Michigan’s offensive struggles in 79-69 loss to Duke a major concern

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DURHAM, N.C. — Caris LeVert is a good basketball player.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that there aren’t five players in college basketball that are more improved than No. 22 Michigan’s 6-foot-6 sophomore, and nothing about the 24 points he had against No. 10 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Tuesday night changes that opinion.

He was awesome, sparking a stagnant Michigan offense and keeping the Wolverines within striking distance as the Blue Devils slowly but surely vented their frustration stemming from last Friday’s tough loss to Arizona at Madison Square Garden. He beat Duke to the rim time and again in the second half, enough so that Duke’s defense changed who they were keying in on.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski agreed.

“He was terrific,” Coach K said. “Instead of just shooting outside, he drove it. He gave them a huge lift. They were having a hard time scoring and he just put them on his back.”

But LeVert’s performance touches at the heart of just what ails this Michigan team. When your roster includes names like Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III and a kid that was supposed to be a redshirt last season is the focal point of your offense, that’s a problem.

Looking over the box score of Duke’s 79-69 win over the Wolverines, it wouldn’t be difficult to assume that the Blue Devils have officially cured the defensive woes that nearly cost them wins over East Carolina and Vermont. They held the Wolverines to 30.8% shooting and just 22 points in the first half. With 1:59 left in the game, before Michigan’s late flurry, the Wolverines were shooting 39.1% from the field and had all of 50 points. Two of their three threes came in the final 1:59, when the game was already decided. Simply put, Duke executed their game-plan to perfection.

But that only tells half the story. John Beilein is an offensive mastermind. I never saw him coach when he was at the NAIA or the Division II level, and I never saw him when he was the head coach at Canisius, but I watched him at Richmond and West Virginia before he made his way up to Michigan, and I think it’s safe to say that he’s never had a team that had this much trouble running offense.

“We didn’t get a lot of easy shots,” Beilein said. “We did get a few early that we missed that could have kept it where it wanted to me.”

“We had a couple turnovers there from young players. They learn from it. It’s difficult, I don’t care if you’re home or away, you’re playing a really good team. They’re guarding you, and you’re going to make some mistakes. We made some mistakes in areas where you don’t get those possessions back.”

We knew this would happen, but the degree to which Michigan misses Trey Burke this season cannot be overstated. Losing a player Burke’s caliber, the National Player of the Year and a lottery pick, would hurt any team and any program in the country. Players with that kind of ability don’t come around often, and it doesn’t matter whether you reside in Ann Arbor or Lexington or Durham, taking a piece like that out of the equation is not an easy thing to overcome.

But Burke was so much more to the Wolverines. He was their go-to guy and their primary ball-handler. He was the leading scorer, the guy that initiated the offense and the guy that every offensive possession ran through. He was an excellent pick-and-roll point guard playing in an offense built around the pick-and-roll. And most importantly, he made each and every player on the floor better, whether it was by getting McGary open looks at the rim or Robinson wide-open rhythm threes.

They don’t have a replacement for that this season.

Derrick Walton is the guy that was expected to take over for Burke, and he is talented. He wasn’t ready for this kind of atmosphere. He needs more seasoning than a well-done steak from Costco. Robinson’s supremely athletic, but he either doesn’t have the confidence or the ability to be more than a spot-up shooter and a finisher in transition. He disappears on the offensive end far too often for a guy that is supposed to be a lottery pick. McGary is a double-double waiting to happen, but he’s not the kind of low-post scorer that commands a touch every possession; he’s not Julius Randle or Joshua Smith, and that’s a problem for a guy that’s essentially a below-the-rim player.

The most talented player on Michigan’s roster, the guy that they need to run their offense through, is Stauskas, but between being hobbled by a bad ankle and the kind of defensive pressure that he faced from Tyler Thornton and Matt Jones all night, he was completely ineffective.

“We were missing Nik’s normal game,” Beilein said of his star guard who finished with four points and three turnovers on 0-for-2 shooting from the floor in 34 minutes. “We had trouble scoring points without him.”

Stauskas clearly wasn’t at 100%, but he’s going to have to find a way to be effective when defenses are keyed in on him. He’s going to be the focal point of every opposing coach’s game plan going forward, and if he can’t be a playmaker, if the offense can’t run through him, than we should be very concerned about the Wolverines.

Wichita State getting more national respect with non-conference scheduling

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Wichita State is starting to gain more national respect with regards to its non-conference schedule.

Since moving to the American Athletic Conference this spring, the Shockers have not only gained the benefit of being in a multi-bid league every year, but they’re also getting better teams to play them outside of conference play.

According to a report from Paul Suellentrop of the Wichita Eagle, the Shockers now have non-conference games scheduled with Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State this season. With Wichita State also playing in the Maui Invitational, it gives the Shockers plenty of opportunities to schedule quality opponents and improve its NCAA tournament seeding. And that’s before Wichita State starts conference play.

Although Wichita State was getting invited regularly to prestigious non-conference tournaments such as Maui or the Battle 4 Atlantis, they were having a tough time getting certain schools to book home-and-home series. The Baylor series signifies a small, but significant, change to how Wichita State might be able to do things now.

USC forward Bennie Boatwright returning for junior year

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USC has a chance to be really good next season as forward Bennie Boatwright announced that he’s returning for his junior season.

The 6-foot-10 forward put up 15.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range as his return means that the Trojans should be a major contender in the Pac-12 next season. Elijah Stewart also announced this week that he is returning as USC could start Jordan McLaughlin, De’Anthony Melton, Stewart, Boatwright and Chimezie Metu next season.

