Conference Catch-ups: Memphis likely Conference USA’s only NCAA tournament team

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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 Big 12 Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Memphis

Despite the fact that so many jumped off the Memphis bandwagon after the Tigers’ performance in Atlantis, Josh Pastner’s team is still going to likely be the lone NCAA tournament representative of the C-USA. Point guard Joe Jackson is beginning to hit his stride offensively after struggling in two key early season losses, averaging over 18 points per game in his last four.

Looking at a year-to-year comparison, it’s worth mentioning what D.J. Stephens has done in increased minutes for Memphis. He leads the team in rebounding with 6.1 per game and is also averaging 6.0 points and 1.4 blocks per game.

Contenders:

Central Florida is banned from the NCAA tournament this season, but that hasn’t stopped Keith Clanton and Isaiah Sykes from leading their team to a 9-4 start. They lack any real impressive wins, but have split the season series with South Florida and got a three-point win over Belmont, a tough mid-major.

Behind the scoring duo of Joseph Young and TaShawn Thomas, Houston has the conference’s best record in non-conference play. They’ve yet to beat any high-majors, but they rank in the nation’s Top 25 in both scoring and rebounding.

Biggest Surprise: Southern Methodist

Larry Brown and his staff had made big strides on the recruiting trail and in the transfer market during his short time at Southern Methodist, but we weren’t sure how that would translate on the court in his first season. The answer, so far, is surprising. The Mustangs began the season 8-1 and, though they’re enduring some struggles now, are 10-5 to start conference play.

Jalen Jones has been the biggest contributor so far, averaging 14.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Paired with Nick Russell (14.2 points per game), the Mustangs have a formidable duo.

Biggest Disappointment: Marshall

With DeAndre Kane as the cornerstone of the program, many thought Marshall would be able to challenge Memphis for a conference title. Now, at the start of conference play, the Thundering Herd are 7-7 and coming off a loss to Delaware State. Part of the problem stems from the team’s poor shooting from the field, ranking 233rd in the nation, but much of it has to do with such a reliance on Kane.

Kane is averaging 15.0 points, 8.5 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game, but efficiency has been the main question. He takes 15 shots per game and shoots just 35.7 percent from the field. Not only that, but if Kane is out of the lineup, the rest of the team does not look like a squad that ever could or would challenge Memphis.

Player of the Year: DeAndre Kane, Marshall

As was mentioned above, Kane is averaging more than 15 shots per game and shooting under 36 percent, which is less than desirable, but is putting up All-Conference numbers. His 15.0 points, 8.5 assists, and 4.8 rebounds are keeping Marshall afloat, or at least at the even record they hold today. Without Kane, Marshall would be in much worse shape. So, from that standpoint, he is certainly the league’s most valuable player to his respective team.

Also of note: Josh Davis 18.4 points, 10.1 rebounds per game (Tulane)

Best Freshman: Danuel House, Houston

House came into the season as part of a very strong Houston recruiting class and one that the Cougars hope will be the foundation for the program’s future. He was a Top 25 recruit in the Class of 2012 and has been a solid third scoring option for Houston behind Joseph Young and TaShawn Thomas. At 12.5 points per game, he is one of only two freshmen in the conference’s Top 20 in scoring and adds 5.2 rebounds per game.

Also of note: James Woodard (Tulsa), Shaq Goodwin (Memphis)

Three Predictions

  •  Memphis will be the league’s only NCAA tournament team: One year before a mass exodus to the Big East, the C-USA is pretty weak. It looks like the Tigers will be the lone representative.
  •  Josh Davis will finish the season averaging a double-double: He is on track to do it right now, and his production should keep up. Davis is an All-Conference player.
  •  Rice might have a tough time winning more than a few conference games: With wins over Chicago State, Houston Baptist, and Southeastern University, the C-USA slate will likely not be kind to a struggling Rice squad.

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Memphis*
2. Central Florida
3. Houston
4. Southern Miss
5. Tulane
6. Southern Methodist
7. UTEP
8. East Carolina
9. UAB
10. Tulsa
11. Marshall
12.Rice

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Potential top ten pick Robert Williams discusses decision to return to Texas A&M

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PHILADELPHIA — Robert Williams knew that his family could use the money that would come with being a lottery pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He also knew that he wasn’t ready — mentally, emotionally, skill-wise — to make the leap to the NBA, which is why all it took was one question from his mother, Tundra, to convince the 6-foot-9 19-year old to return to Texas A&M for his sophomore season.

