Blessing in disguise: A redshirt season allowed Jahii Carson, Ben McLemore to thrive

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Jahii Carson and Ben McLemore are two very different players.

Carson is a cocksure point guard, a playmaker that thrives when the ball is in his hands and has the confidence — both in himself and from head coach Herb Sendek — to take a tough shot or make a risky pass. No one questions his ability, certainly not Carson himself.

McLemore, on the other hand, is an off-guard that with one of the nation’s purest shooting strokes that, when combined with his off-the-charts athleticism and defensive ability, has scouts drooling over his potential. He could end up being the No. 1 pick in the draft, even if he still, at times, needs convincing that he’s the No. 1 option for Kansas.

Both are freshmen that entered college as consensus top 50 recruits. Both are putting up all-american caliber numbers. Neither was more than a member of the scout team last season, as they were both forced into redshirt years by the NCAA as a result of academic question marks coming out of high school.

And as it turns out, it may have been the best thing for both player’s careers.

McLemore’s story has been well-publicized, as he’s become the leading scorer for the team currently sitting at the top of the Coaches Poll. But few believe that McLemore could have had this kind of an impact if he had played his first year on campus. Throughout much of his career at the prep level, in both high school and AAU ball, McLemore was a complimentary player. He played AAU ball with Bradley Beal and Roosevelt Jones. His Oak Hill team included Quinn Cook, Jordan Adams, AJ Hammons and a handful of other high-major recruits.

McLemore never needed to be the star, which was perfect for him. He’s an introvert, a kid that’s still learning just how talented he truly is. He wasn’t ready for this stage last year; he needed the redshirt. “He’s going to have to get confidence,” Bill Self said of McLemore before the season, “There are a lot of things that he’s going to have to do, but he can run, he can jump and he can shoot. That’s a pretty good combination for a wing.”

And while McLemore is on everyone’s short list for potential first-team all-americans, he’s still nothing more than a piece in the Kansas system. Outside of the overtime win over Iowa State and the December victory at Ohio State, there aren’t many games where McLemore simply took over.

That’s not true for Carson, who has been the centerpiece for one of this season’s most improbable turnarounds.

Coming off of a 10-21 season, with a handful of important pieces transferring out during the offseason and two members of the coaching staff jumping ship weeks before the season was to begin, little was expected of the Sun Devils coming into the year. But Herb Sendek’s team has jumped out to a 16-4 record and a 5-2 mark in the Pac-12, good for a tie for second-place in the conference. That includes a win over Colorado and an 18 point shellacking of UCLA on Saturday.

The difference has been Carson.

“Last year, one our great challenges was that we didn’t have a true point guard in out program,” said Sendek, who sped up his team’s glacial pace from a year ago to fit with the skill-set of the uber-athletic Carson. “And that’s like trying to play without a quarterback in football. So having Jahii at that position this year has made an unquantifiable difference.”

Carson is averaging 17.3 points, 5.5 assists and 3.4 boards heading into Thursday night’s game at Washington State. He’s played at least 38 minutes in all but one of ASU’s Pac-12 games. But even Carson will admit that he wouldn’t have had this kind of an impact in his first season on campus.

“I would like to think so, but when it comes down to all reality I don’t htink I would have had this much of an impact,” Carson, a noted gym-rat, said in a phone interview on Wednesday. According to Carson, his days during his redshirt season were made up of workouts, class time, practice, workouts and, well, workouts. “I worked on my speed, my agility, my vertical, my quickness, so that’s what helped me a lot. I jump a lot higher. I was 155 out of high school, I’m 180 now. I’m able to get to the basket a lot easier than I would have coming out of high school.”

“I worked on my floater. In high school, I was able to get to the basket and dunk on pretty much every body in Arizona because most of the centers were 6-foot-5. I knew at the next level, I wouldn’t be able to attack the rim like that. I learned how to shoot the floater before I got to the big man and worked on my mid-range jumper.”

But the year-off allowed Carson to grow off-the-court as well. He said the most challenging part of being away from the game was maintaining a positive mindset and spirituality about his situation. Carson is a local kid. Arizona State is his hometown team. He’s got a lot of friends and family in the area, and having them watch the Sun Devils struggle through last season while he couldn’t contribute wasn’t easy. “I was in a difficult mental state not being able to play,” he said. “It humbled me and made me more aware of my situation. Mentally, it made me stronger and I’m definitely more mature.”

