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No. 19 North Carolina’s defensive struggles continue in loss to No. 20 Clemson

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For the first time since January of 2014, North Carolina is on a three-game losing streak.

No. 19 North Carolina has not won since January 20th, a win that capped a four-game win streak in the aftermath of its 61-49 loss to Virginia on January 6. Tuesday night it was No. 20 Clemson that did the job, holding off a second-half Tar Heel rally to win 82-78 and end a 10-game losing streak in the series.

Brad Brownell’s team picked up its biggest win since senior forward Donte Grantham went down with a torn ACL in a loss to NC State on January 11, and the Tigers did it thanks in large part to their three-point shooting. Clemson, which did not make a two-point field goal until 7:50 remaining in the first half, shot 15-for-30 from beyond the arc on the night.

Gabe DeVoe made five, with Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell making three apiece, and the struggles defending the three has been a theme for North Carolina throughout the season.

Roy Williams’ team entered the game ranked 309th in three-point percentage defense, with opponents shooting 37.9 percent from three. During the current losing streak, the Tar Heels have allowed each of their three opponents to shoot better than that percentage. Virginia Tech shooting 40 percent (12-for-30) wasn’t significantly better than the percentage that the Heels are allowing on the season, but both NC State and Clemson shot 15-for-30 from deep.

Obviously, that can’t happen if a team is to be successful. But why is it happening? Far too often Tuesday night, North Carolina’s perimeter defenders were caught over-helping on dribble drives. Not having their best perimeter defender in Theo Pinson, who left the game with a strained left shoulder after taking a hard fall early in the first half, certainly didn’t help matters. But this was more about the players who were on the court than who wasn’t.

If anything, North Carolina’s struggles in defending the three are a combination of things as opposed to just one issue. There’s the struggle to defend on the ball, as Clemson’s guards were able to break down their defenders off the dribble. And whether it’s to compensate for the on-ball defender getting beat, or not fully trusting that man to handle his assignment, others get caught too far away from their matchups on the perimeter. As a result opponents have managed to find good looks, and at that level more often than not teams are going to take advantage.

Here’s something else to ponder when it comes to North Carolina’s defense. Could the questions surrounding the front court have something to do with the perimeter defending? As in, is the apparent need to cover up for their inexperienced bigs resulting in North Carolina’s perimeter defenders overcompensating in an attempt to cut off dribble penetration?

While Sterling Manley gave North Carolina some solid minutes off the bench, finishing with six points, six rebounds and two blocks in 20 minutes, Garrison Brooks accounted for just two points and four rebounds. Luke Maye has been outstanding throughout the season — Tuesday’s four-point, nine-rebound, three-block effort notwithstanding — Manley and Brooks have out of necessity been thrown into the deep end of the pool so to speak.

Both freshmen have a ways to go from a development standpoint. But to put North Carolina’s perimeter defending woes on the need to cover for the front court may be unfair. At a certain point the guards and wings have to be better, and be more committed, when it comes to not only defending on the ball but remaining focused off of it.

Yet even with those defensive struggles North Carolina had an opportunity to essentially steal a win, thanks to Joel Berry II and Cameron Johnson. Berry tallied 27 points and Johnson 32, the most he’s scored in a North Carolina uniform. Pinson’s playmaking ability would have helped, especially with Seventh Woods injured and Jalek Felton suspended, but once again not having the senior wing on the court was not why North Carolina lost.

Clemson deserves credit for what it was able to do offensively, thanks in large part to a perimeter that has become a source of strength after being a bit suspect last season. And with Wake Forest and Pittsburgh next on the schedule, the Tigers have the opportunity to build on this momentum ahead of a stretch run that includes games against Florida State (twice) and Duke.

But this result says even more about North Carolina and its continued struggles defending on the perimeter. If they don’t get this addressed, and soon, this group won’t be around long come NCAA tournament time.

The good news for North Carolina in the meantime: next up on the schedule is Pitt.

Christian Vital going back to UConn for junior season

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Dan Hurley is keeping his roster intact at the top.

Christian Vital, UConn’s second-leading scorer a season ago, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, he announced Monday via social media.

“Great Talk Today Coach! Appreciate The Wisdom You Have Let Me In On!” Vital wrote “I Think It’s Time To Get Back To Winning Ways In Storrs! I’m Going To Need That #1 Back ASAP! WE GOT (UNFINISHED) BUSINESS!”

The 6-foot-2 junior-to-be Vital joins Jalen Adams, who was the Huskies’ top-returning scorer, back in Storrs in Hurley’s first year. Vital averaged 14.9 points on 38.3 percent shooting. Adams previously announced he would return to school without declaring for the draft.

The return of UConn’s top two scorers underscores an even bigger trend under Hurley as the Huskies appear to have avoided any major defections from last year’s roster despite the coaching change.

UConn is coming off a 14-18 season that proved to be the last of coach Kevin Ollie’s six years with the Huskies that included a national championship but also back-to-back losing seasons.

Chris Silva returning to South Carolina for senior season

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South Carolina is getting an first-team all-SEC performer back.

Chris Silva, who led the Gamecocks in scoring and rebounding last season, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, the school announced Monday.

