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Five Things We Learned This Week: UCLA’s defense, Duke’s depth and Gonzaga undefeated?

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1. So UCLA might be able to defend after all?: The knock on the Bruins is a secret to absolutely no one.

They don’t defend, at least not consistently or with the kind of effort needed to be able to beat some of the nation’s elite teams.

Here’s the only stat you need to know in regards to UCLA: They currently rank 126th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and the only team to reach the Final Four with a defensive efficiency that rated that low in the KenPom era – since 2002 – was VCU in 2011.

It’s an issue, but it’s one that the Bruins seemingly found a solution – or, at the very least, a bandaid for – this week.

On Thursday night Oregon came to town fresh off of a 27-point depantsing of then-No. 5 Arizona, and in the first 30-or-so minutes, that Duck offense didn’t slow down in the least. They put up 48 first half points. They were up 64-49 with just under 15 minutes left in the game, and that’s when everything changed. Over the course of the final 14 minutes, according to Kory Alford, a UCLA staffer, the Bruins gave up just 0.65 points-per-possession. They followed that up by allowed just 60 points on 66 possession to Oregon State on Sunday afternoon.

UCLA actually saw their defensive efficiency ranking drop from 115th to 126th after this week, but much of that had to do with the fact that A) they were eviscerated for 25 minutes by Oregon, and B) KenPom’s formula weighs the caliber of opponent, and Oregon State is ranked 281st in the country. What matters, however, is that the Bruins proved that they can defend when they need to, and that’s half of the battle.

The next step?

Make it a consistent thing.

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2. Gonzaga is going to go undefeated: At this point, it seems a virtual lock that they are going to finish the regular season with a 30-0 record. I’m not sure how you can predict anything else to happen. The Zags have won every game they’ve played in the WCC by double-figures, and that includes the road trips to BYU and Saint Mary’s, where the hosts had to scrap just to get the final deficit to 10 points.

Three of their last four games are at home, in a building where Gonzaga took down No. 20 Saint Mary’s by 23 points last month.

In fact, I’d be surprised at this point if Gonzaga doesn’t enter the NCAA tournament with an undefeated record, and you should seriously be considering them as a national title contender. (I went in depth on why right here.) And while I do understand if the public-at-large has Gonzaga fatigue – they get hyped every year, and fail to deliver every year – this is a great story line for college basketball. For the third time in the last four seasons, we could end up with a team entering the NCAA tournament with an unblemished record.

As a sports fan, greatness is something you should either root for or enjoy seeing achieved. The Zags have a chance to do just that this season.

3. Duke’s depth is a major, and unforeseen, concern: For a team with half-a-bajillion McDonald’s All-Americans, it seems ridiculous that they need to worry about the amount of depth on their roster, but that’s precisely where we are with this team right now.

Duke wants to play small-ball, which means that Jayson Tatum starts at the four with three of Duke’s four guards – Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen and either Matt Jones or Frank Jackson. Those four guards rotate through and, generally speaking, play the combined-120 minutes at the three perimeter positions. Tatum plays the four, where he is really the only guy suited for the small-ball role; there are not many players that are 6-foot-9 with guards skills and the physicality to hold their own on the defensive glass with natural power forwards, which is what makes him such a useful weapon.

But it also is an easy way to drain the legs of a player at this point in the season. That was evident on Saturday, when Duke played Clemson 39 hours after their emotional win over North Carolina and looked totally drained, almost listless. Tatum was the one that seemed to be dealing with fatigue the most.

The problem is their front court. Chase Jeter is unplayable right now due to some combination of injury and ineffectiveness. Marques Bolden, simply put, is nowhere near where he needs to be on the defensive end of the floor to be able to contribute to this team. Amile Jefferson is playing through pain, but he needs to contribute upwards of 30 foul-free minutes a night because Harry Giles III still isn’t ready to give 20 effective minutes. He shines for a few minutes, but he doesn’t have the stamina, explosion or the strength to handle the workload; it’s hard to come back from two surgeries and 14 months away from the game.

Put another way, this Duke team has roughly six guys that Coach K trusts at this point, and that may be generous considering Jackson’s been somewhat up-and-down this season.

LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 14: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Duke Blue Devils dribbles the ball during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on January 14, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. Just how much should we respect the Big Ten: The conference, as a whole, could end up getting as many as eight teams into the NCAA tournament, but that has as much to do with the fact that there are very few mid-majors worthy of an at-large bid while leagues like the AAC, the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West do not have the depth that we are used to seeing.

