft, but will not hire an agent, according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-4 guard joins Jarrett Allen, the Longhorns’ star center, in utilizing the rule change that became available to players last year in which they can declare, workout for teams, attend the NBA combine and still return to school.

Jones averaged 11.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game as a freshman. He shot 42.5 percent from the field overall and 32.8 percent from 3-point range.

Allen seems the likelier candidate to remain in the draft as a potential lottery pick, but Jones came to Austin with similar one-and-done possibilities given his status as one of the class’ top recruits.

Texas, of course, is hoping both return, not just because they’re both big talents, but because incoming and highly-touted recruit Matt Coleman fills the major hole in last year’s lineup – point guard. If the three of them can share the floor together, Year 3 of the Shaka Smart era will be much more interesting.

Morrow announces transfer from Nebraska

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Nebraska was once again hit with a surprising and damaging transfer.

Ed Morrow, Jr., who led the Huskers in rebounding last year, announced his intention to transfer, the school announced Wednesday.

“I support Ed in his decision to transfer schools and wish him well,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said in a statement. “We appreciate his hard work over the last two years. Although I am disappointed, we will continue to recruit young men who are committed to our mission of building Nebraska Basketball with a culture of success in all areas…life, school and winning basketball at its highest level.”

The 6-foot-7 sophomore’s departure is a major hit to the Huskers, who are coming off a 12-19 year in which Miles’ job security was called into question. It almost assuredly will be again this year as Nebraska hasn’t been able to build on its 2014 NCAA tournament appearance, instead putting together three-straight losing seasons.

Morrow’s decision is surprising not only given he’d been a productive member of the team – averaging 9.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game – but because he was born in Nebraska before attending high school in Chicago and both his parents were Nebraska student-athletes his father winning a national title on the football team in 1994 and his mother an all-Big Eight performer on the basketball team.

“I want to say thank you to my teammates, coaches, the fans and the University of Nebraska athletics department for giving me the opportunity to play Division I basketball,” Morrow said in a statement. “It is hard to leave home, and Nebraska is my home. I was born and raised here, it is my parents’ alma mater, and I have a lot of friends here. But sometimes you have to venture out to pursue dreams and aspirations in a career. This is a sacrifice I have to make to better myself.”

Morrow’s transfer comes a year after Andrew White surprised Nebraska with his decision to graduate and transfer to Syracuse, which no doubt impacted the Huskers’ poor 2016-17 record.

Miles was on the hot seat at the end of last season and will assuredly begin this season there as well. A roster hit like Morrow won’t do much to help him improve the situation. Nebraska does, however, have three starters returning while Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland is eligible, as is Miami (Fla.) transfer James Palmer, Jr.

Lonzo Ball says “I’m better than” Markelle Fultz

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Usually, it’s LaVar Ball that makes news for what he says.

His eldest son is now getting in on the business of generating headlines with something other than his play.

The UCLA star, who said he’ll enter the draft after just one season with the Bruins, claimed he’s the better prospect than Washington freshman Markelle Fultz, who many have pegged as the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

“Markelle’s a great player,” Ball said, according to ESPN, “but I feel I’m better than him,” “I think I can lead a team better than him. Obviously he’s a great scorer — he’s a great player, so I’m not taking that away from him.”

Not exactly inflammatory stuff – like saying you could have beaten Michael Jordan, that you want a $1 billion apparel deal or a number of things his father has said – bu Ball is certainly projecting confidence. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s quite a bit of money – and pride – at stake with the draft, and Ball put up a season worthy of comparison to Fultz, who had great numbers but played for an abysmal Washington team. Ball, on the other had, had strong numbers while leading UCLA to the Sweet 16.

Both are going to go at the top of a draft that’s stocked full of promising point guards. Which player goes before the other remains to be seen, but it’s likely public pronouncements aren’t going to affect the draft order.

 

UMass hires McCall away from Chattanooga

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UMass has found, once more, the man to take over its basketball program.

The Minutemen have reached an agreement with Chattanooga coach Matt McCall, the school announce Wednesday

“The tradition and resources that are in place not only make this one of the best basketball jobs in the Atlantic 10 Conference,” McCall said in a statement released by the school, “but one of the best jobs in the country. We couldn’t be more excited about becoming part of the UMass family and look forward to building upon the rich tradition that has been established here in the past.”

In McCall’s two years at Chattanooga, the Mocs to the NCAA tournament in 2016 and a 19-12 record this year that featured five-straight losses to end the season.

The move will take McCall out of the southeast for the first time in his career as he previously served as at Florida and Florida Atlantic before getting his first head coaching job at Chattanooga.

McCall wasn’t the Minutemen’s first choice to replace Derek Kellogg after three-straight lackluster seasons. Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey had agreed to take the job before a last-minute about-face that saw him return to the Eagles program just before his introductory press conference was scheduled to begin.

“Matt is a rising star in college basketball coaching who has been a key piece of three successful programs in his career,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement. “He has earned a reputation as a relentless worker, a great teammate and colleague and a confident leader of young men.

“Matt has worked with some of the most respected coaches and administrators in the country, who loudly sing his praises. Coach McCall’s appointment begins an exciting new chapter for our tradition-rich men’s basketball program at UMass.”

Despite being the second choice, McCall’s reputation in the coaching industry makes him a strong hire, having worked under Mike Jarvis and Billy Donovan. He took over at Chattanooga for Will Wade, and brought the Mocs to a 29-6 record and a  12-seed in the NCAA tournament in 2016.

UMass went to just one NCAA tournament under Kellogg (in 2014) during his nine seasons leading the Minutemen.

VIDEO: Frank Martin’s sideline demeanor as a high school coach

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South Carolina coach Frank Martin has the reputation of being rather, shall we say, intense on the sidelines during games.

The coach has a stare that seemingly could bore a hole through his players when they do something that doesn’t reach his level of expectation. Martin’s demeanor, though, didn’t just come into form once he hit the college ranks.

He was plenty intense on high school sidelines as well.

Martin won three titles while at Miami Senior in the mid-1990s, coaching the likes of future pros Steve Blake and Udonis Haslem. Now having reached his first career Final Four, that sideline persona has put him on the precipice of winning yet another championship, this time at the collegiate level.