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Midnight hike helps unite vagabond Gonzaga team

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — For Gonzaga, the road to a national title started five months ago, in the middle of the night, on a dock near a secluded lake in northern Idaho.

Five of their eight rotation players didn’t play for last season’s Sweet 16 team, and a sixth — Przemek Karnowski — played six games before undergoing back surgery to remove staph from inside a bulging disc in his back. Camping trips aren’t the norm for the Bulldogs’ preseason ritual, but head coach Mark Few and strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight figured it would be a new way for this roster to get to know each other.

So they set out on a camping trip before the season started just north of Hayden Lake at Farragut State Park.

Most of the team bonded early in the trip over their pure, unfiltered hatred of camping and the outdoors. Some players puked after eating the food on the trip. Others struggled to pitch a tent or build a fire. Hiking and dealing with nature didn’t come very naturally for some of the roster that came from major cities. It was a team-building trip. There’s no better way to build a bond with your teammates than to vent over the things your coaching staff is making you do.

After finally getting over the outdoor obstacles that come with camping, late into the night, the decision was made to hike through the pitch black Idaho wilderness because what could go wrong? There were no coaches. The group’s outdoors expert leading the trip wasn’t with them. It was just the Bulldogs and the starry night as they talked about everything they wanted to do during the 2016-17 season.

“We walked, like, two miles at night with no lights or anything. We just all walked around,” Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams III said. “And we came to a dock. And we all just laid there and talked about what we wanted to do, what we wanted to accomplish this year. A lot of individual goals, a lot of team goals. And our team goals were to win a national championship.

“It was pitch black. They have big bears out there and stuff. We didn’t care. We were just out there walking, building relationships that will last a lifetime.”

Gonzaga’s 2016-17 roster was uniquely built because they had a lot of transfers and true freshmen coming into the equation that didn’t play for them the previous season. Besides the talented newcomers, Karnowski was also given the additional year of eligibility by the NCAA.

Guards Josh Perkins and Silas Melson returned from last season’s Sweet 16 rotation, but transfers like Williams, Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews were talented and experienced transfers coming from power-conference programs. Then there was the addition of freshmen big men like Zach Collins and Killian Tillie — players who weren’t expecting to compete with Karnowski for minutes since his additional year of eligibility came unexpectedly.

With so many new pieces entering the roster, and heated competitions for minutes at nearly every position, Gonzaga’s staff wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page before starting the journey of a long season.

So after class on a Friday afternoon, the team drove about an hour for the trip before returning back to campus by Sunday. Team-building exercises can certainly build camaraderie, but sometimes those sentiments don’t last beyond a few days. Gonzaga has taken the principles that they learned on the trip and used it over the course of the season when they’ve faced adversity. The trip has been brought up during locker-room talks as a reminder of everything Gonzaga has been through over the past few months.

Karnowski’s journey into the wilderness was another intriguing subplot. After dealing with the horrifying ordeal involving his back the previous season, the trip to Idaho was the first time Karnowski slept away from a normal bed in a controlled environment. Sleeping on a special bed that the team brought with to make sure his back was okay in the wilderness, Karnowski made it through the trip with no issues — a positive sign for his health and the upcoming season.

Gonzaga’s players made the outdoors excursion sound much tougher than it might have actually been, but they certainly took something from the trip that has helped propel them to the best season in school history.

“It’s always easy on something like that to come out of it and be good for two days or a week,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “But is that going to continue for a month? For two months? Throughout the season, especially when times get tough, and you have to harken back on it? And that’s what I thought was amazing with this group. They really were able to do that. And what they did on that trip has stuck with us for five months and 40 games. It’s been remarkable.”

Gonzaga has stayed together after the trip because each player on the roster was fixated on reaching this point in the season. Sacrifices needed to be made when it came to shots and minutes. Throughout the season, the Zags have made things work using different lineups and unique go-to players depending on the game. For a team full of new pieces, the Zags gelled as quickly as they could have possibly hoped.

Part of the reason is the “36 hours of hell” (as one player put it) that helped Gonzaga grow together before things really got tough during the season.

“I just think we give it all for each other. The message before the season was when we got the pieces, that we have to sacrifice a lot to get to where we want to go,” Perkins said. “I think we gave up a lot for our common goal and it paid off for us.”

