Experienced backcourt of Comer and Thompson hope to lead Dunk City back to glory

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

America is familiar with common Florida destinations like South Beach and Disney, but last March, basketball fans quickly became aware of the brand-new Sunshine State landmark known affectionately by college basketball enthusiasts as “Dunk City.”

Dunk City — technically located in Fort Myers, Florida in the Southwest portion of the state between Tampa Bay and Miami — quickly became a national phenomenon, complete with gear, hashtags (#DunkCity) and the attention of the national media as the 15-seeded Eagles blew past Georgetown and San Diego State to become the first 15 seed to ever reach the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

Head coach Andy Enfield bolted for USC in the offseason and senior leader Sherwood Brown exhausted his eligibility but the good news for Dunk City is the return of four starters, led by the dynamic junior backcourt of Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson.

Comer and Thompson started all 37 games during Florida Gulf Coast’s 26-11 season in which they won the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. The Eagles were a transitory Division I program beginning with the 2007–08 season and granted full D-I membership before the 2011-12 season, so for the Atlantic Sun program to receive at least four nationally televised games during the 2013-14 season is a testament to the power of Dunk City and how the nation took notice.

“Now I tell people that I go to FGCU and they’re like, ‘Oh, Dunk City!’ I could just tell them I go to Dunk City they say, ‘Oh, you go to Florida Gulf Coast!’ I like the name and it represents us well,” Thompson said. “We dunk and we have a high-flying style of play. So I think it’s good for us and our school since our school is so young and the nickname helps us.”

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Former long-time Kansas assistant coach Joe Dooley takes over for Florida Gulf Coast at head coach this year as the Eagles become the hunted. They’re the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic Sun thanks in large part to the passing of Comer and the all-around skills of off-guard Thompson. Comer was 14th in the nation in assists, averaging 6.6 dimes per contest last season, as many of his passes and lobs led to Dunk City throwdowns. The 244 assists Comer dished out were the second-most for a single season in Atlantic Sun history and he was the A-Sun Conference Tournament MVP.

Comer’s backcourt teammate Bernard Thompson is often on the receiving end of his point guard’s creative passes as the two close off-court friends have been in the Florida Gulf Coast program together since they were freshmen. Thompson won the A-Sun’s Defensive Player of the Year award as a sophomore and is the team’s leading returning scorer at 14.3 points per game. At 102 total steals last season, Thompson was second overall in the country in defensive thefts. Roommates the past two years, Comer and Thompson will take the Eagles as far as they can go this season.

“It’s nice to have Bernard back there. We both came in together and we’ve both grown together too. We create a lot off of each other here and we’ve been doing this for three years,” Comer said. “And having guys like Chase (Fieler) come back and our transfers will be coming in, so we’ll have a good core coming back and some new pieces here.”

Chalk up another assist to Comer for mentioning his teammates, as he’ll have plenty of weapons — besides Thompson — to work with this season. Fieler, a senior forward, averaged 12.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last season while accumulating 59 dunks that helped him garner a 56 percent field goal percentage and forward Eric McKnight is a 6’9″ junior that put up 60 percent field goal shooting and adds a shot-blocking presence to the group. Marquette transfer and 6’6″ junior Jamail Jones is a former top-100 recruit that’s eligible this season and will replace Brown’s presence in the lineup and Georgia Tech transfer Nate Hicks adds a versatile 6’10” inside-out option.

“(Hicks is) good. He’s versatile and for someone his size, he can step out a little bit and knock down shots, so that helps us out a lot,” Thompson said of Hicks.

But new coach Joe Dooley, who is incorporating a similar high-paced attack for the Eagles this season, knows that his backcourt will make all the difference if Florida Gulf Coast is to make another NCAA Tournament run this season.

“We’ve got some experience back, four starters and those guys have a pretty good feel for how to play together,” Dooley said. “You have a point guard that’s a two-year starter and you have a two-guard that’s a two-year starter and they have some familiarity playing in the conference and playing together and hopefully they’ll make another jump this year.”

