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A heart-to-heart with Bob Huggins changed Juwan Staten’s outlook, career

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we will be previewing the Big 12.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

West Virginia’s Juwan Staten was one of the best players in the Big 12 last season, earning the honor of being named first-team all-Big 12 player over the likes of Joel Embiid and Georges Niang.

He was terrific, averaging 18.4 points, 5.8 assists and 5.6 rebound despite being listed as a 6-foot point guard. Those numbers were good enough to convince the Big 12 voters to overlook the fact that the Mountaineers were only able to manage a 17-16 record and a trip to the NIT. They were also impressive enough to make you wonder: Where the heck did this come from?

As a sophomore, in Staten’s first season playing with the Mountaineers, he averaged just 7.6 points and 3.3 assists on a team that bookended a 13-19 season with a 34-point beat-down at the hands of Gonzaga on national television and a seven-game losing streak. That came after Staten had redshirted the 2011-12 following a transfer from Dayton. Before Bob Huggins made the decision to bring Staten into the program, he first made a call to Steve Smith, Staten’s head coach at Oak Hill Academy (Virginia), a prep school known for churning out as much basketball talent as anyone in the country.

That includes Ty Lawson, Rajon Rondo and Brandon Jennings.

“Steve said that he was probably the best point guard that he’s ever had,” Huggins told NBCSports.com this month, but through three seasons of college basketball, Staten looked anything but the part.

RELATED: NBCSports.com 2014-2015 Big 12 Preview Rick Barnes turns Texas around

That all changed when Huggins had a sit-down with Staten following the 2012-13 season. The message he needed to get across? If you don’t want to do things my way, then pack your bags.

“Coach Huggs, he basically told me that he needed me to be an extension of him,” Staten told NBCSports.com. “Some things that we have to do within our program, with me being around and knowing how things go, he just wanted me to step up and be a leader. Put guys in their place when they’re doing the wrong thing and give them encouragement when they’re doing the right thing. Let them know what we’re supposed to be doing here. Be that voice that the guys hear away from practice.

“All the players don’t always agree with everything that’s going on, but as a leader, it’s your job to find out what the coach wants and how to get the players to do that.”

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Huggins dismissed that heart-to-heart in a way that only he can — “If you look at what our record was that year, I had that conversation with a lot of people,” he muttered, which is about the best way to describe the twangy, choppy way that Huggy Bear speaks. “Like, all of them. Every single one of them.” — but in talking with Staten, it’s easy to see that his message got through.

“My mentality changed,” Staten said. “I didn’t really have the season that I wanted to have as a sophomore, and that tested me. It put things in perspective. Time’s running out. You either have to start putting it down or think about something else that you want to do with your life. I got a little more focused and serious about the game. It changed my approach. I started taking more of a business approach to the game, falling in love with the process.”

And what is “the process”?

For Staten, it was about more than simply getting in the gym and doing the same drills and workouts that he’s done throughout his career and will continue to do as long as he’s playing the game.

Huggins has been coaching this game for a long time — as Staten put it, “since before I was born” — and he’s had quite a few stars work their way through his Cincinnati and West Virginia programs. There were two, however, that piqued the interest of Staten: Nick Van Exel and Steve Logan. He got Huggins to bring him game film from when those two were playing in college, spending hours pouring over those tapes.

He wasn’t just studying their moves, however. His goal wasn’t to learn how to cross a defender over like Van Exel could or hit the same kind of pull-up threes that Logan shot. The sets that Huggins runs these days aren’t that different from what he ran in the 90s, and what Staten wanted to learn was when, in the flow of the offense, those two were able to attack.

“I just wanted to see where they got their shots from, where they were able to create out of and what opportunities the offense was able to open up for them,” he said. “After that it was pretty clear where I would be able to get my shots.”

It sure was.

