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Five Things We Learned This Week: Gonzaga’s a talking point, Monk’s a terror, Duke hasn’t changed

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1. Gonzaga is going to be the team that we spend the most time arguing about for the next two weeks: That was probably already going to be the case given that the Zags get no credit for their record as a member of the WCC, but losing at home in a game where they led by 16 points is going to throw that argument into overdrive.

Can Gonzaga win a title? Is this a team you can trust in March? Do the Zags deserve a No. 1 seed? Are they nothing but a bunch of frauds?

I tried to warn you that this was coming six weeks ago.

Guess what: it’s here.

2. UCLA beat another elite team with some clutch defending: A little more than two weeks ago, Oregon went into Pauley Pavilion, opened up a 19-point lead and looked like they were ready to cruise to a blowout win over the Bruins, that is until UCLA finally decided to stop defending like a CYO team that just found out their postseason pizza party was canceled.

The same thing happened on Saturday night in Tucson.

Only this time, the Bruins switched to a 3-2 with 15 minutes left in the game, crashed the offensive glass and totally took the air out of the ball and Arizona out of their rhythm. For 25 minutes, the Wildcats got whatever they wanted offensively against UCLA. For the final 15 minutes, they looked like they had never practiced zone offense.

The concern with the Bruins is always going to be how well they defend. As good as they are offensively, they have to be able to get some stops if they’re going to be the elite teams across the country. They’ve down that the last two times they’ve faced an elite team in conference play and now own wins at Kentucky and at Arizona, and, if it wasn’t for Dillon Brooks hitting a buzzer-beating three, they’d have a win at Oregon, too.

The Bruins have their flaws, but man, this team still looks pretty dangerous.

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3. Is North Carolina the best team in the country?: That’s the argument that I made when the Tar Heels picked off Louisville at home on Wednesday. Where is their weakness? Is it Joel Berry II’s consistency? Because that’s less of a concern with Justin Jackson playing the way that he has been playing.

Is it their health? Theo Pinson and Isaiah Hicks have battled injuries this year and the Tar Heels need both of them on the floor because it’s unclear just how good they actually are defensively. Hicks is also always in foul trouble, which is never a good thing in a single-elimination tournament, and neither is a team that doesn’t have a multitude of great shooters.

But when compared to the rest of the elites in college hoops, those question marks seem relatively minor. Kentucky is too often a one-man team. Gonzaga’s guards might not be good enough. Duke and Kansas have no inside depth. Louisville’s scorers can’t score. Arizona doesn’t have a point guard. Oregon has had some issues with consistency. UCLA doesn’t defend.

We can play this game with everyone.

The issues that are brought up with the Tar Heels, however, just seem relatively minor in comparison.

4. Malik Monk is the scariest player in college basketball: It’s not like this is breaking news or anything. Monk has been lighting up defenses all season long. He’s been single-handedly winning games for Kentucky since the start of the season. He had 47 points in the win over North Carolina. He had 31 points in the second half and overtime to help the Wildcats avoid an upset loss to Georgia. He had 33 points against Ole Miss.

This is just kind of what he does.

But Saturday’s performance felt different because before Monk went for 30 second half points to help lead the De’Aaron Fox-less Wildcats to a win over No. 13 Florida, a win that gives them the inside track to an SEC regular season title, he played one of the worst halves of his career. He was 1-for-5 from the floor with three points, five turnovers and two fouls. That came after he had just 11 points in a closer-than-it-should-have-been win at Missouri.

Monk turned it on like that in a game where Florida, a top five defensive team in the country, spent 20 minutes executing the “Stop Malik Monk” game-plan to perfection.

You don’t want to see a guy that can do that on your side of the bracket.

LEXINGTON, KY - FEBRUARY 14: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball against the Tennessee Volunteers at Rupp Arena on February 14, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Malik Monk (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

5. Duke is exactly who they were a week ago: I’m done trying to tell people what to think of Duke. You all made up your minds weeks or months ago. If you’re like me, you see a roster that includes Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen and you pick them to win most of the games they play in. But if you look at their lack of interior defense, their depth issues, the injuries that won’t go away and the point guard question marks and worry about a team like that making a run, you’re certainly not wrong.

Duke is beatable.

We saw that this week, when they fell on a banked-in, buzzer-beating 23-footer at Syracuse and lost by five at Miami.

What I will tell you, however, is that if you let those two losses change the way you felt about Duke prior to Wednesday’s tip, you’re being silly.

Winning on the road in the ACC is hard. There’s a reason there are people talking about the conference as maybe the best ever. There’s a reason that only one team in the league has less than five league losses with two games left in the regular season. These are two road games to likely tournament teams decided by a total of eight points.

Losses like that are the kind of thing that happen in college basketball.

NEXT ONE? Hoops phenom at 13 has college offer, NBA height

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Emoni Bates walks out a front door of Clague Middle School with just inches to spare.

A wide smile tops his 6-foot-7, extra-lean frame. He’s holding a seventh-grade honor society certificate in his right hand. His braces gleam in the afternoon sun.

Meet the best 13-year-old basketball player in America, according to some recruiting services. One of his highlight reels on YouTube has been viewed about 1 million times.

