Indiana’s a work-in-progress, and so is Yogi Ferrell

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

NEW YORK — There is no such thing as a good loss.

There are no moral victories in college basketball, not when top 25 rankings and RPI scores are on the line.

Not when the success of entire seasons are judged on results that come in March, and certainly not when so much of that March success depends on the matchups a team lucks into in the field of 68. A couple of close wins over top 25 teams this time of year could be the difference between a three seed and a five seed, and that could be the difference between a Sweet 16 and an opening round exit.

And that?

That could be the difference between a contract extension and the hot seat, the difference between a guaranteed contract as a late-first round pick and the stress of a training camp as a second round selection.

OK, I know. I’m reaching here.

But you see my point, right?

(MORE: Shabazz Napier’s path to a leadership role)

As a competitor, as a player or a coach with as much on the line as a member of the Indiana Hoosiers has on a nightly basis, there are no quality losses. A loss is a loss, and losing sucks.

“I don’t think you can look at it like that, because when you study the film, there’s always places where we could have played better in the game,” Indiana head coach Tom Crean said when asked if he thought his team’s thrilling, 59-58 loss to No. 18 UConn was a good loss for his team. “I don’t want to rationalize losing, so I would never do that.”

You can understand where Crean is coming from. But for outsiders, for the Indiana fans that made their way to Manhattan, there is plenty of reason to leave the Garden feeling good about their team. Let me explain.

When it comes down to it, Indiana did not play all that well on the offensive end of the floor. They shot 40.8% from the floor and 3-for-12 from three. They turned the ball over 19 times, many of which led to leak outs for the Huskies.

But that’s understandable.

For starters, this is an entirely new Indiana team. Two four-year starters graduated last season, the same time that two all-americans decided to leave school early to enter the NBA Draft. What that means is that Indiana’s rotation includes a number of freshmen, two of whom start, and a group of returnees that have to take over entirely new roles this season. Friday night was the first time that this group played a top 25 team, and it just so happened to be the first time that they played in a hostile environment as well.

Now add in the fact that their best player, freshman big man Noah Vonleh, managed to see the floor for all of 10 minutes, where he produced more turnovers (four) than points and rebounds combined (two). Vonleh was the mismatch that Indiana could take advantage of. He was the guy that UConn, on paper, didn’t have an answer for. And he was a non-entity on Friday, so it only makes sense that the Hoosiers would look out of whack offensively. It only makes sense that, as Crean put it, they had some “freshmen moments from freshmen.”

It happens. They’ll learn. They’ll grow. It’ll take some time, but this group is good enough defensively that the ceiling for the Hoosiers is high. I don’t think it’s out of the question that this group can compete for the Big Ten title this season.

But the key to reaching that ceiling will be Ferrell. Yogi is as quick and explosive as any point guard in the country. His first step, his change of direction, his leaping ability and his strength to absorb contact around the rim, it’s all at an elite level. Where he needs to learn, where he needs to grow, is in his decision-making. Ferrell has a tendency to get a bit out of control. Too often, ill-advised drives to the rim result in turnovers and forced shots. He needs to pick his spots better, knowing when to try to get all the way to the bucket and when to simply pull the ball back out and run another set.

The Hoosiers are young, they don’t have another go-to scorer and their perimeter shooting has taken a hit from last season, all of which means that Ferrell has a ton of responsibility on this team. Add in the lack of a backup point guard, and I don’t think it’s crazy to say that Ferrell is the most important player in the country.

None of this is a surprise.

We knew this group would be a work-in-progress, a team that could look much different in February than they do in November.

And while Friday’s loss is disappointing, I think Crean’s team showed us that they are farther along right now than anyone expected them to be.

“I like our upside,” Crean said. “We’ll learn how to win low-scoring close games like this, but I think it says a lot about where we are already.”

Top 2018 recruit R.J. Barrett names final five schools

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A top player in 2018 is down to five schools.

R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-6 guard out of Monteverde Academy in Florida, announced Wednesday he’ll consider Arizona, Duke, Michigan, Oregon and Kentucky as his college destination.

Barrett is among those in the mix for the top spot in his class now with Marvin Bagley III reclassifying to 2017 this week and committing to Duke. He starred in Canada’s run to a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championships this summer, dropping 38 points on Team USA in a shocking semifinals win for the Canadians, who went on to defeat Italy in the finals. He averaged 21.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.6 rebounds per game during the event.

The schools to make the cut for certainly are of little surprise. They’re among the biggest brands in basketball and have been among the recruiting elites for years.

Barrett was originally part of the 2019 class, but decided to reclassify earlier this summer.”Really, it’s been a thought of mine for the last year,” Barrett wrote for USA TODAY, “but I wanted to wait and see how the season would go and how school would go and when everything went well it became more and more real so I made the decision to go ahead and do it.

“I’m right on track to graduate in 2018 and academically everything is great.”

 

Big Ten reveals conference schedule with early-December games

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We knew it was coming, but seeing it in black-and-white is still plenty jarring.
The Big Ten is going to play conference games in early December.

The league announced its full conference schedule Wednesday, unveiling 14 first-week-of-December games ahead of nearly a month-long hiatus before Big Ten play picks up again in January.

