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.”

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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.

Vanderbilt lands five-star forward Simi Shittu

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Vanderbilt continues to build a monster recruiting class under head coach Bryce Drew as five-star 2018 forward Simi Shittu pledged to the Commodores on Wednesday.

The second five-star commitment for Vanderbilt in the Class of 2018, Shittu joins top point guard prospect Darius Garland to form one of the best freshman combinations in the country for next season. The Commodores also have a top-150 forward in Aaron Nesmith.

The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Shittu is coming off of a monster summer in which he became a major problem and top-ten recruit. The No. 8 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2018 recruiting rankings, Shittu is a huge get and an instant starter for Vanderbilt next season.

By landing prospects like Garland and Shittu, Drew is also becoming a major player in a short amount of time as a high-major coach. Always a noted recruiter at the mid-major level at Valparaiso, now Vanderbilt is seeing Drew’s hiring workout as he’s bringing top talent to the program.

If Drew can continue to recruit like this then Vanderbilt could be in position to be in the top half of the SEC as the league has seen some of its rebuilds go poorly over the last few years.

Kansas still without freshman Billy Preston

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Kansas freshman Billy Preston has yet to make his debut for the Jayhawks and it appears he’ll have to wait a bit longer before that happens.

Head coach Bill Self met with media earlier this week to discuss the Preston situation, saying that nothing has changed about his status quite yet. Preston was previously suspended for violating a team rule when he missed the game against Tennessee State. Before Preston was set to debut against Kentucky in the Champions Classic he was also withheld from the contest after the revelation that Preston had been in a single-vehicle accident the previous weekend.

“I have actually been out, until I just pulled back in, so as of this morning, there was no movement. The last time you guys asked me was Friday and so you don’t work on Saturday or Sunday, so there is nothing new on that situation,” Self said.

“Sure, I’m worried,” Self also added. “I’m concerned and I do think that it can work itself, based on what I’ve been told. I also think that it obviously hadn’t happened yet.”

It’s uncertain when the next step in any of this will play out but Self doesn’t appear to be too concerned over it. Kansas has won without Preston so far but they could definitely use his size, scoring punch and overall depth to a team that isn’t very deep right now.

A matchup nightmare, Preston could help the Jayhawk offense while also giving Udoka Azubuike additional help on the glass and protecting the rim.

(H/t: Jesse Newell, Kansas City Star)

Brian Bowen not allowed to play at Louisville

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Louisville announced on Wednesday that freshman wing Brian Bowen will not be allowed to play at the school. The former McDonald’s All-American will be allowed to remain on scholarship but he can’t participate in any team activities.

Bowen was tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball this fall as an adidas company executive is alleged to have been part of a scheme to deliver $100,000 to Bowen’s family, according to court documents.

Bowen hired attorney Jason Setchen to fight the case and seek reinstatement as Setchen had experience dealing with college basketball scandals before. When DeQuan Jones was suspended from Miami after the Nevin Shapiro case in 2011, Setchen helped Jones re-gain his eligibility as Miami.

With this case, Bowen was not allowed back at Louisville as the school has fired head coach Rick Pitino and most of his previous staff. Athletic Director Tom Jurich also lost his job, so the Cardinals are definitely cleaning house and trying to detach themselves from anyone involved.

It will be interesting to see what Bowen opts to do in light of this news. He’s talented enough that other schools could want him, if he’s eligible, but he’s also a former five-star prospect who could have pro aspirations. But since Bowen won’t be playing this season, he also hasn’t had a chance to spotlight his game to potential pro suitors.

 

President Trump fires back at LaVar Ball on Twitter

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The never-ending war of words between President Donald Trump and LaVar Ball escalated to another level on Wednesday morning.

Starting his early-morning tweets with some messages aimed at Ball, President Trump continued to double down on his insistence that he helped play a role in the safe return of three UCLA players arrested in China for shoplifting. LiAngelo Ball, LaVar’s middle son, was one of the three players involved in the international incident as fellow Bruins Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were also arrested. The trio returned to the United States last week after UCLA left China without them following a win over Georgia Tech in the Pac-12 China Game.

