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.

UMBC becomes first No. 16 seed to beat No. 1 seed in beatdown of Virginia

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UMBC made sports history on Friday night by becoming the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The America East champions pulled off a shocking 74-54 upset over No. 1 seed Virginia in the South Region.

The Retrievers (25-10) not only made history by beating a No. 1 seed — they also knocked off the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament in dominating fashion. Tied at the half, UMBC jumped out to a double-digit lead and maintained its dominance throughout the second half by consistently knocking down three-pointers and keeping the pressure on.

Senior guard Jairus Lyle, the team’s hero in the America East title game, finished with 28 points to pace the Retrievers as he went 9-for-11 from the field.  Joe Shurburne (14 points), Arkel Lamar (12 points) and K.J. Maura (10 points) also finished in double-figures for UMBC, as they extended its winning streak to six games.

Virginia (31-3) won the ACC regular season by four games. They took the league’s conference tournament as well. The Cavaliers were the most consistent team in college basketball this season. The Cavaliers lost sixth man DeAndre Hunter to the season with an injury earlier in the week. They were still a heavy favorite in this game.

But Virginia struggled to knock down three-pointers. It was clear Virginia started playing scared once the upset became apparent. And that’s how once of the biggest upsets in sports history went down. Sophomore guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome led Virginia with 15 points each.

Virginia shot only 41 percent (23-for-56) from the field and 19 percent (4-for-22) from three-point range as they couldn’t find consistent offense or a go-to player.

UMBC advances to battle No. 9 seed Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats advanced earlier on Friday night with a balanced effort in a win over No. 8 seed Creighton.

UMBC social media won the night as much as the basketball team

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The eyes of the sports world are on UMBC. Cinderella has arrived.

The No. 16 seed shocked No. 1 seed Virginia by double digits on Friday night as the Retrievers became the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

UMBC’s basketball team wasn’t the only group from the school ready to go on Friday night.

The school’s social media presence was trolling everyone and showing tons of swagger as the Retrievers built a second-half double-digit lead on Virginia.

The UMBC Athletics account called out pundits, trolled doubters and had fun with fans during a special moment in sports history.

Some examples:

Now that the historic win has gone down, UMBC, and their social media account, have become immortal.

No. 1 Xavier takes down No. 16 Texas Southern

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Xavier got off to a slow start, but rallied to run past No. 16 Texas Southern for a 102-83 NCAA tournament victory on Friday night in the West Region.

The Musketeers (29-5) had huge performances from seniors Trevon Bluiett (26 points) and J.P. Macura (29 points) as the duo combined for seven three-pointers and 35 points in the first 20 minutes. The duo ended up getting a third major scorer in the second half when senior big man Kerem Kanter stepped up his play. Kanter ended up with 24 points.

Xavier shot 45 percent (11-for-24) from three-point range and 54 percent from the field (35-for-64) in the win.

Texas Southern (16-20) went on a 16-0 run at one point in the first half to take a 20-13 lead. The Tigers had the momentum, but things quickly turned the other way when Xavier responded with its own 16-0 flurry.

The Tigers had five double-figure scorers, led by point guard Damontrae Jefferson with 20 points, but they couldn’t get stops on the other end. Guard Derrick Bruce finished with 18 points while Robert Lewis (14 points), Donte Clark (12 points) and Trayvon Reed (10 points) also finished in double-figures.

The Tigers started this season 0-13 as they lost all road games against tough competition. The SWAC champions rallied to win eight straight games before the NCAA tournament and put up an admirable fight before falling to the Big East regular season champions.

Xavier moves on to face the winner of No. 8 seed Missouri and No. 9 seed Florida State as the Musketeers could have a tough matchup against either team.

No. 4 seed Auburn survives off-night, beats No. 13 Charleston

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Auburn did everything they possibly could to become the third No. 4 seed to fall to a No. 13 seed in their first round game of the NCAA tournament.

Charleston, who was essentially playing without their best player, Joe Chealey, who was a shell of himself as he battled an ankle injury, turned the ball over 21 times and shot 5-for-22 from beyond the arc and still managed to find a way to be ahead in the final three minutes.

The Tigers, who are eighth in the country in free throw shooting percentage, made just 15-of-32 from the charity stripe. They missed all 13 threes they shot in the first half — a first for the program in Bruce Pearl’s tenure — and finish the night just 5-for-24 from beyond the arc while shooting 35.6 percent from the floor.

After Bruce Brown missed a pair of free throws with 14 seconds left, Charleston’s Grant Riller had a shot to tie the game. He missed, Auburn finally made a free throw down the stretch, and the Tigers escaped with a 62-58 win that they barely deserved.

The most important part of that sentence, however, is “win”.

There’s a reason that the saying in March is “survive and advance”. As long as you survive, as long as you live to advance and play another day, there’s always a chance.

I don’t think there is a single player on that Auburn roster, on the Auburn coaching staff or in the state of Alabama that will believe that the way they played on Friday night will be enough to get this team — who were co-champions of the SEC that went wire to wire in first place in the league — where they want to be this year. And to be frank, with the injury to Anfernee McLemore and the shoulder issue that is plaguing Bruce Brown, there’s a chance that this team may be too beaten down to make any kind of serious run in March.

But they’re still here.

Hope is still alive.

And that counts for something.

Miles Bridges goes into takeover mode as No. 3 Michigan State survives Bucknell

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It took a while for No. 3 seed Michigan State to get into a rhythm, but once they did, Bucknell, the Patriot League champs, didn’t have enough of an answer.

After heading into halftime with just a 44-40 lead, the Spartans held Bucknell to just 14 points in the first 16 minutes of the second half, pushing their lead as high as 18 points in an 82-78 win. The Bison hit a flurry of shots in the final seconds to make the final score look much more flattering than the second half actually was.

For Michigan State, however, the story of this game was Miles Bridges.

Oft-derided this season as a talent that couldn’t take over when his team needed him to, a player that was said to have “no game” by Big Ten expert that shall remain nameless, the NBC Sports Preseason Player of the Year took over against Bucknell. He finished with 29 points, nine boards and four assists, taking 22 shots from the floor with just seven of them coming from beyond the arc.

He went into takeover mode without simply settling for jumpers.

And that is when the Spartans end up at a different level. That’s when they reach their peak, and if we are going to see that Bridges for the rest of the NCAA tournament, then maybe — just maybe — this team has a chance to live up to the potential we all bestowed upon them at the start of the season.

The Spartans will advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament, where they will face off with the winner of tonight’s No. 6 TCU-No. 11 Syracuse game.