NEW YORK — It started with an ankle injury that Gary Harris suffered during the offseason.
Harris, Michigan State’s all-american shooting guard, missed five weeks of action in the fall after hurting the ankle, an injury he consistently re-aggravated throughout the first month of the season. Then it was Keith Appling’s wrist injury, which he suffered in a loss to North Carolina in December and aggravated in a loss to Georgetown in February. Adreian Payne sat out for a month in the middle of the season as he battled plantar fasciitis and a sprained foot. Branden Dawson broke his hand hitting a table during a film session. Travis Trice and Matt Costello seemed to be sick more than they were healthy.
This isn’t new information. The talking point all season long when it came to the Spartans was that all we were waiting for was the team to get to 100% and they would be off and running on their way to a national title.
It never came.
Instead, their season came to an end with a 60-54 loss to No. 7 seed UConn in the Elite 8 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon, a loss that was as head-scratching and frustrating as any game this season.
The Spartans looked fatigued after the first eight minutes of the game. They couldn’t create any kind of an advantage in the paint despite the fact that Payne and Dawson were bigger, more athletic and more talented that Phil Nolan, Amida Brimah and DeAndre Daniels. They settled for way too many threes, shooting 29 of their 46 field goal attempts from beyond the arc. They committed careless fouls and turned the ball over in so many weird ways. Well, maybe weird isn’t the right word.
“Out of body,” head coach Tom Izzo said. “I like that better because ‘weird’ does not explain how ridiculous some of those were.”
Frankly, it was a fitting end for the Spartans this season, as the 2013-2014 campaign was a year spent trying to figure out why this team couldn’t find a way to put it all together. I don’t care how the season played out, I would still take a team coached by Tom Izzo that features Payne, Harris, Appling and Dawson over just about any other team in the country.
But the inconsistency was just too much to overcome in the end, as was the disappearance of Appling.
That will be one of the most intriguing stories to follow in the next couple of days. Appling played like an all-american the first month of the season, but he was a complete non-factor after the loss to Georgetown. Was it his confidence that was shot? Was his wrist still injured? More importantly, was Izzo right to leave him in the lineup despite the struggles?
“He’s been through a lot this year and never got back to the guy he was in the first half, but not at all his fault and I just felt for him,” Izzo said. Appling and Payne became the first four-year players under Izzo at Michigan State that didn’t make a Final Four.
It may be a while before Michigan State heads back. They’ll lose Appling and Payne to graduation, will likely lose Harris to the NBA and could even see Dawson depart for the professional level. With a couple of recent misses on the recruiting trail, it may be a rebuilding year in East Lansing next season.
Xavier announced on Friday that Kaiser Gates underwent a surgical procedure on his left knee and will be out for about a month.
“Kaiser had a scope procedure to remove small particles of cartilage in his left knee,” said Xavier Associate Head Athletic Trainer David Fluker. “We are optimistic that he can be back on the court in four weeks.”
Gates is a 6-foot-8 sophomore that played just 10 minutes per game last season. But with the Musketeers losing a handful of key front court pieces in the offseason, Gates was one of the guys expected to play a bigger role this year. We are currently less than four weeks removed from the start of the season, which means it’s likely that Gates will miss some time.
North Carolina’s Theo Pinson out indefinitely with fractured foot
North Carolina wing Theo Pinson fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot and will be out indefinitely.
The injury occurred in a practice this week. There is no timetable for his return.
“I’m so disappointed for Theo,” head coach Roy Williams said. “Number one, he’s ben playing well and he does so many positive things for our team. Theo’s our energy guy, he defends, he’s our best passer, a threat on the offensive boards, he can play four different positions, and he gives our team personality.”
“Hopefully we can get him back before the end of the season.”
The 20 candidates for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award watch list were announced on Friday morning.
The award is given to the best center in college basketball. In 2016, Jakob Poeltl won it.
Here are the 20 players on the watch list:
Moses Kingsley, Arkansas
Eric Mika, BYU
Justin Patton, Creighton
Marques Bolden, Duke
Zena Edosomwan, Harvard
Thomas Bryant, Indiana
Bam Adebayo, Kentucky
Tim Kempton, Lehigh
Omer Yurtseven, NC State
Chris Boucher, Oregon
Isaac Haas, Purdue
Pascal Chukwu, Syracuse
Jarrett Allen, Texas
Tyler Davis, Texas A&M
Thomas Welsh, UCLA
Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina
Luke Kornet, Vanderbilt
Mo Alie-Cox, VCU
Josh Hawkinson, Washington State
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
Southland Conference Preview: Does Stephen F. Austin sustain success without Underwood, Walkup?
Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Southland Conference.
Things are going to look different in the Southland this season now that Stephen F. Austin has lost so many familiar faces. The three-time defending champion Lumberjacks lost head coach Brad Underwood to Oklahoma State and two-time Southland Player of the Year Thomas Walkup exhausted his eligibility as Stephen F. Austin tries to stay atop the conference with some new faces.
