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Hoosiers struggling to find solutions for midseason funk

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) Coach Tom Crean got right to the point after Indiana’s latest loss.

The defense must be more consistent, the shooting must improve and his players must become better leaders over the next month if the Hoosiers are to have any chance of earning an NCAA Tournament bid.

So after 26 games and the same old problems, there are real questions about what, if anything, can be fixed in time to make a late-season push.

“I’m not shirking responsibility one iota, it falls on me. One thing I’ve learned in nine years, it all falls on me,” Crean told reporters Sunday. “The bottom line is we’ve got to do something to get communication up and when the shots aren’t going is when the communication has got to be even higher. It’s very easy to be locked in and connected to one another when the shots are going, but when they aren’t going is when real leadership’s got to emerge.”

Those are not words Indiana fans expected to be hearing this season. The defending Big Ten champs were considered a preseason conference favorite and solidified that claim with November upsets of No. 3 Kansas and No. 3 North Carolina.

Since then, things have unraveled:

– They have lost five straight to ranked opponents and three in a row overall .

– They have lost four times at Assembly Hall this season, starting with Nebraska’s victory Dec. 28 that ended Indiana’s 26-game home winning streak.

– At 5-8 in league play, they are closer to last place than first.

– And with only one home game left finishing below .500 in the conference is now a real possibility.

Angry fans are blaming Crean. Some, again, want the coach fired. Others are again counting down the days till July 1, when Crean’s contract buyout drops from $4 million to $1 million. And after Sunday, some contended Crean was more critical of his players than himself.

“Immaturity in the back court,” Crean said when asked about Indiana’s season-long turnover problems. “We don’t play both ends of the floor with the same purpose that we have to play when our shots aren’t going. And we’ve had injuries in there, too. But that’s got to change.”

Indiana (15-11) lost starting forward and longtime leader Collin Hartman with a season-ending knee injury in September. OG Anunoby, the Hoosiers’ top defender, went down with a season-ending knee injury in January. Leading scorer James Blackmon Jr. hasn’t been the same either since returning from a lower left leg injury on Thursday. He’s averaged 8.5 points in the two games he’s played since returning from a three-game game absence, almost half his normal scoring.

While Crean refuses to use injuries as an excuse, the sudden struggle has forced the Hoosiers to question how they play.

“I just think a lot of it is not being prepared to shoot before you get the ball,” guard Robert Johnson said after scoring five points in Sunday’s 75-63 loss to Michigan. “A lot of it is not hitting guys on time and on target with passes, and I think it just comes from confidence.”

Why would a team that went into Sunday averaging 81.3 points this season and a league best 78.2 since 2011-12 suddenly lose confidence in its ability to shoot?

Crean intimated that his players may be feeling too much pressure to play up to the expectations.

But they also lack an experienced leader, and it shows.

For four seasons, point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell provided the expertise and intangibles needed to make the Indiana offense run. This season, with all of the injuries, the Hoosiers have struggled to find someone who can consistently take charge on the floor.

“It’s a 19-year-old guy trying to find his own game and trying to lead a group of guys that he really should be getting a little more help,” Crean said, referring to sophomore center Thomas Bryant who has battled foul trouble in each of the last two games. “I’ve got to give him more help, obviously.”

If the Hoosiers want to make any kind of postseason run, so do his teammates.

“It all falls on the upperclassmen, me, James, guys that have been here,” Johnson said. “We have to come with a consistent level of effort, communication. Those are things that we always have to have within the game, and I think we’ll be good to go if we do those.”

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Michigan lands four-star 2018 forward Ignas Brazdeikis

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Michigan added to an already strong Class of 2018 recruiting haul on Friday night as four-star forward Ignas Brazdeikis pledged to the Wolverines on Twitter.

The 6-foot-8 Canadian was one of the premier scorers in the Nike EYBL this past spring and summer playing with CIA Bounce as Brazdeikis averaged 21.1 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the floor. Well-rounded outside of his scoring, Brazdeikis also put up 7.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game while also showing a workable jumper that was 26 percent from three-point range.

With the job that Michigan head coach John Beilein has done developing forwards, most recently with the rapid improvement of players like D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner, it’ll be fascinating to see how Brazdeikis will look at the college level after some time on campus. Beilein’s offense is favorable for skilled forwards with a penchant for scoring and Brazdeikis could end up being a tremendous fit for the Wolverines.

Brazdeikis becomes the fourth member of Michigan’s Class of 2018 recruiting haul as he joins four-star forward Brandon Johns, four-star guard David Dejulius and three-star forward Taylor Currie.

