Recruits flocking to Izzo's Spartans

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Wanna play for Tom Izzo? Take a number.

Michigan State snagged its fifth verbal commitment in the last 12 days when Bay City, Mich., big man Matt Costello agreed to play for Izzo’s program. That means every MSU roster spot it filled for 2011 and 2012. (And this is after securing a Top 11 class for 2010.)

Izzo’s always had talent, but this is above and beyond, even for him. Spartans beat reporter Joe Rexrode says he’s never seen this many recruits – and high-level ones at that – commit to Michigan State in such a short span.

No kidding. That’s a recruiting bonanza even John Calipari would envy.

Here’s Michigan State’s prospect rundown, profiles and rankings from Rivals.com:

  • Kenny Kaminski (committed July 31) is a 6-7, 180-pound wing from Ohio who’s a 2012 prospect.
  • Branden Dawson (Aug. 4), is a five-star, 6-6, 200-pound small forward. He’s the prize of MSU’s 2011 class.
  • Travis Trice (Aug. 4), a 5-11, 160-pound guard who’ll provide depth I the 2011 group.
  • Denzel Valentine (Aug. 9) the 6-5, 205-pound Lansing product is a 2012 prospect who’ll probably be rated as a four-star prospect.
  • Matt Costello (Aug. 10), a 6-8, 210-pound forward who’s described as scrappy and a good passing big man. He’s also a 2012 prospect.

Mike Miller’s also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller, usually talkin’ hoops. Click here for more.

Robinson’s Return Provides Boost For Virginia Tech

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Having star point guard Justin Robinson back on the court was music to the ears of Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams.

Specifically for Williams, it was the relaxing feeling he gets when listening to the Eagles playing their soft rock classic “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

“When 5 has the ball, I think everybody feels that way,” Williams said Saturday, referring to Robinson’s uniform number. “Our guys don’t listen to that genre of music. When 5 had the ball yesterday, I know statistically it wasn’t his normal game, but in the 27 minutes he played he was a big part of handling Saint Louis’ pressure, handling their physicality. Because when he has the ball, you know he’ll make the right decision.”

Robinson’s return after missing 12 games with an injured left foot helped make the Hokies complete again.

The player his teammates dub the engine that makes Virginia Tech go and the player Williams calls perhaps the most important person in the turnaround of the program the past few years, is back for the most important stretch of the season.

After shaking off some rust in the 66-52 win over the Billikens, Robinson is ready to build on that performance and go on a long tournament run when the fourth-seeded Hokies (25-8) take on 12th-seeded Liberty (29-6) in the second round in the East Region.

“To be able to play how many minutes I played last night was big for my team and big for my confidence,” Robinson said. “There were a couple of shots that I’d normally hit that I missed. I had four turnovers. That’s not like me. That’s something I’m not happy with. But being able to get out there and play again was big for me. Being able to get the rust off is something I can build on.”

The Hokies managed to go 7-5 in Robinson’s absence, beating perennial power Duke at home and losing only once to an unranked team in the process. But it didn’t mean his presence wasn’t missed.

Williams said he’s had few players better in his coaching career at translating his lessons to the players on the court to make sure the team operates at peak efficiency.

Robinson came into the game with 13:39 to play in the first half. He had a steal that led to a fast-break basket by Ahmed Hill and then made his first shot he took, a 3-pointer, prompting him to yell, “I’m back!”

He finished with 9 points and two assists in 27 minutes, but helped handle the pressure that kept Saint Louis at bay in the second half. He got a hug from Williams on the sideline after he came out of the game in the final minute.

“You almost feel the presence,” teammate Nickeil Alexander-Walker said. “We’ve had good starts offensively without him but you almost see glimpses of what we were in nonconference, how everything flows just a little bit better. You really feel a presence. Having an all-conference guy back just doing what he does, even if it’s just a little bit, it helps a lot to our offense. Now we add another weapon, another threat. … Just having him back was huge.”

Robinson is Virginia Tech’s all-time leader in assists and averaged 14.4 points and 5.5 assists per game before getting hurt at Miami in January. During his absence, Virginia Tech scored more than 12 fewer points per game and averaged more than four assists fewer per game.

