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Kentucky’s a work-in-progress, but we can see the progress being made

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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.

BROOKLYN — Attend enough of John Calipari’s press conferences, and one thing you’ll realize is that the man is media savvy enough that, should he decide his coaching career isn’t lucrative enough, he can open up his own PR firm.

He’s like a politician, and not in the derogatory way. He has a point that he wants to make, an idea that he is trying to drive home, and he knows how he is going to answer every question that he gets asked before he sets foot in that room.

With this group, one of Cal’s major talking points is that the overwhelming youth that he has on his roster means that this group is going to be a work in progress for a long time. The team that we see on the floor now is different than the team that we’re going to see when SEC play kicks off in January. The team that we see in January is going to be different than the group that takes the floor in March. This is true with every team, to a point, but it’s exacerbated in Lexington. There is no team in the country with a learning curve as steep as Kentucky’s.

“This is a freshmen team,” Cal said after Sunday night’s 79-65 win over Providence. Yes, every team that he’s had in his tenure with the ‘Cats has been a “freshmen team”, but this year’s group doesn’t have the veterans that other teams have had. There is no Patrick Patterson or Darius Miller. Josh Harrellson ain’t walking through that door. “We’re basically doing it with all freshmen. I’ve never done this before.”

The motto for this group? “What got you here won’t get you there.” What they did in high school and AAU ball, relying on their length and athleticism and God-given gifts, isn’t enough when every at this level has comparable size and leaping ability. He’s working with a blank canvas, and while part of the reason that he harps on this topic is to diffuse Big Blue Nation’s angst and to show his players that he has their backs publicly, this isn’t entirely the Calipari-spin.

He team is young, and his players do have a lot to learn.

Which means they have a lot of room to grow, and tonight, we saw some of that growth.

Kentucky knocked off a good Providence team in fairly impressive fashion on Sunday, and they did it despite the fact that Julius Randle had an off night and Andrew Harrison was largely relegated to the bench as he dealt with some foul trouble.

Instead, we saw Willie Cauley-Stein put together arguably his most impressive game as a Wildcat, finishing with 15 points, eight boards and nine blocks. Kentucky’s elite athleticism makes them potentially a deadly defensive team, and knowing that they have an eraser at the rim will only make the perimeter players that much more confident when pressuring on the perimeter defensively. This also doubled as one of Aaron Harrison’s best games to date, as he finished with 15 points and four assists on 7-for-9 shooting. He played the point quite a bit while his brother was on the bench, while also switching onto Providence’s high-scoring lead guard Bryce Cotton in the second half.

“Aaron Harrison is the one that changed the game,” Cal said.

Perhaps most importantly, however, we saw glimpses of the Wildcats starting to ‘get it’, starting to understand the way they have to play if they truly want to be a national title contender come March.

Despite playing a team with a front line that could match them inch-for-inch, Kentucky continually pounded the ball into the paint, either off the drive or off the dribble. Randle was off, finishing 4-for-10 from the floor and missing three free throws, but he added four assists, showing an ever-improving ability to pass out of a double-team. Even Cauley-Stein chipped in with a couple of jump-hooks of his own.

The stat that most signifies Kentucky’s dedication to the interior is that they only shot eight threes on the night, making six of them. Kentucky was averaging more than 17 threes attempted per game, with their two designated shooters taking more than half of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc despite the fact that they were both shooting under 29% from deep.

Kentucky still has plenty of room to grow, and, as of now, they are far from a finished product.

But you can see little things changing, improving, every time they take the court.

And if the Wildcats can continue this trend?

“When those kids mature,” Providence head coach Ed Cooley said, “they can be scary. They can be really, really scary.”

Video: Wildcats make it the “Blue And White House”

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Villanova’s title last month gave the Wildcats the opportunity to visit with the President of the United States on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

“It is the Blue and White House today,” President Barack Obama said, “because we’re giving it up for the 2016 NCAA champion Villanova Wildcats.”

The Wildcats were customarily honored by the President on Tuesday for their 77-74 title game win over North Carolina that featured Kris Jenkins’ now-legendary 3-pointer at the buzzer.

“It might be maybe the best title game of all-time,” Obama said. “Just the last few seconds could be a documentary.”

The President mentioned Marcus Paige’s circus shot that tied the game shot seconds before Jenkins’ game-winner.

“A lot of teams would have had their spirit broken,” Obama said. “The wildcats, they took control. They responded.”

That response was Jenkins’ 3 as time expired to place himself in the game’s lore with perhaps the best finish ever for an NCAA championship game.

“That was a good shot,” Obama deadpanned. “It was like a Christian Laettner shot, it was like a Jimmy V(alvano) running up and down the court shot. Charles Barkley apparently jumped out of his seat, which he doesn’t do very often these days.”

Villanova also presented the 44th President with a No. 44 jersey that the team used on Dec. 7, 2015, at Pearl Harbor against Oklahoma.

“This is a great day for Villanova University,” coach Jay Wright said.

Wright didn’t get out of the day without a goodnatured needling from the President.

“Best-dressed man in college basketball,” Obama said. “The George Clooney of coaches.”

The President also noted that Vice President Joe Biden picked ‘Nova to win it all before the tournament.

“This team possessed something that the coaches preached since day one,” Obama said, “and that’s attitude.”

 

TCU’s leading scorer leaving school

Jamie Dixon
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TCU’s leading scorer is leaving the school and college basketball behind.

