Offensive question marks aside, defense remains the staple at San Diego State

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Having lost leading scorers Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley at the end of the 2012-13 season, San Diego State wasn’t in many conversations when it came to picking who would win the Mountain West in 2013-14. In Franklin and Tapley the Aztecs lost a combined 30.4 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game, and they were picked to finish fourth in the conference’s preseason media poll as a result. With San Diego State well on its way to putting together one of the nation’s best recruiting classes (ranked 17th by Rivals.com), 2014-15 was seen as the year in which the Aztecs would make a run at Mountain West supremacy with 2013-14 being one of transition.

San Diego State had no desire to subscribe to such thoughts, and with Mountain West Player of the Year Xavier Thames leading the way the Aztecs won 31 games, a regular season conference title and reached the Sweet 16.

“None of it mattered,” junior forward Winston Shepard told NBCSports.com last week when asked how much attention the Aztecs paid to last year’s predictions. “[The prognosticators] weren’t with us every day, and last year they didn’t see how hard we worked. Last season was great; we had a team that had great chemistry and got along and didn’t have to deal with any outside influences. Last year was great for us, and I was glad to be a part of it.”

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San Diego State enters the 2014-15 season as a early favorites to win what’s expected to be a wide-open Mountain West race, with their being seven teams that could conceivably take the crown. But the Aztecs have a significant question to answer as they prepare for that run. The question: how will they account for the loss of Xavier Thames?

After averaging 9.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game as a junior, Thames emerged as one of the best players in America as a senior. Thames averaged 17.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per contest, and amongst players who factored into at least 24 percent his their team’s possessions he posted the best offensive rating in the Mountain West (120.0) per kenpom.com. Add in the leadership Thames provided, and that’s an awful lot to account for moving forward.

San Diego State returns three of its top five scorers from last season, led by Shepard who averaged 11.7 points to go along with 4.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game as a sophomore. From a versatility standpoint Shepard may be the best option to take over the role of chief playmaker for the Aztecs, with there being multiple options besides him who are capable of making teams pay in the pick and roll situations that were a staple of the SDSU attack a season ago. But in order for Shepard to take another step forward, he has to earn the respect of opponents in one particular area.

“I have to be able to knock down open jump shots,” Shepard noted. “I don’t think I have to be as good of a jump shooter as X was, because that was a bigger part of his game, but I definitely have to be able to knock down shots. I think that will open up my game.”

To Shepard’s point he shot just 18.4% from three last season, and according to hoop-math.com he struggled with two-point jumpers as well. Shepard made just 29.9% of those attempts, and nearly half of his 330 field goal attempts (164) were two-point jumpers. While no one would complain if Shepard emerged as an elite marksman from the perimeter, the fact of the matter is that becoming a consistent shooter when left alone would do wonders for his game and what he’s able to contribute.

Accounting for Thames’ departure on the perimeter won’t be the responsibility of just one player, even with the steps Shepard has taken to improve his game. Dwayne Polee II, who played the best basketball of his college career over the final month of last season, is expected to figure more prominently in the San Diego State attack and senior Aqeel Quinn and sophomores Matt Shrigley and Dakarai Allen will all have opportunities to earn more chances themselves. Add in freshmen Kevin Zabo and Trey Kell, and San Diego State won’t lack for options on the perimeter.

The offensive end is where San Diego State’s toughest questions lie, with this group poised to pick up where they left off defensively. Last season, the Aztecs were one of the best defensive teams in the nation, limiting opponents to 38.6% shooting from the field and 28.8% from three. Both numbers were tops in the Mountain West, and the Aztecs also led the conference in steals and turnover margin. And because of that defense, the Aztecs were undefeated in games in which they’ve scored 65 points or more (24-0).

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Skylar Spencer averaged 2.5 bpg last season (Getty Images)

In recent years San Diego State has consistently put together teams that have both length and athleticism, two traits that have served them well defensively. What will also help the Aztecs is the addition of Arizona transfer Angelo Chol, who’s eligible after sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules and is bigger and more athletic than the departed Josh Davis. With Davis, who led the team in rebounding (10.1 rpg), moving on, Chol and Skylar Spencer will be asked to lead the way inside and the feeling is that they’re more than ready for the responsibility.

Spencer started all 36 games last season, blocking 2.5 shots per game and establishing a good rapport with Thames in San Diego State’s pick and roll action. And according to Shepard, not only has the big man improved offensively but they’ve also worked hard to build a similar connection in advance of the upcoming season.

