Jae Crowder almost didn’t make it out of the JuCo ranks

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MILWAUKEE – Far too often, we overlook the blessings in our lives.

Whether it’s because the app we downloaded onto our iPad isn’t working or our internet provider doesn’t carry ESPN3 or even something as simple accidentally buying the wrong brand of toothpaste, the little things in life always seem to be the most annoying. I know I’ve come close to throwing my cell phone out the window because the picture I took wouldn’t upload to twitter.

Life is hard, you know?

Jae Crowder doesn’t look at it that way.

“It could be worse,” Crowder said after scoring 15 points in Marquette’s 62-57 win over Pitt on Saturday afternoon. “I’m happy every day. I’m blessed. I wake up with a smile. Even when we have two-a-days.”

And why shouldn’t he be?

It wasn’t too long ago that a future as a Division I basketball player seemed unlikely.

When Crowder graduated high school, he initially enrolled in at South Georgia Tech, a Junior College in Americus, GA, that Crowder hoped would help him land a full-ride. From a basketball perspective, it worked out. Crowder led South Georgia Tech to “Hutch”, or Hutchinson Community College, where the NJCAA Tournament is held annually. He was good enough that he had Division I head coaches coming up to talk to him, but what they were saying wasn’t exactly what he wanted to hear.

“Bob Huggins came up to me at practice and said ‘you should get out of there. If you want to play Division I basketball, you need to leave and give yourself a chance,'” Crowder said. “That’s when me and my dad started searching around and really getting the facts on what the school is.”

Or, rather, what the school isn’t: accredited.

For those that aren’t well-versed in educational lingo, “the goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality”, according to the US Department of Education. In other words, none of the work that Crowder did while at South Georgia Tech would count if he tried to transfer to a Division I school.

“Of course, when the coach recruited me in high school, he didn’t tell me that. He wanted a good player,” Crowder said. “I went to school a whole year and no classes transferred anywhere.”

Crowder took Huggy Bear’s advice. He left South Georgia Tech and enrolled at Howard College. But if he truly wanted to become a Division I basketball player, it was going to require him to not only continue to develop his skills on the court, but to essentially take two years worth on classes in two semesters.

So Crowder buckled down and busted his tail in the classroom. What choice did he have?

“I doubled up on classes and did summer school up at Marquette and got enough credits to transfer in,” Crowder said. “You’re doubling everything in your schedule, and on top of that your playing basketball. We won the national championship that year, but it was the toughest thing I ever had to do.”

“I had to go right back to school to do some more school work after we on the national championship.”

Did I mention he was the tournament MVP?

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Its not easy to define what position Jae Crowder plays for the Golden Eagles.

He’s clearly not a point guard or a center, but beyond that it is difficult to find a label for him. Usually, that’s a negative quality for a player to have. Being placed in the tweener category is far from a punched ticket to the first round of the NBA draft.

Not true, for Crowder. Generally speaking, a tweener becomes a tweener because of what they can’t do on a basketball court — they aren’t strong enough to hold their own in the paint and they aren’t skilled or coordinated enough to be a full-time perimeter player. Crowder’s issue isn’t really an issue at all, because there simply isn’t much that he isn’t able to do on a basketball court.

“Jae’s versatility is on both ends of the floor,” Marquette head coach Buzz Williams told me in the bowels of the Bradley Center. “Playing Jae at the three, playing Jae at the four. We’re running stuff to get him the ball inside, we’re running stuff to get him isolated out on the perimeter, how we’re guarding ball screens when he’s involved.”

“He’s a switchable and he completely has the best instincts of any player I ever coached.”

Under Williams, Marquette has become a hot bed for players of Crowder’s ilk. Before him, it was Jimmy Butler, who went on to become the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA draft and scored 12 points in a game for the Bulls last weekend. Before Butler, it was Lazar Hayward, who is currently getting his paychecks signed by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Before Hayward, it was Wesley Matthews, who is currently averaging more than 15 ppg for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Not a single one of those guys were blessed with the kind of physical tools that would make them a sure-fire NBA prospect, yet they thrived playing in the Marquette system.

Why?

