Yale is in an unfamiliar spot in the Ivy League: At the top, looking down

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When you think of the Ivy League, Yale isn’t the first program that comes to mind.

These days, it’s Harvard, as the Crimson went out and hired Tommy Amaker, who formerly coached at Michigan Seton Hall, while turning top 25 recruiting classes into league titles and, in 2013, an upset win over No. 3 seed New Mexico. Before that, it was Cornell, whose run to the 2011 Sweet 16 landed Steve Donahue the head coaching job at Boston College. All that comes before we mention the league’s two-most storied programs in Penn and Princeton, who dominated the conference for decades.

The Ivy League is unique in that it’s the only conference that does not have a conference tournament, meaning that if you don’t win the league’s regular season title, you don’t go dancing. Yale has won exactly one league title in the last 50 years, and that came in 2002, the first time there was ever a three-way tie atop the conference. The Bulldogs eventually lost to Penn in the playoff, meaning that they were bound for the NIT.

When you think of Yale, you think of their law school or their medical school. You think of their proximity to Sally’s and Pepe’s. Hell, you even think of their hockey teams.

You don’t, however, think of their basketball program.

“I tell people back home I play in the Ivy League, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you guys play Harvard’, or ‘Did Princeton win this year? Did Penn win this year?'” Justin Sears told NBCSports.com in a phone interview this week. A New Jersey native, the 6-foot-8 sophomore forward leads Yale averaging 15.3 points, 7.1 boards and 1.8 blocks. “It’s a little bit frustrating, especially because people think we’re a hockey school. I think the guys, we just wanted to change the culture here.”

“We just needed to start winning games.”

And that’s started to happen.

Yale has won four straight games heading into this weekend’s showdowns with Penn and Princeton in New Haven, the biggest being last Saturday. The Bulldogs went into Lavietes Pavilion and knocked off Harvard, putting themselves into a first-place tie with the Crimson. For Yale, beating Harvard is always going to be a big win, regardless of the sport. That’s just how the rivalry between those two schools works. But with the increased attention that has been given to the Crimson in recent years, it was especially sweet.

Harvard gets more national attention than every other program in the Ivy League combined. They’ve become the marked man in the conference. Being the reason that every college hoops scribe has to tweet about Harvard losing certainly makes the win feel just that much better.

“Over the summer one of the Harvard assistant coaches tweeted how their 10 players could start at anyone of the other seven schools in the league, how they should sweep the all-conference selections,” Sears, who finished with 21 points, 11 boards and two blocks, said. Sears chose Yale over, among others, Stanford, but he was offered by every school in the Ivy League. Except Harvard. He didn’t forget.

“It’s just more bulletin board material,” he said. “Harvard this, Harvard that. Each team is going to give Harvard their best shot.”

The Elis are lining themselves up on the inside track to a league title. Six of Harvard’s last eight games are on the road, including March 7th’s trip to New Haven for the season’s final weekend. In other words, Yale controls their own destiny when it comes to winning the conference and making the NCAA tournament, but that’s precisely the kind of forward thinking that head coach James Jones wants him team to avoid.

When a single loss can put a quick end to those tourney dreams, looking any further down the schedule than the next opponents is dangerous. Jones is proud of how hard his team has worked, and he wants the kids to get the credit they deserve, but “you want your guys to stay focused,” he said. “Flying under the radar’s not a bad thing.”

The good news for Jones is that he’s built a team whose success depends almost entirely on the one thing that they can control: their effort. This group is going to be bigger and more athletic than anyone they’ll face in the Ivy League. Their perimeter stands 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7. Sears may only be 6-foot-8, but he’s as tough and aggressive as any big in the mid-major ranks. Where many Ivy League teams will field a lineup with a perimeter-oriented four-man, the Bulldogs use two bigs. They’re relentless going to the glass.

“We’ve got a lot of size and a lot of length,” Jones said. “That’s a strength of our team and if we’re going to be good we have to utilize it.”

So long as they stay atop the league standings, Yale is now going to be one of the biggest games of the year for every team they face.

It’s quite a change of pace for a team that’s been to no NCAA tournaments and exactly one NIT since 1962.

“High school rankings, it’s not the biggest thing. It’s the coaching, the effort you put forth,” Sears said. “When we just go out and give our best effort, it doesn’t matter how many shots we hit. All that matters is if we play defense, make our free throws and rebound the ball. We do that every night.”

Report: Texas’ Jones to test NBA possibility

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Both of Texas’ McDonald’s All-Americans from its 2016 class will test the NBA waters.

Andrew Jones will declare for the draft, but will not hire an agent, according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-4 guard joins Jarrett Allen, the Longhorns’ star center, in utilizing the rule change that became available to players last year in which they can declare, workout for teams, attend the NBA combine and still return to school.

Jones averaged 11.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game as a freshman. He shot 42.5 percent from the field overall and 32.8 percent from 3-point range.

Allen seems the likelier candidate to remain in the draft as a potential lottery pick, but Jones came to Austin with similar one-and-done possibilities given his status as one of the class’ top recruits.

Texas, of course, is hoping both return, not just because they’re both big talents, but because incoming and highly-touted recruit Matt Coleman fills the major hole in last year’s lineup – point guard. If the three of them can share the floor together, Year 3 of the Shaka Smart era will be much more interesting.

Morrow announces transfer from Nebraska

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Nebraska was once again hit with a surprising and damaging transfer.