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Thompson and Comer spend plenty of time away from the court playing Call of Duty, getting food or  just hanging out, but together in the same backcourt, they know where each other is going to be at all times.

“Brett just has tremendous, tremendous vision. He’ll see me and we just read each other,” Thompson said. “It’s just a great chemistry that we have; a great bond that we have. You’ll see it on and off the court. It makes it a lot easier for me and him that we know each other’s tendencies.”

Because of their chemistry and experience, the Eagles have expectations that exceed the results of last season’s group. It’s hard to contemplate another Sweet 16 run — or beyond — but Dunk City is trying to follow-up on last season’s run with another run that matches or exceeds that effort.

“We want to win the conference regular season — which we didn’t do last year — and we want to win the conference tournament again and we want to make the NCAA Tournament and make more noise,” Comer said of the team’s expectations. “I think that we showed that we have good players and we can compete with anybody.”

But in a state that LeBron (currently) calls home, Dunk City is just happy to have found its place on the national basketball landscape for the time being.

“We had people come out-of-state just to see us, just to come get our autograph,” Thompson said.  “And the fans, the Dirty Birds (the student fan base), just come out to everywhere we play just to support us. It’s just been good that we’re recognized and when you go somewhere people are like, ‘Florida Gulf Coast,’ and know it’s us. So that feels good just to get the recognition.”

Excitement for the sequel to Dunk City is building. Dunk City after Dark — the program’s season-opening madness event — will air on ESPNU as one of nine programs that the network will air and Comer said that excitement for all sports on Florida Gulf Coast’s campus was continually building over the course of 2013.

Dunk City is squarely on the map for now, but are they here to stay? The Eagles are enjoying the ride and they hope it continues in 2013-14 and beyond.

“I think we helped put the school on the map and it’s growing from that. It’s a lot of fun down here now,” Comer said.

PHOTO: Loyola-Chicago’s Sister Jean has her signature Nikes on

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Not only does Sister Jean have her own bobblehead, she has her own pair of signature Nikes as well:

St. John’s guard Shamorie Ponds entering NBA Draft process without an agent

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St. John’s sophomore guard Shamorie Ponds will test the NBA Draft waters without hiring an agent, he announced on Saturday.

The 6-foot-1 Ponds was one of the best players in the country this past season as he put up 21.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game for the Red Storm.

Ponds had some memorable individual performances this season including back-to-back wins and monster performances against Elite Eight teams. After 31 points in a loss to Xavier, Ponds had 33 points in a win over Duke and 26 points in a win over Villanova.

It’ll be intriguing to see what the NBA feedback is like for Ponds. The sophomore can really score the ball at a high level, but Ponds hasn’t played for a winning team and he is also on the smaller side. Perimeter shooting is also a major question mark after Ponds only shot 25 percent from three-point range this season.

But there is no doubting that Ponds is a gamer, and he can score points in bunches if he gets going. If Ponds returns to St. John’s next season, he’ll be someone to watch for on preseason awards lists.

As a kid growing up my dream was to play in the NBA. I would like to thank the St John's University coaching staff for putting me in a position to succeed, and achieve my dream goal. As me & my family sat down & talked about my future, we decided that it would be best for me to Declare for the NBA Draft & not hire an agent. My plan is to get as much NBA experience and knowledge as possible. In addition, I do not want close any doors. I'll like to keep all my options open. Also, to get some proper evaluations on my game would be helpful to me. To conclude, I believe this was a smart decision because not only you can get a chance to experience the NBA, but you can also return back to college. I am thankful for everybody that helped grow as a person and a player over the past year. Most importantly the man above because with out him, none of this would of been possible. Wish me luck on my journey🙏🏼 #Blessings #DraftDreams #ThePondsWay 🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼 #DreamsDoComeTru

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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.