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Big Ten Preview: Can Maryland give the Big Ten a national championship?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big Ten.

The Big Ten put both Wisconsin and Michigan State into the Final Four last season, but the league is still searching for its first national championship since 2000. One of the conference’s newest teams gives the Big Ten a decent chance at a title while the rest of the league is littered with question marks after the departure of so many established players.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Maryland is a legitimate national title contender: Mark Turgeon’s ballclub surprised many last season with a run into the national top 10 and a return to the NCAA tournament. This year, the Terrapins are deeper and even more talented. Established veterans like guard Melo Trimble and forward Jake Layman return, but it’s a group of talented newcomers that gives Maryland an extra gear this season. McDonald’s All-American Diamond Stone and Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter form an all-new frontcourt while Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon gives Maryland another option for Trimble to find. The Maryland bench is also nothing to scoff at as center Damonte Dodd was a starter last season and sophomores Michal Cekovsky, Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens had flashes of solid play.

2. It’s a boom-or-bust year for Indiana: The pressure is on Indiana to have a big season as the Hoosiers kept Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams and James Blackmon Jr. on the roster. The return of those three players coupled with the addition of high-motor McDonald’s All-American big man Thomas Bryant has Indiana fans clamoring for a deep NCAA tournament run. Nobody is doubting the talent and offensive abilities of Indiana, but defense will continue to be the major question this season for the Hoosiers. The perimeter defense was very porous last season and they have to hope Bryant can protect the rim.

3. Michigan State returns plenty of talent from last season: Michigan State turned an up-and-down regular season into a Final Four run and they’ll actually be a deeper team this season after a litany of bench injuries last season. The real challenge comes in replacing the play of senior starters Travis Trice and Branden Dawson. If Tum Tum Nairn (or someone else) can step up and run the point and McDonald’s All-American Deyonta Davis can replace some of Dawson’s production then Michigan State has even more perimeter weapons this season with West Virginia transfer Eron Harris and freshman Matt McQuaid being eligible. Free-throw shooting will also be something to monitor. The Spartans were a horrid 63 percent from the line last season.

4. The Big Ten added a lot of talented newcomers who could immediately change the conference race: How do replace the loss of Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and the conference’s top five scorers? By bringing in a bevy of All-American freshmen big men and some impact transfers. The Big Ten is filled with difference-making newcomers who could really change things. Already mentioned above are newcomers like Diamond Stone, Robert Carter, Rasheed Sulaimon (Maryland), Thomas Bryant (Indiana), Deyonta Davis and Eron Harris (Michigan State) but even more guys could make an impact. Purdue kept McDonald’s All-American power forward Caleb Swanigan in Indiana after he previously committed to Michigan State while Illinois (Jalen Coleman-Lands) and Ohio State (JaQuan Lyle) brought in some playmaking guards capable of contributing this season.

5. Purdue has its most talented roster since the Robbie Hummel era while Wisconsin is littered with questions: Purdue quickly turned things around last season after a sluggish start in non-conference play and head coach Matt Painter has his most talented roster since the Robbie Hummel era. It will be nearly impossible to replace everything Jon Octeus brought to the table last season, but the Boilers recruited very well to fit needs as they brought in the bruising Swanigan to compliment centers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas as well as an in-state floor spacer in guard Ryan Cline. If graduate transfer Johnny Hill can help offset the loss of Octeus at guard, Purdue is deeper and has more shooting than last season’s NCAA tournament team.

On the other hand, Wisconsin lost a bevy of talent this offseason. Kaminsky graduated. Sam Dekker went pro. Trae Jackson and Josh Gasser finished their eligibility. Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes are left, but that’s it … outside of Bo Ryan. Bo has had success in situations like this before; remember, before Kaminsky was an all-american he was a sophomore that played 10 minutes a night. I never bet against the Badgers, but there are a lot of questions that need to be answered this season.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Nigel Hayes (AP Photo)
Nigel Hayes (AP Photo)

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “Maryland made a major leap last season and now they add that talented group of incoming players for this season. They’re deep and won a lot of close games last season, so they already have a lot going for them.”
  • Sleeper:
    • “Iowa is intriguing to me. Nobody seems to be talking about them.”
    • “Ohio State is really young, but they have a lot of talent. Thad has won with young and talented teams before.”
  • Best player: “Melo is cold-blooded. He just gets this confidence about him late in games and it seems to carry over to his teammates.”
  • Most underrated player:
    • “No one knew how good Bronson Koenig was until Traevon Jackson got hurt last year. I knew Jackson getting hurt would help Wisconsin. Koenig was better than Jackson to begin with but Bo plays veterans.”
    • “Jake Layman is talented. Doesn’t get the notoriety of Trimble and some of those other guys but he’s a tough cover.”

PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Melo Trimble, Maryland

As an incoming McDonald’s All-American last season, Trimble was expected to start and contribute immediately, but few could have predicted the All-American caliber year the 6-foot-3 guard put together. Trimble scored, distributed, and most importantly, gave Maryland one of the game’s best closers with his icy demeanor and 86 percent mark from the charity stripe. If Trimble makes an expected leap as a perimeter defender and overall floor leader, he could be in for a huge season and the Terps are counting on him to lead them to glory. Now that Trimble has some legitimate post scoring threats, his assist-to-turnover ratio should improve and it will also open things up for him as a shooter.

THE REST OF THE BIG TEN FIRST TEAM:

  • Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: The in-state product has a chance to cement his legacy at Indiana with one final run and he’s the Big Ten’s returning leader in both points and assists from last season. With the amount of shooters Indiana has, Ferrell will get in the paint on a lot of drives this season.
  • Caris LeVert, Michigan: Although he was a bit up-and-down before his season-ending leg injury last season, LeVert is still one of the league’s best all-around players. Now healthy, the senior is noted for his scoring acumen but he also had five or more assists in seven of 18 games last season.
  • Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: A jack-of-all-trades wing, the senior can get it done in a number of ways on the floor. With plenty of talented shooters around him this season Valentine can go to work as a scorer or find plenty of assist opportunities if the Spartans space the floor well. If fantasy college basketball was more of a thing, Valentine would be a player to covet.
  • Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: When he isn’t putting on spelling bees and messing with media stenographers, the 6-foot-8 junior can spray shots from all over the floor while displaying some of the best footwork of any big man in the nation.  The big-game experience of two Final Four runs should help Hayes become this team’s leader.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • James Blackmon Jr. and Troy Williams, Indiana
  • Jake Layman, Maryland
  • A.J. Hammons, Purdue
  • Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa
  • Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin

BREAKOUT STAR: Nate Mason, Minnesota

Mason was an unheralded, three-star recruit when he signed with the Golden Gophers out of Arlington Day in Florida, but the freshman turned in an impressive inaugural season in the Twin Cities, averaging 9.8 points and 2.8 assists. With Andre Hollins and Dre Mathieu moving on, this will be Mason’s back court to anchor. Don’t be surprised to see him develop into an all-Big Ten caliber guard before he’s done playing.

Tom Crean (AP Photo)
Tom Crean (AP Photo)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Indiana’s Tom Crean led my list of “Coaches on the Hot Seat” this preseason, but with the recent thumb injury to starting guard Kendrick Nunn, even more pressure is on Illinois head coach John Groce to have a good season with an injury-riddled roster.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Maryland gives the Big Ten a credible title contender and don’t be surprised if a handful of other teams advance to the second weekend and beyond.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: How truly wide open most of the Big Ten is entering this season. While it was easy for me to slot Maryland at No. 1 and Rutgers at No. 14, the rest of the conference’s preseason order was up for heavy debate. That should make for a fun season in which a lot of new faces will impact the conference race.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 11/17, Georgetown at Maryland
  • 11/17, Michigan State vs. Kansas
  • 12/1, Maryland at North Carolina
  • 12/2, Indiana at Duke
  • 12/22, Purdue vs. Vanderbilt

