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North Carolina’s big men, point guard impress in win over No. 3 Louisville

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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.

UNCASVILLE, CT — North Carolina was done. This wasn’t a top 25 team. This was a group that would have to fight and scrap just to get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament, especially now that every source for every writer seems to think that P.J. Hairston’s career as a Tar Heel may be over.

That’s what happens when you barely hang on against teams like Holy Cross or Richmond. It’s what happens when you lose to Belmont at home.

It’s also now inaccurate.

Seven days after getting dropped by the Bruins in the Dean Dome, North Carolina put together one of the most impressive performances that we’ve seen from any team this season, as they ran No. 3 Louisville off the court, 93-84, to win the Hall of Fame Tip-Off at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Seriously.

Marcus Paige led the way with a career-high 32 points, giving him 58 points on the weekend. More impressive, however, is the fact that the Heels beat the Cardinals by nine while getting next to nothing from James Michael McAdoo. He finished with nine points and three boards on 3-for-11 shooting, but those numbers vastly overestimate his impact on this game. Two of those buckets were wide-open dunks that came off of a press break. McAdoo was a non-factor.

And it didn’t matter.

So what was the difference?

North Carolina’s front court. All those young guys that everyone has called overrated and under-talented and not-good-enough-for-UNC? They dominated Louisville. There’s no two ways about it. Kennedy Meeks was sensational, finishing with 13 points, 12 boards and seven assists, single-handily shredding Louisville’s press with his ability to pass over the defense. Crazier still is that this came one night after Meeks finished with one point and three boards in five minutes against Richmond, a performance that Roy Williams was not impressed with.

“College basketball is what Kennedy Meeks did,” Williams said after the game. “Yesterday he was one of the worst players on the planet. Today he was unbelievable. I told him last night he wasn’t ready to play, he didn’t have any intensity. This is big time college basketball.”

“I don’t know what was wrong with me, honestly,” Meeks said, ” But I do know that last night, Coach told me I was playing like the worst player on the planet. That’s enough to boost me up right there.”

And what’d he say after this afternoon?

“Helluva game.”

Meeks wasn’t alone, either. Brice Johnson added 13 points, six boards and three blocks, Joel James chipped in with five points and six boards, and even Jackson Simmons played key minutes down the stretch, scoring a couple baskets and picking up the charge that fouled out Montrezl Harrell.

That’s huge for North Carolina for a couple of reasons.

First, the obvious: the Tar Heels perimeter depth has been gutted by the suspensions of Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston. Their depth is non-existent, forcing guys to play out of position. We’ve been over this time and again. It’s not exactly classified information.

More importantly, North Carolina’s offense relies on having quality big men, and the lack of their starting wings is only going to increase how much the Tar Heels rely on their big guys.

“It makes a huge difference. Having an inside presence is the biggest part of Coach Williams’ offense,” Paige said. “Having a couple of different guys that can be that guy for the night is huge for us. We kind of went away from our throw-it-inside mentality last year.”

No one is going to confuse Meeks or James or Johnson with the likes of Tyler Zeller, Tyler Hansbrough or Sean May, at least not yet, but no one is expecting them to be. They don’t even need those three to be all-conference players. they just need them to be productive, to be a threat to score when they get the ball on the block and to be able to hold position, whether it’s on the glass or defensively.

And they proved themselves more than capable of doing that tonight, but the bigs weren’t the only players with something to prove.

Paige was supposed to be this team’s starting point guard, but he’s been forced into playing primarily off the ball thanks to UNC lacking wings. That means that freshman Nate Britt has been forced into the role, something he has not looked ready for. In four games entering Sunday, Britt had 12 points and six assists, total. On Sunday, he had nine points and five assists, playing with an aggressiveness and a confidence that we’ve yet to see from him.

“I’m starting to figure it out, playing at this level,” Britt said. “There’s been a lot of new things to learn for me, and I just feel like at the start of the season, we just want to incorporate all the things we learn in practice. It’s been hard for me to just think about relaxing and playing. Over time, it’s starting to come to me a little more.”

The bottom-line is this: Marcus Paige isn’t always going to play this well and James Michael McAdoo isn’t always going to play this poorly. And at some point, the Heels will get Leslie McDonald back, maybe Hairston as well. In a worst-case scenario, the Heels will have a group of wings that are better than most teams across the country.

But the key to this group competing and contending in the ACC was at the point and in the paint.

At that, more than anything, is why North Carolina’s win was so important.

New England border war could decide America East title

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - NOVEMBER 15: Trae Bell-Haynes #2 of the Vermont Catamounts drives to the basket as P.J. Thompson #3 of the Purdue Boilermakers defends at Mackey Arena on November 15, 2015 in West Lafayette, Indiana. Purdue defeated Vermont 107-79. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the America East conference.

