Veteran Utah Valley squad grabs early control of WAC race

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Before the season began many, yours truly included, made the assumption that WAC holdover New Mexico State would be the class of the conference. With preseason player of the year in Daniel Mullings and reigning WAC tournament MVP Sim Bhullar leading the way, Marvin Menzies’ team was expected to take full advantage of the hand conference realignment had dealt them and make another NCAA tournament appearance.

However things haven’t worked out as anticipated for the Aggies, who are one of three teams tied for second place in the WAC standings. So who’s leading the way? That would be Dick Hunsaker’s Utah Valley Wolverines, who have an unblemished 6-0 WAC record in spite of the fact that they haven’t performed as well as they would like on the offensive end of the floor.

“We’d love to make more shots and have higher scoring, but it’s also good to have balance,” Hunsaker told NBC Sports last week. “We try to work together as a team and take what the game gives us.”

The Wolverines, who held off Chicago State on Saturday, have five players scoring in double figures but in conference games they’re tied for seventh in the WAC in scoring offense (66.3 ppg) and sixth in field goal percentage (42.1%). Utah Valley, with guards Keawe Enos (47.2%) and Hayes Garrity (38.8%) leading the way, is ranked second in the WAC in three-point percentage as they’ve made 37% of their attempts in conference play.

But the scoring and field goal percentage numbers lead to the question of how this team has a two-game lead in the standings in spite of those issues. The answer: they’ve defended, and they do the “little things” well.

In conference play Utah Valley has been the best defensive team in the WAC, leading the way in scoring defense (58.7 ppg), field goal percentage defense (37.2%) and three-point percentage defense (24.6%), and they’re also tops in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.5). Hunsaker’s Wolverines control tempo, as they average the fewest possessions of any team in the WAC, and that along with their work on the defensive end has allowed them to properly navigate those shooting issues to a 6-0 start to conference play.

Another key has been continuity, with the Wolverines using the same starting lineup for each of their 19 games this season. Of those five starters four are upperclassmen with forward Zach Nelson (freshman) being the lone underclassman. He’s been an effective addition to the lineup for Utah Valley, averaging 10.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, and Nelson grabbed 12 rebounds in each of the Wolverines last two wins.

He’s half of a solid interior combination, with steady senior center Ben Aird playing well after earning first team All-Great West honors a season ago. On the season Aird’s averaging 11.7 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, but in conference play the 6-foot-9 pivot has averaged 15.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest. And that increase in production has factored into the Wolverines’ hot start.

“Ben has great basketball savvy,” Hunsaker said of his senior big man. “For a big man he has a good feel and multiple skills, and he’s a big-bodied, long-armed guy.”

With players such as Aird, Nelson, leading scorer Holton Hunsaker (12.1 ppg, 4.2 apg) and Mitch Bruneel (10.2, 5.7 rpg), Utah Valley has the production needed to remain one of the pacesetters in the WAC race. And while the overwhelming focus of the WAC in regards to conference realignment has been on the negative, for a team like Utah Valley the move presents them with the opportunity to earn a ticket to the NCAA tournament. But even with that “carrot” available for the taking, the program hasn’t changed its approach.

“We’ve always played the next game and had a lot of success as a team and had some wonderful individual achievements through a period when we were playing without [the possibility of] an automatic bid,” said Hunsaker. “This team committed here without that wonderful goal and opportunity ahead of them. We simply just try to get prepared for the next game.”

That approach has been a successful one for Utah Valley thus far, and with their next three contests being on the road (including games against New Mexico State and Grand Canyon, which are both 4-2 in WAC play) maintaining that mindset will be critical for the Wolverines. And given their maturity, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Utah Valley did just that.

Ball State forward Zach Hollywood found dead in off-campus apartment

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Zach Hollywood, a redshirt freshman on the Ball State basketball team, has died, the university confirmed to multiple local news outlets Tuesday.

He was 19 years old.

Hollywood redshirted last season at Ball State after averaging 17.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game as a senior at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in Bradley, Ill.

Muncie police are investigating the death at Hollywood’s off-campus apartment, according to WTHR-TV.

