Michigan’s process of adjusting to key personnel losses hasn’t been a smooth one

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Caris LeVert (AP Photo)

TUCSON — The last four seasons under John Beilein have been the most successful at Michigan since the 1990’s, with the Wolverines winning an average of 26 games per season, a pair of Big Ten regular season titles and a trip to the 2013 national title game. During that run, the Wolverines were able to account for the premature loss of key players, with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. grabbing the reins following the departure of Darius Morris, and a talented group led by Nik Stauskas doing so once Burke and Hardaway moved on to the NBA.

The consensus this preseason was that this current group, led by junior Caris LeVert and sophomores Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin, would be able to do the same. LeVert was a preseason all-american. Walton and Irvin? They were high-profile recruits with a year of college hoops under their belts, primed for a breakout season.

Things haven’t worked out that way, as the Wolverines have now lost three consecutive games, the most recent — an 80-53 loss on national television to No. 3 Arizona Saturday evening in Tucson — being only marginally less embarrassing than homes losses to Eastern Michigan and NJIT.

Expected to be every bit as competitive as last season’s meeting, a 72-70 Wildcat victory in Ann Arbor, Saturday’s game saw Arizona look every bit a national title contender. This Michigan team is still in search of an identity, the biggest issue on Saturday being their most glaring problem: The Wolverines have yet to find a consistent option in the middle.

That may seem weird considering that the loss of Jordan Morgan didn’t receive nearly as much attention as Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary bolting to the NBA. But Morgan was a valuable player for those Wolverines, making 27 starts and averaging 6.4 points and 5.0 rebounds per contest as a senior.

Morgan’s numbers may not have been eye-popping but he was consistent for the Wolverines. Offensively he was a capable passer in the high post, and he also did a solid job of finishing at the basket in pick-and-roll situations. Also good on the glass (remove McGary’s average through the eight games he played and Morgan led the team in rebounding), Morgan defended his position well for the Wolverines. In short, Morgan performed at a level that Michigan’s current big men have yet yo reach on a consistent basis.

It’s a bit unfair to use Saturday’s showing against a Mark Donnal (five points, one rebound) or Ricky Doyle (eight points, three rebounds). Arizona’s front court has multiple players whose names will likely be called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver at some point in the near future, and Doyle and Donnal are both playing their first season of college hoops.

Doyle displayed flashes of what he can do earlier this season, as he averaged 13.5 points and 6.0 rebounds in wins over Nicholls and Syracuse, but due in large part to their inexperience Michigan’s interior players haven’t been as consistent as one would like. Arizona scored 42 points in the paint Saturday, and while there were highlight-reel worthy dunks from wings Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson the Wildcat big men also proved to be an issue for the Wolverines.

“They have much bigger players, much more experienced players,” Beilein said after the game. “Our two freshman centers, Mark Donnal, Max Bielfeldt who’s a senior, and Ricky Doyle, were having trouble against the size of Tarczewski and [Brandon Ashley].”

But even with that being the case, Saturday’s contest proved to be a valuable one for the young Michigan big men as it gave them a good idea of what it takes to compete against some of the nation’s best big men.

“I really wanted to get Ricky as much [playing time] as we [could] to see what this level’s about,” Beilein said of Doyle. “It’s motivation now, it’s motivation all year. For him to see, ‘this is what the big boys play like, that’s what you have to learn to be able to do.’ There were really valuable small victories in some of the things he did.”

With Morgan out of eligibility and Jon Horford transferring to Florida, it was known that the Wolverines were going to be young in the paint this season. It’ll take time for the likes of Doyle and Donnal to develop into consistent players, as is the case for most freshmen in college basketball.

What that means is that Michigan may need to go with a lineup that allows them to exploit those mismatches for their perimeter players. But in order for that to be effective, Michigan has to use the resulting lanes to attack the basket and not simply settle for perimeter shots. Do that, and a team that ranks 12th in the Big Ten in free throw attempts (165) will be able to take advantage of the fact that they’re one of the conference’s best foul shooting teams (75.8%).

When it comes to Walton Jr. and Irvin, they’re making the transition from being part of a rotation one year to being critical pieces the next. LeVert went through that process last season, as his minutes tripled and he emerged as one of the most improved players in the Big Ten if not the country. With the lack of experience and consistent production inside those three have even more on their plates offensively, and the added attention is something they’ve had to battle this season. After being one of the best shooting teams in America last season, Michigan’s effective field goal percentage (55.7% to 50.1%) and three-point shooting (40.2% to 36.8%) are both way down this year.