Chauncey Collins, who had two years of eligibility remaining, will pursue a start to his professional career, the school announced Tuesday night. The Horned Frogs also announced the departure of little-used freshman guard Lyrik Shreiner.

“We would like to thank Chauncey and Lyrik for their contributions to TCU,” coach Jamie Dixon said in the school’s press release.  “We wish Chauncey the best as he looks to begin his professional career to provide for his family and will support Lyrik as he continues his college career at another university.”

Collins started 24 games and averaged 12.3 points on 38.7 percent shooting while dishing out 2.0 assists and grabbing 3.0 rebounds in 31.0 minutes per game. His professional career would presumably begin overseas or in the D-League.

His departure paves the way for incoming recruit Jaylen Fisher to take the reigns at point guard immediately in Dixon’s first year coaching at his alma mater. Fisher is a consensus top-50 recruit who pledged to TCU following decommitting from UNLV.

Shreiner appeared in 22 games last year, averaging 5.4 minutes per appearance.

Cal’s Mathews to transfer

Reed McConnell, Jordan Mathews
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The graduate transfer pool just got a considerable addition.

Cal guard Jordan Mathews intends to graduate this summer and transfer to another school, where he would be immediately eligible, he announced Tuesday evening.

“This decision was not easy, but I am incredibly thankful for this experience,” Mathews wrote on social media. “The relationships I have developed will last a lifetime.

“I will always be a CAl Bear and I will forever cherish my time in Berkeley.”

Mathews’ decision now puts three years’ experience plus last year’s stats of 13.5 points on 42.2 percent shooting, 3.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists on the market just hours before the calendar flips to April. He will certainly not lack for suitors, and it would appear Gonzaga has already emerged as the favorite, per multiple reports. Also of note is his brother, four-star guard Jonah, will be a freshman at USC.

The loss is a significant one for the Golden Bears as the 6-foot-3 Mathews was set to help anchor the perimeter for another season along with Jabari Bird. Coach Cuonzo Martin, though, does have incoming point guard commit Charlie Moore plus getting Ivan Rabb back makes for a solid enough core, especially if Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee, who is visiting this week, decides to pledge. Even if things do break its way there, losing Mathews heading into his senior season is a setback Cal would have otherwise like to have avoided.

Forward Charles Buggs to leave Minnesota program

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 9: Charles Buggs #23 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers drives against Alex Austin #44 of the Illinois Fighting Illini in the first round of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 9, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Illinois defeated Minnesota 85-52. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
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Tuesday afternoon the Minnesota basketball program announced that forward Charles Buggs would be leaving the program, making him the second player to depart since the end of the season. The 6-foot-9 Buggs, the last remaining link to Tubby Smith’s tenure at Minnesota, has graduated and will be eligible immediately at another Division I school as a result.

Buggs started 21 of the 28 games he played in last season, averaging 5.9 points and 2.9 rebounds in 24 minutes of action per contest. He joins guard Kevin Dorsey as players who have left Richard Pitino’s program this offseason.

After redshirting as a freshman in 2012-13, Buggs played in 16 games as a redshirt freshman in 2013-14 and for his career averaged 4.1 points and 2.1 rebounds per contest. With size being at a premium on the transfer market at this point in the spring, it will be interesting to see which schools reach out to Buggs with an eye towards adding another front court option to their rotation for the 2016-17 season.

Pac-12 all-star team to tour Australia in July

Oregon State's Stephen Thompson Jr., center, celebrates with fans after he made free throws with no time left on the clock to give Oregon State a 71-69 win over Utah in an NCAA college basketball game in Corvallis, Ore., on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Timothy J. Gonzalez)
AP Photo/Timothy J. Gonzalez
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While the majority of summer tours in college basketball consist of teams making the trek overseas (or to Canada) together, there are all all-star teams put together to represent a conference or some other entity. The Pac-12 has put together an all-star team of sorts in recent years, and on Tuesday they announced the 12-member squad that will visit Australia to play three games in early July.

Two of those games will be played against the Australian men’s national team, which will be preparing for the Summer Olympics to be played in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in August.

The coaching staff will be led by Mike Montgomery, who led the programs at both Stanford and California before retiring in 2014, with former Stanford head coach Trent Johnson and former Stanford players Casey Jacobsen and Brevin Knight serving as his assistants. Ten of the conference’s 12 teams will be represented on the roster, with Oregon (which has some players hoping to reach the Olympics for other countries) and UCLA being the teams without a player making the trip.

Also of note for Oregon is the fact that they’ll be taking a summer trip to Spain in August, so their players are already set up for a busy summer.

Arizona and Oregon State will each have two players on the roster, with Kadeem Allen and Chance Comanche making the trip representing Sean Miller’s program and Drew Eubanks and Stephen Thompson Jr. doing so for Wayne Tinkle’s program. Of the 12 players two earned honorable mention all-conference honors (USC’s Jordan McLaughlin and Washington State’s Josh Hawkinson), and Colorado’s Wesley Gordon was a Pac-12 All-Defensive Team selection.

Below is the full roster, and the team is scheduled to depart for Australia from Los Angeles July 7.

G Kadeem Allen (Arizona)
C Chance Comanche (Arizona)
G Tra Holder (Arizona State)
G Stephen Domingo (California)
F Wesley Gordon (Colorado)
F Drew Eubanks (Oregon State)
F Stephen Thompson Jr. (Oregon State)
G/F Dorian Pickens (Stanford)
G Jordan McLaughlin (USC)
G Lorenzo Bonam (Utah)
F Matisse Thybulle (Washington)
F Josh Hawkinson (Washington State)