North Carolina’s loss highlights a serious flaw in its game

Leave a comment

source: AP

North Carolina’s flaws were exposed in a surprising 90-80 loss to UNLV Saturday night. But I didn’t expect the frontcourt to be one of those problems.

Neither did coach Roy Williams.

“We could never get our focus offensively the entire game,” Williams said. “What killed us, they got 20 points on offensive rebounds to our six.”

That was a start. The Tar Heels’ NBA-ready frontcourt of Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson combined to shoot 11-34 and committed five turnovers. Zeller played just 24 minutes because of foul trouble and Barnes was nursing an ankle injury throughout the second half, but Mike Moser, Bryce Massamba and Chace Stanback outplayed them in nearly every facet, mostly because the Heels seemed so passive.

The other major issue? Point guard Kendall Marshall’s inability to defend quicker guards – Oscar Bellfield torched him for 16 points and nine assists – which will certainly surface again this week when he faces Kentucky’s Marquis Teague. (Though Dexter Strickland may be tasked with that.)

Also perplexing? The Heels’ poor shooting inside the arc. Their 3-point shooting will be hot and cold all season, but the 2-point buckets should come a little easier. Yet Tar Heel Fan notes that UNC made just 32.2 percent of their 2s in the second half. That’s unacceptable for a team this talented.

Scarier for UNC should be their trends on the offensive glass. Again, from Tar Heel Fan:

In each of Roy’s first 7 seasons with Carolina, his teams all had an OR% over 39.1, which is elite.  Last season, this fell to 37.1, still decent, but no longer an area of absolute advantage.  This season, while only 6 games old, the Heels are collecting their own misses at a rate of just over 35%, which is average to slightly above average, and more concerning, yesterday was the 3rd time that they were under 30%.  There are really two reasons for this drop.  First, while Zeller, Henson and Barnes all did a decent job on the offensive glass last season, none of those players attack the offensive glass like Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough did, and while it would be easy to say that the current Heels should do that, don’t lose sight of the fact that there is a reason why May and Hansbrough are, well, May and Hansbrough.  The second difference between this group, and Roy’s previous teams is that the wings are not as effective on the offensive glass.  Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, and Jackie Manuel all averaged over 1.5 ORPG during their championship seasons (as did Marcus Ginyard in 2008), while none of Carolina’s current guards have shown an ability to do so.  Now, last year’s team was better defensively than either the 2008 or 2009 teams were, so it is possible that their staying back does prevent a percentage of opponent fast breaks.  However, given the importance of offensive efficiency in determining the both the success of Roy’s teams, and the likelihood of team becoming a champion (average Champion’s OE rank: 4.3; average Champion’s DE rank: 8.8), perhaps this is a trade-off that should be revisited.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“I was surprised that we didn’t rebound the basketball better,” Williams said. “I was surprised about a lot of things we didn’t do. We have to be stronger with the basketball. We have to guard the basketball better. We never did get the flow going. We have to be whole lot more patient.”

UNC’s timing couldn’t be worse, either. Next up are Wisconsin (Wednesday) and Kentucky (Saturday), the two top teams in kenpom.com’s ratings. The Heels are certainly capable of winning both, but they’ll have to be more precise against the Badgers and more aggressive against Kentucky.

Nothing like some March-esque games in early December.

Related stories:

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Adidas trial: Texts between Bill Self, T.J. Gassnola revealed

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Leave a comment

As the first of three trials stemming from the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball churns towards a finish, Kansas head coach Bill Self and one of his assistants, Kurtis Townsend, have been dragged into the mix thanks to text messages that were provided to the court on Monday.

There has never been a question of whether or not the Kansas program was involved. T.J. Gassnola, a fixer for Adidas that also runs an Adidas-sponsored AAU program, has testified that he paid the mother of former Kansas forward Billy Preston $89,000 and that he was planning on paying the Fenny Falmagne, the guardian of current Jayhawk sophomore Silvio De Sousa, an additional $20,000 to the $2,500 he had already paid, money to payback someone with Under Armour ties that was trying to get De Sousa to go to Maryland.

The defense has not argued otherwise.

Instead, their defense has been that the Kansas coaching staff was aware of, and supportive of, the payments that were being made.

