College Hoops is here! Official practices start today

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Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to college basketball season.

Thanks to a rule change implemented this season, official practices now begin a full six weeks before the first day that teams are allowed to schedule games. And with the real season kicking off on November 8th, that means that today, September 27th — a point in time usually reserved for Fantasy Football freakouts and the culmination of baseball pennant races — is the official beginning of the college hoops season.

Y’all ready?

I am.

(MORE: To read through all of this year’s CBT Season Previews, click here)

Coaches will be allowed 30 days worth of practice over the course of the next 42 days, which will do a couple of things:

  • It will allow coaches to spread out their early season conditioning, which can help to reduce some of the crush of injuries that come with the brutal two-a-days that usually coincide with the start of the season. We use to call it “hell week”, largely because our morning practices didn’t involve a basketball. It got you into shape, but by the end of it, you were so tired and banged up that practice was less about improving and learning and more about just getting through it. Spreading that process out will make those first practices more effective.
  • There is more time for players to learn what a coach wants out of them. The extra two weeks will make it so that coaches can implement more offense earlier in the season. The way coaches work is that they get their defense set in the first few weeks of practice, and then slowly but surely integrate their offense. With three-and-a-half weeks of preseason practices, the offense that gets put into place for the first couple of games is a simple framework of what is in place by January. Might this make those marquee November matchups more palatable?

The difference, however, is that Midnight Madness won’t be happening all at once this season. They will be spread out, with different schools hosting their events throughout the preseason. The concept of Midnight Madness has changed. When it was originally created by Lefty Driesell at Maryland, it was done so because the coach wanted to practice at the first possible second that it was allowed by the NCAA.

Now?

It’s a party, a recruiting tool that’s used to entertain the fan base, introduce the freshmen to the students and to provide a break to the monotony of a six-week preseason.

ESPN’s annual coverage of the event will be on October 18th, with powerhouse programs like Kentucky, Syracuse, Michigan State and Maryland hosting their events that day along with schools like Florida-Gulf Coast. Kansas will be hosting Late Night in the Phog on October 4th, as will Indiana’s Hoosier Hysteria.

The season maybe beginning, but if you’re waiting on Midnight Madness for the year to actually begin, you’ll be waiting a while longer.

Georgia lands 2019 guard Jaykwon Walton

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It’s been a busy August for Jaykwon Walton.

Nine days after committing to Mississippi State and seven days after de-committing from the Bulldogs, the four-star guard in the class of 2019 committed to Georgia and first-year coach Tom Crean on Monday.

Walton currently lives in Montgomery, Ala., but spent much of his life in Columbus, Ga. He committed to Ben Howland’s program on Aug. 11, but backed off that decision just two days later. Now, just a week later, he’s slated to join Crean’s Bulldogs instead.

The 6-foot-6 guard is a consensus top-75 player in his class. He averaged 19.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists last year as a junior at Carver-Montgomery High School.

“He is a tremendous player and a tremendous kid,” Carver coach James Jackson previously told 247 Sports. “I told him today that he’s been all over the world this year and has really played well. He always does what is asked of him and is a great kid in the classroom, too. He is an amazing athlete that is really humble and is a very grounded kid.

“When you watch him, it is like looking at a mirror of (former NBA player and current Memphis coach) Penny Hardaway in his younger days. Jaykwon can play any position on the court and can defend any position on the court. He has tremendous ability to create and can handle the ball well. He rebounds well and being 6-6, 6-7, he has that range that you want. He’s a great kid to coach and a kid that does everything well.”

Walton is Crean’s first commitment in the 2019 class.

Four-star center Kadin Shedrick commits to Virginia

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Tony Bennett has secured a second top-100 commit in his 2019 recruiting class.

Kadin Shedrick, a four-star recruit, pledged to Virginia on Monday, he announced via social media.

Shedrick chooses Virginia over a recently-trimmed list of Florida, Indiana, Louisville, Providence, Wake Forest, Wisconsin and Xavier. He visited the Musketeers and Demon Deacons before making an unofficial to Charlottesville over the weekend, apparently showing him all he needed to see.

“Virginia is a place where I can develop my basketball game greatly. They have a great track record of developing players,” Shedrick told 247Sports. “”They have a winning traditional as well, and I think that’s very important.”

Shedrick is a 6-foot-10 center that is a consensus top-100 prospect. He joins Casey Morsell, a top-75 guard from Washington, D.C., in Bennett’s 2019 class. Virginia has gotten the commitment of just one four-star prospect in the last two recruiting classes after securing the talents of four such players in 2016.

