Joel Embiid’s back costs Kansas their shot at greatness

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Injuries have taken their toll on college basketball more this season than in any season that I can remember, especially when it comes to those teams that are chasing Final Fours and national titles.

Michigan’s Mitch McGary had back issues all offseason and finally decided to get surgery, effectively ending his season, back in December. Arizona lost Brandon Ashley for the season when he broke his foot in January. Michigan State ended up as a No. 4 seed in large part because their four stars spent the season bouncing in and out of the lineup. Oklahoma State center Michael Cobbins ruptured his achilles tendon, leaving the Cowboys with a severe lack of depth in their front court.

Most recently, Iowa State suffered a massive blow when Georges Niang, their third-leading scorer and one of their most important pieces due to his ability to create mismatches for opponents, broke his foot in their opening round NCAA tournament game.

It’s a shame, really.

MOREKansas loses to No. 10 Stanford | Bill Self’s fifth tourney loss to No. 9 seed or lower

Four of those teams were in the preseason top ten, and the only one that wasn’t, Iowa State, was in the top ten as we entered the tournament.

Four of those teams entered the NCAA tournament as national title contenders, and the only one that didn’t, Oklahoma State, was a trendy Final Four sleeper.

But none of them compare to the importance of Kansas missing Joel Embiid.

For those that don’t know, Embiid was the projected by many as the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft for much of the season, only losing his grip on that consensus tag when a stress fracture in his spine started acting up. He aggravated the injury in a fall three weeks back against Oklahoma State, sat out the last two games of the regular season, missed the Big 12 tournament and was not available this weekend in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

And without Embiid, the Jayhawks struggled against No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky before ultimately getting bounced by No. 10 seed Stanford on Sunday afternoon.

You may not agree, but I have no problem saying this: Kansas would not have lost to Stanford if Joel Embiid was in the lineup.

You don’t need to be the second coming of John Wooden to figure out that Kansas was nothing more than good without Embiid in the lineup.

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He was their anchor defensively, a shot blocker that cleaned up a lot of the mess caused by the mediocre perimeter defense this Kansas team had a habit of playing. He was their best low-post scorer, a guy that could get a bucket with his back to the basket and had the length and athleticism to be an option at the rim when the Kansas guards drove the lane. He brought a toughness and a tenacity to this group that some of their other stars seemed to lack; there were a number of times this season where Embiid was charged with a flagrant or a technical for emotional outbursts, and while those can hurt a team in the moment, that passion is not a bad thing for a team to have on the floor.

And if that wasn’t enough, Stanford just so happened to have the kind of personnel that could take advantage of Embiid’s absence. Johnny Dawkins has a seemingly endless string of seven-footers on his bench, all of whom were talented enough offensively to create problems for the suddenly-undersized Jayhawks. There’s a reason Tarik Black fouled out. There’s a reason that Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor were a combined 4-for-18 from the floor, the majority of which came around the rim.

That’s not the entire reason that the Jayhawks stumbled through Sunday’s loss. Andrew Wiggins finished with as many turnovers as points and only managed to get six shots up. Other than Conner Frankamp and Tarik Black, the Jayhawks shot 9-for-42 from the floor and just 1-for-9 from three.

Those numbers aren’t good by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not trying to argue that they are.

But it is worth noting that despite all of those bad basketball, Kansas lost by just three.

Embiid would have been the difference.

And if he were healthy — or if Kansas had been able to make it through to the Sweet 16, as Embiid told reporters after the game he would have been back on Thursday — we would have had a chance to see a team with potentially the top two picks in the NBA Draft try to make a run through the NCAA tournament.

Instead, Kansas is heading home.

And with all due respect to Johnny Dawkins and his Stanford team, that’s a shame.

At their best, at their healthiest, the Jayhawks are as probably good as anyone in the country.

But we’ll never get the chance to see them prove it.

Five-star guard Anthony Edwards reclassifying to 2019

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Five-star shooting guard Anthony Edwards announced his intention to reclassify from the Class of 2020 into the Class of 2019 on Tuesday.

The Atlanta native was one of the major breakout players of last summer, as Edwards earned rave reviews nationally with his strong play. Edwards is such a major talent, that upon moving up to 2019, 247Sports immediately put him as its new No. 1 prospect in the class.

The move is also good for college basketball fans. Because Edwards has the kind of scoring package and athleticism that will make him one of the must-watch freshmen of next season. Edwards joins a Class of 2019 group that doesn’t have a lot of star power and must-see talents. After averaging over 20 points per game in the Under Armour Association this summer, Edwards became one of the hottest recruits in the country.

Edwards told Evan Daniels of 247Sports that Florida State, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan State and North Carolina are the five schools currently prioritizing him — as he hasn’t set any official visits yet. With his ability to easily play above the rim, or knock down deep perimeter shots, Edwards is going to be one of the major recruiting attractions of this spring.

Since he’s jumping into the recruiting process so late, we probably won’t have a decision for quite some time. But once Edwards joins the college ranks next season, he’ll likely be generating headlines from the moment he starts playing.

Kentucky’s John Calipari calls himself an ‘overrated recruiter’ hours after losing James Wiseman

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Kentucky head coach John Calipari made headlines even after losing top recruit James Wiseman to Memphis on Tuesday afternoon.

After Wiseman decided to stay home and play for high school former coach Penny Hardaway and the Tigers on Tuesday, Calipari spoke with reporters before his Wildcats are scheduled to host Winthrop. According to a report from USA Today Network Tennessee’s Nicole Saavedra, Calipari spoke for over five minutes on the subject of recruiting, while providing the typical Calipari spin. Although Calipari can’t directly mention Wiseman’s name due to recruiting restrictions, he nonetheless made some pointed remarks about Wildcat recruiting.

“I’ve said it all along, I think I’m overrated as a recruiter,” Calipari said Tuesday. “We’ve had kids that made the decision to come here and it’s played out well for almost all of them. But my thing is, I want to be able to sleep at night. I want to make sure I’m telling the truth. I want to make sure I’m sticking with guys.

“I’m not saying that about anyone else,” Calipari continued. “Everyone recruits the way they recruit, but you’ve got good programs and good coaches and that’s why we don’t get everybody we recruit. We’re not the only ones out there trying to get good players and trying to help kids.”

While Calipari has the right to speak about the state of his program and the program’s recruiting at any point in time, these comments only hours after losing Wiseman definitely raise some eyebrows. Mostly because Calipari has an unbelievable ability to force attention back onto himself and his program in spite of a major recruiting loss.

Nobody actually believes Calipari is an overrated recruiter. He’s had the No. 1 or No. 2 ranked recruiting class for 10 consecutive seasons. He has two five-star prospects and one high-end four-star prospect in the fold for 2019. But he knows how to spin things into attention for him and his program, and it’s part of the reason he’s so good at what he does.

Clemson advances to title game in Cayman Islands

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GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands — Marcquise Reed scored 24 points and grabbed nine rebounds, Elijah Thomas had his second straight double-double and No. 16 Clemson beat Georgia 64-49 on Tuesday to advance to the championship game of the Cayman Islands Classic.

Thomas finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds for Clemson (5-0), which is off to its best start since the 2013-14 season. Shelton Mitchell, who scored a season-high 22 on Monday, chipped in with 13 points and David Skara had three of the Tigers’ nine steals.

Coach Brad Brownell won his 154th game at Clemson, three away from passing Bill Foster for second in program history.

Derek Ogbeide led Georgia (3-2) with 11 points. Nicolas Claxton, who scored 22 points in an 80-68 win on Monday, was held to three points on 1-of-9 shooting — but he had nine rebounds and five blocks.

James Wiseman picks Memphis over Kentucky

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In a move that was both shocking and not at all surprising, James Wiseman announced on Tuesday afternoon, live on Sportscenter, that he will be playing his college basketball for Penny Hardaway at Memphis, spurning John Calipari and Kentucky in the process.

“The whole city of Memphis knows my decision,” Wiseman said moments before unveiling a unicorn with a Memphis logo on it.

Wiseman, who has drawn some comparisons to Chris Bosh in the past, will join top 50 prospect D.J. Jefferies and four-star recruit Malcolm Dandridge in Penny’s second recruiting class.

The decision is surprising because of the obvious: Wiseman is a consensus top four player in the class. Many had him as the top prospect in the Class of 2019 before Tuesday’s news that Anthony Edwards would be reclassifying. And he just picked Memphis, who hasn’t been truly relevant in nearly a decade, over Calipari and Kentucky, the man that was responsible for making Memphis a powerhouse?

In a vacuum, that is baffling.

Except we’re not in a vacuum.

Wiseman, a Nashville native, moved to Memphis to play his high school basketball for Penny when Penny was still the head coach of East High School. He played his AAU ball for Penny’s AAU program, which was rebranded after Penny took the Memphis job. When that team did not make the trip to Las Vegas for the final July Live Period over the summer, Wiseman played for Hoop City Basketball Club, a program that was previously known as M33M and owned and operated by Mike Miller, who is now a Memphis assistant coach.

To be frank, it probably would have been more surprising if Wiseman had picked Kentucky over the Tigers.

As a player, Wiseman has a chance to be pretty good. He’s a 6-foot-11 lefty with a projectable 3-point stroke and enough size and athleticism to be effective in the paint in college. There are some concerns about how that game will translate at the NBA level — he’s not really a switchable big, his shooting isn’t  yet good enough to make him a true stretch-five, he’s not yet an elite shot-blocker — but this isn’t about the NBA. This is about Memphis, and Wiseman will be terrific for Memphis.

It is also a validation of the decision for Memphis to hire Penny.

Well, to be frank, the validation came when local products Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris committed to the program as a flood of season-ticket holders made their return to the FedEx Forum. The Memphis basketball program is back in the black, and after two years where Tubby Smith torpedoed the goodwill they had in the community, that matters.

But that excitement for a new head coach is only going to last so long if there isn’t a product on the court worth watching, and landing a player like this — someone that played for Penny growing up, that has a relationship with the coach, that played his high school ball in the city, that can be a potential all-american and lead Memphis towards the top of the American — is exactly what he needed.