His impact is no surprise to the Flames, who saw him up close back in November in a charity exhibition. Robinson led all scorers with 20 points that game as Virginia Tech won 86-70.

“I think he’s a pro. He’s got unbelievable vision. What he brings to Virginia Tech is a heightened sense of confidence,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said. “Obviously he’ll probably have to shake off some rust, but he’s a terrific player. He’s one of the best guards that we’ve faced all year. And we’ve faced some really good ones.”

Ja Morant’s thrilling season comes to an end in the second round

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Ja Morant, perhaps sensing this would be his last opportunity to score for Murray State, turned on the jets and darted through three defenders for a driving layup.

That gave Morant 28 points and Racers fans one final thrill in a season full of them. Moments later, with Florida State way ahead and about a minute and half left on the clock, Morant came out of the game. He received a warm ovation from the Murray State fans, took a seat on the sideline and draped a towel over his head.

As the clock wound down on Florida State’s 90-62 victory against 12th-seeded Murray State in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, Morant wondered what more he could have done for his team and what could have been.

“I was just hurt not being able to take the floor with these guys for the rest of this season, for another game or possibly two, three, four,” Morant said. “But it’s been a great season. I really was just thinking back on what all we have accomplished this year.”

Two days after Morant became the talk of the tournament with a triple-double that had NBA stars Steph Curry and Luka Doncic marveling at the sure-fire lottery pick, his breakout season ended with far less fanfare. He dazzled early, going 5 for 5 from 3-point range in the first half against the Seminoles, flashing his step-back and cross-over jumpers. He had 18 points at the half. But Florida State was winning everywhere else, forcing turnovers, getting into transition and knocking down 3s.

Morant had only four assists after notching 16 in the first round. He leads the country at 10 assists per game and the Seminoles were determined not to let Morant pick them apart. The 3-pointers looked good, but as far as Florida State was concerned that was a good sign.

“We knew that eventually that’s not the way they want to play,” Florida State’s Terance Mann said.

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton chuckled at the suggestion the Seminoles did good job on Morant.

“Because to be honest with you, I’m still not sure that we stopped Morant, and I’m not sure anybody can,” Hamilton said.

Morant was 2 for 9 in the second half. His only other bucket was, of course, highlight-worthy. The lanky 6-foot-3 point guard drove right at 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje and flipped in a layup while getting fouled.

“I’m really just hard on myself. I’m never no good. I feel like I could have done a lot of things better tonight. Just pick my teammates up,” Morant said.

Stopping Morant is probably not going to be a problem for college coaches anymore. After being lightly recruited out of high school, Morant ascended to stardom this season as a sophomore, and is now projected to be a top-three pick. In a quiet locker room after the game, Morant dutifully said he has not made up his mind about entering the draft and was not sure when he would.

“I’m not focused on that right now,” Morant said “I’m just trying to celebrate a wonderful season with my teammates.”

Teammate Darnell Cowart made it pretty clear he was not expecting Morant to be back.

“Would you leave?” Cowart asked reporters after the game.

Murray State won two straight Ohio Valley Conference championships with Morant and made the NCAA Tournament twice. Morant was a promising freshman role player on last year’s team, but this season he blossomed into a sensation. His tournament triple-double, just the ninth recorded by the NCAA, turned him into a celebrity.

“I thought he was able to really do a tremendous job of blocking out all the noise and just staying focused on becoming the best player he could be,” Murray State coach Matt McMahon said.

Saturday marked the end for Murray State’s season, but Morant’s story seems to be just getting started.

Best Bets: The Bettor’s Guide to Sunday’s NCAA tournament games

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12:10 p.m.: No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 10 Iowa, CBS

  • LINE: Tennessee (-8)
  • TOTAL: 156.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Tennessee 82.25, Iowa 74.25
  • KENPOM: Tennessee 83, Iowa 76

I love Tennessee this year and I think Iowa is not really all that good this year, so I’m always going to be on the Tennessee side here. But this is the kicker for me: We’ve talked all season long about how Tennessee is unique in the sense that they are one of the nation’s elite offenses from an efficiency perspective despite the fact that they get just 25.6 percent of their points from beyond the arc.

What they do, however, is get 55.8 percent of their points on two point field goals (20th nationally) and shooting 55.7 percent from two point range (19th nationally). Iowa is one of the worst teams in the country in terms of defending two-point shots. That’s all I need to know.

PICK: Tennessee (-8)

2:40 p.m.: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Washington, CBS

  • LINE: North Carolina (-11.5)
  • TOTAL: 147.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: North Carolina 79.5, Washington 68
  • KENPOM: North Carolina 78, Washington 68

I really like North Carolina to cover here because I don’t going zone against the Tar Heels is necessarily ideal. One of the tenets of UNC’s offense is that they pound the offensive glass. We all know how difficult it is to rebound out of a 2-3 zone, and Washington is particularly bad at it — 345th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage.

The other part of this is that North Carolina has not been all that turnover prone this year, and one of the ways that Washington generates offense is with their defense. Pick-six buckets off live-ball turnovers, blocked shots leading run outs, all of the things that Syracuse thrives on. It’s worth noting that the Tar Heels beat the Orange, 93-85, the one time they played this season.

PICK: As impressive as Washington was in the first round, I do think that UNC’s familiarity with the zone that Washington plays will play a factor. Part of the reason that Jim Boeheim made the zone his staple is because it makes his opponents uncomfortable. I don’t see that happening with UNC — according to Synergy, they are actually more efficient playing against a zone than against man — and that’s to say nothing of the fact that their transition game will help reduce the number of possessions they have to face the zone.

5:15 p.m.: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 9 UCF, CBS

  • LINE: Duke (-13.5)
  • TOTAL: 143.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Duke 78.5, UCF 65
  • KENPOM: Duke 77, UCF 66

UCF has not been quite as good defensively this season as they were last season, but this is still a team and a program that is anchored by the way that they can defend. Their strength on that end of the floor is funneling players into the paint where they have one of the world’s 40 tallest human beings — 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall — patrolling. We all know the scouting report on Duke at this point. The Blue Devils attack the rim relentlessly because they are one of the worst shooting teams in college basketball, and I think that UCF will be able to control tempo and muck it up in the paint enough to keep Duke from running away with this thing.

PICK: I think UCF (+13.5) is the play, and I also think that the under here is mildly interesting, the concern that I have is with Duke’s transition game. UCF is hardly Virginia when it comes to protecting the ball and avoiding turnovers, but B.J. Taylor has been pretty effective at protecting the ball this season.

6:10 p.m.: No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 6 Buffalo, TNT

  • LINE: Texas Tech (-3.5)
  • TOTAL: 146
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Texas Tech 75.25, Buffalo 71.75
  • KENPOM: Texas Tech 74, Buffalo 70

I honestly don’t have a great feel for this game because I think these teams are just so similar. They both rely on toughness. They both play terrific, physical perimeter defense. They both force a ton of turnovers.

PICK: I’m probably going to stay away, but I will say this: I would never, ever bet on someone out-toughing a Chris Beard team. So if you’re going to make me bet, I’ll take the Red Raiders.

7:10 p.m.: No. 4 Virginia Tech vs. No. 12 Liberty, TBS

  • LINE: Virginia Tech (-9)
  • TOTAL: 125.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Virginia Tech 67.25, Liberty 58.25
  • KENPOM: Virginia Tech 68, Liberty 60

Liberty’s head coach, Ritchie McKay, is a Tony Bennett disciple, and what that means is that he runs the Pack-Line, he controls tempo as much as possible and his teams played a slowed down brand of basketball. The evidence? They are 349th nationally in tempo.

Virginia Tech is no different this season. While they have put up some pretty big scoring and shooting numbers this year, this is a group that ranks outside the top 300 in pace, in average possession length on the offensive end of the floor and average possession length on the defensive end of the floor.

PICK: I like the Liberty side, as nine points is a lot of points in what will assuredly be a low-scoring game. The under is also an interesting bet here. This is going to be a 60 possession basketball game, and I think that these two defenses are good enough to keep the game in the high 50s or low 60s.

7:45 p.m.: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 9 Oklahoma, TruTV

  • LINE: Virginia (-11.5)
  • TOTAL: 127.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Virginia 69.5, Oklahoma 58
  • KENPOM: Virginia 70, Oklahoma 59

The question that you need to ask yourself here is whether or not you think that Virginia shook off their NCAA tournament demons in the first round, because on paper, this is just an atrocious matchup for the Sooners. Oklahoma is not a team that gets much of their offense from beyond the arc, and making perimeter jumpers over the Pack-Line is the way that you typically have to play to beat the Wahoos.

The one thing I will say is this: Oklahoma does have some bigger guards, and Lon Kruger runs them off of a lot of flex cuts and inverts his offense with his guards posting up. This could be exploitable, especially when Tony Bennett runs out lineups that have both Kihei Clark and Kyle Guy on the floor.

PICK: I tend to lean towards Virginia here. Oklahoma has played well of late, but I just don’t think that they have enough answers for Virginia.

8:40 p.m.: No. 3 Houston vs. No. 11 Ohio State, TNT

  • LINE: Houston (-6)
  • TOTAL: 131
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Houston 68.5, Ohio State 62.5
  • KENPOM: Houston 68, Ohio State 62

I think this is where the Ohio State run comes to an end, and it’s because I think that the Cougars will be able to overwhelm Ohio State on the defensive end of the floor. Houston leads the nation in defensive effective field goal percentage. Most importantly there is the fact that they double the post and do everything they can to keep bigs from beating them, which is bad news for an Ohio State team that runs their stuff through Kaleb Wesson.

PICK: There is a part of me that wants to stay away from this game. I have the utmost respect for Chris Holtmann as a coach. He’s proven over and over again that he can get more out of a group of kids than just about anyone, and I fully expect the Buckeyes to be prepared for this game. If I had to bet, I’ll take Houston, but I don’t love it.

9:40 p.m.: No. 12 Oregon vs. No. 13 UC Irvine, TBS

  • LINE: Oregon (-5.5)
  • TOTAL: 122.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Oregon 64, UC Irvine 58.5
  • KENPOM: Oregon 64, UC Irvine 60

Like Liberty-Virginia Tech, this game is going to be slow, physical and low-scoring. And like Liberty, Irvine is legitimately good enough to beat another power conference team. I’ve also reached the point where I am fully bought in on this Oregon team being a legitimate top 25 caliber team. They’ve won nine straight games, and seven of those nine have come on the road or on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Washington twice — both away from home — and smacked around Wisconsin on a neutral court.

The other part of this is that Oregon is a tougher matchup for Irvine than Kansas State was without Dean Wade. The Ducks have more shooters, their wings are bigger and more capable than Kansas State’s were and they don’t rely on scoring inside the arc the way that the Wildcats did.

PICK: It will be interesting to see where the total moves here. 122.5 is a really low number, and based on what’s happened with some other games with low totals, I would not be surprised to see it drop. If this gets under 120, I think I like the over.

I also think that Oregon (-5.5) is the bet here. I have the utmost respect for Russell Turner and the job that he has done with the Anteaters, but Dana Altman has this Oregon team playing their best basketball at the right time.

Cassius Winston’s brilliance on full display as Michigan State returns to the Sweet 16

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Starved for something to cheer for, the thousands of Minnesotans who made the trek a couple hundred miles south down Interstate 35 finally came to life. The Gophers they were there to cheer for, the program which was looking to return to the Sweet 16 for the first time in two decades, trimmed a 20-point lead against the Big Ten co-champs, the team that had destroyed them by 24 a month earlier, to nine points.

Seemingly everything other than the scoreboard seemed in Minnesota’s favor, and that looked suddenly in play.

“It got loud,” Winston said.

That’s when Tom Izzo told Winston to go to work.

“I told him he’s got to take over,” the Hall of Famer said, “and like a true All-American did.”

Instead of a superhero in a cape, the Spartans have a diminutive guard in a headband, though the results are largely the same.

Winston scored seven-straight points while recording two steals and a rebound in just over a minute to resecure the game for Michigan State and send the Spartans into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015’s Final Four run with 70-50 win Saturday against Minnesota at Wells Fargo Arena.