“On behalf of Ball State University, it is with profound sadness that we learned today of the passing of Zachary “Zach” Hollywood, a student from Bradley, Illinois,” the school said in a statement. “Zach has been a part of our family for the past year. During his time on campus, he was a member of men’s basketball team and made many positive impressions throughout campus.

“This is a tragedy. Our heartfelt condolences are with his family, friends and teammates. “For members of our Ball State family who need support during this difficult time, we encourage them to take advantage of the numerous resources available on- and off-campus.”

Hollywood’s death is a tragic turn in an already devastating story for his family, which lost Zach’s mother, Susan, suddenly just over one year ago.

3-on-3 at the Final Four for $100,000? It’s happening

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The Final Four just got more exciting.

On Tuesday, Intersport announced a 3-on-3 tournament that they will be hosting at the Final Four with a $100,000 payout for the winners. The participants must be seniors that have exhausted their collegiate eligibility, the teams will be created based on conference and the rules will be standard, international 3-on-3 rules: one-point for a bucket inside the arc, two points for a bucket outside the arc, 12-second shot clocks and games played to 21 points, or whoever has the highest score after 10 minutes. Each all-star team will feature four players, including one sub.

And, well, this is awesome.

I cannot express enough how much I love this idea.

One potential pothole here is that teams that are playing in the Final Four will, quite clearly, not have players eligible to participate.

It also should be noted that since “three-pointers” are now worth two points and “two-pointers” are now worth one, the value of long-range shooting is increased even more.

With all that in mind, why don’t we make a quick power ranking of the teams that can be created from the nine biggest conferences in college hoops:

  1. ACC: Grayson Allen (Duke), Bonzie Colson (Notre Dame), Joel Berry II (North Carolina), Ben Lammers (Georgia Tech)
  2. Big East: Angel Delgado and Khadeen Carrington (Seton Hall), Trevon Bluiett (Xavier), Marcus Foster (Creighton)
  3. Big 12: Devonte’ Graham (Kansas), Jevon Carter (West Virginia), Jeffery Carroll (Oklahoma State), Zach Smith (Texas Tech)
  4. AAC: Rob Gray (Houston), B.J. Taylor (UCF), Gary Clark (Cincinnati), Obi Enechionya (Temple)
  5. Pac-12: Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart (USC), George King (Colorado), Thomas Welsh (UCLA)
  6. Big Ten: Nate Mason (Minnesota), Scottie Lindsay (Northwestern), Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas (Purdue)
  7. Atlantic 10: E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell (Rhode Island), Peyton Aldridge (Davidson), Jaylen Adams (St. Bonaventure)
  8. SEC: Yante Maten (Georgia), Deandre Burnett (Ole Miss), Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford (Arkansas)
  9. WCC: Jock Landale and Emmett Naar (Saint Mary’s), Jonathan Williams III (Gonzaga), Silas Melson (Gonzaga)

I had way too much fun putting this together.

What did I miss?

Harsh Reality: Indiana did not do Grant Gelon wrong, getting cut is part of sports

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What happened to Grant Gelon sucks, and I’m not sure anyone in their right mind would try to argue otherwise.

A 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Crown Point, Indiana, Gelon accepted a scholarship offer from then-Indiana head coach Tom Crean as a member of the Class of 2016. His commitment was something of a surprise at the time; Gelon was a two-star prospect, according to Rivals, and ranked 402nd in the class, according to 247 Sports. At the time, Gelon reportedly had seven scholarship offers: Central Michigan, UIC, Toledo, Iona, Youngstown State, IUPUI and Western Carolina.

It was a reach for Crean, but it was also a dream come true for an Indiana kid getting a chance to don the cream and crimson.

Which is what made what happened this spring particularly painful.

Crean was fired on March 16th. Indiana hired Archie Miller to replace him on March 27th. Five weeks later, after a handful of workouts with the new coaching staff, Miller called Gelon into his office — the date, according to the Northwest Indiana Times, was May 3rd — and told him that he was being cut. There was not going to be minutes available, the staff said, for a sophomore that played in just 12 games last season, and that finding a place to transfer would be Gelon’s best option.

