MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Middle Tennessee State was just better.
That may seem obvious after the Blue Raiders beat Minnesota, 81-72, in the NCAA tournament’s first round, but it bears mentioning.
Conference USA’s best team was clearly superior to the Big Ten’s second-highest seeded team in the NCAA tournament.
It was evident, it was decisive and it was without a doubt. The Blue Raiders are the real deal.
“I know our players don’t think it was an upset by any means,” Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said.
Neither did Las Vegas, which pegged the Blue Raiders as the betting favorite. Apparently, only the selection committee thought the difference between Middle Tennessee State and Minnesota was seven seed lines. Whatever the relative disparities in schedule and conference strengths, that was a mistake.
Middle Tennessee State was just better.
A 7-0 start to the game and a late run by the Gophers notwithstanding, the Blue Raiders controlled the style and substance of the game for nearly its entirety. They exerted their will and got their way at almost every turn.
Minnesota’s strength is its interior with Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy one of the best one-two shot blocking tandems in the country. Middle Tennessee State went right at them, putting both in precarious foul trouble throughout the game. The Blue Raiders were savvier and stronger, forcing Lynch and Murphy to play themselves out of the game at times.
It was the same story on the glass, where Middle Tennessee truly won the game. The Blue Raiders kept Minnesota to just four offensive rebounds while pulling down 11 themselves. Most times out, you’d expect the Big Ten team to be able to out-muscle, out-tough and out-athlete a Conference USA squad, but it was the exact opposite Thursday at the Bradley Center as Middle Tennessee State stronger and deeper.
“They’re a big, strong, physical team,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “We were getting tired, and they kept subbing and subbing and getting sharper as the game went on.”
Middle Tennessee State was just better.
This was no fluke or Cinderella story. This Blue Raiders team isn’t the one that shocked Michigan State last season. They didn’t need to shoot some outrageous percentage. They just needed to be themselves. That was plenty good enough.
“The only difference was last year we were a major underdog,” senior Reggie Upshaw said, “and this year everybody kind of had us either winning by 2 or losing by 2. Pretty much even matchup.
“We still kept the same mindset coming into the game. We just played our game, you know, we would be able to walk away with a win.”
Upshaw had a lot to do with it. The 6-foot-8 forward finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, but his contribution to winning went beyond numbers.
After trailing by as many as 17, the Gophers went on an 18-5 run and pulled within four on a three-point play from freshman Eric Curry. Seconds later, Upshaw responded with a 3-pointer to push the lead back to seven. After a Middle Tennessee State stop, Upshaw got another bucket, this one a layup to put the lead at nine. The Gophers scored on the next possession, but Upshaw got another bucket, keeping Minnesota far enough away that the Gophers could never close.
“He’s winning better than any player in the history of our school,” Davis said. “He made big shot, big play for the last two, three years.”
With players like Upshaw and a team like Middle Tennessee State, picking a 12 over a 5 is no upset. It’s chalk.
“When you blow the whistle, that team is a focused group, great practice team,” Davis said. “Today at game day practice right on point, and there was no doubt in their mind that they thought they were going to win the game.”
They were proved right. They were just better.
VIDEOS: Michigan State’s Miles Bridges puts on another show at local summer Pro-Am
Watching Michigan State’s Miles Bridges throw down high-level dunks in local summer pro-ams has been a good way to pass the time the last few weeks.
The 6-foot-7 Bridges has been annihilating rims all summer as he had more ridiculous dunks on Tuesday night. Playing with former Michigan State star Denzel Valentine and some of his current Spartans teammates, Bridges had more crowd-pleasing plays to add to his summer reel.
Minnesota is keeping a big-time shooter at home as Class of 2018 shooting guard Gabe Kalscheur pledged to the Golden Gophers on Tuesday.
The 6-foot-4 Kalscheur is the third in-state prospect to pledge to head coach Richard Pitino in the Class of 2018 as he joins three-star forward Jarvis Thomas and four-star big man Daniel Oturu. The three-star Kalscheur gives Minnesota a valuable floor spacer and a winner as he’s a three-time state champion at DeLaSalle. All three of these commitments also played together with Howard Pulley in the Nike EYBL.
During this spring and summer in the Nike EYBL, Kalscheur averaged 14.9 points and shot 39 percent from three-point range as he made 61 treys in 21 games.
Pitino has certainly done a nice job of keeping local players home as he’s hoping that trend continues with upcoming in-state five-star prospects like 2018 point guard Tre Jones and 2019 forward Matthew Hurt. The Golden Gophers will have to win national recruiting battles to keep those guys home, but they’ve done a nice job of getting the other guys that they need to keep home.