It also allowed him to learn the game at the college level. Carson spent last season on the practice squad, teaming up with Liberty transfer Evan Gordon to give Arizona State’s starting five all they could handle every day in practice. He learned how to run a team. He learned how to be a point guard at the college level.

Given Arizona State’s glaring hole at the point last season, it’s fair to wonder how good they good have been if Carson wasn’t forced to sit out. As tough as the last year was, Carson’s moved on. He knows he can’t changed the past, turning his redshirt year into a blessing in disguise.

The only thing he’s concerned about now: proving the doubters wrong.

“It definitely feels good to put pie in people’s faces after they doubted us so much,” he said. “A lot of people upped and left and didn’t give us a chance to see how our team would be and mature throughout the year. Some coaching staff gave up on us. A lot of being written off [in the media] as well.”

“It just feels good to go out here and play at a high level and be a high level team and just show everybody that we can compete with the best.”

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

No. 8 Kentucky finally has it easy against Fort Wayne, 86-67

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Nick Richards had career highs of 25 points and 15 rebounds, and 70 percent first-half shooting propelled No. 8 Kentucky to an 86-67 rout of Fort Wayne on Wednesday night.

Kentucky’s 19-of-27 shooting before halftime countered the Mastodons’ eight 3-pointers that kept them close for a while. Once Fort Wayne started missing, it couldn’t match the length or speed of the young Wildcats (5-1), who eventually led 78-48 with 6:50 remaining on the way to their most decisive win this season.

Richards thrived in both halves and on both ends, making 9 of 10 from the field and all seven free throws for his first career double-double. The 6-foot-11 freshman’s previous highs were 10 points against Utah Valley and nine rebounds against Kansas last week.

Quade Green, Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander each added 11 points as Kentucky shot a season-best 33 of 55 (60 percent) and dominated the rebounding 44-21.

Junior guard John Konchar had 19 points and Bryson Scott 18 for Fort Wayne (3-2), who had won three in a row before losing on 40 percent shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Fort Wayne: A year after upsetting Indiana, the Mastodons led Kentucky 37-36 with 3:51 left in the first half behind 8-of-22 shooting from long range. They went cold from outside and elsewhere after that and the Wildcats pounced to lead at the break and stretch the advantage to 30 points in the second half. The Mastodons’ 12 3-pointers were their third-highest total this season.

Kentucky: Something had to give after all those tense performances and the Wildcats thrived because of their size and best shooting effort this season. Richards couldn’t be stopped on either end, and teammates seemed in sync for the first time. Sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel came up just short of a double-double with 10 rebounds and nine points.

UP NEXT

Kentucky hosts Illinois-Chicago on Sunday to wrap up the Rupp Classic before getting a few days off.

Fort Wayne visits East Tennessee State on Saturday. ETSU lost 78-31 to Kentucky last Friday.

VIDEO: Providence beats Belmont on Kyron Cartwright’s buzzer-beating three

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We got the first wild buzzer-beater of the college basketball season on Wednesday night, as Kyron Cartwright answered a Belmont bucket with 3.7 seconds left by going 94-feet to hit a leaning three at the buzzer:

Providence won the game 65-63.

Cartwright finished with 17 points in the win.

Four Takeaways from N.C. State’s upset win over No. 2 Arizona

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Five games into the Kevin Keatts era and N.C. State already has themselves a signature win.

The Wolfpack upset No. 2 Arizona in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis, 90-84, sending Sean Miller home without reaching the Final Four once again. Allerik Freeman led the way with 24 points, while Braxton Beverly chipped in with 20 points off the bench and the combination of Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven combined for 21 points and 17 boards.

This wasn’t a fluky win, either.

N.C. State had control throughout. They were up 15-6 before Arizona woke up, they didn’t trail in the first half and they were the ones that made the Wildcats chase them down in the second half. It was quite impressive, as Keatts had this group playing hard and pressing for 40 minutes. It’s been a while since N.C. State fans can say that they’ve seen that.

Here are three things to takeaway from that win.