“He’s become much better on the block offensively,” Shepard said of Spencer. “Everybody knows what we’re going to get from him on the defensive end. He’s a great shot-blocker, and that allows us to pressure people on the perimeter because we know he’s back there. He’s a great finisher, and me and him are developing good chemistry in the pick and roll.”

San Diego State will also have freshmen Zylan Cheatham and Malik Pope to call upon in the front court, with the latter being a 6-foot-10 forward who’s skilled enough to score from just about anywhere on the court. In short, San Diego State has a lot of possibilities when it comes to the task of accounting for what Thames and Davis provided them last season but there are also questions offensively. Which of those talented players takes that step? Can they find enough perimeter shooting to open up lanes to the basket?

That remains to be seen, but what is known is the fact that Fisher’s teams have been tough to crack on the other end of the floor. And if that continues to be the case, San Diego State is more than capable of defending their Mountain West regular season title.

“Our defense will always be our staple,” noted Shepard. “We’ll win a lot of games just by defending well, but I think we’ll surprise some people on the offensive end. Some of our older guys have taken steps forward, so I think we’ll be a better offensive team and that will give us better balance.”

Ivy League calls off fall sports due to outbreak

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The Ivy League on Wednesday became the first Division I conference to say it will not play sports this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, a person with knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press. The league left open the possibility of moving some seasons to the spring if the outbreak is better controlled by then.

The decision was described to the AP by a person speaking on the condition of anonymity in advance of the official announcement.

Although the coalition of eight academically elite schools does not grant athletic scholarships or compete for an NCAA football championship, the move could have ripple effects throughout the big business of college sports. Football players in the Power Five conferences have already begun workouts for a season that starts on Aug. 29, even as their schools weigh whether to open their campuses to students or continue classes remotely.

The Ivy decision affects not just football but everything before Jan. 1, including soccer, field hockey, volleyball and cross country, as well as the nonconference portion of the basketball season.

Power Five conferences told The Associated Press on Wednesday that they were still considering their options. But it was the Ivy League’s March 10 decision to scuttle its postseason basketball tournament that preceded a cascade of cancellations that eventually enveloped all major college and professional sports.

“What’s happening in other conferences is clearly a reflection of what’s happening nationally and any decisions are made within that context,” said Dr. Chris Kratochvil, the chair of the Big Ten’s infectious disease task force, adding that there is no “hard deadline” for a decision.

“Clearly, regardless of what happens in the fall, sports are coming back eventually,” he said. “So we want to make sure that whenever that time (is) right to return to competition, that we have the infrastructure and the recommendations in place to be able to do so safely for the student-athletes, staff, coaches, fans, students.”

Ivy League schools are spread across seven Northeastern states that, as of mid-July, have seen some success at controlling the COVID-19 outbreak. But most of those states still ban large gatherings; under the Massachusetts reopening plan, Harvard would not be allowed to have fans in the stands until a vaccine is developed.

Harvard has already announced that all classes for both semesters will be held virtually; dorms will be open only to freshmen and seniors. Yale said it would limit its dorms to 60% capacity and said most classes would be conducted remotely. Princeton will also do most of its teaching online, with dorms at half capacity.

Coaches 4 Change: Siena’s Carmen Maciariello spearheads social justice initiative

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Carmen Maciariello found himself in the same place so many of us did in the days after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis.

Devastated by what he was seeing. Motivated to find a way to use his platform as the head coach at Siena College to enact change. Struggling with how, as he puts it, “a white head coach from privilege at a school in New York,” can have real, honest, open dialogue with his majority-Black roster.

So he picked up the phone. He called Louis Orr, his former college coach and now an assistant coach at Georgetown. He called his closest friends in the coaching business. He called his advisor, Brad Konerman, an entrepreneur who connected him with a couple of talented website designers. By early June, 25 like-minded people from all walks of life were on a zoom call.

“I’ve never been pulled over and feared for my life for not using my blinker,” Maciariello, who is white, told me. “We had those conversations. How are we talking to our teams about that? What are we doing with the police? How can we help our young people navigate through these tough times?”

That’s how Coaches 4 Change was born.

Maciariello has grand plans for the organization. On a zoom call with nearly all of the 43 coaches that have committed to the group to date, he said he wants “to try to change the world. Let’s not think small, we’ve gotta think big with this.” He is not lacking for ambition.

But Maciariello also understands that something like this has to start small and it has to start locally. It’s why he limited the first group of invitees to coaches that are “doing this for the right reasons.”

“I didn’t want to have a donate link and bring in coaches that felt like, ‘I donated money, I did my part supporting it,” he said. “It was about the time commitment and the vision. We have to focus on one thing first.”

