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

Leave a comment

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?

—————————————————————–

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.”

—————————————————————–

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.

—————————————————————–

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.

WATCH LIVE: Triple-header of A-10 action highlighted by VCU-Dayton

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Leave a comment

There is a triple-header of Atlantic 10 games on NBCSN on Saturday afternoon, capped by one of the best games of the day.

It starts with George Washington paying a visit to Duquesne at noon and is following by Fordham taking on Rhode Island at 2:00 p.m., but the highlight of the day is VCU’s trip to Dayton at 4:00 p.m., a game that has very real Atlantic 10 title and bubble implications.

VCU is currently sitting just a half-game out of first place in the conference, one win off of Davidson’s pace, and they are playing for a shot at getting an at-large bid as well. A win at Dayton would be a very, very nice win for the Rams resume, and it would also keep them on pace to win the league title. Dayton is just a game out of first place themselves, and they happen to have one of the very best home court environments in the country.

Here is the full schedule:

GEORGE WASHINGTON at DUQUESNE, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (NBCSN)
FORDHAM at RHODE ISLAND, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (NBCSN)
VCU at DAYTON, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (NBCSN)

Bubble Banter: All of the weekend’s bubble action in one spot

AP Photo/Richard Shiro
Leave a comment

There is not just under a month left in conference play, so it is time for us to go all-in on the “who’s-in-who’s-out” discussion. Bubble Banter has never been more important!

Some quick housekeeping before we dive into it:

  • This page will be updated throughout the weekend, so be sure to check back on Friday, Saturday and Sunday as the games get played. 
  • We’ll update them best that we can, but the NET rankings will be accurate through Friday morning. 
  • If you see something we missed, if you have an issue with a team we left out or if you want to congratulate us on a job well done, drop a comment below or hit us up here: @RobDauster.
  • The cut-off we will be using this year for teams that are “on the bubble” is the No. 9 seed line. If your favorite team is seeded as a No. 9 or better in our most recent bracket, they will not be discussed below. This does not mean that those teams are locks, but it means they need to do something dumb before they are in danger of missing out on the tournament. 
  • On Thursday, our Dave Ommen released an updated bracket, and these eight teams were placed in an 8-9 game: Mississippi State, Washington, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Auburn, Texas, Baylor and Syracuse.

Onto the weekend’s action.

GAMES LEFT TO PLAY

CLEMSON (NET: 39, SOS: 38) at No. 16 Louisville, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN)
OKLAHOMA (NET: 41, SOS: 14) at TCU, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
Oklahoma State at TEXAS (NET: 34, SOS: 6), Sat. 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
BAYLOR (NET: 32, SOS: 53) at No. 15 Texas Tech, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)
INDIANA (NET: 49, SOS: 36) at MINNESOTA (NET: 58, SOS: 62), Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
FLORIDA (NET: 42, SOS: 43) at ALABAMA (NET: 44, SOS: 19), Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPNU)
VCU (NET: 43, SOS: 41) at Dayton, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (NBCSN)
UTAH STATE (NET: 38, SOS: 126) at Air Force, Sat. 4:00 p.m.
LIPSCOMB (NET: 30, SOS: 188) at Kennesaw State, Sat. 4:30 p.m.
N.C. STATE (NET: 37, SOS: 239) at No. 2 Duke, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)
Memphis at UCF (NET: 45, SOS: 83), Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
TEMPLE (NET: 55, SOS: 58) at South Florida, Sat. 6:00 p.m.
UNC GREENSBORO (NET: 46, SOS: 191) at WOFFORD (NET: 28, SOS: 167), Sat. 7:00 p.m. (ESPN+)
DePaul at BUTLER (NET: 53, SOS: 25), Sat. 8:00 p.m. (FS1)
Northwestern at NEBRASKA (NET: 40, SOS: 70), Sat. 8:30 p.m. (BTN)
BELMONT (NET: 60, SOS: 166) at Tennessee Tech, Sat. 8:30 p.m. (ESPN+)
Mississippi State at ARKANSAS (NET: 63, SOS: 45), Sat. 8:30 p.m. (SECNET)
ARIZONA STATE (NET: 72, SOS: 67) at Utah, Sat. 10:00 p.m. (FS1)
SETON HALL (NET: 69, SOS: 39) at CREIGHTON (NET: 57, SOS: 16), Sun. 3:00 p.m. (FS1)