1. Arizona is going to have some things to figure out on the defensive end of the floor if they want to win a national title: Deandre Ayton is a man amongst boys. In his first college basketball game against competition that actually deserved to be on the same floor as him, Ayton finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds, a performance that makes me so damn excited to see just how good Marvin Bagley III, Miles Bridges and players of that ilk are if Ayton does not end up being the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

Trier struggled in the first half, but he still managed to put together a 27-point performance, with 24 of those 27 coming in the second half. They put up 84 points. That wasn’t the issue.

The 90 points they allowed was.

Even more concerning was the fact that the Wolfpack scored those 90 points on just 73 possessions. The bottom-line is this: That’s not good enough, not when N.C. State is hardly a contender for the Final Four, let alone a national title challenger.

2. Kevin Keatts is making the most of the talent Mark Gottfried squandered: I’m not sure quite how good the Wolfpack actually are. I don’t think it’s possible to tell this early, even after a win over a team like Arizona. But what is undeniable is the simple fact that this N.C. State team plays are and with most passion and intensity than any Mark Gottfried team did.

They look like they are trying. They look like they care. And frankly, that often matters more than the simple stock-piling of talent. There’s no way anyone could look at this N.C. State roster and think that it has more talent on it than, say, a team with Dennis Smith Jr. or a team with T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack may not have a future lottery pick on this roster. But they do have guys that play their tails off, that play as if they have a point to prove and that play as if they are being coached.

It makes you wonder what could have been had Keatts been in Raleigh last season.

3. Braxton Beverly getting ruled eligible is going to be a big deal for N.C. State: Earlier this fall, Braxton Beverly was one of the biggest stories in college basketball, believe it or not. He had transferred to N.C. State from Ohio State after enrolling in summer courses prior to Thad Matta’s firing. He was ruled ineligible for this season with the Wolfpack, and it turned into the cause celebre for college basketball media members looking to circle the wagons and bash the NCAA.

It took longer than it should have, but Beverly was eventually cleared by the NCAA. He’s eligible to play this season, and he just so happens to be the point guy on the N.C. State press and one of their best shooters. He put up 20 points on the No. 2 team in America. I think he’s going to be relevant this season.

4. Arizona’s point guard issues rose to the forefront: When the Wildcats made their push in the second half, they did it on the strength of hustle plays and transition buckets. Jumping passing lanes and going coast-to-coast. Beating N.C. State’s press and getting a layup. Points that came off of offensive rebounds. Where they struggled was with their half court execution. The question with this team entering the season was with the point guard play. Was Parker Jackson-Cartwright going to be good enough to carry this team to a title? I’m not sure we can truly say we got on answer on Wednesday – N.C. State’s pressure, which was ratcheted up by the fact that Arizona couldn’t get a stop, played more of a role than anything – but Jackson-Cartwright certainly did not put in the kind of performance that would make Arizona fans feel comfortable.

Walker struggles in return home, No. 11 Miami beats La Salle

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READING, Pa. (AP) — Prized freshman Lonnie Walker IV struggled in his return home, but Dewan Huell scored 16 points and No. 11 Miami did just enough to get by La Salle 57-46 on Wednesday night and remain unbeaten.

Part of Miami’s recruiting pitch for the projected NBA lottery pick was a game in his hometown. Walker was held to five points and 2-of-8 shooting, and his woes were contagious. Miami (4-0) shot 37 percent from the field and the Explorers were 0 of 15 from 3-point range.

B.J. Johnson scored 16 points on 6-of-20 shooting and Pookie Powell added 15 on 5-of-15 from the field for La Salle (3-3) in its third straight loss.

La Salle traveled about 60 miles from campus, but it was a Miami home game and the crowd was solidly behind their local hero’s team. Walker has provided a needed boost to a struggling city northwest of Philadelphia.

Once a bustling railroad and mill town of 120,000, Reading has been in a steady decline for decades. It ranked as the poorest city in the nation in the 2010 Census based on median household income. Population has plummeted to under 88,000.

Walker and his Reading High School team had given the city something to be proud of in March, winning its first state title.

Many in the crowd wore red Reading High state champion T-shirts and sweatshirts, with sprinkles of Miami orange and La Salle blue and gold sprinkled in.

Walker didn’t start — he hasn’t yet this season — but the crowd roared as he got off the bench and walked to the scorer’s table 4 minutes in.