Ball State forward Zach Hollywood found dead in off-campus apartment

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Zach Hollywood, a redshirt freshman on the Ball State basketball team, has died, the university confirmed to multiple local news outlets Tuesday.

He was 19 years old.

Hollywood redshirted last season at Ball State after averaging 17.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game as a senior at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in Bradley, Ill.

Muncie police are investigating the death at Hollywood’s off-campus apartment, according to WTHR-TV.

“On behalf of Ball State University, it is with profound sadness that we learned today of the passing of Zachary “Zach” Hollywood, a student from Bradley, Illinois,” the school said in a statement. “Zach has been a part of our family for the past year. During his time on campus, he was a member of men’s basketball team and made many positive impressions throughout campus.

“This is a tragedy. Our heartfelt condolences are with his family, friends and teammates. “For members of our Ball State family who need support during this difficult time, we encourage them to take advantage of the numerous resources available on- and off-campus.”

Hollywood’s death is a tragic turn in an already devastating story for his family, which lost Zach’s mother, Susan, suddenly just over one year ago.

3-on-3 at the Final Four for $100,000? It’s happening

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The Final Four just got more exciting.

On Tuesday, Intersport announced a 3-on-3 tournament that they will be hosting at the Final Four with a $100,000 payout for the winners. The participants must be seniors that have exhausted their collegiate eligibility, the teams will be created based on conference and the rules will be standard, international 3-on-3 rules: one-point for a bucket inside the arc, two points for a bucket outside the arc, 12-second shot clocks and games played to 21 points, or whoever has the highest score after 10 minutes. Each all-star team will feature four players, including one sub.

And, well, this is awesome.

I cannot express enough how much I love this idea.

One potential pothole here is that teams that are playing in the Final Four will, quite clearly, not have players eligible to participate.

It also should be noted that since “three-pointers” are now worth two points and “two-pointers” are now worth one, the value of long-range shooting is increased even more.

With all that in mind, why don’t we make a quick power ranking of the teams that can be created from the nine biggest conferences in college hoops:

  1. ACC: Grayson Allen (Duke), Bonzie Colson (Notre Dame), Joel Berry II (North Carolina), Ben Lammers (Georgia Tech)
  2. Big East: Angel Delgado and Khadeen Carrington (Seton Hall), Trevon Bluiett (Xavier), Marcus Foster (Creighton)
  3. Big 12: Devonte’ Graham (Kansas), Jevon Carter (West Virginia), Jeffery Carroll (Oklahoma State), Zach Smith (Texas Tech)
  4. AAC: Rob Gray (Houston), B.J. Taylor (UCF), Gary Clark (Cincinnati), Obi Enechionya (Temple)
  5. Pac-12: Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart (USC), George King (Colorado), Thomas Welsh (UCLA)
  6. Big Ten: Nate Mason (Minnesota), Scottie Lindsay (Northwestern), Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas (Purdue)
  7. Atlantic 10: E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell (Rhode Island), Peyton Aldridge (Davidson), Jaylen Adams (St. Bonaventure)
  8. SEC: Yante Maten (Georgia), Deandre Burnett (Ole Miss), Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford (Arkansas)
  9. WCC: Jock Landale and Emmett Naar (Saint Mary’s), Jonathan Williams III (Gonzaga), Silas Melson (Gonzaga)

I had way too much fun putting this together.

What did I miss?

Harsh Reality: Indiana did not do Grant Gelon wrong, getting cut is part of sports

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What happened to Grant Gelon sucks, and I’m not sure anyone in their right mind would try to argue otherwise.

A 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Crown Point, Indiana, Gelon accepted a scholarship offer from then-Indiana head coach Tom Crean as a member of the Class of 2016. His commitment was something of a surprise at the time; Gelon was a two-star prospect, according to Rivals, and ranked 402nd in the class, according to 247 Sports. At the time, Gelon reportedly had seven scholarship offers: Central Michigan, UIC, Toledo, Iona, Youngstown State, IUPUI and Western Carolina.

It was a reach for Crean, but it was also a dream come true for an Indiana kid getting a chance to don the cream and crimson.

Which is what made what happened this spring particularly painful.