The problem, however, was that all those shots and all that production led the Mountaineers to a first round ouster from the NIT. As good as Staten is, as bright as his professional future may be, the sport just isn’t as fulfilling when you’re not winning consistently, and Staten says there are two things that he can do to change that next season that go beyond extending his three-point range.

It starts with “grasping the concept of being a point guard,” he said. “Knowing the time and score, learning my teammates a little better, what situations do we run what plays in to get an easy basket.” He also hopes to be able to lead his team better in close games. Staten traveled to both the Point Guard Skills Academy in New Jersey and LeBron James camp in Las Vegas this summer, and the way he tells it, he has a better feel for “knowing how to close games”.

But if West Virginia is truly going to be able to earn an at-large bid this season, it’s going to be about more than just Staten.

“We’ve got to guard and we’ve got to rebound,” Huggins said. “There are two constants in basketball: the ability to defend and the ability to rebound. We got away from really what was the staple of what we were all about.”

“Everybody’s wants to win,” Staten added. “When you’re not winning, it makes things a little more difficult because people start questioning what’s going on. They want ot sart putting their own ideas into things.

“It’s all about trusting the process.”

Staten knows better than anyone.

No longer supplementary pieces, two Texans will lead the way at Weber State

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source: AP
Weber State head coach Randy Rahe (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

In eight seasons at Weber State, head coach Randy Rahe has won 169 games (just over 21 wins per season) but prior to the 2013-14 campaign the Wildcats made just one NCAA tournament appearance under his watch. Thanks in large part to four seniors, led by Big Sky Player of the Year Davion Berry, that changed, with Weber State winning the Big Sky regular season and tournament titles. With their eyes on a repeat the Wildcats begin the season with just one senior, but their returnees have plenty of experience when it comes to contributing to a championship run.

The question for Weber State: can those supplementary options step forward into primary roles? The good news for Weber State is that the staff has done well on the recruiting trail in recent years, and players who hail from Texas make up nearly one-third of the roster entering the 2014-15 campaign. Looking for talent in areas they may not have hit hard in the past is something many programs do. In the case of Weber State, they’ve worked hard to build relationships within Texas and the efforts have paid off.

“We always want to be recruiting Utah first, going after the same guys who are going to BYU or Utah or Utah State. We don’t want to settle,” Rahe told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. “We’ve had a harder time beating those schools for some guys, so we’ve gone to Arizona where we’ve had some success and northern California where we’ve gotten guys like Damian Lillard, Davion Berry and Frank Otis.

“But we decided that we needed to go to another spot, and I told my assistant Phil Beckner [who’s now with the Oklahoma City Thunder], ‘I want you to dive into Texas and see what you can do.’ He did a great job of establishing inroads and getting to know people. The first guy we got out of there was Joel Bolomboy, who we found at an early age. By the summer before his senior year he was 6-foot-9 and all of a sudden Clemson, Auburn and New Mexico (were interested). But he hung with us and showed a lot of loyalty, and since then we’ve kept going down there.”

Bolomboy is one of two Texans who were a part of the starting lineup last season, with sophomore guard Jeremy Senglin being the other. Bolomboy contributed 8.7 points and a Big Sky-best 11.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore, with Senglin accounting for 10.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists at the off-guard position. Both were recognized by Big Sky coaches for their efforts at the end of the season, as Bolomboy was named Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and Senglin winning Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors.

Due to the departures responsibilities will change for both, especially for Senglin as he’ll be asked to move into the role of primary ball-handler.

RELATED: NBCSports.com’s Big Sky Conference Preview

“He didn’t have to be the main guy as a true freshman. He could fit in, and he filled that role really well,” Rahe said of Senglin. “This year obviously his level of responsibility in our program has to go up. From a scoring standpoint we’re probably going to need a bit more from him, and we’re going to need more from a leadership standpoint. I think he can be a very good point guard, and everything has to kick up another notch for him. Now he’s got more responsibility, and he’s going to have to mix in the scoring and getting his teammates involved.”