This fact is exacerbated by Northwestern beating Wisconsin on Sunday night. The Badgers, who have been taken to overtime by Nebraska and Rutgers in recent weeks, lost at home to a team that was playing without their leading scorer. They had already been left out of the top 16 in Saturday’s bracket reveal, and that loss certainly isn’t going to help their cause.

At this point, it’s worth asking if the Big Ten will disappear from the NCAA tournament before the Sweet 16.

5. Donte DiVincenzo is going to be a star: The reason that Villanova has not felt any ill-effects from the injury suffered by Phil Booth has been the play of the “Big Ragu”. He’s just a redshirt freshman, but he’s been terrific of late. He’s averaged 17.3 points over his last three games, including a team-high 17 in the win at Xavier, and that doesn’t factor in his game-winning tip-in against Virginia earlier this month. He is going to be the most popular Breakout Star pick next October.

Middle Tennessee loses four returnees during the week

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Middle Tennessee has been one of the best mid-major programs in the country over the last few years but now the Blue Raiders will be facing a major rebuild.

With former head coach Kermit Davis taking the Ole Miss job and new head coach Nick McDevitt coming over from UNC Asheville, the program experienced some major roster turnover this week as four returnees left the program.

Earlier in the week, junior guard David Simmons opted to transfer out of Middle Tennessee after he averaged 17.9 minutes per game for the Conference USA regular-season champions last season.

On Friday, the losses continued, as three more players left the team. Rising junior point guard Tyrik Dixon announced his intention to transfer while the program dismissed guard Antwain Johnson and forward Davion Thomas. Dixon was a valuable floor leader for Middle Tennessee the past two seasons while Johnson, a rising senior guard, would have been the team’s returning leading scorer after putting up 10.3 points per game last week.

Since so much of the successful core of the past three seasons is now gone from Middle Tennessee, it will be on McDevitt to bring in new talent to sustain the recent great stretch of play. The Blue Raiders made two Round of 32 appearances in a row before missing the NCAA tournament last season after winning C-USA’s regular season crown.

Now, with Western Kentucky making a power play by bringing in five-star big man Charles Bassey, and the power has shifted very quickly in one of the most competitive mid-major conferences in the country.

Report: One-and-Done rule could be eliminated for 2021 NBA Draft

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The NBA is reportedly exploring the possibility of ending the infamous one-and-done rule that forces many potential professional basketball players to head to college for at least one season.

According to a report from ESPN’s Zach Lowe, citing a league memo sent to NBA teams late this week, the league office is indicating that “eligibility rules” for the NBA draft could change as soon as 2021 or 2022 — but not earlier. The league is currently trying to figure out how the FBI’s investigation into college basketball will play out while also trying to navigate the player development changes that would be needed for high school players to once again potentially enter the NBA. Recently, the NBA has started to allow its teams and front-office personnel to attend elite summer high school events as the Pangos All-American Camp and the NBPA Top 100 Camp both had an NBA presence to watch elite Class of 2019, 2020 and 2021 prospects.

Lowe’s report mentions that the one-and-done rule is not mentioned directly by name, but the NBA is trying to warn its teams before the 2018 NBA Draft. These future changes could be on the horizon and teams need to understand what they are doing with future draft picks in potential trades.

The scenario of a 2021 NBA Draft in which high school players might be eligible is a fascinating subplot for college basketball, and the sport at-large, over these next few years.

As Lowe pointed out in his report, whenever the rule is eventually opened up, it will create one large mega draft in which two elite classes of high school players would be draft-eligible in the same year. With potentially double the lottery-level and first-round talent of a typical NBA draft, it would force a lot of elite college recruits to exam the possibility of reclassifying up in order to get ahead of that mega draft and be in a pool with fewer elite prospects.

It also gives the high school players themselves a unique decision with regard to their potential college futures. If an elite high school prospect is one year away from entering the NBA draft out of school, would some go to college or would they try to go for a postgrad year and follow in the footsteps of players like Thon Maker and Anfernee Simons?

The expanding presence of the NBA’s G-League is also a factor in all of this as salaries for the league are increasing and becoming more respectable — giving high school players a viable professional option in the United States instead of college for one year before moving on to the draft.

There are still way too many moving parts to truly speculate how this will all go down. But at least we know that the NBA appears to be viewing 2021 or 2022 as the potential change to the one-and-done rule. We’ll have to see how elite high school prospects start potentially adjusting to reclassify while colleges also might have to adopt some new and unique recruiting strategies if they rely on one-and-done players to fill out their roster.