According to Walton, the bigger concern is the team’s play on the defensive end, as Michigan is currently last in the Big Ten in both field goal (45.4%) and three-point (38.4%) percentage defense.

“I [don’t] think offense is the problem right now. I think it’s more so on the defensive end,” Walton Jr. said following Saturday’s loss. “[There are] just times when guys are falling asleep and missing boxouts and stuff like that. Film study will always help. At the end of the day this team needs to focus on the defensive end more than offense.”

After finding a way to account for the loss of key players with few major hiccups over the four seasons prior, that hasn’t been the case for Michigan in 2014-15. While losses to No. 7 Villanova and No. 3 Arizona will be understood given the caliber of those teams, a similar case can’t be made for their home losses to N.J.I.T. and Eastern Michigan. With finals this week, Michigan has just two games left to play (SMU and Coppin State) before they start Big Ten play December 30 against Illinois.

The time spent on the court and in the film room during this period will be vital for this group, as its most experienced options adjust to greater roles and the younger players work to become more comfortable not only with the system but also high-level Division I basketball. While the impulse for some may be to rush to judgment when it comes to this Michigan team, they’ve still got time to figure things out.

The process won’t be an easy one, as evidenced by their current three-game skid, but it is one the Wolverines are capable of navigating.

James leads No. 2 Tennessee over No. 25 Auburn, 46-43

Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Josiah-Jordan James scored 15 points and 14 rebounds to lead No. 2 Tennessee to a 46-43 victory over No. 25 Auburn on Saturday in a game in which every point was difficult and nothing flowed.

“Both teams played as hard as they could,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes. “Every possession was a grind.”

The Volunteers (19-4, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) shot just 27% from the field and 9.5% from the 3-point line. They were recovering from a Wednesday loss to Florida in which they shot 28%.

Tennessee had a 47-42 edge on the boards and 15-8 on the offensive glass.

“A game like this shows a lot of character,” said James. “I knew coming in (rebounding) was what I’d be called to do. I had to use the body God’s given me.”

“Both teams did a fantastic job,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. “To hold Tennessee to 27% … It doesn’t get any better than that.”

“I don’t think there’s a more physical league in the country,” said Barnes.

The Tigers (17-6, 7-3) were led by Johni Broome with 11 points and nine rebounds and K.D. Johnson off the bench with 10 points. Auburn managed only 24% from the field and 11% from the 3-point line.

Jaylin Williams made two free throws with 2:47 to play cut Tennessee’s lead to 40-38. Santiago Vescovi hit his first 3-pointer of the game and got a four-point play out of it for a 44-38 lead. A 3-pointer by Wendell Green Jr. cut the advantage to 44-41 with 30 seconds left.

A turnover on the inbounds play gave Auburn the ball with 23 seconds to play. Broome got a tip-in to make it a one-point game, and Zakai Zeigler made two free throws.

Green’s last-second 3-point to tie clanked out.

“At the end, Wendell Green got the shot off and got fouled,” said Pearl. “Nothing got called.”

Auburn scored eight straight points to start the game. Tennessee followed with a six-point run and an eight-point spurt early in the second half. Those were the longest runs of the game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Tennessee was in the No. 2 spot in the poll for two days before falling at Florida. Under Barnes, the Vols now have 25 wins over teams ranked in the Top 25. . Auburn had been clinging to the elite at No. 25 this week. The Tigers have been ranked as high as No. 11, coming in the fifth week of the season.

STAT SNACKS

Since statistics started being kept in 1999-2000, Tennessee is on pace to be the all-time leader in field-goal percentage defense (.348; Stanford, 1999-2000, is second .352) and 3-point defense (.225; Norfolk State, 2004-05, is second .253). . Through 22 games, the similarities between last year’s Vols point guard Kennedy Chandler (now with the Memphis Grizzlies) and this year’s Ziegler are striking (points per game: Chandler 13.5, Ziegler 11.4; rebounds: 3.0, 3.0; assists: 4.95, 5.05).

UP NEXT

Auburn: The Tigers will host Texas A&M on Tuesday night.

Tennessee: The Vols will tackle in-state rival Vanderbilt in Nashville on Wednesday.