Ed Morrow, Jr., who led the Huskers in rebounding last year, announced his intention to transfer, the school announced Wednesday.

“I support Ed in his decision to transfer schools and wish him well,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said in a statement. “We appreciate his hard work over the last two years. Although I am disappointed, we will continue to recruit young men who are committed to our mission of building Nebraska Basketball with a culture of success in all areas…life, school and winning basketball at its highest level.”

The 6-foot-7 sophomore’s departure is a major hit to the Huskers, who are coming off a 12-19 year in which Miles’ job security was called into question. It almost assuredly will be again this year as Nebraska hasn’t been able to build on its 2014 NCAA tournament appearance, instead putting together three-straight losing seasons.

Morrow’s decision is surprising not only given he’d been a productive member of the team – averaging 9.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game – but because he was born in Nebraska before attending high school in Chicago and both his parents were Nebraska student-athletes his father winning a national title on the football team in 1994 and his mother an all-Big Eight performer on the basketball team.

“I want to say thank you to my teammates, coaches, the fans and the University of Nebraska athletics department for giving me the opportunity to play Division I basketball,” Morrow said in a statement. “It is hard to leave home, and Nebraska is my home. I was born and raised here, it is my parents’ alma mater, and I have a lot of friends here. But sometimes you have to venture out to pursue dreams and aspirations in a career. This is a sacrifice I have to make to better myself.”

Morrow’s transfer comes a year after Andrew White surprised Nebraska with his decision to graduate and transfer to Syracuse, which no doubt impacted the Huskers’ poor 2016-17 record.

Miles was on the hot seat at the end of last season and will assuredly begin this season there as well. A roster hit like Morrow won’t do much to help him improve the situation. Nebraska does, however, have three starters returning while Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland is eligible, as is Miami (Fla.) transfer James Palmer, Jr.

Lonzo Ball says “I’m better than” Markelle Fultz

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Usually, it’s LaVar Ball that makes news for what he says.

His eldest son is now getting in on the business of generating headlines with something other than his play.

The UCLA star, who said he’ll enter the draft after just one season with the Bruins, claimed he’s the better prospect than Washington freshman Markelle Fultz, who many have pegged as the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

“Markelle’s a great player,” Ball said, according to ESPN, “but I feel I’m better than him,” “I think I can lead a team better than him. Obviously he’s a great scorer — he’s a great player, so I’m not taking that away from him.”

Not exactly inflammatory stuff – like saying you could have beaten Michael Jordan, that you want a $1 billion apparel deal or a number of things his father has said – bu Ball is certainly projecting confidence. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s quite a bit of money – and pride – at stake with the draft, and Ball put up a season worthy of comparison to Fultz, who had great numbers but played for an abysmal Washington team. Ball, on the other had, had strong numbers while leading UCLA to the Sweet 16.

Both are going to go at the top of a draft that’s stocked full of promising point guards. Which player goes before the other remains to be seen, but it’s likely public pronouncements aren’t going to affect the draft order.

 

UMass hires McCall away from Chattanooga

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UMass has found, once more, the man to take over its basketball program.

The Minutemen have reached an agreement with Chattanooga coach Matt McCall, the school announce Wednesday

“The tradition and resources that are in place not only make this one of the best basketball jobs in the Atlantic 10 Conference,” McCall said in a statement released by the school, “but one of the best jobs in the country. We couldn’t be more excited about becoming part of the UMass family and look forward to building upon the rich tradition that has been established here in the past.”

In McCall’s two years at Chattanooga, the Mocs to the NCAA tournament in 2016 and a 19-12 record this year that featured five-straight losses to end the season.

The move will take McCall out of the southeast for the first time in his career as he previously served as at Florida and Florida Atlantic before getting his first head coaching job at Chattanooga.

McCall wasn’t the Minutemen’s first choice to replace Derek Kellogg after three-straight lackluster seasons. Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey had agreed to take the job before a last-minute about-face that saw him return to the Eagles program just before his introductory press conference was scheduled to begin.

“Matt is a rising star in college basketball coaching who has been a key piece of three successful programs in his career,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement. “He has earned a reputation as a relentless worker, a great teammate and colleague and a confident leader of young men.

“Matt has worked with some of the most respected coaches and administrators in the country, who loudly sing his praises. Coach McCall’s appointment begins an exciting new chapter for our tradition-rich men’s basketball program at UMass.”

Despite being the second choice, McCall’s reputation in the coaching industry makes him a strong hire, having worked under Mike Jarvis and Billy Donovan. He took over at Chattanooga for Will Wade, and brought the Mocs to a 29-6 record and a  12-seed in the NCAA tournament in 2016.

UMass went to just one NCAA tournament under Kellogg (in 2014) during his nine seasons leading the Minutemen.

VIDEO: Frank Martin’s sideline demeanor as a high school coach

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South Carolina coach Frank Martin has the reputation of being rather, shall we say, intense on the sidelines during games.

The coach has a stare that seemingly could bore a hole through his players when they do something that doesn’t reach his level of expectation. Martin’s demeanor, though, didn’t just come into form once he hit the college ranks.

He was plenty intense on high school sidelines as well.

Martin won three titles while at Miami Senior in the mid-1990s, coaching the likes of future pros Steve Blake and Udonis Haslem. Now having reached his first career Final Four, that sideline persona has put him on the precipice of winning yet another championship, this time at the collegiate level.