AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser

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

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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.”

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.