New head coach Kyle Keller is now in charge at Stephen F. Austin after a successful stint as an assistant coach with Texas A&M. Keller likely won’t match Underwood’s insane 53-1 Southland record with the Lumberjacks but he has plenty of talent and winning culture in place. The Lumberjacks have won a NCAA tournament game in two of the last three seasons as they return junior Ty Charles and sophomore T.J. Holyfield. Newcomers could be the key to the season or Stephen F. Austin as Keller brought in some talented transfers and junior college prospects.
Sam Houston State is once again knocking on the door as they return the top five scorers from last season. Senior forward Aurimas Majauskas and senior guard Dakarai Henderson both averaged 14.2 points per game last season as both players were All-Southland second-team selections. The return of talented point guard Paul Baxter, who missed last season with injury, could give the Bearkats six capable starters.
Coming off of a CBI appearance, Houston Baptist returns a lot of upperclass talent as they’re led by senior forward Colter Lasher. If center Josh Ibarra can return from injury and graduate transfer Atif Russell makes an impact from Pepperdine then the Huskies could be one of the Southland’s deeper teams. Texas A&M Corpus-Christi returns Player of the Year candidate Rashawn Thomas as forward as the senior will need help from a lot of new pieces. Seven seniors are gone from last season, but the Islanders are hoping guards Joe Kilgore and Ehab Amin can step up.
McNeese State has to improve its defense and rebounding but the Cowboys return a potent offense. Five of the top six scorers are back including senior guard Jamaya Burr and sophomores Jarren Greenwood and James Harvey and McNeese State should be one of the better perimeter shooting teams in the Southland. A young team who could be one to watch, Abilene Christian returns super sophomore guard Jaylen Franklin to lead the charge. The Wildcats only have one senior and need sophomores like Hayden Howell and Jaren Lewis to step up.
Things should be intriguing at Northwestern State as high-scoring guard Zeek Woodley is back but star senior point guard Jalan West is out once again with a torn ACL. Woodley is good for over 20 points a game but he’ll need more help this season. Senior guard Sabri Thompson was strong during a preseason trip to Canada. Head coach Jay Ladner returns seven of the top nine scorers for Southeastern Louisiana as the Lions should have plenty of scoring. Guard Joshua Filmore logged plenty of minutes last season while Southern Miss transfer Davon Hayes could provide another rotation piece.
Incarnate Word got hit hard by transfers this offseason as Jontell Walker and Derail Green left for other programs. Junior guard Shawn Johnson showed some promise late in the season and should be asked to lead. New Orleans returns three double-figure scorers in guard Christavious Gill, forward Erik Thomas and guard Nate Frye. The Privateers can make a jump if they improve their perimeter shooting and get five new players involved.
After being banned from the postseason for a low APR, Central Arkansas is hoping for a better season. Junior Jordan Howard can pour in points and Derreck Brooks is a quality second piece. The Bears have to improve defensively after an abysmal 2015-16. Lamar is hoping that head coach Tic Price can get them back on track as leading scorer Nick Garth is back. The Cardinals will rely a lot on new pieces this season as they hit the junior college ranks hard for college-ready players. New coach Richie Riley takes over at Nicholls State as he signed five players this spring. Senior guard Ja’Dante Fry is back along with senior center Liam Thomas, the Southland’s leader in blocks last season.
PRESEASON SOUTHLAND PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Rashawn Thomas, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
The reigning Southland Defensive Player of the Year was also top five in the league in scoring and rebounding a year ago as the 6-foot-8 senior averaged 16.6 points and a conference-leading 8.1 rebounds per game. Thomas also shot 55 percent from the floor and averaged 2.3 blocks per game as he’s one of the best all-around mid-major players in the country. On a team replacing a lot of experienced players, Thomas could put up huge numbers for the Islanders.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON SOUTHLAND TEAM:
Zeek Woodley, Northwestern State: Putting up 22.2 points per game the last two seasons, the 6-foot-2 senior has a serious chance at 2,000 career points.
Jaylen Franklin, Abilene Christian: The 6-foot-2 guard is reigning Southland Freshman of the Year after averaging 16.2 points, 3.8 rebounds in his first season.
Jordan Howard, Central Arkansas: A bright spot for Central Arkansas, the 5-foot-11 junior put up 20.2 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.
Aurimas Majauskas, Sam Houston State: The 6-foot-7 senior shot 54 percent from the floor while averaging 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last season.
Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.
WHY THEY CAN WIN: Because they bring back the majority of the roster from a team that stormed through the Big East for a third straight season and went on to win the national title.
Josh Hart, an NBCSports.com preseason first-team all-american, is back. Kris Jenkins, the guy that his the national title-winning three six months ago, is back. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth all return, while Eric Paschall is eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer.
When you put all that together, what you have is a veteran team that has done nothing other than experience winning at an unbelievable level – the seniors on this team are 97-13 in three years with a 48-6 record in the Big East while winning three outright regular season titles, a Big East tournament title and a national title.