After four title appearances in the past five seasons, Stony Brook finally captured an America East Conference championship and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. Shortly after an 85-57 loss to Kentucky in the first round, Jameel Warney, the three-time America East Player of the Year and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Carson Puriefoy, an all-America East first team selection, and Rayshaun McGrew, another double digit scorer, all graduated. Before that, on March 19, it was announced that Stony Brook head coach Scott Pikiell was hired by Rutgers.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

It’s more than fair to assume the America East will have a new champion this season. In 2016-17, it may be a border battle between two New England programs.

Vermont, which led Stony Brook by 15 before dropping the 2016 America East title game to the Seawolves, should be tabbed as the favorite. The Catamounts graduated forward Ethan O’Day, but retain essentially every other key piece. The team will be led by Trae Bell-Haynes, who led the team with 12.2 points per game. Taking on an ever larger leadership role, the emphasis for the 6-foot-2 junior is protecting the ball as he looks to cut down on turnovers this season. He’ll be joined on the wing by Ernie Duncan, who averaged double figures in his redshirt freshman season and Kurt Steidl, who started all 36 games for the Catamounts during the 2015-16 season. The frontline will miss the 11.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game O’Day provided, but that void can be filled by a pair of Tulane transfers. Payton Henson, a 6-foot-8 forward, should add a level of toughness to the frontcourt, while Josh Hearlihy should add versatility with the ability to play 3-5 and guard pretty much every position on the floor. The Catamounts have the depth that few teams in the league can compete with night-in and night-out.

With Vermont’s additions down low, this league may come down to the frontcourt. New Hampshire boasts arguably the best one in the conference, headlined by Tanner Leissner. The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 15.9 points and 7.3 boards per game during the 2015-16 season. The frontcourt also includes Iba Camara, the team’s top rebounder also returns from a season ago. Jaleen Smith, a well-rounded guard, who averaged 13.4 points 5.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, will anchor the backcourt, while fellow guard Joe Bramanti will be in charge of locking down the opponent’s top perimeter threat. The Wildcats are coming off a program-record 20 wins and in a good position to secure its first-ever bid into the NCAA Tournament.

MORE: All-Americans | Impact Transfers | Expert Picks

Albany was in the tournament only two seasons ago. However, the Great Danes have lost its three top scorers — Evan Singletary, Peter Hooley and Ray Sanders. Albany’s attempt to reload begins with whether Joe Cremo, the America East Rookie and Sixth Man of the Year. The 6-foot-4 guard, who averaged 10.5 points and shot 51 percent from the field and 37 percent from three, will be surrounded by a core of junior college transfers. If Will Brown can get this group of newcomers to mesh quickly, the Great Danes can be a legitimate threat. Stony Brook enters the season with a new coach, Jeff Boals, who spent the past seven season at Ohio State. The Seawolves also enter the 2016-17 campaign without 60 percent of its scoring and 50 percent of its rebounding from a season ago. Ahmad Walker will be the focal point for the Seawolves, but how will he handle being “the man” as opposed to being a supporting member?

Binghamton, which returns all five starters, headlined by Willie Rodriguez, has the best chance to make a jump up the conference standings. The Bearcats should serve as a sleeper pick in the America East. Binghamton was in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency, but had one of the worst offenses in all of Division I. Tommy Dempsey has made changes to the backcourt which should improve the ‘Cats’ offensive woes. UMBC guard Jairus Lyles, the top returning scorer in the conference, will anchor a talented perimeter, but the frontcourt is cause for concern, especially in a league where the two favorites are strong in that department.

Hartford and Maine both took big hits this offseason when leading scorers Pancake Thomas (Hartford) and Isaac Vann (Maine) elected to transfer. UMass Lowell, in its third season in Division I basketball, returns three double-figure scorers. The Riverhawks remain ineligible for postseason play for one more season.

EAST LANSING, MI - DECEMBER 5:  Matt McQuaid #20 of the Michigan State Spartans tries to steal the ball from Willie Rodriguez #42 of the Binghamton Bearcats  during the first half at Breslin Center on December 5, 2015 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Willie Rodriguez (42) of Binghamton (Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

PRESEASON AMERICA EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tanner Leissner, New Hampshire

In a league that doesn’t have a dominating senior, New Hampshire junior forward Tanner Leissner has a chance to be the league’s top player. He ended the 2015-16 season averaging 15.9 points and 7.3 boards per game and scored 20 or more points 11 times in 30 games. The skilled forward has been part of a winning culture in Durham in his two seasons — 19 wins in 2014-15, a record-setting 20 last year — and has the potential to lead New Hampshire to the conference’s top spot.