North Carolina and the NCAA have released additional responses and set the dates for a future hearing on Tuesday amid an investigation into paper classes given by the university’s African-American Studies Department.
The NCAA’s allegations center around UNC’s athletes — most notably members of football, men’s and women’s basketball teams — allegedly being guided to the fake classes in order to keep GPAs high enough to remain eligible. The fake classes typically had a high number of athletes enrolled each semester.
While North Carolina argued in May that this should be a school matter and not an NCAA matter, the NCAA responded to the matter in its belief that it has the right to investigate the classes. North Carolina is facing five top-level charges in the case with lack of institutional control among the charges.
A two-day hearing will be held with the NCAA in Nashville on August 16-17.
“The hearing is the next step in bringing closure to this longstanding issue by allowing us the opportunity to address the Committee on Infractions and present the facts,” said Joel Curran, vice chancellor of University communications. “The NCAA has requested certain individuals from the University attend the proceedings. It is standard practice for the current head coaches of programs referenced in a notice of allegations to attend. Therefore, Coaches Larry Fedora (football), Sylvia Hatchell (women’s basketball) and Roy Williams (men’s basketball) will accompany University representatives to the hearing.”
Potential top ten pick Robert Williams discusses decision to return to Texas A&M
PHILADELPHIA — Robert Williams knew that his family could use the money that would come with being a lottery pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He also knew that he wasn’t ready — mentally, emotionally, skill-wise — to make the leap to the NBA, which is why all it took was one question from his mother, Tundra, to convince the 6-foot-9 19-year old to return to Texas A&M for his sophomore season.
“We haven’t been rich for 19 years,” Williams recalls Tundra, whom he describes as a “middle school cafeteria lady”, telling him. “What’s one more year?”
“That sealed the deal. If she’s good, I’m good,” Williams told NBC Sports as he nursed shin splints at the Under Armour All-American camp in Philadelphia last week. “My mom just wants to see me happy. I could quit basketball and go work at Burger King. If I’m happy, she’s happy.”
“Oil City made me, Vivian raised me.”
Williams may not be a household name the way that fellow members of his high school class — Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, etc. — were, but he was certainly a known quantity on basketball circles. Williams was a potential top 10 pick in last year’s draft, a 6-foot-9 big man with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and the kind of athleticism most of us can only dream about. He has elite physical tools, even by NBA standards, and his ability to protect the rim along with his versatility defensively and budding post-game makes him a tantalizing long-term project.
Casual college basketball fans aren’t going to be familiar with bigs averaging 11.9 points on a team that didn’t even get a trip to the NIT, but NBA front office personnel were well-versed in his ability.
Just a borderline top 50 prospect coming out of high school, Williams’ ranking had as much to do with where he’s from as what he can do. He was born in Oil City, Louisiana, a town of roughly a 1,000 people tucked in the Northwest corner of Louisiana, five miles from the Texas on the west side of town and 18 miles from Arkansas to the north. “There’s just really nothing there,” Williams said. Oil City was small enough that he had to move to Vivian, a town of 3,600 people nine miles away, in order to attend high school.
He spent four years playing for North Caddo High, a 2A public school in Louisiana, which isn’t exactly the best high school basketball in the country, and his role on the Houston Hoops team he played with in the summer after his junior year was somewhat limited, to say the least; he was teammates with De’Aaron Fox, Jarred Vanderbilt (a top 15 player in the Class of 2017) and Carsen Edwards, who started at the point for Purdue as a freshman. Combine that with the 25 pounds of muscle that he added to his frame, and what you have is a player that went from being a pogo stick that got pushed around on a team full of studs to a grown man that did the pushing and proved himself capable of playing a role that has value in the NBA.
“I went to Nike Camp, but I wasn’t that high of a recruit,” Williams said. “I was like No. 60 I think. It’s weird because I’ve never had this much ‘fame’, I guess is the word.”
“People knew who I was [in Vivian], but just because I was a people person. I was also always bigger than everyone.”
There weren’t many that expected Williams to have the season that he had as a freshman, averaging 11.9 points, 8.2 boards and 2.6 blocks in just 25 minutes a night. Even fewer expected him to return to Texas A&M once he caught the eye of NBA scouts, but head coach Billy Kennedy wasn’t one of them.
“Only because he told us,” Kennedy said with a chuckle, as if he knew just how lucky he and his staff are to be getting a second season with a talent like this. “We felt that during the year. But you never know until the end. We wanted to see him go through the whole process, but the cool thing is the kid made a decision and he did what was best for him.”
