Holiday Road Trip


Ed Cooley on Kris Dunn: He’s ‘in a lot of pain. I don’t expect him back soon.’

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

BROOKLYN — Prior to the start of the season, Providence was a team that many people had picked to be a sleeper in the new Big East conference.

With the like of Bryce Cotton, LeDontae Henton and Kadeem Batts being joined by and impressive incoming class — both recruits and transfers — the Friars, on paper, had as much talent as just about anyone in the league.

After losing to No. 3 Kentucky 79-65 at the Barclays Center on Sunday night in a game that Kentucky was more-or-less in control of throughout, it’s obvious what the issues are that the Friars are still working out: they’re still not at 100%.

“I’m going to coach the guys that are on my bus,” head coach Ed Cooley said. “If we’ve only got five guys, those are the guys we are going to go with.”

The biggest issue is with Kris Dunn. The top point guard recruit in the Class of 2012, Dunn has yet to show just what he is capable of doing at the collegiate level as he is still battling a shoulder injury. It forced him to miss much of last season, and Dunn has sat out the last four Providence games.

“Dunn is in a lot of pain,” Cooley said. “He’s really hurt. I don’t expect him back anytime soon at all.”

Losing out on a player like Dunn is problematic in and of itself, but the issue is magnified due to a couple of suspensions. Brandon Austin, an athletic, 6-foot-7 playmaker that was a top 50 recruit, is still suspended from the team, as is Rodney Bullock, another freshman. Cooley hasn’t elaborated on what those two did to get themselves suspended, but he did say that the program and the school are “going to make sure they’re held accountable for their actions.”

“If they can’t play, they’ll be cheerleaders,” Cooley said.

Losing a pair of lead guards forces leading scorer Bryce Cotton into more of a ball-handling role. He’s perfectly capable of that, as he’s played plenty of point guard in his time with the Friars, but when he shares a back court with Dunn or Austin, it gives Providence a different, more dynamic looks.

We won’t fully know just how good Providence can be this season until we know when — or if? — their roster will be intact.

Kentucky’s a work-in-progress, but we can see the progress being made

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

BROOKLYN — Attend enough of John Calipari’s press conferences, and one thing you’ll realize is that the man is media savvy enough that, should he decide his coaching career isn’t lucrative enough, he can open up his own PR firm.

He’s like a politician, and not in the derogatory way. He has a point that he wants to make, an idea that he is trying to drive home, and he knows how he is going to answer every question that he gets asked before he sets foot in that room.

With this group, one of Cal’s major talking points is that the overwhelming youth that he has on his roster means that this group is going to be a work in progress for a long time. The team that we see on the floor now is different than the team that we’re going to see when SEC play kicks off in January. The team that we see in January is going to be different than the group that takes the floor in March. This is true with every team, to a point, but it’s exacerbated in Lexington. There is no team in the country with a learning curve as steep as Kentucky’s.

“This is a freshmen team,” Cal said after Sunday night’s 79-65 win over Providence. Yes, every team that he’s had in his tenure with the ‘Cats has been a “freshmen team”, but this year’s group doesn’t have the veterans that other teams have had. There is no Patrick Patterson or Darius Miller. Josh Harrellson ain’t walking through that door. “We’re basically doing it with all freshmen. I’ve never done this before.”

The motto for this group? “What got you here won’t get you there.” What they did in high school and AAU ball, relying on their length and athleticism and God-given gifts, isn’t enough when every at this level has comparable size and leaping ability. He’s working with a blank canvas, and while part of the reason that he harps on this topic is to diffuse Big Blue Nation’s angst and to show his players that he has their backs publicly, this isn’t entirely the Calipari-spin.

He team is young, and his players do have a lot to learn.

Which means they have a lot of room to grow, and tonight, we saw some of that growth.

Kentucky knocked off a good Providence team in fairly impressive fashion on Sunday, and they did it despite the fact that Julius Randle had an off night and Andrew Harrison was largely relegated to the bench as he dealt with some foul trouble.

Instead, we saw Willie Cauley-Stein put together arguably his most impressive game as a Wildcat, finishing with 15 points, eight boards and nine blocks. Kentucky’s elite athleticism makes them potentially a deadly defensive team, and knowing that they have an eraser at the rim will only make the perimeter players that much more confident when pressuring on the perimeter defensively. This also doubled as one of Aaron Harrison’s best games to date, as he finished with 15 points and four assists on 7-for-9 shooting. He played the point quite a bit while his brother was on the bench, while also switching onto Providence’s high-scoring lead guard Bryce Cotton in the second half.

“Aaron Harrison is the one that changed the game,” Cal said.

Perhaps most importantly, however, we saw glimpses of the Wildcats starting to ‘get it’, starting to understand the way they have to play if they truly want to be a national title contender come March.

Despite playing a team with a front line that could match them inch-for-inch, Kentucky continually pounded the ball into the paint, either off the drive or off the dribble. Randle was off, finishing 4-for-10 from the floor and missing three free throws, but he added four assists, showing an ever-improving ability to pass out of a double-team. Even Cauley-Stein chipped in with a couple of jump-hooks of his own.

The stat that most signifies Kentucky’s dedication to the interior is that they only shot eight threes on the night, making six of them. Kentucky was averaging more than 17 threes attempted per game, with their two designated shooters taking more than half of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc despite the fact that they were both shooting under 29% from deep.

Kentucky still has plenty of room to grow, and, as of now, they are far from a finished product.

But you can see little things changing, improving, every time they take the court.

And if the Wildcats can continue this trend?

“When those kids mature,” Providence head coach Ed Cooley said, “they can be scary. They can be really, really scary.”

Marshall Henderson’s on-court antics aren’t changing. Deal with it


BROOKLYN — Marshall gonna be Marshall.

At this point, I think it is safe to say that he’s never going to change, at least on the court.

And while he may be the scourge of every stodgy sportswriter on Twitter, in all honesty, is there really anything wrong with that?

On Saturday night, with seven minutes left in Ole Miss’ 79-76 win over Penn State in the finals of the Barclays Center Classic, Marshall Henderson buried a three with a Penn State defender in his face to open up a four-point lead. He immediately turned around and, quite clearly, yelled at a father and son sitting court side that had been razzing him the entire game. Keep in mind, the listed attendance for the game was 3,088, but that also included the folks that had made the trip from Queens to see St. John’s play in the opener. The gym was pretty empty, and the game was broadcast on the NBC Sports Network.

Simply put, everyone at the game and all the people back home watching on TV saw this. Teddy Valentine certainly did, as he immediately blew his whistle, wrapped his arm around Henderson’s waist and brought the fiery gunslinnger over to his sideline for a scolding.

“Someone said something to him from the crowd and he responded,” head coach Andy Kennedy said after the game. “Ted came over and said, ‘listen, don’t talk to the fans. They can talk to you, but you can’t talk to them.'”

This came a night after Henderson got into a bit of a tussle after the Rebels knocked off Georgia Tech. According to Matt Norlander, Henderson was knocked to the floor as the buzzer sounded and had to be pulled back by his teammates as he chirped at the Yellow Jackets in the handshake line.

That’s just who Henderson is on the court.

It hasn’t changed yet, and it’s probably never going to change.

Quite frankly, it’s not that big of a deal. So he gets a little too fired up and yaps a little bit too much. His coaches are clearly OK with it because he’s still playing. His suspension wasn’t for his actions on the floor. His teammates are OK with it because he’s not only the biggest trash-talker on the team, but he may also be the best teammate. This is the same guy that was so fired up on the bench while his teammates were making a run that he slapped Martavious Newby on the rear-end hard enough that Newby audibly yelped in pain. It’s the same guy who is coming off the bench and has seen his scoring average dip five points this season, yet was the first guy celebrating when it was announced Demarco Cox was the tourney MVP.

He’s not exactly the posterchild for sportsmanship and class clearly went out the window a long time ago, but all things considered, he’s pretty harmless on a basketball court.

The real issue is his behavior off the court, which has been well-documented. Multiple arrests, one for using counterfeit money to buy drugs, and quite a bit of drinking at inopportune times. That’s where his development needs to happen. That’s where he really needs to grow, and no one outside of that Ole Miss locker room — hell, no one outside of Marshall Henderson — will truly know if he’s made that change. A ban on media access and social media usage will keep him out of the headlines, but it’s not going to make Henderson a better person.

Henderson’s on-court antics make him, at best, entertaining and the villain of college hoops. At worst, he’s a distraction to his team and his team alone. He’s a volume-shooter on an Ole Miss team that would surprise if it made the NCAA tournament. He’s not an NBA prospect. He’s got five more months of relevance, if you can call it that. Hand-wringing over him “changing” on the court seems pointless.

Where Henderson needs to change is who he is off the court.

He’s the only one that can do that, and there’s certainly no way to know if that’s happened simply by watching him play basketball for two hours.