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BTNBrentYarina

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Maryland: Many believed that Maryland’s top-10 national ranking last season was largely in-part to some lucky finishes. This is the year for the Terps to prove their winning ways weren’t a fluke.
2. Michigan State: If Michigan State continues its free-throw shooting and is able to replace Trice and Dawson, there are plenty of playmakers and perimeter shooters on the roster to form a dangerous roster.
3. Indiana: Indiana returned most of its top players, but its bench is also better this season as graduate transfer big man Max Bielfeldt came over from Michigan. Bielfeldt, senior shooter Nick Zeisloft and junior forward Collin Hartman are all upperclassmen and give the Hoosiers a bit more versatility off the bench than last season.
4. Purdue: Purdue has arguably the deepest frontcourt in the country now that Swanigan is aboard and it’ll be intriguing to see how their interior offense looks this season. While 3-point shooting and turnovers was a bit of a struggle for Purdue last season, the hope is that Kendall Stephens, Dakota Mathias and Cline will have even more room to let it fly now that more post scoring is in the equation.
5. Wisconsin: Wisconsin has never finished worse than tied for fourth during the Big Ten regular season under Bo Ryan, so this feels like the perfect spot for the “rebuilding” Badgers. No, this team is not nearly as talented as the memorable back-to-back Final Four teams, but Hayes and Koenig are back and Ryan has a way of having his players immediately ready to play. Wisconsin won’t beat themselves, that’s for sure. Redshirt freshman Ethan Happ has drawn solid reviews this fall.
6. Michigan: Finally healthy, John Beilein’s team is still very dangerous as long as the core nucleus stays on the floor and the big men are up to par. Derrick Walton Jr., Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert were all recovering from various injuries this offseason and Zak Irvin is also back. That core four is still lethal on the offensive end and the Wolverines added some bigger floor spacers in transfer Duncan Robinson and German freshman Moritz Wagner.
7. Ohio State: College basketball will miss the creative flair that D’Angelo Russell brought to the game but the Buckeyes brought in talented guard JaQuan Lyle to help replace him. This will be a very young team for Thad Matta as most of the roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores. The versatility of the frontcourt could be key as Marc Loving, Virginia Tech transfer Trevor Thompson, Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate all bring unique skills.
8. Iowa: It’ll be interesting to watch old and new mesh in Iowa City as the Hawkeyes bring back four starters and surround them with mostly newcomers. Iowa’s returning backcourt of senior point guard Mike Gesell and Peter Jok and Anthony Clemmons can be counted on but returning frontcourt starters like Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury face additional pressure now that Aaron White and Gabriel Olaseni are gone.
9. Illinois: Illinois is undoubtedly talented, but they’ve been smoked by the injury bug under Groce as they’ll begin this season shorthanded. Point guard Tracy Abrams is once again done for the year while talented guards Jalen Coleman-Lands and Kendrick Nunn are battling injuries that could force them to miss time. Graduate transfers could be huge for Illinois as they brought in center Mike Thorne and point guard Khalid Lewis to provide immediate assistance.
10. Northwestern: Northwestern is one of the Big Ten’s most intriguing teams after a bevy of close losses and returning all of last season’s roster minus one player. Tre Demps and Bryant McIntosh are a formidable backcourt while senior center Alex Olah has developed into on of the league’s better big men. The question comes with the next step for the rest of the team as sophomores like Vic Law and Scottie Lindsay will be expected to take positive steps this season.
11. Minnesota: There are plenty of questions surrounding Minnesota this season outside returning starters like Nate Mason, Joey King and Carlos Morris. The Golden Gophers are going to rely on a lot of unproven players to provide scoring while the defense has to get better after finishing 13th in scoring defense in the league last season.
12. Penn State: I’m a firm believer in head coach Pat Chambers after watching Penn State run through a wall for him at last year’s Big Ten tournament. He just has to bring in the proper talent to compete with the big dogs of the Big Ten. Sophomore Shep Garner had a solid inaugural Big Ten campaign and senior Brandon Taylor is back as well. A lot of young talent is on the roster at Penn State and a potential top-10 recruiting class looms
13. Nebraska: Nebraska had a disastrous campaign last season and there isn’t much talent back from that team. Senior Shavon Shields could have a monster year, but he’s the only proven returning player for the Huskers. Freshmen like Edward Morrow Jr. and Glynn Watson could be expected to contribute immediately along with Kansas transfer Andrew White.
14. Rutgers: Eddie Jordan’s team will certainly have more length and athleticism but they’re going to lean heavily on the talented duo of newcomers Corey Sanders and junior college forward Deshawn Freeman. Outside of Sanders, Freeman and senior guard Bishop Daniels, Rutgers doesn’t have a lot of proven Big Ten talents.

Swider scores 26, No. 17 Villanova routs MTSU 98-69

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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Cole Swider scored a career-high 26 points with six 3-pointers, and No. 17 Villanova routed Middle Tennessee 98-69 on Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Myrtle Beach Invitational.