The process of moving into the role of primary ball-handler can be a difficult one, because there’s a lot more that goes into the process than simply thinking that one has to pass the ball more. The understanding of when to get your teammates the ball and where they should get the ball is key, as is the need to understand when it’s time to pursue your own scoring opportunities and when it’s time to run something to get someone else a shot. Senglin gained experience in both perimeter roles during his high school years, including a stint alongside Emmanuel Mudiay with the Texas Select program, and those are experiences Weber State expects to serve Senglin well as he adjust to a different role.

In regards to Bolomboy, his ability as both a rebounder and defender has been present since he arrived on campus, as he tallied 7.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game as a freshman in 2012-13 despite not starting a single game. The key for Bolomboy this offseason was to expand his game, and despite getting just a week and a half with Ukraine’s national team before suffering a bone bruise in his knee he was able to work on becoming a more consistent offensive player.

source: AP
Weber State’s Joel Bolomboy (AP Photo)

Last season, 45.3% of Bolomboy’s field goal attempts were two-point jumpers, according to hoop-math.com, and he made just 28.6% of those shots. The short amount of time Bolomboy worked under Ukraine head coach Mike Fratello helped the junior add some polish to his offensive skill set, and according to Rahe, the improvement has been noticeable since his leading rebounder returned to Ogden.

“He was playing with older guys,” Rahe said when asked how the summer experience helped Bolomboy. “He was being coached by coach Fratello, who is a great coach and knows what he’s doing. For us, it was great because now he hears another voice. It was good for him to hear some of the same things we’ve been telling him but from someone else, which kind of reinforces what we’ve been trying to get him to do.”

Bolomboy isn’t going to be a player who hoists up 20 shots a night, and that’s fine. Weber State doesn’t need him to be that kind of player. But they did need him to use this offseason to improve his offensive skill set, because in addition to Berry the Wildcats lost their second-leading scorer in Kyle Tresnak (11.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and a key contributor in Jordan Richardson (7.1, 2.3, 2.5 apg). With those losses, not to mention fellow senior Byron Fulton and junior Royce Williams, Bolomboy’s progression from supplementary offensive piece to primary option is one of the biggest storylines for Weber State as they look to repeat as Big Sky champions. What’s helped matters is the fact that Bolomboy has worked incredibly hard on his game.

“Joel is an extremely hard worker,” Rahe noted. “He wants to be as good as he can possibly be. When we first got Joel as a freshman, he was always very athletic and rebounded at a high level because of his athleticism, but he needed a lot of skill work. His ball-handling, his passing, his shooting, which then (if improved) would help him get a better feel for the game and how the game was played. His skill level and feel for the game as a freshman was not very good, so those were the two areas that we really tried to hit hard.

MORE: All of NBCSports.com’s conference previews can be found here

“Just improving his overall skill level and ball-handling; the better you can handle the ball, the better you feel about the game and you see the game better,” Rahe continued. “He’s really come a long way. He’s starting to feel the game better and his skill level has gotten very good for a 6-9, 235-pound player. He can now shoot the ball from three and we’re allowing him to do that, and he can now make plays off the bounce as well.

“He’s really come a long way in two years, and a lot of it has to do with his overall work ethic and how good he wants to be.”

Bolomboy and Senglin are the two players most will focus on when assessing the Wildcats’ chances of retaining possession of the Big Sky title due to the roles they filled a season ago. But it’ll take a lot more than just two players to accomplish that goal, with players such as sophomores Richaud Gittens and Kyndahl Hill also in spots where they’ll be able to contribute more. A team that was led by five seniors a season ago will have just one in 2014-15. But even with the relative lack of experience the standards within the program don’t change, with Rahe having three areas that he focuses on every season.

“The things I always worry about before every season are: 1. How tough are we?” Rahe said. “Are we going to be tough enough mentally? Physically? That’s something we try to hang our hat on up here. 2. How hard we’re going to play; and 3. how together we’re going to be. Those three areas are things that we try to keep consistent every year. It’s those intangibles that come through for us, and I believe that we have enough talent to be competitive.”

Jeronne Maymon is ready to get back to the grind at Tennessee

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This will be an interesting season for Jeronne Maymon. NCAA rule changes have made defense something of a dirty word this year, and the Tennessee big man happens to play for Cuonzo Martin. That presents a bit of a dilemma.

“It’s definitely very hard to please him on defense,” Maymon told NBCSports via phone. “He really doesn’t care too much about offense. He says some nights your shots will be falling and some nights they won’t, so defense is your consistency every night.”

Maymon is jonesing for consistency this season. He sat out 2012-13 to rehab a nagging knee injury, and he logged very few minutes early in his career as he transferred from Marquette to Tennessee. The Vols were also in turmoil, making the transition from charismatic Bruce Pearl – the coach who coaxed Maymon to Knoxville in the first place – to the more taciturn Martin.

Maymon tries to see the positives in the meandering road he took to this final collegiate season.

“I don’t have as much on-court experience as other seniors, but I’ll tell you I gained a lot of knowledge just being on the bench as far as slowing the game down and getting the mental part,” he said. “Most fifth-year seniors get that mental capacity for processing the game down, but I really grew quite a bit from sitting on the sidelines just watching the game, just picking my coaches’ brains and talking to my players. I think that really helped me.”

A healthy Maymon is the missing piece that makes Tennessee a legitimate contender for the SEC crown, which will be hotly contested by past national title winners Kentucky and Florida as well this season. The strategic and tactical advantages of having Maymon back in the frontcourt alongside last season’s All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes should have Vols fans salivating.

“He and Jarnell are two of the better rebounders in college basketball, two of the most physical guys,” Cuonzo Martin told NBCSports by phone. “You can play those two guys as your four and your five and they feed off of each other. But he’s also a guy with tremendous leadership skills. Jarnell missed him most last season, just having another guy who can control the glass on the back side and draw some of the double-teams. So now Jarnelle becomes a better player with Jeronne back, because he learned how to play without him.”

Martin isn’t taking any chances, either. He has his dominant frontcourt tandem work over their understudies whenever possible. “We try to separate those guys as much in practice as we can, get them going against other guys so those guys can get the experience of how physical the game is played,” Martin said.

The combination of Stokes and Maymon landed at No. 6 on our preseason list of the game’s top backcourts, but the ranking is a bit precarious. If injuries strike, the bench can be a bit thin on big men. Junior college transfer Rawane Ndaiye, nicknamed “Pops”, will see a fair amount of time off the bench. Ndaiye has earned the confidence of his teammates the hard way.

“In practice it’s a lot more chaotic than in games, because coach doesn’t call any fouls; he lets you play. So Pops has shown a lot of poise,” Maymon said. “Him banging up against me and Jarnell has really shown how much he can withstand, and he can play ball.”

Tennessee’s strength extends beyond the frontcourt as well this season; an absolute must in a league featuring the Harrisons, Scottie Wilbekin and hot-shooting Marshall Henderson, amongst other perimeter terrors. Martin will look to Antonio Barton, who traversed the state as a transfer from Memphis to UT, to take some pressure off the inside players.

“You’re talking about a guy who can make shots and push the basketball,” Martin said. “He’s been in big games before and made big shots; he’s a career 40% three-point shooter. Those things help.”

Toss Barton in the mix with 6-foot-6 senior Jordan McRae, who averaged 15.7 points per game last season, and talented freshman Darius Thompson, and you’ll see a pattern emerging. Grit and brawn on the inside, deadly accuracy on the perimeter. It’s the classic basketball yin-yang. If the Vols get lucky and keep everyone out of the trainer’s room, this could be a special season in Knoxville.

It’ll be special for Jeronne Maymon no matter what. He knows this is his last go-round, and he can’t wait to get on the floor in front of a regular-season crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena.