And I’m sure Penny would tell you, his commitment was never in doubt.

Best Bets: Where do you want your money for the second day of the Maui Invitational?

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The second day of the Maui Invitational will tip-off tonight, the headlining game being No. 1 Duke’s date with No. 8 Auburn.

As always, here is a look at the slate of games from a gambling perspective:

No. 1 DUKE vs. No. 8 AUBURN, 8:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Line: Duke (-11)
  • O/U: 167.5
  • Vegas Implied Score: Duke 89.25, Auburn 78.25
  • KenPom Projection: Duke 82, Auburn 76

On paper, this game looks like it will be one of the most entertaining of the season.

Duke is already must-see TV every time that they take the court. That’s what happens when you have Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish on the court at the same time. Magic happens. Auburn, on the other hand, is really, really good themselves. If you haven’t seen them play yet, they are somewhat undersized — they like to play a pair of athletic, 6-foot-8 forwards that can space the floor and protect the rim up front — but they love to press and play in transition as much as anyone.

And it’s Auburn’s style of play that I think will play into Duke’s hands here. The Tigers want to play fast. Last year they finished the season ranked 18th in pace. This year, they are just 67th, but they have already played a couple of teams that tried their damnedest to take the air out of the ballin Xavier and Washington. They currently rank fifth-nationally in defensive turnover percentage, gambling for steals in that full court pressure to try and create opportunities for easy buckets at the other end of the floor. They attack the glass (fifth in offensive rebounding percentage), shoot a ton of threes (and make them at a 39.4 percent clip) and struggle to clear the defensive boards.

Duke?

Well, they want to play fast. That is the entire basis of what Mike Krzyzewski has built this season. He has three guys on the floor that were primary ball-handlers in the high school ranks, and that doesn’t include Zion Williamson, who is the nation’s best grab-and-go forward. They are built to play in transition, and they are already top 40 nationally in pace. Like Auburn, they pound the offensive glass (they get nearly 40 percent of their misses) and have some issues boxing out. They haven’t proven to be turnover prone yet, either.

There is something of an unknown here, as Duke has yet to face a team that is going to be able to pressure the way Auburn can, but I just can’t see that fazing them.

PICKS: To get an idea of how fact the line is moving here, when I started writing this, the over-under was 162.5. As I get ready to hit publish, it has already jumped to 167.5. The line for Duke has moved from (-10) to (-11). I got my bets in before the lines moved. I still love Duke and I still think the over hits, but if you are going to bet it, get it in quickly.

ARIZONA vs. No. 3 GONZAGA, 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Line: Gonzaga (-10)
  • O/U: 154.5
  • Vegas Implied Score: Gonzaga 82.25, Arizona 72.25
  • KenPom Projection: Gonzaga 81, Arizona 72

Early on this season, Gonzaga is playing faster than they have in the past, which makes sense. With the talent and athleticism they have on their roster, they are going to be able to beat a lot of teams down the floor. Prior to Monday night’s win over Illinois, the Zags had scored at least 94 points in all three of their games this season and won all three by at least 23 points. That included a game against Texas Southern (who won at Baylor) and a win over Texas A&M, who was without two starters.

The game against Illinois was a different story. The Zags looked like they were ready to pull away when Trent Frazier went bonkers and made it a game. I do not think that Arizona — who is not your typical Arizona team — has the horses to run with the Zags this year. If it wasn’t for a takeover performance from Justin Coleman down the stretch on Monday night, the Wildcats would have lost to an Iowa State team missing four players, including two starters.

Yes, the Zags are without Killian Tillie, but Filip Pertrusev and Jeremy Jones have been somewhere between fine and good in his absence.

PICKS: Gonzaga (-10) is the bet that I would make here. I would lean toward the over as well.

XAVIER vs. SAN DIEGO STATE, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • Line: San Diego State (-1)
  • O/U: 153.5
  • Vegas Implied Score: San Diego State 77.25, Xavier 76.25
  • KenPom Projection: San Diego State 76, Xavier 75

This one is pretty simple: I think that Xavier is the better basketball team here, and after dropping one in overtime on Monday afternoon, I think the Musketeers will bounceback with a win here.

PICKS: If you can get Xavier (+1), then I would take that. I also lead towards the under here, as the total is pretty high for two teams that play good halfcourt defense. The under went 3-1 in Maui yesterday.

IOWA STATE vs. ILLINOIS, 5:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • Line: Iowa State (-2)
  • O/U: 154.5
  • Vegas Implied Score: Iowa State 78.25, Illinois 76.25
  • KenPom Projection: Iowa State 80, Illinois 74

The KenPom projection here would usually lead me towards taking the Cyclones, but keep in mind that Iowa State is playing without four rotation pieces, including their three best big men and their best guard. So it makes sense that the line would lean closer to Illinois.

PICKS: I think the bet here is Illinois. Brad Underwood is a smart coach, and he knows that Iowa State and their shortened bench will have tired legs. I honestly think the better bet is the over. Illinois really wants to run and neither team plays much, if any, defense. In fact, all Illinois wants to do is to try and force turnovers. They gamble and give up a lot of layups. Give me Illinois (+2) and the over.