Raheem Appleby hopes to lead Louisiana Tech from WAC to C-USA

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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.

Transitioning to a new league is a big storyline with a number of high-major programs but at the mid-major level, an interesting transition is occurring with Louisiana Tech going from the WAC to Conference USA.

The Bulldogs are led by Raheem Appleby, a 6-foot-4 junior guard, and a lot of experience, and they return nine out of their top 10 and nine upperclassmen from a 27-7 (16-2) team that won an NIT game.

Conference USA is radically different now with four teams — Memphis, Houston, Central Florida, SMU — leaving for the formation of the AAC and a staggering eight new teams entering the fray from four different conferences.

With an impressive season and all of that experience returning, Louisiana Tech is the leading candidate to take over Conference USA in its first season in the league.

“Across the board we’ve made subtle improvements,” Bulldogs head coach Michael White said. “I expect our seniors to finish out with a strong season.”

The third-year head coach will be led on the floor by Appleby, who averaged 14.9 points per game last season, but shot the ball 35 percent of the available shots he could take — eighth in the country — and his three-point percentage dipped to 30 percent after 40 percent shooting as a freshman.

CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Conference USA Conference Preview

As a junior, Appleby is focused less on hunting his own shot and more about higher-percentage play.

“I’m trying to set up teammates more because I know I can score so I’m trying to find them more to make it easier on the team,” Appleby said to NBC Sports.

“He’s really stepped up in terms of his leadership; he’s become more vocal,” White said of Appleby. “He’s become a much better passer and since he’s been a focal point in a lot of team’s scouting reports, how to find the best places to attack on the floor.”

The goal throughout the program, and echoed by each player and coach at Louisiana Tech is one message: NCAA Tournament.

White told NBCSports.com that the NCAA Tournament is the only thing the team worked towards.

“Our goal is to go to the NCAA Tournament as it has been all three years since we’ve been here,” White said. “This, I think, is our best chance and we had a heck of a run last season but didn’t finish the way we would have liked. We have nine out of top ten back and nine upperclassmen, so we have high expectations for ourselves. We do everything within our power every single day to go to the NCAA Tournament.”

That message was echoed to Appleby and the players very clearly as well.

“The goal is the NCAA Tournament, that’s the goal from day one,” Appleby said, nearly echoing White’s statements. “We were just so close last year. We want to get there and not fall short like last year.”

The program hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and the focus for the current players and coaches isn’t on the program’s past but in what it could create by its play this season.

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White said a culture has developed at Louisiana Tech where guys work in the gym.

“We spend a ton of time in the the gym, and we continue to challenge our guys being in the gym and working to achieve our ultimate goal, but we are more adjusted,” White said. “Our veterans have played two years and are used to the pace and we’ll continue to learn how to shoot. I think as deep as we were last year, we’re even deeper this year and that will allow our fresh legs to come into play when it equates to shooting the basketball as well.”

Appleby likes being with an experienced group that can now focus on getting better on things in practice since most are on the same page.

“It just makes it so coach doesn’t have to say as much anymore,” Appleby said. “When practice is going on he doesn’t have to teach as much and you have a team that’s basically prepared to play.”

As a coach, it also allows White to work on some areas of improvement or put in some new wrinkles to the playbook thanks to so much experience returning.

“It just allows us to show off in some areas and improve in a lot of little areas and add some nuances offensively and defensively because we’re so used to our base,” White said. “And as we’ve been a team that’s struggled to shoot it at times, we can spend some more time working on shooting the basketball.”

Louisiana Tech will have questions with shooting and the lack of post scoring, but they’re experienced and have won a lot of games as they enter the new-look Conference USA. Appleby isn’t worried about the changes in the competition, but he’s focused on the Bulldogs getting better.

“I’m not sure what to expect (entering Conference USA),” Appleby said. “I expect some bigger and stronger basketball but I expect us to be the same way.”

Government shutdown forces Air Force to cancel all athletic events

(AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)
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The Air Force Academy has been forced to cancel all home and away games due to the government shutdown, the school announced on Saturday.

Announcing on the official Air Force Academy Twitter page, the school will attempt to reschedule as many missed events as possible.

Canceled games include a home men’s basketball game against Fresno State on Saturday and a home hockey game against Sacred Heart. According to a report from the Colorado Springs Gazette, the women’s basketball team is in Fresno, Calif., for a road game against Fresno State, but that game will also not be played.

This is an unprecedented measure for the Air Force Academy as they’ve been able to play through government shutdowns before. In 2013, the USAA gave a $230,000 check to help Air Force football travel to Navy for its game. Government shutdowns in the 1990s also never forced the cancellation of any major Air Force games in the past.

A source told NBC Sports that Army’s athletic department has not been affected as it is privately funded. Navy’s athletic department should also be able to operate and continue under the government shutdown since they are privately funded.

Without private sponsors helping, it looks like Air Force won’t be playing until the government shutdown is over. The Gazette also reported on Saturday that Air Force athletic officials knew that this could be a possibility and said it would be an “11th hour decision.”