“The first game in front of our fans, being able to step back and hear all that noise and see that Tennessee orange, that’s when I’ll feel like I’m back,” Maymon said. “I’ll probably be very nervous, probably miss a couple of layups maybe turn the ball over once or twice, but I’m pretty sure I can get my feet wet and get back.”

The undercurrent of bold-faced honesty in the Tennessee program these days is refreshing. Maymon can acknowledge his rust, his fear and his potential mistakes because his coach sets a clear standard: you can screw up and be forgiven as long as you own it and learn from it.

source: AP
Cuonzo Martin cares about the grind. It’s as important to his team as it is to his morning coffee.

“The idea is to be perfect, but we always fall short of that,” Maymon said. “We might make some mistakes, but we know we’ll get that corrected as the year goes on. (Coach Martin) sets a standard. He doesn’t bend or waver on anything; once he puts his foot down, it’s set. That’s what keeps us players on balance. I really appreciate his consistency.”

Consistency is what this season will boil down to for the Vols. They start the season on the road against an always-dangerous Xavier team, and they’ll travel to face last year’s Final Four darling Wichita State as well. In the SEC, Maymon and company will battle big men like LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant III and Florida’s own terrible tandem of Will Yeguete and Patric Young. As if that weren’t bad enough, they have assigned dates with the uber-young and uber-talented Kentucky Wildcats to prepare for.

Maymon knows what’s coming, but he refuses to get caught up in the preps-to-pros hype.

“You can’t approach every game with the same mindset. You’ve got to kind of pick your poison with some teams, and some teams are better at one aspect of the game than others. I’m probably just more focused in on the night-in, night-out grind of each game.”

The grind: it’s not glamorous, but it gets the job done.

Kentucky needs super glue to avoid another letdown

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He doesn’t stand on tables and make speeches. He’s no lock to make a start or even see much in the way of minutes on an uber-talented roster, but Jarrod Polson will be a crucial part of Kentucky’s projected success this season. How does a former walk-on matter so much to a team full of future NBA lottery picks?

“I’ve been around the block a couple of times now,” Jarrod Polson told NBCSports by phone. “I’ve seen some successful seasons and some not-so-successful seasons. I’m just letting them know how hard we have to work to achieve our goals.”

The successful season would be 2012, when the Wildcats captured the national title in New Orleans, and sent six players into the NBA draft’s first round. Then there was last year’s team, which had no less talent, but stumbled to an NIT berth and a humiliating first-round road loss at Robert Morris.

What’s the difference between wild success and the letdown of missing the tournament? Where’s the magic ingredient?

“Definitely just working as hard as we can in practice,” Polson said. “Coach Cal is always telling us we need to have a good practice or a great practice. You can’t have a bad one. So the biggest thing is just trying to have a great practice every day. If we can do that, we’ll get a lot better and we’ll be there at the end.”

All this may sound like so much brown-nosing, but we have to understand that Kentucky is in another universe as far as expectations are concerned. There are guys riding the bench in Lexington who would be the best player at most DI programs. Success for this team is almost the humdrum. The fear of any sort of letdown could be crippling. It doesn’t help that the school of hard knocks convenes on day one.

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“We’ve got Michigan State coming up in less than a week,” Polson said with a rueful chuckle in his voice. “We’re looking forward to that. We’re going to be put right in the fire, and I think that’s going to help us.”

The holiday season means something different for Polson and his mega-talented teammates. While everyone else is scarfing pumpkin pie and doing last-minute Christmas shopping, the Wildcats will be hard at work.

“Yeah, all the students go home for break and we’re doing two-a-days and three-a-days. It’s a hard time of year, but we’re together 24/7 during that time, and it brings us closer together. I think that really helps us in March and April.”

Turning talented individuals into a team means working while others take downtime. With the relaxation of NCAA rules, summer break is actually boot camp for college basketball players. And the stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day can set the table for a real feast in March and April. There’s a perception that Coach Cal and his staff earn titles during the live recruiting period, but last year’s disjointed effort points to the notion that some genuine, down-in-the-mud coaching, as well as a full buy-in from the troops, is equally important.