“I think its more about being a mismatch, they’re guys that can play inside and out,” Darius Johnson-Odom said. “I think they create a lot of mismatches for other teams. Its kind of hard to guard a guy you can’t play off that can bang inside.”

Crowder reiterated the same sentiment, crediting the “freedom” Williams gives his players to do whatever they are capable of so long as it comes within the structure of the Marquette offense.

“He believes in your game,” Crowder said. “Guys like me, we just get to play freely, not worrying about if I can do this or if I can do that. Just playing within your self as long as its part of the system.”

More than anything, Williams has developed an eye for locating that kind of a player. Where some coaches are worried about athleticism and some are worried about height or shooting ability, Williams simply wants guys that understand the game and know how to play. He’s looking for kids that he can trust to have success when they get put into different situations.

“I love coaching those guys. I love guys that know how to play. That have a good pace about them,” Williams said. “I remember [former Oklahoma coach] Billy Tubbs always told me when you’re watching players, always pay attention to their glide. He wasn’t talking about their gait. What is their pace? What is their rhythm?”

“I think Jae’s glide is as good as any guy I’ve ever been around.”

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Whenever you hear stories about how a coach found a player that no one else was recruiting, there is always a story behind it; something sensational that the player accomplished while that coach happened to be standing on the sidelines. Like love at first sight, all it takes is one dunk or one no-look pass or one charge taken to realize ‘Hey, this kid’s going to be pretty good.’

What did Crowder do that caught Williams’ eye?

“Jae had three fouls in the first half, finished with three points and four boards,” Williams said. “He was awful. Played 10 minutes.”

Huh?

He did what?

Explain.

“Much has been written about all of the college coaches that I wrote as a kid. One of the college coaches of the 425 that I accumulated during my career was on the rise as a Division I coach. His name was Mark Adams. He was at UT-Pan American,” Williams, who is as good of a storyteller as you will come across in this business, said.

“Its almost role reversal. In some respects, some people think I’m on the rise. I get a call from one college coach I used to write, and he says ‘do you remember Mark Adams?’ I wrote him 400 letters, I remember him. ‘He’s the head coach at a JuCo and he loves you and he remembers you writing and he wants you to call him.'”

So Buzz called, and it turns out that Adams was the head coach at Howard College and wanted him to come check out Crowder, who Adams said was ‘the best player he’s ever coached.’ So Williams books a flight and takes in a game, and Crowder does absolutely nothing. It was bad enough that Adams came up to Williams after the game to apologize for the bad tip and poor showing.

As Williams tells it, “I said ‘Coach, I want him.’ He says ‘What do you mean?’ I said ‘Coach, I was 19 years old and you were the rising star in Division I. I know you know what a player is more than I do. I trust you.'”

But there was more to it than simply trusting the instinct of a guy that was up-and-coming the better part of two decades ago.

“I saw Jae have the worst game he could have and he was by far the best teammate in the building,” Williams said. “He’s coaching, he’s on the bench waving towels, its a time out and he’s meeting them on the floor giving them dap.”

“He could play for me.”

The sticking point came in the form of the academics. Crowder had so much work to do and so little time to do it that actively recruiting him would hinder the likelihood that he would be able to get eligible immediately.

And, for Williams, this is where he got a bit lucky.

You see, Crowder’s father played for Kentucky Wesleyan when he was in college. Williams assistant coach Scott Monarch just so happened to cut his teeth Kentucky Wesleyan, acting as associate head coach when they won the Division II national title back in 1998. Once the two sides figured out that connection, the ball got rolling.

But Williams still wasn’t interested in chasing this kid if he didn’t want to come.

“I called Jae the next day,” Williams told me, “and said ‘Jae, I want you to come to Marquette. But I want you to understand that you have a lot of work to do academically. … I ain’t got time for all the glitz and glamour of recruiting. [You’re] my kind of guy, I promise you.'”

And he was right.

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Jae Crowder never ended up making an official visit to Marquette.

That might have been a good thing.

“If I knew it was this cold I would have had second guesses,” Crowder said with a smile before he headed out into yet another winter day in Milwaukee that never made it out of the teens. “But I’m dealing with it.”

Because that’s what Crowder does. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t get upset or make excuses. He rolls with the punches, making the best out of every situation.