“I told them I wanted to stay,” Gelon told the Indy Star. “I told them, I’m making my mind up, I’m gonna push hard, show them what I can do, I’m here for a reason. When I said that, it was like, ‘Whoa, slow down.’ They were kind of making that sound like it wasn’t an option.”

That’s because it wasn’t.

Miller was cutting Gelon.

He was not cutting his scholarship, mind you. The Indiana student-athlete bill of rights protects players from losing their tuition due to poor performance on the court or the field. Gelon would still be getting his education paid for if he opted to remain at Indiana, he just wouldn’t be playing for the Hoosiers. Gelon’s departure opened up a scholarship for the Hoosiers that eventually went to Race Thompson, a four-star power forward that reclassified into the Class of 2017 in order to enroll at Indiana this year.

“Coach Miller believes honesty in evaluating talent, while often difficult, is the appropriate measure to take at all times and in the best interest of each player,” a statement released by the Indiana athletic department read. “Grant was made aware that our staff believed his abilities were not of the caliber that would allow him to receive playing time of any kind in the future for the IU program.”

I feel for Gelon here. I really do. Getting cut sucks, and everyone reading this now has probably gone through it at some point in their life. It happens all the time, in every sport, at every age group. Once you get to a level in athletics where you’re playing in more than your hometown rec league, it gets competitive. If you’re not good enough, you don’t make the team. That is how this works. Gelon found that out the hard way.

And frankly, what Miller did is not uncommon. It’s called running a player off, and it happens all the time at every program. Gelon had a bad enough season as a freshman that there is no guarantee that he would have kept his spot on the team had Crean kept his job. Simply put, he is not a Big Ten basketball player. I’d wager that two out of every five transfers at the Division I level are the result of a player transferring out of a school — either because he was forced or because the writing was on the wall — to a lower level, one more in line with his skill-set.

That’s what happened with Gelon. He’s now at State Fair Community College in Missouri, where he’ll spend a year before looking to climb his way back into the Division I ranks, most likely at the low-major level.

And no matter how many interviews that he or his family gives, you won’t find me saying that Indiana handled this the wrong way.

Was Miller callous?

That wouldn’t surprise me. He’s not the type of guy to mince words, and there really is not a good way to sugar-coat, ‘You are not good enough for us.’

But Gelon was not having his scholarship taken away. Indiana was living up to their promise of paying for his education. They did not do him wrong. The staff gave him more than a month to prove himself as a player and, eventually, made the decision he would not be in their plans moving forward.

So he was cut. That opening allowed a four-star power forward to enroll this year.

That’s the harsh reality of life in the Big Ten.

And there’s nothing wrong with the coach of a basketball team doing what Miller and Indiana did.

VIDEO: UConn’s Kwintin Williams would win the NBA dunk contest

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Think that’s too strong?

Look at this dunk:

Light

A post shared by Kwintin Williams (@jumpmanebig) on

He also did this over the summer:

Williams is a 6-foot-7, 215 pound JuCo transfer that should provide UConn with some minutes in the frontcourt this season.

LSU officially announces addition of Kavell Bigby-Williams

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LSU has announced the addition of Oregon transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams, a 6-foot-11 junior that was the National Junior College Player of the Year as a sophomore.

Bigby-Williams, who is a native of London, averaged 3.0 points and 2.8 boards last season as the Ducks reached the Final Four, but he played the majority of the season while under investigation for an alleged sexual assault that occurred while he was at Gillette College in Wyoming.

The local County Attorney declined to charge Bigby-Williams with a crime, and Gillette College police consider the case closed.

“The university conducted a responsible and comprehensive review before approving the transfer,” a release posted on LSU’s Athletics site read, “including close coordination with Title IX officials, multiple discussions with Gillette and Oregon officials and a thorough examination of available public records.”

LSU head coach Will Wade was quoted in that release as well: “This is an issue we all take seriously and we made absolutely sure we did our due diligence before considering moving forward. Kavell understands that and has made clear to me that he’s going to repay our confidence by representing LSU with his very best on and off the court.”