Distributor to dominator: Monte’ Morris’ challenge to change as a senior

AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser

LOS ANGELES — For three seasons, Iowa State point guard Monte’ Morris has developed a reputation for being arguably the best pure point guard in college basketball.

For three seasons, Morris has been a model of efficiency, the epitome of what every coach in the country looks for in a floor general. He’s never finished outside the top eight in assist-to-turnover ratio, and UCSB’s Zalmico Harmon is the only player other than Morris to finish in the top 100 nationally in assists-per-game while sporting an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 4-to-1.

Morris has done it twice — each of the last two seasons — while playing in the Big 12 at an all-league level. He’s never averaged less than 28 minutes per game in a season, playing 39.9 minutes a night in the Big 12 as a junior, yet he’s totaled just 123 turnovers since arriving in Ames. For comparison’s sake, Providence point guard Kris Dunn averaged 127 turnovers a year his last two seasons in college.

“There’s a time and place where you have to make other people better, hit the right guy, make the right decision,” said ISU’s second-year head coach Steve Prohm, “and he’s really, really good in his decision making.”

Put another way, Morris has been the nation’s best facilitator for the last three years, turning himself from a three-star recruit into a potential NBA Draft pick because of his ability to protect the ball and how well he puts his talented teammates in positions where they can be most effective.

Morris is also terrific at picking his spots, at knowing when he needs to take over a game. Cyclone fans will remember how good he was down the stretch in the comeback against Iowa, or the win over Oklahoma at home, or the game-winner against Texas during the 2015 Big 12 tournament, or that entire Big 12 tournament title run.

But that was not the norm. Morris averaged 13.8 points and 6.9 assists as a junior despite posting a career-high usage rate — a stat used to determine how often a possession ends with that player, either via a shot or a turnover — of 19.8, which is more typical of a role player, someone like a spot-up shooter. Georges Niang, Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine all had usage rate above 28.

That’s who Morris has been throughout his successful college career.

That’s the identity that he’s crafted for himself.

So what will happen when, as a senior, he’s asked to play an entirely different role?

Steve Prohm walked into a dream scenario at Iowa State last season.

Coaching at the high major level for the first time, the former Murray State head man walked into a locker room of a preseason top ten team that was loaded with veterans and led by a senior All-American in Georges Niang. It was a team that, to a point, could operate on auto-pilot.

The Cyclones didn’t have a banner season, as they struggled with front court depth and consistency en route to a fifth-place finish in the Big 12, but they did make it back to the Sweet 16 while beating Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas at home.

All in all, Prohm’s initial foray into the Big 12 went pretty well.

This year, however, he won’t be able to simply ride the coattails of what Fred Hoiberg had built in Ames. Gone is Niang. Gone is center Jameel McKay. Gone is Abdel Nader, a second round pick of the Boston Celtics. And gone are the reinforcements that Prohm had planned to bring in up front. Emmanuel Malou opted to turn professional while Cameron Lard has yet to arrive on campus. Those were ISU’s two best incoming front pieces.

What that means is that Prohm is left with a roster where his best player over 6-foot-6 is either a sophomore that only played in 13 games last season or a grad transfer that averaged 8.1 points and 5.0 boards in Conference USA.

So when Morris announced that he would be returning to Iowa State, a decision that was, according to Morris, influenced by a shoulder injury he suffered in March, Cyclones fans were able to breathe a sigh of relief.

They weren’t entering rebuilding mode quite yet.

“I know what I got myself into coming back,” Morris said.

Steve Prohm and Monte Morris (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)
Steve Prohm and Monte Morris (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

He also knew that he would be returning to a team that was built in a similar manner to the teams that Prohm had the most success with in his previous coaching stop. Prior to getting the Iowa State job last May, Prohm had spent four years coaching Murray State. In two of those seasons, the Racers were arguably the best mid-major team in the country. Back in 2011-12, Murray State won their first 23 games of the season, earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament and reached the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament thanks to the play of All-American guard Isaiah Canaan.

But that Racer team was built around a stalwart defense. Iowa State finished 102nd in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric last season and lost their best defender in McKay.

The team that Prohm coached in his final year in Kentucky, however, is promising. With future lottery pick Cameron Payne surrounded by a roster full of scrappy over-achievers, the Racers won 25 straight games at one point and missed out on the NCAA tournament thanks to an ugly schedule and an OVC tournament-winning buzzer-beater from Belmont’s Taylor Barnette. Their statistical profile — play fast, score quickly, struggle defensively — is eerily similar to what should be expected of the Cyclones this season, but perhaps the better note to make here is that the Racers weren’t expected to be quite that good before the season.