Baylor’s Jake Lindsey out for season after hip surgery

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Jake Lindsey’s senior season is going to be delayed a year.

The Baylor guard will miss the upcoming season after undergoing hip surgery, he announced Sunday.

“I will be redshirting this season as I recover from hip surgery,” Lindsey wrote on Twitter. “I can’t wait to help the team this year in a different role as I recover. I want to say thank you to everyone who has been helping me in this time, whether you know it or not.”

The 6-foot-5 guard has averaged more than 20 minutes per game the last two seasons as a 3-point shooting specialist and distributor. He averaged just 4.5 points per game last season, but dished out 3.4 assists while shooting 34.1 percent from distance (down from 40.4 percent as a sophomore). He will have one season of eligibility remaining in 2019-20 after sitting out this season.

Lindsey, whose father Dennis is the general manager of the Utah Jazz, battled the hip injury throughout much of last season, but did not miss any games as a result. His loss will be acute for the Bears, who lost four seniors off last year’s No. 1 seed NIT team including point guard Manu Lecomte.

Five Takeaways from Duke’s Canada Exhibitions

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Just like Kentucky did two weeks ago, the Duke Blue Devils spent last week traveling abroad to play in exhibition games that were televised.

Kentucky went south, heading to the Bahamas.

Duke made the trip up north so that Canadian R.J. Barrett would have a chance to play in front of his home crowd.

And while it was a little bit easier to see what Kentucky will have a chance to be this season — we’ll get into why that is later — we did get our first chance to see what Duke could look like.

Here are the four things that we learned:

Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP

R.J. BARRETT IS THE TRUTH, BUT ZION WILLIAMSON SHOULD LIVE UP TO THE HYPE

At this point, everyone should know more or less what R.J. Barrett is.

He was the consensus No. 1 player in the Class of 2018 despite the fact that he reclassified last summer. (He turned 18 this summer, meaning that he is enrolling in college in what would be considered the normal year.) There is a long way to go still, but he is thought to be head and shoulders above the rest of the field when it comes to the race for the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Last summer, he put 38 points, 13 boards and six assists on the USA team at the U-19 World Cup, which became first time since 2011 that USA Basketball was not the reigning champion at any age group in international competition.

Put another way, seeing Barrett steamroll a bunch of Canadian college basketball players should not be surprising if you know what he did against a team that included the likes of Carsen Edwards, Kevin Huerter, P.J. Washington and Romeo Langford, not to mention Barrett’s current Duke teammate, Cam Reddish. In three games, he averaged 30.7 points, 8.0 boards and 5.0 assists.

What was more eye-opening was the way that Zion Williamson played.

Williamson is college basketball’s first superstar of the internet age. His other-worldly athleticism has turned him into a social media machine. He has 1.7 million followers on Instagram. There are YouTube channels that have sprung to life simply because they were able to post his high school dunk. When he was a junior in high school, Drake wore his jersey. Every teenage basketball fan knows who he is.

The question about Williamson has long been whether or not he is more than just an athlete. He never left his local South Carolina high school, which is why those viral videos of him dunking often looked like he was playing against, well, me. He played on the Adidas circuit in high school, which is good but is not at the same level as the EYBL. I’m not sure there is a person on the planet that can match his explosiveness and quickness while checking in at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, as Duke lists him, but the question about his potential as a pro has always been what will happen when he is not longer on another planet athletically.

And at the risk of overreacting to three exhibition games against overmatched competition, I am much more bullish on him as a prospect today than I was a week ago.

There are three reasons for that:

  1. Williamson has a higher basketball IQ and is a better passer than I realized. It’s the little moments that give it away: finding a shooter after an offensive rebound, seeing a backdoor cut even if the pass he threw was not good enough to get the assist, the outlet passes he would throw to streaking guards before he even landed after grabbing a defensive rebound. He reads the game.
  2. He’s underrated as a ball-handler. He’s also hardly a finished product there, but he has good enough handle that he can be a sensation as a grab-and-go big in transition and will be able to beat bigger (well, slower, he’s pretty big) defenders off the bounce. That’s key because his shooting still needs work.
  3. He just plays so damn hard. When someone his size with his leaping ability decides that they want to go and get a rebound, how are you going to stop him? And while things like handle or shooting or defensive positioning can be taught, ‘motor’ cannot.

Williamson probably could stand to lose 20 or 25 pounds*, which will likely also help with him improving on his conditioning; he seemed to tire for stretches in these exhibitions, which is understandable considering the load he and Barrett carried and the fact that, you know, he is 285 pounds. And that jumper needs some consistency.

But those are fairly easy problems to fix, all things considered.

Which is why I think Williamson is going to come much closer to living up to the hype than I did before this trip.