Pedulla’s 22 points lift Virginia Tech past No. 6 Virginia

Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports
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BLACKSBURG, Va. – Sean Pedulla scored 22 points and Virginia Tech beat No. 6 Virginia 74-68 on Saturday, snapping the Cavaliers’ seven-game winning streak.

Pedulla made 6 of 13 from the floor as the Hokies (14-10, 4-8 Atlantic Coast Conference) posted their biggest win of the season. He added 8 of 9 from the free-throw line. Justin Mutts added 17 points.

Virginia Tech never trailed and shot 50% from the floor for the fourth straight game.

“There was no pouting (after the Miami loss). Just back to practice the next day,” Virginia Tech coach Mike Young said of his team, which lost 92-83 to No. 23 Miami on Tuesday. “Yeah, we’ve got Virginia coming in. Yes, in-state and all of that stuff. We’ve got another opportunity to play another really good opponent. We’ve got a chance to play Virginia Tech basketball and fight and compete and adhere to the things that are important to us – and we did that by and large on both ends of the floor.”

Jayden Gardner’s 20 points led Virginia (17-4, 9-3), which saw its usually stingy defense struggle. Kihei Clark finished with 17 points for the Cavaliers, while Reece Beekman had 15. Armaan Franklin, who had scored in double figures in 10 straight games, had six.

The Cavaliers tied the game at 38 on Gardner’s basket with 15:09 remaining, but the Hokies outscored Virginia 17-7 over the next seven minutes and never looked back.

Mutts hit 7 of 11 from the floor and added eight assists and four rebounds. Grant Basile had 14 points and Hunter Cattoor scored all 10 of his points in the second half for the Hokies.

“The heart was there, but to win in this setting against a team that’s playing good basketball, and Tech is, and they’ve got the players, you’ve got to be hard and smart,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “You can’t just be all hard. We were (hard and smart) for stretches, and they made us make some adjustments that helped a little bit, but they made the big shots.”

TIP-INS

Virginia: The Cavaliers suffered a rare poor outing on the defensive end, and it cost them. They led the ACC in scoring defense (60.2 ppg) going in, but allowed the Hokies to score 74 points and shoot 50.9% (27 of 53) from the floor. The Hokies became just the third team this season to shoot better than 50% against Virginia and scored 40 points in the paint.

“They run a lot of action, whether it’s dribble handoffs, fakes, they keep you on your toes, and it takes an incredible, and I think disciplined (effort) to keep them in front and keep them out of the paint,” Bennett said.

Virginia Tech: After losing eight of their previous 10 games, the Hokies needed a big win to help their thin NCAA Tournament resume. Registering 19 assists and turning the ball over just eight times were keys.

“Obviously, we keep up with stuff throughout the year, like `Oh, this would be a huge win on our resume,”‘ Pedulla said. “We do think about (the NCAA Tournament), and we obviously want to get there again. We know our team’s capable of it. We’re focused on it and we’re just trying to stack those wins on top of each other. I think this win definitely helps us.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Cavaliers were one-point underdogs going into the game, so they shouldn’t drop more than a few spots in Monday’s poll.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Hosts N.C. State on Tuesday.

Virginia Tech: Takes on Boston College in Blacksburg on Wednesday.

Pack’s 20 lead No. 23 Miami to 78-74 win over No. 20 Clemson

Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports
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CLEMSON, S.C. – Miami coach Jim Larranaga has a message he routinely tells his players.

“Coach L always says, `Calm, cool, collected will win you games,”‘ Hurricanes reserve Bensley Joseph said with a smile.

No. 23 Miami needed every bit of that mantra to hold off No. 20 Clemson, 78-74, on Saturday. Nijel Pack scored 20 points, Isaiah Wong 15 and the Hurricanes held on after opening a 12-point lead in the second half.

“We were able to do that in the last five minutes,” Joseph said.

Wong and Pack each hit 3-pointers right after halftime for the Hurricanes (18-5, 9-4 Atlantic Coast Conference), who used a 21-9 run to open a 56-44 lead with 11:10 to play.

The Tigers sliced the deficit to 76-74 on Alex Hemenway’s 3-pointer with 0.9 seconds to play. Pack was fouled on the inbounds and calmly – there’s that word, again – made two foul shots to finish off the victory.

Clemson (18-6, 10-3) lost its second straight game after opening ACC play 10-1.