“Mentally and emotionally, I wasn’t ready.”
For Williams, the decision to return was two-fold. He knew that he wasn’t yet the player that he wants to be, and getting drafted as a dunker, a shot-blocker and an athlete can get a player pigeon-holed. “In the NBA,” Williams reasoned, “once you get there, what you are is what you are. I don’t want to be stuck in that jumping, that dunking position. I’m not necessarily saying I want to be able to play the two or the three, but I want to expand and show that I can sometimes push it and make a jump shot.”
“Rebounding, jumping, dunking. That’s been my game. That’s gets you paid well. But I know I have more. I want to be able to knock down a corner three. I’m not saying that I need to be coming off of screens and pulling, but I want to be able to knock down that shot and prove I’m able to get a rebound and start a fast break.”
He knew that it would take a lot of hard work and time in the gym this offseason to get to that point, and that’s where the second part of this comes into the equation. Williams knew that he wasn’t ready to be a professional yet, that he wanted to be able to enjoy life and basketball as a college kid for another year.
“People don’t understand that once you get to that level, it’s a job. It’s a business,” Williams said. “It’s not high school, it’s not even college, you’re competing for your job every time you go play.”
“Mentally and emotionally, I wasn’t ready.”
That didn’t necessarily sit well with everyone in Williams’ circle — specifically, Williams says his father wanted him to go to the NBA — because they all know the risk. Blake Griffin, who went from being a projected top ten pick as a freshman to the No. 1 overall pick as a sophomore, is the outlier. The likes of Ivan Rabb, Perry Jones III and Jared Sullinger tend to be the norm. When a player doesn’t take a step forward in his second season in college, the flaws are nitpicked instead of the potential being touted, and that’s to say nothing of the potential for devastating injury. For a player like Williams, who thrives on his athleticism, a torn ACL or a ruptured Achilles’ this season could be devastating to his earning power.
He knows all of that, and, Williams says, once he made his choice, the people closest to him rallied around him. There was some negativity, people calling his dumb for passing up on the guaranteed millions that come with being a first round pick, but for the most part, the feedback he heard was reassuring.
“You gotta grind now.”
“You made your decision, you made your bed, now you have to lay in it.”
“You know what you got to do.”
And that’s part of where being ready for the NBA comes into play.
Ask Williams what he needs to do to be successful at the next level, to prove that he can be more than just an athlete, and he’ll tell you that it’s developing his perimeter skills. Making corner threes and trail threes. Improving his handle and his footwork to the point that he is a threat as a face-up four. But if you ask Kennedy what the next step for Williams is, this is his answer: “Just getting to where he’s working out more, learning how to work at a higher level, and that’s something that he’s gotten better at.”
Williams didn’t need to work all that hard to dominate in high school, not with his physical gifts and not with the level of competition that he was facing. The same can mostly be said his his time as a freshman in the SEC. As Mike Schmitz, a scout working for Draft Express and ESPN, put it, Williams “is very much living off his elite physical tools.”
As the saying goes, you don’t know what hard work is until you see someone working harder than you, and there is no better role model for Williams than junior center Tyler Davis, who has streamlined what was once a 300 pound frame into a chiseled, 260-pound rock. He has “the best work ethic I’ve ever seen,” Williams says, and that’s rubbing off on him. Williams says he’s working out two or three times a day, doing conditioning with the team at 6 am before heading off to the gym at 8 am to work on his stroke — form-shooting, making 25 shots from each spot out to the foul line; step-in mid-range jumpers; trail threes — and closing the day with pickup or more skill-work in the afternoon.
The way he sees it, he can’t control injuries — although he has taken out an insurance policy on the off-chance he does something catastrophic — but he can control the work he puts in. Put another way, he is the one that will determine where he ends up. “My mindset,” Williams said, “is as long as you put in the work, results will come.”
And maybe those results will get him some notoriety on campus at a football school.
“Some people recognize me on campus, but it’s all football at A&M,” he said. “They say hi, ask for a picture, but people actually think I’m a mean guy. They don’t understand, I’m a people person! I like people!”
So say hi to Williams if you see him this year.
You won’t have a chance to do so much longer.
VIDEO: Grayson Allen, Trevon Duval get in on #DriveByDunkChallenge
Trevon Duval, the point guard that will finally replace Tyus Jones at Duke, and Grayson Allen added their flare on the #DriveByDunkChallenge, as Allen throws a picture perfect alley-oop through the sun-roof of the car Duval is driving: