Final thoughts from the Champions Classic

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Scott Phillips and I were both in attendance on Tuesday night at the Champions Classic, and while we both wrote plenty of words off of those two games, there was a lot more to discuss that simply couldn’t fit into our stories.

So we put it all here:

Scott: After all of the hype, the Champions Classic is finally over and I’ve got to say that Tuesday night lived up to the hype and so much more, don’t you think, Rob? The crowd was fired up and lively, the freshmen played well and people were reminded of how good Michigan State really is.

I guess we’ll start with Kentucky and Michigan State since it was No. 1 vs. No. 2 and the first game of the night.

(Andrew Wiggins won the Freshmen Showcase)

I’m shocked most at two stats: Michigan State leading Kentucky in fast break points 21-2 and Kentucky outrebounding a Tom Izzo team 44-32?

What do you think those numbers mean going forward and did you have any similar eye-popping numbers that really stood out to you?

Rob: To be honest, I wasn’t all that shocked by the work that Kentucky did on the offensive glass. This team has as much front court depth as we’ve ever seen on one roster, headlined by a freak of nature in Julius Randle. Michigan State? Their biggest issue this season is that their front court behind Adreian Payne is not elite. Matt Costello and Alex Gauna are serviceable against teams that don’t have 25 lottery picks, Branden Dawson is good but undersized, and on Tuesday, Payne was in foul trouble. Do the math. It adds up.

I was surprised by the amount of fast break points Michigan State was able to get, but to me it had more to do with just how bad the Wildcats were in transition. We talked about this at the game. They weren’t hustling back, they gambled for steals, and there was no defensive balance when they were shooting long jumpers. Much of the damage the Spartans did in transition came on run outs and wide-open dunks. It wasn’t like they had the reincarnation of Magic leading the break.

One thing that you mentioned on Tuesday night that really stuck with me was just how good of a job Izzo did game-planning for Kentucky. Packed in defense, anticipating Randle’s spin move, daring Kentucky to shoot. How much of this win belongs to Izzo?

Scott: Good points regarding the rebounding and fast break numbers, Rob. Although Kentucky has more quality size and depth in the front court, it is still shocking to see an Izzo team out rebounded by double digits in any contest.

I think part of the win stems from Izzo’s game plan, part from Michigan State players stepping up and performing and part from Kentucky’s inexperience in big games.

Izzo’s early defensive game plan was fantastic and they did a nice job collapsing on Julius Randle when he got isolation or post touches and between Michigan State’s aggressive switching and Kentucky’s stagnant offensive it was a recipe for early disaster for Kentucky’s offense.

I actually thought Kentucky’s half-court defense wasn’t too bad and they showed a lot of positive signs in that department going forward if they can shore up the transition defense. Kentucky is long and athletic on the defensive end and they also limit second chance opportunities because of their rebounding prowess so they should be okay in that department.

But how about Michigan State’s players stepping up? Izzo can gameplan all he wants but Payne and Harris looked like pros in the first half and nobody in America expected Keith Appling to be the most complete guard in the game with that 22-8-8 line. Heck, even Branden Dawson was a solid x-factor rebounding, running the floor and guarding multiple positions.

Do we see more performances like that from Michigan State’s players — specifically the inconsistent Appling and Payne — or was this an anomaly?

And how do you see Kentucky’s youth growing from here?

Rob: Kentucky will only get better. I thought they were the most likely team to win a national title entering the season, and last time only affirmed that belief.

(Kentucky has the talent. Now they need the time.)

One team that I think I underrated is Kansas. The Jayhawks are going to be a problem, and the biggest reason is Perry Ellis. The dude is going to be a force on the block, and while I think he was in for a big season, I did not think he was going to be as good as he looked on Tuesday. Granted, it is just one game, I know, but if he can be a 15 ppg guy, he makes Kansas a completely different team on the offensive end of the floor, especially if his post game is truly developed and not just a result of going up against a Duke team that doesn’t have a ton on the inside.

Here’s my question: Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker were awesome vs. Kansas. Both looked like lottery picks. Jabari looked like Paul Pierce and Grant Hill had a baby, which is even more terrifying as a theoretical hooper than it would be if they actually had a child.

But I’m concerned about Duke. I thought they’d be better spreading the floor offensively, especially given the new foul rules. But Rasheed Sulaimon was no where to be found, Matt Jones and Tyler Thornton played a ton of minutes while Andre Dawkins was ducktaped to the bench. Amile Jefferson scored some points, but he couldn’t get a rebound if his life depended on it and Perry Ellis abused him like he was Yi Jianlian’s chair.

Does that say more about Duke or about Kansas?

Scott: It says more about Kansas to me. I think we both underestimated the Jayhawks heading into the game and it’s not as if I thought they weren’t talented — they’re loaded — I just didn’t feel like they’d mesh against the talent of Duke this early in the year.

Perry Ellis was a revelation last night and he’s going to be the difference of Kansas’ season going forward. Wiggins will be Wiggins and Kansas has other talent, but if Perry Ellis can get positive post touches it opens up the entire floor for Kansas.

If Ellis commands doubles, or at least the help attention of other defenders, then it opens driving lanes, spaces the floor for shooters and eases things for a freshman center like Joel Embiid.

I know Embiid only had two points and took one of the worst three-point attempts you’re likely to see all season, but he did have five (!) assists as a freshman center and still should be able to finish easy lobs and plays around the rim if defenders are drawn to Ellis. Embiid is only going to improve and so are Kansas’ other young guns.

If Wiggins and Ellis are a consistent 1-2 scoring punch with Selden and the perimeter also playing well, Kansas is going to be really tough to defend.

Which brings me to my question about Duke: Is this team ever going to be able to beat a premier post team or can the Blue Devils shore up their interior defense?

Jabari Parker was a better post defender than I thought — and he rebounds well enough to play the 4 against most teams — but isn’t it going to wear him down if he constantly has to take a beating against a bigger post player while having to create offense on the other end?

(Jabari Parker dazzles the hometown crowd)

Are you worried about Parker’s 3-for-8 second half with a few turnovers and do you think he wore down as the game went on?

Rob: I’m going to go back and rewatch the game this weekend, but I think it had less to do with wearing down than it did with Kansas saying ‘I’m sick of this dude lighting us up’. Wiggins switched on him a bit, which made for a tougher matchup as well.

Duke’s interior defense will be an issue all year long. There’s no way around it. They won’t run into a ton of teams in the ACC with a dominant low-post presence, but I think that it’s more of a red flag than we first realized, particularly when the Blue Devils play an elite team with a talented low-post option. If they switch Marshall Plumlee with one of the other Plumlees, will anyone actually notice?

The bottom-line is this: right now, Michigan State is the best, most complete team in the country. When Keith Appling plays the way he did Tuesday, and Harris and Payne live up to their potential, the Spartans are going to be tough.

But I think what Tuesday night taught us is that there are a number of teams that are no where near finished products just yet. In fact, I’d say that Kentucky, despite the loss, was the most promising. They erased a 15 point deficit to the No. 2 team in the country that had all three of their best players playing well while shooting 20-36 from the foul line, committing 17 turnovers, missing open three after open three and looking somewhat overwhelmed by the moment.

Those errors are fixable. Those problems can be solved with practice, experience and a dose of confidence.

I left Chicago feeling very good about picking Kentucky to win it all.

Pac-12 loosens intra-conference transfer rule

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The Pac-12 approved a measure Monday that will lighten restrictions on players that want to transfer to schools within the conference.

Players who now make an intra-conference transfer will no longer be subject to an immediate loss of a season of eligibility, the conference announced.

“This rule change removes one of the last remaining penalties associated with transferring between Conference schools,” the league said in a press release, “and is designed to provide student-athletes with a similar experience to any other student who decides to transfer.”

The league also has passed rules to beef up its non-conference schedule as programs will be required to a non-conference five-year trailing average of opponents’ NET ranking must be 175 or less, no participation in road buy games, no regular season games against non-Division I opponents and no road games versus a non-conference opponent with a five-year trailing average of 200 NET. Those requirements, along with the move to a 20-game conference schedule, come in response to continued struggles by the league in basketball, with last season seeing the league flirt with being a one-bid NCAA tournament conference. Ultimately, its league champion, Washington, received a No. 9 seed with Oregon getting a 12 and Arizona State an 11 and a First Four invitation.

 

Kenny Wooten writes he won’t return to Oregon

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Kenny Wooten took to Instagram on Monday to discuss his future.

“I know I’ve waited a very long time to answer this question,” Wooten wrote in response to a question from a fan, “but I will not be coming back for year 3.”

Presumably that means that Wooten means to continue to pursue a professional career after declaring for the NBA draft after his sophomore season. He competed at the G-Leage Elite minicamp last week in Chicago along with a host of other draft hopefuls.

The 6-foot-9 California native averaged 6.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game while shooting 58.9 percent from the field. At the moment, it’s likely that Wooten would have to pursue a path to the NBA that includes the G-League.

Wooten makes it a loss of seven players from last year’s Sweet 16 squad for coach Dana Altman, who also saw Bol Bol and Louis King go to the draft. Payton Pritchard Jr., who averaged nearly 13 points per game as a junior, has also declared, but has not indicated if he plans to stay in or return to school.

Five-star forward Trendon Watford commits to LSU

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Whatever issues have dogged LSU coach Will Wade over the last few months, they aren’t enough to keep him from landing another five-star recruit.

Trendon Watford, a top-25 forward in 2019, committed to Wade and the Tigers in an Monday afternoon announcement.

“It’s the trust,” he said of his pick of the Tigers, according to AL.com, “the trust I have with those coaches and them helping me reach my potential.”

Watford said he had been leaning towards heading to Baton Rouge, but retreated from that stance when Wade was suspended by LSU after reports surfaced about federal wiretaps featuring Wade discussing making a “strong-ass offer” for a recruit. Former Arizona assistant Book Richardson was also on wiretap discussing Wade, recruit Naz Reid and $300,000. Ultimately, though, LSU has stood by him as it reinstated him from suspension.

“When all that was going on it was definitely a pause in my recruitment,” Watford told 247Sports. “Before that I was going to commit to LSU during the McDonald’s game and that happened so we postponed. He still contacted me throughout that time and would tell me what was up. When he got reinstated they got pushed back to the top.”

Ultimately, the Tigers are landing one of the top players that were left on the board this spring, a 6-foot-9 forward that was also considering Alabama, Memphis and Indiana, where his brother Christian played. He joins James Bishop, a top-150 guard from Maryland, and junior college transfer guard Charles Manning in Wade’s 2019 class. It would also seem there is little immediate concern, at least by Watford, that the NCAA might soon find wrongdoing that was suggested by the evidence and testimony to come out the federal investigation into college hoops.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with what Nassir Little said about North Carolina at the combine

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One of the storylines that has popped up since the NBA draft combine came to an end last week has centered around a couple of things that potential top ten pick and former North Carolina Tar Heel Nassir Little said.

Before we dive into it, here is what the actual quote was, courtesy of our own Scott Phillips:

“Hesitancy. Not being sure of what I wanted to do at UNC,” Little said when he was asked why he thinks he struggled more in college than he did in the high school ranks. “The coaching staff didn’t really understand exactly what my role was early on, especially in the offense, (which) created a lot of hesitancy which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

Then we he was asked to elaborate on whether or not being unsure of his role contributed to his hesitancy, Little said, “Just kind of being unsure, playing out of position, created some confusion on the court which caused me to be hesitant.”

Little has taken some criticism for this, and, to be frank, this can be read as something of a criticism of the coaching staff. Without context, one can infer that Little is passing the buck and pinning the blame for his struggles on his coaches.

But the context here matters, and it changes the tone of what he is trying to say.

Let me start with this: Little says that he would not jump straight from high school to the NBA even if he had the chance to do it all over again.

“It was a struggle statistically,” he said, “but on the court I developed, my body developed and became more mature in the weight room there, learning about the game, playing against actual defense – in high school there is no help, you beat your guy, you’re going to get a dunk. Going to college exposes you to what’s helpful for the NBA.”

That doesn’t sound like someone who is bitter that an inability to crack the starting lineup at North Carolina cost him some draft spots.

To me, it sounds like a guy who realized that he didn’t know what he didn’t know before he arrived in Chapel Hill.

The thing about Little is that he was always just a weird fit for North Carolina’s system and the way that Roy Williams wants to play.

In this day and age, basketball is becoming more and more about versatility and your ability to play multiple positions. Think about Giannis Antetokounmpo bringing the ball up the floor for the Bucks or the job that Draymond Green does for Golden State. Little is such an attractive prospect because he has the size, strength and athleticism to be able to guard multiple different positions — which you cannot teach — while having the upside of still needing to learn how to do pretty much everything better offensively.