“I did get dealt a bad hand and I know it was in God’s plan. But I learned a lot of things from that time period,” he said. “I don’t even regret what happened. I think [the time I spent at Howard] grew me up. It made me do the right things and handle my business.”

Not even two years of arctic temperatures could kill that spirit.

“I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

No. 22 Tennessee beats No. 3 Kansas 64-50 for Atlantis title

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Tennessee’s players proved to be determined defenders and relentless rebounders, along with having the kind of toughness to ensure the reigning national champions would have little chance to get comfortable.

It was all enough to give the 22nd-ranked Volunteers a title of their own, along with the blueprint that coach Rick Barnes hopes they follow the rest of the year.

Santiago Vescovi scored 20 points while Tennessee locked down on third-ranked Kansas in a 64-50 win Friday night in the championship game at the Battle 4 Atlantis, snapping the Jayhawks’ 17-game winning streak.

Vescovi hit five 3-pointers as the tournament’s most valuable player for the Volunteers (5-1), who dominated the glass, overcame their own turnover troubles and made the Jayhawks work for clean looks. And for the third time in as many days, Tennessee won without leading scorer Josiah-Jordan James (knee soreness).

Perhaps that’s why reserve guard Zakai Zeigler, who had 14 points and four steals, showed up wearing sunglasses to the postgame news conference after the Volunteers had danced and hollered through the on-court trophy ceremony.

“We know if you can’t stop the man in front of you, then you’ll have no shot at winning the game,” Zeigler said, adding: “We just like to play defense, and we just happen to be good at it.”

The Vols held the Jayhawks to 32.1% shooting, bothering them with size and length around the rim. They also took the ball right at the Jayhawks with 5-foot-9 Zeigler leading the way, down to him refusing to let go of a jump ball and trading words with 6-8 forward Jalen Wilson.

Zeigler’s night included a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock at the 7-minute mark to push Tennessee’s lead to 56-38. He followed with another big one from the right wing with 4:42 left after Kansas had closed within 11.

Wilson and Joseph Yesefu each scored 14 points to lead the Jayhawks (6-1), who shot 28.6% in the first half and never warmed up. They made 5 of 21 3-pointers in what was an all-around rough night, from losing starting guard Dajuan Harris to fouls with 9 minutes left to failing to keep the Vols off the glass (45-27).

“We played a team tonight that was older and more mature and obviously played stronger and tougher,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We didn’t handle the situation near as well as what I would hope a poised team would.”

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers opened the tournament with a win over Butler, then grinded through an overtime win against Southern California in Thursday’s semifinals. This time, Tennessee played in front the entire way en route to its first title in three tries at the Atlantis resort.

“I think the main thing from the whole week was stay together through tough times, that’s what you’ve got to do,” Vescovi said.

Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have an easy first two days in the Bahamas. First came a battle to the final minutes with North Carolina State. Then came Thursday’s overtime win against Wisconsin on Bobby Pettiford Jr.’s last-second putback. But they never looked in any type of offensive flow this time with their smaller lineup.

“I feel like if we were able to get them out of place and not just have them standing there, waiting to contest a layup, that could’ve gave us some better chances at finishing at the rim,” Wilson said.

STRONG RUN

Tennessee held its three Atlantis opponents to 36.9% shooting and 15 of 59 (25.4%) from 3-point range. The Volunteers also averaged a +9 rebounding margin, ending with having Jonas Aidoo (nine) leading five players snagging at least six rebounds against Kansas.

“You can be a good defensive team but if you can’t be a great one if you give them second and third shots,” Barnes said.

SIDELINED

Beyond Harris’ foul trouble, the Jayhawks played most of the way without Pettiford, who exited midway through the first half grabbing at his right leg.

Afterward, Self said he would be out “for a while” with a hamstring strain.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers return home to host McNeese State on Wednesday.

Kansas: The Jayhawks host Texas Southern on Monday.

BYU erases 23-point deficit, beats Dayton in overtime 79-75

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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NASSAU, Bahamas – Gideon George scored 21 points and combined with Jaxson Robinson and Rudi Williams for BYU’s 15 overtime points as the Cougars came back from a 23-point deficit to beat Dayton 79-75 in overtime Friday.

BYU’s victory came in the seventh-place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.