Prohm found a way to play that suited the players on his roster, and it just so happens that style of play will be perfect for the group he currently employs.

At least on paper.

You see, Payne embraced ball-dominance. His usage rate as a sophomore, when he averaged 20.2 points and 6.0 assists, was 31.5. As a freshman, it was 29.9.

In other word, on the point guard spectrum, he’s the polar opposite of what Morris has been the last three years.

Prohm knows he needs to change Monte’s mindset. He already started in on it last year.

“I like my point guards to be able to score,” Prohm said. “I’ve had a lot of really good point guards and they’ve all scored at a really high clip. Last year, I’d even tell Monte’, ‘Go go go, push push push, shoot a transition three.’ I want him in attack mode. I don’t want him thinking [set the offense].”

Morris knows that, and he says he’s ready for it.

“I’m definitely going to have to sometimes just put my head down and make a play. That’s just what it’s going to be,” he said. “This group we have, they look at me when things aren’t going right, so I know it’s going to be a lot of pressure on me. I just have to be ready to fill that role.”

Part of the reason that Prohm is confident he’ll be able to change the way Morris plays is that he’s already seen him do it. It was on a smaller scale, sure, but anyone that has watched the Cyclones over the years knows that Morris is capable of taking a game over. He was Iowa State’s go-to guy in crunch-time.

“There’s times where, last year, offensively, late [in games], he made really big offensive plays for us,” Prohm said. “He’s just going to have to do that a little more often this year.”

The most important part, Prohm says, was for Morris to add some strength and muscle to his frame, something that Morris did over the summer. He already plays a ridiculous amount — he averaged 39.9 minutes in Big 12 play last season — but his minutes will be “tougher” this season. He’ll be the focal point of every opponent’s scouting report. He’ll be face-guarded. He’ll be bumped. He’ll be grabbed. He’ll get beat up the way Golden State opponents figured out they needed to beat up Steph Curry. And he’ll have to do all that while dealing with the wear and tear that comes with trying to score 20-25 points every night.

That was a problem that Payne dealt with as well, which is why Prohm built sets into Murray State’s offense that pushed him off the ball. According to Synergy, nearly 10 percent of Payne’s offense as a sophomore came in off-ball screening actions. Morris ran off a screen three times as a junior.

Becoming a more consistent three-point shooter is critical as well. Morris has been a good shooter throughout his college career, but he’s always struggled with his shot in non-conference play — his splits as a junior were 28.3% in non-conference and 43.4% in league play — and his perimeter shot has been more of a way to keep defenses honest than it has been one of the better weapons in his arsenal; at heart, he’s a penetrator that does his best work when he can get into the paint, and he’s one of the best in the country when it comes to finishing floaters and runners.

All of that, however, is secondary.

The key for Morris is going to be how well he transitions from being a facilitator to being the centerpiece of team’s offense, which is not an easy. The best true point guards, the guys like Chris Paul and Isaiah Thomas, are wired one way. They try to get others involved. They try to lead, to set up, to get everyone else involved. They take over only when needed, and their teams are usually better for it.

Morris, who is more Chris Paul than Kyrie Irving, needs to be rewired.

“We just going to play this one out,” Morris said with a smile. “I did it for three years, but assist-to-turnover, we’ll just throw that one out the window. I’ll just try to be aggressive and do what I do.”

Wichita State hires ORU’s Paul Mills to lead program

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Wichita State hired Paul Mills away from Oral Roberts to turn around its languishing program, landing what has been one of the hottest names among mid-major coaches.

The 50-year-old Mills led the the Golden Eagles to two of the past three NCAA Tournaments, engineering upsets of Ohio State and Florida as a No. 15 seed in 2021 before going 30-5 this past season and losing to Duke as a No. 5 seed.

He replaces Isaac Brown, who was fired after three seasons as the Shockers slowly slipped toward mediocrity.

“My family and I are extremely excited about being a part of Wichita State,” said Mills, who will be introduced during a news conference at Charles Koch Arena. “The rich history, winning tradition and unbelievable community support will keep us working on behalf of the greatest fans in all of college basketball.”

Mills got his break in coaching when he joined Scott Drew’s first staff at Baylor in 2003, working alongside future Kansas State coach Jerome Tang in helping to turn around a program that had been mired in controversy. Mills stayed for 14 years, helping to reach seven NCAA Tournaments, before replacing Scott Sutton at Oral Roberts before the 2017 season.

