Tom Izzo: I’m not ‘bitching about officiating … I’m bitching about the rules.’

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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 — Michigan State, the No. 1 team in the country, knocked off Oklahoma in the title game of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at the Barclays Center late on Saturday night, picking up an 87-76 win that moved the Spartans to 6-0 on the season.

There were times on Saturday where Tom Izzo’s club was dominant. From about the midway point of the first half to the first media timeout of the second half, the Spartans turned a 22-11 deficit into a 53-35 lead. The Sooners didn’t have a chance, and that was essentially without Adreian Payne doing anything.

But there was a reason that Payne wasn’t doing anything, and, according to Izzo, that reason was the new emphasis on fouls in college basketball. Well after midnight, in the bowels of the Barclays Center, Izzo spent a good 12 minutes venting about the way the game is being called, which is noteworthy given the fact that the Spartans, you know, won!

“Everybody is going to think points are up. They’re up because free shots are free shots!” Izzo said. “What I’m worried about is are we going to teach [players to] just dribble in and get fouled? Is that good basketball? We had a two hour and 32 minute game tonight. Is that going to be good for basketball?”

(MORE: Denzel Valentine, the piece that makes Michigan State’s talent fit together)

Michigan State’s starting point guard, Keith Appling, finished the night with 27 points on 10-for-14 shooting. He took over down the stretch, hitting big shot after big shot as he got into the paint seemingly at will. Here’s the thing: that was by design. “I told Keith at the end, if he takes a jump shot I’ll kill him,” Izzo said. “I just want him to drive in there and get fouled.”

Izzo believes that’s the crux of the issue in college hoops right now. No contact is allowed, which means that defense can’t be played. The best offense, as a result, is to simply isolate your team’s best penetrator, allowing him to drive headlong into the lane and wait for an official to bail you out. That’s not entertaining. That’s not basketball. It’s a free throw contest, one that results-minded coaches are going to be forced to play to.

“What are we going to teach? Are we going to teach the kids to just drive in there?” Izzo said. “I’m going to coach it this week. Just drive in. I’m going to put on football pads again this week. Not to rebound, but offensively. Just go in there, full back dive, three yards and a cloud of dust.”

“It’s going to sound like I’m coming out and bitching about the officiating, but I’m not. I’m bitching about the rules.”

He’s also bitching about the consistency. On Friday night, I was courtside at Madison Square Garden to see No. 18 UConn knock off Indiana. There was plenty of contact with dribblers in that game. There were armbars on drivers, and there was even a bit of handchecking. Much of it went uncalled, and the result was arguably the best game of the season to date.

On Saturday night, fouls were called for looking at a player with the ball. There were 49 fouls and 66 free throws combined. “You think that’s hard on a coach or a writer,” Izzo said, “imagine being a player.”

The result of an inconsistent whistle will be players hesitating to defend. Take Payne as an example. He had his worst game of the season because a pair of early fouls destroyed his rhythm. If he picks up a quick foul in first couple of minutes the next time out, do you think he’s going to play any defense whatsoever if it means he’ll once again be destined for the bench.

“Everybody is going to think, ‘well, only five kids fouled out,'” Izzo said. “It’s not about fouling out. It’s about how you play after getting your second one. You’re going to play tentative. You’re going to play ole.”

“We’re going to be fooled that [we’re] scoring more points. I think before it’s done you’re going to see more teams zoning, and it’ll get slower yet.”

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.