With Duke transfer Derryck Thornton Jr. also becoming eligible and McDonald’s All-American guard Charles O’Bannon Jr. entering the program, the Trojans are a potential top-10 team.

Following decommitment, four-star recruit makes eye-opening remarks about Ohio State

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Ohio State lost a four-star recruit on Wednesday when in-state Class of 2018 wing Darius Bazley opted to open up his recruitment.

As a rising senior who is just finishing his junior season of high school, Bazley’s decommitment isn’t going to immediately hurt the Buckeyes next season. But the 6-foot-7 wing’s comments about why he opted to open up his recruitment are pretty jarring.

In a story with Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch, Bazley opened up about why he decommitted from Ohio State. Bazley’s eye-opening remarks include how the Buckeyes might not get him ideal NBA exposure and how Ohio State might miss the NCAA tournament in his freshman year.

“I was excited when I first got the offer,” Bazley said to Jardy. “Ohio State is still a great place. It’s nothing against the school or anything, but my one ultimate goal is to get to the NBA and I just didn’t feel as confident as I did when I first committed that Ohio State was one of those schools that could get me there. At the end of the day I’ve got to perform no matter where I go, but I think there’s other schools out there that could put me on a bigger stage and in a better position to show those NBA scouts when I get to college what I can do.”

Bazley also didn’t appear to be pleased at the recruiting class coming into Ohio State for the Class of 2017, which is the class that is coming in this season. Remember, Bazley is a Class of 2018 recruit who still has to finish his senior season.

“Ohio State, they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year,” Bazley said to Jardy. “They didn’t even make the NIT, which is unfortunate, but I looked into the recruits they have coming into next year, they didn’t look too good for the future. So I felt like when my class came in, yeah, we would’ve been OK, but good enough to make the tournament? I don’t know. I just felt as if I was to de-commit, actually take my time, figure everything out it would just be a lot better.”

Ohio State was once one of the major destinations for one-and-done players a decade ago so these remarks are very surprising. D’Angelo Russell was a top-five pick in the NBA Draft only two years ago, and while the Buckeyes might not be as successful in recent years as they once were, they still get plenty of national exposure with regards to producing NBA talent.

The NCAA tournament comments might carry some more weight though. The Buckeyes have missed the NCAA tournament in two consecutive seasons and things are also looking difficult for them to reach the Big Dance for next season. If Bazley wants to play in the NCAA tournament, then I could understand him wanting to open things up and explore more options.

Still, you don’t often see a player make comments like this about a school after decommitting–especially a program with as much national exposure as Ohio State. Bazley is likely going to face some heat for his remarks, but if those are his true feelings about a future life decision, then he should explore what else is out there.

Nevada gets transfer commitment from Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman

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Nevada continues to build its roster through transfers as the Wolf Pack added Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman on Thursday.

The 6-foot-7 Thurman will have to sit out one season before playing his senior season but he is coming off of a very good campaign for the Mavericks. The versatile forward put up 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent from the field.

One of the Summit League’s better players the last two seasons, Thurman should be a solid rotation forward for Nevada as he has a chance to be a breakout player with one more year of development. If Thurman can improve his 25 percent three-point shooting then he could be a major factor for Nevada.

D-League salaries, two-way contracts increase NBA Draft early entries

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Yesterday, I wrote a piece about how it’s dumb to criticize players for entering the NBA Draft without costing themselves their collegiate eligibility when the NCAA’s new NBA Draft rules are specifically designed for said players to be able to do that.

In that column, I mentioned that D-League salaries are on the rise and that the NBA’s new CBA instituted something called “two-way contracts,” and I wanted a chance to elaborate and clarify a couple of the points that I made.

Let’s start with the “two-way contracts,” which NBA teams each get two of. They are essentially a retainer that those teams can place on younger players they want to be the 16th and 17th men on their roster, holding their rights as they bounce between the D-League — where they will likely spend the majority of the year — and the NBA. The catch is that those players have to have less than three years service as a professional, and the point of it is to provide a financial incentive for younger players with the potential to reach the NBA to remain stateside while allowing those NBA teams to develop them.

That financial incentive is fairly large, as well: Two-way players will make $75,000 guaranteed and will be able to make up to $275,000, depending on the amount of time they spend with the NBA team.

That means there are an extra 60 jobs this season that can end up paying players with less than three years of professional basketball experience upwards of a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

That’s not a bad starting salary.

The other point that I wanted to address is the rising D-League salaries which, technically, will not be rising. There are still going to be Tier A and Tier B players, who make $26,000 and $20,000 respectively. But the NBA has something called affiliate players, which each of the now-25 NBA teams with a D-League affiliate can pay up to $50,000 for training camp. NBA teams are allowed a maximum of four affiliate players, who will still make their $26,000 salary from their D-League team.

In other words, that’s 100 more jobs available in the United States where a professional basketball player can make $76,000, and that’s before you consider that the five NBA teams that do not yet have a D-League affiliate will still have to play players to get them into training camp.

That $76,000 is not a life-changing amount of money. Neither is the $275,000 that a two-way contract can pay. But it’s a pretty damn good paycheck to make for an entry-level job into the industry that you always dreamed of being in.

Athletes have an unbelievably small window where they can capitalize monetarily on their gifts.

If a 21-year old sophomore decides that he wants to continue to develop his game and chase his NBA dream by making $76,000 as a D-League player, is that really all that crazy?

After all, 135 of the 450 players, or 30 percent of the roster spots, on NBA’s opening night were taken by guys that had spent time in the D-League.

There’s more than one way to make a dream come true.