“You’ve got to make big plays. I’ve got to be who I am for this team. That’s my role for this team,” Winston said. “That’s what I’ve been doing all year. I don’t try to do too much. I don’t try to put the world on my shoulders, but I try to make plays to the best of my ability.”

The world may not have been on Winston’s shoulders, but the Spartans were on his back during that remarkable 82-second stretch that few players in the country could replicate.

An 8-0 run by Minnesota trimmed what had once been a 20-point Michigan State advantage to single digits, 40-31, with under 14 minutes to play in the game. After a Michigan State turnover, the Gophers had the opportunity to cut even further into their deficit, but Dupree Macbrayer’s jumper was off the mark, and Winston collected the rebound. On the ensuing possession as the shot clock dipped down, Winston connected on a step-back jumper.

He then picked off a pass from Gabe Kalscheuer, and hit another jumper on the other end. Next it was a deflection that lead to a fast break, where Winston pulled up in transition and buried a 3-pointer. Seven points in 57 seconds. A ballgame decided and a Sweet 16 trip to Washington, D.C. locked up in under a minute.

“That really killed us,” Gopher forward Amir Coffey said. “We had it going a little bit, and Cassius just came through for Michigan State and hit some clutch shots.”

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It’s what Winston has been doing for Michigan State all year. Whether it was a season-ending injury to Josh Langford or the  ailments that have sidelined Nick Ward or Kyle Aherns. Michigan State has time and again looked as though it faced a situation where its season could go sideways only to have Winston there to set the Spartans straight. The Big Ten player of the year has been tremendous, averaging 19.1 points and 7.5 assists per game while shooting 47.2 percent from the floor and 40.4 percent from distance.

“That’s just typical Cassius. That’s just what he does,” sophomore Xavier Tillman said. “Whenever we need him to score, whenever we need him to distribute, whenever we need him to just lead vocally he does whatever we need him to do, and that was just another day in the park.”

That scoring outburst was exactly what Michigan State needed to shutdown the Gophers, and it was about all Winston could give the Spartans. The Big Ten tournament champions have played five games in eight days, and Winston has looked worse for the wear. Those seven points were more than half of what he scored for the game, finishing with 13 points on 5 of 11 shooting (1 of 4 from 3) along with nine assists and four turnovers.

When Minnesota had its chance to truly threaten the Spartans, Winston found the strength, will, fortitude or maybe just a second wind enough to put a halt to it.

“He was hurting. He just was worn out. I said, ‘Well, here is the way it is, my man,’” Izzo said. “‘If you’re worn out you’ll get a lot of rest. If you’re not worn out you got another week or so and you’ll get a lot of rest any way. So how about we get after it and try to prolong this.’

“I just love the fact that he responded. He wouldn’t have responded like that two years ago if you ask me. He responded and I know how he felt. Yet I also know what he did. It was pretty impressive.”

It also put an end to the recent run of calamities for the Spartans in the NCAA tournament. There was Middle Tennessee State in 2016 followed by a nine-seed season that No. 1 Kansas put an end to in the Round of 32. Last year it was 11-seed Syracuse that sent Michigan State home that first weekend.

For a program that has prided itself on consistent Final Fours, a run like that is grating.

“Amazing, to finally get over the hump,” Winston said, “get to that second weekend.”

Nearly as amazing as how Winston took a few dozen seconds to win a game and keep the Spartans on track to perhaps in a week retrace the path all those dejected Gopher fans were making Saturday night, north to Minneapolis.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

 

Missouri’s Jontay Porter re-tears ACL

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Jontay Porter, a 6-foot-11 sophomore for the Missouri Tigers, re-tore the ACL in his right knee while rehabbing the injury in Denver, the school confirmed on Saturday evening.

Porter missed the 2018-19 season after tearing the ACL and the MCL in the same knee. He averaged 9.9 points and 6.8 boards as a freshman before declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft. He went through the draft process, but opted to return to school for his sophomore season.

He suffered the first injury in October.

Jontay is the younger brother of Michael Porter Jr., who missed almost all of his freshman season at Missouri with back problems.