Collin Gillespie added 16 points and hit four 3s, Justin Moore finished with 15 points and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl had 11 rebounds to help the Wildcats (3-1) win their second straight following a 25-point loss at No. 10 Ohio State.

Villanova never trailed, led by 35, shot 57% and finished with a season-best 18 3-pointers. Eleven of them came during a first-half barrage that pushed its lead well into the 20s. Swider hit his fifth 3 from the corner shortly before the buzzer to put the Wildcats up 53-28 at halftime.

Saddiq Bey then took the lead to 30 with a 3-pointer two minutes into the second half.

Donovan Sims scored 18 points and C.J. Jones had 16 for the Blue Raiders (3-2). Leading scorer Antonio Green, averaging 23.5 points going into the game, finished with four points on 1-of-7 shooting while dealing with foul trouble.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: The Wildcats are tough to beat during in-season holiday tournaments, winning six of them in a row, and that 3-point touch got them off to a strong start toward No. 7. Gillespie, in his second game without the mask that protected his broken nose, got plenty of clear looks at the basket.

Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders had no answer for Villanova’s long-range shooting and couldn’t really get their 1-2 punch of Green and Jones started. Jones averages 20 points, but by the time he reached double figures, Middle Tennessee was already trailing by 30.

UP NEXT

Villanova: Plays the Tulane-Mississippi State winner on Friday in one semifinal.

Middle Tennessee: Faces the Tulane-Mississippi State loser on Friday in a consolation game.

Bacot, Anthony lead No. 5 UNC past Elon 75-61

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Those newcomers at No. 5 North Carolina were playing like freshmen — and, really, the upperclassmen were too — during yet another sluggish start.

The big men took it upon themselves to demand the ball — and dominate down low.

Armando Bacot had season highs of 22 points and 14 rebounds, Garrison Brooks added 14 points and the slow-starting Tar Heels beat Elon 75-61 on Wednesday night.

Bacot said coach Roy Williams “talked to me and Garrison and was like, `We need to dominate in the paint.”

“So we just told all the guards to get the ball and feed us,” Bacot added.

As a result, fellow freshman Cole Anthony flirted with North Carolina’s first triple-double in 19 years. He finished with nine points, 10 rebounds and a season-high eight assists for North Carolina (4-0), which hasn’t had a player with a triple-double since Brendan Haywood and Jason Capel each did it 10 days apart in December 2000.

And yet, in a sign of how high Anthony’s ceiling is, Williams called it a bad night for his star guard, who was 4 of 14 from the field with four turnovers.

“I’ve seen some really good players, and he’s got a chance to be one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Williams said. “But I also know when good players stink and that was him about half the game.”

The Tar Heels were 30 1/2-point favorites who a year ago beat Elon on the road by 49 points. They trailed at halftime for the second time this season before opening the second half with a Bacot-led 21-5 run that pushed the lead into double figures, and wound up outrebounding Elon 56-25.

Marcus Sheffield scored 19 points for the Phoenix (2-3), who lost their third straight — all to power-conference schools — while shooting 28% in the second half. Hunter Woods added 18 and his 3-pointer with 2 1/2 minutes left pulled Elon to 68-61. Bacot — who had 18 points in the second half — followed with two buckets to re-establish the Tar Heels’ double-figure lead.

BIG PICTURE

Elon: The Phoenix looked nothing like a team still chasing its first Division I victory of the season. Elon led 33-32 at halftime despite missing 13 of its final 15 shots of the first half — many of them wide-open looks — and the signature highlight might have been Sheffield’s posterizing, one-handed dunk on Justin Pierce midway through the half. Plenty of encouraging things in this one for first-year coach Mike Schrage — a former member of Mike Krzyzewski’s staff at Duke who was quite comfortable in the Smith Center’s visitors’ locker room.

“The first 20 minutes, we’ll take, but I thought the start of the second half, they really imposed their will,” Schrage said. “I thought we got worn down trying to fight them.”

North Carolina: The Tar Heels’ youth and inexperience was evident early in this one — Williams, a noted time-out hoarder, burned one 2 minutes, 9 seconds in after a particularly sloppy turnover. (“Earliest one in my history, I’m sure,” he quipped. “Doesn’t have a lot of competition.”) But they flipped the switch at halftime and took over early in the second half with their freshman big man leading the way, then made enough plays to ride out the victory.