Put another way, the Wildcats return better than 70 percent of the scoring and rebounding from last year’s national title team, putting them in the best position to repeat as national champions since Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer all decided to return to Florida and make a run at winning back-to-back titles in 2006-07.
And if the Wildcats can make that happen, it will be a direct result of the versatility that Jay Wright will have on display.
With Daniel Ochefu graduating and Omari Spellman being ruled ineligible, Villanova is going to play a lot of small-ball this season. I wouldn’t be surprised – in fact, I hope it’s the case – if we see Villanova use a Golden State-esque ‘Death Lineup’, where Jenkins plays as their “center” with Hart, Bridges and Paschall on the floor with him. That team would be able to play so many different styles defensively while creating mismatches all over the offensive end of the floor.
For that to work, Hart would have to be a more consistent perimeter shooter while Bridges would need to take a major step forward in his offensive development. We would also need to see Darryl Reynolds prove that he can handle playing 25-30 minutes as the lone big man on the floor for an entire season, something he did adequately in a three-game sample last year.
So there are some things that head coach Jay Wright will have to spend the preseason working out.
But there’s no reason to believe he won’t be able to get that done.
And there’s no reason to believe that Villanova won’t be getting right back to their winning ways.
After all, no one on this roster has ever lost more than five games in a season at Villanova. They don’t know what losing is.
WHY THEY WON’T WIN: The way I see it, there are three reasons to be concerned about this Villanova team.
The first is the point guard spot. Losing Ryan Arcidiacono is a major blow, one that many fans may not truly appreciate. Arch was a starter from Day 1 for the Wildcats, spending the last four seasons as an extension of Jay Wright on the floor. It’s not a coincidence that Arch’s arrival coincided with the resurgence of Villanova as a nationally relevant program that could win conference championships and national titles. Wright and Arch had such a strong relationship that teammates jokingly referred to them as father and son. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to refer to the last four years as the ‘Arch Era’.
That’s how important he was to this program.
Now, Jalen Brunson is good. I’m not saying that he isn’t. He does have some of the same length and athleticism question marks that Arch had, and there are valid concerns about his ability to consistently make plays against elite defenders because of it, but there shouldn’t be any doubting his basketball savvy, his intelligence on the floor or his ability to lead. One NBA scout told me this summer that Brunson is as intelligent of a prospect, in terms of basketball IQ, as he’s ever evaluated. He should be fine, but going from being a secondary point guard as a freshman to the only point guard on the roster of a national title contender as a sophomore is a major leap to make.
I’m also concerned about whether or not Villanova took advantage of the lack of talent in the college game last season. The 2015-16 season was a weird year. Stars weren’t clustered at programs around the country. The nation’s elite freshmen were spread out at programs like LSU, Cal, Mississippi State and Marquette, and that’s before you consider the fact that the class just wasn’t all that good. The question we had about the Wildcats entering the year was whether or not they would be able to beat teams that were chock-full of elite, NBA-caliber talent, and they didn’t necessarily prove that wrong during their run to the title.
The reason Coach K went from avoiding one-and-done prospects to trying to rebuild his roster every year with elite freshmen is that, in basketball, the team with the best players is going to win the majority of the time. Talent matters more in this sport than just about any other, and when you compare Villanova’s roster to, say, Duke or Kentucky or Kansas, it’s pretty obvious which team has more talent.
That said, I’ll admit I’m picking nits when discussing the issue of Villanova’s talent and, to a point, their point guard question marks.
But there is one major issue with Villanova, and I think even the most rabid Wildcat fan will agree with me: Their front court.
Like Arch, I don’t think the value that Daniel Ochefu provided this team can be shown in a box score. His size allowed him to defend opposing bigs in the post and act as a rim protector when Villanova’s perimeter defenders pressured or gambled for steals. His ability to score on the block kept defenses honest and allowed him to work as a pressure release for the Villanova guards; 1-on-1 on the block, and Ochefu was probably going to draw a foul or get two points.
Villanova probably didn’t have that guy heading into the season, and they certainly don’t now that Omari Spellman is being forced to redshirt.
That leaves Darryl Reynolds, who is something of an enigma. He’s spent the last three seasons being little more than a guy that spelled Ochefu or played when he had fouls. But in three games where Ochefu was injured last season, Reynolds was good, averaging 9.0 points and 10.6 boards. I don’t know that he’ll ever be the low-post presence that Ochefu was, but if guys like Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall take a step forward in their development on the offensive end, Villanova may not need him to be.
PREDICTION: With all due respect to Xavier, a team that has the talent to be a top ten team and make a Final Four, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Villanova is the heavy-favorite to win the Big East for the fourth straight season.
The Wildcats will be a consensus preseason top five team, and there will be rankings where they end up as high as No. 2 in the country. It’s almost as if Villanova is playing with house money this season. They shed their early-exit demons with last year’s national title, they got Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins back for another season and they have a team that is good enough to get to a Final Four and make a run at being the first team to repeat in a decade.
I hope Villanova fans can appreciate what they’re going to be able to watch this season.