George’s 3-pointer with 2:19 left in regulation gave BYU (4-3) its first lead after Dayton scored the first 10 points of the game and led 32-9 with six minutes left in the first half.

Mike Sharavjamts’ basket gave the lead back to Dayton but George’s free throw with a minute left sent the game into overtime.

Dayton got the first points in overtime but Robinson’s 3-pointer gave BYU the lead for good halfway through the extra period.

Robinson had 14 points, Dallin Hall 12 and Williams 11 to join George in double figures for BYU.

DaRon Holmes II scored 21 points and Sharavjamts 15 for Dayton (3-4). The Flyers lost starting guards Kobe Elvis and Malachi Smith to lower-body injuries in the second half, Smith with with just seconds left in regulation.

Portland beats Villanova 83-71 in Phil Knight Invitational

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – Moses Wood scored 16 points and Portland beat Villanova 83-71 on Friday in the Phil Knight Invitational.

Villanova (2-4) has lost three straight games, including an overtime loss to Iowa State on Thursday to drop below .500 for the first time since March 7, 2012.

Vasilije Vucinic’s layup with 4:16 remaining in the first half gave Portland the lead for good. The Pilots had an eight-point lead at halftime and scored the first 10 points of the second half.

Wood added six rebounds and three blocks for the Pilots (5-3). Tyler Robertson scored 15 points while shooting 6 for 12 (1 for 5 from 3-point range) and added seven rebounds and eight assists. Kristian Sjolund recorded 14 points and shot 5 for 7 (2 for 3 from 3-point range).

Caleb Daniels finished with 18 points and seven rebounds for the Wildcats. Villanova also got 14 points from Jordan Longino. Brandon Slater had 11 points.

Caleb Grill, Iowa State topples No. 1 North Carolina 70-65

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Caleb Grill has followed T.J. Otzelberger from South Dakota State to UNLV and now back to Iowa State hoping the pair could share a moment like they did Friday.

Taking down the No. 1 team in the country was another bookmark moment in a long journey for the pair.

“I’m actually really enjoying sitting next to him from this moment right now just thinking about how long we’ve known each other and how cool this really was,” Otzelberger said.

Grill hit seven 3-pointers and scored a career-high 31 points and Iowa State rallied in the final five minutes to stun No. 1 North Carolina 70-65 in the semifinals of the Phil Knight Invitational.

Iowa State (5-0) picked up just its third win over a team ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25. The Cyclones are 3-22 against No. 1 teams, with the other wins coming against Kansas in 1957 and Oklahoma in 2016.

The Cyclones can now add North Carolina (5-1) to the list.

“I was just staying the course of the game. I never really thought about it and the game just kind of came to me,” Grill said.

Grill was averaging 7.3 points and had made just 4 of 24 3-point attempts for the season entering Friday. But he couldn’t be stopped from beyond the arc, hitting a pair of big 3s to spark Iowa State’s late rally. His deep fadeaway jumper just inside the 3-point line with 1:40 left gave Iowa State a 63-61 lead and the Cyclones did just enough at the free throw line in the final minute to close out the upset victory.

Grill’s previous career high was 27 points while playing for UNLV in the 2020-21 season against Alabama. He also hit seven 3-pointers in that game.

Grill originally signed with South Dakota State when Otzelberger was the coach there. He was released from his commitment when Otzelberger took the head job at UNLV and started his career at Iowa State before deciding to join his coach in Las Vegas.

When Otzelberger returned to Ames, Grill followed again.

“Just having him be the first person that really had belief in me, it’s just really special what he’s done for me and my family and everything we’ve done,” Grill said.

Jaren Holmes added 22 points and the Cyclones withstood off shooting games from Aljaz Kunc and Gabe Kalscheur, who combined for three points and missed all eight of their shot attempts. Both were averaging double figures scoring for Iowa State.

RJ Davis led North Carolina with 15 points, Armando Bacot added 14 and Caleb Love scored 12. But the Tar Heels will lament a series of mistakes in the closing minutes that allowed Iowa State to rally.

“We had wide open threes. We were able to get to the basket. We were able to get whatever we wanted, we just didn’t make those shots,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said.