BACOT BITS

This was by far Bacot’s best night of his young career. He set scoring and rebounding highs for the second straight game after finishing with 12 points and 11 rebounds against Gardner-Webb last Friday night. He also had three blocks, his first game with more than one.

KEY STATS

With Bacot and Brooks underneath, North Carolina scored 46 points in the paint to just 16 for Elon. That helped the Tar Heels overcome 16% shooting from 3-point range — their worst at the Smith Center since Louisville held them to 14% in January.

UP NEXT

Elon: Plays host to Manhattan on Saturday.

North Carolina: Faces Alabama on Nov. 27 in its Battle 4 Atlantis opener in Paradise Island, Bahamas.

No. 2 Louisville rallies past USC Upstate 76-50

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville’s latest rout was anything but routine.

The No. 2 Cardinals trailed in the second half for the first time this season against a determined USC Upstate squad that challenged them longer than expected. That scare got Louisville’s attention, and its response was fast and furious.

Ryan McMahon made consecutive 3-pointers and Dwayne Sutton and Darius Perry had one each during a second-half surge that rallied Louisville past USC Upstate 76-50 Wednesday night.

Trailing the determined Spartans 43-40 with 14:07 remaining, Sutton’s 3 tied it before McMahon added one after a huge block of Josh Aldrich’s layup attempt. McMahon and Perry followed again from long range, and the Cardinals (5-0) turned up the intensity on both ends for a 24-5 burst.

They outscored Upstate 36-7 to close the game, capped by the second of two dunks from freshman guard David Johnson in his collegiate debut following a summer shoulder injury.

“They are going to go up against a team that isn’t in awe and play as well as they can for periods of 10 minutes,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “Tonight was not as tough as a moment we will find ourselves in the next month or two, but it is good for a team to figure it out.”

Jordan Nwora had two 3s among his season-high 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting. The Cardinals finished 51% from the field and have shot above 50% in each game this season.

McMahon scored 15 points on five 3-pointers, his last ones helping Louisville avoid a huge upset. The Cardinals were 9 of 21 from behind the arc, including 5 of 9 after halftime. Sutton grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds and scored nine points.

“It shows the power of the 3-point shot in college basketball,” added Mack, whose team tied a season high with 22 assists. “It can keep you in any game.”

The Cardinals owned the smaller Spartans in just about every statistic as expected: They held Upstate to 33% shooting with a 40-22 gap in rebounding with a 36-10 scoring advantage in the paint.

Blowouts have been the norm for the Spartans, who entered losing by an average margin of nearly 21 points. That included Monday’s 31-point loss at Akron, which seemed forgotten as they stayed within reach and even led.

“We played 30 minutes of the best basketball we’ve played all year,” second-year coach Dave Dickerson said. “But their size and athleticism and the fact they have one of the best players in the country as well, it’s hard for us to contend with that. They wore us down.”

Bryson Mozone’s 14 points on four 3s led Upstate (1-5), which was 9 of 24 from long range.

FULL STRENGTH

Johnson and 6-foot-11 junior forward Malik Williams finally got on the court for Louisville after missing time with injuries. They combined for seven points and four rebounds, all big in helping the Cardinals pull away.

“It felt great, been itching to get out there and finally got to do it,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to get the win.”

There was one scary moment as Williams, who returned from September foot surgery, landed hard and awkwardly following a flagrant-1 foul by Mozone. He got up gingerly but shook it off and made 1 of 2 free throws.

“I wasn’t really scared,” Williams said. “I just put my foot back in place and get right back to it. I’m good. I’m here to stay.”

BIG PICTURE

USC Upstate: The Spartans stayed close thanks to perimeter shooting and defense that forced the Cardinals into off-balance attempts. They just didn’t have enough height to battle on the glass and were no match once the Cardinals found their shot and intensity.

Louisville: The Cardinals led for much of the game despite appearing out of sync when Upstate kept making baskets. Their failure to contain Mozone could have cost them, but they also started making 3s to thwart the upset. The returns of Williams and Johnson from injuries helped in a comeback they didn’t expect and should help team depth.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The near-upset shouldn’t cost Louisville much in the rankings.