That first thing?

Voting.

C4C developed a sleek, interactive website to help educate young people about social injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement, things as basic as the difference between systemic and systematic racism and Jackie Robinson’s impact on sports. But the site also provides users with all of the information necessary to vote in this year’s elections, information on what makes voting so important in a democracy and — most importantly — a tutorial for how a person in every state can register to vote, where their polling stations are and whether or not they are eligible for mail-in voting. Their website also has a ‘Keep Learning‘ page that links to all documentaries, podcasts, audiobooks and literary resources available on all streaming platforms, including content for children.

C4C has partnered with Vote.org with a goal of “100 percent voter registration for all college athletes” regardless of the sport they play, Maciariello said.

Currently, the only coaches involved with C4C are men’s college basketball coaches, but that will change. They are in the process of reaching out to counterparts on the women’s side, and will eventually invite staff members from other sports as well. One of the barriers to entry to become a member will be ensuring that every player on a coach’s team is registered to vote.

Eventually, Maciariello envisions C4C developing community outreach initiatives. He wants the members of C4C to connect with their campus communities and put together voter registration drives for students. He wants to eventually connect with lawmakers and work on changing legislation that helps systemic racism continue to exist.

No one ever said he wasn’t ambitious.

But he knows he has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is this platform.

“I want to engage people in issues,” he said. “Educate them, empower them to change, encourage them to grow and evolve.”

CBT Podcast: Pat Chambers, moving the season up, Running Back Buddy Hield’s 46 points at Kansas

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In the latest edition of the Run It Back podcast, Rob Dauster and Bobby Reagan recap Buddy Hield’s memorable 46-point outburst in a three-overtime loss to Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 1 back in 2016. The game was unbelievable. Before they dive into the game itself, the boys talk through Pat Chambers’ noose comments to Rasir Bolton and the potential for the college basketball season to get moved up.

Michael Jordan, Roy Williams among UNC greats to condemn systemic racism

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Roy Williams and Michael Jordan joined numerous North Carolina luminaries in condemning systemic racism and voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement in a video that was released by the school on Monday.

“Systematic racism has to stop now,” Jordan said in the video. “We must take the time to listen and educate our family, our friends, our children on social injustice and racial inequality. Black Lives Matter more now than ever before. We have to get this right, so please take time to educate yourself and improve the lives of many people, many Black people. Thank you.”

James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Tyler Hansbrough, Luke Maye and Sean May were among the former players that appeared in the video.

Williams led by discussing Charlie Scott, who was the first Black scholarship athlete in UNC’s history.

“Some of the greatest to play our game have been Black players, but here we are more than 50 years later and our country is still fighting systemic racism and police brutality against Black men and women,” Williams said. “The North Carolina basketball program, our family, our current and former players believe Black lives matter, and it’s critically important that we don’t just believe it. We must stand together and loudly and clearly demand that we as a country and the world embrace the fundamental human right that Black lives matter.”

Former Penn State guard Rasir Bolton left program after coach Pat Chambers made noose comment

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Former Penn State point guard Rasir Bolton has accused of Pat Chambers of making racially insensitive remarks, including a reference to a noose.

According to Bolton, who tweeted about the incident on Monday morning, midway through his freshman season in 2018-19 with the Nittany Lions, Chambers made a reference to a “noose” about Bolton’s neck.  Bolton described the encounter in an interview with the Undefeated, and said that the phrase was a result of Chambers talking about easing the pressure on his freshman’s shoulders. “I want to loosen the noose that’s around your neck,” Bolton recalled.

Bolton also alleged that after his parents went to the Athletic Director with their concerns about this statement, Chambers told him during an exit interview that he was impressed by how “well-spoken” and “organized” his parents are. Remarks like this are considered racially-insensitive because they are based on the underlying assumption that Black people are not expected to be either organized or articulate.

Chambers, to his credit, admitted his wrong in making the noose comment.

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“I’ve realized the pain my words and ignorance caused Rasir Bolton and his family and I apologize to Rasir and the Bolton family for what I said,” Chambers’ statement read. “I failed to comprehend the experiences of others, and the reference I make was hurtful, insensitive and unacceptable I cannot apologize enough for what I said, and I will carry that forever.”

Bolton left Penn State after his freshman season and transferred to Iowa State. He was given immediately eligibility with the Cyclones after mentioning the noose comment when applying for a waiver. He averaged 14.7 points this past season with Iowa State. He also alleged that after he came to the Penn State athletic department with this claim, they offered him a meeting with a sports psychologist who told him how to “deal with Coach Chambers’ personality type.”