Can LSU play up to its talent level this season after disappointing ’13-’14?

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LONG BEACH, California — With a front court headlined by Johnny O’Bryant III and bolstered by the addition of a talented recruiting class led by forwards Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, LSU entered the 2013-14 season with the expectation of competing for an NCAA tournament bid. In total, LSU returned five of its top seven players, which is why the SEC coaches picked the Tigers to finish fourth in the preseason poll.

Things didn’t work out that way.

LSU won 20 games but finished just 9-9 in conference play. Instead of spending Selection Sunday wondering where their NCAA tournament would begin, LSU found itself awaiting the NIT selection show. The Tigers lost in the second round to SMU, and while they did lose contributors such as O’Bryant, leading assist man Anthony Hickey and third-leading scorer Shavon Coleman, there is once again optimism in Baton Rouge.

Mickey and Martin lead the returnees, and LSU also adds a solid group of newcomers led by juco point guard Josh Gray and UNC Asheville transfer Keith Hornsby. From a talent standpoint, the belief is that the pieces are there to earn the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009. In order to make good on that potential, however, LSU is going to be the team that beat Kentucky without reverting to the team that went 2-7 on the road in SEC play this season.

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“We have to be more consistent,” Mickey told NBCSports.com at the adidas Nations camp. “We beat some big-name teams but we weren’t able to string together wins like we needed to. We definitely need to work on being more consistent, and on our team defense.”

To Mickey’s point, there were multiple occasions in which LSU found a way to generate positive momentum, only to allow it to slip away with a lackluster performance. After losing two of their first three games to start SEC play the Tigers won back-to-back games, only to drop a two-point decision at Alabama on January 25. LSU managed to pick up wins over Kentucky and Arkansas in the games that followed, only to be soundly defeated at Georgia on February 6. And the Tigers struggled on the road, with their only wins coming against South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

Obviously, that has to change if the Tigers are to take a step forward in 2014-15, and the hope is that their new point guard can help lead the charge.

Given his ability to score from the point guard position, Gray gives LSU an added dimension at the position. While Hickey did dish out 3.7 assists per game and did a good job of taking care of the basketball — his assist-to-turnover ratio ranked second in the SEC — he shot just 36.9 percent from the field and 34.6 percent from beyond the arc.

Last season at Odessa, Gray accounted for 33.8 points and 5.9 assists per contest and, given the front court talent this group boasts, could potentially give LSU a boost it lacked a season ago. But he arrives on campus thinking not of how his ability to score can help the Tigers, but of the importance of establishing himself as a capable leader of the team. One of LSU’s biggest issues was that it had too many shot-happy guards on a team that should have been pounding the ball inside.

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In order to best position himself, Gray’s worked hard not only on his individual game but also on establishing a rapport with his teammates and coaches during summer workouts.

“I’ve worked hard to make sure I’m ready to contribute and have an impact,” Gray told NBCSports.com. “I’m just going to be very coachable, do what my coach asks of me and we’ll go from there.”

From an efficiency standpoint, LSU finished in the middle of the SEC, ranking eighth in the conference in offensive efficiency, and the Tigers were even worse when it came to getting to the foul line. LSU scored just 18.6 percent of its points from the foul line in 2013-14, a number that ranked last in the SEC and is evidence of its struggles getting the ball to its bigs. O’Bryant was the Tigers’ most effective player when it came to getting to the foul line, and making strides in this area would give LSU more opportunities to put points on the board.

That’s just one area in which the Tigers, especially the members of the front court rotation, will need to account for the departure of their leading scorer. And according to Mickey, the act of “replacing” O’Bryant won’t fall on the shoulders of one player alone.

“We just have to make up for it as a team,” Mickey said. “We have to trust our offense, trust our coaches and not be selfish players.”

Mickey will be a key player for LSU as it looks to return to the NCAA tournament. He comes off of a season in which he established himself as one of the best freshmen in the SEC. Mickey started all 34 games for the Tigers in his first season, averaging 12.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per contest and ranking sixth in the SEC in field goal percentage (53.4 percent). Mickey’s worked hard to become a more consistent mid-range shooter, and for his new point guard, the experience of playing together at adidas Nations served as an eye-opener with regards to the amount of talent Mickey possesses.

“Coming out here and playing on the same team, that’s helped a lot,” Gray said at the time. “Now I know what he likes, what he doesn’t like and what positions he’s [at his best]. He cleans up the boards, he runs the floor, gets second-chance [opportunities] and blocks shots.”