So what’s the role of a Jarrod Polson? He drew praise for his play in Kentucky’s exhibhition win over Transylvania. “I thought Jarrod (Polson) was good. All that Jarrod did was run really hard and push the ball,” Calipari told reporters after the game. “We have a lot of guys that running has always been good enough, and, this is me. You can’t be on the court then. You know, it’s okay, but you can’t be out there.”

Polson’s role is to lead by example, then, and not be crushed when his minutes end up going to someone more naturally talented. He can deal with that.

“I came in here as a walk-on and I never knew if I would hit the court at all,” Polson said. “Personally, I’m not the most vocal person in the world. I like to bring someone to the side and tell them what they need to know. A lot of this stuff they’ve never even heard of, and I’ve been here for three years now and I know the offense in and out. I’m not a crazy vocal leader, but I can show them where to be and I think that can help.”

Which brings me to a crucial point. Jarrod Polson is the glue guy for this Kentucky team. He’s reminiscent of Josh “Jorts” Harrellson in some respects. So doesn’t he need a quality nickname of his own?

“Man, I don’t wear jean shorts, so I don’t know that an article of clothing will give me my nickname,” Polson said, laughing. “I don’t have one right now, so we’ll see.”

Well, that just won’t do. So I’m going to lend a hand. You remember the film The Avengers, where all these supremely talented, larger-than-life superheroes had to work together to win the day? Do you remember how much trouble they had finding the chemistry they needed along the way? There was one guy, just an ordinary guy, really, who did the little things to pull the team together. That’s who Jarrod Polson will be for this year’s Wildcats.

So I’m calling it right now: The senior from Nicholasville has a new nickname.

Agent Polson.

Who else can get Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor et. al together? That’s what needs to happen for Kentucky to end up celebrating in a hail of confetti this April.

The rest will be history. But for now, it’s the future we’re all very much looking forward to.

Rodney Hood’s development as a redshirt spurred by every other team’s best player?

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Rodney Hood did not want to sit out last season.

No athlete ever wants to put their playing career on hold, but the frustration was two-fold for Hood. The former five-star recruit left Mississippi State after one forgettable season playing for Rick Stansbury, alongside the likes of Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost.

Hood was good-but-not-great in his one year in Starkville, but the Bulldogs were a train-wreck. They missed the NCAA tournament for the second straight season while their issues off the court were more troublesome than the problems they had on it. Stansbury “retired” after the season, so Hood left.

He picked Duke over Ohio State, among others, but since transferring after the coach that recruited parts way with the program doesn’t qualify a player for a hardship waiver, Hood was forced to redshirt last season. He could practice with the team, but he wasn’t allowed to play. He wasn’t even allowed to travel, a fact that was made problematic by the lack of cable in the Duke dorm rooms. Hood was forced to watch road games in the locker room or at a Buffalo Wild Wings.

It’s not an easy process, particularly when it seems like every single relevant transfer is able to find a way to get a waiver to play immediately.

The irony, however, is that spending a year away from the game may have been the best thing that could have happened to Hood. Since he wasn’t able to play, Hood threw himself into workouts, living in the gym.

“I’d go to practice, participated, went hard, tried to help the team out as much as I can,” Hood told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. “Then later on that night I would come back and shoot that night. Then when the team went on the road, I would get in the gym and work out, go watch the game, and then go work out more.”

“I would lift on gamedays, just stay in the weight room every time the team was away or before a game, I had to get stronger.”

And he did.

Hood said he’s up to 212 pounds from 195 when he first got to Durham. “All good weight,” he says, the kind that hasn’t cut into his athleticism.

But the weight was only the half of it. Hood spent quite a bit of time doing skill work as well. He’s a more consistent shooter, he developed his handle, he’s gotten better at getting all the way to the rim, he better understands Duke’s defensive principles. The biggest difference in Hood’s game, however, may end up being his aggressiveness.