“We haven’t been rich for 19 years,” Williams recalls Tundra, whom he describes as a “middle school cafeteria lady”, telling him. “What’s one more year?”

“That sealed the deal. If she’s good, I’m good,” Williams told NBC Sports as he nursed shin splints at the Under Armour All-American camp in Philadelphia last week. “My mom just wants to see me happy. I could quit basketball and go work at Burger King. If I’m happy, she’s happy.”


“Oil City made me, Vivian raised me.”


Williams may not be a household name the way that fellow members of his high school class — Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, etc. — were, but he was certainly a known quantity on basketball circles. Williams was a potential top 10 pick in last year’s draft, a 6-foot-9 big man with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and the kind of athleticism most of us can only dream about. He has elite physical tools, even by NBA standards, and his ability to protect the rim along with his versatility defensively and budding post-game makes him a tantalizing long-term project.

Casual college basketball fans aren’t going to be familiar with bigs averaging 11.9 points on a team that didn’t even get a trip to the NIT, but NBA front office personnel were well-versed in his ability.

Just a borderline top 50 prospect coming out of high school, Williams’ ranking had as much to do with where he’s from as what he can do. He was born in Oil City, Louisiana, a town of roughly a 1,000 people tucked in the Northwest corner of Louisiana, five miles from the Texas on the west side of town and 18 miles from Arkansas to the north. “There’s just really nothing there,” Williams said. Oil City was small enough that he had to move to Vivian, a town of 3,600 people nine miles away, in order to attend high school.

Glen Johnson, Texas A&M Athletics

He spent four years playing for North Caddo High, a 2A public school in Louisiana, which isn’t exactly the best high school basketball in the country, and his role on the Houston Hoops team he played with in the summer after his junior year was somewhat limited, to say the least; he was teammates with De’Aaron Fox, Jarred Vanderbilt (a top 15 player in the Class of 2017) and Carsen Edwards, who started at the point for Purdue as a freshman. Combine that with the 25 pounds of muscle that he added to his frame, and what you have is a player that went from being a pogo stick that got pushed around on a team full of studs to a grown man that did the pushing and proved himself capable of playing a role that has value in the NBA.

“I went to Nike Camp, but I wasn’t that high of a recruit,” Williams said. “I was like No. 60 I think. It’s weird because I’ve never had this much ‘fame’, I guess is the word.”

“People knew who I was [in Vivian], but just because I was a people person. I was also always bigger than everyone.”

There weren’t many that expected Williams to have the season that he had as a freshman, averaging 11.9 points, 8.2 boards and 2.6 blocks in just 25 minutes a night. Even fewer expected him to return to Texas A&M once he caught the eye of NBA scouts, but head coach Billy Kennedy wasn’t one of them.

“Only because he told us,” Kennedy said with a chuckle, as if he knew just how lucky he and his staff are to be getting a second season with a talent like this. “We felt that during the year. But you never know until the end. We wanted to see him go through the whole process, but the cool thing is the kid made a decision and he did what was best for him.”


“Mentally and emotionally, I wasn’t ready.”


For Williams, the decision to return was two-fold. He knew that he wasn’t yet the player that he wants to be, and getting drafted as a dunker, a shot-blocker and an athlete can get a player pigeon-holed. “In the NBA,” Williams reasoned, “once you get there, what you are is what you are. I don’t want to be stuck in that jumping, that dunking position. I’m not necessarily saying I want to be able to play the two or the three, but I want to expand and show that I can sometimes push it and make a jump shot.”

“Rebounding, jumping, dunking. That’s been my game. That’s gets you paid well. But I know I have more. I want to be able to knock down a corner three. I’m not saying that I need to be coming off of screens and pulling, but I want to be able to knock down that shot and prove I’m able to get a rebound and start a fast break.”

He knew that it would take a lot of hard work and time in the gym this offseason to get to that point, and that’s where the second part of this comes into the equation. Williams knew that he wasn’t ready to be a professional yet, that he wanted to be able to enjoy life and basketball as a college kid for another year.