UP NEXT

USC Upstate returns home Saturday to host Youngstown State, which Louisville beat 78-55 on Nov. 10.

Louisville hosts Akron on Sunday in the last of its five-game homestand.

No. 16 Memphis beats Little Rock 68-58 as Wiseman watches

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis players said they were unaware before Wednesday night’s game that star freshman James Wiseman had been suspended 12 games by the NCAA.

There was another culprit for the No. 16 Tigers’ poor early play — a lack of respect for Arkansas-Little Rock — before Memphis escaped with a 68-58 win.

Precious Achiuwa had 16 points and 12 rebounds, and DJ Jeffries added 15 points — all in the first half — providing a spark for the lackadaisical Tigers (4-1).

The game was played only hours after the NCAA ruled Wiseman, the Tigers 7-foot-1 freshman and last season’s top recruit, ineligible for the next 11 games — he’d already sat out one — for receiving impermissible benefits from Memphis coach Penny Hardaway. Hardaway provide the family with $11,500 to help with moving expenses from Nashville to Memphis two years ago, before Hardaway became the Tigers’ coach. After moving to Memphis, Wiseman played for East High, where Hardaway coached.

The NCAA considered Hardaway a university booster because he donated $1 million to the university in 2008.

Wiseman watched the game from the bench.

“We were definitely glad to find out a number. We had been waiting on that,” Hardaway said.

Jeffries and Achiuwa both said they were unaware of the NCAA ruling.

“I haven’t actually looked at my phone in like four hours,” Achiuwa said, Jeffries nodding in agreement.

Hardaway said he didn’t talk about the situation with his team.

“It is what it is right now,” he said. “It has taken on a life of its own. I’m sure they will see it later.”

Hardaway attributed the slow start to the team’s disregard for the Trojans.

“I kind of got the feeling of how the locker room was before the game that these kids were taking Little Rock for granted,” Hardaway said. “There wasn’t the same energy.”

Markquis Nowell led the Trojans (3-2) with 16 points, while Ben Coupet Jr. added 12 points. Ruot Monyyong had 12 points and nine rebounds and Kamani Johnson finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Nowell also had 10 turnovers, representative of the sloppy play throughout the game.

“We had our chances,” Little Rock coach Darrell Walker said. “You think about it, Kamani at the rim 13 times and he misses 10 layups and doesn’t get fouled. There’s nothing the coach can do about that. Markquis turns the ball over 10 times. I told him they weren’t going to let him score all those points tonight. I told him he had to be a facilitator and a decoy.”

Memphis missed its first eight shots and by the midway point of the first half, the Tigers (4-1) were 3 of 13 from the field and had missed all five of its 3-pointers while committing eight turnovers.

The Tigers were unable to overcome the anemic start until less than five minutes left in the half, with Jeffries providing the spark with 15 points helping Memphis take a 28-23 lead at the break.

Little Rock was within 55-53 with about five minutes left, but Memphis outscored the Trojans 13-5 the rest of the way as the Trojans gave way to the Tigers depth.

“I don’t have all the weapons that Penny has,” Walker said. “He has a bunch of weapons, even coming off the bench. … Right now, I don’t. I got a couple of freshmen and some guys hurt. My deck is not full, but I’m not making excuses.

“Penny’s deck is not full either.”

BIG PICTURE

Little Rock: After jumping to an early 9-0 lead, the Trojans defense played well enough to cause problems for Memphis. Little Rock stayed close, but the visitors struggled from the foul line, going 13 of 24.

Memphis: Memphis was a mess to start the game, missing its first eight shots, some of them way off the mark. Four turnovers added to the early misery. After taking the lead late in the first half, the Tigers never relinquished the advantage in the second half, although Little Rock kept the game close.

UP NEXT

Little Rock: Travels to North Carolina State on Saturday

Memphis: Hosts Ole Miss on Saturday.

Memphis could not have handled the James Wiseman situation more poorly

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As much as I want to wave my fists in the air, pound on my keyboard and scream about how unfair it is that James Wiseman is the person in this scenario that has to serve a 12-game suspension, the unfortunate truth here is that Memphis played this out about as poorly as humanly possible.