On Monday, they presented text messages to the court between Gassnola and the Kansas coaching staff, the most damning of which came on Sept. 19th, 2017, just days before Kansas — who is supposed to be the victim in this ordeal — announced that they had agreed to a 12-year, $191 million extension on a sponsorship deal with Adidas.

After Gassnola texted Self to thank him for helping get the deal done, Self responded by saying, “Just got to get a couple real guys.”

Gassnola: “In my mind, it’s KU, Bill Self. Everyone else fall into line. Too (expletive) bad. That’s what’s right for Adidas basketball. And I know I’m right. The more you have lottery picks and you happy. That’s how it should work in my mind.”

Self: “That’s how ur (sic) works. At UNC and Duke.”

Gassnola, after acknowledging that it works like this at Kentucky, too: “I promise you I got this. I have never let you down. Except (Deandre). Lol. We will get it right.”

Presumably, this is in reference to Deandre Ayton, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft after one season at Arizona. Earlier in the trial, Gassnola testified that he had paid $15,000 on behalf of Adidas to the family of Ayton while trying to find a house and a job for Ayton’s mother, who is Bahamian. There was a point in time during Ayton’s high school career that he was considered likely to end up at Kansas, and he even told reporters in April of 2016 that Kansas was the only school recruiting him.

When Gassnola was asked if he felt like he let Self down when Ayton picked Arizona, he replied, “I did.”

There is also a text trail between Gassnola and the Kansas staff in the weeks prior to De Sousa’s surprise commitment to the program. From the KC Star:

On Aug. 9. 2017, Gassnola texted KU’s assistant Townsend in a conversation about Fenny Falmagne, the guardian of then-recruit Silvio De Sousa, now a KU sophomore. Gassnola told Townsend, “Hit me when you can,” and Townsend replied, “Coach Self just talked to Fenny. Let me know how it goes.”

Gassnola also texted Self, saying he talked with Falmagne. Self asked “we good” over text, and Gassnola replied “always,” saying this was light work and the ball was in Falmagne’s court now.

That same day, Gassnola texted Self to call him when he had five minutes and he was alone. The two had a five-minute, six-second phone conversation. The call was not wiretapped by the FBI nor played in court.

No. 10 Auburn: How will the reigning SEC champs handle what’s returning?

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
1 Comment

Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 10 Auburn.


Auburn, last year, had one of the strangest seasons I can recall in my time covering this sport.

No one, and I mean no one, had the Tigers pegged as a surefire tournament team heading into the season. It’s true that Bruce Pearl was coming off of his best season as the head coach of the Tigers, but that doesn’t mean that Auburn was particularly good. The Tigers went 18-14 in 2016-17 and 7-11 in the SEC, climbing out of 13th place in the SEC for the first time in Pearl’s tenure.

So expectations weren’t particularly high heading into the year, and all of that happened before the bombshell of an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball dropped right as practices were starting.

Suddenly, Auburn and Pearl were thrust into the middle of a massive scandal. Former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested and charged with fraud, part of a bribery scandal where he was paid as much as $91,000 to help funnel money to players on his roster and exert his influence over where they would opt to invest their money once they reached the professional ranks. Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, two of the most talented players on the team, were ruled ineligible — Purifoy will be suspended for the first nine games of the 2018-19 season as well — while five-star prospect E.J. Montgomery eventually decommitted from the program.

And while all of this was happening, Pearl — who already had an NCAA rap sheet thanks to a barbecue and Aaron Craft — was refusing to speak with Auburn’s investigators; the scuttle was that he might not make it to the new year employed.

What did the Tigers do?

Oh, they just went out and won 26 games, took home a share of the SEC regular season title and reached their first NCAA tournament in 15 years despite losing their best frontcourt weapon in February to a grisly dislocated ankle.

It was a remarkable year, one that likely would have resulted in numerous Coach of the Year awards had Pearl, you know, not been on the brink of being fired.

MOREPreseason Top 25 | NBC Sports All-Americans | Preview Schedule

MOREMid-Major Power Rankings The Hot Seat | Perry Ellis All-Stars

AUBURN WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

They bring back a number of key pieces from last season’s team, and get a number of key players back that were in street clothes in March.