“People don’t understand that once you get to that level, it’s a job. It’s a business,” Williams said. “It’s not high school, it’s not even college, you’re competing for your job every time you go play.”

“Mentally and emotionally, I wasn’t ready.”

Thomas Campbell, Texas A&M Athletics

That didn’t necessarily sit well with everyone in Williams’ circle — specifically, Williams says his father wanted him to go to the NBA — because they all know the risk. Blake Griffin, who went from being a projected top ten pick as a freshman to the No. 1 overall pick as a sophomore, is the outlier. The likes of Ivan Rabb, Perry Jones III and Jared Sullinger tend to be the norm. When a player doesn’t take a step forward in his second season in college, the flaws are nitpicked instead of the potential being touted, and that’s to say nothing of the potential for devastating injury. For a player like Williams, who thrives on his athleticism, a torn ACL or a ruptured Achilles’ this season could be devastating to his earning power.

He knows all of that, and, Williams says, once he made his choice, the people closest to him rallied around him. There was some negativity, people calling his dumb for passing up on the guaranteed millions that come with being a first round pick, but for the most part, the feedback he heard was reassuring.

“You gotta grind now.”

“You made your decision, you made your bed, now you have to lay in it.”

“You know what you got to do.”

And that’s part of where being ready for the NBA comes into play.

Ask Williams what he needs to do to be successful at the next level, to prove that he can be more than just an athlete, and he’ll tell you that it’s developing his perimeter skills. Making corner threes and trail threes. Improving his handle and his footwork to the point that he is a threat as a face-up four. But if you ask Kennedy what the next step for Williams is, this is his answer: “Just getting to where he’s working out more, learning how to work at a higher level, and that’s something that he’s gotten better at.”

Williams didn’t need to work all that hard to dominate in high school, not with his physical gifts and not with the level of competition that he was facing. The same can mostly be said his his time as a freshman in the SEC. As Mike Schmitz, a scout working for Draft Express and ESPN, put it, Williams “is very much living off his elite physical tools.”

As the saying goes, you don’t know what hard work is until you see someone working harder than you, and there is no better role model for Williams than junior center Tyler Davis, who has streamlined what was once a 300 pound frame into a chiseled, 260-pound rock. He has “the best work ethic I’ve ever seen,” Williams says, and that’s rubbing off on him. Williams says he’s working out two or three times a day, doing conditioning with the team at 6 am before heading off to the gym at 8 am to work on his stroke — form-shooting, making 25 shots from each spot out to the foul line; step-in mid-range jumpers; trail threes — and closing the day with pickup or more skill-work in the afternoon.

The way he sees it, he can’t control injuries — although he has taken out an insurance policy on the off-chance he does something catastrophic — but he can control the work he puts in. Put another way, he is the one that will determine where he ends up. “My mindset,” Williams said, “is as long as you put in the work, results will come.”

And maybe those results will get him some notoriety on campus at a football school.

“Some people recognize me on campus, but it’s all football at A&M,” he said. “They say hi, ask for a picture, but people actually think I’m a mean guy. They don’t understand, I’m a people person! I like people!”

So say hi to Williams if you see him this year.

You won’t have a chance to do so much longer.

Texas A&M Athletics

VIDEO: Grayson Allen, Trevon Duval get in on #DriveByDunkChallenge

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Trevon Duval, the point guard that will finally replace Tyus Jones at Duke, and Grayson Allen added their flare on the #DriveByDunkChallenge, as Allen throws a picture perfect alley-oop through the sun-roof of the car Duval is driving:

This is solid work, but I still think Scott Cross has the best #DriveByDunkChallenge performance in the collegiate ranks. John Calipari’s effort is solid, but pretty awkward. He shouldn’t be running or jumping.

Ex-NCAA scoring leader Daniel ready to return for new team

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee guard James Daniel III finally has the chance to deliver a follow-up performance to his 2015-16 NCAA scoring title, an opportunity that essentially eluded him last season.

After an ankle injury caused Daniel to play just two games last season at Howard, the 6-foot graduate transfer brings experience and offense to Tennessee’s backcourt.

“I wanted to go on the biggest stage for my last year and try to pursue my hopes and dreams since I’ve been a little kid, which was to get to the NBA,” Daniel said.