Best Bets: Previewing Tennessee-Kentucky, Iowa State-Kansas State, weekend’s biggest games

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
1 Comment

Here is everything you need to know when betting the biggest games this weekend.

As always, this is coming out before the Vegas lines for Saturday’s games, so we are using projections from KenPomTorvik and Haslametrics to walk through how the game will play out. 

No. 1 TENNESSEE at No. 5 KENTUCKY, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kentucky 74, Tennessee 72
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Kentucky 74, Tennessee 72
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Kentucky 75, Tennessee 73

There are a number of reasons that this battle of top five teams is one of the most interesting matchups of the season, and perhaps the most relevant is the obvious: These are both top five teams! I know Kentucky just lost to LSU in Rupp Arena, but that still doesn’t really change the fact that Kentucky is, legitimately, one of the eight-to-ten teams that are the most likely to earn a spot in Minneapolis for that first weekend in April.

Kentucky still gets two shots at Tennessee, who also must travel to LSU. A SEC regular season title is still very much in the cards for the Cats.

And all of that is before you get to the actual personnel matchups here, which should be terrific. Grant Williams, for my money, is No. 2 in the National Player of the Year voting. He’s been dominant on the block for the Vols this season, and he will be asked to go up against P.J. Washington and Reid Travis on Saturday afternoon. The more intriguing matchup of the two will be Washington, who himself has been playing like a first-team All-American over the course of the last three weeks.

It is precisely that frontcourt battle that is going to play a major role in determining the outcome of this game. For starters, it will be strength on strength. Tennessee’s offense runs through Williams. Kentucky’s offense runs through Washington and Travis. We also need to note that the Wildcats can be absolutely dominant on the offensive glass. They are third nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. They know that there are times where their best offense is a missed shot, and the Vols have not been great on the defensive glass this season.

The perimeter battle may actually end up being more interesting. As we discussed on the Why Your Team Sucks podcast, the concern for both of these teams is whether or not there is enough firepower in their backcourts to win at the level they expect to win. For Kentucky, the concern is obvious: Ashton Hagans, as good as he is defensively, is not a threat on the offensive end of the floor while Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson have gone through the bouts of inconsistency that you expect out of freshmen.

The conversation is a bit more nuanced with Tennessee. Their backcourt is not overloaded with high-end talent, and if there is an issue standing between them and a national title, it’s whether or not those guards are going to be able to win them close games against elite teams. We will get that answer on Saturday night.

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

PICKS: All three metrics project this game to be play in the mid-70s with the line landing at Kentucky (-2). Frankly, I am not sure what side I want to be on here. On the one hand, Kentucky is coming off of a home loss, they are hosting the No. 1 team in the country in their building and they have a roster that has more talent on it. It’s also worth noting here that while Tennessee is on a 19 game winning streak, the only surefire NCAA tournament team they’ve beaten in that streak was Gonzaga on Dec. 9th. The best team they have played in the last two months was … Alabama? Florida? This will be their first major test in a long, long time.

That said, there is a very real difference in toughness and experience on these two teams. This is the same Tennessee roster that won the SEC last year. They have been through the rigors of a title race. They are also a much older and tougher group of guys that were overlooked throughout their career, and I can guarantee that there is nothing they would love more than pounding on some highly-touted freshmen that haven’t had to fight the fights they’ve fought.

