Javon McCrea, Bobby Hurley aim to make ‘one-year run’ a successful one

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Buffalo Athletics

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.

At the end of the 2011-12 season the Buffalo Bulls lost a sizable chunk of their offensive production, with MAC Player of the Year Mitchell Watt and guard Zach Filzen among the key contributors. So in that regard some growing pains were expected for a program that entered the 2012-13 campaign having won at least eighteen games in each of the four seasons prior (three seasons of 20 or more wins). But it wasn’t meant to be for the Bulls, who fell behind the proverbial 8-ball in non-conference play and dropped their first three conference games. The end result was a 14-20 record and a coaching change, with Bobby Hurley replacing Reggie Witherspoon.

But Hurley, in his first season as a head coach after assisting younger brother Dan at both Wagner and Rhode Island, isn’t working with an empty cupboard by any means. Four starters return, most notably a senior forward in Javon McCrea who may be one of the nation’s best. As a junior McCrea posted averages of 18.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. For his efforts McCrea was a first-team All-MAC selection, but the lack of team success has the Newark, N.Y. product hungry to put the Buffalo program back on the right track in his final season.

“When I first got here we won 20 games my freshman season and 20 games my sophomore season, so we’re not really used to having a bad season,” McCrea told NBC Sports. “Everyone’s determined and ready to show that we’re better than last year’s performance.”

McCrea reached double figures in every game with the exception of two last season, shooting 55.7% from the field despite being the focal point of opposing teams’ scouting reports every game. His best outing of the season came in a two-point overtime loss at Kent State, as McCrea accounted for 32 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocked shots. Coach Hurley knew the numbers McCrea posted last season and he was able to watch some game film as well, and once individual workouts began it didn’t take long for the coach to realize what kind of talent he’d be working with this season.

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Mid-American Conference Preview)

“I watched a couple games and obviously I was aware of what he had accomplished statistically; I didn’t have a very strong feel but I knew he was a good player, a first-team all-league player” noted Hurley in a phone interview with NBC Sports. “I got very excited the first couple of weeks working with him on the court, just seeing some of the stuff he was doing. As a coach, I knew I would be able to use him in many different ways and that was exciting.”

The ability to use McCrea in a variety of ways isn’t solely about his individual talents, as the Bulls return much of their production from a season ago. Junior forward Will Regan (11.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) has the ability to score both inside and out, as he shot 47.8% from the field and 41.6% from deep in his first season after transferring in from Virginia, and senior guard Jarod Oldham (10.1, 5.3, 4.4 apg) is back after playing just 11 games due to a wrist injury. In 2011-12 Oldham led the MAC in assists, dishing out 5.9 helpers per game, and his return should give the Bulls the boost they need in the backcourt.

Buffalo does lose Tony Watson II (11.3 ppg), but sophomore guard Jarryn Skeete is expected to slide into that role after averaging 7.1 points per game as a freshman. With these pieces the Bulls are well-positioned to improve their standing within the MAC, and ultimately the hope is that McCrea will be able to improve his individual standing with the team enjoying greater success as well.

“We’ve talked a lot about his future and he’s going to play beyond his last year here at Buffalo, so we just want to put him in a better position to make some things happen for himself,” said Hurley. “He’s continued to work on his mid-range jump shot out to about 17 feet, and I’m going to encourage him to shoot that ball because he’s worked really hard. It’s something we’ve discussed, adding an additional dimension to his game, and hopefully people will see that in small doses.”

CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories

For some programs the transition to a new coach and style of play can be a struggle, with the desire to put one’s stamp on the program possibly being at the expense of the holdovers. But that won’t be the case for Hurley, who wants to take full advantage of the one season he has with McCrea. And there’s no better way to show that Buffalo is back on the right track than to have McCrea enjoy even more success, because that would enable the program to enjoy more success as well. So as the coach begins writing his chapter in the Buffalo history books, the player will look to provide a fitting conclusion to his UB career by helping the team reach its goals.