Crean was fired on March 16th. Indiana hired Archie Miller to replace him on March 27th. Five weeks later, after a handful of workouts with the new coaching staff, Miller called Gelon into his office — the date, according to the Northwest Indiana Times, was May 3rd — and told him that he was being cut. There was not going to be minutes available, the staff said, for a sophomore that played in just 12 games last season, and that finding a place to transfer would be Gelon’s best option.

“I told them I wanted to stay,” Gelon told the Indy Star. “I told them, I’m making my mind up, I’m gonna push hard, show them what I can do, I’m here for a reason. When I said that, it was like, ‘Whoa, slow down.’ They were kind of making that sound like it wasn’t an option.”

That’s because it wasn’t.

Miller was cutting Gelon.

He was not cutting his scholarship, mind you. The Indiana student-athlete bill of rights protects players from losing their tuition due to poor performance on the court or the field. Gelon would still be getting his education paid for if he opted to remain at Indiana, he just wouldn’t be playing for the Hoosiers. Gelon’s departure opened up a scholarship for the Hoosiers that eventually went to Race Thompson, a four-star power forward that reclassified into the Class of 2017 in order to enroll at Indiana this year.

“Coach Miller believes honesty in evaluating talent, while often difficult, is the appropriate measure to take at all times and in the best interest of each player,” a statement released by the Indiana athletic department read. “Grant was made aware that our staff believed his abilities were not of the caliber that would allow him to receive playing time of any kind in the future for the IU program.”

I feel for Gelon here. I really do. Getting cut sucks, and everyone reading this now has probably gone through it at some point in their life. It happens all the time, in every sport, at every age group. Once you get to a level in athletics where you’re playing in more than your hometown rec league, it gets competitive. If you’re not good enough, you don’t make the team. That is how this works. Gelon found that out the hard way.

And frankly, what Miller did is not uncommon. It’s called running a player off, and it happens all the time at every program. Gelon had a bad enough season as a freshman that there is no guarantee that he would have kept his spot on the team had Crean kept his job. Simply put, he is not a Big Ten basketball player. I’d wager that two out of every five transfers at the Division I level are the result of a player transferring out of a school — either because he was forced or because the writing was on the wall — to a lower level, one more in line with his skill-set.

That’s what happened with Gelon. He’s now at State Fair Community College in Missouri, where he’ll spend a year before looking to climb his way back into the Division I ranks, most likely at the low-major level.

And no matter how many interviews that he or his family gives, you won’t find me saying that Indiana handled this the wrong way.

Was Miller callous?

That wouldn’t surprise me. He’s not the type of guy to mince words, and there really is not a good way to sugar-coat, ‘You are not good enough for us.’

But Gelon was not having his scholarship taken away. Indiana was living up to their promise of paying for his education. They did not do him wrong. The staff gave him more than a month to prove himself as a player and, eventually, made the decision he would not be in their plans moving forward.

So he was cut. That opening allowed a four-star power forward to enroll this year.

That’s the harsh reality of life in the Big Ten.

And there’s nothing wrong with the coach of a basketball team doing what Miller and Indiana did.

VIDEO: UConn’s Kwintin Williams would win the NBA dunk contest

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Think that’s too strong?

Look at this dunk:

Light

A post shared by Kwintin Williams (@jumpmanebig) on

He also did this over the summer:

Williams is a 6-foot-7, 215 pound JuCo transfer that should provide UConn with some minutes in the frontcourt this season.

LSU officially announces addition of Kavell Bigby-Williams

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LSU has announced the addition of Oregon transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams, a 6-foot-11 junior that was the National Junior College Player of the Year as a sophomore.

Bigby-Williams, who is a native of London, averaged 3.0 points and 2.8 boards last season as the Ducks reached the Final Four, but he played the majority of the season while under investigation for an alleged sexual assault that occurred while he was at Gillette College in Wyoming.

The local County Attorney declined to charge Bigby-Williams with a crime, and Gillette College police consider the case closed.

“The university conducted a responsible and comprehensive review before approving the transfer,” a release posted on LSU’s Athletics site read, “including close coordination with Title IX officials, multiple discussions with Gillette and Oregon officials and a thorough examination of available public records.”

LSU head coach Will Wade was quoted in that release as well: “This is an issue we all take seriously and we made absolutely sure we did our due diligence before considering moving forward. Kavell understands that and has made clear to me that he’s going to repay our confidence by representing LSU with his very best on and off the court.”