“I don’t really pay attention to it,” Emoni insists in a voice just louder than a whisper, “because if I pay attention to it, it’s just going to get to my head.

“And I don’t want it to get to my head. I just want to play basketball.”

He’s got the pedigree.

Emoni’s father, E.J. Bates, has been around the game most of his life. He picked greens and baled hay as a kid in nearby Milan, Michigan, then developed into a smooth-shooting guard. But he didn’t take school seriously until it was too late. Instead of playing for a basketball power like Kansas and maybe even in the NBA, E.J. wound up going to Kentucky Wesleyan and settling for pro hoops in Switzerland.

E.J. is determined to make sure his son doesn’t make the same mistake. The academics are a sign of that. House rules bar Emoni from picking up a basketball until his homework is done.

Yet E.J. knows when kids are this good this early, distractions roll in like waves. Already, it seems, lots of people want a piece of Emoni. Prep, private and public high school coaches are lining up. Colleges have him on their radar. DePaul took it a step further, offering Emoni a scholarship in late August. Two other much-touted players in the Class of 2022 — Amari Bailey of Illinois and Skyy Clark of California — also have offers from DePaul.

E.J. knows the shoe company bird dogs and other hustlers looking to buy favors are lurking, too. So he and wife Edith, who works for the Red Cross, keep their inner circle very tight.

“I’m his coach to keep the snakes away,” Bates says, sitting on one of Clague’s concrete benches. “We’re not for sale.”

The Bates family has agreed to provide The Associated Press with a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the life of one of the most coveted basketball prospects in the country for at least the next five years. The periodic series will include video, photos, audio and text updates to track his progress.

Will Emoni stay near his current home to attend a public high school? Or will he take his next step at a private school like Detroit Country Day, like Michigan native Chris Webber?

Will he follow the footsteps of Marvin Bagley III and other five-star prospects, reclassifying to finish high school in three years? Bagley did to play college ball at Duke this coming season — and potentially to get a jump on a pro future.

Will E.J. and Emoni emulate the father-son team of LaVar and Lonzo Ball, grabbing headlines while hawking their own brand at every turn?

No one knows.

E.J. says all options are on the table. But he won’t be loud, unlike LaVar Ball in the lead-up to his son Lonzo being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I don’t have to brag about what we’re doing,” E.J. says. “I let other people do all the talking about how good Emoni is because word of mouth is the best advertising there is.”

A POTENTIAL STAR IS BORN

Emoni James-Wayne Bates was born Jan. 28, 2004, at the University of Michigan hospital. He was on the light side — 6 pounds, 7 ounces — and a little long at 21 inches. Just over a year later, Emoni slept with his head cradled in his left arm and his right wrapped around a black and red basketball. A cherished photo was made.

“He would always sleep with the ball,” his father recalls, holding a framed picture in his Ypsilanti, Michigan, home. “If the ball wasn’t around, he would cry about the ball. Even to this day, he has a mini-ball he keeps with him, which is crazy to me.”

There were more hints. During a second visit to the doctor, E.J., who is 6-foot-4, and Edith, 5-9, asked how tall their son might grow.

“He was off the charts,” E.J. laughs, “so they couldn’t tell us.”

Emoni has shot up 7 inches in the last two years. He’s tall enough right now to play shooting guard at any level. He handles the ball like a point guard and launches 3-pointers like a savvy veteran. He can create his own shot like a wing or drive the lane and dish off to a teammate like another rail-thin former prodigy, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant.

But adding weight and muscle is an ongoing challenge. He weighs just 155 pounds — not heavy or strong enough to play a dominating inside game that would complement his fluid perimeter skills.

“We try to stuff him full of food at night and hope it sticks,” E.J. sighs.

TEEN CELEBRITY

The Adidas Invitational in Fishers, Indiana, attracts some of the Midwest’s top seventh-grade AAU teams. Inside Best Choice Fieldhouse, talk centers on whether the Bates Fundamentals squad starring Emoni and coached by E.J. can live up to the hype.

“They’ve been hearing a lot about him,” says Bernetta Kelly, watching her son’s Peoria Area Elite team take its shot.

Bates Fundamentals wins 95-44 and Kelly understands why. She approaches Emoni and asks for a photo with her son and his team.

“I’ve seen the best players from Pittsburgh to Vegas the last four years, and he’s been the best in his class,” Peoria coach Zach Martin says. “I told the guys, ‘There are not many times you will be able to say you played an NBA player, but you just did.'”

After another lopsided victory in the two-day tournament won easily by Bates Fundamentals, Emoni walks off the court. A younger competitor darts out of his team’s pregame layup line to slap his hand. Moments later, the excitement follows Emoni out the door.

“Hey, that’s him,” a young boy entering the facility says to teammates.

How does a 10-year-old from Fort Wayne, Indiana, know who Bates is?

“YouTube,” he says.

Duh.

The highlight reel posted last summer had nearly 1 million views before Emoni walked into the doors at Clague for the first time as an eighth-grader. Several other videos have racked up 500,000-plus views in less than one year.