Mills went just 11-21 each of his first two seasons in Tulsa, but the seeds of a turnaround had been planted, and the Golden Eagles have not had a losing season since. The biggest step came two years ago, when Mills led Oral Roberts to the Sweet 16 of an NCAA Tournament played entirely within an Indianapolis “bubble environment” because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Golden Eagles slipped to 19-12 the following year before winning 30 games and the Summit League title this past season, when they were led by high-scoring guard Max Abmas, an honorable mention All-American selection.

“Paul Mills’ heart for people, passion for life and approach to the development of young people and programs is energizing,” Wichita State athletic director Kevin Saal said in a statement. “He aligns with Shocker Athletics’ core values, facilitates a first-class student-athlete experience and fuels broad-based competitive excellence.”

The hiring of Mills comes as the Shockers try to position themselves at the forefront of a new-look American Athletic Conference. Perennial powerhouse Houston is joining Central Florida and Cincinnati in leaving for the Big 12 after this season, and six new schools are due to arrive from Conference USA for the start of next season.

Wichita State, a power under Ralph Miller and Gene Smithson in the 1960s, returned to prominence when Mark Turgeon took over in 2000. But it was under Gregg Marshall, who resigned in November 2020 amid allegations of verbal and physical abuse of players, that it began to soar. The Shockers advanced to the Final Four in 2013, finished the regular season unbeaten the following year and at one point went to seven consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

Brown, who was Marshall’s top recruiter, led them back to the NCAA Tournament in his first year. But the Shockers were just 15-13 last year and 17-15 this past season, leading Saal to decide that a coaching change was necessary.

Turns out the answer Saal was looking for was just a few hours south at Oral Roberts.

Arizona State extends Bobby Hurley through 2025-26 season

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TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State agreed to a contract extension with head coach Bobby Hurley that runs through the 2025-26 season.

The deal announced on Tuesday is subject to approval by the Arizona Board of Regents. Hurley’s previous contract was set to expire after next season.

“Coach Hurley has made our program relevant nationally with many significant wins and an exciting style, along with a firm commitment to the academic success of our student-athletes,” Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson said in a statement. “He has made it clear to us that he wants to be here and we have done likewise with him. We share a strong confidence in the present and future state of Sun Devil men’s basketball.”

Hurley led the Sun Devils to 23 wins this season and their third trip to the NCAA Tournament the last five times it has been played. Arizona State beat Nevada in the First Four before losing to Texas Christian on a last-second shot last Friday.

The Sun Devils have won at least 20 games four of the past six seasons. They are 141-113 in eight seasons under Hurley.

Mark Campbell new TCU women’s coach after taking Sacramento State to NCAA

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

FORT WORTH, Texas – Mark Campbell was hired as TCU’s women’s basketball coach after the former Oregon assistant took Sacramento State to its first NCAA Tournament in an impressive and quick turnaround.

Sacramento State was coming off a 3-22 season when Campbell was hired two years ago. The Hornets won 14 games in Campbell’s first season, and then made another 11-win improvement this season while finishing 25-8 with Big Sky regular-season and tournament championships.

During his seven seasons on Oregon’s staff before that, the Ducks had some of the nation’s top recruiting classes. That included Campbell recruiting Sabrina Ionescu, who became the AP player of the year in 2020 before she was the first overall pick in the WNBA draft.

Campbell replaces Raegan Pebley, who stepped down after nine seasons as TCU’s coach with a 141-138 record. The Horned Frogs were 8-23 this season, including 1-17 in Big 12 play during the regular season.

TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati described Campbell as an elite recruiter and program builder.

“Similar to his success at Sacramento State, he was instrumental in Oregon quickly becoming one of the nation’s most successful programs, reaching their first NCAA Elite Eight and then Final Four,” Donati said.

The Frogs haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2010. That was their ninth NCAA appearance, all coming in a 10-season span without making it past the second round.

Boston College extends Earl Grant through 2028-29 season

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BOSTON – Boston College coach Earl Grant has agreed to a two-year extension that will keep him under contract through the 2028-29 season.

Grant took over as Eagles coach prior to the 2021-22 season and finished 13-20. Boston College went 16-17 this past season, but it had three wins over nationally ranked teams for the first time in 14 years.