Daniel likely won’t be shooting or scoring as much as he did at Howard, where he averaged 27.1 points per game to lead all Division I players in 2015-16. He’s more interested in getting to the NCAA Tournament, something he hasn’t done and Tennessee hasn’t accomplished since 2014.

“At this point in my career I’m ready to win,” Daniel said. “That’s pretty much what I have to do. I feel like if we win, my personal goals will be met.”

Daniel believed that NCAA berth would come last season as Howard was favored to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Those plans quickly went awry.

Daniel was diagnosed with a high ankle sprain that caused him to miss the first 14 games of the season. After returning and playing just two games, Daniel learned he had a chipped bone in his ankle. With Daniel out for the rest of the season, Howard finished 10-24.

That injury allowed Daniel to redshirt the 2016-17 season, giving him one more year of eligibility. He decided to spend that season in a bigger conference and considered Michigan, Ohio State and DePaul before selecting Tennessee.

Daniel remembered watching Tennessee games when he was younger and appreciating prolific guard Chris Lofton, who starred for the Volunteers from 2004-08. When Daniel visited Tennessee, he bonded with the team and sensed a family atmosphere.

“They’re competitive,” Daniel said. “They all want to win. That was the most intriguing part.”

Although Daniel’s ankle leaves his status uncertain for Tennessee’s three exhibition games next month in France and Spain, he’s expected to be ready in plenty of time for the start of the season.

Tennessee is counting on the additions of Daniel and Vincennes University transfer Chris Darrington to solidify a backcourt that struggled with inexperience last year.

“With Chris Darrington and James Daniel, we felt like we could get guys who liked to score and were not afraid to go make plays,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I think that’s going to help these younger guys because they were put in situations they’d never been put in before.”

Barnes cited the maturity Daniel brings as Tennessee’s lone senior. Daniel will turn 24 on Jan. 29, about a month after Tennessee begins Southeastern Conference play. Nobody else on Tennessee’s roster is older than 20, though juniors Kyle Alexander and Brad Woodson will have their 21st birthdays before the season starts.

“He’s older than all of us, so I think I can learn some things from him,” Darrington said.

Daniel’s teammates will learn plenty about his knack for drawing fouls. Not only did Daniel lead all Division I players in scoring during that 2015-16 season, he also topped the nation in free-throw attempts with 331.

They’ll also learn about his work ethic. Daniel’s father, James Daniel Jr., remembers how his son used to take about 200 jump shots every morning before his classes started at Phoebus High School in Hampton, Virginia.

“He’s just been a workaholic,” James Daniel Jr. said. “Well, we’d call it a workaholic, but he’d probably say it was something that he loved doing.”

All that practice helped Daniel overcome his lack of height at Howard to become an NCAA scoring leader. Now he’s ready to compete at a higher level.

He got an idea of what to expect from Quinton Chievous, who made the move in reverse by leading MEAC program Hampton to the NCAA Tournament after starting out at Tennessee. Daniel said Chievous told him he “should do really well here.”

Daniel agrees.

“I don’t think they would have brought me here if they didn’t think I could compete at this level,” Daniel said.

___

More AP College Basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org

UT Arlington coach Scott Cross wins the #DriveByDunkChallenge by dunking over his son

(Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
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UT Arlington head coach Scott Cross is the current leader in the #DriveByDunkChallenge, the latest social media craze that endorses dunking on random hoops while cruising through a neighborhood.

After Kentucky head coach John Calipari set the bar for college head coaches in the challenge with his dunk on late Friday night, Cross came in strong by putting on some Lil Jon and taking flight over his own son on a random hoop.

Between the soundtrack selection and using his own son as a prop in his dunk, Cross has set a strong standard among college coaches for this challenge.

(H/t: Mid-Major Madness)

Mississippi State stays hot with commitment from four-star 2018 guard D.J. Stewart

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Mississippi State stayed hot on the recruiting trail on Monday as they scored an in-state pledge from four-star shooting guard D.J. Stewart.

The 6-foot-5 Stewart is the second major commitment to the Bulldogs and head coach Ben Howland this July as five-star forward Reggie Perry announced his intentions to go to Mississippi State last week.

After not having a single Division I scholarship offer entering April, Stewart exploded on the national landscape with his play with Mississippi Express in the Nike EYBL.

Regarded now as the No. 106 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2018 rankings, Stewart has some upside as a wing scorer and defender at the college level.