Sex assault count dropped against ex-Creighton player Watson

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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Prosecutors have dropped a first-degree sexual assault charge against former Creighton point guard Maurice Watson after questions arose about the accuser’s story.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine announced Friday that his office had dropped the felony charge, filed earlier this year when a 19-year-old woman accused Watson of assaulting her early Feb. 4 at a party in an Omaha home. Watson has denied that allegation.

The 24-year-old Watson pleaded no contest Friday to misdemeanor assault for an encounter the same night with a different Creighton student, who said Watson touched her thigh and tried to make her touch his genitals. Watson was sentenced to the five days he’d already served in jail.

Watson was a senior when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in January, just days before the party.

Storm damage forces Paradise Jam out of Virgin Islands

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MIAMI (AP) — The Paradise Jam basketball tournament will not be played in the U.S. Virgin Islands this year because of damage caused by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.

The tournament will be played in the U.S., with a new site expected to be announced by Sept. 29.

The Paradise Jam field this year includes Wake Forest, Colorado, Drake, Drexel, Houston, Liberty, Mercer and Quinnipiac, and each of those schools was given the chance to bid for the right to host the tournament.

Tournament officials say they looked at multiple other options, such as moving to another island and using a cruise ship for accommodations, before deciding to move the event to the U.S.

For now, the tournament is scheduled to be played from Nov. 17-20.

Kentucky lands commitment from five-star point guard

Immanuel Quickley (USA Basketball)
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Kentucky landed a commitment from Immanuel Quickley on Friday night, a top ten prospect and arguably the best point guard in the Class of 2018.

Quickley picked the Wildcats over Kansas, who he visited earlier this month, and Miami, who he was scheduled to visit before Hurricane Irma struck south Florida.

The 6-foot-3 point guard is the first commitment in the class of head coach John Calipari, and it really comes as no surprise. He’s been considered a Kentucky lean for months, and Quickley played for Calipari on the USA U19 team during the 2017 FIBA World Cup.

While Quickley has the size and the build – he’s 180 pounds with broad shoulders and long arms – of some of Kentucky’s former elite point guards, he’s not the same kind of point guard as, say, De’Aaron Fox or John Wall. He’s more of a smooth athlete than an explosive one, and while his long strides allow him to get out into transition, he’s not the finisher at the rim that those two were. What he is, however, is an intelligent player. He’s good in ball-screens, he’s an excellent passer and facilitator and he is a good enough shooter that he forces defenses to stay honest. He also has the potential to be a plus defender given his physical tools and the fact that he’ll try on that end of the floor.

Where this commitment gets interesting is the current point guard in Kentucky’s back court, Quade Green. Green was a five-star recruit in his own right, but he’s not quite built as a potential one-and-done prospect. Calipari has maneuvered through two point guards in the past, and each of the last five national champions have played major minutes with two point guards on the floor at the same time, but if Green is back next season that will be something to monitor.

That, however, is a long ways away.

What matters now is that Kentucky has gotten this commitment out of the way, and it paves the way for them to also receive a commitment from Zion Williamson. There has long been talk of those two attending college together, and with Quickley on the board, that likely keeps Kentucky in the driver’s seat as they pursue the South Carolina native.

If Kentucky can also wrangle a commitment out of R.J. Barrett, the No. 1 player in the 2018 recruiting class, that would likely be the end of the discussion of whether or not Duke has surpassed the Wildcats on the recruiting trail.

Five-star forward King picks Oregon

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Oregon has nabbed one of the top players in the 2018 class.

Louis King, a top-20 forward, committed to Dana Altman and the Ducks on Thursday via a video on social media.

“It’s been a tough, strenuous process,” King said, “but today makes all of that worth it. I’ve been blessed with great opportunities.”

The 6-foot-8 New Jersey native selected Oregon over other finalists Seton Hall, NC State, Purdue and Kansas.

“I would like to thank each of them for all the time and effort they put into my recruitment,” King said. “I would like to thank my coaches and my teammates that have pushed me and helped get me to this point in my career. My friends for all their love and support, but most of all I would like to thank my family, who has been by my side through it all.”

King is Altman’s second commit in 2018, joining four-star big man Miles Norris, a top-75 recruit in the class. It’s the beginning of what could be an absolutely dynamic class for Oregon, which still has two scholarships remaining.

“Out of all of my schools I felt like it was best for me and my family,” King said to MADE Hoops. “Coach Altman said that I would have the ball in my hands throughout the season. When I get there, it will be an easy adjustment for me with how I handle rock and get my teammates open. Our goal is to win a national championship next year.”