Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield confident Sooners can once again exceed expectations

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LAS VEGAS — Prior to the start of the 2013-14 season, the Oklahoma Sooners were expected to be a team firmly entrenched in the middle of the pack in the Big 12. While head coach Lon Kruger did return key players such as Cameron Clark and Buddy Hield from a group that won 20 games and reached the NCAA tournament in 2012-13, the fact of the matter was that the Sooners had to account for the loss of their top three scorers from that team. Whether or not the Sooners would meet or exceed those preseason expectations depended upon what their returnees were able to do, and even with their NCAA tournament loss to North Dakota State, 2013-14 represented a successful season for the Sooners.

Oklahoma finished the season with a 23-10 overall record, going 12-6 in Big 12 play to finish in sole possession of second place. And after losing three double-digit scorers at the end of the 2012-13 season, the Sooners finished the year with four players averaging at least 10.3 points per game. Leading the way was Hield, who emerged as one of the nation’s most improved players and earned second team All-Big 12 honors.

Hield averaged a team-best 16.5 points to go along with 4.4 rebounds per contest, shooting 44.5% from the field and 38.6% from beyond the arc. With his ability to find looks anywhere on the court, Hield developed into not only a better shot-maker but a more efficient offensive threat as well in 2013-14.

“My expectations [last year] were to be more aggressive and be a better scorer for my team, especially with Ro [Romero Osby] and the other seniors gone,” Hield said at the LeBron James Skills Academy. “I had to pick up the slack and I’m a guy who’s capable of doing that. I spent a lot of time in the gym working on my game [last summer].

“Nobody thought we were going to be as good as we were but we had a lot of confidence, and Coach Kruger did a really good job of getting us ready for games and making sure we stuck to our game plan.”

With Osby and Amath M’Baye gone, Oklahoma wasn’t going to be the interior-dominant team it was in 2012-13. As a result they were a more perimeter-oriented group in 2013-14, with Isaiah Cousins (11.0 ppg) and Jordan Woodard (10.6 ppg) joining Hield as guards scoring in double figures and Clark being an effective scorer in the mid-range area while also making 43.5% of his shots from beyond the arc.

One season after ranking ninth in the Big 12 in three-point field goal point percentage, scoring just over 21 percent of their points from beyond the arc (per statsheet.com), the Sooners scored a league-best 31.6% of its points from three. Personnel changes forced Oklahoma to adapt, and Kruger’s Sooners proved themselves to be capable of doing so. Now with Clark having graduated, Oklahoma will once again have to adapt, and it’s something Hield and his teammates are working hard to do this summer.

“He gave us leadership and scoring. He was our ‘four-man’,” Hield said. “He was the one who exploited mismatches and made things happen for us. He was our leader.”

Also pushing Oklahoma is the feeling of disappointment felt in the aftermath of its overtime loss to North Dakota State, something that’s affecting not only the returnees but the incoming freshmen as well according to Hield.

“Everybody’s been working hard in the gym, even the freshmen,” Hield noted. “They see the older guys, the determination and the chip on our shoulders, and we just get after it. I still think about [the North Dakota State loss]. Every time someone talks about it, it just makes me sick.”

Those newcomers will be important for Oklahoma, especially considering their lack of interior depth last season and the fact that Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas will most likely have to sit out the 2014-15 season per NCAA transfer rules. Ryan Spangler, who battled night in and night out against the best big men in the Big 12, will have help in the form of freshmen Dante Buford, Khadeem Lattin and Jamuni McNease. With the opportunity to earn playing time being there for those additions, the hope for Oklahoma is that interior depth won’t be as much of an issue this time around.

Those front court additions and Oklahoma’s depth and experience on the perimeter will lead to expectations higher than the ones held for the Sooners prior to last season. And while Kansas has won at least a share of the last 10 Big 12 regular season titles, multiple teams entered the summer confident in their chances of winning the conference this winter. And that includes Oklahoma, with its confident junior shooting guard looking forward to taking on the challenge of making a run at a conference title.

“We’re going to win the Big 12. I’m saying it now, we’re going to win the Big 12,” Hield said last week, with his words grabbing the attention of another Big 12 representative at the camp. “I have confidence in my team and the guys coming back. Ryan, Isaiah, Jordan … we have a good, veteran team coming back and I feel that we’re going to take it to the next level.”

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.

South Carolina fans raise money to send “Gamecock Jesus” to Final Four

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South Carolina fans are sending one of their most recognizable compatriots to represent them this weekend.

Gamecock Jesus is heading to the Final Four.

South Carolina super fan Carlton Thompson is following the Gamecocks to Glendale as his fellow fans have raised over $7,500 to send the man known as “Gamecock Jesus” to Arizona for the team’s Final Four meeting with Gonzaga on Saturday night.

Thompson’s long hair, beard and presence at South Carolina games, even in lean times, earned him his nickname and apparently a following fervent enough to foot the bill for quite the trip.

“I’ve always dreamed it would be like this,” Thompson said last week about fan support at Gamecock games to the Post and Courier. “For years and years, it was so sparse with the crowds at the games. But once they started winning, the crowds started coming.”

Thompson is a 63-year-old VA hospital nurse, and has been attending South Carolina games for nearly 50 years.

Maryland’s Melo Trimble declares for the NBA Draft

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Melo Trimble’s career as a Maryland Terrapin is coming to an end. The junior guard is declaring for the NBA Draft and will sign with an agent.

“I am confident and excited to pursue an opportunity to play in the NBA,” Trimble said in a release. “I am proud of what my teammates and I were able to accomplish these past three seasons at Maryland. I developed many great relationships and friendships and together we able to create some very special moments for Maryland basketball. I want to thank Coach Turgeon for all of his support. He always believed in me. He challenged me and really helped in the development of my overall game. I am a more complete basketball player because of Coach Turgeon and the coaching staff. To stay at home and attend the University of Maryland is the best decision that I ever made and it was truly special to play in front of my family, friends and our amazing fans. Maryland will always be home.”

There was no better winner in college basketball the last three years than Melo. He changed the trajectory of Mark Turgeon’s program, winning 79 games in three years and ending his career 30-8 in games decided by six points or less. As a junior, Trimble and the Terps earned a No. 6 seed to the NCAA tournament, but they lost in the first round to Xavier. It was the only time in Trimble’s career that he didn’t reach the Sweet 16.

“Melo Trimble is a winner,” Mark Turgeon said on twitter. “Humble, hard-working, dedicated. Words can’t express what he’s done for our program. Always #StayMelo!”