*(The “Zion is fine at 285” crowd annoys me. Yes, he’ll be just fine playing at 285 pounds or whatever he is. But if he’s able to do all of this while carrying baby weight around, imagine what he’ll do once he streamlines his body.)

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

DUKE’S DEPTH IS GOING TO BE AN ISSUE

Duke had a bunch of injuries on this trip.

I know.

Cam Reddish didn’t play. Tre Jones didn’t play. Alex O’Connell lasted all of three minutes in the first game before fracturing a bone in his face. That’s three of Duke’s top six players heading into next season.

The problem?

Without those three, Duke was forced to start the likes of Jack White, Antonio Vrankovic and Jordan Goldwire in lineups that included both Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden. I expect White will play a larger role this season because, if nothing else, he’s going to be one of the best shooters on the roster and can play a forward spot. Goldwire is fine as a point guard off the bench, I guess, and Vrankovic is big enough and serviceable enough to play emergency minutes.

Those guys are fine for the end of the bench, but the problem that will arise is that “the end of Duke’s bench” looks like it is going to start with the eighth man.

And that’s assuming that Marques Bolden becomes a trusted part of Coach K’s rotation. In the three exhibitions in Canada, Bolden played a total of just 39 minutes, missing all three of his shot attempts without taking a single free throw while grabbing all of nine rebounds.

My guess?

Duke plays the majority of this season with a six-man rotation, using O’Connell off the bench to spell whoever needs a rest and allowing Williamson to play the five when Javin DeLaurier needs a blow.

Depth is something that I think is overrated in college basketball given how many TV timeouts there are during a game. Villanova has won two of the last three national titles despite using rotations that end at seven guys. Syracuse routinely makes runs in March with teams that have just five or six guys that see minutes. It’s great to have 13 players on scholarship that can contribute, but only five of them can see the floor at a time. When your best players are going to get 30-35 minutes a night, having too many guys that deserve to play can lead to discontentment.

So I’m not sure this is going to cripple Duke’s season.

But in a sport where titles are won in one-game knockout tournaments, a poorly-timed sprained ankle or some simple foul trouble can be a killer.

Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP

THIS TEAM IS GOING TO BE SO MUCH FUN TO WATCH

If there is one thing that we can learn from the way that Duke played in Canada, it’s that this team is likely going to play fast, fast, fast.

I’m not sure there will be any player in the college basketball this year that can grab-and-go the way that Barrett and Williamson can, and that’s before you even factor in that Reddish — a silky 6-foot-8 wing — will be able to do the same thing, and that Tre Jones will actually be the point guard on this roster.

Imagine being an opposing point guard and seeing Barrett or Williamson come at you with a full head of steam in transition. That’s nightmare fuel.

This group is also switchable defensively, and I’ve been told that they have already been tinkering with lineups that allow Williamson to play the five, a la the ‘Death Lineup’ that the Golden State Warriors roll out with Draymond Green playing center.

There is a lot to like about this group, but that leads me to my single-biggest concern about this team …

… DUKE IS GOING TO HAVE TO FIND SHOOTING SOMEWHERE

Part of the reason I think Duke is going to be a transition-heavy team is that they have the players to thrive in that kind of a system.

But I also think that it will partly be by necessity, as Duke has a roster that is loaded with perimeter talent without having all that much perimeter shooting.

Put another way, Villanova made small-ball work for them last season because every single player in their top six was a lethal three-point shooter. Golden State makes it work because they have three of the greatest shooters in the history of the sport on the roster.

Barrett? The biggest knock on him as a prospect is that he is an inconsistent shooter, and that was backed up by a 6-for-21 (28%) performance in Canada. The same thing can be said about Williamson, who shot 3-for-9 (33%) from three on the trip, and one of his three makes was a ball that bricked off the back of the rim, hit the backboard and happened to drop in. Reddish and Jones are both guys that can make threes, but they are probably better described as scorers more than shooters.

Throw in someone like a DeLaurier or a Bolden, and suddenly the paint gets awfully clogged.

I currently have Duke sitting at No. 4 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 — behind Kansas, Gonzaga and Kentucky — because of those question marks from beyond the arc.

This trip did nothing to alleviate those concerns.

VIDEO: Duke’s Zion Williamson takes flight in final exhibition win

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Duke played this trip short-handed and against competition that wasn’t exactly overwhelming, but the Blue Devils still looked pretty impressive steam-rolling the teams they did play.

And while I say “the Blue Devils”, I really mean Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. Barrett is widely considered the better prospect, but Williamson was the one that put on a show all weekend, and today’s game against McGill was no different.