The Hurricanes stepped up their offense after halftime. Pack had 14 of his points in the final half while Wong had 11 points over the final 20 minutes. Miami hit six of its nine 3-pointers in that period.

Larranaga felt the excitement of the sold-out Clemson crowd at Littlejohn Coliseum. The poise the Hurricanes showed was essential in the victory.

“To come out in the second half and be able take the lead under these circumstances says a lot about our team,” Larranaga said. “That we were very competitive, and didn’t let the crowd take us out of our gameplan.”

Wooga Poplar added 14 points for Miami while Jordan Miller had 12.

PJ Hall had 17 of his team-high 19 points in the second half for the Tigers. Hunter Tyson added 13 points and 10 rebounds, his ninth double-double in Clemson’s 13 league games.

Tyson thought his team’s defense needed to be tougher. “We couldn’t get the stops when we needed to,” he said. “They scored 78 in our gym. That should never happen.”

Miami came in with the ACC’s third highest scoring offense while Clemson was third in the league in defense.

The Hurricanes used a 16-8 run closed on Miller’s tip-in of his own miss to lead 30-25 with five minutes left in the half.

But Tyson hit a pair of threes, had a step back basket and took a charge on the other end as Clemson answered with a 10-1 burst to move in front 35-31.

Miami, though, answered last as Harlond Beverly’s jam in the final minute tied things at 35-all heading to the break.

The Hurricanes did a strong job early on Clemson’s main force down low in Hall, holding the 14-point a game scorer to 1-of-5 shooting and just one rebound the first 20 minutes.

Clemson did a similar job on Miami’s driving force, Wong, who also made one of his five first-half attempts.

BIG PICTURE

Miami: The Hurricanes showed the scoring punch and defense that’s kept them among the Top 25 this season. They were six of 12 on 3-pointers in the second half and hit 13 of 15 foul shots to thwart a Clemson comeback.

Clemson: The Tigers have had a difficult week, the first-place ACC team losing at Boston College 62-54 before get run over early in the second half against Miami. The 0-2 stretch will likely mean Clemson will drop from the poll, although they’ll still be on top in the ACC standings.

BREAK TIME

Clemson doesn’t play until next Saturday. Tigers coach Brad Brownell said it’s probably a good time for time off. There’s been a mix of fatigue and handling player absences due to injury that have taken a toll on the Tigers, he said. “The good news is we’re whole,” with injured players Chase Hunter, Hemenway and Brevin Galloway back in the lineup. “Having said that, we need a break.”

UP NEXT

Miami goes home to play Duke on Monday night.

Clemson heads to North Carolina on Feb. 11.

Jackson-Davis, No. 21 Indiana beat Edey, No. 1 Purdue 79-74

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times / USA TODAY NETWORK
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Trayce Jackson-Davis returned to Indiana so he could celebrate a banner season.

On Saturday, the fourth-year forward added another big piece to his legacy.

He scored 25 points and then watched Jalen Hood-Schifino break free for the clinching dunk with 2 seconds left to give No. 21 Indiana a 79-74 victory over No. 1 Purdue – and a quick storming of the court.

It’s the fourth time the Hoosiers have beaten the nation’s top-ranked team at Assembly Hall, and the first since upsetting Michigan almost exactly 10 years earlier.

“I just think it’s a toughness factor,” Jackson-Davis said, explaining why this team is different. “I feel like teams in the past that I’ve been on just weren’t that tough, honestly. We’ve kind of played with a chip on our shoulders since we got punked by Rutgers and we’ve kind of found our niche and that’s what we’re doing.’

The only guy that’s been even close to Jackson-Davis’ productivity over the past month has been Purdue’s Zach Edey, who had 33 points and 18 rebounds.

But it was Jackson-Davis who walked away with his sixth win in seven games by moving within 16 points of becoming the first Indiana player to ever score 2,000 and grab 1,000 rebounds. He finished with seven rebounds and five blocks, becoming the first player to have 25 points and five blocks against a No. 1-ranked team since Marcus Camby in November 1995 against Kentucky.

Fittingly, Jackson-Davis and the Hoosiers (16-7, 7-5 Big Ten) celebrated with their fellow students, who rekindled memories of Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat No. 1 Kentucky in December 2010. And this time, the fans lingered on the court long after the final buzzer as they pumped fists and danced to the sweet sounds emanating from the pep band.