The only way to improve a skill is through repetition, and the ability to be aggressive and assertive on a basketball court is a skill. You can learn it. You can develop it. And that’s exactly what Hood was forced to do last season. Every single day in practice, the Duke coaching staff used Hood as an opponent’s best player, whether it be a point guard, like Virginia Tech’s Erick Green or Shane Larkin, or a big man, like Creighton’s Doug McDermott.

“I think at times he was reserved in his freshman year at Mississippi State, so when you’re put into the character of another team’s best player, you have to get into a new mindset, one that’s very aggressive and assertive,” associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “That’s what we need him to be this year for our team. Getting out of the old habits, or getting into a new character, I think can be very beneficial for a player. That’s why I think that, a lot of times, a redshirt year for a college kid is very good. I certainly feel like it was very productive for Rodney.”

Hood loved his role in practice. He embraced it. He was the focal point offensively every time he stepped on that practice. Nothing he did could ever be considered a bad shot. That’s a great way to develop confidence in a player, for him to learn how to do different things on a basketball court. You have a lot more freedom to make a move you’ve been working on individually when you’re not worried about one mistake getting you yanked off the court.

“It’s like playing with free money,” he said.

It also allowed Hood to work on his all-around game. He was forced to learn how to handle the ball against pressure. He had to figure out how to drive and score when help defense was always one dribble away. He had to practice being aggressive even when a defense was built around stopping him. “It’s hard to score when everybody is focused on you,” Hood said.

As a result, Hood not only developed as a player, he developed a confidence in his ability, a belief in himself that he’s capable of doing all of these different things on a basketball court. The coaching staff can put him in different positions on the floor and be confident that he’ll be able to be effective.

And when you consider that Hood will be the second-most versatile player on the Duke roster to freshman Jabari Parker, it creates a situation where the Blue Devils will be able to put lineups on the floor that are very difficult to matchup with.

Hood’s just happy that those matchups will come outside of practice this season.

“I’m looking forward to everything,” he said. “The rivalries, playing against other great players and the best teams in the nation. The ACC is going to be great this year, and I’m looking forward to that challenge.”

What does Spike Albrecht, Michigan’s almost-hero, do for an encore this season?

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For one hour last March, Spike Albrecht was a sensation. He wasn’t just the biggest story in sports, he was the only story in sports that mattered.

The tiny freshman point guard put together arguably the most memorable half of basketball you’ll ever see, coming out of nowhere to score 17 first half points in the national title game. He buried four threes in the span of about 10 minutes of game time, the last of which came after he crossed up Russ Smith. Albrecht was trending on twitter worldwide. In a game that featured all-americans and future lottery picks, it was Albrecht that had celebrities and NBA all-stars tweeting about him despite the fact that he entered the game irrelevant enough that many media members covering the event couldn’t tell you a thing about him. “I was in the zone,” Albrecht said, “and I barely even remember what happened.”

He was the hero, the guy that saved the day for the Wolverines when Player of the Year Trey Burke was stuck on the bench, saddled with two fouls. Some of the best sportswriters in America were salivating thinking about the story they would be able to write.

But it was all for naught, less forgotten than overlooked, as Louisville’s Luke Hancock went all Albrecht on Michigan. He hit four threes in the span of two minutes, erasing Michigan’s 12 point lead, launching the comeback that would turn Spike the Hero into Spike the Footnote.

The single-greatest moment, to date, in Albrecht’s athletic career came in what could end up being the single-most disappointing loss. How do you reconcile that?


Albrecht got lucky.

A decidedly mid-major prospect, Albrecht was nearing the end of his time at Northfield Mount Hermon, a prep school in Western Massachusetts, without only one real scholarship offer on the table: Appalachian State. A couple of other schools had started poking around, including Davidson, but reality was starting to stare Albrecht in the face. The dream of ending up playing in a power conference looked to be just that: a dream.