It’s a move that was forced after the Big Ten decided it needed to expand its east coast presence after its expansion to Rutgers and Maryland, and will be playing its conference tournament on the eastern seaboard for the second-consecutive year, this time at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

The problem with MSG is that the Big East hosts its annual conference tournament there, meaning the B1G will have to play its tournament a week early, March 1-4. That means a week less of January, February and March for the conference to play its 18 league games. Thus the early December start. NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster broke down the situation in even more detail – and bite – last spring here.

Every team in the league will play both a home and a road game during that league’s first week, a soft opening if you will. Whether teams like the change or not will likely come down to circumstance  – what players they have injured or suspended, what players their opponents have injured or suspended and any other host of issues, but it’s hard to believe with all things being equal, Big Ten coaches will like this move. They’re playing extremely meaningful league games less than three weeks into the season with other conferences getting nearly 2 months of preparation before facing their toughest slate of games.

The B1G, though, will have more favorable and interesting games – even if they’re programmed against college football championship games (including their own) – that week than any other conference can boast, which likely means some nice TV ratings. Given why this change is being made, that’s probably the priority anyway.

South Carolina adds Maine grad-transfer Myers

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South Carolina is adding some immediate help in its follow-up season to a Final Four run.

Wesley Myers, a graduate transfer from Maine, is joining the Gamecocks’ program, according to FanRag Sports’ Jon Rothstein.

The 6-foot-2 guard gives Frank Martin’s team an instant infusion of scoring as they look to replace SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier. Myers 16.9 points per game last year on 43.7 percent shooting, including a 34.3 percent mark from 3-point range.

He’s the second grad-transfer Martin has picked up this offseason, joining Florida Atlantic’s Frank Booker. The pair should help ease the transition from last year’s success to a much less experienced team that returns just a pair of starters.

Myers, though, doesn’t arrive in Columbia without some notable history.

Last year, after transferring to Maine from Niagara, was suspended after an altercation with a teammate, according to reports. He and teammate Marko Pirovic argued over locker room music, and the alleged ensuing altercation left Pirovic with a broken jaw, according to reports. Three other Maine players were suspended after telling a team athletic trainer that Pirovic had injured himself in a fall in the shower. Pirovic declined to press charges.

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett: ‘We believe in diversity and unity to its fullest extent’

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Virginia’s Tony Bennett finally spoke out on last weekend’s clash between white supremacists protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and counter-protesters that resulted in the deaths of a 32-year old woman named Heather Heyer and two police officers involved in a helicopter crash:

Bennett does not exactly take a hard-line stance — the message is more about healing within the community and how much he loves his current hometown than it is about condemning what happened — but he does say “we believe in diversity and unity to its fullest extent.”

Kyle Guy, a sophomore on the Virginia roster, had this to say on Sunday:

UNC academic case finally reaches NCAA infractions hearing

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — It has taken more than two years for North Carolina to appear before an NCAA infractions committee panel since initially being charged with five top-level violations amid its long-running academic scandal.

The two-day hearing begins Wednesday in Nashville, Tennessee. The panel will ultimately determine whether the school faces penalties that could include fines, probation or vacated wins and championships, making this a major step toward resolution in an oft-delayed case filled with starts, stops and twice-rewritten charges.

“The hearing stage, no matter what size of a case, it’s a big deal to any university,” said Michael L. Buckner, a Florida-based attorney who has worked on infractions cases. “I’ve been a part of what you’d consider small cases, I’ve been a part of one of the largest cases. And trust me: The client feels the same anxiousness and apprehension no matter what size of a case it is.

“But I can definitely imagine with North Carolina, this is definitely a momentous occasion.”

The charges include lack of institutional control in a case tied to irregular courses in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. The case is an offshoot of a 2010 football probe, with the NCAA reopening an investigation in summer 2014, filing charges in May 2015, revising them in April 2016 and then again in December.

The panel, which would typically issue a ruling weeks to months later, is chaired by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey and includes former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

UNC’s representatives were seen arriving for the closed-door hearing at a Nashville hotel Wednesday morning. The contingent included athletic director Bubba Cunningham, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, football coach Larry Fedora and women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell. Jan Boxill and Deborah Crowder, two former UNC employees charged individually in the case, were also seen with their attorneys.

None of the coaches are charged with a violation. But football and men’s basketball are referenced in a broad-based improper benefits charge tied to athlete access to the irregular courses, while women’s basketball is tied to a charge focused on a former professor and academic counselor providing improper assistance on assignments.

Fedora wasn’t working at UNC during the time in question.

“There’s nothing that I can add to what happened before I ever got here,” Fedora said last week. “But I’m there for support. I think me being there is important — not only for the NCAA but the university — that it shows compliance is important to me and our program.”

The focus is independent study-style courses misidentified as lecture classes that didn’t meet and required a research paper or two for typically high grades. In a 2014 investigation, former U.S. Justice Department official Keorneth Wainstein estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes making up roughly half the enrollments.

The NCAA has said UNC used those courses to help keep athletes eligible.

UNC has challenged the NCAA’s jurisdiction, saying its accreditation agency — which sanctioned the school with a year of probation — was the proper authority. In a May filing , the school stated it “fundamentally believes that the matters at issue here were of an academic nature” and don’t involve NCAA bylaws.

The NCAA enforcement staff countered in a July filing: “The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA’s business.”

UNC has argued non-athletes had access to the courses and athletes didn’t receive special treatment. It has also challenged Wainstein’s estimate of athlete enrollments, saying Wainstein counted athletes who were no longer team members and putting the figure at less than 30 percent.

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