Five-star guard Ashton Hagans enrolling at Kentucky after graduating year early

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Kentucky received additional reinforcements for the 2018-19 season on Friday as five-star guard Ashton Hagans graduated high school a year early with the intent to head to Lexington for next season.

The 6-foot-4 Hagans is considered by many recruiting analysts to be a top-ten national prospect in the Class of 2019 as he gives the Wildcats three five-star recruits at lead guard for next season. The Georgia state Player of the Year as a junior this past season, Hagans joins a crowded Kentucky backcourt that includes sophomore Quade Green and fellow incoming freshman and McDonald’s All-American Immanuel Quickley.

While the juggling of minutes is going to be a major storyline for head coach John Calipari this season, the addition of Hagans gives Kentucky even more lineup flexibility than they had before. Because Hagans has good size and defensive ability, he could be used to play alongside the smaller Green, giving the Wildcats a two-guard look that would have more defensive intensity. Playing Quickley and Hagans together would give Kentucky a bigger two-guard lineup that would have a chance to be pretty strong defensively.

And, of course, Calipari could opt to go with some three-guard lineups with other off-guards like Keldon Johnson or Tyler Herro to give Kentucky a tough perimeter attack.

Handling minutes and egos will be something to watch for in Lexington this season, but Calipari has handled this sort of situation with a Final Four appearance before. It’s hard to say if the Wildcats will try to play another platoon type of system like we saw in 2014-15, but if they end up getting graduate transfer forward Reid Travis, they might have the personnel to give it a shot.

Villanova lands late commitment from four-star prospect

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Villanova made a late addition to their 2018 recruiting class on Friday afternoon as they landed a commitment from four-star prospect Saddiq Bey.

Bey was originally committed to N.C. State, but he asked out of his Letter of Intent in mid-May as the Wolfpack ended up over the scholarship limit. The versatile, 6-foot-7 forward is a good fit for the way that Villanova likes to play, as he can guard different positions, plays with the toughness you expect out of a kid from Washington D.C. and is a capable scorer.

Bey is also a product of Sidwell Friends, the same high school that produced former Villanova star Josh Hart.

He will joined a recruiting class that also includes five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, four star prospects Cole Swider and Brandon Slater and Albany grad transfer Joe Cremo.

The news was first reported by 247 Sports.

Marvin Bagley III, a ‘Nike kid’, to sign endorsement deal with Puma

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In a somewhat surprising turn of events, Marvin Bagley III will reportedly sign an endorsement deal with Puma in the NBA.

It’s a five-year deal, according to reports, that will pay Bagley and his family quite a bit of money and will allow them to fund an AAU program for Bagley’s younger brother. That program will be coached by Marvin Bagley Jr., and that gets to the heart of what makes this decision so surprising.

Bagley III has always been considered a “Nike kid”. He played for Nike AAU programs throughout his high school career. The last two years, his father ran the program that he played for, originally called Phoenix Phamily but eventually changed to Nike Phamily. That meant that Nike was able to legally pay Bagley Jr. a significant amount of money to fund that program. Eventually, Bagley would up enrolling at Duke, one of Nike’s flagship college basketball programs.

This is not the way that it is supposed to go for a shoe company like Nike. The reason they spend as much money as they do in the youth ranks is to keep as many kids as possible loyal to the brand. It’s fairly easy to figure out who will end up having a chance at being an NBA player as early as 15 years old, but what’s harder to do is to predict who will actually be able to move product. Did anyone think James Harden or Damian Lillard would be worth a signature shoe? So these shoe companies will spend a relatively small amount of money to fly those kids around the country during their high school years, keep them decked out in their gear and hope that lottery ticket eventually pays off.

What is a couple hundred thousand dollar investment when the payoff is hundreds of millions of dollars in shoe sales? All you need to do is land one Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant to make the math work.

But that isn’t all that the shoe companies are looking for here.

With the amount of money that they have invested in sponsorship deals with these schools, they need to protect that investment. We saw it with Adidas and Louisville. They funneled $100,000 to Brian Bowen, a Nike kid, to get him to an Adidas school not because they thought he would end up being an uber-profitable spokesman but because they needed to protect their investment at the college level.

So while it’s easy to look at this and same that Bagley’s time spent at Duke helped him get a big, fat shoe contract, I think it’s the other way around. He helped Nike — without getting his market value — during his one season at Duke, and what it got him was a shoe contract worth roughly $1 million a year, according to Oregon Live.

Either way, the fact of the matter is that Bagley’s value to these brands is no different now than it was when he was playing for the Blue Devils.

Why is it only now that he’s allowed to cash in on it?