Early season turmoil was a blessing in disguise for Florida

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Early on this season, there was not a team in the country that was dealing with more question marks on their roster than the Florida Gators.

Scottie Wilbekin, who has since turned into an all-american and the most valuable player on Florida, was suspended for the first five games of the season. It was the second time in an eight month span that Wilbekin was separated from the program for a violation of team rules. Dorian Finney-Smith was suspended for the first two games of the season for violating team rules as well. Chris Walker had to sit out the first 21 games of the season as he waited to get cleared by the NCAA to play. Damontre Harris isn’t even a part of the team.

And all that is before you factor in their injury issues. Kasey Hill has missed seven games this season, four because of an ankle injury in the first month of the season. Casey Prather missed a couple of games in the middle of the season. Eli Carter played in just seven games before he was shut down this season.

That’s a lot of turmoil to dump on a team during the first month of the season, and while it cost them a couple of games early in the year, the games that the Gators played without some of their key pieces in the lineup ended up being one of the keys to their success this season.

Florida’s a team that is built around their ability to defend; they’re No. 1 on KenPom in defensive efficiency, and while they are still top 20 in offensive efficiency, this isn’t a team that is loaded with NBA-caliber scorers. There’s a chance that the only guy on this roster that will end up playing in the NBA (Chris Walker) is currently averaging all of 4.0 minutes per game. Their success is centered around the fact that they are as balanced as any team in the country, that there simply is not a weak link for them on the offensive end of the floor.

And that is the result of players being forced into roles that they were unaccustomed to early in the season.

“It definitely helped me out knowing that I could score and do what I could do because I been doing it early in the season,” Prather said. “I could carry that throughout the season. I think the biggest thing was proving that we could win without a person.”

“It gave some guys more confidence because they had to do more,” Hill added.

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Prather is the best example. The 6-foot-6 forward couldn’t get off the bench his first two seasons in Gainesville and was nothing more than an oft-injured role player as a junior, but midway through December he was post all-american caliber numbers. He was top ten in our Player of the Year rankings for half the year as he was averaging more than 17 points at one point during the season. His scoring role decreased throughout the season as Wilbekin became a focal point of their offense and Michael Frazier became a more consistent shooter, but that didn’t change the fact that he had the confidence to be a threat offensively.

“I would like to have four to six guys in double figures,” head coach Billy Donovan said Friday, “because you don’t know what a team is going to try to take away from you. When a team takes certain things away from you, you still have to be able to have other guys step up in different situations and provide offense.”

It’s not just Prather, either.

Hill had two of his best games of the season while Wilbekin was suspended, scoring 15 points in a win over North Florida and notching 14 points, six assists and five steals as the Gators beat Arkansas-Little Rock. He didn’t score in double figures again this season until the opening round of the NCAA tournament, as he finished with 10 points and was the sparkplug for a pivotal run that allowed Florida to pull away after Albany tied the game in the second half.

“All we need is five guys and we’re going to compete,” Finney-Smith said. “Give us any five off our team and I feel like we’re going to win.”

California bans state-funded travel to eight states; does it affect college hoops?

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A new California law could end up causing a headache for the sports teams for public universities in the state.

Because of recently-added laws that are perceived as discriminatory against the LGBT community, California has now banned travel to eight states: Texas, Alabama, Kentucky and South Dakota join a list that already includes Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee.

The law states that contracts that were signed before Jan. 1st, 2017, are exempted and can be fulfilled, but there’s not guarantee that will be the case in the future.

“Moving forward, the athletic department will not schedule future games in states that fail to meet the standards established by the new law,” a UCLA spokesman told the Sacramento Bee. That said, the university does not use state funding for travel sports teams as it currently stands, and the goal of the law to avoid “spending taxpayer dollars in states that discriminate,” according to California’s Attorney General.

On the college basketball side of things, the biggest question mark here is whether or not this law will prevent teams from playing in the NCAA tournament if they are sent to a site in one of those eight states. Next season alone, there are first weekend sites in Kansas, Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee, not to mention the Final Four taking place in San Antonio. The location for many of those events were determined prior to January 1st.

“We are generally not going to deny student-athletes the opportunity to compete in the postseason,” a UCLA spokesman told NBC Sports.

The next question then becomes whether or not regular season travel will be allowed. Earlier this year, Cal dropped out of talks with Kansas about a potential home-and-home series due to this law, and if regular season travel is not allowed, it would mean that Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisville and Wichita State, along with Kansas, are not allowed to be visited by California public schools that need state funding to travel. A request for a clarification on the legality of college sports teams traveling to those states has been filed with the Attorney General by Fresno State, whose football team is headed to Alabama for a game this year.