This season, LSU won’t lack for talent in a conference that will once again be led by a loaded Kentucky squad and reigning league champ Florida. And once again, the question for the rest of the conference is who can step forward to challenge those two perennial juggernauts. The Tigers fashion themselves as a team capable of doing so, with their returnees and new faces like Gray and Hornsby, who has the potential to give this group the perimeter shooter needed to complement their front court options.

Yet in order to do so LSU will need to play with greater consistency than they did in 2013-14. With last year’s freshmen now sophomores, the hope is that last season’s experiences have helped those players grow. And with there being just one senior on this year’s roster, a good 2014-15 could very well serve as a springboard into the future for Johnny Jones’ Tigers.

Rape charges will not be filed after last year’s incident in Kansas basketball dorm

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The Douglas County District Attorney’s office will not file sexual assault charges stemming from a report that a 16-year old girl was raped nearly a year ago in the Kansas basketball dorm.

“After an exhaustive review of all available reports, evidence and testimony, our office has determined there is not sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt a sexual assault occurred,” District Attorney Charles Branson told the Lawrence Journal-World. “Unless additional evidence or reports come to light there is insufficient evidence to prove a crime was committed.”

What’s more, a suspect in the investigation was never actually identified, the paper reported. All five witnesses in the rape report were members of the men’s basketball team. The incident allegedly occurred in McCarthy Hall, which is a dorm where 40 Kansas students live, including all members of the men’s basketball team.

No. 8 Kentucky maturing, more challenges ahead for freshmen

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari hasn’t hidden his frustration about the learning curve of his latest group of talented freshmen.

And while the No. 8 Wildcats are starting play better, they’re bracing for more challenges ahead.

Kentucky has struggled to put away opponents such as Utah Valley, Vermont, Troy and Harvard, efforts that players and Calipari acknowledge have contributed to a perceived lack of national respect. On the other hand, their lone loss — a 65-61 setback to Kansas — showed their ability to compete with college basketball’s heavyweights.

“It was one of the big games they got to see,” sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel said. “The feeling and high intensity of the game, people watching, the fight in a big game like that, it really started to hit. Some players really started to get rolling off of that.

“We’re starting to get better as a team, individuals are getting better and we’re trending upward and trying to stay on that path.”

Kentucky (8-1) has begun running away from opponents, a promising trend it hopes to continue against upcoming Power Five conference foes.

Saturday’s home game against Virginia Tech (9-1) opens a daunting year-ending stretch for the Wildcats that includes next weekend’s matchup against UCLA in New Orleans; their annual in-state rivalry showdown against Louisville on Dec. 29; and their Southeastern Conference opener against Georgia on New Year’s Eve.

Though Calipari still hopes February will reveal Kentucky’s true strengths, he’s eager to see how the Wildcats stack up against the Atlantic Coast Conference Hokies, who lead the nation in scoring at 96.2 points per game and rank second in 3-point shooting at 47 percent.

“They have three or four guys that can absolutely make 3s,” Calipari said Friday while listing other Tech strengths. “They’re looking for layups and kicking it out for 3s and they’re getting to the line because of it.

“They’re not afraid. They go on the road in big games. Their home games are craziness. This is plugged into our schedule at a time where we need to learn about us, and we will.”

After a busy November without much practice time, Kentucky has welcomed a lighter December schedule that has allowed the Wildcats more time for workouts and to build chemistry.

The Wildcats have a long way to go, but games such as last week’s 93-76 win over Monmouth are encouraging for Kentucky fans.

Besides continuing their solid shooting — the Wildcats rank 22nd at nearly 51 percent — redshirt freshman guard Hamidou Diallo (23 points) and forward PJ Washington (20) posted career scoring highs against Monmouth. Kentucky also succeeded with a smaller lineup and has been effective playing a zone defense, which Calipari disdains but has used because of his team’s length.

“They’re as long as anybody in the country,” Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said of Kentucky. “We’ll have to work really hard to get the same shots we’ve been getting.”

Kentucky remains short-handed with freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt (foot) and guard Jemarl Baker (knee) sidelined by injuries. But the Wildcats appear to be developing depth.

They faced Monmouth without sophomore forward Sacha Killeya-Jones (sprained ankle) before starting guard Quade Green left in the second half after being poked in the eye. Both will be available against the Hokies and return knowing that the bench can fill the void after it combined for a season-high 27 points.

