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Duke-North Carolina Preview: Small-ball vs. front court strength will determine this game

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The debate will rage on as long as the four programs involved are among the nation’s elite.

Which is the better rivalry: Kentucky vs. Louisville or Duke vs. North Carolina?

Kentucky-Louisville is clearly the more vitriolic of the two. The hatred between those two fan bases runs deep, and a win in the one game they play annually is the kind of thing that can save an otherwise disappointing season and provides year-long bragging rights. Those games always end up being the dogfights that set the tone for the commonwealth’s internal war.

But Duke-North Carolina will always be the “better” rivalry in my eyes, for two reasons.

1. They play home-and-home every year, meaning that we get a game in Cameron Indoor Stadium and a game in the Dean Done each and every season.

2. But more importantly, those games carry more meaning. Duke and North Carolina are always going to be competing for ACC titles, and more often than not, these games will play some role in who will be the ACC’s regular season conference champion and who, if anyone, will get the No. 1 seed that so often comes out of the conference.

That’s not different this season.

North Carolina is going to head into Cameron on Thursday evening sitting all alone in first place in the ACC regular season standings. Florida State and Virginia are a game off the pace while Duke is sitting tied with Syracuse and Louisville two games in back of the Tar Heels in the loss column. Put another way, Duke’s hopes of making a miracle run to the ACC regular season title will come to an end with a loss at home to the Tar Heels.

And while it seems crazy to think that the Blue Devils, who went through more issues during the month of January than any team in college basketball, could win the ACC title, it’s not that far-fetched, is it?

Duke made a fundamental change to the way that they play three games ago. They’re fully embracing small-ball. Jayson Tatum starts at the four. He plays near all of his minutes at the four. Amile Jefferson starts at the five, Harry Giles III spells him when he needs a rest and Marques Bolden’s time as a contributor for Duke seems to be over, at least for the time being. This puts Duke in a position where they can play Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Tatum together while still having another floor-spacer on the floor, and this has made them a nightmare to defend.

The key to that lineup, however, is Tatum. More specifically, the key to that lineup is Tatum’s ability to defend and to rebound the ball. He’s going to be outsized by just about every opponent that Duke faces, and if he is able to keep from getting run over by bigger, more physical post players while holding his own on the glass – he had 14 rebounds last week against Notre Dame – this four-out, one-in look will be lethal for Duke.

That’s where Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks come into play. They may not be the best front line in the country, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a stronger, more experienced pair anywhere in college hoops. Throw in Tony Bradley, and that trio averages 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds. They post 33 points and 20 boards combined per game and will give Tatum by far his toughest challenge to date.

Justin Jackson has been sensational for UNC this season, by far their most consistent perimeter player. He’s turned into a 39.3 percent three-point shooter and a go-to scorer that’s unafraid to take and able to make big shots. There’s an argument to make for him as the ACC Player of the Year. But he’s not the guy that makes the UNC offense go. That’s Joel Berry II, who has been equal parts terrific and inconsistent this season. When he’s on, the Tar Heels are as good as anyone in the country, but he’s been prone to dreadful games. He was 0-for-8 from the floor with a technical foul in the loss at Miami. He was 3-for-13 from the floor in both the losses at Georgia Tech and Indiana.

UNC certainly needs him to show up, but he’s not UNC’s x-factor.

Theo Pinson is.

An athletic defender that can rebound and provide another playmaking presence, Pinson is the perfect counter to Duke’s myriad of soon-to-be NBA wings. He can guard Tatum, he can guard Allen and he can guard Kennard, but he’s also dealing with a foot injury that just won’t go away and it’s unclear yet if he’s going to play.

PREDICTION: While the matchup with the bigger Tar Heels worries me, I think Duke is going to win this game because A) Cameron and B) if Pinson is out or banged up, I’m not sure how UNC slows down all those perimeter weapons. Give me Duke (-2.5).

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.