It marked the first time in the 216-game series Purdue (22-2, 11-2) was ranked No. 1.

“They were our sixth man honestly and we fed off of it,” Jackson-Davis said. “That was the most electric crowd since I’ve been here. They really helped us.”

But Indiana also played pretty well, forcing 16 turnovers and shooting 52.6% from the field against a defense that had held 24 consecutive opponents to 70 or fewer points. It won despite getting outrebounded 38-22 and nearly blowing a 16-point lead.

The 7-foot-4 Edey positioned Purdue for the charge by scoring eight of Purdue’s first 10 second-half points to cut a 15-point deficit to nine. He then added the final six points in a 12-4 spurt that make it 67-65 with 5:40 to play. And when Braden Smith’s layup made it 71-70 with 2:03 left, even Boilermakers coach Matt Painter sensed the fans’ angst.

“If you can flip that or tie it or take the lead there, it’s just a different feeling,” he said. “It’s really hard to overcome that, the air kind of goes out of it, things get quiet in your own arena.”

Instead, the Hoosiers forced three turnovers and eventually closed it out with four free throws, a layup from Hood-Schifino and the dunk off a perfectly designed inbound pass from second-year coach Mike Woodson, who has won both home meetings against Indiana’s archrival.

“I didn’t know the play was going to go that way, obviously,” said Hood-Schifino, who had 16 points. “But in the last timeout, I told coach I’m going to get this last bucket, so I was happy.”

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: Even on an uncharacteristic day, the Boilermakers showed why they are the nation’s top team. The matchup with Edey is so difficult, Purdue can exploit it at will.

Indiana: The Hoosiers did everything they needed early – making shots, ramping up the pace and making life generally difficult for the Boilermakers. And down the stretch they showed the mettle of a team that was the preseason conference favorite.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Purdue entered the day with a nine-game winning streak and as the only one-loss team in Division I, so another loss may not knock them out of the top spot. Indiana, which reappeared Monday in the Top 25, has solidified its spot despite losing earlier this week at Maryland.

SPECIAL MOMENTS

Indiana Athletics Hall of Fame radio announcer Don Fischer was honored at halftime for calling his 50th season of play-by-play. He’s tied for the fourth-longest active tenure in Division I basketball with Kevin McKinney of Wyoming. Then during the final media timeout, the Hoosiers thanked ESPN color analyst Dick Vitale with a video tribute to his career. Vitale stood and waved to the crowd in appreciation.

UP NEXT

Purdue: Returns home Thursday against Iowa.

Indiana: Hosts Rutgers on Tuesday.

Alabama coach Nate Oats gets new 6-year, $30 million deal

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Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY Sports
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama coach Nate Oats has agreed to a new six-year, $30 million contract amid the program’s best regular season in decades.

Oats will average $5 million plus incentives over the deal running through the 2028-29 season under a deal approved by the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees Compensation Committee.

It makes him the fourth-highest paid basketball coach in the Southeastern Conference and among the Top 10 nationally, athletic director Greg Byrne said.

Oats, who is in his fourth season, will make $4.5 million for the first year with $200,000 annual raises. The fourth-ranked Crimson Tide (19-3, 9-0 SEC) has the team’s highest ranking this deep into a season since 1976-77.

“I am honored and humbled to receive a contract extension from the University of Alabama,” Oats said in a statement. “As I have said many times, my family and I love this community, the city of Tuscaloosa and the university.

“I am incredibly proud of what we have been able to build during our time at UA which is a direct reflection of the student-athletes, coaches and staff who have all played a big part in our success. I am excited for what’s happening in the future of our program and the direction we are heading.”

Alabama has gone 80-39 under Oats, winning the 2021 SEC regular season and tournament championships.

“Coach Oats has done an outstanding job leading our men’s basketball program, and we want him to continue doing so for many years to come,” Byrne said in a statement. “He and his staff have lifted the program back to national prominence and built a product that is exciting to be a part of for our team and for our fans.

“We were confident Nate was going to be an outstanding coach for us when we hired him, and he is not only that, but also a great leader of our young men.”

The new contract comes nearly three weeks after Alabama basketball player Darius Miles and another man were charged with capital murder following a fatal shooting near campus. Miles, a reserve forward, was removed from the team and suspended from the university following his arrest.