They lost four of their first five games, and they weren’t good losses, either. At Wake Forest. At home to Miami. Beatdowns at the hands Syracuse and Virginia. This was a team that beat all three of the nation’s preseason top three teams?
Well, the Tar Heels have bounced back.
They’ve now won four straight games after a 75-63 win against Maryland on Tuesday night, which moved the Heels up past .500 in the league standings for the first time this season. That’s good news, because Roy Williams’ club has apparently hit their stride at the perfect time.
Their next four games could end making their season. It starts with a trip to South Bend on Saturday to take on Notre Dame. Duke and Pitt will come to town next week, and UNC will follow that up with a trip to Florida State the week after. It will take a bit of a collapse for the Heels to miss the tournament at this point, but a good way to kick off a long losing streak is to have a bad stretch against good competition.
The key for UNC, at least according to their coach, appears to be as simple as maintaining their confidence.
“I think they are more confident [during this winning streak],” Williams told reporters last night. “I think they’ve bought in to the sense of urgency issue that we’ve been preaching all year long.”
Star guard Marcus Paige agreed.
“We’ve definitely hit our stride, our defensive intensity has increased, and it’s a lot different than it was the first couple of ACC games,” he said last night. “That’s what allowed us to be successful, so if we keep that up I think we’re going to reel off a couple more wins hopefully.”
That defensive intensity, which has actually become the strength of this UNC team, has carried over to the other side of the floor as well. Paige is averaging 18.5 points and 6.0 assists during this recent surge. James Michael McAdoo is averaging 16.8 points and 8.3 boards in these four games. In three of the last four, they’ve jumped out to big, early leads and never looked back.
UNC has their issues — they don’t shoot threes well and they are as bad as any team in the country from the foul line, which is why their offensive efficiency is as low as it is — but there certainly are talented players on the roster.
If they can put it all together, they can beat anyone in the country.
St. John’s sophomore guard Shamorie Ponds will test the NBA Draft waters without hiring an agent, he announced on Saturday.
The 6-foot-1 Ponds was one of the best players in the country this past season as he put up 21.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game for the Red Storm.
Ponds had some memorable individual performances this season including back-to-back wins and monster performances against Elite Eight teams. After 31 points in a loss to Xavier, Ponds had 33 points in a win over Duke and 26 points in a win over Villanova.
It’ll be intriguing to see what the NBA feedback is like for Ponds. The sophomore can really score the ball at a high level, but Ponds hasn’t played for a winning team and he is also on the smaller side. Perimeter shooting is also a major question mark after Ponds only shot 25 percent from three-point range this season.
But there is no doubting that Ponds is a gamer, and he can score points in bunches if he gets going. If Ponds returns to St. John’s next season, he’ll be someone to watch for on preseason awards lists.
In one of the nicer moments of sportsmanship that we’ve seen in the NCAA tournament, Purdue senior Vincent Edwards — after his last game as a college basketball player — paid a visit to the team that ended his Final Four dreams, wishing them good luck throughout the rest of the tournament.
“Go win it,” he told the players in the Red Raider locker room:
BOSTON — To the public-at-large, the legacy of Jevon Carter comes down to this: He’s been in college for 100 years, and he looks like it because of his hairline.
He’s the Perry Ellis redux.
To everyone in college basketball — from his coaching staff to his program to the teams and players that he has wreaked havoc on — what he did and who he was meant so much more.
Let’s start with this: Jevon Carter knows what his opponent’s are going to try to do better than they do.
“Jevon tells guys on the floor where to go when they don’t know the plays,” said West Virginia assistant coach Ron Everhart, and he’s not referring to his own team. “He sits there and studies their film. He knows their plays better than they do. It’s pretty funny, actually. ‘You go there, and you better get out there, coach is gonna take you out.'”
The opposition is not the only team he coaches up. On the court, in the huddle, in the locker room. He’s always talking, always helping, always leading.
“He always taught me what to do,” said West Virginia’s sophomore center Sagaba Konate, one of the most improved defenders in the country this year. “In the game, in the huddle, he always show what to do. If I’m on the wrong side in a game, he told me be there, go to the other side. At halftime he come up to me, show what I’m supposed to do, swing here, swing here, I’ll throw it to you here. All that kind of stuff.”
And then there’s the way that he’s viewed by the people he chews up, spits out and leaves with nothing but a turnover or a missed shot in the box score.
“None,” Donte Divincenzo, who turned the ball over six times in Villanova’s 90-78 win over West Virginia on Friday night, a win that ended Carter’s career and sent the Mountaineers home in the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season, said when asked if he’s ever faced a better defender. “He’s the best ever.”
“Maybe Briante Weber at VCU,” added Villanova assistant Ashley Howard, the man that was tasked with putting together a scouting report to try and deal with Carter on Friday. “But in recent years? None.”