Tennessee is the most complete team in the country, but I just cannot bring myself to pick against Kentucky after the way they lost on Tuesday. If the line opens at (-2), I’ll probably be on the Wildcats, but here’s to hoping the total opens in the high-140s and we can bet the under instead.

No. 23 IOWA STATE at No. 18 KANSAS STATE, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kansas State 64, Iowa State 63
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Kansas State 65, Iowa State 64
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Iowa State 66, Kansas State 65

Might we be getting a battle between the two best teams in the Big 12 on Saturday afternoon? That could very well be the case.

The first time these two teams got together, Kansas State won 58-57 in Ames after an Iowa State defensive breakdown in the final seconds gave Barry Brown an easy bucket for the win. I do not expect the rematch to be quite as ugly as the first battle, and the reason for that is the return of Dean Wade. He played 22 minutes in the first game, but he was not back to being himself after battling a foot injury. He is now, and he’s playing the all-american we predicted him to be.

And for my money, he will be the most important player in this game, especially with Cartier Diarra out after undergoing surgery on his hand. Iowa State plays four perimeter players at almost all times, meaning that Wade is going to be the mismatch. He’ll have smaller players — Talen Horton-Tucker? — on his when he’s at the four and will be guarded by slower bigs when he is at the five. If he can win those matchups on the offensive end, it will be tough for Iowa State.

Wade’s return has boosted Kansas State offensively. There was one point this season where they ranked outside the top 200 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric, and while they are hardly last year’s Villanova with Wade — their best shooter and best passer — back, they have worked their way back to 109th in KenPom’s rankings. In conference play alone, they are the fifth-best offensive team, one spot in front of Kansas, and that includes their 0-2 start to league play where they scored 47 points against Texas and 57 points against Texas Tech.

PICKS: This could be the game that wins Kansas State the outright Big 12 title. They currently hold a two-game lead over the field in the loss column, and their schedule really lightens up down the stretch. Their next two games are at West Virginia and Oklahoma State at home. They still have to go to Allen Fieldhouse, but they end the season with Baylor at home, TCU on the road and Oklahoma at home.

Win on Saturday, and Kansas State can afford a loss at Allen Fieldhouse and still control their own destiny.

I will be very curious to see where this line opens. The metrics still are underrating Kansas State because of how dreadful they were without Wade, so if this opens around Kansas State (-1), then I will hammer the Wildcats.

No. 24 MARYLAND at No. 6 MICHIGAN, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (FOX)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Michigan 67, Maryland 60
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Michigan 68, Maryland 61
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Michigan 66, Maryland 62

This could be the worst possible time for anyone to play Michigan. The last time we saw the Wolverines, they were getting embarrassed by the last place team in the Big Ten as Penn State went up 13 points at halftime as John Beilein was tossed before he even made it back to the locker room for the break.

Michigan is now tied for first in the league instead of having sole possession of first place, and they’re heading home pissed off after a loss where they played terribly?

That’s a tough spot before you consider that Maryland just does not matchup well with Michigan. Anthony Cowan will have to deal with Zavier Simpson. Bruno Fernando will have Jon Teske to battle with. They are Maryland’s two major sources of offense.

PICKS: I tend to lean towards Michigan here, even if the line opens at (-7) or so. I just don’t know where Maryland gets offense from.

(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

No. 13 VILLANOVA at ST. JOHN’S, Sun. 5:00 p.m. (FS1)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Villanova 73, St. John’s 72
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: St. John’s 75, Villanova 74
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: St. John’s 76, Villanova 72

I actually think St. John’s is a difficult matchup for the Wildcats because of the way the Johnnies play. Like Villanova, they essentially role five switchable perimeter players out there without much, in any, interior scoring presence. For years, Villanova has thrived on their ability to create mismatches all over the floor, and I just don’t know if they’re going to be able to do that against the Johnnies. The first time they played this year, St. John’s led for most of the game before a late Villanova run won it.