“My family and I have enjoyed being a part of this amazing community,” Grant said in a statement. “Boston is a great city and we are glad to call it our home. I am thankful for the efforts of my staff to help move the program forward.”

The Eagles finished 9-11 in Atlantic Coast Conference play, their most wins in the league play since 2010-11. Quinten Post also became the first Boston College player to be named Most Improved Player.

In announcing the extension, athletic director Blake James expressed optimism about the direction of the program.

“Earl has done an outstanding job leading our men’s basketball program over the last two seasons and we are looking forward to him doing so for many years to come,” James said.

Rick Pitino returns to big stage at St. John’s: ‘I’ve earned it’

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK – The video banner above the entrance to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday read: “Welcome Rick Pitino.”

More like welcome back for the new St. John’s coach.

Back to The Garden, where he once coached the Knicks.

Back to the Big East, the conference that launched his stardom and where he won his last NCAA championship.

Back to big-time college basketball after a series of scandals made it seem as if that part of his career was over.

“So, when I went to Iona, I said that Iona was going to be my last job,” Pitino said at his introductory news conference at MSG. “And the reason I said that is who’s going to hire a 70-year-old ? No matter how much I think I’m Peter Pan, who’s going hire a 70-year-old?”

St. John’s gave the Hall of Famer a six-year contract to turn back the clock on a program that once stole New York City tabloid headlines away from the Knicks in the 1980s under coach Lou Carnesecca but has been mired in mediocrity for more than two decades.

The Red Storm once played most of their biggest home games at The Garden. Pitino said the goal is to have all their Big East games played there going forward.

“Lou built a legendary program. Legendary,” Pitino said. “I’m all in with everything that St. John stands for. I’m excited about it. I can’t wait to get started.

“And it’s going to start with a culture of work.”

Pitino, who was born in New York City and grew up on Long Island, has won 832 games in 34 full seasons as a college head coach, including NCAA championships at Kentucky in 1996 and Louisville in 2013.

The title at Louisville was vacated for NCAA violations, and another NCAA case related to the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball recruiting led to Pitino being fired by Louisville in 2017.

The final ruling from the NCAA’s outside enforcement arm on the FBI case came down in November and exonerated Pitino.

There was also a criminal extortion case in which Pitino was the victim during his time at Louisville that revealed personal indiscretions.

“Well, it doesn’t matter what you believe, what you don’t believe,” Pitino said. “The one thing all my players have said, because they all wrote letters for me: I’ve never cheated the game. I never gave a player anything that he didn’t deserve in life.”

St. John’s president, the Rev. Brian Shanley, said the decision to hire Pitino was his call.

“Yeah, sure, there’s some reputational risk because of things that have happened before, but I think Rick is at a point in his life where he’s learned from things that have happened in the past,” Shanley told The Associated Press. “I think he’d be the first one to tell you he’s done things that he regrets. Who doesn’t when you get to be that age? I know I have. I’m a believer in forgiveness and new beginnings as a priest, and I think Rick’s going to do a great job for St. John’s.”

Carnesecca, 98 and getting around with the help of a walker these days, sat in the front row of Pitino’s news conference.

“I think it’s a home run with the bases loaded,” Carnesecca said.

Carnesecca was one of the Big East’s brightest coaching stars, along with Georgetown’s John Thompson and Villanova’s Rollie Massimino, when Pitino became Providence head coach in 1985 at the age of 32.

Thirty-eight years later, Pitino’s Providence ties helped him land at St. John’s after three seasons at Iona, a small Catholic school in New Rochelle, just north of New York City.

Shanley previously was the president of Providence. He helped turn around a lagging men’s basketball program by hiring coach Ed Cooley and investing in facilities upgrades.

“If I wasn’t a Providence Friar, he would have never even considered it,” Pitino said.

Shanley attempted to lure Pitino away from Louisville and back to Providence years ago, but he didn’t know much about the coach personally back then. He said he talked to a lot of people about Pitino this time around.

“I’d say my behind-the-scenes wisdom person was Mike Tranghese, the former commissioner of the Big East,” Shanley said. “He got me Ed Cooley last time, and I think we came out pretty well this time, too.”

Cooley was hired by Georgetown on Monday.

Pitino said he’s bringing his entire staff with him from Iona, which announced the hiring of Fairleigh Dickinson coach Tobin Anderson to replace Pitino earlier in the day.

Pitino will try to become the first coach to take six different schools to the NCAA Tournament as he gets one more shot on the big stage.

“I deserve it,” he said, “because I’ve earned it.”