Let’s start with Anfernee McLemore. He’s not the most well-known player on this team by a longshot, but I think he may be the most important. When he’s healthy, he is the perfect piece to put at the five for the Tigers. He’s only 6-foot-7, but he’s a terrific athlete vertically, he shot 39.1 percent from three last season and he would have led the nation in block percentage had he managed to play enough minutes to qualify. An energetic rim-protector that can rebound the ball and shoot it from distance is exactly what you want in your big man if you are a team that wants to play fast, spread the floor and create mismatches.

McLemore suffered a gruesome injury to his left ankle in mid-February — think Gordon Hayward — and the Tigers fell off a cliff afterwards. They lost to South Carolina the day he was injured. They lost two of their last four regular season games. They lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and after struggling to beat a short-handed Charleston team in the first round, they were dropped by 31 points in the second round by Clemson. McLemore is expected to be back to 100 percent by the time the season. If and when he is, he’ll be back in the starting lineup and the Tigers should be closer to what they were for the majority of last season.

Anfernee McLemore (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The other guy that is critical to the way that this Auburn team wants to play is point guard Jared Harper. He led the team in assists last season and is integral to the way that they run that uptempo offense. He — and Bryce Brown, the best shooter in the program if not the SEC — both declared for the NBA Draft before opting to return to school. Like McLemore, Brown should be healthy to start the season; he was slowed by a shoulder injury down the stretch of last season.

With the gut that makes their offense click bank in the fold and the most important player defensively healthy, the Tigers should be back to their uptempo, high-scoring ways once again.

They also bring back Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

ST LOUIS, MO – MARCH 09: Jared Harper (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games

BUT AUBURN IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The reason that the Tigers were as good as they were last season was due to the fact that they played in an SEC where everyone was just OK.

Look at the teams that finished behind Auburn and Tennessee in the league standings. Florida finished third despite losing 13 games on the season. It took Kentucky four months to figure out who their go-to guy was, and they still managed to finished fourth in the league, tied in the standings with a Missouri team that didn’t have Michael Porter Jr. Texas A&M was a massive disappointment. Alabama finished below .500 in the conference despite having Colin Sexton and one of the nation’s top ten defenses.

The league was deep, there were plenty of teams that were tournament-worthy and winning a league title in a conference that is that balanced is not something that should be overlooked.

That said, looking up and down Auburn’s roster, what is there that is really all that intimidating? I don’t know that they had an NBA player last season, and that was before they lost Mustapha Heron to a transfer.

What made Auburn so good last season was the style they played — super-uptempo, spread out and hard to guard — while doing so with an energy level higher than everyone they played. I’m not sure if there is a coach in the country better at getting a group of guys with a chip on their shoulder to play with that foxhole mentality than Bruce Pearl, and he proved it last season.

Calling Auburn a group try-hards would not be fair, and I truly do believe that playing hard, playing with a motor and playing with the kind of energy that Auburn did is a skill, but at some point, talent in basketball wins out, and Auburn does not have a roster that is as talented as many of the other top teams around the country and in their own league.

Bryce Brown (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

On the court, the key to this season for the Tigers is going to be how they replace the scoring of Mustapha Heron.

While he has hit warts as a player, Heron was certainly capable of being a guy that could get a bucket when Auburn needed a bucket. He finished the season as the team’s leading scorer and popped off for more than 20 points eight times.

And that brings me to what is arguably the bigger question mark for this program moving forward: How will they reincorporate Purifoy and Wiley into the mix?

Like I mentioned earlier, the reason that Auburn had as much success as they did last season was because they had a group of guys that bought into the collective and fit into the way that Pearl wants to play. Wiley is a former five-star recruit that was once projected as a first round pick, but he’s also a lumbering 6-foot-11 center that is over 250 pounds even when he’s in shape. He is the polar opposite of McLemore, and it is hard to figure how a dude like that is going to play in that offense.

The same can be said for Purifoy, who is a talented wing but, again, is not a player that is necessarily the ideal fit for Auburn’s style of play. Can he fill the scoring void left by Heron?

And can Wiley co-exist on a roster that wants to play fast? What happens if McLemore and Chuma Okeke take over the starting roles? How will the program’s chemistry be if Samir Doughty ends up starting over Purifoy?