While Walker didn’t appear to have any issue with the left ankle he turned in a win over Florida A&M last week, it was a struggle. He missed his first three shots before finally bringing the crowd to its feet with a nifty crossover dribble and bank shot in the lane in the final seconds of an ugly first half that made it 19-19.

Walker couldn’t get it going in the second half, either. But he fed Bruce Brown Jr. for a 3-pointer with 3:23 left to put Miami up 49-39 during an 8-0 run.

Huell hit 8 of10 shots and added seven rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

La Salle: The Explorers dropped their third straight game to a Power 5 team (Northwestern, Boston College), but this was one they could have won with a decent shooting performance. They shot 29 percent from the field.

Miami: It was tough to tell if Walker was 100 percent with his ankle. He likely had some nerves. It was far from the performance he would have liked. Walker has been held to single digits in three straight games.

UP NEXT

La Salle hosts Big 5 rival Temple on Sunday before departing for a two-game tournament in Northern Ireland next week.

Miami returns home to face North Florida on Saturday before traveling to No. 14 Minnesota next Wednesday.

No. 5 Villanova beats Western Kentucky 66-58 in the Bahamas

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 16: Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats drives against Elijah Long #55 of the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers in the first half during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyBank Center on March 16, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Fifth-ranked Villanova failed to speed up Western Kentucky’s controlled tempo and struggled to make shots through the first half of its Battle 4 Atlantis debut.

In the second half, the Wildcats looked far more like the high-scoring bunch that had cracked 100 points in each of their past two games.

Jalen Brunson scored 18 points while Villanova finally got loose in transition after halftime, helping the Wildcats beat the Hilltoppers 66-58 in Wednesday’s opening round.

The Wildcats (4-0) found themselves in a close game until early in the second half. That’s when they ran off a 13-2 burst to push ahead by double figures, part of a hot-shooting stretch that had them picking up the pace and scoring off turnovers.

“They usually play a little faster than that, but I think they were smart knowing they’ve got three days here,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They controlled the tempo. … Offensively they had us out of whack, and I think that had a lot to do with our poor shooting in the first half.”

Villanova didn’t get many easy scores in the first half and had just two fast-break points by the break, but had 14 in the second half while also scoring 16 of their 23 points off turnovers.

Villanova made 15 of 24 shots (63 percent) after halftime after shooting just 33 percent to lead 27-24 at the break. The Wildcats ultimately led by 18 points late.

“They find ways to have spurts and make runs,” Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury said. “And they were able to find a way to spurt out the second half a little bit on some turnovers.”

Darius Thompson scored 16 points for the Hilltoppers (2-2), who shot 44 percent but struggled to maintain control with Villanova converting easy baskets off turnovers in the second half.

“I think our turnovers were kind of self-inflicted,” Thompson said. “Just trying to do a little too much in the wrong times.”

BIG PICTURE

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers kept Villanova close through the first half and trailed just 34-33 early in the second. Still, the Hilltoppers fell to 1-13 in their last 14 games against ranked opponents.

“I’m really proud of our team’s effort,” Stansbury said, “but I think it’s the way we kind of let the game get away from us in the second half that I’m most disappointed with.”

Villanova: The Wildcats came in putting up big offensive numbers, including 113 points against Nicholls State and 104 more against Lafayette in their last two games. They didn’t find that same roll here, though they ultimately built a big lead and cruised to the final horn.

“We still have to get a lot better,” Brunson said. “We’re still a work in progress.”

BRIDGES’ ROLL

Brunson is a preseason Associated Press All-American, but Mikal Bridges is leading Villanova in scoring. The junior guard had set career scoring highs with 23 points against Nicholls and then 24 against Lafayette, and he followed with 17 points and eight rebounds in this one.

BENCH SPARK

Sophomore Donte DiVincenzo scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half for Villanova off the bench. He finished a tough layup through contact for a three-point play at the 5:11 mark.

DiVincenzo has scored in double figures in three of four games this season.

“He’s really an unselfish guy,” Wright said. “We really have six starters, you can tell by the minutes. And he’s a guy that just said, ‘I don’t care, I’ll do whatever you need me to do.’

“And he comes in off the bench and he’s incredible, and brings great energy. He was awesome in the second half.”

UP NEXT

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers will face No. 18 Purdue in Thursday’s consolation bracket.

Villanova: The Wildcats advanced to play Tennessee on Thursday.