Granted, Monmouth is not a barometer for success against the likes of Tech, UCLA or Louisville. But considering Kentucky’s early struggles, any growth is welcome.

“We think highly of ourselves as a team,” Gabriel added. “I think we deserve more credit than we’re getting, so we’re going to go out there and try to earn it.”

Arizona State rising fast beyond the desert

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TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State has taken college basketball by devilish hurricane, running and gunning its way into the national consciousness while igniting an often-blase local fan base.

Even the Sun Devils’ rivals down south have taken notice.

“Bobby Hurley, he’s en route right now to be one of the coaches talked about for national coach of the year because of what he’s done with their program,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said of the coach of his biggest rival. “He’s played a tough nonconference schedule. It shows some guts to play who they play. Their results speak really clearly. They might be underrated where they’re at right now.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, at least not yet.

The Sun Devils were expected to be better in Hurley’s third season in the desert. They returned three senior guards and finally got them some front-court help with the addition of Romello White and De’Quon Lake.

Kodi Justice, ASU’s 6-foot-5 guard, would no longer have to guard 7-footers. Arizona State would be better defensively and on the glass. The guards would not have to carry the entire load.

Even so, the Sun Devils were projected to be at the middle of the Pac-12, picked to finish sixth.

The big jump was supposed to be next season, when a trio of transfers will be eligible and could possibly lead the Sun Devils to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014.

This breakneck band of Devils spun the narrative forward a year early.

Playing with a confidence bordering on cocky and with an offensive freedom afforded them by their coach, the Sun Devils have pushed their way into the national spotlight.

They made a blip by beating Xavier, No. 15 at the time but now No. 10 in the AP Top 25 . Blew the Musketeers away, actually, turning a 15-point first-half deficit into a 102-86 rout with an onslaught of fast breaks and 3-pointers.

Arizona State next moved into the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2008-09, coming in at No. 20 after the win over Xavier. The Sun Devils climbed four spots the next week.

The catapult launched last Sunday: Arizona State 95, No. 2 Kansas 85. At Allen Fieldhouse.

One of the biggest wins in program history led to another bit of history: A No. 5 ranking this week, ASU’s highest since reaching No. 3 in 1980-81. The Sun Devils even garnered the first No. 1 votes as a program. Five of ’em, actually.

Now Arizona State is 9-0 and being mentioned as a possible national-title contender. Yeah, really.

“I knew the success was going to be better, but you don’t expect necessarily when you look at a schedule to run the table up to this point, and beat the type of teams we’ve beaten,” Hurley said. “So you just appreciate it and then you kind of move on and get ready for the next battle.”

Arizona State’s success starts with its quartet of fearless guards, turning Arizona State into “Guard U.”

With carte blanche from Hurley to shoot from anywhere at almost any time, they’ve gone from carrying the load last season to ferrying the Sun Devils closer to college basketball’s upper echelon.

Tra Holder has transformed himself from steady freshman to unquestioned, sometimes nasty senior floor leader. He scored 40 points against Xavier and leads Arizona State with 21.2 points per game. He also grabs 5.6 rebounds, dishes out 5.2 assists and won consecutive Pac-12 player of the week honors, a first by a Sun Devil since James Harden in 2008.

Shannon Evans II followed Hurley from Buffalo, had to sit out a season as a transfer and was solid as a junior, averaging 15 points per game. The 6-1 guard had become go-to guy 1-A this season, second on the team with 19 points while matching Holder in assists. Big shots? He’s go those, too, including a clutch 3 to kill a Kansas rally in one of the loudest atmospheres in the game.

Justice plays with Pete Maravichian flair, has a range that seems to extend to the opposing team’s free-throw line.

Then there’s Remy Martin. The freshman guard is more spiced rum than cognac, playing with a confidence and intensity well beyond his years.

Martin treats irritation by the opposing team’s point guard as the highest honor, often nodding his bouncy hair in approval when he officially finds his way under their skin. He was the spark off the bench against Kansas, finishing with 21 points and five steals.

“They are now freed up to be who they are more,” Hurley said. “I think they would have shown that on a more regular basis last year if I had done my job a little better and sooner and gotten them some help.”

That help is here and the Sun Devils are running and gunning with it.

Follow John Marshall on Twitter @jmarshallap

Oklahoma State dismisses two players

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STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — Oklahoma State has dismissed junior Davon Dillard and freshman Zack Dawson from the team for failing to meet unspecified standards set by the program.