That said, there is no comfort betting on a team that is as inconsistent as St. John’s is. They are currently 6-6 in Big East play with home losses to DePaul, Georgetown and Providence, but they’ve also swept Marquette this season.

PICKS: I have no idea what this line is going to be. KenPom is favoring Villanova by one point. Torvik has St. John’s winning by one. Haslametrics has the Johnnies winning by four. If St. John’s ends up favored, I’ll probably bet Villanova simply because I am not in the business of betting against Villanova, especially when Jay Wright is going up against Chris Mullin.

N.C. STATE at No. 2 DUKE, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Duke 89, N.C. State 70
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Duke 93, N.C. State 73
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Duke 94, N.C. State 72

I have a feeling that this game is going to get really ugly, really quickly.

The way to beat Duke is proven. Defensively, you stay disciplined, you pack the paint, you gap them and you dare them to beat you with jumpers. Offensively, you need to slow the game down and control tempo, avoiding quick shots and live-ball turnovers that lead to layups. N.C. State wants to press, they want to run and they want to gamble to force turnovers.

I just don’t see that working out all that well.

PICKS: The projections suggest Duke should be roughly a 20 point favorite, although I think the line will be closer to (-17ish). I like the Duke side if that is the line, but I like the over even more, assuming it opens around 160. For perspective, when N.C. State played North Carolina, the final scores were 90-82 and 113-96.

BAYLOR at No. 15 TEXAS TECH, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Texas Tech 66, Baylor 58
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Texas Tech 67, Baylor 58
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Texas Tech 68, Baylor 56

The question that you have to ask here is whether or not you buy the Texas Tech that we’ve seen of late. After a swoon in mid-January that saw Chris Beard’s club lose three in a row, they’ve won five of their last six, including a pair of blowout wins in the last two weeks that have seemingly given them their confidence back on the offensive end.

And that’s where I think this game will be won. Baylor runs a wonky zone that is somewhere between a 2-3 and a 1-3-1, and the issue that the Red Raiders face is that they can really go through droughts offensively, especially when Jarrett Culver isn’t on his game. They aren’t a great shooting team or a great passing team, and those are the two things you need to be able to do to beat a zone.

That said, the shots have been falling of late. They made 22 threes in their last two games.

Two other things to note: Baylor has lost two of their last three games, but Makai Mason returned to action on Monday after missing last Saturday’s game against Kansas State. There is no word yet on King McClure’s status. The first time these two teams played this year, Baylor won 73-62 in Waco.

PICKS: I’ve long been a believer in Texas Tech, and I think that the Bears are going to come back to earth hard over the final stretch of the season. They won three of their first four road games in Big 12 play, but those were wins at Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Oklahoma, the bottom three teams in the league standings. Their four road trips to end the season: Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State and Kansas. If this line opens at (-8), I’ll be on the Red Raiders.

LeBron on the Zion recruiting trip: ‘I didn’t talk to anybody’

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
3 Comments

The story that overshadowed the story Duke’s win at Virginia last Saturday was the presence of LeBron James and his agent Rich Paul sitting courtside in John Paul Jones Arena.

Were they simply there to watch two of the best teams in the country? Were they just trying to catch a glimpse of The Zion Show before LeBron is forced to call him a competitor? Or was this Paul and LeBron on a recruiting trip for Klutch, the agency that Paul runs and LeBron is a client of?

According to the GOAT himself, it’s the former.

“I love what those young boys are doing over there,” he told ESPN in a story published on Friday. “I love what Zion and RJ [Barrett] and Cam [Reddish] and Tre [Jones], I love what they’re doing. So, [the trip] was a no-brainer. It was easy.”

LeBron also bristled at the notion that this was anything more than taking his chance to see the rematch of what was the biggest game of the year in college hoops.