Air Force men’s basketball is 8-10 with a 2-4 record in the Mountain West this season. While the Falcons haven’t been a major contender, they had the momentum of a small two-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s home game against Fresno State.

The Falcons are also scheduled to play on the road at Utah State on Wednesday and host Boise State next Saturday.

Bosnian professional team announces they have signed Billy Preston

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Billy Preston has signed with BC Igokea, a Bosnian professional team, according to a release put out by the club on Saturday.

“We are thrilled to welcome Billy Preston to our club,” the statement read. “We were watching his situation closely and reached out to his family to show interest and ultimately reached an agreement with the family attorney in California on a contract for the rest of the season. We know Billy is an NBA prospect so we will do our best to continue his development to help him excel for our club and fulfill his goal which is to be an NBA star in the near future.”

“Billy Preston is foregoing his eligibility to play at Kansas and has signed with a professional team in Bosnia,” head coach Bill Self said in a statement provided to NBC Sports. “Billy’s family has been very upfront telling us that his first choice was to stay at Kansas, but with the uncertainty of the situation they needed to look at other potential options. This opportunity in Bosnia came with a deadline for a decision, and the family reached that decision Friday afternoon.”

“We are all disappointed that Billy never had the opportunity to experience college basketball competition but we certainly support him and wish him the best. Although he has been frustrated with the situation, Billy’s attitude has been tremendous and he has developed as a person and as a player. I’m sure that will continue as he prepares for his professional career.”

Igokea’s roster also includes former UCLA guard Malcolm Lee, former Oregon and UTEP guard Dominic Artis and Katin Reinhardt, who played at UNLV, USC and Marquette.

Preston had enrolled at Kansas as a freshman this season, but he was involved in a car accident prior to the start of the season. He was held out from competition as the school attempted to find out who was paying for the vehicle.

Ugly growing pains: No. 18 Kentucky needs to fix mistakes

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — John Calipari warned the growing pains would be ugly for his youngest Kentucky squad.

It’s been an annual caution from the coach, but this time he may not have been exaggerating. Kentucky has two losses in its last three Southeastern road contests.

But all is not lost.

The No. 18 Wildcats (14-4, 4-2) return home to face first-place Florida (13-5, 5-1) Saturday night with a chance to erase a one-game deficit to the Gators. And after playing four of its first six SEC games on the road, Kentucky gets to close January with three of its next four at Rupp Arena.

The immediate goal is correcting mistakes in a loss to South Carolina, a setback that Calipari said revealed how green his freshman really are.

“My issue right now is we’re playing a really good team and we needed some time to focus on them, but at this point we can’t,” Calipari said Friday. “If we get this right and it’s not good enough, then we move on to the next game.

“But if we get it right, then I’m going to feel good. If I don’t get it right, it doesn’t matter. At some point this has got to change and we’ve got to focus.”

Though Calipari is accustomed to annually guiding a new group of talented yet inexperienced teenagers through high expectations, this particular group is his youngest with no upperclassmen among his regulars. The communication and unselfish play he has stressed was absent as Kentucky blew a 14-point, second-half lead in Tuesday’s 76-68 loss at South Carolina .

Already short handed with point guard Quade Green sidelined for a third straight game because of a back issue, the Wildcats had three players foul out in the contest. Kentucky was also outrebounded 40-35 and recorded a season-low seven assists — with none from Hamidou Diallo or fellow guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Calipari said the performance was the first time the Wildcats truly resembled freshmen but isn’t using youth as an excuse. If anything, he’s pushing players shake their youthful bad habits along with the memory of that defeat.

Calipari “just wants us to play harder the whole 40 minutes,” forward PJ Washington said. “We’ve been scrimmaging a lot more to get us in game-like situations. … You can never really try too hard. You just have to keep that mindset and just move on to the next opponent.”

One bright spot for Kentucky’s rotation was the debut of 6-foot-9 forward Jarred Vanderbilt after being sidelined with a left foot injury. The freshman had six points, five rebounds and a team-high three assists in 14 minutes against the Gamecocks, an encouraging start that has allowed the Wildcats to scrimmage more with him.

“He plays with a lot of energy,” freshman forward Nick Richards said of Vanderbilt. “We see it in practice a lot. He plays hard every possession. That could be one thing that could help us.”

Green’s availability meanwhile remains a game-time decision. If nothing else, Calipari would like him back to have another shooter, not to mention with someone who communicates with teammates. On the other hand, Green’s absence has allowed Gilgeous-Alexander to play the point alongside Diallo.

But after fouls and shaky play forced Kentucky to use a number of combinations at South Carolina, the mission this weekend is ensuring whatever lineup is out there plays more consistently to slow down a Florida squad seeking its eighth win in nine games.

“It just comes with your mental” approach, Washington said. “You just gotta be prepared every day in and every day out and just fight on a consistent basis, just get shots up in the gym and just continue to focus on you and getting better.”

No. 9 Michigan State bounces back and routs Indiana 85-57

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Miles Bridges scored 22 points and Nick Ward had 18 points and 13 rebounds to help No. 9 Michigan State bounce back with an 85-57 win over Indiana on Friday night.