St. John’s pressure, transition game important if they want to reach their potential

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BROOKLYN — For the first 20 minutes of the consolation game of the Barclays Center Classic, St. John’s looked, in a word, horrendous. Georgia Tech jumped out to a 19-4 lead at the under 12 timeout and took a 31-24 lead into the break as the Johnnies shot a torrid 31.8% from the floor and 1-for-6 from three.

It was bad enough that the discussion on press row was almost entirely about how bad the Red Storm looked. How could a team with that much talent up and down their lineup possibly be this bad? How can a Big East basketball team look this lost while trying to run their half court offense?

Then the second half came around. The Johnnies threw on their press, they allowed their athleticism and talent to take over, and they headed back to Queens with a 69-58 win after outscoring the Yellow Jackets 45-27 in the final 20 minutes.

“It started with their defense as opposed to speeding it up on offense,” Tech head coach Brian Gregory said after the game. “Their pressure was good in the second half and we didn’t handle it very well.”

That’s putting it mildly.

The difference in the game was a 16-0 run that turned into a 26-6 surge, turning a 46-36 deficit into a 62-52 lead. Steve Lavin put in a lineup heavy on athleticism that overwhelmed the Yellow Jackets, as they turned 20 turnovers into 20 points. During that run, the Johnnies had just a single basket that wasn’t a dunk, a layup or a free throw while keeping Tech from hitting a shot from the floor for more than 12 minutes.

Those are dominating numbers.

“Stops and shutouts are going to lead to runouts, and for us, the press leads to those scoring flurries where we put up points in bunches,” Lavin said.

The Johnnies ooze potential. There may not be a team in the country that can match them when it comes to length, athleticism and depth. JaKarr Sampson and Sir’Dominic Pointer are freaks, Chris Obekpa might be the best shot blocker in the country and their guards — D’angelo Harrison, Phil Greene, Jamal Branch, Rysheed Jordan — are, on paper, better than 95% of the teams in the country.

The issue with this team is two-fold.

For starters, there aren’t many players on this roster with a high basketball IQ, and they aren’t the most skilled players offensively. That’s an issues that is exacerbated by the fact that Steve Lavin isn’t exactly known as an x’s-and-o’s guru. His best season with his players at St. John’s came when he took a year away from the bench to battle cancer and allowed Mike Dunlap to coach the team. The result is a team that either A) doesn’t understand the offense that they are supposed to be running or B) doesn’t run an offense. Neither is a positive.

As a result, if the Johnnies are forced to play a half court game, they are going to struggle, which is why the second half was so important.

This team can be dangerous when they are allowed to press and to get out in transition. There may not be a team outside of the top 25 with a higher ceiling than the Johnnies, it’s just a matter of whether or not this coaching staff can get this group to reach that potential.

Nick Johnson becoming a go-to guy is the key for No. 4 Arizona

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

NEW YORK — Arizona is an elite defensive team.

You should know this by now. I’ve written about it twice in the last three days. Their size, their versatility and the presence of terrific individual defenders makes them as tough to score on as anyone in the country.

The issue with Arizona is on the offensive end of the floor. As Drexel proved on Wednesday night, if you want to beat Arizona, you have to force them into a half court, possession-by-possession game by being physical with their guards and taking away the sets they want to run. As athletic and as talented as they are, the Wildcats don’t have an abundance of skill offensively.

That’s what makes Nick Johnson so important.

Right now, Johnson is probably Arizona’s most skilled player offensively, their biggest threat in the half court.

“Nick’s become [a go-to guy] for us,” head coach Sean Miller said. “He’s taken big shots and he’s made them.”

Johnson is the Wildcat’s leading scorer, as he entered Friday averaging 17.3 points. He struggled in the first half, but scored 13 of his 15 points after intermission, including eight points and a pair of assists during the game-changing, 20-5 run in their 72-66 win over No. 6 Duke. Miller was not only impressed with Johnson’s ability to hit a big shot, but the fact that he did it after such a poor first half.

“There’s a lot of go-to guys that are doing well when things are going well for them and their team,” Miller said. “True go-to guys are the ones that dig their team out of a gutter or are able to put three or four bad plays behind them and make the next big play. It’s great to see Nick developing into that.”

“Each year he’s added to his role and his game. I don’t know if there are more complete guards in the country with what he means to our team.”

The key for Arizona this season is going to be the play of their perimeter attack. It’s not a secret that the Wildcats are a big, physical front line. In both games in Madison Square Garden this week, the Wildcats made it a priority to get the ball into the paint to Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley. They know where their bread gets buttered.