2018-19 OUTLOOK

I don’t see Auburn winning a second straight SEC regular season title.

Kentucky is absolutely loaded and might be the best team in the country. Tennessee, who won a share of the title last season, returns everyone from that team. They are going to enter the season in the top five of some preseason rankings, and deservedly so. Auburn, as much as they bring back, has more question marks and more risk than any of the other teams sitting at the top of this league.

That said, it’s hard to ignore the success they had last season or the importance McLemore’s return.

The Tigers should make a return trip to the NCAA tournament and they should do so as a top four seed.

They’re good.

But given what they lost — and, in a way, what they’re getting back — I think it’s more likely that the bottom falls out and this group ends up outside the top 25 than they find a way to win the SEC.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Injury bug biting Iowa State as Solomon Young the latest Cyclone to get hurt

AP Photo
Leave a comment

Iowa State has dealt with a lot of injuries and illnesses this preseason as the Cyclones are trying to get healthy with the regular season only weeks away.

The latest Iowa State player to go down is starting center Solomon Young, as the junior is out indefinitely with a groin strain. The 6-foot-8 Young has been a key cog on the interior for the Cyclones the past two seasons as he put up 7.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game as a sophomore last season.

Young is also far from the only key Iowa State player currently dealing with an issue. Veteran forward Zoran Talley just had surgery to repair a broken nose as he’s hoping to return faster than a 4-to-6 week window that doctors gave him. Talley will be required to wear a protective face mask once he’s cleared to return.

Iowa State’s highly-touted freshman class is also trying to overcome illness and injury. Big man George Conditt and guard Tyrese Haliburton are both recovering from mono. Forward Zion Griffin just returned from a knee sprain while wing Talen Horton-Tucker has been in a boot at times during the preseason.

While none of these injuries seem to be for an excessive amount of time, it’s clear that Iowa State just needs to get healthy before they start their season on Nov. 6. With all four freshmen missing some time, it will be vital to make sure they catch up and understand everything before they are thrust into the spotlight.

Texas guard Andrew Jones out with a fractured toe

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Texas junior guard Andrew Jones suffered an unfortunate setback in practice this week as he sustained a fractured toe in his right foot during Thursday’s practice. According to a release from Texas, there is no current timetable for Jones to return from the injury.

The 6-foot-4 Jones is currently in the midst of making a full return to basketball after being diagnosed with leukemia in January. Missing the second half of last season, Jones has made an inspiring comeback to the floor over the last several months as he has been practicing and planning to play with the Longhorns this season. Jones completed his chemotherapy treatments in August.

While it isn’t clear how much Jones could have played this upcoming season, the fractured toe is another setback that will cause the junior guard to miss additional time. The leading scorer for Texas last season at the time of his diagnosis, Jones is a former McDonald’s All-American who was a double-figure scorer during his first two seasons with Texas.

Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron ruled eligible to immediately play at St. John’s

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Mustapha Heron has been ruled immediately eligible after an offseason transfer from Auburn to St. John’s, the school announced on Saturday. Heron’s eligibility was first reported by Adam Zagoria.

One of the biggest transfers to make a move last offseason, the 6-foot-4 Heron gives the Red Storm a potent double-figure scorer as expectations will now be sky-high for St. John’s to make a run for a bid to the NCAA tournament. Heron is receiving a hardship waiver from the NCAA, as the Waterbury, Connecticut native moved closer to home so that he could be near his ill mother.

As a sophomore with the Tigers last season, Heron put up 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, helping lead Auburn to a surprising season in the SEC. Entering the 2018 NBA Draft process before pulling his name out and transferring, Heron is a former five-star prospect who brings a lot of hype to the Red Storm for this season.

St. John’s now as four returning double-figure scorers in the lineup for next season, including two All-American candidates in Heron and junior guard Shamorie Ponds. That duo, along with junior guard Justin Simon, and senior forward Marvin Clark II, gives the Red Storm one of the most intimidating lineups in the Big East. Finding a big man who can rebound and protect the rim might ultimately be the key to the ceiling of St. John’s season, but adding a high-caliber weapon like Heron is huge step for the Red Storm.