The quick hands. The lateral movement. The relentlessness. They say shot-blockers can change a game simply because shooters know they’re there, conscious of the fact that they may end up getting a layup put through the back board. It’s not often that you hear ball-handlers say the same about a guy out on the perimeter.
“Even when you get by him, you have that presence right behind you that can get the ball at any point,” Divincenzo said. “We were driving and he was still on our backs, still reaching and still getting his hands on balls.”
“He can have an off game but people still fear him on the defensive end.”
But to really understand what the man they call ‘JC’ has meant to this West Virginia program, you have to go all the way back to the very first moment that head coach Bob Huggins saw Carter play.
“I was in Orlando in Disney,” Huggy Bear said last week. “Got me a big cup of coffee to watch the 8 am game. He was in the furthest court away that you could be on. I’m trying to drink my coffee and wake up and this guy’s pressing at eight o’clock in the morning. No one else on his team’s pressing. Just him. He’s picking up the ball, pressuring people from end line to end line, and I pick up the phone and call my assistants and say, ‘We’ve got to sign this guy. I don’t know what he does well, but he sure tries to guard.'”
And he’s never stopped.
What you have to understand here is that Carter, as much as anyone, is to credit for West Virginia’s ascendance to being one of the best programs in the Big 12. When Huggins started recruiting Carter, West Virginia was in the midst of a transition that was not going well. In their first season in the Big 12 after leaving the Big East, the Mountaineers finished 13-19 overall, the first time that Huggs had a team finish a season below .500 since 1984-85, his very first year as a Division I head coach. The following year they were better, but their 17-16 mark was the second-most losses that Huggins has ever had in a season as a head coach.
“We were struggling,” Huggins said. “I underestimated the switch from the Big East and how they played in the Big East to the Big 12. We had the wrong kind of guys. We had guys that didn’t love to play.”
JC, and his four-year back court mate Daxter Miles, love to play. They were unheralded prospects that were brought in to replace guys like Eron Harris, who left the program after averaging 17 points as a sophomore, and completely changed the culture of West Virginia basketball.
It helps that their arrival sparked a change in philosophy — Press Virginia was born — but it bears asking: Would Press Virginia have worked without those two making their presence known?
“These two guys are — they’re at the head of that class,” Huggins said. “They work. They work every day in practice. They’re coachable. I’ve never had one complaint about either one of them. I’ve never had one issue with either one of them.”
Culture is a word that gets thrown around a lot in college basketball, sometimes unnecessarily so, but with Miles and, specifically, Carter, it is completely fair and justifiable to say that they changed the culture of West Virginia basketball.
“They’ve come into this situation and basically turned it around,” Everhart said. “Look at where we were four years ago when they got here and look at where we are today. We won 25 games four years in a row and three straight Sweet 16s, and I think that speaks volumes in terms of what they’ve meant to West Virginia basketball and our program, locker room, culture, where we are right now.”
“He’s the guy who really get me to play great defense,” Konate said, “because I never saw JC giving up or get tired. So I say, ‘if he’s doing it, why not me?'”
And that right there says all you need to know about Jevon Carter and the legacy that he will leave.
Bill Self’s least impressive Kansas team is 40 minutes away from the Final Four
OMAHA, Neb. — Kansas is vulnerable, exploitable and limited. The Jayhawks have no depth, are without a superstar and possess a middling defense.
They are Bill Self’s worst team.
And they have won the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and are a win away from the Final Four.
The Jayhawks shrugged off some late sluggishness to dispatch No. 5 Clemson 80-76 on Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinal at CenturyLink Center to put themselves in the Elite Eight for the third-consecutive year with a date with Duke on Sunday.
This year has often been about what this Kansas team couldn’t do after the losses of Frank Mason and Josh Jackson and then the ineligibility of Billy Preston. Early-season losses to Washington and Arizona State, the latter at the usually impregnable Allen Fieldhouse, were the proof this Kansas team might finally be the one not to win a Big 12 title. Then Texas Tech beat the hell out of them in Lawrence and it looked like the streak was on its way to over.
Devonte Graham was a poor imitation of Mason. Svi Mykhailiuk was too timid and inconsistent. Udoka Azubuike was foul-prone and unproven. The supporting cast was a rung or two lower than a team with national-championship aspirations could carry.
Those problems are real. Those issues are troublesome. Those deficiencies are critical.
In spite of it all, Kansas won the Big 12 by two games, ripped through the conference tournament and are on the doorstep of playing for a national championship.
Bill Self’s worst team has a chance to be the country’s best.
“I’m so proud of our team because I think of all the teams that we’ve had here, this would be the team that everyone would have thought would not be in this game,” Self said Friday. “And so, hey, we’re in this game. We’ve got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio.