At the same time, the coaches at Michigan were starting to freak out. This was back during the 2011-2012 season, when Trey Burke was in the midst of his surprisingly successful freshman season. The Columbus, OH, native was looking more and more like a potential first round pick, and the chatter around Ann Arbor was making it seem more and more likely that Burke would be bolting for the NBA the first chance that he got. That put head coach John Beilein in a bind. He hadn’t planned for Burke to be leaving campus that early, and he needed some insurance. He needed a security blanket at the point, a back-up plan in case Burke did, in fact, head to the NBA.

“They came across me in the prep school world,”Albrecht told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last month, “and [assistant] coach Jeff Meyer flew up to one of my games and I happened to have a pretty good game. I was on campus a couple of weeks later and committed on the spot. It all happened really fast and I was kind of lucky.”

“I’m just fortunate that I ended up at Michigan.”

Albrecht knew that he was playing with house money. He knew that it was a blessing for him to don the maize and blue, that any chance he got last season was an opportunity to take advantage of. Did you know that in the five games leading up to the final, Albrecht was 5-5 from three, scoring 19 points, grabbing five boards and handing out four assists in just 49 minutes? Those aren’t great numbers, but they’re not bad for a freshman backup point guard playing in March.

One game — one half of one half, to be specific — is all it took for Albrecht to outperform all expectations, but that doesn’t mean that he has to be satisfied with it.

“The day after the national championship game, [assistant coach] LaVall Jordan came up to me and said, ‘Don’t let last night be the highlight of your career,'” Albrecht said. “I know a lot of people think I’m just Spike, the little white kid on Michigan, so it’s gotta be the most memorable. But that’s what motivates me to work hard every day. To prove people wrong.”

He’ll have the chance this season.

With Burke suiting up for the Utah Jazz, Beilein now has a gaping hole at the point guard spot and two options to fill it: Albrecht, and top 40 freshman Derrick Walton. The pair spent all fall battling for that starting point guard spot, and as of now, it’s unclear if anyone has actually been deemed the winner. Albrecht started the first exhibition game, playing 21 minutes against Concordia, while Walton started against Wayne State, logging 27 minutes to Albrecht’s 13.

“Derrick’s a really good player, and honestly, the coaching staff expects me to be a little bit more of a leader, a little bit more vocal,” Albrecht said. “I’m not worried about my minutes or starting, however much I play, I’ll play. I just want to go in there and do as much as I can to help my team.”

“I really don’t have personal goals.”

Albrecht is a competitor. He wants to play and he wants to contribute and he wants to see his highlights on Sportscenter, but he doesn’t want all of that to come at the expense of the team. More than anything, he wants to win.

“I would have rather not scored or played at all and won it all than scored 17 in the first half and lose,” he said. “Obviously, I would like to have a chance to continue to play.”

“But then again, I can’t complain if Derrick turns out to be an all-american and I’m in the same role for the next three years. If we’re winning games and playing in Final Fours and National Championships and the team’s doing well, that’s awesome. I couldn’t be happier. The chance to experience all that?”


Albrecht’s performance on that Monday night in April wasn’t the only time he went viral.

The day after that performance, Albrecht sent a tweet to Michigan fan and superhot supermodel Kate Upton saying, “hey saw you at the game last night, thanks for coming out! Hope to see you again.” Within minutes, it had been retweeted thousands of times and had been posted on every sports blog on the internet.

Albrecht blames — credits? — Nik Stauskas for the idea, and while he says he’s embarrassed about the tweet and that he regrets posting it, seven months later, it still hasn’t been deleted.

“Everyone thought I was going to be sad she didn’t respond,” Albrecht said, “but I was like, ‘she’s a supermodel’.”

And he’s only Spike Albrecht.

But the fact that he’s only the “little white kid on Michigan” is the reason he can swing for the fences.

It doesn’t hurt when you lose house money.