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LaVar has drawn the ire of President Trump for downplaying the President’s role in the return of the UCLA trio as Ball maintains that others had more to do with the release. All three UCLA players publicly thanked President Trump and the United States government during their return press conference on Nov. 15. The three players remain suspended indefinitely from all activities with the men’s basketball team.

In an interview with CNN earlier this week, LaVar was critical of Trump’s role in the whole ordeal while also questioning why the President would spend so much time bothering for a thank you from the father of one of those arrested.

No. 22 Baylor comes from 12 down to beat Creighton

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It was another rough night for the Scott Drew Can’t Coach crowd.

No. 22 Baylor got 15 points apiece from Jo Lual-Acuil and Terry Maston and closed the game on a 37-19 run as they knocked off Creighton, 65-59, in the title game of the Hall Of Fame Classic in Kansas City.

King McClure led the way for the Bears with 19 points, picking up the pieces for Manu Lecomte, who struggled to deal with the defense of Khyri Thomas.

Creighton jumped out to a 33-24 lead at the break and extended it to 40-28 with 18 minutes left in the game, but that’s when Baylor turned the game around. A couple of tweaks to the way that they played their zone coupled with the Bluejays missing some shots that they were capable of making led to the comeback. Instead of simply writing another ‘See, I told you Scott Drew can coach’ column, I figured it would make more sense to show exactly what I mean when I say that.

Creighton had a smart, simple game-plan offensively on Tuesday night. Get the ball into the paint, whether it was via dribble penetration or finding one of their big guys near the foul line or at the short corner, and then find a shooter on the perimeter, a cutter going to the rim or, simply, score from 8-10 feet out. That’s the best way to beat a zone, especially a zone that has the amount of length and athleticism that Baylor’s does. Notice in the clip below how extended Baylor’s guards are and, as a result, the space it creates:

Once Baylor got down by 12, their game-plan changed. Instead of extending, their defense became more compact. What is usually something of a 1-1-3 zone turned into more of a 2-3, with the focus seemingly being cutting off penetration. Baylor dared Creighton to let Ronnie Harrell be the guy that beat them, and it worked. The result was that the open threes dried up, and the jumpers that Creighton shot in down the stretch were much more contested than the looks they were getting earlier in the game:

That’s coaching right there.

Game-planning is a part of coaching. Player development is, too, as is recruiting. But making in-game adjustments like that, figuring out how a team is beating you, devising a way to stop them from doing that and getting your players to execute those adjustments is arguably the most important part of being a coach.

Here’s another example of what I mean.

Khyri Thomas might be the best on-ball defender in college basketball, and I don’t say that lightly. He essentially eliminated Manu Lecomte from the game. He is to point guards what Darrelle Revis was to No. 1 receivers. Whoever he is guarding is on Khyri Island.

Lecomte is typically Baylor’s closer, but Drew ran actions that allowed Lecomte to be a facilitator and a decoy, taking Khyri out of the play and taking advantage of matchups he thought his guys could win. That involved running a double-high ball-screen, which confused Harrell and Martin Krampelj defensively a couple of times, and resulted in a high-low action between Maston and Lual-Acuil on a number of possessions down the stretch.

But then there was also this set he drew up, using McClure as the ball-handler in that double-high ball-screen and while putting Lecomte in the same side corner. McClure refused the ball-screen, drove straight at the gap where Thomas was not going to help off Lecomte and got a bucket out of it:

That’s coaching!

And I’m not trying to say McDermott got out-coached here. His game-plan worked. Drew’s adjustment turned out to be just a bit better.

But Creighton also has players that can make the tough shots that they were forced into in the second half. If two more of them go down – if the Bluejays shoot 37.5 percent from the floor instead of 34.4 percent, if they go 7-for-30 from three instead of 5-for-30 – then they probably win this game.

Sometimes that’s how basketball works.

It’s why you always hear coaches refer to it as a ‘make or miss game’.

The larger takeaway from this game should be this: Both Baylor and Creighton are good teams. Both landed good non-conference wins during this event. Both are likely headed to the NCAA tournament.

And both took part in a fun, tactical battle between head coaches on Tuesday night that one of them had to lose.