“A recruiting trip? I didn’t talk to anybody,” James said. “They’re only saying that because it’s Rich. When Shaq came to see me play in high school, when A.I. came to see me play in high school, they weren’t saying it was a recruiting trip then. But because it’s Rich Paul and LeBron, now it’s a recruitment trip.

“Now Rich is a threat to everybody, and they look at it and they want to keep trying to jab my agent and jab my friend. And what is he doing that’s wrong?”

As far as Zion himself, LeBron’s read on the super star is … well, not all that different from everyone else. He was impressive with his “agility and quickness for his size” as well as his athleticism, but this nugget was more interesting.

“When they asked him about, you know, guys in our league and people who cover our league talking about, ‘If I was Zion Williamson, I would sit out for the rest of the year,’ he was like, ‘That’s [silly]. Why? I’m here to play basketball. I love to play basketball. I’m here at Duke, I’m having fun. These are my friends. I’m having a great time. Why would I sit out?'” LeBron said.

“That’s the type of s— that strikes me.”

No. 3 Gonzaga uses late run to defeat Loyola Marymount

Harry How/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LOS ANGELES — Third-ranked Gonzaga was trailing midway through the second half and the nation’s highest-scoring team was being slowed.

The Bulldogs came up with a late burst to extend their winning streak to 15 games.

Gonzaga closed the game with a 20-6 run to beat Loyola Marymount 73-60 on Thursday night. It was only the second West Coast Conference game that the Bulldogs (24-2, 11-0) have not led by at least 20 at some point.

“They were a tough out tonight. They would have been a tough out for a lot of teams tonight,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.

Rui Hachimura led Gonzaga with 22 points and Brandon Clarke added 17 points and 12 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season.

The game was close until late in the second half. Loyola Marymount took a 54-53 lead with 8:45 remaining on Joe Quintana’s 3-pointer, before the Bulldogs took control.

James Batemon’s jumper brought Loyola Marymount (17-9, 5-7) within 60-58 with 4:59 remaining but Gonzaga scored 13 of the game’s last 15 points. The game was similar to Gonzaga’s Jan. 12 victory at San Francisco, where it trailed late before going on a 17-2 run in the final four minutes.

“They did a good job taking us out of our normal pace of offense,” said Zach Norvell Jr., who had 13 points, including a pair of 3-pointers late in the second half. “Once we settled down and found holes, we were able to pick them apart.”

Gonzaga finished 21 of 22 from the foul line.

The Bulldogs came in leading the nation with 91.4 points per game but had their lowest-scoring half of the season, as they led 32-31 at halftime. It was only the fourth time this season they have been held under 80 points in a game.

Gonzaga opened the second half with 3-pointers by Josh Perkins and Corey Kispert. The Lions fought back though and kept it close until the final six minutes.

“We just stayed poised and not get caught up in the moment. We did a good job of having a mature approach and getting stops on our end,” Clarke said.

Dameane Douglas led Loyola Marymount with 13 points, Batemon added 12 and Mattias Markusson and Eli Scott scored 11 apiece. The Lions had a 15-6 edge in offensive rebounds and controlled the inside with a 38-30 edge in points in the paint. They also had an 18-2 advantage in second-chance points but were 1 of 14 on 3-pointers.

“We didn’t allow them to push it out until the end. The bottom line is we missed some layups late. Against a team that is third in the country, those are empty possessions,” Loyola Marymount coach Mike Dunlap said. “Statistically there is a lot to put your teeth into that positive, but how do you take it the rest of the season and go forward?”

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: The Zags came into the game as the nation’s top shooting team (52.8 percent) but were just 9 of 28 in the first half. They improved greatly in the second half, going 14 of 22.

“Loyola beat us up and was physical. We settled too much in the first half and missed a bunch of layups,” Few said. “We settled things down and got to the rim a little bit more and guys made 3s in the second half.”

Loyola Marymount: The Lions have dropped 21 straight to Gonzaga, and 25 of their last 26 Their last win in the series came on Feb. 18, 2010.