The Spartans (17-3, 5-2 Big Ten) had a confidence-boosting performance after going from a top-ranked team to a reeling one. They were slumping after a 16-point loss at Ohio State, an overtime win over Rutgers and an 82-72 setback to Michigan at home.

The Hoosiers (11-8, 4-3) lost for the first time in four games, falling into a fourth-place tie with the Wolverines and Nebraska.

Michigan State took control with an 18-0 run midway through the first half, led by as much as 23 and was ahead 42-23 at halftime. The Spartans stayed ahead by a comfortable margin in the second half by spreading the ball around and making it tough for the Hoosiers to make shots.

Cassius Winston had 10 points, eight assists and only one turnover, while Jaren Jackson had 10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and three assists for the Spartans.

Indiana’s Robert Johnson had 21 points and the rest of his teammates struggled offensively. Josh Newkirk scored 14, but missed 12 of 17 shots and the Hoosiers were held to 34 percent shooting.

FAMOUS FAN

Alex Rodriguez, who was in Detroit for the North American International Auto Show, attended the game. He went to Michigan State’s shootaround earlier in the day and wore an “Izzone” T-shirt while standing in the student section behind coach Tom Izzo, his staff and players.

“I’ve always been a big fan of Izzo,” Rodriguez said.

BIG PICTURE

Indiana: The Hoosiers had a hard time competing without Juwan Morgan playing as he has lately. One of the Big Ten’s leaders in scoring, rebounding, steals and shooting before the game started was limited to two points on 1-of-5 shooting, three rebounds and one steal.

Michigan State: The Spartans desperately needed to get their swagger back and they did, suddenly looking like the team that was ranked No. 1 two weeks ago.

Weekend Preview: Big East showdown headlines an interesting slate of games

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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

*(NOTE: Lines are not posted for Saturday or Sunday games as of publication. Spreads referenced are via Kenpom.com)

No. 11 XAVIER at No. 19 SETON HALL (-1), Sat. 2:30 p.m. (FOX)

The only game this weekend featuring two teams that are currently ranked in the top 25, Xavier and Seton Hall square off in a battle of programs trending in opposite directions. Now that Trevon Bluiett has rediscovered his shooting stroke, the Musketeers have reeled off back-to-back wins, including a beatdown of then-No. 25 Creighton. Seton Hall, on the other hand, lost by a combined 37 points at Marquette and Creighton in the last 11 days and struggled with a Georgetown team that was down 44 points at home against Villanova.

  • PREDICTION: Xavier’s new starting lineup will be interesting. The Musketeers are much more offensively oriented right now, but Kerem Kanter and Naji Marshall are not exactly known for their defense and physicality. Seton Hall has a big, old, tough and strong front line. I think they get this win they badly needed in front of a packed out. Seton Hall (-1)

No. 14 ARIZONA (-5) at STANFORD, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (CBS)

First place in the Pac-12 is on the line as 5-1 Arizona squares off with 5-1 Stanford. And yes, you read that correctly. In their last five games in league play, the Cardinal have swept the LA schools at home, the Washington schools on the road and beaten Arizona State in their place. Now they get the best team in the Pac-12. Stanford is healthy and playing the best basketball they’ve played in a long, long time.

  • PREDICTION: If Stanford is getting five points at home I am all over the Cardinal. The problem is that I don’t think they will be. KenPom’s projections don’t factor in that Stanford is healthy and hot. I think the line will be closer to Stanford (-2), and I would still probably take them. Stanford (-5)

FLORIDA at No. 18 KENTUCKY (-3), Sat. 8:15 p.m.

This matchup is fascinating. Two teams that still have quite figured things out that play polar opposite styles of basketball. Florida is loaded with quick, veteran guards that fire up threes. Kentucky is loaded big, athletic forwards that can’t really shoot. Coming off of a loss at South Carolina, I think this game is probably more important for Kentucky, who finally looks like they are going to be healthy.

  • PREDICTION: Can Kentucky overwhelm Florida with their size or will the Gators exploit the mismatches with their guards? That answer really comes down to whether or not the Gators get hot from deep. I’m going to guess that they will since they have a tendency to show up in big games. Florida (+3)

WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO WATCH?

  • No. 1 Villanova (-17) at UConn, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (CBS): The big question in this game for me, beyond “Will UConn lose by enough for UConn to fire Kevin Ollie on the spot?”, is whether or not Villanova is the elite team in college basketball that we swear doesn’t exist. Villanova (-17)
  • No. 7 Wichita State (-1) at Houston, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPNU): The Shockers have turned into a defensive liability out of nowhere, and on Saturday they will be traveling to visit a Houston team that badly needs this win. Wichita State (-1)
  • No. 4 Oklahoma (-3) at Oklahoma State, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN): Trae Young hasn’t been right for a couple of weeks, and now he gets a rival on the road. Is this the game that he figures it out? Oklahoma (-3)
  • BAYLOR at No. 10 KANSAS (-8), Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN): Kansas has actually had some issues at home this season, more than they’ve had on the road. Baylor tends to play the Jayhawks tough. Is this a letdown spot after that massive win at West Virginia? Kansas (-8)