Coach Mike Boynton says he could not “make compromises in our core values when it comes to individual players.” Dillard and Dawson were suspended before the season for reasons the school has not disclosed. Dawson missed one game and Dillard missed the first five.

Oklahoma State (7-2) faces No. 19 Florida State (9-0) in Sunrise, Florida, on Saturday.

UCLA basketball moving on past Ball family era

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Ball family was one and done at UCLA. However, the ramifications of doing business with Lonzo, LiAngelo, LaMelo and father LaVar could have a lasting impact on the program.

LiAngelo Ball — the younger brother of Lakers rookie guard Lonzo Ball — was pulled out of school by LaVar months after the shoplifting scandal in China and signed with the professional team Vytautas Prienai in Lithuania. LaMelo Ball, the youngest of the three brothers still in high school, signed with the same team thus giving up his eligibility to play in college.

LaMelo had committed to play for UCLA as did his two older brothers. Lonzo is the only one who played in a UCLA uniform and he was an All-America as a freshman.

“Well, I really had one,” coach Steve Alford said of the Ball era. “Lonzo, obviously, was terrific. The time I coached Lonzo was incredible. Very respectful young man. Somebody that didn’t miss class. On court, off court was incredible. Became a good leader by the time it was over with. Knew what you’d get out of him. Made people better. Knew he was one-and-done the day he stepped on campus and never acted that way. You didn’t see entitlement that sometimes you see in kids like that. He was a complete joy to coach.”

No one knew the Ball family impact in Pauley would be so short-lived. LiAngelo Ball worked out with his teammates in the summer and for five weeks of practice but never played in a game because of the indefinite suspension over the shoplifting that caused an international incident that went all the way to President Trump.

LaVar pulled him out of UCLA recently because he wanted him to play basketball. LiAngelo and his teammates — Jalen Hill and Cody Riley — were all serving indefinite suspensions. Alford believes that could be resolved soon, whether Hill and Riley could rejoin the team this season or not.

“It’s not done, but we’ve heard the process is nearing an end,” Alford said Thursday. “My hope is we’ll hear something if not the end of this week by early next week.”

The UCLA Office of Student Conduct has done the review and deciphering that code will determine the players’ fates. Alford said he wasn’t involved in the interview process as part of that review and didn’t have input on what decision is made. Once the decision is relayed, he’ll have input in how things are handled moving forward.

“It’s just one more of those distractions we get behind us,” Alford said. “The guys in the locker room have had nothing to do with any of it … This young team has had to deal with a lot and yet they’re 7-2 and playing well.”

Because of NCAA recruiting rules, Alford wasn’t able to talk about LaMelo Ball and the fact he no longer will play for the Bruins.

“It’s just the way it is,” Alford said. “It’s something that happened. It’s the 2019-2020 class. There’s all kinds of time. Right now, all of our attention is finishing the ’18 class. … Even trying to project what the 2019 class is going to look like is hard for a lot of reasons. One, the one-and-done. And two, on the table and looks like something is going to pass relatively soon, eliminate one-and-dones. … The 2019 class is two years out from playing here, so that gives us plenty of time.”

LiAngelo wasn’t at UCLA long enough to have an impact or even show up in career statistics.

“When Gelo was here, he was terrific,” Alford said. “Through the summer, through his academics and through coaching him on the court. He was tremendous. He was late one time, and he came in in frantic, apologizing and took his responsibility of it. Those are things you appreciate as a coach. I have no issues that way. Obviously, with Gelo and Melo, just wishing them the very best of luck. I hope things really work out well for them. Just like Lonzo, I hope they have terrific careers.”

Asked what he knew about the Baltic League, Alford said: “I have no idea about the Baltic League or where that city is or anything about it.”

GG Goloman of the Bruins, who is from Hungary and played on its national team over the summer, knows a thing or two about professional basketball overseas.

“It’s a little bit similar,” Goloman said of Hungary. “It’s a good league. I’m not sure about the team they went to. They should be OK. I’m not sure what the team is like, though.”

Hill and Riley are already finished with their finals, but some UCLA players won’t be done until Friday. The Bruins host No. 25 Cincinnati on Saturday in a nationally televised game. They could have more depth by the time Pac-12 Conference play starts in January. Or they could continue with a short bench.

“It would be nice to know,” Goloman said. “The past couple of months have been up in the air. We don’t really know what’s going on. It will definitely be nice to know when they’ll be back.”

But what’s known is none of the Ball brothers will be back.