 

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON AMERICA EAST TEAM:

  • Trae Bell-Haynes, Vermont: Known for coming up big in crucial situations, Bells-Haynes has the keys to the Catamounts entering this year. He’s the leading scorer and will be in charge of running the offense. Cutting down the turnovers can only help Vermont’s tournament hopes.
  • Willie Rodriguez, Binghamton: The 6-foot-6 small forward has the chance to be the conference player of the year; a player who can turn the Bearcats from rebuild mode to competitor.
  • Ahmad Walker, Stony Brook: The 6-foot-4 guard recorded six double-double a season ago. Will need to be a fixture on offense as he is on defense for the Seawolves this year.
  • Jairus Lyles, UMBC: The VCU transfer became eligible after the first semester, scoring 23.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists in 36.2 minutes per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @ryanarestivo

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Vermont
2. New Hampshire
3. Albany
4. Binghamton
5. UMBC
6. Stony Brook
7. Hartford
8. UMass Lowell
9. Maine

Abdul-Jabbar writing book about UCLA coach John Wooden

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Book Discussion For "Streetball Crew Book 2 Stealing The Game"
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NEW YORK (AP) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s next book will be a fond look back at his long friendship with John Wooden, the celebrated basketball coach at UCLA.

“Coach Wooden and Me” will be published next June and will combine personal memories and lessons learned from his friend and mentor, Grand Central Publishing told The Associated Press on Wednesday. Wooden, who died in 2010, coached 10 NCAA championship teams at UCLA. Three titles were won while Abdul-Jabbar, then called Lew Alcindor, was the Bruins’ star center.

Abdul-Jabbar, who went on to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, remained close to Wooden. In a statement released through Grand Central, he called Wooden a great coach and “an even better teacher and friend.” Abdul-Jabbar’s other books include the memoir “Giant Steps” and the novel “Mycroft Holmes.”

Five-star Bowen cuts list to six

JACKSONVILLE, FL - MARCH 19:  Mississippi Rebels and Xavier Musketeers players run by the logo at mid-court during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on March 19, 2015 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Five-star 2017 prospect Brian Bowen has trimmed his list of possible collegiate destinations to six.

Creighton, North Carolina State, UCLA, Michigan State, Arizona and Texas are still under consideration, Bowen announced Wednesday evening.

Bowen, a consensus top-20 recruit, is a 6-foot-8 small forward out of Sagniaw, Mich., but he currently is attending the prestigious La Lumiere School in Indiana. He’s also the cousin of former Michigan State star Jason Richardson, leaving many to believe that he’s a heavy Spartan lean.

“People think I’m 100 percent to Michigan State,” Bowen told Brendan Quinn of MLive.com earlier this month. “I love them to death and I’ve been there my whole life and everything — it’s a great coaching staff and everything — but I’m not 100 percent to a school until I commit there. Right now, I’m open to the schools that are recruiting.”

Bowen hasn’t said when he plans on making a final decision.

Indiana’s Hartman undergoes knee surgery

Indiana's Collin Hartman (30) and Yogi Ferrell (11) celebrate late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 85-78. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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Indiana senior Collin Hartman underwent surgery to repair damage on his left knee, the school announced Wednesday.

The Hoosiers provided no timetable for Hartman’s return following a non-contact injury he suffered in practice last week.

“Any time you see one of your players go down to injury,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said in a statement, “it tears you up as a person and as a program — even more so when it’s someone like Collin Hartman, who has been a huge part of our success and is in his senior year. We all look forward to helping him recover and rehabilitate.”

After playing sparingly as a freshman, Hartman has been a role player for the Hoosiers the last two seasons, averaging right around 20 minutes per game. He put up 5.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists last year as a junior.

The school hasn’t released the nature or severity of the Hartman’s injury, so it’s impossible to even guess when he might be able to suit up next for the Hoosiers, who are a likely top-15 team heading into the season.

Indiana opens the year in a big way on Nov. 11, facing off against Kansas in the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu.

Hokies add another top-100 guard

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The upward trajectory of Virginia Tech basketball under Buzz Williams continued Wednesday.

Wabissa Bede, a Class of 2017 point guard, committed to the Hokies to give them their second top-100 player in the class.

The 6-foot-1 Massachusetts native choice Virginia Tech after taking official visits to both Blacksburg and Butler with UMass and LaSalle also in the mix. He’s ranked 77th in the 247Sports composite rankings.

“Wabissa Bede is a rugged guard who helps his team win games by defending and playing smart basketball,” NBCSports.com recruiting analyst Scott Phillips said. “He can stand to improve his perimeter jumper, but he has a high IQ and can make plays for others as a passer.

“Bede is a perfect Buzz Williams fit.”

Williams is developing quite the backcourt in this class with top-50 shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker already committed to the Hokies.

It’s becoming a good time to be a Virginia Tech basketball fan after a couple of lean years to start the Williams era. The Hokies are a likely top-25 team and expected to end a 10-year NCAA drought this season with Seth Allen and Zach LeDay returning.

With the improvement of the on-court product and the recruiting successes, Virginia Tech certainly looks like a program on the rise.