“I don’t really focus on [individual accolades], I just focus on the team aspect,” said McCrea. “I feel that if we take care of the non-conference first and then focus on the MAC, then everything will be much better. If we play poorly in non-conference play like we did last year, then it can carry over.”

With perennial MAC East powers Akron and Ohio both suffering some key personnel losses, there’s an optimistic feeling in regards to Buffalo’s chances of contending. And with McCrea leading the way, the Bulls are more than capable of rebounding from last season’s disappointing outcome.

South Carolina advances to first Final Four in program history with win over Florida

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South Carolina entered this year’s NCAA tournament, their first NCAA tournament since 2004 and their fifth NCAA tournament in the last 43 years, having never won two consecutive tourney games in the history of the program.

On Sunday afternoon in Madison Square Garden, Frank Martin led the Gamecocks to their fourth straight win and their first trip to the Final Four.

Sindarius Thornwell scored 11 of his 26 points in the final 10 minutes, leading No. 7 seed South Carolina back from a 40-33 halftime deficit for a 77-70 win over No. 4 seed Florida. P.J. Dozier added 17 points and Chris Silva finished with a critical 13 points and nine boards, coming up with some huge offensive rebounds and hustle plays defensively in the second half.

After shooting 7-for-12 from three in the first half, Florida missed their all 14 attempts from beyond the arc in the second 20 minutes. South Carolina’s defense, which is second nationally this season, according to KenPom, and which allowed 40 points to the Gators in the first half, buckled down in the final minutes, forcing turnovers and taking the Gators out of what they wanted to do offensively. They shot just 11-for-35, or 31.4 percent, from the floor after halftime and didn’t get a clean look at the rim in the final five minutes of the game.

That’s how South Carolina plays. That’s who they are. It’s physical and it’s ugly and it’s just so effective when they’re able to make shots at the other end of the floor. And that is where this team has changed in March. The Gamecocks lost six of their last nine games heading into the NCAA tournament, failing to score more than 1.00 points-per-possession in five of those six losses.

But the story of this game isn’t how this South Carolina team has changed.

The story is how the program has changed.

The Gamecocks were a 10-win team that went 2-14 in the SEC the year before they Frank Martin away from Kansas State, a hire that was made thanks to a falling out with his athletic director, and boy, does that look like a coup now. He was responsible for leading Kansas State, which isn’t exactly a program known for basketball success, to their only Elite 8 since 1988. He’s now led South Carolina to their first Final Four in the history of the program.

South Carolina will advance to Phoenix to take on No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the Final Four.

A season of highs and lows ends for Kansas in the Elite 8 again

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For the second season in a row, Kansas was one-win shy of a Final Four appearance, falling to Oregon, 74-60, in the Elite Eight on Friday night at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.

This comes a year after Kansas, as the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, fell to eventual national champion Villanova in the Elite 8.

Just as stars such as Perry Ellis struggled in that regional final, so did KU’s freshman phenom Josh Jackson, whose quick two personal fouls that saddled him on the bench and appeared to take him out of the game mentally. Devonte’ Graham, averaging 20.0 points per game in the tournament, was 0-for-7 from the field. Frank Mason III’s first-half performance assured that Oregon would completely run away with the game before halftime.

The loss put an end to a tumultuous season for the Jayhawks.

Kansas entered the 2016-17 season as one of the favorites to win the national championship. The Jayhawks went on to win the Big 12 regular season title for an unprecedented 13th consecutive season. Frank Mason III, in the eyes of many, was the wire-to-wire national player of the year.

However, for all its accomplishments on the court, Kansas faced more than its share of issues off-the-court. Lagerald Vick, who was under university investigation for allegedly striking a female student. Carlton Bragg was arrested — and subsequently suspended — for drug paraphernalia. There was also the affidavit released a day before the start of the NCAA Tournament for the Jayhawks, detailing the incident outside a Lawerence bar from December involving both Vick and Josh Jackson. Even Devonte Graham’s arrest for an unpaid ticket made headlines during this string of non-basketball related news.