But in order to keep defenses from collapsing on those big guys, Arizona’s guards are going to have to be able to produce. They have to be able to knock down their threes to help spread the floor. They have to be able to keep defenses honest. When Duke took their biggest lead at 43-37, Arizona was 2-for-11 from the floor. For the remainder of the game, Arizona was 3-for-3 from deep, which not only sparked their run but also forced Duke out of a man-to-man defense.

So yes, it’s more than just Johnson.

But he’s their best perimeter scorer, and when he plays like it, it makes the Wildcats a much more dangerous team.

Duke’s defense, lack of size won’t prevent them from contending

NIT Season Tip-Off  Duke v Arizona

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

NEW YORK — No. 6 Duke entered the semifinals of the Preseason NIT 5-1, the lone loss coming to No. 2 Kansas at the Champions Classic. Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood were living up to their Preseason All-American hype. The Blue Devils were scoring points at a prolific rate, ranking No. 1 in Kenpom’s offensive efficiency ratings as their lineup featuring five perimeter players proved impossible to matchup with.

But offense is only going to get you so far if you can’t stop anyone, and Duke had been downright atrocious on the defensive end over the course of the first two-and-a-half weeks of the season.

As of Wednesday, the Blue Devils were 179th in the country in defensive efficiency rating, according to Kenpom, a number that is obscenely low for a team coached by Mike Krzyzewski. For all the stereotypes out there about the Blue Devils, their best teams have always been able to defend.

The issue for this group?

Their front court. Duke doesn’t have a dominating interior presence. They have the undersized Josh Hairston, the out-of-position Amile Jefferson and the overmatched Marshall Plumlee. It’s The best player in that loss to Kansas? Power forward Perry Ellis, who finished with 24 points. Duke also likes to pressure out on the perimeter, but that opens them up to getting beaten off the dribble where they lack a rim protector. Vermont — Vermont — was 21-for-24 on shots in the paint against Duke, the majority of which came off of dribble penetration.

(MORE: Aaron Gordon is better than what the box score says.)

Simply put, Mason Plumlee ain’t walking through that door.

“We’re not a pro team,” Coach K said. We can’t get a guy on a ten-day contract or from the D-League. This is who we have.”

To their credit, the Blue Devils were much, much better defensively the past two days. Both Alabama and Arizona really struggled getting anything going in the half court. The Wildcat’s three big guys — Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski — were good in Friday night’s 72-66 win in the NIT title game, but they weren’t overpowering. The trio finished with a combined 33 points and 18 boards on 12-for-18 shooting, numbers that are going to be common for opposing front lines, especially when they are as big as Arizona’s.

But Duke certainly wasn’t dominated on the interior despite the fact that Arizona made it very evident that their goal throughout the game was to get the ball inside. Duke scouted well and stuck to their game-plan. Every post touch, the Blue Devils double-teamed on the dribble, rotating well enough that they cut off penetration from Arizona’s back court. They were daring Arizona to shoot threes, and the Wildcats obliged, missing nine of their first 11 attempts.

It wasn’t until Nick Johnson hit a tough three at the end of a shot clock, which was followed by a deep three from Aaron Gordon, that the Wildcats went on their game-changing, 20-5 run. A 43-37 Duke lead turned into a 57-48 deficit, but that wasn’t the front court’s fault.

“We played really well on the defensive end,” Krzyzewski said. “We were playing our hearts out. They’re difficult to defend.”

“I have no fault for my team.”

The bottom-line is this: Duke has a small front court. We all know they have a small front court. That’s not going to change unless Jahlil Okafor somehow finds a way to enroll in college for the spring semester.

That ain’t happening, so the Blue Devils are going to have to find a way to compete — to defend — despite their size deficiencies.

On Friday, they did. Just like they did against Alabama on Wednesday. Think about it like this: Duke lost to a very, very good Arizona team by six points on a night when Jabari Parker was 7-for-21 from the floor and didn’t hit a field goal in the second half until there was less than three minutes on the clock.

“There’s no shame in losing to Kansas,” Coach K said. “Or Arizona.”

Perhaps the best news for Duke fans is that there aren’t many elite teams out there with overpowering front lines. Arizona is as good as anyone, and this was a very winnable game for Duke.

Every team has issues they have to overcome. Friday night was evidence that Duke is, at the very least, trending in the right direction.

Size is not an excuse anymore.