“You prepare the whole year to play in this game. So I think we’ll play with no what-ifs. I think we’ll let it go. I think we’ll be as loose as we can be and still you’ve got to make shots.
“I’d like nothing more than to take my team this year to San Antonio and let them experience what the best of the best is in college basketball.”
The key to Kansas’ season has been embracing its shortcomings. Azubuike is the only big they’ve got that can give them both scoring and defense consistently. It’s a 180 for a program that’s featured Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich, the Morris Twins and Jeff Withey. Kansas almost always plays through its bigs. This year, they’re playing around one.
“I never played like this,” Self said. “It just goes against the grain from the teams that we’ve had in the past, but these guys have figured it out. They’ve learned how to play through it, and we’ve had unbelievable guard play and unbelievable leadership from our vets, and had some guys have some outstanding seasons.
“There’s less margin for error but these guys have certainly rallied around that.”
Kansas’ shooting is why they’re in the Elite Eight. The Jayhawks are 10th nationally with a 40.5 3-point shooting percentage. It’s Azubuiike, though, that makes so many of those good looks possible. The man makes 77.5 percent of his shots from the floor. That demands defensive attention. And that means defenders aren’t shadowing shooters.
“He’s a guy we can throw the ball into and he can go get a basket,” Malik Newman, who had a team-high 17 points Friday, said. “I think his passing is underrated. That’s another big key for him. When we’re able to throw it in and the defense collapses on him, he is able to kick it out and find an open shooter.
“It just opens up the whole game for us.”
It’s opened up a whole world of possibility for Kansas and a world of hurt for their opponents.
“Most teams have somebody that you can kind of scratch off,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell mused. “So one of the reasons they’re so hard to guard is they’ve got a center that scores if he catches it deep, and he’s bigger than everybody on the floor so he does get position. And then you’ve got guards that can all make shots and drive by you and they play with great spacing.”
Now, Kansas isn’t full of slouches. Graham was the Big 12 player of the year, Azubuike’s talent was apparent even if it was raw before injury robbed him of a freshman year. Mykhailiuk is all-Big 12 while Malik Newman and LaGerald Vick were heralded prospects. Still, there’s not a lottery pick among them. No Andrew Wiggins or Ben McLemore or Josh Jackson. The fit is strange and the depth is zilch.
All that has eroded Kansas’ wiggle room for mistakes, but when they operate within their comfort zone, it can make for great offense. The first two minutes of the second half when the Jayhawks hit back-to-back 3s was a thing of beauty, ball movement and shot making. It was the blueprint for a buzzsaw.
Maybe Self’s worst team is pretty damn good.
Keenan Evans closes strong (again) as Texas Tech advances past Purdue to Elite Eight
BOSTON — Second Half Keenan struck again on Friday night.
Keenan Evans scored 12 of his 16 points and handed out three of his four assists in the final 10 minutes of the game as No. 3-seed Texas Tech held off No. 2-seed Purdue, 78-65. Zach Smith and Justin Gray paced Tech early, combining for 26 points that helped the Red Raiders build a lead that reached as high as nine before Evans went into takeover mode. Zhaire Smith added 13 points of his own, while the Red Raiders forced 17 Purdue turnovers.
And with that, Texas Tech will to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since … ever.
This is uncharted territory for for the Red Raider program that has never been to an Elite Eight and will be playing for their first-ever trip to the Final Four.
“To build a program there has to be a lot of firsts so myself and Keenan have only been together for two years, so we’ve never been to the Elite Eight in two years,” Beard said. “That’s more accurate.”
It’s also fitting, really.
Because it more or less sums up what makes this Texas Tech program so interesting.
On a night where their three-leading scorers never really got going, the Red Raiders advanced on the stretch of two things: Their defense, and the fact that they can stay in a game on the nights when their best players don’t play their best.
With just over 10 minutes left in the game, when Purdue was getting ready to make one final run at advancing to the Elite Eight, is when Evans took over. And there’s no question about it: He closed out this game. Everything that the Red Raiders got on the offensive end of the floor came through Evans down the stretch, even the stuff that doesn’t show up in the score book; for example, the Red Raiders executed a pick-and-roll to perfection with three minutes left, but the lob that Evans threw to Zach Smith ended up as a missed dunk that Zhaire Smith was able to put right back in. Evans doesn’t get the assist, but he made that bucket possible.
I saw all that to say this: With 10 minutes left, the three leading scorers in the Tech program — Evans, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver — were a combined 4-for-16 from the floor with just 11 points.
And Texas Tech held a 50-41 lead. If Evans is Texas Tech’s closer, this was a save that he earned with a three-run lead.
“It’s our identity,” Beard said. “We have a lot of faith in our whole roster, we use a lot of different guys and tonight was fitting. That is the way we have played all year.”
If that doesn’t sum up Chris Beard’s program, I don’t know what does.