North Carolina led 57-49 after Leaky Black’s layup with 5:43 left, but missed four of its final six shots and had four turnovers during that span.

“We turned the ball over a couple of times and you just can’t do that in late-game situations,” Davis said. “You have to be sound and discipline and you have to do that on both ends of the floor and we just didn’t do it.”

NO. 1 LOSSES

North Carolina lost as the No. 1 team in the country for the first time since Nov. 21, 2015 when it lost 71-67 at Northern Iowa. The Tar Heels also lost as No. 1 to UNLV in 2011 at a Thanksgiving tournament.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: Pete Nance wasn’t able to contribute in the same way he did in Thursday’s opening round. Nance, who tied his career high with 28 points against Portland, didn’t score for the first 27 minutes and finished with seven points.

Iowa State: The Cyclones were playing a No. 1 team from outside their conference for the first time since 1999 when they faced Cincinnati in the championship game of the Big Island Invitational.

UP NEXT

Iowa State will face either No. 18 Alabama or No. 20 UConn in the championship game while the Tar Heels will face the loser for third place.

No. 8 Duke locks down late, holds off Xavier 71-64

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – After a shaky offensive performance in the opening round of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament, Duke coach Jon Scheyer wanted to see Jeremy Roach get back to playing more instinctively, especially at the offensive end of the floor.

Roach responded with a season-high 21 points, Mark Mitchell added 16 and No. 8 Duke withstood Xavier’s second-half comeback for a 71-64 win on Friday.

The Blue Devils (6-1) advanced to the championship game thanks to the play of their standout guard and another strong defensive effort. Roach came one point shy of matching his career high, and the Blue Devils rebounded after an unexpectedly tight victory over Oregon State in the opening round of the event.

Roach was 3 of 14 shooting against Oregon State as the Blue Devils scored a season-low 54 points. He made 9 of 15 shots and had five assists against Xavier.

“There’s a lot that falls on your shoulders so you can end up overthinking it a little bit,” Scheyer said. “The thing that I love for him today is he just was him. And when he’s that way, he is to me the best guard in the country.”

The Musketeers (4-2) were held to two points over the final five minutes and missed their last four shot attempts. Souley Boum scored 23 points and Adam Kunkel had 13. Kunkel didn’t play the last 11 minutes after taking a hard fall committing a foul.

Xavier leading scorer Jack Nudge was 1 of 13 shooting and finished with five points.

“Jack played a great effort. He really did. He was ready for the game. He just had one of those nights where the ball didn’t go in the basket,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said.

At the same time, Miller was disappointed in what he called the “fracturing” he saw from his team.

“There were spurts and segments of the game where I thought we reflected our style, how we’re trying to play, whether it be defense and offense. But there were way too many segments of the game, if not most of the game, where we were at times in our own way,” Miller said.

Mitchell scored seven points in the opening minutes of the second half, including a pair of layups, and he hit a 3-pointer from the wing that gave Duke a 49-36 lead, its largest of the game.

That’s when Xavier’s comeback started. The Musketeers pulled within three points on several occasions, but Duke answered each time. Desmond Claude’s driving layup pulled Xavier within 63-60 with 5:51 left, but Ryan Young scored for Duke and Xavier didn’t make another basket.

Roach’s jumper with 2:40 left pushed Duke’s lead to 69-62.

“We like to play inside out but I mean, when guys are hitting shots it just opens up for everybody else,” Roach said. “Just try to continue to be consistent hitting shots and I think we’ll be fine.”

Kyle Filipowski had 12 points and was not Duke’s leading scorer for the first time in five games.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: The Blue Devils’ dominance on the backboards finally came to an end. Duke had outrebounded each of its first six opponents by double figures, the longest such stretch in school history. But Xavier’s interior size limited Duke to a 33-32 advantage on the glass. The Blue Devils had 12 second-chance points.

Xavier: The Musketeers played an Atlantic Coast Conference team for the first time since beating Virginia Tech in last year’s NIT Season Tip-Off. Xavier dropped to 0-2 against ranked opponents this season, having lost to Indiana last week. The Musketeers will play another ranked foe in Sunday’s third-place game.

UP NEXT

Duke will face the Gonzaga-Purdue winner in the championship game on Sunday, while Xavier will play the loser.