“I’m thankful for the experience of going through the draft process,” Silva said in a statement. “I want to thank all of the teams that gave me the opportunity to workout for their organization. I’m excited to announce that I’m returning to South Carolina for my senior season. I can’t wait to get back on the court with my brothers and continue to work on my game.”

The 6-foot-9 Silva, who did not get an NBA draft combine invite, averaged 14.3 points and 8 rebounds per game as a junior.  He shot 46.7 percent from the floor.

“Going through the evaluation process was an unbelievable experience for Chris and us,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said in a statement. “He comes back to a place he loves with some knowledge on some of the things that we have to help him improve on in his efforts to one day fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA.”

In addition to being South Carolina’s leading scorer, he was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season after averaging 1.4 blocks per game. His return to Columbia gives the Gamecocks a potential contender for SEC player of the year in 2018-19.

Kansas fires athletic director Sheahon Zenger

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Kansas has fired athletic director Sheahon Zenger, effective immediately, citing a lack of progress in key areas within the athletic department.

“Sheahon has been a loyal Jayhawk, and our athletics department has improved in many areas under his leadership,” Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod wrote in an email to KU faculty and staff. “But athletics continues to face a number of challenges, and progress in key areas has been elusive. To achieve the level of success we need and expect, I have determined a change in leadership is necessary.”

Zenger had been in the role of AD since 2011.

The issue, of course, is not the play of the Kansas basketball program. The Jayhawks have won every Big 12 regular season title since 2004, and head coach Bill Self has taken the program to two Final Fours since Zenger was hired.

The football team is still a disaster, but one can’t help but wonder whether or not the real issue at hand here is Kansas’ getting tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball.

The Jayhawks were not mentioned in the initial indictments that were handed down, but Kansas was a central figure in the superseding indictments that were dropped after the national title game. The mother of Billy Preston, who did not play for the Jayhawks this season, was alleged to have been funneled $90,000 by Adidas, while Silvio De Sousa’s status is currently in question after the FBI alleged his guardian was paid at least $20,000 to help offset money that the family had already accepted from a rival shoe company.

All of that came in the aftermath of dealing with Cheick Diallo and Cliff Alexander, both of whom had their one season in Lawrence reduced due to off the court issues.

“Since becoming chancellor, I have spent countless hours with higher education peers and Jayhawks to hear their perspective on KU,” Girod wrote. “A common thread in these conversations is that, as a major public university with national aspirations, we must continue to strive for excellence in all areas — including athletics. As I have said many times, a successful athletics department is inextricably linked to our broader mission as a flagship research university.”

Louisville, ex-AD Tom Jurich reach $4.5M settlement

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The University of Louisville has reached a $4.5 million settlement with former athletic director Tom Jurich, who was fired in the wake of a national federal corruption investigation of college basketball.

Jurich disputed his Oct. 18 firing for cause after nearly 20 years as AD and had considered suing the school. The University of Louisville Athletic Association and Board of Trustees on Friday approved the settlement. Jurich’s employment ended “without cause” as a result of his resignation, also described in the settlement as “retirement.”

He’ll also receive another $2.6 million in accrued employment benefits, along with home game tickets and parking for Louisville football and basketball for 20 years.

An audit of the University of Louisville Foundation released last June showed that Jurich averaged annual compensation of more than $2.76 million from 2010-16, including more than $5.35 million in 2016.

Then-interim president Greg Postel had placed Jurich on paid administrative leave in September after the school’s acknowledgement of its involvement in the investigation. Trustees voted 10-3 to fire Jurich, two days after the ULAA unanimously fired Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.

The former AD said in a joint statement that he “spent the better part of my career” working with dedicated athletes, coaches and staff to elevate Louisville. He added, “I am proud of what we accomplished, which is well documented.”

Jurich’s legal team had stressed that the ex-AD did nothing illegal and hadn’t violated NCAA rules.

Trustee chairman J. David Grissom said in the statement that “Everyone is pleased that this matter has been successfully resolved. All parties can move forward to begin the next chapter.”

Jurich played a major role in Louisville’s success on the field and how the school handled issues off it. He led the school’s 2014 entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference and oversaw numerous program and facility upgrades, including a $63 million expansion of the football stadium due for completion by fall.

He also hired several successful coaches including Pitino, who guided the Cardinals to the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship. Louisville ultimately vacated that title in February as part of NCAA penalties for a sex scandal after an escort’s book allegations that former basketball staffer Andre McGee hired her and other dancers to strip and have sex with players and recruits.

Pitino has filed a $38.7 million federal lawsuit against Louisville, alleging breach of contract.

Georgia Tech’s Okogie to sign with agent

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Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie, one of the big winners from this past weekend’s NBA combine, announced on Monday that he will be signing with an agent and remaining in the NBA Draft.

The 6-foot-4 Okogie finished his sophomore season averaged 18.5 points and shooting 38.4 percent from three. The numbers he posted during the athletic testing at the combine, as well as his 7-foot wingspan, makes Okogie an ideal 3-and-D wing at the NBA level.

“Josh is a tremendous young man and an excellent student-athlete,” said head coach Josh Pastner. “He has set a tremendous example, making the Dean’s List this past semester, and deserves a lot of credit for making himself a much better player over the course of his two years here. We will miss him in our program in many respects, from his performance on the court to the energy he plays with and brought to our team. We fully support his decision to take this next step, and wish him all the best.”