The Jayhawks downplayed talks of distraction before the start of the NCAA Tournament and backed it up by dominating opponents through the first three rounds. The average margin of victory was 30.0, and that includes victories over Michigan State and a 32-point beatdown of a Purdue team that held a massive mismatch on the interior.

It looked like Self was destined to add to his Hall of Fame résumé; a third trip to the Final Four — first since 2012 — was in front of essentially a home crowd. Instead, Oregon handed the Jayhawks their worst tournament defeat in the Bill Self era.

Seven times under Self, KU has made the Elite Eight and was sent home.

Perhaps, all would have been forgiven — or at the very least, overshadowed — had KU cut down the nets in Arizona.

Instead, its season ended in an all too familiar place.

Elite 8 Preview: Sunday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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No. 4 FLORIDA (-3) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 2:20 p.m., CBS: If you’re a fan of uptempo, wide-open basketball, of teams running beautiful offensive sets, spreading the floor and using the three-point line like it should be used, this game probably is not going to be for you.

This is going to be as physical and as tough as any game you watched all season long. Both the Gamecocks and the Gators are top five teams in defensive efficiency, and both of them get out and pressure defensively, Florida in the full court and South Carolina in the half court. They shun shooters for the toughest athletes on their roster. They pride themselves in being tougher, both mentally and physically, than whoever they end up playing.

And they think that a game played in the 50s is beautiful basketball.

So bet the under if you can.

But the pick I like is Florida here. Their ability to defend is going to make it very difficult for South Carolina’s offensive renaissance to continue, and their guards will be able to make the plays offensively that South Carolina dares you to make.

PREDICTION: Florida (-3)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-2.5) vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 5:05 p.m. CBS: This is the rematch we all wanted, right?

Ever since that day three months ago, when Kentucky got 47 points from Malik Monk in a 103-102 win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, I don’t think there is a soul in the country that would have told you otherwise.

There are two major differences between these two teams now and those two teams then. The biggest is the presence of Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender. Pinson has dealt foot injuries all season long, and when these two got together in December, he was not yet healthy enough to play. I assume that he will draw the assignment of Malik Monk, chasing around the man that had definitively been Kentucky’s most dangerous scorer. Pinson will make life more difficult for Monk than it was the first time around.

But is he going to spend the entire game on him?

Because after De’Aaron Fox’s 39-point outburst against UCLA on Friday night, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Pinson may be better suited to taking on the task of keeping Fox from getting into the paint. Whatever Roy Williams opts to do, the bottom line is pretty simple — if he needs to find a way to keep Kentucky’s back court in check.

The other difference between now and then is that Bam Adebayo has been playing up to his potential for the past six weeks. He was solid earlier in the year. He can be dominant at times now, and that is going to be critical for the Wildcats, who are going to be outsized by a significant margin by UNC’s front line. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and they are one of the only elite teams that thrives playing two bigs at the same time. In other words, one of Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis are going to have to deal with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley. That’s a matchup that favors UNC, which is why Aebayo is going to have to play up to his size.

In the end, I think Pinson’s presence and North Carolina’s size advantage will be too much.

But if Fox and Monk play their game, they can carry Kentucky a long, long way.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (2.5)

Lawrence Police Department trolls Bill Self following Elite Eight loss

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Kansas had its season ended with a 74-60 loss to No. 3 seed Oregon.

The Jayhawks were the top seed in the South region. They were playing a de facto at the Sprint Center, which is 40 miles away from the school’s campus. As you can imagine, fans in Lawrence were likely unhappy, especially since it’s the second year in a row KU has been bounced one-game shy of the Final Four.

The Lawrence Police Department, while prepping for potential riots, couldn’t help tweeting a joke at the future Hall of Famer’s expense.

Bill Self’s teams have been eliminated seven times in the Elite Eight during his tenure at Kansas. He’s led the Jayhawks to a pair of Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2008.

Kansas finished the season 31-5.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.