North Carolina’s offense is not one that preaches versatility. The positions are quite rigid. Williams wants two bigs on the floor that are true bigs. He wants two wings on the floor that are going to be able to get out in transition and make threes on the wing. He wants a point guard that can lead the break. Where Little’s versatility makes him an intriguing prospect at the highest level, he’s relegated to being something of a tweener for a coach that is just two years removed from his third national title.

So when Little says “the coaching staff didn’t really understand exactly what my role was,” he’s not blaming them.

He’s just speaking the truth.

When he says that created a “hesitancy” in him, of course it did. If you walked into a new job tomorrow, and your boss never really gives you clear and concise instructions on what he expects you to do, are you going to be at your very best right away, or will it take you some time to adjust?

Roy Williams is one of the best to ever coach college basketball, and one of his biggest strengths is the ability to find and recruit players that fit into his system. Coby White is the perfect example. Don’t be surprised when Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot have us saying the same thing next season.

Little is not one of those players that fit perfectly into what Williams wanted to do, but as far as I can tell, this was the closest that we came to hearing Little complain about it. He accepted his role, he got better throughout the year and he had some of his best games in big moments — the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, the Florida State game at home, the Virginia Tech game in January.

Maybe I’m reading this entirely wrong, but to me, Little doesn’t come off as bitter or angry, he sounds like a mature, self-aware kid that was honestly answering questions about his one season in college.

Javonte Smart’s decision to return to LSU could complicate things next season

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Javonte Smart announced over the weekend that he will be withdrawing from the NBA draft and returning to LSU for his sophomore season.

Smart is a 6-foot-4 point guard and a former four-star recruit that averaged 11.1 points, 3.3 boards and 2.4 assists as a freshman. He was one of six Tigers — along with Naz Reid, Tremont Waters, Skylar Mays, Marlon Taylor and Emmitt Williams — to declare for the draft. None of the other five have announced a decision yet.

In a vacuum, this is obviously a good thing for an LSU program that has quite a bit up in the air right now.

But there is more to this story than a solid freshman returning to school for his sophomore season, because Smart found himself smack in the middle of the controversy involving the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball. In March, Yahoo Sports reported that LSU head coach Will Wade was caught on a wire tap discussing with Christian Dawkins, an ex-runner for a former NBA agent that has been convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison as a result of this scandal, a “strong-ass” offer that he made to one of Smart’s handlers.

“I was thinking last night on this Smart thing,” Wade reportedly said in the conversation on wiretap with Dawkins. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m [expletive] tired of dealing with the thing. Like I’m just [expletive] sick of dealing with the [expletive]. Like, this should not be that [expletive] complicated.”

“Dude,” Wade continued to Dawkins, referring to the third party involved in the recruitment. “I went to him with a [expletive] strong-ass offer about a month ago. [Expletive] strong.

“The problem was, I know why he didn’t take it now, it was [expletive] tilted toward the family a little bit. It was tilted toward taking care of the mom, taking care of the kid. Like it was tilted towards that. Now I know for a fact he didn’t explain everything to the mom. I know now, he didn’t get enough of the piece of the pie in the deal.”

Smart was suspended for the final game of the regular season, but he was reinstated prior to the start of the SEC tournament. Will Wade was suspended at the same time, but he was not reinstated until last month.

This might end up being problematic, for Wade, for Smart and, potentially, for LSU. Smart returning to school means that the NCAA can now exert influence over him. They will be investigating everything that has popped up as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption, from what was discussed at trial to the things that were reported separately in the media. I have very little doubt that LSU is going to be one of the programs that gets investigated, and since he is back in college, the NCAA will once again be able to hold power over him.

They can call him in to be interviewed. If he does not tell the truth in that interview, he can be suspended. If he does tell the truth, just how much of a headache is that going to be for the coaching staff and the program as a whole?

I don’t have the answer to that question, and based on LSU’s decision to reinstate Smart in March, they must either believe that the player did not know anything about that “strong-ass offer” or that the story is inaccurate in some way.

Either way, Smart’s decision to come back to school is going to complicate things, even if it makes the team better.