Travel for recruiting is also a question that needs to be answered, but at the highest level of the sport, that is typically funded by boosters.

N.C. State adds grad transfer Sam Hunt

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N.C. State added its fourth transfer this offseason. Like ex-Baylor guard Al Freeman, the latest one is eligible to play next season.

Sam Hunt, a double-digit scorer the past two seasons at North Carolina A&T, officially enrolled at North Carolina State on Monday morning.

“Sam is a great young man and will bring much needed depth to our backcourt,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said in a statement. “I want guys who are excited about being a part of our program and Sam really wants to be here.

“Sam is a combo guard that can space the floor with his ability to shoot the basketball. He is a good fit for the system and will bring a wealth of experience to our roster.”

Hunt, the 6-foot-2 guard, averaged 12.7 points per game last season, a dip from the 15.4 points per game he posted for the Aggies as a redshirt sophomore.

Hunt joins a roster that lost its three leading scorers from a season ago, one that ended 15-17 (4-14 ACC). Dennis Smith Jr. is a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Maverick Rowan also pursued a professional career and Terry Henderson was denied an additional year from the NCAA.

The Wolf Pack bring back forwards Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven as well as Torin Dorn.

Keatts, who took over the program after leading UNC Wilmington to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, has already built for the future. UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce, 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game for the Seahawks, has followed him to Raleigh. Utah transfer Devon Daniels committed to the Wolf Pack the same day as Bryce. Both will have to sit out next season due to NCAA transfer rules. Bryce will have two years of eligibility while Daniels will have three.

LaVar Ball stars in an uncomfortably entertaining segment on WWE’s Raw

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LaVar Ball’s statements and antics over this past year always seemed better suited a professional wrestling ring.

It was only natural that the patriarch of the Ball family — and the head of the Big Baller Brand — made an appearance on WWE’s Monday Night Raw at the Staples Center for an awkwardly entertaining segment with WWE Intercontinental Champion The Miz.

With sons, Lonzo — in his first appearance in the Staples Center as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers — and LaMelo looking on, LaVar was the center of attention. When The Miz mentioned something about a partnership between the two, the scripted interview went south. It resulted in LaVar saying nonsensical things like, “There’s only two dudes better than me, and I’m both of ’em!” before later taking off his shirt. When Dean Ambrose, a WWE superstar feuding with The Miz came out on to the ramp, LaVar didn’t quite grasp the concept that that was his cue to stop talking.

This segment was somehow entertaining and cringeworthy at the same time.

Now that Lonzo is beginning his NBA career, maybe it’s time LaVar try something different. A manager in the WWE may just be his true calling. He’s certainly had plenty of practice.

Maryland lands commitment from five-star 2018 forward

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Maryland added to its 2018 recruiting class with its second commit, the newest addition being a five-star in-state product.

Jalen Smith, a 6-foot-9 forward from Baltimore powerhouse Mount St. Joseph, committed to the Terrapins, making the announcement on Twitter.

“I believe that I can academically and athletically achieve my goals at home through my commitment to the University of Maryland … Go Terps,” he tweeted as part of a long passage.

Smith is listed as the No. 13 overall recruit in the Class of 2013 by Rivals. He joins four-star swingman Aaron Wiggins in Mark Turgeon’s current recruiting class.

Playing for Team Takeover on the Nike EYBL circuit, Smith is averaging 10.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game.

Recent grad’s joyride reportedly did $100,000 of damages to Mizzou Arena

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A recent graduate and temporary employee of the University of Missouri took an early morning joy ride that reportedly could rack up around $100,000 to Mizzou Arena.

According to Dave Mater of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nathaniel J. Contant, 23, who graduated from the school in December 2016, drove his Volkswagen Passat through a gate and eventually on to the floor of the 15,000-seat on-campus arena.

At 7:15 a.m. Sunday, MU police were dispatched to Mizzou Arena for a report of property damage. Officers determined that around 4 a.m., the suspect drove his vehicle through a closed gate on the south side of the arena. He ran through a garage door and drove into a dock area where he damaged several golf carts that were stored in the area. He also drove his car onto the basketball court. The man couldn’t leave through the area he used to enter the building, so he drove through the arena’s press gate.

Contant, unsurprisingly, is no longer an employee of the university. He’s being charged with second-degree burglary and first-degree property damage, both of which are felonies. He was released on a $4,500 bond.

The motive for this early-morning joyride remains unclear.

Despite the hype surrounding the upcoming Mizzou season — one that includes the debut of new head coach Cuonzo Martin and the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft Michael Porter, Jr. — Twitter users couldn’t help but poke fun at the dismal recent history the Tigers have had.

(h/t Kansas City Star)