By the spring of 2018, the suspense about where he plans to attend high school may be its own mini-drama. Then a few years later: Which college?

E.J. and Edith hardly need reminding that’s still a long way off. As good as the recruiting services have become at projecting stars, it’s easy to forget the object of all that attention is still just 13. At times, the recruiting experts simply miss.

“It’s always a crap shoot,” E.J. says. “You don’t know what life will deal you. You never know what can happen with injuries, the loss of motivation or pressure getting to be too much.”

Yet fans of two college basketball powers with the inside track can already start thinking about the fall of 2021, when Bates can officially sign a scholarship offer. In quiet moments, Emoni sometimes does, too.

Asked about his favorite programs, the soft-spoken kid doesn’t hesitate to name the early front-runners.

“Michigan State and Kentucky,” Emoni says.

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Follow the series: https://www.apnews.com/tag/TheKid

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Follow Larry Lage at http://twitter.com/larrylage

NCAA punishes Pacific men’s basketball for violations

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STOCKTON, Calif. (AP) — The men’s basketball team at Pacific has been punished by the NCAA for academic and recruiting violations under former coach Ron Verlin.

The NCAA said Wednesday that Verlin failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance when he violated academic misconduct and recruiting rules to get prospects eligible. He also failed to monitor his coaches and violated NCAA ethics rules when he encouraged others to give false information during the investigation.

The baseball program was also cited because former coach Ed Sprague impermissibly provided an athletic training student with a $16,000 scholarship to help with the housing costs of two baseball student-athletes, including her brother.

Penalties for the school include two years of probation, recruiting and scholarship reductions, a $5,000 fine and a vacation of all games in which ineligible athletes participated.

Memphis lands commitment from 2018 center Connor Vanover

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Memphis picked up its first commitment in the Class of 2018 on Wednesday night as unique center prospect Connor Vanover announced his decision on Twitter.

At 7-foot-2, Vanover brings elite size to the interior for the Tigers and he’s also skilled enough that he was a 43 percent three-point shooter during his stint playing with Pro Skills in the Nike EYBL this spring. Although Vanover needs to add strength and athleticism to adapt to the college level, he simply has size that you can’t teach. Pair that size with an intriguing perimeter jumper and it’ll be interesting to see how head coach Tubby Smith is able to develop Vanover the next few years.

A three-star prospect according to Rivals, Vanover averaged 9.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game during the spring. Originally from Arkansas, Vanover is spending his senior season of high school ball at prep school powerhouse Findlay Prep.

Bill Self unsure of how long he will continue to coach

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Kansas head coach Bill Self is one of the most decorated college basketball coaches of all time.

Recently inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this month, Self has won a record 13 consecutive Big 12 regular-season championships while also claiming a national title for the Jayhawks during his storied career.

But while most legendary coaches in contemporary college basketball have stayed around to coach well into their late 60s or early 70s, the 54-year-old Self doesn’t necessarily see his career playing out that way.

Speaking with ESPN.com reporter Myron Medcalf on Wednesday, Self acknowledged that he’s thinking about potentially retiring once his next contract ends after the 2021-22 season. With five more years left on his current deal, that would mean that Self would be retiring before he would even turn 60.

“I’ve said all along that if I could go to my late 50s, that’d be good for me,” Self said to Medcalf. “Now that I’m getting close to my late 50s, I’m like, ‘Well…’ but my contract runs until I’m 59, so I’ve got five more years left. I definitely want to do that. Then whatever happens after that I’d be happy with whatever. But I don’t want to [coach too late].”

While Hall of Fame coaches like Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (72 years old), Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (70 years old) and North Carolina’s Roy Williams (67 years old) are showing no signs of slowing down, Self acknowledged to Medcalf that coach, and specifically recruiting, has started to take its toll on him.

“With recruiting the way that it is, it just wears you down,” Self said to Medcalf.

With Kansas pursuing so many potential one-and-done prospects over the past few seasons, it means that Self usually has to recruit sizable recruiting classes

Self is certainly entitled to do what he wants with his career and his life but it would be a shame to see one of the game’s greats hang it up at that point in his career. Potentially retiring at that age means that Self won’t chase 1,000 wins or any additional longevity records

Ohio State lands second pledge in two days with 2018 guard Duane Washington

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Ohio State stayed hot on the recruiting trail on Wednesday as the Buckeyes landed a commitment from Class of 2018 guard Duane Washington.

The 6-foot-3 Washington is the second commitment for Ohio State and new head coach Chris Holtmann in the last two days after four-star forward Jaedon LeDee pledged to the Buckeyes on Tuesday.

One of the better shooters in the Class of 2018, Washington averaged 14.9 points per game on tremendous shooting splits (48% FG, 87% FT, 45% 3PT) playing with The Family in the Nike EYBL this spring. A Michigan native who now resides in California, Washington gives Ohio State a much-needed guard commitment in the Class of 2018.

With the Buckeyes needing to fill a lot of scholarships due to roster turnover, Washington is a solid start to their perimeter class. While Washington isn’t likely to play point guard, he can play multiple perimeter spots and should be a solid addition to the Buckeye rotation.