Memphis probably never should have played James Wiseman in the first place. And as much as bleeding hearts like myself enjoyed watching the Tigers relentlessly troll the NCAA, they certainly should not have antagonized an organization that has proven that they are vindictive and unafraid of levying heavy-handed punishments. They definitely should not have messed with the bull if they weren’t ready for the horns.

But let’s back this up for a second.

Best that I can tell, there are only two reasons that the NCAA exists:

1. To oversee the tournaments that determine the national champion in every sport at every level. This, they are really good at, even if it took them four decades to realize the RPI was a joke.

2. To enforce amateurism and ensure that no one is breaking their bylaws. This, they are not so good at because, unlike law enforcement, the NCAA does not actually have any subpoena power. They can’t force anyone to talk, and as long as the paper trail is hidden well and no one is caught on an FBI wiretap talking about paying for players with strong-ass offers, it’s hard for NCAA investigators to do their job well.

The way the NCAA gets schools to comply and the people involved in these investigations to cooperate and tell the truth is to threaten them with the fire of 1,000 suns if they get caught doing anything else. If coaches get caught in a lie, the punishment far outweighs the crime. Bruce Pearl was banned from the coaching for three years because he lied about bringing a recruit to a barbecue at his house, a fairly minor violation. The same can be said for schools. If they do something like – oh, I don’t know – opt to play a player that they have been told by the NCAA is “likely ineligible,” then you have to be prepared to put every resource at your disposal behind fighting what you know is coming.

Memphis picked a fight with the NCAA. As soon as they did that, as soon as they willfully put James Wiseman on the floor at FedEx Forum against South Carolina State, they should have known they would never be able to put Pandora back in her box.

They should have known that this was going to put a bullseye on their back. They should have known that, as Sports Illustrated has reported, “a major infractions case targeting Memphis is now likely.” They should have known that those three games legitimately – and, by the rulebook, rightfully – put the future of the program and that of head coach Penny Hardaway in jeopardy.

None of what’s coming was worth it for wins over two teams no one cares about and a loss to Oregon.

It probably would not have been worth it for a full 30-something games of James Wiseman, but at least that would be understandable. I would not have put all of that on the line for a chance at living out the season the program has been anticipating since Penny replaced Tubby Smith, but I would at least see what the plan was. Memories cannot be vacated, and with public sentiment supporting the end of amateurism, maybe they could fight this thing in court long enough that it would no longer be a violation.

Oh, and the sideshow would have been incredible.

You think Zion Williamson’s shoe moved the needle?

Imagine what a full season of a potential No. 1 pick going to the war with the NCAA would have done.

But that’s not the way it played out for Memphis.

They waved the white flag last week.

On Wednesday, the NCAA ruled that Wiseman will have to serve the final 11 games of his 12 game suspension. So the Tigers may have cost themselves their best chance at getting to the NCAA tournament and they still have the NCAA coming after them.

And the complicating factor here is that this was an NCAA violation. No one is arguing that. Penny, who at the time was a Memphis booster and alum, paid $11,500 to Wiseman’s mother for the family to relocate from a ritzy private school in Nashville to a public high school in Memphis. At the same time, Wiseman stopped playing with Brad Beal Elite and started playing for Team Penny. All of this happened nine months before Penny was hired to be the Memphis head coach and around the same time that some of the most powerful voices in Memphis media started calling for Penny to replace Tubby.

This was always going to be thoroughly investigated by the NCAA.

Thinking otherwise was just foolish.

The honest-to-god truth here is that the only victim is Wiseman himself. He has been failed by every adult in this situation.

Penny should have known better than to pay Wiseman’s mother to get him to move to Memphis to play for his teams.

Memphis administrators should have known better than to allow him to step on the court when the NCAA had the goods.

Both Penny and the University should have been better prepared for what was coming knowing that this payment had happened; and if the University didn’t know this payment happened, they should have.

The NCAA should be above vindictive punishments that solely target a kid that had little, if anything, to do with this. He didn’t make the payments. He didn’t accept the payments. It wasn’t his decision whether or not to play, and if it was, Memphis never should have let an 18-year old make that decision.

One of the biggest failings of NCAA bylaws is their absolute inability to punish people that actually break the rules. Penny isn’t suspended. Wiseman’s mom isn’t suspended. No one in the athletic department is suspended.

No, the person being punished is the kid who was 16 when his mom accepted money from a man who was deemed a booster in 2008.